Monday, December 28, 2009

Fort Canning Park

This weekend Bryan and I headed over to Fort Canning Park, which is a national park with a lot of historical significance. It started to rain as we were headed to the park, but we decided to check it out anyway. I even got brave and used an umbrella (I abhor umbrellas). As we headed to the park, we saw strange, motion-activated escalators on a hill. I knew Singapore had an escalator obsession, but I was still pretty surprised to see escalators outdoors and operating in the rain. The National Museum of Singapore was nearby, so there were some neat sculptures on the lawn. And if you look in the background, you can see me risking electric shock on the magical outdoor escalator.There's an old, gothic cemetery at Fort Canning, called the "Old Christian Cemetery," where some of the first Westerners in Singapore were buried after they died. It looked appropriately eerie in the rain.We strolled through the park a little while, and eventually made our way toward the Battle Box, the attraction that had piqued my interest in the park in the first place. The Battle Box is an underground bunker that served as a command center for the military when Singapore was occupied by the Japanese in the 1940's. The Battle Box has been turned into a museum/ educational facility that tells the story of the occupation, and Singapore's eventual surrender to the Japanese in February of 1942. But the exciting part is that the story is told primarily through the use of creepy animatronics, of which I am a huge fan. We walked through a metal door and descended some stairs to the sounds of air raid sirens. As we went down into the dismal bunker, I began to feel that we were entering a haunted house. The feeling only got stronger when I saw the bizarrely lifelike soldiers. Which one is real?!Most of the figures looked strangely human, but some had fallen into disrepair and just looked scary...Here's a video of some jerky animatronic movement. As Dave over at says, it appears that they haven't oiled their robots in a while. BoingBoing also posted a video that's higher quality than ours- we were having trouble in the gloomy underground quarters. You can see their video here.

As we headed out, we saw this...So's not really a "secret" if you put a sign on the wall telling people where it is...annnnd dead-ends generally aren't very good escape routes... Anyway, here's Bryan, haha.After we left the Battle Box, we found a super-cool wall/gate thing. We took some silly pictures. I think this one makes Bryan look like a demented Mary Poppins, and I love it.We walked around inside and behind one of the doors we found an opening with a little secret staircase that led up on to the roof! So cool! We went up there in the rain and had a look around. It was pretty neat- there were a bunch of little slits for shooting out of, and there was a place that looked like it used to have a big mounted gun.On the way out of the park we walked through the ASEAN Sculpture Garden. ASEAN is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and each of the countries in ASEAN donated a sculpture to the garden. For some reason, the plaques didn't say where the sculptures were from, which I thought was kind of weird, but I liked the one on top best, especially with the rain running down the sides of it.That's it for now- Bryan and I are gearing up for another big adventure, so there's more coming soon!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Birthday!

My birthday was last week, and I met Bryan at work, where he gave me these beautiful flowers!! In the pictures below, we're at Black Canyon Coffee, which is located inside Fusionopolis, where Bryan works.We went out to eat at a fancy restaurant called Graze. It was really beautiful- we sat outside and it was raining all around us, but we were nice and cozy under a patio roof, with a koi pond next to us, candles burning on our table, and old black and white movies being projected on a big, blank wall. The food was outstanding- everything was presented in a really eye-catching way, and I got to eat organic pumpkin ravioli, which appealed to my new-found pumpkin addiction.

It was strange being away for my birthday- because my birthday is so close to the holidays, I often get to celebrate it in Ohio with my friends and family. Although it was a little different this year, Bryan really made it a special day, and we had a wonderful time!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Silly Signs Part Three

