Friday, December 23, 2011

the panda research base in chengdu

the one place i enjoyed most in chengdu is the panda research centre. the centre started in 1987 is located some 10km from downtown chengdu. the best time to visit the place is in the morning, before 11.00 a.m., that is when the pandas are most active because it is also their feeding time.

although you do see a lot of bamboo clumps at the centre, the bamboos are not enough to feed all the pandas. the centre buys bamboos from the villagers who gather them from the forests.

the giant pandas like to climb trees and stay up there after they have had their meal. on some trees you can see as many as 6 or 7 pandas. pandas are actually quite shy animals; if the visitors make too much noise, they will move away from the edge of the enclosure. the panda population at the base has increased from 6 giant pandas rescued from the wild to more than 80 today.

besides the well-loved giant pandas, there are also other animals at the research base, including the red panda. the red panda is much smaller and it looks more like a raccoon than a bear. like the giant panda, it also has a black patch around each eye.

the enclosure that attracts a lot of young visiors is the baby panda station. if you like to cuddle one of these and have your picture taken with it, it will cost you 1000 yuan or around s$200 for the 5-minute experience. however, money cannot buy everything; if the panda is not in the mood, then even your 1000 yuan will not do the trick.

Friday, December 16, 2011

huanglong and jiuzhaogou

anyone who has been to jiuzhaogou - the valley of nine (tibetan) villages - will sure to extol the splendour and beauty of the place. many of my singaporean friends who frequently visit china have been to jiuzhaogou. i had expected to meet someone i know or at least hear these words 'so clean like s'pore' uttered when i was there for the two full days. however, i did not see anyone who looked or who spoke like a singaporean except for the singaporeans in my group.

we had reached our hotel at 4.00 a.m. in the morning as our flight from xianyang was delayed by 12 hours because of the inclement weather. when we landed at jiuzhai huanglong airport, our pre-booked taxi was waiting for us. fortunately, our accommodation was the one nearest to the jiuzhaogou park. when i got up at 6.45 a.m., there was already a queue outside the visitors' centre.

jiuzhaogou is well-known for its multi-tier waterfalls and colourful lakes. the best time to visit jiuzhaoguo is mid october when it is most beautiful but it is also the time when it is most crowded. you must be prepared to tolerate the 'survival instinct' of the local people. there may be more than enough buses to cater to the huge crowds of visitors but the way the local people push to board the bus would give you the impression that 'that was the last bus to heaven'.

i would dare say that the park is better maintained than any in singapore. at any one time, there is an army of cleaners going around picking up litter from the ground and even from the water. the only thing that mars the cleanliness of the place and the water is the sputum from the local visitors.

it is not just the lakes and waterfalls that add to the beauty of the place. the autumn foliage in its various hues also makes the whole place scenic. although the digital cameras are handy and in vogue, you still see quite a number of serious photographers lugging their huge single-reflex lens camera and their telescopic lenses.

those who have done their tour planning will normally take the bus to the 'top', where the long lake is, and make their way down. on the second day, you could start from the primeval forest and cover the other side of the 'y'. for those who like to trek, there is a trail, with extensive boardwalks, that leads all the way from the top to the entrance gate, a distance of some 30km.

most visitors to jiuzhaogou would combine a visit to huanglong. it is a good idea to start with a visit to huanglong because if you have already seen jiuzhaogou, then huanglong is not going to make much of an impact. the attractions are quite similar except that those at huanglong seem less spectacular.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

the terracotta warriors & horses

the terracotta warriors and horses museum of xian is a must see for all visitors to this ancient city, formerly known as chang-an. after lunch on the day of our arrival in xian, we were on a mini-bus on our way to the lintong district to see the spirit army of emperor shi huang ti, the first emperor of china. a huge statue of the emperor greeted us as we arrived at the site.

the museum was built on the excavation site, which consists of 3 pits or vaults, covering an area of 16 300 square metres. when it was first open to the public on 1 oct 1979, the entrance fee was 10 yuan. today, it will cost you 110 yuan to gain admission into the museum premises.

