Singapore is one of those cities that you either love, or hate, or love to hate. It is pretty, but maybe too pretty. It has fantastic bars, but maybe too posh. It has all your urban delights, but maybe a little too polished for your liking. Regardless, there is a reason why almost everyone in Southeast Asia is drawn to the Lion City.
Best thing is, with the airport in close proximity and well-connected to the city, a quick day trip during a stopover is doable. I would not be surprised if Singapore pioneered the ‘city stopover’ tour from the early days of the Kangaroo Route.
A Hop Away
The beauty of Singapore is its efficient public transport system. The MRT is essentially a dream for those who want to move around the city, and the endless rabbit warren of underground passages make it possible for you to get from one point to another in air-conditioned environments.
As a guide, it takes you roughly 30 minutes to get from Changi Airport MRT Station to City Hall MRT Station, with a change at Tanah Merah MRT Station, where you can easily hop on between the Green Line to the Red Line. Most city sights are within walking distance of Green or Red Line stations.
Where else if not City Hall MRT Station. From this spot, you can get those picturesque views of Singapore, that juxtaposition of grand colonial architecture and the soaring skyscrapers of Raffles Place just across the river, and the Marina Bay Sands just across the water.
Just outside of City Hall MRT, you can either a) walk the underground passages or b) get out to ground level and look around. St Andrew’s Cathedral, St Joseph’s Cathedral, the Singapore Art Museum and CHIJMES are just outside, and worthy of a quick stroll through over an hour.
Just across the street from St Andrew’s Cathedral is the fantastic National Gallery Singapore, a fine art gallery with one of the best, if not the best, collection of Southeast Asian art in the region. Housed in the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings, even if you are not a connoisseur of art, the rooftop terrace with worth the detour, and the conservation made with the grand entrance makes for an architecture enthusiast’s delight: that mysterious blend of modern architecture that blends well with 19th century detailing.
Right by the Victoria Memorial, you will spot the famous Sir Stamford Raffles statue, with his back framed by Raffles Place. Curious to know the source of Singapore’s wealth and power? This would be it: a free port dedicated to free trade. Say what you want about Raffles, but he did leave quite the legacy.
Walk across the Cavenagh Bridge and admire the curious Boat Quay upriver, dwarfed by the skyscrapers of Raffles Place, or walk along the embankment towards the Merlion Statue. A bit touristy for my liking, but it is the thing to look at. That, and the Marina Bay Sands across the bay.
If you have time, have tea at the Fullerton Hotel: the former Post Office makes a nice spot to relax. Make your walk along the water’s edge towards Marina Bay Sands. You know you want to.
Now, Marina Bay Sands is just, well, I am speechless. It is supremely overpriced at times, but surprisingly good value can be found if you dig around. I assume you are hungry by now, so stop over at Mozza Pizzeria, one of my favourite spots in Singapore. The pizzas are divine.
Or are you more keen to go up to the SkyPark? Well, my favourite spot is Spago, entrance by Tower 2 Marina Bay Sands. Not as prissy as Ce La Vie, this spot has fantastic views of the city, you can spot the swimmers and sunbathers at the SkyPool, and the drinks are pretty good. There is a reason I named this as one of my favourite rooftop bars in Southeast Asia.
Tired of eating or drinking? Then take the Circle Line to either Marina Bay or Dhoby Gaut MRT station to get on the Red Line to Orchard Road. I suggest getting off at Somerset MRT Station, where you can hop over to Kilinney Kopitiam for their fantastic coffee, soya bean, chicken curry or kaya (coconut jam) on toast.
Or if you really want to see the power of Asian Consumerism in Southeast Asia, then head straight over to Orchard MRT Station, where you get off at ION Orchard, one of the premier malls in Singapore, and get the option to either a) walk through the underground malls linking ION Orchard to Atria Shopping Gallery and Ngee Ann City. I suggest Ngee Ann City: Takashimaya’s food hall makes the food halls in Harrods, Selfridges and Galleries Lafayette look a little bland.
(Option: if you are pressed for time, Marina Bay Sands is a good spot to end your whirlwind trip to Singapore. From Bayfront MRT Station, get on the Downtown Line/Blue Line to Bugis MRT Station and catch the Green Line train towards Changi. Don’t forget to change trains at Tanah Merah!)
(Option 1) Walk over to Fort Canning Park. It is a nice, green lung at the end of Orchard Road, with the Far Eastern Command Centre dominating the large, green public space. Surrounded by 100-year old trees and finely pruned greenery, one would think one was somewhere else. A good option outside of the Supergrove Trees at the Gardens By The Bay.
Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station is nearby, so it will be easy for you to move after.
(Option 2) Head back to City Hall MRT Station: walking around Raffles Place towards Marina Bay Sands is very interesting closer to the end of the day. It isn’t too hot, you will spot joggers running circuits around the bay, and the skyscrapers of Singapore put out a nice light display as twilight comes about.
