Category

Asia

Category

7 Ways to Enjoy Touristy Phuket

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve visited Phuket. In my memory, it was always this over-touristy town that doesn’t have much personality but is still fairly enjoyable. But as with any well-established holiday destination, there’s plenty of choices for accommodation and activities, enabling visitors to tailor a variety of experiences. This time around, 18 of us (I know right) converged here to celebrate Ade’s 30th birthday, and the trip’s itinerary was packed with pretty exciting stuff thanks to Priya and her organising committee. So even though the destination was rather predictable, I still had a bloody good time! Here’s what made it amazing…

1. Head to Kamala Beach

Stay away from Patong Beach at all costs! We drove past it and it’s still the same old cheap, tasteless, touristy nonsense. Unless it’s your first time in Asia or Thailand, I wouldn’t recommend it at all. Stay at Kamala Beach instead, which is a rustic, languid village that’s much less populated. It doesn’t have as much choices for nightlife and restaurants as Patong, but it’s sure less sleazy and a whole lot more relaxing.

And check out the killer sunset at this beach!

2. Pick a villa with a killer infinity pool

All of us were packed into the gigantic Bann Chang Thai villa sourced from Airbnb. It’s a good place for huge groups as it has spacious common areas for dining and lounging, including an infinity pool that looks out into the nearby mountains. We spent most of our time there, laughing, drinking, and talking shit. A pity that it’s located in a private residential area, so loud parties after 11pm are prohibited. And while there are some jaw-droppingly gorgeous bedrooms in the villa, half of them were rather dated, and doesn’t justify the SGD120/night price tag for each person. But, that’s coming from a Singaporean who has experienced quite a few villas around Southeast Asia. The Europeans thought it was a stunning accommodation.

3. Visit Elephants

So glad Priya suggested we drop by the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Phuket! I’ve always wanted to visit elephant rescues. If you’re considering this, please don’t be put off by the SGD100 price tag. I know it’s a hefty cost, but a lot of funds are needed to feed these rescue elephants and keep them safe and happy. I loved every bit of the experience, feeding, petting, bathing, and playing in the mud with these gentle giants. It’s also the first time that I’ve seen an elephant sucking its own trunk (bottom right picture) like how a toddler sucks his thumb! Too cute.

4. Go diving

The King Cruiser wreck stole the show with a wonderful display of white and purple living corals, which was home to many clown fish families and a giant puffer fish. The reef dive at Shark Point was another crowd-pleaser. I’m not the best at remembering which type of fish I saw — I’m a happy diver as  long as the visibility is good, as I just love kicking back, floating around, and enjoying the warm waters while swimming among colourful little fish. More footage to come when I find the time to edit the video clips!

5. Get on a Junk

We spent one hot, hot afternoon out at sea on this boat that’s almost as fabulous as us. Had a real sweet time lounging out on the deck, and then watching the surreal sunset over the horizon. Our white-and-gold theme photographed so well too!

There was a quick stop at a deserted island, where we could snorkel around and enjoy the private beach. The waters were cool and clear, making it a very nice dip after roasting in the searing afternoon heat.

6. Eat at Lillo Island

We loved Lillo Island so much we kept going back for more. It’s located along Kamala Beach, and serves the best Thai food in the vicinity. I was too damn hungry and greedy each time we came here, so I only took a picture of my favourite dish there — Pad See Ew (seafood kway teow). It’s on the sweet side, and this oily plate of carbs was incredibly satisfying. Everything else we ordered was great too: pineapple rice, morning glory, basil chicken, clams, friend calamari, steamed fish… I’m sure everything else they have on their menu is authentic and tasty.

7. Dress Up

Ade picked a tribal theme for her birthday dinner, and everyone turned up in such colourful outfits! I’m usually very lazy with these dressing up parties, but at least the photos turned out great and the effort was worth it. Hah. Aren’t we fab?

Some very lovely portraits by Yosh.

All in all, an amazing holiday with incredible people that turned a B-grade destination ace.

Decadence in Bali

We stayed, ate, and indulged ourselves proper in celebration of Keith’s 30th birthday in Bali. This destination remains a good choice for large groups of friends to holiday as it’s convenient, has numerous restaurants and cafes to dine together at, and is equipped with the service and infrastructure to cater to touristic requests. Gotta give a big thanks to Keith and the organising committee for arranging everything for the 15 of us!

STAY

Let’s start with our fabulous accommodations.

DSC03839
The exquisite view upon entering the Dwaraka President suite.

A small group of us arrived in Ubud first, and stayed at the new-ish Dwaraka The Royal Villas. We snapped up its President Suite quite some time back as it was on half price, making it an incredible deal for such a treat. Our villa is perched on a small hill facing a little rice field and its surrounding tropical rainforest, which shielded us from every stressor you can imagine.

We were housed comfortably in a two-storey building that’s extravagantly decorated in a mix of traditional Balinese and colonial styles, and every bedroom is designed to pamper the crap out of you. It was such a relief to have such a nice place to stay in for hours on end as there wasn’t much to the rest of Ubud, which has evolved to be much like Seminyak — busy, messy, and expensive. Pretty disappointed by this as most people have said that it’s the artsy hippie enclave of the island.

One of my fondest memories of Dwaraka here is taking my own sweet time to get out of the insanely comfortable bed, and stepping out onto the terrace to take in the panoramic view made up of trees, trees, and more trees. I remember thinking, this must be what luxury is about — being able to appreciate nature’s richness every morning. It’s a great way to start each day, and I hope that I’ll be able to achieve this one day. Life would also be perfect if I could lounge in that infinity pool every day… Guess I’ll keep on dreaming.

It was heartbreaking to move out of this paradise and into bustling Seminyak. The only consolation was that we’d finally be together as a 15-strong herd made up of old and new friends!

We checked into one of Villa Chocolat‘s massive villa which has 6 bedrooms and another 2 in a smaller attached bungalow. The rooms were modern in style, and not much to shout about. The big pool was lovely though, and we spent most of our afternoons here, drinking, chatting, and fooling around with Kylie and Mylie (our swan floaties).

EAT

Eat, drink, and laugh — it was all we did the entire time.

Fair Warung Balie (Ubud)

Clean food for a good cause! I had the mahi mahi salad, and the fish slices were fresh, sweet, and just nicely cooked. Had it with fresh orange and carrot juice. Their Nutella crepe got our unanimous vote too. 

Hujan Locale (Ubud)

My favourites include the Squid ink rice with crispy calamari and coriander aioli and salt fish chili flakes, and chocolate dessert with coconut ice cream. Everything else we ordered didn’t disappoint as well. 

Merah Putih (Kerobokan)

Fancy ass meal (came up to about SGD90 each) in a spectacular restaurant built like a towering greenhouse. I enjoyed the tasting menu very much, but it was a pity that it all came in bite-sized portions. It left us wanting more! Will definitely be back for a proper a la carte meal.

Bossman Burgers (Seminyak)
IMG_4351
“Snacked” on this super satisfyingly thick and juicy beef patty burger. Love it when they get medium rare perfect.
Keith’s birthday BBQ bash (Villa Chocolat)

We arranged for the in-house chef service, and had 3-4 staff cook up a BBQ feast in our villa. It was way too much food! The prawns, which were exceptionally sweet and juicy, won me over. We also had generous servings of lobster, Mee Goreng, Nasi Goreng, mozzarella and tomatoes, seafood skewer, lamb, Babi Guning, and steamed veggies. STUFFED.

La Laguna (Canggu)

This beachfront gypsy-inspired haven is more about the ambiance, but the finger food was delicious as well. We ordered way too many things for me to take notes, but I remember the patatas bravas was heavenly.

Kilo (Seminyak)

Kilo is one of my favourite restaurants of all time. I’ve been dreaming about the yuzu truffle sushi since we had it in Singapore, and I still think of it every now and then after this excessive meal at its Bali branch. Every dish blew my mind. They were hearty, full of punchy flavours, and never missed a beat. I was a very very happy glutton, savouring up every drop of sauce even though my stomach was bursting at the seams. And I want it all again!

Love you Keith! Thanks for bringing this whole thing together.
Love you Keith! Thanks for bringing this whole thing together.

Languid Lembongan

Stillness is a gem for city dwellers. Everyday, I find myself flitting from one screen to another absentmindedly, constantly plugged in or assaulted by noise pollution. Driven by boredom and restlessness to seek senseless distractions, it’s a never ending battle.

It all comes to a halt during holidays. When day to day life is postponed, numbed sensibilities are reawakened and buried dreams are remembered. No I didn’t sign up for a 7-day meditation retreat, but being away from the city with good friends has an equally rejuvenating effect.

The stresses of my life were on hold for eight glorious days in November, where a whole bunch of us congregated for a trip to celebrate Keith’s 30th. The first leg is at Lembongan, a lovely island that’s a 45 minute boat ride from Bali’s Sanur jetty. I know many see Bali as an escape from Singapore, but I’m not a fan of its crowds and high prices. The ride cost SGD20 one way, and I couldn’t stop beaming when we arrived on a beautiful beach that had the languid feel of a rustic island.