the clay warriors had been buried for more than 2200 years before they were accidentally discovered in march 1974 by some farmers digging for a well. however, well before that other people living in that area had also stumbled upon broken pottery while they were clearing the land or digging wells.

in special glass-cases are the displays of the two miniature bronze chariots. i would not call them miniatures; they were actually scaled-down version of the emperor's personal chariots. the weapons and the adornments of the charioteers were painstakingly reproduced. there were even tiny arrows that could be shot from the functional crossbows.

many people are not aware that not one of the clay figures was found intact when they were unearthed. all the warriors on display at the various pits have undergone reconstruction and restoration. another thing that most people do not know is that the terracotta warriors were not always of that dull colour. once they were very colourful, being painted with laquer of different colours.

what is really remarkable about the terracotta warriors is that they are life-size and they are all unique. each warrior is different from the next; no two warriors look the same though most of them wear the moustache in the same style.

although thousands of warrior figures have been unearthed, very few of them have been taken out of china because they are considered priceless treasure of the nation. when i was in xian viewing the thousands of pieces, there was an exhibition in singapore at the asian civilisations museum featuring a few pieces of the terracotta warriors. i think the first exhibition outside china was held in europe. it was reported that the responses in europe were overwhelming.

only a few visiting heads of state have had the honour and privilege of viewing the famous clay warriors at close range. these few people, including queen elizabeth of england and president clinton of the usa, were taken down to pit one to be up close with the pottery soldiers.

what i find particularly mystifying about the uncovering of these artefacts is that according to some projections, there are more than 8000 of these figures but so far only about 2000 have been unearthed. why have they slowed down the excavation process?

according to some friends i have checked with, the authorities are waiting to acquire the technology to take out the figurines from an area that has been flooded with mercury. it has been reported that toxic mercury vapour is present in the area where the emperor was buried.

like everything else in china, not all the terracotta warriors that you see in china are authentic. there are a number of potteries that make these figurines for sale and they look very much like the ones on display at the museum in lintong.

i have seen terracotta warriors in the compound of a transport company in kranji.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

si sek pai - four-colour card game

your grandmothers or aunties would most probably have played this game. it used to be the favourite pastime of old folks, especially elderly ladies. i hardly see senior citizens playing this card game these days. it is a bit like mahjong and it has some of the characters of chinese chess. however, unlike mahjong, you cannot draw and keep a card; whatever is drawn must be shown to the other players.

a friend just told me that he had seen some aunties playing si sek pai at a void deck in ang mo kio.

i suppose like any card game, there is bound to be some modifications of the rules and there are variations to the game. if you have played gin rummy with different groups of friends, you may most probably have to adjust to the rules laid down by the different groups. with some groups, the first meld thrown down has to be four cards, although generally three cards is the rule. even when it comes to counting deadwood - those cards caught in your hand - when someone else has 'ginned', some count ace as 1 point, some, 10 points and yet others, count it as 20 points.

in si sek pai, the regular group of people would set their own rules to suit their playing style and to suit the circumstances.

in si sek pai, these 3 different characters of the same colour, green in this case, actually form a meld. this is a 3-card meld consisting of the chariot, the horseman and the cannon. a 3-card meld can also be made up of three identical cards, which in mahjong, is called a 'pong'. a meld which is in your hand or which you have drawn yourself is normally worth more than one which is displayed.

another 3-card meld that comprises three different characters is that of the general, adviser and elephant. in si sek pai, the general can form a meld even when it is by itself. this means you can have a one-card meld, something which does not happen in mahjong. in the game of mahjong, the smallest meld is the 2-card or 2-seed which is referred to as the 'eye'.

in si sek, the 4-card meld may be formed by the same character in four different colours or they can be the same character in one colour.

each si sek pack contains 112 cards, 28 of each of the 4 colours - green, white, yellow and red. again, different groups of players play with different number of cards. some play with two packs of cards while others play with one-and-a-half packs of cards. some even have jokers in their pack of cards.

this particular group which i was watching lay down the rule that you can 'game' only when you have a minimum of 20 points for the total of your melds. however, there are other groups which stipulate that 21 points is the least before declaring yourself a winner. why is there this disparity? as with other types of games, there are different ways in which they score and different scores for the same meld.

it would seem that the aunties play this game as a pastime as the stakes were small. even then you could hear arguments now and then and if your luck was bad, you could incur quite a substantial loss, say your one week of marketing money.

