27 August 2010

UK and an Engagement

I haven't been updating my blog lately as I've been back in the UK this week.  The weather has definitely been very different from what I've got used to and I think as a result of that I've managed to come out in a cold and a chill in my kidneys - not good!

One piece of news I can now share is that a few weeks ago I got engaged to be married so I now have a lot of planning etc. to undertake but I can't wait.  It has been our secret as I wanted to ensure my parents knew before anybody else but now they do I'm gradually telling the world.  I don't yet have a ring but I'm hoping that might be rectified once we return to Singapore.  Any way ring or not I'm very excited and enjoying my time with family and friends in the UK before our return at the weekend.

16 August 2010

Little India

Sunday saw a trip to Little India a place I visited when I came here in January but which my boyfriend had only experienced through eating in one of the many Indian restaurants and watching football at a couple of the pubs there.  So we decided a trip and walk around the area so he could see more of it what would be a nice way to spend the day.

The roots of this area date back to the first half of the 19th century when brick kilns and cattle farms were established there.  The area drew lots of Indian immigrants in search of work and by the 1880s the area was a thriving Indian community.

It is full of shops and stalls selling all manner of goods including fruit and vegetables, gold, electric goods, CD's and combines with the smell of various herbs, spices and flowers and is fascinating to visit and wander around. 

One of the guidebooks we bought when my boyfriend first moved out here includes a number of walks around different areas of the island.  There is one covering Little India so we decided to follow that and see the main sights.  The walk took us past some amazing looking temples including the Thai influenced Sakaya Muni Buddha Gaya temple known as the temple of 1000 Lights and the Leong San See temple.

The Sakaya Muni Buddha Gaya temple (left) was founded by a Thai monk in 1927.  It houses a 15m high, 300 tonne Buddha.  The yellow tigers flanking the entrance symbolise protection and vitality.

The Leong San See temple (below) is a Taoist place of worship dating from 1917.  The name translates as Dragon Mountain temple.

The walk also took us past some of the traditional shophouses, one of the last of the island's spice-grinding shops, fortune tellers and a shopping mall called the Mustafa centre where you can buy electrical goods and so on.  We were also taken around a number of roads with names inspiring thoughts of imperial India such as Clive, Hastings and Campbell but the shops on these roads are fascinating.

The walk took us round one very fascinating market called the Sungei Road Thieves market.  The items on sale here are a bizarre jumble of things that I assume the people selling have acquired and want to sell to make some money.  Amongst the things on offer were countless chargers for mobiles and other things, old remote controls, mugs, clothing and so on.  I did notice one man selling stamps so maybe in amongst all the goods on offer if you are prepared to look you can find some real gems.

We rounded off the walk with a stop in a bar / cafe for a drink.  A good place to stop and I'd definitely go again though the Country and Western music being played seemed a bit out of place.

Before heading home we decided a couple more drinks were in order and firstly went to Raffles hotel and the Long Bar.  I've been before and so decided this time to have a glass of wine rather than a Singapore Sling (maybe another time).  I managed to have a glass of rose which is something you don't seem to find that often here so that made a pleasant change.  The bar was full of people who had obviously all decided this was the place to go for a drink on a Sunday afternoon and I suspect very few of them were actually staying at the hotel.  However it is a must do on a visit to Singapore.

Finally our last drink was in a bar in a place called Chijmes which has a number of bars and restaurants in it.  The building was originally a convent (the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus) and it is now a really lovely place to go for a drink or something to eat or to browse around some of the shops there.  The complex dates from 1854 and was founded by four French nuns who had arrived in Singapore from Penang.  After a drink and something to eat we headed home, I was exhausted after our walk and couldn't wait to go to bed!!

Orchard Road, Shepherd's Pie and the Youth Olympics

Despite being here over a month until Saturday I'd not been to Orchard Road for what I could term the main reason everyone goes there, i.e shopping!  I'd been to a couple of bars in the area and walked down the road a couple of times but never truly ventured into any of the malls.

For anyone who doesn't know Orchard Road is the main shopping road in Singapore.  Singapore is full of shopping malls but this is the place to go and shop!  The area in the 19th century was (as the name suggests) an orchard lined with nutmeg and pepper plantations.  Having since bought a fascinating book about Singapore's history with lots of very old photos including ones of this area it is very hard to imagine that now!

Before I delve further into the delights of Orchard Road I must share with you an interesting incident from a couple of nights beforehand.  My boyfriend and I went out for a few drinks and a meal with a couple of friends.  For drinks we went to a bar in one of the main hotels in the city centre (Swissotel, The Stamford) which is on one of the top floors and has amazing view across the city and out towards the sea.  We went just before sunset so got to see the city both in the day light (and fortunately it was a wonderfully clear day) and after dark.  From the bar and as it was so clear we could see the hills in Malaysia as well as a number of familiar Singapore landmarks.  This hotel is very close to Raffles Hotel and you can see right down in to the centre of that hotel complex and see the swimming pool etc.  It was also amazing that although it seems as if Singapore is a huge metropolis just how close you actually are to parkland in the built up areas, the huge expanses of wilderness and the parts of the island that have been left to the swamps and jungles from a time long ago. 

