Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On to Thailand

Monday, Krabi, Thailand

After a long day traveling through Bangkok we finally land in Krabi, Thailand. Krabi “International” Airport is one of those rural airports where there are no jet ways. The plane just lands and a little army of people, in big sun hats, are waiting to drag steps up to the plane. Some of the women are holding homemade straw brooms presumably to sweep up the plane for the return flight to Bangkok. It was just getting dark when we landed, so there wasn’t much to see. We grabbed a cab for the 40-minute ride to AoNang beach. 

AoNang Beach
I was tired and a little disoriented dropping into a strange place in the dark. Usually we try to land in the daytime, but there are not many planes going down to Krabi Province. I can’t say AoNang Beach impressed me much on first look. Our hotel “the Vogue Resort” is nice, but situated in the middle of a northern European ghetto. The streets are filled with numerous noisy bars, restaurants and places offering cheap tattoos and trinkets. It’s crowded, humming with some seriously fat, Northern European “farong” (foreigners) smoking, eating and getting drunk. After getting back to our room, I say to Mike, “I hope it gets better after a good night sleep”. Unfortunately it’s some holiday and the bar across the street starts the bad rock and roll at ten. I fish out my airline earplugs, but even those couldn’t stop what passed for music. I normally love rock and blues, but the Thais don’t have a clue about American music and The Scandinavians don’t either, so I guess it’s a fit. One Ativan later I finally fall asleep, hoping for a better day.

Tuesday, Ao Nang Beach, Thailand

Everything is better in the morning. After a good breakfast and plenty of bad Thai instant coffee, (I swear that stuff is a natural diuretic) we took a walk along the beach. Huge karsts formations dot the land and out in the sea. The water is that beautiful south sea green with colorful Thai longboats waiting to take you to the island of your choice. We get oriented, research things to do and decide to book a boat trip to the national park for tomorrow. We had a delicious Thai lunch and headed to our big hotel pool with the elephant head fountains and relax the rest of the day. We try to exchange our room for one farther from the bad bar music. No dice, the hotel is full the entire week, busy season. Our hotel staff swears they don’t do that music every night, I hope they’re right.

Wednesday, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

A typical Thai Longboat
Today it's off to Phang Nga Bay National Park. This beautiful bay, with its many islands, was the backdrop for a James Bond Movie some years back and it’s now a popular visitor destination. We booked a small 12-person tour by mini van and Thai longboat. Thai longboats are basic big wooden rowboats with a tall nose and a noisy, uncovered, stinky car engine, sitting in the middle the back section of the craft. There is an 8-foot bar, attached to the rear of the engine with a small propeller on the end, the boat driver simply steers the boat by moving the motor with a short handle on the opposite side.  These things usually hold about 8-12 people, (often more) and have the sea worthiness of a bathtub. There are usually no ladders to help you get into the boat or enough life jackets if it does a Titanic. It’s all Karma here, no lawyers.

Our group of 12 is international, Mike and I again solely representing the USA. We travel north by van, for about an hour, passing through an agricultural countryside dotted with Mosques and temples. Lots of rubber trees being tapped, palm oil being manufactured and of course fishing remind me of what used to be here before; well… us. We are good for the local economy; in fact tourism is 14% of the GNP the rest is agriculture. On the skinny median of the 4-lane main road I see a cow grazing. I suppose it’s what’s for dinner in Ao Nang should it walk in front of our van.

James Bond Island, shaken but not stirred
We arrive at a little dock; our longboat waits with not a lifejacket to be seen. We all pile into the unstable little boat with our very humorous lady-boy tour guide up front. I figure I can swim well so no worries, Sabi Sabi, as they say in Thailand. Phang Nga Bay is everything it’s cracked up to be, strange and fascinating shapes suddenly raising hundreds of feet out of the sea. Our delightfully effeminate tour guide names the individual islands, called Ko that just means island in Thai. They seem to be named literally by what they look like, including KO Silicone, (you get the picture).

Our Ladyboy tour guide
Our first stop is James Bond Island, which was chosen as one of the locations for the 1974 James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun as the hideout for Bond's antagonist, Francisco Scaramanga. Scaramanga wouldn’t be caught dead here today unless he liked big Japanese tour groups. Since James Bond Island can be easily reached from the beaches of crowded Phuket Island, it’s packed with people and boats. In spite of this blatant commercialism it’s still an amazingly beautiful island with small Karsts formations and interesting caves you can walk through. I admit the beauty of the place was lost with the hordes descending, but you could see what it once was. We got tired of the crowds, gave up and just watched the longboat drivers fighting it out for parking on the beach with lots of bumping and loud Thai.

A typical cave temple resident
just add food
After further exploring some fascinating caves and other islands with our long boat, we headed off for our “included” lunch at a Muslim stilt village out in the water. After a lunch of as bland as it gets Thai food, (spicy, but not nuclear) we head off to the Monkey Cave Temple, which is basically a temple in a cave with a zillion monkeys. Before you could say “Darwin’s law” they were all over us looking for treats and some quite aggressive, but it sure was a crowd pleaser. On to a cave with Buddhist statuary complete with very large bats. A word about the Thailand’s critters, if you fear things that go bump in the night, Thailand might not be your country. I’ve seen spiders and bugs you could call “Sir”(on the menu in some quarters).  Some of the bats are the size of small cats, also plenty of 
snakes, lizards and frogs. Did I mention Tigers?

