Friday, September 27, 2013

Meriton Serviced Apartments Campbell Street

If given a choice, I prefer staying in smaller scale accommodations or boutique hotels as they tend to offer a cosier atmosphere. Nevertheless, serviced apartments seems to be the wiser choice if you wish to save money while travelling in Sydney. At least, this is what I have gathered from the travel forums. I chanced upon Meriton Serviced Apartments Campbell Street after seeing an attractive promotion on my dates of stay so I snapped up the offer immediately.

Completed in 2011, Meriton Serviced Apartments Campbell Street  is part of Meriton, the renowned property developer which also operates 12 other Serviced Appartments across Australia. Situated within Haymarket precinct, this property is just a 10 minute's walk away from Central or Town Hall Station.
Love the revolving door
Sleek looking staff behind the sleek looking front counter
We arrived shortly ahead of the stipulated check-in time. Check in process was fuss free and the front desk staff looked professional in their sleek black suits. We were told to wait as our room was not ready yet. Fortunately, they have a cosy waiting area and we did not have to wait too long. 15 minutes later, the staff came over to inform us that our room is ready and give us some brief instruction  on using the security controlled lifts. Upon collecting the keys, we were thrilled to see that they have given us a room on the 31st floor.

We got ourselves the smallest (note: cheapest) room available - a immaculate Studio Apartment which pack a plush King-size bed, functional kitchen area, laundry area and ensuite bathroom with standing shower. At 39sqm, it is much actually more spacious than a typical hotel room. The well designed layout and full-height windows helped to create visual illusion of a bigger space too.
Cosy King bed
The LCD TV is cleverly mounted on a swivel wall bracket and enables us to watch TV from bed and the dinning table. What truly amazes me is the compact kitchen which is fully equipped with a full sized fridge, mircowave oven, glass ceramic hob, cooking hood and dishwasher. Do not worry about kitchen tools such as knives, grater, whisk and cooking utensils as they have taken care of that as well.
Bear checking various kitchen features
Of course, my favourite feature got to be the laundry area, stocked with detergent, and will be replenished daily room touch up service. Besides the point that we have saved money from using laundry services, we saved time too. I loved the fact that I could simply dump the wet laundry into the dryer at night and the load will be ready to wear the following day. Bear joked that the poor machines has been working day and night, literally.
My all time favourite features-washer and dryer
The clean bathroom look almost brand new and well stocked with toiletries and a powerful hair dryer. The shower has great water pressure and heats up almost instantly, unlike our previous accommodation.
Clean bathroom with excellent water pressure
 Luxurious toiletries provided
And yes, they have a heated indoor pool, a gym and sauna facilities. I did not use these facilities but I did have a glimpse of the pool and it sure look decent. They do not have a business centre but if you need to print your air ticket like us, just approach the front desk staff and they are always happy to help. So will I stay here again? Definitely! I am also keen try other Meriton Serviced Appartments after this wonderful experience.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Day Hike - the Grand Canyon Walking Track

A trip to Blue Mountains wouldn't be completed without bushwalking which the Australian way of saying hiking. Afterall, Blue Mountains is most famous for its National Parks. The Blue Mountains National Park in particular, is a popular National Park within the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. This park alone boasts more than 140km of walking tracks catered to bushwalkers with levels of physical fitness. You can refer to the official Blue Mountain website for more information. You may also find the tracking notes from this non-official website informative.  After the failed trekking trip in Laos in 2012, Bear realised that he isn't cut for long treks. In addition, I had just recovered from a back injury. So, we decided to be conservative and picked a half day hike at Grand Canyon Walking Track.

Grand Canyon Walking Track

You can't go wrong with this classic walk which was built in 1907. In fact, the Grand Canyon Walking Tracks is the only track in Blue Mountains Canyon with a walking trail. This 5.4km loop circuit of medium difficulty level is reccomended for those of reasonable fitness. You can begin the walk either from Neates Glen or Evans Lookout Carpark. We took the Neates Glen carpark option but was bewildered over the fact that we were the only ones walking in this direction.
Entrance to Grand Canyon Walking Track via  Neates Glen 

Getting There

Driving is undoubtedly the best way to get to the park. If you do not drive like us, you can take public bus no 698 at Carrington Hotel bus stop and alight at Cnr Evans Lookout Road & Links Ave Bus Stop. From there, it takes around 20 minutes walk (1.2km) to Neates Glen starting point. You can find the bus timetable here. Our original plan was to make full use of our MyMulti pass and take the public bus. Unfortunately, we overslept and miss the morning bus so we ended up taking a cab instead. The meter cab cost us A$30 from Katoomba train station. Ouch!

