Southeast Asia Map

Southeast Asia Map

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Chinatown & Harbour Cruise (Singapore)


The last time we went to Chinatown in Singapore it looked just like this - crowded. Yes, noisy too! But, oh so welcoming with the fragrant smell of hundreds of food vendors competing for business. Though strangely enough, food is no longer as cheap here as we remembered it. Our theory is that tourists have driven the prices up. This is one of the largest thriving Chinatowns we've ever visited; it covers two square kilometers and includes a few temples.

With the Chinese New Year celebrations approaching (31 January) almost every shop is selling New Year decorations besides their usual mass-produced bargains. We looked hard but I only found one bargain worth mentioning; six postcards for S$1.00 - at most other places you only get one postcard for that price and sometimes it costs more than that! Certain special people in our lives will understand why this particular bargain made me feel happy. It doesn't take much!

This is the Buddhist's Tooth Relic Temple. Apparently a sacred tooth of the Buddha is kept here and brought out for viewing just once a year, on the first day of the Chinese New Year.

Typical food offerings to the deities. Mmm, wonder who eats all of this? Or even if it is eaten?

I loved some of the architecture and bright colours.

Looking for postcards ...

Imperial Cheng Ho High-Tea Harbour Cruise:

This was another activity we repeated because it left us with such good memories the last time. Once again, we were not disappointed.

The Imperial Cheng Ho, a modern Chinese junk, is designed and built to replicate the imperial splendour of centuries ago. The company offers four harbour cruises a day, but the one we find the most appealing is the afternoon high-tea cruise with a stop at Kusu Island - the same as the one we did 8-years ago. Would we do it again? Yes! We feel it's good value for money (S$34.00 each) for a two and a half hour cruise with as much 'high-tea' as you can eat in the first hour.

The interior of the boat is as ornate as the exterior. Within minutes of sailing the covers are lifted from the finger foods to reveal delicate savoury pastries, crustless sandwiches, petite cakes and mini chocolate eclairs. A line forms quickly but also moves very fast with the help of servers who load you up at the nod of your head. Self-serve hot tea and coffee completes the offering for 'high-tea'. There was an incredible amount of food. In seemingly constant motion, full trays replaced the empty ones until everyone was satiated. The full selection of food remained available until we pulled into our island stop an hour later.

Kusu Island, also known as turtle island, is one of many off Singapore's coast. The colourful temple on the island is known as the Da Bo Gong Temple (God of Prosperity). Da Bo Gong is highly regarded as having the power to confer prosperity, cure disease, calm the sea and avert danger.

We observed this monkey for a while. We know she's well fed, doesn't like people to get too close and she appears to be the only one on the small island.

As we departed Kusu Island we noticed the Singapore Financial District skyline in the background behind the temple. This was about a 45-minute boat ride away.

It was Dennis who noticed the Chinese man riding the chicken, one of the many interesting details on the boat. There is surely a story behind this!

Note on current exchange rate: SGD$1.00 is about US$0.80 is about ZAR8.00

Jurong Bird Park (Singapore)

This is definitely one of Singapore's highlights, especially for someone not used to seeing an incredible number of tropical birds all at once! The park is located more than an hour away from town but It was very easy to get there. We took the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit train) most of the way and transferred to a local bus for the final 3.3kms (about 2 miles). The whole journey cost less than S$2.00 each. We're really impressed with the quality of public transportation; it's clean, fast and priced in such a way that many locals prefer to use it over walking even a short distance. We opted to get an 'ez-link' card and load it up with cash to cover all our transport costs. Now we can tap on and off trains and buses without worrying about calculating individual fares or buying tickets each time. It's very much like MRT systems around the world except it appears Singapore has taken it one step further; here it can also be used to pay for taxis! Highly efficient.

The entrance fee to the bird park was S$20.00 each, great value for almost six hours of extraordinary entertainment. The aviaries are large, up to two hectares in size and house a number of common as well as endangered species. There's a lot of opportunity for interaction and daily shows to impress one even further. Almost immediately we entered, the mandarin ducks begged to be photographed - they are so attractive.

The pelicans had us in stitches at feeding time, jostling each other for best position.

This guy stood regally above the mayhem.

The crested pigeon is bigger than a chicken!

We learned something new about penguins. The black spots on their tummies are like fingerprints - each and every one is different! Newborn chicks identify their mothers this way, and vice versa.

The macaws are not only beautiful but clever too!

This waterfall is in the largest aviary. You'd think no-one was around but I just got lucky with this shot. The foliage is too dense to spot birds at anything other than close range.

Guinea Fowl. A reminder of home (Africa) - one of my favourite birds but they are so silly!

"Hey dude! Don't you realize there are people watching? Stop mooning them!"

This kingfisher sat perfectly still for me!

The Lory Loft provided plenty of opportunity to get up close and personal. This little Asian boy was enthralled with the birds and very gentle in his approach. 

It wasn't long before Dennis had a few friends too!

As for me, this outing produced a couple of close calls; on one occasion a bird wing brushed my cheek as it flew by and on another, bird poop landed on my hat and splashed my t-shirt! Whoa, glad I wore my hat! The park was also filled with beautiful flowers, the precisely intricate orchids never ceasing to catch my attention!

