Friday, May 22, 2009

Holiday with apes

A trip to Africa is a holiday of a lifetime for most travellers, but for marketing executive Rina Yazid, 29, and her husband, it was to learn about the Great Apes. The trip saw them volunteering their time at sanctuaries for gorillas and chimpanzees in Rwanda and Uganda. Today talks to Rina about her travels to east Africa and why she decided to spend her holiday last year caring for primates.

When did you become interested in volunteer tourism?

My husband and I have been working with charity organisations like The Christina Noble Children’s Foundation for a few years now. While these are extremely worthwhile causes, it is more interesting and engaging to spend time with the mountain gorillas and chimpanzees at The Jane Goodall Institute at Ngamba Island, Uganda, and The Dian Fossey Gorilla Foundation in Rwanda. We have been fascinated by primates — and Africa — all our lives.

090521-Africa01 Rina and her husband channeling Dian Fossey. PHOTOS: RINA YAZID

It also helps that (primatologists) Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey have been idols of ours since childhood. We have always wanted to get lost in the jungles of Africa and do something like these women.

What did your work at the sanctuary involve?

First — feeding the chimps. These guys eat all day long in the wild but in the sanctuary they have to be fed because the island (Ngamba) cannot sustain them. That means the caregivers have to prepare specific meals for them and they have to be fed four times a day. The morning feeding is the most fun because they are all so active and boisterous.

The sort of food they eat is carrots, mangoes, jack fruit, sweet potato and watermelon. These are cut and mixed in buckets and once the head keeper says we can start, we gradually throw the food out to the chimps, making sure we spread it out as fairly as possible. The big ones will have first go at the food, so we keep some of it back for the smaller ones and females.

After the feeding, we can either help clean the cages that the chimps spend the night in or help with the recording of daily activity notes. These are notes for caregivers to keep track of what is happening over time with the chimps.

The best “job” is taking a walk with the chimps into the jungle. You cannot help but feel at one with them. They come out of the cage and walk straight to the person they want to be with. It’s an amazing feeling to have a chimp pick you as their friend.

Once they have your hand, they climb on your back and you piggy back them through the jungle for an hour or so. Along the way, you will stop for a rest where the chimps will present their backs or arms or legs for you to clean for them; and while you may not be cleaning anything off them, it is a form of bonding and for them to get to know you better. After a while they may reciprocate and start cleaning the fictitious bugs from your clothes and the feeling is absolutely priceless.

090521-Africa02 Baby chimp at Ngamba Island sanctuary.

What are your impressions of Uganda and Rwanda?

Everyone thinks of Singapore as a clean country — Rwanda is clean, too! This is hands down the cleanest country we have ever been to. Truck drivers have their plastic bags confiscated as they cross the border. There is no rubbish anywhere — even in the drains of the capital city Kigali.

Rwanda now has a reputation in Africa as the least corrupt nation on the continent and it shows. The police are stern-faced but polite. The border guards are all stiff and unfriendly but not intimidating in any way.

There are reminders all over the country of the horror of the genocide but that was over 10 years ago and if you ask a Rwandan if they are Hutu or Tutsi, they will answer “I am Rwandan/Rwandese”. The war is over and they have moved on. It is a nation of forgiveness and this shows everywhere.

As for Uganda, I will admit that we did ask all the compulsory questions about safety and getting around. We were told there is nothing to worry about and kind of left it at that. At no point during the trip did I feel I was in any danger. The only guns we saw were with the park rangers and they were with us and held the guns for protection against what lurks in the jungles (wild animal attacks).

How did you book your trip?

We worked through a travel agency in South Africa called African Pride who concentrate on Southern Africa but partner with Wild Frontiers for central and east Africa.

The trip was 18 days and covers Rwanda and Uganda. The Africa package, including flights to Entebbe and all hotels, transfers, driver, food, tours, treks, park fees and just about everything else was about US$17,000 ($26,000) for two people.

We could have done it more cheaply had we not stayed in expensive lodges. What we got from this trip, though, were memories to last a lifetime and a passion and respect towards all primates that have got stronger ever since.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 21-May-2009

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

What’s cool about it?

