Natalie’s week and a bit in Singapore

Our friend Natalie from Sydney has just left. We had a wonderful time, reminiscing over old adventures together Down Under, and also creating new ones together. We kayaked, hiked, swam, cooked, and ate and drank our way around Singapore and Langkawi while she visited.

Kayaking to Pulau Ubin

It was a beautiful afternoon to be paddling to Ubin. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The rain had stopped and the clouds parted, and the air was fresh and much less humid than usual. Plus – and this is a big plus – the southwest monsoons had washed the usual bits of flotsam elsewhere, leaving the channel the cleanest we’ve seen it.
We paddled up the mangrove, in search of the auntie who sold coconuts by the river bend. But we arrived late in the afternoon, and she’d already packed up for the day.

Walking the Southern Ridges

After a few false starts from West Coast Park, we finally got on the Southern Ridges trail at Kent Ridge Park, and enjoyed the next couple hours leisurely strolling the elevated walks of the Southern Ridges, reveling in the lush greenery.


Given that Natalie was also here for two weekends, we took the opportunity to go somewhere nearby for one of them. Searches on Google Flights yielded reasonable tickets to Langkawi, so off we went.

It’s a such a chill destination. We’d much prefer to rent kayaks or standup paddle boards to go exploring round islands, but we simply couldn’t find any operators that offered that. Rather, available activities beachside were all the motorized variety – jet skis, banana boat rides, paragliding, and island / mangrove tours via boat. Ah well – we contented with splashing in the surf and poolside, and drinking cheap cocktails ($7).

Photo credit: Nat
Hike to Seven Wells Waterfall. Photo credit: Nat

Here’s to many more such memories in years to come!

Long weekend in Hoian

Over Easter, we visited Hoian. This was my first trip to Vietnam, and I’d only heard good things about Hoian. Everyone gushed about how beautiful it was, and I couldn’t wait.

It was indeed charming. Hoian used to be a trading port in the 15th – 19th centuries, and the buildings in the UNESCO-designated Ancient Town reflects the infusion of Chinese, Japanese and European designs.

The temperatures were already in the mid-thirties when we arrived early morning from Danang, and the humidity only climbed till we had to hide back in air conditioned hotel room after lunch until late afternoon for the soft golden light.

Hoian is also the town with the largest concentration of tailors, offering bespoke creations anywhere from wedding gowns to cocktail attire down to hiking pants. You can custom make your own shoes, which we did quite spontaneously – a pair of sandals each
I love how the locals just roll up to the vendors in their scooters, and select their veggies without ever getting off the bikes

And if the narrow streets were crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, trishaws, and scooters during the day, they were positively packed at night. Everyone came out at dusk to enjoy the colorful lanterns strung overhead, and the atmosphere was festive.

Lanterns, lanterns everywhere
Tourists enjoying a leisurely ride along the Thu Bồn River, or else purchased paper boats lit with candles to float on the water
Full moon rises over Hoian
Enjoying a cold one at Mango Mango, overlooking the busy street scene below

We tacked on a sunrise visit to My Son, a cluster of Hindu temples built by the Champa dynasties from the 7th – 13th century, about an hour’s drive from Hoian. Pro tip – sunrise is the best time to visit, because of the (1) beautiful golden light; (2) cool temperatures; and (3) light crowds. We were the first to reach the temples, and enjoyed serene minutes just quietly taking in the brick architecture harking back to the 7th century.

At one time, the site contained over 70 temples, but a lot were destroyed by US carpet bombing during the Vietnam War.
Fisherman trying to catch an fish by hand
Respite from the heat at Reaching Out Tea House, a cafe run by people with hearing disabilities.
Hoi An Roastery, for their famous egg coffee. I was a bit skeptical until I took my first sip. The almost custardy coffee was utterly delicious.
We crossed the Dragon Bridge at Danang, having visited the Champa museum, to Seven Bridges Brewery, for a couple cold ones before our evening flight back home

Weekend getaway to Bali

We recently spent a weekend in Bali, staying down in Nusa Dua.

