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Aloft, Kuala Lumpur: The Lifestyle Hotel For Urban Dwellers

Hip, cool and swanky city hotels are on the rise matching the spending power and lifestyles of young professionals and business travellers. The business hotel scene in Kuala Lumpur (KL)…

Hip, cool and swanky city hotels are on the rise matching the spending power and lifestyles of young professionals and business travellers. The business hotel scene in Kuala Lumpur (KL) has enough options to satisfy the busy traveler, from the luxurious Ritz Carlton to the swanky Traders KL. And for many years, the Le Meridien and Hilton KL dominated the scene in KL Sentral, the transportation hub of the city. Not until recently when Aloft KL made its epic entrance.

Seamless check-ins, ipod docks, central phone charging stations, grab & go snack cafes, a virtual concierge, and a 24/7 gym is fitting for the urban dweller on holiday in another city. Aloft KL embodies a lifestyle that gives his guests the comforts of home with the sophistication of a highly trendy atmosphere.

Within walking distance to KL Sentral, Aloft KL picked an ideal spot as a base. It was no wonder the hotel lobby was abuzz when I checked-in on a weekday afternoon. Professionals in sleek business attire, couples in their late 20s and 30s and small families made the crowd. Check-in was literally seamless as I was ushered to W xyz lounge for a quick drink while they processed my details. I was immediately drawn to animated cartoon drawings of personalities such as Elvis, Ronald MacDonald, John Lennon & Men in Black plastered on the wall. These lively paintings are interpretations and works of young and emerging Malaysian artists. With the same vision of promoting the local arts scene, local indie bands jam at W xyz every week.

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Stylish and modern hotel rooms with spectacular views
The contemporary minimalist décor of the city hotel are the best conditions for a relaxing stay in Kuala Lumpur. The room comes with individually-adjustable air conditioning, flat-screen TV, free WIFI and an array of designer teas and coffee. The bathrooms are fitted with rain showers and walled-in body wash and shampoo dispensers. The hallmark of the room is the view, with top-to-toe windows that show off the expansive view of the city’s skyline giving guests a glimpse of the city’s hubbub.

Aloft KL

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Camp Aloft adds a friendly touch for couples with children, a colourful carnival tent and air mattress for the young.

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Breakfast for Kings and Queens
A wide spread of local and European flavours, breakfast is an exciting affair at Nook. Huge syrup-filled syringes, rainbow lolly cakes, bottled marshmallows and trays of cookies keep the buffet spread light and refreshing. A dozen and more choices to choose from, variety is not lacking – local flavours like nasi lemak, beef rendang, sambal sotong, Sarawak laksa and dim sum are a must. Accompanied by fusion picks from the fresh salad deck with an array of cold cuts and cheese, juicy roast beef carving station, eggs from the classic egg-station and heavy skillets filled with hash browns, bangers and mash, breakfast soon becomes brunch.

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Plusses that make Aloft KL a cool stopover:

  • Getting around is a breeze – Sooka Sentral, KLCC, Bukit Bintang are all within easy reach of the hotel or a ride away by train from KL Sentral located just opposite the hotel.
  • Connectivity – Fast free WIFI for all, yes even if you are lounging in the lobby.
  • Affordability – With rooms priced from RM300 / USD90, almost everyone can have a trendy stay.
  • Open- decked Mai Bar – Beanbags for lounging, free bubblies for ladies on Thursday and an electric view of KL by night are three great reasons to grab a drink.
  • Your abs don’t need to go on holiday – With a gym that opens 24/7, your body can recharge with adrenaline anytime.
  • Speedy-Gonzalez lifts – The lifts match the fast-paced city life. With over 30 floors and a never-ending string of guests, fast lifts are a great convenience.
  • Freebies – refresh before heading out with free cordial shots at the re:mix lounge.

Being an urban dweller myself, I’d have to say that I’ve been converted by this chain of lifestyle hotels. Ultimately, what I love is Aloft KL’s vision to grow young talent. From front desk to housekeeping, the Aloft staff, called ‘talents’ are young, vibrant, energetic youth and they are, the very essence that keep the hotel hip, cool, and swanky.

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Spices Residence: The Simple Luxury Of Home Away From Home

Georgetown, Penang’s vibrant capital is a living legacy of stories told and untold. Since its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, Georgetown has undergone a major facelift…

Georgetown, Penang’s vibrant capital is a living legacy of stories told and untold. Since its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, Georgetown has undergone a major facelift with delicate and meticulous precision in an effort to preserve its heritage and old charm. I returned for a visit after many years eager to explore the new Georgetown as opposed to just touring Penang’s Ferringhi beach front as a holiday-goer in my earlier teenage years.

