Category: Accommodation


Most people are surprised when they find out I’ve never set foot on Krabi – especially since I took a year off in 2011 to travel around the world. The truth is, I’m not convinced that Krabi has anything to offer that I can’t find at other beach destinations.

Good diving? Well, there are more hardcore scuba diving destinations like Manado, Layang Layang and Sipadan not too far away.

Thai food? Well, Bangkok and Chiang Mai have never disappointed.

Island hopping? How different can one island be from another?

It’s less commercialised than Phuket? Well, I’ve never been to Phuket either, and I’ve never felt compelled to go.

So the truth is, if AirAsia had not invited me to be on their inaugural flight to Krabi this past week, I would probably have been quite content not going at all.

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AirAsia's inaugural flight to Krabi, 25 Nov 2013

AirAsia’s inaugural flight to Krabi, 25 Nov 2013

But having gone to Krabi, I find myself telling friends that I want to go back, to spend more time there, and to bring my boys as well. Here’s my top reasons why.

1. Hong Island and Hong Lagoon

I did decide to do island-hopping in the end, because the idea of hopping from island to island in a Thai long-tail boat was novel to me. Plus, it makes for iconic Krabi photos.

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Instead of the popular 4-island tour, which is nearer to Ao Nang Beach, I opted to head northwest to the Hong Islands, a series of 12 islets in the Phang Nga province.

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Approaching Hong Island or Koh Hong, Krabi

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Pristine waters and white sandy beaches

Hong Island or Koh Hong (as the Thais call it) is home to a National Park, which conserves wildlife and plants on the island. As such, there are nature trails to explore and facilities like restrooms, a drinks stall and shaded lunch areas for visitors.

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Aside from swimming and snorkelling in the sheltered bay, you can laze or picnic on the white sandy beach or rent a kayak for 300 baht (S$12) and pedal around the island to the beautiful Hong Lagoon.

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The entrance to the lagoon is almost hidden from view from the open sea. A narrow slit of an entrance allows one boat to enter or exit at any one time.

A slit of an entrance, Hong Lagoon

A slit of an entrance, Hong Lagoon

But once inside, you see a mysterious emerald pool cocooned by lofty cliffs and magnificent rock formations. I saw people wading in the lagoon, and the water was only waist-deep!

The Hong Lagoon, Krabi

The Hong Lagoon, Krabi

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2. Koh Lading

This is my Gilligan’s Island on Krabi, complete with a coconut grove. It’s like a little spot of paradise on earth.

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The island itself is laid-back, rustic and devoid of amenities. But you can get a fresh coconut off the tree for 60 baht (slight more than S$2). If you dare climb the tree, it’s free!

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Koh Lading, Krabi

Koh Lading, Krabi

I found a spot on the beach, laid out my beach towel on the sand, ordered a fresh coconut and promptly dozed off to the gentle lapping of waves.

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Koh Lading is very different from Hong Island – it’s small and secluded. But what makes it noteworthy is that it’s famous for its swallow caves. Locals harvest these swallows’ nests for birds’ nest soup!

Koh Lading from a distance

Koh Lading from a distance

Our guide told us though that we can’t access these swallow caves because they are heavily protected and the locals may even be armed. I am not sure how true that is, but we weren’t about to take the risk!

But as we neared Koh Lading, I did spot a flock of swallows circling above our long-tail boat!

Swallows circling above as we neared Koh Lading. famous for its birds' nests.

Swallows circling above as we neared Koh Lading

3. Krabi Sunsets 

I’ve seen many spectacular sunsets on my world travels and in all honesty, I did not expect much from Krabi. After all, it’s hardly written about.

I did, however, read about expats booking a table at The Last Fisherman (on the far, far end of Ao Nang Beach) to catch the sunset. So that was our plan on the first night.

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But sunsets are really early in Krabi – around 6pm! And because we could not make it from our hotel to The Last Fisherman in time, we heeded our hotel GM’s advice to catch the sunset at Nopparat Thara Beach, just within walking distance of our hotel, the Mercure Krabi Deevana.

Mercure Krabi Deevana

Mercure Krabi Deevana

Nopparat Thara is a quiet stretch of beach, adjacent to the more bustling Ao Nang. Here, you will not find deck chairs with umbrellas nor beachfront shops. However, there is a row of seafood restaurants fringing the beach where you can catch the sunset.

And oh, what an awesome sunset it was!

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And in the end, we did make it to The Last Fisherman at the furthermost end of Ao Nang Beach. Although we didn’t end up eating there, we did claim a spot on the beach to catch Mother Nature’s spectacular daily show.

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Initially, the sunset did not impress me. But about an hour after the sun dipped below the mountains in the horizon, when the deep blues of the night sky slowly filled the canvas and the stars came out to play, the skies became insanely beautiful.

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4. Thai Food 

Krabi isn’t necessarily the best place to have Thai food – I’ve definitely had better in Chiang Mai and Bangkok!

But where beach destinations go, Southeast Asia explodes with options. In the mood for Indonesian food? Go Bali. Vietnamese food? Da Nang. Filipino food? Cebu. So when you’re in the mood for a beach vacation with spicy Thai food, I’d opt for Krabi – yes, it’s less commercialised than Phuket.

Here, you can get a decent Thai meal for as little as 35 to 60 baht (about S$2) at the roadside stalls.

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On the first night, we enjoyed a feast of seafood tom yam soup, Pad Thai noodles, deep-fried spring rolls, mango juice and Thai coconut at a restaurant by the beach, and the whole meal – including front-row seats to catch a spectacular sunset – cost us just S$18!

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There are also many traditional and modern Thai restaurants and eateries serving international fare (like Italian, Indian and Swedish cuisine) along the beachfront at Ao Nang.

We settled on a Chinese-Thai restaurant that claimed to the the oldest restaurant on the stretch, and enjoyed a wonderful dinner of Thai fusion food.

Dry-fried macaroni with chilli and basil leaves.

Macaroni stir-fried with chilli and basil leaves.

Salad prawn on a bed of deep-fried taro

Salad prawns on a bed of deep-fried taro

Red curry beef pizza

Red curry beef pizza

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For dessert or just a snack, there are countless roadside stalls selling banana pancakes for 35 baht. They’re really greasy but hugely popular with tourists. You can even have your pancakes slathered with Nutella, peanut better and other decadent fillings.

