Category: Destinations


Surabaya is not an instinctive choice for me when I think of a quick getaway in Indonesia. Ranked ahead would be Bali, Yogyakarta and Medan.

But truth be told, I love the island of Java.

My last trip to Central Java led me to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Borobodur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta, and the very haunted Lawang Sewu in Semarang, and I vowed to go back.

Borobudur, Central Java

Borobudur, Central Java

Aside from its own charms, Surabaya is also the gateway to Mount Bromo (active volcano) and Malang, a town in the highlands blessed with cooler temperatures – a popular hideaway for Europeans back in the days of Dutch colonisation.

I blogged about Mount Bromo here, and I’ll tell you more about Malang in a bit. Stay with me!

What’s more, Surabaya recently opened a swanky new international airport terminal. Just months old, it’s clean and modern, with amenities and retail that will satisfy any First World traveller. Think Starbucks Coffee.

Surabaya's swanky new international airport terminal

Surabaya’s swanky new international airport terminal

Here are 10 reasons why you should consider Surabaya when you plan your next trip…

 

1. House of Sampoerna

Located in “old Surabaya”, this ‘Cigarette Museum’ is housed in a Dutch colonial-styled building constructed in 1862. Few know that this was once an orphanage run by the Dutch before a certain gentleman named Liem Seeng Tee, the founder of Sampoerna, bought it over in 1932 to convert it into a cigarette production facility.

Within its grand compound today, you’ll also find a cafe, art gallery and gift shop.

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Check out the cigarette pillars!

The House of Sampoerna is still a fully-functional production plant for Indonesia’s most prestigious cigarette, Dji Sam Soe. What’s fascinating is the staff still hand-rolls these cigarettes!

Check out how fast they roll…

 

* The museum, shop and art gallery are open Mondays to Sundays, 9am to 10pm.   

 

2. Cheng Ho Chinese Mosque

One of the first things I notice about Surabaya – even before I step out of the airport – is the presence of Chinese Muslims. The most obvious are the Chinese women in tudung (headscarf). In fact, 40% of Surabaya’s population is Chinese!

Few people know that China’s celebrated admiral, Cheng Ho, was a devout Chinese-Muslim, and it was he who brought Islam to Indonesia’s Chinese community. He is believed to have stopped over in Semarang (Central Java) between the years 1400 and 1416, and his religious teachings spread by word-of-mouth to Surabaya.

You’ll find a fully functional Muslim mosque in amazing Chinese architecture dedicated to him in Pandaan, en route to Malang.

Masjid Cheng Ho. Pandaan, East Java

Masjid Cheng Ho. Pandaan, East Java

Even if you’re not Muslim, you can enter Masjid Cheng Ho – provided you’re “decently dressed”. If you’re not properly covered up, sarongs can be rented here.

The main prayer hall on the 2nd floor, with impressive high ceiling

The main Prayer Hall

This man (below) is Ahmad Sukarman – I think he manages the mosque compound.

Mohd Sukarman explaining the significance of the drum

Ahmad Sukarman explaining the significance of the drum

He shares with me that this giant Oriental-looking drum (pictured above) serves as a call to prayer to the surrounding community – much like tolling church bells in Europe. Made of buffalo skin, it’s crafted not in China, but in Kutus in Central Java. Apparently, it is struck 5x day and played continuously for 5mins!

 

3. Candi Singosari 

As we rumble along the roads through little villages from Surabaya to Malang, I catch a momentary glimpse of a structure by the roadside that reminds me of ancient temples in Cambodia. Yes, that distinctive Hindu-Buddhist architecture! What was it? Where were we?

We turn back, and I scramble out to have a look.

This is Candi Singosari – a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351. It’s definitely nowhere close to Angkor Wat, Borobudur or the temples of Bagan, but it’s the element of surprise that grabs you. It stands on an obscure plot of land, nestled between low-rise buildings, in an otherwise uninteresting village!

Candi Singosari, a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351

Candi Singosari, a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351

No cement used at all to "glue" the stones together

No cement at all to “glue” the stones

The guide tells me at the stones are stacked from bottom to top, with no cement used at all. The carvings, on the other hand, are done from top to bottom – a lovely little piece of trivia.

There was no pomp or pageantry arriving at Singosari, and just as quietly and uneventfully, we went on our way. But what an unexpected roadside gem!

 

4. Toko “OEN” Malang  

What I love about Malang is the remnants of Dutch influence – the churches, European architecture, even the food and restaurants! Toko “Oen” Malang’s menu even has its dishes listed in Dutch!

Toko "Oen" Malang's menu - items in Dutch!

Menu items in Dutch!

Toko “Oen” Malang is the oldest restaurant in Malang. Built in 1930 during the Dutch colonisation era, the interior exudes an old world charm that is so well-preserved that – upon stepping in – you immediately feel like you’ve travelled back in time. To me, it felt like a living museum!

In fact, this restaurant is so “true to its roots” that there is no air-conditioning or ceiling fans! It’s just high ceilings for natural ventilation and large glass panels for natural light. So be prepared to sweat buckets!

