Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Working on a tourist tour

After a sporty Saturday (basket-ball and windsurfing), Sunday is more touristy! A and C are visiting before going on holiday to Malaysia. So I try to improve my tour of Singapore! (after years of taking the same tour in London, it is a bit of work to get the new one organised)

We start at Park view, this amazing art deco building, but once again, the guards stop me from taking any pictures. (I promise to get you some puctures one day) Then we head to Arab street and we cover up for a tour of the mosque (nothing really exciting inside). A refreshing lime juice later, a taxi ride and we are in Katong, famous for its fruits Market and its peranakan heritage. The Peranakan culture is quite typical of Singapore, it is born of a merge between the Malay and the Chinese communities. They have specific food, houses decoration and very colourful clothing.
In Koon Seng road we can admire several houses which are absolutely beautiful, lots of colours, mosaics, painting etc Photos taken with the iPhone probably don't give rights to this street!
Once we have enough of pretty houses we go back to Chinatown to have a look at the Indian temple which has recently re-opened with huge celebrations. We have to pay 3$ to take pictures, but it's worth it!
Everything is so colourful.
That's now a classic but we also pay a visit to the Buddhist temple a bit down the road. Leaving the temple, we hear music from the back so we go to have a look, and there, we discover dozens of Chinese people dancing on what they seem to think is country music. Some of them are wearing the proper outfit, boots, hat and a sort of an Indian looking shirt. One is particularly entertaining, anyway I couldn't help it, I had to film... Enjoy!

video

On the evening we discover a new area of Singapore: bukit timah and a new peranakan restaurant. It's very local, we get a lot of food for nearly no money but the service is awful. We even try the dessert (we have expert advice from a French/Singaporian girl) I have black glutonious rice with coconut milk. It is not as bad as I thought but I'm not desperate for another one... Other desserts are made of jelly and sugar cane. As some people weren't tempted by these local delicacies, we head towards the ice cream shop. It is amazing! First their scoops are huge! Second their flavours are very concentrated, the dark chocolate is beautiful and the pistachio really taste of pistachio!!!! This is good for some flavour but not that much for others... R has the brilliant idea of tasting durian. Durian is a typical fruit of Singapore, there are signs everywhere telling you not to eat it in public places because it stinks!

It is sold wrapped in plastic to keep the smell in and it is a challenge for any tourists to eat it. I have always thought that the smell must be the most horrible thing and that it probably doesn't taste anything. Allow me to say that was a mistake; the taste is worse than the smell and that's something! We couldn't agree on a description but kerosene and garbage were the most used descriptives. Ok custard and almond were also mentionned, but personnaly, I didn't get passed the kerosene...
Describing this experience to our friend J the day after, he insisted on trying a dessert with durian. He kept on saying it wasn't that bad but as they say, a picture is worth a 1000 words...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A long WE in Western Australia

