Category: Around the World

First Month in Tel Aviv, Israel

A few months ago, I applied to a program called NUS Overseas College (NOC) that places you in a startup in a startup hub of the world as an intern for 6 months. I got into the Israel chapter, which means I get to take 6 months off college to intern at a startup in Tel Aviv! I got here on 1st July and the first month has been amazing!

Tel Aviv is a tiny city. According to google its 50 square kms big, which is 1/14th the size of Singapore and 1/28th the size of Delhi. A large part of the city is accessible by foot, so I can walk to quite a few places.

I really like the city. Its a perfect combination of the two cities I’ve lived in. Its low rise, like Delhi. Its safe, like Singapore. The beach is nearby. Basic infrastructure like transportation is pretty good. For those of you who don’t know, its a fully developed country (no, there are no bombs on the streets). The people are a lot like Indians in some ways. They’re spiritual and energetic. Some people are religious. People in Tel Aviv are much more open minded than the people I’ve met in India though. They’re quite hippie, kind of like the people at Yale-NUS. Its a perfect combination for me!

Tel Aviv is very diverse. You see all kinds of people from all sorts of places. Some are from the middle east region, others from Europe. Its not rare to see people from Africa and Latin America either. So just based on someone’s appearance, you can’t tell whether they’re locals or foreigner, except perhaps for Asians who tend to stand out a bit more here. As one local said to me, “Anyone can be from Tel Aviv!”. In general, people are quite friendly here. They’re easy to talk to and they like foreigners. One of my favourite things about the people here is just how smart they are. They take intelligence to a completely new level. But that might just be the people I’ve interacted with so far.

A street party in Tel Aviv on the French Bastille day. There was music, street performances and people drinking and dancing to French music in the streets.
Another street performance in Tel Aviv. Its not rare to come across people singing in the streets. Based on what I’ve seen so far, they sometimes do it for money and other times for a social cause. 

A popular dish called Shakshuka. It’s tomato sauce with eggs and other veggies. Its typically eaten with bread. I learnt to cook it this week! 
Hummus with meat, one of the local dishes in Israel. The Hummus here is so different from the kind I’ve eaten before. It has a different flavour altogether, probably because of the spices they use to make it. The meals here in general are pretty big. I usually can’t finish dishes I order at restaurants in one go. Each of them are usually 1.5 or 2 meals for me.

The startup I’m working at is called eRated. It combines the online identity of online sellers who sell on websites like eBay/Amazon. Its been fascinating to learn that different e-commerce sellers actually operate on multiple platforms, but the reviews and ratings they have are scattered across all the platforms they operate on. So eRated pulls out information from the different marketplaces they operate on and aggregates reviews, facebook/linkedin profiles, etc to give buyers more information about the sellers. I’m doing marketing and social media at eRated. Working with the team at eRated has been amazing. They’re super smart people and they’re really fun. I’m learning a lot! Working with them motivates me to work harder at my own startup project. One of the best parts is that my work timings are 10.30 am to 8 pm, so it suits my body clock perfectly.

The eRated family! We had a fun day recently where we went for massages, drinks and Barbeque. Missing Matt, Jake and Yoav in the picture. 
Photo credits: Boaz Cohen

A timelapse of a day at the office.
Video credits: Dor Kelman 

I live in an apartment with three others from Singapore. I’ve learnt a lot living in an apartment, since this is my first time doing it without my parents. I’m learning to take better care of myself. In college, I never need to cook since food is provided. Here, I need to cook because food outside is pretty expensive ($15 a meal on average/ 750 Rs). I’m trying to learn to cook one new thing every week-preferably from different cultures! I actually prefer living in an apartment to college dorms. This way, I get to have more control over my meals, timings, etc. However, I miss being able to walk over to my friends rooms and knock on their doors to say hello!

The living room cum dining area of our apartment. The apartment turned out to be much bigger and nicer than the expectations we had for ourselves based on the photos we’d seen of it.  
A photo taken in the Old Jaffa area of Tel Aviv. We stayed at a hostel there the first few days before moving into our apartment. Its a beautiful area. It used to be a port at some time in history. Also, it has some biblical associations.

A view of Jaffa port. This photo was taken on our first day when we were walking along the beach to see the sunset.

In the old Jaffa area, there are several little cafes on the streets where people just chat and drink. These cafes would be filled with people on weekday nights and weekends. These kind of outdoor cafes are also prominent in several other parts of Tel Aviv.

