Africa 2012: Cango Caves, Oudtshoorn

Day 2 – November 4, 2012

As i said before, Serena drove like a mad woman so we can make the last tour of the day which departs at 4PM. Cango Caves is about 30 mins drive up the mountain from Oudstshoorn. We left at 3:30PM so we just barely made it at the door before the last tour was about to depart. Thank god, or else our itinerary would have been screwed!

Our tour guide was a pleasant african guy. He told us the history of Cango Caves and how it was accidentally found by a farmer who was chasing one of his goats down the cave. Before there was any electricity, the cave was obviously pitch dark and he only had a candle as a lighting source. They turned off the light for us to simulate how it was like at that time. It was quite scary for me since I don’t like being in the dark.

We also learned that the cave was used as a stage for an orchestra performance, but was discontinued as people started destroying the cave and stealing stones while watching the performance. So now, the caves are only accessible under tour supervision. Our tour guide performed an afrikaan song for us to demonstrate how sound resonates naturally inside the cave (and he had a nice voice!)

We continued to explore the cave, chamber by chamber. I was amazed at how well kept the cave is and how the routes are very well paved, so you won’t have a hard time walking on it at all. The size the chambers were also impressive. Most of them are about two stories high or more. If you chose to go on the adventure route though, you’ll come across some of the more narrow pathways.

They always keep the lights off to prevent moss and fungus from growing inside the cave and damaging it, so each time we walk into a chamber it’s a new revelation on its own.

After Cango Caves, we drove back down to Oudtshoorn. We had dinner at this seafood chain restaurant (which name I forgot) and I had Kingklip, which is commonly served all throughout South Africa. It’s this white fish with dense meat texture that goes well with creamy/tangy sauce.

Appletiser is a soda drink that’s widely available in South Africa. Serena loves it and keeps ordering it with every meal! It tasted like carbonated apple juice. They’re also available in red and white grape juice (called Grapetiser) but we didn’t like those very much.

After dinner we went for a quick grocery run and then back to our cozy B&B. We chilled by the pool for awhile before turning in for the night, talking to a European couple who is renting one of the rooms.

We also had a quick chat with Marie, the owner of the B&B, who impressed me so much when she revealed that she will be taking part in the long ultra marathon consisting of a 90km run! She is extremely fit and does morning bikes daily on top of running the B&B on her own. Here I am completely knackered after just a 5km run and I’m probably half her age :|

The next day, we left Oudtshoorn and continued our road trip down south.

Africa 2012: Roadtrip to Oudtshoorn

Day 2 – November 4, 2012

We left Cape Town bright and early at 8am since we needed to reach Oudtshoorn by 3pm, and it’s a whooping six-hour journey to get there. Thankfully driving in South Africa is quite straight forward, where the highways are nicely paved and clearly labeled on Google maps so we didn’t have any trouble navigating at all.

We planned to hit Route 60 then to Route 62, which are both famous for being the most scenic drives in South Africa. Sadly the weather was not cooperating that day, it was a bit foggy and cloudy.

Still, I was very excited to be able to see so much land again. I really love living in Singapore but one must admit that we are very deprived of land that such scenery and nature have become a novelty for me.

It didn’t take very long before we started hitting the highways and down yet another mountainous road. We even drove straight through one of the mountains. Literally straight through, as in they burrowed a tunnel through the mountain!

Then we hit another long tunnel through the mountain, and to my delight the weather on the other side of the tunnel were absolutely perfect. The clouds and fog have cleared up and from then on, it was six hours of crystal clear blue skies and beautiful scenery!

Here is an adorable South African road manners I learned from Serena during our road trip. On smaller roads, when a car knows it is driving too slow, they would pull over to the side and let you pass. Then to “thank” them you can turn on your blinking warning light for a few seconds. Other drivers will do this to you too if you let them pass! How freakin’ cute is that?

This is how a typical mountain looks like around South Africa. Very rocky, a lot of definition and grassy area at the foot of it with more small rocks peppered all over. I really went snap-happy throughout the drive! We even spotted some turtles crossing the road at several occasions, but I failed to get a good picture of that.

A curious blanket of cloud covering only that patch of mountain. I wonder what the scientific explanation behind this is?

There were some small towns along the route and sometimes the towns are so small that the highway just cuts straight through it. But you know you’re about to drive through one when you start seeing farms like this on the side of the road.

Finally we hit Oudstshoorn area at around 2:30pm. Since we had some time to kill, we made a left on one of the dirt roads to an Ostrich farm to have lunch before driving into the city.

Sadly there were no Ostrich on this particular farm due to the bird flu, but we did see a ton of Ostriches at other farms later on, and by the side of the roads.

While lunch was being prepared and Serena was busy with her phone, I took a walk outside to soak in the sun and was greeted by this extremely friendly little girl! According to the farm owner, she is only 6 months old.

I ordered a smoked chicken salad and it came in this HUGE plate. I couldn’t even finish the whole thing and that’s very rare for me!

We quickly finished lunch and drove over into the city to check in at our B&B, called Earthbound B&B, which is located in a really residential area. It was so nondescript from the outside that we drove past it without realizing and had to u-turn back. Once you get inside though, it was THE nicest B&B I’ve ever stayed in! Basically you get a room within the owner’s (very big) house. The room is really nicely decorated and so, so cozy.

I squealed around in delight for a little while. Props to Serena for finding this super cute place!

Then we had to hurry over to Cango Caves as we realized that we were close to missing the last tour of the day. So we hurried outside and Serena drove like a mad woman up the mountain.

