Sunday 11 May 2014

The Road Trip: Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula

Costa Rica is probably one of the last places you’d dream of embarking on a road trip holiday, but after weeks of major indecision on whether to do a beach break, tropical rainforest adventure or five-star “no thinking required” resort vacation, my boyfriend and I decided to do all of the above.

Despite an abundance of bumpy, rocky winding roads, it is actually the perfect place for a road trip. We picked up our car at the airport in San Jose and decided to head to the Nicoya Peninsula (vowing to explore the Caribbean and more southern region of the country on a future trip).

A short drive from the ferry terminal and you’ll find a cluster of small towns with amazing surf and an incredible, relaxed vibe. A few days in Montezuma, Mal País, and Santa Teresa and you can see why the people who live here have the bodies they do: if you spent as much time surfing and doing yoga (with some lounge breaks in between) as they do, you’d have rock-hard abs too.

Other ferry systems may be more organized, but can you get a beer and plantain chips on the upper decks and watch ‘Ticos’ (as Costa Ricans call themselves) dance and flirt with each other.

Our first glimpse of paradise on the Nicoya Peninsula...

Healthy eating in Montezuma

Surf's up!

Playa Santa Teresa: where epic sunsets, hot surfers, and miles of white sand come together. Can you blame us for not wanting to leave?

Ever driven on a beach?

Small towns such as this one are a frequent sight when driving through Costa Rica. We loved how colorful the country was: nestled amongst all the lush greenery were rows of houses painted vibrant reds, blues, yellows and pinks.

We eventually made our way to Monteverde, a major eco-tourism destination in the Puntarenas region of Costa Rica. The town, which has a friendly, backpacker vibe and a cooler climate than the Nicoya Peninsula, draws plenty of naturalists and tourists thanks to its proximity to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

We saw plenty of animals during our holiday, from cattle and possums in the cloud forest at night to baby turtles making their way by moonlight toward the ocean near Playa Grande.

One of the best parts of a road trip is the chance to stop at fruit stands along the way, many of which sell fruits we had never seen or tried before. Those round, purple fruits are star apples (“caimito” in Spanish) and have a whitish-purple colored fruit that is incredibly sweet and juicy.

Until next time, Costa Rica!

Thursday 23 January 2014

Hello, Hong Kong!


Planning a trip to Hong Kong is exciting, yes, but also daunting. So much to see! So much to do! So many things to buy! Luckily, I recently had 10 full days to spend there, and though I could have easily spent another 10, I managed to get in just enough sightseeing, shopping, and eating to confidently update my list of favourite spots:

Always a must-visit, high-end department store Lane Crawford (and specifically its outpost at the International Finance Centre) is renowned for its fantastic edit of luxury and contemporary brands and fun-loving, creative personality. From teddy-bear Jeremy Scott x Adidas high-tops and a well-curated edit of popular American brands such as J.Crew and Club Monaco to a men’s Denham shop-in-shop, there’s truly something for everyone here (and if not, there's a bevy of other luxury boutiques at the IFC to satiate).

For a more boutique-y experience, take a stroll through the newish area known as PoHo (near SoHo, of course, and apparently called this after the buildings in the area, many of whose names start with Po). Hilly and relatively calm, the area is quickly gentrifying but its quiet, quaint nature remains. Stop in and pay your respects at the Man Mo Temple, then pop into Po’s Atelier for a fresh scone and Eclectic Cool for its selection of Danish décor items, then finish at 67 Edit on Hollywood Road for fashion by a mix of Hong Kong and international designers (think Shourouk jewellery, Sophie Hulme, LeiVanKash, and more).


Where to start…

Crystal Jade at the IFC – for the world’s best xiaolongbao (steamed Shanghai-style pork “soup”-filled dumplings)

Kiu Heung Yuan at 91 Wellington St. – for delicious Yunnan noodle soup (bear in mind that if you can’t handle food that’s too spicy, anything more than “mild” will blow your ears off)

Tai Cheong Bakery at 35 Lyndhurst Terrace (Central) – for egg tarts with a sweet, slightly flaky biscuit crust that garners 45 minute-long lineups

For a crazy fun day out, check out the horse races at Happy Valley or Sha Tin. The former boasts a more lighthearted atmosphere (with more ex-pats), while the latter is for serious betters and is farther out, in the New Territories.

