31 December 2008

Travel: Trapped in Thailand

A colleague and I traveled to Bangkok on the Monday before Thanksgiving (24 November) for a quick two-day work trip. This quick trip promised to be productive but would still allow me nearly three weeks to finish up all I needed before I traveled back to the US for Christmas. But, like the folks on Gilligan’s Island, we were in for more than a three hour tour.

On Tuesday, 25 November, the People’s Alliance for Democracy Party (PAD) stormed Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok’s international airport. The PAD , the main opposition party in the government with strongholds among the urban population in and around Bangkok, had been waging a campaign of protest for several months, occupying the Government House and forcing the government to operate out of a remote site. The occupation of the airport was by far the boldest move, and they followed it up by occupying Don Muang, Bangkok’s former international airport that now served domestic flights. Thus, there was no way to leave Bangkok by air.

I had flown up on low costs Tiger Airways, which is fine if everything goes right. That means you get to the airport on time, there are no weather issues, you don’t have to change your flights, or protestors don’t shut down the airport. But, when things don’t go just as planned, it is good to have a flight on a full-service carrier, like my colleague did with Singapore Airlines.

On Wednesday the 26th, our initial return date, we both called our airlines. He got through in two minutes and was booked on another flight for the following day. I was on hold for 45 minutes before I gave up (at S$2.75 a minute, which meant the cost of that fruitless call nearly matched that of my ticket). Instead, I booked a ticket with a rival carrier, Air Asia.

Our flights did not take off, however, as the airport remained closed. It became apparent that this could be a prolonged closure, so a number of the carriers arranged with the government to fly “rescue” flights out of U-Tapao Air Force Base, 150 kilometres south of Suvarnabhumi and 200 kilometres south of Bangkok itself. My colleague was booked on a Saturday flight (29 November), but I was unable to get on the Air Asia flight, so I decided to extend my stay.

We actually got a lot of work done while we were there. Every morning, it was over to the Starbuck’s on Sukhumvit (in the shadow of the Sky Train) for a coffee and a 24 hour internet card. We would sit upstairs, drink our coffee, and work and email for 10 hours a day. Without the distractions of the office, it was a highly productive time. But, after a couple of days, I faced a different distraction – finding a way to get home.

I had contemplated a number of options – train down the peninsula to Butterworth just across the Thai-Malaysian border, then bus to KL and fly/bus back to Singapore. Or bus to Phuket and catch a flight to Singapore. Train/taxi/bus to the Cambodian border and then the same to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. I even contemplated the Eastern and Orient Express, which would have taken me all the way to Singapore. But, the trains to Malaysia and flights out of Phuket were full, Cambodia looked less appealing the more I looked at it, and the E&OE went only once a week, so I ended up on an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the far north of Thailand, with a SilkAir flight direct to Singapore.

The train was scheduled for 6.00 pm on Monday, and I gave myself plenty of time to get to the station on the Sky Train and subway. On the way, I noticed that I was the only one wearing red. A saleswoman earlier had mentioned my red shirt (a t-shirt I had to buy off the street) and let me know that it was the color of “the other side”. Red is the color of the government’s supporters, which are located mainly in the north. Yellow was the color of the PAD, with its stronghold in Bangkok. So it did not surprise me that I was the only person wearing red in the entire city. I suppose it’s like wearing Crips colors in the Blood neighborhood. Fortunately, the political situation was not violent, and I made it to the train.

Just before the train pulled away, at 6.00 exactly, the Thai national anthem began playing over the loudspeaker. Every Thai in the station (even the man sleeping on the bench) rose and stood at respectful attention for the duration of the song. It was an interesting sight to close what may be my final stay in Bangkok.

I love traveling by train, and I met several interesting people on the way up. I was in a second-class sleeper, however, which meant I did not have my own room. Moreover, I had the top bunk, which is the smaller of the two. The lights never go off in the second-class sleeper, and you get to hear all the sleepers around you snoring away. With the train lurching and jerking during the four hour delay on the way, it made for a sleepless night. The delay also meant the 13 hour trip turned into 17 hours. Since I had given myself a buffer day, that was okay. And it actually meant I arrived at my hotel at 11.30, not 7.30, so I was able to check in immediately and take that long-awaited nap.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful town in the highlands in Thailand. It was uncrowded due to the airport closures (so many of the flights go through Bangkok), and it was nice to wander through the deserted streets enjoying the cool, dry weather. It was only in the 60s, but you would see locals all over the place wearing scarves and coats. What a nice break from the tropical weather I was used to!

