Sunday, June 11, 2017

Galapagos Islands on a Budget

I have never really looked at the Galapagos islands as one of my destinations, mainly because of my perceived costs of the cruises going there. But a chance conversation with a friend pointed me to the possibility of a Galapagos trip in an "independent" fashion. And so, I made it to the Galapagos Islands on a "budget"!

The Galapagos Islands lie about 900km west of Ecuador (which it is part of), and consists of a couple of main islands, a dozen other smaller ones and many more islets. They are well-known for the biodiversity available only in this region, which contributed largely to the formulation of Charles Darwin’s famous theory of evolution.

Of these islands, only Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal have access to an airport. So, independent travelers can fly in/out of any one of two — you could also fly in one, and out from another, which can be a nice arrangement if you are doing island-hopping. Several airlines fly there from either Quito or Guayaquil, so check out your favorite airline booking site. Flights can get as cheap as US$350 return, so do buy your tickets in advance. My trip to the Galapagos was a last minute decision, so I could only afford 5 days, and so I limited myself to only 1 island, and got myself return tickets to Santa Cruz island from Quito. TIP: If you ever fly airlines on the oneworld alliance, it may be worthwhile to signup LATAM's frequent flyer program and clock your miles in there, esp if you have intention of going South America. On my flight to Iceland from Singapore 2 years back, I decided to do just that and got myself about 16k miles. And guess what? Return flights to Santa Cruz from Quito can be redeemed for 16k miles (so 8k 1-way). So I only paid us$50 taxes for my flight to the Galapagos! :) :)

Now, the airport is actually on Baltra island, a tiny island just for the airport, and then you'll get a free shuttle transfer to the ferry port. From there, a US$1 ferry brings you to Santa Cruz island proper where you will then take a US$2 bus transfer to the town of Puerto Ayora.

There are clear information in the airport on how to connect to the islands

From Puerto Ayora, there are many tourist agencies that can arrange all manner of activities - from wildlife viewing to scuba-diving. Now, one of the advantages of coming to Puerto Ayora for independent travel, is that Santa Cruz itself has quite a number of attractions that you can visit yourself! Of course, for more intimate encounters with wildlife, especially those underwater, an arranged tour with an agency would be inevitable. So set aside some budget for that. But you do have the option and flexibility to choose what and where to go. There are a variety of day tours in all the agencies you can choose from, so you can shop around. Various islands in the Galapagos offer different wildlife viewing opportunities, and most of the uninhabited islands can only be visited by official tour operators and cruises. This ensures that the delicate ecosystem within the Galapagos is not overly affected by tourism. A typical day tour costs from us$130-$180, and there are of course 2 or 3-day tours as well. Do readup on the various attractions in your favorite guidebook.

As for accommodation, options range from hostels with dorm beds to comfortable hotels, so there's something to cater for everyone. I got myself a hotel with private bathroom for us$30+ a night, so it wasn't as bad as I initially thought! (Tip: It can get quite hot during the day, so having air-conditioning is a good thing....)

And similarly for the food, there are actually budget options in the form of small local eateries offering set menu del dias (menu of the day) at us$5! There are also more upscale restaurants, as well as touristy night markets that offer fairly good seafood!

The other two islands (Isabela and San Cristóbal) that support independent travel infrastructure similarly has budget options, although it may be slightly more limited than Puerto Ayora. I did not have time to visit them, so I could not provide more info but the point I am putting across is that the Galapagos islands can be visited and enjoyed in some manner by budget travelers. And you could actually mix the independent budget travel with a cruise too, as many agencies on Puerto Ayora offer last minute discounted cruise deals!

And the Galapagos islands are indeed a destination worth checking out! In one of my wildlife encounters, someone was taking photos with an iPhone, and someone remarked that only in the Galapagos could someone shoot wildlife with a mobile. Indeed, one could get really close to the wildlife here, and as testament to that, all photos shown in this blog post are taken on an iPhone 7plus!!


Getting real close to birds and wildlife

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Travel Photography with the iPhone II (dual lens!)

