29 October 2011

Bangkok - Ayutthaya Ancient City

As Thailand lost the ancient city of Ayutthaya to flood waters and central Bangkok braces itself for a possible inundation this weekend, I can't help but feel anxious for the fate of my favouritest holiday destination.

When Ayutthaya went underwater and I saw images of how whole villages were submerged, my heart sank. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, I had wanted to revisit this historical Thai suburban town during a trip to Bangkok just a couple of months back.

But I changed my mind at the last minute because my travel buddy didn't want to go when I thought he wanted to. My motivation was dashed and so I decided to postpone the excursion till my next Bangkok trip.

Then, this happened...

Facing its worst monsoon barrage in over 50 years, the current situation in Thailand has flooded (pardon the pun) our newspapers' headlines and became a focal point of the region and the United Nations as fears of food shortages mount in the face of widespread devastation to Thai rice farms.

Global businesses also added a few more worry lines as factories based in flood hit districts came to a standstill. But my concern is how much of history will be washed away when the monster tide finally recedes?

This irrepressible flood reminded me that even though ancient sites have survived the centuries, they still run the risk of being here today, and gone tomorrow with our increasingly volatile climate. So if there is somewhere we want to go or something we want to drop our jaw of in person, don't procrastinate. Make plans and go see them soon!

Ayutthaya Day Trip (22 May 2005)

My seed for a return visit to Ayutthaya was sown a day after my birthday in 2005. I wanted to do something memorable for turning 31 so the day trip happened. Back then, I didn't know photography like I do now and armed only with an aging Nikon Coolpix 4300 (the first digital camera I owned) I set out to do photographic injustice to this place.

At that time, it was all about exploration and experience, not so much of getting nice pictures. That's why I wanted to go back again to photograph Ayutthaya. It was also because the battery of my Coolpix 4300 died on me and I didn't capture as many shots of the temple ruins as I wanted to.

I remember my camera was in a very sad state. The catch of the battery cover had broken off so I held it in place with wads of sticky tape. Plus my travel companion wasn't too patient with me taking forever to frame a photo. Thankfully, some of the shots turned out okay.

Phra Chedi Chaimongkol. The monastery was built in 1357AD by U-Thong, the Thai warrior-king who led Thailand to independence. You can climb up to the central prang but there's not much of a sight within the bell dome.

Ayutthaya, also spelt Ayudhya, was one of the most powerful capital cities in Southeast Asia between 1347 to 1767. Thailand was known as Siam then. Today, remanants of the royal city form an outdoor historical park that hints of the glory that once was. Ayutthaya is about 2 hours from Bangkok city centre by car / van.

I took a day trip with a tour operator in Bangkok and it cost 2,000bht per person in 2005. The day trip's itinerary started with a visit to the Summer Palace followed by a long tail boat ride (additional charge of 300bht) down Chao Praya River passing by waterside villages, a visit to Wat Yai Chaimongkhon, elephant camp, time for free exploration and a boat ride down Chao Praya River back to Bangkok city. High-tea buffet was served onboard the boat.

A couple of my friends went during end July 2011 and they chartered a taxi for a day to take them there. The cab picked them at their hotel at 8.30 am and they were back in the hotel at 6.00 pm. The full day booking fee was 1,500bht and the cab driver took them to all the popular temple ruins within Ayutthaya's historical park. He spoke little English so don't expect a running commentary about the sights.

But I think that's a really good deal if it's spilt between 2 - 4 friends. I've not tried the cab driver's service, but my friends called this number to make their booking - 081-939-7398. The driver's name was Tiger. I think any cab would be happy to be chartered for a day. Just negotiate a price and it should be around 1,500bht.

Reclining Buddha within a ruined vihara. Restoration of Wat Yai Chaimongkhon started in 1965 and  the temple still functions as a place of worship and meditation for devotees.

My 2005 Ayutthaya visitation coincided with Vesak Day so all the Buddha statues were lavishly dressed in bright yellow robes. In Buddhism, yellow is the colour of earth and represents rootedness and renunciation of worldly desires.

