12 December 2007

Christmas in Singapore

I mentioned that Singapore is a city of festivals in Autumn. They save the biggest celebration for last, however, as the city really gets decked out for Christmas. Granted, it starts a bit later in the year than in the US, starting mid-November. I think this has to do with the timing of other festivals, as Deepavali ends around that time.

I attribute the celebrations not to the presence of Westerners in Singapore or the influence of Christianity in the city-state. Indeed, Westerners are still a small minority, and the republic is a multi-religious society. Instead, I think it is a nod to the overt consumerism of Singapore. It is nice to see Christmas lights and hear Christmas carols, but this really is only in the commercial areas. In those areas, however, it is like Rockefeller Plaza.

I wanted to share some pictures from around the city, including one of the Raffles Hotel. I leave tomorrow for the US and a two week visit home. I hope that I have imparted a bit of what is like over here for you. My goal is to let you experience this with me without sounding overprivileged. I hope I have accomplished that.

So, until 2008, I bid you adieu. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Travel: Bintan

My visit to Bali had been my first trip to Indonesia, but I followed it with a trip to Bintan, an island about 40 kilometres southeast of Singapore that is a popular weekend destination for Singaporeans. Indonesia places a few more restrictions on visitors - you must get a visa (Visa on Demand) when entering, and in Bali, you have to pay an exit tax. But, that really just slows down your entry into the country, making the lines through Immigration a bit longer.

I have a colleague who goes kite surfing nearly every weekend, and the wind is now good at Bintan, so he heads there. I had work to do over one weekend, and he suggested I do it on the beach. So, I headed off early on a Saturday morning for a little W&R (work and relaxation).

Bintan basically has two sides to it, on a tourist front: the Singapore side, and the local side. My kite surfing friend likes to go to the local Indonesian side, where it is cheaper and less crowded. Apparently, the Singapore side is filled with high priced resorts and is somewhat cut off from the reality of the island, which is highly rural and could be characterized as developing, in an economic sense. The ferries that serve that side of the island are Singapore-owned and quite luxurious. The Indonesian side of the island is less resort-ish. And the ferries that serve that side are Indonesian-owned, which means they are focused more on getting lots of people on board than on making the trip as comfortable as possible. I didn't know all of this, and I took my colleague's advice to take the Indonesian ferry, which takes a bit longer to arrive on the island, but means a shorter van trip to the hotel. So, I boarded the Indo Falcon Ferry at Changi Ferry Terminal on a Saturday morning, hoping for a cup of coffee and maybe a bite to eat. I would get nothing of the sort.

The ferry was packed. It had two decks, an "upper" deck with a single aisle and five cramped seats on either side, and a "lower" deck with two sets of wobbly seats, three or four to a side. A sitting area in front of the lower deck allowed groups to sit around the perimeter of the boat, but it was full. I found a seat downstairs against the wall, so at least I had a neighbor to only one side. It was pretty cramped, and it would have been a miserable ride shoulder to shoulder on both sides.

The first thing I noticed was how much the boat rocked at the dock. It was up and down and side to side. I don't usually get seasick, and I hadn't had anything to eat or drink (remember, I thought I would get something on board - no such luck), so I didn't think I would have a problem. But, a good part of the passengers did. The water was quite choppy for the first hour, and apparently you get it the worst in the lower deck (which is also in the bow of the boat). About 20 minutes in, a poor little girl behind me got sick. She was very quiet, but the smell indicated immdediately that something had gone wrong, and the poor child looked miserable. That set off a chain reaction, and for the next 30 minutes or so, it was pretty bad. I was okay, but a great deal of the boat wasn't. It was interesting to observe the following contrast: several buddies sitting together, some drinking beer at 9 in the morning, while their friends right beside them had their heads in plastic bags. I was glad to be in neither party.

We arrived at Tanjung Pinang, the largest city on Bintan, and then took a van 45 minutes out of the city to the hotel. It is a new hotel, and it is pretty nice, set in a very rural area of the island. There isn't much of a beach, just a sandy stretch leading to a low rock wall that borders the water. For about 200 metres, the water stretches out at around three feet deep, until you can see a clear line of demarcation where it drops off to greater depths. This keeps the waves down, which the kite surfers like. There were several kites on the beach with a couple of kiters on the water.

Kite surfing mixes the use of a snowboard-type board with a parachute-like kite, to which the surfer is attached via a body harness. The kites range from 6 to 15 square metres, depending on the strength of the wind. A skilled kiter can shoot across the water at very high speeds and then make high jumps by manipulating the kite in the wind. But, it apparently takes lots of practice, and the hazards that I heard of include being plucked out of the water and hung in trees, being attacked by territorial fish, being swept to sea (they do not wear flotation devices) and being unable to re-launch the kite after crashing. It is more dangerous that in seems.

But, I didn't have to worry about that. The hotel does not have any training kites, so I sat on the beach and did my work. Not a bad setting to work, actually. Read a little, write a little, gaze out at the ocean for a while. I could get used to that.

