In 2016/17, I was involved in a fairly large World Bank project involving Indonesia, and it was during this particular sojourn where I discovered the beauty of Komodo. While I have heard of the islands and its reptilian residents, it was only after this project when I suddenly got the call. In the grand scheme of ‘calling’ and my actual ‘action,’ this was definitely one of the fastest I have ever ‘implemented.’
The Spice Islands
Komodo is the main island within the Komodo National Park area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its world renown, it is still relatively untouched, all for the better. To get to the site, there is the usual ‘cruise from Lombok’ option, or for those with a rush, the ‘fly to Flores’ option, which personally, introduces you to the Spice Islands and the Pacific Ring of Fire first hand.
The most realistic option getting to Flores, named so because the Portuguese were spellbound by its beauty, is from Jakarta, where regular direct and connecting flights are available. Arrival in Komodo Airport is an experience in itself, as you pass volcanoes in the middle of the sea, or stunning landmasses amidst the deepest blue.
On arrival in Flores, and specifically Labuan Bajo, the sense of ‘island-life’ and ‘rustic idyll’ permeates, as there is no true ‘town centre,’ especially considering that this location is essentially a fishing village which relies on the tourism and fishing industry. You would want it that way, as what better way to relax than having a nice drink overlooking the bay, with good fresh seafood from the fishermen and vendors who give you a fair price?
The primary reason most travellers come by to this relatively remote part of Southeast Asia, are for the komodo dragons, islands and diving. While regrettably I did not have enough time for diving (as I need a refresher after 3 years of not diving), I did make sure I had enough time for dragons, islands and beaches.
There are a number of operators that do island safaris from Labuan Bajo, some on speedboats, some on dive boats, some on liveaboards, some on cruisers and some on fantastic yachts. I opted for a liveaboard. While not as fast as some of the dive boats or speedboats, I did have the whole boat to myself, with the only noise being the waves crashing against the bow. The speedboats on the other hand sounded like 10 Harley Davidsons with loudspeakers.
Most operators conducting day trips would suggest Komodo Island or Rinca Island as part of the itinerary, with a stop at Padar Island. While on maps, the islands look relatively close by, the straits that separate these islands are at the confluence of the Java Sea and Indian Ocean, and currents can be strong, especially between Rinca and Padar Islands.
I went with Komodo Transportation and Travel, a local outfit with a fantastic guide, who made my private tour really something. My boat, the aptly named ‘Traveller,’ was the perfect vessel, being a liveaboard, and having the capacity for 14 people. Yes, a boat for 14 guests and I was the only one.
As smaller, faster boats passed us, I lazed on the sundeck, with drink in hand, book by my side, sunscreen on the ready. We passed small fishing communities and wildlife on the islands as we cruised towards Padar Island, that large island between Rinca and Komodo, and where those stunning travel photos are usually taken.
The cruise, like all seabourne journeys, is subject to the currents, and while the first 2 hours from Labuan Bajo to the tip of Rinca were smooth sailing, the crossing between Rinca to Padar did get rough at times. If you are ever contemplating squeezing in Komodo’s Pink Beach, Padar Island, Rinca Island and Kelor Island, that would be almost impossible. It is either Komodo or Rinca, one cannot do both in a day cruise.
Green Hills & Gaping Thrills
Padar Island is worth the stop, if only for the summit climb. The beauty of being on my larger but slower boat, as that by the time we berthed at harbour, the larger tour groups were descending, meaning I had the summit walks mostly to myself. The mostly barren, steep island with sheltered beaches and coves makes it a magical site, with unobstructed views of Komodo and Rinca islands.
Rinca Island is one of two sites within the Komodo National Park where you can view the fabled komodo dragons safely. While Komodo Island is a spot where you are assured of sightings due to the dragons being used to humans, Rinca Island is a good spot to see the dragons in their natural habitat.
After a short walk from berth to park headquarters, pass low-lying flat lands and mangroves and the occasional buffalo, you will be mesmerized by the rolling hills of Rinca, resembling pastoral New Zealand than tropical Indonesia.
The 1.5 hour walk, with our park ranger, resulted me in counting at least 16 dragons. Yes. 16 dragons, from 2 baby dragons, to countless larger dragons underneath the kitchen giving a Japanese TV crew quite the fright, to a dragon guarding her nest to my favourite: dragon lazing on top of the hill, under a gazebo, monarch of all he surveys.
From Rinca, we made our way to Kelor Island, the final stopover before Labuan Bajo, and a frequent spot for snorkelling, kayaking, SUP-ing or a climb to the summit for a fantastic view.