This is an update to my blog entry on Travel Photography with the iPhone. Specifically, an update to the point about add-on lens for the iPhone to expand its focal length. As many would have known by now, the iPhone 7 plus now comes with dual lens inbuilt. This effectively means that I can now have a always-carry-around-with-me camera which wields a nice 28-56mm focal length!

In addition to the expanded focal length, the IOS Camera app is also updated with a new feature called "Portrait Mode". Now, Photographers all over love taking people photos with beautiful "bokeh" - the creamy blurred background that makes the subject stands out so beautifully. The portrait mode in the Camera app essentially tries to emulate that - pseudo digitally. It uses the 2 lens in the camera, and digitally combine them to simulate the bokeh effect. The purpose of this article though, is not to explain the technical aspects of this portrait mode. Rather, my aim is to show what can be achieved with this feature in reality, esp for travel photography!

Now, the portrait mode is far from perfect. However, with some understanding of the behavior/quirks of the feature, I have to say that the results can be pretty impressive!  Here's a few pointers on utilising the portrait mode of the iPhone 7 plus :

  1. Firstly, while its labeled as "Portrait" in the Camera app, you obviously don't need to use it for people portraits.  You can use it for any subject that you want to isolate and have a nice blurred background. After all, after "processing" the shot, the image is marked with a "Depth Effect" label in your image gallery. So yes, essentially you can use "portrait mode" for anything that you want to create a "depth effect"...!
  2. In order for the Camera app algorithm to create the bokeh/depth effect, the focal length is fixed at the "tele" end,  ie 56mm, and the subject needs to be literally confined to a certain distance from the camera (the app will tell you to move further/nearer etc). So it is not as flexible as like a DSLR with a 50mm lens with a wide aperture. Learn to know this distance so that you know what sized subject is best for your creative composition.
  3. Choose well-defined subjects too, so that the app can clearly "guess" the whole subject. Subjects like bushes with thin branches/stems or subjects with fuzzy lines will confuse the app. 
That seemed rather restricted, isn't it? But the reality is that, I now DO have the additional creative capability. Remember, all my other points about travel photography with the iPhone (in my previous post) are still very much valid! I still carry a DSLR or mirrorless with me on my travels, but as a testament to what I've written about "the best camera is the one with you", 60+% of all my photos which I've selected and deemed suitable for sharing/display is from the iPhone!

Check out the gallery of images below taken during my 3-months trip to Europe and South America. They are all taken using the depth effect of the portrait mode of iPhone 7 plus. Looks good?


Finally, here's one example that the app failed to properly define the subject :

Notice how the leaf on the right has lost its branch, which has been "blurred" by the app...

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Patagonia from the Air

I was just chugging along in my Santa Cruz trek in Huaraz region of Peru when I overhead the guy behind me mentioned about flying from Punta Arenas to Santiago. He was saying something along the lines about having the most amazing view of Mt Fitz Roy in Patagonia. This jolted me alert as I had been contemplating flying down to the Patagonia region due to my limited schedule, but somehow had never thought about the ability to see the famed mountain from the air. I spoke to him briefly, and before I know it, my heart was kinda set on the flight.

Of course, it was all down to the flight cost. I have been searching on and off and it was only in Cuenca Ecuador when I finally settled down to confirm my plan. Apparently in summer, there are flights from Santiago to Puerto Natales and I managed to find, on the Chilean LATAM airlines site, a flight from Santiago to Puerto Natales at US$87 all-in! Considering that this 3-hr flight saved me a few days of travel southwards, and likely money as well, as the long distance buses while comfortable, do add up, it was a done-deal. And of course, there are the views :).

The tip from my trekking friend Thomas was, on the northbound flight, seat on the right. So for me, I had to seat on the left. 23.5hrs to my flight, I login to the airlines website to check-in and select my seat, and to my horror, all the leftmost window seats are all taken! I had to settle for a middle seat and kept a tiny flicker of hope that I might still get a window seat somehow.

Well, the flight was quite full. So there I was, a fidgety figure frequently looking wistfully over to the window and trying to take pics. The lady at the window seat was very understanding though, but it was still rather inconvenient stretching across (her chest) to the window to take the pictures. But ironically when Fitz Roy came into view, I still did not recognize it and wondered briefly which beautiful mountain was that!

Cerro Fitz Roy and even Cerro Torre partially covered

Somehow, up to this duration of the flight, it did not occur to me that beside Mt Fitz Roy, there are more to Patagonia from the air... At some point, some guy at the front mentioned Perito Moreno, and an internal lightbulb connected. I was almost standing up, craning my neck to its limits but alas, the clouds seemed to have thickened quite abit further south and I could not even catch a glimpse of it, or even what I am seeing. I can only cross my fingers and my toes and take whatever pics I can. When the plane flew over the Towers of Paine, the clouds eased up a little just to tease me with a glimpse of where the Towers are. It was a little disappointing.

Torres del Paine covered

Torres del Paine covered

Nevertheless, I'm really still quite happy to see the landscapes of Patagonia from up in the air. While I have seen the famous landmarks of Patagonia on land (Cerro Fitz Roy & Torre, Perito Moreno glacier, Torres del Paine), it would be cool to be able to see all of them in the air in one flight. And that commercial flight path just allowed that. The notorious weather of Patagonia had allowed me to see one and I guess I should be contented.

For those who's doing the Patagonia route should consider this flight. Aside from Santiago, you could also fly from/to Puerto Montt as I believe the flight route down to Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales should be the same. Aside from LATAM, Sky Airlines fly some of these routes too and they have affordable fares if booked in advance! And remember, for southbound, get the window seat on the left. For northbound, get window seat on the right. And hope for good weather (less clouds)!

In the meantime, enjoy the views below! :)

Look at the colours of the lakes!!

That's a glacier I believe!

Can see its a glacier but doesn't look like its Perito Moreno

Sunday, September 18, 2016

9 Most Iconic Architectural Pieces in Southeast Asia

Today's blog post is actually not written by me. I have decided to include articles and posts from other writers and bloggers, and today's guest post is from the folks at Tripovo, a startup based in Kuala Lumpur.

9 Most Iconic Architectural Pieces in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is one of the most notable havens of enchanting historical sites and fascinating buildings. And over time, the region has built some contemporary structures to keep up with the shifting culture.
No! South East Asia is not just paddy fields and a big jungle filled exotic felines and orangutans. It is so much more than that, you, not well travelled European (serious though, my Eureopean friends think Asia is a big rice field). Enjoy the virtual trip as we zoom in some of the most iconic structures in Southeast Asia. All these architectural pieces are definitely worth a visit!

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

This architectural and luxurious marvel is located in the heart of Singapore. Marina Bay Sands is a high-end resort that caters a hotel, mall, museum, skating rink, casino, theatres and restaurants. What more could you ask for? And to sum it up, it is considered as the most expensive stand-alone integrated resort. Book your trip to Singapore, maybe?

Light Show at Marina Bay Sands
Marina Bay Sands, Image Source : aotaro, Flickr

Petronas Towers, Malaysia

When you talk about Malaysia, most travelers could think about the iconic Petronas Towers. These towers are the most popular buildings in Kuala Lumpur and they were once the tallest structures in the world. It certainly deserves a spot on our list!

Petronas Towers at Night 2
Petronas Towers, Image Source : Colin Capelle, Flickr

Shwezigon Pagoda, Myanmar

The golden Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan is one of the most significant, oldest and impressive religious buildings in the country. The structure sparkles bright in the whole city. Such a golden sight!  
Shwezigon pagoda in Nyaung U (Myanmar 2013)
Shwezigon Pagoda, Image Source : Paul Arps, Flickr

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat is a mesmerizing masterpiece of Angkorian architecture. The structure served as a  temple to the Hindu god Vishnu and a personal mausoleum of the monarchs. The interior details of the temple depicts the historical events and mythological stories which is still visible in the country up to date.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The Temples of Angkor, Image Source : Juan Antonio, Flickr

Pha That Luang, Laos

Pha That Luang or 'The Great Stupa' is the most significant Buddhist shrine in Laos. It is a golden  fortress bordered by towering walls and splendid interior designs. The large golden stupa covered with gold, portrays the beautiful architectural Lao style - classical and regal.

Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang Temple, Image Source : Stefan Fussan, Flickr

The Grand Palace, Thailand 

The architectural design of the Grand Palace was inspired by Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand. The Grand Palace is a large complex of buildings that illustrates the finest Thai style, such as artistic crafts, paintings and Buddhist sculpture. To add, Thailand in itself is such a great place for everyone its cities Bangkok are great for nightlife and shopping. No wonder it is such a hit amongst the Western crowd.

The Grand Palace
The Grand Palace, Image Source : Jason Eppink, Flickr

University of Santo Tomas, Philippines

In the frenzied city of Manila, Philippines, University of Santo Tomas stands out as an attractive and peaceful sanctuary. UST is the oldest university in Asia and is one of the world's largest Roman Catholic colleges.

University of Santo Tomas
University of Santo Tomas, Image Source :, Flickr

The Turtle Tower, Vietnam

Aside from the ever popular Halong Bay and wonderful waterfalls, Vietnam is also packed with iconic structures. One of the most notable buildings in Vietnam is the Turtle Tower of Hanoi which is a very popular destination for tourists.

Hanoi Sword Lake Turtle Tower
The Turtle Tower, Image Source : HoangP, Flickr

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Brunei

The splendid work of art was named after Omar Ali Saifuddien III. The royal mosque which is located in the capital of Brunei, is considered as a symbol of the Islamic faith in the country. Definitely a majestic sight to witness.

The golden domed Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Image Source : Jorge Láscar, Flickr

Wisma 46, Indonesia

Wisma 46 is the tallest building in Indonesia. It is commonly known as the Fountain Pen building. The structure dominates the Jakarta skyline and other commercial buildings in the Central Business district with its exceptional design and stature.

Kota BNI
Wisma 46, Image Source : BxHxTxCx, Flickr

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Travel Photography with the iPhone

Technology has changed the world - how we live, how we travel etc. And of course, how we take photographs. I started photography using film, but of course progressed to digital, and once I laid hands on a DSLR, I have never looked back. Naturally, my DSLR have been an integral part of my travels.

It was barely 2 years ago when I finally found a compact camera that I could comfortably bring for general travels in place of a DSLR. The image quality and capability of todays compacts have become pretty impressive. But all these while, I've never considered mobile phone cameras to be anything serious - until late last year. In December last year, I finally laid hands on a iPhone 6s plus.

In February, I embarked on a 3-month trip to parts of Central America (Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba & Panama), including a "transit" stop in Spain. I brought my iphone along, and my experience have completely changed my views on mobile phone photography.

Here's sharing my views and experiences on the iPhone (particularly the 6s plus) for travel photography :

1. Image Quality
First and foremost for me when choosing a camera is that the image quality must be good. And I think this is the main reason why I have not looked at mobile phone photography as I've always thought that the resultant images are not up to par. But I have under-estimated the progress of technology! Turned out the iPhone's camera is mighty impressive. In fact, since the iPhone 5, Apple has made significant improvements to its camera system. I find its images really good!

2. The best camera is one that is in your hands
Well, its a well known saying, and so darn true. Now, I am someone who tries to carry my  camera with me all the time. With a casing, my compact camera can fit into my pocket (barely) and most often than not, I bring it along when I carry a pouch or a small bag. But a mobile phone? Most of us carry it all the time! So in essence, now I have access to a (good) camera almost all the time!

3. Street Photography
I discovered that a mobile phone camera is excellent for street photography. For some strange reason, when you bring up a huge SLR to your face, people tend to react to this. Bring up a mobile phone to take a photo, and well... people may not even know you are taking a photo of them! I am also pleasantly surprised with the iPhone's quick focusing system, and in my 3-month trip, I find myself taking more street photos than I normally would.