Highlight of the trip? Hands down the diving at Manta Point and at Crystal Bay in Nusa Penida. While we were cautiously optimistic of spotting some mantas at Manta Point, we did not dare to get our hopes too up, given our relatively dismal luck diving on recent trips. But the moment we plunged into the waters, we saw dozens of these enormous creatures gracefully swooping beneath us. It was glorious. We also spotted dozens of blue spotted stingrays on that same dive. There might have been macro creatures to gawk at, but our attentions were fixated on the mantas.

It was macro heaven though, at Crystal Bay. We swam in and out of startlingly cold thermoclines, but saw so much: a squid, flounders, a wobbegone shark, hairy crabs, decorator crabs, two leatherback turtles, and schools and schools of colourful fish. I kind of regretted not having brought my underwater camera along (it’d seemed like too much work to lug all that gear along for just two dives).

We also spent one day signed up to tour the major attractions of Bali – Ulun Danu Beratan Temple on the shores of Lake Bratan, Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, and Tanah Lot Temple. To be honest, while the rice paddies were gorgeous to look at, we were very underwhelmed with the temples. They took forever to get to – our visits to the three sites took up the entire day, and we spent more time on the road than walking around the temples. To start with, we couldn’t even go into the temples themselves, so there wasn’t much to do except snap a few pictures. That said, I was grateful for the long cart ride, because I’d come down with a bad case of food poisoning the day before, and so felt pretty much out of it the whole day.

Still, food poisoning notwithstanding, we had a lovely short respite in Bali, and are very much looking forward to returning during Mola Mola season to see those astounding sun fishes!

Golden hour in Singapore, Pasir Ris Park

I’ d been sitting on that decision for a while, but in Myanmar, while lugging my conspicuously huge Canon 6D around the streets, and feeling self-conscious every time I took it out of my bag, I decided to just bite the bullet and buy the slim profile Fujifilm X100F. That it looks so retro helped the decision. 😉

My beautiful new camera, shot with my trusty little Pixel 2 phone

But I’m newly inspired to go out to shoot again!

So this evening, I went to Pasir Ris Park to test out my new camera in the field. The light was gorgeous – golden, slanting in shafts through the trees.

River opening out to the sea – you can sometimes spot families of otters lazily swimming from shore to shore
Super low tide. Fishermen digging for worms as bait for their night fishing
There was a lovely strong breeze – makes for cooler running

I have to say, I’m super excited by this camera. The detail that I can extract from it is exquisite! I can’t wait to bring it about town now! And that’s a first from me on urban photography. Haha.

Weekend in Myanmar: scenes from the train edition

I’ve never been very comfortable with street photography. But since we’ve moved to Singapore, the opportunities for landscape photography has shrunk quite significantly. At the same time, our goal this year is to visit more of South East Asia, havens for urban photography.

With that in mind, one of my goals this trip was to get out of my comfort zone, and take more street shots.

Alas, for whatever reason, my camera battery was drained by the end of our first day in Myanmar. And this was the same battery that had served me so magnificently at high altitudes and in the cold up on Kilimanjaro! So all the shots taken from Weekend in Myanmar: street scenes edition are actually from my Pixel 2 phone. None too shabby, if I say so myself. Nonetheless, as decent as the quality those pictures may look on the small screen, they don’t hold up too well printed out.

In any case, I was able to get in plenty of practice on our train ride to nowhere that first day….

Yangon Central Train Station. The cost for our 3 hour circular train ride was just US$0.30. That said, given that the route was under construction, we didn’t actually manage to do the entire loop
Locals aboard the train. Note the open doorway. There aren’t actually doors, so people can jump on and off without waiting for the train to come to a complete stop.
Watermelon fruit seller who jumped on at one of the stations
Betel nut seller. He had no takers, and so wrapped a leaf for himself
Family cooking outside their house right along the train track
Children hanging out outside their house, right by the train track
Everyone wanders freely about the tracks
There are benches right behind, but since they were in the sun, everyone elected to just sit on the track
A lonely little set up
Walking around downtown Yangon

Weekend in Myanmar: Street scenes edition

Our trip to Yangon, Myanmar last weekend was somewhat spontaneous, suggested by our friend Jessie whose goal this year is to explore all the countries in South East Asia. We didn’t really know what to expect or do, beyond visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda and wander about the city. But we had a most wonderful time, and felt like we’d stepped back into the past, seen what Singapore could have been like in the 60s and 70s. Men still selling betel nuts and leaves by the roadside and hawking them on trains. Electric lines still criss-cross the streets, most of which still have no traffic lights, so everyone just brazenly jaywalks. Dozens of monks and nuns, dressed in their saffron or pink robes, walk around barefoot, carrying their aluminium tiffin carriers.

