Art & Design
We flew to Makassar for the sole purpose of immersing ourselves in death in Torajaland, where the indigenous ethnic group in the mountains of Sulawesi have a fascinating culture of celebrating their deceased. It’s doable on your own, but we hired a local guide because it’s really hard to learn anything otherwise. And learn we did.
I wish I remembered the name of the village our guide Arru hails from, but I have a crappy memory. Anyway, it’s a good representation of traditional Torajan homes. We walked through the short row of houses as Arru explained that homes always face north and rice barns face south. Buffalo horns are stacked high up the center of the front of these homes to signify how many buffalo were sacrificed during the funerals of their family members, which in turn shows off the wealth of these families. There are reasons for the placement of almost everything within these villages.
I’m not a huge coffee fanatic like what seems like the majority of the world nowadays, but I do know how to enjoy a good cup and N certainly loves the stuff. So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I became hooked on the stuff at Seniman Coffee Studio, one of our best finds in Ubud. What we expected to be a one-time visit turned into two, three, four, then five because once we had this coffee, we really couldn’t have it anywhere else. It was mindblowing, even for someone like me who doesn’t know shit about coffee. A bonus was meeting one of the owners, Rodney Glick, a contemporary artist and coffee enthusiast who taught us about Ubud, coffee, and the art world.
We stopped into this place after we met the owner of another cute coffee shop in Denpasar who recommended Seniman and also recommended the coffee I ended up falling in love with: the Papua cold-drip on ice (five cups made per day). I didn’t know that coffee could have such complex flavors, or that it could taste completely different when made the same way by two different people. The young Indonesian boys and girls working there take their coffee very very seriously, and watching them diligently learning from Rodney and making a cup sort of reminds me of the kind of concentration and meticulousness seen during a Japanese tea ceremony.
We landed in Bali and immediately went about getting our visa extensions, which ended up taking longer than expected. We didn’t care at all because Ubud ended up being the perfect place to laze about and recharge and we did just that for two weeks. This town made popular by “Eat, Pray, Love” with sinewy yogis and young women trying to “find themselves” was also chock full of good, healthy, organic(-inspired) food and a great vibe for creative inspiration.
Every morning we woke up to a beautiful sunny day and ate a leisurely breakfast on our balcony in our pajamas. We eventually left our room to get lunch, explore and walk around the town. Maybe we should’ve been less lazy and done stuff like see the traditional dances or gone on tours of the coffee plantations and temples in the area, but we seriously needed some down time. It’s strange because while we never felt like we really needed to take breaks during the Europe leg of our adventure, Southeast Asia’s been a little more mentally taxing for some reason. We love it here in Indonesia but sometimes we need a “taste of home”. Ubud was perfect because it gave us just that and then some.
The afternoons were hot. We walked around the quiet town peeking into cute shops selling organic soaps and clothing, and stopped into cafés and restaurants when we were hungry. During the day, van loads of pale Chinese tourists descended on Ubud from the busier parts of the island like Kuta and Seminyak, fanning themselves under the identical cheap straw hats they probably bought for too much somewhere.
We have a dear friend back in New York who is a master in the art of persuasion. Besides being stylin’ and easy on the eyes, she’s an expert salesperson. Roz is N’s nightmare when it comes to shopping, because she can easily convince me that I really need those $400 shoes. But she is also a professional negotiator and knows how to get a good deal. Over the years, I’ve watched her work on some of the toughest people, including Turkish salespeople in the Instanbul tourist markets. They literally have fun with the sport of bargaining, and they’re a tough bunch.
Roz recommended Yogyakarta to us, and I don’t want to age her but she went about a billion years ago when it was still an emerging tourist destination and Indonesia in general really wasn’t on anyone’s tourist map besides, of course, Big Bad Bali. She sold it to us without much effort because we had heard from other travelers that it was Indonesia’s creative capital. Plus, it was also the most convenient base from which to visit Big Bad Borobudur. Yogyakarta is the CliffsNotes of Indonesian (Javanese) art and culture. It’s a good place for people who don’t have months to immerse themselves in Indonesia but want a taste of what the country’s culture is all about. It had changed a lot since the last century when our friend visited and it ended up not being one of our favorite places, but there was plenty to keep us entertained.
Yogyakarta was our first real big city in Indonesia, and our first stop on the island of Java. Like other cities we’ve been to in this country, it is dirty, congested and polluted. So chokingly polluted from vehicles spewing dark exhaust that riding a becak (rickshaw) in traffic is suffocating. It is the bustling home of traditional batik artists and shadow puppetmakers. It also happens to be overrun with touts and scam artists preying on tourists to get on overpriced becak “tours” around the city’s sights and buy fake batik textiles and other random junk they probably get manufactured for cheap in China.
Our first full day in Yogya, we ran into a Spanish-German couple who was on the same plane as us from Medan. The German girl was friendly as expected, and the Spanish guy was probably the second quietest Spanish guy we’ve ever met. We’re starting to suspect that Catelonians are really quiet compared to the extremely vocal groups of Spanish tourists we encounter, who sound like they learned how to whisper in a sawmill and are in some kind of competition to outtalk each other at the same time. We eventually found ourselves at the Water Castle, and a not-so-random local approached us. This man became our impromptu guide for the Water Castle, taking us down the narrow alleyways crammed with little houses and art studios.
