Diving with Whale Sharks in Oslob

November 24, 2015

Getting there

We took a day trip from Moalboal to Oslob on the south-eastern tip of Cebu Island, about 30 minutes north of Liloan. This obscure, sleepy seaside town was put on the map when the UK’s Daily Mail published an article in 2011 about fishermen riding on the back of whale sharks and feeding them by hand. This caused a sensation internationally, and a few businessmen took advantage of this publicity and employed a group of fishermen to feed the whale sharks with the intention of keeping them in Oslob for as long as possible. Almost overnight Oslob was transformed into a busy tourist attraction, and the serenity of the past was thoroughly shattered in the process, replaced by tour buses and several dive resorts.

We left Moalboal at six in the morning. Cebu Island was mainly undeveloped outside of several small urban areas – we passed by wooden shacks, free range chickens and unsupervised kids playing curbside. At 7:30 our car made a right turn and pulled into a gravel lot next to the shore. Some people congregated on a small pier waiting to get on the boats. Whenever one was filled to its capacity of around ten passengers, it sailed out to the shallow sea where fishermen were feeding the whale sharks.


You could choose to either snorkel or dive – our dive shop charged ₱6,100 for the former and ₱7,300 for the latter, including transport from Moalboal. We chose to do both (around ₱9,000) and we went snorkeled first. There were around ten snorkelers to every diver. Once in the murky water filled with bits of brine shrimps, I immediately felt besieged from all directions; up top were boats and paddles, and my fellow snorkelers to my left and right. When I finally settled down a giant black object swan straight towards me. I quickly ducked to my right and an 8m long whale shark and its 1.5m mouth just missed me by a few centimetres. Just as I was making sense of what just happened, the whale shark made a U-turn and charged towards me again. Another two were looming in the background. In this frenzy everyone was attempting to avoid each other and the boats while concentrating on the whereabouts of the whale sharks without colliding with them.


A short break later we began our dive a few metres from the shore. The sandbar was around 10m deep and we headed northeast for five minutes until we reached the boats. Even though we were back at the same spot the experience was entirely different – similar to finding a seat in the back of a cinema after watching half a movie on the very first row and at last being able to see the whole screen. A short while ago we were active participants to the chaos on the surface but now we had taken a back seat and observing the action from afar.

Three whale sharks were in a vertical position with their heads above the water. Much to my surprise a 10m long one was disinterested in food and was continuously circling at a depth of 5m. Along with five other divers I stayed at 7m for the next half hour shooting photos and videos of this gentle giant. With higher visibility, better maneuverability and much less people, unequivocally the diving experience was superior to snorkeling.


Seeing whale shark up close is an amazing experience, but clearly this entire enterprise is not sustainable. This practice of feeding impacts the whale sharks in a myriad of ways; physical injuries from bumping into tourists and boats; an incomplete diet that now consists of solely brine shrimps; an alteration of migration path and a decline in survival ability in the wild. 

It is possible to see these gentle giants in the wild without the assistance of feeding, but that’s always a crapshoot. Most people I met in Oslob were fully aware of the negative impact of our collective presence, yet all of us couldn’t wait to get into the water to see the whale sharks up close. The result was one of the most exhilarating and guilt-ridden experiences I ever had while traveling.

Why the Fuss? My First Dip into the World of Aman at Amankila

September 13 – 16, 2015

In the world of travel, one brand is often alluded as a notch above the field and managed to attract a legion of dedicated fans. I am referring to Aman, “peace” in Sanskrit and often credited as the pioneerer of the concept of boutique resort. Adrian Zecha, a Singaporean hotelier, founded the first Aman resort in Phuket in what was initally an attempt to build a vacation home back in the late 1980s. Since then Aman has increased its presence to 20 countries, with a rapid phase of expansion since 2014 after the selling of the resorts to a group headed by the Russian businessman Vladislav Doronin.

Aman has two main philosophies. Architectural wise all Aman resorts follow a minimalist style that accentuates on sourcing indigenous building materials and techniques. In terms of service Aman wants to create an environment of a private residence without standard hospitality practices such as front desk, lobby or bellboys.

Since I was diving in and around Padang Bai, I focused on the resorts in this area, and I ended up splitting five nights between Alila Manggis and Amankila (m. Peaceful Hill). I was excited about the latter – for $3,750 over three nights of pool villa, the Aman Break package I booked was the most I have ever paid for accommodation. I have heard about Aman for a long time, but is it really worth the hype? Specifically, does the 23-year-old Amankila justify the price tag?



