A Travellerspoint blog

Quays, Rocks, Crosses, and Pies

Playing tourist in Sydney

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Before this week Jeannine said her image of Australia was much like the way Bill Bryson described it in his book In a Sunburned Country….”I had thought of it as a kind of alternative southern California, a place of constant sunshine and the cheerful vapidity of a beach lifestyle, but with a slight British bent—a sort of Baywatch with cricket…” Well, she was surprised to find that the beaches in Sydney are really small areas surrounded by neighborhoods of all flavors that expand out to mountains and deserts.

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My impression of Sydney was more cautious. Would there even be a reason to visit Sydney if there were not a gorgeous harbor or magnificent opera house? After all, England thought the place was sufficiently punitive that it creative a penal colony there. No doubt current residents would argue that those are only two of the many charming attractions here, after all significant pages in guidebooks are devoted to it. The Opera House has piqued my interest for years, much like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. I’ve been looking forward to visiting it for a very long time, so imagine my surprise when we got to it and went inside to find that the price of the tour had gone up from A$20 in 2005 to A$35 in 2009! No show, no music, no theater just fork over 70 of those pretty Aussie dollars to take an accompanied tour around the building. My disappointment was palpable. What is the alternative? We bought a ticket to a show. At least that way we’d get to see the inside of the building and get something more than a tour guide tell us the history of the building that we’ve already read in guidebooks.

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After strolling through Circular Quay and having a picnic lunch at the Royal Botanic Gardens we took a one hour harbor tour by boat. The views gave us much more value for our dollar and we got some really nice shots. Afterward we walked up to The Rocks neighborhood to see George Street, Sydney’s oldest street. The neighborhood has a quaint feel to it with the old homes now turned into upscale shops filled with pricy souvenirs and folk art and of course…cafés and pubs. They’ve kept the character of the place using hand painted signs to announce specials at local favorites like “Fortune of War”…Sydney’s oldest pub, and other eateries. Turning back towards the quay is Cadmans Cottage, Sydney’s oldest surviving home (built 1816.) We didn’t have time for the Museum of Contemporary Art, but perhaps we’ll have time tomorrow when we head back for the show at the opera house.

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We finished off our day heading to Kings Cross, a neighborhood with a history of questionable character but nonetheless full of interesting little spots. As we exited the subway we did see the odd adult shop here and there, but the neighborhood has cleaned itself up quite a bit. There are backpacker hostels mixed in between boutique hotels and expensive looking furniture shops. We made our way down to the El Alamein Fountain in Fitzroy Gardens. Although it is Sydney’s most popular public park, it was the “guerilla knitting” that caught our attention. We’d heard from Suzanne (Jeannine’s friend in Singapore) that a group of knitters got together and found they had many scraps they’d started and never finished. At some point (probably after a couple of pints) someone said something like, “Let’s tag the neighborhood with our knitting!” and so they did. We stumbled upon it at Fitzroy Gardens. Trees sign posts, and light polls were all adorned with massive knitting projects. It was so popular the city let it stay.

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We finished our little tour of the area by finding The McElhone Stairs which link Woolloomooloo Bay with Kings Cross and walked down them. At the bottom we were drawn to a neon lit sign saying “Harry’s Café de Wheels”, a pie cart that’s been a Sydney late-night institution for over 50 years. The place was hopping with locals and we ordered a vegetarian pie topped with pea mush. There were no tables, just logs facing the water so we did what all the locals were doing, faced the water, plopped down on a log and enjoyed watching the seagulls at the Navy yard next door. The pie, by the way, was hot, filling, and yummy! For less than A$5 it was the most inexpensive meal we’ve had in Sydney.

