Monday, 12 June 2017

Pulau Ubin

29 April 2017
Fancying another day trip, we caught the bus to Changi ferry terminal and waited around for a "bum boat" to become available to take us to Pulau Ubin. Why bum?!
Anyway. Before long, several other people had gathered awaiting a ferry and we were shown along the pier to one of the boats. 

It was definitely a more rustic experience than some ferries I've been on, with a bustling captain who I'm pretty sure had poor vision due to age. But as the journey was very short, cost us only $3, and we seemed to be in no danger of sinking, I wasn't particularly worried. 

Upon disembarking, we quickly found the main street and decided that it was well and truly time for me to learn how to ride a bike! For a reasonable rate we secured such a contraption and moved further down the road so we could have a quiet area in which to practice. Much to my surprise, I picked it up fairly easily, and in no time at all I was pedalling around with a big grin on my face. I did need to build up momentum before I took off each time (using my left leg to kick off mightily), and was rather wobbly, but by god! I was on a bike! Without training wheels! We returned to the bike rental shop so that Yannick could join me in wholesome two-wheeled fun. 

No taxis for us, thanks! We are cyclists now. 

Utilising my newfound skill, we cycled along to Bukit Puaka, where we ditched our bikes and trekked up the slope. The cicadas here were going mental and the clamour was a bit overpowering. From the top, we could see a couple of different quarries that had been filled in with water to make lakes, and a vast expanse of forest stretching out to the sea. It definitely felt more like we were in the jungle than other walks we've undertaken in Singapore (such as in MacRitchie Nature Reserve), which have felt more maintained and cultivated. 

Gathering our bikes again (aka our new best friends) we zipped along the paths towards the east side of the island. Along the way, we saw many little houses and sheds. One had a sign out front offering free yoga! What a place. Next door, someone had painted an Oriental Pied Hornbill onto their wall. We weren't able to see this type of bird on our trip, though we did have a close encounter with a small green snake!

A small village on the east side of the island is called Chek Jawa, and we took a quick peek at the visitor centre (which is housed in an old colonial era-cottage). Through the cottage, you can access a jetty from which you can see mainland Sinapore not far in the distance. 

Next we took a nice stroll along the coastal boardwalk and had our photo taken. Yannick had a chilled can of 100 Plus to sip on, as handily there were several vending machines dotted around the island for parched and overheated daytrippers. 

The coastal boardwalk turned into the wetlands boardwalk, which was surrounded by mangroves and funny mangrove trees. Here we spotted a monitor lizard and after a few minutes he decided to go for a swim!

A point of interest was the Muslim cemetary, which I could find no information about. It was signposted, so clearly some part of the island's history, but details elude me. 

Around the bikepark (carpark for bikes) we saw a couple of wild boars who were rooting around in the underbrush. It was a shock when we saw the first one, as we weren't aware Pulau Ubin was home to wild boar!

Some cheeky monkeys had also invaded the bikepark by the time we had returned from the boardwalk, and were flinging around some plastic bags and empty crisp packets they had found and leaping from bikes to trees and back. This guy, who casually sat atop a toppled bike, scratched his side as he peered around searching for more opportunities for mischief. 

On the way back to the dock, we rode along the Sensory Trail. Though I have no idea why it was named that, there was a lovely lotus pond, and it was good practice to ride along a gravel path. 

I'll leave you with a photo that depicts pure joy. Oh, to be a kid again, even if just for a few minutes. 

Thursday, 8 June 2017

March 2017 (The Long and Short of It)

In March we were starting to feel properly settled in Singapore. As well as continuing to go on Monday morning botanic gardens walks with my International Ladies' Group, I also went on a trip to the Musical Box Museum. 
All the artefacts were donated by a single collector - an eccentric Japanese man. We were shown a couple dozen musical boxes from a range of time periods. The older ones looked strangely like records with holes in, and had to be hand-cranked. 

Some of the boxes were enormous! This one was built for use on a cruise ship and was coin-operated. Another of even larger size had been placed in a hotel lobby. When I got home and showed Yannick pictures of my museum visit, he thought that the tour guide was a mannequin. I assure you he was real! 

Standing all together, we posed for a group photo with the mannequin-like guide. Interestingly, the museum is located inside an old school that was attached to the Thian Hock Keng temple, so not only is there a showcase of history inside the museum but all around it!

