Tuesday, January 29, 2013

I Heart Hong Kong

After spending two weeks in Borneo, we were ready for a dose of civilization -- city lights, noise, high rises, international cuisines, and yes, even a Starbucks. Time to leave the scuba gear and hiking shoes behind and make our way to my favorite Asian city -- Hong Kong!

It's hard to believe that it's been five years since I last visited Hong Kong -- where does time go? My purpose for visiting Hong Kong on this occasion was to meet my adorable and sweet little niece. I've been counting down the days to meet my little niece since she was born in June. We spent 5.5 days hanging out at my sister's new Festival City flat in Tai Wai, shopping, and eating my weight in dim sum, hotpot, Japanese teppan, and sushi. It was great fun and makes me wish that we lived just a bit closer.  I spent a lot of my waking hours in Hong Kong  swooning over my cute niece who was fighting off jet-lag from her first international trip to California. She is just the sweetest baby ever, of course I am bias because she is related to me. It's also enduring to see my big sister in her role as a new Mum -- very sweet.  Our time in Hong Kong in a nutshell:

Day 1: The start of our eating/shopping extravaganza -- first stop to Sha Tin Mall for some delicious dim sum -- prawn dumplings, siu mai, char siu bao, won ton, noodles... ummmmm.  Then it was on to some retail therapy --   warm clothes (it was cold in Hong Kong!), new eyeglasses, and  Baby's C seat cover for her new Stokke high chair. Walking through Hong Kong shopping malls require some serious stamina and patience as the malls  are huge and always packed with people. 
Later in the evening, leaving Baby C behind with the helper, the grown-ups went out to Tsim Tsa Tsui (TST), a bustling area on the southern end of Kowloon, for dinner and drinks. As I had not seen my older sister since our family trip to Greece in May 2011 and to celebrate their journey into parenthood, I treated them to dinner at a traditional Japanese teppan restaurant where we sat on the floor and devoured plates of tasty marbled beef and cold Asahis. Just like old times when we all lived in Bay Area. 

Day 2: Cuddle time and bottle for my niece in the morning, followed by more eating. Seriously, I wonder how Hong Kongers stay svelte with so much delicious goodness around them? This time we went to a dumpling house for Shanghaiese-style for what else.... dumplings. We spent some time walking around the harbour, more shopping and then it was to Mong Kok, one of the most dense areas in Hong Kong with a series of 'themed' market stalls -- ladies market, temple street market, electronic market where you can find everything under the sky from tacky souvenirs to more practical items, like a suitcases which we desperately needed. 
For dinner that evening, we had 'Hot Pot' at home, which was perfect for a chilly Hong Kong evening. Hot pot consists of a simmering metal pot of savory stock placed in the centre of the table. Ingredients are added -- fish balls, beef balls, variety cuts of thinly sliced beef, mushroom, shrimp, etc. are cooked in the pot, and accompanied by dipping sauce. It's meant to be a long leisurely meal over good conversations. I think our hot pot meal went on for four hours, well past midnight.  It's been a long while since I had hot pot; definitely a treat for us. 
Day 3: Leisurely day for us as my sister had to take Baby C to the Doc for her immunization shots which she took like a champ and didn't even cry. I offered to make dinner at home for a change as I missed cooking. We were off to City Super (what a great supermarket) to pick items for an Italian-themed dinner -- on the menu, mozzarella-tomato-basil salad, salami and cheese,  pasta carbonara (my BiL's favorite) and pasta all'amatriciana (one of K's favorite), both very easy dishes to make using bacon and pecorino cheese, and of course some vino. My sister's live-in helper was my sous-chef, hopefully she took good notes. 
Day 4: My last full day in HK was also the last day of my sister's 6 month maternity leave. Ironically, we went to brunch at the Ritz Carlton at the International Commerce Centre, also my sister's workplace where she spends most of her waking hour. The brunch was amazing -- bottomless champagne, seared tuna, lobster, scallop, oysters on a half shell, fresh pasta, prosciutto, and lots of French pastries and desserts. Divine and totally decadent. I loved it, especially the bottomless champagne which I probably had no less than a bottle and a lovely view of the harbour from the 102nd floor. My niece enjoyed the view too and let us adults enjoy our brunch by falling asleep in her pink Bugaboo. 

