Luxury Stays: Pullman Kuala Lumpur City Centre

Aren’t five star hotels the best? The squishy pillows, the cozy duvets. Room service, rain water shower heads, bath tubs. Turn down service, concierges, valet parking. Pool terraces, rooftop bars, fine dining restaurants.

I found all this and more at my recent stay at the Pullman Kuala Lumpur City Centre.

Located conveniently between Bukit Bintang and KLCC, the Pullman KL City Centre is impressive from your first step into the lobby. Check in was swift and efficient, something I appreciated after flying through the night from Colombo to be here. I was introduced to my Executive floor manager, who escorted me and my over stuffed backpack to my room. And when I stepped through the door, I realised why the location was unsurpassed.

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Yes friends, this was the view from my bedroom window. I could say good morning and good night to those two beautiful towers without leaving my bed. I have never stayed in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur with such a clear view.

Now, obviously I couldn’t give you a good understanding of what it’s like to stay in this hotel without exploring a little. As itching as I was to get out to the streets and get some noodles, I went instead to the pool terrance to eat at the restaurant there. The only disappointment in this menu, was the lack of local choices. I saw satay, but other than that it was a wide choice of Western food. Which is fine, if you’ve been in town for a while and you’re sick of noodles… but who could ever be sick of noodles?

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The few days I spent in KL meant that I had plenty to revisit in the city, as well as some new sights to check out. But the Pullman gave me a truly wonderful welcome back at the end of each days explorations, and a super comfy bed to rest my weary head at night. The location meant I was close to major transport links, including the new free bus system. Only a hop and a skip away from Chinatown meant that I was never far away from a bowl of noodles, and being located so close to Bukit Bintang I could get myself an overpriced cocktail every evening if I wanted.

I highly recommend this one. In fact, I’ll definitely be heading back. Pullman, you have my heart.

This post was sponsored by Pullman Hotels.

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8 things I wish I had known before I went to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a beautiful, exotic island full of ancient culture, breathtaking scenery, wildlife, and smiling faces. For a country with such a recently violent history, the island is actually home to some of the friendliest people out there. Located in the Indian Ocean, just off the southern coast of India, Sri Lanka is neither quite like India nor Asia, leaving it in somewhat of a curious middle ground as far as geography, features, culture, landscape, and customs. You might already assume that some places here don’t serve beef (12 percent of the island’s population is Hindu), but here are some not so obvious things I wish I had known before I arrived in Colombo.

  1. DON’T SKIP COLOMBO:

It would be easy to take advantage of all the information out there that tells you to skip over Colombo, but there is actually a lot to this multi-layered city. Like all capital cities, Colombo is a bustling town with a lot of traffic; on the surface it seems to be all there is to it. But if you slow down, open your eyes and look beyond the cars and tuk-tuks, you’ll see something beautiful. A city of contrast, Colombo is a product of Sri Lanka’s colonial history. Around Pettah and Galle Face Green the architecture is a nod to the colonial past with Buddist and Hindu temples rubbing shoulders with Christian churches. For some peace among the frenetic pace, head to Galle Face Green and play some cricket with locals; or to Beira Lake and take in the tranquility.

2. ALWAYS BE RESPECTFUL OF THE POLITICAL PAST

The civil war may be over, but it only ended a few years ago. While things are safe now, you should definitely be aware of the past and show respect when talking to locals. While it’s totally cool to ask locals generic questions about their lives and families, I probably wouldn’t bring up or get involved in any type of political conversation. It’s still a delicate subject and, unless you’re a scholar on Sri Lankan politics and policy, it’s best to stick to the simple stuff. More than 70,000 people lost their lives in the civil war, so chances are pretty high that the locals you’ll meet either lost family or know someone who did.

3. IT IS SAFE TO TRAVEL HERE

There is a huge misconception out there about how safe Sri Lanka is, and I get it. Call it civil war or terrorism (your word choice will depend on which side of local politics you sit on), it raged for 26 years, and killed more than 70,000 people. Since the war’s end, the Sri Lankan people have been rebuilding their country and tourism has boomed. The aim is to make tourism their biggest industry by 2020, and with more and more people visiting this little gem it won’t stay like this forever.

