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Sambah River Cruise And Magical Fireflies

We booked ourselves for the half-day Sambah River Cruise tour which starts from the Kampung Bunga, Tenghilan jetty, about 40 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu. We had to drive through…

We booked ourselves for the half-day Sambah River Cruise tour which starts from the Kampung Bunga, Tenghilan jetty, about 40 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu. We had to drive through a local village to get to the jetty giving us a glimpse of what to expect during the tour. We arrived at a huge parking space and a small jetty with some seating space while we waited for the tour to start. In the next few hours, the boat will take us into secluded a water village, explore the life, sights, and sounds of rural living and witness colonies of magical fireflies twinkle in the darkness.

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The tour started at 430pm where we were all given life jackets before hopping into the boat. Our children, 5 and 2 years old (together with our friends and their three children) thoroughly enjoyed the boat ride with the refreshing breeze and occasional splashes into the boat. They roared with laughter every time they got a little wet!

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We arrived at Kampung Sambah, a water village inhabited by the Bajau community. We had a quick pit stop at the jetty for a quick bite of local traditional snacks – goreng pisang (banana fritters) and kuih pinjaram (sweet chewy cake that’s in a distinct green colour).

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This small village of about 200 villagers has only one primary school with an amazing student to teacher ratio of 18:12. We made a beeline to Sekolah Kebangsaan Kampung Sambah after the light refreshments. This small school has a tiny canteen, an English corner, an outdoor play area, a waste segregation shack, a manual water pump that draws water straight from the ground and beautifully decorated school grounds and classrooms. I was amazed at the upkeep of the school and was encouraged by the education opportunity children in this village were given.

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Just outside the school compound, children and youth gathered as they played in the evening cool. There were a group of boys playing football, and another group kicking the sepak takraw ball, and then there were a bunch of younger girls playing chase and cycling around. The atmosphere was one of freedom and simple joy!

We learned that Kampung Sambah is known for udang salai – smoked prawns. This is a local delicacy that is produced mainly in this village where river prawns are smoked for hours until they turn a nice tan brown colour. The taste is distinct and I’m sure will go very well with some sambal (chilli prawn paste) and white rice.

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We headed back to the jetty walking on raised wooded pathways connected to wooden houses. Children peered out from their homes offering friendly waves and bright smiles. Our tour guide pointed out to his house and beamed with pride as he continued to show us around his village.

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We hopped back into our boat just before sundown to a midway jetty where we stopped to have our dinner and tried our hand at fishing. We were each given a plastic ring with a nylon string twirled around it. At the end of the string is a weight and hook where a tiny piece of shrimp is attached. The children enjoyed uncoiling the string into the water and waiting for the gentle tug from the fish nibbling at the shrimp. My son, Seth successfully caught a tiny fish, snapped a photo of his first catch and gently released the fish back into the water.

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If fishing does not entice you, you can simply bask in a hammock and watch the sun come down while enjoying the gentle breeze. We had an early dinner around 6pm, where we helped ourselves to a simple spread of Malaysian favourites – stir-fry vegetables, spicy prawns, fried fish, fried chicken, fresh herb salad, and fruits.

As night fell, each family was given a paper lantern and some markers. We penned some words on the delicate lantern, lit it, waited for it to expand and released it into the sky. It was such a thrill watching the lantern drift into the darkness.

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The magic continued into the night as we hopped back onto the boat to look for fireflies. Our guide used an LED bulb to attract the fireflies and as we neared the colony, the fireflies lit up like a Christmas tree. Fireflies produce light through a chemical reaction (a process called bioluminescence) at the lower part of the abdomen. The beetle although small is not hard to spot especially when it is pitch dark. I’ve seen fireflies in Kuala Selangor (Peninsular Malaysia) but have heard that the numbers have dropped significantly. It’s no surprise as fireflies are a good indicator of a healthy habitat – which means that if we lose natural habitats like this connected mangrove forest, our friendly fireflies will also dwindle. Let’s hope they stick around for long!

