Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day at the Beach

KT and I popped out of bed the next morning, eager to hit the beach, only to be surprised by a rainstorm.  We went back to sleep awhile, and when we woke up the rain was gone, so we all went out in search of breakfast before the beach.  Another fatherly figure, this time a Dutch guy, called out to us and invited us into his restaurant just like your grandmother would invite you in for cups of cocoa after a day of playing in the snow.  The breakfast buffet looked delicious, the price was cheap, and the Dutch man was so nice that we couldn't resist.  We had a spectacular breakfast at the Karon Cafe before KT and I headed off to the beach.  In my experience, boys are almost always less enthusiastic about the beach than girls and Mark was no exception.  He opted to hang around the room awhile, and promised to meet up with us later.

It was a beautiful day, and the waves were just as brutal as the day before.  The red DANGEROUS NO SWIMMING flags were still in place, although we'd been told that it was all right to swim as long as we didn't go out too far, and provided that we made sure that the lifeguards were awake before going in the water (yup, for real).  KT and I had a good time wrestling with the waves, but when a wave knocked me off my feet and turned me in a perfect somersault before dragging me across the sand and then spitting me out on the beach, I decided to take a break for awhile.

Mark eventually met up with us, slurping an ice cream bar, which made KT and me smile.  Mark said he'd enjoyed a massage from one of the women out of the hordes that were lining the streets repeating, "Hello, welcome to Thailan'.  You wan' massaaaaaaaaaage?" I was glad he'd found a way to enjoy himself while KT and I lounged on the beach.  He headed out into the water while I photographed some of the local wildlife.  I thought the abundant common mynas were interesting, since most of the ones in Singapore are Javan mynas.
Common Myna
Our day of sun and fun went on and on, and we were completely waterlogged by the early afternoon.
Me and Mark at the beach
KT and Mark in the Andaman Sea
KT and I laid about, thinking that we were working on our tans.  In reality, I was working on one of the most gnarly sunburns I've ever had.  Once I looked down and realized that I was turning a preposterous shade of neon pink, I jumped up and covered myself, then beat feet toward the guesthouse.
KT laying out...and dancing?
After showering off all the sand and salt, we all went to get something to eat at a little place that appeared to have no name, but lured us in with a giant list of milkshake flavors.  When we saw this menu, we were pretty happy with our choice...  Spaketti, anyone?  No?  How about some magaronee?  The meetsort kind, of course.

Adding to the awesomeness was this poster of fruits and vegetables.  Obviously hawthron, brinjaul, megranate, and spinage are all essential parts of a balanced diet.

I also appreciated the drink stirrers in our insanely delicious banana milkshakes.

We turned in early that night, as we had to get up early for a tour we booked to go out to Phang Nga Bay.  That night, as we got ready to go to sleep, Mark was bested by the taco bed, which collapsed and chomped him like a big angry mouth.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Touchdown in Phuket

The morning was a little hectic as we got all of our things together to get to the airport and fly off to Thailand.  We all managed to get ready in time, and we caught the MRT to the airport, ate some surprisingly good Indian food there, and boarded our Air Asia flight to Phuket.  I was pretty excited about this trip- Thailand is a place I've wanted to go for a long time, and I was thrilled to finally be on my way.  Even from the air, we could tell that we were on our way to a gorgeous place.
Thailand from the air

Our flight was short and uneventful and we were at the Phuket Airport before we knew it.  We headed out to a taxi, and I gave the driver the address of a guesthouse in Karon.  We didn't have reservations anywhere yet, since I just wanted to scope out our options, but I gave him the address of a place in the general area I wanted to go.  That turned out to backfire, as the driver had no idea where the place was, and would not listen to my repeated requests to just take us to that general area.  We ended up having an awkward conversation with a woman who our driver stopped to ask for directions, but we eventually showed up in Karon, none the worse for wear.  As soon as we pulled into town and started walking around looking for a place to stay, I noticed something that I considered a good omen...a place called KT!

And RIGHT NEXT to that?  A place called Crystal!!!