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4. TOURISM IS STILL DEVELOPING

Tourism is booming. Sri Lanka has more visitors each year, and the numbers keep growing. While this is actually a great thing, you can get around the country without seeing another tourist for a few days; it also means that outside of the major tourist hubs of Colombo, Kandy and the more popular southern beaches places might not exactly be tourism ready. Don’t expect to order your lunch and have it arrive in the next 20 minutes. Or even be the correct food for that matter. Communication can be difficult, especially if English is not your language. English is fairly widely spoken, but in more rural areas tuk-tuk drivers and back street vendors may not understand what you need. Transport can be difficult away from hotels, and where there might be a hotel does not necessarily guarantee plenty of activities. It’s not super convenient to pick up things you might have forgotten at home, like power converters or even shampoo once you’re outside of Colombo. If you’re a five-star luxury lover, you’ll be disappointed in a lot of hotels on offer, don’t expect the same standard as you would get at home. At the moment, Sri Lanka demands patience. But don’t wait. Go now, while she is still finding her feet. You’ll be richly rewarded.

 

5. IT’S NOT BACKPACKER CHEAP

Sri Lanka isn’t like Thailand or Vietnam, those two have been well established on the backpacker trail for years now and the sheer volume of tourists banging down the door makes for cheap options for backpackers. Add to that the fact that a lot of the island’s goods are imported, taxes hike up the cost of drinks and some foods. That said, you can always find a cheap place to eat if you’re happy to eat curry for three meals a day. ATMs can be hard to find outside major towns like Kandy and Colombo, so make sure you always have plenty of cash on you – hidden of course!

6. YOU HAVE AMAZING WILDLIFE SPOTTING CHANCES

I know, you might not have immediately thought of safari when you think of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s varied landscapes make it a perfect spot to spot some of the world’s biggest and most fascinating animals we usually only connect to Africa. In fact, Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park in the south has the highest concentration of leopards in Asia, while Minneriya National Park, located near Dambulla, is where a yearly elephant gathering takes place. Elephant are literally everywhere; I fell asleep on our bus and woke up stuck in traffic with an elephant staring through the window at me. On the southern coast, Mirissa shows off an annual production of blue whales meandering through. Hiking through Horton Plains you have the potential to spot several species of monkey and colourful birds hanging out of the trees.

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7. THE LANDSCAPES ARE MASSIVELY INSTAGRAMMABLE

I don’t know if you caught it, but if you checked out my Instagram anytime while I was in Sri Lanka you’ll know that the country if beyond stunning. The rolling greens hills of tea plantations, Horton Plains and the end of the world, the sandy stretches of the beaches in the south – I can’t pick one highlight.

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8. YOU’LL NEVER BE MADE TO FEEL MORE WELCOME

My tour guide told me, “You come to Sri Lanka for the first time as a stranger, but you leave as family. And now you always have somewhere to call home.” This is just about the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me while I have been travelling, and the best part was that he truly meant it. I’ve been back at home in Australia now for just about a month, but I’ve already had a few emails from him and the other friends I made while I was away. I thought Africa was a friendly continent, but Sri Lanka takes that cake.

Sri Lanka, ethical tourism and the elephant issue

Those of you who follow my Instagram and Facebook feeds will be well aware that I have been on the road recently, eating and hiking my way through the lush green of Sri Lanka. What I expected and what I found there were two vastly different things.

Sri Lanka is a tiny drop of an island, lying just off the southern tip of India. The landscape is dominated by mountains and tea plantations, the people are warm and inviting and the food is surprisingly devoid of overpowering chilli. Lanka is a bio hotspot, with an astonishing number of endemic plant and animal species which are under threat as habitats are flattened to make way for urban sprawl and farmland.

Watching locals and tourists alike in wilderness areas, it was easy for me to sit back and pass judgement on the mistakes made and places that could use some improvement in their responsible travel aims. Travel is very much headed in a more ethical and responsible direction, and if Sri Lanka truly wants to make tourism their primary industry by 2020 then they have a ways to go in this department.

From my many trips to Africa, you’ve probably guessed that I like my wildlife to be exactly that – wild. Elephants have occupied a special place in Sri Lankan culture for centuries. In ancient times they were considered Crown property and to kill an elephant was a terrible offence. Elephant iconography is evident in most major temples and ruins, and legend has it that it was elephants that stamped down the foundations of the oldest temples in Sri Lanka; the ruins can be found at Anuradhapura. Today elephant are still held in high regard, even those in captivity; the male tusker that carries the scared tooth relic in Kandy’s Esala Perahera festival is probably the most revered of all.

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Despite being the symbol of Sri Lanka, elephant numbers are dwindling. During the Colonial years, British big-game hunting was ridiculously popular, and the extent of the hunting delivered a huge blow to numbers across the country. Today experts seems to agree that there are approximately 3000-4000 wild elephant, about half of which live in protected national parks. But what of the domesticated numbers?

My research puts the numbers of domesticated or captive elephants at around 300-500. For me, that’s 300-500 too many. We know what happens to captive animals. They don’t usually live as long, especially when forced to carry large loads of visiting white tourists. Fun fact, elephant actually struggle to hold up their own weight. In the wild, you can often see them resting one foot up while balancing on the other three – this isn’t something they do for fun. It’s the elephant equivalent to girls taking off their high heels after a night out on the town. They do it to ease the pain.

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In addition to the dwindling numbers, elephants in Sri Lanka face a similar issues as their brothers in Africa. Farming and elephants don’t mix. Farmers who have set up in elephant country face huge issues with elephant eating or trampling crops, destroying buildings, and even taking farmers’ lives. During the cultivation season, you’ll see farmers keeping round-the-clock watch by rotation on their lands, sitting in tiny tree houses with fire crackers and shooting them at marauding elephant in the middle of the night. For the nation’s poor, losing their yearly crop to elephants is a situation that simply cannot afford.

But how can the issues be solved? 

Don’t ride them to start. Refuse to patronise places where elephants are kept in chains, or poked with mean looking sticks. Trust me, if it looks like it hurts; then it definitely does. No matter what the guy with the stick says. When visiting them in protected national parks, go with an accredited guide, and make sure he doesn’t drive too close to them since this will just cause stress on the animal. Use your visit to the national park to learn about local conservation projects in the area, and give generously. Reward ethical animal treatment by locals when you see it, and speak up against mistreatment when you see that. If joining a group tour, ensure you research your options prior to booking to ensure you travel with a reputable company with a strong responsible tourism background.

Sri Lanka is still a developing tourism industry, and it is up to us as travellers to demand ethical and responsible treatment of animals now, while the country is still growing.

 

Sunrise at Angkor

Discovering my inner Lara Croft wasn’t difficult once I was faced with the temples of Angkor, looming ahead of me like so many monolithic giants. In their somewhat neglected and abandoned state, rampant vines and overgrown silk-cotton trees, I felt like I was stepping back in time to when men ruled with conviction and life was simpler.

The Khmer Empire, once the most powerful empire in South East Asia, controlling the entire of what is now Cambodia, and most of modern-day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, has a foundation dating back to around 800 AD. Officially Buddhist by religion, the people of the Khmer Empire founded their capital at Angkor, and today thousands of tourist flock to see the temples representing the disintegration of this once mighty political power.

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And so I came to be standing in the midst of a jungle, surrounded by fallen temple pieces, shaded by large trees, and listening to my local guide give me a detailed history of the region. The area is silent, even while other tourists from across the globe surround me; everyone is speaking in hushed tones, as if their voices will resurrect the kings of the past. In the dark half-light, I wander the halls of Ta Prohm, and my imagination runs wild. In my head, I am not sedately walking alone, I am outrunning all kinds of dangers, Indiana Jones is right there with me, and together, we’re going to save the world from ultimate doom.

