Seoul’s Traditional Side

Recently I have found myself in Seoul at least once a year for work. Much destroyed during the first half of the 20th century, contemporary Seoul is a concrete jungle mostly indistinguishable from other East Asian metropolises and lacks appeal to anyone who isn’t a hardcore K-pop fan, gambler, shopaholic or prospective face job recipient.

Even after several visits I have yet to warm up to Seoul, but the one thing besides its eating scene I admire about the city is its frenetic energy, most visible at midnight in Dongdaemun when the entire district is abuzz with engrossed buyers trying to get some stock of the latest fast fashion. The fabled Korean work ethic is on full display here — most stalls are opened 10 am – 5 am, 365 days a year. Taking a walk here reveals a glimpse of the good and bad of modern Korea; the collective effort that drives the country into a global economic power in only a few decades’ time and the tremendously high social cost which follows.

Behind Seoul’s breakneck pace of modernization is a city that remains fiercely proud of its past and has painstakingly rebuilt some of its physical heritage that was razed during the Japanese occupation and Korean War. Today within day trip distance from the city are five World Heritage Sites, a majority of them from the Neo-Confucian Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897). Confucianism, one of the great ancient Chinese schools of thought and in Mao’s mind the leading cause of China’s decline, inexplicably finds a home in contemporary South Korea and manages to influence every trace of South Korean life. This traditional side of Seoul, a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism and folk culture, is easy to discover, even during a short visit.

Gyeongbokgung

Five palaces were built when the Joseon established Seoul as its capital in the late 14th century – Changdeokgung, Changgyeonggung, Deoksugung, Gyeongbokgung and Gyeonghuigung, all of which were recently rebuilt after suffering severe damages during the Japanese occupation. Gyeongbokgung, the main royal residence and the most important of all the palaces, also is the most popular tourist draw due to its daily changing of the guards ceremonies.

The 40-hectare complex houses some of South Korea’s most important buildings, including Geunjeongjeon (Imperial Throne Hall), Gyeonghoeru (Royal Banquet Hall), National Folk Museum of Korea and the National Palace Museum of Korea.

Changdeokgung

The only of the five royal palaces bestowed with the honour of World Heritage Site, the 45-hectare Changdeokgung was long a favorite of Joseon princes and differentiated itself by, according to UNESCO, “integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting” and adapted “to the topography and retaining indigenous tree cover.” Heavily damaged in the last century, today only 30% of its current buildings precede the 20th century.

Housing notable buildings such as Donhwamun (Main Gate) and Injeongjeon (Throne Hall), the palace’s real highlight is its Huwon (Rear Garden), a 32-hectare garden reserved for the royal family and concubines. This area in particular expresses the blending of architecture with the natural topography.

Jongmyo

After the wholesale calamity that was the Cultural Revolution which uprooted millennia of Chinese heritage, it is often said Confucianism is today best preserved in South Korea. One prime example is Jongmyo, located next to Changdeokgung and according to UNESCO is the oldest royal Confucian shrine and annual ritual ceremonies have continued since the 14th century.

I missed the annual Royal Shrine Ritual by a few days. Alas, I have a difficult time understanding how Jongmyo, even taken into account its status as one of the longest wooden shrines in the world, belongs on the WHS list. You will be hard-pressed to tell Jongmyo apart from thousands of temples and shrines all over East Asia. Beyond its Confucian heritage, also in full display at this park is one of the dark secrets of modern Korean society — elderly poverty.

Insa-dong

If you are tired of shopping in Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun, Sinsa-dong or Sinchon-dong, try dropping by Insa-dong, a district famous for its traditional craft shops, bookstores, gallery, tea houses and flea markets. Like most of central Seoul this district is quickly gentrifying but you can still find some traditional elements that have already disappeared elsewhere.

Occasionally on weekends there are performances of Nongak, a form of folk dancing that revolves around drums.

