Plan Your Trip to Perhentian Islands

Friends always contact me when they are planning a trip to Perhentian Islands. Most of them would have done their homework, knowing that the Perhentians consist of two islands – Perhentian Besar (big island) and Perhentian Kecil (small island). So, their questions are…

Which island is better? Perhentian Besar or Perhentian Kecil?
Both islands are beautiful. Each offers different attractions. Perhentian Kecil is known as a backpackers’ paradise where Long Beach is the only place for beach party. The two main beaches at Kecil are Long Beach (on the East) and Coral Bay (on the West). Mira Beach, Petani Beach, D’ Lagoon, etc, are a few other smaller beaches that are less crowded, thus giving you more privacy. The only village is located in the Southwest of Kecil. You cannot sunbath or walk around in your bikinis in the village but it is worth visiting the village. Most of the tourists staying in the village are Malaysians (packaged groups). Almost all the beaches on Kecil are accessible by foot. Perhentian Besar is more peaceful, especially at night. The two main beaches at Besar are Teluk Dalam (on the South) and the whole stretch on the Eastern side, plus two smaller beaches at Teluk Pauh and Tanjung Tukas.

Where to stay?
Most of the accommodations are situated next to the beach, except those in the village and along the pathway between Long Beach and Coral Bay. I’ll list the accommodation available on the islands.

Packaged tour or non-packaged tour?
Malaysians usually opt for packaged tour as they are easier to organise and cheaper in price. A packaged tour usually include boat transfer, accommodation, meals and 1-2 snorkel tours. If you do book for a packaged tour, please book through the resorts/chalets or a registered travel company. There have been many cases where customers showed up but there was no booking at the chalets. Don’t be fooled by package that is too cheap to be true. Nothing cheap is good and nothing good is cheap. Always ask for the name of the accommodation (so that you can compare the prices) and double check with the resort/chalet that your booking is confirmed. Non-packaged tour, on the other hand, offers more flexibility to your trip. You can plan your daily activities. You can go diving instead of snorkelling. You can eat at different places.

How to get there?
You need to get to Kuala Besut Jetty before 4pm in order to catch the last boat to the island. There is a direct bus to Kuala Besut bus station from most cities (e.g. Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Kuala Terengganu, Johor Bahru). If you are flying, fly to Kota Bharu Airport and take a taxi to Kuala Besut Jetty. Alternatively, you can drive to Kuala Besut Jetty and park your car there.

How much is the boat transfer from mainland to the Perhentians?
A return boat transfer from Kuala Besut jetty to Perhentian Islands costs RM70. Some offer as low as RM50. The earliest boat departing from Kuala Besut jetty is at 8am (sometimes earlier) and the latest boat is at 4pm (sometimes later). It is important to know the name of the resort/chalet that you are staying. The boat will drop you at the beach where you are staying. Times where the waves are strong at Long Beach, they will drop you at Coral Bay and you need to walk to Long Beach. To leave Perhentian Islands, you call the boat operator on your boat ticket a day before. Some resorts/chalets offer to make that arrangement for you. You can either leave at 8am, 12pm or 4pm (not always on time). This is because the boat picks up tourists from different beaches so better be there early. When it is near the monsoon, the only time available is at 8am. Always check with your boat operator.

How much is the boat taxi in the Perhentians?
It is quite common to take a boat taxi from one beach to another beach. There are taxi stands/huts on most beaches. The price varies between RM5-30 one way, depending on the distance. The price doubles after 7pm and triples after 12am. If you are travelling on your own, you need to pay the price for 2 person. Check if your resort/chalet offers taxi service for free.

How much money do I need?
There are no ATMs/banks on the islands so bring enough cash. Only a few resorts/chalets have credit card service. If you are on a packaged tour, you probably don’t need much. However, if you have only booked your accommodation and boat transfer, do put aside RM10-20 per meal. Food is not cheap on the islands as everything is transported in from mainland. Buy snacks and mineral waters from mainland and bring them with you to save money. Boat taxi and alcohol cost the most (if you are not diving). One can of beer costs RM10.

What can I do there?
– Snorkelling: The Perhentians have many nice snorkel sites. The most common snorkel tour brings you to 3-4 sites, for example Turtle Point (a green turtle foraging site), Shark Point (black tip reef sharks), Fish Garden, Coral Garden, Lighthouse, etc. Another snorkel attraction is Rawa Island, which is located to the North of small islands. There are also day snorkel trips to Redang Island.

– Diving: The Perhentians is one of the islands that offers cheap diving package. A few of the more popular dive sites are Tokong Laut, Sugar Wreck, Batu Layar, Shark Point, Vietnamese Wreck, D’ Lagoon and T3. Of course the list continues.

– Kayaking: Since the Perhentians consist of two islands, kayaking is a good way to go from one beach to another and from one snorkel site to another.

– Sunrise and sunset: There are a few places to watch sunrise (before 7am) from the windmill, Long Beach and D’ Lagoon. All the beaches facing the West are suitable for watching sunset (before 7pm). My favourite place is at Teluk Keke and the rocks by Shari-la Resort at Coral Bay.

– Visit the turtle hatchery at Turtle Beach before 3pm. Look for the staff members from the Perhentian Turtle Project who are happy to talk to you about sea turtles and conservation.

– Round-island hike: All the beaches with resorts are connected through a pathway or jungle trekking.

– Hike to windmill: It is a 15-20 minutes walk uphill from Long Beach and the view is magnificent from the top.

– Clean-up: You will come across trash when you walk around the islands. Bring your trash with you and pick up the trash you see along the way. Throw them into the bins. Together we can keep the islands clean.

– Stand-up paddling: Only seen it at Long Beach and Bubbles Dive Resort at Tanjung Tukas.
– Wind-surfing: So far only available at Alunan Resort at Petani Beach.
– Surfing: Usually near the monsoon season at Long Beach.
– Malay dinner: Experience a Malay meal in a local house in the village.

Other things worth sharing:
– A waterproof bag is useful at all occasions.
– Never underestimate the sun. Apply sunblock before getting into the sun and some aloe vera gel if you get sunburned. Sunblock is not good for corals so best is cover up (e.g. putting on rash vest, wear a hat, sunglasses, etc).
– Most of the snorkel areas are shallow and calm. Even without fins/flippers, you can snorkel just fine.
– There is a clinic in the village. Bring along your I/C card or passport, and money.
– Try the doughnuts at PILA Cafe in the village.
– Always snorkel within the buoy line and look out for boats.
– Never leave your belongings unattended (sandals too!), especially when you party at Long Beach at night.
– Try Monkey Juice, which is a mix of Orang Utan (cheap rum) and 7Up. Never mix it with Coke, Pepsi or other carbonated drinks!
– Help build a turtle database by submitting turtle photos to turtle@ecoteer.com. The facial scales of each individual turtle are unique. You can name the turtle if it is a new turtle!
– Check out for volunteering opportunities with Perhentian Turtle Project, Perhentian Community and Conservation Project, and Perhentian Marine Research Station that are based in the village, as well as Bubbles Dive Resort’s conservation project.

