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Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore, Explained

Growing up in Singapore, there was always a month in the year where respect to the dead was commissioned. The trail of incense and joss paper burning signaled the beginning; the flashy live performances (‘Ge Tai’) its peak.

The seventh month of the lunar calendar (July or August in the Western calendar) is known as ‘Ghost Month’ and the 15th day of the seventh month ‘Ghost Day’. A special custom to honour the spirits of the dead, it celebrates the Taoist (and Buddhist) belief in the afterlife. This year, the festival is held from 19 August to 16 September 2020, and as I’m writing, a familiar haze of smoke signals Ghost Day (2 September) is in full swing.

History

The festival’s origins come from a Buddhist tale of filial piety, where a Buddhist monk called Maudgalyayana (or Mulian) wanted to save his mother from perpetual hunger in the pits of hell. Buddha explained the only way was to make offerings to the monks returning from their annual retreat (15th day of the seventh month), as they could offer prayers that would bless his ancestors and relieve their suffering. As the story goes, Mulian’s mother was eventually raised from the status of hungry ghost to human being through this ritual, and thus, a new tradition was born.

Background

During Ghost Month, Chinese believe the Gates of Hell are opened, allowing spirits to roam the land of the living and visit their family members and descendants. These hungry ghouls are in constant search of food and entertainment, which is why all sorts of offerings are made — to keep the dead appeased and out of trouble.

While Taoists celebrate the festival as ‘Zhong Yuan Jie’ (or中元), the Buddhists name it ‘Yu Lan Pen Jie’ (or兰盆节’) — after the sutra from which the origin of this festival was derived. In Chinese tradition, deference and reverence to all ancestors is demanded; one of my earliest memories of Ghost Month was being instructed to say ‘excuse me’ whenever I passed offerings or prayer sticks, as an expression of respect.

Today, accidentally trampling on food, stepping on incense ashes, or kicking over joss sticks is still very much taboo, unless you’d like to suffer the wrath of angry spirits. The Chinese are a superstitious lot, but much of these special customs are centered around educating the next generation on proper decorum and the value of respecting the community’s elders and family members.

Offerings

Following that line of thought, making offerings are a significant part of Ghost month tradition — families burn joss paper replicas of anything their ancestors might need in the afterlife. Paper money is the most common offering, but believers also burn paper cars, luxury houses, clothes, even paper durian and pets.

Much of the joss paper burning now takes place within dark-coloured metal bins scattered around heartland estates and at temples where large furnaces facilitate mass prayer. The tradition of offering joss sticks or plates of food (often unpeeled fruits, cake or a cup of tea) still holds, and you’ll see these along pathways and public housing void decks as an aid to prayer.

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kiawui/Instagram

Ge Tai

Because wandering ghouls need entertainment, flashy performances and raucous auctions are also a mainstay. Unique to Singapore and Malaysia, these live performances are called ‘Ge Tai’ (literally translated to be song stage), and it’s often thrown by religious affiliations and temples as a culmination of Ghost Day. Large tents are temporarily set up in open fields, or in my case, an open car park and crowds of heartlanders and believers gather to watch.

Auctions are part of the lively affair, during which dinner attendees (usually members of the hosting association) bid for items ranging from a fan to thousand-dollar liquors. Winning the bid is as much about saving ‘face’ (prestige and social standing in the Chinese context) as an ego boost; things can get heated as bidders try to one-up each other.

As the night wears on, the live performances take over — singers in flamboyant, glittery costumes take center stage to perform songs in dialects — Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Mandarin. The occasional Chinese opera performance and irreverent comedy dialogues intersperse the jazzed-up performances — it’s a heady mix of old and new that entertains with choreographed song numbers and technopop LED. Just be sure not to sit in the first row, as that is purely reserved for the ‘honoured guests’.

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Asia Destinations Europe France Lifestyle Relaxation Singapore Spain United Kingdom

The Best Places to Relax in Any City (Other Than the Spa)

Did you know? National Relaxation Day is an internationally celebrated annual event, held every August 15th. The day was first founded in 1985, by an American fourth-grader, Sean Moeller. The intention is simple — to take a day off for yourself to refresh and rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit.

Most of us live in a fast-paced, constant state of ‘doing’, but as the founder of this day suggests, it is important to find ways to relax and unwind from a busy lifestyle. So, in honour of National Relaxation Day, take a moment for yourself and explore the following places to let your hair down:

The park

With dozens of shades of green, fresh air, and a sense of expansion, parks top the list in terms of being ideal places for relaxation. Research has shown time and time again that there is a strong link between nature therapy and a decrease in physiological stress and immune function levels — because of our evolutionary history, it is thought that we are essentially adaptive to nature.