While the theme music from Indiana Jones plays in my head, I turn to look at another carving in the stone pointed out by my guide. His words wash over me as all I can think about is how long it must have taken to build these remarkable temples, and how lucky we are they are still standing. This part of the world has seen flood, drought, war, earthquake, bombings, genocide, famine, corruption and other atrocities, and these buildings have stood, testing time, waiting patiently for some love and attention.

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And love and attention they have received. Recently, Cambodia has realized it’s tourism potential, and set about restoring the temples of the Khmer kingdoms. This has led to a huge boom in tourism numbers, which both makes my heart swell with pride, and makes me feel like something has corrupted the innocence of this beautiful landscape. Nothing really compares to watching monks walk through a temple compound with a mobile phone and a cane of Coke.

Much of the heavy restoration work was still taking place when I went through the area, and most is now finished. The scaffolding I remember has now disappeared and given way to new structures replacing the old. Safer walkways, restored rooves, and more weeding that I could ever have imagined.

Angkor Wat, definitely the most famous of the temples, stands out in my memory as a sprawling compound, overrun with tourists, all waiting for the sun to sink behind the temple while they set up for that perfect photo. The other temples I walked through – Ta Prohm, Bantey Srei, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan – are definitely on the path well travelled, but I still felt a tug in my belly, a spiritual pull like I’ve not experienced before or since.

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The sun filters through the canopy of trees, causing rays to dance and play in front of me as I walk. Monks in orange robes wander through the complex, and for all the popularity of the temples I visit, I hardly see a soul until I get to Angkor Wat. Even here, in the major drawcard for tourism in Cambodia, I am able to find pockets of peace, places to sit and ponder life and what man can accomplish with great wealth and power behind him.

I urge each and every one of you – go. Experience the wonder that is Angkor. Let your inner hero run wild, explore your sense of adventure and feel the spirit surround you.

 

Ubud’s Best Spa Retreats

Ok darlings, here it is. The ultimate spa retreat go-to guide for my favourite place in Bali. I invested a lot of time and it was super hard work to put this guide together, but I promise it was worth it 🙂

These days Ubud is the centre of alternative healing. From massage to reiki; from traditional balians to reflexology – the ability to heal oneself and find your centre is ridiculously easy in Ubud. I visited a LOT of spas during my last visit, and I did it all for you darlings.

BALI BOTANICA
Location: Jl. Raya Sanggingan

Located down a laneway is a pocket of tranquility known as Bali Botanica. It seems to just keep going on and on, definitely a property that is much bigger than it seems from the reception room. The staff are welcoming and exceedingly polite, the grounds are serene and nurturing. Bali Botanica is rated 8 of 176 wellness retreats in Ubud, and so it should be. I opted for the full day package, which included lunch at renowned restaurant Bridges. This is an expensive package, but I thought it was still good value for what I got out of the day. I started with a consult with the manager, where we selected oils and scents to fit with my ayeverdic profile. I was ushered into a change room and given a sarong to wear. From there I was taken to one of the most beautiful and tranquil treatment rooms that I have ever seen. I enjoyed a full body massage, scrub, chakra dara, hair spa, facial and lunch.

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Bali Botanica treatment rooms

Lunch at Bridges

Lunch at Bridges

 

Fresh! Spa
Location: Jl. Dewisita, central Ubud

Fresh! is exactly that. It’s a new walk-in style spa, with small rooms and a hairdresser upstairs. The massage rooms are basic, with a simple table and curtain for  privacy. Not the best massage I have ever had though, my therapist didn’t listen to my preferences of strength, or where I felt I needed focused treatment. I visited twice, and on my first visit my pedicure was amazing. I sat and used the free WiFi while the girls got to work on my feet. When I came back the next day, they squeezed me in regardless of the problems they were having with the power. My massage was ok at best, but the scrub was AMAZING. There is a focus on natural products, and the chocolates and ginger tea at the end were very welcomed.

