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Friday, 26 November 2010

Day 219: "Asia's favourite playground"

Our monorail ticket told us we were headed for "Asia's favourite playground" and the friendly female voice on the monorail told us we were "...just moments away from Santosa Beach, alight here for white sandy beaches, exciting activities, relaxing resorts and Santosa's finest shopping and dining experiences." Just as the doors opened and a gust of warm salty air finally won the battle with the uber-aircon, we were all advised to "have fun!"

Santosa, a small island that lies south of Singapore and plays host to luxury apartments, a Universal Studios theme park, numerous hotels and a Casino and the auspicious title of "the southern most tip of continental Asia" - or so the same friendly voice on the free island tram told us.

We were there to have a look around and meet up with some friends. First we hit the beach, a thin strip of imported but, yes, white sand that is dotted with (not naturally-occurring) palm trees and a multitude of bars and cafes. The sea is surprisingly clean, considering that southern Singapore is basically one big port and, in fact, it's funny to look out to sea and see the looming shadows of ships docked not very far away at all instead of the usual endless blue line between the sea and the sky.

As with much else in Singapore; entertainment is at the forefront of commerce on Sentosa and apart from the theme parks and casino, the promenade is packed with fun ways to fill your day. We tried our hand (and our nerves) at Megazip; an outdoor-ropes-adventure type thing that had us stepping of a 5-storey building (spot Rob, above) and flying 450m across Sentosa on a zip-line. Which was fantastic. We also wheeled around on Segways (pictured) and sped down the awesome Luge track when it got dark. We need here to say a massive thank you to Mykel for woo-ing our way into all of the above.

And what better way to end an action-packed day than to relax in a bar, with a pool, on the beach, drinking a beer?

Yeah, so everything there is nothing au natural about Sentosa, who cares? It's a 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, money-making machine. I don't mind. I can see where the ticket stub in my pocket is coming from; it is just one big playground...for everyone. There's no age limit or budget limit that couldn't mean a great day out. Which is, I think, what it's meant to be about. A trip to Singapore simply wouldn't be complete without a visit.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Day 214-217: I'm in love with Singapore

Never had the saying about the best laid plans ever seemed more apt. Team 365 found itself with time to spare on Sarah's 2-week holiday since the darned cyclone had swept across northern Malaysia and Thailand, churning up the sea as it went, and rendered the planned scuba-diving excursion impossible. Never mind, we thought - let's go to Singapore. As you do.

We arrived through clean, organised and efficient customs, boarded the clean, organised and efficient SMRT tram system and found our clean and cosy hostel. We were, indeed, in Singapore.

After a quick shower and a change Team 365 was out again and on a trip to one of Singapore's newest attractions. In fact, the Marina Bay Sands hasn't completely finished being built yet - but one cannot be disappointed with the huge casino, numerous restaurants, museums, shopping malls and three 56-storey hotels that already exists on the 20-hectare plot of land right on Singapore's coast. Not to mentions the 340m-long Sky Park that sits on top of the 3 hotel towers and actually over-hangs the edge of Tower 1 by 67m; officially the worlds largest cantilevered platform (pictured above). I could go on; I have (as the long-suffering Rob and Sarah will no doubt happily confirm) become slightly more than obsessed with this structure since watching a program on it's construction.
So I was in my element; at the top of the building of my dreams while the sun set over a city/country I was already falling in love with. What could have possibly made this any better? Ah yes! Cocktails in one of the Marina Bay Sands numerous bars. Unfortunately we had to return to ground level to sip our Singapore Slings (only hotel guests can use the roof-top restaurant and pool...oh! the pool!) What a way to begin our time here!

