Thursday, October 20, 2011

zoo station

I'm not normally a big fan of zoos.  They're depressing.  There's not much worse than seeing an animal that you normally see (on tv) running and jumping and eating an antelope just sitting around.  Or sleeping.  Usually sleeping.  On a small island of land smaller than the Brady Bunch backyard.  Zoos are really just animal jail.  
I read the Life of Pi a few years ago, and there's a section at the beginning that talks about zoos.  Specifically, why zoos aren't so bad.  Of course, I forget the arguments (the animals are safe?  they get antelope burgers delivery?), but it did do a bit to sway my opinion.  (side note: I enjoyed the book.  I recommend it, though it's not for everyone.  It's sort of a cross between actual literature and an airport book.  And it has this bit at the end where the author whonks you on the side of the head to say "GET IT?!", which is annoying.  But overall, I quite liked the book)

And as there's little left in Singapore to do, I went to the zoo this past weekend.  There are really two parks: the Night Safari, and the Zoo.  They are right beside each other, but are totally separate.  You can buy combo passes, and are encouraged to do so, but it's possible to only visit one if you'd like.  I went to both.  On separate days, but not by choice.

In a move that reeks of absolute genius, the two parks don't have overlapping operating hours.  There's a window of about an hour and a half where both are closed.  Thus, to visit both parks in the same day requires good timing.  Otherwise, you'll finish the zoo too early and be stuck waiting hours for the Night Safari to open.  The key is to get to the zoo late, and when you leave to have as minimal waiting time as possible for the Night Safari.  I missed that window.  

The zoo stops letting people in 30 minutes before it actually closes (how many places did I work that I wished had THAT policy?), and so no entry that day for me.  This meant a solid hour- at least- of sitting around waiting for the Night Safari.  I visited all the gift shops.  I passed on the $15 burger (it wasn't antelope).  I considered paying $10 to have 'doctor fish' nibble the skin of my feet, but then realized paying $10 to have nightmares is a bad idea.

Eventually it opened, and I safaried away.  Night Safari was smaller than I expected, and less exciting.  I'd been told that it was the better of the two, and certainly more unique.  You start off on a tram, taking a tour of the park.  It's a small circuit, and the whole ride is done in under 20 minutes.  You're given the chance to hop off halfway (conveniently at the store & restaurant) and walk around, but I rode the full circuit.  There are slooooow dooooowns every so often to check out the animals.  At the end of the loop, you can go back and walk around, so I did.  The good thing about the Night Safari is that the animals are indeed out and about.  Mostly they seemed to be eating.  The bad things are that (as I learned the next day), they're pretty much the exact same animals they've got at the zoo, and, since it's dark, you can't really take pictures.  You could try, but without flash it's just a dark muddled blur.  
Still, I walked around and generally enjoyed it.  For some reason, Psycho Lunatic was given permission to design one section of the park:  the Night Cave (it has a different name, but I don't remember it and there's no way I'm looking it up).  This is a plaster tunnel, designed to look like a cave, with plastic cages set into the walls.  The animals inside are:  rats, snakes, and centipedes.  It is the Worst Thing Ever.  I can't imagine anyone on the planet finds it enjoyable.  I looked around for some matches and kindling, thinking I would do the world a favor and burn the monstrosity to the ground, but no luck.  I imagine Singapore frowns upon zoo terrorism, even if it's for a good cause.  

The next day, it was back to the zoo.  I'd have gone a different weekend, but my combo pass I bought a month ago expired that day.  I'm glad I went- the Singapore Zoo was pretty enjoyable.  For one, they've got otters.  OTTERS ARE AWESOME.  All parks should have otters.  For another, they had loads of different types of monkeys.  The more monkeys, the better the zoo.  Even though it was essentially in the tropics in the middle of the day, all the animals seemed to be active.  Monkeys, rhino, giraffe, more monkeys, pygmy hippo, regular hippo, white tiger, lion, tapir, lemur, bats, zebra and more.  They all looked well treated, they all seemed to have a decent amount of space (except for the tigers, who zoos must hate because every zoo has tigers on a rinky dink island that could double as a putting green).  
I spent several hours walking around, and only part of that time was because I got turned around and walked to the far side of the zoo again. 

