Category Archives: Travel Guide

Travel Guide: Republic of Singapore

Being in Singapore with Mitch this weekend was a blast. It was also rather useful because Mitch has been there for a grand total of 12 days, which practically made him a local. He knew where we should eat and drink, which MRT (Singapore’s metro) stations would lead us where, which parts of town I should see, and how to get there.

Everything I’d heard about Singapore turned out to be true. It’s almost uncomfortably clean, people queue for everything, it’s incredibly safe, there are trees, plants, and parks everywhere, and it could easily pass for a Western city. The population is very diverse and all signs are posted in four languages: English, Bahasa Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil.

I really love the juxtaposition of traditional and modern that one sees all over Singapore
I really love the juxtaposition of traditional and modern that one sees all over Singapore

I arrived in time for a late dinner and drinks Friday night at a Japanese craft beer bar in one of Singapore’s many outdoor food courts. This one had restaurants serving cuisines from all over the world; we saw French, Italian, Irish, Japanese, and American eateries under brightly colored awnings next to a park.

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A quest for brunch on Saturday morning led us to Mark’s, a restaurant specializing in chocolate. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Patrons ordering a simple cup of hot chocolate choose from a list of chocolate-producing regions from around the world. The chocolate in Mitch’s hot chocolate came from Cuba! The other item in which Mark’s specializes is waffles! We got a “plain” waffle with real maple syrup and a cheese waffle with salad, eggs, and oranges. Yummy!

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We spent a bit of Saturday morning wandering around Fort Canning Park on our way to the National Museum of Singapore. The park was lovely and had a really beautiful fountain that actually wasn’t on because the city is in a bit of a drought. Welcome to Southeast Asia.

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The National Museum’s permanent galleries are closed for renovations until September 2015 (depending on how all of this works out, we might still be in the area) but there was a really interesting exhibit on the history of Singapore that I believe was a smaller version of one of the permanent exhibits. I knew next to nothing about Singapore before spending several hours walking through the exhibit. For example, one of Singapore’s earliest kings in the 1200s was a relative of Alexander the Great! I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know the Japanese were in control of Singapore during World War II and I didn’t know anything about Japanese wartime propaganda. Now I do and I’m glad we had the chance to learn!

Mitch introduced me to the gem of ABC juice. ABC stands for apple, beet, carrot and the juice is made out of those three ingredients blended with ice. One buys juices like that at stands like this:

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We spent some time exploring Chinatown on Saturday . . .

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And Little India on Sunday . . .

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The socioeconomic differences are pretty obvious. Chinatown is definitely more affluent and the bigger attraction, definitely for tourists and possible for locals just based on location. However, every third restaurant in Little India is a vegetarian restaurant, which was both shocking and amazing. (Why is is that there are Chinatowns and Little Indias all over the world? Why not Little China and Indiatown?)

We made our way down to Marina Bay on Saturday, as well.

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In addition to the financial district’s tall building and the boats on the water there was a display of Christmas trees right next to the palm trees that are actually natural to the region. It made me laugh.

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Christmas in July! But not . . .

Other Singaporean adventures took us to a British pub, Red Dot Microbrewery (the best beer I’ve had since leaving the US), the club Zouk for a guest DJ show, and a restaurant called Strictly Pancakes (I had pancakes stuffed with leeks and potatoes and topped with mushrooms and cream cheese).

We also came across this building:

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Google was only marginally helpful in telling me who David Elias is, but I’m quite curious as David and I share a name . . .

Moral of the story: Singapore is interesting, exciting, cultural, modern, traditional, and very liveable. I can’t wait to go back!

Travel Guide: Kuching and Sarawak

Reader be warned: As in Penang, I took a lot of pictures.

The third and final weekend of our (currently) planned trips out of Seremban brought us to Kuching, the capital of the East Malaysia state of Sarawak. Sarawak is located on the island of Borneo along with another Malaysian state, Sabah, the country of Brunei, and part of Indonesia.

For clarity and your viewing pleasure, here is a map

Kuching means “cat” and there are statues of cats around the city, a cat museum, and, of course, many feral cats.

