The Occasional Traveller http://theoccasionaltraveller.com Occasionally Travelling, Always Inspiring Sun, 24 May 2015 15:39:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=217 Family Fun at the Grand Mirage Resort in Nusa Duahttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/05/20/family-fun-at-the-grand-mirage-resort-in-nusa-dua/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/05/20/family-fun-at-the-grand-mirage-resort-in-nusa-dua/#comments Wed, 20 May 2015 11:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16881 Visiting Nusa Dua and enjoying all-inclusive pampering at the Grand Mirage Resort in Bali

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Over the Good Friday long weekend, I packed my bags and headed out with travel buddy A to the little island paradise of Bali, favourite of Singaporeans for a quick weekend getaway. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll know that while I’d never been to Bali before 2013, for some bizarre reason this was going to be my 4th trip in 2 years. The central touristy part of Bali is not large – Kuta and Seminyak start to feel familiar after awhile, and even traipsing over to Jimbaran and Ubud.

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Statue
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Statue

But this time around I was headed out to Nusa Dua, an area of Bali I had not visited yet and is known for fancy resorts. The folks from the Grand Mirage Resort Bali had asked me quite early on to come check out their space, and after much coordination I was finally headed their way!

I was also quite lucky to have the Casio people loan me an Casio EXILIM EXZR3500 camera which I used to take my pictures for most of this trip. I love the convenience of my camera phone, but I’ll let you gauge the quality of the Exilim photos for yourself – I didn’t have to edit most of the Exilim pix except to downsize them for the blog, so you can be the judge for yourself of the quality of the camera. Also awesome – wifi capabilities so I could easily bluetooth transfer the photos to my phone to upload on instagram, as well as browse camera photos on my phone.

GETTING THERE

Nusa Dua is south of the airport, about 30mins by car if traffic is decent. If you look at the picture below, you will notice a bit of highway going across the water on the right – that’s the main highway that we took to reach the Nusa Dua area.

From there we headed up North into this little finger of land called Tanjung Benoa, which is that whole stretch you see in the picture below and you can also see the entire beachfront is just lined with resorts.

Bali Nusa Dua Plane
The paper planes point to where I stayed during this trip – Grand Mirage Resort (left) and Samabe Resorts further down south in Sawangan, which I’ll talk about in a separate post.

If you’re intending to use Nusa Dua as a base, note that you probably will need to cater in more travelling time, because most of the stuff to see is in the central/northern area.

 

ALL INCLUSIVE STAY

With just a short extended weekend to check out the place and get my R&R in, I didn’t actually leave the resort at all (except to go surfing!). There’s not much to see in Nusa Dua itself, but part of that was also due to the Grand Mirage Resort’s all-inclusive package, which basically sums up to full room and board throughout your stay. You are free to order drinks (and drink from the minibar!) anywhere in the resort, have meals at any one of their four restaurants and even.

My usual hotel stay etiquette means not touching the mini-bar and popping out to the nearby mini-mart to stock up on snacks, so having that freedom to just eat and drink as I pleased throughout my stay was quite a novelty. Other perks of the all-inclusive include use of the non-motorized water sport equipment, laundry and with some T&Cs, check out the full list here.

It’s a great idea if your plan, like me, was to just relax fully and not have to think about stuff. If you plan to eat and drink with abandon as well as make full use of their facilities, definitely something to consider.

Bali Grand Mirage Resort All Inclusive Band
The all-powerful band that identifies you as all-inclusive guests!

 

THE ROOM

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Deluxe Ocean Room
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Deluxe Ocean Room

We had a Deluxe Ocean Room on Level 4 – Room 4452 to be exact. The bedroom area itself is quite large and spacious, and there is a small balcony enough for 2 chairs with an ocean view. Tanjong Benoa is on the Eastern coast, so make sure you wake up for sunrise on at least one day!

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Bathroom
The shower and toilet bowl is on the other side of the bathroom

The attached bathroom had a bathtub as well as a shower. It’s not a modern fancy luxe type of place; there’s a more lived-in feel to the rooms which I think fits what families might be looking for – not too chichi where you’re always worrying if your kids are going to break something, but comfortable and spacious enough.

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Sunrise
Sunrise on our first morning there, taken from the balcony!

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Sunrise Flowers
We didn’t manage such spectacutular colours the next day, but still beautiful nonetheless [taken with Casio EXILIM]
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Bali Hai
Rewarding myself with a beer from the minibar! [taken with Casio EXILIM]

THE HOTEL

Our host Stella took us on a bit of a walkabout. The hotel in itself isn’t very big – you can stroll around it quite easily.

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Waterfall
There’s quite a nice waterfall feature in the centre of the resort
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Pool
The pool is one of the main and most popular features – it’s quite large, you’re only looking at half of it and there are often activities like water volleyball and aquarobics planned. It can get crowded and if you aren’t fast enough all the good deckchairs get snapped up!
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Weaving
There is a daily sheet of activites, some of which include traditional Balinese weaving and music demonstrations
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Kecak Dance
This was held in the lobby because a wedding reception was taking place in its usual Rama Stage outside. This was quite a long performance of the traditional Balinese Kecak dance which is quite mesmerizing. Would have loved to have seen it outdoors in its more traditional setting!

We had a chance to eat in most of the restaurants on site – there is a Chinese restaurant called Chopsticks further down the beach in another property but we weren’t in the mood for Chinese food. Overall food was quite decent, and all-inclusive definitely makes you feel like you’re eating free food. You can order food and most drinks to your hearts content!

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Food
The Grand Cafe is where we had dinner, also because Rama Stage was not available. Quite a good buffet spread of traditional Indonesian food was available that night! Also, free flow cocktails because of all inclusive, whee!
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Italian Pasta
If you want some familiar Western flavours, Las Cascata is a small Italian restaurant that opens for dinner. Book your seats early as it’s small and can get crowded! A had a huge lamb rack and my duck pasta felt quite Asian (still yummy though!)
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Indian Food
The resort recently launched an Indian menu because they’re starting to get more Indian guests. The curry was a weird tone (perhaps I’m too used to yellows and reds, this one was… pinkish orange) but it tasted quite good
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Dessert
Jukung Grill is by the beach and where you can get seafood. We mostly had finger food for lunch that day, but here’s a shot of our fancy ice cream. The frozen watermelon pops i saw people ordering also looked very refreshing in the weather!

 

THINGS TO DO:

Laze by the beach

And of course the main reason you’re at any sort of beach resort – let me dazzle you with the stretch of Tanjung Benoa beach right past the pool area and where you were most likely to find me hanging out.

The water wasn’t as calm as I thought it would be – it’s still a little choppy so I would be careful with smaller children. Quite a lot of seaweed but very clear water.

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Beach Hut
All I want to do is lie down and chillax, which is what I ended up doing most of the time…

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Seabird
A sea bird drying its wings [taken with Casio EXILIM]
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Reflection Water
At low tide in the evenings, the water is rather still and you can walk out quite a distance [taken with Casio EXILIM]
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Seaside
blue, blue and more blue [taken with Casio EXILIM]
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Pink Sunset
pretty pink sunset! [taken with Casio EXILIM]
 

Pampering at Thalasso Spa

Thalasso Spa is connected to the hotel, even if it is actually a separate property. It is one of the larger spas I’ve seen, with 16 unique themed rooms and an aquamedic pool (didn’t take any pix because there were people in it) which is a heated seawater pool with minerals in it, various stations for pampering and exercise.

The place definitely has quite a lovely decor so wandering around in it feels a bit surreal. I had a decent Balinese massage and while I think the ambiance is nice, it might be considered pricey at US$48 for what I had if you are comparing this to other cheaper massage options you might be able to find outside the resort.

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Thalasso Spa
long lush corridors. That is actual sand between the slabs of stone on the floor [taken with Casio EXILIM]
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Thalasso Spa Space Room
just one of the themed rooms. this one is popular with the younger crowd! [Taken with Casio EXILIM]
 

Seawalking

Seawalking, or helmet diving as it is also known is the easiest way for you to be underwater without having to actually get a scuba diving license. At this point, it had been more than a year since I last dived, so I was just very happy to be going underwater again.

The idea is very simple – you put on a giant super heavy 30+kg helmet that traps an air bubble around your head. Air is pumped in to replenish the air that you are breathing in while the weight of the helmet keeps you from bobbing up.

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Seawalker Boat Portrait
Taking the boat out for seawalking [taken with Casio EXILIM]
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Seawalker Pontoon
There’s a little pontoon where you do the seawalking from. In the water are various tubes through which the air is pumped into the helmets
Bali Grand Mirage Resort SeaWalker Helmets
A Seawalker helmet. Looking through this is quite disconcerting – the thick glass really distorts your view.
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Seawalker Pink Shoes
We were given ripoff crocs to wear! it’s probably a cheaper option than booties. i wish they weren’t so violently pink though
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Seawalker Descent
For smaller shoulder kids and ladies, you’re fitted with a collar first and as you descend into the water, the helmet is placed over your head. It becomes weightless as you sink into the water, climbing down the ladder

As everybody descends to the bottom of the sea, you each hang on to a large metal stick that the guide is holding on to, and he leads you around a rather small area – the hoses on the top of your head will only stretch so far, so don’t think about wandering off!

The waters in general around the area are very clear, but perhaps because this area sees more tourists, it’s actually a little bit murky. There are fishes which you can feed and they will swarm around you so it feels like you’re in a reverse aquarium, and there are some coral as well, but remember it’s an area that sees a lot of activity so don’t expect something super pristine out of National Geographic.

Perhaps if you’ve never dived or snorkelled in your life, it might be quite an amazing experience being underwater and breathing for the first time – A doesn’t scuba dive though she did do this in Boracay as well and enjoyed it more. I’ve done a fair bit of scuba diving so that novelty perhaps is lost on me!

Normal price is US$75/pax (though there are cheaper rates for online/early bird) – it’s still cheaper than scuba diving or getting a license, but personally I’d save my money for that! Novel experience though and something to tick off the bucket list.

 

Parasailing

This isn’t actually offered by the hotel, but there are folk who wander along the beach offering you fun seasport activities in the afternoon while the tide is high. On Sunday there were at least 10 parasails in the air at any one point, so while we were keen, we decided to pass in favour of lazing by the pool.

And a good thing too because on Monday, the same guy was there, but this time he had a much reduced offer because of the slower weekday crowd – just 150,000 IDR (around S$15!), which is almost half of the weekend rate!

After paying up, we were zoomed off on a speedboat in a 5 min ride to a neighbouring beach where the parasailing took place. For this price, you get just one round (which feels like 5-10mins) in the air. I couldn’t bring up any cameras, but trust me when I say the view was GORGEOUS. You can see exactly how clear the water is as well! I wish I was up there for much longer, but for the price we paid, that wasn’t too bad :)

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Parasailing Gloves
Besides the harness, you are given a red glove for your left hand and blue glove for your right. As you are coming in to land, there is a lot of yelling from the guys on the ground to either pull RED or BLUE or neither depending on the wind direction so you don’t end up on the roof or in the sea.
Bali Grand Mirage Resort Parasailing Landing
A coming in to land!

Also worth checking out is their games room, which includes a pool table and Karaoke room. I would have done a spot of kayaking and windsurfing (free for all-inclusive) as well if I had a bit more time and wasn’t feeling so lazy!

 

PRICE

I checked the price for a weekend in June – the cheapest rooms (garden facing, no breakfast) go for just under S$100. If you are looking for a similar experience to mine though (deluxe ocean room, all inclusive), the day rate was around S$315. Without the all-inclusive, inc breakfast it was S$135, so while I like the idea of the all-inclusive, I think it’s only worthwhile if you intend to spend all your time in the resort and eat and drink to your hearts content!