Africa 2012: Camps Bay, Cape Town

Honestly, I don’t know how to begin this entry. I feel upset and a little guilty at the thought of never being able to fully capturing the beauty of Africa through my measly writing and pictures. After my virgin trip to Europe a year ago, I felt like I had hit the pinnacle of travels and was sad that I will never experience this wondrous feeling of being in Europe for the first time again.

Then the Africa trip came along. I knew it was going to be special, but Africa was just… so above and beyond my expectation that I fear my future travels won’t measure up to this trip. I spent ten days in Africa, from Nov 3 – 13. Out of those days, I spent six days in South Africa, three in Zimbabwe and one in Botswana. And it was, arguably the best ten days of my life.

So what brought me to Africa? I’ll be honest, not even eight months ago the thought of visiting Africa had never crossed my mind. And it would never have if it wasn’t for Serena and her temporary work assignment to Cape Town. As soon as she settled the dates of her stay in CPT, my tickets were booked. We arranged it so I arrive on her last day of work and we could then explore South Africa together, before flying out to Zimbabwe and Botswana for a real African Safari experience.

Day 1 – November 3, 2012

I booked my flight with Emirates again, the same airline I used to fly to Europe last year, so it was another 7-hour flight to Dubai followed by 3-hour transit at DXB before I was finally on my way for a 9-hour flight to CPT.

This is how South Africa looks like for the most part from above. Very mountainous with patches of desert and greeneries here and there, and very reminiscent of California right down to the dry weather.

I landed at 4pm, and was greeted at the gate by Serena who picked me up from the airport since she has a car there, which I’m super thankful for. While driving from the airport, I got my first culture shock: People in South Africa walk freely on the side of the highways! We referred to them as “walkers” and later on spotted plenty of them walking the highways on the way to Oudstshoorn, which isn’t exactly close to town so they must have walked a lot.

Also, South Africans called their traffic lights “robots”. I was told this is because when the traffic lights were first brought into South Africa, they replaced actual human policemen and was called “robot policemen” for awhile, and now shortened to just “robots”. The term stuck around and is now widely accepted throughout the country, even on road signs!

We then dropped off my luggage at her awesome apartment in Century City area and went right out the door again for my first taste of South Africa.

She took me to her favorite place in Cape Town, a beach called Camps Bay, to catch the sunset. It involved some driving through the mountain and away from the city – throughout which I just couldn’t stop making remarks about how amazing this place is. Cape Town is indeed very, very beautiful.

Across the street from the beach is a row of restaurants and lounges, with front seat view of the ocean.

While waiting for the sun to set, we settled down at one of the restaurants by the beach for a quick snack since Serena’s taking me somewhere else for dinner. I (of course) had to taste some South African wine and opted for a glass of rosé while Serena had some chocolate cake dessert.

I was pleasantly surprised that South Africans take cards as method of payment everywhere. I didn’t have to deal with cash throughout my visit here, and I was actually advised not to since they would rip you off with the exchange rate (I got a much better rate charging things on my card).

When you ask for the bill, the waiter would come to your table with the card machine and charge your card right in front of you. I was told this is because there was an issue with credit card fraud awhile back, so they had to make sure no one is copying your card info at the cashier. As for tipping, you normally tip 10% and add it to the bill yourself.

I have to say, my favorite thing about dining in South Africa has got to be how ridiculously easy to split bills, by just telling them exactly how much you want to charge to each card. Simple, right? I really think more countries need to adopt this payment method!

We sat around chatting and catching up for a little while. Once the sun started to set, we crossed the street back to the beach for some pictures and sightseeing.

Serena drove us back to the city and we went to walk around an area called Waterfront where we had dinner. This area is basically a promenade by the beach-type of area and is a great place to hang around at dinner time. It was jam-packed with plenty of restaurant options to choose from.

We settled on a Greek restaurant for dinner, which was great but they had weird red lighting at the restaurant so I didn’t take too many pics. We came back to Waterfront again later on, where I was able to snap some more pics.

After dinner we went straight back to Serena’s apartment since I was feeling tired from my flight. Also, we had a roadtrip planned bright and early the next day!

Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

I took this trip back in the beginning of August, but between just sheer laziness (surprise surprise) and starting a new job (yep!) I’ve only written this now, 3.5 months later in the middle of November. This is only because I just came back from a big trip to Africa, which I can’t wait to blog about next!

With that said, my reluctance to blog had nothing to do with Siem Reap itself. The trip was AMAZING! I was happy I finally got to check Angkor Wat off my to-visit list.

Day 1 – Getting to Siem Reap

We flew with Silk Air thanks to a pretty cheap deal from Deal.com.sg and stayed at Royal Empire Hotel, which was only some 10-minutes drive from the airport. We flew in late that day so we spent the day settling into the hotel and headed out to Pub street for dinner as well as booking a tour for the temples the next day.

This Tuk tuk was our mode of transportation throughout the trip. Super cheap and gets you there fast enough! We paid US$2 for a one way trip to the night market area.

Pub street is a very short street at down town Siem Reap that is alive with tourists at night. It’s only a short walk from the night market too!

We decided on a restaurant on Pub Street (honestly they all look the same, so we just picked at random) and tried some Cambodian delicacies that night.

Amok Curry – One of the famous dish from Cambodia. We opted to order with chicken but it can also be ordered with fish. This dish was delicious but wasn’t too memorable to me – I guess I’ve had one too many curries!

