13 February 2014

Singapore - 春到河畔 River Hongbao 2014

Date of Exploration : 6 Feb 2014

When my appetite gets overwhelmed by all the Chinese New Year feasts and snacking, I would attempt to burn off a couple of calories by heading to the annual River Hongbao carnival. Parked on the Floating Platform at Marina Bay, the carnival's gregarious lights always added a climax to the aftermath of an exhilarating and chaotic squeeze in the fortnight leading up to CNY at Chinatown.

Over the years, visiting River Hongbao has become somewhat of a personal ritual during the festive period. I'm not there for the pop-up amusement park rides (too old), or the food (too expensive), or cultural performances (too far from the stage), but to check out the year's lantern decorations and photo opportunities.

While one year's decoration became harder to differentiate from the previous years', the dress up for the Horse Zodiac was one of the most impressive. The lanterns were bigger and the settings seemed more elaborate. But gone were the really thrilling amusement rides such as the swing carousel and Top Gun which were a harvest for interesting motion shots.

The rides were no longer so I pointed my phone camera at the year's massive lantern decorations instead...

An imperial gateway marks to the entrance to River Hongbao, This photo was taken at a low angle to wish everybody good fortune all the way! 168!!!

Saw a Kellog's Tiger at one of the carnival booths and decided that it's a sign for me to 'slap horse ass' (拍马屁) to get ahead this year. LOL!

I'm born in the Year of the Tiger. Fortune forecast is that all's going grrrrrrrrreat this year... like every other year!

My ho peng you (BFF)!!! May the god of fortune be mine and your kang qiu (Hokkien for life partner) to prosper all that we touch and do!

My BFF framed by colourful lanterns to light up our lives!

Good fortune phone home.

Stallion leaping over the sun setting behind Singapore's CDB power buildings.
While the day rests, the lanterns come alive...

... with a party palace!

财源滚滚来!Money come rolling in! The God of Wealth framed against the Singapore Flyer as a borrowed halo.

May all good things come full circle... 团圆美满!Here's wishing you and your love ones a bountiful year of health and wealth. Huat ah!

06 February 2014

Krabi - Ao Nang Beach Sunset

Date of Exploration : 9 - 13 Jan 2014

One of the best ways to recharge in Krabi is to sink into the sand and feel the sunset at Ao Nang Beach. While the beach is not a stunner, the sunset is quite a good looker, which explains the popularity of this coastal stretch on the Thai island.

We caught the Ao Nang sunset almost every evening during our 5 nights' stay and the colours were sumptuous. Here are some ideas to shoot the sunset with your mobile phone...

Shot this while chilling out on Ao Nang Beach with ice cold beers and waiting for the sun to head home.
Foliage along the pavement provides an interesting frame for the sunset.
Or get emo with the bald ones.
Pavement of gold?
Solar powered Hadouken!
Don't let the sun go down on me.
Boat shaped lamp.
The many longtail boats along Ao Nang Beach create a uniquely Thai silhouette against the vivid dusk.
While all eyes were on the sunset, the moon crept up quietly behind us. The transition was exceptionally ethereal that evening as fiery clouds contrasted with the cool silver moon. Such a beautiful gift to end the day!
All photos in this post were shot with my aging Samsung Galaxy S3. Minor Photoshop post processing had been done to enhance contrast and sharpness.

05 February 2014

Penang War Museum - The Horrors on Ghost Hill

Exploration Date : 7 Dec 2013

No longer satisfied with encountering the paranormal behind the safety of a big screen or LCD monitor, I made that reel-to-real crossover recently in a visit to the supposedly haunted Penang War Museum. The historical Malaysian site was featured in an episode of National Geographic's "I Wouldn't Go In There" edutainment series which investigates some of the most haunted places in Asia.

I don't possess the power of clairvoyance. Neither do I aspire to be a ghostbuster. I just find the prospect of entering a possible metaphysical realm seductive as a means to affirm the existence of God. If ghosts / evil spirits exist, surely angels, and therefore God, must too be true. Well, I'm digressing. I'm really here to spook myself with a real-life haunted house. And learning that the truly scary thing is the horrors of war along the way.

Built in 1930 by the British as a fortress against Japanese maritime attacks, the site was overtaken by Jap forces during World War II when they surprised the Brits with inland invasion rather than the sea. While historical hand-me-down accounts vary, it is believed that the Japanese garrison is a butcher house for civilians and prisoners-of-war.
The location of Penang War Museum is enough to set goose pimples running amok. It sits on Bukit Hantu, which means 'Ghost Hill' because local folklore is apparently rife with ghostly sightings and encounters in the vicinity. It could also be the result of active imagination due to the fort's dark past as a purported Jap torture camp during World War II that the hill got its name.

Penang War Museum sits on a hill and is far from the usual Penang tourist staple of Georgetown heritage attractions, Ernest Zacharevic's wall art and famous hawker fare.
Getting Here

As Penang War Museum is located near the airport and away from the island's city center, I paid a visit the moment I disembarked from the plane before checking into my hotel in Georgetown.

If you are going to the museum from Georgetown, you can take Rapid Penang bus numbers U302, U305 and U307 from the bus terminal located next to KOMTAR, the tallest building in Penang. The journey will take about 1.5 hours and the bus doesn't stop right outside the museum. They stop at a bus-stop at the foot of a hill so get the bus driver to tell you when to alight. After getting off, look out for signs that point to a winding path that leads up a hill to the museum. It's quite a long walk uphill so wear comfortable shoes. Penang War Museum isn't exactly easy to get to.

I took a cab from the airport to the museum and it was less than 15 minutes to get there but the fare was a pocket burning RM31.40. So if you plan to visit, I would suggest coming here directly from the airport upon arrival or en route to the airport before departure.

However, do note that not all cab drivers know the location of Penang War Museum but if you mention Batu Muang, most of them would know. Driving along the main road leading to Batu Muang from the airport, look out for signboards pointing the way to the museum when you get close.

As cabs seldom come uphill to pick passengers, you can seek the help of the museum's reception to call for a taxi after your visit. My flat-rate cab fare from Penang War Museum to Georgetown was RM50.00 and the ride took approximately 40 minutes.

Hauntings From the Past

Penang War Museum is a privately-owned preservation site that receives negligible funding from the local tourism ministry. Due to the lack of financial support to develop it into a polished tourist attraction, much of the open-air museum retained the mortar and relics in their original state, in which lies the authenticity of an unadulterated battle station.

Entrance to the War Museum.

Foreigners visiting the museum have to pay a fee of RM35.00 with an additional RM2.00 levied for photographic gadgets be it a compact cam or DSLR. (Right) The staff were very friendly and helpful by pointing out a costume photo op at the mouth of the fort where you can pretend to be a yesteryear infantry soldier.

Pathways with huge arrows points the direction to explore the museum set within a forest. Miniature replicas of traditional Malay architecture accompany a section of the cement pavement leading into the historic site.

A tight passage that lead to an artillery shelter within the hill.

Inside the womb of destruction where bombshells and ammos were stored and delivered.

An anti-aircraft shaft that serves as a tunnel through time.

The ecology of a military strike was preserved in a bomb transport system, gun firing bay and deployment shelters. These are among other trenches, sheds and pill boxes found around the fortress.

Smothering cannons gave way to cigarette smoke as a caretaker cleared the grounds of fallen leaves. Dead foliage is like the human lives that this gunnery may have claimed.

No mercy on these grounds.

Bullet cavities on the wall in this room marked the executions of rebels by Japanese forces from 1941 to 1943.

Left : Soldiers rest in the ground they defended. Right : It is not a yeti who missed his manicure appointment but one of the few monsters reportedly seen by locals.

A segment of Penang War Museum is dedicated to the immortalisation of ghouls and supernatural beings that were encountered in the hill. Dare you stay the night to verify their existence?

According to a write-up next to the tree, this is supposedly the site of numerous beheadings carried out by Colonel Suzuki. I wondered if the tree grew up feeding on blood.

Staying alive is an art in this hill filled with many ways to die.

Visage of one of the few barracks used as offices and lodging units.

The beds are missing but remnant furniture provided a peek into the lives of its occupants.

Reflections of a turbulent past where I found the British soldier in a loin cloth to be rather peculiar.

Much of the tales of haunting spotlight the restless spirit of Colonel Suzuki, a fearsome and bloodthirsty executioner of the masses who is believed to be still roaming the museum grounds looking for victims. The colonel can be seen in various photos in a bunk. Another alleged ruthless character in the region's WWII history is General Tomoyuki Yamashita.

An empty shell remains of what so many men had fought vehemently for.

No room for the living. Some of the bunkers were converted to prisons and mortuaries during the military contest.

This barrack was inhabited by Malay soldiers when the fort was operational. Before I began my self exploration of the museum grounds, I chatted with one of the cleaners and asked if he encountered anything unusual. He told me that he'd heard voices coming from the Malay barrack but when he checked, there was no one there. Unlike the other bunkers I saw earlier that were bright, the interior of this one was dark and ominous. *Creepy!*

Can you imagine seeing a Japanese soldier wielding a samurai sword and rifle with bayonet standing on the rooftop waving to you to go over? According to NatGeo's haunted Penang episode, that's what a night watchman saw during his patrol.

Curious, he walked towards the figure but when he climbed up the observation post, you guessed it, there's not a single soul in sight... Or is there? *Goosebumps overdrive!*

It's nice to see life bloods again after exploring this mostly deserted war relic alone. Before leaving, I took a photo with the museum's manageress who maintains a very neutral stance on reported paranormal sightings here.

In all her years working there, she hadn't witnessed anything otherworldly but a couple of tourists did asked her about a lady in red loitering around one of the bunkers near the beach. As ground-keepers wore dull coloured uniform t-shirts, she had no idea who the lady could be. But she pointed out that bullet holes on the bunker's outer wall facing the beach suggest that the area may have been a rifle execution site. Was the lady a victim caught in an eternal search for her killer?
I spent almost 2 hours at Penang War Museum and although I didn't encounter any supernatural occurrences, the excursion back in time to where WWII left its ugly scars reignited my appreciation of peace. It is not ghosts that haunt this place. It is its horrific past.

Address : Lot 1350, Mukim 12, Daerah Barat Daya, Batu Maung 11960, Penang, Malaysia
Tel : +6 016-421 3606 / +6 04-626 5142

Opening Hours : 9am to 6pm daily
Night Tour : 7 - 11pm daily
Entrance Fees : RM35 (Foreigners), RM20 (Malaysians). Children pay half price.

04 February 2014

Jakarta - Shopping & More Savouries

Date of Exploration : 4 Nov 2013

Having stepped into the nostalgia-laden heritage district of Kota Tua and swam in the eco-rich waters of Putri and Sepa Island, my discovery of Jakarta continued with an initiation into the city's shopping scene.

Historical, natural, commercial... my virgin trip to Jakarta is made complete with the 3 distinct faces of this wildly contrasting city. In the final segment of my vacation, we checked into Aston Marina Jakarta hotel and serviced residences before receiving retail therapy at ITC Mangga Dua and Plaza Indonesia, and pampering our palates with fine dine selections at Taste Paradise and indulging in a staggering display of nasi padang 'acrobatics' at Simpang Raya Istana Ayam Pop Restaurant.

Our third hotel during my 4D3N Jakarta trip was Aston Marina hotel cum serviced residences. As the name suggests, the lodge is not too far from the coastal district of North Jakarta and a short ride from Ancol, a tourism hub with several themed parks.

Stylishly pleasing and modern, Aston Marina is a good accommodation choice although it has no nearby lifestyle developments such as shopping complexes, eateries or shops.

The apartment units come with an adjourning kitchen, cozy lounge area and dream space. A 2-bedroom unit costs around Rp1,158,000 (est. S$120 per night).

Aerial view of the sprawling Jakarta cityscape from my unit's balcony.

Breakfast at Aston Marina was a rather elaborate affair of western as well as local spreads.

The donut towers were tempting but I preferred the saccharine smiles and services at the serviced residence.
Shopping - ITC Mangga Dua & Plaza Indonesia

After dropping off our travelling bags, we were ready to pick up shopping bags at ITC Mangga Tua and Plaza Indonesia, 2 of the city's many retail landmarks. Both malls are huge but that's where the similarity between the 2 megaplexes ends. ITC Mangga Dua is fertile ground for bargain hunting while Plaza Indonesia tips the luxury scale to create a shopping scene that caters to every fancy and budget.

Resembling a factory building more than a mall, ITC Mangga Dua is insanely packed with stalls selling everything that you can wear and decorate yourself with as well as food and snacks.

ITC Mangga Dua forms only one part of the colossal Mangga Dua shopping district which consists of 6 main shopping centres -
Mangga Dua Mall, Harco Mas Mangga Dua, Mangga Dua WTC, ITC Mangga Dua, Dusit Mangga Dua and Pasar Pagi Mangga Dua. Each mall specialises in different products such as electronics, furnishings, foodstuff, etc with ITC Mangga Dua being the hub for fashion and accessories.

Hundreds of shops crammed onto 6 levels leaves narrow walking aisles between retailers and makes for a dizzying shopping experience to visually sieve through the myriad of merchandise. The human traffic can reach epic proportions during weekends so go on a weekday if you can help it. And as anywhere with a crowd, beware of pickpockets.

Always bargain when shopping at ITC Mangga Dua. Something that costs Rp300,000 may be bargained down to Rp200,000 or less. We bought 4 souvenir t-shirts for Rp100,000 but a street peddler at a restaurant later sold the same t-shirts at 5 for Rp100,000. So things may not always be cheaper here and be daring to slash prices.

If you see something that you like, buy it straightaway instead of trying to locate the shop in the retail maze later. The wholesale centre operates from 10am to at 6pm so do go early.

Located at the financial ring circling the famous Selamat Datang (Welcome) Statue about a 20-minute car ride (without traffic jam) from ITC Mangga Dua is the upscale Plaza Indonesia mall.

Doing a conjoin act with the Grand Hyatt, Plaza Indonesia is opened in the mid 80s with more shop space and offices added during a 2007 extension that turned Plaza Indonesia into one of the country's top-of-the-line mixed-use development.

Call me maybe? Plaza Indonesia is also home to the first Starbucks (opened in May 2002) in the country. This lady was nonchalant about us taking photos with the sign so I decided to 'pose' with her in the shot after giving up on waiting for her to move away. The outcome is rather hilarious!

Bvlgari, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Celine... the big brands in luxe are gathered at Plaza Indonesia that sees tai-tais arriving in chauffeured posh cars.

There's also an in-mall amusement deck for kids... and those who refuses to grow up. LOL.

Brand shopping is not the only thing to do at Plaza Indonesia with funky boutique cafes and art-decor restaurants deserving eyeball time.

Even the mall's food court is an interior design spectacle that melted ethnic elements from various cultures into a feast for the eyes and stomach.

Love this industrial-meets-wharf ceiling installation and other artistic detailing that turned Plaza Indonesia's Urban Kitchen into a must-see attraction at the mall.

Taste Paradise
Address : Plaza Indonesia South Gate, 4th Floor #01 JL. M.H. Thamrin kav 28 – 30, Jakarta 10350
Tel : +6221 2992 3838

It is ironic that it took being out of Singapore for me to learn about a home-grown restauranteur made good. Being a Singaporean and somewhat foodie, I was almost embarrassed to admit that I've not heard of Taste Paradise which originated as a humble zi-char stall in a Defu Lane coffeeshop within one of Singapore's industrial park.

Known as Seafood Paradise when it started in 2002, the small business had since grown into the Paradise Group of restaurants with a bevy of signature dining outlets in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Japan. To make it so big from such humble beginnings, the food must be really something.

And it was.

Taste Paradise Jakarta celebrates the Grandeur of Chinese Dining both in taste and ambience.

One amazing feature in the restaurant design of Taste Paradise is the creation of various dining settings - from the casual tea seating at the entrance to wooded nests with plush cushions to oriental boxes where curtains provide a screen for privacy to the resplendent open banquet hall hued in chrome and gold to 2 ornate VIP chambers, the restaurant is a library of eastern decorative styles.
The VIP seating reflected in the mirror door that cleverly serves as a wall to conceal the exquisite chamber behind it.
We were hosted to lunch where we sampled items mainly from its dim sum menu. Our opening dish was the restaurant's popular Snow Mountain Bun (雪山包) with a sandy crust that crumbles to reveal the char siew filling within. Having tried that Hong Kong brand dim sum restaurant that have Singaporeans queuing for hours for its char siew bao, I prefer this version at Taste Paradise. It is not oily and the bao skin's texture flakes like savoury snow. Loved it!

Honey glazed char siew that was fragrantly smoked and charred to perfection paired with crispy skin roast pork with a gelatinous layer of fat that melts in the mouth.

Soup of the day (left) and rice skin rolls wrapped with meat and seafood (cheong fun).

Top Left : Fluffy egg tarts. Top Right : Flavourful chicken feet. Bottom Left : Siew mai with fish roe. Bottom Right : Pumpkin and yam cake.

The showstopper on the table was the flaming claypot kurobuta pork rice (left) while the creamed cod medallions (right) was a fine example of the culinary innovations that are unique to Taste Paradise.

Dessert was a trio of Avocado Ice-Cream, Coonde Oonde Durian Ice-Cream and Aloe Vera Jelly that were almost too cute to eat. Taste ranged from mild to sweet to sour-tangy which brought the sumptuous luncheon to a crescendo. Taste Paradise is Eden on a plate!
Simpang Raya Istana Ayam Pop
Address : Jalan Kramat Raya No. 71, Central Jakarta City, Jakarta 10450, Indonesia
Tel : +6221 392 0161

When the dinner bell rang, we found ourselves at this restaurant with a zesty name, Simpang Raya Istana Ayam Pop. I was really tickled and imagined chicken (ayam) dressed in hip hop clucking the latest Billboard hits. But my expectation of it as the local equivalent of KFC quickly ran afowl when the restaurant's reputation as one of the best places to sample authentic padang food was revealed.

Padang food refers to the cuisine of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra who favours curry, heavy spices and coconut milk in their recipes.

Dinnertime acrobatics. We were floored by the number of plates the waiters can balance on their arms! Can you count how many plates they are holding?

A train of food is laid out on every dinner table and customers are charged according to what they consume. Uneaten dishes are inherited by the next diners. As the food had been laid out for quite some time, they were cold and the fried chicken was rather dry and tough.

Of all the dishes, my favourites were the tiny fried fish and this... cow brain curry. The nutty flavour of the curd-like brain went really well with the aroma of thick coconut milk.
Perhaps because the dishes lacked warmth and most of the meats were rather overcooked, I didn't quite enjoy the meal although I found the interesting dining experience a fitting wrap for my first tastes of Jakarta. The city has a wide offering of tourist attractions all laid out for a memorable vacation, but most of them needed some reheating to keep delicious and fresh!

This post has been made possible by Jakarta Tourism Office (represented by Russell Cheong, Winsemius Consulting). For more vacation insights on Jakarta, visit http://jakartasavvy.com/
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