The next day, I got on my flight and almost kissed the ground when I arrived back in Singapore. It was good to be back.
I did enjoy my quick visit to Chiang Mai. I met some nice British expats in the local pub, found some good small galleries and made some nice purchases at the night market. With this in mind, I canceled my planned trip there in February. I will go back to Chiang Mai – it seems like a fantastic place – but I am done with Thailand for a while.

09 December 2008

Travel: Alex in Asia - The Formula One Singapore Grand Prix

While I was back in Singapore working, Alex made his way down from Phuket, through Bangkok and KL. He arrived Thursday, giving me a day to show him around the city-state before we jumped headfirst into the traveling circus that is Formula One. The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel is just around the corner from the Stamford Hotel, Singapore's tallest. So, after the obligatory Singapore Sling, we ascended to the New Asia Bar, on the 70th floor the the Stamford, for a great view of the circuit. The safety cars were circling the track in all its illuminated glory, and we had the perfect vantage point from on high.

We headed down River Valley Road by bus around 6pm on Friday, with practice on our mind. First, a tour of Clarke Quay's finer establishments to show off Alex's Puma Ferrari shoes - Pump Room, Brewerkz, and at the end of Boat Quay, Penny Black (a genuine Victorian pub that was shipped in its entirety to the Lion City).

As we left Penny Black after the sun had set, we were greeted by the sound of 18,000 rpm touring the streets of Singapore - Grand Prix weekend had started. That was such a sweet sound - one I hadn't heard since the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis, the fiasco where only six cars ran the race because of problems with the other 14 cars on Michelin tires (the Bridgestones handled Formula One's highest speed corner - turn 13 in that race, Turn 1 at the 500 - where the Michelins couldn't). It was a sound Singapore has never heard, and it was beautiful.

We quickly ran to the Anderson Bridge (pictured) and into the circuit and got our Kangaroo TV sets, a hand-held system that allowed us to follow the race from the television perspective as well as several in-car views. We settled on the Esplanade Bridge, a high speed sector just before the Turn 14 into the section running along Marina Bay portion. It was great! Alas, the race organisers would close that vantage point for Saturday's qualifying and the race.

After a high-cost cab home (Singapore knows how to price differentiate), we called it a night. I introduced Alex to a traditional coffee house the next morning (kopi kosong and a kaya toast set for him), and we prepared for qualifying. We camped out on the second floor of the Singapore Flyer car park at Turn 5, which gave us great views of the cars coming around the high-speed corner. But, when it took us hours to get out (they didn't quite have the exits figured out on that side of the circuit), we decided to spend raceday elsewhere.

Sunday brought the race. The tifosi were happy to see Felipe Massa on pole, and his World Championship hopes rode high on this first night race in Formula One history. We found grandstands on the opposite side of our Friday night vantage point on the Esplanade Bridge. The race started as we had hoped, with Massa running strong out front. The cars were beautiful under the lights! It was an exciting atmosphere, truly a new experience for F1.

Then the fateful pit stop. Massa pulled away with the fuel hose still attached. You can read in the press what happened next, but it was the end of the race for the Brazilian, and it would eventually cost him dearly, as he finished a single point from winning the championship.

Alex and I migrated to the massive infield section (the Padang, usually host to Singapore Cricket Club and Singapore Sporting Club events) to watch Fernando Alonso drive his Renault to an improbable victory (or was it improbable? Alonso was fastest in qualifying until an engine failure relegated him to the middle of the grid; a crash by his Renault teammate Nelson Piquet, Jr started the series of events that allowed him to the front of the field during the race. But I'm no conspiracy theorist...). We had witnessed history, and although our driver had not won (or even scored points - and don't even ask about Kimi's late race meltdown), it was a great experience!

What a weekend! Monday was a wind-down day (frankly, I was a little down, since the buildup to the race had been so overwhelming), but we managed to see some parts of my home before we headed of to Hong Kong the next day. We were happy to have been part of the first ever Formula One night race, which by all accounts was a huge success. And I will give Singapore credit - it was a fantastic event, run in beautiful surroundings in the heart of illuminated city. This should be a great stop on the traveling circus's calendar from now on.