After our “Origin of the Specious encounter” the last stop was a tropical waterfall with a swimming hole. I was so hot by then I jumped in with all my clothes, it was a wet van ride back to the hotel. By the end of this day Mike and I were senior citizen tired, and somewhere I had lost my only hat. Since no room change was possible, we faced the music, we put in our earplugs, and hit the sack. I think I’m getting used to it.

Thursday, Railay Beach, Thailand

Taking a longboat to Railay Beach. You can only get to this beach by longboat since there are no roads. Longboats sit down at the end of Main Street, which borders the beach, and when they get 8 or 9 folks they go. The trip costs 100 Bhat, round trip, about a dollar ten in greenbacks. With no dock you just hike out into the knee high water and climb into a bobbing longboat, I toss my shoes in ahead of me, trying to keep them dry (lost cause). The boat sides are pretty high; it took a few tries before I could gracefully get into the boat without looking like a total klutz. The agile Thai boat drivers are ever polite and try to help the people who can’t manage easily, which is mostly everybody.
 Typical Stilt Village

Railay beach, which is on a small peninsula jutting into the sea, has the most amazing white sand on the West side and on the East it’s all mangrove. This beach is popular with younger backpacking climbers. The Mangrove side is dotted with dumpy backpacker hostels, cheap trinket stalls and places selling or renting climbing gear and snack shops. The center of the peninsula is a Thai slum, complete with rotting garbage, cooking up in the tropical heat and some free range chickens I suspect could be my lunch.

After a short Railay recon we decide the white sand beach is our stop for the day. This beach is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen so far and beats Ao Nang town beach, with it’s nasty foot stabbing mini seashells. We find a tiny patch of shade and park our blanket, also known as my sarong. The water is walk-in warm, clear as glass and Bora Bora bright green. We read and relax, what can be bad. Paradise is good.

By late afternoon the sun getting higher and the day is getting hotter and our little piece of shade is evaporating. I realize I am burning and getting dehydrated fast, time to stop in at a little cafe on the beach to rehydrate, where we spend time talking to one of the few Americans we’d met so far. It’s amazing how much you miss hearing an American accent when all you hear are Scandinavians and Germans. People you would think are from the U.S. often turning out to be English or Australian.

Sunset on AoNang Beach
Later we catch the next longboat back to Ao Nang, and get drinks and dinner at an outdoor Thai seafood restaurant (cheap and delicious) with a front row view of sunset. Sunset I’ve learned the hard way brings out swarms of mosquitoes, the national bird of Southeast Asia, so don’t forget your Deet.

Friday, Ko Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

Today we decide to go to the Ko Pi Pi Islands. These islands are known for their beauty and if you’ve ever seen the movie, “The Beach”, with Leonardo Di Caprio, it was filmed right on Ko Pi Pi Leh, which is a national park and still mostly uninhabited. Since these islands are farther from Ao Nang, out in the rougher Andaman Sea, we are advised to take the larger speedboat. Ko Pi Pi Tours pick us up at 8:00 by van, stopping at various hotels to pick up additional folks, we make our way to a staging dock area containing a grass roofed shack complete with free range chickens, squat toilets and a home made wooden dock. The only common language is English, (sort of) which is not spoken well by either the Thais or the Europeans. It’s a regular Tower of Babel out here. I’m always amazed, after spending time in this country, how well the Thais manage to get everything done so efficiently with so little English. When in doubt, just smile, it’s the Thai way. They don’t call this place the land of smiles for nothing.

The speedboat dock
These sleek fast speedboats hold about 18 passengers, 5-crew, a driver, a guide, and 3 crew members to assist the driver in beaching the boat on the dock-less island beaches, and helping us Farongs in and out of the boat. Our boat, number 9, has (3) 200CC outboard marine engines in the rear, and a canvas roof to keep off the tropical rays. After picking up a few people at breathtakingly beautiful island resorts we are off to Pi Pi. The trip takes about an hour to the first stop, Bamboo Island, which is just a drop dead beautiful beach. Someone must have requested a toilet because our guide said, “use ocean toilet”. That pretty much summed up the services on Bamboo.

Ko Pi Pi Leh
Then it was off to Pi Pi Leh. Our first stop was a gorgeous bay surrounded by steep mountains rising sharply from the sea. With water like green glass you could see all the tropical fish without a snorkel. Then off to Maya Beach, which was the actual beach used in the movie “The Beach”.  Sadly the popularity of the movie killed this place. There was speedboat gridlock as all the boats jockeyed for a spot to park. Our boat was beached by pushing two other boats aside. We just took a short swim just to cool off, among the hordes, and then hung out on the boat talking with the only other two Americans I had seen in days.