Hundreds, if not thousands of these Buddhist statues litter every nook and cranny of the temple's grounds. I wonder if they will still be there after the flood.
As mentioned, there are quite a few ruin sites to explore in Ayutthaya's historical park. I didn't have a lot of time for free exploration so the other only ancient temple I visited other than Wat Yai Chaimongkhon was Wat Phra Ram (Temple of Rama). An fee of 20bht is collected at the entrance.

The highly decorative phallic shaped prang of Wat Phra Ram and the carvings on its walls have strong influences from the Khmer (Cambodian) style of temple architecture.

When visiting Ayutthaya, be prepared to walk alot as the ruins are pretty far apart. So the chartered taxi idea may be better to save the time spent on foot. It could also get very hot so wear sunscreen and bring along an umbrella and fan.

I was sweat-drenched the moment I arrived in Ayutthaya until I left. There can also be quite a bit of climbing and the steps can be hazardous as they are rather narrow and steep.

No barricades or safety railings. Climb and explore upper portions of temple ruins at your own risk. Wow, check out my tricep back then!

Though already eroded, one could still imagine how intricate and beautiful these reliefs must have been. 

A lower courtyard in the Wat Phra Ram ruins that's lined with what's left of lifesize Buddha statues.

Even if the statues had been greatly disfigured, it seems that the Thais still hold any stone that had once been part of a sacred image with reverence. I hope they don't get lost to the flood tide.
One of the sights I didn't get to see during my last visit was the Buddha head clutched within the intertwined trunks of a tree at Wat Mahathat. The head gets raised a few centimeters every few years as the tree grows. It is perhaps the most widely photographed and iconic image of Ayutthaya.

I wonder how long Bangkok will take to be reinstated after the flood. And the next time, I'm so going to Ayutthaya again before unpredictable forces horde it again.

08 October 2011

Singapore - Five Stones Hostel

It's playtime in the Lion City with Five Stones Hostel... a brand new backpacker's lodge at the heart of downtown Singapore! Promising to offer an "immersive backpacking" experience that goes beyond just a good night's sleep, the hostel seems poised to be the most interesting budget accomodation for travellers to our tiny red dot.

Five Stones Hostel is located within the prime historic and commercial district of Singapore.
Address : 61, South Bridge Road.
I had the delight of being invited to preview this quaint hostel and I must say that if I'm a foreigner visiting Singapore, Five Stones Hostel would definitely be my top choice to stay in. Sitting along one of Singapore's arterial roads that links the past with the present, FSH calls as its neighbours, some of the key heritage and metropolitan developments of Singapore.

Just a (five) stone's throw away is the historic Singapore River where the story of our nation's prosperity started; Clarke Quay and Boat Quay which together, form a seamless F&B and entertainment arc by the waterfront; Singapore's main financial hub, the Central Business District (CBD); Central Shopping Mall, Funan IT Mall, Fort Canning Hill, and many more tourists attractions that are within a walking radius of the hostel.

FSH will officially open its doors for business on 15 Oct 2011. I heard that the hostel is already almost fully booked ahead of its launch! Pictured here is the Peranakan bunk which features an artistic impression of Singapore's Straits-born Chinese community.
If you do not know what 'five stones' is, it's a traditional game that the older generation of Singaporeans play. I grew up with that game. And also hopscotch, goli (marbles), zero-point, police-and-thief, one-leg, bottle caps or erasers battle, pick up sticks, blowing gel and soap bubbles, paper planes... a time where our whole body is the game console.

And some of these games and cultural influences form the themes of bunks and private rooms at FSH. I really like how the hostel is named after a game that invoked so much nostalgia and fond childhood memories in me. Gosh, I'm old! So any tourist staying here would be like living amongst things close to the hearts of older Singaporeans.

The bunks and rooms come with good quality orthopaedic mattresses that are also anti-dustmites. I had a test of the bed. Springy and comfortable indeed. The bed is just right for my average Asian size.

A game of congkak awaits while a miniature trishaw welcomes guests to bunks with the respective themes. All done to give visitors to Singapore an intimate encounter on top of the sights, sounds and cuisines.

