19 June 2007

Arts: An Arabian Passion

Singapore is celebrating the 30th year of the Singapore Arts Festival, which plays host to a number of events throughout the month of June. Last week, I attended the Asian premiere of An Arabian Passion, based on J.S. Bach's St. John Passion and St. Matthew Passion. The musicians were drawn from two distinct groups: Ensemble Saraband, which joins together musicians from Bulgaria, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Germany, each contributing their own native traditions, and the Modern String Quartet, an improvisational string group based in Germany. The two combined to weave improvisational jazz, Arabian based tones and rhythms, and the baroque music of Bach into a very nice performance. The vocalist is Lebanese, and she sang in German and Aramaic. Particularly powerful was her rendition of Alajum, Mary's Lament on Good Friday, sung in the Maronite tradition. I don't know if you will ever have a chance to see this group of musicians perform, but I would highly recommend it.

A Note on Pictures

Hi All - Some of you may be having problems because of the size of the pictures. I upload the pictures using the "small" option, and I am able to view them easily on a single screen. If you are having difficulty, it may be a result of your own computer's settings. I am not the expert here, so I will open it up for any advice to be posted in the Comments section. I will also look at alternatives to posting pictures that will allow me to upload more than just three.

Food: Kaya

Along with their excellent kopi, Singaporeans (and other southeast Asians) enjoy kaya toast. Kaya is coconut jam, made with coconut, eggs, pandan leaf, and sugar. It is a rich, sweet spread used mainly on buttered or French toast. The jam is either golden or green in color, depending on the amount of pandan and carmelization of the sugar. It is often eaten for breakfast, but you will see people eating kaya toast at all times during the day in certain coffeeshops. If you ever have a chance to try kaya, by all means do!

18 June 2007

Travel: Pictures to go with Bangkok, Part 3

Travel: Bangkok, Part 3

On Saturday, I took a longboat up the Chao Phraya River to Nonthaburi, a neighborhood north of Bangkok. The longboat was the same kind James Bond commandeered in the river chase in The Man With the Golden Gun. Mine, thank goodness, had a roof, which was good in the brutally hot sun.

One can see a lot of Bangkok during this trip, floating by skyscrapers, under a modern Calatrava bridge, past a burned out high-rise, with shanty houses on stilts and beautiful wats (temples) lining both sides of the river. Nonthaburi is a cool little area, with a market selling all kinds of goods and food, including yummy fried bananas. I found a food stand that served an amazing pork and noodles dish, with little Vienna sausage balls.

During the ride back, I stopped at Wat Arun, the Temple of the Rising Sun (or Temple of Dawn). It is a beautiful structure in the style of Khmer (Cambodian) architecture. It has a main prang (tower) with four minor prangs at the corners. The artwork is beautiful - very intricate - and from the top, one gets a spectacular view of the river and back into Bangkok. The only issue is that the steps leading up are very, very steep. I have included a couple of pictures here.

Saturday night, I headed to an area called Khao San (I had visited a couple of other areas on Friday, one crowded with mainly expats, the other with young Thais out having a good time). Khao San is the backpacker destination in Bangkok, with its markets and cheap hotels and restaurants. And every backpacker who comes to Asia comes through Bangkok. It was packed with all kinds of adventurers from around the world, hanging out, buying cheap stuff, eating Thai food, and generally soaking in Asia. One of the street vendors was a dead ringer for Captain Jack Sparrow, down to his clothes, long hair, and eye shadow. Unfortunately, my camera battery had gone out by that time, and I couldn't get a picture.

One last thing about Bangkok - it is a city of dogs. There are dogs everywhere! Strays that just hang around and sleep on sidewalks. Often, you will see locals give them rice or some other food, and they do not look malnourished or mangy. But, there literally are thousands of dogs living in the streets - it really was wild!

13 June 2007

Travel: Bangkok, Part 2

Bangkok is a city of contrasts. On one hand, you have extreme luxury and modern buildings and amenities. On the other, you have extreme poverty and ways of life that have not changed for hundreds of years. Glittering skyscrapers set above river houses on stilts, where clothes are hung out to dry and children spend hot afternoons swimming in the river. It really is a fascinating place.

I took the hotel shuttle boat across the river into downtown and headed toward an outdoor market. You could buy anything, from clothes to watches to food. The food looked good, but I wasn't sure what it was, and all the signs were in Thai, so I ended up buying a couple of apples. I passed up the fried grasshoppers and beetles. After a good look at the market, I decided to head to a more lively part of town and looked for a cab. Instead, I found a tuk-tuk. Or, it found me. Not only do I stand out, but I must have looked lost. This three-wheeled contraption honked at me, and I thought, "What the heck!" and got in. A tuk-tuk is essentially a tricycle with a two-stroke, sub-200 cc engine. The driver sits across it like a motorcycle and steers with handlebars. Passengers sit in back, under a canopy that (perhaps mercifully) obstructs the view of what is occuring outside the vehicle. The benefit of taking a tuk-tuk is that it can - depending on the skill and daring of the driver - navigate the worst of traffic jams and get you to your destination. The drawbacks are that the ride is extremely hot, and it feels like you've got a tailpipe blowing right in your face. But, the tuk-tuk drivers are good, and I got used them several times during my stay. I have attached a couple of pictures from my first ride. After that, I learned to hold on with both hands and keep the camera in my pocket. More later on my trip.

Travel: Bangkok, Part 1

For my first trip from Singapore, I had planned to go to Saigon. Vietnam has fascinated me for several years, but I wasn't able to get a good flight. So, I decided to head up to Bangkok for the weekend. Now, mind you, going to Bangkok from Singapore is like going from Dallas to Atlanta. I left the office at 3, was on a 4:45 flight, and was in my taxi in Bangkok by 6:15 Thailand time (one hour earlier). But, then we hit Bangkok traffic. Singapore has moderately heavy traffic, but ownership of cars is based on a quota system, so congestion is controlled. Not so Bangkok. We hit the city traffic about halfway from the airport, and we slowed way down. Thai drivers, however, tend to be pretty resourceful, using as much pavement as possible. For instance, the last half of the cab ride into the city was made entirely on the shoulder, which had been transformed into another lane of traffic by my cab and the hundreds that followed it. We did come to a standstill once we exited the highway, but about a half hour later, I was in my hotel. I stayed in the Millenium Hilton on the Chao Praya River, which had a great view of the river and a level of comfort that I needed on my first trip to Thailand. So, after getting settled in the room, it was time to go explore...

Home: 2rvg

I finally purchased a good camera (Samsung NV10), and I have taken a couple of pictures of my home here. I live in a building called 2rvg, at 2 River Valley Grove (pretty clever, huh?). As its name suggest, River Valley cuts through the Singapore River Valley, starting at Boat Quay near the mouth of the river and winding up towards Orchard Road, the main retail/expat artery in Singapore, before turning west and then finally south to cross the river and become Delta Road. River Valley Grove is just east of the last southward turn, in the center of an oasis in the city. At the street level, densely bunched trees turn the urban area into a nice green area, one of the many respites from the sight of concrete and steel that seemingly is at every turn. This provides a nice contrast to the view I get from my top floor apartment, one of the city centre reminiscent of something in New York.
The interior is very modern, sparsely furnished. I have a couch and a coffee table, with a media stand, built-in bookshelves, and a television. The kitchen table rolls out from a concealed position under the kitchen countertop. The floor is white tile (I'd like to call it marble), while the floors in the bedrooms are dark teak-colored wood. I have a new house cleaner, and she polishes the wood floors with something that makes the floors like ice! It is hazardous to walk on them (even barefooted - I never wear shoes past the front door; when in Rome...), and you have to remember to make sure your foot is firmly planted when you get out of bed, or you'll go flying. I will take some more pictures of the interior and post them, but for starters, here is my view.

07 June 2007

Food: Kopi (Coffee)

I know I have written about kopi (the Malay word for coffee) previously, but I wanted to highlight it here. Coffeeshops provide very cheap coffee, usually about one Sing dollar. The coffee is very strong and very good, true to the Turkish proverb about coffee (I'll leave you to find it). I am pretty sure, however, that it isn't all that healthy for you. Not only is the coffee served normally with sweetened condensed milk or a full dose of sugar, the beans are actually roasted in butter before brewed. Heavenly!

05 June 2007

Food: Chicken Feet

So, I finally tried chicken feet. I had lunch in a hawker stall on Sunday, and I got a plate of them for two bucks. Tasted like chicken. It actually was the skin of the chicken feet, which had the expected texture - a little chewy, with a rough outer "shell". There was a little cartilage left in there, but it was okay. I didn't really care for the sauce it was in, so I didn't finish the plate, but all in all, not bad. For a one-time snack.


A self-professed pastime of Singaporeans is eating. "Makan" is the Malay word for "eat" or "food". Singapore is a city of many races, and its food reflects this. Singapore is the culinary birthplace of a number of delicious dishes including Bak Kut Teh (pork ribs simmered in pepper and garlic broth), Indian Rojak (a collection of fried stuff like dough fritters, prawns, chilli potatoes, fried coconut dough and squid, served with a sweet potato and chilli dip), Fried Hokkien Prawn Noodles (thick yellow egg noodles and rice vermicelli stir-fried in pork-seafood stock with pork, prawns, and squids), Laksa (Peranakan rice noodle dish with garlic, shallots, dried shrimps, and coconut milk), Chicken Rice (the Singaporean national dish), and Fish Head Curry Soup (a whole huge snapper head cooked in a spicy, tangy tamarind curry with ochra and tomoatoes). Makan is such a serious endeavour that there is a guidebook of local eateries called Makansutra ("sutra" being Sanskrit for "guide"). It is great! I have found all kinds of fantastic places with unbelievable food, from golden pillow curry in Geylang (as close to a red light district as you will get here) to chicken noodles in Chinatown to Laksa in Katong. The nice thing is that the guidebook focuses on food hawkers, the (mainly) open air food stalls and stands that serve excellent food for around US$3. Of course, you always have to leave room for a Singaporean coffee (kopi), which is made with a healthy dollop of sweetened condensed milk. The coffee is made by pouring hot hot water through a coffee "sock" which contains "coffee powder." The coffee is then poured through the sock (essentially a filter, although it looks like a sock) again, making it very strong. The final drink is made by cutting with water and adding the condensed milk, or you can get kopi-o, which is black coffee with sugar. It is generally too bitter for no sugar, and having just the coffee (not diluted with water) will keep you up for 48 hours.