DSC03660Our first dinner was a joke. We thought the best way to get good local cuisine was to get recommendations from locals, and we were told to head to Warung Made down the road. It looked unpretentious and fairly authentic, but had few customers. Well, it’s because it was crap. The only thing that was tasty was the Nasi Goreng. Everything else we ordered arrived in very small and sad-looking servings. We found out later that it was ranked #47 out of 82 restaurants on the island. -_- So we only took tripadvisor’s recommendations from then on.

DAY 2

The resort’s breakfast didn’t disappoint. Instead of the usual buffet fair, they had a proper a la carte menu made up of local, Western, and even Japanese and Korean dishes. The best part was that it can be enjoyed with a panoramic view of a splendid, empty beach.

And of course, diving is essential with every beach holiday. It’s exceptionally pricey here though, at SGD60 / dive.


BUT. WE SAW OUR FIRST MANTA! I think it had a wingspan of about 2.5m. Despite its size, it moved slowly and majestically. Was expecting to see a group of them since the site is a cleaning station, but the dive master said they shied away that morning as there were way too many divers. Still, it was a really moving experience so see one of that size in its vast natural habitat. To think that humans put them in “large” aquariums like the one in Resorts World Sentosa, is just depressing.

Untitled-1
Puffer fish

There was none of the crazy currents we experienced in Gili islands, and it was great to see how the waters were teeming with marine life. Spotted stingrays, lion fish, puffer fish, turtle, and a Napoleanfish.

G0053104

After diving with Priya, it’s back to our resort’s beach to reunite with the rest. The beach may be photogenic, but it’s not much of a snorkeling or chilling spot. The sea bed was covered in sharp corals, and the waters weren’t very clear.

IMG_4091
Dream beach

Then we set off on a buggy that took us on a half-day tour to see Lembongan’s famous sites including Dream beach, which was an absolute stunner. 

Perched on top of the cliffs was a nice bar with the best vantage point, and an infinity pool. But our tour didn’t allow for much time here to absorb the sights, so we decided to return the next day. 

The tour ended at Devil’s Tear outcrop, where large powerful waves swelled and crashed into the rocky cliffs, creating hypnotic poundings and dramatic sprays that reached up to 6 metres above the cliffs. Our guide would freak out every time we went too far out on the cliffs as you never know how powerful the next wave would be. There have been cases of tourists being swept away. We also saw a tourist taken away by a truck, with blood running down his face when we arrived. Apparently the waves knocked him back on the sharp rocks, causing a deep gash on the head.

IMG_4096

But, if you stay behind where the water puddles begin, you’d be rewarded with an extra day in your life to enjoy the sublime view of the sun slowing dipping beyond the horizon.

It was very nice of our guide to drop us off at Warung Bambu for dinner, as it’s quite a long drive away from our stay. The casual restaurant is located by the beach, and served up the best meal we had thus far. It’s definitely worthy of the #4 spot on TripAdvisor’s list. The tempeh  tofu curry was my favourite — sweet and absolutely delish. The banana leaf chicken, Nasi Goreng, grilled calamari, chicken curry, and grilled prawns were fantastic too. 

Oh and the best thing about our resort? Free pick ups from any where on the island! Such good service.

DAY 3

IMG_4137
Best way to start the day.
IMG_4139
Even better way to start the afternoon.

Back to Dream Beach again! This time around, we had ample time to mill around, and ended up spending our last afternoon in Lembongan here. The service is pretty rubbish here though — we got a terribly ill-mannered waiter who gave us attitude and the evil eye when we added on more orders. The rest of the staff were OK, but don’t expect too much here. Just concentrate on the impressive views!

IMG_4188

We walked over to Devil’s Tear again, and the waves were even more ferocious than yesterday. Can you spot the human figure completely dwarfed by the sprays? Scary!!! We also saw a pod of dolphins jumping out of the water as they swam away from the cliffs! It was magical…

IMG_4191

Just round the bend is Sandy Bay Beach Club, a chi chi spot to enjoy the rest of the day as the skies blushed and shied away from the remaining sunlight. We had drinks and small bites, and got our trusty resort to pick us up again.

For dinner, we decided to try Lemongrass, which was a stone’s throw from our stay, and #7 on TripAdvisor. The creamy prawns with butter rice I ordered was great, but it was the mee goreng that really stole the show. It’s exactly how Indonesian fried carbs should be – oily, tasty, slightly sweet, and so satisfying.

IMG_4204

The three days spent here were unforgettable, and I really hope Lembongan stays this way for a long time. Please don’t morph into the monster that Bali has become!

Beach bumming on Koh Tao

Koh Tao was a fairly easy choice for me as a quick getaway, mostly because it’s known for its cheap diving. All my vacations this year have been beach destinations, and it never fails to remind me of how perfect Asia is for that.

I love beach holidays because I’m lazy and enjoy being a slow-moving blob. I love that I can walk around in loose fitting clothes and slippers, with no make up and un-styled hair. I love that meals involve pigging out on seafood while listening to the waves. I love that I can dive into warm waters and experience anti-gravity while floating alongside vibrant marine life. I love sitting and staring out at the sea for unusually long periods. I love that time has no precedence on beach holidays, and wifi is just an afterthought.

And this is how Koh Tao allowed me to tick all of those boxes.

TRANQUILITY

We heard that the island can be pretty packed with divers during the peak season in the middle of the year, so it was good that we visited in September. Shanna and I were surprised at how easily we found an empty beach. This lovely spot is just a short walk away from Koh Tao’s main Mae Haad Pier — where the ferries from Koh Samui off load tourists. We were happy with our discovery, and wasted no time to park our asses at this shabby shack to sip on drinks, while being horizontal.

High Bar offered a different kind of serenity. Nestled in a densely forested area, the cafe’s al fresco section overlooks the scenery from a height, giving you the feeling of being utterly enveloped by nature. The sense of peace was exquisite. It calmed my soul, and I could’ve just float away from the corporeal realm in this bliss if not for a female tourist who was yakking away and trying way too hard to flirt with and impress a local boy.

Our luxe stay at Haadtien Beach Resort was also cradled by trees. While its location is way too secluded for my liking , I was in love with our little dreamy cabin. It was flanked by two other similar huts, but it was still enough privacy for us to fully enjoy the silence and greenery while hanging out on the patio. The stay set us back SGD75 each per night. One downside of this accommodation is that free shuttle service to town is not provided and taxi rides cost a SGD8 each way.

dsc03619

All breakfasts should be enjoyed like this every day! The hotel has little booth seats that are elevated just above the private beach, making it a lovely spot to eat, then lie back and watch the gentle ebb and flow of waves. The food, however, was a disappointment as the flavours were muted, I’m guessing to suit its mainly white customers.

Pirate Bar is another of our favourite finds this trip. It’s located at the very end of Saan Jao beach, south of the island. We almost gave up our search for it, but then realised that it’s hidden from plain sight. You had to walk through a restaurant to get to it, and it thrilled us to no end when we finally made it there! It’s a cute little spot to hide away from… the already quiet beach? Haha. Anyways, it was an achievement to get there. And it was a little scary to walk across the stilted walkway that had no hand rails and only dim, dim lights to guide us on the way back.

PICTURESQUE BEACHES

The beaches on Koh Tao were nice and chill, but the most photogenic one is on Nangyuan island, a short boat ride away. We paid SGD16 each for the return trip, and spent around three hours snorkeling, snoozing, and soaking up the sun there.

gopr2812
Nangyuan island
g2172967
The beaches look rather peculiar as it’s made up of thin strips of sands, kinda like runways.
The pretty beach lured me in and made me stay for too long, and I ended up bring pretty burnt.
The pretty beach lured me in, made me stay for too long, and I ended up getting pretty burnt.

EATS

The thing about Koh Tao is that it’s rather touristy. In the sense that the main street is more packed with restaurants with “outsider” prices, rather than shabby local joints which usually serve better and cheaper local food.

Street food is always amazing in Thailand, and the oily nutella crepe from this push cart didn’t disappoint at all! Our random roadside snack made up of way-too-oily spring rolls and nuggets was also sinfully satisfying.

dsc03627

On one hot, hot afternoon while we were on a hunt for Thai iced tea, a kind local pointed us to this stall. The best ones are made with a distinct tea flavour rather than overpowering sweetness, and this one was made to perfection.

The best local food we had on this trip was at Ying Yang Thai restaurant, which we stumbled upon while making our way to Chalok Baan Kao Bay. We had chicken wings, crispy egg pork salad, shrimp fried rice and stir fry basil pork, all of which were so on point.

The best local food we had on this trip was at Ying Yang Thai restaurant (ranked #7 on Tripadvisor), which we stumbled upon while making our way to Chalok Baan Kao Bay. We had the chicken wings, crispy egg pork salad, shrimp fried rice, and stir fry basil pork, all of which tasted like true blue tasty Thai dishes. Shanna had a short bout of food poisoning the morning after our meal here, but I guess it was worth the runs?

