Tag Archive: AirAsia


“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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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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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.