28 May 2013

Hat Yai - A Journey to the Soul of Thailand at Haadyai Railway Station

Date of Exploration : 24 May 2013

There are many beautiful places in the world, but few have a soul. On the flipside, there are many soulful places, but they aren't always pretty to look at.

Soulful places to me, as much as they are open to definitions, are not churches, mosques, temples or holy destinations where the spirit comes to sought liberation; but somewhere that reaches me in a humanistic, non-religious manner. And I stumbled upon one such place during my trip to Southern Thailand...

... the Hat Yai Railway Station. It is one of those places not big on looks, but ambience.

Also spelt 'Haadyai', the railway station forms part of the kingdom's Southern Line that connects Malaysia to Bangkok and was built in the early 1900s.

It isn't listed as a tourist attraction in Hat Yai but we decided to check it out since the station is within walking distance from the city's prime downtown district anchored by the famous Lee Gardens Plaza and Hotel. It takes only about 10 minutes to walk from Lee Gardens Plaza to the station in the direction of Rodfai Road.

Entrance of the train station framed by the corners of a banner and shophouse to compensate for the dull sky.
Our visit to the railway station wasn't planned as it rained earlier during the day and the gloomy weather prompted us to switch sightseeing plans with a browse around the city's shops and cluster of shopping complexes instead.

So I left my DSLR and compact camera in the hotel and only had my phone camera with me. Darn! All photos on this post were shot with my Samsung Galaxy S3 mobile phone but I think it did a pretty decent job.

Choo-choo... Locomotive of Train 32 which was put in service in 1950 and decommissioned in 1965.

These 2 passengers formed a human train on the express way to dreamland.

Ticketing hall of Hat Yai Railway Station. I find this photo 'cute' in the sense that the monk was on the move while the young guy was staying still. Normally it's the other way around.

Both sides now... the most defining moments in life have to do with arrivals and departures.


Waited a long time for the man on the train and the dog to look in the same direction for this shot because man or beast, we all head down the same way. Aiyoh, just realized this caption so emo after penning it. LOL!

The dog has only 3 legs... *heartache* But it ran faster than 4! *smile*

Boarding for a brooding.

One of my favourite photos. Her dressing and smile befits the setting.

Inside the carriage.

Two men waiting.

One guy pining.

A monk wondering...

... wondering why I kept holding up my phone at him in every angle! Haha. He looked so serene and sagely sitting by the tracks and gladly posed for photos when I asked. What struck me was his smile. It was toothless but it ignited a sense of inner joy for me.

After taking his photos, he muttered a long prayer in Thai. Was he trying to exorcise me? Or giving me a shower of verbal blessings? With his smile, I think it's the latter. Although I'm not Buddhist, it's nice to get blessed by a monk on Vesak Day!

Where will my explorations take me next? If I'm not careful, it'll be to the hospital! While getting this photo taken, a train was coming into the station on this track. There wasn't a station guard to warn or get us off the tracks so keep a lookout when you are taking photos here.

Photo bombed! I was posing for a shot when this guy stood next to me. I was like "Who the hell are you"...

... but my WTF spark dissipated quickly when I realized he was just pulling a playful prank to be in my photo. Funny guy.  

We came to the station at about 4pm and left around 45 minutes later. By then, the evening sun made itself felt and casted long shadows within the station.

Thamanoovithi Road in front of the station. After our unplanned photo outing to Hat Yai Railway Station, we took this road back to the hub of shopping centres and street hawkers.
Visiting the station was a beautiful 'accident'. In a photographic point of view, I think the place offers many photo ops from great perspective shots of the tracks to capturing the emotions of travellers. Some of them are happy and excited, some pensive and deep in thoughts.

I think 4.30pm would be a good time to visit to catch the atmospheric lighting as the setting sun peeks into the station. However, do check the train schedule if you don't want to just get photos of empty tracks.

Chok-dee mak mak (lots of good luck) in your explorations and arriving at places that touch your soul! :o)

23 May 2013

Terengganu - Tanjong Jara Resort Review

Date of Exploration : 2 - 4 May 2013

Had the good fortune of being invited for a blogcation (a sponsored vacation for the purpose of blogging about the experience) by YTL Hotels at its enchanting Tanjong Jara Resort and spent an idyllic 3D2N exploring the rustic charms of Terrengganu.

A fishing boat prowling the calm waters in front of Tanjong Jara Resort at the break of dawn. Catching a sunrise at the resort is one of life's little gifts.
Resting along a stretch of private beach in the Malaysian coastal district of Dungun, Terengganu (formerly spelt Trengganu), Tanjong Jara Resort (TJR) is a true hideaway for beach resort lovers who yearn serenity and tranquil meanderings. TJR's secluded location amongst rich coastal greens brings nature that much closer yet its lost-world setting doesn't compromise on comfort and luxury. I love nature, but I love it even better when I don't have to 'suffer' for it!

Getting to Tanjong Jara Resort

There are a couple of ways to get to TJR :

1. Fly in to Kuantan International Airport (named 'Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah Airport') and take a 2.5 hours ride to TJR

2. Fly in to Terengganu International Airport (named 'Sultan Mahmud Airport') and take a 1.5 hours ride to the resort

Airport pick-up and transfers can be arranged with TJR and subjected to separate charges from accommodation bookings. For more info on getting there, please click here.

Photos : Onboard Firefly's 2-by-2 seater plane and Kuantan International Airport. 
For our trip, we flew Firefly Airlines from Singapore to Kuantan International Airport (flight time approx. 1 hour) and took TJR's private car transfer to the resort.

Hello Kuantan! I've yet to explore this part of Malaysia. Hopefully in the future.

The trip included the who's who journos from Singapore's media industry. Left to right : Tracy from YTL Hotels, Maryam (Straits Times Life!), Vanessa (representing TODAY), Brian and his partner Sylvie (Tatler Singapore), Lulu (Asian Geographics) and Rebecca (Expat Living). When they asked me who I am, I blushed that I'm just a small-fry travel blogger. It was my first time travelling with journalists and I learnt so much just by listening to them talk and articulate issues. 

Our spacious ride to Tanjong Jara Resort.

Snapping some shots along the way, I was really amazed by the mass of banners and flags the contesting parties put up during the Malaysian Election. But taking a shut-eye was the best way to sit out the 2.5 hours journey.
Balmy Impressions at Tanjong Jara Resort

As our car passed a sign that marked the entrance of Tanjong Jara Resort, I was a little surprised at how understated it is; in a blink-and-miss-it kind of way. But as we drove down the palm-lined driveway, the narrow path opened up to a sprawling hotel development that called to mind a glam kampong. It felt like entering a different era and dimension.

With 99 rooms and a complete range of facilities (restaurants, gym, pool, gift shop, library, conference hall, etc), TJR centers its hospitality around the Malay concept of Sucimurni, a philosophy grounded in the timeless pursuit for good health and holistic well-being. There is relaxation in the air as I breathed in the rustic-scape.

TJR won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for its architecture. The award is the largest architectural award in the world and was established to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Islamic culture as expressed through architecture.

Reception of TJR built in the style of a Malay longhouse.

Mirror pond next to the Reception area.

TJR's built and stylings borrow the grandeur and royal flavours reminiscent of traditional Malay palaces in the 17th century.

Visage of the Serambi (ground units) and Bumbung (top units) Sea View rooms. TJR has various rooming choices with prices ranging from RM700++ for sea or garden facing rooms to RM3,500++ for its Anjung Suite.

My room was the Serambi Sea View unit on the ground level. The upper floor is a different unit.

Photos : Huge front porch and room with a lot of space!

Love the simple elegance of the room's interior.

Full-length picture windows allow a great view of the South China Sea. 

Looking out to a garden and South China Sea from the room's entrance.

Left : A day bed for parents travelling with kids. Right : Walk in closet.

Huge bathroom with separate vanity fittings. 

In-room bathtub with the sanitary room to the left and rain shower on the right.

The toiletries at TJR are supersized! There's even a jar of bath salts for an in-room soak.

Got a chance to visit the other room types and they were all stellar!

One of the ground units even come with an outdoor bath. Great for honeymooners!
Spa Village

One of the highlights of our stay at TJR was experiencing the signature treatments at its Spa Village. Tapping into the time-tested Malayan techniques of healing kneads and rubs, the therapies at TJR pay homage to these ancient treatments to relax yet invigorate the senses.

