Sunday, June 26, 2011

Malaysian Sunrise

After six hours of traveling (by MRT, bus, bumboat, then taxi), we finally made it to the Lotus Desaru Resort in southern Johor, Malaysia. The reason the region is fairly inaccessible is because it has not yet become popular with outside tourists yet. Most of the visitors were from nearby Malaysian cities and Singapore.

The resort was located right on the beautiful beach.

During the afternoon we got acquainted with our suite and the resort, relaxed on the beach, and played in the waves.

We had dinner at a nice Chinese seafood place. One of the complaints about the resort that I read online was that though it does not allow outside food, it also does not provide a great variety of restaurants. The selection was further compromised because on that night, the resort was hosting some conference and the attendees had a whole section of the restaurant reserved. We were still able to enjoy steamboat, which essentially is hot pot.

We decided to wake up the next morning to view the sunrise on the beach. The hotel concierge said that sunrise was around 6:30AM, so we set our alarm for 6:00AM to be on the safe side. Sure, vacation is supposed to be for sleeping in, but we figured that the sunrise would be too beautiful to miss, and we could always nap on the beach later.

Upon arrival, the sky was very dark. Only the faintest glimmers of light were in the distance. But daybreak came quickly! Each of the following photos was taken within a few minutes of each other.

I decided to do a few yoga moves on the beach, taking advantage of the unique photo opportunity...

At 8AM we were distracted by the wonderful aromas floating from the resort breakfast buffet near the beach. It was one of the best complimentary breakfasts I've had, with long tables laden with various western and Malay dishes.

The bread shown in the photo below the yogurt and the buns is called roti. It is similar to Indian naan but it is thinner and flaky. It was so good! I had it dipped with curry on the side. Following breakfast was more suntanning, beaching, and napping. Check-out occurred at noon, and then we began the long trip to the capital city of the area, Johor Bahru (JB).

At JB, we basically just tried some more Malay food, before boarding a bus at the Larkin Terminal for Singapore. 30 minutes and 70 cents later, we entered Singapore. This is probably the cheapest transnational crossing ever!

Backdoor to Malaysia

For this past weekend we planned a nice, relaxing getaway to a resort in Desaru in southern Malaysia. The area is very peaceful and as of now, not yet overrun with tourists. Desaru also has the advantage of being fairly close to Singapore. Apparently it was just a ferry ride away from the tip of Singapore.

However, on Friday night I called the resort to confirm the directions, and after being transferred three times to someone who could speak English, I discovered that the official ferry that operated between Changi Ferry Terminal in Singapore and the one in Malaysia had been discontinued (Note: do not blindly trust wiki-travel).

There was an alternative route, however - making the journey from Singapore to Malaysia on a "bumboat" of 12 passengers.

Only later did we learn that this was not an officially recognized manner of leaving the country. Oops.

The bumboat was a small motorized boat. Despite the signage above that clearly states "2 crew," the only crew in sight was the lone driver of the bumboat.

What made this journey seem even less legitimate was the following set of details. On this Saturday morning, there was a crowd of people waiting for the bumboats to Malaysia. The bumboats, true to their unofficial nature, do not have a set schedule for arrival and departure. The drivers simply wait for each boat to fill up with 12 passengers, collect each individuals $10 fare, and make the 1-hour crossing, then turn around and go back to Singapore for the next group.

As you can imagine, this is quite a slow process, and though we got to the terminal fairly early in the morning we were told we would have to wait at least two hours. We handed our passports to the guy behind the counter, who gathered them into bundles of 12 and arranged them in order. Our passports were in the fifth bundle, which meant we would have to wait for five more bumboats to return before boarding.

However, a tall, slightly sketchy man whose passport was also in our bundle whispered to us that our group would not have to wait for that long, because he knew the driver of a bumboat who would take us ahead of the line. The power of personal connections... therefore, we were able to board before our turn, and as I got into the bumboat I kept anticipating that the passengers of the fourth bundle of passports would come charging out to the dock, demanding their rightful turn.

The bumboat slowly left the dock and headed out into the choppy waves, rocking from side to side. Pretty soon, the shores of Singapore disappeared behind us. "I feel like an illegal immigrant being smuggled to another country," I whispered to my friend.

Fortunately, we arrived in Malaysia intact, and proceeded to have a fabulous weekend at the resort - which I will be sure to write about in the next post!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tastes of Bangkok

It's no news that Thailand has great food. In Bangkok, I had the pleasure of trying Thai food with an unbiased perspective, since I really haven't had much Thai in the U.S. before - much to the surprise of many of my friends. In fact, I was able to try my first dish of Pad Thai here, which is probably the most well-known Thai dish in America.

The street food here is amazingly diverse. I saw vendors selling bowls of steaming hot noodles, various forms of fried meat, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, sweet little donuts, as well as many types of fresh fruit smoothies.

Seafood was in abundance. When we visited the floating market, we saw stands selling whole fish, which appeared to be steamed, as seen below:

There were also little fried quail eggs and spring rolls, along with many many other stands that I unfortunately did not get photos of. Everything was very cheap, under 30 baht (~$1).

The streets of Bangkok are dotted with fresh fruit stands that offer succulent pieces of mango, starfruit, watermelon, pineapple, and other tropical treats. Some stands sell the fruit in bags for about $1, while others offer to create smoothies or iced drinks. On Saturday, I drank a delicious lime slushie made with fresh-squeezed lime juice. The next day, I chose to have my mango in its pure, unaltered form.

Served with sticks for easy, clean eating!

And the famous pad thai! I think it was pretty authentic, though I don't have anything to compare it to. The lighting in the restaurant was very dim so unfortunately the noodles do not look that appetizing, but trust me, it was very tasty. I believe everyone at our table ordered this dish with either chicken or prawns - the waiter must have thought we were typical Americans with an unrefined palate. But we just all wanted to see how pad thai tastes in Thailand.

I tried the spiciest dish in my life during this weekend - raw papaya salad from a very normal street vendor. The guy asked if I wanted spicy, and I said yes. I usually pride myself on being able to tolerate quite high levels of heat, which I attribute to my Hunan background (the province of Hunan in China is known for its spicy stir-fries).

I took a few bites right away and thought it was pretty tasty. Then the burn began. "This is pretty spicy," I commented, while taking a few more mouthfuls. Suddenly my mouth felt like it had caught on fire! During the next few minutes, I desperately hunted for bottled water in the crowded Sunday market.

Unfortunately, the Chatuchak market is the largest open air market in Asia - meaning there are lots of stalls and lots of people. I found a vendor that was selling water, but had to wait to get to the front of the line to pay. My entire mouth was tingling, burning, and I was sweating as well. When I got the bottle I chugged down the water, but it didn't help to soothe the heat at all. I wandered around in agony, claiming that my taste buds had all been killed, while my friend commented that a form of dairy might provide relief because of the lipid content.

The bad news - I couldn't find any dairy, since all the dessert stalls around us were selling fruit shaved ice instead of ice cream. The good news - after about ten minutes, the burn started to subside, and I was able to confirm that my taste buds were not dead by eating mango, pictured above.

It's too bad we only had two days to explore the cuisine of Thailand. The good news is, I think the Thai food in Singapore can be pretty authentic as well, especially since now I've developed a craving for it! But I will definitely be more aware of the spice levels.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bangkok, Thailand: An Experience for All the Senses

Wow! What a whirlwind of a weekend. We left Singapore at 7:30PM Friday night, got back at 1AM Monday morning. The trip was full of new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. In this post I'll cover the sights. What happened between goes as follows...


Bangkok is full of colors, depth, and complexity. Shimmering temple walls, streets full of pink taxi cabs, blinding neon lights of the nightlife, golden Buddhas, giant lizards, dizzying array of goods at the markets, and muddy riverways...

We took a boat ride through that took us to through the main river, into small canals with tiny wooden houses on stilts, giant lizards, and a floating market.

One of our destinations was the Grand Palace, a huge complex full of golden temples and glittery jewel-lined halls. It's a must-do tourist destination, but one of the pricier ones (350 baht for a ticket, which is around $12. Not bad, but everything else in Bangkok was so cheap compared with Singapore!)

Another stop took us to a beautiful tall temple/pagoda, where we had this view of the city and the river. Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East because of all the riverways that run through it.

We also viewed the "Reclining Buddha," which is the largest relic of Buddha in the world, inside temple called Wat Pho across from the Grand Palace. Funny story - two guys tried to scam us into taking their tour and paying them when we were outside the Grand Palace by telling us that since Saturday is "Buddha Day," the Palace was closed. We fell for it, but it ended up in our favor when we couldn't find them later and left them without paying a cent.

