Singapore stopover

The last country we visited on our 2012 five month world tour was Singapore (5-9 December). Singapore makes an excellent stopover for anyone heading in or out of Australia: not only is Changi the best airport I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting, Singapore has just enough great attractions for you to comfortably see in about four days. We spent a few days in Singapore on our way out of Australia in 2010 and were keen to come back on the return journey. Visiting at the start and end made Singapore feel like neat bookends to the stories of our 2.5 years away from home.

ArtScience Museum

Accommodation

The budget traveller will find accommodation frightfully expensive in Singapore. Anything under SGD$150 is likely to land you in a dodgy budget hotel and the decent ones only start at around SGD$200. There are quite a few hostels with funky modern interiors which look nice and are cheaper than hotels but they seem to specialise in enormous dorms of 20+ beds (our personal limit is 6).

My current favourite source of accommodation, Airbnb, provided us with the perfect solution for Singapore. Sarah’s apartment is located right above the Chinatown MRT stop and has three rooms available to travellers. The facilities are excellent, the price is reasonable and Sarah is a very accommodating host. And check out the view!

Chinatown

Top 10 things to do in Singapore

  1. Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. If you want to get there by public transport take the MRT to a nearby station then a bus. When you exit the MRT touts will try to get you to take one of their private minivans, but you’ll save money (and feel triumphant) if you can find the local bus.
  2. Singapore Botanic Gardens. Free to visit (except for the orchid section) and a beautiful place to spend some time over a picnic lunch or with a good book.
  3. Chinese and Japanese Gardens. These two themed gardens are right next to each other and also very nice to explore, although they are a bit more exposed than the Botanic Gardens so try to avoid them at the hottest part of the day. You can also visit The Live Turtle and Tortoise Museum in the of the Chinese Gardens.
  4. ArtScience Museum. An excellent new museum that features an interesting program of exhibitions fusing elements of art, science and design. While you’re in the area you can also walk across the distinctive Helix Bridge which offers excellent views of the museum as well as the famous Marina Bay Sands building.
  5. Marina Bay Sands SkyPark Observation Deck. The view from the top of this famous building is impressive but pricey at SGD$20 per person. I felt it was only worth doing if the weather was really nice, which unfortunately it wasn’t when we were there. Visit the website for info about ArtScience Museum combo tickets and the free guided tours available.
  6. Vivo City. Singapore has many mega malls but Vivo City is the biggest. You could happily while away an afternoon here if you need some relief from the heat.
  7. Sentosa Island. From Vivo City you can take the to Sentosa Island. It features a whole host of attractions but you don’t have to spend a lot of money if you don’t want to. There’s plenty to see just wandering around and it also has the closest thing Singapore has to a beach (well, it is a beach, but it’s man-made).
  8. Little India. Take a stroll around the streets to witness lots of local character with colourful sights and sounds. You can also visit Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple and the big 24 hour Mustafa shopping centre.
  9. Cycling tour. Bike Mike told us about the tours he was planning to start in Singapore when we met in him in Copenhagen earlier this year. Unfortunately the tours hadn’t started by the time we got to Singapore but they seem to be running now. The price is rather steep but I think it would be a great way to see the city, and Mike is quite a character.
  10. Clarke Quay. Worth a wander in the evening for some people-watching and night photography, but avoid the multitude of bars and restaurants which are touristy and expensive.

ArtScience Museum

Good eats

Singapore is more expensive than Malaysia but food can still cheap by most European, and certainly Australian, standards. For the most authentic experience immerse yourself in its hawker-style food courts.

  • The one at the base of the People’s Park Centre in Chinatown was the cheapest and least busy one we visited (make sure you go inside the sheltered area, not just around the outside which can get quite crowded).
  • There’s a popular one near Bugis which gets pretty packed (be prepared to swoop on and defend a seat) but if you don’t mind the crowd the food is good and the stalls offer a little bit of everything.
  • Lau Pa Sat is nice but costs a little bit more than the two above.
  • The food court at Newton Circus is well known but quite touristy and touty as a result.

Make sure you try chicken rice, any combination of pork and/or duck meat with rice (my favourite ♥), char kway teow and a good laksa.

Also, Ananda Bhavan in Little India (I believe they have other locations too) is a superb vegetarian restaurant where you can sample south Indian cuisine as well as the more well-known northern dishes. Try going there for a hearty Indian breakfast that will keep you going for most of the day!

