Category Archives: Places I’ve Been

Places that I’ve travelled to.

Patagonia.

The land of raging winds. Vast, open fields that go on for miles. Clear streams and lakes with colours unknown. Endless glaciers and peaks that suddenly appear out of nowhere as the clouds part.

Where the weather always has a mind of its own and you may see four seasons in a day. Where the summer brings days that almost never end. A place that remains frozen for a good part of the year, where only a handful of hardy souls can thrive.

And a cliche it may be, but I think I left a piece of me behind.

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Tales from Java: Middle of the night Madness on Mount Merapi

‘Why am I doing this to myself’, I almost muttered out loud as I pulled myself up another steep section on my creaking knees.

It was 3.30 AM and pitch dark with an unwanted drizzle as we continued on our mission to scale Mount Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia (literally, ‘Fire Mountain’ in Bahasa Indonesia). Eight trekkers from different parts of the world, with our three guides – all so diverse, we’d look like a Benetton ad in daylight.

We had landed in Yogyakarta that afternoon and decided to trek up Mount Merapi in the night to catch the sunrise at the top. So, after a short(ish) snooze of a a couple of hours in the evening, we were picked up by our travel agent at 9.30 pm to ferry us to the starting point of the trek (about two hours away, including a a bone-jarring last 20 minutes off road).

The first half an hour of the trek was actually a pre-trek, steep walk up to New Selo, the launching point of the trudge up the mountain. The trek itself is an even steeper climb in the dark, with 4 sections of 0.6 km to 1 km, each of which take about 45 to 60 minutes – the killer stretches being the 700 m ones that take 45 minutes to an hour to traverse.

Coming from flat and sea-level Singapore that very morning presented an additional challenge – we weren’t used to altitude and found ourselves panting much sooner than warranted; but things got better as the night progressed and we adapted. The trail soon gave way to loose gravel and rocks and every few minutes we would hear a ‘whooosh’ as someone lost their footing for a bit and slid a few steps down. ‘Are you okay?’, one of the guides would call out and once established that everyone was still in one piece, we would continue our slow ascent; ‘small steps, small steps’, I’d tell myself.

A total of 4 hours later, we found ourselves on the ‘Plateau’ –  a stretch of almost-level ground where hikers pitch up their tents to spend the night. The real summit is another 200 to 300 metres above this – an almost vertical climb with no safety ropes or supervision. Most hikers go up to the plateau and are highly discouraged by the guides from going further. Deciding that the final ascent was much too adventurous for my wobbly knees, we called our climb successful at the plateau as we braced for the strong and chilly gusts of wind that crossed it non-stop.

After what felt like an hour of shivering in the mist, the sky began to be painted with hues of pink, orange, red and the sun finally muscled through the dense clouds to the horizon.

Coming down was a lot more painful than going up, of course – especially on our already-weary legs – there were more than a handful of times that each one of us landed on our bottoms and slid down; but it was a lot quicker too. We were back at New Selo, with its ‘HOLLYWOOD’ like sign, in just 1.5 hours.

Was it worth it? There isn’t another answer to that but a ‘Yes’. Were there times that I felt like giving up – Yes; but I’m glad I made it through – anything else would’ve been a heartbreak.

If you’re planning to climb Mount Merapi:

  • It’s easy to book your tour through your hotel or the multiple agencies in Yogyakarta – rates are pretty standard at about 400 – 450k IDR (~ 35 USD) for the whole deal.
  • You leave Yogya at 9.30 – 10 PM for the sunrise trek. Takes about 4 hours to climb up, 1.5-2 hours to come down.
  • The trek is harder than your average walk-in-the woods. No technical skills needed but you need to use your hands to pull yourself up or lower yourself down in quite a few stretches, closer to the peak.
  • Shoes with a good grip make life easier – running shoes are okay, as long as they have some kind of grip. A jacket / fleece is essential – waterproof is better. A warm cap and gloves can be precious at the top as well.
  • The volcano is very active, so check activity levels online before you book your tour.
  • Carry your water and snacks along with you – it’s a long night and you will feel thirsty and hungry.

Been to Central Java or Mount Merapi yet? Planning to go? Let me know!

More connections to nature here.

 

Hanging out at Mr.Thompson’s: Bangkok

6 AM or 11 PM – Bangkok’s always bustling.

People are always on their way somewhere, vendors line streets in parallel to the roads jammed with traffic almost everywhere, shopping malls that stay open a while past dinner time. And the summer heat is always the sticky type. Add large crowds and you have all the ingredients of a very tiring day of sightseeing. Continue reading Hanging out at Mr.Thompson’s: Bangkok

Lama Tales and a Lost Land

Around the monasteries in Ladakh, you often come across notices about and faded, worn pictures of a young child.

At first glance, we thought someone’s child was missing, but upon inquiring, we learnt that the boy is the Panchen Lama – in Tibetan belief, the monk in charge of finding the successor of the Dalai Lama and has been spirited away, along with his family, in 1995 by the Chinese when he was 6 years old.

