The Heart of Sichuan – Chengdu in 3 days

Chengdu is a great stop on your China itinerary or if you live in the region a perfect long weekend getaway. Famous for it black and white cuddly bears and mouth numbing Sichuan cuisine, Chengdu is a marvellous hot pot of all things Chinese (pun intended). Three days gives enough time to explore the city and its surroundings, here’s what we did.

Day 1

As you arrive in the capital of western China, be sure to stay in a quaint old Chinese house converted into a hotel. We stayed in one called Buddha Zen and it was gorgeous.


Take day 1 to immerse yourself in the sensory overload that is Chengdu. Start in Jinli road, next to the Wu Hou shrine.


This beautiful old quarter with winding alleyways, lakes and bridges is part of the oldest areas still in tact in Chengdu.


Spend a good half of the day getting lost in Jinli, pop in to the peaceful, meticulously curated ground areas of the shrine (entrance ticket required, as of March 2018 it was RMB 60), admire the old stage right in the middle of Jinli road that still has Sichuan Opera performances during festival times, pick out a few trinkets from one of the many kiosks lining the road.



Most of all, try the food. You’ll discover taste buds and sensations you didn’t know existed! If you are more adventurous than us, try rabbit head or duck head (beak and all) or pig nose!


And if you arent, sit in one of the many Sichuan hot pot places and let your mouth explode! The one thing that welcomes you to Chengdu is the smell of hot pot. I kid you not, while you are walking on the streets, riding in a taxi, there is no escaping this amazingly peppery smell. So immerse yourself in this truly Sichuan experience. Locals spend hours “hot potting”, we spent just over an hour at most, but take your time, try everything!


After Jinli road, if you are into more ancient alleyways head over to Kuan Zhai Xiangzi, translated the wide and narrow alleyways. Basically there are two: one wide, the other also pretty much the same size, but I guess considered narrow? We preferred Kuan Xiangzi because for some reason it felt less chaotic and had a beautiful overhead tree covering.


Pop over to one of the many quaint tea houses down the alleyways. Pick from an array of Chinese teas and order a bowl of melon seeds. Getting to the edible center of the melon seed takes some effort, unless you master the skill every local seems to have of extracting the seed with just one bite.


Either way, you’ll spend a good part of your afternoon in this tea experience.


Don’t be surprised if someone with an armful of strange looking tools walks up to you and offers to clean your ear. This seems to be a truly Sichuan experience. I can’t guarantee the hygiene of this “cleaning process” because they seem to use the same tools on everyone! But apparently it’s a therapeutic exercise that goes well with tea.


Next take a 20 min walk over to people’s park for some people watching. Join a game of mahjong or do some Tai Chi with the locals or simply walk around the park and watch the day go by. If you are interested in the local arts (I highly recommend this) head over to Shu Feng Ya Yun inside the park for a night at the opera. Note that the tickets sell out fast and need to be bought in advance. Marvel at the high pitched voices of the opera singers and the costume and mask changing illusionists. The latter way by far our favourite. We even recorded the act in slow mo to figure out how it’s done, but they are too good! The masks themselves are gorgeously decorated and the whole act is perfectly coordinated.



Day 2

Today will probably be the highlight of your trip to Chengdu and is probably the reason you are making the trip in the first place.


So wake up early and make your way to one of the Panda breeding centers. Now you’ve got a few options

1. The giant panda breeding center – this is close to town and is the most popular spot to see the pandas, it also has the most amount of pandas


2. Dujiangyan – a 90 min drive out of Chengdu, this is a smaller base, but offers the coveted panda keeper volunteer program, read more about it here.


3. Wolong panda breeding center – it’s pretty much the same as Dujiangyan because it’s run by the same people and has the volunteer program, but is 3 hours away from Chengdu. So why go? Wolong is known to be the original home of pandas, so if that matters this is the place to visit.

Whichever option you pick, remember to go early for two reasons (1) beat the crowds, especially those coming in massive tour buses (2) pandas are active only in the morning till around 10-11am, after that is nap time!


If you do the volunteer program, you’ll spend pretty much the whole day at the base. If you go only to visit the pandas, it will take you at least half a day because you won’t be able to take your eyes off those cute and curious creatures. Read about our play date with the pandas here.


If you still have time and energy when you get back into town, you can head to the ancient Wen Shu monastery. If you are all monasteried out, you’ll still love the old town area the monastery is located in.


More winding alleyways, tiny shops and quaint tea houses, what’s not to love.


This evening why not consider a food tour? After the pandas, this is probably the other reason you are in town. While you’ve probably has a good dose of hot pot and stir fry, food tours offer amazing insight into the local cuisine and takes you to some amazing, hidden restaurants that will otherwise be completely off your radar. We did our food tour with Lost Plate, read about our one heck of a culinary adventure here.


Day 3

Take a day trip to the UNESCO world heritage site – the Leshan Giant Buddha statue, supposedly the largest in the world. Leshan is just over 2 hours drive by car (it can take up to 4 hours if you take public transport).

Once in Leshan you have two options:

1. Do the 3 hour hike to the Buddha statue – the good part is you get really up close to the statue. However, it can get very very crowded and you will spend the better part of you time standing in the long single file queue with noisy tourists.


2. Take a boat ride – personally I recommend this option. The mammoth statue faces a river, and if you take a mere 30 min boat ride you get a much better view and an opportunity to take as many pictures as you want of the entire statue



If you take option 2, the Lehsan excursion will last around 5 hours, and if you hike it would take around 8. In any case it will take you pretty much the whole day.

Once back in Chengdu head over to Jiuyanqiao bar street. This beautiful area by the most has a number of interesting bars and of course the beautifully arched Anshun bridge. This is a great spot to say “Gambe” to your weekend in Chengdu.



A play date with the pandas

Seeing pandas in Chengdu was a dream, part of our bucket list. For us Chengdu was synonymous with the cute and cuddly panda bears, so much so that unknowingly we had rechristened our favourite Sichuan restaurant back home Chengdu Panda. We honestly thought that’s what it was called until one day after recommending the place to some friends who then later walked all over Chinatown in Singapore in search on Chengdu Panda without much luck, did we realise the place was named Old Chengdu. But our brains saw Chengdu and thought panda, so for years we visited the place unknowingly calling it that. Anyway the point is we love pandas, so off we went to Chengdu to see them.

We wanted to get as up close and personal with the pandas as possible, so we booked the panda keeper volunteer program at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda, Dujiangyan Base.

Pro tip: this “volunteer” experience is a paid one and you have to book well in advance because they only take in 30 volunteers. Book directly with the center, if not various travel agents will charge you a crazy amount of money. We paid RMB 700 per person in March 2018, which in itself was quite expensive. They don’t have a proper website that I could find, so email them

Our day started early as we had to make the 70 min journey from Chengdu to Dujiangyan. The program starts at 9, but get there early so you can finish all the paperwork and make payment (made directly to the center with cash or card). We were then divided into groups, 6 in a group led by their lovely English speaking staff.

We dressed up as panda keepers in blue jumpsuits and gloves and hopped in a buggy that took us through the massive bamboo forest to our allotted panda enclosure. And there we got down to business.


Pro and I were given a cage to clean up and when we walked into the cage, there they were – the cutest two pandas in the world! When they saw us coming in, they rushed to the front of the cage and looked at us with those adorable eyes!


Doris our group leader was trying to get the two pandas to step out so that we could clean the cage, but the two fur balls refused to leave. I think they liked us! So she had to bribe them with carrots and drag them out. Once we were given the all clear, we opened the doors and set to work. We had to clean out the panda poo and sweep the bamboo leaves off the floor. You can guess who drew the short straw, so I picked up the broom while Pro shovelled away the poo.


As I was sweeping, Doris came in and sternly asked me to move away from the back door. Without me noticing, the pandas had come back and were right behind me trying to get in (I knew they liked me). As cute as they were, pandas are still bears, Doris reminded us.


