Dec 17, 2014

Fly, Play & Dive: 3 Amazing Attractions for 1 Special Price!

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Here we are again. We are nearing the end of 2014 but yet, it only seemed like yesterday that I bought the boys' new school textbooks and spent tedious hours wrapping them in plastic. And now, the festive season is upon us and I have to do the wrapping all over again???

Luckily though, Christmas season remains one of my favourite times of the year. Simply because along with it comes a bumper crop of holiday activities in Singapore to keep the kids duly entertained. And for a whole day of complete fun, one does not need to look further than the State of Fun - Sentosa.

Among the attractions on Sentosa, the monkies' popular choice has got to be Universal Studios Singapore and S.E.A. Aquarium. Me? I've always wanted to avoid the parking charges and jams enroute to Resorts World Sentosa so with the lure of some DC Superheroes this holiday season, I just might fly right into Sentosa.

Well, technically I won't be doing the flying. The Cable Car will.

You see, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman have joined forces to confront The Joker, who has been up to mischief in Singapore. And Faber Peak Singapore has been earmarked as the mission-base of the Justice League.

In celebration of Singapore Cable Car's 40th year anniversary, the Cable Car cabins have also been given an entire superhero makeover. 45 cable car cabins have been decked out in ‘DC Comics Super Hero’ graphic wraps on both the cabins’ exterior and interior and ticket-holders have the power to pick from Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and Batman-themed cabins.

But the experience is not merely cosmetic. Once visitors step inside the cabins, Asia’s First DC Super Heroes Cable Car Experience will allow them to 'fly' with the superheroes through in-cabin Augmented Reality technology, by downloading an app prior to boarding.

Various QR codes can be found within the cabins, and all they have to do is the scan the codes onto their smartphones. Then sit back, and watch the DC characters come to life on the smartphone and battle The Joker high up in the skies!

Scan the QR codes that appear on the seats of the cable car and you will be able to snap a selfie with them too!

But no, the fun does not end when the Cable Car reaches Sentosa. In fact, the joyride into Sentosa will only mark the beginning of an action-packed day!

For the first time ever, Resorts World Sentosa and Singapore Cable Car have banded together and offered a kick-ass triple bundle that will be too good to resist. The SCC-USS-SEAA TRIPLE ATTRACTION FESTIVE PACKAGE allows one to enjoy THREE amazing attractions - Cable Car, Universal Studios Singapore and S.E.A. Aquarium - for one awesome price!

Frankly, there is no better time to head down to Universal Studios Singapore or S.E.A. Aquarium than now - especially when the entire Resorts World Sentosa is decked out in a festive atmosphere. For starters, Universal Studios Singapore has already transformed into Santa’s Land for a Christmas celebration twinkling with snowflakes.

Happening for the entire month of December with extended park operating hours till 9pm, ‘Christmas at Santa’s Land’ in Universal Studios Singapore will showcase Singapore’s biggest snowfall as Hollywood Boulevard, New York Street and Sci-Fi City will experience magical snow every hour every day. Santa’s Toy Soldiers will also be performing at the New York Public Library, together with Meet & Greet opportunities with the jolly man himself, Santa Claus! The popular Christmas Sesame Street show – Sesame Street Saves Christmas – also returns with a bigger stage for more magical moments at Pantages Hollywood Theater.

What about fireworks, you ask? The Christmas Fireworks Spectacular will light up the night over Lake Hollywood on selected Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There will also be a nightly light show and video mapping at the New York Public Library too.

The fishes at the S.E.A. Aquarium are not to be outdone though, as the entire aquarium transforms into a magical marine kingdom for this festive season.

Jingle your way to the fishmas wonderland with daily Santa appearances, learning about schooling fish in The Great Christmas Trail for kids, hearing aquarists share fun insights on schooling fish as well as catching a glimpse of Scuba Santa and Elf underwater. It is truly going a be a very Merry Fishmas @ S.E.A. Aquarium!

And when the day is done, hop on back to the DC Superhero Cable Car to head back to the main island - for a stupendous end to an amazing fun-filled day!

The Triple Attraction Festive Package includes:
1. One Day unlimited Singapore Cable Car rides
2. One Universal Studios Singapore One-Day Pass
3. One S.E.A Aquarium One-Day Pass. 