Amankila’s cliff-side location offers two distinct advantages. The long winding road leading up to the resort creates some distance from the busy main route while offers a towering vantage point over the surrounding countryside. The ascend generates a sense of anticipation and abruptly, we were there, Amankila’s iconic three-tiered infinity pool in the distance, a sharp turn after we passed through the security checkpoint. Amankila is a sprawling complex. A thatched roof hut constitutes the reception area – think of this as the ground floor. All the suites are located on the cliff above and public areas such as the dining halls and swimming pool below.

Besides the terrific view, Amankila’s rule of inducing a lasting first impression is to have the general manager greets guests upon arrival. While the GM Sandra Watermann was away on this day, I was impressed by a less symbolic but more practical gesture – my check-in was done in my suite without spending a second at the front desk. By the time my credit card was authorized I was already chilling on a daybed next to my private pool.


34 stand-alone suites dot across the upper half of Amankila, with ours, no. 33, being one of the closest to the reception area. Proximity to the lobby doesn’t mean a compromise to privacy as the suite is located at the end of the path and surrounded by trees on three sides and a stone wall to the east. The pool is on the right, taken up 1/4 of the ground, and the rest is a sun lounging area and a thatched roof house.

If you were expecting a glittering interior filled with amazing gadgets, Amankila would surely disappoint. The suite, with an emphasis on space and natural lighting, follows the resort’s unassuming style. Windows facing the northeast and southwest ensure sunlight shines into the room at all time during the day. Three materials stand out – the bamboo on the roof, marble on the walls and floor, and the wooden furniture. The result is a comfortable but slightly incongruous fusion between Western and Balinese styles.

The suite is equally divided into a bedroom and a bathroom. The former has what you would expect – a king-sized bed – and not much else besides a desk. Only gadget available is an iPod plug to a dock with 10,000 classics or dated pop songs.

Perhaps to emphasize Amankila’s superior service and commitment to the privacy of its guests, the washroom, spacious and bright and generally unremarkable, has one curious quirk. Like every other area of the suite, the shower area has a large window that almost touches the floor, but this one doesn’t come with any blind. The management might have total confidence on ensuring no staff or other guests will behave inappropriately, but I would like the option of not leaving this to strangers by closing the blinds myself.

I love the private pool. The suite? No complaint there, but it doesn’t quite match the $1,250 a night price tag.


Covered extensively here.


Probably Amankila’s weakest aspect. There is a library with a laptop which nobody ever uses, a beach club that requires a 10-minute walk down some steep stairs which nobody ever uses, and a gym with a treadmill and several dumbbells that nobody ever uses. You get the gist – there is a lack of investment on public facilities at Amankila, driven in part by the management’s belief that most guests will be content to relax in their own rooms and take advantage of the service of the excellent room-servicing staff. That’s probably a smart bet – you can hardly seen any guest anywhere.

What the resort does heavily invest in is its iconic triple-tiered pool, which to beat a dead horse is, you guess it, never in use over the four days we were there. This is partially what the exorbitant rate pays for – swimming in an empty infinity pool with multiple staff waiting to wrap a towel around you the moment you get out. It was a cool experience, like the introduction scene to the token hot chick in a Bond movie, but substitute the bikini-clad model with an Asian guy like myself and a little awkwardness starts to creep in.


When Amanjunkies wave about their stays, they almost always focus singularly on Aman’s exceptional unparalleled service. The consensus is Aman provides a level of service that is unlike anywhere else. This goes beyond simply having an attentive and hospitable staff, which is to be expected, but a wholly different approach on client servicing.

Amankila’s service was as good as advertised, and it made Alila Manggis – a respectable resort in its own right – seemed like a self-servicing hostel in comparison. Exaggeration? Consider what Amankila can consistently deliver:

  1. The above-mentioned check-in procedure.
  2. All the staff knew who we were, our suite no. and our planned activity for the day.
  3. We could simply walk away from the table after meals without signing any payment slip.
  4. Staff was constantly communicating on walkie-talkie. When we left our suite the housekeeping crew was immediately notified. Our suite and pool were tidied up regularly but never once did anyone show up without prompting when we were still inside.
  5. Food delivered to our suite was hot like it was straight out of the stove.