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Posted by Aeren 19:58 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Sentosa...Instant Island, Just Add Sand

Beaches, biking, and bruises

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We decided to do the touristiest thing to do in Singapore…visit Sentosa Island. This small island just off the coast of Singapore is made up mostly of “reclaimed land” that’s to say the beaches and land mass have been added on to the original island. The locals call it the Disneyland of Singapore. I figured out why as soon as the monorail arrived at Sentosa. Actually one friend said that Malay better watch out, at the rate Singapore is reclaiming land from the ocean they'll be in Malaya soon. There’s lots of construction happening and there is a whimsical castle that looks suspiciously like the Disney icon. Of course, Disney copied his design from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, but that’s another story.

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A round trip ride for 3 Singaporean Dollars. Nice view too.

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Does this remind you of anything?

Sentosa is kitschy in every way, but it has a certain appeal. There are well planned trails for nature hikes replete with fake cascades and other water features. The birds, crickets, and other animals are all real but we were hiking in the heat of the day and they were mostly heard but not seen. We made our way to one of the beaches and sought out what I’d been looking for…bike rentals. I’ve been having withdrawal symptoms and really wanted to hit the road. I’ve always thought it would be fun to try out a tandem bike but it wasn’t until yesterday that we actually did it. We biked past the three man-made beaches and restaurants all designed to look perfect. There was even gentle music coming out of the ferns.

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We dipped our feet into this welcoming cascade.

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I found this solitary flower looking for sunlight on the trail.

As the evening approached we hiked back up the mountain trail and dipped our feet in one of the fake cascades to cool off. I’d been really good this trip about not being a klutz and falling, but that was about to change. There was plenty of loose rock to help me out and I took a tumble, so much for my careful walking. I picked up my bruised ego and finished the hike back to the monorail and the main island where we had another great meal at a food court located at Vivo City Mall. Some of the unusual meals we’ve had included:


    Murtabak-Indian pancake stuffed with onion, egg, and veggies
    Popiah- Chinese spring rolls
    Laksa- Noodles, sprouts, fish and prawns in a spicy coconut soup
    Teh Tarik- Sweet, milky tea poured between two cups to produce a foam

On our last day in Singapore we took a quick swing through Chinatown just to see what it was like. This was the nicest and most extensive of the ethnic areas. The cute colonial shop-houses were still around but new development was closing in on them. Just when we thought we’d seen enough Buddhist temples to last a lifetime we ran into two wonderful ones. One was supposed to house the tooth of the Buddha in a special shrine and there was a religious service going on. It was interesting to note the similarities between this and a Christian service… same rhythm of singing, standing, sitting… totally different sound and visuals.

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Traditional colonial style housing now mostly used as shops in Chinatown.

The other was the Thian Hock Keng Temple which contained a goddess that the Chinese would give thanks to after making the ocean crossing to Singapore. The temple was finished in 1842 when the statue of the goddess was shipped in from China. Stone lions stand guard at the front, dragons dance on the roof and some pretty wild figures surround the main courtyard.

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Scenes from Thian Hock Keng Temple

We closed out the afternoon in the blasting cold AC in the local movie theater. What a relief it will be to move on to Sydney’s cool temperatures.

Posted by Aeren 00:14 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

A Call to Prayer for Everyone

Visiting the places of worship on Waterloo Street.

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We started our day by eating at hawker stalls at Tiong Bahru near our hotel. As we mentioned before, hawker stalls are regulated and very clean. These were located on the second floor of a local market. The food was inexpensive and tasty. The government has built a lot of subsidized housing and added hawker stalls to anchor different neighborhoods. There were many locals eating there so it looks like their plan is working.

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The orderly government housing in Singapore.

After filling up our tummies we walked down to the metro station and made our way to the Arab Quarter. This section of town had a calmer feel than Little India. Exiting the metro we made our way to the Sultan Mosque (built around 1924) which had a gold dome that towered over the area. It is Singapore’s main Islamic mosque. In the back of the Mosque was a pedestrian zone with several streets leading to textile shops and restaurants. As we left the Mosque area a call to prayer issued came from one of the towers.

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The Sultan Mosque.

