Wat’s cookin’, good lookin’?

This week brings me to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, and the historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom from 1296 to 1775. The Lanna Kingdom at times comprised parts of Burma, Thailand and China; at various times, it was controlled by each of these. The old city of Chiang Mai, found in the center of the modern city, retains the moat and parts of the walls that provided protection from enemies including the Burmese and the Mongols.

I had three major things to do in Chiang Mai:

1. See temples, aka wats. There are only 300 of them scattered throughout the area!

2. Learn to cook Thai food. What better place to do it?!

3. Hang out with some elephants, natives of Thailand’s jungle highlands.

Well, success! I’ll cover 1 & 2 here, and 3 next post (it will be worth the wait!)

Chiang Mai’s most famous temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, found just outside the city on Doi (meaning mountain or hill) Suthep. Legend has it that a Lanna king was presented with a relic- Buddha’s shoulder bone. The relic was broken in two, with one piece enshrined in a temple; the other piece was placed on the back of a sacred white elephant and released into the jungle. The elephant was said to have climbed Mount Suthep, trumpeted three times at the top and died. Wat Doi Suthep was build on that spot.

309 steps lead up to the temple from the road, lined with matching dragons:

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These set the tone for the splendor of the temple complex itself. In the main temple building, a large walled square with an open courtyard, you find the golden chedi (also known as a stupa or pagoda).

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It is surrounded by gilt Buddha statues in all poses, fresh flower offerings and yellow candles, and shrines in the middle of each of its four sides.

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The surrounding walls, which are covered in mosaic depictions of the lives of Buddha, also have large shrine rooms, some with monks offering blessings to supplicants. People walk around the chedi three times, offering prayers to Buddha and requests for blessings.

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Outside this area, you find massive ceremonial bells and other smaller shrines- smaller, but no less elaborate.

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I do wish I’d had a guide to describe the parts and functions of the temple, but I certainly can appreciate the artistry on my own! And, I ran into some one I know!

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And her twin!

Just kidding.

After the temple, I returned to Chiang Mai for a cooking lesson- How to Burn your Tongue 101, with Baan Thai Cookery.

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I got to concoct 4 dishes, plus we visited a local market and discussed the essential ingredients for Thai food: lemongrass and kaffir lime, ginger or galangal, basil, chiles, fish sauce and shrimp paste, cilantro, rice and noodles, and chiles, plus eggplants of all shapes and sizes, mushrooms and mushroom sauce, oyster sauce, and chiles.

First up: stir fried rice noodles or Phad Thai. Baan Thai provides all the ingredients in the perfect amount for 1 serving; all I had to do was chop my tofu, cilantro, scallion and garlic. Stir frying itself took less than 5 minutes, but there was definitely some prep we newbies didn’t have to worry about- cutting up chicken, softening the rice noodles. And it came out quite good (I are it before I took an iPhoto tho)! I think mine needed a bit more fish sauce, but that’s something I get to play with as I make Thai food at home.

Next up: soup and appetizers. I chose to make coconut soup with chicken, and this is when the chilies really came into play. They suggested 1 if you don’t want spicy; 2 for medium, and 3 for tourist spicy (10 for Thai spicy! How do they taste anything after that!?). I did 3; you just smash them with the flat blade of a knife and throw them in the coconut milk to boil with the lemongrass, kafir lime and ginger (the holy trifecta of Thai cooking).

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Plus lime, tomato, cilantro, oyster mushrooms, onion and scallions

The whole object of Thai food is to balance sweet, salty, sour and bitter; my soup did it well, and was probably my favorite dish.

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Awkward selfie, with soup!

My papaya salad was a little heavy hitting on the spicy, though!

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Turns out, when you smash three chilies with a mortar and pestle as a part of a dressing, they release ALL the heat- I had trouble eating more than half of my creation, and even the gal teaching me said it was pretty spicy (but not Thai spicy, still, and she liked it). I did like that salad, too- I’ll have to try that out at home, I guess you can substitute carrot and cucumber when green papaya isn’t available (and when is it?).