Then off for some snorkeling Thai style, which is a group of boats turning dangerously on anchor in deep rough water. At one point a big swell hit the bay and all the boats began colliding. I swam away from the boats and treaded water until the frantic crews got it all under control. If it weren’t so dangerous, with all the people in the water between the boats, it would have been funny. In spite of all the excitement the snorkeling was only so so. I suspect the 2004 tsunami scoured the bottom. Things were just coming back. A word about the tsunami, it’s never mentioned by the locals. We did discuss it with our hotel manager who is Dutch. The only sign you can see, that it ever happened, is signage pointing out evacuation routes and the tall warning sirens on every beach.
Snorkeling Thai style

Ko Pi Pi itself was just plain too crowded. It is a very beautiful spot that has been loved to death. It looked like the beach at Coney Island in August with wall-to-wall people weatherizing in the sun. You can smell the hot sun tan oil. The harbor is a circus of watercraft, from humble longboats to giant ferries from the mainland and everything in between. We actually had real trouble locating our boat for the return trip. We wandered around lost until we finally located good old number 9.

Then back to the mainland, the boat beach in Ao Nang was at low tide; so going up the homemade dock was like climbing a ladder. We hung around with the free-range chickens and wandering barefoot toddlers while waiting for our ride back to the hotel. The van to our hotel never showed, so we hopped into the next van heading for AoNang Center after the driver agreed to take both of us in the passenger seat. It was time for drinks and dinner anyway.

Saturday, Ao Nang Beach, Thailand

A day of rest was what the doctor ordered. We took our books and blanket to the town beach, found a tree and parked for the rest of the day. We had a light lunch at a farong Thai restaurant that was only so so, but they had a scrawny Christmas tree with plastic reindeer at the bottom. Nobody had told them Christmas was over long ago.

Pepper Crab at the
Lae Lay Seafood Grill
We had gotten the name of an excellent seafood restaurant from our hotel manager and decided to celebrate Mike’s birthday there. Since the restaurant was a little out of town, they had their very own Songthaew (pickup truck taxi) to transport you to the restaurant. The Lae Lay Sea Food grill was situated grandly on a hillside lording it over the whole town. The Songthaew left us at the bottom of a very long set of uneven stone stairs. The view that greeted us was well worth the climb. You could see for miles overlooking Ao Nang and far out to sea with the sun setting behind the wonderful rock formations. They had an open kitchen where you could watch the chefs working, in fact since Thailand is always hot, no walls at all in the entire place. I secretly told the waitress we had a birthday at our table and we settled down for a few drinks at a good table over looking the setting sun. If the food had been inedible I would have enjoyed this restaurant, but the food was really good, with dishes I had never tried before. Their Tam Yum was the best I’ve ever had and the crab was rich and tasty. Of course the food was spicy it’s Thailand. After dinner the entire wait staff brought a fruit tray, complete with a chirping plastic bird ornament, and sang happy birthday to Mike, a perfect ending to a delicious meal.

When we were ready to leave the Songthaew was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, which were wet from a recent watering of their tropical garden. They were so slippery that another tourist took a bad fall on the way down. He was lucky he was not seriously hurt, just scraped up.

Sunday, Ao Nang Beach, Thailand

 Typical farong attire
Relaxing was so good we decided to do it again and head to the beach with blankets and books. I sneaked a few pictures of the many seriously out of shape people in tiny bathing suits. One woman with a “Venus of Willendorf” type of body (google it) was bathing topless with only a string thing on the bottom. Those cigarette smoking Northern European people don’t age well and their love of sunbathing doesn’t help. Their embassy should make it illegal to wear a Speedo after 50 unless you’re a gym rat. I often wondered what the modest Muslim Thai women thought about all of these half-naked old Farongs running all over their beaches.

While the Scandinavians flew thousands of miles to get a tan, the locals hid from the Sun by covering up with big hats and long pants. Many brands of whitening lotions sit side by side with the Coppertone tanning oil on local drugstore shelves. For Thai people having a tan is a symbol of poverty-- the whiter the better I’m told because you are rich and don’t work outside. It’s not a bad idea to stay out of the Sun in Southern Thailand, by noon you can feel like you’re in a people barbecue. I got all the tan I wanted by just walking around.

Monday, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Beautiful Chiang Mai
We pack for our midday flight to Bangkok and then on to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The one-hour flight to Bangkok was uneventful, but I noticed Thai Airlines always served a sandwich and drinks even on a short flight. No paying for checked bags either. Security at Krabi was the usual security theater, no shoes removed or computers revealed, but we are lucky Osama Ben Laden is no where to be seen.

We had a longish wait in Bangkok. Our plane for Chiang Mai was on Thai time, which is always around a certain hour, never on the money. The flight up north landed with a bang and a bad skid at Chiang Mai Airport. We were seated in back so we got the full bump. The pilot got on the intercom and actually apologized for the rough landing blaming a bad Tailwind for the event. I’d like to see an American Airlines pilot do that! Our expatriate friend Bob and his partner Wee were in the arrival hall while we waited for our bags. We agreed to meet later for dinner and Mike and I took a cab to the Dusit D2 hotel in the city. We later joined them for dinner at an excellent Northern Thai Restaurant, where we had an excellent Musselman Curry, amongst other delicious dishes with plenty of catch up conversation.

Tuesday, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Since Bob did not seem to want to run around in the heat, we decided to arrange to do a few things we had missed the last time we were in Chiang Mai. We got on our computer and scoped out Elephant camps. There were basically two types, those that ride tourists on their backs and those that rescue abused elephants from those that ride tourists on their backs.  We elected to spend our elephant day taking care of these beasts at rescue camp. We also arranged for a trip to Doi Inthanon for the following day.

Student Monks
In the afternoon we headed up to the Warout Market, where locals shop. We had a good time bargaining for a friend’s birthday gift. Shopping is hungry work so we walked up to old town to find our favorite hole in the wall Vietnamese noodle joint. Like a homing pigeon Mike found it behind the Wanee Coffee shop. It just happened to be closed. Right next to it was another hole in the wall serving Thai noodles with fish and beef meat balls, populated mostly by locals so we pulled up two plastic stools and had lunch, which came to under 9 bucks for both of us including a giant beer for Mike.

At night we walked around the huge and famous night market, which seemed to me mostly Tourist Theater, with not such great prices. Wee later explained that the fees to have a booth at the market had gone up so much recently that they had to be passing it along to us. We found a great local restaurant called Lemongrass, which had a picture of Elvis Presley with the king and queen of Thailand, taken sometime in the 1950’s. You never see pictures of the king the way he must look now at 80+. Nobody has seen him for a while, which makes me suspicious.

Mike was coming down with a traveler’s cold, too much airplane air, and too many different climates in too short a time kind of cold. We crashed early and hoped he would sleep it off.

Wednesday, Elephant Rescue Camp, (Somewhere out in the boonies)

The Elephant camp van picks us up at 8:00, after a good breakfast at our hotel. Mike has a full-blown cold and is thinking of not going. I dig out some cold pills, after they hit we go downstairs and board the van. We pick up a few more folks at different hotels and off to the north into the country. In the van our guide Bee tells us in her extremely charming bad English about Lek, the founder of this rescue ranch. Lek, which means small in Thai (all Thai‘s are small), is a middle-aged woman, the daughter of a Shaman. I guess if there is an elephant whisperer she must be it.

Lek with Jungle Boy
The Elephant rescue center looks like a Thai version of a cattle ranch except with elephants roaming around not cows. The country is mountainous with a jungle river running through the property. First we visit the elephant kitchen. This is a room filled floor to ceiling with baskets of fruit, bushels of bananas, and vegetables. Volunteers are chopping the elephant chow into trunk size pieces. Baskets have the individual elephant names on them, “Jungle Boy” doesn’t like cucumber, and “Baby” needs smaller pieces.

We take our baskets and head out to meet the beasts. We are given a quick lesson in elephant edicatte and then time to feed and feed and guess what more feeding. My first impression is these are giant eating machines. They grab the food out of your hand with their powerful trunks. It feels like your hand is getting sucked off. Those trunks are so strong and there is a hot moist jungle breath coming out of their giant nostrils. We are of course all running around in flip-flops so making sure you don’t get stepped on is paramount. Not to mention the huge Elephant turds land mining the fields.

Like a cattle ranch with Elephants
I learned that Asian Elephant females don’t have tusks, only the boys, their ears are smaller than their African cousins, ears wiggling means I’m happy. There are plenty of ears wiggling when eating. We learned that in the wild these critters forage 18 hours a day and only sleep 6. It is a massive job feeding some 36 elephants including 2 babies and every body, visitors, staff and volunteers had a job to do. After feeding comes bathing. The Mahouts (Elephant handlers) bring them to the river where they happily wade in and begin rolling around in the water. They give us buckets to shower them, I try to get water at head level, but they are too tall. Making sure you don’t get rolled over or stepped on is always job one.

First a bath then a mud roll
Then a trip to the mud bog for a roll, I’m told Elephants need this mud coating for bug and sun protection. We spend time with Lek and watch her interact with the beasts. For her they do simple tricks like sit on a log, lift her in their trunks and let her ride them. The biggest crowd pleaser is an older female elephant that trades kisses for food. I give her a cucumber and receive a big wet trunk kiss that almost sucked the side my face off. I was not special, all it took was food and anyone could get elephant love.

We saw a film on elephants and how they are abused, which to be honest was not easy to watch. After seeing the film I was glad we decided to do this rather that go elephant trekking which is so popular with visitors to Thailand, they suffer a lot of abuse in these camps. Then what else, but more feeding, boy can these guys eat!

Going back to Chiang Mai in the van I notice I’m coming down with a cold, Listening to some young Canadians complaining endlessly about how careful you have to be with the food in Thailand or your digestive tract will self-destruct. They went on and on. I thought If you are going to worry that much, stay home! I guess I was getting grumpy from my cold, but I’ve never gotten sick from food in Thailand and this is my third trip to this country. The biggest danger with Thai food is finding it nuclear spicy. And… Of course nobody drinks the water, not even the Thais.

Thursday, Doi Inthanon National Park, Northern Thailand

I have an annoying pain in the ass cold, but do I stay in bed, no way. It’s off to Doi Inthanon, a national park that contains Thailand’s highest peak. 7,500 ft. big deal, but the air is fresh, clean and not muggy for a change. This time the van luck-of-the-draw turns up a couple of Canadians that are not bitching about anything and are actually having a great time. Two gentlemen from Vancouver, traveling in Asia for 3 months, since their Inn went belly up. Our other van mates included a couple of Indonesians and a gay girl couple from Germany, who we picked up at a dumpy hotel. Nice folks, but not much English. Our guide was a 15 year old, named ‘Egg’ who actually spoke decent English for a change; he was a really sweet kid. Our speedy Thai driver was ‘Cow‘. A word about Thai names, they are always long and unpronounceable, both first and last, but thankfully they always have a short nickname, not just for us, also among themselves.
Grandma smokes a pipe, I wonder what she's smoking

Our first stop was a tropical waterfall, not Yosemite Falls but beautiful nonetheless. Then onto The King’s Project, which is renting out public lands to hill tribe people and having them grow crops and make crafts to sell to you. I had seen real hill tribe villages with Bob and Wee in 2009 so this seemed a bit staged to me, yet another shopping trip, with nice textiles. The Canadians complained the village was a pigpen, but I liked it, just a quaint rural hamlet, with pigs and chickens, homemade houses and old ladies smoking pipes.

The summit was supposed to be cold, but all I needed was my long sleeve shirt. The air was just like California in the summer, ahhhh. A very nice break from the muggy weather that is a constant in Southeast Asia. The summit contained a cheddi with the ashes of a former king, It was pretty, but oddly no viewpoint. There was a tiny visitor center, some nice gardens, and a mini coffee shop with real coffee beans, not the usual bad instant you get in Asia. I gave Egg an English lesson on how to properly pronounce the names of common plants. He was good, getting it right away.  (Fuchsia was not Fucksha). Most Thais mispronounce English most charmingly, but I got the feeling Egg really wanted to learn.

The King's Temple,
size matters
The actual viewpoint was a few miles lower down than the summit. The King and Queen temples sat regally on this choice real estate, The King’s Cheddi being bigger, of course (size matters). This choice Kodak spot was appointed with exotic gardens and a good-looking restaurant, where the Thai air force was having some kind of conference. Perks are perks; it looks good to be in the military. Thai men talk about the 4(M) s of masculine life in Thailand; they have to spend time in the monastery as young people, so it’s Monk, Military, Money and Marriage.

We stop at a hill tribe food market with tourist prices, and then onto another tropical waterfall, not quite as interesting as the first, and home. Onto dinner with Bob and Wee at one of the best Thai restaurants I’ve ever experienced. In spite of my head cold I wolfed the tasty Tom Yam soup. Tom Yam is Thai chicken soup, you can get it’s watery cousin in the US, but it Thailand it’s always custom made by Mama, complex and delicious. Just what the doctor ordered for my cold.

Friday, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Today was the worst day of my cold and Mike still had his, so we decided to take the day off from gallivanting around and hang close to home. We cancelled our planned dinner cruise and sleep late. When we got hungry we wandered up to Old Town and found our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, which was finally open and had a Pho lunch, nothing like hot soup for a cold.

We checked out the big Wat (temple) in old town where we were treated to a Buddhist procession with music. We had a light dinner and packed for our trip back to Singapore.

Saturday, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Singapore

Colorful Singapore
I’m much better today. The Thai Airlines flight was early, 8:05, and left on Thai time, around then. An hour later it’s Bangkok and two hours more to Singapore. Not a big deal but International security was heavy in Bangkok, so there was a lot of waiting in lines and getting checked. My running shoes set off the X-ray so off they came. Shoe checking is not a big deal in Asia; most people are wearing sandals, hard to hide a bomb in flip-flops.

My bag was the absolute last thing to come off the carousel in Singapore. I thought a foreign airline had finally lost my bag. So Far only United Airlines has that dubious distinction. We caught a cab to our hotel, where we arrived in time for happy hour. We had our first reliable Internet connection in weeks; I sent videos and caught up with friends.

Sunday, Chinatown Singapore

Today is our last full day in Asia. We decide to go to Chinatown, an old part of the city with interesting architecture and a few temples that Lonely Planet said were interesting. We took Singapore’s efficient metro to Chinatown, waiting only the usual 6 minutes for our train. What we didn’t expect to find was a large Sunday street market selling trinkets, food and clothes. The narrow streets with their classic Chinese shop houses were crammed with weekend locals catching up on their heritage, shopping eating and praying.

The Hindu Temple
We came upon a large Hindu Temple, with a gaudy pantheon of mostly blue painted rooftop gods, both human and animal. We were curious to see more, unknowingly entering through the back door. Where we encountered a courtyard with even more roof gods; a young Hindu woman quickly came over to tell us shoes and hats off. We got the hint and went around the corner to the entrance marked by a forest of shoes parked at the door. Paid the S$3.00, to take pictures and went in. Inside were bluer roof gods, I’m told gods on the roof were for the lower castes that could not go into the temple, a sort of worship from the outside everyman gods, the blueness symbolized heaven. I shot a quick phone video even though I didn’t pay the $6.00 video fee.

Around the corner from this Hindu Temple was the most famous Buddhist temple in Singapore, containing a relic of Buddha’s tooth, called, not surprisingly, The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It’s not old, built around the time Singapore started getting wealthy in the early 1970‘s. It reminded me of a Buddhist Saint Peter’s in Rome. Every room echoed, “I’m rich and powerful”. We followed the sound of chanting to a majestic inner hall where a Sunday service was being held. It was fascinating, the chanting and music were otherworldly. I did not understand what was happening, but we watched till it was over and the saffron robed monks silently filed out.

