Where do you go when…?

night in city

Lots of family and friends will want to visit this beautiful city you call home

I’ve had a LOT of visitors in the three or so years we have been living in Singapore. From people we barely knew who became lifelong friends after their visit, best friends from home, a friend’s daughter who came for a few days and stayed for two weeks, old school friends who moved to Australia and I hadn’t seen for years and of course, parents and siblings. Each visit has been different and each visitor has been given the ‘Jo tour guide’ treatment. Some more so than others, depending on how busy I was or how much they wanted me around.

So it’s not surprising that when other people I know have visitors they tend to ask me for “one of your itineraries.” I’ve got quite a reputation for my planning when it comes to visitors. I learnt early on that without a plan days can disappear and before you know it guests leave having seen barely anything. So I thought I’d share the three most used itineraries with you. All free of charge, no plus plus added and no forms to fill in. I just ask one – well two – favours. Please click the like button at the side of this page and at the bottom of the page add a comment about who you’ve got visiting. This kind of info takes a lot of time to put together so some feedback is always welcome.  If you could go so far as to follow the blog too you’ll get notified when I add more itineraries or reviews of places to go here in Singapore.

Oh, and if asked how you found out about an attraction or place to visit, please mention 5 Go Mad!

Singapore city at night

Singapore is a photographers dream!

Before you check out the itineraries, here are a few tips to help make the visits as much fun and as easy on you as possible.

Things to remember when you have visitors:
  • Everyone has different tastes and likes and dislikes. Ask visitors before they come if they have any ‘must-sees’ that they’ve heard about or anything they don’t like doing (for me, you’ll not get me near an aquarium).
  • That jet lag will affect them to one degree or another. This can mean they get barely any sleep at night and then want to crash during the day. Where possible encourage them not to sleep during the day, but it can be tough. Allow for rest breaks during the day though as don’t forget the heat hits people hard too.
  • Make sure you have spare bug spray and sun tan lotion. You’ll be surprised by how many people think they don’t need it.
  • Being a tour guide 24/7 can be exhausting, no matter how desperately you want the visitors here. So give yourself some time off too. If they are confident travellers you could suggest they do one more of the days on their own. If not, allow for some time out at some point – maybe just take a break from each other early evening.
  • Remember all friends and family want to see how your life works here so if you have a group you meet up with regularly, consider introducing them. Or if there’s a favourite coffee shop or cafe you go to a lot, take them. That way, when you’re talking to friends and family back home again next, they’ll be able to relate to your life here so much more.
What to do before they arrive:
  • Buy a couple of MRT cards for them and load them up with $10 – that way they can get around straight away.
  • When my nieces have visited I have made them up a goody bag as a welcome gift. I just go along to the markets and pick up some cheap souvenirs – a Singapore tote bag filled with things like a stuffed Merlion, a key ring, a notepad, a fan. etc.
  • Pick up a couple of Singapore maps or voucher books from the larger MRT stations or at the airport.
  • Prep your helper if you have one on the fact that there will be more people either staying or visiting and to adjust her shopping and cooking accordingly. I ask guests to leave money for a helper when I had one as it is extra work, but really that’s up to you ($50 per person at least is a fair amount I think). If you haven’t got a helper, prepare yourself – get some extra food in, start making up beds a few days before etc.
Once they arrive:
  • Once they’ve arrived, get your guests to download the MRT map app as well as Uber – that way they can figure out where to go and how to get there if you can’t be around the whole time.
  • Give them your address, phone number (add to notes on their phone or physically on a note) and point out a few local landmarks so that they feel they know where they are. You’d be surprised how many people forget to ask and head out for the day, not knowing where they’re coming back to! I always tell people what our nearest MRT and the line it’s on.
  • You could treat guests to a local sim for their phone – or point them to a shop that sells them.
  • Explain to them how the aircon works in their bedrooms, any water heaters etc. Also explain that electricity and water costs a fortune here and to turn air con and heater off when not using otherwise your next utility bill will give you a shock!

 

Merlion park, Singapore

The famous Merlion, one of the many must-sees in Singapore

Itineraries

Please click on the links below for the itinerary you want to see:

Itinerary for friends visiting for 5 days

This is for when your besties manage to get away from the kids and visit you. Lots of girlie fun and relaxing.

Itinerary for family or friends with children

Is your sister or brother heading over for a holiday with their kids in tow? Teenagers or toddler, this 14 day plan will have you covered.

Itinerary for parents visiting  

Got the parents or in-laws coming for the first or twenty-first time. Here’s some suggestions for things to do with them to keep you and them sane.

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Time to get your crazy on

RiccardoTinelli@CrazyHorseParis_FastyWizz

Sexy not shocking

A recent Facebook post on a Singapore Expat site has got me thinking. It was about the iconic Parisian cabaret show Crazy Horse, whose Forever Crazy tour is coming to Singapore very soon. The post questioned if it was ‘suitable’ for women to go and see or is it regarded as tacky or non pc?

In this age of female empowerment why are women shying away from the idea of going to see a show like Forever Crazy? Let’s get to the nuts (no pun intended or I would have said crutch) of it shall we? 

Is it that really, as women, we don’t want to be seen as sexy?

Why not? We are!

Maybe not when we’re worn out after no sleep and have baby food (or our own food) smeared over our tops, but it’s there sometimes right? In my mind we should be proud of our sexuality  – be that on a stage dressed only in lights or at home dressed in a pair of jeans and t-shirt.

Is it that we think the show is exploitative?

This is not a show that exploits women, it’s a show that celebrates them. The dancers who perform are at the peak of their careers, having trained for years for this kind of gig. They are now touring the world doing what they love. Oh and they get paid for it too. Where’s the exploitation in that?

Are we scared that if we take our partners they might enjoy it a little too much?

So what? If they didn’t, wouldn’t you be more concerned? You never know you could be pleasantly surprised by the resulting mood…

RiccardoTinelli@CrazyHorseParis51

Don’t keep it secret, this show is fabulous!

Do you think it’ll just be a sex show?

It’s not, ask anyone who has seen it either in Paris, Las Vegas or on this current tour. With one of it’s most famous dances “God Save Our Bareskin” choreographed by a former lieutenant of the British Army no less, do you really think us Brits would stand for that? (Ahem, cough, cough, moving on)

No, seriously. The show is a celebration of women and their bodies yes. But it’s far from tacky. There are routines choreographed by the likes of Philippe Decouflé – writer and director of the Cirque du Soleil show Iris. A spectacle of light, colour, sensuality and Joie de vivre the show is sexy, fun, clever and unlike anything you will have seen before. 

Come on girls, grab your friends and book a girls night out – or book a date night with your other half that you’ll both enjoy – and celebrate all that it is to be feminine, sexy and have fun.

RiccardoTinelli@CrazyHorseParis19

Girls night out or date night? You choose

If you need more convincing, here’s a short history I wrote for Base Entertainment about the show.

The Crazy Horse cabaret, or ‘Le Crazy’ as it’s commonly known in France, is an iconic Parisian cabaret show founded in 1951 by painter and art dealer Alain Bernardin. Unlike other cabaret shows of the time, Bernardin purposefully opened his show just off the Champs-Élysées, thereby distinguishing it from the tacky strip joints or risqué burlesque shows found in the Pigalle district.

In fact, the story goes that Bernardin wanted to present a show that the president could watch without compromising his situation – and one where he could return the next week and bring along his wife. High standards indeed!

Bernardin conceived a show unlike any other that featured classically trained dancers performing stunning choreography, using lights and projections that played with the shapes and curves of women’s bodies. This gave the dancers an aura of mystery, the audience a spectacle unlike any other and the result was a show that was stylish, elegant and witty. 

The Golden Rules

The dancers, referred to as The Crazy Girls, come from all over the world including the UK, US, Russia and of course France. From the very beginning Bernardin was very strict about what look he wanted for his Crazy Girls. They had to be classically trained dancers and were chosen for their likeness to each other; they had to be the same height, shape and even have the same breast size.

Bernardin’s (or maybe his teams?) criteria for the perfect Crazy Girl was that they should be around 1.7m tall, with no more than 21cm between nipples and 13cm between naval and pubis.

Go on girls – get the tape measure out and see if you would qualify.

These “Golden Rules” as they were referred to, have stood for more than 60 years but have thankfully developed to include dancing and acting skills, sophistication and personality.

Still, would you get in?

RiccardoTinelli@MikaDo

Do you have what it takes to be a Crazy Girl?

