Monday, 28 October 2013

This has to be the best zoo in the World

Within the first 5 minutes of entering we saw several different animals, and they were almost close enough to touch. This was really going to be as good as the reviews I had read.

The big attraction in Singapore is the zoo. It's famous for its size and the fact there are no bars or cages, with the animals living in areas very close to their natural habitats.



Although it's out of the city, public transport is efficient and easy, taking about an hour from the centre.

This is absolutely the best zoo I have ever seen, and the closest I will ever come to seeing many of its residents.

The fact that the animals aren’t kept behind bars, and instead are contained by large moats and sometimes electric wiring also means they are used to being glared at by visitors. They are not shy, don't hide, and are guaranteed to be available for your viewing; due to the cleverly placed feeding and shelter points.

Some monkeys and apes are completely free to roam as they please around the zoo, swinging from trees or just hanging out, posing for pictures.



We got there early, to ensure we avoided the crowds and made the most of it. The weather was against us by lunchtime, but the periods between torrential rain helped coax the animals out. So, we did see everything.

Tip: Be organised

It's a long day with a lot to see, which we tried to carefully organise between shows and feeding times, that are detailed in the leaflet they give you on arrival. It's worth looking this up in advance and planning what you want to see, to ensure none of your favourites get missed. We managed to tick off most of the shows and all but one of the feeding times for the animals at the top of our list, with only just missing the white rhinos lunch break.



My favourites have to be the white tigers, pygmy hippos, and giraffes. But even the more common and less camera worthy otters, apes and sea lions were lovely.







I recommend heading to each of the shows ahead of their schedule time, and prepare to get wet in most cases, or sit a fair way from the front.



By 1pm we had seen all the shows and a few of the animals, allowing for an afternoon of freedom roaming around at our leisure. However, this place is huge, we were on our feet non stop...there is just so much to see! With kids you would probably need to come back a second time to fully appreciate it all.

The river safari (separate tickets) isn't yet complete, so although this was an opportunity to see pandas, we wouldn't have had time the same day to do that as well.

Night safari

A combo ticket is available for the river safari, zoo and night safari, so we decided to make the most of the saving and visit the latter as well.

It's very good, and well done. But, in all honesty, if you have just spent the day at the zoo, you may find the night safari disappointing. There are different animals here, and there are, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of them out at night. But the majority of them are the same as what you have just seen at the zoo, albeit in daylight!

The numerous tourists that don't listen to the warnings about using flash will start to grate on you here. As will the fact that you can't actually photograph the animals without the use of a flash, although you will appreciate why.

There are lions there somewhere!
The safari train/tram, takes you out to the animals that are not accessible on any of the trails. These are of course the more interesting ones, or scary and ferocious ones. Be prepared that you will probably see a lot of antelope type animals as well.

The commentary provided isn't great, and you do really have to keep your eyes open and enjoy the animals being on display. It sometimes feels like they have been stuck there in the perfect pose, close enough for a great photo (if you had a decent lens to take it with), but which you have to capture in your memory as it all moves so quickly.

The trails allow as much time as you want, but there is a limited amount to see that wasn't already at the zoo next door.

Unless you are particularly keen on seeing animals in their nocturnal state I wouldn't include the night safari on your must do list. Save your dollars for something else.

But the zoo... Has to be done!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

2013 travels: day 188, Labuan

So, I'm now out of the jungle and enjoying a few days of rest on the island of Labuan, in Sabah, Malaysia (still Borneo).

Catching lunch ;)

Gunung Mulu national park was very nice, but after 5 days of jungle trekking and visiting caves full of guano (bat poo), my knee is still aching and my shoes are yet to recover (currently soaking in a bucket).

The highlight was the garden of Eden valley walk via the Lang's and Deer caves which you can read about below: Hiking to the garden of Eden valley

We didn't make it to the Pinnacles, despite attempting the 3 day trek, unfortunately it was rained off. There's more detailed posts on the rest of my time in Mulu here: Caves and a little disappointment

After Mulu, we passed through Brunei on our way over to Sabah. That was literally a tick in a box and nothing more as it has to be the dullest country I have ever visited. Barely worthy of a blog post, but of course I have one. If you are passing by I have a few recommendations. But if you are planning a trip, don't bother including it on your itinerary, unless it's Hari Raya. See my Brunei post here for more: Not completely dull

In other news... 

I'm still chugging out posts from Singapore, and there's still more to come. Here's the latest: Not just a marina, Marina Bay, Singapore

I've now passed the 6 month milestone, but am still no closer to determining when I may return to the UK. Certainly not for the winter!