Our Experience

We began our walk descending down the canyon passing through the shrub vegetation. As we descended deeper, we were surrounded by lusher vegetation and our track turned into a series of slippery zig zag steps. We were grateful to the metal railing although it was cold to touch. After walking about an hour, we came upon a metal gate pass, a landmark indicating that we are near the canyon base. The gatepass serves as a safety barrier to park visitors as the flooding may occur sometimes at creek running through the canyon. Hence, please do check with the National Park website for news on park closure before visiting.
Beginning of the track
Track turns more challenging as we descend further
Metal gate closes during occurrence of flood
Warning signs along the way to remind hikers to take note of personal safety at all times
The terrains following the metal gate were much easier to navigate. As we moved towards our next landmark, the Greaves Creek, we were struck by the magnificent sight of surrounding  canyon walls. It was closed to noon and we could hear our stomach growling. Although it was cool and breezy, we decided not to risk getting sunburnt. So, we found ourselves a shady picnic spot where we enjoyed our packed sandwich.
Easier terrains following the Gatepass
Bear posing in front of magnificent canyon walls near the Canyon base
Treacherous steps down to Greaves Creek
Crossing Greaves Creek
After lunch, we followed the well defined footpath around the canyons and were surrounded by gorgeous scenery of towering canyon. En route, we saw some beautiful wild flora which were new to us. We also spotted a fair number of cuckatoo birds of different colours and a large black bird landed a few steps away from me. Much to my disappointment, it flew off before I had a chance to snap a shot. We also caught glimpse of hardworking park rangers doing tracks restoration works. We later learned that more than 30,000 people walk this track each year and the condition of tracks deteriorate over the years despite various repair. The restoration works helped to ensure that park visitors can continue to enjoy this special track.
Well defined footpath wrapped around the canyon
Signature feature of Grand Canyon Walking Track - The waterfall
Here's another view
Beautiful wild flora in the Canyon
Our leisure walk came to an end as we arrived at the unwelcoming entrance of a dark tunnel. All of sudden, the creepy image of snakes and lizards filled my head. Since it was the only way through, we braced ourselves through the 10 metre tunnel. Turned out that the walk through the tunnel was not as bad as we thought. Unfortunately, the horror came after the tunnel - a steep ascent up the canyon. Remember, whatever goes down will rise again.
The real horror
The ascent was particularly strenuous for Bear and he stopped several times to rest. I coped pretty well with the steps thanks to my regular exercise regime. However, I did struggle with the strong chilly wind and wished I had brought along a thicker jacket. About 45 minutes later, we were greeted with spectacular views of the Grose and Govetts Creek Valleys. Yes, we made it to the Evans Lookout. After a good rest, we gathered our remaining strength and complete the final stretch of walk to the bus stop, which is another 1.6km away. Thankfully, there were no more steps to climb.
Spectacular views of distant cliffs near the Evans Lookout
Our final reward - breathtaking view of Evans Lookout

Suggestion on Packing List

Compared to our previous trek in Laos, this one is a breeze. Of course I don't mean that this is a walk in the park. Let's just say I feel that the trekking pole is overkill. So, here is my list of essential items to bring along:
  1. Poncho (in case it rains)
  2. Parka or Fleece Jacket as the place is chilly in the morning and late afternoon 
  3. Packed lunch (remember not to leave any litters behind)
  4. Sunblock
  5. Gloves as the metal railing are really cold to touch
  6. Plenty of water

From Sydney to Blue Mountains via Rail

The Greater Blue Mountains region was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Area since 2000. This natural highland beauty is easily accessible from Sydney either via a 90 minute drive or 2 hoursish train ride. There are also several coach companies that offer day tour to the region. We opted for the train ride as it is the most relaxing way to travel.
City Rail Train at Central Station Platform
Step 1: Sydney Airport Station to Central Station via Sydney Airport Train

If you are travelling to Blue Mountains from Sydney Airport directly like us, you will need to first get to Central Railway Station in order to catch the Blue Mountains Train. The best way to travel to Central station is via the Sydney Airport Train which takes only 12 minutes. (Note: Not reccomended for those with a lot of luggage) The train departs every 30 minutes and you can more information here.