Each year Crazy Horse receives over 500 applications from aspiring dancers who want to become a Crazy Girl – out of these only a handful actually make it in to the ‘family.’  If chosen, the dancer is then put through three to five months of intensive training – a Crazy Parisian dance bootcamp if you like. Only then, after successfully completing the demanding training, are the dancers given their ‘nom de scéne’ (stage name).

This nom de scéne, is given right after their very first public stage performance and is regarded as a baptism for each new dancer. Every girls name is unique to that dancer – a few of the names to look out for include Mina Velours, Loulou de Paris, Psykko Tico and Taina de Bermudes.

Famous Faces

Many of the dancers are quite rightly recognised as being the best in their field. Some of the most famous Crazy Girl dancers you may have heard of include Rita Renoir, Bertha von Paraboumm, Rosa Fumetto, Lova Moore and Polly Underground.

The show has also become famous for its celebrity guest stars who have appeared on stage. These have included Dita Von Teese, Pamela Anderson, Conchita Wurst and Kylie Minogue. Demi Moore reportedly learned the ropes for her movie Striptease by watching the Crazy Girls in action.  

2010 saw the start of the Forever Crazy worldwide tour. Conceived as a tribute to Alain Bernardin, it consists of a selection of the best acts from the cabarets 50 year repertoire. According to Crazy Horse; “the result is a distinctive show that delights the mind and enthralls the eyes!”

“God Save our Bareskin” – a dance choreographed by a lieutenant of the British Army – kicks off each show as it has done in Paris since 1989. Another dance to look out for is “Crisis? What Crisis” which was inspired by the world financial crisis.

 The show has won rave reviews all over the world. Don’t miss your chance to catch it in Singapore while you can.

Forever Crazy is showing at MBS Theatres Wednesday 11th – Sunday 22nd October. Tickets available here.

Photo credits: Riccardo Tinelli

 

Joining the Sisterhood

Sister Act The Musical

Come join the sisterhood

There is nothing I enjoy more than a night (or day) at the theatre. Musicals in particular have an appeal like no other. I swear I must have had some connection to the theatre in a previous life. Sadly I don’t think I was high kicking with Liza Minelli or serenading Michael Ball; probably more like running around polishing shoes or sewing sequins. So it is with much excitement that I have recently been talking to the company who bring all the best shows to our little red dot, Base Entertainment. Today I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press call for its latest show at the MasterCard theatre, MBS, Sister Act  – sequinned wimples and all.

Anyone too young to have watched the movie Sister Act needs to get themselves a couple of hours on the sofa right now as it’s a rare treat. Real old school comedy, fine female (and some male) actors and fabulous music. What more could you want? Obviously Whoopi Goldberg is forever associated with the film – but did you know it also featured Maggie Smith (pre Dame hood) and Harvey Keitel?

So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that a musical based on the film is also a must see. A huge hit from Broadway to the West End this production features the cast direct from the Broadway show. Obviously I’m not going to give too much away about what we were shown to say but suffice to say I’m more than a tad excited to be seeing the show.

From a 16ft tall Virgin Mary (with a not so dark side), to racks bursting with sparkling habits, our tour backstage was fascinating. Molly, the production stage manager showed us where she cues stage crew, audio and actors alike from left of stage (or right of stage if you are her as she has to do everything backwards) and the ‘God mike’ – for when things go wrong.

Gondola row – or wardrobe walk – was much smaller than I had imagined. This is the area where actors do quick changes. I can only imagine the swan like activity that goes on – with calm changes on the surface and utter panic underneath. I spotted a Wurlitzer (which looked original and I immediately coveted) bar stools upended, bottles of drink and glasses, Dolores coat and lots of slippers amongst many other gems. I can’t wait to see where they all feature in the show.

It was fascinating to hear how the sets, costumes, props, lighting and so on are all shipped around the world in five sea containers. How parts of the set are moved on and off stage and how the huge cast and crew work together to ensure the show is as good in one country as the next.

With shows as good as this hitting our shores I for one will make sure I’m supporting them – please go and do the same so this sister can carry on feeding her ‘habit.’

Look out for my Facebook post for my thoughts on the show itself.

Sister Act is on at the MasterCard Theatres, Marina Bay Sands from 9th – 28th May.

Costumes back stage

Watch out for the wimples!

Sister Act The Muscal

Part of the scenery

Props backstage

An original Wurlitzer?

Scenery, backstage at Sister Act the Musical, Singapore

A different view to usual

Wires, cables, musical

Can you imagine trying to find the fuse that blows in this lot?

Delores Sister Act Costume

You can never have too much fur and fringing – Delores costume.

Scenery, backstage at Sister Act the Musical, Singapore

She’s looking very virginal right now – but she has a hidden side. All 16ft of her!

sister act

Not to be missed!

Sightseeing in Bhutan

Sightseeing in Thimpu

Despite the fact Thimpu is relatively small, there are a number of sightseeing options. If you’d like to read about why and how I got to Bhutan in the first place please click here. I also took on the ‘Tigers Nest Trek’ which you can find hereAll of my cultural learning whilst there was part of a learning journey with Insightful Learning Journeys. which Founder Khatiza Van Savage facilitates. In this particular journey, I was included in a self funded volunteering and cultural immersion learning for Google Employees.

I travelled independently of the group but we met for breakfast and dinner most days. I also took part in my own mindful volunteering that you can read about here. As I was part of a larger group I was lucky to have a pick of wonderful guides – Dorji and his team of Bhakta, Thinley and Sonam are seasoned guides and drivers who have supported Khatiza Van Savage in her learning journeys for many years. They are proud and gracious Bhutanese nationals, well versed in their culture and eager to ensure that your journey is memorable on many levels.

BUDDHA POINT

It was clear before we got anywhere near the Buddha that we had chosen possibly the worst – but also the best day – to visit. It was the final day of ‘Prayers for world peace’ and it seemed that many local people were converging, possibly for the 8th time in as many days (as many people visit every day) on Buddha Point. The traffic snaked around the mountain for a good 2k or so. Still we persevered as it seemed that if this many people were going there, it would be worth the journey. And it was.

As the car park was shut we were dropped off at the foot of the steps to the Buddha – and thank goodness. I would urge anyone going to make the climb from the bottom of the steps rather than driving up to the car park. It looks quite daunting but it is well worth it, especially as you can stop as many times as you like, turn around and be rewarded with breathtaking views across Thimpu.

The steps to Buddha Point

The steps up to Buddha Point

As we were climbing the stairs dozens of people passed us, some carrying tiny babies in their arms, many walking with whole families, lots of young children laughing as they bounded up without effort. I even saw an elderly lady who was hunched over and barely able to stand being helped step by slow step. It was clear she was going to make it no matter what and her cheerful companion was going to encourage her the whole way.

Once we were at the top it was evident what all the fuss was about. Over the loud-speaker the chant of prayers was being played to the hundreds of people sat in front of the Buddha. All there to give thanks and prayer, all there of their own will, all there to celebrate. Rows and rows of people of all ages, sitting sedately on the ground, in front of them, rows and row of monks sat under a large marquee that had been erected especially for the occasion. In front of the monks was another more auspicious bright yellow silk ‘tent’ where apparently the Abbott himself was reciting the prayers that could be heard (we couldn’t spot him from where we were). This is the equivalent of the pope being in attendance apparently and there was certainly a reverential, and joyous, atmosphere around.

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A sea of people gathering to give thanks and prayer

We walked around the structure of the Buddha – and around the fenced off area where the people were gathered sitting in prayer. Although we couldn’t go up the steps that led to the foot of the structure we could still get a feel of the majesty of it and why it is regarded as a must see whilst here. All around, outside of the fenced off area children were playing happily, families gathered together, people shared food and monks and security guards alike passed by.

We went to give offerings to the monks and found we had a choice of worthy causes to give to. As we walked the steps back down I took in the amazing views once again and for the first time since arriving felt the true beauty of Bhutan and its people. The happiness was palpable and I felt honoured to have shared a part of this special day.

SIMPLY BHUTAN

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Dorji taking one for the team!

As the name suggests, this simply is Bhutan – a living museum that has been set up to show Bhutan as it was, before development kicked in. A very small museum that actually has a lot to offer. The initially shy guide – although I think her shyness was possibly more about our charismatic guide ribbing her than anything else – took us around each display explaining them to us. The first room she gave us the opportunity to try some traditional local wine.

If I were to say it was like firewater that would be an understatement! A small sip was all I could manage. Luckily Dorji was kind enough to finish it for me so I didn’t appear rude 😉

Other displays included a phallic garden (yes, with phallus of every shape, size and colour), the inside of a traditional Bhutanese house, festival masks, local craftwork, archery and a wishing bowl to try. Some women also performed a local dance whilst constructing a house!

