Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dining in Cairns

Dining ala carte, alfresco dining, take-away, cafe, etc. are aplenty here in Cairns, especially along the esplanade between Aplin Street and Shields Street. In fact, you can find them all over Cairns but only here would you find them opened during public holidays. Almost all were offering Western fare, and at the esplanade, Asian style cuisine can be found only at the Night Market.

Here also, these dining premises opened early, some even before 7:00 a.m. and closed late at night. During my short stay in Cairns, I came here most of the time for my food.

I am really not adventurous with food. Though I like eating, I am more comfortable ordering and eating in familiar environment. Eating out at new dining establishments, ordering unfamiliar food or trying out unfamiliar cuisine happened mainly with friends. One major reason was because of that uncomfortable feeling of being watched and laughed at when you do not know how to order or eat your food, especially with Western cuisine. Do the Australians use a fork and knife when eating a big burger?!

I felt awkward as I held it in my hand and munched through it, instead of the fork and knife. Was I eating it the right way? The cost was AUD14.85 (beef burger = AUD8.90; fresh orange juice = AUD4.00; add 15% Easter holiday surcharge).

Was it good? Nay! Nothing special! This was my first time taking a meal, or rather brunch in Australia. It happened at a stall at Cairns Night Market at 10:08 a.m. on 2nd April 2010.

I did not take lunch that day. Apart from the reason of a late breakfast, the real reason was the expensive food here in Cairns. The brunch, converted into Malaysian Ringgit was approximately MYR45. You could have a feast with that money in Malaysia.

That evening, at about 4:30 p.m., I started to feel hungry. As is typical of Malaysian and Singaporean, the kiasu personality took over. It was back to the night market, this time for Asian food. Buy the plate size that you want, and fill her up with food until it could no longer hold any more food. Maximum satisfaction at minimum cost! That's the kiasu attitude. So, at Hot Wok, I had my fill.

Again, the taste was way below my expectation. The fried chicken coating was hard and not crispy. Overall, two out of five stars.

On 3rd April, 2010, I went to the Great Barrier Reef. A light breakfast was included in the package. It consisted of instant coffee that I made myself and two pieces of Danish pastry. The Danish pastry was quite good. No pictures here because I was too shy to take out my camera in front of strangers sitting right across me.

Lunch was Western fare. Cold and unpalatable! Overall, I gave it one star out of five.

Again, dinner was at the Night Market. Since food at Hot Wok did not satisfy my taste bud, I decided to try food from another stall. This time, it was Little Asian Delights. Again, I paid for the medium-sized plate for AUD12.50 and fill her up to the brim.

This time, I could not finish my plate of food. My stomach was full. The food was slightly better, at least as far as the fried chicken was concerned.

After downing the greasy food, I was craving for some cold drink, but decided on ice-cream. There were two stalls selling ice-cream, both along Aplin Street. On the way back to my lodging, I decided to buy a medium-sized cone of ice-cream. The cost was AUD4.80, and I was allowed to combine two flavours.

On 4th April 2010, my last full day in Cairns, I decided to have a breakfast of kebab. There were two stalls selling kebab rolls along the esplanade, one manned by a man who looked like he was from the Indian sub-continent, and another manned by a white woman. I have been eyeing the stalls for the last two days, and as I mentioned earlier, the feeling of awkwardness ordering unfamiliar food hindered me from buying it earlier. Anyway, early that morning, when there were not many people around who would be watching my every move ordering the kebab, I stopped at the stall manned by the white woman.

I told her I wanted a kebab roll of mixed meat, and asked her how she would prepare it (stupid question, on hindsight). She answered me, but it was not the answer I was hoping to get. However, I did not pursue with the question so as not to look stupid. She went about preparing the roll and asked me the sauce that I wanted, etc. Finally, after heating the kebab roll in the oven, it was in my hand. It cost me AUD13.50 (if I remember it correctly).

It has a sourish taste, most likely from the tomato and sauces. Those who like food with a sourish tinge might find it good, but not me. I would give it two stars out of five.

My philosophy on eating authentic food is to find it at its place of origin. For example, eating authentic and the best Sarawak Laksa in Kuching, Kampua in Sibu, Tom Yam in Thailand, Pho in Vietnam, etc. When I saw Lan's Vietnamese Cuisine up at Kuranda Village, it aroused my curiosity. Since almost all the eateries offered western food, I decided to take a look at the menu.

It looked like Malaysian favourite food and Thai Tom Yam had been hijacked as Vietnamese cuisine. Shameless business people! Are these Asian food prepared and cook in authentic manners? I did not know. Anyway, I decided to try Saigon Pho for my late lunch because it was the only Vietnamese sounding food available. Maybe readers can tell me whether the food looked authentic or not.

That evening, I had my last meal at yet another Asian food stall at the Night Market. After the previous evening experience of being unable to finish my plate of food, I took the smallest plate this time, for 10 dollars.

During my three nights of dining experience at these Asian stalls at Cairns Night Market, I made a few interesting observations.

Only Asians did what I did. There was a couple, likely to be Malaysians, who both took and fill to the brim their extra large or jumbo-sized plates. Imagine the quantity of food they took. I was finishing mine when they sat down at the table beside mine, and it would have been interesting to see whether they could actually finish their food and what they did with the leftover food.

There was also a family with one child, who filled a jumbo-sized plate to the brim with food. Then again, I saw them with one plate only, presumably to be shared by the three of them. How smart!

On the other hand, most whites took normal quantity of food, unlike the kiasu Asians. This was presumably because they did not think of the food as being too pricey, and had paid fair value for the normal amount of food. For Asian like Malaysian who took the normal amount of food, it would be like paying about MYR30 for what would be worth less than MYR10, or about AUD3.50. As such, they tend to take more to compensate for the relatively high price by Asian standard. It was just a natural reaction to get more for paying more.

Barron Falls and Kuranda Market

4th April 2010

I woke up at 5:15 a.m. The sound of rain spattering on solid surface could be heard. It sounded louder than the last two days. I went out to check and indeed, the rain was heavier than before. It had been raining almost continuously since I arrived on 1st April 2010. Today, the weather looked really bad. During the last two days, I could still go out without an umbrella, but not this morning.

By 6:45 a.m., I was down at the five-foot way of the lodging, waiting for the four-wheel drive to take me to Daintree, Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge. Finally, it arrived, at 7:10 a.m. This was no ordinary looking 4WD. It was grey in colour, and looked mean, like a garbage truck or an armour vehicle. There was no company logo or name on the vehicle.

The guide cum driver came out of the vehicle, and approached me. After confirming my identity, I boarded the vehicle. He apologised for being late by 10 minutes. Once inside, I waited for the guide to tell me to make payment. I waited. He did not do anything, but engaged himself in a radio call conversation with a woman. The conversation from the other end could be heard clearly, ".... refund their money or postpone the trip to another date". When the conversation ended, the guide explained that the Daintree River had flooded and the ferry crossing the Daintree River was grounded. As such, it was not possible to cross the river to Daintree.

I was going home the next day, and postponing the trip to another day was impossible. So much for my Cairns holiday plan! I decided to get the refund and go to Kuranda. It was better than idling in my room or roaming around the city aimlessly, with so many retails stores closed. Koala's office would only open at 8:00 a.m.

It was about 7:15 a.m. and I decided to go to Rusty's Market again, to check whether the stalls selling the cheap fresh water pearl were opened. The two stalls had not opened yet. I decided to buy a bunch of banana for breakfast, and it cost me 1.75 dollars. A kilogram would cost 1.99 dollars.

I went back to my room at Koala, and then came down to the office to get the refund and book the 9:30 a.m. package to Kuranda. Sandra checked for me whether a seat was still available. It was, but the time had been changed to 10:00 a.m., and I was advised to get ready by 10:10 a.m.! I asked her whether the scenic train was in operation or not, and she called again. No, it was not in operation. The train service was grounded due to a landslide that had blocked the railway line. The train was only expected to resume service the following week. When I realised Sandra could not find the word 'landslide' to describe the disruption to the train service, I asked her about her nationality. She replied saying that she was French and she immigrated to Australia four years ago. She was still picking up the language.

As the train was not in service, I would be using the Skyrail to Kuranda and back, and needed to pay an additional 5 dollars for the package. The total cost was now AUD107 instead of AUD102.

Since I had plenty of time to spare, I decided to buy my breakfast at the esplanade. I had been eyeing the two kebab stalls along the esplanade for the last two days. Finally, I had the mixed kebab rolls in my hand.

Then, I went back to Rusty's Market to check whether the two pearl jewellery stalls had opened. They were still closed. I could not wait any longer, and did not want to regret not purchasing the jewellery. So, I decided to purchase three pairs of pearl jewellery for AUD15 from a smaller vendor. The original price was AUD10 per pair or AUD15 for two pairs. Now, the stall holder was offering them for AUD15 for three pairs.

I was soon on the way back to Koala to get ready for the Kuranda trip. Tropical Horizon tour bus arrived punctually at 10:10 a.m. Again, after confirming my identity, the guide cum driver allowed me to board the bus. I paid him AUD100 and he returned five cents to me, while handing me discounts coupons and an identification sticker. It was soon on the way to pick up more guests from hotels across Cairns. We passed by large fields of sugar cane and finally arrived at the Skyrail station. The guide cum driver asked us to wait for him while he went to purchase the Skyrail tickets.

At 11:05 a.m., the gondola I was in started to ascend. Once airborne, I realised my mistake of coming to Kuranda. The air was filled with mist, rendering the panorama a picture of white. It was still raining, without abating.

At 11:20 a.m., I arrived at the first station, Red Peak Station, where the gondola terminated its journey. Passengers could either embark on the next gondola to go to the Barron Station or walk along a short board walk to see the tropical forest. I chose the later and it was a boring walk, with a long queue building up at the station for the embarkation to Barron Station.

At 12:00 noon, I departed Red Peak Station for the second station, Barron Station. In 15 minutes, I reached the Barron Station. The air was still filled with mist. Barron Falls could not be seen from the first two lookouts (viewing points). At the third lookout, the Falls could be seen but it was covered in thick mist.

At 12:35 p.m. we left the second station for Kuranda. Kuranda was 1.7 km away. At 12:45, we reached Kuranda Skyrail Station. Here, while pulling out the handle of my Taiwan-made umbrella, the handle detached from the umbrella. It was as good as gone.

We could walk or take the free bus to Kuranda Village. As it was raining, I decided to take the free bus.

Kuranda Village is practically a shopping district for souvenirs, consisting mainly of handicraft and local jewellery, garments, etc. and has many eateries. It also has Birdworld, Butterfly Sanctuary and Koala Garden. If you have been to Penang Hill, or known locally as Bukit Bendera, in the state of Penang in Malaysia, then you will feel as though you are taking the same trip all over again, except that this is very much more expensive, bigger and has more shops and places to eat.

The shops started closing before 3:00 p.m. and visitors started leaving the market at about the same time. I departed Kuranda Skyrail Station at about 3:30 p.m., after a long queue. I stopped at the Barron Station once more to see the Barron Falls.

The gondola reached its final destination at about 4:30 p.m. At 4:45 p.m., Tropical Horizon coach took me back to my lodging, and thus ended my Kuranda visit.