Stopping animal cruelty in its tracks – Zafigo.com, June 6 2018

Aaron Gekoski is an environmental photojournalist from the UK who has spent over a decade documenting human-animal conflict. He has recently garnered much attention for his photography project which highlights animal cruelty at wildlife tourism attractions in Thailand. He spoke with Zafigo about the issues with wildlife tourism, being a responsible tourist, and his own goals.

Why did you choose to document this in Thailand?

This is a worldwide problem. It’s not just Thailand, it’s happening in [the United States of] America, the UK, and other places in the west too. Thailand seems to be the epicentre [of wildlife cruelty] as a lot of animals are kept in captivity in a country that has non-specific laws regarding cruelty. The Prevention of Cruelty Act isn’t specific on how big a holding area should be, what you should feed animals, what constitutes cruelty, and how an animal should be trained.

There are things like orangutan boxing shows daily. The majority of people are laughing at it and don’t seem to notice anything wrong, but they don’t see behind the scenes and how the animal may be trained, for example. Also, in other places, animals may have been taken from the wild and then have to live the rest of their lives in captivity.

What did you witness on your trip in Thailand?

The boxing orangutan shows were very bad. There were elephant rides being offered at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, and the elephants were not in a good state. They were skinny, swaying around and didn’t look healthy. Crocodiles there were in poor conditions.

Pata Zoo has four orangutans, a gorilla, and some chimps kept in filthy small cells at this zoo at the top of a shopping mall. They have no stimulation and [live in] an unsuitable environment. At Phuket Safari ECO+, there was a monkey theatre and elephants being made to perform in small rooms. It’s not happening just in Thailand, I really want to stress that.

Are there some places branding themselves as fair and sustainable but not necessarily abiding by these practices?

It’s quite common for places to greenwash. A lot of places dress themselves up as conservation initiatives. They say they’re all about conservation and about reintroduction, but often, they don’t end up doing it. They are money-making schemes working to the detriment of animals. I’m not anti-captivity; there are many zoos doing good things for conservation. I’m anti-cruelty. That’s the goal of this project, to fight cruelty.

Can you name some wildlife tourism operations worthy of support and others to avoid?

In Thailand, Wildlife Friends of Thailand are doing amazing things and have an excellent reputation. Safari World [Bangkok] is the glitziest, the most Disney-fied. What we witnessed was orangutan boxing and a morbidly obese orangutan who sat in a holding area that was much too small, begging for food. It doesn’t fill you with much hope when at the most high-end attraction you witness some of these shows and alarming situations. Phuket Zoo wasn’t great either, and Pata Zoo has had a lot of bad press also.

On the other hand, places like Houston Zoo and London Zoo put a lot of money into conservation. I used to live in London and visit London Zoo. Seeing animals up close inspired me to get into this industry. Most people don’t have access to these animals, so zoos and aquariums are important, but they must be done responsibly. If they can’t be, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate.

Did you have any difficulty getting these shots?

I just paid for tickets and filmed animals as I found them. This is all imagery that’s available and open to the public at any time. Those cage images weren’t behind the scenes, these are conditions animals live in.

I don’t want to speculate, but everything I hear about how these animals are kept and trained is bad. For example, elephants go through something called the crush, which is the most horrific form of animal abuse possible. They are literally beaten; their spirits are broken by handlers and they’re beaten until completely submissive.

What reactions have you had to your project?

I’ve seen the worst sides of humanity, and on the back of this, also seen some of the best. People have been donating; someone’s buying me a new camera and a guy is building me a site for free. The idea is to set up a platform so people can flag certain operations. It’ll be called Raise The Red Flag. People can log on to the website and make a report with photos. Once there are enough reports, we will speak to relevant authorities and try to make as much noise as possible.

Do you have any tips for those when choosing wildlife-related tourism options?

That’s why I’m setting up this platform, because there isn’t enough info out there. In general, if it involves animal shows and performances, there’s a red flag there right away. I don’t think animals should be made to perform for people because the way animals have been treated in order to make them perform is quite worrying. You can always do research on a place you are going to, check whether they have conservation initiatives, look at TripAdvisor and find out where they got the animals from.