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The very talented Pema showing us his craft

 

 

One particular display that is well worth making the visit for is a local craftsman called Pema (http://www.simplybhutan.bt/tshering.php.) He creates the most intricate wood carvings, carving and painting them all himself. Pema has cerebral palsy and does all the work with his feet. With his beaming smile and willingness to share his craft he won us over completely. His story of being ‘found’ in a small mountain village and then being given a place at arts college is inspiring and heart warming.

 

CHANGANGKHA TEMPLE

There are any number of temples/monasteries to see in Bhutan, and in Thimpu. I chose Changangkha after reading about the resident astrologer who can provide your very own prayer flags according to your date of birth. I was intrigued. Not the most worthy of reasons I grant you, but hey, a little frivolity here and there doesn’t hurt right?

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Changangkha Temple

The monastery is perched high on a ridge above central Thimpu and dates back to the 12th century. Climb the steps and walk around the pilgrim path where you can sit and rest on the benches there to admire the spectacular views offered of Thimpu.

Guru Rinpoche, (link to Tigers Nest) the Tibetan who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, settled in this area and so the monastery was built here and is regarded as one of the holiest temples in Thimpu. Parents bring their children here to be named by the protector deity Tamdrin. Whilst we were there one mum was holding her swaddled baby waiting for his or her name. A slip of paper was passed to her and she left – all very quick and without ceremony. Very unlike the naming ceremonies and christenings I am used to  My guide, Sonam explained that he was named at this monastery. Apparently names are unisex and there are only a small number – so there are many Sonams around!

Astrologer in Bhutan

My cheery astrologer who found my perfect prayer flags to bring me luck – I hope!

After our visit we head back down the steps to visit the astrologer – a portly round-faced man whose teeth and mouth were stained with the beetle nut he obviously chews on a regular basis. He reminded me of a cartoon monk with his large belly and cheery demeanour. After requesting my date of birth he told me – through my guides – that this year was in fact a bad year for me in business and up until the 2nd December I should avoid any business decisions. He gave me four sets of prayer flags (well, sold me!) and told me to hoist them any time from the next day to nine days time. Of course, the higher and holier the place the better.

Lucky for me I just happened to be trekking to Taktsang temple (link to Tigers Nest) the following day – possibly the best place for flags there is.

THE NATIONAL LIBRARY

As a lover of books I am always up for a quick look around a library. Bhutan’s national library is slightly different to your usual one. For a start there is no one in there! Maybe it was the time of day? Also, it didn’t look like you could actually borrow the books, although I didn’t check this out.

The books there seemed to be mostly reference and historical books. I’m guessing this library is used more for research than finding the latest JK Rowling.

However, the building itself is beautiful inside and out a worth a quick look if you are in the area.

 

 

CHOKI TRADITIONAL ARTS & CRAFTS SCHOOL

Bhutan has 13 traditional crafts and these crafts are plain to see all over Bhutan and you cannot turn a corner without seeing some beautiful painting on the side of a house or traditional wood carving on a pillar. The Choki Traditional Art School  in Thimpu is one of two in the country set up to teach young people the traditional skills of their ancestors.

Open to the public, the school is a place to see the crafts being learnt from the ground up as it were – and it’s fascinating to see the painstaking detail and intricate way in which each craft is taught.

From ‘Rimo’ (drawing),  Patra (carving), Tshem-Zo (embroidery) and Thanka (scroll painting) the young people who qualify at the school then have a skill they can use throughout their lives and ensure that these age-old techniques do not die out.

 

JUNGSHI PAPER FACTORY

Having wandered around the local market stalls I’d already noticed the beautiful paper and paper products on sale. The intricate flower pressed gift wrap, the delicately bound notebooks and the robust looking sheets of paper caught my eye. So when the guide suggested we go visit where it is made I was keen – after all, it could feed my notebook fetish if nothing else.

At the factory, visitors can watch paper being made from start to finish and it’s a fascinating journey. The paper is made from the bark of just two tree species – the Daphne tree and Dhekap tree. Using traditional age-old methods, the bark is soaked, pulped, squeezed, wrung out, placed on racks, dried on a wall then laid out. I make it sound so easy – it clearly is a finely honed skill. As we watch the man smooth out thin sheets of soaking wet paper on to a hot wall that dries it in minutes ,and then peel it off (before it dries out too much; a matter of seconds) and place the sheet in a pile before starting the process again, it’s clear that this is something he’s being doing for a long time.

Whilst you are not going to spend hours at this little factory it is well worth a visit. Of course, I bought a notebook!

 

TASHICCHO DZONG THIMPU

There are Dzongs on every hill in Bhutan it seems. Dzong actually means fortress and were built not only to protect the Bhutanese but also as administrative centres, houses for the clergy and somewhere people got together during festivities.

This particular Dzong is one of the most important and was restored after a fire in 1698 (originally built in 1641). It houses the secretariat, throne room and offices of the King of Bhutan. It was also where the fifth kings coronation was held in 2008. The northern part – which is not open to the public  – is the summer home of the Je Khenpo (most Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body)

An interesting and photogenic place to wander around, be aware you cannot take photos inside some areas so check with your guide first.

POST OFFICE

Now I’m no prude when it comes to stamp collecting – there is a history of stamp collecting in the family – the prospect of visiting a post office during my trip seemed slightly weird to me. My guide though was keen, and as he said, at least I could post my few postcards whilst there.

Housing a small museum that gives a brief, but thorough history of post in Bhutan is worth a visit if you’ve got half an hour to spare. Considering Bhutan still doesn’t have consistent street names and no postcodes it’s tricky enough now to consider posting something. Back when you were reliant on the strong legs and resolve of the mail runners – who literally, as their name suggests – ran around the hills with mail, it must have been quite hit and miss.

But for me, the piece de resistance of the visit to the post office was being able to buy stamps with my own mug on! Oh yes, I stood in front of a really obviously fake ‘background’ of The Tigers Nest lead to much excitement when I wrote out a few postcards and was able to slap my personalised stamp in to the top right corner. Can’t wait to hear people’s reactions when they get their postcard!

 

 

REFLECTIONS

Looking back I still can’t believe the numbers of dogs I saw on the streets of Thimpu – and I understand this is true throughout most of Bhutan. Not only that, the noise those dogs make at night isn’t something that I remember fondly. Having said that, there are lots of things I do.

The warm people, the stunning views, the clean air, the sky that goes on forever and the fabulous guides. Also knowing that there are people there that need a helping hand. Here are just some of the pictures I took of the wonderful Bhutanese people.

 

LIKE TO TAKE YOUR OWN JOURNEY TO BHUTAN?

If you are interested in joining a journey in the future I am currently working with ILJ to organise a writers retreat, yoga journey and a volunteer journey to work with the Ability Bhutan Society. Please do get in touch if you are at all interested here and put Insightful Learning Journeys in the title bar.

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Chukie and Khatiza our facilitators and cheerleaders!

Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for how it all began

Here for my volunteering experiences

Here for the Tigers Nest Trek

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…

My trek to The Tigers Nest

I’ll be honest, trekking isn’t a past time I’d choose (what are you laughing at?)

In fact, apart from a trip to Wales in my teens I’m pretty sure trekking has never featured in my life before now. Unless walking the dog around the local woods counts?

When I decided to go to Bhutan it was always part of the plan to see the Tigers Nest – but honestly, this was purely because it was suggested to me as a must see. A Buddhist monastery that clings to a granite cliff more than 3,000 above sea level and apparently every Bhutanese person should take a pilgrimage there at least once, as should every visitor if they can. So in for a penny and all that!

Tigers Nest

The Tigers Nest perched on the edge of a very craggy rock

Really I went with little expectations and even less knowledge. It’s said that ignorance is bliss – this saying could not have been more true in this instance. I naively asked my guide Thinley how difficult the trek was. He laughed and said it depends on each person, but not to worry. Another guide I talked to told me the worst part were the steps at the end – around 800 of them. What he failed to mention was that you had to do them twice – obviously! There and back!

The morning of the trek we drove through Paro and I was struck by how pretty a town it is compared to Thimpu. Not as heavily built up, more land around and without the bustle.

As we turn a bend Thinley points to a dot in the distance that is apparently where we are heading. I squint. Mmm…put it this way. I couldn’t even make out the temple.

Tigers Nest in distance

It’s up there you say?