None of this seems like a big deal, but add together it shows a commitment on Aman’s part to create an atmosphere where guests can genuinely unwind with everything being taken care of. The key thing is not perfection – we did encounter a few minor hiccups, rather it is a sense that the staff will try their best to accommodate our needs.  

What’s Amankila’s secret in achieving this? Sandra Waterman, GM of the resort, shared with me two main factors. First, Amankila has a crew of around 200, and the typical staff to guest ratio is 4:1 with the occupancy rate hovers around 30% outside of peak season. Located faraway from the main tourist hubs of Kuta and Semiyak in the remote village of Manggis on the island’s east coast, Amankila also draws a mostly quiet cliente of middle-aged European and the occasional Chinese and Japanese. Secondly most of the staff is born and raised in the surrounding area, which brews a strong sense of collective ownership towards the resort and the jobs it provides.


$1,250 a night is outrageously expensive. Let’s put it this way – that’s more than 3 times Alila Manggis’ rate. Yet after staying at Amankila I felt it was Alila that was overpriced. What Alila offered was passable for what you would expect for that price, but Amankila attained a peerless level of service and relegates the resort’s comfortable but less than stupendous infrastructure as a sidenote.

That’s probably the highest compliment I can give – Amankila is justifiable to charge such high rate, and even though I think of my stay as a once-off experience I will have no hestitation to go back again if I have the cash.

Dive Report: East Bali

September 12, 2015
Photo set on Flickr

Manta Point, Nusa Penida

For my first trip to Bali, I spurned the ever-popular Ubud and South Bali for the relatively seclusive east coast. I only wanted to accomplish two things on this trip – to relax for a few days with my wife and take in several dives. The area around Padang Bai seemed the most convenient for both, and after some searches on Scubaboard.com I contacted Geko Dive, which offered me a 3-day package with a private dive master named Kanox. He was in his early 30s and was born and bred in Padang Bai.

After a layoff of almost a year, my first dip back into the ocean was at the rather challenging Manta Point off the south coast of Nusa Penida, a stomach-turning one-hour ride on fast boat from Padang Bai. Since Geko only had Nusa Penida scheduled for this day during my stay in Bali, I had no choice but to go along and wish for the best.

Already famous for its strong current, the condition was particularly strenuous on this day, and I responded by puking uncontrollably soon after I descended to 20 ft. What remained of my diminished cognitive power I channeled all of it on focusing on Kanox’s pink fins because my life literally depended on it. As the spot of pink gradually submerged by the encompassing turquoise, all I could hear was the incessant huffing sound of my own breathing. Even pushing as hard as I could I hardly made any advance against the cold current.

That’s where professional help stepped in – Kanox saw I was lagging behind, turned back and dragged me forward like a bag of grocery. For the rest of the dive I clung to him like a koala to an eucalyptus. We saw a few mantas at a cleaning station from afar and nothing else notable.

Dive time: 33 min
Max depth: 23 m
Water temp: 22°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Manta

Buyuk, Nusa Penida

Arguably Nusa Penida’s most famous dive spot and a prime location for mola-mola sighting, Crystal Point is no joke – witness the several high profile accidents over the past few years. Facing today’s unforgiving current, we bailed out to the calmer Buyuk on the island’s northeast coast.

Kanox glued to me, the disoriented laggard, from the start this time. The condition was again quite challenging. Sadly there wasn’t much marine life to divert my attention from the cold – over the duration of the half-hour dive I kept an eye out for mola-mola but we once again came up empty. Starting to feel better, I started to play around my new toy – Sony RX100 III with underwater housing. With no clue at all, I regressed back how I was a decade ago when I first got my hands on a DSLR and indiscriminately shot at everything in sight.

Dive time: 34 min
Max depth: 27 m
Water temp: 20°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Razorfish, Pennant coralfish

September 13

Gili Tepekong

Our quest for mola-mola continued amid another day of uncompromising condition at Gili Tepekong, a 15-minute boat ride from Padang Bai. Several divers reported mola sighting the past few days near a cave close to the island’s northwest coast, but the current was too strong today. After drifting on our boat for almost an hour close to the shore, we cut bait and sailed to the 30 m wall to the north where the condition was more favorable.

