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 : kila.adame@ymail.com, 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 on the left/right arrows to quickly browse through the images, or you could click through the image to see my 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

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Catching the Aurora Borealis

Catching the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights display is on many people's bucket list. It was on my list as well. Now that I had several encounters with the phenomenon, and having seen many questions and misconceptions in travel forums etc, I would like to share what I know on the hunt for the Aurora Borealis.

Generally, the lights occur in locations above the Arctic Cirlce, and can be seen on dark clear nights. The two main criteria in order to see the lights are the the weather, or rather the cloud cover, and the "aurora activity" (the amount of the charged electrons in the atmosphere which causes the light show). Needless to say, you would need a night of clear weather (no/little clouds) and high activity. There are many websites that provide a forecast of this "aurora activity". The one I use is at the Geophysical Institute, University of Fairbanks Alaska, where you can select which region/zone for the forecast. As for the cloud cover forecast, you would typically go to the respective country's weather forecast page. Which brings me to the next point, which country/place is the best?

I have been to Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland for the sightings, and frankly, if the above two conditions are met, any of these countries, including Alaska/Canada are all good bets. However, the aurora visibility window is generally between late September to late March, which means it is mostly late autumn to winter at those places. So, it would boil down to what kind of trip you want it to be.

If you like to DIY, be flexible and have your own time, then a self-drive trip to Iceland or the Lofoten islands in Norway are great choices. In addition, if you have time for more than just aurora hunting, then Iceland certainly come up tops as there are many other attractions, including volcano visits and waterfalls etc. For a full-blown winter holiday though, note your driving capabilities in the various countries. For those who are going with family and kids should look at Finland as there is a Santa Claus village which I'm sure the kids would enjoy!

Self-drive allows you flexibility to go to more remote dark areas

If however, you can't (or don't want to) drive, then relying on public transportation is trickier. Of course, signing up custom tour packages is the easiest (and costliest) choice. However, I do not have much information on that, except that Tromso in northern Norway is a popular destination for Aurora hunters as there are many tour agencies specialising in that.

For the independent traveler (solo or otherwise) relying on public transport, then the Lofoten islands may be the better bet. Even better, check out Abisko National Park in Sweden. I do feel that the availability of trains and slightly better transport connections make them better alternatives to, say Iceland and Alaska, where it would be logistically more challenging in winter especially for the solo backpacker.

Watching the Aurora Borealis

A point to note, based on my own experiences, is that even though the aurora forecast indicate low activity, but the cloud cover for the night is clear, it is always worth a shot to check out the sky periodically. I had 2 occasions where I had good sightings even though the forecast was low. It is a forecast after all. So for those who are planning the trip on your own, make sure your accommodations are in less light-polluted area (preferably not in the city) or you are able to reach one. But if you are really lucky, when the aurora activity is really high, they can be seen even in the cities!

The Aurora display is so strong it's visible in the city

Finally, I would like to touch on the expectations of a Aurora Borealis sighting.

For me, I have grouped sightings generally into these 3 types :

1. The lights appear really faint, and some cases you are not even sure they are the famed northern lights. You can only confirm through longer exposures on your camera to see the stronger green lights.

2. The lights appear clear and beautiful. They slowly appear and dissipate, changes shape gradually, and is absolutely mesmerising to watch, though whether they last 10 seconds or 10 minutes is another matter. But it is truly worthy of its place in all the 'bucket list' lists in the world!

3. And then there's the performance. The lights swirl in the sky like a writhing snake and danced across the sky like a leaping ballerina. You'd think it's a timelapse movie but it's all live action. Totally mind-blowing and out of this world!

Sadly, some people only managed to see (1), and mistakenly described it to other people as how Aurora Borealis actually is. Which is rather blasphemous I would think. Words and photos really can't describe the experience of seeing it in person, especially of type (3) above. So, best to see it in person! :)

Aurora activity follow a 10-12 year cyclical pattern and recent reports indicate that the peak had just passed and chances will be lower in the following years. For those who have this in their bucket list (you mean there are people who don't have?), you have now till March next year to try to catch it. (You can still try in later years of course, just that it's lower chance of sighting, that's all). By all recent accounts (including my own glorious sighting in Sep), the sightings this year had been phenomenal.

