Friday, 27 February 2015

Chinese New Year Break in Remote Malaysia

A Staghorn Fern
Having rather belatedly managed to book a short holiday in North Eastern Malaysia for Kevin, myself and Rhona, flights back to Singapore proved impossible to find so there was little alternative but to drive the 670 odd kilometres north to the Malaysian state of Terengganu from Singapore. The Wednesday prior to Singapore's Chinese New Year holidays (Thursday 19 & Friday 20 Feb) turned out to be a long day passing acre upon acre of oil palm plantations. There were short respites from the monotonous dark green with a few plantations of rubber trees and at odd times stretches of jungle or glimpse of a beach from the coastal road but mostly it was oil palm.

From just north of Kuatuan a new expressway made the journey faster though an early unexplained detour routed us along with dozens of other cars plus a few coaches off the motorway over a bridge through a toll booth, an immediate  U-turn back through the toll booth and back onto the original expressway where we passed through a third toll. Despite handing over our card at each booth we seemed to be charged a few ringgits just once in all the palaver! Further north the advertised service stations were still under construction so we had to make another detour towards Bukit Besi in search of fuel and loo's; the first garage we reached a couple of kilometres from the expressway offered the latter but had run out of the former though the staff helpfully supplied directions to a rival garage. Back on the expressway it came to a confusing end somewhere to the west of Kuala Terengganu and not as shown on our map, south of the town. However the route north to Maranga and Penarik was reasonably well signposted and we never actually got lost.

Glass net floats by the gate
In fact the only mishap of the day was not of our making; as Kevin slowly pulled onto a roundabout on the outskirts of Kuala Terengganu, an elderly motorcyclist thought he could shoot in front of us taking the shortest route to the next but one exit...our Hyundai nudged him to the ground and we feared the worst as he disappeared under the near side corner of the bumper. Fortunately it all happened so slowly that only his pride was damaged. He apologised profusely, waving Kevin back into the car and the few onlookers away as he brushed himself down...his dusty pinstripe trousers seemingly took the brunt of his short slide along the gutter, peppered with holes but then they may have been like that already!

Eventually as dusk was falling we pulled up outside a sturdy gate. Terrapuri is situated on a long sand spit north of Penarik Beach with a river in one side and tall coconut palms, white sand fringing the South China Sea on the other. Above the outer wall we could see the red roof tiled tops of traditional Malay buildings on stilts with their quirky steep, gently curved gabled ends overhanging the lower end roof. The ancient wooden walls are weathered silver grey. Our first glimpses of Terrapuri were even more stunning than the photos we'd seen online, the welcome was warm and genuine even if the staff probably aren't that used to European expat guests.

Tendrils of morning glory
The first challenge were the steps up to reception, this is not the place to stay if you have limited mobility but we had been warned. Broad but steep wooden stairs lead up to the reception "house" verandah and another flight of even steeper stairs into the house itself. Cold towels, a refreshing drink and diamonds of sweet melon were served as we signed in. Then as darkness fell, we were conducted to our two houses. Rhona chose one with a hand rail as it was easier to climb and ours tucked just inside the inner gate had curved steps that seem to rest lightly on the verandah framework but proved perfectly sturdy.

Terrapuri is the fruit of one man's passion, apparently the owner Alex rescued historic 100 to 250 year old Malay houses from around the region for many years before he found the perfect plot of land to reconstruct them on. The result is laid out along the lines of a traditional Malay palace; four central buildings doing duty as reception, a lounge and for serving meals are surrounded by a shallow "moat" containing a variety of fish and some stands of reeds with stepping stones for access. On the northern side and also towards the rear of the plot more wooden houses each provide guest accommodation. A couple of brick buildings in the old style are home to the kitchen and the spa on the southern side. At the opposite end to the entrance gates is a gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the river. Beside the pool is a water feature made of traditional mill stones, the splashing water both cooling and relaxing. Scattered around are many large pots some containing water lillies, ancient farming equipment, wooden boats, spinning wheels, loom frames, plants, trees and the occasional cat.

