Category: Aviation


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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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

The most precious things are often hidden: Gem stones, pearls, diamonds. You have to look for them beneath the surface.

In many ways, that is how I feel about Semarang. Located in the northern coast of Central Java, “Semarang” draws a complete blank at first mention. Dig a bit deeper, and I discover it’s known for its export of quality furniture, its avocado plantations and its grilled seafood.

My initial impression – upon waking up after a long overland drive from Yogyakarta –  was how developed Semarang looked on the surface. We rolled into the civic centre after dark and were greeted by grand Dutch colonial buildings juxtaposed with colourful billboards lit with the familiar colours of modernity: The reds-and-yellows of McDonald’s, and the greens of Starbucks Coffee.

With the dawn of a new day, our guide Vera peeled open more layers of this unfamiliar city: A boulevard lined with government administrative buildings and international banks; grand bungalows that hugged the hilly slopes just beyond the city, akin to upmarket Beverly Hills.

I discover that Semarang is the capital and largest city of Central Java. Because it’s a coastal city with a port, the Dutch who colonised Indonesia for over 300 years used Semarang as a gateway for transporting spices and local produce from the interiors of Central Java to Europe.

I scratch deeper – below the veneer of business, industry and government – and discover more unpolished gems. Here is my pick of the best experiences in Semarang:

Adrenaline Rush at Sidomukti

Umbol Sidomukti is an adventure park in the highlands. I have to admit I’m quite the adrenaline junkie so I was quite game for this. I’ve done the Flying Fox before at adventure camps and even Sentosa’s MegaZip from Imbiah Lookout to the beach below; but never in the highlands. Oh what a view!

Highland terraces at Sidomukti

Highland terraces at Sidomukti

The Flying Fox at Sidomukti spans 110 metres across two hills and is 70 metres above ground. I’m not a huge fan of heights, but in such nail-biting cases, the only question you need to ask yourself is: “Do I trust the equipment?”

If you do, then just strap in and enjoy the ride! WHEE!!!

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What I wasn’t prepared for psychologically was the “Marine Walk”. From afar, it looked deceivingly like a mild suspension bridge.

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But when I put my first foot on the netting that stretched across two hills, I realised the gaps between the ropes were so spaced out, my whole foot could slip through! And it was very wobbly too.

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All I could hold on to was the safety line attached to my safety girdle – like an umbilical cord – which wasn’t much help at all. At one point, I missed my footing, lost my balance, and landed on my butt on the netting.

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It was harder than I thought to get back up on my feet so I decided to rest a while in this position and take photos from up here. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

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Sitting on my butt and feeling exhausted, I told myself – and I said this out loud – “You can do it, Pam. You can do this!”

So I got up on my feet (with whatever little arm and core muscles I had) and stepped my way – slowly and steadily – to the finish. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time! For me, a real test of will power. But now, I know for myself that my mind is terribly powerful. I can do anything I set mind to. But of course, I ached for a few days after!

Food, Glorious Food!

Now who would’ve thought that a place like Semarang would have such a variety of cheap and good food? Semarang!

After our adventures in the highlands, we trooped up the hill for a Lesehan-style lunch, which means sitting on mats on the floor and sharing a communal meal. The signature dish here is Ikan Bakar (with freshwater fish!) – it was awesome! So was the humble tahu dish.

Tahu (or tofu) is served widely in Semarang because the beans are grown locally. But this one was highly addictive for a good reason – it was battered and fried in salted egg yolk.

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Another signature dish in Semarang is Lumpia, which comes steamed or fried. It looks suspiciously like the Chinese popiah or spring roll, but you eat it with small green chilis, which you hold and bite off.

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For the Chinese in Semarang (and there’s quite a huge community here), they eat the Lumpia not just with small green chills, but with a thick sweet sauce and leek/spring onions too. Note: Bite off only the white bulb; do not gobble up all the green shoots like a rabbit.

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Our guide Vera told us that Ayam Penyet originated from Semarang. When I learnt that, I went a little berserk because I love Ayam Penyet. Apparently, the dish was created here, then brought to Batam, from where it spread to Singapore and Malaysia.

So while I was in Semarang, I just had to try the original.