Having parked up and acquired a walking stick we begin the trek. I don’t know what I was expecting but it was not at all what I got. An open expanse of land that could be someone’s garden (if your garden looks like barren land at the bottom of the foothills of the Himalayas that is) is where you head through to start the trek upwards. Oh, and when I say upwards, I mean upwards. No, you’re not rock climbing – but it’s not a gentle stroll let’s be clear on that.

We pass a water wheel housed inside a white building that looked like the woodchoppers cottage from childhood fairy tales. Complete with icy cold stream and wooden bridge. Honestly, I think Grimm himself couldn’t have created a more fairytale like picture.

Water Wheel

The faiytale ‘cottage’

Thinley had offered me the option of taking a pony up (they only take you half way) and I scoffed at the suggestion. After all, I was fit woman in her prime – ha! as if I’d need to be carried up a little incline. We often had to stop to let lines of ponies coming down pass by. Interestingly some of them seemed to choose their own path and didn’t mind climbing the most awkward way down so I was feeling pretty good about my choice to use my own two feet.

Ponie rides half way

Ponies can help you half way

Just ten minutes later I was regretting the pony decision. You see, it’s not that it’s a difficult climb per se. It’s just a really bloody difficult walk. Obviously you have to factor in the altitude – which was what got to me I think. (No, it was not that I’m very unfit) I literally had to stop every ten minutes to take a breather. The first half dozen times I was a little embarrassed at my tardiness and laughed it off, the next few times I apologised to Thinley for my stop-starting. After that I didn’t care – I had to breathe for Gods sake!

Each time the every gracious Thinley simply stopped with me and we took in the view – and a few dozen photos. So not really a bad thing to stop at all. As the path snakes up through the pine forest the views over Paro are amazing.

The path is a little treacherous in places. No hair raising drops, which is what I had been having nightmares about the night before. You just had to watch your footing, it’s dry and gravelly after all. But nothing the many sprightly elderly trekkers that we passed couldn’t deal with. There was a sense of camaraderie whilst walking amongst other trekkers too. A simple nod of the head (often talking was out of the question due to lack of breath) that said “I feel your pain, but keep going” or a quick “hi, how you doing?” as people passed you on their way down. A couple of “keep it up, it’s worth it” were thrown around too.

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Just a few minutes to catch my breath

I played tag with a Japanese couple who seemed to be going at a similar pace. I’d pass them, stop, they’d pass me, they’d stop… The guy was playing buddhist prayers through his phone and this rhythmic chanting was fantastically uplifting and completely in keeping with the walk. I pushed to keep up with him at times just to listen to the comfort of the prayers. Funnily enough I saw them both at the airport a few days later and we greeted each other like long lost friends – even though we only ever exchanged facial expressions on that day.

On the way up there are rest stops where you can sit and admire the view. Prayer flags are strung in many places giving a real sense of calmness to everywhere. I also spot small pots here and there hidden in the rocks. Thinley explains they are ‘Tsatsas’  which are stupa-shaped clay statues that sometimes have the ashes of loved ones embedded in them, these are meant to liberate their souls.

Tsatsas

Tsatsas nestle amongst the rocks

After an hour we stop at an opening which all but shouts ‘here, take a look at how beautiful I am’ and is home to stunning giant prayer wheel that looks out over the valley and framed with prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

Tea & Biscuits

Tea and biscuits – a welcome break half way!

Halfway and time for tea

Half way up and there’s a welcome place to stop and rest – and have a cuppa (as you do up a Bhutanese mountain). For me this rest stop was also somewhere to contemplate the fact that the worst was yet to come. The dreaded steps!

Oh, and have a comfort break, where I took the obligatory toilet selfie (not going to beat that one in a hurry!)

After fifteen minutes or so I could put it off no longer. So, with Thinley grinning like someone who knew something I didn’t, we headed to the white flag where the steps began (and dozens of sweating, bedraggled people gather either before or after climbing the steps).

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Just some of the steps…

Seeing the wooden steps snake down, around, down, around and then back up the other side of the mountain is daunting to say the least. Apparently it’s only in the last ten years that the hand rail has been put in place so I was dutifully grateful for small mercies. In fact, Thinley mentioned that the steps were an add on too – previously the only way to the monastery was picking your way on a precarious path. Again I was grateful.

As it turned out the steps were, for me, the easier part. It was simply stepping up and down right? I still stopped every ten minutes and my strange brain decided counting the steps as I went was a good idea. Distraction or motivation? I’m still not sure. I counted 390 up and 430 down. I’m pretty sure I got confused a couple of times but the numbers are not far out.

The waterfall at the bottom is a welcome distraction too and you can’t help but wonder at it’s power. Although no Niagara falls, the fact you know it’s path runs a very long way – and that you can spot it’s baby streams as you walk up the mountain is breathtaking. I also think back to the fairy tale waterwheel at the bottom of the trek.

Viewpoint on trek

The viewpoint before the steps

Of course, once the Tigers Nest is within touching distance it’s all about the finish line. Luckily we made it just in time as the monastery closes for lunch at 1pm. Yes, it took me almost three hours to get there (we left just before 9:30am).

We went inside the monastery (and climbed even more steps!) and Thinley told me how this was the birthplace of Bhutanese Buddhism as Guru Rinpoche flew here from Tibet on the back of a Tigress and came to meditate here for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. He showed me the underground cave and I lit a butter lamp to honour lost loved ones in the intensely hot, glowing Butter Lamp room. We also visited the altar room where many come and offer their prayers. Others – like me – simply stand and take in the amazing display of offerings and the famous bronze Padmasambhava (or Guru Rimboche). This statue was the only thing to survive a fire in 1998 that destroyed everything else in the monastery! I also sat and spent a few minutes meditating as best I could, just to connect with the spirituality of the place.

You are not allowed to take bags or cameras in to the monastery which means it’s somewhere that naturally seems to imprint on your mind. As it was about to close we didn’t take in the breathtaking views as much as we could have. Instead, we started our descent back ready for the ascent up the 800 steps. On the way this time we stopped at a fantastic look out and I dutifully posed for what can only be described as travel photographer porn. Beautiful! The view, not me!

The walk back was, without doubt a LOT easier than the walk there. I got chatting to lovely gentleman on the way down and we said our goodbyes only to meet up ten minutes later at the cafe where lunch was laid on. A very tasty – and very welcome – vegetarian curry buffet. Just what the doctor ordered!

lunch on trek

Lunch time – a delicious buffet is laid on

Coming down is tough on your knees though so the walking stick comes in handy. But it’s much easier on the lungs and not as hard work as it all downhill. Again, be careful of your footing. On our way down we hung the prayer flags I had been given at Changangkha Temple. The ever helpful Thinley thought nothing of pulling of his shoes and shinning up a tree to find the perfect spot to hang them. I truly felt like luck would be on my side leaving my prayers in such a spiritual place.

As the fairy tale water wheel came in to view my sense of achievement grew. I’d done it. Five hours of sweat, groans, puffing and huge wows and we’d made it. I spent the journey back to the hotel grinning from ear to ear. Literally.

I’d climbed a mountain!

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The end is in sight

 

 

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Looking out at the view

Is this not the perfect place to sit and think about what you’ve just achieved – and take a photograph that will instantly become your profile pic..

PHOTOGRAPHS

Trekking up to the Tigers Nest really is a photographers dream. Here are some more of the shots I took.

 

 

Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for how it all began

Here for sightseeing in Thimpu

Here for my volunteering experiences

 

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…

My Bhutan adventure

It was some time ago that Bhutan caught my attention. As a country that puts Gross Domestic Happiness ahead of Gross Domestic Product I watched a programme about the country and was fascinated. The fact that it sits landlocked between India and China in the foothills of the Himalayas was something that was so intriguing – and the more I read about this tiny country and its independent people, the more I wanted to go. However, it was clear from the protestations of “I don’t want to look at temples” from the kids and “mmmh, not sure I’m that interested in treks” from the husband that this was somewhere I’d have to explore on my own.

So I did. In a way that I had never explored a country before. Part tourist, part volunteer, part working, here’s the journey I took…

Getting there

With an early start, and despite being one of the first at the airport, I wasn’t able to get a window seat – which I’d been told to try to do so that I could get the full experience of flying in over the Himalayas. I needn’t have worried though – the excitement on the plane is palpable. The flight was fine, a little cramped as you’d expect from a small airbus but the service was good.  After a quick stop in Kolcatta where half the plane got off and new passengers got on we take off again for the 40 minute journey to Bhutan.