The weekend is starting early this week. It's Wednesday lunch time when I leave work. It takes a bit more than 2 days to enjoy Australia! So we are taking a 4.5 days weekend and we are making our way south to Perth, Western Australia.
Flight is at 3.50pm and 5h later we are landing in Perth. After a brief stop at immigration because you have to write all of your first names on the visa (and get it right the first time) we collect our car, lovely White (not for long) Toyota Corola. Australian regulations are nice as long as you live together, both people can drive the car without any additional fees!
Tonight we are staying in Northbridge, in Perth. We find a pub for a late night drink by the fireplace! He yes, it's Autumn in Australia!
Thursday morning, we are on our way south, a 3h drive to Margaret river, the wine country! After getting lost a couple of times (signs are rubbish and my co-pilot is asleep...) we do make it to the tourist information which gives us a huge map of all the wineries in the area.
We pick one with a restaurant and head for lunch. Mission of the WE:
no Asian food!
We are at Vasse Felix, a winery which seems to do more or less every grape varieties. We decide for some Cabernet Sauvignon, very nice! It appears that the Australians have developed the same technique as the French, they export the crap wine and keep the best for themselves!
The food is beautiful, this is a good start!
The rest of the afternoon is spent on the sea front, enjoying a walk on the beach, watching a guy training for kite surfing and trying to get to some waterfalls which don't seem to exist...
On the drive back up to the main road, we meet a kangaroo!!!! He is just here, a few meters away from the road, happily eating. We make our way back to Margaret river to check in our hotel and have a nap to be ready for the next food and wine session in the evening. ;-) It is non stop! This time we are going for White wine, we try to delicious Semillion (that's a first, never tried before!), some lovely Sauvignon blanc and some more classic Chardonnay. Food is lovely as well, slightly less posh than at lunch but at least we understand what the waiter says! (the local accent as been a real problem all WE...) Friday morning, the objective is to drive back up to Fremantle enjoying the coast. We find a surfer spot and we spend some time looking at the locals enjoying their favorite sport. The water is fairly cold and the big rocks and waves prevent me from going for a swim...
Next stop is Cape Naturaliste at the north west of WA. We go for a walk near the light house and we get to a point where at the right time of the year whales can be spotted.
A couple of hours later, we are in Fremantle, 20km south of Perth, known for its Market and its prison! So first stop is the Market!
Nothing really exceptional in the market (a small camden town type market) but the town seems lively, we end up in a bar full of locals singing and dancing country music, it's good fun! After being turned down at what the Lonely planet calls the best Indian restaurant in Australia, we decide to go for seafood on the harbour and to put our new knowledge of Australian wines in practises:
another good diner with mussels, scallops and crayfish.
Saturday, we have a huge breakfast outside in the sun before heading to south beach, Fremantle's swimming beach. The place is indeed protected from the big waves but unfortunately it makes it quite boring and doesn't warm up the water! Anyway I do manage to go for a little swim when R decides to make friends with the seagulls. Then we go back to the city centre to have a look at this prison! It's an elegant building made of limestone. The tour is good, the prison only closed in 1991 and it is incredible to see in what the inmates were forced to live in the 90's. No running water, tiny cells, temperature reaching 50C! It's impressive as well to see the execution chamber where they used to hang people. The guide even tells us that he met the Singapore executioner the day before who had executed 28 people in the last 6 months!!!! We better behave ourselves in Sg!

After a little lunch and a taste of a few different beers at the famous Little Creatures brewery on the harbour we drive up north to Perth. We check in our hotel, close to Subiaco and we go to Cottlesoe for an ice cream on the beach at sunset. The place is known for its fish and chips but really we can't eat anything anymore...
On the evening we go out in Subiaco. We pass the oval where they play football (this is Aussie football we are talking about) and not cricket like at the Oval in London. We get to the main road of Subiaco where there are a few nice bars and restaurant, first we have a drink at Hotel Subiaco (which is not a hotel), I try the Australian sparkling wine, not bad, not bad... and we have dinner at an Italian restaurant.

Sunday. It is finally time to explore Perth. First stop Kings park a huge park with botanic gardens and a splendid view over the rivers. We can already see the cones of the Redbull air race. Because this is the reason we came to Perth: a couple of years ago I fell in love with the Redbull air race in London and when I looked for the ones in Asia for this year, the one in AbuDhabi was already completed and the next one and last one in the area was Perth before moving to Rio de Janeiro.

After Kings park we make, with difficulties, our way across town to the south side of the river to get a better view on the race from 12pm to 3pm. The weather is beautiful, blue sky, 33C (autumn is nice down here!) and no wind. The race is as exciting as usual and we have a fantastic view. Between races there are plenty of demonstration: Quantas planes, old aircraft, the army, it's brilliant!!!



For the end of the afternoon, we have a tour of the main buildings in Perth, this is quickly done... there are only a couple of nice colonial buildings remaining.

To end up a nice WE, we go back to Cottlsoe and have a final ice cream at sun set before heading back to the airport for another 5h flight back to Singapore.

A beautiful WE and a lot of sport ahead of us to shake all of these calories!!!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Night safari

