Bhutan: The Campsite Dinner

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We were driving towards the Queen’s Monastery in Punakha one morning when we got to know 3 Chinese girls on the road.

Literally. 

They were doing a 10km (I think) cycling trip that morning and were cycling in the opposite direction from us when our guides stopped the car to greet their guide (who owns the local travel agency that we had signed up with). 

They went: “Oh, aren’t you guys the Singaporean couple who are supposed to go whitewater rafting with us this afternoon…?

Yeah.  We chickened out in the end.  (I am hydrophobic, remember?)

So we got out of the car, introduced ourselves and started yakking with them in the middle of the road.  All three live in Hong Kong and two of them are Americans. 

And they invited us to their campsite for dinner that evening.  Which we happily accepted.  I think I last sat before a campfire when I was 17 years old. 

In Punakha, they were putting up at a campsite that looked so cool.  Each tent is spacious, clean and had a huge bed.  The atmosphere was quite romantic.

Another American couple from Idaho joined us for dinner.  They were in Bhutan for work – the husband is involved in designing and developing chalet-type bungalows on a small plot of land near the campsite and they brought us to see the prototype bungalow.  (It is gorgeous and we want to stay there when it is ready!)  This couple is now probably in their 60s, have 7 grown children, 9 grandchildren; look nothing their age and carry backpacks around.

We had a great time at dinner, enjoying the food and the conversations at the table very much.  I can’t remember when was the last time I had such a good time talking to strangers.  Which we will probably never meet again, unless someone passes by Singapore and decides to drop us an email to meet up.

(I have been debating with myself as to whether I should put up a blurry but really nice photo of us taken during the dinner….)

Just today, one of the girls sent me an email to give me the links to the two Flickr albums containing her Bhutan photos.  I drooled.

Oh my…  Her photographs are beautiful! She captured so much more of the place which I could not, did not.  And the pictures of their activities made me wish I had joined them. 

Damn, I should have gone whitewater rafting.  The river doesn’t look so scary in the photos.

And why didn’t I experience riding a mule?  Instead, I went trekking…and nearly keeled over.  Life always looks better on the other side of the pasture.

I love her album which contains gorgeous photographs of the Bhutanese, young and old.

Hainan: Hainanese And Their Chicken Rice

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Wenchang chicken rice.

I haven’t figured out whether Hainanese chicken rice is a Singapore invention or whether it originated from Wenchang, Hainan Island. (Wenchang is the city where my grandfather was born in.)

My grandparents say it is the former.

Whatever is the case, I definitely prefer our Singapore version as the chicken meat is more tender and flavourful.

I have a sudden craving for my grandmother’s home-made chicken rice balls.  I love eating chicken rice balls dipped in chilli sauce (also home-made). 

One bite of the rice ball, followed by a bite of chicken.  Plus other fixings like cabbage soup and chap chye.

Hainan: Touching On Family Roots

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Sanya (三亚), Hainan Island.

I have never really thought about visiting the place where my maternal grandparents were born, and whose Hainanese blood runs amok in my veins. 

Expiring annual leave and a Jetstar voucher gave me the opportunity to visit this tropical island which is often referred to as the ‘Hawaii of China’ with a colleague who is Hainanese. (I am actually Hokkien….in form.)

We went down to the southern tip of the island known as Sanya and spent two days doing nothing. 

Drinking tea.  Enjoying sandy beaches, pristine waters, nice weather, fresh air (are we really in China..?!). And COCONUT TREES.  SO MANY OF THEM.  Everywhere.

It was a little odd at first hearing the Hainanese dialect – albeit slight variations of the dialect that we speak at home – almost everywhere when the dialect is rarely heard in public in Singapore.  I kept wondering if I should also converse with the locals using the dialect. 

I think my “bullet-train” speech patterns found its roots in the Hainanese dialect which I picked up from living with my maternal grandparents for many years.

We ‘talk very fast’ and at higher-than-the-usual decibels.  So we sound like we are engaged in shouting matches with each other when we are merely having a civilised conversation. 

TBH (who grew up in a soft-spoken environment) gets un-nerved by our family conversations because we make such a DIN.  And my friends, alarmed by the decibel-level, used to tell me to “stop shouting at your mother”! 

For goodness sakes, no one is shouting.  We are just animated folks.

Whenever squabbles broke out at home (involving gramps, mom and me), my dad would immediately put on his headphones and turn up the volume on the CD player.  Neighbours would, at some point, turn up at our doorstep to see what the ruckus was all about.  Oh, so embarrassing.

The next trip to Hainan Island, I will visit the villages where my grandparents came from.  But I think I will have to leave the ‘mister’ at home.  Doubt he will survive being Hainanese-d.