And of course, the dazzling, rowdy, and sometimes (very often) sketchy nightlife. Bars and nightclubs abound. Visitor beware! If you want the sketchier details, you'll have to ask me about them in person. That's all I'm sayin'.

So, this post has gotten really long, and I'm really tired from not sleeping enough last night after the late flight, and getting up for work at the regular hour this morning. Next time I'll cover the tastes and smells of Bangkok.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cultural Melting Pot

Singapore is the most culturally and ethnically diverse place I've ever been to (besides Yale, maybe!).

Signs are written in multiple languages, usually including at least English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, the four official languages of the country. On the streets, I hear people chattering in a mixture of Singlish and Chinese, and once I even caught a snippet of Spanish! Residents here are from various ethnic backgrounds - there are Chinese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Europeans, Africans.

It's so rare to find myself in a place where no one will stare at anyone else because they are "different." At the same time, the strange thing is mostly everyone understands English! It's such a surreal experience for me. In China last year, I was used to navigating conversations with people on the street with my less than perfect Chinese. Here, it is a fact that most individuals understand basic English, and no one seems to find that unusual at all. Because of this, Singapore is a great "starter" country for foreigners looking to live in or travel to Asia.

I've found that people will either speak to me in Chinese (because they assume I'm a Chinese Singaporean) or English (if they can tell I'm not from around here). When a person starts speaking Chinese with me, I will automatically respond in Chinese without realizing the change at all. Maybe I'm getting use to the fluent changes of language and dialects from being around lots of people on the subways and buses.

Of course, this cultural diversity translates into food as well. Even in the small section of the city I live in, one can find authentic Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Middle-Eastern, various regional cuisines of China, Korean, as well as many McDonald's and Starbucks. Many of these ethnic restaurants have some sort of Singaporean slant that makes them special.

The other day, we ventured out into the Geyland District to try a specialty - frog! The neighborhood was a little sketchy and is known as Singapore's red light district, but we had to come for the unpretentious yet delicious food.

We got a big pot of stewed frog to share, which was actually quite good. It tasted like a cross between chicken and fish.

Then we headed to a roadside fruit stand to try some exotic tropical fruits, such as the infamous durian. It did taste just as bad as it smelled, and had to gooey, weird texture. For those of you who aren't familiar with this stinky fruit, it is banned on buses and the subway in Singapore because of the distinct pungent smell.

I forgot what this fruit is called, but it looked and tasted like a giant lychee!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Touristy Day

Sunday was a lot of fun, and filled with touristy activities. In the morning we explored the Botanic Gardens, which is a pretty famous Singapore landmark. It is a lush, tropical environment, in contrast with the urban buildings and asphalt right across the street. We took a bus from right outside our apartment and within half an hour arrived in this paradise...

The main attraction of the Gardens is the Orchid Garden. There are many rare breeds and hybrids of the orchid flower. Many new varieties are bred and dedicated to various heads of state. There was one dedicated to Laura Bush! It wasn't very pretty though, so I didn't take a picture of it. Others, however, were absolutely gorgeous.

I love the colors of this flower below! I got to try out the macro settings on my camera, which aren't too shabby.

I took so many photos because I know my mom will appreciate them! She loves flowers, and if she ever visits Singapore she should come to this place.

Unfortunately it was so hot and humid that we couldn't stay in the Gardens for too long. For lunch we went to this restaurant in one of the malls called Bugis Junction. I got this set, in which I got a bowl full of steaming soup and lots of little ingredients to throw into it. The waitress told me to first put in the eggs and the fish so they would cook properly. Other ingredients included noodles, preserved vegetables, and mushrooms.

At nighttime we went to the Marina Bay Sands, which is a combination of resort, hotel, casino, shops, and a museum. There are three enormous towers, 55 stories high, with a ship straddled on top. Here's a view from below...

And inside the lobby...

We got to go onto the rooftop infinity swimming pool. The views were absolutely breathtaking. The pool is on top of the boat balanced on top of the 3 towers. It overlooks the entire cityscape.

The water was perfectly cool and refreshing because the day was so hot and humid.

Then we found out that there was a nice changing room with a sauna, steamroom, and hot tub that overlooked the other side of the city! The room was completely empty as well, so it felt like a private suite. There was a nice view as well.

A great relaxing day before the work week begins! It's been a great first week here in Singapore, and I'm excited for the next two months. On Friday, we leave for Bangkok for the weekend, so I'm sure we will have lots of exciting adventures there! To be continued...