Monday, November 28, 2011

food in the muslim quarters of xian

this china trip, covering xian, huanglong, jiuzhaogou, chengdu and beijing, was organised by sun jie who hails from xian and who studied in monash university (for her masters). she had some help from three others who also studied in monash but who have returned to china to work. all the members in the group also belong to the same church in melbourne. my elder daughter and my son-in-law attend this church. i had been on an earlier trip with 3 of the people in this group; in 2010, we successfully climbed mt kinabalu in sabah.

of the 8 of us on this china tour, 3 hold singapore citizenship, 3 malaysian, 1 australian and 1 china citizenship. there is no direct flight to xian from singapore. 6 of us flew china eastern airlines from s'pore to xianyang via yunnan. sun jie had returned to xian earlier and the last member of the group joined us one day later, flying from kuala lumpur to singapore, and thence to yunnan and xianyang.

our 4-star hotel was located within walking distance to the drum and bell towers. it was next to the muslim quarters of xian. we had three of our meals in different eating places within the quarters. if not for the caps and the head-scarves (worn by the women), it is difficult to tell that these people, the huis, are muslims. they speak mandarin and there does not seem to be any social or cultural barriers between them and the majority han chinese. even the 1269 years old great mosque of xian looks chinese in every way. i nearly mistook it for a temple.

for breakfast, instead of macdonalds, we opted to have this stuffed flatbread in one of the muslim eateries. the fried pancakes were stuffed with finely chopped meat, onion and chives. some of us also ate the popular and traditional yang rou pao mo. unlike the dish we had for dinner, this one we did not have to tear the hard bread into tiny pieces. it was already done for us. meat was either beef or mutton. there was chicken but it would seem that most of the chicken in shaanxi were underfed.

our first meal in xian was lunch in a muslim restaurant. one indication that the restaurant was islamic was the arabic words found on the signboard. when these dumplings appeared at our table, i had thought they were xiaolong bao. surely, they could not be as this was an islamic eating place. we found out that the dumplings were filled with either beef or mutton. like xiaolong bao, they were quite juicy. our 'host' ordered 10 trays of the dumplings. we also had cold noodles, kebabs, some vegetable dishes and black and white glutinous rices for dessert.

this is one dish that all visitors to xian should have a go at it. it is the yang rou pao mo (shredded bread soaked in mutton stew). there is a certain procedure to eating this dish. first, each of us was given a large porcelain bowl and a piece of flat round unleavened bread. we had to break or tear our own bread into small pieces so that it could absorb the flavour of the stew. when it was done, we handed the bowls of broken bread to the waiter. when he returned with the bowls of bread in mutton stew, he had to remember which bowl belonged to whom. we all enjoyed the dish.

Friday, August 12, 2011

love never dies - sequel to the phantom

on july 9, we took the train from glen waverley station to the city. we got off at flinders station and walked to collin street to the regent theatre to watch the 2.00 p.m. matinee session of the andrew lloyd webber's musical 'love never dies'. the title reminds me of the very popular mandarin song 'love without end'. although the ticket was supposed to be cheaper, it still cost aud$125.

we had watched the phantom of the opera when it was staged at the kallang theatre in 1995. we were truly impressed by the props, the singing and we enjoyed the songs thoroughly. it cost us - a family of four - $500 in all, the tickets as well as buying the cd and the programme.

kallang theatre, the venue for various events, among which were the two former prime ministers' national day rallies, university of singapore convocation ceremonies and the sing singapore competitions. it was also at this venue where i watched my first musical - les miserables.

