Three days in Venice and the Carnivale

When we decided to go to the Dolomites to ski, we also decided to spend a few days in Venice. After all, the last time either of us had visited was more than a decade ago! My enduring memory of my trip there almost two decades ago was the floods – half a foot of water blanketed San Marco’s, shutting down the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica. I remember waiters alternately bailing water out of the ground level restaurants and serving meals to patrons.

Happily, we enjoyed beautiful weather the 3 days we were there. Our first afternoon, we did the touristy thing and braved the crowds in San Marco’s to visit the Campinale for the breathtaking views of the city. We also spent a fun 2 hours wandering the halls of the Doge’s Palace.

The Carnivale parade along the boulevard and San Marco’s had just ended when we finally exited the Doge’s Palace, and, as the crowds dispersed, we got to join in the throngs of photographers to take pictures of the dozens dressed up in elaborate costumes and masks. It was quite surreal – but festive and entertaining! The Carnivale runs for 2 weeks, and we went smack in the middle, which meant there were masqueraders wandering all over town in their getups the entire weekend – when we tried to catch the sunrise one foggy morning along the water’s edge, they were milling around and posing for photographers too!

We briefly toyed with the idea of getting some capes and masks ourselves, especially since we were going to the opera, but we got sticker shock when we saw some of the prices of the warm capes we saw on sale!

We also spent an afternoon at the historic Teatro La Fenice, the famed Opera house that hosted the premieres of Rigoletto etc. Caught the Elisir d’amore, a 2.5 hour Donizetti comedy in a gallery box, which was fun!

Mostly, we tried to stay away from the main touristy areas, and instead explored the different neighborhoods – the Jewish ghetto one night, and the Castello district another morning, where, upon the advice of our host at the hotel, we stopped by the Scuola Grande di San Marco, an old church that is now part of the city’s hospital. It boasts a quiet little garden where many fat cats lounged in the winter sun.

Venice is a charming city to explore, for its many waterways and winding tight alleys. It’s impossible to know, when you turn a corner, if you’d wind up in an open piazza with many alfresco bars, or run smack into a waterway. At dusk though, the city becomes truly magical. The warm orange street lamps light up the blue waterways, and with the absence of motor vehicles of any kind, we felt like we could have really stepped back into another era.

We ate really well this trip. After the heavy meat dishes in the alps, we sought out – and found – lots of fresh seafood in Venice. At least we made sure to walk upwards of 25,000 steps a day to account for our feasts and scoops of gelato daily!

We also managed to spend a day in the outer islands of Venice, first visiting Burano for its colorful rows of houses, then Murano where we gawked at the beautiful glass works on sale.

2019 in the Rearview

Writing a look back on the past year hadn’t crossed my mind this time, not to mention my complete overlooking of the fact that another decade had just flashed by. I only realized this after the deluge of posts by friends online, listing their accomplishments, highlights and lowlights.

Photographically speaking (since this is technically a photo blog), 2019 was a year I spent capturing my experiences, vs. actively seeking out sceneries to photograph. There’s an important distinction here. I focused on the latter in 2016 and 2017, where I joined photography Meetup groups to visit beaches along the Sydney coast every weekend at sunrise, and later on with Sydney by Kayak every morning in Lavender Bay. My goal then was to learn to see, capture, and appreciate the same environments in the different seasons, clouds and light.

Here in Singapore, the beach-scape hasn’t inspired me to the same extent, though I admit it would be a good challenge to take up, to try capture the different essence that is Singapore. In any case, my motivation to consciously and actively seek out scenes to photograph has waned, and accordingly my DSLR and various lenses has for the most part, stayed in my cabinets.

So, 2019 was the year of documentation, of recording our numerous journeys and adventures around the world, and of little moments with friends.

We rung in 2019 while still on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, where we learnt that at those altitudes where the air is so thin, it’s safer to stow away our cameras and focus literally on just placing a foot in front at a time.

When Jeff went to Shanghai for work in January, we also made a weekend trip out of it, and spent long hours walking around the town, delighting in the clean streets and charming old school architecture.