Bhutan: The Gho & The Kira

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Ha! Guess what was it about these two guys (or maybe it’s just one of them) that fascinated me?

The national dress was introduced during the 17th century by the unifier of Bhutan to give the Bhutanese a unique identity.  The men wear the gho and for the women, the kira.

Men in skirts! The gho is a long robe hoisted to the knee and held in place with a kera, a woven cloth belt, wound tightly around the waist. The working men complete the outfit with knee-length socks and dark-coloured, leather shoes. Some of the men look really stylish wearing a ponytail (like our guide). I saw so many ruggedly good-looking men!

The kira is a floor-length rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around the body over a blouse. The kira is held from the shoulders by broach-like hooks and is fastened at the waist with a kera. The dress is complete with a short, open jacket-like garment.

As part of the national efforts to preserve and promote the kingdom’s cultural heritage, all Bhutanese are required to wear the national dress in government offices, schools and on formal occasions.

The impact of modernisation is slowly, but surely, creeping into Bhutan. We came across quite a number of youths wearing modern clothes, such as jeans, tee-shirts, leather jackets and sneakers.

For some reason, I didn’t take many photos of the Bhutanese women – maybe just one or two. Too busy gawking at the men, I think!

When The Bacon Turns Bad

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…..and the fridge has only tomatoes, celery and nothing else (not even eggs)….! 

Looking at the plate set before him, TBH mutters that he is reminded of cattle grazing in Bhutan, eating nothing but grass and hay.  (I am quite sure pasta isn’t part of the cattle’s diet.)

I am happy to go without meat once in a while.  And I like celery.

Break-fasting

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My idea of a perfect breakfast is a glass of freshly squeezed juice, a plate of fresh fruit with yoghurt, a bowl of muesli or cereal with milk, a pot of coffee and a stack of blueberry pancakes with butter and honey (I don’t really like maple syrup). 

Or.

A plate of beehoon with a fried egg, a slice of luncheon meat, a pile of cabbage, lots of sambal chilli and a cup of teh

Over the weekend, we drove all the way to Holland Village to eat this very delicious beehoon at the food centre.  The stall (#01-11) is immensely popular and there is always a queue.  Our friends introduced us to it last year and we have been back several times since.

I like the beehoon,  it seems to be thinner than the usual ones, very tasty and doesn’t come glistening with oil.  The fried fish slices and fried chicken wings are very popular.  Unfortunately, the wings went temporarily-out-of-stock just when it was our turn to order.  Sad.

If blimping is an option, I will have beehoon for breakfast every morning, Monday to Friday. Unfortunately not.  In any case, there are no good stalls selling beehoon around my workplace.

Lovin’ Them Pine Cones

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I wasn’t sure if I could bring these coniferous things out of Bhutan.

As pine cones can be seen lying on the ground nearly everywhere in Bhutan, I figured I wasn’t committing an illegal act by bringing some of these lovelies home.  Our guide also didn’t think it would be an issue as long as I did not try to cart home a truckload of pine cones.  But I could almost hear the ‘idiotic tourist’ refrain going on and on in the minds of the hotel staff who gave me a paperbag to store these pine cones.

I just could not resist picking them everywhere I went (but one has to be mindful of cattle manure when picking pine cones or any dried flora/fruits, etc out in the open). 

If I was left to my own devices, I would have brought back dozens and dozens of pine cones.  But under the watchful eye of the irritated-by-my-pine-cone-picking husband, I could only bring back a small stash. 

I was quite worried that they wouldn’t survive the plane ride.  Well, some of the small cones (spruce cones, I think) didn’t quite make it.

Aren’t they pretty with their “woody-ness” and “alternating fish scales” design?  (I don’t know what is the right word to describe this part of the cone.) 

Especially the squat and fat-looking red pine cones. Each ‘scale’ is thicker and the surface smoother compared to the long and thin blue pine cones.

When I First Heard Of Bhutan

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Paro Airport

I was 16 going on 17 (yeah, so tacky-sounding) – and about to embark on the best two years of my life – when I first heard of Bhutan.   From my first-year civic tutor in college who also taught Geography.   

A dynamic and tough lady.  We were all a little frightened of her.  But mostly, in awe of her.  She gave us a glimpse into what life was like studying outside Singapore and inspired us to seek more in our lives besides academic excellence. 

Ah, I really liked the tutors and lecturers in the Arts faculty – they were such fun people to be learning from.  I did Arts for 3 months by which time it became pretty apparent to me that if I wanted to pass my A-Levels and go to university, I had better go back to studying Science.  Stodgy Science.

Our tutor hung out with us often.  Besides telling us stories about varsity life overseas (rowing, partying, mugging, weekend trips to Europe and so on and so forth), she used to talk to us about this beautiful and mystical Buddhist kingdom located ‘very high up in the world’ but closed to the world, called Bhutan, triggering fantasies of mountains, valleys and rivers.