Friday evening at the night safari - It started as a team building but then R got dragged along.
6.15pm we all met at the bar and after a short brief we were off for dinner, it's a huge buffet with great variety of food. I have my first Singapore sling (it was probably not the best place to have it but you have to start somewhere). We took a few pictures of the smelly cows who were close to us and it was time to go for the creatures of the night show.
Very touristic is probably the best way to describe it but it was good fun, we saw some furrets very good at recycling (They were able to put the cans in the aluminium bin, the bottles in the plastic bin and the coffee cup in the paper bin), a wild cat who could really jump, a wolf who could woohoo (technical term) on demand and to finish an enormous python who they pretended to have lost and it was actually locked in a box some of the visitors were sitting on!!!!!! Luckily, not me!From there, our guide took us on a walking tour. He was really good at spotting the animals who were hiding and explaning how they got here. (sorry there are very little photos as flash is not allowed and cameras are crap at taking pictures in the dark without flash...). We admired some flying squirrels (no flying on display that night) some bats and different species of mammals... (I'm sorry I have no ideas how all of these animals were called...)
We then hop on the buggy and saw some more impressive animals: tapir, rhino, hippo, hyennas...We stopped for a second walk to discover sleeping leopards. Another hop on the buggy and we were feeding elephants! By far the best part of the evening: we gave parsnip, sugar cane and bananas to 3 ladies. They are much smaller than their African cousin but when you are that close they are hugely impressive. They investigate everything with their trump and they seem to have a soft spot for shinny white Nike trainers... Then we saw the male who can not be fed by us (he is too dangerous) but his trainer got him to lift his front leg and do a salutation for us! On the final leg of the buggy trip we saw lions and tigers.
To finish, we got shot glasses of the Singapore zoo and the night safari as souvenirs. The private tour may be a bit on the expensive side but it was high quality and our guides were fantastic!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bromo-Tengger-Semeru

Easter weekend. Friday is a bank holiday in Sg but Monday is not, we decided to take it off anyway and we are flying to Surabaya, island of Java, Indonesia. The objective is not the city itself but the national park of Brumo-Tengger-Semeru with its (very) active volcanoes.
We get to Surabaya early Friday afternoon and after a bit of negotiation, we start our 4h taxi journey! We are heading to Cemaro Lawang, the closest village to the park. It's only 130 km away but very soon we discover that roads in Java are mmmhh ... difficult.
Traffic is very busy in town, thousands of motorbikes, trucks, buses.
Additional lanes are being created to accommodate the most improbable over takes, signs are nonexistent and finally mountain roads are very very very steep! 1st gear didn't always look it was going to be enough.

The sun is up from 5.30 am to 5.30pm so we finish our journey on very uncertain roads (did I mention the massive holes all over the place?) in complete darkness. Around 8pm after having stopped for the taxi oil change, petrol, food, several phone conversations, we finally arrive at our hotel. It's raining, the room smells of damp and it is not Singapore temperature, more around 18C. I am not a happy bunny...

After a dinner of pineapple curry (weird) and nasi goreng (fried rice), we enjoy some pancakes and have an early night.

Saturday morning, 7am, time for breakfast. We arrange our tour for Sunday, a Jeep trip starting at 3.30am in time to catch the sun rise.
And someone explain us how to walk to the top of Bromo, today's objective. So, first 5km walk to the centre of Cemaro Lawang. This is steep! Very often we see motorbikes going up in S shape or getting rid of their second passenger! We pass several small villages, refuse rides on plenty of horses and admire the very colourful houses on the side of the roads. The mountains around us are incredible; there are cultures everywhere, fields of cabbage, leeks and potatoes. It's very green and the fog is slowly lifting. 1h30 later we are in Cemaro Lawang (ok I admit R was there a bit before me and had time to buy lunch, take away fried rice as a picnic). Now, we need to go up a tiny little bit more before entering the caldera. This is the old crater of an enormous volcano, it is now a very large flat area of 10km in diameter where a few volcanoes seat. So we go down in the caldera and walk on the sea of sand for a while. It is a bit unreal, looks slightly like the moon; it's made of fine black/grey volcanic sand.
First stop is the Hindu temple of Poten which is the only building in the caldera. It actually looks better from far away than close as it is quite austere and not used anymore. But the location is impressive, just at the feet of Mt Bromo, the collapsed but smoky volcano. It's only a short walk to the top using a path very much ravened by rain and then steep set of stairs. At the top the view of the smoky (and smelly H2S) crater is impressive, there is a narrow path going a third of the way round giving good views of the caldera. We have lunch at the top before going down for a walk on the sea of sand.
Unfortunately it is now 1pm and this is the time it starts raining (everyday at the same time!) we try to stick around for a while but it's getting bad so we catch a jeep with a Canadian met on location back to Cemoro Lawang. We spend some time enjoying Javanese cafe before deciding that the rain is light enough to allow the 5km walk down back to the hotel. It is now time for a hot shower as soon as the diesel generator starts... :-) We decide to have a Javanese massage to spend the rest of the afternoon but non-communication, aching and massive sun burnt don't make it the most pleasant experience...
Anyway it s time for a heavy German dinner (the hotel is supposed to be German run so the restaurant menu is heavy on potatoes...) and an early night, the alarm clock is set up for 3am!!!!
3.30am, Sunday morning, our driver is here to pick us up and drive us to the summit of Mt Penanjakan for dawn. It is an hour drive in a very bouncy Jeep (or Toyota to be exact). When we get there we realise we are not the only one with this idea... The viewpoint platform is packed, a lot of Indonesians and as many westerners than other Asian nationals. We stay there for nearly 2 hours looking at the sun, the caldera and the volcanoes at dawn. Mt Semeru (highest mountain in
Java) is there erupting every 20 minutes, either smoke or steam. At this time of the year we can't hike to the summit, which could be an activity for another time (2 days hike up to 3676m).
On the way down, our driver picks us up and we avoid the crowd by by- passing Mt Bromo (been yesterday) and driving us directly across the caldera. This is amazing, at a specific point the sea of sand gets transformed into the Savana, herbs and flowers of various colours are everywhere on both side of the piste. We approach the "Walls" of the caldera and get out by an amazing steep road. We are heading for the lakes at the feet of Mt Semeru. Passing trucks on the road is a pilot's job (really scary) but the views we are getting of the caldera are breath taking, all fog has now lifted it is amazing. We pass some very remote villages and get to the lakes, to be honest the lakes are not that great but the trip to get here was definitely the right think to do. We are now at the starting point of the trek to Mt Semeru and we can't see it... There is a reason why it's closed! It's not meant to open for another month. We take the same way down and enjoy some more photos stop as we are slightly more awake now! We return to Cemoro Lawang at 10.30 am and wonder a bit about our next activity. The park is really designed for early morning action; everything is closed during the afternoon as it rains most days. Early lunch, check in into our next hotel and a nap is as much as we can do for now.