This picture is from the bar looking down on the Raffles hotel (the red roofed building) with the swimming pool in the middle of the complex.

We then went to an Australian restaurant (now closed) for dinner and on the menu was a pie section and included within it a Shepherd's pie.  Having not had much in the way of what I would deem good old English food lately I got a real taste for that so ordered it.  When it came it was lovely but wasn't quite what I was expecting.  The shepherd's pie was as it should be though the mashed potato did seem rather pureed but it came in a hard pie crust.  There was no top to the pie crust but the shepherd's pie was served in this hard crust.  As I said it was very nice but it did make me smile.  I guess the concept of something being called a pie without it having to be served in a pastry base hasn't travelled!!

Back to Orchard Road though, the malls truly are amazing and a shopping addicts idea of paradise.  Now I have had an initial explore I'm keen to go back and look further and yes I did buy some clothes......  I'd like to buy something (I'm not sure what) to remind me of my time here and that is typically Asian that I can keep. There are a number of antique shops specialising in these types of goods which I might discover are way out of my price league but it would be good to go and look to see if I can find anything I like which doesn't break the bank!  In addition the first Youth Olympic Games is being hosted by Singapore (the opening ceremony was on Saturday evening).  At the moment there are some temporary shops on Orchard Road selling all sorts of official merchandise so we bought a couple of mugs to celebrate the Olympics coming to the city.

For lunch we went to an Irish pub just off Orchard Road (yes there are many Irish pubs over the city) called Dubliners.  Although it is so close to the hustle and bustle of Orchard Road you do feel like you have stepped away from that frenzy and the food is excellent.  I had an Irish fry up and compared to the one I had last Sunday in another restaurant this wins so far as the most authentic fry up I've found and I'd definitely eat it again!  This pub is actually housed in an old colonial building which conjures up images of another time here.  We sat on the front veranda and it was a lovely way to spend a Saturday lunch time.

Another sight on Orchard Road is the Istana Negara Singapura.  This is the residence of the president of Singapore and is housed in vast grounds in a prime spot in the centre of Orchard Road.  It was built in 1869 and was originally the official residence of Singapore's British governors and on Singapore's independence became the president's residence.  The building is only open to the public a few days each year (the day we went not being one of them) and is heavily guarded to prevent anyone entering at other times.

As I've already mentioned the first ever Youth Olympic Games are being hosted by Singapore and the opening ceremony was held on Saturday evening.  We watched it on TV and it really was a great occasion culminating in fireworks and the lighting of the Olympic flame (which I've since seen).  It will be interesting to see if team GB win any medals - fingers crossed for them!

11 August 2010

The First Month

I've been here just over a month now and had some great experiences so far which besides those I've already written about also includes the limited and bizarre at times TV viewing, several excellent nights out for drinks (some where I definitely had a little too much alcohol) and much more but of course in the background is my quest to find a job.

It isn't proving easy, though it is early days I admit and I haven't been solidly hunting throughout this last month either.  At the moment it is the usual rejections or not hearing anything at all.  If and when I get an interview you'll all be the first to know!!

Unfortunately there seem to be specific areas of industry and commerce where they want and are very keen to get foreign talent and whilst there is nothing wrong with that it makes it harder for me to find a job as I don't fall into those categories.  Unlike the UK I can't get myself a job in a shop or bar to tide me over as there are plenty of permanent residents able to do those roles so the appropriate work visa won't be granted to me.  The novelty of not working (despite all the plus sides) is wearing off a little as I unfortunately can't go shopping in Orchard Road (the main shopping area) each day.

Though I was aware this was likely to be the case before I came I guess I was probably a little in denial and only now I'm experiencing it do I really appreciate this.  So all I can do is keep on looking and find plenty of inexpensive or free activities to keep me entertained and of course keep you updated with in between.  Who knows maybe by the end of month two I'll have some positive news regarding my job hunt - fingers crossed!!

10 August 2010

National Day and the Hungry Ghost Festival

So I reached the 9 August which in Singapore is National Day, the day in which Singapore celebrates its independence.  Singapore gained its independence in 1965 and so this year they were marking the 45th year. 

For weeks now the streets, buildings, blocks of flats and so on have been covered in Singapore's flag all in preparation for the big day.  There have also been several rehearsals for the parade and it is clear from seeing this build up and watching the parade on television that Singaporeans are immensely proud of what they have achieved.

