Jason’s Essay: Adventures in Review
The past year has been a very interesting year for travel, personally. Scaled up challenging peaks for one of the most spectacular views, sought shelter in an old lava tube amidst near freezing temperatures and played the explorer while on an island safari. While travel teaches us much, it is also a very good mirror held up to ourselves.
Target missed, experienced gained
If I were to pick one lesson as a highlight, then the climb up Mt Merapi in February 2017 would be a master class. I did not really plan for the climb until about 4 weeks before my trip. When I did finally book it, I had 3 weeks to prepare. Preparation is not the lesson here, but making the best of unforeseen circumstances.
Whenever I post on Instagram or here, or even on Facebook, I seem to project the image that everything goes according to plan. No hiccups, all targets achieved. This ascent up Mt Merapi would be a class to remind myself that not everything is within our control.
For 3 weeks I ran hill-sprints and focused my training regime on building my legs. At the eve of my trip, I felt as ready as I could ever be with such short training. The competitor within channelled my inner mountain athlete as on the day itself, I held my own with the front of the pack, keeping good pace and navigating the rocky terrain.
I had my own mission: to reach the top in a very respectable, preferably top percentile range. The mountain, on the other hand, had a lesson in store for me. Winds howled, sleet rain splattered on my face, cloud covered the last 1km of the summit. The benign weather in the day time turned in to a tempest by nightfall.
We never reached the summit, only the last checkpoint before we were told we could not proceed any further. The pain of being stuck in an old lava tube, cold, wet and shivering, trying to find a way to stay warm, as fellow hikers who were used to sub-arctic temperatures complained about the cold, suddenly felt like a further blow.
Yet, it was the experience, the possibility for me to relay this story of defeat instead of the usual tales of conquest, which brought a smile to my face as we descended. While 2 other hikers realized this lesson too, a few others did not take heart, and trodded down with disappointment.
Yes, we travelled far, we brought fancy kit, we trained as much as we can, but it is from the unexpected, the defeats, the targets missed, which remind us of why we travel: we make the best of it.
From uncertainty, jubilation
It was the lesson from the mountain that kept me going, hoping against hope, but to revel in what is to come, regardless of the outcome, as the weather turned for the worse as I was on an expedition to the Mulu Pinnacles in June 2017.
Heavy downpour the night before my hike to Camp 5 made me question if it was possible. The clear weather on the hike brought hope, but the weather the evening before the morning climb, brought a literal dampener.
We were informed that even the slightest hint of rain in the morning would mean that our climb would have to be cancelled. All our expectations, our hopes, our desire to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site hinged on the weather. Come what may, I had a fun hike and boat ride, enjoying drinks by the crystal-clear stream.
Come morning, the weather was absolutely perfect. Clear skies, hardly a cloud in sight, with Venus lighting the way. The realization that I could ascend up the peaks to view the Pinnacles, brought a cautious optimism.
My annoying competitive side within saw me once again be right behind my guide, who happened to be lead guide. A few slippery stones made me cautious, the slightly wet ladders and ropes heightened my awareness. Then, once at the top, passing a crevice, with cuts and bruises on my shins and knees, I heard my guide call out: last ladder and you’re done.
And indeed, at the top, I had the whole view to myself. I was mentally prepared to be disappointed, but having achieved this, the climb and view of the Pinnacles, I was in jubilation. The mini bottle of champagne waiting at Camp 5 was worth it. The realization of uncertainty of a trip, once achieved, makes the experience even more jubilant.
Experiences to talk about
The fine balance of uncertain possibilities to see the sights against the anticipation of expectation is something you will experience as you travel, and is something that shapes your outlook on your journey. Cautiously optimistic is personally better than the expectation of perfect sights.
It was this lesson that closed my 2017 adventures. I went to Komodo National Park, hoping to see dragons in December 2017. First, the eruption of Mt Agung on Bali island brought a standstill to my flight plans. Then, a tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean brought about uncertain weather, yet I still wanted to go. The islands called me.