The town is lined with idiosyncratic shop lots, narrow lanes, old-fashioned colonial mansions, ornate temples and schools with washed-out walls. I zigged-zagged in and out of five foot ways (pathways between the shop lots and the road) dodging café tables & chairs, cyclist on the road and the occasional cobbler or keymaker to get some respite from the Malaysian heat. Coffee shops beckon me to try Penang’s delicious meals, new cafes tempt me for a sit down while watching the world pass by and museums are aplenty, some fascinating and some just for the sake of it. What I found most apparent was the numerous independent boutique hotels that have sprouted up.

Georgetown

Spoilt for choice, Georgetown offers a hotchpotch of accommodation options for its travellers. From luxury boutique outfits dotted all over town to budget backpackers crammed on Chulia Street; you pay what you can afford and pick what matches your needs. Since I was traveling with my husband and 5-month old baby, I needed a place that was family / baby-friendly. I stumbled on Spices Residence, a tastefully refurbished set of 4 shop lots tucked in Lorong Lumut an unassuming lane, and a mere stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of Armenian and Kimberly Street.

Lorong Lumut

Set directly next to the Acheen Street Mosque, the set of shop lots dates back to the 1800s and was once a layover for pilgrims’ enroute to Mekkah for the Haj. True to its label, ‘residence’, Spices was restored and designed to ensure that travellers have a homely stay while on holiday. Stepping into the living area, one immediately feels at home with a large plush swinging sofa hanging suspended slightly off the ground, inviting you for a swing. Warm decadent stained glass lamps hang from the high beamed ceiling bouncing off light from the raw brick walls setting the place aglow. Guests are even encouraged to leave their shoes at the entrance while walking barefoot in the residence, just like how we do at home.

Spices Residence_Ardent travelerSpices ResidenceSpices Residence is perfect for couples and families offering simple yet tastefully designed double rooms and loft rooms complete with ensuites. We stayed in the loft room, a split level unit with a day bed and a king size bed with a small balcony overlooking mosque’s open courtyard. It has all the basic amenities you need and no additional unnecessary frills. Still the best room yet, is the family room that fits up to 4 adults, a large split level unit on the first floor with a spacious sitting area. The restored bright green louvred windows and modern fittings make a perfect combination of old and new.

Loft roomSpices Family Suite

An interesting feature in the residence is the Bodhi tree with its roots and veiny bark engraved on the wall outside the courtyard. The living tree is perhaps the oldest asset within the residence. Its leaves still fall into the open narrow courtyard grounds while providing shade for the tiny sanctuary. When rain comes, the Bodhi tree reminds its guests of her existence, with light drips flowing gently through a crack in the living area.

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On the ground floor is a cosy enclave with an oversized sofa and fluffy pillows in blue and green hues inviting you to sink in. A small library of books, magazines and board games are made available to all guests. Taking the open staircase in the courtyard that leads you up to the first floor is the other common area with dashing red and orange furniture taking on a slight Mediterranean feel. This common area transforms into a romantic rendezvous upon sun down as the flickering of candles illuminate the hall.

Still my favourite space is the dining area, as with all home, this is where good food and conversation collide. Beyond the arched brick frames next to the living area, is the dining area. A snug space lined with cushion chairs and acrylic-stained tables. Breakfast is served here with a small selection of Penang bites such as roti canai and mee goreng and the usual western selection of cold cuts, sausages and cheese. Eggs are made upon requests and I was delighted to discover that the 3-man team at Spices are all seasoned cooks.

Spices Residence Living AreaSpices Dining Area

I’ve found a crib in the ever thriving heritage town, a place I’d come back to simply because it really feels like home, a safe haven while on holiday. But more than that, Spices extends a kind of hospitality unlike any other and I’m delighted to have found new friends in our friendly hosts, Malcolm, Celeste and Fareh.

Hop onto the Spices Residence’s website for more information. I’d be back!

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Secret Sanctuary A Stone’s Throw Away From KL

Janda Baik is known to be one of the more popular natural getaways for local KL and PJ urbanites. With umpteen crisscrossing streams flowing through the area, it is a…

Janda Baik is known to be one of the more popular natural getaways for local KL and PJ urbanites. With umpteen crisscrossing streams flowing through the area, it is a popular site for weekend picnickers and small corporate group meetings. Over the recent years, Janda Baik has soared in popularity with new signposts emerging along the winding road leading into the area. From kampung style homestays to conference-type resorts, Janda Baik offers a variety of lodging options.

