SCUBA in the Summertime

Published on June 1, 2015 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

If you’re looking to try something new this summer, why not learn how to scuba dive? Singapore is surrounded by some of the world’s top dive sites, so it would be a shame not to give diving a try during your time here. Like driving a car, learning to dive can seem overwhelming at first. There are new terms and rules to memorize. You’ll probably ask, “What does that button do?” at least once. And you have to pass both a written test and practical demonstration of your skills to earn your license. But just as you developed muscle memory for changing gears and checking your mirrors, it won’t be long before clearing your mask and checking your oxygen level become automatic.

If the thought of paying for all that equipment turns you off, don’t worry. Dive resorts are usually stocked with everything from fins to wetsuits to regulators. There are only two pieces of gear I would recommend you invest in as a beginner: a carefully chosen mask that fits you well and doesn’t fog, and water boots in your size (occasionally rented fins can cut into your heels and sometimes you enter the water over a rocky beach).

There are a number of acronyms you’ll learn during your diving course but the first one you should know is PADI, which stands for Professional Association of Diving Instructors. Founded in the 1960s, PADI isn’t the only diver training organization in the world, but it is the largest and the most well-known in Southeast Asia. Other training organizations like National Academy of Scuba Educators (NASE) and National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) can also be found in Singapore. There are dozens of PADI-certified dive shops throughout the island but Eko Divers in Outram Park came recommended by a friend. We took their 3-day course to earn our Open Water certification, which consisted of two classroom sessions and one full-day session in a nearby swimming pool. The final segment of the course consisted of a weekend at a dive resort in Dayang, Malaysia, where our instructor guided us through the three ocean dives we needed to complete. Most dive shops in Singapore run weekend or week-long jaunts to the myriad dive sites in Indonesia and Malaysia (and beyond), providing plenty of opportunities for you to put your new skills to use.

Diving in Tulamben, Bali (103)

While my husband and I have only completed the entry level course, we have yet to feel restricted when exploring the reefs of Southeast Asia. The Open Water certification allows us to dive to a depth of 18 meters (to go deeper, you need an Advanced Diver certification), but I’ve found that most dive spots in the region can be enjoyed within this range. While the Advanced qualification allows you to do night dives and to go down to 30 meters, the main reason I’m considering earning it is to be able to more thoroughly explore shipwrecks. Encountering a turtle amidst the remains of the USAT Liberty, a relic from the Pacific War just 30 meters off of Bali’s shore, was nothing short of magical. And hovering alongside the teeming hull of a sunken sugar transport ship off the Perhentian Islands was one of the most breathtaking (no pun intended) sights I’ve ever seen. Yes, I pretend I’m the little mermaid every time.

In a time when selfie sticks have become a plague and we are pressured to capture every moment on film, scuba diving forces you to be in the present. You can’t use your phone or listen to music. You can’t even talk. Language is reduced to a series of simple hand signals: “Everything okay?” “Trumpet fish!” “Clownfish!” “Time to ascend to the surface.” While I certainly wouldn’t mind having a video of the sardine run in Cebu or a photo of that octopus in the Batangas, those memories are all the more precious because they were experienced fully. No reaching for a camera phone or trying to think of a caption for Facebook. Though you can, of course, buy an underwater casing for your camera or rent one from some dive shops. Nevertheless, I recommend you simply focus on your strange new surroundings and soak it all in.

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Yogyakarta in a Weekend

Published on May 1, 2014 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Prambanan

When I was first invited to spend the weekend in Yogyakarta, I admit I had to Google where it was. Located in the southern part of Central Java in Indonesia, the district of Yogyakarta is famous for its proximity to two breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the Hindu temple compound of Prambanan. Regardless of my ignorance, Yogyakarta (occasionally spelled Jogjakarta) has become Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination after Bali and it is widely regarded to be the center of Javanese culture. Best of all, it is small enough to make it an excellent weekend destination from Singapore.

