Shout Out to The Occasional Traveller

Since becoming a contributor at Epicure & Culture, I’ve not only had the pleasure of writing a ton of fun articles, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with some amazing people.

Jac, an intern / fellow contributor at E&C and mastermind behind The Occasional Traveller, has been an amazing blogging correspondent and has just featured one of my photos from way back from during my trip to Singapore’s Chinese Gardens on The Occasional Traveller here and is definitely worth checking out!

Looking good, Mulan!

Looking good, Mulan!

 

Reflections on Living Abroad

Once and for all, it was time for me to concede to the case that my stay in Asia had officially reached its conclusion: I had a plane ticket with the word “Toronto” printed on it and a long journey across the Pacific Ocean ahead of me. Since sleep had decided to elude me for the vast majority of this wayfaring voyage and the Life of Pi (which was amazingly by the way) does not take over 13 hours to watch, I had a large allotment of time to reflect on the 4 months that had just flown by.

Looking back, I was able to see that during my peregrinations, I had inevitably lost a certain amount of effects: my student visa, my appreciation for Tim Horton’s coffee and about half my wardrobe to mould from the excessive humidity (even with using a Thirsty Hippo mould-eater), but for the most part, my voyage was a journey of gains. I not only got a replacement visa, love of kopi and new dresses courtesy of Bugis Street, but also acquired more considerable facets like new friends, a deeper understanding of myself and an even more severe travel bug infection.

Life in Singapore: exhaustingly awesome

Life in Singapore: exhaustively awesome

It might have been because we were all new to the country, a little bit afraid (whether we were willing to admit to this term) and needing a support system. It might have been that we were classmates. It might have been the fact we all wanted to make the most of our short life in Singapore and didn’t have time to waste. It might have just been that we were all friendly people. (Or, most likely, it might have been a little bit of everything.) Whichever way, deep friendships seemed to form overnight and although we’re all returning to our respective abodes, none of us will ever forget the past few months. “The real world” is often what we referred to when speaking about resuming to our lives outside of Singapore, like the entirety of the experience was just a single elongated dream entirely distinct from everything else we’d ever done. While the term made it feel as if we were moving on together, instead of flying ourselves half a world away, the experience would affect us so much more than any dream ever could.

(Maybe we're loving it a bit TOO much..!)

You also don’t get photographic evidence of yourself being an idiot in your dreams

When you’re living life at such a rapid pace, seeing more each day than you usually do in a year, it’s inevitable that you’ll pick up a thing or two about yourself. Travelling around Thailand and Japan helped me learn a lot about just how much I can accomplish on my own and climbing to the top of a volcano in Indonesia taught me how important it is to seize the moment and actually live, not simply exist.

The ground wasn't actually level at all, handstanding on a slope is easier said than done!

Defining my life by the amount of summit-handstands I do

When feelings of excitement, accomplishment and adrenaline commingle, they create a type of ecstasy that, in essence, gets you high on life. When I travel, this is the feeling I chase. Seeing the world and experiencing things that are entirely new and unique is what I really want to do and although my Singaporean chapter has come to an end, my travelling campaign has still just begun.

In summary: I didn’t want to face the fact that my Singapore exchange was over, so I used convoluted reasoning to keep myself in denial.

Don't ask why, I don't even know..!

You can leave a world filled with adorable panda knickknacks, but a world filled with adorable panda knickknacks never leaves you

Haw Par Villa Horrors

In my ever-expanding quest to “do Singapore differently” (a quest which I will continue to re-name in every post), I ended up in some gardens run by the Haw Par Tiger Balm-inventing family. Way back when, I wrote a post about tiger-themed things in Singapore, but definitely didn’t realize I was only cat-scratching the surface of this family’s tiger obsession (and general insanity) at that point. While I looked into the gardens a little bit before showing up, most of the reviews on tripadvisor were focused on the insanity of the park being free, not the insanity of the park itself. Normally, free things in Singapore are a be-all, end-all event (people lined up overnight for a free egg McMuffin at McDonalds. In Canada, Subway – which is way more awesome than MickyDees – did the same thing, and I was able to stroll in for a free breakfast sandwich without encountering any line-up whatsoever)!

(Oh yeah, I’m talking about Haw Par Villa, not food – another Singaporean complaint on tripadvisor was the lack of on-site restaurants), ANYWAYS, the minute you walk in the park, you’re greeted with a detailed, and frankly rather terrifying statue of a tiger. While this should have set the tone for the rest of the experience, I instead brushed it off as having an unfortunate design, shuddered a little, then continued on my way.

