Why Tanjung Aru Beach in Malaysia has the most phenomenal sunset in the world

Tanjung Aru Beach in Kota Kinabalu, the most phenomenal sunset in the world (or at least SE Asia)? Here me out. I have good reason for this gushing statement that puts this humble location on a pedestal.

One must think of Tanjung Aru Beach in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, as a backdrop to your own fabulous photo shoot. This is where people go to embody Tyra Banks and strike a pose.

Every evening hundreds of tourists gather on the shores of this city beach in north Borneo, not just simply to take photographs of the fabulous sunset, no. The women here take it to a whole other level.

Beach shorts  and flip flops? Bah! The unofficial dresscode here is flowing maxi dresses in bright colours, statement jewelery and cute sandals.

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I was at Tanjung Aru Beach in November during a two month trip around SE Asia. I had been there all day and hadn’t seen a single soul until about 4pm when the area started coming to life. It began with kite, fruit and toy sellers setting up stalls, the cooks at the market firing up their barbecues and then the people trickled in.

I noticed some women pass by me wearing high wedges and glamorous dresses and I thought, that’s a bit much for the beach – I mean it’s Malaysia not the Cote d’Azur. Next thing I knew a whole flock of women had strutted onto the sands and were posing like peacocks. I had never seen anything like it. Suddenly the people became more awe-inspiring than the sunset! lol!

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By the time the sky turned yellow the whole beach was packed with hundreds of women contorted into all kinds of positions determined to get that perfect shot to show all their friends back home, so I had to get in amongst it! I took pictures of them and they took pictures of me. We smized, gave blue steel and worked it for the cameras – Tyra Banks would have been proud of us all ūüėČ

I literally vogued my way through the crowds all the way along the beach.

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The sunset beach photo was obviously not something these girls did spontaneously. Evidence that this was a well thought-out operation included groups of girls wearing matching dresses, the well-rehearsed poses they did and yes, some even brought along professional photographers!

So you see. It’s not just the sunset that makes for an amazing view. It’s how the people react to it that takes it from something beautiful to something extraordinary. I swear. Never again will I take a beach sunset lightly.

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I decided to try out a few of the popular poses myself!

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One must finger frame the sun.

 

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One must do a yoga-style pose.

 

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And by the time the best moment of the sunset had arrived the posers disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

Top tips for shopping heaven: Chatuchak Market, Bangkok!

I have been dying to write this “top tips” post about Chatuchak Market for the longest time. Not weeks or months, but years.

From the very first time I hit the stalls shopping at Chatuchak Market, in Bangkok, Thailand, I have never been the same.

I literally find it painful spending money anywhere else.

When I say cheap, bargains, budget, chic, cool, fun fashion I mean piles of it. You are going to feel like you died and woke up in fashion heaven where you can afford EVERYTHING.

Affectionately called JJ Market, the area is stuffed to the rafters with more than 8,000 stalls, which are open from 9am to about 6pm (indoor stalls) and 9pm (outdoor stalls).

Watch my video below and keep reading for a few tips on how to master the art of shopping at JJ.

You are going to feel overwhelmed, you are going to feel tired and you are going to spend too much. So listen up.

 

Don’t ever go looking for something specific. This place is just too massive for that. One must go with the attitude of thinking ‘it would be lovely if I found a …….. but if I don’t see one it’s cool.’

Do go with a budget – 20 GBP or 1000 THB is plenty for small treats.

Do go with a suitcase – you may just want to stock a shop or a walk-in wardrobe or buy enough Christmas and birthday presents for the next five years. And you won’t be the only one filling a case. I’ve seen the smart ones at it before.

Send stuff home from the market using the parcel services a the entrance near MRT Chatuchak.

Haggle. Start with the words. “Can I have a discount?” I used to think this was a bit too forward but having observed other people haggle this way, I have tried it and had great results.

Take small notes. When you want to pay 200 THB for a 300 THB dress the seller is much more likely to say yes to your price if they can see, smell and touch the money!

Never open your wallet first and then ask how much. You have just gone and put yourself at the mercy of the seller. Be cool.

Take a friend who is also shopping because when you buy more than one thing from a stall you can always bargain the price down even lower! Wholesale!

Wear flip flops for when you want to stop for a foot massage. Chatuchak Market is the biggest market you are likely to ever come across. You will be doing so much walking your feet will thank you at the end of the day.

Use the MRT underground station or BTS Skytrain to get there and back. The taxis and tuk tuks in these areas bump up their prices so much, paying for a ride will eat into the savings you made while shopping…think about it…

Get off the train at MRT Kamphaengphet rather than MRT Chatuchak. Why? Well the stores are way more fashiony in my opinion. Yes I said fashiony. This is MY BLOG! Lol!

 

 

Songkran water festival in Thailand is just one month away!

 

Check out my feature on how to survive Songkran – one of the world’s craziest parties.

