Thailand’s crowded, traffic clogged capital, Bangkok, is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of family friendly activities. Shopping, yes. Food, yes. Night time ‘entertainment’, ladyboy cabarets, street markets, definitely. But family fun?
You would be surprised to learn that in the past ten years, this mega city has built so many attractions aimed at kids, including safaris, aquariums, ice skating rinks, science museums, and more. Most of them are right outside the train stations too, so getting around is easy and cheap.
On this short trip, we only managed to scratch the surface by visiting two places.
The first was Snow Town – a place that perhaps got a bit of inspiration from the infamous ski slopes in the Mall of Dubai. It might be 30’C and 100% humidity outside, but inside Snow Town the ice machines are creating a nice slope for sledding, as well as ‘snow’ for making snow men and snow balls. And of course living in Asia she’s never seen ‘snow’ before so it was a good novelty.
You can rent sleds of all sizes, but I recommend getting a bigger one or else your kids will get very wet butts. It was my daughter’s first time and I couldn’t get her off the sled!
The other place that was a LOT better than I expected it to be was Dinosaur Planet. Unfortunately when we went, it was pouring with rain, and the ticket staff were reluctant to let us in because more than half of the attractions would not be operating. But we decided to go anyway and it was worth it. If your kid likes dinosaurs, then this place is fantastic. They have dinosaur skeletons, fossils, and eggs. In one section, a ‘scientist’ pretends to examine some eggs, until a T-Rex comes down from the ceiling and tries to eat him.
Another part is a ‘4D’ movie complete with shaking seats and super sound effects as fierce beasts chase you. My kid also loved the sand pit where you can excavate bones and fossils. Too bad we could not do all of the other attractions.
And of course, a good part of a vacation is just chilling by the pool, eating good food, and taking it easy. Bangkok is an INTENSE place with lots of noise, lots of crowds, and lots of traffic. So sometimes it is nice to just stay in the hotel and get a bit of peace and quiet. And room service, of course. Because some cold Singha and a green curry is absolutely fantastic after a long day of sightseeing.
It’s not something that one often gets to say, unless you are fabulously wealthy and have a private jet, so I’m going to take the opportunity to say the following sentence because I may never get to do so again… “I woke up this morning and decided to fly to the Maldives tomorrow”. Sounds cool, right? It was just a fluke, to be honest. A chance to accompany my husband on a four-night trip at a severely discounted price, and stay with him in company-sponsored accommodation. The Maldives is not a place I ever particularly dreamt of going, but hey, you only live once, so why not go? Have passport, will travel, right?
But first, for those curious souls, a quick geography lesson.
The Maldives is a chain of tiny coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, just to the south west of Sri Lanka.
With more than 1,000 islands, most barely above sea level and with no natural resources, tourism is the Maldives’ bread and butter. Most of the tiny islands comprise hotels — sometimes the hotel is the entire island — and the Maldives is famous for its iconic water bungalows (which we chose not to stay at; more on this later).
Getting a piece of this paradise is not cheap. Float planes can cost US $300 per head and more just to get there. Premium resorts like the Gili Lankanfushi charge over US $1500 per night. Not including breakfast! So for most people, I assume going to the Maldives is a once in a lifetime experience.
For us, however, it was just a chance to enjoy a somewhat cheap stay in an otherwise extremely expensive place, and just relax. A relatively easy six hour flight from Hong Kong, we landed at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport on Hulhule island, a tiny landing strip flanked by a whole bunch of piers which immediately whisk tourists away to other islands. The boats come and go quickly, with wiry brown bodies hauling suitcases and crates of bottled water on board as bewildered Chinese tourists with Gucci bags snap pictures. Buses pick up others to take them to the float plane area, where twin otters take a dozen or so passengers to some luxurious getaway an hour away.
No one really stays on Hulhule island itself, unless you work for the airlines. In which case, you stay at the Hulhule Island Hotel.
The Hulhule Hotel (pronounced hool-hoo-lay) is just a five minute walk from the airport, and the hotel where all of the pilots and cabin crew stay. In the lobby you can see a wide variety of uniforms from Etihad, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airlines, British Airways, China Eastern, and Hong Kong Airlines. It is the only decent hotel on Hulhule island, and, blessedly, the only hotel on the island which has a liquor license. That is, if you are willing to pay US $6.50 for a can of beer. Note that you are also not allowed to bring alcohol in to the Maldives, as it is a conservative Muslim nation, and alcohol, pork products, pornography, and other offending things, such as dogs, are not allowed.
We had four nights there, and had thought about going to stay at another island in the water bungalows, but decided against it, for three reasons. First of all, travelling with a baby means that you can’t exactly take full advantage of the water sports, like diving or kayaking. Secondly, water bungalows, as the name implies, tend to have open patios right in the sea, and I had visions of The Child falling off into the water and drowning in the blink of an eye. Thirdly, we have stayed in similar water bungalows, in places like Indonesia and in Malaysia, and found it overall to be pretty boring to be stuck out there.
So in the end, the Hulhule Hotel turned out to be a great place to stay with a baby, and she got a lot of attention as the only little person in the whole place. The water was amazing and clean and the snorkelling was great fun. We did this twice a day, every day, and were quite content.
There isn’t much around the hotel, and the airport just has a few restaurants, such as a Burger King where a Whopper is US $12. So much to our relief the food at the hotel was extremely good, and the staff were helpful and friendly. The buffet breakfast is US $25, but worth it, considering you really don’t have much options around.
If you’re up for eating what the locals eat, half way between the hotel and the airport is a canteen where airport workers go to eat. The food is great and really cheap. You can get chicken biryani, curried tuna, and other local food for just a few dollars. If you are a woman, I recommend dressing conservatively if you go there because most of the workers are men, and short dresses and exposed shoulders get a lot of attention.
When we got a little bit restless, we did a quick jaunt over to the capital of the Maldives, the island of Male (pronounced ma-lay). A ten minute boat ride from the hotel, Male is not a particularly interesting place to visit. It’s small, crowded, and the streets are full of motorbikes. You hardly see any tourists there, and with good reason. We couldn’t even find a decent restaurant to go to, and the souvenir shops are selling things made in Thailand and Indonesia (like I said, Maldives has nothing but sand). Within an hour we were ready to return to the peace and quiet of the Hulhule Hotel. Male is not a place I’d recommend bothering to check out, and I don’t say that about a lot of places!
One day we also hopped on a bus and took a ride to Hulhulmale town. This is the main town on Hulhule island, and where many airport workers live, including a surprising number of expats who are cabin crew and pilots. We hoped that we’d be able to find some restaurants or some shopping around there, but it turned out to be a pretty dead place with nothing but a bunch of ugly apartment blocks under construction and one public beach. Much to my surprise there were also loads of Chinese tourists, and I have no idea what they were doing there. Why anyone would fly all the way to the Maldives and then stay in a crappy town like Hulhulmale is beyond my comprehension. The Chinese tourists were all walking around looking kind of confused. They had on nice clothes and sunglasses and pretty straw hats, but there was nothing to see and nothing to do. Why were they there? Weird.