(First published on Zafigo.com on June 6 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/stopping-cruelty-in-its-tracks/ )

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How to cut costs now to travel later – Zafigo.com, May 29 2018

Being unable to afford to travel is one of the most common issues you hear from those dreaming of an exotic getaway. True, most of us can’t afford to quit our day jobs for a life on the road, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore the world. With a bit of budgeting and a few small sacrifices, even those with the lightest of wallets can bring their faraway fantasies to life.

Cut out (expensive) coffee

Buying takeaway coffees isn’t only bad for the environment, it also chips away at your bank balance. With a basic coffee in a café chain costing at least RM10 (approximately USD2.50) in Malaysia, a daily cup of the black stuff will amount to a minimum of RM3650 (approximately USD918) in a single year.

At time of writing, that can score you return flights to New Zealand, with some change to spare! If you still need your coffee – and most of us do – swap trips to coffee chains for a brew at a food court or kopitiam (traditional coffee shop). Better yet, buy a reusable flask and have home-brewed java on the go.

Ditch the gym

Before you use this as an excuse to morph into a couch potato, hear me out. Exercise is a key component of maintaining optimal physical and mental health, so by no means should you give it up entirely. After all, you want to be ready to tackle those holiday hikes right? However, gym memberships can be extremely expensive and by cutting it out in favour of more cost effective forms of exercise, you can rake the bucks back in.

YouTube has a whole host of channels offering free fitness classes, from yoga to Zumba to circuit training and everything in between. Those who tend to drive to their gym will also save on fuel money, toll and parking.

If working out in the great outdoors is more your thing, no problem. Activities such as walking, running and swimming in nature are extremely beneficial forms of exercise. Grab a friend and a bottle of water, and get moving!

Seek out deals

You needn’t put life on hold now just to save for life in the future. Saving certainly involves cutbacks, but you don’t need to sacrifice everything you love and enjoy. It’s all about making smarter choices, not neglecting yourself.

For those who love monthly massages or regular trips to the hairdresser, seek out monthly in-house deals or discounted sessions offered by practicing students. If eating out in good restaurants is what makes you tick, take advantage of early bird deals or share a large main with a friend. Books and clothes can be bought online or at flea markets, which has an added environmental benefit as well as a financial one.

It’s also worth keeping a close eye on sites like Fave, that offers deals on practically everything in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Stay in

Staying in is the new going out, didn’t you hear? Perhaps not, but by opting to socialise in somebody’s home rather than at a restaurant or bar, you’ll certainly decrease your weekly spending.

Giving up your thrice-weekly lunch – not to mention coffee, dinner and drink – dates with friends may feel like the ultimate sacrifice now, but you’re certainly not going to regret it when boarding a plane in a few months. So why not tell the gang your intentions and kick-start regular social gatherings at home?

Pot luck dinners are a fun way of enjoying a feast without it costing the earth. The fact that everyone brings a dish means that you’ll always get to try something new and also, that not just one person is slaving away in the kitchen. Coffee dates, cocktail nights, cosy movie evenings and karaoke sessions can also be replicated at home for a fraction of the cost.

Sell online

As the saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Most of us are likely to have some clothes, CDs, sports equipment, electronics, or all of the above gathering dust in our cupboard after years of underuse. A clear-out is always good for your headspace and your wallet.

Organise a car boot sale to sell some of your old items, otherwise, avail of one of the many online platforms allowing you to do so. You won’t earn a fortune, but every little helps. Just try not to be an overly-sentimental hoarder when looking through old things.

Budget

Examining exactly what you spend in a month may be a shocking and painful task, but it’s a key part of your savings plan. Determine the amount you require for essentials such as rent, food and transport, add in an allowance for some treats and emergencies to keep you sane and you have your budget. Be strict with yourself and put anything outside of this directly into a separate account to avoid temptation.