Beef Lok Kak – Another distinctly Cambodian dish. This was simply AMAZING with the tenderness of the beef and peppery lemon dip on the side! I’m a sucker for anything with black pepper and lemon so this dish gets two thumbs up from me.

I had heard sunrise from Angkor Wat is amazing, so we booked for a guide to pick us up in a tuk tuk at 5am the next day.. soo early, I know, but I was determined to experience Angkor Wat in all its glory!

Day 2 – Angkor Wat

We woke up not-so-bright (was still dark outside) and early at 4:45am, and headed down to the hotel lobby by 5:00am. Our guide and the tuk tuk was already punctually waiting there.

We paid US$40 for the private tour guide and tuk tuk ride to take us around the temples. It was so worth ever penny, and I highly suggest hiring a tour guide considering he: 1) figured out a good way around the temple for us, as well as timing, so we don’t get stuck behind big tour groups, 2) told us plenty of history of the temples we would otherwise have never bothered to look up. Furthermore, like most adult Cambodians our guide is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge era so it was interesting to hear the first hand account of it. If you ever go to Siem Reap do call him up:

Mr. Phoun Nak
(855) 092918083
His Yahoo email is tours_nak

So we set out of the lobby at 5:00AM. It took us about 15 minutes to reach the gate to buy our pass for Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples for US$20 per person. We had our pictures taken and printed to the pass on the spot, because the pass are strictly non-transferable.

We then drove to the front of Angkor Wat and our guide showed us a great spot to take pictures, which is right across the water from the actual temple itself. We waited for about 15-20 more minutes more before the sun finally rose up.

It was such a breathtaking scene, witnessing the majestic Angkor Wat slowly bathed in golden sun ray…

Our hotel came with breakfast buffet, and since we set out so early we didn’t have time to have breakfast so we requested to be dropped back off at our hotel for a quick breakfast before continuing on to our tour. After that it was pretty much temples after temples. I’m not going to bother writing about everything since I feel like it’s something you have to experience yourself, but here are some highlight shots from the temple trek

The trip included some serious climbing, both up and down.

And it was very steep!

My favorite temple has got to be Ta Prohm, which they also used as the location set for Tomb Raider movie. I played the game when I was young and loved Lara Croft!

We finally finished touring the temples at around 3:00pm. I was completely knackered after waking up so early, coupled with all the walking and climbing, that I just passed out cold in the hotel till dinner time, and even that I had to practically be peeled off the bed and dragged out of the hotel.

For dinner we settled on Tangram Garden, which is not exactly uniquely Cambodian but was a real lovely place for dinner. Getting there was a bit of an adventure though, as it was lightly drizzling and our tuk tuk driver couldn’t figure out where to drop us off. In the end we recognized some signs and ended up walking there in the middle of dark alleys for a few minutes.

I had their pork ribs with mash and was pleasantly satisfied with my dish!

Day 3 – Chillin’ at Siem Reap town

I was still so tired from yesterday’s early day, and quite frankly we were all templed-out so we decided to skip all the touristy things and just chill in town. I’m a massage junkie so we checked out one of the massage parlours that got a great review on Trip Advisor and opted for a two-hour massage. The place is called Lotus Dream Spa near Old market.

I’ve gotten plenty of massages in Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia and this one was by far the best one I’ve had by far! Although, I guess it was also relatively expensive for a South East asian massage. I paid US$16 for it (including tip) whereas I usually pay ~US$10 in Thailand.

After that we had a chill lunch nearby before heading down to the airport to catch our flight back to Singapore…

Chiang Mai 2012: Ziplining (Day 4)

We knew we wanted to do ziplining, but as most tourists visiting Chiang Mai would know, there are two major companies to choose from: Jungle Flight and Flight of the Gibbon. Jungle Flight was slightly cheaper than Gibbon and after researching online they both seem to be very similar experience, so we went with Jungle Flight for 1,790 baht per person.

There is also an even cheaper, locally managed ziplining adventure, but we didn’t go for that due to safety concerns. I don’t think there has been any accidents there though, so it’s really up to you if you want to choose this one and support locals instead (Jungle Flight and Gibbon were both managed by foreigners from New Zealand). I think they are about 1200 baht for the same amount of ziplining. Just ask any tour companies and they’ll be glad to assist you.

Day 4 – April 28, 2012

We were picked up early morning (again) at 7:45am and headed straight to the jungle, which was about 30 minutes drive away. Upon arriving, we were each handed a yellow helmet with green hairnet to wear underneath, fitted into a yellow harness and picked up a mysterious bamboo stick (which we later learned is used to control our speed during zip lining).

Yes, we looked ridiculous

We took a short walk to our first platform, where we were briefed on what to do and how to slow down if the ride gets too fast. Over all, it was pretty simple and safe. Our first platform was a pretty short one:

This is the view from one of the platforms. It may not look like it from the picture, but it was very high up, and the forest was massive!

One of the longer platforms. It takes a good 8-10 seconds to reach the other side.

I’m not sure which platform this is, but I took a video of one of the long platforms that had me screaming like a little girl:

Serena looks calm and composed in this picture, but she was actually screaming all the way

Our first abseiling, a 20m plunge. This was really scary!!!

The trip also involved a bit of up hill hiking

This is our last platform: a long 40m drop. I ungracefully screamed all the way down

Tired after a whole day of screamfest, we happily arrive at the last point before lunch. They called it… happy ending. yeah…

And that concludes my amazing visit to Chiang Mai. I will end this post with a picture of our last meal at the favorite place Ratana’s Kitchen. My mouth is watering just remembering how crazy good and insanely cheap the food was back there…

Bye bye Chiang Mai!