Perhentian Islands have a lot to offer so take the time to explore and immerse yourself in the nature!

Do we really want to volunteer?

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I have met volunteers from all walks of life while managing volunteer-based community and conservation projects for the past few years. Everyone has something to offer, bringing different invaluable skills and experiences, providing manpower, coming up with suggestions and recommendations to solve problems, etc. It is about having a wonderful volunteering experiences, not just to share and contribute but also to gain insights and experiences working with the community in conservation.

Putting fun aside, there were also times when having volunteers is challenging. I often asked volunteers the reason(s) they volunteer. Volunteers who did their research about the projects before signing up had a better idea of what they would be doing at the project. But, there were also those who came because they or their parents thought volunteering would look good on their CVs, they just wanted to volunteer but were not keen on doing much, they had some time while travelling and did not know what to do or where else to go, they wanted to help turtles but did not know it involves patrolling on the beach at night, etc. Then I wonder, why would they sign up to something without knowing what they were signing up for?

I am writing this as I think that there are a few things people who plan or want to volunteer should know before signing up for it. This is so that projects and volunteers can meet each other’s expectations.

First of all, ask ourselves why do we want to volunteer and what do we want to gain?

This is important because it helps us to know what to look for while searching for projects and decide whether or not a project is suitable. For example, if we dislike children, we should not volunteer for a project that requires us to spend time every day with children. Not only will we struggle to work with children, the children also sense it that we don’t like hanging out with them. The reason we want to volunteer will be our motivation that decides how much (more) we want to be involved while volunteering. If we are there just to pass time, that is what we will do. However, if we want to learn about something, we will make sure we utilise our time there to gain those skills.

How much budget do we have? How long can we volunteer?

Look for projects that are within our budget. Anything less than one week is probably not sufficient to learn or contribute much, especially when it involves work that needs specific skills. Most work that the projects carry out require a certain level of skills and experiences, which can be acquired through training (with time). Unless we have the skills and experiences, we need to allow us some time to go through the training and practice. For example, it is overly ambitious to think that we could get certified as an open water diver and do dive surveys in one week period, even if the project tells you otherwise. Some people are natural divers but some become one with experience, plus it requires training to do surveys for research. Understanding this means we are able to tell if we have the skills and experiences to volunteer for a certain project, or we probably need to pick up the necessary skills first and if not, stay longer.

How much time are we willing to spend on volunteering every day?

Not many people put much thought about it. At most projects, it is a full working day every day. However, if we have in mind, from the beginning, that we only want to volunteer half a day and have the rest of the day free to explore the area, then look for a project that gives us the flexibility to do so. Some projects have more rigid schedule that requires volunteers to follow through a fixed itinerary. Find out as early as possible whether or not certain arrangement can be made.

Once we know what we want, do the homework!! There is no shortcut to have a good volunteering experience. In most cases, volunteers do not have a pleasant experience because the project has not met up to their expectations. At the same time, projects also feel the pinch as they have to put up with unhappy volunteers. This could happen because volunteers do not receive full information about a project, finds out later that what is happening on ground is far from what it is on the brochure/website or they do not take the effort to find out more about the project. Be more cautious of anything that sounds too good to be true. If we are booking through agents, make sure we get the right information. I personally prefer to get in touch with the project I am interested to volunteer with, rather than booking through an agent. Look online, find out more about the project and read up reviews by past volunteers (if any). Project’s website only explains briefly what they do and agents probably tell us what we want to hear but it is from volunteers’ reviews that we know more about the day-to-day work and living conditions. Every volunteer has his/her standards so be smart in gauging the reviews.

Good projects tend to have certain requirements when looking for volunteers. Be honest. For instance, if we are not swimmers, don’t say that we can swim. This is because for projects that do snorkel surveys, instead of us helping them in the surveys, they have to constantly look out for us and make sure we don’t drown. Projects have risk assessments and safety measurements but it is also our responsibilities to inform them about our health conditions so that they can take appropriate measures when necessary. Not all projects have good or any medical facilities in proximity.

All of this is essential, if we are serious about volunteering. Take the initiative to get in touch with the project before arrival to find out if there is anything else we should know or prepare. Every project differs, some are organised and some not, which is why we should take the time to look for projects where we can share experiences and learn new skills. Lastly, having the right attitude is utmost important while volunteering. Volunteer because we want to help. Having say that, Happy Volunteering!!

Natuna Island – Beyond Expectation

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Natuna Island from the East – a view of Sepempang Village

Natuna Islands are not widely known, despite being situated between Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo in the South China Sea. The archipelago consists of 272 islands with the largest being Natuna Besar, an island that looks like a human head from the side. I had to find the location on Google Map when I first heard of it. My supervisor received news that someone from Natuna expressed interest in selling turtle eggs to Terengganu and it was to her interest to find out more about this. The concern was without the ban of commercial sale of turtle eggs in Terengganu, the state will eventually become a hub for illegal trade of sea turtle eggs. The aim of the visit to the island was to look for that person whom we knew by Halim, plus to explore and understand more about sea turtles and the communities.

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The location of Natuna Island

Getting there was quite a long journey. My travel began from Kuala Terengganu where I flew to Kuala Lumpur early in the morning. There I met my supervisor and her husband and we continued the journey taking a bus to Johor Bahru and a ferry to Batam. We stayed a night in Batam and the next morning flew to Ranai, the administrative centre of Natuna Islands. It was a small military-based airport. We waited for our luggage that was transported by a truck and it was funny seeing everyone walking after the truck. Our luggage was left at an empty space like a basketball court. It felt a bit uncomfortable not knowing how things work, like where to wait and when will the luggage arrive. My supervisor termed it as ‘chaotic organised’.

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The only airport at Natuna Island

We took a cab to look for accommodation. After showing us a few, we decided to stay at Wisma Star Inn, a three-storey building located right in the middle of Ranai town. The room is very basic but spacious. I found it strange that the toilet did not have a sink and a toilet cistern to flush the squatting toilet. However, I noticed that every toilet I used in locals’ houses do not have a sink and a toilet cistern. Therefore, bringing a toiletry bag with hook would be very useful.

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Wisma Star Inn at Ranai town

We started by visiting the market and saw hawksbill turtle eggs on sale. Compared to Terengganu, the eggs are much cheaper in Natuna. It was approximately RM0.80 and RM1.20 for one hawksbill and green turtle egg, respectively. In the search of Halim, we visited the village head who referred us to the Oceanography and Fisheries Department, who later referred us to a few locals. It looks like a fruitless search but we learned a lot about the communities in relation to sea turtles. There has been an effort initiated by the communities to set patrol a small island off the coast of Sepempang, namely Senoa Island. It was a pleasure to be able to join one of the locals patrolling the beach and listening to his stories. Lucky us, we found Halim on our third day. It turned out (thank God) that he did not want to sell turtle eggs to Terengganu but during his visit to Terengganu, he requested the authority here to provide him with satellite tracking to track the turtles at Natuna.