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If you’re worried about piling on the pounds, just adopt the philosophy that works for most of us: Holiday calories don’t count!

5. Daily Flights 

AirAsia now flies from Singapore to Krabi direct. Daily flights depart at 1.20pm (Singapore time), and arrive in Krabi around 2pm (Thai time), which is perfect timing for hotel check-in.

And it takes just an-hour-and-a-half! 

AirAsia supports the Thai women's volleyball team

AirAsia supports the Thai women’s volleyball team

A plus-point for all AirAsia flyers must surely be the onboard meals that are only available for flights in and out of Thailand. I’d recommend you try their Thai Basil Chicken Rice and Mango Sticky Rice. Both are to die for!

Thai basil chicken rice, only on Thailand-bound flights

Thai basil chicken rice, only on Thailand-bound flights

I am tempted to write in to the airline to request they serve these for all flights, especially their mango sticky rice! The one I had at Ao Nang Beach did not even come close to this!

Hands down, the best Mango Sticky Rice I've had!

Hands down, the best Mango Sticky Rice I’ve had!

I’d already wiped clean Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak before I started on this, so I was planning to skip the sticky rice altogether. But I took one mouthful and I knew I would finish all the coconut milk-infused rice. And I did – so someone please kill me. The mango is also very sweet and comes sealed in an airtight pack for freshness.

Appetiser for More

So, this 3-day Krabi trip ended up being an appetiser for me. I intend to go back to explore the natural hot springs, which is something you don’t think occurs in Thailand. But I will need time for that, to just soak in the jungle vibes and listen to the birds and crickets. Perhaps in low season, a wonderful time to travel in my books.

Natural hot springs in Krabi (Source: YourKrabi.com)

Natural hot springs in Krabi (Source: YourKrabi.com)

Another place I’d like to visit is this curious cave where visitors throw carved penises of all shapes and sizes as a prayer for fertility. It kind of reminds me of Bhutan, but it’s apparently not linked to any religion. It’s called Phra Nang Cave, and I’d imagine it would be blast to visit with friends!

Phra Nang Cave, Krabi (Source: mariusztravel.com)

Phra Nang Cave, Krabi (Source: mariusztravel.com)

To find out more about AirAsia’s daily flights to Krabi, click here.

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To me, Balestier Road is about lights. Not of the Vegas kind, but lamps, shades and chandeliers. And of course, bak kut teh (literally translated, ‘meat bone tea’).

But when I was invited to check out the newly-renovated Ibis Singapore Novena located at Irrawaddy Road, off Balestier Road, I decided to find out more about the neighbourhood. After all, I had spent a lot of time there because it’s my best friend’s turf. So, what else could possibly lie beneath the surface?

As a travel writer, there are two things I do when I check into a hotel: I take a walk around the area to explore. And I sniff out authentic local street food. I’ve always done that on my world travels but never at home. So with Ibis’ sweet invitation, I figured it was as good a time as any to start: Being a tourist in my own country. Being a flaneur.

In my research on Balestier, I came across a website featuring Singapore’s heritage trails. And lo and behold, the seemingly quiet and uneventful neighbourhood of Balestier has a heritage trail.

“From sugar cane plantations to shops filled with sweet and savoury delights, Balestier is an area that offers a taste of history. From tigers in the woods to temples with deep roots, Balestier Road tells a tale that spans nearly 180 years and has borne witness to Singapore’s remarkable journey from a British trading post to a modern city-state.”

That sealed it for me. I took up Ibis’ offer because I thought it would be a fun thing to do with my twin boys – explore Singapore like tourists. Also, I was told one of the unique things about this 3-star hotel is their Family Rooms – complete with triple beds!

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One little detail I noticed about the room is its power sockets. As a seasoned traveler, you never leave home without packing a travel adaptor or two to charge your various electrical appliances.

But even as a solo traveler, there’s your phone, camera, laptop etc. What more if you travel with tech-savvy pre-teens who have their own phones and tablets? You’ll have to bring more than two travel adaptors for sure!

So it was a delight to find out that there are such power sockets (below) in Ibis’ rooms. *beams*

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The property is fairly small and cosy, with 241 rooms and basic in its amenities. So don’t expect to find a pool or tennis court. But then, it’s just 1km from Novena MRT station and two stops away from Orchard Road (shopping district), with free hotel shuttle to both.

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And if you’re wondering if they can even fit in a parking lot into this compact building, well they have – with a little ingenuity! No space for ramps? Then take the car lift up to the second floor!

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The good news is that parking is FREE for hotel guests. So if you’re from Malaysia or if you’re Singaporean considering a weekend staycation, you can drive and park here for free. For visitors, it’s S$2 an hour.

A nice spacious carpark on level 2, accessible by lift.

A nice spacious carpark on level 2, accessible by lift.

After we checked in, we immediately headed out to explore Balestier, following the heritage trail I had printed out. I later discovered you can grab a copy of the heritage trail booklet – free of charge – at the Sun Yat-Sen Museum.

I will elaborate on my Balestier heritage trail, food trail, and visit to the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall in upcoming posts, so stay tuned!

When we got back in the late afternoon, the boys were happy to play games by themselves in the room, so I headed downstairs to the lobby restaurant/ bar to grab a coffee and enjoy some me-time.

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The hotel restaurant on the ground floor is open and airy, with floor-to-ceiling glass. It also boasts an open-concept kitchen and serves both local and international cuisine. We enjoyed complimentary breakfast during our stay there and that’s always nice when you travel with kids.

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My fav porridge which I can only find in local hotels now!

My fav porridge! I can only find in local hotels now.

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Asian fare at the breakfast buffet.

Asian fare at the breakfast buffet.

American breakfast spread.

American breakfast spread.

Continental breakfast with warm croissants.

Warm croissants!

And for a slightly healthier breakfast...

And for a slightly healthier option…

And for coffee lovers...

For the coffee lover!

The restaurant can get a little crowded at breakfast, so I’d advise you go down earlier. We didn’t have to wait for a table, but I’d prefer a quieter breakfast so that I can enjoy my coffee – the espresso is, after all, free flow.

logo-21What impressed me too is the hotel’s stand for the environment. In 2004, Ibis became the first global hotel chain to be engaged in the ISO 14001 environmental certification process. So far, 420 hotels in 18 countries have been certified ISO 14001. Apparently, the Ibis network has the largest number of certified ISO 14001 in the hotel industry.