Due to time constraints, I had to pass on the evening bat exodus, but time flies when you are having fun on a cruise.
View from Paradise
Despite the rural idyll, Labuan Bajo is a tourist town, but not in the veins of San Sebastian, Ubud or Queenstown. Prices are reasonable and the locals, on a whole, do not attempt to make a quick buck from travellers. The bars are good, the restaurants serve fresh fish and everything is mostly walking distance.
One of these spots, a bit off-centre, is Paradise Bar, which lives up to its name at sunset. Cool beach-house beats play, with a wide terrace overlooking Labuan Bajo, the bays, islands and sea beyond. Drinks are reasonably priced, and for the sunset views, worth the steep hike up.
La Pirate, a sister property of La Pirate in Bali, has a lovely rooftop terrace and bar, with an infinity pool overlooking the harbour. The drinks are pretty good too, and it’s a nice spot for a late lunch.
The stalls of the night markets along the seashore, where the fishermen dock and unload their catch, is an excellent site for good, cheap seafood in the evenings, frequented by locals and tourists alike. No overpriced fish for tourists and reasonable prices for locals here: it is very egalitarian.
For something posh, Atlantis on the Rocks at the Plataran Komodo, is without a doubt, a good escape from the world. Taking a car (or in my case, a motorcycle) along narrow roads, looking down at steep cliffs, rolling mountains, crystal clear seas to my left and right while riding on the saddle of a mountain, makes the journey (and the drink) worthwhile.
Komodo Travel & Transportation
I used Komodo Travel & Transportation, and Ali is a fantastic guide. His boat, the ‘Traveller’, is apt for those who want to rekindle that romance of travel. www.komodotraveller.com
Komodo National Park Fees
Weekdays: IDR 295,000 (trekking) IDR 310,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
and on Sundays/Public Holidays: IDR 370,000 (trekking) IDR 385,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
Times to visit:
Peak – April to October, as the monsoon is less prominent, and particularly busy during the dry months of July to September, when komodo dragons are out and about and the sea is more agreeable.
Off-Peak – October to December is a decent time to visit: weather is not as hot, the sites are not crowded and the komodo dragons are still around, as they tend to hide when the storms roll in from December onwards.
Tucked away in a nice little corner of the Malay Peninsula, just off the major international shipping routes but along the leisure sailing routes, lies a collection of islands that provide a nice little alternative to Bali, Phuket or Samui. It also happens to be a favourite haunt. This is Langkawi.
Duty is Free
Langkawi, like a number of islands off Malaysia, has the special status of being a duty-free island (The others include Labuan, off Borneo, and Tioman, off the east coast of Malaysia). While the prospects of duty-free alcohol and chocolates (and kitchen ware. Do not ask why) seem to appeal to some, it can just be a happy secondary perk for others.
Expect to see price of alcoholic beverages to be significantly lower than on the mainland, or depending on the venue, on par with the mainland. Hunting for the ‘best’ duty-free value can also be a sport for those who come up from the mainland, and the selection of whiskeys, vodkas and scotch here is, at times, worth the effort.
With 99 islands to choose from (and significantly more during low tide), the options for you to get your own private beach retreat is endless, provided you do not mind taking the effort. Boats and yachts are available for rent or charter to explore the islands at a leisurely pace, or long tail speedboats that ferry excursions for island hopping.
For something a bit more human-powered, most beaches have kayaks, jet-skis and boards available for rents. Kayaking excursions include mangrove exploring or paddles to nearby islands, while jet-skis range from jet-ski tours to messing around along the shore.
Personally, I take a kayak out from Cenang Beach to Rebak Kechil Island, a good 20 minute paddle, depending on the currents. A good, private beach with a nice sandbar, with excellent views of the airport, arriving and departing planes, and that long stretch of commercialized beach.
For something more private, Datai Bay is more genteel in their watersport options, with excellent kayaking or stand-up paddle conditions in a protected bay. However, this option is restricted to in-house guests at the Datai Langkawi or Andaman Langkawi. Worth the premium.
Rugged Coastline Drive
The coastal road hugging the coast along the western coastline of Langkawi, from the airport towards Telaga Harbour, and onwards towards the Datai or Tanjung Rhu are some of the nicest drives in the country. Stunning shoreline, the sea peeking behind the trees, with sheer cliffs on your left and right as you do hair-pin turns on some bends.
