Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dairy Farm Nature Park

Nope, Bryan and I have not yet run out of new nature places to visit in Singapore. This weekend we headed to Dairy Farm Nature Park. As its name implies, Dairy Farm hasn't always been a pristine nature area. Previously a farm (duh), it was opened in 2009 as a nature area that serves as a green buffer for Bukit Timah, the largest remaining patch of primary rainforest in Singapore.
Trails at Dairy Farm and Bukit Timah

I didn't really know what to expect of the new nature park. Because it's opened somewhat recently, I thought it might have an overly manicured feel, but its connection to BTNR made me think that it might have been populated by neat wildlife that had made its way over from the more mature forest. I was pleasantly surprised- Dairy Farm had nice trails and was much less crowded than more popular Bukit Timah, which was a good change of pace. Unfortunately one of the park's highlights, the Singapore Quarry, is closed for landscaping until September 10th. Instead of going that way, we headed the other direction, toward the Wallace Education Centre. There were lots of pretty plants along the way, some of which we'd never seen before.
Creamsicle-colored flowers
Looks like a pineapple!
Iridescent morning glories

We took a side path called the Wallace Trail, which had intermittent sign posts with information about Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist and contemporary of Darwin. Wallace was a bit overshadowed by Darwin, but made many important contributions to natural science himself. He also made a trip to Southeast Asia, where he stopped off in Singapore and braved the tiger-ridden jungle to catalog the species he found here. Apparently while here he also developed a deep and abiding love for the durian. Scientists are a pretty strange bunch.

When we came out the end of Wallace Trail, we found...(drum roll please)...AN ABANDONED BUILDING!!! YAY!!! The building looked pretty rickety and unstable, which is probably why NParks had taken the precaution of roping it off and posting an intimidating sign. It was also the only abandoned building I've ever seen with a beautifully maintained garden.
I just wanna fix it up and move in!
Front of the building
Back of the building...maybe a chicken shed?

The garden outside the house was full of blooming, vibrant flowers, chirping birds, and colorful butterflies.
(I think...) A female brown-throated sunbird
Fuzzy purple plant
Pink dragonfly!

After exploring the abandoned building as well as we could without breaking any laws, we moved on to the Wallace Education Centre. The Centre is an old cowshed that was converted to an educational facility when the nature park was opened. It had lots of info about Wallace himself, but more importantly, it had giant replicas of cows!
Yay cows! Made us Midwestern kids feel right at home. Also, the cow is kind of an honorary mascot of my alma mater.

When we walked outside, we saw a bunch of people standing around, staring into the bushes. We went over to see what they were looking at and saw...holy crap!!! A lizard eating another lizard!! It was pretty creepy- the little one struggled for a few minutes before finally being conquered, then the big lizard just gulped the little one down in a few huge gulps until all that was left was a tail sticking out of his mouth. Ick.
Ahhhh! Weird! The big one is a young water monitor and the unfortunate little one is a changeable lizard.

Once we'd been thoroughly eked out by the reptile predation, we moved on. We decided to go ahead and make the hike over to Bukit Timah by taking the Dairy Farm Loop to the North View Path, then the Rengas Path to the Main Road. As we walked along Dairy Farm Loop, we got another bonus. Another abandoned building! This one looked like it had probably served as a bathroom at one point, but had long since been left behind. It's not every day you get to see two abandoned buildings, especially in endlessly progressing Singapore!
Lots of moss and a little graffiti give it character

Inside the little building we saw lots of rogue vegetation, loads of bugs, and one cute little lizard. I think it was a flying dragon, but it seemed like an unusual place for one. Usually we only see them on tree trunks.
Flying dragon hiding out

As we went along the trail turned into mostly steps, going up up, and up some more. We hadn't realized that the trails that we chose would involve so much climbing, but it made sense considering their proximity to the Bukit Timah summit (the highest point in Singapore). We trudged onward and were rewarded a few times for our efforts.
Fat green larva
Archduke butterfly, identified with the help of Butterfly Circle

Once we finally huffed and puffed up all the stairs and made it to the Main Road, we started going down again. When we got to the bottom of the steep hill, we decided to just keep walking and go across the street to get something refreshing to drink. But on our way out we ran into the Hindhede monkeys, hanging out outside of the Mont Timah condos. We stopped and watched them for awhile, romping and playing in the trees. We were especially entertained by Kurt (one of the big males) who chased Keira (one of the adult females) all over the place. He was trying to mate with her, but was unsuccessful, because she kept running away. Finally he gave up and stubbornly ignored her while she fear-grinned and lip-smacked in the tree next to him.
Keira and Kurt, sitting in a tree...