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Beach Silhouette
Silhouette at sunset [taken with Casio EXILIM]

From my experience there, I’d recommend the Grand Mirage Resort for family travellers – there’s a lot happening in the resort to entertain the young and active, while there’s enough R&R options for the parents who just need a break. There always seems to be something happening around the place, but you can still always run off to the beach to chill out.

What was your Nusa Dua experience like? Leave a comment for fellow trip planners so they know what to do or avoid in Nusa Dua!

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Day Trip to Sintra for Castles and Princess Fantasieshttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/05/12/day-trip-to-sintra-for-castles-and-princess-fantasies/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/05/12/day-trip-to-sintra-for-castles-and-princess-fantasies/#comments Tue, 12 May 2015 02:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=17176 Spending the day in Sintra checking out the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace, and how you can plan your own day trip to Sintra and avoid the mistakes I made.

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A little bit of a throwback to my Portugal trip last year – one tip I had from a lot of people was to check out nearby Sintra while I was in Lisbon. Sintra is a small UNESCO World Heritage town that’s less than an hour away by train from Lisbon’s city centre, and it’s a popular day trip option for those who want to leave the buzz of busy Lisbon behind for history, green hills and fairytale-like castles.

Portugal - Sintra View of Moorish Castle
Kinda quaint, and is that a castle of some sorts right up there? Read on for more.

I’d done a little research beforehand and planned the day trip on a Monday, where lots of tourist stuff in Lisbon tends to be closed. We ended up making an unexpected detour to Cabo da Roca, but all in all it was a pretty fun trip.

Here is a rundown of what I saw there, and some tips for planning your own Sintra day trip.

 

CASTELO DOS MOUROS (MOORISH CASTLE)

Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Turret
Portugal – Sintra Moorish Castle Turret

Our first stop was Castelo dou Mouros aka the Moorish Castle, which turned out to be the building that we spotted from the ground. You can’t quite see the castle from the entrance – it takes a relatively pleasant walk in the shaded foliage of the Sintra-Cascais National Park or Serra de Sintra before you reach the actual castle walls. (side note: there are stairs that run up the cliff side which indicate that you could hike up to the Castle if you were so inclined. I am not inclined. At all.)

Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Jac Foliage
I like this pic Y took of me

You’ll pass by some historical bits and archaeological digs in your walk, and it is kinda hilly in bits, but trust me when I say the climbing is only just beginning…

Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Mossy Turrets
mossy turrets of old castle ruins

Finally at the walls of the castle, you are rewarded with an amazing panoramic view of Sintra and its surroundings. Absolutely worth the walk for!

Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Pano
Fabulous weather that day, a little hot for walking on the wall but made for great pix and super visibility
Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle View Town Centre
The town centre is right below – if you see the triangular white cone shape in the centre – that’s the National Palace of Sintra down in the historical centre that had a really long queue so we ended up skipping that

You can sit in the turrets of this old fortress and enjoy the magnificent view, and walk the length of the walls to reach its highest point. Again I reiterate, there is A LOT of climbing involved on old narrow stone stairs, make sure you have some good walking shoes, pace yourself and just take the time to soak in the view.

Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Walls
See that tower on top? Yeah that’s where we eventually made our way to! We are about… halfway along the wall at this point?
Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Window
That same peak but taken from one of the turrets. I like the pretty leafy border
Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Pose
Some encouragement to myself as we climb that final leg up to the peak…
Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Pena Palace View
Success! In the distance is the Pena Palace, which I’ll talk more about shortly

After that exhausting climb, we took a bit of a break in the cafe. It’s nothing special, but I just wanted to share a pic of this really friendly cat giving me a very judgmental look when I fished out my phone instead of the snacks it was hoping for:

Portugal - Sintra Moorish Castle Judging Cat
ack the focus is off, but that expression says it all

 

 

NATIONAL PALACE OF PENA

Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Colourful Exterior
Toy palace on top of a very high hill! The palace was once a former monastery, and you can tell which parts by the exterior colours – pink is for the former monastery while the ochre yellow is for the new palace constructed later

After the Moorish Castle, we take a 10min walk upslope towards the Palácio Nacional da Pena (National Palace of Pena) – you could hop onto the bus 434 again if you’re feeling tired but it’s not that far off, really. You can’t quite miss the distinct bright hues of the palace walls, making it seem almost toy-like from a distance.

Once more, slopes abound as you make your way from the entrance to the palace on top of the hill. There is a bus within the palace compound to take you up the slope but it costs a little extra and I honestly don’t think worth paying for unless you really need the help. The Pena Palace is the 2nd highest point in the Sintra hills, so you’ll have an even more panoramic view (if that is even possible) of the surrounding areas.

Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Merman Doorway
Scary merman above the archway. The ‘corals’ look very real indeed
Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Yellow Doorway
People were just a lot smaller back then! I am tiptoeing a bit but it’s still a pretty tiny doorway
Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Courtyard Arches
This courtyard was pretty popular for its arches and view
Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Selfie
me and Y can’t resist a great selfie :)
Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Moorish Palace View
There’s a ledge around the outside of the palace where you can walk around. Earlier we were at the Moorish Castle which you can see in the distance. Can you see just how much walking we must have done??

After walking around the outside of the palace, take a stroll inside the compound because the interior is super intricate and is a great mix of that Gothic Manueline (similar to the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem) and the colourful Moorish styles. This was the summer palace of Portuguese Royals back in the day.

Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Inner Courtyard
Cool quiet interior – this palace is quite a large place to walk around
Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Church
Love the combination of Gothic arches and Azulejo, which are Portuguese tiles inspired by the Moors
Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Mirror Selfie
This shot is less about the furnishing and more about the mirror selfie :P
Portugal - Sintra Pena Palace Ceiling Design
Remember to look up! you’ll spot some amazing things above you

 

After visiting these 2 places, we decided to head to Cabo da Roca, the Western-most point of the Europe/Asia landmass which you can read more about here, and then from there we headed to Cascais and then back to Lisbon at night.

There are other monuments in the Sintra area which we didn’t visit given that we only had one day and these were the easiest to get to. I think without the bus delays, we might have been able to squeeze in a visit to the National Palace in the city centre, or possibly have had more time in Cascais before it got dark…

 

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

Sintra is around 40mins by CP train from Lisbon. There are frequent trains that leave every hour from Rossio Station (the ornate station right next to Restauradores). From Sintra’s train station, you either take the Scotturb bus or a slow walk (15mins or so?) to the historical centre where all the action is. We reached Sintra about 10ish and visited the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. It was about 3pmish when we headed off to Cabo da Roca.

Portugal - Lisbon Rossio Train Station Door
I’m kinda fond of Rossio station for its ornate design. I actually stayed in a hostel located on its top floor – Destination Hostel is quite a good place and very centrally located

If you are going to follow what I did, which is basically use the CP train and Scotturb bus a whole lot, I suggest getting the 1-day bus/train pass for 15euros from the ticket office. It saves you a lot of trouble from having to buy individual tickets when taking the Scotturb bus services around Sintra (5 euros hop on hop off). The ticket out of Sintra’s town centre is 3.35 euros/adult

Portugal - Sintra Bus Map
we took the yellow line 434 which goes in a loop

You can drive as well – though parking is a bit of a headache in the historical centre with very limited lots and the roads in the hills are quite narrow, but it’s one way to avoid the often crowded buses that result in you either having to wait for the next bus (Europeans aren’t big on squeezing Asian-subway-style) or standing precariously as the bus winds its way around the hills.

Driving gives you much more flexibility when headed out of the city centre and it’s much more pleasant in the hills with less traffic and you don’t get stuck waiting around. We waited over an hour for the bus from Cabo da Roca to Cascais… not fun!

 

COSTS

Here’s what I spent – happy to hear if anyone else has better ways to save some money!

  • Combined ticket for Moorish Castle + Pena Palace – 18 euros/adult. (Moorish Castle only – 7.50 euros, Pena Palace only – 14 euros. If you are planning to see more than one place, consider a combined ticket
  • 1-day Bus/Train Pass (buy from Rossio ticket office) – 15 euros – this covered the CP train rides Lisbon(Rossio)>Sintra and Cascais>Lisbon(Cais de Sodre), as well as the various Scotturb bus rides within Sintra, to Cabo da Roca and finally to Cascais.
    • For CP train, a single one-way ticket from Lisbon>Sintra costs 2.15 euros
    • For Bus 434, a single loop ticket (hop-on/hop-off) costs 5 euros while a single trip (from point A to point B) costs 3 euros. See this useful guide for details.

If you have tips for visiting Sintra, please share them here! My experience is only so limited and it seems like there’s so much more to see in this region so I have to go back again some time :)

 

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How I Learned to Surf in Balihttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/05/07/surf-in-bali-indasurf/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/05/07/surf-in-bali-indasurf/#comments Thu, 07 May 2015 02:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16880 Catching waves at Kuta Beach - How I discovered my inner surfer girl when I learned to surf in Bali with Indasurf

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I never knew I wanted to be a surfer girl until I picked up a surfboard.

(thanks Hugo and Indasurf for the awesome videos and photos!)

It turns out that surfing is kinda addictive. I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline rush you get from your first successful wobbly stand all the way to shore, or just my strange personal need to master a skill when I put my mind to it (slacklining, you’re next), but the next time I go back to Bali, I’m definitely setting some time aside for surfing lessons.

It seems a bit ludicrous that I’d never attempted to learn how to surf in Bali until now, despite having visited Bali several times in recent years. I love a good water sport – scuba diving, wakeboarding… even a little banana boating – that’s all been checked off the list. But I’d never picked up a surfboard for some reason.

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Beach Hut
Doesn’t this view inspire lounging and laziness?

Perhaps it’s about the company you keep and the reason you visit a place. With friends and family, Bali trips tend to revolve around communal lounging in pools and on beaches and with extended weekends, there isn’t usually time to fit in surfing lessons when you’re spending all that time chillaxing. Sometimes the opportunity nearly arose but somehow always fell through.

So when Hugo from Indasurf dropped me a note right before I was headed up to Bali offering to teach me to surf, I knew I had to seize this moment. No more procrastinating, I was finally going to learn to do it!

Yet again I didn’t have much time to spare over the Good Friday weekend, the arrangement was a fairly last minute affair so Indasurf were pretty booked up, but they managed to squeeze me and A in one morning to give us a taste of our very first surf lesson.

Indasurf is located in Canggu which is North of Seminyak, but since we were staying all the way in Nusa Dua, Hugo suggested heading to Kuta Beach early in the morning. And by early I mean that I had to wake up at 5am, which made for a really groggy start but hell if the sunrise wasn’t amazing:

Bali Grand Mirage Resort Sunrise
the reward for waking at such an unearthly hour is this orangey mirror-like reflection of the sky on the water

The sun continued to rise as we drove about 30mins to Kuta Beach, the streets were quiet and uncongested during this early morning hour, quite unlike what you might see in the afternoon.

Bali Indasurf Surfboard
Best way to balance the foam board is on your head! Indra trotted out these boards made of foam as they are more floaty and easier for newbies to deal with

Kuta Beach was similarly peaceful, with nothing to disrupt the bird cries and wave sounds – I really enjoy a good empty beach. In addition, the usually powerful surf is much less strong in the mornings, which is ideal for beginner surfers like myself.

Our instructor was Indra, an Indonesian chap with wild curly locks and a big passion for surfing. He’d been teaching surfing for awhile so he definitely knew what he was doing. While Hugo herself loves a good surf, she spent this lesson photographing and videoing us, which is a part of the Indasurf package that lets you have great mementos of your surf lesson and the footage helps you improve your form – nothing makes you improve more quickly than watching yourself wipe out in the videos.

