Friday, 15 April 2011

Twenty-seventh month, secret dining

This month, we have mostly been...

- Bored in Batam. Under duress, I journeyed to Batam on the 40 minute ferry ride from Harbourfront for the annual staff away day. Next time, I think I shall feign illness. Batam is dusty, unkempt and devoid of character. Harris Resort is a giant germ-infested sand pit filled with snivelling children and horrid orange decor. I thanked my lucky stars I only had to stay one night. Unfortunately, I returned to Singapore with a legacy lurgy that I picked up somewhere between the meeting room, the canteen and my bedroom. Rancid.

- Attempting to dance. Paul Kalkbrenner graced Singapore with his presence on a multi-stop world tour to promote the celebrated youth culture flick, Berlin Calling:

Sadly, the Management at Singapore's best club, Zouk, heinously mis-judged the pulling power of a popular film and showcased Paul Kalkbrenner in Velvet Underground. The tiny dancefloor was packed to the rafters. Drinks were spilled everywhere by people trying to return from the bar to their friends. I even lost my bracelet as my trailing arm became sandwiched between three masses thronging in different directions. It was utter clubbing hell. Never to be repeated.

- Shucking our own oysters. Why pay for a whole hotel buffet when you have a craving for freshly shucked oysters? Coming to a home near you... maybe. All you need to do is order your oyster knife online at eBay and wait two weeks for it to arrive. Then, take a long ride with Uncle to Greenwood Avenue, land of rich people in Singapore (you can check out their enormous houses whilst you wait for a taxi back to normal town). Visit the fish market and hand-pick your own. Return home. Try not to stab your hand and end up at Singapore General Hospital before you can say "shallot vinegar". Maybe, next time we'll just go to Culina.

- Dining 'illegally'. It should be of no surprise that Singapore is the latest place to see the sudden appearance of secret supper clubs on the gastronomic scene. For those 'in the know', these intimate dining affairs offer the chance to get to know some friends you hadn't met yet and chow down on some delicious home-cooked (but often restaurant standard) nosh. Seek and ye shall find.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Twenty-sixth month, culture club

Marina Bay Sands - view from the launch of the Singapore Biennale

This month, we have mostly been enjoying the Singapore Biennale...

Although the last show was in 2008, the Singapore Biennale took place this year in 2011. Having heard good reports from the previous shows, we were expecting to see some eye-catching and inspiring installations. The opening kicked off with Tatzu Nishi's enthralling pop-up hotel. Some said that encasing the Merlion's head in a box adorned on the inside with dark gold wallpaper and a blood red carpet was lacking in imagination but then again, offering people the chance to wake up under a giant mouth that would usually be spouting a ton of water was rather playful. It made me smile.

Despite having to use Google Maps to direct turn by turn our taxi driver Uncle to Old Kallang Airport, we were pleased to arrive and be dropped right at the door as it started to spit with rain. Whilst there were far too many video art exhibitions which could not tempt us to linger given the suffocating heat, here are a selection of favourites:

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Mexico - 'Frequency and Volume'

Michael Lee, Singapore - 'Office Orchitect'

Fumio Nanjo, Director of Tokyo's Mori Art Museum was previously Artistic Director of the Singapore Biennale. This time, Matthew Ngui (who was previously a curator) was named as the front man. Sadly, I can't say I was particularly bowled over by the show. With the 'catch all' title, 'Open House', it lacked cohesion, featured too much video art and was missing 'wow' factor. If I was to mark it like a school report, I would say, 'Could do better'.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Asian Adventure 21 :: 22-27 Feb '11 :: Yangon and Bagan

"Grand" Hotel

"Manchester, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Arsenal", said the taxi driver after he had learned my native country. An impressive knowledge of the English premier league teams and strong brand awareness of the BBC seems to sit with many Myanmar citizens.

Near City Hall

Beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda

Dusty roads, uneven pavements with man-sized gaping holes and road barriers covered in barbed wire characterise Myanmar's highways. Colonial buildings stand decaying, their façades covered with black soot and mould. Night falls; limited street lighting makes the pavements even more precarious to the untrained eye. Over-loaded buses, battered and falling to pieces clatter past at speed, weaving in and out of rows of saloon cars from the 1980s. A knee-high child lingers by the side of a busy road, examining something freshly plucked from the floor. No obvious parent is in sight.

