Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia

Executive summary by Darmansjah

Tanjung Tuan, or Cape Rachado, on the west coast of Malaysia is a strategic place for bird watching activities during the migration season. To raise awareness of raptors (birds of prey) and their habitats, the Malaysian Nature Society organizes an annual Raptor Watch Weekend (mnsrw2012.wordpress.com) in March, with this year’s falling on 10 and 11 March. A family-friendly event, the Raptor Watch Weekend of Tanjung Tuan is where you can catch sight of kites, eagles, hawks, buzzards, and ospreys.

Due to its prime location, Tanjung Tuan, one of the state’s last coastal forest areas, has been targeted by developers. The Raptor Watch Weekend has been integral in the continued conservation of this precious piece of real estate, which presently provides an important resting point for migratory birds.

if you are driving from Singapore, head up the North-South Highway and exit at the Seremban or Port Dickson exit. From here it’s a short drive to the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve. You can also take a bus from Pudu Sentral bus station in Kuala Lumpur to Port Dickson which leaves every hour.

Right on the edge of Cape Rachado and overlooking the straits of Melaka is PNB.
Right on the edge of Cape Rachado and overlooking the straits of Melaka is PNB Ilham Resort. The resort offers 65 rooms and apartments and its proximity to the event makes it an ideal place to call home for the weekend (from US$100; ilhamresort.com).

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Two heavenly Island Resort of Malaysia

Berjaya Tioman Resort and Berjaya Langkawi Resort

Executive summary by darmansjah

Berjaya Tioman Resort and Berjaya Langkawi Resort escort you with a light of tranquility, slipping in precious experiences before you – ones that are exceedingly memorable. Spend long, beautiful and relaxing holiday with your retreat to a pool of fun leisure activities; from diving and snorkeling in the vast blue sea, trekking the terrains on the land of lush wonders to residing within the warmth of our ever-famous ayura spa. Let your mind, body and soul wander off to a set of eternal bliss, where we pamper you with every ounce of grace and feel-good sensation!

At Berjaya Tioman Resort and Berjaya Langkawi Resort, truly indulge yourself and let us Celebrate You – because you are worth it!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Taking Cool To Newcastle

With a community of artists, retailers, and restaurateurs helping to shed its industrial image, this former Australian steel town is gritty no more, By Carrie Hutchinson, executive summary by darmansjah

Thursday lunchtime. It’s a sunny day, and the crisp white linens covering the sidewalk tables at Restaurant Mason flutter in the breeze. Smartly dressed businesswomen are sipping glasses of white wine – Semillon from the nearby Hunter Valley, no doubt – and enjoying the last days of the Australian summer. People fill the benches at neighboring cafes, some wearing board shorts, their hair still damp from a swim at beach.

“This is a new thing,” says freelance copy writer Siobhan Curran, who moved to Newcastle from Sydney with her locally born husband a little over two years ago. Her blog, The Novocastrian Files, chronicles all thins “Newie.” “You’d never see people walking along Hunter Street a couple of years back. A lunctime peak-hour crowd here might have been a dozen people if you were lucky.”
Which is surprising, really, considering that Hunter Street is the main drag of New South Wales’ second-largest metropolitan area, just a two-hour drive north of Sydney. Back in 1975, it even featured in Bob Hudson’s “The Newcastle Song,” a novelty hit with which most Australians of a certain age are well acquainted. But recent history hasn’t been particularly kind to Newcastle. In 1989, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake rocked the city, causing several billion dollars in damage. Natural disaster was closely followed by economic recession, a crushing blow to a community reliant on heavy industry. Steel giant BHP, the area’s biggest employer, closed its doors in 1999. Inner-city businesses shuttered or moved to suburban malls, and Hunter Street became a veritable ghost town.

 It took one brilliant idea to turn things around. In 2008, local writer and broadcaster Marcus Westbury launched a nonprofit program called Renew Newcastle, with the aim of bringing life back to the deserted city center. The approach was simple: Renew Newcastle would “borrow” storefront spaces from vacant buildings-anything disused or awaiting redevelopment-and fill them, rent free, with artist’s studios, creative businesses, and community projects. The new occupants would maintain the property until such a time as the owners could find paying tenants to move in. everyone benefited, and the program has flourished. At the moment, there are spaces on loan to outfits like Little Papercup, a shop that sells paper goods and illustrations; Make Space, which stocks pieces by local fashion designers and jewelers; and the aptly named Odditorium, a basement emporium and gallery where photographer Naomi Saunders show cases her taste for unusual collectibles. The increased foot traffic from both people working downtown and those visiting the new shops has meant other businesses have moved in. slowly but surely, the pulse along Hunter Street and its surrounds has grown stronger.

