Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lions and Tigers and ... Turkey - Thanksgiving in Singapore

With four days off for Thanksgiving Erin and I decided to see Singapore over the long holiday weekend. Flying out Thursday morning we arrived to our modest hotel that afternoon and were soon out exploring the city. Our first stop was the famous Raffles Hotel and Long Bar where the Singapore Sling cocktail was originally concocted. The hotel and bar exuded a British Colonial style along with a tradition of leaving peanut shells on the floor.

From there we went to a Thanksgiving buffet put on by a brewery/restaurant on the Riverfront area. It was nice to get some turkey and stuffing, but the buffet style and confused service limited our enthusiasm for the place. Maybe finding the perfect Thanksgiving dinner in a former British colony in South-East Asia is asking a bit too much... We finished off the evening with a river cruise that described some of the history of the sites we saw up and down the river. It was nice to get a feel for some of the history of the city while taking in the splendid night skyline.

The next morning we were up early for breakfast out at the zoo. After a long ride on subway and bus we arrived just in time for our breakfast with orangutans. In an open-air dining area we got a typical breakfast buffet while animal handlers brought out orangutans, cockatoos and boa constrictor to join us. We were able to hold the snake and get pictures with the animals before finishing our meal and heading out to the rest of the zoo.

The Singapore zoo is truly one of the best in the world. It's been a while since I've been to the San Diego Zoo, but I would say this one was better. The main reason was because animal enclosures were created in the most natural way possible and even gave direct access to some of the animals. Highlights included a sea lion show where we were close enough to get wet; seeing various types of monkeys get fed; an Australian Outback exhibit where a walabi came up close enough to touch; and an enclosed area with freely-roaming lemurs, deer-mice, parrots, and butterflies. It's only drawback is the long time it takes to get there and back to the city.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we got back so we relaxed some and got cleaned up before going out to dinner at the fancy "Coriander Leaf" hotel back on the Riverfront. While the meal was decent and our server was nervous at times the real treat was the wine-pairing that accompanied each course. The wines were exceptional and almost justified the high price of the meal.

On Saturday we slept in a bit before going out for brunch near Chinatown. PS Cafe on Ann Siang was a wonderful place to sit back, read a paper, and enjoy the amazingly delicious food. It was a great way to start the day. From there we went out to Sentosa Island by way of cable car. While the views from the ride were nice, we met with disappointment once we arrived. The ride we wanted to do was booked for the day, it was hot outside, and everything else looked cheesy. We confirmed this suspicion with two cinema experiences: a hokey, water-in-your-face, bumpy show about pirates and a nausea-inducing, poor-video "log ride".  After sulking in the mall a bit we made our way to the Botanical Gardens.

Erin and I have discovered something paradoxical in our travels. We like to visit and stay in big cities, but once we're there we enjoy seeking out the natural, open spaces of parks, gardens, and wilderness. After walking around the gardens we were feeling much better and even made some friends from Louisiana along the way. The highlight was the National Orchid Gardens with thousands of beautiful orchids in a variety of settings. We would have spent more time in the gardens but we had to get to dinner. After a delicious Italian dinner along the river we were heading back out to the zoo area.

Right next to the zoo is a night safari that many people recommended. With many animals being nocturnal it was a wonderful chance to see them up and about. While not as good as the zoo, the night safari provided plenty of highlights as well including a tram ride where you could potentially reach out and touch several animals; a bat enclosure with bats flying inches from your face; and the chance to see a variety of animals that only come out at night.

After arriving back to our hotel late the night before we were exhausted on Sunday. We had time to get some breakfast and walk around Little India before grabbing our stuff and heading out to the airport. Leaving at 2pm with stops in Bangkok and Hong Kong we didn't get back home until midnight.

Even with only four days I feel like we got to see a good portion of Singapore. We're both fairly sore from all the walking and tired from the hectic pace, but we had a great time and would love to visit Singapore again in the future... how else will we see all the parks and nature reserves that we missed.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Things you learn as you get older

It was my birthday this past weekend and to celebrate Erin and I took the train up to Taipei. We had a great time mainly because of lessons we have learned over the years and would have had an even better time if we had learned some things that we're still working on.

First off are the everyday things that help us get around in the world. As our second year in Taiwan we find things much easier because we've done them before. We've been up to Taipei several times now and so it has become and easy and enjoyable experience to get on the train and escape for the night.