I made my booking, I liaised with my expedition team, and they advised that yes, my private boat can be arranged, and yes, my desired stops can be placed in the itinerary, but no, I cannot be guaranteed all the stops I wanted. Ocean currents and weather were both to play a role in affecting my trip.
Yet on the day itself, the weather was perfect, the ocean currents agreeable, clouds made the heat somewhat bearable and the dragons came out to play. I cruised the islands on my little island safari, seeing stunning islands, rugged hills and wildlife in their natural habitat, all while playing an explorer who finally visited Jurassic Park.
This expedition to end the 2017 season was apt: I prepared as much as I could, being cautiously optimistic and reminded myself that not everything will go according to plan. I left my travel fate to the gods, but I did as much as I could to improve the likelihood of the situation.
When the sights was seen, and the experienced surpassed expectations, the feeling was surreal. Do not set your expectations on too low a bar: just remember that life always finds a way…finds a way to both amuse you and annoy you, to impress on you. And of course, make the best of any experience!
Happy travels in 2018! Here’s to more adventures!
Bangkok is one of my favourite destinations: she has energy, diversity, creature comforts and jagged edges. She embodies what one imagines of a major Asian metropolis: a juxtaposition of tradition and hedonism, of conservatism and liberal thought. None encapsulate this as best as the River of Kings.
The River of Kings
The great river that technically bisects Bangkok, the Menam Chao Phraya, or Chao Phraya River, or more poetically translated, the River of Kings (though I was informed the proper translation is ‘Lord’), lives up to her name.
Originating up in the Thai Highlands and draining a significant portion of Thailand, this river, like other great rivers, has seen her share of the great occasions of state: from coronations to entrances of state, from global trade to a global game of chess.
It is only appropriate that the best way to explore this River of Kings is by boat, and Bangkok has a large array of options for you to choose how you want to explore this city: from commuter ferries to tourist ferries, from fancy diner boats to fancy hotel rice barges.
Optimized Start Point
The main port of call for the start of any Bangkok river escapade would be Saphan Taksin Pier. This is an easily accessible spot, being a major stop on the Silom BTS line, numerous river ferries, dinner cruises and hotel boats. When at the Saphan Taksin BTS station, go down to the concourse and walk left to the Saphan Taksin Pier exit. There will be loads of counters selling river cruise tickets but those are not the ones we want.
Once you go down the stairs from the BTS station and on to the pier itself, you will encounter an array of covered areas, each dedicated to a different boat service. The first one you see on the right is meant for the hotel boats, the one in the middle is the ferry pier and the one on the left goes to Asiatique and a few major commercial/residential developments along the river.
The hotel boats are specific to their hotel destinations, the ferries have different flags denoting where they stop while the dedicated boats go to whichever destination those dedicated boats go to. All are marked clearly, and if in doubt, a steward will be on hand to announce the boats and destinations.
The Long-Looking Boats
I am pretty sure these long, seek speed-boat looking boats have a proper name but I just call them the long-looking boats. There are 2 types of boats: the Tourist Boat, which stop at the major tourist sites upriver towards the Grand Palace and beyond. The other is the commuter boats, with different flags indicating all-stops, limited stops or express.
While I have never taken the Tourist Boat, the commuter boats are well worth it. For less than BHT20, you get your on cruise. A conductor collects the fare on board, it can get super packed, with limited seating space, but that is the joy of the whole experience! Keep track of the stops though, as they do not make announcements, except for ‘Wat Arun!’ and ‘Grand Palace!’
Posh Night Market
The boat is also a convenient, and dare I say, more scenic way, to visit Asiatique: a sanitized version of the famous Chatuchak weekend market. While Chatuchak Market is only open on weekends, this spot is open daily from 6pm onwards.
Unlike Chatuchak, this place has a lot of open spaces, a posh promenade and air conditioned spaces in certain areas. Sure, it loses that sense of a ‘local experience’ but if you are in the middle of a super dense Asian metropolis under the sweltering heat, humidity and chaos, the thought of open spaces and cool breezes brings a calm to those uncomfortable with overly packed spaces.
If you want to have a shorter cruise, with one of the luxury hotels on the river as a destination, then hop the dedicated hotel boat. The Sheraton and Hilton have steamers, while the Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental have rice barges, each unique in their own way, and a stylish way to cruise down the river, even if it is for a short 5 minutes.
This option is perfect if you don’t want to head out too far, just want a taster of the experience and have a lazy afternoon at one of the hotel river terraces as a final destination.
Sights and Sounds
Regardless of which option you choose, the experience is unique in its own way: be it crowded yet with a glimpse of local life, or imagining you were on a state barge making an entrance to this capital of the Chakris.
The view of the city is undoubtedly best appreciated from the river, with the water framing either the skyscrapers or soaring spires of the temples and palaces that front the river. An entrance to Wat Arun is not right if not done on water, and seeing the golden tipped spires and pinnacles of the Grand Palace is magical when seen from a boat.
To make things even more interesting, urban rejuvenation efforts on the river give this place life, from the converted warehouses turned shops and restaurants of The Jam Factory (easily accessible from the Hilton, use the Hilton boat and walk along the river) to the really nice and tasty ‘Steve Cafe & Cuisine’ next to the Rama VIII bridge on the river, the Chao Praya puts Bangkok in another perspective, away from the mad traffic jams, endless motorcycles and riotous tuk-tuks.
Get there on the clearly identifiable dedicated Asiatique boat at the left of Saphan Taksin Pier
Opening hours: 0900 – 1645 daily
Schedules: Check with the hotels for their dedicated boat schedules, but most boats run at 15 minute intervals in the day time
Public Ferry Colour Codes: The Bangkok River Ferries have a colour code system as below. The fares are fixed regardless of destination
If I were to name one of my favourite cities, Hong Kong would definitely be somewhere close to the top. She has the energy of New York, the ruggedness of Sydney and a variety of vistas as London. The duality of this city: dense yet spacious, glamorous yet rugged, gives Hong Kong a certain je ne sais quoi.
A City of Dreams
Hong Kong is a city of dreams: British traders dreamt of fortunes beyond their wildest imagination. Chinese refugees dreamt of a better life after the travails of mid-20th century China. Empires dreamt of a gateway to the riches of China. These dreams are relevant now as they were during this city’s foundations, and a walk along the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade puts all this to perspective.
There, on that narrow bit of land that isn’t overly rugged on Hong Kong Island, the towers of dreams hug the shore and foothills, with skyscrapers adding as much to the jagged skyline as Victoria Peak.
The best place to experience Hong Kong is the same way other visitors to this city have done it over the centuries: on water. The Star Ferry has been a reliable mode of transportation for decades, linking the Mainland and Kowloon to Hong Kong Island via terminals at Central and Wan Chai. Fares are cheap, at HKD 2 per trip, and you get a fun cruise while you are at it.
Skyscraper City Snapshot
Getting off the Star Ferry at the Central Pier and walking towards the dense skyscraper-filled core, you cannot help but look up. As far as the vistas go, you see fine urban architecture everywhere, a testament to the dreams and vanities of those who built them.
Head over to Statue Square, which lacks a statue which named the square (the Japanese melted the statue down during WWII, it has not been replaced) and you will get a fantastic up-close view of the iconic landmarks that distinguish Hong Kong. From the portico in front of the Supreme Court, the zig-zag Bank of China building shares a spatial space as the honey-combed CKH Tower and the ever iconic despite being shorter HSBC Main Building.
Look behind you and the IFC 2 and ICC tower round up the lot, without imposing too much on scale. As if to disrupt your image of a forest of skyscrapers, the ever lush foliage around Statue Square will remind you that there are quiet, green oases in any hectic urban centre.
Peak Summit Walks
Just behind the HSBC Main Building, there are walkways that meander up against the foothills of Victoria Peak, passing through the lush rugged landscape compounds of St John’s Cathedral, and onwards towards the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. It is this end of Hong Kong that would disrupt your perception of an eternal, constant barrage of man-made canyons and perches.
Along these walkways, look out for the signs to the Peak Tram. There are many ways to get to the Peak, but the Tram is the most iconic, and also the most crowded with tourists. Use an Octopus Card. It helps to by-pass the long tourist queue. Once you are up there, the view is well worth it.