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The restaurant was founded by a Chinese businessman named Mr Oen (hence its name) and the menu itself is a little “split personality”. You’ll find Western fare, mixed with Chinese and Indonesian, so pretty much anything you fancy!

Verdict: A lovely place for a lunch break in Malang.

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5. Tugu Monument

This iconic monument – which stands in front of the mayor’s office in the heart of Malang – commemorates the courage of the local people, who fought against the Dutch colonial masters in the 1940s, and helped bring independence to Indonesia.

It’s shaped like a sharpened bamboo, signifying the first weapons used against the invaders.

Tugu Monument, Malang

Tugu Monument, Malang

There isn’t much to do here except to stroll leisurely on the grounds, enjoying the historical buildings and large shady trees surrounding this lotus pond. In many ways, Java is known for its heroes. If there is any point in your journey to pause and remember how hard the Javanese fought for the freedom of their country, this would be it.

The heart of Malang - love these huge trees!

The heart of Malang – love these huge trees!

 

6. Coban Rondo Falls

I have a thing for waterfalls – and this is an easy one to get to. I was worried it would be a strenuous and slippery hike out to the falls, so I was all prepared with my Keen ‘amphibious’ sandals, waterproof daypack and bikini!

We arrived at Coban Rondo Falls after a long drive, where I’d dozed off. When I tumbled out of the van, I was pleasantly surprised to feel the cool evening air on my face. Malang is nestled in the highlands, and the temperatures are much more pleasant here – around 20 deg C (even below!).

The waterfall is just a 5-10 min walk from the carpark, and the path is well-paved. Excellent for elderly and children! But it does get slippery closer to the falls, so best to still wear non-slip shoes. And bring a jacket!

A paved path makes for easy access to the Falls

A paved path makes for easy access to the Falls

Coban Rondo Waterfall, Malang

Coban Rondo Waterfall, Malang

The Coban Rondo Waterfall… I can feel the spray from here!

For fans of Jagung Bakar (grilled corn), there are stalls lined just outside the falls! Not as good as the one at Jimbaran Bay, Bali – in my opinion – but if you miss it, this one also comes glazed with margarine and chilli. And they even shave the corn-on-the-cob for you, so it’s easily shareable!

"Jagung Bakar" at the Falls

“Jagung Bakar” at the Falls

 

7. Fresh Apples Anyone?   

Did you know that apple trees can be grown in Indonesia? I didn’t. But I guess the cool weather in Batu Malang makes it possible. The last time I picked an apple from a tree and ate it was in chilly Kashmir!

At Selecta Batu, two types of apples are cultivated: Apple Malang (green – native here) and Apple Anna (red) which is a hybrid of the local green apple and the Rosanna apple from Australia. Apparently, the green ones are sweeter!

Apples grow in Malang!

Apples grow in Malang!

An apple picker, Malang. The branches can hold his weight?!

An apple picker, Malang. The branches can hold his weight?!

A city slicker like me only buys apples from the supermarket or fruit stall. I mean – seriously – how often do we get to pick an apple straight from a tree and eat it? This is as fresh as it gets!

 

 

8. Jawa Timur Park    

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations of this theme park. I mean, we have Universal Studios in Singapore after all. And I’ve been to crazy theme parks in the USA.

Jawa Timur Park 2: What's so secret about the Secret Zoo?

Jawa Timur Park: What’s so secret about the Secret Zoo?

Located approximately 32km west of Malang, Jawa Timur Park has become somewhat of a tourist icon in East Java. While Park 1 is all about roller coasters, theme park rides, and splashing fun at the water park, Park 2 is… a zoo.

Not just any zoo, but a Secret Zoo. My first thought was: How can it possibly outdo the Singapore Zoo? My second thought: So, what’s so secret about it?

But let me tell you that I came away from this experience totally enlightened. The Secret Zoo’s collection of animals is really something. I’ve never seen some of these creatures in all my years of visitng zoos!

Here’s a glimpse…

Quaint lil' creatures at the Secret Zoo

Quaint lil’ creatures at the Jawa Timur Secret Zoo, Malang

 

9. Food, Glorious Food!  

If there is one good reason why you should visit a place, it’s because it has GOOD FOOD – simple as that. And East Java will not disappoint. Whether it be Surabaya, Malang or Bromo, I found good food everywhere!

Now please ignore me as I drool.

Best restaurant in Malang: Resto Inggil

Possibly the best restaurant in Malang: Resto Inggil

"Lesehan style" lunch at Waroeng Bamboe. Communal eating on the floor!

“Lesehan style” lunch at Waroeng Bamboe – Communal eating on the floor!

When in Java, make sure you experience a “Lesehan style” meal. It’s where you sit around a long table – on the floor (or mat) – and share a communal meal. It’s casual and very Indonesian. I love it!

In Lesehan style!

In Lesehan style!

 

10. Batik Maduratna   

I’m not much of a shopper, but even I was tempted by this: Indonesian batik!