Hopscotch bunk with a game carpet made by the owners. All the bunks and rooms come with little posters that explain the themes, their significance to Singapore, and for games, how to play them. That's really thoughtful. So which playroom do you want to book?

Guests can befriend and share travel stories at common areas such as the corridor featuring a mural of early Singapore. Bunk 305 is a female-only bunk while the others are mixed.

View of the common wash area and showers. There are also washing machines for laundry. 

View of a common area featuring a wall mural of modern-day Singapore's skyline.

This is TZ in one of FSH's private rooms with a gasing (top spinning game) design. He is the graphic artist behind the colourful and abstract adaptations of games and cultural elements in the thematic bunks and rooms. He wanted to inject a young energy into these traditional icons of Singapore. The result is a splash of hip culture-chic on the walls of FSH.
Alrighty, that's Five Stones Hostel for you. Please pardon the quality of the photos as my Canon compact camera 'drowned' during my recent trip to Langkawi and went kaput. I was heading to another party after FSH's soft launch event so I didn't bring along my Nikon DSLR so the shots were taken with my phone's camera.

As I end of this preview review of FSH, I would like to share why this hostel is worth checking in to in my opinion...

5 Rock Solid Reasons to Stay Here

1) Central Location - I am a local. So trust me on this. The location is one of the best for a backpack hostel. It is just a block away from Clarke Quay MRT Station and a fleet of buses link it to the rest of Singapore.

2) Good Value-for-Money - A bunk bed costs between S$30 - S$35 and a private room costs S$90 a night. And the hostel has tie-ups with merchants around its vicinity for special promotions and discounted prices on products and services for guests. Breakfast included during stays.

3) Great Ambience - The place is clean, neat, bright and cheerful. A refreshing image for budget stays which are very susceptible to poor design and neglect in upkeeping.

4) Top-Grade Orthopaedic Mattresses - Budget accomodation doesn't need to be a compromise in comfort.

5) Free Wi-Fi - Unlimited free access is available in all bunks and rooms. This is really great when compared to most hotels that only offer access only at the lobbies. So you can just lie in bed and get your daily fix of Facebook.

Five Stones Hostel will definitely rock the backpacking scene in Singapore!

02 October 2011

Langkawi - Pantai Cenang & Kuah Town

With its feet firmly planted in the Andaman Sea and rolling back across acres of luminous jade green fields embraced by a mountainous arc, Langkawi is without any doubt, naturally well-endowed. And it's not hard to see why. Langkawi's rich natural heritage owes itself to the island's geological history dating back some 500 million years!

Considered to be the birthplace of the Malaysian archipelago, one might expect this resort destination to be all rural and primal in order to conserve its natural beauty. That's not really the case. The island is pretty built up with a pronounced effort in merging urban developments and environmental sustainbility through eco-consciousness. Of the developed areas, Pantai Cenang and Kuah Town are where most of the island's urbanisation efforts are clustered. And in this post, let me take you on a cyber tour to some of the attractions in these 2 districts.

Map of Langkawi showing some of the attractions we visited during the trip. The island would make for a nice self-drive vacation as it isn't very big and could be driven from one end to the other in under 2 hours. 
Getting to Langkawi from Singapore

Let's start this last post of my Langkawi exploration at the beginning... getting there. The day of the departure was the first time I met up with all the bloggers and coordinators for the trip. Thankfully, they were such a lively and affable bunch, we skipped the awkwardness of being strangers and went straight into being buddies.

Left to right : Eleanor (Ageless Online), Malcolm (MMVC Network), me with helmet hair, Stephanie, Germaine, Jonathan, Ivy, Shaun (in2it.sg), Joanne-Marie, and Hasni (SAFRA). 

Our carrier was Malaysia Airlines (MAS). First time flying with MAS and I just adore those colourful seats. Feels like a party rather than the standard sombre and uniformly coloured seats that most airlines use.

Perhaps airlines should come with thematic decors like those boutique hotels that have a different theme to spice things up for passengers! Going to an island destination? Step into an underwater or safari themed cabin. Flying during Halloween month? Get spooked by plush spiders lurking in the overhead lugguage cabinet and freaky meals. But of course, that would mean increased budget at a time where budget airlines are siphoning off passengers.