It all sounded so exciting to me then, having never been out of Singapore except to Malaysia.  I told myself that if Bhutan opens up to tourism someday, I want to go visit the country. 

(Our tutor eventually gave up teaching to go into something completely different, like banking.)

There are too many places and wonders in this world that I want to see.  And I forgot all about Bhutan.  Until I was introduced to this travel company called Country Holidays in the middle of last year, saw travel itineraries of Bhutan on their website, rang them up to make some inquiries and learnt that the kingdom is not terribly far away from home, approximately 5 hours by air (excluding waiting time). 

So we bought a customised 10-day package to Bhutan with Country Holidays, to go in April this year. 

As there are no direct flights to Bhutan from Singapore, we had to fly to Paro via Bangkok (other entry points are Kathmandu and several Indian cities).  The flight leaves Bangkok at an unearthly hour (650am, Bangkok time) so we had to fly into Bangkok the night before and stay the night at Bangkok’s airport hotel. 

Flights into and out of Bhutan are solely operated by Bhutan’s national carrier, DrukAir. The airline owns only two planes (the Airbus 319) so the number of visitors entering and leaving the country daily is limited by plane capacity. 

Currently, there is only one flight leaving Bangkok for Paro and vice versa daily.  Direct flights to and from Bangkok are available 2 to 3 days a week, which unfortunately, were not our travelling days and we had to make transits.  On our way into Paro, the plane stopped by in Dhaka for approximately 45 minutes and on our way out of Paro, it stopped in West Bengal for about the same period of time. 

The plane’s descent into Paro airport offered us some really gorgeous views of Bhutan’s beautiful mountains and rugged landscape.  It was rather cloudy and foggy that day, but we could still make out the peaks of the snow-capped mountains in the far distance.

Macarons From Dalloyau

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A lovely box of Dalloyau macarons from C who bought me this in Tokyo.  And the macarons come individually wrapped!

With a 200 year (or is it 400…?) history, Dalloyau is one of France’s oldest and most respected maison de gastronomie and they created the infamous Opera cake (or Gâteau L’opéra ).  I read that the cake was named as a tribute to an Opera prima ballerina. 

I love the Opera cake which comprises several layers of Joconde biscuit soaked in coffee syrup and garnished with coffee butter cream and chocolate ganache. 

I remember Illy making the cake last year at my place – it was ALOT of work making the cake but the end-product was delicious!  I can actually say that I helped to assemble the Gâteau L’opéra (which is being the go-fetch girl for the patissier)!

I doubt I will have a chance to try Dalloyau’s Opera cake anytime soon, so my best bet is to head to Hilton Hotel for a slice.

Candlenut Kitchen

I haven’t yet regained my appetite from the strenuous trek in Bhutan and my tastebuds seem to have gone haywire after eating too many fiery Bhutanese meals. 

I was craving for some appetite-stimulating food since the start of the day.  Kimchi stew for lunch or Peranakan food for dinner.

As I had to visit the orthodontist over lunch, the choice was abundantly clear.  Pig out on Peranakan food during dinner (since eating Korean food makes TBH sulk). 

I have been wanting to visit this new Peranakan restaurant called Candlenut Kitchen at 25 Neil Road.  A couple of blogs I frequent raved about the restaurant’s fabulously authentic food as well as the rather young co-owner and chef behind it.  An SMU-graduate, he enrolled in the Sunrice Academy, graduated with flying colours, and set up this restaurant.

I love Peranakan food.  So, try I must.

Located in one of the shophouses along Neil Road (with an open carpark just across the road), Candlenut Kitchen is a casual dining place which seats approximately 50 persons.   We ordered the itek tim, ayam buah keluak, chap-chye and ngor hiang.  I would have liked to order more, such as the kueh pie-ti, but there were only two of us, and we didn’t want to over-order.

I am no Peranakan food connoisseur but I thought all the dishes which we ordered were very good.  Especially the itek tim.  The soup was robust and had a good balance of sourness and saltiness.  For some reason which we didn’t bother to find out, my bowl of soup came half-filled, leaving me feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

While the food is very tasty, the service was quite lacking.  The serving staff is a pretty young bunch who are clearly untrained.  Yes, they are bright, smiley and very eager to please but still, fell very short of the basic level of service expected.  They should be sent to a Cantonese restaurant like Lei Garden or Imperial Treasures to be trained under those hawk-eyed waitresses.

Alright.  The restaurant made an effort to serve us all our food at the same time, piping hot. (something that many Western, charge-you-an-arm-and-a-leg restaurants are unable to do.)  Kudos!

But the serving staff forgot to bring us our rice. 