Ayam Penyet originated from Semarang!

Ayam Penyet originated from Semarang!

The ayam here is spring chicken. It’s smaller, leaner, and an alpha athlete as compared to our fat chickens back home. But it’s tender because it’s pressure cooked.

We ate at a popular local eatery called Super Penyet which serves everything in “penyet” style. I learnt on this trip that “penyet” means “smashed” or “flattened”. It finally clicked – after all these years – what my dear Grandma was saying in her Chinese-accented Malay!

Things I love about Super Penyet: The sambal counter! Look out for it because you can pick a variety of chilis, sambals and pickles, at a variety of spicy levels, here. Also, do order the salted fish towgay (bean sprouts) because while it looks deceivingly normal, it is the best salted fish towgay I’ve ever eaten.

And try their “hot orange” drink. It tastes like kum guat (small oranges growing on CNY plants) – very refreshing! And it being served hot brings out the flavours even more. They serve “hot lemon” too, which I’m told is good. But be warned – they come in huge glasses!

I dare say no trip to Semarang is complete without trying their grilled seafood. Remember, Semarang is located along the northern coast of Central Java and so the seafood here is fresh. And marinated, of course, with lovely Indonesian spices.

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I’ll let my food photos do the talking from here…. let me just retreat to my little corner now and drool, thank you very much.

Fried cassava with chili dip.

Fried cassava with chili dip.

Indonesian Gado Gado

Indonesian Gado Gado

"Tahu Bakso" is tofu stuffed with shrimp paste, eaten as is without dip.

“Tahu Bakso” is tofu stuffed with shrimp paste. Eaten as is, without dip.

Indonesian Bento boxes! Meals on-the-go.

Indonesian Bento boxes – meals on-the-go!

A Touch of Supernatural at Lawang Sewu

For this next experience, I do not recommend you go with a full stomach as I cannot guarantee you won’t throw up.

Lawang Sewu is a magnificent Dutch colonial building, built in the 1900s, as an administrative hub for the railway. As the Dutch were temperate people (by this, I mean climate), they needed their buildings to be cooled and ventilated in the tropical humidity – or they’d be non-functional like me in the heat.

So they built Lawang Sewu with many, many doors. In fact, Lawang Sewu (when translated in Javanese) means Thousand Doors.

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In addition, the Dutch built a basement with an impressive network of tunnels that stored water a metre high. This water was then pumped throughout the building – through a system of pipes – to cool this grand structure. A brilliant piece of architecture in an era without electricity or fans!

BUT.

During World War II (1942 to 1945), the Japanese converted Lawang Sewu into its military headquarters. And how convenient to have a basement filled with water… The Japanese promptly converted that into a dungeon prison where Prisoners of War (POWs) were locked up, tortured and executed.

As such, Lawang Sewu is believed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Semarang.

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I don’t know what possessed us, but we decided to go there at night. Perhaps, that’s the only way to do it… I may be smiling (above), but I was scared shitless.

We had an English-speaking guide named Wawan, who has been leading walking tours at Lawang Sewu for over 30 years and a specialist at the dungeons. Well, I reckoned that if he is still doing this, it means he is still alive. So that was a tad comforting.

Wawan made us walk the corridors, hallways and rooms in the dark, with just one torchlight which he flashed around eerily. It prompted my friend Joey and me (both of us practical Singaporean girls) to ask nervously, and several times, “Why don’t they install lights?!”

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The fine hair at the back of my neck stood on ends, especially when Wawan told us that these hallways were haunted. In particular, by a woman called “Miss Helen” who committed suicide here.

Once, to demonstrate that the floors were hollow and the basement below us was filled with water, he stamped his foot down, hard, on the ground. The whole hallway reverberated with an eerie echo. It sent chills down my spine. Honestly, I wanted to sock him right there – what if he woke the ghosts and informed them exactly where we were?!

But perhaps the worst part was when Wawan said matter-of-factly, “Let’s go down to the dungeon.”

At that point, one of the girls firmly declined as she was completely creeped out. I was too, but I decided to do it because Wawan said, “You need to experience what the Prisoners of War experienced. Many Indonesians have cried.”