Service onboard MAS was pretty good. On our flight back, Stephanie was feeling nauseous and a steward intuitively brought some slices of lemon for her. The meals were nice too. We had a choice between fish with steamed rice and chicken with fried rice. I tried both. Go with the chicken if you're flying MAS.
The funny thing with flying MAS to Langkawi is this... it doesn't fly direct. We had to fly about 1.5 hours to Penang and transit for 40 minutes before boarding the same plane again for a 30 minutes ride to Langkawi. We could've saved more than an hour and the hassle with other airlines that fly direct from Singapore to Langkawi.

Our departure flight was delayed for about 30 minutes. From accounts by friends who had flown MAS, tardiness is to be expected.

Langkawi International Airport is small but clean and modern. So nice to be greeted by a starfish upon stepping into the airport.
While Langkawi is developed, don't expect an ultra modern metropolis with a wide offering of well-connected public transport system. There is no MRT, no trains, and I don't recall seeing buses or a bus-stop.

The best way to get around the island is to rent a vehicle (car, minivan, or bike) for self-drive or book chauffeured transportation. There are quite a number of rental companies offering their services near the baggage collection area.

I didn't check out the prices but I got a pricelist from Aseania Hotel and rates range from RM40 (hourly) - RM350 (daily) depending on the kind of vehicle and whether it is high season or low season. Our trip coincided with the rainy low season. The difference between low and high season is a RM50 - RM80 surcharge.

Pantai Cenang

Also spelt Pantai Chenang, it is a stretch of public beach popular with the locals and tourists just 10 minutes drive from the airport. Along the beach is a street lined with hotels, shops, spas and restaurants that bustles at night. It's considered the most happening street on Langkawi.

Personally, I found the street to be rather boring with shabby-looking restaurants and uninteresting shops. But maybe because I didn't really spend time to browse the businesses there. Our trip coincided with Malaysia Day and the street was packed with people that night. There was an outdoor concert and fireworks!

Life at Langkawi moves at a leisurely pace. Its beachside developments are not as dizzying and chaotic as Phuket, but they lacked the artistry and polished appearance of Bali.
Along Pantai Cenang, you can find Laman Padi Rice Museum and Underwater World, the two biggest attractions in the area other than the beach. I didn't have a chance to see Cenang beach but I read reviews on TripAdvisor that it is rather dirty.

A cleaner and quieter stretch of beach would be Pantai Tengah where you'll also find the greenest resort in all of Malaysia, The Frangipani Langkawi Resort & Spa (read review here).

Aseania Resort Review

If you're coming from the airport and going down Pantai Cenang street, you'll come to Aseania Resort which sits at a junction at the end of the street. Some of us spent a night here.

Aseania Resort is hard to miss with its screaming pink exterior that is at the brink of being an eyesore. Parked at the end of Pantai Cenang street, the hotel offers a quieter stay without being too far from all the action. 

The hotel is a sprawling development with a few accomodation wings. Decor here is a patchwork of aging chandeliers and cheap floor tiles. Expect generosity in space but not aesthetics.

What's rather nice at Aseania Resort is its abundance of water bodies with a 154.4m swimming pool making it into the records as the longest pool in Malaysia.

To get to my room, I had to walk down two long hallways which showed just how big the hotel is.
When I got into my room, I didn't feel like coming out again because of the long walk but I had to because there was only 3 channels on TV. All in Malay. So I got out to a nearby convenience store to get some beer and drink till I'm not bored.

Perhaps Aseania Resort is so big that its upkeep is a challenge. The hotel looked rather tired.
The saving grace at Aseania was that the room is really huge and it has free wi-fi access compared to the other 2 hotels we stayed in where wi-fi access is available only at the lobby area.

Room rates range from RM175 - RM480 for a Superior Room to Suite / Apartment-type lodging arrangement per night. Prices include breakfast and differential charges between low-high season . At this price range, Aseania Resort makes for a good-value-for-money stay.

