Friday, 24 August 2012

Hawker Center 101

Probably more than anything, Singapore is known for it's vast spectrum of food choices.  From hawker centers to fine dining, you can find it all in this little tiny country. 

Inside Lau Pau Sat
Hawker centers are basically open-air local food courts. They sprung up in the 1950s and 60s to address the problem of unhygienic food practices due to the urbanization of the country.  The government didn't want the unlicensed food vendors "hawking" their street food without regulation, so they forced them into these centers and provided them with running water and facilities for cleaning.  There are also many indoor food courts in the mall that I thought would be considered hawker centers, but upon research it is only the outdoor ones that are truly considered as such. 


When Jason and I got here in January for our "look see", the first thing we did after checking into the hotel was go to a hawker center called Lau Pau Sat.  We naively thought we were so adventurous, trying some spring rolls and a couple of other fried items.  We also tried to clean off our own table and ask for napkins.  Oh how ridiculous we must have looked!  There are little old ladies (everyone calls them "aunties") whose job is to clean off the tables, and they do not look kindly on you if you try to do it yourself.  Also, there is a serious shortage of napkins in this country.  It is wise to have them with you at all times, because Asian food can be messy!  Especially when you are as inept with chopsticks as I am and too embarrassed to just use a fork.  (stupid Americans...)

Holland Village Hawker Center

The food at these centers is considerably less expensive than "regular" restaurant food.  You can easily get a complete meal for $5 (Sing, which equates to about $4.50 US)  My problem is I have no idea what I'm ordering.  For example, the local hawker center in Holland Village has 20 or so vendors, and each stall has a sign with pictures of the dishes and the corresponding name.  I stopped one night and got some food for the family for dinner.  I chose "Beef Hor Fun" and the always safe sweet and sour chicken.  I have since found out that anything with "hor fun" means rice noodles.  I'm learning!  I also got fried dumplings...can't go wrong with that. 
One of the stalls
Our dinner (note the Tiger Beer pounder!)

My ultimate favorite (so far) food court is the Food Republic @ Somerset.  It's like a hawker center for idiots.  It's all bright and shiny and the signs above each stall spell out in huge letters what they sell.  For example "THAI FOOD" and "PRAWN NOODLES".  I had a fabulous Pad Thai, and the second time enjoyed a spicy Laksa.  There is another Food Republic near Jason's office, and that one is made to look like a traditional Chinese market, complete with hanging lanterns.  We visited this one with Kara, and the food was good (yummy dumplings!) but I still prefer the Food Republic for dummies.

Food Republic @ Somerset - Yay!

Look closely, the heads are hanging off to the side!
My yummy Pad Thai - for about $5.50 USD
Finally, I must comment on Cooper's favorite "fast food" here.  There is a chain called "Old Chang Kee", mostly found in malls and MRT (subway) stations.  They basically serve spring rolls and fried food on a stick.  You can imagine his delight when he found chicken nuggets on a stick.  Sophia opted for fried shrimp on a stick, and I tried a spring roll.  Eh, it wasn't hot enough for my tastes, but if the Coops is happy, then so am I.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Paradise in Malaysia

One of many islands off the mainland coast of Malaysia, Pulau Tengah is only one-mile wide and has been host to only two known, vastly different groups of people.  The first was a group of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and the second was the cast of the Swiss version of Survivor - "Expedition Robinson".  After hearing from a neighbor that a small, 20-villa eco-friendly resort had recently opened for business and had some good "buzz", we were more than willing to play the part of guinea pig.

Our soon-to-be sister in law Kara, (Greg's fiancee) was along with us for this trip - part of her two week visit to Singapore.  This made it especially fun for the kids as they were excited to show Kara a good time.  To get to the island, the five of us were up at dawn and in the car by 6:00 am in order to beat the Singapore National Day traffic.  It was about a three-hour drive, crossing the border and up the east coast of Malaysia, mostly through palm tree farms.

After meeting a representative of the resort at the "Port Cafe" in the tiny town of Mersing, we enjoyed an adventurous, high speed, sometimes tooth loosening boat ride to the small (less than a mile wide) island.  It was all well worth it once we saw the translucent blue waters of Pulau Tengah, and were greeted by the friendly staff of Batu Batu.

We had to wait a few minutes for our villa, but that was just fine by us.  We took advantage of the opportunity to order a cold drink and the kids quickly changed into swim suits and were on the beach hunting for shells before we even sat down on one of the huge, comfortable daybeds found scattered around the bar area.

When our villa was ready, we were escorted down the palm tree-lined sand path that connects most villas to the reception, dining and pool areas.  Our villa sat directly on the beach, offering a beautiful, unobstructed view of the white sand and South China Sea.  Inside, was a king-sized bed, children's annex (with bunkbeds) and quite possibly the largest bathroom I've ever seen.  Outside, we had a nice beachfront patio and steps that led directly onto the beach.

View from Villa
We arrived on a Thursday and spent most of the first day exploring the island.  First, we were treated to an amazing lunch.  The resort offers three options per meal - but you don't need more than that.  Everything we ate was delicious and finding out what was on the menu for each meal quickly became one of the most exciting parts of the day.

After lunch, we continued to explore the beach just outside our villa where Kara, Sophia and Cooper found dozens of huge, beautiful clam shells.  We then made our way around to Long Beach - the largest, most picturesque beach on the island.  We hiked across the open beach, then took a "trail" (if you could call it that) to a more isolated part of the island.  Here, we had the beach to ourselves and found a perfect little spot to swim, snorkel, and basically lounge for the afternoon.   That evening we had another delicious meal (I had Papaya Salad with Prawn and Roasted Rack of Lamb) and, after getting the kids to bed, we enjoyed a cocktail on the patio outside our villa.

Lunch!  - Fried Prawn Noodle
On Friday we woke up to the sounds of the ocean and headed towards Long Beach for another day of...well, nothing.  We made a stop at the dock we had arrived on, this time, jumping the 20 feet or so from the top of the dock to the water below.  This was probably one of the highlights of the trip.  I jumped first, followed by Kara - and soon after, by Cooper and Sophia.  I was amazed that the kids made the jump, but after getting the nerve to do it once, they didn't want to stop!  Over and over they jumped from the dock until I got tired of treading water in the swells and begged them to head to the beach for a while.

This time we weren't alone on the beach, but with only 20 villas total on the entire island, nothing's ever crowded.  Soon Sophia and Cooper were playing with a few other kids, and like a scene from Survivor or Lost, they were constructing balance beams across the tidepools with fallen palm trees.  The whole scene was hysterical to watch.

After a long day in the sun, we enjoyed another unbelievable dinner (Thai Chili Chicken Salad and Beef Rendang for me).  With the kids in bed, we pulled a daybed from the patio to the beach where Kara saw about 20 shooting stars in 4 minutes....which all turned out to be birds flying through a nearby spotlight.  (you had to be there, it was funny).

On our final day at Batu Batu, we rented three kayaks to go on "turtle patrol".  The island is a marine preserve with a huge part of their mission focused on supporting the breeding of green sea turtles.  After only three minutes of paddling we came across a huge turtle - at least 3 feet across - followed by a couple of smaller ones about five minutes later.  Sophia was in heaven.

We traveled about a third of the way around the island before Cooper told me he wanted to keep going ALL THE WAY AROUND the island.  This was a great idea - especially if you were simply enjoying the ride as Sophia and Cooper were - but not such a great idea if you're the one who has to paddle!  We tried it anyway and were glad we did.  On the far side of the island, it was deserted.  A few small, untouched beaches were there as well as some amazing views of the forest and rock cliffs unreachable unless you hike and have a machete.
Finally, we made it back to the resort, glad to have made it all the way around the island, but even happier to relax in the cool pool and enjoy a cold drink.  Our boat ride back to Mersing and eventually Singapore was only a few hours away, so we did our best to soak in as much of Batu Batu as we could in the time we had left.  The kids hunted for more shells and played in the pool and Jennifer, Kara and I relaxed and enjoyed the sun.