We sank to 32 m and immediately was attracted by a large pink hard coral. As I tried to swim closer for a macro shot, Kanox frenetically knocked on his gas tank and waved ahead to catch my attention. I looked up toward where he was pointing, and after squinting my eyes hard enough I could see a dark object approaching. Could it be mola-mola?

Swimming forward as fast as I could, the dark object became increasingly discernible; round, almost bullet-like in shape with fins stretched out vertically like the wings of a jumbo jet, I knew we had hit the jackpot. Ten seconds of unadulterated joy later, the mid-sized sunfish turned around and swam off, leaving the few snapshots on my memory card the only proof of our fleeting encounter.

Lady Luck only smiled upon us that one time – we didn’t bump into another mola the rest of this dive or the next. A few patches of coral and a reef shark aside, Buyuk was not teeming with marine life, but with the trophy that’s the photos of mola in my pocket I would call this one of the more satisfying dives on my logbook.

Dive time: 25 min
Max depth: 32 m
Water temp: 20°C
Visibility: 20 m
Seen: Mola-mola, Reef shark, Hard and soft coral

September 15

USAT Liberty, Tulamben

“Everyone comes to Bali for mola-mola, but Tulamben is what people always remember back home.”

Kanox dispersed this nugget of wisdom on our way to Tulamben. With so many diving options near Padang Bai, why should anyone take the 90 min drive north to this tiny fishing village? It all traces back to the year 1942 during World War II, when the U.S. Navy cargo ship USAT Liberty was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine near the Lombok Strait. The damaged ship was then towed to the beach of Tulamben, and 21 years later it slipped to a sand slope from the shore when Mount Agung erupted. Soft coral soon covered the wreck, and now this almost century-old relic has evolved into a unique micro ecosystem bursting with marine life.

Being Bali’s most popular dive spot, Tulamben attracts up to 300 divers during the high season. On this supposedly quiet day there were still a few dozen divers in the water at all times. It is easy to understand Tulamben’s popularity; compares to Nusa Penida the shore dive here is easy, warm and full of various species of fish and soft coral. Almost every inch of the wreck was covered by coral, and some part of the ship like the wheel and a gun were still recognizable. I saw more fish here than all of my previous dives at Nusa Penida and Tepekong combined. And it was not only fish – I also saw a turtle, a colony of Spotted garden eel, a red sea slug called Spanish dancer and a sea fan.

After two dives in Tulamben, I have to agree with Kanox. Mola-mola was the elusive photo-op that justified my trip to Bali, but turned out it was the novice-friendly Tulamben that I really enjoyed.

Here is also a special thanks to Kanox, without him I surely wouldn’t have enjoyed my dives as much as I did. The cost was around USD 320 for 6 dives – not exactly a bargain – but I recommend Geko wholeheartedly.

Dive time: 39 min
Max depth: 29 m
Water temp: 26°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Wreck, Hard and soft coral, Yellowbanded sweetlips, Napoleon wrasse, Midnight snapper, Clownfish, Pink anemonefish, Spanish dancer, Surgeonfish, Sand perch, Bluestrip snapper, Giant clam, Spotted garden eel, Barracuda, Turtle, Sea fan

Great Wall Day Trip? Try Mutianyu

May 17, 2013

You might think visiting the Great Wall is a straightforward task – just hop on a bus to the section closest to Beijing – which, by the way, is called Badaling, an overly-restored section where you will meet tens of thousands of tourists on package tours. Don’t make this mistake – take a look at the below map and you will find there are more than a dozen sections of the wall open to tourists near Beijing.


The most scenic stretch is from Simatai to Jiankou, and you can easily spend a few days hiking along this often unrestored section of the wall. Those who has only a day to spare should focus on the easily-accessible Mutianyu (慕田峪). This 2.5km portion of the wall has two major advantages; it is well-restored yet still retains a wild, crumbled side on its northwestern section, and it doesn’t receive an overflow of tourists as most package tour groups still prefer Badaling.

The admission fee is ¥45. After passing the ticketing office you have two options to reach the wall either climb 30 minutes of steep stairs or ride a cable car directly to Tower no. 14. Round trip ticket on the cable car is ¥100. The price is the same if you intend to descend on a toboggan slide but you have to decide when you purchase the ticket.

If you visit on a clear day (a rarity in Beijing), you are supposed to see the walls stretching from west to east for as far as your eyes can see. Great Wall’s impressiveness lies upon its scale, and regrettably Beijing’s omnipresent heavy smog takes away its greatest aesthetic asset.

