Monday, April 30, 2012

Singapore: Hawker food at Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok, Old Airport Road Food Centre & 126 搵到食 Dim Sum

Hawker food is an integral part of any real visit to Singapore. While there are some hawker centers that are popular with tourists, the locals can point you towards the 'famous' ones. During my recent visit, my Singaporean friends took me to many popular places to eat. Among them were Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok, Old Airport Road Food Centre and 126 搵到食 Dim Sum Restaurant in the Geylang area.

At the Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok at the Bedok Shopping Complex, we had Crispy Deep-Fried Yong Tau Foo and Mee Pok (麪薄) with fishcake, minced meat, pork slices and fish balls of course!

Since I'm a fan of satay, we drove over to the Old Airport Road Food Centre, one of the best hawker centers in Singapore, where you can get some really tasty satay from Chuan Kee Satay. You can get Pork Satay, Chicken Satay and Mutton Sattay here for SG$0.50 a piece.

I had also been craving for Char Kway Teow which we purchased from Lao Fu Zi Fried Kway Teow which starts at SG$3 a serving. Char Kway Teow is a personal favorite, especially the one with cockles.

My friends ordered Big Prawn Noodle from Albert Street Prawn Noodle which starts at SG$5 a bowl.

For dessert, we got Tau Huay (豆花) at 51 Soya Bean. Note that they also have Durian Bean Curd which I was told is really good too.

Then there's Geylang, which is a famous and infamous for a lot of things, hawker food included. We visited 126 搵到食 (Wen Dao Shi) Dim Sum Restaurant, another 'famous' place for dim sum. Aside from the address number, the Chinese characters actually read wan tou sek (found something to eat) in Cantonese, and thus sounds like 126.

From pork buns and dumplings to chicken feet, they definitely serve really good dim sum there. Thanks again to my SSEAYP batchmate Ong Han Chong and wife Diana for the treats! More food posts to follow.

Jalan Tua Kong Lau Lim Mee Pok
306 Bedok Road (Simpang Bedok)
Bedok Shopping Complex

Old Airport Road Food Centre
19 Old Airport Road

126 搵到食 Dim Sum Restaurant
126 Sims Avenue (near Geylang Lorong 17)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Malaysia: Mount Kinabalu for the non-mountaineer

Last year, I made it up to Low's Peak of Mount Kinabalu, which at 4,095 meters, is called the rooftop of Southeast Asia. This year, Ivan Man Dy joined the Pinoy Mountaineer Mount Kinabalu Expedition 2012. And congratulations are in order because he successfully made the ascent to Low's Peak. Here is his advice to non-mountaineers:

At 4,095 meters, Mount Kinabalu is one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia. It is not the easiest mountain to climb especially for an urban rat and non-mountaineer like me. And the only reason why I even dared to scale this wonder is because I love highland weather and certainly, this mountain and her scenery did not disappoint. So how did we survive? Here are some tips to conquer Kinabalu if you're not a seasoned mountaineer.

1. Tone up your leg muscles. We haven't had a major hike for a long time but all our daily steps conducting tours for Old Manila Walks may have made our legs ready for this climb. We asked some first-time Singaporean climbers if this was their initial ascent. They said yes and added it was also to be their last. Do not even attempt this climb if you have never scaled a mountain. Wrong mountain to choose!

2. Join a tour group. It's much more fun especially if the group gets along well (this is a hit or miss). But also, it makes a lot of things easier. Logistics are taken care off, food is prepared, tips shared, camaraderie formed. To the budget traveler, this might be less than ideal (and pricier perhaps). But for any climber, the convenience and security is godsent. There was even a pre-medical check before the ascent (Watch out for Pinoy Mountaineer Mount Kinabalu Expedition 2013).

3. Go 5-star (if budget permits). And by this I mean, splure a bit and make it easy on yourself. Invest on a good pair of shoes. Buy (or rent) a mountain stick or trekking pole. These are things that you'll be glad you have when you start feeling the pressure. And yes, get yourself a porter (RM8 or roughly Php110 for every kg). Even if you are only carrying 5kg to the top, that will feel like 20 as you start your ascent. Pack light to save and leave the weight to your porter guide!