A weekend visit to Nazareth, a town about 1.5 hours away from Tel Aviv. Its known for being the birth place of Jesus and is dominated by Arabs. Getting out of Tel Aviv and seeing the landscape on the highway and in Nazareth was amazing. Its one of the only places I’ve visited that’s more beautiful than portrayed in pictures. 
Tel Aviv Port: I don’t know if its a functional port, but it has a lot of nice restaurants around it. My flat mates and I went there one night and it was really nice walking along the port. 

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Da Nang

After a 16 hour long train journey, Shivani and I found ourselves in Da Nang, a city in the middle of Vietnam. Da Nang is much smaller than Hanoi. It has less people, less traffic and fewer people speak English.

I really enjoyed being there, because it had a good mix of everything. There were beaches to hang out at, a riverside with lots of hangout spots, some beautiful bridges and it was fun to just walk around the city. We encountered some statues, museums, churches and old buildings.

Da Nang was more spaced out, which is why the roads were wider and there were fewer commercial spots at most places in the city. We noticed a lot of tourists renting and riding motorbikes there. It was rainy and cold most of the time we were there, which was a bit disappointing since we were hoping to meet pleasant weather after Hanoi.

We spent 3 days in Da Nang which turned out to be a perfect duration for us. We spent two days in the main city and by the riverside and one relatively pleasant day at the beach.

Mi Quang, a noodle dish that originates from Da Nang with Thai coconuts! 

A night besides the riverside! At this bar, we met a waitress originally from Ho Chi Minh city who was our age and trying to improve her English before she could get a job on a cruise ship and travel the world. 

A view of the Dragon Bridge that is one of several bridges over Han River. The Dragon Bridge connects one part of the city to another. The two parts are quite different from each other in that one is more city like and the other is filled with hotels, beaches and sea food restaurants. 

Eating Delicious Bahn Xeo (rice crepes with beansprouts and egg) on the popular Hoang Dieu Street. This place was hidden at the end of tiny alley and took us quite a while to find. As soon as we sat down we were served a standard meal which everyone seemed to be eating. Shivani ranks this meal as her best meal in Vietnam!  
On our third day, we got a few hours without rain. It didn’t take us long to figure out what we wanted to do that day. 

There are several cruises along Han river for $5 per person which take you past the several bridges in about an hour or two. 

Hanoi

I spent two weeks of my December break in Vietnam with my best friend from high school. It was pretty fun. For one, this was the first time I got so much time with my best friend. Also, I love Vietnamese food.

I liked the fact that Vietnam is a developing country. Developed countries to me have little sense of risk. Developing countries are different. They’re less organised, peoples’ lives are more interesting and there’s more to learn about them. 
Our flight from Singapore went en-route Ho Chi Minh City (where we were to later return) to Hanoi, one of the northern and capital city of Vietnam. We had a two hour layover in Ho Chi Minh which is a southern city of Vietnam, where we hoped to grab some lunch at the airport. That did not happen. My visa on arrival took far longer than expected. Vietnam requires several country’s citizens to either get a visa before landing in the country OR get an approval letter online which expects your arrival and makes you eligible to get a visa on arrival. I chose the latter option. 
First, I had to queue up to submit my visa application form and approval letter. Then, I had to wait for them to process it and call out my name with my stamped passport. The processing part took quite long, and I had to show them my boarding pass, which indicated that my next flight was boarding in 15 minutes. The authorities were being quite nice to people who had to catch another flight and rushed our applications. 
Once I had my visa, Shivani and I ran from the international to the domestic airport (which were right next to each other) in the rain. We had to check in again and go through security check again, which took some time. But we made it to our next flight, which is all that really matters. 
We reached Hanoi airport around 4:30 PM and took our time to leave the airport. At 5:30 we took a bus from the airport to the city, which is an hour and a half away. The bus was surprisingly cheap. It cost us 2 USD per person (after we figured out that they were trying to overcharge us). By the time we reached the city it was 7 PM. Our original plan was to take a train up to Sapa, a city 8 hours north of Hanoi. But just the night before our flight, we had discovered that train tickets to Sapa weren’t available online. So we decided to spend 2 extra days in Hanoi which made it a total of 4 days. We later discovered that train tickets online sell out because local travel agents buy them and re-sell them. So we probably could have gotten tickets to Sapa had we known. 
Vietnamese Pho (Noodle Soup) on our first night in Hanoi
But 4 days in Hanoi was good too. We ended up doing things all of the 4 days we were there. Hanoi weather was kind of cold. It was ~10-15 degrees celsius. The sun never comes out in the winter there apparently, and it was a bit rainy. Hanoi looks much like an expanded version of a small town of India. It’s very large, has lots of traffic and little shops falling onto the roads selling groceries, clothes, tools or anything else you might need to buy. There were hardly any high rise buildings or malls. There were lots of lakes, which was interesting to me because I’d never been to a city with so many lakes inside of it. This meant lots of nice parks and areas to chill beside lakes. Coffee and tea stalls were popular, so was street food. The street food in Vietnam is safe even for foreigners and quite low on oil. So we could effectively eat street food for all our meals and not fall ill. This is very unlike street food in India which should not be eaten on a regular basis. 
Che (pronounced chay) a popular Vietnamese dessert 
Meals on the street would usually cost less than $5 for both me and Shivani. Coffee was cheap too, but got more expensive in indoor cafes. I really loved Vietnamese coffee. It’s dark coffee with condensed milk. Its pretty heavy, so by the third day I started cutting down on my coffee consumption. 
Vietnamese coffee is traditionally served with condensed milk. The filter (silver cup on top of the glass) is filled with coffee powder and hot water, which drips into the glass.
Photo Credits: Shivani Kalra
Egg Coffee, a specialty of a popular Hanoi cafe. It was possibly the best coffee I’ve had. The foam, which fills half the cup, is made of egg and below it is Vietnamese coffee. 
Coconut Coffee, found at a cafe in Hanoi. I think it was just the cream which was coconut flavoured.
There’s an area called the old quarter of Hanoi which has most of the hotels, hostels, the popular Hoan Kiem Lake, the Hanoi prison, the night market and lots of cafes and popular eating joints. My favourite place was the Hanoi prison, where I learnt a lot about the French acquisition of Vietnam and the Vietnam war. Another attraction is the Water Puppet Theatre which puts up shows of the traditional Vietnamese art of Water puppetry. As the names implies, it is a show of puppets in water. There is live music sung in the background and the puppetry depicts different aspects of Vietnamese traditional life. Personally, I didn’t really enjoy it much and didn’t think it was worth the $5 entry fees. There were no translations, so it was hard to understand what really was going on. 
Shivani poses for me at the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi
Meeting up with my friend from college Elson and his friend at the bridge across Hoan Kiem Lake
We stayed in the old quarter for the first two nights and couchsurfed for the next two nights at a place a little outside of the Old Quarter. Hanoi’s couchsurfing community is pretty tight, and they have a lot of events and get togethers that we unfortunately didn’t know of until our third night in Hanoi. 
One of the first things I noticed about Hanoi was how laid back it is. People were clearly underemployed and pace of life seemed slow, atleast from an outsiders’ perspective. But I think that plays a major role in making Hanoi such a popular tourist attraction. I thought the hype behind it is a bit much, but I can definitely see where it comes from. It isn’t often that you come across a city with friendly people, convenient transport and cheap food. 

Day 4: Angkor Wat


We woke up at 5 am to catch the sunrise at what is often called a wonder of the world, the Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and the sun didn’t show up until around 8 am. The reason that sunrise at Angkor Wat is so hyped is that unlike most monuments, the Angkor Wat is built facing the west, so the sun rises from behind it. The reflection of the Angkor Wat falls on a lake in front of it. The Angkor Wat is not a stand alone temple and is part of the Angkor Thom, a large complex of temples. Many people spend up to 3 full days there. The sad side to that is that Angkor Thom is now private property and charges $20 per day. The complex is so large that you need to either bike or take a tuk tuk to get from one temple to another. There a small route and a larger route depending on how many temples you want to see. Florence and I took the smaller route. 


The temples at Angkor Wat went far beyond the temples I have ever known. They are more like historical ruins, with a few statues of Buddha here and there (though it was originally built for Hindu use). The colour of the walls is beautiful, mainly dark grey with tinges of green moss and the occasional red sandstone colour. There is no functional use of the temples we saw in the religious context. Its mostly a tourist spot where people walk around. Unlike other temples I’ve seen, the temples at Angkor Wat involve a lot of exploring and getting lost, much like you would in an ancient palace. The Angkor Thom is multi storey and very big in itself. After many stairs and galleried floors, you reach the core central area where there are three stone structures resembling stupas/mountains on top. This place is filled with rocks and tourists sitting on them. 