Our next best meal was a surprise. We looked up Tripadvisor one evening when we were craving some Western dishes, and decided on La Pizzarie as it was ranked #6 of 148 Restaurants in Koh Tao. We had to navigate some dark alleys and roads that weren’t mapped on Google to get there, and when we arrived, we had doubts as to whether it was the right place as it was very empty for such a highly-rated place. It looks more like a KTV / bar than a pizzeria. Thankfully, the food did it justice. The parma ham pizza was one of the juiciest I’ve had. Our pizza, salad, risotto, drinks, and two massive desserts cost us about SGD38 in all. Yup. Everything except the diving on Koh Tao is not cheap.

The #3 restaurant on Tripadvisor is a vegan, Caucasian-run cafe called Coconut Monkey. The outdoor seats overlook the sea, and we took our time to enjoy the English breakfast, and washed it down with their signature shake. Quite impressed that they managed to recreate an authentic Western taste on this island. Wonder if they import their ingredients… That would explain the hefty SGD19 price tag for the breakfast and shake.

DIVING

Koh Tao is packed to the brim with dive centres, and I picked Pura Vida simply because it was near to the hotel, and the instructors look friendly and hot from the website’s pictures. Looks get you everywhere! I did four dives in one day, and it only cost me SGD116 in total. Almost half the price you get around the region!

Here are some of my favourite shots, taken with the GoPro Plus.

g1612532

g1792632_2
Blue-spotted stingrays are quite a common sight in South East Asian waters.

School of baby barracudasSchool of baby barracudas.

FRIENDLY STRAYS

Everyone knows I loose my mind whenever I see cats, dogs, and or any other furry animal. And I lost it many many times on this trip because there were so many friendly cats and dogs roaming the island!

Many of them were just minding their own business, chilling out and enjoying the languid day.

dsc03536

Except for this little fella. Like everyone else, I’m sure you’d think “awwwwwwwwwwwwwww” when you meet such a cutie. It’s exactly what I thought, so I couldn’t help but go up to it to give it a scratch on the head. But after a few moments, this pup began playing way too rough, and wouldn’t quit play-biting. Even when I stood up to walk away, it followed me and kept on jumping and biting at my clothes even as I nudged it away multiple times.

The funniest part was watching other tourists fall into the same trap. Shanna and I had a good time lazing by the beach and witnessing how this innocent-looking pup lures people in with its cuteness and then go ape shit on their clothes. It was endlessly entertaining.

dsc03544

This stray, on the other hand, was perfectly content with lying still beside me as I rubbed its belly. I was very amused at how it uses the table to stretch out further so that I can get to all his hard-to-reach areas. So nice to see animals so trusting of people… They must be treated extremely well here.

Would I return to Koh Tao? Probably only if I were to take a dive course… And also because there are just so many more islands around Asia to visit!

Bye for now!
Bye for now!

Crazy Beautiful Koh Lipe

Sis is always fond of taking a short beach holiday whenever she’s back in Singapore. So this year, I decided to join the whole family, and suggested that we do Koh Lipe. “Koh-what?” they asked. Koh Lipe first came onto my radar about a year ago when a Polish tourist I met here said that it was his favourite beach destination of his whole South East Asian trip. Then Priya mentioned it recently that it was her Italian friend’s favourite beach, and that she was planning to head there with another friend.

I’m a sucker for lesser-known beaches, which often means sacrificing a little bit of convenience for the journey there. Most of these quieter spots around Asia involve bumpy speedboat rides, which are out of the option for my Sis’ infant and toddler. Luckily, Koh Lipe wasn’t ruled out as the most popular route there is by a medium-sized ferry from a port on Langkawi.

Welcome to paradise!
Welcome to Koh Lipe!

But this paradise comes at a price! As we needed to exit Malaysian territory and arrive on Thai soil, the immigration process is not as straightforward. The system was severely inefficient, and involved a lot of us just hanging around and waiting in the heat.

At Koh Lipe customs, they gave out European passports first and Asians last — white people made up about 80% of the tourists, so Asians had to suck it up and wait it out. Even with Ansel screaming his head off, we still had to wait almost an hour, and only got slightly ahead of some white people as Ansel continued to yell like there’s no tomorrow. When I asked them why the order was such, they couldn’t give me an answer. Discrimination? Or an “efficient” system whereby the passports were sorted according to alphabetical order of countries? They even announced “Singaporean and Malaysian passport last, OK?” Someone please enlighten me.

But the welcoming sight of Koh Lipe made all the frustration melt away…

DSC03266
Pattaya beach has fine white sand, cerulean waters, and no crowds!
DSC03331
Villas at Mountain Resort

It was late afternoon by the time we got to our stay at Moutain Resort, which had a jaw-droppingly gorgeous private beach. Cheers to Priya’s friend for the fabulous recommendation!

DSC03271
Mountain Resort is located at the North-Eastern beach, where Sunset beach meets Sunrise beach.

Daylight was fading slowly, and there was not much left to do but dunk ourselves into the pool! Best feeling ever, after the long journey and sweltering heat.

GOPR0599

Mountain Resort is isolated from the main buzz at Walking Street, but they have a shuttle lorry that ferries guests down at half an hour intervals. We arrived on a Monday, and the street was pretty empty. The vibe was great though, as Koh Lipe seem to attract a more mature crowd – none of that trash that washed up on Gili Trawangan. Walking Street is lined with tiki bars, Thai and Western restaurants, as well as many drowsy strays!

DAY 2

We had breakfast al fresco, facing the stunning view. I still couldn’t get over how pretty the beach was, and what a catch this place was for the price! The family villa bungalow for four people cost SGD290/night, including breakfast.

That's Mountain Resort, built into the side of the hill.
That’s Mountain Resort, built into the side of the hill.

The rest of the day passed lazily, with some splashing about on the pristine beach, getting a torturous/shiok Thai massage, exploring more of Walking Street, snacking on chocolate pancake and iced Thai milk tea, chowing down BBQ seafood, doing a basic manicure, and enjoying cider and live music at Elephant bar.

It was everything that I missed at my last beach holiday at Gili T(rash), and I felt so damn good at the end of the day.

DAY 3

One simply cannot get enough of such a view.
One simply cannot get enough of such a view.

After some frolicking at the resort’s quiet beach, it’s time for lunch. Went back to Elephant to try their well-reviewed food. Not bad for a Western in an Asian spot!

DSC03363
It was hot hot HOT!

Today, we were going on a SGD34/pax island hopping and snorkel tour that included a spot with bio-luminescent plankton. The snorkelling was basic but nice and relaxing, and Lily-Ann was a trooper for having the courage to get into the open sea. Although she clung on to sis tightly and didn’t dare look into the waters because she was afraid of the fish biting her, I’m sure she’ll love the sea after a few more tries!

Litter on pebble beach.
Litter on pebble beach.

The second last stop was at Adang beach, where they served up a lousy dinner of dry grilled chicken. Thankfully, the sunset was wonderful.

Adang beach
Us at Adang beach. (Photo: Weiming)

DSC03394

As the sun lowered into the horizon, we headed back in the direction of Koh Lipe’s main beach, and stopped nearby for the bio-luminescent planktons. It got so dark  by then that we had to use our phones’ lights to put on the life jacket, so I was slightly afraid of jumping into the black sea. But when I did, I realised that I could actually see the seabed thanks to the full moon! The waters were about 8m in depth, so there was some form of security in being able to see right down.

The water stays dark when you stay still. But when you start stirring the water, specks of light magically appear like fairy dust! I was utterly amused, and kept on flapping my hands and kicking my legs like an idiot the whole way.For 10 minutes, I was Tinkerbell. I went trigger happy as well, trying to capture the magic. The GoPro, however, really doesn’t function without light. So all I got was total darkness, and the sounds of muffled squeals and water splashing. -_- Any film students need B-Roll footage for an art film?

DAY 4

The post-holiday stress disorder was already creeping up on me as this was the last full day of my time here. I’d already fallen hard for this glorious island, and I hadn’t even gone diving! I took up 3 fun dives for SGD135 with Ko Lipe Diving (such a great SEO-driven centre). They have a massive boat that gave all the divers plenty of space to gear up, and even a comfy sheltered seating area on the upper deck.

I got grouped with a lovely Malaysian lady dive master called Jesie, and I really liked her vibe — just the right amount of enthusiasm and realness. The currents were mild, and the waters were mostly warm except for a few chilly spots. We saw a massive Moray Eel on the first dive, and after that easy breezy dive with 12m visibility, I felt like my beach holiday was really complete. Overall, it was also nice to enjoy me-time without the raucous of the kids! HAHA.

The purple and white slug is called Nidubranch, and are found all around SEA seas.
The purple and white slug is called Nidubranch, and it’s found all over South East Asian seas.
Spot the sleepy cuttlefish.
Snooze o’clock for this cuttlefish.
G0611412
First time seeing some hilariously skittish dancing shrimps.

