Friday, 27 January 2012

Don't feed the monkies!

Having spent three days in the city revisiting a few of the sights from our original trip, we decided to go further afield and visit the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in the central part of Singapore.

Although the reserve only makes up 0.2% of Singapore's total area (163 hectares), it is amazingly rich in biodiversity. This precious enclave of primary rainforest has approx. 40% of the nation's flora and fauna - over 500 species of animals and 840 flowering plants. Parts of the reserve were once an active quarrying site in the mid-1900s, and the abandoned quarry has now been developed into the Hindhede Nature Park.

Hindhede Quarry, which is part of the Hindhede Nature Park
Taking the bus from Chinatown all the way up to the Upper Burkit Timah road, it was quite strange to see one of the largest patches of primary rainforest in Singapore in such close proximity to the edge of the city. Apparently, the only other city in the world with a primary rainforest within the city limit is Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. 


Once we were inside the nature reserve it became difficult to imagine that there was a bustling city on the doorstep, however, the reserve is very popular with locals especially joggers and mountain-bikers who can use specially-allocated bike trails. Starting off on the beginner's trail (Route 1), the most challenging part of the walk was the steep incline up to the first hut (Kruing Hut), once we reached this point the journey to the 163m summit was much easier. I wouldn't consider myself unfit but the heat and humidity certainly didn't help! However, as with every other day in Singapore a thunderstorm broke in the early afternoon, which provided a welcome cool-down! Its become quite easy to predict the next down-pour would be, but unfortunately its not so easy to predict how long it would last....

Walking around the main track were heard a loud snapping sound above our heads as a branch came crashing through the tree canopy to on to the floor of the forested area. This put us a little on edge in case of other falling branches.

We saw all sorts of animals throughout the reserve including a monitor lizard feeding at the visitor's centre, both the Slender and Plantain Squirrels, a small snake, the St Andrew's Cross Spider as well as several long-tailied macaques and a terrapin swimming in the Hindhede Quarry. Feeding the animals is strictly prohibited and can earn you a hefty fine, however, this doesn't stop some cheeky macaques from hounding you for food! On a more serious note, if this isn't carefully managed then you start to get problems like we experienced with the Barbary Apes of Gibraltar where they were being fed all kinds of junk food by tourists and the local taxi drivers to the point where the apes became quite aggressive to each other and humans who wanted to enjoy them for what they were.

Long-tailed macaque feeding in the tree canopy

Barbury Apes on the Rock of Gibraltar

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Chinese New Year

Since our arrival to Singapore, there have been various events across the city to mark the build up to the Chinese New Year on 24th January, ranging from the nightly Chinatown street market and the surrounding streets decked with bright and colourful dragon-themed decorations, to a floating venue on the River Hongbao.  Each year is determined by a different animal used in the Chinese zodiac (12 in total) with one of 5 different earthly elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. 2012 is the year of the water dragon. 

Having spent most of our time on Pagoda Street in Chinatown, we decided to venture down to The Float at Marina Bay to experience some of the traditional Chinese festivities, with the stunning Marina Bay skyline as a backdrop. On display throughout were gigantic handcrafted lanterns in the form of dragons and all the other animals of the Chinese zodiac. Venturing back into the heart of Chinatown, we hoped to catch the fireworks display before midnight, however, the streets around Chinatown became impossible to navigate due to the shear number of people out welcoming in the new year. In the end we gave up and went back to our hostel to try and catch a glimpse of the fireworks from our dorm window, which was a bit of a shame as apparently Chinese New Year is the only time of the year when you can see firecrackers being set off in Singapore. However, in typical fashion, out of nowhere came a torrential downpour only minutes from midnight, so in a funny way we were better off missing the fireworks! 

View down Trengganu Street
Pagoda Street at night with the Chinatown Market

Chinese New Year decorations down New Bridge Road

Unsurprisingly the streets around Chinatown the next day were very quiet...

Chinese New Year is celebrated in a number of countries and territories with significant Chinese
populations, such as China (obviously), as well as Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and also in cities which have Chinatowns elsewhere - pictures of  some of the other lunar new year celebrations around the world can be viewed here.

Slung into Singapore

It's been a couple of days into our trip and we're starting to feel a bit more human again now that we're getting some regular sleep and acclimatising to the humidity.

On reflection, my first impressions of Singapore weren't great when we visited five years ago, but I'm definitely having a better time second time round! I put it down to the area where we are staying. On the whole Chinatown feels more welcoming compared to where we stayed on our first trip (which was around Mt. Emily near Little India). On that occasion it felt a little out of the way and there wasn't much of interest within walking distance so we didn't venture much out at night. The better atmosphere might also be down to the fact that we're currently in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebrations and the city has a very different feel.

Having revisited a few of old haunts from the original trip it's astonishing to see how much of the Singapore has changed especially at Marina Bay and on Sentosa Island.

View over Sentosa Island from from Imbiah Lookout from our original trip

The same view but now with a Universal Studios and Hard Rock Hotel resort

Although, Singapore gets a lot of criticism for its lack of cultural heritage, when it does modern developments, it does them well. However, I still think that the place that offers the best views in Singapore is an eyesore where ever you are in the city! The place in question is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, which dominates the skyline in the shape of an enormous ship balanced on top of three towers! Yes - it is as bizarre looking as it sounds!

View from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel Skydeck from 57 storeys

Straying out of my food comfort zone, I've been sampling some of the local delicacies including a dish worth mentioning called Pork Chabu. Although, I can't claim to the biggest eater of spicy foods, the dried chillies in this dish actually brought me to tears and set my mouth on fire! Luckily I had a Tiger beer on hand to wash away the pain, however, the rest of the meal was delicious. In contrast, I had a much more enjoyable (but pricey) experience at the Raffles Hotel sampling the most famous cocktail in Singapore. The Singapore Sling was invented by the bartender Ngiam Tong Boon sometime around 1915, who worked at the legendary Raffles Hotel Long Bar. Although there are lots of variations to the recipe, the cocktail is a concoction of dry gin, Dom Benedictine, Cointreu and cherry brandy, shaken up with lime and pineapple juices with a dash of Angostura Bitters and Grenadine.

Although each drink cost $26 Singapore dollars (not including the government taxes and a service charge) it was well worth it as we couldn't even afford one Singapore Sling first time round...

Friday, 20 January 2012

6800 miles from home

It's been a pretty crazy 30 hours since we embarked on our trip back in Hemel Hempstead (with a few ups and downs along the way) but we've finally made it to the first leg of our trip Down Under - Singapore. The first interesting (or panic-inducing) moment was when we found ourselves locked in the hotel car park at 5am on the morning of our flight. We had to make a special call to security to open the shutters and let us out! 

After a more straightforward run to Heathrow airport and an emotional farewell, we were in the air by 11.15 am for a 12 hour flight in economy class. Sadly no upgrade, unlike my brother Tim who was bumped up to First Class on his first long haul flight to Canada! At least it wasn't doom and gloom as we were well looked after by Singapore Airlines with refreshing hot towels and both me and Lizzie taking full advantage of the complimentary food and drink. It's hard to imagine that we flew out of London on exactly the same day 5 years ago...

On arrival to Changi airport, we picked up our luggage and decided to take the cheaper option and use the MRT to get us to our hostel in Chinatown. This might have been a slightly foolish mistake as the temperature was at least 25 degrees celcius when we arrived at 8 am in the morning (soaring later to 32 degrees). The humidity was also 89% - oh that familiar sticky feeling, how I haven't missed you!

Once we managed to drop our bags off at the hostel, we had to endure a further 5 hours of sleepiness as we couldn't use our beds until 2pm. As we were still in the clothes we wore on the plane (not board shorts and flip-flops but heavy jeans and trainers) this made for a rather uncomfortable day!

We managed to fill our time by exploring Chinatown and heading down to quaysides and Merlion Park to see the country's mascot, a half lion/ half fish sea creature. Walking back to the hostel we were caught in a massive thunderstorm and got thoroughly soaked to round off the afternoon!

Although the dorm room in our hostel smells a bit of sweat, at least we're right on the doorstep of Chinatown for the lunar calendar new year's celebrations...More of those to come over the weekend!