A recent study supports this, and shows that these stress-relieving benefits can easily be achieved in as little as 10-minutes. If you live in a concrete jungle, opt to take a stroll through the nearest park or spend a lazy afternoon picnicking with friends and family for the ultimate rejuvenation.

Hot picks

Some of the biggest cities in the world also feature the most stunning pockets of green —  from Hyde Park in London to Central Park in New York City. Indulge in an urban oasis — your body will thank you for it.

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Pixabay

The beach

If parks are not your thing, the beach is a fantastic alternative for outdoors relaxation. There’s a reason tropical vacations are in vogue — the mere visualisation of aquamarine waters and powder soft beaches can have a calming effect on the body.

Because beaches are often not centrally located, they’re best for the days you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. With no shortage of relaxation activities — ranging from getting that Vitamin D with friends to swimming and walking along the beachfront — it is easy to spend a whole day at this invigorating location.

Hot picks

While the Mediterranean cities in Europe (think Spain and Portugal) offer some of the coolest beaches in the world, Singapore comes a close second. Check out Sentosa Island in Singapore, for some of the island’s prettiest beaches.

The museum

Beyond being educational institutions of the arts, museums are also restorative sanctuaries of the mind and body. The beneficial effects of art on human health and well-being have long been documented, and art therapy is very much a trend.

A fascinating article by Psychology Today makes a strong case for museums as healing places, arguing that museums can provide the same revitalising effect as spending time in nature by offering the same characteristics that enable one to shift mental gears, and refocus attention in a less effortful way. Findings from a 2008 study showed that museum goers have reported benefits like restored attention, tranquility, and reflection, further corroborating the association between museum visits for leisure and stress reduction.

Hot picks

Home to the Renaissance, Europe is the best continent to visit for some of the most spectacular masterpieces of the world. Other than Le Louvre in France, check out The British Museum in England or The Uffizi Gallery in Italy for national collections that have withstood the test of time.

The library

Given that reading a book can help provide a welcome escape from routine and everyday demands, it makes sense to head to the one place where books are the ‘cells of life’. And in a world filled with distractions and white noise, the library provides a safe haven for those seeking absolute peace and quiet.

Cosy nooks offer the passing traveller comfortable corners to while away the afternoon, while a cornucopia of resources promise to entertain and inform. Individuals will face little difficulty in finding a new world to lose themselves in with columns of books and magazines to choose from. According to a 2009 study conducted by the University of Sussex, reading can reduce up to 68% of stress, and just 6-minutes of reading can reduce your heart rate and improve your overall state of being.

Hot picks

As with museums, Europe showcases some of the most beautiful libraries in the world due to the rebirth of the literary arts during the Renaissance. Trinity College Old Library in Ireland is one of the most magnificent of the lot, with dark mahogany arches and millions of rare manuscripts collated since 1712.

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A café

Often cosy and well-lit, cafés are great places to chill out in a city, be it for brunch or a mid-day break. For a lazy afternoon, bring along a book to read, or have an intimate setting with a couple of close friends or your date. If you run out of things to do, take up people watching — you’ll find that the conversations and interactions around you can be disarmingly familiar and pretty funny, usually unintentionally.

Hot picks

Korea and Japan feature some of the quirkiest and most Instagram-worthy cafés in Asia. Settle in with a cup of coffee or tea, and relish in a quiet afternoon amid a comfortable, affable ambience.

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Asia Bali Destinations Indonesia International Lifestyle Philippines Relaxation Thailand Vietnam

The Best Nature Destinations For a Relaxing Holiday In Asia

Asia — the largest continent on Earth. Spanning the uninhabited wilderness of Siberia to the lush tropical rainforests of Indonesia, Asia is a hotspot for nature lovers as it has a climate as diverse as its geographic features. It houses some of the most stunning natural phenomenons of the world, including one of the seven natural wonders — Mount Everest.

With no dearth of natural destinations to visit, it can be hard to decide on just one. We rounded up some of the best places to kick back and relax in within the expansive continent.

Phu Quoc, Vietnam

With powder soft beaches and clear, turquoise waters, Phu Quoc (pronounced ‘foo-kwok’) is a gorgeous tropical paradise. Comprising 28 uninhabited islands, Phu Quoc offers unspoilt, secluded stretches of quiet and calm, a welcome reprieve from the crowds at more popular beach destinations like Phuket, Thailand.

Marine enthusiasts would enjoy Phu Quoc for the diverse wildlife it offers in its crystalline waters, while avid hikers can look forward to silken waterfalls within the larger UNESCO-listed Kien Giang Biosphere Reserve. Eclectic bars and cafes line the beachfront alongside luxurious resorts and private guesthouses, catering to all kinds of budget preferences for each type of traveller.

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Ubud, Indonesia

Perhaps best known as the place where Elizabeth Gilbert gained spiritual self-actualisation in Eat, Pray, Love, Ubud is a popular cultural and natural hotspot in Indonesia. Perched on the remote highlands, Ubud is especially iconic for its cascade of emerald green rice terraces (Tegalalang Rice Terrace) and showcase of the very best of traditional Balinese culture.

With an easygoing and laidback atmosphere, Ubud is a place where it’s easy to lose track of time — a few days can easily turn into weeks and months, even years. For the ultimate experience, get on the mat at one of Ubud’s yoga retreats — you’ll leave feeling re-energized and rejuvenated in mind, body, and soul.

Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka

If you didn’t already know, Sri Lanka has a trove of secluded, sandy beaches, and Arugam Bay is one of them. Located on the East Coast, it’s far enough from the capital and other tourist attractions to be less popular with visiting travellers. With just a single main road running parallel to the beach, there’s not much to the village itself, other than lots of chilling.

Featuring a famed point break, Arugam Bay is a surfer’s paradise, and is regarded as the best surf spot in the country. If you’re not into surfing, you can laze on the beach like the rest of the sun-seekers, or chill at one of the beachside restaurants offering fresh-from-the-ocean seafood.

Koh Kood, Thailand

Just five hours from Bangkok lies this stunning island getaway — Koh Kood. As reported by The Guardian in 2014, it is “Thailand’s last unspoilt islands”. Because of its remoteness, it is the perfect escape from a bustling lifestyle, instead offering tranquility amid the most idyllic of beaches.

Home to a population of less than 2,000, coconut plantations, and sleepy fishing villages, you can expect the pace of life at Koh Kood to be slow and unassuming. Under the lull of waves lapping against the shore and the hypnotic swing of beachside hammocks, it provides the rare opportunity to gently unwind, and temporarily disconnect from the world.

Siquijor, Philippines

While the spiritual side of Siquijor continues to draw tourists in, nowadays, it is best known for its beautiful corals, white beaches and sparkling waterfalls.

Every night, hundreds of green luminous fireflies light up the island, giving evidence to its name ‘Isla del Fuego’ (or ‘Island of Fire’). When these mystical creatures come out to play, it gives the tiny island a magical, almost eerie glow that lends to Siquijor’s reputation among many Filipinos as an ‘island of witchcraft’. As a wise philosopher once said, “Nature itself is the best physician”.

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Maldives

Finally, the pearl of South Asia. Maldives is beach luxury personified, and features the Indian Ocean in brilliant shades of blue, turquoise, and aquamarine. Colourful coral reefs host a diverse variety of marine wildlife, from striped clownfish to genteel sea turtles. Islands rimmed with the softest of pure white sand make for serene sanctuaries to luxuriate in, and let the worries of yesterday slip away.

While the Maldives comprises a whopping 1192 islands, only 200 are inhabited. At this nation of islands, island hopping is a way of life, and the best means to go about uncovering the hidden gems of the region.

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Destinations Lifestyle Relaxation Singapore

The Best Luxury Staycation Packages for a Pampering Weekend

With travel off the table, most of us have had to languish in virtual wanderlust and Pinterest feeds. Aquamarine waters and luxurious resorts seem like a distant thing of the past, but not all hope is lost. Following the Singapore government’s decision to reopen local accommodations, staycations have become the saving grace for many a weary, distressed soul.

The kicker? Many hotels in Singapore have been offering sweetened staycation packages, including some of the most opulent crème de la crème. If you’ve been feeling bummed out because of the travel ban, treat yourself to a weekend of pampering with these one-of-a-kind staycation deals.

Sofitel Singapore Sentosa Resort & Spa

Amid swaying palms and pristine pools, rejuvenation comes easy. Set strategically atop a cliff with sweeping views of the South China Sea, the resort & spa comes tantalisingly close to dreams of a luxurious tropical vacation.

The urban getaway is currently offering an Infinite Family Experiences package, where you can relax in absolute comfort within a palatial-sized sanctuary. The offer includes decadent dining experiences for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a stimulating fish spa courtesy of the resort.

Rates: Starts from S$338++, until 31 December 2020

Address: 2 Bukit Manis Road Sentosa, 099891 Singapore

Shangri La Hotel

With a name that translates to “paradise on Earth”, the Shangri La is synonymous with affluence and luxury living. Offering a sculpted green haven and facilities for every type of traveller, the Shangri La is a fool proof choice for a lazy weekend indulgence.

The Fun Family Playcation promises a memorable vacation for the kiddos with private access to Buds, the hotel’s own interactive play space, as well as Singapore’s largest outdoor water playground. For extra extravagance, go for the Valley Wing Indulgence Package, offering complimentary privileges like free-flow champagne, a 90-minute massage experience at Chi, The Spa, and a butler-drawn bubble bath to soak your stress away.

Rates: Starts from S$398++, until 30 December 2020

Address: 1 Beach Road, 189673 Singapore

Fullerton Bay Hotel

Overlooking prime real estate in Singapore (the Marina Bay waterfront), the Fullerton Bay Hotel offers luxury with a view. Suites showcase each of Singapore’s cultural identities, ranging from rich Peranakan tradition to Indian culture-inspired influences, all while offering an exclusive view of the Marina Bay panorama from a private balcony.

The Staycation by the Bay offers $100 nett of Food & Beverage credit, daily breakfast, and other complimentary perks for you to wine and dine your woes away. Did we mention the complimentary in-room Bottega Veneta amenities?

Rates: Starts from S$650++, until 30 December 2020

Address: ​80 Collyer Quay, Singapore 049326

Raffles Hotel

Featured on the set of Crazy, Rich Asians, Raffles Hotel is a timeless pillar of high-class social fabric and old-world charm. As one of the few remaining 19th-century hotels of the world, a stay in this hotel is guaranteed to be iconic and memorable.

Singapore’s national drink — the Singapore Sling, was first created here; hear from the hotel’s very own resident historian for more fascinating tales surrounding this storied hotel. The special offer includes an unprecedented opportunity to enjoy a two-night stay for the price of one, and daily breakfast at the venue’s highly acclaimed Tiffin Room. Not only that, a S$100 Experiential Credit adds to the lavish experience – use your credits at 藝 yì by celebrity chef Jereme Leung or enjoy a massage at the illustrious Raffles Spa.

Rates: Starts from S$795++, until 30 September 2020

Address: ​ 1 Beach Road, 189673 Singapore

Capella Singapore

“Discover lasting relaxation on this restorative sojourn” is Capella Singapore’s tagline for this luxury spa retreat package, and we are all for it. Nestled amid verdant green and lush landscaped grounds, the Capella is an island escape that reminds us of the far-flung landscapes of Ubud, Bali.

As part of the package for two, seek refuge from the bustle of a city lifestyle and enjoy a rejuvenating therapeutic treatment from the award-winning Auriga Spa. You’ll also get to indulge in breakfast at The Knolls, one of the most exclusive all-day dining restaurants in the country. Bonus? You can bring along your pet for the experience, as Capella is the apex of a handful of pet-friendly hotels in Singapore.

Rates: Starts from S$930++, until 31 December 2020

Address: ​1 The Knolls, Sentosa Island, 098297 Singapore

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Asia Destinations Lifestyle Relaxation

Chilling In a Hammock Is a Way of Life in Muang Ngoi, Laos

In Laos, life revolves around water. The Mekong cuts through the landlocked country in mighty fashion, bringing food, transportation, and livelihoods with it. Villages cluster and flourish around smaller rivers and tributaries such as the Nam Khan and Nam Ou, as these rivers flood the surrounding rice fields and serve as local sources of sustenance and nourishment.

Today, these rivers have a different purpose — ecotourism. With its gilded temples and exquisite French colonial architecture, Laos is fast becoming one of the top travel destinations in Southeast Asia. Cities like Luang Prabang are visited by as many as 600,000 visitors a year (as of 2019), and its popularity comes in part from its scenic location at the confluence of two mega rivers — the Mekong and Nam Khan.

Despite the recent boom, you’ll be happy to know there remains rustic riverside villages that offer a glimpse of local Laotian culture, sans the crowd. In these villages, the name of the game is enjoyment and ease of life, and indeed, ‘sabai sabai’ (take it easy) is the aphorism that sums up the average Laotian’s approach to life.

Muang Ngoi (pronounced moo-ang ny-yoi) is one such village, situated in Northern Laos.

History of Muang Ngoi

Most of the local inhabitants have lived in the village for many generations, though some of the guesthouses are now operated by entrepreneurial locals from other parts of the country. The small village was pulverised during the Second Indochina War in Laos (1959-1975), and was only ‘discovered’ by travellers after it was rebuilt in the late 1990s.

Word of the idyllic riverside village spread, and today, Muang Ngoi is best known for its beauty and laissez-faire atmosphere. Surrounded by limestone cliffs and jungle-clad karst mountains, the tranquil village is a sanctuary for the weary traveller — an oasis far removed from the worries of daily life.

