Category Archives: Travel Guide

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province x2

I’ve been very privileged to be able to travel abroad to wonderful places with students. Just like last year in Yunnan and the previous year in Battambang, Cambodia, my school worked with the JUMP! Foundation who develop, design, and manage our programs. As trip lead for the past three years, I have a close relationship with JUMP! – and in all honesty, they make me question my career choices every time. It is an honour to work with them.

Yunnan is in Southwestern China. It borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

For many students, this was their first time playing backpacker. We took an overnight train, three bus rides, and a short train throughout our trip. There’s a lot to see and do in Yunnan and we were all over the place in our six days of travel.

Our first stop was the town of Baisha. We arrived there after flying from Singapore to Kunming and taking a nine-hour night train from Kunming to Lijiang. This was my third experience on a night train and I slept surprisingly soundly. The earplugs probably helped, as perhaps did having the lower bunk. From Lijiang, Baisha is only about thirty minutes away by bus.

Like most of where we go on these trips, Baisha is a small rural community and it’s beautiful.

I was particularly fascinated with how buildings are constructed and how space is used.

Our primary reason for being in Yunnan was to engage with the environment around us and the minority groups that live there. Our first real activity was a hike up to Fuguo Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that has been around since 1601. The hike was beautiful and we really enjoyed the cool air. We don’t get air like that in Singapore.

I’ve been to many temples and monasteries and I really enjoy them. I enjoy their beauty, their quiet, and their overwhelming sense of peace. I do sometimes wonder if that comes from shutting out the outside world and its problems, but that did not seem to be the case here, such as when the monks utterly defeated our students in our annual basketball game.

Our exploration of the landscape continued the following day. We hiked up to a reservoir located just outside of town towards the monastery and then down to a village located alongside Wenhai Lake. The terrain was steep and damp from the previous night’s rain and it changed as we walked. Once again, the air tasted different from the air that we have in Singapore and the wind came from a different direction. There were times during our walk when I lost myself in the forest and in the sensations of being somewhere foreign yet completely familiar.

It is a true pleasure to feel like I’m somewhere new and to look around at a completely different sky. Singapore is dense and full of tall buildings; our time in Yunnan gave me some much-needed solace and an escape from a world that I often feel is moving too quickly.

From our forest walk, we visited the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute where we learned traditional Naxi Dongba calligraphy. The symbols are pictographs that can be combined in a variety of ways to create many different messages. It was a lot of fun to use the calligraphy brush! We also learned traditional embroidery, which the kids really enjoyed and which reminded me of the sewing I used to do in elementary school.

We did not stay still in Yunnan, however. After two nights in Baisha we took a three-hour bus ride to Laojunshan. If I’m going to return to any part of Yunnan on my own, Laojunshan is it. I didn’t know it before I arrived, but the area is China’s traditional climbing heaven and as soon as we got there, I understood why.

The buildings are beautiful, too, and fit so completely into the red sandstone that was everywhere.

Many people from the Lisu minority community live in the area around Laojunshan and are known for their music and dance. We visited the home of famous Lisu musicians who have performed as far away as France. We spent an afternoon with them to make bamboo flutes and learn traditional Lisu dances. A week later, my flute still tastes and smells like wood and smoke, which I love.

Later that evening we had the opportunity to put our Lisu dance steps into practice, which was great fun. Laojunshan is basically one long street and the nightly entertainment is dancing! We gathered with the community after dark in a large courtyard with lights, tables, and benches and followed along as best we could. The Lisu women had beautiful costumes and many men were involved in the dance, too.

When we left the dancing, I looked up at the stars. It was so dark and there were so many stars. We don’t see that in Singapore.

Another thing we don’t see in Singapore is mountains. The following day we climbed Thousand Turtle Mountain, which was astonishingly beautiful. The views are glorious and the day was fresh and new from rain the night before. I loved watching the light and the mountains appear from the mist. I took some time to write and to sit and breathe the air; there aren’t many occasions when the world feels right to me but this was certainly one of those, for which I am grateful.

