Cuteness Overload [NOT beauty-related]

Most times, I think social media is the dumps, all kinds of obviously uneducated imbeciles proffering all kinds of imbecile comments filled with curses and filth. What a waste of oxygen. But thank you to Charleston Girl for referring me to these cuteness overload! Live camera action of a nesting family of bald eagles in Washington, DC. They’ve been my online highlights these past couple days. This is technology I can get behind. Their feeding time is my favorite.

Watch them here.

2bald eagles in dc
© 2016 American Eagle Foundation, EAGLES.ORG
bald eagles in dc
© 2016 American Eagle Foundation, EAGLES.ORG

 

[Travel] Where to go in Indonesia

Indonesia pictures from google I was reading Time’s 50 best places and found this entry.

Jakarta, Indonesia

This underrated Asian capital showcases Indonesia’s staggering diversity—most of the nation’s 300-odd ethnic groups are represented here—and warm hospitality, without Bali’s price tag or 3 million–plus annual tourists. Throw in some top-notch restaurants……as well as a lively nightlife scene. —Diana Hubbell

That got me thinking about whether Jakarta is truly recommended as a travel destination. My verdict? No. If you are going to be stopping over, perhaps yes, spend a day or two. But you don’t need to make a special stop, it’s not a special place, relatively speaking. It’s crowded, traffic is always bad, polluted, etc. Yes you avoid the so-called 3 million tourists of Bali, but you throw yourself amongst the 15+millions of harried (to put it mildly) Jakartans.

So where would I recommend you visit? These are my top four destinations for people who are first or second timers to Indonesia; who only have limited time (a week or two); like the outdoors and some culture; are not vegetarian; and would like to do some shopping.

1. Bali

It’s cliche, but yes, Bali is a top destination, especially for first-time visitors. Tourism has developed much earlier than elsewhere in Indonesia, so it’s relatively easy to arrange and navigate. Make no mistakes, it’s not ALL commercialized, rowdy and teeming. There are many places in Bali  where life is still laid-back, unhurried, and relatively free of hordes. The northwestern and northern coastlines are relatively quiet, and it’s mostly locals going about their business. Head to Pemuteran in the North to acclimatize, and arrange your travels from there. Look over the wine production factory (Hatten wines) and grape vineyards. Visit the markets and haggle for local produce; visit the ports with the traditional outrigger boats and other traditional boats and see the myriad of fresh fish on sale; traverse the small, very clean and quiet villages and see farmers working the fields, find hidden waterfalls and lakes and jump in!. On your way back to the airport, go through the mountains and perhaps do a hike or two. Then visit Ubud which, for all its adverts, is relatively quiet, especially if you are willing to stay away from the city center. Then white-water raft your way down to the airport (well, closer to it, at least). When you’re ready for crowds of Cozumel spring-break proportions, head to Kuta, to also do your shopping where you can find Roxy bikinis to artisanal, hand-dyed ones.

2. Manado, North Sulawesi

North Sulawesi cuisine is my favorite amongst Indonesian cuisines. They’ve got everything covered: yummy pork dishes? Check. Fresh and tasty seafood? Check. Western-style cakes and desserts? Check, check, check! (A remnant of Dutch recipes and customs). You want city sights? Stay in Manado city and shop for hand-embroidered clothing, artisanal foods and crafts. You want beaches? Dive the renowned Bunaken National Park and surrounding hidden SCUBA-diving sites; or hire a boat and find your own stretch of beach.  Hike the green, lush mountains and heck out the tarsier, the smallest primate in the world at the Tangkoko Nature Reserve.

