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The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur hotel review! Malaysia hipster districts & shops, SS15 Subang Jaya, cassette culture.

cassette store day hipsters

Current obsessions: Cassette tapes, holographic bags, fishnets and unicorn hair!

This summer, I finally got a chance to visit Kuala Lumpur with Yukiro. Malaysia’s capital is not known as a subcultures destination… but you can depend on us to dig up some indie places. Keep reading for our guide to hipster / youth culture neighborhoods in Kuala Lumpur!

KL is a city of opulence, and we were excited to stay in style at The Ritz-Carlton hotel…

ritz carlton vip club lounge

I think this photo sums up the feeling of “The Ritz,” which is consistently named one of the world’s best luxury hotel companies. No matter where you are, you can rely on exquisite furnishings and personalized attention from the staff. (You might recall my stay with The Ritz-Carlton Bali, in 2015.)

ritz carlton lion chocolates, cupcakes

The hospitality began at the airport, where Yukiro and I were met by a private driver with a sign. When we arrived at The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur, the staff was waiting at the door to greet us by name, and take us to our suite.

My jaw dropped when I saw these sweets on the dining table. The Ritz-Carlton truly went above and beyond: the staff researched our aesthetic, and customized pastries to welcome us! Devil horn cupcakes, black and pink macaroons, dark chocolates… they nailed it.

ritz carlton malaysia suite

It’s these small touches that make the brand stand out. Yukiro and I quickly posed for this photo before devouring the raspberry and blackberry macaroons.

kl tower kuala lumpur sunset view

The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur is located right in the city center, near all the major landmarks. Our two-bedroom suite had this view of KL Tower and surrounding skyscrapers, which took on a Blade Runner vibe at sunset.

Address: 168, Jalan Imbi, Pudu, 55100 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

ritz-carlton kuala lumpur luxury suite

We couldn’t believe the size of our luxury suite. 1,885 square feet with two bedrooms, a spacious living / dining room, full kitchen, and more bathrooms than we could count (we kept on opening doors and discovering more!). The space is decorated with elegance, and equipped with the latest technology to satisfy both business and leisure travelers.

(Find out more and book a room at the Ritz-Carlton KL here.)

spiral uk sequin fanny pack

Outfit of the day: I’m in a 80s retrowave mood, and couldn’t resist this glitter fanny pack by Spiral UK. I haven’t worn a belted retro-style pouch since my visit to Disney World in the early 1990s!

spiral uk money belt purse

My crop top is this exact Michi Onyx bra. More designs from this label below:

two bedroom suite ritz carlton hotel

Yukiro and I had fun strutting down this long hallway, which opened into the living room like a catwalk.

No need to be a water-bearer: the Ritz-Carlton has 24 hour in-room dining, laundry and valet. Since we were staying in this luxurious suite, we also had butler service at our beck and call.

ritz carlton kl pool

The Ritz-Carlton’s pools and gardens are always beautifully designed. Love the stepping-stones over the swimming pool, and tropical foliage. 

spa ritz carlton kuala lumpur

Not a bad place to lounge, wouldn’t you say?

kuala lumpur luxury pool hotel

The terrace feels like a secluded garden, even though the hotel is located in the bustling “Golden Triangle” district. It’s an easy walk to nearby shopping malls, as well as the entertainment / restaurant hub of Bukit Bintang. 

ritz-carlton ballroom malaysia

We wandered through The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur’s meeting / conference / event rooms…

art design luxury hotels kuala lumpur

… and leapt for joy when we saw this futuristic art space. 

5 star boutique hotel kl malaysia

We loved chatting with our outstanding guest services liaison, Stefano. We asked him about alternative culture in Kuala Lumpur, and he passionately recommended that we visit SS15, a hip district in Subang Jaya. He snapped this photo of us, helped us call an Uber, and we were on our way.

teenage head records kuala lumpur

I came across an article about Teenage Head Records online, and decided this should be our first stop. Located in SS14, this fabulous record store is family-owned and run. The posters on the doors featured grunge, punk, indie and underground bands… all signs point to Yes.

asia cassette store day retro

As you can see from the DIY signs, the music shop celebrates “Cassette Store Day.” Every October 17, fans gather and pay tribute to the analog format that defined the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

(I have plenty of room in my holographic backpack to hold cassette tapes and a Walkman. This Spiral UK bag is also available in rainbow sequin, black glitter, and other scintillating colors.)

kuala lumpur record store music shop

Inside, it felt like a party. Co-owner Radzi greeted us like friends, and joked that “Sigue Sigue Sputnik has arrived!” His young daughter hung out on the couch, engrossed with solving a Rubik’s Cube.

cassette store day logo sign

The staff is passionate about music, especially obscure bands and nostalgic formats. I was excited to run my fingers through several boxes of cassettes, featuring both regional and international artists. There are even cassette decks for sale, in case you’ve decluttered your old Sanyo or Teac player.

kuala lumpur alternative subculture underground

If you prefer to listen to vinyl, Teenage Head Records has got you covered. I spot Bowie, Queen and Tupac — there’s a wide selection of musical genres here.

depeche mode 80s cassettes

I’m in throwback mode to the 1980s and 90s these days, perhaps due to the dreadful world affairs right now (in comparison, these decades seem like a golden age). It’s fun to rewind a cassette and blast synthpop, and pretend you’ve night-riding through Miami in 1987.

I was excited to turn up Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration, perhaps my favorite DM album. It was a must-get, and only about $2 US. (Remember when I visited the Depeche Mode theme bar in Tallinn, Estonia?)

malaysia hipsters, weird strange

Kuala Lumpur is a conservative city compared to other Asian metropolises – but we can always find pockets of alt culture!

spiral uk holographic metallic backpack

Take a ride to Teenage Head Records, and maybe you’ll pick up a cassette or two as well. (I got this Malaysian mix of Italo Disco songs, win.)

eyeballs larme kei pastel skirt

Another day, another outfit. My seeing-eye skirt is by Print All Over Me. Anyone can customize a “template” such as this miniskirt, and create their own designs printed to order! PAOM also collaborates with fab artists, so there are thousands of designs you can choose from.

It matches my Spiral UK iridescent backpack – love the unicorn mermaid metallic look, which shifts and shines under the sun. This backpack is lightweight but sturdy, and comes in various finishes including rainbow sequins, black glitter and more below.

long clothing tshirt, rainbow iridescent backpack

My geometric Ouija board cropped top is by Long Clothing.

ss15 kuala lumpur hipster area

Malaysia is a Muslim country, and the culture veers on the conservative side. In Kuala Lumpur, you won’t find a crazy youth culture hub like Harajuku in Tokyo, Hongdae in Seoul, or even Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.

Subang Jaya’s SS15 district would be the closest it comes to a neighborhood like this. There are several colleges in this area, and students come to this entertainment / shopping hub to hang out.

cosans coffee shop kl

Cosans Coffee is a popular meeting spot in SS15. The drinks and snacks are excellent (and inexpensive).

If you’re in the mood for a drink or Malaysian food, there are plenty of choices in this area. And if you’re looking for something to do, we spotted pool centers and even a virtual reality gaming lounge.

lejen youth bookstore malaysia

We popped into the small stores found in SS15. Loved the mission of I Am Lejen, a bookstore that encourage youths to read and be part of their community. The cute lion logo sums up the mission of empowerment.

kuala lumpur youth culture stores

Lejen publishes paperbacks by emerging local authors, in small runs. The books are in both Malay and English, and always have eye-catching graphic covers.

street art graffiti kuala lumpur

The street art on the staircase was calling out for a photoshoot. Upstairs, I Am Lejen has a vape shop, and a boutique that sells clothes with positive messages.

ss15 Subang Jaya hipsters neighborhood

Horror, cassettes and videotape… these are my type of paperbacks,

kuala lumpur gay clubs lgbt

Lejen also carries works from local independent presses. We encourage you to swing by to give them some support.

november culture yuna zarai store

Many women in Kuala Lumpur wear headscarves or more (I counted nine burkas in my customs line at the airport). Even if you cover up, you can dress fabulously at November Culture, an independent lifestyle store in SS15.

The shop is founded by Malaysian singer Yuna Zarai, and carries her brand 14Nov as well as others. We were impressed by the scarves and long dresses and jumpsuits. The garments covered up limbs and hair, but had creative cuts, colors and sparkling sequins.

malaysia muslim fashion models

When fashion has restrictions, it often encourages creativity. Check out these Malay magazine covers: the women cover up their heads and bodies, yet rock a fierce pastel style.

inside petronas towers architecture

Before returning, we made an visit to the famous Petronas Twin Towers, conveniently located within walking distance from our hotel. These were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004.

petronas twin towers klcc

The Petronas towers were designed by Argentinian architect Cesar Pelli. The style is postmodern steel and glass, and makes tributes to Islamic art motifs and Asian culture (there are 88 floors, a lucky number).

ritz-carlton chef restaurants malaysia

It was hot outside.. after a day of exploring, we were relieved to relax back at The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur. 

We were regulars at the Club Lounge, which is open to VIP guests. (How could we resist the food and drinks at all hours?) Nay Tun and his team spoiled us with fine wines and freshly prepared dishes, such as Malaysian noodles.

cute cakes Kuala Lumpur

KL is a foodie city, and The Ritz-Carlton delivers with multiple dining options. The Patisserie serves up both freshly-baked sweets and savories. How cute is the teddy bear red velvet cake above?

kuala lumpur afternoon tea ritz

In the Lobby Lounge, we enjoyed a leisurely Afternoon Tea. The experience was pure “eleganza” – Yukiro and I sank down into plush high-backed chairs, and drank from a perfectly steeped pot of The Ritz-Carlton’s signature tea blend. Our server brought over a three-tiered tray of fresh scones with clotted cream, mini sandwiches, quiches and desserts. We indulged in these treats while listening to a live music quartet play jazz favorites.

library fine dining ritz carlton

Dinner at The Library was equally delightful. I’m a book-lover, and felt at home amidst these colorful shelves filled with volumes about film and art. The cuisine is international fine dining, featuring a daily Menu Du Jour paired with fine wines from around the world.

kuala lumpur fancy restaurants

The deep red wines were a perfect match for our tender steak and salmon. For dessert, our server brought over a rolling cart of in-house sweets; we had a hard time choosing only these three.

spa ritz carlton kl malaysia

To top off the pampering, I visited The Ritz-Carlton spa — talk about “serenity now!” This spa integrates contemporary with ancient Malaysian healing practices, using herbs and oils from the region. The spa menu includes unique offerings such as a “sound bath” and hot stone massages. I went for a treatment named after the Malay princess Tun Teja: a long massage and body scrub, followed by a soak in a giant round tub of milky water topped with rose petals. 

ritz-carlton kl hotel

Every time I’m at The Ritz-Carlton, I know I can expect a world-class stay like the one I had in Malaysia. The staff works hard and graciously to make every guest’s experience unforgettable. I was especially impressed by the attention to detail: they always greeted us by name, and knew our quirks and interests by heart.

devil horn cupcakes goth baking

Such as the devil horn red/black cupcakes that they made for us… perfection! Yukiro and I are also both Leos (born in August), and the Ritz’s lion logo felt like our spirit animal.

kuala lumpur ritz carlton review

Thanks to The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur and lovely staff, for this memorable stay. (Book a room here, and learn more about the hotel.)

Have you been to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia? Did you find any other hip / underground culture attractions in KL, which you can recommend?

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Elefantastic, an ethical elephant sanctuary in Jaipur, India! Review & discussion of elephants attractions, rides.

jaipur elefantastic sanctuary farm

Hello, my gentle giant!

Let me introduce you to a compassionate elephant sanctuary in Jaipur, India —  Elefantastic. I saw firsthand how the caretakers treat elephants like family, and dedicate their lives to raising awareness about conservation and ethics.

Elephant tourism is a contentious subject, as these sensitive creatures are too often mistreated. Let’s have a open conversation in this post, and I welcome your thoughts as always.

painting elephants jaipur india

In my view, travelers should educate themselves about animal attractions, and refuse to support those that are cruel. Before my trip, I did extensive research about elephant experiences in India. Many locations offer rides (particularly at Jaipur’s Amber Fort), but these unequivocally cause the elephants to suffer (carrying loads of tourists in a painful saddle, getting prodded with hooks and kept in chains, not having adequate care and rest).

Then, I read about Elefantastic — a Jaipur sanctuary that makes rescuing elephants its mission. I browsed through reviews and blog posts, and saw that the response was universally positive.

Here, guests get to interact with these intelligent creatures in ethical ways, including feeding and washing them, and decorating them with nontoxic chalks (more on that later, as well as the meaning of Hindu swastikas!)

rahul elefantastic ethical farm

Yukiro and I were traveling through India with the highest-rated travel company, Janu Private Tours, and they’ve always given us fair and honest advice. Mr Janu has brought travelers to Elefantastic since it opened in 2012, and assured us that the sanctuary met the highest standards.

When we arrived, we were greeted by Elefantastic’s owner Rahul (Anil Choudhary, above). He spoke passionately about his mission: rescuing elephants, taking responsibility towards their welfare, educating guests through positive interaction.

petting volunteering indian elephants

Rahul assigned us to one of the female elephants, and we were with her for the entire half-day. He showed us how she liked to be touched: on the trunk, at the cheeks, under the big floppy ears. We could even wrap our arms around her trunk and give her a hug! She responded happily, with bright eyes and a flip of the ears.

Have you ever been up close with an elephant? It’s incredible… these are the largest land animals in Asia, yet they’re so gentle and intelligent. We felt we could put our full trust in her, and it was clear that she was enjoying the human attention. 

indian elephant skin closeup

Close-up on her beautiful grey skin, which has some mottled patches on the nose bridge. (All Indian elephants have different markings, and distinct personalities once you get to spend time with them).

My India-themed nail art is by Glam Nail Studio; they decorated my gradient gel nails with small gems and a chrome polish finish.

feeding rescued elephant, elefantastic

Our elephant’s “mahout,” or keeper, never left her side. In India, mahouts typically begin their profession as boys, and are assigned to an elephant for life. 

At Elefantastic, we saw that the elephants live in their own individual houses, which they share with their mahout and his family. The sanctuary is on a huge plot of land, and the creatures have plenty of room to roam freely (they are never tied up).

Our mahout tied together palm fronds and stems, and showed us how to feed our elephant. We placed the bundle in the nostril area of her trunk, and gave the verbal command “Leht.” She grabbed the food and dexterously twisted it up to her mouth!

elephant rescue jaipur

Fun facts: Indian elephants spend 14-19 hours a day feeding, and consume several hundred pounds of vegetation daily. They are vegetarians and mainly eat leaves, tree bark, roots and stems.

Our elephant was clearly well-maintained; she was calm and radiated happiness. Aren’t her brown eyes lovely? (Eye contact is important for making the elephants feel secure, so you can’t wear sunglasses during this activity. I’m wearing tinted prescription glasses.)

amber fort elephants jaipur

I loved seeing the close bond between the mahouts and their life-long partners. These caretakers guide them with Sinhalese verbal commands such as “stay” or “walk forward.” They never use chains, hooks, poles or any instruments to force the elephants. They’ll sometimes gently tug the elephant’s ears with their hands to steer her, but this doesn’t cause pain.

As you can see, Elefantastic’s residents always have shade from the elements, and the grounds are meticulously maintained.

painted decorated elephant india

Once our elephant had her meal, it was time to give her a makeover! In India, elephants are traditionally painted in rainbow colors for festivals and special occasions. Unfortunately, many of these paints are harsh and contain lead.

Elefantastic provided us with a palette of non-toxic, organic chalks that cause no harm to their bodies (I got some on my hand, and it washed right off with water). Since elephants don’t sweat and only have pores between their toes, this doesn’t clog up their skin.

Of course, we dressed her in Goth and punk symbols! Pentagram, 666, A for anarchy, a wonky Leviathan cross. But what’s the deal with the swastika?

india swastikas on doors

If you spend any time in India, you’ll come across swastikas, especially on the front of doors and gates.

hindu swastika sign

While Westerners primarily associate the swastika with Nazi Germany, it is in fact an ancient Sanskrit symbol that translates to “marker of goodness.” In other words, this has been an auspicious Hindu sign for thousands of years, long before the terrible events of World War II.

rainbow painted elephant festival india

Our neon elephant looks like she’s ready for a rave! We decorated her side with lucky “swastika rangoli,” which have dots between each of the four arms.

india swastikas logos

Many Hindus paint swastikas on doorways and home entrances, to invite in prosperity and good fortune. (I took these images in a residential area of Jaipur.)

jaipur elephant village

I think our Gothic elephant painting project turned out rather well! She’s one of us now.

(My black sun hat is by Lack of Color; more of their designs are below.)

india swastik ganesha statue

In Hinduism, the clockwise swastik is a representation of Lord Vishnu and the sun god Surya. I also found it on the sash of Ganesha, the elephant god. 

elephant attraction jaipur

Less commonly, you’ll see the reverse / counterclockwise version, or sauvastika. It is associated with the goddess Kali, magic and nighttime.

jaipur elephant joy india

Regardless of how you decorate your elephant, it’s fun to take part in the cultural ritual. Our new friend leaned in and loved the strokes and attention.

jaipur ethical elephant sanctuary

We added some devilish kawaii to this flank. Can you tell we’re having fun?

elephant village jaipur

Now, it’s time for a bath! Our mahout walked our elephant over to a grassy field, and we hosed her down with water. (The safe chalks came right off.)

bathing washing elephants india

We put some water into a bowl, and our elephant sucked it up like a straw. Then, she swung her trunk around and sprayed herself to cool off! 

Water for elephants is a must: they can drink 200 liters a day. The staff kept us hydrated too, offering us unlimited chilled bottles of water, and masala chai.

I posted some video clips of the Elefantastic experience above and here. Watch us hand-feed our friend and bathe her, along with other footage of traveling in India.

ganesha shirt, elephant god

Out of the three individuals above, who has the most fabulous pose? I’m guessing you would say the elephant!

(My glasses frames are by Oliver Goldsmith, and my sunhat is by Lack of Color. Shop with a click:)

ganesh elephant fashion

Close-up on my vintage Vivienne Tam colorful top, which fit the theme of the day perfectly.

One of the most beloved Hindu gods is the elephant-headed Ganesh. Some say that Lord Shiva beheaded him, and replaced his head with that of an elephant. Lord Ganesha / Ganapati is known as a wise, playful scholar who removes obstacles, and is the patron of the arts and sciences.

elephant drinking water from hose

Once you get to know a real-life Ganesha, you can see where these characteristics come from. Yukiro and I were in awe of our elephant’s sensitivity and intelligence, which came through in the way she connected with us and her environment.

These mammals are known for their wide range of complex social behaviors: grief, memory, altruism, cooperation, using tools… In many ways, they leave us in the dust.

elephant attractions jaipur india

She is a 28-year-old Indian elephant, a sub-species with smaller ears than her African cousin. About half of female Asian elephants have short tusks, or tushes, which you can see when she opens her mouth for a drink.

Since 1986, India’s elephants have been listed as endangered, as they have suffered significant population decline. Poaching and the loss of natural habitats are mainly to blame. It’s more important than ever to donate and support conservation efforts like Elefantastic’s, to stop them from becoming extinct.

elephant riding without saddle

Elefantastic listens to its guests, and is always striving to do their best for the sake of their rescued elephants. When we visited in mid July, the policy was that elephants could only be ridden in an ethical way: once every two days for 45 minutes max, and without a saddle that causes discomfort. Guests could sit “bareback,” on a soft cushion that is tied and positioned in a way that does not hurt.

However, as of late July 2017, Elefantastic has come to the decision that they will no longer allow elephant rides, to raise awareness toward animal welfare.

ride elephants india

Yukiro and I were therefore some of the last guests to get on top an elephant. We chose to ride for only 15 minutes (we climbed up here from stepping off a staircase). Our mahout led her through the spacious grounds, while we hung on tight and petted her bristly forehead!

ethically ride elephant

While we felt that this method did not stress the elephants, we agree with Elefantastic’s decision to stop all rides. From now on, guests can walk alongside their new friend, and take her for a leisurely stroll on the property.

amber fort jaipur elephant rides

We can honestly tell you that elephants are treated with the utmost respect at Elefantastic. We saw them living in un-tethered natural conditions, and connecting with their gentle mahout keepers.

elephant splashin water trunk

What a joy to be in the presence of these powerful creatures. I encourage you to support this fantastic animal sanctuary, and volunteer with the elephants for yourself.

To make a booking: visit the Elefantastic website and email Rahul (hello@elefantastic.in) to secure your reservation. They offer hotel pick-ups and drop-offs, and you can either start in the morning or afternoon for half a day of activities. A delicious vegetarian lunch is included at Rahul’s mother’s house — the simple meal is made with love, and was one of the best I had in India!

(Elefantastic address: 90 Chandra Mahal Colony, Delhi Road, Amer, Jaipur 302002, India)

elefantastic rescued elephants

You can find out more about Elefantastic here. Namaste to Rahul for his admirable work to help elephants, and to Janu Private Tours for making this experience possible. Stay tuned for more stories from India — next, we’ll go on an insider tour of Jaipur with Mr Janu.

What are your thoughts on elephant travel attractions, and sanctuaries like this one? You’re welcome to leave any thoughts or questions in the comments.

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Casa del Mar, Langkawi: 5-star beach hotel paradise in Malaysia! HPL boutique hotels and resorts.

casa del mar langkawi resort review

Your favorite Goths on the beach are back!

Yukiro and I spent a few days relaxing in Langkawi, Malaysia — a new destination for both of us. We were transported to paradise the moment we arrived at Casa del Mar Langkawi, a boutique hotel right on the pristine Pantai Cenang beach.

langkawi millennial youth beach hotel

My friends and I like to avoid tourist destinations, so Langkawi was the ideal tropical getaway. You won’t find large crowds or fast food chains here (unlike Thailand’s Phuket, Bali’s Kuta and other southeast Asian resort towns).

I found everything to be in perfect balance: There are top-end hotels, yet the cost of living is inexpensive. The location is quiet, yet there are enough activities to keep you engaged. And as you can see in these photos, the oceanfront is picture-perfect.

casa del mar malaysia hotel

Transportation / How to get here: Langkawi is located on the north-west of Peninsula Malaysia. Several low-cost airlines fly regularly between Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi, in less than an hour. (There are many direct flights from global cities to KL, making this an easy destination to access.)

Once you land, it’s just a 10 minute car ride to Casa del Mar(Address: Jalan Pantai Cenang, Mukim Kedawang, 07000). The staff greeted us warmly with tropical drinks, and helped us get settled into our villa.

villas beach houses langkawi

The hotel has 34 bungalow-style suites, each with a memorable name. (We were in Camaron, but I think Eksotic describes Yukiro’s look well!)

At the gate, there’s a jug of water and ladle for washing the sand off your feet. You can also flip a cute wooden sign to “eyes closed” if you don’t want to be disturbed.

casa del mar rooms, suites

Our beach bungalow was thoughtfully equipped with everything we needed for a chilled-out vacation.

The spacious room had both overhead fans and AC, and the staff provided unlimited bottles of mineral water. There was a shower and bathtub, which I enjoyed soaking in with the bath salts provided. In the evenings, we hooked up the computer to the large-screen TV to watch Netflix, while munching on the fresh-baked cookies in the room.

langkawi Pantai Cenang beach

The glass-front sliding doors open up to a gorgeous view of the ocean. Take few steps out of the villa… and you’re right on the beach! 

Outfit details: I’m wearing a skull shorter-all (overalls with shorts) by Print All Over Me.

stella rose print all over me top

Underneath, I’m wearing a spooky cute tank top by Stella Rose (who did a fashion collaboration with Print All Over Me).

My ear climber has a serpent holding a pentacle in it mouth. These rocking earrings are by the one and only Alex Streeter.

print all over me shorteralls overalls

I’m in love with the slow-fashion, artist-supporting mission of Print All Over Me. They release unique silhouettes like these shorter-alls, which anyone can customize with their own colors and illustrations, and then offer for sale.

The garments are well-constructed in sustainable ways, and there are thousands of styles that you can choose from (each is custom-printed to order, so they’ll always have your size).

all inclusive resort langkawi

Yukiro and I always ended up coming back to La Sal pool bar, which is shaded under a palapa. The bartenders know their stuff, and the menu is an enticing mix of both classic and innovative cocktails.

We asked them to custom-make us drinks that suited our tastes, with ingredients like Asian five-spice, lemongrass, ginger and fresh tropical fruits. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but we’ll never forget the dragonfruit cocktail with house-infused spiced rum. 

casa del mar cocktails malaysia

Also a winner: the mojitos with fresh mint, lime and spiced pineapple. We paired these with a roasted pumpkin salad that was bursting with flavor.

outdoor swimming pool langkawi hotel

Cheers to lounging by the pool, with drink in hand! At full capacity, the hotel only has about 70 guests — which means you never have to fight over space, or deal with rowdy party scenes.

jacuzzi, casa del mar langkawi

Yukiro demonstrates how to properly recline next to the hot tub.

hpl hotels resorts langkawi malaysia

It’s easy to understand why international guests keep returning to this laid-back palm tree paradise. Casa del Mar has a “fish club” for those who do multiple long-term stays (we saw names from Germany, Sweden, Canada, Japan). Some bring their families here for a month or more.

langkawi romantic beach resort hotel

Every day, we looked forward to breakfast under the veranda. The menu has Malaysia, Asian and continental items that are all made fresh to order (there’s also a buffet area, and a fresh fruit station to my left). Once again, it’s hard to pick a favorite dish, but I kept returning to the eggs Benedict and veggie rice paper rolls.

malaysia honeymoon resorts

Casa del Mar has free WiFi throughout the property, and plenty of activities on hand. The lounge area has a great selection of DVDs and books in various languages. Yukiro is excited to see the Japanese and Swedish shelves!

You can also borrow a bicycle to ride around the neighborhood (the hotel is flanked by international restaurants and small shops, which sell inexpensive clothes and souvenirs).

casa del mar langkawi spa

When you get an invitation to try the spa… always say yes.

We had a rejuvenating 60 minute massage at Satkara Spa, in the traditional Malaysian style. The ladies use only organic natural products, such as a bowl of flowers and orange peels to soak our feet. They moved on to healing each part of the body with pressure points and back-tapping, in the ancient tradition.

Pantai Cenang beach malaysia

I think this image sums up the feeling of being on Pantai Cenang beach. 

Although this beach is available to anyone, it’s pristine and uncrowded. Casa del Mar sets up private lounge spots on the sand, with umbrellas for cover and pitchers of water for hydration.

langkawi ocean beaches

The weather was tropical perfection: sunny with a touch of humidity, but never overbearingly hot nor rainy.

Pantai Cenang 5-star resort

Despite the mermaid hair, I’m not much of a swimmer… I’m happy dipping my toes in the foamy ocean waves!

langkawi cocktail bar, bars

Further down on the beach, there were bars and restaurants that pumped out music and had a club vibe. At Casa del Mar, however, the atmosphere is peaceful: a perfect romantic honeymoon spot.

burkas on beach, muslim swimwear

Langkawi is a laid-back ocean town that attracts both locals and international travelers. You can wear any kind of swimwear here, but since Malaysia is a Muslim country, we saw quite a few burkas on the beach! Very interesting to see the contrast between the couple’s clothing (above).

malaysia burka beachwear

I think we’ve been out-Gothed by this lady in black.

dinner by beach, Pantai Cenang

Such a pleasure to have dinner right on the white sand, at La Luna restaurant. The service is always spot-on: the chef came by to introduce himself and personalize our dishes, and the staff made sure we were taken care of all evening.

boutique hotel langkawi

You can’t find a better atmosphere than this. We dined while watching the sun set… listening to the sound of the waves, and enjoying the ocean breeze.

casa del mar dinner, food

The chef made us a special order of laksa (Malaysian noodles in hearty soup), since we requested it! They did a local version with fish broth and pineapple, which differs from the coconut milk curry version I ate in Singapore.

On the right: an oozing chocolate bomb with a warm center, with coconut and mango ice cream. Happiness.

honeymoon dinner beach langkawi

On another evening, La Luna set up the Premium Beach Dining experience for us. We sat closer to the waves and away from the other diners, surrounded by candles and rose petals. (Silly Yukiro, the flowers aren’t part of the meal!)

malaysian food restaurant langkawi

We’re always keen to try local cuisine, so Casa del Mar prepared a Malaysian tasting menu for us. The highlights included fish in banana leaf, sea bass with sambal, and a strong lemongrass “tom yum” cocktail with chili.

langkawi malaysia beach resort

All of the in-house dining has a variety of cuisines, including Mediterranean and Asian, to satisfy any palate.

romantic langkawi restaurants

I think we drank at least a half-dozen dragon fruit cocktails, which matched the colors of the sunset!

casa del mar malaysia villa

Our stay at Casa del Mar was seamless, and the staff anticipated our every need. For instance, our seaview suite came with large beach towels and these thong slippers, which were perfect for a day at the beach.

top best hotels langkawi

The hotel offers half-day trips such as fishing, island hopping, picnics and mangrove tours. I’ll show you what we did in the next post — the nature of Langkawi is not to be missed.

beach bungalow rental langkawi

Or, you can just hang out under the palm trees, and pet one of the resident cats!

malaysia beach hotel

I loved the warm, understated Mediterranean design of the property. Lots of colorful tiles and greenery to enjoy.

5 star langkawi hotel reviews

No wonder Casa del Mar is part of the Boutique Collection by HPL Hotels and Resorts, as this group is known for its exquisite hospitality. (I stayed with them in the Maldives, at Gili Lankanfushi, as you may remember.)

langkawi malaysia hotel near beach

I hope this photo diary inspires you to travel to Casa del Mar Langkawi, and experience all of this for yourself. I encourage you to choose lesser-known destinations by the ocean, for a more authentic and tranquil stay.

casa del mar langkawi staff

“Terima kasih” to the kind staff, many of whom have been at this hotel for a decade or more. Everyone was wonderful at making you feel at ease; the team was consistently gracious and knew each guest by name. I look forward to coming “home” again soon to the beautiful Casa del Mar

Have you visited any beach towns in Southeast Asia? Would you make a trip to Langkawi, Malaysia?

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New Delhi, India with Janu Private Tours! Review of guide, driver tour: Jantar Mantar, Jama Masjid, Humayan’s Tomb.

guided tour northern india golden triangle

“India Waale!” After year of talking and planning, Yukiro and I finally made it to India!

Even though we’re experienced travelers, I confess I had some trepidation about coming here. I’ve heard that India can be a challenging destination, with abundant culture-shock. But it turned out these fears were unfounded, as we were in the best possible hands with Janu Private Tours.

I’m so glad we went with this highly-rated tour company, as they gave us the royal treatment throughout Northern India. The kind owner, Mr Janu, paired us with expert guides and drivers, booked us lovely hotels, and took us to several cities in a spacious and fully-stocked car.

travel blogger india, female travelers

Janu Private Tours has over 500 positive TripAdvisor reviews for a reason: his clients trust him, and he goes above and beyond to make them feel at home. Mr Janu encourages guests to come with a “clear mind and open heart — welcome to India.” And that’s exactly what we did: dive in, go with the flow, and experience the fascinating wonders of this country without judgement.

It makes sense to tell this tale chronologically, so read on for our travel preparations (how to get a visa, what to wear), and first impressions of New Delhi!

new delhi gandhi airport hands sculptures

Let’s start with some prep talk about vaccinations and visas. 

– Vaccines: A trip to India requires a bit more preparation than usual. Yukiro and I went by the CDC recommendations for travellers: we made sure our basic vaccinations were up to date, and got shots for typhoid. I also took Dukoral, an oral vaccine that helps prevent stomach sickness (you have to take the first of two doses at least 2 weeks before you depart).

– Tourist visa for India: Allow yourself plenty of time to get the tourist e-Visa, which you can now submit online. Yukiro and I filled out the visa carefully, and got it approved without any questions or hold-ups within two days, but it takes longer for others. Make sure you use the official goverment visa site, as there are fake ones.

– The Indian e-visa does ask some weird questions (are you transgender, what’s your religion, do you have visible marks, have you been to Pakistan, are you illiterate?) We made sure all our contact info was correct, and that the photo and passport scans were clear (with an addendum since I didn’t have room to list all the countries I’ve visited in the past 10 years, in the section provided).

Don’t leave anything blank. For religion, I put “Other: N/A”. (I would caution against putting Atheist, Satanist, Agnostic Pagan, Wicca or things like that… best not to raise any eyebrows!)

– Make sure you jot down the temporary ID number and payment number, so you can save and continue filling out the form if the page fails.

– Payment problems: many including myself had trouble loading the final page (SBI payment – the server fails). Instead, for the final stage, go onto your smartphone and use 3G / 4G data (not wifi). Enter the “payment reference number” to get back to that page, and then pay using Paypal (for me, credit card also resulted in error).

– You’ll get your approved visa by email; be sure to print it out. Once you arrive at Indira Gandhi airport (which is lovely – see the mudra hand gestures sculptures above), head to the e-Visa line and you’re all good!

india travel outfits, fashion

I highly recommend that you do a private tour with a driver, especially if you have limited time. Mr Janu was waiting for us at the airport arrivals, and helped us cut through the crowds to reach the car and head straight to the hotel. We never had to deal with touts, haggle with taxis or stress over scams and directions — all of which are aplenty in India.

Janu Private Tours has tons of connections throughout the country, and knows the best hotels for your budget and needs. Mr Janu checked us into The Park hotel and it was exactly what we wanted: a 4-star hotel in the heart of the city, with decor that reminded me of a Japanese host club! 

– What to wear in India? In big cities like Delhi, anything goes, but it’s best to wear modest cover-up clothing in smaller and rural areas. I suggest packing light, long skirts such as my elephant maxi skirt. Bring close-toed shoes and sandals with a bit of lift, as the streets can be dirty (I threw out my shoes after the trip).

– Outfit details: I’m wearing a 1991 New York Shiva shirt, arm covers, sunglasses by Clearly, and a black sun hat by Lack of Color. Most importantly, I’m covered in DEET-containing mosquito spray, the only thing that truly repels them. Bens 100 mosquito spray is the strongest one out there, and I didn’t get a single bug bite thanks to it.

stella rose backpack, print all over me bags

India is a safe country as long as you stay aware of your belongings, and use common sense. I wanted a secure bag to hold my possessions, and found the perfect one: this pink backpack by Print All Over Me, designed by Stella Rose (who released an adorable collection with them!)

A lot of Indian street vendors and beggars approached us, and locals often asked to take photos… so it was fun to point to the “No Thank You” and politely decline!

Shabbir Khan, janu private tours owner guide

In our week together, we got to know Mr Janu (or Shabbir Khan) as a friend. The story behind Janu Private Tours is an inspirational one: as a teenager, Janu became a tuk tuk driver to support his family. He hardly knew English, had no advanced schooling, had never left his hometown of Jaipur…

However, he had drive and vision: Janu decorated his tuk-tuk to the nines, and built up trust with locals. He became known for showing tourists around Jaipur with passion. Gradually, he built up clients and expanded his business into car-guided tours in Rajasthan, then all of India.

new delhi tuk tuks, tours

It’s amazing how Janu went from manning a tuk tuk driver (the yellow and green auto-rickshaws above) to becoming a successful business owner who is well-travelled, fluent in English, and constantly growing his endeavors. He now has 30 staff members, and has worked on productions for BBC, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie, music videos for Romanian pop star Loredana, and more.

I’ll show you his latest venture, a hotel, and more in the next posts — but as you can gleam, Janu is a remarkable person and we were happy to get to know him.

jama masjid robes, entry fee

We weren’t sure which landmarks to see in New Delhi, and put our trust in Janu. He took us to Jama Masjid mosque, and as you can tell, we loved everything about it.

At the entrance, women are provided with robes to wear over their clothes. You have to remove your shoes, but can wear socks or purchase slippers for 100 rupees. Entry is free but there’s a 200 rupee photography charge (generally, attractions in India have entry fees of 200-500 rupees, or $3-7.)

jama masjid mosque interior architecture

Jama Masjid is one of largest mosques in India, and an architectural beauty. It was built by by Shah Jahan in the mid 17th century (this is the Mughal emperor who also also built the Taj Mahal, which we visited later on.)

Muslims from around the country come here to worship. How beautiful are the scalloped arches made from red sandstone and white marble, ornamented to look like a prayer mat.

women traveling in india safety

Oh dear, everyone wants to take a photo! The scene above may look intense, but these are merely travelers from around India who are curious about foreigners. Everyone was respectful, and our guide helped us gently walk away after a few snaps. (We learned that it’s best to politely decline, since if one person is allowed a photo, then everyone else wants in — and you’ll be making cute poses for half an hour).

jama masjid mosque minarets

Loving the warm, subtle design and symmetry of Jama Masjid.

My friends and I try to travel to destinations in the off-season, to avoid crowds. We went in early July, and got lucky — the high heat had died down, but the monsoon rains had not yet fallen. If we went during peak season (October to March), the courtyard would have been teeming with tourists.

chawri bazaar old delhi

The mosque is right next to Chawri Bazar, the chaotic marketplace of Old Delhi. It’s a colorful free-for-all of narrow streets, laborers, fruit stands, beggars, monkeys climbing electrical lines, you get the picture.

rickshaw ride, old new delhi market

We wanted to take in Old Delhi, but it would have been too intense to walk around on our own. Janu Private Tours arranged the perfect solution: a rickshaw ride through the historic district!

Yukiro and I squeezed into the back of the three-wheeled bike, and held on for dear life as our driver peddled through the half-mile-long bazaar.

new delhi garbage, pollution

Our rickshaw raced down the alleyway. I turned to Yukiro and exclaimed, “This is better than the Indiana Jones amusement park ride!”

The driver was a pro, yet it felt like danger was at every turn. Sparks from low-hanging electric wires, puddles of water that I hoped wasn’t sewage, people in the streets, piles of garbage, packs of street dogs…

I’m not going to sugarcoat the experience of India: you’ll see dirt, poverty, difficult sights. But if you come in with a open mind and go with the flow, then this might be the most transformative place you’ll ever visit. 

india religious cults

Every moment was a learning experience. So much to take in; overpowering sights and sounds. So many questions about the unique and sometimes conflicting culture, which Janu and his guides helped us to understand.

Humayan’s Tomb new delhi travel attraction

Since we had a car/driver, we were able to see many sights, and cool off in between under the air conditioning (Janu’s cars come with a chest full of cold water, sodas and snacks for guests).

Onward to Humayan’s Tomb, resting place of the 16th century Mughal emperor. The mausoleum was commissioned by his first wife and chief consort, Empress Bega Begum.

star Humayan’s Tomb architecture

Our guide walked us through the arches, and explained how India’s Mughals are descended from the Mongol empire. These rulers were all Muslim, and India came to a golden age of architecture, culture and science during this era (especially the reign of Shah Jahan in the 17th century).

female traveling india delhi clothes

Enter the portal. I’m wearing a 1991NewYork t-shirt with an image of Lord Shiva.

Persian architect Mirak Mirza Ghiyas ornamented the the tomb with symbolic carvings, marble lattice screens, and geometric motifs like eight-pointed stars.

no thank you stella rose backpack

“No Thank You!” Living for my cheeky Print All Over Me x Stella Rose backpack. I’m a huge fan of PAOM, which carries thousands of exclusive designs by artists. On their site, anyone can custom-print artwork onto a variety of garments for both men and women. Every item is produced sustainably, and the quality is top notch (I’ll be showing you more of their designs soon).

I’m standing in the Char Bagh, or “four gardens” that lead to the tomb of Humayan. The Persian-style quadrilateral layout is immense, with symmetrical water channels and hedges.

Humayan’s Tomb mausoleum

The precisely layered shapes draw the eye, and the cut-out windows bring in glowing light.

new delhi astrology astronomy instruments

Perhaps my favorite attraction in New Delhi was Jantar Mantar, a collection of thirteen giant, bizarre astronomy instruments!  In the 18th century, Maharaja Jai Singh II constructed the observatory to chart the movements of celestial bodies and make astrological measurements. 

weird bizarre new delhi, alien jantar mantar

If I came across these structures without knowing what they were, I’d assume they were built by aliens. In fact, they’re instruments based on mathematical principles, and determine various measures of the sun, moon, planets and time. 

Misra Yantra (the strange curving staircase above) is a tool to calculate the shortest and longest days of the year. It can also find the exact moment of noon in various cities and locations, and the results are amazingly accurate.

rama yantra, strange new delhi buildings

Is that the Colosseum of Delhi? Nope, it’s Rama Yantra, which measures the altitude of objects and the azimuth (position of a celestial object such as a star, relative to a point).

Samrat Yantra triangle, jantar mantar delhi

If you look inside the windows, you’ll see the weird sight on the right. The shadow falling on the scale makes the calculus (something to do with the angle and projection onto the horizon — I don’t quite get it).

On the left, this towering structure looks like something out of Burning Man. It’s the Central Triangle of Large Samrat Yantra. This “supreme instrument” serves as an equal hour sundial, but also can precisely measure declination and other coordinates of heavenly bodies. 

new delhi triangle staircase, celestial observatory

“And she’s buying a stairway to heaven…”

The epic triangle is 70 feet high, with a hypotenuse parallel to the Earth’s axis and pointing to the North Pole. It’s flanked by two quadrants with graduations that indicate hours, minutes, and seconds.

astrology new delhi jantar mantar

New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar is a trippy place that got my imagination flowing. I didn’t know the Indian astronomers had such advanced instruments, and enjoyed learning about Jyotish (the traditional Hindu system of astrology). 

india gate janu private tours car

Thanks to Mr Janu’s expert arrangements, we were able to see all of the above in single day. Delhi is a spread-out capital, and this would have been impossible to accomplish on our own.

India is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and driving through Old and New Delhi, you come across the many layers of history. We passed by India Gate, memorial to the 82,000 soldiers of the Indian Army who died in World War I.

Sansad Bhawan Parliament House

We also drove by Sansad Bhawan or Parliament House, which dates back to 1927. This was during the time of the Raj, or British rule of India beween 1858 and 1947 (when Gandhi’s nonviolent movement led to Indian independence).

India has over 700 dialects, but English and Hindi are the official languages, and there remain vestiges of British influence everywhere.

baha'i lotus temple new delhi

The aliens have landed elsewhere in Delhi.

It’s not a spaceship, it’s the Lotus Temple — a Bahá’í House of Worship completed in 1986. Design magazines praised the minimalist organic design and spaceship feel.

Baha’i is a fascinating and inclusive faith that originated in the Middle East. The flower-like temple is open to everybody, regardless of religion, race, gender or any background.

indian rickshaw cycle driver

India, you’re amazing. Even though I’ve been to over 60 countries, there was so much I learned and experienced for the first time.

crazy strange india

It’s a country of contrasts, with elements that Westerners will likely find odd (like holy cows and animals in the streets).

We’ve wanted to see India for a long time, and are glad we “did it right” by traveling with Janu Private Tours. They took care of the logistics of getting around, gave us valuable guidance and helped us dive into the heart of the culture.

new delhi mughal architecture symmetry

Namaste Janu Private Tours for the warm welcome to India! Can you believe we did all of the above in only one day?

I have lots of India stories to share with you: an elephant sanctuary and palaces in Jaipur, Agra’s Taj Mahal, Varanasi on the river Ganga… keep your eyes peeled.

PS: if you have any questions about traveling to India, packing, prep or anything at all, leave me a comment and I’ll help you out as best as I can!

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