Note on current exchange rate: SGD$1.00 is about US$0.80 is about ZAR8.00

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Singapore - First Impressions

Wow, what a fabulous city! In truth, this is our second impression - we were very impressed by our first visit almost 8-years ago and vowed to return. After a smooth seven and a half hour flight from Tokyo we arrived at Paya Lebar Air Base. It was raining and overcast but the warmth and humidity hit us almost immediately and we couldn't stop grinning. The warm weather is definitely a welcome change! Singapore is the first stop on our tour of Southeast Asia. We'll follow the map above in an anti-clockwise direction, Bangkok becoming a base from which to do some side trips.

Our accommodation in the city is very basic; a quiet, clean and perfectly adequate room that we reserved through the airbnb website. Best of all is the amazing location and warm hospitality of our hosts, John and Flor. Our room is a little oasis in the middle of the city; in an older apartment building only four stories high on a spacious piece of premium land. We're surrounded by ultra modern high rises with minimal green space. Though our room doesn't come with a view, we love sitting on the front patio or in the garden (pictured below). Listening to the birds sing and soaking up the tropical ambiance while having breakfast is a very pleasant way to start each day!

Flor offered us some white dragon fruit for breakfast yesterday. Not quite as sweet as the pink dragon fruit but very refreshing. We love the wide variety of tropical fruit available here.

From the little bit of exploring we've done so far we've really come to appreciate just how convenient our location is. It's only a 10-minute walk to Orchard Street, a 2.2km (about 1.4 miles) commercial main thoroughfare that is the place to be for our Christmas celebrations this year. The sheer number of people is incredible but we've found ourselves more fascinated by the crowds than bothered by them. There is so much to see; the lights, the people, the street performers and food vendors. We walk slowly to make sure we don't miss anything, our heads spinning from side to side to take everything in! It's very easy to lose track of time.

The shopping malls are lined up one after another. Hunger drove us inside to look for a restaurant and more incredulity followed. This mall has an 'express' escalator which takes you four levels underground to the largest 'food court' we've ever seen! Actually calling it a food court is an injustice; here it's more accurately labeled a 'Food Opera'! More on food in a future blog ...

Orchard Street is brilliantly lit up at night ...

Here's a quintessential Singapore view - an ornate temple amidst the high rises!

The Singapore Buddhist Lodge (below) offers free food to anyone who is hungry.

We've done a lot of walking, finding treasures everywhere. For example, deserted parks; havens of peace in a modern busy city ...

... and noticing even the small things - like this beautiful caterpillar!

This was our Christmas tree this year; a delicate pastry drizzled in white chocolate and topped with sprinkles ... but it didn't last long; we ate it! Flor surprised us this morning with a freshly baked, deliciously moist cake which slipped down easily with fruit for a very special Christmas breakfast! Dennis is off to the market while I write this - we're looking forward to a community grill this afternoon. And this evening we'll brave the crowds to watch the grand finale Christmas concert on the ever-festive Orchard Street. We couldn't have hoped for a better day!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ja-ne, Japan! (Roughly translated, "See you later, Japan!")

We had a full 2-day 'layover' in Japan, the timing of which worked out perfectly to see our friend Kristi and her family. They are currently stationed at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo. It felt good to be back in Japan since living here previously for four years. Given the limited time we had before our flight to Singapore we decided to save any traditional sightseeing until we come back in April. Instead we focused on satisfying our cravings for some of the interesting Japanese food we'd grown to love. Kristi very generously offered to be our restaurant guide and personal driver. Thank you Kristi!

Our first stop was 'The Daiso'. This is the Japanese equivalent of the American '$1 Store', only much better. It was tough limiting myself to buying just some quirky postcards.

Next stop; the grocery store - we wanted some fresh fruit and snacks. Again, it was tough limiting ourselves to buying only what we could eat over the next few days. Wandering the aisles, we were fascinated by another dimension of ordinary ... like octopus.

The aloe flavored yoghurt appealed; very good for ones health and exceedingly delicious!

We went to 'Dohtonburi' for lunch to have their specialty - okonomiyaki - a kind of pancake that is made using potato starch, egg and a variety of other ingredients of your choosing. The raw ingredients are put in a bowl and delivered for you to cook yourself, on a grill in the middle of the table. It's a lot of fun and even a 4-year old can do it! The traditional noren (curtain) hanging over the restaurant entrance not only advertises the restaurant's name but also indicates that it's open.

Having lived most of his life in Japan, Jasper automatically holds up the quintessential Japanese peace sign for every photograph. So cute!

I craved yakisoba; stir-fried vegetables, pork and noodles generously doused in soy sauce. It may look like a lot but it went down very quickly, even using chopsticks!

Dinner was a yaki-niku restaurant - the literal meaning is grill-meat - another very yummy meal that we had to cook ourselves. Mmm, perhaps the Japanese are on to something?

The second day passed in a blur of errands and more culinary delights. Even something as ordinary as pizza becomes extraordinary in Japan, with choices such as tuna and broccoli, curry cheese and mochi (pounded rice) and corn. We'd also forgotten how wonderful the vending machines are, offering both hot and cold drinks from the same unit. Red labels indicate hot drinks and the blue, cold.

An old favorite, melon shake. Yum, yum!

All too soon it was time to leave. Our flight to Singapore was a military contracted flight through Air Transport International (ATI) on a very comfortable plane with carpeting and everything! I know that probably sounds weird but the C-5 does not have any carpet, so it was a little luxury we could appreciate! As we gained altitude we spied Mt. Fuji peeking above the clouds. What a bonus! We thought we were going to miss seeing it because it had been raining and overcast on the ground all through our visit. Though of course, we'd been thankful enough that the temperature was a huge improvement over Alaska!


The feel of the sun through the plane windows held the promise of warmer temperatures in our near future. It was a great day to be flying south!