Sunday, June 15, 2014

Around Town

I've left Singapore with a year full of memories of my favorite places. I thought I'd share some of the highlights with you!

I love the Tanjong Pagar area because it's such a stunning visual of the mix of the old and the new. There are low-rise, colorful shophouses, framed in the back by giant modern housing estates. Most of the shophouses have now been renovated and exist as hipster cafes, restaurants, and bars, but they still retain some of their historic charm. 

Chinatown is also a unique neighborhood in Singapore. It's a bit strange to think of the existence of a "Chinatown" in a Chinese-majority country, but I suppose it does have its historic groundings as well. Now though, it's not so much residential as commercial and tourist-centered. There are lots of shops and restaurants, and some pretty affordable hostels as well for backpackers. The area gets pretty festive around some of the Chinese holidays like Mid-Autumn Festival. 

Of course, the central business district and Marina Bay area will always be one of my favorite spots. I love cities, and these brilliantly lit up skyscrapers and the still water with their wavering reflections has a certain romantic charm for me. There is a sense of possibility, and the awe of the human potential. In Singapore, the beauty is magnified by the fact that at night the area is almost peaceful in its emptiness and security. You will find it difficult to locate a safer downtown area anywhere in the world. At night, there is such a pleasant solicitude found in walking around the empty avenues. 

Two prominent features of the Singaporean landscape are interesting architecture and shopping malls. The Star Vista, located at Buona Vista MRT, showcases both of these quite proudly. It's an upscale mall, quite close to where I used to live, so I frequented it quite often. At the top of the mall is a massive concert hall and venue for a massive Christian church to hold services. I've stared at this below scene many times as I've waited for the bus to take me home.

And then there's Sentosa Beach, with the pale yellow sands and warm shallow water, probably what a lot of people imagine when you tell them that Singapore is an island in Southeast Asia. Sentosa is just a little stretch of the coastline at the southern tip of the island, but it's a fun place to go if you have a free weekend and want to relax. However, be careful - the sun can be relentlessly hot and there isn't too much shade on the beach.

These are just some of the distinctive places that I will miss about Singapore! There aren't many other places in the world that manage to combine all these unique areas into one city, and where you can hop from beach to financial district in twenty minutes. Sometimes the vibe surrounding these places can feel a bit manufactured, but I do admire the way the island has been designed to maximize the tiny amount of land that Singapore has to work with. It's a true wonder in many ways!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ubud, the Sacred Center

Before I returned to the states from my one year contract in Singapore, I decided to take a relaxing vacation in the center of Bali, Indonesia in a town called Ubud. 

Ubud is unlike the party and surfer vibe of Kuta, or the luxury resort feel of some other towns in Bali. To imagine it, think of the novel and movie Eat Pray Love. The small town is a spiritual hub for meditative yogis, hippies, anyone seeking to get away and to get reconnected with themselves. I believe the town itself experienced a surge in tourist numbers because of the novel! What great unintentional marketing for the tourist industry. In some ways, it feels extremely cliche, but I can't deny that the various amenities offered in Ubud do support this holistic lifestyle quite well. 

The town is almost entirely made of businesses to support these lifestyle tourists - resorts and hostels, massage, yoga, and holistic health centers, raw restaurants and vegan cafes, fair trade boutique shops and temples around every corner.

The local art scene is also thriving, and there are numerous museums and galleries dedicated to showcasing some of this talent.

There are three main streets (Jalan Monkey Forest, Jalan Hanoman, Jalan Raya) in the town, crammed with shops and businesses, but it is still possible to find a bit of nature in Ubud. One morning, I walked through a small side alley from Jalan Monkey Forest to a parallel road named Jalan Bisma. Rather than a busy paved street, I was greeted with rugged dirt roads and lovely rice paddies.

Unfortunately there was a fair bit of new development occurring alongside this road - new resorts, villas, and inns to add to the tourist industry. I'm guessing in a few years it will look completely different. It's a tough ethical point - tourism completely changes the landscape of the area and the lifestyle of the locals, and makes them completely dependent on foreigners, yet the industry is very profitable and helps maintain some parts of the local culture, though of course in a commercialized and simplified manner.

On a less serious note, the food in Bali was great! Affordable, healthy, largely organic, and well-prepared. Many of the restaurants and cafes had cool ambiances and design concepts, made to promote relaxation. It's strange; because there is such a large number of businesses, at any given time, all but the most popular ones will be mostly empty, with many staff members lounging around waiting for customers. I'm not sure how they manage to stay in business! Most of them are experts in the tourist industry though, and facilities are clean and service is friendly.

For example, one morning I went to a lovely restaurant for brunch called Maha on Jalan Monkey Forest. It was completely devoid of customers but I decided to give it a shot, having passed by it a few times before. It has a lovely interior, with a nice garden in the back and patio seating.

This whole brunch, including a latte, was only around $6 USD.

Ubud is definitely a health foodie paradise - crammed full of cafes and restaurants offering fresh blended juices and smoothies, raw chocolates and desserts, big colorful salad bowls. Again, it does cater to a specific clientele, and they can't get enough. I don't think you can go wrong with a meal - everything I had was delicious.

I prefer the relative peace in Ubud to the craziness of the beach town of Kuta, though the main town is quite bustling. There isn't too much to do if you are an active tourist who is always on the go, but it is a nice place to relax, let go, and get some affordable massages and nice food.