Bali Indasurf Lessons on Stance
Indra showing us how to position our legs properly – the basic principle is keep your centre low and don’t point your feet forward

The first part of the lesson was basic posture before you hit the water – mainly laying down on the board, mock paddling in the sand and learning how to spring from a prone position on the board to a standing position. To tell the truth, the basics aren’t hard to understand in theory, but the execution is a lot tougher to master. It really is about practicing and committing the movements to muscle memory so you can do the same when you’re out on the water.

(You’ll try, but most likely the first time you hit a wave you’re probably gonna throw all that practice out the window and tumble into the water, which is what I proceeded to do)

But you’ll get the hang of it eventually, and hopefully manage to hang on for a cool pose:

Bali Indasurf Surfing
whee surfing! you might feel a little dumb crouching low on the board, but it sure does help you from tipping into the waves

Surprisingly, I managed to stand a fair bit on my first go out, yay! It’s beginners luck as I managed to tip off the board in most embarrassing ways throughout the day, but despite that I do manage a few successful attempts at standing almost all the way to shore.

Indasurf generally prefers small group lessons, which is ideal because you get more personal attention from the instructor – this lesson me and A took turns trying to stand up as Indra patiently coaxed us up onto the boards and told us how not to keep falling into the water.

Bali Indasurf Lesson Time
Break time – Indra giving some wise advice which we try to heed

In total we spent about 3 hours out at the beach, and while it doesn’t sound like a very long time, falling into the water is tiring business and both me and A were pretty whacked by the end of the session!

Bali Indasurf Beached
Here I am, tired but stoked

We pack up the surfboards and change out of the wet rashguards which Indasurf had kindly loaned us, and Hugo and Indra drop us back at the hotel at the end of the session.

Bali Indasurf Carrying Surfboards
successful surf lesson!

I would have loved to spend more time surfing, I think you can definitely get better results with repeated practice in subsequent days. There is still so much to achieve – using a proper surfboard, conquering the paddling, larger waves… I’m hooked!

Bali Indasurf Hugo Indra
Thanks Hugo and Indra, rock on!

So if you’re headed to Bali and want to get wet and wild away from the beach bars, why not give surfing a shot? There are lots of surfing instructors and companies that you’ll run into both on the beaches and your hotel would probably have some recs too – sometimes I find these a little bit dodgy, but I had a great experience with Indasurf and if you’d like to give them a shot, check out their website here.

For a similar package to the one described in this post, for two beginners which includes the videos/photos, surf board rental and instruction, it costs US$90 for two pax (US$60 for a single pax – so hopefully you’re with a friend because it’s more fun anyway!). I would consider the 3-day White Water Hero package at US$240 for 2 pax if I had more time (which translates to just US$30 more for 2 extra days!).

Besides teaching newbie surfers, they are happy to take intermediate and pro level surfers on and seek out some of the more hidden spots for you! If you’re on a budget and just want to spend all your time surfing, you can even consider staying at their guesthouse up in Canggu.

Best of all, I managed to negotiate a bit of a PERK from them – Indasurf is offering 7% discount to my readers – you know the drill, all you need to do is sign up for TOTmail and you’ll get awesome discounts alongside regular post updates on better travel for the busy person!

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Eating Local with Traveling Spoon in Hong Kong’s New Territorieshttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/30/eating-local-with-traveling-spoon-in-hong-kongs-new-territories/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/30/eating-local-with-traveling-spoon-in-hong-kongs-new-territories/#comments Thu, 30 Apr 2015 02:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16878 Experiencing Hong Kong's famous cuisine through a home-cooked meal and cooking lessons thanks to Traveling Spoon and Grace.

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Food is often the best and probably the most fun way to learn about a new culture when you travel – Hong Kong is famous for its cuisine, whether it’s Hong Kong Cafes (Cha Chan Teng) or amazing dim sum restaurants, and I’ve had my fair share of all that in my various visits to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Sun Kee Cheese Noodles
Sun Kee cheese noodles from Tsim Tsa Tsui, mmhmm
Hong Kong Tsui Wah Bolo Bao
Famous Bolo Bao from Tsui Wah

Previously I was approached by the folk from Traveling Spoon who are all about sharing culture through local food experiences, because I wasn’t travelling then, they linked me up with a Singapore host to enjoy a home cooked meal of local delicacies by a lovely Singaporean lady. Now I could see it being a great experience for visitors to Singapore who were new to our food, but it wasn’t particularly revelatory for me.

So I approached them again when I was headed to Hong Kong, and this time they linked me up with a Hong Kong host so I could see a more local and home-cooked view on HK’s cuisine. I also requested if the host could be located out of the central area if possible, so I would have the chance to explore Hong Kong a bit more – What I like is that you can be a bit more specific about the type of experience you are looking for, and they’ll do their best to match you up with someone appropriate.

Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Cookbook
Grace’s cook book which she kindly gifted to me

Traveling Spoon linked me up with Grace Choy who lives out in the New Territories and has gained herself quite a following, with over 175,000 people following her on her facebook profile and a cookbook of recipes to her name.

Hong Kong Traveling Spoon ChoyChoy Kitchen
We totally walked past this little place the first time round and ended up a bit lost

A and I found ourselves at her little Choy Choy Kitchen storefront in Kam Sheung Road one rainy afternoon – Grace used to run a mixed-goods store and a little eatery here and owned the upstairs room as well, but since then she’s sold off the upstairs room and only does private dinner engagements on appointment at the little kitchen she has left.

Hong Kong Traveling Spoon with Grace
My weird expression is because I totally had something in my teeth at this point

For this particular Traveling Spoon experience, we were expecting a meal and cooking lesson for two dishes, but alongside trying our hand at cooking, we ended up being fed a veritable slew of delicious food we could hardly say no to. It was Asian hospitality at its finest and at its purest desire to ensure guests are filled to the brim with good grub – here’s what Grace had prepared for our arrival:

Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Soup
really awesome hearty double boiled soup with fungus to stave off the chill from the rain
Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Plum Wine Container
what is in this weird container?
Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Plum Wine
home brewed plum wine which has been stewing for 2 whole years! very awesome and tasty
Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Scallop
scallops with caviar and tomatos, fancy~
Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Chicken
chicken with spinach
Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Prawns
amazing tiger prawns which weren’t actually planned for but just happened to be available in the market that morning!
Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Giant Tiger Prawn
like look how big the prawn is!

We ate in the porch area, facing the main road and people-watching as we ate. Some hopeful passers-by eager to get out of the rain asked if there was food being served, though sadly they had to be turned away. The indoor area is literally her entire kitchen and a rather small one at that – it was a bit of a squeeze for the three of us in this space – her helper poked her head in to the window from outside when we were in the kitchen.

Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Table
The main table in the porch. A is perusing the cookbook. The entire kitchen is made up of the room behind the table!
Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Cutting Onions
Getting to work – chopping onions with Grace’s supervision

Grace’s view on food is quite practical – dishes that are simple to prepare and don’t require too much prep work and fancy equipment. She also believes in healthy food – not too much seasoning or additional condiments, but by no means does that compromise on the taste of her dishes, my extremely full belly can attest to that.

The first dish we prepared was flower crabs in steam egg:

Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Crabs
Crab! This is a pretty simple dish to make really

 

The second dish we prepared was minced pork patties with lotus root.

Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Grace Cooking
Grace mixing up the minced pork
Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Pork Chicken Crab
Awesome fried pork patties with the chicken and crab in the background

There was so much to eat between the two of us that we had to bring the extras back! Topping off the meal was this homemade ice cream – in ginger flavour (surprising, interesting) and cucumber (really cucumbery)

Hong Kong Traveling Spoon Ginger Cucumber Ice Cream
the greenish bits are cucumber ice cream, the yellowish bits are ginger. interesting but not really to my taste!

After all that, Grace even took the time to bring us around the Kam Sheung Road neighbourhood, which is not a part of the paid experience but a kind gesture on her part as a local to introduce her neighbourhood. Look out for the next post on things you can do in the New Territories to find out more about what we explored!

It made for a pretty fun afternoon and I really enjoyed it – definitely something different than what one might expect from a trip to Hong Kong! Big thanks to the Traveling Spoon folk for setting up this complimentary experience for me :)

 

Getting to Kam Sheung Road

Take the MTR on the magenta West Rail Line to Kam Sheung Road Station. Take Exit B at the back and walk along the little winding footpath to the main road where you turn right. Choy Choy Kitchen is on the left side of the road.

More about Traveling Spoon

To get in touch with Grace and have a private dining experience with Choy Choy Kitchen, you can go through Traveling Spoon to set up a reservation (15% discount if you’re my email subscriber! Check out the Perks page or sign up here) or get in touch with her here.

 

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What to do on a Weekend Getaway to Koh Samuihttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/20/what-to-do-on-a-weekend-getaway-to-koh-samui/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/20/what-to-do-on-a-weekend-getaway-to-koh-samui/#comments Mon, 20 Apr 2015 02:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16825 Need a quick getaway? Koh Samui is just 2 hours away from Singapore - here's what you can do if you have just one weekend to enjoy this beachy paradise.

The post What to do on a Weekend Getaway to Koh Samui appeared first on The Occasional Traveller.

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As a working person with limited number of leave days, I’m always happy whenever I manage to do a quick weekend getaway – it may be short and doesn’t leave much time for exploration, but sometimes you just need that quick rejuvenation.

So when Skyscanner Singapore invited me up to Koh Samui for a quick weekend getaway, I was pretty stoked! While I have been to Bangkok multiple times and Phuket twice, I haven’t actually seen that much of Thailand, so definitely YES to adding a third city to my list!

GETTING TO KOH SAMUI

Koh Samui (aka Samui Island) is just 2 hours away from Singapore along the southern tip of Thailand, so it makes for a convenient spot for a quick weekend jaunt. Surprisingly though, not many airlines fly direct to Koh Samui from Singapore, so prices aren’t as competitive as spots like Bali or Bangkok which have many more options for you.

Skyscanner Cheapest Day to Fly
Quick tip: What I usually do is check prices on Skyscanner Singapore just to get a sense of how much I need to spend on flights. There is a function that also lets you see when is the cheapest time to travel, so if you have more flexibility with dates/times, this is an easy way to see your options! Also to consider, the price alert which emails you when the prices drops to your desired level so you don’t even have to constantly monitor… score!

I flew up courtesy of Bangkok Airways on Friday evening around 9pm after work and reached Singapore on Sunday evening around dinner time, with time to unpack and rest enough to head back to the office the next day. Ideally I would take an additional day off on Friday morning so you have more time to relax, but this is helpful if you’re out of leave days to take!

  • Bangkok Airways PG 0962: SIN > USM 2010 – 2105hrs
  • Bangkok Airways PG 0961: USM > SIN 1630 – 1920hrs
Koh Samui - Bangkok Airways Plane
I kinda like this shot with the sunset glinting off the plane body that I caught as we were getting on the plane and leaving Koh Samui

Even if you’re booked on another airline, it’s pretty likely you’ll end up on Bangkok Airways as they have the most flights to Koh Samui (they do own the airport after all) and code-share with several of the larger airlines. It was my first time flying this boutique airline (read: boutique does not equal budget) and I was quite impressed overall with the service.

Koh Samui - Bangkok Airways Food
You know you’ve been flying budget too long when you forget that you can get served food on the plane without having to dig out your wallet!

Also, Samui International Airport is adorable – the moment you step off the plane, you feel like you’re in a resort already, from the open-air, little hut like buildings, to the very happy looking trams that transport you to and from the planes. Also, they have complimentary food both on and off the plane for guests, which is always a plus point!

