If states were cats, Singapore would be a lion.*

* Singapore means lion city in Malay.

When reading about Singapore, it seems very easy to get sidetracked and freaked out by all the information out there. How much is exaggeration and what should I expect from this little beast of a country?

They say Singapore is boring. They say it’s so sterile you’ll feel like you’re in a giant open-air farmacy. They say it’s all about business, money and towering new buildings. They say you can’t discuss politics, religion, or anything remotely sensitive. They say you’ll be thrown in chains should you dare to chew a gum.

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Singapore Opera House

Well, they may somewhat be right. (Okay, except for the chains bit./phew)

Singapore is all that, to a certain degree. It is that overachieving kid everyone else in the class hates. It is not the liveliest nor the most exciting place in the world. It is so clean and orderly, someone from the Balkans as myself might find it borderline creepy. Littering, smoking and jaywalking are considered law offences and can quite “unburden” your budget if you’re not careful.  And no, you really cannot buy chewing gum here – but you can bring your own, should you find it absolutely essential.

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Park Royal Hotel

One of the world’s most economically developed cities and states and possibly the safest place on Earth has its other, uglier side resembling an obsolete dictatorship system. Capital punishment is practiced on narcotic offenders. Freedom of press and speech is suppressed, homosexuality is illegal and caning is a legit form of law enforcement. How paradoxical that Singapore is considered almost entirely free from crime, yet the government can choose to punish you if you kiss a person of the same sex? To quote the best show in the history of the universe, Breaking Bad: “no half-measures”. Apparently not.

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Central Business District

All that being said, I wouldn’t like living here. Visiting, on the other hand, was quite a another story. Singapore was so different from anything I ever saw before that it became interesting and exciting in an entirely new sense. The glaring patina on Singapore’s pristine surface made me feel like I was time-transported from my medieval peasant village into the Future with a capital F. And how can that ever be boring?

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Squeaky clean

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A bad shot of Parliament of Singapore

Okay, so what else do we need to know about Singapore? (Don’t yawn on me now!)

Here’s what, the boiled down edition. History buffs, ears up!

This small state has had quite a turbulent history. The earliest known settlement on Singapore’s territory, Temasek, dates back to the 7th century, which was later invaded in the 11th century by the South Indians. Five centuries later, the Portuguese raiders burned the whole place down and wiped it off the face of the Earth. It was only in 1819 that sir Thomas Raffles took notice of the potential of Singapore’s strategic position, bought it from the Malaysian state Johor and made it a vital British trading post and naval base.

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In Little India

During World War II, Britain suffered a great defeat in 1942 when they lost Singapore during a Japanese attack. They regained it in 1945, but the losses were significant; more than 25,000 Chinese Singaporeans lost their life during battle. Singapore declared independence in 1965 and it has remained a parliamentary republic since.

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Somewhere between Little India and Chinatown

The state consists of 63 islands: the main, Singapore Island and the considerably smaller 62 others.  The population consists of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians and others. As for languages, there’s no less than four official ones: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

Singapore has the world’s highest percentage of millionaires (allegedly one in every six households has over 1 mil. USD or more) and house ownership rate is also among the highest on a global scale. Small wonder the immigration rate is skyrocketing.

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Daily commuters to Malaysia

Isn’t it weird that Singapore, with a 75% Chinese population, has a Chinatown? And yet…

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Chinatown

Religion-wise, it’s again very kaleidoscopic. The largest religious group are Buddhists (30%), followed by Christians, Muslims, atheists, Taoists and Hindus.

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Inside a Buddhist temple

Should I babble about food again? Maybe I shouldn’t, as I’ve done a fair share of food-related ramblings on this blog. But let me just tell you, these people know their food. They are obsessed with it – and if *I* am saying this, then it is bloody well saying something. Hawker stalls are so popular their culinary merits are often the topic of many a heated discussion among the Singaporeans. And, in contrast to the usual hither prices, hawker stalls are cheap and don’t require you to mortgage your home in exchange for a meal.

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Dining out is a common scene in Singapore

Once you feel the urge to run away from the concrete jungle into a real one (or at least something close to it) and hide in the shade of lush greenery, take a stroll through Fort Canning in Singapore’s very centre. The green hill is brimming with fascinating historical monuments thanks to its past use as a military fort. It is also stunningly beautiful and therefore well worth a visit.