There are 23 watchtowers in Mutianyu, and you will be aiming for the largest-numbered one. The foundation of the wall was first laid in the mid-6th century during the Northern Qi dynasty and was rebuilt completely one millennium later, but you will be hard pressed to tell the wall’s age at Tower no. 14, which has been heavily restored in recent years. The wall is constructed mostly with granite and measures 7 – 8m tall and 4 – 5m wide.

A leisurely stroll of around 45 minutes will lead you to Tower no. 18, where the wall suddenly turns desolate. Vegetation has reclaimed large swath of the wall, and each step forward requires your full attention as the walkway is full of chuckholes. Here the once mighty walls have crumbled after decades of neglect.

Mutianyu is the perfect introduction to the Great Wall, which spans across more than 8,000km from Gansu to Liaoning in northern China. If you like the unrestored portion of the wall, you can bring a pair of sturdy boots and challenge Jiankou or Simatai on a future trip. You prefer a fully restored version? Then you have already seen the best in Mutianyu.

Beijing’s World Heritage Sites

May 17 – 20, 2013
Photo set on Flickr

Enough Beijing bashing. Let’s change the subject and talk about some of China’s most revered cultural treasures. Within Beijing’s city proper are seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, with more potentially on the way. The Great Wall is truly world-class, but I came away slightly disappointed on the four sites in the city’s central district. Collectively they stand as the pinnacle of ancient Chinese engineering and architecture, but in today’s Beijing they are lesser than the sum of its parts.

The main issue has less to do with each of these individual sites and everything to do with their host city. The reason why Beijing has such an eye-popping number of WHS is driven by a political will for legitimization and also from a position of weakness – what remains of the city’s heritage is segregated as World Heritage Sites that have nothing in common with the surrounding cityscape.

Beijing might be the capital of China over the past 800 years, but the city, as the political heart of the Middle Kingdom, has a run of poor luck along with the rest of the country over the past two millennia. First was a prolong period of political instability in the late Qing and early republic years followed by the war years in the 1930s – 40s. Just when things at last appeared to look up under communist rule, Mao launched his personal crusade against his political enemies, the Cultural Revolution, which brought an incalculable amount of destruction to Chinese heritage.

But even when the political scene calms down after Mao’s death and China supercharges into an economic superpower over the past three decades, demolition both tangible and intangible continues in Beijing. Expanding seemingly daily to make room for the incessant flow of migrants from the countryside looking for a better life, Beijing has grown from a population of around 9mil in 1980 to more than 21mil in 2013. Traditional neighbourhoods are cleared to make space for high-rises and roads. Gradually Beijing’s WHS become enclaves within their own city, though perhaps that’s always their destiny – they were designed and built for emperors, after all.

Forbidden Palace 故宫

The administrative centre and imperial residence for 24 Ming and Qing emperors over almost five centuries, the name Forbidden City is not a hyperbole – it literally is a city in the middle of Beijing, consisting 980 buildings over an area of 183 acres. At its peak during the late Ming era tens of thousands lived here. Fire is a constant threat and most of the current buildings are from early Qing when the complex was burned to the ground by Li Zicheng at the dask of the Ming dynasty.

As China’s second most notable cultural attraction behind the Great Wall, the Forbidden City has the potential to be one of the world’s transcendent museum, but regrettably it fails to reach such lofty height. Crowd is not the main issue; its gigantic size can easily absorb the average daily number of visitors of 38,000. Duck a few blocks from the main path and you will hardly see another person. The reason why it is so easy to get away from the crowd is because most of the buildings look identical and are not opened to public.

The Forbidden City indeed houses many amazing artefacts, but most of the very best were shipped to Taiwan by the Kuomingtang at the end of the civil war and are now under the management of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Moreover, the wooden buildings have dark interiors and limited display space, which make a poor venue for showcasing artefacts.

Also affecting the experience is the dissonance between how the authority tries to present the palace and its imperial lineage. Starting with Mao’s portrait on the southern gate Tiananmen, the official tone of describing the palace is overtly political – communism has freed China from its imperial heritage and now everyone, no matter your social standing, can come appreciate what the Chinese civilization is able to achieve. There are stories and gossips of which popular emperor or concubine did what at where, but the human element of the millions of lives who once called this place home was mostly brushed aside to avoid the appearance of glorifying the imperialistic past.

