World’s Largest Buddhist Temple – Borobudur – ticked off the list

 

Standing tall amidst the tropical greens of central Java, Candi Borobudur is not only a religious place, but also an architectural marvel!

 

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Borobudur as you reach the base amidst the sea of people

Travelling has been on the back-burner for quite a while ever since baby L arrived. However, the travel bug hasn’t really stopped nagging us. Hence a short trip to Yogyakarta or more popularly known as Jogja was planned during the Chinese New Year holiday. For one it was a much needed break and secondly it was to review where we stand in terms of traveling with a baby. The latter can be a full blown write-up in itself that I shall shelve for now.

From Jogja to Borobudur

img_5093Jogja came into prominence when two historic temple sites – Prambanan and Borobudur were declared world heritage sites by UNESCO. Today, the city is thronged by many tourists to visit them.

Borobudur was built in the 9 century and is the world’s largest Buddhist Temple – located in the precincts of Magelang in Central Java – a good 1+ hour drive from Jogja city. The best time to visit the temple is early morning for its picturesque and famed sunrise. We didn’t opt for it for obvious reasons – nobody wakes up a sleeping baby that early. Hence a not so exciting mid-morning was chosen for our trip.

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One of the 9 stacked platforms

Upon reaching, we were escorted to the entrance by our driver, who advised us to be wary of pickpocketing, looking at the huge number of turnouts that day – well it was a weekend plus a public holiday! But thankfully, the temple has two separate entrances for locals and foreigners – which made it easier for us as the local queue was pretty long.

bb7It’s about a 10 minute walk to the base of the temple from the entrance. The temple complex is pretty huge and I was pleasantly surprised how well maintained it was, especially its long stretches of well-manicured lawns. As we walked down the main pathway – we could get the first glimpses of the famed Borobudur. It’s huge and magnificent – just like I had imagined.

Grandeur of a Forgotten Era

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One of the 72 Stupas on the Top of the Temple

Borobudur is built on nine stacked platforms – six square and three circular, topped by a central dome. It is an easy climb to the top. The central dome atop the temple along with its 72 Buddha statues – each seated inside a perforated stupa – is a sight to be etched in memory. Apparently, the temple boasts of 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. It’s awe-inspiring how this ancient structure has stood the test of time – wonder if any of our modern structures will live that long for later generations to witness.

It’s amazing how this structure this size was made in that age and time – when little technology and tools were available. It’s also incredible how this huge temple complex was hidden in the jungles for so many centuries! Borobudur, for the uninitiated, was only discovered in the last century and has been restored by the Indonesian government and UNESCO and later declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

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The Stupas

Borobudur was the reason we went to Jogja – and it truly lived up to be a highlight of our trip! I would someday love to come back to experience the sunrise here – maybe with Baby L –when she is no longer a baby.

With that I sign off now. As always here are some of the tips before planning a trip to Borobudur!

  1. Carry plenty of sunscreen, light clothes, umbrellas and hats as the place has not shades. It is an open temple.
  2. Wear comfortable shoes.
  3. Carry water. Although the entrance ticket gives you complimentary water/ tea/ coffee.
  4. Try to avoid wearing short clothes as they are not allowed inside the temple compound. However, if you happen to wear short clothes, they will give you a complimentary sarong at the entrance.
  5. Purchase a combine Borobudur and Prambanan ticket as it is cost effective. However you need to use the combined ticket within 2 days. The cost of one combined ticket is USD 32. Children below 5 years are admitted free.
  6. Avoid Public Holidays and Weekends to escape huge crowds.
  7. Follow signage, when climbing the temple as we lost our way a few times.
  8. You can join a tour group as it is cheaper but not flexible. Alternatively you can hire a car with a driver and you can spend the day at your own pace. A car with a driver costs about IDR 450,000 for the entire day including fuel and driver charges. You pay extra for parking and tolls.
  9. Stay away from people hard selling souvenirs, hats and other knick-knacks around the temple.
  10. Be prepared to walk through alleys of shops once you exit. The walk from the exit to the parking is really long and it’s like a maze.
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Sojourn to Quaint Cingjing Farm in Taiwan

Nestled in the central mountains of Taiwan is Cingjing. Its gentle hillslopes and green meadows dotted with Victorian styled cottages and grazing sheeps are reminiscent of the European countryside. Here is an account of a recent trip to this little Taiwanese settlement.