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Fort Canning park

Close to the Central Business District lies Marina Bay, a waterfront with a 3.5 km long promenade curbed by imposing buildings on what feels like every inch of the way.

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Marina Bay (1)

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Marina Bay (2) 

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Marina Bay (3)

Five years ago the entire area got its cherry on top with the completion of Marina Bay Sands, an upscale resort consisting of a casino, shopping centre, restaurants and a 5-star hotel with a boat adjoining the roofs of three buildings. In a country where luxury dining and shopping are nation’s favourite pastimes, Marina Bay Sands stands as the main abode for religious worship.This second most expensive building in the world was quite a fair site/sight… No, wait, I need a better word. Jaw-dropping?

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Marina Bay Sands (1)

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Marina Bay Sands (2)

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Inside the Marina Bay Sands hotel 

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Marina Bay Sands by night

I hadn’t even managed to collect my jaw off the floor, when my eyes landed upon the Gardens by the Bay, a botanical garden housing more than 500,000 plants all over the world. Half. A. Million. Plants. The panorama is domineered by Supertrees, 18 artificial vertical gardens connected by a walkway. What a testament to technology, architecture and brainy humans who know how to make this stuff happen. Something that can be said for the entire Singapore, actually.

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Gardens by the Bay + Marina Bay Sands

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Gardens by the Bay (1)

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Gardens by the Bay (2)

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Gardens by the Bay (3)

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Gardens by the Bay (4)

And that, my friends, was it for Singapore. Everything functions smoothly and efficiently, which is all nice and great… But I always welcome a healthy dose of mess in my life. And so, on that note, I returned to my messy, messy Croatia.

*Thank you Urdax for most of the photos.

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Impressions: George Town, Penang

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On the Inner City streets of George Town

Okay, so here’s plain talking. Almost a week spent roaming around Kuala Lumpur made me cringe with the hustle and bustle of the urban behemot. I ran out of things to do. I needed to see a dusty old building. Some sea would’ve been nice, too. It was time for me to venture further north.

A five-hour bus journey took me to what I consider to be Malaysia’s kernel, the NW state/island of Penang. More precisely, to its beautiful capital George Town whose Inner City holds the prestigious title of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For those who fancy a solid piece of culture and/or history in their Malaysian trip, George Town (along with Malacca) will be an excellent choice. So, let’s put our nerdy caps on and talk some facts.

Due to its geostrategic location on the Strait of Malacca, George Town was a focal point of important trade exchange between east and west for more than five centuries, resulting in rich cultural heritage.

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Khoo Kongsi, the largest Chinese clanhouse in Malaysia 

The city was officially founded at the end of the 18th century by the English captain Francis Light, who named it after the British king George III. Relying on prisoners’ labour, the area was swiftly cleared of vegetation and soon the Fort Cornwallis was erected. George Town is the cradle of English influence in Malaysia, a fact that is palpable to this day; St George’s Church is the oldest Anglican church in the entire SE Asia, while Anglican schools are among the best in the area (which is considered as the main education centre in Malaysia).

What I was most excited to see were the famous stilt houses on the waterfront. Popularly known as Clan Jetties, these were named after the Chinese clan communities who settled in George Town around a hundred years ago and built their homes above water. This was immensely awesome to see, I have to admit.

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Clan jetties’ stilt houses

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Clan jetties 

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Clan jetties by night

Located on the coast and bordering with Thailand, George Town is constantly in motion, a proper urban ant-hill with a plethora of hotels, night-bars and restaurants. Rivers of tourists and backpackers flock to the city all year round, yet it has somehow managed to keep its intimate and authentic charm. This is also the most ethnically diverse city in Malaysia, with Little India and Chinatown being the most prominent ethnic quarters.

My favourite thing to do was wait until noon, when the heat would get insufferable and nearly everyone would retreat indoors for a little siesta. This is when I would set out on long and aimless walks through the eerily empty streets while indulging in quiet ponderations. The feeling of being completely alone in a place that feels like the end of the world was a truly pleasant one.