The Forbidden City is still a must-see. If short of time I would have no problem missing any of the following sites, but anyone who visits Beijing should save an afternoon for this. My tip is to stay until it closes – the compound is so vast that the staff takes a long time to clear the ground. If you time it properly you can get some photos without any people in the foreground.

Temple of Heaven 天壇

Constructed in 1420 during the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle, the Temple of Heaven, located to the south of the Forbidden City, was where the monarchs of the Ming and Qing dynasties held annual offerings to deities for rain and good harvest. The compound was occupied by the Eight Nation Alliance in 1900 and much of the ceremonial artefacts were plundered. Eighteen years later, after the founding of the republic, the complex was turned into a public park.

The highlight of the complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿), a 38m tall wooden building without using any nails or purlins. The structure is supported by 12 giant pillars which represent each of the earthly branches, the ancient Chinese unit of time. The round temple is supported by a square-shaped marble platform, symbolizing the traditional Chinese belief that the universe is “round in the sky and square on earth”. The building was burned down in 1889 after being struck by lightning and was reconstructed a few years later.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is arguably Beijing’s most recognizable icon, meaning it is impossible to find a sliver of space up close among the crowd to study the architecture. This is one of those sites that you leave immediately after taking the mandatory tourist photo feeling both mission accomplished and a waste of time simultaneously.

Summer Palace 頤和園

In the mid 18th century at the peak of the Qing Dynasty’s power, the emperor Qianlong commissioned a new palace complex around Jar Hill in the northeast part of the capital to celebrate his mother’s 60th birthday. The emperor, known for his deep affection of the scenery of southern China, particularly Hangzhou’s West Lake, ordered the expansion of the existing Western Lake to replicate its famous counterpart in the south. The soil dug up from the expansion works of the new lake was piled on Jar Hill, which was renamed the Longevity Hill.

This extravagant project coincided with the beginning of the Qing dynasty’s gradual yet steep decline. By the mid 19th century some sections of the palace were dismantled to save some of the sky-high maintainance costs. When the French and English armies burned down the nearby Yuanmingyuan Palace and ramsacked the Summer Palace at the end of the Second Opium War, it smashed all pretense that China was still a world-leading power. The sense of misery only worsen when the palace was sacked again 40 years later at the hands of the Eight Nation Alliance.

These humiliating episodes are all solidly in the past, and the Summer Palace has predictably turned into a tourist hot spot. The palace, originally designed for the pleasure of only the royal family, is now required to accommodate thousands of visitors a day, the majority of which converge in and around Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill.

Most of Summer Palace’s points of interest are not particularly interesting; the palace is in essence a collection of replicas of Qianlong’s personal favourite attractions across southern China. Most people are content to walk the length of the Long Corridor, a 728m covered walkway decorated with more than 14,000 paintings, then take a photo of the Longevity Hill and call it a day. But when throngs of tourists descend upon its gate on a day of dense smog, which is basically the majority of the time in Beijing, and the visibility is reduced to a few metres, I am sure even the palace’s biggest admirer Qianlong would want no part of it.

Shichahai 什刹海, The Grand Canal

The Sui-era Grand Canal, constructed 1,400 years ago, is one of ancient China’s most important engineering feat that links the landlocked capital to the fertile south. The section of the 1,776km canal between Hangzhou and Wuxi is one of the country’s more popular tourist attraction, and the northern section is functional rather than scenic.

Officially, the three lakes that comprise Shichahai is part of the Grand Canal WHS because it used to be the northernmost part of the canal. This has not been the case for hundreds of years as the water level of the Tonghui River is too shallow to support navigation. Nowadays the closest that ships can reach the capital is Tongzhou, 20km southeast from central Beijing.

Shichahai is a popular nightlife destination and is in close proximity to popular destinations like the Drum Tower and Yonghe Temple. The lake itself is very ordinary-looking and most people are unaware this is even a WHS. Counting this as a visit to the Grand Canal feels a little like a cheat.

Central Axis of Beijing (Tentative) 


You always hear complaints that World Heritage Site is a highly politicized campaign for states to market their attractions under the disguise of conservation. The perfect example to feed such cynicism is China’s decision to nominate the Central Axis of Beijing, an area that already includes two inscribed sites in the Forbidden Palace and the Temple of Heaven. If the Central Axis is worthy of a place on the list, why not nominate the entire area together with the two existing WHS at the very beginning?

The proposed area covers from the Drum and Bell Towers all the way south to the Yongdingmen. This 7.8km stretch is the traditional heart of the capital, spanning across palaces, temples, fortification and markets. Major attractions include the above mentioned towers, Beihai Park, Tiananmen Square and several city gates. I visited three of them:

  • Drum Tower (鼓樓): The 47m wooden tower, along with the adjacent Bell Tower, was used as time announcement up till the late Qing dynasty. Now it offers a nice view of central Beijing.
  • Tiananmen Square (天安門廣場): One of the world’s largest city square, it is home to various Communist monuments and government buildings. More than two decades after the Tiananmen Protests, the square remains one of the most policially sensitive area in China – it is heavily patrolled by soldiers and all visitors have to go through checkpoints.
  • Yongdingmen (永定門): Part of the outer section of Beijing’s city wall, the gate was knocked down to give way to the construction of new roads. It was rebuilt in 2005 and the gate tower now houses a souvenir shop.

Every visitor to Beijing will come across at least one of these sites, but none deserves to be a WHS on its own. And it is hard to think of them as a coherent unit; the destruction to the area and the presence of the communist style Tiananmen are irreversible and permanent. If this nomination ends up successful despite the presence of two existing sites within the same area, it will only make a mockery of UNESCO and the whole exercise that is the WHS.

Beijing – the Smog Capital

A typical day in Beijing
There is no reason why Beijing is not on the shortlist of the world’s most beloved destinations, yet the singular thing everyone focuses on when the plane lands is the city’s omnipresent, impenetrable smog.

The smog was thick as always during my few days in town. Conversations over drinks with expats, after touching on work and the Communist Party and other random topics, would always go back to the most basic of human needs, namely air and water. The tone was a collective sigh of exasperation – a desire to get away from a place where wearing pollution masks was a necessity.

Which is a shame, since Beijing, with a history that traces back to the Peking Man 230,000 years ago, one-of-a-kind wonders like the Great Wall and Forbidden Palace, a whopping seven World Heritage Sites in its city proper, has some of the greatest collections of human cultural achievement anywhere on Earth.

All this millennia-worth of history, amazingly, is viewed as a mere sideshow in contemporary Beijing, as the city’s importance lays upon its status as the capital of the world’s second largest economy. With a population of more than 20 millions and a rapidly emerging middle class, engineering masterpieces like the Bird’s Nest Stadium and National Grand Theater are symbols of the city’s ambitious drive towards prosperity and modernization.

This resolute path to development driven by investment has a tremendously negative impact on the environment, which Beijing’s notorious smog serves as a daily reminder. Just how perilous is the city’s air? Of the 2,028 days between April 2008 and March 2014, 80% recorded an above-100 rating on the daily air-quality index, which deems the air to be unhealthy for sensitive groups by U.S. standards. Often the pollution reaches hazardous level and dominates international headlines.

Why is the air so deadly? 

Source: Economist
Source: Economist
Beijing’s air is filled with tiny particulate matter known as PM 2.5, particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in length that can greatly increase the risks of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. According to the World Health Organization air pollution even has a direct causation to cancer.

These are not just hypotheses – life expectancy of Beijing’s citizens are 5.5 years lower due to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. Breathing Beijing’s air has the same effect as smoking 40 cigarettes a day (which might be an exaggeration), and an estimate of 4,000 people die per day across China because of air pollution.

Three main factors contribute to the pollution: power generation, heavy industry and cars. China burned around 4,250 million tons of coal in 2014, which amounted to almost 50% of the entire planet’s consumption. Worse yet much of this coal was of the highly polluting variety, with a high content of ash and sulphur. The government has tried to curb the use of low-grade coal but the biggest user of coal, power generation, is exempted. Since most of China’s coal production is concentrated in the provinces next to Beijing, the capital’s air inevitably suffers. Add to the toxic mix more than two million automobiles on the road it becomes apparent why Beijing has some of the world’s worst air (and traffic jams).

“When can I go outside?”

One of the most depressing thoughts in life has to be the realization that every breath you take increases you odds of developing life-threatening diseases. This has prompted the Chinese journalist Chai Jing to produce an online video called Under the Dome (video with subtitles). When her daughter was born, she was diagnosed with a tumour, which Chai believed was caused by her own constant exposure to Beijing’s air.

When the infant was discharged from the hospital, Chai covered all the gaps between windows and frames in her home with duck tape. Her infant never stepped out of the apartment except for immunization. Chai felt helpless to the question she knew would come eventually, “Mom, why do you trap me indoor all the time? Why can’t I go outside?”

Compares to what Beijing’s inhabitants submit to everyday, short-term exposure to the city’s air pollution is probably inconsequential to a visitor’s health. But until air pollution ceases to weigh on everyone’s mind, Beijing will always punch below its weight as a tourist destination.

From Cebu to Apo Island

No photo in this column as I didn’t bring a camera on this trip. The above photo was taken in Moalboal in November 2015.

November 2014

1) Cebu City, just like the rest of the Philippines, has seen better days. This main hub of the Visayas was once a leading beach destination in Asia, although that status has long been overtaken by Bali, Koh Samui and Phuket. But Cebu still has a trump card in its pocket – from Hong Kong it is only a 2.5 hour flight, and 4.5 hours from both Seoul and Tokyo. This relative proximity to many of East Asia’s metropolises means Cebu will always remain a destination for tourists looking for a cheap and easy beach holiday, and it has done especially well catering to South Koreans.

Korean investment is everywhere, from restaurants to massage parlours to resorts. Often these establishments only serve Korean tour groups, which allow their clients to have a sun and beach holiday without the challenges of speaking a foreign language or eating unfamiliar cuisines.

2) The diving in Cebu, concentrated on Mactan Island, is decent but unexceptional. But as one of the few popular dive spots with good direct flight connections, as well as being one of the cheapest places to get the PADI certification, many East Asia-based divers would have dived in Cebu one time or another. The main dive sites are an artificial house reef off the Shangri-La and a nearby coral-covered wall that descends to 37m.

3) From Cebu to Dumaguete it is either a once-per-day, 40 minute flight with Cebu Pacific, or a whole day journey by bus and ferry. My buddy and I chose the latter, which involved a five hour bus ride from the South Terminal to Liloan, followed by taking a half-hour ferry ride to Sibulan in Negro Oriental, and hitching onto a tricycle to finally reach Atlantis Dive Resort, located in Dauin just south of Dumaguete. The journey began at 11 am when we got off our plane in Cebu and ended 10 hours later.

If that sounds too complicated, just take the plane like most people would.

4) Whichever way of transport you choose, your reward would be Apo Island, one of the top dive sites in the Philippines, renowned for its steep walls covered with hard coral and clear water. We made two dives, one each at the Cogon and the Sanctuary, and regrettably coral bleaching had affected a large percentage of the reef. We saw a school of angelfish, along with clownfish, lionfish and a few moray eel. Visibility was only around 10 m, around half of what’s expected in the dry season.

Dauin also has a number of sites centered around muck diving along the coast. I am not a fan of constantly searching for small aquatic lives in the mud, though macro fans would probably love this place, as potential subjects include sea slugs, shrimps, eels and pipefish. Visibility was less than 10 m.

5) During our stay at the Atlantis, only five other guests (3 Americans, 2 Canadians) were at the resort even as the calendar had flipped to November and the weather was becoming more stable. That’s great for us – often we were the only boat around and we could have entire sites all to ourselves. And while we didn’t get to see the best side of Apo Island, I had my most pleasurable diving experience yet thanked to Atlantis’ impeccable service. Granted I am still a novice diver with only 30 dives under my belt, but my eight dives with Atlantis had turned around my perspective of what’s expected of a diving operator.

Our trip began on a bad note. Cathay Pacific had misplaced our luggage, causing a delay of two days before it was delivered to our resort. Atlantis lent us all the gears except for BCD and regulator, which we didn’t own anyway, free of charge. The overall charge was $100 for five dives a day, including one night dive. The ratio of DM to divers was 1:3. A two-single-bed room cost $90 per night before tax.

Our divemasters Paul and Miguel have lived in the area all their lives and are extremely knowledgeable about the sites. At all my previous dive trips I carried my gear at all times, but here the crew was responsible for transporting everyone’s gears on and off the dive boat. My only duty was to enjoy the dives and everything else was taken care of. Comparing the cost and quality of service, it is really hard to justify diving in the developed world – I can’t see myself diving at a place like Australia again.