Thousand Turtle Mountain feels like a different world from anywhere but it was starkly different to Lijiang, our final destination that afternoon. Lijiang is about three hours by bus from Laojunshan and the home of the closest airport to where we were. At just over a million people, one of my Chinese colleagues pronounced it tiny. Considering we’d spent the week in towns so small that you could count the number of streets, Lijiang felt huge.

Rather than spend any time in the city, though, we headed straight to Lijiang Old Town, which used to be the market district. It maintains that character and flavour through winding, twisting, narrow streets full of shops but the shops today are for tourists. They sell souvenirs, food, and beverages of every kind. I do enjoy a market in any form and it was fun to wander around and see what there was to see. I really did like the architecture, too. Most buildings in the parts of Yunnan I have visited have exteriors far grander than I would have expected and it always catches me by pleasant surprise.

Throughout our time in Yunnan, I photographed flowers. We have lots of flora in Singapore but I love exploring the beauty of the places that I visit. It’s all so different! And there were so many purple ones!

The following day, we were back at the train station for a high speed train to Kunming to catch the flight that would take us to Singapore. We spent six days in a different world and I am grateful for each one of them, and for the people I spent time with along the way. It is experiences like this that make me feel right in the world and this one came at a good time.

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. – John Muir

Travel Guide: Montreal

During the annual summer trip to see our grandparents, my siblings and I had the chance to do a little exploring. My sister and I were born in Montreal but we moved when we were very young. We’ve been there somewhere around a million times to visit family but have rarely seen or experienced Montreal as a living, breathing city. It was great to have a chance to do so this time!

We spent our first afternoon in Old Montreal, charming with old buildings and architecture that makes it feel more European than particularly Canadian. French and English heritage are obvious in the signage, statues, and bustling activity of restaurants and sidewalk cafés.

Old Montreal is especially busy during the summer when the weather is warm and festivals are in full swing. (We were really excited to accidentally find ourselves at the Jazz Festival a little ways away!) There were street vendors selling everything from ice cream to jewellery and it was fun to look around. The restaurants were crowded with people enjoying the sun, and everyone we met was friendly and helpful.

As with many old cities, Montreal is located on the water. The Port of Montreal was full of people riding bikes, eating snacks, shopping for souvenirs, and celebrating Canada Day.

The Port of Montreal even has its own flag, which unfortunately didn’t photograph as well as I would have liked.

From left to right are the flags of Canada, Quebec, Montreal, and the Port of Montreal

We had dinner as a family to celebrate my grandparents’ anniversary. It was so normal – grandparents, uncle, aunt, and grandchildren all in one place! – and spent the evening laughing as our grandparents reminisced about their 61 years together and the spaghetti dinners they used to buy for 69 cents. 69 cents!

After breakfast the next morning, we the children went off to Jean-Talon Market where none of us had ever been. As you know, I love markets anywhere and my travelling companions felt the same way. We loved the fresh and local produce . . .

. . . herbs and flowers . . .

. . . and speciality shops and prepared foods.

There was even a cookbook bookstore!

I would have loved to do some shopping and cooking but we had other plans for the day and they were not to be missed. Rather than eating at the market we headed for Schwartz’s, a Montreal institution located on the popular Saint-Laurent Boulevard not too far from McGill University. In my limited excursions around Montreal, I’ve been to Schwartz’s more than a few times, which should indicate its prestige in the eyes of my family. They serve smoked meat sandwiches on rye bread with mustard and various sides like fries, coleslaw, and pickles. And that’s about it. (The Wikipedia page has a bit more information.) After waiting in the ever-present line out of the door, this vegetarian even ate half a piece of smoked meat!

We spent the rest of the afternoon continuing our walk through the neighborhood between Schwartz’s and McGill. We visited campus and then followed the street art through the main shopping area of downtown. Like markets, I love street art anywhere in the world and it was fun to get a sense of the cultural life of Montreal.

I was also very excited to see signs of community engagement in the painted piano sitting out for anyone to play and a very cool ground mural marked with the best spot for a photo.

Considering how little time I’ve spent in the city of my birth, it was really lovely to do some exploring. I got a sense of the city’s geography and can now better understand the streets that my grandparents and parents mention in conversation. I was able to practice a little bit of French and enjoyed being somewhere simultaneously a little bit familiar and quite a bit new. And, of course, it was great to see my family. It always is.

