Archive for July, 2012


Toshogu Fall Festival

There are all kinds of reasons to visit Asia. The food is out of this world. The beaches are awesome. The value is off the charts.

But to truly gain an understanding of the cultures in this exotic part of the world, you’ve got to visit during a festival, say those who live there.

In Myanmar, the Elephant Dance Festival trunks – er, trumps – all, says Yangon resident, Ye Thi Ha Thwin.

In the town of Kyauk Se, about 30 miles from Mandalay, locals make elephant figures out of bamboo frames and the skin out of cloth. The statue is decorated with colorful, shiny paper.

A team includes two men who climb into the elephant to perform the dance in front of large crowds.

In Thailand, the best festival could very well be the Naga Fireball Festival, says Pornsurang ‘A’ Siriwandee, a Bangkok resident.

The two-day event takes place in historic Nong Khai, around the full moon of the 11th lunar month.

“It’s going to sound crazy,” A says, “but that’s when unexplained fireballs rise out of the Mekong River with great intensity, shoot into the sky and then disappear.”

The festival also features long-tail boat races and a sound and light show.

“Expect lots of people at festivals in Japan, too,” says Hisae Komatsu, who lives in Tokyo. “The Japanese love their festivals — especially Takayama Autumn Festival, Sapporo Snow Festival and Awa Odori Summer Festival — and plan their holidays according to them. So, hotel bookings must be made way in advance!”

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Have you seen The Hangover Part II? If so, you may remember the scene where the guys first meet with Paul Giamatti’s character, Kingsley. It’s at a restaurant on the rooftop of a building that overlooks all of Bangkok.

It wasn’t a contrived set; the restaurant actually exists. It’s called Sirocco, and you don’t have to be a movie star to go there. Nor do you have to own celebrity status to order a drink at its Sky Bar, where the signature cocktail is called the Hangovertini.

Sky Bar is among many skyscraping watering holes in Thailand’s capital city. Other favorites include Nest, A Level, Vertigo, Roof at Muse Thonglor and Red Sky, which is located in the center of the city but somewhat under the radar.

A great time to go to any of these bars is after you’ve explored a little bit of Bangkok by foot.

“Get a sense of the city from ground level, then go up to one of the rooftop bars for the aerial perspective,” says A Siriwandee, a Thailand-based tour specialist. “Around sunset is obviously ideal.”

The only thing to remember before setting off for a cold one is that dress codes apply at most of the rooftop bars, “so just be conscious of that,” says A.

ImageWhether we’ve read it or not, the 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha by American author Arthur Golden is a story we’re all familiar with. After all, the book not only became a bestseller, it drew the attention of Rob Marshall, who made it into a motion picture that earned six Academy Award nominations.

What few Westerners know, however, is what the definition of a geisha actually is. According to a review on Amazon.com, it’s a “rigorous” profession. And according to dictionary.com, it’s “a Japanese woman trained as a professional singer, dancer and companion of men.”  

While the geisha culture isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, it does still exist in certain parts of Japan. One such place is beautifully balanced Kyoto, which was the country’s capital for more than 1,000 years.

But think again if you think you can just take it all in by walking around the geisha districts of Kyoto.

“There is no guarantee you will see a geisha,” says Ms. Hisae Komatsu, a travel specialist in Japan, “unless you are with a guide like ours.”

Our guide is one of the foremost Western experts on geisha — a man who has lived in Kyoto for more than 20 years, was married to a former geisha, studies Japanese arts and is a lecturer on Geisha Studies at Kansai University.

“The travelers I’ve talked to are blown away by the elegance and beauty of it all,” says Hisae. “It’s such a unique experience. You not only get to have a conversation with a real geisha, you have access to someone who can answer any question about a geisha’s life.”

ImageVietnam continues to make a name for itself as a destination with underground excursions.

The tunnels at Vinh Moc, in the central province of Quang Tri, once housed an entire village and today host travelers who want to experience the grim depths of wartime living.

The tunnels at Cu Chi, where the National Liberation Front staged strikes on Saigon and the occupying American forces, are one of the country’s top draws.

Now, add one more to this roll call of subterranean adventures. In late May, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi opened a wartime air raid shelter that once harbored the likes of Joan Baez and Jane Fonda and that was only rediscovered during construction of the hotel’s Bamboo Bar last summer.

To visit the shelter, you have to be a guest of the hotel. But a night’s stay at the Metropole is one splurge worth making anyway.

The shelter is a warren of corridors and chambers, preserved as it was in the days when sirens resounded all over Hanoi. Though this space is dank and austere, it’s relatively luxurious when you compare it to the earthen tunnels of Vinh Moc and Cu Chi.

Upon rediscovery, the hotel didn’t find any skeletons in this closet. Just an old wine bottle, some old light bulbs and old electrical outlets and air ducts. Oh, and some graffiti from one Bob Devereaux, an Australian diplomat who scratched his name in the wall one day back in 1975.

For more on the shelter, including images and video, check out the Metropole general manager’s blog.

Four-Wheel Fun in Bali

ImageThere are many different ways for you as a tourist to explore a destination.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia, you could hop into a motodop, a covered, two-wheel cab that’s hitched to the back of a motorbike.

In Saigon, Vietnam, you could climb onto a cyclo, which is characterized by a chair that’s attached to the front of a bicycle.

But perhaps nowhere is sightseeing more adventurous than in Bali, where visitors are lured by ‘VW safari’ tours — 4×4 excursions by Volkswagen Kübelwagen, a type of jeep originally built during the second world war as a military vehicle.

“There’s no better way to take in the surroundings of Bali’s hilly interior than by VW safari,” says Eva Sihotang, an Indonesia tour specialist. “With the top down, you get these incredible panoramic views of the island’s terraced rice paddies and can breathe in fresh mountain air.”

She is probably most fond of the stretch between Mount Batur and Ubud, for its windy roads that present vistas of mountain streams, small Balinese villages and those terraced rice fields. And you can quickly put the top up in case a tropical shower suddenly hits.

“I always get a kick out of the kids we pass, too,” she says. “They’re always waving and shouting hello because they think it’s a cool and unusual form of transport, as well.”

Such four-wheel fun is a must-experience during any dream trip to the Island of the Gods.