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Last but not least was the Penang curry- a red curry for which we made our own chili paste, chopping red chilies to a paste-like consistency and combining those with other pulverized spices and shrimp paste. Penang is quite a mild curry made with coconut milk, but I think it could have used just a touch more heat.

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Wok time!

Overall, I was delighted with my Thai cooking class- anyone up for a dinner party?

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I canoe, can you?

It’s not often you call up a tour company, which you’d located 5 minutes before on TripAdvisor, and get to talk to the person who started the industry in Thailand; better yet, he decides that he needs to get out of the office and he’ll come on your trip himself. Such was the case with John Gray Sea Canoe in Phuket- John “Caveman” Gray, so nicknamed because he has relentlessly explored many of the sea caves found in the islands of Phang Nga Bay and started the first kayaking ecotour group here, agreed to take me out on an overnight kayaking trip! John is a big guy with a ponytail and a white Santa beard, age 68 with arthritis in his thumbs from paddling and picking up ~9000 trash bags of floating litter, and knees suffering from a life time of rugby enthusiasm, but that doesn’t stop him for an instant.

We started on the Hong Starlight trip out of Phuket, on a large boat stocked with inflatable kayaks shared between 2 tourists and 1 paddling guide; John and I were ferried by Tiger into the hongs. A hong is the name for a hollowed out limestone island only accessible by a sea cave. Yup, Phang Nga Bay has some pretty amazing geology.
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The islands that scatter the bay were once limestone ridge lines, up thrust by tectonic movement. Rain gradually eroded these giants from the top down- pools of slightly acidic rain water dissolved the limestone, slowly hollowing out the hongs and separating the ridge into island chains.
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The ocean simultaneously helped to carve sea caves, and on numerous islands, these provide a passage inside.
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The guides have to be on top of things timing-wise to access the sea caves- too high a tide means the cave is blocked, while too low can mean not enough water to paddle through.

We visited Diamond hong first, named for a stalactite structure inside that sparkled with calcite crystals. We had to lay down on the kayak floor to get under the cave roof, but the cave then opens to an amazing, isolated pool surrounded by great limestone cliffs. Jungle grows up the 500 ft walls of the hong, and mangroves with great aerial roots scatter the lagoon. A family of crab-eating macaques (monkeys) was perched in the trees, watching the visitors. While this species can swim, there are likely species that were isolated here by rising oceans, creating a lost world. But instead of dinosaurs, you see monitor lizards – close enough! We also saw egrets, Brahminy kites, and mud skippers (crazy fish with lungs that live in shallow mangrove swamps).
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Brahminy kite

The tour took us to two other hong systems that night, and fed us a wonderful Thai dinner. We learned a bit about Thai culture, making our own krathongs- beautiful Buddist traditional offerings made from banana tree trunk slices decorated with palm leaves, flowers, candles and incense.
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After an incredible sunset, we floated into Bat Cave hong (yes, there were bats all over the high cave ceilings!), lit our krathongs and set them afloat in the lagoon, with wishes for health and happiness. We paddled back through the cave accompanied only by the light of blue bioluminescent dinoflagellates (algae!)- a pretty magnificent sight!
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Sunset outside the Bat Cave hong

Since I would be staying to paddle with John and the guides the next day too, we were dropped off on a beach on one of the islands, where nice big REI tents and a campfire awaited us. I got to chat with John late into the night, hearing some of his life adventures (boogie boarding at Black’s beach in San Diego and almost getting hit by a tire someone rolled off the cliffs above; planning ecotourism throughout Hawaii and Southeast Asia, winning the Smithsonian Environmental Award for his work; showing the princess of Thailand some of the beauty of the bay, and her subsequent action to prevent the building of an oil refinery in it). John told me that when he started kayaking into hongs, he was asked WHY he wanted to go paddle around these islands and explore the caves, no one knows what’s in there. John said, “Exactly.”
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Round these parts, he’s known as Ling Yai, Thai for Big Monkey

