Tuesday 23 October 2018

A Solo Retreat

In my 27 years I have never been on holiday alone, so I utilised some extra lieu days and booked in a three night trip to Ubud in Bali.

I arrived at Villa Ubud in the afternoon and squeezed in a Yin yoga session before dinner. It was a bit strange eating alone but it appeared that nobody else was staying at the villa. Eager to make the most of my time there I signed up for a hike up Mount Batur, leaving at 2am the next morning. Unfortunately I drank a full pot of green tea after dinner - a huge mistake as before I knew it I was up for the hike without any sleep. Who knew it contained caffeine?

I was picked up and driven over to the base for a quick breakfast and to meet the tour group, before beginning the hike up Mount Batur. Two hours of uphill scrabbling, weaving and climbing; getting wet from the clouds and fog and not knowing how far we were from the top. It was a lot more difficult than I thought! My group summited around 5am where we had our second breakfast and quietly froze against the icy wind (top tip: bring a scarf and jacket and not make the same mistake I did).

We kept getting glimpses of the sunrise until the clouds eventually lifted and we were able to see the sun creep up out from behind. IN the end, it was worth the aching legs and cold!

The downhill trek was easier and I was back at Villa Ubud for my third breakfast in no time at all. I've never achieved so much before 9am! I had a massage followed by a second yoga session. It was all I could do to stay up for dinner then fell asleep with my book. Bliss.

I had a different yoga instructor who really pushed me. I already feel more flexible. There's something to be said for daily yoga. I might try and get up an hour earlier each morning and fit in a session back in Singapore (I wonder how long that will last..)

After breakfast I headed into Ubud town centre and shopped, had a pedicure, drank a fresh coconut and wandered aimlessly for a couple of hours. I love the little clothes shops in Bali - such a treat compared to Singapore, and cheap too. It would have been wrong of me not to buy anything ;)

After another yoga sesh I stumbled across an awesome bar called No Mas. It didn't look like much from the front but head through a mini garden path and suddenly there's a pool with beds, deck chairs and little booths all around with vibey music and great cocktails. As Ubud is a fairly quiet town, I'd recommend going there to anyone visiting who fancies a bit of night life.

My last day and my first yoga session with other humans! Five others in fact. After yoga it was sunbathing, breakfast and off to the airport.  

I feel healthier, bendier and more relaxed after the trip... however, I was disappointed that there weren't other yogis to interact with during my stay. It's definitely the kind of retreat for those who are happy with their own company, but for others (like me), I'd recommend a different style of retreat or perhaps bring a pal along for some bants.

Monday 23 July 2018


A group of us booked a very impromptu weekend away in Malacca; an old Straits Settlement just 3 hours up the west coast of Malaysia. 

I had no expectations, but was rather just keen for a cheap weekend away with friends. Perhaps having no expectations was a good thing, as I was pleasantly surprised by how pretty and interesting it was.

We made a bit of a mistake by travelling up at peak hour on a Friday night. What should have been a 3 hour trip, became a 7 hour trip due to the tailback at immigration. We hired a private car for general ease, but I think getting a public bus over the border is quicker as they skip the normal queues. I would definitely recommend doing a bit of research beforehand, as holding your bladder for several hours in stationary traffic is not the one!

We arrived in the early hours to a cracking little one-floor, Air BnB house right next to Jonker Street - the city's main street.

We spent all of Saturday exploring and eating. I can't recall the names of the restaurants we went to, but Malacca is famed for it's good food, so I'm sure most places would be pretty decent. 

There were a few street vendors selling coconuts, but instead of chopping the tip off and sticking a straw in, thy somehow managed to spoon out the whole inner flesh/juice and proceeded to juggle with them. Never seen anything like it.

We had a cheeky margarita (or two) at Sid's Pub, ate along the river side and checked out all the amazing street art. It reminded me a lot of Penang, but in my opinion, better.

We came across a little shop owned my an artist, selling all kinds of paintings, sculptures and sketches. Phil and I bought a beautiful little hand painted peranakan house which is now on our wall at home:

There was an old church called 'St Paul's' which was built in 1521, making it the oldest church in Southeast Asia! Inside the dilapidated ruins was a husky voiced busker and we could have stayed there for hours listening to him and letting the the sun shine through the trees and gaps in the building.

