30 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Part 5

The war is a big part of Saigon's recent history, but the city offers many other fascinating sights and experiences. Instead of heading to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the vast network of underground tunnels constructed and occupied by the Viet Cong just a few kilometres outside the city (where the tours feature a chance to shoot AK-47s for a buck a bullet), I decided to stay in the city and explore. After the museum, I went in search of a little restaurant my guide book listed as the Indian Canteen, tucked back behind the the city's Central Mosque. It took me a couple of times passing the mosque to actually go in - I am still not completely comfortable with entering mosques and temples where I have little knowledge of the protocol. But, I was determined. As you walk all the way around the building, a small alleyway opens into a large eating space, with a dozen tables and several dishes simmering on a large central stove. It was around 5.00 pm, and I was the only one there, but I got a great meal of chicken with curry, rice, vegetables, and Indian bread.

The next day, I planned to get up early and go for a run. Good thing, as I was awakened at around 7 am to the strains of Buddhist chants being amplified throughout the central district. I think some monks had set up their equipment at the Municipal Theatre directly across from my hotel. I went for my run, which may have done more damage than good, given the city's pollution levels, and by the time I returned to the hotel, the music had turned into a full blow military concert. A uniformed band was playing marches for a crowd of onlookers consisting of many cyclo and taxi drivers. In between songs, a young Vietnamese woman would come forward and announce (I guess) the next song. She wore the traditional ao dai (pronounced, "ao zhai"), which is the national dress of Vietnam. It consists of a form-fitting tunic with long panels in the front and back, worn over loose trousers. It is a very graceful ensemble. I include a picture of the spokeswoman here.

After a very Western breakfast in my hotel, in the nicely restored courtyard, I decided to try a cyclo ride. It all starts with a protracted negotiation, usually after a cyclo driver (or several) aggressively approaches you. Once my driver and I had decided on a price, I jumped into the seat, putting my safety in his hands. My driver took me through the crazy traffic of the city - bicycles, motorbikes and scooters, cars, and trucks - to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Along the way, he pointed out the sights, which included the old U.S. embassy, across the street from the current version, which was the site of the famous scene of the helicopter taking off amid the throng, whisking the last Americans to safety as the war ended. The ride was a bit harrowing, but he knew what he was doing and got me there safely.

The Jade Emperor Pagoda was built by the Cantonese community in 1909, and it is a spectacularly colorful temple filled with statues of "phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes", as my guidebook states. The monks of the temple were conducting worship when I arrived, with loud chanting and ritualistic burning of joss sticks. I wandered through the hallways to the main sanctuary where the Taoist Jade Emperor (the King of Heaven) presides. He is flanked by the Four Big Diamonds, his guardians, as well as several other Taoist deities, many of them menacing in their appearance and (I suppose) demeanor. On either side of the central altar are two especially fierce figures - the general who defeated the Green Dragon (pictured) and the general who defeated the White Tiger. These statues are more than four metres tall!

Side chambers hold all kinds of other worship areas and statues, but I found one in particular quite interesting. The Hall of Ten Hells features ten carved wooden panels that graphically depict the torments awaiting evil people in the Ten Regions of Hell. At the top of each panel, the Judge of the Region examines a book in which the deeds of the dead are inscribed. Below him are pretty nasty scenes of torture. I won't go into detail, but just know that you don't want to live a bad life. Interestingly, there is a "theme park" in Singapore that has more graphic depictions of the Ten Regions. I just visited the park and will share some of the pictures in another entry.

The temple is like so many others you see in Asia - they seem to spring out of neighborhoods where you would never expect, ornate islands in the middle of retail areas, residences, or even skyscrapers. They offer nice respites from the hustle and bustle of their cities.

On my way back, I had to stop to try a local beer. I had read about Vietnam's tradition of bia hoi (draft beer) or bia tuoi (fresh beer). This is brewed and delivery daily to drinking establishments through the country, and since it does not contain preservatives, it is meant to be enjoyed immediately. Not only soon after its arrival, but also in one gulp - "Tram pha tram!" means 100 percent or bottoms up, and that is the signal to empty the glass. I think this tradition is more prevalent in Hanoi and the north, because I did not see any bia hoi signs. But, I did try some of the local brew. Saigon has two local brands, 333 (ba ba ba) and Saigon Export, and Larue Export is a French holdover from central Vietnam. Each is light and refreshing, a must in the tropical heat. Be careful if you try to order a 333 in local language, however. Depending on how you say it, ba ba ba can mean 333 or 3 old women.

One last visit to Ben Thanh market allowed me to buy my coffee and the single cup filter, which I have used often. It is a bit of a pain to clean, but the coffee is delicious (and keeps me awake for two days). I also had another bowl of pho at Pho 2000 across from the market. Bill Clinton visited there during the last few days of his presidency in 2000, and there are pictures of him with the staff all over the restaurant. I hope he did not choose to put all the chillies in the soup, like I did. At one point, I got lightheaded from the heat and had to stop eating for a minute! What a great way to clear one's head. After that, it was a bit more exploring and a viewing of the Formula One race, which is shown on regular broadcast TV in many places in Asia, not on a premium sports channel.

An early flight on Monday cut short my visit, but I packed in a lot in just under 48 hours. It only stoked my fascination of the country, and I realize that there is much more to see, not only in the south, but north in Hanoi and in parts in between. I hope to visit the country many times while I am over here, and I would recommend to anyone who wants to see a mix of ancient and recent history and experience a wonderful culture and vibrant people, visit Vietnam.

22 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Remembering the War

The War Remants Museum in Saigon provides a stark reminder of the effect the "American War", as it is called, has had on Vietnam over the past forty years. Originally known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, its name was changed recently so as not to offend tourists from those countries (apparently, this was lost on the group that named the new series of golf courses that runs from the north to the south of the country the "Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail").

Aside from an actual U.S. base, I have never seen so much U.S. military equipment in one location. There were tanks, armored troop carriers, howitzers, helicopters, propeller- and jet planes, guns and ammunition. And there was propaganda.

As expected, this is a one-sided exhibition. In reality, you can look at it as a passionate statement on the horrors of war. There were accounts of well-known atrocities, as well as illustrations of the effects of the widespread use of napalm, Agent Orange, and other weapons. Pictures of terrible deformities were bad enough - but the preserved fetuses really brought the message home. There are many there who still bear the consequences of the war today, both physical and economic. After seeing the museum, I wondered if the disabled beggars in the streets were victims of the war. Some surely were. But, there is another group that may still suffer. Apparently, cyclo drivers, the pilots of the bicycle/rickshaw vehicles where the passenger sits in a seat in front of the bike, count among their population trained doctors and lawyers and other professionals who sided with South Vietnam during the war and were unable to find work after. This is a sad story in itself, although one I read about only - I didn't ask any of the numerous cyclo drivers I saw.

There was no mention of the Hanoi Hilton or any practices of the NVA and Viet Cong. There were replicas of the "tiger cages" the South Vietnamese used to house and torture their prisoners. Pretty brutal stuff. And there was even a guillotine, which was used by the French until their ouster in 1954, and that looked all too operational and none too secure (in fact, I'm pretty sure that with a quick turn of a screw, you could have thrown a party like it was 1789 again).

I am not going to get on a political soapbox here, and I knew exactly what to expect, but the museum is very biased. I do have to mention the clever use of a quote from the Declaration of Independence, "...that all men were created equal...", accompanying a pretty gruesome picture of death and destruction. I didn't expect fair treatment of the NVA or Viet Cong. I do wonder this, however. Much is said about the actions of the U.S. during a 10 year war. What about the preceding century and a half of colonial rule that was characterized by systematic oppression, destruction, and abuse of the local population and resources? I guess that is old history.

After the museum, I thought I would skip the Reunification Palace. But, I decided to visit the next day, and I was glad I did. The palace is a grand building that housed the government of the Republic of Vietnam, before it ceased to exist in April, 1975.