Renting a car in Langkawi is a good option, especially if you intend to explore the island. Car rentals are relatively cheap, with good quality, new cars available from vendors. The only drawback would be finding parking if you happen to frequent Cenang Beach, though paid parking behind the mall is well situated in the middle of the strip.
Exploring the island on a bicycle is growing in popularity, heat notwithstanding. With Langkawi being the venue of the Le Tour de Langkawi and Langkawi Ironman, the closer it is to season, the number of cyclists getting used to the terrain might just inspire you to get on a bike.
Green Hills & Suspended Thrills
On approach to Langkawi, be it by air or sea, you would notice the beautiful green hills and peaks that dot the landscape. This being a UNESCO Geopark, options about to explore the natural beauty of the island.
While the mangrove tours along Tanjung Rhu would bring you around the wetlands, karst formations and eagles that give Langkawi her name (Lang being a Malay word for eagle, Kawi being a word for limestone), if you are short on time but do not mind splurging for a quick nature experience, opt for the Langkawi Cable Car that goes up Mount Matchinchang.
Langkawi Cable Car has three options, namely standard cable car, express cable car and express cable car + skywalk. While the cable car is an experience bringing you high above the jungle with vistas including the Seven Wells Waterfall, the skywalk is worth the extra premium, as you trek along the peaks with a guide who brief you on the nature in the area. The suspended skybridge is not for the faint of heart, as some sections of the Langkawi Sky Bride has glass panels for you to look down to the ravine below.
Water falls from sky to sea
Personally, one of the spectacular sights in Langkawi would be her waterfalls. In an island filled with fairy tales and legends, this particular waterfall resonates with a lot of myths and legends in Asia: located along Mount Matchinchang, up the road from Oriental Village and the start of the Langkawi Cable Car, is the Seven Wells, or Telaga Tujuh.
This is a collection of stunning waterfalls and pools that emerge from the springs close to the summit of Mount Matchinchang. While most would be at the base of the waterfall, looking at the stunning, immensely tall waterfall as it crashes down below and onwards to the sea, a stunning viewpoint can be had at the pools at the top of the waterfall.
Cool water, natural slides, rockpools and gently cascading water provides a great counterpoint to the sheer aggressiveness of the water as it goes off the ledge. This would be a good metaphor for Langkawi: peaceful yet hyperactive, commercialized yet rustically idyll.
Rent a car:
there are a number of car rentals available at arrivals of Langkawi International Airport. Taxis can be expensive, and hard to come by if you explore further afield.
Langkawi Cable Car:
-Normal prices start from RM30, but the wait can be painful, especially during weekends and holiday season
-Express: starts from RM90. Worth it.
-Express + Skytrail: RM120. Also worth it.
Singapore is one of those interesting, urban, metropolitan cities, with a nightlife scene which can be both local yet transport you to a whole other city at the same time. While one friend would be-cry the loss of the ‘authentic’ experience, another would revel in the unquestionably urban delights that reminds him of the fancy bars in London or New York. It would be hard to please both of them, but at least this list would attempt to reconcile them, somewhat.
Spago, Marina Bay Sands
Regular readers would know of my affinity for Spago, at the Marina Bay Sands. Sure, it may be filled with tourists, and yes, it adjoins the (in)famous Marina Bay Sands infinity skypool, but I admit, I keep coming back for the cocktails, and view. Let’s not forget the view.
Unlike the other rooftop perches in Singapore, it does not feel, well, full of itself. Staff are friendly, clientele open to random conversation, drinks are reasonably priced by Singapore standards, and the drinks are good.
While Level33, another rooftop bar over at the similarly named and nearby Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1, is also high on my Singapore list, Spago gets a leg up for their cocktail selection, which I adore.
The views are spectacular up here, and both the bar and seated area has stunning views of either Singapore’s spectacular skyscrapers in the CBD, with the beautiful sunset, or the ships in anchor at harbour facing the South China Sea, also paired with a beautiful sunset, looking out towards the Port of Singapore.
Atmosphere: The airy, wall-less space overlooking the Singapore CBD and Singapore Harbour will remind you that you are in a major international port. The variety of clientele would also remind you of the strength of trade in this city.
Drinks: good cocktails and nice selection of wines.
Price Point: Agreeable prices for a posh destination. SGD 25/+ drink
Feel: Relaxed atmosphere with a good mix of tourists and locals, good place to chill on a lazy afternoon
Address: 10 Bayfront Avenue, Level 57, Sands Skypark Tower 2, Singapore
Nearest Station: Bayfront MRT Station
The first time I was introduced to this place was by a friend who casually mentioned that he might not be able to meet my ‘requirements’ for rooftop perches. Yes, I have that reputation. So, instead he decided to wow me with a speakeasy.
