Asia

AsiaDestinationsMusingsSoutheast AsiaThailand

When travel becomes lacklustre

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It isn’t often that I feel dissatisfied after a trip, but a recent 5-day one to Khao Lak had wrong written on it from the very start. I’d planned to dive in the Similan Islands, taking advantage of the early diving season, but a sinus-infection (along with a doctor’s warning not to do it) meant that I was on the verge of cancelling the entire trip, only to go ahead the last minute.

The hotel I was in was overwhelmingly stocked with Germans; my room had a variety of insects and bees in it and the deck chairs reserved the whole damn day with towels on them, while their owners remained conspicuously absent.

I ended up diving only for a day in Koh Tachai, and on impulse, feeling lost after having a free day, booked a day trip with a dodgy operator that to white-water raft (the most fun I had in ages) with everything else such as the flying fox and the waterfall being better forgotten in the Phang-Nga province. Touted as a 200m flying ride, the reality was 10 times shorter – a 20 metre zip across a small stream. The ‘jungle walk’ to the waterfall ended up as mere steps to a small escarpment over which water tumbled over. The Gullfoss experience was it not. What was weirder even was the German/Serbian family who hawked their Bitcoin ventures to me after the white-water rafting trip when it all sounded suspiciously like an Internet scam.

My waterproof camera fell apart, as did my waterproof bag, so I had awful photos, as I had sopping wet things that weren’t supposed to get wet.

I plied the stretch of the whole Nang Thong township by foot so many times that I got quite sick of it. I tried spending the day at the pool doing nothing and got so bored that I felt guilty for feeling that way when obviously the rest of the world had other real problems to worry about.

When it was time to leave, the closed roads at the bottle-neck choke at the Phuket checkpoint because of a bicycle race meant I nearly didn’t make my flight back.

Perhaps it was the experience of being alone in a place where the Travel Companion had been with me before, but this time, I’m almost tempted to say that maybe I should have obeyed my first instinct…to not go on this trip.

The burning question here really is: is it really possible to have gone on a trip, spent all that money on it, and not be excited about it as you thought you were going to be? That in itself, is a revelation because I always expect to enjoy myself on a vacation, learn some new things, though this time in Khao Lak seemed to be proving otherwise. The fact was, it was lacklustre, most un-instagrammable, for want of a better word and it was an experience I was loathed to write about because a blog post about travel is supposed to be one that gushes about the unforgettable sights and smells of that new place you’re exploring.

But it’s out here now, the admission that travel can be simply underwhelming. It’s just an experience I’d rather not repeat though who controls this?

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AsiaDestinationsIndonesiaSoutheast Asia

Adventure prone

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Waking up at 4 am is a hellish experience I wouldn’t ever want to wish on anyone. But the Travel Companion and I did it, in my 4th iteration of what has so far been an annual pilgrimage to Bali, that has now gotten past just scuba diving off the east coast of Bali and off Nusa Penida.

I had a great time on Christmas with Jan and Markus (just the 3 of us, it seemed), since tourist numbers are madly erratic for this period. But perhaps what made it worth it as always, was the accidental conversations I fall into during these journeys. Jan and I spoke at length about conceptual art, the European far-right, losing face and how stupid people can get on the way back to Sanur, while TC got badly sunburnt in the meantime.

But that was only the start of the trip. Blame my growing thirst for adventure.

Thus far, I’ve done a dive off the drifty little islands off Padang Bai (Mimpang and Tepekong), gone off-roading on a Buggy/quad bike tour off the villages past Ubud and recklessly decided to up the ante and head far north for canyoning.

“Do not hesitate,” Adrien (the Icopro instructor) said. And he’s right. It gets worse when you think and re-think the angle of the jump, the probability of hitting your head on the rocks.

I ended up lobbing off the edge, 8 metres into a deep pool, and straight on my arse like a demented cannonball into the water.