Despite the warning, we didn't see anything dangerous at Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve in Kuala Lumpur. In case you can't tell, the sign has pictures of a snake, a centipede, a scorpion, and a bee.
These signs were posted in some of the busier areas of Kuala Lumpur. After seeing them, I found myself perusing the crowds, looking for potential snatch thieves. And is it just me, or does the lady on that sign look like she has a lot of junk in the trunk?
I had fun trying to interpret this sign without reading the words. I think the top left circle appears to be saying that falling down is allowed, while the bottom middle circle says that flicking the dancing monkeys is not allowed. And the bottom right circle is telling you that you are entering a time warp zone. I don't even remember what all the circles really mean anymore; I like my interpretations better.OK, these ads are all over S'pore, and it might just be me, but I think they're hilarious. They all feature academic superstars, and tell you to drink Essence of Chicken so you can be like them. I think it says a lot about S'pore that they can use super smart students as something that others will aspire to, rather than using athletes or supermodels. And Essence of Chicken?! What IS it, and more importantly, why do you drink it?!But I'm so used to people saying that I should wear a helmet. Now I'm confused.This sign was in a bathroom at a mall near Bukit Timah in S'pore. It left me wondering how many times people cut hair in the toilet, thus necessitating the sign...and why...Here's a sign for a live frog restaurant, also near Bukit Timah. My poor little vegetarian heart bleeds every time I see one of these places. They keep a bunch of frogs crammed into a little cage, and then when people order frog, they yank one out and cook it. Shark fin soup might be the only thing that bothers me more.On a happier note- from Orchard Road, the first high voltage sign I've ever seen on a Christmas tree! And if you look closely, you can see me and Bryan reflected in the gold bulb.This one has some sentimental value : ) Delaney is my oldest niece's name, and since we're Irish the shamrocks are especially appropriate! Maybe someday Delaney can go to Kuala Lumpur and visit the Irish pub with her name!I found this pub when Bryan and I were visiting his family in Helena, Montana back in July. It's a good match to Delaney's!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Malaysia Day Three: Langurs and Nature in the City

On the morning of our last day in KL, we checked out of the guesthouse and headed for Starbuck's (we were still playing it safe with food after the previous day's gastrointestinal disaster). Over coffee, we worked out a plan for the day, and then headed off to Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve. On our way, we found these huge pitcher plants hanging from the awning in front of a little shop. Hooray for carnivorous plants!Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve is oddly located in the center of the city, and is sometimes referred to as the "Green Lung" of Kuala Lumpur. In the center of the forest reserve is the massive KL Tower, which we had glimpsed from various points in the city. We got to the reserve and set off on one of the hiking trails. Within a couple of minutes we were dousing ourselves in bug spray to protect against the hordes of mosquitoes descending upon us. After walking for about 15 minutes, I was beginning to wonder where all the wildlife was. In S'pore, there are lizards everywhere. We often see them on the way to the MRT, and they're even more frequent in forested areas, so I was kind of surprised we weren't seeing any in Bukit Nanas., and we weren't seeing birds either. We continued on, and I thought I caught sight of a snake's tail disappearing into the underbrush, but that was it- except for this pitcher plant trash can that we got a kick out of...seriously, plants that eat bugs are awesome.We also found these cute, teensy plantains.
Eventually we reached the center of the reserve where KL Tower is located, and we stopped there for lunch at a great little Indian place (I was getting adventurous again) called d'Tandoor. It was good and, most importantly, it didn't make me sick! Bryan bought this dashing hat at a store in the tower. This picture always makes me laugh.After lunch, we headed back down the path the way we came. As we walked along, we were definitely keeping our eyes out for wildlife. And then I saw movement in the trees up ahead, and I knew it was monkeys. We got closer to the trees and saw that they were silver leaf-langurs, a kind of monkey that neither of us has ever seen in the wild. We were so giddy that it probably would have been funny for someone to stand back and watch us watching the monkeys. Langurs are a lot different from the macaques I work with- they're generally more wary of people, spend more time in the trees, have smaller bodies, and sweet little faces with hair that sticks out all around them. It was really fun to watch them leap from branch to branch over our heads. We had a hard time getting pictures of them because of the bright sunshine coming through the trees, but here are a few OK shots. I like the one on the bottom- you can see KL Tower in the background, and the monkey hanging out in the tree looks like he's staring up at it.After spending some quality time with the langurs, we headed out of the nature reserve and to the monorail. When the monorail pulled up, we were surprised to see silver leaf-langurs on the side!
We saw a few more exciting sites before getting back on the bus to S'pore. This beautiful mosque was my favorite of the many mosques that we saw in KL.All weekend, we kept passing this huge, abandoned-looking complex. Given my fascination with abandoned buildings, I was intrigued by it, but I haven't been able to find any information on it- it did look like there was an operating police office inside. We got a pretty good view when we went by on the monorail- the best part was a sign painted on one of the walls that said "DEATH!! That is the penalty for drug trafficking in Malaysia!!" (note: in the comments, someone who shares my fascination with abandoned buildings said that this building is Pudu Jail, and it is indeed abandoned and may be demolished at some point in the future).When we got into KL, we had gotten off the bus a short while before the bus reached the station, so when we went to the bus station to catch the bus back home, it was our first time at the station. We had been warned about Puduraya Bus Station, as a place where foreigners have been robbed late at night and cunning bus company employees try to sell you tickets to buses that don't leave for hours. It was the afternoon, and we already had our tickets in hand, so we weren't too worried. And then we arrived in one of the most chaotic places I've ever been. The buses pull in under the bus station and you walk down the stairs to get on them, so the station was full of exhaust. The whole place was dirty, packed with people, traffic was backed up outside, and the platforms didn't have the correct labels on them. We had gotten there a little early, so we ended up sitting on a sidewalk away from the hubbub until it was time for our bus. The bus ride back went fairly smoothly- more traffic, of course, but also another stamp in our passports! We had a really great trip, and we're already talking about the next place we'd like to go!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Malaysia Day Two: Batu Caves, Naughty Monkeys, and Curry Laksa