Basically, batik refers to a technique of manual wax-resist dyeing. And if you’re keen to shop for some, this is the place…

Located in Madura (just across the Suramadu Bridge from Surabaya), Batik Maduratna boasts the largest batik selection in the city! These traditional fabrics are designed and handmade here. In the day, there are also demonstration sessions by traditional artisans, so you can learn more about how batik is made.

Beautiful handmade Javanese batik

Beautiful handmade Javanese batik

Shopper's Paradise. Batik galore at Maduratna!

Shopper’s Paradise. Batik galore at Maduratna!

 

Mad About Mount Bromo 

Definitely another reason – and perhaps the most compelling one – to visit Surabaya is Mount Bromo. It’s just a 4hr drive from Surabaya city, and truly, it’s like stepping into another world.

So surreal she is that I’ve devoted a whole blog post just to her. You can read it here.

 

Getting There

AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day.

Flights depart Singapore at 2.10pm (SIN time) and arrive in Surabaya at 3.20pm (IND time). Just in time to check in!

Do pre-book your inflight meals though, because you enjoy a discount that way. I’d recommend the Nasi Kuning Manado because it doesn’t hold back on the spice, and it’s authentically Indonesian.

Nasi Kuning Manado, only on AirAsia QZ flights

Nasi Kuning Manado, only on AirAsia QZ flights!

On my flight back to Singapore, I pre-order a simple Western breakfast because it’s a really early flight. You take off from Surabaya at 5.20am and arrive back in Singapore at 8.30am. This Chicken Sub sat snug in my tummy… and to my delight, AirAsia serves Old Town 3-in-1 White Coffee too. My fav!

My chicken sub breakfast

My Chicken Sub breakfast in the air!

*AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day. To book your flight, click here.

 

Goodbye, Surabaya. Till we meet again!

Goodbye, Surabaya… Till we meet again!

 

 

“Many landscapes are beautiful. Meadows in spring, soft valleys, oak trees, bank of flowers (daisies especially). But they are not Sublime. ‘The ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful are frequently confounded… both are indiscriminately applied to things greatly differing and sometimes of natures directly opposite.

A landscape could arouse the Sublime only when it suggested power, power greater than that of humans and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to our will. Burke illustrated the argument with an analogy about oxen and bulls: ‘An ox is a creature of vast strength; but he is an innocent creature, extremely serviceable, and not at all dangerous; for which reason the idea of an ox is by no means grand. A bull is strong too; but his strength is of another kind; often very destructive… the idea of a bull is therefore great, and it has frequently a place in sublime descriptions, and elevating comparisons.’

There are ox-life landscapes: innocent and ‘not at all dangerous’, pliable to the human will. Burke had spent his youth in one, at a Quaker boarding school in the village of Ballitore in County Kildare, 30 miles southwest of Dublin, a landscape of farms, orchards, hedges, rivers and gardens. Then there are bull-like landscapes. Burke enumerated their features: vast, empty, often dark and apparently infinite, because of the uniformity and succession of their elements.”

~ Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel)  

Tengger Caldera, East Java

Tengger Caldera, East Java

It’s 3am and 5 deg C outside. As I step out into the night, the chilly air licks my face with a thousand tongues. I pull on my beanie hastily and turn up the collar of my winter jacket. As I trudge out to the Jeep and my eyes gradually adjust to the darkness, I notice the explosion of stars above – like diamonds flung across the vast ebony sky.

Tenggerese villagers selling scarves & gloves

It’s almost surreal to be so near Mt Bromo. I had arrived here close to midnight, when all around me was already cloaked in darkness. I did not know where she stood, but I could sense her presence close by. She last erupted in 2011, and is still belching sulphur smoke today. In Nov 2010, her plume of ash – I hear – rose 2,300ft into the sky!

Encountering her unbridled power excites me. We pile into a Jeep – all bundled up – and rattle our way up to a lookout point to catch the sunrise. The Jeep packs 6 max, and prices range from S$30/pax (two locations) to S$50/pax (four locations). You can hike too, but it means you’ll have to wake up much earlier and battle the cold.

The Jeep drops us off a distance from the lookout point at Mt Penanjakan, and from there, we walk. It’s an easy stroll up the hill – the only “danger” being the motorcyclists buzzing around you like flies, hassling you to hop on. We come to a paved alley soon enough, with cosy little eateries on our left, and local Tenggerese villagers selling Jagung Bakar (grilled corn) on our right. Tempting on a cold night!

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We have time to spare, so we succumb to the temptation of a caffeine fix. Indonesian coffee is good, black. But be prepared when you order a black coffee, for it to come with sugar. In Singapore, we’d call it Kopi-O. A couple of the guys bring back a bag of warm Pisang Goreng (deep-fried banana) and voila! breakfast at 9,000ft.

"Pisang Goreng" with black Javanese coffee

“Pisang Goreng” & Javanese coffee

Singaporeans! Teachers & girls from Presbyterian High at Mt Penanjakan.

Singaporeans! From Presbyterian High, Mt Penanjakan.

