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. 

Friday, 19 May 2017

February 2017 Encapsulation

After impatiently waiting out our last few days in London, we flew to Singapore (with a brief layover in Dubai) on the 3rd. We quickly settled in and went off exploring our new home! Near the top of our list was Chinatown. 
Oh aye, there be some swanky hotels in them there Chinatown. This one was my favourite, as it featured so many beautiful gardens as well as super shiny windows. Though not on the waterfront, I'd wager it costs a small fortune to spend a night there. 

One of the top sights in the neighbourhood is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, which is enormous, well-decorated and has a canine tooth that allegedly came straight from the Buddha's mouth. Quite a claim! 

On the day we visited, there seemed to be some sort of ceremony taking place, and the bottom story was packed with worshippers. It was quite a room to behold, with high ceilings, and many gilded objects filling every available surface, horizontal and vertical. Feeling slightly overwhelmed, we made for the stairs but found only a lift. We took it to the top floor, and then climbed one set of stairs where a beautiful garden was laid out before us. 

The atmosphere here was much calmer, and we took our time walking around. At the heart of the garden was a pagoda, and inside was a large rotating cylinder. This is called a prayer wheel, and a couple of people approached and spun it while we were wandering about. 
Now on to the main event! Down a couple of floors we found the tooth room. The tooth itself was behind glass and was in a sectioned off area where you couldn't really stop moving or get too close. There was so much going on (gold and incense and praying people and the like) that I actually didn't see the tooth at all, but Yannick informed me it wasn't that impressive as teeth rarely are. Apparently it looked much too large to be a human tooth, giving further doubts as to the whole Buddha claim. Nevertheless, the temple was mighty impressive. 

In the nearby suburb of Telok Ayer, Yannick and I lunched at Sarnies, an Aussie-run cafe. I had the vegan Pad Thai, while Yannick opted for a salad. I almost decided to have a CocoWhip (a vegan dessert made from coconut milk similar to soft serve) but was too full from the delicious Pad Thai and resolved to come back another time to try it. 

Alongside my Singapore International Ladies' Group, I utilised a quiet mid-week morning to visit the Pernakan Museum. For $8 each we gained entry, and free tours are run every hour. Our guide was very knowledgeable, and told us all about the Peranakan culture. To make a long story very short, wealthy male merchants from India and China would take trips down to the Singapore area on the monsoon winds to trade, and would take Indonesian and Malaysian wives. These were the Peranakan, and their culture is full of brightly coloured ceramics and beaded tablecloths. The traditional wedding ceremony lasted twelve days, and was bursting with opulence (including a different outfit for the bride on each day). 

This was an incredibly special table covering that used over one million tiny glass beads. Some other highlights included the shiny headdresses similar to crowns that brides wore, and the glass cases displaying garments from an entire wedding party, including the bride and her family, the servants and the matchmaker. 

Just outside the museum was a small alleyway with some great street art! This wall led me to research some popular street art spots in Singapore, which you'll be reading about later on.

The second learning experience of the month was the National Museum, which Yannick and I skipped down to on a quiet weekend. We read about so many fascinating aspects of Singapore's history, and saw many interesting old photographs and relics. Highlights for me were an old rickshaw, portraits of political figures, and the mock opium den. 

On another weekend, Yannick humoured me by going on a makeshift street art tour that I had devised by reading several blogs. We started by going to Kampong Glam, a neighbourhood famous for its high Middle Eastern population. Haji Lane was positively covered from road to rooftop in spraypaint, and it was delightful. It definitely gave off a hipster vibe, with an abundance of boutique clothing stores, cafes and tattoo parlours. 

Many a tourist could be seen posing with the street art (us included) as its vibrancy was difficult to pass by!

Blu Jaz had been recommended to us by one of Yannick's friends, and though it was closed on our first trip to Haji Lane, we returned at a later date for drinks. I appreciated the stunning double doors decked out with styalised peacocks. 

The main drag in Kampong Glam is Arab Street, which is lined with fabric stores and Turkish restaurants. The brightly gilded Sultan Mosque dominates the vanishing point, and acts as a strong magnet for those who have never seen it before, pulling you right past all the touters and souvenir stalls. Knowing I'd be able to find dates somewhere nearby, I asked one of the restaurant touters for where to find such a delicacy, and he kindly pointed me in the direction of a nearby shopping centre. Of course! Everything in Singapore is a mall after all. We did manage to get our hands on some dates, so regardless of anything else it was a day well spent!