We spent over an hour exploring the Angkor Wat before we moved to the next temples. Most of them were similar in that they all had similar structures and materials with which they were constructed. They varied in size and complexity. Some temples were quite small and didn’t play as much with my sense of direction. There was an element of mystery in many of the temples. Some of them had unknown faces carved, like the Bayon, which was personally my favourite temple. Others were still incomplete for unknown reasons, likely to be the death of the creator. There was reconstruction work going on at every other temple we went to. Other countries’ governments were helping in conservation efforts such as the Indian and Chinese government. 


The Bayon temple was one with multiple mountain like structures with faces carved on them. You could go up to it and see the faces up close. 
Some of the temples in construction were a blend of old and new, not in a nice way. One of temples for example, had white concrete, red sandstone, grey rock and green moss all together, which definitely reduced the beauty and authenticity of it. 




Another interesting temple was one which was such a maze that it was very common for tourists to get lost inside. It also had many trees with roots outside the ground. (I wish I could remember the name of the temple) 


While driving from one temple to another, we came across some great architecture. There were stories told through depictions on walls and statues built on railings, as if welcoming tourists. 


We conversed with our tuk tuk driver for a while. Turns out that he only recently started earning through a tuk tuk, as he was a chef earlier. He worked at an Italian restaurant, but apparently that paid less than driving a tuk tuk and had more work. His salary as a cook was $100 a month. 

By noon, we were both exhausted and ready to go home. We had spent 7 hours walking around temples and the sun was getting to us. After spending a few hours napping, I went to the night market for dinner.   

I ate khmer curry, a coconut based curry with pumpkin, carrots and your choice of meat.
I also tried a cashew milkshake, something that seems fairly popular here. It was interesting, that’s all I can say. I think mine had far too much added sugar for me to enjoy the shake.


I got a $3 back massage after dinner. I almost got a khmer massage but I was told that its similar to a Thai massage in which they beat you to pulp. Later I discovered that it isn’t as brutal as the Thai massage and is more about pressure points on your body. 

I bumped into the night market’s art center, an area selling handicrafts among other types of souvenirs

Day 3: Night Market at Siem Reap

Our bus ride to Siem Reap took 3 hours longer than expected. We were under the impression that Siem Reap is 3-4 hours away, but it took over 7 hours in the end. The bus was pretty comfortable. It was air conditioned and they gave us bottled water, breakfast and wet towels. During the ride, we got to see many villages and rural areas of Cambodia. Apart from abandoned houses and dusty roads in functional villages, houses on stilts above water were a common sight. 

Fish Amok, a traditional Khmer (Cambodian) dish. I was
pleasantly surprised by the perfect spiciness and texture. 

At one point, we stopped to pick up stranded passengers whose bus had broken down an hour ago (apparently, this is quite a frequent thing in Cambodia). What was most interesting was that the bus conductor just pulled out seats in the standing space that runs down the middle of the bus and the new passengers sat on them for the rest of the journey. Since this was the end of the festive season, many of the travellers were families with small kids who kept crying. We got to Siem Reap around 4 pm and took a tuk tuk to our guest house. The owner of it was chinese and Florence was able to use her language skills effectively to help us figure out our plans in  Siem Reap for the cheapest possible prices. 

Night Market Adventures
Our photographer, a friendly old woman pretended that she was
going to run away with our camera just after she took this
photo. 

Our guest house is quite close to the  night market and pub street area, which is super touristy and filled with street sellers, bars, massage parlours and food stalls. Its much safer here than Phnom Penh and we can walk around at night without worrying about safety. But once again, this is probably the most upscale area of Siem Reap. We saw some of the non fancy parts of town on our way to the guest house, and they looked very much representative of a developing country. Even on pub street, prices are quite cheap. Florence and I ate local food just outside of pub street for $3 per person. There are loads of money changers and ATMs. People speak english. 

We enjoyed the night market. We got fish massages, but I refused to put my feet in for more than a few seconds at a time. The fish biting was a strange sensation. 




Day 2: A more local Phnom Penh

Today was a chilled out day. We woke up quite early and went to breakfast at 9 am. After a laid back breakfast and great conversation we strolled back to our hotel and spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon there.  We left for lunch at around 2 pm after which we went to the royal palace, which turned out to be closed for the festival unfortunately and then to Aeon mall, which is in another part of the city, to meet a friend. 

Florence and I spent some time in Aeon mall where we discovered some interesting local food. We didn’t see many tourists here and observed the locals. We met Florence’s friend at the mall and went with her to dinner to a nearby island called diamond island. Its an artificial island with restaurants by the riverside, amusement parks, hotels and apartments. Although it sounded like Sentosa to me, I was surprised to discover that it was more of a local hangout than a tourist destination. 