Lantau and Lamma Islands may be better known day trip destinations from Hong Kong, but head out to Po Toi to really escape the chaos of the big city (because as much as you may love it, everyone needs a break once in awhile!). The quiet island boasts several decent walks, with noteworthy sites such as the Tortoise Back rock formation and the old “haunted” Mo family mansion along the way. Finish with a scrumptious, well-deserved seafood feast at Ming Kee Restaurant near the harbour.

After Hong Kong, we headed over to Macao, where we proceeded to eat our way through the former Portuguese colony. Stay tuned to the Kiwi Collection blog for that post, coming soon (you'll also find some fun hotel picks for Hong Kong)!

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Myanmar, Part 2: Inle Lake

I received a text message from a friend today who's heading to Myanmar next month – which reminded me to post the rest of our adventure in Myanmar! 

First, a summary of our entire itinerary, followed by highlights from the Inle Lake portion of our trip.

Dec. 27: Bangkok to Yangon (1 night)
Dec. 28-30: Bagan (3 nights)
Dec. 30-Jan. 5: Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake (6 nights, including 1 in a monastery)
Jan. 5-6: Yangon (1 night)
Jan. 6: return to Bangkok

To get to Inle Lake, we took an overnight bus from Nyaung U. While this is a much cheaper option than flying, I definitely do NOT recommend it! There are two bus departure times; both are 'red-eye' options, which may seem like a blessing (less time wasted in transit) until you arrive near Inle Lake around at 3am and realize that in Myanmar, this means all the hotels are closed and locked until the morning! 

Basically, from the bus stop, we shared a cab with a couple of fellow travellers (the guy was from Japan; his girlfriend was Japanese American) and directed our driver to the November Hotel, which we had booked from Nyaung U the day before. However, when we arrived, it was locked and there wasn't an intercom, buzzer, or person in sight!

We proceeded to bang and rattle the hotel gate for 20 minutes until finally, a sleepy innkeeper came outside and we begged him to let us in. But our bad luck didn't end there. Although our booking was for December 31, check-in time was still hours away and the manager insisted the hotel was full. When he finally realized we weren't going to leave (we asked if we could sleep on the wooden benches in the lobby), he looked through his handwritten book (which was basically a hand drawn grid in a notebook) and found us a room that had not yet been changed or cleaned – but was empty. Phew! We were so exhausted that we managed to sleep, despite staying in our clothes and not getting under the covers, for fear of bedbugs.

(The couple we cabbed into town with had left to find some accommodation of their own - we later learned that they slept in the foyer of another hotel that had taken pity on them and about 10 other wandering, weary travellers!)

Not so sure about this – at least not at 3am!

And yet, despite a less-than-wonderful way to begin our time at Inle Lake, our 6 nights in the area made up my favourite part of our time in Myanmar.

In the morning, we headed out and started exploring the area.

The busy main street. The ladies are wearing long skirts called longyi, but in fact, both men and women wear them and they are part of the traditional wardrobe in Myanmar. From what I gathered, there are two main varieties: men's tend to be cylindrical and worn knotted in front (they can be hiked up into shorts in hot weather), while women's tend to be more like a sarong or wrap skirt.

We walked about 10 minutes through town before landing at the main docks, where you can rent a boat + driver to explore Inle Lake.

I bought myself a woven hat...

And then we made our way onto a boat!

This photo is taken by turning around - the boat driver stands at the back, next to the (very loud) engine. As you can see, the water is very dirty.

Locals use very shallow canoes to get around the lake

Our co-pilot (a.k.a. our captain's son, who couldn't have been more than 6 years old)

Houses and villages built entirely on stilts!

We made our way to the Khaung Daing Hot Springs, where we spent about an hour. There are three pools in the area pictured, as well as a larger pool where men are not allowed, just women and children. Skeptical as ever, Elliot wasn't entirely convinced these are natural hot springs, but nevertheless, it was a good pit stop during our first boat trip.

After a few hours, and with plans in place to explore Inle Lake and some of its towns the next day, we headed back to Nyaung Shwe to make plans for New Year's Eve... 

Which we celebrated at the Golden Kite Italian restaurant! 

We had basically been wandering up and down the main street for some time, trying to see what looked the busiest and had the most 'celebratory' ambience, and eventually settled on this random place. 

Their pizza and pasta was surprisingly good (and homemade – apparently the owner had somehow lived in Italy for awhile!), and we even got to try a local red wine! It was... OK.

Best of all, however, we ran into some friends - the Japanese/Japanese American couple we had cabbed into Nyaung Shwe with! 

Turns out, he's a recreational DJ in Japan (and also studying for his PhD in physics) and with a little sound system setup help from Elliot and a tour group of about 20 super-enthusiastic Slovenians, we managed to get a NYE dance party going. Happy 2013! 

We also found a Kiwi girl we'd met back in Bagan, who proceeded to fall in love with a cool Myanmar kid.

The next day, slightly hung over, we embarked on a full-day boat trip around Inle Lake.

Almost immediately after passing the "Welcome to Innlay Lake" sign, you see men fishing using a traditional drop-net that is unique to Myanmar. They also employ an interesting one-legged paddle technique, which keeps both hands free for casting and pulling their nets. 

Unfortunately, the cover of the latest edition of the Lonely Planet country guide shows a fisherman on Inle Lake using his net – which means that recreating this scene for tourists has become a source of income in itself for some. 

Before we knew what was happening, our boat driver had taken us over to this gentleman's canoe and, as much as I would have preferred avoiding a staged fishing scene, we felt obligated to hand over a bit of cash (though Elliot felt more cheated than me and basically gave about £0.20, which even by Myanmar standards, is not much!). The lucky fisherman even actually managed to catch a fish, which he proudly displayed.

We then stopped by a weaving house, where men and women were making longyi out of silk and lotus. I have never seen this before, but when two segments of a lotus root are sliced and separated slowly, they produce a slightly sticky, stringy substance that can be accumulated and eventually woven into a thread of sorts. Complex flying shuttle looms constructed from bamboo are then used to weave these threads into lotus shawls, which are delicate but incredibly soft.


Elliot bought a woven silk longyi for his father for USD$15.

We then went on to an itinerant market, which moves to one of five different sites depending on the day of the week and sells a variety of ornaments, souvenirs, jewellery, and other collectible knick knacks.

We also stopped by a cigar-making factory, where women and teenage girls sat on the floor of a building on stilts, rolling the 'cheroot' (cigars) by hand. 

Later, we realized we had been seeing these dried tobacco leaves at the local markets; they're filled with a fragrant mixture of dried fruit, star anise, honey, rice wine, and other natural ingredients. Each woman rolls up to 500 per day, and the factory sells packs of 10 to tourists for approximately 1000 kyat (about USD$1). We didn't buy any, but they did smell quite nice. 

Our second-last stop (we also had a lunch break, and stopped at the "jumping cat monastery", though the cats no longer really jump) was at an umbrella-making workshop.

This was also a place where tourists were invited to see the long-necked "giraffe" women of Padaung, whose necks have been elongated from dozens of heavy brass coils worn for years. It is an incredible sight, but as is the case in northern Thailand, it has become a tradition practiced not for its historic significance as a beauty ideal, but for the tourist revenue it is known to draw. The Lonely Planet suggests avoiding these workshops if possible.

A floating garden – we saw tomatoes growing among the reeds and tried a few our boat driver picked for us, although we weren't sure they were safe to eat as tourists are advised not to drink the tap water in Myanmar and the lake was pretty murky around the villages.

Our last stop of the day: the Phaung Daw U Pagoda, which contains five Buddha statues that have been covered with so much gold leaf that they now appear just as blobs!

Each October, the local people celebrate the full moon festival by gathering here to watch a procession of the Buddhas as they're boarded onto an enormous dragon boat and carried from village to village to drive away evil spirits.

Women aren't allowed up the altar step, which apparently is the case at most Buddhist temples.