So here’s what I have to say about the Maldives. It’s beautiful, yes. But, in my opinion, a bit boring. Of course, maybe if we’d been scuba diving or done a liveaboard it would have been a different story. It’s a great place if you’re on your honeymoon and you want to spend all day making babies and getting massaged and drinking cocktails with little umbrellas. But when I travel I also like being able to have somewhere to go walk around…. things to see, things to do. But the Maldives is just beaches, for the most part. It is also insanely overpriced, with a bottle of water going for US $5, and I don’t like places where you can’t even sit down somewhere and have a beer. I’m sure a lot of foreigners have this idea that going to work in a place like the Maldives is your ticket to a life in paradise. But quite frankly, you couldn’t pay me enough to live there.
That said, I was not thrilled to return to Hong Kong after four days of mellowing out in the Maldives. The captain announced that we would be landing shortly, and I gazed out the window at the cloud of grey smog. Then all of a sudden, through the greyness I saw the lights of a ship, right below us, and realised we were in fact about to land on the runway. We were not above the clouds — we were right above the ground, but the pollution was so thick you could barely see what was there. All of a sudden I missed that glorious clean blue sky, and turquoise waters, and my heart sank. Pollution is not just something ‘over there’ in China. It’s all around us, and there’s no way to escape breathing it in. Hopefully one day we will find a place with the right balance between the Maldives and Hong Kong. I hope such a place exists! Any ideas?
Diving is a passion which I discovered only about a year ago, so to celebrate my recent emancipation from the bowels of corporate slavery, we hopped a plane on a new Air Asia flight direct from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu for a week-long diving trip.
Kota Kinabalu, or ‘KK’ as the locals call it, is a small city in the very state of Sabah, Malaysia. All of the guidebooks say that KK is ‘not a very interesting place’, as most people use it as a stopover on their way to either a climb to the very imposing Mt. Kinabalu or to the scuba diving mecca of Sipadan. But as we quickly found out on this trip, you can’t always believe everything you read in the travel books….
We were staying a few days in KK to dive at the Tunku Abdhul Rahman Marine Park, a quick 10 minute boat ride from the KK marina. We dove with Down Below, an excellent dive operator which has a small dive shop on Gaya island. I can’t say enough good things about Down Below; they run a tight ship and every dive was well organised and very professional.
I can’t say the same about the other divers necessarily — during one of the dives, these two girls from Hong Kong seemed to have some kind of panic attack and all hell broke loose. One of them inflated her BCD and shot up to the surface, and the other, seeing her friend quickly disappearing above her head, decided that she should also ascend, and took off her weight belt and drop it directly onto the coral. Luckily there was a divemaster in training with us that day, a young lady named Yvonne, who managed to get the second diver under control and the weight belt back around her waist. Imagine there are lots of useless divers out there who spend thousands on cool equipment but can’t even swim. It seems to me that as a rule of thumb, the more fancy gear a diver has, the worse of a diver they are…
Anyways, after doing three dives a day, we of course were starving and set out to sample all the delicious Malaysian food in KK. Much like Trinidad, Malaysia is a multiracial society where a variety of cuisines peacefully co-exist. And since KK is a small town, it was easy to just walk around and sample different things. The only frustrating thing is, being a predominantly Muslim country, you can’t always find booze at the restaurants! The spicy squid would have been nice washed down with a cold beer…..
But we didn’t have too much time in KK, because on the third day we left the city and took an hour-long bus north of the city, and boarded a small boat bound for the remote desert island of Mantanani. Some people we had met while diving told us that Mantanani was not really a good place to visit as the reefs were quite dead due to dynamite and cyanide fishing, and that the accommodation was not good. But, like I said, you can’t always believe what you hear or read.
As you can see from the picture, it’s freaking gorgeous. Fine white sand, brilliant turqouise water that goes on for miles, and pretty much nothing else. With a population of 1000, all of whom live in a small fishing village, Mantanani is an extremely remote and undeveloped place with only one lodging on the island — the Mari Mari Backpacker’s Lodge.
I loved it! I mean, really, how cute are those cabins? Each cabin could sleep up to four people, the bathrooms were communal, and electricity only ran from 6 pm to 6 am, so it was certainly very rustic. There were quite a lot of European travellers who had been backpacking around Malaysia and other areas in Asia. At night, since there’s no TV or internet, everyone played cards or board games or just read books. Very, very chilled out.
In the evening we walked around on the island and went to check out the nearby fishing village. As we walked the local kids who were playing football or swimming in the sea sang out ‘Hellloooooooo!! What’s your name!! You have picture?’ Everyone was so incredibly friendly and welcoming to us. A bunch of ladies sitting in the shade of a tree insisted I sit down and chat with them a while. And once we pulled out the camera, everyone came around wanting to pose and be in it.
It was a great experience to visit a place that is still completely removed from the outside world. In Asia it is really hard to find a place that has not succumbed to mass tourism such that all the locals end up peddling sunglasses on the beach, or sending their kids to beg for a dollar, or worse. I can only hope that Mantanani can maintain the kind of innocence it currently has.
We did two dives on Mantanani, and was amazed to see how rich and bright and colorful the reefs are. But it is true — there is dynamite fishing in the area. As we descended for the first dive we heard a big BOOM in the distance. Very scary. But fish were abundant, lots of great critters to see, and visibility was easily more than 20 metres.
It turns out that Mantanani’s diving is still in its infancy. With only one operator on the island, they don’t even have a complete dive map yet of all the sites. They are still discovering new areas to dive, setting routes for the divemasters, and even naming the areas. It was kind of cool to think that one day Mantanani may be as famous as Sipadan, and that we would have been there long before anyone even heard of Mantanani. Too bad I don’t have any pictures. I’ve got to get me an underwater camera, pronto.
After two days on Mantanani, we were ready to head back to civilisation. See, we are both foodies, and by that I mean that food is very, very important to us when we travel. The downside of being stuck on a remote island is not having any options when it comes to food. And sadly, the Mari Mari Backpacker’s Lodge did not have the best chef in the world.
So, back to KK we went, sunburnt, happy, and hungry.
And here are some of the things we ate:
Yum Yum. Malaysian food is so good. And so cheap. These dishes cost about US $1 each. Amazing.
I almost forgot to mention that Malaysians LOVE football, so the whole place was going crazy with World Cup fever. From our hotel, we could hear people in the restaurants and bars nearby screaming with either joy or agony every time a goal was made. Brought back fond memories of when Trinidad played in the last World Cup…
All in all it was a great trip. KK turned out to be a very nice little town with lots of good food, friendly people, and fun bars, and Mantanani was actually one of the best dive spots we’ve ever been to. Like I said, you can’t always believe what you read in guide books. It’s good to do research beforehand, but it’s better to find out for yourself.