So we ended our day on a high note by hanging out with the monkeys. If you're looking for something new to do in Singapore, go check out Dairy Farm (but maybe wait a week or two until the quarry is open). It was nice to see a different place, and to hang out at an uncrowded nature park. The hike over to Bukit Timah was fun too - just make a day of it!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Home Sweet Home

Some of you may have noticed that the blog has been a bit stagnant over the past couple of months. My apologies for the irregularity of the posts - Bryan and I both traveled to the US separately, first Bryan for two weeks in June, then me for three weeks in July and August. The traveling has meant that we haven't had much time for adventuring together, and Bryan wasn't around to take photos, then I wasn't around to write. Anyway, we're both back now and we have something big planned for next month, so I'll try to start posting regularly again.

Since we haven't been doing much in Southeast Asia, I thought it might be interesting to share a bit of what it's like for Bryan and me when we go back to the US. Bryan's family lives in Montana, land of big sky, massive mountains, and abundant wildlife. I love visiting there with him, but I haven't been back since we moved to Singapore two years ago. When he was back in June he had a chance to go camping with some buddies, and he took some pretty amazing photos.
Outrageously gorgeous rainbow near Ronan, Montana
Twin Lakes, Montana
A pretty western tanager, in Montana
An American-sized portion of one of the things we miss most- Mexican food!

As you can probably tell, Montana is truly a beautiful, wild place. I love it there and I'm excited to move back to the US so that it will be easier for me to visit there with Bryan from time to time. It's pretty great that we get to go there to see his family, with the added bonus of all the amazing nature.

Usually when I go back to the US, I just head straight for Ohio, where my family lives, but this time was a little different. I had to attend a conference in Washington DC for a week before heading home. It was interesting to be plopped down in the patriotic capital of America after so long overseas. I always feel a surge of love for the US when I go back - sure, it has its problems (loads, actually), but it will always be my home. I suppose that's why, when the TSA agent stamped my passport and said "Welcome home," I got a little teary-eyed.

My mom was super awesome and took the Amtrak down from Ohio to hang out with me in DC for the week. She also brought a family friend of ours, and we spent the evenings sightseeing, enjoying DC's food, and taking in Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center. It was pretty great.
The White House, complete with snipers on the roof!
Capitol Building...pardon the photography, I took this from a moving vehicle
Honest Abe
Washington Monument at night

When our time in DC was up, I took the Amtrak with my mom and her friend back to Ohio to see the rest of my family. The taxi ride to the train station was the first time my mom and her friend had ever been in a taxi!
Union Station, where our train departed
The ride was scenic and included lots of abandoned buildings  like this one.

We got to Ohio in the middle of the night. It was nice to be back without suffering from extreme jet lag like I usually am. I spent the next two weeks hanging out with family and friends, eating at my favorite restaurants (El Rincon, Pizza Oven, Bombay Sitar, on and on), enjoying my mom's home-cooking, splashing around with my niece and nephew at Wildwater Kingdom, and just generally basking in the joy of a hot American summer (hot by American standards, anyway...nothing compared to S'pore).