Evening around Marina Bay Sands can be quite the sight too: at 8pm, a water-and-light show is on, daily. Bright lights, big city, framed by the bright lights and the big city. Head back up to the SkyDeck for drinks, or try out Level33 at Tower 1, Marina Bay Financial Centre for some fancy craft beers at happy hour prices. Again, fantastic views of Marina Bay, but your view of Raffles Place CBD may be obscured because, well, you are in the CBD itself.
If you are on Option 1, then you’re on the right station to head back to Changi MRT Station, changing at City Hall MRT for the Green Line towards the airport. If you are on Option 2, then get on the Blue Line to Bugis, then head straight to Changi MRT on the Green Line. Don’t forget to change trains at Tanah Merah!
Agency: Self-tour. There are guides available at the ticket counter. Singapore Airlines provides a bus for this, but that spoils the fun.
Preparation: Lots of walking involved, but nothing too strenuous.
Bring: Camera and water. The sights alone will make you snap away.
Wear: Something light. This is the tropics.
Time: Half a day easily.
During my initial research for the Yogyakarta trip, one thing kept me up at night: could I visit the UNESCO sites of Borobudur and Prambanan in one day? Well, yes. Just bear in mind a teeny tiny logistical issue in your planning.
Logistics: Borobudur is located North of the city centre, roughly 1.5 hours from the Phoenix Hotel, along the major road to Surakata. Again, this is all subject to traffic conditions, as the roads can get congested for no apparent reason sometimes, and it narrows from dual-lane to single-lane carriageway halfway through your journey.
Prambanan is located East of the city centre, past the airport. On a good day, particularly in the morning, you can get there within 30 minutes from the Phoenix Hotel. The road is mostly dual-carriage all the way, so that makes life simple.
Kraton Yogyakarta is just south of the commercial core, a 15 minute becak ride from the Phoenix Hotel.
Opening hours: Borobudur is one of those famous UNESCO sites where you wake up at an absurd hour just to watch the sunrise. For those with a sunrise ticket, you get in an hour before everyone else. Expect to pay a premium for this privilege. For normal ticket holders, you get in at 0700. The site closes at 1800, with last entry at 1700.
Prambanan opening hours? Gates open at 0700, close at 1800 with last entry at 1700 for sunset.
Kraton Yogyakarta is only open in the morning, between 0800 to 1200, so you are stuck with a morning palace stroll.
Best times? Personally, I like to avoid the crowds, so I like mornings. I went to Borobudur right after I got back from climbing Mt Merapi at 1130, so I got in just as the crowds were at their mid-afternoon peak. That said, most head straight to the top terrace, so the side terraces as you ascend the ‘mountain’ are quiet.
I went to Prambanan right after breakfast, getting in at the site around 0800. It was absolutely perfect. Very few people, and I could feel the forlorn majesty of the place, hopping from temple to temple to right the right angle to frame Mt Merapi amidst the Hindu shrines.
Having squeezed in Prambanan in the first half of the morning, I managed to get to the Keraton by around 1000, just in time for the Monday Gamelan performance. Best time? Check schedules for the cultural performances. Mid- to late-morning is best. Nothing like listening to hauntingly beautiful gamelan music as you stroll through an early 19th century Javanese palace.
Weather? Morning in Prambanan was crisp. Mid-afternoon in Borobudur was bearable. Then again, I went during the rainy season in end-January so that may have affected my experience.
Recommendation? Borobudur in the morning, for the sunset and to avoid a big chunk of the crowd, and quickly head down to Prambanan after. You will be spending part of the day in a car, so make sure you get a comfy ride.
Or: you could do Borobudur individually on one late afternoon, when the crowds apparently get thin, and then do Prambanan and the Kraton the next morning.
Regardless of your options, just bear in mind that you can only do the Kraton Yogyakarta in the morning.
Verdict: Could a Yogyakarta Quickie be done? Well, yes. Suggested itinerary if you are really short on time and only have 1 night in Yogyakarta is as follows:
Sunrise at Borobudur, then head out to the Keraton by mid-morning (factor in the 2-hour drive).
Race down to Prambanan after lunch (with the 45-minute drive), and if you are so inclined, board your plane right after for an evening flight.
That way, you’re heading north, back to the city and then east towards the airport.
I usually wouldn’t recommend it, unless you are very strict with a 1-1.5 hour visit to the sites.
Borodudur: IDR 325,000
Prambanan: IDR 252,000
Combi (Covers both Borobudur and Prambanan): IDR 420,000
Keraton Yogyakarta: IDR 12,500 (there is an additional camera charge of IDR 3,000)
One of the few things I look for when I travel, for work or leisure, is always a good rooftop bar. Or at least a bar with a view. Why? Well, why not: a perfect spot to watch the world go by, enjoying the urbane, if not the sights of the city you are currently in, from a nice height. I did not list this by ranking.
Helipad at Heli Lounge, Kuala Lumpur
Located on the, well, helipad of Menara KH, on the 34, this spot is not for the faint of heart. While the Skybar at the Traders Hotel gets the best unobstructed view of the Petronas Twin Towers in KLCC, how often can you say ‘oh, yeah, I drank on a helipad, waiting for the helicopter that never came.’