We are heading through Sabah next and will be in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand to enjoy the lantern festival of Yi Peng on 16th November. Want to join me... you know where to find me ;) x


Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Not just a marina - Marina bay, Singapore

Marina bay, famous for its F1 night circuit and as the home of the iconic Merlion, really needs a whole day to explore fully. Although the bay itself is just 4 km (circumference) there are numerous things to see, and at different times throughout the day the experience will be very different.

F1 grand prix circuit city view

How to get there: We started out at the Esplanade MRT station but Bayfront and Raffles Place MRT stations are also located elsewhere around the bay.

View from Merlion park

The most popular place, and a good place to start is the Merlion park, home to the water spewing iconic Singapore Merlion and its cub, which were moved here in 2002. I recall my visit to it in it's previous home, just up river, at the mouth, which existed before Marina Bay was expanded onto reclaimed land. Sadly, there is now nothing more than an empty disused covered walkway with a view blocked by a bridge, and hence the reason for the rehousing of the icons. I recommend heading to the park itself early in the morning when you will find it quiet and less crowded with tourists.

A walk anticlockwise from the Merlion park will take you past an open plaza and art deco style pier that is good place to rest, relax and/or get a bite to eat. Known as Clifford Square and pier, this area often hosts events such as art fairs.

Solar energy panels

Cooling mist

Another area used for events such as new year, can be found further round the bay, it's the bit that sticks out next to the shelters with fans which are powered by the solar panels. These are just one example of the ongoing sustainable energy projects that form part of the ongoing development. The other is the tubed structure a little further South, which monitors temperatures and cools with a mist spray, as well as contributing to the sound and light experience at night.

For those that enjoy shopping, the Marina Bay Sands shopping centre with its designer stores, will fulfill your spending habit as well as keep you cool from the heat outside.

Marina bay model
Relocation of the Merlion

For an educational experience, look out for the Marina Bay City Gallery, which can be found in the South West corner of the bay. The latest plans for development are well exhibited here. They have some very interesting photos showing super imposed images of current views over photos dating back through the 70's, 80's and 90's. These are hidden outside the toilets rather than within the main exhibition so make sure you track them down, as the captions give some interesting info such as confirming that the Merlion has moved. Sidenote: the Merlion originally cost US$165,000, but a rather expensive US$7.5million to relocate it just 120metres due to the redevelopment of the marina!

Trails around Singapore

Another reason to visit the exhibition is the large selection of leaflets available for trails around the different areas of Singapore, which I did not see available anywhere else around the city. For example the 'heritage' one covers off most of the key historical sights particularly in the colonial area. If you are interested in 'architecture' this one gives some info and history of some of the other buildings around the bay and close by.

Theatres on the Bay is a concert complex located at the Esplanade on Marina Bay. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, you can enjoy free outdoor concerts right on the harbour. The theatre offers a regular programme of events and is also a good spot to sit and watch the bi-nightly light shows.

The light show, known as ‘Wonder Full’, features water fountains, lights, images and fire. It lasts for 13 minutes and is done to a the sound of classical music. Time: Every night at 8pm and 9.30pm, plus - at 11pm on Friday and Saturday.

Light show during F1
Helix bridge view

Views all around the bay at night time are beautiful, but my favourite spot has to be close too the Helix bridge, lit up with coloured lights, which looks out across at the well photographed Marina Bay Sands towers.

Behind the towers is the recently opened Gardens by the bay which I have detailed further in my post: Some of Singapore's parks and gardens here.

Other things to do around Marina Bay:
-Makansutra hawker centre at Gluttons Bay. It's not quite a tradition hawker centre as the stalls are all branded and more expensive, but it gets busy and the food is good.
-Esplanade shopping centre. As well as shopping there's a great view from the terrace on the roof which is quiet, peaceful, and with a bar. We found this was almost deserted during the F1 as few people know it's there!
-ArtScience museum. Interestingly shaped building as well as the home of a number of permanent and temporary galleries.
-Youth Olympic park. Something a bit different with drawings and sculptures giving interpretations of Olympic values.

Have I missed something, definitely! There is just so much to see and do in Marina Bay, it's impossible to cover it all.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Hiking to the garden of Eden valley, Mulu national park, Borneo (Malaysia)

I was slightly reluctant to be joining in the garden of Eden valley walk at Mulu national park, after hearing so many stories about how hard it was and the amount of climbing involved; as well as the fact you get your shoes wet.

