Sunday Street Stories: Thadingyut in Yangon

This week was Thadingyut, the Myanmar festival of light. That evening, as fireworks and lanterns lit up the streets and kids played with sparklers, noisy crackers resounded across Yangon. And then the city plunged into darkness. Thanks to a power cut that went on for a good three hours.

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Street vendors marked the festival with small candles around their wares, even as several took the day off to spend at home or seeking divine blessing at pagodas.

The season of festivities across Asia has begun, as Thailand celebrates Loy Krathong and India celebrates Diwali aka Deepawali, both different versions of the festival of lights.

Picture taken on: October 28, 2015
Location: Hledan Market, Yangon (Myanmar)
Device: Google Nexus 5

Awesome shopping streets in South East Asia

Shopping (and window shopping) is one of my favourite things to do when I travel to a new city or country. It gives me a feel of the local fashion, an opportunity to discover ideas for new looks and a sense of how the people there like to dress.

I particularly enjoy walking through shopping streets because they’re so much more fun than malls. You get to the see the neighbourhood, the city’s architecture and of course, street life. In this two-part series, I’m listing my favourite shopping streets. The first part covers my favourite shopping streets in Asia.

Hang Gai, Hanoi (Vietnam)

Hanoi’s Hang Gai has everything a fashionista would want: cute boutiques, chic souvenir stores, French-style cafes, local art stores and even a tshirt-only store. I shopped all of these on Hang Gai and in the neighbourhood, stepping into side streets to discover embroidery stores, handcrafted goods and lots of silk! My top buys: A tongue-in-cheek Hanoi tshirt from Ginkgo (local fashion brand) and hand-embroidered pouches. Browsing at local boutiques in Hang Gai and Hang Trong for clothes and accessories is highly recommended! You may just stumble across some unique finds.

Hanoi Vietnam street shopping

Hanoi Vietnam street shopping

Hanoi Vietnam street shopping

Orchard Road, Singapore

Orchard Street is anyone’s dream destination to shop in Singapore, and the craziness begins when you step off the MRT. I bought two pairs of shoes right at the station even before I hit the shopping street above. 😛 The good news is that Orchard Street has a range of malls to suit different shopping budgets. The bad news is, you want to go everywhere. After a lot of disappointments at Orchard Street stores (international brands were cheaper in India and H&M was a disaster), I finally discovered a store at 313 Somerset called Valleygirl that had trendy dresses and tops at moderate prices.

Singapore Orchard Road shopping

Singapore Orchard Road shopping

Singapore Orchard Road shopping

Singapore Orchard Road shopping

Bugis Street, Singapore

Yep, two places in Singapore! Bugis Street is a delight if you want to hog while you shop! I shopped there late evening, and bagged cool bargains on tops, lingerie, nightwear and souvenirs. Then we had a very Singaporean snack right on the street- the icecream sandwich. The restaurants on Bugis Street serve good local fare as well. I didn’t venture deep inside the market, which is where the best deals are to be found, but the street-facing and ground floor shops have some great deals!

Bugis street Singapore shopping

Bugis street Singapore shopping

Bugis street Singapore shopping

Bugis street Singapore shopping

 

Wora Bura Resort: Quaint Thai haven in Hua Hin

When I first visited Hua Hin a few years ago, I never thought I’d be going back again. But in a strange of twist of fate (if such a thing exists), here I was on the bus with S, on my way to this beachside town in Thailand.

Hua Hin is a four-hour bus or car ride away from Bangkok. Since it’s not as popular as Pattaya and Phuket, there are fewer tourists, which means no jostling crowds, no overcrowded beaches and less chances of bumping into people you know. 🙂

We stayed at the Wora Bura Hua Hin Resort & Spa, a tiny David compared to the Goliath that is Sheraton Hua Hin at the outskirts of the town (fabulous hotel). But while it’s not as big as the Sheraton, it’s got what you need in any beach resort, but with lots of old-world charm and personal attention.

Wora Bura resort Hua Hin

We were welcomed at the Wora Bura reception with warm smiles and a lemongrass cooler. Traditional square tiling, whitewashed pillars and greenery subtly highlighted the hotel’s Thai provenance.

Wora Bura resort Hua Hin

With only 70-odd rooms in Wora Bura identified by Thai cities and towns instead of room numbers, the Wora Bura has that homely feel you don’t get in a chain hotel. The beach is just a short walk away (from any room), as is the swimming pool, the spa, the breakfast room and the beach-facing restaurant. A gazillion extra brownie points for this, because we didn’t need to walk around the hotel forever or call for a buggy.

Wora Bura Resort: Quaint Thai haven in Hua Hin

Our stay began with a late lunch at the restaurant by the beach, where Mr S tucked into Thai seafood fare. The restaurant may have just half a dozen tables, but with their attentive service, gentle sea breeze and the beach view, we relished our extended lunch hour.