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A visit to the market and fishing port

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Some attractions at Ranai town (we missed Alif Stone Park)

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On a pompom to Senoa Island

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Senoa Island – such a beautiful island but not inhabited

We managed to visit Sedanau Island, off the West coast of Natuna Island, which is a fishing village that looks very organised and modern. We met a few people who shared a lot about their island and natural resources, etc and it was very interesting. A few actually owned fish farms where they raise mainly coral fishes or crustaceans. Indonesia has always been one of the main exporter of seafood, including Napoleon wrasse. I do not dive often and always only at Perhentian. Until today, I have not seen a Napoleon wrasse in the wild and the closest-to-the-wild encounter was in a fish farm. Some of the Napoleons were captured when they are offspring as small as our fingers and being raised in fish farms until they are at least 1 kg before they are sold to Hong Kong. It was heartbreaking to hear that juvenile and adult Napoleons were captured using potassium cyanide. There is a quota set to control the trade of Napoleon wrasse but there are more available in the market than the allowed amount.

Sedanau Island, off West coast of Natuna Island

Sedanau Island, off West coast of Natuna Island

In short, the trip was way beyond expectation. The lives of most people living off the coast are heavily depended on their natural resources. Fishing and agriculture are still their main sources of income. Tourism has started but not well developed yet. Many are also involved fish farming and trading industry, supplying any marine resources that are in demand abroad. Seaweed farming is also very common there and to my surprise, the drink made of seaweed actually tasted good! Unlike some animals like chicken that can be breed, most of the fishes cannot be bred and to supply for the increasing demand, they need to be caught in the wild. It is bizarre to learn that most of them feel that their natural resources won’t go extinct. I wonder how true it is for Napoleon wrasse when they fish the babies, the juveniles and also the adults, leaving them with a very slim chance to grow into adulthood and reproduce. I guess that is life and no matter where it is, there are always conflicts between human and wildlife.

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We ventured into an unknown island but left with new friendships and good memories!

My Trip to Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley

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After I decided to go for the symposium in Peru, I started to plan for Machu Picchu. The internet is such an amazing place to answer all the questions I had in mind such as how to get there? How many days is enough? How much does it cost? What is the weather like? What and how much should I pack? That was also the time I realised how big Peru is and I probably would not have enough time to go to many places. I do not usually plan too far ahead as I like to have flexible travel plans. However, based on what others shared about their trips, I thought it would be better to plan ahead. Instead of booking for tours, I took the time to plan my trip to Machu Picchu. Blog articles from Escape Traveler, Rich Beattie, Robert Schrader and Jimmy were particularly helpful. I did not want to rush so I allocated 8 days for Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley, which was more than enough and suited my travel pace! And I was not up to hike the Inca Trail, maybe next time!

 

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A map of Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley. Source: http://www.mysteryperu.com/eng/images/map_machupicchu_bytrain.jpg

Day 1: Lima – Cuzco

Day 2: Cuzco

Day 3: Cuzco – Ollantaytambo – Aguas Calientes

Day 4: Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu

Day 5: Aguas Calientes – Ollantaytambo

Day 6: Ollantaytambo – Cuzco

Day 7: Cuzco

Day 8: Cuzco – Lima

It was relatively easy with all the travel tips. All it took to visit Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley was:

1. Return flight ticket from Lima to Cusco. The ticket can cost between US$150 and US$300 or more, depending on the airlines. I started checking the price 3 months ahead and only bought the tickets 2 months in advance and the price had definitely gone up. Based on the reviews of airlines in Peru, I chose StarPeru as it was cheaper and seemed to be reliable. LAN had the best reviews but was the most expensive. My flight there was delayed but the flight back was on time. Overall, it was good for me. Besides I always ended up sleeping.

2. Collectivo (van) from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Taking the train from Ollantaytambo is cheaper than from Cusco. From Cusco, the train departs from Poroy Station, which is about 20 minutes drive away. It only costs S.10 to take a collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo whereas it costs more to get a taxi to Poroy Station. The collectivo is quite comfortable and it leaves once it is full. Big backpack or suitcase has to go on the top of the vehicle. I had one backpack which luckily fit on my lap. Along the way, locals started getting off at different stops and there were more seats available. The journey was about one and a half hour and the scenery was really beautiful so try to get a window seat! It would be cheaper to take a collectivo from Cuzco to Urubamba and change another collectivo from Urubamba to Ollantaytamo but most would go for the former to save time.

3. Return train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. There are two railway companies that offer the train service from Ollantaytambo, which are PeruRail and Inca Rail. Click here to find out more about the different trains operated by each company. Mark Smith’s write up on train travel in Peru is also informative. I bought the tickets for Expedition Train by PeruRail online as it had the cheapest option. I could only print the tickets at any PerulRail offices at least 4 hours before the departure time. I did mine upon arrival at Cusco Airport. Don’t forget to show the purchase code number, passport and credit card used during online purchase. On the ticket it stated that only 4 kg hand carry was allowed. In my head I thought, that must be absurd! Nonetheless, I left one of my backpack at Cusco and took only one which was definitely still over 4 kg anyway. However, to my surprise, the train was more spacious and luxurious. There was definitely enough space for luggage. There was luggage compartment like any other trains, plus ample space on the floor between the seats. I was lucky enough to get a window seat on both the journey there and back. The windows were big, even at the top of the train, which gave everyone a good view along the ride. The service was tip top, drinks and cookies were served. But then for the price I paid, I should be expecting such a service because when it is converted to Ringgit Malaysia, the train cost almost RM500!

4. Return shuttle bus ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. The ticket can be purchased using US$ or Peruvian Sol at Aguas Calientes. The ticket counter is just next to the bust station. I bought the ticket a day before to avoid the queue early in the morning. Passport is needed during purchase as the name and passport number are printed on the ticket. The shuttle buses run regularly from Aguas Calientes, starting at 5.30am. The ticket did not have any allocated time. I went to the bus station at 5.30am and it was already a long queue but it didn’t take long. It was a winding road up to Machu Picchu and it took approximately 15-20 minutes to arrive the entrance. There were a lot people although it was not even 7am! There was even a long queue at the entrance to get in!

5. Entrance ticket to Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. Of all, this was probably the most important ticket to secure. There is a limitation on the number people entering per day. There are different categories of daily tickets:

Machu Picchu (S.128) – 2,500 visitors

Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu (S. 152) – 200 visitors for each time slot at 7-8 am or 10-11 am

Machu Picchu + Mountain (S. 142) – 800 visitors divided into two time slots at 7-8 am or 9-10 am

Machu Picchu Horario Vespertino 13:00 Horas (S. 90) – 1000 visitors to enter after 1 pm

There are two websites to buy the ticket online, the government official website and a travel agency and tour operator. I read about problems paying for the ticket with their credit cards through the official website. However, to book through the agent website was a total rip off! For example, it only cost S. 128 (approximately US$40) for the entrance ticket and the agent is selling at US$62! Thanks to Andy’s step-by-step instructions on how to book the tickets online, it was really simple and luckily my credit card transaction was successful!