It brands itself as KL’s Best Kept Secret, but I doubt that is the case now with all the adverts on it. However, it is still a nice place, with fantastic views of Kuala Lumpur, with perfect views of the Twin Towers, KL Tower and suburbs beyond. When the other towers of KL start sprouting up, this spot will definitely be the spot.
View: 360 views of Kuala Lumpur, since, well, this is literally a rooftop.
Drinks: decent selection of drinks, reasonably priced, and not a ridiculous premium involved.
Price Point: re above. Reasonable. MYR 30++/drink
Feel: come by before 9pm and you can enjoy the view in shorts. However, the live band can be distracting after 10pm.
Address: 34th Foor, Menara KH, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +603 2110 5034
Nearest Station: Raja Chulan Monorail Station
Spago at Marina Bay Skypark, Singapore
aThis particular spot is in the middle of the Skypark on top of Marina Bay Sands. With reasonably priced food and carefully hidden behind bushes to shield guests at the Marina Bay Sand skypool from patrons (or maybe the other way around?), this spot is a perfect place to chill while looking out towards the Singapore Skyline.
While a bit of a chore to get to (Use the lifts at Tower 2, and change lifts at the spa), it feels like a suspended beach bar in the middle of a city. In fact, the design and foliage makes it a nice urban oasis, with hints of the Singapore CBD towers reflected against the pool. Surreal.
View: Depending where you are seated, you can get fantastic views of Singapore or the Harbour.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and a few interesting options to choose from.
Price Point: This is Singapore, so expect to pay a premium. However, prices here are comparable to bars closer to ground. SGD 30++/drink.
Feel: As it isn’t as popular (or hyped) as the other 2 rooftop bars on the Skydeck (I am looking at you, former Ku De Ta), it has a very pleasant, relaxed vibe. Again, think beach.
Address: 10 Bayfront Avenue, Level 57, Sands Skypark Tower 2, Singapore
Tel: +65 6688 9955
Nearest Station: Bayfront MRT Station
The Bar at Altitude, Jakarta
Jakarta is moving up in the Asia Pacific as a hip destination. Every time I visit Jakarta, I see something that reminds me to ignore all the occasional bad press that appears. This rooftop bar, located adjacent to Plaza Indonesia, can be a bit of a maze to get to. Just ask for The Plaza tower at Plaza Indonesia.
Once there, be greeted by an unobstructed view south of the giant metropolis, fondly known as the Big Durian. While not the highest bar, such as the one at Skyle Lounge, or with a fantastic terrace just 3 floors up in the same tower at Cloud Lounge, your view is at the very edge, facing the plate glass windows. Plus, it feels less like a fancy bar and more like a member’s only lounge.
View: Unobstructed views of downtown Jakarta, at this, the highest rooftop bar in the city. Even better if the weather and smog is cooperating.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and the usual beers.
Price Point: Reasonable by Urban Asia-Pacific standards. IDR 100k++/drink.
Feel: Very dressed down and casual in the daytime. Relaxed atmosphere with chilled music just makes you want to do absolutely nothing but relax.
Address: The Plaza, 46th Floor, Jl MH Thamrin Kav 28 – 30, Jakarta
Tel: +62 21 2992 2448
Red Sky, Bangkok
Bangkok is the city for rooftop bars in my opinion. The options are endless, but this is arguably my favourite. Why? The drinks are stiff and good, and you have the option for a 360 view of Bangkok on the highest rooftop bar, in one of the tallest buildings in the city.
The entire place is a 2-storey collection of restaurants and bars, and the terrace itself is 2 storeys high, with the lower terrace a dining terrace. The best time to come by is around 5pm, as the sun sets in the City of Angels. Did I also mention there is a champagne lounge? Definitely one of my favourite rooftop bars.
View: 360 view of Bangkok, as far as the eye can see. Everything from the MahaNakhon to the Baiyoke, the Banyan Tree onwards to the Okura Prestige. The Grand Palace may be obstructed, sadly.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, and look out for the happy hour from 4pm to 9pm (best to double check the happy hour timing).
Price Point: Not as cheap as your usual Bangkok bar, but one of the more reasonable when compared to its rooftop bar peers. The Happy Hour will make you happy. THB 3,000++/drink.
Feel: Somewhat more relaxed than Sirocco at Lebua and does not induce a fear of heights as much as Vertigo. Will make you feel high.
Address: 56th Floor, Centara Grand at CentralWorld, Bangkok, Thailand
Tel: +66 2 100 6255
Nearest Station: Chidlom BTS Station
Le Moon Rooftop Bar, Phnom Penh
You were not expecting Phnom Penh in this list, were you? While it may not have as many high rises compared to her other Asia-Pacific peers, this medium-rise rooftop bar has a stunning view of the Mekong River and temples in this, the capital of Cambodia.
