Tag Archive: travel


I don’t know if I like the word “rebellion” or if World Travel resonates with me that way. But the words that follow do hum and buzz with my nomad soul.

travel is rebellion

In Singapore (where I live), I am slapped with many labels and shoulder several roles: the responsible mother, the objective journalist, the good Catholic girl, perhaps role model, “media personality” etc. But I was never fully aware of these till I took a year off to backpack around the world.

When I left the familiar to venture into the unknown, I felt for the first time in my life that all the invisible labels and roles that defined me in Singapore were suddenly stripped away.

This did not happen immediately, of course. It took a while. But there comes a moment when you realise nobody recognises you in these foreign lands and you stop putting on makeup, you stop putting on a show.

Overnight train: Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

18hr overnight train from Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

At some point, I started walking at my own pace, without being pushed along against my will or dragged back. I started paying attention to what made me smile, the sound of my own laughter, what made me frightened, what upset or annoyed me, what mattered to me.

I remember being alone in Bali and strolling along an unfamiliar road in Seminyak (looking for coffee!). It was late afternoon, and I chanced upon an obscure patch of grass. It was quiet and serene, and nothing much was happening, except for a couple of ducks quacking after a tropical rain. I stood there for a good 20mins, doing nothing, just soaking it all in.

Solo in Seminyak, 2013

Solo in Seminyak, Bali 2013

I can’t even label this experience. It cannot be pigeon-holed into any category of “nature” or “urban landscape”; it’s even hard to bring up in conversation because it’s so insignificant. It’s simply my little moment. And even if it holds no meaning to anyone else, it left a lasting impression on me. It’s now a part of me.

You only realise how little you know yourself and how much you are running on defined roles when you’re torn away from all that’s familiar, and you have nothing to grasp at or fall back on.

I’m not saying roles and labels are bad or wrong. I’m just saying they don’t define who I am. And it’s important to have such an experience of liberation from them – even if you do go back to assuming them out of necessity – because at least you know what it feels like, smells like, looks like, in that sacred space free from them.

I love backpacking and traveling solo!

I love traveling solo!

To me, many short trips do not equal a long continuous one. I realise that people who travel frequently do not necessarily understand this experience that long-term world travellers understand. It’s because short vacations often don’t allow you to fully shed these labels and roles, especially if you are traveling with loved ones.

You need to fall off the grid completely for a time. But if you can’t afford that luxury, then do a solo trip, or choose to get off social media completely.

One thing I’m learning: You can’t expect to experience something different – something life changing or liberating – if you keep doing the same thing, over and over again. You need to do something different.

And if travel is rebellion in its purest form, then I’d say rebel at least once in your life. You never know till you take that leap of faith!

Do it now

#NoRegrets

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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. 

 

As a travel writer, I prefer to invest in travel products that go a long way. Also, I’m not a shopper. So when I do buy something, it’s usually because I need it. Or it’s a book. But if I’m prepared to spend a little more, it’s almost always because the product stands for something I believe in.

Like Ethnotek bags.

I found out about these travel bags through my best friend Ning (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning). We were planning a trip to Thailand at the time, and she thought it might be cool to check out this socially-responsible line of bags, recently brought in to Singapore by The Bag Creature.

Ning checking out Ethnotek's Raja packs

Ning checking out Ethnotek’s Raja packs

I accompanied her down, of course, and what I found out about Ethnotek really impressed me. The business itself originates from the U.S. but the founders – two young men who are also travellers – have committed to supporting the work of local artisans in remote villages around the world, so that their traditional weaving practices can be kept alive.

The communities whose weaving culture Ethnotek is currently supporting

The communities around the world whose weaving culture Ethnotek is currently supporting (Source: Ethnotekbags.com)

These intricate weaving techniques are amazingly tedious and time-consuming. And at the speed fabrics are being mass-manufactured in urban factories these days, traditional artisans are not only losing their jobs, but also their cultural heritage. There is no longer an impetus to pass on the craft to the next generation.

Check out this insightful video to get an idea of just how intricate the process is…

 

What the Ethnotek founders did was to travel to these remote villages in Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Guatemala etc. and seek out these artisans, and negotiate a fair price for their handiwork. Not only are these weavers paid fairly through direct transactions, their unique culture and traditional practices – as well as their livelihoods – are kept alive by a global stream of demand.

 

“The one thing that all of our weaves and artisans have in common is the fact that their craft is dying out. Every year, they experience less and less local demand for their fabrics due to low yield and long lead time. Traditional techniques are quickly being replaced by machines and factory labour in major cities, drastically reducing the amount of jobs and industry in the regions where it is needed most. By creating new demand for these traditional handcraft practices, we are in a sense forging an effort to keep them alive and well, and in the same villages from which they came.” 

– Founders of Ethnotek bags – 

I respect this. I believe in this. It’s responsible business.