Wora Bura resort Hua Hin

We strolled back to our room through the manicured garden, across tiny bridges and the swimming pool as kids played Marco Polo. We briefly stopped to admire a gorgeous villa room named Phuket, with fancy drapes and a cute porch.

Wora Bura resort Hua Hin

Our room had a Thai décor theme, true to the spirit of the resort. It was not just earthy accents, but rustic-looking doors and padlock, a wooden key (no plastic key cards!) and the old-style tiles that made us feel like we were in Thailand. A refreshing change from standard-décor hotel chain-rooms that often lack a local touch.

The hotel steps lead to the main beach of the town, which is quite clean and not really crowded. You can lounge on the hotel deck chairs, chill on the beach, frolick in the water, scream at the tiny crabs, collect shells…. We did all of this!

Wora Bura resort Hua Hin

The highlight of our stay at Wora Bura was our spa experience. Our hour-long couples’ massage was in an airy room (with private bathroom) cooled to the right temperature, and expert masseuses who spoke some English. The massages we’d selected were the “light” ones, but they were still rigorous enough to rejuvenate us. By the end of the massage, I was ready for the (tiring) bus ride to Bangkok airport. I slept through most of the bus journey back to Bangkok (something I can never do), that’s how relaxed I was.

Wora Bura resort Hua Hin

When we checked out, we knew that our stay at Wora Bura had been way too short. We were there only one night, but managed to pack in the 18 hours we were there. We’d have loved more time to relax in the hotel and explore the town. The hotel had a free shuttle service that dropped us to town and night market.

A third trip to Hua Hin? Who knows?! If yes, my chosen place of stay will be Wora Bura Resort. 🙂

Three magical meals from Vietnam

It was on the second day of our Vietnam trip last month when S and I admitted that we didn’t like Vietnamese food. After having heard so much about Vietnamese cuisine, our expectations from the food were high. But the meals we’d had were disappointing, mostly due to lack of flavour and finesse (except the breakfast we had at our Hanoi hotel- Essence Palace).

We finally resigned ourselves to the fact that perhaps Vietnamese cuisine wasn’t right for us. Or was overrated.

But on the third day of our trip, we took a flight to Dong Hoi and headed to Phong Nha, home to the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. That’s when our luck with Vietnamese food turned.

Magical Meal One: DIY Vietnamese spring rolls in Phong Nha

In Phong Nha, we spent the morning at Paradise Cave (stunning!) and then headed with our group to the Dark Cave restaurant for lunch. The meal there consisted of spring rolls. Yep, just spring rolls. Simple meal, yet strangely satisfying. We were served a giant platter with spring roll stuffings and the paper, and we had to build and roll our own spring rolls.

This is what the non-vegetarian and vegetarian platters looked like:

Vietnam food DIY spring rolls

Vietnam food DIY spring rolls

And my vegetarian spring roll with tofu:

Vietnam food DIY spring rolls

I shared the vegetarian platter of tofu, vegetables, dip and sticky rice with a French girl, and we ate several rolls before wrapping up (pun intended) and heading to the Dark Cave for a fun-filled afternoon.

Magical Meal Two: Traditional dishes at Sapa

Sapa Town is a hillside town, teeming with hundreds of tourists who come for trekking in the valley and beyond. And because its economy is largely tourist-driven, there are dozens of restaurants serving all possible cuisines. But like any capitalist will tell you, the more the market players, the merrier. The customers usually wins with so many options. So after wandering about town and debating where to eat, S and I finally headed to Sapa Village restaurant. Great staff, but our food took a while to come. But when our dishes arrived, we knew the wait was totally worth it.

These are the curries we had (vegetables and chicken):

Vietnamese coconut curry

Vietnamese coconut curry

The curries had been cooked in tender coconut, and the warm aroma of spices with the rustic texture and delicious curry had us reaching for our spoons already. This delightful meal, cooked with excellent flavours, fresh ingredients and the chef’s love (we hope!) was just what we needed after a long day.

Magical Meal Three: Modern Vietnamese in Hanoi

We didn’t know that Gia Ngu restaurant in our hotel served such excellent food till we found raving reviews online. The small and chic restaurant serves a Vietnamese cuisine with a modern touch, with equal focus on taste, presentation, service and concept. S reported that their breakfast pho was excellent, and so we gave it a go for dinner one evening.

The food was so good we ended up having two meals there, and we enjoyed both times. But the hands-down winner was the steamed fish.

Vietnamese food Gia Ngu restaurant

The chefs have stuck to local seasonings and flavours for their dishes, but the concepts are western. For instance the grilled chicken may seem to be cooked and served the “western” way, but the flavours were definitely Vietnamese.

