January 16, Thursday, Singapore – San Francisco

Home, James.

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January 15, 2020, Wednesday, Singapore

This is our last day in Singapore before returning home.  The time has flown and even now we must be reminded of some of the details from the first days of our trip.

Continuing with our fair weather trend, this is a day of exploration in the city.  On foot, we make our way to Orchard Road, a premier shopping district of large, new malls hawking expensive goods. We make a large contribution to Starbucks before tackling the steamy walk down the concourse.  

We wander over to Canning Park for a drone trial and then on to a Mexican themed lunch along the Riverwalk.  Following a short cool off at our hotel we set off again for the cricket fields for a bit more droning. As we are in the neighborhood, we pop in at Raffles for a refreshing Singapore sling, the signature drink for this famous establishment. Bet you can’t have just one!

Our dinner adventure is a 20 min cab ride into the burbs and located in a commercial building. After passing the building the first time, we emerge from the cab with reasonable doubt about the validity of our choice.  The lobby is dim with only a security guard positioned at a desk and no other visible  people.   Directed to a floor below, we arrive at Table at 7. The room can probably seat 35-40 and is completely set up for dinner. We are the first to arrive and its 8 pm.  We can select our table but we are told that basically there is only one table available. Hmmm.

The restaurant showcases the two chefs: Karl Dobler and Eugenia Ong by offering a menu supporting both European and Asian dishes. We were able to mix-and-match specialties and had a great meal. It was a pleasure to speak with the chefs and learn that they have an extensive catering business and recently moved to this location from the inner city. And we had no trouble calling a cab for the return trip.

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January 14, 2020, Tuesday, Singapore

We set out this morning with a guide for a reintroduction to Singapore. Since we spent the previous day exploring on foot, it was a good contrast to reorient ourselves by car. Because it was still early in the morning, we were faced with establishing our route to avoid excess tolls from Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), the scheme implemented by the government to reduce congestion in peak traffic hours.

With nearly 5 million people (Chinese (76%), Malays (15%) and Indians (7.4%) , Chinese Singaporeans make up the majority of the population. The proliferation of high-end residential dwellings not only supports its residents but also is attractive to over 1.5 million non-residents – a hefty 30% of occasional dwellers. This multi-racial, multi cultural dense state (a democratic meritocracy) prides itself on respect and tolerance for religion (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism), language (Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, English/Singlish), as well as its cultural differences.

We arrive in Little India where we walk through the open-air markets of flowers, vegetables, and spices. It isn’t long before we realize that this area is really gearing up for night events with colored lights, ethnic dishes of curry, dancing and drinking. A Pongal Heritage Carnival (Hindu festival for Indian Tamils) attracts school children and us to view cows – a rarity in the city. The artwork on the adjacent Singapore Club wall is amazing.

We move on to the Kampong Glam district which hosts the Malay Heritage Centre, a refurbished Malay palace, that was reopened in 2005 showcasing Malay heritage, culture and history. The grounds offered a botanical view of Singapore’s native plants.

Also in the district is the Sultan Mosque, originally built in 1824 with the financial assistance of Sir Raffles, Singapore’s founder. The building we visit today was redesigned and rebuilt in 1932. The gold domes are ringed by glass bottle bottoms gifted by the local Muslim community. Wearing our temple clothes, we visit the large interior space. However the mosque is ready for visitors and has plenty of robes and clothing for anyone in need of respectful attire.

We move from the mosque to Chinatown, the site of the Buddhist Temple and Museum of the Relic Tooth. Unlike most religious buildings we visit, this one was opened in 2007 following a S$62 million plus construction cost and displaying a Northern Chinese Tang Dynasty style. Similar to our experience in Kandy, the temple is said to house the tooth relic of the Buddha. It was said to have been found in 1980 in a collapsed stupa site in Myanmar. The building enjoys modern aspects of an elevator, underground parking (built following the above ground structure), electric lighting, a roof top garden with a prayer wheel, and a beautifully designed museum. The embroidered canvases are exquisite and the gold/red interior is impressive of the thought and money in the temple.

