22 May 2012

Haw Par Villa

Haw Par Villa feels like a time warp and a glimpse, perhaps, at what Singapore used to be like.  Indeed even the piped music as we entered the park came from the 1950s and 1960s.  I visited in the middle of the week and apart from me and my friend Claire the only other people we saw there were a couple of ladies visiting like us and a man, who obviously worked there, sweeping around the exhibits.

Before visiting I'd heard a lot about this place, that it was a little odd, that a lot of the stories the sculptures are telling won't mean a lot unless you know the stories, as there is little in the way of signage explaining what is happening.  I agree that those comments are all valid but despite that the place is charming and captivating and somewhere I'd go back to again.

I'm not really sure how even to describe what the place is if I were asked to do so.  I've heard it described as a theme park but then it does not really fit with my notion of what that is as there are no rides to go on.  Were there ever?  I guess it is really a gardens with sculptures in to wander around and enjoy.

It was opened in 1937 by two brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par and originally called the Tiger Balm Gardens and was built as a venue for teaching traditional Chinese values.  These brothers were the same people responsible for the development of Tiger Balm (a lifesaver for mosquito bites).  You can see some cute smiley looking tigers (the only cute smiley animals I saw) holding boxes of the product in the gardens.

I've heard that families used to take their children there to scare them.  Before I went I imagined that these days most children would take a lot more scaring then just looking at a few sculptures etc. but having now been I can imagine some young children could still be a bit freaked out by some of the exhibits.  Particularly in the section known as the Ten Courts of Hell.  This is housed in what looks like a cave and as a result there is not much natural light inside.  Here visitors get to see the punishments that you'll suffer after death for various misdeeds you may have committed in your life.  These vary from pretty serious crimes to things such as disrespecting your parents and cheating at exams.  Regardless of the level of the crime though the punishments are all pretty extreme, including being fried in cauldrons full of oil and the dismemberment of body parts amongst many gruesome things.

Other than that section though most of the other sculptures in the park have very little in the way of signs to explain what story is being told.  So I'm afraid for me much of it, in terms of understanding the stories was lost, which was a shame.  All I could do was be curious and amused by the scenes being acted out before me and by the expressions on some of the models (particularly the animals) faces. 

This is one of the more unusual places I've visited in Singapore but I liked it.  If nothing else for the fact it seems like you've stepped into another time in Singapore that has managed to survive almost without being noticed.  It is worth a visit if you are curious particularly as admission is free and it is right next door to the Haw Par Villa MRT.  Who knows how much longer it will last, just before I visited I learnt that the Hua Song museum (within the grounds of Haw Par Villa and somewhere else I would have liked to have visited) has now been closed, but I hope the rest of it can remain as a window into the past.

15 May 2012

Carrot Cake v Carrot Cake

I'm always curious to try new food here (although there is some that I know I'll never be able to stomach) and something I've often thought about trying is carrot cake.  Anyone reading this from the UK and other places may be forgiven for thinking I'm referring to the cake, that I absolutely adore and have enjoyed many many times.  Well no I'm not, rather the locally known carrot cake in my photo below or chai tow kway as it is also called.

I remember when I first arrived here and we visited hawker centres etc. seeing stalls advertising carrot cake and being slightly perplexed that what they were serving clearly was not my western view of what this is.  Though you can also get that version in many coffee and cake shops too.  This left me curious about this other carrot cake, whether it had carrot in it or not and how on earth it ended up with that name.

The dish does not contain carrot or resemble a cake.  It is actually made using radish cake, rice flour and daikon which is a type of radish.  Having done a little Internet research it seems the word for daikon can also refer to carrot so perhaps that is how the other name came about?  Likewise as it contains radish cake which is made of shredded radish and rice flour perhaps the combination of these two ingredients gave it its name.  I don't know if that is a correct assumption to make but I'd love to hear from you if you know the real reason for this alternate name.

