The Garden Beyond the Door, the Lights Down Below, and The Land of Lego Things

By April 26th, 2019

There was a very short reprieve before we were off to the next big adventure. I had just enough time to say hello to the duchesses. They seem to slowly fade each time I see them. I always fear that every visit would be the last. I lost a few of the dukes and duchesses while I was on the other side of the looking glass. We swapped stories and refreshed old and happy memories. I hope we have many more visits in the future.

We boarded a late night plane to Singapore: the land of lion-headed mermaids. Since we arrived at Changi airport in the wee hours, we decided to find a quiet place to nap and wait for daylight before we headed to our hotel. Changi is one of the most interesting and nicest airports I have visited so far. There are mobile sculptures hanging from the roof that I could stare at all day long, sparkling clean bathrooms, and food kiosks serving both international and local fare. Their immigration area is very efficient and even during peak hours, I rarely see a line longer than 4 people.

From the airport, we stopped by our hotel to drop off our luggage and took a cab to Gardens By The Bay to spend a little time exploring. The Supertrees were amazing. I’m told that they are even more captivating when they are lit up at night. They are an architectural and biotechnological marvel. Cruising around Singapore, you will also notice little pocket gardens and plant-covered concrete structures. Singapore wasn’t kidding when they decided to turn the “Garden City” into a “City in a Garden”. Despite all the buildings and urban structures, it still felt quite like being surrounded by nature.

The metal trees
Binky and Captain Jack in the Garden
The Captain feigning sleep…
Below: A few of the Garden’s inhabitants.

Our first two days in the city were spent checking out the food places near our hotel. We stayed in the Katong District along the Marine Parade. Apparently, I had inadvertently picked a hotel smack in the middle of one of the city’s epicurean neighborhoods. We even found several vending machines that made orange juice about as fresh-squeezed as any could ever get.

Day 3 was spent checking out the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. All the luxury brands I was familiar with, and some that I have never heard before, are all there. I was never much of a shopper, thankfully. There was, however, a feature in the mall I wanted to take Captain Jack and Binky to: The Digital Light Canvas. It’s an interactive light feature where your steps trigger animations on the floor like a school of fish following you around as you run or walk. I figured I should let the kids burn off some energy so we could all have a good night’s sleep before our big adventure the next day.

Thankfully, instead of mall kiosks, they have sculptures.

I also had a birthday surprise for Binky that day. I booked our group for an all you can eat cheese and chocolate buffet at one of the restaurants atop the Marina Bay Sands. Nothing like gorging on my two favorite things in the world while enjoying the company of my two favorite part-time kids and watching the bay light up below us. The restaurant was also nice enough to bring out a piece of birthday cake for Binky and she got to blow out the candle.

The best way to end a birthday after eating all the cheese and chocolate is more chocolate.

The next day, we got up early to cross the border to Malaysia for the day. We booked tickets to Legoland for the kiddos. Travel time from Singapore to the Legoland theme park, including queuing at immigrations, took a little over an hour and a half so it was about 11 am by the time we got inside the park. It had prerequisite rides for every age so young, old, and those in between were all able to have a good time. There’s also a section of the park with scaled down versions of architectural and landscape features from all over the world all made of Lego blocks. It was a nice break from the rides although since it was summer, the heat dissuaded me from meandering around at a leisurely pace.

Getting back to Singapore from Malaysia at the end of the day, it meant we had enough time to get on the Singapore Flyer. Being from Seattle, I have been on the Great Wheel and it was pretty unnerving. I have a fear of heights that can sometimes take me to the point of ceasing all body functions. I was a bit apprehensive getting on the flyer especially since it does not stop. You have to chase it down the platform as you catch a ride to your gondola. Luckily, it was going at a leisurely enough pace to keep me from tripping on myself trying to get on. The Great Wheel’s pace was actually rather pleasant. I barely felt my heart dropping like it did on the Great Wheel back home. It was just the perfect pace to capture some time-lapse photos of the city lights below.

The lights from high up the Flyer

Day 5 of our trip was spent in Sentosa Island. We had tickets to Universal Studios Sentosa. Binky and Captain Jack had such a good time despite the humidity and summer heat. There were enough of the milder attractions for the weaker-hearted members of our gang as well. After the requisite souvenir shopping, we took the shuttle home for some rest and a dip in the hotel pool.

Bumblebee and the fam.

Our 6th day in The Garden City, we decided to sleep in a bit before we headed out for lunch in Sentosa Island. We ate at Din Tai Fung and the gang enjoyed the dumplings. Even Captain Jack, the ever-picky eater of nothing but chicken-gravy-rice, had a pretty good appetite. After lunch, we visited the S. E. A. Aquarium. The kiddos had fun checking out the marine life. The grown-ups had a nice break being indoors in an air-conditioned place. Despite the crowds, it still felt pleasant and cool.