Hwaseong Fortress

Located an hour south by train in the city of Suwon, Hwaseong is a 18th century-built wall that completely surrounds the city centre. Long been obsolete, the wall is a rarity in modern Asia which prizes urban development space as a premium. Nowadays instead of the wall protecting its city, it is a sprawling mass of skyscrapers and low-rises that stretches out to the end of the horizon.

Slot five hours to reach and walk around this World Heritage Site.

Eating like a Tourist in Seoul

Korean food might not appear to be the most innovative in the world, but like the country itself, Korean food has undergone dramatic changes over the past few decades. Even kimchi is under threat from globalization and changing diet pattern as Koreans are trending towards less salty food and western cuisines, which prompted the Agriculture Ministry to try to promote a less aromatic version of its national food.

Helping me navigate Seoul’s food scene was my not-quite-reliable local colleague, who introduced me to some of the most touristy joints in town, because in his mind that’s what tourist should do. He did have a point though — these places are all close to major tourist hot spots so I didn’t have to go out of my way to find them.

I have checked out a few of those places over several business trips.

Gwangjang Market

Seoul’s most famous food market and popular breakfast spot. You can get popular snacks like bindaetteok (mung bean pancake), tteokbokki (rice cake in chili sauce), gimbap (rice roll), jokbal (pork hock) and porridge for about 20% more expensive than less-heralded street stalls.

Supposedly every local has their favorite stall but I just randomly tried one. I had pumpkin porridge and bindaetteok that tasted just about the same as the stall near my hotel — former was tasteless and latter oily.

Deliciousness: 2/10
Value: 2/10
Recommendation: N/A (small sample size)
Address: 88 Changgyeonggung-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: 9:00 – 18:00

Noryangjin Fish Market

Watch Oldboy and you would know one of the delicacy of Korean cuisine is live octopus, and Noryangjin Fish Market is the place to be if you want to get your hands on some waggling tentacles.

Besides octopus you can get all kinds of seafood here, such as clams, shrimp, blue crab, sea cucumber, halibut, salmon and snapper. After buying your seafood on the first floor you can bring them to one of the several restaurants on the upper floor.

I can only testify to what I had — a plate of salmon and flounder sashimi bought from a random vendor. The price was USD 10 for about twenty slices of both. Quality was not the highest but fair enough given the price.

Deliciousness: 6/10
Value: 9/10
Recommendation: 8/10
Address: 688 Nodeul-ro, Dongjak-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: open 24 hours

Myeongdong Kyoja

In 2012 Korea Tourism Organization conducted a survey with a sample size of 12,000 tourists, asking them where was their favorite destination in Seoul. Myeongdong, the capital’s prime shopping district, came out on top. This is Seoul’s Causeway Bay or Oxford Circus; locals might disdain it but invariably everyone comes here.

Taking the district’s name in stride is Myeongdong Kyoja. First opened its door in 1966, it now has two locations in the area and has established itself as one of the most frequented eateries in town by both locals and tourists. At most times patrons are queuing up for a bite of its meat sauce noodle and steamed dumpling. The former is standard stomach filler; the signature dumpling, originated from China’s Shandong province, is a juicy ball of minced pork and shredded cabbage wrapped with a thin wheat dough.

Many people find the kimchi here to be too spicy. I personally thought it was a little too sour.

Deliciousness: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 25-2, Myeong-dong 2-ga, Jung-guSeoul
Opening hours: Generally 10:30 – 21:30

Jeonju Jungang (main store)

Arguably the most recognizable Korean dish for foreigners, I am of the ilk who believe all bibimbap (stone pot rice) tastes pretty much the same as most of the flavor derives from doenjang (fermented soybean paste). While bibimbap originates not from Seoul but Jeonju it is not hard to find this dish in the capital. One of the more popular outlets is Jeonju Jungang in Myeongdong. As the name suggests it emphasizes on using traditional recipe and ingredients from Jeonju.