regent theatre reminds us of the english theatres where we watched 'miss saigon' and 'beauty and the beast'.

it is inevitable that people will compare the sequel to the first story. although i was not totally disappointed with the sequel, i must say it cannot measure up to the 'phantom of the opera' in terms of story-line and the songs. from the 'phantom', i can remember songs like 'music of the night' and ' all i ask of you'. i did not find any songs from the second musical outstanding even though i have purchased the cd.

it did not play to a full-house. the last time i watched a musical at the same theatre - regent - it was a sold-out performance but at the matinee show, there were a number of empty seats around me. at the end of the performance, there was some semblance of a standing ovation but it was a lukewarm one and it did not really take off.

will i watch it again when it come to singapore? no, not the sequel. although it was visually appealing, it did not captivate my interest as much as the 'phantom of the opera'.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

bicycle's dynamo and ring-lock

i wanted to use this picture (from the national archives of singapore) to show that in the past the lighting for bicycles was generated by a dynamo, usually located near the front wheel of the bicycle.

then the registration plate on the bicycle caught my attention. so, i will talk a bit about the registration of bicycles.

some bicycle owners have recently clamoured for the registration of bicycles to be re-introduced. registration of bicycles in singapore was stopped in 1981. the registry of vehicles (rov) decided to do away with registration because the $5 fee was not enough to cover the adminstrative cost. the main reason given for scrapping the registration was that only 2% of stolen bicycles were recovered.

registration of bicycles in singapore had been done before the war and it resumed after the war. during the japanese occupation, there was also some form of register for bicycle owners. at one time, owners had to renew the licence on a yearly basis, and when the ownership was transferred, a small fee was also charged for the new registration.

(mcs stands for municipal council of singapore)

this bottle dynamo or sidewall dynamo, which was affixed very close to the wheel, usually the front wheel, could be engaged by depressing a lever or catch. when engaged, the roller would be in contact with the tyre.

when the wheel was in motion and the dynamo roller was engaged, electricity was generated as the tyre spun the roller. this would translate into light for the headlight of the bicycle. the faster the wheel spun, the brighter would be the light.

however, even at its brightest, it was not very bright because the voltage was rather low. the bulb tended to blow once in a while, so it was necessary to have replacement bulbs on stand-by.

when engaged, however, there was some resistance, so the rider would have to pedal slightly harder than when the dynamo was disengaged.

this ring-lock used to be a standard item on ordinary bicycles in the past. when the lock was effected, the shaft would come between the spokes of the wheel. it would immobilise the rear wheel to prevent it from being moved. it was not a high security kind of lock as it could be broken or unlocked without the need for great force.

i had thought that these two items - the dynamo and the ring-lock - on the normal bicycle had gone out of fashion until i saw them on several bicycles in sweden.

in singapore, these two items are like antiques. i have not seen them around for a long time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

frog porridge

in my previous posting, i had wondered if i would have attacked frogs the same way that we did the toads. i know i would if the frog came in a clay-pot and there was the porridge to go with it.

i do not think i will ever get to eat frog porridge in melbourne. the westerners - and australia is very much a westernised country - consider frog meat too exotic a dish. if i ever move here, this is one dish i will really miss.

back in singapore, the two better known places for eating frog porridge, as far as i know, are located in geylang. i have eaten at the one stall along lorong 9, opposite the popular beef kway teow shop. another frog porridge stall recommended by some friends is the eminent frog porridge at lorong 19. it seems to me that all the places that sell frog porridge cook the frog in the same way, with more or less the same ingredients.

the frog is invariably cooked kung pao style with ingredients like dried chilli, spring onion and ginger and condiments like dark sauce, oyster sauce and sesame oil. it is always served in the single-handle clay-pot.

the soft and gluey porridge is sold separately. however, the two items are like pod and pea; they always go together. when you eat kung pao frog meat, it has to go with the porridge.

each frog costs $8 and each small pot of porridge costs $2. to make the porridge more flavourful, you have to add the sauce or gravy from the pot of frog meat.

many people say that frog meat tastes like chicken meat. i think frog meat is tenderer, smoother and sweeter than chicken meat.when i crave for frog porridge, i do not head for geylang. instead i go to one of the lorong 9 branches at 567 balestier road. it is in a coffee-shop at the base of the road leading to balestier hill primary school.