We checked out a couple of places to stay- a guesthouse called The Little Mermaid was all right, although it looked precisely like a rundown college dorm with purple carpet.  A couple other places told us that they couldn't accommodate three people in one room.  We decided to check one more place, and while we were in search of one, we came across a middle-aged Australian man unloading cases of beer from the back of a station wagon.  He smiled at us and said,"'Ello!  You lookin' for a place to stay?"  I smiled and said that we were.  We chatted a bit about the budget we were working with, and then he gestured toward his bar and said, "We 'ave rooms here. You could all stay here!"  The place was called the Karon Sunshine Guesthouse & Bar, it was bright orange, the price was very reasonable, the rooms were clean, and none of us could resist the fatherly guy out front, so we settled in right away.  The dog in the hallway really sealed the deal for me- they had a Shih Tsu that looked just like the one my parents have!!
Zoe's Thai twin

After checking in to our hotel and getting a laugh at the extra bed they provided us with (a hilarious, ancient, flimsy foldaway bed that we later dubbed the "taco bed"), we got our swimsuits on and headed to the beach. On our way out the fatherly gentleman warned us about the strong riptides in the water, and cautioned us not to go out too far.  Then he grinned and said "Geez, I sound like your dad.  Go on, have fun!"  We learned that his name was Greg, but that didn't matter because we referred to him as Dad for the rest of the trip.

Our first view of the water was a memorable one- it looked exactly like something you would see on a postcard.  Huge waves were crashing against soft, clean sand.  The water was light blue and perfectly clear.  A salty breeze was coming in off the sea, and it felt amazing.  We were all beaming as we made our way down onto the beach.  When I dipped my foot into the water for the first time, I couldn't believe it- it was warm like bathwater!  We passed the next couple of hours laying on the warm sand and jumping around in the brutal waves.
Karon Beach
Early evening on the beach
KT and Mark's first swim

There were loads of stray dogs around, and they really seemed to take a shining to Mark.  At one point KT and I were in the water while Mark was sitting on the beach, and when we looked up at him, he was surrounded by dogs!  When he stood up, they stood up, and if he moved, they followed.  It looked like he was their alpha!   Later on, one of his minions adopted me, dug a little nest next to my towel and curled up with me.  It was all pretty entertaining.
Karon Beach Strays

 All the swimming and romping around made us hungry, so we walked back to the main street and found a restaurant, a little place called the One Man Cafe.  KT and I drew a bit of attention walking down the street, and I think everyone thought Mark was kind of a stud for walking around with a lady on either side of him.  Men called out to us a few times, but it was nothing too offensive.  My favorite thing anyone said to me was, "Hey baby, you have beautiful smile!   You brush you teeth?!"  But the restaurant was pretty quiet, and we settled in ate some delicious food.  Our meal was great, but then we ordered banana fritters and those were AWESOME.  They were probably some of the best dessert I've ever had.  We ended up eating a LOT of banana fritters in Thailand, but the ones at One Man Cafe were definitely the best!
The view from One Man Cafe

A quick sidenote- you can see the flag of Thailand flying in the background of the photo above.  The flag's stripes are red, white, and blue, and the three colors represent nation, religion, and king- three central themes for the people of Thailand.  This flag was adopted in 1917, and is proudly flown all over the place.

After a satisfying meal, we decided to wander around for awhile and get our bearings in our new surroundings.  We walked up and down the streets of Karon, which is small and easily navigable by pedestrians.  After stopping at an Internet cafe to let our families know that we had safely arrived, we decided to get a couple of beers before turning in for the night.  While walking past a place called Anybody's Bar, a girl walked out front and blessed a bottle of liquor, making us all laugh.  We headed in for a drink, and boy oh boy, we had no idea what we had just walked into.