I also happened to be home for the biggest week of the year in my hometown of Canton: the Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Festival. This meant that I got to join in some of the festivities, including watching the Timken Grand Parade with my niece and my brother, who thoroughly enjoyed making fun of me as I failed to recognize any of the famous football players parading by us (he almost fell out of his chair when I mistook Emmitt Smith for a lucky employee who was chosen to ride on a float).
A float modeled after a bridge in Canton
As my niece informed me with ear-piercing shrieks,

That's Emmitt Smith in the bowl of candy. I didn't get a good photo b/c
I thought he was just a guy who worked for Hershey's!
Pigskin, super-cute mascot
of the Stark County Visitors' Bureau

I also took advantage of my time in Ohio to stock up on some of the things that we really miss in Singapore. Some of the things we bring back because they aren't available at all in S'pore, and others we bring because they're available in the US at a fraction of the cost. A sampling of what was in my suitcase on my flight back:
  • Smart Start cereal (Singapore ~ $8 USD a box, US about $4 USD a box)
  • Kraft mac and cheese spirals
  • An assortment of nuts from Ben Heggy's, because they're insanely delicious
  • Old-fashioned black licorice for Bryan
  • Big containers of Italian spices
  • A huge bottle of Tabasco sauce (cheaper in the US)
  • Salsa, anything but Tostito's
  • Grape jelly. Seriously, S'pore has EVERY KIND of jelly (black currant, coconut, strawberry, blackberry, etc.) EXCEPT grape.
  • Ziploc steamer bags
  • Almond butter (also from Heggy's)
  • Cans of refried beans
  • Used books- Bryan and I like to have a stock of non-library books for traveling, and used bookstores in the US are much more abundant and much cheaper than in S'pore
Bryan and I are moving back to the US next summer, and we can't WAIT to have all of these things and more available to us all the time. But for now, we'll enjoy all the food I squirreled away in my suitcase, and look forward to stocking up again at Christmas!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Bintan Day Three: Under the Sea

Sunday was our last day in Bintan, but we had all day before we had to catch the ferry, and we planned to make the most of it. The hotel had really filled up during the day on Saturday, so there were more people and a much more impressive breakfast spread on Sunday morning. I was excited- they had gado gado! My favorite!
On the left: my gado gado, fried bananas, and coffee. On the right: Bryan's kway teow

We had plans for the afternoon, but we had time to kill after our hearty breakfast, so we continued with our relaxation weekend. Bryan took another bath and I headed back out to the beach with my book.
Silly palm tree down the beach from my relaxing spot

After hanging out for a few hours, we ate a light lunch, checked out of our hotel, and kicked back to wait for the shuttle that would take us the short ride over to the Bintan Agro Beach Resort to meet up with a boat to take us snorkeling. While we sat in the lobby and waited on the shuttle, we noticed this creepy homage to Singapore.
Demon or merlion?

Over at the Agro Beach Resort, we got all set to go snorkeling and then hung out on the beach and watched the windsurfers while we waited for our boat to be ready. I guess Bintan is a popular windsurfing spot, especially for weekenders from Singapore. We had fun watching the more skilled guys do flips and turns, while the less experienced people wiped out over and over again.
One of the good windsurfers

Eventually our boat was ready...or so we thought. We all piled on to a big, covered boat, only to be told to move over to another small, uncovered fishing boat. Bryan and I had brought a backpack with his camera in it, which we wouldn't have done in an uncovered boat, so we were a little miffed by the switch. Once in the boat, we whizzed off at a breakneck speed. I was clinging on to the side of the boat and clutching Bryan for dear life, while he held on to me and the backpack. It was one of those moments when you question whether you've made a good decision by going along with this nonsense. The water was choppy and the front of the boat was going waaaaaaaay up in the air, then slamming down, bouncing us all in our seats. There were five other people on the trip with us, and the three young Singaporean girls at the front of the boat were screaming their heads off. I figured they were small enough to go overboard first, so I decided that as long as they didn't go launching off the side, I'd survive. After a few minutes the water got less choppy and I slackened my death grip on the boat.
Our boat...not exactly engineered for choppy open seas

Pretty soon we stopped and hopped off the boat to snorkel. The reef was in pretty good shape, and we saw lots of neat stuff. The biggest clown fish I've ever seen were lurking in their anemones, then darting out to threaten us away. There were angelfish, boxfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish, colorful giant clams, sea urchins, long waving sea grasses, and more. We always have fun snorkeling around holding hands, and pointing out fun stuff to each other. Too bad we can't share what we saw! We need an underwater camera!