On our last dive, we met up with a trio of Batfish, which Jesie told us were fond of tailing divers. They think we’re turtles, and they love snacking on turtle poop. No kidding! Click here for proof caught on tape. Sorry guys, the most I can offer you is a fart. And I think I really whet their appetites because they kept on following me.

The best bit of that dive came at the end, when we went under our dive boat and swam through a massive school of Yellowtail Fusilier. Such a great way to conclude the dives!

Met up with the family at our resort’s beach after the diving to catch our very last sunset. 🙁 The tide was very low, so we could wade/snorkel quite some distance out onto this patch of sand island in the middle of the sea. From afar, walking on the sand gave the illusion of walking on water! It was an incredible feeling being on that little patch, far removed from the main beach. The sunset was divine that evening, and it was with an extremely heavy heart that I bid the day goodbye.

On the sand island.
On the sand island.
Found a lone puffer fish near our beach!
Found a lone puffer fish near our beach!

Koh Lipe’s food hasn’t been fantastic so far, but that’s also because I’ve set a pretty high standard since food everywhere else I’ve visited in Thailand has been nothing but amazing.  We are at Raklay restaurant on the last night, and it was decent. The king prawns were especially juicy and sweet!

Bye bye, Koh Lipe… I love you.

New Year’s Trip to Gili Islands

So you’d think that if a holiday destination was 1) hard to get to, and 2) relatively unheard of, it’ll be somewhat of an un-touristy paradise right? Well, our trip to Gili Islands over the new year proved how terribly wrong that theory is.

The drive towards Lombok's jetty offered some breathtaking views.
The drive towards Lombok’s jetty offered some breathtaking views.

It started off innocently, with our big smiles as we picked Priya up from her stay in Lombok, and headed towards the jetty for our private speed boat to Gili Trawangan.

It is hard to get to Gili Islands from Singapore as there are no cheap direct flights. And although many Singaporeans haven’t heard of this cluster of islands off Lombok, half of the predominantly white backpacker community already have. So we were pretty let down when we hopped off the boat and found ourselves in a mini Phuket that didn’t have that tranquil beach holiday feel we were all craving for.

But it was nice that our villa, Ambary House, for the next 4 nights was a 5 minute walk inland, nice and quiet and away from the main street. Each of us forked out SGD277 for the whole stay.

DSC02748

IMG_0215

Everything about it was great, except for that horrid bathroom. It has a slight drainage stench that never went away, and the bathroom floor was made up of spread out tiles, which annoyed the hell out of all of us because our feet kept going into the gaps that were filled with dirty water. UGH. This is not how you do a “resort feel”.

bathroom
Please look at the gross flooring. (Photo taken from http://www.booking.com/hotel/id/ambary-house.html)

It also didn't help that the first thing we ate was mediocre. It had "white people's taste buds" written all over it. It was bland and lacked the punch that made the Indonesian cuisine so memorable. 

Looks nice right? Don’t be fooled! The flavours of this bowl of mee goreng seemed to be muted for foreign taste buds. It was pretty bland and lacked the punch that made the Indonesian cuisine so memorable. It was from this meal on that we decided against patronising any upmarket-looking restaurant and headed straight for the street food.

DSC02759

This is what I’m talking about! Murtubak drenched in oil and bursting with flavours. There’s really nothing like good old street food in South East Asia.

We walked all the way down the island’s main street, and it got quieter and more relaxed the further we headed away from the main jetty. We stumbled upon this nearly empty tiki tiki bar, and plonked ourselves onto the bean bags, ordered some beers, took in the sea breeze, gazed up at the night sky, and settled nicely into a beach holiday mood.

DAY 2

We turned in early every night during our time at Gili Trawangan despite being on the “party island”, because Priya and I had to be on time for our morning dives. We signed up for the five-dive advanced open water course (SGD530) at Manta Dive, which meant that we had to dive almost every day there.

Before we went on our very first dive, we passed by a local hawker, and since it was already proven that the street food on this island was way better than the restaurants here, we just had to get our breakfast from her. Our instincts were right — her longtong-like dish (SGD2.2) was gravied with a spicy curry, and the noodles were springy and chewy. It was messy and yummy, just how I like my street food.

DSC02785

The first dive was rather anti-climatic. I got nervous while descending because I haven’t dived in about 9 months, and was taking in fast, erratic breaths. Had to resurface and calm myself down before heading back underwater. It’s really all in the mind, and I got over it soon after I managed to control my breath.

We spotted a white tip shark, and a handful of turtles. My favourite one was this little turtle that was being tumbled around by the currents while trying to chomp on to some vegetation on the corals. The visibility, however, was absolute crap. It was terribly murky at some points, and I was so disappointed that I asked Priya if we should cancel the rest of the dives and save our money. But we decided to go through with it anyway because the island didn’t offer much else.

Zombie apocalypse
Zombie apocalypse
Caught up with the rest in between our dives.
Caught up with the rest in between our dives.
Cute pony man bun.
Cute pony man bun.

Our second dive of the day was the deep dive, so we went to depths of around 27m. At our deepest point, our dive master cracked open an egg, and it was cool to see how the yolk stayed whole due to the water pressure. The viz was even worse on this dive — there was so much floating sediments that it really looked like we were just diving in a long kang.

For dinner, we took a walk across the island (took us about 30 mins) to Casa Vintage, which was highly recommended by one of the divers in our group.

DSC02808
The short cut which took us through local villages. Here are the only gays in the village.
Sunset Point - home to gorgeous views and hundreds of sandflies.
Sunset Point – home to gorgeous views and hundreds of sandflies.
Casa Vintage has a lovely vibe to it. Very relaxed, very welcoming.
Casa Vintage has a lovely vibe to it. Very relaxed, very welcoming.

And the food was beautiful. We had beef stew, hummus, tomato soup, and smoothies that were made with fresh fruits and without artificial sugar added (a rarity since this island loves serving cordial). The winner at dinner, however, was the yellowtail fish stew (pictured with the corn) that Priya ordered. The stock was heaven, and I had major food envy.

DAY 3

DSC02841
It was searing hot and the strong sunlight gave the sea an exquisite turquoise sheen.

The main street on Gili Trawangan was thronging with tourists coming in (probably from Bali) to celebrate new year’s eve. It felt like Orchard Road on a Saturday, and it got claustrophobic.

Priya and I were grateful that we were heading out to sea again for another dive. This morning, we were met with strong currents, and experienced some sort of drift dive. It was very disorientating as I wasn’t used to not being able to control my speed and direction underwater. We were being swept sideways, and had to look out for both our dive master in front of us,  and corals that loomed up unexpectedly on our right. But we were in luck, as we saw a huge school of jackfish, and another school of batfish.

Me and the school of jackfish. (Photo: Priya)

At one point we had to swim against the current, and when I accidentally kicked one foot into the other, a fin came off and I lost sight of it within two seconds. Sadly, we had to abandon the dive. But thankfully there was a spare fin in my size on the boat, and we re-dropped at another calmer spot with better visibility. And it was turtle heaven! We saw as many as eight.

Untitled-4
(Photo: Priya)

For lunch, we met up with the rest and headed to Piluq, which was the top rated restaurant on Tripadvisor. I expected something very touristy, but surprisingly, this little vegetarian place was hidden from view, and was extremely laidback. It’s made up only of a few sheds and a hole-in-wall kitchen, and the food was divine.

The sesame noodles, tortilla salsa, and piluq pasta, mousaka, and “rise and shine” drink (avocado, coffee, chocolate) were winners. It was lovely to just lie in the shed in a food-induced coma after the meal and bask in the languid afternoon, away from the never-ending stream of people along the beach.

Untitled-7
(Photo: Priya)

On our next dive, we saw our very first wild cuttlefish! It was huge, healthy, but rather shy. It was fascinating to observe how they change colours so quickly. It’s really an amazing feeling to be able to see creatures up close in their natural habitat. Also managed a peek at a reticent octopus  hiding in the rocks.

Post-dive bliss
Post-dive bliss

Dinner at Scallywags was expensive, and very average. The live lobster really racked up the bill, and we were all very disappointed as tasted far from fresh. So once again, another restaurant has proved that it can’t hold a candle to the cheap and good street hawker. But at least the restaurant had cute kittens for us to feed our lousy dinner to.

DSC02902

DAY 4

Gili Air
Gili Air

We were desperate to escape the crowd on Trawangan, so we booked a private boat over to the neighbouring island, Gili Air. It cost us SGD16 each for the return trip. This idyllic island is much quieter, and had the soothing island holiday vibe. We ended up at Manta Dive’s spot on the beach, and decided to settle in. The beach was all right, but not fantastic. So we took to Google in search for the best spot on this island, and guess what — we were already at the “best beach”. Yet another let downs for this trip. Maybe I was expecting too much.

As we headed out into the sea to snorkel, we realised that the sea bed was full of hard corals. Our feet were at their mercy, and it wasn’t much fun wading out. Even taking pictures in the sea was treacherous — we got knocked over by the waves, tumbled like clumsy fools while trying to avoid getting scratched by the corals in the shallow waters. It was hilarious.

Bye bye Air!
Bye bye Air!

Back at Trawangan, we went shark spotting on our last dive trip. I was so impressed at how the local guide knew every nook and cranny that the sharks hide out at! The biggest one we saw was about 1.5m, but it was quite a distance away.

Spot the black tip reef shark!
Most of the reef sharks hid in dark enclaves like this.  (Photo: Priya)
That's all for diving this trip!
That’s all for diving this trip! (Photo: Priya)
IMG_0407
New Rudy’s bar, where shady people of all hues gather.

At night, we finally decided to stay up beyond 10:30pm, and headed out for some “nightlife”. It was shit. We were very surprised that this island doesn’t do any of those typical happy chill beach parties. Instead, it’s full of dodgy as fuck clubs filled with questionable locals and dirty backpackers. It was a really gross crowd and while the music is just one level above utter rubbish, I really wasn’t feeling it. Everyone looked like they were trying to have fun rather than having a good time.

So glad that the diving was amazing. I think non-divers can really skip Gili Trawangan and its sad notion of a beach destination.

DAY 5

It’s the last day of the holiday, and we were going to spend a night at Lombok. It was a very long drive through the island from the ferry terminal to our villa, and much of what we saw through the windows was, for a lack of a better word, crap. I mean I love rural landscapes, but Lombok was devoid of any charm, and looked like it was abandoned halfway through a grand plan to modernise the island.

IMG_0429

Luckily, Kies Villa was an oasis located in the middle of a ramshackle neighbourhood. The pool, bedrooms, bathrooms, and dining area were a dream, and we were so excited to just stay in and be anti-social.

But before that, we needed lunch, and the local staff recommended Warung Bule. It was located at another shabby area by the seafront, and took 45 minutes to prepare our food although there was only one other big table besides us. The Bakmi Goreng and tuna niçoise salad were really good though!

After lunch, we took a private car to Selong Belanak, and the views as we took the windy, hilly roads towards the beach was pretty stunning. The beach was meh, so Weiming and I decided to spice things up by learning to surf.

Selong Belanak
Selong Belanak

IMG_0425

We managed to balance on the board quite quickly, and it’s really thrilling to ride the waves. But you had to work really hard for that short high. We had to keep on swimming out to wait for waves, and duck under the bigger waves to avoid getting smashed by it. But you still get tumbled around by the force — kinda like being in a giant washing machine. We were at it for about two hours, and because of the language barrier, the instructors couldn’t teach us much except telling us to “paddle, paDDLE, PADDLE, STAND!” to guide us to ride the waves at the right time.

I loved how active this entire trip was, and while it was one of the more unimpressive beach holidays, there were many firsts — cuttlefish, drift diving, and octopus were high points that I’ll never forget.

 

Penang Food Trail

This felt like a proper road trip because we spent so much time in the car during these 4 days. Set off at 4:30am on Christmas Day in Singapore, didn’t experience any of the monstrous jams that we’ve been reading about in the papers, and arrived bright and early in Kuala Lumpur. Then stayed over for 1 night before heading up north towards Penang in our rented MPV.

IMG_0130
I was the only non-driver, so BIG thanks to every one who got us to places safely.

It takes around four hours to get to Penang, so it made sense to have a lunch stop at Ipoh, for its famous hor fun. We settled for Lou Wong, which was among the cluster of coffee shops that were kinda famous. The soup hor fun was really nothing to shout about, but the fat, juicy tao gay was shiok! The steamed kampung chicken also won us over with its salty oily sauce.

IMG_0136
View from our Airbnb stay at Straits Quay residenses.

When we finally checked into our accommodation at Straits Quay (came here once, but didn’t know there were residential rooms just above the mall), we were not only impressed by the view, but also very happy at how clean and spacious the suite was!

And where else to start a Penang food trail than at…………… DÔME cafe? Haha… Only because we were hungry and wanted to shop around in Straits Quay. The food was decent though!

One thing that baffles me is how persistent Penang’s heat is. Monsoon season or not, the sun beats down ruthlessly during the day. I’ve visited Penang about 4 times, and it’s ALWAYS scorching. So much so that when people mention Penang, the first thing that pops into my head is the heat, rather than its glorious food.

DSC02646

We took things a bit more seriously when it came to dinner. We made a beeline for Chulia Street’s wanton mee because after stumbling upon it 4 years ago, we’ve been dreaming and yearning for it. Its black sauce is to die for, making this my all time favourite wanton mee stall. It’s still as good as I remember, and I’m sure I’m going to be missing it the next few years…

THE Chulia Street wanton mee.
THE Chulia Street wanton mee.
IMG_0151
Then we met up with some friends of friends, who were locals and brought us on a supper food trail.
DSC02651
First stop at Esplanade food court, where they introduced us to Penang’s rojak.

The Penangites do rojak a little differently than the Singaporeans, and I much prefer their version. The biggest difference lies in the Hae Ko (dark prawn sauce) – it tastes and smells much less fishy than the ones you find in Singapore.

Later in the night, we found ourselves at Green House coffee shop along Jalan Burma for a midnight “snack” consisting of white steamed chicken, hokkien mee, indian rojak, and stingray. All of that felt so damn good in my belly after the drinking session.


Sin Hwa was the first thing on our itinerary for day 2. Its claim to fame is the char kway teow with duck egg. While that was great, their kway teow soup triumphs it. Its simple ingredients belie that flavours that it contains. I’m not usually a fan of clear soup type of dishes, so I was quite surprised at how much I found this fuss-free bowl of soupy kway teow so comforting.

Kebaya restaurant at Seven Terraces hotel was a lovely way to wrap up our Penang food trail. Keith recommended it, and found out later that it’s actually the number 1 restaurant in Penang ranked on TripAdvisor. And its Peranakan cuisine really did live up to its reputation.

We all took the 3-course meal, which worked out to about 4 different types of starters, 5 meat and fish mains, 3 veggie dishes, and a dessert each to share among the 6 of us. It made for a pretty damn filling meal. Almost every dish was a hit, but the meats were exceptional. Especially the slow cooked beef with tamarind, which tasted slightly sweet, and just broke away and melted in my mouth. The joy was too short lived… I want a whole pot of this phenomenal dish!!!

I haven’t had a meal this good in a while, and it was so reasonably priced at SGD50 each. What a fantastic way to end this short and sweet, salty, tasty, fatty food trip.

5 Things I Love About Tokyo

I am not a city person. I avoid it as much as I can — especially when I’m on a holiday — because it just reminds me of the hustle and bustle of Singapore. So how did I end up in probably the busiest city on Earth? Well, I was on a press trip in Northern Japan (read about what I ate there). And as it’s my first time in Japan, I just had to tick Tokyo off my list.

The Japanese capital wasn’t as strange and bizarre as many Western writers and filmmakers make it out to be. It’s hard to experience culture shock when Japanese pop culture and cuisine are ubiquitous in Singapore. I did get hopelessly lost for about 40 minutes in the Shinjuku station maze. That experience taught me that Japanese signs have a tendency to disappear and reappear much later on. So just keep calm and carry on in the same direction unless indicated otherwise.

I chose to stay at the lovely Khaosan Tokyo Kabuki, which is about a 20 minute train ride from central Tokyo, and also significantly cheaper than those clustered around Shinjuku. It was the cleanest, neatest, and most spacious hostel I’ve ever stayed at. And I’ve put up at quite a few hostels across Europe. You just have to give it to the Japanese when it comes to service and hospitality.

So here’s what I loved best about my 3-day trip in Tokyo!

1. SNACKS

I have a love hate relationship with snacks. It’s my comfort food; something that I crave whenever I’m feeling happy, sad, tired, stressed, or just bored. It’s true that snacking is the only thing that prevents me from having a flourishing career in modelling.

I think that if I lived in Japan, I’d just live on snacks. I spent much of my time alone in Tokyo just eating, walking, and doing both at the same time. You know that a country loves its food when you can pop into any 7-11 and find quality food items. One of the must-try for me was the daikon (radish) from 7-11, which my friends have been raving about it since they got back from Tokyo years back.

IMG_8626
The legendary daikon (circular thing at the bottom right corner).

The Asakusa temple was a nightmare. It was filled with rude tourists, non-Japanese tourists dressed up in traditional Japanese costumes walking around the temple for photo opportunities, and tourists asking these costumed tourists for photos. -_- The only saving grace was this lovely lump of fried, oily donno-what meat snack. I just followed the crowd and queued up for it. Only after eating it did I Google it and learn that the shop is called Asakusa Menchi. It’s just a stone’s throw from the temple and a much needed respite from the horrid tourist crowds.

The Japs love their sweets. And some quintessential ones include sesame ice cream, and milk tea. The one I drank had tapioca bits, which were so much better than the starchy “pearls” we have here in Singapore.

The unagi (eel) soaked in teriyaki sauce, green tea latte, cheese tart, green tea cake (had it at the amusing and embarrassing maid cafe), and chocolate tidbit that made every fatty molecule in my body jiggle with joy.

