On Wednesdays, I volunteer as a mentor and English tutor at the Evergreen Bees Mentoring Program. The after school program is for children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as single parent homes or homes in which parents work long hours and don't have time to help their kids with school work. It's been a neat experience to learn more about the Singaporean culture by interacting with the children.
I'm usually one of the first mentors to arrive, and Abigail, a sixth grader, is always shyly waiting to play board games with me before the study session begins. I think she gravitates towards me because I'm American, and likes to ask me questions. Yesterday, she told me all about the big national test that's coming up in October. All of the children in Singapore must pass the exam to progress to the next level in school. In fact, the curriculum in the Evergreen Bees program is preparing the children for this exam.
Without fail, a little boy always shows up to wreak havoc on our games. I nicknamed him Todd because he refused to tell me his real name on my first day in the program. Todd is rambunctious and always has something comical to say. Yesterday, he told me that I "talk so slang." He then proceeded to try and speak in a "gangsta" voice during the rest of our game. All I can say is kids are funny.
After 30 minutes of games, tuition (study time) begins. I've been paired up with a little fourth grader named Pei Sin. Pei Sin is Chinese and very, very quiet. Most of the time, I can't tell if she understands what I'm trying to teach her, but then will surprise me by completing her lessons correctly. My goal is to have a real conversation with her by the time the program ends. We're making some progress... yesterday, she told me her favorite subject in school is science and that her class is learning about heat and energy. But then, I asked her if they do experiments, and she shook her head at me (this is what she does when she is too shy to try to answer my questions). Better luck next week!
Old Airport road hawker center
According to Singaporeans, one of the best places to grab lunch is the hawker center on Old Airport Road. Paige introduced us to this little gem. I knew it was an authentic Singaporean hangout because we were the only foreigners there.
A hawker center is similar to a food court, but far more basic and the food is cheaper. They are basically outdoor stalls with a roof overhead and fans instead of air conditioning.
We selected the fried kway teow stand, which was very popular. In fact, the line never died down at the stall. People waited at least 20 minutes to grab some grub. You know the food is good when people are willing to stand in line at this type of establishment, especially because there were many other choices in the hawker center.
$3 fried kway teow
So, what is fried kway teow? To be honest, I'm not really sure. I know there were flat rice noodles in the dish, but other than that, everything else was a mystery. We didn't ask any questions - the mystery meat inside was tasty, as was the entire dish. And best of all, this lunch was only US$3-4 (depending on what size plate you chose). What a steal!
I've continually added photos to the photos tab of this blog. If you click on "photos" you'll see that the main page is dedicated to photos of Singapore. If you hover over "photos" you'll see that I've created drop down menus for the other countries we've visited. Be sure to check these pages out!
At Ku De Ta
Joe and I got our first taste of Singapore nightlife this past weekend. Paige took us to Ku De Ta, a club at the top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel.
The club is on the 55th floor of the hotel, right next to the pool deck. The Marina Bay Sands is known for, among other things, its infinity pool. It is apparently the largest outdoor swimming pool in the world at its height (650 feet above ground). From afar, the pool deck looks like a large boat that was placed on top of the three towers that make up the hotel. You can see photos of the pool and hotel here
The view of Singapore from the club was great. Since photos don't do it justice, enjoy the video below!
As we enter our fourth week in Singapore (can't believe we've been here almost a month!), I thought it would be fun to share cultural differences that I've observed. This will be an ongoing topic, as we encounter new things every day.
Today's topic is... napkins. Ha ha, yes, napkins are an important topic for me to bring up. Although the food courts here are fantastic - good, cheap food - they don't provide napkins. So, people here always carry little tissue packets around. I always make sure to have them in my purse!
Another use for tissues? Seat savers. Food courts are typically jam-packed and it can be difficult to find seats. So, people lay out tissues, tissue packets (or really any other pieces of paper or random trinkets that they have) to save seats while they are up at the food stalls collecting their grub.
If you're ever in Singapore, remember this seat saving rule. I read in a guide book that the writer's western friends mistakenly thought tissue packets were complimentary napkins, and took the seat of a not-so-happy Singaporean!
