May 26, 2009
In for the short haul
By cheryl tan
In the last of Life!'s three-part Rediscovering South-east Asia series, we recommend travel to the mountainous terrain of Dieng Plateau in Indonesia, a food excursion to Semarang in Central Java, island adventures in the Philippines and a relaxing rainforest holiday in Brunei.
About $4,000 will cover three nights' accommodation and return air tickets for a family of four to these places, which are all less than four hours away from Singapore by plane.
Semarang, my hometown, is not a familiar place to most people outside of Indonesia.
The provincial capital of Central Java, it is not chic and exotic like Bali and it does not have the princely patina of Yogyakarta.
What this unassuming city on the north coast of Java has is a rich history, laid-back charms and some of the best food in the country.
The most famous local snack is lumpia, a spring roll filled with fresh bamboo shoots, crabmeat, egg and shrimp.
There are many lumpia stalls in the city but one of the oldest and most popular is Lumpia Gang Lombok. The humble eatery's menu features only lumpia, which comes plain or deep-fried. The hefty rolls (each 11,000 rupiah or S$1.50) are served with pickled cucumbers, a dollop of thick garlicky sauce and fiery whole chillies.
This lumpia specialist is located around the corner from the 18th-century Tay Kak Sie temple in the historic Chinese district known as Pecinan.
Today, the district is a bustling business district where you will find the Gang Baru market. Among the many vendors with their baskets of fresh vegetables, buckets of fish and hooks of offal and meat, there is a good selection of breakfast fare.
I usually find myself stopping at the vendor selling nasi ayam (3,500 rupiah), which means 'chicken rice' but it is nothing like the Singaporean dish of the same name. The Semarang version is rice topped with shredded chicken meat, spicy chayote squash, tofu, hard-boiled egg and doused in lip-smacking coconut gravy. The woman at Gang Baru serves her nasi ayam the traditional way in a banana leaf cone.
Even after wolfing down the nasi ayam, I am still tempted by other foods such as piping-hot serabi (a sweet and fluffy crepe-like snack), bakso (beef meatballs in clear broth) and a dizzying assortment of kueh-kueh.
When I have a craving for Semarang's most celebrated sweet treat, a coconut cake known as wingko babad (2,300 rupiah), I go to the Kereta Api bakery, which can barely meet the huge demand for its speciality.
The small bakery is located in Kota Lama (Old Town), the city's administrative centre during the Dutch colonial era, where you will find many 19th-century and Art Deco architectural gems. While many of these buildings are in a state of neglect, the area still makes for an atmospheric stroll.
Simpang Lima, the modern centre of Semarang, is not far from Kota Lama but it feels like a different world. It has large malls, movie theatres and smart hotels facing an always-busy roundabout.
Near the roundabout, roadside food shacks do a roaring business in the evenings selling nasi goreng ruwet (which literally means 'messy fried rice' but it is actually fried rice mixed with noodles), nasi gandul (beef offal rice), charcoal-grilled chocolate and banana sandwiches, spicy grilled corn on the cob and my favourite rice dish, nasi gudeg.
Gudeg resembles meat in texture and appearance but it is made from shredded young jackfruit that is cooked with spices until it is pink and velvety. The gudeg is drizzled with thick savoury coconut cream and served with rice and other accompaniments. Those new to nasi gudeg (9,000 rupiah) usually eye it with apprehension, but after sampling it, they will scrape their plates clean.
After overindulging in the delectable local food, you may need to drink jamu for a quick health boost. These are herbal concoctions based on traditional Indonesian medicine. Several of Indonesia's largest jamu manufacturers such as Sido Muncul and Nyonya Meneer are based in Semarang. Visitors who want to learn more about jamu can join the free guided tours of the jamu factories.
Buy the concoctions from itinerant jamu women - a common sight in Semarang's residential neighbourhoods - or pop into one of the city's many jamu bars for a refreshing pick-me-up, beauty remedy or a blend to stave off a cold.
After a jolt of jamu, you should feel re-energised enough to sample more of Semarang's scrumptious surprises.
Where to stay
A grand colonial building on a hill, Hotel Candi Baru has lots of character, even if its rooms have seen better days a long time ago. Air-conditioned standard rooms start from 150,000 rupiah. Call (62) 24-831-5272.
