Why we need a travel role model

This Friday, I’m flying to Ho Chi Minh city and travelling to My Tho for my friend Nguyen’s wedding.

Nguyen is a very important person in my journey to being an independent travelling woman. I can’t find a right term to describe her impact in my travelling life but the closest I can get is “travel role model”.

Nguyen and I met while I was on exchange at Xiamen University in China. She was in graduate school while I was an exchange student who was supposed to take journalism and advertising classes.

I was the first batch of exchange students at Xiamen University. There was another guy who was in Engineering so we had different classes. The staff at Xiamen University didn’t know how to handle exchange students so they dumped me at the Overseas Education College.

It was a complete mess. Instead of being assigned to real lectures, they expected me to take random classes for the students who were there to learn about the Chinese language and culture. Eventually, I sorted out half of the problem and had to solve the rest of the problem by taking extra modules back in Singapore.

But thank to the mess, I met Nguyen. I took a totally random class on singing and met her there. She was extroverted and joked with the teacher a lot. I’m quite the opposite.

At the end of the class, I invited myself to her dinner. She graciously accepted my self-invite.

Learning how to travel

I was such an amateur traveller that I bought TWO gigantic bags!

Nguyen took me under her wing. She brought me around the school, introduced me to the concept of taking naps during the university’s official nap time and showed what Vietnamese coffee looks like.

She told me stories of her travel from the South to the North of Vietnam and other tales. I was amazed that she and her friend could travel on their own across a country! (Mind you, I was 21 years old and knew nothing about travelling without my family.)

During a short vacation week, Nguyen suggested that we visit the historical town of Jingdezhen. I was more than happy to go because I love history.

I also found out that a nearby town has a preserved old Chinese law court. I was enamored with a fictional lawyer in a Hong Kong drama so we made a detour to the shabby court.

After travelling with Nguyen, I was sure that I would be able to travel on my own.

Some weeks later, I set off to Shanghai on my own for my first semi-solo trip. I stayed in a hostel for a night and booked a local tour group that went to the cities around Shanghai. I also bunked at a friend’s place for a few more nights.

At the end of my exchange, Nguyen and I took the night bus to Shenzhen. We took a ferry across to Macau where I took a direct flight back home.

Without her, I would have chickened out and take a flight straight from China back. I had a wonderful time in Macau and it remains one of the cities which I want to travel to again.

Keeping in touch

I’m usually terrible at keeping in touch with people. But somehow Nguyen and I managed to keep in contact for all these years.

In 2009, I had the chance to visit Vietnam because of her gracious hosting. (I found some of the blog posts from that trip.)

During the years, she updated me on her birthday trip to Boracay, her month-long backpacking trip to Europe and other trips. I updated her on my smaller trips and told her about my round-the-world trip. She was very supportive.

We met up again in Kuala Lumpur when she was on a stopover to Thailand. It was there where I met her husband-to-be Michael. The two of them have a meet-cute story that sounds like something from a romance novel about travellers in Venice. <3

Why we need a travel role model

If I hadn’t met Nguyen, I would probably take a longer time to become comfortable with travelling alone. I think it’s important to have someone in your life to show you what’s possible.

Having a travel role model makes it easier to cross that bridge from being scared of travelling alone to being a kickass solo traveller.

For every person who wants to venture into solo travelling, I hope there is someone in your life to guide you.

And here’s a big congratulations to Nguyen and Michael who are getting married on 1 March. I’ll see you both on Friday.

Who’s your travel role model?

PS I’m bringing the cheongsam I made in Hoi An for a wedding. Talk about prophecies.

How to use improv to survive Chinese New Year reunion

Hi folks, I’m flying home for the Chinese New Year holidays today!  So I thought I would leave you with a Chinese New Year-related post.

You might know from my Facebook post that I’ve been taking improv classes with The Improv Company (Facebook). I want to share my improv love with tips on how you can use improv to survive Chinese New Year. (I don’t mean hiding in your room watching improv all day on Youtube.)

Some of you might know about improv from Whose Line is it Anyway . While improv is very fun and entertaining, did you know that you could apply improv skills in real life? This branch of improv is called applied improv and is useful for the workplace and life in general.

Being a beginning improviser, I haven’t really let the improv lessons seep into my every pore. But I had the chance to ask Kim and Hazel who run The Improv Company about how to use applied improv for Chinese New Year.

They gave really sound advice. Unfortunately, I didn’t jot down notes so everything that you’re going to read has a dash  of my (probably unsound) advice. (This disclaimer is brought to you by the insecurities from my “You misquote me!” journalism days.)

Let’s go!