The staff are friendly, the drinks good and the terrace comfortable, as you enjoy the sunset views over the Mekong and temples of the city. While a high-rise may block the reflection of the sunset against the golden spires of the Grand Palace, the views during the Golden Hour from the terrace will make sunset in this slice of Paris-in-the-East have a very Hemmingway feel.
View: Fantastic view of the Mekong River and old Phnom Penh, overlooking temple spires and the golden roof of the Grand Palace.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection. Beer and wine could be better, but hey.
Price Point: Expensive by Cambodian standards, but cheaper than her ASEAN peers. USD6/drink
Feel: Relaxed and chilled, though it may make you feel a little too colonial.
Address: 154 Dekcho Damdin St, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: +885 23 214 747
Hi-SO Rooftop Bar, SO Sofitel, Bangkok
Bangkok gets 2 mentions in this list. This particular spot has her unique charm. While not as high as the others in Bangkok, or in this list, the view is to die for. Located at the edge of Lumphini Park, the Sofitel SO’s rooftop bar has unobstructed views over the Sukhumvit and Witthayu skyline, giving a very green angle towards what is usually seen as a concrete jungle in Bangkok.
The drinks are good, the staff attentive, and the setting intimate, with a few terraces for you to hide in. The occasional architectural beam may get in the way, but once you are seated with views overlooking the park on a clear sunny afternoon, all is forgiven.
View: Lumphini Park, Sukhumvit, Witthayu (a.k.a. Wireless Rd) and Siam. Tree-filled foreground, accented by glass and steel.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection. Honestly, I only paid attention to the cocktails.
Price Point: Pretty decent by any standards. THB 3000++/drink.
Feel: Outdoor lounge of a fancy luxury hotel, yet does not feel pretentious.
Address: Park Society Terrace & Hi-SO Rooftop Bar, 30th Floor, SO Sofitel, 2 North Sathorn Road, Bangrak, Bangkok, Thailand
Tel: +66 2 624 0000
Nearest Station: Lumphini MRT Station
Rex Hotel Rooftop Bar, Ho Chi Minh City
While there are higher rooftop bars in Ho Chi Minh City, this one has a particular charm. Readers may have noticed I have a romantic traveller hidden in me, and anything that makes me think of the golden age of exploration, be it Victorian or 1930s will make me go ‘ooooh.’ This is one of them.
Located in the historic core of Ho Chi Minch City, basically in the French Quarter, this terrace will make you imagine a time when the French ruled all of IndoChina. The well restored City Hall, Arcades and Opera House will make you imagine a time when this was (one of the 2, or was it 3?) Paris of the East, with the evening lending the place a very European flair.
View: The City Hall Square mostly, but it does look stunning with the restored French-era buildings. The terrace foliage may get in the way.
Drinks: Good drinks selection.
Price Point: Pretty average for this list, around USD 10++/drink.
Feel: Relaxed, but can get claustrophobic.
Address: 141 Nguyen Hue Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: +84 83 829 2185
While these bars did not quite make my list, they are fantastic in their own right just for their settings:
Foreign Correspondent’s Club, Phnom Penh
Fantastic terrace both at the 2nd floor and the 3rd floor roof terrace, overlooking the Mekong and the French colonial buildings.
Address: 363 Sisowath Quay, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tel: +855 23 210 142
More sky-high brewery than a bar, this spot has decent happy hours and great views overlooking Raffles Place, Marina Bay and the Marina Bay Sands.
Address: 8 Marina Boulevard 33-01, Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1, Singapore
Tel: +65 6834 3133
Nearest Station: Marina Bay MRT Station
Cloud Lounge & Dining, Jakarta
Just 3 floors above The Bar at Altitude, this terrace has fantastic views at sunset and good drinks, though the view is slightly obscured by the building’s structure. However, it still has a fantastic view despite the architectural set-back.
Address: The Plaza, 49th Floor, Jl MH Thamrin Kav 28 – 30, Jakarta
Tel: +62 21 2992 2450
What is my criteria?
-View: do I get a unique insight to the city? And is the view majorly obstructed?
-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’
Want a quick weekend adventure? Tired of trail running and hiking close to urban areas? Well, if you are within easy reach of Borneo, then here is a ridiculous idea:
Explore 4 caves, including the World’s Largest Cave Passage/Widest Cave Passage/Largest Cave Network by volume, in around 24 hours. Did I also mention that this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Arrive in Mulu at around 10am. Since I only brought a gym bag, I went straight out. My transport was waiting for me at the airport entrance, and since the airport is basically a Short Take-Off/Landing facility, I was off the plane and in to the Marriott transport in 10 minutes. Another 5 minutes later, I was at the Mulu Marriott.
By 1230, I took the Marriott transportation to the Mulu National Park HQ, which was a very quick 5 minute ride away. There, my guide was waiting for me, and by 1300, we were off to explore the first set of caves.
After a nice walk along well-maintained and managed paths, we reached the a rather fun detour: the Canopy Walk. Apparently, this particular Canopy Walk has the longest single stretch between trees, with the entire Canopy Walk being 850m, and at its max, suspended 50m above the jungle floor.