Apart from steps taken to conserve water and energy, to sort waste etc., there is one room on every floor that’s an extra eco-friendly room (eg. recycling bins). Don’t forget to request for it if you’re a tree hugger!

The room number ends with -21, to coincide with Ibis’ 21 commitments to sustainable development, or neatly packaged as ‘Planet 21‘.

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At the end of the day, there’s nothing more relaxing than taking a hot shower and climbing into bed to upload your day’s photos. Hurray for free WIFI.

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Each room is equipped with large 32″ flatscreen TV, strategically placed in front of our triple beds. The boys and I caught our daily dose of Korean drama series in bed before heading out for dinner. Balestier is a supper haven after all.

At this point, I have to – absolutely – mention their shower. The bathroom itself is quite small and aesthetically basic. But it’s clean and modern, and comes with a basic toiletries kit for three.

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Once you step into the shower though, it’s Bliss with a capital B. The water is hot, the shower spray is powerful, and oh the aroma of the in-house soaps and shampoos… heavenly! The boys and I concur it’s the best shower experience we’ve had in a while.

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I was told by the wonderful people at Ibis Singapore Novena that I could download an Ibis Sleep Art app on my iPhone (not yet on Android), and while I sleep, create art.

I didn’t quite understand why anyone would want to do this, but I decided to try it because the iPhone app is free and I was just plain curious.

Well, this is how it works…

And so, I downloaded the app, set my alarm, and pressed ‘Start’. When I awoke, this is what I got…

My Ibis Sleep Art

My Ibis Sleep Art

If you have an iPhone, try it out. It’s really fun! I’ve done it several times since, and the artwork and colours can change. You don’t even have to stay at an Ibis hotel to create this Ibis Sleep Art – you can do it at home too! *grin*

Hotel guests are encouraged to post their Sleep Art on Ibis Singapore Novena’s Facebook page – if you’re so inclined! I didn’t though – SHY. *LOL* But I’ve checked out others’ Sleep Art and it’s actually quite fascinating.

All in all, it was a lovely staycation for the boys and me. We took time off to chillax, connect, and just be away from home for a change. The fact that the hotel is well-placed in a heritage neighbourhood and a haven for food lovers made it all the more special for us.

Stay tuned for a rundown of those adventures in my next blog entry. *wink*

IBIS SINGAPORE NOVENA

6 IRRAWADDY ROAD
329543 – SINGAPORE

*For more info, visit their website or Facebook page.

HOW CLUB MED STARTED

I first heard the captivating story of how Club Med started when I was up in the snowy ski slopes of Club Med Sahoro in Hokkaido, Japan. No further away from the sunny Mediterranean than this! *LOL*

Snowboarding at Club Med Sahoro, Hokkaido.

ikebukuro_taiko_drummers1It was the first day of the ski season at Sahoro, and Club Med had invited some Taiko drummers from a nearby village to perform at the opening ceremony. We also had a huge crackling campfire outdoors in the snow. It was a sensory explosion for me!

But it was a humble slide show on the history of Club Med, screened in a dimly-lit theatre, that really spoke to my heart.

Club Med started after World War II. A dark cloud still hung over Europe in 1949. To lift everyone’s spirits, a former Belgian polo champion by the name of Gérard Blitz had the idea of a new style of holiday for “developing a taste for living outdoors and doing physical training and sports.”

He was living in Corsica at the time, in the Olympic Club’s tent village. So he ordered 200 tents, and chose a team of 20 organisers to provide sports tuition and activities for his guests. In 1950, Blitz set up the first Club Méditerranée (as it was originally called) on Alcudia Beach in the Balearics. On the first day, the team welcomed 300 people.

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In the course of the summer, Club Méditerranée attracted 2,300 customers, and had to turn down 10,000 interested people!

This led to the steady growth of Club Med villages around the world, including Tahiti in French Polynesia in 1955. Guests were then required to take 4 months’ leave! One month for the journey by boat, two months there, then another month for the journey back by sea.

According to historical accounts, the original villages were simple and back to basics. Members stayed in unlit straw huts on a beachfront, sharing communal washing facilities. There was no air-conditioning, no television, no luxuries, because the point was to be outdoors doing things together!

Of course, with the rapid growth of the tourism industry – and especially with the rise of the more demanding Asian traveller – that initial concept has had to be revamped several times to cater to varying needs.

But still, the essence of Club Med has not changed. To me, that essence is that a Club Med vacation is always “all inclusive”.  Food and drinks are free flowing, and you have unlimited access to outdoor activities. But above all, it’s about bringing happiness to all who join Club Med as members. Yes, Club Med is still a club!

When I went to Club Med Cherating recently with my boys, I found it impossible to stay indoors. And mind you, I can be Lazy with a capital L. And for my 12-year-old twin boys, it was worse! They constantly felt they didn’t have enough hours in a day. I hardly saw them once they hastily slipped on their shoes and bounded out of the room each morning!

 

FULL ACCESS TO ADVENTURES! 

When we’re in Singapore, we hardly play together. Yes, PLAY. I guess with the boys doing their Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) this year, there’s a lot of homework and revision to get through. It’s a highly stressful year for them, and by default, for parents too.

But when we were in Club Med Cherating, the boys and I went quite berserk. They were climbing cliff walls, negotiating treetop rope courses, and kayaking in the open sea. Stuff boys do to satiate their thirst for outdoor adventure!

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I wrote about these adventure activities in an earlier blog – you can read it HERE.

Besides these back-to-nature activities, SPORTS is a big part of Club Med’s appeal. While my boys are obsessed with football, they completely forgot about football when they were at Cherating. They were eager to try their hand at all the land sports – from archery to tennis to ping pong!

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I scored some brownie points by teaching them how to play tennis. It was, after all, the first time they’ve ever picked up a tennis racket. I also creamed them at table tennis! *grin*

But I have to say they outdid me in two activities… To be honest, I’ve been on 9 Club Med vacations in the last 7 years, and I’ve never had the courage to try the Circus Trapeze. J2 took one look at it, and decided to give it a go. I felt so proud of the lil’ guy that I took a video of his first go at it – like a fan girl. I’m content to say: I lived vicariously through him!

