Tioman Island, Malaysia

We have just returned from a few weeks in Malaysia.  Most of the trip was business; both Doug and I had work commitments in Johor Bahru.  Here is my favorite photo from Johor, taken in the old town:

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Depsite busy work schedules, we managed to carve out five days for a short holiday to Tioman Island.  Tioman is a protected marine conservation park off the eastern coast of peninsular Malaysia in the South China Sea.  You have to take a boat to get to the island, from the colourful jetty at Mersing:

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There are a number of resorts on Tioman, which is known for its dive sites, its beautiful beaches, and the tropical rainforest which covers most of the island.  We stayed at the Japamala Resort, a fantastic resort built with “rustic luxury” in mind.  Here is a photo of the bar/communal hangout/boat dock, one of the iconic features of the place:

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Each room at the resort is an individual cabin built up into the forest and is constructed with traditional methods.  Japamala is proud that it hasn’t cut down any trees to build the resort.  Here is the view from our cabin:

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The cabins are literally in the canopy of the rainforest:

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and reached by walkways:

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and lots of stairs:

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To get to our cabin (number 13), we had to climb 125 steps.  (I counted.)  There are cabins with fewer steps, but the higher up you go the better the views.  We felt as if we were perched in the sky, and had left civilisation behind.

Twice we were visited by a large family of monkeys, who were clearly very much at home.  Here are some of them on our balcony.  They loved the swinging chair and liked to play.

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We counted 15 in this family group including two very small babies. This baby sat on its mother while she was being groomed, just a few feet from our door.

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We were told to always keep our doors locked because the monkeys loved to get inside and create mischief.  You can tell this guy would totally raid the fridge!

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This is a resort which understands the concept of a get-away.  It has very limited connectivity so you can put your phone and laptop away.  You can hike through the forest or swim in the sea, you can snorkel or scuba, but you can equally do absolutely nothing:

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We spent a day on a snorkeling expedition.  We were taken by boat to a number of snorkeling sites, with fantastic corals and a huge array of marine life.  This is Batu Malang – a collection of rocks that is famous for its snorkelling and diving.

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The corals here were amazing.  I must say I was intimidated by the choppy water and the currents at this site.  I had only snorkelled once before – 26 years ago – and this was a bit adventurous for me.  I had a few scary moments.  I most enjoyed one of the other sites, where we floated through schools of colourful tropical fish in a protected beach.

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Japamala has a happy hour every evening at sunset, out on the dock.  There are only 16 rooms, so never too many guests.  You can be as sociable or as private as you wish.  While we were there, there were three couples on their honeymoons.  We spent an evening socialising with a just-married Italian couple and spent another with a couple from Potsdam (where we lived for a decade many years ago).  We also had lots of time to ourselves.

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The food at Japamala was superb.  I frequently have trouble travelling because I have coeliac’s disease and must follow a 100% gluten-free diet.  This can be very challenging in Asia.  When we first got to the resort, we explained my dietary restirctions very carefully.  Once they understood exactly what the issues were, especially concerning soy sauce, I had no troubles.  Breakfasts were beautiful – there were lovely tropical fruits, yoghurt, a large menu which included a number of gluten-free options, fantastic smoothies, all served in the open-air restaurant.  Malaysia’s national dish – nasi lemak – is traditionally served for breakfast and is gluten-free (although you should always inquire carefully).  It consists of rice steamed in coconut milk and served with sambal (a spicy chili paste), fried anchovies, cucumbers, and peanuts.  The nasi lemak at Japamala is especially good.

They have two menus here: an Italian menu and an Asian one (predominatley Thai with some Malaysian and Vietnamese entries).  We never ordered off the Italian menu, so I cannot comment, but the Thai food was fantastic.  We had fresh fish, tender and spicy squid, complex and gorgeous vegetable curries, and a variety of salads – tofu, mango, eggplant, seafood.  I am perfectly confident that you can eat fantastic food here on a gluten-free diet, and not feel that you are missing anything.  (I wish I had photos of some of the beautiful food to show you, but I was much too busy enjoying the food to photograph it.)

The staff is also lovely and attentive.  I would like to thank them for making our trip carefree!  This last year has been a stressful one, but Japamala quickly melted the stress away.

Did Doug make friends with the monkeys?  You bet!

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And did Kelly get any knitting done?  Absolutely!

