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Travel Guide: Bratislava

Bratislava marked the end of my winter adventure through Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia (with a brief stop in Italy). By the time I got there, I was used to the cold and the short daylight hours and I was also very glad to meet up with a friend the day after I arrived.

One of the important things I learned on this trip is that driving in Europe requires a vignette, basically a road pricing sticker that includes road tax and can vary based on roads driven and distance. The cost of a vignette is quite reasonable but the fine for not having one is rather steep. Turns out I’d been pretty lucky because I didn’t learn this until I’d been driving around for five days. After buying an online vignette for Slovakia, one of the few countries that allows this, I took back roads out of Maribor back into Austria. As I drove through a vineyard on a road with one and a half lanes, a border official waved and that was it. I do very much like this about Europe. Shortly afterwards, I stopped to look around.

The winding, twisting, narrow roads led into small towns with winery after winery, each clearly visible on the surrounding hills. Thinking of the lives that had been built here gave me pause.

Getting to Bratislava was simple but getting into Bratislava was a little more complicated and I marvelled at how people had navigated before technology. I was more than happy to park the car and leave it for the next two days. Getting around Bratislava on foot is very easy and there’s extensive public transportation.

I was staying across the street from Bratislava Castle, the grounds of which are open at all times. I walked through it that afternoon and again the following morning.

Bratislava Castle was first built in the ninth century but the current version was rebuilt beginning in the 1950s. Today, there are museums that are open to the public, as well. I was more interested in the garden . . .

. . . and the churches and other buildings located just down the hill. There were real signs of life and ideas here, which I always enjoy seeing.

I took a quick walk through town to get my bearings, surprised at how very few people were around. I was also surprised at the number of hipster establishments that didn’t seem to match the atmosphere. The streets were really quiet and the sky, no longer the bright blue of Slovenia, gave the city a feel of being tucked into winter. Although I couldn’t tell you why, I got the impression that Bratislava could be a very stark place and it did not feel like anywhere I’d been before.

The UFO bridge certainly added to that impression.

But then I stepped inside a brewery (and then another one . . . and then another two the next day) and I found all the people. They were laughing and talking and joking and almost no one was looking at their phones. This was very, very different from what I see in Asia and I felt suddenly warmer for being around people who were interacting with each other and the space around them.

The following day was one of walking and wandering. I met up with a friend and it was great to have the company and to share this new experience. We walked through the old town and quarters of grand buildings . . .

. . . through the city to visit the Blue Church . . .

. . . and took a short walk from the Blue Church to the site of Bratislava’s only remaining synagogue.

Earlier that day, right next to St. Martin’s Cathedral in the old town, we’d seen an exhibit on the street about the synagogue of Bratislava that, despite protests by the community, had been torn down in the 1960s to build the UFO bridge. Bratislava has a long and extensive Jewish history and there were historical markers about it around the city, including a museum dedicated to Jewish culture.

We also walked across the Danube River . . .

. . . and found ourselves in a park that must have been a relic of Bratislava’s communist history. Imagine the stories these benches and trees could tell! Or the last people to sit here. Who are they? Where are they?

Just across the street from the Presidential Palace, we saw another relic of communism – a fountain that had once clearly been a showpiece but was also in disrepair.

Another notable element of walking around Bratislava was the graffiti tagging everywhere. I felt a real lack of reverence and desire to be heard and I liked that attitude very much. Things that have been needn’t always be. And Bratislava was a little bit of everything.

The next morning, it was time to go but I really wasn’t ready to leave just yet. Instead, the last day having a car made it possible to visit Devín Castle, a stone castle located 10km from Bratislava. It was built in the thirteenth century and was then destroyed by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s. The sun had come out again but the wind was really strong. It was easy to see why this castle had been built up on a windy hill at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers.

Thanks to a photo exhibition, I learned that the Iron Curtain had run directly in front of the castle to separate Bratislava from Austria across the river. I knew that the Velvet Revolution, the history of which Bratislava is very proud, had toppled communism here but I didn’t know that the Iron Curtain was a physical structure. In school, we’d talked about it as a concept, not as something tangible. Learning about that was really powerful and reminded me again of how much I don’t know.

After the cold wind, the obvious choice was to stop for some hot wine once more before the last part of the journey, which would again follow Austrian wine roads because they’re so much prettier than the highway.