Koh Samui - Bangkok Airways Tram
Look at these little resort like trams!
Koh Samui - Bangkok Airways Free Food
You can help yourself to the food and drinks! Our Bangkok Airways contact managed to give us lounge access, where you have the same free food/drink access but in a quieter area with more comfortable seating

 

 

STAYING IN KOH SAMUI

Skyscanner kindly put me up at the Renaissance Koh Samui Resort & Spa which is a quick 20 mins drive south from the airport. It was at the hotel lobby where I met my fellow travel blogger Ally of Allyoffduty who would be my travel companion for the weekend.

Koh Samui - Renaissance Welcome Ice Cream
First time I had Welcome ice cream, which is such a good idea given the heat~ it was home made and awesome

I was in Room 310, a Deluxe Garden View room, and this room was pretty large and comfortable, spacious enough to walk around. There’s a bedroom with a separate open concept bathroom. There is also a balcony with some chairs and a jacuzzi! I spent a lovely time that first night reading and soaking in an absolutely hot bath. If there had been a sea view, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to leave my room at all…

In case you’re wondering, internet room rates for Deluxe rooms are going at about 4,900 – 6,800 THB last I checked over the weekend, which is about S$200 – S$280 per night depending on whether you want breakfast or a sea view. If you spring for a villa, you’re looking at 8,000 – 22,800 THB (approx S$300 – S$950). One odd thing though is that they charge for wi-fi (in this age? I know right) unless you’re a Marriott Rewards member, so sign up before you go (it’s free to sign up)

Koh Samui - Renaissance Bed
King sized bed! It was huge and made for sprawling
Koh Samui - Renaissance Bedroom
The curtains on the left open up to the balcony
Koh Samui - Renaissance Balcony
Balcony from the bedroom. It connects to the Jacuzzi patio on the right.
Koh Samui - Renaissance Balcony Panorama
View from my room – it was fairly private because it didn’t seem like anyone walked along that particular path that lay just under my balcony – one of the pools in the resort is off to the right hand side
Koh Samui - Renaissance Jacuzzi
The jacuzzi on the balcony. note the blinds that do not go down all the way and the balcony overlooks a public area, so keep your bikini on!

Service at the hotel in general was very pleasant, very polite and cheery staff. They also kept us very well fed on this trip – generally every time I’m in Thailand, whether it’s Bangkok or Phuket or Koh Samui, I always leave feeling like I’ve put on a few kilos from eating awesome Thai food. We ate breakfast and lunch at Banana Leaf Restaurant, and had dinner outdoors at TawaNN to the setting sun.

Koh Samui - Renaissance Mango
Mango snacks courtesy of the hotel delivered to the room. Soooo yummy!
Koh Samui - Renaissance Breakfast
Definitely go for the breakfast buffet which is held in the Banana Leaf restaurant. There is a huge selection of fresh foods (one of the better hotel breakfast buffet spreads I’ve seen) and definitely try the Samui Eggs Benedict, a house special which involves some Thai curry sauce which is amazing.
Koh Samui - Renaissance Lobster
Saturday night was LOBSTER NIGHT at Tawann, and this behemoth of a Thermidor Lobster was really good and so, so, so filling. I managed like half of that >_<

I managed to explore the hotel grounds a little on Sunday morning when we had a bit of time to ourselves. Sadly the sun was not so cooperative so it was pretty grey all around, only choosing to get sunny as we were leaving, boo~

Koh Samui - Renaissance Pool
The infinity pool by the beach – hardly had much time to do anything, so I could merely lounge by the pool >_<
Koh Samui - Renaissance Spa
We were treated to a lovely Thai massage in Quan spa. Nice spacious rooms and good masseuses, definitely what I needed after all that walking in Hong Kong the week before!
Koh Samui - Renaissance Beach Shore
Walking the beach at the Renaissance. I walked all the way to the edge of the headland in the upper right corner. There are some other hotels/bars along the stretch, but it’s pretty quiet in the day.

1-DAY SIGHTSEEING OF KOH SAMUI

Since we technically only had 1 full day to do any sort of sightseeing, Renaissance arranged for us to tour the island via their RNavigator programme, which basically involves a guide (the Navigator) creating a customized programme to bring you around the island. I like that it’s not a fixed itinerary and there’s no need to liaise with a separate operator, and our guide Aod managed a pretty good mix of touristy and more local things to do here, so I quite enjoyed our day tour around the island!

You can visit most of these places on your own if you hire a driver to get around or take private tours, but according to Aod, the hotel does offer pretty competitive prices so definitely something for consideration. Here’s where Aod took us:

 

Chaweng Viewpoint

Aod explained he usually liked to stop at this viewpoint for guests coming from the airport to enjoy a great view of the island as a warm welcome. It was pitch black by the time we reached Koh Samui the night before, so it was nice to take in quite a majestic view of the Eastern shore of Samui. To the left, you can actually see a hint of Chaweng Beach.

Koh Samui - RNavigator Viewpoint
All that water! It was kinda cloudy though
Koh Samui - RNavigator Viewpoint Pavilion
Pavilion to mark the viewpoint. You can walk down some stairs to the beach/water’s side here

 

Hin Ta and Hin Yai

We headed back south past our hotel till we reached Lamai to see the famous Hin Ta (grandfather) and Hin Yai (grandmother) rocks. There were lots of tourists there – you had to enter a rather narrow lane which led to the beach, and as with all tourist attractions, a little lane of shops surrounds the entrance to the area.

There’s a whole love story legend about how these rocks came to be named, but lest you think that you are going to look at rocks shaped like loving little old people, I’ll warn you first that it’s a little more graphic and genitalia like than that… The rocks are the main attraction set amidst a beautiful sea view, but other than that and poking around the little shops, that’s not much else to do here.

Koh Samui - RNavigator Hinta
You should be able to make out Hin Ta, standing erect in the distance
Koh Samui - RNavigator Hinyai
and you should also be able to see why this one is female. For some context, Hin Ta is on a small outcrop to the left of this picture, less than 100m away. It’s quite remarkable that such aptly shaped rocks are so close to each other!
Koh Samui - RNavigator Hinta Hinyai Puffer Fish
This puffer hanging ornament was for sale, it’s kinda scary but cute

 

Namuang Waterfall

We drove further inland, leaving the sand and sea behind and headed to Namuang reserve, a forested area which was pretty humid in the afternoon. There are two waterfalls located here, and we headed to #1, a short walk from the car park. Aod used to live around here and talked about how he used to swim in the waterfall pool here quite frequently as a child. You can still do that, and we spotted the more monkey-like people climbing around the trees there. The pool makes a nice respite from the humidity of the forest!

Koh Samui - RNavigator Namuang Waterfall Sign
This way to Namuang
Koh Samui - RNavigator Namuang Waterfall Shops
The tourist shops at the entrance
Koh Samui - RNavigator Namuang Waterfall
Namuang namtok, or the purple waterfalls, so called because of the tint of the rocks beneath it. The falls were rather dry when we were there – Aod says there is usually more water!

 

Peak Eye View Restaurant

Moving even further away from the beaches, Aod took us up towards the central more hilly parts of the island. We headed up, up, up along winding roads until we came to the Peak Eye View Restaurant. Perhaps it was the odd timing, but there was no one there that day but us. The restaurant is famous for its location perched on top of the hills which gives you a fabulous 360 view of the island below.

Koh Samui - RNavigator Peak Eye View Restaurant
Look out for this sign and take a short walk up a path to the restaurant.

It was kinda cloudy when we were there unfortunately so our view wasn’t great, but on a properly sunny day I can imagine it being quite impressive. You can have lunch there and the view comes for free – if you’re just there to go up to their viewing platform, there’s a small charge.

Koh Samui - RNavigator Peak Eye View
Looking out of the treetops, pity about the grey clouds looming

 

Think & Retro Cafe Lipa Noi

Finally it was lunch time, and we headed over to the cutest little cafe over on the west coast of Samui called Think & Retro Cafe (not a typo there). From the outside it looks like a bunch of containers stacked together, but it really is quite a charming place by the beach side with an absolutely beautiful white sandy beach. The water was super calm and glass like, so of course I had to have a bit of a wade.

Koh Samui - RNavigator Think Cafe
Think Cafe from the beach
Koh Samui - RNavigator Think Cafe Beach
The sun came out at the right time – the beach was super lovely and uncrowded
Koh Samui - RNavigator Think Cafe Dog
And of course this little cutie called Lucky who belongs to the cafe and took a nap under our table

 

Magic Alambic Rum Distillery

Something a little bit unexpected in Thailand is the Magic Alambic rum distillery (now going by the name Koh Samui Rum Distillery as per their website) in Ban Thale, the southern bit of Samui. It doesn’t seem to have any official tours and it was quite empty when we were there – you can taste the rather unusual rums that they make on site though.

I tried several different flavours – coconut, pineapple, orange and lemon rum. I liked the pineapple best of the lot, but I think it tastes even better when mixed with this special home made cane sugar juice (you can buy it in a bottle – our guide did!). They also serve up French food here, though we didn’t get to try this time around, so it makes a nice spot to consider having a meal and some rum tasting.

Koh Samui - RNavigator Rum
All the rum! It’s not a particularly fancy or touristy place, just a bunch of tables under shelter and a counter with rum on it

 

Coconut Farming

I have no idea where this place was, but it doesn’t look like very much from the outside, just a whole pile of coconuts alongside a few huts. You’ll see a few monkeys nearby the trees on a leash, and they are trained to pluck coconuts from the trees and loosen it. One of the owners gave us a bit of a demo – they train the monkey to hang off your arm and using its feet, it spins the coconut and tadah! One loose coconut falls to the ground. The unhusking work still is a matter of human labour, and it remains one of Koh Samui’s top exports.

Koh Samui - RNavigator Coconuts
I’ve got a lovely (huge) bunch of coconuts!
Koh Samui - RNavigator Coconut Farm Monkey
The monkey does a very efficient job of loosening the coconut. I elected not to have it hang off my arm as a demo though, I felt a bit sorry for them as they were leashed up, and this one in particular was a bit aggressive (still in training apparently) and very intelligently managed a strategic jumpkick or two at us (poor Ally) even though it was leashed at the neck

 

Fisherman’s Wharf

Finally we end the tour by heading up north to Fisherman’s Wharf or Fisherman’s Village in Bophut. They’ve built a very fancy open air mall called The Wharf which makes for nice shopping if that’s your thing, or you can walk down the road to the ‘original’ Fisherman’s Village stretch, which is a row of bars/restaurants facing the beach so you can enjoy a great view with your nosh. We were pretty tired from all that travelling (we literally covered all ends of the island!), so I happily sat down for a Chang Beer.

Koh Samui - RNavigator The Wharf
Fancy new mall. Doesn’t feel like Thailand at all but it is very pretty

 

Koh Samui - RNavigator Chilling
Waiting for our drinks. Ally is failing to look candid

Here’s my handy dandy map of all the places we visited. I didn’t list the Peak Eye View and Coconut Farm because I couldn’t find any location information on them >_< If anyone has recommendations on what else you can do in Koh Samui with just a weekend to spare, drop a comment and share! I’d love to go back there again, it’s so nearby and so, so lovely :)

 

Thanks again to Skyscanner and the lovely Pamela for sponsoring and organizing the entire trip. Also to the lovely Stephanie from Renaissance who took good care of us throughout the trip, and Aod our trusty navigator who knows all the shortcuts on the island. Thanks to Golf from Bangkok Airways who also took the time to hang out with us.

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The Dawson and Alexandra Heritage Trail – a walk through Singapore’s historyhttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/17/dawson-and-alexandra-heritage-trail/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/17/dawson-and-alexandra-heritage-trail/#comments Fri, 17 Apr 2015 02:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16883 Exploring Singapore's history along the Dawson and Alexandra Heritage Trail by My Queenstown. From curved blocks to hidden bunkers and more!