The inner "square"
High Rise Dining Room
Breakfast was taken under one of the central houses

Tembakang - our home for our stay
Each unique house with it's Malay name rather than an impersonal number, contributes to the beauty of the place. Inside "Tembakang" (our house) was a single long room about 20 foot long by 10 foot wide. The underside of the clay tiles visible high above in between the wooden rafters. The two set of doors opening onto the verandah are held shut from inside with wooden bars, the floor is a deep gleaming red like a pecan nut shell and the windows though now glazed still retain their intricate wooden lattice work. A pair of big ceiling fans spin lazily stirring the air from the floor based ac unit (looking for all the world like a European radiator). At the far end the bed is draped with white muslin mosquito nets sewn to a canvas square in turn hanging from a wooden frame suspended above the bed; essential equipment so close to the wetlands that line the river banks.  A desk, a single chair, a shelf carrying a brass tray with cups, saucers, kettle and a fridge tucked below it, a glazed cupboard and a small chest complete the furnishings. Every surface has been decorated with frangipane blossoms and a length of dark crimson songket, the locally woven gold threaded brocade runs across the foot of the bed.
Old farming tools hang under some buildings
Water feature by the pool
Water pot
 Stepping down into the room beyond that runs the full length of the rear of our nest we discovered a luxurious bathroom. To the left a pair of square sinks, by the central window a huge wooden bathtub. To the right of that a loo with a view over the wetlands and beyond, a slate shower room the size of many family bathrooms. A towel rail and a couple of oversized coat hooks complete the furnishings. These houses may be historic but their bathrooms have full mod cons including hot running water and an almost dustbin lid sized shower head!

Intricate windows

We opted to eat in for our first evening not being able to face the short drive to the beach cafes of Penarik. The set menu is simple but tasty local food though that first night was served up in a mysterious order that saw savoury and sweet courses arrive together. Odd but the view from the raised dining area over the swimming pool and beyond to the wetlands more than made up for it - even in the darkness it was dramatic.

The long drive was definitely worth the effort and the next few days proved perfectly relaxing and away from it all. We fell a sleep that night to the sound of the ocean breaking on the beach.

PS: There are lots more photos of this gorgeous and historic resort on Terrapuri's website and their facebook page

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Southern Ridges Walk

View of Sentosa from Mount Faber
With no desert to drive in and no boat to sail, new weekend activities have to be found for Temptress' crew. One of our little Singaporean discoveries is that there are lots of walking routes and incredibly in this tiny island, that it is possible to get completely away from the sound of traffic and modern life just a short distance from our doorstep. previously we've walked a bit of the Green Corridor (last December's blog on that, must do another stretch soon) and the Tree Tops Walk at MacRitchie Reservoir. Last Sunday morning we decided to explore the length of the Southern Ridges walk.

Kevin had covered part of this path from Alexandra Road to Mount Faber with our friends' Chris and Netti when they stopped off in Singapore mid-January and realised it is basically one long uphill incline in that direction. He was determined to start this time from Mount Faber, the highest point; from there it should all be down hill, shouldn't it?

Valley Park is located somewhere below the central grey tower!
The number 65 bus from our home at the top of River Valley Road conveniently dropped us at Harbour Front where after crossing the road, we spotted the first of the many signs, you are not going to get lost very easily on this walk, at least initially. Getting to the start of the Southern Ridge path however was our first challenge, the Marang Trail is short but a lot of steps from effectively sea level to 105m. People walking down were encouraging - "you're nearly there" they'd chirp as they passed but turning the next corner the steps went on and on. Huffing and puffing we reached the roadway at last (alternatively you can take a taxi to the cable car station and avoid this exertion).

Our route was clearly signed both via posts and yellow markings across the pathway. There are spectacular views  across Singapore from either side - south to Sentosa, the ships at anchor and beyond Indonesia and north west towards the city centre. We both spent some time picking out familiar landmarks and trying to spot from the various vantage points the distinctive 20 story block we live in, we didn't though we could make out neighbouring ones. Onward though otherwise it'll be lunchtime and stupidly hot for walking.

Henderson Wave - yes its an uphill bridge!

View from the Wave
The Southern Ridges walk connects a series of parks and the first connector is probably the most impressive; the Henderson Wave claims to be the highest pedestrian bridge in Singapore but is it far more than a functional bridge. It is beautifully sculpted from wood and metal, curvaceous and sinuous it blends into the landscape it crosses at tree top height. In fact from the road below you scarcely notice it when driving under it.

On to Telok Blangah Park and the hill top walk and thence to the Forest Walkway a raised platform walk some 50 metres above the ground cutting down through the rainforest. We heard birds aplenty but saw few and neither did we spot any monkeys though there are plenty of signs warning you to not feed them or carry anything in plastic bags. Being this high up among the trees it is hard to believe you are in a city! Across the Alexandra Arch which was designed to look like an opening leaf - all metal struts and imposing. As Kevin's office is close by we both regularly drive under this bridge but it was only on reading the signboard that we discovered its daily sunset light show is designed to show off the colours of a tropical dusk and continues on until 2am! The nearby Gillman Barracks were once home to the British Milatary but now are the location of one of Kevin's post-work watering holes.

Forest Walkway

Ants beginning to nest

Not all is pristine jungle - recent landscaping

Plenty of signs to mark the way

A giant radish in Hort Park

Red beans!
The landscape changes as we enter Hort Park, home to Singapore's gardeners and dedicated to their enjoyment and education. Flower filled beds, English lawns, starkly architected buildings and rectangular ponds welcome the visitor. Within the grounds small plots can be rented by either volunteer groups or commercial organisations to grow things like veg or to demonstrate their wares. After a welcome thirst quenching rest at the cafe we explored the little plots; huge radish, red shelled beans, bananas, cabbage, climbing frames, water features and more. In the greenhouses at the foot of the hill we discovered dahlias growing - I love these showy plants but it was a bit odd to see them growing in the tropics! The greenhouses themselves were built to prove cooling concepts for the big garden domes at Gardens By The Bay (another place on my list of must see soon).

Did I mention we were at the bottom of the hill? Our route now snaked its way back and forth up to Kent Ridge in lazy loops along the hillside. At every turn our view back across the nursery gardens of Singapore's parks department grew as we climbed. We were very glad of the reviving drink we'd partaken of in Hort Park. At last the canopy walk was reached then on towards Bukit Chandu or to give it it's full name Reflections at Bukit Chandu; this short trail with ample seating looks over the tranquil nursery gardens yet introduces the visitor to the full horror of one of the major battles for Singapore in World War II. British and Malays defended this hill for two days until eventually the regiment ran out of ammunition, then continued to fight hand to hand to hand with the Japanese until few of the men or their officers remained. The picture boards describe several desperate men jumping a wide canal of burning fuel, for the British stored their fuel in what is now the tranquil garden below. Two days later Singapore surrendered to the invaders after the Japanese had murdered the patients and staff at the nearby Alexandra Hospital. (We realised later there is a visitor centre devoted to the men who fought so bravely close by - another reason, apart from the present day views, to return).
Spot the lizard

Amazing dahlias

City view from Bukit Chandu

The leafy calm of Kent Ridge

Any idea what these are?

We were reaching the end of the trail - officially trail A heads off down the ridge to the north and trail B headed south along Alexandra road and leads through the Labrador Nature Reserve on the coast instead of crossing into Hort Park. Our goal had been to reach the West Coast Park a little further on but this route was poorly sign posted and instead we found ourselves heading down to Pasir Pajang Road a little way along from the MRT station. Time for lunch and just by the turn for Pepys Road (the vehicle access up to Reflections) we discovered a little gem. "On The Table" serves well cooked, scrummy breakfasts (and probably other food) and a range of craft beers - Kevin choose the Big Breakfast and got exactly that laid out like a smiley face whilst I had Eggs Benedict served on a huge hunk of toasted brioche with lashings of Hollandaise sauce. The bus home couldn't have been more convenient being just outside their door.

A great walk with plenty of interest and opening up more possibilities for further exploration. You can find a map on Singapore National Parks' excellent website. Don't forget your camera, sunscreen, drinking water and a hat!

Click here to start exploring a little more on the history of Kent Ridge Park and World War II's impact on Singapore.

Remote Thailand

When it rains what better than an umbrella
even on a motorbike
When friends invited us to join them at a boatyard in Thailand for Christmas and New Year we hadn't realised quite how far off the tourist track they were. The region of Satun is just a few hours sail from the island of Langkawi and a few hundred kilometres due north of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. Our first instinct was to drive up but partly because we'd not get there until Boxing Day and partly because there appeared to be no convenient roads or land border according to our basic road atlas of Malaya we settled on a Tiger Air flight to Hat Yai a couple of hours further north east. In fact there is a road crossing high in the mountains so it would be possible to drive from Singapore but it is a long, long way north!

Satun is locked between a steep mountain range and the coast in the bottom southwest corner of Thailand. It is a rural mostly flat area with one major eponymous town. Our early evening drive north from Hat Yai airport to reach the only road through the mountain range was pleasant, the roads mostly well made and the scenery amazing as the mountains rise almost vertically like huge cliffs from the low lying plain, in fact once much of this area was under the sea. It had been raining across the whole peninsula for weeks and we knew from the news reports and from the scene below us as we flew north across Malaysia from Singapore that most of the area was covered in flood water but we encountered no problems.

Satun's main crop is latex from the rubber tree
The main road to Satun is a dual carriageway built up along most of its length by wooden houses, shops, cafes and the occasional modern office block or car showroom. It passes through several villages mostly at crossroads with traffic lights and bone breaking humps to slow the speeding traffic. Once in Satun we had to rely on the map from the boatyard website to find our way 12k northwest to the river. It was only later the relevance of the clearly marked hardware store in town was realised - it is owned by the same family!

Pat and Tony had rented a small apartment from the boatyard whilst work is being carried out on Full Flight as living with the galley in pieces and most of the rest of the interior upside down whilst one heads (bathroom) is remodelled into storage and the other refaced in melamine sheet was not possible. The "hovel" is one of several a single bedroom spaces created out of a row of workshops owned by the boatyard and rented out either to their workers or to yachties with boats in the yard. At the back the kitchen consists of a tiled concrete worksurface with a sink and a fridge is provided, everything else including a cooking ring the yachties provide themselves. Next door to the kitchen is a bathroom, twice the size of the kitchen space with a toilet, a sink and along one wall, an electric shower; no tray or curtain though so when showering everything had to be draped on the loo or sink to remain dry! The centrally located double bedroom has AC and a window opening into the "lounge" for air and light. The front door opens on to a bit of concrete and sand that floods when it rains but is a nice sun trap where the various local stray dogs like to doze during the day. Not exactly luxurious but it had everything needed plus plenty of space to pile up all the stuff removed from the boat for safe keeping whilst the work was ongoing. We were comfy enough - Pat and Tony graciously gave up the bedroom and slept on their boat mattress on the floor of the lounge. Having sailed together for many years on each other's boats the four of us are used to rubbing along together in confined spaces.

The "hovel"

Tony sharing photos with the little girls from the boatyard

Almost everyone has a songbird in a cage
One of the many waterfalls in the area

Pat and Kevin

Tony venturing as far up as he could get

Spot the toad
So what of our stay? We explored the area by car, it being the rainy season the kayaking cave trip place was closed, though it looked like it might have been closed for quite a lot longer than that. We found several pleasant fish restaurants for lunch and our hosts introduced us to some of the yachtie haunts in town for suppers and beers. Christmas day was spent mostly eating in the boatyard with the other yachties and some of the staff and their children. It was lovely to catch up with Liz and Jamie of SY Esper who I had originally met in Oman at the start of the Indian Ocean leg of the Vasco de Gama Rally back in 2010; since then I'd followed their blog and facebook posts as they travelled India and the Far East. Esper too is having some major fettling done and their time in the yard is rapidly drawing to a close after many many months hard work.

Lunch at the beach

No kayaking for us

Large moth

The fella' was snoozing on a gate just by Pat's shoulder -
don't know who was more surprised!
The yard manager's birthday is Christmas Day!

Mulling over rebuilding a rudder

Our gorgeous room at The Gleam
Between Christmas and New Year we all enjoyed a few days of luxury at the wonderful Gleam Resort in central Satun; not that you'd have known it was the centre of town, this was a quiet oasis filled with birdsong. Then it was back to work for the Pat and Tony supervising the yard staff as they continued the refit. Kevin & I headed off in the car for day trips elsewhere in the region including a very wet drive to Songhla during which we scarcely left the car and saw very little of this historic city due to the extremely heavy rains all day.

The dragon fountain, Songhla -
the only point the rain eased off all day!

Family vehicle

Lunch outside Hat Yai
The Thai' calendar starts from some 243 years
before the Gregorian one

Love these Thai gnomes

The celebrations were all too much for some

We saw the New Year "in" outside the "hovel" having spent the earlier part of the evening exploring the market in Satun town and taking in the lights and noisy celebrations. For Kevin and I it was all a bit muted as news had reached us of the sudden death of Erica, my son Will's long time partner and daughter Maddy's best friend from college. To say she will leave a gap in all our lives is to understate what a bubbly, lovely person Erica was - her enthusiasm for life was infectious and the memories we have are of fun and laughter.

The seasonal demand for airline seats meant we could not alter our existing travel plans despite desperately wanting to be in London with Will. Eventually Singapore Airlines found me a seat on January 6 and I headed for Tooting. London was cold and dismal and our sombre mood not much better. 2014 was a year of many upheavals and one that I think both Kevin and I are heartily glad to see the back of despite the wonderful months in the Caribbean.
The river at Thung Wa, N Satun

Roundabout in Trang
- the main town in the next region north

Beach facilities - the east coast is mostly muddy river estuaries,
not inviting for swimming

Longtails waiting to go fishing

Camping cabin in the National Park, Satun

Bird hide or verandah, National Park, Satun

PSS Boatyard, Satun