However, that didn't deter me and after walking through the Lang's cave and enjoying the rather artistic stalactites and stalagmites there, we headed to the Deer cave, next door.

Lang's cave artistic rocks


The Deer cave

Abraham Lincoln view from Deer cave


The Deer cave is apparently the second largest cave passage in the world (the largest open to visitors).  The opening sits on  the side of a limestone mountain facing the lush rainforest. Inside, small waterfalls shower from the roof, and as you enter you can hear the squeaking of the 3 million bats as they almost drown out your thoughts.

Deer cave - 2nd largest cave passage in the World


I looked up to see a quivering shadow on the ceiling above, and below heaps of guano (bat poo). This stuff is literally piled up like pyramids, and cascading down and onto the board walk in places.

I stopped to take a closer look at the fine powdery particles of brown ... faeces. Close up it looks almost alive, as small cockroaches and earwigs fester amongst the loose top layer.

Festering guano!


The smell is bad. It was evident from the entrance, but as you reach the boardwalk that crosses to the other side of the cave, the wave of ammonia hits you, almost burning the inside of your nostrils.

The air is full of floating particles and with a head torch, the bugs are attracted to the light. I was reluctant to breath, fearing I would inhale something unpleasant, or worse, swallow a nasty buzzing creature or two.

The immense size of the cave is impressive. The mountains of guano infested with cockroaches, earwigs and other bugs is ... scary!

The entire cave is accessible along the manmade boardwalk. So unless you are heading out to the garden of Eden valley, you can avoid walking directly on the guano, and will keep your shoes reasonably clean. I read somewhere about putting plastic bags on your feet to be sure.

The garden of Eden

For the garden of Eden valley, we have to head off the 'safe' path, through the guano.

Then comes the stream. I managed to step across on the stones, keeping my feet dry.

Then another stream, unfortunately much deeper. Of course I was gloating from having kept my shoes dry, wondering what all the fuss was about.

Further on we have to scramble over guano covered rocks as bat waste rains down from above. My hands are grubby with the excrement and I'm reluctant to brush away the sweat that is dripping down my forehead from fear of literally getting - shit on my face.

Next, there's a difficult climb up and over a slippery wall of limestone, just before the exit into the valley. My knee gives way and I am almost unable to pull myself up with the wet rope that dangles above me. The guide suggests I turn back, and scares me with promises of it getting harder as we venture on. I continue despite this.

Round the corner is another hard ascent over rock, but I instead head for the pool below, and wade in. I'm already wet, so I don't care. I swim the few metres to the other side, carefully trying to avoid the floaters on the surface of the water.

There are floaters in the water :(


I wait for the rest of the group at the mouth of the cave, as they struggle with their bags to clamber across more rocks. I am dripping wet, with water spilling from my shoes.

The valley before us is beautiful, making the hike totally worthwhile. The green, lush jungle climbs upwards from the river and appears almost untouched compared to other areas of the national park, as there are no boardwalks here.

We still had a reasonable hike to the waterfall. With the threat of leeches we waded on through the stream, shoes sodden.

River walk


The route to the waterfall is along a jungle lined trail, intertwined with tree roots and numerous plants which are home to the leeches. I avoided brushing my ankles against them as best I could, making it up, over and down to the waterfall without any attaching themselves to me.

A cool clear waterfall greeted us, so the others in the group headed across the slippery rocks to enjoy a swim in the deeper pool. I just paddled around in the shallow area. It was a lovely little spot.

Waterfall


Whilst enjoying the rest, I found a leech on my hand, immediately questioning whether these creatures went in the water, as I had been informed they didn't. The sticky end of its body sucked hard, as I extracted it from one hand, it moved like a slinky fixing itself to the other. These things are not easy to remove. So, I eventually resorted to a leaf to assist as a barrier.

Then as I got out of the water, another, much larger leech was hanging from my left leg. Seriously... Do they live in the water? Our guide was adamant they didn't.

Sticky leech


After lunch, we headed back down. I only picked up another two leeches along the way, slowing me down at the back of the group, where I was already lagging.

The climb seemed some what harder going back, as I clambered over the guano covered rocks again, avoiding spiders and other scurrying creatures. I pulled myself round the edge of a large rock, pressing my hand against the wall of rock ahead to steady myself from falling. As I turned to look up, my headlight lit the rock before me, shining onto the thousands of tiny cockroaches that are looking back at me. I gave a little yelp, and slowly, as carefully as I could, I extracted my hand, avoiding another stumble. This was no place to panic.