I'm not quite sure how to explain Anybody's Bar except to say that booze was certainly not the only thing for sale there.  Behind the bar was a stripper pole and a pack of young, attractive Thai women, including one very convincing transvestite.  We ordered a round of drinks, and were excessively fawned over by the ladies.  The whole experience was very bizarre, particularly when I looked down the bar and saw a middle-aged white guy playing Connect Four with an attractive lingerie-clad Thai woman.
Weirdest game of Connect Four I've ever seen
KT's looking a little out of place
Hmmm...where did that extra drink come from, Mark?

The icing on the very bizarre cake were the little coasters that looked as though they'd been crocheted by my grandmother.
Layers and layers of weirdness

One drink was all we could really handle at Anybody's Bar, so we headed out after our beer, and walked around in search of a place slightly tamer.  We found a tiny outdoor place called Jack Bar right next to our guesthouse, and we decided to hang out there for awhile.  KT and I drank the local Chang beer, while Mark ordered pink cocktails, causing the bartender to giggle.  As we hung out there, a few peddlers came by trying to sell us stuff, but I was happy with how easily they gave up- sometimes in Southeast Asia people can be so persistent that it becomes uncomfortable and awkward for everyone.
Peddler at Jack Bar

The calmer atmosphere of Jack Bar made for a relaxing way to end our evening, and we went back to our guesthouse content and had a good night's sleep...except maybe for Mark, who was attempting to sleep on the taco bed, which resembled some sort of torture device.
Sweet dreams, Mark

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Stormy Sungei Buloh

After a relaxing day the day before, KT and I decided that we were ready for another outdoor adventure.  Mark wasn't too excited about another day of roaming the Singaporean wilderness in the heat, so he opted out and ventured off on his own again.  KT, Bryan, and I headed to a hawker centre to fuel up on some local food before going to Sungei Buloh to see some impressive reptiles.  I'd been repeatedly surprised by some of KT's food choices.  Typically one of the most adventuresome foodies I know, she'd been a bit overwhelmed by the strange menu choices here (fish head curry, anyone?), and had been ordering some of the blandest food she could find, like pasty-looking chicken on white rice.  I enjoyed my usual kacang pool, a bean dish with an egg on top, served with toast, while Bryan ate some laksa for breakfast.  KT eyed our food warily while repeatedly saying, "I can't believe people eat this for breakfast."

As usual, the entrance to Sungei Buloh was surrounded by the big, hearty water monitors.  They're always a surprising sight, even after having seen them a number of times.  I feel like I always forget exactly how large they are!  While we stood there watching the monitors, I told KT about all the animals that Bryan and I have seen at Sungei Buloh in the past- otter, turtles, a crocodile, tons of awesome birds.  However, I told her, we still hadn't seen one animal that we'd been hoping to see there.  I really wanted to see a mangrove pit viper, a vicious-looking black snake with red eyes, known to be venomous and aggressive.  "I'll find it for you," she promised.

Malayan Water Monitor

Just inside the reserve, I got a kick out of a whole line of nature photographers lined up side by side, huge cameras all aimed at a tiny bird.  It was the colorful stork-billed kingfisher, and Bryan quickly joined the photographer lineup.  He managed to pull off a pretty good shot before the bird flitted off!
Stork-Billed Kingfisher

Eventually we managed to drag Bryan along the path, but we stopped plenty more times.  The reserve seemed  to be just teeming with exciting birdlife that rainy Sunday!  We also spied this emerald dove, a white-breasted waterhen, and plenty of little egrets.
Emerald Dove
White-Breasted Waterhen
Little Egret

I was surprised to see a whole pack of dogs roaming around at one place in the reserve.  We stopped to watch their fighting and yapping for awhile, and we were very sad to see that one of them was horribly injured- he was missing a huge chunk of flesh out of the back of his neck.  Poor guy.
Injured Dog at Sungei Buloh

