Saturday, March 26, 2016

Port Report - Brunei

Port ship actually docks at: Muara
Attraction/Town you are aiming to visit: Bandar Seri Begawan
Distance from Port: 16 Mile - 30 minutes by car
Mode of transport we used: Taxi US$40 each way
English spoken by locals: Many do speak English. We had no issues.
Ships tour necessary? No - safe and easy to navigate and negotiate
Hassle from merchants and taxi drivers: Minimal.

Standing in the long queue during ship embarkation, it amazed me just how grumpy people looked. I felt like shouting, "Hello people! We are on vacation. Be happy about it. It's not like you are in the line at the DMV! Smile for goodness sake. This wait will not last long and soon you will be eating a fabulous lunch...get some perspective!"

Of course, I didn't say any of that out loud (or at least louder than a mumble to My Husband!)

When a Fun Couple near us, the only ones laughing and seeming to enjoy themselves, caught our eye and pulled us into their happy time with some banter, it was lovely and it made the time fly by.

Our first port of call was Brunei. We docked in Muara, a thirty minute drive from the main town Bandar Seri Begawan. Brunei is quite a wealthy country with it's own oil fields. Petrol and thus transportation is cheap.

It is also a Muslim country and quite devote. Friday (the day we were there) is a holy day and so lunch hours in places like the museums were extended, if the museum was even open at all. Not being much into museums, we didn't mind.

I think it's important to respect the sensitivities of a country you visit, especially if it takes very little effort as in this case - covering your shoulders and wearing longer trousers and skirts. Let's face is, very few folk getting off  a cruise ship are supermodels - do we really want to see all that flesh anyways? Dressed appropriately, I felt perfectly comfortable here.
On the morning we landed in Brunei, My Husband and I were still at breakfast when the Fun Couple from Embarkation Day walked by and started chatting to us. Upon exchanging plans for going ashore, we quickly realized our independent plans ran along the same track, and we decided to team up and split the costs of the transport.

Princess Cruises was offering a "Bandar On Your Own" excursion for $59 per person. This is simply a lift into town without any type of tour. Had the four of us taken that, we'd have spent a total of $240 between us. That's the typical mark up the tours have. Instead we four traveled the same distance for $10 each, at a time that suited us, in a taxi.

We wanted to take a river taxi to the water village of Kampong Ayer. The cruise was offering a trip there, along with a cruise to "see" proboscis monkeys in the wild, and admittance to a museum for $239.95 per person.

Our local taxi driver dropped us at the river and we picked up a water taxi who would give us a one hour tour of the water village and out to the mangroves to look for proboscis monkeys - for $10 each. The museum was the only thing we'd miss out on... for $229.95, I could live with that!
It was hot and humid, (though nowhere near as bad as Singapore - I doubt anything ever again will be!) but once on the river, the breeze made things more comfortable. Our skipper had pretty good English and provided a nice commentary on things of note that we passed. He even pointed out where he lived in the water village, Kampong Ayer.
That's a mosque in the background.

He told us these rosters were for fighting! In a place where gambling is illegal, I wondered how that worked.
I wondered as well at how proud he seemed of the Sultan's Palace, with its roof of solid gold. He didn't seem to resent the contrast in opulence between that and his own more humble dwelling.
In fact the population seemed seemed happy with their rulers, who did open the Palace to the people to visit freely once a year. Our skipper seemed more impressed with fact the Palace had over 150 bathrooms than anything else! Though I may have picked that up wrong what with him shouting over the jagged hum of the boat's engine and then there's the whole lost in translation thing...

The mangroves jungle looked dense and impenetrable - I wondered what snakes and creatures hung out in there.
We passed a huge group of people (from the cruise ship) who had pulled over to look for proboscis monkeys. We pulled a little ways up and actually found some. You could see them swinging through the trees but with all the foliage it was hard to get a picture if them so you'll just have to take my word for it - they were there and fun to watch. Such strange looking creatures, human-like with massive noses! Most of the ships tours folk that we chatted to didn't see any. Another score for the independents.

Some of the buildings were beautiful. I wasn't sure what this was - another palace or a mosque? Perhaps if I'd been on a "proper" tour I'd know! The dome is at least gold leaf, if not pure gold.

The river taxi dropped us back in town and we went for a quick wander around the town before going back to the taxi ranks. We spotted the same driver who'd picked up up at the port that morning. He greeted us like long lost friends, and we hired him to bring us back to the Sapphire Princess where I changed out of my sticky clothes into a swimsuit and sat in the hot tub as we set sail for new lands.