 

 

The boys also jumped at the opportunity to try the Bungee Trampoline. They even attempted the back flip!

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J1 took it a step further by attempting the forward flip. The G.O.s (“Gentle Orgnisers”) told him that it’s too difficult to achieve on his first go. And precisely because he was told he couldn’t do it, he went all out to prove them wrong.

Pardon me for recording this next video with my iPhone the wrong way round. But if you will flip your laptop or your phone sideways, you should be able to view it OK. *sheepish*

 

 

A PLACE FOR TEENAGERS

When I travel with my boys, I am happy when two things happen: Firstly, when they are happily preoccupied doing things they love. Secondly, when I am happily preoccupied doing things I love. That way, they are happy. I am happy.  Everyone is happy!

Since they were 5, they’ve been joining Mini Club Med (aged 4-10 years) at the various villages we’ve been to around Asia. There are daily programmes tailored to their age-group, and once I sign them in, they are preoccupied till about 4.30pm when I pick them up.

Now that they are 12 and more “anti-establishment”, they will hear nothing of organised activities. Those are for kids! And b’golly, they are not kids!

So when we arrived in Club Med Cherating and did the village tour, I was secretly thrilled to hear that there’s a cool teen’s club called PassWorld that caters to teenagers aged 11 to 17 years!

They were a little reluctant to go there at first, adamant about “doing their own thang”. But when they discovered PassWorld, I couldn’t keep them away!

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Basically, the boys had the freedom to sign in and out as they wished. Sure, there were programmes for the teens, like the Tree Top Challenge at 10am, archery at 11am, or rock climbing at 2.30pm etc, but they were free to join in the activities or sign out and scoot off on their own.

This sat well with my boys, of course. They were first and foremost thrilled that at 12, they were considered “teenagers”. I simply told them, “You are old enough to make your own choices, so I would think so!”

The thing is, they still made plans to go back to PassWorld even though they didn’t have to. They arranged to meet their friends there after dinner to play computer games and pool, and once they allowed me to tag along. I had to ask permission, of course, because PassWorld is strictly out-of-bounds to adults!

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I got a chance to whack some drums that night. *beams* Other days, I just walk by wistfully, wishing I could get access in there because the drum-set is placed invitingly by the glass windows.

 

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE 

With Baby Club Med (4-24 months), Petit Club Med (2-3 years), Mini Club Med (4-10 years) and PassWorld (11-17 years), there is a Club Med experience tailored to every individual – at their level. For my kids, this is their very own Club Med experience. They will always remember it very differently from me.

I, of course, escaped to my Zen Space when they were preoccupied with their adventures. I indulged in a spa treatment, joined in aqua aerobics, and read by the infinity pool… That is MY Club Med.

Club Med has come a long way since 1950. Today, they have over 80 villages around the world, catering to a myriad of clientele, from families to swinging singles to honeymooning couples.

But even after over 60 years, Gérard Blitz‘s idea of an all-inclusive holiday designed for “developing a taste for living outdoors and doing physical training and sports” has not changed.

Neither has his Utopian vision of bringing Happiness to all who count themselves “members” of this most amazing club.

simpsons-are-we-there-yet-traveling-with-kidsTraveling with kids can sometimes be the most exhausting type of vacation. I’ve found that to be true, especially when my boys were younger. It’s hard enough with a daily routine at home. With that tossed out the window, I felt like I had to entertain my twin boys 24/7.

I needed another vacation just to recuperate from it!

That’s probably why I felt I had stumbled upon a gem when I first discovered Club Med back in 2006. It started with a media trip to Club Med Cherating. I loved the whole concept of it so much that when I got back, I immediately booked a family vacation to go back there! *LOL*

In the past 7 years, I’ve gone on 9 Club Med vacations. My boys have pretty much grown up with Club Med. They started with Mini Club Med (ages 4-11 years) when they were 5, and recently, graduated to the teen’s club or PassWorld (ages 11-17 years).

Going back to Club Med Cherating Beach after 7 years was nostalgic, to say the least. While the place looked vaguely familiar, so much has changed as well. My boys don’t remember much of this village at all. I guess there is a huge difference between being 5 and being 12! *LOL*

If you too haven’t been back for a bit, here are some of the changes, At a glance…

 

THE NOODLE BAR

We took a direct flight from Singapore to Kuantan on FireFly. I was a little worried when I heard it was going to be a propeller plane – to be honest – but the flight was very smooth and we took just over an hour to get to Kuantan (You can also opt to take the coach up!).

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Arriving in sleepy Kuantan calmed me immediately!

Arriving in sleepy Kuantan calmed me immediately.

We were met by Adam, a Club Med G.O. (“Gentle Organiser”) at the airport, and we hopped on a comfy, air-conditioned private van to head to Cherating Beach, about 45mins away.

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A warm welcome by the GOs!

A warm welcome by the GOs!

By the time we settled in to our rooms, it was close to 3pm. The buffet lunch had already ended and we were feeling a tad hungry. Adam told us that we could head to the Noodle Bar, which is opened from 2.30pm to 6pm.

The Noodle Bar wasn’t around when we were last there, so I was eager to check it out!

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Malaysian Curry Laksa!

Malaysian Curry Laksa!

Japanese Miso Soup noodles!

Japanese Miso Soup noodles!

There are many options to choose from: From spicy Malaysian specialties to Japanese soba and udon, to healthier vegetarian options.

In fact, the menu changes everyday. They rotate amongst three menus, so you don’t quite repeat what you eat on a regular-length stay.

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The Noodle Bar is opened again after dinner (9.30pm to 11.30pm) if you’re in the mood for supper! It’s all-inclusive, of course, so you do not need to fork out cash to eat here.

I didn’t go back to the Noodle Bar for the rest of my stay there because I was often stuffed by the decadent buffet spreads at breakfast, lunch and dinner. But apparently the boys did – with their friends, after PassWorld activities!

 

TREE TOP CHALLENGE 

To me, Club Med Cherating isn’t so much a “beach resort” as it is a resort set amidst nature. It’s all about forests and wild creatures (watch out for the monkeys!), flora and fauna. The sea off Cherating Beach is good for sailing, wind-surfing and kayaking, but not so much for snorkling or scuba diving.

