Post-Covid Bangkok Blues
It has been more than two and the half years since I last packed my bags in search of a far-away adventure. The Covid-19 pandemic has put a dampener to my travels and so it was time I started to explore again. And what better place to test out my first post-Covid foray than Bangkok, Thailand. I have lost count as to the number of times I have been to this place, both for work and for fun.
Even from the first instance of stepping foot on this city, it was clear that things have not returned to normality. I was the first in line at the immigration counter. The baggage carousel looked empty and I was out of the airport in record time! Even the queue for the purchase of a SIM card to use was minimal and I opted for a DTAC 8-day Happy Tourist plan at 299 baht. There are others around the airport reception area and options include AIS and True Move.
As I had been to nearly all the tourist spots, I just wanted a free-and-easy no-itinerary holiday and just aimlessly walk around the sights and sounds around the Mah Boonkrong area. Arriving early, I walked down the hotel to look for a quick snack from the sidewalk. The prices of these street hawker foods have gone up a fair bit! Everything was not 100baht anymore, but more like 160baht as a starting price!
For breakfast we headed to On Lok Yun, a rustic old-world coffee shop near the Grand Palace. This place is a favourite haunt among the Singaporean tourists wanting the experience what it was like in the 60's and 70's. I must say that the kaya (local jam made of eggs) tasted much like the ones I had when I was growing up in Penang!
And after wandering aimlessly around the Siam Center area, it was time for lunch. A short walk across to the Siam Square One area, to Somboon Seafood. But there's just enough time for one more shopping spree near the restaurant before the table is ready!
For dinner/supper there is no better place than Jen O Chula. It won the prestigious Michelin Bib Gourmand in 2020. The dish to order? Well let me sum it up by saying that it is a hodgepodge of seafood, eggs and meatballs cooked in Tom Yum soup topped up with Instant Noodles! But the taste is like no other, so put it in your bucket list the next time you are in Bangkok. The queue might look long but it moves quickly. However it is best to make a booking before going there.
For high tea, there are just too many places to recount. However, my favourite must be Thong Yoy Cafe at the ground floor of Paragon Shopping Centre. It serves authentic Thai desserts, and if you are lost as to what to order, try the complete platter! It comes with a bit of everything and you can while the time away savouring each one by one at your heart's leisure!
Most of the night markets around town have closed down due to the Covid-19 movement restrictions, and tourist are just making their way back. The most vibrant (and probably the only one around) must indeed by the Jodd Fairs train night market next to Central Rama 9 Mall. Take time to wonder and enjoy the many exotic foods and drinks the whole night through!
Athens is an amazing destination for people who love to explore ancient Greek culture, good Mediterranean food and amazing seascapes. It is a stone's throw from other beautiful destinations such as Mykonos and Santorini. And since you are already in the Aegean Sea region, you can easily hop to other nearby destinations such as Istanbul. Here are some tips as to how to go around this city and ideas as to the places to go and things to do while in this city.
The low-cost airlines Scoot flys direct from Singapore and the red-eye flight, leaving around 2:30am in the morning takes 11 hours and gets you into Athens in the morning. If you are able to get some shut-eye, you are ready to explore the city the minute you arrive and park your luggage in a hotel or BnB. I tried both and each has its own benefits - the hotels are near the markets such as Monasteriki and the BnB destinations are slightly out of town, but easily accessible by public transport such as buses or the Metro.
Getting to town from the airport is a breeze. The Metro stops right at the airport terminal.
Stop by the airport information counter. The staff are friendly and ever willing to advise.
Just follow the Metro (To Trains) signs that are prominently placed all around the airport arrival level.
Don't worry if the signs lead you to cross the busy entrance roadway. If you spot the Sifotel hotel across the road, you are on the right path.
The Metro is punctual, clean, fast and gets you to town for 10 Euros. As for the directions, some trains have the station signage above the door, but don't count on it as many trains I boarded did not have them.
