26 October 2011


Today - October 26 - is Deepavali. Or, Diwali, as it's known in India. It is the Festival of Lights, and it reminds me that the holiday season has begun in Singapore (we've already had the Mid-Autumn Festival and Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan; plus, I heard Christmas music in the mall last Friday, October 21). To celebrate, Little India here has been alight with beautiful colors and decorations, and the crowds were out last Monday in preparation. Here are a few photos.

27 February 2011


The Eagles made a stop in Singapore on their Long Road Out Of Eden tour, and I took the chance to check them out. It was the best concert I have seen in years, if not ever. Forty years after Glenn Frey and Don Henley first got together, they are still going strong. They played for over three hours - 28 songs - and they were on! They opened with Seven Bridges Road and proceeded through a range of their music from the early '70s to today. [I only had my iPhone and its 2-mp camera, so the shots of the band are not that good; other than the shot of all four opening the show, I added two of the video screen, showing the iconic Hotel California bell tower and Don Henley and Joe Walsh at the end of the show]. Don Henley even gave a shout-out to J.D. Souther, "of Amarillo, Texas", who was a co-writer on many of their hits.

It was cool to see Joe Walsh in full-on antic mode, Glenn Frey playing the capable MC, and Henley occasionally moving off the drum kit to bang the bongos. Walsh played a technically perfect solo to Hotel California - probably something he has done 100,000 times - and added several of his solo and James Gang songs to the mix. They even did a rocking rendition of Henley's Boys of Summer. This was the music I grew up listening to, and it was great to hear it played with such precision and passion so many years later. The overall effect is that it made me miss America that much more.

15 March 2010

Travel: Myanmar

Myanmar is a country I had wanted to visit but one that is a little less accessible than others in the region. For travel to China and Vietnam, Americans need to apply for visas in advance. This is relatively easy and efficient, done through a visa service (Vietnam) or a modern embassy (China). But, the process for Myanmar – known in the West as Burma – is a little more involved. First, you have to go to the Myanmar embassy, which is housed – well – in an old house just off Tanglin Road. No embassy row, no tight security. You walk through the gates and parking area into a cramped, low-ceilinged first floor room filled with people waiting for I-don’t-know-what-service to talk to the Singaporean uncle (term of endearment for older man) who staffs the embassy. Then, you find out what you have to bring to get your visa. Don’t think that what you read on the official website is sufficient – I had all that. Completed forms, three passport pictures, passport, hotel and flight reservations. But, the passport photos had to be all the same, and I would also need a letter to the Myanmar government explaining why I wanted to visit their country. So, I would come back the next day. The uncle did promise he would expedite the process if I returned the next day, and he did. I got my visa and was off to the Golden Land.

Myanmar is ruled by a military junta that has taken a developing country and turned it into a true third world country. When the British ruled it, they called it Burma, after one of the ethnicities of the vast country. The current dictatorship has renamed it to be more inclusive of all the peoples. Not that they care particularly about the people. The name change was a response to colonialism, much as was the decision (apparently, overnight) to change the side of the road on which cars drive from left to right, to eradicate all reminders of British rule. Never mind that most of the cars in the country are right-hand drive. That makes passing quite an exhilarating experience, to say the least.

I arrived at the former capital Yangon’s international airport and took the short trip into the city center, where I would stay in one of the hotels designated for westerners (you can’t just stay anywhere). I would find that Myanmar is incredibly inexpensive, if you do local things. Western hotels (I was in the Traders) are still expensive – I paid more than $150 a night. But, it was in the heart of the city center, and I could walk to the local markets and even to the big temples.

The local currency is the kyat (pronounced “chyat”), and it trades for about 1,000 per US Dollar. The locals are hungry for hard currency, so you find opportunities to exchange money everywhere you turn. People approach you, and the first thing they say is, “exchange money?” And most of the exchange seems legitimate, done at the prevailing rate. You must, however, have crisp dollars, with no markings, or you probably won’t be able to make the exchange.

I went to the Central Hotel to change my dollars, and I gave the man a crisp $100 bill. He then asked me to walk into the back room, so he could hand me the kyat that I had just purchased. I got 107,000 kyat for my dollars. No big deal, except that the largest denomination in Myanmar is the 1,000 kyat. So, I got a wad of bills that I would have to carry around for the next few days. That wasn’t really a problem, however.

Heartlifting, the Myanmar people are the most gracious I have encountered in all of Asia. They truly are nice and happy people. They are not free to leave the country, and they crave interaction with foreigners. Myanmar law deals harsh penalties on locals that harm foreigners, so it is also a safe place to visit. But, even without this, I found the people wonderful. I am fortunate to have gotten to know my Abacus colleagues, and they acted as tour guides for the first two days of my visit. It doesn’t hurt, of course, when they are three lovely young ladies. After I spent an afternoon walking around the markets near my hotel (with the assistance of my friendly local guide, Mr. Toe, who I met on the street), Sandar, Phyu Sin and Ei Mon picked me up for dinner at a local place (the excellent Myanmar Food by the feel Group). It was delicious! And they wouldn’t let me say no to the food, so we had a little bit (well, they did – I had a lot!) of everything. I even topped it with a Myanmar beer, the tasty local brew (it is much better than Mandalay Beer, the namesake of the mystical city in the country’s interior).

I was joined by Mr. Toe the next morning, giving me an expanded tour of the city center, from the river and the old Strand Hotel to vast street markets to the Sule Paya, a 2000-year old temple that occupies the middle of primary traffic circle at the intersection of Mahabandoola Road and Sule Paya Road, major east-west and north-south streets in the city centre.

I even decided to partake in a local custom – chewing betel nuts. Although officially frowned on (because of the ubiquitous red stains carpeting the ground), you will find betel nut vendors everywhere on the street. They roll the crushed nuts with a choice of sauces inside leaves, and you chew the leaf. It is similar to chewing tobacco in that it gives you a little kick. Or, a lot of kick if you aren’t used to it. I probably chewed for a minute before spitting it out, just to make sure I didn’t pass out on the street. I had just started spitting red (it is green to start), and Mr. Toe had a laugh, but I thought it would be poor form to lose control there. Chewing the betel nut leaves the tell-tale sign of a red mouth, however, and I had it. It is a rare sight for locals to see a foreigner with a red mouth, and one even remarked to me that I was “beautiful”. When in Rome…

Before I met my Abacus guides for an afternoon tour of temples, I headed to Bogyoke Aung San Market, a large indoor market named after Myanmar’s national hero number one, a leader of the independence movement that eventually led to Britain relinquishing their colonial hold over the country. He is more well-known in the West as the father of the current opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest in Yangon.
The market is filled with all kinds of shops, selling what one would expect – textiles, trinkets, local food, crafts. Myanmar is known for its lacquerware, and several shops had beautiful pieces, of which I bought two. I’ll bet that the one sitting in my bedroom is the most ornate repository of multiple tubes of chapstick that exists anywhere.

Just as my guides arrived, the rain started to come down. In buckets. It would make for an interesting afternoon of touring.

01 November 2009

Formula One in Asia

I was fortunate this year to attend both Formula One races in southeast Asia. These bookend a large portion of the season, with the Malaysian Grand Prix being the second race of the year in April, and the Singapore GP being near the end in September (only three races followed it). Living where I do in Singapore, I may have the most convenient location for attending both races.

The Malaysian GP is run at the Sepang Circuit, which is a mile or so away from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The city of KL is 40 or so kilometres from the airport, so it is actually easier to fly in the day of the race, rather than go up early and stay in the city. The race was scheduled to start at 5pm, so I took an early afternoon flight and arrived around 2. After catching the shuttle bus and buying my ticket at the box office, I was in the circuit before 3. This gave me a couple of hours to look around the facility, but all I really wanted to do was get under the shade in my seat.

It was ridiculously hot and humid. Malaysia is never temperate, but it is really bad in April. It was raining when we landed, but it had cleared by the time I was at the track, and it felt like a sauna on steroids. My ticket was on the start/finish straight, under the canopy that covers the iconic stands lining the track and its 180-degree turn. So, I settled in, knowing that the weather forecast was for more rain.

The race started normally, with pole-sitter Jenson Button of the newly-formed Brawn team getting out to the lead. My seats had a great view of the start finish line and then a very fast down hill left-hand turn into a long curve that gave the drivers an opportunity to stay on the gas. The elevation change really make for good viewing. The cars the disappeared for a minute before rounding the slow 180-degree final turn that takes them down the start/finish straight. From these seats, you get a lot of viewing time per lap, which is great. Plus, I was high enough up (first row, but in the second deck) that I could hear what was being said on my hand-held Kangaroo TV set.

A few minutes into the race, we got welcome relief from the heat with a cool breeze. That (and the gathering dark clouds) signaled an impending storm, and the rain came a few minutes later. I had recently read a novel set in Malaysia, and the rain that day came as the author had described the daily downpours, as "violent silver ropes that flood the playing fields and force office workers to wade to bus stops in shoes that fill like buckets." It doesn't drizzle in Malaysia.

One thing about Formula One that separates it from other motorsport series is that they continue to race in the rain. The teams switch to wet tires, and off they go. That is, if the rain doesn't made racing too hazardous. Which it did that day. The fast downhill turn I described above became a slow maneuver in the rain, with rooster tail plumes flowing high and far behind each car. From my Kangaroo TV set, I could hear the drivers telling their crews of the terrible conditions. It was so bad that about halfway through the race, they stopped it. Eventually, they would abandon the race, the first time such action was taken since the 1991 Australian GP was halted because of heavy rain. Because the race was not finished, the top 8 drivers received only half points (Button got 5 instead of 10).

I waited to see the podium, which was still celebratory, and then trudged with the rest of the dripping masses out of the circuit. A 15 minute walk got me to the buses, and another 15 minute wait got me on a bus. From there, it was only a few minutes before I was back through security and on my way to Singapore. I was back home around 11pm, just about 12 hours after I had left that morning. A pretty good day, even with the rain.

Nearly six months later, the Formula One circus came to Singapore for the second instalment of the Singapore GP, the first night race in F1's history. Last year's race had been a wild success, but the 2009 edition was clouded by revelations that Renault driver Nelson Piquet, Jr., had crashed his car deliberately during the race last year, which allowed his teammate Fernando Alonso to pass several cars during the subsequent caution and claim victory in the race. The economic downturn had also dampened excitement for the race, and when I found I couldn't get walk-about tickets (which Alex and I had last year), I decided not to go.

Then, two days before the race, a friend at work gave me a ticket. In the Pit Grandstand. Right across from the Brawn pits. Probably 200 metres from the start/finish line. The seats were incredible. So, on race day, I headed out about 3pm to go to the circuit. From my front door, I was inside the gates within 13 minutes. Walk down the hill, get on the MRT, ride two stops, up the escalator, and out the door and through the gates. It was amazing! Of course, I then had to walk more than 20 minutes in the heat to get to my seats, which were on the very opposite side of the circuit.

The organizers did another great job this year. The food and beverage area near my seats featured all kinds of good food, including a re-creation of Emerald Hill, my neighborhood, complete with the shophouses and local bars. It was great to see Ice Cold Beer and Number 5 Emerald Hill right there, as if I hadn't even left home.

The cars look fantastic under the lights. After the excitement of the start, however, I found the seats to be less enjoyable than the walk-about tickets we had last year. Formula One cars are awesome machines, but you tend to sit in your seat for 90 seconds watching the big video screens for every 15 seconds of the cars screaming by. Kangaroo TV provides good coverage, but it is hard to hear when you are so close to the track (I was fourth row). All in all, a good experience, but I learned a lesson on where to view the action for next year.

My last four Grands Prix have been quite historic - the 2005 USGP, when only six cars raced because of problems with the Michelin tires on the remaining 14 cars, the 2008 and 2009 Singapore GPs, the first night races, and the 2009 Malaysian GP, the first race to be abandoned in 18 years and only the fourth in history where half points were awarded. I guess it's a case of being in the right place at the right time.

31 October 2009

Travel: Pulau Dayang, Malaysia

While this is listed as a travel entry, the sole purpose of the trip was so I could do my open water dives and get certified as a PADI Open Water Diver. Which I did! I have wanted to do this for several years, but it was a chance seating arrangement at a company meeting that put me by an experienced diver that made it happen. I asked him about classes, he messaged his friend the instructor, the instructor told me to come to the shop the next Monday, and I signed up. Two nights of classes, a pool session (we were able to get it all done in one night), a perfect score on the final exam (sorry, I had to brag), and I was off to dive in the ocean.

The dives would be off Pulau Dayang (pulau is island in Bahasa Malay). This is off the east coast of Malaysia, so I thought it would be a short trip. Wrong. We left around 7pm, and with Customs checks and dinner, it took us over four hours to reach the ferry terminal. Where we boarded a boat that took another four hours to get to the island. We did get to sleep on the boat, which was good, since we reached the island at 4am, hopped into our bunk beds (four to a room), and tried to get in a few more hours of rest before our 8am wakeup call for the 9am dive.

We did three dives on Saturday (all with the requisite testing) and two more on Sunday. It was awesome. The water was pretty clear - about 20 metres visibility for some of the dives - and the sites had some interesting characteristics. I had some issues with my buoyancy and (in the first two dives) equalizing. Part of the buoyancy problem is that I tend to breathe more deeply than I need, which adds to my natural buoyancy (no comments from the peanut gallery), but that will change as I get more experienced. I also tended to focus on one activity at a time, and more than once as I was trying to equalize, I found myself close to surfacing.

There is all kinds of great sea life here. Parrot fish, little nemos, cuttlefish, sea cucumbers, clams, eels...all kinds of cool stuff. Plus, the underwater terrain was very interesting. We did not see the whale shark, which was spotted the week before. Perhaps next time.

I did not have my camera with me but will add pictures of the "resort" and underwater action when I get them from my fellow divers. It was a really fun weekend, and I am glad to finally add to "certifiable" as an apt description of me, "certified". As in Open Water Diver.

The one downside was that a Singapore diver died at one of the dive sites over the weekend. He was an up-and-coming eye doctor here and an experienced diver. There are few details still, but he apparently fell ill underwater while working with a re-breather (mixes oxygen, nitrogen, and helium). He was pulled from the water before 9am on Saturday, so he was out and on his way to the hospital before we went in the water, and we didn't find out until we got back to Singapore. Quite a sobering illustration that diving - like any other outdoor activity - can be dangerous.

Christmas in October

On 25 October - two months to the day before Christmas - I returned from a weekend away to find workers putting up Christmas decorations over Orchard Road. It is now Halloween, and the decorations are fully in place, not only on Orchard but in the department stores. We are even seeing Christmas trees go up. In October!

Rumor is that this is in part for the APEC summit, to be held in Singapore in November (President Obama will attend). I think it is a manifestation of Singapore's kiasu mentality - must be first in everything. It is a bit odd, because we are only halfway through the Deepavali month (Little India is a beautiful sight at nighttime during the month), and it seems to go against Singapore's official policy of racial and religious harmony. I suppose the Christmas decorations on Orchard and in the department stores are more commercial in nature, however, so no harm done.


I have been wanting to write about China since my visit there in January. I find so much fascinating about the country and culture. I have been unable, however, to sit down and do it! It is some kind of writer's block. I intend to write about all my experiences (since my last entry on the country, I have been to Shanghai, and I plan another trip to China before the end of the year), but I will do so as I can put the energy to it.

In the meantime, I want to describe some of my other travels and goings-on here, so I will begin to do so. I have much to record.