Last night, when we got home from the gym, I noticed a flutter out of the corner of my eye. I thought a moth was flying around the ceiling. That's when Joe exclaimed, "There's a lizard in our room!"
A cute, little, yellow lizard had somehow gotten into our apartment... which is strange because there are not a lot of vermin in the city (they fog all the pests here). Although the lizard was cute, we had to get rid of the unwelcome house guest. Easier said than done... the lizard was quick! It scurried all around the room, until we finally trapped it under our bed headboard.
Joe used his cat-like reflexes the trap the lizard... it was quite exciting as you'll hear from my commentary in the video below. The hotel staff then took the lizard outside and set him free :)
Infinity Pool + Ocean = Bliss
Langkawi is a Malaysian island that's just about a 45 minute plane ride away from Kuala Lumpur. It was nice to leave the hustle and bustle of the city for a resort getaway.
We stayed at the Westin, which is about a 30 minute drive from the Langkawi airport. We chose to stay in a more secluded area (most people stay on Cenang Beach where there a millions of hotels).
Supposedly, Cenang Beach is the best beach on the island, but we liked our little hideaway at the Westin. We had a private beach that wasn't spectacular (the sand was rocky and the water wasn't very clear), but it was very nice and quiet... good enough for a stroll down the beach. Our infinity pool, however, ROCKED! The water was a perfect temperature, the view was stunning, and the hotel staff was gracious. Overall, a very relaxing way end our trip!
Check out the photos on the photos tab (hover for the drop down menu - choose Malaysia). However, photos don't do our resort justice! So, I've included a video.
Our experience in Malaysia started with a visit to Kuala Lumpur. We stayed in the Bukit Bintang area at the Park Royal hotel. Before we left for our trip, our Malaysian friends at 8 on Claymore explained that Bukit Bintang is a party area of the city and that we should definitely try Malaysian satay for dinner.
Lucky for us, our hotel was just a 10 minute walk from Jalan Alor - the food street. This street was crazy. Cheap, food-stall restaurants lined each side of the street, with cheap plastic chairs and tables spilling into the street. You would think with the tables and pedestrians that the street would be closed to cars... but it wasn't! We had to be careful not be run over by the cars weaving down the narrow strip of pavement.
The restaurant employees were very aggressive to get customers to try out their food. We couldn't walk by a restaurant without getting attacked with a sales pitch. We decided to try Yan's "restorant" - please note the spelling in the photo below - and ordered the chicken and beef satay. Satay is DELICIOUS! For about three dollars you can get 10 skewers. We ended up ordering 30. Joe says this is the best food he's had so far in Asia. Funny how the best things you eat often come from hole-in-the-wall places.
Beef and chicken satay
Drinks in bags
The next day we headed about 13km north of the city to the Batu Caves. Before getting on the train, we hit up the local McDonald's for a quick breakfast (nothing else was open). It was funny to have our drinks packaged in baggies - this is a popular thing around Asia. I will say, though, that drinks in bags is a convenient invention. You can carry so many more cups without having to use a difficult drink carrier!
Entrance to caves - 272 steps
The trains in Malaysia are nice and clean, and quite entertaining because they show Tom and Jerry cartoon episodes. Our ride out to the caves was easy and it took about 40 minutes to get there.
When we stepped out of the train station, the sights in front of us were incredible. At the entrance to the Batu Caves are a series of Hindu temples - they are huge, ornate and very colorful. From what I've read online, thousands of Hindu followers visit the caves each year to pay homage to the god Murugan (he's the gold statues in the picture).
To get to the caves, you have to climb 272 steep steps. Along the way, we saw a whole bunch of monkeys (I didn't get attacked this time). The monkeys weren't as aggressive as Singaporean monkeys, although I was still scared of them.
Inside the main cave
At the top of the stairs we had a great view of Kuala Lumpur. Then, we ventured into the main cave. Note: my pictures do not do it justice! It was really beautiful and quite a sight to experience. There are mini shrines throughout the cave, and it was cool to see the Hindu worshippers carry out their practices.