Adult pays $108 (Usual Price: $151) so that is more than 25% in savings while a child (3-12 years old) saves 20% by paying only $88 (Usual Price: $110)!

You have to hurry though, as the promotion is valid until 31 January 2015. Buy your tickets at or at Singapore Cable Car ticketing counters.

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Dec 16, 2014

Kids-Friendly Phuket #4: Elephant Trekking with Siam Safari

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When travelling with my monkies, I always try to look out for ways to give back to the local community - in whatever small ways that we can. Because not only does it provides educational opportunities for the kids, we are able to help certain communities in a non-commercial manner.

And during our holiday in Phuket, we found one such group - Siam Safari. At first glance, Siam Safari seems to be the usual tour operator hawking elephant trekking as its main selling point. 

But after some research and being on one its tours, I know now that not only is it committed to conducting its elephant trekking ethically, it channels its funds towards elephant conservation and provides jobs to the local tribe there.

In fact, Siam Safari is the only Elephant camp which has been certified by the Royal Thai Government in Phuket and Southern Thailand, which guarantees that that its elephants are well taken care of, in good health and the camp run under sustainable environmental management. It has also been recently recognized as the best elephant camp in Thailand by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports by receiving the 'Excellent Elephant Camp' standard with the highest score of all the elephant camps evaluated in Thailand.

So with that peace of mind, we embarked on our half-day 4-in-1 Safari (with Lunch) Tour. We were picked up bright and early from our hotel and transported to the Elephant camp on top of a mountain at Chalong Highlands. The great thing about the tour was elephant trekking was not the sole highlight - it gave us the chance to learn more about Thai culture and rural life in the villages. And first up, the importance of coconuts to the Thai people.

The monkies saw for the first time, how a coconut was de-husked and then cracked opened with a spear. The coconut 'meat' was then grated out of the coconut and squeezed to make coconut milk.

They even got to take a few sips of coconut water from a freshly de-husked coconut and while Ale didn't quite enjoy it, both Ash and Ayd would have finished the entire portion had I not stopped them in time.

Moving on, we learnt how the coconut milk was then processed. After boiling it for few hours, coconut oil forms. The oil is then siphoned away while the brownish coconut residue is dried and used in Thai desserts.

Considering that the main food staple of the Thai people is rice, it was apt that our next station featured on how rice was processed.

We were escorted to a hut where a huge contraption that looked like a see saw with a leg-driven mortar and pestle. This was the machine that was used to separate the husk from the rice in the olden days and as Ayd will tell you, it was hard work!

Just imagine a person pumping the pestle for a good 30 minutes, before using a pan to separate the husked rice from the naked rice.

And after witnessing how tough it was to de-husk rice, the monkies declared they would never let a grain of rice go to waste from now on. It's amazing what a live presentation can do.

We were herded into a sheltered area next, where a coffee break awaited.

I know Thai coffee and tea is always sweeter than what we are generally used to but for some reason, I love it. Especially if it comes accompanied with some coconut pancakes as well.

And while we were sipping our drinks and chomping on pancakes, we were treated to the sight of a water buffalo ploughing rice back in the good old days.

It was like a trip to days gone by, and it definitely captivated the monkies as it was their first time seeing something as primitive as this.

Okay, so they were actually captivated by the fact that they were able to ride on a wooden cart pulled by a buffalo. Yes, me included.

A Thai curry cooking demonstration was next and while there was not much cooking done due to time constraints, we were shown the actual ingredients that go into Thai curry paste.

And what was a cooking demonstration without sampling? The boys bravely walloped a small portion of curry (with rice) while the wifey and I had second helpings. Okay okay, so I had three helpings.

As we trekked deeper into the forest, I noticed a huge area was planted with rubber trees, which was the premise of our next stop. We were given a demonstration in how rubber tree tapping is done. Did you know the best time to harvest the rubber sap is from 2am onwards? And the rubber tappers have to do it quickly before the sun rises because it will be too hot by then and the sap dries up. Definitely tough work so the next time you complain about your work, spare a thought for these rubber tappers.

