Gaia Guide Launched

Responsible travel in Asia... finally the much awaited Gaia Guide is out. A huge thanks to writers, photographers and Jon our cover designer for putting this little travel guide together. Of course we couldn't have done it without our ever capable editor, Jeremy Torr.

Published by the same team behind Gaia Discovery, the Gaia Guide is about eco-tourism, eco-resorts, ethical operators, voluntourism, festivals and more. Read more about what The Gaia Guide is here...

If you'd like to receive a soft or hard copy of The Gaia Guide, send us an email with your request, and contact details, and we'll rush one over! While the guide copy and delivery is free of charge, we do appreciate donations to keep us going.

Donations to Gaia Discovery can be made via Paypal. Read about our commitment to the environment through the Gaia Discovery Restoration Fund, and we thank you for your support.

Why I Love Virgin Coconut Oil

Singapore, 4 December 2011. I’m very happy to be able to sip three tablespoons of Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) this morning before my regular tea and cereal. Having run out of this wonder potion, I was a little desperate to get a bottle as quickly as possible. My very first bottle had been procured from The Farm in Batangas, the Philippines, last year and it had since run out.

My first VCO bottle from The Farm (left) and my next from ItWorks! which comes in a neat packaging and health sheet.

My first VCO bottle from The Farm (left) and my next from ItWorks! which comes in a neat packaging and health sheet.

Living in Singapore, I was wondering where to get a new bottle from and sent out an SOS on Facebook for hints. Friends replied saying VCO can be found at Mustaffa and Wild Rice. I’m not a huge fan of Mustaffa’s Shopping Center and Wild Rice sounded fascinating, but I hadn’t found the time to locate it. Luckily I bumped into my uncle who said he knew somebody who sells VCO, made in Johor, Malaysia under the brand of ItWorks. And he too takes it regularly, which helped improve his health, he says.

I ordered four 250ml bottles, each RM40, to distribute to my family apart from reserving two bottles for myself. Why do I take Virgin Coconut Oil? Thanks to the wonderful doctors and nurses at The Farm, a wellness and healing resort with an amazing spa and colon cleansing treatments, they explained to me about the healing properties of VCO. Being skeptical I was hesitant to drink oil – I might just get fat!

But I was told that, on the contrary, it helps one lose weight by raising the body’s metabolism, and the laxative side effect for some helps flush out waste better. As a writer reviewing The Farm, I decided to give it a try and go for the Full Monty! That was a four-day detox treatment that came with drinking VCO every morning, energy juice, cleansing drink, colonics and detox massages. It was a difficult journey, feeling the side effects of a typical person on a detoxification program, but at the end of it I felt like a brand new person and lost 2 kgs!

Coconut candy, tarts and shredded coconut in curry are my favourites!

Coconut candy, tarts and shredded coconut in curry are my favourites!

This wonder coconut oil has many properties, according to The Farm’s general manager Michael Di Lonardo and head of medics team Dr Rounville Bardonado (who has since left to work in Hongkong). VCO has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties. “It cleanses from the mouth to the anus, killing parasites, viruses, fungi and bacteria,” says Dr Bardonado. What this means is that taking this oil daily, which is nice tasting without leaving an oily film on the mouth, helps boost the body’s immune system.

Michael passed me a book to read about the benefits of VCO by Dr Bruce Fife, and it helped open up a whole new perspective of this oil. Coconut oil isn’t bad, as what we’ve been led to believe, in fact it is very good with numerable curative properties.

Within weeks of taking VCO, I no longer fell ill as often as before; definitely not catching a cold or flu as often even when everybody else around me were sneezing and coughing their lungs out. And when I once did get a cold, it lasted for just three days.

I’m sure the effect of VCO is different on others. Some claim it reduces diabetes, hypertension, helps prevent heart diseases… to me, it just makes me feel fine.

Mantanani Island's Poor Coral Health

The corals surrounding Mantanani Island of Sabah, East Malaysia seem to be in a pretty bad shape. Diving there last week at three different dive sites, I observed the following: that nearly half the coral reefs had been bombed out and reduced to rubbles, about 80% of the corals are covered with algae of which 50% are already dead.

First the bombing. This is due to destructive fishing method used by fishermen (Philippines is blamed but let's not rule out locals too) who have no clue about the long-term damage caused to marine habitats when seeking immediate gratification. It started about 30 years ago, according to local sources, and still continues presently from time to time. Lack of monitoring resources by marine police allows this violation against ocean ecosystems to continue.