This Canopy Walk was built without a single nail used, and the entire walkway is suspended by a single cable. Local craftsmen and engineers used local knowhow and international safety standards to make sure the thing is well suspended. The platforms themselves are a marvel, in which they rest against while being suspended on the tree, without a single nail.
Also, remember to occasionally look down: the view of the rivers, jungle floor and engineering skills make for a wonder.
Next up: the highlight of any trip to Mulu, the main reason people visit. The Deer Cave. Now, the Deer Cave is a marvel in itself, being the largest cave passage in the world. Or was it highest? Or was it both? Titles aside, the sheer view and scale is enough to inspire you.
Why visit? Well, for starters, it is a massive natural wonder, and from one particular angle, with the light just right, you will spot Abraham Lincoln in profile. Not exactly Mt Rushmore, but still, Nature has a way with sculpture.
My guide brought us in and through the passageway, up along lightly-illuminated but non-intrusive paths, deeper in to the cave, where you can hear swiftlets flying overhead, spot the occasional patch of bats, watch the stunning dripping of water from the cavern ceiling, all while avoiding guano.
At one observation point close to the other end, 3 wonders will appear: The Garden of Eden, Eve’s Shower and Adam’s Shower. Pictures do none of these sites justice, and words could not even begin to describe the sheer scale and beauty of them. Someone thought images of Paradise would be apt. I am inclined to agree,
Show cave Number 2 is Lang’s Cave. Conveniently next to the Deer Cave, it is not as grand, imposing and majestic but it has its own magnificent quality.
What Lang’s Cave lacks in height, it makes up for in formation. Appropriately lit sections of the cavern highlight the sculptural displays Nature likes to throw. Stalactites and stalacmites in various stages of growth, the stages in the development of a limestone column and effects of water erosion makes Lang’s Cave a geologist’s dream and an impromptu geology teaching hall.
Apart from lessons in geology, there might be a few sights to give you the occasional sleepless night. Where people saw jellyfish amidst the rock formations, I saw Ctulhu and various other beings that would belong in the Necronomicon.
By the time we were done with the 2 Show Caves, we had ample time before the evening’s performance at the ‘amphitheatre’: the Flight of the Bats. Now, this performance can be quite temperamental but very much worth it when you get it. And if the crowd gets rowdy, just say ‘oh, look!’ and instant silence as everyone looks at the cave entrance with anticipation.
Close to sunset, you will see unique spectacles, and as the sun sets behind the treetops, soft whispers fly up through the sky, as hints of the show come out. Batches of bats come streaming out: some in small groups, others in clusters.
And just as the last rays of sun retreat from the entrance of the Deer Cave, the main performance: millions upon millions of bats streaming out, flying in an endless band. Some say it looks like a dragon, others a serpent. Maybe inspiration for the great Feathered Serpent himself, Quetzalcoatl?
Day One finished, I went back to the hotel for a shower, before dinner at a nice local place next to Park HQ and then lazy drinks back at the hotel terrace.
After breakfast at the hotel, I went straight to the Mulu National Park HQ to catch a boat ride upriver towards the Clearwater Cave system. Before that though, we made a stop at the small Penan settlement of Bung Bunan to look at handicrafts and lifestyles of the formerly nomadic Penan, or Punan, tribesman. The market was quaint, the small information boards filled to the brim with the histories and lore of the communities, and the crafts on sale pretty decent.
Another 5 minutes by boat, we arrived at the third show cave: the Wind Cave. Now, the Wind Cave is as advertised: it can get quite windy. After the steep climb up the stairs, the fresh, cool wind is a welcome respite.
Walking down in to the network, you notice the cavern getting smaller, then wider, then smaller, before all of a sudden, encountering a grand oculus above you, the perfect antechamber before entering the aptly named King’s Chamber. There, well, let’s just say you can imagine the Mountain King and his trolls lumbering around.
Within, the beautiful array of rock formations give way to grand chasms and imperious spaces, to antechambers that lead to connecting cave systems and limestone columns that look as if they were frozen mid-dance.
And as if to throw me hints: we were in the midst of cavers, who looked the part of National Geographic explorers, bedecked in gear and coiled ropes slung against shoulders, ready to go on an adventure. Yes, I was sold. Sign me up.
Which then leads us to the grand finale: the Clearwater Cave. This was a short 5 minute boat ride away, which we could have walked to, but as it was drizzling, we were advised against walking on the walkway that hugged against the cliff face, but had a dazzling setting suspended above the Paku River.
Now, the Clearwater Cave’s entrance is at the top of plateau, against the cliff face. This is where your hours of stairmaster, or hill-runs, coupled with squats, will suddenly feel worthwhile. After going up 200 or so steps (I could be wrong, I lost count after 150), you then realize you have to go down towards the cave system.
It is here that you will see the majesty and grandeur of this, the largest cave system in the world by volume, which houses the largest cave chamber in the world within its network.