In March we joined a friend for a weekend in Yangon. It was like stepping back in time, into a Singapore in the 1950s.

We also did our first week long kayaking and camping trip in Coron and Palawan in the Philippines. There, we got a first real taste of ocean kayaking, where wild waves and currents freaked us out just a tad. But the food, freshly delivered each evening on long tail boats, was heavenly, as was dips in the crystal clear waters at our lunch and camping spots.

We also spent a long weekend in Bali, where we dove at Manta Point and Crystal Bay, and also visited some padi fields.

Over the Labour Day long weekend, we visited Hoi An in Vietnam. We may have spent one too many days in that little tourist town, but had did enjoy visiting the Champa temples in My Son.

Mid-May, we went to Sydney for work, and made most of the weekends visiting with friends.

Over the Vesak Day long weekend in May, we went to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Even though the weather was unforgiving, we thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the different temples. Apart from the main Bayon temple, which was crawling with tourists, most of the other temples were quiet and serene.

Natalie visited for two weekends in June, so we went to Langkawi in Malaysia for one of the weekends. We were a little disappointed that none of the beaches had kayak or SUP a rentals because of the (small) surf, but we still had a relaxing weekend splashing about in the sea and pool.

August saw us visiting Copenhagen and Greenland for the first time. The food in Copenhagen was stunningly expensive but delicious, and the kayaking in Greenland was addictive.

In September, we spent another long weekend in Sydney, this time for our friends’ Garry and Linh’s wedding.

When we got back, I found that I had an extra week and a half before I started my new job, so I booked myself on a week long trip to Nusa Penida in Bali.

October saw me travel back to the States, the first time in almost five years, to San Francisco for onboarding. I made most of my weekend there, meeting up with various old friends.

Over the Deepavali long weekend in November, we went to Yogyajarkta with a friend. We weren’t blown away by the Royal Palace or Ratu Boko, but Borobudur itself is grand and worth a visit.

In December, we did the Raja Ampat liveaboard, and so thoroughly enjoyed the diversity and richness of live in these Indonesian waters, we are seriously considering jettisoning our plans to kayak in Greece this September for another liveaboard aboard the Blue Manta to Komodo Islands.

Jeff’s family visited over the Christmas break, and after a few fun and relaxing days touring Singapore’s attractions and lounging in our pools, we spent a couple days in Bangkok.

2019 was definitely a good year travel-wise. It turned out fantastic career-wise too. So I’m stoked for the many more adventures 2020 will bring!

Borobudur at Sunrise

Diwali long weekend = another opportunity to explore the region around us. Our aim this year – and the next – is to visit as many South East Asian cities and historical sites as possible while we live here.

So that’s how we (Jeff and my old primary school mate Kate) found ourselves in Yogyakarta last Saturday. The main focus of our trip was Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist temple in Central Java. Given that we’d landed in the morning and couldn’t make the 11 hour day tour to the other highlight in the area, Jomblang Caves, we decided to wander around locally.

Where we visited Saturday:

  1. The Kraton Royal Palace – Very underwhelming. Most of the palace is private and can’t be toured, and the only open areas we could wander around were really rundown and basic. We were left honestly very confused if we had gone to the right place. Our hotel and malls were in much better condition
  2. Taman Sari Water Castle – We had a local volunteer to bring us around and give us the history of this compact grounds, and so could appreciate the history of the 18th century bath house a little better. As bath houses go, we enjoyed our visit to the better preserved ancient Roman Baths in Bath more, but this visit was a huge step up from the palace.
  3. Ratu Boko – This archaeological site is a 45 min taxi ride out of Yogyakarta, but given that we’d completed both the palace and water castle visits in 2 hours and had the entire afternoon wide open, we jumped into the cab after a gelato lunch. Our recommendations? Skip this one too, especially because of the US$25 foreign tourist price we were forced to cough up (the local price was less than half that!). The 8th century site has not quite been properly restored; just yawning stretches of land broken up with old piles of rocks. The few signs scattered around the park did nothing to help inform the history, but just listed the dimensions of the site. The tourism board needs to be overhauled.

So our expectations were very low Sunday morning when we roused out of bed at the ungodly hour of 3am, so we could make the hour drive to catch the sun rise over Borobudur.

But our fears were unfounded. Borobudur itself is worth the trip to Yogyakarta (along with Prambanan temple, which we visited after). The air was crisp and cool when we walked up the steps of the temple in the dark. There were other tourists milling around, but everyone was quiet, just silently soaking in the meditative atmosphere.

I brought along my nifty little Fujifilm X100F for the trip. It takes great photos in light, but personally I feel its low light performance is quite wanting. I can’t quite bring out the shadow details like I can with my Canon 6D, or even my tiny Sony RX100! Or, maybe it’s photographer error. I’ve found that it still takes me a few seconds to adjust the settings in this camera to take photos, whereas I can make the same adjustments on my Canon in a fraction of the time.
The morning mist slowly dissipated as the sun rose, lending an impressionist feel to the landscape
Some of the stupas still had sitting buddhas in them; but a lot were either empty, or had headless ones
The grounds of Borobudur were large enough that we could find empty stretches of corridors to wander around in

We’d signed up to visit Borobudur under a day tour, with the second leg The next part of our tour, we visited Mt Merapi. Or tried to get close to it at any rate, on these old school open top jeeps. Honestly, the jeep ride up the rocky trail was much more fun than walking a couple hundred meters up a dusty track to stare at the live volcano in the distance. Its top was obscured by clouds.

For the last leg of the tour, we visited Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple. It’s in the similar style as the temples we visited of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The main compound was crowded, but as soon as we ventured to the other temples, the crowds dwindled to nothing, and we had a very enjoyable couple of hours wandering around and soaking in the sights.

Good weekend excursion. ๐Ÿ™‚

San Francisco in October

I got to go to San Francisco recently for work. It must have been about 10 years since I’ve been there, but happily, I now have a bunch of friends who have moved to the area over the years. So I had the good fortune to catch up with them over the two weeks I was in town.

October seems also the best time to visit. We were blessed with beautiful weather throughout – cool but sunny days with fog that usually dissapates over the Golden Gate Bridge by mid-day.

The weekdays were filled up with work during the day, and catch up with friends in the evening, followed by losing battles with jet lag at night. But on the weekend, I managed to slowly take in the city and enjoy the Indian summer (although, just north of the city, the dry conditions were such that PG&E unilaterally cut off power to thousands of families).

On the weekend, my friend Eric decided to rent a car to drive down to Half Moon Bay, just so we could sample the delicious burgers from Dad’s Luncheonette. While there, we tried to check out the beach, parking in front of this cute little house
Well, here’s the beach at Half Moon Bay. The fog rolled in just as we approached, so we could barely make out the waves
Driving back to San Francisco, the fog lifted to unveil the gorgeous blue waters

My visit also coincided with Fleet Week, so on Saturday afternoon, Eric and I strolled along the waterfront, joining the thousands lining the piers, beaches and grassy knolls to watch the military planes do aerial loops overhead.

The Blue Angels over Alcatraz. Seeing these jets reminded me of the air and water show in Chicago, where we’d take an afternoon off work to enjoy the show off the back of my boss’s boat. Good times.

After, we continued our walk along the coast, through Presidio into Land’s End, where we tramped down the steep cliff to Marshall Beach. It’s a beautiful stretch of beach, overlooking the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands across the water. I didn’t expect that it was also a nude beach though, popular with guys looking for action by the rocks!

Watching the sunset

On Sunday evening, I also managed to get out onto the water for a bit of paddling, joining City Kayak for their monthly full moon paddle out by Pier 40.

It was a leisurely affair, more floating than actual paddling, not unlike the sunrise paddle tours I used to guide in Sydney. But it was very peaceful to watch the sun set on the water, and then to watch the huge orange moon rise from the horizon.

After, we did get a bit of kayaking in, using the moonlight to paddle up the waterway by the Oracle Arena to the last of the boathouses in San Francisco.

Watching the colors of the sky rapidly change as the sun set in the background. A lone sea lion popped its head out of the water every so often in front of our kayaks, to see what we were up to
The full moon rises over the Bay Bridge. I didn’t have my telephoto lens on me, so this little pinprick in the background hardly does the gigantic orange orb in the sky any justice.

Long weekend in Angkor Wat

When I mentioned to my contractor I was headed to to Siem Reap this past weekend, he remarked, “The temples are nice but I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed at the end. It’s just a pile of rocks. The Colosseum, the pyramids, Notre Dame, and the English castles are much more impressive.”

I’ll admit that the Colosseum and the pyramids are impressive, especially when you consider when they were constructed. But comparing the other contemporary architecture to the Angkor Wat isn’t quite fair. At its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, Angkor Wat, which literally means city of temples, was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world. It’s just a pity that with the demise of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, the temples were abandoned to the tenacious tetrameles trees that slowly through the centuries undermined their stone foundations.

We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to visit, over the past few months, cities in South East Asia: apart from Siem Reap this weekend, Yangon in Myanmar, Hoian in Vietnam, and Bali in Indonesia. Of these, we have to say Siem Reap and its sprawling grounds of the Angkor Archeological Site are by far our favorite. We did enjoy Yangon but to be honest, the infrastructure hasn’t really been set up for tourism yet. On the plus side though, that made it quite fascinating for us to get a truer sense of people’s daily lives. In contrast, Hoian was on the other end of the spectrum. It felt a lot more touristy and built up – perhaps overly so, so that the entire ancient city just served the hordes of us tourists who crowd it, rather than support daily living, as evidenced by the high food and drink prices.

Siem Reap, on the other hand, felt quite nicely balanced. The tourism board has done an excellent job maintaining and restoring the ancient temples, while keeping the surrounding countryside and jungle in its natural state. This is in stark comparison to the temples in Bali, including UNESCO site Tanah Lot, where the officials somehow thought it appropriate to install gigantic garishly green frog sculptures. In town, there’s the touristy Pub St, catered to thirsty foreigners, but lots of great restaurants abound around town, with really reasonable prices.

The temples

It was fascinating to wander about the temples, taking in the various reliefs of Hindu or Buddhist scenes and deities, depending on the reigning king.

Jeff climbing up the steep stairs to the top of Pre Rup in the unforgiving Cambodian sun
Preah Khan temple, whose rectangular galleries house both a Buddhist sanctuary and a number of Hindu satellite temples

We visited the sprawling grounds of the famous Bayon temple, which, compared with the other relatively crowd-free temples, were crawling with hordes of tourists, a lot of them from Chinese tours. We supposed that only the larger temples can support large tour groups – another advantage of exploring the smaller ones!

At Bayon temple, we sprung $15 for a guide to take us around the grounds, where he took the time to walk us through the history and lives of the people living in Angkor Thom, literally, the “Great City”. He explained the stories behind the detailed reliefs lining the outer gallery of Bayon – of how King Jayavarman VII led his men in 1081 to overthrow the Champa after they’d conquered the city in 1077; of what food the civilians cooked to keep the soldiers fed.

We opted to get up early the next day to head out at 5am to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, joining the couple other hundred people filing into the grounds in the darkness. Alas, there was no clouds in the sky that morning, and hence no color to speak of. That said, we were glad to be out at that early hour, for although already warm, the temperatures were still bearable. And it meant that we finished our tour by 10am, allowing us to gratefully get back into the cool comfort of our hotel to dry off a little.

Khmer bridges are typically flanked by warrior statues supporting the nagas – mythical serpents – that act as balustrades

On the third day of touring the Angkor Wat archeological sites, we decide to venture a bit further afield, again engaging our patient tuk tuk driver of the prior two days. We drove past small villages and padi fields, and visited Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei temples. The former is a 12-century Hindu temple, and we were the only visitors there, apart from a lone American who popped in briefly while we took our time walking the grounds. The latter is also a Hindu temple, built in the miniature style in the 10th century. Although Banteay Srei itself is small, and we covered the grounds relatively quickly in comparison to the time it took for us to get there, the buildings and friezes are astonishingly well preserved, and details very intricate.

We had the entire expense of Banteay Samre to ourselves to explore
The miniature temples of Banteay Srei, which, unlike the other temples we visited, were not commissioned by the kings, but by a couple of counselors in the late 10th century

All said and done, we had a wonderful long weekend. While the weather was sweltering and very uncomfortably damp, we enjoyed learning about the history and admired the detailed and rich reliefs that were a feature of the temples. While we had early starts, we also took time out to cool off in our hotel, and relaxed over many games of crosswords. It’s definitely a place we’ve already recommended high and low to our friends – those who haven’t yet visited at any rate!

Travel tips

Transportation

Coming out of the airport, we hired a tuk tuk via the Grab app. Cost less than $5 to get to town. To get around Siem Reap itself, we mostly hailed tuk tuks for the flat US$2 fee. Our hotel helped us arrange and pay for the day trips to the different temple circuits – the “small tour” loop including the famous Bayon temple cost $18, the “big tour” circuit cost $21, and an additional $5 to tack on sunrise / sunset stops at Angkor Wat or Phnom Bakheng. We paid $32 for the visit to Banteay Srei, a mid-10th century temple built 37km outside of Siem Reap.

Stay

I did a quick search of hotels online, and easily settled on Koulen Hotel, a spacious and comfortable 4-star hotel just a few minutes’ ride by tuk tuk to Angkor Wat. It’s great value for money. $78 a night for huge bedroom room with a separate living room, and tasty breakfasts including pork or beef noodle soup.

Eat

Cambodian cuisine is so underrated, the only restaurant in Singapore has shut down! Which is a real pity, since we had only the tastiest meals here. Even the roadside stall we stopped for lunch at by one of the temples had really good chicken curry and rice. Our favorite dishes: prawns salad with banana blossoms dressed in a refreshingly tart lemongrass, tamarind, and fish sauce marinade. Fish amok, or Cambodian fish curry. The curries are typically cooked in coconut cream, and thick, not too spicy as are the variations in Thailand, almost sweet sour. Cambodian sour fish soup, chock full of thick fish fillet and three kinds of onions, kaffir lime, morning glory, and lemongrass. Chicken curry; beef lok lak, which is beef stir fried with fish sauce and lemon juice. The flavors are evocative of Thailand and Vietnam, which makes sense given their shared history and proximity.

Restaurants that we went to and would not hesitate to recommend: Chanrey Tree, Marum, Lilypop, and Genevieve. Our friends had recommend a couple of others, but being the National Remembrance Day, many were closed.

Drink

We we’re pleasantly surprised to see that drinks in Cambodia are very reasonably priced, similar to the bars we went to in Yangon, way cheaper than in Hoian. Cans of sweaty cold Angkor beer cost $1, and we could usually find well-mixed mojitos anywhere from $2.50 to $5. We visited Miss Wong, a Chinoiserie style cocktail lounge that was a little more upmarket. There, I ordered a super smooth Jasmine tea infused gin with lychees for $7.

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 Bแป“n 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

Sunrise at Gardens by the Bay

Sunday – I had nothing on the schedule, so I thought, why not hit up Gardens by the Bay at sunrise, and bring my new Fujifilm X100F out for a spin?

I was surprised by the number of people up and about. Before the sun rose, there were already groups of cyclists and runners out. Even more as the sun struggled to get above the clouds. Then again, it’s a beautiful, serene spot for an early morning workout.

I’ll have to go back – perhaps with my electric scooter, to better explore the entire area. I’m looking forward already.

Ending the series with a night shot of the helix bridge – this one taken with my Canon 6D, and on a different day.

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. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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.