Monday, December 30, 2013

5 Days 4 Nights in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

When we were trying to come up with a list of potential places we could go as a family, Yogyakarta wasn't on my list. Our criteria was this: affordable, not experiencing winter, something with a mix of shopping and sightseeing.

I happened to meet up with someone from Holiday Tours and she suggested Yogyakarta. All I knew about Yogyakarta was Borobudur. So I embarked on a short research (this YogYes site was extremely helpful) and it became more and more interesting as a place to visit. Mum was like, "what's Bodobodoh?" (Bodoh means stupid in Malay).
Yogyakarta (or Jogjakarta) is in the middle of Java Island, Indonesia, Jakarta and Bandung on the west and Bali Island on the east. Hmm... 4 of the 5 Indonesian cities I've visited is on this map. 
Nevertheless, I pressed on and got a consensus somewhat from the entire family and proceeded to make the bookings.

So now that we're all back from Yogyakarta, I must say it was one of my most favourite Indonesian city to visit, discounting Lampung because we were well taken care of by my relatives. I believe what really makes or breaks a trip is also the guide and I'm glad that we had Mr Budi from Keisha Luxury Transport who was extremely professional, brought us to good places to eat.

Three things which stood out for me:

The Food:
In terms of touring on our own, we found the food in Yogyakarta so good, we were still having cravings after we came back. Sure it was chicken with rice most of the time but almost every meal was memorable. You've got to try the Warung Spesial Sambal, which is a chain restaurant originating from Yogyakarta. They boast of having 18 types of sambal and we tried three of them, named Bull Shit, Teroris and P3K (I don't know what that means). As you can imagine, Teroris (or was it P3K) was pretty spicy. So affordable and good that my dad wanted to eat it again before we flew off on our last day.

The sambal menu from Warung SS.

The People:
The people are friendly, relaxed and trusting and it was such a pleasant surprise to notice that the streets were very clean! No spitting, no throwing of cigarette butts all over the place. Horse carriages are equipped with a simple sheet behind the horse to collect dung instead of having it strewn all over the streets. We also witnessed a quick cleaning of horse pee using half a bucket of water mixed with some salts and chemicals.

The Heritage:
Despite the many earthquakes and volcano eruptions, the folks preserve as much as they can with the historical structures. Borobudur was rebuilt a couple of times when all the pieces fell from earthquakes, each block pieced together like a jigsaw. And even though Borobudur is a Buddhist temple and Prambanan a Hindu temple, the structures were preserved with respect despite most of them being Muslims.

So, what was our itinerary? The car rental company owner actually did the most work. I gave her the dates, what I wanted to cover (which was just Borobodur and a bit of shopping) and she filled up the blanks for me with a very good understanding of what I wanted. That's what made her stand out from the rest of the car rentals I asked for a quote.

We touched down in the late afternoon and headed straight to Manohara hotel, which is on the grounds of Borobudur. Sunset was about 6 p.m. so we reached when it was already dark. The hotel room was good but the gardens and the distant view of Borobudur was what made this hotel stand out. We took the sunrise tour which had us up at 4 a.m. and really think we made the right choice as there was only about a hundred people, almost half of them with their professional cameras and tripods perched facing east, waiting for the sun to rise. Unfortunately, the sun was partially hidden behind the clouds but it was still splendid.

We were given sarongs to wear to differentiate the sunrise tour from the rest of the crowd that came in later.
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I really like this panaroma, minus the warped human who invaded the photo on the left
What was missing from this sunrise tour was, well, a tour. We were just led to the temple and left on our own. Luckily, we watched a half hour documentary in the hotel room the night before to get a gist of what this temple was about.

After Borobudur, we rested for a while before Budi took us to Merapi Volcano.

Along the way and also thanks to the documentary, we also stopped by this small temple which had a lot of Aesop-like stories carved on the sides. It was used by pilgrims who stopped by to rest and focus after their long trek to reach Borobudur.

Merapi last exploded in 2010 so it's still an active volcano. The roads leading up the mountain was cracked and the only way to get up there was via a 4-wheel drive. Since it was already almost lunch time and the tour would have taken 2 hours, we decided to skip this and just gaze at it from the foot.

Prambanan temple was really beautiful. This time, we got a guide who entertained us with jokes and gave so much explanation that the whole place was made so interesting for us. Gods are carved with their feet together to symbolize a state of rest. Feet apart means you're always working, striving. And the shape of the pieces that fit together to form the temple, the Z, the I and the L blocks, each with a male and female (one bulges out, the other has a concave bottom to fit the bulge... aah, when I find a better explanation I'll revise this) version so that it fits over each other like Lego.
Maybe sarongs are just worn as a sign of respect for these temples.