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How to spend a half day in Singapore

Yesterday I found myself with a half a day in Singapore.  I had arrived by car from Malaysia around 1pm, and had a plane to catch late in the evening.  I also had my rather hefty purse and a carry-on bag on wheels.  It is August and humid. I tried to think of the best way to spend the afternoon, without lugging my bags around all day in the heat, and without arriving at the airport in the evening feeling like I’d been through the wringer. I was jet lagged, so I needed to build a bit of downtime into the day.  I also wanted to have fun, soak up some local culture and hopefully eat some good food. The answer: The National Gallery of Singapore.

I spent some time in the gallery last year and knew it had a bit of everything I wanted from the day.  I had my taxi drop me off right at the front.  I went up to the desk and asked if they could check my baggage for me for the day; they were very obliging.  I then set about ticking one thing off my agenda: some delicious local cuisine.

Everyone knows that the local food in Malaysia and Singapore is fantastic. Alas, I have coeliac’s disease and must follow a 100% gluten-free diet.  After 30 years of this, I don’t usually find it difficult, except when I travel.  In Johor Bahru, where I had travelled on business, I found it especially tricky. First, none of the wait staff seemed to know what I was talking about when I tried to instigate the gluten conversation.  Second, even more troubling, there seems to be a commandment in the local service industry, to say yes to anything the customer asks.  It goes something like this: If the customer must be pleased, and the customer doesn’t want gluten, then tell them that the food is gluten-free.  And because I found it difficult to engage in conversation directly with the chefs, I ended up ordering plain rice and grilled fish everywhere.

There are a range of restaurants at the National Gallery, including one called the National Kitchen by Violet Oon.  It is small with fabulous interiors, and they were extremely accomodating.  My waiter went and talked to the chef, who told me which dishes could be made specially gluten-free for me.  The manager came to talk to me to make sure I was happy.  I ordered the Udang Goreng Chili – described as “Angka prawns tossed in a spicy chilli padi garlic rempah”.  I am not sure what the normal dish looks like, but here is my gluten-free version:

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These prawns had so much chili and garlic, you would not believe.  They were utterly fantastic!  All of my food cravings were satisfied.  Add in a lovely glass of wine and the lovely decor, and I had a great lunch!

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They even had a fantastic gluten-free dessert: kueh beng kah, a steamed tapioca cake, served warm with gula melaka syrup and coconut cream.  Heaven!

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To build on a great start to my afternoon, my trip coincided with a major exhibit at the gallery of Yayoi Kusama’s work.  Doug and the girls and I were lucky to catch Kusama’s exhibit at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 2006.  It was a real treat to spend the afternoon at this exhibit in Singapore.  The exhibit is huge, spanning four galleries, and takes about 2 hours to get through.  I love this, one of her many Venus de Milo pieces (Statue of Venus obliterated by Infinity Nets, No. 2, 1998):

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Here is a photo I took in the installation “The spirits of the pumpkins descended into the heavens” (2017). (You can see my face as I hold the camera in the box in the centre and reflected throughout):

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The sheer scale of some of the installations are impressive.  This room has 50 enormous canvases of her black and white drawings stacked up on every wall:

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The originals were done in magic marker and each contains repetitions of faces, eyes, and other small motifs.  Here is a closeup of the intersection of two of the canvases:

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In the tulip room, part of which you can see here:

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I happened to catch a photograph of a young woman with the ‘dots’ from the exhibit reflected on her sunglasses.  I love this photo!

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The exhibit is only open through the 3rd of September and the admission lines are long (the entrances are timed and are very well managed).  If you are anywhere near Singapore, I highly recommend it.

After the exhibit, I went up to the roof gallery where I sat and looked out on the fantastic view of Singapore, while enjoying a drink and my knitting.  Here is a photo of said knitting against the backdrop of the view.

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To make the end of the day even more fantastic, as I sat enjoying the view (and a very nice drink) a wild and wicked storm suddenly blew across the city.  I watched it advance across the skies and then they opened and the heavens poured down.  I went inside to the Supreme Court terrace, and was able to watch the rain pelting on the roof.  Fantastic! Here you can see the darkening skies on the right, while the sun still shines on the left:

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If you ever find yourself with half a day in Singapore, I say: forget having a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar, don’t challenge your vertigo at the Marina Bay Sands, and instead take yourself to the National Gallery!