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Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Taste of Java in Yogyakarta

Nothing excites me more than exploring another country for the first time, so I made sure to include Indonesia in my month-long solo backpacking trip around Southeast Asia

My first stop was Yogyakarta (often called Jogjakarta or Jogja), a special administrative region in the island of Java. 

I arrived on a late afternoon flight from Kuala Lumpur via AirAsia, and took the Trans Jogja bus to EDU Hostel where I stayed for 2 nights. Sure, it wasn't the best accommodation, but for about $7.00 a night with breakfast, it's definitely value for money. 

The hostel also offers several day tours including, of course, tours to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Borobudur and Prambanan.

Borobudur looking 'golden' shortly after sunrise

Together with 3 Brit girls, we booked the 'Beautiful Morning at Borobudur' tour thinking it includes sunrise viewing. We only realized the following day that we got a different tour because it was already past 5:00 am when we were picked up from the hostel lobby by the tour operator. It wasn't a big deal for me anyway. 

Even though the sun had already risen by the time we arrived, we could still feel a cool breeze as we walked along the park leading to the massive temple. 



I am always in awe whenever I visit an ancient temple. It's fascinating how people in the early days managed to build such majestic structures without modern technology and equipment.


Several of the 72 bell-shaped stupas still contain a Buddha. Some even say one can make a wish if you're able to reach it inside. There's also a couple exposed Buddhas so tourists may admire the Buddha's blissful meditative state. 


Following Buddhist tradition, the girls and I explored each terrace in a clockwise direction admiring the bas-reliefs similar to Angkor Wat's along the way. 

I wish I could say there was a certain sense of calm when we reached the circular terrace, but groups of Javanese teenagers hang out in this area. Teenage boys kept approaching the Brit girls asking their names which made them feel uneasy. 

In retrospect, we should have hired a guide so we could have a deeper appreciation of the history of the temple. Well, that and to keep the boys at bay. :p


I took a couple of hours rest upon returning to the hostel. 

When I was ready to go out and about again, I grabbed a free map from the front desk and explored the vicinity on foot. 

I managed to get to Kraton – the main seat of Yogyakarta's Sultan and his family. It also serves as a museum displaying the sultanate's artifacts.


Bakso - Indonesian meatball with bihun (rice vermicelli) and fried wonton

There are several food vendors just outside Kraton so this is where I had lunch.

Looking at the map again, I thought I might as well go to Taman Sari Water Palace. It looks close to Kraton anyway. Well, it's technically part of the Kraton complex but is more than a kilometer away, and according to the locals I asked, I need to ride a becak (pronounced as be-chak)Well guess what? I ran out of Rupiahs, so I went to find an ATM. I found one not too far from Malioboro, and before I know it, I was already shopping lol. I bought some really good quality and affordable batik tops and kaftans for my mom and aunts. Had I stayed at Whiz Hotel Yogyakarta in Malioboro, I would have been broke from shopping everyday haha!  

On my way back to the hostel, I rode a becak and it was actually fun!




When I transferred to Sheraton Mustika on my last 3 days, I took advantage of their complimentary shuttle service to Prambanan which is only 10 minutes away. 

Unlike Borobudur, Prambanan is mainly a Hindu temple dedicated to the Trimurti: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. 

Out of the 240 original temples, only a number of temples remain. Most of it collapsed during an earthquake in the 16th century.



I was blown away when I first laid eyes on the main set of temples. Never mind that the sun was merciless that day. I took my sweet time in exploring each temple.

Statues of Vishnu and Brahma, respectively
Unfortunately, the main temple of Shiva was closed that day.

Aside from the Trimurti, there are also temples dedicated to their vahana (vehicles) - the bull, Nandi, for Shiva; sacred swan, Hamsa, for Brahma; and Garuda for Vishnu.

The symmetry and intricacy blows my mind
Bas-reliefs depicting Hindu epics, Ramayana and Bhagavata Purana, adorn the panels of the temple.


I've seen pictures of Prambanan lit up at night and it looks magical! If only I had more budget, I would have seen a Ramayana Ballet. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Destination: Dubai

Never did I imagine that I would go to Dubai for vacation. But because my friend and I scored ridiculously cheap roundtrip tickets - like, $30.00 cheap - last January 2015, we just had to go. :D

VISA




First things first. Filipinos need a visa to go to Dubai. Based from experience, we learned there are several ways to obtain a visa:

  • The easiest way is to have someone living and/or working in Dubai lodge your tourist visa application at a Dubai-based travel agency. We just sent scanned copies of our passports, passport-sized photo, and flight details. 
  • Some hotels can also 'sponsor' your stay and process the visa for you, but most of them require a security deposit of AED5,000 (around Php65,000!). To get the refund, you must send them a copy of your exit stamp upon your return to the Philippines.
  • Some Dubai-based travel agency can sponsor your visa if you don't have any family or friends in Dubai, but most of the time, you also have to avail of their hotel and/or tour package.
  • Lodge your visa application through a local (PH-based) travel agency. However, we found this very expensive. The visa fee can range from Php9,000.00 (e-visa) to Php12,000.00 (hard copy).
To avoid being offloaded, make sure you have the proper visa, lodging reservation/s, tour bookings etc. to prove that you really are just going there for leisure. 

IBIS DEIRA CITY CENTRE


As one would expect from flying long haul with a low cost carrier, we were confined in a very small plane with little or no legroom for 9 freaking hours. I probably suffered from gluteal amnesia, I wanted to find a chiropractor as soon as we landed.


Thankfully, the hotel we booked was less than 10 minutes away from the airport. I swear I could hear my spine thanking me as soon as I laid on the bed.



photos from Ibis Deira City Centre's Facebook page

This was our home for 7 nights and we didn't have a single problem. Location's unbeatable, too, in my opinion. It's just across Deira City Centre and Carrefour, and only a 3-minute walk to the Dubai metro. It's pretty safe even at night. One time we got back from Abu Dhabi at almost midnight and we still felt secure walking to our hotel.


The buffet breakfast's pretty modest, but decent. I think I actually miss it especially the pain au chocolat lol


OLD DUBAI/DUBAI CREEK/SOUKS



Gold Souk, Textile Souk, and Spice Souk
Abra on Dubai Creek
Arabian Tea House

On our first few days, we decided to check out Old Dubai first since it was closest to the hotel. We planned on staying at The Palm on our last 3 days so we might not have the time to drop by the souks before we leave. 

From Deira City Centre, we took the metro and got off Al Ras Station. We walked for a few minutes until we reached the Gold Souk. Probably not the best place to start your Dubai trip because you'll never run out of options, only Dirhams. :p 

Not too far from the Gold Souk are the Spice and Textile Souk. Again, there's plenty of options here for souvenir shopping.

Next, we found our way to the abra (traditional boat) station, and for only a Dirham, we crossed Dubai Creek to Bur Dubai where the Heritage Village, Dubai Museum, and Bastakiya are located.

We had lunch at Arabian Tea House then walked to Al Fahidi station to go to Dubai Mall. 

DUBAI MALL, DUBAI FOUNTAIN BURJ KHALIFA  




Hailed as the tallest building in the world (as of writing) and Dubai's landmark, we just had to see Burj Khalifa. 


One can actually check out 360 views of Dubai from At the Top, the 124th floor, for AED125 to AED200 (depending on the time of your visit). My friend got a good deal from Groupon prior to our trip so she was able to check it out. I decided to pass because I find it steep. Pun intended.  


Right next to Burj Khalifa is Dubai Mall -- one of the largest malls in the world. 


We actually went there twice. They didn't have the dancing fountain show the first time we went because the country was still mourning the death of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. On our second visit, we made the mistake of going during Eid. Walking from the Metro Link Bridge to the mall seemed like a pilgrimage.


ABU DHABI




Around 2 hours from Dubai is Abu Dhabi, UAE's capital. 


We took a bus from Al Ghubaiba Bus Station in Dubai then took a taxi to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque from the bus station in Abu Dhabi.


Now, while we know there are several attractions in Abu Dhabi like Corniche, Emirates Palace and Ferrari World among others, we felt like there's no point in going there just for photo op. 


So, yes, we went to Abu Dhabi solely for Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and it was worth it! It's one of the most beautiful structures I've ever seen. Its interiors and exteriors are equally gorgeous, and is picturesque at any time of day.


NOTE: Women need to borrow an abaya before entering the mosque. Make sure you bring a government-issued ID because they don't accept passports as identification


I just want to share a minor boo-boo that happened when we left the mosque.


We took one of the several taxis waiting outside. We told the driver to take us to the bus TO Dubai because, frankly, we had no idea how many bus stations there were, and we didn't want him to take us to the wrong bus station. He said "To Dubai?" and we said yes.


My friend and I were chatting, and we even joked "Baka dalhin tayo nito direcho sa Dubai." and we just laughed it off. But then I started seeing signs pointing to Dubai and we were about the enter the highway. Slightly panicked, we asked him "We're going to the bus station, right?" Pissed, the driver replied "You said to Dubai. I asked you, you said yes." Clearly, we had a miscommunication and we apologized for the confusion. He took the closest U-turn while lecturing us that we should be clear with our instructions because we are tourists. 


In the end, we paid more than what we were supposed to, but just imagine how much damage it would have made to our budget had he drove us directly to Dubai. Yikes!