The next day we were up bright and early and spent the day wandering around different parts of town. We visited Chinatown, Little India and the Muslim quarter, Kampong Cham which were all beautiful but notably more...well, how to describe this? They were just more Singaporean than other Chinatown's or Little India's that we'd previously seen. Everything just seemed like it had been more thought out; food stalls still sold cheap and local delicacies but the seating was under-cover (no more crouching on the curb or hiding under shop awnings) and there were staff who cleared the tables, fans were positioned to keep diners cool, one drink stand served drinks to all diners regardless of where they bought their food or sat. It was just so un-Indian.
Mosques and temples were beautifully maintained, sculptures gleamed on street corners where graffiti or drunks may have gathered, locals strolled past in designer sunglasses and sparkling flip flops. And every time you looked up you saw the tops of soaring skyscrapers along the horizon; a perfect synergy between old and new, traditional and modern. It was awe-inspiring.

Singapore likes to be the best. It's a country that likes to do things first, or be the biggest, or the newest and so we went to see what a country that is also slightly obsessed with cleanliness (eating or drinking on the rail system incurs a $5000 fine) would do with a load of exotic animals. And the results were incredible. Singapore Zoo is simply the most wonderfully designed space; animals are kept in enclosures - not cages - and regular token feedings and shows meant that we could easily see almost all of the animals up close and personal. There are reams and reams of photos that you can browse through here - but here's us hanging out with some parrots to get you started...

We literally spent all day at the Zoo. We could have stayed on longer to do the Night Safari (another new edition to Singapore's bulging entertainment offerings) but we were meeting up with a old school friend of Sarah's who lives here. We met Rosemary at her beautiful apartment near China Town and headed out for dinner with a few of her housemates in the CBD where a road is blocked off each night and hawker stalls serve every conceivable type of food and drink to groups of smartly dressed colleagues, families and incredibly stylish teenagers. It was a fantastic evening.

But that was unfortunately Sarah's last night with us and early the next morning we bid a sleepy and sad farewell to her. Sarah's Singaporean adventure was over but, it seems, ours had only really just began.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Day 210-212: Penang, sunshine and rain

And so your motley crew of mostly-MDT's rolled out of the faux-English country side and onto some Island living. Specifically Penang Island, which lies just off the north-west coast of Malaysia and is easily accessible by a beautiful bridge from the mainland (does this diminish it's status as an island? discuss.)

Penang is very different from the Cameron Highlands in a number of ways but the first one that hit us was the heat; below the benefits of altitude we spend out days running from shop awning to shop awning almost melting into the pavement under the sun. It was great.

It's also much busier and it was a pleasure to explore the bustling pockets of the community. As with many other Asian towns and cities that we have visited, areas were here loosely sorted by origin and income; there was Little India (with all the culinary delights that you might imagine and more), China Town (billowing incense sticks, red lanterns and all), the super-rich (malls the size of villages) and the slightly more skanky (where we were staying.)

There isn't a beach per say - basically all available space has been used in the far more profitable business of building giant ports, which was a bit of a shame but a wander down the tiny strip of rocky coast to see locals fishing was well worth it.

We spent our days trying to stay cool and the nights trying to stay dry and as the rains came down we decided where our adventure would take us next, and it was a little further afield than even we had initially expected...

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Day 203-209: Sarah in Malaysia

Some people would have been forgiven for thinking that two people who packed their backpacks and said goodbye for a year didn't want to see their nearest and dearest for a good while. Well, if the wonderful liaison with friends wasn't enough to dispel these rumours, Team 365 is way overexcited to announce the arrival of Sarah, my best friend and big sis.

We spent our first days together exploring Kuala Lumpur, a city that is as beautiful and modern in parts as it is derelict and crowded in others. We were staying in China Town, where the largest and cheapest vegetarian buffet (look! it goes further than the camera can see!) kept us going between wanders through the park, ventures into Bangkok-style huge malls and speeding around town on the 'Rapid KL' sky-train (more transport geeking. Apologies.)

But Sarah had come from the big smoke and the weather hadn't really improved too much since our 'Samui days so we headed to, well, yes, a rain forest actually. But not just any old rainforest! A very old rain forest - 130 million years old to be precise. Taman Negara, which we travelled to by bus and a stunning 3-hour boat ride, has remained unchanged by ice ages or tectonic activity and we were going to trek through night.

