Kurumba – A Quick Maldives Getaway

Kurumba is the first resort that started the rush to the Maldives, and it is still welcoming guests decades later. No, it isn’t the most luxurious or most glamorous of all the resorts, but that’s no bad thing. This five star island is well established, very lush and green and has a beautiful beach and lagoon. Most importantly for those wanting a quick weekend getaway, it is a short speedboat transfer from the airport. Ten minutes and you can have a cocktail in hand.

Kurumba Island Maldives Aerial View

Airport transfer Kurumba Maldives

Arrival Jetty Kurumba Island Maldives

Kurumba Island Maldives Walkways

The Maldives has a wide range of resorts, but prices and travel time increase significantly the further you go from the airport, because you need to take seaplane transfers rather than a boat. It’s fine if time or money are no object, but if you just want to dash over, get some rest and a taste of the Maldives, then Kurumba is a good bet.

The island has a range of accommodation, from their Royal Kurumba Residence that sleeps 8, to private pool villas, garden and and beach bungalows. They also have eight restaurants and beach bars, so you have a decent choice, which is always great on such a small island.

You can do what most people like to do in the Maldives and that’s just lie in the sun and swim in the crystal clear lagoon. Or if you are slightly more active, there’s plenty to do, with a range of watersports and even a tennis court (yes we played a couple of games).

Kurumba Island beach Maldives

Lying on Kurumba Island Maldives

Restaurant Kurumba Island Maldives

Pool on Kurumba Island Maldives

Seaplane above Kurmba Island Maldives

After a long day in the sun, you can take a stroll along the beach, watch the sun set at the barefoot beach bar and then pick a new place for dinner, before retiring to your luxurious villa. Then repeat it all again the next day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sri Lanka’s Perfect Private Villa Hideaway

We spent the first couple of nights of our holiday at The Fortress, a must-stay luxury hotel outside Galle, so we got our ocean fix before heading up to Bentota to Cocoon Resorts & Villas, only a five minute drive inland from the beach.

I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive at the idea of staying at a hotel that wasn’t directly on the beach in Sri Lanka. What can I say? I like to stare at the waves. Fortunately, the minute we checked into our own private villa every ounce of that concern disappeared.

 

The resort was once a family home on a cinnamon plantation and has been developed into a luxurious hotel offering a range of rooms, and more importantly a number of freestanding, private villas which is where we unpacked our bags. All the resort’s rooms are large and luxurious, but it’s the villas in their lush surroundings that are the secret weapon, especially if you come from the sandy shores of Dubai.

In the past couple of years, the resort has been marketed predominantly towards Sri Lankans looking for a luxury getaway. As have its sister resorts Cocoon Hills and Royal Coccon, both up country in Nuwara Eliya. There is now a drive by the owners and management to attract more international travellers looking for a private villa experience amongst the lush greenery, only minutes from the beach.

The villas themselves are outstanding. More like private homes in lush green gardens. Large and individually furnished, they are extremely comfortable and come with a huge indoor spa bath in a bathroom big enough to park two cars. Outside on a semi-enclosed private wooden deck, you’ll find another cold water spa bath. Truth be told, it was so private, peaceful and relaxing we didn’t want to leave the villa for the first two days and ordered everything from room service. The staff were all genuinely warm and hospitable and service was prompt (although the menu could do with a bit more variety). The greenery, the birds, the tranquility and the odd, rather large monitor lizard strolling past our window made it feel magical.

 

When we did finally venture out, we made our way up to the main homestead where a breakfast buffet was waiting. Admittedly, we might have been spoiled by the air-conditioned breakfast area and the extensive range of food on offer at The Fortress, but this was the only part of our stay we felt good do with an upgrade at Cocoon. The breakfast area is nice enough and the kitchen, visible through a large glass window looks very impressive. The Sri Lankan food was good, but outside of that the range is not great and everything is laid out in the hot, humid open-air. The traditional outdoor seating area is attractive, but even with the fans, we found it very hot and a bit uncomfortable which is why we chose to eat our meals in the cool comfort of our villa. Fortunately we were told the menu is one aspect that is already on the management’s radar as they aim to raise standards even further.

 

The rest of the day, however, was fantastic. We spent a couple of hours lying at the impressive swimming pool. Unlike our neighbor, our villa didn’t have its own private pool, but we were happy to stop being hermits long enough to lounge, swim and snack at the poolside.