Byddi Lee

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Thing About Cruises

We never considered ourselves as "Cruise People" until one day we were trying to put together a trip to Alaska. We were short on time and money and the cruise itinerary seemed to check a lot of boxes for the best value. We decided to try it. We could ignore the real "Cruise People" and just focus on our own trip objectives - i.e. seeing Alaska.

Funny thing was that most of the people we got chatting to on that cruise (and on subsequent cruises -yes we caught the bug!) also claimed not to be "Cruise People" and we could see that they were working it their own way too. That's the thing with cruises - like anything in life - they are what you make them. The ships are big enough to house everyone and let them oscillate to their own routines. If you want a floating version of Butlins you can attend all the activities the ships puts on. You can be a bar fly, dance to the ships bands and drink the nights away. You can find a quiet spot, just snooze or while away your time with a good book. If you want to spend your days sunning yourself by the pool, you can do that - though I wouldn't recommend that you go on an Alaskan Cruise - might be a bit chilly for that!

We chose Princess Cruises and really liked them. The food is good. The cabins comfortable, clean and well appointed. The staff are amazing. The ships are well laid out and there are few kids on board, although we usually cruise during school time for best prices and to avoid the families. Every ship also has it's adults-only areas, so we'd retreat to there if we needed to. We decided to stick with Princess so we could  rack up the loyalty points. We have also only ever stayed in the cheapest cabins. Not having a window has never been a problem, in fact, I love the darkness in the interior cabins. Lying at night being rocked by the ocean in a cozy bed in darkness - well, its like being back in the womb - I get the best nights sleep on cruises.

But the highlight of most people's cruise experiences, whether they are "Cruise People" or not, are the port days.

There are three ways to approach port days -

1 - stay on the ship. Never an option for us, but many folk enjoy having the ship to themselves. If good food and a spot by the pool is your idea of a great day then go for it.

2 - Take a shore excursion through the ship. These are really pricey, but they do guarantee that the ship will not leave port without you if the excursion has some kind of hold up on land.

3 - Go it alone. Simply walk off the ship and find your own way from the port to local attractions. This is much more cost effective. The total price of a taxi is usually less than the cost per person for the simplest ships tour that is, in effect, a taxi ride from the port to the center of town.

My biggest complaint about the cruise company is that they are usually not very forthcoming with their port details. Of course they want you to take their tours, so they try to frighten you into taking a tour by telling you how bad traffic is, how unreliable taxis are and how the ship will leave without if you are not back on time - and leave it will!

But a good map, some accurate place names and realistic taxi expectations would help us "independents" (as the ship calls us) safely plan our time in the majority of ports. Admittedly there are ports that can be downright dangerous, and this is when I would definitely buy a cruise tour.

In the past  I didn't bog about cruises, preferring to relax and well, take the time to enjoy my holiday. That was until I cruised in South East Asia and realized that my Port Reports could actually help other Independents make decisions on how and where to spend their port days.

My basic rule of thumb is to read all the ships tours then check out the ports online to see what else might be available. Generally speaking anything you can book through the cruise can be booked for less independently - if you are brave enough!

Once on-board it's also a good idea to try to suss out what other passengers are doing. Generally others who are independent will be open to sharing a taxi and in many countries you can even hire a taxi for the day for cheaper than the cost of four ship tours. The added advantage of this is that you can spend your time in the proportions you want to at a site. If you're lucky you may even get to an attraction before it is mobbed by a bus load from your own ship.

In my experience, like-minded folk tend to find each other. Just be clear about what you want to do. It's fine to say no to a taxi share - most people will understand that you don't want to go. If they don't you're better off having nothing to do with them any ways.

We've met some lovely people on port days sharing taxis and adventures with them and then maybe not bumping into them for the rest of the cruise! If you like your new buddies arrange to meet them on board for a drink - if it works that you see more of each other then it was meant to be.

Another tip for meeting people is to register as an Anytime Diner. This means you have no set mealtime. You just rock up when suits you. Sometimes you need to wait in line.  We usually ask for "Two sharing" which means you get seated faster at a table for 6 or 8. Everyone getting seating like this is going in with the attitude of being social and meeting new people and so it usually makes for an interesting, and most times, fun night though we've had a couple of cringe-worthy nights too, but usually there's at least one other couple who is pretty cool and in my experience the "awful" guests have triggered bonding between the others!

The other option is Set Dining - good if you are cruising with a group of people who want to gather at the same time and place every evening to regroup - like a family reunion type thing.