Downtown, the streets team with foodstalls and betel nut sellers. Here, you can experience the true smell of Asia - a heady mixture of exhaust fumes, street barbecues, decaying tropical vegetation and the occasional whiff of sewerage.

Street food

Snake head, anyone?

Betel nut stall

Every other block, you'll find a set of home telephones laid out on a table or a make-shift booth. It costs over US$1000 to buy a SIM card in Myanmar. People either rent mobile phones or stand in the street on a home phone hooked up to the local network, which is sketchy at the best of times.

Home phone a friend

The local currency notes are limp and blemished, as if they have been through the washing machine and left out to dry in a muddy puddle. Perversely, US dollars won't be accepted as tender unless they are clean and crisp, as if fresh off the press.

Traditional dress is prevalent and thanaka (a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark) coats the cheeks of many women and children. Whilst heavily controlled - many have had their passports confiscated - people are warm, welcoming and calm. Strange for a country ruled by a military so distant - how many people know that the capital was moved from Yangon in 2005 three hundred kilometres north to Nay Pyi Taw?

Cleaning time at Shwedagon Pagoda

Sunset prayers at Shwedagon Pagoda

Taxis rides are a beltless swerving adventure in a car that doesn't even have a tape deck, only a short wave radio. Forget about the cooling fan, the windows are permanently down. Those with an aversion to hairdryers should not apply. Our last taxi driver of the holiday was high on betel nut, at every traffic light throwing his head back and cackling as he saw the whites of our eyes in his rear view mirror. It was one of those moments when you had to laugh. Nervously.

Travelling up north on Air Bagan is a reprieve from the bustling streets of Yangon. Welcome to the land of horse and cart. A bandana face mask comes in useful for the dust kicked up by your trusty steed and a torch can save you from descending pitch black interior temple staircases. Children pester you for 'bon-bons' (clearly, the French hand out the most sweets) and no major temple is without rows of 'same same but different' souvenirs. That said, the views are simply stunning.

Bagan Skyline

View of the largest temple in Bagan

Rare Double Buddha

In all, Myanmar is a mystery. The expectation that the military would be highly visible and that you might just get locked up for whispering "Aung San Suu Kyi" did not materialise. Yangon is rough, ready and fast decaying. Bagan is peaceful, nostalgic and so far only gently kissed by the plump lips of tourism. What will happen in the next twenty years is uncertain. As political corruption allows infrastructure to crumble and sag, will the Myanmar of today eventually wither and die? Will the rulers simply keep moving to new outposts where they can build shiny new palatial homes leaving behind one urban mess after another?

Check it out:
Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, Yangon
Monsoon (85-87 Thien Byu Road, Yangon)
Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott Market), Yangon

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Twenty-fifth month, blink and you'll miss it

This month, we have mostly been...

- Entertaining at home. Make your own flour tortillas. There's a challenge. Not really, when you have a bored husband turned wannabe baker at home. Hey presto, Mexican Party! Arriba!

- Enjoying. Is having two 'New Year' celebrations greedy?

- Travelling to Tokyo for the Digital Creative Conference. I was very lucky to be invited as a guest to the conference, where I formed a great bond with the legendary Bill Thompson:

Bill enjoying his goblet of wine at Bar Piano in Drunkard's Alley.

I was also very lucky to be able to meet up with my dear friends, Rie, Yusuke and Adam. As usual, Rie took me to the most delectable places to eat both super fresh seafood and 'heroin-grade' beef (highly addictive). Here are the business cards. Like the menus: No English. Perfect.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Asian Adventure 20 :: 3-6 Feb '11 :: Hanoi

Hanoi Rocks. The words, stuck onto a school bag, have stayed with me for the past fifteen years. My trip felt long overdue. Shame then, that we chose to go to Hanoi when our dates coincided with the Tết holiday. So smug had we felt when booking our cheap flights four months previously. So annoyed we felt when we arrived in 'post-apocalyptic Hanoi'.