The summit of Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft) is the place to catch a Mt Bromo sunrise. Be warned though that it’s usually very crowded. People converge from all over to claim a spot way before the sun makes her shy appearance.

The crowd gathered behind me as I perch on the railing

Crowd gathered behind me as I perch on a railing

For the best place to catch the sunrise, head towards the left of the viewing platform. My advice is to look out for the hardcore photographers who have already set up their tripods and cameras. They know best!

I love sunrises. It’s not just the kaleidoscope of colours in the sky, but the fact that it’s constantly changing – like an IMAX movie surrounding you in 360. For about an hour, I watch – spellbound – as the landscape covered in complete darkness is slowly revealed by nature’s light.

A spectacular sunrise at Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft)

A spectacular sunrise at Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft)

But from this vantage point – where I have a perfect view of the sunrise – I can’t see Mt Bromo. She lies somewhere to my right. And as the sun’s ray start to illuminate the volcanic landscape, I make a judgement call to give up my prime spot to go in search of her.

It helps to be small and on your own. I have no one to mind, so I dart through the crowd, climb through barriers, and trust instincts in searching for a spot. I find a good one beyond the railing, on a precarious ledge at the path’s end.

“Be careful,” a European gentleman warns me. “The slope is slippery.”

There are a few Caucasian travellers here along that sandy path, but not one ventures to the edge. I decide to take a risk because I really want a good shot of Mt Bromo, and honestly, I’m not sure when I’ll be back. And so, heart pounding, I claim my spot and settle down to soak her in. When I beheld her – like this – I swear I swore out loud.

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

It’s the symmetrical cone in the centre that grabs my attention, but it’s not Mt Bromo. That’s a dormant volcano called Mt Batok, whose hay days are sadly over. Mt Bromo (7,641ft) stands to its left, that ash-coloured shield volcano that has steam and sulphur streaming out of its crater. Now that is a living, breathing volcano!

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo (left)

Mt Semeru stands majestic in the background, almost like a sentinel overlooking the desolate plain, guarding his wards. But what leaves me breathless is the knowledge that this majestic collection of volcanoes is actually within a bigger volcano… a much bigger one.

Just take a step back, physically zoom outwhat do you see?

The Tengger Caldera: The blown-off top of a massive ancient volcano

The Tengger Caldera: The blown-off top of a massive ancient volcano

This entire area you see is a giant ancient volcano whose top has been blown off! In Geography, I learnt that this is called a caldera, a collapsed crater. This Tengger caldera spans 10km in diameter and cradles four new volcanoes (above).

In 1982, this whole area was declared a national park: the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. In fact, it’s the only national park in Indonesia that has what is called a “Sand Sea” or Laut Pasir. It has been a protected area since 1919.

From up here, it looks almost unearthly. Like a moonscape, or Mars. And as I pack up to head down to explore the Sand Sea, a thin veil of mist creeps in over the sand.

We ride the Jeep down to the Sand Sea at 7,000ft and it’s a bumpy ride! I have to admit I wasn’t prepared for the expanse of this Sand Sea. When you’re actually on it, it feels like a desert. It reminds me of traveling on the Erg Chebbi sand dunes in Risanni – the gateway to the Sahara Desert from Morocco (I explored Erg Chebbi in Sep 2011).

Here’s a taste of my Jeep ride on the Sand Sea, towards Mt. Bromo:

We tumble out of the Jeep and set foot on the Sea of Sand. It’s volcano ash, spewed from Mt Bromo (and probably Mt Batok) over the decades. While there’s vegetation here, the landscape exudes a somewhat desolate feel.

On the Sand Sea, with a view of Mt Batok in the distance

On the Sand Sea, with Mt Batok in the distance

I do not think it impossible to hike across the Sand Sea. If you have the time, inclination, and level of fitness, it would actually be quite an adventure on foot. But if it rains – as it sometimes does – do take note that the sand turns to mud. Now that would be quite a different experience!

I opt to go the rest of the way on horseback. There is a camp not too far from where I’m sitting, where horses are on standby. These smallish, pony-like horses are bred by the indigenous Tenggerese people, who come from 30 villages in and around the national park.

This is "Vicky", the Tenggerese man whose horse I'm riding

This is “Vicky”, the Tenggerese man whose horse I’m riding

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It is believed that they are descendants of Majapahit princes, and still practise an ancient religion similar to the strand of Hinduism practised in Bali. This Hindu-Buddhist influence arrived in Java some time between the 8th and 10th century, and its architecture can be evidenced in UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Borobudur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta.

But here on the Sand Sea is a humble Hindu temple named Pura Luhur Poten (Poten Temple), apparently made with volcanic stones. It’s here that the Tenggerese villagers come to pray during important Hindu festivals, before scaling Mt Bromo to toss offerings into the fuming crater.

Pura Luhur Poten, a sacred Hindu temple on the Tengger Massif

Pura Luhur Poten, a sacred Hindu temple on the Sea of Sand (Tengger Caldera)

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

Indigenous Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

The Tenggerese basically monopolise the tourism here at the Tengger Massif – they rent out horses, sell food and drinks, and hawk warm clothing to tourists caught off-guard by the freezing temperatures. But as they are the indigenous people of this region, I think it’s only fair that they are not robbed of a livelihood.

Vicky’s horse takes me to the foot of Mt Bromo. From here, I have to continue the rest of the way on foot. It’s a steep climb up to the crater of Mt Bromo. The good news, though, is that there are proper steps leading up to the summit.

Stairway to heaven... or a fiery hell?

Stairway to heaven… or a fiery hell?

The bad news is that the steps are steep and sandy (which make them slippery), so you pretty much need strong knees. But there are rest points along the way, each with a view lovelier than the last.

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But nothing prepared me for this.

The thing is, from the foot of Mt Bromo, you really can’t see the crater, so you have no inkling of how huge it is! And the constant puffs of sulphur smoke rising from her wide-opened mouth is a stark reminder to me of the activity that lay beneath the surface. Yes, this is an active volcano!

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

In her magnificent presence, I stand in awe. There is no need for words at this point. She is birthed from the death of an ancient volcano. And at one point or other, all these anak volcanoes were bubbling cauldrons: Destroying and creating. Then destroying and creating again.

Her name “Bromo” – after all – stems from the word “Brahma”, the Hindu Creator God. The Destroyer and the mighty Creator.

The poetic words of Burke – as quoted by Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel – drift into my consciousness. Surely, this is a bull landscape! An encounter with what he calls the Sublime.

 

*AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day. Mt Bromo is a 4hr drive from Surabaya. 

 

Sidetracked by Beauty

In Feb 2012, I was blown away when I saw the Colosseum covered in a blanket of snow. It was beautiful. I’d never seen Rome like this before – it was like seeing the city with new eyes.

(Photo: Elizabeth Minchilli)

(Photo Credit: Elizabeth Minchilli)

(Photo credit: globalwarming-arclein.blogspot.com)

The Roman Forum covered in snow. (Photo Credit: globalwarming-arclein.blogspot.com)

Last night, I saw photos coming out of Cairo and Jerusalem of snow-covered Middle-Eastern cities.

That’s what I love about Instagram, it’s like seeing the world and cities and neighbourhoods and people’s lives through their smartphones – like a Born into Brothels kinda thing.

(Photo Credit: Saleh Mousa)

(Photo Credit: Saleh Mousa)

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are covered in snow in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are covered in snow in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

But then, the weather scares me. It’s the first time it’s snowed in Egypt in 100 years. And even when I was traveling around the world in 2011, everyone I spoke to – on every continent – echoed the same thing: the climate is changing.

And we’re seeing the signs in more and more dramatic and spectacular ways. Paulo Coelho writes in The Alchemist about reading omens. Can we not read them?

While I am awed by the beauty of a snow-covered Cairo and Rome, I’m also reminded that I cannot overlook the graver message these images carry; and to ponder really the role we each have to play in this. If we do nothing, we are in fact doing something.

It’s so easy to be sidetracked by Beauty.

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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It was only when I waded into the waist-deep river towards the thunderous waterfall that I realised I had scrapes and bruises all over.

The tender skin on my right palm was scraped from breaking a fall while crossing a river (slippery boulders!)… there were scratches on my left shin, right arm and left wrist, and a nasty purplish bruise on my right thigh. When in contact with the ice-cold river water, they stung.

The hike to Pelepah Falls in Kota Tinggi was not supposed to be a tough hike. But it wasn’t easy either. The hiking trail led us through an oil palm plantation, across several rivers, and into the jungles of Malaysia’s Johor state, which was very much untouched by men. You can always tell by the  vegetation: Primary forests have a distinct three-tier structure.

A rustic oil palm plantation.

A rustic oil palm plantation.

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Primary forests have a distinctive three-tier vegetation structure.

At certain points of the trail, we had to climb almost vertical rock walls, about 20-feet high, assisted only with ropes. Because the rope could swing left or right, I found myself bashing against the rocks a couple of times.

Climbing up with the help of just a rope

Climbing up with the help of just a rope (Photo: James Hui)

I held on to whatever I could find to pull myself up or to steady myself when I was going down. What I appreciated very much was the YMCA staff (who organised the trip) yelling out to us, “Thorns on the right!” or “Thorns on the left!” This helped because when you’re trying to grab onto something, you just grab anything!

And you quickly learn you can’t grab on to everything.

I have to admit that as a greenhorn forest hiker, I grabbed on to liana (which isn’t stable), thick twigs, young roots of trees and whatever I thought I could hold on to to steady myself. And of course, that caused me to lose my balance more than once.

“Hold on to something reliable!” Vivian’s voice broke through the silence of the forest.

Vivian was one of our group leaders from YMCA – a spunky, sporty, outdoorsy sort of girl. Much younger than me but you have to admire her leadership qualities and her ease at navigating the jungle terrain, considering she was lugging a huge backpack, presumably filled with first-aid stuff.

