Saturday, November 28, 2009

Medieval Maramureş

I've always enjoyed the stories set in medieval times, and wondered about the life in those times. When I read about this land in northern Romania that had still retain much of its medieval past, I decided to make the trip there to see for myself.

Set between Ukraine to the north and mountain ranges separating Transylvania to the south, Maramureş have remained largely untouched by rapid modernisation. Here, horse-drawn carts outnumber cars, and the houses in the villages are still fronted by traditional wooden gates as they did hundreds of years ago. The fields are still worked on, as are the plum and apple trees in every household, distilling their own ţuică (fruit brandy) for the family (and guests of course). Indeed, Romanians themselves equate Maramureş to rural Romania.

While the rolling hills and pretty pasture lands do draw visitors, it is the heart-felt hospitality of the people in Maramureş that will surely leave the deepest memory for travellers. The highlight of my visit is indeed the home stays I had in the villages, savouring the home-made meals and enjoying their traditional music. There are not many places in the world where I could say that the dishes before me are completely home grown and produced, from the cabbages to the cheeses, and from the hams, right down to their intoxicating ţuică.

Not only have I seen medieval Romania, I have experienced it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Star Trails

It was relatively late in my travel photography journey when I realised that there is much more photography to be made in the sky than sunsets and sunrises. One fateful night, deep in the Mongolian steppes, I looked up into the night sky to see it littered with millions of twinkling diamonds. My fellow travel mates consists of a knowledgeable photographer who initiated a photography session, and thus I took my first star trail shot. It was love at first night.

Due to light pollution, stars in the sky are barely visible in the cities, and so, we hardly see any in Singapore. Thus in my travels, I have made it a point that whenever I have the opportunity to get to the countryside, I would attempt to take some star trails. Of course, alot depends on the weather, but whenever I do get a shot, the results never fail to thrill me.

An excellent article on star trail photography can be found here. Technicalities aside, my advise is always on the photographer himself/herself. Proper clothings, torchlight, mosquito repellent etc are equally important to a successful star trail shot. So when you next find yourself in a beautiful location on a dark cloudless night, consider some star trail photography!!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tonle Sap and Kompong Phluk

While Cambodia's star attraction is the fascinating temples of Angkor, visitors should consider looking at another wonderful attraction - Tonle Sap.

Tonle Sap is a lake and river system that's unique and special to Cambodia. The river flow changes direction twice a year! During the dry season, it flows out into the Mekong River, while during the wet season, the Mekong overflows, and the river backs up to form the huge Tonle Sap lake. There are a couple of villages on and along Tonle Sap that is certainly worth visiting. Most tours and guides would bring tourists to Chong Khneas, a floating village. However, I visited Kompong Phluk instead, a village that will appear different depending on which season you go!

In the dry season (when I went), Kompong Phluk appears as a village of wooden houses on stilts. Life is more grounded, and they even have ball games below their houses. However, when the water level rises, the stilts disappear from view, and you would just see wooden houses "floating" on water! In fact, during this wet season, Kompong Phluk can only be visited by boat.
There are also other smaller villages along the causeways of the river. These villages usually consists of small thatched huts which are easily dismantled and moved. The families in these villages move home several times a year!!

A visit to Kompong Phluk really provides a good way to look at the the lifestyle of these people who are so dependent on the lake and river. If you visit during the dry season like me, getting there is also challenging. Taxis and tuk-tuks can only bring you to the village of Roluos, where you will then transfer to a motorbike. This motorbike will bestow upon you your most bumpy ride ever, on a ground that will not be visible during the wet season. Subsequently, you will still need to transfer to a boat to take you to Kompong Phluk itself!

Do check out the villages of Tonle Sap if you have enough time in Cambodia. For more info, you can check out Tales of Asia website, or your favourite guidebooks and online travel resources.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Central Park, New York

There are many attractions in New York, and the city itself is really quite something. But while the city life there never quite seem to slow down, perhaps you should. After days of shopping or hopping from place to place, spare yourself an hour or two (or better still, half a day or more), and relax yourself in Central Park.

Central Park is a big urban park right in the city of Manhattan. Made famous by many movies and TV shows, it is visited by locals and tourists alike. You could take a stroll through the many walking tracks, have a picnic around some of the green open spaces, roller-blade/cycle with your friends, or just plant yourself in a nice shady spot and finish reading your overdue book. There is even a lake in the park, where you can enjoy some boat-rowing! (And I think in winter, you could ice-skate there!)

But what surprised me when I was walking through the park, is the amount of wildlife, esp birds in the park. I met a retired couple there, who were avid bird-watchers. Apparently, Central Park is quite a popular hangout for bird-watching New-Yorkers. There are as many of 200 species of birds seen in the park, and I have the pleasure of being able to catch a glimpse of number of them!

When you next stop by Manhattan New York, check out Central Park!