6. Cusco Tourist Ticket / Boleto Turistíco del Cusco. Most of the places to visit in Sacred Valley require entrance tickets. This ticket is a collective ticket allowing entrance to 16 places, including Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Moray, Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Qénqo, Sacsayhuaman, Pikillacta, Tipón, Pachacutec Monument, Museum of Contemporary Art, Popular Art Museum, Regional Historical Museum, Archaeological Museum of the Qoricancha, and Performance of Andean Dances and Live Music. The ticket can be purchased at most of the entrances and is valid for 10 days. The ticket is stamped upon each entry, allowing single entry to each place. For other ticket options, click here.

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7. Cusco Half Day Tour 2-6pm. Most places on the Cusco Tourist Ticket are not within walking distance from each other. It is easier and cheaper for solo traveller like me to join a tour, which I booked just a day ahead. They quoted me US$25 and I was shocked as I could book the same tour online at US$10! In the end I paid US$10. The half day tour included an English-speaking guide and visit to Plaza de Armes, Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Qoricancha, Sacsayhuaman, Qénqo, Tambomachay and Pukapukara. There was additional entrance fee for the Cathedral and Qoricancha as the Cusco Tourist Ticket did not include those. It was a nice tour and very informative. I did not have a guide throughout the whole trip so it was really good to hear the history of the Sacred Valley and the Inca Empire.

8. Hot Spring at Aguas Calientes. It is an open air hot spring, a bit crowded and maybe not so clean but it was quite fun. It costs only S. 10. I read about it and actually brought my bikini to Peru, except that I left it in Cusco. Luckily there were a few shops that sell and rent swimsuits and towels. It was only S. 3 to rent a swimsuit.

9. Accommodation. This is one of the final things to book. The initial plan was to head straight to Ollantaytambo and spend 2 nights there to avoid altitude sickness as Ollantaytambo is situated at a lower elevation than Cusco. I only booked 2 nights at Ollantaytambo and 2 nights Aguas Calientes through AirBnb as I did not want to spend time looking for a place upon arrival. I planned to only look for hostels on my last few nights after I arrive at Cusco. It was a coincidence that my Dad found out about a Peruvian AFSer who was in Malaysia 10 years ago and he actually lives in Cuzco so I ended up staying at his place. Instead of going to Ollantaytambo straight away, my plan changed.

I was there during summer but the weather was unpredictable. It could change from foggy and cold to sunny and burning hot to rainy and wet in one day. During the day it could get really hot but as the sun disappeared the temperature dropped. Best to wear layers like a t-shirt and fleece jacket. Denim jeans was fine with me, it did not get too hot although I saw many who changed into shorts when the sun came out. Peru is probably one of the country with the highest UV so do apply lots of sunblock frequently and make sure it is high SPF sunblock, at least above 50! Sunglasses is a must! A hat would be good, especially one with neck and ears cover. Of course a good pair of hiking shoes and best if they are waterproof! A raincoat or umbrella, even though I had both! A large bottle of water and some snacks. Most importantly, never ever forget the passport, tickets and credit cards used to purchase the tickets.

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Usually colder early morning, then it started to get hot and hotter and the fleece jacket came off. The raincoat or umbrella came out every time it rained.

For many, 8 days is a lot but for me it was not enough because I spent a lot of time hanging out with local friends, instead of doing sightseeing. No regrets though! If I had more days, I would definitely visit Pisaq, Chinchero, Moray, Pikillacta and Tipón. So how much in total did I spend? Here is the breakdown:

Return flight from Lima to Cusco US$ 208.45 RM 899.41
Return collectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo S. 20.00 RM 24.92
Return train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes US$ 111.00 RM 476.52
Return shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu US$ 24.00 RM 109.66
Entrance Ticket Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu S. 158.13 RM 191.86
Cusco Tourist Ticket S. 130.00 RM 162.00
Cusco Half Day Tour US$ 10.00 RM 42.95
Barraco Andino Church, Cusco S. 10.00 RM 12.46
Cathedral of Santo Domingo, Cusco S. 25.00 RM 31.15
Qoricancha, Cusco S. 10.00 RM 12.46
Hot Spring, Aguas Calientes S. 13.00 RM 16.20
4 Nights Accommodation   RM 252.00
Food S. 116.00 RM 144.55
Taxi S. 32.00 RM 49.84
Toilet S. 4.00 RM 4.98
TOTAL ≈ US$600.00 RM2430.96

It was not cheap at all. Besides, Malaysian currency was so low when I travelled. The exchange rate for US$ was between 4.0-4.3. I could not buy Peruvian Soles in Malaysia so I brought US$ to change in Peru. Even if I had hiked on the 4-day Inca Trail, it would have cost me US$390 and plus the flight, it would be near US$600, not including any days in Sacred Valley. However, a friend of mine had managed a day trip to Machu Picchu from Cusco, which could be the cheapest option to see Machu Picchu without exploring Sacred Valley.

Nonetheless, Machu Picchu is such a spectacular place that it is definitely worth a visit, or even a second visit, but it is getting more expensive every year. I was also lucky enough to have an AFSer hosting me in Cusco, plus I also tried Couchsurfing for the first time in Lima. Staying with locals did not only save on accommodation, it was also a good way to to explore Peru and know more about the local places, culture and food. It has been a long time since I travel on my own but I truly enjoyed the freedom and flexibility, as well as meeting different travellers and locals.

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36th ISTS in Peru

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For a turtle lover like me, it is a dream to attend the International Sea Turtle Symposium (ISTS), to meet like-minded people and learn from others. I first knew about it when I was a Research Assistant at Tortuguero, Costa Rica in 2011. Back then I applied to attend the one in 2012 but I accepted a job offer in Malaysia and it was beyond my monetary budget to fly from Malaysia. For the next few years, my work was mainly educational outreach activities involving local communities and tourists. Occasionally I had the opportunity to help with turtle night patrol. Slowly, the local staff started to ask me for help when needed and I helped out more. Last year, the Perhentian Turtle Project was set up to study and conserve the sea turtle population in the Perhentians through research and outreach activities. Thanks to many, the dream of setting up a turtle project and presenting at ISTS came true!

For the first time, the ISTS was held in South America and better still in Peru, where the famous Machu Picchu is! More of a reason to go and kill two birds with one stone. Nonetheless, it still took me a long time to source for fund and decide to go. After that, it was all about preparation and planning for the trip!

ISTS was more casual than I thought. The best part was seeing people who I have never seen for years! The first two days were workshops and I signed up for Photo ID Workshop. I was overwhelmed to meet people I only knew their names from reading their papers which had helped tremendously to start the photo ID research in the Perhentians, as well as the team from Wildbook and Hotspotter! Wildbook and Hotspotter will be working towards building a photo ID automated system integrated with online database for sea turtles, which is good news! On the second day, I presented an introduction of my PhD research on human-sea turtle interactions during the regional meeting, as well as volunteered for Shark Workshop.

Photo ID Workshop

Photo ID Workshop

The remaining days I was busy running between two halls to listen to oral presentations that were going on concurrently and looking through as many posters as I could. The silent auction had a variety of turtle-related stuff one can imagine – socks, shirts, usb drive, necklaces, stamps, bank notes, etc, plus the crazy live auction, which was so much fun!! Not forgetting the video night where the video from our project was played in Parque Reducto in Lima! I did not get a ticket for the gala night, hence only went after the dinner. Good memories of a mix of work and play at ISTS!

Clockwise: Brendan sharing what he has learned working with sea turtles; Oral presentation, Video night at Parque Reducto, Me presenting a poster.

Clockwise: Brendan sharing what he has learned working with sea turtles; Oral presentation; Video night at Parque Reducto; Me presenting a poster.

The silent and crazy live auctions!!

The silent and crazy live auctions!!

The last night of ISTS!

The last night of ISTS!

Because Every Picture Has A Story to Tell

When I first read about sea turtle photo identification, I was really excited because it provides an opportunity to study more about the sea turtles at Perhentian Islands. There is a lack of research done on sea turtles here, hence a paucity of data about the population around these islands. Moreover, tagging has not been practised for more than a decade.

Photo identification is a reliable method of identifying every individual turtles. Each turtle has unique facial scale and spot patterns on both sides and these features are visible on photos. It is less invasive to sea turtles as no physical contact is needed. Moreover, tagging only studies the nesting females on the beach but photo identification enables the study of both juveniles, male and female adults at nesting beaches and feeding grounds in the sea. Even if a turtle loses its tags, it is still possible to identify the individual through its face. It also enables the understanding of sea turtle habitat use around the islands. More interestingly, the locals and tourists can participate in the study as many take sea turtle photos when they encounter one. Of course, this is all possible if the photos are clear and sighting data such as date, time and location the photos are accurate.

Out of curiosity, I started looking for sea turtle photos that I have and looked at the facial scale patterns of these turtles. True enough, it is actually possible to identify each and every one of them! Hence, the Perhentian Turtle Project was set up in hope to better understand the sea turtle population size here. As some turtles were seen more than once and for a few years, I realised photo identification is not merely about identifying individuals and knowing their movements. It also enables us to monitor their progress, more of like every photo taken of the same turtle at different times shows how the turtle is at a particular time.

For example, we saw P15F for the first time in May 2012. The next recorded sighting of P15F was in August 2014 and the photos showed a cracked shell, which looks like boat strike. However, lucky for the turtle, it survived and the injury healed. The scar is visible on photos taken in May 2015.

P15F, a female adult green turtle first seen feeding in 2012

P15F, a female adult green turtle first seen feeding in 2012

When P15F was sighted again, it had a cracked shell

When P15F was sighted again in 2014, it had a cracked shell

In 2015, P15F was seen with a scar on its shell that showed a healed injury from the hit by boat propeller

In 2015, P15F was seen with a scar on its shell that showed a healed injury from boat strike

Unfortunately, P5F, an adult female green turtle, suspected to be hit by boat, may not be that lucky. The first photo of P5F was taken in 2012. In 2013, it was seen having tags on both of her front flippers. After zooming in the photos, the tag numbers showed 5911 (left) and 5912 (right). They were tags from SEATRU (UMT Sea Turtle Research Unit). SEATRU confirmed that P5F was tagged in May 2013 and up to July that year, she laid 9 nests at Redang Islands. It was seen again in September 2013 at Perhentian Islands. It has been around since. It is one of the tame turtles that don’t mind having snorkellers watching it feed. Sadly, when it was seen on 8th September this year, it had a huge crack at its shell. She seemed to be feeding like normal, only God knows how it felt. The crack looked severe and I can only hope it survives the hit and continue to live and breed. It has not gone back to Redang Islands to nest since 2013. If it survives, it may still in the future lay more nests. Most feel for injured animals. In this case, P5F is not just an animal. As it is frequently seen, it feels like I know P5F, which is why the more heartbreaking it is to see this happening to it.

P5F was first spotted in 2012

P5F was first spotted in 2012

One year after, it was seen around Perhentian Islands with tags at its front flippers

One year later, it was seen around Perhentian Islands with tags at its front flippers

Recently, P5F was seen with a really bad cracked shell

Recently, P5F was seen with a really bad cracked shell

Every adult female can lay on average of 100-120 eggs, between 2-10 nests a breeding season. Most conservation efforts are put into protecting the eggs and hatchlings because sea turtles have a very high mortality rate when they are young. It is believed only 1 in 1000 to 10000 hatchling survive to adulthood. It takes them an average of 25 years to become sexually matured. The fact that only that small number of hatchlings will make it to adults makes it more important to increase protection measures to protect these adult turtles so that they can continue to breed.

Boats are one of the main threats for sea turtles at Perhentian Project. There are many identified turtles with injuries and scars from boat strike. Some survived, some didn’t. So far this year, the project received 3 reported death of sea turtles. 2 had decomposed and were beyond identification. Meanwhile the other one was not found on the database, meaning it has not been spotted anywhere in the water or on the beach.

Malaysia has started using TEDs to reduce turtle bycatch which is also one of the main threats to sea turtle besides turtle eggs consumption. What about threats from boat propellers? To come up with mitigation measures, that everyone agrees to, is always the hardest part. Everyone acknowledges the problem and when it comes to solutions, there are conflicts. To entirely protect the feeding grounds by not allowing boat traffic is not entirely impossible but locals would disagree because their livelihoods depend on bringing tourists to these areas to see turtles. To enforce a rule that every boat needs to slow down the speed of their boats at feeding grounds needs continuous monitoring which requires manpower that the authorities involved lacks of. Maybe a boat propeller cover can be a solution, as long as it doesn’t affect the speed and fuel usage of the boat.

However, the mortality of juvenile or adult sea turtles is increasing in an alarming rate. Is it really enough to only increase the efforts on nesting beaches without taking more protection measures to mitigate threats to sea turtles in the ocean?

The project is new and we only have photos from 2011. An on-going photo identification research allows a better and more comprehensive understanding of the sea turtle population, their habitat use and movement around these islands. Any turtle photos taken, even from previous years, can be submitted to the project for identification. Conservation efforts can be improved with a strong and sound understanding, which is what the project is trying to achieve.

A Memorable Trip to Lawas

24 hours a day, that is how much time everyone has. For me, there’s not always time for everything, in fact, I need to make time for some things. Although I certainly did not expect to leave Perhentian any time in April due to the fact that we had our first two volunteers arriving at the project, I decided to join my supervisor’s field trip to Borneo.