We went on to Victoria Street and walked up toward the other Mosque called Masjid Malabar. On the way we passed by the oldest Malay cemetery in Singapore… the cemetery of Kampong Glam. It looked untended and was full of small headstones. The Malabar Mosque was built in 1963 by Muslims from the state of Kerala in India. We didn’t enter the Mosque but went back down Victoria Street to a coffee shop we saw on the way up. Iced coffees where just what we needed on a hot day.

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The Malabar Mosque.

We decided to continue on through the withering heat to Waterloo Street which boasts places of worship for the main religions of Singapore. We first came to Kwan Im Buddhist Temple with the familiar Chinese architecture we’ve seen before. We took a few pictures and moved on to the Sri Krishanan Hindu Temple which was built to honor Krishna. We decided to risk entry into another Hindu temple because there were much fewer people here then at the last temple. We were there just as a ceremony began with a drum and long trumpet type instrument. Priests started singing and tossing flowers at a statue of Krishna inside an altar area. At the end they drew a curtain in front of the altar and brought out oil to anoint people’s heads.

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Kwan Im Temple details.

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Sri Krishanan Temple details.

We moved on down the street to look at the Christian church and Jewish synagogue which were both closed up and quiet. I wonder why they lock up the Christian churches after services… people might want to go in and pray like they do at the other temples!

Here's another building by architect I.M. Pei called "The Gateway". He is continuing the theme of paper-thin edges that we see in the National Gallery of Art East Building in Washington DC.

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Posted by Aeren 09:06 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Chili crab in Singapore

Sampling the food and flowers in Singapore.

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I think we have finally reached a place that Jeannine’s cousin Anna would feel comfortable with… Singapore! This is the city where shopping is just an air-conditioned escalator ride away no matter where you’re at. Jeannine had reconnected with a friend, Suzanne, from elementary school thanks to Facebook and when she found that this friend was now living in Singapore it sounded like a good opportunity to get together. We stayed the first night with Suzanne and her husband, Andrew, who live and work on the NTU (Nanyang Technical University) campus. Suzanne took us into the City Center to see the Quays lit up at night and to sample some food from the street hawkers. We were very impressed by the clean and orderly layout of the area after the grittiness of Thailand.

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Suzanne and Andrew were off to Phuket the next day so we moved to a hotel closer into town.

My last posting’s title (What if you don’t shop?) could have easily been the title for Singapore. If in Thailand, shopping is a hobby then for Singapore it is a national obsession. Where they put all the stuff they buy is a mystery; their apartments are small. It tends to be very hot here so the heat drives people into the air conditioned malls…and there are a lot of malls! You’ve probably heard that Singapore is clean and orderly…that is an understatement. There are many rules posted all over to make sure everyone knows the right thing to do.

On Saturday we decided to visit the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Since Singapore is in an Equatorial Zone it receives more rain than any other part of the world so the flora is diverse and interesting. We were dropped off on Orchard Road which is a mega shopping street. This means more shopping than usual which is usually a lot. We walked down the road looking at the multi-story malls and restaurants until we got to the gardens. Some of the highlights were an orchid garden, a ginger garden (we didn't know ginger produced flowers) and a small rainforest.

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A sign near the ginger gardens said that ginger flowers are delicate and only last for a day. So I was very fortunate to catch this in full bloom.

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There are a variety of flowering trees with delicate flowers like this one.

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If you like orchids, take a look at the photo gallery where I've posted several more.

We made a quick stop at “Little India” on our way home. There was a Hindu celebration going on called Dipawali or the “Festival of Lights”. It celebrates the homecoming of King Rama after his exile in the forest. In the legend, people lit lamps to welcome him home so the celebration involves many lights shining above the streets. We ducked into a Hindu temple to gawk at the bizarre sculptures of gods and animals with human bodies. Since we know next to nothing about this religion we felt like we had entered an alien world. There were so many people in the temple that we were swept along past sweating supplicants and gods consuming the entrails of unfortunate persons. The whole experience was disturbing and we made a quick exit out a side gate.