The interesting bit for the kids was when they got to see first-hand how the rubber sap flowed out when the tree bark was cut. Plus the process that it undergoes in order to be made into the material we know as rubber.

We then moved on the baby elephants where we were given a glimpse on how they are trained. The baby elephants are not suitable to participate in the trekking for obvious reasons so in the meantime, they start their learning journey by obeying commands. Commands like picking up objects with their trunks, kicking a ball, painting pictures and even playing the harmonica!

And the paintings that the baby elephants churn out show after show are also available for purchase from the shop. A percentage from every painting will go directly to elephant conservation work. So the young elephants are actually doing their bit for other elephants too!

Of course, a photo opportunity with the 2 adorable baby elephants wouldn't hurt too.

And for 100 baht, the monkies got to feed them a basket of fruits.

Then, it was time for the main highlight of the tour.

Before our elephant trekking commenced proper, we were given a short briefing on how to mount and dismount from an elephant, and the rules to observe while riding on one.

And then we were off!

The mahouts, name given to the men who ride elephants, are all from the Karan tribe and they all live in the Safari area itself, working at the rubber plantation and looking after the elephants every single day. The Karen are regarded as the best handlers of elephants due to their relaxed temperament and their culture includes hundreds of years of experience working with and training elephants. In fact, the mahouts and their respective elephants are paired from a young age and it will often stay that way until the elephant or mahout retires.

The elephant trekking lasted for about 30 minutes as we trekked through the back paths of the grounds. Considering how huge and heavy the elephant was, coupled with the misconception that elephants are clumsy creatures, I was surprised by how graceful its gait was and the ride was not quite like a roller-coaster one that the wifey had originally feared.

The high point of the trek was when we arrived at a spot for an unobstructed view of Chalong Bay.

And all too soon, our elephant trek came to an end... much to the disappointment of the monkies. But we definitely learnt a lot about the elephants from our mahouts during the duration of the trek.

And of course, parting is such sweet sorrow.

At least the monkies got to feed their elephants another basket of fruits before bidding them farewell.

Then it was time to trek some more - this time by foot - to fill our own tummies.

Our tour ended with a delicious Thai buffet lunch, which would not win any food awards but decent nonetheless.

At least the view from the restaurant was superb.

The monkies then squealed in delight as they got the chance to hop onto a tractor as it brought us back to the tour bus carpark.

I guess it is safe to say the monkies thoroughly enjoyed the three hour safari tour at Siam Safari, with the highlight obviously being the elephant trek. But I believe for the boys especially, they have taken away much more than the element of fun. Coming from a modern city like Singapore, it was their first time witnessing demonstrations of coconut processing, rice farming and rubber tapping up close and I think it formed a rather deep impression on them.

As for Siam Safari, I love how it is making a conscious effort in making a difference to help elephant conservation in Thailand. They ensure that all of its elephants are regularly checked and monitored by elephant veterinarians, and also help the local community sustain by offering job opportunities at the camp.

If you are worried about the ethical aspect when it comes to visiting attractions that deal with animals, Siam Safari seems like a great way to find some balance between supporting tourism, the ethical treatment of animals and learning about a different culture.

Useful Information

Siam Safari's 4-in-1 Safari (with Lunch) Tour
Adult: THB2,300 | Child (4-11): THB1,500 | FREE for 3 years and below

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Dec 15, 2014

Kids-Friendly Phuket #3: John Gray Sea Canoe's Hong by Starlight

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With resorts like Holiday Inn Resort Mai Khao Beach and Holiday Inn Resort Phuket, we found no excuse to venture out during our Phuket vacation. In fact, this trip probably marked the first time during our vacations that sightseeing featured low on our to-do list, thanks to the numerous fun activities that kept the monkies duly entertained in the Holiday Inn Resorts.

But after 4 days of holing up within resorts, it was time to step out and explore the beautiful sights that Phuket has to offer. And nothing is more beautiful - and spectacular - than this.

If you are looking for that one unique experience to enjoy with the family, exploring the lost worlds of Phang Nga will be it. Phang Nga is not just known for its pristine white beaches but also for its unique topography. The area is littered with a display of uniquely-formed limestone islands, and some hide a breathtaking secret - 'hong'.