Laman Padi Rice Museum
Opening Hours : 10:00am - 6:00pm daily
Entrance Fees : RM2.00 (Adult), Free for Children below 12yo

If you are a rice queen or king like me who only know how to press 'On' on the rice cooker, a visit to Laman Padi may be an interesting excursion to learn more about how this Asian dietary staple gets to our table. Entry is free (I think) and it's located at Pantai Cenang so there's good reason to pay this museum a quick visit.

Meaning 'Rice Garden', Laman Padi has an outdoor working padi field and an indoor exhibitory gallery.

Love the petri dish kampong-rustic setting.

This scarecrow looks kinda gum jek. Need more wheat to fatten up!

Guided tour of the rice museum where we gained an intimate knowledge about the rice farming process, traditions and apparatus used. The planting of rice sapplings is traditionally the women's job while the menfolk till the soil.

A partnership of machinery and traditional tools to optimise produce from the rice planatations. The funnel-shaped basket is used to trap fish found in the rice fields. Rice-fish farming is practised in many Asian countries. Fish helps to eat water-borne insect larve and its poo becomes fertiliser for the plants. And when the fish matures, they provide a source of food and also a second income.

The rice museum is simple but clean and well-maintained with a lot of ethnic flavour.

We got to walk the field and get a first-hand taste of planting rice after the tour! Joanne made agriculture look so glam.

It's hard work having fun!

After 'working' at the fields, drop by the adjourning Nawa Sari Spa for a massage with homemade therapeutic oils. Didn't get to try the treatments so no comments on the service and masseur's skills.
Legenda Park
Opening Hours : 8:00am - 11:00pm daily
Entrance Fees : Free

About a half-hour drive from Pantai Cenang is Langkawi's town centre - Kuah Town. One of the sights we visited briefly was the Legenda Park (a.k.a. Lagenda Park). Our visit lasted only about 15 minutes because the weather was threatening rain and an earlier downpour rendered the park grounds rather puddly.

Opened in 1996, Lagenda Park was closed in 2008 for renovations till 2010. The imposing rock entrance is impressive and looks like a miniature mountain.

With the dull sky light, landscape shots were grey and flat so I decided to shoot brighter subjects... the girls! They were framed through one of the many beautifully carved stone dustbins (see the right corner of the last pic in this Legenda segment)!

It's a pity we didn't get to see more of the park as I think it would be really beautiful. Legenda Park contains 17 story-monuments that tell the many myths and legends of Langkawi.

We were about to leave when I decided to run and see a bit more of the park. Thankfully I did! To the right after entrance into Legenda is this boulevard of trees that runs from the beginning to the end of the park. Really love the diminishing point of view flanked by the trunks and branches.
Kuah Town

Kuah means 'gravy' in Malay and legend has it that this was the place where a pot of gravy was spilled when 2 giant fathers fought each other during their children's wedding. The 2 giants were Mat Machincang and Mat Raya. If you find the names familiar, that's because they are the names of the 2 most prolific mountains on Langkawi.

According to the folk tale, the 2 men were BFFs but got into a fight when the father of the bride saw his son-in-law ogling another woman during the wedding. During the scuffle, the pot of gravy was spilled which is now Kuah Town and the 2 men were turned into mountains.

To really appreciate Langkawi, it really helps to get acquainted with the island's many myths. The legends and folkores add another layer to the fabric of experience that sort of holds all the natural wonders found here all together.

More of a commercial and retail centre rather than an attraction, Kuah Town is probably the best place to get any shopping done on Langkawi. The island is given duty-free status so it is potentially a treasure trove for brand hunters.
I'm not much of a shopper so I didn't buy anything except chocolates. I've NEVER in my life spent so much on chocolates at one go. My brown loot costs a total of about RM170 (S$70) and weighed over 5kgs! A family-sized choc block weighs about 250g so you can imagine how many I bought! But my money went mostly to the Whittakers' Almond Gold slabs.