Hotel Ciputra is a modern high-rise property conveniently located in Simpang Lima, adjacent to a big shopping mall. Air-conditioned standard rooms start from 750,000 rupiah. Call 62-24-8449888.
4 things to do
1 Do visit Toko Oen, the city's oldest restaurant, for Dutch cookies and tea. Not much has changed in this restaurant since it first opened for business in 1936.
2 Do ask your becak driver to lower the canopy for an unobstructed view of your surroundings during the pedicab ride. A 15-minute ride costs about 20,000 rupiah unless there is more than one passenger.
3 Do buy tuberoses, one of the world's most expensive perfume ingredients, but in Semarang, you can buy 10 stalks for 15,000 rupiah.
4 Do check out Semawis, the weekend night market in Pecinan.
1 Don't spit out the bones of the bandeng (milkfish). Semarang is well known for its delicious milkfish that is cooked until the bones are soft.
2 Don't forget to pay for the snacks you consume at a warung (food shack). These are placed on the tables for diners to nibble on while waiting for their order or to go with their meal.
Lake changes colour
Dieng Plateau, Indonesia
Sitting about 2,000m above sea level, the lofty highland plain in Central Java is home to sloping mountainous landscapes with pockets of steaming volcanic craters, bubbling mud pools and mineral lakes.
And do not miss the Telaga Warna (Colour Lake), says Indonesian Embassy third secretary Hanung Nugraha. The sulphurous lake is reputed to have multiple colours which change to complement its surroundings.
Another lake here, Telaga Pengilon or Mirror Lake, is its complete opposite because of its crystal-clear surface.
Architecture buffs will also love Dieng for its many examples of Central Javanese architecture and design of temples from the 8th and 9th century.
If you prefer more comfortable accommodations, Mr Nugraha, 33, recommends that you stay in the country town of Wonosobo, where you can take day tours to Dieng. But there are budget hotels in the Dieng village if you do not want to commute.
From Wonosobo to Dieng, it takes about two hours by car. A word of warning, however: The roads can be pretty winding, so barf bags are advised for those prone to motion sickness.
Where to stay
Hotel Gunung Mas is one of the better hotels in the Dieng village. Rooms with hot water start from 100,000 rupiah (S$14).
Gallery Hotel Kresna in Wonosobo has modern amenities and air-conditioned rooms with attached bathrooms. Rates start from 385,000 rupiah.
Getting there: Take a 2 1/2-hour Singapore Airlines flight to Denpasar ($560), transfer on Garuda (2.04 million rupiah) to Yogyakarta. Next, take an hour-long bus ride (12,000 rupiah) to Magelang, followed by another two buses (12,000 rupiah) to Wonosobo and Dieng (7,000 rupiah).
Pay: About $1,007 a person
Survivor shot here three times
Caramoan Peninsula, Philippines
The south-eastern islands of the Caramoan Peninsula, 318km from Manila, is so gorgeous that it has been chosen thrice as the location for the French, Israeli and Bulgarian versions of the reality television show Survivor.
Mr Roger Reyes, owner of Villa Juliana Inn at Caramoan, says: 'The natural rock formations are beautiful. Caramoan is a unique place.'
He adds that the waters are clear blue, and the sand pristine-white because it has been 'cleaned by the ocean'.
But the 65-year-old Caramoan native says tourism on the island is still in its infancy.
So if you are interested in snorkelling and diving, bring your own gear as rental of such equipment is currently not available. However, there are boats to take you to explore the islands in the peninsula.
Matukad Island is full of sharp and layered rock formations while the mysterious Tayak Island has a lagoon that sits smack in the middle of the island.
If you plan to visit Caramoan Town to view the potentially active Mount Isarog, bear in mind that shops close at 5pm.
Where to stay
Villa Juliana Inn, which offers air-conditioned rooms with mountain views (from 750 pesos or $23 a person). Television and private showers are available. La Casa Roa Hostel has homey rooms with air-conditioning (from 700 pesos) and good food.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies direct ($440) to Manila, where you take a Philippine Airlines domestic transfer (from $76.50) to Naga City. At Naga City Central Bus Terminal, take a 11/2-hour van shuttle (75 pesos) or two-hour jeepney ride (60 pesos) to Sabang port. Finally, a two-hour boat ride (100 pesos) will take you to Guijalo port at Caramoan.