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I often marvel at the fact that while Singapore is comparatively so small to many other places, there are still a surprising number of places in this little country that I haven’t visited despite living here all my life.

While I was away in Bali over the long Easter weekend, I got my good friend Pet to check out the launch of the Dawson and Alexandra Heritage Trail by the Queenstown folk, which happens to be conveniently in her ‘hood.

This little township in the Western part of Singapore has a surprising amount of history tucked in its midst, and just reading her account makes me wish I could have experienced the tour for myself! I’ll let her tell you more about it below.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Poster


 Pet:

Last weekend, J (Jac>> that’s Pet’s friend J and not me) and I spent our Saturday morning on the Dawson and Alexandra guided tour, jointly organised by My Community, The Other Sites of Singapore and Queenstown Citizens’ Consultative Committee.

Having spent a good half of my life growing up in Queenstown, I was pretty excited to take the tour. I must admit, I’ve become so accustomed to the scenery in my neighbourhood that it kind of blends into the background whenever I pass by. I was looking forward to revisiting these familiar sights and viewing them with new eyes.

We gathered at Queenstown MRT at 8.20 in the morning (J wilting a little at the early morning wake-up call). There, the organisers quickly distributed some handy dandy audio guides and earphones (like the kind you get in the museums in Europe) together with a nicely put together brochure detailing the places we would be later be visiting.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Audio Guide
The audio guide transmitted what the guide and interviewees were saying up to a pretty wide radius (around 300m, according to our guide). Fantastic for those of us who fell behind while taking photos – it saved us from missing a thing.

Our first stop was at the former Forfar House. What is now a towering 40-storey HDB flat used to be a modest 14-storey building in 1956, which was then the tallest residential building in Singapore, and earned the nickname “Chap Si Lau” (???, or “fourteenth storey” in Hokkien). Forfar House also broke ground in other ways, having modern sanitary systems and lifts that were not seen in Singapore in the 1950s.

Dawson Alexandra Trail Forfar Heights
Like most street names in Queenstown, Forfar Heights has a royal connection. In this case, Forfar was apparently a small town in Scotland near the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

According to our guide, being the tallest residential building in Singapore also had the unintended consequence of attracting some troubled people with suicidal tendencies. For the superstitious, this was chalked up to the building bearing the unlucky number 14 (which, in Chinese, means “sure die”. Apparently this is even worse than just the number 4!).

 

Our next stop was Princess House, a 7-storey building along Commonwealth Avenue. Princess House was the first dedicated headquarters for the Housing Development Board (HDB), later becoming a multi-purpose building in 1957 which housed both government departments and offices open to the public.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Princess House
Check out the unique U-shaped roof which can also be used as a viewing deck. Water is somehow able to drain from this, though I’m not entirely sure how…

As the headquarters for HDB, Princess House hosted several foreign dignitaries such as Prince Phillip, Princess Margaret (for whom the building and the entire former Princess Estate was named), and former UK Prime Minister Edward Heath.

 

En route to our next stop, we paused briefly at the seemingly unremarkable junction of Dawson Road and Alexandra Road, close to where the Hyundai building now stands. I must have driven past this spot more than a hundred times without realising that this was the starting point of the infamous Hock Lee bus riots, a major riot in Singapore during the 1950s (and one we all were made to read about in history class).

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Hock Lee Bus Riot Spot
Innocuous spot with a whole lot of history behind it

For those who didn’t study in Singapore (or fell asleep in history a lot like I did), on 23 April 1955, disgruntled bus drivers from Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company staged a peaceful demonstration at the bus depot located at the junction of Dawson Road and Alexandra Road to protest against their poor working conditions, long hours and low pay. Unfortunately, this turned violent when the riot police stepped in to break up the protests using water cannons and tear gas on 12 May 1955, leading to a riot which ended in the tragic death of two police officers.

 
Turning in towards the Strathmore estate, our guide, Eu Chai, stopped to show us some pictures of the old HDB flats that used to line the streets. Now, massive blocks of HDBs dominate the skyline.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Eu Chai
Such a stark contrast to the behemoth new blocks that tower behind!
Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Sky Terrace Skyville
Sky Terrace and Skyville @ Dawson, privately built HDBs that look so impressive, it’s hard to believe they’re public housing.

 

A short walk along a gorgeous tree-lined road later, we reached what was definitely the highlight of the tour! This was the first stop that was truly new for me – the hidden barracks along Kay Siang Road. I must confess, it came as a real surprise that there were unexplored barracks tucked away so close to “civilisation”. (jac>> unfortunately, you might not be able to see this on your own as it is apparently located on private land…)

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Gated Entrance
The gated entrance – look at how close it is to Sky Terrace!

We scrambled through the fence with some help from Eu Chai, and the reason behind the ominous “thick vegetation” warning in our pre-tour email became immediately clear. We entered into a mini-forest of sorts, where the vegetation was indeed so dense that the ground was wet even though it hadn’t rained in a couple of days.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Hidden Barracks Bush
Definitely not for those with mobility issues.

There was no marked path, so we followed the guide in single file and tried to keep from slipping on the wet leaves or getting smacked in the face by branches. If you are me and emit a supernatural beacon for all stinging, biting creatures (jac>> you should see her reaction to jellyfish stings when we go diving! Truly amazingly frightening.), you will also have the additional challenge of “not tripping over a tree root while walk-stomping on the ants and mosquitoes” to overcome.

(Bring repellent. I cannot stress this enough.)

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Hidden Barracks Trail
Parts of the trail were too steep, so they tied ropes to a tree for us to brace our weight against while crossing over

Thankfully, the bunkers were only a short distance away. Oddly enough, to-date, no one has any idea why the bunkers were built at all. “Most likely storage bunkers during the war… but still, nobody really knows…” Eu Chai mused. *cue X-Files music*

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Hidden Barracks
Two of three bunkers on the trail. The first bunker had more or less rotted away, leaving only the front facade and some side beams held together by tree roots and prayer. The second bunker, built into the side of a hill (most likely to keep the contents of the bunker cool), was more intact.

We could enter the second bunker, but while waiting my turn, I heard some faint screeches of “lizard!” emanating from inside, and wasn’t convinced that my trusty aerosol repellent could overcome that. There was also a third bunker further up, but the next group arrived and we got shooed out to make way for them :(

Emerging from the trail slightly scratched, sweaty and sticky, we were all pretty happy to see that the nice people organising the tour had mini buses and water waiting for us. We hopped in gratefully and were driven to our next stop.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Bus
Thank goodness for transport and water!

 

Along the way, our guide Eu Chai, who grew up along Stirling Road, treated us to some trivia about Queenstown. Queenstown was the first satellite town created by the government, back when these things were pretty much experimental. Consequently, Queenstown is the only town in Singapore without a town centre. Unlike other towns in Singapore, Queenstown also doesn’t have very clear boundaries and it’s difficult to say exactly where it begins and ends.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Tiong Ghee Temple
Tiong Ghee Temple entrance

We then alighted at Tiong Ghee Temple along Stirling Road. The temple is Queenstown’s oldest Taoist temple, although the temple that stands at the present site was only built in 1973. Prior to that, the temple stood where Mei Ling estate currently stands.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Tiong Ghee Temple Lanterns
The many lanterns hanging from the entrance of the temple

We then moved on to the Butterfly Block (Block 168A Queensway), so called because the twin curves of the blocks resemble a butterfly. This was one of the first curved-shape blocks constructed by HDB.

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Butterfly Block
Curved blocks with the ‘body’ of a butterfly
Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Paul Fernandez
Mr Paul Fernandez, who has been living in the Butterfly Block for more than 40 years now, regaled our group with lively stories of his memories of living in Queenstown and the nearby Alexandra village.

A short walk from the Butterfly Block brought us to Queensway Shopping Centre. Having always played one form of sports or another, this was definitely a familiar sight to me (I just went there yesterday, in fact).

Queensway Shopping Centre was built in 1974 and was one of Singapore’s first multi-purpose shopping complexes (the others are Golden Mile and Katong). Its distinct octagonal facade is thought to have links to fengshui practices (ba gua).

Just across the road from Queensway Shopping Centre stands Anchorpoint Shopping Centre. To my delight (and slight dismay), I learnt that that was where the former Archipelago Brewery Company used to stand. The site was chosen due to its close proximity to the old KTM railway tracks, providing convenient transportation links for the export of beer.

Our guide informed us that after the brewing took place at the main plant (where Anchorpoint now stands), bottled beer was then transported via a wooden overhead conveyor belt across the road to the canning line (where IKEA now stands). How awesome is that? Friends, for my next birthday, I would like a conveyor belt to bring freshly brewed beer to my house please.

 

Our last stop was the idyllic Alexandra Hospital. For those of you who have been there, I think you’d probably agree that the general feel of Alexandra Hospital is quite a far cry from the usual sterile atmosphere that people think of when they think of hospitals. The grounds are lush and green, and the entire thing looks more like a colonial-style resort rather than a hospital compound!

Dawson-Alexandra Trail - Alexandra Hospital
Dawson-Alexandra Trail – Alexandra Hospital

 

Unfortunately, Alexandra Hospital has had a rather brutal history. As a former military hospital, it was the target of an attack that has been described as “the largest and most awful massacre of British troops in World War II”. Within a short 30-minute span, more than 200 patients and personnel were killed by attacking Japanese platoons.

Today, the hospital still operates as a civilian hospital, and is affectionately known as the “Hospital in a Garden”. Interestingly enough, we were told at the end of our tour that an extensive network of tunnels exists under the hospital. Previously thought to be a means of escape from the hospital, the tunnels are now understood to be confined underneath the administrative block, suggesting that they were most likely used to get around within the hospital or for storage.

The Alexandra Hospital Tunnels will be most likely be opening up to the public (and featuring on the trail) later this year. Something to look forward to, for those who take the tour later!

Alexandra Hospital marked the end of the tour, after which the mini buses popped up again and dropped us back at Queenstown MRT.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable morning out. I was reminded that despite having lived in Queenstown for a cumulative 15 years, there was still so much I didn’t know about the place. While I’m not sure how much interest this would hold for someone completely unfamiliar with the area, I definitely had a blast learning about the (admittedly brief) history of my ‘hood.


 

The Dawson and Alexandra Guided Tour operates on the last Saturday of every month, and is free and open to the public. You can register for the tours at www.myqueenstown.eventbrite.sg, by email at myqueenstown@gmail.com, or call Queenstown Community Centre at 6474 1681. Do note that, according to the latest update on the My Queenstown Facebook page, all 900 slots for 2015 have been snapped up and the waiting list is half as long, and the next available tours are in 2016!

Would love to hear any stories if you were/are a resident there now or just enjoying exploring the area! Do share here. :)

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Hong Kong Street Art – Sheung Wan and Centralhttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/14/hong-kong-street-art-sheung-wan-and-central/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/14/hong-kong-street-art-sheung-wan-and-central/#comments Tue, 14 Apr 2015 02:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16755 Watching street artists transform walls at HKwalls and discovering mural and street art goodness in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan and Central district

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Before heading over to Hong Kong, I did a little research on the street art scene and reached out to Stephen over at Longzijun to find out more about where I could find any good art areas to check out. The bad news? Stephen said I probably wasn’t going to find the mural-type street art works that I prefer and that the Hong Kong street art scene tends to be more graffiti-writing and paste-ups.

Hong Kong Street Art - Wan In Fong St West
Not the most artsy street art – there is a lot of graffiti

The good news? He did tell me that HKwalls was happening right at the tail end of my trip so I was quite happy to pop by the Sheung Wan area to check it out, and I am immensely glad I did!

Sheung Wan can probably be described as a gentrifying hipster area, and HKwalls – a street art festival in its 2nd year invited various street artists from local and international circles to take over many of the walls in this neighbourhood and beautify them.

Hkwalls

The artists mostly painted over 14th and 15th March – I was there on both afternoons watching them at work, so one thing a little different from my usual street art hunting is that I actually got to see the artists at work and watch the artworks progress, instead of just seeing the final art pieces. It’s amazing how much the artwork can evolve over just one day! Here are a couple of the works in progress that I caught. You can head over to HKwalls Facebook page to see how the actual final works turned out – they also painted at Stanley Market so if you’re headed to that area, maybe check it out!

Hong Kong Street Art - Ladder Street
At the junction of Caine Street and Ladder Street, which is apt as it’s on top of a steep stairway and there is a noodle store at this corner too

I also spotted other older street art and graffiti works in the area as well alongside the HKwalls works, I haven’t been able to identify all the works, but here’s where you might see some of these works! Scroll down right to the bottom for the Google Map!

 

TAI ON TERRACE / PO HING FONG LANE

I suggest starting from the top along Caine Road and then climbing down the stairs of Upper Station Street. Tai On Terrace is on the left as you descend – explore the walls around those blocks and then head down to Po Hing Fong Street and walk along the side of Blake Gardens back to the bottom of the stairs at Upper Station Street.

Hong Kong Street Art - Idrawalot
HKwalls: Idrawalot aka Addison Karl (Germany) @ LEAD, 1 Tai On Terrace. I like the hatching – reminds me of colour pencils and art in school somehow
Hong Kong Street Art - LEAD
tp @ LEAD, 1 Tai On Terrace – I think this belonged to the 1st edition of HKwalls
Hong Kong Street Art - Xeme
Xeme (HK) – stairs on stairs
Hong Kong Street Art - 4GET
HKwalls: 4GET (HK) @ Yoga Bam Bam, 28 Pound Lane. There were chairs here for some reason, so I took a seat and a break here
Hong Kong Street Art - Tanks
these random tanks are close to Yoga Bam Bam
Hong Kong Street Art - Bao Progress
HKwalls: Bao (HK) @ 8 Tai On Terrace – this looks like painstaking work, but I love the detailing
Hong Kong Street Art - DEMS
HKwalls: Dems (Spain) @ 9 Tai On Terrace – this was a giant piece and there was some sort of mini party taking place, with drinks and ice cream on sale. The Gallery was just around the corner on the left
Hong Kong Street Art - Stern Rockwell
HKwalls: Stern Rockwell (USA) @ AFFECT-T, 28 Po Hing Fong Street – this is very gangsta~

 

HKwalls had a special gallery set up in an empty space at Tai On Terrace which had works by several of the artists for HKwalls on sale, I took a gander but nothing in particular caught my eye…

Hong Kong Street Art - HKwalls Gallery
Checking out sellable works by participating street artists

 

BETWEEN TAI PING SHAN STREET AND HOLLYWOOD STREET

On the opposite side of Blake Garden lies the hipster Tai Ping Shan Street – you can find several works along this street and on the many perpendicular roads and back alleys that line it. Most of the action was happening in the alleyway between Sai Street and Upper Station Street. A mix of cute little shops, artsy type shops as well as eateries around here – a nice place to chill out in the afternoon or evening.

Tai Ping Shan Street

Hong Kong Street Art - Peter Yuill
HKwalls: Peter Yuill (Canada) @ RJMD, 14A Tai Ping Shan Street. The deep blue colour is quite striking
Hong Kong Street Art - Tai Ping Shan Street
I was more intrigued by the pasted up blue pipes than the larger artwork on the left!
Hong Kong Street Art - Felipe Pantone
HKwalls: Felipe Pantone (Spain) @ Tai Ping Shan Street – If you see the final work, that reads ‘Pant’
Hong Kong Street Art - Good Day
Not street art per se, but fun and happy nonetheless

 

Upper Station Street

Hong Kong Street Art - Rukkit Progress
HKwalls: Rukkit (Thailand) @ Upper Station Street – you can see in the bottom left photo that Rukkit is using some sort of ruler/stencil to achieve those straight lines. You couldn’t quite tell how the final piece was going to look like at all, somehow I imagined something akin to a tube line. Imagine my surprise to see this fox face appear!

 

Alleyway between Upper Station Street and Sai Street

Hong Kong Street Art - exld Progress
HKwalls: exld (Philippines) – is the dog shooting an… eyeball?
Hong Kong Street Art - Artime Joe Progress
HKwalls: Artime Joe (South Korea) – something about this was really cheery and preppy. I kept thinking of M&Ms
Hong Kong Street Art - Egg Fiasco Progress
HKwalls: Egg Fiasco (Philippines) – This guy seemed to be working quite quickly – the middle picture was his progress when I left on Day 1, which I thought was almost complete. Was quite surprise to see the sheer amount of detail piled on the next day (top and right pix!)
Hong Kong Street Art - Barlo Progress
HKwalls: Barlo (Italy) – You couldn’t quite tell what the work was going to look like from the initial sketch! What’s really cute is that lady who’s peering out her door and watching the artist at work. She was really into the artwork, coming out and taking pictures and giving all smiles to the artist!
Hong Kong Street Art - Jay Flow
HKwalls: Jay Flow (South Korea) – very graphic shark jumping out of the wall
Hong Kong Street Art - Gantz5 2
HKwalls: Gantz5 (Macau) – This is actually part of a larger piece that stretches along the wall
Hong Kong Street Art - Gantz5
HK Street Art – Gantz5 (Macau) – work in progress

 

Water Lane

Hong Kong Street Art - Sinic
HKwalls: Sinic (HK) – I think it’s an exploding boat?
Hong Kong Street Art - Water Lane Colourful
This also seems to be part of the first edition HKwalls. Sorry about the dude photobombing this picture but he was filming something else and just would not budge~
Hong Kong Street Art - Water Lane Random 2
More random works along the lane
Hong Kong Street Art - Water Lane Random 1
more random works

HOLLYWOOD STREET

Hollywood Street has a whole bunch of art and antique shops along it. Take a walk all the way up it from the Tai Ping Shan Road area towards Aberdeen Street where you can pop into the revitalised PMQ (Police Married Quarters) which is an uber hipster creative hub these days with lots of very cool shops. Pop into the various alleyways along the way to discover some surprises within!

Hong Kong Street Art - Eyes
Look who’s watching~
Hong Kong Street Art - Shing Wong St
Another face at the junction of Shing Wong Street

Tank Lane stairway between Square Street and Hollywood Street

Hong Kong Street Art - Hopare
HKwalls: Hopare (France) – this piece is really striking and bound to catch your attention as you walk along Hollywood Street. One of my favourites of the trip!
Hong Kong Street Art - Tank Lane
Not sure who this was by – it’s opposite the Hopare work, but it’s kinda cute
Hong Kong Street Art - Gas Progress
HKwalls – Gas (China) @ Little Square, 21 Square Street – I’m trying to figure out what word that is exactly – Gas’s schtick is writing in Chinese characters
Hong Kong Street Art - Rookie
HKwalls – Rookie (Taiwan) @ Little Square – cool octopus! – to the right is Square Street which has some random bits of graffiti along it too
Hong Kong Street Art - Xeva
HKwalls: Xeva (South Korea) @ Cawah Arts Gallery, 23 Square Street – can you tell who that famous face is?
Hong Kong Street Art - Dustbin
One of the walls along Square Street. The dustbin was quite intriguing somehow.

 

 BELOW HOLLYWOOD STREET

I turned down Shin Hing Street and walked towards Gough Street. There are a bunch of lanes that you can explore around here with lots of little shops along the stairways and Gough Street, which is also where you can get the famous Kau Kee beef brisket noodles and Sing Heung Yuen noodles.

Hong Kong Street Art - Parents Parents
HKwalls: Parent’s Parents (HK) @ La Cabane, 97 Hollywood Road / Shin Hing Street – I quite liked this work too, striking visual
Hong Kong Street Art - Callixto
Callixto @ 11 Mee Lun Street – to the right is a little alleyway with some graffiti and street art works. I thought the Einstein was funny
Hong Kong Street Art - Fin Dac
@ 2 Mee Lun Street and Gough Street – You don’t normally see this Lovers & Friend’s work by Fin Dac in its entirety as it’s usually blocked by Sing Heung Yuen, a ‘da pai dang’ or roadside stall which is popular for tomato noodles. Sadly, didn’t manage to try the noodles >_<

 

OTHERS

Other works I spotted randomly…

Hong Kong Street Art - Little Bao Chung Wo Lane
Little Bao @ 66 Staunton Street and Chung Wo Lane – it’s not a bun shop, but an Asian diner of sorts
Hong Kong Street Art - Central Market
Right at the start of the Mid Level Escalators is Central Market – I’m not sure if much is still open there, but a lot of the shop shutters have artworks on them! so if you’re taking the escalator, perhaps pop by and check it out.
Hong Kong Street Art - Make A Wish
This was en route up the Mid Levels Escalators – what I did one time was take the escalator up to the top and from there walk across towards Tai On Terrace, so I wouldn’t have to climb the slopes!

Anyone have other street art spots in Hong Kong to recommend? Share them in the comments here so I know where to go if I ever head back to Hong Kong!

Added later: Check out this Chinese calligraphy-type work by Phil Akashi at Deepwater Bay

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What is the best way to connect to internet on the road?http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/11/what-is-the-best-way-to-connect-to-internet-on-the-road/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/11/what-is-the-best-way-to-connect-to-internet-on-the-road/#comments Sat, 11 Apr 2015 02:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16754 What is the easiest & cheapest way to connect on the go? Comparing the pros and cons of portable wifi devices, local prepaid SIM cards and roaming services.

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As a travel blogger and a busy working professional, one of the things I’m quite concerned about when I travel is being connected on the go. Yes, I agree that travel should be as carefree and uninterrupted as possible, but with a full-time job and having to update the blog frequently, making sure I can connect to the internet on the road is always an important thing.

 

Portugal - Lagos Street Art Aryz
Travel blogger at work, posting on the go!

You’ve probably seen some mentions in previous posts about how I’ve stayed connected on the go, usually through portable wi-fi devices and local pre-paid SIM Cards, but I thought I’d give you a more detailed rundown of the pros and cons of each method which might help those trying to work out which might be more effective and worthwhile for you.

Onward! Thanks to the folk at Changi Recommends who provided me with a SIM card for my experiment while I was in Hong Kong and helped inspire this sponsored post. Also props to the folk from Wi-Ho who continue to sponsor my wi-fi devices on trips and keep me connected.

 

Local Prepaid SIM Card

You purchase a prepaid SIM card with a certain amount of minutes/data from the country which you are visiting, usually in the airport when you land or a local phone shop. Usually you need to swap out your current SIM card on the phone, unless you have dual SIM or you carry a spare phone around because you’re very concerned about losing your current SIM card and try not to touch it where possible (like me >_<)

Hong Kong SIM Card
My Hong Kong SIM Card courtesy of Changi Recommends – the card format definitely helps it from getting lost in my bag >_<

PROS

  • Not just data – depending on the plan that you buy, you usually have some minutes on your phone which can be helpful if you need to make a booking to an overseas number or check for directions with your hotel on the go.
  • Convenient – It’s just you and your phone, no additional devices to carry around or having to worry about charging. You’re connected all the time – you don’t have to worry about switching on the device or it running out of battery. If your phone is kaput you can’t use your data anyway so that’s one less thing to think about with a SIM card.
  • Pay as you need – you control how much data/minutes you use and it’s usually quite easy to top up additional minutes or data if you’re in a city. You don’t run the risk of bill shock because no money = no connection, simple as that. The Hong Kong PCCW Tourist SIM Card I used cost S$13 for 5 days/1.5GB of data and unlimited local calls, which is relatively affordable for most travellers.