And so, Joey and I decided we’d give it a go. We followed Wawan down the steep stairway into the dungeon. The floor was wet and slippery. There was still water down there – we could see it when Wawan flashed his torchlight.

At the landing, he switched off his torchlight and we stood there in complete darkness.

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Even with my eyes wide open, I couldn’t see anything. It was pitch black. It was chilling, yet strangely sad. The POWs in the Japanese Occupation stood just like this, in the dark, with water up to their necks. Many were tortured and executed here too, by beheading.

Their heads were then tossed into the canal beside Lawang Sewu (pictured above) as a warning to others who dared defy the Japanese soldiers. The canal back then was always blood red.

Lawang Sewu had a powerful impact on me. Apart from stories of hauntings – from “Miss Helen” to headless ghouls – it was a history lesson that transported me to the core of the horror and tragedy of the Japanese Occupation. I left the spooky place shaken and chilled to the bone.

We had to head immediately to the bright and noisy Paragon Mall for a Starbucks Coffee after!

A Slice of History

And while you’re in Semarang, there are also two other places I’d recommend you drop by, although they are not top of my list. But it’s good to experience them because they reveal something about the essence of place.

One is Sam Poo Kong temple, which is located not too far from Lawang Sewu. It is a temple dedicated to Chinese explorer, Admiral Cheng Ho, or as the locals call him, Laksamana Zheng He.

Sam Poo Kong Temple.

Sam Poo Kong Temple.

Admiral Cheng Ho in Semarang

Admiral Zheng He in Semarang

Did you know that Admiral Zheng He was a devout Muslim? In fact, his whole family in China were Chinese-Muslims, and it is believed that he was instrumental in bringing Islam to Asia in his travels – albeit peacefully.

In fact, Sam Poo Kong temple was constructed as a Muslim place of prayer. But somewhere in history, it was converted to a Buddhist temple. It’s not clear exactly which year Sam Poo Kong is constructed. It’s believed to be built during the period Zheng He was in Semarang due to ship problems, between 1400 and 1416.

The beauty of this place is that both Chinese-Buddhists and Javanese-Muslims come here to pay respects. There is even a grand stage that plays host to both Chinese Wayang and Indonesian shadow puppet performances!

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One thing that struck me about Central Java was the beautiful weaving of religions in its cultural fabric: Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Muslim mosques share the land, side-by-side. It gives me a good feeling.

When our guide Vera told us that she was going to take us to Semarang’s main mosque, I have to admit I wasn’t overly excited. After all, I have been to the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco. That was magnificent, with the tallest minaret in the world, standing at 210 metres.

But I went along and was duly impressed. You don’t expect to see something quite this huge and spectacular in a quiet and unassuming industrial city like Semarang.

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This is Masjid Agung Jawa Tengah or the Great Mosque of Central Java. Uncanny, but it reminds me of a futuristic space station. In fact, it reminded me of Space Mountain. And it was breathtaking at sunset!

It’s the main mosque in the whole of Central Java and a place of worship for thousands of Muslim devotees. The tall white rocket-looking structures are actually giant umbrellas that open up during outdoor prayers. I would’ve loved to see that!

To say the least, my experience in Semarang was like finding a precious gemstone in a rock.

I came here without expecting very much. But Semarang is one of those places that “under-promises and over-delivers”. In her quiet, unassuming way, she evoked a myriad of emotions in me and touched me with a beauty that goes beyond skin-deep. You just have to dig a little and get to know her.

And I’m pretty sure I’m not quite done getting to know her.

*AirAsia flies direct from Singapore to Semarang 4x a week. 

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.

Gateways to the World

People say airports look the same the world over. To some extent, I agree.

Airports in most First World countries like the US and Europe are kind of like babies and very old people  – they are obviously different but they look suspiciously alike to me. If you showed me a picture of a departure lounge and asked me to guess where it is, chances are I’d get it wrong. It could well be London, Paris or New York.

But of course, when you’re flying into destinations that are not big cities or hot tourist spots, airports are always more interesting. One of my favourite airports of all time is the one on Moloka’i in Hawaii.

