Tag Archive: adventure


“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. 

 

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Let me first start by saying this is NOT a paid advertorial. It’s important to state this upfront because when it comes to featuring travel products, people wonder.

Anyway, after going on a waterfall trek with my friends Joey and Tarquin last weekend, we’ve been talking about investing in a GoPro camera. The good thing about a GoPro – I’m told – is that you attach it to you, like on a helmet or wrist, so that both your hands are free to climb or engage in whatever extreme sports you’re crazy enough to attempt.

Check out the shots you can get from a GoPro camera:

I guess with adventure travel or extreme sports, you really don’t want to be handling a fragile Lumix LX7 camera while you’re scrambling up a vertical cliff, skydiving, skiing or surfing!

My previous Lumix LX5 was badly battered and bruised when I returned from my RTW trip in 2011. And for this recent jungle trek to Pelepah falls, I ended up leaving my camera on the bus and keeping my iPhone in a Ziploc bag in my camel pack.

I checked out the GoPro HERO 3 cameras online, and they do look solid. But what’s holding me back is: Where do you attach the camera? I do not intend to wear a helmet when I travel. Plus, it’s an actual camera. Do I really want to carry another camera, charger, and wires etc., in addition to my Lumix LX7 and iPhone?

GoPro HERO 3, white edition

GoPro HERO 3, white edition

Having said that, it’s quite affordable for a hardy kickass camera. This HERO 3 white edition (above) goes for US$199. The silver edition for US$299, and the black edition for US$399! That’s excluding shipping, but I reckon I can find a store here that sells these cameras.

Additional accessories include a wrist housing or a skeleton housing (for waterproofing), which adds on to the cost.

GoPro HERO 3 Wrist Housing

GoPro HERO 3 Wrist Housing

GoPro HERO 3 Skeleton Housing

GoPro HERO 3 Skeleton Housing

Because I seldom travel just for adventure or extreme sports, the thought of having to pack this extra camera isn’t too appealing. I like to travel light.

Judging from the footage in the YouTube link above, I see the GoPro more as a hands-free video recorder than an actual camera. I mean, how do you activate snap shots, right? I reckon you just start the recording and go!

And since I’m more a travel writer than a travel photographer or videographer, I’m not particularly thrilled about having to sift through loads of video footage and doing post-production work. Except maybe when I went skydiving in North Shore, Hawaii, in 2011. I had to hire a videographer to jump off the plane with me at 10,000ft and he cost more than my jump!

A GoPro would have been perfect then!

So with these questions and considerations dancing in my head, it was no wonder I sat up and paid attention when I came across this awesome photo by my Instagram friend Jus aka @ahh_lose_money this morning.

Jus is a surfer dude from Oahu, Hawaii, and I’ve been following his Instagram feed for a while. This latest picture totally grabbed me:

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I asked him how he managed to take such an amazing shot while surfing, and he surprised me with his reply. “With my iPhone 5 in a waterproof housing,” he said.

With an iPhone?!

“But when you’re out in the ocean surfing, with waves 10ft high, how do you even keep an iPhone secure in your hand?” I asked.

“I’ve definitely had it ripped out of my hand a few times!” Jus said, but explained that the housing has a pretty good grip (sold as accessories). “And there’s also a lanyard that goes around your wrist.”

My Hawaiian surfer friend gave me a link to the Watershot housing website, and I wasted no time in checking it out, zooming in on Underwater Housing for iPhones.

Watershot Underwater Housing for iPhones!

I still own an iPhone 4S, and a waterproof housing like this would set me back US$99.99. For iPhone 5, the same housing costs US$109.99. Of course, I’m not considering the PRO version. But if you are, it would cost you US$189.99 (*See below for specs)

I have friends who use waterproof cases for their iPhones and iPads, and I was wondering if there’s a difference between cases and housing. According to Watershot, “cases cover; housings protect”.

For the benefit of tech geeks, here’s a bit more info:

  • Watershot is built to live in the water and withstand rocks, reefs, salt, sand and extreme pressure.
  • Full suspension system “floats” your iPhone inside the housing for maximum protection.
  • Waterproof performance to 40 m / 130 ft deep
  • Watershot PRO depth rating 60 m / 195 ft deep

This tells me one thing: I can take my iPhone snorkelling and scuba diving!

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And wait.. caving and waterfall trekking too!

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Other than the waterproof housing for your iPhone, you can add on special accessories like grips (in 5 different colours, for US$19.99) and a lanyard to secure your phone to your wrist (US$15.99)…

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… so that even if you’re surfing in Hawaii and being bashed by rip curls, you’ll still be able to take those awesome shots like Jus!

I’m still in the process of researching on these two options, but as it stands, I’m leaning towards the Watershot housing. The only thing is that I reckon I should get my iPhone 5 before I invest in one.

Well, if you already use the GoPro camera and/or Watershot housing, do share your reviews with me. I’d like to hear them!

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.

waterfall afar

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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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

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. 

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.