14 March 2014

Singapore's Best Kept Secret - Lazarus Island

Date of Exploration : 9 Mar 2014

Translucent turquoise waters, inviting foamy surf and an unspoilt powdery beach... I've never dreamed of using those adjectives on Singapore's beaches but a virgin trip to Lazarus Island had filled my vocabulary with praises for this little known piece of paradise!

Singapore is a nation of beach lovers starved of charming coast to chill. Not anymore. Lazarus Island has all the makings of a lost beach Eden that can rival some of the most popular beaches around Asia. The only thing missing is a so-spectacular-you-want-to-cry sunset view that would be the icing on this most handsome beach of our tiny red dot.

Exploring the beach of Lazarus Island for the first time and I liked what I saw.
While the seawater here is not crystal clear and the absence of marine life won't delight snorkel fans, the island's pristine coastline trumps that of East Coast Park, West Coast Park, Pasir Ris and the highly commercialised Sentosa beaches.

The appeal of Lazarus beach lies in its underdevelopment and anonymity. For now. So before the island gets turned into another money-maker with hordes of beach-goers jostling for space, hop over to this best kept secret of Singapore beaches and have your Blue Lagoon moment under the tropical sun!

Getting to Lazarus Island

Lazarus Island is part of a group of 8 islets collectively known as Singapore's Southern Islands which include Sentosa, St. John's Island, Kusu Island, Pulau Seringat, Pulau Tekukor and the two Sisters' Islands.

Currently, there are no direct ferries to Lazarus Island and getting there involves either chartering a private yacht (costing about S$400 for half a day) or taking a ferry to St. John's Island and walking over to Lazarus via a link bridge. The ferry serving St. John's Island can be boarded at Marina South Pier. You can get to the pier either by taxi or public transport.

Here's how to visit Lazarus on a budget...

1. Take the MRT to Marina Bay Station and use Exit B.

2. Go to the bus-stop (no. 03531) near the exit and take bus no. 402. The bus operates at a frequency of between 15 - 25 minutes depending on time of day. Check the bus' schedule here. It's 2 stops from Marina Bay MRT Station to Marina South Pier.

3. At Marina South Pier, look for the Singapore Island Cruise and Services counter (pictured below). A round-trip ferry ticket to St. John's Island then to Kusu Island and back to mainland costs S$18 (adult) and S$12 (child). Check the ferry's schedule here.

Marina South Pier... The orange stand is the Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services counter. No pre-booking or reservations of tickets allowed so you'll have to purchase on the spot. We arrived at 10.30am to board the 11:00am ferry.

Pictured is the ferry that took us to St. John's Island, Kusu Island, and back to mainland. There are toilets onboard and it takes 30 minutes from the pier to St. John's Island.
Tips when visiting :

- It is best to visit the islands on Sundays and public holidays as the ferry service operates till later compared to other days.

- Stock up on drinks and food before going as there are no shops on St. John's and Lazarus Island. There's a provision shop and small eatery at Marina South Pier where you can purchase supplies and pack meals.

Singapore Maritime Gallery

If you arrive early at Marina South Pier and have time to spare, check out the cool Singapore Maritime Gallery on level 2. The gallery is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:00am to 5:30pm. Admission is FREE.

I love the creative conversion of 'A' in Singapore into a directional arrow. The gallery features some pretty cool exhibits although I felt rather overpowered by the amount of information to read.

The innovative staging that featured containers, crates, oceanic waves and textures added life to a subject matter that doesn't have a natural audience. In addition to static ship model displays, there are also a couple of experiential exhibits where you can pretend to be a cargo controller at the maritime command center.

St. John's Island

A former island used to quarantine population with infectious diseases such as cholera, beri-beri and leprosy in the late 19th century, Saint John's Island was converted into a jail and drug rehab centre during the middle of the 20th century. Today, the island offers refuge from Singapore's hyper urbanity with tranquil greens for picnic or a frolic in its saltwater lagoons.

The last time I stepped on St. John's Island, I was listening to a cassette of Debbie Gibson's Out of the Blue album in a walkman. That's a loooog time ago! 

