28 April 2011

Hong Kong - Museum and Bus Tour

Our second day in Hong Kong was gloomy and rainy though still warm enough not to have to wear lots of layers.  In fact it was a pleasant relief from the constant weather of Singapore and even when I had to put a cardigan on for a while I wasn't worried.  However the rain looked set in for the morning at least so we decided to visit one of the many museums.

We settled on the Hong Kong Museum of History to give us an overview of Hong Kong's history.  As well as the main exhibit our ticket also gave us entry to a special exhibition in recognition of the centenary of China's 1911 revolution.  The revolution brought to an end imperial rule in China and the establishment of Asia's first republic. 

The main exhibit took us through the history of Hong Kong from prehistoric times, the climate changes and land movement that shaped the geological features of Hong Kong.  Told us about the different people who have inhabited South China from this time onwards, the birth and growth of Hong Kong, the Japanese occupation during the Second World War right through to its return to China in 1997.  I particularly found this exhibition interesting and would recommend it if you want to get an overview of the history of Hong Kong.  There were lots of videos to watch as you moved between the different galleries and we ended up spending most of the morning there.

After lunch, which given that they speak Cantonese in Hong Kong and a lot of the Chinese restaurants and takeaways in the UK serve Cantonese food, was incredibly similar to what you can get in the UK, we decided to take a bus tour of Hong Kong island.  Although it had stopped raining when we first boarded the bus by the time we were half way around it had gone from light drizzle to fairly heavy rain again.  However I was not complaining as the cooler temperature made a pleasant change.

The tour we chose took us through the Central Business District, around the Causeway Bay area where we could see the boats in the harbour, the CWB typhoon shelter and Victoria park, through Wan Chai, past the point where you can pick up the tram to the peak (more on that soon) and through the Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo areas of the island.

We also saw the Man Mo temple which is one of Hong Kong's oldest. Unfortunately I was not able to get any decent pictures as by this point it was raining heavily and we had to move into the undercover part of the bus. The temple though is dedicated to a statesman of the 3rd century BC called Man Cheung and a military deity called Kwan Yu. Man Cheung is worshipped as the god of literature and Kwan Yu, who was a soldier born in the 2nd century AD, is now venerated as a god of war, typically portrayed with red cheeks.
In the evening we had a couple of drinks in a bar near our hotel called Mes Amis.  There are a couple of these bars in Hong Kong, we only went to the one in Kowloon but this seemed relaxed with a mix of locals and expats, a happy hour and decent music.  We then went for drinks at the Felix bar in the Peninsula hotel.  Once again we had a brilliant view across the harbour for the light and laser show and as I said before I enjoyed it much more from this bar.

The place is pretty small, unlike the Aqua Spirit bar, so your view is fairly unobstructed in comparison. The cocktails were good but I gather the best part about the place is the men's toilets! Obviously I didn't go in them, well actually I nearly did as it wasn't that obvious which was the men's and which was the ladies but fortunately the valet pointed me in the right direction. Anyway the interesting part about the men's toilets, apparently there is a rather dramatic view over the city through the men's urinals. I can confirm though there is nothing so exciting in the ladies.

After this we decided to have dinner at the Felix restaurant. Yet again this consisted of wonderful food and wine with another spectacular view of the city.

27 April 2011

Hong Kong - Tea and Touring

As this weekend was a long one we again took the opportunity to visit somewhere reasonably close from Singapore but a real trek from the UK and picked Hong Kong.  My fiance has been before both as a tourist and with work but for me it was my first visit.  Hong Kong had always been somewhere I'd wanted to visit, when I was studying for my A Levels at school I had a part time job in a Chinese takeaway and the family I worked for originally came from Hong Kong.  I can remember them going for a visit to see family and bringing me back a gift from their trip which I still treasure.  At the time Hong Kong seemed so far away and a place I was never likely to visit .... little did I know how my fortunes would change and I'd be in the position where it would be criminal not to!  As we crammed a lot in on our trip I'm going to break my visit down into a couple of posts and for this post concentrate on our first day.

First impressions of Hong Kong were that it was great, a little crazier than Singapore and definitely a little more rough around the edges but still totally accessible and definitely somewhere I'd go back to.  People I spoke to beforehand suggested it was the next step for Asia beginners after Singapore, which is often referred to as Asia lite and yes from my limited travels I'd agree with that.  Certainly it was no where near as mental as Bangkok was!  I guess my only surprises were that it was bigger than I imagined with the peninsula and over 260 islands and, despite it being a British Crown Colony up until 1997, it seemed to have retained a lot less of that feel when compared to Singapore.  Other than the use of English and a lot of the road and place names being British in origin.  Perhaps I've just been spoilt by the plethora of colonial buildings in Singapore.  Nonetheless though I truly thought it was a great place and best of all we actually had a day where it was truly chilly and I had to wear a cardigan and could even have worn jeans - bliss!