Travel Guide: Tokyo

People love Tokyo. Rave about it. Spend days there and then return for another visit.

I have to admit, I don’t quite get it. I liked being in Tokyo because it’s just sort of cool to be in a city of 9.2 million people with the greater population totaling around 13 million. Unlike many other major cities, Tokyo is clean and it functions and people are so polite and helpful. It also, oddly, doesn’t feel crowded at all, perhaps because it sprawls. As a friend pointed out when I shared my lack of enthusiasm of Tokyo, the city is fascinating because there’s no other place like it.

Tokyo was the last stop on my Japan trip with my parents when they came to visit Singapore. We were based in Kyoto and Hiroshima before spending the last two days of our trip in Tokyo. We took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Hiroshima and passed the enormous Mt. Fuji on the way. I was too enthralled with staring out the window to take out my camera; it rose up out of nowhere and then the landscape flattened out again. I’m using to seeing mountain ranges, not singular mountains. Really quite cool.

Once we arrived at Tokyo station, we had to navigate the metro to the hotel. I don’t know whether it’s better to say that I went the wrong way or that I lost Mum and Dad, but everyone arrived in the end. Tokyo’s metro is confusing because it’s comprised of multiple train systems that seem to overlap but tourist passes only work on some of them. Multiple train lines are located in the same stations so you really do need to know where you’re going and how to get there. If you’re not looking at the correct map, it’s really easy to get on the wrong train going in the correct direction. If this happens, your ticket won’t scan on the way out and you have to pay the ticket agent in cash. Not a big deal but best to avoid since you’ve paid for a pass anyway.

After reuniting, our first stop was the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. I was definitely more interested in the walk through the trees than the shrine itself. It was nice to see grass and feel wide open space after a long train ride and an abrupt reintroduction to urban life.

From there we made our way to Harajuku to walk down Takeshita Street where there’s something for everyone as long as you’re open to it.

Takeshita Street felt like a place of relatively few rules or boundaries where kids could act like adults and adults could remember being kids. It was a fantastic place to look around and laugh at the juxtaposition of Tokyo business suits and teenagers wearing the height of Japanese fashion trends.

After some browsing in shops along the way, our last stop for the evening was Shibuya Crossing. Like everyone else, we crossed the street and then looked out the windows of the train station across the road.

In contrast to the lights and glamor of Shinjuku where we were staying we spent much of the next day in Asakusa, a neighborhood typical of traditional Tokyo.

We enjoyed looking at all the little shops and stalls but were not fond of the crowds leading to the temple. Senso-ji is a popular tourist attraction and was extremely busy on this Saturday morning. I was more than happy looking at the intricacies of the gates and leaving the temple itself to devotees.

The weather in Tokyo was the best we’d had so we took the opportunity to walk across the river on our way to the Tokyo Skytree. Much like travelling around Europe, it wasn’t hard to find. We headed for the tallest building and followed the signs as we got closer.

There are two options if you’re interested in the observation deck of the Skytree, which is the world’s tallest tower. You can take the lift up 350 meters and stop there or go all the way up to 450 meters. There’s a third option that is an open air guided tour complete with hard hats, but Mum vetoed that. The view from 450 meters was astounding enough.

It’s dizzying being up there, too! It’s really, really high!

We wandered around some more for the rest of the afternoon and then found Popeye, the bar that sells the greatest variety of beer in Tokyo and also brews its own. Their happy hour deal included a free appetiser with every beer ordered. Dinner, anyone?

To close the day, we looked down on Tokyo at night. The observatory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is free, open late, and 200 meters up. Pretty cool view from up there, too.

And then it was back to vibrant, bright Shinjuku for bed. I’d wanted to visit that neighborhood since I read my first Haruki Murakami novel and there we were. I don’t know if I’ll make much of an effort to come back to Tokyo, but I’d love to visit Japan again. There’s so much more see and experience. But then, that’s true of every place. Mum and Dad, thanks for joining me on this adventure! I’m already looking forward to the next one.