Good luck, and may the Lights be with You!

Star trails and Aurora Borealis

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Nature's Art at Vesturdalur, Northern Iceland

For travelers to northern Iceland, whether as part of the Ring Road or otherwise, Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon should be part of your itinerary. Formerly a national park on its own, it now falls under Vatnajökull National Park.

If you had planned to visit Dettifoss or Ásbyrgi canyon, then you're essentially visiting Jökulsárgljúfur already. Basically, Ásbyrgi marks the northern while Dettifoss marks the southern end of Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon. However, what I found the most interesting is in the middle - Vesturdalur.

Vesturdalur is prime hiking area, with weaving trails leading to many lava rock formations all around. In particular, Hljóðaklettar (Echo Rocks) and Rauðhólar (Red Hills) trails can be easily done from the carpark in a 2-3 hour loop. The basalt rock (formed by rapidly cooling lava) formations at Hljóðaklettar is the highlight for me. You may have seen the basalt columns in Vik, or the many lava fields all around Iceland, but nothing quite like this. Here, the basalt rock lined horizontally (hence columns is not the right word eh), and even at bizarre angles. Parts of the rock formations are also being cut off yielding eye-catching honeycomb patterns! It's mind-boggling how rapidly cooling lava can produce such "art pieces"! There are also lava caves formed by these basalt formations.

Rauðhólar is a crater row which provides a wonderful panoramic view of the canyon, and itself offers some colorful touch to the landscapes. It is easily done together with the Hljóðaklettar trail. For those who have more time and energy, there is a popular 2-day trek that goes from north (Ásbyrgi) to south (Dettifoss). Otherwise, there are parking lots on all 3 sections of the Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon.

Colorful Rauðhólar

If you are using public transport, there are summer buses going to all these places from Akureyri or Mývatn but do check the schedules carefully at http://www.sba.is/

Check Hljóðaklettar out !

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Singapore Botanic Gardens & Our Golden Jubilee

Singapore is having our Golden Jubilee this year. Yes, we're having our 50th birthday bash, and a month before the day, the nation received our birthday present - our very own UNESCO listed World Heritage Site!

While there are over 1000+ World Heritage Sites in the world, there are only 3 Botanic Gardens in them. So, we're indeed honored to be one of the three, and not only that, we are the first and only tropical Botanic Garden in it (the other 2 is in England & Italy). Since establishment in 1859, the development of our Gardens from a British tropical colonial botanical garden to today's multi-faceted site for conservation, cultivation, education and recreation certainly proved its worth for inscription into the World Heritage Site list.

Beautiful Light in our 1st UNESCO World Heritage Site

Visitors to Singapore would be delighted to know that admission to our Botanic Gardens is free (with the exception of the National Orchid Garden), and is open whole year-round, right till midnight! Within the Botanic Gardens grounds, there are various other gardens like the National Orchid Garden which is the only one that charges an admission fee. There are also a few historic buildings, many meandering paths to enjoy the flora and picnic spaces for family gatherings and outings. Particularly, the space n front of the Symphony Lake is especially popular as there is a stage set up there for performances during weekends.

Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage
Watching a concert in the Botanic Gardens during our Golden Jubilee

Of course,  for botany enthusiasts, there is a Botany Centre where a library on Botany & Horticulture, a Herbarium and an Orchid breeding centre is. There are also heritage trees within the park, in particular the Tembusu tree that is pictured in our Singapore 5-dollar note. It is also estimated that 70 per cent of all rubber latex in the world originates from the 11 rubber trees originally planted in this garden in 1877. The Singapore Botanic Gardens was truly a test bed for economic plant cultivation in early Singapore.

One of many types of orchids in our Botanic Gardens

Beautiful atmosphere in the Gardens

Check out their website for more information, especially the guided tours to the gardens. They are very informative, and are conducted by very passionate guides. And tomorrow is our National Day! Here's wishing Singapore a

Happy 50th Birthday!!!