Add that embarrassing thing to sliding down slippery rocks, zip-lining partway down and rappelling off waterfalls…and I found myself having an absolutely brilliant time while at it, then wished I’d chosen to do a full day of it. The Kalimudah part of the Kerenkali Canyon in the mountainous north of Bali (Git Git) is the most technical of the parts which the TC and I had signed up for with Bali Adventure and Spirit, and the hellish experience of waking up at 4am just to make this journey from Sanur more than made up for the adrenaline rush and the thrill that came from working the stunning scenery and getting dunked straight into ice-cold water. TC, who couldn’t even swim, was so enthused and challenged by the entire experience that swim classes are finally, finally on the cards.

Which isn’t to say that I wasn’t in 2 minds about this when we first started out—straight out of a furious thunderstorm in Sanur to rain that persistently didn’t let up until about 8 am after we finished breakfast in Gigit. We went past numerous lazy dogs, endless rice plantations and cloud-covered misty mountains framed by rows of corn and coconut trees. The drive back had worse traffic, but bluer skies and colourful towns where tourists don’t seem to register much on the locals’ quotidian.

But it was mostly filled with memories of the hard kick of the water up my nose, the thrill of the slides and the pull of the abseil rope, as well as the exhaustion that crept in slowly as the day wore on.

My canonying-initiation card will proudly stay in my wallet for now.

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AsiaDestinationsFoodTaiwan

Beyond the culinary

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The crowds and the smells always indicate that something food-related is near. Well, it’s certainly true of the legendary night markets in Taipei – there’re 14 of them at least, some lesser known to the tourists which locals frequent – that are noisy, bustling affairs of smoke, dirt and well, some delicious finds.

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We managed only 3 here and if the plan was to eat our way through the streets lined with stores and persistent sellers, there’s really only so much I could stomach when it comes to fried chicken, bubble tea and starchy oyster omelette, let alone consecutive days of this stuff. More traditional dishes do tend to be under represented at such places though – not that it’s a bad thing – though I could hardly say that a Taiwanese night market showcases the best of Taiwanese dishes.

But food here in general, has a lot to offer and can be sublime, especially if one understands the smaller shops with Chinese-only signboard, menu and order sheet. Otherwise, it’s back to pointing at a picture (if there’s one), then raising your fingers for quantity and hoping you’ve been understood.

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Beyond food (and it’s difficult to get past that), I struggled to see under the veneer of commercialism and the glitzy, glamorous buildings that have sprung up in the city centre. The older generation seems to anchor the place still; much of the architecture in the older parts of Taipei date from the Chiang Kai-Shek era that used to house his followers who thought they’d found a temporary home in Taiwan but never left in the end.

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There is much yet to be discovered: the eastern but near-inaccessible coast, the far south or even the natural mountainous landscape that beguiles so many people. Instead, there were spaces that I peeked into: the pulsating, hip young district of Ximen, a hike up Elephant Mountain in the heart of Taipei, taking a Youbike rental up and down the Keelung River, going to the hilly, Maokong village to hike and sample tea.

But I’m strangely happy with taking it slowly for once.

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AsiaDestinationsFoodItineraryTaiwan

Taipei Eats: A food tour

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It’s difficult to know where to begin with the mind-boggling food of Taiwan but one thing I knew when I planned this trip was that it would be near impossible to get around to the places the locals like without having an English-speaking local to bring us around.

Going with Taipei Eats for a few hours of walking and eating traditional Taiwanese dishes was a god-send, as was the lovely guide Jean who took us through the maze of streets and wet markets – and straight into the heart of Taipei where shops could be holes in the wall with untranslated menus. The philosophy of Taipei Eats, as Jean explained, has been to choose places where everything is handmade (with an artisan vibe at times) with a specialisation in a particular dish.

f11. Hulin wet market (Yongchun Station)

Fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat in their rawest (and hopefully freshest) form. A few paces down, there’s thousand-layer scallion cake, a thick slab of bread with green onions and sesame baked in a tandoor-like oven.

2. Songshan Gua Bao

No. 179
Songshan Rd
Xinyi District

Variations of this particular bun – filled with pork belly, preserved mustard greens then topped with coriander and peanut powder – can be found in countries like Malaysia, Singapore and China. Jean insists that this is one of the most popular stops in the tour and it’s not hard to see why.