Soon enough the range comes in to view, the snowy cap of Mount Everest can be seen if you are lucky enough to be sat on the left, the rest of us have to crane our necks and hope for a glimpse. Before you know it you are gasping at the wonder around you – left and right on our journey. At one point it felt like we got so close to the side of the mountain that we could have reached out and touched it.

The slight swerve and sharp pull on the brakes as we land reminds us how tricky a landing this is and once we’re done there is a ripple of applause. Apparently there are only a handful of pilots trained to do this landing and I can see why. Skill is an understatement.

View from plane window

The view from the airplane window as it circles round between the mountains

Bhutan airport is a straightforward, old-fashioned type affair where you walk down the steps of the plane on to the tarmac and trundle off to go through customs. I love that kind of arrival – you feel like you’ve arrived in a new country, rather than just a waiting room. Having said that, as I’d find out all over Bhutan, the building itself is like a museum itself. Beautiful carvings, paintings and architecture.

Painting on building - Paro airport

The airport is slightly jazzier than Heathrow

Customs was quick and painless as was collecting the luggage and I was met straight away by Dorji, one of the ever smiling guides who welcomed me with a white silk scarf and warm greeting.

Gangtey Palace

A short drive took us to Gangtey Palace, a boutique hotel just up the mountain from the airport. Once a summer palace to the aristocracy and residence of the Governor, it was gifted to an ancestor of Tobgye Dorji’s family for services to the monarchy.  The family is justifiably proud of their gift. The gardens – looked after solely by the mother of the family – was reminiscent of an english country garden in its planning. Fuchsias, carnations and sweet peas were near to the end of their season but I’m sure were blooming resplendent throughout the summer months.  The whole landscaping was breathtaking. However the similarity to an English garden stopped there as the whole hotel is beautifully traditional.

Gangtey Palace

The entrance to Gangtey Palace. Beautiful inside and out.

Stone pathways lead to a huge lawn – a former apple orchard I believe – that would simply say ‘ta da’ if it could to the view. And what a view. Paro and it’s surrounding mountains glistened in the beautiful sunlight. The sky was picture perfect blue and the air was clear and fresh – and not at all cold! I felt I may have over packed slightly as had brought thermals and LOTS of layers. However I was assured that come that evening I’d be glad of them.

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The stunning view we had whilst we drank tea

Tea was served at tables on the edge of the lawn giving us all the opportunity to take in the view some more. Again a seemingly English affair with cups and saucers, milk and sugar (in Singapore you have to beg for milk) Although on tasting it was possibly condensed – but that didn’t spoil the moment.

Soon Tobgye, the owner of the hotel and his business partner and daughter Chukie came to meet us. It’s clear here is a man who has stories to tell – and he loves to tell them with aplomb. Not in a pompous or arrogant way, but in the way only someone who truly feels comfortable in his own skin can. Stories of past misdemeanours in the family, of the feisty Bhutanese battles with surrounding countries and most passionately of all, his Buddhist faith. Quoting various buddhist teachings he explained how he truly believes in karma and that we should all look towards altruism. He then invited us up to the altar room where he told us more of his fascinating families history and showed us family portraits and treasured Thangka’s (A buddhist painting on cotton or silk).

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Tobgye Dorji – we were all fascinated by his stories.

Tobgye then led us all in a meditation which, considering was our first time together, proved to be easy to slip in to and thoroughly relaxing. Trying to stay awake was a challenge for all I think – and this is the challenge of meditation. Finding that space between relaxation and peace whilst awake. I would have loved to have taken time to do this every day of the trip, but it wasn’t to be.

The Gangtey Palace chefs provided a delicious lunch of rice, chicken, fish and vegetables and the local cheese which is very similar to Indian paneer. Highlights were definitely the delicious vegetable balls and some little dumplings filled with what tasted like spinach and ricotta. The traditional ‘Ema Datshi’ chilli kick was served as an accompaniment – which, Tobgye explained was his idea. He realised that the Bhutanese taste buds were slightly different to tourists – and he always ensured his guests were happy. This also meant limiting the amount of salt that would traditionally be added.

Eazy

Eazy – a local side dish added to everything

Most of the group commented on the fact they had expected the food to be more ‘foreign’ and maybe difficult to enjoy at first – and considering we were a group including Chinese, Taiwanese, Australian, Singaporean, Brits, Czech’s and Americans – this wasn’t as ignorant as it sounds. Our guide Dorji said that things may differ at dinner (whilst laughing at our naivety).

As someone who doesn’t eat cheese and has a child’s palate for chilli, I had been a bit worried I’d be living off rice for the week. But, I was very wrong.

After lunch we headed to Thimpu and our hotel for the next few days. On the way we stopped at Tachog Lhakhang bridge. Apparently it was built over 600 years ago by a local engineer called Thangtong Gyalpo. He is said to have built around 58 iron chain suspension bridges around Bhutan and Tibet – many of which are still being used today.

Bridge in Paro

Tachog Lhakhan bridge

Unfortunately the bridge was shut for repair, but we got a chance to cross the wobbly enough wooden bridge next to it. With its fluttering prayer flags and unusual chain mail construction, there was something haunting about the bridge. This ten minute walk also gave us a chance to see how we were coping with the altitude. And yes, most of us walked back up (the not very steep) incline puffing more than we would usually.

Thimpu

The twisty turny mountain road was not as hair-raising as I had expected, although bit queasy at times. Driving in to Thimpu I realised  it’s much busier and more developed than I expected it to be. A mix of traditional style buildings and derelict looking places, as well as shops overflowing with local crafts, knick-knacks and souvenirs for the growing number of tourists now visiting. There are roads and pavements, but you need to watch your footing and take care as there are steep steps in many places, as well as the odd gap or two.

Thimpu was playing host to a car exhibition when we arrived which seemed to include a turn by local dancers, singers and a host who chattered away on the microphone. I didn’t actually see any new cars but just the logos. There was a pretty big crowd though and the heavy disco music went on for a couple of hours.

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Street dancers doing their stuff

Walking around town I was struck by the number of people there were. Many in groups just hanging out it seemed. I walked down one side street which will now always be known to me as “meat street” where people were queuing for fresh chicken and other meat I couldn’t identify in the shops there. It didn’t smell very pleasant as you can imagine and as I walked through spotted a lady doing something with some dried fish which involved pulling off a part and chucking it behind her. I walked past without stopping.

Local farmers – or their family – were sat on the side of the pavement with their produce spread out in front them. Many people were walking along carrying bag loads of vegetables. And I don’t mean a bag load of vegetables. I mean one bag full of one vegetable – mostly chillies. I watched one lady crouching down filling a whole bag full of green, red and orange chillies. I seriously cannot imagine how long it would take my family to get through that many chillies. I’m starting to see what Dorji could be referring to.

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Thimpu high street – where you could buy everything from ointment to shoes.

Some parts of Thimpu were not so pleasant to walk through if I’m honest, the drains full of rubbish, pavements with holes to break an ankle if you’re not careful and tired looking shop fronts that are maybe struggling to find a niche for themselves now. But, the overall feel of the town was quite festival like with lots of laughter and chat amongst people as they moved around. Stalls selling Cokes attracted a crowd and yet I didn’t spot any restaurants that seemed to be busy. Maybe that comes later in the evening?

The hotel itself – Thimpu Towers – was pleasant enough and offered a great view of the town square and the clock tower. The rooms are large and well equipped. I was slightly concerned by the supply of ear plugs though!

A developing city

Dusty, busy, lots of cars, lots of people, quite a few tourists. All things I didn’t think I’d use to describe Thimpu. But it is a busy city/town (by Bhutanese standards you understand). Rows of shops selling everything from balls and clothing to incense sticks and buddha statues. The streets are laid out in a way I couldn’t fathom, many steps up and down pavements, some missing steps where they were needed so jumping was the only option. The smell of petrol bothered me slightly and the number of stray dogs was also surprising. It soon becomes clear this is an issue in Thimpu as they sleep all day in the sun and bark all night. Apparently the government are introducing spading to reduce their number.

The Bhutanese people are also a mixed bunch. Men seem to have an air of authority about them wearing their traditional Goh, as many do. It’s funny to see them reach in to their Goh and pull out things randomly – it’s where they keep phones, keys, notebooks, sweets. cigarettes – you name it, it’s tucked away neatly. In fact, it often explains the portly shape of some of the men.

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Dorji, our  lead guide, in his traditional Goh

Lots of young people can be seen hanging around and children roam freely in the way children did back in the ‘good old days’. Sometimes their closeness to traffic made me gasp, but it’s clear these kids are street smart from an early age.