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So if you get a chance to walk amidst nature, and get a different point of view – from above, let’s just say – why not?

The Tree Top Challenge is another recent addition to this village. It’s located in the main village itself, but at the fringe. My first impression of it is that it’s not as intimidating as some of the high-ropes courses you see at Outward Bound adventure camps, so it won’t scare the kids at first sight.

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My boys joined their new PassWorld friends, David and Nicholas, on Day 3 to attempt this treetop adventure. In fact, they liked it so much, they did the course a second time!

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Practising the safety procedure on the ground first.

Practising safety procedures on the ground first.

He can't wait to go! Volunteered to be the first!

He can’t wait to go! Up first!

Stage 1: wooden planks

Stage 1: wooden planks

Stage 2: single rope walk

Stage 2: single rope walk

Stage 3: net crossing

Stage 3: net crossing

Stage 4: double ropes

Stage 4: double ropes

Stage 5: flying fox

Stage 5: flying fox

The kids were pretty independent on the course, once the G.O.s briefed them on safety measures and they practised first on the ground. They negotiated the course at their own pace, without adult supervision. Although of course, we were there cheering them on!

I think kids like that independence – figuring out how to negotiate each stage – it makes them feel like little men.

 

ROCK CLIMBING

The last time I was at Club Med Cherating in 2006, I did rock climbing and made it to the top of the rock wall – that’s why I remember it well. *beams* The rock wall was then located where the Circus Trapeze and Bungee Trampoline were.

This time, I noticed the rock wall was completely gone. It’s an empty space now. But I found out that there is still rock climbing. But where?

Apparently, it has been relocated to where Club Med’s second beach is. For those of you who have been to Club Med Cherating before, you’ll know it’s away from the main village area, about 5mins’ tram ride away.

Tram departs every half hour.

Tram departs every half hour.

We took a tram to the other beach to look for the rock climbing wall, and to our surprise, found this!

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These ropes aren’t used for hoisting you up – you climb the rock wall with your bare hands and feet! The cliff faces the sea too, and it’s gorgeous. The real deal. The raw deal.

The only thing is, it’s not opened everyday so we had to come back another day to scale the rock wall. And we did – the boys never say no to real adventure. The more Back to Basics, the better!

Gathering at the rock wall by the sea!

Briefing at the rock wall.

G.O. Hafiz showing the boys how to abseil down safely.

G.O. Hafiz showing how to abseil down safely.

J2 starts his climb.  Fearless!

J2 starts his climb. Fearless!

Look how small he is on the rock wall!

Look how small he is!

J2 made it up in 2:35 mins – the 2nd fastest time of the day!

But he had a little problem coming down though. I guess the trick is to trust your harness and sit back on your butt, then to extend your legs outward with knees locked, and walk down. But he kept too close to the wall, and bounced off it a few times, bashing his little body against the sharp jagged rocks.

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His scratches and bruises looked nasty, but I make it a point never to make a big deal of it. “Are you ok?” I asked him. He smiled and said he was fine. He didn’t even let out a whimper!

Army training begins here, boys.

J1 got to climbing the rock wall after and that lil’ critter is a monkey. Since he was a baby, he’d climb over the cot into his twin brother’s bed and I’d find them both in the same cot, playing! These days, he scales walls, poles, trees.

I didn’t think he would have much difficulty with this rock wall, to be honest. And he didn’t!

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He made it up in just 1:40mins. I don’t think I could have achieved that timing, even though I’m much older than him. My boys clocked the two fastest climb times of the day, and I was mighty proud of them both – timing aside!

I love that they dare try new things, and brave something as wild and unpredictable as a steep cliff by the sea. Before long, I’ll be able to take them to Krabi to do some serious rock climbing!

 

ZEN SPACE

Whenever I am at Club Med anywhere in the world, I spend a lot of time by the pool. What I love about lazing by the poolside is that soft drinks, cocktails and beer are free flow. It matters! Here, it’s all-inclusive. You don’t even need to bring along your wallet!

My favourite mocktail at Club Med Cherating? The Fire Fly. *grin*

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Here at the main pool area, the music is more upbeat. And they blast it over the speakers to keep everyone upbeat and in high spirits. This is where I hang out in the mornings to get a tan, to participate in Aqua Aerobics, and also to join in the daily “Crazy Signs” – mass dance, Club Med style!

"Crazy Signs" by the pool!

“Crazy Signs” by the pool!

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But when I was in Mauritius in Oct 2011 – during my 9-month backpacking trip around the world – I experienced something at the Club Med village there that completely blew me away.

Club Med La Plantation d’Albion in Mauritius was then the only 6-Trident Club Med resort in the world. And what made it special was this area called the Zen Space.

It’s located away from the main village and out-of-bounds to children. Strictly 18 and above. It’s a Quiet Zone.

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So you can imagine my delight when I found that late last year, Club Med Cherating added a new feature to their flagship village in Asia.

Yes, a Zen Space. *beams*

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This is where I hid away every afternoon, when the boys were busy with their own PassWorld activities. I didn’t worry about where they were, or what they were doing, so I could really chillax with a good book.

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What’s different here?

Well, for one, the music is different. Instead of loud upbeat music blasting from the speakers, they play lounge music. Music perfect for chillaxing.

The Zen pool is also not as big as the main pool, so it’s not for swimming laps or doing Aqua Aerobics. It’s made for just lazing and soaking.

And oh, did I mention that the Zen pool is an Infinity pool?

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Where infinity ends and the sea begins.

Where infinity ends and the sea begins.

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I spent a lot of time here reading, soaking in the sea scape from the edge of the Infinity pool, even dozing off in the afternoon sun. It’s quiet, breezy and blissful. It was my paradise.

For a city girl who had been working her ass off meeting writing deadlines just the week before, it was the perfect place for me to unwind and rejuvenate. And I was thankful that the boys were happily occupied so that I was allowed this me-time, this me-space, everyday.

Beyond the Zen pool, there are also day beds and private gazebos where you can laze with a loved one.

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The Zen Space is designed to relax you, pure and simple.

It is perfect for harassed parents whose kids are away at Petit Club (2-3 years), Mini Club Med (4-11 years) or PassWorld (11-17 years). It makes you feel like a “non-parent” again, like an adult with a life!