However, the option of private estates is rare, especially if you are looking for pure exclusivity and excellent hospitality. Aman Rimba was an excellent find. Situated within Kampung Janda Baik, this three acre private estate houses six villas, four of which embodies the Malay kampung (village) style built up. The six villas, Sireh (betel), Serai (lemongrass), Kantan (ginger flower), Halia (Ginger) and Kunyit (Tumeric) named after Malaysian typical well-loved herbs is able to comfortably accommodate up to 25 people, ideal for small corporate groups or large family retreats.

Aman Rimba

I made my way to Aman Rimba on a weekday afternoon in time for lunch. Ashari Shuib, the resort manager greeted me as the sturdy wooden picket door opened into the estate. Cobbled staircase led up to Selasih, an open air pavilion where I was offered a glass of cucumber and lemon house blend. I was immediately drawn to the surrounding garden, an amalgamation of manicured landscaping and rugged kampung lawn. Heliconias, hibiscus, wild orchids, Ixoras and lilies are just a few of the many blooms speckled around the estate.

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I ventured further into Sireh, the first kampung house built on the estate, as Ashari unravelled the story of how Aman Rimba came about. Owned by Sabri Rahman and his wife Wati, Aman Rimba initially started off as a family weekend getaway hideout. “It literally started off with a park table, some chairs and a platform next to the river in front of the resort,” says Ashari. Then Sireh was built and that was the weekend home for Sabri and Wati. Years went by and the couple received many requests for the place to be rented out and eventually, another kampung house came into being, and then another, and finally in 2009, Aman Rimba was open to the public.

The organic growth of Aman Rimba is one of the secret ingredients of why it has retained its homey feel. Leading up to Sireh, the family home, is a large living room area with comfy plush sofas, a selection of good reads, a coffee table and hand-picked furniture and fixtures dating all the way back to the 1950s. One can imagine the spacious living room used as a family space for tea time chats and children playing congkak, a traditional Malaysian game using marbles. Sireh has only one bedroom with a massive four poster bed drabbed with silky linen cloth and a sizable bathroom with a glass ceiling above the shower area.

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Halia, Kunyit and Serai are slightly modern kampung houses with beautifully crafted wooden door frames leading into the house. There is so much attention to detail when it comes to the interior and exterior design of these houses. Every tile, sculpture, bed frame and lamp is hand-picked and each kampung house is different aesthetically, although the layout may be similar.

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A particular highlight in the estate are the newest units; Kantan I and II, a modern and lux dash to kampung living. Kantan features a grand sense of space with a high timber ceiling living area overlooking a pond with bobbing ducks and black swans. The unit offers modern day comforts such as high definition flat screen tv, air condition, power jet Jacuzzi, semi-open air shower area, a massive four-poster bed, unlimited supply of coffee, tea and milo, and a small day-bed cushioned with plush embroidered pillows ideal for daytime lounging. It does get better… as the tall wooden vertical glass windows open up to an outdoor verandah overlooking the entire estate.

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However, at Aman Rimba, the most utilized space is D’Pandan, the common dining area. This is where all the chatter happens and delightful meals are served. Breakfast is thrown in if you stay a night at Aman Rimba, but one will not be satisfied with just breakfast given the selection of local dishes to choose from. From a variety of grilled meats marinated with Malaysian spices to slow cooked curries, from Chinese steamboat options to a blend of western-fusion offerings to soothe your palate, nothing is too difficult for a whip up at Aman Rimba. Ashari jokes, “Sometimes our guest jovially ‘blames’ us for the extra kilos they put on after a stay here.”

D Pandan

I was treated to a generous spread of nasi campur (mix rice) with choice of grilled ikan keli (fresh water fish), ayam goreng berempah (fried spiced chicken), ulam (local herbs), sup tulang (peppery meat soup) and pajeri (slow cooked brinjal) to pick from. Ashari explains that some dishes are cooked in their small in-house kitchen, while other local favourites are bought from the local stalls in Kampung Janda Baik. “We have a select few vendors that we often patronize. It’s our way of giving back to the community,” says Ashari. He adds that some “fresh herbs are plucked from our small herb garden.”

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A mere mention of durian after lunch sent Ashari hunting for the king of fruits. Lo and behold, durian pulut (durian served with glutinous rice) was served for tea. Swimming in a bed of creamy durian santan gravy is block of puffy pulut and golden plump durian. The dish gave new meaning to the king of fruits as the flavours of sweet, salty and decadently pungent merged into a perfect dessert blend.