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Fun recreational tours like this is an incredible learning getaway. Children can learn about the ecosystem and how human, wildlife and nature are dependant on each other. Here are the details of the tour:

Price: RM80 per adult / RM40 per child (inclusive of dinner)
Note: You will need to drive yourself to the Jetty. If you require transport from KK, there will be additional charges.
Duration: 430 – 830pm (approximately 4 hours)
Website: http://sambah.weebly.com/
FB: https://www.facebook.com/sambahrivercruise
Things to bring: Insect repellant, sunscreen, and water

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Glamping in Snowdonia National Park

Camping was initially on the cards when we planned our stopover at Snowdonia National Park, but quickly realised that most camp sites only rented out tents and sleeping bags – but…

Camping was initially on the cards when we planned our stopover at Snowdonia National Park, but quickly realised that most camp sites only rented out tents and sleeping bags – but we needed other camping essentials for a comfortable experience. With a four year-old and a one year-old with us, we decided not to rough it out in the chilly weather. Snowdonia is known to be cold with super strong winds. We needed to stay warm while having the thrill of being close to nature.

Without searching far, we found the perfect spot at Pant Hwfa Farm in one of their glamping bell tents. In case you haven’t already heard, “glamping” is the fabulous reincarnation of the classic camping experience without the need to pitch your own tent or set up your own rickety camp bed. It’s an ideal choice for those looking for a bit of a rugged experience without compromising on comfort.

We arrived at the farm passing through narrow countryside roads and up a hill slope overlooking acres of farm land. We found some sheep happily grazing and unperturbed at our arrival. Our bell tent opened into a spacious and well-designed space for our family. It had a queen size mattress and two single mattresses all fitted and complete with fluffy duvets, a drawer cupboard filled with proper cutlery, Dutch ovens, a portable stove, a kettle, picnic mats – practically, all the essentials you will need for a cosy stay.There was even an icebox to keep our groceries fresh, a big dispenser of drinking water, hot water bottles, throw blankets and leather cushions for seating. Just outside the tent is a fire drum for cooking and a table and bench with fairy lights for a meal out in the open.

On the evening of our arrival, the winds were so strong that we couldn’t start a fire outside, so we had to cook a quick meal of pasta and meatballs in the tent. Unlike dome or A-frame tents, the bell tent is massive and we did not need to bend over to walk or cook. The space was just right for our small family. We huddled together and slurped up the warm meal in minutes!

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That night, we filled up our hot water bottles and tucked into bed for an early night. The children snored off very quickly making a soft symphony in the quiet of the night. At 5am, I woke up and decided to take a peek at the night sky and was duly rewarded with star studded skies. The soft gentle wind in the stillness of the night was incredibly special, so special that I didn’t go back to sleep. Not long after Terence woke up and started a fire and we sat by the fire and waited for the morning sun to peak.

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By 6am, the birds broke out in singing, the crisp morning dew set in and the sheep started grazing again.

Then the children clambered out from their warm hiding and sat by the fire while roasting marshmallows as we cooked up some eggs and sausages for breakfast. Seth wandered off looking for branches and twigs to pick up while we cleaned up after brekkie, camping style – bucket and water system.
Then we settled back in the tent for some card games and slowly crept back into bed for a late morning snooze. What piggies! It’s rare to find holidays with no agenda but enjoy each other’s company and rest.

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We did some exploring around the national park that afternoon and in the evening we were back at our tent. We cooked a hearty stew in the Dutch oven and for supper, we sipped hot chocolate with our legs tucked into the duvet as we told stories to the little ones. It was cold and windy outside but we were warm and toasty – bliss!