Hong, or 'rooms', are collapsed cave systems open to the sky and surrounded by towering limestone walls and are considered as one of Phang Nga’s most appealing and captivating attractions.

And the moment I learnt about them, I knew I had to bring the monkies along to see it for ourselves. And to see it in its spectacular glory, we went along with the best in the sea cave exploring business - John Gray Sea Canoe's Hong by Starlight tour.

Why John Gray Sea Canoe? For starters, the founder of the company, John Gray is considered to be the godfather of sea kayaking in Thailand and he was the first to discover lagoons, caves and tunnels in Phang Nga which were then unknown even to locals. Many other operators have since sprouted up and conduct kayak tours of Phang Nga, but nothing beats going with the original operator that started it all.

And the experience clearly shows. While other operators typically start their tours early in the morning, John Gray Sea Canoe's Hong by Starlight begins at noon which means the Phang Nga area will be free of the crowds by then.

Our 10-hour tour - yes, it stretches all the way to nightfall which is another wonderful experience in itself but more on that later - began with a pick-up from our hotel and we found ourselves at Ao Po pier ready to board the boat.

Once onboard, a light lunch consisting noodles, spring rolls, salad and fruit were served on the centre table.

When everyone had filled their tummies, the real fun began in earnest. Our main guide went through the various do's and don'ts while in the hongs - keep really quiet, do not remove anything, respect nature, take loads of photos and just have fun. But instead of just preaching, he used a series of illustrations to drive home the messages which I thought was a pretty nice touch as it made the little ones onboard listen as well.

And as if everything was perfectly timed, we arrived at our first island.

There was time for us to get into the sea and do some kayaking of our own, and it was an offer I could not refuse.

The sea that we kayaked in was partially shielded by the island so no worries about the sea being too choppy or rough. In fact, the scenery around us was so breathtaking that I kayaked all the way to the beach!

Yes, that was our boat in the background in the above photo. And since the water was so inviting as well, Ayd could not resist taking a prolonged dip!

He even requested to take over the rowing work... which I acceded to with glee.

After all the fun, it then time to visit the highlight of the tour - kayaking into a hong!

As I mentioned earlier, a hong is surrounded by towering limestone walls. Think a doughnut in water. In order to get to the centre of the doughnut we have to weave ourselves through sea caves. But the doors to the sea caves are not always open to visitors.

The caves are completely filled with sea water during high tides so they are only accessible during low tides. But too low a tide and there will be less sea water, exposing sharp rocks which will then be dangerous for the inflatable sea kayaks. Or imagine getting into the hong but being unable to get out in time because water level rises after that? So that is why it is important to go with an experienced operator, where the expertise of the guides are paramount.

At John Gray Sea Canoe, each pair of customers has their own guide to paddle their sit-on-top custom-designed kayaks which were hand-made in Oregon by SOTAR, the World’s premier white water raft manufacturer. I was told that John Gray Sea Canoe's kayaks have never capsized, been punctured or had an accident. Which really was reassuring to know... since we were about to enter our first sea cave!

And to enter the cave, we had to literally lie flat on our kayak as the space between the rock ceiling and water can get a little cosy.

See what I mean?

The experience is almost claustrophobic but yet, hauntingly beautiful at the same time. Along the way, we witnessed rock formations, some of which glittered and stalactites enough to make Ayd let out a soft 'Wow'.

The spectacle lasted for about a minute, and we were out of the cave.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can take away the brilliance of emerging from a cave to see a hidden lagoon so rich with flora and fauna that the only sounds we heard were the echoes of the birds and monkeys within the secret sanctuary.

Frankly, I was in awe of the visual masterpiece when I first set my sight on it and all I have to say is you really have to be here.

As the hong is cut off from the sea, the water is totally calm with mangroves dotting the entire lagoon... and with the occasional mudskipper stopping to say hello too.

In fact, the water was so calm and shallow in some parts that the monkies could not resist getting off the kayaks and enjoying a dip in the water!

For our trip, we also had the unexpected pleasure of the founder himself, John Gray coming along! He is the Santa Claus lookalike, in case you are wondering.

I had a chat with him on the boat and was left impressed by what an active environmentalist he is. He is fiercely protective of the Phang Nga area and sees it as his responsibility to educate guides to be more green-conscious and encourage them to collect floating rubbish even when conducting tours.