After an unearthly start on the Friday morning and having to dump our bags at the hotel, as we were too early to check in properly, we firstly decided to head to the Peninsula hotel for tea.  You can visit there for afternoon tea, we were clearly too early for that but my jasmine tea went down a treat.  This is a lovely hotel and one of the few places that I saw during my brief visit that I felt had retained a hint of colonial about it.  Definitely worth a visit.

We spent much of the rest of the day wandering around the central district of Hong Kong having first taken the Star ferry from Kowloon (where we were staying). The ferry is world famous and definitely the best way to get to the other side of the harbour as a tourist, it was a bit bumpy at times and on day two of our trip distinctly chilly but fun. The views of the famous Hong Kong skyline also make it well worth the trip.

The architecture in the Central Business District of Hong Kong is just as impressive as that of Singapore's with skyscrapers housing various banks, financial institutions and shopping malls gleaming from the shoreline of Hong Kong island.  I very quickly noticed that just like Singapore there is always a shopping mall close by (even at the top of the peak there is a shopping mall).  Some of the most noticeable buildings include the Bank of China Tower, which can be seen in the picture below.  It is the one with what looks like triangles all over it rising to a point at the top of the building.  The building is actually regarded as having bad feng shui and is said to have an aggressive stance which casts bad energies on nearby buildings.  Apologies also for the quality of the picture.  My night pictures of the view only seem to have been taken indoors (mainly from bars ahem) and have all got some reflection in them but hopefully you can get an idea of the view!  The very tall building is the Two International Finance Centre and is Hong Kong's tallest building.

After such an early start we were pretty tired but with such a short stay had to make the most of our trip and we needed to eat too.  On recommendations from others we firstly went to a bar on the Kowloon side called Aqua Spirit.  This place has fantastic views across the harbour towards the skyscrapers and is therefore a perfect spot to watch the nightly laser and light show.  I actually enjoyed the show on the second night more (I think we had a better view) but I wasn't as blown away with it as I thought I might have been.  However the drinks were good and even after the show had finished the skyscrapers look stunning at night.

Following our drinks we then headed to the restaurant attached to the bar called Aqua.  Here you can enjoy either Italian or Japanese food, Aqua Roma or Aqua Tokyo.  We settled for Italian and enjoyed the view below over our meal and wine. Divine.

21 April 2011

The White Rabbit

Saturday evening was special in that we went out to a very nice restaurant for dinner.  It was actually slightly more special than I initially realised.  I knew my fiance had booked it as a treat for my return but what I did not know was that he'd also arranged for some of our friends to come too.  So it was a proper welcome back for me.  In addition we also both met a new friend who we've come to know through Twitter and the common grounds of us both being relatively new expats to Singapore.  She is absolutely lovely and it was so nice to finally meet properly and wonderful that she could come too.

We went to a place called The White Rabbit in an area of Singapore known as Dempsey.  Here originally was where the British army were stationed and I've written previously about a visit which you can read about here.  As I mentioned in this post by Singapore's standards it is a bit of a trek to get to and I've actually only been here a handful of times.  I also failed again to get any good photos so next time we visit I must make sure I do!

The White Rabbit itself is actually housed in a former church.  It has fantastic arch shaped windows, an incredibly high ceiling and although obviously laid out as a restaurant now you can see where the altar and other features of the church once were.  This together with subtle lighting makes for a very pleasurable dining experience.  The restaurant's website has an Alice in Wonderland theme to it and of course the restaurant is named after one of the main characters.  However when there I did not personally pick up on this theme in the restaurant but maybe I was too engrossed in the good company and good food!

View towards the bar area

The restaurant also has an area where you can sit outside to enjoy pre-dinner drinks.  This again is subtly lit and you are surrounded by trees and vegetation making for a very pleasant atmosphere.  As it is a little off the well beaten track there is nothing much to disturb you other than the noise of frogs and cicadas.  It has a colonial feel to it and if you shut your eyes you could almost imagine yourself in Singapore a hundred or so years ago.

The food was wonderful, there are a lot of fish based dishes and, as you'll know, I'm not the biggest seafood fan but there were plenty of non-fish dishes to choose from too.  I had tomato soup to start, perhaps not very exciting but not something you see much of in Singapore and it was a good choice.  Followed by a vegetable pasta dish, again absolutely wonderful.  The others I was with chose a variety of dishes including lobster and lamb and no one had any complaints.  Service in Singapore can on occasion be a bit hit and miss but we could not fault it here, even down to the drinks waiter over hearing a conversation about drinking tea and advising us that, should we want it, they have an extensive tea menu.

After a thoroughly lovely evening and meal we headed back into the city for a few drinks with a friend who was out celebrating her birthday.  We went to a bar I'd not been to and I felt I had to share with you as again the views from the roof top bar were fantastic.  The place is called Orgo and is on the river by the Marina Bay Theatres on the Bay (the buildings that locals say look like the durian fruit) on the Esplanade.  The views from here look across to the Central Business District (CBD) and along the river.  At night with all the buildings lit up this looks stunning.  I enjoyed an amazing frozen margarita cocktail, mango with rosemary salt which was really refreshing.  It was far bigger than the glass and, of course, very quickly began to melt so it was a feat drinking it.  The other feature I liked was that it also has little glass pods you can sit in with friends with comfy sofas and cushions which are air conditioned - very clever and very pleasant!  I'd definitely like to come back here and return to the White Rabbit again.

20 April 2011

Fancy a Puff?

I'm not talking about anything illegal here or smoking generally but the smoking of hookah pipes.  Now perhaps I am very inexperienced in life and maybe everyone else reading this will have tried this on numerous occasions (though I'm willing to bet many of my UK friends won't have) but before the weekend I never had.  However in Singapore, you are able to smoke these (despite smoking bans similar to the UK), especially in the Kampong Glam - Arab Quarter of the island.  In the Kampong Glam area all the restaurants seem to offer customers the pipes to smoke if they wish and it is a common sight to see.  I actually think it fits in perfectly well here as when you wander around this area you get a real taste of Arabian life and the smoking of these pipes, to me, is a part of that.

You can enjoy a Hookah pipe here (amongst other places).

The Hookah pipe in case you didn't know or had not worked out is used for smoking tobacco and it allows the smoke to be cooled and filtered by passing it through water.  It is believed to have first originated in the North Western provinces of India alongside the border of Pakistan.  You can have a variety of flavoured tobaccos, we tried an apple and mint one, to be honest all I could taste was the mint so it reminded me of the menthol cigarette I tried many years ago out of curiosity.  It is said that filtering the smoke through water does not make it any safer than normal smoking as you tend to be smoking over a longer period so are inhaling a great deal more tobacco ultimately.  It definitely isn't something I'll be taking up anytime soon but the few puffs I had were not too bad and at least I can say I've done it.

19 April 2011

Trishaw Ride

On Saturday we did what I can only describe as one of the most touristy things we've done (apart from Singapore Slings at Raffles), we took a trishaw ride.  You can see the trishaws in all the major tourist spots in the city and as I've been going about my business I've often been approached to take a ride but have always declined.  So I'm not sure what possessed us on Saturday to take one other than we thought it would be fun.

We'd been for lunch and needed to go to one of the nearby shopping malls to buy a couple of specific things.  Feeling incredibly lazy and instead of walking we were debating the MRT or a taxi ride when my fiance spotted the trishaw nearby and suggested we go on it. 

When we visited Bangkok we took a tuk tuk which, despite us having to visit a few of the driver's friend's shops on the way, eventually got us where we wanted to be and was incredibly cheap.  My fiance didn't enjoy that ride much but apart from the fumes that I was conscious of breathing in I actually found it quite fun and definitely a good way to get around the congested streets.  I'm not so sure about the trishaw though as although the air seems a lot cleaner here I was a lot more open to the elements and red traffic lights did not seem to mean much to our driver. 

However the real insult was the cost of what was actually a very short ride - $50 for both of us, approximately £25!  Perhaps you can negotiate with the drivers before you get on and we should have done this and yes I know we were being lazy and could have walked.  I was not expecting it to cost that much though.  He also obviously figured we were tourists (which to be fair everyone using them usually is) and despite our best efforts to tell him we lived in Singapore he proceeded to point out a few sights along the way.  I've never read anything about agreeing a price beforehand or that they should be avoided as they over charge and I'd be interested to know if they have a standard charge regardless of the distance covered or not.  My advice, if you ever visit Singapore though, would be to stick to the MRT and taxis, a lot cheaper and you get air conditioning thrown in too!

12 April 2011

The Cider Pit

Yes I'm back and really pleased to be.  The flight was as good as a long haul flight can be, well actually better than that as we got upgraded to Business Class for the final leg of the journey.  It was my first experience of flying anything but Economy and how could I not enjoy it?  I definitely had the best sleep I've ever had on a flight.  We landed about 2pm (local time) and were in a taxi and on our way home by 2.25pm - the efficiency of Changi Airport.  So it's time for me now to get back out there doing new things and enjoying the city so that I continue to share it here.

Yesterday evening we met up with friends for a drink and something to eat and went to, I guess, what you'd describe more as a pub than a bar called The Cider Pit on Joo Chiat Road.  My fiance and friends had been there previously and it came highly recommended by them.  It is owned by a British expat who also owns a great beer, cider and wine shop a little further up Joo Chiat Road called East of Avalon Wines.  Here you can get lots of different UK beers and ciders that are generally harder to find else where in Singapore.   

The pub is definitely a lot more relaxed feeling, fairly intimate as it is only small and I guess fairly basic in design but, by Singapore standards, also relatively cheap.  You can only buy beer, cider or soft drinks here and a limited range of bar snacks.  It is set back from the road in what appears to be a little courtyard and as you enter on your right is a seafood stall and The Cider Pit is in the further right hand corner.  It is an outdoor bar but has plenty of parasols to shade under from heat or a sudden downpour.  It plays (or at least it was last night) a very eclectic range of music.  Last night it ranged from jazz, everything else in between and right up to 90's Indie classics.  My friend commented that it reminded him of listening to my iPod on shuffle (I too have very eclectic tastes) and yes I have to be honest some of the songs played I truly only imagined I'd hear on my iPod whilst in Singapore. 

After enjoying a cider we headed further up Joo Chiat Road to enjoy a meal of thunder tea rice.  Something that I've written about previously and you can read that here, Thunder Tea Rice.  A lovely relaxed evening and hopefully we'll be heading back to The Cider Pit again before long.

Update 11 January 2013

The Cider Pit is still serving a great selection of ciders, beers and yummy food but has now moved a little further up Joo Chiat Road into one of the shophouses.  So if you are going and didn't realise - it's not gone just relocated a little! 

03 April 2011

Soon Be Back in The Lion City

Well after what seems like a very long time (though it has only been just over two months) I'm returning back to Singapore next Saturday.  I am so looking forward to it though I know that now I've been home so long I'm going to find it harder to leave, particularly as I know my parents have enjoyed having me back and living under their roof again.  I know though that within days of getting back and in my routine I'll feel like I've never been away and talking to my parents on Skype will be the norm once more.  Although I am really going to miss my parents cats and they just don't get Skype!

I've now pretty much done the last few family and friend farewells, apart from immediate family.  I've ensured that all the clothes I bought over with me come back with me and that those I left in the UK, due to them being far too warm to wear in Singapore, (but have been god sends whilst I've been home) remain in the UK.  Thanks Mum for washing and ironing anything that is left ready for my next trip back!

Wedding wise I've pretty much achieved everything I wanted to do before I left and I now have my plan of action for what I can do whilst I'm back in Singapore.  Then when I return back to the UK later in the year everything will really be all systems go, I cannot wait!

As any expat will do I've also ensured I've stocked up on a few things you can't get (or at least aren't exactly like you know and love) in Singapore.  This also includes things people have given me to bring back, I just can't say no!  So much so that I've had to ask my fiance to use a bigger suitcase so that hopefully some bits can be put in his for the return journey.  I know I won't get it all back this time so some bits are going to have to wait until I'm back again.

The essentials include several toiletries / make up brands that although you can get alternate versions of in Singapore it is nice to stock up on my favourites whilst I can.  I've also bought an Easter egg for my fiance in the UK, Cadbury's of course as the chocolate tastes a whole lot better than the version that you get in Singapore.  I just hope it survives the journey, hopefully with some careful packing it should.  Although I'm trying to get back into good habits I'm sure with the opportunity to buy a few treats from home I will no doubt succumb and buy something for the suitcase (though so far I have not given in to temptation and stocked up).

Thanks for having me back Blighty, its been fun and I'm glad that temperature wise it did finally warm up a little.  It has been lovely to have time to see my friends several times and not have to cram it all in.  I've also managed to see family I've not seen for a long while which has been lovely especially as it will be the wedding before I see them again.  Take care of yourself and I'll see you again later in the year but for now Singapore is calling me back!
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