On our second day in Malaysia, we headed to a food center near our guesthouse to get lunch. I'd read about the food stall in a guidebook, and I was very excited to see what Blue Boy Vegetarian Food Centre had to offer, as the cooks there are supposed masters of southeast Asian vegetarian cuisine. I felt that I might be missing out on some of the more interesting local dishes because I don't eat meat, and I was especially looking forward to trying laksa- a noodle soup that combines elements of both Malay and Chinese food. I was not disappointed. My curry laksa was stupendous. I spent the entire meal raving about how wonderful it was. Bryan ordered asam laksa, which has a strong tamarind flavor, and he wasn't as excited about his food, but in the end he was the lucky one. I ended up paying dearly for the meal I enjoyed so much- but that wasn't until later.After lunch we went back to the guesthouse and asked the receptionist if she knew a good way to get to Batu Caves. I'd read that we could take a bus, but it was slow and out of the way. I'd also read that taking taxis in Malaysia can be a hassle, because taxi drivers are notorious for scamming foreigners by refusing to run the meter and charging them exorbitant amounts. I thought that if I asked the receptionist, she might get us an honest taxi driver, so when she said that there was a driver sitting on the porch, and led us to him, I was thrilled. That is, until he stood up, looked us up and down, and said "35 ringgit". I looked at the receptionist, thinking that she would scold him and tell him to run the meter, but she just smirked and walked away. I wanted to shout "Et tu, Brute?!" at her retreating back, but I'm pretty non-confrontational (and I think my cheesy Latin witticism might have been lost on her anyway), and I didn't want to argue with her or the driver at the guesthouse, so I told him we'd take the bus, and we walked away. We tried to flag down a driver who was stuck in traffic in front of a cop, thinking that it would keep him honest (it's illegal to not use the meter), but he waved us away. We ended up haggling with a couple other drivers, and we eventually agreed to pay 25 RM even though I knew it was supposed to be around 20RM (those are Malaysian ringgit to the right; they look a lot like Singaporean money). The difference was only a couple of US dollars, and it wasn't worth it to keep arguing. We paid the same on the way back, and then took the monorail for the rest of the time we were in KL.The taxi ride ended up being well worth it, because Batu Caves was amazing.

