Monday, May 30, 2016

Singapore: In the dark

We travelled down to Singapore on Saturday for an extended weekend.  For the 1st time we stayed in the Bugis area, which was a very good base for exploring nearby neighbourhoods.  And for pricey Singapore,  a great deal at the Ibis Bencoolen

We walked into Little India, a mere 10 minute stroll from the hotel.  Lots of shops and vibrant colours and smells (as much as you get in Singapore)  The Mustafa centre was a new place for us.  24 hour shopping with everything under the sun – from groceries to jewellery and everything in between.

In the evening I had booked us in for a meal, which I gave no details to Andrew about – in case he had any pre-conceptions about.  on the day I explained where we were going so it wouldn’t be too much of a shock for him.  We dined at Nox – Dine in the Dark   This is a dining experience exactly as it says in the restaurant name – in the dark. 

We arrived at the restaurant and were given a briefing about what to expect.  The meal is served in a 100% dark room, there would be three courses with four small dishes in each course.  Our waiter for the evening, was blind.  So hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you, Andrew and I were lead into the dark, and up the stairs to our table.  We were seated and told to keep our wine glasses beside our water glasses – so the waiter knew were things were when he served each course.  We fumbled our way around the table checking where things were.  The 1st challenge was filling our water glasses, meanwhile we could hear the sounds of other diners on the other side of the room, but truly you could not see a thing.  There were three tiny red lights from the smoke detectors, but otherwise 100% black.  Sometime I just closed my eyes because it made no difference whether they were open or not.

And then the appetizers were delivered.  We had been advised to eat the bowls in the prescribed order 1-2-3-4.  Of course Andrew had not listened to that instructions and went 1-3-4-2 which made it hard when I was saying “is this pork” and he is saying “no I have beans”  It was a disconcerting experience not to have the visual stimulants to tell you what your were eating.  A little bit of Andrew’s meal might have ended up on his shirt, and maybe some water also went the same way.  But at the end of three courses we came out remarkably unscathed.  Our waiter led us back out of the room and down the stairs where lights were gently in.  Back in the reception area we were taken through the 12 small dishes we had eaten.  It was surprising how many we had no idea what we ate, while other were quick obvious.  The food was delicious and the experience fantastic- highly recommended

On Monday we took the MRT out to the Southern Ridges walkway and spent 3 hours in the heat – but it was very worthwhile.  We walked on raised canopies above the “Hort Park”, down through the Hort Park, over the Henderson waves and past the cable car to Sentosa Island on Mt Faber. Hort Park was opened in 2006 using land returned to the State from nearby  unused naval shipyards.  It has been turned into a research areas with prototype glasshouses, themed gardens and lots of places for people to see and learn more about gardening.  If we hadn't been in the middle of a 10km hike with rising temperatures and beating sun, we would have explored it more.

Note the amount of perspiration on the red t-shirt of Mr Andrew.  He was exceedingly disappointed when we went to the nearby Vivocity mall for lunch there was no alcohol served.  And we had the worst Char kway teow known to man for lunch – we both left more than 50% uneaten

It wasn’t Andrew’s day when it came to alcohol.  For dinner we returned to Little Arabia (near our Dine in the Dark restaurant) and chose Beruiti Grill.  The food was very good, but it was traditional and didn't serve alcohol.  as we wandered home there was plenty of night-life and people enjoying themselves.

On Tuesday before our afternoon flights back to Laos, we walked around Fort Canning Park.  The spice garden was interesting and the message at the reservoir was clear – no matter what language you spoke.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar

After the weekend in Yangon I flew on a small Bombardier business jet to the small coastal town of Sittwe.  Sittwe is in Rakhine state and has had major political and social issues relating to  the treatment of the Rohinga ‘refugees’. They are a large ethnic minority who are not recognized as citizens by either Myanmar nor Bangladesh – so can not.  To visit the province I had to get special permission to be allowed to go to Sittwe and there was internal immigration on landing at the airport. 