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An optional stop was to a betel nut stand, where blue-collar workers flock to for a quick stop to get their hit of stimulant when their energy starts flagging. It stains the lips and teeth crimson while providing a rush and a numbing effect – something I’d passed over.

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3. Raw stinky tofu

No.2, Alley 3
Lane 120, Yongji Rd
Xinyi District

Sweet wintermelon tea rarely does anything to counter the raw sewage smell of the fermented tofu, which comes in 3 levels of fermentation (10, 12 and 13). Fermented way longer than what is sold in the night market, it’s the only shop in Taiwan to offer raw, fermented tofu (of the stinkiest level) and for that, it’s famous in its own right. It’s also a shot of probiotics, so keep that in mind that it’s probably good for the stomach though not for the taste buds.

4. Cold Sesame Noodles

No.105
Yongji Rd
Xinyi District

We each got served small portions of wheat noodles drenched in sesame sauce and fresh cucumber with a miso-based soup of meatballs, tofu and egg. After the lingering taste of stinky tofu, this was a culinary reprieve.

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 5. Kao-Chi

Eslite Spectrum Songyan
No.88 Yanchang Road
Xinyi District

I particularly loved this stop because of the artistic atmosphere of Songshan Cultural and Creative space, where this branch of Kao-Chi is located. Perhaps as much as I loved the Xiaolongbao (dumplings made with pork and gelatine which melts when steamed).

6. Wu Pao Chun Bakery

Eslite Spectrum Songyan
No.88 Yanchang Road
Xinyi District

Ubiquitous in Taiwan, pineapple cakes have a shortcrust-like pastry with sweet pineapple filling, though the fillings differ from bakery to bakery. With only 2 stores in Taiwan (1 in Taipei and another in Kaohsiung), Wo Pao Chun’s famed master Boulanger’s makes pineapple cakes that people queue for. We came out with boxes of them, then lugged them around for the rest of the tour.

7. Bei Men Fung Li Bing

No.9 Alley 33
Lane 216 Section 4
Zhongxiao E Rd

The owners who set up this shaved ice shop hail from Yilan, where the sherbet (or the shaved ice dessert) is just made out of water, sugar and extracts. Done traditionally, there’s even a notice in the shop that states they’d never do a franchise just to keep the quality.

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AsiaDestinationsItineraryPlanningTaiwan

When mining mattered

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I’ve hesitated for years about Taiwan, in part due to the language which has been prohibitive for me, despite how much friends of mine have said—and extolled—about this place. This time around, I have 3 travel companions with me and planning for all of them has been a bloody pain and travelling with them, an even bigger one.

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But Taipei at least, has impressed me from the very start and reminds me (and this is a complete generalisation here) of what China might have been like had Maoist communism   not taken root in the population. I found the people polite and incredibly service-oriented, almost like the Japanese in fact and at first glance, I’d wondered if I actually stepped back into Okinawa when I caught sight of the natural and urban landscape. Despite the language barrier, many tried to speak English and for that, I am beyond grateful and totally aware that I’m behaving akin to a privileged toff in the English-speaking world. The lack of time however—being on a day tour is a timely reminder why I don’t do these things normally in a bigger group—meant that most of it was spent slowing down considerably, and missing out on things that could have been explored.

A day tour with My Taiwan Tour conveniently provided us with an English-speaking guide and a drive northeast towards the old mining towns of Jiufen and Pingxi which have long been converted into tourist attractions. But on a surprise public holiday declared by the newly-elected Taiwan president, we found ourselves on a jam-packed road with half of Taipei determined to make the most use of the day off as well. And that was the start of a long and trying day where I spent most of the time waiting or sitting in a moving bus on a journey that took way longer than expected.

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Jiufen (meaning ‘9 portions’) was originally named that way because there were only 9 families living there back in the day and ordering and hauling daily necessities simply became a matter of asking for 9 portions of all of those. From the carpark down below, it was uphill the whole way on narrow and rather steep stairs made treacherous by the sheer volume of tourists playing this route in a bid to look at the number of shops that dot these alleyways.

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In Pingxi, sky lanterns are released by tourists painting their wishes or names on the thin paper who then get their photos taken as the lantern floats upwards. I spent the time hoping that no one’s roof caught fire.