Unfortunately tickets for the event sell out months beforehand but to be honest I think it is one of those things that you get the best view of by watching it on TV, though I'm sure actually being in the stadium must be an amazing thing.  I did however have the best of both worlds, the parade included some of the Singapore military jets doing a fly past and they flew right past our flat on their way to where the parade was happening.  This probably isn't that hard to do as the island is relatively small but it was weird hearing the jets on TV and outside at the same time. 

As well as being watched by many lucky Singaporeans who got tickets it is also attended and watched by the Prime Minister and the other ministers in the Singapore government and the parade itself consists of fly pasts and march pasts, a show of music and dance illustrating what Singapore has achieved and should be proud of and culminates in a massive firework display.  Which again I could watch on TV and see from our balcony at the same time!

It really was an impressive parade and as an outsider something that I think the Singaporeans should be rightly proud of.

The 10 August then saw the start of the Hungry Ghost festival this year.....the what I hear you say and that was my response to!  I knew it was approaching but wasn't exactly sure when it was or what exactly it involved.  However on a trip out today I noticed outside our condo block some dishes of food and drink on the grass verge and some incense sticks stuck in the ground.  Asides from one of the local stray cats taking a bit of an interest in the dishes of food no one else was around to indicate what this was for and why the food had been left there.

The festival, I have since discovered, is celebrated by the Chinese and marks the day when the souls of the dead are released to walk the earth for feasting and entertainment.  The Chinese community place offerings of food on the street (which explains the plates of food outside our flats) and they also light fires burning effigies of worldly goods such as houses and cars and they light incense sticks.  In addition to this the Chinese community also lay on Chinese street operas and other events to keep the restless spirits happy.

I guess it is similar to us celebrating Halloween and no doubt, as the time when spirits are said to walk the earth, continues until the 7 September I am likely to see more offerings before this period is up!  I hope I do and that I may also get a glimpse of the festivities and entertainment as well.

05 August 2010

Sawadee kha

Sawadee kha - hello from Bangkok!

I was fortunate last week to be able to go to Bangkok for the week with my boyfriend who was going there to attend meetings and kindly let me tag along too (obviously not to the meetings)! I'd never been to Bangkok or Thailand before so had no idea what to expect but what a lovely and welcoming people the Thais truly are!

As soon as I arrived at the airport there were the obvious similarities, the heat and humidity add to that the spectacular downpours of rain and thunder and lightning and I could have been back in Singapore, but a lot more was very different. One thing I noticed was how westernised Singapore is in comparison, something that as I had nothing to compare it to I had never considered before. Singapore has a mix of cultures but there is a difference in comparison to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and the feeling of complete bewilderment that it left me with at times. That said I had the most amazing time and hopefully will get to go back again some day.

One of the other things that struck me early on was how highly they regard the Thai royal family and their king. He is the longest reigning monarch in the world having been on the throne since 1946 and his picture and that of his wife are everywhere, on the sides of buildings, in shops even in the taxi cabs. The Thais seem very proud of the length of his reign and very very fond of him.

So what did I do and what did I see in Bangkok? I didn't do that much in the early part of the week though we went to an amazing restaurant which was up a residential street rather than a road you would expect to find a restaurant. We'd found it in a guidebook and I was on the brink of thinking we must have taken a wrong turning and should perhaps head back but it was there and it was well worth the walk with some gorgeous Thai food.

We also explored many of the temples including what would probably be classed as the main one in Bangkok the Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace and the temple of the Emerald Buddha. The buildings were just amazing and conjured up all the images you have of temples in the Orient. The decoration on the temples must have taken so much patience to undertake when they were being built and the temples were the most amazing colours brilliant gold and a whole variety of colours. This was before you even got inside the temples to see the Buddha's and the amazing decorations that were inside. They truly are absolutely beautiful buildings.

When we left these temples our plan was to go to see some of the others close by but outside, as across the whole of Bangkok at the tourist points, were a number of tuk tuks with their drivers eager to take us to one of the other places for a tiny amount of money. In the end we caved in and got one, and it was so much fun. I've been on the equivalent in London but actually felt safer on the one I rode in Bangkok. It was noisy and at times as we sped past buses etc. chucking out all their exhaust fumes I did wonder how healthy an option it was but what an experience to have!

The driver had offered to take us to two places and indicated he would wait for us whilst we looked around and true to his word he did just that. We ended up at Wat Pho to see the monumental Reclining Buddha, it was huge and my photo doesn't really do it justice!

