Tag Archives: Travel

Gardens by the Bay

Some of you came by and left happy birthday wishes last week.  I was not able to immediately reply because I was in neighboring Singapore and was too skinflint to spring for the cost of wifi.  Nevertheless, thanks for the messages which I appreciated even though I don’t normally observe that day in any special manner.  ( I am still annoyed and have been for many years that I can no longer claim to be an ‘irresponsible’ teenager).

Anyway, I spent most of my birthday on the open road, driving to Singapore.  However, the point of this post is to share with you my experiences at one of Singapore’s more recent attractions, the Gardens by the Bay.

The place is located on reclaimed land within a stone throw away from the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel (well, it’s a stone throw if Hercules was doing the throwing).  There you will find open gardens showcasing different types of flora to which admission is free and is a great place to walk around and get some serenity in the midst of bustling Singapore (avoid school holidays and public holidays though when the people throng through like sardine schools).

However, there are also the very spectacular Supertrees.  These are tall 25 -50 m structures shaped like trees with a spreading canopy but most special of all is that vegetation has been encouraged to grow on the structure creating a natural green and living wall.  At night, the Supertree Grove is lit up and twice a night a very beautiful light show is performed.  The Supertrees are also linked by a walkway that allows you to take in the Supertrees and the view of the gardens from several storeys up.  These Supertrees alone are probably worth making the trip to the Gardens.

However, there are two enormous greenhouse like domes; the Flower Dome and the Cloud Dome.  The former is basically a large climate controlled greenhouse for plants including arid desert plants and flowers.  When I was there, the focus was on orchids.

The Cloud Dome is a massive structure that  houses a huge man-made hill complete with waterfall.  The uniqueness is that the whole structure houses plants normally found in tropical cloud forests.  Apart from the spray from the waterfall, the dome creates its own mist cloud every few hours to keep the riot of vegetation happy.  It is quite the sight.  Walkways bring you in and out of the structure so that you can get views of it from a distance, up close, from above, by its side and from below and every other possible view.

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I hope you enjoyed the photos.  It is a great place although the price of admission to the two domes seemed a little bit steep and although the cloud forest dome was very stunning, I found the variety of plants there more limited than I had expected.  As for the Flower Dome, I have seen far more impressive floral displays elsewhere.

So, overall, I think it is worth a visit especially for the Supertrees.  For the rest, I hope they will work at improving it further.

Jungle Janes

I was feeling a bit nostalgic and decided to blow the dust off some old photo albums that I had put away in storage.  It was then that I came across these couple of pictures from my early working years.

I was in public health at that time and was doing research on new field kits for testing microbial water quality.  Basically I was trying to develop simple, cheap and easy field kits for monitoring drinking water safety in a developing world setting.

Somehow, I managed to convince my superiors that I simply had to get baseline data from pristine jungle streams which was how I managed to wrangle myself onto a scientific expedition into what was then a relatively unexplored part of the Malaysian jungle.  Carrying and using the heavy gear in the jungle would be hard work but I liked the idea of going to places few people have ever seen; I had a kind of a David Livingstone obsession in those youthful days.

Ah, but there was a catch!  My supervisor wanted me to take her two visiting Dutch medical students along for the jungle adventure.  I groaned.

And then I met them, Ilsa and Laura.  Two gorgeous beauties (with wonderful personalities) and since we spent most of the time in and out of the rivers collecting samples, they were most often two gorgeous beauties in swimsuits.

Now I am sure you can imagine that this “Tarzan and Jane” scenario is a fantasy of most of the men in the almost totally male expedition camp.  Suddenly, everybody seemed to want to be on our research team and go out on the trails with us.  I became popular! Suddenly, rough, anti-social, jungle hardened veterans was giving me the time of day, so as to get closer to the girls.  Safe to say, there was a lot of chest beating going on around camp!

Tarzan stand-in double demonstrating the chest beating trademark move
Tarzan stand-in double demonstrating the chest beating trademark move


Ilse (L), Laura (R) and me (hidden in the back) testing the pristine waters of the Endau Rompin jungle (circa1992)
Ilse (L), Laura (R) and me (hidden in the back) testing the pristine waters of the Endau Rompin jungle (circa1989)


Two Beauties and the Beasts
Two Beauties and the Beasts in the wilds of Malaysia


These days, Marja is my Dutch sweetie but as you can see I had the privilege of knowing these two Dutch Jungle Janes’ somewhat earlier.  The other great thing was how all these guys left me offerings of food and drink in return for the opportunity to be introduced to the girls.