So once you've started bonding with the cruise people who aren't really "Cruise People" you will find that cruises, like life, really are what you make them...and it's hard not to make it great when you are being waited on hand and foot, being served fabulous food, sleeping like a baby, meeting interesting people (if you feel like it - you can ask for a table for 2 when you want a night off being social) and exploring foreign lands!

Byddi Lee

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Singapore Chronicles - The Final Roundup

The thing about Singapore was that there was always something to see and someone lovely to chat to! So many thank-yous are due to our friends who live here, in particular to Bryce, Seema and Soo Teck. You made our experience of your home city a much richer experience and I look forward to returning the favor someday soon.

As I browsed the photos, I realized that many did not fit into any of the posts I had written but did deserve a mention - like the presence of so many beautiful flowers everywhere.
The shape of this flower was reflected in the architecture of this building - the Science Art Museum.
Nature seemed to be the inspiration behind a lot of design, as evidenced by the double helix bridge - DNA on a massive scale!
Then there's the Merlion watching over the city.
A pink porsche! That is all...
Some jobs are scary, like being a window-washer in this city!
And what about this monitor lizard we found at the Botanic gardens...
No matter where we seemed to be in this amazing city, we would look up and see our favorite restaurant at the top of the Marina Bay Sands...
...second favorite actually - it was hard to beat Seema's cooking even though she always claimed her delicious meals were "just something light!"

We are lucky people to have such good family, and friends who feel like family, in so many beautiful and intriguing places on this planet.

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Singapore Chronicles - Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island is an island just off the coast of Singapore that is dedicated to fun fun fun! So much so that it bills itself as the State of Fun, which dredged up an old joke for us from a time when I was involved in a minor road accident on the border of California and Nevada. I was asked what state I was in by the insurance company on the phone.

I answered, "A state of panic!"

I haven't been allowed to forget that - ever! Anyways, a State of Fun is much preferable to a State of Panic!

Easily accessible by public transport, a monorail takes you right there, Sentosa Island hosts Universal Studios (which isn't our thing), a golf course (also not our thing), beaches, marinas, three main stations with various activities and gardens and an aquarium - now that's our thing!

When we purchased our ticket for the mono-rail we got a deal ticket that allowed us to choose three activities.

We began with lunch at the beach - which you don't need a ticket for!
This was the view from our lunch table. Nice to look at, the sea here is very busy with shipping lanes a little further out, and I personally did not fancy swimming here, but there were one or two brave hearts in what must be deliciously warm water.

With lunch eaten, we decided to try our hands at a Segway Tour. We've seen these in many places, including San Francisco, and quite fancied it but felt like we'd look a bit stupid (especially on a busy street in San Francisco) but on virtually traffic-free Sentosa, in a climate where merely walking was exhausting, it seemed like now or never.

Our tour took us a whooping 500m up the road and back again! To be fair, I was done then anyways. It's not exactly rocket science, nor taxing and kind of got boring after a short distance! Here I am modelling both my new trousers and the segway...
Our favorite - the aquarium! Cheaper than scuba diving and a lot dryer and safer (though I do miss my scuba days) we were able to chill out in nice air conditioning and just soak in the serenity!

Who doesn't love looking at sharks?

This busy reef took me back to my days on the Great Barrier Reef - I could almost hear the parrot fish crunch the coral.
We introduced our friend's children to Dora.
This guy made my mouth water.
Cute - I think he's kissing the glass.
This unicorn fish looked sad, though I did love her eye makeup.
I could have sat there all day.
The jellyfish were mesmerizing.
The octopus, fascinating when you consider just how intelligent these creatures are reported to be.
A Lion fish has extremely poisonous spiny barbs along its back. It can be fatal to stand on these beautifully flamboyant fish.

After the aquarium we chose the butterfly house as our third activity to round off the afternoon. Beautiful to look at, there was little information on these species but we had fun photographing them.

Here's a butterfly coming out of its pupa.
These beautiful birds were hanging around too - it's like a pigeon that's been to the hairdressers and had a makeover!
These guys weren't impressed!

I suppose it takes all sorts!

Byddi Lee

Singapore Chronicles - China Town and Little India

Singapore is built on an island - a fairly flat island at that. All its land is given over to building high-rises it seems. Everything, food included, is imported. This makes it a very, very expensive place to live and shop! However, for those who just love to shop, there is every kind of store from the US and British high-street cheap and cheerfuls such as Cotton On and H&M through Marks&Spencers to the high end designers whose prices are not even posted on their goods in a "If you need to ask the price, you can't afford it!" sense. Even the prices in the "cheap" stores sting in Singapore.

I was a little nervous about even looking at the ethnic street stalls. Usually I find that if I cannot try a garment on I don't like to even look, preferring not to be harassed by the street traders. But that all changed when I found what have become my favorite trousers in a China Town street market. They were S$10 and "one size" fits all. Each leg is like a wrap-around skirt, so I have a pair of floaty loose bottoms that flow like a skirt but prevent my legs from sticking together with the sweat (lovely image I'm sure!) - perfect for the sticky heat that Singapore doles out day and night.

Our lovely hostess, who is Indian, offered to be our tour guide around Singapore's Little India and China Town districts. We hopped in a taxi and started with a few temples in Little India.

As a place of worship - wow! These temples were amazing, vibrant places with fabulous art and atmosphere. It was nice to see not just tourists ogling at these treasures, but believers praying and enjoying the temples too, using them as they were meant to be used.
I didn't like to take too many pictures of the inside but this was the roof of one of the temples.

The architecture was a little more rustic here and reminiscent of an Indian theme.
There were no real cows wandering around as there would be in India, but with a certain splash of humor life size images of cows were placed on the sidewalks. We posed with these cut-outs for the obligatory Facebook shots.

Having looked around Little India, we then hopped into a taxi and got the grumpiest taxi driver in Singapore. We gave him the address to the big temple in China Town. The traffic was bad, and tired of listening to his grumbling, we jumped out before we'd even gotten there, deciding to look at the street market I mentioned at the beginning of this post. That's when I spotted the new item for my wardrobe, and bought it.

Then we decided it was lunch time and our hostess recommended a great place for Dim Sum called Yum Cha. Really good dumplings!

After lunch it was time to get back to base. We hailed a cab and procured a much friendlier driver. It was only as he drove past the big temple and asked us if we'd liked it, did we realize that we'd been too distracted by shopping and eating to actually visit it!

Oh well, maybe next time!

Byddi Lee

Monday, March 14, 2016

Singapore Chronicles – The River Safari

The rain is Singapore is wetter than any other rain I’ve ever seen, and believe me, as an Irish gal I’ve seen plenty of rain. Here the dollops of rain pound you like a series of water bombs. The up-side is that the water is warm so it feels like you are having a shower with all your clothes on!

One rainy day in Singapore we choose to visit the River Safari, deciding that we’d chance getting wet. We took public transport – a combination of trains and buses all the way there. The River Safari, Zoo and Night Safari all share a stop at the end of a bus route.
To our delight the River Safari was empty – it was a Monday afternoon and it was bucketing down rain, but it was worth getting wet to have a tourist attraction in Singapore all to ourselves.
The second delightful surprise – even though it was outside, the park had awnings over all of its walkways so we didn’t get rained on. It was lovely walking around taking (far too many) pictures of the fish in the aquariums, staying dry yet hearing the tinkling (and sometimes pounding) of the falling rain.
We saw amazing fish including the Tiger Fish, aka the piranhas of Africa.
Other fish in this tank bore teeth marks! No prizes for guessing who the culprit might be...
Some fish were curiosities.
Others, just plain funny looking!
Or dopey looking!
Then very randomly we came upon a panda enclosure. They obviously get a lot more people on other days.
The red panda was cute but kept his back to us.
It was Jia Jia who stole the show. We were the only ones in the enclosure with her and she was comfortable to romp about munching her bamboo shoots!
This aquarium had much more to offer than just fish, taking a broader angle on the role of rivers in ecological systems.
I've held an obsession with all things Amazon River for most of my life, so I particularly enjoyed this section - kicking of with a tunnel through the river so we could watch Giant Otters playing above us.
The electric eel looked guilty as charged!
The piranhas sparkled in the dappled light.
Even with a plate glass divider between us, there was something quite disconcerting about they way these guys look at out at you!
Manatees, reportedly mistaken by sailors to be mermaids (really?) seemed serene and wise as they eyed us back.
This male was quite enamored with this female. Some things are hard to hide when you're a manatee! For his modesty, I won't post those pictures (though his modesty didn't stop me from taking the shots in the first place!)

There are two boat rides within the park that you must pay extra for (S$5 each). We didn’t bother with that since we were getting low on time and we figured there was no cover and we weren’t prepared to pay to get wet at this point.
The River Safari was very impressive and definitely worth doing on a rainy day in Singapore if you’ve had enough of walking around (beautiful but very expensive) shopping malls.

Byddi Lee