3Driving through the Central Mountains in Taiwan and after a day spent in the gorgeous Taroko Gorge and Hehuanshan Mountain (read my first part of the Taiwan trip here), we reached Cingjing Farm in the late afternoon of a wet and misty December day.

Staying in a minsu

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We had a night and half a day to explore this place located at Renai Township in Nantou county of Taiwan. We checked into our minsu – Taiwan is known for its minsus (homestays or small villas and small hotels) that are quite popular among tourists, especially in the countryside. We stayed at this idyllic minsu called – Twins of Seattle! I was quite amused with the name par se and a bit doubtful when I booked the place, but it turned out to be quite a great stay. Since we reached late we spent the evening lazing around and enjoying the mist and chilly evening with a piping hot steamboat for dinner.

Our minsu was about 10-15 minute drive from Cingjing’s main attractions, nevertheless we were glad that it was at a peaceful place and at a good elevation. Next morning we got up for the spectacular sunrise overlooking the river at a distance and panoramic view of the hills.

Green Green Grassland

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We were geared up for a day exploring the farm. Soon after breakfast we took the minsu shuttle car to Green Green Grassland – the main farm that tourists visit in Cingjing. I think the double ‘green’ is to emphasize how green the meadows are. However, it was winters when we visited and the grass wasn’t that green. It was rather brown.

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The farm is spread over several acres of land on hillslopes. We took a stroll across the farm where sheeps were grazing and it was fun to click some photos with them, although they seemed to be more interested in the grass than their visitors.

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On the other end of the farm were more pastures with a windmill – I guess just to add more to the farm’s touristy appeal. But it didn’t look so out of place. The farm overlooks the crisscrossing mountains and the valley at the distance with some breathtaking views and is ideal for landscape photography.

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After spending about an hour or so at the farm we returned to our minsu. Cingjing has one more attraction the Small Swiss Garden, however, after reading not so positive reviews, we thought of skipping it from our to do list.

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Overall I would say Cingjing was a calming experience far away from the hustle and bustle of urban areas. The place was not just picture perfect, its people were wonderful too. We survived there perfectly without knowing a word of Mandarin, and our hotel staff not knowing a word of English. We spoke in sign language and used Google Translator extensively. Thanks to the helpful and friendly locals who did whatever they could to make our stay enjoyable and comfortable (I will come to that in a separate post).

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Things to Note:

If you are planning a trip to Cingjing, there are two ways of reaching the place. One is via Taroko Gorge and Hehuanshan. This route is longer. Most people visit Cingjing from Taichung or Sun Moon Lake or even Alishan which are about 1 hour away each. One day is more than enough to visit the farm. In fact you can totally skip staying at the place and make a day trip. Else you can combine a visit to Hehuanshan mountain along with Cingjing. But do visit the farm!

  • The entrance fee varies for adults and children and whether it’s a weekday or weekend. Visit http://www.cingjing.gov.tw/en/information/index.php for more information.
  • Nearest High Speed Railway Station is Taichung.
  • The farm opens at 8 am and closes by 4 pm.

Visit their official website for more details.

Coming up next: From Cingjing to Sun Moon Lake.

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Why do we love debates?

We Indians take immense pride in our ability to debate, deliberate and argue and counter-argue each and everything that we come across. This right is taken with much seriousness than any other of our rights, I would like to believe. Thus, most of us have opinions about issues that concern us and issues that do not even have the rarest of possibilities to have any kind of impact on us whatsoever.

Media and politicians help us sharpen that skill every day and every time.

They exactly know how to touch that right chord. It’s simple, more outrageous the content of news and speeches of politicians, more the eyeballs. Whether it’s some politician blaming Chinese food for the increasing number of rapes in India or the unfeasible beef ban in Maharashtra or maybe in entire India – all this quite obviously bring out the argumentative Indian in us. And the continuous chain of debates continues and at most times, there is no conclusion to any of them.