Rules of Improv that apply to life

Applied Improv Lessons
Applied Improv Lessons

Lesson 1: Be aware and listen

improv listening skills

I’m guilty for not practicing this in real life. During reunion dinners, I would be in defensive mode, thinking of answers even before my relatives start asking questions.

To apply the applied improv lesson, I should be more attentive while listening. And when relatives ask questions, I should figure out what is the underlying meaning of their questions.

For example. “When will you find a job/ a boyfriend/ be married/ have a baby?” (I’m trying to encompass all possible questions.)

Instead of being cynical and thinking that it’s a busybody question, I need to see that they’re asking because they are concern of me. (They might also be judging me but let’s look on the positive side.)

And in the case of relatives who just wants to give a good lecture, I will give them my 100% listening skills.

Lesson 2: Say, “Yes, and…”

IMPROV

One very important rule of improv is to say, “Yes, and…” to something offered by another player. Tina Fey explains this better in her memoir Bossypants:

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill.

But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” … Now we’re getting somewhere.

Well sometimes you can’t give “Yes, and…” answers to questions posed to you  but you should embrace the question and add on something relevant instead of trying to avoid answering it

For example, a question posed to me a year ago:

– When will you find a job?
– Yeah, I’m looking really hard and I’ve got a few that I’ve applied to. I really hope I get them. :)

Lesson 3: Make your partner look good

red flowers improv make your partner look good

In improv, “Make your partner look good” means working with your partner instead of trying to hog the limelight with your own jokes.

In the case of real life, it would be being positive instead of reacting negatively to a question posed to you. (Remember, they’re just concerned about you.)

Also put on your best “This story is really interesting” face when your relatives are talking about the same “Back in the old days…” stories for the fifth time. This time, try and find out what they’re trying to say and compliment them on it.

For example, if an uncle talks about the hardship he went through during childhood (for the fifth time), maybe he just wants to be acknowledged for pulling through despite all odds. Celebrate that.

Lesson 4: Embrace failure

improv embrace failure

One big part about improv is the willingness to fail and to learn from it. So push your inhibitions away and apply Lessons 1 to 3.

If your relatives aren’t receptive to your awesome applied improv skills. It’s OK. You have another year to try it on them. In the meantime, just stuff yourself with food. That always works.

Happy Chinese New Year!

Curious about improv? Check out The Improv Company (website; Facebook) for classes. Besides theatre improv, they run applied improv classes and corporate workshops.

My current obsession: Fountain pens

Hi folks, if you’ve been following me on my social media channels, you’ll know that I went to Cameron Highland last weekend for a wedding.

As much as I like to write about the road trip, I kept getting writer’s block so I give you another post instead.

I’ll be talking about my current obsession (apart from playing Skyrim and improv which I’ll get to these one of these days)–fountain pens. I have these little spurts of obsessions from time to time. I can’t really remember my other obsessions (um, travel?) so I’d better jot this down.

Continue reading “My current obsession: Fountain pens”

How to cut pineapple and what they don’t tell you

I was thinking of buying a pineapple while out shopping today. I’ve never cut a pineapple before so I had to search for articles on how to cut pineapples.

The instructions seem simple enough so I bought one. After the shopping and cutting up of the fruit, I deduced that cutting pineapple is not as easy as people make it to be. Here’s why:

Instructions: Pick a pineapple that is yellow with green leaves.

What they don’t tell you: The yellow pineapples are hidden under the green ones so you have to battle through their prickly leaves to get the one you desire.

Continue reading “How to cut pineapple and what they don’t tell you”

Review: Starbucks Christmas Cookie Latte

Starbucks Christmas Cookie Latte signboard

Christmas is coming! Starbucks Singapore released a new drink this season–the Christmas Cookie Latte.

xmas-cookie-latte

According to Starbucks, the drink is:

An old fashioned tradition made new with fragrant steamed milk, rich espresso and buttery shortbread cookie sauce and cookie crumbles. The Starbucks Christmas Cookie Latte taste just like grandma made them. New and available together with your returning Christmas favorites.

Unfortunately, I never had a grandma who made Christmas Cookies for me so I couldn’t figure out what it tastes like. But the name has two of my favorite words “cookie” and “latte” so I thought I had to try it out.

Continue reading “Review: Starbucks Christmas Cookie Latte”

Where’s that book you’ve been talking about?

I can't even finish a scrapbook.
I can’t even finish a scrapbook.

There’s a strange relationship between being a writer and publishing a book.

In the day of the possibility of publishing online to an audience of millions, having a solid book in hand is still the goal. The part where bringing out the Champagne is called for.