Dear, Ilsa and Laura, thanks for the good memories.  I hope that you are both well and happy and the intervening years have been kind.  And if you happen to read this post (stranger things have happened on the internet), do make contact and leave a comment.

Name Game

Be prepared for another rambling post.  It’s a mystery where the post will end up.  Let’s start……

Here is my Chinese name ………

chi leongMy very wise parents chose this name for me and I am often told either that the name suits me or that I have lived up to the name given me.  It is pronounced “ci liang” and means “kind and good”.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be named “rich and famous” but I  guess that is not a bad thing to have a name like “kind and good”.

One has to be careful with Chinese names because characters with similar sounds can mean something totally different.  For example, my brother’s name actually means “kind dragon” (which I think is really cool to be called a ‘dragon’, don’t cha think?).  However, with just a slightly wrong pronunciation and accent, such as might be said by a Westerner with no experience with the Chinese language , then “kind dragon” will suddenly be transformed into “pig sty”.

It is precisely because of all these mispronunciations of my name when I studied in the United Kingdom that I decided to adopt an Anglicized name.

I chose “Calvin”.  I like “Calvin”. However, in retrospect, it was not the wisest of choices.

If you were to look up the meaning of the name “Calvin”, it has only one unfortunate meaning…………”bald”.


Oh, yea.  Good choice there squirrel.  Can you imagine a bald squirrel?  No bushy tail?  Not a pretty sight, I think.

Many years ago, I went to Geneva, Switzerland and got to see a statue representing a rather famous “Calvin”……………John Calvin – a key historical figure of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.  The statue is part of a series of Protestant figures in what is called the “Reformation Wall“.

Photo by LGS
Photo by LGS


Calvin is the second from the left.  Now, I am not 100% sure, but don’t they all look bald to you?

Apart from being an important church figure, they also named a beer after him called Calvinus Beer.  I tried it.  It’s okay but not great……certainly won’t put hair on your head.

Strangely, there aren’t a lot of famous ‘Calvin”s.   The 30th President of the United States was a ‘Calvin” but he is mostly known for being a bit strange and being a man of few words. The story is told that a matron, seated next to him at a dinner, said to him, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” He replied, “You lose.”   Another tale relates  that upon learning that Calvin Coolidge had died, Dorothy Parker reportedly remarked, “How can they tell?”

The only other ‘Calvin” that people seem to have in their consciousness is “Calvin and Hobbes”.

A Boy and His Tiger (comics by Bill Watterson)
A Boy and His Tiger (comics by Bill Watterson)


Now I don’t mind that association cause Calvin is kinda cool but it gets a little tiresome when people keep asking me “Where’s Hobbes?’

Anyway, what does your name mean and are you happy with it?

Moon River

I took a bit of liberty with the title of this post. It isn’t about the Andy Williams’ song by that name. Sorry if I misled you.

This post is actually about a photograph I took of a bridge in South Korea. I had previously posted about going to Hahoe Village which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The village lies within a loop of the Nakdong River.  Nearby is the town of Andong and it is there that we find Woryeong-gyo or the “reflection of the Moon on the river” bridge.  

The Woryeong-gyo, with a length of 387 m, crosses the Nakdong River and is the longest wooden pedestrian bridge in South Korea.

There is a legend associated with the bridge.  It is said that the construction style of the bridge resembles that of the mituri which is a type of traditional straw shoes made of paper, mulberry, bush clover, hemp, and rice straws. The legend speaks of a grieving wife who expressed her love for her deceased husband and her deep sorrow by making a pair of mituri sandals using her own hair.  The bridge, so they say, commemorates her act of devotional love.

So in short, the bridge is about romance.

Mituri sandals
Mituri sandals

I got there on a cold winter night and I did indeed get to see the reflection of the moon on the river.  It was indeed a beautiful and romantic spot.  I might have enjoyed it more if I was not busy shivering and bracing myself against the chilly blasts of wind coming off the water.  It took me many cups of ht tea later to feel warm again and to regain sensation in my fingers and exposed ears.

Still, despite the shivering, I managed to take this hand-held and long exposure photo of a pavilion located near the middle of the bridge.  Sure, it ain’t perfect but I am still rather pleased with how it came out.

Ladies and gents……….(drum roll)………… the spirit of ethereal love as seen at the pavilion of the “reflection of the Moon on the river” bridge  on the Nakdong River.

korea bridge
Pavilion on the Reflection of the Moon on the River Bridge. (Photo by LGS)

Squirrel’s Secret Spot 15: Korea – Hahoe Style

My nephew’s wife (would that be my niece-in-law?) is a lovely Korean girl.  So I guess it was just a matter of time that there was a family vacation to Korea to get to know the culture better and that is what we did last September.

We did make a trip to Gangnam to witness the Gangnam Style made famous by Psy ( the ladies wanted to do some shopping)  but for me, it was just a cityscape like you could find almost anywhere in the world and filled with overpriced designer goods.  So the real Gangnam like the Gangnam Style video just left me cold.

Instead, the highlight of the trip for me was our visit to Andong Hahoe Village.  This UNESCO World Heritage site is a snapshot of Korean life that has remained relatively unchanged since the Joseon Dynasty at around the 16th Century.

Hahoe Village is beautifully located within a bend of the tranquil Nakdong River with beautiful sandy beaches and the imposing Buyongdae Cliff on the opposite bank.  It’s name actually means “Village that is enveloped by water”.

Its buildings represent the architecture of the 16th Century and the Confucianism philosophy ascendent at that time.  Indeed the village was suppose to be an incubator of intellectuals and court officials of the Joseon Dynasty.

However, what really makes this special is that the place (unlike many) has not been put on for tourists – it is still very much a real, working, living village with the villagers still living a mostly traditional life.  A real time capsule with insight to the Korean psyche.

The villagers still work the land.  Paddy fields, vegetable gardens, and orchards are found both in and around the village.  Traditional crafts like mask making are still practiced and traditional costumes are still worn especially at weekends.

I loved the place.  Hope you will enjoy the photos (all photos by LGS).

Oh, and the beef bbq Korean style in Andong is mucho delicious. A must try.

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The Food is Good on the Island of Rats

Pulau Tikus, Penang.  The name means “the island of rats”.  The strange thing is that it is actually not over-run by rats and it is also not an island!  Located on the island of Penang, it is actually an area consisting of affluent neighborhoods and more importantly famous for its street market and known to be a good place to try the Penang food fare at any time of the day.  I have no idea why it got its unusual moniker.  I wonder if there is any place called the island of bushy-tailed tree rats.  Ah, but I digress.

This is a great place to sample the daily lives of the locals and to taste some great food.

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Blue Mansion, Penang

I had mentioned in an earlier post that I was pleasantly surprised by the extent of restoration work done to the great old buildings in historical Penang in recent years.  But the jewel in the crown must be the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion.  Also called the Blue Mansion, this magnificent home was built in the 1880’s but suffered years of abuse, neglect and dereliction for almost 90 years. By the time a group of concerned individuals including a dedicated architect bought over the place in 1989, it could be called a “disaster area”.

However, what followed was a determined and loving restoration carried out using as much of the original material as possible.  Craftsmen who still had knowledge of the old techniques were recruited locally, from China and from other parts of the world to restore the intricate woodwork, floor tiles, stained glass windows and broken china pieces of the Chien Nien style mosaic sculptures.  It was a real struggle but the effort resulted in a magnificent restoration which was recognised by being given the UNESCO “Most Excellent” Heritage Conservation Award in 2000.

Cheong Fatt Tze was a penniless traveler who left China to escape poverty, looking to make his fortune in South East Asia.  He ended up being one of the richest businessmen of the period.  This colorful character was also a diplomat, representing China to many countries; an innovator – starting China’s first wineries; and ladies man – having at least 8 official wives.  It was his first wife’s father who gave him the initial monetary investment that got his business rolling.

However, it was for his 7th wife (who many claim was his favorite) that he built the Blue Mansion.  The mansion has 38 rooms, 5 granite-paved courtyards, 7 staircases and 220 windows. The architecture of the mansion however originates from the Su Chow Dynasty Period in China and more importantly was built according to feng sui principles.  This includes having a hill at the back, the sea to the front, the back of the house is higher than the front and is set at an angle from the road in front.

The house is painted with indigo which is a natural dye which is used, amongst other things, to dye jeans.  Much of the roof is decorated with images which were created in the form of a mosaic from pieces of broken china.

This mansion even made Lonely Planet’s top ten “Greatest Mansion and Grand Houses” list.  Enjoy the slideshow.  Unfortunately, photography inside the house is forbidden.  To see the inside of the mansion, you will have to visit in person.  There are three guided tours each day which are worth it to hear the history and details of the house from the very passionate docent.  It is also possible to experience the mansion by renting a room to stay for the night.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the mansion was used in the filming of the 1993 Oscar-winning French film “Indochine” starring the great Catherine Deneuve.

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Penang – Food, Food, Food

Penang is one of the worst places to be on a weight-loss diet.  Temptations of the first degree abound all over the island.  In the last post I called it a foodies paradise but it probably is more accurate to refer to it as a food mecca.  Penang hold this exalted position because a) it is the historical birthplace of many of the delectable mouth-watering dishes – a result of being a crossroads of many Asian cultures; b) it simply has the best version in Malaysia of many other dishes and c) Penangites have a high expectation for food quality which ensures that the food in all the restaurants, coffee shops and street hawker stalls are uniformly good or great.

As soon as I arrived in Penang, I made my way to One Corner Cafe ( a coffee shop with a collection of individual hawker stalls) for breakfast which consisted of a plate of Char Koay Teow, a plate of Lobak, a plate of Mee Rebus and a bowl of Penang Hokkien Mee (known as Prawn Mee elsewhere).

They were all delicious but the Penang Hokkien Mee was particularly well known.  It is a dish of noodles in a rich broth made from pork bones and prawn stock and spiced up with a chilli paste. Yum yum.

Mee Rebus is of Indian origin and is one of my favorites.  It consists of noodles in a thick potato based broth flavoured with spices like cinnamon, cloves, curry powder etc.  It is also garnished with various fried Indian delicacies and a dash of squid sambal.

Penang Hokkien Mee (top) and Mee Rebus (bottom) (Photo by LGS)

Char Koay Teow is synonymous with Penang and there are many famous stalls selling this delicacy with Penangites and foodies all touting for their own favorites.  This dish consists of flat rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, bloody cockles, Chinese lap cheong (sausage), eggs, bean sprouts, and chives in a mix of soy sauce.  The real trick is in the skillful frying in a high heat wok because the high heat actually plasticizes the noodle giving it a softer consistency.

By the end of my short three day visit to Penang, I had 6 servings of this dish; all slightly different and all good.  The picture below is of the stall operated by Madam Soon Suan Choo at Kafe Heng Huat, Lorong Selamat.  Madam Soon has been frying this dish for more than 4o years and has build up quite a reputation.  Her plate of Char Koay Teow costs RM9 (USD 2.82) which is almost double the average price in most other places but she is still very popular especially with tourists.

Char Koay Teow needs a really hot wok (Photo by LGS)

Another dish that probably originated in Penang is Assam Laksa.  This is a rice noodle dish in a sour, tamarind/chilli  flavoured, thick fish broth with a mint leaf garnish.  No photo here cause I had gulped it all down before I remembered to take any photos.

And then, there are the desserts and snacks.  Below is one award winning road side hawker stall selling apong which is a kind of thick pancake which is folded in half and is flavoured with coconut, sweetcorn and bananas.  Apong evolved from Appam which is a dish from Tamil Nadu, India.

Another street favorite is Ice Kacang.  This is basically shaved ice flavoured with palm sugar, syrup and coconut milk or condensed milk.  Often included with the shaved ice is sweetcorn, red bean, grass jelly, attap fruit and roasted peanuts.

Apong Dessert Stall (Photo by LGS)

I think I put on at least 2 kg in my short visit.  I now need to work off all that extra baggage before I can go to Penang again.

Paradise Lost – Paradise Restored?

Penang, tropical island – the Pearl of the Orient (as it has been called).  One of my favorite places in the world.  I had my honeymoon there.  As a child, I had two memorable holidays there. Sun, sea, lush tropical forest, hills, historically rich,  culturally diverse and a foodies heaven; Penang has it all.

But over the years, it became a victim of its own popularity.  First came the tourist hordes, then came the developers.  The island underwent a development boom and it was not well-managed.  Idyllic, tranquil beaches became crowded with sun tanning bodies and  adventure water sport operators hawked their noisy water scooters while tacky souvenir stalls became the backdrop.  The famous Gurney Drive promenade transformed from a walker’s paradise into a perpetual gridlock of honking traffic especially on weekends.

When I was a child, a visit to Penang Hill was like making a trip to a magical kingdom.  Access was by a quaint historical funicular railway which went up the hill at a slow and sedate pace, giving ample opportunity to see the fascinating change of vegetation as the carriage ascended the Hill.  There were also lots of carnivorous pitcher plants and some orchids along the way to enchant you.  The top of the Hill was a mist shrouded adventure land of lush vegetation and colonial style houses with well maintained and beautiful gardens.  There is a small hotel, Hotel Bellevue, which was a great place to have a spot of afternoon tea.  It also has a couple of geodesic domes on the property in honor the link between Penang and Buckminster Fuller, an American systems theorist, architect, engineer, author, designer, inventor, futurist and the creator of the geodesic dome.  Today, things are so different.  An upgraded and modernised funicular railway has lost its historical charm while still being overwhelmed by the sheer number of tourists and visitors.  The sedate, leisurely trip up the Hill has been transformed to a stressful, over-crowded experience.  Over development on the top of the hill has caused both the lush vegetation and the thick mists that used to enshroud the top to become merely stories of bygone eras told by some old timers.  I fully understand a recent comment by a tourist on the Tripadvisor forum who said, “Long wait to get up there but there isn’t much to see or do.”

Things were not better in the historic town of Georgetown either.  Tall unsightly skyscrapers were built that ruined the skyline.  Well loved trees which were as old as a hundred years were loss in road widening efforts to cope with increased traffic.  Old and historical buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair.  Cleanliness became an issue especially in the areas which were famous for food hawker stalls.  And then development was allowed on the hills and the once green hills that were visible throughout the island became marked with red, ugly scars and condominiums.

However, the Penang people have rallied and are trying now to right the wrongs.  In a trip to the island last week, I was impressed by the changes and the progress in the right direction.  Various citizen groups took up the issue of preserving Penang’s natural, cultural and historical heritage seriously.  Working with the state government, Penang has cleaned up its roads and beaches and has Malaysia’s most successful recycling program.  Hawker stalls were re-organised, given better facilities and the cleanliness has improved accordingly.   There is a group looking out for the trees along the roads of Penang.  Bus and public transport has also improved to try to  cut down vehicular congestion.  This includes the introduction of free shuttle buses within the Georgetown core area.  Heritage walks have been drawn up and promoted by the Penang Heritage Trust.  Restoration of old buildings has been carried out by citizen groups, local government and even by businesses.  Georgetown was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008.

My recent trip to Penang last week has rekindled my love for the island as it goes through its rejuvenation and I will share photos of the trip in the next couple of posts.

My Name is Mud

You may have heard on the news that the village of Dull, Scotland and the town of Boring, Oregon have become sister communities. There is even a Dull and Boring Facebook page.

I have always been fascinated by names and place names are fun too. Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia may sound like some exotic Far Eastern city but in the local language, the name means “Muddy Rivermouth” which essentially is what it was when it was founded.

Paris is sometimes called “the City of Lights” but its name evolved from the Roman name “Lutetia Parisiorum”  which was used up to the 6th century.  The Parisii were a Gaulish clan that first inhabited the area and “lutetia” is of Celtic-Gaelic derivation and is believed to carry the meaning of “a dirty marsh”.  Therefore, Paris actually refers to the “dirty marsh of the Parisii”.  I guess a lot of cities started on some muddy river bank or another.

The BBC asked its viewers to submit other unusual place names that they were aware of.  And so, we now know we can be stuck in a Hole in Devon, UK; have Piles in Greece; be in an Accident, Maryland, USA; visit a Happy Bottom in Dorset, UK; or perhaps Lost in Scotland; visit Les Arses in Switzerland; get a good night’s rest or not in Little Snoring and its larger neighbour, Great Snoring in Norfolk, UK but should avoid breakfast at Rottenegg, Austria.

I personally have been to the village of Ugley in the UK which has the distinction of having an Ugley Village Hall but I cannot verify rumours of an Ugley Women’s Institute!  However, it seems there is a nearby town of Nasty and when a woman from one village married a man from the other, the local newspaper quipped; “Ugley woman marries Nasty man.”



But my personal favorite is Hope, British Columbia.  What’s so strange about an uplifting name like “Hope”, you may ask?  Well, the name is quite nice, I suppose, and the area around the town quite beautiful.  In fact, it has been the place where many movies have been filmed such as Rambo: First Blood and Shoot to Kill.

But what really sticks in my memory from my visit many years ago was this sign by the side of the road that was visible as you drove out of Hope and on towards the Rockies.  It said, “You are now beyond Hope”.