Eventually, however, all good things come to an end - and so did our trip to Batu Batu.  After another 20 minutes on the boat we met our driver in Mersing and headed back to Singapore.  This time, we saw dozens of monkeys along the road.  Apparently they had slept in on Thursday morning when we drove by the same areas at 8am, but they were everywhere on Saturday evening. 

A few hours later, we all wished we were still at Batu Batu enjoying another delicious dinner and listening to the waves.  Instead, we were sitting in traffic at Singapore immigration, eating the Pringles I bought when we stopped for gas in Johor Bahru.  However, once we crossed back into Singapore and the road names started to look familiar, it was quite comforting.  Especially since I know we'll go back to Batu Batu.  In fact, for those of you who visit us in the next 24 months, it's likely to be on the agenda!

Thursday, 16 August 2012


I can't take it anymore.  I just can't.  Must...vent...about...this.

Most countries have major problems.  Like drugs.  Like poverty.  Like violent crime.  Singapore has very little of any of this.  (the big "Bringing drugs into this country is punishable by death" sign at the airport might have something to do with that.)  What we do have though, is an entirely other kind of epidemic.  One that was obviously started by locals, but has spread to many expatriates.


You can laugh, it may sound funny.  But try walking or running every night for an hour and see how long it's amusing.  At first, I obliged and went off the sidewalk into the grass to avoid a collision.  Then I started getting annoyed and moved to the *very* edge of the sidewalk, risking a shoulder bump.  THEN I went full throttle into not caring if I plowed through someone's shoulder.  Alas, I went off the deep end last night.  I took it to a whole other level.  I started yelling, "MOVE OVER!" every time it was evident that a full scale collision was going to take place.  Did anyone yell back at me?  Who knows, I had my headphones turned up.  I hope so.  To balance this out, I also thanked people who did the right thing, what any person with common sense would do automatically.

Our first visitor, Kara, noticed this problem immediately and by day #2 was also tired of it.  So imagine our complete amusement when she was out for a walk on her own one day and came across a billboard with a public service campaign.  It was called "Get out of the way!".  NO KIDDING, this literally is on the government's agenda.   They used some kind of Angry Birds theme, because people looooove Angry Birds over here.  And Hello Kitty.

So from here on out I am considering myself chief deputy enforcer of the campaign.  I will do my civic duty to convince the people (with my voice or possibly with a horn) that it is NOT appropriate to walk with friends and hog the entire sidewalk.  When you walk and text you must look up once in a while.  Do not walk in the middle with your baby stroller or dog.  You WILL be called out.  Or you will suffer the pain of me knocking you on your ass.

Because I am bigger than all of you.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

It's Great to be Back!

"It's great to be back".....that's what I found myself saying throughout the month of July, as the entire family enjoyed some time back "home" in the US after almost five months in Singapore.  Truth is, we might have enjoyed it too much, and now need a vacation from our vacation! 

During the four weeks we were back in the US we had more than 40 visitors spend at least one night at our house in Delaware, and we spent at least one night in three different homes.  It was great to see everyone and we brought back a ton of memories to get us through another year of being away from such good friends and families - but man am I tired!

Our trip to the US began on June 30, boarding the dreaded 20+ hours worth of flights back to JFK (via Frankfurt).  Aside from a few spilled drinks somewhere over Uzbekistan, the flight was uneventful.  The kids did great, enjoying a few movies and several games of multiplayer battleship to pass the time.  Cooper's "you sank my battleship" comments from a couple seats away are among the highlights that make me smile about the flight.

Upon arriving at JFK, we were greeted by the "warm hospitality" of the car rental agency.  Ahh, so great to be back in the US.  Like the scene from Seinfeld, they did a wonderful job of taking my reservation, but weren't as competent in keeping the reservation.  Bottom line, our full-sized SUV rental turned into a Crown Victoria and we pimped our way through Staten Island headed to my parents' home in PA.

The family and friend reunions started right away, spending two great days with my parents before heading to our, now primary US residence, in Fenwick Island, DE.  As anticipated, my parents had more food in their house then could ever be consumed, but we did our best and enjoyed steaks, burgers, fruit, "crab wonderfuls"  (I made up that name just now), and of course.....brownies and all kinds of desserts.   We all enjoyed the pool, played cornhole and generally just relaxed.

Upon arriving at our home in Fenwick Island a couple days later, we were pleased to find everything in great shape.  All of our friends and family who visited the house while we were gone were very gracious about leaving behind the little things that make coming home easier.  Paper towels, toilet paper, a few very nice "thank you" gift cards, and most importantly a clean house.  Actually, I think my favorite find was the single bottle of pumpkin beer in the fridge......I can guess who left that behind.  Honestly - for all of you who visited our place at Bayside, thank you for leaving the home in such great shape and for the very generous "thank you gifts"!

After settling in for about 36 hours, the rotation of guests began.   Both families visited, as did good friends like the Prestiannes, Fidlons, Wingerds, Kochendorfers, Sandersons, Wests, Clarks,  - and of course, the Pattersons were thankfully right across the street. 

We managed to squeeze in a lot of our favorite activities during our time in the US, including Sophia's horse show, informal birthday party for the kids, tennis lessons, a few rounds of golf, time in the SAP office, miniature golf, two days on a boat, lunch at Hooper's, Darius Rucker concert, multiple vet visits (preparing Jessie for her trek to Singapore)....and hours of crabbing on the Bayside dock.  Like I said...I am tired.

By the end of July, we were sad to leave friends, family, and the home we love in Fenwick Island - but also very much ready to return to Singapore.  I have to admit, I had thoughts of being just as happy to stay in the US, head back to the SAP office I had worked in for 10+ years, and pick up life where we left it in March.  However, after four weeks of entertaining, I was so exhausted that the 20+ hour flight back to Singapore was actually something I looked forward to.  The idea of sitting with nothing to do for a full day was delightful - even if it was strapped into a 20 inch wide seat in a giant, flying tin can.

Cooper was clearly ready to return to Singapore and "home" (gotta love how that kid lives in the moment), but Sophia - like me - was a little more reluctant.  Her attitude changed, however, when we picked up Aunt Kara in Conshohocken on our way to JFK.  Several months ago, Kara agreed to have the lucky distinction (or unfortunate role as guinea pig) and will be our first guest in Singapore.  With Kara in the car, Sophia's attitude changed from being upset about leaving friends and family to acting as tour guide preparing Kara for the flight, food, public transportation, etc. 

Unlike our last family trip to JFK in May, this time we arrived nearly four hours before our flight.  Traffic was practically non-existent and we made it in nearly half the time we had estimated.  We took the opportunity to find a comfortable spot at the terminal bar, enjoyed a celebratory drink and a few light snacks.  Cooper slipped into his PJ's (after accidentally spilling his drink on his shorts) and we all got ready for the long flight back "home".

Upon arriving back in Singapore, I have to say it was very comforting to walk through the familiar atmosphere of Changi airport, enjoy the efficiency of Singapore immigration, and eventually walk through the front door of our Singapore home.   Of course, it didn't hurt that we had great weather and swaying palm trees just outside the patio doors.  We were also lucky enough to have a friend's helper check in on our home a few times a week while we were away - making our arrival much less daunting.  The house was clean, air conditioner on (she had turned it back on about an hour before we arrived), and everything in its place.

Now that we're back in Singapore, with Kara in tow, I realize how much I do enjoy it.  My feelings of being content staying in the US have left me, and I realize how great an opportunity this is for our family.  Even Sophia, who was the most reluctant of us all to return, had a smile on her face and was excited to share everything we love about Singapore with Kara. 

So again, I find myself saying "It's great to be back!" - but this time, referring to Singapore.  I do miss our great friends, families, and all the things that we got to enjoy while back in Fenwick Island - but I look forward to all the amazing places we will get to see and experience in the coming 11 months.  In fact, just around the corner is a trip to the Batu Batu resort in Malaysia...can't wait!

Stay tuned - and we'll see you back in the US before you know it!