Camping is awesome, but consider glamping if: 

  • It’s your first time sleeping out in the great outdoors 
  • If you’re traveling with young children  and you want a bit of comfort and convenience for your little ones. Camping is a wonderful way to spend time with the family. You can teach them about nature, how to start fire and make smores and how to cook a simple meal over the fire. 
  • The weather is not great and you need a snug shelter for the night but still be able to start a fire and do all things associated with camping. 
  • You’re traveling for a long period of time and don’t have all your camping equipment with you. Sometimes renting equipment can be expensive or you may not find everything you need. 
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The Best of Kota Kinabalu – City Guide

Kota Kinabalu is usually a stop over for travelers who are exploring greater Borneo, but this city is packed with culture, character and charm. Extend your stopover to experience the unassuming…

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Kota Kinabalu is usually a stop over for travelers who are exploring greater Borneo, but this city is packed with culture, character and charm. Extend your stopover to experience the unassuming beauty it has to offer. This comprehensive guide is ideal for newbies to KK and families looking for a short vacation.

To read the digital magazine, head over to: http://bit.ly/kk_goingplaces

For the online version of the guide: http://www.goingplacesmagazine.com/story/city-on-the-move

Note: A quick amendment to one of the points of interests at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort & Spa. If you’re planning on catching a glimpse of the orang utans, head over to Lok Kawi Wildlife Park instead. The hotel’s Orang Utan Rehabilitation Programme has successfully come to a close and the great apes no longer roam the nature reserve. The 64-acre nature reserve, however, is still a fantastic place to explore the wild!

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Sabah: Sun, Sea & Spas

If you’re a first-time traveler to beautiful Borneo, this is your quintessential tropical island. Beautiful white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and an endless supply of fresh coconuts. As with…

If you’re a first-time traveler to beautiful Borneo, this is your quintessential tropical island. Beautiful white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and an endless supply of fresh coconuts. As with all holidays, especially beach holidays, it isn’t quite complete without some pampering.

I visited Mandara Spa at Sutera Harbour Resort, a beautiful spa with sweeping views of the South China Sea. The spa’s lobby opens up to an airy lounge with cascading water pools and a spiral stairway leading up to individual spa suites. The wooden interior immediately brings on a cosy feeling.

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Warm ginger tea was served with a cold face towel scented with peppermint oil. A refreshing start to my pampering session. The spa’s signature massage is the Mandara Massage, four-hand massage. Despite being a spa addict, this was my first time having 20 fingers on my body at the same time.

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The four-hand massage is akin to ballroom dancing, if I may say. It requires a great deal of teamwork and practice. Both therapists massaged me with oil from my back to my feet with smooth and deep motions that are perfectly synchronised. I was quite amazed at how in-synced they were. The pressure was equal, the circular motions and long strokes were flawlessly choreographed.   

After doing my back, I was asked to turn over and then with the same technique, I was given the best head and foot massage. To have one highly-skilled therapist massaging my body is bliss, but to have two therapists doing so at the same time is extraordinarily special.

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The rainforest sounds continue to fill the air and I sip on a glass of water signaling the end of the session. I stare out the huge window overlooking the expansive seas with boats bobbing and thought – I can definitely stay here for hours – especially since the spa suite had a wonderful tub offering the grand view.

It was time to leave – but if you’re a spa lover like me – you wished the clock stopped ticking and the blissful surrender will continue. Fortunately, Mandara Spa is offering a special spa membership with “too good to be true” freebies. See the end of this article for more details.*

The pampering wasn’t quite over yet, I was ushered to the neighbouring Chavana Spa at the Pacific Sutera Hotel, the alternative mid-range stay with magnificent views of the sea and a huge family-friendly pool. Chavana’s bright and lively interior is quite different from Mandara. This day-spa is refreshing the moment you enter in with scents of lime and lemongrass infiltrating the air.

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Another first for me – I was about to indulge in their Elemis Pro-Collagen Quartz Lift Facial, an anti-wrinkle facial using Elemis products. The British brand, Elemis is widely known as the leader in anti-ageing skin care products. Top worldwide spas use Elemis products because of its successive positive case studies. So I thought, why not give it a try! When it comes to beauty regimes, I’m very low maintenance. I enjoy the occasional facial but am mostly content with off-the-shelf products, cucumbers for puffy eyes and homemade scrubs.