Durian Pulut

As if there was not enough feasting! Dinner was a huge platter of fresh meats and veggies over a steaming pot of clear broth. After tea, we made our way to the local farmers market in Bukit Tinggi to shop for fresh veggies that will be consumed for dinner. Much to my amazement, the selection was aplenty, with uncommon fresh herbs, veggies and edible flowers to choose from.

Dessrtt

Aman Rimba is designed for families in mind; however it is also ideally suited for corporate groups. With facilities such as a swimming pool, games room, small gazebos sprawled over the estate for small group discussions or quiet contemplation and bicycles for bee lining around the estate, both children and adults will appreciate this place with the exclusivity it promises.

Before I bid farewell, Ashari and I took a walk to Kampung Janda Baik, taking in all that this destination had to offer. Meandering into small gravel dirt lanes, Ashari introduced me to Kampung Janda Baik where wild farms grow uninhibited and cattle roam free. Janda Baik is after all a haven to weekend urbanites, but really, at the heart of it, it is home to local kampung folks – and it is best kept that way.

Chilli Farm - Janda Baik - Ardent Traveler

And so, I left Aman Rimba with a lingering memory that will one day lure me back. Its authenticity of culture and sincerity in service has left an indelible mark of what a top-class Malaysian retreat can be. And what’s not to like? With such good food (that’s the Malaysian in me speaking), I dived into a hearty bowl of mee rebus before bidding farewell.

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Treetop Jungle Retreat At Bandhavgarh National Park

Treehouse Hideaway Images of children climbing up into tree-houses in the summer months chatting away till the yawn of the sun, blankets laid on wooden floors as they watch the…

Treehouse Hideaway

Images of children climbing up into tree-houses in the summer months chatting away till the yawn of the sun, blankets laid on wooden floors as they watch the stars and web of constellations – this was a vivid image, one I watched on television and remained etched in my memory. But this kind of childhood was far beyond reach having grown up in urban landscapes. The only trees left to climb are concrete jungles with flights of stairs.

Hence the thought of retreating to an actual tree-house was a sublime idea, a childhood dream waiting to be fulfilled. Treehouse Hideaway is an exclusive safari experience in Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India. This jungle throve is also a prime area for spotting the maharajah of the forest – the Bengal Tiger. Sitting on 21 acres of land the hideaway has five exclusive tree houses built on the five largest trees in this area; the Mahua, Pepal, Sal, Tendu and Palash trees. Privacy is guaranteed as each tree house offers fantastic views of the forest and some even overlooking the rolling Vindhyan mountain range.

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During the construction of each unit, the owners were mindful to keep as much land untouched as possible often clearing nothing more than pathways for easy access. Recycled wood from railway tracks and fallen timber were used to construct the treehouse matching each piece into a jigsaw puzzle of natural architecture. The tree house is spacious with an open balcony that is accessible from the bedroom or bathroom, a comfortable sitting area, writing desk and a huge inviting four poster king-size bed. Interior designs are intentionally organic with splashes of earthy hues and photos of wildlife to remind you that nature is really in your backyard.

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Spotting tigers is the major highlight for most visiting into this area. The Bandhavgarh National Park authorities recently put a restriction to the number of jeeps entering the park and pre-determined the routes for each vehicle. Although an inconvenience for naturalists and guides to guarantee tiger sightings, this ban has greatly helped lessen the level of human activity and impact in the park. Jeeps no longer crowd in huge numbers just to catch glimpse of a tiger, instead jeeps are evenly assigned to various routes avoiding congestion.

The Ghost Forest

In the summer when the sun is sweltering hot, the morning safaris are a pleasant welcome. Departing at 5.45am in the crack of dawn, our jeep enters the forest through pathways of eerie dry spindly bamboo branches. The feeling was as if entering a ghost forest keeping us at the edge of our seats. The cool dawn breeze swivels in the hair. But within 500m the sight changes as bright green leaves of Sal trees emerged in the background of brown hues. Young shoots just beginning to form giving life to the jungle, otherwise quite bare. I was told that after the monsoon between October to December, the forest transforms into a blanket of lush green foliage.

We soon caught sight of some jungle ‘commoners’ – the spotted deer, barking deer, sambar deer, wild boar, langur and macaque. These animals have grown accustomed to jeeps and gawking visitors as they go about their daily activity. At watering holes, birds are abundant with a mix of endemic and migratory birds. The eye catching ones include the Indian long billed vulture, Grey hornbill, the beautiful Green Bee Eater, the grand Indian roller and the stern looking Lesser Adjutant Stork. Bandhavgarh National Park is home to more than 22 species of mammals and 250 species of birds.