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Pedicure lounges at Fresh! Spa

Taksu Healing Haven & Spa
Location: Jl. Goutama Sel., central Ubud

Taksu have definitely got their name right. Located right in the middle of Ubud, off Jl Hanoman, it is a pocket of heaven. Taksu offer all the normal spa services, but also offer some alternative healing remedies such as somalogy, traditional Chinese medicine, past life regression, infra-red and ozone therapies. They have parking on site, so if you have hired a driver for a day he can stay close by. You can also wander down to my favourite vegan café, Down to Earth, for a pre or mid therapy snack that you can be sure won’t disrupt the balance you’ve manage to acquire during your time at Taksu. Taksu are also one of the few spas in Ubud to have Western healers on hand, some of whom specialise in the more alternative therapies on offer.

Sang Spa
Location: Jl. Jembawan No. 13B

Definitely Bali’s top low cost spa and wellness centre, Sang Spa was founded by local Balinese man Ngurah Sudarma in 2008. I’ve been visiting Sang Spa 2 since it’s inception, and have never been disappointed. The staff are welcoming and polite, but have a wonderful sense of boundaries. What I love the most about Sang Spa is that it is a locally owned and operated brand, unlike most of the businesses across Bali that are Western owned but locally operated. An award-winning spa, they have grown quietly and unassumingly through referral business. Once you visit, you’ll understand why – because you’ll want to send all your friends there as well! Sang Spa offer a variety of therapies, drawing from the techniques found in Indonesian, Thai, Swedish and other schools of massage. Of their three locations, my favourite is the Sang Spa 2 – this is the location on Jl Jembawan. Sang Spa 3 is located on Jl Monkey Forest, which Sang Spa 1 was closed for renovations at time of writing.

DaLa Spa
Location: Alaya Resort | Jl. Raya Hanoman 

Now, normally I would recommend getting out of your hotel and finding an external spa for pricing reasons BUT the spa at Alaya Resort (just down the road from Yoga Barn) is actually unreal. Beautifully appointed treatment rooms, and wonderful packages – at a price. Book a Western spa, get a Western price point. There are actually three other locations for DaLa Spa, across Bali. Two are down in Kuta, and a second location will be opening when the new Alaya Jembawan Ubud opens in 2016. DaLa is another spa with an emphasis on locally made, all natural products so you know you’ll be getting quality. The therapists are well trained, and excel at all types of massage. You won’t be disappointed.

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Image via Bali Spa Guide

 

Luxury Eats: POLLEN

Located in the Flower Dome at Singapore’s new Gardens by the Bay, POLLEN is more than an expensive meal out. It’s a holistic food experience, with unique gourmet offerings that had been thoughtfully laid out by head chef, Angelo Rosso.

Rosso has worked with such esteemed household names as Marco Pierre White, Heston Blumenthal and Alain Ducasse, and he brings this wealth of knowledge and indviduality to his work at POLLEN. There are elements of all three chefs to be tasted in the menu, but Blumenthal’s influence really shines through with the holistic sensory experience. Rosso is teamed up with general manager and renowned sommelier Amir Solay, who has one of the finest banks of wine knowledge I’ve ever seen.

The experience at POLLEN is very much a sit-back-and-let-us-pamper-you experience, and much of this is to be expected at a restaurant such as this. From the time we arrived (very early) I asked for little, but received much. They have mastered the art of understated service.

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We had been walking through the Singaporean humidity, and the simulated rainforest that is the Cloud Forest prior to dinner. I was dressed for the heat, in a simple cotton dress and flat shoes. Inside the Flower Dome it is a cool 20C through the year, and while this is fine to walk around, while you’re sitting still and enjoying your dinner it can get cold. POLLEN anticipated this, and brought me a shawl and a small heater to place near my feet. To really cap this small tough off, the shawl matched my dress.