After descending in to the cave system, which will make you think of the Fellowship of the Ring entering the Mines of Moria, you are greeted by an underground river, with crystal clear water, that runs through and onwards in the system. Clear Water indeed.
Climbing up stairs and ramps, walkways and overhangs, with the oculus providing natural light filling sections of the chamber, you see the interplay of light and dark, of massive trees being dwarfed by even larger rock formations and caverns. You feel so small, yet so at awe and inspired, yet insignificantly puny at the sheer scale of it all. You suddenly feel inspired yet lost for words. You feel human.
Adjoining the entrance is the aptly named spur of the Lady Cave, which for the religiously inclined, will suddenly make you turn this spot in to a Marian Grotto. A rock formation looks like the Virgin Mary, standing in prayer, with the accompanying shadow highlighting this image.
After all that hiking and climbing, lunch was a welcomed delight. The good thing about this spot, at the foot of the cliff leading to the Clearwater Cave entrance, is that it’s a ready spot for a picnic and a dip in the aptly named clear streams and pool.
The four caves done within 24 hours, with all the highlights. The main group actually did do this entire trip in 24 hours, and they caught the 1330 flight to Miri. There is a jetty that leads to the airport right across the street, along the river on the way back to Park HQ, so there really is seamless transfer to make this quick 24 hour trip doable.
What did I do for the rest of the 24 hours before flying back the next day? Took a dip in the pool and enjoyed the terrace at the Mulu Marriott of course.
Agency: I used Borneo Rainforest Trekking. They can prepare bespoke packages depending on your time and requirements.
Preparation: Be reasonably fit. There will be a lot of walking, especially the approach to the Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave. The Clearwater Cave has steep steps to the ascent, and within the cavern, there are steps galore. Perfect for glutes of steel.
Bring: Water, a hydration pack is ideal. Some snacks may come in useful. Torchlights will come in very handy. Bring good hiking boots. Spare shirt/shorts just in case.
Wear: Something light. If you worry about bat droppings, bring a raincoat.
Time: About half a day for 2 show caves, 24 hours total.
Caution: Bring cash. Mulu is a small settlement with no ATM machines or banks. Credit cards are accepted at the Mulu National Park and Mulu Marriott but have not been observed elsewhere. Cell reception is spotty, and Wi-Fi is limited. Have fun being unplugged!
Get in: So, how do I go about this ridiculously tight trip? First, fly in to Mulu in Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo. There are direct flights from Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu on MASWings, a regional subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines, but I highly suggest flying in via Miri as the first flight in to Mulu is the prerequisite for this madness.
Jakarta may not have the grand spanking concentrated skylines of Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok of Singapore, but this does not mean the Big Durian has a lack of sky high watering holes. These are my three picks in the city centre, which, personally, has the best views of the Indonesian capital.
The Bar, Altitude at The Plaza
Located on the mezzanine floor of Altitude, a collection of restaurants spread over three floors, this quiet spot feels more at home in London or New York, with its dark wood and leather trimming.
With its stunning overhang above the restaurant, intimate atmosphere and private member’s lounge feel, you could easily imagine James Bond sipping his martini while planning his next rappel down the skyscraper.
The cocktail selection is decent, though I would personally opt for the wine or liquor on hand. The view, though, is second to none. Without any supporting structure or safety barriers, the view looking south towards the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout and onwards along the Sudirman skyscraper cluster makes the effort worth it.
While not as popular as the other two in my list, this personally takes top billing from me.
View: Southwards, overlooking the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout and the central business districts (yes, plural) of Jakarta. Unobstructed by any supporting structures, safety recesses or buildings.
Drinks: decent selection of drinks, reasonably priced.
Price Point: re above. Reasonable. IDR 110k++/drink
Feel: come by in the afternoon onwards. It does get crowded and busy from 7pm onwards.
Address: The Plaza, 46th Floor, Jl Mh Thamrin Kav 28 – 30, Jakarta 10350
(Tel: +62 021 2992 2448)
Cloud Lounge and Dining, The Plaza
Located just above Altitude, this rooftop bar has a nice terrace and outdoor bar that has a very similar view to Altitude, looking south towards the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout and Sudirman beyond.
The view down towards the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout may not be as stunning as The Bar at The Altitude, thanks to the structure of the rooftop and the set-back at the building’s crown, but it is still a sight to behold, and has a wider view in comparison.
Drinks are stiff, with my vodka martini very well made. The layout on the terrace may be a little awkward with the seating, but the view makes up for it
The bar opens from 5pm, and it does get crowded pretty quickly at opening hours. Stay to watch the sun set in the west, as the bartender quite literally sets the bar on fire, and not for a flaming Lamborghini.
The terrace has a covered area just in case it rains, and the men’s room is truly interesting. Sorry, ladies, but I doubt you can come in to the men’s room for the urinal with a view.
View: 180* view of south and southwest Jakarta, and perfectly sited to watch the sun set. The view may be slightly obstructed by the terrace’s set-back, but the wide angle of the Jakarta skyline make up for it.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, including chocolate and coffee martinis. Pretty stiff drinks.