RAAAWR tiger, you don't scare me!

RAAAWR tiger, you don’t scare me!

The garden used to circle a mod house, which one Haw Par brother gave to the other as a gift (just for his birthday, no big deal). They were to be open to the public and told a series of stories that were meant to teach Singaporean children right from wrong and were to (also) be a gift of knowledge to the city (I don’t know about you, but as the brother, I’d feel kind of awkward having people romping around my yard all the time).

While, in theory, teaching people about life is generally a good thing, lessons can get kind of distorted when they’re coming from someone who drives a tiger-car around town on a regular basis:

Didn't even need Xzibit to pimp his ride!

Didn’t even need Xzibit to pimp his ride!

In addition, its hard not to seem at least a bit disturbing when the main lesson you’re trying to teach (to children, remember) is about the Buddhist Legend of the 10 Courts of Hell. Now, I have nothing against Buddhism, I just think that the Haw Pars could have picked another, um, less graphic scene to depict than this one:

Not even there yet, and small animals are already dying..!

Not even there yet, and small animals are already dying..!

In the first court, you're judged by King Qinguang, who decides if you were good enough in your life to skip over the next 9 courts (hint: you want this to happen)

In the first court, you’re judged by King Qinguang, who decides if you were good enough in your life to skip over the next 9 courts (hint: you want this to happen)

If he decides you were kind of a jerk, you have to endure things like getting stabbed

If he decides you were kind of a jerk, you have to endure things like getting stabbed

...or having your body sawed in half

…or having your body sawed in half

After barely making it out of the courts alive, I was let out near the entrance to a small pond, where even the turtles were cowering under a bridge in fear.

IMG_8361

Smart turtles, hiding from the terrors!

Moving on, the majority of the remaining gardens featured the tales of Tripitaka, Pigsy (a man with a pig’s head), Monkey God and Sandy (a sand demon). They embarked on a courageous adventure to obtain Buddhist scriptures and face their personal demons to obtain Budhahood. Their journey is complicated in that many of the entities they encounter believe that Tripitaka’s holy flesh will grant them immortality and as such, they are seduced by sexy spider women and have to fight off a small fire-demon child. Altogether, it’s a pretty awesomely action-packed story – and I’m not just saying that because it’s less terrifying than the 10 courts of hell!

He must have been pretty strong-willed to resist women THAT sexy..

He must have been pretty strong-willed to resist women THAT sexy..

Monkey God to the rescue!

Monkey God to the rescue!

As much as I loved Tripitaka’s tale, after that point the excessively bright coloured statues, along with the excessively hot Singaporean sun, were both starting to wear on me, and all I could bring myself to notice were the increasingly scaring facial expressions of the statues.

Even the pandas are terrifying!!

Even the pandas are terrifying!!

So porn in Singapore is completely unacceptable, but THIS is okay..!?

So porn in Singapore is completely unacceptable, but THIS is okay..!?

Yeeeeeeeerg!

Yeeeeeeeerg!

Bleeeeeerg!

Bleeeeeerg!

Schmeeeeeeerg!

Schmeeeeeeerg!

Finally, I made it to the exit, where comparatively non-frightening Tiger Balm-holding tigers stood. At that point I realised the park is just a big marketing ploy to make tiger balm look happy and non-threatening, and also that the Haw Par brothers were most likely on a LOT of hard drugs.

I was actually scared at how not-scary these statues looked after everything else..!

I was actually scared at how not-scary these statues looked after everything else..!

70 Stories of Food in Swissôtel’s Equinox

 While I admit I’ve recently been enjoying getting away from the city, its not something that I wanted to run away from, especially if I was going to be tempted with a meal from Swissôtel The Stamford’s Equinox Restaurant. Eating in Singapore is considered a national pastime and as such, the city is bursting with both hawker centres and high-end celebrity restaurants like Wolfgang Puck’s CUT and (soon to be) Jaime Oliver’s Jaime’s Italian (I also have to point out: EEEEE!! Jaime Oliver!! <3).

EEEEE!! (Okay, now I'm done)

EEEEE!! Pretty Knife!! :P

Since Jaime’s Italian isn’t actually open yet and I’m also partial to FRHI (Fairmont Raffles Hotels International, consisting of the Fairmont, Raffles and Swissôtel groups), when a friend called me up to go to Swissôtel’s Equinox, I wasn’t going to say no.

Even just showing up at the restaurant is an even in itself. It’s located on the 70th floor of the hotel and boasts panoramic views of the entire city and even parts of Malaysia. Most people love going to the top of Marina Bay Sands for its view of the city, but personally, I prefer being able to see it as part of my view.

EEEEE!! Pretty view!!

EEEEE!! Pretty view!!

EEEEEE!!! MORE pretty views!!

EEEEEE!!! MORE pretty views!!

After treating my eyes to an enthralling panoramic view, it was time to give my taste buds a turn and actually do what I was here for – food!

Since we were there for lunch, the main feature is a semi buffet. This means that you order a fixed-plate entrée, but get to choose your own appetizers and desserts buffet-style. For me, this meant a double helping of appetizers (they were just too appetizing for only 1 plate, oh how I’m so puny) with prawns, clams, muscles, prosciutto, artichoke and olives in round 1 and fresh salad, sashimi and octopus and cucumber sushi in round 2:

 

OM NOM NOM

OM NOM NOM

Salad has become much to exciting for me..!

Salad has become much to exciting for me..!

While I could easily have gone back for appetizers about 7 more times without even having to eat the same thing twice, it was time to move onto my main fish course. While the fish itself was great quality, the flavouring was a bit bland and the overall presentation was a bit underwhelming after all the colourful appetizers.

 

These plates are also really awkward to carry when you have more than 2 #banquetserverproblems

These plates are also really awkward to carry when you have more than 2 #banquetserverproblems

To finish things off with desert, I went with mango ice cream, plum, watermelon and green tea cake. Ice cream of any kind is my weakness and this was no exception!

(even just uploading these pictures is making me feel full again!)

(even just uploading these pictures is making me feel full again!)

Altogether, it was definitely the best meal I had in Singapore, especially after all the canteen food on rez – plus the view wasn’t bad either, a definite recommendation if you’re downtown!

Equinox Restaurant, Swissôtel The Stamford

2 Stamford Road, Singapore 178882

(65) 6337 3322

reservations@equinoxcomplex.com

Sunday Brunch 11am – 2:30pm

Monday – Saturday Lunch 12 – 2:30pm

High Tea 3:30 – 5pm (everyday)

Dinner 6:30 – 10:30pm (everyday)

 

Pulau Ubin Pirates

If you’re a broke student looking to get away from school and city-life craziness in Singapore in general without leaving the country, Pulau Ubin is definitely the place to go. The whole island holds a different frame of mind; one that looks like it came out the end of a 1960’s time machine. You can feel the air let a deep, calm breath out once you step off the boat and its hard not to do the same (I don’t know why you would even want to try not doing this if you’re coming to the island to relax).

Even mail drop offs are more relaxed, you only need to walk to the person's front gate, not right to the door!

Even mail drop offs are more relaxed, you only need to walk to the person’s front gate, not right to the door!

I at least had the foresight to look (admittedly briefly) into where on the island the Celestial Ubin where I was supposed to be staying was located. From what I gathered, I needed to turn left and walk. This may seem overly simple, but it was a small island and I figured there’s no way I could mess up turning left. As it turns out, I have even less directional sense than I thought (which should have been expected, I once got lost going home from one of my best friend’s houses after living there for 3 years..!) and ended up making a wrong turn in there somewhere. In a feeble attempt to try to salvage some of my dignity, there was a garden in between the left turn and Celestial Ubin and these things very easily distract me:

Wow, this scarecrow looks like he's having a bad night..

Wow, this scarecrow looks like he’s having a bad night..

.. Probably drank too much of this one's pop!

.. Probably drank too much of this one’s pop!

After wandering through a marsh for a while, I eventually had to ask for directions (lucky there happened to be someone out walking, the dirt road I was on was pretty empty) and realized that I came within 10m of the resort before turning around in the wrong direction – distracted by all the starfruit – I TRUSTED YOU!!

EVIL!!

EVIL!!

My plant anger soon vanished when I got to the reception and saw that the free bike rental I was promised was actually so much more than just that – it was a tandem bike rental!!

Being twice as awesome as normal bikes since 1898!

Being twice as awesome as normal bikes since 1898!

Now, one of my friends in high school had a tandem bike, and we rode it quite a few times, so I figured I’d be okay to drive it, plus, I’d just been on a regular bike in Vietnam. Now, if you’re catching on to the trend here, things are never as simple as they seem and after convincing my roomie I wouldn’t kill her, we loaded on the bike and I immediately veered towards a nearby ditch. Shrieking in fear, I whipped the wheel around the opposite direction and Pulau Ubin-drifted back onto the road. After a few similar shrieking turns, I eventually got the hang of things, and we were on our way… For about 2 minutes before getting distracted by the sheer un-Singaporeanness of the island:

Trees!? Marshes!? In SINGAPORE?? MADNESS!!

Trees!? Marshes!? In SINGAPORE?? MADNESS!!

On the main island, this would probably take up the space of 4 shopping malls and HDB residential unti!

On the main island, this would probably take up the space of 4 shopping malls and HDB residential unti!

After several photo-break pit stops, it began getting threateningly dark – especially under the tree cover, so we decided to head back before getting lost (again).

Also, the lighting in my photos was getting kind of crappy

Also, the lighting in my photos was getting kind of crappy

Since I had finally satisfied my inner wild horse by exploring the land around the island, it was time to move onto aquatic exploration and break out the kayaks. After waking up and tracking down someone who worked at the resort (which was quite a bit harder than you would think), we were told just to take a kayak and bring it back whenever. After briefly contemplating kayaking away to Singapore and selling the kayak on the black market, I decided that would go against the heart of exploration (not because it would be unethical, but because I’d already been to Singapore, so the trip wouldn’t be as exciting as exploring the rest of the island). We ended up on Pulau Sekudu, a tiny island off the coast of Pulau Ubin. It was pretty miniscule, but full of colourful shells and coral, which I went and pillaged (to get some kind of pirating activity in)!

Unfortunately, the tides began to turn and the weather quickly started to turn foul, so we had to cut the raid short and escape back to Pulau Ubin before getting kayak-wrecked out at sea. Thankfully, we made it in time and were able to hop on a bum boat back to Singapore (there were actually other people around wanting to leave the island now, so it was easy to get a lift), pockets bulging with treasure.

A successful looting!

A successful looting!

 

Getting Back to Nature on Pulau Ubin

 Keeping with the theme of “back to nature Singapore” (because apparently I’m a wild horse or something that needs open space to run around in now), my next excursion saw me to Pulau Ubin (“Tile Island”), a small island that used to be used to mine granite for tiling off the Northeast coast of the main island of Singapore.

Who needs the city - or being a human being?

Who needs the city – or being a human being?

Pulau Ubin remains one of the few areas in Singapore that has been untouched by recent redevelopment projects due to its unique Chek Jawa wetlands. The 45 families living on the island enjoy a more traditional lifestyle and the island itself seems much more like Malaysia than Singapore.

Basically, the island is a cute little stay-cation for Singaporeans looking to get away from the city. While the majority of visitors just come for the day, I lucked out and found a great deal on www.deal.sg (basically a better version of the Singaporean Groupon – they often have the exact same deal, but for a cheaper price, its actually kind of hilarious to compare sometimes). I got a night at the Celestial Ubin Beach Resort complete with overnight bike and kayak rentals. Needless to say, I was pretty pumped to take a break from exams (which I was in the middle of completing) and head out on my island escape (I don’t know if I can actually call it that, since Singapore itself is already an island, but whatever).

After all of the intensive planning I did for Vietnam and Cambodia, I was also psyched to just book my reservation online and show up. No hassle, no finicky details, no worries. Carefree lack of planning has a flipside though, and although I wanted to get to the island early so my inner horse would have a full day of romping, the trek to the island was more of a mission than I assumed. To be fair, I should have seen coming, I was assuming after all, and we all know what happens when you assume (in case you’re not part of “everybody”, you make an ass out of u and me – ass/u/me). Since I literally packed that morning, I forgot my wallet and didn’t realize until half an hour after I left, then had to take a detour to stop and pick up my replacement student visa which I lost in Cambodia – which is a mission to do, you need a police report, statement from the school confirming you’re actually enrolled, 100SGD (payable only with a NETS card, not cash) and a couple hours to spend in immigration waiting to get everything processed. Then, the bus ride to the Changi Jetty, which takes you to Pulau Ubin, took about an hour (after spending another hour on the MRT).

When I finally got to the jetty, I assumed I was home free as you can see the island from across the water it’s so close. However, I assumed again and now I’m sure everybody knows what happens when you assume this time around.

So close, yet still so far

So close, yet still so far

As it turns out, boats to the island have no scheduled departure time and just leave whenever there are 12 people waiting to get on. Since most people visit the island during the day, there weren’t a lot looking to make the trek over in the early evening. After watching 4 boatloads return from Pulau Ubin and eating several packages of honey roasted cuttlefish (which tasted like fish food and peanuts – its still strange no matter how much you eat), my friend and I came to the realization that there probably wouldn’t be 12 people showing up to get there before morning.

I still just don't even come close to understanding..!

I still just don’t even come close to understanding..!

Luckily, we spoke with 2 other older men who were also waiting to go over and decided to hire a boat for ourselves at a slightly higher fee – it was either that, or go home disappointed, and wild-horse Judi was having none of that.

So after spending more time than what it takes to fly to Indonesia and back, I was on the island!

Success !!

Success !!

Singaporean Countryside (yes, it does exist)

Come on, I can't have been the only who watched this show!

Come on, I can’t have been the only who watched this show!

As much fun as big-city Singapore is (even just looking at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel is enough to entertain me for hours), I had gotten to the point in my trip where I needed to mix a little country mouse in with my city mouse.

Lucky for me, although the urban area of Singapore takes up the majority land use, several farms still exist around the norther Kranji area. If you take the MRT to Kranji station, there’s a bus you can catch that takes you on a tour of some of the nearby farms. Yes, a farm is such a novelty in Singapore, it’s a tourist attraction!

The farms also have the cutest mascots on the face of the planet!

The farms also have the cutest mascots on the face of the planet!

That being said, the first few stops take you to farm-resorts (don’t worry, I didn’t know that was a thing either, and I study hotel management), so the best place to get off and tour around is Bollywood Veggies, it’s small by farm standards, but has a super-fun vibe and a great little restaurant (not just because all of their produce is 50,000x more fresh than anything in the rest of the country, their chefs are also really talented)!

Archways aren't only great for allowing more plants access to sunlight, they're also fun to pose with!

Archways aren’t only great for allowing more plants access to sunlight, they’re also fun to pose with!

Plus they make it easy to check up on how your gourds are growing!

Plus they make it easy to check up on how your gourds are growing!

Chillin beneath the mango tree like I'm Jack Johnson or something

Chillin beneath the mango tree like I’m Jack Johnson or something

Did you really think I wouldn't find some flowers to take a million photos of?

Did you really think I wouldn’t find some flowers to take a million photos of

Plants growing out of plants: its plant-ception!

Plants growing out of plants: its plant-ception!

I also finally got to try some durian (the rancidly-smelly unofficial fruit of Singapore), which, despite its scent, was actually pretty tasty!

Wall of smelly deliciousness!

Wall of smelly deliciousness!

Om nom - ewww - nom

Om nom – ewww – nom

Apparently there are some people in Singapore who find the smell bearable, but this doesn’t include anyone I’ve ever met, or anyone who works in the legal sector, as you get a higher fine for eating durian on the MRT than for any other food!

There's food, and then there's durian

There’s food, and then there’s durian

Moving on, the next stop on the trip was the Jurong Frog Farm. Now, I’d never been to frog farm, so the murals they had on display pretty much summed up my idea of what it would be like:

Silly frog, wearing a shirt and a crown - how cute!

Silly frog, wearing a shirt and a crown – how cute!

Nope, not above kissing frogs!

Nope, not above kissing frogs!

However, when we got off the bus, the driver said he would wait around for a few minutes in case we decided we didn’t want to stay too long. At the time, it seemed like a ridiculous offer, I was  pumped from the awesome visit at Bollywood Veggies and ready for some frog-love. However, everything changed once I got past all of the cute cartoony murals and face-to-face with the real deal. The farm pretty much consisted of a bunch of outdoor corridors of semi-aquatic frog holding tanks – each literally heaping with live mobs of frogs!

So.Many.Creepy.Eyes... I TAKE MY KISSES BACK!

So.Many.Creepy.Eyes… I TAKE MY KISSES BACK!

If the intimidatingly large amount of beady eyes staring out at me wasn’t enough, they were also eerily quiet. None of the regular croaking, just… silence. Feeling like I was in a scene from a very strange and twisted horror movie about murderous amphibians, I made a beeline back to the bus, hoping my recently-cured fish fear wouldn’t get replaced with a froggy one only to be met by a smirk from the driver, who seemed to be familiar (and unempathetic) with this reaction.

The last farm we encountered seemed to be designed in true Singaporean style. Instead of planting crops in the ground, they’re placed in planters which are stacked on top of each other, essentially creating apartment-style living for plants. Known as a “sky farm”, it’s the first of its kind in the country, but seems to be the perfect way for Singapore to pursue its self-sustaining mission, despite its small amount of landmass.

Altogether, despite the smells and the scares, it was really nice to see this softer, greener side of Singapore and experience a whole new culture.

An awesome swing-filled side of Singapore!

An awesome swing-filled side of Singapore!