After the aquarium, we took a cab to the Singapore Zoo for their Night Safari. The zoo is a bit farther from the city. It took us about 45 minutes by cab in moderate traffic. By the time we got to the zoo, the lines were already supremely long. Getting to the zoo at about 5 pm, it was 2 hours before we were finally in the zoo. After about another half hour standing in line for the trolleys that would take us around the zoo to see the animals, the ride itself took barely a half hour. The gang loved it though. I saw animals I only ever see on the Discovery Channel. Being night time, it was also party time for nocturnal animals. It was nice seeing them out and about instead of hiding in the shade like I often do when going to the zoo in the daytime.

One week in Singapore and we still hadn’t run out of things to do. This time, we got day passes for their get on – get off double decker buses so we could ride around the city and look around without having to keep hiring cabs all day. We took Binky to Kinokuniya to shop for school supplies for the coming school year. We then took the trolley to go see the Merlion statue. We also went and ate dinner at Makansutra Glutton’s Bay since it was a short trolley ride away. There was so much variety that even the picky eaters were able to find something to nosh on. Bellies full and legs tired, we headed home to rest.

The Merlion and the giant durian
Ches’s new favorite place to be.

Our last full day in Singapore was spent shopping at the shopping center across the street from our hotel. We checked out of our room and deposited our bags at the lobby. Our flight wasn’t until the wee hours of the morning the next day so we decided to hang out at the mall for most of the day before heading out to the airport.

If the arrivals area at Changi airport was impressive, the departures area was a shopper’s delight. We bought so much candy and souvenirs for the folks back home before it was time to board our plane. 8 days in Singapore left us all tired when we got off the plane and arrived at the house. It was certainly a very memorable, albeit spendy, week.

Worship places: a church, two temples, and a guitar factory.

By March 19th, 2019

Like a slowly fading dream, my short-lived beachside hiatus becomes yet another pleasant memory. Alas, I was too preoccupied with the sound of gentle waves lapping the shore, the feel of sand (so much sand) between my toes, and the din of laughter and giggling of two very enthusiastic and happy children to even think of snapping a picture. No delicious seafood fare immortalized, nor any scenic images of hammocks on coconut trees with the wistful bokeh of the crystalline ocean and the azure sky behind it. The next thing I knew, like my typical self waking from a much needed nap, we were again packing our bags and getting ready for another adventure.

We crammed ourselves and our luggage into a not-very-roomy-at-all vehicle to be driven to the pier where we boarded a ferry to cross back to Cebu. From there, we split our group in two and took separate cabs to our hotel. Familial affection be damned, one can only suffer being stuffed like sardines in a cramped car on a sweltering day for so long.

I purposefully chose our hotel accommodations for this leg of our trip. It’s swanky by local standards: indoor pool, fitness center, shops in the hotel lobby, a casino… More importantly, this place had a backstory in my life. My mother and I occasionally recall it with much laughter. After getting settled in our rooms, a quick take-away dinner later, we snoozed off. We had more adventures in the morning.

The view from the hotel room window

We left Kuya Kim behind in the other island and piled into a different van this time. Our first stop was a fulfillment of a promised ukelele to a very eager young girl who is so much better at playing guitar than I can ever hope to be. The guitar factory was rather low key for a classic tourist stop. It was a single level home with an airy looking hut next to it where men were busy crafting amazing musical works of art.

The craftsman hard at work
They sound as pretty as they look, if you know how.

After we had bought our stuff, we went off to go looking for famous monuments. There was quite the historical battle in this here island hundreds of years ago. One side was fighting for their freedom and right to their ancestral lands, the other side fighting for the belief that the crown they served pretty much owned everything they saw.


Our next stop was rather confusing. Apparently it has quickly become a tourist attraction since it was built. A “temple” built to celebrate a family matriarch seemed noble enough. The obviously fake and cheesily Romanesque frescoes and “sculptures” left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Personally, I found it very ostentatious. Everyone else in my party was having a good time, however. I resigned myself to averting my eyes from the garishness and was rewarded with one of the most amazing views of the city.

I recall a Bible story of what happened when Moses came down from the mountain with God’s commandments
When NOT in Rome…
Sometimes it pays to look where nobody else is looking.

The next temple we visited was a real one, this time. It was a tranquil spot among the city’s hustle and bustle. I also had the chance to ask favors of the temple deity. Hopefully I came away as blessed as I felt. At any rate, the peace and tranquility was very welcome at this point in the day.