Indeed, things have improved so much that last year, Lonely Planet included Newcastle on its list of the 10 hottest cities to visit in 2011, alongside New York, Tel Aviv, and Valencia. The reason? “Surf beaches, a sun-drenched subtropical climate, and diverse dining, nightlife, and art”-the city now claims to have more artist per capita than anywhere else in Australia. It also helps that Newcastle is less than an hour’s drive from the wineries of Hunter Valley, one of the country’s most popular wine-growing regions.

Which brings us back to Restaurant Mason. Its owner is chef Chris Thornton, an alum of The Ledbury in London; his sous chef is Kyle Liston, previously of Arras in Sydney and Embrasse in Melbourne. Both are local lads who’ve known each other since primary school and are now bringing what they’ve learned at restaurants overseas and around Australia back to their hometown. (This in itself is a familiar trend. Many of the people I meet in Newcastle spent their childhoods here, moved to the “big city” AS YOUNG ADULTS, and returned to raise families of their own.) the food at Mason has an elegant simplicity-think roast prawns with rosemary and gnocchi-and the setting is smartly casual, which holds true for much of what’s going on in Newcastle these days.

At the western end of Hunter is Subo, opened late last year by Beau and Suzie Vincent. They, too, have some impressive kitchen credentials; he was named Lexus Young Chef of the year in 2006, and has worked at Sydney’s  Guillaume at Bennelong and Tetsuya’s; she trained at Claude’s in Sydney, and now runs the front of house at their 25-seat fine diner.

“Newcastle is an amazing place to live,” Suzie says. “It’s a growing city and the culture is always developing for the better.” But are Novocastrians (as locals are known) ready for such imaginative fare as confit chicken wings with blackened corn and hay veloute? Judging by the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, they are indeed. “We decided to make what we’re doing as approachable as possible when we first opened. But we’re finding that, more and more, people are willing to trust us.”

Hunter street isn’t the only part of Newcastle being revitalized. Running off it is Darby Street,  a laid-back strip of independent boutiques and low-key eateries. For those with a taste for sweet things, Coco Monde, a chocolate café and patisserie, is a must-visit. You can then walk off desert exploring stores like Blackbird Corner, Betty Mim, and High Tea with Mrs. Woo, all of which feature locally made art, clothes, and knickknacks.

Its location on a peninsula means that Newcastle is blessed with two waterfronts. The first faces the Pacific Ocean and boasts a stunning string of white-sand beaches. Early in the day, folks do laps at the Art Deco Newcastle Ocean Baths before heading across the road for scrambled eggs and iced coffees at Estabar. Later in the day, the Merewether Surfhouse-an architect-designed pavilion that last year replaced the original surf club, which was badly damaged during the earth quake-is a popular spot for drinks.

On the other side of the city is Newcastle Harbour, which has the dubious distinction of exporting more coal than any other port in the world. Directly across from the dockyard is Honeysuckle, a contemporary development of medium-rise offices and apartments. In front of it stretches a pedestrian promenade that leads all the way to Nobbys Headland. Along the promenade are cluster of bars, restaurants, and pubs.

“Novocasatrians never thought of this as something you’d want to look at,” says Siobhan Curran. “It was an oxymoron because the view was industrial.” But as the sun sets each day, local workers and visitors to the city sit on the decks of places like Silo Restaurant Bar, downing  Thai-inspired cocktails, oyster, and pizza while watching yachts zip past or tugboats pull freighters into dock. It’s a reminder of both where the city has been and where it’s going-its working-class past and its ever-brightening future.

Getting There – Newcastle is a two-hour drive (160km) north from Sydney along the F3 freeway, providing you avoid peak commuter traffic. Another option is arriving by train on City Rail’s Newcastle and Central Coast line (cityrail.info; US$17 return).

Where To StayCrowne Plaza Newcastle (Cnr.merewether St and Wharf Rd; 61-2/4907-5000; crowneplazanewcastle.com.au; doubles from US$234) is located at Honeysuckle, just short walk from Hunter Street. Rooms overlook the harbor and the docks.

Where To Eat and Drink – Start your day the Newcastle way with a big breakfast or brunch at Estabar (61 Short land Esp; 61-2/4927-1222; breakfast from US$10) or head to sweet-tooth magnet. Coco Monde Chocolateria (80 Darby St: 61-2/4023-0860; sandwiches from Us$13) for light café and a dedicated chocolate menu. To taste the town’s most sophisticated cooking, book a table at Restaurant mason (3/35 Hunter St: 61-2/4926-1014; mains from US$36) or Subo (551 Hunter St: 61-2/4023-4048; mains from US$34). Silo Restaurant & Lounge (18/1 Honeysuckle Dr:61-2/4926-2828: mains from Us$30) is another good bet, with harbor  views to match, though for drinking sundowners overlooking the Pacific, there’s no better perch than the bar terrace at the Merewether Surfhouse (2 henderson Pole: 61-2/4918-0000).