Price Point: For the view, they could charge a premium, but drinks are reasonably priced at the IDR 110k point.
Feel: This is a somewhat popular place, for both locals and visitors. The feeling is relaxed, and you can come in shorts (at least for sunset. It might be different after sunset).
Address: The Plaza, 49th Floor, Jl Mh Thamrin Kav 28 – 30, Jakarta 10350
(Tel: +62 21 2992 2450)
Go to Altitude at Level 46 and change lifts to Level 49. The Plaza, at Plaza Indonesia
Skye Lounge, Jakarta
This particular perch is definitely the highest in Jakarta, and is part of a bar and dining area of Level 56, Menara BCA. The outdoor terrace, however, feels smaller than Cloud Lounge, but it has a pool: the highest rooftop pool in Jakarta. Not sure if you can or if you want to swim in it: it is more a plunge pool than anything.
The bar has unique sunken seating areas, and cool lounge vibes. However, the view is both obstructed by a rooftop garden, set-backs and not towards the edge due to the pool. Drinks though are decent.
Overlooking the south of Jakarta, the view is good, but not as stunning as Cloud Lounge or the Bar at Altitude. However, I suspect the better view is at the dining room that looks north towards the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout.
View: Views towards the south skyline of Jakarta. Good view but not as iconic as the view from Cloud Lounge or The Altitude.
Drinks: Good cocktail selection, including interesting champagne cocktails.
Price Point: Reasonable by Urban Asia-Pacific standards. IDR 100k++/drink. There is a minimum ‘lounge credit’ of IDR 200k, payable upon entry, which can be used to purchase drinks.
Feel: Very dressed down and casual in the daytime. Relaxed atmosphere with chilled music just makes you want to do absolutely nothing but relax.
Address: BCA Tower, Level 56, Jl MH Thamrin No 1, Jakarta 10350
(Tel: +62 21 2358 6996)
What is my criteria?
-View: do I get a unique insight to the city? And is the view majorly obstructed?
-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’
It began innocently enough: a sudden calling to climb a volcano. The first time this came up was in February 2012, and while I booked flights to Jakarta in transit for Yogyakarta to climb Mount Merapi, the gods thought me unready, and I could not get any realistic transportation set up for my onward journey. That is until end-December 2016: the volcano beckoned once more.
Which is how I found myself in end-January 2017, at 2200, waiting in the lobby of the Phoenix Hotel Yogyakarta with a Dutch-French family for our transportation to basecamp. We were travellers with a purpose: climbing Mount Merapi
The ride to basecamp was relatively uneventful. There we were, 6 travellers and 1 driver in a large minivan, attempting to get some shut eye during the 2 hour drive. I knew I could not sleep despite my best attempts. No bed in my 5 star hotel could have made me rest, nor did the winding drive up, along narrow village lanes, potholed roads, sharp turns and steep ascents, prove conducive.
By 0015, we were at the trekking agency’s rest stop (more like a residence doubling as a storefront), where we met others of our party (to a total of 12 hikers), and were given light refreshments for the hike up. Some were well prepared, with hiking poles and all-weather parkas. One bloke was in shorts and a hoodie. Little would we know what will transpire.
As others pondered about their tea, downing coffee to keep them awake or comment about the drizzle outside, all I could think about was the contingency if I needed to eliminate up on the volcano.
By 0030, we set off, walking from our agency’s facilities straight up along a tarmac road. Within 100m, we encountered another group, and 1km up the road, we reached the start of the hike: ‘New Selo’. Here we saw other hikers. One was a lone hiker, will full camping gear. Another a group of friends who were huddled around having a meal amidst the darkness.
Soon enough, we set off: the proper path up beckoned. I shall not lie, it was a bit steep, between 35-40*. The path was paved with cement blocks for half the hike, with the rough surface and embedded grooves providing added grip, which was much welcomed. After about 45 minutes of hiking up, we reached the first check-point.
It was here where we had a taste of what was coming. The wind picked up, and you could see the cloud-line where you stood. After 15 minutes of rest as our team came up, we embarked on the next stage, which only got more interesting.
The wind gradually picked up, and we were truly in the clouds. Drizzle, and then sleet rain, lashed about us. The wind started to howl as the temperature gradually got colder. At each step, a lose stone got me cautious. At each boulder, my grip held on against a mossy surface. It did not help that the sleet rain and my body heat started to fog my spectacles up.
All I could do was keep pace with the lead guide and the two girls in front. My headlamp was not as useful on my forehead as it was in my hand, helping me see ahead much clearly despite not optimizing its use as a ‘head-lamp.’ With the wind bellowing and the sleet rain annoying, I zipped up my warm cycling jacket all the way to the top, thankful I wore triathlon compression socks underneath my chinos.
By the second check-point, the wind was at full force. We spotted tents around us, the fabric fluttering in the wind. One by one we streamed in to the check-point, each utilizing our individual pride to look brave. Save for the Dutch-French family (a fit father, a sociable mother and an energetic son), the rest of us were solo travellers. We smiled, we small-talked, we each in our own way tried to motivate the other without showing fear, dread or hinting at self-doubt.
