#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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#36 Learn to Hitchhike

[Note: I wrote this post two years ago during my time as an au pair in Germany, but what I feel about hitchhiking still stands today. More than just reliving the good ol’ days of thumbing my way around town, I would like to share again the beauty of this seemingly-outmoded way of travelling for those who are heading to Europe or the Americas, or wherever it’s legal and safe to do. Unfortunately where I’m living right now, it is an illegal (and unfashionable) way of getting around – a damn shame really. I hope this post helps my fellow wanderbugs out there. I have also made some updates — the price of a Happy Weekend Ticket or Schönes-Wochenende Ticket has increased from €37 to €44 now.]

There are mostly two reactions when people talk about hitchhiking. It’s either a lifestyle, or an absolute no-no. More than two weeks ago, I would rather walk or pay for an exorbitant ride than embark on such a supposedly dangerous activity. I mean, we often see on TV and in movies where the guy picking the hitchhiker up is some sort of serial killer who would undoubtedly kidnap the hapless traveller and slice him into pieces, not before torturing him à la the movie Saw.

I have never considered hitchhiking as a viable transport solution. First, I was worried that the driver might turn out to be someone on the wrong side of the tracks. Also, I did not believe that I was brave enough to stop a stranger’s car and ask for a free ride. I know tons of people probably do this everyday, especially seasoned but cash-poor travellers, but when you have already passed the coming-of-age period marked by wilful rebellion and a serious lack of inhibition, you become ‘old and boring’, that is, always fearful and suspicious of the people around you.

I wasn’t about to think of myself as ‘old and boring’! I want to think young, think wild, think freely. Or basically, stop overthinking and start doing. Embrace the situation. Have faith in people.

Finally, it took me a desperate situation to take the plunge. Continue reading

#35 In The Heat Of Mount Papandayan, Indonesia

Mount Papandayan is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when people plan a trip to a volcano. With more than 120 volcanoes all over the Indonesian archipelago, it’s only natural that a lot of gunung apis get completely sidelined and ignored by tourists and visitors. While every volcano may have something interesting to offer, there are definitely a few that stand out because they are well-linked to cities, have more media coverage, better tourism infrastructure and better marketing, and/or are simply more beautiful, at least in the conventional way, than others, like Bromo, Ijen, Rinjani and Merapi, to name the popular ones.

Located in a highly tectonically active region, Indonesia is the go-to place to experience the raw and potentially dangerous beauty of these lava-spewing devils. So it’s a good thing that a volcano lover like me is living a short plane ride away from these hot spots. I was planning a trip to Bandung and as usual one of the first things I started hunting down is somewhere to go absorb the great outdoors. Tangkuban Perahu came up tops in searches, but the reviews about pushy touts and heaving crowds totally put me off. No matter how gorgeous a place is, it defeats the whole idea of invigorating oneself in Mother Nature when all the crowd-fighting just sucks the life out of you.

We booked a day tour via our hostel in Bandung. The sun rises earlier here in Bandung than in Singapore, and there’s traffic to beat, so we left a little past 7am. We passed small non-descript towns that resembled one another – mobile phone stalls, roadside hawkers selling bakso and batagor, vegetable sellers, and witnessed the occasional cluster of goats tied to wooden posts awaiting their fate of being sold and slaughtered. It was the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Adha. After two and a half hours, the driver brought us to Garut, a sleepy village near the volcano, to meet our guide Danny, and then we bounced for 20 minutes on rocky, bumpy terrain up to the foothills of Mount Papandayan. Danny told us that this volcano is classified as Type A, meaning it can “blow anytime”. Not very reassuring to say this now, especially since we are just about to climb up. The last time it blew its top was in 2002, and he seemed confident that volcanic eruptions of this kind is a once-every-100-year event so it “shouldn’t” happen again. Something from my geography undergrad days tell me this theory is flawed but I tried not to dwell on it, considering my penchant for entertaining irrational fears.

Do we want the standard route or “Danny’s Special Route”? asked Danny our guide. We figured we hired him to show us something ‘interesting’ so Danny’s way it is. Little did we expect to be literally walking on sizzling hot ground!

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

The first part of the “Special Route” was a shortcut through a series of skin-grazing, low-lying shrubs. Around 40 minutes later, we arrived at a vantage point to admire the spectacular view. The initial ascent was steep and I had to pause a few times before reaching the ‘top’, which was one of the accessible summits (not the ultimate one). Here we enjoyed panoramic views – looking far and wide, we could see all the way down to the flat rice plains and another mountain, Gunung Cikuray, in the distance. Down below, a trail of backpack-wielding hikers was making its way up to the other side of the volcano where apparently you could camp overnight on a grassy clearing.

Time to explore sulphur-emitting geysers, colourful ribbons of water, cascades of steaming hot liquid, and bubbling mud holes! Continue reading