Before we went to sample it I'd been told that you can have carrot cake served both black and white, with black containing soy sauce.  So we decided to try both, I chose black carrot cake (see photo) and my husband chose the white variety.  I couldn't actually taste a lot of difference but I did have a bit of cold when we decided to try the dish so I guess my taste buds were slightly impaired.  I'm sure there must be a more perceptible difference than I could detect as I know people do have preferences.

Of course perhaps the most important thing after all that is, did I like it?  Yes, despite my slight lack of taste buds that day I did enjoy it, it has a soft, slightly chewy texture to it and was very filling.  It is very obviously different to the carrot cake I grew up with and what I'd have been expecting if someone had said they were getting me some when I first came to Singapore.  I'd have it again though and I'm glad I decided to finally try it.

13 May 2012

Inside the Istana

Following my visit to the Istana over Chinese New Year weekend, I was lucky enough to be invited to go on a guided tour when it was open to the public on the recent Labour Day holiday.  Although I'd only recently been I was interested to go on a tour to hopefully learn a little more about the place.  The Istana is opened to the public on various public holidays throughout the year (check the website for details of when).  As well as visiting the grounds you can also pay a little more to go inside the Istana on these days to view a few rooms, something that we did not do on our first visit. 

Unfortunately our guide did struggle a little to keep control of us as she had a habit of starting to tell us things before everyone had caught up with her.  It was clear that some on the tour with us were losing interest and a few did excuse themselves at various points.  Nonetheless though I was mostly able to keep up with her and after she told us a little about the grounds and the other buildings in the grounds she took us inside.

Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside the Istana and only a handful of rooms on the ground floor are opened up.  Although we went in the early morning and the queue to actually get into the grounds was minimal (in comparison to our last visit where we were queueing past Plaza Singapura), inside the Istana it was heaving.  This did slightly spoil it as it made it difficult to view the exhibits, paintings etc. and, with our guide not always waiting for everyone to catch up with her, harder to hear what she was telling us.

As you'd probably expect (if you haven't visited) the interior of the building is suitably grand and colonial in design and style and very spacious.  Visitors first enter into the Reception Hall, where we were told that official visitors are introduced to visiting Heads of State and Government here.  We were also able to view the State Room which was at one time known as the Victoria Room.  This was because the statue of Queen Victoria (which is now in the grounds) was originally housed in this room.  The room is now mainly used for various ceremonial purposes and was full of official gifts from past visiting dignitaries from various countries.  The last room that visitors get to see is the Banquet Hall, this area was formerly kitchens and workshops.  As the name suggests state dinners are now often held there.

As these are the only rooms that are open to the public we were not actually inside for that long.  I would have loved to have been able to see just a little bit more, but as the President's offices are housed here clearly it would probably be slightly impractical.  Nonetheless though I enjoyed my brief glimpse into the Istana, despite the large number of people in there all trying to do the same thing.  It is obviously a popular place to visit when it is open and I don't know when would be the best time of day to visit if you aren't fond of crowds, perhaps they should consider staggering the number of people allowed in at any one time.  Nonetheless though if you do decide to visit when it and the grounds are open to the public, for the extra couple of dollars it is worth a look.

This blog resulted from an invitation and represents the thoughts and opinions of the writer. All information on this blog is provided "as is", with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy or timeliness and the writer will not be liable for any losses, injuries or damages from the display or use of this information. All text and photos on this blog are the original works of the writer unless stated otherwise.

Thanks to notatourist.sg for the kind invitation.

04 May 2012

Wildfowl and Squirrels

The last part of my visit back to the UK was spent with my husband's family and my stepsons in Southport.  We had a great week but a couple of things we did that stood out for me were visiting Martin Mere Wetland Centre and also a visit to a place called Pinewoods, one of only a few places in the UK where you may be lucky enough to see a red squirrel in the wild.

