Tag Archives: Food

Singapore Champagne Slinging

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Hit by the humidity after 28hours on the air con bus from Koh Samui, Singapore was stifling, yet spotless – as everyone said it would be.

Concerned with only a shower and a solid meal, I was pleasantly surprised how helpful people were in finding my hostel for me! The subway was too confusing even for the eagerly assisting expats and recommended a cab after seeing the size of my luggage and the spreading sweat patches. The taxi driver gave me a “Singlish” guided tour on the way through the Little India, past Chinatown and toward Bugis Junction – destination of my digs, the super eco and highly recommended Tree Inn Lodge hostel  – as well as home to the Singapore’s tradition of hawker stalls and street food.

Refreshed and enthused by the exuberant hostel hosts (fellow back packers with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things ‘traveller’), I set out to see the many Singaporean sights – of which there are probably enough for four to five days at least.

I stumbled upon Raffles by accident – honest! Spending a Saturday night with a spot of live Jazz and a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar sounded like a real treat. Surrounded by fellow tourists sipping on said ‘Slings’, flashing their cameras for the souvenir shot and sitting amongst the peanut-shell strewn bar, I tried to blend in and not draw attention to my solo status. However, a misbalanced Champagne bottle flew from the tray of a passing waitress, hit the stone floor and within seconds I was the centre of attention, soaked in a Champagne shower and being stared at by the entire crowd! Ah well, drinks were on the house from an apologetic Maître De and a sympathetic drinking companion and the Jazz was a blast, so no harm done (and no real dent in the budget either!).

After a night on the tiles, a hostel buddy took me to Bugis food court for a mango smoothie and claypot rice brunch, which set me up nicely for a mammoth meander round the city, including the hustle and bustle of Chinatown, Little India – with the streets all beautifully dressed for Divali and the stunning Singapore Museum.

The Red Dot Design museum was a highlight, which has also cleverly teamed up with local like-minded arty types and can suggest full and half day tours of many places of interest in the surrounding area.

Bugis Junction is an enormous shopping plaza bursingt with the latest designer gear, whilst over the road Bugis Street food and clothing market is home to the less than original branded wares.  Hawker stalls provide a fascinating feeding experience, where literally hundreds of Singaporeans and expats alike spill out onto the pavements and chow down on a plethora of delicacies and drink cheap(ish) beer.

Once fed and watered for under a fiver, I headed to Marina Bay, which hosts even more high end retail and top notch bars. Every evening, to add to the waterfront ambiance of the lotus flower ArtScience museum and the stunning Singaporean skyline, an incredible light show provides even more entertainment with holograms projected onto droplets of water – quite amazing.

The last mention needs to go to the architecture. If you like colourful buildings, a bizarre blend of old Chinese temples in amongst glass skyscrapers or colonial style villas brightly painted in rainbow hues, then you will never tire of taking in the many and varied streets, alley ways and avenues which never fail to surprise in Singapore.

It can seem expensive compared to the likes of Thailand and Malaysia, but if you keep out the shops, eat like a local (leave Raffles as a one off) and use local transport with a tourist pass or hit the streets on foot, your budget can go far.


Thailand – Land of Smiles, Lemongrass and Corianger

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It’s reputation precedes it… Sexy, seedy, scorching. Thousands of travellers (young and old) flock there every year – the Land of smiles, Lady Boys, Ping-Pong shows, Thai Brides, Full Moon Parties and “The Islands”…To be honest, it all felt a bit daunting.

However, my first foray as a “Farang” helped me see a completely different side to the traveller stereotype and gave me a taste of Thai life as a local (well sort of). Thanks to the amazing volunteering organization Lemongrass, I spent an incredible two weeks teaching English at a Government school in Surin (a seven hour bus ride north east of Bangkok).

Possibly the most reasonably priced volunteering scheme around, Lemongrass provides its volunteers with a very comfortable home, full teaching support and the best tour guide in Thailand (thanks June) to see the local sights by scooter or local truck (or bike if you can ride one!).

Trip highlights included the Thasawang Silk Village where you can see intricate Thai silk being woven by hand; the Ta Klang Elephant Village in Tha Toom District with four-legged  film stars and footballers and the Khwao Sinarin silver making village, where it’s impossible not to be mesmorised by the hand made beads being fashioned from makeshift tools, under the shelter of a stilted, wooden house.  And, that’s without even mentioning the local markets, the odd Rice Convention (did you know there are over 120,000 types of rice?) and a Thai Country and Western Karaoke.

