Food, flame and phobias

By allrite on September 26, 2019


Posted in: Durians and Jewels

When we were planning this trip B was a bit resistant to spending an additional day and night in Katong. But one of the reasons that the hotel and area features in my travel fantasy is that I feel that I could have a holiday here without needing to visit the rest of the island, to truly relax.

Take breakfast. We head down to the back of the Roxy Centre, to a small indoor food court with one of our favourite stalls, Katong Janggut Laksa. Unlike the usual laksa, this is not just noodles in liquid curry, but a different broth featuring ground up prawns, stock and coconut milk. Here the noodles are cut short so only a spoon is required. To accompany it, Milo Ais, Milo dissolved in boiling water, to which is added condensed milk and ice to cool it down.

Afterwards, we cross Marine Parade to engage in another activity I’ve long included in my imaginings of the perfect holiday here.

For all the countless times we have driven down the parkway along the coast between Changi airport to our hotel we’ve never stopped to explore the long park and beach that runs beside it, an outdoor playground for locals.

We hire a bicycle each from a shop behind Marina Parade and use the underpass to cross to Area B of the East Coast Park.

A cycling path runs through the length of the park beneath a canopy of tropical trees. Waves lap at a sandy beach, while offshore lie hundreds of ships waiting to transfer their cargo of containers, cars and other goods for destinations across Asia and the rest of the world. We hear Singaporean fighter jets from the base at Paya Lebar roar across the sky, while passenger flights from nearby Changi take off more sedately towards the morning cloud offshore.

As we ride along under the dappled light we pass a beachside campsite for locals, a wakeboarding facility, a skate park and playgrounds for kids. The East Coast Lagoon Hawker Village is closed until night, the Jumbo Seafood Restaurant is just thinking about opening for lunch. We’ve dined at both and I especially relish the memory of sitting at the latter, looking out to sea as storm showers approached.

We ride as far as Bedok Jetty, cycling out past the fishermen tangling their bait fish into the gentle waters as seaweed washes up on the shore. Looking back you can see the landmark skyscrapers of Singapore, but I am happier out here, enjoying this manicured Singaporean version of nature, feeling the wind against my skin.

In the evening we return to the East Coast Lagoon Hawker Village by taxi for a huge meal of grilled stingray, pippies, rojak and sticks of real satay grilled over charcoal. The storm that threatened when we arrived passes away, leaving us free to enjoy the evening outdoors. I think of a other acquaintances who, on such a trip to Asia, would be posting about their western meals taken in posh restaurants and think about how they are missing out on such wonderful and cheap local food.


The thing I love most about Singapore and Malaysia is the food and the places you eat it. Not airconditioned international cuisine hidden away in shopping centres, the glamorous Michelin starred restaurants or the cool hipster cafes in repurposed shop houses. I prefer the plethora of choices in a hawker centre, the grimy old open sided kopitiam with decades of grease in every nook and cranny, the old Chinese restaurant with the bare walls and Formica tables.

We walk up Joo Chiat Road to the Al Falah Barakah kopitiam for a breakfast of roti, dosai and Milo ais. Though I’ve tasted better, the setting is timeless, sitting on plastic chairs under awnings, breathing in the already warm and humid morning air, surrounded by colourful shophouses with their decorative reliefs.

Afterwards B has a second breakfast of bak kut teh, the strong Chinese herbal pork broth and though I don’t eat it myself, I enjoy just soaking up the atmosphere of the place.

She is not content to just stay in Singapore. When planning this trip the desire was to go to a resort, preferably with a water park, but also with good food. We considered Langkawi and Penang, but to be honest I did not relish the flights or the having to get transport around those islands. The food around the resorts of Penang tends to be bad, but Georgetown lacks the resort accommodation.

I personally want to visit Ipoh and Taiping, after passing them by in the train on our last trip to Malaysia.

In the end we settle on sticking closer to Singapore, staying at the Hard Rock Desaru Resort on the East Coast and returning via Johor Bahru city on the way back. After weighing up the various options, we organise a minibus to drive us to the resort directly from our hotel.

It’s Saturday and the crossing to Malaysia is packed, taking us an hour or so to cross. The Singaporean authorities handle our passports through the car window from a booth, but on the Malaysian side we take the bus and taxi route so have to get out and wait in a short queue at the more run down facilities.

Then it’s another hour’s ride through rural Malaysia, past endless palm oil plantations, fruit farms and old kampongs.

The Hard Rock Resort at Desaru is new and the facilities are very nice, though the exterior design is a bit bland. There’s lots of connectivity options and services on the big Samsung smart television and non-alcoholic minibar drinks and snacks are included.

From the infinity pool we watch flights descending into Singapore. I spot today’s QF81 and Jetstar flight from Melbourne.

Unfortunately, the food situation is not so great. We eat lunch at the somewhat pricey resort restaurant and two of the three Malaysian dishes we order are neither genuine nor much good. The breakfast buffet is impressive with Malaysian, Indonesian and western choices on offer.

B wants to dine at a seafood restaurant on our first night, but our travel options are very limited so we begin walking along the side of the road the two and a half kilometres to the Nelayan as monkeys race up into the trees. Then we see a resort minibus coming towards us. It’s Salman, one of the resort staff, looking for us! He drives us to the restaurant and back when we are finished.

The Nelayan looks out towards Desaru Beach. Offshore are approaching storm clouds. When I look closely I can see a waterspout forming beneath one!

The cooling sea breeze through the open front of the restaurant provides welcome relief, though we are glad for the shelter from the heavy drops of a passing tropical shower as we dine on salted egg crab and Teochew fish. These seafood restaurants, while not cheap, are one of the pleasures of the coastal regions of Asia.

Nearby to the resort the only other dining option are the stalls inside the newly constructed Desaru Coast Tourist Village adjacent to the hotel. The landscaped gardens around the village grow edible plants like bananas, gingers and pandan and contain artworks made of recycled goods, promoting an environmental theme. The small stalls serve Malay and Thai style noodles and rice, along with a western stall with chips and pasta. Televisions mounted above the seating area display the sports channel, and we languidly watch replays of the tennis at Wimbledon while ceiling fans recirculate the tropical heat. The food itself isn’t very good, but it’s cheaper than elsewhere.

At night, the village gardens are attractively lighted, but the stalls begin to close early in the evening.

Also adjacent to the resort is the Desaru Water Adventure Park. We spend a morning drifting around the lazy river, wait for waves in the large pool. B tries the combination rollercoaster flume ride just once. Alex is unwilling to try the larger waterslides, just sticking to the young children’s area. The vast concrete spaces reflect the harsh light, despite the large tropical clouds drifting across. It’s fairly quiet at the park apart from the music blaring out over the speakers. We return early back to the hotel, take lunch at the tourist village.

In the evening we take a walk down to the beach in the hope of finding food. The Westin Hotel has a beach side cafe, but the food isn’t local and the prices aren’t cheap, so we stroll further along the coarse sand as the Moon rises above the horizon.

There are families out walking, fishing, wading in the water. At the Public Beach further up they have just finished an international kite surfing competition and the competitors and spectators are heading back. There are still some tents selling deep fried Malay style food  and colourful drinks. It would have been fun to be here earlier, but the leftovers do not look in the least bit appetising so we walk back the way we came, with dinner again at the village. Behind the hotel, another tropical storm provides a spectacular light show.

The other two seem a bit bored of the resort and the limited dining choices in the area, but I feel could stay longer. It would be better if we had a car and could explore some of the outlying towns.

On the way back to Singapore we spend a night at the border city of Johor Bahru, on the opposite side of the Straits of Johor to Singapore Island. It was the first place I visited outside of Singapore on my initial overseas journey twenty four years ago and I was shocked by the contrast between clean and modern Singapore city with its smelly and decrepit neighbour across the water.

It wasn’t all bad. I had probably the best beef rendang I’ve ever tasted and today we are back in search of great Malaysian food.

Superficially, Johor Bahru has changed substantially from that time. The skyline is full of modern towers, colourfully lit up at night and the city centre is dominated by big shopping malls and the huge station and immigration centre.

There’s a Legoland that we stayed at during a previous visit, an Angry Birds adventure park inside a shopping centre that Alex refuses to go into, saying he has no friends to join him in the fun.

But scratch the surface and old JB is still there. The heritage old town may be full of trendy cafes for the Instagram set, but lurking away in between them is a bare Chinese restaurant that doesn’t look like it has changed in fifty years, with foldout tables and plastic chairs.

We join the queue of tourists lining up at the Kam Long Ah Zai restaurant whose sole dish is a delicious fish head curry. At night we head up to the KSL Centre for a pasar malam, or night market. The temporary stalls setup along the street serve a dizzying array of street foods, Assam laksa, sticks of charcoal grilled satay, char kway teoh noodles, apom balik pancakes, colourful kuihs and deep fried delicacies. At the fruit stalls huge jackfruits are shredded for ripe flesh that is so sweet that it is almost fermenting in your mouth.

It is not just food on sale. Poor quality ripoffs of branded clothes, bags and shoes, cheap toys, gadgets and knick-knacks can be purchased for a few ringget. The pasar malam is one of B’s most cherished elements from her childhood in Malaysia, somewhere to escape in the evening for a bit of fun and food.

In the morning we wander along the streets looking for breakfast , happen upon an Indian run kopitiam setup outside the entrance of a shopping centre. The roti canai is chewy and salty in the way I love it, not like the roti prata of Singapore. The Milo ais is thick and sweet too. I had seconds.

Further along, B ordered more bak kut teh from another footpath stall, then we order a bunch of spiky red rambutan fruit and devour it all.

A heavy tropical downpour threatens to soak us, but we find shelter in a shopping centre, and it passes. Then we return to the hotel to check out.

We are told that the taxis direct to Singapore are no more and advised that the easiest way is probably the train. I took that route last year. They should use one of the older commuter sets that I saw scrapped along the tracks when I caught the train down from Butterworth, but instead it’s a run down locomotive hauled passenger train that travellers scramble to board with their luggage.

The journey itself is ludicrously short, five minutes to cross the causeway separating the two countries. The immigration formalities take longer than the journey. There is no MRT connection at the Singaporean end. With rain threatening and luggage we opt for convenience and hail down a taxi to take us direct to the hotel.

Our other favourite area to stay in Singapore other than Katong is near Tanjong Pagar, close to downtown. It also has rows of old shophouses, but these have been gentrified, turned into hipster friendly bars and cafes, Korean barbeque restaurants or wedding dress boutiques. It is still attractive, but there are more tourists and expats.

We watched the erection of the Oasia hotel on previous visits, its striking red steel exterior framework a trellis for a vertical garden of vines and ferns. I had booked us rooms in the hotel. Though modern, they are not particularly remarkable and fairly small. But I do enjoy the top floor swimming pool area, with its hanging basket chairs and poolside reclines, the breeze blowing through the steel lattice entwined with vines.

Again though, the focus is on food. The Maxwell Food Centre is a short walk away and the others insist on eating the signature dish of the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall, along with all the other tourists and school kids filling the centre.

In the evening we travel out to the unpretentious Old Lai Huat Seafood Restaurant at the end of Rangoon Road and gorge ourselves on chilli crab and sambal pomfret.

Alex tells us that he wants to revisit the Singapore Science Centre. We’ve been to science centres across the world, from Spotswood to Stockholm, continuing a tradition that started when I was a kid. Some tiny, others vast, but each offers something unique. My first visit to the Singapore Science Centre was on my very first overseas trip. Last time, it involved a temporary exhibition where we entered through a mouth and exited via an anus.

The museum features big spectacles like the lightning generating Tesla coil and the unique fire tornado, along with many smaller, but no less interesting exhibits. The radioactive particle spotting cloud chamber is back from my very first visit, though where I work has a science centre with one, so I am no longer quite so excited about it. I do enjoy the new addition of a mirror maze, where we use foam batons to find our way around. There is also a fun exhibition on fears and phobias, including the fear of turbulence and flying.

There is almost too much to see for a single visit and we skip some areas we have seen before. I’m exhausted and I can feel a migraine coming on as we walk out four hours later to have a late food court lunch at the Jurong East town centre.

It’s a long ride on the MRT to the airport. We aren’t actually leaving until tomorrow night, but we are off to experience the Jewel, after glimpsing it on arrival into Singapore.

This brand new structure only opened a couple of months ago. A flattened glass toroid with the world’s tallest artificial waterfall as its centrepiece, the Jewel sits in the square between Terminals 1, 2 and 3. It houses attractions, shops, restaurants and a hotel and around the walls of the inner ring of the toroid is a vast indoor forest leading up to the Canopy Gardens at the top floor.

We buy combination tickets for the attractions in the Canopy Gardens. I choose the less adventurous options, while Alex and B have more inclusions. Alex is too scared to try the faster Discovery Slide, where safety gear is compulsory, but both he and B try the bouncing Sky Nets, with all of us going over the Walking Net, a rope spiderweb with vertiginous views of the gardens and shopping floors below.

The hedge maze isn’t on par with those we did in Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula, but our second mirror maze of the day is fun for all the optical effects, if a little short. The gardens themselves are very calming, with topiary animals and a lawn with fog generators to give it a mystical look.

I admire the view from the Canopy Bridge, watching the waterfall change colour, turn to mist, the Sky Trains to terminal 2 passing by, affording passengers their own wonderful views of the Jewel.

We watch the light show, projections playing out across the central waterfall to Steve Jablonsky’s music to Transformers. Film musics plays constantly throughout the Jewel, much to my delight.

It is very late by the time we are finished exploring and we give up on finding local food, just join the queues for burgers and milkshakes at the Shake Shack. Alex fights efforts to explore shops like Tokyu Hands, though he shows more enthusiasm for the crowded Apple Store. Unlike the airport, most shops in the Jewel are not open twenty-four hours and it is time for us to finish for the day.

The Jewel is an impressive option for those with long transits at Changi Airport, with its combination of shopping and dining with activities and soothing greenery and water. And I think it encapsulates modern Singapore in many ways.

There is no doubt in my mind that I love wandering through planned gardens, be they in Jewel, Singapore’s Gardens By The Bay, the tourist village in Desaru or the famous gardens of Japan amongst many others. But they represent the human imposition of order upon nature, stealing away the chaotic surprise of the unknown, the undiscovered, the rough and the raw. Like the disappearing old towns and shop houses of Singapore, the grimy kopitiams and featureless restaurants, replaced by sterile streets and shopping malls, glitzy Michelin starred restaurants and trendy upmarket bars where the point is to be seen. A city where history is rewritten to suit the present narrative, where the old stories are demolished for not fitting in with the future.

I think there should be room for both.


One thought on "Food, flame and phobias"

  1. Nick says:

    Great article

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