The key to eating bibimbap is eating bibimbap is to allow the rice to cook for at least a few minutes before mixing up the ingredients. This will add some texture to the dish when the bottom layer of the rice turns crispy. Jeonju Jungang’s bibimbap is certainly beautiful to look at, a colorful composite consisted of red (kimchi), green (lettuce, cucumber, spinach), brown (mushroom), black (seaweed), white (bean sprout), yellow (egg yolk) and purple (radicchio). The taste of doenjang still dominates but not overwhelmingly as its fresh ingredients manage to stand out.

Deliciousness: 7/10
Value: 7/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 19 Myeongdong 8na-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 8:30 – 22:30

Tosokchon

When I asked my Korean colleagues what is their favorite dish, most said barbecue. As for comfort food? Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) easily took the crown. The main ingredients are a whole young chicken, stuffed with glutinous rice, boiled in a broth of Korean ginseng and herbs like jujube fruits, gingko nuts, garlic, ginger and wolfberry. For Koreans, this dish is almost the antidote to all ailments, from hangover to common cold to restoration of energy during the dog day of summer.

My colleague strongly recommended Tosokchon near Gyeongbokgung. This is clearly a tourist institution — most tables were occupied by people carrying guidebooks. Tosokchon only serves one dish and it charges more than its competitors, but there is a good reason why it is so popular. The broth here was more flavorful and clear compared to the few samgyetang I tried near my office.

Deliciousness: 8/10
Value: 5/10
Recommendation: 7/10
Address: 5 Jahamun-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: Generally 10:00 – 22:00

Kyochon (Dongdaemun)

Perhaps no other nations, U.S. included, indulges in fried chicken as much as South Korea. No less than eight national chains specialize in this dish, with Kyochon being perhaps the most well-known and definitely the most expensive. I tried its Dongdaemun branch and ordered the original (honey garlic) and spicy recipes. ₩17,000 for 24 pieces of chicken.

Unlike KFC, Kyochon takes a long time to prepare because they are made-to-order using fresh chicken. I waited 30 minutes for my order. The thighs and wings were crispy but the white meat was too dry. This is not your typical fast food — while quality is much higher than a typical western fast food joint, so are the waiting time and price.

Deliciousness: 6/10
Value: 6/10
Recommendation: 6/10
Address: 294 Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Opening hours: 24 hours

Dive Report: Moalboal

November 21 – 24, 2015
Photo set on Flickr

Turtle Bay Dive Resort

Cheap and easy, Cebu is my go-to destination whenever I want a quick fix of diving. This time I was back with my dive buddy to Moalboal, 90 km west of Cebu and famous for its sardine run. After a quick search on Google and Scubaboard, we booked four nights and a total of nine dives each with Turtle Bay Dive Resort.

Our check-in took longer than expected because the reception couldn’t find our room’s key. Once finally inside we were taken aback by the strangest interior layout – a television was installed above the door touching the ceiling. Kind enough to save our necks from unnecessary stress a small note declared the television was not working. Wifi was down across the complex and the shower had barely any hot water. To cap everything off the dive shop had mixed up our booking so we could only do one dive on our second day.

Someone once told me the sign of quality service is bouncing back to satisfy a client’s need after mishap, and while Turtle Bay was not exactly running as a well-oiled machine, its staff was friendly and tried hard to fulfill our needs. We received our own portable router and recommendation on when was the best time to take shower. The dive shop, under the watch of CJ the son of Turtle Bay’s owner since only last year, was clearly still a work in progress, but the crew was flexible on where we dive and how long we could stay underwater.

The food was mediocre but some decent eateries were located on the nearby Panagsama Road. Overall we had a decent stay in Turtle Bay.

Nov 22
14:30 – Talisay Wall 

We could only fit in one dive on this day because our dive shop Turtle Bay was at full capacity with a group each from Taiwan and France, respectively. Since my buddy had only completed Open Water Diver we would be diving at no more than 18m.

Beforehand I had a chat with both groups and heard very different opinions on the quality of diving in Moalboal. The former was disappointed with the poor visibility and the lack of diving option except for wall dive. I understood the first complaint but a quick google search would reveal the Moalboal area is one giant wall, and if that’s not your thing then just go somewhere else. The French on the hand compared Moalboal’s visibility favourably to Malapascua’s and were generally satisfied with the healthy corals and bountiful reef fishes.

