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SingaporeSingaporeSingaporeSingapore SingaporeSingaporeSearch “Singapore” in Google maps and you will quickly realize just how tiny this island is. To give you some perspective, it’s almost a third the size of Mauritius, a quarter the size of Luxembourg and almost equal to teeny tiny Bahrain. It’s miniscule. In fact it sits on the top 20 list of the smallest countries in the world. But beware dear readers, size doesn’t always matter. This little plot of lush vegetation that accounts for 693 sq km of floating land is a country in its own right and packs a lot of punch into its size XXS little frame.

We moved here a little over a month ago which, technically still makes us tourists, and certainly no authority on this place but we are discovering very quickly that there’s more to Singapore than meets the eye. We are really loving the richness and diversity present on this little island. Most big cities tend to have neighborhoods that vary in rhythm, vibe and feel. This is just as present here with powerful neighborhood identities separating the life in Chinatown from that in Tiong Barhu, around Arab Street and in Little India. Each of these locales to name just a few are as unique and individual as can be. A real escape from the mall-infested, shopping conglomerate of our daily life on Orchard Rd. We refuse to complain however because we are truly blessed by enormous convenience, crazy options and an excellent central location.

Some people will joke that Singapore is a “fine” city and it sure is if you look at it innocently. But behind the ultra-clean streets, smoke-free air and supersonic efficiency is an uber strict system run by fines.  For smoking in public.  For theft.  For littering, For drug trafficking (for that its death!). And this list is far from done. This is a no-tolerance zone and they take their rules very seriously. Do not play cocky , do not cross roads if the “walk” sign is red and do not under any circumstances chew gum in public (yup a fine!) But aside from assisting you to be an obedient and good-doing public servant, this place will offer you a lot.

4-5 days is a good amount of time to properly explore Singapore. See the Recommended Itinerary below for more information. Whatever you choose to do don’t underestimate this tiny little island or its people. They are open, kind, friendly and helpful and most of their taxi drivers double as tour guides openly volunteering insights and tidbits of Singaporean knowledge.  So far, it has and continues to exceed both our expectations.  Thank-you Singapore for welcoming us into your arms and for making us feel at home.SingaporeSingaporeSingaporeSingaporeSingaopreSingaporeSingaporeSingaporeRecommended itinerary: as I mentioned earlier, we are still discovering this lovely place but these are a few things to get you started.  We have covered a lot of ground so this should be rather comprehensive at least in terms of variety.

  • Orchard Road – stroll down this wide-laned avenue for a heavy dose of shopping madness. This street is filled with mall after mall after mall and this is no exxageration. The government is clearly a big proponent of the retail industry! I somehow liken this experience to the Vegas strip.  Of-course it doesn’t compare to the glitz and glamour of Elvis town but it is fascinating in the sense that each mall has a different vibe and ‘reason for being’ just like every hotel on the Vegas strip does; and we have been oddly impressed exploring their various options, mainly by way of dining, but also their demographic and social appeal.
  • The Quays – the twinkling lights that stretch from Robertson Quay down Clarke Quay to Boat Quay are mesmerizing to watch and make for a commotion of sound and light.  Buzzing by night, tranquil by day. Being waterside has a somewhat calming effect regardless of the time of day. Plenty of eateries dot this riverfront and it is fun to experience.  Merlion Park is located between the latter quays and offers photo opps with Singapore’s largest Merlion – mer lion or sea-lion in French – the mythical half lion, half-fish creature whose origin is representative of Singapore’s humble beginnings as a fishing village.
  • Cultural Neighborhoods – find thrifty souvenirs and great bargain gifts in Chinatown, visit its central ‘wet’ market for a true local shopping experience, eat banana leaf in Little India, hop from cafe to restaurant to boutique to bar near Arab Street and get the best coffee in Singapore at Forty Hands in Tiong Barhu. Foodies be warned, this is a paradise for your tummies.  Come prepared to experience everything from cheap local Hawker Centers (outdoor food courts) to the ultimate in 5-star dining.
  • Marina Bay – if you’re still hungry for exploration and action head to the Marina Bay area to walk through the super trees, maybe catch a theatre show at the Marina Bay theatre and see an exhibition at the beautiful Arts & Science museum that’s shaped like a blossoming lotus overlooking the waters of the marina. Fashionista’s prepare to visit the largest Louis Vuitton store in Southeast Asia. Of-course you must end the day with drinks on top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel at none other than Ku De Ta.
  • Museums – there is no shortage of museums here from Contemporary Art (MOCA) to the National museum, the Asian Civilizations museum, Toy Museum and much more.
  • Lush Gardens – If you are a nature lover and enjoy being outdoors, the botanical gardens and the zoo are both an absolute must-do. The Botanical Gardens are set on a sprawling 74 hectares of land and are simply magnificent in their vegetation, orchid gardens, dining options and winding walkways.  Watch turtles and fish meander in the lake.  Take a picnic basket and lay back to watch the clouds.  The sky over Singapore is filled with fluffy clouds that whisper to you and tell you stories.  The zoo is just something else.  It’s like no other zoo I have ever seen.  It is massive and as you enter the park, it feels like being on a walking safari.  Cages are rare and animals sit peacefully and contentedly in their large spaces.  It is also quite interactive with feedings, etc.  An absolute must-do for animal lovers.
  • Sentosa – personally, I believe no visit to Singapore is complete without a trip down to Sentosa island for a real feeling of escape from the city and for unadulterated fun: universal studios is tiny but good fun. Sit by the palm-speckled shores overlooking cargo ships, defy gravity at iFly, zoom down a quasi mountain slope’s winding track at the Sentosa Luge and have some glitzy fun at the casino.