From St John's Island's jetty, turn left to Lazarus Island. If you turn right, you'll head towards the lodges and lagoon of St John's Island. As Lazarus Island is still not ready to receive visitors, there are no directional signs pointing the way at the moment.

Facing the end of the jetty were remnant fences and structures of St John's sentinel past. Instead of heading straight to Lazarus Island, we couldn't resist snapping the peculiars at our docking island. 

Thought the perspective would make for an 'artful' shot so got Siow Har to lie down on the ground for this pic...

... we were actually cam whoring at the ex-prison's toilet! LOL.

On foot to Lazarus Island, we passed by this piece of heavy machinery and decided to pose as Tractor Trash.
Low tide at St. John's Island exposes a mess network of sculptural mangrove roots that made for an interesting backdrop for narcissicsm. This photo brought 3 letters to mind... C. M. I.

Lots of cats lounging on St John's. If you have food in hand, you'll find fast feline friends. Okay, this cat was obviously not into pork coz it ignored me.

View of Lazarus Island from St John's Island. The two islands are linked by a bridge (mid right of the photo behind the breakwater).

Toeing the breakwater for a shot...

... of Singapore's commercial skyline.

Bridge to Lazarus Island from St John's Island.
Lazarus Island

Sandwiched between St John's Island and Kusu Island, Lazarus Island is also linked at one end to Pulau Seringat. Recreational developments are currently underway by Sentosa Leisure Group to possibly turn Lazarus into a resort.

Camping is not allowed on St John's, Lazarus or Kusu islands and the islands are fast becoming favourite spots for anglers to hook up fresh catch such as selars, tambans, groupers, squids, etc.

Upon stepping on Lazarus Island, we saw this tiny stretch of beach. We weren't impressed. And disappointed that we made the effort to see something this nondescript.

Dismayed that Lazarus Island had nothing more than a puny coast of sand, we decided to settle for a picnic in front of the beach, unglamorously next to a construction site.

After some food, we decided to explore more of Lazarus Island and were faced with devastations of the recent drought. For the first time in more than 150 years, rain hadn't fall for over 2 months in our rainforest climate.

Our aimless wander brought us to the other side of Lazarus Island. The side that took our breath away. It was one of those eureka moments!

Compared to all the beaches in Singapore, Lazarus Island has the most gorgeous beach I've ever seen locally. I couldn't believe I'm in Singapore!

The beach is unknown and undeveloped so visitors are few and it is devoid of amenities. Except for a few private yachts and beachgoers, the beach was practically empty. And surprisingly, most of the visitors seemed to be non-Singaporeans. Such an irony that foreigners know better than the locals to sniff out such a hidden gem.

Totally loving it here with the clean and green waters! Better come soon before it gets populated. My only grouse was that although human presence was minimal, flotsam and jetsam weren't scarce. I cleared out a square of drift-wood with rusty nails, styrofoam meal boxes and an empty water bottle with cigarette butts in them from the sea and beach. 

I'm not trying to interview for a job with NEA (National Environment Agency) but I hate to see such a beautiful place marred by inconsiderate litter. If you visit, please keep the place clean as no one picks up after you since the island is kind of ulu.
Kusu Island

The last stop of our three-island excursion ended at Kusu Island. If you do not wish to visit Kusu, don't get off the boat and take it back to mainland.

According to legend, a tortoise turned itself into an island to save two shipwrecked sailors - one Malay and a Chinese. That's why this island is affectionately known as Tortoise / Turtle Island and there's a Chinese temple (大伯公) as well as Muslim shrine on it.

Trees on Kusu Island were not spared the effects of the drought.

Religious harmony... a Catholic umbrella sheltering a Taoist altar at a Muslim Shrine. Only in Singapore!

Three Malay kramats (holy shrine) sit at the top of a jagged low hill at Kusu Island.