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Empty streets of the Inner City 

What makes George Town so very unique, though, is street art. That pair of fervent tourists wreathed with heavy cameras lurking around the corner of a tucked-away passage? They are not some creepy weirdos or drug sellers, but probably just art aficionados looking for a mural painting or an iron structure (hopefully). Even if art doesn’t tickle your fancy, this will not feel like drudgery – it will feel as if you’re on a secret discovery quest. The paintings are sprinkled all over the Inner City and often in the less predictable places, so one ought to pay close attention in order to spot the artwork. Just ask me, I almost went berserk because I spent hours looking for a painting of a cat.

PRO tip: keep an eye open for the works of Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic,the absolute highlights of George Town’s street art scene.

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“Reaching up”, Zacharevic, Cannon Street

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 “Little Children on a Bicycle”, Zacharevic, Armenian Street

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An iron structure, Love street 

And, of course, on what other note to end this post than – food. (I feel like I excessively talk about food, please send help.)

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(sizzling sound effect)

They say George Town has the finest culinary scene in Malaysia, and I have to second that. (Let’s pretend like I tried all the others.) Apparently what makes people salivate most are the Malay grilled fish specialties. I couldn’t verify that, but I was equally satisfied as a plant muncher. (God bless Indian cuisine.) The streets are thick with western-style cafes and coffee shops, right along with a vast variety of Asian cuisine food stalls and street restaurants offering dishes you can buy for a song. You’ll be spoilt for choice.

**I will now take a moment and thank heavens the food at home is not so cheap, as I would end up looking like a Michelin mascot in no time. Thank you, amen.**

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Do we eat to live or the other way round?

P.S. I do apologise if this post seems poorly thrown together/there isn’t more useful information. George Town got me very lazy, which also probably means I had a fantastic time.

*Most photos (the nice ones) belong to my travel buddy Urdax.

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The eclectic world of Kuala Lumpur

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Kuala Lumpur

The motley character of Malaysia – besides on the population itself – is most conspicuous on the architectural landscape in larger urban areas. Within one kilometer in Kuala Lumpur, it is not unlikely to find a ragged shanty beneath the looming sky scrapers next to an opulent mosque. A couple of steps further and you will end up standing before a kitschy Hindu temple, situated right by a 19th-century merchant house turned into a museum.

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The clash

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The clash (2)

Kuala Lumpur is one of those newly-built cities that will never cease to cause wonder in the residents of the Old Continent. The oldest buildings here date a mere two hundreds years back, so Europeans joke about being able to “smell fresh paint of the walls”.

The city’s structure is entirely tailored to the automobile traffic, so walking through many of KL’s parts falls into the “only the brave” category. Less hazardous ways of moving around include the monorail, as well as the taxi which can be very cheap (unless, like me, you’re chronically and incurably shy when it comes to bargaining).

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The monorail track

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The monorail track (2)

Kuala Lumpur is also the city of shopping centers. Not only are they ubiquitous and frighteningly colossal, they are also chock-full of people at all times. In fact, I’ve often wondered how is this even economically sustainable. God knows how, it just appears it is.

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Inside the Berjaya Times Square mall

On the first day of the trip, I started my KL tour on the main city square. Dataran Medreka or Independence Square was rather different from what usually comes to (my) mind upon imagining a city’s meeting point. This was closer to a football ground than to a square, and with the exception of a few fellow tourists was quite empty at the time of my visit. Next to it stood Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad (I obviously copy/pasted this name), an administrative center built in Mogul style in front of which people tend to gather during the NYE’s celebrations.

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Dataran Medreka

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Dataran Medreka & Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad

Next on the bucket list was the mosque Masjid Jamek, albeit I could only examine it from afar. Since non-Muslims are not permitted to enter, I had to make-do with snapping a couple of shots.

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Masjid Jamek

Masjid Negara allows members of other confessions to visit, as long as it’s not during praying hours. Built in 1965, this sacral building is bound to impress even the most fervid non-worshippers with its grandeur.

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Masjid Negara

After paying due heed to the sacral and the cultural, it was time to gratify the primal needs. (Bottom layer of the Maslow pyramid, to sound smart and scientific.) And for that, God knows KL offers opportunities galore. The core of all city life lies in Bukit Bintang, a quarter packed with malls, nightclubs, massage parlours, street-food stalls and restaurants.

As any devoted food enthusiast will be glad to learn, Malaysia is a place of great yet cheap eats. The conflating of cultures and nations resulted in a unique cuisine reflective of its country’s demographic diversity.  Kuala Lumpur has therefore become a culinary dreamland where you can send your taste buds on cloud nine without breaking the bank; all you have to do is pick one among the many Malay, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Thai or Vietnamese specialties… Western dishes are also available, but they usually come at a heftier price. Be ready to spare a couple more ringits if your longing for familiar flavours becomes all too overwhelming.