As was his intention from the beginning, he casually stopped in front of a batik workshop where two artists worked on a beautiful sarong. He explained the process and the different artistic styles used in batik textiles nowadays. It was hard not to be impressed. I won’t go into the process here because it’s lengthy, but these guys were legit. They knew what they were doing, and we watched as one of them expertly applied dye to the waxed cotton.
Our “guide” spent the next few hours educating us on Sumur Gumuling, an underground rest area and mosque used by the sultan and his ladies, and then onto the Water Castle (Tamansari), gesturing for us to follow him from one place to another. By this time we were already wondering how much we should tip him at the end.
I love it when we get to a place and find so much more than we expected. In this case, we came to Penang for only food based on a recommendation by my college friend Jia-yi, and arrived in an unexpectedly cute little city chock full of fantastic food, beautiful old buildings, interactive street art and friendly people. An added plus was that the Georgetown Festival — the annual arts and culture event — was going on when we arrived.
In 2012, a Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint interactive wall murals in the Old Heritage district of Penang. Tourists flock to these murals — along with others painted by other artists — and wait patiently to pose creatively in front of the street art. We made our way around from one mural to another while consulting a wall mural map we found online, and eventually found ourselves at the Clan Jetty.
When Angelina Jolie was in Siem Reap filming her first Tomb Raider movie, she supposedly hung out at the local bar, which was the only one in town. Nowadays, the city is a little less country. There is a street appropriately called Pub Street with a vast array of restaurants and bars for tourists to choose from. The Old Market is chock full of cuisines from all over the world. Korean businesses are investing en masse in Siem Reap, and some streets are so full of signs in Hangul that it looks like rural South Korea. All of this was unexpected for me, but I really wasn’t mentally prepared for the temples.
On a hot sunny morning, we met our tuk-tuk driver Kauwee and told him we wanted to avoid as many tour groups as possible. He nodded knowingly. “You want to do the reverse order for the temples, okay.” He had an intense itinerary for us with something like six temples in five hours so we got him down to three so we could take our time. We sat back and felt like royalty on the back of the tuk-tuk before I got sand in my eye and mouth and had to stop doing the royal wave. Don’t ask me why but Siem Reap is really dusty and everything is covered in a fine red layer of it.
In total, we saw about ten temples, big and small. A good friend of ours had reminded us to spend some time at the lesser known temples besides the obvious Angkor Wat, and I’m glad she did because the temples we preferred ended up being these less popular guys. Each of them are unique, but our favorites were Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei.
Angkor Thom is an expansive complex for temples and buildings which was the last seat of the Khmer Empire. We were dropped off at a bridge lined with stone statues, and then made our way through the main gate, a four-faced Buddha. It was my first taste of the Khmer temples and I was hooked. At this point I thought about how we considered skipping Siem Reap. We were so close to making one of the biggest mistakes of our Southeast Asia trip.
We ogled some monkeys before heading to the gaudy Bayon temple and making our way through the complex in the blistering heat. The restoration of each building was sponsored by a foreign country, because Cambodia is so corrupt that its “prime minister” uses its money on more important things, like himself. David W. Roberts put it quite eloquently when he stated that Cambodia is a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.” The Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Cambodia the second most corrupt nation in Asia after North Korea. That is pretty damn corrupt if you ask me.
To learn about the various ethnic groups in Vietnam (and there are 56 of them), the Museum of Ethnology is a great place to spend an afternoon in Hanoi.
The circular main building is dedicated to exhibitions of the ethnic groups in Vietnam, and a separate contemporary building houses stuff from the rest of Southeast Asia. Behind both buildings are actual houses from ethnic groups which were relocated to this museum, and visitors can explore the inside of these homes to see how people live. It’s an awesome museum and well worth a visit.
It was our last day in Taipei, and we had to complete our foodie tour with one very special dish: Taiwanese beef noodles. So we made our way to Lin Dong Fang (林東芳牛肉麵) with Chienya and Ethan (another friend of ours from New York), plunked ourselves down at a tiny table, ordered bowls of noodles and feasted.
Since my cold was still hanging around, I really should’ve refrained from getting the large bowl. I really should’ve paced myself. I really should’ve done a lot of things to let my poor stomach rest, but it’s impossible when you’re faced with something so delicious. So while I suffered afterwards, the moment of ingestion was sweet.
If you love history and art, Topkapi Palace is the place to visit. Photography is forbidden in the treasure rooms, but some of that stuff is crazy and worth seeing. Make sure you pay extra to check out the Harem, which has gorgeous rooms.
It’s not hard to find a beautiful place on the Istrian coast of Croatia. We knew we were going to be spending more time on the coast in the coming weeks, so we found a small, secluded hilltown of Groznjan as our first stop.
We took a bus to a tiny town called Buje on a cold and rainy afternoon and paid an idle old man we found in a café to drive us the rest of the way (about 8.5km on an uphill). Perched atop a hill overlooking farms and smaller villages below, Groznjan is a cluster of the cutest stone houses with a population of less than 100. When the town’s population dwindled and was on the verge of becoming a ghost town, a colony of artists moved in and made it their home and workplace. You can see the artists’ influence on the town in the brightly painted shutters, the beautiful plants decorating the houses and the ateliers dotting the place.