Where To Shop – Renew Newcastle projects such as Little Papercup (Market Square. 119 Hunter St). Make Space (111 Hunter St), and Odditorium (14 Thorn St) can move at short notice; visit renewnewcastle.org for updates. On Darby Street, permanent addresses worth seeking out include Betty Mim (No. 167:61-2/4926-1420). Blackbird Corner (No.70:61-2/4929-4350). And High Tea with Mrs Woo (NO. 74:61-2/4926-4883).

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Nha Trang, Vietnam

Vietnam's most famous beach city has played host to the Miss univese and Miss Earth pageants.

Executive summary by darmansjah

Indisputably picturesque, Nha Trang is widely considered one of the most beautiful seaside towns in Vietnam. Apart from the monsoon season between September and  December which brings strong winds and heavy rain, the rest of the year sees a steady stream of sun seekers heading to its pristine shores.
Nha Trang is known for being a good scuba diving and snorkeling destination with a number of dive centres providing courses catering to novices and advanced divers. A series of islands off-shore from Nha Trang make island hopping a possibility as well. For those who require a higher level of relaxation, Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre to the north of Nha Trang offers therapeutic facilities like mudbaths, heated pools, artificial thermal waterfalls, and massage treatments, all for a very reasonable fee.

From Kuala Lumpur International Airport, AirAsia (airasia.com), Malaysia Airlines, and Vietnam Airlines (vietnamairlines.com) fly to Ho Chi Minh’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Tiger Airways (tigerairways.com) and Singapore Airlines fly to Ho chi Minh from Singapore Changi Airport. From Tan Son Nhat, Vietnam Airlines offers daily connections to Cam Ranh International Airport, which is 40km from Nha Trang.

Novotel Nha Trang is conveniently located on the main street in the city and offers rooms with views overlooking the beach. Chairs on the beach are reserved for guests of the hotel and from here, you can even get food and drinks delivered to you by hotel staff (from US$105; novotel.com).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Tokyo, Japan

executive summary by darmansjah

From late March to early April, cherry trees start turning pink almost in unison all over Japan’s capital city, signaling the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, is an extremely popular activity in Tokyo, with crowds gathering at different Hanami spots. Go on guided tours conducted on viewing boats at Sumida Park, where cherry blossoms line both banks of the Sumida River or take a rented row boat out to the moat around the Edo Castle at Kitanomaru Park for a more private tour. For locals, the favoured method to enjoy the bloom is simply to grab some sake and a blanket and find a nice picnic spot at Shinjuku Gyeon or Ueno Park.

From Changi Airport, Singapore Airlines, Qantas (Qantas.com.au), and Japan Airlines (jal.com) fly direct to Haneda Airport while United Airlines (united.com), Delta (delta.com), and All Nippon Airways (fly-anna.com) fly direct to Narita. From Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, and All Nippon Airways fly direct to Narita.

Situated right next to the Akasaka train station, Akasaka Excel Hotel Tokyu is an excellent base to explore Tokyo from, international restaurants line the streets across the road from the hotel, providing plenty of dining options for all budgets (from US$295; tokyuhotelsjapan.com).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Darwin, Australia

Executive summary by darmansjah
Awoken from its slumber as a sleepy outpost of the Top End, Darwin has transformed into a modern multi-cultural metropolis, its cosmopolitan mix of more than 50 nationalities – best showcased at the numerous markets around the city – add a dynamic layer to region’s long-standing and strong Aboriginal culture. It is hardly surprising that Darwin has earned its place as one of the Top 10 cities to visit in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2012. Art galleries, museums, its bustling and colourful markets, and its burgeoning restaurant scene alone are reasons to visit, but just at the city’s doorstep are world-class wilderness areas including the exceptional Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park and Nitmiluk National Park.

Kakadu National Park

 Litchfield National Park

 Nitmiluk National Park.

SilkAir,the regional wing of Singapore Airlines, will operate direct flights between Singapore and Darwin from 26 March. From Kuala Lumpur, fly Malaysia Airlines into Brisbane, and then transit to Darwin International Airport with JetStar Airways (jetstar.com).

Conveniently located at the city centre, Novotel Darwin Atrium is a short stroll from Michell Street dining and entertainment precinct. Its special feature is a magnificent tropical indoor rainforest and fine views from the upper floors (from US$140; novotel.com).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Medan, Indonesia

It's common to seee visitors trekking through the jungles atop gentle, trained elephants

executive summary by darmansjah

Take advantage of the sunny season in March and April to visit Medan, and go ‘wild’ at the orangutans reserve at Bukit Lawang or try elephant trekking at Tangkahan. Located at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park and about a three-hour ride away from Medan city, Bukit Lawang allows you to get up close and personal with gorgeous wildlife such as orang-utans, white handed gibbons, clouded leopard, sun bears and more in their natural habitats.