I always enjoy Sungei Buloh on the weekends because it tends to be less crowded than Bukit Timah and the Central Nature Reserves, and that day was no exception.  We strolled along the paths with plenty of space to ourselves, chatting about Singapore and animals and the impending trip to Thailand and Vietnam that Bryan was sadly going to miss out on.  At one point on the path, KT grabbed my arm, threw her leg in front of me, gasped, and stared at me wide-eyed while pointing with one hand and keeping a death grip on my arm with her other hand.  At first, I remembered the way she'd screamed bloody murder when I stepped on a leaf at Bukit Timah a couple days before, and figured she was goofing around or freaking out at a tree branch or something.  But a split second later, she recovered her voice and choked out, "SNAAAAAAAAKE!!!"  Sure enough, in the undergrowth right next to the path was the mangrove pit viper that Bryan and I had been trying so hard to find!  I could hardly believe it- Bryan and I had lived in Singapore for a YEAR without ever seeing this snake, and I'd told KT about it less than an hour before, and here she was, pointing it out to me.  I got super excited and Bryan and I both fumbled with our cameras, angling ourselves to get good photos.  My excitement was forgotten for a second as the words VENOMOUS and AGGRESSIVE seemed to flash into my head in neon lights, and I stopped to make sure everyone was a reasonable distance from the snake.  Reassured that we were all safe, I snapped away, loving this awesome reptile, and KT for finding it!
Mangrove Pit Viper

The snake looks huge in the close-ups, but in this picture with the two of us in it, you can see how easy it would be to pass by it without noticing.

We hung out with the snake for awhile and just as we began to move along, it began lightly sprinkling.  I thought it would probably pass quickly, but apparently I was on a roll with doing a poor job of predicting the weather because rather than going away, the rain began pouring with a vengeance.  KT and I ran ahead of Bryan, who was walking slowly, hunched over with an umbrella, trying to protect the camera.  As we ran, tree branches began to fall, and KT kept screeching, "WHAT IF THERE'S ANOTHER SNAKE?!?!"  By the time we finally found a lean-to type shelter, Bryan had managed to keep our camera dry, but everything else, ourselves included, were soaked to the core.  We huddled under the shelter, squeezing our clothes out and jumping every time there was a deafening clap of thunder or a bright flash of lightning.
Storm at Sungei

We were under that shelter for what seemed like forever, and sometimes it sounded like the whole forest was crashing down around us, but eventually the storm stopped and we emerged, still sopping wet.  We began making our way back to the main entrance, along the muddy paths, past all of the recently fallen trees.  It looked as though we'd been lucky to find the shelter when we did, as we could have easily been struck by one of the many errant branches or trees.  When crossing a bridge, the point was really driven home when we had to climb through a fallen tree to make it across.
Bryan Crawling through Tree

On the other side of the bridge, we stopped for a few minutes to watch a big group of mudskippers on the muddy ground below.  KT kept laughing at the hilarious way the creatures do everything- they flop when they move, they spit mud to clean out their holes, they leave behind funny tracks, and sometimes they make a preposterous sound like a sneeze that manages to sound horribly disapproving.  While we watched the mudskippers, Bryan noticed something else...A SNAKE!!  It was a two-snake day!!  We're pretty sure this one's a dog-faced water snake.
Dog-Faced Water Snake
Snake with Mudskipper

Even though we were headed out of the reserve, there turned out to be plenty more to see.  We stopped to watch tree-climbing crabs and more mudskippers.

When we got close to the entrance, we were all surprised to see not ONE or TWO but THREE crocodiles!  It began to rain again as we watched them, and I thought the photos turned out especially well with the water plopping all around the crocs.
Estuarine Crocodile

Seeing the crocodiles was the perfect way to end the day!!  If only there had been otter...but then again, maybe it's better that the crocodiles and the otter didn't cross paths!