The one thing that detracted from the holy environment was the army of monkeys. There were hundreds of them all around us. I provided some videos of them below... enjoy!
Joe has a three-day weekend because Monday is a national holiday for Singapore. We're heading off to Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi! I'll have more stories to post when we get back.
In the meantime, I've uploaded photos from Vietnam on the photos section of this blog. Hover over "photos" and you'll see the Vietnam subpage.
My Singapore ID
Apparently our ID cards look like the Singaporean national cards, because the other day, someone asked me if I was Singaporean.
I think people are sometimes surprised to hear an American accent when I start talking. Maybe I should try out a few different accents while I'm here :)
Pho Bo (beef) from Pho 24
I end my story of Saigon with a more upbeat post - this one is dedicated to the food. Vietnamese food is AMAZING. Every dish we had was delicious. We were told that Vietnamese people don't like cooking with heavy oils, so their cuisine is a lot lighter than what you'll find in many Asian countries (much to Joe's relief - the oily food in Singapore is starting to get to him). Fun fact: this is why you won't find McDonald's in Vietnam. (Singaporeans love McDonald's and there seems to be one on every corner - so this was quite the change for me).
Pho 24 was our first food experience in Vietnam - it's Vietnam's version of fast food but it's way healthier. Each of us got Pho Bo (beef pho) which is a traditional vietnamese soup that consists mainly of rice noodles and beef filet. Apparently there are 24 ingredients in the pho we ate (hence the name Pho 24), but the recipe is a secret. I think we should franchise Pho 24 in the states!
Vermicelli bowl and fried spring rolls
Vietnam is also known for its spring rolls. A restaurant called Wrap and Roll came highly recommended, so we gave it a spin. It was awesome! (Again, we need to franchise this in the U.S. - anyone interested?!?!)
Wrap and Roll was a neat concept - some of the rolls came pre-rolled while others were make-it-yourself. We had make-it-yourself pork rolls, fresh beef spring rolls, fried shrimp rolls and a vermicelli bowl. Vermicelli bowls are delicious - they consist of cold rice noodles, various meat rolls and other vegetables, and come with a vinegar sauce that you pour on top.
I have to make a special mention about the fruit juice in Asia. Simply put, I LOVE IT! All of the juices are fresh squeezed - even juices like apple juice, which you typically don't think of being freshly made. I had the apple juice at Wrap and Roll and each sip tasted like I was biting into an apple.
Fresh apple juice from Wrap and Roll
Beautiful (and yummy) cupcakes!
Stuffed after a delicious dinner
You know a city is doing well when it has cute little cupcake shops. Much to our delight, we discovered one that had beautifully decorated cupcakes. I had the "Queen Velvet" and Paige had some sort of caramel buttercream one. Yum!
For one of our dinners we ate at nha hang ngon, a restaurant in a beautiful, french colonial home. In an online search, the description of the restaurant is Vietnamese street food served in a classy environment. The environment was really neat - cooks were lined up along the walls in street stall style set-ups. We had vermicelli, beef satay, chicken curry and grilled pork.
Our food tour continued with L'Usine, a French cafe that Paige's boss suggested. L'Usine is tucked away on the second floor of a building - you have to walk through an alley to get to the staircase. It was a cute cafe with an attached store that reminded me of Anthropologie. In fact, I almost forgot we were in Saigon because the cafe had a New York City vibe.
Once again, the food did not disappoint. The menu included a mix of sandwiches, salads and cheese plates. After eating rice-based dishes for the past week or so, I was excited to bite into thick pieces of bread. I also had a mango-yogurt smoothie (love these - you can find them everywhere in Saigon!) as well as Vietnamese coffee. Vietnamese coffee is thicker than American coffee and is served with condensed milk. It has a rich, nutty flavor and is very strong. Each cup is served with a little drip filter on top, which you remove once the coffee is done brewing. Fun fact: there are no Starbucks in Vietnam because Vietnamese people prefer their own coffee. I don't blame them.
Roast beef sandwich at L'Usine
Vietnamese coffee - drip filter on top