Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Night is ALIVE!!!

Camera, lights, ACTION! The night is alive for 2 weekends in celebration of the annual Singapore Night Festival 2013.  What that means is more activities for the night owls and art appreciation for all.  For the 2 weekends of 23, 24 and 30, 31 August, there will be a slew of activities along the museum areas, stretching all the way to Plaza Singapore.  More information on Singapore Night Festival.
Projections on the facade of NMS

This year, I went!  I've decided to take more chances with activities, events and attractions in my home town, starting slowly now.  Time to get to know Singapore ya?!?! It is times when friends come to visit that I truly make the effort and time to explore the hidden gems of my hometown.  Places I've never been to - Singapore Flyer, Newton Food Center, Museums, Ku De Ta etc.  These are places I wasn't all that interested to visit, but I gave them a try when friends come.  To show them around Singapore as best as I could, and also to show myself my hometown that I don't really know.  Yes, truth be told, I am like a tourist back home.  Every excursion is like a new discovery for me.  Sad to say, I don't know Singapore as well as I should be. I know Shanghai better than Singapore! Blame it on the fact that I travel too much, blame it on the fact that I get downright LAZY when I'm back home, preferring to stone at home than to explore, losing that energy and adventurous spirit when I'm back home.  Afterall, this is my home and it's not going anywhere, so why bother to hit every spot there is?  I have time!  

But anyway, back to the point - Singapore Night Festival.  It was here last year, and I have no idea what I was doing last year to miss this.  Glad I went this year.  With Mei Mei, we headed to National Museum last Saturday for the performances and roamed the streets of Armenian.

Wow, the crowd that gathered!! I guess when you combine FREE and PERFORMANCES, you attract people.  But this is the event you should really go for if you have time and are in town.  For the 2 weekends, the museums like National museum, Peranakan museum and Art museum are opened till late night, free for everyone (that includes non-Singaporeans).  And there are street performances, stalls, lightings etc along the vicinity.  For the 1st weekend, that is when most performances were staged.  We went for the 3 highlights at the National Museum - Vertical Extraction, Pyramid of Void and Starlight Alchemy.

815pm was the start of the first performance, and the NMS facade was packed! We had to squeeze our way through to get a good spot to actually see the performers.  Unlucky for us, the 2 performances were staged on one side of the NMS facade and we were parked on the opposite side.  So we had to make our way through and stood uncomfortably for 30mins for the 2 performances.  

Vertical Extraction

Pyramid of Void
Vertical Extraction was by 2 performers, with bungy ropes strapped around their waists while they danced and jumped about the walls of NMS.  Then followed by Pyramid of Void, where 3 performers strapped to elevated wires performed Cirque Du Soleil style acrobatics around the wired pyramid.

I would say the highlight was Starlight Alchemy.  We were perfectly positioned, albeit the backside of the stage, to have a good view of the show.  It was a show of FIRE!  Yes, like the nightly fireshows you get when you go to a beach vacation, but a more professional one.  Dancers played with fire and grace to end the performances on a high!

After that, we went into NMS, hoping to catch a glimpse of some exhibition.  Well well, what do you know!  Ever seen a museum crowded with people that they had to close of the top level to fight congestion?  That was exactly what we saw.  Pretty amusing though.  We gave up trying to fight our way through and went for the Absolut Vodka exhibit.  There was a Q too, but fast moving one.  We marvelled at the different designs and bottles for Absolut, me thinking - drink drink drink all the time!  

Our night ended with a walk along Armenian street and towards City Hall station.  We were slightly disappointed by the Hawker food alley at Armenian street.  We had hoped for more stalls showcasing our hawker culture, but sadly there was only a Putu Pirang stall (what we call TuTu cake) and a Cow van that sells not hawker food.  Also, I would have liked there to be more street performers along Armenian Street.  We only saw like a few walking performers and some stalls.  A little disappointed.  Hope they have more the coming weekend.

All in all, a nice experience.  We didn't hit all the spots - there were Plaza Singapore, Fort Canning, SMU etc, but we got a feel of the festival.  Culturalized!  Next year, I would be most interested to see what they will come up with!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Lost in Translation - Chaos in Hong Kong

If you think Singapore is overpopulated, you have not been to Hong Kong.  I don't think I've ever seen that many people crammed into that small a place. EVER.  Coupled with the extremely fast pace of life, it was a little stressful for me, although technically I grew up in a city myself!

Welcome to Hong Kong, where the crowd will devour you!

It was one of those random chats that blossomed into thoughts for possible trips and that was what happened to us!  Because the 4 of us have very diverse interests, likes and dietary restrictions, coming up with one common location was both hard work and no brainer.  Beach/hiking/nature vacation was out as I was the only one who could do all these.  So we decided upon a place where you have city life and island life - Hong Kong!  Where the girls can go shopping and eating, and I just wait for my days of adventure.  

Little did we know that summer holidays were from June-Mid August and our visit coincided with the tail end of the school holidays.  Which could probably explain partly why it was super duper crowded.  But I still believe HK is forever crowded.

As a rule of thumb, I was vehemently denied the luxury of wearing flip flops in Hong Kong.  Not once, not twice but several times.  The general consensus was - You are not allowed to bring or wear flip flops out the streets.  Reason being - Nobody wears flip flops out in HK.  Apparently, the fashion conscious folks in HK don't understand the hippiness of wearing flip flops.  It's not about the shoes, but the attitude!  Bummer! So it was that I only brought 1 pair of sneakers for the entire trip.  It was the same pair of sneakers to shop, to hike, and for our girls' night out. 

All thanks to Mei Mei, we were booked into Royal Plaza Hotel family room where the 4 of us slept comfortably (kinda) in 2 double beds, smack in the middle of busy Mongkok.  And the free shuttle provided by the Airport Express Service (HKD90 single way, cheaper if you buy return and if you buy >1 ticket) stops at the hotel doorstep.  
Our first day was just exploring Hong Kong.  We walked Mongkok to Central to Soho to Causeway Bay, bracing ourselves against the crowd that started gathering at 10+am in the morning! Along the way, we sampled the HK Cha Chan Teng (HK Tea House) where the food was only so-so.  We also tried the Michelin Star Tim Ho Wan, albeit not the outlets that got the star. But food is food, and they are only famous for a couple of items, namely the Char Siew Bun, which was worth it according to the 2 who ate.  About our dietary restrictions – we have 1 who doesn't eat pork (Sa), 1 who doesn't eat meat (Me), 1 who doesn't eat green leafy vegetables (Mei Mei) and 1 who basically eats anything (Angeline).  Makes it a bit of a challenge when ordering since only 2 people eat pork, which accounts for most of the food in HK.  But we kinda survived.  
Famous Tim Ho Wan Char Siew Bun
It was a lot of walking and shopping on the 1st day.  Truth be told, not my favourite activity.  But the girls were enjoying H&M, Uniqlo and what have you.  By the end of the day, after we went to the Avenue of Stars, which by the way should be renamed Avenue of Tourists, I was exhausted and overwhelmed by (1) the crowd (2) the shopping (3) the food.  I don't like crowd, shopping and have no fervent interests in the act of food scouting and planning.  So imagine how stressed I was when we had to plan what is for breakfast during dinner, and what is for dinner during breakfast.  Luckily, Mei Mei did all the planning.
Breakfast at Kam Wah Cafe. Their Polo Bun is pretty decent. Just be prepared for the not so friendly auntie service staff

A day @ Ocean Park!

Second day, finally some action and fun! We went to Ocean Park, thinking most tourists should be aiming for Disneyland.  Right? WRONG!!! Or were there 3x as many tourists in HK?? Ocean Park was packed to the brim at 10am when the gates opened.  You literally couldn't see what was in front, just follow where the crowd is pushing you towards!  Our plan of action to hit the cable car and head for the rides kinda backfired when the crowd all headed to the cable car!  Our next plan of action was to run to the furthest rides which worked to our favour as people were still leisurely walking and stopping by the nearer attractions!  It was only when we headed back to the main area that it hit us – everywhere was Q, Q and more Q! Each ride was at least a 45min Q, such that by the time we went on only 4 rides, it was almost 3pm in the afternoon.  With the scorching heat burning down on us, we decided to give up and head back for afternoon tea at Hokkaido Dairy Milk Restaurant and back to wash up for more night activity!
Nice cable car ride up

Hair Raiser, the best ride we had!!!

This night, we visited Madam Tussauds, which is located at The Peak.  Tips – Go online and secure tickets before you go there because (1) tickets will be sold out at the end of the day (which we encountered) (2) there are many online discounts from 10%-50% depending on the time of the day you want to visit.  Smart ass me went and we bought entries for after 9pm for 50% off, at HKD100 each! A steal! And a guarantee entry into the exhibit!

We wanted to take the peak tram up just for the experience but the Q is longer than if you attempted to walk up the hill! So taxi it was – fast, cheap and more comfortable.  Dinner was at Cui Hua Restaurant, where we had really good fish paste products.  After 2 days, this was one of the better dishes I had.  
Channelling the sexiness in us

Cannot help it - My childhood idol, my 1st love

Remember the iconic song by Aaron Kwok??

Moonwalker - Our interpretation

After a nice dinner, our fun began @ Mdm Tussauds!  Good thing – not many people in the museum after 9pm!  We had a lot of fun posing with the wax figures.  I had a little star struck episode when I literally turned into a teenage girl when I saw my childhood idol's wax figure!  As my friends said, that moment in point was the most excited they have seen me throughout the entire 5 days in HK.  It was then followed by a short walk to view the scenery from The Peak and a mad wait for transport back to Hotel.  The taxi Q was too long and after almost 1H wait, we hopped on the public mini-bus and took the MTR back.

Next day morning, it was time for Macau! Leaving HK for the day, we took the 11am ferry across (1H ride at HKD170 single way).  On recommendation by the taxi driver, we headed to Restaurant Vela Latino for Portuguese food, which to me was only so-so and pretty pricey.  There were a lot of tourists though, so I figured they are only out to earn tourist money, not real authentic.  
Vela Latino Restaurant where the food was so-so and pricey
After lunch, we headed out to the sun and Senado Square where once again, people mountain people sea!  It takes skill to weave your way through crowd, and I believe I have perfected the art of weaving! After shopping for snacks and posing for pictures at the Ruins of St Paul (pretty touristy things), we rushed off to Venetian to experience the casino atmosphere (Angeline wants to do research for her counseling work) and view the indoor canal.  Time was running out as we had to catch the 530pm ferry back so it was just a quick run through the casino and off to the shuttle bus.  No time to gamble! Though the jackpot price sat at HKD62M.  Then it was another 1H ferry ride back to HK.  
Senado Square

Ruins of St Paul

The night was spent walking along Fa Yuen street to Tong Chai Street savouring street food and desserts.  I finally had the Fishball, but still missed out on the Smelly Tofu.  Was gonna have Sushi One (50% off after 10pm) but the Q once again frightened us and we left without trying.  
Desserts in HK!! The Top bowl is Taro (Yam Paste) but is cold, not hot!! Which is weird actually
On our 4th day, finally some activity I love – hiking! We went on one of the best urban hikes in HK – The Dragon’s Back Trail located along Shek O Road.  Leaving early in the morning, we abandoned Sa in the hotel and headed for some workout after days of eating.  Taking the MTR to Shau Kei Wan, then bus 9 stopping at To Tei Wan along Shek O Road, we started our hike up to Dragon’s Peak at 284m.  It took us 40mins to reach the peak, where we had unobstructed view of the harbor.  It was a great feeling to be away from the hustle and bustle of the city and away from people.   
Enjoying the view at Dragon's Peak

Just the 3 of us

It took us another 1+H to reach our exit point – Collison Bay where we took the minibus to the MTR station.  The entire hike, if you do the whole loop, takes you all the way to Big wave Beach which is a total of 8km.  We only did about 3km.  My companions already exceeded their expectations completing the 3km without 2H, so bravos to them!  I would have loved to do the entire loop all the way to the end, but oh well, at least I got to hike!  I would recommend doing this hike and if possible head all the way to the Big Wave Beach for some relaxing.  The trail is well marked and well trodden, so no worries about getting lost!

After the hike, we figured we could justify the calorie intake because we burnt enough! So the girls wolved down plates of roast meat while I slurped on noodles.  Then they took off for more shopping while I gave up halfway and went back for a nap before our girls’ night out!

Yes, this is the night when we went to Lan Kwai Fong, the pub street of Hong Kong!  We went there at 8pm for dinner, not so happening yet.  But we had our best meal so far that night!  Yes, it was Hard Rock Cafe, you might scoff at it, but seriously the food was good, the atmosphere was good, the service was top notch! And with drinks and music to go with! What more do you want?  We had the best time that night, just relaxing and slowly eating our food, not mindful of starring eyes trying to will us off the table once the last morsel of food is swallowed.  The only time when we spent more than 2H at a dining table!  We ordered 4 big plates of food and we still managed to almost finish them off.  When we left, the party outside just started!  I was very tempted to party, but next day is another early rise, I was bloody beat and I guess my party of girls is not big on partying (though we don't mind people watching).  And so it was, we headed back to sleep.
Best Meal of the TRIP!! Hard Rock, you rock!
Next day, we were all supposed to go Lantau island, but Sa and Mei Mei backed out last minute as they needed their beauty sleep. So Angeline and I soldiered on.  It was a smooth ride to Lantau – MTR to Tung Chung then cable car ride up! We took the return cable car package (HKD255 for 1 crystal 1 standard ride) which includes the boat trip in Tai-O village and unlimited inland bus rides.  If you are not extremely keen on cable car ride, you could most definitely just take the bus to Giant Buddha and Tai-O from Tung Chung. It will cost you approximately HKD14-19 each way and half the price on a weekday. 
Cable car up to Ngong Ping at Lantau

We were rather surprised that there was literally no Q for the cable car ride!  We got on the crystal cable car within 5mins of getting our tickets!  The ride up took all of 25mins and along the way, we were offered great views of the surrounding and the airport!  When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of crowd!  We could finally walk with arms stretched out and not hitting anyone!  The highlight of Ngong Ping Village is of course the Giant Buddha!  Just a few hundred steps up and you will be up close and personal with Buddha!  The view up there is also real nice!  You can buy a voucher for the vegetarian meal at the restaurant for HKD78 each.  We didn’t.
I have the Giant Buddha behind me

After Giant Buddha, we took the bus to Tai-O fishing village.  The bus ride (bus 21) took only 10mins and when you arrive, it is like you are transported back in time.  All the houses on stilts, and old village, reminiscence of the old times.  We saw toys and stuff that we used to play when we were kids!  It was real nice to walk along the empty streets and just soak it in.  Our lunch was a simple affair of noodles, which was a nice break (at least for me) away from all those calorie-ridden food we had.  Then we headed for the boat trip which was included in our package.  The boat trip actually only costs HKD20 if you want to take it.  It takes you along the stilt houses, to the open sea to try to catch a glimpse of the white dolphins!!!  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any white dolphins.  And our boat broke down on our way back.  And so, it ends our nice quiet day at Lantau Island and back to HK.   
I love the feel of the rustic fishing village at Tai-O

Practicing my Kickboxing

So Angeline decided we should take a pic with the Shaolin Monks.

We spent the rest of the night doing nothing much cos everyone was pretty beat.  Dinner was at One Dim Sum, a Michelin recommended restaurant near Prince Edward Street.  It was cheap, 4 of us ordered about 6 items and came up to SGD20! And less crowded.  Food was pretty ok, but probably cos we ordered without knowing which were their signature dishes.
Sa decided to order something called 'Fried Egg with Honey' on the menu and this is what it was! Taste like fried dough with condensed milk and peanuts
And so ended my trip in HK.  Personally, HK is not my favourite place to visit.  And I don't understand why so many people love to go back to HK time after time after time.  The place is overcrowded, and unless you love shopping, there is nothing much to do in HK itself!  I did enjoy Lantau island, and I think I would totally like visiting some of the other islands in HK, just not staying and walking in HK city itself, getting crushed by crowds.  Although I would like to go back to enjoy the night life at Lan Kwai Fong.  Seems like a pretty interesting place for some drinking and partying... Food wise?  Singapore has much better food!  Seriously, the food didn't impress me or my friends. And we had a list of places recommended by other tourists to try out the different food!  Feel so lucky to be in Singapore where we get to devour so many delicious food.  Maybe I’m just not suited for city life or the extremes of a bustling city.  It really scared me a little facing the crowd.  And I’m really glad to be back in Singapore where I don't feel ‘claustrophobic’. 

After the trip and the disappointing food experience, we have decided to go on our own little makan-sutra hawker style trip within Singapore! First up - Probably Chinatown!! Why fly 3.5H to HK for food when you have better and cheaper food back home? A bowl of instant noodle in HK costs HKD20 (SGD3+) onwards, a plate of Char Kuey Tiao is only $3!  I shall hopefully try to capture the results of our makan-sutra hawker style