And on the way back to Yogyakarta, we had a flat tire. We sat in a shop selling tyres to motorbikes and had a chat with the owner who was most hospitable. At one point, he got us to look after his shop while he took Budi to a nearby shop to see if they could assist us! His customers just patiently waited for him to return and a supplier who helped out another customer didn't simply pocket the cash but really handed it back to the owner when he returned.

In Yogyakarta, we visited the Sultan's Palace, a much better palace compared to the one in Medan, and with a tour guide. We also visited Tamansari, which was a Water Castle.

View of the bathing pools where the Sultan would watch his 27 wives bathe in the pool in the foreground and his kids in the pool in the background.
We were told the Sultan would throw a flower from this balcony to the wife he'd want to spend a private bath with that evening. Once the lucky lady caught the flower, the rest of the wives and children would file out of the place and the lucky wife would join the Sultan in the private pool behind. I had loads of questions, like what if the flower fell to the unintended wife because of a puff of wind? What if the wife he wanted was bathing at the far corner of the pool? What if the flower fell onto the roof beneath this balcony? Was a flower heavy enough to be hurled at such a distance? Alas, the guide couldn't answer my questions.

Anyway, after that, we headed to the street which sells leather goods but found the quality wanting. After that we visited the street which sells pottery which also wasn't much. We also went to the beach, Parangitis and I think that was the biggest waves I've ever seen.

Parangtritis beach was packed with activities from football to surfing, businesses such as horse cart rides to buggy rides.
And ended off the day at Malioboro Mall along Malioboro Street. Unfortunately, we didn't find Malioboro shopping interesting as the shops were selling repeated touristy stuff the entire stretch.

The next day, we went to the two factory outlets for shopping, de Kosmo Factory Outlet (which had more quality clothes) and Omah Mode Factory Outlet. They were quite similar to the ones in Bandung.

We also visited a biscuit factory where we bought their famous green bean cookie. And based on a recommendation from a friend on Facebook, we visited Kotagede with it's silver factory and excellent food in a beautiful Dutch building.

Sekar Kedhaton is the name of the restaurant in Kotagede. We really enjoyed our meal here.
Our food at Sekar Kedhaton
Part of the Kotagede building
And here's just some random photos:

We stayed in Phoenix Hotel in Yogyakarta, our rare splurge on such a beautiful hotel.
Gudeg (goo-dak) is made from jackfruit cooked in gula Melaka, a traditional breakfast for the Javanese.
The Yogyakarta Monument which serves as a roundabout.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

My Experience at Australia Dairy Co, Hong Kong

I was blogging about my Hong Kong trip and spent a considerable number of paragraphs talking about my experience at the Australia Dairy Co. Looks like the content warranted an entire blogpost!

The queue outside was at least 20 people long! But it moved very quickly so we waited not more than 10 minutes, I think.
Sharing tables in a cramped environment is common here

Australia Dairy Co is famous for it's scrambled eggs. And it's called Australia Dairy Co because they used to use Australian milk. But now they use Kowloon milk but don't think they'd be changing their name very soon. Everyone and anyone we spoke to highly recommended us to go try their scrambled eggs. And so we made it for their breakfast on our last morning in Hong Kong.

Just before leaving the house, KS read up on reviews on it and he became quite nervous. "The waiters are very rude!" he said. So we tried to prepare ourselves by deciding to order Set A of their breakfast menu.
The breakfast menu. I think the top one is Set A.

Since everything was written in Chinese and we don’t read or speak Mandarin, we got Nic’s wife to order for us. Even as she was going through all our orders, the waiter was already walking away. She had to call him back to complete her order. Then, because we were sitting at the next table due to lack of space, we asked them to deliver our food to Nic’s table so that we could take it from there. When the food arrived and we started transferring the bowls, we also got scolded for not telling them which orders were ours so that they could have served us the correct bowls. 

Set A comes with macaroni in soup with sliced ham, toasted bread, THE scrambled eggs and a cup of tea.

Needless to say, KS and I inhaled our food because the table was so narrow that the person we were sharing the table with couldn't put her plate properly with our dishes on the table. Upon finishing, we told Nic we’d wait outside in case they scold us for sitting there since we finished. We even tried to stack the plates and saucers so that collecting them would make it easier for the waiter but the waiter pointedly only removed the saucers from the plates to show we had stacked them incorrectly. We just couldn't win! :)

See how our plates were jutting out of the table? By this time I had already slurped down my soupy macaroni to make way for the other person to put her plate.

Very stressful! Still, it’s definitely an experience. It's hard to explain but apparently this is their culture, they are just like that and you'll be okay if you don't take it personally. Very subjective but do put on the thickest skin on your face if you ever go. And just tell them Set A. Don't attempt to order wrongly as we watched three tourists from China being chased out ("Get up! Get up!" from the waiter's gestures) for ordering something they didn't have. 