By now we decided we were a bit templed out and fancied doing something a bit different so decided on a boat trip on the numerous canals that run through Bangkok. Our hotel had told us which piers to go to to pick up one of the tourist boats but we took a wrong turning arriving at the wrong pier. However we did find some men with a boat known as a longtail boat keen to take us on a boat ride of an hour or so around the canals. I was a bit hesitant as we were the only two on the boat and there wasn't really anyone around and soon after we left we passed the pier that we should have gone to. However I need not have worried as we soon saw plenty of others doing exactly the same as us and I think we had a much better trip seeing what life for the people living by the canals is like even if we probably paid too much for it! On the trip around we passed some of the boats who go to the floating markets to sell their wares including one lady selling cold drinks, we bought some much needed drinks from her and she insisted we also buy a beer for our driver as well which we did. He later gave it back to us though so whether he didn't drink but was too polite to decline it I don't know.

The houses themselves in some cases looked pretty dilapidated and it was hard to imagine that people really lived there and that they no doubt used the canals as their main way of getting around that part of Bangkok. Generally it seemed a city of great differences between the well off areas and the less so.

Another first for me was seeing the biggest lizards I've ever seen in the wild in a public park in the middle of the city! Singapore has lizards and I know some big ones but as yet I've only seen the very small ones like you might see in Spain and other hot countries. These lizards made those ones look like ants in comparison, some of them must have been getting on for 6 feet or more and they didn't seem that bothered about being in close proximity of people in the park either.

One final word has to go to the hotel we stayed in over the weekend, I fell in love with it! We got an amazing deal on the Internet and were able to stay in the lap of luxury for a pittance (I have been seriously spoilt now)! The mini bar was the best I've ever seen, we got fresh exotic fruit in our hotel room each day, our bed cover was turned down each evening and a little gift left on our pillows, it was just lovely! The hotel also had a rooftop bar on the 59th floor which gave the most amazing views of the city and the sunset and was a great way to round off each day.

All in all a fabulous trip!

Holland Village & East Coast Park

Firstly big apologies for my lack of blogs but I was away in Bangkok last week without Internet access so I'm still catching up on myself. Anyway I shall come to Bangkok in due course but first I must rewind back to the weekend before I went away.

On the Saturday we ventured to an area called Holland Village on the west side of the island. This area is very popular with expats and is a very expensive area to live in. It is immediately clear that this part of the island is used to having a large number of expats living there as the Cold Storage (supermarket) had a much greater variety of foods from other parts of the world and there was a huge newsagents (the only one I've come across so far) selling a wide variety of newspapers and magazines from across the globe. On the subject of newsagents I've not noticed the equivalent here in Singapore and I really want to know where Singaporeans buy their newspapers from. Do they just get delivered or can you go out in the morning to buy your daily read of choice and if so where? However I've also had problems trying to find a bog standard card shop with a good selection in it and I can't believe there aren't any here so it is probably me not looking in the right places!

We went for a wander around and had a lunch in a Thai equivalent of a fast food restaurant and, I'm ashamed to admit it, I used chopsticks for the first time in my life! I know that's terrible but I've always managed to avoid them or get a fork instead. I'm sure I could have done the same here and got my fork but I decided I should attempt the chopsticks and I didn't do too badly for a first go. Admittedly I had noodles with chicken so the noodles could be scooped up and the chicken was in fairly large pieces but I managed to eat it without it going cold and us sitting there all afternoon whilst I played with my food......

We then went for a couple of Saturday afternoon drinks and although lovely it was very clear just how popular this area is with expats. The bar we were in was full of them and barely a local was in there. That said though it was a very pleasant afternoon but I think I prefer to live where we do right in the mix of both expats and locals.

On the Sunday we went for a walk to East Coast Park just a stone's throw from our flat. East Coast Park is, as the name suggests, on the east coast of the island and is a massive park right on the seafront. It's a popular place to visit as there is usually a breeze so you can find some welcome relief from the heat and you feel a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the more built up parts of the island. The park is actually on completely reclaimed land (of which there is a lot in Singapore) and it is a place where you can have a BBQ, hire a bike or Rollerblades or simply just go for a walk.

Before we got to the park though we went for a walk around the area near where we live called Joo Chiat. This area gets its name from a famous Peranakan (who I have mentioned and explained what this means before) family. The walk took us past many shophouses decorated in the traditional Peranakan style as the picture below shows and conveniently ended at the East Coast Park where we were able to take a much needed refreshment break!


Whilst enjoying our refreshments at one of the restaurants I made a discovery that in my limited time here in Singapore and Asia was completely new to me! In the ladies toilets in one of the cubicles there was nothing more than a hole in the ground, there was a flush but just this hole. On consulting my boyfriend, who has not only been here longer than me but also other parts of Asia as well I gather this is common and is a toilet as well but just well more basic! Not that I want to dwell on such things but I did find it bizarrely fascinating and, as is the purpose of my blog, something else to share with all of you.

Now on to my week in Bangkok!
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