Street food in Malaysia is absolute king. Every day after sunset, food markets like the most popular Jalan Alor get so full you will have to elbow your way through the crowds. It will be worth every effort, though, for cca 4-5 USD can buy you a superb and mouthwatering dish. (And what better motive to fight the crowds, if I may add, if not to make your belly happy!)

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Jalan Alor

In such places you should forgo the slightest denotation of glamour. You will probably have to wait for a plastic chair while being hassled to buy a selfie stick –  and once you do get your seat, count yourself lucky if you get a spot further from the open kitchen where the cooking oil occasionally bursts into flames. (Is this by design or not, I don’t know.) There is an odd charm to this colourful and delicious pandemonium of luscious dishes, greasy plastic menus and relentless commotion.

Nasi-lemak (i.e. fried rice and friend chicken) and mee-goreng (fried noodles with meat and vegetables) are some of the most sought-after dishes, although you can find almost everything else that floats your food boat. As a vegetarian, I was mostly gravitating towards the fruit and fruit juice stalls. Let it be noted I even tried durian, a spiky-shelled fruit known for its notorious smell some like to compare to sewage stench. Well, you do get plastic gloves with it. Many public institutions also prohibit entering the premises with durian. I didn’t find the taste that abhorrent, but my travelling buddy later referred to it as one of the most traumatic experiences he’d ever been through. In any case, neither him nor I will be rushing back for a second serving all that soon.

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Durian stall

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No durian inside, please 

After I’ve recuperated from the durian experience, the next morning was commenced with the exploration of Malaysia’s and KL’s most famous landmark: the 451 m high twin Petronas towers, named after the company that owns them.  From 1998 to 2004, the Petronas held the flattering title of the world’s tallest building(s).

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The Petronas towers

After plunking down 20 ringits (around 20 bucks) for a ticket, the tour could start. Firstly our group stopped on the 42th floor for the glass bridge connecting the two towers, after which the elevator soared us onto the 86th floor of the east tower. Our 45 minute tour, spent in voracious photo snapping of the stunning panorama, flew by in an instant.

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Panorama from the Petronas

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Panorama from the Petronas (2)

The only nearby building that height-wise comes close to the Petronas is the popular Menara, known also as KL Tower. With a height of 421 m, the second tallest building in KL serves for broadcasting signals as well as a tourist attraction. (I gave it a miss.)

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Menara (2nd building on the photo)

About a 45-minute train ride outside of town awaited another popular tourist attraction called Batu Caves, basically several interconnected caves situated inside a limestone hill. By the end of the 19th century they have been turned into a Hindu temple dedicated to Murugan, Indian god of war. It is his golden statue that lies beneath the 272 steps leading to the caves’ entrance. After a precipitous climb (not made any easier by the Malaysian sweltering temperatures and feisty monkeys rummaging for food), the visitors reach the Temple Cave, a whopping, dimly lit, chilly cave with statues of Hindu deities and altars on every corner. I didn’t find the caves all that appealing, but they did provide a much needed repose from the heat wave outside. So there was that, at least.

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Batu Caves 

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Batu Caves (2)

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Inside Temple Cave

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Inside Temple Cave (2)

*Most photos (the nice ones) belong to my travel buddy Urdax.

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Malaysia: the 411 on the melting pot of the East

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Me, safe and sound on KLIA airport

Next stop in my Asian tour: Malaysia. Perhaps not an Asian tiger, but a metaphorical wildcat of a kind certainly (lynx?). The decision to visit Malaysia was easy, all that was left on the check-list was to survive the flight, somewhat weighted down by unpleasant associations whenever aeroplanes and Malaysia meet in the same sentence.

I arrived on KLIA, one of the largest airports of SE Asia after a three-hour flight from Sri Lanka. As gorgeous as this country is, after a month bereft of most Western privileges I was turning into a grumbling woman constantly scratching her mosquito bites and salivating like a Pavlov dog at the mere thought of a warm cup of coffee.