From the International Airport Terminal, turn right upon exiting the arrival halls into public area. The station entrance is one level down past Mcdonalds. For the Domestic Airport Terminal, the Station entrance is near Virgin Airlines Baggage Carousel 2 at Terminal 2. There is another entrance near Qantas Airlines Baggage Carousel 1 at Terminal 3.
At Sydney International Airport station 
Interior of the Sydney Airport Train
Step 2: Figure out which Train Tickets to get

I am pretty sure that I am not the only who finds the ticketing system confusing at first glance. To spare you the trouble of figuring out how it works, here's a simple tree chart to help you decide which ticket(s) to get.
Depending on the duration of your stay in Sydney, you may then decide if a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or even yearly pass works best for you. You may also use this fare calculator here to work out the trip fare. Do bear in mind that in additional to train tickets, you will need also to get an Airport Gatepass to exit or enter the airport via the Airport Train. A single trip gatepass cost A$12.30 and you can purchase it at the ticket booth at the station.

Step 3: Central Station to Blue Mountains (Katoomba Station)

From Central Station, follow the signs to board the Blue Mountains train (Light Blue Line). The Blue Mountains Line go as far as Lithgow and train generally run every hour. Therefore, it is a good idea to plan your journey ahead with the train timetable. You may also refer to the electronic service information display screens for the train departure time. Finally, you can seek help from the friendly station staff.
Electronic real-time service information display screens
Central Railway Station Platform
Interior of the Triple-Deck Blue Mountains Train

Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa

Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa, originally called 'The California', was built in 1920s. The lodge has changed hands several times over the years and the current owners carried out extensive restoration works to regain its former glory. The rejuvenated historic lodge sits on top of a slope, overlooking the magnificent Jamison Valley landscapes. Sounds lovely? Perhaps not for me initially as the 10 minutes walk (Note: via a steep slope) from Katoomba train station was undoubtedly strenuous for someone carrying a 12kg bag while struggling with the side effects of jet lag. Nevertheless, the welcoming sight of the picturesque exterior facade lifted my spirits immediately.
Side Entrance to the Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa
The interior of the hotel proved to be equally charming. The rich heritage was reflected in its federal style furnishing and fireplace. After a swift check in process, the friendly staff directed us to our room but did not offer any help with our bags.
Federal Style front desk counter
Lovely day bed among many other interesting furnishing within the hotel
Painted Glass and semicircular arch reflected a bygone ear
If you enjoy going to the museum, you will love the extensive displays of Blue Mountains picture collection during its mining days. There are also plenty of cosy armchairs to chill out by the fireplace and have a drink but the bar closes rather early. In fact, the hotel reception counter closes pretty early too. The main entrance will also be locked at around 8pm (if my memory does not fail me). So, you will need to use the back entrance if you are back late.
Great place to chill out in the evening
Our Standard Heritage room is pretty spacious and is decorated in classic style, consistent with the rest of the hotel's decor. Standard features such as heater, box TV, safe, hairdryer, ironing board, as well stock mini bar were present. Do note that a bottle of mineral water in the mini bar cost 5AUD. However, you can get cheaper mineral water easily from the town center or boil your own water with the electric kettle provided as tap water in the area are safe for drinking. There was no view to speak of as I picked the cheapest room available. I just couldn't convince myself to pay 40AUD more a night for rooms with better views since I will be out most of the day. Besides, the hotel's best views of Jamison Valley are in the main lobby anyway.
Comfortable bed with soft pillows 
I think the best feature of my room goes to the gorgeous gold tap in the bathroom. My only gripe with the hotel was the shower heater. The water pressure was rather weak and it was frustratingly slow to heat up. So, I had to let the water run for a good 5 minutes before showering each time. For someone not accustomed to chilly weather, an efficient heater with good water pressure is my top priority.
Check out the Gold Tap
Overall, I am still pretty satisfied with my stay in this hotel. I booked this accommodation via as they have better rates than my trusty Agoda. For A120 a night, I was slightly disappointed that breakfast was not included. Nevertheless, you will be spoilt for choice just 10 minutes away in the town centre.

Sydney - Metropolis to Mountains

Sydney Harbour views in the Evening
Sydney, the home to iconic landmarks such as The Opera House and The Harbour Bridge, is the most populous state and heavily industrialised state of Australia. Despite so, it has a lot more to offer beyond the hustle and bustle of George Street. From idyllic beaches to quaint countrysides, there are plenty of things to see and do in this lovely harbour city.

This is my first trip to Australia and I would love to visit as many places I can. Unfortunately, I don't have a driving license (yet). Well, Bear has a driving license but hasn't drove for 10 years so driving is out for us. So, we are limited by the amount of distance we can travel within this short period of time. Nevertheless, we managed to cover enough places in Sydney and its outer regions to give us a taste of Australia.

Where I Holed Up

We stayed in 2 different hotels during our trip. We first stayed in Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa at Blue Mountains followed by Meriton Serviced Apartments Campbell Street in Sydney.


Day 1: Arrived in Sydney and took a train ride to Katoomba, Blue Mountains
Day 2: Went hiking on the Grand Canyon Walking Tracks
Day 3: Returned to Sydney and explore Chinatown in the evening
Day 4: Visited Eveleigh Farmers Markets and took a half day Whale Watching Sydney Tour
Day 5: Went Deep Sea Fishing Trip with Mystery Bay Charters
Day 6: Did a day tour with Hunter Valley Wine Tasting Tours Company
Day 7: Laze around and visited Sydney Fish Market
Day 8: Return to Singapore

More travel tales coming soon.

Travel Expenses

Saturday, November 17, 2012

SabaiDee @ Laos

Vientiane was our final stop in Laos so we decided to splurge on a nicer place. As I was confused by the abundant choice of hotels, I went ahead with Bear's preference - Sabai Dee @ Laos.

We arrived at the Northern Bus Terminal in the early afternoon. Since we did not request for hotel pick up service (again), the only cost effective option then was the shared mini bus service that dropped us somewhere near the riverfront. Using google map and fair sense of direction, we found our way to the hotel easily.

Located on a quiet street across the renowned Lao Plaza Hotel, Sabai Dee @ Laos is 3 star hotel built in 2009. Location is definitely a huge plus as major attractions such as National Museum and Nam Phou Fountain were all within walking distance.  (Note: The photos below were taken using my HTC phone since my camera were damaged earlier.)
Welcome to Saibai Dee @ Laos
Although we were not offered any welcome drinks, the check in process was swift and our bags were brought up to the room with us. I gave the hotel extra points for its elevator as it was the only hotel among our accommodation in Laos which features elevator. We were pleased with our Classic room that was tastefully decorated. We had a comfortable King size bed and the spacious room was clean and well maintained. Aside the standard features such as coffee making facilities, fridge, air-conditioning, safe, WiFi and Cable TV with plenty of channels, I enjoyed chilling out at the indoor terrace area. There was no hair dryer in the room but the staff promptly brought up to our room upon request.

The bathroom was well maintained and furnished with a glass wall shower area and good water pressure. Basic toiletries and clean towels were provided. My only complaint was the lack of toiletries rack other than a single soap dish within the shower area. Hence, you may need to leave all your toiletries lying on the floor when you bathe.
Loved the towel origami
Cozy corner
The complimentary buffet breakfast were served at the beautiful courtyard/bar area. The buffet spread has wide range of food selection from local dishes to western fare. Our stay coincided with another big tour group. As such, the place is often packed and food ran out pretty fast. Nevertheless, the staff did replenish the food several times promptly.
Courtyard area
Good selection but food ran out pretty fast
The numerous computers available for guest access in the hotel lobby was a major plus point for us too. We had no problem finding a free computer throughout the day. In addition, guests could help themselves with the reading materials and complimentary cordial drink at the hotel lobby lounge too.
Numerous computers available for guest access
I was unimpressed with laundry service pricing so I opted for the laundry shops located near the riverfront instead. Bear did use the hotel laundry service out of convenience and was found them to be fast and reliable. We have also used the airport transfer service and was pleased with the service. 