Lawas is the place we went. Clueless about where it is, I searched for the location on Google Map. Lawas is in Sarawak and it is only approximately 3-4 hours drive from Kota Kinabalu. Allim, another post grad student, missed his flight and took a later flight. We had some time to kill in town. Least did I expect we would end up in a shopping mall upon arrival. We also went to Tanjung Aru. After picking Allim up, we went for dinner at a night market. We spent the first night at Kota Kinabalu.

Watching sunset at Tanjung Aru

Watching sunset at Tanjung Aru

Seafood dinner at night market

Seafood dinner at night market

The next morning, we drove to Lawas after breakfast. At some point, we crossed the border from Sabah to Sarawak. It was quite a long drive until we reached Bukit Sari, where we stayed for the next few days. Ismail is the only family who lives by the bay, which is an important seagrass habitat that serves as a foraging grounds for many marine life, including sea turtles, dugongs, fishes, crabs, etc. There were two huts floating above the water. Life is very basic there. They catch what they need for food. There was water supply while electricity generated by a generator, was only for use at night. The view was stunning and sun rise and sun set could be seen. Ismail and his family were extremely welcoming and friendly. They showed really high hospitality to all guests. Everyone was so pleasant and happy. Simple and contented with life. His Mum, who was 107 years old, was still very healthy and strong. Fishing, washing, you name it, she was doing them! It was interesting to listen the stories about their lives.

Ismail's warm home where we stayed for a few nights

Ismail’s warm home where we stayed for a few nights

We were at Lawas because the bay, namely Kuala Lawas, was discovered a few years back as a significant seagrass habitat. A sea turtle tracked through satellite was found stopping at this area. That was when researchers explored this area and found a huge area of seagrass bed, which is a size of a few football fields. Locals have seen turtles around this area but they rarely nest here. Alfonso, who is another post grad student, is doing his research studies on human-sea turtle interactions here. This trip is like a recce to understand about the study site and the human populations living around this bay. Sitting at the dining area at Ismail’s place, we could see the whole bay. During high tide, the seagrass meadows were covered by water. However, when the tide is low, we could walk around the whole bay, which is about 3km long. We managed to wander around the bay when the tide was low. The view was beautiful and surprisingly, my phone coverage was better as I went further out from the bay. We helped to look for shells. Although I found none, I managed to see starfish, fishes, crabs. The sun sets an hour earlier than in Peninsular Malaysia.

The seagrass bed shows itself when the tide is low

The seagrass bed shows itself when the tide is low

A walk on the seagrass bed

A walk on the seagrass bed

There are a few villages in Kuala Lawas. Most of the villagers are fishermen and many have seen turtles, feeding or coming up to the surface to breathe. At times, some turtles were caught in their nets and they would release the turtles. For the next two days, we drove to different villages to speak to the village head and gain some insights of human interaction with sea turtles at their feeding grounds. Depending on their fishing sites, some sighted turtles more frequently than the others. I was more a listener than a talker and most of the time, I didn’t even know most of the names of the fishes, particularly the local names. I gotta say I learned a lot by listening to their conversations. The locals produce lots of seafood products – dried fish, grilled prawns, etc.

Fishing villages

Fishing villages

The daily life of the local communities

The daily life of the local communities

Talking to the local communities

Talking to the local communities

A variety of local seafood

A variety of local seafood

Being at Lawas made me realised how simple life can be, how sustainable life is when humans only acquire the subsistence in life. Many of them live above the water where their houses are connected via bridges and boats. Their livelihoods depend on the sea, in which most are fishermen and they fish for a living. Of course they are not entirely backwards. They do have the latest technology, such as mobiles, Astro, etc. Still, compared to city folks, they leave much smaller carbon footprints. I definitely gained a lot from this trip…really hope to go back there again.

Saying goodbye is never easy but as the Malay saying goes “Setiap pertemuan pasti ada perpisahan, itulah lumrah kehidupan”. Till we meet again…

Venice – the city on water (Part 1)

As a PhD Student, reading and writing become part of my daily routine. Quite often, I get writer’s block, having all the ideas flying around in my head but struggling to put them down in words. I enjoy blogging and whenever I find the time, I write. However, with so much of writing going on recently, whenever I get to not write, I choose not to. I start to miss blogging although I should prioritise my time for study and work. I have a habit to start writing but not finishing it. As I was going through the drafts, I came across one that I wrote about my trip to Venice with my parents…back in January 2012. All these years, I never actually realise it was only half-written. So I figured, I could do myself a favour (besides taking my mind off study and work) and finish it off.

Venice is one of the first places I visited in Italy. My first trip there was with Alissa for a day trip, also in winter. The weather was really bad and it had rained the whole day. Even so, I like Venice as it is a very unique city. The only way to move around is through the canals. The whole island is like a maze and getting lost is very common there, even with a map!

It was past 11pm when we reached Santa Lucia Railway Station at Venice. I had book a room at Hotel Canal which is opposite of the railway station so that we all did not have to drag the luggage for a long way. However, what I did not expect or remember is although the hotel is just directly across us, we had to walk across Ponte degli Scalzi (Scalzi Bridge) carrying our luggage across the canal and pulling them to the hotel. Most hotels in Venice do not have lift. Thus, we had to carry everything up to our room on the second floor. I was very pleased with the hotel and it was worth the value. However, every time I closed the toilet door, I felt like the whole building was shaking, which was quite scary! The other downside was not having free internet access.

Hotel Canal

Triple bedroom at Hotel Canal

After a good night sleep, it was time to explore the city! Although we stayed two nights there but we only had a full day in Venice. Breakfast was buffet style. The weather was incredibly nice! We could see the railway station across the canal and Chiesa di Santa Maria di Nazareth, well-known as Scalzi, beside the station. We crossed Ponte degli Scalzi to visit the Scalzi. The Scalzi were the barefooted Carmelite friars who came to Venice around 1670s and commissioned the construction of their church on the Grand Canal.

View of the canal from Ponte degli Scalzi

Santa Lucia Railway Station (left) and Scalzi (right)

Interior of Scalzi

As we wanted to go to Piazza San Marco, we had to head South. There were so many smaller canals and thanks to Google Map on my phone, we managed to go to most of the main attractions. There were no cars on this island, everyone travel on foot. It was interesting to see the houses being built along the canals. Most buildings were very colourful and unique. Eventually we reached Chiesa Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, a treasure in the middle of the Serenissima. It is commonly known as Frari, which refers to the minor order of monk brothers of San Francesco, an order of monks who arrived in Venice around 1222 A.D.

 

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (front)

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (side)

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (back)

At the back of Frari was Scuola Grande di San Rocco. We only peeked into the building from outside as we needed to pay to go inside. Beside the school is Chiesa di San Rocco. We even bought Gelato for a break! My Dad still couldn’t accept the fact of having something cold in such a cold weather!

Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Chiesa di San Rocco

After that we walked to Piazza San Tomà. It is a small plaza surrounded by shops, cafes, restaurants, etc. There was a church – Chiesa di San Tomà.

Piazza San Tomà

Chiesa di San Tomà

One of the shops at Piazza San Tomà

As we walked along Rio Terà dei Nomboli to get to Campo San Polo, we stopped at a few shops or stalls to buy sourvenirs. Venice is famous for its masked carnival. Every shop sells the masks (magnets or deco) and murano glass. I bought myself a heart-shaped murano glass necklace 10 years ago.

Rio Terà dei Nomboli

We walked past Chiesa di San Polo, a Catholic church dedicated to the Apostle Paul. We walked until Campo San Polo. There was a market there, selling meat, cheese, etc. There was even an iceskating ring over there. My Dad was frantically looking for a toilet but we could not find any. A lady from a shop told us the nearest one is at Rialto Bridge.

Chiesa di San Polo

Campo San Polo

On the way to Rialto Bridge, we passed by Chiesa di Sant’ Aponal (Church of St. Apollinaire), which was founded by refugees from Ravenna in 1034. St. Apollinaire was their patron saint and Sant’Aponal is name of the same saint in the Venetian dialect.

Chiesa di Sant’ Aponal

As we continued walking, we walked past Chiesa di San Silvestro I Papa (San Silvestro), another church. Had I not have a phone with Google Map, I would not have found most of the places. There were many signs showing the direction to main attractions but there were also many ways to get there and we could just explore aimlessly in Venice, if time was not a factor to consider.

Chiesa di San Silvestro I Papa

Chiesa di San Silvestro I Papa

After many turnings, we finally found the one and only public toilet near Chiesa di San Giacomo di Rialto (Church of San Giacomo di Rialto) which is situated next to Ponte di Rialto (the famous Rialto Bridge). My Dad was relieved to see a toilet but to his horror, it cost him €1.50! He still jokes about this long-awaited and expensive toilet trip until today.

IMG_1745

Chiesa di San Giacomo di Rialto

Venice is made up of many tiny islets separated by canals. One can travel from one side to the other by the famous gondola or walking across a bridge. Due to tourism, gondola is not exactly a mode of public transportation but offered as a tourist attraction, therefore, is not a cheap option. There are only a few bridges that connect these islets, which is why most of the time, we could see the opposite but had to walk further to cross a bridge. Ponte di Rialto is one of the four bridges, also the oldest (completed in 1951), that connects the two main islands over Grand Canal. It is quite a significant place to visit in Venice and the view is stunning!

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View from Ponte di Rialto

Being at the bridge only means we had only explored a small area of Venice. There were more to explore over the other side. As we arrived late the night before, we slept in longer. It was almost 3 hours of walking from our hotel until the bridge. In Venice, due to the inaccessibility between islands, we had to take a similar route back to the hotel, meaning at some point later in the day, we would walk pass this bridge to cross back over again!

I will stop here for now and share more of the other side of Venice when I have time again…hopefully soon!

Happy World Turtle Day!

I have been to Penang since I was young and I never knew there is a turtle sanctuary in Penang. This trip to Penang was for a CSR programme with Shangri-la’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa and two local schools in conjunction with World Turtle Day on 23rd May.

Shangri-la Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa

Shangri-la Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa

Two year’s ago, we had a company trip to Penang. We rented an apartment just right across the resort. It was quite a pleasant surprise to arrive at the resort as I actually thought in my head two years ago when I walked past the resort, how nice it would be to stay here! Ta da, destiny brought me back here! Liz, the CSR Manager was very lively and warm! Together with Mike, Liz and staff from the resort, we ran a 2-days programme for school children. It was really fun to watch everyone learn about turtles and play games and interact with each others!

Turtle Awareness Programme with Rasa Sayang staff and school children!

Turtle Awareness Programme with Rasa Sayang staff and school children!

After the programme, Liz took us to the turtle sanctuary at Pantai Kerachut, which is about 15-20 minutes drive from Batu Ferringhi. I was really excited about it. The government’s hatchery is situated in Penang National Park, which was set up to help protect and preserve the turtle population in Malaysia. Visitors need to either hike to the protected beach or take a boat there. We decided to do both, hike there and take boat ride back. There is a Registration Office for visitors to register their names before entering the National Park.

Penang National Park and the entrance to hike to the Turtle Sanctuary

Penang National Park and the entrance to hike to the Turtle Sanctuary

The hike was quite easy actually. There are signboards to show visitors the way and also information about the trees and animals found in the National Park. I think it took us approximately an hour to walk to Pantai Kerachut. Before we reached the beach, there was a meromictic lake, where the seawater and freshwater do not mix. This lake is seasonal and we were lucky that the lake was there when we went. There was a suspension bridge that connects the trail to the beach.

The trail to hike from the entrance to the turtle sanctuary

The end of the trail leads to a seasonal meromictic lake with a suspension bridge to cross over to Pantai Kerachut

The end of the trail leads to a seasonal meromictic lake with a suspension bridge to cross over to Pantai Kerachut

The weather was lovely, of course hot and humid! We walked to the turtle sanctuary. Mike spotted two recently-hatched hatchlings in the hatchery. One of the staff came out and told us to take the hatchlings in. We had some short conversation about turtle conservation. They have about 70 nests a year and unlike the nesting season in the East Coast, apparently they have turtle nestings all year round.

Penang Turtle Sanctuary

Penang Turtle Sanctuary

Before we left, Liz and Mike played frisbee on the beach but I was too lazy to under the hot sun. We took a boat back at 10.30am. The boat ride reminded me of Perhentian and every time I am away, I miss the island! We all really enjoyed the visit to the turtle sanctuary. If anyone would ever want to visit, I would say do the hike, definitely worth it!

Pantai Kerachut where Liz and Mike played frisbee and a view from the boat ride!

Pantai Kerachut where Liz and Mike played frisbee and a view from the boat ride!

The whole stay at Penang was awesome and a great way to celebrate World Turtle Day, educating and creating awareness about protecting and preserving the dwindling turtle population to more Malaysians and meeting turtle conservationists! Everyone can help to save the turtles!

Happy World Turtle Day!!

Happy World Turtle Day!!

Japan – Kyoto

As I searched about travelling in Japan, many suggested to stay longer at Kyoto and make day trip to Osaka because there are more to explore in and around Kyoto. I contacted some of my Japanese friends before I booked my travel. Sayaka, whom I met during my exchange year in Switzerland, happened to move to Kyoto from Osaka when I was planning to come. She said I could stay with her at Kyoto. Hence, I started my travel in the order of Tokyo – Fujisan – Kyoto.