We twiddled our thumbs, salivated at the food set before us, and waited.  Nothing happened.

We then realised that the serving staff had decided that it was more important to dry the wine glasses and serve wine at another table than to give us our rice.  We were left in the lurch!  Waving madly for a while, someone else finally took notice of us and two plates of rice eventually made their way to our table (with profuse apologies).

Also, I wasn’t quite sure how I was expected to scoop the yummy buah keluak stuffing from the nuts as we were not provided with any suitable cutlery to do so.  (Maybe they didn’t expect us to actually eat the stuffing…? Are they insane? Well, finicky TBH doesn’t eat the stuffing but I worship it!)

So we asked for a small spoon.  They gave us a teaspoon which unfortunately was still too big to fit into the opening of the nuts so I ended up using the handle of the teaspoon to scoop the stuff from the nuts.  (The staff apologized profusely for the inconvenience caused, tried to look for something else to give us, and ended up giving us a two-prong fork.)

We were also a little taken aback when the service staff expressed surprise that we asked for sweet sauce to go with the ngor hiang.  (Would they have been less surprised if we had asked for tomato ketchup and chilli sauce?  Sigh, I just cannot understand Gen Y, or is it Gen Z?)

I want to visit Candlenut Kitchen again, and I hope they have ironed out the kinks in their service by then.

Also, have to ask my Peranakan friends to give this place a try to ascertain if the food is truly authentic.

Back From Bhutan: Back To The Basic

Ha Ha.  Bee is back.

Within minutes of arriving home from the airport (at 1am), I logged onto Youtube to watch Rain’s latest live performances of two songs from his latest album Back To The Basic. 

It has been a long while since I oooohed and aaaahed over him.  So I couldn’t wait to hear his new songs, although the titles of the songs seem to be rather lacking in the creative department (‘Love Song’, ‘Hip Song’, ‘Same’, ‘One’ *YAWN*)

I couldn’t resist watching the newly released music video of the title track, Love Song, while in Bhutan but without the benefit of hearing the song as there were no speakers attached to the computers in the places we stayed at.  I was aghast at how bad the music video is!  The acting is a lethal combination of what you see in a karaoke music video and a Taiwanese soap. 

But the live performances should be waaaay better since there are none of the cheesy acting bits.

Love Song:

Source: CloudVST

I like the melody of this song and the sweet, mellow huskiness of his voice.  But the BLINKING eyelashes are bloody awful and a distraction.  They are like a thorn in my eye!

I don’t even think he looks like a freak (he calls this look ‘androgynous’…?!) wearing those blinkers now, but more like a clown – you know, the long, flappy eyelashes painted onto the faces of a real clown?  All he needs is a red wig and a bunch of balloons.

The choreography makes me very happy although I could do without the heart-pounding part. His splendid, groovy dancing rights all wrongs (eeewwww, *blush*).  Love, love, LOVE this performance!

Mmmm, I dig those pants!  And his thunder thighs are no more.  But why are there so many pieces of clothing under the gladiator-looking top? Are we playing strip poker here? 

TAKE THEM ALL OFF, BOY. 

Then again, I thought the way he pulled the tank over his head but without taking it off rather clever.

Hip Song:

Source: CloudVST

Not hip at all; unless ‘hip’ refers to the constant gyration of that part of his anatomy. 

I don’t fancy either the song or the choreography – both music and dance seem to be going nowhere for me.  The song is like a disco track gone wrong and as for the dance, all I see is him hopping around like a grasshopper.   Very stylish and captivating hopping though.

But I like the outfit.  He looks super-good in it.  Sans the phallic pouch-thing on his groin!  *groans* What in the world is that?

On balance, I think he does look better fully clothed.  The right kind of clothes I mean.

Next thing to do, listen to the rest of the songs.  But this will have to wait till I have had a shower, gotten some sleep and unpacked my luggage.

Logging In From Punakha

I was intending to stay Internet free during my stay in Bhutan. 

But what was I thinking? 

Here I am, checking Facebook and my email account in Punakha, reading the blogs that I visit daily and yes, blogging away at the Internet room in our hotel (more like a dormitory I would say).

The weather, scenery and people here are lovely.

Okay, time to go trekking now.  And where is our guide….??

In The Land Of The Thunder Dragon

We left for Bangkok last evening, stayed one night at the airport hotel and flew into Bhutan very early this morning. 

We will spend the next 8 days in Bhutan.  Away from the urban jungle and my tiresome Blackberry. 

I hope we don’t get serious altitude sickness as we make our way up to some dizzying heights above sea-level to see the famed Tiger’s Nest.  Will be swallowing pills ahead of the climb! 

Crossing fingers.

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Whoops! The current (and still single) Bhutan King (King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) is quite good-looking.

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