Renowned for its busy and bustling streets filled with motorbikes and food stalls spilling across each pavement, Hanoi was a ghost town. After leaving our bags at our simple but effective hotel, we wandered the Old Town streets, dodging the odd wire hanging from the mess of cables overhead and marvelling at the anorexic buildings constructed to house several generations under one roof. After an unsuccessful attempt at finding nourishment at one of the few street food stalls (it tasted like crushed beetles wrapped in caterpillar skin), our grumbling bellies were soothed in the ubiquitous noodle chain, pho24.

Skinny living

That evening, we had a rather disappointing meal at Restaurant Bobby Chinn. For a restaurant that prides itself on its 'fusion' menu, this felt more like, 'blended cuisine'. Neither Asian nor Western; neither good nor awful. It was all just somewhere in between - nothing to excite the palate nor particularly to induce vomit. Distinctly average.

Thankfully, we were destined for a relaxing trip around Hạ Long Bay for the remainder of our long weekend, so the next morning we zoomed at breakneck speed to the coast care of the Paloma Cruise minibus. Only one stop was made for the rest and refueling of our driver - at a roadside cafe attached to a huge store selling an odd collection of marble statues and other random trinkets. Shockingly, photographs of people purchasing statues with their full names and email addresses adorned the outside walls. Weird 101.

No word of a lie

Arriving in the Bay, we were greeted on board by a loud blasting of 'Happy New Year' by Abba and a welcome speech given by our dear leader, who had an intriguing approach to the English language. Mostly, "We are so happy" interspersed with details of the cruise itinerary and the history of the poorly timed Tết holiday. We consoled ourselves with a Hanoi 'bia' on top deck with a slight chilly wind on our faces.

View from top deck

Just before dinner was served, we took part in a cooking (read: rolling) class where we assembled spring rolls and watched the chef dunk them in oil. Surprisingly, even the ones made by the stubby fingers of Chinese children onboard with their multi-member families were edible. Note to self: Add spring rolls to foolproof recipe list.

And then came a string of further disappointing meals (was the usual chef on his bloody Tết holiday too?) which were more Thai than Vietnamese, and more oil than substance. We retired early to bed after a short-lived attempt at squid fishing. Believe.

The next morning, we awoke to find ourselves in Vietnam's boat parking lot. Time to ride: off we pootled on our speedboat to clamber into a rowing boat steered by a pitiful lady struggling under the weight of four Western fatties. Trying not to be too distracted by her huffing and puffing, we enjoyed peering into the lives of those who live in the Floating Village. Next up was Sung Sot Cave (a.k.a. 'Amazing Cave'). Let's put it this way: apart from the penis rock, don't be fooled by the nickname. If piped music at a heritage site is your thing, however, please feel free to arrange for an extended visit.

I hope your biceps are strong...

Highlight of the trip to 'Amazing Cave' is 'Penis Rock'.

We exited the Bay in much the same fashion as we had arrived, only this time, our fellow minibus passengers had to ask the driver to conduct the vehicle a little less maniacally. Very amusing. We were rather enjoying the skill with which he demonstrated the signature Vietnamese haphazard weave. Back in Hanoi, we had enough luck to taste some of the dishes we had been craving by simply going to the Elegance Diamond Hotel's restaurant. Finally, cha ca la vong and bun cha were no more strangers and we slurped and munched with delight.

The height of fashion in downtown Hanoi

Overall, we felt like we had been in Hạ Long Bay about ten years too late - long after tourism's grubby fingers had touched everything. And we were just unlucky to coincide with the Tết holiday in Hanoi. Our love for Vietnam is far from over - we are only just beginning.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Twenty-fourth month, time flies

Happiness is cheap in Singapore

Fun fun fun in the sun sun sun = time flying like there's no tomorrow. After two years on this tiny isle, has the UK become a distant memory of a life less ordinary? Has Singapore reached the coveted spot as the place I call 'home'?

If it's possible, this second year has zipped by even more rapidly than the first in a whizz of weddings and weekends away. We managed to escape to Asia no less than six times (albeit half the number of holidays we had in the first year) and back to the UK twice.