The first communist tanks that arrived in Saigon on the last day of that month headed straight towards this building, smashing through its gates with little resistance. This moment was captured on camera and shown throughout the world (I have posted a copy of that picture from the palace's small museum and a picture of those same gates as they look today). A soldier immediately ran up four flights of stairs to unfurl the VC flag from the fourth floor balcony. Meanwhile, in an ornate reception room on the second floor, the head of the Republic of Vietnam (who had been in office for only 43 hours) waited patiently with his cabinet. When the VC officer entered the room, the president said, "I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you." In response, the VC officer said, "There is no question of your transferring power. You cannot give up what you did not have." And with that, the war was over.

The building is preserved pretty much as it was that day. It is open and airy, with spacious chambers, high ceilings and lots of natural light. The first two floors contain large formal meeting rooms that are tastefully decorated in that "modern" '60s style, with offices and a library on the third floor. The fourth floor is the roof, where the VC flag was unfurled. It provides a panoramic view of the city - probably not such a great view to its inhabitants in the Spring of '75.

The basement is altogether different. This was the command center. There are a couple of big maprooms, with maps on the wall that reflect troop positions and movements. I couldn't read the Vietnamese, but they appeared to show the encroachment of the NVA and VC, painting a portrait of imminent defeat.

The palace was known by many different names. The original building, constructed in 1868, was known as Norodom Palace. After the French left, it served as the home for the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. He was so hated by his people, however, that his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. He ordered it rebuilt (with a sizeable bomb shelter in the basement), and it was completed in 1966. Diem, however, never saw the finished work, as he was killed by his own troops in 1963. You would think he would have learned a lesson. For the next nine years, the palace was known as Independence Palace or the Presidential Palace.

As I have mentioned before, Vietnam combines an ancient past you find anywhere in Asia with a recent history that is familiar to almost everyone of a certain (youngish) age. I am glad I got to visit these two sites, because they really made that come alive.

17 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Part 3

I started my walk in Pham Ngu Lao, an area popular with backpackers southwest of District 1. I sometimes get a little obsessive about following the guidebooks, and I was determined to find the exact start of the walking tour. Turns out there really isn't an exact start - you just begin in the Pham Ngu Lao area. Which I eventually did. First, however, I stepped out of the rain (and my plastic rain cover - street-bought for 20 cents - which seemed to increase my body temperature about 10 degrees) for another cup of coffee. It was my fourth of the day, but the first two were on my early flight while the third was with my breakfast. So, this really was the first indulgent cup of the day.

Vietnamese coffee is superb. The beans are roasted in butter (oh, the joy!), and the traditional way of preparing it is a cup at a time, using a stainless steel filter that sits atop the coffee cup itself. Because of the strength of the coffee (oh, such happiness!), it is often served as "white coffee", or with sweetened, condensed milk. A generous layer of thick milk is poured into the coffee cup, over which the filter containing the coffee grounds is placed, after which the hot water is poured in. The filter allows the water to very slowly pass through the ground beans and into the cup. Once the filter is empty, you remove it to find a steaming, black cup of coffee. A gentle stir of the spoon lifts the condensed milk from the depths of the cup, and you have a very sweet, very strong, delicious cup of coffee.

Vietnam features several fine types of coffee beans. I bought two kinds (along with a filter) at the huge Ben Thanh market (see below). They fill my little kitchen with the aroma of strong, strong coffee. Even those who don't like the taste of coffee would find the smell appealing. One of the most famous types of beans, a package of which came back to Singapore with me, is Chon, or weasel coffee. These beans are supposedly fed to special weasels and then collected from their excrement. I don't care how they get it, the coffee is fantastic. It was the most aromatic cup of coffee I have ever tried. So good is it that I had it straight up, not "white" or with sugar. I am hooked.

After my coffee break and a nice chat with two Brits who were spending the seven weeks before their move from England to Vancouver motorbiking through Vietnam, I finally took off on my walking tour. The first stop was to be a bar called Lost in Saigon, which is featured in several different portions of my Lonely Planet guide. Apparently, Lonely Planet hasn't been drinking in Saigon lately, as Lost in Saigon was closed about two years ago. I found the location with its washed-out sign, but its days of providing for thirsty patrons were over.

My walk took me northeast towards the Saigon River and to Ben Thanh Market, a huge indoor marketplace.
Built in 1914 and known to the French as Les Halles Centrales, the central cupola is 28 metres in diameter. And they pack a lot of stuff into the place. You can get anything from meals and drinks to prepared food to coffee to t-shirts to bespoke suits to souvenirs (and those ship models). The vendors are quite aggressive, and the place is very crowded, but if you are in the mood to shop, here is your place. Combined with outdoor markets in the surrounding streets, you are sure to find something of interest.

Not wanting to carry around any purchases, I left empty-handed and continued towards the river. The next stop was the Fine Arts Museum, which features art from across Vietnam. The pieces were as diverse as the country's landscape, featuring pastoral village scenes, representations of life centered around the water, and the energy of the bustling cities, as well as beautiful portraits of friends and family and a number of war-themed works. The building provides a nice setting for the art, with its classic yellow facade, high ceilings, and open walkways that looked out onto a central courtyard, which is used mainly as a parking area and badminton court. It is also quite functional as a shelter from a downpour.

The museum also houses an old, free-standing elevator, which essentially is a wooden box mounted on two rails and lifted by two rather thin-looking cables. It doesn't appear to have been used recently, but the car itself was in good condition.

Once the rain subsided, I was back out. My walk took me past street markets, grand old hotels and municipal buildings, and wide avenues that would look at home in the great cities of Europe, as I wound my way to the Notre Dame Cathedral. This neo-Romanesque structure features two square towers that climb 40 metres above street level. A large statue of the Virgin Mary presides over the square in front of the church. Inside, it is massive, with tributes along each wall to Vietnamese saints. Perhaps unique to this country, the statue of Christ inside featured a neon halo above his head. It was an interesting mix of classic and (gaudy?) modern.

Across the street is the old French-style post office, which was built in the late 1880s, about the same time as the cathedral. This still operates as the main post office in Saigon, and it was where I mailed my postcards. Interestingly, the cards I mailed from Saigon reached their destinations in much shorter times than cards mailed from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Communist efficiency?

Leaving the post office meant leaving the older, colonial history of the city behind for a while. It was time to turn to more recent history, that which for so many of you readers is much more familiar.

13 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Part 2

You arrive in Saigon at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, and you are greeted by soldiers wearing '70s/'80s style olive drab uniforms with red trim, straight out of Central Casting. It really is a reminder that you have entered a different place. The airport is pretty grimy, looking much like it did in the mid-70s. You immediately proceed to Immigration, which flows pretty quickly, and then off for your luggage. There was no hassle at all, but the airport felt - and looked - like a ghost town.

Vietnam is a fascinating place. It combines the ancient history of all Asian countries with the recent history that is so relevant to me as an American. The U.S. may have left here militarily in the early 1970s, but it is back economically, as the U.S. dollar is the currency of choice here. Almost everything you see is priced in both dollars and Vietnamese Dong, the local currency. The dong trades at around 16,000 per dollar. I didn't have any USD, but I traded my Singapore dollars at around 10,000 per dollar. And after changing S$150, I was a millionaire - I walked away with 1.5 million dong, a wealthy man. Then I immediately paid 75,000 dong for a 7 km cab ride to my hotel, and I realized the extent of my "wealth".

A light rain was falling as I got into the taxi and we took off towards the old city centre (cars here drive on the right side of the road, so I once again was turned around). The traffic was incredible. I don't know of anywhere else where you will see so much scooter traffic. It was crazy! There were all kinds of two- and three-wheeled mechanized devices out there, some from well-known manufacturers, the others clearly the work of a resourceful mechanic. One man passed us with a wooden frame, about 5' by 5', over his shoulder. Another passed us with a full load of trash on the front of the "scooter". There were thousands of them. And they all sort of go where they want, continuously using their horns to warn other scooters and cars or just acknowledge their place in the world. It was not unusual to see a scooter dart through traffic perpendicular to the flow, just to get to the other side of the road. Or, you might see another scooter riding on the wrong side of the road because it cut down the distance to its next turn. And the taxi navigated all this with short taps on the horn and deft maneuvering through the crowds. What is more amazing is that people will walk across the street in this traffic. All you do is start walking. Don't stop, don't change your pace, don't look at the traffic. Just go. The scooters will avoid you, as long as you are predictable. The minute you stop, it upsets the entire system. It was wild.

I got to my hotel, the Continental, which is on a central square across from the opera house. It opened in 1880 and still has that grand old style. The hallways are beautifully tiled with high ceilings. My room featured 12 foot ceilings, a large sleeping area, and a very nice sitting area overlooking the street. Harking back to its original era, the beds were singles. The room was fabulous - very civilized. The hotel itself plays a central role in Graham Greene's book about the beginning of American involvement in the French was in Indochina, The Quiet American. I highly recommend it (or the Majestic Hotel, along the Saigon River) should you visit the city.

It was still early, but I was able to check into my room and have a bowl of traditional Vietnamese pho, a (beef) noodle dish. If you pour all the little red and green chile slices into the bowl, it can be quite spicy. Washed down with a cup of white coffee (Vietnamese coffee poured over a layer of condensed, sweetened milk), it makes a pretty good breakfast (more on the coffee later).

It continued to lightly rain, but it was just enough to cool everything off without making it miserable. My guidebook featured a walking tour that would take me around the heart of the old city, and I was eager to take it. Saigon is interesting - I was expecting something like Bangkok, with huge skyscrapers and very modern amenities. You get a ten- or twelve-storey hotel every once in a while in Saigon, but mostly it is a city of low rise buildings, some with classic French architecture, others that are simply old, worn out tenements. It really has a small-town feel to it, apart from the traffic. At least that was the case in the old District 1, where I was. The streets are lined with little restaurants, cafes, bars, scooter repair shops, and all kinds of retail stores selling all kinds of brand names (fake and real). As you can see from the picture above, there is a big western influence here. I did find it strange that several shops were selling intricate ship models, miniatures of those that patrolled the seas for the major powers hundreds of years ago.

I wandered for a while before finding the start of the "trail", an area popular with backpackers. On the way, I had to cross my first roundabout. This one was big, with a park and statue in the middle, and the traffic just flew around it. The streets were about four lanes wide, but I had to cross. So, I just started walking. And, amazingly, all the scooters avoided me. What didn't avoid me were the cyclo drivers and scooter drivers who wanted to ferry me around town. While the fares are cheap, I wanted to walk, and so I turned down the first few of what would be more than a hundred offers over the weekend.

12 August 2007

Travel: Saigon, Part 1

I have been fascinated by Vietnam for many years, probably since I saw an excellent movie called Three Seasons, which portrays Saigon as a city in transition from strict communism to unbridled capitalism. I had hoped to make it my first foreign trip here, but it was not as easy as I had imagined. Vietnam is one of the few countries where U.S. visitors need a visa. This is not difficult to get, but you still need one. Remember, Vietnam is still a communist country.

So, a few weeks ago I booked a trip and got my visa and promptly caught some bug that kept me close to home for a few days. I had to reschedule my trip, but the visa was good for 30 days only. So, I re-booked just a few days later, and I was off.

Because of the short booking window, I had to fly on one of Asia's many low-cost carriers (the Southwest model is alive and kicking over here). JetStar it was. Usually, I wouldn't go into a lot of detail about the flight out or the carrier operating that flight, but I just can't help myself here.

I had already paid for an entire flight and one night of a hotel for my canceled trip ("budget" means "non-refundable"), and the original flight was on JetStar, but I had little choice this time around. Unlike many destinations here, the choice of direct flights to and from Saigon is pretty sparse. [Note: since April 30, 1975, the official name of the city has been Ho Chi Minh City, but many in the region, including locals, refer to it still as Saigon, and the airport code remains SGN.] I searched on Zuji (which is Travelocity's Asian booking site), but it doesn't offer content from the budget airlines, and I didn't want to pay $1,000 for my flight. So I went back to the JetStar site. I had everything ready to go and tried to pay, but I kept getting an error message - I could not complete the transaction. For all I knew, my credit card was being charged each time I clicked on purchase, but I couldn't tell. So, I called the airline. I was told that the error was probably due to too many people being on the website at one time and that I could book over the phone, for a $20 surcharge. But, it's JetStar's fault that I can't book on the website! I didn't argue, however, as it gets you nowhere here. So, I got my reasonably-price flight and an actual confirmation of purchase (and confirmation that this was the only charge to my card).