For an hour and fifteen minutes, I was treated to delicate cleaning, cleansing and scrubbing with soothing movements on my forehead, cheeks and jawline. The lifting facial massage was most relaxing. Finally, a thin layer of mask was applied and then some serum, moisturiser with some essential oils completed the treatment. In between, my therapists gave me a relaxing shoulder and hand massage removing all the knots on my tense shoulders, often caused by bad posture and sitting at the desk for extended hours.

The Chavana Spa offers a range head-to-tow treatments for tired travellers, honeymooners or spa spa addicts like me. Their signature ‘Journey of the Senses’ is a two and a half hour session starting with a foot bath, body scrub, detox sauna, balinese massage and capping it off with an Elemis facial. 

* Mandara Spa membership: For RM399 the package includes 2 complimentary massages, 1 complimentary facial, a 50% discount voucher and a RM75 redemption voucher. Additionally, you receive a 20% discount on all treatments and other discounts throughout the year especially for spa members. Go to Mandara Spa for more details.

Note: The above treatment was offered to me complimentary courtesy of Mandara Spa and Chavana Spa. Thank you for a day of pampering!

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River Wild Along Kinabatangan

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river…

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river banks in a hunt to find the herd of Pygmy elephants that were last spotted a day ago grazing at the river banks. Our guide and spotter Jamil knew how much Seth wanted to see elephants and readily agreed to the elephant spotting hunt when we set off from Sukau Rainforest Lodge just before dawn that morning.

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The mist lifted from the face of the river and the riverine forest came to live. Egrets took flight in the air and the colourful stork-billed kingfisher awoke for a catch. The forest echoed a symphony of tunes from the low hum of the cicadas to the chatter of playful macaques. Then, we spotted the majestic hornbill flying overtop before perching on a faraway tree. Truly, this was the best wildlife playground for any three-year old – especially, for Seth who is crazy over animals!

The mighty Kinabatangan river stretches 560kms, starting from the Crocker Range in southwest Sabah and ending at the Sulu Sea southeast of Sandakan. It is the longest river in Sabah and is incredibly rich in biodiversity. It is perhaps the most sought after destination in Sabah to spot wildlife – more notably the Borneo Big 5; the orang utan, Pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, crocodile, and hornbill.

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The best way to enjoy the river and her wild inhabitants is by boat. Every morning and evening we set out on safari trips in groups no bigger than 10 people. Small vessels with very quiet electric motors were used to explore the river as we snake into narrow waterways and into mangrove forests. We had cameras and binoculars ready at all times.

Our guide and boatman with laser-sharp eyes pointed to a dark speck on the big tree and through the binoculars, we saw a wild orang utan having his morning snack. Another time, our guide steadied the boat and pointed to the glistening eyes of a small crocodile. I caught a glimpse of it before it swiftly disappeared into the water.

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Traveling with a three-year old toddler and a three-month old baby was an adventure on its own. One time while on an evening safari, we felt a light drizzle starting. Within minutes, the drizzle turned into light showers and I found myself hiding under a raincoat with Seth at my side and Enya, my three-month old on my lap hiding from the rain. We waited patiently for the rain to pass and soon after we were rewarded with a scene of swinging proboscis monkeys and long-tail macaques who came out to play after the shower.

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Back at the lodge, we explored the jungle by foot on the 1,500 feet boardwalk in search of insects and small mammals. We waited for the resident orang utans to make an appearance and to our delight, we sighted two different orang utans during our stay. Our meals were served on an al fresco deck overlooking the river. It was also where new friendships were made as we exchanged notes with other guests on the day’s findings.