Having set my foot on the Malaysian ground for the first time,  I was engulfed by a sense of relief. Usually the neon lights in shopping malls leave me indifferent and the paraphernalia of consumerism don’t particularly stir my blood, but this time I embraced them almost enthusiastically. Apparently, globalism can provide comfort. Who knew! (To dig myself even deeper into this confession, I might as well tell you I gorged on a barrel of Starbucks soy latte as soon as I collected my baggage. /sorrynotsorry)

It was already an ungodly night hour and I had yet to reach Kuala Lumpur city centre to get to my hotel, so I hopped on a shuttle bus as soon as I had figured out which was the right one. (Years gone by, calendar pages flying off…) Okay, so I found it eventually. The bus, teeming with half-awake passengers, was cruising with such elegant ease on the highway that it gave me goosebumps. You may think it’s pathetic, but after the unkempt roads of Sri Lanka the scene felt like a futuristic fantasy – a straight, properly asphalted road with curbs adorned by trees planted with symmetrical perfection, properly and frequently placed road signs, night lights and sky scrapers looming and glittering in the distance.

The discovery of another marvellous country was on the horizon, and I got hit by that sweet adrenaline rush of wanderlust known to every travel aficionado.

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 The famous Petronas Towers, KL

So, Malaysia in a nutshell. Let’s give it a shot.

This federal country counting a population of nearly 30 million has a parliamentary system with an elected monarch (yes, they actually choose their king). It roughly consists of two parts: Peninsular or Wester Malaysia, bordering with Thailand and Singapore, and Eastern Malaysia on the Borneo Island bordering with Indonesia and Brunei.

Allegedly, each trip broadens the horizons (or so it should) – but Malaysia is one of these places that punches you right in the face with “OMG I truly know nothing of the world!” kind of discovery. You realise how much pigeonholing is flourishing in your mind and how it can be harmful even without being intentional.

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 The clash: Stilt houses vs. apartment blocks in George Town, Malaysia

This is a country where modern and conservative constantly clash, where globalism, consumerism and multiculturalism exist side-by-side with rigid religious views and draconian legal punishments such as caning.

Malaysia is the eastern equivalent to the proverbial melting pot: Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the continuously growing number of expat Westerns earning their daily bread here all make part of this eclectic mix, painting a rather unique picture. Those unaware of the fact that the predominant religion here is Islam – in fact, around 60% of the population identifies as Muslim – will likely be taken aback when seeing for the first time busy streets brimming with monolid Asian women donned in hijabs.

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Chinatown in KL

The official language is bahasa, particular for the numerous English words sounding identical as the original but spelled phonetically (words like butik, diskaunt, and such). Each time I would see one of these loanwords, I couldn’t help but think of kids learning English and leading an uphill battle with spelling.

(…)

I visited the country in January when it was heavily flooded, so I was obliged to stick to the urban areas on the Malaysian peninsula. Natural attractions like Cameron Highlands and Taman Negara, like the entire Borneo, were bound to wait for some better (drier) times. As much as it had rained in the city as well, the heat was unfaltering. One thing I was sure of: here I would make great friends with paper tissues, whether to dry myself from rain, sweat, or both.

Alas, equipped with refreshments and a cheap umbrella threatening to fall apart at any moment, my exploration of Kuala Lumpur could commence.   Continue reading

15 things you didn’t know about Sri Lanka + other important info

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1. People are genuinely nice. 

And it is exactly what you need when you are in a new, fairly exotic place. The system may be slow and ineffective, and that’s why Sri Lankans rely so heavily on human bonds. Although there are undoubtable shortcomings to this type of social contract, it is of great comfort to know you can always lean on your neighbour or friend or even friend of a friend, no matter what. Family is extremely important in Sri Lanka. Tourists are not left out of the picture either; in general, if the locals see a lost foreigner they will go out of their way to help her/him, without expecting anything in return.

That time when I took the bus to the airport, I was loaded with two humongous suitcases. I had to buy tickets for two seats, one for my tush and one for my bags. Problem was, the bus got so unexpectedly crowded it became impossible for me to even move in my seat – let alone get off the bus. I started to panic that I won’t be able to get out on time, consequently losing my stop and my flight. Luckily, one gentleman immediately took notice of my predicament, asked if I was going to the airport and went to have a word to the driver. I had no idea what they were saying, but somehow I knew it was going to be fine. And indeed, when the bus arrived to my stop, every passenger was mobilised to get me out: half of them had to get off in order for me to pass, a few men helped me with my bags, and they were all waving me goodbye while the bus drove off. (Perhaps partly out of relief.)