While on the subject of the Metro, you need to do some homework and brush up on your Greek in order to read the signage. Also download an install an App or two in your mobile phone to help you navigate. My favourite is Here We Go app. It allows you to download the maps and so even when you are offline or not able to get an Internet connection, you can still count on it to advise you what to do.
As you drive around in Hokkaido, you are most likely to meet up with the Hokkaido (or Ezo) Red fox.
Although they look cuddly in the fluffy winter coats, be careful not to touch them as they could be infected by the echinococcosis parasite. They feed mainly on rats, birds and insects but switch to fruits and nuts in the autumn time.
In winter time, they can be spotted around the many of the tourist spots such as the Lake Akan area as they rely on the kind-hearted tourists to feed them.
I am reminded of the visit to the Fushimi Inari shrine in my visit to Kyoto in the summer. Here the main entrance is graced by two large stone statues of foxes. A lot of symbolism goes into these two statues and I was informed that the huge bushy tails symbolise bountiful harvests of rice. The jewel in the mouth of one of the fox statues symbolise the fox deity’s spirit and the key in the mouth of the other statue symbolises attained wealth.
You can learn more about the Red foxes from this video about a pair of mother and daughter vixens as they bring up their pups.
Another place where we were alerted to the presence of a red fox by a wildlife guide was when we were driving along the thin strip of land in the Notsuke Peninsula. Here right at the end of the road, coach-loads of tourists can be seen feeding the elusive red fox as it scuttles from bus to another in search of tourists, err… I mean food.
The Notsuke Peninsula is also the place where you can find hoards Sika deer grazing in the marshlands flanking both sides of the peninsula. This prawn-shaped peninsula is made up of a sandbar that is about 26 km in length, making it the longest sandbar in Japan. Notsuke in the ancient Ainu language means “the lower jawbone” as it is shaped like the lower jawbone of a whale.
Also known as the Spotted deer or the Japanese deer, the fur coat of the Sika deer at the winter time becomes darker and the spots become less prominent. It is active throughout the day and is wary to human interference. As such it is very easy to get up close for a photograph provided you take gentle movements as you advance, keeping as quiet as you possibly can.
The Sika deer reminds of the “bowing deer” in the Nara Prefecture, during my visit the the Todai-ji temple there in the summer. Here they are considered as messengers of the Shinto gods.
Winter Wildlife-Watching in Eastern Hokkaido - Part 3: Steller's and White Tailed Sea Eagles
As winter nears, thousands of Steller’s sea eagles make their way to Hokkaido from the Kamchatka Peninsula. If you journey up along the north-eastern coastline of Hokkaido towards Abashiri, you can catch glimpses of these elegant birds perched on tall distant trees and power lines.
Located along the shores of Okhotsk, Abashiri is the southern-most point where the ocean freezes over. The frozen mass of fresh water and salt waters originates from the borders of China and Russia where the Amur River meets the Sea of Okhotsk. From there this white, mysterious ice mass makes it way all the way down south around the western coastline of the Shiretoko Peninsula, and along with it the Steller's sea eagles.
Do take the Abashiri Drift Ice boat tour. A sight not to be missed, marvel at the way the ice gives way as the icebreaker makes its way through the drift ice across the bay. You will be able to spot many of the local birdlife such as seagulls and White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles as the boat makes its way through the drift ice.
Named after the German naturalist Georg Steller, the magnificent Steller’s sea eagles are one of the largest raptors in the world, surpassing even the famed North American bald eagles. Also one of the rarest raptors, the Steller’s sea eagles can weigh over 10 kilograms and a fully-grown male can have a wingspan of over two metres long. They are easily distinguishable from the White Tailed Eagles as they have a dark brown and white plumage amidst the tangerine beaks and talons
We were able to spot some of these eagles flying along the coastline as we made our way along Notsuke Peninsula. Alas they were too far away for a good shot and flew off as soon as we made our way closer.
The other place where you can catch a glimpse of these two species of sea eagles are along the coastal region of Nemuro. Pay a visit to the Nemuro City Shunkunitai Primeval Wild Bird Park Nature Center to gather information as to the best times and places where you are most likely to see these eagles. They will advise you as to the most recent sighting of these creatures around the area.