And then all too soon, the car was dropped off and I had far too much time to kill at the airport. As is my habit, I drank a hot chocolate and reflected on the roads travelled. I had seen parts of the world that I’d never really imagined seeing and I honestly felt the growth in myself as a person. When I moved to Malaysia in 2014, I never would have known how to go about a trip like this. And here I was with all clothing in my pack worn twice like it was nothing. It has been a long road to get to this point and that I cannot forget.

Sometimes the world feels right to me and over the last few weeks it had. There is solace in that feeling. There is solace in knowing there are places out there where the world feels okay. Thank you, world.

Travel Guide: Kuching x2

I left Malaysia in the spring of 2015. I hadn’t been back until four girlfriends and I decided to take a quick weekend trip to Kuching, a wonderful town in Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on Borneo.

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I visited the area once before (though my photos are way better this time, thanks to a fancy camera) and was excited to go back. Other than booking flights and a hotel, the entirety of our planning took place in the airport.

Friends: What are we doing in Kuching?
Me: Seeing the orangutans.
Friends: Anything else?
Me: Eating. Drinking tuak.
Friends: Cool. Anything else?
Me: Last time, I visited the Annah Rais Longhouse. Really enjoyed it and would go back, but I really don’t mind. It’s a nice town to wander through.
Friends: Sounds good.

And that was that!

As promised and planned, Semenggoh Nature Reserve was the highlight of our trip. We arrived in time for the morning feeding, which begins around nine. I love rainforests (or any forests) and enjoyed the walk to the reserve’s feeding platform.

The purpose of Semenggoh is to teach rescued or orphaned orangutans how to live in the wild, so the orangutans really only come to the reserve for a meal when there’s no food in the forest. They mostly stay away during fruiting season. My last visit was in October and we saw groups of orangutans during both feeding times, but this time around wasn’t as lucky. We did see the resident crocodiles, though!

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We also saw some really cool pitcher plants, which are really fun to look at because a) they’re carnivorous and b) they come in a surprisingly wide array of sizes. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were going to learn more about them later in the day.

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One friend and I decided to leave the reserve on foot, doubling back on the one kilometer path we’d followed on the way in. The rest of the gang went ahead in a car and I thought we’d meet at the gate to decide what to do for the rest of the morning. Since we hadn’t seen any orangutans, we agreed to return to Semenggoh for the afternoon feeding but that was as far as we’d planned.

When my friend and I got to the bottom, however, our other friends were nowhere in sight. We asked the guard if he’d seen them and he gestured vaguely down the road, telling us they’d walked. One look at the two-lane shoulder-less highway convinced us otherwise. We waited 15 minutes and then, as if answering an unspoken cry, a man in a small purple car pulled up and asked if we needed a ride.

We looked at each other. Yes, we did. We got into the car and asked him to take us to the closest town in the direction of Kuching. The hornbill statue indicated that we’d arrived in Padawan and the man in the purple car, who may or may not have been a taxi/Grab, drove off.

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We went immediately to the closest hawker for bowls of soup and noodles and cups of strong coffee. After lunch, we saw a sign for a pitcher plant museum, so of course we went!

Padawan was also home to a wonderful market. I love markets in all forms and we leisurely wandered through it, wishing we could buy some vegetables and take them home. I was less enthralled with the fish and meat, but that’s local life.

The market was also exciting because the lady selling jewelry told us she’d seen our friends! They’d been looking for a short one and tall one, they told her, and that certainly described us. And truly, how likely was it that two groups of white women wandering through a wet market in a tiny town in Borneo didn’t know each other? The woman knew they were heading back to Semenggoh and we went off to join them. The woman didn’t know, however, how we should get back. There was no bus, she told us, and while I had my phone, I didn’t intend to turn it on to call a Grab.

Luckily, my friend talks to literally anybody and after we stood on a corner for a few minutes and tried making eye contact and looking friendly and in need of help, she walked up to a man and asked how to get a taxi. Someone else overheard and told us he’d give us a ride. We followed him to his white truck and hopped in. We looked at each other. All I could think was, “Oh gosh, her husband will kill me if she doesn’t get back!” How I stayed alive in that scenario, I’m not quite sure.

But the man was lovely and pointed out several landmarks along the way. He took us exactly where we needed to be and even agreed to take our money after we asked twice. After all, we would have paid a taxi! We were greeted by our friends and a really cute lizard!

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We saw another neat lizard later on . . .

