A tale of two cities and a few of my favorite things

I’m ashamed to admit that prior to visiting Austria, my knowledge of the country was limited to its two greatest American exports of the 20th century: the von Trapp family, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Limited may that knowledge be, it goes to show that there is quite a spectrum as to what Austria offers, from music to muscle. Since making those premature, and disparate typecasts about Austria, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the country twice. The first visit was a bit heavier on the ‘muscle’ end, and was spent traversing the Alps in Maltaberg, Austria. Our Alpine hut looked out on the great expanse of mountains from Italy to Slovenia, and provided us with endless hiking opportunities. Our hosts, Maria and her boyfriend, Egon gave us a healthy dose of Austrian hospitality. Maria would cut down the trees for the fire in the morning, and in the evening serve us schnitzel, knoedel, and Austrian Pancakes with home-brewed liquor. Egon, aged 54, but 28 in appearance, was the former physical coordinator in the Austrian army, and would spend the bitter winter months sprinting to the top of the Alps with skis on his back, and then ski down in record-breaking times. He just so happened to grow up in the same town as Mr. Schwarzenegger, and as a boy remembers watching Arnold flex his muscles in preparation for his first body building video. We recently found out he left Maria for another woman; sometimes history repeats itself.

The second trip to Austria, we chose to tailor our itinerary to the musical and cultural offerings of Vienna, and Salzburg. To say that I was unprepared for the opulence and beauty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is an understatement. What made the cities even more magical was the contrast of the ornamented baroque facades with the towering, jagged mountains. Coming from the lowlands and humidity of Indonesia, I was innervated by the fresh air, mountains, and rich culture. Strolling through the streets of Vienna and Salzburg, it’s evident that Austria’s golden age has been reawakened with new vigor and eclecticism.

Our trip to Austria was part of a three-country tour of Europe, beginning in Wiesbaden, Germany; jutting over to Vienna, down along the Mediterranean coast in Croatia, and then up to Salzburg before returning to Germany. Vienna was our first stop in Austria, and from the moment we stepped into the city center, we were confronted with the challenge of prioritizing what to do and see given the overwhelming options. The first advice we received from numerous people old and young was to go to the Wiener Staatsoper, if only just to take in the architecture and inhabit the same space where Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven, and other musical greats used to perform. After a short, succinct tour through the space, our guide informed us that they hold a certain number of standing tickets for the evening’s event. Upon leaving our tour, it was just about the time they would start releasing the limited tickets so we decided to try our luck. We ended up sitting in the tightly confined ticket queue next to an elderly man who was hard of hearing. After starting up a conversation with him, we were pleased to discover he was a retired opera singer. He had a prolific career that took him all over the world, but in the end left him without a pension. His favorite pastime is the Vienna opera given its repute and affordability. When we received our standing tickets for 3 euros, we raced after him, winding our way up the staircases, until we arrived at what he said was the best seat in the house. Observing his reaction to Aida was as much of an experience as the opera itself. His face would light up with emotion, or his eyes would glaze over after a particularly moving solo. Although I very much enjoyed the countless cappuccinos and tortes in Austria, the opera was easily the best 3 euros spent on our trip.

The following day, we set out early for the Belvedere museum, in hopes of viewing some of Gustav Klimt’s works. Last year marked the 150th anniversary of Austria’s most beloved artist, and throughout the city different exhibitions celebrated his brilliance. The Upper Belvedere has the widest range of his works (along with his iconic painting, The Kiss), but in addition to his works, the building is worth a visit. Although we were just a stones throw from the city center, we felt worlds away. We were so taken by the ambience of the museum and its surroundings that we felt compelled to have breakfast in what was once the menagerie, but has since been converted into the aptly named Bistro Menagerie. The Belvedere was originally built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy, and after his death was passed down to other Habsburgs. After the war in 1918 the Ministry of Education agreed to make it a museum. The palace is just one of many buildings representative of Prince Eugene Savoy’s artistic patronage throughout Vienna. He is buried at St. Stephens, the city’s most important religious building, and a crowning architectural achievement in its own right. Scaffolding currently mars its Romanesque and Gothic facade, but the cathedral is still a sight to behold with its vibrantly patterned roof. We spent the remainder of the day in aimless wanderings; content to take in the sights and sounds of the city, making sure to break up our walking with periodic stops at Viennese cafés.

Our visit to Austria wouldn’t have been complete without a stop in the city of music, Salzburg. While there, we chose to stay at the Trapp Villa in the affluent suburb of Aigen. The Villa opened to tourists amidst mixed feelings in 2008, and today offers a wide range of rooms, as well as daily tours. The décor of the rooms was rather no-frills, but it was still interesting to see the house that was once occupied by the Von Trapps, Nazi generals, and even Benito Mussolini. From the windows of the Villa, the nearby Untersberg Mountain was beckoning us to come explore. We took the gondola up Untersberg, and from the top it afforded glorious views of the Salzach Valley and the nearby Lake District. It wasn’t long before I felt like Maria, and could hardly contain myself from belting out my most beloved songs from “The Sound of Music.”

The actual city of Salzburg is a charming symbiosis of old and new. It is presided over by the medieval citadel, which looks down on a smattering of baroque buildings, snaking walkways, and the Salzach River. The Alstadt “old town” is a bit of a maze to get through, but a fun maze nonetheless. Just when you think you’ve lost your way, there’s a portal through a building, which opens to on a main square. On Sunday morning, we managed to find our way to the open-air market, the Naschmarkt. The market seemed endless, and was overflowing with tempting baked goods (you’ve never seen such huge pretzels!), exotic meats, chocolates, flowers, and other nick knacks. We picked up some pretzels for the road, before ducking our heads into the Zipfer Bierhaus for our second consecutive meal (we had dinner there the previous evening). The food was surprisingly tasty- traditional Austrian faire that had been spiffed up with some modern twists, and typical gemutlichkeit inside. I loved observing the waiters squeeze through tightly congested quarters, balancing their trays overflowing with beer. While there, a local choir group came in and serenaded all of the restaurant patrons, before bidding one another prost and devouring their potatoes and schnitzel.

I’m a rather effusive person, and tend to find something that I love in most places I visit. However, its rare that I find a place I could see as an endpoint, rather than just another stop over. This happened to me in Austria, as everything that I seem to value collided: mountains, a prolific art scene, beautiful architecture, coffeehouses, and great infrastructure. Mid-way through our trip, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on a dinner conversation between three Austrians. At one point, the Austrians were talking about how “the grass is always greener.” Growing up in Austria they always wanted to go live in America. They proceeded to say that the Americans who came to Austria and fell in love with their country always amused them. The conversation ended with them saying, the place that I really, really want to live is Detroit. I’ve heard from my friends that it is so authentic, and really the next ‘it’ city in America. I nearly spit out my water, and couldn’t hide my amusement for the remainder of the evening. I hope that me saying as an American I could one day see myself living in Vienna or Salzburg, isn’t the equivalent of an Austrian saying they could one day see themselves living in Detroit. Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side, but last time I checked 8 mile was lacking any grass and is still laden with crime.

Laid Back Laos

Laos is by far SEA’s most languid country, and also its least accessible(so whatever mode of travel you’re using make sure you allow enough time). If there’s one thing I can recommend you NOT do, it’s taking the fast boat from Chiang Kong, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. This was perhaps the most harrowing adventure of my life, and after 8 hours of ricocheting off rocks along the Mekong, I feel fortunate to have survived. The slow boat is a much safer option, and will get you in more of a Laotian state of mind.


Luang Prabang was one of my favorite cities in SEA, as it is isolated, well preserved, and not buzzing with incessant motos. I rented a bicycle here, and found it fun to cruise around and look at the numerous wats, or stop in at some of the cafes (the French influence is more evident in Luang Prabang than in the other cities in Laos). Make sure you get up extra early and give alms to the monks, and also don’t miss the night market if you want to stock up on souvenirs. If you’re interested in cooking classes,they offer a good cooking class at the restaurant Tamarind in Luang Prabang. If you decide you don’t want to cook, they supposedly have wonderful food (it was closed when I was visiting).

The true beauty of Laos lies in its verdant landscapes, so I would try and spend more time exploring its waterfalls and mountains than in Vientiane or Vang Vieng. If you decide you want to see Vientiane, I think a day or two should be more than enough time. I would bypass Vang Vieng as it’s been overtaken by eternal spring breakers.


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