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Little India

[more photos 2010 / more photos 2012]

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A week in Sri Lanka

The main reason we went to Sri Lanka (28 Nov – 5 Dec) was to visit Alex’s cousin Matt and his family. It was great to see Matt again and wonderful to meet his wife and absolutely adorable son. Then as luck would have it we also got to meet their brand new daughter who arrived three weeks early! We spent most of our time in the country relaxing and hanging out at Matt’s place in Colombo but we also did some sightseeing around town and spent a few days down south to see more of the country.

Statue and carving at Gangaramaya Temple

Things to do in Colombo

  • Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. Entry is 125 rupees, shoes off, and your knees and shoulders needs to be covered to enter but it’s a fascinating place to visit. It’s a fully functioning temple with people at prayer but the sprawling complex feels more like a museum, chock full of random items that have been donated including statues, ivory, old cars, piles of coins and rusted locks, old bank notes, old radios, old printing presses… even a live baby elephant.
  • Simamalaka shrine. Also part of the Gangaramaya complex but situated nearby on an island in Beira Lake. It’s particularly picturesque lit up at night.
  • Viharamahadevi Park. We didn’t get a chance to visit this park but Matt recommended it and it’s near the temple and shrine mentioned above.
  • The park is also just north of the National Museum, National Museum of Natural History and National Art Gallery. We didn’t make it to these either but the National Museum is supposed to be very good and I believe the National Art Gallery is free.
  • Barefoot. A big, lovely shop full of great gift ideas including tea, clothes, books, beauty products, homewares and handmade linen toys. They also have a nice cafe out the back.
  • Gallery Cafe. A beautiful restaurant housed in the former offices of the late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. You walk through a small gallery to reach the main restaurant area and a nice gift shop is attached as well.
  • Geoffrey Bawa’s Colombo residence itself is also open to the public and available for tours. I’m afraid this is another lovely thing that we didn’t get around to doing in Colombo but you shouldn’t miss out if you’re there!
  • Go for a walk along Galle Face Green. It’s lined with old cannons, food stalls and locals taking a stroll along this seaside promenade.
  • Galle Face Hotel. Even if you’re not staying at this illustrious establishment at the southern end of Galle Face Green you can visit the very pleasant outdoor bar out the back by the water for a drink. It’s an oasis of calm and has received praise from endless famous international visitors… but at the same time it’s a little bit unreal. You won’t find any locals here.

Food stalls on Galle Face Green

Hikkaduwa

On Matt’s suggestion we took a couple of days off to visit Hikkaduwa in the south. We stayed at Hikkaduwa Nature Resort which is tucked away in a mangrove swamp on the edge of a lake and very peaceful. It’s a great place just to sit and do nothing but read, drink from king coconuts and watch monitor lizards swim by.

We stayed in one of the three water bungalows. The staff went out of their way to make sure we had a good time but there were a couple of aspects about the room pricing that were not quite right. When we booked the options were for BB, HB or FB (bed & breakfast, half or full board) and my advice would be just to book BB. It’s significantly more expensive to book additional board and you end up choosing the included meals from a menu that plainly shows it would have been cheaper just to buy them. Also, they recently added air conditioning to the biggest bungalow but it’s noisy, you can’t control the temperature and you can’t really use it at night because it shorts out the site’s power supply, so it’s not worth paying extra for (request one of the two smaller bungalows).

There’s a beach a short tuktuk ride away that looked like it would have been a wonderful place to snorkel, but it’s a bit difficult to relax with a stream of people coming up to you trying to sell clothes or an overpriced boat trip or invite you to a nightclub.

Hikkaduwa is couple of hours by train from Colombo (the ride being a fun experience in itself!) and if you have the time while you’re down there you could also visit Galle which is nearby.

Hikkaduwa Nature Resort

A few pieces of advice

It’s a familiar story: the tuktuks have fare meters but not all drivers like to use them. Before you get in, point to the meter and ask “meter?” If the driver is going to use it they’ll just switch it on straight away without a word and you can hop right in. If they start saying anything else you’re not going to be able to convince them to use it – you’ll either have to negotiate a fare or find another tuktuk (of which there are plenty).

To get to and from the airport it’s much better to book a private taxi transfer through an official company. The prices are set depending on what part of Colombo you’re travelling to but vary between different companies.

Exchange your rupees before leaving the country as few currency exchanges will touch them outside of Sri Lanka. Your last chance to do this is at the airport before you proceed to the check-in area (there are several options). If you think you may want to buy anything at the shops and eateries after this point, exchange your rupees for US dollars which are accepted by the airport shops and easily exchanged anywhere in the world. (The only place we’ve come across that will exchange SL rupees outside of SL so far is the Low Cost Carrier Terminal in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.)

Tuktuk ride, Colombo

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Malaysia: food, glorious food

Next up after Japan came Malaysia (19-27 November). This started off in planning as a stop over on the way from Japan to Sri Lanka, where we would be visiting Alex’s cousin and his family. But the more we read about Malaysia the longer we wanted to spend there, and in the end we spent more time on the Malaysian “stop over” than we did at the Sri Lankan destination!

Petronas Twin Towers

Kuala Lumpur

We started our 9 day visit to Malaysia with 3 days in KL. We stayed at BackHome, a hostel with a very cool and modern interior design. We booked a private double room with aircon and it was spacious, comfortable and incredibly cheap. They have a partner cafe next door called LOKL Coffee which has a similar interior style and some pretty tasty food on offer, and you get a 10% discount if you’re staying at the hostel.

Most of what I read about KL wrote it off as a shopping destination, and while we did spend a reasonable amount of time in malls recovering from the oppressive humidity outside there are other things to do in KL apart from shop:

  • Malaysia Heritage walking tour. If we’d been a bit more organised we would have arranged to go on this tour but it requires booking in advance by at least one day. It sounds like a great overview of the city but make sure you take plenty of water!
  • Kuala Lumpur Bird Park. “The world’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary” is a great place to spend half a day and put your camera’s fancy zoom lens through its paces. Don’t miss the highly entertaining bird show!
  • Petronas Twin Towers. One of KL’s iconic landmarks. We didn’t go up to the viewpoint (pricey) but there’s quite a good mall at the base with a Kinokuniya and a cinema showing the latest blockbusters (and some Asian films) for 14 ringgit a ticket (~AU$4).
  • Berjaya Times Square. Another huge shopping mall – so big that it contains an indoor theme park complete with roller coasters! Incidentally, this is also a great place to get a bargain haircut (around 40 ringgit – less than AU$13), no appointment necessary.

Flamingos, KL Bird Park

Kuala Lumpur eats

You have to try a little harder in KL to hunt down tasty cheap eats than you do in Penang. Our top three spots would be:

  1. Kak Som, Kampung Baru. Kampung Baru is apparently one of the last remaining Malay pockets left in KL. It’s quite central so it’s incredibly valuable real estate but the original occupants don’t want to sell out. Visit Kak Som and order nasi kerabu (blue rice), then pick and choose your own toppings such as fried chicken and fish. Depending on what you add you can feed two people (two mains and two juices) for less than 20 ringgit (~AU$6).
  2. Soong Kee’s Beef Ball Noodles. A quick and tasty meal for 5-6 ringgit per person (less than AU$2).
  3. Little India.  You can get some tasty thosai, roti canai or any other number of Indian dishes in KL’s Little India. There are also some Chinese-style hawker stalls nearby on Jalan Thambipillay.

In Little India

Penang

When I was researching how much time to spend in Penang the results consistently replied, “Well, how many meals do you want to eat?” Since one of our greatest travel joys is enjoying local food, reading about the food haven that is Penang was terribly exciting. And it did not disappoint!

Food is definitely the number one reason to visit Penang but there are also lots of interesting things to see while you’re digesting in between meals:

  • George Town. The core of Penang’s capital is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s filled with historic buildings such as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (otherwise known as The Blue Mansion) and Chinese clanhouses such as Khoo Kongsi. Along the water’s edge some are the famous Clan Jetties.
  • Penang Hill. Ride the funicular railway to the top on a clear day for a panoramic view of George Town.
  • Kek Lok Si temple (white pagoda) and Wat Chayamangkalaram temple (reclining Buddha). Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit either of these temples but if you do they look spectacular.
  • Batu Ferringhi. Hit the beach across the road from the Hydro Hotel (less touristy) during the day and central BF in the evening to soak up the atmosphere of the night market. On the opposite side of the road from the market there’s a plethora of cheap massage parlours – we enjoyed (powerful!) 60 minute massages for 50 ringgit each (less than AU$16).
  • Teluk Bahang National Park. Entry is free but you need to register how far you intend to trek before you go in. You’ll probably see monkeys near the entrance and if you’re lucky you might see monitor lizards and turtles inside. The walk does get pretty heavy going after the second bridge though, especially in the heat.

(All of these are easily accessible by public bus but the buses only pass by every 20-30 minutes so it’s not as convenient to pop back and forth all over the place, especially if you’re staying  outside of George Town and need to make all your connections at KOMTAR. As with the Greek islands or Malta, try to avoid doing too much in one day.)

The beach, Batu Ferringhi

Penang eats

Right. Well. First off, head to the tourist information centre to pick up the latest copy of their Food Trail brochure. This lists recommended restaurants and hawkers stalls, but more importantly it lists all the specialty dishes that make Penang famous. We basically used ours as a “to do” list and tried to tick off as many of the dishes listed as we could.

Penang food hunter tips! The dishes are usually not overly big, which is great because it leaves more room to try more dishes. If you’re travelling with a friend or partner, order different dishes and go halves with each other so you get to sample more. When you visit a food court you don’t have to order all your dishes from the one stall – feel free to order as many as you have room for from as many different stalls that tempt you!

You can’t really go wrong with where you eat on Penang, but our three top recommendations are:

  1. Gurney Drive. A huge, super cheap open air hawker’s food court. A great place to tick lots of dishes off your “to eat” list! There are several stalls doing yummy fresh juices too for only ~2 ringgit / AU$0.70.
  2. Line Clear Nasi Kandar, George Town. Nasi kandar is one of Penang’s most famous dishes and Line Clear is one of its most famous restaurants. Join the line and when it’s your turn you can ask for “kari campur” (mixed curry) then choose any meats or veg to be added on top (I recommend the fried chicken). Wash it all down with a refreshing glass of “teh o ais limau” (iced lemon tea without milk).
  3. Seafood restaurant, Teluk Bahang. I’m not even sure what it’s called but you’ll come across it within about a 5 minute walk after leaving the national park. We went there to eat crab. The price depends on the market but when we were there we enjoyed two whole crabs for 26 ringgit each (~AU$8).

Gurney Drive open air food court

Malaysia in a nutshell: cheap, delicious and highly recommended!

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One Lovely Blog Award

Many thanks to Fae of Fae’s Twist & Tango for nominating me for the One Lovely Blog Award! Fae has a fascinatingly international background and is an avid foodie and traveller. Her blog is filled with recipes and photos of delicious dishes from all over the world, and when she’s travelling she also writes about the places she visits with photos and notes about her experiences.

This is the first award I’ve ever received for this blog and I’m very touched!

One Lovely Blog Award

The rules of the award are:

  1. Visit and thank the blogger who nominated you
  2. Acknowledge that blogger on your blog and link back
  3. Share 7 random things about yourself
  4. Nominate 7 blogs and notify them on their blogs
  5. Copy and paste the award on your blog somewhere

7 random things about me:

  1. Ginger and mint are my favourite two flavours.
  2. I believe it’s perfectly acceptable to have just dessert for dinner if you’ve had a really big lunch.
  3. One of my favourite things about travelling in countries I haven’t visited before is browsing their supermarkets.
  4. I’m a little bit afraid of butterflies and moths (although not as much as I used to be).
  5. I played piano and flute for 10 years but it’s been 10 years since then that I touched either one of them.
  6. I would do almost anything to avoid taking a taxi.
  7. I’ve kept a handwritten journal every day since I left Australia on the 20th of July 2010 (it’s currently up to volume 6).

I would like to nominate the following bloggers for this award!

Joy and Eva – I met one half of Joy and Eva while travelling across Siberia on the Trans-Mongolian train and I’ve enjoyed many of this duo’s posts since then, especially the ones that remind me of similar shared experiences.

Jen Maan in Amman – Jen’s blog about living in Jordan after moving there from the US offers a fascinating perspective on life in a completely different country. Her time in Amman has just recently come to an end but her blog continues and I recommend reading back over her previous posts.

Snaps and Blabs – I’m incredibly impressed and inspired by this record of a couple travelling long term around the world with their three children – 645 days so far and counting! Her photos are vibrant and lively and always capture the spirit of the locations that make up this journey of a lifetime.

Have Bag, Will Travel – Andrew is an extensive and avid traveller and I enjoy comparing notes one the places we’ve both been as well as being inspired about the places I haven’t. He’s also been following my humble blog since its beginning which I find very flattering!

Margaret’s Miscellany – Margaret is a freelance journalist but in her personal blog she writes about all the other things she does with her time, especially travel. I particularly like her themed posts where she ties together photos and countries she’s visited with a common thread such as irresistible food or bicycles.

Ms Elena on Traveling – I know Elena has already been nominated for this award in the past but I felt I had to include her in my list because the stories of her absolutely free-spirited, adventurous and completely unpretentious travels are simply a delight to read.

Canadian Hiking Photography – Patrick’s blog showcases his absolutely stunning photography skills with a particular focus on breathtaking landscapes, but also including the kind of portrait shots we all wish someone would take of us because they seem to really capture the essence of the subject’s personality.

To rail pass or not to rail pass – Japan edition

As opposed to a European rail pass, it’s pretty easy to calculate whether a Japan rail pass is going to save you money:

  1. Decide whether you are more likely to spend 1, 2 or 3 weeks in Japan
  2. Plug the trips you plan to take into Hyperdia (make sure Nozomi, Private Railway and Airplane are not ticked under “Search Details”)
  3. Add up the total cost of these routes (note the total cost of each journey is made up of the fare + seat fee)
  4. Compare the grand total with the price of a rail pass for the duration of your stay

(Personally I don’t think it’s worth paying for Green (superior) class as the regular class on Japanese trains is already of a very high standard.)

If it’s a close call it’s probably still worth getting because it makes it easier to take extra day trips and some of the subway lines in major cities (e.g. the Yamanote Line in Tokyo or the Osaka Loop Line) are also covered so you’ll be able to travel on them for free.

(Note that private subway lines are not covered, but you get the bulk of your value from a JR pass by travelling on shinkansen (bullet trains) and local intercity trains.)

We bought JR passes for our recent 3 week visit to Japan and in our case it certainly saved us money:

  • Number of trips taken: 20
  • Average cost of short distance journey (e.g. day trip): ¥390
  • Average cost of long distance journey (e.g. shinkansen/intercity): ¥12,000
  • Total travel value used: ¥88,690
  • Cost of pass: ¥57,700
  • Money saved: ¥30,990 (approx AU$360 or £235)

This is a significant saving, but it’s still a pretty big outlay in the first place. If you want to travel on a tighter budget it might be worth looking into a long distance bus pass as a cheaper alternative. I’ve not travelled this way in Japan myself but we met a couple that were doing it and they said it was comfortable and convenient. They normally took night buses so by the time they woke up they were in their destination, killing the two birds of transport and accommodation with the same stone. (And I don’t know about you, but I certainly sleep more easily on a bus than I do on a plane.)

Tip 1: seat reservations

It’s free to make a seat reservation using a JR pass and you can do it up until minutes before you actually board the train. Sometimes the reserved cars are sold out but if this is the case you can more often than not get a seat in one of the the unreserved cars. However, sometimes the entire train is made up of reserved cars only. If you absolutely must take that train and all the seats are booked out you can try to book “standing only” tickets.

At the end of the day I do think it’s worth the extra effort to make a seat reservation as it just eliminates any uncertainty.

Tip 2: buying a pass while travelling

The biggest rule about a JR pass is that you cannot buy one in Japan. You have to buy a voucher for the pass before you arrive, then you exchange it for the actually pass at any major train station in Japan. This is all good and well if you’re travelling from your home country to Japan and back again, but what if you’ll be on the road for more than 3 months before you hit Japan? (After 3 months a voucher that hasn’t been converted into a pass expires.) We encountered this exact snag on our recent visit.

The good thing is, while you can’t buy a pass in Japan, you don’t have to purchase the voucher in your home country. The official website lists worldwide agencies that you can buy a voucher from, but if you’re having trouble tracking one of these down you could try what we did in South Korea. (This might be less effective for countries that are further away from Japan.)

We were able to request, purchase and collect JR pass vouchers from a desk at the Tourist Information Centre in Seoul (to the right of the main information desk). The only conditions were we had to do so on a week day during normal business hours (the rest of the centre is open longer) and it took 24 hours to turn around. (Also note that this particular desk may be on lunchbreak for an hour at any time between 12:00-14:00.) But apart from that the whole process was very easy, and those passes saw us travel all the way from Shimonoseki in the west up to Sapporo in the north.

Shinkansen