Having tried many different hotels I think we've found one that tops the rest with The Riviera Hotel. Shortly after checking in they called up to confirm it was my birthday and say they had a surprise. Without either of us having contact the hotel they noticed it was my birthday and brought up a chocolate cake. This act, along with the free western-style breakfast and internet, has secured them at the top of our list when we go back.

When we went out that night things got a bit more difficult as we learned that we still need to work on writing down addresses and asking for directions. We tried to get to a wine bar, but couldn't find it and stopped instead for a glass at an Italian restaurant. Later, when we tried to get to our intended dinner restaurant the taxi could only get us to the neighborhood leaving us to walk around in the rain before we could find the place. We had a similar problem directing the taxi back to our hotel when we were finished.

Our dinner turned out to be an interesting event where years of experience finally lent themselves to better judgement. We were having dinner at a place called "Ninja" which was decorated in a feudal Japanese style with women dressed as ninjas. The food was okay (sushi, etc.) and there was a fun little waterfall gate that opened up when you said the secret password "ninja". The most interesting part was when they encouraged us to sit closer to where they were going to have a dance. That was when two women with little clothing started dancing and soon were beckoning some of the patrons to come join them. Knowing better, I declined to join them, but another young man wasn't as wise. At first it seemed to be good fun as the two women were dancing with him up on stage and started to take his clothes off. By the end though they were pouring ice water over his head and ice down his pants. He took it like a sport, but also seemed very red with embarrassment. Live and learn.

After the difficulties of getting around Saturday night, Sunday was a sunny new day.  After breakfast we went down to a store that stocks western-style food and packed for a picnic. We then found a trail up one of the nearby hills. The trail was steep, but we kept at it and before long we were rewarded with a beautiful view of the city while we had our lunch.

We then hiked back down to a nearby mall where they always have a wide variety of entertainment. There were various street performers and even a small half-pipe were they let me ride a bike around. After all the steps and walking on the trail we were glad to sit down for a movie (Tower Heist) and dinner (Gordon Biersch). As we made our way back home we made a key insight to birthdays and celebrations.

I often don't like to put too much emphasis on my birthday because it can lead to unrealistic expectations. Erin loves to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries often spreading the celebrations out over several days. What we came to realize is that this spreading out of celebrations provides more opportunities to meet higher expectations and have a great time.

Of course, the most important lesson I've learned over the years is that events are best celebrated with the people you love. I want to thank everyone for all the nice birthday wishes and especially, Erin, for being a wonderful wife.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bubbles, Bicycles, Forts, and Fashion

Erin and I have been getting a lot of bicycle riding in lately. Two weekends ago we rented bikes and rode along the river. The city makes it fairly easy to rent bikes out of their numerous automated bike stands so we were able to get the bikes near where we live, ride downtown, and leave them at another stand there. While downtown we enjoyed a western-style dinner and walked around an artistic section of the city. It was a good evening to get Erin's mind off of the day-long parent teacher conference she had the day before.

This past weekend we went to Tainan for some more cycling. Tainan is the next largest city North of us about an hour train ride away. It used to be the seat of power when the Dutch ruled and still has many buildings from that era. We started with a walk around one of the old Dutch forts. Surprisingly, as we arrived we saw that they were holding a small fabric expo and were treated to the tail end of a fashion show.

After the fort we walked over to an old tree house which turned out to be an old salt warehouse that had been overgrown with banyan trees. The trees gave the place a relaxing feel. Their shade was a welcome relief from the surprisingly hot day.

As lunch time was soon approaching we rented some bicycles and rode out to where this quirky cafe was supposed to be. The crazy construction of driftwood and glass was there, but they were doing work on it and not serving food. Fortunately there was a cafe next door. Though it was serving typical Taiwanese food we found some palatable dishes before moving on. Across the street was another Dutch fort with an array of massive cannons.

Before long we were back on the bikes and heading back to where we rented them. Along the way though we spotted a massive amount of bubbles. There were people with huge saucers of soap and sticks with rings on the end. Joining the fun we got our own set. We would dip the rings into the soap and let the breeze blow huge bubbles and tubes. It really made our day after missing our expected lunch.

After returning the bikes we took a taxi back into the main part of town. There we tried to get a melon drink for Erin, but with no signs in English I fear we got something else because it just tasted like sugar water. We then went to the Confucius temple, but didn't see much as it had gotten dark at this time. We finished our trip with dinner at a Greek restaurant which also had good mango margaritas.

It was nice to get away for the day and see a different city. Looking through the guidebook it seems we've done just about all there is to do in southern Taiwan. It will be nice later this month to get away to Singapore for Thanksgiving.