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Along the dirt roads, we noticed a gigantic silhouette, unlike any other mammal found in this area. As we approached the silhouette emerged into a grey bodied Asian Elephant with a man on it. A mahout, that’s what they call it. Obviously not belonging to this forest, elephants are used by park guides to spot tigers travelling at a very slow speed with little noise and interference. Once the mahout spots the tiger, he alerts the gate post and reports are churned out every morning and evening in preparation for the next safari ride.

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Wildlife has its way of protecting itself; Vinod our naturalist tells us that in spotting tigers his sense of sight, smell and sound are completely focused on picking up different signals from nature. Barking deers would make short alarm barks whilst monkeys with screech and deer huddle together at the sight of the terrifying predator. Langurs and deer have a symbiotic relationship, the langur also called the ‘eye of the forest’ spots for predators from high and lofty trees whilst the deer with their keen sense of smell sniff their way out of danger. It is a common sight to see langurs and deer lounging together – for obvious reason, safety and survival.

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Tree House Comforts

Returning to the treehouse after more than three hours of wildlife spotting, the staffs at tree house really looks into the needs of the guests, providing fresh cool towels to freshen up and refreshing lime juice for the dry throat. A generous spread of cereal, toasts, eggs, potato cakes and juices are served. Meals at the Tree House Hideaway are always generous but never too heavy, with a great mix of Indian flavours and organic greens bought from the local markets and a small portion from the resident veggie patch.
In the summer, pretty much the entire afternoon is spent relaxing at the tree house. The temperature rises to uncomfortable levels and the air is dry and arid. But the tree house remains a welcoming treat. Walking up the dainty stairs of my tree house, a family of langurs greet me as I watched them play among my great and grand Mahua tree house. A childhood dream fulfilled.

[info] How to get to Bandhavgarh National Park

  • By Air: Fly from Delhi, Agra or Varanasi to Khajuraho and drive (7-8 hours) to Tala park entrance at Bandhavgarh. Nearest airport from the park is Khajuraho. From the airport to the park, you will need road transfer.
  • By Rail: Nearest railway station is Umaria after Katni railway station, from there it is about 2 hours to the park. Alternatively, take the overnight train from Delhi to Umaria and drive (30 minutes) to the park.
  • Best time to visit: The peak season for Kanha National Park visits is the winter season, from October to February. During the summer months from March to June, tiger sightings are at its best as the grasslands dries up making it easier to spot wild animals. The park is closed from July to September during the monsoon season.

For more information on Treehouse Hideaway, visit http://www.treehousehideaway.com
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Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm

“You went to a prison while on holiday?” the expression is one of disbelief tinged with curiosity. Here’s where I chance on the opportunity to tell the story of my…

“You went to a prison while on holiday?” the expression is one of disbelief tinged with curiosity. Here’s where I chance on the opportunity to tell the story of my visit to the Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm in Puerto Princesa (PP). Evidently prison visits are not top of the list attractions for most destinations, but in PP there is enough reason to visit when I learned that this was a “free” prison.

Passing through lush olive paddy fields dense villages while trying not to inhale dust kicked up from the dirt covered road, I sat in my tricycle wondering how I should greet the prisoners. Would I dare look them in the eye? Surveying my outfit for the day I couldn’t help but wonder if my shorts, buttoned shirt and flip flops was an appropriate choice. Anyway, it was too late to turn back, if the guards stopped me at the gate, I would just have to use my shawl and wrapped around as a sarong.

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The huge sign with the words ‘Iwahig Prison & Penal Farm’ beckoned us as we approached the compound. A guard armed with a long rifle motioned us to him and made a quick check before waving us in. It was another five kilometers to the prison hub where the prisoners live. The weather was perfect for a field day with clear skies dotted with cotton clouds and monstrous hills as the backdrop. The view was as far as the eye can see; paddy fields, fish farms, veggie plots and organic gardens.

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We arrived at the souvenir shop, an elevated big wooden building with two large stairways leading up to it. Upon entering the building, a man dressed in regular clothes enthusiastically ushered me in and immediately went into ‘selling mode’ showing me wood carvings, key chains, baskets, t-shirts and pearl earrings. It felt a lot like walking into a market with constant harassing from hagglers, but after firmly declining with a, “No thank you, I will just have a look”, they eased off.

