Tuesday, 26 April 2011

More about Singapore - of winding lanes, dolphin hoops and deceiving flowers

Once I got back from Bali and was fully recovered, which by itself took a full day, I got a chance go around Singapore and explore somewhat. My experience of Singapore proper started with Arab street. Sister and her friends took me there for a lovely sit down dinner and I happily gobbled my way through lots of hummus and foul (now the name might be a tad deceptive there but it's actually a pretty tasty dish made with dried fava beans and loads of olive oil!) amid much conversation and merriment. But what really does catch the eye about Arab Street is the funky street art. The brightly painted walls of roadside cafes add a lot of character and much excitement at chancing upon something quirky as you wander through these little winding lanes (I doubt I could find my way around that place again!).

Singapore, by the way, is a foodie's delight. There's all the "stall" food, the food courts serving all sorts of Asian food and lots of lovely little restaurants. My favourite, and I regret not having my camera along as I went to meet a friend for dinner, was Marche's. A swiss eatery, more than the food, or the "pick what you want" from different counters, what I loved was the way the whole place was done up. Under the streets of Singapore, Marche's had recreated Heidi's farm - complete with vegetable and fruit cards piled high with veggies and fruits to a little barn - all in lovely wood and warm hues. The place looks so inviting that even someone stuffed like a Turkey would feel hungry there. In fact, I really do regret not taking more pictures of Singapore, the city.

But well... coming back to my chronological chronicle, after the night spent at Arab Street, I behaved like a good tourist and decided to make my way to Sentosa. So on to the MRT I got and headed straight to Vivo City. Apart from being the mall from where one takes the train to Sentosa, the star attraction for me at Vivo City was the Nat Geo store. I was all but lost in there for a couple of hours and after glumly picking up just one book (weight and cash constraints you see) I had to literally throw myself out of the place. I would have gladly spent the entire day in there browsing through all the photographs, magazines, books and maps they had in there. However, I did have an agenda for the day and so with another longing glance at the store, I left and went up the escalators and got myself on the monorail to Sentosa.

Sentosa looks very impressive from afar but as you draw closer the artificiality of it all starts to seep through. It's not the kind of beauty that I particularly appreciate. I'd prefer nature to do it's own thing, a little wild and unsculpted. Man trying to imitate nature at her own game is, to me, a bit of a losing battle. We are better off building steel and glass skyscrapers or the Taj as monuments to our skills. The imported silver sand beaches are nice to walk on but I much prefered Coronado, an island off the coast of San Diego, for that or even Goa simply because they are natural... the sands there belong there and the little rocky outcrops create delicious pools of water in which to wiggle your toes.

Anyhow, there I was at Sentosa and after a little bit of random ambling around I decided to head to Underwater world. Once again a pretty big disappointment. I was done touring the entire place in half an hour flat. After Monterey bay aquarium, a definite let down. Apart from the size, the thing that really disappointed me here was the lack of any substantial information near any of the displays and the complete lack of respect that visitors seemed to be showing towards the creatures. So out I walked into the sunshine and plonked myself with a cheese sandwich and my book (recently bought at the Nat Geo store) on the beach outside Underwater world to wait for the Dolphin and Fur seal shows.

This was the highlight of going to Sentosa for me. The pink dolphins and the fur seals are absolutely absolutely cute and adorable. Nothing in a picture or a film comes close to how you feel when you see their "smiling" (dolphins) and expressive (fur seals) faces up front. The show however generated mixed feelings in me. To be absolutely honest, I'd never end up seeing any of the animals up close except in a zoo/aquarium. I don't think I have the enthusiasm to go looking for them in their natural habitats. But watching them being made to do tricks to loud rock music with little fish being tossed to them as motivation for our amusement somehow seemed to make a mockery of their existence. It seemed to me that they were being made to earn their keep. Not fair... since humans are the ones merciless destroying their natural habitats in the first place. I'd be far happier to just watch them swim or waddle around at will. The fur seals also seemed to have similar thoughts as one of them completely refused to move and perform his bag of tricks mid-way into the show and needed much massaging and coaxing to get him moving again.