3. South Sulawesi

I thought long and hard about the third destination for first or second-timers. Aceh is too … lame; Papua too wild; place-hopping in Java too much of a logistical nightmare; North Sumatra is properly frustrating; Yogyakarta too easy. So, South Sulawesi would be my recommendation. Start in Makassar, the capital, where you can acclimatize, especially your stomach. Fresh seafood is aplenty, and try a few conro soups (a rich rib soup). If you’re a vegetarian, you’re really, really out of luck here. Once you’re comfortable, make your way to one of the nearby islands for sun-bathing, snorkeling or diving (relatively speaking, the corals are crap but hey, it’s one a couple hours from city center). Drive south to check out artisanal boat builders (the famous phinisi), or way south til you hit the ocean for better diving/snorkeling. Makassar has awesome shopping to boot: shop for silk woven cloths (cheap and beyooootiful), silk everything from fans to bags to shoes, crafts and foods. Look around at the historic dutch buildings. Then eat some more! [If you have spare time, head up to Toraja for tomb-viewing. I promise, it’s not at all creepy. Do some whitewater rafting while you’re there].

4. Yogyakarta

Except for the Borobudur temple, Yogya has not really impressed me much. I don’t like the overly sweet cuisines (sugar cane plantations surround the central and eastern Java so that affects their cooking), and the cultural experiences reek too much of mysticism and feudalism for me. Apart from the temples, if you like batik obviously this is a shopping paradise (but haggle hard!). Some drives to the countryside might be interesting, though it’s a crowded, crowded place where even in the countryside streets are lined with houses on both sides so you can hardly see the sights. It’s like that everywhere in Java, actually. Mount Merapi, an active volcano, is nearby which has recently become a major attraction but I haven’t seen it for myself.

What would be your top recommendations?

Traveling: Australia!

australia 2014 canberra - Copy
Canberra

I’ve been to the Australian continent a few times, and this is what I’ve done in various trips during the last eight years:

  • northeast coast: Cairns down to Townsville; Brisbane; 3-day Great Barrier Reef dive live aboard <– it was ok, but the GBR is empty compared to the thriving and busy dive spots of eastern Indonesia. If I could do it again, I’d forgo it for diving giant kelp forests of Tasmania, now fast disappearing 🙁
  • southeast coast: Sydney and surrounding; Sydney down the coastal roads up to Merimbula (including a night dive in Merimbula during late a late autumn night, COLD!; Tasmania (Hobart to Launceston during a long weekend); Canberra and surroundings
  • Snowy mountains: the whole perimeter of the Kosciuszko National Park, plus skiing. Skiing is expensive. The trails are nice though for a beginner or intermediate skier – lots of long trails to try. I can only compare to the northeast US though, and for me the snow is a bit lacking (they’re man-made) and the trails can be confusing as they’re not well-marked.
  • Alice Springs (Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon);  Alice Springs to Darwin, which was the last trip. I don’t usually do multi-day tours, but for this trip, I went with Mulga’s Tour, and I can’t recommend it enough. I’m glad I did not decide to drive myself across a quarter of a continent.

From where I’ve gone, my favorite so far has got to be the Kosciuszko National Park and surrounding area during the winter. It was so peaceful and green, not that cold and almost like spring to me (even though it was the depths of winter). The drive around the Park was amazing: quiet roads, lots of wildlife, very small towns with very small cafes, the most magnificent cattles I’ve ever seen, some very nice overlooks, a hot spring, and one very exciting driving in the fog with barely one meter visibility. The Snowy Hydro scheme (the dam, the museum, etc) lent this geek a technical wonder to ponder.

I didn’t do any hikes at all at the Kosciuszko National Park as all the trails seem to be too quiet – no one is ever around and my imagination got carried away with vampires and zombies lol. Actually it was quiet strange, as I’ve never been really SCARED inside a car before in my life as I recall, and I’m one who regularly stops and visits cemeteries found along back roads. But there were times the hair on my back definitely stood up as I traversed the pitch dark roads of the Park. Unfortunately no photos as I lost my cell at the end of that trip. 🙁

Below are photos from my most recent trips. As in previous trips, I forgo any visits to the malls except for grocery shopping. Almost everything is so damn expensive in Australia, it’s better to buy outside Australia and have it sent there, actually. What’s not too expensive are groceries; Australian produce is top quality with reasonable prices. I always eat like a king when I’m there: Angus and Wagyu steaks, Tasmanian salmon, fresh strawberries/cherries/peaches/pears whatever in season, cheeses, ice creams and chocolates galore. In fact, that’s your best bet for souvenirs to bring back home, especially if you’re going back to an Asian city: artisanal cheeses/feta, awesome dark chocolates and a cart of wines (even with the import tax, it’s still probably worth your while as good ones can be had at only $10 a bottle).