After leaving the reserved, we headed home, cleaned up, and met Mark for dim sum at Din Tai Fung in Jurong Point.  I knew that Din Tai Fung served dim sum in the evening, and I knew it was delicious, so I was confident that I could make up for my faux pas at Red Star a few days before.  Turns out, I was right on.  The food was amazing as always, and we all gorged ourselves on dumplings, buns, rice, tea, and more.  I even managed to teach Mark, a leftie, to eat with chopsticks, a skill that he mastered amazingly fast once he put his mind to it!   We returned home satisfied and began getting our things together to leave for Thailand the next day, on a trip that we'd been planning for months.  I only wished that Bryan was coming along!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Home Cooking

After a rigorous day of monkey trailing, KT and I decided to take it easy the next day.  Mark wasn't too keen on the idea of sleeping in and hanging out for a day, so he rose early and set out to adventure on his own.  KT and I woke up in the late morning and hung around for awhile, catching up on each others' lives while Bryan made us his famous, scrumptious sour milk pancakes.  As we laid around digesting, we thought that it might be a good idea to cook up something fun for dinner that evening.  We headed off to IMM, where KT would get her first dose of a Singaporean grocery store (which Mark had already endured with me on his first day, when we stopped at the store en route to the money changer).  At Giant, we picked up all the ingredients to make a sushi and miso soup feast.  Also while there, KT gaped at all of the unfamiliar foods offered there- the deli offers raw, blue chickens.  If that's not your thing, you can purchase the entire front leg of a pig, hoof still intact.  No?  How about an octopus tentacle?  Or a big bag full of crunchy, dried fish that you can nibble on like trail mix?  An entire cooked duck, including its beak?  A case of black, fermented garlic?  Smelly, squishy durian?

We managed to navigate past all of the stomach-churning local specialties to get the necessary ingredients for our meal, then we headed home to make an extraordinary mess of the kitchen.  And so we did- we whipped up a whole mess of sushi and a big pot full of miso soup (using this recipe).  I've made sushi a few times, and although it won't ever win any awards for being pretty, it tastes great.  This was my first run at miso, and I thought it turned out pretty well, although it wasn't as flavorful as I'd like.  I think Bryan was grateful to have KT in the kitchen, because it meant that he got some fish in his sushi for once, instead of just the vegetable kind that I always make.
Japanese Feast
Miso Soup

Mark got back in time to eat some of the feast we'd made.  He regaled us with stories of all the tasty food he'd eaten on Orchard Road, including SIX pieces of cake (I told you he could eat!).  He showed us pictures from his wanderings, and it looked like he'd had a great day, but KT and I were happy to have kicked back and hung out at home for the day.  As you might have guessed, we had big plans for the next day!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mark & KT Meet the Monkeys

Ever since Mark and KT announced their intentions to visit me in Singapore, I've looked forward to introducing them to the monkeys.  So, on their third full day, after they'd begun to feel a little less jet lagged and a little more acclimated, we ate some breakfast and headed to Bukit Timah.  We were there a little late in the morning, and the monkeys weren't hanging around their sleeping spot near the Visitor Centre.  We did the circuit of places where the moneys often hang out, and I found my monkeys deep in a construction zone that's off-limits to people.  After watching the monkeys from afar for a few minutes, we decided to move on in the hopes that we'd be able to see the monkeys up-close later.  We started off on a hike, but before going too far down the path, we spotted a different group of monkeys (not the ones I work with).  Some were running around the path, and a few were up in the trees, munching away on some hefty jackfruits.  Mark and KT marveled over their first up-close glimpse of wild monkeys, and I promised them more excitement when we tracked down my monkeys in a more accessible place, as my monkeys are much less timid.

We watched the monkeys awhile before moving on, and after hiking for about 15 more minutes, we found another group of monkeys!  By then it was raining a little bit so we pushed on without taking any pictures.  After a few hours and getting hopelessly turned around a couple of times (if you start a hike on the bike path, the way isn't very well signed), we decided to turn around and head back to the Visitor Centre.  On our way, we spotted a skink, a few monitors, and this yellow and black lizard that I've never seen in Singapore before.  I've looked for some information on the striped yellow and black lizard, but haven't found anything.
Anyone know anything about this little guy?

