I COULD hardly believe my eyes when I flipped open the newspapers on April 26. Three bombs had ripped through the beach resort of Dahab, located on the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, killing at least 24 people and injuring more than 80 others.
Barely two weeks before that, I was in one of the quiet cafes that lined the beach, sipping a fruit shake and admiring the quiet calm of the Red Sea.
There was some relief that my vacation was not as long as I would have liked, yet the main sensation weighing in my mind was a heavy sense of sorrow.
Although I spent only three days in Sinai, it left a deep impression. The idyllic peninsula is a welcome change from the rest of Egypt.
Away from the tourist attractions of Cairo and Luxor on the mainland, the unassuming neighbourhood on the other side of the Suez Canal proves that Egypt's granddaddy of attractions isn't necessarily the mummies.
No doubt the ancient sights of the country are the main draw - and rightfully so.
With 4,000 years of history at every turn, it's hard not to be swept away by the majesty of 21 dynasties of Egyptian culture.
In two short weeks, I find myself reeling off ancient Egyptian terms like cartouche, hypostyle and papyrus as if they are part of my grocery list.
But when that's all the time you have to absorb so much rich culture - from the Pyramids of Giza to the temples of Luxor and the wealth of treasures in Tutankhamen's tomb - Egypt's history can sometimes prove overwhelming.
It has an intensity that seems to permeate life in modern Egypt as well.
Most people associate the country with pyramids and pharaohs. But during my trip there, sometimes all I can think about are the touts and traffic.
At the most popular tourist attractions in Cairo and Luxor, or along the busy stretches of the Nile, you can barely walk for 60 seconds without someone shoving boat-ride tickets or a pyramid paperweight in your face.
Don't even think about showing so much as the slightest interest in anything you don't want to buy, because the merchants will hassle and haggle until you give in.
'For you my friend, I give you best price.' Or so they say.
After a while, I start walking with my head down and practically waving 'la, shukran' (Arabic for 'no, thanks') at every souvenir seller even before they approach me.
I suppose it is bound to happen in a country where 95 per cent of the 66 million-strong population squeezes into its 5 per cent of habitable land; and where tourism is the overwhelmingly main source of income.
Everyone wants a piece of the pie. Even with so many fingers in it, it pays better than many other jobs, one tour guide tells me.
Climbing Mount Sinai
WHILE I enjoy visiting ancient Egypt, I nevertheless find Sinai to be such sweet, sweet relief.
My initial intention is to discover its rugged desert landscape - an arid land with more brown than green, where rocks and sand dominate the scenery and little life appears to survive in its deadly dry environment.
But Sinai's harsh outlook belies a softer, gentler side.
After being hassled endlessly everywhere else, it feels refreshing to walk along the streets of Dahab undisturbed.
I also have a burning desire to climb Mount Sinai.
As the place where the prophet Moses was said to have received the Ten Commandments from God, Mount Sinai is a holy place for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
In a country that's financially and culturally dominated by its ancient religion, it's easy to forget that Egypt is also closely linked to major modern religions.
Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus were said to have fled from Israel to Egypt to escape persecution from King Herod of Judea.
And Islam's influence can be seen everywhere in modern Egypt, where gorgeous mosques dot the streets of Cairo.
About 90 per cent of Egyptians are Muslims. Prayer calls are heard around their cities five times a day and greetings like 'Sh'allah' (which means 'God willing') are peppered in daily use.
I start my climb to Mount Sinai's 2,285m summit at midnight - coincidentally on Good Friday - hoping to catch a glimpse of sunrise over the desert.
Bathed in the glow of a full moon, there is a peaceful hush that surrounds the mountain. The howling of the wind accompanies me on the four-hour trek, but yet it never feels eerie.
Surveying the barren, rocky landscape as I trudge up the wide and well-trodden path, I have numerous Neil Armstrong moments.
In the still of the night, the scenery below almost looks like Mars, an image swiftly broken when a local Bedouin guide gallops past me on a camel.
Halfway up the mountain, there is even a touch of home, when I run into a group of about 30 Malaysian Muslims who are making their way to the top as part of a pilgrimage.
We chat like we are countrymen and I find out that most of them are in their 40s and 50s. They started the climb before me and will most certainly finish it after, but there is a steely determination to do this for their faith.