Vietnamese food Gia Ngu restaurant

Vietnam is a beautiful country with a cuisine and both must be explored, whether you’re a meat eater or a vegetarian like me. Despite our rocky start with local food, we flew back home with excellent food memories. And no, Vietnamese food isn’t overrated.

Sunday Street Stories: Old Rangoon

On Strand Road, just as downtown “begins”, you see a series of dismal-looking buildings. Waiting for a paint job. Or a facelift. Or restructuring.

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These old buildings are an integral part of Yangon’s identity, and they remind of the rather risky old buildings in Mumbai. Whether these buildings are rock-solid or slightly shakey is anyone’s guess, but if there is one thing I believe, it’s this- preservation of heritage buildings is crucial to maintain the city’s unique personality. Just as important as safety of its occupants.

Picture taken on: October 17, 2015
Location: Strand Road, Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Google Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: At the local post office

Visiting a post office in Myanmar is like taking a step back in time. The bare furnishings, the wooden benches and the old signage are all remnants of the previous century.

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In a wonderful surprise, the helpful lady at the stamps counter spoke English and explained the difference between the red and yellow boxes (Red for regular mail, yellow for one-day delivery). The postman helped me lift the flap of the box to post the letters. A well-spent 15 minutes on a warm afternoon, I say. Didn’t miss the air conditioning.

Photo taken on: October 6, 2015
Location: Post office at Shwegondaing, Yangon.
Device: Google Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: Hanoi’s night market

I landed in Hanoi late Friday night and got a glimpse of the busy city yesterday. In the evening, while looking for Hoan Kiem lake, we discovered this bustling night market.

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Starting from Hang  Dao street going up to Dong Xuan market, this weekend night market was packed with locals and tourists. It was hot, humid and crowded, so not exactly a very cushy experience but worth a visit. Besides clothes, watches and footwear, I discovered some wonderful handicrafts, like ceramic bowls and trays, delicate embroidered wall hangings, cool memorabilia and wood carvings.

Picture taken on: September 26, 2015
Location: Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam
Device: Google Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories: The Lady on the streets

Yesterday a street seller appeared on Yangon’s Pyay Road while I was headed downtown, selling calendars featuring large pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi (aka The Lady). I was surprised since this is one of the most open displays of her support I’ve seen in Myanmar since I landed here in June.

Aung San Su Kyi calendar

Till a few years ago, even speaking about The Lady privately could get you thrown in jail. The few who dared mention her did so in whispers and never in public (you never who was eavesdropping or was a spy). Since the country is slowly moving toward a full democracy with nation-wide elections scheduled for early November, Myanmar folk are now free to support Aung San Suu Kyi and her party NLD (National League for Democracy).

Here’s to peaceful and fair elections in Myanmar!

Picture taken on: September 19, 2015
Location: Pyay Road, Yangon, Myanmar
Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Stories is a series of images recording street signs from my travels. They could be significant in some way, funny, or have an interesting story behind them.

Sunday Street Stories: The touristy Bagan sunset

I was in historical, beautiful Bagan last weekend. One of the typical touristy things to do in Bagan is to watch a sunset from the top of a pagoda. Once you climb up three storeys of steep stone steps, you can hope to settle in to watch a wonderful sight in quiet solitude. Or not.

Bagan pagodas sunset with tourist

While the sun setting over the pagodas is a stunning view, the popular pagodas are crowded with tourists. And all of them are on a quest to make the perfect Bagan sunset photograph. We were one of them till we decided to put our cams away and enjoy the moment (after I took this picture).

And yes, I recommend Bagan to everyone!

Picture taken on: September 6, 2015
Location: Old Bagan, Myanmar
Device: Nexus

Sunday Street Stories is a series of images recording street signs from my travels. They could be significant in some way, funny, or have an interesting story behind them.

Sunday Street Stories: Inya Lake Park

Walking by Inya Lake is among the most wonderful experiences in Yangon. There’s usually a gentle breeze blowing from the lake, you’re surrounded by a large expanse of water and lush green trees, and the traffic noise is a bare minimum.

Needless to say, like everything in Myanmar, some rules need to be followed. So there’s a list of rules for the park as well, written in Myanmar and English to make sure locals and tourists “get” them.  Written with the most serious of intentions, some of these rules state the obvious but I guess they need to be mentioned anyways, especially since couples and aspiring musicians with their friends flock the park every evening.

Yangon Inya Lake park rules

Almost all these rules are flouted, including the “no sex” one (ahem!). Amateur fishers, bicyclists, (extremely) amorous couples, guitarists,  singers, snack vendors– they’re all there! But I haven’t seen any swimmers in the lake yet.

Picture taken on: August 24, 2015

Location: Inya Lake (west side), Yangon, Myanmar

Device: Nexus 5

Sunday Street Signs is a series of images recording street signs from my travels. They could be significant in some way, funny, or have an interesting story behind them.