At 2pm it's time to start planning for Monday. Plane is at 3pm from Surabaya and we know it takes 4h to get there! We have heard of waterfalls on the way down and we have been told they can only be visited on the morning as the afternoon rain makes the place dangerous, so we are trying to find a taxi which could take us first to the waterfalls and then to the airport. Our first 2 attempts are failures; people refuse to take us there saying it's too dangerous.
A bit down, we head to a bar to watch the rain fall and think our plan through. In the bar we meet a mountain guide who speaks very good English and even a bit of French! We discuss the waterfalls issue and he assures us as long as we go on the morning, we are fine and obviously, his brother has a car and will be our driver! Here we go, problem sorted! The rest of the afternoon is spent in the same bar discussing Indonesia with a Scottish family. We learn a lot about a place called Batu, Typical Indonesian food and also how bad drilling has transformed 25 km2 of Surabaya in a mud field.
At dinner, we put our new knowledge of Indonesian food in application and try Gado-Gado and Nasi campur. The first is a mix of boiled vegetable, tofu and eggs with a spicy peanut sauce; the second is rice with chicken satay and a sort of chicken in a juice. It's delicious and a nice change from German potatoes!
Monday morning 7am, time for packing and breakfast. Our driver is already here and the mountain guide has decided to join us. Spot on time we leave Cemaro Lawang and drive down the mountain for 1h before entering the waterfall zone. We change in water friendly clothes; we have been told that we'll get soaked! We even switch the hiking boots for flip-flops and indeed, that was a good move, the first thing our guide tells us to do in cross the river... Trousers wet, feet ... As well! We walk for about 30 minutes along the river or in the river to reach the first waterfalls, we are right in the middle of the rain forest, the vegetation is luxuriant it is incredibly green. We then pass below 1 waterfall and get completely wet to get to the final waterfall hidden in a sort of cave. It's about 200m tall with walls covered with greenery; R puts his new (Late Xmas) present into use, waterproof camera are brilliant! On the way back we meet some of Java
inhabitants: monkeys and some snake looking lizards that I have stayed as far away as possible and our friendly guide quickly picked up on my dislike of the thing and attempted to make me jump a few times (with success).
After getting change in dry clothes, we pursued our way to Surabaya airport avoiding accidents by a series of miracles...
Now back to Sg!

It was a great weekend in Java, a bit on the early morning side but the scenery was definitely worth it, I hope you appreciated the photos.