Moloka’i is a sleepy island that makes you feel like you’ve tumbled out of a time warp into Hawaii in the 1950s. It’s home to the world’s highest sea cliffs and to Kalaupapa, a former leper colony. The airport at Moloka’i only serves domestic flights, and there is only one runway. This is how the airport’s one and only luggage belt looks like…

Moloka'i Airport, Hawaii.

Moloka’i Airport, Hawaii.

But even airports in First World countries that are tourists hotspots can surprise you. I often think of Greece as a First World country – albeit in a severe debt crisis – and one of its most popular islands is Santorini. Oh, the gorgeous blues and whites…

Santorini, Greece.

Santorini, Greece.

When I was there in August 2011, I was mildly surprised to find the airport cramped and devoid of little luxuries you’d expect from a popular Greek holiday island. While we landed on a runway flanking the gorgeous blues of the Aegean Sea, the airport looked something like this…

Santorini Airport, Greece

Santorini Airport, Greece

There were fewer than 10 gates, and one of them (Gate 3, picture left) had been closed off and replaced by a snack stand!

But there is a certain charm about Santorini’s airport, especially once you step outside the terminal building onto the tarmac and are greeted by the breathtaking ocean view and the caressing sea breeze.

To be honest, I’m not sure how this airport has managed to handle the plane loads of tourists who have flocked to the island over the years, but somehow the Greeks have managed. They have survived this long after all, from ancient times. *blinks*

And then, there is Bhutan. The moment you step out of the plane, you know you’re in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

My BFF Ning at Bhutan Airport, 2011.

My BFF Ning at Bhutan Airport, 2011.

So much of Bhutan’s culture and heritage is reflected in its architecture, in the clothing the locals still wear daily, even the children’s school uniforms.

Ning with Sonam, our Bhutanese guide, 2011.

Sonam, our Bhutanese guide.

You almost feel like the locals are all dressed up in costumes and you’ve stepped onto a movie set. But the charm of Bhutan is that tourism is so controlled and restricted (you have to spend at least US$200 a day) that its cultural heritage is well-preserved and kept intact.

But I digress. We were talking about airports.

My favourite airport must still be Singapore’s. I must admit it’s not the most unique or memorable airport in terms of how it stands out aesthetically, but the feeling I get every time my plane closes in on the runway is unique and irreplaceable.

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When I’m on an AirAsia flight, I love it when I hear the words announced, “And to all Singaporeans… welcome home.”

The BFF Ning & I upon returning from our world travels, 2011.

The BFF Ning & I upon returning from our world travels, 2011.

Much as I love traveling – and much as I’ve said “the journey is home” for me – I always feel proud when I touch down at Changi Airport and walk out into the arrival lounge towards immigration.

It seems now that the world agrees with me that Singapore’s airport is the best in the world.

According a Straits Times article dated 11 April 2013, Singapore Changi Airport has been named the World’s Best Airport at the 2013 Skytrax World Airport Awards held in Geneva.

It’s the 4th time our airport has bagged this prize. The Awards are based on The World Airport Survey, which included 395 airports worldwide this year, and evaluates key performance indicators in areas such as check-in, transfers, security and immigration, and shopping.

World's Best Airport, 2013.

World’s Best Airport, 2013.

It’s a reason to be proud – extra proud.

But I think for any Singaporean who travels extensively, no international award will mean more than the feeling we get when we step into this gateway to home.

It’s hard to explain that feeling. No matter how good a trip I’ve had or how reluctant I am to go back to reality, our airport makes me feel proud to be Singaporean – prouder than any National Day Parade.

In 2005, I was sent to Kerala on an overseas assignment for SilkAir’s inflight magazine.

It would be the first of many commissioned travel assignments. But that was my first trip to Mother India. I was paralysed by fear and inadequacy. After all, I’d been a freelance writer for just over two years and still a relative rookie in the industry.

But my editor Vera Lye – a classmate from school – saw something in me that I did not see in myself. She believed I could do it. And because I really did want to dip a tentative toe into a this new genre, I said Yes to the overseas assignment.

I found myself in Kochi at the peak of the Southwest monsoon. Because I was told I wouldn’t see anything, I was determined to experience everything. Undeterred by the rains, I sought out the beauty of the backwaters swollen with floodwaters, the old-world charm of Fort Cochin in a windbreaker, and even rolled up my sleeves to help haul in a catch at the Chinese fishing nets.