Around the corner on Victoria Street we ended our mini street art tour with this stunning piece: Girl with Lion Cub. It looks so sleepy and fluffy!

Another top pick for us was Little India. Along this street, we had an evening drink at Wine Bos with our new friend Bill, whom we had met on the beach at Sentosa.

Two giant peacock statues guard the entrance to the main street in Little India, which also just so happens to be where the best supermarket in Singapore is located: Sheng Siong. My fave! Such great mangos and tomatoes and limes. Inside the same shopping centre as the best supermarket is one branch of the best drinks stall, Jollibean. 

Chocolate soy milk yes please! Although even better turned out to be the dark chocolate soy freeze and the mocha soy freeze - especially refreshing in the hot climate. 

Serangoon Road is the busiest street in Little India, and there's always a lot going on. From restaurants to jewellery stores to stalls selling flower garlands to clothing stores to beauty salons offering henna, to fruit stalls, there is everything you could want and more. On a weekend excursion, Yannick and I got away from Serangoon and wandered about the smaller side streets for a while, selecting a lunch place that seemed popular with Indian patrons (a good sign) and was attractively low key. We were too embarrassed to eat with our hands, having only done so once before, so accepted the forks offered and nommed away at large heapings of curry, rice and sauces. Our lunch total came to just $11: $5 for each tray of food and $1 for a soft drink. I would recommend the eatery, but alas it didn't seem to have a name and I'm hazy on exactly which street we were on. 

Closer afield, we popped into the bizarre complex known as Chijmes (pronounced "chimes"), which started as a convent and is now a series of restaurants and bars surrounding a large church (commonly used as a function space for weddings). Though the prices of food and drink were a bit steep for our liking, we enjoyed seeing the sunset light up the clouds behind the church.

Wanting to make the most of my time in this new country of ours, I found out that the government has a program in which gyms have to offer free early morning classes to residents. This is called Sunrise in the City, and it was such a valuable amenity! Free fitness classes are nearly unheard of in other countries I've lived in, and you would usually have to sign up to a gym in order to partake. I did Zumba, Hot Hula (it was hula dancing, not hula hooping as I had assumed), and several aerobics type classes at gyms in the Bugis area. One that stands out was inside the mall 'the Cathay', as the address stated the gym was on the second floor, but it was actually on the fourth floor! I was almost late for the class because of that error, and as class slots can be hard to come by (there are only a set amount, and they can fill up quickly), you can be banned from booking more slots if you are late or don't turn up to too many classes. Luckily I found the gym, and as such received a total of zero black marks to my name, allowing me to enjoy Sunrise in the City to the fullest extent. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Singapore River Waterfront

While Clarke Quay and Boat Quay are firmly on the tourist map, we still had to go have a look for ourselves and we ended up there multiple times over the course of our stay in Singapore. 

One building that immediately catches your eye is the Old Hill Street Police Station, which today boasts art galleries along the bottom floor, and the Ministry of Communication and Information on higher levels. This was the site of Singapore's first jail, but after a fair amount of police force restructuring, several new police stations were built (including this Neo-Classical building in 1934). Whoever had the idea to paint the shutters in all the colours of the rainbow was a genius.

Right across the street is Clarke Quay, which continues the tradition of brightly coloured facades. These face the river, but there's also a large walkway behind them which forms something of a swanky food court and bar street.

Many little boats set off from here, providing river tours to those who wish to feel the wind through their hair. Sunset is an especially nice time to visit.

Taking a stroll down the river towards Marina Bay, you get a wonderful view of the river from Boat Quay. Though swarming with touters trying to get you to eat in their seafood restaurant, once you get past the line of bars and eateries it's a pleasant place to sit and look out. It's similarly pleasant once you've selected a place to have a drink or dinner and are no longer in the touters' direct line of fire.

We patronised three bars along the waterfront, and the one I care to tell you about is 1-Altitiude for the sheer wow factor. Just another rooftop bar it is not! Along with a few of Yannick's colleagues, we visited on a Wednesday, which is ladies' night. On such a night, ladies are allowed to enter for free, though gentlemen are still required to fork over the $35 cover charge (this includes entry and one sanctioned drink).