Flight — Air Asia direct from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu (3 hours)
If you search online for ‘Penang blog’, almost every page that you find is related to food. Renowned as a foodie paradise, people from all over the world write about the local cuisine, in every language. But I found that Penang has a lot more to offer than just culinary goods. It proved to be a lovely little place with a very unique personality, beautiful scenery, excellent public transportation, and, best of all, the friendliest people I’ve met in a long, long time….
On the foreigner’s rock
We stayed at the most popular beach on the island, on the north coast, in an area called Batu Ferringhi, which translated into Bahasa means ‘Foreigner’s Rock’. Crawling with tourists and retirees alike, Batu Ferringhi is famous for its long sandy beach, busy night market, and shopping. It also served as a good base to explore the island.
Down in the old town
First, we spent a day exploring Georgetown. Malaysia, like Hong Kong and Singapore, was once a British colony, so driving around the island you can see all the beautiful old colonial buildings. Downtown Georgetown is full of what they call ‘heritage houses’ — a unique architectural style that is well preserved; so well preserved that UNESCO recently declared Georgetown a World Heritage Site.
Georgetown also has a Little India and a Chinatown (although I think it is strange to call it a ‘Chinatown’ since Penang is more than half Chinese), and is dotted with churches, Hindu temples, Chinese temples, and Malay mosques. All in all it is a very cute little town and you could well spend the whole day exploring it.
Like I said, transportation was surprisingly good. The Rapid Penang bus was excellent, and can take you all over the island for just a dollar or two. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I never used buses or maxis in my own country, but we took the bus everywhere in Penang. On top of that, the bus drivers were incredibly helpful if you were not sure where you were going (not like here in Hong Kong where bus drivers verbally abuse you as a rule).
The back of the island
That being said, we did in fact decide to rent a car one day and make a full loop of the island’s ring road which follows the coastline. We drove through town and headed south, and then looped back up to head north, taking us through the most rural part of Penang. The east coast of the island is heavily built up, but Balik Pulau, which in Bahasa means ‘back of the island’, remains a quiet and relatively undisturbed area. The town itself is pretty small. We parked and got out to walk around and look for a bite to eat. Balik Pulau is definitely not a tourist area — we were the only foreigners there and definitely stood out. But people were friendly, if not a bit curious.
From Balik Pulau, we continued north through the mountains, and came to the Penang National Park, located in the north-western tip of the island. There are a number of routes you could follow to various parts of the park. We chose to go to the Canopy Walk and get high. Way up in the trees, we walked along the canopy, admiring the lush forest, and all the birds and even monkeys! If we had been a bit better prepared — running shoes, towels and swimsuits — we could have hiked another route to one of the undisturbed beaches in the park where the swimming is supposed to be really good. Yet another thing to do next time.
Live to eat, eat to enjoy!
Okay, so about Penang food. Yes, it is fantastic. And yes, it is cheap. Imagine if each dish costs US $1, you can eat like a king for just five bucks! Now we’re not talking about fancy restaurants, we’re talking about the typical local eating places, known as hawker centres. Normally how a hawker centre works is you have an owner who owns the actual place, and the hawkers (vendors) come and set up their stalls and sell different things. A small hawker centre may have as few as three vendors, while a big one could have up to twenty. We ate at these kinds of places every day and truly enjoyed the variety. So, without further ado, here are some pictures of the famous Penang food that everybody raves about. Click on the thumbnails for some close-ups:
Yes indeed, Penang is a place where one can easily become fat. Fat, but happy.
Same same, but different
In many ways, Penang reminded me of Trinidad — lush green mountains, old style colonial houses (which you see less and less of in Trinidad though), little villages with houses covered in red galvanized roofs, the same fruits and vegetables and trees and flowers, winding roads through the jungle… it certainly felt and looked a bit familiar. But of course, culturally speaking, there is no comparison between a rowdy sexxed-up Caribbean island and an Asian island. In that regard, it was very very different.
However, we did come across a reggae bar, aptly named The Reggae Bar, down in Georgetown that looked like a good place to lime. Thank god for Bob Marley spreading some Caribbean culture across the globe. I would have liked to check out the bar, but unfortunately it was not open. Next time for sure!
So, what is the verdict on Penang? Well, we were only there for five days, but it seems like a very nice place to live for a year. Cheap rent, cheap food, hot weather, nice beach, friendly people, good public transport, interesting culture, golf, Hash House Harriers, easy travel within the SE Asia region… What’s not to like? If Seiji’s company should post him there for a year, I think I could handle it. Now, we just wait and see….
Whoever it was that said ‘95% of life is just showing up’ is definitely right (Woody Allen, perhaps?). My friend Laura and I embarked on a journey to Bali with a very, very rough sketch of exactly what we would do, where we would stay, and how we would get there. We had no reservations, no hotel bookings, and no transport organised. And strangely, we were not worried about it at all. In fact, I am fast learning that in South East Asia, this could actually be the best way to travel….
Play it by ear…
‘What should we do first — go to Ubud, or to Kuta?’ Laura asked me, as we sat on yet another excruciating (but cheap) Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bali.
‘I don’t know… Ubud?’
‘Ok, Ubud it is. Let’s catch a taxi when we get to the airport.’
So said, so done. We arrived in Denpasar in a very lovely little airport that looked a lot like a temple and caught a ride up to Ubud, which was about an hour north into the lush mountains in the centre of the island.
‘Aye, boss,’ we said to the taxi driver, ‘where is an area of Ubud with lots of cheap, cheap guesthouses?’
‘Cheap? Hmm. I think Monkey Forest Road is good for you. Very cheap!’
‘Ok, drop us off in the middle of Monkey Forest Road please!’
An hour later, we were deposited in Ubud exactly where we needed to be — the centre of town. The road was very pretty, lots of little shops and boutiques, restaurants and bars, and a large number of young men sitting on the side of the road, smoking, and offering transport.
‘You need a room?’ one guy called out as we hauled our backpacks onto our shoulders.
‘Yes, you have rooms?’ we asked.
‘Yes yes, please follow me!’
He took us into a place called Devi Ayu, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that although the street front of the compound was not much to look at, tucked behind in a garden was a lovely little place with a beautiful pool and lots of greenery.
Laura and I gave each other that look — we liked it.
‘How much?’ we asked the young man.
‘130,000 rupiah a night.’
‘No — for the room. Two single beds. You like?’
Again, Laura and I raised our eyebrows at each other. A beautiful guest house in the middle of Ubud? With a pool? For US $7 per person a night? SOLD!
Ubud is considered Bali’s culture and art centre, and we were not disappointed. Something I was not anticipating was the excellent shopping. Beautiful wood carvings, paintings, art, bowls, clothes, everything a travelling girl could want to bargain for. The nearby Ubud market was overwhelming — everywhere you look you saw something you’d love to take home. I had to resist the urge to hire a container to ship a whole load of goods back! I wanted to buy damn near everything.
The lazy way down
The next day we joined up with a tour company called Bali 2000 for a bike ride down Mount Batur, one of Bali’s many volcanoes. This I think was my favourite part of the trip and I would certainly recommend this company. The guide picked us up at our place bright and early and we began our drive north of Ubud further into the mountains. The countryside of northern Bali is just stunning, lush, extremely green. And, of course, the volcanoes and lakes aren’t bad either.
We first stopped at a local farm growing cocoa and coffee, and now offering agri-tourism. This particular place was famous for a very special type of coffee — Kopi Lemak — made from coffee beans which have been eaten and excreted by the civet cat. The farm had a few civet cats in big cages and I suppose they eat a heck of a lot of coffee beans. The beans are collected, cleaned, roasted, and turned into what I have to admit was one of the best cups of coffee I ever had. Can’t imagine who invented Kopi Lemak though… how did they even think of doing this? It was damn good, but the farm was trying to sell a bag of beans for US $50. One cup I guess would have to do for now.
After getting all hopped up on far too many cups of coffee and ginger tea, we were ready to start our biking. This was definitely a lazy man’s ride — it was mostly downhill so we got to enjoy coasting through the little villages and Bali’s famed rice terraces. The towns were just amazing, there was absolutely no tourism there; not a gift shop, not a guest house, just the people going about their daily life, tending the fields, taking care of the kids, making offerings at the temples. Everywhere we went, little kids jumped up and down shouting, HELLOOOOOOOOOO!! They were incredibly cute. I suppose they don’t see foreigners in their village very often.
Kickin’ it in Krazy Kuta
After Ubud, we headed back down to Kuta beach, which is very pretty, but absolutely overrun with horny Australian tourists with bad tattooes and Bintang beers in their hands. We sadly did not have the same luck we had in Ubud in just showing up and finding a place, so we had to walk from place to place asking if they had any rooms. Much to our surprise, all of them were completely booked, so it took us quite a while to find a room! But once we did, we plopped our bags down, changed into our sexy bikinis, and hit the town.
At one of the bars, we met an older Australian gentleman named Clive who said he had been travelling here to surf for over 20 years. He was sunburnt like a piece of old leather and wore a stripe of white sunblock down his nose.
‘I just got these stickers made,’ he said, handing us each one. ‘But check it out — there’s a typo! I gotta take these things back!’
Being an editor, I thought the typos were kind of cool. Can you spot them?
Unexciteable, in every way…
That night we decided we would have to check out the vibes and find a little action going on, since Ubud did not have much in terms of nightlife. Kuta had a lot of bars, and a lot of great bands playing, but we kept walking until we reached the next area, Legian. Laura and I found ourselves drawn inside the Apache Reggae Bar which was pumping out some Sizzla. After all, two Caribbean girls living in Asia are just looking for an opportunity to wine down de place!
We walked in the door, and were instantly swarmed by a group of eight very large, beefy and semi-intoxicated Australians from Victoria. The club was still pretty empty but they assured us that it would get better, and that the band was great. We were not disappointed — by 11 pm the place was getting more full, the band was jamming, and Laura and I were having a great time showing these boys how to shake their waist.
I did, however, have a little trouble with one of the guys in the group who was as persistent as the lone mosquito that keeps buzzing in your ear as you try to sleep, the one that you can’t seem to hit no matter how hard you try. This guy just could not take a hint even though I was paying him no attention. Eventually he came up to me, and said a line that really flabbergasted me:
‘Don’t you ever get excited about anything?’
Is this guy serious? I thought to myself.
‘What do you mean by excited? Excited about you?’
He shrugged his shoulders; obviously I hit the nail on the head.
‘Well, I’m excited about the party, about this band, and about the music. And I’m getting married in three months, and I’m VERY excited about that. But you? No, I’m not excited about you one bit.’
And with that, he just walked off! After strutting around like god’s gift to women all night, demanding everyone’s attention, he simply walked off to lick his wounds. Pathetic!
But, the fete was good. Oh gooosh, Laura and I wined down the place! I think they never seen bumsees move like that before. I only wish they had a reggae bar in Hong Kong.
Me and my bemo
On the last day, Laura unfortunately had a flight in the morning, we had to check out at 12 pm, and my flight was not until 8 pm. So I decided to hire a driver for the day, and go do some sightseeing and temple chasing.
We jumped in his car, struggled through the endless Kuta traffic, and went to our first destination — Taman Ayun, the garden and temple of the Mengwi dynasty.
It always amazes me how each country in South East Asia has such distinctive styles and architecture. For example, Chinese temples are entirely different from Japanese, Thai temples are different to Taiwanese, and so forth. Balinese temples seem to be quite heavy on the stonework, carvings, and dark wood. I quite like the style of the meru as well.
The next stop — and my least favourite — was the most southern tip of Bali, an area called Uluwatu. The place was overrun with aggressive monkeys, stupid tourists who were aggravating them and screaming when they got too close, and local ‘guides’ who offered to walk with you and protect you from the monkeys with their big stick, for 50,000 rupiah. The temple itself was not much to look at and I’m really not sure why this place is such a big attraction, considering how much more beautiful Taman Ayun was. However, the view from the top was simply stunning.
After Uluwatu, it was time to say goodbye to Bali, and get my tail to the airport to head back to KL. I have to say, just once I would like an Air Asia flight to leave on time… but that seems a near impossibility.
In retrospect, if I were to do this trip again, I would probably start by spending one night in Kuta to enjoy the beach and the bars (one day in Kuta is MORE than enough), then head up to Ubud for a few days to do more eco-activities such as hiking and biking, then head north to Tulamben for diving, and further to the north-west coast to see more village life. Bali is quite a large island and really has a lot to offer. I think I would definitely like to go again. Just not to Kuta!
“Ahh yes… yes yes YES!” our divemaster Amm exclaimed as our small boat cut through the water towards tiny Pulau Kaka, sending schools of tiny fish jumping out of the sea. He pointed in excitement at all the wildlife below, laughing like a kid in a candy shop. “This is gonna be NICE!” he grinned, his wiry brown arms picking up his tank and BCD and slipping it on over his head like a backpack. “All right, everyone ready? Okay let’s go!” And with one final whoop of joy, he sprang off the boat into the sea.
The diver next to me smiled and shook his head as he put on his fins. “Man… I wish I could be that enthusiastic about my job!”