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I’m not going to wax lyrical on the actual menu we ate, because it wasn’t even the food that impressed me the most. Menus change, but it’s the little touches you remember the most from an experience like this. I ate with my vegan best friend, and I am a meat avoider. It’s difficult for us to find restaurants at this high level that will not only alter a menu, but will be excited by the challenge. Each course that was brought to us was thoroughly explained, we were told exactly what was in it, how it was made and what portions of the share plates my vegan could and could not eat. A normal restaurant experience for us means a phone call ahead of time to explain his dietary requirements, and then on arrival he will be given one option for starter, and one for main. Usually the main is some variation on a veggie stack.

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Not at POLLEN. We were given not one, but three choices for starter and two options for main. Vegan was happy, which meant I was happy.

I’ve had the opportunity to eat in some pretty fantastic places, and eat food cooked by more than a few celebrity chefs. I had very high expectations for POLLEN. Those expectations were smashed out of the ballpark. I only have great memories of this night, which means the price was absolutely worth it.

Find POLLEN in the Flower Dome at Gardens by the Bay, by the Marina in Singapore. Reservations are essential, and bring a shawl or dress warmly. The Flower Dome can be chilly.

EDIT: I have been asked if this is a sponsored post. Absolutely not. I paid for my meal at POLLEN, and no one asked me to give a good review. The staff and the food did this by themselves.

Returning to Ubud

I’m standing at the new Denpasar airport, everything is so sparkling and clean I could be in any other country in the world. Gone are the yellowing tiles and the stench of cigarettes from years of indoor smoking. Gone are the small nods to Balinese culture. Denpasar has achieved a sterile level of anonymity, blending with all the other airports of the world. Once I get past customs though, I remember where I am. The smells of South East Asia waft across me path, and the warm, sticky air smacks me in the face. Yep, I’m back.

I shove my way through the throngs of drivers from upscale hotels waiting for their guests and competing taxi drivers all scrambling over one another and into the warm embrace of my old friend Gede. In the chaos it is easy to spot him, he is like a drop of calm in an ocean of panic. The man just oozes chill.

“It is so good to see you friend,” Gede takes my backpack from my shoulder and saunters through to his car. It is amazing how quiet the other drivers have become in my presence now that they see I am spoken for.

Bali is dark, hot and it’s raining. Gede and I begin the long drive north, away from the lights and busyness of Kuta and toward the tranquil backroads of the villages around Ubud. Lights flash past me, Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds. “Are you hungry?” Gede asks, as always thinking of his stomach. “I have surprise for you.” I smile, knowing that no matter how tired I am from my flight, or how much I just want to have a shower, I will give in to Gede’s surprise.

“What surprise?” I ask, he just laughs at me.

Around an hour and a half later we arrive into a small compound, and it’s dark. I can hear movement though, and a child laughing quietly. A dog barks, somewhere close by. Gede smiles, and all of a sudden I am whipped into a group hug. It’s Gede’s family, and I haven’t seen them for three years.

After the excitement dies down, Gede’s wife leads me into the house where she has prepared dinner for us all. Among friends, I sit, laugh, eat and enjoy. This is what travel is all about, these connections that you make that last a lifetime. This is why we do this, to find this joy and love in an extended global family.

As I wander through central Ubud the next day, I note the changes. The increased traffic, the noise, the general hubbub. The market has also changed; the haggling is harder, the people more resigned. The locals have been robbed of their beautiful, peaceful natures due to increased demand from tourism. I note that while the Starbucks is packed with tourists, the local coffee places are pretty quiet. My favourite, Anomali, on Jalan Raya Ubud is no different. I am the only person with white skin as I sit down with my order. Throngs of tourists wander up and down the street, none stopping, all sweaty and most in yoga pants or carrying mats. The outside world has been well and truly established in Ubud.

As much as I want to hate all these changes to a place I have grown up loving, I understand that change is necessary. While they seem more resigned and embittered, the locals around the markets are still laughing and helping one another. The same sense of love and light permeates their every move, every whisper, every smile. The many temples are still busy with traditional ceremonies. The children still laugh and play in the back alleys and laneways.

The changes may be happening, and there is little I can do to stop it. But it is good to know that the essence of what I love about Bali, and in particular Ubud still remains.

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