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. . . and then were back in forest looking for orangutans. In Malay, “orang utan” means “people of the forest” and that’s exactly what they are. Watching the orangutans is breathtaking because it’s like watching evolution. It’s watching yourself in a different form. Watching the orangutans play and interact leaves no doubt that we are very close relatives and that they have been around for a long time. Visiting the orangutans at Semenggoh was, and remains, the single most amazing experience I’ve had in Southeast Asia.

We took a very long bus ride back to Kuching and agreed that we probably should have turned on the cellular data and taken a Grab, mostly because we were all hot and tired by that point. The walk along the water from the bus station, however, which we repeated in the opposite direction the next morning, was really lovely and I was not sorry to end the afternoon there. Orangutans and boats, all in one day!

In addition to being located on the Sarawak River, which I like very much, Kuching is home to brightly colored buildings and a few cat statues (because “kuching” is the Malay word for “cat”) . . .

. . . and a great array of street art. I liked that very much, too!

Our wandering through the street art district took us to a few lovely cafés and one of the proprietors suggested we check out the Textile Museum. We did, and were pleasantly surprised at the range of artifacts on display. Since we decided to have an easy coffee morning and not visit a longhouse, the textiles provided us with a glimpse of traditional life that I think is important for any trip to Sarawak.

And, of course, there were temples. We only stopped into one and it was lovely and colorful, which is really the best way I can describe the city of Kuching itself.

All in all, it was a great weekend. Kuching is a quick hour and twenty minutes from Singapore and there are cheap flights that leave after work. It was fun to be back in Malaysia both because of what I remembered (accurately and inaccurately) and what I’d forgotten. It’s fun to experience a bit of your own past every now and then.

But most importantly, this trip to Kuching was a great break from real life with a wonderful group of women. Thanks, ladies!

Travel Guide: Luang Prabang

UNESCO World Heritage city Luang Prabang was the third city that my friend and I visited during our week in Laos. We spent two nights in Vientiane, another two nights in Vang Vieng, and the final three nights here in Luang Prabang, which was definitely my favorite of the three cities we visited. It was serene and beautiful with good cafés and a bar that served a delicious spicy cocktail. It was truly a wonderful way to end an amazing week full of good conversation and exciting travelling experiences.

To get there, we took the most beautiful bus ride that I have ever experienced. It was over seven hours long, a bit crowded, and not as ventilated as we would have liked but I am so glad we were able to see so much of Laos during our travels. The country is very rural, very agricultural, and absolutely stunning. The higher we climbed into mountains and the more we were able to see, the more humbled I felt for being so privileged to be where I was, seeing what I was seeing.

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Like much of former French Indochina, Luang Prabang maintains colonial charm with a distinctly Asian vibe. Mopeds and bikes are the preferred means of transport for locals and many tourists, and tuk tuks and songthaews are easy to come by to get around. Also located on the Mekong River and surrounded by mountains, Luang Prabang is beautiful as well as historic.

We spent much of our time in Luang Prabang exploring the delicious Asian and French foods, coffees, and other sorts of beverages that the city had to offer. We walked through a very busy night market selling souvenirs of all sorts, as well as various fruit juices and snacks. Mostly, though, we just enjoyed being in the quiet outdoors, particularly welcome after the more raucous town of Vang Vieng.

By far my favorite experience in Luang Prabang was our trip to Tat Kuang Si, which I’ve seen described as Laos’ “most spectacular waterfall”. I haven’t seen all the Laotian waterfalls, but this one certainly deserved the top-shelf adjective. Even young monks were playing in the water!

Unsurprisingly, this waterfall came with a story:

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I have to thank an Israeli tourist who we met, too, for making this a particularly memorable experience. Moral of the story: My Hebrew used to be a lot better! I understood everything she said but responded mostly in English. She, of course, understood perfectly and responded mostly in Hebrew. Small world just gets smaller the more of it I experience.

As a UNESCO World Heritage city, we expected Luang Prabang to have a range of temples to explore, in addition to its incredible natural beauty. We were not disappointed.

On our final night in Laos, we climbed Phu Si Hill at the recommended time (shortly before sunset) to get a look at the entire city:

We passed various Buddhas and temples on the walk down the hill, which was a nice reminder of the values of this beautiful country:

I am so glad to have had such a relaxing, rejuvenating week in Laos with such a good friend. It was really wonderful to explore this country with a friend and get another perspective and ideas on what we were doing, seeing, and experiencing. We had great conversations throughout, which was the best overall part of the week. I’d happily return to Laos at any time – let me know if you’d like to come with me!