The view from the top was awe-inspiring had one of our more vertigo-prone friends hanging around the bar area, which was furthest from the edge.

Yannick used his one "free" drink to try a Singapore Sling (at my behest), which was fruity and tasty, though not markedly different from other cocktails. I felt like we had to give it a go, and I was glad we did!

Back on solid land, there are a few bridges connecting the two sides of the river, some of which are terribly old. I love how this one prohibits all cattle and horses.

Directly across from Boat Quay, I found a statue of Sir Stamford Raffles with boldly crossed arms. This was all thanks to Pokémon Go, which has on many occasions brought my attention to a landmark or piece of street art which I may never have discovered on my own. Whatever you say about Pokémon Go, Pokéstops aren't all bad. 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Marina Bay, Singapore

It was on one of our first days out exploring Singapore that we had a walk around Gardens by the Bay. Like many parks, it's free to enter. However, it has several points of difference than any old park, and a big one is that it cost over one billion dollars to construct. 
An international competition was held to find the design for the gardens, and entries were received from 24 countries. The main attractions are the Supertree Grove, the Cloud Forest, and the Flower Dome. I'll cover the Supertrees last because some crazy shit went down, so we'll begin with...

...the Cloud Forest! While the gardens are free, the two 'conservatories' are not, and we paid $28 for a combo ticket. As soon as we stepped inside the Cloud Forest enclosure, we felt an immediate change in climate. If possible, the humidity in the air around us actually increased, but the temperature was considerably lower. The numerous waterfalls play a large role in this.

The impressive central mountain was completely covered in lush vegetation, like ferns and other beautiful leafy plants. Some had even been crafted out of Lego! I'm not sure why, but probably simply for the spectacle. Singapore is big on the whole "wow factor" thing. 

There was a so-called "Secret Garden" at the top, which was the furthest it could be from secret because visitors to the Cloud Forest literally had to walk through it in order to exit. Despite the silly name, it was stunning, and my favourite part of the forest. 

Next up was the Flower Dome. As could be expected, it was full of flowers! They came in many different arrangements and formations, one of the most memorable being the roof pieces of a central pagoda. 

The cactus garden was also a highlight, and it contained a vast number of desert-type plants from all over the world.

Quite a few of them I had never seen before, and some looked frankly unreal. There's something about desert dwelling plants that have a very alienesque quality about them.

On to the Supertrees! And they sure are super. We had a couple of opportunities to go up onto the elevated promenade through the trees, but never did. Instead, we viewed them from below. During the day they're mighty fine, but if you visit at night they're all lit up! A light show plays every night at 19:45 and 20:45 and lasts ten minutes. On the evening we spectated, there was an enormous thunderstorm taking place in the distance behind the gardens, which made the light show even more dramatic! Every so often, the clouds would flicker like a dying light bulb and illuminate the sky.

On 4 May, we went to see the light show again because a special event was taking place for the annual Star Wars celebrations (May the Fourth be With You). The Supertrees had been kitted out with beams that turned them into giant lightsabers, and actors were around in various costumes. Chewbacca and Kylo Ren were the stars and required fans to wait in a queue in order to get a photo (Chewbacca's line was more popular). 

We found a clear spot on the ground under the Supertrees, where everyone was sitting to get a good view of the light show. I don't want to rave too much so I'll keep it short, but it was amazing! The music! And the lighting effects! I was blown away. It was so great. 

From Gardens by the Bay, there's a direct walkway to the famous hotel Marina Bay Sands, and from there you can walk through to "The Shoppes": a swanky shopping centre with even more designer brands than usual, and a bizarre indoor canal set up like a mini Venice that you can take gondola rides on. 

From the Shoppes (is this olden timey England?) you can take a futuristic pedestrian bridge over to the other side of the bay, where you can see the Singapore Flyer ferris wheel or head over to Raffles Avenue and beyond.

Each year in March, Marina Bay Sands puts on an event called "i Light", which is a light festival of sorts. I walked around with my friend Katie when she was visiting for a couple of days and saw the many sculptures and installations that were dotted around the bay.

We also watched the laser show, which has been running every night for the last six years but is currently under renovation and not functioning (as of May 2017).

Even without light shows and laser shows and festivals and events, Singapore's Marina Bay is beautiful, especially at night when the lights from the skyscrapers cast long reflections on the water.