Located on the coast Sittwe relies on fishing for employment and food. The fleet was busy offloading it’s catch but the rubbish pollution was pretty unpleasant.
idyllic fishing
unidyllic fishing

And there was plenty of activity at the early morning market – and no shaortage of fish in every form imaginable.

But generally it was a quiet place.  Bicycle transport and people still walking around with portable transistor radios pressed against their ears. The local population was noticeably short – more so than elsewhere in the country where i have been.  I did get stared at being the combination of both a foreigner and a bit taller than the local average.

The Provincial and District offices, where I had meetings, were simple.  And as always, the staff that I interacted with were lovely.
office s

And while the beach setting for an evening beer with my colleagues wouldn’t win the world’s most beautiful tropical beach competition, the company was good and the beers, cold. 

beach beer

Friday, May 20, 2016

Andrew working in Myanmar in April

Recently I went to Myanmar for a two week project to review the capability of a particular Government Department to cope with a foreign aid project. After doing some preparatory in Vientiane I flew to Yangon for some briefing meetings before I flew back to Nay Pyi Taw (the Capital of Myanmar) to meet with Government project staff.

I stayed in the designated hotel zone where more large scale hotels have been built since our last visits to the country. It is standard to have enormous grounds, a huge reception area, a man-made lake that could support a small community, hotel rooms bigger than some people’s houses – and next to no guests. Although in a ‘isn’t-it-a-small-world’ occurrence I did meet another guest also out on a morning walk who turned out to be from Wellington NZ, doing some advisory work to the Union Government.
The offices and methods of working remain quite paper based – but there are some computer screens in the offices I visited this time.  However wooden desks, wooden chairs and plastic event chairs remain the standard issue.
The project people I was talking with were enthusiastic with their information and treated me well with tid-bits of food and other special treatment.
After a number of meetings and discussions I flew back to Yangon for the weekend.  It was interesting to be able to see the amount of change in the city in the two years since I was last there.  The number of vehicles have increased exponentially and traffic jams seem constant now.  And there are new buildings (office and apartment) appearing everywhere.  I would love to know who is funding them.

Being April, the weather was constantly hot, but I did some walking around.  And I was able to catch up with on old NZ mate which was fun and we headed down to 19th Street  for excellent BBQ dining accompanied by some good local beer.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hello briefly to Hong Kong

We packed our bags and headed to the ferry terminal for the 2 hour fast ferry between Tagbilaran and Cebu.  arriving in Cebu we did a bit of taxi price haggling and we were on our way to Cebu international airport.  Being 4pm on a Friday afternoon traffic was pretty bad and our driver was a bit distracted.  But between him zooming, braking, getting tooted for not paying attention, we made it to the airport in plenty of time for the 2 hour flight to Hong Kong.  We got into Hong Kong, got on the airport express and were at our hotel by about midnight.

V2 Wanchai was a reasonably priced, well laid out, boutique hotel in a location with easy access to the MRT.  It worked well for our 3 nights in Hong Kong.

On Sarah’s recommendation we headed out to Oolaa Petite for a good breakfast and the best coffee we have had outside of Wellington this year!  Then Sarah met us there as arranged and there was no problem consuming a bit more coffee.  Some tram riding, a visit to the restored Central Market and late lunch filled in the afternoon.  We went to La Pampa steak house for dinner.  Sadly the memories of a very good meal and superb wine we had at that restaurant in 2007, were not repeated – the company was good but the food very average.

On Sunday morning the plan was to go to the Coastal Defence Museum and have a walk around the coast to take in some views.  We did head to the museum, but there was so much fog there was no view any further than 50 cm in front of your face.  It was quite atmospheric standing on the lookout at the building and hearing fog-horns from the shipping constantly sounding.   We had to imagine what we could have seen, if there had been any visibility.


The Coastal defence museum is worth a trip though, being one of those smaller museums that is more fascinating than the name would suggest.  It has good display and interesting stories about the Lei Yue Mon Fort and its role in protecting the Hong Kong Peninsula.  There was a small special exhibition on Hong Kong under the Japanese Occupation during WWII – which was something neither of us truly knew about. 

Lunch was Din Tai Fun, our regular big city fix for Xiao Long Bao – or “dumplings” as Andrew refers to them as .  Dinner was a highlight of the weekend.  The three of use walked 10 minutes from the hotel to 22 Ships, small restaurant that takes no reservations for dinner and where we got the last table available at the start of a busy evening service.  Dish, after dish, of seriously tasty tapas sat briefly on the table before being quickly devoured.  The slow-cooked Hawkes Bay lamb shoulder with mint and Baba Ganoush was one of the best.  Highly recommended!

Our time in Hong Kong was short and sweet, but it was very nice to visit again.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

“It’s more fun in the Philippines”

Or at least that’s what the Philippine Tourist slogan is saying.  Actually, we had a pretty nice relaxing week by the beach.  Lao New Year or Pi Mai Lao is the hottest, most alcohol fuelled time of year, so we decided to get out of the country for the duration.  Going to a Thai beach wasn’t appealing as they too were having national holidays, so we headed to the Philippines for a new adventure. 

We didn't want to go to tourist-central (I.e. Boracay), El Nido looked great but was a 4 hour bus ride so was not appealing when having to manage Andrew who doesn't fold up into a local bus or mini-van too well.  So I found a simple house 3 minutes from the beach and we based ourselves at Dumulan Beach on Panglao Island.


We headed to Manila (via Hong Kong) where we simply overnighted and wandered around the next morning and caught our only glimpse of the famous Jeepneys.  We sat in on a wedding at the church beside the hotel where the bridal party had 20 or so members and then we caught a one hour flight to Tagbilaran, Bohol.

I had organised with our host for her to send a taxi.  We found our man holding up a sign with our names and we got on the road – a 20 minute or ride.  Then worryingly he asked where our hotel was.  We explained it was an AirBnb house and not a hotel, and we did not know where it was – that was the whole point of having the host send the taxi – so we didn’t need to worry about the directions.  While driving he kept trying to ring his boss who had sent him on the job – but he wasn’t answering.  Eventually he took us to a hostel because he thought the owner had the same name as our host – but no we got turned away from there.  Eventually we convinced him to ring our host – we had her contact number – and we were finally heading to destination not too far away.  Not the best start to the trip, but it was sorted in the end.

The house was very simple – just bedrooms/bathroom and a very nice large shaded veranda where we spent most of our time when at the house.  We had problems with water not flowing to the shower for 60% of the time we were there, and needing to bucket-scoop water to ’shower’ .  But we were pretty relaxed about it because all we did all day was walk to the beach swim, eat , walk back and repeat in that sort of cycle it wasn’t a big deal


The beach was a 2 or 3 minute walk away.  Lovely white sands and clear water.  At high tide there wasn’t a lot of beach and the sea-bed was very shallow so we could walk out for ages and still only be waist deep.  But the water was lovely and at high-tides the swimming and snorkeling very nice.


We got a little caught out by the UV levels which were similar to NZ levels at 12-13 on the scale.  Laos is about 4 and Thai beaches about 8.  So we both got a bit sun-burnt one morning.  Due to reasonably fair skin I was then the woman walking up and down the beach hit the hat shoulders wrapped in a scarf while others swam and frolicked.  It was interesting to see the number of locals who were wearing protective swimwear (rash suits)  Both of us are going to get such apparel for the future.  Who wants to avoid the water for days because of sunburn!

Our beach was not tourist central so the dining options were limited but we got a good routine going where we alternated between a BBQ restaurant for lunch and it’s sister restaurant for dinner. 

Andrew mangling the name of the national beer - apparently he was drinking San Miggle beer rather than San Miguel like everyone else :-)

Philippine cuisine is definitely meat orientated and quite a lot of pigs are consumed.  We had breakfast delivered each morning as part of our house rent and we found the Philippine Mangoes to be stunningly good – better than from Laos – which are still very good.

A local practice is for families and groups to come to the beach and hire a cabana.  They then bring all their food and have a picnic experience.  Lots of people day tipping, singing and having a good time.