20 years and counting. Photo credit: Leeky-Boy (Flickr: Panchen Lama Association) [CC BY 2.0]

The reason why the Chinese did this, is kind of obvious (China, you may want to cover your ears for this) – if they control the Panchen Lama, they control who becomes the next Dalai Lama. The topic is extremely sensitive for Tibetans and they have been raising their voices in futility for the last 20 years to ask for his freedom. China, meanwhile, has appointed a ‘faux’ Panchen Lama in place of the real one but the Tibetan people refuse to accept him, believing that the real Panchen Lama is still alive, even though they worry about his state and well-being.

Theirs has been a long and fruitless battle in trying to reclaim their lost country, lost independence and spending generations in exile. There’s a sort of determination, sometimes punctuated by desperation, in their voices – they want him to come back, they need him to come back.

Read more about the Panchen Lama’s disappearance and the movement to bring him back: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-32771242

One year ago, on this exact day, I was in Ladakh – a remote, arid and beautiful region in Indian Himalayas; and a place that I would happily go back to any day and recommend that anyone who can, visit now. You can read all about our adventures on the road in Ladakh here

A Divine Sign: Bali

If you happen to visit Bali around the festival of Galungan (like we did by a happy coincidence in 2013), you’ll notice these ornamental poles of bamboo peering over you, decorated with leaves and fruits and with an offering basket suspended from their top, adorning the gateways of buildings and lining the roads.

With a little inquisitiveness, we learned from our driver and the hotel staff that these poles are called ‘penjor‘ and are symbolic of festivals and celebrations in Bali. And at the time of Galungan, a festival that signifies the victory of good over evil (much like Diwali in India, we thought), 20-feet high penjors bloom in abundance outside almost every home, office, shop on the island, for people to thank the Gods.

Captured during the famous sunset at the Uluwatu temple in south-west Bali:

Penjor pole - a symbol of Bali and the festival of Galungan
The sun, the sea and faith – all symbols of Bali

More symbols of significance with the Daily Post’s challenge this week: “Symbol.”

Don’t Forget Your Sunglasses: Bangkok

Entering the Grand Palace in Bangkok is almost an attack of dazzle on the senses*. Gold, gems, statues of precious stones, the Palace could probably rival the GDP of Thailand in value. And as you go snap-snap-snap, taking in all the fabulousness around with your camera, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed, like you aren’t going to be able to do justice to it.

* hence the sunglasses, just in case you get blinded by the bling

Here’s just one of the heavily adorned doors around the palace. And this isn’t even on one of the important buildings! I guess living royally is serious business. More about the Grand Palace and its treasures here.

A gilded portal at the Grand Palace, Bangkok
A gilded portal at the Grand Palace, Bangkok

More gateways with stories from around the world here: “Door.”

The Emperor’s Many Faces: Bayon Temple, Angkor

Eyes closed, they faced the scorching 37°C summer morning with a smile. 

Our guide said that when Jayavarman the VIIth was building the Angkor Thom, he decided to adorn the centrepiece, the Bayon Temple with 216 (no less) faces of himself, as a representation of the Buddha. 64 towers in the main Bayon temple are topped by 4 huge stone faces of the King (or Buddha), one looking in each direction. As you sweat and bake in the sweltering heat, the faces continue smiling serenely and obliviously.

The temple itself has witnessed a few changes of faith over the centuries – from Buddhism to Hinduism and back, and roaming around the temple, you’ll come across remnants of crude alterations in the sculptures and carvings to transform them according to the prevailing religion of the time. The Bayon is indeed the centrepiece of the Angkor Thom; and as you walk around with your camera taking innumerable pictures of the 200+ identical faces, you can’t help but feel that though separated by centuries, the Emperor and you were, somewhat, united by a common muse.

P.S. Angkor Thom is 7 km from Siem Reap, your base for exploring the Angkor area and is easily reached by a tuktuk, that you can hire (with driver) for the day for 15-20 USD. The Angkor Pass works and will be checked so don’t forget to carry it along. Apart from Bayon, explore Phimeanakas, Baphuon, the Terrace of Lepers and the Terrace of the Elephant King and make a day trip out of it.

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What’s been your latest travel-related muse?

A P(a)lace Fit for a King in Bangkok

‘Okay, perfect’, said the woman at the counter to us. Accidentally, following the crowds, we had made it into the ‘Clothes Rental’ section of the admission area at the Grand Palace, Bangkok.

‘What’s a clothes rental doing there?’, you may ask. Let me give you a visual hint: Continue reading A P(a)lace Fit for a King in Bangkok

Technicolor Textiles in New Delhi

Shopping for clothes is serious business in India. Try taking a stroll in one of the more famous local textile markets or bazaars in India on a Saturday and you’ll know that this isn’t a task for the faint of heart.

Lanes upon lanes of little shops snake through the labyrinth markets in all directions, crowded by women with hands full of shopping bags and buying appetites still not satiated; and shelves overflowing with fabrics of every type, every print and every color imaginable.

This photo was taken on one such Saturday afternoon in one of the many almost-identical stores in a New Delhi market, unwillingly having to brave the mad rush.

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Rainbow Shelves

More bursts of colour here: “ROY G. BIV.”