Canberra, the Australian capital
Canberra, the Australian capital
Uluru (Ayer's Rock) at sunrise
Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) at sunrise
Bush fires along the road. It was in the mid 30 Celcius if not more
Bush fires along the road to Darwin from Alice Springs. It was in the mid 30 Celsius if not more.
A refreshing stop at a hot springs to swim (it's more like 'warm' springs)
A refreshing stop at a hot spring to swim (it’s more a ‘warm’ spring)
Another stop at a lake with a little waterfall to cool off
Another swim to cool off, this time at a lake with a little waterfall and refreshingly cold water
.... in case you want to see that warning sign up close. Happy to report that no casualties resulted that day.
…. in case you want to see that warning sign up close. Happy to report that no casualties resulted that day.

Ah yes, you live dangerously in the Australian continent, ’tis true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Agoda (www.agoda.com)

Agoda

I just made my 33rd hotel room purchase on Agoda.com. Obviously? I love Agoda!

I’ve never been shy about making online purchases. The first one I made was on Amazon in 1998 for a book. There’s no looking back since, and I would estimate that 80-90% of my current purchases (business or personal) are made online.

Agoda is a favorite for hotel purchases. No, it is not quite like Hotwire, but it’s good enough and the service is excellent. Here are some examples.

1. Struggling internet connection made me double purchase a room. In Singapore, of all places, where you’d think internet connection is reliable. I called Agoda up, and mentioned the problem, and right away they deleted the other booking — the charge did not even have time to make it to my credit card account (so no losses in currency exchange rate!)

2. Apparently my mental health was also unstable, because I made the above bookings (two incorrect ones) for the WRONG date! I arrived at the hotel and they did not find me in the system for that day. They do, however, have me in the system for the next day. Immediately I called Agoda again in their offices in Bangkok (find the number in their website) who immediately worked with the hotel to rectify the matter. It did not take more than 15 minutes to resolve all my woes, and in no time I was coolly ensconced in my spacious room. So people thinking that making online purchases via Agoda (and the like) will land them in hotel dungeons with teeming cockroaches and no room service? Are obviously living in the last century (not that long ago, admittedly).

3. The number of times I made changes to the booking name? Numerous! Well, in internet online sale terms, 4 is numerous. And in all those instances, I was able to make the requisite changes online, got confirmation online, and the said person arrived at the hotel with ease, as if the whole name change did not even happen. (But It did, ’cause someone didn’t bother to check their passport validity! *rolls eyes*).

4. Most times hotels don’t even require them to show you the printout reservation page, as long as your name is in their system (and your ID backs it up).

Agoda used to give points for hotel reviews but not anymore, so that’s a bummer. But I still love the points I get for booking and staying, for personal and for business purposes. For Asia, it really is the best at the moment.

Bottom line? Highly recommended, a 10!

When in Yogyakarta: My Favorite Foods

Bakpia pathuk Srikandi
Bakpia pathuk Srikandi

I recently has a last-minuted business trip to Yogyakarta. It was a couple of nights and I had so much work that I could not afford time for sight-seeing or shopping. I did take an hour break for lunch and to purchase a local delicacy.

The lunch was at B. Djuminten gudeg place on Jalan Asem Gede. Gudeg is a quintessential Yogya dish. It is made of boiled (unripe) jackfruit seasoned with spices and palm sugar, and eaten with a variety of condiments, e.g. chicken (breast, leg), boiled spiced egg and krecek (boiled cow or buffalo ski seasoned with chillies and other spices). I don’t really like gudeg in general — B. Djuminten’s the only one I’ve ever really like. I’ve tried a couple other famous gudegs in Yogyakarta but they’re not as good as Djuminten’s so I never bothered again trying others, especially since I usually have just one gudeg meal when in Yogya. I find Djuminten’s not as sweet and certainly more flavorful than the others. The restaurant is also small and quiet, compared to the other gudeg palaces that tourists flock to. My condiments of choice are a boiled egg and shredded chicken.

