Tuesday, April 19, 2011

(Travelouge) Oriental Outings Day 3: Feeling Rustic

March 3, 2011

The day started with an exotic adventure! During the breakfast, when we were comparing Indian and Pakistani food to the Singaporean food, Jeffery dared me with spicy chicken; specialityof a nearby restaurant. Thinking that this would be a piece of cake, and cannot be more piquant than Javed's Nihari, my favourite breakfast, I happily accepted the challenge!

After a few bites, I realized that my assumption was not that accurate, and after a few more bites, my eyes and nose started running freely. On the other hand, Jeffery was jubilantly busy in providing me with tissue papers with a winning smile! Later, Cai Shi revealed that the restaurant sells food with various spices level starting from level 1 and that was level 30! So, beware if you happen to visit Jeffery!

Dare it?
Think Nihari is nothing to do with the breakfast? You may be surprised to know that the royal dish used to be served in the breakfast in Mogul's Delhi. The root word "Nihar" is borrowed from Arabic which itself means "morning"! So the next weekend, instead of having Halwa Poori, head to Dehli Javed Nihari, who starts selling the stuff as early as 7 in the morning!

After this red chilly experience, we took some guidance from Cai Shi for modifications in the Wikitravel’s Singapore Day 1 Evening Walk and then got back to the MRT to reach to the City Hall station.

Lets go!

Admiralty MRT station

Guess what?

Inside the MRT
Soon we were in the middle of the CBD, or the Central Business District. Gazing hundreds of high-rises, including the Esplanade and the three towered Marina Bay Sands, we were feeling like a rustic fellow overwhelmed by the grandeur of a metropolitan!  From the CBD, we took the halifax crossing to Marina Bay Sands Resorts which houses Singapore’s biggest Casino.

Marina Bay Sands


The bad place

Rising high!

The skyline

Interestingly, gambling is generally prohibited in Singapore; however, there are laws that allow integrated recreation, which implicitly permits such casinos. More interestingly locals are discouraged to even enter into the bad place by imposing a hefty entry fee of SGD 100 (~ PKR 7,000)! And this was the only reason why our host had never been to the Casino.

Upon Jeffery’s advice, we took our passports with us, to avail the free entry for foreigners. The multistoried devil’s arena was gigantic, yet crowded, mostly oldies trying or destroying their remaining luck! Poker was in demand and there were banners offering coaching services! Ambiance was rather depressive and suffocating, as should be in any usurping place, despite high roofs and big halls.

Our next stop was Merlion, a half-fish and a half-lion symbolic statue of Singapore. For us, that was not impressive at all, may be because of the engulfing skyscrapers, however, tourists were taking photos with almost religious enthusiasm, so did we! We were about to complete the ritual when we heard a deafening roar as if the Merlion got aware of our heretical believes! Some people started gazing upwards as if they were already expecting something. It was the second rumble that brought us in the real world; the weather had suddenly changed and a dark bunch of clouds had started marching towards us! Typical Singapore weather!

The rain started heavily, making it difficult for us to get back to the Raffles MRT to reach home to pack for the airport. But once you are in the MRT, you can bet your life that you will be at your destination as per the schedule, come what come may!
The reliable MRT

While leaving the home, Jeffery and Cai Shi gave us a bighearted goodbye. Though we were in a bit hurry but we could easily feel a sense of belongingness to Jeffery’s place which provided us with warmth, comfort, and above all a confidence in humanity! Our first Couch Surfing experience was priceless!

In the meantime, Khalid called to let us know that he is also coming to the airport to see us off. After checking-in, Khalid offered us the goodbye treat, which we readily accepted and chose the airport Burger King to get ourselves stuffed with the junk! This over-eating was purposeful amid the no-frill Air Asia flight.
Goodbuy Singapura!
Budget airlines, or low cost carriers (LCC), are in vogue in many parts of the world, notably in Europe. LCCs have cut down most of the facilities, including in-flight meals, and thus costs peculiar to regular air travel. For the benefit of travelers, this has brought airfares to new lows! Ryan Air created quite a buzz when it offered ridiculously low fares, as low as 1 Euro, within Europe! Meanwhile, an array of other ventures also jumped in and a cut throat competition started. Air Asia, a subsidiary of Malaysian Airlines, followed the same model and instantly gained popularity among tourists around South East Asia.

For a distance of around 1,700 km, from Singapore to Bali, we paid PKR 11,000 (~USD 130), i.e. PKR 6.5 per kilometer for the whole family and luggage. This is less than to what we would have paid to a rickshaw driver bumping around the city! Therefore, we had nothing to complain even if we were allotted to the penultimate seats and served with water and peanuts!
Peanuts, literally!

No free lunch!

It was raining cats and dogs, when we landed at Ngurah Rai airport in Bali. We had to wait in the plane so that the ground staff can make adequate arrangements as the airport of the third world country was not that state of the art. Looked like that the three hours flight took us years behind!

Then came the second shock to confirm that the flight was actually a transition between two contrasting worlds. Standing in front of the immigiration officer, past midnight, I asked him about the telepohone facility around to check with our guesthouse, which we booked online, about the airport pick-up. To my surprise, he took out his cell phone to ensure our conveyance! That was a real welcome beyond hollow commercial smiles! 

The last shock had yet to come! It was only when we found Putu, who was waiting for us in the arrival area, we realized that we forgot to collect our luggage. Bang!

We tried to make it back via the exit gate and obviously got caught from the airport security. What happened afterwards is too long to describe here except for the happy ending, i.e. we were allowed to pick our luggage including Misha’s stroller!

All’s well that ends well!

Friday, April 15, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 2: The Melted Pot

Mar 2, 2011

Breakfast with Chicken Rice!

As expected, we woke up late in the morning to make up for the previous extended days.

For the breakfast, Jeffery microwaved us the chicken rice! Rice is the name of food in Singaproe and the rest is noodles. It is not uncommon to have them even in the breakfast. But for us, it was a surprise, especially for Urooba who was once again not comfortable with the mildly sweet taste, however, I enjoyed that and she had to resort to the porridge!

Jeffery is all about food, so if you are visiting him, always expect more food! So, the next surprise was the Hyderabadi Lukhmi with a slightly different shape. In Singapore, they call it curry puff!

Back to MRT:

Today, we planned to explore cultural neighborhoods of Singapore, following Wikitravel Singapore Day 2 Morning Walk. So let’s go back to the MRT! 
On the go: MRT Interchange
There are four MRT lines in Singapore – red, green, purple, and yellow – which intersect each other at designated stations. In order for us to reach to Chinatown station we had to change from the red line to the purple at Dhoby Ghaut station! 

Note the MRT sign in Tamil!
The clean and busy Dhoby Ghuat station was like any thing but a Dhoby Ghuat, which in Urdu/Hindi is actually referred to a messy washing place mostly besides a river stream! Pondering about the etymologic reasons, we had to hurry to change the MRT line!
MRT Values

Here, I would like to shed some more praise on the MRT system of Singapore! Besides the fact that it connects the whole city well, it is super clean and friendly. Drinking and eating is strictly prohibited onboard, platforms are well marked, electronic screens can tell you precisely in how many minutes – or seconds – the next train is due, ticketing is simple, and vending machines are user friendly!

I started daydreaming that one day Karachi would also have a credible mass transit system until I heard someone in the train saying "Singaporeans are fed up with the MRT service!" What? 

Yes, people always want more; “frequency of trains should be increased”, “there are too few handgrips”, “air-conditioning does not work in daytime”, and “due to rush, we have to bear close contact with other commuters, which is embarrassing” are some of the complains poor Singaporeans often make! I guess, they need to visit Karachi and spend a day with the notorious W-11 to realize what a paradise they are living in! 

Now note the MRT sign in Chinese!
Although most of Singapore is modern and well planned, this part of the city, i.e. Chinatown, was allowed to maintain its traditional color; narrow streets decorated with typical red balloons, sign boards in vertical Chinese vernacular, roadside stalls selling Chinese handicrafts, and those fragrant herb shops marketing traditional Chinese spices and medics!
Coming out of MRT escalator
Chinese style building
Another Chinese style building
Yet another Chinese style building
A street in Chinatown
Roadside vendors around Chinatown
Where Gods Meet:

After wandering and peaking around, we ended up at the junction of Pagoda street and South Bridge Road, where located the Sri Mariamman Temple, a nonchalant place of worship for local Hindus and a photo opportunity for foreign tourists.

Temple gate
The roof

The exterior

Gods' glimpses are not cheap here!
Temple entrance
few meters away was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple housed in a Tibetan style vermilion building. The prayer hall was more like a church with seating arrangements while there were hundreds of miniature Buddhas shelved in the surrounding walls in addition to a giant one in the front. The nearby Jamae Chulia Mosque adds to the diversity of the area.

I have a point!

Praying for peace!

Gold bricks!!
Have luck!
Yum Cha

This exuberant experience of religious harmony left us empty stomached! Nearby, we could not find anything except for hawkers selling not-so-familiar food so we had to resort to a guide book’s recommendation Yum Cha for snacks! 
Misha enjoying Yum Cha's ambiance

Khalid: happy go lucky
Sentosa Fun

After having late lunch, it was time to meet Khalid, so we headed back to MRT to catch purple line to reach to the Harbour Front station, where Khalid was waiting for us for Sentosa ride. We then quickly bought tickets as we wanted to make it to the island before the sunset.

Colours of the sunset at Sentoda Island!

Artificial Kampong at Sentosa Island

Chairlift that connects the island from another island!
Song of the Sea

Sentosa is a heaven for theme park lovers with so many activities to do, especially the famous Universal Studio, however, we stuck to the beach side cabaret Song of the Sea, which was based on a folk story where a young boy got enchanted with the sleeping Princess of the Sea and finally made her awake after a long struggle full of hurdles and with the help of his freinds.

Spectators waiting for the show to start

The arena for the Song of the Sea

The show starts
The performance

The show started around sunset, and as the natural light got dim, the tradition Malay style Kampong glowed up with colourful laser lights. Use of effects, such as water springs and fireworks, which can be felt in the audience, made the performance worthwhile.

This Time We Passed the Food Test

Khalid’s hospitality did not end with the end of the show as we ended the day at another delicious dinner at Vivo City food court! And frankly, that was the first meal since last three days when we could manage to survive the food test!

Thank you Khalid :)
Half way our meal, Hadi also joined us and then we made to Vivo City rooftop for the sepectacular bird eyeview of the island before going back home.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

(Travelogue) Oriental Outings Day 1: The Clinical Singapura - Mar 1, 2011

Fortunately, the sleepless ordeal came to an early end as we had to catch the 7 am flight. Originally, we booked Karachi-Singapore flight with a brief layover of 2 hours at Colombo, however, the flight had been rescheduled which effectively added 12 frustrating hours in the journey! Things were not going as per our wishes!!
Colombo Airport transit lounge
Internet Kiosk in the lounge
Occupied with mixed thoughts, and concerned about coming days, we landed at Changi Airport Singapore. The airport is a bit away from the city center; however, it is well connected through the MRT, i.e. Mass Rapid Transit, a metro-like train system.  

Since onboard toilets are not kids friendly so Urooba took benefit of the baby changing room to conciliate Misha’s anxiety while I waited for the luggage! Parents take note, please! (Baby care facilities in Singapore)

Afterwards we headed to Terminal 2 to catch the MRT.
Skytrain: connecting various terminals of Changi Airport
Waiting for the next skytrain
What Kind of Meal Break Was That at 5pm!
Eventually, we reached the MRT station only to find out that the electronic ticketing machine does not accept big denomination notes! To make things more interesting, the help counter was closed for meal break! Perplexed, which meal of the day they have in Singapore at around 5pm, I had no option but to awkwardly ask people around for the change!  

The Mass Rapid Transit, MRT:
MRT is to Singaporeans what water is to fish! This is not an overstatement; Singaporeans may survive without food, though hardly, but they cannot with the MRT. The train connects the whole island country efficiently. It was so friendly, both Singapore and the MRT, that we made it to Woodlands, where our host Jeffery resides, without any hassle. For next three days, MRT was life to us too!

The transit system has its own culture so as Singapore; most people are on the go, youngsters busy in gadgets, oldies having a quick nap, announcements about the next destination every few minutes, and an exchange of busy commuters at each stop. A perfect reflection of Singaporean lifestyle: clean, diversified, fast, and clinical!

Can't It Be More Organized?!
You cannot get lost in Singapore!
Jeffery, our host in Singapore, was kind enough to send his son Schen and daughter Cai Shi to pick us up from the Admiralty MRT station, which was actually walking distance away from the apartment complex # 636. Majority of Singaporeans reside in these lego-like structures, which are seldom named, and instead go by numbers, from 1 to 635 and beyond! These complexes are developed and allotted by the Singapore Housing and Development Board to Singapore citizens on first come first serve basis. This sounds too mechanical, but at the same time ensures affordable and quality housing to every Singizen! 

Couch Surfing: For a Better World
Jeffery is a very experienced member of Couchsurfing.org, a global network which lets travelers share their hospitality.

We were a bit skeptical of the idea until we hosted a French couple back home through the same network. Still then, we had reservations! However, all the doubts vanished the way Jeffery and children treated their first Pakistani guests. It took us no more than a few minutes to feel home!

Schen, Jeffery’s son, is serving Singaporean Army for a compulsory two year military training, called National Service, while Cai Shi is studying in a technical college. The home is incomplete without the sweet puppy, Ah Poi, who was so adorable and easygoing that Misha quickly made friends with it! 

After having shower, we had to go out for a dinner invitation. In the meantime, Jeffery also offered us dinner and opined that going out far is not a good idea after such a long flight, and he was undoubtedly right. However, we felt committed and obliged with our Travel Buddy friend Hadi, who had kindly invited us for the dinner even before we had finalized our travel plans!

Eat, Eat, and Eat!
Hadi and Khalid were waiting for us at the meeting point, which had now been changed to Ang Mo Kio, a newly developed suburb, because of the time constraint. 
Chicken Satay, Gado Gado, and India Rojak! Yummiee!!
It was ~9pm; late for dinner in Singapore!
Like in Karachi, the favourite hangout in Singapore is Eating-out! "Eat, eat, and eat", is the popular slogan there comparable to ours
 چلو چلو نشتر پارک چلو
More like in Karachi, food outlets are spread all around; where one can have a blend of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Continental food. Pocket friendly hawkers are in vogue unless you wish to have a sumptuous meal. Food quality is great while taste may vary to blend and boiled to spicy and exotic. We selected one around Ang Mo Kio, a newly developed town, and Hadi ordered Indonesian style cuisine which I found very tasty. During the dinner, we had a nice converstaion and found Hadi a mature and a sociable guy.

On the other hand, Urooba was a bit uncomfortable because of the jetlag. After all, it had been a long day so far, in fact two long days, but things had started getting better for us!
(See more on Hadi's blog)

Open Door Policy
And the best came last; when we got back to our home it was quite late but our hosts actually kept all the doors wide open, and not just unlocked, to make us feel comfortable. Perhaps, it was the first time that I literally saw open door hospitality. Wow!