12 December 2007

Christmas in Singapore

I mentioned that Singapore is a city of festivals in Autumn. They save the biggest celebration for last, however, as the city really gets decked out for Christmas. Granted, it starts a bit later in the year than in the US, starting mid-November. I think this has to do with the timing of other festivals, as Deepavali ends around that time.

I attribute the celebrations not to the presence of Westerners in Singapore or the influence of Christianity in the city-state. Indeed, Westerners are still a small minority, and the republic is a multi-religious society. Instead, I think it is a nod to the overt consumerism of Singapore. It is nice to see Christmas lights and hear Christmas carols, but this really is only in the commercial areas. In those areas, however, it is like Rockefeller Plaza.

I wanted to share some pictures from around the city, including one of the Raffles Hotel. I leave tomorrow for the US and a two week visit home. I hope that I have imparted a bit of what is like over here for you. My goal is to let you experience this with me without sounding overprivileged. I hope I have accomplished that.

So, until 2008, I bid you adieu. Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

Travel: Bintan

My visit to Bali had been my first trip to Indonesia, but I followed it with a trip to Bintan, an island about 40 kilometres southeast of Singapore that is a popular weekend destination for Singaporeans. Indonesia places a few more restrictions on visitors - you must get a visa (Visa on Demand) when entering, and in Bali, you have to pay an exit tax. But, that really just slows down your entry into the country, making the lines through Immigration a bit longer.

I have a colleague who goes kite surfing nearly every weekend, and the wind is now good at Bintan, so he heads there. I had work to do over one weekend, and he suggested I do it on the beach. So, I headed off early on a Saturday morning for a little W&R (work and relaxation).

Bintan basically has two sides to it, on a tourist front: the Singapore side, and the local side. My kite surfing friend likes to go to the local Indonesian side, where it is cheaper and less crowded. Apparently, the Singapore side is filled with high priced resorts and is somewhat cut off from the reality of the island, which is highly rural and could be characterized as developing, in an economic sense. The ferries that serve that side of the island are Singapore-owned and quite luxurious. The Indonesian side of the island is less resort-ish. And the ferries that serve that side are Indonesian-owned, which means they are focused more on getting lots of people on board than on making the trip as comfortable as possible. I didn't know all of this, and I took my colleague's advice to take the Indonesian ferry, which takes a bit longer to arrive on the island, but means a shorter van trip to the hotel. So, I boarded the Indo Falcon Ferry at Changi Ferry Terminal on a Saturday morning, hoping for a cup of coffee and maybe a bite to eat. I would get nothing of the sort.

The ferry was packed. It had two decks, an "upper" deck with a single aisle and five cramped seats on either side, and a "lower" deck with two sets of wobbly seats, three or four to a side. A sitting area in front of the lower deck allowed groups to sit around the perimeter of the boat, but it was full. I found a seat downstairs against the wall, so at least I had a neighbor to only one side. It was pretty cramped, and it would have been a miserable ride shoulder to shoulder on both sides.

The first thing I noticed was how much the boat rocked at the dock. It was up and down and side to side. I don't usually get seasick, and I hadn't had anything to eat or drink (remember, I thought I would get something on board - no such luck), so I didn't think I would have a problem. But, a good part of the passengers did. The water was quite choppy for the first hour, and apparently you get it the worst in the lower deck (which is also in the bow of the boat). About 20 minutes in, a poor little girl behind me got sick. She was very quiet, but the smell indicated immdediately that something had gone wrong, and the poor child looked miserable. That set off a chain reaction, and for the next 30 minutes or so, it was pretty bad. I was okay, but a great deal of the boat wasn't. It was interesting to observe the following contrast: several buddies sitting together, some drinking beer at 9 in the morning, while their friends right beside them had their heads in plastic bags. I was glad to be in neither party.

We arrived at Tanjung Pinang, the largest city on Bintan, and then took a van 45 minutes out of the city to the hotel. It is a new hotel, and it is pretty nice, set in a very rural area of the island. There isn't much of a beach, just a sandy stretch leading to a low rock wall that borders the water. For about 200 metres, the water stretches out at around three feet deep, until you can see a clear line of demarcation where it drops off to greater depths. This keeps the waves down, which the kite surfers like. There were several kites on the beach with a couple of kiters on the water.

Kite surfing mixes the use of a snowboard-type board with a parachute-like kite, to which the surfer is attached via a body harness. The kites range from 6 to 15 square metres, depending on the strength of the wind. A skilled kiter can shoot across the water at very high speeds and then make high jumps by manipulating the kite in the wind. But, it apparently takes lots of practice, and the hazards that I heard of include being plucked out of the water and hung in trees, being attacked by territorial fish, being swept to sea (they do not wear flotation devices) and being unable to re-launch the kite after crashing. It is more dangerous that in seems.

But, I didn't have to worry about that. The hotel does not have any training kites, so I sat on the beach and did my work. Not a bad setting to work, actually. Read a little, write a little, gaze out at the ocean for a while. I could get used to that.