It is close to lunch time so we walk down to the Maxwell Hawker Food Center (you may recall from Crazy Rich Asians). Here tourists and locals including nearby office workers crowd in to order and eat the best of the city’s local foods: steamed chicken and rice, fresh fish soup, dim sum, veggies/noodles/eggs, etc. The surprising low cost, high quality is complemented by the efficiency of all the food stalls, clean up crews, and attentiveness to cleanliness.

Doubling back on our walk in Chinatown, we pass the Sri Mariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in the city, built in 1827 for the goddess’s attention to healing diseases. We detour a bit next to enjoy the wall murals of Yip Yew Chong, street artist extraordinaire. The Chinatown Complex offers a large assortment of hawker stalls upstairs and an complete wet market in the basement. Fish, sea food, frogs, eel, meat, in all stages, are on display or being prepared for sale.

Across town, we return to the Gardens by the Bay. Unfortunately the Flower Dome is closed. So we leisurely go to the top of the Cloud Forest and meander down viewing each level of exhibits. The cool misty environment is a big draw for escaping the daily Singaporean humidity.

We elected to have a traditional seafood dinner within walking distance of our hotel: Red House Seafood at Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel. Upon arriving in the 2nd floor dining “hall”, we were quickly shown to a table in the corner where we could observe that we were the only non-residents. The vibe was more like a traditional Chinese managers restaurant where workers came after work to eat and socialize with their bosses and co-workers – equivalent to the expense account dinner. Whatever the restaurant lacked in ambiance, cozy seating, low lights, it made up for it in great food and attentive service.

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January 13, 2020, Monday, Singapore

Arriving at Changi Airport on our overnight flight from Colombo, we are met with our driver and taken to the Warehouse Hotel for early morning check-in. Our river view suite on Robertson Quay is quite comfortable and convenient for walking into the heart of the city.

The hotel has its own back story. It was originally 3 warehouses build in late 19th Century along the Singapore River. Including other river side warehouses, they were used to store spices and other trade goods until 1895 when the opium dens took over. A distillery for homemade whiskey shared space. From 1951 and the 1980s, the river warehouses were mainly used to store produce, from spices, rice and coffee, to materials like rubber and tin. Thereafter, the space became Disco Warehouse home for some wild rave parties until 1996. At that time, the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority rezoned the area for hotel, commercial and residential uses. A local hospitality group acquired the buildings, hired a talented group of designers with a vision toward restoration and trend setting, and turned the buildings into a 37 room boutique hotel, a full service restaurant and a swimming tank – opening 2017.

In the spirit of not wasting a day, we forgo sleep and take off on foot. Wandering along the river walkway, we first encounter the Alkaff Bridge across the Singapore River displaying its multi-color design painted by the Filipino artist Pacita Abad in 2004. We continue walking through Clark Quay and River Quay to the mouth of the river noting the residential buildings, restaurants, and galleries all along the way.

At the River Quay, we view the Parliament Building, Raffles Landing, Asian Civilizations Museum, Victory Theater and the famous Fullerton Hotel. We enjoy the preparations and decorations for the upcoming Chinese New Year. Our walk continues along the Esplanade by the Bay, Float by Marina Grandstand, across the Helix Bridge and then along the waterfront where we enjoy views of the city including the Merlin, the white sculpture of half fish/half lion streaming water.

We explore the Sands complex with its gardens, hotel, shopping, casino integrated in three towers clasped together by the crowning observation deck and hotel infinity pool. The observation deck provided awesome views of the city and the harbor. There was some chaos in the movement of hotel guests trying to register or check out in the sea of visitors wandering through the lobbies.

As a treat, we took a bumboat back to Robertson Quay, or close enough. It is a nice perspective to see the city from the water.

One of the amenities of the Warehouse Hotel is the outdoor pool. In all aspects, swimming in it is like experiencing a fish bowl. Three sides of the pool are plexi-glass, one opens on to the river and another is the visual attraction for all the car traffic at the stop light on the road below. Ignoring the public display, it is a delightful space for relaxing and unwinding from a hard day of touristing.