Glad for a wonderful exploration of Singapore's little known Southern Islands! If the lobster red of Jeffrey, our friend visiting from Hawaii was any indication, sunblock is a must and love for adventure is a plus!
Maritime Sunset

Back at Marina South Pier, our haste to find comfort after a long day was postponed by the beautiful sun setting over PSA (Port of Singapore Authority). On your return from visiting the Southern Islands in the evening, don't be in a hurry to leave. Head up to the rooftop of Marina South Pier and take in the sunset view.

The rooftop on level 3 of Marina South Pier offers a 360-degree lookout of the surrounding.

6:45pm... I'd seen many breathtaking sunsets over beaches but this unobstructed appreciation of an urban sunset over our port was an equal spectacle in wonder and grandeur!

I've read about Lazarus Island for quite some time and finally got to check out the place for myself. Personally, I think it was well worth the effort to visit and get lost in one of those last few deserted spots left in Singapore.

I truly enjoyed this hard-to-come-by pristine stretch of shoreline and urge you to contribute towards its conservation by keeping it clean when you visit. Happy splashing!

09 March 2014

Bangkok - Silom Thai Cooking School

Date of Exploration : 21 Feb 2014

Literally adding some spice to a recent trip in Bangkok, I decided on trying my hands at local food preparation and signed up for a half-day class with Silom Thai Cooking School. What better souvenir to bring home than culinary skills for recreating my favourite Thai dishes in the kitchen right?

Chilli, spice, and everything nice... The half-day cooking class imparted preparation methods for 5 most common Thai dishes and we get to eat what we cooked!
A gifted glutton rather than a god of kitchen, I was tempted to wrap myself in handiplast instead of an apron to safety-proof myself around the wok and chopping board but the class turned out to be exceptionally novice friendly. The youngest participant the school had was 6-years-old!

Even if you've never held a spatula or turned on a gas stove, the class would make you an iron chef in no time. And all for an affordable 1,000 baht to learn how to cook Tom Yum Gung, Pad Thai, Lap Gai, Green Curry Chicken, and Mango with Sticky Rice. There's also a tour of a local wet market to begin the class and a comprehensive recipe book to end it off.

Of the dozen of popular cooking schools in Bangkok, Silom Thai Cooking School is the cheapest. The school offers 3 different cooking sessions - morning (9am - 1pm), afternoon (1:40pm - 5:30pm) and evening (6:00pm - 9:00pm). The dishes you learn is dependent on the day of class so you can sign up for multiple days to learn the full menu.

Getting There

As the school's namesake clearly states its location, Silom Thai Cooking School is located at Silom, which is in the same locale as Patpong (Bangkok's famous red light district). The BTS station that serves Patpong is Sala Daeng. From Sala Daeng, walk straight down along Silom Road towards Furama Silom Hotel (you will pass by a huge canal and Silom Plaza). The walk should take about 15 - 20 minutes.

Alternatively, you can alight at Chong Nongsi BTS Station, take Exit 3 and walk along the road until you come to a junction with Silom Road and turn left. Silom Plaza would be on your left. Look up and you should see Furama Silom Hotel. Walk towards the hotel. The meeting place is at Silom 11.

A tour of the local market is included in the morning and afternoon class. The meeting place for the tour is at the entrance of a small street (Silom 11) a few steps from Furama Silom Hotel and opposite Narai Hotel.

Silom 11 is next to Furama Silom Hotel and opposite Narai Hotel.

Silom Thai Cooking School's website provides pretty comprehensive directions so it is pretty hard to get lost. If all else fails, just take a cab.

Local Market Tour

I signed up for the morning class in order to coincide with a tour of a local market. The market is located just diagonally across the street from our meeting place so there's no need to take any transport to get to it.

During the market tour, we collected the ingredients for our dishes later while our guide and chef imparted knowledge about the fresh produce.

Street leading to the wet market. I think the girl with the rainbow tie-dye wished she was still in bed.

The market was well laid out and structured. I was hoping for one of those more chaotic and less sanitised versions though.

Fast becoming an obsolete trade in Singapore, I was delighted to rekindle the memory of freshly grounded coconut in the market.