DESERT SAFARI




For me, Dubai Desert Safari was probably the highlight of our trip because it's something I know I can only experience in the Middle East.


The safari includes dune bashing which was scary at first but so much fun!


We then had photo ops in the desert and posed with a falcon. For a minimal fee, one can also try riding a camel, sand boarding, and have a henna tattoo. Renting a quad bike, though, is a bit pricey. Couldn't remember exactly if it's AED100 per 30 minutes or an hour. 


Barbecue dinner was served while waiting for the awesome belly dance and tanoura show.


Going back was equally exciting because we had to drive through the desert again at night!


You can see a snippet of our Desert Safari experience, here.


MADINAT JUMEIRAH & BURJ AL ARAB




Another Dubai landmark is Burj Al Arab -- the self-proclaimed only 7-star hotel in the world. 


There are two ways to have a photo op with this sail-shaped hotel. 


You can see it from Madinat Jumeirah, a resort complex that recreates ancient Arabia. It even has its own waterways where you can ride an abra for AED85. Yikes! Unfortunately, there was an ongoing construction when we went. I believe this is the Fort Island expansion.


Alternatively, you can go to the public beach, Kite Beach. Again, we made the mistake of going during Eid so the beach was very crowded. Thankfully, my cousin recommended we pass by again before dropping us off in Atlantis, so we managed to sneak in a few 'tourist poses' with Burj Al Arab. hehe 


SHARJAH





After leaving Madinat Jumeirah, I originally asked my cousin if we could go to The Palace Downtown, but the traffic going there was terrible. She suggested we go to Sharjah instead. 

Sharjah is one of the seven Emirates and is about an hour away from Dubai. It is more conservative than the latter which explains why nightlife here was pretty mellow.


We went to Al Qasba which seemed like a popular place for families. It has a kilometer-long manmade canal lined with cafes and restaurants. Other attractions include the Eye of the Emirates and a kids' place which is like a small carnival.    


IBN BATTUTA MALL




One day we ran out of things to see/do so we decided to go to Ibn Battuta Mall to have coffee at the most beautiful Starbucks store lol. 


Located close to the end of the Dubai Metro's red line, the long train ride itself was a good way to sightsee. 


The mall is sort of an homage to Ibn Battuta and his adventures that's why the courts were named after the countries that have been part of his journey, namely: Tunisia, Egypt, Persia, India, China and Andalusia. 


ATLANTIS - AQUAVENTURE & THE LOST CHAMBERS


Ever since I learned about Atlantis in The Bahamas, I told myself I'll visit it someday. But then a little over a decade after it opened, they opened another one in Dubai so my dream became even more feasible. :D


A few days after we booked our tickets to Dubai, we immediately reserved a room at Atlantis via Agoda. The room already includes access to Aquaventure and The Lost Chambers.



The Chihuly Sculpture at the reception of Atlantis, The Palm

Our Deluxe Room was very spacious and beautifully decorated. And while we didn't get a room with a view of the beach, our view of Crescent Road wasn't that bad at all.

Their bed is one of the most comfortable I've ever slept in. I would even dare say it's the best.

However, my biggest pet peeve in a hotel is when you have to pay for WiFi! The 24-hour WiFi costs AED99. Ridiculous! We had major issues with their poor customer service, too. I don't want to ruin the mood of this post so if you want to read the details, you can check my TripAdvisor review here.

Atlantis as seen from its private beach
I actually miss this pool! When it gets really hot, they even give out cold towels to guests by the pool.
Aquaventure - where I almost drowned lol
The Lost Chambers

I wasn't expecting that I would enjoy going around The Lost Chambers so much. You'd really get the feeling that you're in Atlantis, as in the lost city.

RIXOS, THE PALM


We decided to spend our last night, still at The Palm, but this time, at Rixos which is the ultimate definition of chill. It's perfect for people who just want some R&R.


Don't get me wrong, Atlantis is nice but it tends to be too crowded because it caters more to families, not to mention the frenetic busload of day-trippers.


Beach or pool?

Our Sea View Room was impeccable with state of the art amenities. I particularly loved the freestanding tub where I enjoyed a warm bubble bath before retiring for the night.

Food was delicious, of generous serving, and reasonably priced. Room service was commendable, too.  

Rixos also provides complimentary scheduled water taxi to Dubai Marina and shuttle service to and from Mall of the Emirates.


Oh, just looking at these pictures again make we want to go to the beach. STAT!



***

Would I go back to Dubai? If Emirates had a glitch and the travel period is during winter, why, hell yes! LOL

Monday, April 4, 2016

Video: Dubai Vacation

While I'm still cooking up the blog post, here's a short video of what transpired during my Dubai vacation last September 2015.


UAE Trip 2015 from Kat Torres on Vimeo
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