A food Hawker center
Upstairs was the tooth relic room. More gold than a pirates cave, even the floor tiles were gold, I needed sun glasses in there. The tooth was kept invisibly in a gold cheddi-- but they had a TV image of the actual tooth, or what looked like it could have been a tooth. One floor down was the museum, with really beautiful, quality works of Asian art, below that, the library and museum store. On the mezzanine over the main hall, were interesting pictures and biographies famous Monks from the 6th century on.

All that grander and noble purpose made us hungry, no shortage of places to eat in Chinatown. The Chinatown food hawker center seemed a good place to start. We were overwhelmed by the choices, but following our policy of choosing stalls that seem popular with the locals worked again. We split a duck-a-licious plate of noodles and later a couple of Vietnamese phos with chicken.

We wandered around watching Chinatown weekend life. A popular stall was selling Durian pancakes, the stinky fruit that smells like unwashed feet but tastes good,  (in my opinion). Lots of cheap clothes used expensive watches, herbs and trinkets of all types. Before we knew it the day was gone, time to metro home and pack.

Monday, Little India, Singapore

With only half a day available we decided to check out Little India more in depth. On second look, the Tekka hawker food center looked more risky than it did the first time. Hygiene is sketchy at best. If I don’t feel good about eating somewhere I don’t question these feelings. it’s not ever worth the risk of spending quality time on the porcelain throne. I admit I’ve seen things in Asia’s wet markets that upset my prissy American sensibilities. All those critters, crammed into cages and tanks, staring out, waiting to be dinner, was enough to make me think about all the living things I’ve enjoyed eating without ever once asking where they came from. The reality is a little harder to take, but can’t be denied, especially in Asia. All those pigalicious spare ribs were once living animals; Asia really puts it in your face.

Little India
A short cab ride to Changi Airport and the long journey home begins. Waiting for the plane I think back on my impressions of Singapore. On the plus side, very pleasing to the eye, lacking graffiti, lots of tropical green planted in all available spots, nice modern architecture, a proud multi-cultural educated, middle-class society that appears to live together well, at least on the surface. Amazing food and shopping, with excellent logical public transportation, what’s not to like. Oh… and did I mention English is the official language, no signage of unreadable alphabets that look like worms and stick figures.

On the minus side, as with all of Southeast Asia, it’s hot and muggy, heavy rains don’t cool it off, it just steams more. It’s a nanny state, lots of rules, regulations, taxes and fines. It’s obsessively organized, with neat little gates for lining up and people to direct you more efficiently. It’s a little too safe, for example, coconuts are removed from all palm trees in areas where people congregate God forbid one should fall on your head (unlike Thailand). Lots of overpasses and underpasses for pedestrians, no darting and dodging a million little angry scooters like you do in Thailand and Cambodia to cross a street. Maybe these are good things.  

little India
Our plane loads passengers; three and a half hours later it’s Hong Kong, that’s when the fun begins. We have to get off and go through security again with all our carry on even though it‘s the same aircraft. No leaving anything on the plane. Security is a hike to the other end of the terminal and up a few flights of stairs, with another long line, pulling out passports and boarding passes. The young face-masked security personnel look like bad actors in a grade B cold war movie. We are in China, The People’s Republic of China to be exact, the big banana. They are not nice-- barking orders in broken English-- out with the computers, cell phones, off with the shoes, no jackets, no belts. A tiny masked young woman guard growls at Mike “empty pocket“, he complies by tossing his pile of snotty tissues into the bin in front of her. She and a few other guards jump backwards as if he had thrown a vial of live Ebola spores at them. OK… I liked that.

Singapore's skyline
We finally make it to the departure hall; the plane is loading, but unusually slowly. Why? Because they are now randomly opening and searching the carry on bags, pulling stuff out and making a mess. We are both selected for this honor.

The plane is full and most of the other economy passengers have been shopping, it‘s Hong Kong the shoppers’ paradise. A lot of our fellow passengers are American born Chinese, I can tell by their familiar blue passports and unaccented English. Nobody can shop like an American, except maybe the Japanese. Overhead room is running out fast. We quickly stow our carry on and get ready for a very long and uncomfortable flight. Some late passengers are now arguing with the flight attendants about having no space in the overheads. There is one infant in our compartment and two in the next one behind us starting to cry and who could blame them, I wanted to cry to, but I got grumpy instead. Did I mention the young woman sitting next to Mike has a very bad cough. It’s going to be a long 14-hours to San Francisco.

Jet lag for some unexplained reason is always worse going east. I always regard these long haul flights as a necessary evil for going anyplace far away. Mostly they are doable, but we lost the flight lottery on this one. My trusty earplugs to the rescue, along with the generous free flowing alcohol and a sleeping pill, I can do this. And… I do.

We are home, the next 3 days is a jet lagged blur. My dog, happy to see me, licks my face so hard he bends my glasses. We brought back gifts for our friends, a hill tribe textile mask for our collection, this journal and the flu, courtesy of the coughing woman on the plane. I wouldn’t change a thing, it was a great trip and I’m ready for the next one.

Stay tuned.....

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Singapore & Thailand

The Singapore River

Wednesday, Singapore

This is not my first trip to Southeast Asia, but I’m in Singapore for the first time. It’s clean, it’s new, it’s prosperous, where’s the graffiti, the touts, the chaos, and the skinny dogs?  Wow… Drivers are actually stopping at traffic lights. Where are the numerous noisy motor scooters with families of four on top, or live chickens, or dead chickens? I can actually cross a street and not risk get killed. Am I in Southeast Asia? I am... But a Southeast Asia without all the dangerous stuff, a sanitized version, leaving behind only the good parts; the energy, the air filled with spices, the eye-candy temples, delicious unfamiliar food, and colorful markets where haggling is an art.

Singapore is also a wealthy place, banks are everywhere, and you can just feel the money moving. It’s in the air (along with the spices). Singapore’s GDP is high and the locals seem to like it that way. From the “Fountain of Wealth” to the muscular Singapore Dollar, this place is prosperous and classy. New buildings are springing up like the crash of 2008 never happened. First impression, I like this place.

It was raining and cold when we left the west coast of the United States, just a mere 20 hours earlier, most of that time spent stuffed into a metal tube, economy up close and personal. We have come half way around the world. I was slightly disappointed by the service on my first Singapore Airlines flight. I expected more from the “fly Me, Singapore girl” airline. We normally fly the much cheaper China Airlines to Asia, which has one star less for safety and maintenance. The only noticeable difference to a passenger, between the airlines, is the plane is newer and the ticket was pricier by $400.00.

We landed at Changi airport, where Mabel Tan a chubby jovial middle aged tourist services employee gives us the lowdown on all things Singapore, then promptly has me fill out the questionnaire recommending her customer service abilities. We took the airport shuttle to our hotel in the Clarke Quay entertainment area. The road from the airport to central Singapore is lined with Royal Palms reminding me of Florida on a good day. The roads are slow moving, orderly and not particularly crowded for a major city. Sane driving is something I’m not used to in the Far East, here drivers routinely play chicken on bad roads with blind curves. I got the feeling Singapore drivers were goose-stepping because fines would hurt.

Old Shophouses in Little India
We dump our bags and headed out to see what was around our hotel. Flowing right outside the hotel is the Singapore River, containing shady walking paths along each bank, with an assortment of bridges, crossing at the main intersections. We take the path on our side of the river, first coming to Clark Quay, a riverside mall of bars, restaurants and nightclubs aimed at the younger locals. We stop at the local metro station and picked up a couple of transit passes. After a long walk and few beers at a pub, with tables along the river, we decide to hit our hotel and get some sleep. The 20-hour trip has taken its toll.

Thursday, Singapore

After getting 12 hours sleep we were new people. Today we are going to take the hop-on-hop off bus to get the overview of this place. Since we flew Singapore Airlines we get this for half price if we present our boarding passes. Our first stop was the Botanic Gardens (peaceful), then the Orchard road shopping area (a frenzy of shopping) and on to Little India where we decided to have lunch. The Banana Leaf Apollo Restaurant has the most authentic Indian food I have ever tasted, all served on big banana leaves, locals were eating with their hands (right hand only, left hand, bathroom), tourists like us used forks. After lunch, we explored Little India, checking out the huge hawker center at the Tekka Mall. I admit being overwhelmed by the many stalls selling delicious-looking odd foods– hygiene maybe not so good.

That evening we took a cab to the Betel Box Hostel in Gaylang where we meet owner Tony Tan our tour guide for what we thought was just going to be just a food tour of the local cuisine. Our cab driver told us he rarely took any tourists to this area, which was just an eastern neighborhood out near the airport. The Betal Box Hostel was located in an old Chinese shop house in the Singapore equivalent of a middle class area. The 19th century shop houses, common to this area, are buildings with a store on the bottom and a residence for the family upstairs. These charming utilitarian buildings, now regarded as cool, but getting urban renewed fast are getting rare, usually go for 1.2 million we are told. The Betel Box main room is decorated like a movie set from a film about scruffy kids traveling in Southeast Asia. The low ceiling main room had a kitchen with the messy remains of breakfast, computers and cell phones strewn everywhere. They had a pretty good library of well-worn books on Singapore and the lone TV was playing a CD of “sound of Music”

Strange fruit on the food Tour

Tony Tan, also the owner of the hostel, met us at the top of the stairs, offering a cold beer. There were 19 people waiting, most of them hostel guests all under 25 years old, with the exception of one 40-year-old couple from Melbourne we were the grandparents of the group. Tony, a 40-year-old Singaporean, started the walk by asking us to introduce ourselves, give our country of origin, what we liked to eat and what animal we would be if we could… well… be an animal. There were young people from Bermuda, Romania, 2 girls from Russia, 2 boys from Holland, a few Britt’s and Aussies, with Mike and I solely representing the USA. The animals ranged from Jellyfish to Tuna. We had a few vegetarians and one person allergic to peanuts.

We started our walking tour at 6:30PM on Joo Chiat Street, stopping at a Muslim bakery, where we sampled sweet cookies. Then we headed to the top of a 20-story apartment block for a view of the setting sun over Singapore. The building reminded me of the many project apartments in the Bronx, where I grew up, minus the graffiti and the danger. Tony explained that 85% of modern Singaporeans’ lived in these government-built concrete apartment blocks. The average price of a 2-bedroom apartment being 250.000 Sing dollars, families getting first preference. We were able to get a good view of life by snooping in the doors and windows. The apartments looked drab by American standards, but everyone had flat screen TVs and nice furnishings. Chinese New Year decorations were in evidence.

Singapore's animal mascot, the Merli
Next we hit a local fruit stand, sampling strange and familiar fruits, then on to a sweetshop with unusual jellied things (good, not great) and then a dinner at a local Restaurant, where we ate till bursting. An amazing chili crab dominated with some awesome porkalicious sausages, fish curry and special Chinese New year noodles. We posed for pictures and rolled out for our briefing on modern Singaporean life. As we walked Tony took us from A to Z on life in Singapore, (very unexpected). The whole country is only 50 miles wide and 30 miles deep, or was it kilometers, which would make it even smaller. Everyone has national identity cards that serve as a social security card of sorts. This same national identity number applies to everything such as bank accounts, buying property and drivers licenses.

Walking the neighborhood we saw Singaporeans practicing the New Year’s Lion Dance (very cool) and burning New Year’s offerings in metal buckets provided for just this purpose. At around 1:00 in the morning we all went back to the Betal Box Hostel, where Tony kindly offered to drive us back to the hotel, since the MRT stops running at midnight and cabs charge double for fares at night. Mike and Tony had a few beers and got into discussing finances and politics. We finally hit the road by 2:00 AM. On the way I happened to mention I wanted to taste the notoriously stinky Durian fruit, so we detoured to the Durian store, which I was surprised to find still going strong at 2:15 in the morning. As we approached the Durians I began to smell something that resembled unwashed feet. Tony bought us one and the shopkeeper hacked it open. Even though it smelled bad, it tasted good, kind of like weird sweet custard. We completed our trip with a ride through Singapore’s Red Light District. So much for the sterile goodie two shoes images of Singapore.

Durians smell like unwashed feet, but they don't taste bad

Friday, Singapore

After sleeping late we headed to the Singapore Botanic Gardens to see the worlds largest Orchid garden, which we had missed the day before. I’ve never seen so many types of orchids in my life, all meticulously maintained. There was also a ginger garden, a rainforest walk and a cold house with carnivorous plants (fun and cool). On our way back from the gardens we stopped on Orchid road, the main shopping Mecca of Singapore, did a little exploring and had a late lunch at Food Republic, a mall food court, there we discovered no napkins were ever supplied. The food was delicious but messy. One of the table cleaners took pity and gave us 2 tiny tissues. We headed back to the hotel early and faded fast from our adventures with Tony Tan the previous night. Our late night carousing just prolonged the jet lag

Saturday, Sentosa Island, Singapore

Since it was Saturday we decided to see what Singaporeans do on their weekends and headed to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s recreation island. We took the metro to the massive Envivo shopping complex, the jumping off spot for the trams to Sentosa. Since we had no clue where to go on Sentosa we just went to the last of the 3 stops, the beaches. These white-sand gems were all man made and very sedate, with man made islands offshore to break the current, (can‘t be too safe).  There was an artificial wave ride for would be surfers, bungee jumping and a zip line, all going strong. There were 2 beach areas, Siloso and Palawan, each with a bunch of beachfront watering holes, a marine animal aquarium and a historic WW2 fort. Palawan beach had a swinging bridge to a tiny manmade island, billed as the southern most point in continental Asia with observation towers.

The safe beaches of Sentosa Island
We had lunch at a credible hawker center and took the monorail to back to next stop Imbalah overlook. At this stop was the massive merlion tower, (Singapore‘s mythical animal mascot). Why they call this the Lion City and no Lions are native to Singapore is a mystery. Then we walked a beautifully landscaped path down to the carrot colonnade containing rows of giant fake carrots the size of building columns. This odd display was created in honor of the year of the rabbit. Since I hate carrots more than any other food, we had a good time sending Iphone videos back to our friends in the states. We took the escalator up to the lookout itself, had coffee and enjoyed the view of the skyline.

The next stop on the monorail yielded a huge Las Vegas like casino, complete with emporiums of shopping, eating and drinking including an Irish Bar. A giant Universal studio theme park completed the program. After being on our feet since 9 in the morning, and it was now dinnertime, we decided to head back to our hotel happy hour. So ended our Saturday.

Sunday, The CBD Singapore
Raffles Hotel, home of the Singapore Sling
Today was our last full day in Singapore and we hadn’t yet been to the colonial district so we boarded the MRT after breakfast and headed downtown. We walked past the theaters the locals call “The Durians” after their spiny round shape. We passed the famous original MerLion statue, and then headed to Raffles hotel, home of the famous Singapore Sling (really overpriced). This elegant hotel has been around since the British made this a colony. Made of white Marble and Teak wood, which seemed to represent all that is over-the-top old money. Looking at all that genteel wealth made us hungry so we headed over to the decidedly less highbrow VivoCity Complex to look for another one of Singapore’s food Hawker centers, where we tried Laska, a curry coconut soup that was not for the faint-hearted chili head. Once again no napkins were supplied, this time I was ready, like everyone else with my own supply.

It was now getting seriously hot so an air-conditioned museum seemed like a good idea. The huge Asian Civilizations museum located in the old Parliament building filled the bill. After learning a bunch of history you don’t learn growing up in the west and seeing some beautiful art, it was beer-thirty. Time to head for home and pack up. We are leaving for Southern Thailand tomorrow.

More to come.... Stayed tuned.