Bristol vs the world

A travel (and sometimes fashion) blog about exploring Bristol and the rest of the world, one post at a time.

Category: Asia

Bako National Park, Sarawak

Bako beach

I have mixed memories of Bako National Park. On the one hand, it was probably the most beautiful place I’ve been lucky enough to visit. On the other, it did give me a distrust of monkeys – or at least macaques – after one made a leaped onto our table and made off with my much-needed chicken leg dinner.

One thing’s for certain: it knows how to make – and leave – an impression (generally for the right reasons).

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Getting to Bako

First thing’s first, you need to get to the Park. Although quicker to grab a taxi or hire a mini-bus with a group, the public buses are by far the cheapest way to get there at RM3.50 one way (around 65p) – and they still only take 35-45 minutes from Kuching (catch it towards the end of Jalan Bazaar/further from the bus station and you’ll save yourself a bit of time). They come once an hour.

However road transport can only take you so far and you’ll be dropped at Kampung Bako. From there, visit the ticketing office to charter a boat to take you on the 30-minute journey to the National Park, past stilt-houses rising out of the water, fishermen, foliage-covered mountains (I told you Bako knows how to make an impression).

Boats cost just under RM50 – about £9 – return. They can fit up to five people so the cheapest thing to do is club up with others on your bus to share one. However your boat driver will ask you for a return journey time so you need to make sure the others on your boat have similar plans for their trip to you. For a bit more flexibility, go it alone (or at least, alone in your group).

Also check the tides before you go – or at least take some waterproof sandals. Although we got dropped off at the National Park’s jetty, the time we wanted to go back happened to be low tide, so the boats couldn’t get up to it. Instead we were picked from the park beach – well, the sea by it. Trousers rolled and bags held above us, we waded back to our boat through the (Singapore bath warm) water and dried our legs in the sun as we were taken back to the bus stop – it may not be glamorous, but it was certainly a memorable way to leave!

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To stay or not to stay

If you’re short on time – or not too bothered about undertaking lots of treks – Bako can be done in a day. Get one of the earliest buses from Kuching and ask your boat driver when the latest is that they’ll pick you up.

But I’d highly recommend an overnight stay. The accommodation is basic and the food isn’t anything to write home about (and that’s if it doesn’t get stolen by cheeky macaques). But it really allows you to make the most of your time in the Park. You can relax with a drink in-between walks, watch the sun set over the beach at park HQ or get up early and enjoy one of the trails before the next day’s visitors really get going.

You can also go on their night trails for a small fee, where a guide will point out wildlife you might not see during the day.  We were exhausted and didn’t, but part of me regrets that decision now.

We booked our accommodation online and confirmed our reservation with the Kuching tourist office when we arrived in the city. Despite this, we did have some problems on checking in, the people working at the Park HQ reception seemingly not being able to find our reservation. However they did honor it. So I’d recommended taking a print-out of your reservation and also phoning to confirm – at least then you know a room should be allocated to you, even if they’re not sure quite where you’re supposed to be saying. This all said, it looked like we were the only people having trouble so I don’t think ours was a common experience – don’t let it put you off!

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Treks and trails

On arriving at the Park headquarters, you receive a paper map detailing the 17 walks on offer. This includes a list of how long they are and a rough idea of how long they should take to complete one way. I’ll admit it, we had a good chuckle at that at first. 45 minutes to go 1km? Maybe for someone who’s seriously out of shape…

Turns out, the people who put that map together know what they’re talking about. The trails may not be particularly long, but on many of the routes you’ll find yourself clambering over, up and down steep paths laden with tree roots and rocks. You’re also in the middle of a hot, sticky jungle. And let’s not forget that occasionally you might want to stop to look at some of the plants, wildlife or stunning views (or just to catch your breath and have some water – though I highly recommend a Platypus or similar).

Don’t be put off by this though – we’re of average fitness and probably found the heat and humidity the hardest element to deal with, rather than the treks themselves being hugely difficult. If you’re not a confident walker, you could pack a walking pole (I am a huge fan of walking poles). But there were plenty of people do the trails in flip flops and – in some cases – swimming costumes. I wouldn’t recommend following their example, mind.

There are also some slightly easier trails too; the first one we undertook, to Telok Delima, was often along boardwalk and mostly flat. The park guides at reception should be able to offer advice if you’re not sure what will suit your fitness levels.

And the trails may have been tiring, but absolutely worth it. I’ll let the photos in this entry speak for themselves as to why.