Recommended restaurants: Way too much to choose from but here are some of our faves so far!

  • Wild Honey – a very popular place for Sunday brunches with excellent food and a drool-worthy menu that will make ordering a very tough choice
  • ODP – very hip yet casual restaurant in the hip Tiong Bahru area.  Simple dishes with a twist. Excellent food.  Enough said.
  • Banana Leaf Apollo – a must-do experience in Little India.  Replace your plate by a banana leaf and dig in with your fingers.  Cheap and flavorful fare.
  • Food Republic food court – eat with the locals at this ultra-clean indoor food court located at the top floor of Wisma Atrium with so many food stalls and options to choose from
  • Imperial Treasure Peking Duck – a pricey experience but well worth it for the Peking duck. This resto converted me into a duck eater.  Wrap the tender duck breast in a pancake with green onion and cucumber julienne slices and cover in hoisin sauce.  Bellissima!
  • Bora Bora – located at Palawan Beach on Sentosa.  A very Bali-ish feel to this white-washed open restaurant facing the shore. Yummy seaside lunch in swimwear and you can even get a lounge chair at their closed off section with a bill over $30
  • The Missing Pan – an excellent brunch option in Bukit Timah with massive portions and interesting options.  Have the ultimate french toast. A savory & sweet experience. Mmmm..
  • Omakase Burger – I liken this burger & fries experience to that of Shake Shack which I loooove. A must do in my humble opinion for its Black Angus US beef and extra generous portion of delectable truffle fries
  • PS Cafe – there are many branches of this cafe so make sure you go to the one on Harding St at Dempsey Hill. It makes for a beautiful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city with a floor to ceiling glass window overlooking dense and lush foliage.  Excellent for brunch, lunch, dinner or just tea & dessert. Casual.  Chic.  Yum.
  • Song of India – over-priced but well-worthy Indian food set in a beautiful villa.  Choose to sit indoors or outdoors but prepare to be blown away by a sophisticated Indian dining experience.  Dinner is expensive.  Lunch has a special.  Choose according to your wallets.
  • Alaturka – Turkish food set in the heart of the hustling and bustling Arab Street district. The restaurant owners there are pushy and will try to lure you in.  Ignore all pleas and head straight to this one at 16 Bussorah St.  Their food is on another level and don’t forget the rosewater spiked lemonade.  Tangy and refreshing!
  • Satay at Raffles Quay – what may appear to be a shabby setup of stalls holds Singapore’s darkest food secret.  You will lick your fingers clean here.  Ignore all cries and make a beeline to stall No. 8.  Order the prawn (shelled!) and chicken skewers.  You can thank me later.SingaporeSingaporeSingapore Singapore

Cambodia Cambodia3 years, 8 months and 20 days. That’s the length of time for which the Cambodian people were inhumanly ruled by the Khmer Rouge. And these numbers are unforgotten by no-one. This history is so recent and so fresh, everyone in Cambodia has been affected by it somehow.  2 million people were violently tortured and then executed under the evil hand of Pol Pot – who I learned nicknamed himself that, an abbreviation for ‘Political Potential’ – this twisted namesake provides some insight into the troubled psyche of this crazy man.

Sadly, every single driver, guide, person we came across had lost at least 2 family members to this atrocity. It was so difficult to listen to their stories. As we walked through the genocide museum, also known as base S21 (once upon a time a school), on our second day in Phnom Penh, I painfully hid behind the dark lenses of my aviator ray bans as tears uncontrollably escaped my eyes as I quietly listened to our 54 year-old guide talk about how she had lost her parents and family. Silently swallowing my need to sob, I secretly wiped away my tears under the pretense of the heat. This was my sole contribution to the atrocity she had endured…an earnest attempt to listen with all my might and to stay strong and supportive as this beautiful woman shared her life with me without any hesitation or omission. Orphaned at the age of 14 she was starved, abused, tortured. Homeless and alone and desperate at such a young age, she lost everything. The pain of this history was so deeply etched in her heart and in every wrinkle and crevice in her face. She spoke of it with such vivid clarity as though it had just happened. The sudden and violent loss of her parents still visibly unresolved in her heart, clearly tormenting her every waking moment. While her anguish was certainly not representative of the Cambodian people we met, it was utterly heartbreaking to witness.  As we left this gruesome base camp, I walked away feeling bruised, wounded and exhausted.  Just listening to her horror felt heavy on my heart and my eyes could finally let go…

Cambodia gained its freedom on January 7 1979 (yes, that recently) and is slowly recovering from the damage caused, both physically and morally.  But despite the fact that these people have been to hell and back, their beautiful faces and dark mysterious eyes are surprisingly filled with so much positivity, kindness and hope. They are welcoming and honest and not for a single second did we feel they were trying to benefit off us tourists despite their dire situations. This further fueled the generosity in us. The country is so cheap, its people expect so little and we tipped liberally and without a second thought. It was the right place to be charitable towards a race that is 90% Buddhist and believes strongly in karma. This philosophy is their very way of life. Do good and you shall such receive. Isn’t this our guiding principle too?

Cambodia is clearly underdeveloped, and despite its recent turbulent history, it is rising up from the ashes slowly but quite nobly. Thanks to Angkor Wat, the country remains a tourist magnet. We visited both Phnom Penh (PP) and Siem Reap (SR). Each very different in its feel and pace of life. PP the capital, a hustling bustle of daily life filled with speedy motorbikes, jostling tuk-tuk’s and enough pollution to choke a cat.  But scratch just a little beneath this superficial poverty-ridden surface and you will discover some beautiful properties and wonderful restaurants to rival an equivalent in any other city.  Cambodia is clearly attracting foreign money as the restaurants vary in cuisine and compete in their cool-factor.

We chose to make the trip from PP to SR by car but you can certainly fly it or even take a boat. It took us about 7 hours with all the stops we made but it’s a 5-hr drive nonstop. I believe the boat takes 6 hours. There was less to experience along the way than we had imagined but it was a chance to see more of the country and to experience true village life away from the city. We stopped by a town called Skuon where there was a big open market… Fruits. Check. Vegetables. Check. Tarantulas. Ants. Crickets. Other atrocities. Check. Check. Check. Check. Yes they do enjoy insects. Deep fried and crunchy. Not all of them, but the villagers without a doubt. It was quite gross to see even though rather intriguing. After dodging multiple offers for creepy crawlies, we ultimately relented to tasting fresh lotus seeds and palm sugar fruit and even bought a container of cashews, apparently a significant produce and export of Cambodia. We then headed north towards Baray, the site for some magnificent Hindu (turned Buddhist) temples that date back to over 1000 years.  They were hidden in the jungle buried beneath mounds of trees and a plethora of insects that devoured me alive. My hubby, as always, emerged unscathed from the evil wrath of the ants and famished mosquitos to whom I was clearly delicious.

In contrast to its capital city, SR is calmer and the pace of life feels slower and somewhat more deliberate. Wide lanes are dotted with massive hotel properties.  The city felt empty to us and, indeed, several tuk-tuk drivers, hungry for business, confirmed it was indeed low season.

Of-course the highlight here is the temples at Angkor. Absolutely breathtaking to experience. You will step back in history mesmerized just trying to imagine how these people lived and how on heavens earth they conceptualized such stunning architecture.  We visited the most significant temple Angkor Wat, where we experienced a breathtaking thunderstorm while suspended 10m high on the upper level. We also visited Ta Prohm (site of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and Bayon in addition to a few smaller structures in the national park.  We visited all of these in one day and felt we did quite well but the avid archeology-lover will easily spend 2-3 days exploring, wandering and losing himself in time.

On our second day in SR, we visited the floating village of Chong Kneas located on the Tonle Sap river.  We also experienced a local dance, which I recommend.  The venue was massive and sadly rather bare.  They offer the dance and a buffet dinner for $12.  Not a bad array of food although I saved my appetite for one of the cooler concepts around town given the show took place quite early.

Cambodia is overwhelming in its history, culture and kindness. It’s raw, developing landscape is like a white board waiting to be filled. Catch it now before its cities are further commercialized by foreign money and before its temples cave in to time. The temples of Angkor and the people I met will forever stay in my heart. This is a beautiful country hungry for attention.CambodiaCambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia Cambodia CambodiaCambodiaCambodiaPhnom Penh (PP)

Recommended hotel: The Plantation

This property was just beautiful.  A hidden gem on a busy road.  It’s architecture is a little bit colonial combined with a little bit modern and is well situated nearby the Royal Palace.  You enter the hotel gates to be welcomed by a square courtyard where a solitary tree stands tall, fanning its shade on the pond beneath it.  Stepping stones punctuate the path towards the water and Chinese fish swim freely. This squarish architecture dominates the hotel design as we later saw with the perfectly rectangular pool surrounded on both sides by square planters.  Beauty in precision.  The staff was wonderful.  Breakfast was excellent, a generous buffet set outdoors overlooking the pool. And our room was quaint and very locally colored with splashes of orange and red. You have a tiny balcony and the hotel boasts a spa…with $27 (!!!) full-body massages that I regret to confirm I did not have the time to get.

Recommended itinerary: This list is certainly not comprehensive but outlines what we did.  We thought two days was the perfect amount of time to discover PP.

  • Royal Palace – a must do for its breathtaking architecture and historic significance
  • National Museum – we found the grounds more beautiful than the inside.  A paradise for lovers of sculpture and buddhist figures
  • The Butterfly – chilled sunset cruises along the Tonle Sap river on an old rice barge.  Eye-opening to see how vast and bare the city appears from the water
  • Central Market – a spacious and impressively neat bazaar of everything that will cross your mind from home appliances to clothes to jewelry!
  • Russian Market – interesting to see and some great souvenir buys although rather dark, stuffy and troublesome for the claustrophobes out there

Recommended restaurants: We LOVE to eat well as evident through the identity of this blog!  Our selection below includes a mix of local flavors and western eats that were well ranked in the city.

  • Romdeng – local Khmer cuisine served in a beautiful French Colonial courtyard villa. Your money goes towards helping kids in need.  They also have a small shop upstairs with some nifty handmade gifts
  • Quitapenas – tapas style French-Spanish cuisine in another lovely villa.  Clean lines, easy vibe, fun in a couple or group
  • Artillery – Greek-inspired white-washed walls and bright blue shutters surround a rough-patched mosaic blue and white wall.  This hippie joint serves up fresh, raw, organic food that rocks!

Siem Reap (SR)

Recommended hotel: Sokhalay Angkor Villa Resort

Have a look at the website first.  Now let me tell you that we paid $50 a night for this.  Can you believe it?  We couldn’t.  We had a beautiful wooden villa overlooking the massive pool. It can get super hot so the pool is a necessary and very welcome solace.  The landscaping in this resort is so beautiful you are surrounded by lush vegetation and trees and the singing of crickets and birds.  Several ponds with lily pads and lotuses dot the space.  A generous continental buffet breakfast was included. This hotel has a spa and offers poolside massages which I got: 15 minutes for $5.  You gotta see it to believe it.  The Sokhalay Angkor has 3 properties including the above.  Make sure you book the right one and not the inn or hotel.

Recommended itinerary: Let’s be clear.  Siem Reap = Angkor temples. Once you’ve had your fill of those, look beyond but not before.

  • Temples at Angkor – the primary reason for visiting Cambodia.  An absolute must-do. $20 for a day pass, $40 for a 3-day pass and $60 for a 7-day pass.  This whole space is now protected by the government so it feels like entering a national park.  You can bike within the grounds.  Many shops will sell trinkets, food and drinks and tuk-tuk drivers as well as cars can enter and drive through the main roads.
  • Cambodian dance – several establishments will offer a dance + buffet dinner combo.  The buffet is rich in variety but ok in terms of quality.  $12 for the combo. Some shows start rather early as ours did at 6.30pm.  I wasn’t hungry at that point so I forgo the dinner. The dance was more like the visual unfolding of several short stories performed by orphaned children of varying ages.  It was full of colorful costumes, eerily enchanting Khmer music and lots of wonderful acts. Very memorable.  Worthwhile just to see, fund and support the children.
  • Floating Villages – there are several floating villages to experience although the most popular is probably the one we visited: Chong Kneas.  It was riveting to see how these people live. It’s about 45 minutes drive by tuk-tuk from Siem Reap. You then stop at the port where you will take a boat towards the floating village. Supermarkets, houses and schools float on the Tonle Sap at no more than 2m height water. Of-course this rises to about 10m following monsoon season. Children splash about, mothers wash clothes and some barges even raise crocodiles and fish on their very own farms. This was creepy but interesting to see!
  • Old Market – a fun labyrinth of shops under a covered but open space. Can get quite hot but they sell everything from spices to fruits to clothes to souvenirs for very little. Bargain away

Recommended restaurants: The variety is broad and there are plenty of excellent places to discover. I couldn’t get enough.

  • Le Malraux – French cuisine.  Beautiful outdoor space that feels like a real escape from the bustling city although situated on a busy road. Very good French food, nothing spectacular. Order the spring rolls. Best ones we ate while there.
  • Viroth’s – EXCELLENT Khmer cuisine.  The best and most value-for-money meal we had during our time there. We went for lunch but dinner could be equally romantic under a moonlit sky surrounded by the trickling water streams in the courtyard
  • The Nest – Essentially Bali in Cambodia. Very laid-back, chilled ambiance under a massive white tent.  We sipped delicious fruit mocktails and ate delicious western fare. I had the best ebi tempura maki I have ever ever had! Dreaming of them still…
  • FCC Angkor – a huge space with a Bali-come-loft feel to it. Given low season, the ground floor which is beautifully dotted with cushy sofas was completely empty so we sat on the terrace level where there were quite a few busy tables. Huge menu with everything under the sun from western to local. Excellent salads, great value. Don’t order the spring rolls, they were over-fried and un-special. This place’s cool-factor is further upped by the fact that it is surrounded by several hip boutique shops selling art, silk and jewelry.  It’s facing the river so it can also make for a lovely laid-back lunch experience.
  • Cafe Central – roomy, airy and lots of natural light. Feels somewhat New York-ish with its brick wall, artsy blackboard calligraphy and fun diner menu. The variety is big and the food not diner-like at all. The salads are the stars here.

General tips:

  • Weather: Plan when to go as monsoon season stretches from end May till September. The rains are heavy and you do not want to ruin your temple visits with continuous torrential rains. Otherwise its very hot and can be rather humid so pack accordingly.
  • Dress Code: Some of the temples require modest wear. Do your homework and go prepared. Because of the ridiculous heat, I wore shorts and a tank all he time but carried very loose-fitting slip-on pants and a short-sleeved shirt that I could layer on top and strip off as needed. This will mainly be the case in the Royal Palace and Angkor Wat temple.
  • Food: even if you are not adventurous you must try the local food.  It is very flavorful and you can find many safe options such as fried rice, beef or chicken stir-fry’s and spring rolls.  The local dish is Amok, a baked fish bathed in coconut milk and cooked with lemon grass.  It is extremely delicious. Please do not eat plain white rice and Mc D’s throughout your trip. This is a sin.
  • Getting Around: tuk-tuk’s are the most convenient way and are cheap. If you are sensitive to pollution or asthmatic, take a cab (harder to find) or buy a surgeon’s mask. Most drivers will ask you if they should wait for you and pick you up again. We did that every time. They are kind, helpful and very loyal. We returned their loyalty and rewarded it generously.
  • Money: we used US dollars throughout our whole stay.  It is accepted everywhere and the locals will actually quote you in US dollars and not the local currency. ATMs can be found everywhere. When shopping, the general rule is that you can bargain especially if in the local markets. My hubby enjoyed this part a lot exercising his negotiation powers almost daily!
  • Guides & Drivers: plan ahead especially if you want to make the trip between PP and SR as we did. Book a driver ahead of time if you want one that speaks English. Guides are important because it’s difficult to appreciate the story behind anything otherwise. We hired one for the Royal Museum and Genocide Museum in PP. Also for the trip between PP and SR as well as for the temple visit.

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