To get to Kyoto from Narusawa, I actually took a bus back to Tokyo and a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. I requested for a window seat on the side facing Mount Fuji as recommended on travel forum. The scenery especially the sunset was beautiful but my eyes hurt trying to see anything closer because the train moved too fast. The whole day was gone when I reached Kyoto, it was already night. The train station is quite big and Kyoto Tower is just outside the train station.

Kyoto Tower and Kyoto Station

Kyoto Tower and Kyoto Station

I was excited to see her again after 12 years since we last met. Now she is married and has a son. I stayed with her for 5 days and I really enjoyed spending time with her family, especially her son – Yasuharu!! I had a room to myself and Yasuharu would come in to play. He was a good company even though we both didn’t really understand each other. I did learn a few Japanese phrases from him.

Stayed at Sayaka's place and spent most of my time playing with Yasuharu!

Stayed at Sayaka’s place and spent most of my time playing with Yasuharu!

I think it was not so convenient to travel with a kid, therefore I’m really grateful that my friend took the time and effort to show me around Kyoto. On the night I arrived, she showed me the direction to her house and which bus to take.

On the second day, I followed Sayaka to a kindergarten. She was searching for a kindergarten for Yasuharu. It was quite fun to play around Japanese kids even though I had no clue what they wanted to tell me. After the visit, we walked along the famous Philosopher’s Path  (哲学の道), which is a stone path that follows a canal that is lined by Sakura trees. It was winter when I was there so the Sakura trees were bare, no flowers nor leaves. Approximately 2km long, the path begins around Ginkakuji Temple or The Silver Pavilion (銀閣寺) and ends at Nanzenji (南禅寺). Sayaka wanted to start from Nanzenji but she could not find the way. When we found the path, we already missed Nanzenji so we just continued walking until Ginkakuji.

A walk along Philosopher's Path

A walk along Philosopher’s Path

Ginkakuji or Silver Pavilion

Ginkakuji or Silver Pavilion

On the third day, we went to The Golden Pavilion or Kinkakuji (金閣寺). The top two floors of the temple are completely covered in gold leaf and the temple can be seen reflected in the adjoining pond. The temple’s garden is also very scenic and there is a charming tea house. The walk around the temple was calming despite the number of tourists.

Kinkakuji or Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji or Golden Pavilion

In the afternoon, we went to Arashiyama (嵐山) which is a touristy area in the Western outskirts of Kyoto. It is particularly popular for its cherry blossom and and fall colour seasons. The reason I wanted to visit this place is for the famous bamboo groves. The place itself was full with tourists, especially on the day we went as it was the start of Arashiyama Hanatōro (花灯路). Hanatōro means flower and light road and during Hanatōro, the streets are lit up by thousands of lanterns.

Sayaka’s husband and Asuka came along. While walking towards the bamboo groves, we passed many temples, including the famous Tenryuji Temple (天龍寺) but we didn’t enter any. We walked along the path surrounded by bamboo and reached Okochi Sanso Villa, which is the former villa of the popular actor Okochi Denjiro (1896-1962), located in the back of Arashiyama’s bamboo groves. The compound of the villa is huge and from the view from the top was breathtaking. We spent quite some time there because Hanatōro didn’t begin until 5pm.

Arashiyama bamboo groves

Arashiyama bamboo groves

Okochi Sanso Villa

Okochi Sanso Villa

When it was 5pm, they lit up the lanterns and it was so beautiful. We walked past the bamboo groves again. I probably took too many pictures but it was hard to capture nice ones as my hands had to be still to get clear pictures with low light. We walked towards Togetsukyo Bridge. The river and the surrounding mountains were colourful from all the lights. The whole area was really crowded but even so it was freezing cold!

Arashiyama Hanatōro

Arashiyama Hanatōro

On the forth morning, we went to Fushimi Inari Shrine or Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社), a Shinto shrine in Southern Kyoto, which is is the most important of several thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. It is famous for its thousand of torii gates (senbon torii), painted in orange and black, which were donated by individuals and companies. These two parallel rows of torri gates form a walking leading to the forest of Mount Inari. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, resulting in many fox statues across the shrine grounds. I had to meet Kana at noon to go to Nara (奈良) and due to the lack of time, we could not explore the entire mountain trails.

Fushimi Inari Shrine

Fushimi Inari Shrine

On my last day, we went to Kiyomizudera Temple or Pure Water Temple (清水寺), listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. It was built in 780 at Otawa Waterfall, hence known as Pure Water Temple. The main hall and its stage were built 13m above the hillside without the use of nails. One could see the whole view of Kyoto from the stage. From the main hall, a three-storied Koyasu Pagoda stands among the trees in the far southern end of the temple grounds, and a visit is said to bring about an easy and safe childbirth. Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking, is situated behind the main hall. The Otowa Waterfall is located at the base of Kiyomizudera’s main hall. Its waters are divided into three separate streams, and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. Each stream’s water is said to have a different benefit – to cause longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. However, drinking from all three streams is considered greedy. There is always a line of people waiting to drink from the streams.

Kiyomizudera Temple

Kiyomizudera Temple

After the visit to Kiyomizudera Temple, Sayaka brought me around Higashiyama District. It was a great way to experience traditional old Kyoto. The wooden houses along narrow lanes, merchant shops and tourists in kimono walking along the lanes evoke a feeling of old Japan. We also walked past a few temples along the way.

A walk along Higashiyama District

A walk along Higashiyama District

Before stopping for lunch, we visited Yasaka Shrine or Yasaka Jinja (八坂神社). It is also known as Gion Shrine because of its location between Gion District (popular for Geisha) and Higashiyama District. I tried Omikuji, which is a randomly-drawn fortune telling paper slip. In Japan, they tie the slips around a tree branch, believing that good fortune will come true and bad fortune can be averted.

Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine

Our last stop of the day was Heian Shrine or Heian Jingu (平安神宮). Heian is the former name of Kyoto. This shrine was built on the 1100th anniversary of the capital’s foundation in Kyoto and is dedicated to the spirits of the first and last emperors. There is a massive torii gate at the entrance. The shrine is very spacious and the main buildings are a partial replica of the original Imperial Palace from the Heian Period. Apparently I only found out later that there is a garden behind the main building, which I didn’t see when I was there.

Heian Shrine

Heian Shrine

We had to rush back after Heian Shrine as Sayaka and Yasuharu needed to pack up and catch a train to Tokyo at 4pm. My bus to the airport was at 8pm so I had some time to kill. After putting my luggage into a locker, I went for a walk around the city center. I wanted to go to a temple but only realised it was already closed. Most temples close between 4pm – 5pm, it would be good to plan to start the day early. Besides it gets dark by 5pm during winter time. In the end, I spent most of my time in a mall selling electronic stuffs like Low Yat at KL, as well as checking out Japanese playing Pachinko!

5 days passed by really fast and there is so much more to see in Kyoto. There wasn’t enough time to see everything but I believe I had seen most of the main attractions. Nevertheless, I would love to come back to Kyoto again, one can never get bored of Kyoto!