Hop on next on a two-hour jeep ride towards Tangkahan, also fondly called the “Hidden Paradise in North Sumatra”. A perfect destination for those who adore the adventurous outdoors, the small village is where you can take a leisurely trek exploring the forested area’s flora and fauna, atop an elephant. For a more interactive adventure, go river tubing on inflated rubber tube tires down the jungle’s rivers and explore caves and mangroves when you’re not tied up negotiating rapids.

SilkAir (silkair.com), Singapore Airlines (siangaoreair.com), Garuda Indonesia (garudaindonesia.com.sg), Valuair (valuair.com.sg) and Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) all have direct flights from Singapore Changi Airport to Medan Polonia International Airport.

JW Marriot Medan is just 15 minutes away from Polonia International Airport and near Medan’s major cultural attractions. All 287 rooms and suites are generously spacious and fully equipped with amenities for the urbane traveler (from US$119; marriot.com).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Where Eagles Dare

Excecutive summary by darmansjah

The aimag (province) of Bayan-Olgii - Mongolia's "Wild West" - is regarded as teh birthplace of eagle falcony. It is thought that the art dates back to around 2000 BC

On  a recent visit to Mongolia, photographer Boaz Rottem was introduced to the ancient art of eagle hunting, Original text by Boaz Rotterm is a freelance photographer . originally from the USA, he currently live in China.

Towards the end of the year, Mongolia hosts its annual eagle-hunting festival. I went along to see how this ancient tradition, which hinges on a deep relationship between humans and the ultimate bird of prey, is managing to survive.

Eagle hunting runs in families – a father passes the tradition on to his son and, very occasionally, his daughter. By his late teens, the young hunter  is ready to start out on his own. First, he has to catch his own bird, usually a female. He does this by taking a captive subject and placing some meat next to it on the ground. Soon, a passing wild eagle will see this and want to join in the feast – once it lands, it is caught using a net. The eagles require a period of acclimatization, and will stay blindfolded with a small mask for most of the time they are with the hunters. If they weren’t blindfolded, they would just fly away every time they saw something to eat.

As soon as the hunter sees the prey – a fox, a rabbit or even a small wolf – they will take off the bird’s mask and release it. The bird will then dive onto the animal, either killing it or pinning it to the floor, before the hunter on horseback collects it. The eagles’ prey ar used mainly for their skin or fur – a thick fur coat is a status symbol in Mongolia.

The festival, which is held in the province of Bayan-Olgii, is a change to see how well-trained the eagles are. In one exercise, an owner will ride ahead on horseback with o fox’s tail on a string behind them. A bird on the top of a hill is then released, guided down to the ground by the hunter mimicking an eagle’s calls.

These eagles are released into the wild when they get older. There is a strong relationship between eagle and owner sometimes a bird will sleep in the owner’s home. There is a lot of care involved, as eagles to catch. It’s a bit like owning a small sometimes a bird will sleep in the owner’s home. There is a lot of care involved, as eagles to catch. It’s a bit like owning a small Ferrari.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Should I visit Burma?

 Burma's ancient architectue is as diverse as its people and culture: there are thousands of centuries-old temples and stupas in and around the city of Bagan.
By Rachel Harvey is the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent. Based in Bangkok , she regularly report on events in Burma.

Tourism in Burma has long been a thorny issue. The BBC’s Rachel Harvey examines the impact of recent political changes, while Tony Wheeler explains why he’s always chosen to visit.

In a speech given a year on from her release from house arrest, Nobel Prize-winning democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said: ‘Looking back on the past year, I think I can say it has been eventful, energizing and to a certain extent encouraging.’ That could be a contender for understatement of the year.

Few people had high expectations when the old military regime handed power to a nominally civilian-led-but still military-backed-government in March of 2011. Yet recent development have persuaded many that the new leadership, under the presidency of a former general, Thein Sein, is serious about reform. Parliament has drafted new laws, including one permitting trade unions to be formed. Some previously blocked news websites, including that of the BBC, are now accessible from inside the country. Some political prisoners have been released, and the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi has decided to rejoin the official political system and contest by-elections.

There remain concerns, particularly with regard to human rights. Burma is still far from being a shining light of democracy and freedom, but there is now a definite momentum of change. One key motivation is a desire to pull Burma up from the depths of poverty in which it has languished for far too ling. In this respect, the country lags far behind its Asian neighbours-but it has huge potential in terms of natural resources and tourism.

