Friday, 14 September 2012

The Gardens by the Bay

The Outlaws are still in town. Yesterday we took them for lunch at Pollen and then into the greenhouses at the Gardens by the Bay. The Flower dome is a bit mah, with exciting plants unusual to Singapore! Like Geraniums! The Cloud Forest is more exciting with walkways and a waterfall. It's the first time I've ever been in a green house with lifts and escalators. So Singapore. Here are the pics....

Malaysia - Penang and Langkawi

Another holiday. I know. Sickening isn't it? Just back from Bali and off again to Malaysia. Two reasons, one - it's half term, two - the outlaws (the DFP's family) are in town.

Penang and Langkawi are both islands off the north-west of Malaysia. Penang is famous for its old buildings and delicious food and Langkawi as the pearl of the tropics.

In Langkawi we stayed in a wooden villa on the tropical cliff side overlooking the sea. There were two very friendly cats, a mother and her little black kitten. By our final day there I had fed them enough milk and cheese slices for them to grace my lap. They curled up there like fury yin and yang. It made me very happy.

We hired a boat for a day to snorkel, swim in a mountain lake and eat an amazing barbeque lunch on a beach. Proper tropical island paradise beach stuff.

The mountain lake. So deep the DFP was able to dive into it to his hearts content. 
One of the social bi-products of 9/11 has been that Arab holiday makers have found themselves less welcome visitors to some countries. They're given lots of grief at passport control and are travelling in greater numbers to Langkawi. The owners of the place we were staying told us they vet their guests and tell Arab enquirers that they're fully booked, which I found disquieting.

Their reason was that people felt uncomfortable seeing be-burka-ed women sitting on the balcony swathed entirely in black. I don't agree with discrimination but did feel a bit odd while trying to struggle discreetly in or out of a swimming costume on a beach and being passed by a woman dressed from head to toe in voluminous black with only eyes and hands visible. Her husband next to her in shorts. I would suddenly feel very self concious and a bit of a tart.   

You may remember how much I loved crumbly, old Mumbai. I miss old in shiny, new Singapore. I am constantly bewailing the bulldozers knocking down anything with age and character to make way for yet another condo. This happens a lot at the moment in Geylang. There's a big push to build lots of new apartments and it feels as though 80% of them are being built around the corner from our flat.

Penang satisfied my appetite for old and crumbly. It's a UNESCO heritage site, twinned with Malacca. Malacca is also in Malaysia but at the bottom end only two hours by bus from Singapore. 

In the mid eighteenth century Captain Francis Light, under the auspicious of the all prevalent East India Company, leased Penang beginning several centuries of British involvement. The British legacy is still everywhere, literally underfoot. You see Staffordshire tiles again and again, ironwork from Glasgow and in amongst the Chinese shop-houses find colonial grandeur rotting away, though not rotting at the speed and extent that it does in Mumbai.

We stayed in a wonderful heritage hotel right in the centre of Chinatown, The Campbell House Hotel, recently refurbished by an extremely on the ball expat couple. They've got every detail right. It's quirky and tasteful, comfortable and beautiful. There are those lovely little details which make all the difference. In the fridge in every room instead of overpriced snacks you find a bottle of complimentary iced lemon tea. The shower is amazing. So is the coffee machine. When we arrived one of the owners, Nadya, was there to meet us, tell us where to park, the best places to eat in the area and what to see the next day. Very, very impressive.

Note the Staffordshire tiles!

We wandered around looking at old buildings and eating whenever we had the appetite to. Penang is famous for its food and deservedly so. One of the dishes it claims as its own is char kway teow. This fried dish of thick, flat rice noodles and seafood is common in Singapore too, but Malaysians swear you can only get the real deal in Penang. Very tasty.

My favourite trip was to the Cheong Fatt Zhe Mansion. Cheong Fatt Zhe left China at sixteen with only the clothes on his back and, of course for this to be a story worth telling, became massively wealthy. He had a finger in every pie: railway pie, bank pie, building pie, British and Dutch pie. So of course he needed a house to match. Well, he needed lots of houses to match and he built one of them in Penang. 

The guided tour was led by one of the team of architects who had bought the house in 1990. In his will Cheong Fatt Zhe said that no one could inherit from his estate until after his last son died. He had eight wives and fathered his last child at 74. He died in 1916 and his last son didn't die until 1989.

By the time he died every single inch of the house had been let out to pay for its upkeep. The grand entrance hall was full of cooking stoves; motor bikes drove in and out; washing lines were strung from the fine wooden carved screens; someone was running a hairdressing salon and hundreds of families were living there. They all had to be paid off before the renovations could begin. It's well worth a visit. The house and it's history are as fascinating as he clearly was.

So please add Penang and Langkawi to your list of places to visit. Here are some more pictures to whet your appetite for travel....