Tag Archive: travel writing


This is one of the most powerful questions ever put to me.

When I was attending a leadership course 11 years ago, this question was fired at me like bullets over a period of 6 months. “What are you committed to create?”

And by “committed”, they mean do whatever it takes.

So when I show up at a place, what am I committed to create here? Be it at a meeting at work, at home with my children, or a gathering of friends, am I committed to create fun? honesty and openness? peace and reconciliation? love and affection?

Friends are the family we choose

Friends are the family we choose

It’s a very empowering question.

If I’m not conscious of this, there is a chance I will let my mood dictate what I end up creating. And that can sometimes be destructive and hurtful to people around me.

Gandhi once said this, and wisely so..

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This is what I hear him saying: What do you want to see in this world? Commit to creating it. BE it.

This speaks to me, too, in the context of my work as a freelance travel writer, where things are often so uncertain. I always tell people that while I love my work, there are moments I don’t see beyond 6 months… and that’s very often!

It’s easy to sit back and accept that as part and parcel of a freelancer’s life. But I’ve learnt that being a freelance writer doesn’t mean you just write. You have to go out there and make connections, meet people, market yourself, and create opportunities and possibilities. You have to be a play-maker.

And that is creation. Making possible something that was not there before.

The freelance writer's life... more than just writing!

The freelance writer’s life… more than just writing!

Writing is also an act of creation. When I sit in front of my laptop, with a blank screen, what am I committed to create on this page? What can I bring into the world that was not there before? Is it awareness I am creating? or controversy or reconciliation through my words? What do my words make possible?

The sad thing is that I’m not always conscious of this power I have within me to make a difference. And it’s a power that swings both ways. Like a double-edged sword.

Imagine if you’re conscious of this at every moment… How would your world look different?

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“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. 
Impossible is not a fact. 
It’s an opinion. 
Impossible is not a declaration. 
It’s a dare. 
Impossible is potential. 
Impossible is temporary. 
Impossible is nothing.”

– Muhammad Ali –

 

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

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

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

Borobudur, Central Java

Borobudur, Central Java

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

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

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

Surabaya's swanky new international airport terminal

Surabaya’s swanky new international airport terminal

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

 

1. House of Sampoerna

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

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

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Check out the cigarette pillars!

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

Check out how fast they roll…

 

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

 

2. Cheng Ho Chinese Mosque

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

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

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

Masjid Cheng Ho. Pandaan, East Java

Masjid Cheng Ho. Pandaan, East Java

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

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

The main Prayer Hall

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

Mohd Sukarman explaining the significance of the drum

Ahmad Sukarman explaining the significance of the drum

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

 

3. Candi Singosari 

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

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

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

Candi Singosari, a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351

Candi Singosari, a Hindu-Buddhist temple built in 1351

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

No cement at all to “glue” the stones

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

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

 

4. Toko “OEN” Malang  

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

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

Menu items in Dutch!

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

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

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

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

toko oen food pics

 

5. Tugu Monument

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

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

Tugu Monument, Malang

Tugu Monument, Malang

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

The heart of Malang - love these huge trees!

The heart of Malang – love these huge trees!

 

6. Coban Rondo Falls

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

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

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

A paved path makes for easy access to the Falls

A paved path makes for easy access to the Falls

Coban Rondo Waterfall, Malang

Coban Rondo Waterfall, Malang

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

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

"Jagung Bakar" at the Falls

“Jagung Bakar” at the Falls

 

7. Fresh Apples Anyone?   

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

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

Apples grow in Malang!

Apples grow in Malang!

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

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

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

 

 

8. Jawa Timur Park    

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a glimpse…

Quaint lil' creatures at the Secret Zoo

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

 

9. Food, Glorious Food!  

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

Now please ignore me as I drool.

Best restaurant in Malang: Resto Inggil

Possibly the best restaurant in Malang: Resto Inggil

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

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

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

In Lesehan style!

In Lesehan style!

 

10. Batik Maduratna   

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

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

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

Beautiful handmade Javanese batik

Beautiful handmade Javanese batik

Shopper's Paradise. Batik galore at Maduratna!

Shopper’s Paradise. Batik galore at Maduratna!

 

Mad About Mount Bromo 

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

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

 

Getting There

AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day.

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

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

Nasi Kuning Manado, only on AirAsia QZ flights

Nasi Kuning Manado, only on AirAsia QZ flights!

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

My chicken sub breakfast

My Chicken Sub breakfast in the air!

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

 

Goodbye, Surabaya. Till we meet again!