Chiang Mai 2012: Patara Elephant Farm (Day 3)

On our third day, we visited Patara Elephant Farm, which is the one activity I looked forward the most in Chiang Mai. It wasn’t cheap, we paid 5,800 baht for a full day of interacting and taking care of the elephants, but I also feel the money was well-justified seeing how all of the elephants were roaming free in a spacious meadow, well-cared for, and just from the sheer amount of food they eat in one day I’m sure they are not cheap to care for.

Day 3 – April 27, 2012

A driver from Patara picked us up at our hotel at 7:30am. From there, we fetched a few more groups and drove to the farm, which is located about an hour drive away from the city and up in the mountains (this means cooler weather!). I slept through the entire ride but woke up just in time as we were driving into the farm. I spotted a few elephants grazing around the meadow and woke everyone else up in excitement.

We were lead to the briefing area, an outdoor wood hut with a few wooden benches, where there were already about 30-something people sitting around. We were later split into four groups of 8-10 people and never saw the other groups again for the rest of the day. Within the vicinity of the hut, there were also two small baby elephants, one only slightly bigger than the other, with their respective mothers. Everyone was super excited because both of them were extremely playful and curious.

We met the owner of Patara Elephant Farm, Pat, who talked about the history of the farm. Pat claims to not be an elephant lover any more than the rest of us, but he started off rescuing one female elephant about 20 years ago and have successfully brought more in since then.

He informed of us of the alarming rate the Thai elephant population have decreased over the past decade – they nearly halved their population in just ten years, due to threats from us human beings (poaching and poisoning due to their destructive nature to farmers) and lack of natural space for them to live. However, on the more positive side, Pat revealed that last year and this year is an exciting time for them, due to the two babies who were born healthy, as well as a few other female elephants who are expecting next year!

I was a bit distracted throughout the briefing because the two curious baby elephants, who seem to be inseparable from each other, would come into our hut and playfully nudge us with their not-so-small head and inspect us with their tiny trunks.

That’s Pat in blue shirt being sandwiched by the two babies. The hands pushing the babies are the mahout’s hands, trying to guide them out of the briefing area to stop distracting everyone.

This one demands to be let through. Why, you ask?

Because on the other side a mahout is trying to lure him out, so that he stops distracting our briefing. Danny gave in and let him pass.

Each of us are assigned one elephant per day at Patara. After the briefing, we were instructed to carry these big baskets of elephant food down and meet our elephants. The baskets of food, consisting of chunks of sugar cane and some sort of pumpkin-like fruits, were really big and heavy. We had to walk down a hill and cross a small river to get to the elephant keep, and my arms were hurting by then!

The babies crossed the river with us as well! I’m not sure if you can hear from the video below, but our guide was explaining how the baby was just born in December (so about 4 months old at the time) and wasn’t sure how to do things as an elephants yet. She drank the river water with her mouth instead of with her trunk like usual elephants do. Still learning I guess! :)

We were taught how to inspect our elephants to make sure they are healthy and had a good night sleep. We were also taught how to approach the elephants and see if they accepts us. You do this by approaching them with an arm raised, food in hand, and walking to them from their front as to not startle them. Here is Serena demonstrating how to approach her elephant:

Serena called the elephant’s name, Nui, and she responded (that’s the loud sound you hear in the beginning). If the elephant takes the food from your hands, that means they have accepted you. You have to continue feeding them and making sure they are comfortable with you.

I was assigned to Mari, a 32-year old female elephant rescued from a local circus. She was so gentle and calm that we had no problem getting along throughout the day.

After feeding them, we were instructed to clean the elephants. Because elephants sleep on their sides at night, there are a lot of mud and dirt that needs to be cleaned before they can be bathed. Obviously since these elephants are big, it would be hard to clean them while they are standing up. Elephants are really intelligent animals and can understand several commands so we were taught a command to tell them to crouch down or lay on their sides for cleaning! I was amazed at how quick and responsive they are to these commands!

We then led our elephants into the river and began cleaning them with hard brush and water. It was seriously like cleaning a medium sized car, except the car understands what you’re doing and are watching you!

If you are wondering why there are so many pictures of us, it’s because Patara gave us a DVD full of pictures at the end of the day, all inclusive within the 5,800 baht price tag, so you don’t have to worry about carrying your own cameras.

Here is one of Serena cleaning her elephant, Nui, in style. Nui is a 12 year old female elephant, who was also rescued from a local circus. Nui is a sassy one though, she wasn’t just rescued – she basically ran away in the middle of her circus act, presumably because she decided she won’t put up with it anymore and just up and left. She was described as a playful girl, but has wisened up and is currently one of the mothers expecting a baby this year!

After cleaning the elephants, we went back to our hut to dry off. We were distracted by one of the bigger boys who came into the hut looking for food. I’m with him though, I was also pretty hungry by then!

We were then taught how to ride our elephants, since none of them were equipped with chairs or any sort of support. There were three ways to mount your elephant, and I chose the easiest one :P

Then we took a walk out of the farm, and onto the mountains. It got pretty scary and steep and some points, but the elephants took it well.

After about 20-30 minutes ride, we arrived at an open area with small waterfall. I was most delighted to see that our banana leaf lunch is served and ready to eat!

It was so good that I had THREE of those drum sticks on top of all the sticky rice, dessert and fruits we had. After we were done eating, whatever leftover was given to the elephants – but only the banana leaves and fruits. Elephants can’t eat leftover chicken bones and meat.