2. THIS MAGNIFICENT MAGURO BOWL

DSC02553

Had the best maguro (tuna) sashimi of my life at the Tsukiji Fish Market. I love that it was prepared by a bad-ass old lady who was smoking as she sliced the fish. When I got to the bottom of the rice bowl, I was filled with disappointment because I didn’t have enough space in my tummy for another bowl. I’d be dreaming of this maguro bowl for many years to come.Tuna better not be extinct before I can have this bowl again.

3. ARCHITECTURE

Could hardly afford anything along this stylish street in Shibuya, but at least there were some stunning architecture to gawk at.

I also made my way from Shibuya to Shinjuku on foot, and passed through many charming streets. And one area was particularly big on Brutalist architecture!

Such a curious home!
Such a curious home!
IMG_8566
This is my favourite building in Shinjuku. I like how the different levels look like they’re in the midst of rotating.

4. THE NIGHTTIME MADNESS

DSC02443

I’ve never experienced so much lights, sounds, movement, and people all at once. Shinjuku at night is a full-on assault on all the senses, and it was way too overwhelming for me. But I kinda liked it. Only because it was novel and strange. I doubt I can handle this on a regular basis.

There are many iconic symbols to signify Tokyo. But to me, Shinjuku’s Blade Runner-esque night scene wonderfully sums up what this city is like.

5. LAKE KAWAGUCHIKO

I’m going to cheat a little here. As I’m not too fond of cities, I decided to venture out of Tokyo. I hopped onto a bus towards Lake Kawaguchiko, and hoped that I could get a glimpse of Mt Fuji.

Lake Kawaguchiko
Lake Kawaguchiko

And where is that massive, iconic mountain? Behind an equally massive cloud. Oh well, it is known that Fuji is a pretty shy one. But nothing could dampen my mood — it was a glorious day to be out in nature.

It's about time, Mt Fuji!
Mt Fuji in the distance. You can just see its peak above the clouds.

​It was only towards the end of the day that Mt Fuji’s summit decide to peek out from behind the clouds! Only for a very short while though.

So that’s it for the very summarised travelogue of my 3-day Tokyo adventure! Missing the food so much…

Amazing Beaches off El Nido

We began the second day at El Nido with a simple breakfast at our hotel, Greenviews. We booked an island hopping Tour A with them (it’s 1 type of tour a day, so you don’t really have much of a choice) for USD26, and breakfast and lunch is provided. The tide was low that morning, and the beach stretched far out into the horizon. So satisfying to begin a day with a view like that.

El Nido Philippines Greenviews
View from Greenviews’ breakfast bar.

El Nido Philippines Greenviews breakfast

El Nido Philippines beach

El Nido Philippines beach
So nice to see carefree pups mucking around the shallow waters.

Turns out that we were taking a slightly larger boat for the day, and this meant that it couldn’t come as close to the beach as the smaller boats, and we had to wade out quite a distance to reach it. The walk out into sea was stunning though, so we didn’t mind at all. Little did we know that this walking great distances to the boat thing was going to be a recurring and inconvenient routine throughout the day.

El Nido Philippines beach
Heading out to the boat.

I should also point out how useful it is to have a dry bag for beach holidays. We had to wade out to almost chest-high waters before hopping onto the boat, and those without waterproof bags had to hold their belongings above their heads while trying to balance in the water. It’s not very elegant, if you ask me. You can easily save yourself from embarrassment by getting a waterproof sling bag that most sport shops in Singapore stock. They only cost around SGD20+ for a 10L pack.

El Nido Philippines beach
The big outrigger boat skimmed across the choppy waters effortlessly, and the ride was surprisingly smooth.
El Nido Philippines beach
Palawan offers such rugged landscapes and dramatic colours!
El Nido Philippines beach
A diligent boatman preparing our lunch.
El Nido Philippines beach
Approaching our lunch spot.
El Nido Philippines beach
We’re going to have lunch on this pristine beach!
El Nido Philippines beach
But we’re one of the many tourists at this gorgeous spot 🙁
El Nido Philippines beach
The boatmen skillfully waded through strong waves to deliver freshly BBQ-ed meats and tropical fruits from the boat to us.

I didn’t get a shot of the generous lunch spread because I was too hungry and went straight into wolfing down the food. It was fairly good! It’s always lovely to have a picnic on a nice beach; it’s just a pity that this beautiful place is overcrowded with boats and people. Too hectic to really appreciate the gorgeous surroundings.

El Nido Philippines beach
Next stop, Big Lagoon!

The way in is flanked by soaring cliffs, which conceal the Big Lagoon and create a nice build up to the big unveil. Unfortunately, it was a painful build up. Cursed by the big boat, we had to dock much, much farther away than all the small boats, and had to walk the rest of the way on the rocky sea bed. At that point I sorely regretted leaving my Crocs at the hotel. It would’ve made things so, so, so much more pleasant. So, another must-bring for future island hopping tours: water shoes.

El Nido Philippines beach
Other casualties include fellow tourists from our boat.
El Nido Philippines beach
Finally arrived at the Big Lagoon. In my opinion, the journey in was more memorable.
El Nido Philippines beach
Deceiving shot without the 50 tourists, whom, for a few seconds, didn’t get in this shot.

We skipped the Small Lagoon, which is one of the standard stops for Tour A because the beach was just jam packed with boats, and we had to swim dangerously between anchored and moving boats if we were to get to the beach. We took a vote and everyone on the boat agreed that we should just skip it and spend more time on the next destination instead. Island hopping is a very touch-and-go affair, so more time at one spot is always a good choice.

El Nido Philippines 7 Commandos beach
Approaching the 7 Commandos beach.
El Nido Philippines beach
Still can’t get over the colour of the waters.
El Nido Philippines 7 Commandos beach
Very proud of this Conde Nast Traveller cover I shot of Priya.
El Nido Philippines 7 Commandos beach
We arrived at 7 Commandos ahead of schedule and avoided the convoy of tourist boats.

The snorkeling wasn’t great as there wasn’t much to see and we kept getting tiny stings, probably from small jellyfish. So we just rolled around in the fine sand under the shade, made friends with puppies, and drank fresh coconut juice from the fruit. Absolute bliss. The older I get the more I’m willing to settle for not-so-hyped places as long as they’re quiet. Done with all the wrestling with others to get the “perfect shot” of must-see attractions.

El Nido Philippines beach
When we got back to our resort, the sun has set and another day in paradise has passed.

We deserved a massage after all that tiresome and grueling beach hopping, and there was a shack right next to our resort perfect for that. It had an open-air terrace that allowed us to look out into the sea and hear the waves crashing as we got our muscles kneaded.

After that, we headed back into town for dinner by the beach. Chose the slightly upmarket Atmosphere, where I had their signature stir-fried Udon with chicken, prawn, and carrots for USD8. I was taken aback by the generous portions, but surprised myself even more by wiping out the entire plate.

Diving in El Nido

Manila and Mt Pinatubo turned out to be so much more than we expected, and so was the crazy traffic, so we were more than happy to leave it all behind and head to El Nido to really begin our beach holiday! Even right up to the end, Manila had to remind us of how relentless its bad traffic is. Our flight to El Nido was at the private ITI hanger, and we had the misfortune of getting a taxi driver that had no clue where it was. So he just made circles around the international airport terminals which were already experiencing bad jams due to the major construction going on. It was a hair-pulling 1.5 hour taxi ride.

Because we were travelling from Manila to El Nido on a one way route, we went for the expensive USD130 ride with Island Transvoyager directly to El Nido, which Priya booked online via El Nido Boutique & Artcafe. A one-way ticket from Manila to Puerto Princesa would cost about the same. So why not save ourselves the 6-hour van ride? The more popular (and much more affordable) option would be a return flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa. But as we were hopping from El Nido to Coron, we didn’t have much of a choice.

So we got the first class treatment, with a table reserved for us at the exclusive air-conditioned waiting lounge, which had a free flow of food and drinks. But the best part was when they rolled out the red carpet leading to and from the plane!!! It was way too amusing.

el nido philippines
Already surrounded by lush landscapes.

el nido philippines

The airport transfer to Greenviews Resort was painless, and we were greeted by the many many doggies living within the estate!

Greenviews resort el nido philippines
I especially like this crazy-eyed one.

Although this place isn’t located in El Nido’s main town, we kinda like that it’s quiet and away from the crowds. It’s only a 10 minute, USD1 rickshaw ride away from town anyway. Our room cost us USD33/night, and it was clean, air-conditioned, and came with a large bathroom.

Greenviews resort el nido philippines
Managed to catch our first El Nido sunset from the resort’s reception area cum restaurant.

With just a few hours left, we ended our first day with a mandatory seafood dinner. We just picked a random one by the beach, called Aplaya Restobar.

I chose the squid, which turned out to be not so fantastic. Priya made the wiser choice with a grilled grouper, which was fresh, sweet, and super yummy. Along with drinks, the bill came up to USD17 in total. We kinda expected that it wouldn’t be cheap here.

cocobar el nido philippines
Coco Bar won us over with a fun live band that played a mix of raggae, Filipino, and pop songs.