As for algal bloom, there are sites where green algae seems to be the only colour visible from a distance and up close. Upon closer inspection, a lot of the corals are covered with an inch thick algae, smothered to death as algae deprives the very oxygen needed by the coral to survive. Reddish brown algae has also been noted at Mantanani Kechil dive site. And a few jellyfish too.

As I had only the chance to dive at three sites (Roxy Point and Police Gate at Mantanani Besar, and one at Mantanani Kechil), I cannot say what it is like on the other 10 dive sites or more. However the dive guides tell me that the corals aren't any better elsewhere. The dive sites I had dived for the purpose of a review for Gaia Discovery apparently are the best the island can offer! Fish population is very small, there is no abundance of reef fish or pelagic fish; however I did see a baby hawksbill turtle, a lone barracuda, lobsters and two huge octopi holding hands!

The waters had warmed significantly over the last year, as high as 5-6 degrees above the usual 25-26 degrees celsius, according to Kristen Soong, a marine biologist at the Marine Ecology Research Center at Gayana Eco Resort. The rise in water temperature coupled with (I suspect) increased nutrient content in the seawater as a result of untreated sewage from the villages may be factors causing the algal bloom. There are around 200 people living on the island on two separate villages, and about five chalet type of accommodation.

Dive guides and boat crew alike seem to smoke and drop cigarette butts into the very sea that gives them food and pocket money. And my dive guide handled the sea creatures by hand and shoved them around with a metal stick for us to have a better view! Yes, I had to tell him not to do that repeatedly once on the surface, and he didn't seem convinced with my explanation of leaving the creatures alone else they will be stressed. A couple of snorkellers were even given a live starfish as a souvenir. What a cowboy outfit!

When I highlighted the algal bloom phenomenon, the dive guides and instructors of Scooba Tank Dive Center were surprised to hear that this was a bad thing. They admitted having a lack knowledge of corals and coral health, and requested that I write in to the authorities about this, for external help.

The poor coral health due to algal bloom is a serious problem that has to be investigated and attended to by the environment ministry, agencies and marine scientists. In my humble opinion, lack of attention and mitigation efforts will mean that Mantanani Island's corals will eventually be a limestone graveyard for all to weep over. I sincerely hope I will be wrong. -Mallika Naguran

Getting to Mantanani Isand: Take a car/van from Kota Kinabalu on a two and half hour drive to Kota Belud, then connect to a fast boat from Ostrich Farm Resort jetty or Rampayan Laut jetty. Boat takes 45mins to reach Mantanani Besar. Day or overnight stays with snorkelling/diving can be booked with most travel agents such as Discovery Tours.

Miracle Tree

My earlier post lamented the demise of a few magnificent trees in Singapore, for no rhyme nor reason. Of course not all trees are hacked to bits; there are plenty still lining streets and roads of this busy country - 46.5% green cover I understand down from 95% just four decades ago (not centuries!). How 46.5% is worked out I'm not exactly sure as I sure see lots of concrete more than greens, and a lot more buildings sprouting up than new trees. I wonder what the figure for concrete cover is? Interestingly 10% of Singapore's land space is reserved for parks and reserves. Some people think 10% is a good figure, and include that in the justification for calling Singapore a green city.

Today (while walking Monty along the Kallang river with the remaining trees of course) I struck upon an idea. Why not celebrate trees in a way that can be personal yet persuasive by paying them tributes? Why not write letters, eulogies and poems, or tweet, or take photos or make a video of a tree that mean something to us? I'm usually tempted to photograph trees when I'm out on a travel assignment, and because trees are my hero, I have quite a few of snapshots. But unless they are used specifically to illustrate an article, they remain hidden in my files.

So I'm opening this Miracle Tree project to everyone who cares enough to take part. Essays, notes, poems, photos submitted will be first featured on Gaia Discovery Miracle Tree page then made into a little Miracle Tree e-book for all to enjoy. Entries will be Facebooked as well. Send your entries to Gaia Discovery's Facebook page or to me by email: .

Why call it a 'miracle' tree? While reviewing Frangipani Langkawi Resort & Spa in West Malaysia for Gaia Discovery, I came across a tree that had a sign declaring it a "Miracle Tree". I stepped closer, looked at it, made a wish, and walked on, hoping that I'd win a million bucks in lottery the next day. I didn't, damn it. But it left an impression on me.

Miracle Tree at Frangipani Langkawi Resort & SpaHere's the story behind this tree (a rather ordinary looking one, I'd think you will agree with me). The gardener of the eco-resort chanced upon a chopped down tree trunk along the side of the road in Kuah Town of Langkawi island. It must have been in the way of a new development. They must have thought, oh dear, why kill nature when it can live, so trucked the trunk back and re-planted it at the resort. The trunk, bare and feeble it must have been, miraculously grew shoots, then branches of new leaves, and now stands tall and healthy, giving shade to humans and birds alike. It's a Rose of India tree.

The Miracle Tree of Frangipani Langkawi Resort & Spa is the inspiration behind the Gaia Miracle Tree project. See how one action impacts another? I'm now hoping that you will bring me and all tree lovers out there huge happiness by sending in a photo and description of the tree, be it the name of the tree or simply why it is special to you. Oh, add the location as well please, be specific right down to street name, city, state, and country.

I'll see if I can rummage a prize to give away every quarter for the most inspiring entry; and in saying this, I am calling hotels, resorts, tour operators, restaurants, green companies to sponsor vouchers for this cause.

Here's Frangipani Langkawi Resort & Spa's miracle tree. Where is yours? Don't forget your name, contact details and address for me to mail that special voucher to you. -Mallika Naguran

Let Trees Stand

Living in Singapore, an urbanized island city of astounding economic growth, I am convinced that the authorities here lack respect for trees and fail to recognise its full value to humans, birds, insects alike. Walking Monty every morning by the Kallang river, I have noted a number of instances where trees, big and beautiful and shady trees, are felled to make way for a new carpark (Kallang Distripark) or development (renovation of Geylang West Community Center).

Where once the chikku tree was there bursting with fruit for all birds to enjoy, and spread out branches for the winged creatures to perch on and nest, now there's concrete, and the birds are gone.

We had chatty mynahs, quarrelsome crows, fidgety sparrows, acrobatic terns, standoffish herons, regal long neck egret.... all at once, which caught the attention of eagles too. These days the egrets are lording over the river, but have to step away from the eager fishing ah-peks (old men). Joggers, walkers and cyclists now have less shade on this park connector (Upper Boon Keng to Boon Keng stretch crossing over Kallang Bahru). Monty is kinda disoriented too; his usual pee spot and favourite tree to rub his back against, is no longer there.

Over behind Block 18 of Upper Boon Keng Road, the block facing the famous Kallang market (which has apparently one of Singapore's best kambing soup or mutton soup), massive renovations are taking place of the community center. I was shocked to see trees outside of its premises, lining the drains in a public area, being hacked off. These trees face the Indian coffee shop where many of us go for teh tarik and dhosai. So there's less shade now.

Why tear healthy trees down? Why not build around them instead? Who gave the community center the go ahead to kill nature? A marvellous example of retaining an old tree with all its grandeur, history, and aesthetics is at the front entrance of the new School of The Arts building next to Cathay Cinema on Zubir Said Drive.

Let trees stand. Please.

Food for Thought - Eating for a Good Cause

Singapore, 8 September 2011. This morning, I was whisked from my bed to have brekkie at the understated Food for Thought cafe on 8 Queen Street. Granola with mixed nut and fruit or big house fare complete with creamy scrambled eggs on brioche with crispy greens, fried bacon - plus or minus side ingredients (including garlic mushrooms) - the choice of how big and wonderful a breakfast or small and content a snack is all yours.

I chose to eat here because I thought, why not spend a bit of money on a cafe that contributes part of it to a good cause (actually it was my friend's money... and what a treat it was!). A fraction of his well-earned dollar goes to supporting efforts to eradicate poverty while the displayed array of items for sale such as books, dolls, erasers (in the shape of tutu kueh), mugs, Good Morning towels (also in the shape of a hat!), reusable bag made of cloth (but looks like plastic bag)... these go towards funding various charities that help feed, clothe and educate kids in troubled places.

The first book I bought there was Peppermint Pig by Nina Bawden about a month ago, which suspiciously vanished follwing a friend's house visit. Today I chose J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye because I lost my copy many moons ago, having first read it years ago during my literary pursuits. Paid $10 Singapore dollars for each, and am happy to do so, knowing that profits go in support of School of Thought and Love East Timor's Scholarship Fund. These donated or "(p)re-loved" books are artistically presented with an external cover wrap with Food for Thought branding and messaging. There's even a bookmark hidden in the pages!

Chef David tells me that a new branch will be opening up at the Singapore Botanical Gardens in November, and they are looking for staff to join them. So if you're looking for a way to earn an extra buck or two, while contributing to a good social cause, drop him a line. Or amble by to the Singapore Art Museum next door but drop in to Food for Thought to have an aromatic steaming cup of cafe latte and that uber-yum peanut butter-chocolate-banana desert in a tall glass guaranteed to make your blood rush to your tum!

Or donate your old books that you once loved, so that they can be loved again by someone else.

This is the first of my blog posts by the way, and thanks for reading it!

Chef David's contact email: