Tulip extravaganza at Keukenhof, South Holland

It is impossible to live in Amsterdam in spring and not hear the name ‘Keukenhof’ tossed around a fair bit. This being my first spring in Amsterdam, I was not going to let my allergies stop me from visiting this floral wonderland.

The literal translation of Keukenhof is ‘kitchen garden’. It is said that in the early part of the 15th century, the Countess Jacqueline of Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland, gathered fresh produce for her kitchen from the woods surrounding her castle. Soon enough, the area began to be referred as ‘Keukenhof’.

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The main entrance to Keukenhof

Over the centuries, the area went through a series of transformations and today, Keukenhof serves as a platform for Dutch floriculture suppliers to showcase their best, spring-flowering bulbs. In the current edition of Keukenhof (held from 23rd Mar till 21st May 2017), an estimated 7 million flower bulbs were planted in the 32-hectare park, by nearly 100 suppliers.

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One of the many stunning tulip patches

Visiting Keukenhof is a highly sensory experience. Interestingly shaped flower patches, the vibrantly coloured tulips, cultivars with flowers in every conceivable shape, a medley of floral scents – all  dazzle the senses. The many passerine birds that dart furiously across the shrubs and trees, provide a cheerful background symphony.

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Vibrant colours everywhere! 

Beyond the periphery of Keukenhof, are privately owned tulip fields. These fields are harvested by end-April, so be sure to go early if you’d like to pose amidst long rows of brightly coloured tulips. I went mid-May and sadly, missed seeing the tulip fields in bloom.

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Harvested tulip fields as seen from the viewing platform of the Keukenhof windmill

I have however, seen the tulip fields from a distance, during a train ride from Amsterdam to Delft. A real feast for the eyes, despite the distance and the speed of the train.

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View of the tulip fields in Lisse, from the train

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Another view of  tulip fields from the train

On the subject of tulips, few people know that these flowers, so synonymous with the Netherlands, are not actually native to the country. They were introduced here by botanist Carolus Clusius in 1493, when he served as Director of Leiden University’s Hortus Botanicus, now the oldest botanical garden in the Netherlands. To cut a long story short, it was those very tulips that birthed the Dutch tulip industry.

The name ‘tulip’ is widely believed to be derived from the Persian word dulband, meaning turban; possibly in reference to the shape of the flower resembling the male headwear that was popular in the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa, in those times.

Back to present day! Both Keukenhof and the tulip fields are located in the town of Lisse, an easy day trip from Amsterdam. The connectivity via public transport is excellent. For exact directions, click here.

During the 8 weeks that Keukenhof is open, there are several events and activities – a delightful Flower Parade, flower shows, flower arranging demonstrations, guided tours and the likes. You can read more about that here.

I leave you with a few more pictures from my visit to Keukenhof….

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Windmill at the edge of the gardens

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Chessboard display at Keukenhof

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Above the treetops at MacRitchie Reservoir Park, Singapore

Up until a few months ago, I was living in sunny Singapore. Since then, I have moved continents, to the land of canals and krokets, Amsterdam, and find myself trying to make sense of a very fickle spring.

When I think about my time in the Little Red Dot, I’m happy I was able to capture different facets of the city, via my articles for PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. So here is, the last of these nuggets from the city I called home for nearly 6 years.

My article in the May-June’17 issue of PASSAGE encapsulates my many wonderful memories of the MacRitchie Reservoir Park in Singapore. Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

2017_May-June_MacRitchie

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

I’d like to reiterate that when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb wildlife and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old saying goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

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You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Pasir Ris Park

Birds of Singapore

Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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By the sea at Scheveningen, South Holland

I first heard of Scheveningen thanks to Van Gogh’s 1882 painting ‘View of the Sea at Scheveningen’ (also known as ‘Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather’). This was one of the two masterpieces stolen from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam in a brazen heist in 2002. The other stolen painting being ‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen’, originally painted by Van Gogh in 1884 and then modified in 1885, possibly immediately after his father’s death in March 1885.

Thankfully, both paintings were recovered in 2016 after a lengthy investigation by the Naples police and were put back on display at the Van Gogh Museum on 22nd March 2017. On that day, amidst a sea of tourists and Van Gogh admirers, I caught a glimpse of the two paintings. Photography is not allowed inside the Van Gogh museum, so sadly, I have no pictures of the two paintings.

But I digress. Since the move to Amsterdam, the Hubs was missing the beach and blue waters, which we had gotten so used to in Asia. So we decided to head to the beach we had read so much about – Scheveningen. It was a cold and cloudy day and I was hoping people would stay indoors, but they obviously thought differently. Apparently Scheveningen is a popular destination, even in winter.

A train and tram ride later (about 1.5 hours in total), we were at Scheveningen beach. Wanting to pay our respects to the North Sea, we dipped our feet in the water, knowing fully well that the water would be freezing! Suffice to say, we were cold for a really long time after!

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Feet in the freezing water – definitely a first! 

We wanted to get to a quieter part of the beach, so we walked past the pier to the northern end and stopped at the furthermost restaurant on that stretch, Het Puntje, meaning ‘the tip’ in obvious reference to its location.

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View of the pier at Scheveningen, from the northern end of the beach

Rarely do I recommend restaurants (I find most of them pretentious and impersonal) but stepping into the Het Puntje felt like visiting an old friend. A cozy fireplace, rustic wood and rattan furniture, quirky accents – it had all the elements of a charming country home. The friendly owner (and his dog!) kept checking on us throughout our meal and we chatted with him about our lives, the restaurant, the WWII bunkers nearby and so many other things. The food was absolutely fantastic too! Well worth the long walk on a cold beach. By the time, we done with our meal, the sun was out.

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Sunny view of Scheveningen pier from Het Puntje

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two of the many WWII bunkers built by the Germans as part of the Atlantic Wall

Wanting to grab some sunshine while we had the chance, we climbed the steps next to Het Puntje, leading into the Meijendel.

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Entry to the Meijendel Nature Reserve from Scheveningen beach

Meijendel is the largest interconnected dune area in South Holland and stretches between Scheveningen, Den Haag (The Hague) and Wassenaar. And while on the subject on South Holland, please allow me to clarify that ‘Holland’ and ‘Netherlands’ are not synonymous. Holland is the collective term for only two of the 12 provinces in the Netherlands, the two provinces being North and South Holland. The reason behind why the two terms are used interchangeably goes back in time to the Dutch Golden Age. But once again, I digress.

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Dunes of the Meijendel Nature Reserve from a distance

We entered the Meijendel and took a leisurely stroll along its periphery. Heard several bird songs but no luck with reindeer though.

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The one black sheep in a large herd grazing in the Meijendel

Post lunch was not the best time to go hiking, so we made a mental note to return to the dunes, and walked back to the pier. Meijendel ranks as one of the top-10 bird rich areas in the Netherlands, so a second visit is a definitely on the cards for me.

Schevenigen is an easy day-trip from Amsterdam. Take the train to Den Haag and from right outside the Den Haag train station, board Tram 9 (direction Scheveningen Northern beach). Disembark at the Kurhaus, an ornate historical building originally built in 1884-85, that now functions as a hotel. The pier is only a couple of minutes away.

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The Kurhaus from the beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Under the pier at Scheveningen

As we walked along Scheveningen beach, it was a joy to watch the tall grass sway in the wind, the oystercatchers pecking in the sand, the antics of the pet dogs and their owners. And not to forget the mysterious-looking WWII bunkers in the dunes, which I’m told are now closed to the public.

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A doggy enjoying some sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Oystercatcher digs in the sand for its meal

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An European Herring Gull basks in the sun at Scheveningen promenade

All in all, a lovely afternoon at Scheveningen beach! Highly recommend a visit, if you happen to be in the vicinity.

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Birdwatching in Amsterdam

Following my birdwatching experiences in Singapore, India, Seychelles and Sulawesi (Indonesia); I’m delighted to add Amsterdam to the list. In the 6 weeks that we’ve lived in the Dam, I’ve been able to observe and photograph a good number of birds. Staying in the vicinity of Vondelpark has its advantages.

I know very little about European birds, so this is a great opportunity for me to educate myself on the subject. And make some great additions to my ‘Life List’ too. Here goes….

In our garden / neighbourhood

Common Chaffinch

A female Common Chaffinch enjoys the onset of Spring

Eurasian Blackbird

This is the legendary Eurasian Blackbird, popularised in the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a song of six pence’

Common Wood Pigeon

The Common Wood Pigeon is a large bird in the pigeon/dove family

Tufted Duck

A male Tufted Duck photographed in a neighbourhood canal

Eurasian Coot

The white frontal shield of the Eurasian Coot gave rise to the phrase ‘as bald as a coot’

In Vondelpark

(photographed over multiple visits to the park, including a Amsterdam Bird Walk led by Arjan Dwarshuis, the record holder for the Global Big Year 2016)

European Robin

The adorable European Robin is called ‘roodborstje’ in Dutch, in reference to its red chest

Long-tailed Tit

The tail of the Long-tailed Tit (at 7-9cm) is much longer than its tiny body (5-6cm)

Eurasian Blue Tit

The Eurasian Blue Tit is a delightful little bird with a blue crown

Great Tit

At 13-14cm, the Great Tit is a larger in size that other species in the tit family

Eurasian Nuthatch

This is the Eurasian Nuthatch. The name ‘nuthatch’ comes from its tendency to hack at nuts it has stored  away in crevices

Great Spotted Woodpecker

The male of the Great Spotted Woodpecker exhibits red markings on the head/neck

Carrion Crow

A Carrion Crow walks around looking for food

Eurasian Magpie

The Eurasian Magpie, a species in the crow family, is a highly intelligent bird

Egyptian Goose

A family of Egyptian Geese. This  species is native to Central & South Africa but there is a self sustaining population in the Netherlands

Common Moorhen

The Common Moorhen is part of the rail family

Grey Heron

A Grey Heron watches the water for its prey

Male Mallard

The blue speculum feathers of a male Mallard visible as it preens itself

Female Mallard

A female Mallard enjoys the water

Indian Rose-ringed Parakeet

A sleeping Indian Rose-ringed Parakeet. This tropical bird has made Vondelpark its home

In Zaanse Schans

(a charming Dutch town on the outskirts of Amsterdam)

Northern Lapwing

The Northern Lapwing is listed by IUCN as ‘Near Threatened’, due to habitat loss and the fact that it’s eggs were once considered a delicacy

Black-tailed Godwit

Also listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by IUCN, the Black-tailed Godwit was once highly prized as food

Eurasian Oystercatcher

The national bird of the Faroe Islands, the Eurasian Oystercatcher is also listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by IUCN

Caspian Gull

A Caspian Gull rests in the grassland

Greylag Goose

The Greylag Goose was revered in ancient European cultures

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There are many more species that I’ve spotted or heard. Hopefully, I’ll be able to photograph them in the days to come. So do check back for more pictures of birds, seen in and around Amsterdam.

Tot ziens! 😀

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Our first month in Amsterdam

Can’t believe an entire month has gone by since the Hubs and I arrived in Amsterdam! Of course, it has all been about moving into our apartment, setting up things, formalities and other mundane details that needed to be taken care of, before we can actually start enjoying the city. But despite the fact that it has turned out to be such a busy month, we did have some interesting times.

For starters, we’ve had to learn the life-saving skill of dodging cyclists. Doesn’t help that I keep forgetting about the cycling lane! Cyclists have the right of way here and they RULE the road (sometimes even the pavement!). Several misadventures on this front but I’m not complaining. I love how great cycling is for the environment!

Here are some of our memorable ‘firsts’ in Amsterdam……

The first Dutch snack we tried

I like to call them ‘little balls of heaven’ but they are known here as bitterballen (plural). Always served with a side of mustard.

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These usually get gobbled up before I can even think of taking a picture! 🙂

This savoury bar snack has a crispy fried outer coating that perfectly complements the mushy beef filling inside. I’m told that back in the day Dutch housewives created this snack as a way to use up leftover meat. Pure genius!

The filling inside is a mixture of puréed beef, butter, flour, beef stock, herbs and seasonings, but it’s the subtle hint of nutmeg that really takes this snack over the top. And be extra careful when you bite into a bitterbal coz the filling tends to be piping hot. Lesson learnt the hard way 😦

Even for someone like me who doesn’t enjoy meat, this crispy delight is hard to resist. As the Dutch say, ‘lekker’ (yummy)!

First time eating out of a hole in the wall

Well, not really a ‘hole’, more like a vending box.

We had heard so much about the legendary ‘Wall of Fried Food’ before we even got to Amsterdam, so we were looking forward to finding one. This is basically a vending machine but for hot snacks like krokets (croquettes), frinkandel (a deep fried sausage), kaassoufflé (a deep fried hot pocket with a cheese filling)….. you get the drift. Burgers too.

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Spoilt for choice!

FEBO and Smullers are the two brands that offer this service. So if you’re feeling peckish anywhere in the city, just find the outlet nearest to you, drop your coins in the slot and grab your hot snack! I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

First bird I photographed in Amsterdam

Having lived in Asia for most of my life (India & Singapore), I know nothing about European birds. So every new bird species I see and photograph here is exciting. I’ve photographed several birds over the past few weeks (helps to be living in the vicinity of Vondelpark) but the first bird I photographed here, the Eurasian Magpie, will always be special. For my post on birdwatching in Amsterdam, click here.

Eurasian Magpie

The highly intelligent Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica)

The Dutch take birdwatching very seriously and the record holder for the Global Big Year 2016, Arjan Dwarshuis, is from Amsterdam. Arjan traveled to 40 different countries and observed a staggering 6,850 bird species over a span of 366 days.

First day trip out of Amsterdam

This past weekend, our itchy feet led us to make an impromptu day trip out of Amsterdam. A short train ride and we were transported back in time to the Dutch town of Zaanse Schans, which showcases Dutch life in the mid-19th century. We went for the windmills but were pleasantly surprised to observe a variety of birds in the grasslands.

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Windmills everywhere you look!

Coming soon an entire blog post dedicated to this charming town.

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There have been so many other wonderful experiences – the onset of Spring, exploring my neighbourhood, going for walks at Vondelpark, receiving my museumkaart, my first visit to the Rijksmuseum with my museumkaart, seeing the 2 stolen Van Gogh paintings back on display at the Van Gogh Museum……I’ve lost count.

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A serene morning at Vondelpark

As our seemingly unending list of ‘Things to Do’ gets a bit shorter by the day, we can’t wait to explore Amsterdam, Netherlands and the rest of Europe. Stay tuned!

For now, tot straks! (See you later!)

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A Himalayan Retreat in NYC – The Rubin Museum

Like most seekers, and artist of every kind, I’ve been drawn to the Himalayas for as long as I can remember. Thanks to my recent relocation to Amsterdam, it’ll be a while before I can even think of undertaking a trip to this wonderous part of the world.

During my last trip to New York City (Dec 2015), I was thrilled to hear about a museum dedicated to Himalayan art, right in the heart of the Big Apple. The Rubin Museum of Art focusses on the preservation and promotion of Himalayan artistic traditions, and has a permanent collection of over 2,500 paintings, sculptures and textiles from the Tibetan plateau as well as neighbouring areas in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia and China. The private collection of Donald and Shelly Rubin forms the core of the permanent collection but the museum is a non-profit, public one.

One of the highlights of the museum is the recreation of a Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room. I could have spent hours in this serene haven. If at anytime, you are looking for an oasis of calm in the midst of the NYC chaos, this is the place to visit.

More about the Rubin Museum in my article for the Mar-Apr’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore.

Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

Rubin Museum_NYC

(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

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Memories of Pasir Ris Park, Singapore

I was reminded by a fellow-nature lover that today, March 3rd, is World Wildlife Day. So the timing of this post couldn’t be any better! 🙂

Following my much loved blog post on Pasir Ris Park, I had the opportunity to share some of the pictures once again via a photo feature in the Mar-Apr’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

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(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

Once again, I’d like to emphasize that when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb creatures and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old saying goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

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For my original post on Pasir Ris Park, please click here.

You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve

Birds of Singapore

Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

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My Farewell Tribute to Singapore

After six wonderful years in Singapore, the hubs and I recently moved to Amsterdam.

I couldn’t have offered a better farewell tribute to Singapore than this 12-page feature in the Mar’17 issue of Holland Herald, the inflight magazine of KLM airlines. First published on 21st January 1966, Holland Herald has been around for over half a century and holds the remarkable distinction of being the oldest inflight magazine in the world.

So without further ado, here it is – my article about the city I once called home. Kindly note, that the pictures in the article are not mine.

(Please click on the image below to read the PDF of the article)

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(Reproduced with permission)

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Vasai Fort: Remnants of a Forgotten Empire

A white peacock dances in all its ethereal glory. Sadhus (holy men) in their flowing, orange robes float across the screen. Beyoncé is dressed in resplendent Indian (more like Bollywood) attire. This is the opening sequence of Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ video, filmed at the imposing Vasai Fort, on the outskirts of Mumbai (Bombay), India.

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Entry to the Gonsalo Garcia Dominican Church, established in 1583. This one of the 7 churches in the Vasai Fort complex.

My fascination with Vasai Fort goes back a long way. I spent my childhood and early adult years, not too far from this magnificent edifice but it is only more recently that I began digging into its history. Here’s my attempt at crunching 500 years of its history into a quick read.

After 11 perilous months at sea, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama landed on the shores of Calicut in southwest India on 20th May 1498, thus pioneering the highly sought after sea route to India. But even before this momentous discovery, the city of Vasai (on the west coast of India, to the north of Calicut and Bombay) was a thriving port, frequented by traders from the Middle East and Europe, including the famous Venetian merchant, Marco Polo.

Early navigational maps, like the India Orientalis (1579) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, mention Baçaim (the Portuguese name for Vasai). Such was its prominence in those days.

On 23rd December 1534, the city of Vasai was ceded by its then ruler Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat to the Portuguese. The Portuguese went on to build a massive fort, Fortaleza de São Sebastião de Baçaim (Fort of St. Sebastian of Vasai), with an entire town enveloped within the fort walls. Vasai Fort served as the capital of the powerful northern Portuguese province (Corte da Norte) and until it was lost to the Marathas in 1739. After multiple battles between the Marathas and the British for control of the fort and surrounding areas, they came to a mutually convenient arrangement in 1802. The British however, preferred the neighbouring island of Mombaim (Bombay), which became a key centre for the East India Company; and in due course, Vasai lost its significance. Presently, the fort is managed by the Archaeological Survey of India.

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The inside view of one section of Vasai Fort

On our recent visit to Vasai Fort, we only had a couple to hours to spare. This was barely enough time to walk through even one small section of this 110-acre fort complex. But even in this very short span of time, it was not hard to imagine the grandeur of the fort in its hey days.

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An art student sketches a part of the Vasai Fort

So if you happen to be in Mumbai and are looking to do a fun day trip, consider the Vasai Fort. It is best visited with tour companies like No Footprints, who organize bespoke Mumbai experiences. If you are local, you know how to get here.

I leave you with some of my pictures taken in and around the fort.

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The Church of Our Lady of Life (Nossa Senhora da Vida), established in 1536

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A grazing cow accompanied by a Cattle Egret, walks around the fort

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An uncommon sighting of a Bengal monitor lizard at the fort

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A Rose-ringed Parakeet enjoys the morning sun

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A golawala (‘gola’ means ball, ‘wala’ means seller) readies his cart for business, outside the fort. He sells shaved ice balls, served in a variety of flavours.

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A local friend shares the front seat with the rickshaw driver, on the ride from Vasai Railway Station to the fort

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Salt pans spotted en route to Vasai by train

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A Walk in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Singapore

One of the first forest reserves established in Singapore (1883), the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, is the largest remaining tract of primary rainforest on the island. It was closed to the public for two years for some much-needed restoration work and reopened on 22nd October ’16.

Overjoyed to be back in this thriving rainforest, I wrote a quick piece for the Jan-Feb’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. Presenting my first article in print for 2017…..

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I cannot emphasise this enough – when visiting any nature reserve/park, please be extremely respectful of the environment. Loud chatting or music will disturb creatures and ruin any chance of spotting them. Going off-trail to get a picture damages the very ecosystem that nurtures these species. As the old adage goes…

Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

************************************************************************

You can read more about the wildlife/natural history of Singapore in the following posts:

MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Pasir Ris Park

Birds of Singapore

Wallace Trail

Singapore Botanic Gardens

************************************************************************

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