Friday, July 29, 2011

toads never had a chance

when we were growing up in the kampong, we did a lot of cruel things which could have landed us in trouble with the law today and which would definitely incur the wrath of animal lovers. many a 'harmful' animals died in our hands and even not harmful ones like dogs and cats were not spared from our merciless acts.

the dogs in the kampong could hardly finish their mating act in peace. whenever they were joined, we would do everything and anything to put them asunder. we hit them with sticks and hurled stones at them. when this did not work, we got hot water and poured it on them, specifically, onto where the genitals were. cats were luckier, they were not abused in the same violent way but when the mother gave birth, sometimes the kindles were abandoned.

rats caught in cages were either scalded alive or drowned in the drain or by submerging the cage in a pail of water. mice were caught with the mouse-trap where they did not usually have a chance to survive. the grown-ups, especially men, ate new-born mice wrapped in preserved mustard (kiam chye). birds were either injured, maimed or killed by stones propelled from a catapult (the malay name for it is lastik) which is featured in this blogpost.

cockcroaches and lizards, which we rarely see nowadays, were all over the place. cockroaches were crushed or slammed with slippers or whatever we could lay our hands on. a lot of people, including grown-up men, were scared of cockroaches but that did not prevent people from trying to exterminate them. lizards were more difficult to catch but when caught, they were often burnt to death. often only their wriggling tails seemed to survive for sometime.

but i think one of the most abhorred creatures was the toad. we were led to believe that the toad was a poisonous animal, so we learnt to hate it like poison. being ugly did not help the toad at all. whenever one was spotted, it would be savagely attacked with stones or sticks as we wanted to keep our distance from the poison. we were actually scared when the toad puffed up because we feared that it would expel its poison.

incidentally, i did not come across a frog, the edible kind, all the years when i was living in a kampong. the first time i saw a frog in the wild happened only recently, about 5 years ago, at a run-off canal at the macritchie reservoir. would we have attacked a frog if we had seen one?

of course, i did not do all those things that i have mentioned. i can count cockroaches, lizards, rats and toads as having died by my hands.

Monday, July 25, 2011

i admit to peeping in the past

in my blogpost on lovers' haunts and peeping toms i mentioned that those guilty of peeping on love-making couples at places like macritchie reservoir park, fort canning park and other popular spots were mostly old men and teenage boys. in that post, nowhere did i give any indication that i was also a voyeur.

i must confess here that when i was in my teens, i was also into peeping, but only occasionally, and when the opportunities presented themselves. i always did it on my own. as the lighting was not very good, i usually did not get a good look at what i was supposed to see. some of the time i had to rely on my imagination to decide what was actually going on.

although it happened nearly half a century ago, i can still show you where i did my peeping and how it was done.

this was the type of machine where i did my peeping. actually, those machines on which i watched some of the black-and-white images were not so sophiscated; they were improvised home-made machines which made use of the same principle.

the operator of the peep-show machine would come around on his bicycle with the machine strapped onto it. if i remember correctly, we had to pay 5 cents to view a filmlet on some cartoon show. of course, there was the more sleazy kind where you could see some images of scantily clad women or even of a naked woman running around.

this peep show machine shown above is called a mutoscope. in some places, they call it the 'what the butler saw' machine. it is a simple form of motion-picture machine in which a series of views, exhibiting the successive phases of a scene, are printed on paper and mounted around the perphery of a wheel. the rotation of the wheel brings them rapidly into sight one after another, and the blended effect gives a semblance of motion.