Another must eat is bakpia, a rounded pastry with filling (usually sweet red beans). The one I like is also from a small place that is relatively unknown and quiet — Srikandi on Jalan KS Tubun (formerly Jalan Pathok). It is located across the famed and huge Bakpia Pathok 25 on that road, but the quality is much better than Pathok 25 (or 21 and the rest). The crust is crumbly and tasty, like freshly baked croissants, and the filling is tasty (my favorite is the cheese and chocolate; the durian is also nice as it is not too pungent).

A place that is new to me is the Gadjah Wong restaurant. The place has a bit of a reputation that, having visited once, I think is justified. The concept is a bit dodgy as they serve Indian, Indonesian and Italian dishes (hmmm, there’s a pattern here). It’s rare that a place trying to do everything, excels in all. The lamb kofta that I tried for dinner, however, was really good, though the naan is too bulky and not flavorful (and also they could no make me a garlic naan). The price is also quite cheap, especially by Jakarta standard (the lamb kofta was just about Rp90,000 for a huge serving). I tried the Tirami Su (nope, that’s not a spelling mistake), and I guess the spelling is justified, as it’s more like a coffee ice cream cake rather than tiramisu, though delicious. I tried to visit again for lunch but the place was closed. It is definitely high up on my list for the next Yogyakarta visit.

 

 

Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants

Result of a Google image search for 'Manado Food"
Result of a Google image search for ‘Manado Food”

The Wall Street Journal blogged a list of Asia’s top 50 restaurants. There is a lot of Japanese restaurants and some Chinese outfits making the list, based on a survey of “900 people across the world—an anonymous mix of chefs and restaurateurs, food writers and critics, and food experts.”

Indonesia is represented by one restaurant in Bali. No restaurants in Malaysia or the Philippines made it on the list. See the full list here.

I guess it’s good that oriental cuisines reigns in the Orient, but it’s more because the cuisines of the Malay Archipelago  – vastly more varied, rich, and tasty – are not yet accessible to international visitors, who may shun street-food and mom-and-pop establishments. Well, it’s their loss and … more for me!

Swimming with Sharks

Two sharks parking on the bottom of the ocean around pinnacle rock, Komodo National Park
Two sharks parking on the bottom of the ocean around pinnacle rock, Komodo National Park

There are few things that excite divers underwater than the sight of a shark. Or two. Or more. There’s something about an encounter with the lion of the seas, the top of the food chain. Personally, I have never been afraid of them when I’m diving or snorkeling in the tropics, and do not hesitate swimming far out from shore. When your usual meal is chicken, do you automatically see a frog and drool? My point exactly.

I’ve actually met a lot of sharks, even while snorkeling. The closest I’ve been to one was probably last year, March 2013, around the underwater wall of Gili Tepekong, off the eastern coast of Bali. I was at the heel of everyone who were crowding around something small. Awaiting my turn, I took a look right and left in the surrounding walls, and there it was, just a couple of arm lengths away to my left, resting in the nook of a small and narrow cave. Our eyes met and I did not take my eyes off it while my right arm was flailing frantically on the other side to alert other divers of the magnificent view. Sadly, I did not bring a camera then.

But in the northern USA and Australia, I’m wary. Very wary. Of swimming too far out from the shore. Of swimming at dawn or dusk in the ocean. And when I see shark netting, I don’t even want to go into the water. I do not want sharks to mistake me for a sea lion.

But do shark attacks happen because sharks made an error about the nature of their prey? This research summarized in The Economist says no, sharks know exactly what they’re doing. Researchers even have proof to back it up.

Very well. All the more reason to be wary, while enjoying the encounter.