Cat statue in the center of Kuching
Cat statue in the center of Kuching

We arrived on Wednesday because of a school holiday for Deepavali/Divali/Diwali so this was a longer trip than any trip we’ve taken so far. We spent Wednesday getting our bearings and wandering around. Kuching is not a big city and there are sidewalks and a boardwalk along the river. What we found really interesting was that it felt old. Not old in a historic, cultural sense but old as in neglected and rundown. It didn’t bother us, but we noticed. Sarawak and its neighboring state, Sabah, are the primary oil producers in Malaysia but they don’t get the same government aid and funding as the peninsula. Yes, it shows. Regardless, we loved Kuching and the areas that we explored around it. These pictures are from our walk around the city on our first day:

We took a little motorboat to cross the river (finally, this blog lives up to its name) to visit Fort Margherita, a relic of Sarawak’s early history. The British arrived in Sarawak in the 1840s and Charles Brooke, the second of the White Rajahs (the first was his uncle) gets the credit for its construction.

The interior of the motorboat that we took from one side of the river to the other
The interior of the motorboat that we took from one side of the river to the other
We walked through a neighborhood and found starfruit growing on trees . . .
We walked through a neighborhood and found starfruit growing on trees . . .
. . . and finally arrived at the fort and then promptly left because it was closed
. . . and finally arrived at the fort and then promptly left because it was closed

For dinner the first night we took a colleague’s recommendation to go to Top Spot, a food court on top of a multi-story parking garage.

This place is amazing. Go
This place is amazing. Go

The picture isn’t the best, but the food was. You literally pick your fish or other seafood from ice, put all the vegetables that you want on a plate, tell the staff how you want it cooked (they have different lists of cooking styles depending on what you’re eating), and enjoy your beautiful food when it arrives. We were in heaven the entire time. Our sea bass was steamed with ginger, pepper, garlic, and some other magical ingredients and it was quite possibly the best fish I’ve ever had.

We woke up early the next morning to catch the first bus to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, located about 45 minutes outside Kuching. Basically everything a tourist is supposed to do while staying in Kuching is 45 minutes out of Kuching. Public transit is cheap and shuttles are readily available, so there’s no need for a car. Semenggoh is a huge land preservation area with different types of botanical gardens, but it is best known for its orangutan project.

Semenggoh also had a few crocodiles, but no one paid much attention to them
Semenggoh also had a few crocodiles, but no one paid much attention to them

The orangutans are fed twice a day at the center, though the goal is for them to find food in the while on their own. It’s the end of fruit season now, so they were beginning to return to the center at the designated feeding times.

Handy chart helping visitors understand the family structure of these orangutans, when they arrived at the center, and how old they are
Handy chart helping visitors understand the family structure of these orangutans, when they arrived at the center, and how old they are

We ended up seeing both feedings because of a trip that we took in the middle of the day, so these pictures are a combination of the feedings. The first time, two mothers and their babies came to eat and the second time we met two young males and an older male (though not the alpha, who was reportedly lurking in the forest nearby). One of the mothers returned with her baby, too.

Watching the orangutans was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. They are so agile and flexible and so human-like. (Or, I suppose, humans are very orangutan-like.) They have distinct personalities, facial expressions, and relationships with each other and it was just a very humbling experience. I felt almost as though I were watching evolution as it happened; it is so easy to see how orangutans and humans are related. If you’re not convinced, consider that “orang utan” in Malaya means “people of the forest.” Wow.

After the first orangutan feeding, we joined an older Belgian couple with whom we had been talking to visit the Annah Rais Longhouse located 45 minutes away. They say that no trip to Sarawak is complete without visiting one of the many indigenous groups of the area and this Bidayuh longhouse is happy to have visitors.

Beautiful scenery we passed along the way. There are churches all over Sarawak and there were crosses on most of the doorways at Annah Rais
Beautiful scenery we passed along the way. There are churches all over Sarawak and there were crosses on most of the doorways at Annah Rais

I felt a little strange walking through people’s homes and basically dancing on their heads, but if my RM5 entry fee helps alleviate their poverty (or supports their choice to live in traditional longhouses), so be it.

