Tuesday, December 29, 2009


As promised, here's a continuation of the last entry about my parent's visit.  After we spent some time in Singapore, my parents and I headed to the city of Kota Kinabalu, on the north coast of Borneo.  Because Borneo sounds super exotic and you may not know where it is (I probably didn't until I moved here), here's a map:

As you can see, the north coast belongs to Malaysia, and the rest belongs to Indonesia, except for that tiny sliver that is Brunei.  (Brunei was actually supposed to join the federation of states that merged to form Malaysia in the early 1960s, but pulled out at the last minute.)  Here's another map showing Borneo in the context of Southeast Asia (ignore the random German writing on Borneo):

As you can see, it's not too far from Singapore.  So, after a quick two hour flight, we landed in Kota Kinabalu.  We did a bit of exploring around the downtown (consisting of a couple blocks - it's not that big of a city) and the harborfront.  Here there was an enormous "wet" market with stalls selling everything from fruit and freshly butchered meat to local handicrafts.  However, the food section of the market smelled terrible!  So, we wandered the handicrafts portion instead.  Here are some statues we found on the waterfront:

And some boats that were in such disrepair that they looked like they belonged to a scrappy pirate gang: 

The next day, we learned about the various cultures of the Bornean natives, with a visit to a resurrected tribal village that had once been inhabited by headhunters!  The man who rebuilt the village is descended from this tribe, and all the tribal artifacts (including 42 skulls) have been passed down through the generations and have ended up in his possession.  Here are some of the skulls:

We also got to do all sorts of fun activities that the villagers would have done in their daily life.  We saw how the natives made rice wine - and we even got to sample some.  It didn't actually taste like much, although if you drunk enough of it, I imagine it would have done the job.  We also got to try shooting blowguns!  Here is my dad showing off his expert skillz.

Later that day, we went to a wildlife park, where we saw proboscis monkeys and orantugans.  The proboscis monkeys were actually sort of disappointing - their noses were not nearly as large as I had hoped.  But, they did have some babies, which are always super cute.  The orangutans were more interesting.  The park helps to rehabilitate injured orangutans (I guess they are injured due to poaching?  I was not sure about this), so the ones that were in the zoo were the ones that were too injured to be released back into the wild.  Here's one with a mangled hand - he seemed to be managing ok.

Also, we saw a bird of paradise!  Most people only think of these as those poky, bright orange, flowers, but the original birds of paradise were actual birds.  These birds used to be incredibly common in Borneo, but were hunted to near extinction because of the desire for their beautiful tail feathers.  

The next day, we headed out to a group of small islands off the coast to do some scuba diving.  I recently learned how to dive about a year ago, so I was eager to go!  Unfortunately, the visibility was quite bad, the maximum visibility was only about 5m.  However, I did see a huge moray eel and lots of flourescently colored nudibranchs.  My parents saw a turtle, so I was quite jealous.  One of the coolest parts of the trip was when we stopped for lunch on one of the small islands.  The island was inhabited by water monitors!  They were huge - some were over 5 feet long!  The lizards were almost completely tame, because they were used to getting food from the tourists, that they were just lounging around in the sun and begging food scraps.  Like very large, very spiky, house cats. 

On our final full day in Borneo, we took a bus several hours to go hiking around Mount Kinabalu.  This is one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia, and is very popular with climbers because it's quite easy to climb - pretty much like a two day hike uphill.  Not having time to climb all the way up, we contented ourselves with some jungle hiking around the mountain.  There were a lot of very pretty plants and flowers that we saw, like these beautiful red flowers.

We realized while we were hiking that we were "hiking the jungles of Borneo", and that that sounded totally badass (it sounds extra cool if you say it in that movie-preview-announcer-deep-male voice.  Really.  Try it, right now.).  Here I am in the jungles of Borneo:

On our last day, we managed to have time to make it to the Sabah State Museum before we had to be at the airport to catch our flight.  A unique feature of this museum was that it had recreations of the many different types of houses that the various tribes of Borneo used to live in.  Here's a picture of a few, surrounding a picturesque (but completely mosquito infested) lake:

Also, it had silly animal statues, and I'm a total sucker for hokey dioramas, like this fake water buffalo standing in a rice paddy:

That afternoon, we headed back to Singapore and I said goodbye to my parents, who were off to Tokyo for a couple days before returning home. 

Overall, I thought Borneo was a really interesting place, for both the culture and the unique jungles.  I enjoyed being in a more rural setting, away from the huge city of Singapore.  However, I think that Kota Kinabalu is begining to experience a tourism boom, and will probably grow much larger in the coming years, especially as they promote themselves as an "ecotourism" site. 

It's interesting to note that in my two visits of Malaysia, I'm always surprised at how developed it is.  It always seems much cleaner and safer than I expect.  Overall, I think it's a good place to travel to get exposed to Southeast Asia (I'm assuming Singapore doesn't really count), without encountering too many issues.  People are quite nice and helpful, and I rarely felt like they were trying to scam me.  So, all in all, a good trip.   

 Also, Merry (late) Christmas to everyone!  I enjoyed a delicious German lunch at a local brewpub with some friends, before heading home to skype with various friends and family.  Now, I'm just about to head out to meet Chris at the airport here in Singapore, and we'll be continuing on to Vietnam in a couple days.  Hope everyone has a very happy New Year!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Playing tourist in Singapore

Last week, for the first time since I've been in Singapore, I got to play full-time tourist, as my parents were in town to visit me!  It was lots of fun and I found out a lot more about Singapore - often the places we visited were locations I had frequented before but had not realized the historical significance/cultural value behind them.

My parents arrived late Monday night and I met up with them on Tuesday morning.  After a failed attempt to visit a crocodile farm, we settled for a visit to Arab Street and the Malay Heritage Center.  Arab Street is one of my favorite places in Singapore, for it's chill vibe, good food, and funky shops.  The Malay Heritage Center was somewhat interesting, but I would have liked for it to focus more on the historical areas of Malay influence in Singapore - the present-day exhibits were much less interesting.  For dinner, I introduced my parents to the very common Singaporean dinner location: the mall food-court.  Like an indoor, air conditioned, hawker center, but more crowded.  The extreme crowds made it a bit difficult to navigate, but a friendly Singaporean family ended up sharing their table with us - everyone here is so much nicer to me when I'm with my family (more on this later)!

The next day, my dad had to fly to Jakarata for business, so my mom and I headed to Chinatown.  We visited a really cool Taoist temple - the first in Singapore, built in 1826.  Here's a picture of the inside of the Yueh Hai Ching Temple (Temple of the Calm Sea):

 The temple was built by the Teochew community of Singapore (one of the main Chinese groups during those times) to thank the gods for safe passages over the ocean, as the Teochew were historically sailors and fishermen. Besides the main shrine, there were lots of other shrines that I'm sure had very interesting stories behind them, such as this one (especially the guy on the right):

The next day, my mom and I headed to Little India, another very interesting neighborhood in Singapore.  I like Little India because it provides a glimpse of what Singapore was like in the past - like this spice mill in a sundry goods shop:

The whole shop smelled delicious and barrels of ground spices were stacked along the walls:

We also checked out a Hindu temple, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple.  Like most Hindu temples, this one was gaudily decorated and had a tall tower, called a gopuram, which is similar to a church tower in that it is designed to help pilgrims find their way to the temple.   Taking a break, we ate some kulfi, which is the Indian version of ice cream.  It's slightly thicker than normal ice cream and flavored with all sorts of nuts.  Seriously, if you ever get a chance to try it, do so!  It was madly delicious.  Finally, we rounded out our Little India explorations with a trip to Mustafa's department store, a 24-hour madhouse full of all sorts of cheap merchandise.

The next day, we decided to explore the British influence in Singapore by visiting the civic district and the waterfront.  (Apparently, this is also the point at which I stopped taking pictures for several days - sorry!)  The massive, stately government buildings look quite out of place against the lush, tropical background of Singapore.  We also visited the Philatelic Museum, which, for a museum about stamps, was pretty great!  Surprising, I know.

On our last day in Singapore, my parents and I went to the National Museum.  I had never been there before and it was probably the most extensive and through museum I've ever been to.  The exhibits in the Singapore history gallery were accompanied by an audio/visual "companion" that gave you audio snippets about historical events in Singapore's past.  After listening to these general snippets, you could choose to read more about specific artifacts, listen to discussions by various historians, or hear first-hand accounts of the (more recent) events in question.  I think our visit took about 3 hours - but we could have spent all day there! 

That night, we went to the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo.  This is a special nighttime exhibit that features nocturnal animals.  It was really cool!  The prize for most adorably cute animal goes to the Lesser Mouse Deer.  Here's a picture (not mine): 

Seriously, how retardedly cute is that?!?  (For a scale reference, their max height is about 18 inches, their mature weight is under 5 lbs.)  The award for most bad-ass animal goes to the Malayan Flying Fox, which was a large bat about one foot long.  Part of the Night Safari contained a walk-in bat cage, which was a very very large cage that you could walk through and be up close and personal with the bats.  It was so cool being only feet away from these huge bats!  Observe (again, not my picture - my camera sucks at night shots):

 The next day, we woke up super early to get to the airport to catch our flight to Borneo - but I'll save that for another blog entry.

Overall, seeing Singapore from a completely tourist perspective was interesting.  Seeing all the things that surprised my parents made me realize all the little differences that I've adapted to in the past four months.  I think that what made the biggest impression upon me was how polite other people were to us - no pushing to get on the bus, offering their seats on the train, helping with locating various places.  I don't really know why this is - my only theory is that Asians are always kind of confused when a single woman is travelling alone, so maybe when I had my family with me, we seemed more like tourists.  Anyways, I enjoyed it while it lasted!

So, that about sums up the Singapore visit.  Next time: our trip to Borneo and my awesome German Christmas lunch. 

Monday, December 14, 2009

Travel Plans!

It's finally time for a holiday!  I am excited to take a few weeks off from work and spend some time with my visitors.  My parents will be arriving in Singapore soon (as in, a few hours) and we'll be spending some time here and then heading to Kota Kinabalu, in Borneo (the Malaysia part).  I'm pretty excited to go to Borneo; it will be nice to get out of the city and be able to do some trekking and exploring.  Hopefully we will see monkeys - orangutans and proboscis monkeys!

Then, Chris is coming to visit me!  We'll be heading off to Vietnam, to check out Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the central coast.  I'm really excited to see all the interesting history there - ancient monuments from early tribes, remnants of French colonialism, and of course all the Vietnam War artifacts.

So, it may be a couple weeks before I update again, since I'll be in and out of Singapore.  But, I promise awesome pictures and travel stories when I do get around to updating!    

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Chinese Garden

I had a very nice visit to the Chinese Gardens by my apartment today.  They were very peaceful and beautiful.  Here are a couple pictures.

In the gardens, there was a Turtle and Tortoise museum.  Apparently, it is the world's largest collection of tortoises and turtles in the world, at 3,456 - what they don't tell you is that most of these are tortoise and turtle figurines, not real ones.  Only about 1000 of them are actually alive.  But, 1000 turtles and tortoises is still a lot!  After seeing the museum, I feel quite bad that I paid them my $5 and supported them, because the turtle conditions looked pretty horrible - small, filthy cages with lots of turtles crowded together.  However, it was pretty interesting to see the huge variety of species.  Most of the land tortoises were pretty cute.  Like this little guy:

A lot of the aquatic turtles were kind of gross and scary looking.  These snake-necked turtles were especially creepy:

And then...there were the pig-nosed turtles.  Here's a picture of one:

Doesn't look too scary, right?  WRONG.  Each pig-nosed turtle was in it's own tank, and there was a long wall full of these tanks.  As I walked down the wall, all the turtles started struggling against the walls of their cages and snapping their mouths.  Now, I'm sure this was a completely normal turtle response, because they assumed I was going to feed them, but it was scary!  The walls of their cages were not all that high, and these were pretty big turtles - at least a foot long.  For a few tense minutes, I was convinced that the turtles had coordinated an insurrection and that they were all going to break out and devour me alive.  Luckily, they calmed down, and I was only left with this guy to worry about:

I made it out of there unscathed, but I don't think I'll be going to any more turtle museums in the future!