The question is whether all sectors off its society would reap the benefits, rather than just a select few with connections to the government or military. There isn’t yet a coherent tourism policy, and the country is in transition. Consequently, there is a greater responsibility on the part of visitors to make themselves aware of  the latest political developments and to spread their custom widely.

Those in favour of responsible tourism in Burma suggest the following. Try to keep your money in the local economy by shopping at markets, using different taxis rather than the same driver every day, and sampling the sumptuous food and drink on offer in street cafes and traditional tea houses, rather than always  eating in your hotel.

And, above all, talk to people. There is a huge desire to engage with foreigners – Burma has been isolated for years, so there is a natural curiosity and appetite for information. Conversation I as valuable a contribution as anything else you can offer, but let locals bring up the subject of politics, not you.

Aung San Suu Kyi used to actively discourage tourism in her homeland because of the support it gave to a military regime that kept her in detention for the best part of two decades. Now, she welcomes visitors who want to understand what is going on in Burma and are willing to try to help improve life fort its people. So the onus is on us.

If you do plan a trip, do your research, keep your wits about you and go with an open mind and the determination to learn.

Why I went….

By Tony Wheeler is the co-founder of Lonely Planet. He published the first lonely planet guide to Burma in 1979,and has visited several times.

My Burma history goes way back. My first visit were in the ‘seven-day visa’ era of the 1970s. the first editions of Lonely Planet’s Burma guided book involved consecutive trips-you left the country after seven days, got a new visa and went straight back in again. Nobody ticked you off for going there – in fact, most people knew absolutely nothing about the place.

Then for more than a decade, I was regularly criticized for both visiting and publishing the guided book: ‘You encourage people to go there. That supports the awful military government. Shame on you,’ was the general message. I was even told – usually by people who had never been anywhere near Burma – that the general population would prefer that visitors didn’t turn up, and by staying away, we’d make the government realize how unpopular they were and come to their senses. I returned four times between 1997 and 2003, jus to check that I wasn’t completely mistaken and that the reality was indeed that visitors were welcomed with open arms by everyday Burmese people. They were. Quite apart from putting cash in the family bank account, visitors provided vial contact with the outside world, proof that they weren’t ignored and forgotten.

Twelve months ago, everything changed. Suddenly, visiting Burma was no longer politically incorrect. Having gone from pariah state to acceptable destination, it is bordering on ‘next big thing’ status. My Burmese friends are delighted. For years they’ve watched as tourism flourished in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – all closed-off states for long spells. Now they’re finding their place in the sun.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jaisalmer, India

executive summary by darmansjah

An exotic city standing in the heart of the Thar Desert and marked by an imposing 250-foot 12th century fort, Jaisalmer, or “The Golden City”, is truly one of the most breathtaking spots in Rajasthan. Next to the fort, the desert is Jaisalmer’s other attraction – no tour is complete without a safari to the Sam Sand Dunes.

 A local handicraft store in Jaisalmer Fort

Kicking off in Jaisalmer on April 1, the Jet Airways 2012 Fun Run series is part of Jet Airways’ initiative to showcase the fascinating sights and sounds of India by staging it in various exotic locations around India. The 15 kilometre route takes runners from the Poonam stadium, through key scenic spots, and on to the Amar Sagar Village poised on the edge of the beautiful Amar Sagar Lake. The 8D/7N itinerary also includes sight-seeing tours and a camel ride in the Thar Desert within full view of the fort.

 The sand dune of Jaisalmer

From Singapore, the Jaisalmer Desert Fort Run package, within a choice of departures on 28/29 March and returning on 4/5 april, starts at US$1,355 per person (runevents.jetairways.com). independent travelers can fly to Jodhpur from Delhi and then take a car or train to Jaisalmer.

The massive Jaisalmer Fort stands proudly on the Thar Desert

Built to resemble a palace within a fort, Suryagarh is a plush oasis with all the modern amenities you need and don’t need. Its location away from the city bestows guests with an uncommon and enchanting privacy (from US$195; suryagarh.com).

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Set in the fertile hills of the Cameron Highlands, Boh is the largest tea plantation in Malaysia
Words Joyceline tully, executive summary by darmansjah

Exploring the lush nature of the Cameron Highlands

The skinny road wrapped around the mountain, snaking its way up and up to the top. Until some years back, this road from Tapah was the only route by car up to the Cameron Highlands, the extensive hill station built by the British in the 1920’s. fringed by lush flora on either side, and occasionally, a plunge into a vortex of green that veered too close for comfort, it demanded reasonable driving skills and concentration to stay on the tarmac. Reckless truck drivers and impatient holidaymakers did not help matters, but the bird’s eye view when we finally got high up in the clouds was well worth the racy ride up.

Welcome to Cameron Highlands,” my husband proclaimed with evident pride from getting us safely to the top. It was grey overhead, and rain was in the air. Faint wisps of fog and cloud clung to the forest canopy, so that the highlands resembled a mythical land in the clouds. Perhaps they are, I remember thinking. This was where once the tigers roamed, kings of the jungle; where the dream people still live; where the British nurtured their love of tea; and where Thai Silk king Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared into thin air one Easter Morning.

 the orang asli are the original inhabitants of cameron highlands

It was the British who built Cameron Highlands, and brought tea, farms and all the attendant trappings of civilization to where there was once only jungle, although long before they came, scattered Orang Asli communities have called the highland home. Orang Asli means “original people” in Malay, and indeed, they were the indigenous inhabitant of these highlands that soar some 1,800 metres above sea level. Sometimes called the forest people, many still live in the jungle, perching their frail dwellings of palm leaves, corrugated tin, wood and bamboo on stilts.

scattered orang asli villages can still be found in the highlands

In 1885, a surveyor name William Cameron “discovered” the highlands and accordingly lent his name to the place, although for the next-40-odd years, it lay half-forgotten while a narrow, winding road was hacked through the jungle. The highlands then became an official hill station and mountain resort for the British, complete with schools, churches, farms, shops et al.

Today, Cameron Highlands still bears the relics of its colonial past – from the Tudor-inspired cottages and mansions that were a home away from home, to the ancient Landys that line the snaking mountains roads. The latter remains a trusty workhorse of  the mountains, now as in the days of the British, although many have long since been consigned to nature, their rusty chassis a makeshift trellis for rambling weeds.

By the time we made our way to Tanah Rata, one of the three main towns alongside Ringlet in the south and Brinchang some four kilometers away, the clouds had lifted and the sun shone brightly. It was to be a good day for business; hawkers set up their makeshifts stalls along the main strip while tourist of all nationalities were disgorged from fat, ungainly coaches parked alongside. Tourism is now big business in the highlands, and as in small towns around the world, it was easy to spot the foreigners, ourselves included.

Mostly, visitors come for the cool highland air that offers respite from the soaring heat and humidity of the rest of the Peninsula. Temperatures in the mountains hover around a very pleasant 15’C to 20’C; at night, it can dip to a chilly 10’C. along the way, however, there is also a host of other manmade attractions. We cruised past semi-makeshift stalls that line the roads between the major towns. Many sold strawberries, one of Cameron Highland’s key produce, alongside myriad strawberry-inspired knickknacks, from slippers to balloons to stuffed toys. Other offered fresh cut flowers and vegetables for a song. Further on, there were bee farms with suspiciously few garden beds to produce that much honey, apartment blocks tottering on hillsides, vast orchads wrapped up in plastic to shelter the crops from the heavy rains, and unwieldy, kitschy hotels that blight the rugged landscape.

The official Cameron Highlands tourist trail was not a pretty sight, we decided. Then again, it was not the reason we came.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sim Reap, Cambodia

Executive summary by darmansjah

The life-support system for the temples of Angkor, Siem Reap is at its heart a little charmer, with old French shop-houses, shady tree-lined boulevards and a slow flowing river. But it is expanding at breakneck speed, with more guesthouses and hotels than temples, as well as world-class wining and dining and sumptuous spas catering to the tourist tide.

The ideal months are December and January, when humidity levels are low and there is little rainfall, but this is also peak tourist season. While the mercury peaks in April, the month is also when the Khmers celebrate their New Year.

Fly direct into Siem Reap International Airport from Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia (airasia.com) or Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com), and from Singapore with Jetstar (jetstar.com) or SilkAir (silkair.com). right outside the terminal, you’ll find taxis (US$7) and motorcycles with carriages, or tuk tuks (US$5), that can bring you into the town centre.

Best For HistoryAngkor National Museum is a state-of-the-art showpiece on the Khmer civilization and the majesty of Angkor. Displays are themed by era, religion and royalty (855 63 966 601; angkornationalmuseum.com; 968 Charle de Gaulle Blv; adult/child US$12/6; 8.30am-6.30pm).

Best For Market – when it comes to shopping in town, Psar Chaa is well stocked with anything you may want to buy and lots you don’t. silverware, silk, wood carvings, sonte carvings, Buddhas, paintings, rubbings, notes and coins, T-shirt, table mats and more.

Best For Temples – While nothing beats the real Angkor temples some 6km north of town, one of the more quirky places in town is the garden of a local sculpture, which houses miniature replicas of Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Banteay Sreai and other temples. It’s a bluffer’s way to get that aerial short of Angkor without chartering a helicopter (admissionUS$1.50).