I wrote this one for Jetstar Asia inflight magazine for all those people heading to the festival and in need of travel hacks to make sure they have the most bodacious time ever! ūüôā Go to the feature by clicking below.

Click here

8 of the kindest ways to experience elephants in Asia

Riding an elephant was one of the biggest regrets I have from my travels. I was new to the whole thing and wanted to experience elephants in Thailand so I booked a cheap tour that included an elephant ride. BIG MISTAKE.

The worst point was when I was sitting on a chair atop an elephant that was bleeding from the head because the handler kept on poking it violently with a metal stick. The elephant and I were in the middle of a muddy stream and I had to decide whether to protest and get off or shut up and deal with it. I chose the latter because I didn’t know where ¬†I was or how to get off. It was a sorry sight. I was a bit tearful because the elephant was being abused right in front of me and it was all my fault. I just wanted it to be over.

This was my first and last experience of elephants getting a rough deal as a side effect of tourism in their countries. I later learnt that they are often drugged, beaten and put through horrible ordeals in order for tourists to enjoy a ride. Their spirits must be broken to bring on submission. There is a name for this process. It is called ‘phajaan’. Rather than me explaining in words I found this video on YouTube for you to see for yourself.

Click here for video

There are so many other better ways to enjoy these majestic animals while travelling Southeast Asia. Organisations that protect elephants let tourists visit and help care for the elephants and an increasing number of elephant camps are transverting to this conservational style of tourism. Yes you will have to spend a bit more money but that is the cost of keeping them happy. Scroll over the project names in this article to find links for booking and more information. Enjoy!

  1. This is more like it. Rather than ride an elephant people are opting for washing them and caring for them at sancturies, such as The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.

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2. You can volunteer as a conservationist with Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society. This is more like being a scientist. You get to work with scientists and local people to help collect information, care for elephants and find solutions to help elephants and local people to live together without conflict.

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3.¬†Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage , in Sri Lanka,¬†is one of my favourites. It has the world’s largest population of captive elephants. The experience here is observatory, while relaxing with a snack.

4. You can actually go an see wild elephants roaming around Khao Yai National Park, in Thailand, which is just three and a half hours outside of Bangkok and easily reachable by minivan from Victory Monument Skytrain station.

5. One of the biggest elephant camps in Thailand, Sai Yoke Elephant Camp in Kanchanaburi, has transitioned into a conservation camp. Now called Elephant Haven, tourist trips include feeding, bathing and walking beside elephants.

6. You can emerse yourself in the Gwi culture by volunteering in a remote village in northern Thailand where The Surin Project provides economic sustainability to mahouts (elephant keepers) so that they don’t need to rely on elephant shows and riding.

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7. If you are visiting Chiang Mai pop into the Elephant Parade House where you can buy a painted elephant sculpture or even paint one yourself. There are no live elephants to see but your cash goes to support elephants conservation projects in India and Southeast Asia.

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8. Also see the Elephant Parade Exhibition in Bangkok at Asiatique from December 20, 2015, to January 11, 2016, and at Lumpini Park from Janury 18 to 31, 2016.

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Six must-do cultural experiences in Bali

I love Bali and in particular Ubud. I have travelled there alone, with friends and I have even acted as a tour guide there for my parents. These are my top tips for the best cultural experiences.

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Join the locals in a water blessing at the Tirta Empul Temple

Bali is about 90 per cent Hindu and water is so important to the religion that its people even see it in different grades; normal, holy and healing.

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Cleansing and purifying, Bali is surrounded with water and that is why it is affectionately called ¬†‘The island of Gods’ or ‘The island of 1,000 temples.’

 

I don’t think I had ever experienced a spiritual connection until I visited the Tirta Empul Temple just outside a town called Tampaksiring. Tirta Empul means holy water spring and some people refer to it as ‘the Ganges of the East’ because the local Balinese Hindus, who go there in their thousands, believe the waters to have the power to heal illness as well as purify the mind and soul.

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The waters are distributed throughout a number of pools in the temple complex. For visitors there are changing rooms and a place where you can hire a robe and sash required for the water blessing.

I was taken through my blessing by a spirit guide. There are quite a few who offer their services at the temple for a very small tip. I would definitely recommend using a guide because they show you the customs, help you avoid faux pas and explain the history and meanings of things in the temple.

My guide took me on this amazing meditative journey. After dressing in the sarong and sash, I went inside the main pool area where locals worship. I discovered it was not a simple jaunt into the waters. No. One must make an offering, pray, meditate and wash in a particular order.

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It’s a ritual that starts with a meditative prayer to the spirit of the sun. I sat on the stone next to the pool with my offering of flowers in a banana leaf bowl in my hands and my eyes closed. My spirit guide showed me the way through thoughts of happiness, love, important people in my life, my hidden depths, the beautiful environment, the earth, the cosmos, the sun and the universe. I opened my eyes in a daze and he guided me into the waters.

The water was cool and there were huge koi fish swimming around. I could feel soft moss-covered stones under my feet and there were scores of locals and a few tourists queing at the fountains, having a chat and bathing.

The pool has 13 fountains and at each fountain I was to say a prayer, wash my face three times, rinse my mouth three times and dunk my head under the fountain and and let the water into my eyes to cleanse them. Despite my journey into self, I was still holding on to my vanity quite tightly. I went into the pool wearing my hair piece, which promptly disappeared under the water as soon as I dunked my head! I kind of stood there waist-deep in holy water grinning sheepishly as the locals surrounding me giggled.

So, I placed my offering on the head of the fountain and did the ritual and continued on making wishes and prayers under each fountain. When I had completed the ritual I felt refreshed, revitalised, serene and somewhat hopeful for the future.

Learn Batik in the countryside.

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Batik making in Indonesia goes way back and is most famous in Java.

Basically batik is wax-resist dyeing. You pour an intricate wax design on fabric and paint on dye in various colours.

Surrounded by gorgeous batik prints on sarongs and cloths, I felt inspired so I went to try my hand at the skill at a Widya’s Batik Workshop in Ubud.

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He has a simple studio where people go to get creative. Backpackers, artists and families spend days surrounded by fields, his pet dogs and friends while they concentrate on their designs.

I’m no artist yet I have huge artistic desires that never turn out the way I want. Luckily Widya had a variety of stencils I could mix and match to help me create a workable outline of for my ‘masterpiece’.

He demonstrated how to do each step. It was quite simple really.

Batik is very detailed and takes patience. I spent a whole relaxing day on my 50cm x 50cm cloth design, which featured a lotus flower and plenty of dots.

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Live with the locals.

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The architechture and temples in Bali are amazing. I was told every home has a temple and while I was staying in Ubud I noticed that this was actually true. I walked down the streets and peered into the open entrances to people’s homes and saw temples and shrines standing centre stage.

This is what makes a Bali homestay special. You get to live with local people, who give you a real insight into local ife and great tips on where to visit and what to eat. I stayed at Gusti Kaler House in the heart of Ubud and it was very cheap (about 14 euros a night, which I shared with a pal).

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I spent my time there exploring its religious shrines and monuments. The rooms were basic but our needs were simple. We had huge wooden carved beds, cosy mattresses and a space for yoga and reading.

Stop and say hello.

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The people of Bali are really welcoming and curious about foreigners. As I wondered around Ubud, lots of ladies wanted to take a photograph with me! I was like famous…

I totally embraced the warmth of the people. The women are very touchy feely and affectionate. They wanted to stroke me and even wanted to feel my bloated belly for movement after a I ate a huge meal! I had to explain that I wasn’t pregnant, just ‘with food’.

Eat babi guling and ayam goreng in a warung.

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And when I say this I mean eat local. Babi gulling is suckling pig and one of Bali’s most famous dishes.

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Like many Balinese dishes, it comes served with rice and spicy vegetables. You can have any part of the pig you want as the Balinese leave very little to waste. I chose crackling and belly meat. I went to the very popular Ibu Oka, which has two locations: one on Ubud high street (best to go at 11am) and the more elegant version, just outside Ubud, called Ibu Oka 2.

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Both are great warungs. A warung is simply a tax-free eatery and it is where the locals go. If you’re worried about trying foreign foods, go by my rule – if an eatery is packed with locals enjoying food, it’s good and safe.

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While driving down the street I asked my driver where he goes to eat so he took me to a roadside warung for ayam goreng. Ayam is chicken. Most people will say ayam goreng is friend chicken. Mine came shredded and mixed with spicy vegetables and it was served with a chicken kebab and  a chicken drumstick.

Watch the traditional dances.

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From about 7pm every night there is a selection of traditional dances taking place all over Ubud. There are more than 10 locations that host different styles of dance and performance, including fire dance, bamboo dance and puppet shows (see here for a full schedule) .

I love the backdrop at Cafe Lotus in central Ubud (below).

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Arrive early at about 5 or 6pm to get a front row seat and you can dine and watch the show. They do expect you to spend a minimum amount (about 20 euros/21 dollars) on the front row tables. I found once you order a bottle of wine and a meal for three you can easily cover the spend.

 

And that’s it. These are just a few of my favourites cultural experiences in Ubud. What are yours? You can share your tips and start a conversation in the comment box below xxx

Pack Sri Lanka into a six-day roadtrip

Sri Lanka is a huge country with a lot to offer from amazing wildlife and gorgeous beaches to cultural experiences you will never forget. With the help of Sri Lanka Tourism, I managed to pack a ridiculous amount into just six days proving if you have a week off longhaul is an option.

Day 1. The city.