There was no letting up on the action as we exited our first hong - we immediately zoomed in on our second hong of the day.

Again, the guides had to maneuver our kayaks around the rocks within the caves in order to reach another slice of paradise.

A beautiful hong filled lush mangroves and even though this was the second hong, the sight was still completely unexpected in the most delightful way.

Everything was just so peaceful and serene, that there was nothing left to do but to just sit back and soak in the calmness all around.

We were then back on the boat for a quick tea break, with banana muffins, coffee and tea on the menu. The thing about the tour is we were all fed really well. From lunch to tea, to dinner as you will see later, there was no lack of food and the dishes were really yummy too!

The clock neared 4pm as we chomped on our muffins, while we sailed away to our next hong.

And just like that, we arrived... with our kayak taxis waiting for us.

Ok, so the sea caves at the third hong were the most squeezy of the lot. There were times when I had to constantly shift my body around so as to pass through the narrow passageways or when a particular rock came disturbingly close to the tip of my nose. But hey, if a body size like mine can make it through the caves unscathed, anyone can too.

But trust me, the end result will be well worth the trouble.

Absolute calmness; that is the beauty of kayaking in the hongs if you ask me.

We even caught a glimpse of a piranha-shaped cliff. Can you make out the face?

With the sun setting, it then time to head back to the boat.

But if the monkies thought that was the end of the fun, they were utterly wrong. We ended the day with what can only be described as the perfect conclusion to the perfect day.

The other highlight of the Hong by Starlight tour was the creation of our very own Krathong - a floating decoration which are set adrift on water as a sign of new beginnings and for good luck.

Our personal guide took us through the process of making our krathongs from scratch, explaining each element as it is pinned to the banana stalk base.

The banana leaves are for decoration, marigolds for prosperity, one incense stick each for Buddha, monks, and the Buddhist scriptures, and candles for health and happiness. And with that, we were done!

The skies then started to open up with light rainfall, which I thought was going to be bummer since we would be launching our krathongs in the sea come nightfall. But as with almost everything else, it came with an unexpected surprise.

A double rainbow!!! My first time seeing one, and out at the open sea at that. To the monkies, it was almost surreal having the chance to see two rainbows at such a close distance. So needless to say, plenty of photo opportunities ensued.

And while we were waiting for the sun to set, there was still the small matter of filling our bellies (again!) with a sumptuous spread of Thai dinner!

Then it was time.

Fortunately, the rain slowed to a light drizzle and our guides paddled us into one of the dark caverns of a nearby island.  We lit the candles of our Krathongs, and released them to bob about in a starlit cave.

Frankly, there is nothing quite like being in a cave lit up by so many krathongs, and making one's wish under brilliant stars carpeting the sky. And the monkies clearly enjoyed every minute of it.

Another unique experience that the monkies loved was the sight of the bioluminescent plankton which can only viewed when it is dark at night. These tiny organisms glow similarly to fireflies and tend to emit light when agitated, such as when the water crashes onto the shore, or a paddle hits the water. The monkies had a field time splashing the sea water with their hands and seeing the water shimmer with dots of light in the process. A truly magical experience, and certainly not one that can be learned from the school textbooks.

And in case you are wondering, the krathongs we released were rounded up and collected before we returned to the boat... which marked the end of a fascinating day as we headed back to the pier.

Simply put, the Hong by Starlight tour by John Gray Sea Canoe was unlike anything that we have ever experienced and even til today, both Ash and Ayd cannot stop talking about it.

Granted that the prices for the tour are not exactly cheap but every baht will be worth it. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and the kayaking sessions did not make us feel we were just simply shepherded along but instead, made to feel a part of the environment we were in. Having the tour start in the afternoon as opposed to morning sessions by other operators is also for the exact same reason - to get away from the crowd and connect with the nature.

The John Gray Sea Canoe's Hong by Starlight tour provides the perfect opportunity to view Phang Nga by day and night. And if you do one tour in Phuket, make sure it is this one.

Useful Information

John Gray Sea Canoe - Hong by Starlight
Adult: THB3,950 | Child (7 -12) THB 1,975 | FREE for children aged 6 & under

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