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Telok Delima trail, Bako

What else is there to do

Not content trekking through mangroves and spectacular jungle or relaxing on stunning, secluded beaches? The Park also has an abundance of wildlife. As well as the macaques, we also saw Proboscis monkeys (best looking animals ever?) and silver leaf monkeys also call the area their home. The Park HQ and nearby beach are home to bearded pigs, who you might see snuffling around the cabins or snoozing in the shade. And then there’s the many other insects and small mammals that you might spot. We saw some groups on trips with guides who were pointing out these animals to them, so if you’re a wildlife buff then this could be a worthwhile investment.

Macaques near Bako Park HQ

Wild boar, Bako

In short…

If you’re visiting Kuching, Bako National Park is a must-visit. It’s hard to describe how visiting here makes you feel. I haven’t made it sound like a hugely relaxing experience and yet, despite the sweat, the stickiness, the tricky trails, it somehow is. Probably something to do with getting to the end of a trek and being greeted by almost-empty beaches surrounded by tropical trees, with views of endless water or mountains rising from the sea. Simply breathtaking. (I told you it left an impression!)

Just make sure you eat your dinner inside – or at least away from the sides of the canteen!

Bako Park HQ beach

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Telok Paku trek

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Food Friday: James Brooke Bistro & Cafe, Kuching

james brooke necesarry indulgences

A double post today – I spoil you, I know. But I wasn’t organised to get my last post up before today, and I felt I had to give you a sense of Kuching’s waterfront before telling you about James Brooke bistro, a pavilion-style, open-sided restaurant which overlooks the river from the Chinese History Museum end of Jalan Bazaar.

After spending two days eating in Singapore’s – tasty, but not hugely relaxing – hawker centres, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a ‘proper’ restaurant. In my last post, you might have got an idea of how electric Kuching’s waterfront promenade is, especially after dark. So a restaurant overlooking it – close enough to observe some of the hustle and bustle, but set back enough to feel out-of-the-way – was immediately appealing.

The restaurant’s decor itself was equally attractive. The tables are surrounded by plants and an array of what looked like traditional crafts pieces, big and small.

Although you’ll probably find more authentic recipes in some of the city’s hawker centres, James Brooke bistro offers a Malaysian menu featuring typical rice and noodle dishes – which come as generous portions. These include their ‘special’, a Wild Borneo Laksa, as well as the traditional Sarawak Laksa; I can highly recommend the latter – rich, creamy and slightly spicy, but not overpoweringly so.

james brooke sarawak laksa necessary indulgences

(There are also more Western-style food options on offer, but these were more expensive. But as we both tried the – excellent – Malay dishes, I’m afraid I can’t offer an opinion on these.)

Although the restaurant was relatively busy, it wasn’t full. So we could eat and drink at a leisurely pace, enjoying the flavours in our food and drink and taking in the sites around us.

From memory, two main courses, a lime juice (the obsession continued…) and a beer came to about £10 – so while not cheap for Asia, it’s certainly good value for us Westerners.

If you don’t mind being a bit of a tourist (most of our fellow diners were also clearly holidaymakers. Or should that be ‘travellers’?), James Brooke bistro is the perfect place to try some Malay dishes while soaking up the magical Kuching nighttime.

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PS. Wandering about the name? Find out more about James Brooke here

The Details
James Brooke Bistro & Cafe
Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Kuching – at the end of the waterfront promenade
Phone: 0145204007 (no website)
Booking: I’m not sure if it’s an option, but it didn’t seem to be necessary

Photographs
First interior photo, Sarawak Laksa: Necessary Indulgences
Exterior shot: Emre Bennett on Flickr
Second interior shot: Asia for Visitors

Kuching Waterfront

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Being a bit of a feline fanatic, it was inevitable that I’d feel a certain fondness for a city whose name – coincidentally, rather than intentionally – means ‘cat city’. They don’t let you forget it either – Kuching has so many cat statues that Lonely Planet lists them as one of its top sites of interest.

But there’s more to Sarawak’s capital than novelty roundabout decorations. And although many use Kuching just as a base for exploring the many nearby nature destinations, it’s worth spending a few days exploring the city itself. This is the first of a few planned posts about our time here, starting with the first place we (admittedly, probably like most visitors  to Kuching) really visited here, the Waterfront.

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This stretch of pedestrianised pavement along Jalan Bazaar has multiple personalities. Until mid-afternoon, it’s restrained and gentle, in contrast to the strains of karaoke that, even before lunch, float across the river. The ideal spot for a quiet stroll and, at lunchtime, to sample some (cheap, tasty and, for some pieces, freshly made – we watched ours be chopped up) spring rolls, chilli sauce and fried bananas from the food carts.

Waterfront food

Sunset casts a spell here. The river is surrounded by mosques and their hauntingly beautiful Calls to Prayer collide on the breeze as sampan (boat) drivers glide across the water.

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As darkness falls, a different kind of music takes over. Buskers playing every kind of instrument invade the pavements and draw huge crowds. Behind them, families, friends and couples promenade, while others line the walls and steps, chatting.

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And that’s all without mentioning the changing view as you walk along – colourful stilt houses become the distinctive Astana government building which becomes mountains rising in the background.

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All in all, not a bad introduction to the Bornean leg of our adventure.

waterfront view

All photos my own – please credit if using

Singapore: beyond the skyscrapers

We meander through the Starbucks-ridden Central Business District, down the gleaming could-be-anywhere Orchard Road with its high-rises and designer shops and cleaners sweeping away every leaf that falls from the perfectly-manicured trees that line it, around historical Clarke Quay, now overrun with tourist-trap bars, restaurants and clubs.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why many view Singapore as ‘soul-less’. It’s that bit too ordered, too tidy, too modern and money-focused. If you travel lazy, if you don’t stray far from the more modern, built-up areas, then Singapore won’t give you much in return besides a few decent photos from the roof of the Marina Bay Sands hotel – and a much lighter wallet. Some people don’t mind that, but I find it stifling (and not just because of the city’s all-pervading humidity).

But as we follow our feet through Singapore, we soon find it doesn’t take much to get beneath its skin. Even Orchard Road is book-ended by a chain of less-salubrious shops – they didn’t look seedy, but they certainly detract from the city’s sterile reputation.

Between the perfectly-pruned trees of Istana Park we discover My Art Space, a cafe-cum-art workshop. On the ground floor, shoppers and tourists (ex-pats?) and locals seeking a quiet retreat sit with drinks at garden-style tables, gazing over the park’s impressive pond. Upstairs, artists and makers can hire workshops; a pick-n-mix of their work is dotted around the halls, on the stairs. In the glass-walled studio, an art class takes place. We try not to stare too blatantly, but the paintings (in particular, a bright flower) taking shape on the easels are too eye-catching.


Further down from Istana Park, at the very bottom of Orchard Road, we follow some stairs cut into a grassy hill. They lead us inside Fort Canning Park. We play ‘guess-the-scent’ in the spice garden, take in ancient archaeological sites and discover the entrance to an underground military complex – Battle Box (sadly on this occasion it’s closed so we can’t explore further). It is quiet here. We see a few other pairs of tourists, but we are often alone. Fort Canning Park is not the life and soul of the city, it is a place to slow down. To – quite literally – stop and take in the view.

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Little India – the area around Serangoon Road – is a breath of fresh air for an entirely different reason. The ordered streets so common in Singapore give way to dusty, crowded pavements and roads, cars to mopeds, silver skyscrapers to two-storey buildings bursting with colour. The open-fronted shops spill outside, showcasing vivid fabrics, gold, fruit and vegetables stacked atop beer crates. On the top floors, we spy washing hung to dry – signs of real life. The smell of spices and meats waft from enticing restaurants, mash in the air. In the hawker centre, food is eaten by the hand. It is still, of course, touristy – bars advertise ‘special’ drinks deals and the curious side-streets are home to numerous hostels – but exploring here is exciting and intoxicating and incredibly satisfying.

Chinatown’s main streets are filled with ‘souvenir’ shops; you have to work harder to unearth its charms. We find it in the quiet side-streets; when people-watching in the hawker centres; coming across the understated, slightly wonky ‘offering’ to the Gods on the quiet street of our hotel; in the stunning Temples and mosques and the pretty houses against the backdrop of the Central Business District’s shining towers.


Even wandering off-piste in Raffles Hotel offers rewards. Walking on the outside of the shops, along their back doors, we spy locals hard at work crafting new items to sell.

