Saturday, February 21, 2009

Melaka, Malaysia

View from our room
Manager's Reception
Cooking lesson

Cooking with Chef Alfie
A little sugar will make it less hot
Prawns with pineapple

Trishaw ride of historical district
Historical center
Dutch Church

Bound feet shoe makers
Portuguese ship

Independence Square
Boat ride on the river
The mall

In 1998 we took a day trip from Singapore to Melaka. In 2005 we spent a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur, commonly known as KL, before visiting Taman Negara, a remote jungle area. We have fond memories of both trips. This year we decided to revisit Melaka on our way to KL to catch an inexpensive flight to Vietnam. What a difference a decade makes. Melaka is only a four-hour comfy bus trip from Singapore. On board they showed a low-budget American film released in 2008 that probably never made it to theaters. The film was so badly made it was embarrassing.

When the bus reached the Sing-Malaysia border everyone got off with their luggage, walked through passport control, and the bus was waiting on the other side – so smooth. Bus travel is not only cheaper but it is easier and sometimes faster than the airplane, plus we get to see some of the countryside.

We checked into the Holiday Inn Melaka where we had scheduled a cooking lesson on Paranakan foods. Paranakan, or Nonya, cuisine combines Chinese, Malay and other influences. It was developed by the early Chinese settlers on the Malay Peninsula who intermarried with the local Malays. They created fusion cuisine before the term fusion was popular. Chef Toney taught us to make Chicken Capitan, which was derived from the Portuguese, and Ayam Pongteh, a Malay favorite traditionally served during Chinese New Year. That evening we attended a Manager’s Reception, which is becoming a weekly practice in many hotels. It was a chance to meet other guests and tour the hotel.

The Holiday Inn has a great view of the Straits of Melaka and yet it is only a short walk to two large modern malls where we had Annie Anne’s pretzels with our Starbucks coffee! The mall is located between the hotel and the historic center so everything is convenient however the hotel offers shuttle connections to the malls and the historic center.

The beautiful brick-red Dutch church built in 1744 is still the center of the historic city, which was recently named an UNESCO Cultural World Heritage Site. Unlike ten years ago, there are many tourists with a bevy of brightly decorated trishaws waiting to transport tourists to all the sites. While a trishaw ride is a must-do, everything is within easy walking distance. There are many new attractions including a narrated boat tour on the river, a revolving sky tower, and an Eye on Malaysia, which is a smaller version of the London Eye Ferris wheel. It seems every city wants a huge viewing Ferris wheel.

There are several churches, mosques, and museums to visit. We’ve been to a lot of museums but never one called The Museum of Enduring Beauty. It is on the third floor of the People’s Museum. On display are the many ways people have beautified themselves from tattoos to lip plugs to foot binding. Beauty is what our culture teaches us is beautiful and definitely in the eye of the beholder.

From Melaka we took another four-hour bus trip to KL where we checked into the Pan Pacific Hotel at the airport. The hotel is more like a resort than an airport hotel with plenty of greenery, a pool, and several restaurants. The hotel was offering a special for upgrading to Club Level, which included the Internet, breakfast, and cocktails in the afternoon so our stay became a wonderful rest stop.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Uniquely Singapore

View from the Flyer
The Flyer
The Science Center - Great illusion area

The Merlion - the mascot of Singapore
The Sentosa beach
Fort at Sentosa

Night Safari... Fire show
Incredible fire show before the tram ride through the zoo
Native dances
Walking tour of Chinatown - Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Shop houses
herbal medicine shop
Valentine's Day at the Conrad's Club Lounge
The Fountain of Wealth - now we will be rich!
Dinner with Nella and Richard

Palate Sensation Cooking Class
Tastes just right!
Look what we prepared!

Singapore is a picture perfect country and it is due to the first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who turned a malarial island into a modern financial center making it a model for all of Asia. Singapore is the country that bans chewing gum and enforces its littering laws.

There is much to do. One day we took the cable car to Sentosa Island. During World War II it was a strategic area that saw heavy fighting. Today Fort Siloso is a museum that depicts the Japanese conquest and loss of Singapore. After the war the island was developed as a recreation area and named Sentosa, which means "peace." It is an improvement over the former name, which meant "death from behind." There is a long sandy beach, golf courses, amusement rides, nature trails, a variety of other attractions, and in 2010 Resort World, featuring Universal Studios is scheduled to open. My favorite attraction is the Images of Singapore where the story of Singapore is creatively displayed. It is a walk through the very heart of Singapore explaining their cultural diversity, unity of values, and perseverance.

The Original Singapore Walks is a wonderful way to learn about the ethnic heritage of Singapore. The "Red Clogs Down the Five-foot Way" tour of Chinatown took us pass beautifully restored shop houses. At one shop we learned about traditional medicine while sipping flower tea. At Thien Hock Kheng Temple, the oldest Chinese Temple in Singapore, the guide explained the various aspects of ancestor worship and the meaning of the temple’s ornamentation. Dragons offer protection. Every design has a special meaning. Each step was another step toward a better understanding of the culture and influence of the Chinese in Singapore.

The city’s star attraction is Night Safari, a nocturnal zoo tour. John and I arrived in time to see the impressive performance by the Thumbuakar Tribe from Borneo. The tribal dances and blowpipe demonstrations are great but the fire eating displays were unbelievable. There are trails to walk and a very quiet tram to ride. We hopped on board for the 45-minute ride with a live commentary and saw Asian Rhinos, jackals, hyenas, cats, elephants, and many other creatures. On the way out we watched another Uniquely Singapore experience – Fish Reflexology. People dangled their feet in a warm pool of water while tiny fish nibbled at the dead skin– a novel and ticklish exfoliation treatment.

The newest addition to the Singapore experience is the Singapore Flyer, currently the world's largest observation wheel. Rotating up to 541 feet from the ground each of the 28 capsules holds 28 people. Before we rode the flyer we walked around the Yakult Rainforest Gardens, put our hand in the water and made a wish. When we were at the top we also made a wish bringing together the elements of land, water, and air.

There is no better way to experience a culture than by taking a cooking lesson. John and I learn to cook Malay food at Palate Sensations. Chef Alfie and his wife, Lulu, taught us how to make Singapore chili crab. My favorite was vegetables cooked in coconut gravy. Chef Alfie explains, "This vegetable dish is always served for breakfast the first day after Ramadan, our month of fasting."

The hotels in Singapore are world class, espcially the Conrad and InterContinental. There are still many things we didn’t get to do… we will just have to visit again.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Amazing Myanmar

Pool - Governor's Residence
Along the river to Mrauk U
Sunset on the river

Temple with 80,000+ Buddhas
Princess Resort
She makes 80+fans a day

Sunrise breakfast
Carrying everything down the hill

Chef Nu
John and Thin Thin
Chef John cooking prawns

Chin village house
Elderly Chin lady
Chin students singing for us

Amazing Resort Ngapali
Our beach with all our friends
International School in Yangon

Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, is just a short $50 flight from Bangkok and a fascinating tourist destination. Yangon lost many trees during the cyclone in September but it is still a city of trees. A gong announced our arrival at the Governor’s Residence, a beautiful hotel with traditional teak verandas, a pool and gardens. It is one of our favorite hotels. From Yangon we flew one hour to Sitwee on the Bay of Bengal in the Rakhine State where we boarded a classic teak boat for the 6-hour ride up the river to the new Princess Mrauk Oo Resort. The scenes along the river were mesmerizing and the sun set beautiful. Other than three boatmen, a cook and two waitstaff we were the only people on the boat so service was outstanding. The Mrauk Oo Princess Resort is new but built in typical Rakhine style. We toured the ruins of Mrauk Oo, an important Buddhist site, which had its golden days in the 16th and 17th centuries. One morning we got up before dawn, climbed a temple hill, where the hotel staff had breakfast waiting. Watching the sun come up and the mist rise up out of the hills was mystical.
Another day we hopped into a 1940s Willys Jeep, the most common motor vehicle, other than the motor bike, and bounced along to a jetty where we took a 3-hour boat ride to a Chin Village. The older village women have heavily tattooed faces. They say it was to prevent them from being kidnapped. Needless to say the practice has been discontinued. It was a neat village of thatch and bamboo houses on stilts and quiet as the men were off harvesting bamboo and the children were in school. We stopped by the one-room school where one of the subjects is English.
While much has been written about the government of Myanmar and very little of a positive nature, it is a wonderful tourist destination. The government has little to do with tourism and we organize our travel locally so the money goes directly to the people. As Western tourists who are free to travel I feel we show the positive side of an open society. Because Myanmar has remained isolated the people have retained much of their culture. Both men and women still commonly wear the longyi, the traditional wraparound skirt. A light yellow powder called thanaka is still used on their face to protect it from the sun and even as a form of makeup. Myanmar has no fast food chains. In fact they joke that they do have fast food because all Myanmar cooking is fast. There are many fascinating places to visit. Last year we visited Bagan, Mandalay, Lake Inle, Kalaw, and Ngapali Beach. The country is extremely safe and the people are very welcoming. The only problem we encountered was with the Internet. The government has blocked Yahoo, Hot Mail, and many other sites.
Last year we loved Amazing Resort Ngapali Beach located on the Bay of Bengal so we included it on this year’s trip, too. The sea is warm, the sand is soft, and the long sweeping is beach virtually deserted. Our room had a large balcony with a sea view and came with inner tubes for playing in the waves. John and I decided five days is not enough so Ngapali Beach is on next year’s schedule – for a week or more.