Sunday, March 16, 2014

Navimag & the Patagonian Fjords

One of the well-known routes through Patagonia is the Navimag Ferries, and indeed, after trekking through Patagonian mountainscapes, why not cruise through Patagonian fjords?

The Navimag ferries though, are not actually tourist passenger ferries. They were originally used for transportation of cattle and goods (and still is), and someone had a brilliant idea to capitalize on the demand from tourists to not just travel through the channels and fjords of Chile, but sightsee at the same time. There are two main routes : Puerto Montt - Puerto Chacabuco and Puerto Montt - Puerto Natales, gateway to the famed Torres del Paine National Park. I took the reverse route from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt.

It was an interesting experience. As noted, this is not a usual cruise ship. The embarkation reminded me of an entry into a maximum security prison as we were bunched together, waiting for the huge cargo lift to bring us onto the cabin level. On the ship also, were of course the cattle, and I have to say, it's not everyday that you can have a view of glaciers and caged cattle all in the same scene. There had been complaints about the quality of the food onboard but I find it really quite exceptable. Yes, there were some meals that were pretty bland, but some were good. My main complaint is the lousy instant coffee. Also, different ships were used for the different routes (to-and-fro), so conditions of the food and rooms may be different!

Tourists waiting to go up to their cabins

Views of glaciers and cattle cargo hold

The scenery on the way was great of course, but weather plays a really important part. My 4D3N journey was rainy and misty almost all the way, which somewhat made the whole experience less than ideal. Still views of glaciers are always great! It has to be noted that the journey passes through the Gulf of Penas, an area open to the elements of the Pacific Ocean. Having weathered a total of 4 days through the Drake Passage to Antarctica, I embraced the entry into the gulf with smug confidence. That smugness was emphatically purged out of me as I joined the many who staggered to the toilet in retched misery. It was my first seasickness experience. Luckily it was only 10-12 hrs of passage, and for those on the northward route, most of it is through the night.

Detailed information on the Navimag ferries can be found on their website, and most guidebooks too. From 2-bedded cabins to 22-bed dorms (yes, tourists are part of the cattle!), I think it's a "cruise" like no other!

Puerto Eden, one of the coastal villages that the Navimag makes a stop
Misty and rainy weather for almost the whole part of my trip

Beautiful dawn light at my destination - Puerto Montt

Monday, March 10, 2014

Mai Kaew Cave, Koh Lanta Thailand

Koh Lanta is one of many islands off the the Andaman coast of Krabi Thailand. Not as popular or famous as islands like Koh Phi Phi and the like, it is exactly this point that brings out its charm. Oozing loads of laidback chill-out atmosphere and less busy with tourists, it still has its beaches to draw attention - in fact, no less than nine of them.

Formally known as Koh Lanta Yai, it is a longish island with its nine beaches spread over its western coast. I certainly did not go to all of them, and just based myself somewhere in the middle of the island. Not all the beaches are the sandy type though, with a number of them being the rocky kind. What I did find on the beaches though, are an amazing array of different sea-shells - much more variety than the beaches in Ao Nang and elsewhere.

My most interesting visit on Koh Lanta though, is a visit to Mai Kaew cave. While I had several cave visits around the world before, this was somewhat unique. The visit had to be accompanied by a guide, and you would be supplied with a headlamp. After half an hour of an uphill hike, you would be brought to the cave entrance. What follows would be a totally raw experience - the cave is visited as is. There are no lights installed, no planks/boardwalks, no handrails, and well, no safety. You have to clamor through holes, and on occasion, crawl on all fours. Any "sightseeing" is done based purely on the light of the headlamps in your group (I only had two others in my group). In the limited light, you can see the usual stalactites and stalagmites, big caverns, cave spiders and bats. All in all, it was still an interesting experience!

Start of the adventure!
Interesting formations on the cave walls
Going down down down....
Bats clinging to the cave walls

Of course, like the other islands, Koh Lanta also has the usual activities such as diving, longboat rides etc. As the ferry pier is situated at the town of Ban Saladan at the northern tip of the island, the beaches get quieter the further south you go!

Koh Lanta can be reached by ferries or car/minivans. The ferries ply the Ao Nang, Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, Koh Lanta route and the minivan shuttles between Krabi town and Koh Lanta. And of course, there's the private cars/taxis. I flew in to Krabi airport in the afternoon, and there is only one ferry in the morning from Ao Nang to Koh Lanta, so I took the minivan shuttle to Koh Lanta and took the ferry back to Ao Nang. One advantage of this route is that the minivans bring you direct to your accommodation while the ferry lands you at Ban Saladan port and you would have to negotiate your way to your accommodation.

With budget carriers flying into Krabi, check out Koh Lanta one of these days!

Sunsets are good in Krabi!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Traveling on the Nam Ou, Laos

The Nam Ou is one of the tributaries of the mighty Mekong, and is an important river in Laos as a means of transportation. For travelers going northward from Luang Prabang, a boat trip is certainly one option that should be experienced.

The guidebooks would tell you about the "fast boats" and the "slow boats". Circumstances had led me to try out both. Note that as the road infrastructure in Laos slowly improves, the frequency of these boat departures will be based on demand, and sometimes you may not get a departure for that day. I managed to take the slow boat from Muang Ngoi to Muang Khua after waiting for a couple of hours. The slow boat is generally comfortable enough, although for people with long legs, it does get strained after 5-6 hours of travel.

From Muang Khua to Hat Sa, I was not so fortunate. There was no slow boat going upriver. It would also be another 5-6 hour ride anyway. I contemplated waiting another day or just go by the road route, until the locals start filling up the "fast boat". In a moment of eagerness to reach Hat Sa, I somehow went with them, throwing all the guidebooks' warning about the dangers of the speedboat trips into the wind.

The good(?) news was that the 5-6 hours journey was reduced to a 2+ hours journey. The bad news was that the above video was a somewhat 'calmer' part where I could utilise my camera with 1-hand. In most cases, I was just hanging on for my dear life in that narrow space. I was also concerned for my luggage that was stowed below that blue tarp at the front. It was one of those travel experience that you would probably want to try once only.

Traveling on the Nam Ou would probably be less busy than the Mekong, and its something one would probably do in Laos. For eg, one would probably visit the Pak Ou caves via the Nam Ou. But for the adventurous, do the Luang Prabang to Phongsaly journey on the Nam Ou!!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Singapore Boat Quay & 5FootWay.Inn

For visitors to Singapore, Boat Quay is a well known tourist dining and pubbing area. Situated by the Singapore River, and lined with rows of old shophouses, which are preserved and converted to serve various needs, it is particularly atmospheric at night.

Historically, it was of course a quay which had seen a large part of our shipping and trading past. Today the area is dominated by restaurants and pubs, and at one point in time, the IT company I was working with had an office in one of the retrofitted shophouses! Well, nestled within one of these shophouses is also a hostel known as 5footway.inn.

Marketed as a boutique hostel, the reception area is pleasantly decorated in a very cosy setting. The shophouses within Boat Quay all hold certain historical value and I think it is an excellent idea that such buildings can be used for tourism in such practical useful way.

Reception area

The layout of the hostel was a little confusing to me though, perhaps due to the original interior structure of the shophouse. Luckily, ample signs were available to direct customers and I was shown to my room by the staff anyway, so all's good. However, the shared toilets and bathrooms were in a section such that for some rooms, access would require one to walk pass the reception area. For those who are more conscious of their "outlook" when going to/fro the bathroom, well, time to get used to the hostel community lifestyle! :). The toilets and bathrooms are clean though and shower head and hot water all functioning admirably!

The rooms (or at least the standard private room I stayed) have a minimalist look, with simple white furnishings that are so common in so many hostels around the world. A nice touch is the side light and a power point just beside the bed - a necessity for today's many flashpackers! A note to light sleepers though - the wooden floorings of these old shophouses do creak! So you may likely be well alerted of the human traffic outside your room!

The lounge and breakfast area is situated at the topmost floor. A nice surprise was that part of the hostel includes a photo gallery within! Showcasing exhibits from a local award-winning photographer Edwin Koo, you get "free entry" to the gallery with your hostel stay! ;) As a photographer myself, I find that is an excellent tie-up and cooperation between the hostel and photographer. The free breakfast is the usual - toast and cereal, nothing to shout about. But the best part of the kitchen is the coffee/tea/milo machine. Unlimited coffee/tea/milo at a press of a button. Niiice! It's a non-cooking kitchen though, but you do have a microwave to heat up stuff.

Lounge/TV room & photo exhibits
Kitchen with a cool beverage machine

And the really best part? The terrace! Offering views of the Singapore River, the Marina Bay Sands, the Boat Quay crowds below, it is such a great place to just relax and chill. And of course, meet other travelers as well. The day I was there, there were ALOT of Korean guests and almost all girls..! :)

Terrace with a view
Terrace with a view. The photo exhibits extend to the terrace as well!

While Singapore is not a big country, staying at a central location still has its advantages. Easily accessible from MRT, and in a really central location, I do think it is probably the best location of its 3 projects (the others at Bugis and Chinatown). And as mentioned previously, the nighscene in Boat Quay is really pretty. Check it out if you're visiting Singapore!

**My 1-night stay has been kindly sponsored by 5footway.inn

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bergen, Norway

Bergen - Gateway to the Norwegian Fjords. Norway's second largest city, it is well marketed indeed and why not? Situated on the western coast of Norway, and easily reached from Oslo, it is the launchpad for many cruise ships to the fjords of Norway.

The journey between Oslo and Bergen itself is already a famous and well marketed tourist route. Known as Norway in a Nutshell®, it is a scenic rail cum cruise itinerary that can be flexibly customised. It can be done even in a day, but really, you would want to spend more time on the route. Similarly for Bergen, it is well worth some days to explore.

Bergen's city centre contains many old timber buildings and houses, some which are converted to shops and/or guesthouses. And of course, the highlight is the old wharf, Bryggen, a UNESCO's World Heritage Site. A delightful place with many artisanal shops and cafes, it is a wonderful way to spend a relaxing day browsing and having a cuppa by the water.

Nice timber houses in the city

Beautiful day by the wharf

For me though, the highlight is Mt Fløyen, one of the "seven mountains" that surround the city. Easily accessible via a Fløibanen funicular, the summit provides a spectacular view of the city and the port. Even better, there is a trail going up which seems popular with the locals for their exercises. My recommendation is to walk the trail up in the late afternoon, and when you reach the summit, wait for sunset. After sunset, the magic hour and the night lights over the city is one of the prettiest I've seen! Then take the funicular down, where the station is just beside the viewpoint.

A wonderful way to conclude the day! Check it out if you can!

Sights along the trail up

Sunset views

City and its mountain

Nightscene of Bergen atop Mt Floyen (you can click to see it bigger)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Kazbegi Georgia

The Caucasus Mountains is a range of mountains stretching through Eurasia, and one of the easiest ways to visit part of the mountains is through the town of Stepantsminda in Georgia, more commonly known as Kazbegi.

Respite in glorious mountain scenery

Just about 3+hours northeast from Tbilisi, Kazbegi sits at an altitude of about 1750m, and is an excellent mountain getaway. Most prominently, Mt Kazbek rises beautifully west of town, and together with Gergeti Trinity Church, perched atop the surrounding mountain at 2000+m, forms an almost iconic image of Kazbegi and Georgia.

Tsminda Samebis Church, with Mt Kazbek as backdrop

Gergeti Trinity Church, also known as Tsminda Samebis Church, can be easily visited by jeeps from town, but the best way is probably taking a hike up. In fact, many travelers come here for the wonderful trekking opportunities, and even the short hike up provided a glimpse of the scenic potential. And for the slightly more hardy, you can even trek further into the mountains to the Gergeti Glacier. For multi-day treks, make sure you are properly equipped.

Trekking in awesome mountain country
Summer wildflowers and snowcapped mountains

Reaching the Gergeti Trinity Church
View of the town of Kazbegi, surrounded by mountains!

The town itself is small and easily covered by foot. There are two museums in town, one of which is dedicated to the man who the town is named after - Alexander Kazbegi, a famed Georgian writer. However, the magic of the place is still the mountain scenery, and so hiking and trekking would be the best activities I would think. To make a mountain town stay complete, stay in one of the many homestays and guesthouses available. Most come with great homecooked food, and I enjoyed staying in these locals' homes. The moment you stepped off the marshrutka, you would be accosted by the owners, so no worries about finding them.

By public transport, reaching Kazbegi from Tbilisi is via marshrutkas from Didube station. For a group of you, perhaps it is better to charter your own vehicle as the journey there goes through the spectacular Georgian Military Highway, and you can have your own photo stops. Whichever the case, a trip to Kazbegi is highly recommended for visitors to Georgia/Tbilisi, and for the matter, a daytrip would probably not do the place justice. Do yourself a favor and enjoy Kazbegi!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Chinatown & Chinese New Year, Singapore

Like many countries in the world that has a 'Chinatown', Singapore's Chinatown is a location and an attraction in itself. However, foreign visitors who are visiting Singapore now, will be in for an additional treat when you drop by the area.

Year of the Horse!

One of my earliest memories as a kid during the Chinese New Year, would be our annual pilgrimage to Chinatown. My mother would bring me to shop for new clothes, taste/buy Chinese New Year goodies, and enjoy the festivities. 2 weeks leading to the Year, part of the roads and lanes within Chinatown would be lined with makeshift stalls selling all manner of Chinese New Year merchandise (notably Temple St, Pagoda St areas). While times have changed, and products have evolved (I saw stalls selling fibre broadband this year!), the festive air remained unchanged.

The stalls and festive atmosphere comes to life towards evening and when the night falls, that's when the traffic and crowds thicken. Most of the decor and designs would be related to the zodiac animal of the New Year. This year, you'll see lots of horse related decor and merchandise. During weekends (perhaps weekdays too), there will be performances such as lion dances and/or dragon dances. Red and gold colors dominate the visuals, and sounds of voices hawking their wares fill the air. For tourists, I would imagine this to be a great travel experience, and complete with a sampling of our Chinese New Year snacks! And for those who's keen to purchase something, and stays nearby, here's a tip - on Chinese New Year's eve, just few hours before the clock strikes 12, almost all the products would be sold at bargain prices!

'Red packets' - an essential item during our Chinese New Year! ;)

I have noticed too that in recent years, there's increasingly more hostels in Chinatown. For those who like to be in the thick of the action may consider staying within the area. Of course, be prepared for the noise! In any case, whoever's in Singapore now, check it out!

The crowds in Chinatown at night!