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Colombo. Cars, taxis, buses, tuc tucs and cow-drawn carts fought for space on the road while the people went about their day in the humid heat. The bright colours, eclectic mix of colonial architecture and glorious stretch of ocean told me I had arrived in Sri Lanka’s capital.

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The city is divided into 15 suburbs (Colombo 1 to Colombo 15), of which the countless tuc tuc drivers know very well. My driver joined the throng of honking vehicles and weaved in and out of the traffic while I gazed at colonial buildings left by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.
We drove along the coast up to the Galle Face Green in the city’s financial district where people were having picnics, flying kites and strolling the grounds. We whizzed by on to the harbour and the Pettah Market, which was in full swing selling fabrics, clothes, food, household items, books and art, up and down the criss cross streets.

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I wanted to eat local. Comfort food in Sri Lanka is curry and rice and I was in need of some dhal. there were some pretty awesome offerings at The Raja Bojun in Ceylinco Seylan Towers, in Colombo 3. A three course lunch buffet of traditional Sri Lankan dishes cost 1,800 Sri Lankan rupees (about £8/12 euros). There were meat, fish and vegetable curries served with spicy chutneys to increase the appetite and cool salads to calm the palate.

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That night. I stayed at the Galle Face Hotel; the iconic colonial style beach front resort with about 200 hundred rooms. It has a history of being frequented by celebrity guests, such as Roger Moore and Noel Coward; and heads of state, including Richard Nixon and Edward Heath. My room had high ceilings, an intricately carved four poster bed and stunning views of the Indian Ocean.

Day 2. Meet the locals
There is so much to discover along the Galle Road. In the dawn light I could make out the silhouettes of the toddy tappers balanced on high wires in coconut trees extracting the sap so they could make palm wine with it. I checked into Heritance Hotel, in Ahungalla, had a cocktail and headed to the parties on Hikkaduwa Beach.

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Day 3. On the beach.

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DJs mixed house tracks while a sand castle making competition was under way. I sat and watched while a group of locals struggled to hoist themselves into a glass-bottom boat bobbing up and down in quite strong waves. The golden sands were crowed. I slunk off to one of the many Ayurvedic centres for an hour-long massage to revive me.

Day 4. Back on the road.

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I wandered inside a precious stone mine in hope of finding moonstones.
I met the owner, who told me if we were lucky we would find blue moonstones. Our luck was in Рhe harvested a handful of white and blue raw moonstones. He gave me one for luck and I bought a ring from his shop to show my appreciation.

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Back on the road I drove to the coastal town of Balapity, where the Wednesday market was in full swing, and then a quick stop in Ambalangoda, which is a  town famous for ancient devil masks.

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A man was fishing out in the ocean with only a pole to support him at Galle Fort. I spent a couple of hours at the UNESCO world heritage site. It is the largest Dutch fort in Asia. Built by the Portuguese and fortified by the Dutch, it is now a living museum filled with alleyways and streets, lined with museums, shops and sights. The National Maritime Museum, The National Cultural Museum and The Closenburg Hotel are all located here.

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The largest Buddha statue I saw was 44 feet high and sitting in the courtyard of the Weherahena Raja Maha Viharaya Temple.

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The temple is famous for its colourful artwork embedded in an underground gallery.I removed my shoes at the gate and explored the whole place barefoot. I made an offering and was blessed by a monk.

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I loved the sea turtle hatchery. The experts look after the eggs and hatchlings until they are old enough to go out into the sea. You can also spot them migrate on the beaches.

Day 5. In need of peace and quiet.

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In Bentota we found Lunaganga, the remote country house hotel of renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa. Its 10 acres of land are made up of rice paddy fields, an enormous lagoon and far stretching lawns, scattered with magnolia, rubber, mahogany and ebony trees.

There are no televisions, radios or other modern day distractions here, just monkeys swinging in the trees and the scent of magnolia.

Day six. Elephants and festivals.

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I had to leave at 5am to make the three hour journey to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in time to watch the breakfast feeding at 9am.

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I took tea on the balcony overlooking the scene and browsed through the buffalo leather chairs and bags in the shops.

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I slept all the way to Kandy. It felt like a lifetime away from hectic Colombo, beach parties and crowds of elephants.

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The annual Esala Perahera – the celebration and worship of the ancient tooth relic of Buddha – is one of the most important festivals in the Buddhist calendar. I checked into colonial-style¬†¬†Queen’s Hotel¬†that sits in centre of the city and overlooks all the action.¬†¬†A procession of dancers, musicians, stilt walkers, fire dancers and more than 85 ornately decorated elephants passed by. Generations of families learn the skills needed to perform. Men danced while¬†snapping giant whips on the pavement, small children rotated fireballs from their hair¬†and drummers performed a miryad of different rhythms.

After that is was a long trip back to the airport. Time to catch up on some sleep!