Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Quirky Singapore

Stormy weather at Changi Sailing Club

Greetings from a murky wet and grey Friday in Singapore. Woke up this morning and Kevin commented that it could be a November day in the UK except it's a few degrees warmer outside than it would be over there and the AC has been on all night in a bid to keep the air cool and dry enough to sleep comfortably.

Like many a Brit settling here before us Singapore has rapidly felt like home. Thinking about why this should be we decided there is a certain familiarity about streets with rows of little shops and the names of long dead British generals, colonialists or politicians. There is even a High Street, the first street established by the original planners though it is now tucked away behind Fort Canning Park and no longer a main thoroughfare. The shops themselves carry many familiar brands and stores like Robinson's, one of several big department stores, would fit right into any UK city. There are many similarities in every walk of life, perhaps not surprising when you realise that next year the Little Red Dot celebrates it's 50th Birthday since independence so is a very new country with long time ties to Britain.

This row of converted shop houses
would look quite at home in Britain despite the orange paint and the shutters

The exotic - a tiny temple

Modern Singapore

Quirky Singapore - racks of fancy dress costumes in a back street
Familiarities and difference aside, we've also noticed quite a few quirky things which make Singapore just a little different from the rest of the world, here are my top five in no particular order:

Sweet & Sour Fish supper
1. The number of eateries...yes that is what they call them not "restaurants" or "cafes". It's a broad term covering everything from posh hotel establishments to familiar chain burger places, from hawker centres to hot chestnut stalls and local restaurants. It seems most of Singapore eats out most of the time; there is always food available whether you fancy a bite to eat after a night at the pub or some breakfast on the way to work. I am sure if you were to wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning hungry there will be somewhere not far away open.  In fact at almost every event or place we've visited there is invariably food on offer and people eating!

2 Hunting for change for parking is not something you ever need to do in Singapore. Every car has an IU on the dashboard and you purchase rechargeable cash card to slot in it. The unit is read by the entry barrier to car park and then on exit it deducts the right amount from your cash card. This is actually the secondary purpose of an IU, it was introduced to pay tolls on entering the ERP zones  (electronic road pricing aka congestion charges) - expressways and the city centre. In practise the tolls don't reduce the number of cars, car taxation does that, meanwhile every off-street carpark has adopted the system even our own apartment block, not that they charge us, the IU simply enables them to identify resident's cars, opening the barriers (the main gate and the car park) automatically to allow access.

Spot the foam "snow" - Gardens by the Bay
3 All the shop assistants here really mean it when they say "Merry Christmas", "Good morning", or as one person wished me recently "Have a really nice day". Most genuinely want to engage their customer in conversation even in the bigger, busier stores so expect to take time over your purchases. The Red Dot is a very friendly place.

4 Almost everyone young or old will be consulting their phone at the bus stop. There are a plethora of routes, frequent services and a choice of excellent phone apps to help you plan your route, inform you when the next 970 bus will arrive and even where to find the nearest bus stop with buses heading in your direction. Boards at the stop too are clear to understand - red labelled bus routes have disabled friendly buses for example - and every bus stop has both a name and a number so is easy to identify. But buses here can also either be late or early despite what your phone says. I know, I have waited 10 mins for a bus the app tells me has ARR (arrived) and missed a bus the app said was four minutes away; bus services here are then just as anywhere else in the world but shhhh don't tell the Singaporeans that!

5 Parking backwards why? Everybody but everybody except for the odd European expat reverses into the parking space - quick getaway perhaps? 

Parking backwards seems to be a national obsession

Spot the odd one out - Valley Park visitors
That's it my top five quirky things in Singapore I'm sure there's lots more and that other expats will almost certainly have a different list!  For now can we wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Fair Winds for 2015.
"Trees" - Gardens by the Bay

Friday, 5 December 2014

Railway Walks

View from Holland Park Road Bridge
It is not often in the midst of a major conurbation that you get the opportunity to escape to the countryside but we've discovered Singapore's equivalent of Richmond Park, London. Rather than a huge medieval deer hunting park this particular rural gem is long and thin; it was once the Malaysia railway line that ran from Woodlands in the north of the island down to the old main station at Tanjong Pajar in the south. Some 17 or 18 kilometres of jungle lined space where, being set mostly in cuttings, traffic noise hardly penetrates.

This rural park has survived the developer mainly it seems because the ownership was disputed for years after the railway was defunct. The Malaysians took away "their" railway track in 2001 leaving just the muddy bed on which it had been laid. In a few areas the neighbours have extended their gardens into the fringes but for the most part it is a single continuous right of way across the island from north to south. All the roads cross on bridges above and below nature has had a free hand. Its name "The Green Corridor" is well deserved.

Landed properties fringe the line
This massive bridge supports a big road junction
Being in a dip and it being monsoon season the walker quickly realises that the drainage is not good. The trail is extremely muddy in parts with quite deep puddles under one or two of the bridges too. Sturdy shoes or wellies rather than flipflops are advised. The trackside trees and shrubs offer little shade from the equatorial sun so its best explored early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Take plenty of water too as there are few convenient stores along the way without climbing up to the road level and making a detour.

Before heading off we printed off the excellent maps provided by the Green Corridor's own website and worked out which bus stop or MRT station to start from. Public transport in Singapore is excellent and together with phone apps like xxxxx and xxxx it is easy to work out the quickest route to almost anywhere on the island. Bus stops have numbers and names and yet another number on the bus shelter which can be a bit confusing at first but you soon work out which bits of info are the most useful in which app. Armed with a topped up ezLink card we set off for the Holland Road Bridge, not far from where we stayed when we first arrived and just a short walk from a bus route which also runs close by our Valley Park apartment.

Presumably this school running track is no longer used!

Innovative engineering! The ironing board bridge

Drainage works at Buona Vista meant a short detour

Holland Road crosses the Green Corridor about the mid way point and once we had scrambled down the embankment (there was an easier way onto the walk from a local street we spied a few minutes later) Kevin & I headed south. This stretch is very popular with walkers, runners and cyclists but within a couple of kilometres we had the path to ourselves. There is plenty to see - the back gardens of the Black and White colonial era houses in the Alexandria area, modern office blocks towering above us around Buona Vista as well as new-to-us trees, plants and birds plus the occasional squirrel. We managed two sections of the maps down as far as Queensway Road which equated to around 4 km in all. It was late morning, the sun was high and the thunder clouds stating to pile up time to call a halt to our exploration. The pair of muddy and thirsty expat walkers suddenly appearing over the crash barrier at the edge of the bridge rather surprised motorists stopped at the Alexander/AYE junction!

Thunder clouds building

You could be anywhere but in the
middle of a densely populated city

Sunday morning volley ball

A few remaining railway sleepers

Mosque seat with cherry blossom!

The end of our walk
A short walk past the Alexandria Hospital brought us to Queensway shopping centre where the golden arches provided two large helpings of cold drinks. Then it was time to find a bus home. Kevin uses the buses hereabouts for his weekday commute as Valley Park is the opposite end of Alexandra Road to his office. Few buses actually go along the entire length of the road, most use short stretches of it and do loops back and forth between it and parallel roads; hence he tried to explain but I didn't grasp that you have to get on a bus apparently heading the wrong way! Eventually we sorted ourselves out by checking the phone apps several times and found a bus from by the hospital that would stop outside of our complex having taken us on a tour of Redhill, an area further along the south-eastern side of the hill upon which we live. Buses are a great way to see Singapore too. 

And we have a lot more of this beautiful strip of Singapore to explore over the coming months.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

A So So Day Out

Aviary waterfall
Having arrived at the island of Singapore, dropped the metaphorical hook and sorted ourselves out, our natural next step is to explore wherever it is this pair of globetrotting sailors have washed up. And preferring to avoid the usual tourist traps, posh hotels, brunches etc we recently decided to visit Jurong Bird Park located deep in the western industrial area of Singapore.

Getting there was an easy trip along the PIE (the Pan Island Expressway). Finding somewhere to park was another matter as the signage got you off the main road but missed the last vital step of an immediate left turn; we found ourselves heading up the hill above the park. Nice views of the Jurong shipyards from below the satellite station! Eventually we realised what looked like a lorry park exit was also the carpark entrance!

The park itself nestles on the hillside wth lots of ponds, enclosures and a huge walk-in aviary complete with 100 foot waterfall. Apart from the penguins who were a sorry looking bunch mostly interested in their compatriots staring at them from the mirrored wall, most of the birds were from Asia and therefore exotic - Jurong's claim that it is "where colour lives" is indeed true. NB: Do penguins do anything other than stand around in large huddles anyway?

Looks like a Dodo...

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The local wildlife has made itself at home!

Shaggy pelicans... look more like cuddly toys!

Our tactic of arriving just after mid-morning and leaving when extreme hunger set in during the early afternoon meant we missed all the shows - parrots feeding, hawks flying, pelicans being fed and so on.  Despite this we enjoyed our walk especially in the big jungle filled aviary where the punk pigeons, the purple finches and the brilliantly coloured starlings kept us entertained. Setting a bird park in a tropical region is genius - the exotic rainforest plants with their blowsy blooms and generous greenery make a superb backdrop for the splashes of colour of feathers of every hue. Seeing lovebirds not paired up on a perch in a UK petshop, but flying freely back and forth from a bird table covered in fruit and seed was a treat with their trim colouring and beady white rimmed eyes - they do look like they have been painted. The flamingoes splashing through the fountain and sifting the mud around the lake shore looked completely at home even though they are normally found in much drier climes.

However when it came to feeding ourselves we discovered that the food on offer was, like many an attraction the world over, mediocore at best. The big bowls of luke warm laksa, Singapore's national dish were a travesty, one prawn, tastless noodles and little of the coconutty spicyness that makes this a favourite comfort food everywhere on the island. As we ate we realised many of our fellow diners were leaving their food almost untouched. Next time we'll come earlier or later to catch the morning or afternoon shows and plan to eat elsewhere.
Even starlings and pigeons manage to look exotic

My favourite - the punk pigeon!