After the clean up, we walked around the center from one enclosure to another to gawk at the cutie pies.


It was drizzling and we were given rain coats but the good thing is that apparently pandas loved the rain, and it sure looked like they did because they were out and about playing and just being cute.

We started for hours. Started at one panda hugging a tree peacefully asleep..


…one looking intently at the falling rain drops…or engrossed in his morning prayer..


….another munching away on fresh green leaves


..two pandas playing with each other…


…doing a little stretch dance, maybe tango?


…pandas sitting like humans and munching on bamboo shoots…


…pandas believing they can do acrobats..


…pandas searching for something far in the horizon


…And finally a 7 month old panda baby curled up into a ball and sleeping!


When we got back after our walk, it was time to feed the monochrome giants. After their hour in the rain, the pandas made their way back to the cages and prepared themselves for lunch. We were each given a tray of carrot sticks and we sat down in front of the cages and fed them.


Doris warned us to pull our hands back as soon as the pandas took the carrot, if not our fingers would be part of their lunch. They don’t mean any harm, but those powerful jaws can crush your bones!


Sitting next to and feeding a panda was a magical experience. They are like big cuddly babies that look at you with imploring eyes. And they way they take the food to their hands and eat!! Really tugging at my heart strings here! At the end of the carrot tray the pandas were rewarded with a bamboo cake which they seemed to love…


The pandas had eaten, and it was now time for our lunch. We went to the staff canteen and feasted on a buffet of great Sichuan food. When I booked the tour I was told it was going to be a simple lunch, the same as what the staff eat everyday. It was anything but simple. The food was really very good! Read about our Sichuan food experience here.

After lunch they show you a documentary about pandas and releasing them into the wild and post that you repeat the morning tasks of cleaning and feeding.

The last activity of the day is a chance to make the bamboo cake for the pandas, after which you get a certificate for being a panda keeper.

If you want to pay a hefty fee of RMB 1800 (as of March 2018) you can opt to hug a panda and take a picture. It’s strictly for 20 seconds and you get to sit next to a panda and have your arm around him. We didn’t think it was worth the money since we anyway got very very close and were in fact able to touch the pandas during the day.

Pro tip: if you don’t want to spend the entire day at the center you can be like us and skip the afternoon activities. We wanted to go back to Chengdu since we only had 3 days and tons more to see and do in town. Read our 3 day Chengdu itinerary here. Although you end up paying the full amount even if you do a half day volunteer, it saves you some time and anyway the afternoon is a repeat of the morning.

All in all it was a wonderful play date with pandas, getting really up close and personal with these once critically endangered species.


Know before you go

  • You can volunteer in one of two places – the Dujiangyan base or the Wolong base – both run by the same company so the experience is pretty much the same. Dujiangyan is 1.5 hour drive from Chengdu, Wolong is 3 hours away, thats the only difference you need to consider
  • The interaction you get with pandas with the volunteer program is limited to feeding them
  • When you clean their cages, make bamboo cake etc, there are no pandas around
  • You get to walk around the park to see the pandas in their enclosures – this is the same as what you would get if you buy a normal ticket priced at RMB 50, so its a big price difference
  • Bulky cameras like a DSLR aren’t allowed while you are volunteering so you will have to be happy with photos from a phone camera
  • All in all what you pay for is the chance to feed the pandas (unless you are really into cleaning cages :)), this time is roughly around 1-2 mins. Of course you can touch, stroke them while you are at it.

How to get there – there are 3 ways to get to the base:

  1. Taxi: you can show the driver this words, :四川省都江堰市青城山镇石桥村中国大熊猫保护研究中心都江堰基地(怀中路青城山镇与大观镇之间)
  2. Train: take subway to XIPU(犀浦), then take the train around 7:53 in the morning from XIPU(犀浦)to Qingchengshan Railway station(青城山站) then take No. 102 bus to Panda Base (熊猫乐园)
  3. Bus:Take bus from Chadianzi (茶店子客运站) to Dujiangyan(都江堰)then take No. 102 bus to Panda Base

Not wanting to risk getting lost early in the morning we booked the transfer through Chengdu Holiday ( well in advanced and paid RMB 600. This seemed to be the standard lowest price we could find.

Hope you enjoyed the story of our play date with the pandas. If you are interested in doing the same and have more questions, give us a shout in the comments below and we’ll get back to you.


How to NOT Quit Your Day Job and Travel

There are tons of articles and inspirational stories about how people quit their jobs and traveled the world, how people made a living out of it or even found ways to travel the word for free. But not all of us have that luxury or the need to do so, some of us have commitments and in fact some of us actually love our day jobs. Taking a break and traveling somehow makes it more special, more earned, more sought after. Everything over done can be boring and I for one never want travel to be boring. So here’s an article, for a change, about how to travel relatively excessively while still having a full time job.


The first thing we see as we wake up each day – a push pin map up on our bedroom wall

1. Have that burning desire to travel…for adventure, to see and experience new things – unless you really really want to travel it’s not going to happen. You may look at other people’s pictures and stories wishfully but if you don’t want it badly enough it ain’t gonna happen. Travel is going to cost you and that “payment” in return for all those memorable experiences has to be more important than a lot of other material things. If travel isn’t your priority then again it ain’t gonna happen, make the choice and don’t complain. #noexcuses

2. Maximize number of days – the first question people always ask us is how we manage to do it with a full time job, how we manage to get days off work. Actually it’s quite simple – here our secret (might be very obvious when you read it). We plan all our travels around public holidays. Every additional day you get to spend in some exotic location is like gold when you have a full time job. Unfortunately for us Singapore (where we live) doesn’t have a lot of public holidays unlike our beautiful motherland (Sri Lanka) but we make it work.

Here’s our actual holiday calendar from last year –

Leave calendar

3. Plan well in advance – this I know for a lot of people is a huge hassle, then do yourself a favour and hire a travel agent (if you want I highly recommend THE TRAVELLED :)) lots of people travel during long weekends and prices soar! The only way out is early planning. Also if you want to experience some of the most unique things that sell out fast, there is no other choice.

Pro had to book a meal at Jules Verne inside the Eiffel Tower 6 months in advance as a surprise during our trip to Paris. Even then he couldn’t get us in for dinner.


An exclusive look out, reserved only for diners at Jules Verne on top of the Eiffle Tower


We bought the passes to see the mountain gorillas forever in advance because it was a bucket list item we really wanted to tick while in Africa.


Coming up close and personal with a Silverback Mountain Gorilla, during our trek in Rwanda

4. Make use of benefits your work place offers – if you are lucky enough to work for a progressive company that believes in things like agile working, make use of it! Be disciplined about and ensure you don’t slack, but working out of a quaint coffee shop in Fremantle with a sea view is way better than sitting at your desk. Plus you still have a few hours everyday to explore your surroundings



Working off a cafe in Fremantle, the coffee though..!


That very same work day ended like this, just before the sun set

Pro and I go back home every Christmas. We end up spending about 2 weeks in Sri Lanka and work about a week from home. Working from your dining room, having your mum’s home cooked lunch is a gazillion times more satisfying and productive than your office desk. Also you have the entire evening to catch up with friends from home. Precious.


Home for Christmas


5. When work takes you places, extend – if you are blessed enough to travel with work, make the most of it. It’s a bit difficult to plan in advance but sometimes a weekend on either side or just an extra day is all you need. When Pro and I first started traveling way back when we were still working in Sri Lanka, we got the chance to travel to Singapore thrice within a year for a training. We extend each trip and covered 3 other cities – Hong Kong, Phuket and Manila.

Work took me to Africa last year, Pro joined me and we took a week off together.


Waderlusting at the entrance of the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Once in London for work, all I needed was one extra day to bask in a rare sunny day during the British Spring.

5. Maximize time on your holiday – we are definitely not the type of tourists that hop on a tour bus and rush from place to place just to snap a quick photo and tick a box. Having said that we do really try to make the most of our holiday. Time is precious when you have a limited number of days off from work and your inbox is overflowing while you are away. So make choices, a little extra effort and time on the road will be completely worth it.

When we went to South America we really wanted to see Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It was completely and utterly out of the way, but who knew when we’d make it to this far away land again? So we made it happen. Taking 2 flights (which we had to research like hell to find) and paying extra for transfers we made it to see the world’s biggest mirror and what a journey it was! We had to skip Bolivia’s bohemian capital La Paz and had to sacrifice Lake Titicaca in Peru and only had 2 nights in the Bolivian wilderness, but I’d do it again any day. Just to see those stunning desert lakes and the salt flat.


Salar de Uyuni in all its glory


Making full use of the stunning landscape to take some interesting pics

Just this Spring, we went to Japan and really wanted to maximize our chance of seeing Mount Fuji. So we hired a car and drove in a hail storm to the town of Kawaguchi-ko at the foot of the mountain. The next day we were rewarded with stunning views of the almost symmetrical volcano.


Driving in a hail storm to Kawaguchi-ko, Japan


Rewarded the next day with breathtaking views of Mount Fuji

Or the time we spent way more than we should have, to fly to Uluru in the middle of the red desert in Australia, just to see the iconic Ayer’s Rock


This sacred rock was such a special place with an amazing vibe you could actually feel

Or the crazy dash we made to the remote town of Jiuzhaigou in China to witness the unique turquoise lakes, a serious effort was required.


Multi coloured lakes in Jiuzhaigou, China

So all in all, this is how we manage to pull off sometimes 16 countries a year while having a full time job! And we our total count as of now is 50, that’s only 1/4th of this beautiful blue planet, there is so much more to see.

Be wanderlusters, make choices, if it’s too much let a professional handle the planning!

Good luck and tell us how it goes…

Delightfully Salty! A Photo Shoot Like No Other

What have you imagined heaven to look like? Living in the blue sky, walking on white fluffy clouds? Welcome to Salar de Uyuni.



The doors of our jeep opened and we leaped into the sky. Or at least it felt like it, until our feet touched a shallow layer of cold water. Here we were in the middle of the Bolivian desert, in the largest salt flat in the world, stepping on the largest mirror in the world.


Everything you’ve read, seen and heard about this place is true. The place is almost surreal. I’m not sure where the sky started or ended. What was real and what was the reflection. For as far as your eye could see it was the sky, above and below you.


Perched up ~3600m above sea level, in the land locked Bolivian desert is this natural marvel. No doubt it was once submerged in sea water, probably a few millennia ago before tectonic plates shifted to make the world as we know it today. But today this salty delight is in the middle of the South American continent. Accessed from a non-descriptive little town called Uyuni, the salar is the crowning jewel of this little nation.


The best time to visit the salar, in my humble opinion is the rainy season. Although most would prefer the dry winter months, when it rains a thin layer of water remains on the surface of the salt flat creating an amazing mirror effect that gives the feeling that you are walking on clouds. The dry season I’m sure is perfect, but when you see the sky and ground collide to create one seamless white & blue paradise, you know it just cant get any better.


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There isn’t much to see here other than whiteness for as far as your eyes can see (over 10,000 sq km to be precise), but the setting does make for a fantabulous backdrop for perspective photography. So we hired a few “props” from our hotel (side note: all hotels have cupboards full of toys and toiletries and what not that one can rent for props for a day of photography) and set out shoot the day away.



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Just remember to bring out the crazy in you, or ensure you have a crazy friend in tow, like we did (thanks Swa for the brilliant photo direction!) to end up with pictures like this








A few things to keep in mind when visiting the Salar,

  1. If you go in the rainy season, remember to pack water proof shoes. Stepping into the cold water early in the morning was not pleasant as a few of us discovered


  2. Pack water proof clothes, pants at least, so you can roll around in the water, shooting pictures with no worry
  3. Consider staying in a salt hotel, its an interesting experience to say the least! Read about our’s here.
  4. Nights in the salar can be bitterly cold, so pack well
  5. You are in the middle of a salt flat, so be extra careful with your camera and such devices, the last thing you want is the insides of your precious SLR corroding
  6. Tons of sunscreen is a must. You are completely exposed to the sun with no where to hide. At the end of the day we were burnt crisp.


  7. Take tons of props with you and let your creativity unfold.

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The Surreal Landscapes that Make Up Bolivia

We had to squeeze Bolivia into our South America itinerary, just because we were fascinated by the magical landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, but we soon discovered that there was so much more to this land locked South American nation than the world’s largest salt flat.

To start right from the top, we had a nail biting journey from Cusco (in Peru) to Uyuni. First the flight from Peru to Bolivia was delayed due to bad weather. They told us “the airport was shut” but it seemed like many other flights were landing and taking off. The flight we were on seemingly wasn’t able to manage the cloudy skies. So we waited and waited, with tempers soaring because we were likely going to miss our connection. We spoke to everyone we could, ground staff, security and even the flying staff later when we finally boarded. We had to make that connection or we were*^($@^.

Long story short we finally took off and landed in La Paz, midway point to get to Uyuni and our entry to Bolivia. More drama! We rushed to get to the front of the queue at immigration, begging and smiling at people and we made it. The visa officers of course took their own cool time. We were then asked to pay the visa fee in Boliviano (?!??!) sorry what? We just landed and haven’t even entered the country! Oh no problem, why don’t you go in and change some money. Err what? You are letting us enter the country with no stamp? Yup go ahead. Are you in a rush to get you luggage? Why don’t some of you go wait at the luggage carousel. Sure! Why not!!! Coolest immigration guy. ever. Of course if we were terrorists (like most countries think we are when they see our passports) we could have blown the airport to kingdom come. But we weren’t. We then ran one by one to get our next flight. Poor Sandi almost died running back and forth to help us with our luggage. La Paz is at an elevation of almost 3700m, us island folk can simply walk and pass out, let alone run multiple times with luggage! Some ladies even offered oxygen seeing that Sandi was nearly dying. But all was well, we made our flight (which was also delayed!!), Sandi remained conscious.

It was all worth it once we got to Uyuni.


We all cramped up into one jeep and set off on a ride of our lives with Elvis our guide & Carlos our driver. Most people come here just to see the salt flats, but the area around it is as stunning! Given that we were late we drove straight to Villamar and spent the night there. It was a long long long drive, but the spectacular scenery and the amazing sunset which set the desert on fire made it more than bearable.


The best thing about Uyuni was its ever changing landscape, one minute you were passing through dry dessert land, the next it was lush & green, you’ll then come across colourful mineral lakes, hot springs and geysers, all in one drive. Stunning.


We drove through dramatic landscapes and came across a hot spring. And a nice pool to go with it. Of course we took a dip until we felt boiled by the water and roasted by the sun.

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Pro lost his hiking boots here, but that’s a sad story we don’t talk about. Key learning: don’t forget your belongings. 15 minutes later when we came back, the shoes were gone.

Our next stop was the most spectacular of the all, the red lagoon. I read some tours that have this as optional or charge extra to see this, make sure you do, because it really was the highlight. Like the name suggests the lagoon water was red and it was adorned with hundreds of flamboyant flamingos. Together with the green grassed shore and herds of llamas, the colour combination was mind blowing!



I fell in love with llamas. They were the cutest creatures ever. Shy & cute! The locals jazz their ears with colourful wooly thread, llama earrings that only increased their charm. Such bohemian creatures, they fit so perfectly with the rest of the breathtaking landscape.




img_7193(I may have gone a little overboard with the Llama pics)

We just passed through so many incredible sights, stopping to take pictures and breathing in Mother Nature’s creativity. We saw the stone tree, a geyser, the black lagoon before we called it a day.





We were so impressed by Bolivia and we hadn’t even see Salar de Uyuni yet! But we did, read that here.

I’ve never been to such a tremendously diverse place that made me feel so keenly aware that I am on a weird floating space rock, just like those alien planets in sci fi movies. Huge red deserts with black rocks, thick green bushy grass, growing in porcupine shapes, mammoth boulders appearing in the middle of nowhere, fiery sunsets – all set against dazzling blue skies painted with dramatic clouds. It just doesn’t get better…




As always, before I end, here are some useful things you need to know

  1. We actually found it quite a challenge to find a good tour operator. Most people didn’t respond to our emails, the others charged ridiculous amounts or had bad reviews. The one we finally picked, the only one who seemed reliable was La Torre Tours. We highly recommend Elvis & Carlos, who really took care of us.



  2. You are bound to get altitude sickness. Unless you are a mountain goat or you are from high altitudes, be prepared. We weren’t and we suffered as a result – horrible headaches and nausea. Lovely Carlos gave me a pill, which may or may not have worked. But it’s a horrible feeling to have. We went from 3600m to about 4500m above sea level in one day. That’s a lot and your body will tell you.


  3. We were a group of 6 plus the driver & guide. We managed to squeeze into one jeep. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, if we had used two, the cost would have doubled!

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  4. Most drivers do not speak English, so you are better off getting a guide. Not because there is a lot to explain in the surroundings, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere with zero facilities, you never know what might happen. So unless you speak Spanish, get a guide.
  5. Don’t expect luxury, you are in a ridiculously remote area. Meals and accommodation will be basic and expect to go to the loo in the wild. We stayed the night at Mallku Cueva, highly overpriced, but had all the basic necessities and was clean! They also provided food. If you are a vegetarian, you are going to suffer, as poor Lavi did. At one point she was eating boiled rice and boiled potatoes!! So I suggest you bring something from home. I don’t usually advice that when traveling, but in this case its about basic survival.


  6. Be ready for things to go wrong. You are in a part of the world that thrives on chaos, so don’t expect things to be on time or for things to work perfectly. Just enjoy the ride, look out the window and let your jaw drop!



An Amazonian Adventure 

Exploring the world’s biggest rain forest was an obvious bucket list item, so I didn’t even hesitate to fit it into our South American adventure.

We accessed the Amazon from Brazil with our guide, whose name was…wait for it…RAMBO! He’s from a local tribe and apparently after spending 5 years in the Army he got this nickname.

The best – and sometimes only – way to access this thick rainforest is by boat. The part of the Amazon we visited was around Rio Negro and Rio Amazon. We boarded our small boat and set off to see the spot where these two epic rivers met – one black, full of minerals met the other, brown, cold and apparently more aggressive. It was quite a spectacular site as the two opposing rivers formed almost a line when they met.


We cruised along the rivers and every now and again spotted fishermen (or maybe some kind of water weed gathers) hiding among the thick vegetation on the river.


Rambo took us around to find various Amazonian residents including

1. The sloth bear – having very much a humanlike face and clinging on to you like a baby it was the cutest animal ever!

2. A baby anaconda – this baby weighed a ton and coiled itself around my neck before I quickly passed it on..I’ve tried pythons around my neck before, but the anaconda was something else. It was a lot heavier and stronger!

3. Enormous carnivorous cat fish!

4. Amazonian monkeys who we tempted with bananas. They aren’t tamed so these little creatures were slightly afraid of us and wouldn’t interact too much. But the allure of food got the best of them so they would stretch and jump to get hold of the bananas

We also spotted some residual giant water lilies growing ahead of the season or left behind from the last. Rambo calls them Amazon pizzas!


We then disembarked at a small town to buy supplies for the next few days in the jungle and drove inland to take yet another boat to get to our lodge. This was more of a canoe than a boat. We loaded all our stuff and set off through narrow winding streams and lakes to get to our very basic jungle lodging.


After resting for a while we set off to capture one of Amazon’s most feared predators – the piranha! A few mins away from our lodge we stopped the canoe in a shaded area and Rambo took out the fishing rods. My expression was “sorry, right here?!? You mean I shouldn’t dip my toes in the waters outside the lodge?!?” Of course he failed to mentioned the river was piranha infested! Pro had even ducked his go pro underwater in hopes of getting a shot at some fish!!! Narrow escape apparently.

Rambo took out a few piranha delicacies – beef and pork, cut it in small pieces and fixed it onto the hooks of each of our rods. Apparently piranhas don’t like the fat part of the meat so that had to be cut off..demanding much! With the bait in, we waited. For most part we felt that we were feeding the piranhas than fishing for them. It was either the lack of experience or the intellect of the fish, they managed to gobble away the bait without getting caught.

Rambo of course had no problem whatsoever and kept catching all 5 varieties of piranhas. But they did trick him too many times and kept eating the bait, so it was just our lack of experience.

Piranhas aren’t as big as the one on the movie poster, they were little harmless looking fishies with killer well hidden teeth.

Swa managed to get one but flicked the rod too hard that the fish got tossed off to the other side. This happened twice and the third time was of course the charm! He ended up catching 3 little monsters!!

 Piranhas in stock we set off to watch the sunset. I snoozed off for a while and when my eyes opened we were approaching a beautiful soft white sand beach…how did that happen in the middle of this river?!

We took some stupid photos while waiting for the sun to set – some jumping, some silhouettes and some down right weird shots later we witnessed a beautiful sunset turning the sky and the lake orange at first and then a beautiful shade of pink


As darkness set we headed back to the lodge for a grilled piranha dinner.

The next morning we were up before the alarms. Such is life in the jungle, the sun rises and the surroundings quieten down signaling your body to wake up.

Today Mother Nature reminded us that we were in a rain forest. The skies opened up and poured all morning. But of course this didn’t stop us as we set off to find and swim with pink river Dolphins. This was by far the cutest Amazonian experience (not that one expects the Amazon to be cute!).

At first I was a bit skeptical about getting into the water. Although Rambo swore it was piranha free, who knew?! And what other strange swimming floating creatures could be in these dark waters, it was the mother of jungles after all. I had heard horror stories of invisible creatures getting into your body and taking residence! But after seeing the Dolphins jump out of the water and interact, I couldn’t help myself. Screw the piranhas, I will take the chance!

These Dolphins were completely wild but playful. They would come and rub against you, bite you. I freaked out at first (was it a piranha?!) but it wasn’t painful and they were just being their excitable selves. Their skin felt like human skin and they didn’t seem to freak out at our touch. So, dancing in the rain with Dolphins – check!

We then went to Rambo’s friends place in the jungle and snoozed on hammocks while Rambo cooked the most delicious chicken stew and rice. This guy is multi talented! It was the perfect comfort food our wet bodies craved. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and snoozing after that heavy lunch.

We were meant to camp in the forest tonight but the blessed rain was not going to allow that. So Rambo’s friend Dorian kindly offered us hammocks in his hall. When night fell Rambo made a kick ass barbecue before taking us caiman spotting.

Now this caiman spotting was something else! Decked up in rain covers we set off in the dark and walked down to the river and boarded a small canoe. It was pitch dark. Complete black. Rambo sat at the front of the canoe with a flash light on his head. He was like a lighthouse or a flood light. Turning his head around and lighting up the river banks. Not seeing is a scary feeling! The waters were so still and the blackness was daunting.
Rambo nodded in one direction and the boatman changed direction. He slowed the boat, Rambo casually reached out and lifted a caiman!! Just like that! Oh shit! The waters are infested with man eating alligators and here we were floating around in the darkness! For its recreation value!!!!

The caiman he caught was small but strong. It had to be held by its head and tail, else one can get hurt. Rambo passed it around and the boys had fun! But I was completely freaking out. They could grow up to 2 meters and are aggressive! One wrong move, the boat could topple and we could be eaten alive! I wanted so badly to have my feet on the ground. But Rambo had other ideas! After releasing the caiman we went around the river and he taught us how to spot the little monsters. Their eyes gleam in the light. Apparently you need to have 100% visibility when you reach out and snap it out of the water. Rambo showed us 3 scars from when he tried to catch them without really seeing them. I couldn’t handle the predator infested water in the darkness anymore and was more than glad when we came back.
Later that night the boys drank local Rum and smoked an Amazonian weed. We sang and danced and told stories.

Rambo was a colorful guy! He claimed to have 3 families – two in the indigenous tribes, one in Manaus! Apparently he fathered 18 daughters and 15 sons with 5 wives!! His oldest is 32 and youngest was 2! He was apparently in the army special forces and was a qualified sniper, survivor, parachuter and commando! He spent 3 months living in the jungle eating rodents, frogs and insects as part of his training. Were these fairytales told around the bonfire to gullible tourists or was this the way of life in the jungle one would never know. But he seems to be more than deserving of his nickname, Rambo.

The next morning the rain had ceased. So we once again boarded the canoe and headed up stream. Rambo found us a spot to enter the forest and we hiked around the thick jungle. Ever so often he would point to a tree or pick a fruit and explain its medicinal properties or how the tribes would use it. The guy was good with his hands he made a bowl out of a leaf, a spoon out of a bark, a spear and even a carrier for our water bottle.

At one point Rambo turned Tarzan and started swinging himself on the thick vines that were hanging down from colossal trees.

Of course the boys followed suit!

Later that day we cruised along the Amazon River spotting various animals, flora and fauna. We had spent most our time in the Amazon around the negro river which had a starkly different landscape than the Amazon River. Now seeing this part of the forest, I think I preferred it to the other. But I can’t really say for sure since I only spent a few hours there. But one thing was for sure, there were more animals in this part of the forest, on the banks of this river. We saw a variety of birds, monkeys and even a sloth bear in the wild.




Our time in the Amazon was coming to an end and we made our way back along some of the same parts of the river we had used to get here. Half way through we had to stop. The entire river was covered with a very thick vegetation that wasn’t there 3 days ago! If you had an Ariel view you wouldn’t be able to say that there was a river here, let alone the majestic Amazon River.

Rambo tried really hard to wade through the jungle and maneuver through the growth. It was impossible! There was no getting through this, so we turned around and took another path.

A few mins later the sky opened up and rain poured down. It was actually quite a nice experience, I loved cruising along the river drenched! Before we could make it to port the rain had stopped and the sun was out. That’s how unpredictable the weather in a rain forest can be, sunny one minute and a proper downpour the next and back to being sunny. It was either that or the cry protesting the end of our Amazonian adventure!


In Search of the Lost City of the Incas 

The cloud kissed Andean mountains were magical. As much as I wanted to move them away in favor of blue skies, there was something mystical about following the ancient Inca footsteps in this magical setting.

The train slowly moved along the cactus liner river banks. The Urubamba river was gushing through much faster than our train but we didn’t mind, this view was to die for!

Peru Rail was well equipped to take millions of tourists each year in search of the lost city of the Incas. We boarded from Ollayntaytambo after our sacred valley trip and it took us 1.5 hours to get to Aguas Calientes the entry point to the much awaited Machu Picchu.

That night we rested and woke up before dawn. There are two ways up the mountain to see the ancient ruins. You can either take a bus from town or hike up. We chose the former and were glad we did when we saw hikers red faced and almost passing out on our way there. We needed all our energy to get through that day and the bus offered the same dramatic views as the uphill hike.

We were touching the sky, above the clouds. Literally the clouds floated below us. With dramatic drops of the sacred mountains all around us and the Urumbamba River screaming below it was easy to see why the ancient Incas chose this place. There was magic all around us. Pachmama (Incan god Mother Nature) ensured that every element and detail of this landscape was perfect.

From the entrance we hiked about 15 minutes to get our first view of Machu-freaking-Picchu. There it was, standing majestically below us, holding all the secrets of the Incas. There it was, the Lost City Of The Incas.


I had to pinch myself. This was not a dream. I was standing above this hallmark of a great civilization. A place I had dreamed of seeing, a place that had been on my bucket list for a long time, here it was, and here I was.

I would have taken a 1000 pictures, each one more perfect than the one before. Machu Picchu was only some 500 years old. Many countries had historic marvels much older than this Incan city, including my own country, but it was this setting, the stories behind it, the mountains, the mist, the clouds that made Machu Picchu a little bit more special than the rest.

Of course there was also the architecture and technology that shouldn’t have existed 500 years ago that the Incas were using. Their obsession with the sun, the moon, the stars made it all very mystical. Incas were obsessed with the number 3, they had 3 rules for life, 3 principles, 3 gods, 3 of everything. Each building had 3 sets of windows.


There are many stories about what Machu Picchu really was. Some say it was an ancient retreat for the Incan empires – but could this be true? Incas believed in equal treatment and no social class system, so would they then have a retreat for the selected? Another theory is that this was an ancient university. Our guide Fernando was convinced on the fact. However, I’m personally not so sure about it. Machu Picchu was heavily guarded, there was many secret trails leading upto it guarded well by many guard posts set high in the surrounding mountains. Don’t forget that the Spanish conquerors never found this place. Why would university students need so much security? Also where were all the classrooms or lecture halls? There were no structures or rooms big enough for the purpose. The third theory is that this was an administrative and political capital of the empire. Now this made more sense to me. But the Incas died together with their knowledge of what this place really was. So one can only assume.

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We spent hours walking around the ancient ruins – from the sun gate way up in the mountains, to the main entrance, to the sun temple and the moon temple, to the living quarters of the empire and the empress and the high priest and those of the common man, to the terraces where the grew crops to the sun dial and the temple of virgins. Machu Picchu was jaw dropping at every turn.

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Something about Machu Picchu makes you want to physically exert yourself to earn the right to be there. Some hike the Inca trail (which is closed in February every year so we missed it), some hike up to the sun gate, some upto Machu Picchu. We chose Wayunapicchu – the familiar mountain that stands over the city of Machu Picchu. This is where the ancient astronomers of the empire lived, high up in the mountain to get a closer view of the stars and planets in the night sky. Legend has it that they kept their eyes closed during day and trained themselves to see better at night and that they could see upto 5 planets with the naked eye! Like I said, legend has it.

Everything about the Incas was larger than life. Apparently they were as tall as 180 meters and could run all the way to the coast and back in 45 mins. We could barely make it up Wayunapicchu! We literally dragged ourselves up the slippery path and at some points we crawled, on all fours! It was not an easy climb. Fernando had more faith in us than we did. He assured us it would take us only 45 mins up the mountain, it took us just over an hour but it felt like 2.


This is not for the faint hearted and definitely not for the unfit. But once you are up there the views are completely worth it.

But remember you have to come down as well. Usually coming down would be easier, but Wayunapicchu was strange in a sense that we had to climb down first before climbing up, which meant that the last stretch of the trek was uphill.

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We almost made it with zero casualties, but somewhere down the slippery slope Sandi twisted his ankle. The macho guy refused help and almost ran the rest of the way to make the last for a shorter time. He might have been inspired by the Incas, who knows!

After coming down we walked back to the exit. I kept looking over my shoulder taking one last glance after another of the magnificent Machu Picchu. There really wasn’t anything like it. The Incas may have been simple people but this lost city was beyond imagination, it really was a trip of a lifetime. And nothing sealed it better than an official Machu Picchu stamp on our passports.


Before I end my somewhat dreamy narrative, here are my top tips on this Incan marvel

1. Visit it. You must. If you see just one thing in your life, then it must be Machu Picchu.

2. Hire a guide, it really makes a difference. A huge difference. Without a guide Machu Picchu is a beautiful stone city, with a guide is a mystical marvel of human history

3. The weather is unpredictable and it can rain anytime. But don’t worry about it, the rain and the clouds are a part of the charm

4. Skip the sun rise. You can’t see it anyway because of the clouds, so why bother dragging yourself out of bed and battling the crowds? Go a little later in the day. The best time is in the late afternoon when most of the crowds have left

5. Some may not agree, but don’t hike up to Machu Picchu. Do the Inca trail by all means, but on the day you see this ancient wonder, save all your energy for it

An Arctic Adventure in Search of Aurora Borealis

“Arctic?!? No way!! You guys are crazy” was pretty much the response we got from any and everyone who heard of our trip. There were moments when I wondered myself if I was crazy, especially when we were buying clothes to prep for the trip. We are islanders. Period. 30 degrees, sun, sand and sea – that’s how we lived all our lives. So venturing out to almost the North Pole was bordering on crazy. But there were too many once in a lifetime things which can happen only that north, so we had to do it.

A few days in Stockholm, acclimatizing ourselves to sub zero temperature, we boarded a flight to Lulea to start our adventure – one that would help possibly tick two items off our bucket list – 1) see the elusive Aurora Borealis and 2) spend a night on ice.

We spent the first night in a hotel with tree houses for rooms! After checking in, we hiked 500m to our own unique little house up on the trees. We had picked the breathtaking mirror cube.


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There was also the not so blue ‘Blue Cone’, ‘the UFO’, ‘the Dragon Fly’, ‘the Cabin’ and ‘the Bird’s Nest’ in the vicinity.

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A group of journalists from the French Channel 5 were doing a documentary on the hotel and found out that a group of Sri Lankans had ventured out into the arctic. Their curiosity got the better of them and we were interviewed, filmed and featured in their travel program! We were feeling like celebrities and it was only day 1!

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After our near famous encounter with the French journalists we decided to take a cat nap in the early evening because there was unfortunately very little hope of seeing the northern lights due to extremely cloudy skies. As we were drifting into a peaceful slumber we were woken up by the shrill of the phone – it was the reception saying that the lights were out. We rushed to layer ourselves and dashed out of our tree houses. But there was nothing visible except for some light white clouds. It was then that I remembered a blog I’d read some time ago that said they saw the northern lights as white clouds but long exposure photographs revealed the elusive green lights. So we tried that and sure enough, there it was – the traveling streaks of Aurora Borealis.


But there wasn’t much to see to the naked eye, was that it? Was that what the fuss was all about? Slightly disappointed we went off to sleep after dinner. It was then that we got the second call saying the lights were out and it was very strong. We only had to open our doors to see the green hues in the sky all around us, behind the pine tree forest. One look skywards and my heart stopped. The northern lights were out in all it’s glory and put on a show of a lifetime!

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We stood for hours in sub zero temperature admiring natures own fireworks. It had no sign of stopping, showing off hues of green, purple and red. After a while the cold got to our bones, so we called it a night.

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The next day we woke up to a bright and sunny winter day and took a 5 hour train ride to Abisko, a little village up in the arctic mountains known for it’s light shows. The train crossed into the arctic circle and we whizzed past miles and miles of snow covered forests. At first they were thick forests and gradually the trees became short and sparse and vanished all together. All that was left was miles and miles of mountains and nothingness that reminded me of the ice planet in interstellar.


We arrived at our mountain lodge set up on a small hill on the banks of Lake Torneträsk. This ginormous lake apparently ensured that clouds didn’t stick in the sky and this increased our chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

After having reindeer for dinner (forgive me Rudolph) we wore a gazillion layers and trekked our way up to the foot of yet another mountain to take a chair lift up to the Aurora Sky Station. A viewing deck set up just to monitor and see the northern lights. They gave us warm overalls that weighed a ton, and given our primal fear of the cold we wore it and made our way up the lift looking like mini yetis.


The ride up the chairlift was cold and eerie. The clouds covered the top of the mountain and everything was pitch black. Maybe it was a good thing I couldn’t see how far down the ground was, I’m not entirely a fan of heights.

We spent 3 good hours in the sky station, freezing our ***** off waiting against all odds for the clouds to clear and the lights to start. Unfortunately for us the cloud cover was so thick, there was absolutely no chance of seeing the lights that night. We had the option of spending the night in the sky station and taking the chairlift back in the morning when it started at 8am expecting the lights to show. But we opted to sleep on our comfortable warm beds back in the lodge. Good call, since the clouds never cleared.

Day 3 morning started with meeting Peter, our guide and hopping into his snowmobile drawn sled before heading off on our own snowmobile adventure. Pramodh and I got a snowmobile to share and of course he drove first. We made our way into the Abisko National Park, we rode through the forest, over creeks and across lakes before lo and behold it started snowing. Oh what beauty. This was the first time I was experiencing a proper snow shower.



I immediately fell in love with the white flakes falling from above. This was perfection. I could almost forgive the clouds for blocking the aurora last night.


It was my turn to ride. What an amazing experience, the wind in my face, semi frozen fingers and no complains. The forest opened up to reveal a beautiful frozen lake and we rode right across. I may have exceeded the speed limit here, but I couldn’t help myself.


We took a break for a hot cuppa, made snow angels and attempted to make a snow man before riding back to the village through the wilderness.



That night we were meeting the folks from Lappaland Media for a Aurora photo course. We hiked down towards the lake from the lodge and set up camp right in the middle of the frozen Lake Torneträsk to learn the basics of Aurora photography. Nikalas our instructor had built a cute little igloo so we started taking test shots of it when her majesty Aurora Borealis decided to make an appearance (yes! Twice in three days). It wasn’t as strong as the first day but it danced all over the sky and gave us a great show. 


Standing in the middle of a frozen lake in temperatures waaaay below zero looking up at the sky and admiring this light show was truly humbling. For all the man made marvels and advances in science, nature does have a way of making you feel small. 

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The next morning we set out to explore our surroundings while the sun was still out. We discovered a frozen river, a dead drop cliff and a Sami village. 

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Not bad for a few hours of wandering about. And that afternoon we caught the train and headed south to Kiruna and checked into the Ice Hotel! 


Don’t ask me why sleeping on ice made it to my bucket list, but it did. So here we were, in the banks of the Thorne River, the site of probably one of the greatest living art projects – the Ice Hotel

The Ice Hotel is built up from scratch every year using ice from the Thorne River. When spring comes the hotel melts and flows back into the river. A perfect cycle. I would have probably gotten bored and given up in year 3, but the artists behind this amazing creation have been doing it for 25 years! 


From the outside its a bit disappointing because all you see is a short building with reindeer skin covered doors. But when you open those doors, oh step into the most amazing frozen castle, like something out of the movie Frozen. I could be Elsa and live here! 

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Every bit of the castle is carved to perfection – the ice chandeliers, the long beautiful corridor, the seats and tables – stunning! 

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And then there are the Art Suites! Each one different from the other, each one created by a set of artists with a story to tell. 

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After admiring this epic art project we hit the bar! So this, ladies and gentleman marks the first time I was intoxicated; in front of my in laws no less! I blame it partly on the cold and partly on the very handsome swede who served the drinks. When I picked my first drink his comment was “oh that’s a rare choice. Only a strong few can handle the spice!” So how was I to back down from there. Drinks were served in ice glasses that melted away bit by bit with every sip. There might have been 3 maybe 4 shots that followed..oh well..I was a light drinker and badly needed the dinner that followed. I could only pray that no one noticed me accidentally dropping my phone into the gravy three times. What’s a girl gonna do if her phone decided to test gravity!?!

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After dinner we made our way to the hotel’s dressing room and equipped ourself with everything we needed to survive the night – a sleeping bag made for -40 degrees although it was only -5 inside, hats to cover our heads and scarfs to cover our faces and thick socks. Clad in our thermals as adviced we carried our gear and walked to the hotel. That’s when the lights decided to come out for the night with a show almost as strong as what we saw the first night. Of course Pramodh by this time had seen all he wanted to of the northern lights, especially after the first night’s epic show; he didn’t want to stand outside freezing in his thermals. So we rushed inside and made our way through the ice corridor and found our room. 