Once you negotiate the shopping mall that is the Peak Galleria, you will find the stunning Peak Lookout Terrace, where you will be rewarded with one of the most picture-postcard perfect view of Hong Kong’s skyline.
Yet if you take a different path, just next to the Peak Galleria, you will encounter a nice nature walk that brings you around Victoria Peak’s summit, passing smart homes, lush greenery and, just at the back, a wilderness you would not expect to find in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.
Forest of Towers, Towers of Forests
The beauty of Hong Kong is in both her man-made and natural wonders. If the greenery behind the Peak, just a 20 minute walk from the endless vistas of skyscrapers, was a treat, just imagine that there is a lot more of that further south.
Aberdeen, on the southern coast of Hong Kong Island, is little visited but has, personally, the most charm. Everything from quaint fishing boats and boat homes to the largest floating restaurant next to the fancy Hong Kong Yacht Club call this place home. Depending on the time of week, you might even catch Dragon Boat Rowers practicing in the harbour.
Exploring the southern coast is straight forward with an Octopus Card and the very frequent busses. Hong Kong’s weekend beach escapes are dotted along this area, and the patches of townships in soaring towers amidst lush green lungs really hammer home the bi-polarity of Hong Kong: super dense, yet super green.
Cruise and Booze
I mentioned the Star Ferry, but if you want a longer experience, with booze, might I suggest Aqualuna? While it may give the impression of a super touristy experience, it is still worth it, personally. It ‘functions’ as a hop-on-hop-off harbour transport, but I just treat it as a 1-hour cruise in Victoria Harbour.
Aqualuna is a harbour cruise on a traditional Chinese junk, complete with dragon pennants and red sails. A late afternoon cruise around 3pm, is perfect, as you meander from the Central Pier, towards Wan Chai, then in to the harbour westbound, before turning back towards Kowloon, at the TST pier and back to Central. Bring your fan and sunnies.
If you still feel the need to be a bit posh, then head over to the Ritz-Carlton at the ICC in Kowloon. The Lounge at the 103rd floor is spectacular, especially as dusk approaches, and Hong Kong before you shifts to evening mode as the city lights turn on and the catamarans come in to harbour from Macau.
Local Eats with Local Beats
Dim sum is, well, a must in Hong Kong, and everyone has a spot. If I am pressed for time but need my dim sum fix, then the Tim Ho Wan outlet just underneath the City Air Terminal check-in area at Hong Kong Station is my go-to point. Their original outlet is in Mongkok, but beware of the queue.
For something more local, then walk around Sheun Wan and follow your nose and ears. You can easily spot many good, local dim sum eats here, amidst the wonton shops and dried herb sellers.
One of my current obsession is this little store called Litte Bao. Imagine soft, steamed buns with a pork filling. Simple, yes, but be prepared to wait an hour. You can always leave your name and number, and then go out for a drink. Thank god this is at the periphery of SoHo, where the options for drinks are endless.
Winding Streets = Booze Control
SoHo, at the city’s Mid-Levels, easily accessible from the financial district of central via the Mid-Levels Escalator, lives up to her name. Like Soho in London, this ‘South of Hollywood’ Road area is filled with fancy bars, nice pubs and an energy that sucks you in to an alcohol-lubricated singularity.
The area is not as popular as Lan Kwai Fok, which is a good thing! Quaint English pubs, Jamaican grub and the iconic Iron Fairies are within her environs. The winding steps, narrow streets and steep inclines will ensure you sober up just a bit before the next stop.
But for something more posh, then the M Bar at the Mandarin Oriental’s upper most floors should satisfy. The bar has a great energy, the mixologists make delectable cocktails and the sofas are super comfortable. Come in before 7pm and request a seat by the window: you do not want to miss the show.
The Glittering City
Every evening at 7pm, there is a light show, where the iconic skyline of Hong Kong ‘sings’ in a Symphony of Light. The perch at the M Bar puts you literally in the middle of the show, but for the best view, then head over to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, where the split-level observation deck joins in as part of the display. Truly, a glittering city.