4. Go slow. There are points when you start huffing and puffing and questioning yourself if you can make it. Don't rush, remember, there are probally some people slower than you. Charge up by eating good trail mix (chocolates and peanuts go well with each other). Drink water. Take a few minutes rest or even siesta (I did) in the trail stops. Stop and smell the roses. Just make sure you reach the base camp before dark and be sure to rest really, really well!

5. It's a long way up. And down. Yes, you made it up. Now is equally the challenging part of going down. Essentially, you start your ascent to the summit (approximately another 840 meters up, this like climbing to Tagaytay from the lowlands but higher) at 02:00; then are expected to be back down for breakfast in the base camp by 10:30. Then you begin your descent to the starting point and may reach it at 17:30 hours depending on your speed. So for Day 2, that's more than 12 hours of ascent and descent in one day. Be prepared for this!

All in all, it was very challenging climb. The highland weather was perfect, views were stunning and the buffet-style food, lovely. If you can stand walking 8.7 kilometers up and two days worth of leg muscle pain (don't forget to bring muscle pain killers), then this climb is absolutely worth it, even for an urban rat like me.

To get updates about next year's Mount Kinabalu climb, e-mail Here are photos from last year's Mount Kinabalu climb in the Ivan About Town Facebook page.

Manila: Rowing the Pasig River with Manila Boat Club (Sta. Ana)

Have you ever considered rowing? Now that the Pasig River is getting cleaner, you might want to try rowing there one of these days. The historic Manila Boat Club in Sta. Ana, Manila encourages interested individuals and groups to try rowing as a sport. I've actually visited the club twice already. And I definitely enjoyed the rowing experience.

Founded in 1895, the Manila is said to be the oldest existing club in Manila. The building at its current site was opened in 1932. But some of its boats date back to its early days (when the club was located on Manila Bay and later Nagtahan and Isla Provisor) and are thus over a hundred years old. Indeed, the club has a rich heritage.

Inside the Manila Boat Club are squash courts, which in 1970, were the very first to be opened outside military bases.

The new officers of the Manila Boat Club are slowly reviving interest in rowing and are encouraging interested individuals and groups to try it out by visiting the club. Of course, you might want to consider becoming a member of the club if you're interested in the sport. It's best to arrive before sunrise or late in the afternoon to avoid the heat of the sun, especially this summer. They have instructors who can teach you the basics of rowing.

Rivers provide a different view of the city. In fact, most cities around the world consider their rivers as showcases of fine architecture. Manila used to have its most beautiful buildings by the Pasig River. And rowing is one way to see the city in a different light.

If you're interested to try out rowing at the Manila Boat Club, please contact the club president Quintin Pastrana at Row, row, row your boat!

Manila Boat Club
2442 Havana Street
cor. Del Pan Street, Sta. Ana
Manila, Philippines

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Singapore: Adaptive reuse of heritage buildings along Jalan Besar

Jalan Besar is a street in Singapore that has been gazetted as a conservation area. I actually enjoyed walking along Jalan Basar from my hostel along Lavender Street, admiring the old but colorfully-painted buildings that have been adaptively reused for modern needs.

Here are some photos from Jalan Besar showing the many things you can do with a heritage building. As can be seen from the photos, old buildings need not be torn down to be economically viable. Despite the scarcity of land in Singapore, they have strong heritage conservation rules, especially since their preserved ethnic neighborhoods bring in the tourists.

Many of the buildings have restaurants, hawker stalls or even KTVs and night clubs.

I noticed there were also many hardware stores, stores that specialize in home fixtures and interior design including lighting and paint shops. One even had an Internet shop.

Regardless of what businesses are there today, the important thing is that these buildings will continue to survive because of strong heritage laws in Singapore and the new lease to life these new enterprises have brought to these buildings. And note that this is just one street. Singapore has many conservation areas. Those in Manila who say land is too expensive for heritage conservation should make a trip to land-scarce Singapore and see how its done.

Friday, April 27, 2012

United Kingdom: England, Scotland and Wales

The United Kingdom has four component countries. And I visited three of them a few weeks ago, namely England, Scotland and Wales. My two week journey across the island of Great Britain began in London, England, through the university town of Oxford and the historic city of York, finally arriving in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.

From there, we proceeded further north to the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye, then back south to Glasgow. We then returned to England through the picturesque Lake District, visiting Liverpool and Manchester, Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, Chipping Norton in the Cotsworlds, Bath and Stonehenge, then back to London. After touring London, we made a day trip to Cardiff, Wales. Here are photos from that really great trip!

March 28 - London, England
March 29 - Oxford, England
March 30 - York, England
March 31 - Edinburgh, Scotland
April 1 - Highland Region, Scotland
April 2 - Isle of Skye, Scotland
April 3 - Highland, Glasgow and Gretna Green, Scotland
April 4 - Lake District, England
April 5 - Liverpool, England and Manchester, England
April 6 - Stratford-upon-Avon and Cotswolds, England
April 7 - Bath and Stonehenge, England
April 8-9 - London, England
April 10 - Cardiff, Wales

Part 1: Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, Harry Potter and more from the Scottish capital
Part 2: Eilean Donan Castle and Loch Ness
Part 3: Exploring the Isle of Skye
Part 4: Glencoe, Glenfinnan, spectacular scenery of the Scottish Highlands
Part 5: Glasgow's George Square at night

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Singapore: Little India is Singapore's Tamil neighborhood

One reason I love visiting Singapore is because they have preserved significant cultural quarters within the modern city. These include Chinatown, Arab Street and Haji Lane, and Little India which was quite close to the hostel I was staying at along Lavender Street. So from the Little Red Dot, I walked along Jalan Besar (which also has some creative examples of adaptive reuse of old shop houses) to the Tamil ethnic neighborhood of Little India.

It's was quite an interesting walk around Little India which the local Tamils call Tekka. You get to see, smell, taste, hear and feel Tamil culture as you explore the preserved shop houses that line its streets.

Little India Arcade offers visitors a convenient concentration of crafts and souvenir shops. Of course, Little India is also a place where you can get really good Tamil food.

Just like in Singapore's culturally rich neighborhoods, there is a mix of cultures in Little India. It's major places of worship (and attractions) includes the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple and the Abdul Gaffoor Mosque.

The main deity of the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is the Hindu goddess Kali who is associated with empowerment. Bengali workers built the temple in 1881 which might explain why the temple was dedicated to Kali, with devotion to goddess being popular in Bengal. While the Abdul Gafoor Mosque, built in 1859, features Arabian and Renaissance-style architecture.

How to get to Little India
Take the MRT to Little India or Farrer Park

Check out more photos of Little India in the Ivan About Town Facebook page.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Singapore: Santa Grand Hotel Lai Chun Yuen in Chinatown

There are a lot of fine examples of adaptive reuse in Singapore. The hotel I stayed at in Chinatown was no exception. In fact, most branches of Santa Grand Hotels are heritage buildings that have been converted into boutique hotels. They have two branches in Chinatown right beside each other, Santa Grand Hotel Chinatown and Santa Grand Hotel Lai Chun Yuen where I stayed.

According to the marker in front of the hotel, "Lai Chun Yuen was by far the most popular Chinese opera theatre in Singapore in the late 19th century. Built in 1887 and originally designed in the style of a Chinese teahouse, its overwhelming popularity made it a prominent landmark. Patrons would sit around small tables, nibbling tidbits and sipping tea while famous opera singers performed on stage. Wealthier patrons had private cubicles where they enjoyed more personal services, rendered by the girls from the brothels on Smith Street. All these took place in high-ceilinged rooms with wooden balconies, decorated with ornaments and dimly lit lanterns."

The lobby of the hotel is actually the main hall of the old opera house. The Singapore Government required Santa Grand Hotels to preserve many elements of the opera house, including the stage which you can see right above the reception desk. Chinese lanterns adorn the hallways of the hotel.

And my room on the third floor leads to a common wooden balcony that affords guests a view of the street below. The room's furniture and fixtures are modern. But you can see that they've preserved the old wooden floor.

It's nice to see structures like these that survive generations because they are made relevant in changing times through adaptive reuse. The Chinese opera culture declined in the 1930s with the advent of cinema. In fact Lai Chun Yuen was converted into a cinema in 1941. But that did not survive the Japanese Occupation. Today, it is a charming boutique hotel. But you can still feel the spirit of the place as you enter its portals.

Santa Grand Hotel Lai Chun Yuen
25 Trengganu Street, Chinatown

Santa Grand Hotels Central Reservation
Tel. No. +65 6298 8889; Fax No. +65 6396 8356

Thank you to the Singapore Tourism Board and Agatep Associates for arranging this visit!
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