I returned to Taipei, sweaty and absolutely knackered, then wondered if I could have done this on my own terms.

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AsiaDestinationsSoutheast AsiaThailand

A brief excuse for adventure

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I never though I’d find myself in Krabi again, but I did. And did so for a few short days filled to the brim with diving and climbing…with some backbreaking, painfully agonising Thai traditional massages in between that left me more bruised than diving or climbing every did.

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Wanting to do something new each time I dive, I opted to try the PADI digital underwater course with The Dive Ao Nang. The course itself was a disappointment (apart from the bits that taught white balance in the water and the effect of colours at depth) and the dive sites (at Phi Phi) were abysmal with visibility that was no better than mushy soup. But as always, every guide instructor/guide I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting has had the most unusual and esoteric stories of their lives I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. Liz – short for Lertlid Trzop – a Thai/German guy who’s worked in filmmaking for two decades pretty much tops the list and has load to say about camera techniques, composition and the price of camera housing. He simply concluded – given the horrendous price of the housing – that underwater photography is either for the filthy rich or the professionals.

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The climb with Real Rocks on the other hand, was a novelty for me, more so for someone who has only climbed indoors. A short boat trip from Ao Nang to Railay seemed to open a door to another portal where backpackers slum it up next to a few luxury resorts and trawl the beach in as little beachwear as possible, oblivious to the stares and ogling of everyone else.

In Railay, climbing shops (and seedy massage parlours that supposedly offer rock-climb rub-downs) range from excellent to dingy to the nth degree. We obediently followed our guides – whose shortened names sounded as interchangeable as lock, stock and barrel – and started panicking at the look of the vertical faces. Someone threw a tantrum a few metres up, wailing about being forced to go on a climb when she didn’t want to, which was probably enough entertainment for the day that had even barely started.

I’m not quite convinced outdoor climbing is for me yet, seeing how I’m quite a joke in the indoor gym. But perhaps it’s the greater sense of it being risk that I can’t quite fully manage or control that’s unsettling me. That there are those who go straight to rock climbing as rank beginners without trying sports climbing first is astounding to me.

But it’s a baby step out of my comfort zone and one that’s hopefully getting me braver.

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AsiaDestinationsFoodJapan

The Path of Peace

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In Ryukyuan legend, Nirai Kanai is the mythical realm across the sea where deities dwell and when invited, bring blessings into the home of the villagers. However seductive that imagery really is, present day Okinawa still styles itself as the island paradise (there’s even a bridge here named after this place), if the tree-lined paths, the beautiful coastal roads, the constant warm sea-breeze and the island vibes are any indications of what’s plastered on tourist sign boards.

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After days of driving along the coast and staring at Okinawa’s turquoise waters, it is beyond difficult to go back to the cramped streets and buildings of Naha and not feel somewhat claustrophobic. The place I’m putting up at is close to the shopping street, better known as Kokusai-dori, and the overwhelming display of tourist wares and food stalls along this mile-long road is so similar to what I’ve encountered in other major Japanese cities.

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I returned the car, then promptly and impulsively rented yet another for the next 24 hours so I could simply get out of the city for more breathing space and more of the coast. And for more of the glorious food too, which I’ve liked for years before visiting. Okinawan cuisine, much like the region and the people themselves, falls in the gap between Japanese, American and Chinese cuisines: stir-fries – or better known as Champuru – with wheat gluten, taco rice, peanut tofu, soba (that looks more like udon or Chinese egg noodles) in clear broth with braised sanmainiku (pork belly) and soki (pork ribs) are staples of the Izakayas and restaurants, made to differing standards. My carefully chosen encounters with these dishes however, thus far, in Yunangi in Naha and Yomitan Monogatari have been nothing but bliss.

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Admittedly, the alluring wildness of and the strange, odd mix of cultures found in this tropical place are hard to resist. In the dazzling sun, sand and sea, it’s almost easy to forget Okinawa’s bloodied past that culminated in the a 3-month battle in 1945 in the Pacific theatre of war, termed by the locals as tetsu no bōfū, or Typhoon of Steel because of the endless artillery fire and bombing raids that happened here.

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There is only “dishonour in war” as the Okinawa Prefectural Peace museum strives to remind its visitors, corroborated by the horrors of the eyewitness accounts about the severity of the campaign. The thrust of its message is neither quite anti-American (not too overtly at least) nor pro-Japanese but Okinawan-centric; the heavy focus remains the massive loss of civilian lives and the brutality they endured on an island made hell during the attacks.

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It’s difficult not to be anything but profoundly moved by the whole area, its solemn, quiet, gentle atmosphere – barring the noise from school groups and tour groups – jarringly ironic considering how much of Okinawa was burnt, defaced and ravaged 7 decades ago. Yet built on the site where the former Japanese Imperial Army headquartered and where thousands of Okinawans committed suicide under the orders of the Japanese government to avoid capture, the memorial park’s stark reminder for peace couldn’t cry any louder.

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AsiaDestinationsJapan

Route 58

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If route 66 has become synonymous with the ultimate American road trip, Okinawa’s own version is found on route 58, a road that narrows in parts and widens in others and stretches from the south to the very far north of the main island. I spent a couple of days plying this route from Chatan northwards, loving every minute along this stretch of capes, winding curves and the constant, unchanging view of the aquamarine of the sea.

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The cars thinned out the further north I got, eschewing the rural part of Okinawa, but the distances aren’t as great as I thought they would be, unlike Hokkaido’s roads. The expressway makes the journey easier, but the tolls to pay each time aren’t exactly easy on the pocket. It is possible to go to Cape Hedo, walk around the hiker’s paradise in Dai Sekirinzan (a quasi national park), then loop around Motobu, Kouri Island as well as visit the Ocean Expo Park all in a day, which I somehow managed to do. But to the Japanese, this is considered a long trip and most of them prefer to break this journey up, spending the night in one of the few villages in the Kunigami district.

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I eventually got around to Blue Cave, a spot on Cape Maeda where dive and snorkel companies quite literally operate out of their vans. It’s all chaotic and desperately hectic and to walk alongside people dressed in wetsuits and wet gear made me impatient to start. Picking one that had a spot free (with a non-English name), I managed to secure a dive with a wizened Japanese owner himself, who, with his limited English, gestured how much he loved diving with certified people while shouting out the words ‘panic’ and ‘scream’. I laughed, then remembered the amused horror I felt when the area around the blue cave was filled with people being towed around underwater.

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Cape Maeda is shore entry at its finest – and perhaps at its most rigorous, for me at least – where I’ve had to trudge across the car park with the full get-up and then down the steps and into the sea. Blue Cave’s selling point is the blue waters one sees when emerging out of a cave and even if it wasn’t the best dive or had the visibility that I’ve experienced, it was somehow the most relaxing and fun one I’ve had in ages, despite the crowd.

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AsiaDestinationsJapan

Okinawa’s draw

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When I first decided that I wanted to dive as well as see things, few places came to mind. Okinawa was one of these places, because it seemed ‘cultural’ enough with things to do apart from dive, yet small enough to cover in a short period of time. For about a week away, Okinawa seemed like a fantastic compromise and so different from what I know about Japan: subtropical region that showcases its mix of cultural influences so boldly (particularly in the cuisine) such that calling Okinawa an integral part of Japan sounds almost like a misnomer. But it is in any case; standard Japanese is spoken here, as are incomprehensible dialects and ruins that mark out this former Ryukyu Kingdom – an independent Kingdom that ruled over the islands between Japan and Taiwan from the 15th to the 19th centuries – like a proud rebel standout.

Hong Kong was my transit point into Okinawa and I’d already placed a reservation for a rental car with Rental OTS which did offer considerably lower prices than other rental companies, especially for advance online bookings. It is self-explanatory then, that many from Hong Kong head to Okinawa for that resort experience, even though the main island itself feels way more like a city than Hokkaido did. The drawback? The large number of people hiring their cheap cars, the long queues at the counter and the long bus journey from airport to rental station.

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Chatan (about 45 minutes away by car, or in my case, a hybrid Toyota Axio) from the decidedly ugly urban Naha is my first stop. Getting to Sunny’s Stay or rather, the collection of buildings known as Ocean Front Apartments wasn’t too difficult with an English-speaking GPS although wrangling with sunday traffic was another story. My apartment faces the Sunabe Seawall (Miyagi coast) and the ocean, a long walkway by the water along that offers spectacular views of sunset and it’s all relatively peaceful until the roar of the planes break the morning silence at 6 a.m. Tourist or resident, the unwelcome wake-up call is probably the only reason I can’t wait to get out of this town and out to the northern villages.

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The significant American presence here because of the military bases is jarring; there is about a fifth of the island that is still under American sovereignty after it was returned to Japan in 1972. More importantly, the friction that exists between American and Japanese relations is rubbed raw here, when assault and murder cases in connection with the Americans have prompted mass protests and top-level discussions on base relocations to more isolated sites. Yet businesses around Chatan clearly cater to ‘Western’ tastebuds and food in the Izakaya(s) can be an alluring mix of Japanese, Tex-mex and Chinese cuisines.

I’m neither Japanese nor American but watching the drama play out is disconcerting. It is nonetheless  strange to see 2 very separate and distinct groups of people here however; the Americans and the locals (as well as the tourists) occupy the same geographical space but don’t entirely interact unless by necessity. The latest furore over the murder of a 20-year old woman by a former Marine and a military contractor has only pushed the island into the media spotlight again. At ministerial level, Shinzo Abe has made an official call for military discipline when when Barack Obama made his historic visit to Hiroshima.

The draw of this place is the very laid-back, chill-out vibe that’s clearly missing from dense urban centres like Tokyo or Hong Kong, which probably explains the rush of tourists here dying for their resort-island fix. Perhaps it’s nowhere better seen as the dive boat headed for the Kerama Islands for sun, crystal clear waters and circling planes overhead. I met Richard on board, a Brit who has been living here for 3 years and loves everything about Okinawa and the Japanese.

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We argued over English tea, Japanese tea and in general, English accents and other dives sites, until the day ended with a nose bleed (on my part) and severe sinus blockage. Dai, my guide for the day, simply crowed over our disagreements as he cut a kiwi, then offered its skin to Richard.

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AsiaDestinationsMaldives

Too much sun, too little action

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Day 4: We walked for about 45 minutes to the sand bank towards the tail end of Dhigurah (which actually means ‘long island’ in Dhivehi) and found a little slice of paradise there. I frolicked in the water, took some bad selfies which I later deleted and looked at the neighbouring atoll with water villas in tourist envy.

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Snorkelling after lunch just a couple of hundred metres from the hotel was surprising and strange after doing dives. But the coral beds were more alive with fish that I’d initially assumed. We said goodbye to the beach, tried to wash off the sand – which turned out to be a fruitless effort – and trudged back.

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In an odd burst of emotion, TC actually confessed that a longer stay would have been better, whereas I was happy enough with what we’d gotten. But that’s also because I’m rather antsy about our domestic transfer arrangements which aren’t exactly fixed yet – the product of a ‘relaxed island life’ perhaps. From what we’ve been told so far, it’ll be a 6-hour wait at Male International Airport before we get onto our flight back at 12:55pm, which means our day will most likely start at 4am and end at 10pm. It wasn’t what we were told initially and these shifting plans are aggravating.

After dinner, I begged Irish once again to take me to the shops for pieces of cheap chocolate cake that helped get rid of the remainder of the Maldivian Rufiyaas that I needed to spend. With snacks and chocolate, TC and I were happy once again.

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Day 5: We dragged ourselves out of bed at the arse-crack of dawn, as expected. The transfers went without a hitch and then found ourselves at a semi-private room in the Airport Hotel cafe with only cold water and some fruits given to us for breakfast. Making our way to the half-baked and incredibly Thai-Express at the airport was half a mistake. Wolfing down chilli-laden dishes pretty much guaranteed a stomachache (which it did) but we were desperate for some salt in our food after a morning filled with only sugary snacks.

Still, we promised ourselves to return someday, with hopefully more money to spend on a larger and more exciting place.

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