The temple
All the bells, none of the whistles.
The traveling party, halfway up (or down) the stairs

Our last stop for the day was a church built in the early 1700’s. A lot of parishioners still worship there. Also, being smack in the middle of the city, it is a hub of activity. I left the rest of my party to pay their respects inside the church and went to explore around.

In the background, they’re getting ready for more ceremonies

After a late lunch at the local fried chicken chain across the street, we headed back to our hotel for some much needed rest and relaxation. We had souvenirs to pack and there was a pool somewhere in the building whispering my name.

7,000 Islands and then some: a short story

By March 11th, 2019

From Taiwan, I flew to the Philippines, eventually making my way to Cebu to meet up with my family. The plan was: meet at the Cebu International Airport and check into a hotel for the night, get some rest, wake up early morning the next day, and take the ferry to Tagbilaran. My travel buddies comprised of my mom, my aunts, my sister-in-law, my niece, and nephew. We booked a van to show us around Bohol and take in the sights all day before getting dropped off in Panglao to spend a couple of nights by the beach.

Thankfully, after an entire day of sitting in planes, sitting in airports, and sitting in cabs, we finally made it to our hotel late in the evening. We had just enough energy to grab a quick bite and wash the grime of travel off before settling in for bed. The next morning, we woke up, grabbed a quick breakfast, and headed to the ferry station. After about 2 hours on the ferry, we made it across the water to Tagbilaran island, our gateway to Bohol. We were met by “Kuya Kim” who was to be our driver/tour guide /fixer /finder of amazing food for the day.

Our first stop was the Sandugo statue. It commemorates the blood compact made between the Filipino natives and the Spanish conquistadores in 1565. Being a healthcare worker, quite frankly, I found the concept quite unnerving. Clearly, hepatitis, HIV, and many other blood-borne diseases weren’t a thing back in the day.

Nothing like a cup of sangre to seal a deal

We also visited what was left of the old churches built during the Spanish era. Unfortunately, most of the stately stone churches have been reduced to rubble by the recent big earthquake that hit the island a few months before. Most of the churches have been rebuilt since then and you can clearly see the difference between the old stone and the new one. I was happy to see that the ornate altars I remember from childhood Sunday mass of yore are still as beautiful as ever.

One of the rebuilt old churches
Ornate altars hark back to the Spanish Era

Kuya Kim drove us through one of the largest man-made forests in the country. According to him, this was the result of years of tree-planting ceremonies that were all the rage back then. Being the selfie-rabid group that they are, the family couldn’t resist making a quick stop for a photo op.

Captain Jack and the ladies

Our next stop was a Philippine Tarsier sanctuary. These teeny-weeny little primates are considered an endangered species. We had to be quiet while tiptoeing in the woods since they nap during the day. Disturbing them puts the primates under stress and they have been known to kill themselves when under too much strain. If only there was such a thing as a Tarsier Therapist.

Shhhhhhh, you’ll wake the furry
Tarsiers are an ancient type of primate, hence the “old man” eyes
The look your teacher gives you when you act up in the classroom

Finally, it was lunch time. I had heard of this river cruise lunch thing for a while and I thought it would be a great treat for the family. I arranged for Kuya Kim to set us up for lunch in the river and he was more than happy to oblige. Aside from the standard lunch fare, there was a local delicacy called “humba na nangka” which translates to “braised jackfruit”. I found it so intriguing that I became too busy consuming as much as I could to take a photo. The ambiance certainly helped the appetite. We were floated down the river and serenaded by a group of folks singing the typical karaoke songs. Along the way, there was also a side-show where the locals sang songs, played ukelele, and did native dances for us. Overall, not a bad way to lunch.

Busai Falls
Lunch. On a Boat. Down the River.
Floating restaurants would be all the rage pretty soon
Ukeleles, songs, and dancing for dessert

After lunch, we headed to one of the iconic attractions that Bohol is famous for: The Chocolate Hills. Sadly, these are not hills made of chocolate but natural geological lumps spread over acres of land. Some of them are not even brown, but are covered by lush forests and vegetation. The best way to see them is to take the stairs all the way to the top of an overlook. If only stairmasters had the same awesome view, I would probably work out more often.

Chocolate Hills covered in lush greenery

Our last stop for the day was a butterfly farm. Captain Jack and Binky were delighted to see all the butterflies and I got to play with some caterpillars. I used to be scared of those things. Creepy crawlies with way too many legs always give me the willies. We also stopped at a “zoo” of sorts that had an enormous snake I was allowed to pet, and a rescued monkey that Captain Jack seemed to take a shine to.

From an adorable caterpillar to a gorgeous butterfly
The prettiest bug I ever did see
I wish I could be as chill as this guy

At the end of the day, Kuya Kim dropped us off at Panglao Beach and we made our way to the resort for some much needed rest and relaxation.

The winking stars over Panglao