CONS

  • Foreign Number – you can’t get phone calls or smses directed to your original line when you are using a prepaid SIM card with a foreign number. Thankfully this doesn’t affect data-dependent programmes things like whatsapp and facebook messenger as your contacts are saved on your phone
  • Limited by what you have on the card – if you don’t budget for it in the beginning or judiciously monitor your phone usage for data-eating apps, costs might start racking up when you frequently have to top up your card! Having to top up the card can also be quite a hassle
  • Limited by the SIM card – Most SIM cards have an expiry date or specific time period that they will work once activated, so unless you’re visiting the same country fairly regularly, your SIM card is mostly like a one-time use only. And also, the SIM card is so tiny I have a tendency to misplace it >_< You also need to take time to purchase your SIM card when you land – in the case of Changi Recommends, you can pick up a SIM card from Changi Airport for Thailand, Hong Kong and South Korea before you even check in at the airport, so that’s convenient!
  • Tethering is draining – you can use your phone as a hot spot for your tablet/laptop/other people’s phones quite easily these days, but it will drain your phone’s battery more quickly

I’d recommend Local Pre-Paid SIM cards for:

  • People who aren’t expecting any urgent call-ins (i.e. not your business/sales folk), and are mostly using this to conduct local calls or just for data
  • Those who don’t use data very heavily, or will have wi-fi access during their trip so they aren’t completely reliant on data from the SIM card (if you don’t have unlimited data that is)
  • Those who want something fuss-free – just pop the card in and you’re connected for the rest of your trip!

Where to get your SIM cards

Most of the time you buy them from the telco store of the country you’re visiting. Often, there are booths located right in the airports as well, or you can often find these prepaid SIM cards in convenience stores like 7-11 too.

  • Changi Recommends [sponsor] – for those in Singapore, you can pick up SIM cards for Thailand, South Korea and Hong Kong at any of the Changi Recommends booths in Changi Airport, so you can pick it up while waiting to check in, and you don’t have to bother looking for a store when you land (S$13 – S$45)

 


Portable Wifi Devices

These are usually separate devices sometimes referred to as ‘dongles’ or ‘eggs’. They connect wirelessly to the local 3G/4G network and you tether your phone/laptop to the device via a unique ID/password for online access. Most commonly I use Wi-ho when I travel because of their kind sponsorship for the blog, so I’ll use those experiences as a basis for reference here, but there are other companies offering similar services and the general use is pretty much the same across the board.

Wiho
A typical portable wifi device – it’s usually around palm size or smaller and doesn’t need to be plugged in to work

PROS

  • Tethers multiple devices easily – Wi-ho lets you tether up to 5-10 connections at once as long as you have the ID/password (printed on the back of the device) so it’s useful when you have several devices like a phone and tablet and/or laptop running at the same time. Multiple tethering is also good when you’re with friends – I was quite popular during the Shanghai trip with other travel bloggers last year because they got to be connected around me!
  • Control from 1 central device – I like this because you don’t have to be connected 24/7 and that lets you concentrate on your holiday. I usually take ‘social media breaks’ on the go, so I only turn on the device when we’re in transit or having meals/rest breaks. For groups, it also means that you don’t have situations where people are perpetually checking or updating their statuses and ignoring the rest of the group, as you do when you are connected 24/7.
  • Retaining your original number – No worrying about whether you are missing any important calls to your original line. It’s useful for smses, but note that you still need data roaming to receive any calls while overseas.
  • Unlimited/High amount of Data available – I’ve never had to worry about my social apps using up all my bandwidth or data plan to date! The speed has generally been quite decent.
  • Security – the unique password for each device gives you more security as compared to using open free wifi networks where you are more vulnerable to hackers, which protects your online accounts and passwords

CONS

  • Short battery life, requires separate charging – You don’t have 24/7 connectivity – the device only lasts 4-5 hours if you leave it on continuously so I usually only turn it on when I need it. Also, my device tends to get really hot if you leave it on for too long!
  • Additional device to carry around – if you’re trying to streamline your packing, this might be annoying. The device isn’t very big (palm size), but if you’re the sort to just stuff things into your pockets, it’s still an additional device to worry about.
  • Charge based on per day rental – the device usually costs anywhere from $8 – $25 per day rental, so this can be add up to be quite expensive if you are on a longer trip. Also, each device is usually tethered to just one country, so for those doing multi-country travel, might not be such a practical option. The bonus is you know how much you are paying upfront so it helps with budgeting, so you don’t get one of those crazy bills that you see only when you get back home!
  • Getting and returning the device – you are just renting the device, so you need to make sure you don’t lose it or you will be liable! The cost of a wi-ho includes an additional $16 charge for courier of the device before and after your trip.

I’d recommend portable wi-fi devices for:

  • Travellers who have multiple devices that they need to be connected all at once – blogger, techie or business types usually
  • Business travellers who need the security and connectivity the dongle offers, and can also charge it to their company’s bill so costs don’t matter
  • People travelling in groups who are a little more budget focused – so you can split the costs

Where to get your wi-fi devices:

Here are some of the sites where you can get the devices in Singapore pre-trip. I’ve found that prices and services in general are similar across the board, though some sites offer you more choice of countries, daily data caps or have seasonal promotions so pick one that fits your needs. You can sometimes pick up devices at the airports in the countries that you are visiting too.

  • Wi-Ho by Telecom Square [sponsor] – they’ve given me great service all this while, and the best part is that my readers get $1/day discounts as well as free shipping (save S$16!) – check out my Perks page to get the unique link so you can get the discounts. They have a large number of countries available including a world travel plan if you’re visiting multiple countries (S$8 – S$25/day)
  • Global Wi-fi by Changi Recommends – they have wi-fi devices for overseas and for Singapore too, and you can grab and return the device at any of their booths in Changi Airport, so you save on delivery fees (S$12 – S$25/day)
  • XCom Global – They claim to have the most coverage with 170 countries available including South America and Middle East (S$9 – S$27/day)
  • Y5 buddy – Quite a large range of countries available including Israel and Egypt. Needs a S$150 deposit though (S$9 – S$18/day)
  • Visondata – 14 countries available including Russia, Canada and USA (S$9 – S$25/day)
  • GotY5 – Only Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong available (S$13 – S$15/day)
  • Rentalfi – Singapore only (S$15/day, unlimited)

(if anyone knows of any other companies, let me know in the comments so i can add to this resource list!)

 


Roaming

The most traditional way to be connected when overseas is to have roaming services enabled on your phone with your telco so you can get calls and use data from the local networks of the country you are visiting. I use Singtel and I do have pay-per-roam (so only pay per use) though I never use it – I turn off my mobile data when overseas so I don’t get any roaming data charges, and I don’t make any calls as far as possible from my phone. If I do, it would need to either be a very short call or an emergency.

Here’s looking at the Singtel roaming plans available. It is honestly quite confusing because some of these are plans, while others are subscription services. You have to be subscribed first before you can use a plan, so while it may seem reasonable at first glance, it can add up. If M1 or Starhub have better plans, do feel free to chime in here.

For data:

  • There is a subscription that you need to activate called Easydata Roam so you can use data overseas for $1/month
  • For plans, there is a prepaid dataroam pass for S$15/day for certain countries, which seems comparable to the portable wi-fi device (but only available for Singtel subscribers). But it also means you have to be connected to a particular partner telco which hopefully has wide enough coverage, or risk getting charged a bomb if you use the wrong network.
  • Another plan is the travel pass option that gives you 100mb of data for S$45 in 30 days – I don’t know about you, but I’d bust the 100mb cap really quickly!

For calling and SMSes:

  • Subscription-wise, there is the option of pay-as-you-roam (pay per use, +25% surcharge) or auto roam (S$10/month)
  • There are overseas call/SMS rates as well, which vary from country to country which is a whole other kettle of fish

PROS

  • Less hassle – no need to change SIM cards or tote around another device. Activation happens on the phone directly and billing is through your usual monthly bill

CONS

  • Can be hard to monitor – we’ve all heard the stories about people coming back from trips to find that they’ve racked up thousands of dollars in roaming charges! You can use the Singtel app now to keep track now though. With regards to the select network, you can now also lock your network to a particular telco, which helps.
  • Complicated – I spent a really long time trying to figure out the plans on the Singtel roaming page to try and understand them, and I still don’t quite know if I’m right honestly, so I wouldn’t actually try to use them overseas for fear of billshock!
  • Expensive – none of the plans seem particularly attractive to me, except for the prepaid dataroam pass, but it’s only limited to particular countries

I’d recommend roaming for:

  • Very frequent travellers who don’t want the hassle of having separate devices or changing their SIM cards. Ideally they can charge these costs to their business accounts so they don’t feel the pinch. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t recommend roaming at all as I think you can get far cheaper and better deals with  the other options or just using free wi-fi services
  • For emergency purposes, I would suggest just having pay-per-roam so you only use when necessary

 


Hope you found the breakdown of pros and cons useful in deciding what might work best for your travels – what’s your preferred way to stay connected on the go? Share in the comments and maybe we can exchange useful tips and help each other save some money and hassle :)

Cover Image: Connecting the World by Michael Summers via Flickr CC

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Going Far East – a review of Village Hotel Changihttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/06/village-hotel-changi-review/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/06/village-hotel-changi-review/#comments Mon, 06 Apr 2015 02:00:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16730 Looking for a staycation with a difference? I spent a weekend in Changi Village to check out the Village Hotel Changi.

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For all that i say that Singapore is a small island, there are a surprising amount of places that i haven’t visited properly. So when the Village Hotel folks invited me to check out their Changi Village property, i was more than happy to. Changi Village is on the North-Eastern end of Singapore, quite close to Changi Airport, and I have rarely ventured out here for any reason just because it’s not the easiest place to get to.

Village Hotel Changi - Facade
My room was in one of the white boxes on top!

 

LOCATION

Changi Village is not on the MRT line, so you’ll need to either drop on the East-West (Green) line at:

  • Tanah Merah station – take bus #2 to Changi Village Bus Depot
  • Tampines station – take bus #29 to Changi Village Bus Depot

Alternatively if you want to save yourself the hassle, take a cab or drive there.

 

THE ROOM

Village Hotel Changi - From Doorway
The room from the doorway

My room was on the 7th floor, the second highest floor in the building. It faced towards the straits and was high enough to have quite a pleasant sea view and even a glimpse of nearby Pulau Ubin. The room had a balcony of sorts that you could stand it, though it was all enclosed.

Village Hotel Changi - Balcony View
Village Hotel Changi – Balcony View

I had a Superior room with a king sized bed, and had a chair by the window which was quite comfortable and spacious. Nothing particularly fancy about the room design, but it’s serviceable and clean.

Village Hotel Changi - Room Bed
Standard amenities – TV and all
Village Hotel Changi - Toilet Bath
The bathroom is a tad snug though it did come with a bathtub
Village Hotel Changi - Toilet
The other side of the toilet

 

THE HOTEL

The hotel itself isn’t that large – 8 floors with 380 rooms in total. Itwas undergoing refurbishment in certain spots while I was there – you can tell it’s not the newest kid on the block, but they are upgrading it in bits and pieces.

Village Hotel Changi - Lounge
Looking down from the lifts with glass walls

There are two pools in the hotel – one is on the first level outside Saltwater Cafe and is right next to the golf course.

Village Hotel Changi - Lower Pool
Village Hotel Changi – Lower Pool

But i definitely preferred the rooftop infinity pool on level 8 – it has the same view as my room but higher up, so you get an even better view of the straits. La Cantina restaurant is also located up here, which would make for a nice picturesque dinner. You can see the planes flying to the right side as they head towards and away from the nearby Changi Airport. I spent some time reading up here and playing with my niece who had fun in the pool.

Village Hotel Changi - Pool View
Beautiful weather for sitting by the pool

There aren’t that many deckchairs available though, and this pool does get popular in the evenings especially. There wasn’t anyone actually manning the pool while I was there, so do be considerate and clear your towels and trash when you are done! There is also a jacuzzi area in the pool.

Village Hotel Changi - Pool
View from my deckchair
Village Hotel Changi - Underwater
Playing around with my sister’s Sony phone which has underwater camera function!

Also on site that I didn’t have the chance to check out – a branch of Wine Connection which serves up good wine at friendly prices, a gym at level 5 and a small spa and nail outlet.

 

AROUND THE AREA

Changi Village is famous for its hawker centre which draws Singaporeans to it even though it’s out of the way. The most popular dish here is the Nasi Lemak, a Malay dish that includes coconut rice with common side condiments like deep fried fish, anchovies (ikan bilis), fried egg, chicken wing, bergedil… lots of different versions, and topped with sambal chili in particular.

I’ll leave the food recommendations to the experts!

There are also a bunch of hipster cafes and eateries popping up in the area within walking distance of the hotel – Chock Full of Beans is famous for its 3D latte foam art (though you might have to wait an hour for it during peak period), and further down Netheravon Road where the hotel is (bit of a walk), The Coastal Settlement is also a popular place with its collection of nostalgia in its premises, and where I had dinner with my family that night.

Once again, more expert views on eateries and cafes in the area. You might need to travel a little bit to get to some of these places, but if you are lazy, there is sufficient entertainment within walking distance.

The hotel does have regularly hourly free shuttle bus services to the airport. It also connects to Changi Business Park and Loyang for the business travellers, and for those who want to check out downtown Singapore, it links to Village Hotel Bugis and Far East Plaza in Orchard Road.

GATEWAY TO NATURE

Village Hotel Changi - Keycard View
You can see Pulau Ubin across the straits from my room

Changi Point Ferry Terminal is where you catch a ferry to the nearby surrounding islands, and is literally across the road from the hotel.

The closest island is Pulau Ubin, which is just a cheap 15 mins ride away by bumboat. Village Hotel Changi has a promo Ubin Adventure package (till Jul 2015) which allows you to rent a bicycle on Pulau Ubin for 3 hours so you can spend the morning exploring the island, and late check out at 3pm so you have time to come back and wash up. I had that package but unfortunately woke up late in the morning, and it was starting to get quite hot so I decided to skip the cycling. I really do want to check out Chek Jawa, one of Singapore’s last remaining natural wetland areas, but parts of the boardwalk were also closed that day. I definitely want to go back soon!

If you get seasick and rather stay on the mainland, I recommend walking to Changi Boardwalk as well, which links up Changi Beach and Changi Point and has several different sections. It’s an easy, pleasant walk and generally quieter than East Coast Beach which is more popular with families!

This guide gives you a pretty good idea what else you can explore in the area if you are interested!

 

THE COST

Rack rates list the Superior rooms at S$270, though based on current rates in April, they drop to around S$170 – S$230 for the Superior room. Check out the rates at fareasthospitality.com

Thanks to Far East Hospitality for providing the comped stay. All views and opinions are purely my own.

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Is Travel Insurance worth it? Figuring it out on Common Centshttp://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/03/is-travel-insurance-worth-it-figuring-it-out-on-common-cents/ http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/2015/04/03/is-travel-insurance-worth-it-figuring-it-out-on-common-cents/#comments Fri, 03 Apr 2015 10:45:00 +0000 http://theoccasionaltraveller.com/?p=16850 I was invited to be a part of Mediacorp Ch5's Common Cents and figure out what and how travel insurance works. Check out behind the scenes photos and thoughts!

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Does your pre-travel routine include buying travel insurance? It’s a habit I picked up from my parents and personally I have been quite thankful for having travel insurance when stuff went missing and baggage got delayed (over 24 hours in my flying attire with a bunch of brand new travel blogger friends? That’s one way to leave an impression…)

So when I was approached to be a part of Common Cents, a weekly TV series on Mediacorp Channel 5 to be that layman representative on screen who helps the audience learn more about what exactly travel insurance entails, I was quite happy to do so because I was honestly quite curious to learn more. Even if it meant spending an entire day filming from morning to evening straight after a week of travel in Hong Kong!

You can watch the episode right here thanks to Toggle TV, but I thought I’d tell you a little more about what I learned from the whole process. Read on! Sorry about some of the low quality shots, but Toggle only plays the low res version for some reason…

EVERYTHING STARTS FROM HOME

I already knew this from my times in school when we did video assignments and an entire day’s work gets edited down into a 3 minute clip. This time around was no exception – I got back home from the airport around midnight and after unpacking, slept at around 2am (which is actually normal for me). The next morning I had to wake up early to run some errands and make myself look presentable (as compared to looking rather bleary eyed which is my normal morning look) as the film crew came over to catch this blogger in her natural habitat.

Common Cents - Interview at Home
My mother took this picture and sent it to the family, spying on me from upstairs
Common Cents - Filming
Me filming the filmers

My mother in particular was very amused by all these on-goings and that her daughter was gonna be on TV. She even set the record-function on the home TV so she could catch this episode when she’s back from her quick jaunt to Bangkok.

Common Cents - Magnets arranging longshot
One of the more unique features in our house is our collection of magnets from all over the world. I can spot some of my contributions – Taiwan, Lisbon, Bali, Montpellier…
Common Cents - magnets arranging
Close-up of the magnets

You’ll see bits of my house throughout the first intro segment, and the design is largely my mother’s doing (no interior designer!) and you should know too that the magnet wall is her brainchild and represents our travels as a family (they’re not all mine!)

Common Cents - in Room
Observing the blogger in her natural habitat – this is where you’re likely to find me at home! I will admit my room isn’t usually so neat though

My room however, I can proudly say is all me. Notice familiar items from The Occasional Traveller Shop? You can clearly see that I started that as an excuse to buy all these pretty items for myself 😛

Common Cents - Blogging Bed
Yes this is how I blog, though I’m not usually so well dressed and sitting so daintily. I’m really fond of my world map bedsheets that I pondered about getting for so long (got them with Black Friday discounts from Deny Designs, designed by Bianca Green!)
Common Cents - Bookshelf
My room’s main feature is my bookshelves, which unfortunately do get a tad dusty but I like being able to see all my books. Can you spot the Geografia globes?
Common Cents - Wall Map
My felt Pinworld wall map and a bunch of my instagram shots printed out. Usually you’d see some of my niece’s drawings on the wall but it was a bit distracting for this shot
Common Cents - Photos Calendar
More of my printed instagram shots! Recognize where they are from? Also, vintage maps calendar was an xmas gift thanks to Y

 

TALKING TO THE EXPERTS

We had lunch and then adjourned over to Bras Basah to do some cutaway shots that you’ll see at the end of the clip. Ostensibly it’s me doing trip research for my next trip, though I’ll be the first to say that I do everything online these days and rarely pick up a guidebook before a trip (I find them more useful on the trip itself when you’re figuring out what there is to do in the area). We were running early and I had some time to do some writing before we headed off to the next location.

Common Cents - Book store longshot
Recognize the store? We’re in Knowledge Book Centre
Common Cents - Book Store Browsing
Here I am, ‘casually browsing’ as I head over to the travel guides section

Thanks to Hansel who loaned me the dress for the shoot – the polka dot halter is from designer Jo Soh’s newest collection A Vase of Flowers – A lot of the dresses you see me wearing in my photos are Hansel dresses as I’m a big fan, though I haven’t shopped this latest collection yet. Sadly I didn’t get to keep the dress but I really like it, it’s very comfortable and quite flattering. You can get it online at wearto.com or form her boutique store at Mandarin Gallery.

Common Cents - Puerto Rico
I’m apparently researching for my next trip. To be honest, Puerto Rico hasn’t really been on my radar, but I guess I have to go check it out now, right? 😛 I randomly pulled a book from the shelf

Firstly we headed over to Sushi Airways in Kampong Glam where I spoke to insurance agent Yen Yen about why travel insurance is important and how one could pick the right travel insurance for themselves. The video tells it better than I do, but the short version is that there’s no real short cut to picking what’s right for you except by looking at the fine print and making sure the important stuff pertaining to the way you travel isn’t excluded! Bummer~

Yen Yen did tell me though that it might be better leaving all the work to your insurance agent – it doesn’t actually cost more to go through an agent than it does to buy online, so if you are lazy and rather have some one pore over the fine print for you, that might be worth exploring!

Common Cents - Yen Yen Interview
I mostly spend these segments asking questions and nodding like I’m listening. My sister spent a lot of time laughing at my ‘earnest nodding’ and weird facial tics
Common Cents - with Yenyen
More relaxed after the interview – the edamame peas were purely for show hahaha

Then we went over to 1925 near the Jalan Besar area which is one of those old-new hipster looking joints with distressed walls and artfully scuffed furniture. Cool vibe though~ Here I met another insurance agent called Joe. Nice guy who was definitely more relaxed when the camera was off him, but then again who isn’t more comfortable that way? We talked about how to go about making claims (make sure you have official reports and best to start making a habit of keeping receipts of more expensive stuff!), and that insurance doesn’t completely cover your losses, just lessens the pain some.

Common Cents - Joe
Joe on camera – he set up his own insurance company
Common Cents - with Joe
Chilling out after the interview, smiles of relief
Common Cents - with Joe 2
Here we are showing that we can do casual and candid shots hahaha

CONCLUSION: TRAVEL INSURANCE IS NOT THAT STRAIGHTFORWARD

Finally we ended up at Witbier Cafe along Kandahar Street where host Steven Chia swung by to do a wrap up of what I learned – while the crew was setting up, we rewarded ourselves with a pint or two. He’s a nice dude and we hung out finishing our drinks while the crew zoomed back to the studio. He’s also really natural at being all casual, which I suppose comes with being on screen everyday~

Common Cents - Steven Chia Interview
Can you see the beer mug in the lower left corner? that was mine~
Common Cents - with Steven Chia
It’s a wrap!

After all that, I decided to check out my own existing travel insurance policy – I bought an annual plan from UOB because it was convenient and seemed fairly inclusive at the time. I was a bit tired at having to remember to buy my insurance, especially on these last minute trips that I went on for the blog and all, so having an annual plan made it one less thing to check off the list before leaving. I did look for clauses and exclusions – there didn’t seem to be any with regards to scuba diving, which is something I’m always looking out for, so that’s something to take note when I review.

Cost wise, my 5-7 trips in a year means that the annual (worldwide) and per-trip premiums are more or less the same, but I think if you’re a business traveller or only travel regional (in Asia), annual plans might be cheaper for you.

Anyway I hope you guys found the episode and these additional insights useful, am happy to try and offer some casual advice, but you’re better off speaking to your insurance experts for serious questions! My only advice is BUY IT – it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and in case stuff happens (Murphy dictates that it WILL at some point)

Big thanks to the crew of Vertigo Pictures who contacted me, shepherded me around all day and did the heavy lifting – Mark, Joanna, Alexander, Calvin, Elvin, Jason and Eve. Also props to the insurance experts Yen Yen and Joe for their insights, and it was fun hanging out for a pint with host Steven Chia too at the end!

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