For dinner, we had cocktails at a bar along the riverfront and an Italian dinner at Lucca’s Trattoria at Robertson Walk.

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January 12, 2020, Sunday, Ceylon Tea Trails, Hatton – Colombo, Sri Lanka

Following breakfast, we are facing a good 4-5 hour drive from Hatton to Columbo. We are reunited with Sunil, our SUV, and the baggage chase car after we climb out of the Ceylon Tea Trails property. Having avoided the drive upland by taking the train, we were caught off-guard on the downhill extravaganza. It was definitely a stomach churning cruise along A7 through the the mountain towns.

We were surprised to learn that we were passing through the white water river rafting mecca of Sri Lanka surrounding the town of Kitulgala. Every twist in the road had a mom-and-pop shop renting 1-2 rafts for 2-3 hours of Grade 2-3 rapids. Apparently the Kelani River is also famous for filming sequences of the Bridge Over River Kwai (1952). A little further off of our route is the River Kotmale where the rapids challenge the more experienced (4-5 Grades) near Nuwara Eliya. No time to stop this trip, just trying to keep breakfast down as it is.

As we edge closer to Colombo, the traffic proportionately thickens and we crawl toward the inner city. It is easy understand why some of the guests at the Tea Travels chose entry/exit by sea plane, avoiding this 4+ hour tour of car sickness and claustrophobia. We spend some time touring through the city including a stop at the Independence Commemoration Hall, completed in 1953, built to celebrate Sri Lanka’s independence from the British rule and establishment of a Ceylonese-elected legislature on February 4, 1948.

Lunch is an oasis in the city, Barefoot cafe, where we enjoy live music (renditions of US crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, etc.) on the patio. We visit the cafe’s gallery of local artisans for Sri Lankan-crafted gifts before moving on to our day room at the Kingsbury Hotel. Due to the hotel’s past experience with terrorism, security is very tight moving in and out. We grab a few winks and hot showers before meeting Mark Forbes on a guided neighborhood walk.

Starting at the Old Dutch Hospital where we will return for dinner at the Ministry of Crab, we begin a walking exploration of the original fort perimeter. The hospital, established ~1681, was used bu the officers and staff of the Dutch East India Company. Late after serving as an apothecary and police headquarters, it was turned into a shopping mall and restaurant center when rebuilt after the 1996 bank bombing. Architecturally the building remains in the 17th C Dutch colonial style with 2 courtyards formed from 5 wings showing teak exposed beams. The 50 cm walls serves to moderate the heat and humidity of the Colombo environment. Behind the hospital the twin towers of the World Trade Center rise up.

We moved through the hospital wings onto the street where we view the famous lighthouse now Clock tower at Chatham Street, take in the President’s Residence as of 1972 (formerly the Queen’s/King’sPalace), General Post Office (used as a barracks today), the Chartered Bank of India, and walk around the financial district with the old Central Bank with its beautiful chandelier, and the famous Cargills & Martin Department Store. Many buildings have been restored in keeping with their architectural heritage, some are waiting patiently for their time to arrive. A visit to one renovated building now houses a start up incubator, Hatch, with great office facilities and motivational pictures of famous entrepreneurs looking down on the interiors.

The Grand Oriental Hotel, originally an army barracks later converted into the hotel 1875, is long in the tooth but still speaks to a different age of glamor and services. Its 4th floor restaurant ready for an army of guests – but doubtful of their arrival – provided a spectacular balcony view of the waterfront.

As our tour winds down, we return to the Ministry of Crab for dinner with friends from the Tea Gardens. Then on to the airport to catch the evening flight to Singapore.

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January 11, 2020, Saturday, Ceylon Tea Trails, Hatton, Sri Lanka

Enjoying our first pot of coffee in our room, we are not in a hurry to grab the next meal. Arriving for breakfast, there is a hum of activity planning for everyone in the lodge. Our itinerary is to catch a ride over to the Norwood Bungalow and return walking through a trail across the tea trails and road along the hills.

Our ride over to Norwood seemed longer than we expected and we started to have doubts about our trek. The Norwood property is a stunning bungalow with a large swimming pool on the grounds surrounded by huge bamboo trees. Lunch is outdoors and we are the sole diners of this delicious spread.