We spent some time soaking at the waterfall. You can also opt to bathe with the elephants, but I didn’t feel like getting myself too wet, so we just sat at the side and watched. The elephants were so happy playing around, sprouting water at each other playfully. We were also joined by the two babies and their mothers here.

After about an hour at the waterfall, we went back to the farm the same way we came in – by riding our elephants. The pack of elephants walked in line to the wooden hut.

When we reached the hut, we noticed one of the baby elephants, the smaller one, started making loud panicky noises, which in turn made the rest of the pack go wild with loud noises as well. It turns out the mother had stopped across the river and was separated from the baby. The mother started calling out to the baby and it promptly ran back across the river to be reunited with his mommy. Soooo cute!!!

This boy is dirty again after playing in the mud, but apparently they were smart – the mud act as a sun block for them, and also to ward off bugs that feast on their blood (similar to mosquitoes, but much bigger and scary!)

While we were sitting in the hut resting, we got to observe some elephants interaction with each other. Apparently elephants form friendship outside family relations, just like humans. One of the younger boy is particularly close to another much older male elephant, even though they had only met at Patara. You can often spot them by each other’s side. I find this extremely endearing!

Towards the end of our visit, I was still sitting in the hut and I spotted my elephant Mari as she seemingly spotted me as well. Then she walked fast and straight towards me, stopping only a few feet away. Serena asked if it’s because she remembers me. I’m not entirely sure about that, but it sure seemed like it. I could feel her watching me with her large, human-like eyes. I went up to her, rubbed her trunk and said good bye before she was taken by her mahout back to her living area :(

I left Patara with a heavy heart. I really wanted to spend more time with these gentle giants and one day was definitely not enough. A visit back to Chiang Mai to one of these elephant farms is definitely in the future for me!

On our way out we spotted the two babies again, this time accompanied by three adult elephants walking back to their living area.

Exhausted after a day of taking care of the elephants, we opted for an easy dinner by the river recommended by our hotel again. When we got to the place though, it was closed due to a royal family visit :( so in the end we were dropped off at a touristy restaurant by the Mae Ping river. Upon entering the restaurant, we were asked if we would like to sit on the boat for an extra 300 baht per table. We agreed since the weather was nice and 75 baht per person is really cheap.

Halfway through finishing our dinner, the waiter informed us there will be no more orders after 8. We were confused but thought nothing of it, until they started turning off the lights and revving up the boat’s engine… and then we were off on a surprise cruise! Apparently the 300 baht table includes a 45 minute boat cruise down Mae Ping river! We were pleased by this surprise. It was a nice, memorable way to end the day!

Next up, is our ziplining adventure through the jungles of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai 2012: Tiger Kingdom (Day 2)

For our second day in Chiang Mai, we visited Tiger Kingdom. I’m aware of the moral complication associated with this place with the allegation of drugged / beaten tigers, but my stance on the tigers is this: If they aren’t cared for at the Tiger Kingdom, they would have been endangered by us human pushing for modern living (and this includes anyone reading this paragraph) as well as face the dangers of being hunted down by poachers looking for tiger parts.

Visiting Tiger Kingdom was expensive, but so does caring and feeding these big cats. I do believe the money was well-justified in that sense, and that boycotting this place without any real personal effort to better the lives of these tigers is just another example of silly slacktivism.

Day 2 – April 26, 2012

Getting to Tiger Kingdom was easy enough, just approach any of the red tuk tuk van that can be found all around Chiang Mai. We bargained our fare down to about 200-300 baht for our round trip and it took about 20 minutes from the city. Once you get there, you can choose to spend time with four types of tigers – baby, small, medium and large tigers – for 520 baht each. They also have packages consisting of visits to the S, M and L tigers, but we were only interested in the baby and the large tigers so we didn’t buy the package and spent 1,040 baht instead.

We visited the big tigers first. I have to say, I was really scared and nervous to be so close to the large tigers!

Really did not want to touch this big one. They are really big, heavy and intimidating. They were mostly laying around being lazy, but they occasionally open their eyes, and boy does it track you with their piercing stares. I figured I’ve already gone so far, might as well get a picture in.

The tigers were mostly napping throughout the entire day – they are nocturnal beings after all, sleeping 16-18 hours during the day. We try not to bug them in case that makes them angry.

Next we visited the cub cages, which was far less intimidating than their mothers.

Cure little soft paws!

The cubs were really, really cute, but I did get a sense that they just wanted to sleep and be left alone. They are not domesticated animals, so I mostly just took pictures of them sleeping around. A few of them would be awake and playful, like the one above.

After Tiger Kingdom, we went back to the hotel to rest up for the day. We were really exhausted from the heat!

For dinner, we got another recommendation from our hotel lady. She wrote us the address on a piece of paper to give to our tuk tuk driver and it was all in Thai, so I never found out the exact name of it. All I know is that it’s referred to as “dangling feet” restaurant, because the place is located on wooden structure on the second floor and you could choose to be seated on a table with hole below it, as such:

We didn’t sit on these table though. Instead we sat on one of those low tables on the floor. We knew the place was REALLY local when we opened the menu and not a single english alphabet was seen. Thankfully the waiter was able to give us some recommendations with her limited english and fortunately everything was tasty!

For our next day, we had booked a day at Patara Elephant Farm for a day of elephant care taking.