Feeling like we really were in a cocoon of luxury we decided to also give the spa a go. When we requested a massage at the front desk, they sent the masseuse himself to the villa to share the menu and discuss the treatments and time with us. The spa is housed in an impressive stand-alone wind cooled building and I wasn’t sure if the free-flow air and fans would be enough, but they were. The massage was excellent and the prices are still incredibly reasonable by any measure. I’m sure they will rise at some point as management slowly adds and improves all services across the board, so best get in there for as many treatments as you can.

We wanted to venture out and try the bicycle tour through the nearby rice paddies, villages and cinnamon plantations, but we were in town over a public holiday and it was closed. So we opted for Madu Gang river cruise, the second largest wetland on the island. It was a very enjoyable ride through the waterways that was early enough and just long enough not to get too hot or uncomfortable. Unfortunately we didn’t see any crocodiles, but we did pass prawn farms and mangroves and spotted a huge monitor lizard.

We stopped on Cinnamon Island where we were treated to a demonstration of exactly what goes into harvesting cinnamon. It’s still a very labour intensive manual process in Sri Lanka but I found it very interesting. It’s worth seeing exactly how it’s done, and buying the obligatory dried sticks of cinnamon and cinnamon oil, used as a home remedy for headaches. But get in early so you are there on your own. As we were leaving, a huge Italian tour group turned up and that somehow makes it feel less authentic and personal. Our final stop was a very tranquil Buddhist temple right in the middle of the river and we had just enough time to get back for a sandwich and shower before we had to make our way to the airport.

I highly recommend this resort for those wanting a private and luxurious villa hideaway only a few hours from Dubai. It isn’t often that you get personalised, luxurious accommodation like this in such a tranquil and beautiful setting with warm hospitable staff. And it’s not surprising the resort is a finalist in this year’s world luxury hotel awards. If you’re thinking of spending a bit of the summer in Sri Lanka (and if you aren’t you should), do yourself a favour and mix it up with a couple of days on the beach and a couple of days at Cocoon Resort & Villas in Induruwa. And if you find yourself in Nuwara Eliya try one of their other resorts too. You won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Many thanks to Cocoon Resorts for the stay and wonderful hospitality.

A Trek Around The Temples Of Angkor

The Temples

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire that reigned supreme from around the 9th – 15th centuries. It’s complex of temples is a World Heritage Site and a place you have to visit.

Angkor Wat Temple Sunrise Cambodia

Angkor Wat from above Cambodia

Monks at Angkor Wat Cambodia

There are over 1000 temples in various stages of disrepair, with restoration having been made a priority in the last decade or so. Standing proudly at the centre of it all, and still the most impressive is Angkor Wat, built by King Suryavarman The Second between 1113 and 1150. I dragged myself out of bed before sunrise to capture it at first light, before taking a stroll around the main complex hours before the buses of tourists descended and I wasn’t disappointed. It is a beautiful experience.

Outside an ancient temple Cambodia

Tomb Raider Temple

Tree overtaking a temple Cambodia

Wall of statues Cambodia

I hired a guide to take me to a number of the other more famous temples including Bayon, also known as the Temple of Faces, The Baphuon that offers a wonderful view from the top and Ta Prohm, the backdrop of the Tomb Raider movie which has been reclaimed in parts by nature as trees with giant roots have taken up home in around the stonework. If you go early enough to skip too many tourists and follow a guide who knows the temples well, you’ll feel like you’ve discovered the ancient ruins yourself.

Temple with faces Cambodia

Tall temple with faces Cambodia

You can do the more popular and famous temples close to Siem Reap in one or two days, but if you’re a real temple buff or don’t like other people there are a number of complexes further away that a guide can take you to. The more energetic people I saw rented bicycles to ride to the temples, but honestly, it’s further than it seems.

Top of a temple Cambodia

Temple garden Cambodia

The Town

Siem Reap is a small, relaxed town and is easy to walk around. Life spills out onto the streets with massage and reflexology chairs lining the pavements and tanks filled with flesh nibbling fish. Pub Street, nearby, is where most of the action happens, hardly surprising with a name like that.

Siem Reap street Cambodia

Art in Siem Reap Cambodia

Street sellers Siem Reap Cambodia

There is also a central market where you’ll find a wide range of everyday goodies and tourist tat. And if you’re looking for some quiet time, there is a small river that runs through the town where you can find the odd small coffee shop and eatery to sit.

Pub Street Siem Reap Cambodia

Beautiful restaurant Siem Reap Cambodia

Fish massage shop Siem Reap Cambodia

Fish tank Siem Reap Cambodia

Street massage Siem Reap Cambodia

Note: Unfortunately one thing you will discover is that over the years orphanages have become part of Cambodia’s landscape, and a popular tourist attraction. This has led to plenty of unscrupulous people setting up places and exploiting children to raise money. So please don’t visit any orphanages, kids shouldn’t be seen as tourist attractions.

However, if you do want to do something positive, I recommend you visit Haven restaurant where orphans that are now going into the workforce are trained in hospitality skills so they have a future to look forward to. It’s a lovely, peaceful place with good food and wonderful people.

You don’t need many days in Siem Reap and at the temples, but make sure it’s on your Asia itinerary because it’s a wonderful trek back in time.

The Perfect Stay In Sri Lanka

Sometimes you just want to take a quick weekend away and not have to do all the research and planning to figure out where to stay and what to do. Sure it’s fun, but it can be tiring, so this post on Sri Lanka requires no thinking on your part. If you like comfort and style in a laidback setting, then stay and play at these places and you’re bound to come home with a smile.

The first thing you should do is book a room in the spa wing at the Jetwing Lighthouse hotel, near the ever-popular city of Galle on the south coast. It’s a very popular home-grown hotel group with a number of luxurious hotels dotted around the island. This hotel isn’t actually in a lighthouse, but it is an original Geoffrey Bawa building. If you haven’t heard of him, he was a pretty famous architect in Sri Lanka and beyond. The hotel’s website shows off a pretty decent looking venue, but personally I don’t feel the site does the hotel justice. It is even nicer in real life.

Sitting just off the old main road, it is right on the ocean and even though it has quite a few rooms, it still has a very boutique ambiance about it, especially in the spa wing. The spa wing rooms are very comfortable and spacious and have balconies with uninterrupted sea views (rooms elsewhere in the hotel are also nice by the way). The sea, as in most parts of Sri Lanka is a bit rough for swimming, but it doesn’t matter because there’s a very big pool right below you and a decent café for all day eating and drinking, so you never have to leave your side of the hotel. As an added bonus, if you’re really attached to the internet, you can lie on a deck chair, eat, drink and surf the web, because surprisingly, the wifi reaches out there. And if at the end of the day, you feel the need for a massage, just pop into the spa, which is right next to the pool.

 

If you have energy and want to get out and sightsee a little, the one place you shouldn’t miss is the Galle Fort. This 400 odd year old working fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a fascinating place to stroll about and there are a number of boutiques, gem stores and good cafes and restaurants where you can eat. You can read more about it in my previous story.

If you or your kids desperately want to swim in the sea, the two biggest and most popular beaches nearby are Unawatuna or Hikkaduwa. They both have expansive bays and calm waters. They tend to be full of tourists, but you will find a place to put your towel down and bob about. If you’re ok with a pool, you’ll be just fine at the hotel.

There are of course plenty of amazing things to do in Sri Lanka, like early morning whale watching about an hour away in Mirissa. But I wouldn’t recommend trying to travel too far to see things, especially if you’re just there for a long weekend. The roads are still narrow and driving anywhere takes hours longer than it should.

There are a couple of very large national parks, but honestly, they are too far for a day drive, and you should rather spend that time relaxing at the pool or exploring the fort or something else nearby. One or two easier activities closer by that are interesting for first-timers, are the various turtle sanctuaries, or the Hundungoda Tea Estate. You won’t get miles and miles of rolling green hills like in Nuwara Eliya, but it is a tea plantation and you’ll get an interesting tour.

Those of you who like nothing better than hopping in a tuk-tuk and heading to a restaurant for a long lazy lunch or dinner are in for a treat. If you’re after some authentic Italian food, cooked by an Italian restauranteur and his mother (who doesn’t speak any English), you should get yourself to WhyBeach in Thalpe. This small upmarket area seems to be home to most of my favourite boutique hotels, guesthouses and good restaurants.


Another hidden gem that we frequented on our last trip is Wijaya Beach, a longtime favourite of expats who live in the area. A small double story restaurant on the sand with fantastic views of the ocean is the perfect laid-back place to relax over a long session of food and drinks. It is a chic-shack on the beach with a nice crowd and is tucked away just enough not to be overrun with tourists. They also happen to do a pretty tasty wood-fired pizza, that isn’t something you find everywhere.

 

If neither of those tickle your fancy, or you’re happy to try a few places, you should also give the new Talpe Beach Restaurant & Bar a go. The owners know what they’re doing and are very friendly and hospitable. The venue itself is stylish and laid-back. It has a nice pool where you can take a dip, and there’s a gate that opens straight onto the beach. There is an outdoor bar and tables, and a tasty menu filled with steak, seafood, pasta and desserts. Again it’s good for lunch, but I would recommend it for sundowners. Take a seat in one of the sea-facing chairs (be careful you don’t nod off) and polish off a nice chilled bottle of wine, eat a good dinner, then make your way back to the hotel for a very peaceful night’s rest.

Talpe Beach Restaurant & Bar View Sri Lanka

I think it’s quite clear by now that I think Sri Lanka is a very special island, and undoubtedly the perfect place to spend a long weekend or even a couple of months. So get yourself over there as soon as you can and visit the places I’ve recommended. Believe me, even if all you do is lie around the hotel pool and nothing else on this list, it will take weeks for the happiness to wear off once you return home again.

A Note On Transport

I seem to have had some problem with my transport each time I’ve been to Sri Lanka for some reason. So I recommend you give your hotel very clear instructions for your pick-up, and re-confirm them as you’re leaving so you don’t have to stand around searching for a guy with your name on a board who isn’t there. Thankfully, if there is a mix-up you can ask any of the guys at the counters inside the airport to arrange you a taxi. They’re very helpful and are transparent about their prices. Just make sure they give you a comfortable car with air conditioning, because the drive down to Galle is two and a half hours on the highway. Also be sure to tell the driver you want to take the highway, or you’ll be taking the five to seven hour slow coastal road. (This happened to some friends recently and they were broken by the time the reached the hotel). You’ll have to pay a bit for the toll fees but it’s well worth it. By October the trip should be even shorter as the ring road around Colombo connects to the highway, but for now you want to be comfortable as you can.

 

 

 

The Taiwan Lantern Festival 2015

Last month I had the privilege of being invited to Taiwan by the Taiwan Ministry of Tourism to enjoy the island nation’s annual Lantern Festival. What an amazing treat.

The Lantern Festival is traditionally celebrated on the 15th day of the first Chinese lunar month and we spent a full day at the incredible Sun Moon Lake (coming in the next post) before arriving in the city of Taichung where the official opening ceremony was taking place.

 

I purposefully didn’t do any research because I wanted to go with the flow and enjoy the experience. I have to admit I expected things to be a bit crazy because of all the tourists, but like everything else I had experienced in the previous couple of days in Taiwan, the festival was very well organised. There were signs in multiple languages, clean toilets and plenty of volunteers, security personnel and police around.

The atmosphere was electric and a serious sensory overload (in a good way). It was a festival filled with fireworks, flying lanterns, barbeques and, well, a sheep petting area.

 

 

Our small group went to find out where we were seated before going off to explore and we were more than happy to discover we’d been given VIP seating. We understood the handbag check and the metal detector before we were allowed to take our seats, but the Secretive Service seemed a bit over the top for us out-of-towners. Then we discovered we were seated in the same area as President Ma Ying-Jeou and Premier Mao Chi-Kuo. I love a good hook up!

Taiwan Lantern Festival VIP Seating

When we ‘checked-in’ we were greeted by a line up of gorgeous women and we each received a beautiful gift on our seat. Then we had about 40 minutes to take a look about so I headed straight for the ‘street food’ section. The Taiwanese are apparently bigger foodies than Singaporeans. Who knew? There was a huge assortment of sweet and savoury stands run by locals and other than the odd wave of ‘stinky tofu’ everything looked and smelled delicious. (Yes, they actually call it ‘stinky tofu’ and it’s an extremely popular, delicious snack with a horrible and unforgettable stench).

The ceremony started exactly on time and I have to say I love the punctuality in Taiwan. This year’s festival featured a giant goat lantern that stood a record 23.4 meters high. We were treated to a variety of performances before the speeches from the President and the Mayor with opening greetings in Mandarin, Taiwanese, English, Japanese and Korean. Once the speeches were done the sky was lit up for the next twenty minutes. I was struggling to balance between watching it in real life and through the lens to capture the magic. (You can see a video on our instagram feed). It was so impressive and made me feel like a kid all over again.

We finished the evening by taking a look at all the lanterns that were submitted in the public competition. There were so many different shapes, sizes and characters it was hard to believe most of them were lanterns.

It was one night of fun but I had an incredible time and I definitely think the Lantern Festival should be on your travel list. You don’t have to take my word for it though. If the pictures haven’t convinced you yet, then know that the Discovery Channel has rated the festival one of the top tourist festivals in the world. I can understand why, it is far more magical than anything I can display here and I really look forward to experiencing it again soon.

 

A very special thank you to the Taiwan Tourism Bureau  for inviting The Travel Manor to enjoy this incredible experience.