The women in their Kira amazed me with their elegance in heels, especially on the broken pavements and steep kerbs. Many are made up beautifully and I’m ashamed of myself for being surprised at this. Why wouldn’t women in Bhutan use make up and do their hair after all?

A wander along the craft stalls shows the various traditional crafts Bhutan is rightly protecting. Silk wall hangings, hand-made paper, simple knitted scarves, beautifully decorated scarves and throws, prayer flags, woven bags, even a traditional archery stall. Many of them selling the same as the next person, but each one important to the survival of many of these handicrafts (see Choki school below). Apparently the stalls are subsidised heavily in order to offer the workers a way to continue their tradition.

Sightseeing in Thimpu

Despite the fact Thimpu is relatively small, there are a number of sightseeing options. If you’d like to read about the places I visited, please click here. I also took on the ‘Tigers Nest Trek’ which you can find here. All of my cultural learning whilst there was part of a learning journey with Insightful Learning Journeys. which Founder Khatiza Van Savage facilitates. In this particular journey, I was included in a self funded volunteering and cultural immersion learning for Google Employees.

I travelled independently of the group but we met for breakfast and dinner most days. I also took part in my own mindful volunteering that you can read about here. As I was part of a larger group I was lucky to have a pick of wonderful guides – Dorji and his team of Bhakta, Thinley and Sonam are seasoned guides and drivers who have supported Khatiza Van Savage in her learning journeys for many years.  They are proud and gracious Bhutanese nationals, well versed in their culture and eager to ensure that your journey is memorable on many levels.

Bhutan Guides

The fantastic guides and drivers

LANDING AT PARO AIRPORT

For those, who, like my husband are airplane geeks here are some shots of the runway and airport. And, just for your enjoyment a video I took from Paro view-point of a plane coming in – amazing!

 

 

Please do click through to the links to read about the rest of my time in Bhutan.

Here for sightseeing in Thimpu

Here for my volunteering experiences

Here for the Tigers Nest Trek

I’d love to hear your comments and feedback…

Kick Back on Koh Samui

 

Samujana Villas, Koh Samui

A room with a view indeed

Many years ago, before kids, marriage and responsibility my husband and I – quite adventurously for the time – decided we wanted to go to Thailand. More than that, we wanted to go to an island that was pretty unknown then called Koh Samui. We booked a flight with an airline called Britannia  and as this was the early 90’s and there were no direct flights from the UK , we stopped to refuel in Bahrain. I can picture the arrival in to Koh Samui so well even now – we swooped in on a strip of a runway and walked through a hut with a straw roof to collect our bags from the room they called the baggage area.

The next two weeks were, I remember, absolute bliss. Tropical beaches, lovely hotel, nights spent drinking cocktails on the beach listening to The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, sunshine every day and tropical storms that blew away as quickly as they arrived. By the hotel were a few bars and restaurants to wander to every night and we were welcomed by the friendliest, warmest people you can imagine.

We talked about going back for years. We were both convinced the island – having obviously now grown to be tourist hotspot –  couldn’t live up to our possibly rose-tinted memories. If we were going to go back it had to be for something – or somewhere – special.

Enter Samujana…

Samujana Villas, Koh Samui

There’s special… and then there’s Samujana

 

Sat atop a hillside on the northeastern coast of Koh Samui and overlooking a picture perfect cove, this resort (and I use this term loosely as it’s nothing like a ‘resort’) is more than special. Each of the 20 or so luxury villas have been designed by award winning architect Gary Fell of Gfab Architects and are very cleverly built amongst the original rock outcrops and indigenous trees of the hillside – and they all have jaw dropping sea views.

Samujana Villas, Koh Samui

All of the villas offer stunning views of the coral bay

Every villa looked amazing on the website. Infinity pools, private gyms, the talk of comfy slumber areas and extensive living and dining areas. We also loved the sound of ‘the latest in audio and media amenities.’

Ahem, excuse me. This was the undersell of undersells – see excited children later on.

We flew with Asia airlines, our first time with this particular airline and we were pleasantly surprised. Good service, plane was comfortable and as spacious as you’d expect on a short haul economy airline. A special mention though has to go to the safety video. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it – but if there were awards for such things, Air Asia would win for entertainment, comedy and originality!

The airport had changed – there was more than one hut and a ‘street’ of shops and even a proper baggage belt now. But still it was without any of the stress and manic feel of most other airports and it still held the same quaint charm it had all those years ago.

We were met at the airport and led to our bus where the fun started immediately. As we pulled away we were asked if wanted music – of course we did! On went the music and disco lights and up went the volume and all of a sudden – much to the kids delight – we were on a party bus. It was hilarious and surreal at the same time. Shame the villa was only a ten minute journey as the kids were having so much fun.

Coming in to Samujana doesn’t feel anything like driving in to a resort. Villas aren’t packed together fighting for the best view and it’s almost as if you are being given a neck massage as you pull up. Honestly it has, you know, THAT kind of feel.

Villa 22, which if I tell you was originally planned as two villas, will give you an idea of how big it is, was perched just around the first bend.  We were immediately welcomed by our beaming villa host X (yes that was his name – when I asked how to spell that he grinned at me and said “with an X, no more”) who took us on a guided tour of the villa and made us the first of many refreshing lime sodas.

Gym, Samujana Villas, Koh Samui

For the gym bunnies

Anyone listening to us as we were shown around would have been intrigued immediately. Lots of sharp intakes of breath (the size of out bathroom), oohs and ahhs (our own treatment room), squeals of delight (a full size pool table AND a tennis table) and Wows! (a private cinema room with thousands of films to choose from). The excitement caused by the state of the art gym and huge infinity pool complete with inflatable turtles was infectious.

Cinema room, Samujana Villas, Koh Samui

Movie night takes on a whole new meaning here!

Honestly, having seen all six bedrooms and nine bathrooms and then settling ourselves in to just two next to each other, we did say this would be much more suited to an extended family gathering rather than just the four of us on a quick family holiday. We would be literally rattling around. But that was ok, we don’t mind a rattle!

It wasn’t long before the kids were diving in the pool and hubby and I were relaxing on the sun beds smiling smugly at our good fortune to have found somewhere so amazingly stunning. From there things just got better and better and more and more relaxed.

With our own private cook available in the villa breakfast was a feast – of many courses. Granola, cereals, fresh fruit, yoghurt, pastries as well as a selection of cooked food from omelettes to french toast, we were totally spoilt for choice. After the first morning we realised not to scarf down everything laid out for us on the table as this was just the start. X and our sweet housekeeper/chef would continue to bring out food. Literally we ate like Kings.

Lunch could be ordered from X too with a wide and varied menu to choose from. The chef can prepare a barbecue or a feast, whatever you want, you could have. We chose to eat out most nights and again X was on hand to recommend restaurants and arrange transport to the local town of Chaweng, or wherever it was we wanted to go. He even took us himself in his own car when he could.

We spent the week in total zen like relaxation. Reading, snoozing and playing in the pool with the kids when they weren’t playing table tennis or watching another movie in the cinema. Music is fed through speakers throughout the villa and you can choose to hook up your own music or listen to what is there. X had a penchant for soft reggae it seemed as often we’d have that playing – which seemed to suit the laid back mood perfectly.

Skimming stones, Koh Samui

The ideal beach for a spot of skimming stones

Samujana Villas, private beach, Koh Samui

Samujana’s private beach

All of the staff we encountered whilst there could not have been friendlier or more accommodating. From the guys watering the grounds to the security men at the gate. We took a walk down to the private beach one day – carrying a bag prepared for us by X with water and towels in – and spent an enjoyable hour or so skimming stones and swinging on the tree swing that’s hung there. The beach wouldn’t win any awards for beauty as it’s very rocky and the sand is more shingle, but it’s not a bad place to while away some time.

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Ssh! Don’t tell Nanna.

We were surprised to see X on our walk back who had kindly come along to carry the bag back and offered us a lift on the back of his moped. Now, don’t tell Nanna, but both children were delighted to jump on the back one at a time and be whizzed (carefully and considerately!) up the short hill to the villa. He even came back and offered hubby and I a lift. We declined as figured we needed the exercise.

If you’re feeling energetic there is a tennis court and Samujana also offer a number of different experiences should you wish to indulge yourself. These include chartering a luxury 43ft catamaran, diving and snorkelling and cooking classes or yoga. Last year saw the launch of  Samujana’s Wellbeing experience which offers bespoke wellness and fitness services working with some of the top therapists and experts on the island. A great idea if you want to kickstart a healthy regime or re-boot your body.

