Weekend camping in Joshua Tree

What a surreal first quarter! I feel like we’ve been playing dodge ball with the fast spreading Corona virus; been incredibly lucky to date. As I write this, the US government has just announced a 30 day ban on travel to Europe; the Indian government has also put a stop on foreigners traveling to India until April 15.

In traveling for both work and fun this year…

  • Jeff narrowly missed getting quarantined in Guangzhou in January – a few days after he’d returned, the Chinese government announced travel bans
  • Two days after we left Venice, the Italian government announced a citywide quarantine
  • I managed to get into the US 10 days after leaving Italy, and before the US announced the new spate of travel bans
  • While I was in the US, Singapore enacted the mandatory quarantine on travelers who’d visited Italy in the past 14 days; luckily, by the time I touched back down into Singapore from the US, I’d been away from Italy for 19 days.

Hopefully our luck holds. At the very least, we’re staying put this next month.

Anyway, happily, I still managed to go to the US for work (if the conference had been a week later though, we most likely would have cancelled. As it were, we were given the option at the 11th hour and during the conference itself to leave if we wanted). A few coworkers and I decided to go camping at Joshua Tree the weekend before.

It was most of their first time camping – and we had to scrounge to buy and get the camping gear for everyone. But it turned out fantastic!

Twilight at our campsite. By the time we’d settled on the camping idea, all of the campsites within the Joshua Tree National Park itself was already booked, given that this was the peak period. Happily we did find this barebones but quiet campground a half hour outside the park. We had a camping platform and a wooden fence to block off wind, but otherwise wide open land.

After dinner, we decided to head back into the park for a bit of astrophotography. There was a half moon out, which beautifully lit up our foreground for long exposure shots. We didn’t stay long though – the elevation was higher in the park and the wind stronger, so we quickly got chilled.

Back at our campsite, we settled down outside with mugs of tequila to watch the half moon set at around 11pm.

After the moon had set, three of us decided to drive back into the park to try our luck at spotting the milky way. Alas, we realized only later that the milky way season in North America is shorter than in Australia. Apparently, the best times for milky way spotting is in the summer in Joshua Tree. Oh well – we had fun driving down the dark windy paths in the pitch dark.

After a few hours hunkered down in our sleeping bags, we roused again at 530am to drive back into the park for sunrise. Given the clear skies the night before, we weren’t expecting much color, but it was still lovely to breath in the fresh cool air and see the sun slowly paint the rocks and desert sand a warm orange glow.

I wish we had more time to spend in the park, to slowly hike the backcountry trails. As it was, we had to return to the city. So after breakfast and packing up, we just drove through the park, from the North Entrance through the South, before turning back to LA.

Lovely short teaser to JT National Park!

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.

A day in Verona, Italy

Coming down from the mountains, we spent a day in Verona, a quiet (relative to Venice) town just an hour and a half from the coast.

View of the Adige River

We arrived on Valentine’s Day, and we were initially dismayed at the realisation, because we hadn’t thought to make restaurant reservations in advance. But the upside, we found out, was that all attractions were going for the price of 2-for-1! Which meant discounted entries to Castelvecchio and the Arena that we visited.

The Verona Arena, where operatic performances are still held

Otherwise, we were happy to roam about the city, losing ourselves in the warren maze of medieval streets.

The campanile shines red for Valentines day

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. 🙂

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.

A week kayaking in Greenland

I’d been anticipating our Greenland kayaking trip all year (we’d put down deposits last December), but as we made the circuitous travel to Greenland via London and Copenhagen, I tried not to set my expectations too high. Would the group be a great bunch? Would the weather turn out fair? Would we get to see the northern lights and also enjoy spectacular sunsets? Would we get to see tons of icebergs?

It was everything I expected and then some. 

We had an amazing bunch of people. All super helpful, proactive, and hilarious with their odd British witticisms and slangs (and oof, the copious amount of tea they drank at every opportunity!). With the exception of two Canadian brothers in university, everyone else lived in the UK, including a transplanted Kiwi and Aussie. It was awesome to chat with like-minded folks who shared a similar love for exploration and travel.

First day on the water
Camp site 1 – I didn’t spot the auroras that night, but our east facing view afforded the perfect viewing of the milky way

The weather for the most part held up as well. Days were between 3 and 10 degrees Celcius, and felt pleasantly warm in the sun. I didn’t need to use my pogies (mittens that went over the paddles for kayaking) at all paddling, and only pulled out my gloves for the glacial hike. We were only rained out one night / day, when the wind howled and slapped against our tent so violently the entire night that we slept in fits and starts. The Canadian boys’ tent pole broke under the relentless assault. We were quite relieved, thus, when at 630am, our guide came by to tell us that we weren’t going to have to pack up camp and kayak to our next spot after all. I’d already finished packing my loose gear and about to embark on the tedious process of pulling on my dry suit, but happily unrolled my sleeping bag again for a lie in. That day, a third of the group, hardier souls, ventured out into the elements for some hiking. I preferred the comfort of the dining tepee, where I camped out literally the entire day playing my new favourite game of Monopoly Deal.

A reindeer skull that Malcolm picked up on his early morning jaunt around the campsite. We did spot plenty of live reindeers too, which was super neat, considering our failed attempts in Norway a few years ago. We also saw a couple of eagles tending to their young in a nest on the side of the mountains, a couple of seals, and a whale.
Hereafter known as the fig roll stop. Where we stopped for a brief break to relieve our bladders on our longest day on the water – 6 hours. And enjoy some fig rolls of course

We did see the northern lights. Our first night in Greenland, we stayed in a hostel in the tiny town of Narsaq. Everyone was feeling a bit jet lagged and no one stayed up, but according to our guides there was a display that night. Our first night camping, I couldn’t see anything when I got up in the middle of the night to shoot some pictures, though when Jeff woke up to pee he thought he saw a faint glow on the horizon. It was not only till the second night camping, when I took a test shot on my camera at 11pm that we realised the faint glow on the horizon – what we mistook for city lights, even though there wasn’t a town for miles – was in fact the green-purple glow of northern lights. But on night 3, just after sunset, the spectacle was so clear and active that we couldn’t mistake the scene. This time, everyone was still awake, and we spent easily a half hour in the deepening chill, gazing awestruck at the dancing display above head.

People in the tents waking up and putting on their layers, ready to step out to see the northern lights display
Our west facing camp 2
Our dining tent which comfortably held our group of 14 for daily evening meals
Camp 3 – optimal aurora viewing time, right after dinner and before bed

With that incredible display of northern lights, I wasn’t terribly disappointed thus that we never got the vivid colours of pink purple at sunrises or sunsets. Still, we couldn’t complain with the beautiful warm days, paddling through mostly flat water, traversing through broken pieces of melting icebergs. Some of the icebergs were small enough pieces that we didn’t bother slaloming around, and instead paddle right on top and through them. Others were taller, dripping structures fifteen feet high from water level. We stayed a respectful distance from these.

Grabbing lunch in the sun, with the view of the gorgeous Sermilik Glacier a deceivingly close 2km away. We stayed at this campsite 3 nights, one more than originally planned, because of the weather

So yes, we had a most fantastic trip. Our visit seemed most timely, right in the middle as it was of Trump’s outlandish offer to purchase Greenland, and at the tail end of a season with a heartbreaking record heat wave. The BBC article that was published right at the end of our expedition showed in stark detail just how much the Sermilik glacier (the very one we were camped across for 3 nights) has receded in the last 15 years.

Fun by the water. It was bracing and refreshing after 3 days of not showering. Honestly, the anticipation of the cold was much much worse than the actual sensation
Huge chunks of ice constantly calved from the glacier, and the shifting tides and winds moved the icebergs about, such that the waters were ever changing
Our merry group on our glacier hike. We met 2 other groups on the ice that day, before and after our 1.5 hour tour. It felt a little jarring to encounter other people in the otherwise remote wilderness that was our home for the week
Navigating the ice soup was the best highlight of the trip for me
Final paddle to our pick up point, sniff

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.

Week back in Sydney

We’d the opportunity to spend a week in Sydney. Work during the day, catch ups with friends over meals in the evening. And on the weekends, we did what we loved best in Sydney – exploring the outdoors.

Our original plan to kayak the first Sunday we were back was scuttled due to gusty winds of up to 45km/h. And our attempt to go again the following Saturday was stymied by the strong winds again, as was the SUP ball game our friend had planned for us in Manly.

Oh well. But Lisa had another idea up her sleeve happily for Saturday – hiking in Lane Cove National Park. It’s a beautiful little area of land, so serene and quiet amongst the trees, and so close to downtown! We spent an enjoyable 4 hours just meandering around, stopping for a warm cuppa tea (ginseng gin tea anyone!?).

The winds finally did die down Sunday morning though, before our 3pm flight. Garry, Jeff, and I managed to squeeze in a two hour paddle from Spit Bridge to Bantry Bay and back, one of my favorite training routes back when I was training for the Massive Murray Paddle. Good times.

Spied a seal rubbing itself against a moored boat

A week kayaking in Palawan, Part 2

What makes a trip? The scenery, the weather, of course. But gorgeous scenery abound. At the end of the day though, it’s the fuzzy, warm feeling that you get when you look back. Feelings borne from the company we keep.

There’s TS, a grandfather of four, but more fit and strong than I could ever be. He’s always the first ready in the mornings to push off, having packed away his gear and stashed his tent back into his kayak when everyone else is still struggling to get back into damp clothes. There’s Shoe, kind hearted and generous, and always with a ready laugh. There’s Chelsea, a casual kayaker by her own reckoning but who chose to come on this expedition as her one crazy thing to do a year (her previous adventures include joining a whale shark research program in the Maldives for two weeks, learning free diving, and running the NYC marathon). There’s Scott, a contract teacher at one of the top secondary schools in Singapore but who also spends half of the year kayaking the lakes in his native Canada. Then there are the guides Huey and Rey, cool as cucumbers and super chill with their laid back attitudes. Nonetheless, they run an efficient operation – even as we kick back at the end of the day to rest our tired bodies from the day’s kayaking, they are in the background quietly ensuring that our meals get delivered, along with treats such as bottles of Filipino brandy, rum, and beer.

So it was we laughed through a lovely week with this crew.

Day five: The day we hit the famous El Nido Islands

Ever since we went diving in Tubbataha Reef in 2017, the Palawan islands held my attention. At the Puerto Princessa airport where we landed, billboards touting the crystal green waters of these karst islands captivated me. So when we found out that Kayak Asia was organizing a week long kayaking and camping trip here, we did not hesitate to sign up.

The scenery did not disappoint. There’s a magical beauty to these imposing limestone monoliths that rise vertically from the ocean floor. Over millenia, the waves have eroded away the bottoms, so we could seek shelter from the sun under their overhanging roofs.

Our lunch spot. Photo credit: Shoe

After a long day on the water, we were looking forward to land and stretch our legs. But first, another surf landing. A milder one, but it’s all about the timing, and this time, the waves got the better of Jeff.

Most of the beaches this side of Palawan are owned by private families. So private, it’s impossible to contact them beforehand to ask for permission to camp. But they’re usually looked after by solitary caretakers in tidy little shacks on the island, and these caretakers are usually willing to let us beach for a night. Otherwise, it can be quite a lonely existence. One caretaker we met subsisted on instant noodles and sardines nearly every meal, and sometimes went without speaking to anyone else for months at a time.

Another bit of stunningly pristine beach to camp at
Photo credit: Rey
I do love those high clouds
The long tail boat in the background was delivering our dinner. The chef’s one of the best we’ve had this entire trip, and each day we eagerly looked forward to his meals.
Dinner delivered on a surfboard

Day six: Another day exploring the Palawan Islands

The sun was back out today, which was awesome since the light cut right through the waters all the way to the bottom of the sea bed. The coral reefs in Palawan are very healthy, which is heartening to see, though we expected to see much more fish. Still, we did spot turtles along our paddles, and in the water, I did see a sting ray, and a banded sea snake, amongst the usual colorful reef fish. No sharks, though Shoe thought she might have spotted a dugong on the surface.

Photo credit: Rey
Setting up camp right on the beach again

Day seven: Last full day on the water

I slept so well with the fly sheet propped open. The air was crisp and cool, with a gentle breeze, and we awoke to another stunning sunrise. Our last day of camping, and our last full day on the water.

We passed the so called Secret Lagoon today, one of the dozens of must-see tourist attractions in El Nido. There must have been at least a dozen long tail boats parked at the entrance of the lagoon, and a few dozen people snorkeling in the water in their bright orange vests. We steered well clear of them, but happily gravitated to the boat man peddling ice cream in his kayak. What a treat on such a warm day, and right before we squared our shoulders and braced ourselves navigating a narrow passage out of the circle of monoliths into the wind.

Photo credit: Shoe
Photo credit: Rey
The waters of Palawan are stunningly clear. If we weren’t in sea kayaks, but the more accessible inflatables, we’d have jumped in and out multiple times just to get a better peak at the paradise underwater

It took us a while to find our accommodation of the evening, because it was tucked away around the lip of the peninsula. From the outside, the place looked rustic, unassuming. And my comfort level wasn’t boosted when we pulled up into the swampy beach and had to get out of the kayak into murky waters. Almost immediately, I let out a yelp. I’d gotten stung by a jellyfish. It hurt. To their credit, the elderly lady of the establishment heard my groans of pain and rushed over with a liter bottle of vinegar water that she proceeded to generously pour down my shin. Scott joined me – he’d also gotten stung.

Photo credit: Shoe

But the place was in fact lovely, with beautifully polished teak floors and doors (that TS wanted to buy and ship home!). And the rooms were palatial. We took up all their available rooms and had the entire place to ourselves. It was a beautiful spot to lounge around after we’d all cleaned up to drink some rum and watch the sun set.

Our private accommodation – private because we literally took up all their available 6 rooms
Our private accommodations on our penultimate night in Palawan, Philippines. Photo credit: TSL

Day eight: the day we powered without stopping to the end

And then, it was the last day already. The last 15 km stretch. If we thought we’d take it easy, Huey had other plans. He decided to power through the entire distance without stopping. I had trouble keeping up with the front pack the first half hour, until my right shoulder warmed up and I got into the rhythm. But by then, Huey and TS were mere specks in the distance. I had hustle to keep Scott and Shoe in my sights, lest I lose visual of them as well. We’d given all our bags for Chelsea to take with her via boat back to El Nido, as day was technically an optional paddling day, so I had no phone or compass with me. Jeff and Rey hung back, content to enjoy their last times on the water. But it was a fun paddle, after I’d properly warmed up, and I kept marveling at how clear the waters were.

Before we knew it, and way before Chelsea and the boat with our luggage arrived, we’d already reached our resort. Time to get properly cleaned up and plunge back into the connected world with our phones.

After a week of pristine island hopping, it was a little jarring to be thrust back into “civilization”, or in this case, the town of El Nido, filled with souvenir stores, massage salons, and bars.