After about an hour, we all clambered back into the boat, which sped off to the nearby White Sands Island. The island was gorgeous and we had fun roaming around and sipping cold drinks provided by what appeared to be the island's only inhabitant.
White Sands Island
Beach cabanas and a little food place where we got warm cans of soda : )
Pretty as a postcard
Happy beach bums

There was a cute little dog tearing up and down the beach, barking at the waves, and doing his best to get some attention. What a nice life for a dog, hangin' out on the beach everyday!
Beach dog, livin' the good life

We also found some neat shells, and a surprising abundance of really big grasshoppers.
This picture of a conch shell looks like an optical illusion!!
And this grasshopper looks like some sort of alien life form...

After about an hour of kicking back on the island, we were beckoned back into what I had come to think of as the Death Ride, our little boat. The ride back wasn't as bad though, as the water had calmed down considerably. I mean, I still hung on for dear life, but I only screamed two or three times.

Back on shore, Bryan and I were hungry. We'd really liked the Sun Moon Restaurant the night before, so we headed back there. We ate a quick meal of rice, black pepper mock chicken (me), and ginger chicken (Bryan). Everything was delicious, especially after having worked up such an appetite. Also, the service was great, which is always a nice change of pace from S'pore, where customer service is typically seriously lacking.
Dinner with a view!
Happy Bryan with a full stomach

After dinner we killed some time playing Citadels in the lounge while we waited for the shuttle to take us to the ferry terminal in the north part of the island. The shuttle ride was kind of nice- it was neat to be able to see some of the sights that we'd missed as we'd come to the resort in the dark.
Cozy beach cabanas we saw from the shuttle

When we got there, the ferry terminal was packed and a little chaotic and I found myself getting grumpy with the Singaporean mentality of being pushy to be first (so widespread it even has a name- kiasu). The ferry ride was smooth and uneventful, but when we returned to the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal at around 11 PM, we had the worst part of our weekend- there were no taxis there to pick anyone up, the one bus only came every half an hour and was swamped when it finally got there, and even calling to request a taxi was futile, as no one would answer our request. Getting home was a serious trial. After calling taxi services repeatedly for an hour, we finally got on the second bus that came around, got off at an MRT station and took a taxi from there. So, my advice for planning a trip to Bintan is definitely to prebook a taxi for when your ferry gets back. You'll be glad you did!

Other than our trouble getting home once we were back in Singapore, we had a great, very relaxing weekend. I recommend checking out Bintan if you have the time, and if you're wary of the big resorts in the north, I do suggest our hotel, the Cabana Beach Resort- it was quiet and calm, with a nice view. Maybe we'll go back sometime!

Congratulations to Bing, the very deserving winner of the Lifestyle Category of the Singapore Blog Awards! And kudos to all the other winners. Bryan and I had a great time as nominees, and maybe we'll try again next year!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bintan Day Two: Rain and Shine

We were both surprised to learn that Bintan is an hour behind Singapore. So, on our first day there I rose at 8 AM local time, feeling refreshed. Apparently the time difference hadn't affected Bryan the same way, and he slumbered on. I went out on the balcony to get my bearings a bit- we hadn't been able to see much the night before. Unfortunately, it was still raining, BUT that was OK because we had a fantastic view.
Rainy view

The tide had gone out during the night, so now we had beach under our balcony instead of water. I put my feet up and relished the sea breeze while I read The Time Machine and waited for Bryan to wake up. By the time he finally crawled out of bed, I was dying for some breakfast, and so we hustled down to the dining room. There was a spread of food, but the food wasn't great. We ate enough to hold us over until lunch, then grabbed a pair of umbrellas and went to explore.
Pretty breakfast spot

The resort grounds were pretty small, which I like- those mega resorts can be a little overwhelming to me. The beach was pretty much deserted due to the light rain, but it looked like a great place to hang out in better weather. Out in the water was an old building on stilts. During low tide, you could walk to it over the sand, but when the tide was in, you'd have to wade through the water out to it. Can you imagine living in a house you had to wade to?!
Quite a house!

The grounds also had a small pond that was surrounded by lovely flowers. One type appeared to be blooming in a rainbow- purple and pink on the outer edges, orange and yellow on the inside.
Rainbow flowers. The one on left looks like the center is full of butterflies!