Having a drink with our toes in the sand, and having puppies weave in and out of our chairs and legs, really put us in the mood for a quintessential beach holiday.


[stag_dropcap font_size=”88px” style=”squared”]D[/stag_dropcap]oing 3 fun dives with Tabanka Divers for our first day in El Nido. Their package is reasonably priced, at USD85 for 3 dives, but it was their good Trip Advisor rating that convinced us. Corresponded with Oliver over email, and he was helpful, informative, and quick to reply.

el nido beach philippines

El Nido’s main beach, like most major beach destinations, isn’t fantastic. But its dramatic landscape made up for it.

Accompanied by dogs as we have our breakfast, before setting out at 9am.

el nido diving philippines
And, surprise, surprise! We have one on our dive boat too!

Our canine captain is Bronson, Oliver’s pup. Oliver runs Tabanka, and was one of the dive masters on this trip, so Bronson tagged along. He was so at home on board, and kept everyone entertained with his attention seeking antics. He would push and nudge his way in between people to demand attention, and plonk himself in the middle of all our diving gear when he’s feeling drowsy from the sun.

el nido philippines

It was a beautiful day out at sea, with the sun beating down on the deep blue waters. The funny thing was, the winds were slightly chilly. I never thought I’d feel cold on a Southeast Asian beach holiday, so it was quite surprising. The waters were also nippy at some parts, at 26°C during the first 2 dives, and 28°C on the last dive. It was a new experience for us, having only previously dived at Tioman and Perhentian, where we were submerged in 30°C waters.

As it’s only the very start of the dive season, the visibility wasn’t fantastic. We didn’t know how spoilt we were in Perhentian either. It was wonderful to be underwater again, but we didn’t see as much marine life.

el nido diving philippines
There were only 4 of us including the Dive Master. And here’s Priya and another Aussie diver.
el nido diving philippines
So thrilled to see a turtle stoning out under a rock at the Helicoptor Island dive site! The last turtle we saw in Perhentian was swarmed by tourists. To see one alone in its own world was amazing.
el nido diving philippines
The adorably ugly stone fish spotted at Palugan, our 2nd dive site . Our dive master had to fan off some sand for its entire form to be revealed. It was entirely camouflaged before, and it takes some sharp eyes and diving experience to spot them!
el nido diving philippines
Pufferfish
el nido diving philippines
Clownfish families were a common site at all the dive sites.
el nido philippines
El Nido’s rugged island clusters set it apart from its Thai counterparts.

The best dive was at Twin Rocks, but it was also when Priya’s GoPro ran out of battery. Haha! If you use your imagination, you’d be very impressed that we saw tuna, mackerel, lionfish, barracuda, sea cucumber, stingray, and the highlight… poisonous jellyfish! They may sound scary, but are actually more mesmerising than terrifying. They were really large and slow, so you could spot them from afar and stay clear. As they were just drifting along, there was no fear of being targeted or attacked.

el nido diving philippines
So glad I finally took up diving. [Photo: Priya]
We were famished by the time we returned at around 5pm. Partly because the provided lunch was quite sad. They didn’t cook it on the boat itself, so the pre-packed fish and rice that I ordered was cold. So we had to have a feast for dinner. Oliver suggested that we have pizza at “this Italian place with a brick oven”. We didn’t catch the name of the restaurant at first, but found it easily enough.

el nido philippines
Altrove‘s huge oven is conveniently obstructed by the booth in this lousy shot of mine.
el nido philippines
Come way before dinner time to get a seat. This small space fills up very quickly, and there’ll be a long queue by 7pm.
el nido philippines
The pizzas were fantastic, and our 2 pizzas, salad, and drinks only cost USD25.7.

El Nido doesn’t have much of a nightlife other than a few bars by the beach, so we were sounds asleep by 9:30pm.

An easy adventure at Mt Pinatubo

Call time: 2:30am. But that ain’t gonna put us macho manly adventure dykes off! So we got a few hours of shut eye, and diligently got into a cab at 1:30am to head towards the meeting point in Quezon, which is a city out of Makati (where we were staying).

We were going on a day trip to Mt Pinatubo, better known as the volcano that erupted in 1991 and caused widespread destruction and the deaths of 847 people. After researching on the nearby mountains we could visit as a day trip out of Manila, we decided to go with a tour as it’ll be more convenient for us 2 adventurous but also slightly lazy girls. I found out about Majestic Mount Pinatubo Tour through a comment on Tripadvisor, and they were offering slashed prices for the day tour. They offered it at USD 46/pax, around half the price other tour groups were offering. We coordinated with Sonia swiftly over email weeks ago, and placed a 50% deposit to secure our place with them.

Our driver was all smiles at 2:40am when he arrived. I really love how all the Filipino staff I’ve come across seemed to genuinely enjoy their job. Either that or they have damn good PR skills. Our lovely driver took us and a bunch of locals on a smooth 3 hour ride towards Mt Pinatubo (it was a different story all together when we were heading back), much of which Priya and I slept soundly through.

The place was already buzzing when we arrived... Look at all the jeeps waiting to cart off the (mostly local) tourists!
The place was already buzzing when we arrived… Look at all the jeeps waiting to cart off the (mostly local) tourists!
Sonia herding all her sheep to brief us about silly things people do to make the hike "dangerous". Like jumping from one loose rock to another and bashing your face.
Sonia herding all her sheep to give a rundown on the silly things people do to make the hike “dangerous”. Like jumping from one loose rock to another, and losing your balance and bashing your face. (Yup, common sense can sometimes be a rare gem…)
My OOTD. Snood for the pretty chilly winds, a breathable top with long sleeves to prevent sun burn (most of the hike is unsheltered), black leggings in case I need to break out in an 80s aerobic dance during the hike, and (fake) crocs because there tiny streams to cross.
My OOTD. Snood for the chilly winds, a breathable top with long sleeves to prevent sun burn (most of the hike is unsheltered), black leggings in case I need to break into an 80s aerobic dance during the hike, crocs because there are tiny streams to cross, and a hiking stick just for the fun of it.

The trip consists of 2 segments. First is an hour-long bumpy jeep ride towards the foot of Mt Pinatubo, then a gentle walk cum trek up to the crater lake of the mountain.

DSC01166
We got an open jeep! Which allowed us to really immerse ourselves in the environment.
We soon entered a barren landscape that was hauntingly beautiful.
We soon entered a barren landscape that was hauntingly beautiful.

It was hard to imagine that these large, dusty, arid plains which we rode through were part of a region that was once home to a million people. Their entire homeland was destroyed by the far reaching destructive power of lahar, (volcanic debris and mudflow) which came down upon them after the eruption.

You can see clearly where the erosion ended at some parts.
You can see where the erosion clearly ended at some parts.
DSC01192
The ride was bumpy, but in a really fun way. Halfway through, we got out for some photo taking.
Our sexy ride and driver peering out from behind.
Our sexy ride and skillful driver, who maneuvered the 4×4 across deep streams and rocky surfaces as if it was his extra pair of feet.
It's as if a giant came by and sliced up the hills with a sharp knife.
It’s as if a giant came by and sliced up the hills with a blunt knife.
The landscape changed dramatically as we neared Mt Pinatubo.
The landscape changed dramatically as we neared Mt Pinatubo.
After an hour on the 4x4, we had to traverse the rest of the way on foot.
After an hour on the 4×4, we had to traverse the rest of the way on foot.
After an hour on the 4x4, we had to traverse the rest of the way on foot. Here are a couple of guides carrying plastic bags containing our lunch.
Here are a couple of guides, having no problems at all trekking in flip flops while carrying plastic bags containing our lunch.
Priya working the psychedelic jogger shepherd look for the trek.
Priya working the psychedelic jogger shepherd look for the trek.
As we didn't expect lunch to be provided, we packed a bunch of meal bars and titbits. So despite the meager lunch of rice, hard boiled egg, and some processed fillet, it was a nice surprise to be served at all.
We packed a bunch of meal bars and titbits before setting off this morning as we didn’t expect food to be provided. So despite the meager lunch of rice, hard boiled egg, and some processed fillet, it was still a nice surprise to be served.
The beginning of our "trek", which was really just a walk in a park that had streams and loose rocks.
The beginning of our “trek”, which was really just a walk in a park that had streams and loose rocks.
Love seeing how humans were dwarfed by the lush jungle and looming peaks.
Love seeing how humans were dwarfed by the lush jungle and looming peaks.
Not much of an achievement, but we still gotta commemorate our journey with a group shot with the couple whom we shared the jeep with!
Not much of an achievement, but we still gotta commemorate our journey with a group shot with the couple whom we shared the jeep with!
I couldn't prevent the gasp that escaped me when I got my first view of the crater lake.
A loud gasp escaped me when I got my first view of the crater lake. Dramatic landscapes like these always make my heart swell.
Just to give you an idea of the scale of things, just look at the tiny human dots at the bottom.
To get an idea of the scale of things, just look at the tiny human dots at the bottom.
Down into the crater we go.
Down into the crater we go.
It was Valentine's Day after all...
It was Valentine’s Day after all…

And so it was here that we had an hour or so to have our lunch and soak up the magnificent lake in front of us.