Goodbye, Surabaya… Till we meet again!

 

 

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

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

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

~ Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel)  

Tengger Caldera, East Java

Tengger Caldera, East Java

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

Tenggerese villagers selling scarves & gloves

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

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

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

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

"Pisang Goreng" with black Javanese coffee

“Pisang Goreng” & Javanese coffee

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

Singaporeans! From Presbyterian High, Mt Penanjakan.

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

The crowd gathered behind me as I perch on the railing

Crowd gathered behind me as I perch on a railing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

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

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo (left)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Sand Sea, with Mt Batok in the distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

Indigenous Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

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

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

Stairway to heaven... or a fiery hell?

Stairway to heaven… or a fiery hell?

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

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But nothing prepared me for this.

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

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

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

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

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

 

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

 

Cutting My Apron Strings

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” ~ Paulo Coelho 

I made a difficult decision a recently. After I made it, I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified for my future. And I would be lying if I said I am unafraid now.

But sometimes, in pursuing what we know we’re created to do, we hit a point where we need to make tough decisions in order to move forward. For me, it was letting go of my financial safety net.

Even when I left my full-time job as a TV producer to return to my first love – writing – I was still holding on tightly to my rice bowl as a freelance producer. I don’t hate my job. In fact, I get a certain adrenaline rush in being part of a team that makes ‘live’ programmes happen on a news channel.

My Mothership, whose tracker beam is strong.

My Mothership has a strong tractor beam!

But deep inside, I knew this held me back. I’ve had to say “no” to many travel assignments because I could not leave town once I had committed to X number of episodes, and my travel assignments usually come last minute. The result was that I was producing for TV more than I was travel writing, and there came a point where I questioned myself.

Is this why I left my full-time job? What happened to my intention to write full-time? To travel on a whim? Was I making time to build my business and my branding? To meet editors and find work? It was sobering to realise I had failed in every way because of my fears.

And so, I made a tough decision to cut my apron strings.

My calling: A writer who travels.

My calling: A writer who travels.

The day after I made that decision, I immediately landed a few travel assignments. They fell on my lap from nowhere and the timing was perfect. If I had made that decision just a day later, I would’ve had to say no to these opportunities.

I believe nothing happens by chance. When I let go, it cleared a space in my life for good things to happen. I just completed a travel assignment and will be leaving for another assignment next week, with two more lined up this month.

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Recent travel assignment to Thailand, March 2014.

But having said that, I don’t see very far into my future. Many things are still uncertain. But I figure as long as I am writing – and making a living from writing – I’m on the right track.

Let’s take this one day at a time. Let’s DARE.

“Let us plunge together down the dangerous path of surrender. It may be dangerous, but it is the only path worth following.” ~ Paulo Coelho

 

 

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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Keep Your Eyes on the Mountain

When I left my Senior Producer job at Channel NewsAsia in February, I stepped out into a void. It wasn’t so much scary for me as it was liberating – because I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew I now had the freedom and space to create something from nothing. 

Looking back, I have taken several steps closer to what I see in my mind’s eye.

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I’m back to my first love – writing – and doing that about 50 per cent of the time. The other 50 per cent, I’ve spent producing for TV. I’ve also researched for and curated two small exhibitions for the National Heritage Board, as part of  Singapore Heritage Festival 2013.

I started the year making a resolution to see at least one new place every year.

In this past year alone, I’ve travelled to Tohoku, Chiang Mai, Melbourne, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Cebu, Cherating, Kota Tinggi, Myanmar, Bali… and in the next two months, I’ll be heading up to Japan to chase autumn leaves, to Krabi, and then maybe the Gili Islands. That makes 9.

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I’ve made two solo trips – to Melbourne and Ubud – both to attend writers festivals. And that has been the most powerful experience for me. I never thought I’d enjoy solo travel, but I realise I do!

Australian Festival of Travel Writing, Melbourne.

Australian Festival of Travel Writing, Melbourne.

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2013

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Bali.

Solo travel allows me to slow down and go at my own pace, to reflect on things and listen to my own voice. I am beginning to know what I like, what I dislike, what makes me scared, what excites me, and to not judge that. It has made me more open to meeting new friends and making genuine connections with people – something that is harder when you’re travelling with someone.

I intend to do more of that – much more- in the coming year.

With Estelle & Kurt, Seminyak.

With Estelle & Kurt, Seminyak.

“If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Neil Gaiman said something to this effect in a commencement speech he gave: If your dreams are a mountain, you start the journey by walking towards that mountain from a distance. Anything that takes you closer to the mountain, say ‘Yes’. Anything that takes you in the opposite direction, say ‘No’. Keep walking with your eyes fixed on that mountain.

When you get nearer and nearer, what you might have said ‘Yes’ to before will start to become ‘No’ now, because you’re that much closer to that mountain, and you see it so much more clearly. The journey is fluid, the decisions are fluid, it’s always evolving. But always, always, you keep your eyes fixed on the mountain.

I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else but me. But in my life – with all its meanders – it makes absolute sense.

So as I wind down this work year, and start saying ‘No’ to assignments, I look back on 2013 with gratitude. I’ve been blessed with friends who have come into my life from nowhere to be pilgrims on the journey with me – if only for awhile. I’ve been blessed (beyond measure) with the strong support of my family, without whom I cannot do any of this. My guardian angels.

But having said that, 2013 was also a year I embarked on a process of letting go: Decluttering my life of things I do not need – extra baggage – and moving on lighter. That has made the journey more bearable and more pleasant. And that is crucial because I’m in it for the long haul.

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My dream is to travel and to keep traveling – for a whole lifetime – and to tell stories along the way. Stories that matter. I’ve been a writer, print journalist, radio DJ, TV producer… but if you ask me to sum up what I do for a living? I’d tell you I’m a storyteller.

Right now, I may not see clearly what 2014 holds, or even see beyond 6 months, but that’s the life of a free spirit. And so I keep on walking, staying true to myself. It may be a relatively straight path there or it may be a bit winding (I’ve always enjoyed the scenic route!).

But isn’t that the beauty of creating your own path?

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. 

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

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

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

A rustic oil palm plantation.

A rustic oil palm plantation.

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Primary forests have a distinctive three-tier vegetation structure.

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

Climbing up with the help of just a rope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Waterfall #1 with Tarquin, Joey & James.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pelepah Falls (Photo: James Hui)

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

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Pelepah Falls in the afternoon sun.

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

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

Snoozing by the Falls.

Snoozing by the Falls.

My view, from where I’m lying…

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

SIGH.

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

Super Woman Joey (Photo: James Hui)

Super Woman Joey (Photo: James Hui)

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

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

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

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

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At Kota Tinggi town for its Ramadan bazaar and dinner!

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

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

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

Pork ribs curry.

Pork ribs curry

Deep-fried Tofu with century and salted egg.

Deep-fried tofu with century and salted egg

Steamed fish with sweet sambal chili.

Steamed fish with sweet sambal chili

Stir-fried Venison with ginger and spring onions.

Stir-fried venison with ginger and spring onions

Spicy prawns!

Spicy prawns!

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

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

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

A stroll to the jetty to catch the 7.30pm cruise

A cruise to catch fireflies!

A cruise to catch fireflies!

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

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

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

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

Bird nests under the bridge!

Bird nests under the bridge!

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

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

The others saw them before I did.

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

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

My Lumix failed me from here on...

My Lumix failed me from here on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peanut pancakes with a dollop of butter!

Peanut pancakes with a dollop of butter!

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Pelepah Falls.

Thank you, Pelepah Falls.

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“The secret to staying intrigued on the road is this: Don’t set limits

Don’t set limits on what you can or can’t do.

Don’t set limits on what is or isn’t worthy of your time.

Dare yourself to play games with your day: watch, wait, listen; allow things to happen. 

Vagabonding is not a quest for answers so much as a celebration of the questions,

an embrace of the ambiguous, and an openness to anything that comes your way.

Indeed if you set off on down the road with specific agendas and goals,

you will at best discover the pleasure of actualizing them. 

But if you wander with open eyes and simple curiosity, you’ll discover a much richer pleasure –

the simple feeling of possibility that hums from every direction as you move from place to place.” 

– Rolf Potts, ‘Vagabonding’

Meeting travel writer Rolf Potts in Melbourne, 2013

Meeting travel writer Rolf Potts in Melbourne, 2013

In the recent months, I’ve been traveling quite a bit for work. I am deeply grateful for the fact that I can marry my twin loves of writing and traveling, and am attempting to make a living out of it as a full-time freelance writer.

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But reading a little bit of Rolf Potts’ book ‘Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel’ makes me realise that the sort of traveling he is talking about is a little different from the sort of traveling I’m doing now, but totally what I was doing back in 2011, when I dropped everything and took a year off to backpack around the world.