At this point, I got a call from sister's friend saying she was going to the botanical gardens to take some pictures. Since I'd been planning to visit the gardens myself and I was more or less done at Sentosa and in fairly low spirits, off I went. The Botanical Gardens, I am glad to say, was a lovely end to a day that I would have otherwise written off. Rolling hills, soft grasses, lakes tucked away behind huge trees and wonder of wonders... an entire sprawling section devoted to Orchids!!!

Now I should tell you, Orchids are my favourite flowers. I love them for the vibrancy of their colors, especially that vivid blue, and for the delicacy of their structure. They seem so frail and yet they are amongst the hardiest of flowers. And then this article in an issue of the National Geographic gave me even more reason to be fascinated by this highly diverse family of flowers. So imagine my happiness when I saw a signboard that said National Orchid Garden! Oh the sheer joy of it!!! Happy to pay the entry price and glad that I was carrying a spare battery and memory card for my camera, I joyously ran along and dragged friend also along. We clicked and chatted the evening through in, what was for me at least, complete bliss. As the sun set and more photography became impossible, two tired but happy girls headed home with plans to come back for sunrise the next morning. We did amaze ourselves by actually making it there for sunrise the next day and we shot the swans and wooden gazebos covered in creepers in that magic morning light. A hearty breakfast of fresh fruits and coconut water later we crashed and then saw only the Singaporean evening thereafter.

PS: Links in the article lead to the photo albums (except for the nat geo article link). So please do click on them :)


Saturday, 23 April 2011

Bali - Rain, sun, and some temple touring

When I said Bali, a dear friend immediately commented that my trip sounded like I was doing an Eat, Pray, Love number. Well, we (my sister and I) certainly did eat. We went to temples too (though I am not sure we prayed). And unfortunately we found no Xavier Bardems :( .  But I can't say I have any complaints.

Kuta, where we were staying, is the heart of touristy Bali. With a dozen lodges and inns, uncountable eateries, bars and discotheques and unending rows of shops, it caters to all the necessities of a tourist destination. Additionally, Kuta is also home to the Bali bombings (2005) memorial. Beautifully lit at night and smack in the middle of the busy Jalan Legian (the arterial road in Kuta), it draws almost every tourist in the area. It is also the only sombre note in an area that defines the 21st century notion of Fun.

Knowing that we had a little more than 2 days in Bali (technically we were there for 3 but counting arrival and departure we were left with about two and a half days), sister and I had packed in our sightseeing schedule with the things we absolutely wanted to see in those two days. What we didn't account for was the rain and cloudiness which forced us to adapt and change our plans on the 3rd April. With the rains playing spoil sport, we barely caught sight of Mount Batur and its caldera lake. But when we did, it definitely was a sight worth seeing. The next time I go to Bali, I am going to make sure I have enough time to do the midnight hike up Mt. Batur to the crater itself!

One of the reasons I had chosen to combine Bali and Cambodia (Angkor at any rate) was that they are both Hindu cults and there is, even today, an element of Indianization in their cultures and way of life. I figured they would give an interesting perspective on how religions and cultures spread and adapt.

During our stay in Bali, we visited three temples - Gunung Kawi, Goa Gajah and Uluwatu. The first two are smaller temples, the last a major tourist spot. One of the first things we noticed about temples in Bali is that they are very one with their natural setting (Angkor in this respect was more like India). They are not tall, imposing, cloistered spaces meant to intimidate or over awe. Instead they are squat, horizontally spread and with plenty of space for people to gather. At Gunung Kawi and Uluwatu, we could not see the main temple complex till we were very nearly at the doorstep. Another interesting departure from how the temple experience is constructed in India is that there is no priest at the temple officiating over everyday prayers. People of the community to whom the temple belongs may go make offerings and pray in whatever manner pleases them. Priests officiate only at special occasions and ceremonies. Our driver Gusti, at the Gunung Kawi temple, also performed an everyday ceremony for us... the way the locals would. He also took us to his village and while we were too late to see the ceremony at his family temple, the size of the temple offering his mother-in-law was carrying quite stunned us.