I had a go of the 80 minutes Traditional Malay Massage (RM360++) which uses long kneading strokes with an aromatic oil blend containing local ingredients such as turmeric, cinnamon, garlic, onion and citronella. The treatment aims to improve circulation and relax tired muscles so it was perfect for me since I sustained some sports injury a couple of months back. My back and neck were pretty sore but after the massage, I felt light as a bird!

The Spa Village is located near the swimming pool.

I left worries at the door and catwalked down the watery runway for much-needed pamperings! 

The warm and friendly therapists at TJR Spa Village.

After the massage, we were given a traditional sarong to keep. Such a befitting and meaningful memento of the spa session.

The environ was very refreshing in that the treatment was not given in a small room. This whole space with the outdoor pedestal and corridor leading to the massage beds is considered one treatment 'room'!

Before the massage, I was given a Shower of 7 Blessings which was basically being rinsed in 7 scoops of water infused with fresh flowers. With each scoop, the therapist say auspicious well wishes. I think he secretly wished I'd know how to wear the sarong properly. 

The therapy suite where the beds are.

The even-handed and deeply satisfying massage had me drifting in and out of sleep throughout the session while the bodily knots and tension melted away.
Nom Nom at Di Atas Sungei & Nelayan

I recently learnt that "nom nom" is the new social media IN phrase to mean eating (supposedly, nom nom is the sound of eating) and this segment of the post is my continued salivation over the chomps I had at TJR.

The resort has 2 restaurants - Di Atas Sungei (main dining hall for breakfast and dinner) and Nelayan, a beachside restaurant and bar that serves up lunch, dinner and delish cocktails.

Breakfast is a spread of local noodles and western essentials.
Indulge in authentic local delights such as Nasi Lemak, Tereangganu Fish Curry and other favourites.

Patio seating at Di Atas Sungei overlooks a scenic river. Di Atas Sungei means 'above the river'.
Chef Ann helms Di Atas Sungei with delicious recipes and her livewire personality. Our dinner was ordered without a menu as Chef Ann introduced the best and freshest of the day.
The crowd favourite... prawns in double cream sauce.

Nom nom.. nom nom... nom nom. I was too busy savouring the good food and missed finding out their names.

Nelayan (Malay for 'Fisherman') is located near the swimming pool and right next to the beach.

Left : A chilled glass of watermelon juice by the beach to cool down the summer heat. Right : A must-try is the Kerapok Lekor, a fried fish-stick snack that is very popular in Terengganu.
Gave my tongue a spicy awakening with Nelayan's Curry Fish Head (RM45++). My tongue didn't regret being woken up with this choice.
We had dinner by the beach on the second night but it was too dark to photograph the food. Only managed to snap this main dish (Nelayan Bouillabaisse, RM75++) from my 3-course meal. 
Bike Excursion to Fishing Village

For those seeking some action, TJR offers cycling tours that take you to a nearby fishing village to get a dose of kampong life. Cost : RM50++ per person (available on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5pm).

I've recently become a fan of cycling tours and acquired this outfit which the journos thought was over-the-top. But I had the last laugh when most of them had sore butts the next day while my tush was protected by my padded cycling shorts. *evil laugh*

The bicycles were all pretty high and some of the gals weren't too confident riding them.

The ride was easy on flat roads that don't get a lot of traffic.

At one point, we departed from the main road and turned into a coastal street that runs along the beach. Many friendly locals said hi as we passed them by. 

Saw goats frolicking in a field separating the sea from the road.

After paddling for about 20 minutes, we arrived at the fishing village.

Imagine living here and listening to the waves every night.

This cat was as friendly as the kids in the seaside kampong.

Our cycling guide brought us to this ultra-retro coffeeshop in the village.

Owner of the coffeeshop who lived in pre-independence Singapore for a couple of years before returning to the kampong.

Having Roti Prata and Teh Tarik at the old coffeeshop somehow made things taste more flavourful.

A night market was coming alive at the kampong.

The fried chicken smelled so good! But insist on the freshly fried ones for those out in the open for a while weren't as crispy.

Receiving the dusking hues on a country road as we left the fishing village.

On another night, we visited a pasar malam (night market) that's a 20 minutes drive from TJR. The Dungun Night Market happens every Thursday and the resort offers trips for guests who wish to visit (RM30++ per person).

