From Beijing to Bali: A Look Back on Travels (and Travel Stories) in 2013

Shanghai China

In a word, wow.

I won’t bore you with the cutesy details of the busy travel year that was my 2013 (“When I wasn’t X-ing in Y, you would have found me X-ing in Y or…”), but I feel very fortunate to say that these past 12 months went by in a wonderful blur of airports and hotels and restaurants and booze and pavement pounding. I traveled more in 2013 than I have in any other year to date, to places both new (Shanghai, Langkawi, Beijing, others) and familiar (Bangkok, Brooklyn, London, others), and with January journeys to Bangkok, Amsterdam, and Macau on the horizon my calendar is already filling up fast in the coming year; I hope yours is too.

Before bidding adieu to 2013 and sahwadee krupĀ to 2014, however, here are a few of my ’13 travel features for the Perceptive Travel Blog. Thanks for reading (more here for my two hardcore fans), and see you next year.

– Brian Spencer


In Tiananmen Square, Come for the Corpse, Stay for the Shopping – On my first visit to Beijing I had just one full day to squeeze in some proper sightseeing, so of course I started with a visit to Tiananmen Square to view the embalmed corpse of socialist China’s great leader. The experience of shuffling past The Man in the Glass Case was more bizarre than eerie, and isn’t something one need do more than once — if one does it at all — but I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than to have discovered where to go for adorable Mao Zedong memorabilia.

More on Beijing:
In Beijing, Urban Planning Yub-Nub and the Unsettling Sound of Silence
A Winter Walk Down Beijing’s Wangfujing Street Food Wonderland

Tiger Beer’s Journey from Grain to Gold (or Spinning Mediocrity as Sacrosanct Nectar) – I always enjoy visiting breweries, be it a casual tour of Montana microbreweries like Wolf Pack Brewing Company and Neptune’s Brewery, or a super-slick, big-budget package experience at beer factories like Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis; the Tiger Brewery Tour in Singapore certainly falls in the latter category. Held in the far western reaches of the island at Asia Pacific Breweries’ huge headquarters, the Tiger beer tour is corny and corporate — and a lot of fun, particularly during the 45-minute free flow of booze at the tour’s conclusion.

In Singapore, a Shit Hole That’s Worth the Splurge – Singapore has a love-hate relationship with chef Danny Lee and his Sin Huat Eating House, a Geylang shit hole famously spotlighted by Anthony Bourdain as one of his “13 places to eat before you die.” Though I’m sure some have quibbles with the cuisine, it’s the gruff service, mysterious (over) pricing, and lack of fine-dining ambience to match the fine-dining prices that draw the ire of many Singaporeans — nuts to that. Yes, it’s a little expensive and rather dirty and the Sin Huat staff has something of an I-could-give-a-fuck attitude, but in squeaky-straightforward Singapore, I very much appreciate rough-around-the-edges imperfection, and though I’m no expert on local cuisine, chef Lee knows his way around the kitchen.

Langkawi Malaysia

Snapshot of a Weekend in Malaysia’s Jewel of Kadah – My wife surprised me with a weekend trip to Langkawi to celebrate my 35th birthday, and it ended up as the most relaxing beach getaway of the year. There was, of course, plenty of lounging and reading under a thatched-roof beach hut at lovely Casa del Mar — the epitome of boring for your purposes, dear reader — but there were also delish fish tacos at posh Four Seasons Langkawi, an exclusive resort located on the island’s gorgeous northern coast and accessed via a scenic trek by motorbike, as well as tasty Mexican food, in an Italian-style restaurant, served by Indians.

Another Weekend in Malaysia:
Snapshot of a Long Weekend in Kuala Lumpur

Just an Ordinary Lunch at an Ordinary Singapore Hawker Centre – My local hawker centre at West Coast Market Square doesn’t fall on many (any?) “must-visit” food itineraries in Singapore, and as far as I know it’s not home to any “celebrity” hawkers, but there’s a high level of daily culinary work going on here by a small army of blue-collar hawker chefs, just as there is at each of the island’s more than 100 world-famous food centers. On one random afternoon, I queued for a bowl of fishball noodle soup, and was mesmerized by the senior couple cranking ’em out.

Hardcore Craft Beers and Not-So-Hardcore-Anymore ’90s in London’s Camden Town – It’s only a matter of time until the ’90s are cool again; fashion-wise, it seems we’re right on the cusp. That time can’t come soon enough for places like the American Midwest, where residents over the age of 40 are no longer permitted to wear anything but ill-fitting Levi’s Silvertabs, and Camden, still the best area in London to keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ with your belly-button and eyebrow and cleft rings. As it happens, it’s also where you’ll find one of the city’s three BrewDog craft beer bars.

Bali Indonesia

The Dashed White Lines Between Life and Death on Bali’s Two-Lane Racetracks – The good thing about staying on Bali’s relatively secluded northwestern coast? No ravenous crowds, no tourism-spurred overdevelopment, and a scenic drive through the heart of this ecologically diverse Indonesian island. The bad thing? A harrowing drive through the heart of an island whose resident motorists drive as if competing for pole position in the Indy 500.

The Laundromat Plug – For more than 10 years I washed my dirty laundry at a cramped Brooklyn laundromat on Graham Avenue called Bubble. This piece is 1,800 words about said laundromat, and a woman who still works there whom I only know as “The Plug.” Oh, come now, I know you’re just dying to dive into this one.

The Women Like Flesh-Colored Nylon Socks, and Other Things to Know About Shanghai, China – I was supposed to be in Shanghai just over a year ago, but following the dumbest travel fail of my life to date it was a trip that wound up being delayed until September. Armed with, you know, a valid visa, in Shanghai I found surprisingly wide open spaces, plenty of craft beer, fantastic Sichuan restaurants, and runny nylon socks; also this.

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