Putanga – Life on the Road

Stories from my journeys around the world…

Happy Constitution Day, Norway!

Posted by Monica Johansen on May 17, 2011

May 17 in Norway

We are in May already, and today is an important day both in Singapore and in Norway. Singapore and many other Asian countries are celebrating Vesak Day, a Buddhist holiday sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”.  In Norway they are celebrating their national day or Constitution Day, and pretty much the entire nation dress up for a gigantic party in every city and town in the country. Many Norwegians prefer to wear the national costume, the “bunad”, and outfit based on traditional folk garments from the 18th and 19th centuries.

I don’t get to celebrate Vesak Day and the Norwegian Constitution Day this year because I am working in Australia. After finishing in Canberra I traveled to Sydney where I have spent the last 7 days, and today I will jump on a plane up to Brisbane for 10 days before I can head home to Asia. I am starting to get tired of living in a suitcase, but I guess the alternative – being stuck in one place for months and months – is not very appealing to me.

Anyway, I hope all my fellow Singaporeans and Norwegians enjoy the holiday! 🙂

Posted in Asia, Europe, Miscellaneous, Norway, Singapore | Leave a Comment »

Weekend in the Australian Capital

Posted by Monica Johansen on May 8, 2011

I am back in Australia for work, and this time I am visiting the Australian capital. Now, a lot of foreigners usually guess either Sydney or Melbourne when they are asked which city is the capital of Australia, but in fact the capital is Canberra, which is a city located in the mountains between Sydney and Melbourne.

Autumn in Canberra

The story of why Canberra is the capital is actually a bit funny. Basically, many years back when the Aussies were deciding which city should be the capital, Australia’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, were rivals and the citizens were unable to come to an agreement. In the end, they made a compromise, and it was decided that the nation’s capital should be situated between the two cities. Hence, the city of Canberra was built for the single purpose of it becoming the national capital, and land for the Australian Capital Territory (originally Federal Territory of Australia) was purchased from New South Wales for that purpose.

I have already been here for a week, and I am staying until Tuesday evening when I am heading to Sydney to work on another project for a few days. This weekend the weather has been fantastic, and I have spent a lot of time outdoors enjoying the fresh and cool air and the lovely autumn colors. Canberra is a relatively small city, and I believe the population is still below 400,000 people. Hence, you can easily walk between the common attractions such as the Parliament building and the Australian War Memorial. It is also quite nice along Lake Burley Griffin, the lake separating the Government area from the main city center.

It is Sunday afternoon, and the weekend will soon come to an end. Hence, it is time to prepare for a new week of challenges.

Posted in Australia, Oceania, Travel | 1 Comment »

Easter in Hong Kong and Macau

Posted by Monica Johansen on April 26, 2011

I am currently working on a project in Hong Kong, and since I had no plans for Easter I decided to stay here rather than going back to Singapore for the long weekend. I have always wanted to see Hong Kong, but I have never had a real reason to come here before, so this trip was a great opportunity to do some sightseeing.

Hong Kong

Good Friday I still hadn’t made any specific plans, so I ended up walking around in the city and looking at the harbor and some of the famous locations such as Times Square. In the evening I decided to take the Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak where you can get a fantastic view of the city. Although the view was great, I must admit that it wasn’t exactly the most pleasant experience I have had in my life. There was a massive queue to get tickets to the train, and I ended up standing in line for over 45 minutes just to get to the ticket counter. And once I had tickets I had to stand in line again to get on to the train, so even though the train ride took less than 10 minutes it took me well over an hour to get to the peak. I was also quite surprised about what I found on the top. I thought Victoria Peak would be more like a nature reserve with a lookout point surrounded by beautiful nature. On the contrary, the peak was more like a huge shopping mall with lots of shops, souvenirs and restaurants, and getting on the train down was just as difficult as getting up there. I was quite happy when I finally got back to the city and away from the crowds, and quite frankly I wouldn’t recommend the experience to anyone.

Ngong Ping village

On Saturday it was raining, so I spent most of the day indoors, but on Sunday the weather was great and I went out to Lantau Island, which is the largest island in Hong Kong and with some interesting tourist attractions. The most famous attraction is probably the Ngong Ping cable car, a 5.7 km cable car journey that takes you to the top of the mountain with an amazing view of the island. On the top you will find the Ngong Ping village, where all the buildings are designed in traditional Chinese architecture. There is also the Po Lin monastery and the world’s largest outdoor Buddha which is visited by Buddhists from all over the world. Another attraction on Lantau Island is the Tai O fishing village, which is an old village built on stilts and which was once the largest settlement on Lantau. All in all it was a very good day, and it was great to see other parts of Hong Kong than just heavy traffic and shopping malls.

Senado Square in Macau

Monday was also a public holiday in Hong Kong, so I got up early and went out to the ferry terminal to catch a ferry over to Macau, which is only an hour boat ride from Hong Kong. Macau is an administrative region of China, similar to Hong Kong, but while Hong Kong was owned by the British, Macau was owned by the Portuguese, which is quite evident in the architecture. The city looks like a southern European town with Chinese influence, which I suppose in reality is exactly what it is. The old buildings are quite well maintained, in colonial style with a range of pastel colors, such as yellow, pink, light green etc. The famous Largo do Senado (or Senado Square) is paved with a wave-patterned mosaic of colored stones, and the road signs are written in Chinese, Portuguese and English. I spent most of the day walking around and admiring the architecture, and it was a good thing that I didn’t jump on any of the organized sightseeing tours, because I realized that many of the really nice old areas are not even covered on the tours and besides, Macau is so small you can walk through the city in one day.

Today I back in Hong Kong and getting ready for a few more days on customer site before I head home to Singapore.

Posted in Asia, Hong Kong, Macau, Travel | Leave a Comment »

The Land of the Long White Cloud

Posted by Monica Johansen on March 12, 2011

My long lasting dream has finally come true!

Six years ago I had the great pleasure of visiting one of the most wonderful countries in the world, New Zealand, or Aotearoa (meaning “The land of the long white cloud”) as it is called in the native language Maori. Ever since I was there I have dreamed of going back to this amazing country, and this week I finally had the opportunity when a project came up in the New Zealand capital, Wellington.

New Zealand nature

The last time I was in New Zealand I was on holiday for three weeks, and my companion and I drove from Auckland down to the south island and back up again. Hence, we got to see a great portion of these beautiful islands. This time I am here for work, so I haven’t had a chance to see much, but nevertheless, I have enjoyed every second of my visit.

So what is so great about New Zealand? Well, first of all the islands have amazing nature and a range of different types of landscapes. For instance, in the north you will find nature similar to the tropical nature in Australia, with miles and miles of beaches, azure water, palm trees and pleasant climate, while in the south you will find mountains and fjord more similar to Norway, and the climate is more similar to northern Europe. As a biologist I find the nature in New Zealand very interesting. There are no native large carnivores, hence the development of strange flightless bird species like the kiwi. Apparently, New Zealand has more species of flightless birds (including the kiwis, several species of penguins, and the takahe) than any other country.

Outside Auckland, New Zealand

Another thing I love about New Zealand is the presence of the indigenous Maori culture. The origin of the Maori people has been traced to the islands of Eastern Polynesia, and apparently their journey to New Zealand occurred in a number of epic canoe voyages over a significant period of time. Typical aspects of the Maori culture include art, legend, tattoo (moko), performances (notably kapa haka), customs, hospitality and community. Since the early 1980s Maori culture has undergone a renaissance in New Zealand, and today communities are trying to keep the native language alive.

I would also like to mention the Kiwi people (as people from New Zealand prefer to call themselves). I have travelled to and worked in many countries around the world, and I think that you would have to look a very long time to find friendlier people than the Kiwis. For instance, in New Zealand I have experienced hospitality that I have never experienced any other place, such as strangers allowing you to stay at their place when you can’t find a vacant motel room and taxi drivers who will drive you for free to save you from the rain. There is something very different with the kiwis, they are very polite and trusting, and they have a most pleasant nature.

Today I have to fly back to Singapore via Sydney, and it breaks my heart to leave this wonderful place. I really hope it doesn’t take another six years before I am back here again.

Posted in New Zealand, Oceania, Travel | Leave a Comment »

Trip to Saigon and Hue

Posted by Monica Johansen on February 28, 2011

Finally some time off from work! Unfortunately, I had to work during Chinese New Year holiday, but my manager gave me a couple of days off from work to compensate for the lost holidays, and it was perfect timing because my friend Edward from Norway was coming to Thailand and Vietnam on vacation. We decided to meet in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh, as it is called today), and from there head north to the city of Hue in Central Vietnam.

Park in Hue

I jumped on a plane on Wednesday night and met Edward at the airport in Saigon since he was flying in from Bangkok the same evening. Together we took a taxi into the city to our hotel, and we ended up arguing with a couple of drivers before we finally got there. The problem in Saigon is that the taxi drivers at the airport are always trying to overcharge foreigners, and if you don’t know approximately how much the ride is supposed to cost you will most likely be swindled. We insisted that the driver used the taxi meter, but when we finally found a driver who was willing to do it he took us for a huge detour and we ended up paying a little more than necessary anyway. Luckily everything is so cheap in Vietnam that financially it didn’t really matter to us.

On Wednesday night we met up with a couple of friends from Norway who have lived in Saigon for the last few years. My travel companion lives in Norway and speaks with fellow countrymen all the time, but for me it was awesome to speak my native language and hang out with people with my cultural background. I get along with most people around the world, but there is always something very relaxing about hanging out with other Norwegians.

Local merchants

We stayed only one night in Saigon, and early the next morning we went back to the airport to catch the plane to Hue, a relatively small city in central Vietnam. Hue is famous for the historic monuments located within short distance from the city, and it is a popular tourist destination for people who want to explore Vietnamese culture and history. The city is a lot more relaxed and quiet than Saigon, and Edward and I agreed that it reminded us a bit of Laos.

The first day we had a look around in the city, and in the afternoon Edward wanted to test the hotel pool and relax in the sun. Coming from Norway – the land of cold and darkness – I can totally see why he is so desperate to enjoy every second of sun he can get, but for me, who live in a place where sunshine and heat is the norm rather than the exception, it is simply too boring to lay in the sun for hours, so I went for a walk on my own. I walked along the river and crossed the bridge over to the other side where there was a local market. I never buy anything at these markets, but there is a lot of stuff to see and if you are lucky you can get some nice photos.

Perfume River

On Friday we had booked a guided tour to the historic sites, and the tour bus picked us up at the hotel around 8:15 AM. We started the tour at the old Citadel, which once was the seat of the Nguyen emperors. The Citadel occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River, and inside the citadel there used to be a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access. There are only ruins left of the original buildings, but the Government is in the process of restoring parts of the forbidden city.

Our next stop was a Vietnamese garden where they were planting all kinds of local herbs, trees and flowers. The guide told us that it was the most beautiful garden in Vietnam, but frankly we were not exactly impressed. Maybe we just misunderstood his broken English and there was something else very special about the garden that we completely missed. Anyway, the next destination was much more impressive. We went to see the Thien Mu Pagoda at the banks of the Perfume River. The pagoda has seven stories and is the tallest in Vietnam, and from the temple you have a fantastic view of the river.

The Tomb of Khai Dinh

After lunch we drove a bit further from the city to see three famous tombs. The Tomb of Minh Mang was fully completed in 1843, and it consists of 40 constructions, including palaces, temples and pavilions, designed on a symmetric axis. The Tomb of Khai Dinh was the most impressive of the historic monuments we were visiting. It was built in the hills leaning towards the mountains, and it was completed as late as 1931. The tomb is well maintained and inside is a picture of the emperor surrounded by beautiful ornaments on the walls and in the ceiling. The Tomb of Tu Duc was the last place we visited. The construction was completed in 1867, and it lies in a pine forest about 8 KM from Hue. Within the enclosed area is a small lake with a temple built half way over the water, and a river leads to the emperor’s tomb.

We ended our journey on a refreshing boat trip on the Perfume River, and it was a nice change from the hot and crowded bus. Both Edward and I were exhausted after running up and down temple stone steps, so after dinner we went to bed early and had a good night sleep. I usually don’t sleep a lot, but it is amazing what a bit of fresh air and exercise can do for you.

On Saturday we didn’t have any plans. Edward wanted to spend some time at the pool again, but after a couple of hours in the sun he realized that the sun in Vietnam is a lot stronger than in Norway and his skin was starting to get quite red, so he gave up the sun bathing by lunch time. We spent most of the afternoon looking for some souvenirs that he wanted to bring home, and having dinner at one of the great restaurants in town. Everything we ate in Hue was fantastic, and the price for food and drinks was ridiculously low.

On Sunday morning our journey was coming to an end, and we flew back to Saigon together before we split up. I had to fly back home to Singapore, and Edward was flying back to Thailand to spend a week in Phuket. I guess he can never get enough of beaches…

Posted in Asia, Travel, Vietnam | 1 Comment »