Friday Afternoon

A purple storm brewed in the sky as we made our way through the bustle of Yogyakarta’s small airport and the March rain came down hard during the hour-long drive to the Manohara Hotel. The hotel cuddles up to the Borobudur Temple compound and it is the only guesthouse within walking distance from the immense 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist structure. Not long after our arrival, we borrowed umbrellas from the front desk and set off into the wet afternoon. We scaled Borobudur’s six square levels and the top three circular platforms, simulating the path that Buddhist monks follow on pilgrimages to the temple site. The rain darkened the stone statues of headless Buddhas that guarded each tier and the entire temple had a hushed, peaceful atmosphere about it. Borobudur’s Javanese architecture perfectly accords with the conception of the Universe in Buddhist cosmology: the dense stone base of represents the sphere of desire; five square terraces represent the sphere of form; and the sphere of formlessness is represented by the three circular platforms as well as the large stupa topping the structure. The ascending stairways and paths are lined by over 2,000 carved stone panels in the walls which depict these three realms in detailed relief.

Saturday

We woke bleary-eyed before dawn and were led through the dark by a hotel staff member, who gifted us all with flashlights. After gingerly climbing to the temple’s summit, we perched on the ledge of the top tier to await the sun amidst the Buddha statues encased in their perforated stone stupas. The countryside was quiet and the full moon shone like a spotlight over our heads. Pale blue mists swirled around the surrounding mountains and then glowed gold as the first rays of sunlight struck them. Birds sang overhead in the fresh morning air, which was warming up quickly.

After breakfast, we relocated to the Phoenix Hotel, an elegant historic building from 1918 in Yogyakarta City, and spent the day leisurely weaving through the throngs of horse carts, cycle rickshaws, motorcycles, mopeds, cars, trucks and pedestrians. On the crowded streets of the popular Malioboro district, petite stores sold everything from cellphones to traditional Javanese clothing. Men caught naps in the shaded seats of their trishaws. By the park, women crouched over fiery barbecues grilling delicious-smelling satay skewers. Yogyakarta is a prosperous town that is growing—like a great many towns in Indonesia—but it is growing at a rate of its own choosing. Foreign investment is present but it doesn’t overpower the local culture, giving the city a distinct personality that is an inimitable blend of heritage and modernity.

Yogyakarta retains strong communities that are focused on carrying on traditions in silver work, the creation of batik fabric, and gamelan music. But the most alluring of these artistries are the performances of wayang kulit or shadow puppets, which are fastidiously crafted masterpieces of leather, buffalo horn and bamboo. The ethereal movements of the shadowy figures draw you into their world and you find yourself transfixed on the story they tell. There are a number of puppet shows that take place on various days in Yogyakarta; the best way to find one is to ask a local (or the front desk at your hotel) where the best show near you is.

There were two more stops on our list before dinner: the kraton and the bird market around the Taman Sari castle complex. ‘Bird Market’ turned out to be a misnomer; while there were cages upon cages of roosters and parakeets and budgies, you could also buy squirrels, puppies, bats, pythons, hedgehogs, iguanas, civets, and the list just kept going. While the market provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the local people, it’s not for the squeamish. Live ants and maggots are kept on hand as birdfeed, and plenty of the cuddly animals are purchased to be eaten.

The Yogyakarta Kraton complex serves as the principal residence of the sultan and hosts a number of official ceremonies, however the sultanate officially became part of the Republic of Indonesia in 1950. The compound is often hailed as the cultural heart of the region. Music and dance performances are regularly held within the palace grounds and the buildings are a majestic display of Javanese architecture. Most of the palace complex is a museum with numerous artifacts on display, including a variety of gifts presented to the sultanate from the kings of Europe and a complete gamelan set.

Sunday

The Phoenix Hotel provided a good night’s sleep, breakfast and a convenient starting point for our final destination. Upon our arrival to the Prambanan Temple Compounds, the staff manning the entrance tied white and indigo batik around our waists, which drew much amusement from the groups of local schoolchildren also visiting the famous UNESCO site. The stunning shrine was built in the 9th or 10th century and consists of over 200 separate temples, which makes this compound the biggest temple complex in Java, the most expansive Hindu temple site in Indonesia, and one of the largest temple sites in Southeast Asia. Originally there were 240 temples but a number of those have unfortunately been reduced to piles of rubble on the grass. The compound is dedicated to the three great Hindu divinities—Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma—and is considered to be one of the world’s top three ancient masterpieces of Hindu architecture. The central building is devoted to Shiva and looms high at 47 metres (154 feet) tall. We spent hours exploring the otherworldly temple complex, and it was too soon that we were on our way back to the airport to catch our flight home.

Though the region of Yogyakarta is small enough to see in a weekend, the city’s warm and unique character also makes a destination worth experiencing for a second time. There are far too many streets to discover, cheerful people to meet and tasty restaurants to try to only visit Yogyakarta once.