Half an hour before sunrise, I arrive at the summit, but it is far too cold at the peak for me to stay outside waiting for the sun - even with my three layers of clothing.
So I huddle into a Bedouin tent with a cup of hot chocolate and fall asleep for 10 minutes with the beverage cooling in my hand.
By the time I awake to make the final hike up to the peak, I realise to my dismay that it's already filled with 100 other people. So much for spiritual peace.
With a heavy sigh, I jostle for a good position among the rocky outcrops as the skies lighten amid the cacophony of tourist noises.
Then the sun bursts out from the horizon; the celestial hues of gold, blue and pink are gloriously mixed in the canvas of the heavens.
Suddenly, a hush overcomes the mountains.
And for a moment, it's as if God has come down to speak to Moses again.
5 things to do
1. Do take a felucca down the Nile: No trip to Egypt is complete without a cruise down the life-giving Nile river that pulses through the country. There are many ways to do it but the most uniquely Egyptian style is on a traditional canvas sail felucca, which relies only on wind power and the strong currents of the Nile. The most popular is a three-day, two-night trip from Aswan to Edfu, which will cost around E�60 (S$17.30) to E�70 per person, inclusive of three vegetarian meals a day. Look for the captains along the river. Make sure the boat looks safe and that the captain doesn't overload the boat - anything more than eight passengers will be a squeeze. And remember to take along insect repellant (there are plenty of mosquitoes) and a sleeping bag (it can get bitterly cold at night).
2. Do visit the Sinai Peninsula. With three bombings in two years, there is a certain element of danger that one may have to risk, but it is a refreshing break from tourist-infested sights on the mainland. Whether it's the relaxed backpacker beaches of Dahab or the flashy resorts of Sharm El-Sheik, the crystal-clear waters of the Red Sea or the rugged beauty of the Sinai desert, this place has an unassuming charm all its own.
3. Do enjoy the sunset at Nubian House. The sunset at Aswan is lovely and there is no better way to savour it than at Nubian House. Situated at the edge of a cliff, the restaurant boasts unbeatable views of the Nile and is well worth a visit, even though it's a good 25-minute walk from town.
Go up the hill past the Nubian Museum for 1km and look for the sign on the right. Dishes cost between E£8 and E�20.
4. Do visit Islamic Cairo's Citadel. This was home to Egypt's rulers for 700 years and the finest of the city's Islamic architecture. The highlight of the sprawling enclosure is the Mosque of Mohammed Ali, a Turkish-style building made extensively of alabaster. Its huge domes and two tall, slim minarets dominate the skyline. Watch out for the clock in the central courtyard - a gift from King Louis-Philippe of France in return for the Egyptian obelisk at Paris' Place de la Concorde. The clock was damaged on delivery and has never worked. Entrance to the Citadel costs E�20.
5. Do take a package tour. Egypt can be a daunting place to visit on your own because of the many touts who won't think twice about ripping you off. You can secure bargains on your own but it can be tiring and time-consuming. To a certain extent, this problem can be solved if you sign on a package with a reliable hostel (visit www.hostelworld.com for recommendations). Everything from accommodation, guides, entrance fees and transport is settled for you - the latter is essential because public transport may not run every day between certain places. A two-week package covering all the major sights along the Nile and Sinai (staying in two- and three-star hotels along the way) cost me $1,000. It's more than you will have to pay on your own and there's a slight risk because you don't get to see your accommodation or your boat before agreeing to it - but it saves a lot of time while remaining fairly affordable.
1. Don't aim to finish all the ancient sights at one go. They are glorious but they can become overwhelming after a while and you may soon be unable to tell a sarcophagus from a scarab. To avoid fatigue, pace yourself. Insert trips to Islamic Cairo or a cruise along the Nile in between your visits to the mummies and the temples.
2. Don't forget to keep plenty of small change. Egypt's system of baksheesh (tips) means that you have to tip for every small service, including watching your bag at a museum or shining a light to illuminate a painting. E50pt or E£1 is enough for most 'services' rendered, but don't feel strong-armed into paying anything unfair. If anyone tries to scam or harass you, seek help from the police.