There is another aspect to how media works and manage to tickle our argumentative bone – if there is one such. They provide us opinionated and biased news. Moreover they report non-newsworthy stories. I’m seriously not interested where Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma dined last night and whether Anushka is responsible for Virat’s semi-final debacle. When we talk about such stuff, debates stoop to the level of gossip. Here however, people are to be blamed too. We curse and blame them on social media in the hope of getting those 15 minutes of fame via likes and comments.

So why do people debate over issues that matter and issues that don’t?

There can be several reasons. Passion is one of them. Then there is a cultural side to it. We are encouraged to know what’s going on around us and have an opinion on that. This is at least true for the Indian middle class. But is it plain passion and cultural implications or is it just because there is so much news in India?

The issue in my opinion runs deep. We have a knack to not mind our own business. We need to have opinions about everything – whether it’s our neighbor, our cricketer, our politician and everyone else. But we will not do anything about it.

Take another example – the discussions over Deepika Padukone’s video on women empowerment – did she do a good job? Is it really about women empowerment? The video has been liked, disliked, criticized and loved in equal measures. It’s good to question. I’m not saying that. We must and we will.

The aspiring nation

What I’m trying to say here is that all such reactions are signs of an aspiring population – because deep down there we know we have not yet made it. We want to be recognized as a secular, educated, equal society. And when that politician makes an outrageous comment, that team doesn’t win the world cup and a video on empowerment has loopholes and only manages to deliver its message half way – we have an urge to rectify it or at least we need to make them realize where they went wrong. Our egos are dented and there comes the argumentative Indian in full glory.

Having said that, I totally agree that debates are signs of a healthy democracy and we should be proud of them. But let’s not happily dwell in the comfort zones of these debates and discussions – because we have a tendency not to find solutions. Let’s not romanticize our arguments and restrict them to drawing discussions and long status updates on social media and fool ourselves that we have made our point clear and we bask in that glory of proving how well-read and how intelligent we are. Because the point is that more than often all these head nowhere.

Global image and why we need to choose what to react on

There is yet another aspect to such chaotic debates. Most often we are oblivious to the fact that there are people reporting about India outside as well. What global message are we sending? Most often we are viewed as a feeble, chaotic and an over-sensitive country that leans on drama if not hysteria. As all the negative news grabs headlines and our global image is totally marred and we are made to look like a regressive society.

We cannot do much about how we are portrayed globally as long as our media continues to give importance to non-newsworthy (read negative) stories. But what we can do is to choose what we argue about, what we question, what we read, what we like and what we share and comment on. We can also move beyond the temporary highs of wining arguments and get a macro view of things.

I would sum up in one sentence – let’s foster an environment of more action oriented debates.

Let our actions speak louder than our words.

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The Gorgeous Gorge in Taiwan

What’s so special about a drive through winding mountain roads that pierces through a slew of tunnels on a misty December morning? Most mountain roads are beautiful, aren’t they? But this drive on Taiwan’s Central Cross Island Highway offers spectacular vistas as it runs parallel to the mighty Taroko Gorge – a constant reminder of how nature works and how beautifully carved creations it leaves behind.

Liwu River

Liwu River

On a wintry December morning we embarked on our drive to Taroko from Hualien – a coastal town in Eastern Taiwan. Within a few minutes – from sea level we drove into the steep landscape on the Central Cross Island Highway – one of the most scenic highways I have ever been to.

The highway is not just beautiful it is also considered one of the most dangerous highways in the world due to rock fall incidents every now and then, especially after heavy rainfall or typhoon, when the highway is closed for safety reasons. Interestingly, Taroko Gorge has been formed due to the shift in plates – the Philippines Oceanic plate pressing against the Eurasian Continental Plate. In fact the Gorge is still gaining height which is why the place is prone to earthquakes and hence considered risky.

The Shrine of Eternal Spring and more

The Shrine of Eternal Spring

The Shrine of Eternal Spring

After about 20 minutes, we reached the main entrance to Taroko Gorge – a favorite stopover for tourists and take photos.  We also did the same touristy stuff. As we proceeded on the highway, the stunningly carved Taroko Gorge became more and more intimidating. The 19-km-long marble canyon is formed by the flowing Yiwu river which runs in between the gorge.

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Our next stop was at the Shrine of Eternal Spring. We walked up to the other side of the Gorge to the Shrine via manmade tunnels. Just for trivia, the central cross island highway was constructed by workers using simple tools and some 200 of them died during the construction. This shrine is dedicated to them. Next to the shrine is a natural spring and its water empties into the Liwu River below. The legend has it that the spring never dries up and hence the name. The view of the temple with the gushing spring water amidst the steep gorge seemed surreal and looked like a postcard straight out of some ancient Chinese book.

Swallow Grotto

Swallow Grotto

Swallow Grotto

December is the time for monsoons on the east coast of Taiwan and certain parts of the Gorge were covered in mist. Capturing all the picturesque vistas, we drove to our next stop – Swallow Grotto. We had a chance to observe the marble carved by the Yiwu river from closer quarters. Our cabbie dropped us at a point from where we walked close to the gorge to explore on our own. How artistically the marble has been formed with the water flowing and cutting the rocks over several hundreds and thousands of years. We were told, in earlier days, marble was extracted from the gorge for personal / commercial use by locals. But today, it’s banned and the canyon is protected by the government.

Deep into the Gorge

Deep into the Gorge

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Marble formations

Marble formations

Thereafter, we also stopped by at the Suspension Bridge that goes over the gorge. The wobbly bridge reminded me of the Lakshman Jhula in Rishikesh, India.

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The Suspension Bridge

Apart from these stopovers along the gorge, the drive itself was brilliant as we crossed one section of the gorge moving into the other with some sharp hairpin turns leading to a new vista every time. We crossed several long tunnels cutting through the gorge.

Another major attraction at Taroko is the Tunnel of Nine Turns, but it was closed for maintenance when we visited.

Drive to Hehuanshan and ahead

After sometime, we gorgeous gorge gave way to central mountains. We stopped by at the Bilu Sacred Tree which is said to be 3,200 years old and about 50 m high with a diameter of 3.5 m. The trivia that our cabbie shared – this tree is even older than Taiwan’s civilization – because the island has seen human settlement only in the last 2,000 years or so. Interesting, but not sure if it’s true!

Panorama of the Beautiful Gorge

Panorama of the Beautiful Gorge

At this point the weather was slowly getting cold and we stopped by at a local restaurant on the highway for lunch. The food served was pepper chicken with rice – was finger licking good especially on such a cold winter day.

After lunch we headed to the Hehuanshan Mountains. For those unfamiliar with Taiwan’s geography, the country is shaped like a sweet potato and the central mountains separate the east from the west coast as it runs from north to south.

Hehuanshan mountain range is the tallest mountain that is accessible by vehicle in Taiwan at 3422 meters. The day we visited the mountain, the temperature dipped to -2 degrees! We shivered and it started to snow – tiny little flakes. Coming from hot and humid Singapore, it was such a wonderful thing to shiver! After crisscrossing the several beautiful mountain ranges, our cabbie dropped us at our final destination on this leg of the trip – Cingjing Farm in Taiwan’s Nantou county. So, stay tuned for this part of my Taiwan trip in my next post!

Things to Remember while visiting Taroko Gorge

  • The best way to travel to the gorge is from the nearby town of Hualien – which is well connected by trains from Taiwan’s major cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung.
  • Bring warm clothes as it can get cold in Taroko. Bring an umbrella if you visit during the rainy season.
  • There are buses that take you to Taroko Gorge from Hualien station. We took a cab because we were doing a cross island trip to Hehuanshan and Cingjing Farm.
  • A typical cab ride from Hualien to Cingjing via Taroko and Hehuanshan costs about TWD 5000. A cab can take a maximum of 4 pax. Check out http://www.hualien-taxi.tw/ This is a very reliable agency. But you need to book in advance.
  • There is no entrance fee into the gorge. However, please check out the official website http://www.taroko.gov.tw/English/ for any news of closure.
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Day Trip to Pulau Ubin – Singapore’s Kampong styled island

A ten minute boat ride can transport you to another time – probably the 1960s. Pulau Ubin – where time seems to have paused – is a true relic from the past as compared to its rich sister Singapore. Consciously preserved in true kampong (village) style, the boomerang shaped island is a popular weekend day trip destination for many high-rise city dwellers of Singapore.

CAM01605Just off the northeastern coast of the main island of Singapore is Pulau Ubin. Its humble surroundings are a complete contrast from the well-manicured environs of Singapore’s mainland. Pulau Ubin had been on our to-do list for a while now. So on a hot and humid Saturday morning (can’t get a better day as this is the typical Singaporean weather), we head to Changi Ferry Terminal to catch a bumboat ride to Pulau Ubin. Within ten minutes we were transported to Pulau Ubin Jetty.

To explore the island, you can rent a bicycle, walk or hire a minivan (suitable for bigger groups or people with elderly /infants). The best way is to explore on a cycle as walking can be a lot more tedious and time consuming. We rented a tandem cycle to explore the island for SGD 12.

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We grabbed a map of the island and decided to begin with Chek Jawa Wetlands. The island has proper signboards so it’s easy to navigate. After cycling for about 10 minutes we reached a point where the terrain gets hilly and rough. We embarked on it thinking we will reach the wetlands in no time. But it took quite a while as the terrain was uneven. There were times when we had to push the bike and tomes when we had to ride with caution, especially the steep slopes.CAM01616

After reaching Chek Jawa Visitor centre, we parked our cycle at the designated spot and walked to the Broadwalk that leads you to the mangroves. The Broadwalk is a proper wooden pathway taking you in between the mangroves into the sea. Since it was low tide, we saw some marine life tiny crabs, fishes and some other creatures that I didn’t recognize. We were told, if you are lucky you may see star fishes too.

Mangroves

Mangroves

Some kind of Marine creatures

Some kind of Marine creatures

Since it was a weekend, there was a lot of people. After our walk along the sea, we resumed our cycling. Next stop was at the Balan Quarry. Pualu Ubin had many granite quarries in the yesteryears. Now mining is banned and the quarries have filled with rainwater, transforming into picturesque lakes. The Balan Quarry is located near Chek Jawa. However, swimming and fishing are not allowed in Balan Quarry as well as the other quarries in the island.

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Balan Quarry

Balan Quarry

Another Quarry

Another Quarry

We cycled across the island and visited other spots such as the Sensory Trail, Butterfly Hill, etc. The island also has many campsites such as Noordin and Mamam but some of them have been closed due to soil erosion.

At about half past noon we decided to head back to Ubin town area for our lunch. We chose Season Live Seafood and treated ourselves to some honey glazed prawns and later a steamed Hong Kong styled fish. I absolutely loved the seafood as it was fresh and deliciously prepared. After an hour of feasting, we explored the other side of the island –vmore greenery, trails, and more rain water filled quarries.

Hong Kong Steamed Fish

Hong Kong Steamed Fish

The afternoon heat made cycling a drag and we decided to return the cycle to the shop and head back home. We didn’t have to wait much long for the bumboat return ride and were back on the other side in about 15 minutes.

The day trip was rewarding for our air-con bred bodies that for a change inhaled fresh air and our eyes had a good break from the computer screen.

The island is good for cycling. There is also an area for mountain biking – which we didn’t explore. Overall it was a good break from our routine life.

Things to note:

  1. Bumboat ride per person per way is SGD 2.50 (per person). So SGD 5 for a round trip per person.
  2. You have to pay directly to the bumboat owners at the beginning of each way trip.
  3. The bumboat carries 12 people and it only leaves when they have that number onboard. Or else you can pay SGD 30 and take the boat to Pulau Ubin.
  4. There is no proper timetable for the ferry departure.
  5. The island opens from 8:30 am to 6 pm every day.
  6. You can choose from a variety of bicycles.
  7. Do not forget to bring in cash as cards are not accepted in the island.
  8. Try to reach as early as possible to avoid the heat.
  9. You can get your own cycle from Singapore on the bumboat by paying SGD 2.
  10. Wear sunscreen, comfortable clothes, sunglasses and sneakers. You may also carry mosquito repellent, especially if you are camping.
  11. Carry water. Although you can buy at the vending machines located island wide.
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A short weekend getaway – Malshej Ghat and Diveagar

A few years ago we went to Diveagar in Raigarh district of Maharashtra. Although it’s about 170 km from Mumbai, we took a different route. It was actually a detour. We first went to Pune (another city in Maharashtra) where we were joined by our friends, and then we drove via Malshej Ghat to Diveagar.

The road into the Ghats

Malshej Ghat

The route via Malshej Ghat is one of the less taken ones as it’s not in a very good condition, making the journey long and tedious. But it’s also one of the most beautiful places in the ghats, hence the decision to take it.

View from the top of Malshej Ghats

View from the top of Malshej Ghats

Greenery!

Greenery!

It was the rainy season, and the best time for visiting the Western Ghats (hills) when they come alive with breathtaking greenery all around. So we embarked on this journey – a rather back breaking one, thanks to the terrible roads. But we survived it with occasional stops enroute to soak in the beauty of the place, especially the numerous waterfalls.

We reached Diveagar at about 3 pm and checked into Exotica Beach Resort. Diveagar is a small town in coastal Maharashtra and is one of the many beaches that people visit on long weekends from Mumbai and Pune.

Waterfalls along the way

Waterfalls along the way

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

The resort is located next to the beach. We stayed in one of cottages in the resort.

After a freshening up we walked to the beach. The beach was quite clean and there were very few people. It was a clear sky and the sunset on the Arabian Sea was beautiful. Since the place around the resort has practically nothing to offer, no shopping or eateries, we retired to our rooms and spent the evening at leisure inside the resort.

Exotica Resort

Exotica Resort

We returned the next day.

The perfect sunset

The perfect sunset

3I wouldn’t highly recommend this beach to you. You can do it if you like solitude. Bring along books to read and please visit in a group so that you have company.

As far as Malshej Ghat is concerned, you can do a day trip from Pune during the monsoons. It’s a ted far from Mumbai.

Diveagar beach

Diveagar beach

Sunset on DIveagar Beach

Sunset on DIveagar Beach

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Trip to Hong – Picture Perfect island in Thailand

When in Krabi you can choose from a host of islands to visit. We chose Hong because it is supposedly still unspoiled. This post will be more on the photographs – well they will speak for themselves!

Some of the most popular islands that are visited by tourists are – Koh Phi Phi, where the Hollywood movie ‘The Beach’ was shot and then there is James Bond island that was featured in Bollywood movie ‘Kaho na Pyar hain’.

Speed boats and long tail boats ferry tourists from Ao Nang (this is the main area in Krabi) to these islands. But booking your tickets at least one day in advance is advisable for a guaranteed seat. These boats generally leave in the morning, so that you have the day in hand when you reach these white sand beaches. While some of the islands are uninhabited, some like Koh Phi Phi has many resorts.

We chose a day trip to Hong island – an uninhabited island. We were told other islands have become a tad commercialized due to high inflow of tourists and Hong is still somewhat secluded and unexplored. So we set out on our Hong sojourn in the morning by a long tail boat.

Here is the photo essay!

One side of Hong island

One side of Hong island

Long Tail Boats on Hong island

Long Tail Boats on Hong island

Group of islands in the distance

Group of islands in the distance

Another island in the vicinity

Another island in the vicinity

Picture perfect beach!

Picture perfect beach!

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Getting inside the lagoon!

Getting inside the lagoon!

while Kayaking

Kayaking

Inside the lagoon

Inside the lagoon

Exploring!

Exploring!

The opening of the lagoon into the sea

The opening of the lagoon into the sea

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