The street right in front of our hotel, Merchant Art Hotel, near the Shwedagon Pagoda
Lady chopping up frozen blocks of fish for cooking, right by the side of the road

Our first day wandering around the city, we found the bridge to the Bogyoke market closed. The bridge was across some train tracks, and to get around them, we had to take a long detour – another 30 minutes under the hot sun. Later, when we decided to take the train that circled Yangon to get a better feel for the local life, we realized how blasé people were with the tracks. People were leisurely strolling along the tracks, or had pulled up plastic stools to sit right alongside the tracks – their version of people watching perhaps? And they didn’t have any qualms jumping off or flinging themselves onto the cars even when the trains had started to pull away from the stations.

Training as the locals do – haha, we look like hardcore travelers here, but in actual fact, the train had stopped, and we hadn’t even realized at that point that they’d detached the locomotive!

We weren’t quite as brave. The “circular” train route we took turned out to be under construction, so the train was only running partway. We didn’t realize this of course, when we bought the tickets, not knowing any Burmese. An hour after we’d pulled away from the station, the train rolled to a stop at some random station near the airport, and most everyone jumped off, save a couple old men who sat unconcernedly on. After 10 minutes of waiting around, we got off to discover that the locomotive pulling the train had already been detached. Nobody we asked seemed to understand English either. Since we had time to spare, we decided to wait it out. Then a train came alongside ours into the station, heading back towards Yangon Central Station, where we’d gotten on. The conductor peered into our car at us, and motioned for us to climb onto his train. But it was already starting to pull away at the time!

Eventually though, the workers brought around another locomotive and reattached it to our train, in the direction of Yangon Central Station. So all’s well that ends well. Haha.

Locals aboard the train
Locals just strolling down the train track
Street vendor hawking her fresh produce one a random street side
Laborers at the Bogyoke Aung San Market
Monk on his way to collect his Sunday meal
We passed by a few such alters, but none as vividly painted as this old Banyan
We were quite fascinated with how these longyis are worn (and whether they are worn the way the Scots wear their kilts…), and how men go to the bathroom with them

We were quite taken with these little nuns going about their business, in search of their evening meal, and followed them down the street.

From what we’d read online, one of the bustling areas in Yangon is Chinatown, the area roughly bounded by streets 18th through 24th. In the evenings, the streets are lined with rows of plastic tables and chairs and hawkers grilling meats along the sidewalk. We went right before the peak period, around 4pm in the afternoon, so while there were some hawkers set up on the street corners, some of the streets we walked down were almost eerily quiet. We walked by shuttered store fronts, and gates with faded and peeling paint that had seen better years.

The architecture dredged up memories of Chinatown in Singapore about 30 years before, before the government had revitalized the area by tearing down some of the older structures and repainting the remaining in vivid bright hues. My grandmother had lived in one of those 3rd storey apartments with the dim naked bulbs, steeply sloping eaves, and wet kitchen with its ever-present inch of water that refused to drain away. Even then though, I remembered the streets as being cleaner. Still, it felt like we had walked back in time.

A shopfront in Chinatown

A short two days, but it felt just right. The next time, we want to hit up the countryside, especially Bagan, with its over 2000 pagodas and stupas and lush greenery.

Weekend in Myanmar: The Shwedagon Pagoda Edition

One of our goals for while we’re living in South East Asia is to explore the region, so quite spontaneously, we decided to join a friend this past weekend in Yangon, Myanmar.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the – if that the – highlights that the city has to offer. As it’s open from 4am to 10pm everyday, we decided to try to miss the crowds and visit right before sunrise.

The pagoda was already bustling with activity from the early morning devotees, some of whom prostrated their way around the main stupa. Others parked themselves in spots, and mediated.

Moon sets over the pagoda
We saw a large group of finely dressed devotees ceremoniously sweeping the grounds

Weekend in Shanghai

We took the red eye into Shanghai on Friday night, arriving before dawn on Saturday. Or what passed for dawn anyway, since it was overcast and foggy the entire day.