It was only a short night trek that we did but it was brilliant; by torchlight we saw snakes, huge spiders (pictured), moths and even 'fished' for scorpions which basically involves enticing them out of trees just long enough to blind them with a thousand camera flashes before they return to the safety of darkness.

We also undertook some less scary but definitely more strenuous walks, which lead us to some beautiful vistas and some murky waters. It was brilliant, but with the only 2 weeks to spend in Malaysia with Sarah we were keen to head on.

And onwards we headed to where strawberries, scones and tea are the order of the day, the weather was cool and the hills rolled in glorious shades of green; no, not England. I am writing from the Cameron Highlands (not to be mistaken for the Cameroon Islands...Sarah)

Here we have been happy to indulge in some cream teas (who needs Wimbledon to be on? So good!) and a great tour of a local tea plantation, strawberry farm, honey farm and a butterfly farm that also offered the opportunity to get close to some over-sized and very well camouflaged insects.
It has been so good having Sarah with us and, scarily, we are already half way through her holiday - but rest assured that there is plenty more fun to be had and we'll be telling you all about it.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Food for Thought

Thailand is probably the country on our itinerary that is most famed for its delicious local cuisine - and it did not disappoint at all. We fell in love with sizzling curries, spicy soups and salads that sound like they are made of fruit. But best of all, with plenty to try and not that much to spend on the experimenting, there was also always a cheap place to get a good Thai meal - almost any day of the day or night. Long live the man with the tiny cooking station attached as a side-car to his motorbike! Anyway, here's our pick of Thailands finest bites.

Rob's Menu

Stir-fry beef (Pai)
One whole potato swirled on a stick (pictured...but how do they do it? - Chiang Mai)
Pineapple fried rice (J'Nee, Koh Tao)
Pad Thai (Koh San Road, Bangkok)
Massaman Curry % Papaya Salad (Mr Phu's, Koh Samui)
Mince pies & custard (massive thanks to Miri, Will & G-unit for
bringing an end to 6-months of cravings)
Jagermeister & Coke (also thanks to W, M & G)

Kat's Menu
Vegatble & Noodle Soup (J'Nee's, Koh Tao)
Samosa (Mr Samosa, Koh Tao)
Penang Curry with brown rice (Pai)
Free salted peanuts served by ladyboys in 'Miss World' outfits
(Mui Thai Fighting, Chiang Mai)
Suki Yaki Soup and Massaman Curry (Mr Phu's, Koh Samui)
Mango Sticky Rice (Cooking Course, Chiang Mai)
Twice as much Sangsom whiskey as was necessary & coke
(thanks Spooner & Rob, Pai)

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Day 193-200: Friends reunited

This was a week we were very excited a relatively last minute decision and at great Koh Samui vs. Koh Phi Phi debate two of Team 365's very best friends were coming to visit.

Eventually, after much staring at every passing taxi, Miri and Will arrived at our hostel in Koh Samui, a larger island south of Koh Tao. It was amazing to see them; after 6 months of only Skyping when Will was meant to be working, to actually be with them in person was incredible. There were hugs all round before we were told they'd brought us a gift and then Gunit (uni housemate, best friend and favourite favourite) stepped out from behind the waiting cab. Safe to say this trumped the pathetic pack of sweets that had "lets party" written on them which we had bought for the occasion.

Once we had recovered from the surprise (we still haven't really recovered from the joy) of all being together again we got down to the serious business of catching up. I shan't bore you with the details but I must say a massive thank you to those that sent cards, letters, gifts & teabags - I promise to reply soon.

Samui is a much bigger island than Koh Tao and so we were able to move from district-to-district and thus recreate the notion of travelling without having to waste precious days actually getting to another island/province. First we were in Chaweng, which was scarily touristy in parts but offered the best beach and (little did we know), weather-wise, also our best beaching opportunity.