Later I insist on visiting Tiong Bahru. Books Actually on Yong Siak Street proves worth the trip. Books in the front – a huge variety and plenty of lots of local literature on offer – vintage trinkets in the back. Outside, a piano is painted on the pavement and the storefront patio is filled with plants. We are further rewarded for going slightly off-the-beaten-track with excellent food in Tiong Bahru Market, the local hawker centre. You can tell, from the increased (curious, non-threatening) glances we attract from locals that tourists are less common around here, though apparently this is changing. The area has an interesting history, too – it was the first Singapore housing estate, built in the 1930s. Despite being mass-built, the architecture is actually quite appealing; white-washed, mid-rise, patches of glass. But since the opening of Books Actually, the surrounding area is now ‘up-and-coming’, a ‘hipster’ haven. Fascinating, small independent bars and bakeries, restaurants and clothes shops are everywhere. I peer in their windows and wish we had come earlier in the day, that we had enough time to explore more of this ‘quirkier’ side to Singapore. (Though I admit I leave with mixed feelings; I hope this gentrification hasn’t negatively affected the people who have always called Tiong Bahru home.)



There are many other areas (Kampung Glam, Lavender, surrounding islands) that – we read – will offer a different insight into this country. But we only have 48 hours, we’re a little jet-lagged and we’re adjusting to the climate, so there’s a limit to how much we manage to see. After Tiong Bahru, we decide to spend our last night embracing our tourist status down by Marina Bay (after all, they’re popular sites for a reason. Strike the balance, don’t miss out on some of the best bits of a city by bearing a tourism snob). On the walk from Esplanade MRT station, we take a pedestrian underpass. We suddenly find ourselves on the outskirts of groups of street-dancers, hypnotic as they contort into shapes, moves, practice routines. This is perhaps the most unexpected thing we stumble across in Singapore – and it’s right in the middle of a tourist hotspot. (Incidentally, Marina Bay at night is quite beautiful. Couples lean against one another on the steps, we join in with the many taking self-portraits, enjoy watching the glass boats zip across the harbour, their lights flashing different colours.)

Lesson learnt – make the effort to visit the slightly ‘quirkier’ areas of Singapore, but don’t avoid the places that seem ‘boring’ at first glance. If you’re prepared to scratch beneath the surface then you might be pleasantly surprised.

Image Credits
All images my own except for those listed below. Please credit if re-using.

All images from external sources link to original webpage

Marina Bay Sands across the harbourside: http://srtoverseas.com/?page_id=1656
Raffles Hotel: Raffles Hotel
Books Actually interior: Ficsation Blog
Books Actually exterior: Design Spotlight
Tiong Bahru estate: Doverproperty via Tripadvisor
Dancers in Esplanade: Asia One

Food Friday: Cheap eats in Singapore

As I mentioned in my last post, Singapore isn’t exactly a budget travel destination. The prices aren’t quite London standards, but they certainly don’t tally with what you expect from the majority of South-east Asia.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat well on the cheap. Instead of heading to a restaurant, seek out the city’s hawker centres – huge food courts selling Singapore’s version of street food (actual on-street food carts don’t really exist here – these hawker centres are Singapore’s way of regulating them and, I imagine, helping to keep their deserved squeaky clean reputation). Not only are they well-priced – you’re looking at less than £10 for a meal for two with drinks – but they’re also an unmissable experience in themselves. Buzzing and busy, they’re where the locals meet and you could find yourself sharing a table with a huge range of interesting people. In fact, it was thanks to the Chinese family sat next to us in one food court that I discovered lime juice (so. good.). Even if you end up with a table to yourself, these are perfect places for people watching.

In fact, all factors combined, I’d probably go as far say that the hawker centre experiences were some of my highlights of our time in Singapore.

Top tip for hawker centres? As everyone will tell you, the longer the line at the stand, the better the food. So don’t be tempted by convenience (you’re on holiday, what’s the rush?!) and instead make time to queue up – it’ll probably be worth it!

We tried out five different food courts – here are my thoughts. (NB. I’m a rubbish blogger and forgot to write down the name of the stalls we tried, so I’ve concentrated more on the atmosphere and experience than food itself. TripAdvisor contains some great reviews with stall recommendations, however, as do blogs – or you could just do as we did and gamble!)


Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, Chinatown
Although not as busy as some of the more central centres, Maxwell Road is still quite well-known on the tourist circuit. Due to a jet-lag induced late morning nap on our arrival in Singapore, we visited relatively late for lunch so had no problems with queues or finding a table, but I’ve read reviews that suggest there can be. Not the most atmospheric of the food courts we visited, but this was probably because it wasn’t as busy. But the food is excellent – we both had (very generous portions of) seafood rice, which I’d highly recommend if I could remember the name of the stand… At this point we hadn’t discovered the joys of the fresh drinks on offer, so were boring and went for canned drinks so I can’t offer advice on them.



