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Escape from Cambodia
So we had, unusually for us a deadline for a place to be – we had a flight booked to Singapore so we had to make it from Siem Reap to Bangkok. Flying, although our usual choice of wimping out, was out of the question as is super expensive. Bangkok airways has a monopoly apparently so keep the flight prices high. So there were buses and mini buses and lots of horror stories to contend with. The thing I find hardest with the budget travel options is that they take sooo long. So for about £20 more we could get a car taking less than 3 hours or we get a bus which could easily be changed for a mini bus half way on the trip from what we’d heard, that took about 6 or 7 hours (or worse, I’d heard). We then had to find transport on the other side of the border but we’re used to Thai buses so we thought we’d get a government one – another good 6 hours – hence the reticence to do it the Cambodian side too.
The drive was nice, the Cambodian countryside is lovely. We made a brief stop when the driver stopped to buy some meat from someone on the side of the road. There was a big old wooden table laid out with what seemed to be the whole cow – a big toothy, cow skull smiling out at us was an early morning treat I can tell you
We kept getting someone phone us via the driver to arrange transport on the other-side. We didn’t want to do this as we wanted to see what kind of transport we’d be getting but he kept up and what we assume was him appeared when we were dropped off at the border and started hassling us again. We sussed out leaving Cambodia and then walked into a rather bleak no mans land, complete with hotel/casino place. The towns on both sides of the border were really rather grim and I would not suggest to anyone bedding down no matter how convenient it might seem.
While queuing for Thai customs we got chatting to a young guy from Amsterdam. We were only westerners around that early in the morning and decided to look into splitting cost of a taxi. We got stuck at ‘customs’ for a while waiting for him. I say customs, there is just an ancient old scanning machine where they just get the odd person to put their stuff through. He had a bunch of stuff taken off him and we were a bit confused as to what it was about but have since realised that you can’t take images of the Buddha out of Cambodia (I think this is true of Laos also and poss Thailand, though not sure it’s enforced much).
Somehow on the other side of the border the guy who’d been hassling us on the Cambodia side appeared. Not quite sure how that happened but we just gave in and said if we agreed with the car we’d go with him – after haggling and telling him we would pay half the money up front and half when arrived in Bangkok we were on our way. It was not the fanciest car in the world. It had aircon.. just. It also seemed to have a spitfire in the boot. There were many points I wasn’t sure if we’d make it. Mark and our new Dutch friend bonded over a love of diving while our driver dodged impending death a few times.
The highlight of the trip was the guy on a moped who was riding along his moped CROSS LEGGED…… ON THE PHONE…… ON THE DUAL CARRIAGEWAY!!!
We made it to Bangkok in just a few hours – taking taxis both side of the border had proved a tremendously good idea. I would highly recommend it and it doesn’t even work out expensive if you can find a few people to travel with.
We had problems trying to get the driver to understand where our hotel was. The map on the phone, though in Thai was too small for him to read apparently. It concerned me slightly that he had such poor eyesight but had driven us such a distance – may have accounted for some of those near misses perhaps. If you start out highly strung when you go traveling, you really have to let it go. Just don’t look is my main motto these days.
We were staying in the shopping district of Bangkok as we really needed to restock some clothes so we didn’t go to Singapore looking like complete hobos.
This part of Bangkok was a bit of a culture shock, in a good way. It was like freakin Vegas – big, bright with anything you could wish to do, buy, eat! The nice thing about it was that it was side by side with the market stalls and the street food. The sky train as public transport was cheap and super easy. Was a real treat to get about in such a straightforward manner.
One of the things I loved about Bangkok was the bright coloured taxis. There were lots of bright pink one’s which just made the traffic look cheerful.
There was also lots of sculptures, colour and interesting decor – a vibrant modern place.
Food could be pretty pricey around where we were staying – the bagel shop I tracked down wasn’t cheap but was really good. Always nice when you have something you haven’t had for so long. We did find a fab little place that was decent value down the road from our hotel – the Pisces. And look they did their rice in a star shape – how can you not love that?
I, to Mark’s utter boredom, was delighted by the bath in our hotel room, though far from swanky, was exactly the Tiffany colour. This pleased me greatly. I still don’t really know what to do with this information – felt I had to share it somewhere. Some of you understand, surely?
Managed to get some shopping done, which was a very boring use of our time in Bangkok but it definitely showed me I’d like to spend more time there to explore.
I had very much been looking forward to going to Singapore as, though a place I was interested to see, my friend Elena, who we’d hooked up in with in Phuket, lives there and so I couldn’t wait to get together and have some fun. It was the week before my birthday so I considered this my birthday treat to myself.
And treated I was, emotionally and physically!! It’s so nice to spend time with a friend you don’t see very often and doubly nice when you’ve barely seen any friends for so long. It’s also nice to be in a place where someone can guide you and knows how everything works. It takes all the stress out of everything. You don’t have to make decisions and work stuff out and find things – it was utter bliss!!! I won’t go into much detail to protect the innocent (or not so innocent) but give a quick rundown of where we went and what we ate.
On our first night we went to a private members club called the Tanglin club. Well let’s start in style eh? I was glad that we’d invested in a few new clothes so they at least let us through the door! We had a very nice catch up and laugh, some champagne (oh happy day Veuve my fave!) and tried some Singapore food before heading off to a bar called Harry’s, as Mark had expressed his desire to see a band. Not eloquently expressed as he’d had a few by then but ‘I wanna see a band’ was enough for fairy godmother Elena to make his wish come true.
Harry’s has been around for years and is a Singapore institution. It is opposite a place known as the ‘4 floors of whores’. Charming, oui? Well this place by night offers gentleman.. lady friends.. and depending on how high up the floors of the building you go, the quality of goods (for want of a better expression) improves. In Harry’s, the band was very cool and also an institution. The charismatic, former singer, who lost his voice many years ago, still hangs around and joins them on stage. A sad but nice story of an interesting figure. As the evening went on there was definitely some negotiations going on with some of the clientele. By this time Mark was pretty merry and as his volume levels rose and appreciation of appropriate behaviour lowered, we managed to bundle him into a taxi home.
The next day I started with a pot of teapigs tea. It is sad how disproportionately happy this made me. As we’d had a late night, our breakfast was so late that it was way past lunch but as I ended up having the best burger of my life, it was worth the wait. It was seemingly quite simple, a Wagyu beef burger (which I’ve had before and is always a bit special), sweet bread (not as in the offal of course) roll, pickle and just every bit was utter deliciousness. At this early point I was thinking it was going to be difficult to get me to leave this island.
That evening we went to a party at some friends of Elena’s family which was lovely. Partly as the hosts family had cooked some amazing mutton biriani which was to die for, but mostly because it was just a very, warm, friendly, fun evening. It was so nice to be welcomed into someone’s home and meet so many interesting people. By the nature of Singapore, it’s population are so multi-national. Everything is a blend of styles, it really creates an interesting mix.
On Sunday I was able to tick off something that was on my bucket list. Climb Kilimanjaro? Bungee jump off a New Zealand ravine? Naaah – Champagne buffet in Singapore thank you very much!!! From the moment I’d heard about this Sunday brunch buffet where you get free flow, I repeat FREE FLOW champagne for the duration, it has been on my round the world bucket list. Shallow maybe – worth it? Definitely!
So this was at the St Regis. Elena is a regular so nabbed the best seats and talked us through it works. You have a menu of courses which you can order and is cooked in the kitchen, then you also have table after table of amazing food laid out that you can scoop up anytime you like. It is a french restaurant essentially which meant for amazing, fall on the floor with joy, stenchy, gooey cheese, amazing meats and seafood. Of course, it being Singapore there was plenty to cover all international tastes too. And did I mention the champagne?
My favourite things from the things you ordered were: Crab Tartar & Avocado, Lobster Tartar with Black Pear Puree, Lobster Bisque, Sauteed Snail with Parsley & Garlic, Mushroom Risotto, Parmesan Cheese, Pan Seared Duck Breast, Pan Seared Scallops. They were all pretty tiny and incredibly tasty.
Mark was a kid in a candy store/typical bloke at a buffet – he kept going back to the cooking station and had the same thing 3 time and seemed to feel the need to try one of anything he can get his hands on. I could see this was not going to end well. I was working on a much longer term strategy, making sure I wouldn’t fill up on things I wasn’t that bothered about so I couldn’t appreciate the really special things (this theory was wasted on Mark). The nice thing about the whole thing is it’s over a few hours (so for normal people – i.e not Mark – you have time to sit and let food digest) and is just luxurious and laid back affair. Did I mention the champagne?
I’m not a major desert person but the sweets were truly impressive. It was like they’d put Willy Wonka’s factory through the Honey I Shrunk the Kids zapper.
One thing I do adore is a rum baba and I think you can agree this is a great little number:
Cheese & meats….. you have no idea how exciting this was for me. Proper cheese and meats are rare in Asia, well you can of course get them so it comes at a price and I’ve really missed it. Parmesan and Parma or Serrano hams are the one staple you will always find in my fridge back home. I could have just eat that and been happy.
There was a bit in the salad section where you could kind of build your own ramen but as I often do with too much choice, got overwhelmed and came back with about 3 strands of noodle, a carrot and a cherry tomato. Elena who is half Japanese was appalled by my pathetic attempt and marched me back over to do it properly. There was a ceramic kettle which had hot miso which you poor on the noodles and then you top with the sliced bits and pieces. Here is my failure:
And here is the correct version:
That night we were pretty stuffed and tired so we all slobbed out and watched the strange mixture of the modern remake of Western ‘True Grit’, where we didn’t understand a word they said and then ‘Tangled’ which was perfect! Elena’s mum had supplied some left over bit and pieces which I didn’t touch as was still too full which I was delighted about when her dad then turned up with left overs from the Japanese club which I happily wolfed down. It was a day, happily full of champagne, as I’d expected but it was also a day very happily full of some divine food. That is a happy tick on my bucket list, although I’m thinking about changing it to ‘Have Singapore Champagne brunch once a year’
Next morning, a little sight seeing and some more food. We went to Little India which was way nicer than Little India in Kuala Lumpur. This was a nice heritage area, full of character and colour.
We breakfasted on Dosa which is something I’d never tried before and loved.
Next we went off to fairly new, super hotel Marina Bay Sands. This is a large hotel made up of 3 towers with a huge, cruise ship shaped (see what I did there) structure on the top. We went to the upstairs bar to have a few drinks (guess what) and check out the view. The swimming pool area is quite amazing, curving around the side of the hotel and with an infinity edge – very cool. Only problem, I thought, if I was staying there, I wouldn’t be so keen to hang out there as you’ve got a whole bunch of tourists coming up to stare at the views and at you basically. Perfect for posers of course but not the greatest chill out going.
I was particularly keen to see the ‘Super Trees’. These are basically vertical gardens which have only just opened and I’d seen pictures of and they really are quite stunning. The whole area is kind of similar to the Eden project looking at eco botanical projects.
One of the amazing things I learned was how much of the beachfront area was reclaimed. As in .. from the sea!!! Raffles is on beach road but isn’t near the beach – that is because over the years Singapore has added to it’s land by going out into the sea. This was a fact that, when on the top of an incredibly tall building on the edge of that land, made me feel a little bit wobbly.
We’d timed our trip quite badly as the Grand Prix was only due a couple of weeks after and the preparations had very much begun. From the top of the Marina Bay Sands you can see areas of the track. I can see how great it would be to be in Singapore for F1 because there are so many tall buildings you have lots of opportunity to get great places to watch.
Then onto the infamous Raffles. It really is a gorgeous building and the thing that strikes me is how well built to be cooling it is.
The long bar is actually not in it’s original place – it was down in the hotel by the pool, but the for the sake of the guest’s privacy it was moved up to the first floor on the outer corner. Pretty much all the features have moved but Elena says it doesn’t have quite the same feel it used to, I guess that’s to be expected. There are several factors the Long Bar is famous for:
– the mechanical fans, glamorously swishing above you
– the Singapore sling, obviously we had one and it’s actually quite nice – couldn’t have much as it’s too sweet for my tastes but pretty good!
– the peanuts in their shells are brought up from their big hessian sacks and you break em open and chuck the shells on the floor. It’s tradition, but I tell you, it’s quite hard – it goes against every grain. I tended to pile up the mess neatly then realising there was nowhere to go, just swept it all off onto the floor. Mark of course loved it and just flung it all over is shoulder.
A new addition is the pigeons – all the peanut shell has made it attract some pretty bright pigeons who literally sneak in through the front door. Some customers who were in their eating were a little perturbed with the birds flying over when the staff try to shoo them out. We just found it funny and added to the character. I think this might be a battle they have on their hands for the foreseeable future.
I personally was just very excited about the hessian sacks – seriously – think back, when was the last time you saw one of those?
The last thing we did (yep, more food, more champagne) was get some Chilli crab which Singapore is famous for.
We had the most amazing two starters. One was a sticky black squid dish, the other was a garlicy razor clam type thing.
Then came the crab! Wow, there was a lot of crab and it was messy. You really had to just get in and prepare to get yucky. And that I did! I liked the pepper crab more than the chilli crab I think.
As for what the parsnip shaped things in the top tanks were – your guest is as good as mine:
And this meal I think pretty much took us to the point where we were so full of food we were walking like the Ghostbuster dough boy. Elena is well known for breaking people on a night out but she managed on more than one occasion to break Mark (Mark!) with food.
So Singapore was mainly about friendship, fun and food. I’ve talked mainly about the food of course here … and the champagne, let’s not forget about the champagne!!! I certainly won’t. It was a fantastic break from the norms of budget traveling. I conceded that we may have to skip a few central American countries to make up for the cost but it was so worth it.
So what about Singapore as a destination – it is so different from the rest of Asia we’ve been to so far. It’s so efficient and pretty and clean. That probably sounds weird but it’s kind of a shock when you get there. It’s in such juxtaposition to everywhere else. You notice it from the second you arrive to the second you leave. It’s a remarkable country and has much to be proud of. It does it’s own thing. It takes no crap. You do wrong you’re in trouble. I respect that. You want to be there or live there, you gotta pay for the privilege – fair enough! And it’s small. There’s no where to hide that’s for sure!!
It’s a great place for getting your head together I think. That probably goes against the grain as you would assume that going to somewhere spiritual like Thailand would be better for that, but actually going somewhere where everything just works as it should and isn’t crazy and contrary and time consuming… you have more time to think.