Best For Riding – the Happy Ranch offers the chance to explore Siem Reap on horseback, taking in surrounding villages and secluded temples. This is a calm way to experience the countryside. (855 012 920 002; thehappyranch.com; 1hr-half-day ride US$17-US$80).

Best For Dance – Several restaurant and hotels offer cultural performances during the evening and while they may be aimed at tourist, these offer a chance to see Cambodian classical dance. The most atmospheric show  is at Apsara Theatre at Angkor Village, as the setting is a striking wooden pavilion finished in the style of a wat (angkorvillage.com; admission US$25).

 catch the nimble Apsara dancers at Apsara Theatre

The award-winning Angkor palm offers an authentic taste of Cambodia. Even Khmers go crazy for the legendary amok (baked fish in banana leaf) here and they offer a great sampling platter for two. Cooking classes are available (855 63 761 436; angkorpalm.com; Pithnou St; mains US$2-US$5).

 amok is a traditional Khmer dish

One of the best all-rounders in Siem Reap, the popular Le Tigre de Papier serves up authentic Khmer food, great Italian dishes and a selection of favourites from most other corners of the globe. Doubles as a popular bar by night, with frontage on both Pub St and the Alley (855 63 760 930; Pub St; mains US$2-US$9).

Chamkar, which translates to ‘farm’, gets produce from organic vegetable suppliers. This vegetarian restaurant features primarily Asian flavours, such as stuffed pumpkin and vegetable kebabs in black pepper sauce (the Alley, mains US$3-US$5).

Set in a blooming garden that provides a backdrop for hundreds of butterflies, Butterflies Garden Restaurant is dining with a difference. The menu includes Khmer flavours, and indulgent desserts. The restaurant supports good causes like Cambodian Living Arts and communities affected by HIV/AIDS (855 63 761 211; butterfliesofangkor.com mains US$3-US$8).

Siem Reap’s original bar, Angkor What? Is still serving up serious hangovers every night. The happy hour (to 9pm) lightens the mood for later when everyone’s bouncing along to indie anthems, sometimes on the tables, sometimes under them (Pub St).

Getting Around – Wihtin Siem Reap itself, tuk tuks are widely available and sufficient to get around. Always negotiate prices with the drivers before boarding. Try for US$1-US$2 on trips around town. Some guesthouses as well as a few shops around Psar Chaa hire out bicycles for US$2 a day.

Offering hotel standars at guesthouse prices, My Home Tropical Garden Villa is a fine place to rest your head. The décor includes some subtle silks and the furnishings are tasteful. There’s free Wi-Fi in the rooms; air-con starts at US$17 (855 63 760 035; myhomecambodia.com; US$12-US$26).

A hotel with a heart, Sora Moria Hotel promotes local causes to help the community. Its rooms are attractive and bathrooms features smart fittings. (855 63 964 768; thesoriamoria.com; US$40-US$65).
Part of the Mr and Mrs Smith Hotel collection, Viroth’s Hotel is a small boutique property done up in minimalist and modern style. Its seven rooms are finished in contemporary chi and hotel facilities include a pool, a hot tub and free Wi-Fi (855 63 761 720; virothhotel.com; from US$80).

Victoria Angkor Hotel is a popular choice for those craving the French touch in Indochine. The classic lobby is the perfect introduction to one of the most impressive courtyard pools in town. The rooms are well-finished and many include a striking pool view (855 63 760 428; victoriahotels-asia.com; from US$160).

La Residence d’Angkor’s open-plan all-wooden rooms are among the most inviting in town, complete with huge Jacuzzi-sized tubs. Wander through the subtle reception to a stunning swimming pool. A recent extension has added some contemporary rooms with huge bathrooms and walk-in closets, plus the divine Kong Kea Spa (855 63 963 390; residencedangkor.com; from US$300).

Beer Garden – There are dozens of beer gardens around town that cater to young locals. These can be a great experience for cheap beer, local snacks and getting to know some Cambodians beyond your driver or guide. All serve up ice-cold beer. The best strip is north of the Airport Road from the first set of traffic lights after Aivatha St. check out Trey Kon with its huge circular bar, regular football on big screens and mighty beer towers.

60 Metres Road – Three kilometers northeast of the city centre is a stretch of road simply called the 60 Metres Road. Lining each side of the road are stalls after stalls selling anything and everything from toys to small appliances, crafts to pillow, fruits to cold noodle soup. Locals like to gather at this bazaar in the evening and picnic around stalls selling grilled food items.

Side Trip – the floating village of Kompong Pluk is an othr-worldly place built on soaring stills. Nearby is a flooded forest, inundated every year when the Tonie Sap lake rises to take the Mekong’s overflow. Exploring this area by wooden dugout in the west season is very atmospheric. Local tour operators like Tara Boat (taraboat.com) offer day trips here.

 The floating village at Kompong Pluk

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Unspoiled Nature

Executive summary by darmansjah

Immerse yourself in the beauty of nature in bountiful Brunei

Brunei is well known for its abundant oil and natural gas resources, and this focus on the energy industry is the key reason why much of the nature in the country has been left unspoiled. This makes Brunei an absolute treasure trove for anyone with lover for tropical rainforest and wildlife.

Natural Beauty

When you need a break from the hustle of city life in a concrete jungle, Brunei is a great escape, as the lush greenery you seek is never far. One such place is the Tasek Merimbun National Park. Take a 90-minute drive out of Brunei’s capital to the Tutong District and you will find yourself at this National Park, which is listed on the Asean Heritage parks and Reserves. Tasek Merimbun National Park boasts the largest lake in Brunei, which is actually filled with waters from two other lakes – Sungai Meluncur and Sungai Bang Oncom.

The lake at Tasek Merimbun is no ordinary lake – take a closer look at its waters and you will notice that the water is jet black. The phenomenon behind Brunei’s only blackwater lake is caused by the peat swamps that the waters flow through before collecting in the lake. The lake is surrounded by lush green wetlands which are full of wildlife like waterfowls, giant beetles, the gorgeous Rajah Brooke’s birdwing butterflies, slow lorises, and red-leaf monkeys.

Another convenient stretch of Brunei’s nature is Pulau Selirong, which is just 45 minutes away from Brunei city by water taxi. A short river cruise will bring you past mangrove swamps and marshland – if you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of families of proboscis monkeys, which are a species of monkey native to the island of Borneo.

Explore a Rainforest

But the jewel of Brunei’s many green spaces is definitely the Ulu Temburong National Park. Covering over 50,000 hectares in the Temburong District, the Ulu Temburong National Park is home to some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. The variety of habitats found here includes everything from lowland forests, to jungles and mountain forests. And of course, the Park is also teeming with native wildlife – gibbons, proboscis monkeys and hornbills are just some of the animals you might spot while in Ulu Temburong.

An activity not to be missed in Ulu Temburong is the spectacular canpy walk. Reaching the canopy is definitely a challenge: you have to climb over 1000 steps up a steep hill, then go up stepladders to get to the suspended canopy bridge. But the effort is well worth it, as the walkway soars high over the forest canopy, offering panoramic views of the National Park, as well as the Temburong and Belalong Rivers.

For a more immersive experience, check into the Ulu Ulu Resort, which is found right at the heart of Ulu Temburong. The resort has a number of comfortably furnished wooden chalets, where you can fall asleep and awake to the sounds of the rushing river and wildlife right at your doorstep. The resort ha guides who will bring you on walking tours through the area. Staying at Ulu ULu Resort for the night also gives you the opportunity to tackle the canopy walk at sunrise, which gives you an even more spectacular view of the rainforest in all its glory.

Sun, Sand, Sea

Brunei is found on the coast of the island of Borneo, which means there is an abundance of white sandy beaches all around the island. Muara Beach is a popular picnic spot for the locals, while kids love flocking to the nearby children’s playground. Another quieter but beautiful beach hideout is Jerudong Beach. This a great beach to enjoy the sunset and a favorite for water sports lovers.

And if exploring the underwater depths of Brunei’s waters interest you, you’ll be happy to hear that the well-preserved waters off Brunei is home to vast coral reefs and stunning marine life pranding excellent diving opportunities. Some of the best dive reefs include Brunei Patch, Princess Avenue and Clownfish wreck dives are found between Brunei and Labuan, a neighbouring Malaysian island. These include the 30-metre deep American Wreck (a US ship that sank during WWII), 55-metre Yuho Maru (a Japanese tanker sunk by an American submarine in 1944) and the Oil Rig Wreck, which contains fragments of an oil-rig sunk by Brunei Shell Petroleum in 1944.

Travel Essentials

Flight Connectivity – Royal Brunei Airlines (bruneiair.com) flies direct from major destinations in thee Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Europe to Brunei. Singapore Airlines (singaporeairlines.com), AirAsia (airasia.com) and Tahi Airways (thaiairways.com) also operate flights into the country.

Climate – Brunei enjoys and equatorial climate, with year-round average temperatures ranging from 23’C to 33’C. there is no distinct rainy season, but there tends to be heavier rains between the months of October and January.

Culture – Brunei is an Islamic country, and sale and public consumption of alcohol are not permitted in the country. Non-Muslims above 17 years of age can import a duty-free quota of two bottles of wines or spirits, and 12 cans of beer per entry for private consumption.