Having been on the lookout for a new dress for some weeks, I finally found the perfect specimen and decided to buy it though it was a bit pricier than I would have hoped. I wore it one evening when we tried a new restaurant: Pizzeria L'Operetta. Yannick had put in many hours of research into which pizzeria was the best in Singapore, and this one came out as a likely contender for number one. The marinara was pretty damn good, though not as tasty and traditional as a real Neopolitan pizza, or even a night at Pizza Pilgrims in London. However, we enjoyed having a bit of a change from the Singaporean food we'd been eating day in and day out, and with a red wine on the side it made for an excellent night out. 

Our new friend Bill told us that his wife Megan was coming to visit him from Chicago, and we all met up for drinks on Boat Quay one evening. The next day I had lunch with her at a place she recommended called Real Food. What a place! Serving Western food with plenty of vegan options, it was also a nice change to my typical meals (stir fries galore!) and I returned multiple times. 

The lentil burger was delicious, as was the rosemary hash brown and chickpea patties. Yannick's favourite is the vegan French toast, and I simply can't pick a favourite! I still need to sample much more of the menu, after all. 
After a brief weekend trip to Penang, our usual scheduling could continue. We had such a lovely time meeting up with Jarold, but alas Yannick had to return to work and me to faffing about. 

Katie, my good friend from London, visited for a couple of days in March and I made sure to take her to all the best places. One such being the Fortune Centre, where we lunched at Hotcakes. It was here that I tried nasi lemak, a Malaysian specialty. We followed up our spicy rice dishes with big slices of cake, selecting speculoos and vanilla blueberry. Lazat! ("Tasty" in Malay.)

For my birthday, Yannick and I went to a screening of Beauty and the Beast, as like any 90's child I had watched Disney movies nonstop and wanted a dose of nostalgia. I'll admit that my favourite character Gaston was slightly disappointing, but overall I greatly enjoyed the film. 

A coupe of times when the weather was clement, I took the free Wilby shuttle to the pool with my gym buddy Melanie. We swam and chatted and worked on our tans. Though it would have been nice to have a pool right downstairs, I infinitely preferred living centrally and having no pool rather than living out of the way and having easy access to one. 

Having already scoped out the supermarkets near Bugis, I continued to hunt out good deals in March. I never grew tired of this view from the Suntec City overbridge! Though Suntec lacked a Jollibean (tragic to be forced further afield for soy milk), I decided that it was the best mall in terms of location, store selection, and cheapness and range of its supermarket. 

As mentioned previously, stir fries were a near everyday staple for my lunch, but I often played around with different ingredients and meals as well. Vietnamese rice paper rolls were unbelievably cheap, so I would make spring rolls with bright fresh veggies and dipping sauce. 

Italian- and Mexican-themed meals were also commonplace. I managed to find hella cheap cherry tomatoes, and so invented a sauce utilising halved cherry tomatoes, a splash of olive oil, lime juice, oregano and pepper served over pasta or red kidney beans. It's so zesty that Yannick requested it multiple times per week. Quesadillas and burrito bowls were eaten on the regular also, though I did have a bad experience when cooking black beans from dried for the first time: food poisoning! It was completely my own fault, and the effects were quite mild, but I won't be making the mistake of undercooking beans again anytime soon. The meal, however, was delicious! Black rice, cabbage, purple sweet potato, black beans and homemade salsa make for a hearty and colourful meal, just make sure not to poison yourself! 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Penang, part II: Aim High, for the Gods are Tall

Penang, Malaysia (Palau Pinang, Malaysia)
5 March 2017
Our next day in Penang began with finishing off the half watermelon of the day before and meeting up with Jarold while he ate his dim sum breakfast. Catching an Uber ride to the base of the Kek Lok Si Temple, we took a less travelled way up. 
Though not "the main way", there were still several souvenir shops doted along the zigzagging staircase, as well as piles of gravel and other construction materials near labourers sipping drinks. 

The pathway had many offshoots which led to shops and houses, and this one featured a sleepy cat!

Once at the top, we entered the temple and found it to be huge and amazing. It was so colourful, with innumerable yellow and red lanterns, and brightly painted railings and roof tiles. 

We had managed to climb rather high, and I give the sprawling views out over Georgetown top marks. 

The setting of the temple among the lush mountains made for a relaxing visit. 

For a small fee I was able to buy a wish! I selected "coming and going safely" because of our travels. All the wishes get strung up on sticks, and Jarold used a long tool to secure his right at the top because the gods are tall. It was interesting to see what wishes were available, aside from the typical "academic prowess" and "financial success". One that stood out was "constant happiness", which frankly sounds exhausting. There were special wish ribbons for children, which were designed with Disney princesses all over them. Some gems from these were "listen to my father" and "hurry up", though I feel like the parents would wish for these things more than the children themselves. 