How to get there

Only reachable by boat, Muang Ngoi is an hour’s journey from the neighbouring villages of Nong Khiaw or Muang Khua. Of the two, travelling from Nong Khiaw is the more popular choice, as it houses epic hikes and gushing waterfalls. The public boat leaves at only two timings every day (10:30 or 14:00) from the jetty at Nong Khiaw.

Riding through some of the most dramatic sections of the Nam Ou, the journey is an adventure in itself. You’ll float by verdant wilderness and rickety villages, and if you’re lucky, see water buffaloes frolicking in the water or a fisherman out on the job. Some days, low-lying fog and misty clouds encircle the surrounding mountains, adding mystery and a distinct chill to the otherwise hot and humid environment.

Things to do

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@tiphbee/Instagram

A single road runs through the tiny village; walking end-to-end would take no more than 15 minutes. Bamboo bungalows on stilts and nondescript guesthouses line riverside, perched precariously on rocks from the river bank. These bungalows offer the most basic of amenities — a bed, and since 2013, electric-heated showers. On the balcony, a colourful hammock hangs, comfortable and inviting.

And indeed, lounging in the hammock, riverside, is what most travellers choose to do when visiting Muang Ngoi. There’s nothing that beats an unobstructed, panoramic view of the Nam Ou and rolling green mountains. Hearing the gentle ‘put-put’ of the longboats and watching the clouds go by is a tangible pastime, as is falling asleep to a chorus of frogs and the lapping of the Nam Ou against the shore.

If you get hungry, take a brief stroll through the sleepy town — there’s only a couple of restaurants and one bar to pick from. Wi-Fi is still relatively weak and unstable, offering the rare opportunity to go completely off-the-grid, and recharge in absolute peace and serenity.

Surrounding villages

For the adventurous, a hike to the surrounding villages of Bana and Huay Bo is in order. As you pass vibrant green rice fields and shallow rivers, you’ll find the trail refreshingly empty, save for the odd local. No difficult hills or rocky terrain complicates the trek; even hiking, it seems the pace of life in Muang Ngoi is slow and unassuming.

Yet, you’ll notice that despite the unhurried lifestyle, everywhere there is life. Skinny chickens cluck in the yard while stray dogs run around untethered, and the local children love to swim and dive-bomb in raucous delight in the nearby river.

In Muang Ngoi, it is about living in the moment, more so than chasing after the next activity. Embracing the spontaneity of these unplanned little moments of joy is something we could all learn from the Laotians to indulge in more in our lives.

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Destinations Lifestyle Relaxation

Travelling Solo As a Lesson On the Art Of Relaxation

I lean back against the rough panel, cautious that I’m perched on a makeshift wooden hut some 700-metres above the ground. I’d just completed my hike to the peak of Nang None Mountain in Nong Khiaw, as part of a solo trip to Northern Laos. Around me, there was nothing but thick foliage and a sweeping view of the charming riverside village down below. It was perfectly still, serene. It was another two hours before I started making my way back down again, buoyant and recharged from my little escapade in solitude.

Solo travel and its benefits

A recent survey by leading travel experience platform, Klook, found that up to 76% of people have travelled alone or are interested to do so. Another survey conducted by Agoda, a leading online travel agent, supports this, with relaxation cited as the top reason more travellers have been choosing to explore solo.

From personal experience, it is true that solo travel provides a welcome respite from the stressors of modern living. By having the full freedom of deciding what you want to do, when you want it, you afford yourself the gift of time for necessary reflection and introspection, without having to adhere to anyone’s timeline. Indulge in a leisurely hike in nature’s embrace or read at the beach for the whole day — the choice to unwind and destress is yours.

More than that, solo travel is a lesson in mindfulness and living in the moment, as staying present is one of the best ways to heighten your awareness of all that’s going on around you. Not only is this important when travelling alone, the cultivation of purposeful solitude can be helpful in lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone produced by your body.

Learning to relax

That said, if you come from a busy lifestyle, taking a day off for yourself might not come naturally, let alone for several weeks. To this point, it’s important to give yourself time to acclimatize to travelling solo; the satisfaction will follow.

Foster new social connections

The first lesson? Paradoxically, it is to connect with the people around you. Socialising with others as a solo traveller brings with it its own stress-relieving benefits, including lots of laughter and spontaneous adventures you might never have had before. When you’re on your own, it becomes easier to meet locals and connect with other travellers, and research has long shown a positive correlation between social interaction and cognitive function.

Exploring a foreign destination with new friends is often also the confidence booster you need, if you’ve been stuck in a rut or going through a major transition in your life. There’s just something about interacting with the world at large that gets you out of your head and rediscover your passion for life.

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Get out of your comfort zone

On a related note, because solo travel forces one to face difficulties with new people in an unfamiliar environment, you learn to become mentally resilient. This is key to emotional relaxation — the ability to surrender to the uncontrollable and accept whatever comes your way.

Having to singlehandedly deal with anything that goes wrong teaches you the depths of your own grace and patience. As your mindset shifts to one of self-postivity and empowerment, you’ll find yourself more adept at overcoming obstacles and problem solving, allowing you to refocus only on what matters.

Become good at doing nothing

Above all, travelling solo teaches you the art of doing nothing with intention and purpose. I’ve found visiting the same spot that’s comfortable to me in the city — this can be a park bench or the beach — to be reassuring and calming. Writing in a journal has been a reiterative process I like to engage in, to refuel my mind, body, and spirit with some much needed rest and inspiration.

In a world that’s constantly on the go and always striving, this opportunity to ‘just be’ is usually hard to come by. The nature of solo travel gives you plenty of space to learn to relish being alone with your thoughts, a skill that if nurtured becomes a powerful asset and state of being. Downtime becomes less of a foreign concept as you practice relaxation, and learn to be content with nothing more than the current moment. It is a necessary pause for your body to regenerate and recover.

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Asia Destinations Europe Lifestyle Relaxation South Korea

The Most Unique Spas You’d Want to Try Around the World

Spas — the saving grace of many a weary and disillusioned soul. While the typical spa experience conjures up images of massages and mud baths, the definition of the modern spa experience has expanded to include facials, body scrubs, even meditation and exercise classes.

In this article, we dive deeper into spas that promote the renewal of mind, body, and spirit, through a variety of singular practices and environmental components. Slow down and pamper yourself with these one-of-a-kind spas from around the world:

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

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As one Tripadvisor reviewer puts it, the Blue Lagoon is a “joyful Disneyland feeling in water paradise”. Nestled amid rocky volcanic landscapes and alien-like black lava fields, the Blue Lagoon looks ethereal and otherworldly. Steam occasionally billows across the milky blue waters, and the stunning shade of blue is because of the unique combination of silica, algae, and minerals that does wonders for your skin.

Visitors can choose from three options: Comfort, Premium, and Luxury for entry into the spa. The lagoon is open all year round, and the best time to visit is often in the evening — for the midnight sun in summer or the Northern Lights in winter.

Thermal Beer Bath, Budapest, Hungary

For the ultimate rejuvenating effect, bathe in 36°C (96.8°F) thermal water combined with natural beer ingredients — malt, yeast, hops, and beer salt, all elements that are rich in vitamins and minerals. Bonus? You get a beer tap in between the tubs you’re soaking in, so you can drink all the Czech beer you want to your heart’s content.

One of two spas in the city to offer the option of bubbling in yeasty, aromatic beer, the Szechenyi Thermal Baths in Budapest is known to be healing and luxuriously calming. After your beer bath, soak in any of the 18 medicinal pools within the beautifully decorated, Neo-Renaissance inspired complex to end off your relaxing retreat.

Hammam, Turkey

The Traditional Turkish Bath (or ‘Hammam’) in Turkey is a transcendental experience of purification. The typical package includes 45 minutes of washing: beginning with 10-15 minutes in the hot room, where you can relax and sweat it out; a thorough scrubbing and exfoliation by an attendant with a special kese glove; and the highlight — the traditional foam massage.

If you’re looking for baths that accept mixed groups of men and women, try the Suleymaniye or Galatasaray in Istanbul. Sit back and relax on the warm marble slab (‘gobektasi’) as the attendant lathers your entire body with a soft, foam-filled cloth for a soothing, sudsy massage. This all takes place in an opulent, marble-covered room — usually designed for rays of light to stream through a high, central dome, creating a lavish, almost decadent experience.

Jjimjilbang, South Korea

The Jjimjilbang (a traditional, gender-segregated Korean public bathhouse) is a way of life in South Korea. These Korean spas are often multi-storey complexes that are open 24-hours and feature all kinds of amenities from hot tubs and saunas to ice rooms, private sleeping quarters, and karaoke bars.

Try immersing yourself in a kiln sauna for the ultimate Jjimjilbang experience — these wood and charcoal powered stone kilns reach up to temperatures of 200°C (392°F) and are believed to promote relaxation and detoxification of the body through sweat. Visitors often huddle on rice-straw mats within the clay dome and drape towels over their heads to protect themselves from the intense heat.

Banya, Russia

What the Jjimjilbang is to Koreans, the Russian Banya (traditional Russian bathhouse) is to Russians. The typical banya comprises a steam room with long wooden benches, pools or buckets of cold water, and leafy, fragrant bundles of birch, oak, fir or eucalyptus (‘venik’).

Named ‘the tsar of banya’, the venik is used to flog the skin, and this act is said to help improve blood circulation and release toxins from the body. Sounds unusual, but the Russian banya is all about high-humidity steaming, followed by a careful lashing of the skin with a softened bundle of twigs. Felt hats are part of the stimulating experience, and while they may look strange, wearing them is necessary to protect your head and reduce the risk of overheating. As the Russians would say, “A bath-broom in the banya is worth more than money.”

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Destinations Lifestyle Relaxation Singapore

The Best Parks in Singapore for a Lazy Afternoon

As a garden city, there is no shortage of verdant green spaces in Singapore. According to the Environmental Performance Index, a sustainability study that evaluates the environmental health and ecosystem vitality of a country, Singapore ranks 14th internationally and is the top ranked country in Asia.

With over 300 parks to choose from, green urbanism is big and for good reason. These pockets of nature soften the tone of Singapore’s built landscape, providing peaceful sanctuaries away from the bustle of a thriving metropolis. Parks are great hideouts for the days you get overwhelmed by the surrounding chaos, and none more so than the ones in Singapore, as most are free and open for all 24 hours.

Here are the best parks in Singapore for a languid afternoon:

Singapore Botanic Gardens

With luxuriant gardens filled with the most beautiful of tropical flora, Singapore Botanic Gardens tops the list as an oasis for the weary traveller. Sculpted lawns and cosy alcoves can be found throughout the massive 82-hectare park, providing ample room for quiet picnics and heartfelt conversations. Full of heritage charm and natural wonder, the Botanic Gardens is favoured for being a breath of fresh air in a concrete jungle.

Address: 1 Cluny Road, 259569, Singapore

Opening hours: 5 a.m. – 12 a.m., Monday to Sunday

East Coast Park

As the largest beachside park in Singapore, East Coast Park is an urban getaway. A public park, it is a lot less polished than the Singapore Botanic Gardens or Gardens by the Bay, but in being no-frills lies its charm. Benches are scattered throughout the park for visitors to sit and relax, and an abundance of cafes and restaurants offer plenty of opportunities to hangout.

It is most common to see visitors chilling in the shade of the park’s coconut palm trees and Casuarinas, or enjoying a low-key picnic on the beach with family and friends.

Address: East Coast Park Service Road

Opening hours: Open 24 hours

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Pasir Ris Park

Much like East Coast Park, Pasir Ris Park is a public beachside park popular for the respite it provides from a busy lifestyle. Located at the eastern tip of Singapore, its far flung location shelters it from the brunt of Singapore’s densely packed population. A stellar (and massive) playground differentiates it from the rest; surprisingly, it is also in the playground area where you’ll find most of the lounging going on.

The Mangrove Boardwalk adds to the tropical ambience of the park — a trail designed for the nature enthusiasts of the world. Cutting through six hectares of carefully preserved, lush green mangrove forests, you won’t be able to help unwinding and letting it all hang out, in nature’s embrace.

Address: 110 Pasir Ris Road, 519113, Singapore

Opening hours: Open 24 hours

Sembawang Park

At the Northernmost tip of Singapore lies a secluded beachside park, where you’re able to unwind and destress in near solitude. Lying directly in the flight path of migratory birds, Sembawang Park is unique for the opportunities it provides to catch exotic wildlife, especially at certain times of the year.

Facing the Johor Straits of Malaysia, visitors can relax at the pier while keeping an eye out for the resident white-bellied sea eagle, which occasionally graces the sky with its soaring acrobatics.

Address: Sembawang Road

Opening hours: Open 24 hours

Fort Canning Park

Fort Canning Park is a treasured haven with deep historical significance. A hill in the middle of the city, it once served as the headquarters of the British Army in World War II, until Singapore’s surrender to the Japanese.

Today, the park’s allure lies in its artful designs and elevation, interwoven within a sea of vast, expansive green. Events like outdoor movies and picnics are commonly held throughout the year, making Fort Canning one of the more ‘fashionable’ parks in the city.

Address: River Valley Road, 179037, Singapore

Opening hours: Open 24 hours

Jurong Lake Gardens

A masterpiece in creation, Jurong Lake Gardens comprises Lakeside Garden, Chinese and Japanese Gardens, and Garden Promenade. The 90-hectare ‘people’s garden’ is far-removed from the thrum of city activity, and landscaped for idyllic get-togethers and quiet tranquility.

Lakeside Garden is best for nature photography with whimsical lalang (tall tufts of Cogon grass) fields and scenic boardwalks, while the Chinese and Japanese Gardens inspire with a unique landscape of pagodas and oriental buildings.

As of 2020, the Chinese and Japanese Gardens are being redeveloped, as Jurong Lake Gardens is set to become the newest national garden in Singapore.

Address: Yuan Ching Road

Opening hours: Open 24 hours

Categories
Destinations Lifestyle Relaxation Singapore

A Singaporean Shares the Ultimate Park for Relaxation in the City

“This is not a world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” – Richard Powers, The Overstory.

And at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, this rings true. Wizened and gnarled, slender and shapely, trees and plants of over 10,000 species grow in a thousand green hues at the 161-year-old park. For each venerable bough and branch, tropical flora blossoms, in vibrant colour and aromatic perfumery.

Careful curation and conservation over the years has resulted in a modern model of green urbanism — an unexpected oasis amid a concrete jungle. Beyond its lush sculpted landscapes is a heritage charm that easily makes the Botanic Gardens a superlative park for relaxation in the city. Here’s why it tops the list of parks in Singapore:

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Rich history

The gardens has evolved into a leading tropical botanical institute since its humble beginnings in 1859. Artefacts of its deep historical and cultural value lie on its grounds, in the form of lofty trees and hardy barks.

The Heritage Trees Walking Trail pays homage to this fact with seven living legacies of Singapore’s green heritage. Look for the Rubber Tree — a tall, spindly tree with smooth, greying bark. While it’s known that Singapore exported rubber during the industrial revolution, it’s lesser known that the Botanic Gardens was the source of the rubber trees that kickstarted the industry in Asia.

Experimentation was in vogue back then, and the director of the gardens, Henry Nicholas (H. N.) Ridley, was a botanist on a mission. He not only cultivated rubber saplings that had failed to grow in British climates into healthy trees but went on to invent the only method of rubber tapping that could extract rubber sap without killing its host. This discovery coincided with the explosive growth in demand for rubber during World War II and a burgeoning automobile industry; and the rest, as people say, is history.

Today, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is the only tropical botanic gardens that is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world as its inhabitants have not just impacted the country’s landscape, but the society and economy at large.

Unique places of interest

Spanning 82-hectares, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is a verdant sanctuary of cosy alcoves and airy pavilions. While there are numerous places of interest to fill up your day with, there are even more to let your hair down. Having visited many times, there are a few places that never get old.

Palm Valley

Gawky, feathery palms line the wide, expansive space that is Palm Valley. This place is beloved for its openness, and convenience of location (it is situated right next to Symphony Lake which holds the occasional orchestral production).

Amazingly, while it is close to the touristic but beautiful National Orchid Garden, it remains relatively chill and serene. Find an empty nook amid the palm trees, lie down and watch the clouds go by, read a book, or picnic. You’ll find it easy to enjoy your little slice of calm in palm tree haven.

Rainforest

One of the oldest remnants of Singapore’s primary rainforests, the Rainforest is a beautiful reminder of Singapore’s evolution from rural village to cosmopolitan city. Take the Rainforest Walking Trail to immerse yourself into a clandestine world of tropical vegetation and monolithic trees.

Swan Lake

Named after the beautiful white (and black) swans that grace the lake, Swan Lake is a popular attraction in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, not least because it is the oldest ornamental water feature in the city. It is a breath of fresh air for those seeking a charming spot to relax in the gardens.

Quiet sanctums

There’s something for everyone, and off-the-beaten-track areas within the park continue to provide safe shelters for those seeking to retreat from the world for a couple of hours. These include:

Eco-lake

The eastern side of the park (Bukit Timah Gate) tends to be lesser explored, and Eco-lake is the main attraction offering refreshing respite in the area. Trim, spruced-up lawns surround the peaceful lake, making for an idyllic setting to unwind and destress from the bustle of a busy lifestyle.

Sundial Garden

While the focal point is the 1929 bronze sundial that sits in the middle of the garden, its jade green water lily ponds add ambience to the tranquil setting of the little glade. Pavilions can be found at either end of the garden, and provide a great resting space for those who stumble upon it.

Frangipani Collection

An assembly of garden swings entice the passing visitor to linger at the Frangipani Collection, and engage in a moment of suspended delight. Under the shade of the elegant Frangipani trees, it becomes easy to let your woes and worries temporarily slip away.

Curtain of Roots

Wispy and dream-like, aerial roots belonging to the Princess Vine, a close relative of the common grape, hang down in a veiled curtain of red. While the Curtain of Roots is a short pathway, it provides an exclusive, almost private experience of calm and quiet.

The Verdict?

The Singapore Botanic Gardens is touristic, but still manages to harbour pockets of peaceful sanctuaries perfect for a lazy afternoon. Just like the Central Park is to New Yorkers, the Botanic Gardens is to this Singaporean the representative recreational parkland of the city.