Martin Mere Wetland Centre is a conservation area for all manner of wild birds and a few other animals too.  There are several wild bird hides where you can observe the birds without disturbing them, as well as lakes and ponds throughout to watch them.  The centre is split up into different parts of the world too.  So as well as native breeds to the UK and Europe as you walk around you can also see birds from North America, Australasia, South America and the Orient.  The majority of birds are very tame and quite happy for visitors to be walking amongst them and if you are quiet will happily come up close to you.

In addition to the large variety of birds there is also an otter enclosure and a beaver enclosure.  Sadly it was a cold day and neither the otters or the beavers were interested in coming out to play.  Even with, in the case of the otters, a keeper appearing armed with lunch for them.  As well as this you could also go on a canoe safari but we did not, I'll be honest that is not my idea of fun and well it was freezing cold so even less of an incentive I'm afraid.  A hot chocolate in the cafe seemed a much better idea to me.

On the day we visited they also had a display of various birds of prey and ferrets.  The birds of prey were beautiful and going in to see the ferrets got us out of the bitter wind for a little while as we made our way around the centre.  This wetland centre is part of The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and is one of several dotted around the UK focused on wetland conservation, saving the wetlands both for the wildlife and people across the world.  The Trust was founded in 1946 by Sir Peter Scott the son of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott.  A thoroughly enjoyable morning but I wish it had not been quite so cold!

As I said our nature exploring for the week also took us to a wooded area near my in-laws home known as Pinewoods, owned by the National Trust, a conservation charity in the UK dedicated to the preservation of historic buildings and sites as well as culturally and environmentally important locations. 

We did see one squirrel way up in the trees but that was the only one unfortunately.  Despite that though we had an enjoyable walk through the woods (which, as you may have guessed, is full of pine trees) and although it was fresh the trees sheltered us from the breeze.  In contrast, just before we went here we had hoped to go down on to the beach close by, but the tide was very high, the sea looked very rough and the wind was bracing (the photo with that blue sky is a bit deceptive)!  An enjoyable afternoon rounded off with an ice cream, even though it was cold.

03 May 2012

Pita Pan

Following my recent visit to the Andy Warhol exhibit at the ArtScience museum I was then invited to enjoy lunch at Pita Pan afterwards.  A healthy dining option conveniently just besides the museum, after walking around all the exhibits I was getting very hungry so it was perfectly positioned.  It is actually somewhere I nearly ate at after a previous visit to the museum but couldn't as they were not open on that occasion, so I was pleased to be finally able to try it out.  The food served here is vegetarian Mediterranean cuisine and in fact we had so much of it I hardly needed to eat again for the rest of the day.

I personally had one of their pita pockets stuffed full with falafels and a variety of salad items from the selection to choose from that was on display.  It was very filling and also very satisfying.  I admit though to ordering a full pocket and if you think this may be too much for you there is the option of ordering a half pocket too.  The restaurant offers a wide variety of fruit juice drinks, soft drinks, hot drinks and alcoholic drinks to accompany your meal.

Red Shakshuka

I also got to try the red shakshuka with eggs (photo above).  This was nice but with a strong tomato base to it I'm not sure I could eat a whole one by myself, perhaps one to share.  By then though I had already eaten the whole of my pita pocket so I was pretty full!  As well as this we were also given bowls of chips and a yummy Mediterranean platter to share, full of good dips, pita bread and other delights to sample.  I really was full by the time we'd finished eating.  Personally I enjoy this type of food that is good for sharing with friends and for having and trying lots of different dishes altogether.  I really enjoyed my meal and would certainly think about returning here again.

Mediterranean Platter

Pita Pocket

Pita Pan opens daily from 9am to 12 midnight, Sunday to Thursday, and 9am to 2am on Friday and Saturday.

This blog resulted from an invitation and represents the thoughts and opinions of the writer. All information on this blog is provided "as is", with no guarantee of completeness, accuracy or timeliness and the writer will not be liable for any losses, injuries or damages from the display or use of this information. All text and photos on this blog are the original works of the writer unless stated otherwise.

Thank you Marina Bay and Pita Pan for the kind invitation.
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