We did neither I’m sorry to say. We just relaxed and made the most of it. We explored the island a bit too as wanted to see how much it had changed. And there’s no denying it has. Chaweng is now a town teaming with restaurants, bars, massage parlours, tattoo studios, boutiques and nail bars, to name but a few. Tourists are aplenty and the atmosphere is a mix of hippy student backpackers and family holiday. But go a little deeper and you and still find the charm of old Koh Samui. Simple villages with a couple of places to eat and locals going about their daily business.

Samujana Villas, Koh Samui

Lots of space to spread out and relax.

We had the most wonderful week at Samujana and will look forward to going back one day. Next time though we’ll take a few people to enjoy the stunning villa with us. In fact, we both said what a fabulous place it would be for a celebration like a ‘big’ birthday, family reunion or a wedding. With a dining table that seated 12 comfortably, huge comfortable sofas aplenty, six bedrooms and nine bathrooms it easily has the room. Even if you have little ones -as long as you were cautious with the stairs and the pool – it would be great as there was plenty of grass area to play on and of course, being Samujana they could even offer a nanny service to help you relax a little more.

Obviously with this kind of luxury comes a larger than life price tag. But if you were sharing the cost with one or even two other families it really is worth every penny (in fact, it’s worth it for a special treat regardless).

Thanks for having us Samujana, it was truly something special.

Shells on beach, Koh Samui

Even the shells on the beach were picture perfect

 

This song will always say “Koh Samui” to me.

 

 

The perfect getaway?

Idyllic beach anyone?

Idyllic paradise beach anyone?

When I was looking to take my little sis somewhere special for her (ahem, sorry about this sis) 40th birthday while she was here visiting with her family I ran through all the usual ideas. Swanky restaurants, weekends on Bintan, spas breaks, staycay at MBS and so on. But, being the selfish person I am, I figured why not make it something I’d enjoy too – in fact something both of our families would enjoy. I’d heard about this special island just off Malaysia and started doing some digging. A couple of days later and we were booked. I didn’t tell sis, or her family. It was all going to be a big surprise. And what a surprise it was for us all.

Fun on the boat over

Fun on the boat over

Batu Batu is a private resort set on the previously uninhabited island of Pulau Tengah – meaning middle island – just 16km off the coast of Malaysia. A quick drive through the Johor border and over to Mersing and then it’s a quick 20 minute boat trip on the resorts own speedboat. Simples!

The resort is a relatively new venture having opened its jetty just four years ago in 2012. Built with sustainability in mind all of the buildings on the resort were constructed by local carpenters using traditional techniques and a huge emphasis is placed on preservation of not only the island, but its wildlife, flora and fauna.

Check in, check out
As you spot Batu Batu in the distance, honestly there is something that happens to you. A sigh escapes your body that is barely discernible. As the boat glides in to the jetty and you climb the rustic wooden steps a lightness seems to take over. The expanse of sea and sand is breathtaking and if traveling with children, hold on to them tightly, as you may find they can’t resisit the urge to throw themselves off the jetty right there in to the ridiculously clear waters is almost overwhelming. There’s plenty of time for that later on.
We were met by a friendly young man called Nicholas (we were all – grown men included already falling for his french accent, laid back swagger and stories of sharks in the water) who led us along the jetty towards ‘reception.’ As we passed wooden Kampung style villas nestled amongst the rocks and spied steps that led down to white, sandy beaches – the island has eight such beaches for you explore –  it was clear this wasn’t your typical resort at all.

Even the loos had a picture perfect view

We were shown to the restaurant area – having passed the office, reception and shop without actually realising it – and encouraged to relax on huge wooden chairs, given refreshing drinks and handed cold flannels to cool us down. As we took in our surroundings the smiles on everyone’s faces grew, the knots in our shoulders loosened and the shoes on our feet were kicked off.

 

Eating at Batu Batu
A spacious open sided pavillion with views across the sea whichever way you turn, the restaurant and bar area is not a bad place to sit and while away some time. As we had arrived on the early boat we knew our room wouldn’t be ready and took the offer of lunch while it was prepared.

At Batu Batu all meals are included in the ‘board basis’ which you pay for when booking. This includes a buffet breakfast, two course lunch (main and dessert) and three course dinner (starter, main and dessert). The menu changes daily and whilst we were there there was a choice of 4 or 5 dishes each day ranging from fresh local seafood to traditional Malaysian dishes. Children are well catered for with their own menu, or they can opt to have a smaller version of the grown ups food if they like. Our young people were mixed in their tastes and the staff were always happy to accommodate (“fries with that, of course,” “less spciy randang, no problem”)

The adults were more than happy with the food too with portion sizes keeping us full between meals. If we did get a little peckish though there was always fruit and home made cake available.

Villa amore
Even though there are just 22 villas on the whole resort – I swear I spotted no more than half a dozen, which is testament to the design and layout of Batu Batu. With a choice of beach, ocean, poolside or jungle villas it’s best to choose dependent on your needs and preferences. We opted for beach villas which, as promised, were sat directly on the island’s ‘Sunrise beach’ and are ideal if you have a few beachcombers in your group.

The jungle villas are set back from the coast and offer a bit more privacy being nestled in the jungle. But to get to them there are a good few steps to climb; not good for those who are not as agile on their feet. The ocean villas offered stunning views out across the sea and are set in to the rocks. Again a few steps to climb –  though not as many. The two poolside villas are better suited to larger families as they have two bedrooms (all the others are one bedroom with or without children’s annexe) and are directly behind the resorts only pool.

Our villa on the beach

Our villa was simple and yet stunning. With a huge four poster bed taking centre stage offering views out to the beach and ocean. A separate and equally massive bathroom led off the main room and held double sinks, wardrobes, a dressing area, shower and toilet. A large bathtub sat regally in front of the almost floor length windows inviting you to take a soak and watch the sun go down. Interestingly, the windows – that can make you feel slightly, shall we say, exposed at a time you may prefer some privacy – are cleverly designed so that they offer a feeling of being outside without those on the outside seeing in. We know, we tested it out.

To the other side of the main room was a small, but perfectly formed ‘annex’ – a room with just bunk beds in to accommodate children. We found it comfortably accommodated our 10 year old and surprisingly our 17 year old. Our 15 year old opted for the daybed in the main room. This layout worked fine for us for the few days we were there. Anyway, who wants to stay in the room when you’ve got the beach on your doorstep?

All of the rooms had everything you’d need for a comfortable stay including wi-fi (though this was hit and miss; something I liked as it meant phones were switched off), dvd player, iPod speakers, tea and coffee making facilities, mini bar etc.  There were some simple but really helpful touches too like the plastic box in which to store your snacks away from any mini critters and gorgeous smelling, environmentally friendly toiletries.

Beachside bliss
A balcony complete with daybed led you out to the star of the show, the beach. Most of the time we were there it felt like our own private beach and many an hour was spent snoozing on the sunbeds listening to the sound of the sea or watching the kids look for shells. Every now and you may spot someone having a wander past but very rarely was our peace interrupted. Again this is testament to the way the resort has been designed.

Sigh!

Sigh!

The pool – an infinity pool – on the other hand was a slightly different story. This was where a lot of the kids hung out and despite our protestations we did spend some time there. As with any resort pool, children can be a bit noisy (not ours of course!) so if I were returning sans kids I’d definitely give the pool area a miss, which is pretty easy to do considering the choice of beaches to relax on. It wouldn’t be hard to find yourself a quiet spot away from noisy youngsters. But honestly, this was only occasionally, we had the pool to ourselves on occasion too.

Diving Divas

Listening carefully

The girls listening carefully

If sitting on a beach relaxing isn’t your thing one of the other attractions of Batu Batu is the fact that it is surrounded by stunning coral reefs and clear blue waters that beg you to dive in to explore. Last year saw the opening of the resorts dive centre – with all profits generated from it going straight back in to environmental projects on and around the island.

With various PADI programmes open to anyone over 8 years old (and who meet the medical requirements) this is not a bad place to start your diving hobby. As the two youngest members of our group discovered.

Still listening

Still listening

Two, patient, fun and confident instructors took the two girls off, kitted them out in full wetsuit and diving gear and before we knew it they were fully fledged Bubblemakers and could be spotted as little black dots heading down to the ocean floor.  Us mums were a little pale faced and needed a cocktail or two, but this was an experience that the kids were absolutely raving about afterwards (and ever since) and both were keen to go back for more. For those who didn’t dive there is the option of snorkeling and this kept many of our group occupied as they were gone for hours exploring around the islands reef. Even if you didn’t want to dive you could let off some steam by hiring out kayaks or trekking through the interior of the island. You really can be as active as you like.