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In the dark of the night, after dinner, adventurous guests were given the option to go on another safari treat. It was too good to pass and Seth was eager as ever for another wildlife spotting hunt. The gentle motor boat sputtered on the shadowy river and our boatman scanned the jungle with his spotlight. We saw a kingfisher, a green paddy frog and a family of proboscis monkeys retired for the night. Yet, the most spectacular sight was when the boat came to a halt and the jungle stood still. The star-studded skies twinkled above as we trace our fingers across the milky way. I looked down and little Enya was fast asleep, lulled by the peaceful harmony of nature and the gentle rocking of the boat.

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After three days and two nights in this beautiful riverine jungle, we found it hard to say goodbye. Seth turned me as we were just about to leave and said, “Mom, I don’t want to go home. Can I stay?” There was good reason to stay as we did not see the elephants. In my effort to convince him, I told him – we will be back next time and hopefully, we will be able to see the mighty beast.

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Getting to Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Treat yourself to a fine holiday at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Fly into Sandakan airport and you will be transferred to the jetty where you will take a two-hour boat ride to the Kinabatangan River. This boat ride is a prelude to the adventure that awaits you. Wildlife spotting starts the minute you reach the river mouth. You will pass through small village settlements, oil palm plantations, mangrove and palm forests. The sight of proboscis monkeys is almost a guarantee.

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Malaysia: What I hope others knew

As work takes me to the interiors of Sabah every week, I’m given the privilege to reflect and experience two worlds – the urban life in Kota Kinabalu and the…

As work takes me to the interiors of Sabah every week, I’m given the privilege to reflect and experience two worlds – the urban life in Kota Kinabalu and the rural life in Kota Marudu and Kudat, that’s the tip of Borneo if you were wondering. My family and I travel two to three hours to get to these places, bunk in a hostel with bare basic amenities (fan, cold shower and toilets that don’t flush properly) and spend a few days there building relationships and mentoring youth and children.

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Kota Marudu, the second ‘rice bowl’ of Sabah after Kota Belud. Paddy fields aplenty!

As a West Malaysian, I spent most of my life living in urban Petaling Jaya where houses are neatly lined, where cars rule the road and where shopping malls sprout like fresh shoots. I was driven to school by my parents and I barely had to use any public transport until I started working. I enjoyed eating out and trying new food joints and never had to worry about my next meal. As a child I enjoyed family holidays abroad, as a teenager I had the opportunity to study overseas and as a young adult, I had enough savings to feed my wanderlust occasionally.

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One of the many hidden beaches near Kudat

While I grew up in this environment, I was never sheltered from the world beyond mine. I was actively participating in community work in remote areas, going to places where the need is undeniable and where basic necessities are not commonly met. These short trips gave me a glimpse into the rural life – the life where many urbanites don’t even know of or have experienced. And because urbanites have not seen or experienced it, it’s hard to empathise or even tell others about it.

As I travel to the village every week with my husband, my almost-three-year-old son and a baby in my belly, I’m reminded of how great a privilege we have to see and experience Malaysia as a whole and not just Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya or the big cities. It helps me to appreciate our country for what she has to offer, not just the polished side and to connect with the very people that makes this nation a multi-cultural wonder. Did you know that Sabah has over 20 ethnic groups and Sarawak over 40 ethnic groups? What incredible diversity this country has!

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Pure joy! Playing with kampung children despite the sweltering evening heat.

So as we travel weekly into the interiors and sometimes off the beaten path to explore Sabah’s hidden treasures, I hope to pass these lessons on to my children:

  • That we are birthed in a country for a reason. We are Malaysians for a purpose, find out what it is and stop looking outward for a better life, a fatter paycheck or an easy way out.
  • There will be people that have it better than us, but there are a lot more people that have it worst of – learn to appreciate what is given to us and never complain until you have tried hard enough to find a solution.
  • There is beauty in the simple life. The greatest things in life are not things.
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Beauty in the interiors – you don’t have to look hard.

As embarrassing as it sounds, I feel that I know very little about East Malaysia (Sabah & Sarawak) – her different indigenous cultures, way of life, language and hidden paths. This has challenged my adventurous spirit to get on it and to see more. As an avid traveler, I hope to pass these thoughts on to other travelers:

  • Explore your own country at some point in life because the journey can be a real reflection of you as a citizen.
  • Where possible, travel independently – go off the beaten track into narrow alleys and dust roads. There you will see the places for what it is; exposed, as is and authentic.
  • If you’re only used to only traveling in luxury or five-star comforts, take up the challenge of going for a more rugged option. It will change your perspective on life and allow you a glimpse outside your bubble.
  • If you are traveling with children, it is your responsibility to give them the opportunity to peer into the lens of a bigger world out there. Take them on a volunteering trip or a community development program.
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Kampung children playing traditional gasing (tops)

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Peranakan Princess Pampering At Majestic Malacca’s Spa Village

In Malacca, the early Chinese community that settled in Malaya in the early 17th century were known as Peranakans or Baba (male) and Nyonya (female). They were mostly traders, merchants…

In Malacca, the early Chinese community that settled in Malaya in the early 17th century were known as Peranakans or Baba (male) and Nyonya (female). They were mostly traders, merchants or businessmen and were extremely successful, wealthy and influential. The Majestic Malacca was once a mansion owned by a Peranakan businessman and today, it has been restored to its former glory into The Majestic Malacca with an in-house luxurious spa, also known to be the only one to base its therapies around the healing culture of the Peranakan people.

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My three-hour pampering session began at the front desk where I filled out a questionnaire to determine the kind of treatment I needed; warm treatment for cooler body types and cold treatment for warmer body types. The range of treatments offered celebrates the incredible mix of Chinese and Malay ingredients that are often found in the Nyonya pantry but have been transformed to form a decadent concoction of spa treatments – ingredients such as eggs, palm sugar, ginger, birds nest, pandan, nutmeg and limau kasturi.

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After completing the questionnaire, I was whisked into a private changing room and asked to change into a plush robe. Then I was taken to an airy lounge with spacious Peranakan day beds overlooking the glistening lap pool. Purveyed with cold scented towels, hot Chinese tea and a Mandarin orange, my mind began to wander as my body started relaxing.

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My treatment started soon after as I followed my masseur, Redita upstairs into my private massage suite. Designed to please the eye, the wooden shuttered windows are drawn shut with the slightest hint of sun streaming in accenting the soothing light teal and creme colours of the wall. Two massage beds sat island in the room and the suite has its own toilet, shower and standalone clawfoot bath tub.

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Bliss began as my face was treated with to an exotic birds nest facial. Birds nest, a Chinese prized ingredient is lauded for its healing properties that are thought to boost immunity and bolster longevity. Jade rollers were used at the end of the massage to close the pores and tighten facial muscles. Almost lulled to sleep, my senses came to life as scents of sweet pandan infused the room. I was given a firm head massage before my hair was treated to a thick sweet coconut-pandan hair mask. The aroma almost made me salivate and crave for some good local dessert and I my mind drifted into pure bliss.

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Since I am pregnant, Redita proceeded to give me a pregnancy massage. Laying on my side, she massaged my back and shoulders giving utmost care to ensure my comfort. Her movements were seamless, with long firm strokes expelling all the knots on my stiff shoulders. She was also mindful not to massage my feet and kept the pressure light when massaging my lower back.

Just as I thought my treatment was over, I was treated with a special hair washing treatment, drawing on the twelve step Peranakan wedding preparation for brides. On each of twelve days leading up to the marriage ceremony, Nyonya brides are traditionally pampered and beautified which involves a different ritual every day. The hair washing ceremony ends with a hair combing ritual believed to eliminate impurities and negativity as the bride steps into a new chapter of life.

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After an ultimate three-hour pampering, I sank into the sprawling Chinese day bed and sipped on pot of soothing Chinese tea while savouring on some acar, pickled vegetables and wishfully hoped that the minutes stood still.

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