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I was eager to learn who the prisoners were when suddenly without warning, music started to play. A group of men in yellow shirts leaped into position showing off a fairly impressive dance routine laced with quirky self-induced moves. I noticed all their t-shirts had the letter “P” print at back; I turned around and asked the same guy who tried to sell me stuff if they were prisoners. He said, “Yes ma’am, they are prisoners. And so am I”. At this point I was in quiet disbelief while watching the dance. I had just spoken to a prisoner thinking he was a guard!

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He introduced himself as Oliver and showed me his tag and proudly explained that he is ranked a corporal – by prison standards that mean he gets to oversee other inmates. Oliver has a kind looking expression plastered on his face and his tan face had many deep wrinkles inscribed on it, perhaps from the many untold stories of living in prison.

I went on an interview spree with Oliver asking him about life in Iwahig. From where we were standing, he pointed to the high security building where prisoner are kept in a lock up 24/7. “What about the ‘free’ prisoners?” I asked. To that he said, “85% of prisoners here are free. They work in farms, grow vegetables, feed fish and make souvenirs. They come back in the evening to sleep in the quarters”. Prisoners are not handcuffed or chained; they walk freely sharing the 200 acre compound with 3000 inmates. Quite a blissful life, one might think, but when I asked Oliver if he was happy in Iwahig, he stared deeply into my eyes and with such sadness in his voice he said, “Ma’am, no one is ever happy in prison”.

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Oliver committed a dreadful murder at 22 years old and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Now at 45 years old he shared with me his longing to see his family. At 22, he left his wife and daughters (ages 2 and 4) in Baguio to live behind bars in Bilibid prison in Manila. At that time, he brought with him photos of his family as memorabilia knowing that it would be impossible for them to visit him as it would cost too much. When Oliver was later transferred to Iwahig Prison, the photos were confiscated from him and to date; he has no tangible proof of his family except for what is etched in his memory and the deep lines on his pleasant face.

With a smile stretched across his face, he day-dreamingly said, “Now my daughters are adults”, I couldn’t help but question, would his daughters even know their father is here? Oliver has never written a letter or communicated to anyone since his imprisonment. Each letter requires six stamps costing about 120pesos (MYR 9) and the fact is, although it is a free prison, there is no way of earning any money here.

Slightly more well off inmates who have some financial support from their family would bribe the prison guards for the use of their cellphones. Others those who can’t bear isolation from the outside world would eventually try to escape hiding in hillsides and paddy fields for days and weeks. Oliver tells me tales of prison escapes but he said, “Not many are successful, but a few have escaped”.

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We walked around the building and stopped at a large window overlooking the prison canteen. Clearly there weren’t any scrawny looking prisoners in sight and that is because food rationing at Iwahig is pretty decent. Each person is given a week’s supply of 4.5kg of rice, 2 packs of rice noodles, 7 tins of sardines, 2 eggs, 6 pieces of dried fish and 4 pieces of fresh water fish. Veggies are given only if there is a harvest from the garden. To that, Oliver has little to complain about.

With decent food supply, freedom to roam vast plains and the opportunity to meet tourists from different countries, Iwahig seems like paradise to prisoners, but because the Philippines is a country of many islands separated by seas, transportation and communication is a problem. Given the fact that most prisoners come from financially deprived families and squalor conditions, every prisoner knows that once he is sentenced, there is no turning back. They leave behind everything that meant something to them. Their world is a prison, whether free or not.

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My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience (Final Part 3)

Shergarh Tented Camp Not far from Singinawa is another remarkable story of change makers who have steered away from mass tourism to create a unique kind of travel with a…

Shergarh Tented Camp

Not far from Singinawa is another remarkable story of change makers who have steered away from mass tourism to create a unique kind of travel with a focus on nature and people.

The making of Shergarh Tented Camp is a story that tugs at heartstrings. It is a story of love and passion resulting in a concoction of wildlife hospitality. Jehan Bhujwala grew up in the metropolitan city of Bombay having only the concrete jungle as his playground. He furthered his studies in geology and mastered in it but soon realized an insatiable longing to live life in the wild. He purchased a 21-acre land on the fringe of the buffer zone adjacent to Kanha National Park in 2001 whilst working at Kipling Camp, the first camp built near Mukki gate. In 2002 Katie, a British girl from a village close to Bath in the United Kingdom was so drawn to India after an extended backpacking trip that she decided to find a job at the same camp, and love struck.

At that time, Jehan was living in a tiny mud house on his property and had already started conceptualizing the idea of a tented camp. With extra hands and a like-minded partner, ideas soon evolved into reality and Jehan and Katie began building the camp. “This was not going to be any ordinary camp. With Jehan’s experience as a naturalist and my insight on travels after much destination hopping during my backpacking years, we both decide that this camp will honour and respect the environment and people living around,” explained Katie.