John took me to two of his favorite hongs the next day: Talin and Hong Yai. We had to take a fast longtail boat to get to these, but there was not another soul around. I led the way into the cave marking the Hong Yai entrance, and grinned for the rest of the trip!
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Entrance to Hong Yai, before we even see the cave

What a place! This hong extends through the heart of the island for about 2km of purely still, lush jungle solitude- broken only by three bright yellow kayaks and the soft splash of paddles. We snuck up on a family of dusky langurs (more monkeys!) – the best sighting John has had of these, they just sat in the trees and watched us float below. I really hope some of my pics come out, I just can’t do it justice.

And Talin was its equal. This klong (not a hong, because it wasn’t separated by a cave; more of a canal) wove deep into the cliffs, each turn hiding a new secluded pool…I was just blown away.

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Longtail boat with Talin limestone island in the background

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We returned to Phuket late that afternoon, exhausted and sunburnt and exhilarated.

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I sunburnt my lips- not so good when all the food is spicy!

To have had the original explorer of some of these places as my own personal guide, and to get to see areas most tourists (heck, most Thais!) don’t know exist was just thrilling! I haven’t written this post before now because I couldn’t get it into words. But I hope you get a small sense of Phang Nga Bay from these pics, and should you ever get the chance to paddle with Ling Yai- don’t miss it!

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That’s Phuket, with a hard P

Phuket is the name of Thailand’s largest island (I didn’t know it was an island at first, the separation is small), a province and the town in which I’ve stayed for the last 5 days. Old Town Phuket was first settled by Hokkien Chinese immigrants during the industrial revolution because of a tin mining boom in the region; native Thai were just to the north of current Phuket in a much older rice-farming settlement called Thalong. I’ve been staying at the 99 Oldtown Guesthouse and enjoying the history of the area, like the shophouses built by second-generation Chinese after the mining successes of their immigrant parents allowed for a move from hard labor into merchant lifestyles.

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Home on top, work on the bottom

The day I arrived, I went to a street fair celebrating Por Tor, or the Hungry Ghost Festival- a holiday in the Ghost month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the gates of hell are opened, honoring one’s ancestors and offering gifts of food to wandering spirits. The street fair had everything to offer, from Phad Thai

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Stir fried right there in a huge bowl

and squid satay

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to sweets,

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Like a marshmallow taco with coconut and lime

and even deep fried insects.

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Crispety crunchety grasshoppers, crickets and grubs

Yesterday, a great feast was layed out at the Taoist temple just down the street for the spirits, with four roast pigs, many bottles of drinks and whiskey, all sorts of traditional dishes, and bright red glutinous rice cakes in the shape of turtles for longevity and good fortune.

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I had largely heard of Phuket only as a major tourist destination, and while it is that (the beaches of the west coast are super developed with luxury resorts), it was really fun to get to engage in the culture too, right outside my door.

I was recommended a tour hosted by a Phuket native named Chaya, born and raised in Oldtown. She took a small group of us through a mansion built by the son of Phuket’s first banker, built in classic Sino-Colonial architecture modeled after settlements in Malacca. This house was particularly nice for its open roofed pond in the main room, allowing for good ventilation of the space as well as a balance of air and water important for feng shui.

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Beautiful mother of pearl inlaid furniture too

There were also some really cool trinkets that the family had kept (they still live in the house, and are now 4 & 5th generation): an opium pipe from the den they used to run in town;

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Two pipes and a ceramic ‘pillow’ for the smoker to lay down, but not be comfortable enough to want to STAY

a kerosene powered fan;

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and great photographs of all the generations covered the walls. It was obviously a house that honored those who had come before and the contributions they had made that lead to the continued good fortune of the family.

In stark contrast to the mansion’s finery, we also visited a village of sea gypsies- nomadic fishing peoples who had only built villages on land within the last 100 years as international borders disrupted fishing traditions. Fishing remains THE way of life, using fish traps that look like 6 ft long rabbit hutches made of curved mangrove wood and hand-twisted chain link.