As much as we enjoyed Norwood, we had to start our return walk to our bungalow. The trail through the tea fields was spectacular. Walking among the pickers, through their residential areas, and beside the tea plants was very special. Every twist and turn of the hillside opened up new views of the lake and the fields. Even our walk along the paved road seemed to pass quickly and in no time, we were back on the one-way dirt road into Dunkeld.

Our last dinner at Tea Trails was a social extravaganza with a table full of stories and laughter. We were leaving early in the morning for the car ride down the mountain and on to Colombo.

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January 10, 2020, Friday, Ceylon Tea Trails, Hatton, Sri Lanka

We wake up to a leisurely morning with breakfast on the patio and watching the slight fog clear over the lake. A sea plane lands either depositing new guests or removing them.

Mid-morning we walk down the road to the tea factory. It is a Hindu holiday so the normal operations of the machines are silent. Gathering together for our group of other Tea Trail occupants, we are surprised to see the Australian family from the Kings Pavilion in Kandy is among the visitors. We enjoy a quick reunion before our tour begins.

We are introduced to the types of teas created through the different processes of drying, pressing, grading, packaging and distribution. Our guide took us through the physical processes and turned on the machinery so that we could imagine how the tea leaves moved through the factory. Of course, we had to taste some of the delicious tea produced in this area.

As a special treat, the women tea pickers having finished their morning work returned to the factory to have the bags of picked leaves weighed and evaluated for their worth. It was a colorful and noisy time with all gathered together to share in the morning’s success. As in six days a week, the afternoon will offer a similar experience again for the pickers.

Instead of returning to our bungalow, we continue down the hill to another property, Castlereagh, sited near the lake’s edge. We shared a marvelous lunch with a NY couple, screen/TV writer and professor/writer. After digesting, we hike up to Dunkeld, spend some time by the pool, freeze in the spa, and prepare for dinner.

In much the same format as a safari camp, we enjoy cocktail hour with our lodge mates and continue sharing adventures with them at dinner. Early to bed.

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January 9, 2020, Thursday, Kandy – Hatton, Sri Lanka

Early this morning, we visit the Royal Botanical Gardens. A local botanist guides us through the grounds and introduces us to indigenous plant and tree species as well as those donated by international dignitaries and governments. Highlights include the Palm Garden and the orchid houses.

On our way to the Peradeniya Railway station, we stop for a scenic view of Kandy. Returning to the city center passing the former jail, dental academy, we arrive for our 11:10 train to Hatton. We have brought along a picnic lunch for the 2.5 hour drive through the jungle and up the mountains to the Ceylon tea fields. The views are spectacular once the valley opens up to the lush green fields.

Hatton appears to be on its way to becoming a full fledged backpacker town. Adams Peak seems to attract those looking for a challenging climb in Sri Lanka. We leave the chaos of Hatton on our way to our bungalow with Ceylon Tea Trails. At 4000 ft above sea level, we are in the Bogawantalawa region heading to the Dunkeld bungalow, part of Dimahl holdings. There are 5 bungalows spread out along the beautiful lake reservoir. They were originally built for the British tea estate
managers and their families in the days of the Raj. Eventually the tea plantations were nationalized but this did not result in the same quality and development as expected. In 70s private investors were permitted to farm and developed leased lands and the industry began to flourish again.

Our car is not allowed to transport us down to the house so we wait 1/2 hour for pick up by our hosts. A harrowing one lane road drive takes 15 minutes to move us to the bungalow. The scenery is stunning And the house is quite Colonial. At Dunkeld there are 5 rooms (4 garden and 1 master suite). When we arrive the host/butler is ready to provide lunch. We decide high tea will be adequate following our box lunch. We then settle in to the Clark room, check out the grounds and head to the pool. Beautiful setting overlooking the lake but a little cool for swimming, opting for the lukewarm Jacuzzi while watching the sun set.