The surrounding area is countryside for miles, dotted with houses or little gatherings of buildings serving as residences and roadside stores. The hotel has a restaurant, and there is another at the end of the pier just a short walk away. But, after dinner, there is little to do. I sat with some kiters for a while, but most of them are wiped out after a day on the water.

The next morning was more of the same. A run up the road let me see a little more of the island, and I think it would be an interesting place to visit. I would have liked to capture many of the sights on the drive back to the ferry terminal, but the van's windows were covered in a poorly applied tint, meaning there was no way you could take a good picture. I did include some from the ferry terminals and the hotel. And I did get one picture of a scooter with several live roosters tied to the back. Every once in a while, a rooster would tilt its head to check out where it was going, which was hard for it to do, as it was hanging upside down.

10 December 2007

Travel: Bali

I had not decided to go to Bali with Mom and Dad until the week before their trip. They had a 9:15 am flight on Singapore Air, and I booked the same airline, but on the 7:00 pm flight. I thought I would stand by, so I rode the taxi with them to arrive at the airport around 7:30 am. Well, I got to the front of the line, and they said the flight was already oversold by 31. If I wanted to stand by, it was unlikely I would get on the flight, and I would have to stay within the security area for nearly 12 hours. I told Mom and Dad goodbye and was headed home, when I decided to ask once more. I was told this time that it looked a lot better (they had switched the plane from a 777 to a 747), so I thought I would chance it. Thank goodness I did - I found Mom and Dad and was able to get on the flight. That gave me an extra day in Bali, which was perfect.

We arrived to a very hot noonday sun, and after a short taxi ride, we were at our hotel. Now, I am all for going exploring, seeing as much as there is to see. But, when I walked into the hotel, I said, "I'm not going anywhere." There was a pool. There was a bar. There was a beach. There was a bar on the beach. There was a bar in the pool. We checked in, and Dad and I went down to check out the pool.

And bar. After satisfying our curiosity about the quality of the local brew, Bintang, Dad headed to get Mom, and I headed to the beach. Which is where I sat, looking at the water and the various jets taking off (the airport was on a jetty just a couple of miles away), sometimes going for a dip and a body surf. But mainly, I just sat there. Mom and Dad joined me for a sit, as well.

We had a great view of the brilliant sunset.

And we made friends with one of the waiters, so it was a perfect day.

The next day was more of the same. Sit, swim, sit, have a refreshment, sit, nap. All the while soaking in the breezy day. I have not done more of nothing in a long time. And although I had to leave early the next morning to be back at work, my two days there were well worth it.

One interesting note: I went for a walk early the next morning along the beach. I had noticed earlier a wide swath of sand that looked as if it had been groomed, just as you walked down onto the beach. During my walk, I discovered how they did it - a hotel employee was prodding along two cows (they looked more like water buffaloes) who were dragging a grooming device which looked quite similar to those used on basepaths. It really was a mixture of new and old. Unfortunately, I did not get any pictures of these guys!

09 December 2007

The Hallerbergs in Singapore

While I flew back from Bangkok, Mom and Dad traveled in style: the Eastern & Orient Express. Their trip took them to the River Kwai, then down through southern Thailand, through Penang, Butterworth, and Kuala Lumpur and down peninsular Malaysia, over the Straits of Johor and into Keppel Road Station in Singapore. The station is actually still part of Malaysia, and it bears much resemblance to the country, with its food and coffee stalls and signs in Bahasa Malay.

Proving just how small the world is, I was greeted at the platform by an old boss of mine from Sabre, who is now retired and happened to be on the train with Mom and Dad. They had chatted and realized that I was the Eric they had in common. It was incredible!

I got to peek in the train, and it looked like a great way to spend a few days. I will let the actual travelers fill you in on their experiences there. We certainly had plenty to chronicle during their time in Singapore.

After letting them get settled at my place, we headed out for dim sum. We had a number of different dishes, and they even ate chicken feet! Really, this is a novelty for me, as there just isn’t any meat. It is a delicacy to some, but I have tried it twice, and that is enough.

The weather had been overcast and very humid earlier in the day, but the humidity was letting up a bit as we headed to Clarke Quay and a bum boat tour of the Singapore River. The bum boats were the wide-bottom freight boats that ferried goods from the riverside godowns (warehouses) in old Singapore out to the harbor. They now provide nice tours of the river starting at Clarke Quay, down to Boat Quay, past Parliament and the Fullerton Hotel (a grand building which used to house the colonial post office) and into the harbor, with its views of the Esplanade (the new performance halls that look like bug eyes or durians) and the Merlion. After the ride, we took a walking tour of the area – the weather had turned almost Autumn-like. After seeing some of the sights up close (including a picture session for a bride and groom), we headed to a little street tucked away behind Boat Quay that is home to a number of restaurants and pubs for happy hour at my favorite local brewery, Archipelago. This Singapore brewery produces really good, refreshing beers, and it is located on a corner, allowing it to draw back the floor to ceiling shutters and become an open-air bar with refreshing cross-breezes. The weather was perfect, and it wasn’t too crowded. It was a good start to their stay.

That night, we decided to go to the Long Bar at Raffles for Singapore Slings. We ran into more people from their train, who were staying for a few days in the city, as well. It was clear that everyone was having a good time. But, the day had been long, and after a quick pizza across the street, it was time to head home.

The next day, I took them to Chinatown and the Heritage Center, which has an interesting Chinatown history tour in a converted shophouse. After, they sampled a local delicacy – sugar cane juice – and we headed for Lau Pa Sat, a well-known (and huge) hawker center in the Central Business District that has every kind of Singapore food you can imagine. We had a sampling of chicken rice, mixed-beef noodles, popiah, and char siew/won ton noodles. The skies threatened rain, so we jumped on the MRT (I am proud to say that the two adapted very well, buying MRT cards and riding the trains and buses when convenient) to go home. The walk from the station takes you by a local kopitiam (coffee shop), so we stopped for local coffee and butter kaya toast, and Dad had a chendol. This is a mix of several “sweets” (defined differently here than what I am used to), including grass jelly and red beans. For dinner, we tried an interesting little place called the French Stall. This was started by a French chef here who wanted a restaurant similar to one in his small hometown in France that served good French food at moderate prices. The result is an open-air kopitiam-style restaurant just at the northern end of Little India. And it is quite good. We happened to eat there during their celebration of the new harvest of Beaujolais Nouveau, which was a nice complement to the excellent beef dishes we had.

The night was not quite over, however, as it was off to the Night Safari. The Singapore Zoo is well-known for its daytime natural habitats, but its neighbor has an impressive night show as well. You walk into a Disney-style setting with several themed restaurants and bars, along with a live native fire-dance show. After a fun performance of “Creatures of the Night” in the amphitheater, which starts with a wolf coming out on a rock outcropping to bay at the moon and includes owl flights, marmocets crawling across suspended ropes, an interactive session with a python, and a cute lesson on recycling with the help of otters, you are off to a tram tour of the park. This felt very Jurassic Park-like, as you crawl through the jungle on a three-car, open-air tram, with close proximity to all kinds of animals, from deer to water buffaloes to giraffes and hippopotami to tigers and lions. I really liked it, and the trip through the forest kept the temperature down. That made it a full day, however, and it was off to home.

Friday morning started with a walk around Orchard and then up past several embassies to the Botanic Garden. I had heard good things about it but had not visited. It covers 157 acres (or, 64 hectares here) and includes the National Orchid Garden. This is nice greenspace in the middle of a city with much greenspace, but it was hot.

After, we took a taxi up Mount Faber to board the cable car to Sentosa Island. On a clear day, you can see the cable cars from my condo. They take you from the top of the hill, over the port and to Sentosa, which is a resort-style (read: touristy) island just south of the main island of Singapore. There are a number of tourist attractions as well as golf and resorts there (the Singapore Open, and Asian PGA Tour event, was just played on Sentosa), and the island will be home to Singapore’s second casino in 2010 (the first is due to hope at the Marina in 2009). We all enjoyed Images of Singapore, which is a wax museum walk through Singapore’s history and showcase of its multi-cultural heritage. And the island’s 37 metre tall Merlion is impressive, allowing you to view the city through its mouth and from the top of its head. All this is dampened by the overt touristy nature of the island, however. Everywhere you go, they insist on taking a picture which they will try to sell to you at the end of your visit. And all attractions exit through gift shops. It is just a beat-down, and I question whether this is the image Singapore wants to portray to visitors. We had had enough (the picture-taking actually started at the Night Safari), and I told the photographers on our way to the cable car for our return trip that there was no need to take our picture.

A quick respite helped us recharge for our Friday night out. First, we headed to Boat Quay and the Penny Black pub, which is a fully-reassembled Victorian London pub that was shipped piece-by-piece to Singapore. There we met up with Mark Corley, the third of six Corley brothers, who was in Singapore on Microsoft business. We then headed across the river to Indochine, which is a wonderful French-Asian fusion restaurant for a night of good wine, great food, and excellent storytelling. I learned more about my friend’s family – and about mine – than I had in a long time. Mark had an early flight to Sydney the next day, so we called it a night after dinner.

Saturday was Mom and Dad's last day in Singapore, but we all were a little tired and eager to get ready for Bali. Dad and I toured Fort Canning Park, just down the road from me, which was home to the old Government House in colonial times, as well as the Battle Box, the command headquarters for the British military in Malaya before Singapore fell. The tour of the Battle Box is fascinating - they really do a good job of recreating the days leading up to the surrender. After a quick visit to Clarke Quay, it was back home for a bit of rest. We wanted to catch the opening night of Christmas in the Tropics, the big holiday lights celebration on Orchard Road. We made our way to Orchard in early evening, booked our bus tour, and then enjoyed a little dinner as the lights came on. Unfortunately for us, the buses were delayed by more than an hour, and we did not want to wait. We had to be out of the house at 7 am the next morning for the flight to Bali. So, we called it a night, and that was the end of their stay.

I think they had a great time - it was fun playing tour guide. I did some things I hadn't done before (and wouldn't without a visitor), which was great. To get their perspective, however, you'll have to ask them directly.

25 November 2007

Travel: Bangkok

One nice side effect of my being in Singapore is that it is bringing people to Asia, those who normally might not have traveled to this bustling region. (This makes it sound like a small area - in fact, "Asia" is huge. A trip from Singapore to Tokyo - next door neighbors, right? - is essentially the same as that from Washington, D.C., to London.)

Mom and Dad made their inaugural visit over here earlier in November, with an ambitious itinerary that took them through Taipei (for layovers), Hong Kong, Bangkok, southern Thailand and peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, and Bali. They would stay with me in Singapore, but I decided to join them for a couple of days in Bangkok, as it had been a while since I had visited.

They had been in Bangkok for a day when I arrived after 8pm on Friday and apparently had already had some interesting experiences (I'll leave them to tell you). I met the two at our hotel, the Shangri-La, which is right on the river, the Chao Phraya. After a bit of downtime, we headed out to eat.

I had chosen a restaurant named Ruen Mallika from a Wallpaper guidebook. The restaurant is in an old teak house, which is situated in what looks like an alley, and even the taxi driver was not sure how to get there. After an in-transit call to the restaurant (we found that this is quite popular in Bangkok), he found it, and we were in for a nice Thai meal. Mom and Dad let me order, but I went light on the spices. The night was old by the time we finished, so it was off to bed.

The next morning, we headed to the river for a trip up to Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn) and the Grand Palace. It was hot already, but a cool breeze blows along the river, especially in the boat as you make your way north. We got off on the east side of the river and took a ferry across to Wat Arun.

I have written about this temple before, but it always strikes me how steep the climb is as you get to the higher levels. The first bit is bad enough, steep and without a handrail. The next two levels get remarkably steeper, although you do have a rail on which to apply a vice-like grip as you ascend. We got to the next-to-top level, and Mom and Dad decided that was as far as they would go. I grant you, it is nerve-wracking, the last staircase is so steep. But, I had been up there before, and I knew it was worth it. So, I told them I was going up and appealed to Mom's sense of determination (something about "you're only going to be here once" and "remember how you got to Strawberry Lake" - you'll have to ask her on that one), and I headed up. I circled around to look down and say hello, and lo and behold! They were on their way up! It is scariest at the very top of the stairs, because the platform tilts just a little bit towards the ground, and it is nearly a sheer drop to the next level. But, once you step away, it is not bad, and the views are spectacular. And even the trip down is not as bad as the trip up, as you just grip the handrail tight and take one step at a time.

After that, we headed back across the Chao Phraya for the Grand Palace. We had been warned about con artists trying to tell you that certain attractions were closed, trying you go visit attractions with which they were affiliated. And we were approached by one as soon as we got off the ferry, but we ignored him and started walking north to the palace entrance. We weren't quite sure where the entrance was, however. The grounds are massive, and we had been walking across from the palace walls since getting off the ferry, but no entrance was in sight. We must have looked confused, because a badge-carrying member of the "Tourist Police" approached us to help. He was very persuasive that the palace did not open until 2.00 pm, and showed us a couple of other sites that he claimed were of interest, open to foreigners (a key claim for many con artists), and free of charge. Well, we were convinced. Not to visit the other sites, but to go somewhere else first and then come back to the palace. Fortunately, just as this fellow was leaving us, two Americans we had run into at Wat Arun walked by and told us to not believe anyone, that they didn't, and that they were going to the palace. Sure enough, we walked around the corner, and there was the entrance. I was so angry! I couldn't believe we had been duped, but we still had all our money, and we had been lucky. I did look for our friendly "Tourist Policeman" as I walked back, but I didn't see him.

The Grand Palace was built beginning in 1782, to mark the founding of Bangkok as the new capital (Bangkok, or Krung Thep - city of angels - is a relatively young city) and provide a residence for the king (Thais love their king, who doesn't look anything like Yul Brenner). It also houses the Wat Phra Kaeo, the resting place of the sacred Emerald Buddha, a 600-year old jadeite image of the Buddha. It had several homes before it was brought to Phra Kaeo in 1785. The statue itself is housed in a bot, a brilliantly-colored building at the eastern end of the grounds. Tourists are not allowed to take pictures inside the building, and you are instructed not to point your feet at the Buddha.

While the bot is the most important building in the wat, it is by no means the only sight worth seeing. The grounds are filled with beautiful structures, from the gold-covered spires of the Phra Si Rattana Chedi, which contains a piece of the Buddha's breastbone, to the green-hued Phra Mondop, the library, to a Khmer style stone tower. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are amazing here. You could spend all day just staring at the buildings. But, it was blazing hot, and after a while, we were ready to head back.

I wanted to see Wat Pho, which contains a large reclining Buddha, but Mom and Dad wanted a rest and headed back to the hotel. We actually had walked right by Wat Pho when we first got off the boat, and it wasn't hard to find. It is a nice site, quieter than the Grand Palace but still providing a feel of grandeur. The reclining Buddha is massive, and the grounds hold many interesting structures. And around the back of the Buddha, there is a row of pots that people line up to drop coins in (you change some baht for small coins). I don't know what the significance of this is, but I participated, if only for the sake of karma.

Dad wanted to stay at the hotel and swim when I returned, so Mom and I went to the Jim Thompson House. Thompson was an American who was stationed in Bangkok after World War II as head of the OSS office there. He became fascinated with the ancient art of Thai silk weaving, which had disappeared during the war, and he very successfully revived it. He became well known in Bangkok not only for his silk company, but also for his home. He brought six individual houses from remote parts of Thailand and re-assembled them into a sort of compound, locating it on the banks of a khlong, a finger of the river that run through the city. Just across the khlong was the Bangkok silk works, which he helped develop and continued to patronize for his supplies of silk, which were woven into his now world-famous garments.

Thompson mysteriously disappeared in 1967 while vacationing in Malaysia, and his legend has grown ever since. Not only was he a charismatic man, but he had good taste in art and in design, as evidenced by his extensive collection of Asian art and the style of his house. The house is mainly in dark wood, a mix of open, airy rooms and smaller, peaceful spots like his study and the dining room. It felt very lived-in for a museum, and it was a nice respite from the hustle and bustle - and heat - of the city.

Mom and I took the skytrain back to the hotel and the three of us enjoyed a nice Royal Thai meal, complete with traditional Thai music and dancing.

I had an early flight on Sunday, and they had to prepare for their train journey through Malaysia to Singapore, so we said goodbye, and I was on my way to get ready for their visit to the Lion City.


As previously mentioned, Singapore is a city of Autumn festivals. The first was Mid-Autumn Festival (or, Mooncake Festival or Lantern Festival), in October. The second of these is Hari Raya Puasa, a Muslim celebration marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It is a day of prayer and celebration, as celebrants will attend the Eid prayer in the morning, often followed by a visit to loved ones graves for cleaning and to recite chapters and prayers from the Koran. The rest of the day is spent in celebration, visiting friends and family and welcoming visitors. It is a festive occasion, especially for the children, who receive token sums of money known as duit raya from their parents. Traditional Malay dress is worn, baju Melayu for the men and baju kurung or baju kebaya for the women. It is a very special day for Singapore's Malay community. Unfortunately, it coincided with my visit to Hong Kong this year, so I was unable to see any of the festivities.

The Indian community celebrates in Autumn, as well. Deepavali (or Diwali, as it is known in northern India) is the Festival of Lights, observed by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs (it is celebrated in Nepal as well, known as Tihar, or Swanti). There are several legends associated with the festival, mostly related to the triumph of light over darkness. For Hindus in northern India, Diwali celebrates the homecoming of King Rama after a 14 year exile. The people of Ayodhya, his capital, welcomed him home with rows of lighted lamps. For southern Hindus, Deepavali celebrates Lord Krishna's victory over the demon Narakasura. For Jainism, the festival marks the nirvana of Lord Mahavira. And Sikhs celebrate the release of the Sixth Guru - Guru Hargobind Ji - from imprisonment, along with 52 Hindu Kings. Today, the festival is a national holiday in India (and Singapore) and celebrated regardless of faith.

As an aside, the U.S. sitcom "The Office" featured Deepavali/Diwali in an episode last season, complete with an Adam Sandler-esque song describing the festival, as sung by Steve Carell. It may not be the best way to learn about the celebration, but it's an enjoyable starting point.

To celebrate, Little India lights up like Christmas (which isn't completely accurate, given how much Singapore actually lights up for Christmas. Which is a lot.). Serangoon Road, the north-south road cutting through the heart of the district, is beautifully colored in purple and gold lights, and the entire area buzzes with more energy than usual. And usual is pretty exciting. It really is pretty.

I was lucky to get to experience a celebration first-hand. An Indian colleague invited me and other co-workers to join her in a Deepavali dinner at her favorite restaurant. She, like the restaurant, is vegeterian, so I was in store for a treat. The night was great. It included a powerpoint presentation on the history of Deepavali by her 9 year old daughter and an out-loud reading of a children's story by a colleague's 5 year old son, who insisted that several of us get up and play act the parts of the characters in the book. The food was wonderful, as well. We had dishes from all different regions of India, including those on the Chinese border, which are mixtures of Indian and Chinese style food. My favorite two were Chilli Gobi and Gobi Manchurian. Gobi is cauliflower. I had no idea what you could do with this vegetable! Chilli Gobi is a wonderful dish with very spicy chillies. In fact, my colleague's daughter still talks about my chilli eating prowess. Gobi Manchurian is cauliflower in a sweet and sour sauce, one of the Indian/Chinese mixtures. I couldn't get enough! It was delicious, and a great way to celebrate a new festival to me. After the meal, it was out for a nice stroll through the lights on the way home.

So, Singapore really is a city of Autumn festivals. Both Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali are national holidays, and businesses are closed. It has been a great multi-cultural education. But, apparently they save the best for last, as Singapore is already alight for Christmas. Granted, we start a bit later here than in the States, but the city is aglow in Christmas decorations, anchored by the Christmas in the Tropics festival running from Orchard Road to Marine Parade, two major commercial districts in town. It is a bit odd, as it is 88 degrees and 88 percent humidity every day, but Christmas songs and decorations fill the air. I'll write more on that later.

A&M - is the "A" for "Asia"?

During a quality control visit to a Clarke Quay establishment recently, I found this and had to take a picture. Even halfway around the world, the Aggies make their presence known. I don't know what Gig 'Em translates into over here.

The Game in Singapore

Since 1990, I have joined three of my SMU Sigma Chi fraternity brothers once a year to play a game of Hearts. Graham Gibbs, Jeff Kays, Greg Webb, and I used to play in college, and we had an impromptu game during Senior Week in 1990 (the week before my graduation), out of which came a vow to get together every year to play. If anything, we are true to our word, and we have played annually since then.

What started as a little game of Hearts has evolved into what we call The Game. And it has become quite the formal event. It is governed according to a constitution which the four of us drafted (we call ourselves the Recalcitrant Four, which will be familiar to Sigs out there). The loser every year has to display prominently "The Plaque", which shows his name as well as the location of his loss. We even have a history of the game, including past scorecards. It has become a great tradition.

One of the items in the constitution is that we will never play The Game in the same state twice. It has been fun traveling around the U.S. over the past 17 years to play - Arkansas, Tennessee, Minnesota, Texas, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Alabama, Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, South Dakota, West Virginia, and South Carolina. This year, however, called for an international adventure. Jeff has been on an expat assignment in Sydney, which will end early in 2008, and Greg had business that brought him to the Lion City. So, after a careful reading of the constitution to verify that international play was indeed allowed (we interpreted that it is), we convinced Graham to come to Asia for The Game.

We had a great time. I won't go into all the gory details, but suffice to say that we enjoyed renewing the bonds of brotherhood, I got to show them some of the town (Little India, Chinatown, Clarke Quay, Raffles Hotel, Orchard Road and Towers), and I - last year's loser - was able to pass the plaque to Graham. It is ritual to capture this moment, and I wanted to share it with everyone. Emotions are always the same - elation contrasted by utter disappointment.

With Jeff heading back to Minnesota, it looks as if The Game will return to domestic locales for the near future. And if this was to be the only international venue in its history, The Game did itself well.

12 November 2007

Travel: Hong Kong, Part 4

I jumped in a taxi at the Macau Ferry Terminal and asked the driver to let me out in Lan Kwai Fong, in Central towards the Mid-Levels. Little did I know that I was headed for the annual Lan Kwai Fong Carnival. The area is a hotspot for expats and locals alike, filled with restaurants and bars but populated with the young professional set, not the clientele of the seedier Wan Chai (see Part 1).

I got out of the cab into a mob scene. The steep streets of the district were packed with revelers, and every establishment along the row had a stall in the street selling food and drink. It was like Mardi Gras! The crowd was generally well-behaved, although it was clear that a good part of it had been celebrating for several hours. I ran into some Coloradans who were enjoying themselves and gave them best wishes for their team (up 2-0 against the Diamondbacks at the time, on their way to the sweep and a World Series berth). It was a great atmosphere. But, alas, I had to behave, as my flight was early enough that I couldn't sleep in, so after a walk around the entire area, I headed back to the hotel. Not before watching four young men (one a teenage boy) participate in a Tabasco eating contest. Each was given a bowl of chili that was LOADED with Tabasco, and off they went. It was like a mini-Coney Island on July 4th, although these guys were throwing back hot chili. Of course, hailing from Texas and having spent six months now testing the local chillies, I had to scoff. But, at the same time, I wasn't volunteering.

Lan Kwai Fong apparently is a great place any time of the year, but I lucked into visiting during a particularly festive time. I can't wait to go back. Especially because I left my car there.

11 November 2007

Travel: Macau

Macau is a former Portuguese colony, lying 65 kilometres west of Hong Kong. The Special Administrative Region (SAR) - China resumed sovereignty over it in 1999 - is split between the peninsula connected to the mainland and two islands. While it apparently boasts some fine colonial architecture and interesting sights, I knew only of its reputation as a gambling center. The city's casinos played a role early in The Man With the Golden Gun (unfortunately, the wreck of the Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong Harbour, which was a secret British Naval outpost in the movie, was scrapped years ago; a portion of it is now landfill on which HKIA sits). More recently, however, Macau made international news when the world's largest casino, the Venetian, opened there in August. Since I was in the area, I thought I would pop over for a rendezvous with Lady Luck.

The Macau ferry pier is to the east of the central piers. High-speed ferries run to Macau every thirty minutes. I wanted to spend only a couple of hours there to give me time to come back for a few more hours of exploring Hong Kong. I tried to catch a 6 o'clock ferry but was told the earliest available was at 6.30. While the ferries only take an hour to cover the 40 or so miles, that would put me in Macau at 7.30, and I wanted to be back in Hong Kong by 10.00. While I was thinking about my schedule, I spied the next ticket window, Heli Express. A helicopter ride would take 16 minutes to cover the distance, and it would put me down right at the Macau ferry terminal. I had never flown in a helicopter, and I decided to do it. As they say, time is money. I bought my ticket for a 6.30 take off and headed to the departure lounge. My fellow passengers were a mix of Westerners and Asians, tourists and locals. None particularly stood out, although one fellow in the departure ahead looked the high roller, decked out in a white suit. Ten of us passengers boarded the helicopter, and up we went into the darkness. The immediate sights were outstanding - the same harbour view from the night before on the Star Ferry, but this time from a thousand feet up. Quickly, however, we moved into pitch darkness, and it wasn't until nearly 15 minutes later that the lights of Macau led us to our destination. I don't know what kind of helicopter it was, so I have included a picture to allow you, gentle readers, to identify it.

Macau looks like the Vegas strip, but in an island setting. As we approached, you could see dozens of different casinos, some right on the water. There was a mix of familiar names (Sands) and typical historical motifs along with more Asian-centric themes. Most of the casinos are on the peninsula, but new ones such as the Venetian are popping up on Taipa Island across the causeway (actually, there are three different bridges connecting the peninsula with the island). After getting through Customs, I boarded the free shuttle (imagine that!) for the ten minute ride to the Venetian. It is incredible. I have been to the Venetian in Las Vegas, as well as many of the other "name" casinos, but I don't remember anything on this scale. Even the Bellagio. The structure is massive. The shuttle drops you off on the hotel side, and the walk to the casino takes you through an expansive shopping arcade with all kinds of high-end shops. It is luxury-shopping heaven.

The casino itself is even grander. The ceilings in the open areas stretch three to four stories above the ground floor and are covered in Italian Renaissance style murals. You could spend an entire evening just staring at the surroundings. But, I didn't have all evening, and I wanted to give the tables a chance.

I prefer blackjack and craps, but the game of choice in Macau is baccarat. I don't know enough to play this game successfully, so I walked around until I found one of the few blackjack tables (the Venetian doesn't have a craps table). I sat down rather nervously at a low stakes table and found immediately that my Asian co-players did not understand how to play the game. Oh, they knew the rules, but they didn't know the odds, so they were staying on any hand of 12 or higher, even when the dealer was showing a 7 or better. That generally means a one-way flow of money towards the house, and this night was no different. I, however, played by the rules, and only played for about ten minutes. After a good run, I decided to see some more of the building and then head to the Wynn, which was much nearer the ferry terminal (I was up, but not enough to buy a helicopter trip back to Hong Kong; anticipating this, I had already purchased my return ferry trip).

A cab ride took me across a different causeway, this one to the east of the trip down to the Venetian, for good view of the waterfront casinos. We circled back around to the Wynn, where I hoped my winning streak would continue.

The Wynn is nice, modeled after Steve Wynn's original Vegas casino (although I have never been, so I don't have any grounds for comparison). After the Venetian, however, it seemed quite dreary. The ceilings were low, the room dark. They did have a single craps table, which they were promoting heavily with cards that explained the rules. I would have liked to join in, but the table was packed with players and interested on-lookers, so I headed back to the blackjack table. I may have stayed there for a shorter time than at the Venetian, but my run of luck continued. After at most ten minutes of play, I walked straight to the cage to cash out and find a place for a drink before heading to the ferry terminal. To my delight, I was up HK$1,500. Of course, that is about $200 US. Which is better than losing $200, but I wasn't headed back for some shopping at the Venetian. I did get to catch the fountain show at the Wynn, which is reminiscent of the one at Bellagio featured at the end of Ocean's 11.

The ferry ride was pleasant - I rode in upper class, which is quiet and offers free food and drink. It is the way to go, if you don't want to spring for the helicopter ride, and the hour-long trip was just the perfect amount of time to decompress from the casino experience and get ready for one last night of exploring in Hong Kong.

08 November 2007

Travel: Hong Kong, Part 3

Translated, dim sum literally means "to touch the heart." Dim sum are snacks that Chinese and other Asians eat for breakfast or lunch. It is served in small bamboo baskets, usually in three or four small pieces. Ideally, you eat this with a group, ordering several different baskets to share. But, you can eat it alone, too. Just bring an appetitite.

Dim sum is widely available in Hong Kong, but I was given a couple of recommendations that I wanted to try, one on Hong Kong Island and the other on Kowloon. Since I was on the island, and short of time, I headed to Maxim's at City Hall. This restaurant is actually housed in Hong Kong's City Hall building, and it is open for lunch until 3.00. I arrived at 2.50, just in time.

At Maxim's, as in other "authentic" dim sum eateries (I put "authentic" in quotes, because they all are authentic in Hong Kong), the dishes are served by women wheeling around trolleys. They speak mainly Cantonese, a dialect in the southern part of China (named after the southern city of Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton), and much of my ordering was done by pointing and nodding. I definitely wanted cha siu baau (buns stuffed with barbecue pork, or char siew as spelled in Singapore) and siu mai (pork dumplings), but I didn't know how much they had left, so I just started ordering. First was a shrimp cheong fun (a rice noodle roll), followed quickly by fun zao, poetically known as Phoenix talons. These are chicken feet, which are fried, marinated, and then steamed. These chickens must have been huge, because the feet were. Eating a chicken foot is a difficult proposition, because the meat to (shall we say) non-meat ratio is pretty low. Add on that it is covered in a glaze-like marinade and your only utensils are plastic chop sticks, and it makes for a labor-intensive meal. The taste was fine - tastes like chicken - but I just found myself more frustrated than anything trying to eat them. So, after devouring parts of two feet, I put the rest aside. By that time, I had found my pork buns and dumplings, and I was set. This was all washed down with copious amounts of hot chrysanthemum tea, which is a must when eating dim sum. All in all, it was delicious, although somewhat more expensive than your normal meal in Hong Kong. It was well worth it, however.

I dropped into the post office near City Hall (for my stamps and postcards fix), and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for a night in Kowloon. I was meeting some local friends at 7.00, and I wanted plenty of time to take the Star Ferry across the harbour.

The Star Ferry has been running passengers across the harbour for more than 100 years. It is billed as the cheapest ferry ride in the world, at HK$2.20 per trip, about 30 US cents. But, what is so great is that it leaves from its pier at Central on Hong Kong Island and takes you to Tsim Sha Tsui, a popular commercial district at the southern end of Kowloon, giving you beautiful views of both sides of the harbour. I set off right at dusk, and the sights were incredible. Hong Kong truly is built up right on the water, especially on the island side, and all the buildings light up at night. I have attached some pictures, although they really don't do justice to the scene.

I met up with my friends a couple of stops up on the MTR, and we headed for one of their favorite places, which happened to be a hot pot restaurant. I would give the name, but there were no English characters to be found (even on the name card). This was a true locals place - no fancy accommodations, cramped quarters, and a chaotic atmosphere. Our beers were delivered in litre bottles and sipped out of bowls, and our food arrived uncooked, along with a hot pot filled with pork-based broth (the pork ribs were already in the hot pot). From there, we had the controls and started cooking our meal. The ingredients consisted of a mixture of vegetables, beef, fish balls (come on, now - I am talking about fish paste formed into little spheres, like meatballs), clams, and oysters. You would either dump the ingredients into the broth (for vegetables or some of the seafood), or - in the case of the thinly-sliced beef - keep it on your ladle-like spoon and dip it into the broth for about 20 seconds, until it was cooked. Singapore has its own version of this cook-your-food-at-the-table experience called steamboat, but I had never tried it. I may have to now, as it was delicious. And it is fun to cook your own food. It is very reminiscent of fondue.

After that, I headed for the night market in Mongkok for a little browsing. Wouldn't you know it, there was a Krispy Kreme there, too. The shopping was fun, as the hawkers are very aggressive once they perceive any inkling of interest. Once they have your attention, the bargaining starts. I really wasn't in the market for anything, but you can't get out of there without engaging in a little back-and-forth with the stall patrons. There are all kinds of goods sold, mostly knock-offs. But even these fakes have degrees of quality, and you will pay more for higher grade fakes than for lower. It is a shopper's paradise, and I even almost bought a backpack, but in the end, I escaped without making a purchase. Much to the dismay of the ever hopeful hawkers.

That was it for my night, and I was off to the hotel.

I decided to skip the breakfast buffet the next morning to try what looked like the Hong Kong equivalent of a greasy spoon just next door. I knew it served breakfast, because there were pictures of fried eggs on the menu board, but again, no English. Nevertheless, in I went. I sat down at the first booth, and the hostess, after one look at me, went to get the "special" menu, with a bit of English to let you know what you were ordering. I chose the simple combo #1, with eggs, toast, and noodles with ham and fish. A cup of Hong Kong coffee (coffee with milk) washed it down. I was joined in my small booth by a young local couple halfway through my meal, as all other seats were taken. The language barrier allowed for only a quick "hi" and "bye", and it was like I wasn't even there to them.

Since it was still a little hazy, I decided to forego the Peak and head to the end of the MTR line on Lantau Island for a ride up the cable car and visit to Po Lin Monastery, with the Tian Tan Buddha, the largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha in the world. On the way to the MTR, I bought a local newspaper, and a couple of stops into my ride, I looked at the picture on the front page, which was of the cable car, noting that authorities hoped to have the cable car system up and running again by Christmas. Hmmm...I guess I wouldn't be riding the cable car. It had been closed in June when one of the cars plunged 50 metres to the ground (nobody was in it at the time). Since I was already on my way, I decided to see the monastery anyway. The trip to Lantau takes you to the Disneyland Hong Kong interchange, so I shared the ride with a number of families on their way to see Mickey. Once at the end of the line, I jumped on a bus for a 45 minute ride up and down steep hills to the monastery. And there was the Buddha, sitting on top of a hill more than 50 metres above the monastery. The climb up the very steep stairs brings you to the statue itself, which is quite impressive. There is a small exhibit and worship area inside, with artwork and a large bell, with a striker mounted by a beam on the wall and driven by a computer-operated piston. Apparently, the bell is quite loud, and it is no longer rung. The podium on which the Buddha sits, as well as the stairs leading up the hill, are filled with ornate statues of goddesses making offerings, stylized lamps, and replicas of towers. The chants of Buddhist monks drifted up the hill from the monastery below to complete the experience.

A bus ride took me back down to Mui Wo, where I caught a high-speed ferry back to Hong Kong. It was mid-afternoon, but I needed to get back to the hotel and get ready for Saturday night and a trip to Macau.