I got to meet the wonderful manager of Club Med Cherating’s Zen Space while I was there – I wasn’t aware she was the manager – until the other G.O.s told me – because she’s so young and down-to-earth.

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Meet Alyssa from Malaysia. She is i/c here, and rightly so, because she personally prefers the tranquility to the buzz. And she makes a mean cocktail too, if you catch her on duty at the bar in the evenings!

The new additions to Club Med Cherating have only made this village more enticing to me. It was the best family vacation I’ve had in a long, long while. And I dare say Cherating Beach is my favourite Club Med village in Asia, to date.

And if you’re not familiar with the whole Club Med concept, I’d love for you to know more about the “oldies but goodies” that make Club Med holidays special for me: The endless buffet meals… the full-access activities including the Circus Trapeze, archery and sea sports… the all-inclusive, free flow of cocktails, beer and soft drinks at the bars (there are 3 here!)… the spa… the boutique… and of course, the amazing G.O.s!

Sure, other resorts have tried to replicate this Club Med experience by poaching the G.O.s, luring them with better pay and better packages. But somehow, I’ve not found a resort that has succeeded yet.

I believe it’s that perfect combination of unrelated factors that synergize with a BAM! And as a travel writer, I reckon I should figure out what that secret recipe, that X-factor, is.

But that’s a story for another time.

*To find out more about Club Med Cherating’s June holidays promotions, click HERE

Every place has a colour. A predominant colour. It hits you the moment you step out of the airport.

For LA, it’s grey. For Singapore, it’s green. For Kerala, brownish-red. For Santorini, white and blue.

Cebu is a place with a myriad of colours. But instinctively, I’d say it’s blue. And “blue places” often find a highway to my heart, together with Autumn reds and oranges, and graded shades of green.

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But beyond the shades of blue, I discovered a rainbow kaleidoscope of colours that exploded in broad smiles, big hearts and techni-colour flip flops!

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I flew up to Mactan Island in Cebu with my boys last week for Project Happy Feet‘s first-ever “Resort Edition” of the PHF Slipper Race. And I wasn’t quite prepared for the rowdy enthusiasm and passion of the Cebuano people on race day!

We gathered at the ballroom of the Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan (the race organiser) at 3pm for a briefing and I was blown away by the colours. The teams of five had designed and customised their own race t-shirts, and I could tell they put in a lot of effort into doing this!

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Because Cebu had never had a PHF Slipper Race before, and because they have the distinction of being the first to organise a “Resort Edition”, they worked with no rules or restrictions regarding creativity! I think even my friends from Project Happy Feet, Terence Quek and Lin Kuek (who have planned several Slipper Races in Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City) were pleasantly surprised and moved. We all were!

Terence from PHF being interviewed by ABS-CBN, the Philippines largest news network.

Terence being interviewed by ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest news network.

How cute are these

While the “traditional” PHF Slipper Race is about walking 3km to 5km in flip flops, the folks at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan added some local spice by introducing game stations along the 5km route. These pit-stops featured traditional Filipino games like Sipa, Shatong, Bato Lata etc.

Sipa - like "chatek" but using slippers to keep the feathers in the air!

Sipa – like “chatek” but using slippers to keep the feathers in the air! Usually it’s with hands.

Walking on coconut husks. Harder than heels!

Walking on coconut husks. Harder than heels!

Shatong! Using a long stick to hit a small stick from Pt A to B.

Shatong! Using a long stick to hit a small stick from Pt A to B.

Bato Lata - using your slippers (usually stones) to knock down the can!

Bato Lata – using your slippers (usually stones) to knock down a can!

Shooting baskets from 3 angles. Challenging for small people!

Basketball – Shooting from 3 angles. Challenging for little people!

But beyond all the fun and laughter, this Slipper Race is for a good cause. 100% of the funds raised through registration fees go to the beneficiary, Bantay Bata 163. I blogged about them in my previous entry – you can find out more about them here.

The highlight for me was meeting with the Programme Director of Bantay Bata 163, Ms Tina Monzon-Palma. Apart from heading this non-profit organisation, she is a prominent news anchor with ABS-CBN (the Philippines’ largest news network), anchoring the nightly news show, The World Tonight, and hosting Talkback with Tina Monzon-Palma, a weekly current affairs programme.

Ms Tina Monzon-Palma, Program Director of Bantay Bala 163.

Ms Tina Monzon-Palma, Programme Director of Bantay Bata 163.

Tina had flown in specially from Manila that morning for our lunch meeting and the PHF Slipper Race. What impressed me most about her was how much knowledge and understanding she had of the plight of underprivileged children, not just in the Philippines but also in other parts of Southeast Asia. I suppose that’s to be expected of a veteran journalist and anchorwoman.

The Singapore PHF team with Ms Tina Monzon-Palma  at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan.

The Singapore PHF team with Ms Tina Monzon-Palma at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan.

In fact, she has attended many international meetings with global humanitarian organisations, on behalf of Bantay Bata 163, and has opened her doors to NGOs from other countries to learn from them. In particular, she shared about fundraising efforts, alleviation of poverty in the rural villages, empowering families with micro-finanching schemes, and providing opportunities for underprivileged children and youths through education and scholarship programmes.

In particular, we asked her lots of questions about the Bantay Edukasyon Scholarship Program which we are supporting through this PHF Slipper Race. From the funds raised, we aim to support 11 children in the surrounding islands of Cebu, and put them through school.

Two of the beneficiaries of the scholarship program we are supporting

Two of the beneficiaries of the scholarship programme we are supporting.

We met two of the young people we’re sponsoring under the scholarship programme. They sat rather quietly throughout the briefing, I think a little overwhelmed by the flurry of activity and high energy in the room! *LOL* But they were respectful and polite college-aged kids on the brink of entering vocational training, in the hope that they can use their sponsored education to be independent and to support their families.

I could finally put faces to the tireless work of BB 163 and PHF, and that was heartwarming.

As race organiser, Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan did a fabulous job getting sponsors for everything – one of the stipulations of PHF races. Check out the scale of their endeavour!

Each race pack has a pair of flip flops, all sponsored.

Each race pack has a pair of flip flops, all sponsored.

Post-race party at the Crimson Resort beach.

