Category: Food & Travel


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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Exotic Destinations in a Cuppa!

One item on my Bucket List which I did not manage to tick off when I backpacked around the world in 2011 was to see Latin America. One of the reasons I reckon I’d like Latin America is the sheer variety of cocktails and coffees.

MojitoMy friend Shaan Moledina – who travelled in South America for a year – told me that the Caipirinha is the cocktail of Brazil, the Piña Colada is the national cocktail of Puerto Rico, the Margarita from Mexico, Pisco Sours are popular in Chile and Peru (both claim it as theirs!), and the Mojito from Cuba!

To me, they are just pretty names on an alcohol menu. I’ve never pondered their origins. But if you take the time to experience a place, to eat and drink with the locals, you start to appreciate that beverages listed on a cocktail menu have unique roots and characters.

Coffee is the same.

In my travels, I have fallen in love with Vietnamese drip coffee in Hanoi, the purest Italian espresso in a Venice cafe, and nos nos (espresso-sized milk coffee) at a roadside stop in Morocco. I have even crunched freshly roasted coffee beans with brown sugar in Central Java. Sometimes, I wish I can travel the world to sample the most authentic, rustic and exotic coffees.

Travel and coffee are to me intricately linked. I get moody when I have bad coffee on the road, and worse if the country serves no coffee – headaches, lethargy, grumpiness. My friends who travel with me know this about me. Coffee for Travel. Travel for Coffee.

People often ask me if I’m a coffee drinker, I tell them I’m a coffee addict.

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So when I turned up at a Starbucks media event yesterday at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS), I wasn’t overly excited that it was about a new coffee brewing machine until I realised it was a patented technology to draw out the ultimate flavour, layers, body and aroma of the world’s rarest and most exotic coffees.

Two types of limited-edition coffee beans had just been brought in to Singapore’s first Starbucks Reserve Store. Although I pride myself for knowing quite a bit about Starbucks Coffee (my colleagues used to tease me, saying I should buy SBUX shares), I had never heard of its Reserve Coffee programme till that morning.

Apparently, Reserve Stores serve ultra-premium and single-origin coffees, some so rare and limited in quantity that they may be featured only once. On average, they bring in about two new beans every 3 months, and these are available for a limited period only.

And because the Reserve Stores are so specialised, they are serviced only by Coffee Masters – you can recognise them by their black aprons.  Every single barista at the newly-opened Starbucks RWS store is a qualified Coffee Master.

Coffee Masters don black aprons: (L to R) Patty, Noor & Oyah.

Coffee Masters don black aprons: Patty, Noor & Oyah.

And so, I come to the Reserve Coffee beans in question…

P1040157The Guatemala Finca Los Cabillitos – I’m told – is the first crop from a small coffee farm owned by two brothers in the Western highlands of Guatemala. In 2005, Oscar and Christian Schaps bought 225 hectares of undeveloped land and started to plant Bourbon and Caturra coffee trees. The result of their care is a coffee crop with notes of sweet meyer lemon and bittersweet chocolate.

Interestingly, the label design reflects the local artwork of Guatemala. The name “Finca Los Caballitos” itself is literally translated as “Little Horses Farm” and pays homage to the rich Mayan history of the Chajul area.

But the question is: How do you best extract the essence of such special beans? To me, the method of extracting the coffee will play a huge part in serving a cup that’s bursting with its full and authentic flavour.

That’s where a patented Vacuum-Press technology called the Clover Brewing System comes into the picture. Apparently, this machine is the first of its kind in Singapore and the whole of Southeast Asia!

Patty Moody demo'ing the patented Clover Brewing System

Starbucks’ Clover Brewing System

Starbucks Singapore specially flew in Coffee Quality Specialist Patty Moody from Seattle to demo the Clover Brewing System. It’s actually a very smooth, fast and fascinating process. The coffee is brewed one cup at a time and takes, on average, 25 to 30 seconds to serve.

The patented Clover Brewing System

Patty Moody demo’ing the Clover Brewing System

Everything is automated, but wait… since each Reserve Coffee is unique, it requires a unique setting to bring out the best in the bean.

This depends on how much time the water is in contact with the coffee beans, at what temperature and pressure etc. Patty Moody – together with Leslie Woldford in Seattle – personally tested hundreds of combinations before settling on the best combinations. They then programmed these combinations into the Clover. Each Reserve Coffee thus has a unique setting on this machine!

I took a short video of how this cool contraption works. It uses a “vacuum press” technique to pull the water through the bed of coffee at a high rate to extract the coffee. The end result is a cup of coffee where the subtle nuances are heightened.

 

OK, I have to admit, what I love about it most is the cake of coffee grind at the end that pops up, and which Patty rakes away. How much more cool can it get? *LOL* And the best part, the machine then cleans itself! What a dream.