Pay: About $590.50 a person
Sunken wrecks of warships and merchant vessels which date back to World War II line the seabed, making this destination popular with avid divers.
The lush mountainous and coral-fringed islands are located 586km southwest from Manila.
Puerto Princesa City is the capital of Palawan but the beautiful northern Palawan island of El Nido is more popular, says Philippines Tourism Board marketing officer Pauline Lazaro.
The 48-year-old says El Nido has caves to explore and rock cliffs to see. In the waters, travellers can go kayaking and diving to see dugongs.
Nearby islands in the Bacuit Archipelago are home to a cluster of fishermen and several restaurants offering cheap and good seafood.
Where to stay: El Nido Lagen Island has luxurious water cottages on stilts. Rates start from 14,000 pesos a person, twin share.
Dolarog Beach Resort has cottages with prices starting from 3,200 pesos a person, twin share. Rooms have great views of the Bacuit archipelago.
Getting there: Take a Singapore Airlines flight to Manila followed by a 1 1/2-hour Island Transvoyager (ITI) seaplane (7,600 pesos, one way) to El Nido Lio Airport.
Pay: About $967 a person
Park and ride
Ulu Temburong National Park, Brunei
Unlike its South-east Asian counterparts, oil-rich Brunei is not a hot spot for tourists.
But there are emerging finds in this tiny wealthy nation.
Sunshine Borneo Tours' director of business development Kamil Abdul Hamid says the Ulu Temburong National Park is a must-go.
It has a canopy walk 45m above the forest floor and the rainforest it is located in is filled with cascading waterfalls, winding tributaries and trekking routes.
Book a room at Ulu Ulu Resort for soothing cricket sounds and fresh air.
Mr Hamid, who is in his late 40s, goes to the resort two to three times a month. He says: 'I love it and want to live there.'
But he warns that the resort, the only one in the rainforest, has no Internet connection and telephone signals can be wonky.
'You can only reply and send SMSes there,' he says.
The resort organises treks to waterfalls, longboat rides along the rivers and kayaking.
Where to stay: Ulu Ulu Resort has rooms with modern amenities and a choice of rooms with air-conditioning or ceiling fans. Rates start from B$393 (S$392) for a three-day, two night stay.
Getting there: Take a two-hour-plus Singapore Airlines flight ($460) to Bandar Seri Begawan. Head to the Kianggeh main jetty and take a 45-minute speedboat ride (B$6) to Bangar, Temburong. A 30-minute road trip will take you to Batang Duri (B$15 a trip), where you will need to get on a longboat for a 40-minute-plus journey (B$119) to the resort.
Pay: About $989 a person. Also, Sunshine Borneo Tours offers packages to the resort from $681, excluding airfare. To book, go to www.uluuluresort.com or call +(67) 3-244-1791.
§ Kick back and relax at a resort in the Ulu Temburong Rainforest
§ Join dolphin tours and go jungle trekking to see roaring waterfalls in the coastal province of
§ Ride the bamboo train and sign up for a cooking class in Battambang
§ Take a tour of bubbly mud pools, mineral lakes and steaming craters atop the Dieng Plateau, an active volcano complex in Central Java
§ Head to the limestone hills and caves in Vang Vieng, where you can also go water rafting and kayaking at the rapids of Kaeng Yui waterfall
§ Instead of Redang, head for the less crowded Pulau Perhentian for activities such as windsurfing, sailing, diving and snorkelling
§ Explore the temples and historical monuments on the islands of Pulau Pangkor, which also has two international-standard golf courses
§ Enjoy fresh seafood at Chaungtha Beach and explore its offshore islands
§ Get romantic at Ngwe Saung beach, which has unspoilt white sandy beaches, blue waters and much privacy
§ Find out why the paradise of the Caramoan peninsula is often used for filming
§ Explore World War II sunken wrecks off the shore of the Palawan islands
§ Take your children on an educational tour to Isan, where there are mushroom farms and vineyards
§ Get a history lesson at Kanchanaburi, which is the site of the World War II Death Railway Bridge
§ Have a beach and seafood holiday in Nha Trang
§ Enjoy a Mekong Delta homestay in the provincial city of Can Tho