The ice bed in the centre had reindeer skin and a soft mattress. We set up our sleeping bag and jumped inside. I wasn’t sure if I would survive the night. I woke up a few times and had serious doubts. But we had each other and the thick sleeping bag for warmth, so we did in fact make it through the night. When the staff woke us up with warm Lingonberry juice the next morning, not only was I happy to be alive (and not frozen), I was also very proud of myself for braving the cold. 


As a reward we all went dog sledding! A sled drawn by 11 Alaskan huskies was waiting for us by the river. What beautiful dogs! They absolutely loved running and did not want to stay still. So till we got on to the sled and they got the signal to go, there was a complete ruckus – non stop barking, jumping and pulling. 

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It was a thrilling experience once again speeding through forests, across frozen lakes and rivers, watching the dogs eat ice every few mins while running in perfect formation. 


There is one thing you need to know if you want to enjoy dog sledding – do not sit in front of the sled. Those dogs fart. ALOT. And they poo throughout the ride. Not a pleasant sight or smell. Other than that everything else was perfect. DSC_0353  DSC_0383

Our last adventure before heading back to the tropics was an encounter with a herd of reindeer who lived in a Sami Village. We got the chance to pet and feed them before saying goodbye to the Arctic.

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We got pretty lucky, the Aurora Borealis danced for us 3 out of the 4 nights we were out in the arctic, we raced snowmobiles while it was snowing, lived in a tree house, got featured on the French Channel 5, survived a night on ice and rode a dog sled through the beautiful arctic landscape. There aren’t too many other things that come close to this adventure. 

A word about Koreans, who made our trip special

After our trip to Seoul, I was really inspired to write a piece about Korean people. I’m not sure if my experience was a typical one, but we came across so many amazing people that I think it’s worth writing about.


I was delightfully surprised to find how friendly Koreans were. As a group of 6 brown people we stood out like sore thumbs, so it was easy for people to know we were tourists. Most people were curious to find out where we were from, others wanted to offer us their help to ensure we knew where we were going and others just wanted to welcome us to Korea. Of course most of this was our interpretation of their sign language since most people didn’t speak English.


Here are some of the people and instances that stood out

Sign language subway lady

We took the express train from the airport to Seoul station which is the easiest and cheapest way to get to the city. We then switched to the city subway to get to our hotel. Here we met a lady who tried her best to ask us if we knew where we had to get off. It may have been a simple act, but had never happened in our travels before. So it was a great start to our trip and a very nice way to make a foreigner feel welcome.

Coffee ladies – mum & daughter

Berkleys is a small coffee shop in Bukchon. It really is very small and can seat only 5 people, but while we were there we realized it was quite a popular place to grab a coffee on the go. It’s run by a mum and her daughter. While we were contemplating whether to enter the place, they greeted us with a “hello, we have great coffee, wanna try?”. Who’s going to say no to that. Not only do they serve great coffee they make the best sandwich (yes, singular, they have only one option on the menu).


While we were munching our breakfast they explained the interesting process of cold brewed coffee and offered us some free samples to taste. It’s random seemingly simple conversations like this that made a difference.

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Director, Cameraman

We visited Changdeokgung Palace and it’s beautiful secret garden. Fall definitely is the best time to visit Korea, the foliage was amazing. Tesh and I wanted a typical touristy “jumping picture” with fall colours as our background. While we were attempting the perfect shot, a gentleman with a very professional looking camera walked up to us and started directing how we should pose and jump. All of this was in Korean (which we didn’t understand) and sign language. We tried several times and each time he explained how we could do it better and by the end of it we were surrounded by 5 other cameramen photographing two girls attempting to jump, not so gracefully may I add.


After the shoot and once the crowd dispersed I wanted to take a shot lying on the leaves on the grass. While Pramodh was taking this picture of me, the same director/cameraman gentleman walked back. He started once again directing the scene. He even collected handfuls of leaves and handed it over to passers-by to sprinkle it on me to get that perfect, natural shot! Lol




We spent two nights in a traditional Sopoong Guest House, a Korean Hanok. Summer was the bubbly girl who came every morning to clean the place. We got talking, she was extremely interested in where we were from and what we did. We even managed to induct her to some famous sights in Seoul she hadn’t yet been to before we took a gazillion Polaroids.

Polaroids with Summer

At the end of a long chat on the second day she offered to accompany us to lunch. She took us to a local restaurant, which served the most amazing food, it was definitely one of my best meals in Seoul. We walked about a kilometer from our Hanok along tiny streets and alleyways to get to this place. We would’ve never thought of eating here nor would we ever have stumbled upon the place while exploring the ancient Bukchon area. We only realized how popular the place was seeing the long queue stretching all the way along the narrow winding alleyway. The pepper pork bulgoggi was their specialty (to die for), their bibimbap was also out of this world (worth rising from the dead to die for again).

Summer with the Spicy Pork Bulgogi

Back to Summer..she decided to give us Korean names judging by our personalities and the vibe we gave her. I was named Ji Hei, which meant wisdom; what a very perceptive girl 🙂 The hotel had given us postcards which we were very excited to send back home. She was so helpful and even offered to mail our postcards for us.

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Bubbly Jemma

Given its reputation for great food we thought it would be a good idea to take a food tour. Tripadvisor had great reviews for O’ngo so we decided to try that on our second night in Seoul. Jemma, our guide was one funny, friendly, bubbly person. She gave us a great intro into Korean cuisine and ensured we were all well fed and taken care of throughout the tour.


We chatted the whole night, well after our tour was scheduled to end.One might say that all tour guides are chatty, fun and helpful, but I’ve been around too many to know that Jemma was one of a kind. She had 20 min conversation with this lovely Latvian couple on our tour to help them find envelopes (yes envelopes are apparently almost extinct and they couldn’t find it for 3 whole days despite searching high and low). DSC_0565

It was hard to pin point what it was about Jemma that made her extra special, it might have been that she seemed to be talking to everyone at the same time about different topics, it could have been how she ensured we all knew what we were eating and more than enough to stuff ourselves or maybe it was because she took a personal interest in each one of us and definitely because she taught us how to take photos “the Korean Style” – i.e. covering half your face with the peace sign to look thinner! Either way, Jemma really made an impression. DSC_0583

Antique hair ornament lady

We spent an afternoon in Insadong, the old artsy area in Seoul. Seeing some beautiful antiques I walked into a store. The owner seeing me exploring her merchandise, grabbed my arm and surprised me by sticking traditional hair ornaments into my hair and taking pictures while giving me a detailed explanation in Korean (did I mention I didn’t understand the language?). I was completely caught off guard; and if it weren’t for Tesh who was with me and explained what was happening, I would have been a little worried.

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Free hug people

Insadong is full of interesting performers, people in costume, promoters of the word of god and tourists. We met a great group of people giving free hugs! It kinda was like a goodbye hug on our last day in Seoul. The hug was accompanied with an interesting chat about everything from where we were from to walking on fire! I suspect they thought all brown people walked on fire. We didn’t mind the generalization, I wish I could walk on fire!


There were countless others who stopped us to randomly ask where we were from and were generally helpful. I wish I had stopped to take a few pictures with them. It was the people that really did make Seoul special. Farewell souls of Seoul, till we meet again.

Volcanic Adventure – Mount Bromo & Ijen

Visiting one of the many volcanoes in the region was on my bucket list before leaving south east Asia, so our pick both in terms of natural beauty/diversity and ease of climb was Bromo. We took a 2 hr flight from Singapore to Surabaya, Indonesia’s next largest city and the closest airport to Mount Bromo. It takes 3 to 4 hours from Surabaya to get to Bromo. So plan for this especially if u are landing at night and planning on climbing the next morning.

We got to our hotel, Java Banana by 11pm and got 3 hours of sleep before leaving the hotel at 3 am for our adventure.

You need to 4wd to get there. It was very dark and we couldn’t see the road at all, it was only lit by the hundreds of other jeeps making the same drive, but my body definitely felt ruggard road.

45 mins later we jumped off the jeep to trek abt 5 mins to the sun rise viewing point. Yes it is 3 am but the shops here are in full swing selling tea, coffee, banana fritters and corn on the cob. The sun is only set to rise just after 5am, so we kill time drinking tea in a shop. Just past 4 we walk to the viewing platform already full of people and find ourselves quite a great spot facing east. And there we stood for the next hour and a half freezing till madam sun shone her face.

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It’s cold, very cold. We were both wearing a few layers but that wasn’t enough so we had to dance in one place to keep warm.

The three volcanoes are on the west side directly opposite to where the sun rise is. Here’s a tip, while the sun rise, any sun rise is spectacular there is nothing extra special about the one here, so perch yourself facing west so you see the volcanoes through the clouds and most making them look almost mystical. Don’t forget to walk around the platform as there are many breathtaking angles for pictures

A hundred or so photos later, snapped under near freezing temperatures we set off to get a closer look of Mount Bromo. On the way down there is yet another great spot to take pics of the three destroyers called lovers hill.

The geography surrounding Bromo is quite spectacular. Volcanic ashes and sand have created what is known as the sea of sand right around the mountain making it almost separate from the rest of the world. You can walk or hop on a horse to cross the sea of sand. We paid 80k per person and opted for the latter. I’m not sure we got the best price as our guide did the talking, but it was 6am and we were cold so a few dollars here or there didn’t matter.

Sea of sandOn horse back
The horses take you all the way up to a very steep staircase to reach the crater. There are enough rest areas along the stairs so it’s not too bad.

Horse drop off point

The stairs
Once we reached the top we couldn’t help but we wowed by nature. Bromo is still an active volcano and last erupted in November 2010 (just ash). When you peer into the crater you can see clouds of smoke coming up from within while your nostrils are filled with the unmistakable smell of sulfur.


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DSC_0418 Stitch

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Some people do the 3km crater rim walk, but our guide promptly said “crazy people”. I suspect the path isn’t very stable.


That morning after breakfast at the hotel we started our 6 hour journey to Banyuwangi where Ijen is. We stayed overnight at Ketapang Indah, a hotel by the sea overlooking Bali. Now it made sense why most tours of these two volcanoes ended up in Bali.

Our adventure to Ijen started at 1am. We left the hotel thinking it probably wasn’t going to be as cold as bromo, boy were we wrong. I fell asleep going there and coming back so u have no idea how long it took, but the drive itself was at least over an hour. Our guide had packed breakfast for us, so after munching that down around 2 maybe 3 am we started our 3km hike to the top of Ijen. But first we had to buy entrance tickets 150k per person sold by a shivering man in a tent in front of a mini bonfire.

The start Buying tickets from the "counter"

The trek started off easily on flat ground and then it became steeper and steeper. It’s pitch black with only the moon and stars above you so don’t forget a torch. We hiked for what seemed like forever making small stops and then reached the half way point marked by a shop (closed at that hour) and this sulfur collection point. We rested there for a while sitting in the cold admiring the starry night and once again began our journey. All at once it got a whole lot more difficult and then much much easier. Just remember of walk on your left, the right is a dead drop which u may not see in the darkness. Dawn was almost approaching when we got to the top, the view seemed spectacular but it was too dark to see.

We now had to make our way into the crater, 800m down. If you thought the first 3km was bad, oh dear…there is absolutely no pathway to get to the bottom so you just have to balance on the rocks, cling on to dear life, pray that you don’t fall and give it ago. It takes about 45 mins to get down. We could almost see some blue flames from a midway point but very very sadly once we got to the bottom it was too lit up that we missed the fire. What a pity, laboring this whole journey to see it and missing it by maybe 30 mins. So my advice, leave early (maybe midnight) and take shorter breaks on the way up and plan to be inside the crater by 4am.
Blue flames
It was dark all this while and the climb down was dangerous so I never bothered to look around. Once at the bottom and you’ve had a moment to catch your breath and for me get over the disappointment of missing the flames you look around and realize that you might as well as be on the moon. The surroundings were mostly grey with bits of yellow to mark the sulfur. I was 800m deep inside a volcano! It was quite an amazing sight. The crater lake was bright green surrounded by yellow sulfur rocks.

View from the bottom Sulfur fumes Liquid suflur

We saw a few miners on the way down but right at the bottom there was one guy stationed inside the volcano.There are miners and then there are entrepreneurs. This guy was collecting liquid sulfur and pouring it in different shaped moulds to make souvenirs! You can buy bits of sulfur shaped as hearts, animals, flowers, you name it. Liquid sulfur once in contact with water freezes up. So he pours in the dark yellow liquid and drops a bit of water to make his masterpieces. I was afraid my whole house will smell like rotten eggs, the infamous sulfur stench so didn’t bother buying any.
Making sulfur sovenirs
The sides of the crater full of sulfur was emitting smoke that the wind took to the top. At first there was a bit of smoke on the lake but it soon cleared up and then suddenly the whole place filled with smoke. Sulfur dioxide! My eyes were burning and my lungs were coughing up. For a moment I thought I would pass out. The guide grabbed my hand and said “let’s go!!!”. With involuntary tears pouring down we made our way back.

A fellow traveller The crater lake At the crater lake

Solidified sulfur
It’s a very difficult very scary journey up to the top. You can easily slip and break your neck. To add to the difficulty of the path I was now tearing coughing and sneezing!!! Most people around me were clearing their throats and spitting out. Not the most hygienic conditions. Even though I could hardly breathe the photographer inside me stopped several times to take in the scenery and snap a few shots. Every time we came across sulfur baskets that miners had left behind I couldn’t help but stop to snap it.

Making their way back up Sulfur collected

The trek up

45 more mins of clinging on to dear life and we were back on top. Only then did I notice a sign that said visitors are not allowed inside the crater for safety reasons, oh well!

Apparently you arent allowed to go down The view from top
Even the top of the volcano was filled with smoke so we didn’t wait to see the view from the top but made our way down. After a while the smoked cleared up and we could enjoy the beautiful scenery that we had missed on the way up.
Walking back

Sulfur on a backdrop of more volcanic mountains
We met a few miners down at the collection point, but today was a public holiday and most of them were not working. Each miner carries about 70kg of sulfur at a time up the crater to the collection point. 70kg!!!! And they do it 2 maybe 3 times a day! Suffocating through the inevitable smoke. Now I know why this particular job was classified as one of the worst in the world. The health risks are imminent but apparently the government has a insurance scheme, not sure how much that helps! They sell 1kg of sulfur for merely 1000idr which is just about $0.10.

We met a miner with his collection and Pramodh tried to give a shot at carrying it. He could only manage it for a few mins, god knows how these guys do it every day!
The miners Hard at work The minors
Going down the path was a hundred times more difficult than climbing up. It was completely slippery and we had to walk sideways like crabs. Some parts of the path had ditches so we walked in them to prevent ourselves from tumbling down. My legs were giving way, but managed to make the 3km journey back.

Ijen was difficult, in any standard. If you want to make the trip there are a few essentials: 1. A proper mask with filters, not the small surgical one, but the heavy duty type. 2. Proper shoes for the trek and climb 3 proper clothes to stay warm 4. Some form of gloves partly because of the cold but mostly because you have to grab hold of the volcanic sulfur rocks when climbing up or down the crater. 5. Ideally some foam of goggles, at least carry them in your bag so that you can put them on when the smoke sets in. I had only number 3, 4 and partly 2 and trust me I regretted it.

The adventure part of our trip was complete and now for the charity part. We had brought with us clothes to give away to the miners. We stopped in a factory to give those away. They were highly excited to receive this gift especially on a religious holiday. Our next stop was an orphanage to give away books and stationery that we had bought. The kids were super curious but shy. The brave few managed to ask us where we were from and what we were doing there. They were grateful too and thanked us with the little English they knew.

With our new miner friends Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage Giving donations at the orphanage

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