At least that’s for me.

Before travelling, I had hoped to be able to gather enough stories to piece together into a travel memoir, or a book.
During travelling, I kept a digital journal each day to remind myself of what happened.
After travelling, I went to the library to get my hands on books about writing books.

Continue reading “Where’s that book you’ve been talking about?”

Why going to a cat café is like online dating

(A belated Caturday post.)

I love cats. I’ve never owned a cat but based on all the internet cats I’ve seen, I love cats very much.

A few weeks ago, I went to a cat café called The Company of Cats. I didn’t know about that particular cat café until the afternoon that Mystery Friend and I were going.

I was enchanted by The Company of Cats’s cat pun-filled website: “Meowketing Director”, “KGB (Kitty Girl’s Brigade)”, “Catppuccino”. These people speak the language of my people!

After obsessing about the website, I imagined a fun filled night of kitty chin scratches and lots and lots of cat snuggles. Of course, things don’t always turn out as you wish.

Continue reading “Why going to a cat café is like online dating”

A glimpse of Yangon, Inle Lake

Ever since Myanmar opened up its tourism, many people I know of (whether adventurous or not) have visited or have been planning to visit the country.

I realised that Myanmar is no longer just the dream destination for the adventurous when even the aunties started talking about it. One day, my mom casually mentioned to me that a “travel expert on TV” recommended visiting Myanmar and that the country is beautiful and cheap to visit.

Still, I wasn’t adventurous enough to visit Myanmar on my own. I think I’ve used up all my sense of adventure during my 130-day trip around the world. I didn’t feel the energy to make plans, bookings and sketch an itinerary.

That was why when I heard about the Myanmar Airways International (MAI) trip to Myanmar, I grabbed it.

Now’s a chance for me to see Myanmar without the hassle of planning. Of course, the downside of a packaged tour is that you’re bound to your group without much chance to see things outside of the comfortable tour bubble. Still, that’s a price that I’m willing to pay so I could get a glimpse of the country.

Myanmar Airways International flight to Yangon

Myanmar Airways International (MAI) is a full service carrier and is one of the six airlines with direct flights from Singapore to Yangon.

MAI plane from Yangon to Singapore
MAI plane from Yangon to Singapore

MAI is one of the six airlines with direct flights from Singapore to Yangon. For a full Myanmar experience, I’d recommend choosing this airline to see the cabin crew dressed in the traditional Myanmar longyi and to listen to the announcements made in the soft Myanmar language.

MAI cabin crew wearing traditional longyi
MAI cabin crew wearing traditional longyi

The inflight magazine is also Myanmar-specific so you can learn more about the country and some of the language in the short 2 hour plus plane ride.

MAI's inflight magazine
MAI’s inflight magazine

I’m one of the odd people who actually like plane food. MAI’s food did not disappoint. On the flight to Yangon, I had the chicken noodle while on the way back I had curry chicken with prata. They were all delicious.

MAI inflight meal. rom left: Chicken noodle, Fish bee hoon and Chicken prata
MAI inflight meal. rom left: Chicken noodle, Fish bee hoon and Chicken prata

Myanmar Airways International Economy class
Myanmar Airways International Economy class

Leg room for Premium seats
Leg room for Premium seats

When the plane flew over Myanmar, I saw emerald green land with slices of rectangular water fields with ribbons of water from the river. The land didn’t look like anything I’ve seen before and I was enchanted.

A glimpse of Myanmar from above
A glimpse of Myanmar from above

A trip to Shwedagon Pagoda

When we reached Yangon airport, we changed our Singapore dollars to local kyat (pronounced as “cha’t”). It was S$1 to 777 kyat. Or for easier mental calculation, US$1 is about 1,000 kyat.

We were greeted by our tour guide Moon who is from local tour agency Myanmar Tourex. I learned that all the tours that Myanmar Airways International offer are provided by Myanmar Tourex which is a family-run travel agency.

Our first tourist spot was Shwedagon Pagoda where it was said that that eight strands of Gautama Buddha’s hair was enshrined.

We left our slippers at the ground floor and took the elevator to the top where the Pagoda was. Since most of the area was not sheltered, the tiled floor was wet and everyone walked in small steps.

We began the tour in front of an image of Buddha under a bodhi tree. The tour guide told us the history of the pagoda and then led us to the main compound. The first sight of Shwedagon Pagoda made me gasp. At 105 metres high, it towered over the rest of the little pagoda. It still glimmered brightly but I suspect that it would be blindingly gold when there’s sun.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Our guide said there are different “corners” for each day of the week (plus two for Wednesday: Wednesday morning and Wednesday evening) and each person should pray at their respective corners. I left the group to go in search of the Sunday Corner.

Strangely, the days of the week didn’t seem to be arranged accordingly. I walked a large round before finally stopping at the Sunday Corner. There was already a throng of women gathered at the Buddha underneath the Sunday Corner sign. I said a small prayer and jostled with the women to rinse the image of Buddha with little tin cups of water.

It started drizzling heavier at the end of our tour. When we reached the ground level, I couldn’t find my flip flops since they were stored in a different place from my tour groups.

Short stay at Hotel ESTA

Yangon was only a jumping point for us on this tour. We stayed at Hotel ESTA during our first and last night in Myanmar, the rest of the days were spent at Inle Lake.

Hotel ESTA is run by an enterprising Myanmar lady who spent a large part of her childhood in Singapore. The hotel amenities did not disappoint. I was most pleased that there were enough electrical plugs for two people and an electric kettle with 3-in-1 coffee mix.

Hotel ESTA Yangon facilities
Hotel ESTA Yangon facilities

For dinner, we had western food. The prawn that came with my pasta was quite large. The banana pancake dessert with vanilla ice cream was to die for.

Western dinner at Hotel ESTA Yangon
Western dinner at Hotel ESTA Yangon

After enjoying the hot shower, I slept like a baby but woke up at 3am. I was afraid that I might miss the morning alarm and be the last person to arrive at assembly. If it weren’t for the early flight, I would have stayed in bed for much longer.

Since we had to leave very early for both days–the second day to catch a domestic flight and the last day to catch the flight back to Singapore–breakfast was prepared in takeaway  boxes for us to bring.

From Yangon to Inle Lake

If you don’t have much time in Myanmar and prefer to travel in comfort, it’s best to take the plane to reach the other destinations. It’s comfortable and saves time so it will give you even more time and energy to sight see.

On the day we were flying to Inle Lake, the traffic from Hotel ESTA to the domestic airport was smooth. Yangon’s domestic airport is right next the the modern, boxy international airport.

The domestic airport was blinged out to look like the exterior of a pagoda. It was golden all over even in the dim morning night. I had seen it the previous day but thought that it was a shrine or pagoda to pray for good luck for travellers.

It was pouring while we waited for the plane. I was worried that our domestic plane from Yangon to Heho (the airport nearest to Inle Lake) could not fly.

Rainy day at Yangon domestic airport
Rainy day at Yangon domestic airport

When it was our time to board, the ground staff lined up with large umbrellas to shelter us from the airport building to the bus and from the bus to the plane.

Even with the heavy rain, the pilots of Air Bagan were able to bring us to our destinations safely. I’m pretty impressed.

Enjoying Inle Lake for two days

I spent most of the days at Inle Lake on a boat. The tourist spots were scattered on different parts of the lake and its shores so it’s quite impossible to try to see everything by bus.

To get a better idea of what to do at Inle Lake, you can check out my separate blog post about What to Do at Inle Lake, Myanmar.

Inle Lake might not be as famous as Bagan or Mandalay but the view on the lake and the floating gardens are definitely something you shouldn’t miss.

Back to Yangon, trip to Scotts Market for shopping

We left Inle Lake after two days of touring at Inle Lake, it was time to head back to Yangon for our flight back to Singapore.

Scotts Market, Yangon
Scotts Market, Yangon

One our last day, we had a bit of time to visit Scotts Market for some local shopping. Compared to Ho Chi Minh City’s Bến Thành Market, Scotts Market–now called Bogyoke Aung San Market–is a bit smaller and less warm.

While at the market, I managed to haggle two longyi for 8,000 kyat and some bracelets made from probably-not precious stones.

I tried haggling down thanaka to a ridiculously low price but the vendor refused to sell them to me. I realised that I had crossed the line and became the unpolite tourist who expects everything to be cheap.

Longyi cloth and semi-precious stones
Longyi cloth and semi-precious stones

My friend from Myanmar later told me that things at the market are overpriced to begin with, still I had a great time and hope to visit again.

Our last dinner in Yangon was the buffet at Shangri-La. My travel buddy Debbie (who wasn’t with me on this trip) and I have an item on our To-Do List when travelling, we should have a buffet at one of the classy hotels because the food would be good and yet cheaper than in Singapore.

Buffet dinner at Shangri-La Yangon
Buffet dinner at Shangri-La Yangon

The buffet at Shangri-La Yangon gets crowded so remember to make reservations before popping over.

The last night was spent at Hotel ESTA. I had a room switch and ended up with a King-sized bed. It also felt good to be there because of the relatively fast and stable Wi-Fi connection. I really can’t live without my phone.

