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Monthly Archives: July 2012

We thoroughly enjoyed our first house-sitting assignment. Luke and Sue were more than generous as clients and Finn (dog), Len (cat) and the fish were very easy to look after. Their house is one of the very desirable 'Black and White' houses, built many years ago when Singapore was a British colony

The two nights we spent with Luke and Sue at the start and end of our week left us with major hangovers, especially the last one when we shared a bottle of Kweichow Moutai, a Chinese liquor that is usually drunk on celebratory occasions. The warning signs were plain to see as the glasses that came with the drink were little more than thimbles. The taste was a cross between soy sauce and petrol, it gave a burning sensation all the way down your throat and left its taste in your mouth for most of the following day. Add the fact that the alcohol content is 53% and it's no wonder that drinking it becomes more a question of daring rather than pleasure. Despite this, or because of it, a bottle costs around £200! The manufacturer has the fourth highest brand value in the world, sitting just above Mercedes Benz and Chanel, clearly somebody, somewhere likes it a lot!

We thought about trying to get a family photo as a memento but trying to get Luke, Sue, their two girls Maya and Fran, and Finn and Len to keep still for more than two minutes to have their photo taken would have been an impossibility!

Let's hope we get the opportunity to house-sit again as it's a great way to experience a home-from-home and to meet and get to know people who live and work in the local community

 

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Singapore has a reputation as being the most expensive and highly regulated place in Asia. From our experience it's all true. It's also very humid, it rains a lot and there are lots of mosquitos!

Were it not for the fact that we've been house-sitting for a week, we'd only have been able to afford to stay for two nights at most. As it was we stayed for just over a week and still didn't get to see all the sights we hoped to.

Of the sights we did see the highlights were the cable car ride over to Sentosa, the Botanic Gardens, the 'Battle Box', the Chinese Heritage Museum and last but not least Marina Bay Sands

Sentosa

Sentosa is a manufactured resort which can be accessed from the mainland by cable car. The resort has all sorts of attractions, however most of these are an anti-climax after the cable car ride to get there!

Perhaps the oddest of all the attractions is the 'beach' which looks out onto one of the busiest shipping lane in the world. I guess you can always close your eyes and dream that you're on a desert island! Next to the beach is the wave machine and next to this the 3D virtual log ride. On the plus side it has two golf courses, including the host course for the Singapore Open ($450 Singapore Dollars about £250 per round!) and is home to Univeral Studios, Singapore, which sadly is a poor relation to its American cousin. Overall Sentosa is a somewhat bizarre place but nevertheless hugely popular with some 19 million visitors a year. This is in spite of its local nickname which is So Expensive and Nothing TO See Also!
 

Botanic Gardens

The Botanic Gardens are one of the free (!) sights to enjoy in Singapore. The gardens cover such a large area and with nature left to its own devices they're also a haven for wildlife. It was a pleasure to walk around such a large 'natural' area in the middle of one of the most developed cities in the world

The Battle Box

Singapore holds an unenviable reputation in British military history as being the only place where the British have surrendered to the opposition. This followed the Japanese invasion of the island in 1942. The events leading up to the decision to surrender are recreated in the 'Battle Box', an underground bunker in Fort Canning that remained undiscovered until 1988. The bunker has been painstakingly restored and together with the lifelike waxwork figures (courtesy of Madame Tussauds) it now offers a very realistic glimpse into what life was like for the individuals operating out of the bunker up to the time of the surrender

Debate still continues as to whether General Percival's decision was the right one. He was shunned by Winston Churchill and other members of the establishment when he returned to England at the end of the war however there's no doubt his decision saved many military and civilian lives

Chinese Heritage Museum

Another 'life as it was' attraction is the Chinese Heritage Museum which provides a history of Chinese immigration into Singapore. Living conditions of the early 20th century have been recreated based on photographs and personal testimonies, and are so accurate that former residents couldn't believe their eyes when they saw them for the first time. It gives a real insight into the hardships that people suffered in trying to make a better life for themselves as well as the distractions of gambling, prostitution, drinking and opium smoking

Marina Bay Sands

The hotel is probably the most iconic structure in Singapore. The viewing platform offers a 360 degree view of the city. Luckily for us our visit coincided with rehearsals for the Independence Day celebrations in August so we were treated to a firework display and a fly past of jets from the Singapore Air Force. The area around the hotel is equally modern. As with other super-malls in Asia, all luxury brands are present, perhaps even more so here. One of the frustrations of travelling is that the only shopping you can do is window shopping. On the other hand when shop windows are displaying pieces of jewellery for $1,500,000 Singapore Dollars (about £750,000) there's not much you can afford anyway!

So, no visit to the Raffles Hotel and no Singapore Sling cocktail. They'll be first on the list if we return!

 

Penang became the first British possession in Southeast Asia when it was ceded to the British East India Company by the Sultan of Kedah in the late 18th century in exchange for military protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies. It's location in the Straits of Malacca allowed the British to use the island as a natural harbour and anchorage for their trading ships.

The British declared the island a free port to encourage trade and settlers were allowed to claim whatever land they could clear, no easy task as the island was thick with jungle. As the tin and rubber trades flourished Penang became increasingly popular with people from far and wide, making the island a melting pot of diverse cultures and religions, something that is as true today as any time in the island's past.

No wonder then that the island, and particularly its UNESCO capital Georgetown, is rated as one of the world's top places for food. Somewhat ironic therefore that we suffered our first bout of food poisoning within hours of arriving. This did little to deter us however as we set about eating our way through the islands many and varied styles of cooking. Favourite amongst these was the food we had at Teksen, a local favourite for many years. We had fried prawns with tamarind sauce, steamed fish in ginger and rice wine, szechuan pork ribs and pak choi with garlic butter. It was delicious.

Street life in Georgetown is equally diverse. Various trades are carried out in and around the traditional Chinese 'five foot way' shophouses, so called because of the covered walkways within the properties which are intended for public use, providing pedestrians shade from sun and rain. In practice navigating these walkways is easier said than done as they're often built at different heights and usually blocked with shop goods, scooters, or other strategically placed obstacles!

Our visit coincided with the Georgetown Festival, an annual, month-long event which celebrates the melting pot of cultures and religions that make up Penang. We booked tickets for the Manganiyar Seduction. The 'orchestra' is made up of 43 musicians (42 muslim and one hindu) seated in 36 red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows one on top of the other. The concert begins when a single cubicle lights up and the first musician begins to play. Soon another cubicle lights up and then another, creating a dramatic build-up of musical instruments and voices. The show has been performed all over the world (as the following clip shows) but by their own admission, getting entry visas for 42 muslims in some countries is not always straightforward!

As we travel south through Asia, its multi-faith and multi-ethnicity becomes ever more evident along with its paradoxes. Tonight we walked home along Chulia Street where prostitutes were openly flaunting themselves as the call to prayer was being chanted from the loudspeakers on the minarets of the local mosques

We had planned to stay a few extra days in Penang before making our way back to KL and onwards to Malaysia's other UNESCO site, Malacca. All that has changed however as we're now heading to Singapore to house-sit for for a family. We've got to look after a dog, a cat and some fish. Fingers crossed it all goes smoothly!

 

The Cameron Highlands are named after William Cameron who was commissioned to map them out in 1885. Forty years later the area was developed into a hill station by the British, complete with tea plantations, hotels and a golf course. Today the Highlands are a mix, or rather clash of old and new. English Tudor style 1930's properties that were once surrounded by rolling hills and large, landscaped gardens now sit alongside their modern day, multi-storey equivalents and towns that were once little more than a row of wooden buildings are now sprawling as they provide an ever increasing range of goods and services
 
Our first stop was the Sungai Palas tea plantation. After a tour of the processing plant, where they're still using machinery from the 1930s, we enjoyed a pot of BOH (Best Of Highlands) tea together with strawberry tarts, it was all so delicious we couldn't resist seconds and even thirds! To round off this most English of days, the heavens opened on the way back to the hotel completely soaking us to the skin

The next day we went to the 'Mossy Forest', a 200,000 years old eco-system with our guide George who looked like he'd been around for almost as many years but proved remarkably fit and agile. Typically, the term “mossy forest” is derived from the abundance of mosses covering the ground and vegetation. The forest is home to “pitcher” carnivorous plants as well as many others that have medicinal properties (maybe this is where George had discovered the elixir of youth!).

Again there's a stark contrast here with the 'forced' cultivation of hydroponic fruit and vegetables which seem to be taking over the region. We leave the Highlands feeling happy that we've visited but with no great desire to rush back. Whilst the scenery is spectacular in places you can't help but feel that the area is only going to get worse as more property is built and more of the land is turned over to intensive farming. A pity from a tourist's perspective but no doubt borne out of economic necessity

Next stop is Penang which is generally acknowledged as the gastronomic capital of Malaysia. Hopefully it doesn't disappoint although that means we'll be piling the pounds back on again!

 

The Perhentian Islands are renowned for the quality of the diving and snorkelling, in fact the water is so clear and the marine life so abundant that there's almost no reason to choose diving over snorkelling. We took two snorkelling trips, one with 'Tommy' and one with 'Matts'
The trip with Tommy turned out to be as much about the 'craic' as the snorkelling and we had a great time topped off with barbecued kingfish on the beach. The trip with Matts was all about the marine life and we finally got to see some sharks and turtles!
Nowhere is quite perfect however and the island was not without it's drawbacks
  • Having to change rooms four times in the space of a week because of leaking showers and flooded bathrooms
  • Paper thin walls in the chalets which mean you heard everything your neighbours were doing (!) as well as being woken up by the walkways being swept of sand every morning before 7:00 a.m.
  • An island-wide failure to cook a runny egg, although this was finally addressed on our last day with an almost perfect poached egg on toast
  • The 'best' restaurant on the beach failing to get our order right on their new 'state of the art' till system. Last night they failed to charge for a beef curry (good) but added 4 extra beers (bad)
  • Enjoying the free movie on the restaurant's big screen until the DVD crashed 5 minutes before the end as the plot was reaching its climax. Anyone know the ending to Disturbia?

None of these were major issues however and a more generous view would be to say that they add to the charm of the place. Island life has been great fun and the Perhentians have been a great place to chill-out for a while

Our next stop is the Cameron Highlands in the north-west of Malaysia, most famous, or more accurately infamous, as being the area where Jim Thompson, the Thai Silk magnate, famously went missing in 1967. Fingers crossed the same thing doesn't happen to us!