Hurrah! There are now direct, budget flights to West Java’s capital. CHEN FEN takes a trip to report on the attractions of the city, starting with the climate

One thing struck me the moment our plane landed in Bandung, the capital of West Java in Indonesia. It was as if the city was entirely air-conditioned, with cool air that wrapped itself gently around you making it hard to reconcile this with being right smack at the equator. Bandung has its high altitude to thank for its lovely weather. Sitting over 700m above sea level, the city built by the Dutch is surrounded by mountains dotted with tea plantations.

From the air, Bandung is a warren of low houses packed cheek by jowl. On the ground, some of those houses turned out to be elegant Dutch-style homes, many with roofs of shingle made from ironwood. We caught a glimpse of these homes of the rich as we drove from the airport through the district of Chipaganti. Light twinkled from their windows in the twilight giving us a view of what the Dutch colonials of old must have seen as they strolled the quiet streets lined with graceful mahogany trees.

090521-Bandung01 Although the city’s buildings look old, many house hip shops and restaurants. A bakery selling Dutch pastries (above) reflects the town’s colonial heritage.

The face of Bandung changed as we came to its centre. It was here that those warrens seen from the air revealed themselves. What they lacked in elegance was more than made up for by the sheer energy of the street life. Tiny ramshackle street stalls were everywhere, fronting crowded buildings; many looking the worse for wear. Yet, a closer look revealed some of these old buildings housed hip shops, restaurants and clubs that would not be out of place in a big city filled with skyscrapers and shopping malls.

Shopping in Bandung is a dream if you are into cheap factory knock-offs. The factory outlets do a brisk trade in throwaway chic at prices that will make you gasp. Spend an afternoon rummaging through these huge outlets and you could come away with a new wardrobe for a hundred dollars or so. There is even a whole street dedicated to jeans if you need more denim in your life.

090521-Bandung02 Steamy Gunung Tangkuban Parahu (right), a volcano situated 40km from town, is popular with visitors.

When you tire of shopping, it is time to head for the mountains. Gunung Tangkuban Parahu, about 40km from town, is the local natural wonder. The crater of this volcano is still steaming, sending wafts of sulphur-tinged hot air into the atmosphere. Do not expect a quiet commune with nature though. It felt like half of Bandung was there when we visited, everyone jostling for a spot by the crater’s edge just to stare at the giant gash half-filled with water and ash.

When you are done with the crater, give the souvenir stalls a once over to pick up some cheap trinkets as a reminder of your visit. Better yet, snag a tray of locally grown strawberries from the hawkers weaving their way through the crowds. Be sure to find a spot away from the vehicular traffic before you sample the tiny, sweet yet slightly tart strawberries. Carbon monoxide from the seemingly unending stream of vehicles together with sulphur from the volcanic steam can be a heady, potent mix.

Getting there: You can fly from Singapore directly to Bandung on AirAsia. The budget airline is the only carrier with daily flights from Changi Airport and back. On top of this, it will expand it routes to include the Malaysian destinations of Penang and Langkawi starting June 1. Log on to for more information.

Moving around: Locals rely on the ANGKOT to get around town. These minivans take about 15 passengers each and are colour-coded to show the direction they are heading. The ANGKOT may be the cheapest form of transportation. But instead of trying to unravel the mysteries of the colour code, it might be easier to hop into a taxi or rent a car. If the taxi is your choice, make sure it has a meter for the fare.

Have a drink: Don’t go looking for bandung in Bandung. The pink drink made with rose syrup is nowhere to be found. Have some bandrek instead: A hot ginger drink with strips of fresh coconut in it. Also try the bajigur, a drink made with coconut milk poured over thick slices of “buah attap” from the nipah palm. Both drinks are flavoured with palm sugar.


The people of Bandung are proud of their “kampung” chicken, grilled or fried and eaten with a variety of sambal, some sweet, some fiery hot. They say the best is at R M Ayam Goreng Brebes located at Jalan Raja Lembang, 272, on the road to Gunung Parahu.