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Scenes from Little India

In the evening we connected up with a friend, Susan Callaway, from DC who was visiting her daughter in Singapore. Susan was on the CCHFP board and it was great to meet her husband and daughter so far from home. The funny part is that they are leaving for Cambodia next and will be in Australia just as we are leaving! Their daughter Catherine invited us to Jumbo’s to eat “chili crab” which is one of the few foods that is considered to be a Singaporean original dish. It was spicy but wonderful.

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Our server cracks the crab for us. What great service!

As we walked along Clark Quay we found an unusual hot spot called "The Clinic". Catherine said when she first saw it she thought "How wonderful that all these handicapped people are having an outing!" but then realized that the wheelchairs are the seats and the IV bags are the containers provided for the drink. (They don't actually give you the IV you just sip from the IV tube).

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Susan having a little fun sitting at a chair in 'The Clinic'

Posted by Aeren 18:38 Archived in Singapore Tagged food Comments (2)

What if you don't shop?

A second day in Bangkok and moving on to Singapore

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We had to return to Bangkok to fly out to Singapore. Shopping seems to be a big pastime in Bangkok, but that leaves us with the question on the title of our blog. A little research on Jeannine’s part gave us a couple of alternatives to shopping. On this second trip we stayed at a hotel close to the airport and took the sky train to our destination in the Siam Square area. As with the other Asian countries we’ve been to the trains were wonderful, but we had a chuckle when we realized we were heading out to “Mo Chit” and going back to “On Nut.”

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With a final destination "Mo Chit" it makes you wonder if you should board the train.

Our first stop in the city was a visit to the Kamthieng House. This house sits on the grounds of the Siam Society in the heart of Bangkok. It preserves an architectural style that is over 700 years old. The house is a traditional Lanna house. In Lanna, women are heads of households, own property and have rights of inheritance. What a great concept! One such Lanna family steeped in these traditions were descendants of a prince from Yunnan in Southern China who migrated to northern Thailand. The matriarch Mae Nai Saed, a great granddaughter of the prince, built the original Kamthieng House in 1848 on the banks of the Ping River in Chiang Mai and it was passed down mother to daughter for the next three generations of women as a family home until 1963 after which Mae Kim Haw donated the house to the Siam Society to preserve the Lanna culture.

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It was hard to imagine that beyond the walls of this little oasis was a bustling city. The grounds were impeccably manicured with lovely trees and pottery tastefully positioned to add to the tranquility. We loved the rich dark color of the teak wood cut in large planks and not completely planed flat. Climbing up to the main level there is a lovely veranda with connections to other buildings of the complex. The house is a museum with artifacts that help to explain Lanna culture.

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Scenes from Kamthieng House at Siam Center

We took a quick trip downtown and marveled at the multi-story malls, pedestrian skywalks, and neon lights. It was a relief to avoid the tourist areas and just blend in with the swirling masses of people going in and out of the malls. We stopped at a new Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center (BACC) and the only exhibit at the time was a special homage to the Thai king. He was represented some way in every painting, photo or sculpture. The Thai really love their king and it is a crime to speak against the royal family. Here are a few samples including the King as Buddha!!

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This is a close-up of a painting by Chairat Sangthon, titled "Strength of the Land" it depicts a grandmother handing her son a banknote with a portrait of the King.

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Painting by Praiwan Dakliang titled, "Audience with the King". It depicts a rural father and his son walking barefoot at midday in the hot sun. His face seems a little grimaced, but determined in his quest not to miss is audience. The King's likeness is carried in a picture by the father."

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This artist's interpretation of the King as Buddha is a throwback to the days of old where the king's likeness was used as the face of Buddha. It was rather humorous creating it with the King wearing his trademark glasses.

As we left the BACC we caught the sun making it's exit and took one last shot of Bangkok.

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Posted by Aeren 19:47 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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