Tiong Bahru Market
Making the most of our unlimited SMRT journey tickets, I convinced John that we should make a trip to the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood so I could visit Books Actually (deserving of a post in itself). And OK, I also quite wanted to see the shop that only sells glass-less glasses (the area is like the Singapore Shoreditch). As we were in the area, we decided to stop in a Tiong Bahru Hawker Centre for dinner, which I’d read good things about; many local bloggers claim to make special journeys here from far-off (or as far-off as you can get in Singapore) districts. This certainly appeared to be the case on our visit; even mid-week, we noticed a lot of people arriving and leaving by taxi. It certainly felt more ‘local’ and less touristy than the other centres we visited, though the same could be said for the Tiong Bahru area in general.
Tiong Bahru hawker centre is also, in its way, an historical destination. Although, as mentioned above, Singapore doesn’t really have ‘street food’ any more, it used to be a big problem for the city. Tiong Bahru market – originally Seng Poh – was the first of these regulated centres, opening in 1950. With just one floor, the centre was quite different to the one you visit today. Renovated between 2004 and 2006, it is now a multi-story experience that can seat up to 1,400 diners at any one time. To put it into perspective, the UK’s biggest restaurant (Bristol’s Za Za Bazaar) seats up to 1,000.

Despite its size, Tiong Bahru hawker centre wasn’t as intimidating an experience as you might expect. Possibly because this was the quietest of the centres we visited – a lot of stalls were closed in the evening so if there’s a particular stand you want to try then I’d recommend a lunchtime visit. However the food we tried – chilli tofu for me and a rice dish for John – was probably some of the most flavour-full we had in Singapore.




Tekka Centre Food Court, Little India
Brightly-coloured buildings on hot, dusty roads: Little India feels like a world away from the rest of Singapore and is a must-visit. While you’re here, be sure to visit the local food court, which is close to the SMRT station exit. Although not quite fair to judge (it was the only centre we visited for lunch rush-hour, which appears to be the busiest time for the centres), this was also definitely the liveliest of those we ate at. Finding a table wasn’t easy, but we did manage to do so! But many others appeared to get around the problem by eating at the stands they had just bought from.

It was also possibly the least well-kept of the centres we visited, feeling slightly dustier and older. If it had been the first we visited I can imagine having felt quite intimidated by the whole experience. But it’s worth sticking out – the food was tasty, cheap and offered a different selection to the others we visited; unsuprisingly, there were more curries on offer than elsewhere.

It’s perhaps worth noting that the traditional Indian way of eating many of these meals is with your hands. However there’s plenty of stalls that provide cutlery (we were boring and ate at one of these, and the food was still perfectly good). If you do decide to go for the hands-on experience then there are taps at the exit – so get stuck in!


Makansutra Glutton’s Bay
Located in near the touristy harbour, Glutton’s Bay understandably isn’t the most authentic of hawker centre experiences. It’s just that bit too clean and shiny and ordered. That isn’t to say it’s not worth a visit though – of the centres we visited at night, it was probably the livliest, the location is ideal, and we enjoyed eating in the (properly) open air.
We didn’t try a main meal here so you’ll have to trust TripAdvisor for that, but we just had to try the Durian fruit desserts. It definitely tastes better than it smells! We also shared a huge coconut water – well, it has to be done.

Glutton’s may not be the ‘real deal’ like some of the others, and it’s a little more expensive, but if you’re looking for food in the bay area then you could probably do a lot worse.Chinatown Food Centre
This food centre is huge. As with Tiong Bahru, the ground floor is dedicated to wet market stalls. Head upstairs and you’re confronted with a labyrinth of stands offering starters, mains, desserts and drinks. This is where I was introduced to lime juice by a family sat next to us – and it was probably the best lime juice of the whole trip (believe me, I tried quite a few of them…). The deep-fried prawn balls with chilli sauce were also pretty tasty.

As with Tiong Bahru, a lot of the stands were closed in the evening. However it was still full of families, friends and lone locals enjoying the food. Despite it being busy, the atmosphere was just that bit more relaxed that at the Tekka Centre without being too quiet (which Tiong Bahru was on the verge of being). That, combined with nabbing a table by the edge which allowed for people watching on the streets below, probably made this my favourite of the centres we visited.

Photography Credits
Maxwell Road Hawker Center (exterior): Etour Singapore; Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (interior): Your Singapore; Tiong Bahru (exterior): Go Asia @ About.com; Tekka Centre (interior): Gogobot; Tekka Centre (exterior): Singapore.com. All images should link through to original page. All other images are my own, please credit if using.