When we got near the Visitor Centre, I heard the telltale sounds of monkeys alarm-calling, and when we rounded the last bend in the bike path, there they were!  The monkeys that I work with were hanging out along the path and in the parking lot.  I started pointing out the individuals to Mark and KT: Leo, with his distinguished white fur, Catherine with her crippled hand and Oliver, her adorable infant, muscular Hercules, impish Punk, gray-eyed Tanis, mischievous Bryan, and on and on.  We had a tense moment when Mark set his camera down, and Quill stealthily moved in and reached out to swipe it.  KT noticed just in time and crisis was averted.
Catherine & Oliver


My friends got a kick out of watching the monkeys gather around me like my little minions.  The little ones love to come up to me and pull on my boot laces, tug on my backpack, and attempt to climb my legs when I'm not looking.
Monkey Lady

Once I handed my backpack over to Mark and KT, the monkeys started paying them a little more attention.  Even though I never keep food in my backpack when I go to Bukit Timah, the monkeys can't seem to resist trying to look in there, just to make sure.  I warned my friends to keep a hand on the bag, lest the monkeys scamper off with it.  KT had a foot on the strap, but troublemaker Quill got ahold of it and tugged it away a little bit.  Even though KT still had her foot on the strap, I saw a problem brewing when Quill began to appear a little confrontational.  I walked over and pulled the bag back, then put it on my back.  Quill protested with a weak attempt at tug-of-war, followed by some unhappy grunts and protests, but he let it go pretty quickly, distracted as he was by a riveting game of keep-away his pals were playing with a trash bag.

After enjoying the monkey antics for awhile, our hunger finally got the best of us, and we had to abandon our wildlife watching in pursuit of food.  We walked out of the nature reserve and across the street to a hawker centre, where we enjoyed some tasty Indian food at Al-Ameen.  KT ordered an entire coconut, and Mark got lassi, which he promptly downed in one gulp before ordering another.  Our food was delicious, and even Indian food-wary Mark enjoyed a family-size portion of briyani, which he annihilated with a desperation that I usually associate with starving refugees.  One of my greatest joys of having Mark and KT around was watching them eat.  Some strange family trait enables these two to down unfathomable quantities of food without any apparent consequences- never any indigestion, or a single added pound.

Once we had stuffed ourselves to capacity, we headed home to clean up and get ready to go out for drinks.  As always, a cold shower after a hot day with the monkeys was delightful.  By the time we'd made ourselves presentable, Bryan was home and we all hopped in a taxi and headed for Raffles Hotel.  Raffles is a historical institution around here- the man is a legend, and the hotel has been around since the late 1880's. In its time, it has been the site of a number of notable events, including the killing of the last tiger ever seen in Singapore.  The hotel now stands in a modern neighborhood, a stalwart reminder of Singapore's colonial period.  We were venturing there to see the fancy hotel itself, but also to enjoy Singapore Slings at the Long Bar, the place where the drink was invented!

Bryan and I had been to the Long Bar before, and this time was similar to the last- the atmosphere was relaxing, the bar was beautiful, and the drinks were extraordinarily overpriced but delicious.

After guzzling down Slings at Raffles, we headed to Clarke Quay to show Mark and KT what a Singaporean night on the town is like.  We started out at Brewerkz, one of the places that Bryan and I go when we're craving real American food (they have mac & cheese with the breadcrumbs on top!! Yes!!).  In addition to decent American food, the brewery also concocts some pretty tasty beer.  I love their fruitbrewz, which change regularly.  My all-time favorite was the dragonfruit ale.  Mmmm...

After a round at Brewerkz, we roamed the lit-up, trippy Dr. Seussian quay.  We ogled some of the stranger bars, like the place where you can sit in wheelchairs and have drinks served to you in an IV bag by a waitress dressed like a nurse, or the Whopper Lounge, which is like a fancy Burger King that serves cocktails.  We bypassed these places for the tamer and more reasonably priced Mama's Caribbean Bar, which had yummy cocktails and buckets of Sol, my favorite Mexican beer, which is strangely widely available in Singapore.
Only the finest girly drinks for Mark!! : )

A few drinks at Mama's were all it took to finish us off- after a long, long day, we weren't up for partying the night away, so we put ourselves in a cab and headed home to rest up for another day of adventuring!