Temples in Bali are also highly personal in that each community has its own temple into which outsiders (including other Balinese) are not allowed. Larger temples such as Pura Besakih, Uluwatu and Tanah Lot are temples where all the Balinese pray (outsiders are still not allowed... even if you are Hindu) but the smaller community temples are meant for the community alone. The community gathers there each evening to pray, sing and dance, as Gusti informed us.

How religions adapt to local culture was evident in more than just how the temple is built and the absence of a priest. While in India it would be unacceptable to bring meat near a temple or religious ceremony, we learnt that in Bali, no ceremony is complete without the sacrifice of a pig and that the delicacy/offering for the day is made with the blood of the sacrificed pig! The depictions of gods and of Hindu mythology also varies pretty drastically. Gods in India are clean shaven and well groomed. Not so in Bali. They sport huge handlebar mustaches and elaborate hair-dos. Sis and I did end up having an interesting debate on why the Gods would end up looking so unlike the local people and figured it was probably an attempt to make them look more intimidating.

At Uluwatu we also saw the Kecak dance that is performed every evening for tourists at the temple's amphitheater. The Kecak is interesting in that it is not accompanied by any music but instead by a rhythmic chorus that tends to go on in a monotone. The dance that evening was depicting a part of the Ramayana (The Ramayana is the major epic in Bali and most dances will depict one or the other part of the epic) - from Sita's abduction to Anoman's (Hanuman) burning of Lanka. Based on a traditional village purification ritual, the dance began with the lighting of the lamp and the priest blessing the chorus. The chorus interestingly, is not just the chorus but also forms the set as well as the props for the dance. The high point of the dance was the actual lighting of Lanka for which the entire stage was set ablaze.

But Bali was not just about temples. We spent a good part of our second day on the island at the Nusa Dua beach jet skiing and sunning ourselves - much needed relaxation for the sister and me. About this though, the less said the better ;) I'd suggest anyone who wants to know how it was gets themselves a beach, a deck chair and a nice mocktail :)

Pics                                                                                                                First Impressions

Thursday, 21 April 2011

First Impressions

My first impression of Singapore was that it was quaint (Yes, it was the first impression... though it does continue to last at least in part). The reason for it was perhaps was the drive from Changi airport. Driving entirely through the suburbs, I only saw short buildings masked in part or wholly by trees. Added to the fact that my sister's place seemed to be similar despite being, technically, in the middle of the city.

With wide roads with barely any cars on them and shaded side walks it looked more like a countryside town than a thriving metropolis. I am guessing I also have Mumbai to blame partly for that. I've begun to assume that unless a place is full to the bursting of people, buildings and vehicles, it isn't really a city. And so for that one day, and one day alone (a visit to the Central Business District and to the Malls cured me of most of the "quaintness"), Singapore was pretty and refreshing and a sight for sore eyes!

Pics                                                                                                                    Trotting around

Trotting around

So this year, for my 25th B'day, I decided to treat myself to vacation in the South Eastern part of our continent. For those who did not see on Facebook or twitter (or have forgotten since they have better things to remember), my itinerary looked thus:

On 31st March 2011, the end of the financial year, yours truly clambered onto a flight and flew off to Singapore.

On April Fool's day, I landed in Singapore, was promptly picked up at the airport by my lil sis and then had a very scenic drive to her place. The city-ness of Singapore didn't really sink in on that day... but more about that in a separate post.