this type of machine which could have been found in an arcade was coin-operated but the viewer had to turn the handle continuously to watch the show. in the uk, this machine was called 'what the butler saw' because one of the most viewed shows had this title. the show was about a butler peeping through a key-hole to watch a woman undressing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

towing a car with a rope

in the days when roads were not so congested and tow trucks were not in vogue, it was a normal practice to use a length of rope to tow stalled vehicles. it had to be a thick, sturdy rope, at least 3cm in circumference but not too long, about 2m. of course, there were some who thought incorrectly that the longer rope, the safer. the rope had to be secured to the front of the towed car and the rear of the towing car.

it was a tricky manoeuvre for both drivers - the one in the towing car and the other in the car being towed. they both had to maintain a slow and steady speed. the one in the towed car had to be particularly alert. the back car had to brake almost in tandem with the towing car. when taking a bend, they had to go slower and a bit wider than normal. the front car should never brake suddenly. the driver of the front car also had to check his mirrors constantly.

the towing car should preferably be bigger than the car being towed, at least of a bigger capacity. there should be some indication that a car was being towed, like leaving the hazard lights of the towed car on. for safety reasons, the car lights should be switched on when towing at night.

in those days, you could secure the rope to the frame of the car. in some cars, there was a special tow strap for the purpose. today's cars still come with these metal tow eyes, at the front and rear of the car chassis.

to get into the towing position, you had to back the second vehicle up to the car that was being towed. while in motion, the rope should be kept taut.

there had been incidents when the rope snapped and others when the rope came loose.

in the past, i also remember seeing some people using a tow bar - a long, flat metal piece - which was attached to the cars in the same way as the tow rope.

traffic laws are different in different countries. i understand that in the united states, the towed car should be unoccupied while it is being towed. this means that it will be not be possible to use the rope method.

i wonder if it is still legal to use a rope to tow a car in singapore. i have not seen anyone using this method for a long time.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

flooding: past and present

in my younger days, when it flooded, we accepted it as something natural. it was bound to happen, especially during the north-east monsoon season. in fact, we, the children, would all be looking forward for it to happen. during the monsoon season especially, when it poured continuously for at least half an hour, we would be looking out for all the tell-tale signs.

first, the colour of the running water in the drains would change to that of 'kopi susu'. then the low-lying area would start to fill up quickly as the water level could be seen creeping up by the minute. the water from the smaller drains would all be rushing to dump into the big drain that ran through the heart of the kampong.

when the rain had stopped, it seemed like the whole kampong, especially the men folks, would be out in full force to survey the situation. the younger ones would be enjoying themselves splashing water at one another or just wading or trying to swim in the water.

i wonder what youngsters think of when it rains and floods these days. in those bygone days, a flood meant swimming for free. the field, the drain, the road and sometimes the house became a playground, a swimming pool.

and we never thought of blaming anyone for the floods.

these days when it floods, it makes the news. people perceive it as something that is out of the ordinary; something that should not have happened at all. that is why they call it a flash flood.

i think something like a flood, which is a natural occurence, is sometimes beyond the control of us humans.

a flood is no more thought of as fun. i do not see children swimming in the flooded field or even wading in the water.

people start blaming the authorities for not being able to prevent flooding. however, we do have the right to get upset if they build a big dam and tell us that it will help to regulate the flow, thus giving the impression that flooding should be a thing of the past.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

berlin wall, brandenburg & check-point charlie

i will not be blogging about all the shore excursions on the cruise because not all of them have made a lasting impression on me. other than st petersburg, the other stop that has left a lasting impression on me is berlin. some friends would ask: why go all the way to germany to see the wall when we have a section of it in singapore? true, but nothing beats seeing the wall at its original site. we had to travel 3 hours by coach from the port to the city. some took the train. it was worth all the 6 hours of travelling because berlin is not on the popular tourist circuit.

i was actually more excited at seeing brandenburg gate than the remains of the berlin wall. the most famous landmark in berlin was built as a monument to prussian power and it embodied german unity, which it still does. bandenburg gate is today the symbol of the reunification of germany.