No less magnificent are the White-Tailed sea eagles. The juvenile (as in the photo below) has a darker beak. Side-by-side with the Steller's, these sea eagles are smaller in size and have a lighter, more brownish plumage.
One of the spots recommended was the Tobai Hide Wild Bird Observation House. Here you can watch the sea eagles from the comfort of the rest house provided you are able to unravel the ingenuity of the Japanese’ way of opening and closing the windows of the hideaway hut.
Whooper swans start migrating from the cold Russian north-lands around the Autumn period and these "angels of winter" find their way to the warm hot springs around the Lake Kussharo area. The lake is the largest caldera lake in Japan, and is only second in the world next to Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia in terms of its sheer size. So the best times to view these beautiful birds are around the winter time. As the first blooms of spring begin to sprout, they will make their way back north.
These swans look elegant and graceful as they glide along the water’s edge. Occasionally they will flap their wings to flip away the droplets of water on their feathers. Then at a moment’s notice they will burst out in a loud cacophony of jousting and stretching of their long slender necks to ward away their rivals. Then in a loving embrace, the male and female will come together and swim away in unison.
Places you can go to have a view of these magnificent creatures in winter include the Kotan Onsen along the shores of Lake Kussharo. Kotan means village in the local Ainu language spoken in this region. Here you can see flocks of Whooper swans lazing around in the pools of hot springs doting the area.
Together with the swans, you can also find male and female mallard ducks grazing peacefully together.
We also paid a visit to the Ike-no Yu Onsen, but alas there were not swans there and we ended up admiring and taking photos of this beautiful landscape and scenery.
Another spot for viewing the Whopper swans is the more commercialised Sunayu Onsen on the eastern banks of Lake Kussharo. Meaning “a place where sand gushes out” in the local Aino language, Sunayu is home to many swans and you can buy food from the local convenience stores to feed the swans and have your Instagram moment there. There is also a rest stop, a restaurant and a souvenir store there. Parking there is also free.
For Hokkaido, there is no best time or season of the year to pay a visit. Each season brings with it its own fascination, from the cherry blossoms in Spring all the way to the dreamy snow landscapes in the Wintertime. For wildlife-watching as well, different times of the year bring out different forms of wildlife in Hokkaido.
Winter time holds its own wonderment and splendour in Eastern Hokkaido. Here wildlife is plentiful and it takes careful planning to visit all the popular spots around this region. Be sure to also allocate some leeway for unforeseen circumstances such as heavy snowfalls blocking key road passages. When that happens, look for alternative routes around, so it is always a good idea to start early in order not to be disappointed.
There are several ways of getting into Hokkaido from Singapore. You can fly to Sapporo, Kushiro, Asahikawa or Chitose. For my trip, we decided to go to Kushiro and navigate from there. Self-drive in Hokkaido is easy but do take extra precautions in the wintertime. It is best to get a set of snow chains in the thick of winter when temperatures can drop to as low as -16 degrees C and snowfalls can reach up to two meters in a 24-hour period.
From Kushiro airport, there are many places to visit for your first encounter with the numerous wildlife in Hokkaido. My recommended first-stop must surely be the viewing of the Red-crowned Cranes around the area. There are several places to go, ranging from free road-side spots all the way to paid sanctuaries that provide amenities in case you want to thaw out, take a break and find out more about the wildlife in the area. An example is the Akan International Crane Center. Entry fees are 470 Yen per person but that goes into the center's research into the Tancho cranes.
The Red-crowned cranes serenely graze in the valley but then once in a while a pair will raise their heads, call out in unison, dance and prance around as if to strengthen their life-long bond with each other. This in itself is worth the long journey braving the sub-zero temperatures to view and behold!
Other road-side viewing areas include the Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary. Admission is free but be prepared to shoot alongside the hundreds of photographers who line the viewing areas.