As the sun was setting, we hopped on a boat for a tour of the city. We were all a little crammed in, but we were able to see the city at dusk and the street art from a slightly different perspective. 

As Malacca is so small, I wasn't expected a wild night. We had some street food on Jonker street and sat in Geographer Bar listening to  live music. Before we knew it we were all dragged onto the dance floor and doing shots of tequila...

Later on we found Mixx Club which was huge, and as some of the only westerners there, were treated like little celebrities by other girls in the club. A bit strange, but hilarious. 

Hungover and hungry, we could just about muster brunch and a massage the next day (it's a hard life), before heading back to Singapore.

Getting away for a weekend is great as it feels like a holiday, even if it's just a few hours drive. I'd recommend anyone in Singapore to head over the boarder for a weekend - it's cheap, refreshingly different and beautiful. 

Monday 25 June 2018

Ho Chi Minh weekender

We had one last chance to catch up with the Swedes (the couple we met in Nusa Lembongan) before they headed back to Europe, so Phil and I flew to our chosen meeting point - Ho Chi Minh - to spend some time with them over a weekend.

We rented an AirBnB in District 4 and arrived to beer, cider and a smorgers board of cheese. Couldn't have been happier to catch up with what feels like old friends and wax lyrical until the early hours.

Saturday was the only full day we all had in HCM so had a hearty breakfast at Elbow Room and walked around the city for a few hours. There's an amazing bar at the top of Centec Tower called Shri which the Swedes had been to before and recommended. We had fantastic views of the city and the cocktails arrived to the table in ships, handbags, scientific apparatus and other strange things. Each one came with a culture/history lesson about why it relates to Vietnam and if I remembered any I would love to tell you... but unfortunately the sun and cocktails got to my head far too much that day!

I had booked us on to a city food tour with Back of the Bike, and after the nightmare I'd had booking the tour in Dubai, I was a bit nervous we would have the same bad luck again. I needn't have worried. The tour was incredible and the highlight of our trip to HCM by far.

The four of us were picked up by local guides, all of whom were warm, friendly and extremely knowledgeable about Vietnam. We hopped on the back of their bikes and drove through the city to thr first of five food stops.

Stop 1 was an amazing papaya salad which we ate on mats at the side of the road. The lady who made it has been selling from the same spot for decades and a firm favourite for locals and tourists.

Stop 2 was called Cút Chiên Bơ and in my opinion, the best of the whole tour. Roasted quail in a Vietnamese baguette dipped in some kind of sweet and sticky sauce. So so good.

Stop 3 was crab and fish soup or bún riêu cua (I think) made with coconut milk and fat noodles. Delicious again, but to be honest we were all getting a bit full by this point. 

Stop 4 was a small version of an Indian dosa, called something like banh khot. Little fried pancakes with prawn and veggies, which then became the filling for a rice paper roll with added greens. We also had beetle nut leaf wrapped around beef and dipped in anchovy sauce which was pretty tasty.

Once we had finished, we were given the opportunity to try a duck embryo, something which is really common in Vietnam but in the words of my tour guide, 'rather challenging for Westerners'. We all declined to try it, but chose to watch our guide eat one instead. It was bizarre to see her eat the yolk which was full of veins, then the white of the egg which had already formed half a chick. Definitely not my thing and has probably put me off eating eggs for a while!

Stop 5 was the final stop and the desert course. We had black sticky rice, white sticky rice, coconut ice cream, frozen yogurt with mulberries and fruit. I absolutely love Vietnamese food and need to start cooking more of it back home.

I would highly recommend this tour to everyone visiting HCM. Not only do you get to try good local food, but you also get free flow beer (or soft drinks) and  hear all about the history and culture of the city from the guides.

My guide Tinh was telling me that each there are 24 districts in HCM and each is known for something different amongst the locals. I.e. the western expats live in D2, Koreans live in D7, the rough area is D4, Chinatown is D5, there are also districts for shopping, karaoke, love hotels etc. 

She also taught me a few Vietnamese words:
Yo - cheers
Hello - sing chow
Thanks - cam on
Pronounce 'Pho' as Pha, otherwise it means prostitute
Don't say 'yum' when something tastes good as it means 'horny'
Definitely don't say 'yum, Pha!'