But we were there to actually teach…Every morning the Tuk Tuk rumbled and spluttered outside the house, we took the 15 minute ride to school to be met with the wide smiles and eagerly expectant eyes of our students. Having not experienced many native westerners before, the pupils were fascinated by our hair, skin, the way we spoke and the games they knew we’d be playing throughout the lessons – Bingo was a particular favourite!

Staying through rainy season we experienced floods, waded through knee deep water to get to the noodle shack across the road and watched the fish swim across the driveway. During downtime we’d wave to the local elephant as he made his daily walk by the house selling (and eating) sugar cane, got to grips with a great number of geckos and learnt to cook Thai food – June’s fish can salad has a mean kick!

Although I enjoyed learning to cook, Thai food was my stumbling block. Despite sampling a full range of Thai cuisine from roadside Pad Thai, Pork Satay, a plethora of noodle soups; the school canteen’s ground, minced and fried frog and super spicy papaya salad; plus hotel A la Carte curries, I am still not a Thai food convert. This is due to my absolute hatred of coriander – the standard ingredient of most Thai food. This menu translation for fried fish summed up my feelings and gave us a titter!

Anyway, apart from my food foibles, suburban and rural Thailand is beautiful and completely different from the decadent and debauched ditties of many a traveller. The Lemongrass experience was amazing. I have made some great friends, been humbled by the kindness and generosity of wonderful students and learnt to appreciate a totally different way of life.

Lemongrass are always looking for volunteers, so get involved and have yourself a unique Thai experience you’ll cherish forever…


What’s not to love about Laos?

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First off, Laos is stunning. I didn’t know too much about it before I visited and when I arrived I was blown away by the scenery. No-one mentioned that!

Landlocked Laos sits between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam within South East Asia. It’s 6.2million people are hugely ethnically diverse and are largely self-sustaining, through living off their land, earning an average wage of US$2-300 per year.

Arriving in Lac Sao, after crossing the Cambodian border, there was not much to see other than our hotel, the local market and “The Only One” restaurant (named for obvious reasons).  Reminiscent of a Cambodian market but even more sparse and with squirrel and lizard on offer, it was a sight for tired eyes. After sampling some deep fried donut style treats we retreated back to the hotel amidst the enquiring and curious stares of the locals.

For dinner we went to the only restaurant in town and received a bizarre dish of macaroni with beef that was supposed to have been broccoli stir fry, (minor menu mis-translation). Anyhow, washed down with a Beer Laos, it was all fine and set us up for our onward trip the following day.

Vientiene, Laos’ Capital, was destroyed by the Siamese (now Thailand) in the 1800s and the French returned it Laos some time later. It is now a thriving city, with a growing expat community and prosperous bar and restaurant scene. We happened to be around for the public holiday and a huge festival lined the banks of the river. The vibrant evening carnival had a great party atmosphere with floats, stalls, games, food stands and whiskey tasting.

One of the main sights in Vientiene is the “Vertical Runway” – a replica of the Arch de Triomphe, so called because it was built with money given to Laos by the US Government to extend the airport runway. Instead, in a two fingered salute to their American pals, they built a huge monument for the people. I liked Laos’ sense of humour.

Vang Vieng was the next stop after a very long and bumpy bus ride. A water front resort home to the infamous “Tubing” i.e. going down the river from bar to bar on a rubber inner tube drinking buckets of vodka and covering yourself in fluorescent spray paint.  Immensely popular, great fun and the reason most people visit. There are also loads of other activities including trekking, caving, kayaking and cave tubing from as little as US$15 which are all worth a go.

Luang Prabang was the last main stop before the two day slow boat to Thailand. Absolutely beautiful, quaint and had a lovely vibe. We were lucky enough to join a Laos family for a traditional feast and full blessing from the elders too. There are also plenty of worthwhile projects to get involved with, particularly the book donation scheme which ensures the children of the river boats get a regular supply of educational materials and schooling.

Travelling from A to B is a mission in Laos as the roads are little more than dirt tracks and the major roads wind up and around the many mountains. It takes about 7-8 hours to travel 150km by road and there are no trains, but the scenery more than compensates for the bone shaking.

Laos people are shrewd yet friendly, embracing tourism possibly to the detriment of some towns such as Vang Vieng. Plus, large areas of landscape are being destroyed through logging to provide much needed income. However, without a doubt worth a visit and an unexpected trip highlight.


Cambodian Culture Shock

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Cambodia has become a trendy, almost cliché, destination for gap yahs and travellers – but don’t let that put you off – as it’s as grateful for the tourist dollar as you can get and it is certainly an experience you will never forget.

Films like “The Killing Fields” and books including’ “First they killed my father” and “When Broken Glass Floats” have highlighted the plight of Cambodians under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. I’d watched the film in communist China (where incidentally it is banned) and read enough to be moved into visiting this country that has lived through unspeakable horrors during my lifetime.

Cambodia is an incredibly interesting, uncomfortable and humbling country. It also offered my first taste of complete culture shock…

The usual things are different and, like anywhere, take a bit of getting used to – there’s the language with its flowery and ornate alphabet; the food – unique, flavoursome curries with delicacies borne out of extreme poverty such as grilled cockroaches, fried crickets and ants, snake bacon as well as the ‘medicinal’ tarantula rice wine (not for the weak of stomach)!

But there is a whole new level of culture shock in Cambodia found amongst the lack of roads (mainly dirt tracks), crumbled infrastructure, the seriously depleted public amenities (everything from basic electricity and water supplies to inadequate hospitals and school buildings).

And that’s even before the rainy season hits and washes away and entire year’s rice crop and turns the muddy streets into a waist high, brown rivers. Or, before one of the estimated 50,000 orphaned street children surrounds you – tugging at your arms (and your heart strings) to buy postcards, bracelets and other wares for “one dollar mister” so they can afford to go to school and avoid becoming  sex workers or child slaves.

In contrast to this are the cash-bought Lexus’ that cruise the streets of Phnom Penn, where the disparity between rich and poor are a stark reminder of the country’s corruption.

And, if that isn’t mind blowing enough, there’s the average age of the population…21years old. Only 3% of the country is over 65. Every single generation of every family has been affected by Year Zero and the maiming and killing of completely innocent citizens –sometimes for something as normal as wearing glasses or coming from a city.

But from Siem Reap and the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat or the extreme tuk-tuk rides through dark and flooded back alleys, to the beaches of Sihanoukville and the Killing Fields of Phnom Penn, nowhere else (yet) have I found more genuine, warm and hard working people, always smiling and would share with you anything they can, including their stories.

Gone are the days where you are greeted a your hostel with a welcome bag of weed but yes, there are psychedelic aging hippies and more than the ideal quota of Trustafarians which give it the great unwashed traveller stereotype, but it is an incredible, resilient place that should be given its dues on any travellers itinerary.


It’s good but it’s not right

Roy Walker’s classic quiz show catchphrase “It’s good but its not right” from the classic ‘80’s TV show of the same name, gets a regular outing in Asia, particularly China.
From the “Spoony” shoulder bag of the loveable, black and white cartoon dog and “Boos” the well-known men’s aftershave, to the comedy translations found on signage, there isn’t a day goes by without reading a slogan or phrase that leaves you in stitches or just plain confused.
There are a couple of entertaining books by Oliver Lutz which epitomise the Chinese command of English, known as Chinglish and, from my travels in Asia and Singapore (where they prefer the phrase “Singlish”), I’ve picked a few of my own favourites…menus and public signage among the best.

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The most revolting sounding meal was possibly “Deer meat soup added liquid feces in intestine” – not surprisingly came with the disclaimer “Bitter Taste”! A close second was the alternate option of “Deer meat salad soaked in liquid feces in intestine” – seemingly the less bitter option as no tasting notes with that one!
My personal favourite was a Thai restaurant, where due to my hatred of all things Coriander, the mains included “Lamb and corianger”, which Thai food gave me repeatedly.
It’ll be a fascination of travellers forever and the mistranslations will no doubt continue to cause a titter or two, but for now hope it’s given you a light-hearted look at what a confusing place the world can be – even when it doesn’t necessarily need to be!


Hong Kong highlights

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I LOVED Hong Kong. Despite a traumatic arrival, it was a place where acquaintances became life-long friends, I was re-energised to tackle the world and, above all, I had a really, really great time.

After being put in touch with an old school mate through a mutual friend (Facebook does have some benefits), a suggested catch up for coffee turned into two weeks of home comforts, family feasts and an expert expat take on the best of Hong Kong that I will never forget.

There was so much to do and such diversity of culture and landscape… Whether it was tasting life as an expat in Sai Kung or bunking down with the backpackers in Causeway Bay, I could wax lyrical about Hong Kong all day long, so here’s the condensed version…

Hong Kong Island…

Vibrant, bustling and cosmopolitan – a rich blend of Asian alley ways, western consumer culture and corporate skyscrapers.  Whether it’s brand name shopping, top notch cuisine, an evening’s entertainment, a visa run or a walk along the waterfront, you’ll find everything around Causeway Bay, Central and Wanchai.

Lang Kwai Fong and Soho, in and around Central/Mid-Levels (ingenious escalators), are the places the rich kids hang out. It ain’t cheap, but so many great spots to soak up the after work drinkers vibe, sample menus from all over the world, take in the antique streets and meandering markets. You’ll also find Asia’s first comedy club – which is a very entertaining night out indeed!

For a unique experience, the funicular tram up Victoria Peak is fantastic way to see the city and beyond. Not to mention the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co restaurant at the top (which fellow Forrest Gump Fans will find fabulous!), that has some of the best views over Hong Kong from its bar. Nearby, the Zoological and Botanical Gardens offer respite from the tourist trail and is home to many plant and animal species.

Happy Valley Races are a must for any racing fan (or horse racing virgins). At HK$10 for a ticket on Sundays and Wednesdays, it’s a great night out on the cheap and you might even get lucky backing the winner!

In the south, a short bus ride to Stanley, passing Repulse and Discovery Bays on your way, is a relaxing way to escape the city, check out the market, get some beach action and see a slower side of Hong Kong life.

And that’s just the Island, I haven’t even got started about the other stuff!

For a more authentic Asian experience, Kowloon offers up even more delights – from the Rolex and Gucci lined Nathan Road and the infamous Chungking Mansions (where I had the best curry ever – thanks Jordan), to the markets of Mong Kok and Temple Street. There’s also a LA style ‘Avenue of Stars’ with a free light show every evening that illuminates Hong Kong in musically accompanied neon lights!

Over on Lantau there’s the Ngong  Ping 360 cable car taking you to the Big Buddha Temple (and that is one massive Buddha)and an illegal drive (apparently you should have a permit) takes you to the quaint and quirky fishing village of  Tai O.

Towards the New Territories there‘s the lesser known, but fascinating Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery in Sha Tin and for a bit of nature there’s the  beautiful Sai Kung Country Park.

Then there’s the food, the trams, the Star Ferry and so much more…take your walking shoes, extra memory cards and go and see for yourself!

Dedicated to Family Atko…you are the best and I can’t ever thank you enough for making a good trip GREAT x x x


Six weeks in Shanghai

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For some reason Shanghai was like my own personal Mecca.  Arrival signified that I had made it overland across China and could do this traveling lark after all! It was a welcome (albeit brief) reunion of fellow Vodkatrainers, lost to individual itineraries for a few weeks. It also signified my first real taste of solo travel and the start of the rest of the year of adventure.

With no plan and even less of a clue the world literally was my oyster. As well as a very excited tummy, I don’t mind admitting that I was bewildered and overwhelmed by the possibilities that lay before me.

To be honest I didn’t have a Scooby what to do between Shanghai in April and Singapore in October, but I needn’t have worried, as it turned out to be the place where my trip unfolded unexpectedly and I loved it there so much and met so many great people, I stayed for six weeks!

Via the internet I signed up for a four week TEFL course with Orient Now and spent five days a week studying teaching techniques, observing 4 to 14 year old students at the DD Dragon English School in downtown Shanghai. Spending my weekends and evenings seeing the sights, even in six weeks, I was never at a loose end for something new to do or eat!

People’s Square, People’s Park  and People’s Avenue were amazing for people watching (funnily enough); shopping at East Nanjing Road and the “wanna buy a watch, iPod, DVD, bag” crew were always entertaining – if a little stressful; the beautiful Bund never grew tiresome with its Jetsons-esque city of the future at one side of the river and replica old London on the other.

The view from the top of the Shanghai World Financial Centre in Pudong was incredible (and if you go at 5.30pm and hang around you get to see day and night and the whole of Shanghai turning its lights on!). The view from the Oriental Pearl TV tower however isn’t so good, but the tower itself is one of my favourite buildings to date.

A mosey along the Ancient Culture Street with its Old Film Café and colonial and Chinese architecture is amazing. The Shanghai Museum, Shanghai Planning Exhibition, Moganshan Art District, Shanghai Downtown, the never ending shopping malls, the (very hands on) Science and Technology and Contemporary Art museums, plus the covert Communist Propaganda Art museum were a constant source of stimulation.

Only an hour and a half by train outside the mega city, the water village of Suzhou gave a break from the hustle and bustle and offered beautiful gardens, ancient temples and Venice style waterways to while away an afternoon.

Getting around was simple (if a little squashed) on the vast and inexpensive subway system. Or, getting in amongst it with the locals by bus was a sweaty and surreal way to travel to school (but for 20p you can’t complain!). And, if all that racing around makes you hungry, there is food to cater for every palette (and most budgets).

A sprawling metropolis with more cosmopolitan attitudes than can be found elsewhere in communist China, Shanghai is clearly going places. Fast paced, with its sights firmly set on the future, Shanghai is a “must visit”– even just for a couple of days.