So, how has life changed in this second year? Here's a quick round-up:

- Cementing friendships. Much like university days, by the time you get into your second year, you pretty much know who your core group of buddies is and you spend the rest of the year building on those solid foundations. You sort the wheat from the chaff, know who you want to spend holidays with (and those who you definitely don't), know whose calls to return and whose to reject. It may sound tough but there literally aren't enough hours in one's life to waste on people who you just don't like that much. There are seldom enough for those who you'd like to see more of in any event. The key difference between expat life and university life is that you win and lose people along the way. As if someone just dropped out of university, people disappear from Singapore life to pastures new. For many, their photos on Facebook change from tropical beaches to wintery scenes. No more booze cruises, only nights out down the pub. It's always sad to see them go, but the transient nature of Singapore and its non-stop party scene means that you can refill the hole in your friend circle with ease at any time.

- Moving house. As most lettings are two years here, the time on our first home came swiftly to an end. After deliberating over the dire straits of the UK economy and the grim weather back home, we decided that we had not had enough of Asia yet so signed on for another two years in a new flat. Cue spending a month's salary on kitting out an unfurnished place because we wanted the place to feel more like we own it. Ouch.

- Settling in. After extensive research via word-of-mouth recommendations and the interweb, we know where to buy wedding rings (DeRocks: 10 Anson Rd #19-11 Singapore 079903. Contact: 62226818), get jewellery fixed, buy Thai groceries, find an organic farm, plan a fancy dress costume and invest in contemporary Asian art. We have truly mastered the art of avoiding Orchard Road and enjoy sourcing things from esoteric shops in the forgotten malls of Singapore. SHOP. EAT. PARTY. Rinse and repeat.

Stay tuned for more banal observations on life, Asian adventures, and top tips for your successful survival in the badlands of Sin City.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Asian Adventure 19 :: 31 Dec '10 -4 Jan '11 :: Bali

For New Year this year, we decided to go it alone and enter the territory of Eat, Pray, Love. Ubud welcomed us with a deluge - we even had to roll up our trousers just to reach our room. Why oh why did we opt to stay amongst the rice paddies?

8 pm until ALL PASS OUT

As is often customary in centres of tourist exploitation, we were charged a hefty US$75 each for the New Year Dinner & Dance. Not a drop of alcohol was served. The food came at a rate of knots and given the fact that we're just not that in to Balinese 'dance' music, we had retired to our four poster bed to watch films by 10.30 pm. Nice.

Ubud is full to bursting with handicraft shops. Should you be searching for a mosaic plate, wood carving, wind chime or garden furniture, you need look no further. And if your aural senses are heightened by the smooth groove of Ethnic Lounge, then you should seriously consider moving there.

A trip out to Tegallalang (organise it through your hotel) is a must for the quintessential photos of the tiered rice terraces and as long as you are up to date with your rabies injections, you should not fear a stroll through the Monkey Forest.

Just avoid the idiotic people who insist on 'hand-feeding' the monkeys (unless you consider having a monkey jump on your back and bite your face and shoulder in a frenzied attack on the hand-held banana a fun experience).

Cafe Lotus and Indus were other treats along the way before splashing out on a supreme tasting menu at Mozaic. It was a delectable journey, each dish captured by the three diners on the table next to us on their mobile phones. There's nothing like a bunch of food bloggers taking photos from all angles of their own and their companions' dishes to distract from the peaceful enjoyment usually associated with fine dining.

Our driver told us that the last five years had seen a marked increase in traffic in Ubud. Given the sheer number of EPL's (a.k.a. single, white females re-discovering 'life') clinging to local motorcyclists and the more daring ones going it alone, I can only predict that Ubud's roads will become more and more gridlocked. I dare say the number of 'mixed race' babies being born in Bali will no doubt see a spike too.

Ubud is certainly a peaceful alternative to the busy beaches of Seminyak. Of the few large hotels, many are hidden from view down sheltered approaches so a lot of the area still has a village feel. A village selling all manner of homewares imaginable, nonetheless. Shop, Sleep, Sloth.