I learnt a lot about Cambodia from Florence’s friend. She said that people start learning english quite early on and in private schools, kids communicate in english, as they do in India. Quite a few foreigners are in Cambodia these days running NGOs. There aren’t a lot of multi national brands which have set up in Cambodia yet. Aeon mall is one of the only four malls in the city. 

We ate some local food over dinner which was really yummy and followed it up with some frozen yogurt. Tomorrow, we depart for Siem Reap. 

Day 1: Phnom Penh

Khmer architecture, dominant around Phnom Penh

Cambodia is much like India, with motorbikes on the road and the need to haggle with anyone you’re paying. The country seems quite laid back-restaurants and tourist spots close at random times. There are people hanging out in the streets talking to each other. The city is fairly low rise giving me the impression of a small town or rather a city like kyoto. 

The appearance of cambodian people is quite unique and striking to me. They come off as a mixture of Chinese and Indonesian people. The locals are generally friendly and helpful, but their constant efforts to rip off money from tourists makes me feel like a complete outsider. 


We flew into the Phnom Penh airport, which is surprisingly close to the city. Options for transport included taxis and tuk tuks. Tuks tuks, much like the auto rickshaws in India, cost half the price of taxis (even though the tuk tuk drivers cite double the price to foreigners). Although we managed to bring down the price of our ride to $5, we later discovered that tuk tuk drivers are generally paid a flat rate of $3 per ride. A lot of trade here takes place in USD. Although Florence and I converted our Singapore dollars to the local currency, we found restaurants and tuk tuk drivers citing their prices in dollars and accepting USD notes. 



It took us a while to get to our hotel, mostly because we got lost and the tuk tuk driver wasn’t sure of the location of our hotel either. We noticed that the streets here are pretty badly organised. The numbers of streets aren’t in chronological order and we ended up at the wrong hotel of a similar name, from where we had to take another tuk tuk. The upside of it was that we got to see much of the city during the ride. We saw a lot of universities and exotic buildings. The architecture is very impressive and archaic. Lot of government offices, museums and universities appear lavish with pagodas, colorful walls and golden decor. The streets weren’t very crowded, but we heard that there’s country wide festival going on at the moment which is why much of the trade and commerce is closed for the next two days. 


By the time we got to the hotel, we were tired of tuk tuk drivers on the roads asking us if we needed a ride or a tour around the city. We were already primed to not trust people and found ourselves bargaining with the hotel manager. 

The location of our hotel is quite nice. It is near the river side and the royal palace (which is where the king lives) , but the street it is in is quite isolated and quiet. So we get the best of both worlds. For lunch, we went to the riverside where there are many restaurants. Much of the food here is vietnamese and thai. The local food, called khmer food, is also available but we didn’t come across a single purely khmer restaurant at the riverside. Most restaurants are pretty cheap, even by the riverside and meals are easily under $5 per person. 

Unexpectedly bumping into our friends Maggie and
Rohan at the New Market

For lunch, we ate mango salad and glass noodle salad. Later, we visited a pagoda, the Russian market and the New Market. The Russian market seemed like any other local market selling clothes. Some were branded shops, others were roadside hawkers. None of the brands were multinationals, interestingly enough. We spent a few minutes there and then moved on to the new market. The New Market was much nicer in that it was livelier and had a bigger variety of things. There were fruits, coconuts, clothes, souvenirs, etc. 

There are more tourists here than I expected, but not half as many as I saw in Penang or Japan. Phnom Penh is cleaner than I imagined. Although I’ve heard a lot about poverty in Cambodia, I haven’t yet seen much of it. I’ve seen a few beggars on the street and some children selling cheap trinkets, but I know for a fact that I’m in a well off area of Phnom Penh which is probably one of the richest and poshest places in the whole of Cambodia.

 By this time, we were tired from the heat (it’s quite hot here) and the lack of sleep. Although it was only 3 pm, we had already had a 12 hour day and went back to our hotel for a nap. We managed to catch a glimpse of the independence monument and the the grand residence of the prime minister and the government on the way back. 


The Royal Palace of Cambodia at night

Later, we went to a restaurant near the riverside and got some delicious and cheap vietnamese pho for dinner. On the way back, we walked past the lit up royal palace. I’m not sure if it was lit up for the festive season or if its lit up every night, but either way it was beautiful.