Singapore Clouds

4826966_orig

Over the years, I’ve marvelled at Singapore’s rain and sunsets. And now, an ode to Singapore’s amazing clouds.

I’ve never seen such beautiful and mercurial clouds. On an average day, cumulus clouds start to develop in the mid-morning. During the afternoon and early evening, these cumulus clouds often develop into spectacular cumulonimbus (thunderstorm) clouds. These clouds then diminish and begin to flatten into layers by dusk, and slowly disperse during the night.

My favorite clouds—yes, I have a “favorite”—are cumulus congestus, or towering cumulus, clouds. From a distance, they have the appearance of gigantic inflatable creatures; their crisp, voluminous shapes swell into the middle atmosphere. Cumulus congestus clouds develop from smaller cumulus clouds when the atmospheric conditions are unstable, which encourages a rising column of warm, moist air at the centre of the cloud to keep lifting higher and higher. Such unchecked convection makes these clouds swell to formidable proportions. (Once these clouds grow tall enough, the tops of the clouds begin to glaciate, their droplets freezing into ice crystals, and the crisp, sharp edges of their summits soften and become more blurred. This is the point at which these clouds have officially turned into a cumulonimbus storm clouds.)

Cloud watching and nephelococcygia, the act of seeking and finding shapes in clouds, is such a meditative pursuit. I highly recommend it.

Birds!

5400602322_b692ef4ab7We recently added one more entry in our nature journal!

The other afternoon, I saw an egret-like bird in Geylang, perched near a canal. I immediately emailed a friend (an expert in Singapore’s biodiversity IMO) who told me that it was a cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis).

The cattle egret is a species of heron, and this particular bird was sporting its breeding plumage, according to my friend. During the breeding season, adults develop yellowish plumes on the back, breast and crown, and the bill, legs and irises become bright red for a brief period prior to pairing.

According to A Field Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, free-flying resident egrets from Jurong Bird Park are often seen in Western Singapore, where they are indistinguishable from migratory populations (which frequent Serangoon Sewage Works).

Wander Journals

11264985_1685118445041658_7070373031217667107_nI recently stumbled upon Wander Journals, “a guide for inspired destinations in Southeast Asia.” The site, its founders write, features “a curated selection of cafes, shops, hotels, restaurants and points of interest.” They add, “We are a group of friends who share the same passion for traveling and we created this site in the hopes of sharing our thoughts with fellow travelers who value depth and beauty in their journeys. Our site aims to show our readers that sophisticated impressions need not mean expensive charges. We provide a discerning view of our favorite places in each area through our city guides. It is our aim to enable our readers to experience the best a city has to offer.”

While some of Wander Journals’ travel photography is rather predictable, several photo-essays are quite inspired, including “Discovering Bike Trails and Joy,” on bicycles and Singapore, by Jean Paolo Ty.

Wander Journals invites submissions, but pays only in kind words and “exposure.” Still, it’s a beautiful platform on which to showcase one’s travel writing/photography.

Follow Wander Journals on Facebook and Instagram.

Bukit Timah Railway Station (Again)

IMG_4251

Earlier this year, my friend Yu-Mei Balasingamchow wrote this wonderful blog post about the soon-to-be-“refurbished” Rail Corridor, and my friend Kate McFarlane, wrote a child- and pet-friendly guide to the same. The Rail Corridor is a lovely 24-kilometer stretch of former rail tracks going from Tanjong Pagar Station in the Central Business District all the way to Woodlands Checkpoint. It was slated for possible development when the train stopped, but the government agreed to hold off on real estate development.

According to Kate, “This March, the Rail Corridor will be closed for three years to construct the Murnane Pipeline, after which grand plans have been revealed to create a more permanent public space. [There] will be bike paths, and tunnels, and even shower facilities.” So, I took my parents to the Bukit Timah railway station stretch of the Corridor before it likely becomes another managed/manicured “garden.” (The artist renditions in this Tech Insider piece do not inspire *shudder*.)

I last visited this portion of The Green Corridor in December of 2010, not a month after I had moved to Singapore. Then, I chatted up the friendly station master, whose primary tasks were to regulate passing trains and grant eager tourists permission to take photographs. Today, we ran into a number of dog walkers and trail runners. Then, I wrote that the Bukit Timah railway station would be preserved. Today, the structure is in a horrible state of disrepair (broken windows, peeling paint, etc.) and the station sign is practically indecipherable.

IMG_4243

After exploring the station, we walked north towards The Rail Mall, before finding an exit somewhere along the route once we were all tired! It was as blissfully quiet and unhurried experience as is possible in densely developed Singapore—not a building or road in sight and the only sound the trilling of birds overhead.

The MacRitchie Trails and The TreeTop Walk

IMG_4226

IMG_4225

Earlier today, my parents and I explored the MacRitchie Trails, a 20-kilometer network of trails and boardwalks winding through the forest around the MacRitchie Reservoir, and The TreeTop Walk, a 250-meter suspension bridge that connects the two highest points in MacRitchie.

Friends urged me to take my parents to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (of which the Trails and the Reservoir are a part). This is the largest of the nature reserves in Singapore, occupies over 2,000 hectares of forest cover (mature secondary rain forest), and is now at the center of debate on land use, “pragmatism,” and environmental stewardship. A plan to build a subway tunnel the reserve has drawn sharp protests from activists who say “it could irreversibly damage the habitats of hundreds of plant and animal species.” They are appealing to the Land Transport Authority to re-route the Cross Island Line around the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, rather than through it. According to Reuters, “LTA Chief Executive Chew Men Leong said… that taking the new line around the reserve would cost an extra SG$2 billion (US$1.4 billion) to build. Industry experts estimate the overall cost could amount could be as much as S$40.7 billion.” Who knows what the area will look like on my parents’ next visit—kitschy and plastic like Gardens by the Bay?

No decision on the construction of the line has been made, but I’m not optimistic that environmentalists will “win” this one. An online petition supporting the re-routing of the line has received thousands of signatures. This March, activists/protesters are organising a series of guided walks to bring more public attention to their issue, and the reserve.

o o o o o

We hiked a seven kilometer loop from Venus Road to The TreeTop Walk and back, which took a bit over 90 minutes. The route is largely paved, gently rolling, and nearly entirely shaded, but unsuitable for strollers and wheelchairs. (The MacRitchie Boardwalks, near the reservoir, are stroller- and wheelchair-friendly.)

The Reserve is a most magical place. We traipsed across leaf ­litter dappled with sunlight. The forest is a refuge, a still retreat from the hurly-burly of the dominant city, and we saw many trail runners this morning.  It was very quiet, and I appreciated just the sifting of a faint breeze through the trees and a bulbul singing from a on high.

My Battambang with Allison Jane Smith

one two

Over the years, I’ve asked friends from around Asia, met through my online and offline adventures, to share their must-stop spots in South, East, and Southeast Asia’s great cities.

Today, welcome Allison Jane Smith, a writer and communications consultant. She was an editor at WhyDev, a thought leader in the international development community, and her writing has been featured in The Guardian, ONE, TakePart World, and Matador Network, among others. Like me, she has strong opinions about the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

And now, over to Allison…

o o o o o

Battambang is a provincial capital in northwestern Cambodia with more laid-back charm than Cambodia’s flashier cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Settle in for a relaxed visit with great food, incredible local art, and delightful surprises in the Cambodian countryside. I enjoyed my first visit to Battambang so much it turned into living there for a year, and I know many others who have similarly found their stays in Battambang lasted much longer than originally intended!

Must eats?

Chinese Noodle (Street 2) is a perennial favorite for its hand-pulled noodles and delicious dumplings. Its popularity means it can be slow at busy times, but the food is worth the wait.

Jaan Bai (corner of Street 2 and Street 1.5) offers sophisticated small plates inspired by the best of southeast Asian cuisine, from pad Thai to eggplant and shiitake dumplings. A particular highlight is the crab served with Kampot pepper, a Cambodian speciality, and the selection of cocktails and fresh juices mean you’ll have no trouble finding the perfect beverage to complement your meal.

Soline of Choco l’Art (Street 117) serves Battambang’s most decadent desserts. Her chocolate mousse, cheesecake and pastries will satisfy any sweet tooth, and the art hanging on the walls, much of it created by Choco l’Art co-owner and local artist Ke Prak, will please anyone interested in Cambodian art.

For coffee, there’s no better place to go than Kinyei (Street 1.5), whose baristas have won multiple barista championships in Cambodia. Order a street latte for a Cambodian take on a classic latte, or try an iced Cambodian coffee for a truly Cambodian experience. If it’s not too busy, strike up a conversation with the staff; while shy at first, they like the opportunity to practice their English.

Must dos?

Battambang is home of Phare Ponleu Selpak (National Highway 5), a circus troupe that travels internationally. Take the opportunity to see the circus in Battambang, in an intimate atmosphere unlike any other. Phare’s shows feature local artists, musicians and acrobats for a unique artistic experience people of all ages will enjoy.

Don’t miss the bamboo train, a seven-kilometre trip through the countryside on a wooden frame lined with slats of bamboo. When I go with friends, we time our trip for sunset and ask our conductor to stop at the bridge about halfway through the ride, for beautiful views of the sun setting over rice paddies.

Twelve kilometers southwest of the city on National Highway 57 is Phnom Sampov, which has a whole lot to explore – bring comfortable shoes! There’s a complex of temples, a deep cave, and the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampov, now a memorial for the people clubbed to death by the Khmer Rouge. Visit at dusk, when millions of bats pour out of the north side of the cliff, an impressive show that turns the sky black and lasts for a good half hour.

Soksabike offers half- and full-day cycling tours of the countryside, with stops along the way at family-run businesses to learn how they make rice paper, rice wine, and bamboo sticky rice. Stock up on the dried bananas offered on the tour, as they are sold in Thailand rather than at local markets. Book tours at Kinyei (Street 1.5).

Must shops?

Battambang is too small to have much shopping, but the few shops it has are unlike any others you’ll come across in Cambodia.

Bric-a-Brac (119 Street 2) is a one-of-a-kind boutique, serving as a workshop, showroom and gift shop for design textiles, antiques, and souvenirs. Ask shop co-owner Morrison for your turn on the handmade loom, to see what it’s like to weave on a loom that has created tassels and braids for royalty and heads of state.

The Lost Stick (76 Street 2.5) describes itself as an “emporium of strange items and underground comics” and is full of old photographs, novelty toys, and other kitsch. Always worth a browse.

Must art?

Battambang has a long and proud tradition of artistic excellence in Cambodia, and even today most of the country’s best artists come from Battambang. There’s no better place to learn about Cambodian art and meet Cambodian artists.

Across from The Lost Stick is Lotus Bar and Gallery (53 Street 2.5) in a beautifully renovated shophouse. On street-level is a bar, while upstairs is a gallery which specializes in showing the best of local arts. Lotus also hosts film screenings, live music and poetry events, so it’s worth asking at the bar what’s planned for while you’re visiting.

Sammaki (87 Street 2.5) is an artist-run community space offering workshops, exhibitions and other arts-related events.

Must go?

Except for the bamboo train, Phnom Sampov and the circus, everything is located in the city center and is easily walkable. Take a tuk tuk to get to everything farther away.

(Additional credits: Photographs by Allison Jane Smith; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)