2. It is safe for female travellers.

As a single white female, I never felt endangered or as if I was being studied as a member of an alien species. People in Kandy are extremely proud and dignified and will treat you with respect. The attitude is slightly different on the coast where they rely on tourists for their primary source of income and may view you as wallets on legs – but aside from some minor cat-calling, I had no other negative experiences. Of course ladies, you need to be cautious no matter where you are, but in general I would say Sri Lanka is safe for single female travellers (especially compared to India).

Speaking of women issues, fun fact! Sirimavo Bandaranaike, three-times prime minister of Sri Lanka, was the first female in the world to be elected head of government.

3. In local restaurants you will often find a sink and a hand towel for everyone to use.

No, not in the bathrooms, but in the dining area. As a foreigner, you will probably be given utensils, but locals tend to eat the saucy, stewy dishes with their hands – hence the sink and the towel that you share with other guests. It goes without saying, wet wipes and hand sanitizers are your friends.

4. Everybody seems to be running some kind of business.

And I mean EVERYBODY. What is more, each of these businesses seems to be utterly thriving. Convenience store, Internet cafe, print studio, fruit stand, restaurant, repair shop, you name it. It will be done. Sri Lanka’s got you covered. Also, you will find no lack of banners nor billboards. Advertising is everything. /Don Draper voice off

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5. Pizza Hut is one of the most expensive dining options.

Fast food chains are not that common and they are usually in the upper price range. Local restaurants serving local dishes are much more affordable, but if you find yourself hankering something familiar or just want to splurge some rupees – fast food restaurants are probably your best bet. Pizza Hut, for instance, was among the most costly restaurants in Kandy. A simple thin-crusted pizza the size of a child’s head will cost you an average daily wage’s worth (1500 LKR or 12 USD or 10 EUR). You better savour every single bite!, as my grandmother would say.

6. Hot water is not always implied.  

In private accommodation (I’m not talking high-end hotels), hot water will be advertised as a commodity and it will affect the price of the room. Nota bene that this, however, is not a guarantee you will actually have hot water, although you have paid for it. Thank God it’s always summer in Sri Lanka 🙂

7. Menus in private accommodation will look something like this:

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And just as a side note – the food is finger-licking, OMG-I-need-a-private-room-with-this-bowl, completely and utterly delicious culinary experience. Plus, you get to indulge in fresh fruit juices that would put to shame even the most hip, all organic, fair-trade cold-pressed juice bar in Berlin. For a fraction of the price. Yum.

8. Streets are not really labeled.

The understanding of space is somewhat loose in Sri Lanka. There will be an occasional street sign here and there, but God help you if you need to find a certain house number or a tiny tucked-away alley. I swear, 80% of the time I had no idea where I was. The drivers don’t use GPS or maps, but why would they – the «ask a fellow Sri Lankan» approach unmistakably yields results. Hereby a classic example of street consultations:

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9. The entire country is a pleasant olfactory experience.

Sri Lanka is a place that smells of incense sticks, cinnamon, coconut and lush cups of tea. It’s downright sin to have a stuffed nose here. Knock yourself out and sniff away! At least until you get to the meat or fish market.

10. You’ll have to redefine your idea of a food market.

Fish, either fresh or dried, is sometimes sold on carton boxes on the sides of a busy, fuming vehicle-laden street. Meat is hanging from the stalls in the open while the crows ominously fly around. Not exactly shangri-la for a faint-hearted vegetarian. On the bright side, fruit is ubiquitous and relatively cheap and you’ll get to munch on free samples.

11. The women are really beautiful and take great pride in their appearance.

In general, Sri Lankan people have smooth, clear skin, pearly teeth worthy of a Colgate commercial and thick, lustrous, carbon-black hair. Oh and btw, any 80’s revival enthusiast will be happy to see scrunchies are very popular here.

12. If a Sri Lankan waggles his/her head left to right, this usually means “yes”.

When you first see this gesture, you might wrongly think it stands for a NO. Contrary to popular belief, it is a yes!

13. Elephants are really, really big here.

I don’t mean just literally, they are supposed to be big. They are elephants, after all. My intention here is a metaphorical one, because these intimidatingly big mammals are a symbol and pride of Sri Lanka. They print them on T-shirts. Look, they even dress’ em and all!