Now, this speakeasy is, as I later found out, a ‘chain’, whose original bar is in New York. The entrance can easily be missed, is very unassuming and purposely distracting, and a quick ‘password’ of ‘Employees Only’? would suddenly see a door open, where you pass through thick, velvet curtains and enter a world which looks more at place in Amsterdam, London or New York, than a tropical international finance centre.
Drinks are pretty good, but the place can get awfully full very easily. This spot is very popular, despite the slightly more expensive drinks. Predominantly expatriate clientele, with music from the 80s, with the random spot of 90s, expect the unexpected.
The Cuba Libre is a particular favourite here, amidst the impressive list of cocktails. The frozen version is worth the wait, even at bar ‘rush hour.’
Atmosphere: That ‘whizzed away to another world’ feel, almost surreal. Expat heavy, dark wood and a slightly posh feel. Not sure if you want to bring your first date here, maybe second date.
Drinks: Impressive cocktail selection, but go for the frozen Cuba Libre.
Price Point: A bit pricey for a non-rooftop bar by Singapore standards, around SGD 25.
Feel: After-work office crowd, professional setting setting and the very occasional tourist. Very white collar.
Address: 112 Amoy St, Singapore
Nearest Station: Telok Ayer MRT Station
28 Hongkong Street
Another speakeasy, but this one in the middle zone between the crazy Clarke Quay and After-work Boat Quay. We almost missed this spot when we were looking for it. Located on a non-descript street, like all good speakeasies, the street was so quiet, with hardly anyone outside giving the spot away, it can easily be missed.
Once you enter past the old school Southeast Asian colonial shophouse doors, you will enter a nice darkly lit, grungy bar located in a well preserved old shophouse, with the old beams well maintained.
The long bar gives it a darkly cool feel, and the R&B beats makes you feel as if you are in a Manhattan speakeasy. The cocktail list is impressive, and the service is cool without being arrogant.
The place is narrow but long, and the very limited seats makes a cosy spot to sit down a premium here. Expect to stand most of the time, especially when it gets busy.
Atmosphere: Grungy and dark, but without feeling distant. The high ceilings and well preserved beams will remind you that you are in a colonial Southeast Asian shophouse and not a Manhattan warehouse.
Drinks: Decent cocktail selection and pretty stiff drinks
Price Point: Not outrageous but not cheap either, at SGD 20
Feel: Cool, chill R&B club, with a healthy mix of locals and expats, unlike the other entries in this list
Address: 28 Hongkong Street, Singapore
Nearest Station: Clarke Quay MRT Station
When we went to this bar, the Andaz Singapore was still at pre-opening, but the skydining, called ‘Alley on 25,’ at the 25th floor was open. While we missed the pre-opening of the rooftop bar, we were invited to the bar in the F&B floor, which, I must admit, pretty good.
Small and intimate, with just a long table as the main bar, with a few tables on one side facing the plate-glass windows overlooking the Singapore CBD, seated by the bar feels like seated at an Omakase session in a very intimate Japanese sashimi bar.
The cocktail selection may seem at first glance a bit limited, but have a chat to the friendly bartenders and they will whip something up. At my round 2, I was not sure what to have, and I told bartender Ryan I wanted something with vodka. Without saying a word, or perhaps reading my mind and my ‘preferred drink’ history, he whipped out a vodka martini with espresso.
The spot is a nice place for a drink if you want an intimate drink, a nice view of the city and a very relaxed place to unwind. Not as posh or as out of the ordinary as the others in this list, but it has a charm as unique as its destination. Kinda.
Atmosphere: Chestnut and oak wood panels give this a Japanese cabin feel, with clean lines, simple minimalist decoration and a close, intimate bar
Drinks: Good cocktail and wine selection. If in doubt, the bartenders can always whip something up
Price Point: Average by Singapore hotel standards. SGD 20+/drink.
Feel: Japanese omakase meets bar. It is so intimate, you and the bartender share the same bar, and there is no separation between bartender and guest areas on this bar
Address: 5 Fraser St, Singapore
Nearest Station: Bugis MRT Station
What is my criteria?
-Atmosphere: Similar to feel, but the overall layout and space in the bar
-Drinks Selection: Beer? Wine? Cocktails? Variety helps with the view.
-Price Point: Rooftop bars are known to charge a premium, but is it reasonable?
-Feel: Now this is hard to quantify, but a fantastic view can be spoiled by that intangible thing called ‘feelings’
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.