Sadly, for our first dive at least, the Taiwanese were right. The visibility was around 5m, the worst I had seen in the Philippines, and the only notable marine life I saw in 50 minutes was a turtle. Back on shore the Taiwanese sarcastically wished me luck for my remaining dives.

Dive time: 44 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 26°C
Visibility: 5 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Pipefish, Razorfish, Starfish, Turtle

Nov 23
8:30 – Basdaku Wall

Today was much quieter as the Taiwanese had gone home. Our first dive at Basdaku Wall was 10 minutes north from Turtle Bay close to the White Beach. It was like déjà vu to our last dive – poor visibility, average-quality coral and a lack of marine life variety. We did see another turtle. Hooray?

I was starting to worry what the Taiwanese said was true.

Dive time: 47 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 27°C
Visibility: 5 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Angel fish, Razorfish, Turtle

10:30 – Panasagma 1 

“When will we see the sardines?”

By this point Turtle Bay’s lack of foresight on upcoming dive schedule was starting to get under my nerve a little. I had been asking for days when would we see the whirlwind of sardines that put Moalboal on the diver map, and each time the reply was “we will see”. The divemasters were only able to decide our dive sites right before each dive. I could understand if the condition was treacherous; we were blessed with sunny weather and no current these few days. This was a reflection of Turtle Bay’s inexperience. On all my previous dive trips my dive operators would share their dive itineraries before I confirmed my bookings with an understanding that everything was subjected to the actual condition on dive day.

When the reply was again “we will make sure you see the sardines before you leave”, the French and I exerted some pressure on CJ to understand what’s the purpose of waiting? Turned out there was none and we were off to Panasagma 1, where the sardines have stayed since migrating from the nearby Pescador Island (Fisherman Island in Spanish) a few years ago. Panasagma 1 is located halfway between Turtle Bay and Basdalu Wall.

I was taken aback by how cloudy was the water, caused partly by the sardines but mainly by some construction sites by the shore. The visibility was no more than 3m and fared no better than Hong Kong’s notoriously muddy water. I knew my fellow divers were close-by but they were camouflaged into the water. Adding to the challenge was the presence of a smack of jellyfish; I decided to stay close to the wall at 10m depth and wait.

Never, as a novice, had I felt completely relaxed while submerged in the ocean. Even now, with nothing visually to focus, I was concentrating on my breathing and buoyancy, but my mind was slowly slipping into the void like a stoner watches paint dries for too long. Unaware of how much time had past, I was snapped back into consciousness when I saw, just barely, a black tornado forming in the far distance close to the surface. By the size of the blackness there should be tens of thousands of sardines, but with everything blurrier than the grainiest streaming video I couldn’t tell for sure. The only way to find out was to swim closer to the eye of the sandstorm.

I should be getting closer. I should, if my eyes could only confirm by seeing what’s hiding behind the particle-filled water. I could see the black cloud turning left, and suddenly, a beam of sunlight shone through the blackness. The sardines were actually almost within touching distance. I quickly snapped a few photos. Before I could contemplate the scale of what was in front of me, ten seconds later I was thrown back into a state of morass when the sun was covered up once again.

Dive time: 45 min
Max depth: 17 m
Water temp: 27°C
Visibility: 3 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Angel fish, Sardine, Grouper, Jellyfish

14:30 – Pescador Island

Pescador island, even in its current sardine-less state remains Moalboal’s most well-known dive spot, but to the locals it is not what it used to be. On our 15-minute boat ride to the island CJ tried to manage our expectation.

“Ten years ago Pescador was great. The sardines were there everyday. The reef was pristine, and sometimes we could even see thresher sharks. The quality of the reef degraded rapidly over the past few years due to fishing and hurricanes. Outsiders still flock there be there are much better spots around the area now.”