Indeed, I’ve never met such an excited divemaster who truly loves what he does, even after so many years. Some divemasters just sort of bob along next to the group, fulfilling their duty but often showing little passion. But not Amm — he’d been in the sea since he was a baby, picking up sting rays with his bare hands, testing out whether a moray eel would bite off your fingertip if you stick it in his face, and diving for lost treasures from shipwrecks. And who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about being a divemaster in Langkawi? With brilliant green seas, luscious coral, and huge schools of fish, it’s like working in paradise.
This was my first time to Malaysia and Langkawi was truly a beautiful island. The ocean is completely calm like a lake, no matter which coast you are on, and you always have some lush mountains wrapping their protective arms around you.
But I have to admit, although it was beautiful, it was also a bit strange being on holiday in a tropical Muslim country. I always felt a bit self conscious being in a bikini on the beach so ended up covering up with a t-shirt so as not to offend the locals, and at times it was quite difficult to find alcohol in the restaurants.
That said, Langkawi was an interesting mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian people, which meant that the food was just fantastic (and also made up for the lack of alcohol). Every meal we tried something different, frequenting the hawker centres and night markets at various locations. Sometimes the hygiene at these places are not particularly the highest, and you’re not sure about the level of cleanliness, but when in Rome, do as the Romans. And with US $1 = $3 Malaysian Ringgit, that means we ate like kings and queens for just a few dollars a day. I bet that living in Malaysia would easily help you put on more than a few pounds.
For the first few days we stayed in Langkawi’s main town, Kuah. And what a quiet town it was! Nothing opens until 10 am so in the morning it is completely deserted. But people seem to stay out eating and drinking (in the Chinese restaurants, at least) all night long. Sadly, much of Kuah was either run down or abandoned, with endless empty buildings. Even some brand new complexes looked as though the tenants simply never moved in. It was strange to see such a beautiful island where business did not seem to be booming.
After Kuah, we moved to another hotel in the main tourist area, Pantai Cenang (‘pantai’ meaning ‘beach’), and much to our dismay discovered that the annual Langkawi Water Festival was starting that very day. People swarmed the beach, loud speakers blasted music, kids bought balloons, vendors sold lots and lots of cheap eats, and the traffic was endless. That’s how we decided to take a day trip to Pulau Payar for diving, to get away from the crowds (turns out we are more antisocial than we originally realised).
Once the festival was over, Pantai Cenang was much more relaxed, and people were free to roam the beach at low tide, enjoying a prolonged sunset that didn’t finish until 7.15 pm. Sunburnt and happy, an ice cold bloody mary at the Beach Garden Bar was a great way to end the day.
The only downfall of the trip was flying with Air Asia. I’m glad the flights are so dirt cheap, but I have to admit, that airline is so ghetto! In an attempt to be cool, they have started playing music throughout the duration of the flight, which meant I had Mariah Carey shrieking in my head at 30,000 feet. I better figure out a way to make more money so I can travel business class! Never again will I fly Air Asia.
As a last note, to get back to the topic of diving, I’d like to say that anyone who has been told that Langkawi does not offer good diving is being misled. Sure, I bet it’s no Sipadan, but the diving was excellent. Visibility was very high, at least 20 metres, the wildlife was fantastic, with nudibranches, giant moray eels, massive groupers, lionfish and barracudas. Yet Pulau Payar Marine Park has a bad reputation as being ‘not worth it’ which is apparently does not deserve. I would recommend it to anyone. But that’s just my two cents for all you divers out there who may be reading this.
I’ve just returned from a dive trip in the tiny coastal town of Moalboal in the Philippines, and a worrying question keeps crossing my mind — have I become too accustomed to city life? Am I becoming a dreaded city girl? Have I turned into one of those people who needs to have a lot of space, a lot of variety, a lot of choices in my daily life? Places to go, things to do, people to see, all the time? I’ve always considered myself an island girl, someone who is quite happy to sit in the sand with a book and a drink. So how is it possible that I found myself bored in Moalboal? Me, bored in a beautiful tropical destination where the sky is always blue and the beers are always US$1? How could it be?
But really, Moalboal is one of the most remote places I’ve ever been. The town was just small. Small and very quiet. Did I mention it was small? When I say small, I mean that by the third day, you know the entire area, have eaten in almost every restaurant, and all the T-shirt vendors know you by name. It started to feel a bit repetitive, walking the same little sandy street past the same people three times a day. And in all fairness, all the locals in the town did say that they had never seen the town so dead — there simply weren’t enough tourists around.
Thankfully, the diving kept us quite busy. Seiji was getting his PADI Open Water, and while he was doing all his theory, I was off on a banca (that’s a Filipino boat) with a group of some very quiet and serious Germans getting ready to descend 30 metres to get up close and personal with a very stubborn frogfish. The diving was amazing, as the entire coast is surrounded by a shallow reef that falls off into a deep abyss. Sharks, nudibranches, schools of sardines, parrotfish, and many many turtles kept us company on our dives. And nothing was quite as satisfying as coming up from a dive, and having an ice cold Negra beer while watching the sunset.
Quo Vadis was a great dive shop with a beautiful waterfront view, and our divemaster Dodo was always full of jokes and cool as a cucumber. Every morning we woke up at 7:00, walked to a nearby restaurant, The Last Filling Station, for breakfast, and were descending to 30 metres by 9:00. After an hour, back up again, lunch time, midday nap, and then an afternoon dive again. Come back up, drink a cold beer, go out for dinner, have a few more drinks, and then do it all over again tomorrow. What a difficult life we live.
We did also go into Moalboal town one day to get out of Panagsama Beach and away from the dive shops to see how the locals really live. Boy did we get some funny stares — I am pretty sure they don’t get a Japanese guy and a white girl walking through their little market every day. The fishermen were selling their catch, little shops were selling protein boosters for roosters since cock fighting is very popular, and more than a few places had karaoke going on, with some very very poor singing. Quite entertaining!
One night we had a great time at a local bar and ended up chatting with all kind of people, including the gorgeous Stella, who had to show us her estrogen pills to prove she was a real live ladyboy, and Dominic, the trilingual 15-year-old son of one of the German dive shop owners whose mom was local Filipina. Stella seemed pretty content to lime with us that night, as there were no… ahem… customers in town. Who knows how many San Migeuls were drank, but it was more than enough to give us a wicked hangover the next day.
In addition, the next night we ended up making friends with those same serious Germans staying in the dive shop, who surprised us by speaking English (they hadn’t said a word in English to anyone for days). They actually turned out to be very, very funny — ‘Listen listen, ve are not gay, ya! He is my cousin! I don’t like the men ya! Ve are fucking German!’ — so maybe it is true that Germans may seem serious on the surface, but just need a few drinks in them to get the party started.
I managed to do nine dives on this trip, which is great because I’m really trying to get more experience and become a better diver. And now that Seiji is certified, I’m sure we will be doing a lot more diving together in the near future.
You might think that living in South-East Asia, it just takes a hop, skip and a jump from one exotic locale to another. And usually this is true, if you are going from one well connected airport to another. However, you’d be surprised how long it takes to get from Hong Kong to the Philippines once you factor in airport transfers, taxis, bus rides, traffic, boat rides, rough seas and bad weather!
We were heading to Puerto Galera, on the island of Mindoro, just a few hours south of Manila. I would fly to Manila to meet fellow Travelling Trini Laura, and together we would get a driver to Batangas, and then a boat across the strait to Puerto Galera. This was my first time in Manila, and I can only describe it as insane, overcrowded, dirty, congested, and chaotic, with entirely too many people and too many cars and motorbikes and jeepneys. At one point, about ten highways and overpasses all intersected into one spot, with absolutely no traffic lights and no apparent right of way. But finally we got through, a few hours later Laura and I found each other, then the driver found us, and we were on our way.
When we got to Batangas, we hopped onto a ‘banca’, a traditional Philippino boat, sort of like a pirogue but with these bamboo supports on the side. One of the boat boys, Jonas, chatted with us on the way, telling us about life in Puerto Galera. The ride was unbearably rough — even me with an iron stomach felt a bit seasick. The tides were changing, and the currents were strong. The banca pushed on, and we could see Mindoro in the distance, but it never seemed to get closer!
Night was coming — I had been travelling for almost 12 hours… so much for the ease of travelling in Asia — and finally we entered Puerto Galera. It is a seaside town built along a narrow beach, with dive shops, bars and restaurants dotting the bay. We couldn’t see much at night, but we got to the guest house, dumped our bags, and headed our for dinner and drinks. It is low season right now, so not so many tourists, and almost all of them are divers, and predominantly men. Of course, two single young ladies got a bit of attention! But we took it easy, and went to bed early, since bright and early in the morning we would start our diving adventure.
Day two — Life in a wetsuit
At 8 am, we went down for breakfast at the restaurant attached to the dive shop. A very lanky white guy, maybe about 50, with the biggest, spikiest beard I’ve ever seen and eyes as blue as an ice floe in Norway came over to our table and introduced himself as ‘XC’, our dive master for the week. Originally from Germany, he had started spending a few months a year in the Philippines, and working the other months to pay for the diving. Then one day, he was offered a dive master job, and suddenly he didn’t need to go back to Germany. Over the next few days, we would meet many other foreigners like XC, who simply stopped going home, and settled in the Philippines.
There was a group of Japanese tourists who were more advanced divers, and a couple from South Africa who turned out to also live in Hong Kong who were beginners, like me. We slipped on our wetsuits, got on the weight belts, and XC briefed us on our first dive.
We went out to a nearby reef, and it was unreal how much variety of life there was. Visibility was excellent, up to 20 metres, and the colours! Pinks and purples and oranges and blues and yellows, small fish and big ones, nudibranches, turtles, clownfish, eels, just a sensory overload of marine life.
Our second dive at a spot called the Manila Channel was even more impressive. We descended along a massive wall and through a channel with more colourful coral, again excellent visibility, and every imaginable creature. You almost didn’t know where to look — everything was so beautiful and bright and alive! Imagine that in 60 seconds, you can see more life than you would see on a 6-hour hike in the mountains. It truly made me wish that I had started diving ten years ago.
After a quick lunch (yes, we did take breaks from diving!), we hit our third dive, which was one of my favourites — the Shipwrecks. We dove around three sunken ships of different sizes and levels of decay, but it was fantastic. Around the ships were just sand, so the ships themselves had become a microcosm of life, with corals and all kinds of marine life, like a dense little city. Huge groupers, eels, nudibranches, trumpet fish and angelfish were everywhere. One ship was big enough to swim through, but I wasn’t quite brave enough to do that yet.
Dive two was slightly disappointing in terms of coral, but a gold star for strange creatures! We went to see these giant clams, and I do mean giant, some as big as three or four feet long. We also came across a huge sting ray, as well as a very big eel which did not look happy about being disturbed.
But without a doubt, the star of the day was the frog fish. XC was hovering over a big green rock next to a big piece of coral, and I was wondering what he was looking at. Suddenly I realised it was not a rock — it was an animal! I’ve never seen a frog fish before so I was amazed at how it has these sort of webbed hands that it sits on. XC tried to give it a little nudge, but it sort of just shooed him away with one of its ‘hands’ and resumed it’s lounging. Later XC told us that a frog fish is the laziest in the sea, sometimes sitting in the same spot for days at a time.
Our last dive that day was at a spot called Escasion (spelling?). We dropped off the boat and descended about 20 metres where I landed right next to a beautiful big turtle, who was munching on some seaweed growing on a rock. It didn’t seem the least bit disturbed by our presence. We also came across a number of lovely dragon fish, which always reminded me of a Carnival costume.
That night we went out for dinner with Jacque and CJ, the South Africans we had met, and had a very interesting conversation about South Africa and Trinidad and all of their apparent similarities. Even though Trinidad is so small, it has a lot of the same problems as Trinidad does, especially when it comes to crime and corruption. It’s not every day that you meet people who understand where you come from, so it was nice to meet people who knew exactly what Laura and I were talking about.
Day four — Premature evacuation
The dive shop owner, Rick, was the bearer of bad news that morning. A typhoon was heading towards Puerto Galera, and that it was likely that the boats would not run tomorrow, which is when we were scheduled to leave. As much as I would have loved to get ‘stuck’ in paradise, we accepted the sad reality that we would have to leave a day early, and head to Manila to make sure we could catch our flight. We were quite disappointed, and wasn’t quite as bubbly as we usually were when we slipped on our wetsuits. But XC promised us a good last dive before we left.
I was a bit apprehensive about diving to the Shark Caves, because I was worried about bad karma from all of the countless shark-and-bakes that I’d eaten on Maracas almost every Sunday of my life. Nonetheless, we descended, found the cave, and slowly, we all lay down on the ocean floor, and watched the white-tip swimming around the cave. Surprisingly, it wasn’t scary at all. In fact it is quite true, they are graceful creatures.
It was with great sadness that we started going back up, and did our safety stop. I didn’t want to get out of the water at all. And the only thing on my mind as we broke the surface, was when can I dive again?
Alas, there was little time to think about this, since we had to pack up our things and get ready to go before the storm hit. We were leaving on a banca, and heading back to crappy assed Manila.
Going back to the city was awful. The bus dropped us off on a dark street in the middle of town where masses of people were swarming and pushing, where a group of men were eating rice with their hands off of a flattened cardboard box on the sidewalk. It was overwhelming and intimidating, two little white girls with backpacks in the city.
We jumped in a taxi as soon as possible, and were dismayed to realise we had gotten into probably the only taxi in Manila where the driver didn’t speak English, and not only that but he also had no bottom teeth and bad eyesight because he couldn’t even see the map that we had in our hands to show him where the hotel was. Thankfully he knew one of the streets we called out, and he took us there to find the local YMCA to stay for the night. But when we got there, the YMCA hotel had been demolished! A man who worked at the YMCA office came outside laughing at our situation, and then jumped in the taxi with us to take us to another nearby hotel. I have to say, the Philippino people are truly friendly, kind and easy going people. He really went out of his way to help us, bless him. That night we took a shower, lay down, and instantly fell asleep.
Day five — Make the best of what’s around
My flight out of Manila — which Laura had by now nicknamed ‘The @$$hole of Asia’ — was not until 7 pm, which meant we had some time to kill. So we went to a nearby mall where I decided to get a pedicure. The women in the spa were amazed at my hard goat feet. ‘Ohhhh very very hard ya? Why your feet so hard? Hey Anna! Come here! Come see these feet! Kya kya kya!’ They did a damn good job and I came out with fresh baby feet. I gave her a very generous tip, since it took her almost two hours for the spa and it only cost US $5.
That day in Manila, many people talked to us and asked us where we were from. They all told us how they were trying to leave the Philippines, and go to live in Canada. One even said he was applying to go to Saskatchewan because he could make in one hour what he makes in one day’s work. Imagine they are willing to move somewhere that is -30’C in the winter in order to make more money and have some kind of a better life. The Philippines is developing, but seems to be developing slowly and people are struggling to get ahead in life. It made me realise how fortunate I am to be able to take trips, to go diving, to travel and go sightseeing. That kind of lifestyle is something most Philippinos can only dream about.
Present day — Back to the real world
Sigh. All good things must come to an end. Vacations are very good things which makes them particularly difficult to leave. I could barely will my feet to keep walking to the office on Thursday and sit down under those fluorescent lights and do some work! But what’s keeping me going is the fact that I still have four days of annual leave to use. And you know what that means! Philippines…. AH COMIN’ BACK SOON!
After spending a few days in Singapore, we took a ferry over into Indonesia to have a quick jaunt on Bintan island, which is just an hour away from Singapore. It was very pretty, but not in a typical white-sand-big-resort kind of way. In fact, it didn’t seem to have a tourism industry at all. It is nothing like the other islands I’ve been to in Asia, such as Boracay and Koh Samui which are famous tourist traps. The side of the island where we stayed was totally rustic, less developed, and quieter.
What I hadn’t expected was the hour and a half drive by car from the north coast to the east cost of the island that took us deep inland on some tiny little roads so remote that I thought perhaps the driver was taking us somewhere to rob us and leave us in the bush. But my paranoia vanished when the ocean finally peeked out at us from a distance, and we arrived at Trikora Beach where we would be staying in the Nostalgia Yasin Bungalows.
The bungalows were the cutest place I’ve ever stayed in. The entire thing was constructed out of wood right out into the sea on the shallow beach. No air conditioning, no TVs, no hot water (which made for some very fast bucket-baths), mosquito nets, and the sound of the sea right under you. At low tide the water receded so far out that you could walk to other small inlets nearby. At night we watched a million stars above us, and slept peacefully with the gentle lapping of the rising ride.
One of the best things about Indonesia were the people. Since the east coast was quite remote with pretty much no tourism, the locals are quite curious about you if you walk down the street or go into thier shops. Little barefooted kids constantly waved at us from their houses and gardens, singing out, their hellos with big smiles and shy giggles. We went into a mini-mart and the owner’s daughter, eager to practice her English, held out her hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Tina! What’s your name? Nice to meet you!’ Even though they lived quite simple lives, not a single person tried to sell us crap, and nobody was begging for a dollar. Certainly very refreshing.
We also had the chance to visit some traditional Indonesian fishing villages. Handmade entirely of wood and built far far out into the ocean, linked with wooden walkways, the whole village is constructed on the water. Don’t ask me how they did it, but those Indonesians surely are crafty people. But don’t be fooled — these are not mere shacks! They may be built entirely from wood and bamboo, but these villages have everything — running water, electricity, kitchens and bathrooms, and believe it or not, even a pool table!
A bit further up the road we saw some true floating houses, simply tied on to a buoy and a coconut tree on the beach. We could see the house gently swaying back and forth in the water. I have to assume the east coast doesn’t get many storms, or else this wouldn’t be possible.
On new years eve, we took it easy. In fact, I take that back. We took it easy, but we drank heavily. Because there are so many coconut trees around, we got the kitchen staff to chop open a few of the green ones, and I decided to make a popular Trinidadian drink, scotch and coconut water. We busted out the Johnny Walker Red much too early, and were fast asleep in bed even before midnight, sleeping peacefully above the water. Ah well, no worries. New years parties are over-rated anyways.
The next morning I was really reluctant to leave and head back to Singapore, to the hustle and bustle, to the city life and traffic and airports and what not. I really missed the beauty and simplicity of Bintan, and the natural living style of the wooden bungalows, with fresh breeze, the constant sound of the sea, and a cold Bintan in my hands. No wonder so many people dream of getting away from these big urban cities with polluted skies and dirty oceans, and moving to a small island…
On Tuesday I returned to Hong Kong after six days in two very different worlds — the well structured city of Singapore, and the tiny, peaceful island of Bintan, Indonesia. This was my first time to Singapore, and the thing that immediately stood out was how clean and green it is. Every street is wide with big sidewalks and lined with huge trees. There’s shade everywhere, and parks and open spaces even in the middle of the city. When you look up, you see tree tops, not just concrete. They don’t favour highrises as much as Hong Kongers, which was a refreshing change. They have built a city that manages to keep a tropical island feel to it. Seems like the Brits didn’t muck everything up, for once, when building a colony!
What I liked best about Singapore is that it is a diverse place with different communities, ranging from the colonial grandeur of downtown to the kampung style of the Muslim Quarters, each of which adds a special flavour to the city’s atmosphere. Little India was a good base for exploring the city, and was a really lively area. The food was fantastic, a million new spices and flavours I’ve never had before. The colors of the buildings are so vibrant, Bollywood music blasting from the shops, signs in Hindi, women in saris and slippers making their way down the sidewalks… you could have sworn you were in India.
On my first day, I joined up with a 3-hour ‘Sultans of Spice’ walking tour of the Malay district of Kampong Glam and the Arab Quarters. Our very knowledgeable guide explained the history of the area, and walked us through fragrant spice shops, perfumeries, an antique store, a traditional Malay engagement ceremony, and even got a demonstration on the ten uses of a sarong (such as carry a baby, carry a durian, create a private toilet in the bush, etc).
I didn’t see anything so great about the famed Orchard Road, but then again shopping isn’t my thing and I don’t feel the need to give my hard-earned cash to Mr. Versace. We moseyed down Orchard over to the Newton Circus Hawker Centre for some lunch and to try some popular Singapore dishes. The BBQ stingray wasn’t as great as I was hoping, but the meat was soft and tasty. And we had some ‘carrot cake’ which had no carrot and wasn’t cake! It was more like a type of noodle. It was good anyways.
That night was a special one — I was able to meet up with my Trini friend Laura who is living in Malaysia teaching at an international school. She arrived on my last day there, so we only got to go out liming for one night, but it was great. We met up to do the ultimate touristy thing — drink a Singapore Sling at the famous Raffles Hotel where it was invented. The drink is over-rated, but the hotel is like stepping back two hundred years into the colonial past.
After slinging back some overpriced drinks at Raffles we walked to Boat Quay, a cute area in downtown Singapore along the river. The restaurants were so competitive that one place lured us in by offering us each two free beers, and of course we couldn’t say no to that. We filled our bellies with nasi goreng (fried rice), coconut chicken, satay, and all kinds of yumminess, and the drinks flowed all night when we went to another nearby bar.
The Singapore trip was a short one — just two and a half days — and I wish I could have had a few more to explore. The next morning we were leaving Singapore to head to Bintan, Indonesia. We woke up, only slightly hungover, checked out of our grotty hotel, said goodbye to Little India, and started making our way to the ferry. But I’ll save that story for another day before this post gets too long.
This question would not have struck me as strange if we were perhaps sitting in a restaurant after eating dinner. But I did think it was quite odd, considering we were floating on a thin outrigger boat in the middle of a turquoise reef about 200 yards from shore, getting our snorkel gear ready.
I looked around for the source of the voice, and saw a wrinkled old man sitting in a small canoe, giving me a very gummy grin as he held up a Styrofoam cooler full of ice cream. ‘No thanks,’ I said politely with a smile, and he paddled his way by hand to visit the other tourist boats. Toto our boatman, barely 14 years old, shrugged and smiled, and promptly settled in for a midday nap on the boat. As we lowered ourselves into the warm water, another man in a little canoe went past, this time selling green coconuts. I guess in a small island like Boracay, you have to try to make a buck whenever and wherever you can.
Boracay island is a beautiful tiny dot in the Aklan province of the Philippines, and a big tourist attraction in Asia. Because we got a cheapo package from the travel agent, we had a long and painful trip. We flew Hong Kong to Manila, Manila to Kalibo, took a bus from Kalibo to Caticlan, and a rickety old boat across the channel from Caticlan to Boracay. We arrived in the evening, and even as darkness was falling, I could see how amazingly clear the water was. ‘Wow’ I thought, ‘if it’s this beautiful in the dark, can you imagine what it is like in the sunlight?’
We dropped off our bags in the hotel and headed out to take in the sights and sounds of the little island. As we walked down the strip of the famed White Beach, we saw the vendors selling puka shell earrings, scuba divers walking around in wetsuits, tanks full of lobsters, coconut trees, and people in hammocks everywhere. What a little piece of paradise!
The next morning I was not disappointed — it was even more stunning in the daytime. White Beach, obviously named for its best attribute, is like a postcard — blindingly blue turquoise water, powdery sand between your toes, sailboats with blue and white sails like a camouflage, and soft waves that couldn’t even knock a baby over. Probably dreadfully boring for a surfer, but excellent for people like me who just want to relax.
Boracay is a funny little place though. Kids never seem to go to school, and are seen playing all day and night. All the signs are in Korean to accommodate the recent increase of Korean tourists who walk around in matching beach outfits. And for some reason the beach security carry these massive silver sawed-off shotguns. I can’t imagine whose head they are planning to blast off.
Filipino food proved to be a lot better than its reputation as the Worst Food in Asia. Shrimp paste is a popular flavoring and its salty tang is wonderful. We particularly enjoyed bangus sisig — a sizzling plate of flaked fish with drizzled lime. Kang Kong green veggies with garlic and shrimp in coconut milk was fabulous. And eating out is amazingly cheap: an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet on the beach costs roughly $4 US, a beer is a little over $1 US, and a cocktail about $2 US. As you can imagine, we ate and drank, a LOT.
The only thing that bothered me about Boracay was the constant hustling from the locals. As expected in a place where there is a big disparity between rich and poor, local and tourist, you can get a lot of sales pitches. Ma’am, sir, boat trip today? Sunglasses? Para-sailing sir? Horseback riding? Snorkel trip? Island hopping? Pearls for the lady? But I must admit, I had to laugh at the massage parlour, where ladies sit three in a row, six rows back, all in matching uniforms and sunglasses, and as you walk past they sing in unison, ‘Ma’am sir masaaaaage?’, and then repeat the refrain in perfect Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
Definitely my favourite part of the holiday was the snorkel trip. We had met a young man with a round belly that he seemed proud to show off, as he kept hitching up his vest and rubbing it from time to time. His name was Archie, and he had long hair turning blond in the sun, and a tattoo on his arm of a heart with ‘Boracay’ on it and a sword going through it. ‘I give you a good price, private snorkel trip, four hours, 750 pesos each.’ We decided to take him up on his offer.
He walked us down the beach to the ‘office’ — a small concrete hut — for us to pay the fee and introduce us to the boatmen. Both of them barely looked as though they had entered puberty.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked the first one, trying to be friendly.
‘Toto,’ he replied.
‘And what’s yours?’ I asked the second one.
‘Toto,’ he said, with a big grin.
‘Uh oh…’ I thought, ‘this isn’t going to be good.’
True to their word, they did take us to the best snorkel spot in Boracay, and it was the most incredible snorkelling I’ve ever done. I’ve never seen so many fish in one place, and never such a huge variety. Emerald blue starfish the size of your palm, baby squid, gar fish, sea snakes, clown fish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, footballers, and a number of others I couldn’t begin to name. At one point we were surrounded by a huge school of tiny iridescent guys the length of your finger, and they kept changing color in the sun, from a flash of gold to a light green to blue. Swimming with the school was like driving through a rainbow snowstorm.
When we got back onto the boat and asked to be taken to the next snorkel spot, the Totos told us that to go to the snorkel caves we would have to pay another 200 pesos, which we had not brought with us and which Archie had not told us about. We asked if they knew any other spot nearby, they suggested simply calling it quits and taking us back, even though we had only been out for half of the trip. After our protests they took us to one or two other spots but they didn’t compare. We decided to call it a day and head back to the island. I had heard that Boracay people don’t take work too seriously… I guess I had my proof. But anyways, it was time for a San Mig at sunset on the beach.
All in all I really enjoyed Boracay for its beauty, relaxed pace of life, delicious food, cheap drinks, and very kind people (when they’re not trying to sell you fake pearls). We certainly slowed down our pace a lot, doing little more than swimming, reading, walking, napping and eating. This holiday was rejuvenating, just what I needed, and now that I’m back in Hong Kong I feel like I’ve gotten a new dose of energy. I’ll have to try to hold on to that Boracay feeling for as long as possible.