They adopted villages around the vicinity, hired local communities to help build the camp and fostered impeccable relationships with the villagers. “For many villagers, tourism was a foreign and new concept to them, especially when Shergarh Tented Camp was one first few properties established near Mukki gate. Today, they are like family.” said Katie. “We have incorporated local skills and techniques into the lodge as much as possible, such as their dry-stone masonry and mud-plasterwork, and have used local carpenters, masons, plumbers and electricians.”

Due to poor knowledge of sustainable agriculture practices, the 21 acre land was completely degraded and overused. Katie explained that the entire land space was filled with invasive and chocking eucalyptus trees, biodiversity was close to barrenness and the land was starved. The pair spent many months and years regenerating the land, chopping down eucalyptus for construction and firewood in the winters. Indigenous trees were reintroduced to the land and the beautiful waterbed that sits in the middle of the land continued to feed the trees.

We walked past the waterbed to reach our tents, and much to our delight, we saw egrets, commorants, kingfishers and bee- eaters basking in the water. Katie tells us that jackals and wild boars frequently roam the area and just at the entrance amongst the patch of tall green meadows, a jungle cat has made that his home. Katie recollects an incident when the name Shergarh meaning “Home of the Tiger” resonated. “In November 2008, a 5-year old male tiger strayed from the core forest and took refuge from (in?) the surrounding paddy fields”.
Shergarh Tented Camp (15)

Camp in Comfort

As we ambled into the vicinity of Shergarh Tented camp in Kanha, we were expecting high A-framed tents, foldable camp beds, make shift toilets and simple skinny mattresses, but what we found at Shergargh was a haven of comfort and simplicity. The rugged looking canvas tent is tied securely on concrete A-frame structure with a sturdy roof made of handmade clay roof tiles. The tents are incredibly roomy inside with a large king sized bed, bedside tables and a spacious permanent toilet, shower and open closet area. Just outside the tent, a few plush cushion mattresses and deck chairs are cleverly positioned to great views of the lake and the open skies as we watch the stars emerge at night.
Shergarh Tented Camp (9)

The tents take on names of indigenous trees in India such as Tulsi (Indian basil), Aam (mango), Jamun (blackberry), Imli (tamarind), Mahua and Neem. Many of these trees were re-planted around the property in their effort to revive the degraded land.

Shergarh Tented Camp (17)Shergarh Tented Camp (18)

Moving away from a tiger-centric approach

While it’s easy to take on a tiger-centric approach as tiger sightings are almost a daily affair, the couple knew that that would not do justice to the rich diversity in Kanha. Instead they have expanded their list of activities to include village visits, walking hikes and bike tours.

In October 2011, Shergarh will be offering bespoke bike tours from half day tours to 3-day tours. These cycle ‘tolla’ tours (tolla meaning village) will take guests off the beaten track from Kanha through villages and obscure towns to Pench National Park (approximately 200km) or Bandhavgargh National Park (approximately 250km). Exploring the Madhya Pradesh region on two wheels opens a new spectrum of experience for guests giving them a chance to interact with locals, savour chai at roadside stalls, weave through tall paddy fields and stay with local communities. For a more rustic camping experience, guests have the option of camping out in the open and cooking meals over fire and charcoal.
Shergarh Tented Camp (26)
Whether it is a lodge or a tented camp, conscious travellers are now looking for more than just a comfortable place to stay. I found myself searching for operators who are committed to preserving the destination and operators that can offer authentic experiences crafted through their commitment and understanding of the destination and the surrounding people. At Kanha, I found two champion operators who are investing time and resources to preserve the very thing that tourists come to Kanha for, a genuine ‘Jungle Book’ experience.

[info] How to get to Kanha National Park

  • By Air: Nagpur is the nearest airport to Kanha National Park. Other airports include Raipur and Jabalpur. These airports are all connected to major cities in India.
  • By Train: Jabalpur is a convenient rail route to head towards Kanha National Park.
  • By Road: Kanha National Park is well connected with major roads from Jabalpur (175kms), Nagpur (266kms) and Raipur (219kms). Kanha also has a good network of roads connecting to surrounding national parks such as Bandhavgarh, Pench, Panna, Achanakmar and Phen National Park.
  • Best time to visit: The peak season for Kanha National Park visits is the winter season, from October to February. During the summer months from March to June, tiger sightings are at its best as the grasslands dries up making it easier to spot wild animals. The park is closed from mid-June to October during the monsoon season.
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… read Part 1 and Part 2 of My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience

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My Indian “Jungle Book” Experience (Part 2)

Singinawa Jungle Lodge (Protector of the Sacred Forest) My visit to Singinawa Jungle Lodge fuelled my passion to discover this unique relationship between tourism and conservation. I met with Dr….