Post-race party at the Crimson Resort beach.

Sponsored prizes... Havaianas slippers!

Sponsored prizes – Havaianas!

A whiff of BBQ meats filled the air!

A whiff of BBQ meats!

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As the day drew to a close and the sun dipped below the horizon, the team at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan and Project Happy Feet presented a cheque to Bantay Bata 163. What a privilege to have been a part of this – especially with my boys!

James (GM, Crimson) and Terence presenting the cheque to Tina Monzon-Palma.

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And so, Cebu turned out to be more than just the colour blue for me. It was a prism of pretty colours!

That night, against a navy blue sky, I saw a full moon rise from the horizon to take its place in the sky – the first time I’d ever seen such a phenomenon. It made me realise that it’s not just the sun that rises. The moon can too.

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I’ve always believed that from poverty and hardship, goodness and kindness always arises from somewhere. Sometimes from the most unexpected places.

And that day in Cebu, I saw it.

*The next PHF Slipper Race happens on 31 Aug 2013 in Singapore. Look out for details, here

Borobudur is the reason I packed my bags for Yogyakarta.

It’s been on my Bucket List for years, since I started researching on Angkor Wat in 2006. This 8th Century temple is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, and one of the most breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Asia.

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Turns out there’s only one direct flight from Singapore to Yogyakarta: AirAsia. Flying budget has become a habit for me since the days of my round-the-world backpacking trip. When an idea for travel is mooted, I head instinctively to AirAsia’s site. It’s funny, because after I booked my flights to Melbourne on AirAsia last month, I found out I could’ve gotten direct, full-service flights there on SQ and Emirates for not much more. It’s habit, so I guess this direct flight thing is good news!

For this trip, I decided to try out AirAsia’s Red Carpet Service because my BFF Ning (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning) told me she always opts for it on her work trips. I was a little curious, to be honest. It was an add-on option when I did my online booking, so I picked it for an additional S$55 (S$65 if you do a walk-in). Here’s what I found out…

Priority check-in at a dedicated lane. No queue!

I had priority check-in, no queue.

Access to Skyview Lounge at T1. Private work space!

Access to Skyview Lounge at T1. Private workspace!

Had a quiet buffet breakfast, WIFI access and power socket to charge my phone.

A buffet spread, free WIFI, power points to charge my phone!

I spent about an hour at the Skyview Lounge before boarding my flight to Jogja. Did a bit of eating, a bit of reading, and uploaded some photos on Instagram too. Not sure if it was a good idea to eat though because I had actually pre-ordered a new item on the menu to try. I usually choose Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak, but that day I opted to try their Nasi Jinggo Bali, since I was heading to Indonesia!

I finished the whole damn thing… AARGH.

Farah Quinn's Nasi Jinggo Bali. Sedap!

Farah Quinn’s Nasi Jinggo Bali. Sedap!

AirAsia flies direct from Singapore to Yogyakarta, daily.

AirAsia flies direct from SG to Yogyakarta daily.

It took about 2 hrs 20 mins from Singapore to Yogyakarta and I was glad it was a direct flight, no stopover in Jakarta.

Now Jogja’s airport is quite something else! I alighted on the tarmac and strode over to its international terminal building, which is a fraction of the size its domestic terminal. Understandably, since only two international routes are processed there: KL and Singapore via AirAsia.

There was only one luggage belt in the international terminal. Airport staff had condoned off the area as they dragged our luggage from the belt and arranged them neatly in rows.

Yogyakarta's international airport was an eye-opener!

Jogja’s international airport was an eye-opener!

When they were done, a barrage of impatient passengers surged into the tiny dead-end area to grab their luggage. You really have to experience it to believe it. As a world traveller and connoisseur of airports and airport practices, I loved it!

Everyone surges forward to grab their luggage.

“Chiong ah!”

Just like I blogged earlier about popular tourist attractions with surprisingly small airports, I wonder how Jogja was going to handle the surge in international tourists as Bali sees a drop in tourism and savvy travellers start to find alternative destinations in Indonesia.

I’m still a little torn about this. While I love the idea that Yogyakarta is planning to expand its international airport, I’ve always had a soft spot for quaint, inefficient little airports that break the mould and gift us with interesting stories to share.

But airports are just gateways, and I was here to see one thing: Borobudur

My Borobudur experience began with being wrapped in a sarong. After all, it is a Buddhist temple and still a sacred place for Buddhist monks and devotees who travel to Yogyakarta on pilgrimage.

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I had really hoped to catch a sunrise at Borobudur – I hear it’s spectacular. But there is only one way you can do that, and that is to stay at the Manohara Hotel, managed by the Borobudur national park. They have a private gate for guests to enter the temple grounds to catch the sunrise at 5.30a.m.

Since I didn’t stay at the Manohara, we tried to “pull strings” to get in. Unfortunately, the sunrise experience was booked out by Tibetan monks that day. They were going for pre-dawn prayers and so we were denied access. How do you fight with Tibetan monks? So I resolved to return to Borobudur, but to book at least a night at Manohara for this unique sunrise experience.

I did get to escape the crowds though by entering Borobudur by the hotel’s private gate. What was special for me was the unique view of the breathtaking temple from its east entrance, which was a lot more green and lush. Ah! My first glimpse of the Grand Dame:

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It’s hard to believe that Borobudur was constructed in the 8th Century, back when Europe was still in the Dark Ages. The architecture and artwork are incredibly intricate. Structurally, this UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of 10 levels: The lower levels are square bases while the top three are circular. From the air, Borobudur actually resembles a lotus flower!

It made me wonder who conceived the idea and sketched the blueprint for this mega structure. After all, it took 100 years and several generations to complete, so the architectural plans had to be pretty detailed, didn’t it?

All our guide was able to offer was this feeble explanation: He pointed to a mountain facing Borobudur that resembled the silhouette of sleeping man. According to local myths and legends, he said, this man was the real architect and he built Borobudur in a day. He was so exhausted that he’s been sleeping ever since… YAH RIGHT.

But where stories go, what was most fascinating to me was the bas-relief that has survived 1,300 years. In an era where generations could not read or write, people came here to study these carvings to understand ancient texts and tales.

The welcome lion has the face of a monkey because carvers had never seen a lion before.

This lion has a monkey’s face as carvers had never seen a lion!

Earliest evidence of Javanese massage.

Earliest evidence of Javanese massage.

Bas-relief on Lord Buddha's birth.

Bas-relief on Lord Buddha’s birth.

Jar for storing baby's placenta, still part of Hindu Javanese rituals today.

Jar for storing baby Buddha’s placenta. These jars are still part of Hindu-Javanese rituals today.

Buddhist teachings on friendship and sacrifice.

Buddhist teachings on friendship and sacrifice.

(top right) Sanskrit word for "ugly face", a punishment for doing bad.

(top right) Sanskrit word for “ugly face”, a punishment for bad-doing.

Our guide was a good storyteller. I learnt a lot from him and would highly recommend you get a guide for your tour, or the details will be lost on you. After listening to his fascinating stories, we took this long and steep stairway to the upper levels of Borobudur. We were told to climb all the way up without stopping. I didn’t know why, but I’d rather err on the side of caution!

Stairway to Nirvana.

Stairway to Nirvana.

What greeted me at the upper levels was a totally different landscape. Gone are the (often headless) statues of Buddha found at the lower levels and the walls with intricate carvings. In its place, perforated bell-shaped stupas I’d come to associate with Borobudur from photos.

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I read that this upper level signifies transcendence and attaining a level of spirituality that goes beyond physical form. At this level of enlightenment, Buddha resides within.

And so, I leaned in and peered through the perforated stupas to find him.

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There is a certain serenity in seeing Buddha’s peaceful mien within the stupas.

In my world travels, I’ve started to gain a new respect for Buddhism and its philosophy. It’s the only “major religion” in the world that has not waged war against other religions. But then, Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is a philosophy. Being brought up Catholic, my knowledge is limited. But what I do know is that it’s one of the most inclusive and non-judgemental paths. And that appeals to me.

I wouldn’t go to the extent of describing my Borobudur experience as being life-changing, but it was mind-expanding. Just to be in the presence of the most massive Buddhist monument in the world – still standing after 1,300 years – was humbling.

While it upset me that people through the centuries have pillaged from her – including Western explorers, colonial masters and Siam’s King Chulalongkorn who carted away a disgraceful number of artefacts for his museum – I was grateful for the fact that UNESCO valued her as a monument of world heritage in 1991.

When Mt Merapi erupted in 2010, Borobudur was covered in a 1cm-thick layer of white volcanic ash.

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A thorough cleaning-up ensued, leading to Borobudur being closed for two months. Even the ancient stones were dislodged and overturned to clean the ashes wedged between blocks. If not for the fact that UNESCO had a hand in preservation, I’m not sure my children and my children’s children will get to appreciate her.

In my short time in Yogyakarta, I also visited another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Prambanan Temple. It was built in the 10th Century and is the largest temple dedicated to Siva in Indonesia.

Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta.

Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta.

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It’s interesting to me that Borobudur and Prambanan were built just two years apart, and not far from each other. If we could travel back in time, we would likely see Buddhism and Hinduism co-existing harmoniously during the Sailendra Dynasty. Today, Yogyakarta is 96% Muslim. Yet, I do see evidence of temples, churches and mosques all built in close physical proximity of each other. It’s a good feeling.

Sadly, I didn’t stay long in Yogyakarta. In my short time there, I also visited Jalan Malioboro (Jogja’s shopping district) and sampled its famed cuisine – in particular, Nasi Gudeg or rice cooked with nangka (jackfruit) and served with chicken, beef skin, boiled egg and tempeh (fermented beans).

Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta.

Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta.

Jogja's signature Nasi Gudeg.

Jogja’s signature Nasi Gudeg.

Still, it remains that I was in Yogyakarta for one sole purpose: To meet Borobudur face-to-face.

Built in the 8th Century. Discovered by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1814. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991. All milestones in Borobudur’s long and esteemed history.

But this was my moment in time.

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*AirAsia operates daily flights direct from Singapore to Yogyakarta. Borobudur is a 40min drive from Yogyakarta.

Tohoku lies in the north-eastern region of Japan’s Honshu island. Its largest city is Sendai. By Shinkansen (bullet train), it will take you 1hr 40mins to get from Tokyo Station to Sendai Station. A stone’s throw away! The experience I had in Tohoku is too rich to summarise in one blog entry, and so I will highlight three of my favourite Prefectures in a mini-series: Yamagata, Iwate and Miyagi.

 

Has a photo compelled you to travel? For me, that’s often the starting point. One photo that prompted me to pack my bags and head to Tohoku is this one…

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Ginzan Hot Springs lies along the Ginzan River in Obanazawa in Tohoku’s Yamagata Prefecture. The word “Ginzan” means “silver mountain” in Japanese, and this has to do with a silver mine that was discovered here some 500 years ago.

I arrived here on a cold winter’s afternoon. The first thing that hit me was the smell of sulphur fumes. This is, after all, a volcanic area famed for its hot springs. Along the promenade are footbaths, little pools of bubbling water from the hot springs, where you can soak your feet.

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I took the opportunity to dress up in a traditional Japanese kimono to explore the area because it seemed like a good idea. Not the wisest decision because I was freezing my buns off! It makes for pretty pictures though, so maybe not in winter?

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Most of the ryokan or traditional inns that line the promenade on either side were built in the early 1900s, during the Taishō and early Shōwa period, and popular with visitors seeking an onsen (hot springs) experience.

Ginzan Hot Springs boasts 11 ryokans – each with its own onsen – but you’re advised to make reservations in advance because they’re almost always full. Ginzan itself is small. You can pretty much walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes, so a one-night stay will suffice, before you head to Zao Onsen for your next experience! (*Look out for my next blog entry)

Aside from hot springs, I was pleasantly surprised to find a charming waterfall there. It had started to snow at Ginzan in December, and the white snow-scape was peaceful and pristine. Perhaps that’s what drew me to the waterfall: The poetic contrast of its thundering power with the silent serenity.

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And on a cold drizzling day, there’s nothing more comforting than piping hot curry bread. Look out for a little shop called Haikarasan dori, where these fried buns are sold for 180 Yen (US$1,80) apiece. A must-try at Ginzan Hot Springs!

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*This write-up was submitted to Key Destination, a travel website where I am part of a global team of in-house bloggers.