06 December 2008

Travel: Alex in Asia - Phuket

My brother Alex made his first visit to Asia this Fall (that being a not well-understood term here), wrapping his trip around the inaugural Formula One Singapore Grand Prix. We started the trip in Phuket, but not before Alex stepped into airports in Amarillo, Denver, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Singapore. And my bad advice almost made his stay in Singapore a little longer. He flew Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, Singapore Airlines to Singapore, and Air Asia to Phuket. But, Air Asia does not have interline agreements with other airlines, so he couldn't check his bags through to Phuket. They also don't have a facilities inside security, so even if you fly two separate segments on Air Asia, you have to come out of security (which means Immigration and Customs on international flights), check in, and then go back through security to get to your next flight. And Alex had to do this. Fortunately, Changi Airport is incredibly efficient, especially when uncrowded mid-day on Friday. He was out, up, and back through in less than twenty minutes, and we were on our way to Phuket.

Phuket is an island off the west coast of Thailand, just south of the Phang Nga province peninsula in the Andaman Sea (more on Phang Nga later). It features miles of sandy beaches and all of the kinds of troublesome nightlife one would expect of a beach destination. After arriving at the provincial airport, our hotel car drove us the hour to our accommodations in Karon Beach (a friend of mine runs the Movenpick Karon Beach, and it is a wonderful place to stay - check with me for details). Alex noted the resemblance to hotels he has visited in Hawaii, with the open lobby and beautiful sights, which we took in over a Singha as our rooms were prepared.

We took a tuk-tuk into Patong Beach, the liveliest area on the island. After a look around and a stop for milk and cookies, we decided to call it a night. The next day we spent lazily around the pool - after all, Alex had just traveled nearly 30 hours to get here. No reason to overdo it. We were able to add Chang to the portfolio that afternoon. We opted for a night in the tamer Karon Beach on Saturday, ending at the Sand Bar, where we were the only audience for the band. This meant we could not only request every song, but we were also given singing duties. Good thing we both have jobs, because we'd probably have to go out on the road with these guys, given our stellar performances that night.

The next day was my last in Phuket. Alex would head to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur on his way to Singapore, but I was flying directly back Sunday night. We spent the day on the water, heading up into Phang Nga Bay National Park to see the beautiful rock formations on the way to James Bond Island. This is the island with the iconic rock formation that served as Scaramanga's lair in The Man With The Golden Gun. Our vessel was a slow boat made to look like a junk. I think of it as a junk in the Western sense. The boat was fine, but it was slow, and the voyage was part of a typical tour I try to avoid.

The island isn't incredibly impressive (except THAT A JAMES BOND MOVIE WAS FILMED THERE), and the rock formation is tiny compared to others in the area (a sequence in Tomorrow Never Dies also was filmed in Phang Nga). Although I was glad to see the island, the trip itself is one of those all day ventures that includes a lunch at a far away destination (a "floating" Muslim fishing village that is built on stilts above the water; it survives almost exclusively on tourism) and a swim in the ocean. Now that we know, we would have rented a speedboat for half a day to take us to James Bond Island and back.

It had been a whirlwind weekend, but a good introduction to Asia for Alex. Especially as he was off to Bangkok and KL on his way to Singapore for the race.

19 November 2008


Ramadan is the ninth month of Islamic calendar. The calendar is lunar, so the dates vary from year to year. This year, Ramadan coincided with most of the month of September. It represents the month when the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet, and it is a time when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown.

Singapore has a large and observant Muslim community. During the day, it is a time of prayer and fasting. Night is a time for congregation, for replenishing oneself, and for preparing for the end of Ramadan. The holiday of Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the month of fasting, and it is a time of great celebration and gift giving. In Malay, the holiday is known as Hari Raya Puasa, or Hari Raya Aidilfitri. It is one of the autumn celebrations of the many cultures here in Singapore, starting with the Mid-Autumn Festival and continuing through Deepavali and ending with Christmas.

I missed out on seeing any of the night festivities during Ramadan last year, but I was fortunate to be able to go with Farah to one of the largest street markets set up during the month, Eunos and Paya Lebar. We walked the few blocks from the MRT and found ourselves in a street filled with blue and gold lights and tents of food stalls and shops selling gifts and beautiful clothes for Hari Raya Puasa.