By the time we reached the other side of the deer cave, I was splattered with guano, and smelling absolutely foul. It didn't matter, it was a fun and gruelling adventure, and definitely the highlight of Mulu for me.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

2013 travels: day 177, Miri

After a couple of days resting up in Sibu, sadly a rather uninspiring city but with great accommodation, we headed up the Rejang river.

You can read more about Sibu in my Travelpod post here:

It took two 'flying coffins' (boats), and an overnight in Kapit to obtain a permit, before we could get to the village of Belaga. However, it was a fun adventure travelling with the locals, along a route that seems to no longer be popular with tourists. The locals don't speak much English so communication involves a lot of smiling and making gestures with hands... a lot of fun on a 5/7 hour boat journey.

Enjoying the roof of a 'flying coffin'

Read about the journey here: 

We had planned to base ourselves in Belaga, a small town along the river, to visit a couple of longhouses. The guesthouse was simple and lacked decent plumbing/lighting, so we perhaps should have stayed in one of the longhouses as they seemed much nicer, and cosy.

We spent a day travelling further up river and visited a number of different longhouses, stopping at one to cook and eat lunch with a family there. It was really lovely meeting the locals and sharing food and arak (a root based wine that we brought in town). It certainly helped break the ice and language barrier.

Laughing with locals, she was lovely

Another day we went to a school, down river, armed with stationery items for the kids and also stopped by at a number of other long houses.

Our visit coincided with a spiritual celebration in aid of a new bridge in Belaga. This meant more local interaction, as well as a lot of chanting and the sacrific of a wild pig.

Sacrificed :(

We are now in Miri, close to the border with Brunei. It's been raining hard each night but fortunately the weather has remained relatively dry during the day, so we have managed a day trip down to Niah national park today to admire the famous cave paintings.

Tomorrow, we are flying to the UNESCO world heritage site of Gunung Mulu national park. 

In other news... Do check out my last post concluding on the parks and garden I visited whilst in Singapore last month:

Some of Singapore's parks and gardens


Friday, 11 October 2013

Some of Singapore's parks and gardens

For such a small country, the island of Singapore certainly has a lot of green areas. Amidst the large expanses of development there are some lovely parks and gardens and most of these are free. There were quite a few others I would have liked to visit as well, but here is the run down on those that we did:

1) Botanic gardens - a lovely place to walk, meet friends or enjoy a picnic. Even during the week this place is buzzing. I particularly liked the ginger garden and evolution garden. The latter offers an interesting walk through botanic evolution showing the changes from stromatelites to moss and trees. It's very well done and maintained but could do with slightly better information boards, stating what some of the individual exhibits making up the flora and fauna actually are.

Botanic gardens, great pond life
2) Orchid garden, $5 entry ($1 for students and senior citizens). Located within the Botanic gardens.

We visited during a special event whereby students get in for free and so do those with them. It's still well worth the $5 fee despite having got in for nothing. With over 1,000 species of orchids and air conditioning, the VIP section is a must.


3) Sungei buloh (https://www.sbwr.org.sg) - natural mangrove/wetland reserve. It's deserted during the week but this also means free entry (only $1 at the weekend).

Take the MRT to Kranji and then bus 925 to the park, it doesn't run right to the park on weekdays only to the start of the nature trail that is currently closed for maintenance. From there it is a 15 minute walk. Alternative: the Kranji express runs every hour or so costing $3 (all day) and stops at the MRT and key points through the park itself, saving on the walk.

Sungei buloh is a good place for bird watchers, and nature lovers, but do take note of the warning on, their web page about mosquito's. I had bug spray on but was bitten everywhere that I didn't have it, including through my clothes!

We also saw plenty of giant monitor lizards, mud skippers, fish, birds, crabs, etc. If you are lucky you might see a crocodile.

Sungei buloh, massive mud skipper

4) Southern ridge parks. This is a network of well marked trails, paved walkways, and raised wooden and metal platforms winding through Singapore’s Southwestern coast, (approx 10 kilometres).

Starting with Mount Faber Park in the East or Kent Ridge Park on the West. We chose Mt Faber due to the pouring rain the day we ventured there, rather than enduring a long walk in miserable weather.

Throughout these parks there is some interesting flora and fauna to see, from tree top forest walks, zig zagging through secondary rainforest. If you are lucky you may spot tropical birds and butterflies. There is also a World War II battlefield and some magnificent panoramic views of the area.