The Batu Caves are significant in two ways- they are a natural wonder because the cave system is about 400 million years old, and has some interesting flora and fauna, such as trapdoor spiders; and they also have religious significance, as a Hindu temple occupies one of the caves, which has become known as Temple Cave. The first view of the caves was really breathtaking. The 130 foot tall golden statue at the entrance is of Lord Subramaniam, a.k.a. Muruga, to whom the caves are dedicated. The top picture provides a little perspective, but I still don't feel like it really does it justice- the statue was huge, and the rockface in the background was even more massive- a photo just can't really capture it.To Muruga's right and a little behind him are the 272 stairs that you have to climb in order to get to the entrance of the cave. The stairs are an adventure, because long-tailed macaques are running up and down the banisters, looking to snatch food from distracted stair-climbers. Here's me, looking excited at the top.The inside of the caves are separated into two parts- you first enter a large cavern that's totally enclosed overhead. The cavern has some Hindu artwork and statues of gods and goddesses, and it also has some railings that I think are set up to manage crowds on Hindu holidays. Some of the artwork is painted directly onto the walls of the cave, which I thought was strange- to me it seemed a little unmindful of the natural beauty of the cave. But the strangest part of all was definitely the chickens- there were chickens and roosters roaming around the caves, and their piercing "cock-a-doodle-doo's" really made the whole experience seem a little surreal.After the first cave is the area with the temple inside it. This area is open to the sky high overhead, but is still surrounded by very steep rock walls. The temple is truly striking against such an unusual backdrop, but it didn't hold my interest for as long as I expected- the resident monkeys had my full attention in a matter of minutes.As we stood looking at the temple, a man started shaking a bag of peanuts. I knew he was trying to get the attention of the monkeys high up in the trees near the top of the rock walls. I felt a little sad- it's bad for people to feed the monkeys and I hate to see it happen, and in Malaysia there are no punishments for doing it (S'pore is one of the only places that actively tries to stop people from feeding the monkeys). But of course, the monkeys came. Watching them run face-first down the steep rock wall was mind-boggling; it looked totally physically impossible. In the video below, you can hear the guy shaking the bag of peanuts, and then you can see a monkey doing some acrobatics to get down to the peanuts, which he eventually takes right out of the guy's hand. And you can hear a rooster crowing, of course.
So the monkeys came and feasted. At the bottom of the caves, stores sell food, and I think it's mostly meant to offer to the monkeys. The monkeys ate peanuts right out of people's hands, drank juice right out of a bottle, munched on bananas and fought over coconuts. The one in the bottom picture is munching on a strand of flowers- I'm pretty sure it was meant for the temple, and not for him, but he doesn't seem to mind.
This video shows monkeys eating Cheezels that a guy is tossing to them, and ends with Bryan and me being threatened by one of the juveniles for no apparent reason. My favorite part of the video is when Bryan says, in a voice pitched slightly higher than usual, "Should we get outta here?!" I've been threatened by monkeys a few times now, and although it's never pleasant, I've learned how to deal with it. This was Bryan's first threat from a monkey, so I think he was probably as freaked out as I was the first time it happened to me.

When people stopped giving food to the monkeys, they started stealing it. Below is a picture that Bryan caught it at the perfect moment. The monkey was the alpha of the group, and he spotted that plastic bag and wanted it. He charged through the crowd, got up on his hind legs, and yanked it right out of that guy's hand. Then he sat down and dug through the bag- tossing aside some flowers and a banana, and getting right to the coconut. Hilarious.The caves are an interesting union of culture and nature, with a crazy combination of Hindu gods, chickens, monkeys, stray cats, pigeons and people. On the one hand, I think that if I were a religious person, being in a place as beautiful as the caves might make me feel especially reverent. But on the other hand, I felt as though the caves as a natural wonder were being exploited in a way. People freely feed the monkeys, which is bad for them, the cave walls are painted in places, and we saw people from the temple casually tossing entire bags full of garbage onto the rocks towards the back of the cave.
After a few hours, we were finally getting ready to head out of the caves, and I started to feel a little under the weather- my stomach was hurting. Bryan also had a headache, so we decided to head back to the guesthouse to take it easy for awhile. In the taxi, I started feeling worse and worse, and what followed were five of the most unpleasant hours of my life. I'm pretty sure it was food poisoning, because I don't know what else would have made my stomach feel like it was slowly turning inside out, and I spent some time cursing the stupid curry laksa that I had thought was so delicious just a few hours ago. Writhing around on a hotel bed with Dora the Explorer in Malay playing on the TV in the background was one of the more bizarre experiences of my life, and one that I hope to never repeat again. Needless to say, I won't be eating any laksa for a long time.

Once the worst had passed, I went to sleep for awhile and woke up feeling much better. We decided to head out to try to find some dinner, even though it was kind of late (around 10 pm). We wandered the streets looking for something bland and familiar- Burger King or McDonald's. It seemed weird to be looking for a chain restaurant, because usually when I'm traveling I go out of my way to avoid the things I can easily get anywhere in the world. To our surprise, we stumbled upon an Outback Steakhouse, and I got some steamed vegetables and was very grateful for the innocuous meal- and although our dinner wasn't exactly a cultural experience, I'm pretty sure it's the only time I've ever eaten at an Outback owned by a guy named Rahjiv.