Rolf defines the concept of ‘Vagabonding‘ as this: 

(1) The act of leaving behind the orderly world to travel independently for an extended period of time, 

(2) A privately meaningful manner of travel that emphasises creativity, adventure, awareness, simplicity, discovery, independence, realism, self-reliance, and the growth of the spirit,

(3) A deliberate way of living that makes freedom to travel possible. 

Short vacations – even many back-to-back ones – isn’t akin to Vagabonding, in the strict sense of the word. But for most of us, it is as close to leading a vagabonding lifestyle as we can hope to have, while balancing our personal commitments back home.

What I am focusing on now is (3) because the freedom to travel – as a deliberate way of living – has to be earned. And it has to be earned through honest, hard work. And we must value the work that permits this freedom.

I need to mention this definition in order to put in context the first quote. When Rolf wrote about “the secret to staying intrigued on the road”, he was not referring to short vacations, but the art of long-term world travel.

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On all my short trips (lasting two weeks or less), I never ever felt travel fatigue. Maybe in Siem Reap, I did feel a little weary of visiting temples and ruins after a while… and in Bhutan too… but there was always a cosy cafe somewhere where I could kick off my shoes and enjoy a cuppa, lounge music and eat French fries.

But when I took a year off to backpack around the world, I did experience moments when travel lost its lustre.

I woke up one day in Vermont and actually thought to myself, “What the hell am I going to do today in this frickin’ town?” On the map, it seemed like a good idea to stay in a town equi-distant from three cities. But what I did not realise is that in an expansive state like Vermont, that’s like staying in the middle of nowhere.

You can’t quite “walk around” in Vermont. There was nothing around the neighbourhood where my B&B was, except houses, houses and more houses. Boredom set in, heavily.

tumblr_lj0wix2o981qdkde1o1_500I was getting sick of sandwiches and salads and bad American coffee. And it was getting wretchedly lonely on the road. I missed late night supper with my friends back home – having roti prata, rowdy conversations, and real kopi with thick, sweet condensed milk.

On hindsight, I don’t even remember the name of the Vermont town I was staying in. But I did vaguely recall that this town grew as a result of immigrants moving here to work on a quarry. How exciting is that? Seriously.

A quarry.

But then, in my utter boredom, this question tickled my grey matter: What sort of quarry? Granite? Limestone? What happened to these quarries? Do they still exist today?

And so I asked the B&B owner about this, and he said it was a marble quarry. And that there was a factory not too far from where I was staying that still manufactures marble slabs, for cemetery headstones and ornamental plaques.

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I could have dismissed this – easily. It’s not one of those things I would have considered “part of my travel plans” or even worthy of my time. But on that day, I reckoned I had nothing to lose.

Well, as luck would have it, it turned out that I could not even go into the factory to see how these marble monuments were made.

But when I was milling around the little gift shop, an elderly couple came in and started chatting with the cashier. I wasn’t eavesdropping on their conversation – not really – because the shop was just not that big. But they started talking about driving down to the quarry, and I thought: OOH.

“Wait a minute, I’ll get the truck around and you can hop on,” the cashier was saying, grabbing her keys.

“Can I come along?” I heard myself saying.

“Sure, sweetie!” smiled the kindly old cashier lady. “Just get your car around and drive behind me.”

We drove away from the marble factory and small gift shop, through some dusty roads, to a private enclosure somewhere – in the middle of nowhere – and then we stopped and walked, our shoes crunching on the gravel.

Then lo and behold, we saw this…

Marble quarry

My jaw dropped, literally.

It was a living, breathing marble quarry. I could hear the machinery at work, the call of workmen’s voices down below, and it was surreal. It didn’t look like anything I’d seen on Planet Earth.

The cashier lady started to explain to us the history of this place. How the discovery of this top-grade marble had led to immigrants from as far as Europe coming here to find work in the 1800s.

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And that was how this little town grew… from European immigrants settling here, and starting families. Most of the people living in the area were descendants of these Scottish and Irish immigrants.

It turns out that marble shaped the history of this town – and Vermont – in more ways than I ever imagined. Who would have thought Vermont even had marble? It’s something you find in Italy.

To this day, I do not remember the name of that little town in Vermont. But this was what Rolf Potts was talking about in his uncommon guide to the art of long-term world travel. You never know the possibilities that hum from every direction.

“The secret to staying intrigued on the road is this: Don’t set limits. 

Don’t set limits on what you can or can’t do.

Don’t set limits on what is or isn’t worthy of your time.”

I’m leaving for Cebu in 4 days’ time, flying direct from Singapore to the island of Mactan.

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The reason why I’m flying to this beautiful island in the Philippines is not solely for a vacation, although it would be a rather nice break from my crazy month of work.

I would actually be a heart-stopping week away from the deadline of my mega project with the National Heritage Board in Singapore, where I’m researching and curating for two exhibitions for their Singapore Heritage Festival 2013. The worst time to leave.

But there are many reasons I travel. This badly-timed Cebu trip was prompted by a fund-raising event organised by Project Happy Feet (PHF) called the PHF Slipper Race.

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I chanced upon this on PHF’s Facebook page earlier this month, around my twin boys’ birthday. I reckoned it would be a nice birthday present for them, a long weekend away after their mid-year exams, and for a good cause as well.

The PHF Slipper Race isn’t new to me. I interviewed its founders Terence Quek and Deborah Chew back in 2011 when I was still a radio DJ, hosting a daily talk show on MediaCorp news station, 938LIVE.

My good friend Corrinne May also donated the proceeds of her concert at Gardens by the Bay to their cause.

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Terence (L) and Deborah (R) with me and Corrinne at dinner after her concert to raise funds for PHF.

Terence (L) and Deborah (R) with me and Corrinne at dinner after her concert to raise funds for PHF.

Terence and Deb explained to me that there are children in Third World countries around us who have to walk an average of 3 to 4km to school every day – IF there is even a school nearby – and many of them walk barefooted or in slippers (aka flip flops). The Slipper Race was created to walk a mile in their shoes (slippers!), to experience what they go through on a daily basis.

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What I love about their work is that 100% of the proceeds go to the beneficiaries. They have organised the PHF Slipper Race in Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, but this is the first time they are going to the Philippines.

It’s also the first time they are working with a resort anywhere in the world to organise this race. Usually the PHF Slipper Race is held on a nationwide level, involving participants of a whole city or country.

logoBut recently, Crimson Resort & Spa in Mactan found out about the race and approached Project Happy Feet, asking if they could organise a PHF Slipper Race for their hotel guests, to raise funds for a charity called Bantay Bata 163 in the Philippines.

This has never been done before. But after researching on the work of Bantay Bata 163 (1-6-3 is their helpline number!), Terence felt that their mission to support and empower underprivileged children through education was in line with PHF’s mission, in particular, their Bantay Edukasyon Scholarship Program.

As such, Project Happy Feet created their first-ever “Resort Edition” in the hope that there will be future partnerships of this sort. It is always heartwarming when the locals help their own: Filipinos helping the children in their local communities by shouldering the full cost of organising such a race, then giving 100% of the proceeds from registration fees to a local beneficiary. That’s how it should work!

“Bantay Bata 163 is a child welfare program launched in 1997 to protect disadvantaged and at-risk children through a nationwide network of social services. It includes the rescue and rehabilitation of sick and abused children, training and advocacy on child abuse prevention, rehabilitation of families in crisis, educational scholarships, livelihood, community outreach and medical and dental missions.

Bantay Edukasyon Scholarship Program was established in June 1998 as a long-term solution to help alleviate poverty, which was found to be one of the main causes of child abuse. The program’s objective is to bring back hope in a child who has lost it. Thus, aside from education-related fees given to a scholar, below are the integral components of the program that monitor overall well-being of the child and his or her family: Counselling and Family therapy, Monthly Values and Formation meetings, Tutorials and group activities for scholars, Refresher courses in parenting, family relations and communication skills of parents/ guardians, Regular home and school visits, Referrals to agencies for liveliness and medical assistance, etc.” 

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I am excited to be bringing the boys along with me on this trip. We will be walking 5km in our flip flops to experience what the local kids do, and it will be eye-opening for them to understand that not all children their age are as lucky as them.

There is also a chance that we will get to meet two of the kids. They are part of the 11 children identified to be sponsored by the Bantay Edukasyon Scholarship ProgramOn Saturday morning – which is race day – they will be coming down with Ms. Tina Monzon-Palma, Programme Director of Bantay Bata 163. I am eager to chat with her and find out more about their programmes.

I love traveling for a variety of reasons, and this is one of them. Project Happy Feet and The Chain Reaction Project (whom I traveled with to Timor-Leste in 2010) are just two of the non-profit organisations I support.

I don’t know if I am the sort to initiate such large-scale events, or the sort to roll up my sleeves and build schools, or even the sort to take part in races to raise funds… But as a travel writer and journalist, I can play my part in creating awareness through my writing. And as a mother, I can play a part in educating my children beyond the classroom.

And I think that’s a first baby step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bug salad anyone?

Bug salad anyone?

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

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

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