What To Do When in Asia

Although we can divide our trip thus far into roughly four parts (Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia), we’ve spent the vast majority of our time in Asia. We’ve had the time of our lives and I think everyone should visit Asia (if not travel it extensively). It truly has something to offer everyone, so I’ve made the following guide and tribute to the great continent.


India: just show up and something exciting WILL happen


Maldives: go sailing and snorkeling on remote atolls


Nepal: go trekking


Thailand: explore the entire country


Laos: travel and live on the Mekong


Cambodia: yes its cliche, but you HAVE to explore Angkor


Malaysia: take in the diverse cultures and food


Brunei: meet characters at the Pusat Belia (not pictured)


Singapore: visit the Botanical Gardens


Indonesia: DIVE!!!


Vietnam: eat!


China: meet the friendliest people on earth


Korea: go to a baseball game


Japan: once again, EAT! (especially the seafood :) )

Nine Months: San Francisco to Singapore



164_6445-4.JPGNine months ago, today, we left San Francisco on this worldwide adventure. Twenty one countries later we find ourselves in Singapore. Tomorrow we fly to country number twenty-two (Indonesia) and begin the three-month home-stretch to the one-year mark.

Today I’ll keep my thoughts to Singapore though. We were going to stay in Singapore until tomorrow, but decided to spend our last day in Malaysia before flying down to Jakarta. Besides really liking Malaysia as a whole, we just ran out interesting things to do in Singapore. We saw some sights in our three and a half days there. We spent time just hanging out and walking around too. The food was good, the city comfortable and convenient, and we could both envision it being a nice place to live. But as a traveler, it was kind of bland. I could live in Singapore no problem, but its not very interesting. There’s not too many sights to see, it’s not unique in the sense that it’s very western and like home, and its very expensive. The city lacks character, as its not only sanitized but sterilized. For instance, Chinatown is tourist gimmick erected after the real Chinatown was demolished. And the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) was totally calm and almost deserted even midday on a weekday. The Arab Quarter was basically Malaysia, and Little India barely had any character. Again, Singapore is nice. I’d live there: good food, relatively diverse, and first-world in every sense of the word (actually, I think its more like the future). But we both felt like it just lacked character, it wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t unique enough…But perhaps I should heed the advice “be careful what you wish for” because our next stop is Indonesia :)


Pasteurized and homogenized cultures are not what take us abroad.

-Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu


the durians

singapore fruits

Durians downtown; fruits at the People’s Park Complex

joylani 130pxSingapore was clean, but a little sterile in the repetition of shopping complexes.  We found the Chinatown area to be pretty disappointing (expensive and touristy), but that didn’t matter too much since Singapore is kind of a China Town anyways with ¾ of the population being of Chinese descent.  Consequently, the food is great, and to Singapore’s credit, the food was really as good as everyone says.  One of the more lively food courts we enjoyed was at the People’s Park complex, across from Chinatown.  On the ground floor there is an open area where fruit stalls intermingle with stands selling everything from red pork, tapioca pancakes, steamed buns, and desserts…and I think I remember a few confused stalls selling socks and face masks mixed in there too.  Once you’ve made it past these stands, a huge food court awaits your decision of what will you eat?!  Choices are seemingly endless, as long as you’re not craving a club sandwich.

            My favorite food court, however, was the Lau Pat Sat Food Center on Boon Tat Street, across the street from SGX, the Singapore Stock Exchange.  In contrast from the pretzels and hotdogs found around Wall Street, and the chaats served on old stock prospectuses in Bombay, the Lau Pat Sat offers a splendid variety of quick eats. 


Laid out along wheel-like spokes under an octagonal rooftop, the food stalls specialized in different varieties of gastronomic delights ranging from claypot, seafood, many styles of noodles, fried chicken, burgers, pork-belly soup (maybe not your thing?), BBQ pork, halal, and dishes from various cuisines—Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian (North and South), etc., and of course there are several outlets to buy drinks, ice cream, and the very important shaved ice desserts.  I settled on a bowl of bim bim bap from the Korean stall, and Matt went for his usual BBQ pork and rice.  We shared an iced dessert, my favorite so far (red rubies, sago, and coconut milk).  


            One afternoon we stopped by the Singapore Art Museum where the few memorable highlights were a printed vinyl cut on a wall in an elevator lobby and a small Chihuly exhibit.  More memorable was the day we spent at Singapore’s National Botanic Garden.  The sprawling lawns and wide tree-lined paths reminded me a bit of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.  My main motive for going was to see the orchid garden, but I was excited to pass through the little bonsai garden on our way there.  Most of the bonsai I’ve seen are those little ones they sell at the mall during Christmas.  But those at the garden were bigger and more developed, you know, like slightly karate kid.  My favorites were the miniature trees affected by the parasitic Banyan roots, also pint-sized. 



As for the orchid garden, it boasts an impressive selection of orchid, including numerous hybrids that have been bred on site.  Many of the new varieties are named for visiting dignitaries and are on display in the VIP Garden where you can see the vibrant blooms of Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela, among others.  Another fun section of the orchid garden is the Cool House, which, in addition to providing relief from the outside temperature, displayed plants form higher, cooler climates in SE Asia.  I was excited to see pitcher plants up close (instead of on a postcard), as well as other interesting looking flora with out having to have gone on a leech infested hike to see them.  All in all, I probably took way too many pictures at the garden in a feeble attempt to capture my amazement at a type of flower (orchids) so varied in size, shape, and color.  Some were the size of my thumbnail, others as big as my face.  My favorites, including those mentioned in this post, are in the Flower Album.  So take a look if you’re interested!

In hindsight…

joylani 130px…seeing that after three-weeks the bites-turned-blisters which had turned into oozing sores on my foot were not getting any better, and were in fact beginning to spread, I decided that perhaps I should see a doctor.  In hindsight, two doses of antibiotics, pain pills, antibiotic cream, and untold numbers of Band-Aids later…Matt and I concluded that perhaps we should have skipped sand fly infested Tioman and instead spent more days diving out of Semporna where is cheaper, better visibility, more options for food, etc. etc.  And maybe I should have gone to a doctor sooner?  Open wounds and water do not mix well.  But thankfully after just a day of popping antibiotics, things are starting to look better. 

Another History Post…

164_6445-4.JPGTonight I mentioned to Joylani that it feels like we’ve been following two historical threads on our journey: European colonial history and WWII history. From Goa to Melaka, we followed Portuguese centers of trade. From India’s major cities to Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore, we’re following the footsteps of the British East India Company. And we’ve seen the legacy of these things (ie Nepali Gurkhas are the elite bodyguards of the Brunei Sultanate, Indians’ are all over Malaysia and Singapore, and it seems we’re following St. Francis Xavier’s body around the world). But we’ve also been working our way towards the center of the Japanese aggression during the 1930s and 1940s. In India, there was a great fear of a Japanese invasion. An interesting anecdote: British authorities killed all the big cats at the zoos in Madras and Calcutta out of fear that they would terrorize the local population in the event of their escape due to Japanese bombing; even more interesting is that they shot a polar bear in the Madras zoo. Anyways, then we went to Thailand which was about as far west as Japan got during the war. Kanchanaburi showed us the horrors of Japanese imprisonment and forced labor. Our first stop in Malaysia was in Kota Bharu, where the Japanese launched their attack down the Malay Peninsula on December 8, 1941 (December 7th in US time zones and in real-time about an hour and a half before Pearl Harbor was hit). Then I heard about two wreck dives near Pulau Tioman, the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. And now we’re in Singapore, where those two ships escaped Japanese bombers for a few days before being sunk in present-day Malaysian waters. I also find it interesting how the WWII stuff and colonial stuff intertwine on a human level, beyond the obvious political and philosophical level of WWII’s effects on the colonial age. For instance, Lord Louis Mountbatten was the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia, fought through the war, accepted the Japanese surrender for the SEA campaign, but then went on to be the last viceroy of India- the man who gave independence to Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah, as well as the man responsible for the terror afterwards. I’m kinda off topic, as this post was going to say that we visited the new (2005) Changi Museum today. We heard about Changi in Kanchanaburi, since it was the POW camp that the Japanese drafted their “death railway” workers from. So many of the Australians and Brits that surrendered Singapore, were kept in Changi, and later sent to Thailand and Burma. The museum was pretty interesting, although it was pretty anti-Japanese. Not that the Imperial Japanese shouldn’t be judged incredibly harshly based on their horrific deeds, but most war museums seem to be against war than against the perpetrators (as most war museums acknowledge the horrors of war are the result of mankind’s capability of cruelty rather than a specific group of people’s capability of cruelty). A little off topic, but it just seems that assigning blame isn’t the best way to present the message, no matter how deserved the Imperial Japanese are. Mostly the museum detailed the terrorism of the Japanese conquerors, particularly towards the Chinese. Also like most war museums, it was depressing and I don’t want to think about what I saw, much less what write about it. But it was sick the things the Japanese did, and sadistic in their bullying and hatred of the Chinese. One fascinating part of the museum that I will write about was the story of how Singapore fell. It was established in everybody’s mind that Singapore was impenetrable. Not sure why, but that was its reputation. As Japan worked down the Malay peninsula in December 1941 and January 1942, Churchill and the British high command shrugged off their losses, assuming Singapore would remain standing and they’d have a base to launch a counterattack. Churchill rebuffed Singapore’s commander Percival’s request for more troops, saying that the Nile Valley in Egypt was more in need of troops than Singapore. I forget the Japanese general’s name who was leading the offensive down the Malay peninsula, but he was extremely short on supplies and men. He knew he could not win a sustained fight for Singapore, since he was outnumbered both in troops and firepower. Although his colleagues urged him to wait for reinforcements and for the supply chains to be established, he wanted to attack before British reinforcements arrived. And so he embarked on a huge bluff. February 8th, he bombarded Singapore. His artillery and bombers would not last long, but he wanted to give the impression that he had limitless bombs and shells to assault Singapore with. He also moved his 30,000 troops (and only 18 tanks!) around the front for no reason other than to confuse British intelligence and give them the idea that there were way more than 30,000 troops. Once the Japanese cut off all transport, supplies, and food to the city, Percival surrendered. The bluff paid off: 100,000 Allied soldiers surrendered to an ammo-depleted 30,000 Japanese troops and it only took one week. On a related note, those two ships I mentioned earlier (the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse) escaped Singapore only to be sunk by Japanese bombers near Pulau Tioman. The significance is that some historians mark that as the end of the Age of the Battleship, as two mighty warships were sunk by planes, not other battleships, a fleet, or even a group of carriers, but by two planes. And I’ll try to end this post here. I’m kind of all over the place with this one, but I like history and doesn’t everyone get kind of eccentric when they’re indulging in their hobbies?

Initial Impressions of Singapore



164_6445-4.JPGI think Singapore’s the most developed place we have been since Switzerland. It was readily apparent just going through immigration. Land borders are usually pretty simple and fast, but this checkpoint was more like an international airport. Computers, technologically-advanced security, long-lines, etc. Note: Singapore doesn’t have any duty-free allowances on alcohol or tobacco, so unless you want to pay 300% duty on your cigars or see them cut up in front of your eyes, don’t bring them. Our first day was spent getting used to being in the first world again. Not little Brunei, but world-renowned metropolis- sky-scrapers, highways, oceans of commuters, blocks upon blocks of malls, and late-model cars. Like everything we’ve read, Singapore is clean. Really clean. Like I said, Switzerland is the last place we’ve been that’s comparable in some ways. Infrastructure is not almost there, its there. Everything works. Also, like we’ve read there’s lots of rules. Here’s what I know so far (amounts given in Sing dollars, 1 USD=1.38 SGD): $5000 fine for misusing emergency alert on the metro, $500 fine for eating or drinking on the metro, $500 fine for littering, $500 fine for urinating in public, plus there’s a lot of signs and fines I haven’t memorized yet. Oh, and a $200 mandatory minimum fine on any undeclared tobacco/alcohol item brought into the country. And reading the newspaper yesterday, I learned there’s a mandatory death sentence for dealing drugs- in the case I read about, a couple of days ago, an Indonesian tried to enter the country with a couple dozen bags of pills stuffed up his rectum, where one burst causing him to get extremely sick, arousing the suspicions of border control who arrested him and sent to jail, via the hospital. Can you imagine risking your life (through illness or capital punishment) by sticking bags of pills up your butt? Anyways, lots of rules, but I’ve heard that the government is lightening up. Still no spitting (I think that’s $500), but chewing gum is allowed.

            Unfortunately, being a developed place also means its really expensive. So our accommodations have taken a hit, we’re eating mainly off the street (which isn’t really a sacrifice, b/c everything is available and its good) and taking mass public transit around (no taxis, rickshaws, or scooters for us here). A lot of the attractions are pretty expensive too, but few of them seem worth visiting: a theme park, a zoo, and a big wheel (which journalists have just bashed since Singapore recently unveiled it as the largest one in the world, beating out the London Eye). We’ll dish out some money to see some unique things like the famous Bird Park and a museum or two. But we’ve found enough to occupy us so far. A long walk from the MRT station to the inconveniently located Vietnamese embassy to get our Vietnam visas. A stroll through the financial district and waterfront Esplanade to see Singapore’s mascot, the Merlion (yea, it looks how it sounds). Joylani enjoyed the Singapore Art Museum, while I thought the small museum at the Raffles Hotel was interesting. Chinatown seems fake and is too touristy anyways, while Little India has bit more character. The millions of malls provide an interesting glimpse into Singaporean life as well. We’ve only been here a day and a half so far, with three and a half days left before our flight to Jakarta, but these are just some of my initial thoughts on this interesting city-state.