Our first goal was food. Although Farah was the one who had fasted during the day, I was hungry, as well. She found her favorite snack, thin beef slices cooked on an open grill. They were delicious. I opted for the more basic food - Ramly Burger. Ramly Burger is a Muslim food stall that you find only in temporary settings - usually Malay festivals and carnivals or other events that are held in a bazaar-like setting. I first had these in a field by the Tampines Mall near my office, and I love them! They are beef or chicken burgers that are grilled, then wrapped in an egg that is cooked alongside and smothered in yummy sauces. They are very popular stalls wherever I see them (think In-N-Out Burger popular). They also sold Roti John, a messy sandwich in a long French bread-type roll that contains multiple patties smothered in all kinds of sauces and egg. It is great! Although I am sure it is not low cholesterol.

After eating, we wondered through all kinds of stalls and shops, selling those beautiful clothes, little gifts for children (they love this time of year - it is like Christmas; presenting green packets - similar to the red packets in Chinese celebrations - is a time-honored tradition, and the packets usually contain money), and all kinds of other sundries. We even found one of Farah's favorites - a stall that apparently sells every kind of curtain ever made. It was great!

I really enjoyed the experience. Ramadan is the holiest of months for Muslims, and those in Singapore take it very seriously. But, they also take the time to spend the evening with their friends and family, rejuvenating themselves physically and socially, to complement the spiritual rejuvenation during the day. I was glad I got to see that.

18 November 2008

Travel: Vientiane

My visit to Cambodia spurred my interest in journeying to its neighbor in Indochina, Laos. Sitting north of Cambodia, Laos also shares its border with Thailand, Myanmar, China, and Vietnam. In fact, for much of its history, it has been at odds with one of its more powerful and wealthy neighbors.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos (or, the Lao Democratic People's Republic). It is an old colonial city, and it is probably the sleepiest capital city in the world. I don't recall seeing a building more than five storeys tall. It sits on the Mekong River, with Thailand in view on the river's southern bank. It seemed like a place for a peaceful weekend.

I flew through Bangkok into Wattay Airport in Vientiane. I consider myself a seasoned traveler, but apparently I was rushed preparing for this trip, and I made a couple of potential fatal mistakes (for the trip, that is). I didn't bring enough cash, and I didn't bring a passport photo for my visa (like Cambodia, you must get a visa on arrival, and one requirement is that you provide a picture). I didn't think the lack of cash was a big deal, even if there aren't many ATMs in Laos (I had read this and found it to be true later). I would just get cash during my layover in Bangkok. Except that all the ATMs in the Bangkok airport are outside security. And I couldn't go out and come back in, because I only had one blank page left in my passport, which I would need for the visa that I might not be able to get because I had no picture.

Well, there was only one thing to do - onwards! I arrived into the quiet airport and was able to get the visa without a photo. The cash issue was still to be settled, however. After the $35 (USD) visa fee, I had $27 left. You can use US dollars, Thai baht, or Lao kip in most places. The question was finding an ATM that took my bank card.

I met up with a travel agent friend, which was fun as I was able to spend a night on the town with some locals. And because the ATM she took me to wouldn't take my card, the night was all on them. Not a bad way to start the trip! I would find an ATM the next day that made me liquid again, but I did have a few stressful hours thinking all I was going to do was sit in my hotel and stare at the wall.

I stayed at the Settha Palace hotel, a beautiful throwback to the colonial era (like the rest of Indochina, Laos was a French colony). The high ceilings in the common areas and polished tile floors gave the hotel a regal air. The room was well appointed in a minimalist colonial style, with high ceilings and classic old furniture. The cute little bar off the main lobby was a good place to unwind after a long day or to wait out a sudden cloudburst. And the pool was set amid a tropical garden. All in all, it was a fantastic place.

Saturday was a time for sightseeing, which took about an hour. My friend picked me up in her Toyota Hilux pickup truck. These were all over the place! I have not seen a pickup truck anywhere else in Asia, but they were easily ten percent of the cars on the road, and maybe more. It was nice ride! Combined with that it was left-hand drive and that Lao drivers drive on the right side of the road, I felt like I was in Texas.