Other than brewing with a Clover machine, these Reserve Coffees can be brewed with two other methods: The Pour Over method and the French press.

The French press is pretty straightforward – I’ve been doing it for years – but I had little idea what the Pour Over method was all about. Most of us had no clue. So with the same Guatemala coffee beans, the Coffee Masters proceeded to demonstrate how the Pour Over method is done with a simple filter cone and drip cup.

RWS store manager Noor demo'ing the Pour Over method.

Starbucks RWS store manager Noor demo’ing the Pour Over method.

Ta-dah! Easy peasy!

Ta-dah! Easy peasy!

So you can buy a bag of Reserve Coffee beans (retail price for 250g whole beans starts at S$22) and brew a cuppa at home using this method or with your trusty French press.

Alternatively, you can order a barista-made cuppa in the store and enjoy it here. Prices vary depending on the method the coffee is brewed. For a tall cup of Starbucks Reserve Coffee brew, it’s S$5.30 using the Pour Over method, S$5.90 for French press, and S$6.30 using the Clover.

Yes, I'm paying attention at coffee class.

Yes, I’m paying attention at coffee class!

OK, let me tell you now about the second Reserve Coffee we tried. I was quite drawn to this one because of its back story.

Starbucks Burundi NgoziThis exotic coffee hails from Ngozi, the centre of the coffee belt in Burundi. I had no idea where Burundi was, but I found out it’s a small East-African country that borders one of the largest freshwater lakes (Lake Tanganyika) in the world.

What I love about this back story is that the Burundi Ngozi is grown on a farm owned by Marie-Chantel Ncahoruri, a female coffee trader in a male-dominated industry.  And she has built her family business on principles of paying farmers fairly and giving back to her community.

And since the owner of the farm is female – which is rare – the packaging of the Burundi Ngozi reflects this feminine touch. The artwork is actually derived from native fabric patterns and designs often seen in women’s clothing in the area!

We had the pleasure of not just tasting this specialty coffee from East Africa but also pairing it with a savoury dish specially created by Chef Yew Eng Tong of Ocean Restaurant at Resorts World Sentosa. The dish is named Gouda Cheese Cream with Salted Brioche, Pistachio Puree, Sour Cherry with Burundi Coffee Jelly & ‘Soil’

Specially created dish by Chef Yew to complement the Burundi Ngozi

Specially created dish by Chef Yew of Ocean Restaurant to complement the Burundi Ngozi coffee

We were asked to stop and smell the coffee first, then to take a noisy slurp that fills our entire palate. Next, we were instructed to scoop a spoonful of all the ingredients in this glass, so that we taste a bit of everything. Then savour the flavours before taking another slurp of Burundi Ngozi…

Gosh, how do I describe the experience?

I think Coffee Master Noor put it most succinctly in words. It’s like the amazing explosion of flavours – of cheese and salted brioche and sour cherries – suddenly separate into distinct layers. Now who says you can’t pair coffee with savoury food?

Oui, for a moment there, I felt like that little rat in the Ratatouille….

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Travel and Coffee. I guess if you can’t go to Guatemala or Burundi, the next best thing is to have Guatemala and Burundi come to you… in a coffee bean.

Talking about travel and coffee, I finally managed to pass an autographed copy of ‘Adventures of 2 Girls‘ (published by Marshall Cavendish) to Starbucks Singapore. It’s a book I wrote with my BFF Ning Cai (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning) when we took 9 months off our careers to travel the world.

Passing Ruth Yam from Starbucks Coffee a copy of A2G!

Passing Ruth Yam from Starbucks Singapore a copy of Adventures of 2 Girls!

Starbucks Singapore was really supportive of our venture and sponsored US$200 for our U.S. leg of the trip. It was a life-saver for me especially, because I am non-functional without coffee. And we all know how bad regular brewed coffee can be in America. Thanks, Ruth Yam!

And still on travel and coffee. Some of you know that I’m a closet collector of Starbucks mugs and tumblers from around the world. But I’d gladly trade those in for one of these. Gosh, I haven’t seen these Barista bears in a while!

These guys would be a lot easier to stuff into my backpack and bring home on my world travels, don’t you think?

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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.

If there is one reason I can’t do Fear Factor, it’s because of the food segment. You’re talking to a girl who doesn’t eat sashimi (raw), blue cheese (smelly) and oysters or mussels (slimy). Yeah, yeah, I’m a cheap date.

But being a travel writer pushes you to try new things for the sake of the story.

That was how I was suckered into going for my first onsen (hot springs) experience in Hokkaido. Mind you, we were on a media FAM trip and those ladies were journalists I met often at press conferences. They were magazine editors like me, writers and newspaper reporters, and I had to continue seeing them at future press events.

