Category Archives: Countries

Balonglong at Bai Tu Long

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It took us nearly 2 days and 5 visits to different tour agencies before we decided on going with Handspan’s Treasure Junk on our 2 day 1 night trip to Halong Bay. Selling points? The Treasure Junk was only a week old and its itinerary included Bai Tu Long bay, an area further off Halong Bay that is no less beautiful but much less crowded. And indeed, the only time we came across other tourists was when we docked for the night and at the pearl farm the next day. For most of the journey, it seemed as if we were the only boat cruising in the area, sans the occasional fishing boats and the quaint kelongs that had the fortune to call such a beautiful area home.

Against the dramatic backdrop of the 2000 odd limestone karsts that dotted the bay, the Treasure Junk sailed silently and steadily. (Note: I would advise against getting the room at the front of the boat. Although bigger, it’s located right where the anchor is so every time the boat docked or un-docked it felt like we were stuck under a dental drill. ) The food provided was decent but honestly nothing much to shout about. The service was excellent though; the crew attentive and accommodating. Another unique point about Handspan is its focus on eco-tourism, and I particularly liked how at the end of our kayaking trip, our guide actually took the effort to engage everyone in clearing the trash from the beach.
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One of my favourite moments on the trip involved me switching off all the lamps on the top deck and just lying by the light of the moon. The outline of the karsts were suddenly illuminated by the moon’s glow and I realized we were anchored comfortably in this natural harbour, protected by these formidable looking formations. (Of course, right after I wrote this our boat actually scrapped across the side of one of the rocks, but all’s good. Them Handspan Treasure Junks be hardy.) Sometimes we tend to take nature for granted; it’s easy to think that all these karsts were just planted haphazardly here by some celestial being or that they simply existed from the start of time. But nothing ever comes about just like that. It has taken, what, 250 million years for these rocks to be where they are today and that in itself is miraculous. Nothing in this world could have more patience and persistence than nature; we see this in the formation of stalactites and stalagmites, in the protrusion of roots through concrete, in the survival of cacti in the middle of a salt desert. Yet our temporal intrusion, what would proportionately be but a millisecond in the grand scheme of things, can sometimes leave ramifications that serve to test the patience of these natural wonders. We take for granted that they will last forever or we only see them as significant in that instant or in our lifetimes, and it is the accumulative effect of such behavior that has led to the gradual destruction of these natural wonders.

One of these days, we might be left with nothing but cities.

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Reflections: Art Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap

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“What the hell is that?!” were the first words that I uttered when I saw the crazy couch that was completely covered with soft toys. I mean, these soft toys were the couch.

The crazy couch that caught our eyes

WB and I were so intrigued, we walked in and ask if it was a restaurant or ..

“A new boutique hotel! Let me show you our rooms!” The manager, Hea, was quick and enthusiastic in showing us around despite us telling him that we were leaving the next morning and wouldn’t be able to stay the night there.

Reflections Siem Reap is the epitome of eclecticism. Described as an “art hotel” by its designer, Anusorn Ngernyuang, it has elements of art deco and pop art that border a little on kitsch. But what is most impressive about this hotel is the crazy amount of thought put into every nook and cranny. As each of the rooms has a different theme, guests are treated to a visual orgasm of colour, motifs and paraphernalia. The creation of each room is also unique. For example, Anusorn hired disabled artists to paint “Hope for Cambodia”. With names like “Secret Garden”, “Moody Moods”, “What A Cat Think?” and “Trash Chic”, there is a room for the movie aficionado to the barbie-crazed. It is also noteworthy that several rooms, such as “Hope for Cambodia”, were beautifully painted by disabled artists. “Trash Chic” (probably not what you were thinking there), on the other hand, comprises of stylish lifestyle products made from recycled materials.

There's definitely Hope for Cambodia

You're not gonna feel too moody when you enjoy the jacuzzi in this room

Secret Garden (One of the rooms with a jacuzzi)

Gotta love a "Life in Plastic"

Outdoor verandah for events

Swimming pools! They were still filling up the pool with water when we were there.

Good news is, the rooms are available at the wonderfully affordable rate of 80USD per night. If you fancy spending some time in a private jaccuzzi, be prepared to part with an additional 40USD (though I think this could be well worth it as the jaccuzzis are positioned under a skylight). If not, the hotel also has two pools for its guests and a cafe in the compound. There are also plans to include two dorm rooms for the budget traveller. Located along Wat Bo Road, which is just across the main river in Siem Reap and a 15-minute walk from Psar Chaa (Old Market), it is surrounded by trendy bars, cafes and designer boutiques.