It was too early to check into the hotel, so we just deposited our bags and went searching for eateries already open for breakfast. Our first stop was this hole in the wall that served up famous soup dumplings, so famous that at other times, the wait can be almost two hours long and around the block. But at 7am, we were customers number 6. The dumplings were steaming hot, delicately wrapped in silky thin skins, and bursting with soup.

The edge of our hunger worn off a little, we then wandered across the road to another cafe, this time for pan-fried baos and also filled with juicy soup. What a treat.

We then strolled through People’s Please (上海人民公园相亲角) where anxious parents with yet unmarried children were already out in force, their umbrellas tacked with written advertisements touting the age, height, weight, and income prospects of their progeny neatly lining the footpaths of the park.

Looking at the advertisements though, I couldn’t help but feel that the parents had unreasonable expectations. just mentions of statistics and material aspects, none on their hobbies or interests. Parents of boys wanted girls at least 1.63m in height, while parent of girls wanted boys at least a year, but not more than 5, older than their daughters. The children had to have similar education standards, be earning the same range in salary, and preferably their own apartment. I guess Shanghainese are tall, but I can’t believe that every single girl was listed as at least 1.6m, and no guy below 1.7m.

Taichi session at People’s Park

Jing An Temple amidst the skyscrapers and the glittering shopping malls

Other highlights:

  • We walked all over PuXi on Saturday, down West Nanjing Road and popped into Jing An temple, an oasis in the midst of all the towering skyscrapers and glittering malls
  • Walked by Soong Ching Ling’s house, and her husband’s Sun Yat Sen’s old residence, but sadly did not manage to make it inside
  • Visited the French Concession, and grabbed some utterly flaky and yummy pastries at Bake and Spice, a hangout haven for the expats who packed the place on a lazy Saturday afternoon
  • Hit up several awesome cocktail lounges, the highlight being Sober Company. Their coffee negroni was spot on, as was their HK tea buttered rum. But the absolute standout was the food – the foie gras mapo tofu was positively inspired. I’m just drooling at the thought of it again.
  • Went to the top of Shanghai Tower. At 632m, it towered over the rest of the city. It was a very foggy – or smoggy? – day though, so we didn’t have the clearest views.
  • Walked the super cool roundabout pedestrian walkway in front of the Oriental Pearl Tower

The Shanghai Bund

The very foggy view from the top of Shanghai Tower

Other impressions:

  • This great firewall of China is quite frustrating, but thank goodness that I could continue to use Google products like maps and hangouts while on roaming. But I have to admit that at many points I was like, just collect my information already and let me browse freely.
  • I’m still quite overwhelmed by how much the city has changed since I last visited. I spent a night 10 years ago, on the eastern side, and didn’t really get much of a chance to explore. And the time before that was almost 20 years ago, when the city was a lot flatter, grungier, and toilets stinkier. But Shanghai today is thriving, hip and clean. We loved wandering around the different neighborhoods, taking in the different architectural influences from the Russian, English, French, Dutch, and melding it all into a blend that is distinctly Shanghainese. I love it. There’s so much character.
  • The toilets deserve a separate mention of their own – all the ones I went to were super modern and clean, even cleaner than some of the places I’ve been to in Singapore. What a far cry from just a few years ago when I visited say Xinjiang, but I guess that’s a different part of China and may as well be in a different world.

The Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower and the coolest roundabout pedestrian overhead crossing

Kayaking and Camping Weekend in Myall Lakes

So, a bunch of girl friends and I have decided to tackle the Murray River, beginning with a 404 km paddle over 5 days this November. We met through kayaking, and are all in love with kayaking, but to be sure, none of us have paddled remotely close to this length before.

No time like the present to kick of training! This weekend, we drove up to Myall Lakes to get in our miles.

Awesome times. In all, we got in 50 km of paddling, in all sorts of water conditions. The paddling was best in the pre-dawn hours, when the air was calm and the water still as glass. We pushed off under the full moon light, and glided along, the only sounds were the slaps of our paddles on the water. In the late afternoon, the winds picked up, and we had to battle strong headwinds and waves.

And on Saturday night, Dani surprised us all with Chinese hot pot that she lugged all the way from Sydney! Complete with thin cuts of lamb, pork, pork and mushroom balls, lotus roots, cabbage and enoki mushrooms. Oh my word. We were thoroughly spoilt.

Sunset Paddle

Full moon over Myall Lakes

Paddling by the light of the moon

A Weekend Kayaking and Camping in Kangaroo Valley

To paddle in Kangaroo Valley has long been on our bucket list. The stars aligned this past weekend. Eight of us trekked down from Sydney, car boots filled with camping gear and food, hearts full of anticipation.

The forecast had been iffy, but Bridget, the consummate outdoors girl, squashed any potential hestitation. It’s just a bit of rain, she insisted, and it’s summer, so it’s not like you’d be cold.

As it was, we lucked out. The clouds flitted in and out all day on the water, and we had to battle strong headwinds at certain stretches of the paddle, but we were all smiling. It felt good to be out on the water, removed from the rest of the world. Just us, some roos, hopefully some sightings of wombats (but not snakes).

We had our pick of campsites, and chose, in our opinion, the best one. It was on the edge of a small peninsula, and afforded us views of the river bend. We set up camp and dispersed, half of us excited to head back out on our now light kayaks to explore, the other half to stretch out their legs on a hike.

Lisa, Pat, Jeff and I were keen to check out Yarrunga Creek, a windy branch off the main river. In a time past, it was dry land, flooded when the government created the Shoalhaven Hydro-Electric Scheme in the 1970s. Now, dead trees dot the creek.

That was our original intention anyway. But we got sidetracked by the rocks and cliffs that lined the water edge, and instead spent a merry couple hours scrambling and then jumping into the water to cool off. Someone had also tied a long rope off one of the trees at the edge of the water, and we couldn’t resist swinging from it.

We did eventually tear ourselves away long enough to go up a short section of the Creek. The golden glow from the evening sun on the naked stringybarks were beautiful to behold. We had to reluctantly wind our way back to camp in the remaining light of day.

Back at camp, the girls were beginning to whip up dinner by the water. We stretched out luxuriously, admiring the fiery orange and pink skies and delighting in the ever dispersing clouds. By the time we pulled out our whiskey to mix with our various concoctions of tea and hot chocolate, the clouds had completely blown away, unveiling the milky way overhead.

Still, we could see flashes of lightning in the far off distance (so far, we did not hear any rumblings of thunder). So before we tucked in for the night, we made sure to turn over the kayaks in one neat row along the water edge.

Good thing we did so. For after midnight, we awoken to loud rain and wind on our tents. The temperatures had cooled significantly too, so that I pulled on my fleece pants and dug out my rain jacket before burrowing into my sleeping liner and falling back alseep.

Magically at 5am, the steady drumbeat of rain drops that had been beating down on our tent through the night abated. In the ensuing silence, the kookaburras took up their mating cry. I popped my head out of the tent for a look. The clouds were thick and low; no chance of a good sunrise, but it had indeed stopped raining. A layer of fog hovered above the water edge.

Time for a morning paddle. Although most of the group had expressed interest the night before in a sunrise paddle, only Jeff, Pat and I got out of our cosy tents. We pushed off in the still water. The air temperature was chilly, the waters almost warm in comparison. We eagerly sought out the steam rising from the water; it was welcome puffs of hot air.

Unemcumbered by heavy loads and refreshed from our sleep, our strokes were swift and sure, and we quickly made our way back to Yarrunga Creek to paddle amongst the dead trees. What a surreal experience.

Thanks Pat for helping us take this photo 🙂

All too soon though, we had to return to camp, make breakfast, pack up, and continue our way downstream towards Tawolla Dam. But not before stopping by the rope swing again for a few more minutes of fun!

The weekend turned out amazing. We couldn’t stop grinning. Fantastic bunch of friends, and a great group to travel with. I loved that everyone looked out for one another in small ways, whether it was waiting up for the slower members of the group, sharing snacks, boiling water and tea. And especially for crawling out of their warm and dry tent in the middle of the night in a raging storm to take down the tarp we had painstakingly strung above the trees but never used and which was taking a loud beating in the winds – Lisa and Natalie, thank you for your thoughtfulness.

We’d all met through kayaking, so it felt doubly sweet to be out together on a kayaking and camping adventure.

But for now, it’s back to reality. And to dreaming up the next adventure.