Chose a spot beside someone with killer footwear to nap.
Chose a spot beside someone with killer footwear to nap.
The AMAZING stew made up of chicken, potato, and carrot that we had for lunch.
The AMAZING chicken, potato, and carrot stew that we had for lunch.

It got really windy and chilly after a while, and dark skies started to creep over us. So we quickly packed up and headed back. But not before one final touristy picture!

DSC01302

It did drizzle just a little on the trek back, and the winds blew up sand and dust into our mouths, eyes, and hair during the ride back in our open 4×4. But it was all part of the mini adventure, and I’m so glad we decided to stay an extra night in Manila to experience this.

The thing that wasn’t so fun was the van ride back into Manila. We got swallowed up by the traffic, and it only spat us out at Makati Avenue 5 hours later.

Señor Pollo Makati Manila
So we ordered a Mexican feast at Senor Pollo to make ourselves feel better.

What to eat in Manila

First impression of Manila? “Wow, it’s 5am and there’s a slight jam.” As our Tigerair flight from Singapore (SGD 244) landed in the city before the day broke, we arrived at Makati Riverside Inn (ironically no river view) hours ahead of the check in time. I already had a great feel about the accommodation because the staff replied very promptly to every query I presented to them, and it was great to meet them face to face that morning. They were all smiles even at 6am, and kindly showed Priya and I where to have breakfast nearby while they prepared our room.

Our first meal in Philippines, however, turned out to be the worst one of our entire 9-day trip. Haha… So when you’re in Makati, don’t go to Gabs Good Grub unless there’s no other choice. I had mac and cheese (USD 1.8) which turned out to be too salty. The place had a shabby appeal though. A friend of mine has been to Manila, and he warned me about how terrible Manila’s food is. So I wasn’t expecting much initially. But after 2 days here, I’m certain that my friend has been eating at all the wrong places!

We headed back to the hotel with the intention of washing up a bit, and was surprised with a ready room instead, hours ahead of schedule!

Makati Riverside Inn Manila

Very impressed with how efficiently the place is run. And the USD 30/night room is lovely! Mostly because it had an amazing king sized bed.

We did a quick search online for places around our neighbourhood to eat at, and Dutch Bread Hauz came up so we made our way over on foot.

It seems like we were staying in a wholesome local residential neighbourhood. The school day just ended, so we were caught in the hubbub of school kids either strolling or scampering on the streets as they made their leisurely way home.

We spotted a bunch of school kids crowded around a street vendor munching on some deep fried bites, and we just got to get in on the action. It turns out to be fried squid! Dipped in chili and vinegar, it was simple, fatty, oily, street food at its best. And this flavourful snack cost close to nothing. Stumbling upon dubious looking but utterly tasty street food is always a sign of a good South East Asian holiday.

But we were very turned off the moment we stepped into Dutch Bread Hauz because it was obviously made for white people. It looked like a cheap imitation of a Western cafe that served Western food that’s probably three times more expensive and a lot less tasty than what’s offered in the local stores a stone’s throw away.

So we gave our surroundings a quick glance, and soon found ourselves lured, like moths to a flame, towards the smoke that was emitting from a BBQ grill a few steps down the street.

Filipino street food in Manila
BBQ saves the day!
Filipino street food in Manila
We had 2 portions of the most beautifully fatty and sweet BBQ pork (I thought it was honey glazed at first by my Filipino friend said that it’s probably coke or sprite-marinated!) with rice and vinegar, and it cost us a mere USD 2.6 including a glass of Pepsi!

What made it more fun was that every one at the stall seem to be friends with the owners, and they were all taking turns to practice their English by mocking each other in English about their subpar command of the language. The convivial energy kept us amused as we quivered silently from the food orgasm. Loving the collective joy around the neighbourhood as people got into their TGIF mood.

After the excellent meal, we walked over to the Power Plant Mall which was just round the corner.

Manila cat street scene
One of the many pet kitties spotted in the neighbourhood.

It was an upmarket mall within a strangely manicured neighbourhood with high security. On the inside, it was just like the 101 malls we get in Singapore, so we weren’t very impressed. But we settled into what city people do… Which is to have a coffee break at a hipster joint.

My latte at Hatch 22 cost USD 2.6, the price of our entire meal. Look at the globally hipster-ish branding and decor! It’s scary how similar cities all over the world are.

Before things got too uncomfortably familiar abroad, Priya and I headed back out onto the streets and decided to check out the commotion we were hearing from across the river. Turns out to be one big amusing street performance party to welcome some politician to the ‘hood.

The traffic was peaking from the after work crowd, the tricycles refused to take us out of the vicinity, and there weren’t any free cabs available. Thank god for taxi apps! We tried a couple, but Uber emerged as the winner and we we got a cab within 10 minutes. The thing was, traffic came to a hair pulling crawl a few hundred metres away from our destination, so we decided to get off and walk the rest of the journey towards The Collective. The 40 min ride came up to USD 9. Pretty pricey for Manila, but it seems to be the only way around the impossible traffic. If this city can sort its traffic out, it’ll be so much more pleasant to explore.

The Collective Manila
Guess we arrived a little too late… All the cool cafes and shops that we read about online were closed.

The entire warehouse is filled with cafes, bars, art galleries, and urban retail and bike shops… and it looks like an awesome music venue! Too bad there wasn’t anything happening the Friday night that we were there. So we just popped into Padre, the only busy bar that was opened, to have beers and bar grub.

Really love the apple flavoured San Miguel beer (USD 1/bottle) because it’s just so easy to drink. The staff also recommended chicken neck (USD 1.7), which came with a mash potato gravy-like dip. The neck snack was basically deep fried skin with just a little meat clinging on to the bone. I liked it though! Especially with the salty creamy sauce. It was delicious but a little too rich for just the 2 of us. Had some massive onion rings (USD 1.8) too. Felt pretty sick from all the fried food after that.

After our traumatising experience with trying to get a cab and getting stuck in traffic, we decided to brave the streets and walk to a bar that Priya’s colleague recommended. Google maps said it was only 20 mins away on foot. Sounds pretty OK right? Little did we know that Google maps was to lead us across train tracks, right into the middle of busy junctions, roads without traffic lights, streets without street lamps, and dodgy back alleys. It was quite an adventure.

Makati Manila traffic
One of the many ways we survived road crossings was by shadowing brave locals.

We arrived an hour before Finders Keepers opened, so we waited at the food stall in front of it like real dorks. It’s a laidback bar with good drinks! I had the Tanqueray basil, while Priya took the Caipirinha (the alky gave her drink 2 thumbs up). This hipster bar had hipster prices too. Our 2 drinks cost us USD 12 in total. Still cheap by Singaporean standards! Thankful for our strong SGD.

If we didn’t have to wake at 1am for the trip to Mt Pinatubo that night, we’d have stayed to party at Black Market, this grungy, open air, Berlin-like club behind Finders Keepers. We only had a few more hours to get some shut eye, so we Ubered our asses back home.


[stag_dropcap font_size=”88px” style=”squared”]J[/stag_dropcap]ames is my ex-colleague who’s Filipino, and as the Editorial Director of Coconuts media, I trusted his recommendations. He said that I should try Señor Pollo, and so we did! The best part is that it’s around the Makati Avenue area, which is also just a short walk from where we stay. The food was great, and so was the vibe. Plenty of well dressed, well behaved locals. The service here, and at every place that we’ve visited in Manila so far, was excellent. It’s nothing but genuine smiles and just the right amount of enthusiasm from all the service staff. Singapore definitely has a long way to go.

Priya’s all sportied up because we were at Mt Pinatubo the entire day (that’s another story for another time). We shared their signature half chicken with garlic rice and coleslaw as the side dishes (USD 7) and a massive plate of nachos (USD 7.9) that I was disappointed in because it didn’t have guacamole.


[stag_dropcap font_size=”88px” style=”squared”]J[/stag_dropcap]ust before our flight to El Nido, we had a hearty local-style breakfast in a Western-style cafe called Early Bird Breakfast Club located in the snazzy Century City Mall just off Makati Avenue. Walking amidst the staggering amount of skyscrapers, it was hard to believe that we’re actually here for a beach holiday.

Our colourful neighbourhood is in fact very pleasant to walk around in the day, when it’s bright and the traffic is not insane.

We had to go around the back of the mall to get into this cute little cafe. Love the quaint, girly decor! I went for the staff’s recommendation, which was the Adobo Sunrise (USD 7.3) that consists of dry chicken flakes with soy sauce. The first few mouthfuls were amazing as it’s bursting with flavours, but it got kinda dry as I worked my way into the meal. Priya had the Lemon Butter Bangus (USD 7.3), and the fish tasted a tad, well, fishy.

Aside from the crazy traffic, spending a couple of days here proved to me that there’s indeed quite a lot to love about the flavours of Makati!

%d bloggers like this: