Monday, 16 March 2015

Tiong Bahru and the Monkey God's Birthday

The British Association here in Singapore organise many interesting tours both within Singapore and further afield. The 15th or 16th day of the first lunar month is the day that Singaporeans celebrate the birthday of the Monkey God and what better place to visit on the first Friday in March than Singapore's 
View over Tiong Bahru towards the grey towers of SGH;
the triangular building is the market
oldest Monkey God Temple, Qi Tian Gong Temple in Eng Hoon Street, Tiong Bahru.

Tiong Bahru is a fascinating area built in the 1930s and 40s so the low rise housing is firstly unique in being low rise and secondly distinctly art deco in style. Only a few minutes walk from home I first visited to shop at the wet market for fish, meat and vegetables which though a much newer building is built in keeping with the area. Around the area many of the ground floor places have become shops and many of those have in recent years been transformed into trendy cafes, bakeries and other eateries. There are also bookshops and upmarket quirky lifestyle stores. All of this gentrification is apparently forcing up rents and forcing out older tenants and has led to headlines wondering if the residents of Tiong Bahru might soon be drowning in cappuccinos. It certainly has made the top ten list of the hippest places in the world including a nomination by Vogue magazine as number 4 in its top 15 coolest places to live! However behind the main streets lie quiet footpaths and gardens - above all Tiong Bahru remains a residential estate of families and generations of families. There is even a huge bomb shelter should either Indonesia or Malaysia threaten the island again.

Our tour took us to the 21st floor of one of the nearby HDB blocks (the Housing Development Board is responsible for social housing across Singapore) for views across Tiong Bahru to Singapore General Hospital. Originally the area was housing for staff from the hospital and for "third wives" aka the women who worked in the cabaret bars of the Great World Amusement Park just up the road. The latter is now a shopping mall and today's nurses probably can't afford Tiong Bahru rents!

Like much of the area Tiong Bahru was once used as a cemetery but after major fires in the wooden slums of Singapore the powers that be decided to clear the graves and repurpose the land to build concrete homes for its citizens. There are still a few graves on the hill just across Outram road belonging to significant Singaporean families that have survived even the more recent road widening!

Another sign of the times is Birdsong Corner - once the elderly men hung up their bird cages and sat and drank their coffee by the nurses home, judging whose bird had the best song or looked the prettiest etc.  When the nurses home was redeveloped into a hotel new bird cage hooks located in a central area of the HDB housing far from the coffee shops and in deep shade. Sadly if the planners had asked the locals first they would have realised it would not be suitable so now stands rather forlorn. The original bird cage corner now has ornamental hooks but being by a busy mainroad and without a coffee shop or seating serves only as a place for tourists to stand and take photos.

What of the monkey god? As far as I can tell he was a character in a 16th century novel which in turn was based on folk stories. Born from a stone Sun Wu Kong was a fierce character, a sort of demon, who was tricked into wearing  a band around his head that tightens when a special chant is made causing the god great pain and hence controlling him. Today Taoists believe he helps them in their business lives and he has been worshipped in Singapore since the 1920's. On the occasion of his birthday there is lion dancing and an afternoon parade around the streets of Tiong Bahru and later a performance of Chinese Opera on the street corner opposite the Monkey God Temple.
The Monkey God Temple

Lots of plastic costumes complete with boots!

Chairs ready to parade the Monkey God 

Temple Flags

That evening Kevin & I returned to the area to listen to some of the opera. The few seats were occupied by some elderly grandmothers so we had to stand over by the temple to avoid being run down by delivery lorries and other traffic! The costumes and stage set were colourful in mostly yellow and red, apparently both the singers were male though at least one seemed dressed as a woman and being in Chinese both music and story were lost on us. Long before the opera had progressed we retreated for supper and a beer at the Tiong Bahru Club This is a bar that also serves excellent Eurasian food ie curry; the service is a bit haphazard but it just adds to the fun and we chatted both to the lovely manager and some of our fellow diners, everyone in Tiong Bahru seems neighbourly and friendly.Definitely one place to bring future visitors!

For more photo's of the area check out their blog and the Facebook page

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Things to Do In Terengganu

The beach near Marang
Day 1 - Thursday
After our long drive north our first full day at Terrapuri was spent mostly lounging around. With few guests overnight breakfast was leisurely, served underneath one of the central buildings. It was raining but every villa has a jar of umbrellas on the verandah so we arrived dry. The trays of food were delivered by two staff, one to hold the umbrella! Nasi Goreng accompanied by smoked chicken sausages, bread fritters and scrambled egg could be followed by toast and marmalade.  Or if you wanted there was a selection of cereals.

Later after an inexpensive if not exactly healthy lunch of squid in batter, a skewer of large prawns also battered and a single steamed fish dumpling between two of us at a local beach cafe Kevin and I explored the coast down as far as Marang by car. Here the various resort ferries depart to the resort islands off the coast - Redang, Kecil and Besar. From a seawall near to the university outward bound centre we watched some smaller boats attempt the local river entrance at low water. It was shallow in the heavy surf breaking across the bar as one ran aground though it was quickly re floated by a crew member who jumped out and pushed it back into the channel!


One of numerous beach eateries along the coast here
Back at Terrapuri all three of us took up sun loungers under sunshades by the pool, alternating lazing around with cooling dips. The pool is gorgeous; leaning on the far end, you've a view of a river inlet with jungle wetlands beyond. We weren't alone, a family from KL were having fun in the pool too. Most of our fellow guests were from KL and spent only a night or two at Terrapuri usually in one of the larger houses that can accommodate four or more.

Another beach cafe provided a tasty tomyam, yet more nasi goreng and lovely stir fried veg served in a yummy ginger and lemongrass sauce for supper. Again inexpensive at 33 ringets (£8) for the three of us, though as everything was freshly prepared, it was quite a wait as they were busy.

Day 2 - Friday
After breakfast Kevin and I decided to hire one of the resorts kayaks for an hour or so's exploration of the wetlands around Terrapuri. These were hefty GRP double man boats but the hotel staff willing carried ours down to the water. There wasn't a buoyancy aid big enough to fit Kevin, his shoulders being much broader than the average Malayan. Similarly the kayak was built for the local market and the seats a cosy fit. Kevin couldn't get in the rear one at all and only just fitted the slightly broader and longer front space so I ended up paddling with my knees bent up. We were told "don't go out into the big river" which was like a red rag to both of us so guess where we headed! The inlet through wetlands was shallow with the tide ebbing gently so for a bit we found ourselves almost punting. The mud was an evil smelling black ooze like Langstone Harbour or Newton Creek in the Solent so we felt at home.

The skipper is just at home in a kayak!
The wetland is mostly made up of a palm with tall upright fronds intermingled with young mangrove trees. We saw little wildlife beyond the odd fish jumping, a squat heron and a brilliant blue kingfisher with a white chest. The inlet twisted and twined its way along the spit towards the "big river" past several cars and fishermen on the bank above us. On the spit to our right the tall coconut palms scattered across the sandy grass like the six pine trees in Winnie the Pooh, were in complete contrast to the wetland on the other side, we poked in and out of the mangroves as we gently paddled along. Out in the big river the outgoing current was strong so we stuck close to the starboard bank, heading upstream along the mangroves for 15 mins or so before turning back. The river was so broad that wakes from returning fishermen in their powerful narrow skiffs or longtails hardly disturbed us as they roared home to the villages up stream. It was a fun expedition but cycling along the spit on a couple of the resort's bicycles may have allowed us to see more wildlife.


Amazing views across Lake Kenyir
An hour or so's drive inland is Lake Kenyir. Apparently the largest man-made lake in SE Asia it was created in 1985 by damming the River Kenyir to drive a power station. The resulting lake contains numerous jungle covered islands which were once hilltops and gives access to areas that were virtually impenetrable previously. The locals haven't been slow to exploit the scenery for tourism with boat trips to any one of the several waterfalls, a herbal garden or to one of the many campsites. It being a holiday weekend the carparks around the main jetty at the north end of the lake was crammed with 4x4s and cars piled  with camping gear, families and cool boxes all waiting for boats to take them out to the campsites or to a houseboat for a couple of nights. Sadly the visitor centre and cafe at the viewpoint above the lake here have seemingly been abandoned to the bats but down at the jetty there are kiosks touting the boat trips and a couple of cafes serving cold fruit juices, fried fish and the ubiquitous nasi goreng.

If you are going that fast at this point it is too late!

Motorway style signs on the lake

Our boat
We and a Malaysian-Chinese family from KL (Mum, Dad and four student children aged 16 - 23) joined forces to book a two hour boat trip encompassing the herb garden and a waterfall walk. It was a fixed price per boat and could seat around a dozen passengers - the father of the other family negotiated our trip for 120 Ringgits (less than a fiver a head in UK terms). Our transport was a broad skiff seating three or four per thwart with a huge outboard engine that enabled the nine of us plus the captain to speed across the water, bow wave rising up on either side. He insisted we all wear buoyancy aids according to "maritime police regulation". They proved a tight fit for our larger European frames, neither Kevin's nor my own would fasten despite having the largest size so they wouldn't have done us much good in an emergency!

Was that a road sign on that distant island?  It seems that with so many islands and inlets huge motorway style signage was required, complete with brown tourist destinations and blue places! The herbal garden was interesting with almost every tree and plant labelled but unfortunately they were mostly in Malay with smattering of Latin or European names I half recognised. Our captain brewed up two revolting and one tasteless "tea" for us all to try using water kept hot in two blackened pots over a wood fire. Medicine is not supposed to taste good but these really were bad and we couldn't really understand what health benefits these local brews were supposed to impart despite our fellow passengers interpreting for us. The massage path was fun to try but proved painful to our soles after just a few metres.

A short distance across the head of the lake we reached the little inlet formed by the river Saok tumbling down a lengthy waterfall. the inlet was crowded with two big houseboats moored and their dozens of occupants swimming or lounging around in the pavilions overlooking the water. Leaving Rhona aboard, the rest of us climbed the path alongside the river to the falls. Quite a few adults and children were having fun bathing in the pools or sliding down the rocks with the water but none of us had brought our swimming gear so we took it in turns to pose for pictures on the rocks instead. Then it was back to the jetty and farewell to our new friends.
Rhona enjoying a sit down

Not impressed with the herbal tea

A massage path

The high water level in the lake meant improvised access

Fun in the waterfall

Photo time

The upper falls

Day 3 - Saturday
Terrapuri's owner also runs a local travel agent Anchorage Tours so various day trips from Terrapuri are on offer. There are two nearby state capitals Kota Bahru to the north in the next state and Kuala Terengganu (KT) an hour or so south. We decided to visit KT. It was good to have someone else driving along the coastal road and our guide offered a bit of a choice on actual activities though having discovered early on that we liked boats our first stop had to be on the way into the city. The island of Duyong is mostly driven over by anyone entering KT from the north as it off-centrally supports the 3km long bridge across the estuary. Its a fairly large island with a resort and a couple of kampungs or fishing villages. Hidden away are three traditional boat yards making wooden fishing boats, though one also claimed to make yachts and its neighbour had a fine example of an almost flat bottomed two masted sailing yacht. From the traditional red canvas sails stored in the shed it looked as if it was junk rigged but what ever the rigging and home comforts it had Kevin and I decided that we wouldn't want to be caught out in a storm on it or attempt making a windward passage as it appeared not to have any form of deep keel or centre board.

Our next stop was the State Museum - a fantastic concrete building created in the style of the regions traditional wooden homes - an impressive edifice that dwarfed our little village homes at Terrapuri. Inside is maze of old fashioned displays - mostly reading but we gathered a little background knowledge of several of the traditional crafts like batik, songket weaving, brass work and boat building. Outside were a collection of old vehicles one used by the city council - a sort of brief history of 20th century transport. Time did not permit us to explore the extensive gardens or find the state collection of Malay houses, it was on to the seriously underwhelming and so called Crystal Mosque.

A gentleman's yacht - tradewind sailing only

Decaying

Terengganu State Museum

The Crystal Mosque

I am not certain what I expected of this building but it looked like a bad bit of 1970's architecture - all bronze reflective glass and white walls though apparently it was built only six or seven years ago. The photo opportunities were predictable - blue skies and fluffy clouds as reflected in the curving surfaces of the domes and minaret towers. The river traffic was more interesting. Terengganu is a strongly Muslim state and our guide I think was a bit put out that we didn't want to stay longer but after the Grand Mosques of Bahrain, Istanbul and Abu Dhabi this one smacked of a blatant attempt at commercialism with its souvenir stalls and its location in a so called Islamic Culture Park. Nonetheless it is Trip Advisor's top attraction in KT!

Lunch was included in our tour fees and was chicken rice at a beach side hawker centre - I'd guess our guide was used to taking Europeans who have a preference for less spicy food. If he had but asked us there were several stalls serving Malay dishes that we'd have liked to have tried. Onward to the best bit of the day for Rhona and I - the craft centre. Another blatantly commercial venue designed to prize money from tourists however we did get to see a little glass blowing, an elderly lady making woven baskets, hats and smaller items from dyed palm fronds and a young lady sketching out a design on a length of white silk prior to dying it. There were other batiks both cotton and silk drying in the craft area. Up a few more steps was a huge hall full of batik for sale - cotton, hand printed, factory printed as well as gorgeous songket fabrics. Songket is a local tradition brought over form India many centuries ago - the cotton or silk fabric is woven with gold or silver threads. It can be heavily ornate like brocade or a lighter design.

Iron batik stamps

Traditional palm weaving

Drawing the design on silk
The halls were a jumble of bright colours, buy a finished garment, a sarong or simply lengths of fabric. Plenty of special offers - ready made sarong tubes were 10 Ringgits or £2 each whilst the absolute bargain was a buy one get one free offer on 4 metre lengths of hand batiked silk for 380 ringgits (around £70). Four metres is long enough to make a sari as the assistant showed me but my intention for a peacock blue with orange orchids length is to make a kaftan, the other slightly less gaudy may become a smart dress or skirt or both.

Chinese New Year being a public holiday even in this predominantly Muslim state the traffic was terrible so our progress around the city from venue to venue was extremely slow. Eventually we made it to the brass workshop but there was little to see apart from one young lad polishing a huge vase one last time with that very British invention Brasso. The owner explained to Kevin that they had been forced to move from their historic site across the road by redevelopment so some temporary buildings currently house their shop and machines. Not ideal with little parking but he hopes to move to a purpose built place "soon". From there we drove very slowly through the Central Market area and Chinatown due to the shear volume of traffic. Deciding we'd done and seen enough for one day it was time to head back to the peace and quiet of Terrapuri and the pool.

Tall palms on a sandy spit

Trying desperately to remain standing for this selfie!
That is Kevin's head in the distance
Once back Rhona headed for a little nap whilst Kevin and I changed  into swmming gear and ventured to the beach. The sea was warm and blue. However we soon realised there was a strong current running parallel to the coast and a shallow sand bar some twenty metres or so off the steeply shelving beach; not a place I would recommend for swimming or surfing if you are not a confident swimmer. The stiff onshore breeze caused by the North East Monsoon meant the breakers on the bar were fairly large even making it over to break again on the beach. Perhaps a nice location to lie on a sunlounger and be exfoliated by the monsoon swept white sand at this time of year as a couple of guests were doing, hence the younger guests were making extensive use of Terrapuri's pool! Sandy and sticky with salt we retreated to that pool via the quirky poolside shower disguised as a mass of devils ivy climbing a wooden pole.

So in summary:
Be prepared to slow down, nothing in this state happens fast and when eating out in Terengganu you need to love fish, spicy foods and not be too bothered about eating healthily!

Things to See:
  • Lake Kenyir is well sign posted as Tasik Kenyir from most places
  • Kuala Terengganu - but go on a week day and not on the Saturday of Chinese New Year
  • Batik Making - we visited the Noor Arfa craft centre
  • The National Museum - I'd guess you could probably spend a whole morning here
  • The beaches - white sand and tall swaying palms but be careful about swimming off them
  • Traditional Malay Houses - what better place to experience these than Terrapuri! 
  • Learn a few words of Malay (Bahasa Meyalu) especially food words as there are few menus only pinned up lists - see below
You can find a few more ideas of places to visit or to shop for local crafts here and here

Our Essential Guide to Bahasa Melayu menus:
  • Nasi - rice
  • Nasi Lemak - coconut rice
  • Mee - noodles
  • Goreng - fried
  • Ikan - fish (Ikan Bilis are anchovies and often seem to appear on menus)
  • Sotong - squid
  • Ayam - chicken
  • Air - water but also may be juice eg Air Limau is lime juice a common refreshing drink
  • Keropok Lekor - a Terengganu fish sausage, roadside stalls selling this always have huge queues


We'll certainly be back as a couple of nights on a houseboat seem like fun and there are still the resorts of Khota Bahru further north to explore as well as the island of Redang.