(First published on Zafigo.com. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/how-to-cut-costs-now-to-travel-later/)

Asia’s best summertime festivals – Zafigo.com, May 16 2018

It’s already halfway through the year, and if you haven’t been to a festival yet, it’s time to get organising! Over the next three months, countries across the continent will spring to life as music, cultural, and food festivals kick off. With so many to choose from, and something for every preference and budget, here’s a taster of what’s out there:

Music magic

For many of us, festivals mean just one thing: Music. There’s nothing better than hearing your favourite band live in the great outdoors while chilling with good friends. Even if you don’t know all of the artists, music festivals give a great opportunity to make some new discoveries.

At the 20th annual Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia (July 13-15, 2018), you’re bound to do just that, as a wide array of international and local artists will converge in the stunning heart of Borneo’s jungle for the occasion. Acts include Tunisia’s Yallah Bye, and home-grown talent SwarAsia Malaysia, to name a few.

The Fuji Rock Festival (July 27-29, 2018) in Japan has the added bonus of a breath-taking backdrop, with the majestic Mount Fuji presiding over the event’s 10 stages. This year’s event includes some big-name acts like headliners N.E.R.D., Kendrick Lamar, Bob Dylan and Vampire Weekend, while drumming circles, workshops, massages and ‘Cinema Fuji’ will ensure you won’t get bored.

Other top music festival picks are the diverse and fun-filled Good Vibes Festival (July 21-22, 2018) in Genting Highlands, Malaysia, and Bali’s Sunny Side Up Tropical Festival (July 20-21, 2018) in Indonesia which offers the perfect concoction of music, art, and sustainability.

Culture vulture

There are plenty of impressive festivals in Malaysia, and the month-long Georgetown Festival (held every August) in Penang is as good as it gets. A true tourist magnet set in the streets of one a UNESCO World Heritage site, this annual event consistently holds an impressive line-up that showcases concerts, art exhibitions, theatre, dance, storytelling… Need we go on?

Another one for Malaysia, but this time in Borneo and cited as a celebration of the promotion of peace through culture, Sabah’s International Folklore Festival (July 23-30, 2018) in Kota Kinabalu is certainly worth a trip.

Dating back to the ninth century, Japan’s Gion Matsuri Festival in Kyoto (July) is one of the country’s most famous festivals; and for good reason. With origins rooted in an ancient religious purification ritual, and a name stemming from the famous Gion District, this is a must-go if you want to get a taste of traditional Japanese culture during your trip. Festival highlights include a float procession (a series of elaborate floats that often require teams of 50 to pull them), the procession of mikoshi (portable shrines) and  Nagoshi-sai (summer purification ceremony).

Other noteworthy festivals are China’s colourful Dragon Boat Festival (known as Duanwu), centred mainly in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Foodie fests

While most modern-day music and culture festivals offer a diverse range of delicacies – one needs energy for all that partying – there are many events where food takes centre stage. For instance, the Singapore Food Festival which runs from July 13-29, 2018, requires an expandable waistband to allow for all of that feasting! Visitors can gorge on many of Singapore’s best local eats, hear the stories behind the dishes, attend the ‘Fifty Cent Feast’ and test their own skills at cooking workshops before dancing off their dinner to the sounds of local musicians.

Meanwhile, fruit fans can rejoice as the Rayong Fruit Festival in Rayong, Thailand is set to return from June 1-5 , 2018. Dine on a delectable assortment of locally-grown fruits while supporting local farmers in the process. Delhi’s International Mango Festival (July 9 and 10, 2018) is also a good choice for fans of the five-a-day.

Finally, the Mogumogu Festival (short for ‘more goods, more gourmet’ and also known as MoguFes) is a mouth-watering celebration of world foods being held in Hokkaido, Japan from August 5-11, 2018.

Weird and wonderful

There are some things that you have to experience once in your lifetime, and Asia’s festival schedule certainly contains a few things worth putting on the bizarre bucket-list.

The Cheung Chau Buddhist Bun festival (May 19-23, 2018) in Hong Kong is a unique cultural extravaganza that culminates in the Bun Grabbing Contest at midnight on the last day of the celebrations. This sees the construction of a 60-foot tower of buns, up which participants scramble in the aim to collect as many buns as possible. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted!