After this trip, I want to return to Myanmar to see the rest of the country that I haven’t seen. But most importantly, to buy those boxes of thanaka!

This post first appeared on TripZilla Magazine.

Many thanks to TripZilla and Myanmar Airways International who made my trip to Myanmar possible. A big thank you to Myanmar Tourex and Hotel ESTA for the tours and accommodation. As usual, all tasty comments are my own.

Curious about Myanmar? Here are some posts about the country:

What to do at Inle Lake, Myanmar

Stand up padding at Inle Lake

Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar. The estimated surface area of the lake is 116 km2.. During the dry season, the average water depth is 2.1 m, with the deepest point being 3.7 m. During the rainy season, water level can increase by 1.5 m.

Most tourists would stay at Nyaungshwe town and venture out to the river during the day. But I suggest staying at the resorts by the lake so that you’ll be in awe returning to the hotel on boat and admire the view of the lake early in the morning.

What to see at Inle Lake

You’ll need to hire boats or go on boat tours to see these sights since they are quite spread out. It’s unlikely that you’ll be driving your own boat so I’ll leave out the coordinates.

Cat Monastery

Cat Monastery

This monastery used to be called “Jumping Cat Monastery” but now there are no more jumping cats.

The cats used to jump through hoops. However, with too many tourists coming in, the kitties were exhausted from all the show so the monks stopped letting the cats perform.

The monastery has a collection of ancient buddha images made in different styles.

Behind the monastery, you’ll get a good view of some of the floating gardens.

Floating Gardens

Floating Gardens at Inle Lake

It’s better to call these “Floating Plantations” since they do grow a lot of fruits and vegetables. The farmers gather clumps of water hyacinth and other lake debris into rows then secure these to the lake bed with bamboo poles. They also pour mud from the lake as fertilizer. They then grow their produce on these beds.

The floating beds would rise and fall according to the water level so there’s no worry of flooding. I think it’s very ingenious of them to come up with such a system.

Still, I saw a farmer spraying something onto the plants (while on a boat) so I can’t really say that everything is organic.

Phaung Daw Oo Paya

Phaung Daw Oo Paya

The pagoda houses five ancient buddha images that are not recognisable because of the layers of gold leaves stuck onto them.

Phaung Daw Oo Paya procession float

Right across the pagoda are several floats and boats used during Phaung Daw Ooo festival. The bird float is particularly impressive.

Market near Phaung Daw Oo Paya

Market near Phaung Daw Oo Paya

There are many markets going on at Inle Lake at different days of the week. This market near Phaung Daw Oo Paya is held every five-days. People from the mountains would come down with wares to trade.

Fruits here are cheaper than Yangon when they are in season. I bought a juicy mango for 64 cents in July. The ground can get very muddy during rainy season so be sure to not wear your nicest shoes.

Shwe Inn Tain

Shwe Inn Tain

Our guide called this place “Mini Bagan” because of the many pagodas. Most of the pagodas from long ago are crumbling and draped with overgrown vines. There seems to be a lot more modern pagoda than antique ones here.

Water canal to Shwe Inn Tain

The journey up here is more excited. You need to go upstream to reach this place. Every once in a while, your motorboat comes to a mini dam with a tiny entrance just wide enough for the boat. The water level ahead looks higher but the skilled motorboat men is able to slice through the water without causing any bumpiness.

Random neighbourhood on Inle Lake

Random neighbourhood on Inle Lake

The boat tour would most likely bring you to the neighbourhoods at Inle Lake where you get a glimpse of daily life. The houses in the photo are built on bamboo stilts and some houses have garages for their motorboats.

In the evening, you will see children taking their baths in the water, right at the bottom of the house. There are also small boats rowed by what seems to be equally small children.

Oarsmen of Inle Lake

Oarsmen of Inle Lake

Not exactly a site per se. The fishermen (and sometimes oarsmen) of Inle Lake are famous for their cone-shaped fishing net and boat rowing skills (oddly called Stand Up Paddle Inle-Style on some website).

There was one particular guy in the middle of the lake who seemed to be there just for tourists to take photo. He stands up on one leg and poses. Sometimes he poses with what seems to be a dead fish.

Be sure to give Inle Lake two days worth of time because there are many things to see.

If you cram everything in a day, you’ll find yourself falling asleep on your boat ride.

This post first appeared on TripZilla Magazine.

Many thanks to  TripZilla and Myanmar Airways International who made my trip to Myanmar possible. All comments are my own.

Curious about Myanmar? Here are some posts about the country: