Temples of the Holy City of Varanasi! Shiva & Kali worship, Buddha sermon at Sarnath, Respro® Ultralight mask review.
Namaste from the holy city of Varanasi!
India is large and diverse, with terrain ranging from snowy mountains to southern backwaters. Yukiro and I only got to see a fraction of it on our trip through Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle.
However, we absolutely had to make a detour to Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benares — the famous spiritual destination on the River Ganges.
India was stress-free for us, since we were travelling with Janu Private Tours, one of the most trusted tour companies. Janu and his team can arrange customized itineraries for any part of the country, tailored to your specific interests. They connected us with their outstanding partner, Experience Varanasi Tours, for this portion of our journey.
Even for experienced travellers like ourselves, Varanasi is an intense destination. Picture tuk-tuks weaving through bumpy roads with horns blaring, inches from the beggars and holy cows in the streets. There’s dirt, noise, difficult sights — and it’s incredible, what a city of adventure!
I was “all in” and wanted to experience the more challenging aspects of India. However, I was concerned I’d feel nauseous from the various smells and pollutants: dung, rotting fruits, garbage, fumes from the traffic…
Anyone who travels with me knows I’m very sensitive to smoke, pollen and other air debris. I didn’t want to wind up ill and unable to see the colorful city life (such as random monkeys!).
For example, I was keen to see the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganga (which I’ll show you in the next post). However, the image shows how thick the smoke can be.
To make sure we were prepared for anything, Yukiro and I got original Respro® masks! Made in the United Kingdom, these masks are equipped with professional-grade technology to filter out pollution. (Plus, they have a cyber-Goth-Industrial look!)
Respro® offers many types of pollution masks, geared to specific needs such as allergies, urban cycling, industrial filtration. Their FAQ section has info on the differences and how to choose the right size (you can also email them, as their customer service is terrific).
The team suggested The Ultralight™ Mask for our India travels. This mask is made from lightweight, air-permeable mesh material and has two POWA™ elite exhalation valves: ideal for facial ventilation in hot, humid climates.
Plus, the design is fashion-fab: Mad Max meets The Walking Dead apocalyptic chic! It’s an essential item for desert festivals such as Burning Man and Wasteland Weekend, for both the look and the functionality.
The Respro® mask attaches in the back with Velcro, and has a changeable Hepa-Type™ PM2.5 filter (the white portion inside). These Cinqro™ Urban filters have activated charcoal cloth plus a particle filter layer to protect you from exhaust pollution.
Here’s a close-up of The Ultralight™ Mask. The black shell, made of of breathable 4-way stretch fabric, is easy to wash. It has a malleable nylon nose clip for a secure fit around the bridge.
But what if the mask doesn’t match your outfit of the day? Respro® has dozens of skins in various colors and patterns, letting you refresh your look!
I always change around my hair color and clothes, and this Petal Mixed Neoprene outer-shell was a perfect match.
Cube Pattern 1 was a stylish choice for this green monster. It’s easy to switch over the skins over the filter and valve.
I’m very glad I got a Respro® mask for my travels. If you’re in a high-particulate area, run or cycle in urban areas, or have medical condition such as asthma or allergies… these pro masks are a lifesaver. (And the ninja warrior style is A+!)
Now, we’re fully equipped to explore Varanasi. As you can see, I’m covered up from the sun and mosquitoes, and I wore old clothes and shoes that I later threw away.
Janu Private Tours linked us to our local guide, Kunal Rakshit of Experience Varanasi Tours. He’s a thoughtful and intelligent guide, born and raised in this city. Kunal listened to our goals for the trip (to learn about the spiritual culture), and delivered exactly what we were looking for.
We were interested in Hinduism, so he took us to the new Kashi Vishwanath temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The large structure is located inside the green acres of Banaras Hindu University, where Kunal studied. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, so imagine priests and worshippers performing “puja”: praying, offering fruits and flowers, and pouring milk over statues as a rite.
Varanasi is a sprawling city, and the traffic can get congested. We were grateful to have our driver Ravi, who knew exactly how to navigate these tricky streets. He drove us to another part of the city to see a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Durga.
The temple was bizarrely located next to a small amusement park. Hmm, not sure why Yukiro wanted to take a photo in front of the Gaylord local ice cream stand…
The rickety rides were decorated with garlands of flowers. Love seeing these unexpected pockets of local life.
Once again, we weren’t allowed to take photos inside Durga Kund Mandir — but here’s a shot of the outside. You have to take off your shoes before entering all of these temples; since the floors can be wet from the offerings, we brought a change of socks and shower caps from the hotel, which we wore as foot-covers!
Also known as the Monkey Temple, this 18th century temple to Durga is painted entirely in red. It sits next to a pond, which was earlier connected to the river Ganges. We enjoyed seeing the statues of Hindu goddesses, and watching locals make offerings.
Why is there a lion at the entrance? Durga, also known as the goddess Devi or Shakti, is depicted as a fearless warrior riding a lion or tiger. The goddesses of the Hindu pantheon tend to be fierce fighters; Durga is a mother figure, yet combats demonic forces and carries weapons in her multiple arms.
O Kali, you are the patron deity of the Goths! Kunal took us to see a shrine for the goddess Kali, who is depicted with black skin and her tongue sticking out. She conveys death, destruction and that which is “forbidden” — living on the cremation grounds, and destroying evil forces.
Notice the skulls on either side of Kali: human and probably monkey.
If you look closely at the photo of Kali, you’ll see that the metal goblets in front of her are decorated with swastikas. We also saw this “swastika rangoli” (with four dots in the arms) in this colored sand mandala at Varanasi Airport. In Hinduism, the swastika represents goodness and auspiciousness; I discuss the symbol in more depth in this post.
Outside, we were perplexed to see this orange-faced figure in a cage. Kunal explained this is Hanuman, the monkey faced God who is a worshiper of Lord Rama. On the tile above, there is a picture of Rama and the words ‘Jai Shree Ram.’
Kunal also took us to Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which very few tourists get to see. This is one of the most famous Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, and stands on the western bank of the holy river Ganges. You’ll have to bring your passport with you to enter, as security is tight. Once again, no photos: you’ll have to come here for yourself, to see the two domes covered in gold and rituals of this sacred temple.
Varanasi is not only important to Hindus — it’s also a sacred place for Buddhists. Ravi drove us to Sarnath, in the north-east part of the city. This is where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma after his enlightenment.
I’m standing in front of Mulagandhakuti Vihara, the Sri Lankan Buddhist temple at Sarnath. The Buddha spent his first rainy season meditating here.
Sarnath is a holy spot of Buddhism, as the Buddha gave his First Discourse here after attaining nirvana at Bodhgaya. In the Buddhist texts, this event is known as the dharmachakra-pravarttana, or “Turning the Wheel of Law.” At Sarnath, Buddha also laid the foundation for the order of monks and nuns, or “sangha.”
The Mulagandha Kuti Vihar is a temple and monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society. The golden altar is lovingly maintained, with leaves and flowers in a minimal, symmetrical arrangement.
All around, the walls are covered in pastel frescoes by Japan’s famous painter, Kosetsu Nosu. His images depict the life of the Buddha: his birth, journey to enlightenment, teachings, and death.
This panel shows the story of Angulimala, the evil bandit who killed people and hung their fingers around his neck in a garland. Through compassion, the Buddha helped Angulimala see the error of his ways and become a follower of the Dharma.
In Sarnath, there are also Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist temples. A sleeping sandalwood Buddha rests inside Nichigai Suzan Horinji Temple, with a traditional design that made us feel as if we were in Kyoto.
Next to it, there’s a new Lord Buddha temple. The gates are topped with the wheels of the dharma. The circle represents the one-ness of the teachings, and the 31 spokes represent the realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.
Look, another lion! In Buddhism, they are guardians and symbols of the bodhisattvas.
Under the blue skies, the temple had a futuristic feeling.
The temple is flanked by wet fields of grass, where water buffalo make their home.
Did you know the Buddha loved to disco dance? Just kidding — this statue shows him after his birth, when he took seven steps and then raised his arm towards the sky, with the other pointing at the Earth.
(My black sun hat by Lack of Color.)
We’re standing in the spot where Lord Buddha gave the first sermon to his five disciples. At Deer Park, he taught the Four Noble Truths by addressing the nature of suffering, its cause and its end.
Before his enlightenment, the Buddha practiced asceticism. He gave his first talk to five of his former spiritual comrades, as he knew they would be able to understand the Dharma quickly.
These statues represent this event, which led to the founding of the sangha community. Buddhism spread quickly from then on, especially since Sarnath was a center for the arts, and many influential kings and merchants lived in Varanasi.
We did some yogic poses amidst the archaeological ruins. Behind us is the cylindrical Dhamek Stupa, which is almost 45 meters high and marks the spot of the sermon. It was built in stone and brick, in the 3rd century.
We saw the bases of other structures and stupa (where ascetics were buried, before Buddhism). The Deer Park where Buddha gave his lecture still is filled with these friendly creatures, as you can see.
Many thanks to Janu Private Tours and Kunal of Experience Varanasi for the outstanding journey! We were glad for their expert knowledge, and passion for showing travelers the real India. If there’s one destination that warrants a guide/driver, it’s India. We wouldn’t have seen and learned nearly as much, without their guidance.
There’s still more to come from Varanasi… we’ll visit the ghats and cremation grounds on the River Ganges (where our Respro® mask came into great use).
Do you share our interest in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy? Would you visit this holy city one day?
Visiting the Acropolis of Athens in off-season! Parthenon of Athena, ancient Greece archaeology museum.
Flashback to Athens, Greece and pirouettes of joy… I’m on my way to the Parthenon, the iconic temple of Athena and symbol of the city.
Photographer Joey Wong and I visited Athens during the off-season, which we recommend for multiple reasons. Ticket prices are cheaper, the weather is not too hot, and there are fewer tourists around — meaning you can take your time to explore, and get marvellous photos without anyone in the frame.
We hope you enjoy these outfit photos, inspired by Greek goddesses and shot amidst ancient ruins.
The Acropolis looms over the city, and is impossible not to recognize. (This citadel includes the famous white-columned Parthenon, as well as the 5th century Propylaia, Erechtheion and Temple of Athena Nike.)
Get into an Uber or taxi (prices are cheap in Athens), and have the driver drop you off at the foot of the hill. Then, it’s a short walk up to the main entrance and ticket booth.
Monastiraki, the neighborhood at the base of the Acropolis, is worth spending time in. This classic area has cobblestone paths with whitewashed houses, outdoor cafes, and pockets of nature.
As you walk up to the Acropolis, which means “highest point,” you get the sense that you are ascending Mount Olympus — mythical home of the Greek gods.
Athens is an ideal destination for those who love ancient culture, myths and art.
The capital has been inhabited for 2500 years, and archaeologists are continuing to uncover surprising artifacts.
(Click below for more from this Gothic designer):
We came in late March, which is right before the start of the tourist season. The timing was ideal: the sun was out but it wasn’t overly hot, and the attractions weren’t crowded.
Packing tip for Athens: bring sunglasses, wear layers (it gets chillier at night in the spring), and choose shoes that are great for walking (the Acropolis has a rocky ground).
Normally, the entrance fee to the Acropolis is 20 Euros — but from November 1st to March 31st, it’s half price! There is also a “multi-site ticket” for €30, which is valid for 5 days, and lets you visit this and six other archaeological sites.
It’s not possible to buy tickets online (unless you go with a guide), so give yourself plenty of time to line up at the main ticket office. Once again, we were glad we came in the off season, since the wait only took 10-15 minutes and the weather was pleasant.
My friends and I chose the 10 Euro entry, which let us access the Citadel, North and South slopes (and all the main structures). We loved walking slowly up to the Parthenon, taking in the sights along the way.
One of the first ruins we encountered was the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus. If we were here in the height of summer, it would be impossible to take photos without others in the background.
No need to hire a guide for the Acropolis, as there are many explanatory signs along the way. What a treat to view these two-thousand-year-old remains right up close, in their original environment.
My outfit of the day is inspired by the Greek goddesses. This Morph8ne long sleeve shirt and other items are available below (click to see):
I felt as if I were channeling Athena, as I looked over the grand theater.
For those who aren’t familiar with the mythology, she is the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. The calm-tempered Athena only fought for just causes, and helped out heroes including Odysseus, Jason, and Hercules.
Originally, there were several temples dedicated to Athena in this same location, lost and rebuilt throughout time.
During the Golden Age of Athens (460–430 BC), the Parthenon and other famous temples were built to honor Athena — and still remain standing, to this day. This project was led by Pericles and brought to life by the sculptor Phidias, and architects Ictinus and Callicrates.
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus is a stone theatre on the southwest slope, with a remarkable “ancient meets modern” look. It was completed in 161 AD, but damaged by east Germanic tribes in 267 AD.
The Odeon was renovated in 1950, and remains an active concert venue with a capacity of 5000 (the Tokyo Ballet and Maria Callas have performed here).
I’ve actually been to the Acropolis years ago — but it was during the peak of summer, and I felt stifled by the tourists and humidity. This time, I avoided the busy season, and the experience was a million times better.
Instead of being pressed along by the crowds and searching for shade, I was able to take my time to wander. I could stop to read the placards, take unobstructed photos, and truly enjoy the sights. Plus, as you can see, the weather was pure “nectar of the gods.”
So many epic viewpoints, as the elevation gets higher…
Almost at the top! I’m standing right below the Propylaia, or monumental entrance to the Acropolis. It is a majestic entryway, with colonnades in the Ionic and Doric styles.
(My faux python purple clutch is by Makeup Junkie Bags.)
Walk through the Propylaia, and there she is… The Parthenon! The symbol of ancient Greece, democracy, Western civilization and culture.
Obligatory photo in front of the Parthenon, on the Acropolis. It’s apparently one of the most Instagrammed travel destinations.
The Parthenon has been through a lot, to put it mildly. After the fall of Greece, it was used as a Byzantine church, a Cathedral under the Venetians, a mosque during the Ottoman Empire rule, and even a harem.
In 1687, it was significantly damaged by an explosion. In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin stripped most of the sculptures and put them in the British Museum, where they mostly remain today.
Despite all this, the pillars stand strong. The architects of the Acropolis were very much ahead of their time.
Next to the Parthenon, it’s easy to spot the Erechteion — a temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. The north side features the famous “Porch of the Caryatids,” or six Ionic columns carved to look like Greek maidens. (That’s quite the load they are carrying on their heads!)
These are actually plaster copies of the caryatid sculptures. A few of the originals are preserved in the Athens Acropolis Museum, while others are in the British Museum.
The Greek government is still trying to get the “Elgin marbles” returned to the Acropolis, but it is a slow process. Fortunately, many other museums and collectors worldwide have sent back pieces.
When you look out over the city from the cliff, it’s easy to understand why this has been a spiritual site for millennia.
I recommend coming to the Acropolis early in the day, so that you can catch the light and take your time to explore.
I grew up reading stories about the Greek gods, and enjoyed seeing how the mythology was woven into the landscape of Athens.
Above is the Areopagus, or Ares Rock. Ares (the god of War) was supposed to have been tried here for the murder of Poseidon’s son Halirrhothius.
In another story, Ares was fighting the local Greeks on the mountain. Athena felt he was being unjust, so she hurled a giant rock at him and knocked him out cold — which you can still see on the top of the hill today.
One of my favorite gods is Dionysus (I’m standing in his stadium). He represents wine, fertility and ritual madness.
The wild festivals that celebrated him also spurred the development of Greek theatre.
Outside the Acropolis, we stopped for ouzo and Greek snacks.
Then, we took a short walk to the new Acropolis Museum. (Address: Dionysiou Areopagitou 15, Athina 117 42)
This archaeological museum opened in 2009, and focuses on artifacts found during Acropolis excavations. From the Bronze Age to the Roman and Byzantine empires, the exhibitions show the many layers of history found in this important site.
The museum is beautifully designed, with lots of natural light. Visitors are encouraged to see the remains in chronological order, and learn about the works from multi-media displays (such as 3D renderings of “kouroi” statues of nude male youths).
On the right, I got to see the original Caryatids up close, and watch a video about how they restored the marble with laser technology.
We reached the top level at sunset, which let us take in this 360 view of the Acropolis and mountains.
This uppermost level re-creates the frieze of the Parthenon, with both plaster and original pieces. Visitors can walk around and see the carvings in their original position, which depict the Great Panathenaia festival for the Goddess Athena.
Talk about a perfect day in Athens! I’ll remember this trip for years to come.
The Acropolis is beautiful any time of the year, but I suggest that you come in late spring or late fall for a quieter, more leisurely experience.
You can find more Athens tips at DiscoverGreece.com, a great resource for planning a trip here.
I leave you with our Athens travel vlog, which features the Parthenon as well as the modern side of the city. Please also take a moment to watch — I hope it inspires you to come to Greece.
The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur hotel review! Malaysia hipster districts & shops, SS15 Subang Jaya, cassette culture.
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…
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
My crop top is this exact Michi Onyx bra. More designs from this label below:
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.
The Ritz-Carlton’s pools and gardens are always beautifully designed. Love the stepping-stones over the swimming pool, and tropical foliage.
Not a bad place to lounge, wouldn’t you say?
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.
We wandered through The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur’s meeting / conference / event rooms…
… and leapt for joy when we saw this futuristic art space.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
Kuala Lumpur is a conservative city compared to other Asian metropolises – but we can always find pockets of alt culture!
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.)
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.
My geometric Ouija board cropped top is by Long Clothing.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Horror, cassettes and videotape… these are my type of paperbacks,
Lejen also carries works from local independent presses. We encourage you to swing by to give them some support.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you been to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia? Did you find any other hip / underground culture attractions in KL, which you can recommend?
Elefantastic, an ethical elephant sanctuary in Jaipur, India! Review & discussion of elephants attractions, rides.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
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.
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?
If you spend any time in India, you’ll come across swastikas, especially on the front of doors and gates.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
Less commonly, you’ll see the reverse / counterclockwise version, or sauvastika. It is associated with the goddess Kali, magic and nighttime.
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.
We added some devilish kawaii to this flank. Can you tell we’re having fun?
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.)
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.
Out of the three individuals above, who has the most fabulous pose? I’m guessing you would say the elephant!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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)
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.