The thought of sitting in a public bath naked… and with them naked around me… was just inconceivable.

And then Angie said, “But don’t you want to write about it?”

Damn. Yes. I. Did. And so my resolve crumbled and I hung my head and went along. For almost an hour, we sat around in a public bath – buck naked – with snow falling lightly all around us, chit-chatting like it was the most normal thing in the world.

I have to admit it was hard not to glimpse a boob here and there, or pubic hair when my fellow journos stepped out of the bath…. Traumatic.

But oh well. Such uncomfortable experiences become worth it at the end of the day when you have a funny travel story to share. And as they say, the first time is always the hardest.

When I covered a story on Chiang Mai for SilkAir‘s inflight magazine, SilkWinds back in 2006, I ate insects for the first time at the night market. But it was a “safe” insect, in my opinion, because it was some kind of maggot or caterpillar which didn’t have hairy legs or scary eyes…

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And when lightly salted, tasted a little like… French fries? Or rather, chickpea with a metallic after taste.

So when I was back in Chiang Mai last December, I decided to be braver and try a wider variety of insects. And so my dear friend Vera (an old classmate now based in Chiang Mai) did me a favour and bought some insects from the local market.

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Whoa, it was a huge bag of bugs! I thought we were all sharing this, but as it turned out, everyone bailed out on me (including the boys), and so I could pretty much take my pick.

The bag was drenched in oil and so I figured the locals must have just deep-fried the whole damn bunch of insects. I can’t do raw, but how bad can deep-fried stuff be? They can only be crunchy, no?

But oh, this one was foul. It ended up being the hardest bug for me to eat…

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It looked like a giant cockroach. Or was it a cricket? Grasshopper? It had many long hairy legs that I imagined I’d choke on, and a huge head with large bug eyes.

How do you even bite off its head? What was inside the head? Would it be gooey?

I nibbled off its legs first, one by one, because it seemed the easiest and safest to eat. Everyone was squealing around me, even the boys. Then I held its legless body and head in my hand for a moment and stared at it. I have to admit I actually did not want to put that in my mouth.

But oh well. I bit off its head – midway – just to have a look inside.

There were no squishy brains, nothing oozed out. Everything was charred. But man, did it taste foul. There was this smelly metallic taste, and the insect was chewy. There was only a slight crunch as I chewed, but mostly, it was just oily.

But that’s what I love about travel writing! Ordinarily, I would have flatly refused. But having to write about your personal experiences gives you a certain bravado. And that gained some brownie points with the boys too! *beams*

And wadya know? In the latest United Nations report (released yesterday), the UN urges people to eat insects to help fight world hunger. Apparently, over 2 billion people worldwide already supplement their diet with insects.

Bug salad anyone?

Bug salad anyone?

Apparently, there are about 1,900 edible insect species currently known to man (there could be more!), and they are generally high in protein, low in saturated fats, and pretty nutritious on the whole. Perfect if you’re on a diet.

And if you dare eat insects, well the good news is that the world is full of them – each human can pretty much have about 40 tonnes to himself! Who knows? Maybe we can totally do away with pest busters one day?

Well, at least I know one thing for sure: I will NEVER go hungry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrenaline Rush at Sidomukti

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

Highland terraces at Sidomukti

Highland terraces at Sidomukti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food, Glorious Food!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ayam Penyet originated from Semarang!

Ayam Penyet originated from Semarang!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fried cassava with chili dip.

Fried cassava with chili dip.

Indonesian Gado Gado

Indonesian Gado Gado

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

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

Indonesian Bento boxes! Meals on-the-go.

Indonesian Bento boxes – meals on-the-go!

A Touch of Supernatural at Lawang Sewu

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

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

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

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

BUT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Slice of History

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

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

Sam Poo Kong Temple.

Sam Poo Kong Temple.

Admiral Cheng Ho in Semarang

Admiral Zheng He in Semarang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borobudur is the reason I packed my bags for Yogyakarta.

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

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

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

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

I had priority check-in, no queue.

Access to Skyview Lounge at T1. Private work space!

Access to Skyview Lounge at T1. Private workspace!

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

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

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

I finished the whole damn thing… AARGH.

Farah Quinn's Nasi Jinggo Bali. Sedap!

Farah Quinn’s Nasi Jinggo Bali. Sedap!

AirAsia flies direct from Singapore to Yogyakarta, daily.

AirAsia flies direct from SG to Yogyakarta daily.

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

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

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

Yogyakarta's international airport was an eye-opener!

Jogja’s international airport was an eye-opener!

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

Everyone surges forward to grab their luggage.

“Chiong ah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earliest evidence of Javanese massage.

Earliest evidence of Javanese massage.

Bas-relief on Lord Buddha's birth.

Bas-relief on Lord Buddha’s birth.

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

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

Buddhist teachings on friendship and sacrifice.

Buddhist teachings on friendship and sacrifice.

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

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

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

Stairway to Nirvana.

Stairway to Nirvana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta.

Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta.

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

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

Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta.

Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta.

Jogja's signature Nasi Gudeg.

Jogja’s signature Nasi Gudeg.

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

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

But this was my moment in time.

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

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

 

When I was in Hokkaido in 2007 to cover a story for Club Med Sahoro, I had my virgin attempt at making soba or buckwheat noodles.

But all I can remember of that experience was this adorable Club Med G.O. called Tamago (her name means “egg” in Japanese!) who was desperately trying to translate the instructions from Japanese to English for us, and we couldn’t understand a thing she was saying! *LOL*

So when I had the opportunity to roll up my sleeves and make my own soba in Yamagata – for the second time – I didn’t hesitate to give it a go!

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If you’re in Tohoku’s Yamagata Prefecture, there are several of these little local eateries that run their own private group lessons. It’s quite an experience because you learn to appreciate the skill that’s involved in making something so basic.

I attended a soba-making class by this soba shop owner (above) en route to Mount Zao. It was a humble little shop in a small town, and – like the elderly lady owner in Hokkaido – he too could not speak a word of English! So yes, we had to have a translator help us understand his instructions. Thank God Michiko-san was much better! *LOL*

Sifting buckwheat floor to make the dough.

Sifting buckwheat flour to make dough.

Rolling the dough into flat sheets before folding.

Rolling dough into flat sheets before folding.

Cutting folded dough into thin strips of noodles.

Cutting the folded dough into thin strips.

After what seemed like forever, we finally had something that remotely resembled Japanese noodles… All I can say is that after spending a good part of the morning making soba from scratch – with my bare hands – I will never take a bowl of soba for granted again!

Finally, our soba dough ready to be cooked in the kitchen!

Finally, our soba dough is ready to be cooked!

Watching over my buckwheat noodles!

Watching over my buckwheat noodles…

Running the cooked soba under iced cold water.

Running the cooked soba under iced water.

For a non-cook like me, it was a harrowing experience indeed. But the best part of the experience for me was that I got to enjoy the fruits of my labour at the end, complete with a spread of delectable homemade tempura!

We “soba minions” feasting after a morning of hard labour!

We “soba minions” feasting after a morning of hard labour!

And just for the record, pumpkin was in season in Tohoku, and this homemade pumpkin tempura was the best I’ve ever had – it was soft and sweet, coated with a secret tempura batter, and deep-fried to a light crunch. Awesome! 

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

Mad About Madagascar

I found myself in Madagascar some time in September 2011, from South Africa en route to India. I had been backpacking for six months by then, grubby and weather-beaten from continuous traveling. Roughing-it-out had become a norm, and I figured nothing much was going to faze me in Madagascar.

Until I spent four days out in the Tsiribihina River.

No running water. No electricity. No WIFI. No phone reception. No toilets. No beds. No nothing. It was just us, our guides and boatmen, and all our stuff packed tight on a hallowed-out tree trunk of a boat.

Oh, and two live chickens.

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I did not brush my teeth or bathe for four days. Except maybe once, when we chanced upon a glorious waterfall and jumped in with all our clothes on (we didn’t pack swimwear!). Thankfully, we dried off naturally on the boat because the Madagascar sun was so scorching hot and there was no shelter over our heads.

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Sitting in a narrow boat for five-hour stretches was definitely a stretch for this city girl. There was nothing I could do but read, journal and sleep. Stripped bare of technology, I learnt to be fully present in the moment, and to enjoy it.

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Whenever we climbed up a riverbank for a meal break or to pitch a tent for the night, the first thing I did was look out for a bush. Yes, nature’s call was never wilder. It’s hard for a city girl to pull down her pants in public, but after a while, I got so used to it that if you ask me now to pee or poop by the roadside, I could.

We had no refrigeration on the boat so food had to bartered and bought along the river: fresh fish, vegetables, fruit… The ultimate for me was when our two live chickens were slaughtered before my eyes for my dinner. Let’s just say it almost made me a vegan.

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But along the Tsiribihina River, I saw a variety of indigenous wild lemurs leaping from tree to tree. I experienced the kindness of the Malagasy people when a boat piled high with produce capsized and strangers along the river-highway rushed to help salvage the goods. And my heart melted when a little Malagasy boy – when asked by my guide for a fruit he had picked – gave Lova the biggest one.

I went to Madagascar hoping to see Baobab trees. While I did experience the most breathtaking sunset at the Avenue of the Baobabs, it was really the raw wildness of the country, the humble village life along the river, and the resourcefulness of the Malagasy people in their extreme poverty that most captured my heart.

Sunset in Wild Madagascar

Sunset in Wild Madagascar

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