JetStar features one flight daily to and from Saigon, leaving early in the morning and returning immediately. That meant on Saturday morning, I arose at 5:30 to catch a 7:25 flight to Saigon. The trip started ominously enough, with a sleepy-eyed cabdriver driving about 85 mph down the East Coast Parkway to get me to the airport in a hurry. We passed two accidents involving cabs (it was still pitch black here), and I was pretty sure we were going to be the third. But, my cabbie got me there in one piece, and I was comforted by the sight of Chiangi, perhaps the nicest, cleanest, most efficient airport in the world. Except for the JetStar counters. You are supposed to be checked in 40 minutes before your flight, or you will "forfeit" your fare, as the booking documents state. And I had had enough of paying JetStar without getting anything in return. Well, the JetStar area was a mess. The lines for Saigon were long, and they were moving extremely slowly. They did open an extra lane for Vietnam passengers (another flight was leaving for Manila, but later, so they had all those passengers step aside), and they put me in the front of that line (this may sound bad, but it's true - westerners often get special treatment here). I got my boarding pass and realized I had been placed in a middle seat (JetStar's website won't let you choose your seat within 48 hours of the flight, as I had tried to do after I booked on the phone). I said I couldn't do that, so they gave me the aisle seat in the back row, warning me the seat did not recline. I didn't care - I don't sleep on planes anyway. I was going to drink coffee and read my Lonely Planet guide.

JetStar flies nice, new, clean airplanes, but they pack in the seats like the passengers are clowns in a Volkswagen. Actually, it is fine for most Asians, since they tend to be smaller than the typical westerner (who is probably smaller than I am). But the last row is even a tighter fit. I got to my seat and just laughed. I could not sit in it with my legs directly in front of me. I had to put my right leg in the aisle, which was going to be difficult when the beverage cart rolled by. Fortunately, there was no one in the middle seat, and I was able to squeeze in for the short two-hour flight.

By the way, the flight left about 20 minutes late. The captain came on and apologized and blamed the delay on backups in Immigration. I couldn't believe it! I flew through Immigration (maybe 30 seconds). It was the delays at the JetStar counters that delayed most of the passengers. If they had held to their 40 minute rule, half of the plane would have "forfeited" their fares. But, it's easy to point fingers somewhere else. I'll bet if the Singapore government knew they were saying such things, they would fine them or ban them from flying through the city.

If you can't already tell, JetStar really is no-frills. You even purchase snacks, soft drinks, and coffee. That is fine, however; let those who really want that stuff pay for it. I will pay three bucks for a cup of coffee. But, the airline does not allow outside food and drink to be consumed onboard. Is this a movie theatre? If they want to do that, however, I suppose they can do it. A bit cheesy, but that's what you get for a cheap flight. Of course, such decisions are made by the corporate office and then enforced by the line workers, the flight attendants. So, these poor young men and women spend much of their time explaining to passengers why they can't eat the food they have brought on the flight. A bit embarrassing for them, but nothing worse than when the American carriers started taking pillows and blankets off flights. Except it's Asia. Which means that the Singapore-based flight attendants are speaking in English to Vietnamese passengers who don't understand them (or don't care to follow the rules, which may be just as likely - I've never seen more people get out of their seats to get into the overhead bin or go to the bathroom while the airplane is taxiing, both after arrival and before departure). I heard the little speech about it "being unfair to other passengers who have purchased their food" so many times, I think I can recite it in my sleep. But, the flight attendant would walk away, and within a minute the food was back out. A Sisyphean exercise, if there ever was one.

My flight actually arrived on time, and my visit began. That's what the Saigon posts should be all about, but I had to share my little travel horror story. At least it ended happily, with a safe arrival in Vietnam. Of course, I had the return flight 48 hours later...