If you’re not afraid of getting a little bit dirty, the Boryeong Mud Festival in South Korea (July 13-22, 2018) is the place for you! Held near Daecheon Beach, the aim of the event is to embrace your inner child and roll around in the mud through activities such as a giant mud bath, mud body painting and mud prison.

Finally, if you’re in need of a good conversation starter, tell friends you’re heading for the Hokkai Heso Matsuri (belly button festival) in Furano, Japan on July 28 and 29 , 2018. The main highlight of this is the ‘Hokkai belly button dance competition’ that attracts entrants in their thousands, and involves painting large faces on your belly. Local restaurants also get involved in ‘belly button gourmet’ by preparing unique dishes that somehow relate to the belly button.

(First published on Zafigo.com on May 16 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/asia-summertime-festivals-2018/)

Sustainable Watersports: Diving without Destruction – Zafigo.com, April 20 2018

Even while adventuring in new places, many of us are keen to see what’s literally below the surface. Recent research shows that marine tourism is one of the most rapidly growing tourism sectors globally, and with some of the world’s most beautiful reefs situated in Asia, you’re missing out if you don’t take a closer look.

It has to be said, however, that scuba diving and snorkelling come with a high price, and I’m not just talking about the cost of a PADI licence. There’s a growing awareness of how human activities impact our marine ecosystems, and these popular hobbies are certainly not exempt from the conversation.

Thankfully, several organisations and individuals worldwide have made it their goal to protect what remains of these precious underwater worlds. Established by the United Nations Environmental Programme and currently supported by The Reef-World Foundation, Green Fins is an ever-expanding network that focuses on improving the marine tourism industry through liaising with governments, NGOs, dive centres and individuals in their established countries.

“The overall aim of Green Fins is to protect and conserve coral reefs by establishing and implementing environmentally-friendly guidelines to promote a sustainable diving and snorkelling tourism industry,” explains Green Fins assessor for the Green Fins Malaysia network Nadhirah Mohd. Rifai.

Along with educating industry players on best practice, Green Fins aims to encourage tourists to take heed when taking the plunge. Here’s a summary of their suggestions:

Support positive change

Green Fins is working to ensure that all of its members serve as guardians to marine life by adopting eco-friendly and sustainable practices. The environmental standards of all dive and snorkel centres who have adopted the Green Fins Code of Conductare assessed annually.

“We recommend visiting Green Fins certified dive operators that can be found in Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, The Maldives and Palau,” says Nadhirah.

For the ultimate eco-friendly dive centres, Nadhirah recommends choosing from their top 10 Green Fins Members on this list; these centres are ranked the best among other Green Fins-certified dive operators.

Look with your eyes

While the rainbow of coral and seashells in our oceans may tie in perfectly with your household colour scheme, you must remember that the natural world is not a free-for-all gift shop. Whether dead or alive, don’t remove any coral or other marine life while diving or snorkelling. Besides causing environmental damage, removing coral from the ocean is illegal in many places. So why risk it? Let your memories will serve as the best souvenir. Additionally, be sure not to touch or step on coral, which is very fragile and takes a long time to grow.

Capture moments with care

It’s understandable to be eager to capture moments so you can share with loved ones back home. While underwater photography is certainly permissible, it’s important to take steps to prevent harm. Green Fins recommends that divers take care not to drag photography equipment against the reef as this can cause irreparable damage.

It’s also recommended that you practice your underwater photography skills prior to venturing out on a diving or snorkelling trip. This will ensure you are confident in carrying the equipment underwater and so, are less likely to cause an accident. Finally, as tempting as it can be, photographers are urged not to touch, move, chase or disturb any marine life in the quest for the perfect shot.

Leave no trace

You wouldn’t carelessly dump trash in your friend’s home so why do it to our underwater neighbours? We’re becoming increasingly aware of the impact that plastic is having on our oceans’ ecosystems and while the problem won’t be resolved overnight, you can play your part by ensuring that you don’t add to it. Make sure to bring any plastic bottles, food packaging and other waste home with you after the trip. What only takes a few moments to gather up can have long-term consequences for the ocean if left behind.