As mentioned, we suffered a bad weather day, but it was still a lovely place to spend time walking. Two parks are joined together by bridge avoiding having to cross the road.

Canopy view
5) Gardens by the bay (South), opened in June 2012. It's pretty impressive and access to the gardens are free. You can take a buggy/train for just S$2 which provides some pre-recorded commentary, which will save your feet and educate. But we preferred to wander freely on foot.

As you head deeper into the gardens, prepare to see the future of sustainable energy, with man made super trees and iconic bio domes.


Paying for the flower and cloud forest domes is totally worth it for those who enjoy seeing cactus, plants, flowers and trees. If you have to pick only one, the 'cool' cloud forest is much more impressive and interesting, in my opinion. Tip: bring something warm to wear, as it gets chilly in there.

Inside the cloud forest dome
There's also a tree top walk way (S$5 fee applies), but for spectacular views, we shelled out S$18 each for access and a drink on the tree top bar - an extravagant way to enjoy sunset and night views of the city.

The whole site is self sufficient. There is a lot of information towards the end of the cloud forest dome exhibits that explain this further, but basically the energy used within the complex is generated by a combination of the solar panels, rainwater and garden waste. It's all about sustainable energy. Even the escalators join in, saving energy by only moving when you are on them.

Inside the flower dome

6) Fort canning park. This was once the centre of the British administration and also Singapore’s first botanic gardens founded by Sir Stamford Raffles. Check out the spice garden and various historical sites including the battle box (if you can as it was closed when we were there disappointingly).

Fort Canning park, site of Sir Raffles home

7) Tiger balm gardens. This is it's old name, but more likely to lure you in due to the original owners having funded its creation from the profits of the famous 'balm'.

Has par villa, little Tiger balm here it seems

See the darker, more dilapidated side of the city with a visit to the bizarre cultural theme park known as Haw Par Villa.

This was not as run down as I expected after reading the reviews, however it could do with a lick of paint and the signs needs updating as they are almost illegible in some cases.

The ten courts of hell exhibition is the most interesting but the Chinese legends depicted elsewhere around the gardens are an interesting and pleasant walk too.

We were disappointed to find that the Hua Song Museum located at Haw Par Villa, closed in early 2012. This was where visitors could learn about the Chinese immigrant stories. The jury is still out on whether the Singapore tourist board (STB) will fill this gap elsewhere in the future.

8) Pasir Ris park. Located in the residential area to the Northeastern part of the island, this park offers a mangrove walk, herb garden and has an interesting collection of geocaches.
 
We chose to wander on foot as geocaches tend to be easier to collect that way. But cyclists are also welcome  to enjoy the cycle path in a reasonably well kept area of parkland.

It's a bit out of the way if you're staying on another part of the island, but is popular at weekends with the free BBQ facilities getting filled up with families.

The water is not recommended for swimming, however just a short walk from here is the Pasir Ris sports and recreation centre where you can use the facilities for just a couple of dollars - open 7am to 10pm.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

2013 travels: day 169, Sibu

It's been a busy week, cramming in visits to national parks and  the many other things to see and do around Kuching (last stop). I've seen a lot of wildlife, as expected, so I'm looking forward to something a bit cultural as we begin to head up river through the gateway to the 'wild interior'.

Proboscis monkey, Bako national park

Arriving into Sibu yesterday on the ferry, we are taking a day to pause, and determine if the next leg is actually doable.

Number 1 on the list for the Malaysian piece of Borneo for me, is Mulu national park. I want to take a 3 day trek to the Pinnacles, but there are a lot of safety issues associated with doing this with a knee injury; which unfortunately I am still sporting. Perhaps I will just have to settle for visiting the "most spectacular caves in the World" instead? 

In other news...

Due to being out of the UK for almost 6 months now, I've had to resign from demonstrating for Stampin' Up! But that doesn't mean the crafting will stop. In fact I hunted out a scrapbooking supplier in Kuching to make a customised travel journal for me, for all the bits and pieces I've been collecting, but unfortunately there wasn't time for it to be made before I had to take the ferry out of there - bad planning on my part! I'm still on the look out for crafting opportunities however ;)!

Finally, just in case you missed my last few posts:

- Don't forget to check out the free eBook download available today and tomorrow, which has a short article by me: 


PS it seems it is also available for free on the US Amazon page too.

- There's still more from my time in Singapore to come, but do check my run down of the less visited places in Singapore, if you haven't done so already: