Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Singapore- first impressions


Singapore is one of Asia’s great success stories. Tiny and lacking natural resources, the city state managed to raise itself from an impoverished reject (it was briefly part of Malaysia before being kicked out) in 1965 to become one of the world’s richest nations and major financial hubs. Singapore manages to punch well above its weight in business, trade, tech, tourism, and regional politics. Singapore is also unique in that it was ruled by a legendary strongman who was very respected, feared and admired – the late Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in 2015. Much of Singapore’s economic success and development has been credited to his leadership. But Lee also contributed to Singapore’s reputation as a nanny state due to severe laws that limit freedom of expression, dissent, and other more banal things (like chewing gum for instance). While supposedly a democracy, Singapore has been ruled by only one party, Lee’s PAP, which always wins elections in an overwhelming manner (PAP currently hold 83 out of 89 seats).

I visited Singapore last year for the first time, and I was prepared to be bored, but instead I was quite impressed by the buildings and attractions, and how modern the country was in general. There was a lot of open space and greenery, and places did not feel crowded, despite being a small country with over 5 million. While the population is about 75% ethnic Chinese, Indians, Malays and expats make up the other 25%, and this was apparent everywhere in terms of the people and the food.

My birthplace Hong Kong seems to regard Singapore as its main competitor, due to both being tiny city states that are thriving financial hubs and former British colonies. But from what I saw, Hong Kong is so far behind that there is almost no contest. As mentioned, Singapore felt so spacious and uncongested, in comparison to Hong Kong and its cramped buildings and sidewalks and very crowded spaces.

Also, Hong Kong has nothing like the Gardens by the Bay or the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which even though they often appear in countless photos , are impressive to see in person. I saw a lot of towers with rooftop gardens or plants strewn across the building itself, which besides supposedly being good for the environment also looks kind of cool. I’m sure Hong Kong might have similar buildings, but I haven’t seen any yet.

However, there were a few issues.
As spacious and clean as the streets and buildings in Singapore were, it often felt a bit too orderly. While not boring, I did feel like everything was a bit too perfect and artificial. In fact, parts of the city were a bit sparse like the riverside where the Asian Civilizations Museum was.

I also found the subway system to be kind of slow. For instance, I took the subway from my hotel in Little India to the airport, thinking it would take 1 hour, but in reality it took almost 1 hour and a half, which resulted in me having to rush to check in and scramble to my gate (I made my flight). Apparently, when going to Changi airport by subway, you need to get off at Tanah Merah station and wait for another train to go the final two stops, which took about 15 minutes to come. I hadn’t realized it would take so long because I thought that as a train going to the airport, it would be more frequent.
I also took the subway to visit a friend who worked there as an expat. Foolishly, I thought 45 minutes would be enough since I only had go less than 10 stations, albeit transferring twice, but instead it took over an hour.

A very surprising issue is the dual pricing at attractions like the Gardens at the Bay, which means Singaporeans pay much less than tourists. While this exists across Southeast Asia, I was surprised at seeing this in Singapore since it is a very wealthy country (if anything tourists should be paying less than locals, but I know locals have contributed to these attractions through tax). Still, dual pricing doesn’t exist across Europe, Japan or North America.

It may not be a place to stay for too long or go wild and let loose (go to Thailand for that) but Singapore is a very interesting small country that is an oasis of calm and order in Southeast Asia.




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China travel · Japan travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Travels in 2017- photo roundup

Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s hope 2018 will be a peaceful, productive and eventful year for us all.

Having gotten the frightful political and news lookback at 2017 out of the way in my last post, here is the lighter stuff — 10 photos representing the best of my travels in 2017. I traveled to Malaysia and Singapore for the first time, took a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and went to see Avatar’s Hallelujah mountains for real in Wulingyuan, China. But best of all, I finally took a trip to Canada, where I studied, and Trinidad, where I grew up, to see family. I’m not sure if I would be doing as much traveling in 2018 but I wouldn’t mind.


Malacca’s Red Square, Malaysia. More a collection of grand colonial buildings near a roundabout and river, the “square” is still the heart of this elegant former Dutch and English colonial port, one half of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Georgetown, Penang is the other half).


Out of all the different cities I’ve lived in, Toronto remains the best. I took a long-overdue trip to Canada a couple of months ago and while it was mainly for family purposes, I still did a little sightseeing.


Wulingyuan national park, Hunan, China. The huge 690-sq-km park is full of limestone peaks like this, which the floating mountains in Avatar were based on. While not as well-known as say, Huangshan, this is the best scenic site I’ve been to in China.


The island of Miyajima, near Hiroshima, is famous for its floating Torii gate. But the highlight for me was climbing Mt Miyajima and taking in the serene views of the nearby islets and the Inland Sea.

 


As part of that long-overdue trip to the West, I went back to Trinidad, where I grew up. This is a view of part of the capital Port of Spain, the northern hills, the sea (Gulf of Paria) and the Queen’s Park Savannah, a giant park in the middle of the capital and the world’s largest roundabout.


While visiting Japan, I went to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The Dogo Onsen is a bathhouse complex centered on a cool wooden building that looks like a castle. I did go in to take a bath after taking this photo.


I’d never been to Vancouver before so it was great to finally visit it. With views like this right next to the city, there’s little doubt why it tops many lists of the world’s best cities.


As I was visiting Trinidad for the first time in almost a decade, I played tourist and revisited many places I’d been to as a child or teenager. This is Manzanilla, one of the best beaches on the east coast.


Despite having seen many skyscrapers, I find the Petronas Towers to be really amazing. Due to their formidable, hefty appearance and the fact there are two of them, they stand like titanic metal sentries of Kuala Lumpur.


I made my first visit to Singapore in 2017 and I was impressed by some of their structures like these weird, futuristic towers at the Gardens by the Bay.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Malaysia travel- Malacca


This year 2017 is the 50th anniversary of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. However, while I don’t regard this regional multilateral organization as too useful, I do like the region a lot. I’ve visited several Southeast Asian countries before 2017 and I made my first visit to Malaysia earlier this year.

Malaysia is well-known for its food, its multicultural society, and places like the former colonial straits settlements of Penang and Malacca, and the towering 4,000m+ Mt Kinabalu. Its capital Kuala Lumpur is also well-known for the Petronas Towers, giant skyscraper twins that used to be the tallest building in the world. As I visited Malaysia during the Spring Festival, my modest itinerary was Malacca and Kuala Lumpur.

The port city of Malacca, for which the adjacent strait is named after, has a very mixed background. It used to be a powerful sultanate that was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, who in turn were defeated by the Dutch in 1641. In the early 19th century, the British took Malacca from the Dutch (mirroring the fates of South Africa’s Cape Town and Galle in Sri Lanka) and Malacca became a Straits Settlement. After the British gave up its Malay holdings, Malacca became part of the Federation of Malaya, which became Malaysia.

As such, Malacca’s main historical colonial sights are Dutch, such as the distinguished Stadthuys and the Christ Church, both of which dominate the Red Square and are painted in red. Malacca also has several streets filled with historical buildings and a small lively Chinatown, also known as Jonkers street. Malacca isn’t very big and the main sights are concentrated in Red Square and the adjacent streets so one or two days is quite enough. I was even thinking of doing a daytrip from Kuala Lumpur but I decided to stay overnight instead, which turned out to be a good decision.

Red Square features Christ Church and a distinctive red clock tower alongside the Stadthuys, a long, elegant building that was built by the Dutch in 1650 as the governor’s administrative building, then became a school under the British but now houses Malacca’s history museum. Further up from the Stadthuys on a very small hill are small museums highlighting Malaysian literature and democracy as well as the former house of the Dutch governor (all covered by the). At the top of the hill is the ruins of St Paul’s Church, which still features the graves of several European settlers. The shell of the church remains intact but the roof is missing. Built by the Portuguese and then taken over by the Dutch, the church was abandoned after the Dutch built Christ Church in Red Square. On the other side of the small hill is a surviving gate of A Formosa, a 16th century Portuguese fortress that was torn down by the British.

Jonkers Street is across from Red Square, on the other side of the canal. It’s filled with old buildings, temples, and stores. It was especially festive when I went as it was during Chinese New Year, with Chinese lanterns and umbrellas strung up over the street, but the buildings are the main attraction. Another good street is Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock or Heeren Street, which also has a lot of historic buildings, including the Baba & Nyonya Museum and mansions. Baba & Nyonya refers to the community of mixed Chinese-Malays, also known as Peranakan, in Malaysia and Singapore and who have distinct culture and even language. This street is parallel to Jonkers Street and a little less quieter with less restaurants but grander buildings such as the Chee Ancestral Mansion (see below).

In the surrounding streets, there are also Chinese and Hindu temples and mosques, signifying the diverse nature of the city. Near the canal before you reach the bridge to cross to Red Square, there are some huge murals on the side of some buildings, like in the first photo in this post. There are more historical and cultural sights such as the Malay Sultanate Palace museum and Maritime museum so if you have time, check those out too. While my time in Malacca was brief, it was a good introduction to Malaysia with its attractive colonial buildings and laidback (but not dowdy or boring) nature.


Chee Ancestral Mansion
Continue reading “Malaysia travel- Malacca”

Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok revisited- live Muay Thai in a TV studio


One of the things Thailand is most famous for is Muay Thai or Thai boxing or kickboxing. Known as the art of eight limbs, Muay Thai fighters use their elbows and knees to strike in addition to fists and feet so it is a violent and exciting martial art. I became fascinated by the sport after seeing it in movies like Kickboxer and the Quest, both with Jean Claude Van Damme, as well as online videos of Muay Thai fights.

When I first went to Bangkok in 2013, I was finally able to watch it live at the fabled old Lumpinee Stadium. When I went to Bangkok earlier this year, I decided to go watch Muay Thai live again, but at a different venue – the Channel 7 studio. Less high-profile than the Lumpinee fights, the Channel 7 fights take place on Sunday afternoons, is free to attend, and is broadcast live on TV. The venue is a large indoor space that seats around 500 (I may be off by a quite a bit) and is kind of near Chatuchak Market. It is a very raucous environment, especially if you happen to be in the stands where locals are shouting out or offering bets during each fights. The fights were mostly eventful, though I remember one that went the distance but I was puzzled by who the win was awarded to. There were a couple of TKOs but no outright knockouts. During a fight, the most exciting moment is not kicks or punches but when the fightrs clinch and exchange knees.

The venue is situated inside a compound in a residential neighbourhood is across the main road from the Chatuchak Market and subway station, about a 15 minutes’ walk. Because I hadn’t been to the venue before, I actually arrived about 45 minutes early. I took a peek inside the venue, saw a lot of empty seats, so I took a walk around the block and came back. This time, the stands were packed so I went to the side where there were some empty seats. It turned out this was where a lot of bookies were operating, and I jostled with an older man who demanded I give up my seat. I didn’t and he eventually squeezed in next to me, and we spent the whole event side by side. This old guy was one of the main bookies who kept shouting out bets and taking in money throughout the fight. As I don’t know Thai, I couldn’t understand exactly what was going on but I know that the betting would be especially frenetic when people though a knockout would happen.

The more prestigious fights take place at the new Lumpinee Stadium and Rajadamnern Stadium several evenings a week but cost quite a lot for foreigners (around $40 for the standing area, the seats cost much more). But the cards at these stadiums feature more fights and sometimes, there are title fights. For some reason, these stadiums are located in northern Bangkok and are not close to the subway so you need to take a taxi to get to it. It’s not that convenient to go to (if you are a non-local and don’t know your way around) since fights end at after 9.30 pm. The old Lumpinee Stadium was very close to the Lumpinee subway station.

  
Prefight preparation with the fighters outside the entrance. The facilities are rather sparse here.


The TV cameras at the back as well as the live broadcast on the screen to the right.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok revisited


Bangkok is a city I didn’t like much the first time I went there several years ago. But after going there a couple of times again in the last two years, for brief stays while transiting to other places, I confess I’ve had a change of heart. Not only does Bangkok not seem so noisy, ugly and stifling, I think I might even like it a bit.

Once you go beyond the famous attractions like the Royal Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the mega-malls, there are a number of interesting places to check out.
There is the Big Swing, a giant swing over 15 meters high from which people used to swing on it to try to retrieve something from the post during religious ceremonies (it sounds dangerous and indeed it was banned in 1935 due to a number of deaths), and the elaborate Wat Suthat temple next to it.

There are the many English-language bookstores ranging from Asia Books, a local bookstore chain, to Dasa, a multi-level second-hand bookstore, to Kikokuniya, a large Japanese regional bookstore chain. Compare this with Hong Kong where Dymocks and Page One have both shut down in recent years, leaving only local chain Bookazine for English-language books.

Then, there is Jim Thompson House, the former residence of silk magnate Jim Thompson. The small, but spacious and pleasant compound consists of several red houses, built from teak in the traditional style and brought over from other parts of Thailand, and a garden. The houses are attractive and comfortable, though you can only enter them as part of a tour (which is included as part of the entrance fee). Of course, the houses may be traditional but they are probably much bigger and fancier than the ones regular Thais lived in.
Thompson was an American businessman and intelligence operative (he served in the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, during World War II) who settled in Bangkok and built up a silk export business, and disappeared in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. His disappearance remains a mystery even now though his silk brand is still thriving.
There are more, but that will be for another post.


Another form of public transport in Bangkok, which I took to get to the Giant Swing.
These boat taxis run on the narrow canals (klangs) and are different from the Chao Phraya river taxis and not as pleasant. The canal is not very hygienic and the boats are completely enfolded in tarpaulin, which are let down when passengers get on and off, as you can see in this photo. Try it for the experience, but I wouldn’t recommend taking it more than once.


Erawan Shrine, a Hindu shrine located at the corner of a busy intersection surrounded by offices and shopping centers. This was the site of a bombing in August 2015 that killed 20 people and injured over 100. I took this photo in 2016.


   

Asia Books is a local English-language bookstore chain that has a wide selection. This outlet is in Siam Paragon.

Bangkok’s colorful traffic

The Giant Swing


Wat Suthat, another of Bangkok’s beautiful temples, located next to the Giant Swing

It has a massive golden Buddha inside and walls and columns covered from floor to ceiling in intriguing black mosaics.

Myanmar travel · Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Myanmar travel- Mandalay

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My last travel post about Mandalay was actually about the ancient royal towns around the city, so this one is about Mandalay proper.
The city may be Myanmar’s second city and the former royal capital, but it isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot. One reason is the country has other more interesting places like the former capital Yangon (Rangoon), the ancient temples of Bagan and myriad scenic destinations like Inle Lake. Another reason is that bombing during World War II destroyed much of Mandalay’s royal palace, which was eventually rebuilt on the same site. Granted the rebuilt royal buildings probably look the same as the original and the complex itself is an incredibly large site completely surrounded by a moat, but it didn’t appeal to me so I didn’t visit.

I instead went to Mandalay Hill, one of Mandalay’s main attractions which provides great views of the city, the Irrawady river and the mountains and plains to the north and east of the city. Mandalay Hill is also supposedly where the Buddha visited over 2,000 years ago and prophesied that a city would be built at its foot. Just 790 feet, Mandalay Hill takes less than a couple of hours to climb, but since it was so damn hot and I had a driver, I took the easy way up courtesy of his car. From the parking lot, I entered a building with an escalator that went to the top. The hill has several temples on top, which is not surprising in this very religious country, at least in the Buddhist parts. There were gleaming and ornate gold stupas, statues of hideous green cartoonish ogres and a female deity Sandamukhi who supposedly cut off her own breast to offer to the Buddha as a sign of her devotion, monks, and even sleeping dogs. There were also some locals, many of whom were themselves tourists, and they were flocking around white tourists to take photos (this happens a lot in China in smaller cities too).
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Kid with thanaka (local sunscreen)-smeared face
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The ogre Sandamukhi who pledged devotion to the Buddha. I’m not sure if the dozens of little ogres behind her are her offspring.

Back on the ground, my driver, the same one who had taken me to the places around Mandalay the previous day, took me to the Kuthodaw Pagoda which features over seven hundred of white stupas, each housing a [sculpted] page of Buddhist scripture, which together made up the world’s largest book. When I went inside, I was immediately met by two female postcard vendors, which happened many times at Bagan and other places. The first one left me when I promised to see her postcards when I was leaving, but the other one didn’t quite let up so easily and followed me a bit. I walked around to take in the sights, and I bought postcards from the  first vendor as promised. As I was leaving, the second girl, who had a nice golden leaf design painted on her cheek, really got to work on her sales strategy. I tried telling her I had already bought postcards, to which she was having none of it, replying in charmingly broken English, “My friend happy, I not happy!” Whenever I tried to cut her off and say no, she’d say something like “Really? You buy from me? Please.” Usually I try to be firm with vendors who are too forward but this girl was just too much and I ended up buying postcards from her too.

I then went to Sandamuni, which also featured a giant golden stupa and countless white stupas arranged in neat rows that collectively had a dazzling effect. It resembles Kuthodaw Pagoda, though I found this one more attractive. The over 1,700 stupas (not a typo) each house a slab featuring Buddhist teachings and commentaries, a vivid example of just how seriously the Burmese, those that are Buddhist in this case, take their religion.

After Sandamuni, I stopped by a wooden teak temple and Kyauktawgyi Buddha Temple, which featured a massive hall with walls and pillars covered with green decorations. By then, I had had enough of temples and I was ready to head back. I left Mandalay later that night by overnight bus, which I had booked in advance. It was clean and spacious and I recommend it as an alternative to taking a plane or train. The journey back to Yangon was uneventful though at times, I felt a little jittery as the bus drove on the highway in near total darkness. By the time it was close to Yangon, the bus made a few stops where people got off and the emptier it got, the more apprehensive I felt about missing my stop. As it is, the final stop was the Yangon bus terminal which by then, I was relieved to reach.

That is until in my early morning drowsy (6 am) and sleep-starved state, I accepted an offer from a taxi driver who was loitering in the station and ended up getting overcharged by him (lesson: never take taxis inside stations because they always overcharge tourists). What happened is he gave me a price, then as we were driving out, several guards stopped us and asked me what the driver charged. When they heard, they immediately told me it was too high and that the driver should charge me less. “OK, OK!” said the driver, but as soon as we drove off, he turned to me and said I had to pay the original price.

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Sandamuni

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Entering Kuthodaw

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Puppets being sold by a vendor outside a temple
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One corner of the enormous moat that surrounds the (rebuilt) Royal Palace
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Kuthodaw Pagoda’s giant “book”
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Page housed inside a stupa

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Temple on top of Mandalay Hill
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