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Top Five Travel Tips for Exploring Asia

Published on August 1, 2013 in the Singapore American Newspaper:

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

There are plenty of reasons why Singapore is a great place to live. One of them is how easy it is to leave for a short break. Changi Airport has consistently topped lists of the world’s best airports for the last two decades and those with residency status move through it very quickly, but there are still a number of obstacles that can trip you up when setting off to explore Southeast Asia. To help you avoid my mistakes and oversights, here are my top five tips for newcomers to Singapore who are looking to discover the riches of the continent around us.

Number One: Visas!

Visa costs and requirements vary greatly throughout Asia, so right after (or even before) you buy your flight tickets, hit the website of your destination’s embassy to figure out what you’ll need. Many nations surrounding Singapore will allow you to buy an On-Arrival Tourist Visa but some require a Letter of Approval from the local embassy to do this and most can only be purchased in American dollars (and sometimes only in new bills). There can also be extra requirements, like a minimum number of blank passport pages. Bottom line: do your research in advance and prevent a debacle at the airport.

Number Two: Know the Health Risks

Malaria is a year-round risk throughout Southeast Asia but it needn’t prevent you from going where you want to go. A general physician in Singapore can usually provide anti-malarial tablets but be aware that you have to start the regimen a few days before your trip, so give yourself enough time. However, the most frequently reported illness among visitors to Southeast Asia is the highly unglamorous traveler’s diarrhea. While abroad, one of my greatest joys is trying dishes in restaurants frequented by the locals but this can admittedly be risky. So, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when it comes to chowing down. Don’t drink or brush your teeth with the local water. Be sure to check that the seals of any bottles of water you buy are unbroken. Don’t eat raw fruits or vegetables as they have likely been washed in the local water; the exception is fruit you peel, like bananas or oranges. Be wary of how foods with a high risk of salmonella—like eggs or chicken—are prepared; opt for fried instead of steamed or boiled if you’re uncertain.

Number Three: Take More Cash than You Think You’ll Need

I will be the first to confess that I rely far too much on a credit card and not enough on cash. Take my word for it: it is no fun wasting your precious time in an exotic paradise desperately searching for an ATM. But even if you’re not me and you calculate your trip’s expenses down to the penny and take out enough foreign notes in advance, there will always be an unexpected cost somewhere down the line. For example, did you know you need to pay an airport tax in cash when you leave Indonesia?  So, in addition to taking way more money than you need, I would also suggest you don’t exchange your extra baht, dong, or kip until you’re safely back on Singaporean concrete, where at least the fees will be in a currency you’re used to.

Number Four: Invest in a Necessities Kit

It’s easier to have a little travel bag of necessities on hand instead of rifling through your cabinets for 100ml toiletries before every trip. Ideally an essentials kit for Southeast Asia should include: sunscreen, insect repellant, Purell, painkillers, band aids, anti-malarials, Pepto Bismal or the equivalent, wet wipes, toothpaste, toothbrushes, extra medication and miniature versions of your normal routine (shampoo, face wash, shaving cream, etc.). And don’t forget the number one necessity: tissues. Much of Southeast Asia operates on a system of BYO toilet paper and you will come to cherish the packets of tissues you cleverly brought with you.

Singapore’s pharmacies are pretty good about carrying travel-sized toiletries, which were once a convenience and are now a necessity if you want to step foot on a plane without checking a bag. And when you’re only flying a few hours to stay for a few days it is worth neither the hassle nor the cost to check a bulky piece of luggage. Pack sparingly and smartly.

Number Five: Relax

I’ve heard a lot of scary stories about Asia from a lot of people who’ve never been. I actually had a friend frantically warn me about a disease in Papua New Guinea that causes a person to laugh themselves to death. A quick internet search revealed that this disease is transmitted via cannibalism, which I don’t generally practice. What I have found from traveling around Asia is a lot of breathtaking sights, delicious food and friendly people.

There has yet to be a country I regret visiting. Sure, the salmonella poisoning in Myanmar wasn’t all that fun, but the Burmese were some of the most genuinely sweet people I have ever met. It’s up to you what you get out of travel. Not every trip will go completely to plan (actually I can guarantee that almost none of them will) but if you keep an open mind and an adventurous spirit, there also won’t be a single trip you don’t learn something about yourself from.

Happy travels!

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