Hong Kong has always mesmerized me and keeps calling me back. Sure, it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, with sights and sounds that remind you of how unequal the world can be, but it is also a city where you feel the urgency to better yourself. Hong Kong, like all the great cities of the world, reminds you to always get moving while showing you both the gritty and the glamorous.
Out and About: Get an Octopus Card. The 3-day MTR pass with return Airport Express is well worth it, and you can top-up the card for use on the city’s ferries, trams and buses.
The MTR connects major nodes in the city well, both Island and Kowloon Side. The trams are a fun way to explore the city, and the buses are regular and convenient to venture further afield.
The city is very walkable. A day exploring this beautiful city should give you a thorough leg workout.
Stay: I have a preference to stay on Island-side, but good value can be had around the Tsim Sha Tsui area.
Little Bao – 66 Staunton St, Hong Kong. There is usually a queue. Leave your name and number and go for a drink in one of the nearby bars before coming back for a nibble. Worth it.
Aqualuna, Central Pier 9 – Instead of the usual ferry piers towards Kowloon and the outer island, walk along the walkway to the right, past the Maritime Museum. There is an adjoining pier, Pier 9, where the Aqualuna calls.
Tim Ho Wan – 12A, Hong Kong Station, Podium Level 1 IFC Mall. This is right under the Hong Kong Station City Air Terminal check-in facility. Michelin stared affordable eats? Yes please!
Think of an untouched, untapped, mystical place hidden up amidst the clouds and you would think of…Tibet? Yeah, sorry, meant to be Laos, but that is the beauty of this place: it is under the radar for quite a number of people, it feels untouched, but for the most determined. Well, at least for now.
By The River Bend
The approach in to Luang Prabang, especially if you take morning flights, is truly magical. Low clouds hug the highlands, an endless expanse of green amidst the meandering Mekong River, the quaint, semi-rural life of a country idyll. There, amidst the rolling green, you spot the city, at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong River, a glittering jewel with the gold-plated stupas.
As it is in the Laotian Highlands, the weather is pretty mild by Southeast Asian standards, which makes cycling around the town and countryside quite pleasant. While the southern end of the Luang Prabang peninsula has a small village feel, with an iron bridge or a bamboo bridge being the main crossings in this quiet part of town, the northern side of the peninsula is where most of the stunning architectural gems and cultural icons are at.
A Secluded Retreat
Luang Prabang is one of those destinations where you can easily relax and chill by the river, doing absolutely nothing. At the northern tip of the peninsula, there is a stunning river terrace and bar, the appropriately named ‘View Point Café,’ when you can enjoy a few drinks and a meal, watching daily life unfurl and indifferent to you being there.
Proceeding along the northern embankment, you start to see a change from the quaint, calmness emanating from the UNESCO offices and numerous monasteries, to the smart French-inspired boutique hotels and attached river terraces (The Belle Rive is my personal favourite) to the main commercial areas where the markets and larger hotels are.
One physical marker for the city which you can easily identify, and also an ideal spot to hide away from it all (if you are there early enough), is Pousi Hill. The entire hill is a religious site, with numerous shrines, wats, monasteries and monk’s cells dotting the green hill. Up at the top, after climbing up windings steps, the quaint town and its environs as far as the eye can see will capture you, giving you the urgency to both explore this relatively uncommercialized city, but also to do absolutely nothing.
Culturally, there is quite a lot to do. Apart from the daily morning alms ceremony (avoid the main street, follow a cat and you will find a quieter, less touristy spot to observe the ceremony, and always remember: you are a guest, do not jostle for a camera spot), the Ock Pop Tock, home to the Village Weaver Project is one of my favourite sites, and a good Community Enterprise effort to help local communities market their traditional weaving and skills to the world, and create high value products. There are 2 galleries in town, with a quaint workshop and ‘destination centre’ at the outskirts, where you can watch and commission in-situ weavers to make a beautiful work of art for you, or learn how these things are made and try it for yourself.
The beauty of Luang Prabang is both in her cultural, historical, architectural and definitely natural assets. While the town itself is stunning, a quick one hour ride away in the countryside will bring you to stunning parks, waterfalls and hikes, that whisk you away to a different world.