For all you elephant aficionados out there, Pinnawala elephant sanctuary is the place to be. If you’ve always wanted to feed the gentle giants a bottle of milk or watch them cross the street on their way to a collective bath in the lake, you know where to go. (Talk about an Instagram opportunity.)

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Other popular animals include: monkeys, squirrels, cows. Behold:

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14. English is widely spoken.

There are two official languages: Sinhala and Tamil. To most outlanders, they sound completely unintelligible while the alphabets look like child’s doodles at best. No sweat though, English is fairly common and well-known here (especially as a lingua franca), so you’ll be able to get by just fine.

15. Every month there is a poya day that occurs on full moon.

This is a bank holiday dedicated to religious worship so most places will be closed, except from perhaps some Muslim-owned shops.

What else should I know?

  • You will need a visa but it’s a fairly easy one to get. Just apply online here and after payment, you should shortly receive an email confirmation. Bring a printed copy when you go through Immigration at the airport.
  • The currency is Sri Lankan Rupee.
  • The population is mostly rural. Out of around 20 mil people, more than 80% live in the countryside.
  • Even though the country went through a lot recently (a 25-year long civil war and the 2004 tsunami), the economy is on the rise, and it overall feels very safe.
  • Buy bottled water, don’t drink from the tap. Beware of fresh salads in case they were rinsed under tap water.
  • Best way to get around is by train, or if you are not on a shoestring budget, hire a driver. There is only one highway in the country so expect to spend a lot of time on the road.
  • Prepare to get bitten by mosquitoes. Malaria is not a big problem here, but dengue fever might be. Prevention is key.
  • Bring sun-screen from home, it might not be as easy to get once you’re here.
  • Tipping in restaurants is not mandatory, but given that it’s so cheap I always liked to add another 15% to the bill or so. Don’t be an ass, tip. Redistribution of wealth and all that.
  • If you are looking into some top-quality gems and stones, woodwork or batik fabrics, Sri Lanka is the place to come to. I couldn’t get past my sense of embarrassment so I didn’t bargain. Don’t be like me and bargain away!

And with this, I come to the end of my Sri Lankan blog series. I am glad I have written down most of what I could think of. Mostly because I hope it helped or proved informatory to some of you. But partly because one day, after some years have gone by, I hope to come back to this virtual cozy corner of mine and, with the help of my blog posts, relive these beautiful moments all over again.

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(Some of the photos are mine, some are my roomate Emily’s.)

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Mirissa, I miss ya

It is a chilly February night in Croatia as I type down these lines, enveloped in multiple layers of flannel clothing that make me resemble a bear. My town has been hit by a bone-chilling squall again, so we’re all just hiding in our cozy homes, watching TV and cooking soup. (The latter being the go-to Croatian remedy for every conceivable ailment.)

It is in moments like these, when yet another cauldron of hot soup bubbles over the stove,  that I tend to reminisce with great nostalgia about the scalding summer days and daisy dukes and coconut-scented sun creams and juicy watermelons. How is it possible that this was my reality only a month and a half ago, cheerfully frolicking on the beach in southern Sri Lanka?! How is it possible that I am now back to my old life, wearing two pairs of socks, with the threat of frostbites constantly hovering over my head?

I don’t know and it makes me sad.

In an effort to beat this heartless cold off with a stick, I will now grab myself a warm beverage and look at some photos of the glorious Mirissa. (Sniff.)

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Mirissa, come back! I forgive you everything. I forgive you your big waves that crushed me and tossed me around everytime I tried to get out of the sea. I forgive you every grain of sand I couldn’t get out of my butt for days after. I forgive you the 7-hour train ride that took me to get to you.

I yearn for your gilded sand coast bedecked by the tall coconut trees. I pine for your turqouise waters crested with foamy whitecaps. I hanker after the sight of ripped Australian surfers that I totally pretended I hadn’t noticed. Come back. I miss you.