Chiang Mai 2012: Thai Cooking Class (Day 1)

Back in April I did a 1.5 week trip to Thailand. I met up with Serena, who has become my regular travel buddy since we went to HK/TW a year ago. This time we were joined by two other friends: Danny and my sister for Bangkok and Chiang Mai then Danny and Jenie for Phuket (my sister went back home after Chiang Mai).

Since Serena and friends traveled a long, long way to Thailand, we decided to hit up as much touristy spots as we can in one go. We flew in to Bangkok and stayed there for two days, then went on to Chiang Mai for 4 days and to Phuket for 3 days.

I had been to Bangkok before, not just once but twice over the past two years, so this time around I spent my time sitting around getting a massage or reading in our hotel while my friends did the floating market and visited the royal palace. As for Phuket, I have also been there before and didn’t do anything different from last time, so I’m not going to write about these two places again.

Day 1 – April 25, 2012

We flew to Chiang Mai on our third day in Thailand. As soon as we landed, we were greeted by a HOT, dry 100-something degree weather that resembles Vegas in the summer. In fact it was so hot that my nose bled three times on the first day!

We arrived around noon, and took a (really cheap) taxi van to our hotel near the night market area. Everything in Chiang Mai is noticeably cheaper than Bangkok and Phuket. I think we paid 80 baht (US$2.40) per person for the taxi ride. As for our hotel, we stayed at Studio 99 at another 2 bedroom apartment, which was super spacious and cheap.

We asked for lunch recommendation and the hotel lady pointed us to Ratana’s Kitchen, which quickly became our favorite spot for the rest of the Chiang Mai trip and consequently the best Thai food I had in the entire trip! They sell Chang beer for super cheap, around 60-70 baht so Danny and I happily helped ourselves to a bottle with each meal.

One of the things to do when you are in Chiang Mai is to take a Thai cooking class, so we did exactly that. We booked a course through our hotel with Asia Scenic and were promptly picked up at 4pm on the same day.

Upon arriving at the school, which looks like an ordinary residential house, we were offered a traditional Thai appetizer called Miang Kum, pictured above. According to our guide, this appetizer is typically offered to a guest visiting your house as a welcome snack. You put any combination of the ingredients above (coconut shavings, peanuts, onion, chili, lime and ginger) into the lettuce and drizzle some palm sugar on it, wrap it up and pop them into your mouth. I liked it so much I had three servings of these!

After a brief introduction, we were asked to choose our own menu. Since we did the half day class we only get to choose one stir fry, one curry and one soup. I chose to make Chicken Pad See Ew, Panang curry and Tom Yum soup. After that, we were taken to a local wet market to buy ingredients.

Then the cooking begins. First up is the stir fry category, or Chicken Pad See Ew for me.

From the same category, you can choose other menu but will cook it at the same time with the rest of the class. Here is Danny and Serena hard at work with their own dishes.

Pad See Ew is done! it was relatively easy since the ingredients have been prepared for you, and all you had to do is throw things into the frying pan with fish sauce :P Mine was yummy!

Next up is the curry, which involves a bit more effort as you make the curry paste from scratch. This means mashing up some raw chili and other ingredients. I just let Danny do all the hard work…

After the curry paste is done, you cook it with some coconut milk in the frying pan

… and done! My panang curry was really yummy! I chose this type of curry because i’m a huge fan of nuts, and this curry calls for peanuts on top of all the chili so the resulting curry is this thick, nutty, super yummy red curry.

For my soup I chose Tom Yum soup, but since it wasn’t very photogenic I didn’t take a picture of it. Also mine was kinda a failure :( it just tasted like sour water with some salt…

And here is the complete meal. It was quite an experience cooking my own Thai food. I appreciate how simple – yet tasty everything was! Thai food definitely ranks high up there as my favorite cuisine.

After the class, we walked around night market looking for things to do the next day (Continue to Chiang Mai, Day 2).

Europe 2011: Paris (6/6)

Serena and I had to take different flights going into Paris because hers came with her US flights. We managed to get the same arrival time, but we had to fly into different airports – I to ORY and she to CDG. We semi-freaked out about this since we’re going to by ourselves and we thought French are rude, but we were wrong. French people don’t mind speaking English, and was not any more nice nor rude than other countries.

As soon as I got to the airport I shelled out some euros to get the Museum pass which was €35 for a two day pass – well worth it if you want to see a lot of things in Paris. I also recommend getting the Paris transportation pass since you’ll probably be using a lot of their metro.

I found out that the major train that was going to take me to the city – RER B – was on strike that day. The helpful girl at the tourist counter recommended me another route which involves taking the bus to Denfert Rochereau metro. I didn’t want to take taxi, so I took the bus option and it was the worst airport-to-city journey I had throughout the entire trip. We were packed into the bus like sardines (i guess because everyone had to take this bus), when I tried to get into the station my luggage almost couldn’t fit through the gate, and THEN the train into the city was so crowded that I was pushed against everyone with my big luggage.

But finally, I made it safely to our hostel – Plug-inn hostel at Blanche area.  This hostel was probably the most commercialized and expensive accommodation we paid, but Paris isn’t exactly a cheap city. I don’t mind the hostel much and it was located in a convenient area. It was also down the street from Moulin Rouge area, but it was actually not very sketchy.

Day 11 – November 9, 2011

Like most people visiting Paris, we were of course excited to see the Eiffel Tower! We were starving so we had a quick lunch at a chinese place down the street (we really missed asian food, you see) then took the metro down to Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel tower!! we gasped at the first sight of it. you’d never guess how excited we were to see this tall tower!