And oh, how was the scrambled eggs? It WAS different, in a good way. I'd rather say, go for the experience. :)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

4 Days 3 Nights in Hong Kong

So our surprise second trip to Hong Kong really happened. This time, we were hosted by KS’s friend Nic and his family, which helped us save so much on our accommodation! I was very touched that he actually gave up his master room for us while he slept on the couch and his wife and baby slept in the spare room. 
Our gracious hosts!

It was truly an experience to stay like a local. The apartments/condos are skyscrapers, over 60 stories high! 

Since we’ve already been to HK and visited Disneyland, Victoria’s Peak, Avenue of Stars, Stanley Market, we decided to cover even more touristy stuff. We covered the fishing villages Sai Kung and Tai O, took the cable car up to the huge Buddha, visited the famous Australian Dairy Co and Abercrombie & Fitch outlet (complete with the bare chested six packed man) and took a ride up the longest elevator from the city to Mid Levels. 

Fishing boats along the pier at Sai Kung
In Sai Kung, the fishermen bring their catch in their wooden sampans and park along the pier. Customers peer from above and place their orders. 

Each boat had somewhat different product offerings. Noticed this huge flat shell which I've never seen before
I even saw the eel which I saw floating dead in the sea at Monterosso al Mare, Italy!
Side track picture: Dead eel (I think) in Monterosso! It had such a beautiful pattern and I didn't know what it was.

Anyway, I watched one transaction which went like this:

A customer purchased about 20 fairly small fish, about the size of a Samsung Note 3 (sorry, can't think of anything else to compare it with). The lady in the boat drained the water by throwing the fish into a large basket. She waited for about 30 seconds as the fish jumped inside the basket. 
Waiting for the jumping fish.

Not wanting to waste time, she took the wooden block at her left foot and proceeded to pound the fish. After a few good whacks, she took them out and started to clean them, snipping off the fins, then cutting off the head and gutting them. The body was still floundering when she was done.
Cleaning the fish

She then packed them up into a plastic bag, hoisted it using a net to the customer. Customer then placed the cash in the net after retrieving her purchased seafood.

For food, we had hot pot and roast goose and the usual HK dessert, wan tan mee and dim sum. 
Cha chow mien at Sai Kung. You put together your own noodles, very similar to economy rice but with noodles.
The various ingredients you can add to your noodles.
After a meal of hot pot with friends
A visit to Hong Kong isn't complete without their local desserts!
Ate tau foo fah with 3 options for sugar. I added a pinch of brown sugar since we don't serve it like that in Malaysia.
From left: Ginger sugar, white sugar and brown (more like orange) granulated sugar

What was different about this trip was that we gained insight about living in HK. For example, cars are very much cheaper there than in Malaysia. However, the car park rentals (both to park at home and at your office) are astronomical. Petrol is also very steep. But since they have very good public transport, most people drive their cars on weekends when they go out with their family. 

Car park rates at HKD3000 (RM1,300!) is considered cheap

Then there’s the mad rush of registering your kid for a pre-school. Nic’s son was only 18 months at that time and he had to go for interviews to see if he was suitable to be accepted into that school. And because there are so many people clamouring to get into those schools, it would be best to register for about 15-20 schools just in case. The process of registering for these schools is also very stressful, plus there’s a complicated points system whereby if you get into this particular school from System A, that system may not have the school that you want for your kid to go for primary/secondary school, which could be in System C. 

The craziness of it all just astounds me. I don’t know if Malaysia has come to that stage yet where people queue for days to sign up their kid for school but I’m sure HK isn’t the only one. 

Everything is also fast and furious there. The escalators are much faster than in Singapore, the long queues in 7-Elevens are served within seconds, placing your order for food takes less than 3 minutes despite having about 10 people in front of you. Everyone is sure of what they want, no hesitation at the counter or table while ordering because if you do, the servers will scold you. I wrote a separate blog post on my experience at the Australia Dairy Co.

Anyway, here are more photos from my trip:

On the way to the Big Buddha
People kept throwing coins to see if their coin would and on the outstretched palms despite the "Do Not Throw Coins" signage in several languages
The Big Buddha 
A pet toilet at Tai O fishing village! So cute! And smelly!
Dried seafood at Tai O.
Dried shark's skin in Tai O
Somewhere in Tai O on the way to the pier.
Walking towards the pier in Tai O
P/S: Just a note, there are many transport alternatives other than the airport express train which costs quite a fair bit. There's the bus which will take you to various parts of HK, then there's another bus which will take you to Tung Chung train station which will pretty much connect you to everywhere else.