And the way Ethnotek does this is by creating quality base bags that allow you to swap ethnic threads like you would swap smartphone covers or straps for Swatch watches. It works like this:

(Source: ethnotekbags.com)

(Source: Ethnotekbags.com)

The base bags come in various sizes and shapes. The bigger backpacks are called Raja Packs, and Ning was keen to get one of those for the trip, together with a Messenger bag for regular work on-the-go. Ethnotek also carries a line of pretty tote bags!

Ning's Ethnotek Raja Pack Vietnam 6 and Acaat Messenger Vietnam 5.

Ning’s Acaat Messenger Vietnam 5 + Raja Vietnam 6

Optional Threads for the Raja Packs.

Options for Raja Pack threads

The price for a Raja Pack ranges from S$225 to S$289, and you can also get replacement Threads at S$59 each. Different ethnic designs and weaves from around the world are showcased in these unique Threads; and truly, they are precious pieces of dying art!

For my own needs as a travel writer, I prefer a smaller day pack. When I check-in my luggage at the airport, I just want a compact knapsack that I can carry around, but one that’s also big enough to slip in my 13″ MacBook Air, in case I need to work while on transit. Furthermore, it has to double-up as a day pack when I’m out exploring new cities or hiking.

I picked the smaller Wayu Pack because it has a separate section for my laptop and is just nice, size-wise, for my “on assignment” needs. My Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack costs S$189 from The Bag Creature – online orders available.

My travel writer's default combo - with my Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack.

My travel writer’s default combo – with my Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack.

I also got an additional Vietnam 5 Thread (S$79) so that I can swap designs when I feel like it, and blue is my favourite colour. This Thread incorporates a hand-embroidered textile from the Tai Lü tribes of Vietnam. Each and every piece is unique and different from the next, and best of all, there are only four in existence!

Ethnotek Wayu Backpacks & Threads, supporting artisans in Vietnam

Ethnotek Wayu Backpacks & Threads, supporting traditional artisans and weavers in Vietnamese villages

Check out the intricate artwork of these artisans!

Check out the intricate handiwork!

These gorgeous bags aren’t cheap – I admit – but they are good quality, they promote fair trade, and help sustain the livelihood of villagers in indigenous communities.

I don’t normally promote travel products, but I’ve been so pleased with this travel bag and what it stands for that I’ve started following Ethnotek on Facebook and Instagram (@ethnotekbags). I guess it’s the satisfaction of being part of a community of world travellers that believes in fair trade and keeping cultures alive. Or as the founders call us – #etktribe 🙂

But above all, just as my 42-litre backpack reminded me of how much (or little) I really needed while on the road for 9 months, may your travel bag remind you too – in an unconventional sort of way – of what’s more important in life.

“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

 

 

 

 

Call of the Camino


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These words by Mark Twain hit me like a brick wall. I don’t profess to know why I’m born. And it strikes me today that I may never know.

But I feel it shouldn’t stop me from searching. Because if my Maker made me for a reason, then I want to live out that purpose while I’m still here.

I woke up this morning wanting to re-watch a 42min video on the El Camino a Santiago – or the Road to Santiago – with Paulo Coelho, one of my most revered writers.

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The  film traces his 700km walk across northern Spain, a journey that would change the course of his life forever. It was this pivotal journey that compelled him to start writing at the age of 38. And in many ways, it was the journey that revealed to him his life’s purpose.

Coelho has since sold more than 150 million books in over 150 countries worldwide, and his works have been translated into 80 languages.

From his own El Camino a Santiago experience, he wrote The Pilgrimage – a precursor to his international bestseller, The Alchemist.

A copy of this book has been sitting on my shelf for many years.

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Perhaps it’s time to finally read it. I’ve always believed that books find you at the right time.

I don’t know where this prompting will lead me. But I do know that in the current circumstances of my life, there is a quiet persistent yearning to know: Why I’m here, and what I’m meant to do in this fraction of eternity that I’m here.

And really, it shouldn’t surprise me that it would be authors who have set me on this path. 

Here is the video. If you decide to watch it, BE OPEN because you never know what questions it raises for you. And isn’t it always about asking the right questions?

“The boat is safer anchored at the port; but that’s not the aim of boats.” 
― Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage 

  

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. 

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“If travel truly is in the journey and not the destination,

if travel really is an attitude of awareness and openness to new things,

then any moment can be considered travel.”

Rolf Potts

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

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

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

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

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

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

GoPro HERO 3, white edition

GoPro HERO 3, white edition

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

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

GoPro HERO 3 Wrist Housing

GoPro HERO 3 Wrist Housing

GoPro HERO 3 Skeleton Housing

GoPro HERO 3 Skeleton Housing

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

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

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

A GoPro would have been perfect then!

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

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

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

With an iPhone?!

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

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

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

Watershot Underwater Housing for iPhones!

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

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

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

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

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

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And wait.. caving and waterfall trekking too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rustic oil palm plantation.

A rustic oil palm plantation.

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Primary forests have a distinctive three-tier vegetation structure.

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

Climbing up with the help of just a rope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Waterfall #1 with Tarquin, Joey & James.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.