After taking a cable car to the top we saw another wishing tree, this one with a special ribbon available for double the price: "pray for lucky blessings by auspicious dragon". Wow. That is definitely worth the extra dough. 

Still under construction, we walked up to a giant statue of the Lady Buddha, who was Jarold's Buddha of choice to pray to. 

Taking a different way down, our eyes were assailed by cluttered flashy souvenir stalls offering many different trinkets. At the base of the hill, Jarold introduced us to Muar Chee: Malaysian sticky rice balls coated in sugar, peanuts and sesame seeds. Quite delicious, and they were also very cheap from the roadside vendor. Inside a gift shop, Yannick found a packet of coconut dodol (a sweet made from coconut milk, sugar and rice flour) that he had taken a strong liking to on our last trip to Malasia, so he bought a packet. This was in spite of Jarold claiming that it wasn't true dodol unless it was durian flavour! No thank you. In the same store I found some delicious looking dried mango, so procured a packet for later nibbling. 
Suddenly one of Jarold's friends Jake turned up and drove us to what was apparently the best Char Koay Teow place in town - a little stall in a hawker centre that had been run by the same lady for forty years. 

While there, I had fruit for lunch and was able to try something new: ciku! This soft little fruit tastes exactly like brown sugar. I also discovered that carrot juice in Malaysia automatically comes with added milk, so I swapped my strange concoction for Yannick's (thankfully dairy-free) apple juice. 

From there we were driven to Then Kong Thnuah Temple, where it began to rain. Pink umbrella in hand, Jarold led the way up the steps and into the grand entrance. Jake stayed behind, as his mum forbade his from visiting the temple of the sky god as it was "too big a god", who he likened to a CEO god. 

Though not as high in elevation as Kek Lok Si, the views from this temple were also stunning. 

Inside, much insense was burned and many shoes were removed. 

Our next stop was to Bats' Cave Temple, which had an actual bat cave! With bats! They were surprisingly tolerant of all the commotion that the worshippers were producing; one lady who was just out of our line of sight was somehow making sounds like she was dropping a plank of wood at height repeatedly. Perhaps she was, thought I've never seen that method of prayer before. 

Pineapple shaped candles were very popular here, and when I pointed out how affordable they were to Jarold, he went off to have a look. That's the last I saw him. 
We searched high and low, until we finally found him outside playing with a cat. He always finds cats wherever he goes and I suspect that he's a superhero in disguise (his superpower being super cat radar). 
With space still in their bellies, Yannick and the others shared a laksa and some fried radish cubes with spicy sauce while I ate yet more fruit in the form of pineapple and mango. 

Then Jake kindly dropped us off at the botanic gardens, where we encountered a few packs of monkeys. Some looked like sad old men slumped on the edge of the footpath waiting for a bus that would never arrive. On our last trip to Malaysia we had visited Batu Caves, where the monkeys are very aggressive and will steal anything they can get their pesky hands on. Here, they largely minded their own business and groomed each other. 
We were lucky in that the day was cloudy, so we didn't overheat too much while walking around, and searched for a rumoured secret lotus garden. Though we weren't sure if we had found it or not (no lotus were blooming, but it may have been the wrong season), we enjoyed sharing the packet of dried mango while looking out over a scenic pond where a cute turtle peered at us. 

Inside the Bromeliad house, I found a pineapple plant! Oh, how I would love to own a pineapple plant. We also saw a hummingbird. 

From a roadside stall, Jarold purchased an icecream sandwich as a snack, which turned out to be a literal chunk of ice cream stuck into a bread roll (and the ice cream was sweetcorn flavoured). It's a different sort of place, is Malaysia. As he was munching away, a nearby monkey spotted the treat and made a run at him! Instinctually, Jarold crammed the sandwich into his mouth and the monkey turned away dejectedly. Once he had swallowed, Jarold declared "I came from Batu Caves, bitch!" 
Then we began the walk back to downtown. Along the way we saw a huge woodlouse, which Jarold poked experimentally. It tucked itself up into a ball and slowly rolled down the sloped footpath. Soon afterwards we smelled fire and saw that there was some sort of blessing ceremony going on for a car, utilising burning coconuts and petals scattered over the windshield. 
Before we had to leave for the airport, Jarold insisted on one more dish for Yannick to try, which was a duck soup from a very popular stall. For dessert they found a cendol vendor and sat on tiny plastic stools while eating. Our time in Georgetown quickly drawing to a close, we said our farewells to Jarold and caught an Uber to the airport. Apparently it's traditional to bring back specialty Penang biscuits to your coworkers after a holiday, so Yannick went around trying the free samples in the airport store to find the best flavours. He accidentally tried a durian one, but felt better after a massage we got in coin-operated chairs. I found it exceedingly weird, but Yannick said that he would do it again in the future. Biscuits in hand, we caught our flight back to Singapore. 

Today's post was almost called: Monkey Dreams of Sandwich

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Penang part I: Out On a Lim - Chewing the Jettysburgh Address

Penang, Malaysia (Palau Pinang, Malaysia)
3-4 March 2017
With a spare weekend under our belts, we decided to fly to a little island off Malaysia. Can you guess which one? Hint: look at the title. We coordinated schedules with Yannick's friend Jarold, who lives a short hop away in Kuala Lumpur, however, we would be arriving the evening before him. 
On the Friday, I met Yannick after work, allowing me to see the nifty gardens in the middle of the Sandcrawler Building which I had been looking forward to. There were fish ponds, plenty of bamboo, and a yoda statue! 
After an uber ride to the airport, we boarded the plane and sat through a very long hour in extra uncomfortable seats while a large man next to Yannick snored. Once through Imigresen and customs, we took a teksi to our hotel to drop off our bags. Then we popped out for a quick wander, and were instantly reminded of our first trip to Southeast Asia not so long ago. (It was a dark night. The location? Kuala Lumpur. The streets were narrow, with nary a decent footpath in sight, cars and bikes dodging street food vendors while we tried to decipher just what exactly the stalls were selling.) Yannick found a sign advertising a dish he recognised: char kway teow. A very popular dish in Malaysia, he ordered a plate and declared it to be tasty. We then visited the local 24 jam (24 hour shop) for water and biscuits. 

The next morning, we set out exploring! Passing by a fruit and vege shop, I resolved to return there later once hunger struck. But until then, exploring! Apparently named after just one family who lived there, Armenian Street was our first port of call. It was a quaint little procession of shops and skinny houses with peeling shutters. As Penang (and especially the capital of George Town) has so many historical sights dotted around, a local artist was commissioned to create a series of steel rod cartoon sculptures entitled "Voices from the People" that signposted the town's places of interest as well as providing humour and a certain Penang-esque character.
There were many temples and mosques in the Armenian Street area, as well as organised tour groups in bright matching tshirts who helped us cross a busy street by creating a human dam, stemming the traffic. 

Finding our way to Little India, we noticed an icrease in the colourfulness of people's garb and the noisiness of shopfronts.

Women were decked out in purples, reds, and oranges while Bollywood tunes blared at us from DVD shops with cratefuls of cassette tapes out front. Does anyone even own a cassette-friendly stereo anymore? We noticed that splashes of yellow paint adorned the footpath outside many establishments, and assumed that this was some sort of blessing. 

On our way to another sight, we paused for several minutes across from this temple waiting for a gap in the traffic. Our patience paid off, and not only did Yannick snag a photo with no cars or busses obstructing the view, but he also captured a pigeon mid-swoop!

The sight in question was an old Peranakan mansion that has since been turned into a hotel with shops on the ground floor. We could sense that it was impressive at some point in time, but was currently overshadowed by heavy-handed restoration and advertisements.

Next on our list was Love Lane, where in decades past rich men would house their mistresses. 

The street, while retaining generous heapings of charm, had been overcome by hipsterness and almost every building had been turned either into a boutique hotel or a Western-oriented café (not even selling kopi!). 
From there we wended our way over to the esplanade, which was overcome in some areas by fishermen and the smell of rotting fish guts. Even away from the worst of the smells, the esplanade wasn't terribly attractive so we moved on. We briefly considered visiting Fort Cornwalis, but with a bit of Googling we deemed it potentially not worth the 15 ringgit entrance fee. The fort was built by the British East India Company to defend against pirates, but never engaged in combat and was largely used as a centre of administration. 

Slightly more inland, the Queen Victoria clock tower drew our eye and we circled it before walking down Beach Street in search of an iced beverage.

With no luck on Beach Street (think less a cafe street and more a bank street), we headed back to Little India and found what we desired. I scored an insanely delectable mango juice, while Yannick got his kopi fix: kopi (coffee) with sweetened condensed milk and ice, similar to Vietnamese ca phe sua da. 

Having heard that there was a mini cluster of jetties on the waterfront, we set off again refreshed. On the way we found yet more temples, this time larger than the last!

We noticed a few pieces of street art as well, starting with this...fuzzy rock golem slash temple guardian? Whatever he's supposed to be, it's immaginitive. 

According to the Internet, which I'm hesitant to trust, the Penang street art scene only began in 2009. During a local festival in 2012, Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic painted a few dynamic pieces, which are among the top tourist sights in the city today. Along with "Little Children on a Bicycle" and "Reaching Up", this wall at the side of Step by Step Street is a hotspot for tourist photographs. 

Finally at the waterfront again, we ambled along the first jetty we found, which turned out to be called Lim Jetty. A long wooden pier jutted out over the water, with a series of ramshackle shacks stuck along the right hand side.

As it seemed to be low tide, much of the jetty wasn't above water at all, but thick mud or a sort of muddy wetland area. Walking out, our senses were assaulted: on the one hand, it was an incredibly picturesque and bright scene, and on the other hand a thick stench rose up from the exposed mud. When we revisited the jetties hours later once meeting up with Jarold, the tide had encroached and smothered the fumes. This was excellent news because Jarold had just bought an R2D2 themed 'heritage' biscuit (don't ask me) and munched on it while on Lim Jetty - I imagine he would have been thoroughly put off his food if the mudstank was still hanging around. 

Next in line was Chew Jetty, the most popular and touristic of all. Shops and houses were attached to both sides of the walkway, and there was much more going on, including several stalls selling durian coffee. We made our way down a couple of side alleys that branched off the main path, but it felt a bit like an invasion of privacy as we were passing by people's open living room windows as they went about their lives, and stepping around laundry hung out to dry. Seeing strangers' underpants would make all but the most hardened awkwardness specialist uncomfortable (though if they were dirty underpants, that's a different story). 

But just as we turned back, a local on a motorbike whizzed passed us and gestured that we could go further. I don't need to be told twice! Further on we saw more houses, as well as a small shrine containing incense, candles and a gloriously ripe pineapple. Don't waste such perfect fruit on the gods!
Feeling sleepy from the heat, we returned to our hotel and I napped for a couple of hours. Then, in need of sustenance, we bought a half watermelon from the aforementioned fruit stall and (with the help of a spoon I pilfered from the hotel dining area) slurped our woes away. 
Soon afterwards we met up with Jarold, and together we revisited some of sights we deemed best (ie. we skipped returning to the esplanade but had a second wander of Love Lane, Little India and the jetties. 

Making our way inland once again to a cafe Jarold recommended, we were called out to by a man with a bewheeled stall: "hello coconut!" - he was selling young coconuts, but we weren't in the market for any. We arrived at China House and I was fairly impressed. Not only was it a beautiful heritage building, and not only was it a café, but there was also a snazzy bar attached, and upstairs was an art gallery. I fell in love with this enthusiastic woofy dog who was prancing up the wall next to the stairs. We ordered some drinks and rested in the bar for a time, chatting and discussing which artworks in the gallery we liked most. 
At dinner time, we caught an Uber to Annalakshmi Temple of Fine Arts, a vegetarian Indian restaurant offering daily lunch buffets and a Saturday dinner buffet (with other evenings being a la carte). As in a temple, we were required to remove our shoes before entering, and cats paced in the garden surrounding the courtyard we dined in, signifying (according to Jarold and seconded by us) that this was a good place with good people. We ate a selection of delicious curries, rice and gravies to our hearts' content. This place is very special, as its some sort of charitable organisation (though I couldn't find out details online). The waiters are volunteers, payment is whatever you feel appropriate, and proceeds go to charity. If I was staying longer in Penang, I would quickly become a regular there! Jarold gave us a tutorial of how to eat curry with our hands, and though we were extremely messy, I feel like I could get the hang of it with practice. Apparently if you do it correctly, your fingers shouldn't even touch your mouth at all. 

After comforting our full bellies for a spell, a friend of Jarold's picked us up and we all went to Spacebar Coffee for a night cap. I opted for berry tea, while Yannick had a smoothie. It just so happened to be right across the street from China House and comparably hipster, with indoor trees and shabby chic furniture.

So shabby. So chic! Decidedly tuckered out from the day's activities, we enjoyed a short amble back to our hotels and slept deeply.