Be sure to give the delicious Tahu Lembang a try too. The deep fried cubes of bean curd mixed with soya milk are crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 21-May-2009

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

A walk in the wild

Tan Chui Hua encounters ‘Dutchmen’ monkeys, nature’s death traps and more in the outskirts of Kuching

Here’s how a typical day trip to Bako National Park goes: First, take a boat ride down Bako River to the South China Sea. Sight a saltwater crocodile along the way. Mull over the choice of forest trails, and choose one or two out of the 16. Trek through seven eco-systems with 25 types of vegetation.

Stop, take pictures of carnivorous plants. Gasp at their ingenious traps.

090521-Sarawak03 Count the number of Proboscis monkeys you meet on the way. Curse yourself for leaving your long range telephoto lens at home. Incidentally, these monkeys, endemic to Borneo, are cheekily nicknamed “Orang Belanda” (Dutchmen) by the locals, who believe the Caucasian’s long, red nose and ruddy complexion resemble the monkeys’ appearance.

Sweat. Pant. Reach a high point and gasp again, this time at the view of pristine white beaches and the sparkling sea. Head down for a dip before going back to the forest.

090521-Sarawak01 And, the best part of it — you get to experience all of this in just a few hours at the park, which is merely a couple of hours away from Changi Airport.

Bako is Sarawak’s oldest national park, gazetted in 1957 by the former British government. At 2,727 ha, it is one of Sarawak’s smallest national parks. Remarkably, it has one of the richest and most diverse flora and fauna. No time to visit all of Borneo? Go Bako. It is the best place to experience and see almost every representative type of vegetation on the island.

090521-Sarawak02 Located to the north of Kuching, Sarawak’s capital, Bako sits on the coastline of the South China Sea. Its list of natural and geographical assets runs long — beaches, sea stacks, limestone formations, cliffs, various types of forests and vegetation, waterfalls etc.

The one fact you need to know about Bako is that there are seven complete eco-systems in this small park. Upon alighting from the boat, you will first encounter beach vegetation. Here, it is usual to see monkeys foraging for food in the early morning or late evening. Go a little inland and find mangrove forests.

Plunge into the mixed dipterocarps forest next, where all the big trees are. Depending on where you head to, you may venture into heath forests. This is the best place to see different species of pitcher plants and other carnivorous plants. Otherwise, you may find yourself exploring grasslands or peat swamps. To get to the beaches, clamber down cliff vegetation. Take in panoramic views of the sea as you do so.

As Bako has been a national park for more than 50 years, the animals have become less timid. Sightings of wildlife are also not as challenging as in other parks since vegetation in many areas is low and sparse. Monkeys are the most easily found animals here, from macaques to Proboscis monkeys and the attractive silver leaf monkey. Beware the macaques — they do not hesitate to rob you of your food and belongings. You can also see various snakes, mammals such as the Bornean Bearded Pig and otters.

It is easy to customise your visit to the park. Sixteen trails are clearly marked and well-maintained. There are the no-sweat trails and there are the heave-and-pant ones. Some take a couple of hours to walk and some half a day or even a full day.

For initiates, the Telok Paku trail takes you through mixed dipterocarps forest and cliff vegetation. It takes about an hour and a half to walk, and ends in a small secluded beach. Proboscis monkeys are often seen on this trail. Listen for the crash of vegetation or grunting noises.

The Lintang Trail is one of the most popular in Bako, because you get to experience every eco-system Bako has to offer. This loop takes three to four hours, depending on how often you have hit the treadmill. See lots of pitcher plants along this trail.

The best trail in the park offers breathtaking views of the coast and the peninsula where the park is. But good things don’t come easily. This is a serious seven-hour trek that requires you to climb up and down hills, crossing streams and sweating buckets. You know you’ve arrived when you reach the very secluded (unsurprisingly) beach. Camp overnight and head back the same way. Or, be nice to yourself and pre-arrange a boat to pick you up at the beach. After all, it’s a park by the sea.

Stealthy predators

Bako’s a good place to get up close and personal with meat-eating plants. Other than various species of pitcher plants, there are the sundew and bladderwort which have a taste for trap and kill. Here’s the bluffer’s guide to act the expert.

090521-Sarawak04 There are many kinds of traps plants use to get their prey. Pitcher plants use a trap known as the “pitfall”. It’s easy to see where the name comes from. Pitcher plants grow cups, where rainwater and digestive juices collect. Unwary insects and even small animals fall in, drown and become food for the plants.

The sundew uses the “flypaper”, trapping its prey which walks across its sticky leaves. The bladderwort deploys an ingenious “bladder” trap. It has a bladder with a small opening. The bladder creates a vacuum inside by pumping out small ions through the process of osmosis. When an insect is near, the plant is alerted and releases its vacuum, sucking the insect in. Unfortunately, it all happens underground, so you don’t get to see the action.

090521-Sarawak05 Pitcher plants in Sarawak are of the “Nepenthes” genus, the pitchers of which are known as “monkey cups” because monkeys drink from them.

Many pitcher plants grow on poor, acidic soils, which is why they need animal supplements for the nitrogen intake

Sarawak tips

• Stay a night or two at the park’s chalets to explore it in depth.

• Get a guide. A good guide makes all the difference in your appreciation of Bako’s diverse flora and fauna, such as the symbiotic relationship between ant plants and their host trees.

• Watch out for saltwater crocodiles, which may be found near river mouths and mangrove swamps. And also food-snatching monkeys — so keep your food out of sight, and don’t feed them.

• Bring a hat. A good portion of Bako’s trails are in open bush and scrubs, where many of the pitcher plants thrive. Sunscreen will not suffice.

• For more information: Check the Forest Department of Sarawak’s website at

Fast facts

Getting there: Bako National Park is easily accessible from Kuching, capital of Sarawak. Kuching is a short one-and-a-half hours from Singapore by plane. Regular flights by budget airlines such as Jetstar Asia have made it economical to travel there. To get to Bako, take a 45 minute bus ride to Kampung Bako. From there, take a 30 minute boat ride to the park.

Stay: Accommodation in Kuching — If you are visiting Bako on a day trip, there are plenty of choices in Kuching. The influx of backpackers has seen a mushrooming of budget inns. Upmarket choices include the Hilton Kuching, whose rooms have a great view over the Sarawak river. Accommodation in Bako National Park — You get to choose your accommodation in the park too! There are campsites, a hostel and lodges, ranging from RM5 ($2) to RM100 per night.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 21-May-2009

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Monday, May 18, 2009

Snapshot Sorrento

If you're shopping for a million-dollar Bulgari necklace, Rome is the place.

But my favourite souvenir spot in southern Italy is Sorrento, especially during the uncrowded spring or fall.

Sorrento, 48km south of Naples on the Amalfi Coast, is perched precariously on a cliff, the azure Mediterranean sloshing below.

Its cobblestone-paved, walkable shopping district — small enough to enjoy in a couple of hours — is just off the main square, Piazza Tasso.

Stroll down the narrow shopping streets with names like Via San Cesareo and Via de Maio. See signature marquetry work — intricate wood-inlay jewellery boxes, music boxes and furniture. There's a shop that makes cameos and another creates jewellery out of red coral. You can buy local embroidery and lace.

At a shop or the city-owned lemon grove, buy the local liqueur called limoncello, a bitters the colour of a smoky sun made of lemon peels.

My favourite purchases were purses I bought for my four daughters in a little shop that had only the English word "Gloves" out front. They were made of smooth Italian leather, quite inexpensive, US$20 ($30) — one tan, one red, one black, one white — and the shopkeeper carefully wrapped each in a fabric drawstring bag.

I lugged them from Italy all the way home in a big shopping bag, stuffing them into the overhead compartment on the plane. Four years later, those purses still get compliments.

For additional information, see the Sorrento Tourism Office website at Ellen Creager, MCT

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 14-May-2009

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Fringed by ragged lava rock and misted over by hot steam, Iceland's Blue Lagoon is a picture of wild, prehistoric splendour. But turn around and you'll see modern spa facilities and the jutting torsos of fellow tourists. The Blue Lagoon, 45 minutes from Reykjavik, derives its name from the mineral-rich blue-green water that flows through the lava rocks. It's hot, about 40°C. Retreat into the steam far enough and you might even lose sight of civilisation for a spell.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 14-May-2009

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Nazareth renaissance


Town fuses biblical sites with vibrant, at times deafening, modernity

An inn in Nazareth.



Arab Israeli Abu Ashraf pouring batter for circular pastries called kataif at his restaurant.



When Pope Benedict XVI visits Nazareth today, the town where Jesus grew up, he will bring brief attention to a Holy Land destination that is at once world famous and unjustly overlooked.

Like the tour groups bused into Nazareth for lightning visits on their way to somewhere else, the Pope will see the Basilica of the Annunciation, on the site where Christian tradition says an angel told Mary she would bear the child of God.

The Church of the Annunciation is one of Christianity's holiest sites. AFP

Like most visitors, the Pope likely won't have the chance to savour the shabby Ottoman chic of the Old City or eat too many of Abu Ashraf's honey-drenched pastries. It's safe to assume he will not experience the ear-splitting repertoire of Chaos, Israel's only Arab heavy metal band.

Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate Mass with thousands of worshippers on a nearby hillside. He comes amid a modest but energetic renaissance here, one that has seen new restaurants opening up and signs of vitality in the neglected alleyways of the Old City. Those willing to go beyond the city's holy sites and shops hawking olivewood crosses will discover the ideal place to experience Arab life in northern Israel and a base for exploring the rest of the Galilee.

A new hiking route, the Jesus Trail, leads trekkers from Nazareth to Kafr Kana, where Jesus is believed to have turned water into wine, and on to other holy sites.

If hiking through Galilee hills sounds too strenuous, simply ask directions through the bazaar to Abu Ashraf's place while discarding any attachment you may have to healthy eating. Abu Ashraf Abu Ahmad can be found pouring batter or laying out circular pastries called "kataif" on a table facing the street.

Don't bother asking how they're made: The recipe is so secret, Abu Ashraf claims, that even his wife has no idea what it is. An outsider can only observe him stuffing batter with nuts and soaking it all in honey. The result is as good as it sounds and will provide the sustenance necessary to keep cruising the bazaar.

As you do, you might meet Hatem Mahroum, 30, who was Israel's welterweight boxing champion. He runs two shops here in the market and claims Nazareth's spinach is the best in the world. Or you might stop in at the Fahoum coffee store, where the smell of coffee beans and cardamom is overpowering and where the proprietor might subject you to a litany of complaints about how the city has neglected its old market in favour of the new Western-style shopping malls on the outskirts of town.

For a peek into Nazareth's ancient history, it turns out the place to visit is not a museum but a gift shop. The store, Cactus, became an archaeological site accidentally, when its owners undertook a renovation in the early 1990s and discovered an immense Roman bathhouse from the time of Jesus.

Martina and Elias Shama have since incorporated the ruins into their shop, and visitors can go to the arched basement where slaves stoked the fires that heated the rooms above. Ceramic pipes installed by ancient plumbers are still visible in the walls.

The bathhouse has helped revise the accepted view of what Nazareth was at the time of Jesus: A town with a grand public bath would have been a large urban centre, not the poor backwater of popular imagination.

A taste of the younger Nazareth scene can be had not far away at Dandana, opened in 2006 by Fadi Saba, 31, and his twin brothers, Shadi and Rami, 27. Dandana serves European-style food and alcohol, and some nights the Sabas push the tables aside, bring in a DJ, crank up the Arabic pop music and dance.

The Sabas say they are well-enough known around town that Nazareth daughters put them on the phone to calm parents worried about curfew infractions. "We tell the parents 'don't worry, they're in good hands'," Fadi Saba said.

At the bar, the brothers said, you might meet local celebrities like soccer players or the members of Chaos, Nazareth's contribution to Israel's heavy metal scene. The band's MySpace page says the group started as "four friends from Nazareth" and identifies its style as "melodic death metal".

There's no better place in northern Israel to spend an evening, Saba said, but acknowledged word was slow getting out.

"Take someone from New York or from Germany, and they'll only know Nazareth from the Bible — they think people over here are still riding donkeys," he said. AP

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 14-May-2009

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Sunday, May 17, 2009

JAPAN: Open Air Art

Chasing cherry blossoms, Picasso and IM Pei in Japan with a breath of fresh air

Elizabeth Poey,

In the cherry blossom's shade

there's no such thing

as a stranger.

So wrote the 18th century haiku poet Issa. True enough, when I visited the famous Rikugien Garden in Tokyo at the end of March, countless people were clustered beneath the trees, the electric blue tarps they used as picnic mats made for a striking contrast against the pink mop of blossoms above their heads. The grounds were littered with sakura appreciators. Even if one wanted to remain a stranger, it'd be tough. This was a place to bond over beauty.

Hase Dera, also called the Temple of Flowers, in Nara.

To understand the crowd, one must understand hanami, the centuries-old Japanese custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers.

The blossoming period also coincides with the scholastic and fiscal year, and many will begin the year with a hanami. The walks taken through the parks and along canals are forms of retreat for contemplation and a renewal of the spirit. It is also said that the blossoms that last for only a week or two remind one of the brevity of life.

Ritsurin Park in Shikoku Island.

The tradition is very much alive in modern Japan as friends, families and colleagues enjoy the fresh air, the blossoms, the community spirit and a dash of sake.

Tourists will find it harder to partake in the sakura communion as they have a mere two-week window to see the blossoms before they fall. Although the Japan Meteorological Agency issues bloom forecasts, global warming has led to the flowers opening earlier. (It was five days ahead of schedule in Tokyo this year.) But as the blooms start in southern Japan and move north like dominoes as temperatures rise, blossom-chasing tourists can go to where the flowers will be.

Or, they can head straight to Japan's notable museums, where the works of art do not wither and die in a fortnight.

Hakone Open Air Museum

The Hakone Open Air Museum located within the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park stands out from the rest. Opened in 1969, the wide expanse (70,000 sqm) of open space is dotted with over 100 pieces of sculptures by world-renowned masters of modern and contemporary art including sculptors Henry Moore and Rodin and sculptor-painter Miro.

The museum is an excellent introduction to sculpture for children or the nonparty individual. When one gets bored with the displays, there is the Picasso Gallery to wander around. Or one can simply sit and admire the sculpture-accented landscape. There's also a hot foot bath to soak one's weary feet in. The water is drawn from a hotspring.

Miho Museum

The Miho museum, south-east of Kyoto near Shigaraki, is a must see for its inspiring architecture. Designed by IM Pei, the architect behind the Louvre in Paris, this extraordinary museum is built into a mountain, which was moved to make room for its construction. After work was completed, builders moved the mountain back by returning each tree to its original spot.

The site area covers 1 million sqm and three-quarters of the 17,400 sqm building is underground. We came for the architecture more than the exhibits but these were beautiful as well. The collections feature Buddhist art, porcelain and the art of the ancient world with 2,000 items from Asian and Western cultures.

The drop-off point to the museum proper is a distance away and the journey there serves to maximise the impact of the eventual view.

To reach the museum, visitors have to walk on a road lined with bamboo and cherry trees, go through a tunnel, ascend a bridge and a flight of steps to the entrance. The building looks small and insipid until visitors pass through the door and see the expanse of the valley. In front are rolling hills and there's a huge bell tower some distance away. I wished that I could hear the chimes as the bells played their magical music in the spring wind.

Eat on the train: To taste the real Japan, have a meal out of a bento box while riding on the bullet train or shinkansen. These can be bought at any convenient store for about $20 and are delicious despite being pre-packed.
Strip: Why limit yourself to gaping at the onsen bathers on Japan Hour? The traditional bathhouses are not to be missed. Sure, you have to take off all your clothes, but once that’s done, you will realise that nobody bothers about how anybody looks — everyone is too busy enjoying the hot spring to care.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 14-May-2009

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]