Somewhere down there are our baby girls!

Somewhere down there are our brave baby girls!

Added extras

The resort also offers a spa where you can be pampered with massages, facials, pedicures and so on. We had to try it out – for research purposes obviously – and can verify it’s worth a visit or two. There’s also a kids club where the littlies can spend some time away from mum and dad. Ours didn’t use it as they were having too much fun on the beach and in the pool, but should think it’d come in handy for some.

Tremendous Turtles

IMG_3817For me – and in fact, the whole group – though, the true highlight of our time on Batu Batu came in the form of eggs and what came out of them. The ethos of the Lasalvy’s ever since they began building the resort was to ‘tread lightly’ so the turtles that come to nest on their island have been in the forefront of their mind from the beginning. Turtle Watch Camp on ‘Long Beach’ is a program they run to help protect, conserve and educate visitors about and is something they are rightly proud of. Before the camp was set up many of the eggs laid on this and the surrounding islands were subject to illegal poaching (the eggs are a delicacy in some parts of Asia)  and the Dugong and Green turtles had become endangered – the Hawksbill turtle critically so.

The turtle hatchery

The turtle hatchery

Now, through monitoring nests, a controlled hatchery and spreading the word to its visitors, the conservation team at Batu Batu are really making a difference. The turtles continue to nest and the Camp help keep their eggs safe until they hatch, then they gently help them on their way. If you are lucky – as we were – you’ll get to see the tiny baby turtles released; a truly magical experience. (see turtle camp blog post for more on this)

 

Sunsets and cocktails
As well as Turtle Watch Camp, Long Beach is home to the beach bar. Just as any good beach bar should it had a decent cocktail list and plenty of cold beers as well as juices and smoothies and was the perfect place to sit and watch the sun go down.

Don't miss cocktails on the beach.

Don’t miss cocktails on the beach.

It’s fair to say that once the sun goes down there isn’t that much going on at Batu Batu. The restaurant finishes serving around 9pm and most people have headed back to their villa by 10pm. So not the place to go if you like late nights.

Our time on Batu Batu can be summed up by something the usually stressed hubby said. “This is the first place I’ve been to and felt myself relax on the first day.” The fact he didn’t seem to mind too much that the wifi didn’t work too well was also a good indicator that we’d found somewhere worth visiting.

For more information visit the website at www.batubatu.com.my

Bye, bye beautiful Batu Batu

Bye, bye beautiful Batu Batu

 

 

Jigger & Pony

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As one of the older kids on the block Jigger & Pony is the go-to place for those in the know. Since it’s opening a few years ago, this warm and welcoming bar has proved to be a venue that has firmly ensconced itself in the popular cocktail bar scene for those looking for a classic cocktail.

If it’s a classic Martini you are after then J&P should be high on your list.

Located in the oh so trendy Amoy Street, Jigger & Pony is one of those bars you could easily walk past. Not in the achingly trendy no real door way of some of the bars in Singapore, but in an unassuming, not bigging ourselves up way.

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We visited on a Saturday evening after dinner and the place was packed. Even so, we got a spot at the large bar and made ourselves as comfy as you can on bar stools. We were immediately greeted by the bar staff – who were all busy mixing up drinks – and a waiter handed us a menu to take a look at. The choice is wide but not so vast that you can’t choose. All of your favourites are on there including Gin Fizz and Martinis, as well as some more unusual offerings like a French 75 (gin, lemon and sparkling wine).

They have an extensive whiskey menu, featuring various Japanese, Scotch and Bourbons, to name but a few. In fact, the list of other spirits, wines, beers is pretty extensive too.

The selection of bottles behind the bar really is a sight to behold. My husband and I did our best to decipher some of the labels, suffice to say they have some very special home blends. Although we were tempted by the Punch Bowls that were on the menu – serving 15-20 people no less! – we settled for one cocktail each. Hubby chose a classic Gin Fizz and I went for an Airmail, which claimed to be the ‘fastest way to your happy place.’

IMG_3233The drinks arrived and although not quite as quirky as some of the cocktails we’ve had, it made a pleasant change to see drinks served up in a simple and elegant way. They also tasted great! The Airmail pretty much lived up to its claim too 😉

If you do decide to pay a visit to J&P do also pay a visit to the IMG_3228bathroom. In the ladies at least you will find the walls papered with pages from The Savoy Cocktail Book. With recipes for all the old classics right there it makes a mundane task that little bit more interesting. Huge bonus points for cuteness and quirkiness here.

Overall we really liked the vibe at Jigger & Pony and will definitely head back there. In fact, we found out they have happy hour between 6-8 with cocktails at just $14. Add to that the happy hour snacks that include a Bikini Sandwich and Beef Skewers, we could be back there sooner than we thought.

Oh, and interesting fact of the day – why the name? It’s all explained rather handily in the menu…

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I do love a random fact.

Jigger and Pony
101 Amoy Street
069921
(+65) 9621 1074
www.jiggerandpony.com

Bitters & Love

image3This place was one of the first cocktail bars I visited here in Singapore. My husband and I were looking for somewhere to go where we could chat, have a few drinks and just spend some time together. We hit the jackpot straight away. Since then the bar has actually moved venues, but it still has the same relaxed vibe.

Bitters & Love is run by a guy called Ernest. He came over to us that first evening and introduced himself. Now here’s a guy who loves his job. He was so enthusiastic about the drinks he was serving, the venue, the food, the staff and his customers that we ended up chatting for quite a while. He told us how he’d started the bar himself and wanted to provide a space where people could have a good time and feel at home. It was then he introduced my husband to Geranium gin – apparently its the stuff of dreams. As someone who doesn’t drink gin I couldn’t tell you, but suffice to say it’s now one of hubby’s favourite drinks.

As for the cocktails, the bar staff – who will make you feel welcome immediately – will ask what kind of drink you like, what base, mixer etc. But they don’t need specifics as its the detail they’re good at.

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The perfect alternative to my beloved tea.

I requested something with white rum or vodka base, fruity but not too sweet. I admit to being a bit sceptical at first as wasn’t sure I’d get a drink I’d actually be able to drink, let alone like. But I needn’t have worried. What I got was a little slice of heaven. I don’t know how they knew about me and my tea thing but really, could it have been more ‘me’? It tasted amazing with just the right amount of rum along with something that gave it a kick. The passion fruit gave it a nice fruity edge with enough sharpness to not make it sickly. Yum!

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Bread and jam with your cocktail – why not?

The next one I chose from their cocktail menu. They call it breakfast in a glass – a little jar full of Singapore. For me, it was a little too sweet but hey, that’s Kaya jam for you, but I loved the presentation. The rest of the evening was spent trying some other flavours whilst hubby tucked in to more of the gin. Overall we had a fab night and agreed we’d go back again soon.

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Look out for the subtle sign!

A few weeks later some girlfriends and I were meeting for cocktails and I suggested we try out the ‘new’ Bitters & Love (having heard it had moved home). It’s a bit hidden away and hard to spot – as all the best bars in Singapore are – and it did feel a bit like we were stepping in to a building site. But I quite liked the lack of pretension and the quirky scribble on the doorway letting you know you were in the right place.

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We were ‘quackers’ about this one (sorry!)

Once inside, Fiona, one of the lovely bar staff (who was quick to apologise for the lack of ‘real door’) showed us to our table. Luckily we’d booked ahead as it does get pretty busy. We all ordered different drinks and again the service was helpful, quick and friendly. The drinks we got were completely different to each other. This one was a particular favourite. Despite it’s ‘rock’ name (Tuscan Trident) it was a bit of a cutie – and tasted amazing.

We all loved the atmosphere of the bar and could have happily spent the night there. The only negative for us was that we were sat right under a speaker and couldn’t hear each other properly. However, as soon as we mentioned this to Fiona she turned it down a touch for us.

The food at B&L is worth a try too. With cubes of beef, potatoes ‘chips’ and other yummy favourites on the menu, it’s comfort food at its best.

Overall, as a bar goes, B&L is up there with one of the most comfortable, entertaining (the staff can really throw those bottles around) and friendly joints in Singapore. Add to the mix the amazing cocktails they serve, it’s well worth a visit in my opinion.

If you go along, tell them Five Go Mad says hi!

Bitters & Love
118 Telok Ayer Street
Tel:6438 1836
https://www.facebook.com/BittersandLove?fref=ts