The surrounding area is countryside for miles, dotted with houses or little gatherings of buildings serving as residences and roadside stores. The hotel has a restaurant, and there is another at the end of the pier just a short walk away. But, after dinner, there is little to do. I sat with some kiters for a while, but most of them are wiped out after a day on the water.

The next morning was more of the same. A run up the road let me see a little more of the island, and I think it would be an interesting place to visit. I would have liked to capture many of the sights on the drive back to the ferry terminal, but the van's windows were covered in a poorly applied tint, meaning there was no way you could take a good picture. I did include some from the ferry terminals and the hotel. And I did get one picture of a scooter with several live roosters tied to the back. Every once in a while, a rooster would tilt its head to check out where it was going, which was hard for it to do, as it was hanging upside down.

10 December 2007

Travel: Bali

I had not decided to go to Bali with Mom and Dad until the week before their trip. They had a 9:15 am flight on Singapore Air, and I booked the same airline, but on the 7:00 pm flight. I thought I would stand by, so I rode the taxi with them to arrive at the airport around 7:30 am. Well, I got to the front of the line, and they said the flight was already oversold by 31. If I wanted to stand by, it was unlikely I would get on the flight, and I would have to stay within the security area for nearly 12 hours. I told Mom and Dad goodbye and was headed home, when I decided to ask once more. I was told this time that it looked a lot better (they had switched the plane from a 777 to a 747), so I thought I would chance it. Thank goodness I did - I found Mom and Dad and was able to get on the flight. That gave me an extra day in Bali, which was perfect.

We arrived to a very hot noonday sun, and after a short taxi ride, we were at our hotel. Now, I am all for going exploring, seeing as much as there is to see. But, when I walked into the hotel, I said, "I'm not going anywhere." There was a pool. There was a bar. There was a beach. There was a bar on the beach. There was a bar in the pool. We checked in, and Dad and I went down to check out the pool.

And bar. After satisfying our curiosity about the quality of the local brew, Bintang, Dad headed to get Mom, and I headed to the beach. Which is where I sat, looking at the water and the various jets taking off (the airport was on a jetty just a couple of miles away), sometimes going for a dip and a body surf. But mainly, I just sat there. Mom and Dad joined me for a sit, as well.

We had a great view of the brilliant sunset.

And we made friends with one of the waiters, so it was a perfect day.

The next day was more of the same. Sit, swim, sit, have a refreshment, sit, nap. All the while soaking in the breezy day. I have not done more of nothing in a long time. And although I had to leave early the next morning to be back at work, my two days there were well worth it.

One interesting note: I went for a walk early the next morning along the beach. I had noticed earlier a wide swath of sand that looked as if it had been groomed, just as you walked down onto the beach. During my walk, I discovered how they did it - a hotel employee was prodding along two cows (they looked more like water buffaloes) who were dragging a grooming device which looked quite similar to those used on basepaths. It really was a mixture of new and old. Unfortunately, I did not get any pictures of these guys!

09 December 2007

The Hallerbergs in Singapore

While I flew back from Bangkok, Mom and Dad traveled in style: the Eastern & Orient Express. Their trip took them to the River Kwai, then down through southern Thailand, through Penang, Butterworth, and Kuala Lumpur and down peninsular Malaysia, over the Straits of Johor and into Keppel Road Station in Singapore. The station is actually still part of Malaysia, and it bears much resemblance to the country, with its food and coffee stalls and signs in Bahasa Malay.

Proving just how small the world is, I was greeted at the platform by an old boss of mine from Sabre, who is now retired and happened to be on the train with Mom and Dad. They had chatted and realized that I was the Eric they had in common. It was incredible!

I got to peek in the train, and it looked like a great way to spend a few days. I will let the actual travelers fill you in on their experiences there. We certainly had plenty to chronicle during their time in Singapore.

After letting them get settled at my place, we headed out for dim sum. We had a number of different dishes, and they even ate chicken feet! Really, this is a novelty for me, as there just isn’t any meat. It is a delicacy to some, but I have tried it twice, and that is enough.

The weather had been overcast and very humid earlier in the day, but the humidity was letting up a bit as we headed to Clarke Quay and a bum boat tour of the Singapore River. The bum boats were the wide-bottom freight boats that ferried goods from the riverside godowns (warehouses) in old Singapore out to the harbor. They now provide nice tours of the river starting at Clarke Quay, down to Boat Quay, past Parliament and the Fullerton Hotel (a grand building which used to house the colonial post office) and into the harbor, with its views of the Esplanade (the new performance halls that look like bug eyes or durians) and the Merlion. After the ride, we took a walking tour of the area – the weather had turned almost Autumn-like. After seeing some of the sights up close (including a picture session for a bride and groom), we headed to a little street tucked away behind Boat Quay that is home to a number of restaurants and pubs for happy hour at my favorite local brewery, Archipelago. This Singapore brewery produces really good, refreshing beers, and it is located on a corner, allowing it to draw back the floor to ceiling shutters and become an open-air bar with refreshing cross-breezes. The weather was perfect, and it wasn’t too crowded. It was a good start to their stay.

That night, we decided to go to the Long Bar at Raffles for Singapore Slings. We ran into more people from their train, who were staying for a few days in the city, as well. It was clear that everyone was having a good time. But, the day had been long, and after a quick pizza across the street, it was time to head home.

The next day, I took them to Chinatown and the Heritage Center, which has an interesting Chinatown history tour in a converted shophouse. After, they sampled a local delicacy – sugar cane juice – and we headed for Lau Pa Sat, a well-known (and huge) hawker center in the Central Business District that has every kind of Singapore food you can imagine. We had a sampling of chicken rice, mixed-beef noodles, popiah, and char siew/won ton noodles. The skies threatened rain, so we jumped on the MRT (I am proud to say that the two adapted very well, buying MRT cards and riding the trains and buses when convenient) to go home. The walk from the station takes you by a local kopitiam (coffee shop), so we stopped for local coffee and butter kaya toast, and Dad had a chendol. This is a mix of several “sweets” (defined differently here than what I am used to), including grass jelly and red beans. For dinner, we tried an interesting little place called the French Stall. This was started by a French chef here who wanted a restaurant similar to one in his small hometown in France that served good French food at moderate prices. The result is an open-air kopitiam-style restaurant just at the northern end of Little India. And it is quite good. We happened to eat there during their celebration of the new harvest of Beaujolais Nouveau, which was a nice complement to the excellent beef dishes we had.

The night was not quite over, however, as it was off to the Night Safari. The Singapore Zoo is well-known for its daytime natural habitats, but its neighbor has an impressive night show as well. You walk into a Disney-style setting with several themed restaurants and bars, along with a live native fire-dance show. After a fun performance of “Creatures of the Night” in the amphitheater, which starts with a wolf coming out on a rock outcropping to bay at the moon and includes owl flights, marmocets crawling across suspended ropes, an interactive session with a python, and a cute lesson on recycling with the help of otters, you are off to a tram tour of the park. This felt very Jurassic Park-like, as you crawl through the jungle on a three-car, open-air tram, with close proximity to all kinds of animals, from deer to water buffaloes to giraffes and hippopotami to tigers and lions. I really liked it, and the trip through the forest kept the temperature down. That made it a full day, however, and it was off to home.

Friday morning started with a walk around Orchard and then up past several embassies to the Botanic Garden. I had heard good things about it but had not visited. It covers 157 acres (or, 64 hectares here) and includes the National Orchid Garden. This is nice greenspace in the middle of a city with much greenspace, but it was hot.

After, we took a taxi up Mount Faber to board the cable car to Sentosa Island. On a clear day, you can see the cable cars from my condo. They take you from the top of the hill, over the port and to Sentosa, which is a resort-style (read: touristy) island just south of the main island of Singapore. There are a number of tourist attractions as well as golf and resorts there (the Singapore Open, and Asian PGA Tour event, was just played on Sentosa), and the island will be home to Singapore’s second casino in 2010 (the first is due to hope at the Marina in 2009). We all enjoyed Images of Singapore, which is a wax museum walk through Singapore’s history and showcase of its multi-cultural heritage. And the island’s 37 metre tall Merlion is impressive, allowing you to view the city through its mouth and from the top of its head. All this is dampened by the overt touristy nature of the island, however. Everywhere you go, they insist on taking a picture which they will try to sell to you at the end of your visit. And all attractions exit through gift shops. It is just a beat-down, and I question whether this is the image Singapore wants to portray to visitors. We had had enough (the picture-taking actually started at the Night Safari), and I told the photographers on our way to the cable car for our return trip that there was no need to take our picture.

A quick respite helped us recharge for our Friday night out. First, we headed to Boat Quay and the Penny Black pub, which is a fully-reassembled Victorian London pub that was shipped piece-by-piece to Singapore. There we met up with Mark Corley, the third of six Corley brothers, who was in Singapore on Microsoft business. We then headed across the river to Indochine, which is a wonderful French-Asian fusion restaurant for a night of good wine, great food, and excellent storytelling. I learned more about my friend’s family – and about mine – than I had in a long time. Mark had an early flight to Sydney the next day, so we called it a night after dinner.

Saturday was Mom and Dad's last day in Singapore, but we all were a little tired and eager to get ready for Bali. Dad and I toured Fort Canning Park, just down the road from me, which was home to the old Government House in colonial times, as well as the Battle Box, the command headquarters for the British military in Malaya before Singapore fell. The tour of the Battle Box is fascinating - they really do a good job of recreating the days leading up to the surrender. After a quick visit to Clarke Quay, it was back home for a bit of rest. We wanted to catch the opening night of Christmas in the Tropics, the big holiday lights celebration on Orchard Road. We made our way to Orchard in early evening, booked our bus tour, and then enjoyed a little dinner as the lights came on. Unfortunately for us, the buses were delayed by more than an hour, and we did not want to wait. We had to be out of the house at 7 am the next morning for the flight to Bali. So, we called it a night, and that was the end of their stay.

I think they had a great time - it was fun playing tour guide. I did some things I hadn't done before (and wouldn't without a visitor), which was great. To get their perspective, however, you'll have to ask them directly.