I thought it was rather comical to to carry a basket full of vegetables in a foreign land but I guess that's the best way to assimilate and appreciate the local way of life. After the marketing, we were led through an alleyway to get to Silom Thai Cooking School. The school was rather obscure and walking into the local neighbourhood opened up another dimension of the metropolis.
Wok on the Khao Side

I was worried that I would wake up late, miss the market tour and can't find my way to the school but the confirmation sent by Siliom Thai Cooking School gave clear directions in locating it. The key is locating the side street it is on and just follow the yellow signs pointing the way.

Silom Thai Cooking School is a narrow 4 storey apartment that's been converted into a house of the woks.

Taking 4 flights of stairs, 7 of us were brought to an air-conditioned dining room. Lockers are available for the storage of belongings and the effort to dress them up with ethnic prints was such a small but nice touch!

Preparation of ingredients was done in another classroom a door away. That's our instructor and chef signalling the start of our culinary experience.

Cam whores like me would love the many photo ops during the class. These are my classmates... Wei Qiang from Jakarta, a Slovakian family of 3, and my fellow country folks, Damien and Phoebe from Singapore.

Time to slice, pound and chop!

Indredients for Tom Yum Gung... Thai chilli paste, lime juice, fish sauce, pomelo leaves, blue ginger, lemongrass, Thai basil, spring onions, tomatoes, small green chilli and Thai ginger.

Unlike Chinese soups that simmer for hours, Tom Yam Gung is a quick boil of all the ingredients for a very appetising broth. They say that the quickest way to lover's heart is through the stomach... now I've got that covered. LOL.

All it took was 15 minutes at the wok to serve up a Tom Yan Gung! Must try this at home if only I could find the Thai chilli paste, basil and ginger.

Ingredients for the national dish, Pad Thai... beansprouts, tau kwa, garlic, chives, egg, lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind paste, chai bor, and palm sugar.

According to our instructor, Thais seldom cook Pad Thai at home and prefer to buy it off the streets because the ingredients are such a hassle. I didn't know that such a popular and seemingly simple dish is actually a kitchen feat for the locals!

We chopped the onions and condiments but this Lap Gai (minced chicken salad with spicy sauce) was put together by our chef while we watched. It tasted too salty for my palate.

Next, we prepared the most colossal dish in terms of the number of ingredients needed... Green Curry Chicken. Just the number of ingredients needed was enough to cause amnesia. Green curry gets its colour from the green peppers as well as chillis.

Ta-da! After cutting, mashing and pounding all the various spices and ingredients, we cooked green curry! Cooking was quick but preparing the ingredients was a lot of work. Instead of pounding, the convenience of blenders would shorten the process but take away the brag right of hand-grounding all the spices. Handmade just tastes more "real" if you get what I mean.

Khao Neaw Ma Muang (mango sticky rice)... our 5-course class and meal rounded off with this ever popular dessert and while we didn't 'cook' this, we were shown how sticky rice was to be prepared... soak the grains over night and steamed for 20 minutes in a closed pot. Normally, I would eat just the mango but the coconut cream and texture of the rice was so divine, I devoured everything... not the orchid though. Hahaha...

Totally enjoyed the process of making new friends over hot woks that added more flavours to my favourite Thai dishes!
I believe that different schools probably have slight variations in recipes and ingredients for the dishes but the ones provided by Silom Thai Cooking School were delicious. Except for the Lap Gai, the other dishes were yumilicious and tasted even better because we made it ourselves! And bring along a container to pack any remainder food (though there will be few) so as not to waste the work that has gone into them.

It came as a shock surprise to me when I was told that Thais would discard any unconsumed food and no one would "blame them". I felt that it is such a waste of effort and agriculture when so many are going hungry in the world. If I knew, I would've brought along containers to pack excess food to eat later or share with the less fortunate on the streets. Throwing away clean, delicious and edible dishes was just wasteful.

If you're looking for an authentic Thai experience, consider a cooking class and stir-fry your way to a vacation of salivations!

Address : 68 Silom Soi 13 , Silom Road, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500
Tel : 08-4-726-5669 (local); +668-4-726-5669 (overseas)
Website : http://www.bangkokthaicooking.com/
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