In Singapore, a bar of that costs S$1.80 - S$2.20. Over at a duty-free shop called Zon at Underwater World (Pantai Cenang), triple packs of 3 Whittakers' Almond Gold went for RM16.90! That's 9 bars for S$7.00 or S$0.78 each!!! I heard the chocolates are even cheaper at the duty-free shops in Kuah Town. Since I came back from Langkawi 2 weeks ago, I've been snacking on chocs constantly. My pants are getting tighter :o(

Booze is also cheaper here too! A can of 330ml beer costs only around S$1! In some instances, it's cheaper than flavoured beverages!

Tenting up for a pasar malam. Not sure if there's a night market going on every Sunday in Kuah Town but I came across preparations for one during our visit.

Island kids playing a clapping game I used to play. Lost its name to age but watching them heated up nostalgia in me.  
Since I landed in Langkawi, I've been on the lookout for a spa to de-stress. But due to our hectic schedule, we never stayed at one place long enough for an hour's bodywork to be done. We had slightly over an hour in Kuah Town but I was torn between walking into one of the number of spas I saw there and taking photos of the town.

Working my fingers got the vote although there isn't really much to take pictures of here. then I came across 2 kids playing a familiar game and took their photos from afar. The girl saw me and they began to move. They were very shy. In an attempt to quell their uneasiness (and in the hope of taking more shots of them... heh heh... *scheming*), I walked over and showed them their photos. A lady walked over, whom I assumed to be the mother, and asked to see the shots too.

The verygood-looking and friendly owner of Zara's Spa & Beauty Treatment. Address : No. 8, 1st Floor, Jalan Pandak Mayah 5, Pusat Bandar Kuah. Tel : 012-615 0595, 012-626 7898.
As it turned out, she runs a spa with her sister and handed me a flyer. Her name is Zara and I took it as a sign from God to ask me to rest! By then, I barely had an hour left so I tailored my therapy and asked for a 30 minutes foot reflexology (RM25) and 15 minutes head and back massage (RM20, original price is RM40 for 30 mintues).

I've visited quite some heartland spas in Singapore and overseas and I must say that Zara's Spa is not too bad in its set-up. Zara had only taken over the spa from a previous owner and was in the middle of reworking and installing her own dream for this place. A few of the treatment rooms weren't ready yet. I think when the place is done up, the atmosphere should be pretty conducive and the services comprehensive.

This is my therapist, Naza. She's the sister of Zara and mother of the two kids I photographed. She must be wondering why this Singaporean has feet from Hong Kong.
So what do I think of the treatments I received and the service quality? I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe because I didn't expect much as previous experiences with small spas usually left much to be desired.

At Zara's, the ambience was comforting enough even though I'm accustomed to white or muted colours to be the de facto hues for calm and not the saturation of palettes here but somehow, when the lights were dimmed, the green, purple and orange worked. The two ladies were friendly and accomodated my requests and the treatment steps felt balanced and professional. Balance is very important because some therapists tend to work more on one side and less on the other or the steps were different and I'll be feeling something is amiss throughout the massage.

My only grouse was that Naza should give the treatments barefoot or with soft bedroom slippers. The slapping and dragging sounds of rubber slippers on tiles when she walked around was disconcerting for me while having the head and back massage done. While she did check with me on the pressure of her strokes, I was a little embarassed to tell her to go harder so I told her it was okay. They just started business and met a thick-skinned cow like me, I didn't want to tire her out. But yeah, she could add more strength. Then again, maybe it's just my preference.

Saw 3 sunsets in Langkawi - one by Tengah Beach (bluish and looming with clouds), one while coming down from Gunung Raya (purplish and violet), and this one at Kuah Town (golden and vermilion). So awesome!
When I submitted my entry for the in2it.sg Langkawi blog contest, I said I wanted to come here for a wardrobe update because during my visit here in 1992, I was photographed wearing super obiang clothes. It's the early 90s and the shadow of the terrible 80s fashion sense still loomed. I'm allowed to make mistakes!

Almost 20 years later, I'm back in Langkawi. How time flies. I've become less disastrous in my choice of wardrobe (I hope!) and this time, I got to see more of the clothes Langkawi wears rather than fussing on my own. It has been a great trip and I can't thank my companions, Langkawi Development Authority (LADA) and Tourism Malaysia enough!

It has been a fun time and may our journeys meet again someday!

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