In the midst of being bruised and scratched, I felt as if her words hung in the air. Amplified. If there is one thing I took away from this whole hiking experience, this would be it.

It was more than a jungle survival lesson, it was a life lesson.

How many times have I held on to things which were never stable forces in my life? I had always ended up bruised and battered, losing my equilibrium, and falling. Really, what is the point of holding on to something you can’t rely on in your darkest and weakest moments?

HOLD ON TO SOMETHING RELIABLE – that’s pure common sense logic and wisdom.

I snapped back to reality when the thunderous roar of gushing water hit my ears – we were nearing a waterfall! This was about 45 minutes into our hike and I thought to myself, we’re finally here!

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Waterfall #1 with Tarquin, Joey & James.

Along the way, we had come across a smaller waterfall with a surreal baby blue pond at its base. I would’ve loved to stop and jump in then, but we were told to move on. Now I know why!

We climbed over the slippery rocks and fallen tree trunks to the base of this waterfall, and had a fabulous massage! The gushing water was ice-cold and the force so powerful that I could barely breathe. I was practically gasping for breath as I let the water batter my head and shoulders and wash away the grime and sweat.

“Is this where we have lunch?” We asked Grace and Michael, the other two YMCA guides on our trip.

“No,” A bemused Grace chuckled. “This is only one-third of the way!”

OMG. I was already quite fatigued at this point – I have to admit, and sheepishly so – but they promised us there’s more awaiting us… and better!

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So, off we go again! (Photo: James Hui)

I’m sorry to disappoint but I did not take any photos of the actual trek because there is no way I had the time or the frame of mind to whip out my phone. It was sealed in a Ziploc bag in my knapsack because everything got wet.

Also, I found that I had to concentrate and be constantly aware of my surroundings because I’m not a seasoned forest trekker and one wrong step could mean a sprained ankle or popped knee.

About two hours later, we came to another waterfall, and oh what a sight! The Pelepah Falls is a three–stage waterfall, and we had been trekking uphill to this point, catching glimpses of the falls along the way.

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Pelepah Falls (Photo: James Hui)

This one wasn’t a vertical waterfall but one with a gentler gradient. It was wide. And the water’s journey downhill was punctuated by many rock outcrops. It was a slippery climb up the rocks but what the heck!

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Pelepah Falls in the afternoon sun.

We stopped here for lunch, with the thundering falls as a background soundtrack to our rest. Some folks in our group brought along tins of sardines and tuna, and Milo packs. Ours was a humble packed lunch of sandwiches and energy bars.

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I’ve always loved the sound of running water – be it bubbling brooks or waterfalls. And because I’d forgotten to pack my afternoon shot of caffeine (aka coffee), I was feeling a tad dozy. As Joey and Tarquin settled down to have a lazy after-lunch conversation beside me, I leaned back on the wet rocks for a snooze.

Snoozing by the Falls.

Snoozing by the Falls.

My view, from where I’m lying…

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After making our way up this three-stage waterfall, we had to (of course) backtrack and make our way back down. Going down is always harder for me. This is where my weak knees are put to the test. I had to exert tremendous force on my knee caps as I rested my whole weight on them, especially when taking giant steps down from one foothold to another.

SIGH.

As you can well imagine, I did not take a single photo of my hike back to “base camp”. It was a fantastic trek though, and I was getting the hang of the little tricks of jungle trekking: like stepping on sand or pebbles when crossing rivers – never boulders – and also holding on to what is reliable.

Super Woman Joey (Photo: James Hui)

Super Woman Joey (Photo: James Hui)

James remarked that I was quicker on my way back and getting better. *beams*

I really loved how my travel buddies were looking out for me. In fact, we were all looking out for each other. And I wouldn’t have made it back in one piece without Tarquin’s help. He went a step ahead of me, and was my eyes and my cheerleader, especially when climbing down the vertical rock faces.

And I did get back in one piece – all of us did.

After we took a quick rinse (we paid 2 ringgit to use a nearby resort’s clubhouse) and changed into dry clothes, we headed to Kota Tinggi town for dinner. We arrived ahead of schedule so we had some time to walk around the Ramadan bazaar.

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At Kota Tinggi town for its Ramadan bazaar and dinner!

Even if you don’t intend to shop in Malaysia, chances are you will end up buying something, because things are just so cheap here. Yes, we all ended up doing a little shopping here – from Hari Raya goodies to Kampong Adidas amphibious shoes which were going for just 8 ringgit (S$3).

Kampong Adidas amphibious shoes was what our agile 55-year-old Malaysian guide was wearing on the jungle trek. But I didn’t buy them because I wasn’t convinced his agility was due to the Kampong Adidas shoes and not his experience!

The food at the Chinese restaurant was superb, to say the least. That’s what I love about Malaysian food – cheap and good. I’ll  let my photos speak for themselves.

Pork ribs curry.

Pork ribs curry

Deep-fried Tofu with century and salted egg.

Deep-fried tofu with century and salted egg

Steamed fish with sweet sambal chili.

Steamed fish with sweet sambal chili

Stir-fried Venison with ginger and spring onions.

