#49 Koyo in Nikko, Japan

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When we think about koyo, amazing colours come to our mind. Gold, crimson, marigold yellow, maple syrup brown, tangerine, plum red…

Going leaf spotting is a tradition in Japan — there is even a specific term for it — momijigari. It is simply the act of enjoying the gorgeous autumn foliage. In this tech-obsessed world, a little spot of koyo is just what we needed.

For some, it could be a lot of fuss for nothing. Then again, the whole idea is to chill and relax. It’s for scenery and nature lovers, and for people who just want to take their mind off the hustle and bustle of real world. A refreshing change indeed for many who travel on a tight itinerary, and a great break for those who have spent a couple of hectic days in Tokyo.

I love trees and autumn is my favourite season. So yes, observing the koyo is just right up my alley. :-)

Here’s my trip report, hopefully it helps you get all the manic planning out of the way and focus on the beautiful scenery.

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#45 Discover Saigon Again – Saigon Trip Part Two

Admit it, unless there’s something really compelling, you’re more likely to be drawn to a new place than go back to a place you’ve been. The world’s a big place and there’s so much to see. But hey, even the best of us fail to give the most exciting places the time it deserves – whether it’s lack of time (I need to get to Bangkok by Monday!) or lack of budget (I can’t spend more than 3 days in this city if I want to do…) or lack of vacation days (uh-uh need to get home). So I had the pleasure and the luxury to spend a little more time in Ho Chi Minh City (from here on HCMC) and it has thrown up some interesting finds. In Part One, I sieved out the must-sees, must-dos for a quickie 3-day trip, but here’s a little extra to get ya feelers on this gorgeous Southern Vietnam metropolis.

I’ve got SEVEN things here for you – buy a conical hat, take a walk, drink some coffee and culture, go dancing, that’s one day. Then, eat a couple of freshly made summer rolls, explore a museum, watch a live performance and get a haircut – that’s another day. BUY A HAT, TAKE A WALK, DRINK COFFEE, GO DANCING, EAT SUMMER ROLLS, EXPLORE A MUSEUM, WATCH A LIVE SHOW, GET A HAIRCUT. Try saying that all in one breath. Now get all that done in 2 days — what do you mean, of course it’s doable! Come on, let’s go!

BUY – Binh Tay Market

Welcome to the Labyrinth… I mean, Binh Tay Market!

A feast for the curious eyes, a nightmare for the orderly mind. This central market of Cholon/Chinatown is as amazing as it is claustrophobia-inducing. Built in 1928, this traditional Chinese marketplace used to be an important trading hub but there seemed to be no signs of slowing down! Tons of small stores jam-freaking-packed from floor to ceiling with stuff. I could not imagine so so so many things could fit into such tiny spaces. And the inventory! How do they keep track!

Chock-a-block of everything under the sun!

Nail clippers, stainless mugs, Revlon lipsticks, childrens’ pajamas, brightly coloured women’s underwear, Monin syrups, exercise books, woks… I think this place supplies the whole Saigon. You just gotta come see it for yourself.

Now, you probably have bought nothing since it was more like a feast for the eyes. Your wallet thanks you. Go outside the market and walk down the main street Tháp Mười in the direction towards the city– you’re bound to bump into a couple street peddlers selling the iconic Vietnamese hat (non la). Here they sell it for around 20,000k VND per hat (in August 2015) , a fraction of what you’d pay in the more touristy parts of the District 1.

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#44 Beginners’ Luck – Saigon Trip Part One

You say Saigon, I say Ho Chi Minh City (or some say HCMC). It might have been a sticky issue before but it seems that this up-and-coming Southeast Asian city has better things to think about now, such as the city’s exciting new metro line under construction, the downright hip club scene, and its metamorphosis into a modern metropolis. I won’t go into too much details about HCMC’s way forward with urban transformation – me ain’t no expert – but I can point you in the right direction for a couple things to do in the city for a getaway. A bunch of friends – including my little sis and the mister – flew to the city for a breath of fresh air (in more ways than one!) in August, and the fusion of several travel personalities has led us to a comfort zone boundary-pushing yet fun-filled trip for everyone.

Ho Chi Minh City street view (August 2015)

Our group was made up of a mix of first-timer and repeat travellers, as well as some pho lovers versus virgins ;-) All in all, we spent around 4 days in the city, hitting up many places when the mood strikes. Some good, some only so-so, some which I’d consider highlight/first timer places, next to some off-the-beaten-track or less touristy spots. Here’s a map for the places… good thing they are all centrally located so if you want you could walk to them all!

 

This is PART ONE – where I picked out the places we went that are more suitable for a first-time trip to this city, especially if you only have 2 days before moving off.

There is a bit of everything here, shopping in the market, coffee drinking, boulevard strolling, museum wandering… Plus, I hope my reviews can help you plan a solid itinerary to make the best of a tight schedule!  (I’ll post PART TWO next week!) Altogether we spent 4 days in the city – not a lot but not enough either (as usual) – and missed a couple places we initially planned to go, but we’ll be back!

Let’s hop to it! ^_^

For The Saigon Virgin

BUY – Ben Thant Market

Inside Ben Thant Market

First up, SHOPPING! ;-) The moment we stepped inside this labyrinth, hawk-eyed and red-lipped ladies grabbed our arm and persuaded us to buy their marked-up goodies, from lacquerware to dried coffee, from preserved fruits to baskets, from “I Love Saigon” T-shirts to the signature conical hat (nón lá). Here, I was rather intimidated and got the impression even if I bargain, I’d still get ripped off. But hey, you’re on holiday and they gotta eat, right?

 

Tip: Don’t buy your conical hat here! We paid only 20,000VND for one in Cholon! (which you’ll want to go.. more in Part Two).

 

 

 

 

Getting lost inside the Ben Thant Market - Photo: Amie Hu aka pherepiecet
Look at how many different kinds of fabric in just this small space!

After getting a little dizzy from the mad maze that is Ben Thant market, we made a dash for the stalls around the perimeter. Government-regulated, no-bargain stalls. Which meant a stress-free time for those who just aren’t turned on by all that haggling.

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#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 3rd highest in Indonesia.

Hillsides spewing gases - taken on the way back to Cemoro Lawang from Ranu Pane

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.

We had two pit stops on this Jeep ride – the first one is the Whispering Sands and the second one is Teletubbies Hill, before moving on to our actual starting point of the hike – Ranu Pane.

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

The Whispering Sands, or Pasir Berbisik. 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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#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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#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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