And with that, the checklist of things to do in Singapore was complete.  I've got this upcoming weekend, then one more after that.  I've got a new mini checklist of things to do these last two weekends, but home is in sight.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

haw par villa, land of crazy

All that was missing was the actual golf course.  And the hallucinogenic drugs.

Last weekend I finally visited Haw Par Villa, a 'theme park' in town.  This description is technically correct:  it is indeed a park, and there is a theme.  But it's missing every other aspect of what you'd think would be there.  There are no rides.  No rigged games of chance.  No cotton candy machines.  Instead, on a small hill on the south side of the island, and consisting of a winding path, is a land of crazy and bad acid trips.

The overall theme of Haw Par Villa is lessons from Chinese mythology, with an emphasis on hell.  Along the path are 'statues' depicting various scenes of insanity, apparently.  They're the type of statues one would find at a miniature golf course.  Except instead of windmills, you're treated to a gigantic crab with a woman's head.  Or some rats and elephants, dressed in blue slacks, white button-up shirts and ties, with spears and guns, overseeing two gigantic grasshoppers kissing.  A central highlight of Haw Par Villa is the tunnel of hell.  Here the lucky visitor is treated to graphic scenes depicting the various stages and judgements of hell in Chinese lore.  There's a 'frozen pool', a pool of 'filthy blood', and statues of various people being tortured.  It's quite a treat to walk through, seeing a scene showing a person bent over a log and being cut in two by a huge saw, complete with loads and loads of blood.  Oh yes- blood everywhere.  Chinese hell is full of blood.  And even though you must be dead to be in hell, if you're a sinner you get to die again, clearly in a bloody manner.  

Elsewhere in the park are various statues of animals from foreign countries.  There's a whole row of kangaroos, for example.  Or the family of gorillas bearing a striking resemblance to Homer Simpson.  At another section, there's a wall of scenes from everyday life.  Assuming, of course, that your everyday life is full of car accidents with bleeding victims, or ships sinking while being attacked by men wearing fish costumes.  

The park is generally hard to describe- it's really not much more than a path up a hill, with decorations.  But those decorations are SO weird, and there are a lot of them.
The whole park is fairly small, which works to the visitors advantage by minimizing the nightmares you'll have later.  If it were any larger, there are doubtless people who might never recover.  I, of course, thought it was totally interesting, but won't be in a rush to get back.  


Thursday, October 6, 2011

a forest full of rain

In the middle of Singapore is the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.  Like most other nature reserves, it's mostly walking trails through trees, with the occasional small animal sighting.  
What makes Bukit Timah unique is that the 'nature' is technically a rain forest.  A real deal, southeast Asian rain forest, right in the middle of the city.  It's advertised as one of only two rain forests in an urban setting in the world (this being a selling point because one would think that "urban" and "rain forest" would be mutually exclusive).  Bukit Timah was my destination for the day.

Despite Singapore not being gigantic, and despite it being in the middle of the city,  it took a longer cab ride than you would think to get there. There's no train stop nearby (in theory one is opening THIS SATURDAY, but not when I went), so a taxi had to do.  As I got dropped off, I noticed that the other visitors here had all driven.  I realized that leaving was going to be a bit of a problem, but I'd worry about that when it came time to leave.

On the map here you'll see the various trails.  The color highlights are the 'major' trails- wide, paved, clearly marked.  There are thin grey lines sprouting off from them- these are the smaller, unpaved, hiking-type trails.  They've got various degrees of difficulty- yellow is considered 'difficult', blue was 'easy', and so on.  Blue should take about 30 mins, yellow 1 hr 45 mins.  Red, yellow and green all basically end up at the same place- the summit of the park, some 500 ft. above sea level.  I decide to walk up red, then back down green.  Figure this will take me...about an hour.  Off I go.

The beginning would be easy, since it's paved, but it's extraordinarily steep.  I wouldn't be surprised if they carve steps into the path one day.   The walk up is fairly uneventful.  There are some signs warning me not to feed the monkeys (Monkeys! Yay! Best nature reserve ever!).  A few other signs here and there tell me what type of tree I'm looking at, or to keep an eye out for various endangered animals.  I'm in the rain forest, but honestly this looks and feels like a walking trail through the middle of Florida.  There was a brief rain storm as I arrived, so everything is wet and humid, but it looks to be drying quickly, and I make good time.  

At the summit, there's a rock giving you the latitude & longitude of where you are, some benches, and a gazebo type place to rest.  This is nice I guess, but if this is a rain forest I don't see the fuss and distinction.  So it's time to head back down, and I look for the green trail.  On second thought, this was pretty easy- let's look for the yellow trail and take that loop around.  It's got to be around here somewhere.  Ah- that post has a yellow band on it- that's it.  

The path I'm on is now unpaved.  It goes down the hill pretty steeply;  there are steps that are easily a foot high, and some of the larger steps are 2 ft.  It feels less like a trail staircase than a climb.  At this point, the warning system in my head starts some low level beeping- if this trail loops around back to the summit, then this insane downhill staircase is going to have a twin insane uphill climb.  Still I trudge onward, because now it's starting to look like a rain forest.  It's really humid, and the trail is getting a bit exhausting.

Wow, this trail is longer than I thought.  The trail is really just a muddy path- it looks more like a path carved by water running down the mountain.  I've seen 2-3 other hikers though, and along with the occasional marker post, I know I'm at least ON a trail.  But this...this isn't easy.  The trail is 2-3 feet wide at best, and in sections it's only half a foot wide.  It's still pretty wet from the earlier rain, and there are exposed tree branches and rocks all around.  And it keeps going and going.  

Finally, after what seems like forever, I come across another one of those bench/hut/gazebo things.  I'd seen a few spots like this on the walk up to the summit, and know that they've got a trail map posted.  
I am not on the yellow trail.  Not on the main yellow trail anyway.  I am on one of the side grey trails.  The insanely long one, that goes waaaaaay to the edge of the park border.  And I'm at the hut that's at the absolute farthest point from anything.  (If you care to look at the map again, and can make it out, there's a tiny red square at the very top of the map labelled something like 'Dairy Hut'- that's where I am at this point).  
I'm tired, but not exhausted.  I can either keep going forward, or backtrack.  Each looks like it'll be equally difficult.  I press on.

The trail doesn't get any easier.  15-20 minutes past the hut, and I make it to the next little hut on the path.  It's disappointing how long it took me to get here.  It's calming, but the headphones on my iPod are starting to glitch and stop playing in one ear.  It's super hot.  Forward is the only way to go.  
A little further on, and I hit the upward stairs.  The FIRST batch of upward stairs.  It's solidly 3-4 stories tall, and each step looks gigantic.  I sit on the first mini landing and take stock.  I haven't been camping in years, haven't reallllly been hiking in ages.  I'm no survival expert.  But I lived in Alaska as a kid, went to high school in Colorado, and am not an idiot when it comes to the outdoors.  I think:  I have no phone.  I am not wearing proper hiking shoes.  I have no water.  I have nothing to eat, not even a candy bar.  There's a possibility the monkeys will attack.  I've seen other people on the trail, but not many.  Realistically I figure I could go 20 minutes before seeing another person.  I am not in total danger, but a twisted ankle could get really bad really quick.  I now notice that there is a mist or steam coming from the's coming from ME.  In addition to having no water, I am sweating galore, and steam is rising off my shoulders and head- I think I must look like some football player from the old NFL Films.  "Down to their last timeout, the team turned to star player Dan Warnick to yet another miraculous comeback", the voice intones.  I'm losing fluid, and must be another 20 minutes from the summit.  Must keep moving.  Carefully, but quickly.

Good lord these steps are immense.  You walk up 30 of them, walk another 50 yards, and there's ANOTHER bunch of steps.  My sole focus is just getting back to the main path.  This is slightly easier since the iPod earphones finally stopped working entirely on the left hand side.  More stairs.  Walking.  More...and oh sweet yes it's a paved trail.  I'm back on the main yellow.  

