#43 Saturdays Are For Coffee + Hiking – Labrador Park

Saturday. Time for something that excites the taste buds, and yet something fun to do that can burn the calories directly off without keeping it in the system. Zero guilt, double the fun. Let’s go!

I wanted to create an itinerary where I’d start off by getting a coffee (to wake up and get a boost) and some dessert (to please my tummy), and then sweat it all out in a satisfying way. So in my search for a start-off fuelling point to grab my cuppa joe and sugary treat before hitting the road, I stumbled upon this café. Just minutes away from one of the starting points of the Mount Faber Trail, it was not only convenient for our coffee-and-hike mission, but also unique in its own way.

That’s how we began with gusto at at Old Habits (Block 38 Telok Blangah Rise) for our obligatory sugary top up of energy. The name of the game here is all things vintage… except their menu which is refreshingly contemporary.

Chock-a-block of old-school stuff

We ordered the signature dessert item which required us to be patient and wait for it to be freshly cooked. But fret not, the café is chocked full of strange knick-knacks and colourful curios – from vintage posters to decades-old Nintendo cartridges to phased-out old road signs plucked from the middle of nowhere to a plastic purple Grimace toy (those that came with a Happy Meal) next to the cash till, there are plenty of things to poke around at while you wait for your food to arrive. Continue reading

#42 Up Java’s Big Boss Semeru in 2D1N – Volcano Weekend Part 2

Climbing Mount Semeru was insanely difficult especially since it was my first official volcano trek. In fact, I was pretty sanguine because I had no idea what I was in for. Sometimes that sort of ignorance can be bliss since I would’ve fretted endlessly. With three weeks between having decided and actually going, even bringing the gym game super strong was barely cutting it for me. If you are a seasoned hiker who have done other volcanoes and a couple of multi-day treks, you should have no problems. In any case. the trail towards Semeru is mostly dry and through temperate forest, which is more enjoyable for me than rolling around huge buttress roots in a tropical forest which is often dim and muddy. At 3,676 metres above sea level, Semeru is the highest volcano on Java, and the and the 3rd highest in Indonesia.

Our trek up Mount Semeru to the Mahameru summit was a 2D1N journey. A few people have asked me if it was possible with the condensed itinerary, since this trip was commonly advertised as 3D2N, and the answer is yes!

(This is the fast and furious version as some of us cannot take too many vacation days and a longer trip was out of our budget. There is the usual version at 3D2N, where you set up camp at Ranu Kumbolo before continuing on again. Skip to the end of this post for the itinerary.)

Having a good night’s sleep the night before is crucial, since the next evening with no proper bed and the anticipation of the summit attack we barely got any sleep. On the day of the hike, we started out bright and early at around 8, with the Jeep picking us up from our hotel. We passed the Bromo entrance and continued on down toward the Sea of Sand, and then went a bit further.

Since Semeru is located ‘behind’ Bromo from our earlier viewing point, we had to go around Bromo to reach Ranu Pane. We had two pit stops on this Jeep ride – the first one is the Whispering Sands and the second one is Teletubbies Hill.

These sands don't really whisper but they do get into your eyes!!!

The Whispering Sands, or Pasir Berbisik, appears to be linked to the Sea of Sand in front of Mount Bromo and Mount Batok. There was a lot of ash and sand swirling in the air and we could not see further than 50 metres, let alone the actual horizon. We didn’t hear any whispering from the sand, just excited shouts of other tourists jumping off their Jeeps. The Mad Max sensation of crossing the desert was stronger here. After a few photos, we were choking on the sediment-filled air and happy to move on.

The Jeep lurched and jerked and rattled on. Continue reading

#41 Sunset at Bromo – Volcano Weekend Part I

Don’t be fooled: Volcanoes are dangerous things. Yet it’s not that common – at least not in Indonesia – to find a place where you can watch lava flowing down the slopes at close range. From far, you see gentle white plumes of smoke shaped like angels and it could appear like it’s snowing on a perfectly warm day. Get close enough, they rain down acrid flakes of nostril-clogging ash which obscure your vision and deliver enough sulphuric gases guaranteed to make your lungs very unhappy.

My friends and I went on a 3D2N journey to see two stunning volcanoes in East Java – Mount Bromo and Mount Semeru. These two neighbours may be next to one another but they can’t be more different.

From Singapore, it’s a short 2.5 hour flight to Surabaya, a popular base in East Java where adventure seekers and hiking enthusiasts go off to bag some volcanoes. Think of Bromo as your eager-to-please photo-friendly destination, and Semeru as a gruelling scale-me-if you dare royal challenge.

We wanted to fit our trip into 3 days – but if you have more time, go ahead and plan a more breathable itinerary. We landed in Surabaya at around 9.30am and reached Cemoro Lawang via airport transfer (courtesy of our hotel – SM Bromo) by 2.30pm. With the relatively smooth traffic, it took 4.5 hours to reach the hotel. Instead of waiting till the next morning for the sunrise, we opted to see Bromo at sunset.

We set off around 3pm and walked 5km from our hotel to the entrance of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, a mostly-uphill walk that took us 45 minutes. We were treated to some pretty scenery of onion fields and rice patches like this one here.

Onion fields galore!
We stayed at SM Bromo Hotel and had a wonderful experience. We paid 200k IDR per person for one night’s stay. For this price we had hot water & good pressure in the shower, freshly prepared hot breakfast with tea/coffee included, plus great service, new and clean facilities and the smooth and efficient airport transfer. So I would say it’s more than value for money! The trade off is that it can be quite far from the entrance – this 5km can be done by Jeep too – so you decide. Note that there are a few hotels that are directly next to the entrance, which is a mere 5-minute walk to the entrance, but I read too many negative reviews to risk staying at those.

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Living on the edge...

#40 Having Chai In The Clouds in Munnar – Kerala, India

When we first drove past the road sign that said ‘In God’s Own Country’, I did a double take, and then laughed, ‘Seriously?’ I didn’t know at that point in time it was the state slogan. I would come to know that even that would be an understatement.

God aside, some people dubbed this place the Switzerland of India, but I find that moniker rather patronizing. My friend and I both agreed that while Munnar evokes Swiss images of rolling hills, overall the atmosphere is very different. If you look closely, the colours here are deeper, especially the shade of green of the tea plantations – it just cannot be compared.

Switzerland of India

Itinerary

Leaving the city behind, we head for the spellbinding hill station of Munnar in the Western Ghats. Before doing my research on Kerala, I haven’t even heard of the place. This popular honeymoon and weekend getaway destination is only all too familiar to the locals here.

It’s a four-hour drive from Kochi to get to the centre of Munnar. Add at least a few hours of driving to explore the various smaller sub-areas – Eravikulam and Chinnar to see wildlife, or the winding incredibly scenic drive up to Top Station, or past Chinnakanal and Suryanelli to explore the beautiful yet rugged trail in more slope-hugging tea plantations.

You can easily spend a whole week in Munnar, taking time to discover all the places. Since we only have two days here, we opted for the scenic drive to Top Station with its many photo stops along the way, and a bone-rattling Jeep safari the next day.

Day Four: Kochi to Munnar, then Munnar to Top Station
Day Five: Munnar to Kolukkumalai (Jeep safari from Chinnakkanal to Kolukkumalai)
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Street art in Mattancherry

#39 In God’s Own Country – Kerala, India

Kerala

I was looking for something… different. Something that ups the ante in the cultural realm. Preferably throwing a little spice into the mix. The opportunity came when a good friend of mine decided to take a month off to go home to India. I really treasure the chance to catch up with an old friend, plus it’s always fun to to see a new place with a local.

If you have a week to spare, Kerala is a good place to visit from Singapore, with a flight time of 4 hours 30 minutes on a direct flight, and around 9 hours for me since I had a 2.5-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur.

Kerala may be on a lot of people’s wishlists, but it does not seem to be a popular traveller’s choice. On my trip, I noticed there are not that many tourists or foreigners around. On the bright side, the prices are low – few places have the ridiculous ‘tourist price’ as opposed to a ‘local price’, and I get to explore territory that is untainted by the merciless bulldozing of culture by mass tourism.

Itinerary

I was in Kerala for a week – starting in Kochi. One week is a very short time in Kerala, so by the advice of my friend, we concentrated on the regions close to Kochi, choosing a variety of landscapes to give some justice to Kerala’s beauty and charm. In this Part One, we explored the historical district of Mattancherry, hit up the museum in Thrippunithura and checked out fishing nets at Fort Kochi, then made separate day trips to Cherai Beach and the iconic backwaters of Kumarakom. This will take three days. (Part Two will see us heading for the rolling highlands in the Western Ghats.)

Day One: Fort Kochi, Mattancherry & Jew Town, Thrippunithura Hill Palace
Day Two: Cherai Beach
Day Three: Kumarakom (2.5 to 3 hour drive from Kochi)

Fort Kochi, Cherai Beach, Mattancherry, Thrippunithura Hill Palace, Kumarakom

It may not look like a lot, but we covered a lot of ground since we went around by car. There’s a reason why most travellers reserve India for long-term travel because it’s very slow and time consuming to take public transport and get from one place to another… though of course slow travel allows you to immerse yourself in the culture and see more of the people and everyday life. Beware the insane traffic which can turn short map distances into gruelling drives.

The Places

– Fort Kochi
– Mattancherry & Jew Town
– Thrippunithura Hill Palace
– Cherai Beach
– Kumarakom
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#38 Register Your Alien Guest Online Now, in India

Sir, there's an alien in my home!

Sir, there’s an alien in my home!

If I end up learning something from an experience, then the time is not wasted. That’s what I told myself after this registration ordeal. Especially since every moment is precious the moment you get off the plane!

When my Indian friend Jojin was preparing to host me in his home, he was worried because he learnt that he needed to register me as a ‘foreigner living at a local private residence’. We ended up spending a few hours, visiting both the town and local police station and finally the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) near the airport before realizing that, hey, it can be done online!

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#37 Getting An Indian Visa (in Singapore)

Going to India is always an adventure. And it starts with getting the tourist visa.

Where’s my passport?

This was early May 2015 – I was bracing myself for a long-drawn fight at the visa centre at The Verge.  After all, I received an email from VFS Global (where I applied last time) saying that they will stop processing visa after 8 May 2015. I figured everyone will flood to BLS International (the only other visa processing centre) in no time.

The Verge is a shopping mall near Little India MRT Station – take Exit C and go past Tekka Market, keep going straight, then cross the road to reach it.

The last time I applied for my visa was at VFS, so this might as well be the first time for me. So here we go…

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