After the tour we found a bar for a few cocktails then the Swedes wanted to go somewhere quiet so they could watch the Sweden vs Germany football match. Whilst the Swedes watched the match, I popped into the spa opposite for a pedicure. It was a bit of a shame the footy was on the one night we had together, as it kinda put a stop to the momentum of the evening. That said, it was so much fun to see them again, and it's such a shame we don't live closer so can get together more regularly.

We said our hungover goodbyes the next day, with a promise to visit Stockholm at some point in the not too distant future.

Friday 8 June 2018

A stop-over in Dubai

We headed back to the UK for my brother's wedding and my best friend's Hen do. It was an EPIC two weeks but that's another story. What I want to write about here is our two day stop-over in Dubai...

We always fly Emirates so thought that it was about time to spend more than a couple of hours in the airport and see some of the city. We landed at about 1am and stayed in a fancy hotel, the Jumeriah Zabeel Sarayt was lavish and exactly what I imagined, but it was so big it felt a bit impersonal and I did kind of wish we had stayed in a smaller place like we usually do. We also had very loud neighbours which meant we only got a couple of hours kip. The breakfast the next day made up for it though. It was a buffet of every breakfast food we could want. We ate then sunbathed at the huge pool until the afternoon.

I had booked us onto an overnight desert safari tour as it had come highly recommended by friends and the internet in general. It was a bad start as the driver was a whopping two hours late, but we tried not to let is bother us too much and went on to have a good time quad biking and dune bashing in a 4x4. 

At sunset we ended up at a little camp site to eat some food and watch a fire breather/dancer. We were very confused by the fact that everyone else at the site drove off the minute the performances ended. We were the only tourists left along with our driver and a couple of people who must have worked there. We asked where our cabin was and were promptly told that we had to sleep on a mat on the sand. No privacy, no tent, no sleeping bag, no nothing. Gobsmacked and confused we left the campsite immediately and I've been trying to get reimbursed ever since. The company, Sougat Tourism, have been an absolute nightmare so I would strongly discourage anyone else booking with them if they can help it.

We booked a late room at a hotel next to Dubai Mall which was lovely, then went up the Burj Khalifa the next day to take in the view. I was surprised at how barren Dubai is. There are a few skyscrapers (most of which follow the architecture of other buildings like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben), and between the skyscrapers are construction sites, dust and sand. I'm not sure what I expected, but I was generally quite underwhelmed by the place.

We flew back to the UK later the same day and had a whale of a time catching up with friends and family in sunny London and the West Country. The stark contrast between the vibrancy and beauty of England vs Dubai was huge. I'm so grateful I am able to travel around different parts of Asia, but even more grateful I am from such an incredible place as the UK!

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Nothing else mantas when you're in Nusa

Number one on my dive bucket list was to dive with manta rays, and this weekend it finally came true.

Making the most of the easter weekend, Phil and I spent 4 nights on Nusa Lembongan which is a stone's throw from Bali's main island. Most of Friday was spent traveling but were able to arrive at our beautiful Sukanusa Luxury Hut before sundown and scope out our little bit of the island. 

We had pre-booked two days of diving with Legend Diving as they came highly recommended on trip advisor. We had a fantastic local guide and went with a lovely Swedish couple who were also AOW PADIs.

The main dive spot for manta rays is Manta Point, but the guide had said they'd been no sightings there for three days so we were to hedge our bets at Manta Bay instead. This was great as it meant Manta Bay was relatively quiet when we arrived. 

We descended down to 20 metres and saw one manta at the surface. It was incredible but such a brief sighting so I was pretty disappointed to think that was all we would see. It turns out I shouldn't have given up hope, as once we were back on the boat we saw a big black fin cutting through the water, then another, then another. We grabbed our masks, jumped back into the ocean and suddenly a few centimetres in front of us were huge, three-metre manta rays. There must have been three or four of them and they kept circling around to swim right up to us before ducking down. It was surreal and one of the most magical moments of my life. I honestly have to keep reminding myself that it was real.

That evening we went out for dinner with the Swedish couple we met diving. It was fun but impossible trying to find any nightlife - it's definitely more of a chilled family place rather than the backpacker vibe of Gili T or Seminyak.