And then my fears came about: I needed to use the toilet. To take a leak in the darkness, on a volcano with the winds howling around you, is no easy feat. However, I can now proudly say that I saw my urine steam up as I was taking a leak halfway up Mount Merapi. It was that cold.
We were making good time. By 0300, we went forth towards check-point three, dodging the tents and support ropes of the campsites around us. It was from here that the great gods of the volcanoes decided to demonstrate their power. The winds got ever stronger, pushing me sideways as I sought out footings against the trail before me. I held my hydration pack straps firmly to prevent them from fluttering about and annoying me, while keeping a firm focus on the lead guide before me.
Soon enough, the rocks were in a position that you had to scramble on all four, more rock-climbing than hiking. The sleet rain picked up again, as did the wind, growing ever fiercer. My gloves were of no utility, now being drenched and clearly designed more for a cool English autumn night than a growing mountain-top tempest.
By 0345, we were close but not quite in proximity to fourth check-point. Our guide told us we had to stop and seek shelter, as the wind was getting ever stronger and the cloud cover ever denser. Little did I realize this was where it was getting interesting.
We huddled up in our shelter: a make-shift cave, an old lava tube, where the sweet smell of incense guided our way. For an hour and a half, we sought shelter in our little hole. 10 of us, cold, wet, exhausted, wondering what we got ourselves in to. In the darkness, we attempted to get some rest. Some of us snacked on whatever we brought with us. Some of us changed clothes. I had a small flask of tea, which unsurprisingly in this weather, got cold.
Faced with our predicament, we tried to get some sleep. I barely managed a few brief moments of shut eye, but the cold inside and out, the damp and the sound of the howling wind outside was an ever constant distraction. The tips of my fingers felt numb, and a few among us tried whatever we could to stay warm. The family huddled up together in one mass. I shoved my fingers in to my warm cycling jacket. The two girls wrapped themselves as best they could in their all-weather gear. We looked like a miserable bunch, and we later shared that the thought of hypothermia was in our minds at that very moment.
By 0530, I quite literally saw the light. Curious, and in need of a leak, I went out. There, I saw a hauntingly beautiful sight: dawn breaking, lighting the sky in an eerie blue light. The wind ever present, but the drizzle now at a minimum. Having had a leak, I quickly rushed back in, took out my camera from my pack, questioned my sanity and went back out to brave the cold and wind for that ideal shot. I was not disappointed.
But then I noticed, our middle and tail-end guides were sleeping outside, in the cold. Granted, they were covered under cloth, with their feet exposed, but they rested soundly. I heard voices along the ridge, and I started to wonder: would we ever reach the top?
Shortly after, our guide told us of our options: commence our descent and call this a day, with the promise of warmth and an end to our travails, or brave the tempest, storm and wind to reach check-point four, with little in terms of picture quality and an assurance of gale-force winds, a steep ascent and dense cloud cover.
Naturally we picked the latter. Granted, we did question, and we did think of the former, but having braved all this, it made sense to go all the way. And go all the way we did: dodging the wind, navigating through paths in between boulders and skirting along support ropes and equipment of the campsites along the way.
The scene was of rugged beauty: a picture of desolate richness, a stunning garden of barrenness, of raw creation. At the plateau, by the fourth check-point, we were greeted with strong winds and dense cloud cover, as a monument stood in the middle: a hiker died as he attempted to take a picture a few years ago, and here is a reminder of how nature gives, and how nature takes away.
It was here I had to do what I set out to do all those years ago: I took out my hip flask, made a toast to all explorers before and all explorers who have yet to come, and drank to wanderlust. Did this failed summit attempt put me off? No: instead, it further cemented my resolve to climb even more peaks.
During our very quick 1.5 hour descent down the volcano, I contemplated on what had transpired. While we did not reach the top, my fellow hikers and I agreed that this experience, of being assaulted by strong winds, of seeing nothing but white clouds, of being stranded, cold, wet and exhausted in a lava tube, was something far more interesting than a simple and straightforward summit. Not an ideal travel experience, but an experience we would not trade for something else.
Agency: I used Kresna Travel as my agency to climb up Mount Merapi.
Preparation: Please get fit. I cannot stress this enough. My two weeks of cycling every day for 1 hour was barely enough. 3 in our party turned back at check point two, and 2 in our party backed away when we attempted check point four, citing exhaustion.
Bring: Water, a hydration pack is idea. Snacks, a power bar or individually wrapped chocolates will help you a long way.
Wear: Something warm and all-weather, preferably a windbreaker, and bring gloves. Do not be like me and wear chinos. The mother in the Dutch-French family thought me too well dressed in chinos as we were waiting for our ride
Time: It took us 4.5 hours to reach the plateau, including stops. It should take less than half of that for the descent. Do not ask how long it will take when you hike up: ignorance is bliss.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.