the statue, known as quadriga, sits at the top of the gate. during the napoleanic wars in 1806, it was taken to paris as a war trophy. however, in 1814, the prussian army managed to wrest it back from the french.

another reminder of world war ii and the divided germany is check-point charlie. what you see today - which is a tourist draw - is a replica of the american guardhouse. the original check-point charlie was removed on june 22 1990. it is now housed in the allied museum.

the main function of check-point charlie was to register and inform members of the western forces before entering east berlin.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

lovers' haunts and peeping toms

some blogger friends were reminiscing their courting days and they went on to name the lovers' haunts that they frequented. i have come up with a list of the places favoured by lovers in the past. actually, any place that is dark, quiet and secluded can be a lovers' choice. however, if a place is too secluded, you run the risk of being robbed or harmed.

most of the old timers mentioned macritchie reservoir park, king george v park, queen elizabeth walk (also referred to as the esplanade), katong park, changi beach and botanic gardens as their 'pak tor' places.

the other popular spots - some of which are still popular - included mt faber, fort canning park, lower peirce reservoir, upper seletar reservoir, marine parade, bedok and kallang park. some not so well known haunts were grace park and woodleigh park. a few, like east coast park, upper tanah merah and west coast park came onto the scene in the 80s.

i must state that i was never a 'pak tor king'. so, do not have the idea that i have been to all these places for any tight or steamy encounters. nevertheless, i hope the mention of certain places will evoke wonderful memories for some people.

in those days, while the lovers were deeply engaged in their love-making, there would be interested people lurking and prowling in the bushes. these people chose to refer to what they were doing as 'catching monkeys'. i sometimes wondered who the monkeys were. were the victims or the culprits, the monkeys? i suppose by saying that they were 'catching monkeys', they were trying to get acceptance for what they were doing, which was actually intruding into the privacy of the couples.

these 'uncover' voyeurs did not just work under the cover of darkness. as long as there were couples engaged in intimate activities, they would be around. although most couples wait to do their things at night, there were some who could not wait for the sun to set. so, this gave the peeping toms a chance to catch some actions in the day.

these peeping toms operated either alone or in a small group. to avoid detection, they would wear dark, usually black, clothing and they would move silently in the woods, hiding behind trees and crawling on the ground. regardless of whether alone or with accomplices, these 'pests' (as the lovers called them) were quite a cooperative lot.

if one of them came across some couples in compromising positions or when heavy actions were going on, he would signal or gesture to his fellow voyeurs to direct them to where the shows were taking place. some unsuspecting couples might not be aware of the kind of attention they were all getting.

generally, the peeping toms were either middle-age men or teenagers. some of the older men were married. among the younger ones, the teenagers, there were some who had girlfriends. i suspect they were not only doing it for just the excitement but also to pick up some tips (on lovemaking).

chun see, one of my blogger friends, talked about his experiences at macritchie reservoir park. no, he did not go there to catch monkeys; he went there to catch spiders.

does it mean that there is no more such 'catch monkey' activities these days? so long as there is 'monkey business' in the parks, there are bound to be 'monkey catchers'. but the number of people engaged in such spying activities is nowhere compared to that in the past.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

the high-point of our cruise

the high-point of our cruise shore excursions has to be the visit to st petersburg in russia. we not only spent two days in this wonderful city, we also had a great local guide in victoria. a russian, educated in the united states. she was not only knowledgeable but also a very dedicated and responsible guide.

before the cruise, i had heard about st petersburg from a friend who has gone on more than 10 fly-cruises. he had painted a glorious picture of the place and i must say i have not been disappointed.

st petersburg, the cultural heart of modern day russia, was renamed petrograd in 1904. from 1924 to 1991, it was known by the name leningrad. the city, built on swampland, was founded by the russian tsar peter the great.

at the hermitage - the largest art museum in the world - we had time only for the highlights of the highlights. if you plan to spend time viewing each and every object in the hermitage, you will need a number of years to complete the task. even for those wonderful art pieces, we managed to see only some of the works done by the world's greats like rembrandt, leonardo da vinci and caravaggio.

