Touched By An Apsara

“Apsara” refers to the ancient art of dance performances performed by women in traditional glittering silk tunics and elaborate golden headdresses in the royal courts of Angkor during the reign of Jayavarman VII.

But in modern day Siem Reap, and I suspect, in many parts of Cambodia, Apsara is probably the most overused name you can find anywhere and everywhere. There’s Apsara Hotel, Apsara Spa, Apsara Boutique Spa & Hotel, Apsara Café, Apsara Restaurant, Apsara Foundation, even an Apsara Spice Garden.

DSC00612Frankly though, your trip to Siem Reap or Cambodia will never be complete without catching an Apsara performance. Many restaurants in Siem Reap offer this traditional dance performance, although prices vary markedly, so it’s good to check with your hotel before you make a reservation. You can find a relatively affordable meal with accompanying Apsara dance for US$12 at the Koulen II Restaurant. The best part of the deal – it’s a buffet!

DSC00663After your Khmer debauchery, head for the night markets for some bargain hunting. Or indulge your own Fear Factor fantasies by taking on some traditional Khmer street food – fried spiders / scorpions / crickets / baby frogs!  LS

P.S.: I’m sorry I kind of went on a hiatus again because work has started. So now that I’ve had a chance to take a breather and jet off again, I shall remove that cryptic post of Mount Fuji titled “Majesty” (taken from my flight back from Tokyo).

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A Zen New World

These days I find myself increasingly reluctant to blog. Instead, from time to time, I like to browse through micah’s blog – she is one humorous (and kick-ass muay thai boxer and martial arts junkie) scribe – and just laugh my head off at her whimsical adventures and indulgent feastings.

I’m packing my bags again, ready to brave the cold and treacherous. Nope, I’m not going Alaska or attempting Everest. I’m returning to my favourite country – Japan! Don’t give me that look!

This time, I’m off to Hokkaido – think lots of snow, snow and more snow. I hope I won’t freeze my ass off there, so I’ve been frequenting Uniqlo lately to source for bargains. Truth be told, this is actually the first time I’m visiting Hokkaido, much to disbelieving scowls and “Not again…” jibes from my colleagues. Another first for me – skiing! God bless my bones!

Think I left off in Vienna in my previous posts, and I was wondering if I should continue from there, or excite you with images of Japan from my previous trips. I think you know the answer.DSC03591So I’m going to accost your sights with Kyoto, one of my favourite cities in Japan. Mention Kyoto and one automatically associates with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. So if temples are not your thing, don’t bother visiting Kyoto.

However, labelling Kyoto as temple-land doesn’t really do it justice. After all, this was the original capital of Japan for more than a thousand years before Tokyo took the crown in 1868.

A friend who recently visited Kyoto commented on his Facebook that he had never witnessed such a confused city. I’m not sure if “confused” was the right word to use but I believe what he probably meant was that no other city in Japan challenges your notion of time, space and normality than Kyoto.DSC03731Here, geishas toting umbrellas totter in wooden clogs on the cobblestoned streets of Gion. Shrines pop up in the most unlikely of places (for example, in the middle of Teramachi, a bustling market and shopping arcade). And just a stone’s throw away from the shopping belt, mega temples built on hilltops instantly spirit you into a zen new world.

How can you not fall in love with this city?  LS

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Seoul Comforts

Saying goodbyes is probably the toughest part of any trip. Some cities leave you desiring for more. Other places leave you feeling relieved that you are getting the hell out of that place. Some cities leave you caught in between.

I found myself pondering over what Seoul meant to me. Before this trip, I had studiously made a list of the places I wanted to go, restaurants I wanted to check out, and things I wanted to do. While I had managed to tick most of the boxes, I also felt kind of short-changed when some of the places I had been looking forward to visiting didn’t quite pan out the way many over-zealous bloggers had described. Of course, travelling is a mixed bag of hits and misses, and I’ve long come to accept that as part of the package.

Despite the disappointments (my excessive walking has left me walking with a limp), what I really treasured the most is the friendship that I made along the way (or in the past). I am thankful for the chance to meet up with my Korean friends again and catch up on each other’s lives.

It’s easy to see Seoul as a city of cafes, of restaurants, of Joseon dynasty palaces, and perhaps even cosmetic surgery. The Korean language is daunting to the visitor who had absolutely zero knowledge of Korean. I know some would disagree and say that many foreigners, especially those from English-speaking / European countries, get by just fine without any inkling of Korean. But do you know that Koreans themselves are similarly daunted by the English language? The younger generations in general fare better, due to the emphasis on the teaching of English in mainstream schools these days. But by and large, most Koreans stil prefer to communicate in their native language.

And that is the secret to enjoying Seoul, or even Korea, for that matter. Today’s younger Koreans are more forward-looking and they open up to foreigners more easily. And they would be very happy to offer a helping hand to you – especially when you speak to them in Korean. You do not have to be fluent. You just have to learn simple Korean greetings and useful phrases that could help you get around and order your food. Even with my rudimentary grasp of the language and spitter-spatter of Korean, I realised it opened doors and allowed me to appreciate Seoul, and Seoulites from a different perspective.

DSC08268DSC08247I appreciated the advice given to me by this wholesaler at Noryangjin market (노량진 수산시장) on how to enjoy wriggling “live octopus” and raw sea cucumber. (He happened to be enjoying an early lunch and round of soju with his fellow colleagues at an adjacent table). I felt the warmth and dedication of the ahjumma who placed a bowl of hot piping kimchi stew on my table. I thanked the couple who told me that it was okay to order “half and half” when I couldn’t decide between having original or spicy fried chicken.

DSC08258DSC04870At the end of the day, what I found most comforting about Seoul is its people. Seoulites, young and old, work hard. Very very hard. And they drink even harder. Working life is tough and stressful here because of the rigid social hierarchy that still dominates many companies. So drinking helps Koreans to forget their troubles, their stress, their bosses. And when tomorrow comes, they fight another battle at the office.

There’s a saying that Seoul never sleeps. Literally. There’s probably no other city in the world where you can order a bowl of hot piping tofu stew, fried chicken, pizza (in fact, almost any kind of food you can think of) at 3 – 4 a.m. in the morning, and have your orders delivered to your doorstep in minutes. That’s because some Seoulites work around the clock to provide that delivery service, and even that service itself sees some serious competition. Many also balance several part-time jobs to eke out a living in a city with a phenomenally high cost of living. Well, at least alcohol here is cheaper than coffee!  LS

DSC08512DSC08498DSC04922DSC08350Final reporting from Incheon International Airport, South Korea.

Proud To Be Loud

Busan is a city of opposites. Here, smelly (but fascinating) fish markets sit alongside gleaming Lotte megamalls. Along the coast, colourful houses (Gamcheon Cultural Village 감천문화마을) sprawl over like lichen in a haphazard fashion, which has earned the city the moniker “Santorini of the East”. Korea’s second-largest city is an eclectic mix.

Busan’s calm coastal vibe is constantly punctuated by some of the loudest, brashest Koreans you will ever find on the peninsula. The Busanites speak a local dialect (or ‘satoori’ in Korean 사투) particular to the Gyeongsang () region with an accent that sounds like Japanese. Loud as they are, these are also possibly some of the most unpretentious, down-to-earth and friendliest Koreans you will ever meet.

DSC05961Busanites are proud of their seafood and beaches, and rightly so. Haeundae Beach (해운대 해수욕장) is Busan’s top draw (there’s even a movie title of the same name), and also plays host to a couple of special events annually, such as the Busan International Rock Festival and Busan Sea Festival. However, the event that has arguably placed Busan on the global arena is the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), held in early October. The largest of its kind in Asia, the 18th edition in 2013 saw just under 300 film screenings from 70 countries and more than 200,000 guests in attendance. For more updates on this year’s edition, visit the official website of the BIFF 2015. If you prefer to stay away from the limelight, Gwangalli Beach (광안리해수욕장)  is ideal for a romantic evening stroll.

DSC05729DSC05876Off-the-beaten-track seekers should check out the Haedong Yonggung Temple (해동용궁사), well concealed in the rocky confines of Busan’s northeast coast. For a more intimate Busan experience, get wet and dirty at the Jagalchi Fish Market (자갈치 사장) or go bargain-hunting at the sprawling night markets along Gwangbok-dong Cultural & Fashion Street (광복동거리) and Nampo-dong (남포동).

Alternatively, join the local folks at a free open-air foot spa (Dongnae Spa 동내스파) in Oncheonjang (온천장) or check into one of the pojangmacha (포장마차) – which literally means ‘covered tent stalls’ – for some fresh seafood and embrace the boisterous greetings from the Busanites.

어서오세요! (“Welcome!” in Korean).  LS

DSC06732DSC0676120141125_195857P.S.: The green-coloured tents are not pojangmacha (포장마차) [i.e. food-and-drink stalls] but fortune-telling stalls. If you fancy another authentic Korean experience, pop into one of these to peek into your future. Of course, it helps to have someone with you who can speak Korean to do the translation.

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