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The mangrove acts to lure small fish, which in turn entice larger fish to swim thru a funneling entrance into the trap. The bait survives, and only the larger fish are harvested for wholesale. The village itself doesn’t look like much- corrugated tin huts, dirt roads, and chickens, stray dogs and kids everywhere. But happiness comes from being out on the ocean, putting in a hard half-day of work and spending the rest of your time with family, teaching young ones to fish and being part of the community.

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On my own, I also explored a bit of what brings international travelers to Phuket’s beautiful coast line. I took a ferry over to the Phi Phi Islands- a group of islands about 2 hours from Phuket in Phang Nga Bay, surrounded by crystal aquamarine waters known for snorkeling and diving. Phi Phi Don, the biggest and only settled island, is a mash of resorts and hostels that populate the isthmus that connects two rocky, cliffed areas; the ferry pier is right smack in the middle of the isthmus.

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Ferry headed for the pier

Once we arrived, I hired myself a long tail boat, which are used as water taxis,

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and went around the island snorkeling- just jump off the boat into reefs of coral with huge purple sea urchins, giant clams with iridescent blue lips, parrotfish audibly munching on the coral, and calm warm water. And that’s just in the places that are easy to reach!

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Headed to snorkeling, the small Phi Phi island in the background

I’ve really enjoyed my time in Phuket- good food, welcoming people, new cultural experiences- all the best things about traveling somewhere new!

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And this, butterfly pea flower drink

The next adventure will be sea kayaking and camping in Phang Nga Bay- tell you all about it in a couple days!

Thai DIY

Hey! Wanna experience a slice of my trip in the comfort of your own home?

Of course you do!

Tonight we’re making the beverage of choice from the Phuket night market festivities near Old Town.

Take 16oz coconut water and in this amount, make up orange Tang.

Freeze til slushy, then drink thru a straw while enjoying the way your cold glass produces most vapors in the steamy, humid night air.

Congrats! You know have your very own

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Welcome to Thailand!

Land of a Thousand Smiles

From Singapore, Keira and I traveled to Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a big, dirty, busy, crowded city- a constant traffic jam exists outside our hotel, with taxis and tuk-tuks and buses and trucks and motorcycles all crazily interweaving. Crossing a street is taking your life in your hands, and the entire populations of Singapore and Hong Kong are joining you there to shop. Food and knick-knack stalls line the streets- our first Tom Kha soup from one of these was excellent and super cheap (50Baht= 1.5USD).
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My suggestion was to go see the Grand Palace and temple complex when arrived- an icon of Bangkok. And it’s certainly worth surging crowds and sweaty weather to see this phenomenal place. The diverse array of temples are covered floor to ceiling with mirror glass mosaics,
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gilt spirits,
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hand painted porcelain flower tiles,
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and fantastic figures.
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The walls of the surrounding monastery have elaborate murals of spiritual battles, like this guy:
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The complex is enormous- these don’t do justice to the scale of the temple, or the accompanying palace built by a Thai prince to honor his mother and father. Sorry, Mom and Dad, I got nothing like this!
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After a weekend of food (Kiera steered us to the supposedly best Phad Thai in town,
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and we stumbled upon what tasted like the best pork green curry with chinese eggplant, and spicy pork with basil), shopping at Bangkok’s new attraction, Asiatique, a tuk-tuk ride (one was enough), riding the train to night markets, and (over)indulging in Bangkok’s nightlife,
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Kiera and I parted ways. While she returned to Singapore to post blackmail pictures on Facebook, I headed to peninsular Thailand, and the resort town of Khao Lak on the Andaman Sea.

Khao Lak is a slow-moving town, definitely in the off season.
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There is a market in Bang Niang, the section of this rather spread out town I’m a staying in, every Monday, Wed, Fri and Sat late afternoon that brings out tourists with offerings of clothing and trinkets,

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but all the locals do their grocery shopping for fresh fish and chicken parts, vegetables and herbs, and fruits.

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Chicken parts stalls

The seafood variety is delicious- many types of cockles and mussels, various sizes of prawn with their corresponding prices, and numerous fish varieties.

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There are also some super food stalls. My favorites have been the fresh mushroom soup- look at all the kinds of mushroom, plus pumpkin and bamboo.

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I don’t enjoy the bamboo out of a can, but this stuff is downright tasty. And then we have the pandan taco.

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It’s a hot fresh pancake-like outside and the sweet filling has the consistency of apple butter…but is bright green. It’s a pretty fantastic and simple dessert.

Walking on the beach here, I can’t stop thinking about the 2004 tsunami that ravaged this town. It was sparked by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake on the Andaman-Sumatran fault- an earthquake that lasted 10 minutes and displaced 11m of seafloor. This type of megathrust quake is rare, but has the energy to generate huge waves; this tsunami killed 230,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia and others. Over 8000 people died in Thailand and the majority of those here in Khao Lak on the morning of Dec. 26 to a series of waves that maxed out at 13.8 m (45ft) in height. Just thinking of it scares me- looking around, there are very few high buildings that could rise above that kind of water (apparently building permits limit to the height of palm trees). Topography lent to the destruction: there are flat mud seabeds off the coast for kilometers, and the land is also remarkably flat flood plane. This allowed the wave to travel unimpeded 3km inland, and water marks at 2km were up at 10m; Bang Niang was essentially wiped off the map. There are now established evacuation signs pointing out a route to higher ground and an early warning system in place- you know, leave immediately after the earthquake, don’t stand around to watch the “extremely low tide” created as the ocean pulls back before the wave. Nine years later, the tourism and fishing industries have fully recovered, and come December Khao Lak resorts will be packed. But I find being here deeply unsettling. Maybe in part it’s the speed of life coming to a screeching halt after the vibrant hum of Bangkok, maybe it’s part gut reaction to the realization of nature’s power. To get a sense of the tsunami, watch the movie The Impossible- not easy to watch, but gives a gut-wrenchingly visual and emotional sense of that day. I kinda wish I hadn’t seen it before coming here!

I’m leaving Khao Lak today for Phuket- looking forward to a little more activity. Not surprisingly, I am not content with just sitting on a beach- time for a bit more action! No doubt, tho- Khao Lak is a beautiful place.

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Give us more from Singapore!

I have to append my last post a bit, and not leave you all thinking that Singapore is all about food (it has an equal devotion to SHOPPING!!).

One of my days took me to the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the National Orchid Garden. You haven’t seen orchids til you see them here! They grow naturally in the trees in this climate (they are a type of epiphyte, a plant that grows on another tree with no effect on the host), so cultivating beautiful varieties uses the natural heat and humidity to great effect. I understand perfectly now why an orchid gifted to me is a dead orchid- San Diego was not a humid environment, and I am a terrible tree host 😉 Anyway, this garden has magnificent stands of orchids in every color, arranged in gorgeous displays of color, size and style. I’m sorry I don’t have iPhone photos to share 😦

But even more impressive than the orchids was Gardens by the Bay.

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The Bay South Garden

This garden, out on the outer edge of the marina reservoir with the impressive Marina Bay Sands resort, blew me away!!

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Marina Bay Sands

They have ‘super trees’ as a eye catching lure: 25-50 m metal structures covered in plants, working to not only produce oxygen but to collect rain water for irrigation, supply solar power and serve as air intake and exhaust for the giant bio domes, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.

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A super tree forest

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Me on the Skywalk, 22m up in the super trees, with the Cloud Forest Dome behind

The Flower Dome featured buds and trees from 6 of 7 continents (not air conditioned enough to simulate Antarctica)- they do have eucalyptus, Mediterranean olive trees and baobabs. But the shining star for me was the Cloud Forest. Inside this dome was a 7 level mountain with a jutting waterfall and a climate like a tropical cloud rainforest (3300-9800ft elevation) of Costa Rica or Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, including the cool ethereal mists.

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The mountain has aerial walkways at the top and a middle level, offering some crazy views and maybe a little vertigo…

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The mountain itself was an array of bromeliads and rain forest flora, including pitcher plants and Venus fly traps.

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115ft waterfall

It had a geology display in the center about the formation of crystals and stalagmites, and the secret garden on the ground floor featuring New Zealand plants. It was missing the fauna, but still- a cloud forest in a snow globe, in Singapore, is very cool!

Last thing I want to mention so you know the uniqueness of Singapore. They have THIS as a mascot:

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The Merlion!

The post about how I went to Singapore and got really fat

When you’re traveling alone, finding a place to eat is a little like gambling: you can base a choice on the smell of the place, the number of people eating there and whether they are enjoying it (ie eating INTENTLY), the length of the line or the price… But sometimes you’re still going to strike out (my strike out involved a deep fried mealworm in Kota Kinabalu). But Singapore is a whole different ball game! Here, I feel like I’m in a week-long episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, getting the local treatment, but even better. My local guide, Keira Herr, is a former Chun labbie and total foodie with a nose for only the best options, at restaurants and hawker centers alike. Hawker centers are THE places to get the cheap local fare- each hawker center has dozens of stalls several rows deep, with tables sandwiched between.

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Maxwell hawker center

The regulars know which dishes to get from which stalls, and which are reasonable alternatives when the best stall is closed. My first night, Keira and her father deftly navigated Old Airport Road for prawn mee, kueh pie tee and BBQ stingray. I’ve joined her and her husband Deron (another Chun lab friend, he’s the beer expert to Keira’s food knowledge, tho Singapore has limited options on that front) for fish head in garlic sauce and Singapore laksa from the Smith Street hawker center in Chinatown. Earlier that same day, Keira showed off the best chicken rice in town from the Maxwell hawker center (Bourdain actually DID eat there, and the shop flaunts it).

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Tian Tian Chicken Rice

It’s been particularly nice to visit these with folks in the know- there’s so much you could miss, just by virtue of trying everything else!

In restaurants, it’s been a whole different set of delights. We’ve had dim sum: flaky pork buns, eggplant two ways (fried with pork floss on top, or stewed in delicious sauce), shrimp wontons, salted egg yolk buns (which I like very much despite the egg, the yolkiness was like butter), roast pork with a crispy outside layer.

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Buns, eggplant and shrimp dumplings

We’ve had marvelous seafood, from garlic bamboo clams (long and thin, with a light brown color like a bamboo stalk) to whole goby cooked in a soy sauce with crispy fried scallions, to tofu with scallops, sea cucumber and more pork floss (think tiny shavings of pork jerky).

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Bamboo clams

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Whole goby

And crispy fish skin too! More food than I can tell you about here (Japanese hot pot! Fish ball dumplings! Buns with pork floss!), and I have enjoyed it all immensely.

I don’t know as I can have a favorite, but at most given moments (when I’m not consuming some other scrumptious morsel) it’s the soup dumplings I had my second day- Keira took me to the two best places in the city. At the first, we had a beautiful selection of flavors like crab roe, truffle and ginseng, each a different color.

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You bite off the little twist on top and slurp out the broth, then pop the rest into your mouth to savor. How do they make these perfect mouthfuls? They have a team in the kitchen, mixing dough, shaping and weighing out the proper dough balls, flattening them into super thin disks, spreading them with a solidly condensed form of the desired broth and twisting them up- each must have 14 folds.

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Competitors in the Dumpling Olympics

I will not be trying to make these at home. The second dumpling shop also had chili crab dumplings to offer, only available during certain times of year (lucky me!!). Also these shops are busy- we went at funny hours to avoid the crowd and there was still a 15-20min wait.

Tonight is my last meal in Singapore, and Keira and Deron have been saving one of the best things: Sri Lankan butter crabs! They really are going to have to roll me to Thailand- I’m not the least bit sorry!!

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