Additionally, while it is perfectly acceptable to feed yourself (a day at sea can leave you famished!), share leftovers only with fellow land-dwelling divers. Marine creatures have plenty of grub to keep them satisfied and eating human food could result in illness, aggression towards divers and an imbalance in ecosystems should fish choose to eat human food over algae.

Practice

It’s important to ensure that you know what you’re doing before taking to the water, both for your own safety and the safety of marine life. “Bad buoyancy may cause coral damage when divers kick the corals, as well as coral mortality due to sediments being stirred and then landing on nearby corals, choking them and blocking the sunlight,” says Nadhirah. The best way to practice? Keep diving! Just be sure to keep yourself, and the environment, safe from harm.

(First published on Zafigo.com on April 20 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/diving-without-destruction/ )

Bringing AI To The Masses – Asian Scientist, April 22 2018

Keen on picking up the fundamentals of AI? A community-driven movement known as AI Saturdays can give you a leg up.
It’s often said that knowledge is a form of wealth; in the face of a rapidly changing world, a new global initiative aims to equip people from all backgrounds with such riches. AI Saturdays, also known as AI6, is a community-driven, non-profit movement established to offer education on artificial intelligence (AI) to the masses. Through structured study groups, lectures and project work, the organizers aim to teach everybody how they can use AI in their everyday lives.
With the first chapter established in December 2017 in Singapore by Nurture.AI CEO Mr. Yap Jia Qing, followed by the second soon after in Kuala Lumpur, it could be said that the AI6 movement is in its infancy. Yet within a few months, the initiative has grown to include 103 chapters across six continents, including 47 in Asia. At time of writing, there are over 5,000 participants worldwide, from Kathmandu to California.
A worldwide classroom
AI Saturdays stemmed from a simple realization by the people at Nurture.AI, according to Mr. James Lee, AI research fellow at Nurture.AI and the co-head of AI6.
“Nurture.AI maintains a web platform for discussing academic AI papers. However, we realized that reading academic papers was not an activity that could be easily accessed by many. We created AI6 to help enable people to be comfortable with the technologies behind AI, as well as to build a community.”
Many distinguished universities, including Stanford and Harvard, offer open-source learning material on AI. Through AI6, the founders hoped to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to sit in one of these classrooms—from anywhere in the world.
“We didn’t expect to do anything big with it. We just thought we’d get people together to learn some AI by going through the materials available online. Initially this was for Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and it spread from there,” explains Lee, who is also one of the ambassadors of the Kuala Lumpur chapter.
Just like with AI technology itself, the direction of a meeting can be hard to predict, and is often dependent on the preferences of chapter members. However, all chapters center their Saturday lectures around open-access course material from universities like Stanford and Berkeley. The first session, ‘Practical Deep Learning,’ sees participants watch and code along with materials from fast.ai, a free deep learning course. In session two, ambassadors are asked to focus on either computer vision, reinforcement learning or natural language processing. Finally, in the third session, members go through Stanford’s Stats385 course and participate in open forum-style discussions. Group project work is also strongly encouraged throughout the course of these Saturday sessions.
“One of the things we do is encourage every chapter to have a milestone, to tell members to take what you have learned so far and produce something,” explains Lee. “In the Kuala Lumpur chapter for example, one guy took ten years of stock prices and made an algorithm that predicts whether they will go up and down in the next month. Others made a Trump tweet simulator. They downloaded Donald Trump’s tweets and tried to create a neural network that replicates the style.”
AI as a basic skill
Becoming an AI6 ambassador doesn’t require a significant amount of prior knowledge; instead, curiosity is key. Ambassador of the Delhi chapter Mr. Divyansh Jha says it was his interest rather than his experience in AI that led him to get involved in the movement in December 2017.
“I’m from an electronics background, but recently I developed a huge interest in deep learning and AI. For the last year, I’ve been taking steps to learn more and doing projects in this area,” he says, adding that becoming an ambassador has helped him to develop leadership skills that make him more employable.
Expanding his knowledge of AI is of great importance to Jha; why does he think others should learn?
“I think AI should become a basic skill, because within ten or twenty years, everything will involve AI. People should learn this skill so they can move forward,” says Jha, who while happy to share knowledge, says he doesn’t believe in forcing anyone to get involved.
For some, the rapid expansion of AI and machine learning is a source of fear. Indeed, in a 2017 global study conducted by independent consumer research agency Northstar, 22 percent of some 4,000 participants said they felt society will become worse due to increased automation and AI. Yet new technology doesn’t need to be fearsome, says Jha.
“The people who know about the current state of AI aren’t fearful. It is people who don’t know about these things who are very fearful,” he says. “I think the AI singularity is very far from today; I don’t see it grabbing jobs from people in the next ten or twenty years. AI is something that will help humans improve.”
Reaping the rewards
Ambassador for the Taipei chapter Mr. Kuo Ruey-shen echoes these views, adding that one must find a scenario suitable for AI in order to fully understand its benefits.
“You have to know the purpose of AI and why you are using it, and then you decide what type of algorithm and deep learning can help you. It’s a tool to help us do a lot of jobs, not a tool to replace you. I think it will allow you as a human to start to live again, but only if you use that in the right way. A lot of the reports write about the wrong way and make people afraid,” he says.
 AI6 ambassadors help people to understand these benefits. At the same time, troubleshooting and problem solving is done through international collaboration over online platforms. This networking may soon become something bigger as a large-scale international AI6 initiative is in the pipeline for July 2018.
Meanwhile, participants such as Ms. Seema Goel are reaping the rewards. Goel was teaching herself AI and machine learning when she was invited to join the AI6 Bangalore chapter in January. She says that joining the group has helped her to progress with her learning and overcome obstacles she faced while learning alone.
“This meetup helped me in every possible way, be it understanding the concepts, technical glitches, and providing inspiration,” she says. “For me the group is meeting all expectations.”
Delhi chapter member Mr. Rohit Singh has similar views.
“The experience has been phenomenal,” he says. “Some members and especially the ambassador, Divyansh [Jha], do a great job at making the experience enriching for everyone. They go through the material, sharing their experience and clarifying doubts for everyone in a setting that’s quite informal and yet focused and driven.”
(First published on Asian Scientist on April 22 2018. Available online at: https://www.asianscientist.com/2018/04/features/artificial-intelligence-saturdays-asia-ai6/)

Tips for victims of theft while travelling – Zafigo.com, April 15 2018

There was a time, 10 months into the trip of the lifetime, I sat in Kuala Lumpur (KL) munching on steaming chapati (Indian flatbread) with friends, uttering famous last words, “Nothing has gone wrong yet.” It was true. Besides the odd dodgy stomach – which was inevitable considering I’d just exposed my Irish belly to rich, spicy foods for the first time – our travels around Southeast Asia had run completely smoothly.

It wouldn’t be long before I was no longer eating delicious Indian food, but instead, eating my words. That same evening, I was deep in conversation with a friend in the city when a guy on a bike swerved in behind me, yanked my bag from my shoulder, and sped away before I even had a chance to yell out an expletive.

My phone, money, and bank card had been taken before my own eyes, along with some sentimental items such as a bracelet from two friends in Vietnam. I’m sure you can imagine the kaleidoscope of colourful language that came from my mouth in the following few minutes. As much as I endeavour to become a crime-fighting queen who rids the world of handbag theft, I realise this is unachievable. However, I can offer a few titbits of advice for those who find themselves in the same situation.

Accept it

Regardless of how little cash you had in your purse or how dishevelled your phone is, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get your stuff back. A thief won’t feel a sudden tinge of regret and return your items to you, and chasing somebody down could be dangerous. Take the few minutes you need to vent that anger; cry, swear, scream, whatever you need. After that, accept that your things are gone and get on with your travels. Losing things, regardless of how sentimental or valuable, is not the worst case scenario. Your own safety is key.

File a police report

Telling my hotel receptionist that I’d become a victim of snatch theft, I was met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. They told me not to bother reporting the event to the police, which, considering I had very little details on the thief, made sense. I also had to catch a bus soon after and knew that I had a roomful of clothes to shove into a backpack before getting on the road.

However, I later learned that reporting could have proven beneficial. I had taken travel insurance in my home country and upon informing the company of the incident, was told that they could offer compensation only if I had a police report. Too late! I was already in the Cameron Highlands eating away my sorrows with scones and strawberries.

Cancel everything

After my 10-minute temper tantrum, the first thing I did was contact my bank and cancel my card. This may sound obvious, but it’s a task that’s easily forgotten when emotions are running high. I also alerted my network provider about my phone and noted down any other cards that I’d need to replace when I returned home.

Don’t let it ruin your trip

I certainly had plenty of “woe-is-me” moments as I went through the tedious task of cancelling cards and forking out good money for a new phone. However, though the enviable Instagram posts don’t show it, petty theft is unfortunately quite a common part of travelling; just like food poisoning, jellyfish stings and bike accidents. That’s not to say it’s acceptable, but if you do fall victim to theft, do what you have to do and get back to your travels.

With only a few weeks of my adventure left, I decided not to let this experience ruin my trip. It’s also important not to let such an event taint your impression of a place. Bag theft is probably just as likely to happen in my home city. Every other experience I had in KL and Malaysia overall was fantastic and there was no way one person was going to tarnish my love for the country.

Be prepared

Hindsight is a great thing, and I don’t want to sound like a lecturing aunty. However, in order to prevent becoming the victim of theft, I recommend you learn from my mistakes. Here are some tips on how you can be more mindful wherever you are:

  • Try to remain alert of what is going on around you when walking about a new city at night.
  • Don’t walk with your handbag facing the road as this will make it easier for a driver to snatch it.
  • If your bag has a long shoulder strap, make sure it hangs across your body and is underneath your clothes (like a jacket) if possible. Otherwise, it’s quite easy for somebody to grab it or cut it loose.
  • Never flash cash or valuables in a public place and avoid bringing out unnecessary items such as passports.
  • Finally, have an emergency bank card in your backpack if you can. This will be a saviour if your main one is stolen.

(First published on Zafigo.com on April 15 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/tips/tips-victims-travel-theft/)

The definitive guide to avoiding Penang’s tourist traps – Zafigo.com, February 8 2018

colour-1298862_1280 (1)As a cultural melting pot, foodie hub and historical hotspot, Penang has become a major tourist destination for both Malaysian and international tourists. However, with so much to do here, it comes as no surprise that the island’s main landmarks can be crowded 365 days of the year. If you’re staying a while and are sick of the hustle and bustle, try this list of alternative activities:

BEST VIEW

Skip Penang Hill

See Muka Head Lighthouse

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The stunning views of Penang’s coastline. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

Gazing down at the twinkling lights of George Town from the peak of Penang Hill is certainly worth ticking off the list. However, if you’re seeking something a bit more tranquil and wish to avoid the crowds, head to Muka Head Lighthouse at Penang’s National Park. It’s not easy to get to – prepare for a sweaty hike through the forest! – but the stunning views of Penang’s coastline will revitalise a tired body and mind. Climb up the twisting staircase to the top and perch yourself on the balcony to watch white-tailed sea eagles soar and be soothed by the sound of the crashing waves below.

BEST BEACH

Skip Batu Ferringhi

See Gertak Sanggul

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This small fishing village is the epitome of a lazy afternoon. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

When you have eaten double your weight in Penang’s famous hawker food, what better place for an afternoon doze than the beach? Batu Ferringhi is Penang’s most popular beach and while it’s beautiful, you will likely have to battle for towel space on a busy day. Head to Gertak Sanggul instead. I stumbled across this beach during a drive around the island and found it to be the perfect place to digest both my thoughts and my food. Nestled along the southern coast of Penang at the edge of a quaint fishing village, it’s rarely frequented by tourists and so, is the epitome of calm. Come here with a good book and watch the boats and your worries float away.

BEST MARKET

Skip Batu Ferringhi Night Market

See Hin Sunday Pop-Up Market

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin's Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin's PopUP Facebook)

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin Pop Up Market)

Every Sunday, the grounds of Hin Bus Depot spring to life with a small artisan market brimming with local crafts and trinkets. Handmade batik garments, natural cosmetics, mouth-watering food and statement jewellery are just some of the treasures on offer at this weekly affair, which sees new stalls springing up each week. While you won’t find the same offering of cheap clothes available in Batu Ferringhi, you will come across plenty of unique gems unavailable anywhere else. What’s more, by buying something here, you are supporting local artists and craftspeople. For the perfect Sunday, take a yoga class at nearby Wholey Wonder and peruse the market stalls before crashing on the grass at Hin Bus Depot to tuck into a tasty lunch.

BEST FOR A COFFEE AND CATCHUP

Skip Starbucks

See The Alley

Skip the staple branded coffee houses and spend an evening at a local shop instead. (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Why go Starbucks when you can have churros at The Alley? (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Let’s face it: I can go to Starbucks anytime. Despite having a three-letter name, they can never get mine right! If I’m in need of an afternoon energy boost or want somewhere to chill with friends, The Alley at Stewart Lane is my top pick. Why? One word: Churros! The small and simple café is famous for the warm doughy delights, which offer crispy skins and fluffy centres in good, equal measure. Paired with a selection of sauces (try the salted caramel) and a steaming mug of coffee, it makes for the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. The only downside of going with friends? Having to share.

BEST BAR

Skip Love Lane

See Magazine 63

(Photo Credit: SM Butler)

A true speakeasy bar, Magazine 63 is quite a challenge to find, but oh so worth it once you do. (Photo Credit: SM Butler)

Walking through Love Lane at night feels a bit like being in a bizarre video game – you have to dodge and leap over dozens of pushy bar promo staff to get to the power up i.e. a refreshing cocktail or mocktail at the end of a busy day. On top of that, the crowds and noise continue to swell as the night goes on. Ditch the hectic nightlife and head to Magazine 63 on Jalan Magazine instead. Nestled behind an inconspicuous doorway, it’s quite a challenge to find; but trust me, it’s worth it. Behind its shabby exterior sits a trendy speakeasy dripping in vintage class, with a unique cocktail menu to boot. Add to that cosy seating, regular live bands and DJ sets and you’ve got yourself the perfect watering hole. A word of warning: at bars this trendy, drinks don’t come cheap.

BEST UNIQUE PHOTO SPOT

Skip 3D Trick Art Museum

See Penang Avatar Secret Garden

(Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh )

The mini forest comes to life with dazzlig lights. (Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh)

Trick art museums have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, but once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. If you’re hoping to get some unusual snaps for the ‘gram, head to Avatar Secret Garden at Tanjung Tokong before sunset instead. When the daylight fades, the mini forest is transformed into an enchanted land that is alive with dazzling lights in myriad hue. A near replica of the mystical land of Pandora in Avatar, this hidden gem is sure to take your breath away.

BEST CAFE WORKSPACE

Skip Co-workingspaces

See BEAN Sprout Cafe

Fancy working out  of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Fancy working out of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Co-working spaces certainly have their place and I’d be the first to praise them for their reliable Wi-Fi and endless networking opportunities. However, when in Penang, you might as well soak in the atmosphere while getting some work done. Enter BEAN Sprout Café. Set in a beautiful two-storey heritage building, this relaxed coffee shop is a good spot to escape to when you need to get stuff done and dusted. If the rustic décor and chilled music fail to inspire, sit and work from the balcony which offers great views of the hustle and bustle of George Town. Failing that, their delicious coffee or tasty brunches should be enough to set the brain cogs into motion.

BEST CITY CENTRE OASIS

Skip Armenian Park

See Garden at 23 Love Lane

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit 23 Love Lane)

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit: 23 Love Lane)

Who knew that such a serene oasis existed along hectic Love Lane? Well, it does, and it’s in the form of this boutique hotel’s stunning garden courtyard. It’s the ideal place to escape the mid-afternoon sun and catch up on some reading over a refreshing drink. Non-staying guests are welcome to enjoy the garden courtyard provided they purchase something from the hotel bar. Coffee al fresco amid restful settings? Who can say ‘no’ to that?

(First published on Zafigo.com on February 8 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/guide-avoiding-penangs-tourist-traps/)