the russians are mainly orthodox christians and the domes of their churches are usually in the shape of an onion. you can afford to miss all the other churches but not this one - the church of our saviour on the spilled blood. the church was built on the spot where emperor alexander ii was assassinated in 1881. it is claimed that this church uses more mosaics than any other church in the world.

in the words of our tour guide: if you think the exterior is beautiful, wait till you see the inside. that increased our anticipation. however, although we find the interior breathtaking, many of us prefer the stunning outside view.

another must visit place in st petersburg is catherine palace. this palace was not built by catherine the great. it was actually named after catherine i, the wife of peter the great. our tour guide mentioned that the russians wasted a lot of gold. after our visit to peterhof and to this palace, we were inclined to agree. about 100kg of gold was used to decorate the exterior of this palace during the reign of elizabeth (catherine's daughter).

this place, peterhof, was literally glittering and glistening in gold, the metal. the buildings and the many statues in the park were plastered with gold. we had taken the hovercraft on the neva river to get to peterhof, which is located just outside st petersburg. most tourists arrive there in time, just before 11 a.m., to witness the spectacular fountain display, especially that of the grand cascade.

peterhof is well-known not just for its gardens and parks but also for its wide variety of fountains. apart from the grand cascade, there are others like the samson fountain and the chessboard cascade. there is even a trick fountain; many an unsuspecting visitor have been sprayed with jets of water when they stepped on a certain stone along a foot path. we were told by our guide that no mechanical pump was used to operate any of the fountains in peterhof.

another place of visit you should not miss when you are in st petersburg is the peter and paul fortress. inside the cathedral are the royal tombs of all the russian tsars from peter the great to nicholas ii.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

from copenhagen to malmo

in between our baby-sitting duties in melbourne - to take care of our first grandchild - we joined a fly-cruise to the baltic region. we had booked this trip to scandinavia a year before with a travel agency in kuching, sarawak. the final group comprised 29 from kuching, 6 from perth, 3 from miri, 2 from singapore and 1 from sydney.

from our respective departing points, we all rendezvoused in bangkok. it was an 11-hour flight from bangkok to copenhagen, where we would embark on our 11-day cruise. however, we did not spend our first night in copenhagen. instead, we crossed the oresund bridge, that links denmark to sweden, to malmo, the third largest city in sweden.

the 7845m oresund bridge, opened in july 2000, is the longest road and rail bridge in europe. there are toll booths but we did not have to get down from the coach for any customs or immigration clearance. in fact, during the entire trip, the only place where we had to carry our passport and have it stamped was in st petersburg, in russia.

in malmo, we stayed at the master johan hotel, right in the heart of the old town. the stone-cobbled streets and the many bicycles would be our constant reminders that we were in a scandinavian country. the cobbled streets inconvenienced those who are wheel-chair bound; there were three in our group and they found it bumpy, uncomfortable and tiring trying to navigate the uneven surface. i also saw some gadgets found on the bicycles in malmo, like the dynamo and the push lock, which have not been seen in singapore for quite sometime.

as is my practice, whenever i visit a foreign country, i wake up very early to explore the place when most of the locals (as well as visitors) are still in bed. as it was a sunday morning, there was hardly any traffic or people on the road. the central train station, which i had visited the day before, was closed. however, the hundreds of bicycles parked outside the station were still there.

i walked until i reached this church before making my way back to the hotel. i found out that this church - st petri kyrka or st peter's church - is the oldest building in the city. it was built in the 14th century.

our hotel, for which we were quite pleased with the service - there was free flow of coffee and internet connection was also free - was about 200 metre from this square known as the lilla torg. it seemed like a fun place. in the evenings, lots of locals visit the restaurants and cafes in this area. the old buildings were mostly built between 1600 and 1800. it was interesting to see the local people riding their bicycles to wine and dine at the sqaure. although most of them were casually dressed, some ladies came togged in dresses and high-heel shoes and some of the men were in business suits.