I'm exhausted, but being on the main trail again is rejuvenating.  Plenty of people here, I know where I am, and I know there's a water fountain at the bottom.  I make it back, and that water fountain is my best friend.  I twisted no ankles.  Wasn't attacked by monkeys.  Got some good photos and a cool story.  And saw a rain forest up close and personal.  Now, to find a way out of here.  Looking at the map, it looks like there's a mall fairly close by.  They always have taxis there, so I head out.

On the road out of the park, HOLY COW HOW DID I MISS THIS-  monkeys.  MONKEYS, PEOPLE!  Lots of monkeys!  There's a whole bunch of monkeys- there's got to be 40 or 50 just chilling out in this clearing by the park.  They're smallish, tan, and have long tails.  They are cool.  There are signs about the monkeys- don't feed them, don't leave your backpack on the ground and not pay attention (the monkeys will steal things from it), don't walk between two monkeys.  It is awesome monkey zone.  I resist all urge to start Oooh Oooh Aahh Aaah! to them (I make a quite good ooh ooh aah aah monkey noise), as I don't want to have a field full of monkeys attack me if I offend them.  

It's close to dinner time when I get a taxi at the mall, and I'm thinking I could easily sleep until the next morning.  But I've seen a rain forest and I've got pictures of wild monkeys, and it has been a most interesting day.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

art. science. artscience!

If you find yourself in Singapore, and you're the type of person who enjoys visiting art museums, you don't have many options.  
The lesser of the two real choices is the Singapore Art Museum.  Any art museum, in my opinion, is worth a visit on some level.  And if it's free, like this one was, all the better.  But it's a good thing it was free, as there wasn't much going on.  Several of the gallery rooms were closed for upgrades/renovations/new installations, though when I peeked through the crack in the door they were just empty rooms.  No sign of upgrades, or renovations, or new installations.   The main feature was an exhibit of works by Liu Kang, an artist I'd never heard of.  Feel free to look him up, but not my favorite artist I've seen.  Annnd...yeah, that was about it.  There were two other sections with art, but none were very memorable.  But hey- it's art.  And it was free.  Can't go wrong there.  

The other main art museum here is the ArtScience museum (Singapore gets right to the point with their museum names).  If you've seen pictures, it's the building that's shaped like a lotus.  Or a bowl with fingers.  Three exhibitions are happening here at the moment:  Salvador Dali, Van Gogh, and shipwreck treasures.  
We start with Dali.  In my experience, most people who like art like Dali.  In fact, I've known a lot of people who don't care for art who like Dali.  I like art, and I like Dali.  But I also know that Dali's quality went somewhat downhill in the later years, and this exhibit was almost exclusively later years (lots of stuff from the 70s).  This is not to say it was bad though.  There was a nice collection of watercolors, statues, paintings, and more. 
The next level down is the Van Gogh exhibit.  It is distinctly lacking in any actual Van Gogh art though.  HOWEVER, this exhibit was totally interesting. You go in through a door, and into a long, dark room.  The room is wide, and easily two stories tall.  It's barely lit, except for large screen projections of various Van Gogh works on the walls.  There is classical music playing throughout, and the projections change every 15-30 seconds.  A few benches are throughout the hall, so one can sit and just enjoy the show.  I spend a good 20 minutes here, just enjoying the art and music.  True, there's no real Van Gogh pieces here, but the experience is good.
The last exhibit is the shipwreck treasures.  It might be a letdown after the Van Gogh, but it also might be a letdown because it's "shipwreck treasures".  To you this may conjure images of gold dubloons, pieces of eight...pirates.  In reality, it is almost exclusively clay jars.  A few bits of gold here and there, but mostly jars.  Broken jars, decorated jars, sealed jars, jars still covered in barnacles.  

As I leave, I make a mental note to make a new painting once I'm back to Atlanta.  I've got an empty wall, and Van Gogh and Dali would be disappointed if I left it blank any longer.