Invisible Street Photography
4. iPhone Camera App
The default camera app in the iPhone has quite excellent features, two of which I like alot - the Time-Lapse and the Pano. I have been creating panoramic images and time-lapse videos using software on my desktop, which entails certain amount of effort and time. So I take images with my DSLR or compact, and then when I get back from my trip, I do the crunching. For long trips with gazillion photos taken, sometimes I had forgotten that I had taken a sequence of photos which was meant for making a panorama. With the iPhone camera app, creating a panoramic image and a time-lapse video is downright simple. True to Apple's style, everything is intuitive and easy. My video and pano is ready there and then! And a really good job at that!

Excellent in-camera panorama
5. Add-on lens
For travel photography, my main "complaint" of the iPhone camera so far is its fixed lens. Nevertheless, there are add-on/clip-on lens in the market that help address this somewhat. The common add-on lens are for fisheye, wide-angle and macro. I was again, pleasantly surprised at the results, especially for the macro lens add-on. It enabled some extreme closeup photos. And these add-on lens are infinitely lighter and easier to bring around than an actual macro lens!!

A macro clip-on lens does wonders!
6. Posting/Sharing on Social Media
I have been sharing my travel images online and in social media for some time now. I have my own website and blog, where I put up my image galleries after each trip. For on-the-fly or in-the-field sharing of images, I use Instagram. I believe that Instagram was developed as a mobile photo-sharing platform, and so I use it as such. By mobile photo-sharing, I meant that the images are either direct from a mobile device or a wifi-enabled camera, have not gone through any desktop processing, and often "in that moment". Today, many use it just as a photo-sharing tool to reach the masses, where the images are usually post-processed to perfection already. Whatever the case, for me, I have been using a wifi-enabled camera to send the images to my mobile to post to Instagram. With the excellent image quality (see point 1 above) of the iPhone, I now post to Instagram direct. And with a travel data sim card, I can now truly do mobile photo-sharing on the go.

So, as mentioned earlier, I took alot more photos from my mobile than I would have in all my past trips. It has, in fact, become my always-with-me camera. Below is a gallery of Instagram posts I have done with the iPhone 6s plus throughout the whole 3 months. Check it out and hope you enjoy the images of central america and Spain! You can also go to my Instagram gallery to see the other non-iPhone photos taken during the trip.

(You can click through the image to open another window to see full captions and hashtags etc)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Singapore Street Art

One of the things I would often stop to admire in my travels is the street art and wall murals in various towns/cities around the world. In particular, I was so impressed with Rio de Janeiro's street art that I made a specific post about it. Of course, there are alot of others, like Valpairiso, Buenos Aires etc, that has wonderful street art culture.

Closer to home, Penang's Georgetown have its wall mural very well publicised here, thanks to its easy access from Singapore and the various media. In fact, Singapore also have the same street artist's art gracing our walls. But wouldn't it be better if we have our very own local artists' creations? Well, recently we do, thanks to the efforts of a Yip Yew Chong.

Yip Yew Chong is a self-taught artist who is actually in the accounting profession. On a career break, he started painting several wall murals that garnered plenty of attention and praise. The thing that set his murals apart is his theme - his murals all depict scenes of Singapore from a bygone era. It is no wonder that it struck a chord with many locals passing by who saw the artwork. I'm sure he had made many new friends while working on set. Many who particularly appreciated his work were of a certain age group (including me), and I had a good time reminiscing the "good old days" with him, discussing brands of milk cans and biscuit tins and details on grating coconut etc.

Of course, the murals can be appreciated by any as the quality of work is top notch, with many works showing an almost 3D nature in the appropriate light. His murals is currently being featured in the various local media and personally, I'm very proud that now, we have our own local street art, by our local artist, about our local culture. Tourists can now see some of old Singapore through these murals!

You can go to Yew Chong's website to find out the details on how to reach the various murals. Go check it out! (Check out his incredible travel map too!!)

Yip Yew Chong's website
Artist painting his latest mural