The pace of the house is reminiscent of an English Colonial era. Guests arrive back late in the afternoon from various day activities. Time for a little R&R, shower, and then sundowners/cocktails around the fireplace and game room with the other guests. Gin & tonic is the drink of the hour. By dark we are ready for dinner outside on the veranda with new friends and delicious foods. Laughter, wine, and stories and its time for bed.

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January 8, 2020, Wednesday, Sigiriya – Kandy, Sri Lanka

This morning we check out and continue the drive to the World Heritage Site of Dambulla, known for its richly painted caves. Dambulla is a vast isolated rock mass and it was here that King Valagam Bahu took refuge from invasions in the 1st century BC, later turning the caves into a rock temple.

As we climb up the hill to the temples, there are monkeys entertaining us all along the way. Many visitors have arrived to also view the morning alms presentation.
There are 3 separate halls with paintings, statutes, and artifacts of varying dates in each one. Some of the frescoes are over 2,000 years old and are of amazing quality. Carved out of stone is a large reclining Buddha in one of the halls. We leave the cave temples and are followed by monkeys and food vendors on the return trip.

Our next stop is the town of Matale and a visit to the Ranweli spice garden. In this family grove there are a variety of trees and plants producing spices such as cinnamon, cardamon, mace, nutmeg, clove, cocoa, aloe Vera, etc. The family ships raw spices and finished products such as herbal creams, oils, salves for medicinal and cosmetic purposes all over the world. Here the garden staff prepares a traditional Sri Lankan lunch that is the freshest and tastiest yet.
Note: the family originated lunch’s have been the best experiences throughout our journey.

Entry into Kandy was filled with shops, noise, vehicles, students leaving colleges (schools), people in markets, and traffic jams. Upon checking into The Kings Pavillon we received white clothing for the temple ceremony this evening.

Changing into our whites, we are driven to the site of the Temple of the Tooth Relic in time to wander the grounds and understand the sequence of this evening’s pooja. The canine tooth of the Buddha – the relic – brought to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Meghavarna (301-328) is enclosed in seven caskets, one kept inside the other, the outmost of which has a shape of a stupa adorned with a large number of gold
ornaments and jewels. Following the horns and drums performing, the monks move upstairs to open the door where the relic caskets are stored. The people also go up to a second floor and either queue to pass single file to quickly view the casket or assemble in the hall to view further back. Flowers and offerings are spread along a table in front of the alter. We proceed then to the small library to walk through examining the samples of the ancient Buddhist writings.

Leaving the temple, we return to the hotel for the performance of local music and dances, a clown and the fire walkers. We enjoy the entertainment sitting outside on the restaurant porch. An Australian family buy champagne for sharing this event.
Following dinner, we turn in after a big day.

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January 7, 2020, Tuesday, Anuradhapura – Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Following breakfast, we encounter a little rain as we drive for 1.5 hour to the small village of Patikara Maduwa for a martial arts demonstration known as Anagampora. Students come to this site and other locations in Sri Lanka to learn this integrated system of training including religion, discipline, combat methods of hand-over-hand, sticks, and swords.

We continue on to Ritigala, an ancient Buddhist monastery and mountain in Sri
Lanka, whose ruins and rock inscriptions date back to the 1st century BC. A monk is in residence for over ten years at this site. He introduces us to his living quarters on the side of the rock formation where he has created a small bedroom shelter, a separate toilet and a meditation track within a very confined space. A system of water has been hooked up to this area. We are invited to give alms for the one daily meal at midday for the resident monk and a junior monk who provided the blessing.

We continue on our drive and pass several elephant parks on the way to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Sigiriya and the Water Gardens Hotel. At the resort we have a first view of the giant rock fortress, originally a hermitage for Buddhist monks until it was taken over as a palace for a banished king’s son.

Late afternoon, we drive to the base of the fortress and begin our accent up the 1200 steps to the top. Midway, there are a series of wall paintings (frescoes) of ladies and a highly polished mirror that is reminiscent of the royal occupation. On the top, the ruins from the multi storied palace remain with an amazing view of the surrounding lakes and town of Sigiriya.

This evening we dip into the plunge pool and have dinner in our bungalow.

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