These were the first words I ever wrote for a paid travel story…

Opening paras of "Kochi: A Meeting of Worlds" by Pamela Ho for SilkAir's inflight magazine, 2005.

Opening paras of “Kochi: A Meeting of Worlds” by Pamela Ho for SilkAir’s inflight magazine, 2005.

… and my first taste of how I could actually combine my twin loves of travel and writing, and make money from it. ✈

Falling in love is often unexpected and unplanned. And just like falling in love with someone, I fell head over heels in love with travel writing.

And this was the genesis of it all – the start of a lifelong love affair.

Both Sides Now

I seldom choose a window seat. I think it has to do with my restless spirit. I need to know that I can get up and go whenever I want to, without having to climb over someone’s legs.

When I traveled to Melbourne on my own recently, I picked a window seat. I’m not sure why.

It was an overnight flight. When I woke in the morning and lifted the window, I was greeted by a sliver of light in the horizon.

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@pamela_ho

It was all quiet in the airplane, and so I sat there in silence and watched…

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@pamela_ho

I saw a spectacular sunrise once, at the summit of a volcano in Maui at 10,000ft. The sun rose above the clouds. But there were people all around, jostling and taking photos.

This was MY moment.

And I’m beginning to like this about solo travel: The many little private moments I have, just listening, watching, observing, feeling… There is no need for conversation. No need for exclamation or explanation. Because my self knows what I feel.

I kept my window open as we glazed across the Indian Ocean, over the string of Indonesian islands to Australia. I have to admit I know little of Australia, or where Melbourne is on the map for that matter. Believe it or not, this was the first time I checked!

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It would take us 3 hours just to cross the vast Central Desert of Australia. But you know, when you have nothing but time on your hands, your mind frees up and you create a space within for experiences to enter through your senses.

@pamela_ho

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@pamela_ho

I looked out the window a lot. I read a lot too. I’d chosen to bring along The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, a book that had been collecting dust on my bookshelf for 11 years.

The Art of Travel

I don’t think this book would have impacted me so deeply had I read it in 2002. I always believe books find you at the right time. And now was the right time for this one. Whether you believe in God or not, I think the Universe Conspires. Even for books.

And in The Art of Travel, there was a chapter about the speed of travel and the different experiences you get from different forms of transport. And that’s what I love about this book! It talks about the most inane things, but they make absolute sense.

Plane journeys have never topped my list of travel adventures.

I tend to agree with travel writer Rolf Potts who said, “the slower you go, the more you experience”. And so, where travel experiences go, I love walking most. Then road trips. Then train journeys.

As Alain de Botton writes, “Journeys are the midwives of thought.” – and it’s so true.

Rolf walked across Israel. I would like to do a long walking trip too, perhaps starting with the Road to Santiago. I know so little about it, but it captured my imagination when I read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I would like to walk that one day, solo.

Planes. They are functional in that they take you from Point A to B, very fast. It’s a good experience purely if you need to catch up on sleep or catch up with the latest movies you missed.

When I did not have a movie screen in front of me on my AirAsia flight to Melbourne and back, I caught up with reading. And because I had chosen a window seat, I caught up with cloud-watching, a favourite past-time of mine as a child.

@pamela_ho

@pamela_ho

@pamela_ho

@pamela_ho

@pamela_ho

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@pamela_ho

@pamela_ho

@pamela_ho

@pamela_ho

I love clouds. I’ve always loved clouds. Yes, I was really one of those kids who stared out the window for long stretches of time imaging animals in the sky. For the record, I saw thousands of them – real and mythical – in my childhood.

Looking out my plane window that day – above the clouds – I remembered a song. It’s one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I know: Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now.

It made me cry so hard when I heard it on the soundtrack of the 2003 movie, Love Actually. I guess I watched it at a time when I experienced that reality at its most full-blown.

Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

Oh but now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From WIN and LOSE and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

I grew up watching clouds from below. They captured my imagination as a little child.

But even now, they capture my imagination – when I look at them from above. Perhaps, even more.

You know, I think I have. Not just clouds. But Love. And Life.

And you know what? They are beautiful – on both sides.