Stir-fried venison with ginger and spring onions

Spicy prawns!

Spicy prawns!

After a meal that left me close to exploding, we headed towards the Kota Tinggi jetty to catch a river cruise to see fireflies.

In all my life, I’ve never seen a firefly. And I have to admit I was a little sceptical about actually seeing fireflies in the wild. I guess it seemed surreal, like it’s the sort of thing you see only if you’re lucky. But deep inside, I was excited. I always am when it’s a first.

A stroll to the jetty to catch the 7.30pm cruise.

A stroll to the jetty to catch the 7.30pm cruise

A cruise to catch fireflies!

A cruise to catch fireflies!

The first firefly departs at 7.30pm, the next at 8.30pm.

The first boat departs at 7.30pm, the next at 8.30pm

We had to put on life jackets, which I hate. It makes me feel claustrophobic and it’s almost always suffocatingly hot inside one. Plus, these life jackets wouldn’t do much to save my life, I reckoned, as the zip was faulty. OK, there was no zip! Would a little string suffice?

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The cruise took us under a bridge where hundreds of birds had built nests above. It was noisy, and the birds were circling above and around us. I was curious though how the baby birds hatch in these upside-down nests without falling into the river below!

Bird nests under the bridge!

Bird nests under the bridge!

The boat chugged further and further away from the brightly-lit town area of Kota Tinggi. As we inched our way into the more remote areas, the lights on either side of the river got dimmer.

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We were told “No flash!” as it would disturb the fireflies. So I set my Lumix LX7 to a low light setting and crossed my fingers. How cool to be able to capture fireflies on film!

The others saw them before I did.

“Look! Fireflies!” I heard people around me on the boat exclaim in delight.

“Where?”

“Over there!” They pointed to the right side of the boat. “In the bushes!”

I squinted in the general direction but could not see anything. When my eyes finally adjusted to the dark, I saw them.

My first sighting of fireflies in the wild! They were like softly twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. How subtly breathtaking!

The number and frequency of twinkling Christmas lights increased the deeper we drifted into the jungle. They were everywhere – glowing on riverside bushes just inches from us and dotting trees further away.

I tried to take photos of them, but without a flash, my camera could not capture anything. So I resolved to put it away and just enjoy the ride.

My Lumix failed me from here on...

My Lumix failed me from here on…

Tarquin and James weren’t totally convinced the tiny glowing specks were really fireflies.

“Then what do you think they are?” I laughed. “Christmas lights? There’s no electricity out here.”

“It could be low-intensity lights,” Tarquin said quite seriously. After all, he had been trained in the dense jungles of Brunei in his National Service days. “I’m not convinced… but then, it may be that I’m going through a conspiracy theory phase.”

Conspiracy theory for sure, because a firefly flew really close to our boat and James reached out and caught it in his hand.

“Did you just catch a firefly?” Joey asked.

In response, James opened his palm and a firefly fluttered out!

“Now I can tell my friends that I caught a firefly,” he beamed. It was his first time seeing fireflies, as was Joey’s and mine.

After about 45 minutes on the river, we headed back to the jetty where the Ramadan bazaar was in full swing. We couldn’t resist buying some street snacks – hot, freshly-made peanut pancakes!

Peanut pancakes with a dollop of butter!

Peanut pancakes with a dollop of butter!

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This was ridiculously good and cheap – something like 5 pancakes for a ringgit. We were munching this – with melted butter oozing out and dripping onto my chin – as we headed back to the bus that would take us back to Singapore.

We arrived back in Singapore close to 11pm. I was exhausted. I think I went through the Johor Bahru and Woodlands immigration checkpoints in a daze because I had dozed off on the bus. But it felt good. I felt fulfilled.

No doubt it was just a day trip, but the last 16 hours will be etched in my memory for a while.

It felt good to be back on the road again, with travel buddies whose company I honestly enjoy. I took back with me not just the memory of fireflies and waterfalls, but a life lesson that I know I was meant to learn: right here, right now.

Thank you, Pelepah Falls.

Thank you, Pelepah Falls.

Applying for My Myanmar Visa

My journey to Myanmar begins with applying for a  tourist visa to enter the country. As a travel writer, I wanted very much to experience that first-hand.

These days, you can apply for a tourist visa online too. This option comes complete with courier service to pick up your visa application form and photostatted documents (e.g. passport, NRIC, two passport-sized photos). My travel partner Janet is opting to do that, as time is tight for her and she is quite willing to fork out S$95.

I was told a walk-in to the Myanmar Embassy to apply for my tourist visa would cost me just S$35.

And since St Martin’s (off Tanglin/ Napier Road) is just 10 minutes from my home, I thought why not? But more than the monetary savings, I was curious about the whole Myanmar Embassy experience, especially after being told that the wait just to get to the counter could take 2 hours!

I threw a bottle of mineral water and two books into my knapsack – all ready for the long wait – and headed down nice and early. It was a cool and wet morning, and there was already a row of cars parked along the quiet road outside the Embassy building.

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It’s hard to imagine this is just off bustling Tanglin/ Napier Road. With lush mature trees lining the winding road up, it felt like I was inching into another world. On the Myanmar Embassy website, it’s stated office hours start at 9am. I was at the Embassy gates by 8.30am.

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My first impression of the humble, unassuming Embassy brought a smile to my heart. The paint was peeling and I spotted water strains streaking the external walls. The dated bungalow looked almost out of place in this posh neighbourhood of condominiums. And that was the whole charm of it.

I walked through the open gates. Beyond the small car park for Embassy cars, I see this open-air, outdoor shed of sorts. There were already 30-40 people in the compound, some filling up forms on small tables, others waiting in seated rows.

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I had read that you need to get a queue number first. And that from 1 September 2013, the queue numbers will be generated online so you’ll need to apply for them beforehand. But for now, it’s still a manual queue. And I’m among the last to experience this.

The signs were all written in Burmese so I couldn’t read any of them.  But a gentleman ahead of me headed towards this little open window and I followed him, and voila, an English signboard!

Getting my queue number.

Getting my queue number.

I love how old school this Embassy is. The green-tinted panelled windows reminded me of the outpatient clinic in Geylang my grandfather used to bring me to as a child. It’s a slice of Singapore you don’t see anymore – not anywhere.

I got my queue number and joined the rest of the people under the open-air, covered shed. There was a modern queue number display sign there, the first sign of modernity I came across.

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Yes, I was there at 8.31am. Curious, the embassy was already filled with people. Around me, I could hear young ladies speaking in fluent Burmese. I could only guess they were students or foreign workers. There weren’t many Singaporeans like me around (at least when I was there), a handful of Caucasians, probably there to apply for tourist or work visas.

I glanced up at the queue number display. There were three queues going on simultaneously. For counters 8/9 (presumably for tourist visas), the red number flashed “703”. I was second in line!

Just after I took the above picture, the blinking number switched t “705”. I jumped on my feet, and headed towards the first door I could find. But there was no counter 8/9. I asked the lady behind the nearest counter and she said, “Outside!”

Outside? Outside, where?

I went out and couldn’t see any counter at all. It was just rows of people seated before me. The number had now jumped to “706”. Yikes! I scuttled around the building and spotted this door. Slightly ajar. I peered in.

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No one was inside, even though the room was obviously set up for long queues. Gingerly, I stepped in. To my right were two counters with two Burmese girls serving two Caucasian gentlemen. I waited behind them and it took less than a minute before it was my turn.

I had all my documents ready, so I handed them over to the girl. She looked at my tourist visa application form, looked up at me and said, “You’re a writer? A freelance writer?”

“Yes, I am.”

“When you are in my country,” she said slowly, and with the hint of a smile, “Can you not write about anything political?”

“Of course not,” I chuckled a little nervously. “I’m on holiday!”

She nodded and smiled, and proceeded to process my documents. You would think the Myanmar government – with its recent Junta history – would be stricter and more interrogative with writers. I remember being interrogated in India and Kashmir. At the airport, the immigration officer came running up to me to ask why I was in Kashmir and if I was writing anything about Kashmir.

Compared to that experience, this was all very pleasant. My encounter with these Burmese people – with their odd little accents and genuine smiles – actually made me excited about my visit to the country, where there’s more of them!

I ended up paying S$45 at the counter: S$35 for the tourist visa + S$10 service charge.

“Come back at 4pm to collect your passport,” the girl behind the counter said, handing me a receipt.

“Today?” I asked, pleasantly surprised because I was told the wait was three working days, and today was a Friday.

“Yes, today!” she nodded, a little bemused by my shocked expression.

To be honest, I was genuinely surprised by how efficient everything was. I had two books in my bag, but I didn’t even get to take them out because from the moment I took my queue number to this point, barely 10 minutes had passed. It wasn’t even 9am yet, and that was supposed to be when the Embassy opened.

I checked with the counter girl regarding opening hours – just out of curiosity – and she told me that they are now opened from 8.30am. “But sometimes, we’re open at… 8.10am…”

OK, so the opening hours stated at the Embassy gate and the website aren’t updated! Do take note then if you intend to go down to the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore to apply for your tourist visa. Head down earlier because they are opened before 9am.

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I’m actually looking forward to picking up my passport and tourist visa later today. I’m secretly happy I didn’t opt for the courier service (are you reading this, Janet?) because this was all quite an experience.

In my books, my Myanmar journey has begun. And I’m just another step closer…

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UPDATE: 

Returned to the Myanmar Embassy on the same day to collect my passport & tourist visa.  On my receipt, it was stipulated that collection time was between 4.30pm and 5.30pm.

I was there slightly early and the counter was still closed. A queue had formed and was snaking around the room. And this time, I did not bring along a book!

In any case, once the counter opened, the collection was swift and efficient. Your receipt carries a specific visa number so once you hand over the receipt to them, they retrieve your passport within seconds. Easy peasy.

And so I’m set for Myanmar!

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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