We had two more dives booked for the next day which were stunning. No more mantas but endless coral reefs and numerous turtles and fish. The coral around Nusa was some of the most colourful we've seen and it was good to see such a healthy reef compared to a lot of bleaching we've seen on other recent dives. 

The island is fairly small so we rented bicycles and headed to Mushroom Bay to meet the Swedes and proceeded to drink the bar dry until the early hours. They're traveling around Asia with plans for Singapore next week, so I'm thrilled we get to see them again so soon!

Our final day was spent eating everything there was to offer at Indiana Kenanga (a delicious French restaurant on the beach) and nursing our hangovers. The ocean breaks far out at low tide so the sunset and reflection was absolutely stunning.

Altogether an epic holiday to remember. Nusa Lembongan is a peaceful paradise and an absolute must for any diver who wants to see some gentle giant manta rays.

Monday 5 March 2018

Japan: beautiful, weird and wonderful

Phil I were in Japan together just over two years ago in December 2016. It was one of the most incredible holidays, so I had high hopes for our return this year. 

We arrived at lunchtime for sushi and a wander around Harajuku, we then headed to Shinjuku for another delicious meal at a tiny teppanyaki restaurant called Teshu (or something similar). We sat along the bar and had the chef serve us wagyu sashimi, grilled seafood, beef and veggies, all cooked in front of us and absolutely delicious.

We ended the night at the famous New York bar at the Park Hyatt: Drinking cocktails, listening to a live jazz, and pretending we were Bill and Scarlett...

I felt pretty rough the following day so slept a lot whilst Phil watched the Tokyo marathon runners outside our hotel. We then headed to the samurai museum and met a couple of friends at a strange immersive restaurant called Alcatraz E.R in the evening.. Only in Japan.

Thankfully I felt alot better the next day for our trip to Nikko, Okunikko and Utsonamya. Nikko is where the Shogun shrines are and a place of tranquil beauty. Okunikko is a little further up in the mountains. It was freezing cold but amazing to see the huge icy waterfall and watch the sun set over the sulphur lake.

On the way back to Toyko we stopped in Utsonamya which is where Phil lived a couple of years ago. We ate at a famous gyoza restaurant, had a night-cap at a cute little bar and wandered through the miniature golden gai. I thought Utsonamya would be a quiet, sleepy town, but it had so much character and I can see why Phil loved living there so much.

The next day was Tuesday and our travel day to Hokkaido where we spent the remainder of our trip. We flew into Sapporo then took a scenic 3 hour bus ride into Niseko. I have never seen so much snow! The roads had been cleared to leave huge walls on either side  which must have been 10ft high.

Our pal had picked an awesome apartment for us all in Hirafu village, right next to the gondola. It was called Landmark View and I'd recommend anyone to stay there. We had dinner at a cute little bar called Big Foot and got into bed like excited children ready for skiing the next morning.

We got up early, tested our ski legs and sped up and down the mountains until the evening, stopping only to meet our two other pals who arrived at lunchtime to join us.

No research had been done about where to go in the evening so we were lucky to stumble upon a secret little place called Buddha Bar which was practically invisible from the outside. We ate a lot of gyoza and met a fun Aussie who insisted on doing everything backwards, because, that's what Aussies do right?!

Shitty weather hit us the next day so we were in limbo for a while until we learnt about some runs open in Hanazono around the side of the mountain. Phil and I accidentally skied down a black off-piste run which was terrifying but also a bit of a proud moment for us.

We all went to an onsen in the early evening to boil ourselves. They split the males and females and stipulate for everyone to be nude - a weird concept for us straight-laced Brits, especially sitting on a tiny stool afterwards to wash ourselves. Fun though and definitely helped the aches and pains.

We found another izakaya (a joint serving Japanese tapas) and met three lovely Aussie guys who we went onto Bar GYU+ with. A night of drinking, jumping into walls of ice and snowball fights ensued until sunrise...

Not much to comment on the next day as we nursed our hangovers and ate ramen but we were thankfully back on the slopes for our final day as weather has cleared up. I'm a bit of an idiot though... I kamikaze skied again and managed to injure my knee and tear by calf muscle which meant a few trips to the hospital when we'd landed back in Singapore. 

If I had to describe Japan in three words I would say it was beautiful, weird and wonderful. Despite the sickness and injury, it was an excellent trip and I'm sure we will return for skiing again next year.