While visiting the Annah Rais Longhouse, Mitch bought a bottle of rice wine sweetened with sugar. We had it as a welcome drink on the way into the longhouse and had tried an unsweetened version the night before. We liked the first and loved the second. We also loved that it was RM5 and came in a Carlsberg bottle – definitely homemade and definitely authentic. After a delicious dinner at a local, cheap restaurant we took our Carlsberg bottle down to the river and shared it while looking out over the water. We really did love Kuching.

Our trip the next day, Friday, to the Sarawak Cultural Village 45 minutes from Kuching helped put the Bidayuh lifestyle into context. The Cultural Village contained examples of dwellings of many of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples and it was really interesting to see the differences and similarities between them, as well as learn about where they’re located on Borneo. Considering I knew next to nothing before going, I’m glad we went. However, the lack of pictures should tell you my overall impression of Sarawak Cultural Village. I found it stale, dry, lacking in detail, and hellbent on an agenda to teach its visitors that the modern Malay people are superior to everyone else. In short, I found it distasteful and insulting. I didn’t think any of the people who worked there (there were no interpreters, which is a crime in itself) took the place seriously and concrete and nails do not give much of a representation of authentic building methods. If nothing else, we started to ask questions that we didn’t know we needed to ask.

Our walk along the beach later in the afternoon proved less educational, but also more enjoyable. The South China Sea and the rain forests along the coast are really beautiful.

Mitch by the water
Mitch by the water
Look, I'm in a picture!
Look, I’m in a picture!
Really cool vine
Really cool vine
Beautiful Borneo
Beautiful Borneo

Dinner Friday night found us at the Drunk Monkey, another place recommended by my coworker. Ray learned that we were going to Kuching and sent me a lengthy email with suggestions of not only where to go, but which sites and trips to combine. We followed his advice almost to the letter. Anyway, the Drunk Monkey is a Western-style bar that had a handful of takeout menus from cafes across the street sitting at the counter. We ordered our food at the bar, a bartender brought the order across the street, and cafe staff brought us our meals. Great system!

Look at all the choices!
Look at all the choices!
There was a cool atmosphere in the bar with old posters for Coca-Cola and various vintage objects
There was a cool atmosphere in the bar with old posters for Coca-Cola and various vintage objects
Drunk Monkey's exterior was a alleyway in between the bar and a restaurant next door
Drunk Monkey’s exterior was a alleyway in between the bar and a restaurant next door

(And then we bought a bottle of rice wine at a corner store that came in a Tiger bottle and was missing the sugar from the Annah Rais bottle. We didn’t finish it, unfortunately. As Mitch said, it was like drinking real pirate liquor.)

On Saturday we met up with a friend who was also in Kuching for the weekend. We rented a car and drove about – you guessed it! – 45 minutes to Bao to see the Fairy Cave, a cave so named because of the fairy statue inside. It was a dark, scary walk both up into the cave and down the slick flights of stairs back to Earth, but definitely worth it. The pictures don’t do it justice, but imagine grass and foliage growing in a bat cave. Imagine that all you can hear are the bats and that the only light comes from a gaping opening hundreds of feet off the ground.

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From there we drove for another 45 minutes or so to the coast to put our feet in a very, very hot bit of the South China Sea. The beach we found was at the edge of a tiny fishing village and completely empty. It was also flat, which provided some fantastic scenery and a real appreciation for the vastness of nature.

We drove around the coastal countryside for a bit longer, found a restaurant with some delicious fish that had definitely been caught that day, and finally made our way to the airport. It was a very nice way to end a wonderful trip.

Long story short: We loved Kuching and want to go back. The more time one has in Sarawak, so I’m told, the farther from Kuching one ought to go. We’d love to spend a few nights in Bako National Park, for example, or stay at a longhouse further out in the jungle. Maybe next time!

Travel Guide: Penang

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I accepted a job here in Malaysia, but then Mitch and I spent the weekend in Penang’s largest city, the UNESCO World Heritage Site George Town, and I found what I’d been hoping to find here – neighborhoods to explore, streets to walk, cafes to sit and eat and drink, bars with really good food, places to visit, and a multicultural, historical society. We had a wonderful weekend and I can’t wait to go back! (In fact, I’d rather like to relocate, but I don’t think there are many opportunities for Mitch there. Actually, I don’t know if there are any opportunities for me there. Anyway, we’re not relocating. At least, not to Penang.)

An example of what I thought I'd see in Malaysia
An example of what I thought I’d see in Malaysia

Part of the reason our weekend was so special is because we stayed in a perfectly comfortable, simple bed and breakfast in the heart of George Town. Steven, the proprietor of the Pedal Inn (I highly, highly, highly recommend it), told us what to do, where to go, and, most importantly, what to eat. Penang is famous for its seafood-based street food, most of which I can’t eat, but there are multiple vegetarian places, too! It really is a wonderful place.

We arrived late Friday night and began exploring on Saturday. Street art is both common and famous in Penang, so we spent a good bit of Saturday just wandering around the various historic neighborhoods and looking for it. There are maps to follow, but that would have been too easy. Some of the pieces were funky and fun and others were rather informative about the history of Penang. Still others, my favorites, made excellent use of the space around them.

China Town is a great place to see where real locals buy food. Literally all kids of food. I made it past 3 stalls selling various meats and fish and had to backtrack through a maze of people. The smell. . . . But there were others places to look around!

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We bumped into a batik-painting museum in China Town that we quite enjoyed. I didn’t know batik is only around 60 years old!

The third floor of the batik-painting museum
The third floor of the batik-painting museum

Since Deepavali (also spelled Divali or Diwali) is this coming week, Little India was a hopping place, too. We ended up eating lunch there at a banana leaf place, much like No. 1 Top Curry, my favorite restaurant in Seremban.

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We walked down to the waterfront and passed some British colonial buildings along the way. My favorite feature was this post box:

Why yes, Malaysia is a former British colony
Why yes, Malaysia is a former British colony

It was also really neat to see people driving their cars off of the ferry. The mainland is rather close by – right across the Straits of Malacca – and you can see it without trying too hard.

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Dear Rochester, this is what the fast ferry was supposed to do

Other wanderings took us past various religious buildings that are everywhere. Penang has more churches than I’ve seen elsewhere in Malaysia, even in Malacca. It also had mosques, Buddhist temples, and Hindu temples.

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We also wandered around Fort Cornwallis, which is one of the most depressing historical sites I’ve seen. This former British fort has not been particularly well maintained and contains very little historical information. It feels a bit stale and cost RM2 per person for a reason.

Statue of Lord Cornwallis
Statue of Lord Cornwallis

It started to rain (we’re in the rainy season now so that’s a daily event) so we headed to the Blue Mansion for a tour. The Blue Mansion is iconic in Penang because it’s, well, blue. It was designed, built, and lived in by Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese immigrant to Malaysia in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, most of it is a hotel now so we weren’t able to see much. The 45-minute tour is mostly about what the architects found when restoring the house in the 1990s. Not worth RM16 per person.

Cool Blue Mansion windows
Cool Blue Mansion windows

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We went to a British-style pub called SoHo for a while to get out of the rain, wandered in the rain to find dinner, and ended up back at said pub. Great food, not impressed with the drinks, pleased that a cocktail menu existed.

On Sunday we explored Penang Hill and Itam, an open air market neighborhood. It was cloudy (rainy season) when we went up the hill, but it got brighter the longer we were there. We seem to have poor luck with hills. It’s hard to see anything in the fog! When the clouds cleared for a moment, though, it was really beautiful.

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Looking down on Georgetown
Looking down on Georgetown
Looking at another hill in the area
Looking at another hill in the area
Looking at Penang Hill
Looking at Penang Hill

We drove through Itam by bus on the way to Penang Hill and much of it had cleared out by the time we went back there to eat, but that didn’t stop us from sampling various vegetarian foods, durian ice cream, and a coconut tart at various stands! When we drove through originally, Itam was swarming with both people and cars. I’m not exactly sorry that we were there at a quieter time.

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Our visit ended with a trip to the heavily commercialized Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple, which combines Chinese, Thai, and Burmese architecture. It opened in 1905 and renovations and additions took place in the 1930 and early 2000s. There were hawkers everywhere, which was weird, but the architecture was beautiful.

Take-home message: Visit Penang!