The open-air market sold everything from clothes, accessories, toys, and lots of food!

Dinner's waiting for us back at the resort, else I would've unleash my appetite on the snacks and local thumbs up such as Nasi Daging, Nasi Kerabu, and an assortment of rendangs!

Steaming hot Putu Bambu (rice flour rolled in coconut flakes and cooked in bamboo tubes with palm sugar fillings).

Keropok Lekor is all shapes and sizes.

Best to visit the pasar malam on an empty stomach and fill up here!

Off-Shore Snorkeling at Pulau Tenggol

Completing our beach resort escapade, we went on a half-day snorkeling-cum-diving trip to Pulau Tenggol, an island that took us an hour on a speedboat to get to. The island is renowned for its tropical forest, pristine coastline, beautiful coral gardens and occasional sightings of Whale Sharks!

TJR's island excursion is operated by Quiver, the only company to offer the PADI National Geographic Diver Course in Malaysia and winner of numerous eco-business awards. Costs range from RM290++ per person (min. 4 persons) for snorkeling and RM480++ per person for diving. The trips are available daily depending on weather conditions and closed during the monsoon season (November to February).

From TJR, we took a 10 minutes car transfer to a jetty where we boarded a private speedboat. The boat's engine raised a water trail that resembled a giant fish tail!

Interior of the speedboat with our divemaster in red berms.

Hello Pulau Tenggol!

Can't wait to get in the water!

The beach was litterless and really smooth with fine sand.

Except for a few huts and sheds, the island had minimal development perhaps because it is so far out from mainland.

It's a waste not to cam whore at this beautiful bay!

A vibrant and colourful seabed awaits with rims of table corals, staghorn corals, brain corals, mushroom corals and lots of sea creatures.

Can you spot the sea turtle in the photo? Seeing the turtle in the open sea was pure magic. 

Nemo and Marlin! So excited to finally see Clownfish in their natural habitat. For a fish so small, they sure are aggressive little swimmers. It's a pity this shot turned out blur.

Diving enthusiasts get to dive here too. During this underwater session, the resort's dive instructress got attacked by a Triggerfish and got a bonk on her head. Stay clear of these fish during mating season when their mood turn nasty.

On top of snorkeling near the beach, we were also brought to another spot to ogle at fish in deeper waters.

Puvanes from TTG Asia didn't want to go into the water initially as she isn't a strong swimmer but she felt at one with the sea in no time!

Lunch was included in the excursion package and we had freshly BBQed seafood and meats. My favourite was the fish as it was especially tender and sweet.
Sunrise at TJR

As Terengganu is on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, it gets a great sunrise view and TJR is a prime spot to welcome a new day. I woke up on 2 mornings to catch the sunrise at 2 different locations - at an outcrop of stones a short distance away and at the beach in front of my room.

6:39am. A dusting of violet and rogue as the sky puts on its make-up.

6:54am. The heavenly stove is heating up.

7:03am. Blood sun.

7:21am. The rocky shore provided some interesting crevices for foreground when framing the sunrise.

6:31am. Catching the sunrise at the beach in front of the accommodation units.

7:07am. The sunrise this morning was more orangey compared to yesterday's blood sun. 

A sunrise shot framed with the thatched roof of a gazebo by the beach.

It was a gentle and pastel sunrise this morning.

The golden sands of Tanjong Jara Resort's private beach.
My 3D2N at TJR was packed with activities, rich encounters and unforgettable experiences that made this one of the best beach resort vacations I've had so far! If you like what you saw on this blog post and can't wait to pack your bags for TJR, here's good news...

From now till 31 October 2013, the resort is offering a fantastic package deal that starts from RM1,625++ per night for a minimum of 3 nights.

The all-in Summer Stopover package includes :

- Return transfers (from Sultan Mahmud Airport)
- Accommodation
- All meals
- 50 minutes spa treatment (per person)
- Choice of adventure activity (snorkeling at Pulau Tenggol or Forest Trek)
- Sampling of Malaysian cultural highlights (market excursion, cooking class, food tasting, cycling tour, appreciating traditional crafts, etc)

For more great deals and offers, visit : http://www.tanjongjararesort.com/packages/index.htm

Have fun exploring! :o)
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