Our first stop was Patuxai, Vientiane's version of the Arc de Triomphe. Sitting on an island at the head of the grand Lan Xang Avenue, formed by the confluence of three major avenues coming from the northeast, this tower commemorates the Lao who died in pre-revolutionary wars. Interestingly, it was built in 1969 with cement donated by the US for the construction of an airport, and it is sometimes called the "vertical runway". You can walk up through the inside of the structure through a series of winding stairways, which open to a large interior chamber (well, an entire floor) that is home to all kinds of souvenir vendors. Continuing up to the final spiral staircase takes you to the roof, with great views of the city, surrounding hillsides, river, and neighboring Thailand.

Our next stop was Pha That Luang (pictured at the top of this entry), the golden stupa that is featured on the Lao national seal (but not on the national flag, as is Angkor Wat on the Cambodian flag). This dual symbol of Buddhism and Lao sovereignty is an impressive structure, its stupa rising out of humble surroundings (a wat and a huge parking lot) to a height of 45 metres. It was heavily overcast that day, which kept the temperature manageable and made our visit more pleasant. There weren't many visitors, so we could enjoy it at a leisurely pace. Several interesting statues lined the walkways in the cloister around the stupa, but you couldn't go higher than the first level. It was good to visit, but it wasn't the hands-on experience of a place like Wat Arun in Bangkok.

That was about it for sights. We headed off to a local noodle restaurant, where we had Vietnamese beef noodle soup (long time readers will remember my first experience with pho during my trip to Saigon a year ago August).

I was solo for the rest of the afternoon, so I started at the massive central market. You could buy all kinds of local items and international brands, from produce to souvenirs to appliances and guitars. So much so that I didn't know where to start, so I left without purchasing anything. A tuk-tuk ride cut my traveling time to the river (from ten minutes to three - Vientiane is pretty small!), and I explored the little lanes in the heart of the city. The overcast sky had given way to bright sunshine, and I was glad to find air conditioned cafes, galleries, and bookstores. It was here that I made my purchases, from local arts and crafts to Lao literature. I headed back to the hotel (a ten minute walk, maybe) for a short rest before venturing out for dinner on the river.

It was getting close to sunset, so I grabbed a table at the Khemphone Restaurant, on the banks of the Mekong. The restaurant had a spread of food beside the big deck overlooking the river, and they cooked whatever you picked out. I had a rice ball Lao style and Lao Laap Pork (minced pork with vegetables) with sticky rice. And a very cold Beerlao to wash it down (like so many other countries, the local beer is very good and quite a bit cheaper than imports like Heineken). The meal was delicious! It was a perfect complement with the beautiful sunset over the river.

Several small galleries kept me from a direct walk home (and lightened my billfold). I did stop for a nightcap and saw two of the more interesting things I have seen over here, involving two cats. One I thought was three-legged, without a rear right leg. Every other step it would take, it would sit down. Essentially, it was using its hip as its fourth leg. And it didn't seem to bother it one bit. The other was a feline that was rather aggressively using a parked car's tire as a scratching post. It was going at it with a vengeance, and I was just waiting for a cartoon-like scene to play out with an explosion and a black-faced cat standing slowly falling to the ground, its head surrounded by stars. No such luck.

I had planned to fly out late Sunday night, stay in Bangkok, and get back to Singapore Monday morning. I needed to get back earlier for work, so I changed my flight to the afternoon, which meant only time for one last quick tour. I waited out the cloudburst mentioned above and took in the sights at three wats: That Dam, an overgrown stone structure in the middle of a quiet roundabout a few metres from the US embassy, the royal temple Haw Pha Kaew, originally built to house the Emerald Buddha and today a national museum of religious art, and Wat Si Saket, the only temple to survive the 1828 sacking of Vientiane, when the Siamese army razed the city and carted off most of its population.

One last visit to a gallery and then back to the central market for some local coffee (note to travelers - when you have the choice between Vietnamese coffee and Lao coffee, choose Vietnamese), and I was off. The journey out was a less stressful than the one in, that's for sure.

I spent about 40 hours in Vientiane, but I found it a fantastic place. If you want a relaxed, friendly, high value-to-cost environment that offers some sights, a bit of culture, and good food, I wholeheartedly recommend it. I hope to return.