If you are pressed for time, then a half day kayaking trip will easily bring you to the sights and sounds of Laos. The kayaking trip I took brought me through dirt roads, winding terrain, quaint villages and stunning cliffs: and this was just the ride to the start point.
The kayaking trip will bring you along the Mekong River, and would include a hike through quaint, Laotian tribal villages, rural roads and sub-tropical jungle. We meandered along the Mekong, stopping at two stunning waterfalls, one a major tourist site, another a back door to a less commercial but more beautiful site, the Tat Sae. I would happily do it again, if only to test my waterproof casing.
Wining and Dining
Being a former French colony, the culinary traditions of France permeate through Indochina, and especially this quaint spot. While I have had some of the best French delicacies outside France in Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, Luang Prabang is in a class of her own: from fresh pastries to fancy baguettes to coq au vin, for a town the size of Luang Prabang, she puts larger cosmopolitan metropolises in Asia to shame with her sheer quality.
L’Elephant, located in a quiet corner near the Mekong in the upper city, away from the main market and commercial area, looks more at home in the 17th arrondissement than the Laotian highlands. The price they charge is well worth the quality of the dishes they serve, and the contingent of French, both tourists and expats, dining regardless of the time of day or hour, says something, especially when I found this place by accident.
A quaint little patisserie, Le Banneton, along the eastern end of Sakkaline St, in front of a few monasteries, is an ideal spot for a snack, breakfast, or just to be chic with a pain au chocolate paired with a thé. Pricing is reasonable, atmosphere is divine, and when the weather is cool enough, you would think you were in a small village in Provence that just happens to have a Buddhist monastery next door.
Otherwise, the night markets that lead from the old city to the new-ish city, at the main street in between Pousi Hill and the Royal Palace, has a wide array of random knick nacks and snacks, though a particular café at the western end, near the Azeraai Hotel smells and tastes divine. Yes, Luang Prabang is a pastry heaven.
Speaking of the Azeraai, legendary hotelier Adrian Zecker opened his new venture, Azeraai Hotels, with his first property in Luang Prabang. By sheer chance, or might I say luck, I was there as they were setting up for their big launch, and I must say, he delivers, with his target market of Gen Y-Millenials and the private-yacht cabin inside the rooms.
Of course, just down the road, Adrian Zecker’s other project, the Amantaka, is simply divine. Heavenly. Perfect. The rooms are well-appointed, the public spaces elegant, the surroundings private. Best of all, both are within yet set apart from the main town.
For something a bit more touristy but equally stunning, the Mekong River Cruises are worth the hassle and perception of being a ‘tourist trap.’ The river cruises are perfect for an early evening cruise along the Mekong, as communities wind down for the day, and the sun sets behind the hills, giving Luang Prabang a truly heavenly, mystical feel.
As you cruise down the river, you will get a 5 course dinner, a drinkable wine selection and a show, but it is the view of the Mekong River and Luang Prabang from the boat, as you cruise down with traditional Laotian music in the background providing a soundtrack for the evening.
A neat secret?
Laos and Luang Prabang have been on the backpacker route for years, and has been under the radar for quite a long while, at least until recently when more international flights connect this beautiful gem to major Southeast Asian hubs.
You would assume this is a cheap place, but unless you go local all the way, the guest houses, bed and breakfasts and hotels are priced higher than other regional destinations. Cheap food? Sure, if you go local, but even then, it is not as cheap as you would expect when compared to other locations, but is it value for your buck? Oh yes.
Flights: international connections via Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Siem Reap and Bangkok, from full service (Vietnam Airlines, SilkAir, Bangkok Airways) to budget (AirAsia)
Out and About: Rent a bicycle or walk: the inner town is easily navigable. For ventures further afield, it is best to rent a van.
Stay: La Belle Rive is a quaint boutique hotel, very nice. The Azeraai Luang Prabang is sufficiently hip, while the Amantaka is the pinnace of escapism.
Best time: Late autumn to winter, around late November to early January. The weather is particularly conducive and agreeable to walk around, explore and escape from the humidity of the major sites of Southeast Asia.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.