On 2nd April, sis and I strapped on some seat belts (I have seen seat belts in more colours than I can remember on this trip) and flew to Bali amidst much questioning on how we could want to spend the day in any way other than watching India win the cricket world cup. We did, incidentally, watch the match at the only sports bar showing cricket at Kuta in Bali.

On 3rd April, amidst wishes stating that all of India was celebrating my birthday, sis and I toodled off to sightsee in Bali. We covered Ubud and the Batur volcano, 2 temples (Gunung Kawi and Goa Gajah) and our driver's village

4th April presented anything but Monday morning blues as we headed to Nusa Dua beach for jet sking and some somnolent sunning. Lunch at Jimbaran beach and then a visit to the Uluwatu temple for the sunset and the Kecak dance completed our travelling for that day. Back in Kuta, we shopped till the shops shut :)

5th April - some last minute shopping later, we clambered back onto our flights and flew right back to Singpore

6th April - yours truly in complete vacation mode slept the day through before heading out at night to Arab street, a street with great food and some funky street art.

On 7th April I finally got on with exploring Singapore on my own and headed to Sentosa. I must admit it was a disappointment. The Doplhin and fur seal shows were cute but I have issues there too (I have a separate post planned for this one... so please wait patiently). The evening ended well as a friend of sister's met me at the botanical gardens and two shutter happy women went clicketty clack! The National Orchid garden was a place of sheer delight since they are my favourite flowers (people can generally take hints... I love flowers and bouquets :P )

So happy was I with the gardens that the two of us woke early on the 8th to catch the sunrise there. Of course, we resembled beached whales for the rest of the day! A quaint, gorgeous Swiss restaurant also resulted in much tummy happiness as I caught up with a college friend for dinner.

9th was the typical lazy weekend with sis and I catching a movie and generally lazing around with my getting completely excited about leaving for Angkor the next day!

On the 10th a bunny rabbit couldn't have been bouncier as I counted the hours to my 11pm flight to KL and then on to Siem Reap in Cambodia for 4 days!!!

11th April - Cambodia impressed me from the first moment! A very smooth visa process later (Bali had  us standing in the queue for half an hour) I reached the hotel and set off within the hour on my explorations. Starting with the first temples in the Angkor region (the Roulos temples), onto Angkor wat and finally the sunset from the highest temple in the region - Phnom Bakheng. (Much much more on Angkor in a separate post again).

Day 2 of Angkor began with sunrise at Angkor wat and breakfast in its serene grounds followed by a visit to the walled city of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. In the evening, I chose to take a break from the temples and visited the National Angkor Museum and rounded off the evening with a traditional dance performance along with dinner at one of the restaurants in Siem Reap.

Day 3, 13th of April, I decided to get out of Siem Reap and went to the farther Banteay Srei, the only temple commissioned by a Brahmin as opposed to a ruler of the Angkor Empire. On my way back I stopped at Pre Rup and the proceeded to see the Floating Villages on the Tonle Sap. Driving back to the hotel, the driver took me to his village to see preparations for the Khmer new year and meet his mother and the evening ended with a traditional New Year dinner at the Hotel.

On my last day in Siem Reap, I decided to spend some time just walking around the town and saying byes to the friends I had made at the hotel. The high point of my return journey was the landing in Phnom Penh. The aerial view of the Mekong Basin and the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap was just gorgeous.

Back in Singapore, I spent 15th and the 16th eating, shopping and generally lazing around. And sooner than I liked, it was time to pack up and come back

This trip has been fulfilling for many reasons. As the first trip that I have planned entirely on my own, it has been quite an experience. I have learnt loads on what to do and what not to. I've also learnt something of the kind of travelling that I would like to do in future. The thing I am really glad about is the places I chose to visit. Not only were they beautiful and relaxing, they also gave me differing perspectives on my own culture (which is another of the things that I plan to write about in subsequent posts).

So, on that note, I do hope everyone who is going to be spammed with links to the posts and pictures and those who are going to stumble upon them, do enjoy reading (and seeing) them.