2016 had been a crazy year. For those who knew me, the latter of the year had been particularly tough. More than anything else, and more than I needed it out of any other trip, I needed the time and space to disconnect and rediscover peace within.
Logistically, Angela and I applied our experiences from past trips: adventure at the start, and relaxation at the end. And so our itinerary was perfectly set. An overnight volcano hike at Kawah Ijen. A week-long of scuba diving at Raja Ampat. Seeking peace at Ubud, Bali. And city hopping at Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Tokyo — seeking out some much needed comfort & comfort cuisine.
Our first destination is Kawah Ijen, an active volcano on the eastern tip of East Java known for its sulfuric blue fires at night. It’s not an easy to place to get to, but makes for a perfect first destination. To see the blue fire, an overnight hike is necessary, and it’s a 4 hour drive + ferry away from the nearest major airport in Bali Denpasar. Naturally, this was a destination that actually benefits from a jetlagged trip!
Our flight via Hong Kong was as perfect as one can be. There’s a reason that Cathay Pacific is a top-tier carrier, and it’s not hard to tell the difference between CX and other good carriers. Great hard products, efficient service, and an amazing lounge in The Pier on transfer. I even met an old friend on the flight, which is always a fun and unexpected experience.
Two days after we left SFO (where did the days go?!), we landed in Bali. Wow, it’s hot! We got on the arranged car, and off to Ijen we went. By the time we arrived, it’s a comfortable 2am, remnants of the tropical day still swirling in the dark. The hike turned out to be a lot harder than we expected, especially after getting to the caldera and then hiking into the crater where the fire is. “Hiking” doesn’t do it justice. There are definitely portions where it’s straight climbing.
Unfortunately, by the time we got in front of the fire, we were probably 15 minutes too late for the ideal time, as the sky is starting to turn bright. We caught a few glimpses of the fire. It’s actually much smaller than the pictures make it out to be, but still an impressive sight. Ijen is also an active sulfur mine, and although we visited on a holiday, we saw miners carrying heavy loads of sulfur up the steep steps, all to only make just a few USD.
We didn’t linger long. After descending, we had a few hours of spare time and explored the nearby town of Banyuwangi, and then off to the 3 connecting flights to get to the true gem of this trip.
For me, Raja Ampat is unambiguously the highlight of the trip. Small cottages nestled in the lush tropics, surrounded by the most pristine and beautiful ocean — it was paradise found. How can one not be relaxed and open one’s heart when nature is so welcoming?
Every trip out departs from the jetty on a tiny speedboat. In the 31ºC (air) and 29ºC (water) day, even the gentle breeze seems ever so embracing. Every morning, we’d wake up and get ready by 8am for our two morning dives, punctuated by a snack break on a sand bank or an uninhabited island. Getting back some time in the afternoon (who keeps track of times here?), lulling by the dock is a favored activity, whether reading a book or just falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing.
The Raja Ampat Islands on the New Guinea island is an archipelago comprising of 1,500+ islands, and the richest marine biodiversity anywhere on earth. From the house reefs underneath the jetty to diving spots over an hour away, no trip disappoints. The ocean seems to be floored by a carpet of coral waiting to be explored.
Each dive revealed wonders. Although we were uneasy on our first dive (after all, it’s been 2+ years since we last dived), our amazing guide Martin made sure we were safe and pointed out one after another, denizens of the deep. A bubblegum (ahem, Wobbegong) shark, a formation of manta rays, a pigmy seahorse on a fan coral, a cuttlefish waken from its nap, schools of barracudas… there is literally more than the eye can see.
We also experienced drift diving for the first time, where we got carried by underwater currents for almost 2km. Fighting against current is hard, but drift diving is like being on a Disneyland ride, cruising among the corals.
The nighttime is equally magical. Every day, we watched the sun set, and then slowly wandered over for dinner. There were only two times that mattered: 7PM for dinner, and 9PM when the AC turned on. Naturally for such a remote part of the world, the night is pitch black. We spent so many nights sitting on the dock counting stars.
It reminded me of a life untouched by electronics and unperturbed by the pace of life at home. That is luxury. That is peace.
I expected a lot of Bali. Not sure where that expectation came from, but because of that expectation, Bali fell short in some ways. In other ways though, Bali was great.
We stayed in Ubud, central Bali away from the beaches and the more touristy and resort-y areas. For some reason, I thought this would be a place that I can walk around peacefully and meditate, but that wasn’t the reality. It turned out that the city center was filled with pedestrians and cars, and the air wasn’t nearly as pristine as I’d thought.
A few highlights were an amazing (and so cheap!) massage experience at Karsa Spa. Highly recommended! The therapists are so well trained, and the experience getting a massage basically in a hut next to the rice fields is unparalleled. The hotel that we stayed at, Sankara Resort, is also a gem. Well appointed furnishing and an amazing, order anything off the menu breakfast included.
We also did a biking tour through the countryside, where I got to chat about life in a village with the guide. For a region that is so dependent on tourism, I’m amazed to find that Bali is deeply steeped in tradition. Every family, poor or rich, has a family temple, and each house is constructed with rooms representing the Head, Body, and Feet. Practicing Agama Hindu Dharma, every holiday and occasion is celebrated traditionally, culminating in Nyepi — a day of silence and fasting, where no one leaves their house. Even the airport is closed for one day.
Lastly, we did a cooking class, an activity we’ve grown to love in Southeast Asia. Balinese cuisine is centered around their “yellow sauce”, which is used liberally across almost all dishes. The food leans towards the sweeter side, with extensive usage of coconuts.
Hong Kong & Guangzhou
Hong Kong and Guangzhou are foodie heavens for Cantonese food (duh), and they sure didn’t disappoint. Coming off the hot, humid, and sometimes chaotic Indonesia, it was so relaxing to enjoy modern comforts. With nothing planned besides eateries, we enjoyed our times leisurely walking around and in the hotels.
It was particularly fun to spontaneously decide to hike to The Peak after grabbing coffee at Fineprint, an Aussie-inspired hip cafe in Central, to catch the sun setting in an hour. After walking for 5 minutes, we caught the world’s longest outdoor escalator for half a mile. If only every hike were so easy! But alas, it didn’t take us nearly close to the top, and we quickly realize that to finish off our hike, we are better off in a taxi, which we did and caught the spectacular city come to life at night.
Our last stop was in Tokyo. I always appreciate a stopover in Japan between Asia and the US. Some people find Tokyo to be a chaotic, overwhelming city, but I find the structure and detail-oriented city to have such a calming presence.
We stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, a classic establishment especially to westerners. Beyond a quick night jaunt in Shinjuku for some yakitori (we were so tired!) and a necessary stop at 7–11, we spent the majority of our 16 hours or so in the hotel and enjoyed every single moment of it. The green carpet wasn’t nearly as hideous as it looked in pictures, and the service is the smoothest and most polished we’ve experienced of any hotels.
The slogan of Park Hyatt is “Luxury is personal.” And I couldn’t agree more. To me, luxury is the ability to enrich myself, to give myself the space to relax, unwind, to breath.
So… was it peaceful?
The parts of this journey that I enjoyed the most are the times when there were no agenda, no “things to do”, no “must see”. In fact, places where there isn’t much to do at all.
Clearly, that’s Raja Ampat. It was precious to spend time just falling asleep. To be able to have everything taken off by the dive center, from logistics planning to the food.
It’s also Hong Kong. It’s a city that I’ve been to, and will surely return many times in the future. There wasn’t a rush to see everything, which led to spontaneous discoveries. It’s a safe, efficient, and familiar city, which eased off the stress of navigation.
I appreciate nature. I appreciate having an amazing travel companion in Angela. I appreciate being the opportunity to see and revisit parts of the world that I enjoy. I appreciate all the great food. And moreover, I appreciate being able to take time away to disconnect.