For the ones who are able to wake up early and brave the freezing sub-zero temperatures, then the viewing area on the Otowa-bashi bridge must surely be the must-visit spot for viewing the cranes. Be prepared to wake early as the bridge houses only a limited number of photographers and is completely filled up an hour or so before daybreak. This is one of the most popular crane photography spots in the world and is definitely a must-do in your bucket list.
This unique spot is richly rewarding as the sun rises and illuminates the mist emanating from the hot springs down the Setsuri-gawa River. This is what draws a roost of cranes to this spot and you will be able to see them as they call out and dance in the early morning glow. Be prepared to get a long telephoto lens if you want to capture this scene.
With a lot of patience and perseverance you are sure to get that winning shot when the cranes fly towards you as they go in search of other feeding grounds. In my case, the only spot when I arrived was the last possible spot before the tree branches blocked the view on the right. But it did give me a nice bokeh, providing a sense of depth and framing in the picture.
Then a pair of cranes decided to fly straight towards my direction, giving me the perfect shot as they flew overhead. So this just goes to show that no place is a bad place. You just need to be ready to shoot when the opportunity presents itself.
The whole fly-through happens in a few seconds but it leaves you with a breathless, unforgettable and exhilarating experience. Certainly a must-do in any photographer's bucket list. For me it was mission-accomplished, and then it's off to the next adventure.
For the casual tourist, must-visit places when you are in Krabi, Thailand include Phi-Phi Island and James Bond Island. However, there are much more beautiful and less-trodden beaches that are hidden gems to a photographer.
Here are some of my favourites. Trust me, they are not easily accessible and many of the tourist centres might not want to entertain your request (more like pleas) to get you to these place. And this is especially so as the timings for visiting these places are pretty out of the ordinary. So the whole area around Krabi is facing south to west and hence the best times to photograph these places are around sunset.
Check the actual sunset hour and work around an hour or so to get there and then plan to spend another hour for the Blue Hour. So for instance, if the sunset is at 6:30pm, be sure to be at the pick-up point around 6:00pm. Arrange for the boat to then leave the beach around 7:30pm. There might be some nice photogenic spot around the pier where the boat leaves, so do allocate time to explore. An example is Nopparat Thana Pier. Here you can get some good shots of the long-tail boats docked at the pier.
Even the usual tourist spots such Ao Nang Beach are great places to photograph the sunset. Position yourself at the key locations and wait patiently for the sun to set. It is definitely well worth the effort.
Some beaches take a bit more effort to reach. An example is Pai Plong Beach in from of the Centara Grand Hotel. Here you have to walk all the way past Ao Nang Beach and way beyond the Last Fisherman Bar. Take about a 15 minute hike round the cape using the Monkey Trail to get there. Don't worry. After taking your sunset shots, you can take the same trail back as it is well-lit at night. Just have to beware of the many monkeys jealously guarding the path.
You might need to get past the guard at the check-point of the Centara Grand Hotel, but the place is a haven for photographers wanting the off-the-beaten track photos.
For the more exotic beaches, you have to get the help of a reliable representative/tour operator to arrange for you a long-tail boat to where you want to go, and more importantly for when you want to hire the boat. Most of the long-tail stop operating after sunset and so you will need to pay a bit more for the service. One that I can recommend is the Mu Ko Phi National Park Tourist Information Center just next to the Nopparat Thana Pier. There, you will find more reliable services rendered.
Ao Phra Nang beach is a beautiful beach to visit, especially during the sunset hours. Be aware though, there are no eating places and if you really want to, you can arrange (months in advance) for a table at the exclusive Grotto Restaurant. Admission is by reservation only, so be warned - you will not be entertained if you show up at the doorsteps of the restaurant.
But I digress. Ao Phra Nang beach is only accessible by boat, and the best time to visit is during the sunset hours. Here the cliffs surrounding the beach get illuminated by a last rays of the sun. Certainly a sight to behold!
You need to quickly make your way to the many caves, such as the Phra Nang Cave and the Princess Cave next to it. Oh and did I mention, you need to be wary of the tides. At high tide, the caves are all covered and inaccessible.
If you have any queries, do drop me a line and I will be more than glad to help. If you want any of the pictures here, contact me, and I will make it available for download. Prices start from GBP 10.
In my previous post, I delved into the not-too-distant past as well as the ancient historical perspectives of Siem Reap. Part II will cover present day Siem Reap.
If you have had enough of the temples and ancient ruins in Siem Reap, then my recommendation is to go out to the countryside and understand the reasons why a place such as Siem Reap has been able to sustain itself over the course of the centuries till today.
So no visit to Siem Reap is complete without a visit to one of the many villages along the Tonle Sap Lake. Like the great Nile, the lake rises annually (between the monsoon months of September and October) to over six time its size during the dry months. There are several villages that you can visit - Chong Kneas, Kompong Phluk and Kompong Khleang. My recommendation is Kompong Khleang, not because it is the furthest from town, but it is the least-visited and most authentic.
The whole village is a sight to behold - built on stilts some three stories above the river bank.
Even the temples and schools are built on floating platforms.
Equally steeped in the legends of ancient Siem Reap is Phnom Kulen, one of the most sacred mountains in Cambodia. Located over 50km from town, it is wise to go there in an air-conditioned coach or bus as the trip there is an experience in itself. The spiritual aura of the space is overwhelming, from the Wat Preah Ang Thom at the top of a steep cliff, all the way to the River of a Thousand Lingas.
And the best part of this excursion into the mountainside is just a short climb away - to the lower and upper waterfalls. Locals and tourists alike rest and relax in the soothing crystal-clear waters of the falls.
If you arrive early, or are just dying to dig into the local culture and gastronomic feasts, here are some suggestions.
Restaurants are aplenty all around Siem Reap. As while you wine and dine, you can also help out with the local social enterprise efforts. An example is Genevieve's. It serves a fusion of local Khmer and Western dishes.
Another notable restaurant that serves Cambodian home-style cooking is Chanrey Tree. With great ambiance and equally great service, the restaurant is located in the riverside district overlooking the Siem Reap river.
If you tire of all the Cambodian-style cuisines, then Mama's Shop is a must-visit for the undisputedly best Italian restaurant in town.
Located at the far end of the road along Kandal Village, explore this up-market district for great al fresco dining or just laze around with a good cup of coffee or better still, a concoction of energy-infusing fruit juices.
For something really off the Richter scale is French creole cuisine right in the heart of Siem Reap. Dining at George's is an experience in itself. The experience is totally different from anything you can find anywhere. The staff are super-friendly and willing to share all their experiences. The food is out-of-this world and the ambiance and dining experience is definitively one of the highlights of your visit to Siem Reap.
There are numerous night markets in Siem Reap. One that is more unique and less tourist-trodden is the Made in Cambodia Market. Here locals bring the unique creations of their craftsmanship in Cambodia, many supported by non-governmental organisations.
For most people, the only reason for visiting Siem Reap, Cambodia is just to visit the Angkor Wat, one of the oldest of the seven wonders of the world. But Siem Reap holds more questions than answers and one cannot but wonder what has actually transpired over the centuries. So a quick but feeble attempt would be to spend about four to five days exploring the nooks and crannies of Siem Reap in order to have a better understanding of the past, present and future of this wonderful civilisation.
I will divide the itinerary into three parts:
a) The Tragic Events in Cambodia's Recent History
b) The Ancient Glorious History of Cambodia
c) The Present Day, and Life around Siem Reap (Part II)
Getting to Siem Reap holds little problems transiting by air from neighbouring cities like Singapore or Bangkok. I was pleasantly surprised by the availability of 4G+ connectivity all around the city and even into the villages fronting the Tonle Sap lake, Southeast Asia's largest inland lake. But more of that later.
You can get your SIM card from the airport and a week's unlimited data access costs as little as US$5. By the way, the country just loves US$, so bring loads of this, as the country strives on tourist dollar.
Once you get hold of a SIM card, you are ready to use Grab (the undisputed Uber of Asia) to get around the city. Transportation charges are relatively cheap, around US$2-3 for anywhere around town if you take the local version of the official Grab "tuk-tuk". It can take four adults, but with a bit of coaxing, the driver is fine with five.
So the first thing I was curious about was the name of the city Siem Reap. After all we are not in Siam (the old name for Thailand). So what gives? It turns up that Siem Reap means "Siam Defeated", ironic as ultimately, Siam was the one that conquered the whole region from 1794 till 1904.
a) The Tragic Events of Cambodia's Recent History
No visit to Siem Reap is complete without a visit of one of the many memorials to the "Killing Fields" where anyone with even a semblance of being an intellectual (e.g. wearing spectacles) is put to death by the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.
One close to the main town centre is Wat Thmey. Here you can see the many skulls of Cambodians who were buried in the mass graves around the area. An estimated 1.3 million people perished under the hands of the Khmer Rouge, with many more from starvation and disease. Considering that the population of Cambodia then was about 8 million, this was genocide at an epic level rivalling the likes of Auschwitz.
Western Japan - Kobe
Take a day off from visiting the castles, parks, historical temples and other tourist attractions and relax at coastal city of Kobe. Famous for its Kobe beef, one of the best places to look for the perfect restaurant is at Kobe Harborland. Easily accessible from the JR Kobe Station, the waterfront district offers a wide selection of shops, restaurants, cafes and amusement parks. It is also a good get-away in case a rain-drenched weather forecast threatens to spoil your day.
The most prominent shopping complex in the Kobe Harborland complex is Umie. It consists of three separate areas - Mosaic with its departmental stores and the South Mall and North Mall laden with eateries and cafes. Take a stroll down the romantic waterfront at sundown and you will be treated to a spectacular sunset!
Western Japan - Hiroshima & Miyajima
I decided to group these two places - Hiroshima and Miyajima, together as both can be visited in a day, with proper planning and time management. A five-day JR West rail pass is the recommendation as it includes the ferry tickets to Miyajima Island as well. Plus the price of the Shinkansen to and fro makes up for the whole five-day pass ticket. So in a way you are getting four extra free day passes for the price of one Hiroshima trip! The site of the actual ground zero is a far distance to walk, so my recommendation is to take a tram ride there and back. That will give you more time to go to and explore Miyajima Island.
Having witnessed the atrocities of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, I wanted to see first-hand the devastation of the bomb that ended the second world war. And what a sight to behold! The A-Bomb Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage site, also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial is what remains of the former Perfectural Industrial Promotion Hall. It was one of the few buildings left standing when it A-Bomb exploded several metres away.
Talk a stroll down the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Cenotaph. If you peek down the structure, you will be able to see the A-Bomb Dome in the distance.
As you walk down the canal, you will be able to see several tour boats canvassing their trips directly to Miyajima Island. My recommendation is to take the Shinkansen further west and board the ferry to the island.
Miyajima is a small island about an hour's train ride from Hiroshima. It is most famous for its giant Torii Gate. This scenery is ranked as one of the top three most beautiful sceneries in Japan.
When I was there, the tide was really low, and so I had the chance to walk down the beach and touch the Torii Gate - considered a good-luck gesture!
Itsukushima is the official name for Miyajima or "Shrine Island" and houses the Itsukushima Shrine shrine which also floats on top of the waters at high tide.
Take a leisurely walk from the ferry terminal to and from the shrine. The streets are lined with souvenir shops and outlets selling local delicacies. There are also wild deer (though tamer than those at Nara) roaming the streets eager to strike a pose with tourists. The architecture at Miyajima is breadth-taking and it is like taking a time machine back to the ancient times.
Western Japan - Himeji
No trip to the Western part of Japan is complete without a visit to the town of Himeji. It is easily accessible via the Sanyo Shikansen bullet train from either Osaka or Kyoto. Himeji is best known for its castle, and it is widely considered to be Japan's most beautiful surviving feudal castle. In fact the Himeji Castle is a national treasure as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Resembling a white heron in flight, Himeji Castle is located about a kilometre straight up Otemae-dori Street from Himeji Station. I took a five minute bus ride from the station costing 100 yen but decided to walk back to the station and visit the many shopping arcades along the way.
A must-do is of course to climb up to the top of the castle. There are six storeys to navigate up to the top, with each level getting progressively narrower and more difficult to climb. The view from the top is definitely a sight to behold and you are rewarded with a glimpse of the maze-like defences leading up to the castle.
My recommendation is to get the ticket which includes entry to the Kokoen Japanese-styled Gardens and stroll along the tranquil grounds which consists of nine separate walled gardens of various styles of the Edo period.
Western Japan - Nara
A follow-on from my Osaka trip, once you set your base at Osaka or Shin Osaka (my recommendation) you can then make use a 5-day JR West pass to visit the surrounding regions.
Certainly one of the first places along the tourist route is Nara. Do allocate at least a day here as the place is really huge and be prepared to do a fair bit of walking. So Nara is famous for the deer park, where hundreds of tame deer roam the vast countryside.
Be sure to visit Todaiji (the Great Eastern Temple) located in the grounds of the deer park. It is one of Japan's most famous and historically significant temples and is a landmark in Nara. The construction of the temple started in 752 as head temple of all the provincial Buddhist temples of Japan.
Todaiji's main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the world's largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall's size. The massive building houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The 15 meters tall, seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas.
If you are slim enough, you can try sneaking your way through one of the main temple columns.
The beautiful countryside is flanked by many historical temples and buildings, so do take your time and enjoy the sights and sounds in the park.
Western Japan - Osaka & Kyoto
Located in the Kansai region, Osaka, with over 19 million inhabitants, is the second largest city in Japan after Tokyo. As such my recommendation is NOT to find a place to stay in the city itself but to look for accommodation in Shin Osaka, just about a 15 minute ride on the bountiful trains to and from the city.
If you are planning for a vacation there, do prepare a few things before-hand:
1) a Japan SIM card for finding your way around using Google Maps and
2) a Japan Rail (JR) West five-day pass to cover your trips from Kyoto, nara, Kobe, Himeiji all the way to Hiroshima and Miyajima.
Both of these are available at the JTB Travel Saloon on the third level of Takashimaya Shopping Centre at the heart of Orchard Road.
The most visited place in Osaka must surely be Dotonburi (famous for the Glico Running Man display above), near the Namba station. Both sides of the Dotonburi canal are lined with abundant shopping centres and eating places. My recommendation is to go for the fresh seafoods grilled to perfection by the special charcoal grills.
The next must-visit place is of course the Osaka castle. Allocate enough time for your to climb up to the top through an array of secondary citidels, gates and turrets.
No trip to Western Japan is complete without a visit to the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. It is one of Kyoto's top tourist sites. It is also a place where couples renew their vows for each other.
The most Instagrammable site in all of Kyoto must be the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine. It is also one of the most important Shinto shrines in all of Kyoto.
Ho Chi Minh City
It may be surprising to many, but Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon to the old folks) is even nearer by air than Bangkok. As the crow flies, as you can see from the map below, the flight takes less than two hours. That makes the destination a great get-away for long 3-day weekends. Hop on to the plane after work on a Thursday evening and you will find yourself comfortably settled in way before midnight. There is even time for a quick snack before turning in.
So three days is more than ample to quench into the sights and sounds of HCMC. My recommendation is to plan properly and follow a schedule as follows:
There are several must-see sights around the town area. My suggestion is to plan round the Independence Palace as this place closes at 11:00am and reopens at 1:00pm. It is best if you arrive just before it closes and stay awhile as there will be less people inside. Set aside about an hour or two to go through the various reception rooms in the Palace.
Just a short 5 minutes' walk away are other tourist spots. Be sure not to miss the Notre Dame of Saigon. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovations when I visited it in April 2018.
Across the road is the Central Post Office. It is a working post office and you can send a post card from there. Also, stop by the souvenir stores inside the building and pick up some fanciful memorabilia.