Then the party moved onto Bo Phut, in the north of the island, which was lovely. The waves that we had frolicked in at Chaweng Beach now completely consumed the sand at Bo Phut so we hired motorbikes and after a few false starts (Team 365's first flat tyre!) we explored the whole of the island finding cool waterfalls, crowded markets and plenty of opportunities to try the local cuisine.

Finally we changed location again to Lamai; when we arrived it was raining and it basically proceeded to do so for the entirety of our intended 2 day stay and the unintentional 3rd day that we remained slightly marooned on the island.

We passed our days without electricity or water, which quickly changed from romantic to inconvenient, without knowledge of the full extent of the flooding in Thailand, eating lots and playing cards by candle light. Then we found that all the ferry's (Rob and I were booked to travel to Malaysia) had been canceled and flights (Will Miri & Gunit intended to fly to Bangkok) were not leaving either. In fact, W M & G had to go all the way through flooded roads to Samui airport to buy a ticket for the following day...we didn't mind; the rains had just bought us another evening with three of our favourite people.

Finally we did depart on our separate paths; W M & G made it to Bangkok (we hope) and we booked a flight to Kuala Lumpur (we didn't see them at the airport so we guess they made it.) Despite the slightly shoddy weather and the absolute lack of tanning (especially disappointing for Miri) we had a marvelous time. After 6 months away it's amazing that when your with such good friends it can really feel like no time at all; it was so good to see you guys, love love xx

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Day 182: Half way!

Another wonderful thing that happened in Koh Tao that I reckon deserves the prestige (?) of a blogpost is that Team 365 made it half way to the ultimate aim of 365 days away on this incredible trip! So we took a break from diving to surface for a quick cocktail.

It really has been the best six months of our lives and even more excitedly - there's still six more glorious months to come.

So thank you to everyone for sticking with us thus far. Lots of love, 365 xx

Monday, 1 November 2010

Day 186-191: Underwater adventures

From the buzz of Bangkok we departed to tiny Koh Tao; covering about 20 square km it's famous for being one of the best - and cheapest - places to dive in the world. And that is exactly what we were there to do.

As proud holders of the PADI Open Water certificate, the first level of diving qualification, all we needed to do was get a refresher course to swim with the fishes but we weren't going to settle for that. Instead we opted for the next level; the Advanced Open Water certificate which meant five dives over two days including a deep dive (30m below sea level, baby!) and a night dive (here we are wetsuited and overexcited after the dive, below) as well as necessary navigation, buoyancy and fish identification skills.

We lived and dived with Coral Grand; a company that had not only an awesome team of divers but a beautiful pool (pictured) to learn in and a spectacular beach-side location.

The island itself is lovely; small enough to bike around in about half an hour, on the rare occassions that we were not diving, we explored the islands other beaches and snorkelling hot-spots.

But to the diving! Which was just incredible. We were so lucky to enjoy 6 days of clear blue skies and, most of the time, excellent visibility. We swam with beautifully bright fishes of all shapes and sizes and really got into trying to identify them and learn the hilariously-literal hand signs that are used to communicate under water e.g. angel fish = circle a finger above one's head like a halo, pipe fish = play an invisible pipe. All good fun.
We saw stingrays, hermit crabs and coral of every shape and size that you could imagine and more that you couldn't.
We also - most importantly - SWAM WITH A TURTLE; literally my dream experience. The gorgeous hawksbill turle was happy to swim with us near for a good 15 minutes, it was magical.

All in all we extended our five-dive stay by three extra days and 4 extra dives; we literally couldn't tear ourselves away and with every dive that passed Rob and I became more and more sure that diving is going to feature heavily not only in this trip, but in the future in general.

The next step in the dive-certification ladder is to become a Dive Master, and after hanging out with the guys at Coral Grand (thanks again Joe, Dave, Phillis, Nad & Co) it's become #1 on our ever-extending To Do list.

Koh Tao; we'll see you again soon.