Day 5: Keenan and I were  on our own as my sister and BiL went back to work. After spending the morning playing with my niece (OK, so I am obsessed with my niece!), Keenan and I spent the day hanging out on Hong Kong island, visiting our favourite haunts in Soho, Antique Street, IFC mall, and LKF for a happy hour drink before we made our way back to my sister's for a final meal in Hong Kong. 

I couldn't think of a better way to end our 3 week adventures in Asia. It was hard to say good-bye to my adorable little niece but Facebook, What's App, and our trusty little Ipad helps a lot. We're already looking into Xmas 2013 in Hong Kong. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Superb Diving in Mabul Island

The last leg of our adventures through Malaysian Borneo took us to an obscure little island called Mabul, just 15 km from the world famous Sipadan. Diving enthusiasts and scuba junkies know that Sipadan and the surrounding areas are one of the best spots for diving in the world, and what better place to learn to dive than in the crystalline waters of the Celebes Sea. 

The gateway to the Mabul Island is through smell-like-garbage-can town of Semporna which I don't recommend you staying in unless you have to. Mabul island itself is tiny, divided roughly by a handful of diving resorts. We stayed at Mabul Beach Resort, owned and operated by Scuba Junkie, which sits on its own beach next to a small Bajau settlement (a group of stateless 'sea gypsies') and had a great chill-out vibe and large comfortable cabana.

The first three days on Mabul, we did our PADI Open Water course consisting of 1 day of classroom instruction on theory which was hard  as I wanted to sit on the beach and enjoy the equatorial sun with a glass of cold Tiger; and two  grueling days of skills in the open sea which included doing the required four open water dives to get certified. We had to learn to put our tanks on our back, do the required buddy check using the mnemonic  - BWARF, breathing with the regulator, emergency signals, fin pivots, finding a neutral buoyancy, clearing the masks, and learning to equalise so we don't rapture our ears. All necessary skills, which were somewhat difficult to learn initially but you'll get the hang out it.  The  instructors at Scuba Junkie are very professional, patient, and great fun! 
After getting our PADI certification, we opted for a day of fun dives around Mabul Island -- we went to 3 different dive spots and were underwater for at least 45 minutes per dive. Our time diving was dictated by Keenan as he blew through his oxygen tank twice as fast as I did, granted his lung capacity is twice the size of mine.  Don't worry, we don't go by ourselves, we always go with a dive master who knows the location and will point out interesting sea creatures. And as newly-minted PADI Open Water Divers, we were assigned to our own Dive Master/Instructor for the day (an American from Washington). Unfortunately we don't have photos from our underwater adventures as we didn't have the proper camera equipment and it was too much to focus on both our diving technique whilst also photographing  marine life. 
I can tell you that the underwater is brilliant, amazing, fascinating, and awesome! Vibrant colours, clear waters with visibility up to 20m,  lots of beautiful fish, and interesting corals. I didn't think I would enjoying diving this much, especially coming from someone who hates putting my head underwater and get all bothered with water up my nose. Once you get the hang of it, diving is easy. We saw  gigantic sea turtles, eels, massive groupers, clown fish, eel stingray, and much much more. Diving is meant to be a relaxing 'sport' -- enjoy the scenery, breath regularly, and have fun! Our only regret is not making it out to Sipadan Island. Each day the government issues only 120 passes for  Sipadan, which they divide between the various resorts. Hence you'll have to put yourself on a waiting list and it's quite expensive. Maybe next time?

We also spent New Years on Mabul Island. The resort staff put on a great evening including a  staff talent show (who rocked out to Gangnam style), live music (some of the dive staff are really good singers!), dancing, and a final countdown to 2013. Our fellow scuba classmates from Sweden bought a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne from the duty free shop enroute to Malaysia, and we toasted to 2013 before crawling into bed in the wee hours. This was probably the latest we stayed up during our entire trip. Being such an active holiday, we were usually up by 5am/6am and in bed by 10pm from exhaustion. 

Keenan and I both agreed that learning to dive was by far the highlight of our time in Borneo. We look forward to more diving adventures in the future. Though we've been to  Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt  before, we thinking of squeezing a dive trip to the Red Sea, and perhaps the Philippines in New Years 2014. Geez, it's only one month into 2013 and I'm already thinking twelve months ahead. But as we're up for UK permanent residency (i.e. UK green card)  in October, we'll have to keep our eyes on the number of days we're outside the U.K. this year. Work trips, bank holiday and weekend trip are OK, but no  major international trips until after October 2013. 
Next up: five days in Hong Kong to meet my adorable baby niece and hang out in my favourite Asian city with my sister and brother in law!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Welcome to the Jungle!

"...we've got fun and games. Welcome to the Jungle" 

Okay, so a little throw back to the late 80s with Guns-n-Roses' hit single. We wished we had download this song when we were cruising down the chocolate brown waters of Kinabatangan River, the mighty river which cuts through the 130 million  years old rainforest of Borneo, and home to the world’s largest wild Orangutan population. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the ancient rainforest of Borneo during their Royal Jubilee Tour to Southeast Asia last September where they stayed in Danum Valley. The sad reality is that the pristine rainforest of Borneo is rapidly shrinking due to heavy logging and encroachment of miles and miles of neatly planted palm tree oil plantations that dot the landscape of Sabah Borneo from Ranau to Tawau, destroying Borneo's vast biodiversity of over 15,000 species of plants.

The drive along a two-lane highway from Sabah Tea Gardens to Sepilok was long and treacherous due to the heavy rain. We knew it was monsoon season but I have never seen such downpour in my life. Once in Sepilok, we stayed at  Paganakan Dii, a wonderful little eco-lodge with lovely views of the jungle, tranquil grounds equipped with hammocks and bed lounges, and simple but well-appointed rooms with an outdoor bathroom. As it is not walking distance to the Centre, Paganakan Dii offers a free shuttle to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Here at the Centre, orphaned baby orangutans are rescued and taught life skills such as climbing, hunting, and nest-building before being released into the jungle, although some stay under human care for the rest of their lives, whilst other survive in the wild just fine.

This famous ginger-haired resident of Borneo and Sumatra share 97 percent of their genetic make-up with humans. Whilst orangutans are one of most intelligent primates, they are also the most solitary of the great apes. As such, spotting wild orangutans are very rare. Luckily you can see young orangutans (meaning "person of the forest" in Malaysian Bahasa) at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre during feeding times at 10am and 3pm. 

During the morning session, we saw three Orangutans and at least five during the afternoon feeding. We spent a good 60 minutes at Centre during each session, watching them swing from rope to rope, play with each others (and other species of monkeys), and do their personal business with no shame. It was all very cute of course. In between feedings, we visited to the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre for a canopy walk and tour through the botanical garden. We even spotted several red-hair monkey which resembles an orangutan until you see their black faces and long tails. 

Our next stop was to Kinabatangan River for a river safari in search for tropical birds and endemic land mammals. For the next three days, we were on a schedule of a 6am river safari, followed by an afternoon jungle walk, early evening river tour, and a night walk. The river safari was surprisingly relaxing and our guide did a great job of spotting monkeys, long-tailed macaques, and a massive monitor (not to be confused with the Komodo Dragon, they live exclusively on the Indonesian island of Komodo). The jungle walks were not so relaxing: it was dense, muddy, hot and infested with leeches. Seriously, the jungle has all sorts of weird bugs and critters, but we survived thanks to copious amounts of mozzy spray, leech socks, and wellies.

We were lucky to spot four wild Orangutans, one lonesome male way out in the distance, a male and female together which is rare to see, and huge male with cheeks near the river. It was the best Christmas gift that Borneo could give us -- amazing! We didn't see any pygmy elephants though, but saw large groups of bachelor proboscis monkey, the bizarre looking monkey with a large bulb nose, and are endemic to Borneo.  We also spotted at least 8 pairs of rhinoceros hornbills flying gracefully through the sky. I've never been a big birdwatcher but the birds of Borneo are something else, beautiful creatures. Overall we enjoyed our time in the jungle although I am not sure if we'll be keen for another jungle adventure anytime soon... we'll see.

From Kinabatangan, it was time to move on  to our next stop: Mabul Island off the coast of Semporna for sun, beach, and underwater adventures. For now it's 'Goodbye to the Jungle!'

Monday, January 14, 2013

Conquering Mt. Kinabalu

I finally had a chance to upload all my photos from our recent trip to Borneo. Many people ask me why Borneo? Well, why not Borneo? At first we tossed around the idea of going to Thailand, but as I had been there before, it was not my first option. Then we thought about two week in Vietnam, but upon looking at airfares from Hong Kong to Saigon/Hanoi, it was just prohibitively expensive. Then it was down to the Philippines, Borneo, or Bali. We picked Malaysian Borneo (Sabah). In some ways, this trip was about conquering fears: fears of heights and fear of water. Our trip to Borneo was roughly divided into three main activities: climbing Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia; trekking through the ancient rainforest of Borneo and a river safari on Kinabatangan; and scuba diving in the crystalline waters on Mabul Island. 

Anyone who visits Sabah, Malaysian Borneo will fly into Kota Kinabalu ("KK"), an underwhelming city, but fine for a day to sort out logistics like lodging for example if you are climbing Mt. Kinabalu. There's an interesting night market serving up some delicious seafood and grilled chicken wings. If you have more than a day to kill, then it might be worth heading out to Tanku Adbul Rahman National Park for a day of snorkeling off the coast of KK.

Our first goal of the trip: conquering Mt. Kinabalu on the eve of Keenan's birthday. At 4,095 m, hiking this majestic mountain was no easy feat. We started at 1800 m at the Timpohon Gate, and it was all uphill for 7.5 km over two days. We climbed 5.5 km to Laban Rata on the first day where we stayed overnight in a mountain hut, and then climbed  the remaining 2  km the next morning at 3am. 

The first leg was the climb was strenuous but as long as you are reasonable fit, you should be fine. The hike was actually quite enjoyable --  gorgeous scenery and lovely flora. We also learned a bit about the local tribal people from our guide who makes the climb 3x a week (yes, a week!). The mountain hut at Laban Rata was very basic, hostel-style -- no hot water, no heating, no television. It was a good thing we downloaded  Breaking Bad on the Ipad. 

The most challenging part of the hike was scaling 1.5km along a rope to the summit in the rain and in the dark! It was very difficult. We made it past Sayat Sayat Hut (3,668 m) but we were advised by our guide due to the weather conditions, we shouldn't proceed for our own safety. Water was gushing down the mountain, making the granite extremely slippery. We waited until the sunrise before we made our descend down and let's just say the way down was scary. One misstep and you're gone. Terrifying. Anyways, we made to Laban Rata where we had breakfast and made our long 4 hour descend to the base of the mountain in the pouring rain. With the exception of our rucksacks, we were beyond drenched. Would we climb the mountain again? Probably not.

After the hike, we made our way to the stunning Sabah Tea Garden for a good night's rest at one of their English-inspired bungalows. Little did we know, Sabah Tea Garden is located on the historic World War II POW Route known as the Sandakan-Ranau Death Marches. Keenan was excited being the huge World War II history buff. The weather wasn't great but that was fine as our poor legs were feeling sore. From Sabah, we made our way to our next stop: visiting Borneo's most famous resident, the orangutan and a river safari... then for some diving fun on Mabul Island.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Hello 2013!

Happy New Year all! I hope you all had a wonderful festive period with your loved ones. We've just returned from our adventures in Malaysian Borneo and Hong Kong. I meant to write a reflection piece before we left on the 19th December but as usual, work was insanely busy, getting my new project off the ground. I was still firing off emails enroute to Malaysia, but upon landing in Kota Kinabalu I took my Director's orders to switch off my Blackberry for next three weeks and that was so nice!

In retrospect, 2012 was a great year from a personal and professional perspective:

Keenan and I started 2012 with a 2 week trip to the tear-drop island of Sri Lanka as our annual winter sun vacation. We loved Sri Lanka and can highly recommend to other travelers. Not only is it a beautiful country with gorgeous vistas of rolling tea plantations, sun-drenched beaches, and fascinating Buddhist temples, it is also cheap as chip. 

Upon returning from Sri Lanka, we began looking for a new flat as our landlord wanted to sell the flat by summer 2012. The whole flat-hunting experience was a  horrible and depressing experience as it meant that we had to most likely downgrade to a one-bedroom flat, or sacrifice on the quality of the flat. Friends and family know how much we love our Clapham Old Town flat. Luckily, he changed his mind and we promptly re-signed a 1.5 year lease through May 2013.

In February, tagging onto one of Keenan's business trips, we took the EuroStar to Paris (the 1st of three trips to Paris in 2012) where I randomly ran into my friend from graduate school walking on Rue Rivoli. She was in Geneva for work, and went to Paris for the weekend! It was a lovely surprise; we caught up over a falalel and stroll around Le Marais. My contract job took me on multiple work trips to Manchester, U.K. Despite visiting Manchester on at least 5 occasions, I never ventured beyond the town square or Salford Quays. I can't tell you anything else other than that I enjoyed staying at the Midland Hotel and there's a Taco Bell in Manchester. We also had the pleasure of petsitting for my friend's adorable dog for 2.5 weeks in February, and again in March. Haile the dog now has her own doggie bed in our flat. 

In March, another of Keenan's work trip took us to Lille & Champagne region for a little wine-excursion in Reims and Epernay, France. Fairly self-explanatory what we did: sipping champagne and visiting champagne houses. As a souvenir, we came home with no less than 8 bottles of Champagne, some which we have given as engagement and new parents gifts. 

A trip to Romania over Easter 2012 marked my 50th country I have visited in my lifetime. We started in Bucharest and made our way through Transylvania town of Brasov in search of Dracula. Early May Bank holiday took us to the Pembrokshire Coast in Wales for three days of R&R. Originally booked as part of our 'training' for a big trekking trip to Nepal in October (didn't happen though), we took a few coastal hikes around Tenby. Living in London for the past four years, we've come to appreciate weekend breaks around the U.K. As for Nepal, we'll try to work in it in our travels in the near future.

My younger sister came to visit in late May on her 3 week European vacation. Thankfully, Annie brought the glorious California sun with her and us Londoners enjoyed a week (yes, one week!) of sunshine and 25C/85F weather. For the Jubilee weekend, we jetted off to Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Malaga, Spain for a week of jamon, Moorish architecture, and cold cerveza under the blazing hot Andalucian sun. Highly recommend southern Spain -- great food, buzzing atmosphere, and stunning palaces. Back in London, the kid sister went museum-hopping and enjoyed an evening at the Rock of Ages musical, which we all thought was excellent and a lot of fun. As an early graduation present, Keenan and I treated Annie to a trip to Paris -- sightseeing, eating, more eating, sipping wine, and enjoying the City of Lights. J'dore Paris! Congratulations kiddo on your achievements. We are so proud of you. 

June 2012 was a big month for me: I became a first-time biological auntie; and I started a new job which I am still so grateful for the opportunity. There has been long hours but overall, I'm really enjoying work and my colleagues. My cutie little niece was born in Hong Kong on Father's day, 17th June, and as the first grandchild on both side of her family, she is so spoiled! At that point, we immediately planned a trip to Hong Kong over Christmas to meet the little munchkin. Speaking of family, in June, I also had the opportunity to catch up with Keenan's dad.  His father missed his flight to India and had an unexpected layover at London Heathrow. Unfortunately, Keenan had left to Venice for a business trip but as I hadn't started my new job yet, I schlepped it out to T5 to have dinner with his father. I'm not sure how Keenan managed to make his ungodly 7am flight to Venice as the day before we were at the Hackney Weekend music festival rocking out to Rihanna, Taio Cruz, Jessie J and Florence + the Machine until midnight. 

In July, we attended a friend's wedding in the Estonian countryside. Keenan also had the opportunity to visit Riga and meet up with the groom and his entourage for the groom's 3rd stag do, as well as make a trip to the Hills of Crosses in Lithuania. Of course summer 2012 was huge for London as my adopted city hosted the summer Olympics and Paralymics. The atmosphere was amazing! Several friends stayed with us throughout the Olympics which was a lot of fun. One of my best summers yet, plus we attended several medal events. 

For the August bank holiday, we took a weekend trip to Bergen, a quaint little town in Norway. We were beyond sticker shock in Norway as everything was expensive, at least twice as expensive as London. We couldn't believe it. Despite this, Norway is a beautiful and pristine country. Work trips took us to Amsterdam and Luxembourg in September. 

We spent 6 days in Taormina, Sicily and Malta to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary in October where we soaked up the late autumn sun before the long winter hibernation. Amazingly in November, we didn't travel outside of London. We celebrated Thanksgiving with another Californian couple friend who kindly hosted a lovely Thanksgiving dinner at their vintage-inspired flat in Holland Park. Earlier in the week, I invited my high school friend who was in town for business over for dinner at our flat. 

Another work trip took us to Paris for a short and sweet Parisian getaway where we ate our weight at various Christmas markets. For our annual winter sun-trip in December, we decided on Malaysia for two weeks, specifically Borneo, where we celebrated Keenan's birthday on top of Mt. Kinabalu, Christmas in the jungle, and New Year's Eve on Mabul Island.
More on Borneo later.

 Well, that's 2012 in review. Happy New Year all! Wishing you and yours all the best for 2013!