From Russia Croatia with love,

Your Tihana

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Volunteering experience (2/2): Teaching English to Buddhist monks

(Part 1 to be found here.) «Wait a minute, you are going to PAY to volunteer? Have you completely lost your marbles?! Oh, THEY would have to pay ME if they would want me to volunteer for them…»

This is only an excerpt from some conversations I had before my trip. The decision to work with Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka had raised quite a few brows in my predominantly white, tiny Catholic country. Granted, I myself was a bit petrified. As someone who had never taught before, much less to young monks of a fairly unfamiliar religion, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had gotten myself into.  “What’s it gonna be like? Perhaps like entering the classroom with a blindfold on and crossed fingers behind your back? Yes, sounds about right. Will the kids hate me? Will they throw chewing gum at me? Will they figure out I’m completely clueless?” Questions questions so many questions.

There was nothing left to do but put all my heart into it and hope for the best. And thankfully, it was the best and beyond. Here comes the story of how I taught English to Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka.

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After the first week of general orientation with my volunteer group during which we learned a great deal about Sri Lankan culture and went on fun trips all over the place, it was finally time to start teaching! My volunteer buddy Emily and I moved from our volunteer house in Kandy to our home for the next two weeks: a Buddhist temple/meditation retreat center in a jungle nearby the village of Gelioya in the central area of Sri Lanka. Our fantastic coordinators arranged for transport to the temple. One lengthy tuk-tuk journey and a great many potholes avoided – there we were at last.

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The temple in question also operates as a meditation retreat for a handful of guests seeking spiritual enlightenment and respite from the outside world. As far as getaway places go, it doesn’t get better than this. Once you’re there, you’re basically cut off from everything and everyone else.

Our most phenomenal principal monk, Bhante (Teacher), and the two nuns welcomed Emily and me with such warmth and took us in as if we were part of family. Then there were these two very hardworking kitchen ladies that woke up at 5 AM every morning to prepare the tastiest curries and daals for our breakfast. They are both so petite and my gargantuan height (6 foot, no less) proved a never ending source of amazement for them.

Back to the kids. I was still in a fog over what to expect. I knew we were not supposed to touch them, especially not their heads, and that they are not allowed to eat after 12 PM. But that was about it. They are so different from us, will we be able to relate? My concern wasn’t eased after talking to a lovely Australian girl who was in the temple to meditate and who warned me that, from her own experience, young monks can sometimes be rudish brats just like any other kids.

Luckily, nothing could have been further from the truth. Once Emily and I met our students, my concern slowly but surely dwindled. They were four 12- and 13-year old boys from Bangladesh. Ananda, Kema, Summana and Vipola entered the classroom and set in their benches, impatient for our first class to begin. Even their burgundy robes and shaved heads could not conceal the fact they are still just children. Children so wonderful it made my heart melt then, and still does. Shy at first, they gradually opened up and let us into their little worlds. What we found there were such smart, polite and kind young men that are going to touch the lives of many over the course of years, I am sure of it. 

Each of them is unique in their own way, but what they all have in common is an incredible eagerness to learn. I feel slightly ashamed when I remember how desperately I was waiting for the absolution of the bell during my school days! Hell, English language even has the idiom saved by the bell. What a shocking contrast to come to Sri Lanka and have your students beg you to stay in class longer, to be able to study more! I didn’t see that coming.

Emily and I had no teaching curriculum to follow, which allowed us plenty of freedom and creativity in the classroom. We played hangman a lot (so much for the non-violent Buddhist approach :)), watched Sponge Bob, practiced nouns and verbs, tackled the tenses and read stories of Buddha’s life and teachings to each other. 

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Look, we even found Croatia on the map!

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Ananda and me

What touched me most is how truly caring these little guys are. They wanted to help with our meditation practice and teach us about Buddhism. They thanked us for teaching them at the end of every class. They made sure we didn’t fall and hurt ourselves that one time we went hiking. They still send us messages on Facebook to check how we are doing.

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Emily with the monks

It’s so curious to experience firsthand the clash between what you consider traditional and sacred with the secular and modern. It’s funny when a robe-clad monk asks you to connect on Facebook, or when you all laugh at the same line in a comic book.

There was this one monk I met on a visit to a shrine who was too shy to chant his prayers out loud with the rest of the group – so he and I made a pact he could hide behind me and we wouldn’t tell anybody. It’s in these moments you realise how we’re all one, made of the same flesh and blood.

Alas, two weeks flew by as quick as a wink, and it was time for farewell. My heart broke a bit when we wrapped up our last class and had to say goodbye to our students. I know they are going to have rich, inspiring lives and I am already so proud of them.

P.S. We still Facebook-message regularly.

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