Jardin du Champ de Mars – so pretty with the yellowing trees around it

Hoping to be able to check out the summit of the tower that day, Serena and I got in line. To our dismay, the elevator decided to malfunction right when we get to the end of the line. One hour wasted and we were pissed. It was getting dark at 5pm, so we decided to just enjoy the city and walk to Champ-Elysees at the other side of Seine River.

But, halfway through Pont d’lena bridge, we looked back in awe as the Eiffel tower started to light up as the night fell. It was one of the most gorgeous sight of the entire trip! We were no longer pissed off.

Jardin du Trocadero, where we got a better view of the magical Eiffel Tower

After taking a million pictures, we continued to walk towards Arc du Triomphe, and onto Paris’ main shopping street – Champ-Elysees. I was VERY impressed by this street. It was big and very full of life and glittering with all kinds of high end stores. I see now why Paris time is shopping time!

Serena and I had our own agenda at Champ-Elysees. She wanted to check our Louis Vuitton, while I couldn’t wait to get my hands on some french macarons. They both happened to be close to each other so it all worked out well! We hit the Louis Vuitton store first, which was huge and extremely overrated but walked away empty handed as their collection was just not impressive. We continued to walk down the street, and I spotted the famous pastry shop Laduree! We quickly made our way into the small shop and was delighted that the line wasn’t too bad.

Click here for the post on macarons.

Tired from all the walking, we decided to call it a day and went home.

Day 12 – November 10, 2011

We were determined to get to the top of Eiffel Tower today, so we set out to the tower – bright and early. The elevator didn’t malfunction this time and we were able to get to the summit! The summit ticket costed us €13.40

The summit is tall. Very, very tall. Looking down was almost scary but we enjoyed our stay.

Paris was cold around this time. I’m glad I brought my coat!!

Satisfied with the tower, we made our way to Notre Dame de Paris, a gothic Catholic church at the heart of Paris built in the 12th century.

The front door was decorated with a statue of Jesus and the twelve apostles

Inside there was a small, intimate mass! No idea what it was for though.

From there we went to…

Musee du Louvre! It was actually within walking distance from Notre Dame but we had the metro pass so we took those instead :P I was slightly disappointed to find that there was no line at Louvre. I wanted to use my Paris Pass privilege!! ah well. We went straight inside and looked for Mona Lisa.

Finally! The painting was a lot smaller than I had expected, but there she was. I had to wade through a thick crowd to get a picture up close…

Venus de Milo, created on 100BC and is one of the most famous ancient Greek sculpture.

Louvre is a HUGE museum. Art lovers can spend hours, if not days, wading through this museum. Serena and I wasn’t exactly one of those people so we were in and out within two hours after checking out the must-see arts. We went to check out Jardin du Tuileries right outside of Louvre

Such a pretty and relaxed place. I looooved all the parks we went to in Europe!!

Louvre from afar

From this park, we took the train to another park – Jardin du Luxembourg, which has now become my favorite park!!

They had all these chairs instead of benches for people to sit in. Everyone just literally sat in circles, reading books or chatting with friends as they’re enjoying the beautiful weather!

So Serena and I followed suit, we sat on the chairs for awhile before moving on

Our next destination was about two blocks away the Pantheon

This Pantheon isn’t as old and full of history as the one we saw in Rome, but I was still impressed by how massive and beautiful it was

We were close to St. Sulpice, an area Serena wanted to check out for shopping and also home for my second macaron hunt: Pierre Herme. On the way there, we passed by Jardin du Luxembourg again and I went picture happy, again. The entire park was just too pretty to resist!

Amidst all the activity and excitement, I spotted this old couple slowly trotting through the park, arm in arm. I’m not sure if it was just the romantic atmosphere in Paris or what, but I was very touched by them. I hope to find someone I can share the same experience with, one day.

A few blocks down from the park, we found ourselves at Rue de Bonaparte – where one of Pierre Herme store is!

Read my entry on macarons here!

We were hoping for some cheap shopping at St. Sulpice, but it was actually the opposite. All the stores were high end boutiques and expensive! However, we stumbled into a Burberry store and Serena did stumble out with a new coat :P

We wanted to have dinner at a place my french friend recommended but it wasn’t open till 7:30 so we walked to Musee d’Orsay nearby. I was hoping to see Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, but as soon as we got there I found out the painting was currently on loan… in, get this, Singapore. of ALL the countries and time! The good thing is I can still see it as it will be here till Feb 5.

I did enjoy the rest of Orsay very much though. We got to check out Van Gogh’s other works, as well as various works by Claude Monet I had previously learned about. I much preferred Orsay compared to Louvre!

Afterwards we went back to Rue Saint Benoit for french dinner at Au Pied de Fouet, and went home.

Day 13 – November 11, 2011

We woke up bright and early again to the place I looked forward the most. I was a french revolution geek growing up, so I was extremely excited to visit Versailles!

It was located about an hour away from Paris and we took the train to get there.

On the way to Chateau de Versailles. How pretty is this?

The gates outside were entirely painted in gold.

Chateau de Versailles – a beautiful palace where three generations of French monarch lived – Louis XIV to XVI (and his famous queen Marie Antoinette) lived. Upon entering the palace, we were given an audio tour guide which was very helpful. I still can’t believe I was at the very site where Marie Antoinette tried to escape during the beginning of French Revolution!

Versailles

And get this, this is the backyard of the palace. a freaking forest. No big deal!

We started making our way to Petit Trianon, which took about 15 minutes by foot.

From Petit Trianon, we also tried to check out Marie Antoinette’s estate but it was just too cold outside and the park was way too big! so we saw what we could and made our way back to the palace.

The entire Versailles trip took half a day. When we got back to the city, we went straight back to Champ-Elysees to check out Arc du Triomphe.

Nice view of Champ-Elysees from the top of the arc. We were also up there at the right time and got to witness Eiffel tower’s mini light show. Apparently every hour right on the dot, the Eiffel Tower begins to glitter for about 5 minutes.

From there, we went back to our hostel to prepare ourselves for tonight’s dinner at Eiffel Tower!!

Click here for my post on dinner at 58 Tour Eiffel.

Good bye Eiffel tower.

Day 14 – November 12, 2011

We don’t have much to do that day so we slept in and only went out at noon. It also marks my last day in Europe :( I fly out at 9pm that day and Serena flies out at 8am the next day… the whole day we kept saying how much fun the trip has been and how we can’t believe we had to come back home!!

Visited yet another point point chinese food place.. ok, i guess in a way we’re also glad to be coming back home…

They had Sriracha!!

We decided to stop by Sacre Coeur since it’s only 10 minutes away from our hostel.

Our share of morning cardio…

Best decision ever. Sacre Coeur is located on top of a hill, overlooking Paris. the weather was beautiful that day and we got to sit on the steps for awhile, people watching and just enjoying the view of paris.

The small square opposite of Sacre Coeur, Square Louise Michel.

Be careful at the area around the bottom of the steps though! There will be a bunch of people walking around holding what seems to be bracelets, and they would just come up to you and try to wrap these bracelets around your wrist with or without your consent. Once it’s on, they will demand you to pay 5 euros for their silly bracelets! A guy actually grabbed my wrist and tried to put one on me despite my repeated “no no no”, and only backed off because Serena practically YELLED at him!

We decided to finally go for a real Paris shopping trip at Galeries Lafayette

Galeries Lafayette is a famous shopping place. It has all the high end brands house in one single mall! The place was also invaded by Asian people, us being two of them… You know it’s a good deal when there are asians around :P

Not sure if you can tell, but the mannequins on top are tiny models of the actual clothes! i thought it was soooo cute…

My loot of the day – a miu miu wallet for my sister. I got it in a very miu miu color – the pink Mughetto! it was also a great deal since I got it for €310. They retail for US$400 in america and S$660 in singapore, so we saved a few bucks :P

The man was drawn entirely in crayons!

Stopped by laduree to buy a box of 24 macarons for my coworkers. OMG just remembering the heavenly smell of these makes me want to cry T_T

Right after that, we went straight back to the hostel and waited for my shuttle bus to come pick me up at around 7pm. I decided against taking the train with my big luggage, so we booked a shuttle to the airport which costed €20.

Good bye europe… This whole trip has just been amazing and such an eye opener for me. It was definitely a top 3 moment i my entire life thus far!! I will be back some day..

Emirates have pretty decent in flight meal :)

Europe 2011: Venice (5/6)

We arrived at Venice in the dead of the night

Ok, not quite. we arrived at 9:30pm but we’re in Italy and everything just seem to close early.. so we decided to just go straight to our hostel and sleep.

Except, it wasn’t so simple. From the train station we had to cross the Grand Canal, which involves taking a rather long bridge filled with steps – and that’s not so easy when you have a 17kg suitcase in tow.

Day 10 – November 8, 2011

We didn’t have anything planned in Venice except for sightseeing, so we took our time to wake up and only got out the door at 11am. So in a way, Venice and Florence was our “break” destinations since we had to prepare for Paris next.

It’s true what they say about Venice. The place is extremely beautiful and whimsical. Their mode of transportation is obviously by water. I don’t think I saw a single car in the island (except from where we took our shuttle to the airport).

And everywhere you go, there are shops selling Venetian masks. They’re all hand made and very beautiful. You can find all kinds of styles, from vibrant and bold to dainty lace masks.

I think the best thing to enjoy Venice is to just walk around and get lost in the array of small alleys and cute little shops. We walked around for awhile not knowing where we’re going, and that felt very liberating after 1.5 weeks of living by the map.

SUPER CUTE model of bookshelves! the books are really tiny!!

Eventually, we found our way back to the Grand Canal and one of their main bridge, Rialto bridge.

Rialto bridge is huge and filled with more shops. I’m glad we didn’t have to carry our luggage up THIS brudge!

We had a quick lunch at another chinese restaurant (by now we were really sick of western food…) and let ourselves get lost in the midst of Venice’s alleys again… this time we found ourselves at St Mark’s square

Since it’s pretty close to the southern beach and the water seemed high, I suspect this part of Venice gets flooded when it’s raining hard. There were a few raised catwalk-like platforms built on some parts of the square.

Gondolas are super romantic and very Venetian, but we didn’t take any because they are pricey!

Another thing you’d see very often in Venice aside of the masks are these beautiful and colorful jewelries / household appliances made out of a special glass called Murano glass. We decided to take the water taxi to Murano island which costed €13 round trip and took about 30 minutes. I got seasick pretty fast so I spent most of the ride passed out…

Because we arrived rather late at the island, it was very… empty. There was nothing much to do except walk around and shop for more Murano glass, so we went back after an hour.

This beautiful Murano sculpture can be found in the middle of the island.

We looked for a place to have dinner. I really wanted Caprese salad and I finally got it! The rest of the meal was just ok though. I think Venice isn’t really known for their food unless you want to pay for it.

After dinner and walking around a bit more, we decided to call it a day and went back to our hostel to research about our next big (and last T_T) destination… Paris!!