09 August 2007

National Day

August 9th is National Day in Singapore, marking the anniversary of its independence from Malaysia. Today is the republic's 42nd birthday. They do a good job of celebrating, with a National Day Parade that features displays from each of the branches of the military (army, navy, air force, national police force, civil defense force). The discipline and technological advancement of the military is quite impressive. This tradition goes back to the initial National Day Parade in 1966, when the fledgling city-state was facing an uncertain future with the imminent departure of British forces and less-than-friendly, much larger neighbors eyeing its strategic location with envy. Malaysia particularly was hostile, given that Singapore had broken away from the country to become independent. But, much of the worry about Malaysia was put to rest in 1969, during the fourth NDP (attended by the Malay Defence Minister), when the republic rolled out a squadron of AMX-13 tanks and V200 armoured vehicles. Malaysia at the time had no tanks, and Singapore's show of hardware put to rest any lingering thought of Malay agression.

After the military parade, there are performances and water floats (the parade viewing area looks out onto the harbor, at the mouth of the Singapore River). It all ends with a nice fireworks display.

Every Singaporean I talked to told me to watch it on television - that was the best vantage point. In any case, only Singaporeans and PRs (permanent residents) are eligible for the ticket lottery, so I was out of luck. I could see some of the fireworks from my window, and the television coverage was pretty good. And it was all viewed, of course, in the comfort of an air-conditioned room.

03 August 2007

Travel: KL

A few weeks ago, I decided to take a quick trip up to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (KL to the locals) via rail. I love traveling by train and looked forward to the journey and the chance to get a feel for KL in anticipation of a longer stay next April in conjunction with the Malaysian Grand Prix. Taking the train is much more convenient in some ways - you don't have to be at the station hours early like at the airport, you can stretch out and enjoy the smooth ride in not-so-cramped quarters, you can escape to the dining car for a bite to eat on the way, and you arrive at KL Sentral, in the heart of the city, instead of the airport in Sepang, 50 km south of the city. Plus, you get to see the countryside on the way.

I awoke on my morning of departure (it was the Saturday morning after the hash, so I didn’t get much sleep) to pouring rain. Not a drizzle - pouring. That meant I was not going to take the MRT to the station. Of course, I was running a bit late, so a cab would have been the likely choice anyway, but now I had to call one instead of simply hailing one on the street. My cab arrived at 8.25. My train was due to depart at 8.40. We made it through the storm to the station by 8.36. I wasn't the only one arrived just in time, and the station attendant pointed us to the platform and the waiting train.

The old train station in Singapore is at the southern end of the island, just across from the port entrance, but it is actually part of Malaysia. The signs are written primarily in Malay, with English on the second line. As soon as you walk onto the platform, you see a sign welcoming you to Malaysia, and you clear Immigration and Customs right there before boarding the train. I quickly went through Immigration, and they just waved me through Customs (Malaysians are more laid back than Singaporeans), which was good. Because just after I took my seat on the train, we took off.

The accommodations were okay - the train car was clearly older, a little beat up on the inside. But, I didn't expect the height of luxury - I was just excited to take the trip. The conductor announced a seven-hour trip, but it took us an hour to wind up through Singapore, and then we had to stop to clear Singapore Immigration just before we got to the Straits of Johor. In Johor Bahru, we had to wait for a clear track, another 30 minute delay. But, I didn’t care. I had two seats to myself, some good reading, and plenty of music on my iPod. Plus, I was able to get a good kopi, with a thick layer of condensed milk, from the dining car.

The train ride was actually pretty nice - it took about nine hours to get to KL, and I had a neighbor for an hour or so who smelled like the thousand cigarettes I’m sure he smoked just before boarding (and who, I am convinced, stole my cool silver pen when he left). The ride is a bit rougher than what you get on Amtrak, but not too bad (if you didn’t get up to walk around). There is one thing, however, that I could do without. As a passenger on Malaysian Rail, you have the privilege of enjoying Rail TV, which is a television with a VCR (yes, the tape) machine at each end of the car. The movies were terrible. I didn’t want to watch Lady in the Water in the theatres; I got to see it twice in 24 hours on the train. But, I can just not listen, right? Unplug the earphones? No chance - there are no earphones. They play the sound over the car’s speakers. So, even if I didn’t want to listen, I am forced to. It was terrible.

The movie annoyance aside, the ride was quite beautiful. The train travels through hundreds of kilometres of lush scenery, stopping at numerous small towns along the way. Everything was amazingly green. And then it all turns to this massive city, KL, around 5 in the afternoon. You arrive in bustling KL Sentral, which is the central terminal connecting the intercity rail, airport express, and three local light rail systems (there are two subways and a monorail, all run by different organizations, which means you have to buy separate tickets for each line). From there, a short taxi ride took me to my hotel (the very cool Hotel Maya, with its rooms featuring wood floors and a rain shower), situated directly across from the Petronas Towers. What an amazing sight!
The towers feature really interesting architecture, with a steel and glass fa├žade designed to resemble motifs in Islamic art, in tribute to Malaysia’s Muslim heritage. I decided to not go up in the towers, as the free tickets are usually snapped up early in the morning and the skybridge that connects the towers is only 170 metres (41 stories) above the ground. Instead, I headed to Menara KL, or the Kuala Lumpur Tower. This rises 421 metres above its perch, the Bukit Nanas Forest Preserve. Yes, the tower rises from a rainforest. And it gives a beautiful, panoramic view of KL.

KL has a feel completely different than Singapore. It has that grit and vibe that Singapore, in its pristine, heavily-monitored state, does not. It is hard to explain, but those who have been to those two cities (or any city and Singapore) will know what I mean. Just a little more of an edge.

After the KL Tower, I headed out to Bangsar, an entertainment and residential area south of the city centre. I found several groups of expats as well as locals, out enjoying the rather cool night (for tropical standards). But, after some good Indian food (a great benefit of living in this region is the abundance of yummy Indian restaurants), the hash caught up with me, and I made it an early evening. But, not before one last look at the towers.
The next morning allowed for a quick trip to the Central Market, a huge indoor shopping area with local goodies showcasing the diverse cultures in KL (Malay, Chinese, Indonesian). I also took a stroll to the Petronas Towers and Suria KLCC, a huge shopping mall situated at the base of the towers. It was amazing in itself - floors and floors of high-end stores and fantastic food.
And when you walk out, there is one of the tallest buildings in the world. The skies threatened rain, but it thankfully held off until after I had taken the monorail (a fun way to get around) back to KL Sentral and to my train.

The ride back to Singapore was much like the ride up. Coffee, reading, music, scenery. And those d*** movies. When we reached JB, the Malaysian Immigration and Customs officials boarded and checked our passports. But, when we crossed into Singapore, it was everyone off the train to stand in line. This is where the true spirit of Singapore comes alive. “Kiasu” is the principle here of doing what you can to get ahead, or, literally (in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect), the fear of losing. You see it in pedestrians and shoppers, in the subways, even in cabdrivers who don’t want to yield. The nanny state has produced a population of me-first individuals, so much so that lately the government has officially encouraged Singaporeans to be nicer. So, how does one see “kiasu” on the train? Well, even before we had come to a stop at the Singapore Immigration building, actually well before we had slowed down to what I would call a safe speed, I could see dozens of people running past the train. These were passengers who had jumped off while the train still rolled at a not inconsiderable speed so they could be first in line at the Immigration checkpoint. Now, many of these folks were ending their journey here and would have friends pick them up (the station is near the Woodlands in northwest Singapore). Thus, they wouldn’t have to go through Immigration only to wait in a holding area before everyone had cleared and the train was reopened for boarding. But, it was just a bizarre sight to see people who had jumped at speed to be first in line.

When we finally reached the Keppel Road Station (the final destination), it was well past 10 pm. Yet, the station was alive with Malays eating and drinking at the food stalls and watching an old television. It really was like being back in Malaysia. And apparently the station serves good food. I’ll have to check that out myself and report back.

All in all, a quick but fun trip. I spent almost 18 hours on a train and 20 hours in KL. But, even with the small discomforts (and those d*** movies), I still say traveling by rail is the most sophisticated way to go.