Singinawa Jungle Lodge (Protector of the Sacred Forest)

My visit to Singinawa Jungle Lodge fuelled my passion to discover this unique relationship between tourism and conservation. I met with Dr. Latika Nath Rana, a petite lady with captivating big brown eyes and her husband, Nanda SJB Rana, a friendly man with an imposing build. Both wildlife enthusiasts heeded their passion for the wild and eventually led them to cross paths. Latika is a wildlife biologist and the first woman to be awarded a doctorate on tiger conservation and management from the University of Oxford. She is also fondly dubbed as the “Tiger Princess” being married to Nanda who hails from the Royal Rana family of Nepal. Nanda is a tiger photography expert and film producer having worked for notable organizations such as National Geographic, BBC and Discovery Channel.

Both knew that they had a strong role in the fight to save tigers. With their wealth of knowledge on tigers and Nanda’s love for hospitality, they bought an initial piece of land just outside of the buffer zone bordering a local town named Bayar. It was evident that the main reason tourists visited Kanha is for the wildlife, more specifically for the tiger. The pair knew all too well that the fight to save tigers is not a single minded quest; instead it required tourists to be educated, locals to sense pride, government to buck up and private enterprises to take on the role as catalysts. Hence the inception of ‘Singinawa’, which takes its meaning from a Sherpa term, the “Protector of the Sacred Forest”.

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Nanda understands the need and importance of embracing the local community, “if we start something, it needs to make a difference to the people around it”. They hired over 350 local people for the construction of Singinawa. For 10 months, a small community was formed as local men shared craftsmen skills, exchange stories of wildlife encounters, and shared life together. Many of them stayed on to be part of the Singinawa family.

The construction of Singinawa Lodge was no easy feat with many minute considerations to take into account in order to lessen the impact on the environment. Details such as land use, building material, waste management, energy source and water management and wildlife management were part of the equation. A sustainable property was the only kind of property that Latika was willing to build, stating, “If I as a conservationist and wildlife biologist set a place and don’t think about conserving it, who will? It is a responsibility I owe”.

The Lodge

Today, Singinawa provides affordable and comfortable living with a grand main house and 12 individual cottages dotted around the 55 acre land. The once degraded land choked by lantana has now been restored and it is home to two resident leopards, chital, wild dog and wild boar.

Every structure is designed and built around existing trees and a great evidence of that is upon entering the main house with a lofty tree at our welcome. The interiors of the main house are decorated with heavy wooden furniture and leather bound chairs giving the impression of castle, perhaps influenced by Nanda’s upbringing of living in palaces most of this childhood. The grandeur of this building is further enhanced by the magnificent photos of tigers set in bold frames, all taken by Nanda who is notably the only photographer who has documented six generations of tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park just six hours away.

On wintry nights, the cosy fireplace in the library makes for a perfect seating for stories. The double walls provide adequate insulation in the winter and perfect cooling in the summer. A natural air cooling system channels hot air out and cool air in eliminating the need for air conditioning in the main hall. And where possible, without the disturbance of langurs and macaques, solar panels have been fitted to provide energy for external lighting.

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Creative conservation

As conservationists at heart, it wasn’t enough just to set up a lodge for wildlife enthusiasts or holiday makers. Latika and Nanda thought up innovative ways to raise money for conservation and community development projects. Last year, Latika rallied a group of well-known artists from all over the world for a 10-day retreat the lodge. Surrounded by incredible wildlife, great food and organic inspiration, the artists produced passion-laden paintings that were later auctioned to raise funds for tiger conservation projects such as the building of watering holes for tigers in Kanha.

In 2008, the Singinawa Foundation was established with a steady flow of funds coming from the Spa at Singinawa. Guests who pay to be pampered at the Spa are contributing to the wellbeing of the villagers around the lodge. Through monies raised, medical camps are organized and critically ill villagers are being sent to hospitals that they could never afford to pay.

The need never stops and as long as operators like Singinawa continues to thrive, protected areas are a little safer, wildlife can continue to flourish and local communities will grow in their sense of pride and belonging that they too are “Protectors of the Sacred Forest”.

… continue reading to Part 3 (final) or go back to Part 1

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