Across the street from our place was another resort with an imposing entrance. We never saw another person at that resort while we were there- perhaps it was closed?
None shall pass!

We continued our walk down the street outside the resort. It had stopped raining, so the weather was quite pleasant. The view of the South China sea was nice too, and aside from the occasional speeding motorbike, we had it all to ourselves.
South China Sea
Serious Bryan

We saw some rotting old things that looked like they used to be used for launching boats. I liked them because they looked abandoned!
A little rickety

We also found a cute little abandoned building. Hooray!
Bite-size abandoned building

We walked to a small village that was built mostly on stilts out on the water. It was really neat, but it didn't look like they were used to seeing tourists. We tried to buy some Cokes off of a small store, and there was much giggling at our question, then someone had to go find a little boy who spoke English. We've found this is often the case in Southeast Asia- only the youngest one in the family speaks English. I guess it's a sign of the changing times. Anyway, the kid couldn't find us any Cokes but he talked us into Pocari Sweat. I think he has a future as a salesman. We admired the village a bit but didn't venture in as it felt a little intrusive for us to be poking around.
Bintan village
In the village, a boat taking "abandoned" to a new level

We also made good friends with a stray cat. I know, I know, I really ought to stop touching random animals.
Love the tongue sticking out

After our walk we went back to our room to get ready for the day. Bryan was excited about our bathtub (we don't have one in our apartment) and now that the rain had cleared up, I was ready for the beach.
Our cozy room
Great view from our balcony

I had a great time reading on the beach and drinking Bintang. I later realized that I was a super-nerd for getting a tan line of the outline my book. Dorktastic.
Awesome way to spend an afternoon!

After a lengthy bath, Bryan finally joined me. He took pictures while I snorkeled around the rocks. There wasn't a ton to see in the shallow water, but I did find a couple crabs, some brave little fish that were totally unafraid of me, and some cool shells. Up on the rocks, Bryan found a pretty freaky spider!
Funky crab
Creepy crawlie
Underwater explorer

I took the camera out into the water a ways. The rocks were really neat out there, and I could get a good view of our hotel.
Crystal clear water
Cabana Beach Resort from the water

Waterlogged, I decided it was probably time for lunch, so we grabbed some noodles at the hotel (we didn't find any other restaurants when we went exploring) before going on another walk. We'd seen a little path off the road earlier, but about 10 feet down it we discovered that it was completely mosquito-ridden. We went back equipped with long pants and insect repellant. I don't know what the path was intended for, but we had fun exploring. We saw some pretty birds, insects, and plants.
Huge pitcher plant!
Check out those transparent dragonfly wings!
Pretty bird...anyone know what it is?!
Fuzzy leaf

The path eventually deteriorated into weeds, so we turned around and went back. We kept hearing rustling in the weeds, but the only thing we found was a shy little skink. It was a nice walk down the path, but it was pretty buggy, so it was nice to get back out onto the road where there was more of a breeze to keep the mosquitoes away. As a bonus, we spotted monkeys back in the trees next to the road! They were surprisingly timid and kept their distance. We enjoyed watching them effortlessly navigate up and down the branch-less palm tree trunks. One of them was perched atop a palm tree trunk, and he just looked so peaceful up there.
Chillin' thirty feet in the air

We returned from our walk mosquito-bitten and hungry. We decided to take a free shuttle from the Cabana Beach Resort to its bigger sister resort, the Bintan Agro Beach Resort. The bigger resort has a couple restaurants, and we chose the Sun Moon, which is situated out on the water. It was a lovely view, and I was super excited that they had one of my favorite Indonesian dishes on the menu: gado gado! Gado gado is a salad dish with tofu, potatoes, noodles, sprouts, lettuce, and more delicious stuff. Bryan was also happy with his black pepper chicken. Plus I had a banana milkshake- Indonesia always has amazing banana milkshakes!! The atmosphere was great too - we sat outside and watched the sun set.
Bryan at the entrance to the walkway to the Sun Moon Restaurant
Partially sunken boat along the walkway to the restaurant
Lovely sunset from the restaurant

After dinner we headed back to our place for a quiet night of playing some more Citadels and hanging out on our scenic balcony.