Stop by the City Opera House to admire the French Colonial architecture. Better still, pick up tickets for a show in the evenings.
Along the way, stroll down the City Hall and walk round the statue of Ho Chi Minh.
For day two, rise early to beat the crowd to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Then follow the tour to the Mekong River for lunch and visit a the many local attractions such as bee farms, fruit plantations and coconut factories. Stop by for a local cultural performance as part of the tour.
Try your aiming skills at the shooting range inside the Cu Chi area.
Rice paper demonstration. Just some of the things that the Viet Cong eat inside the tunnels.
If you are up and early, you can even sneak in a trip to the Mekong River, have lunch in one of the many islets and visit some local farms and factories.
Depending on your schedule, you might just be able to fit in another day in HCMC.
So perhaps the one place I highly recommend is a visit to the War Remnants Museum. Be ready to brace yourself from breaking out in tears. The place is not for the faint-hearted and will move even the most hardened of souls.
Clifford Pier, Singapore
Oldies like me remember the days when prostitutes roam the pier called "Ang Teng Beh Thow"or Red Lantern Jetty. Today, the place has been transformed into the Fullerton Bay Hotel.
To get there from the Merlion Park, aim for the iconic circular OUE Tower, home for many years to the Red Lantern rotating restaurant.
Much of the facade is kept intact and you can still the unique archway in the front reception of the Fullerton Bay Hotel.
Step into the hotel and you will be swept back to the good old days. The hotel has kept many of the ceiling sturctures of the old pier.
Just about 3 hours from Singapore, Malacca is a favourite amongst many Singaporeans looking for a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of Singapore work-life.
Here are some things you can do when in Malacca town.
1) Meandering around all the tourist spots, take a stroll along the Malacca River and enjoy some peace and quiet away from the hoards of tourists.
2) Explore the quaint shops along the river. Peek into the numerous art galleries and curios shops selling antiques, memorabilia and souvenirs.
3) Immerse yourself into the culture by visiting the Chinese temples, Peranakan museums and and the numerous clan houses. Scattered all around, especially in the Jonker Street area, you can simply stroll into another era. If you are lucky you can strike a conversation with the residents there.
4) Of course, how can you get away from the historical buildings that make Malacca really unique.
Fountain in from of Stadhuy's House
Christ Church Malacca
Church of St. Francis Xavier
A' Farmosa Fort
Chinese War Memorial at the foot of Bukit Cina
Hang Li Po Well (or King's Well)
5) Simply wander around the town with no real agenda and Malacca will surprise you with scenes of a bygone age guaranteed to bring back nostalgic memories of the good old days.
Lexis Hibiscus, Port Dickson
Feeling like you just got to get away from the hustle and bustle of your daily grind? Well, the Lexis Hibiscus at Port Dickson is my personal favourite.
Built like the stalk of the hibiscus plant, the villas stretch out across the bay and you are literately relaxing on top of the calm soothing waters of the bay along Straits of Malacca.
The drive from Singapore is about 4 hours and give yourself an hour or so more if you intend to stop along the way and take a relaxing drive up. Take Exit 223 at Peda Linggi and head towards the coast . The hotel is located at Pasir Panjang about 12 miles from Port Dickson town along Jalan Pantai.
If you are a photography buff, my recommendation is the sea-facing Panorama Pool Villa. Here you will have spectacular views of the sunset and sunrise.
And there is a bit of everything for the family to do. Take a leisurely stroll along the Hibiscus Walk and enjoy the local cuisines or take the kids out for some sea sports.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
In my holidays in Eastern Europe this summer, one of the most spectacular hikes I made was through the Plitvice Lakes National Park. If there's one place you MUST visit in your journeys through Croatia, it must be Plitvice.
There are three main routes to choose from depending on how long you want to spend there and how deep in you want to go.
For the most parts, the paths are well-built and designed to accommodate wheelchair-bound visitors.
It is M.K. Wong's dream to visit at least 50 countries before his feet can carry him no more. With over 35 countries under his belt, M.K. is planning for his next escapade.