WB and I with creative (and brilliant) designer, Anusorn!

For the love of art, check out Reflections: Siem Reap (for now, this link takes you to its sister hotel in Bangkok) at #0545 Wat Bo Street, Sangkat Salakamreuk, Siem Reap.

A rainy day in Lanquin

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Just spent a wonderfully lazy day in Lanquin thanks to the ceaseless rain. I’m kinda glad we had to cancel our trip to the K’anba caves because it gave me the chance to just spend a day without any agenda. I’ve never known the rain to be such a tease; everytime it looked like the clouds were done relieving themselves, there would be a fresh shuddering of rain again. In a distance, the cattle grazed, unperturbed, on the rolling hills, the house dogs chewed at my shoes and the hostel bar continued to showcase its inexhaustible range of music. I admired this from the comforts of my hammock and loved how the rain made the land so pregnant and verdant- it’s super refreshing and cleansing. (Nic disagrees that there’s an after-rain smell.) Now, sitting outside our cabin, this postcard-perfect view is what retirement villas boast of. Rush of river, calls of crickets, freshness of foliage. Life is sweet when there’s absolutely nothing to do but admire it.

Antigua

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Hola de Antigua !

The multi-colored walls, cobble-stoned streets, horse-drawn carriages and vine-adorned gates make Antigua the quintessential colonial city, yet the ruins of cathedrals presumably destroyed by volcanic eruptions adds a certain sense of realism to the otherwise postcard-perfect facade. Even though this is our second day here, I feel like I haven’t really explored the city even though I am beginning to fall in love with it. Not sure if it’s the sweet smell of lavender in the air, the gorgeous cafes with awesome live music, or the friendliness of the locals, but I could definitely see myself spending a couple of months here.

We also went on a hoax of a tour around these ‘villages’ today that were not indigenous in any sense. Ciudad Viejo, the first city in Guatemala that the Spanish conquistadors first settled in, had the shell of a cupuola which is now used as a school. The macadamia nut farm had the best white chocolates and ingeniously green farming methods, but they were set up by a Canadian man and his Guatemalan wife. The ‘Mayan’ village was really a market which sold ‘traditional’ clothes an handicrafts by the local women. And finally, we also went to this house which manufactured jade jewelry and ornaments. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I bought something from each of the places we visited except Ciudad Viejo because we didn’t visit any shops there.

Still despite the gimmicky gringo trail that we blazed, I had a gorgeous time taking in the sights of the city. Like Arequipa, it’s also flanked by three volcanoes- Fuego, Agua and Acatenango that are all active. There was a hilarious moment when our guide stopped by the roadside for us to take a postcard shot of the volcanoes as we stood amidst a pile of trash. In that sobering moment there was the realization that beauty exists around and in spite of crap.

Gonna hit up a real volcano with hopefully some legit lava tomorrow! Wish me luck!

Photos when I can upload them!

If I had all the time (and guts)…

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I would travel Southwestern Bolivia on a mule.

My mule (whom I would call ‘Muse’) and I would probably start off from the town of Uyuni. We’d trot slowly as the hordes of 4WDs zoom past us and we’d be alone to appreciate the emptiness of the salt flats. We would hear the rhythmic crunch of the salt under Muse’s hooves, and see where the volcanoes define the horizon’s edge. There is something strangely calming about being a tiny speck of a person (or animal) amidst that great expanse of blankness.

We would probably take a day, instead of 2 hours, to reach Isla Incahuasi, an island that sprouts hundreds of phallic-shaped cactuses. By then, all the tour groups would have left. I would then hike up to the top of the island and take in my surroundings. (Ideally by this time I should have learnt how to paint as well. Cameras are amazing, but they can’t capture the way cacti glow in the sunlight, or the way the sunsets here are a special kind of purplish-pink.) I would spend an hour or so painting the view before me; it shouldn’t be too hard since everything is white. Then I would pitch my tent on the salt flat (not sure if this is legal actually), and equipped with the warmest sleeping bag and wind-resistant tent, I would wait for the howling winds to sweep salt onto my tent. Come nightfall, I would stick my head out of the tent and watch the Milky Way stretch across the sky, accompanied by an infinite number of twinkling stars. And if I’m as lucky as I’ve been, I would wait eagerly for the shooting stars to streak across the sky, and wish each time for a life as good as this.

Isla Incahuasi

Muse and I would probably spend about a month making our way across the Altiplano and the Atacama Desert. We will pass by many volcanoes on the way, and if I’m feeling fit enough, I might be encouraged to climb one. We will laugh at all the tourists bouncing uncomfortably in their 4WDs (although we would not be so pleased with the clouds of dust they generate). We would trot past fantastical lava formations, past colourful volcanoes with multiple craters, and on lucky days, we will arrive at lagoons filled with flamingos. We will be amazed at how these haughty, fragile-looking creatures can survive in such a desolate and harsh environment and marvel at the way they strut across the frozen lagoon like models on a runway. Muse would also have a lot of time to graze as I attempt to paint these beautiful creatures in flight. On our journey, Muse would also make a lot of new friends with the wandering Andean foxes, llamas and vicuynas. They seem to be pretty friendly and curious creatures.

Flamingos flourishing in the smelly sulfuric lagoon.

Volcano of Seven Colours; The yellow parts mark where the sulphur from the different craters are.

Crazy geyser activity; The lava is only 700m below surface!

It would be an extremely difficult journey given the crazily cold climate and lack of food or water. And knowing me, we will definitely get lost at some point. But then again, being lost is a concept that can only exist when you have a specific destination and time-frame. And since I would have all the time in the world, the only thing I could really be lost in is the beauty of my surroundings.

Parque Toro Toro: Land Before Time

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Our joyride!

As with all Bolivian journeys, getting there is half the adventure. We were a little anxious about our bus from Cochabamba to Toro Toro since we´d received conflicting information about the location and timing of the bus ride from everyone. We ended up getting our tickets from Trans Toro Toro at Av. Republica and Av. Barrientos for the 6:30pm bus.

6:30 pm: Our bus is a real character. It looks like it´s about 10 years overdue for refurbishment. The seats are almost completely ripped at the seams and look like they are ideal nesting habitats for mice and roaches. The only available light on the bus are 4 tiny, exposed bulbs. Unsurprisingly, the bus is overbooked and there are about 5 people standing on the aisle, each with a huge bundle of something.

7:00pm: The bus has finally left. WB and I are sitting in the last row and as a result every bump and rattle is experienced manifold. It´s like being on an OSIM uGallop gone awry. I can´t even dig my nose without the fear of jabbing my finger all the way into my nostril. The brakes also have a gasping hollow screech.

8:30pm: WB just saw a sign that said “92 km a Cochabamba”. We´re very happy entertaining ourselves with the thought that this journey is going to end in 2 hours at the speed this bus is travelling.

11:40pm: The bus stopped abruptly to let a whole bunch of villagers get off. People are moving all sorts of barang down, including televisions. My legs are beginning to feel numb. Economy class syndrome?

12:30 am: We are still driving uphill with no apparent end in sight. I have two people snoozing on my shoulders and I need to poop very urgently. With fewer people on the bus, the ride is even bumpier.

12:45 am: Suddenly I can spot a dozen glowing lights in the distance.  A mirage? It looks so inviting.

12:49 am: Not a mirage!! We´ve finally arrived. Thank God Felix from Villa Etelvina (where we´re staying) is still waiting for us at the bus stop; the bus driver and a villager had very convincingly pointed us in the opposite direction when we didn´t see Felix at first. Hmm.

Umajalanta Trek

We woke up early on Saturday to look for a guide (Bs 100/day) at the Tourist Information office. Toro Toro is tiny- there are three main streets, one school, and two churches. At the office, we´re really lucky to be just in time to join a group of 4 people who are headed on a trek to the Umajalanta cave, which is 6.5km away from the town. (We´re also really lucky that the other people in our group can speak both Spanish and English and hence can help us translate! There are no English-speaking guides here.)

Parque Tor0 Toro would probably be every geog- lover´s paradise. The volcanic eruptions of yesteryear and the active seismic activity have resulted in the formation of hills that look like they have been dramatically and abruptly sliced in half. As it is the dry season now, the rivers are completely parched and the exposed sedimentation is pretty spectacular. This area also used to be home to dinsosaurs. There is a theory that the multitude of dinosaur tracks found here were made when the dinosaurs were fleeing a volcanic eruption, after which the lava swept over the clay and resulted in the fossilized footprints.

Mr Moo looking for some water in the parched river.

Tracks of the Carnosauria.. which I suspect is the Spanish term for any carnivorous dino.

We finally arrived at the cave after hiking for about 3 hours. The trail is pretty moderate (quite a lot of walking uphill and some nasty thorny paths) and we saw (and heard) a lot of sheep and blur-looking mules along the way. Our descent in the cave was pretty exciting. Our guide had to hook up his rope several times for us to rappel down (not having helmets also made it pretty exciting) and there was a lot of heaving, climbing and sliding involved. But the best part was when we had to go completely flat on our bellies so as to crawl through the tunnels. We Asians got the last laugh then! Heehee. There were also some amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations; so old they´ve melded together to form colums in the cave. Some of the stalactites were also slightly hollow and produced music when we tapped on them. At the end of our descent, we also came to a pool of water with tons of white blind fish. It was pretty funny how they kept bumping into each other while swimming around.

They look more blur than me, no?

Fantastical cave columns!

Literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Vergel Trek

We met up with our group and guide again the next day to do the ´classic´ Vergel trek, which is delightfully only 8km long. The scenery wasn´t quite as stunning as the day before, although we did get to walk along a dried river bed for about 1km and see the internal structure of what would be a waterfall in the rainy season. We also saw humongous footprints belonging to the Brontosauras today; they´re so big a baby (or WB now that he has lost so much weight) would fit pretty nicely in them. We also trekked down the canyon (466 steps!) to the falls of El Vergel, a lush oasis in this arid, arid land. On the way back, Pablo brought us to see more dinosaur footprints. There were several criss-crossing tracks made by both the herbivores and carnivores. Very cool (:

Rainy season: Waterfall. Dry season: Rock theater where theatrical performances are held!

Massive footprint of the Brontosaurus!

**We were supposed to go to Potosi after but there is a bloqueo on all roads leading there so we´re in Oruro now, waiting to head to the Uyuni salt flats tonight. We made this last minute decision at the bus station last night and arrived in Oruro at 2am last night, without a hostel to stay. This city is also freaking cold compared to Cochabamba. Anyway, there is also a bloqueo on the atas train to Uyuni so now we have to take the scary cold bus. Sian.

Pictures tomorrow when I can get wifi! The internet cafe here is pretty crappy.

La Paz

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The frenetic capital of Bolivia.

The highest capital in the world is leaving me breathless, literally more than figuratively. Built on a canyon, the steepness of the roads here can rival those of San Francisco, and I find myself gasping for air within 5 mins of walking uphill.

It reminds me a lot of Athens actually- grubby, smokey, kinda sketchy. But the people here are 2748383737 times nicer. Although WB and I walk in constant fear of being spit on- apparently there’s a popular scam here where people spit on you and while you’re fumbling about in rage, they steal your money :/ WB told me to just smile and thank whoever spits on me.

There’s a lot of Japanese and Thai food here though! Which is a very nice change from eating soup and potatoes for the past few days when we were on the islands of Lake Titicaca. We’ve realized that we’ve both lost a considerable amount of weight- scary for WB since he’s already so skinny, somewhat good for me cos I’ve a lot to lose, but a little disappointing because my face is still as round as ever :/ I’ve also been experiencing a strange sensation when it’s sweltering hot: it feels like there are lots of little bubbles bursting on my skin although there’s nothing actually there. I’d like to think it’s my cellulite imploding but I don’t want to be too hopeful! If anyone knows what that sensation entails, please tell me!

Something fascinating about La Paz: their witch market. The tradition here is somewhat like at Chinese funerals; they burn miniature versions of the things they want e.g. wax cars, houses, money etc. But somehow dried llama foetuses also come into the picture as offerings to Pachamama. It’s quite disconcerting to see rows of these hanging shrivelled creatures; some found frozen from the cold, others dug out from their mother’s womb.

Dizzying array of concoctions and potions for every possible ailment.

For all the 'riches' you could possibly want in life.

Anyone fancies a souvenir?

We’re headed to Cochabamba tomorrow! Hopefully to climb some caves and walk in dinosaur tracks (:

My Inka Initiation.

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The Inca Trail today is definitely drastically different from what it was in the past. Tour agencies cleverly present it as a ‘pilgrimage’ to the ‘sacred’ citadel of Macchu Picchu, and it costs a rather hefty price (USD 450 to be exact) to walk in the footsteps of the Andean kings. But man oh man, it sure as hell is worth it.

The Incas were the kings of the Andean people from the year 1200 to 1533, when the 14th Inka was defeated by the Spanish conquistador, Pizzaro. Once before and during their term as an Inca, they had to make a pilgrimage to Macchu Picchu from Cuzco (which was the center of the Inca empire) so as to learn about and (hopefully) improve the lives of their people. They were people who believed in the divinity of the Pachamama (or Mother Earth), Pachatata and water, and their intense devotion to these elements of nature is well represented in the Inca ruins that we saw along our trek.

It’s not hard to understand why Pachamama is so revered when you survey the geographical diversity of the Andes. On our 45 km hike, we trekked through tropical rainforests with splendid snow-capped mountains peeking shyly through the dense foliage; we hobbled down paths lined by swaying white lalang-ish plants, we tiptoed across makeshift wooden bridges over streams alive with gushing water, and each morning, we watched the mountains glow with pride in the rising sun. I was truly touched by the love and sensitivity that my guides, Santiago and Ruben, showed toward their Pachmama. It puts us air-conditioning aficionados to shame.

Fields of gold

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Going it alone in Nazca & Huacachina.

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Somehow Nazca and I just didn’t quite agree with each other. We arrived on a night bus from Arequipa early last Saturday morning and I started feeling feverish almost immediately. We’d booked a flight to see the Nazca and Palpa Lines with Kusi Illaq Wasi Tours and they’d told us that we needed to be at the airport at 11:30 am for our flight. The Nazca Airport is basically the size of a school canteen with about 10 different airline companies, so it’s actually really easy to just show up and book a flight on the spot, unless of course, you want to see both the Nazca and Palpa Lines. We were told we could only take a flight at 3pm because (apparently) we needed a bigger plane since the flight duration is longer. So in my feverish stupor, we went to visit the Chauchilla Cemetry first.

By the time we were back at the Nazca Airport again, I was practically delirious. We must have been quite a sight- WB (who was suffering from a bout of food poisoning and feeling rather nauseous) and I- slumped on the uncomfortable rattan chairs and just dozing off with our mouths wide open. It was probably that that convinced the pilots they had to get us on a plane soon, so at 4pm they led us to a tiny 4-seater plane (big plane, my foot!). Our pilots were wonderfully nice though, and made sure to check with us that we wanted a smooth ride (no G-force, por favor!).

WB and our pilot!

Up in the plane, the pilots were giving us a left AND right view of the lines. Just as we were done looking at the spider, I suddenly heard a muffled gulp- and then a splash of orange came rushing out of he-who-is-to-embarrassed-to-be-named. I was like, holy shit now I feel like puking too, and just as I was taking out my plastic bag for him, the second wave of orange rushed out, this time unfortunately missing the bag… and onto his jeans and the seat again. Oops. Suffice to say, the pilots hardly flew on the left again even though they’d said that we would see the Palpa Lines largely on the left. Haha. We spent the rest of the 30 minutes in that plane basking in the fumes of WB’s lunch. Thankfully, the scenery outside was a big enough distraction! I was actually freaking out a little at the start when I couldn’t spot the lines and thought that I’d have spent $85 just looking at highways in the sand.

Anyway, the Nazca Lines were supposedly constructed by the Nazca people as a way of communicating with their gods. Most of the figures are animals, although there are some odd human-like figures such as “The Astronaut”, which I later learnt were supposed to be depictions of their shamans. For example, the Nazcas had been amazed to find the monkey so adaptable even to desert conditions, and so constructed the monkey in hope that the gods would send them water the way they sent the Amazon rainforest (where they’d gotten the monkeys from) water. Go figure. The Palpa Lines, on the other hand, are a lot more enigmatic as they were discovered much later than the Nazca Lines and basically have figures that no one can really understand as yet.

Map of Nazca Lines

The Astronaut

The Monkey!

My favourite of the Palpa Lines: The Paracas Family

With all the puking and the fever, we slept for 15 hours straight after our flight and recovered just enough to go sand-boarding in Huacachina, which by the way, is AWESOME. I was actually extremely apprehensive about the sand-boarding since the company that we chose (Desert Warriers) seemed to have the most beat-up dune buggy and I’d heard horror stories of people flying out of their buggies or breaking their legs while sandboarding. But it turned out to be extremely safe and fun (: And no Mummy, I didn’t eat a grain of sand this time!!

With our awesomely chui dune buggy.

Because we arrived at Huacachina so late, we were just in time for a desert sunset and no tourists (:

No stunts, just good ol' belly fun (:

I’m so glad we chose to travel Nazca and Huacachina on our own instead of signing up with a tour in Arequipa (that would have cost us 250 USD). Even though we were feeling queasy most of the time, it was still extremely easy finding our way around. Go it alone!