Photography by Yuri Krasov

Bali! The world of dreams. The world of smiles, bows, and frangipani flower necklaces, where the air is fragrant, the lush tropical greenery is awashed in warm downpours and sunlight; where subtle pleasures and indulgencies are delivered in a myriad ways – where you feel light and floating on air, like a flower petal…

All through the drive from the Ngurah Rai International Airport along winding narrow left-side roads of central Bali, I’m amazed and enthralled by the giant sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses; scary ugly demons carved of lava rock, guarding entrances to temples and dwellings under coconut palms; stone and wood carvings and pottery displayed in front of artisan shops. Children in school uniforms, women with baskets on their heads, teens on motorbikes, and crowds of brightly dressed people gathered for a temple ceremony move to and fro on our way.
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We head to Viceroy Bali – an exclusive five-star resort, literally cut into a vertical mountain side high above the green Valley of the Kings in the vicinity of a bustling Ubud village.
Beautifully appointed amid tropical wilderness, secluded and serene, Viceroy Bali is a paradise for newlyweds – and for olden-weds, too. 25 luxury villas under the traditional Balinese thatched roofs are light, spacious, with open-plan bedrooms and living rooms, marble bathrooms and private dipping pools.
The villas are perched on a steep ridge one above another in three rows, all facing the opposite side of a deep canyon overgrown with tropical forest.
Our Deluxe Terrace Villa has two glass double doors opening to a private patio with an endless-edge pool, a cozy gazebo for two balanced on its far corner, and on the other side – a small fountain streaming from a stone bowl held by a sculpted couple in tender embrace (Shiva and Parvathi?)
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At the tranquil indoor-outdoor Lembah Spa overlooking the Petanu River Gorge, our couple’s massage starts with a foot bath – the copper tub filled to the brim with rose petals. Spa therapists, trained in Swiss massage, are highly skilled and soon make us forget all the exhaustion of a long flight.

After the spa treatment, in pouring rain, we are escorted under large umbrellas to a next door CasCades restaurant, where high tea with finger sandwiches and house-made pastries is served just for us! The restaurant has no walls, and from any corner we can observe the endless jungle, lashed by the rain, and then suddenly blue sky, foggy vapors rising from the green lawns, and the large hotel pool – sparkling again, with a little tiled island lined with long chairs.

CasCades, multiple award-winning restaurant, serves creative Asian-influenced French cuisine, with nightly offerings including little masterpieces like Tomato Carpaccio, Barramundi Fish Teppanyaki, and Passion Fruit Mousse for dessert.

Come morning, we discover yet another CasCades wonder – a lavish a la carte breakfast, included with the room stay, and served on white table cloth. I inevitably pick a plate of tropical island-grown fruit and Bali coffee.
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After breakfast, we take a free hotel shuttle to Ubud village and walk to a sacred monkey forest Mandala Suci Wenara Wana. Cute little fluffy gray monkeys – many with tiny babies, firmly attached to their bellies – roam the trees, sit on the road, busily pounding fallen leaves with rocks, and communicate with visitors, looking for apple bananas sold from a cart right there, and skillfully peeling them. They go in and out of a locked up temple with a note on a gate, “For worshippers only,” and rest upon stone statues that surround the sacred ground.

We take a Balinese dance lesson at Arma museum with a professional dancer Ketut Riawati. When she tells us that a few years ago she traveled to San Francisco, and danced on a Berkeley stage in a large ensemble, my husband and I look at each other in disbelief. We’ve seen that performance! That was a remarkable show – only one in many years, and we remember it well – authentic Balinese dance and gamelan music brought to the California stage in all its exquisite beauty. We double our efforts to get to the core of the arm and eye dance movements (“Long arm! Big eyes, never small!”)…

We manage to pack a half-day tour departing from the hotel into our short stay at Viceroy Bali. Our experienced and friendly driver takes us to the “Moon Rock” temple Batu Bulan to watch a Balinese dance performance Pemaksan Barong Denjalan.

We drive to the “Elephant Cove” temple Goa Gojah, where worshippers still bring fruit and flower offerings in white coconut leaves to a Buddha statue, toppled over by an earthquake.

We admire a view of terraced rice paddies – emerald-green in drizzling rain, and travel to water temple Pura Tirta Empul where pilgrims perform purification rituals in a deep pool formed by underground streams.
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To bring back an exotic souvenir, we stop at a coffee plantation Teba Sari Bali Agrotourism, and get some Luwak coffee made with locally grown coffee berries eaten and “naturally processed” by mongooses. The small fluffy-tailed animals live on the plantation, gladly eat sweet red berry flesh, and excrete indigestible coffee beans, fermented in their stomachs. The beans then are washed, roasted, and sold as a delicacy.
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…The last two days of our journey we spent at the sea level in a futile attempt to experience Bali’s famous beaches. The rainy season prevented us from sun-tanning, but soon we’ve discovered that resort life in Bali never stops to amaze and indulge…
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Ayana Resort and Spa and Rimba Jimbaran Bali comprise Bali’s only integrated resort, a winner of multiple awards, located on a 220-acre Karang Mas Estate in south-eastern Bali, not far from Ngurah Rai International Airport.

The Villas at Ayana (“a place of refuge” in Sanskrit) are 78 individual secluded luxurious dwellings with private plunge pools and gazebos on limestone cliffs above the Indian Ocean. We felt positively pampered when our amiable on-call butler took us in a golf cart to our exquisite Cliff Villa surrounded by coconut palms and flowering hibiscus and bougainvillea.
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Everything seemed special, designed for ultimate relaxation and enjoyment inside the traditional Balinese-style gate, under the alang-alang roof… Inspired by the Balinese philosophy of Tri Hita Karana (“three reasons for well-being” – harmony with people, deities, and nature), indoor areas seamlessly connected with the outdoors.

In our large marble bathroom the bath tub was filled with red rose petals and yellow frangipani flowers. Behind the tub, a picture window framed frangipani trees covered in white, pink, and yellow blooms on a green lawn.
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The beneficial presence of water was felt everywhere. We spent plenty of time at the Thermes Marins Bali Spa, unique to Southeast Asia, in the largest in the world Aquatonic Seawater Therapy Pool, deservedly praised for therapeutic properties of its vigorous underwater massages performed by powerful jets. We indulged in deep tissue Balinese massage with age-old techniques used by the thorough spa masseuses.

At Dava (Sanskrit for “water”) restaurant with koi ponds and lotus pools, we enjoyed flawlessly served a la carte breakfast, included with the Villa stay.
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By the end of the day, we picked fresh-from-the-boat rock lobster and giant prawns from an icy display at Kisik Bar and Grill right on the beach. Grilled, sauced, and served with an array of Balinese accompaniments, our dinner was brought to our table on the sand, lit by glowing tiki torches by the Ocean Beach Pool.

We took a brief walk to the iconic Rock Bar perched above the clear waters of Jimbaran Bay. Guests are taken down to the Bar in a lift descending along the steep cliff. At sunset, dozens of Bali vacationers line up for the lift, although the hotel guests are treated as VIPs and use their own, shorter line.
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A complimentary resort shuttle in mere minutes delivered us from more traditional Ayana to the boldly contemporary Rimba with its ark-shaped lobby, designed in the style of a ship surrounded by reflective pools. The 5-star hotel has 282 luxurious rooms and suites decorated with natural materials, like reclaimed wood and plant fiber.

From the balcony of our Jimbaran Bay Suite, we admired a sweet sound of a flute – the performer in a floor-length gown was standing barefoot on a platform half submerged in an oval-shaped endless pool as if suspended in the air.

As soon as the nightly musical performance was over, we headed for Unique Rooftop Bar, situated on top of one of Rimba’s four buildings that offers dramatic 360-degree views of the Uluwatu Hills to the south-east, and ocean to the west.

Here we lounged on long chairs under an umbrella, sipped our island mojitos garnished with sugar cane sticks, and took swims in a pool cleverly positioned between the tables and the long chairs area.
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After a good-night sleep in our large and quiet room, and before leaving the resort, we had a substantial breakfast at To’ge restaurant. The morning buffet featured dishes inspired by the street food from all corners of Asia as well as Western classics. True to form, we picked Indonesian chicken and rice, local tropical fruit, and coconut juice from a whole coconut.
More information at: www.viceroybali.com, www.ayanaresort.com, www.rimbajimbaran.com.

Otherwise officially known as the Nai Lert Park Bangkok International Flower Show, is held annually at the five-star Swissotel Hotel. In its 28th year in 2014, its proceeds go to charitable educational, mental illness cure and children development causes, with recent years’ funds approaching THB 5.0 million ($ 155,000 USD) for the 4-day event.

“Enormous” is not used here to describe the number of floral items as it is used to literally say each floral display or arrangement is simply humongous and impressive.

At the show, take time and concentration to admire each piece. See how meticulously and painstakingly the flower designers and arrangers have created and put together their work. Like putting yourself in a giant garden, full of colorful flowers in various shapes and forms, you get the feeling of being in another world, one filled with fragrance, beauty and grand design.
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Driving on Wireless Road in Bangkok, one can’t miss the hug sign announcing the event. At the turnoff to the hotel, a guard stationed at the security post stops visitors, vehicles and pedestrians alike, for a quick visual check and maybe a few questions. Then it’s about a quarter mile (400 meters) drive from which one gets the sense of entering a garden resort. Trees and flowers line the road, and statutes along the way beckon a welcome feeling. One can hear, but not see, soft waterfall sounds coming from some distant spot.
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The lobby is expansive. Head to the right of it for check in. Head to the left for the flower show. Or before all that, just take your time and enjoy a couple of tropical cocktails at the bar straight ahead while listening to the two performers, accompanied by a pianist, singing past and present favorites.

At the entrance of the flower show, giant floral birds, bees, rabbits greet visitors. They even have a big pot (of Thai tea?) waiting for guests as well. And the eggs seem to have been freshly laid.
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Inside the show, among many others, are five goldfish that most homes would not be big enough to keep, a big red high heel shoe filled with flowers that any girl would envy to own, a reclining mermaid that many a young man would dream about meeting, and a tall flower vase that if filled would break most men’s bank account. An extremely wonderful show, not even counting the events that are part of it: auction of fine paintings, a dining experience given by a world-class chef, and afternoon tea. Rounding it out, to statisfy your gastronomical appetite after fulfilling aesthetic tastes from the show, do the lunch buffet at Swissotel’s ISO Restaurant, whose tall-ceilinged dining room with huge windows overlooking a lush garden area extend and add to the idyllic feeling from the show experience.
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For more information: http://www.tourismthailand.org/See-and-Do/Events-and-Festivals/Nai-Lert-Park-Bangkok-International-Flower-Show–5712, http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/bangkok-nai-lert-park

”Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” It’s a basic precept taught to almost every American child, but how many know that the renowned “Golden Rule” originated with Confucius more than 2500 years ago?

And perhaps equally surprising to many Americans? What did not originate with him are the many proverbs and prognostications attributed to him through fortune cookies distributed in Chinese restaurants nationwide. Just as an aside, not a single fortune cookie exists in China. And needless to say, those who follow Confucius worldwide celebrate a philosophy that extends well beyond the Golden Rule. A recent visit to Qufu, Confucius’s hometown in Shandong Province, China, immersed me in his life, his teachings and his legacy in a very personal way.

First, a little background. Born Qiu Kong in 551 B.C. and raised by his poor, unwed single mother, Confucius early on immersed himself in studies and sought to distinguish himself by mastering the arts usually reserved to those of noble birth: riding chariots, archery, music, mathematics, calligraphy and the rituals of living well. These will become important later on in our story. Among the principles espoused by Confucius was an emphasis on loyalty, benevolence, wisdom, bravery, simplicity and a basic respect for others that stretched from family relationships to interpersonal ones to those between subjects and rulers. Though they seem like very basic ideas today, during feudal times they were revolutionary.

And throughout his life, he sought to convince local warlords and later emperors (mostly posthumously) that ruling in a just and fair way would reap greater loyalty among their subjects than the totalitarian methods most adopted at the time. He found very few takers. It is one of the many ironies of Confucius’s life that the very emperors whose practices he would have disavowed later came to pay great homage to him. Near the end of his life, he returned to Qufu disillusioned and depressed, where he continued to teach until he died poor and unrecognized at the age of 73. Although his students numbered around 3000, 72 of them became actual disciples, gathered his teachings into a book called the “Analects,” and continued to spread his word until be eventually became renowned as the “Sage of China.”
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Traveling through the city of Qufu traces his life from birth to death and well beyond. Enroute to the Temple of Confucius, the second largest ancient building complex in China, we walked the streets where he played as child. A simple man who emphasized balance and harmony in all things, he probably would be appalled by all the souvenir stands lining both sides.

First built in 479 B.C., two years after his death, the temple started out as a small abode for his clothes, books, instruments, etc. and was expanded by every dynasty that followed until it reached 466 rooms by the mid-16th century. Every gate, sculpture and stile in some way celebrates his teachings or praises his thinking, whether a commemoration of harmony in relationships or benevolence or respect. Not to be outdone, every emperor in China’s history came to the temple and built a pavilion in his honor -– whether that of Confucius or the emperor himself is unclear.
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Confucius was an only child but being the over-achiever that he was, there are now 120,000 descendants with the last name of Kong currently living in Qufu, population 600,000. Not much happens there that doesn’t involve a living relative. And historically, his relatives -– or more specifically, the oldest male descendant of each generation –- lived a life of ease that far surpassed that enjoyed by Confucius.

The Kong Family Mansion was originally built during the Song Dynasty over 1000 years ago and was first occupied by the oldest direct male descendant of the 46th generation. Displays throughout the mansion, which served as home for the Kong family for over 800 years, are reminiscent of his teachings: one illustrates his views on dispensing justice emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment; others display symbols of peace and happiness or warn against greed or disobeying laws.
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One of my favorite rooms is the reception hall in which the 77th descendant, the last to live there, got married in 1937. Chiang Kai-Shek was supposed to host the festivities but unfortunately was arrested enroute by one of his opposing generals. One of the visible wedding presents is a sofa given the couple by American diplomat George Marshall, whose name later became synonymous with the post-WWll recovery plan. How fitting that men of political influence continued to honor Confucius throughout the centuries.

As renowned as the Kong family was and continues to be in life, so too are they honored in death. The family cemetery, which is more than 2500 years old, houses Confucius as well as 100,000 of his relatives. Since it’s the largest family graveyard in the world, presumably there will be room for the other 120,000 still wandering around Qufu.
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In addition to the historically accurate representations of Confucius’s life –- and death — Six Arts City, an educational theme park, has been created to replicate the experience of Confucius teachings. Each art that Confucius mastered in his early years has its own exhibit area: archery, music, charioteering, calligraphy, ritual and mathematics. And although I felt it strange to have the high-minded philosophy of Confucius reduced to a theme park ride, still it is well-done for what it is. INSERT SIX ARTS EXHIBIT

In response to a query I made to Kong Xiang Sheng, a 75th-generation descendant and Director of Confucius’s Archive Museum, as to the pressure descendants feel based on the importance of their ancestry, he replied: “We all feel a sense of strict responsibility to follow a path of righteousness as much in our daily lives as possible, to set a good example for our families. A Kong family member would never disobey any laws because they would be banned from burial in the family cemetery.”
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And as for those ubiquitous fortune cookies in America? Would Confucius be insulted by them? “Well,” surmised Kong, “although they may not be an accurate reflection of Confucianism, they are still a way to let people know about him as a dispenser of wisdom –- even if not originally in the form of fortune cookie quotes.” For more information about Qufu and other parts of Shandong Province, visit travelshandong.com.

A recent report published by Ernst & Young concluded that the nation of Israel provides “a very high density of experience” for its tourists. Many agree. In 2012, 3,499,998 visited this V-shaped country in the Middle East, flanked by Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east. We decided to join that group to make it an even 3.5 million.

Why visit “the Holy Land”? For one, this country houses Jerusalem—one of the oldest and most eclectic cities in the world. In addition, Israel offers historical and religious sites, beach resorts, archaeology, ecotourism, and the highest number of museums per capita in the world. Israel is unique because it is the spiritual center for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. However, even if you’re not religious, Israel is a place that should on every bucket list. Since we’re Christian, we will emphasize that perspective in this piece, but we will point out items of interest for the other groups previously mentioned.

We landed in Tel Aviv (Israel’s second largest city and the nation’s economic hub) at Ben Gurion International—one of the most secure airports in the world. Most nations recognize Tel Aviv as the capital of Israel and have their embassies there, but most Jews claim Jerusalem is the capital. We didn’t have much time to tool around in Tel Aviv, but many tourists enjoy their time in the self-proclaimed “party capital” of Israel.
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Instead, we went north to the Gallilee region. This is the location where Jesus is presumed to have spent much of his life. In 2011, Israel unveiled the “Jesus Trail”—a 40-mile hiking route which links many sites from his life, including Nazareth, Tzippori, Cana, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Tabgha, and the Mount of Beatitudes. An alternate return route features the Jordan River, Mount Tabor, and Mount Precipice. Non-Christians might enjoy some of these sites as well as the Horns of Hattin, the Mount Arbel cliffs, and the Golan Heights. We particularly enjoyed the relaxing moments on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and as we took a boat ride on the waters. Also memorable was a fish dinner at one of many restaurants on the waterfront. In the Galilee area we were introduced to two popular local menu items—schnitzel (a breaded chicken) and falafel (a pita filled with hummus). However, we ate them so frequently we began referring to the latter as “feel awful.”
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We next travelled south to Masada–Israel’s most popular paid tourist attraction. This impressive ancient fortification on top of a rock plateau overlooking the Dead Sea is the location where Herod the Great built palaces and fortifications from 37-31 B.C. Tourists have two options to get from the base to the top: walk or tram ride.

The Dead Sea, the lowest elevation in the world, has attracted visitors for thousands of years. This location has become a major center for health research and treatment (including climatotherapy, heliotherapy, and thalassotherapy) due to its climate, location, and 33.7% salinity. We aren’t quite that sophisticated and instead just enjoyed floating in the dense seawater.
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The next stop on our tour was the Jerusalem—a UNESCO World Heritage site. Jerusalem means “City of Peace” which is ironic because it has been besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and destroyed twice. The oldest part of Jerusalem, which is walled, is only .35 square miles is often called “the Old City.” Today, it is divided into four quarters: Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. Each of these quarters has a distinctive flavor and all offer shops and restaurants to tourists. Must-see sites in the Old City include the Temple Mount and Western Wall (significant to the Jews), the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque (important to the Muslims), and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (sacred to the Christians).
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Just west of the Old City is the Mount of Olives. There you can visit the Garden of Gethsemane and the Chapel of Ascension—priority points of interest for the Christian. And you won’t want to miss a 45-60 minute tour of the impressive Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center—a beautiful building on Mount Scopus which provides one of the most stunning views of the Mount of Olives, the Kidron Valley, and the Old City. Particularly impressive is the special events auditorium which houses one of Israel’s finest organs.

Surrounding the Old City is modern Jerusalem. Here you will want to visit the sobering Yad Veshem—a memorial to the victims of the Jewish Holocaust. Other intriguing tourist attractions are the Bible Lands Museum, the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, and the Israel Museum (which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls).

Less than 10 miles southeast of Jerusalem is the city of Bethlehem. The “House of Bread” is believed to be the location where Jesus was born and is home to one of the largest Christian communities, although this population has diminished. In fact, the city is governed today by the Palestinian National Authority and has a Muslim majority. While there, be sure to spend some time at the Shepherds’ Fields, the Church of the Nativity, and Rachel’s Tomb.

One website touts “3506 things to do in Israel.” Unfortunately, our trip wasn’t lengthy enough to encompass that, but the hundred or so things we did see were inspiring, educating, and amazing. And we look forward to returning again to work on the 3400 things we missed.

 

 

Note: We are grateful to our guides—Larry & Jynene Johnson of Johnson Family Tours—for their professionalism and care while we visited Israel.

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is literally half way around the world from New York. We flew from JFK up over the Arctic, and down to Hong Kong, which took 16 hours. After a 3 hour layover in Hong Kong we took a 3 hour flight to Bangkok and stayed in that teeming metropolis (13 million people) for 4 days to get rid of our jet lag before proceeding into Myanmar.
Our trip started in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, which was the old capital of Burma before the military took over and changed Burma to Myanmar and moved the capital to Naypyidaw, some 100 miles north of Yangon. In Myanmar we traveled by plane, train, ox cart, horse and buggy and by foot. There is no cell phone service in the country, unless one buys a local SIM card, which enables local calls with lots of static. We were able to receive e-mails at hotels via Wi-Fi, but a snail moves faster than the connection speed in most places.
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Myanmar accepts American money, but ONLY brand new bills. Any U.S. bill that has a tear, a fold, a crease or a stain will not be accepted. The country is the size of England and France combined, with a population of approximately 50 million people, and it seemed like there were almost that many tourists during our visit there! November through May is the best time to visit Myanmar, as from June through October is the monsoon season. The country was controlled by the British in the 17th century, and there are many buildings and statues that represent that occupation. Lord Mountbatten restored a sacred relic to the country after he learned it had been pilfered and sent back to London.
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We visited Yangon, Pagan, the site of almost 3,000 pagodas, teak monasteries, and gold-leafed Buddha’s. One of the pictures that accompanies this story is of a 372 foot high gold-leaf pagoda built in the 16th century, and repaired after a large earthquake did major damage in 1978.
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We also were also in Mandalay and took a river boat trip on the Irrawaddy river (over 1,100 miles long), to see fisherman using the ancient method of using the almost extinct Irrawaddy river dolphins to herd fish into their nets. There are only 65 of these dolphins left in the world, and we saw at least 20 of them!
I suppose the highlight of our visit to Myanmar was at the end. We flew from Mandalay to Heho, took a van for an hour and arrived at the jetty town of Shwei Yang, and were ferried to the Inle Princess hotel set on the shore of beautiful lake Inle.
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Our room was magnificent, with a terrace right over the lake (picture of the sunset was taken from that terrace). The staff at the Inle Princess was extremely well trained and catered to our every wish. Each day we rose early, had a wonderful buffet breakfast, and loaded in boats for excursions to see lacquer factories, silk workshops, fishing villages and the boat people of Myanmar.
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Needless to say we loaded our suitcases with wonderful locally made products. These remarkable boat people have lived on the lake for centuries, and have prospered through the use of their wits and incredible skills at fishing and other creative industries.
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After our 11 days in country we flew back to Bangkok for one night before rising early to start the long trek back to New York. Myanmar was certainly magical, but the ever-rising tide of tourists is and will continue to make the country something it was never intended to be. I’m glad we went when we did.

You could be forgiven for passing the SANZAC Secondary College in Kota Kinabulu without either a second look or thought as you do so. But on closer inspection this College in the Capital of Sabah, Malaysia, is a poignant reminder not only of the years of suffering World War 2 brought, but also a celebration of the friendship those times generated. It is a lasting and practical symbol of the strong bond of comradeship between the residents of Sabah and the Australian soldiers from the 32nd Battalion who were stationed at the site just after World War 2.

A local teenager Francis Loh, ran errands for the Australian soldiers based at the site in the then Jesselton between 1945 and 1947. His dedication and hard work so impressed the soldiers that they paid him back by raising the money he needed to complete his schooling and become a journalist. Francis later went on to pursue a very successful career in the Insurance industry.

In 1966 a year before the city of Jesselton was renamed Kota Kinabalu, Francis decided to make a permanent monument to thank the Australian Soldiers for their generosity, and so became the founder of the SANZAC School on the donated land from the Education Department.. A joint fundraising effort commenced and raised RM250,000 required for the project. Half the funds were donated by the Australian and New Zealand Returned Service League. The other half was raised by Francis himself, with such innovative schemes as local dragon dances and other activities within the local Kota Kinabalu community.

Over the next 5 years Francis oversaw the construction of the project as his vision became a reality. The seven classrooms along with the thirty foot memorial, were finally handed to the Education Department in 1971. The four pillared memorial showed the national flags of the 3 SANZAC countries, Sabah, Australian and New Zealand, and can still be seen in the present day.
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Today the school has five blocks of classrooms as well as a hostel. It continues to contribute to the educational development of Sabah students as well as acting as a poignant reminder and monument to the soldiers who lost their lives for the liberation of Malaysia during World War 2.

Over the years it has become a place of pilgrimage especially for members of the Borneo POW Relatives Association of Western Australia. Their 2003 visit was greeted with a wonderful welcome from Teachers, Students and Parents alike, official welcome and many speeches, despite their visit being on a Sunday. My own visit in January 2011 was decidedly low key in comparison but left me with a lasting impression of the historical significant of such a memorial

SMK SANZAC Memorial is a legacy to the strong bond between the Australian soldiers of 32nd Battalion and Francis Loh. Australian visitors to Malaysia should include a tour of this historical memorial at Peti Surat 264, 89458 Tanjung Aru, Kota Kinabalu, ensuring that the true spirit of the SANZAC’s foundation is never lost.

Do you dream of making your escape to the tropics… to the island life? Does the thought of exploring a remote island full of coconut palms and banana trees surrounded by a warm, greenish-blue sea, fill you with yearning? The Philippines is sure to have an island just the right size for you! After all, there are 7,107 of them — some no larger than a Buick! But there is one in particular that is less known and more of a mystery. It is the largest island in the archipelago, and its name is Palawan — “the last frontier” as it is known in the Philippines. Palawan is not only the least populated, but also happens to be the least developed province of the Philippines. This 280-mile long stretch of land lies far to the west of the main group of the Philippine islands, and lies between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, just north of Borneo.

Your first brush with the friendly locals will most likely occur in Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan. This small airport can be reached from either Cebu City, which is the second largest city in the Philippines on the island of Cebu or on the island of Luzon near Manila, the largest city in the Philippines. An escape to Palawan is but a one-hour flight from either one.

Puerto Princesa is a small town teaming with traffic. Despite the fact that the Philippines is literally halfway around the world from North America, you’ll find that most people speak fairly good English. Palawan is no exception. As you explore the countryside of this remarkably unspoiled habitat, it is not uncommon to see a farmer riding his “caribou” (think water-buffalo) while pulling a cart, or to see workers stooped over in their rice paddies. You may almost feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to a much simpler, slower pace of life as you drink in the surrounding unspoiled scenery of a by-gone era.

Located at the end of a sometimes bumpy, two-hour scenic drive heading south along the coast from Puerto Princesa, you’ll find a charming “oasis” known as the Crystal Paradise Resort, Spa & Winery near the small village of Nara.
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There are many places to stay on Palawan, but for a truly unique experience that is far removed from the frenzied pace of civilization, you couldn’t do better. Here you will discover that elegance meets tranquility in a beautiful, sprawling coconut grove right on the beach. Majestic palm trees and tropical flowers are everywhere as you explore the lush, grassy green grounds.

The staff almost seems to anticipate your every need, and quickly tends to it with grace and charm. As you arrive, you are embraced with a warm welcome, along with a smile and a garland of yellow flowers draped around your neck as you are drawn into the pavilion and served “Buko” — a large, freshly-picked coconut, saturated with coconut water that you sip through a
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As you lean back to survey your surroundings, you sense the peace and calm, and immediately you know you’re deep in heart of the tropics – you may even feel as if you’ve almost stepped out of time itself as you begin to unwind and de-stress in this remarkable world! “Fantasy Island” will surely come to mind in this almost magical setting!
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The beachfront guesthouses, aptly-named the “Pool Villa Executive Suites”, are the epitome of modern elegance, with solid wood and rattan furniture on white-tiled floors. The most welcome addition was the canopy bed with a picturesque view through sliding glass doors, revealing your very own patio, infinity pool, and stretch of lawn, while just 10 feet beyond is your private beach. With no fences to restrict your movement in either direction, you can lazily roam along the water’s edge of the beach and explore to your hearts content for nearly a mile in either direction with hardly a soul in site!
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Beautiful, swaying coconut palms frame an idyllic, aqua-blue sea as you survey your surroundings from the patio by the pool, or from your chair on the lawn, sipping your favorite beverage. The warmth of the tropical sun and the sound of the pounding surf just a few feet away are sure to be the perfect antidote for whatever ails you. Pure heaven. You’ve arrived!

Your private “Pool Villa Executive Suite” will run you about $243 per night and comes with free breakfast at the pavilion. Each villa is thoughtfully-provided with its own kitchenette, refrigerator, coffee maker, mini bar, Jacuzzi bathtub, satellite/cable TV, air-conditioning and other extras. Pricey? Maybe. Worth it? Absolutely!
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If extravagance and a room with the best view on the island isn’t a priority, you may enjoy the alternative: one of the “Katala Deluxe” rooms with 2 double beds and a view of the beach from the balcony terrace for $94 per night. With this room you also enjoy free breakfast, a refrigerator, coffee maker, mini bar, Satellite/Cable TV and air-conditioning.

Dinner is served in a spacious, open air, gazebo-like structure with a wonderful view of the tropical park surrounding you with the ocean just beyond — or you may prefer the privacy of room service as you dine on the patio, under a tropical moon over the ocean and the sound of the surf.
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The menu is well thought out, presenting you with a wide assortment of delectable choices, all quite reasonably priced. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, as well as the usual assortment of drinks from the bar. The waiters seem to be quite attentive without feeling the need to hover over you.

Your first day will greet you with some pleasant choices: If a spa treatment is on your “must-do” list, then by all means, be sure to try their one-hour cleansing scrub using all-natural ingredients like coconut, banana leaves, avocado, rice, oils & herbs, plus massage — all for a surprisingly low cost of just $18.76. So, why not indulge in decadent luxury as you lay on a pedestal of warm circulating water. Pure heaven!

And of course the winery is unlike anything else you may have encountered. How about trying wine made from the tropical Jackfruit? You may even find mango wine or who knows-what-else, at any given time. Despite the fact that the Philippines is not exactly known as a wine-growing country, the tropical fruit wines of this region seem to be quite a delicious novelty. This may explain why George Clooney gave Tom Cruise a bottle of Filipino “Mijiah Tropical Fruit Wine” as a wedding gift.

With all of those coconuts beckoning from above in that vast grove of palm trees, you may be wondering what they taste like. You only have to ask. One of the staff will quickly recruit someone to climb on up, and grab one for you. It will be brought to your room where you can sample this delicacy for yourself. Of course they’ll lop off the end first to give you easy access. The best part is scooping out the coconut meat with a big spoon. It’s amazingly soft like moist, creamy-white tapioca.

Since the Crystal Paradise Resort, is a two-hour drive south from Puerto Princessa, it is not the first stop for many tourists either from the Philippines or abroad. For this reason it is not a crowded resort, but instead is a very quiet and serene destination you will not soon forget. Nightlife is completely absent from this setting, so if the noise and vibrancy of a fast-paced party atmosphere is what you’re seeking, you may as well look elsewhere. On the other hand, if the quiet serenity of what feels like an almost deserted tropical island where the staff pampers you like visiting dignitaries, is what you’re been yearning for, then you have surely found the right place.

You might find some of the other activities to be quite fun: Kayaking, fishing, island hopping, or even a boat trip to a nearby turtle or bird sanctuary. How does being chauffered to Estrella River Falls up in the mountains where you may spot a wild monkey or two, sound? The staff will happily prepare a Filipino-style picnic lunch served to you by the river once you’re done exploring, picture taking or swimming in the chilly waters of the barely-moving stream. Rich green jungle seems to engulf you. I doubt
if you’ll mistake this for the Amazon forest, but then again, who knows? You’ll certainly feel like you’re in the land that time forgot.

If you are lucky, you may find yourself being observed from a respectable distance, by some curious critters, who would love it if you shared your lunch with them. Since these small monkeys seem to be a little mischievous by nature, and a little bold now and then, one of them may not wait patiently for your invitation to lunch, but instead may just be brazen enough to see how close he can get to your picnic table in order to quickly scamper off with his prize –- that is, if one of your guides doesn’t shoo him off first!

If not bothering to venture away from the peace and serenity of the resort sounds like a wonderful alternative, you can always enjoy beach-combing, exploring the flower-filled tropical grounds, snooze in a hammock stretched between two shade trees, swim in the huge outdoor pool, sample various wines or trying your hand at some non-motorized water-sports!

You might take comfort in the fact that you can always touch bases with the rest of the civilized world by accessing a “Wi-Fi” signal in the public areas. Baby-sitting is thoughtfully-provided, just in case you feel the need for some quality “away time” from the kids. For an island that stretches out for 280 miles, there is certainly much to explore, and there are a variety of hotels and resorts to use as your base camp. Just in case you have heard of the “Underground River” of Palawan, you may find it too intriguing to pass up. In that case, staying in or around Puerto Princessa, which is much closer, might make more sense – or simply save this attraction for your return from the resort.

“The Puerto Princessa Subterranean River National Park” as it is formally called, is the destination of choice for many who come to Palawan. It is only 47 miles from Puerto Princessa, just across the island on the opposite coast on the Sulu Sea.

Now that it has been designated as “One of the New 7 Wonders of Nature” it is necessary to obtain a “Visitors Entry Permit” in advance before being admitted to the park. You will want to check online at www.puerto-undergroundriver.com to find out. Its popularity is soaring since it has been declared an Eco-Tourist destination, and a National Geographic Monument — definitely worth seeing.

Palawan is a pristine paradise worth exploring, and the Crystal Paradise Resort may be the perfect environment for total relaxation – a place that gives the phrase, “getting away from it all” new meaning. You are sure to walk away knowing you’ve been thoroughly pampered and spoiled. The Crystal Paradise Resort, Spa & Winery is perhaps Palawan’s best-kept secret.

A traveler to an architectural oddity in Tay Ninh, Vietnam, tunes in to the otherworldy call of a wacky bizarro cult
“What on my first two visits has seemed gay and bizarre (was) now like a game that had gone on too long.”
–Graham Greene, on Vietnam’s Caodai cult.
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It really didn’t make sense. There in front of me, outside the smudged bus window, was “The Great Divine Temple” at Tay Ninh, Vietnam—a whacked-out EPCOTy architectural hallucination resembling Gaudi on opium—and I didn’t really want to go inside. The idea of occult cults creeped me out. Er, would they try to abduct and brainwash me?

I had come all the way to Vietnam to investigate a weird supernatural religion called Caodaism, an attempt to fuse the ideal faith, “a universal religion,” from a potboiled spiritual pho centered on Spritism (which swept the Americas in the 19th century with its occult séances, tarot cards and crystal balls) and just about every other religion on the planet. You name it. But what really attracted me was that their adherents whimsically and wisely worshipped Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables and The
Hunchback of Notre Dame, as a saint!

Also venerated are Sun Yat-Sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution of 1911; Trang Trinh, a Vietnamese poet and prophet; Shakespeare; Joan of Arc; Descartes; Lenin; and Pasteur. How cool is that? Talk about a “cult of personalities.”
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Way wacko! But the cult sounded at least playful and rococo enough to intrigue me into traveling to a former enemy nation that I was not too keen on visiting. I still imaginatively associated Vietnam with The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now (also, alas, Hamburger Hill, one of the messiest war films ever made). I don’t think any of these films would go over well with the communist authorities; but a British traveler on my bus, bursting with laughter, swore he saw Rambo, dubbed into Vietnamese, on a long-haul bus between Dalat and Saigon.

Okay, the Caodais. So this is what I’ve got so far. Here’s the skinny. A bunch of crazy dong tu (mediums) contact the spirit world, querying, say, Charlie Chaplin in his “talkie phase,” via séances—utilizing the usual abracadabra bric-a-brac of Ouija boards (the popular game), table tapping (a table jiggled which taps out letters), and corbeilles a bec (long radiating sticks attached to pens). This is the Caodai Calling. Collect. They also use “pneumotographie,” where a blank card is sealed in an envelope and hung above an altar. When opened, the paper purportedly has a message on it: “Having a great time. Wish you were here. . . .” Postcards from the edge of the grave.

Tay Ninh, less than 60 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is an unlikely locus for the headquarters of a major religion, the third largest in Vietnam after Buddhism and Catholicism. Bordered by Cambodia on three sides, Tibet-like Tay Ninh is an almost island of upheaval in a commie country giving babysteps capitalism a go. Our bus passed a scowling teen wearing a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt peddling Pepsis on a roadside stand, as well as a “picturesque” old coot doffing one of the ubiquitous conical hats and plowing rice paddies with his water buffaloes. More serious, along this road was the site of the famous wartime photo of a young running girl scorched by napalm.

Caodai, which means “high palace,” refers to the supreme palace where the Supreme Being dwells (Heaven) and God Himself. But the “palace” rising before us seemed a daring departure from reality. As we got off the autobus and whistled at the Great Divine Temple, the scene became real “Indochine,” with a sea of lithe bicyclists draped in white ao dais on their way to attend one of four daily religious ceremonies. We had come to join them.

Featured in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” the temple, built between 1933 to 1955, is a favorite stopping point for Saigon’s Sinh Café bus tours. Mostly yellow on the outside, with red roofs, the temple is built on nine levels representing a Stairway to Heaven. It is 140 meters long and 40 meters high, with four towers. According to my Lonely Planet guide, it is a mix of “a French cathedral, a Chinese pagoda, the Tiger Balm Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.”

But I think Graham Greene described it best : “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of the Cathedral on a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor.” But still: “This is it?” a Vietnam vet named Bill from Brooklyn groused.

“Yeah, I thought it would be more, I don’t know,” a Canadian girl with long black hair and a scent of patchouli dittoed.
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“It is very yellow,” I stuck up weakly.

It wasn’t until we shucked off our shoes and stepped inside that the architecture revealed itself in its full glory. Immediately, I noticed a cool mural of Saint Victor Hugo and other luminaries writing out the psychic slogans “God and Humanity” and “Love and Justice.” Shuffling along a colonnaded hall and sanctuary, I felt like I was literally entering a delusion, since I was slightly buzzing from my antimalarial Larium. All of a sudden, my eyes were alit by an image like deranged kamikazee mosquitoes upon some windows with arabesques of intertwined flowers and vines bordering uncanny eyes in triangles. By the altar—dressed up with offerings of flowers, fruit, wine, tea, candles, and incense (plus a lamp symbolizing Eternal Light)—was a snaking spiral staircase which seemed to be hissing “Don’t tread on me!”

Most evocative, up above on the domed ceiling was painted a night sky, divided into nine parts, filled with Van Goghy stars and clouds. Beneath the dome was a blue globe, representing the Earth, with the supreme symbol of the Caodais painted on it: the “Divine Eye,” which bears a suspicious resemblance to the eye in a pyramid featured on the back of U.S. dollar bills. I stared at the Eye and waited for one of us to blink.

“You are welcome, Mr. America,” jokes one of the white-robed priests with a Shangri-la smile. He had the easy manner and confident smile of one used to dealing with tourists. The elaborately garbed priest, whom I dub “Les Miz,” is old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the Vietnam War, but didn’t seem the type to hold a grudge. Probably for good reasons.

The Caodais were never exactly neutral. In fact, despite their prohibition against harming people or animals, they had their own renegade armies, beginning in 1943 as a response to Japanese invaders. In the Franco-Viet Minh War, the Caodai Army, made up of some 25,000 troops, supported the French, and specialized in making mortar tubes out of auto exhaust pipes. During the Vietnam war they were staunch SVA, fighting on the side of the Americans. In 1975, when NVA troops overran the U.S.-backed South Vietnam, Caodaism was violently repressed and banned by the Viet Cong, who confiscated the church’s lands. There were the usual stageshow executions. But behind the scenes Caodaism continued, with its prayer meetings and séance rituals, surviving even a series of brutal cross-border raids by the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

I pulled out a dollar bill and showed Les Miz our own version of The Eye, possibly a Masonic symbol, itself maybe derived from eyes on Buddhist stupas. The Mizter examined the bill with great interest and nodded approvingly. His asterix eyes focused on the hidden footnotes inherent in the symbol itself. After an eternity, his concentrated prune pout relaxed into the palimpsest of a smile. “It was nice meeting you. Now I must go.” He wanders off, still smiling but looking a little shaken.
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Founded in 1926 by the French-educated Vietnamese mystic Ngo Minh Chieu, the Caodais claim the “All-Seeing Eye” was first seen on the island of Phu Quoc in 1919. God, or Caodai, appeared and said, “The eye is the principal of the heart from which comes a source of light. Light is the spirit. The spirit itself is God.” Then on Christmas Eve, 1925, Caodai reintroduced himself rather grandiloquently (and cryptically) as “Jade Emporer, alias Caodai, Immortal, His Honor to the eldest Boddhisattva, the Venerable Saint, Religious Master of the Southern Quarter.” The starry-eyed Le Van Trung (the first Caodai pope) and his posse presented their “declaration” to the French governor of Cochinchina in 1926, and Caodaism was officially born. By the 1950s, one in eight South Vietnamese were Caodais, carving a sort of feudal state in Tay Ninh Province and the Mekong Delta, filled with thanh that (holy houses). Today there are over 8 million Caodais in Vietnam (roughly the population of Sweden), plus some 30,000 members scattered across the world like chess pieces, usually in places inhabited by Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese).

Positioning ourselves on the balcony to view the ceremony, we watched the red, yellow, and white robed faithful wearing conical floppy hats pile in. Men came in from the right, women from the left, making their way in a mincing Mozart-like minuet to kneel before the altar. In the back a group of musicians played atonal tunes and chanted hypnotically. It sounded a little like a group of approvingly purring Siamese cats cuddling, then rutting. What what? I almost fell asleep. Oddly, the faithful are not permitted to be photographed, except during ceremonies. After the ceremony we walked to the autobus under a sky with a ghastly pewter pall and a vague threat of rain.

“So what do you think?” I asked Bill from Brooklyn. “I think it’s a crock,” he responded. But I wasn’t so sure. As the bus departed, I stared out through the streaming strands of rain at all the Vietnamese faithful getting on their bicycles. Then, too good to be true, I saw a Vietnamese guy with thick Elvis sideburns and a bomber jacket kickstarting his moped and showing off popping wheelies.

Way out here in otherworldly Tay Ninh, we were a long way away from Graceland (certainly as showy as the Caodai Temple), but with all these cuckoo cultists capering around like Psychic Friends Network stars, maybe it is not quite as far as we might think. Stuck in the psychic grooves of my gray matter were the words of the Bard, William Shakespeare, “There are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” Apropros of nothing at all, I resolved to never ever return to Vietnam.

I entered the Mandarin Oriental spa in Macau. There was a sharp pain in my shoulder as I arrived. Perhaps it was from carrying my heavy baggage all the way from San Francisco. The Cathay Pacific flight from SFO to Hong Kong and then the ferry from Hong Kong to Macau went quickly, and I slept for an amazing 7 hours. And now it was time to reward myself for the long trip.
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The aroma as I entered the spa area was enough to tell me to put all stresses and concerns aside. The peaceful, inviting area beckoned to me to come further inside. So I did. And I was not disappointed. From the moment my shoes were exchanged for spa slippers at the Mandarin Oriental spa. I knew it was time to unwind

As I handed over those shoes, I felt I handed over a part of myself and was ready for the unloading of any burdens I might be carrying. The spa was warm and quiet, with just a hint of melody in the background and a soothing fragrance. It seemed as if I was the only one there.

I later found out that this is all deliberate. According to Sean O’Connor, Group Spa Manager – Design & Development, this is actually all part of the plan to make you THINK you’re the only one there. They call it “Guest Traffic Management” and it’s designed to make sure you don’t meet any other guests either before, or after, your treatment. The Mandarin Oriental realizes you may not want to feel embarrassed meeting a stranger when you’re somewhat vulnerable in nothing more than a spa robe, particularly with your hair down and tousled, no makeup on and your contact lenses stashed safely in your locker.

“I am very proud that we manage visitors to our spas,” says O’Connor. “You’ll very rarely meet another person, so you don’t have to feel naked behind a robe. We make you feel special–as if you’re the only person there–because, to us, you ARE the only person there–the only person there who matters at that time. That’s part of our management. We want to delight our customers always, and that level of detail is something nobody else has. The ambiance and the experiential aspect are second to none.”

And he’s right. After changing into a swimsuit, I checked out the Vitality Pool. There were three different places or seats here–one was a sit-up spot and the others were in the shape of 2 lounge chairs. Each had jets sending refreshing bubbles onto my body. Hmmm, I could have stayed there for a long time.

The Experience Shower had an energizing mist that descended over my body, and it would have provided cold water had I been brave enough to experience it. I wasn’t, though. I stuck with the Tropical Rain Shower option, it was all-too-soothing.

Then it was onto the massage experience. First the therapists led me into a warm, darkened room and washed my feet and my legs.The foot washing felt like something out of the Bible, and it was both unexpected and strangely welcome – I’d never had anyone wash my feet and legs before. The Foot Ritual is an honorific experience that forms part of the “Spa Journey” and harks back to Oriental heritage – of which Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group is so proud.

The treatment itself was nothing short of intoxicating. With its long, soothing strokes, the massage pressed into every one of my tired, aching muscles with firm, but gentle, determination. Every knot dissolved as the tension melted away under the expert kneading of my massage therapist.
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The whole, indulgent, experience lasted longer than any treatment I’d ever had — an amazing 1 hr and 50 mins, yet it seemed to glide by as I fell effortlessly in and out of sleep.

If you need to feel relaxed then THIS is the place to go. The hardest part of my treatment in Macau’s Mandarin Oriental was getting off the table. I felt like the massage table and I had become one. Ah, bliss. The treatment table is custom made in America to MOHG specifications and is called the MO Experience Bed.
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Be sure to choose whatever scent works best for you at the beginning of the massage treatment. I chose the citrus one for its refreshing aroma. And as for that pain in the shoulder? What pain? I woke up from what felt like the most relaxing spa treatment of a lifetime and the pain was, bewilderingly, gone.

The whole experience at the Mandarin Oriental in Macau quite simply puts the ahhhh back in spaaaaah.

But don’t just take my word for it. Check out what others have to say.

Vincent Rossemeier, a freelance journalist from the US, says: “For me, it was the most personalized spa treatment I have ever received. I thought the therapist really listened and customized treatment to points on my body that really needed attention.”

And Teresa Bergen, author of the book The Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide
(www.teresabergen.com) couldn’t agree more: “I had the Macanese Dragon
experience, which included a body scrub, foot bath, long massage, and time in the hot tub.

“All I can say is–beautiful facilities, great aromatic products, and Lisa–my therapist–had marvelous hands. My skin felt so soft afterwards!”

A massage like this is just what you need before, or after, a visit to some of Macau’s best sites–whether that be a visit to the old town with its UNESCO World Heritage Sites or to Macau’s newest attractions.
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In the old town you’ll marvel at the ruins of St. Paul, the Na Cha Temple, the Macau Museum and the Senado Square, while the newest attractions in Macau include the Science Museum, the Macau Tower (where you can do the world’s highest bungee jump) and the Michael Jackson’s Gallery, where you can spot the famous Jackson glove.

And after you leave? That will no doubt leave you with a feeling you can’t quite describe. It’s something beyond longing, beyond nostalgia and can only be described as a niggling feeling that you can’t quite place.

In fact, what you’ll be experiencing is actually known as “saudade.” Macau tourism representative, Joao Rodrigues explains it thus: “Saudade has no direct English translation; no other language in the world has a word with such a meaning, making saudade a distinct mark of Portuguese culture.”

Simply put, Saudade is a feeling of wanting to go back. Macau and the Mandarin Oriental spa will both have that effect on you.

And the answer? That would be to book your return trip to Macau as soon as you can.

There really no other answer for it!