We began from the southern shore and followed the drift west. Visibility was an acceptable 15m. Immediately after I had descended to 12m I was surrounded by anthias and the most vibrant corals I had seen. This went on for the duration of my dive – I felt like swimming in a borderless aquarium.

Hearing my thought that this was the best dive I had done in the Philippines and how vastly superior Pescador was compared to Apo Island, CJ grinned sheepishly and replied, “Well that was nothing compared to ten years ago.”

It might not be. But Pescador is still a top notch dive site.

Dive time: 49 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 25°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Fusilier, Snapper, Lionfish, Sergeant fish, Frog fish, Moorish Idol, Black Bar Chromis, Scorpionfish, Turtle, Sea Fan

18:00 – House Reef

Night diving is mostly about seeing marine life that is more active after dark. This was a shore dive through the house reef to the wall on the southeast and then followed the drift west. Except for a few crabs, a moray eel and a sea salp we didn’t see anything different from our day-time dives, and it ended being another wall dive with limited visibility.

Dive time: 52 min
Max depth: 16 m
Water temp: 24°C
Visibility: N/A
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Goby, Lionfish, Crab, Sea urchin

Nov 24 
14:30 – Pescador Island

CJ suggested Tongo Point, but we were dead set on returning to Pescador for our last dive. Given we were the only divers doing an afternoon dive on this day, CJ gave his only customers what they wanted. This time we began from the south again but headed east. There was no current and the visibility was around 15m.

Pescador’s west wall was in slightly better condition; on the eastern side there was more dead coral but still provided ample of marine life sighting opportunities. On top of the usual reef fishes and turtles I saw a school of convict blenny. The dive ended on a plateau with the highest concentration of reef fishes I had seen over the two dives at Pescador.

After diving Pescador, I wondered why the Taiwanese had such a bad time in Moalboal?

Dive time: 47 min
Max depth: 18 m
Water temp: 25°C
Visibility: 15 m
Seen: Hard and soft coral, Anthias, Fusilier, Snapper, Lionfish, Sergeant fish, Frog fish, Moorish idol, Convict blenny, Black Bar Chromis, Turtle, Sea Fan

Note: Here are two sites that help me tremendously in identifying the marine life I have come across in Moalboal.

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 6am. 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.

Snorkel

You could choose to either snorkel or dive – our dive shop charged ₱6,100 and ₱7,300, including transport from Moalboal, respectively. We chose to do both (₱7,300 plus a little additional fee) and we began with snorkeling. Our boat was filled with snorkelers; there were around forty in total. 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.

Dive

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. Excluding my buddy, myself and our divemaster there were only three other divers. 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 the other divers I stayed at 7 metres 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.

Afterthought

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; adapting to an unnatural vertical stance to keep their heads constantly at the surface level; 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 pioneer of the concept of boutique resort. Adrian Zecha, a Singaporean hotelier, founded the first Aman resort in Phuket in what was initially 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?

Reception

Amankila

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.

Room

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.

Food 

A basic version of breakfast was included to our room rate, with choices like fresh juices, bread basket, pancake, beghrir, muesli and fruit salad. After trying most of the choices on the first day, we went with banana pancakes and the bread basket the rest of the way. This carb-fest got a little tiring by the third day, but it was enough to last us through the morning dives. We didn’t try the paid-separately a la carte items.

Occasionally we ordered room service. We tried the cheese burger, seafood pizza and Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice). All dishes were hot like they were just out of the stove. We liked the thin-crust pizza and the seafood matched well with the tomato paste.

On our last night we lavished on a pool-side dinner by the second tier of the main pool. The sous chef, a Balinese lady in her late-forties, came to our suite to discuss the menu with us beforehand. We settled on an appetizer of fennel salads with parmesan, grilled tuna, lobsters and scallops with asparagus as our shared main course, and mangosteen, mango and passion fruit sorbet. The seafood was grilled just right and we were dazzled by the ice bowl used to carry the dessert.

Facilities

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.

Service

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.

Overall

$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

Photo set on Flickr

September 12, 2015

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.

great-wall-map

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.