Overall, I am satisfied with my stay at Sabai Dee @ Laos. Moreover, the surrounding area has a good mix of bars and eateries including Joma Bakery Cafe. Without doubt, I would stay here again next time round.
Surrounding street scene 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Market Tour & Cooking Class in Vientiane

A good way to experience a new culture is through sampling its cuisine but I think the best way is learning how to cook its cuisine. After all, if you like cooking, what could be more fun than immersing yourself in the culture while expanding your culinary knowledge at the same time? Bear and I signed up for a cooking class with Lao Experiences while we were in Vientiane. To enhance our learning experience, we also opted for additional Fresh Market Tour which totalled to just $55 per person for the half day programme.

There are many cooking school in Laos but Lao Experiences stood out among the rest as they ranked second on Trip Advisor's attraction list for Vientiane. Our instructor, Nook is a Khmu lady originally from Luang Prabang and is passionate about Lao Cuisine. She is well qualified to teach Lao Cuisine, as she was formerly a chef and used to run her own restaurant. In fact, she once cooked alongside Luke Nguyen, the Australian celebrity chef and travel show host.
Great half day programme with Lao Experiences
Fresh Market Tour

We met Nook and fellow tour participants - an Australian couple outside Full Moon Cafe at 8am. From there, we travelled in a Tuk Tuk to Talat Thong Khan Kham, the largest fresh market in Vientiane which is just a few streets away to begin our tour. Located at the north of city centre, Talat Thong Khan Kham is open from early morning till late afternoon. Many vendors hailed afar from the outskirts of Vientiane to sell their produce each morning and will usually pack up by mid day. Hence, it is best to visit early in the morning so you could get the freshest produce. 
Talat Thong Khan Kham
A very large market indeed
There's a saying that if you really want to get to know a country, you should visit its local markets. We did explore a local fresh market in Luang Prabang but nothing beats having a knowledgeable guide around. During the 1 hour tour, Nook introduced us to various the Lao's ingredients in an extremely engaging manner. More importantly, we learned a great deal about how to choose and prepare these ingredients.
Huge variety of  fresh vegetables
Including fiery red chillies
Assortment of Bamboo Shoots
Yummy looking mushrooms
Fresh seafood
Yes, you can find apparel stalls in the market as well
Being Singaporean,  Bear and I grew up in multi-cultural environment and were exposed to various ingredients from young. Hence, we recognised some of the ingredients immediately. However, we did see some rather unusual ingredients and here are the top 5 rankings in my opinion.

Rank No 5 - Banana Flower
Yes, we do have this in Singapore but it is more commonly used in Perankan or Indian cuisines and not in the Chinese dishes that I have most of the time.
Banana flower
Rank No 4 - Hibiscus Flowers
It is not unusual to find flowers in fresh market. However, I find it odd after learning that these Hisbiscus flowers are meant to be food ingredients.
Flowers as ingredients?
Rank No 3 - Weird looking vegetable and fruits
We chanced upon several weird looking vegetable fruits but the weirdest among all got to be the one that resembles animal poops. Nook did tell us the name of the ingredient but I have forgotten unfortunately.
Weird looking ingredient
Rank No 2 - Adorable Wild Animals
I understand clearly that bushmeats are vital source of protein for poor rural folks. Nevertheless, some of these fury creatures are simply too adorable to be eaten. Not to mention that a few of them were still alive then.
Rank No 1 - Belida Fish, Common name Clown knife fish
Bear grieved at the sight of this as Belida fish are prized pet fish in Singapore. Do I need to elaborate further?
Friends of Bear
Aside the above top 5 rankings, Padek, the legendary Lao fish sauce deserves a special mention. Unlike Thai fish sauce, Padek is thicker and has a more pungent fishy aroma. This is because the fish are fermented, meaning left to ROT in a jar for a longer time, ranging from 6 months to 5 years. In fact, there are different grades of paddek based on duration of fermentation and type of fish. Generally, longer fermentation process will produce a richer aroma. It goes without saying that we were hit by the pungent aroma even before reaching the stalls. However, Nook insisted that the aroma are pleasant and was really excited to share the knowledge. According to her, padek is a key ingredient in Lao and it gives Lao cuisine its distinctive taste. She then added that we will be using in the cooking class later in the day.
Legendary High Grade Fish Sauce - smell it if you dare
At the end of our market tour, we had light breakfast at Kung's Cafe before heading to our cooking class. This family run cafe is a hidden gem set in a small alley across Ministry of Health. The cafe is popular among locals but is not known on the tourists' radar. We had great coffee and wonderful mango sticky rice pancake while learning about each other's culture.
A hidden gem
Lovely ambience
Cooking Class

After breakfast, we took the same Tuk Tuk to our cooking class venue. En route, we picked up another 2 tour participants - a Canadian couple. Coincidentally, all 6 of us were first timers to cooking class and we signed up after reading rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Nook revealed that company deliberately kept the class sizes small to ensure all participants receive sufficient attention and guidance. It was no wonder that they have been receiving positive reviews all these while.

The cooking class was set in the outdoor kitchen of the tour owner's house in a tranquil neighbourhood along Mekong riverside. Upon entering the premise, we received warm welcome from Sang, the co-instructor who then directed us to our work counter. I could hardly contain my excitement upon seeing the well organised counter with fresh ingredients and a set kitchen utensils for each participants. What truly amazed me was the use of charcoal stove. As Nook quipped "I teach only the traditional method of Lao cooking because there is no shortcut for delicious Lao food."
The house overlooks Mekong river
Clean and nicely set up working table
Well decorated  kitchen
Neatly arranged fresh Ingredients
Sang setting up the cooking stove for the us
After donning on our aprons, the class began with Nook's introduction on the dishes we will learn for the day  and we were then put into work. Under Nook's patience guidance, we pound herbs, chopped vegetables and successfully cooked 3 dishes on our own and customised the taste to our personal preference. We chatted and laughed along the way as we got to know each other. 
Nook briefed us at the start of the class
Rare sighting of Bear being very attentive
The first dish was Mak Pa (Fish Steamed in Banana). The dish reminded me of Otah, my favourite malay dish back home. The ingredients for Mak Pa looked simple enough but there's a lot of pounding work involved and we need to take note tiny details such as the grinding sequence and when to add condiments.  Nevertheless, the most challenging step was wrapping the fish mixture as we need to ensure that it is sealed tightly before steaming.
Getting the ingredients for the Mak Pa
Bear preparing Mak Pa (Fish Steamed in Banana)
 My nicely wrapped Mak Pa, ready for steaming
The next dish was Jeow Mak Len / Keua (Eggplant / Tomato Dip). This is an interesting dish as we were allowed to pick 3 types of vegetables from a basket using either eggplant or tomato as base. All of us selected different ingredients so we could try the result of different combination. We then pdierced ingredients through a wooden stick like kebah before grilling and pounding. Since the ingredients were grilled before pounding, it gave the dip a distinctive flavourful taste. 
Placing our dip on the stove
Helpful Sang tended the fire while we got busy with other food preparation
The third dish was a popular dessert, Khao Niaow Mak Moong (Mango and Sticky Rice with Coconut Milk). This was the easiest among the three as all we need to do was to stir the coconut and sugar mixture over fire until it turn into a creamy texture.
Stiring coconut milk over fire to give it a smooth texture
Yummy Mango Sticky Rice
Aside the above 3 dishes, Nook also demonstrated 3 other dishes and we participated actively by helping out with preparation. The 3 dishes were Laap Kai (Chicken Laap), Tam Mak Houng (Spicy Papaya Salad) and Khao Niaow (Sticky Rice). As expected, no one dared to flip the sticky rice.
Ingredients for Laap
Nook demonstrating Chicken Laap
Nook's demonstrated her powerful shredding skills when preparing papaya salad
Sticky rice
We finished the class with a relaxed lunch at the garden, eating our wonderful creation. Each of the dishes was delicious. We also ordered wine to pair with the food and Nook chatted with us about Lao culture over the feast. We were joined by Morven, the tour owner towards the end of our meal. She then presented everyone a copy of the recipe book as souvenir, ending the day on a perfect note.
The feast by the garden

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