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.

10 November 2008

Travel: Hong Kong, The Peak and The Races

I have now been to Hong Kong several times during my year and a half in Asia. What I love about touring the city with first-time visitors (such as Claire or my brother Alex) is the mix of familiar and new. I never get tired of doing some of the same old things (like the Mid-Levels Escalators or the Star Ferry across Hong Kong Harbour), but I can always find new things to do, as well.

Claire was to finish her visit in Hong Kong and would fly from there back to the US. We were scheduled to fly up on Friday night, but a typhoon hit Hong Kong, and all flights were cancelled. We ended up going up on Saturday, which gave me only 24 hours to show her some of the sights. One think I hadn't done was visit the Peak. The views are spectacular, but the ride up is half of the fun. We squeezed in with dozens of other tourists and took the five minute ride at what seemed a 45-degree angle to the top. Once there, we were treated to fantastic views of Hong Kong Harbour. And to add to the atmosphere, we got caught in a flash downpour that had everyone scurrying for shelter. It was great!

Alex and I visited the Peak, as well, but we took a taxi to the top (the queue for the tram was seemingly endless when we visited). The views again were spectacular, although Hong Kong's famous haze cut visibility a bit. Still, it is worth the trip up there.

Alex and I visited over National Day, 1 October. We stayed on the Kowloon side of the city, which gave us great access to the night markets and a perfect vista to watch the fireworks show at the Peninsula Hotel (featured in two James Bond movies and right next to our hotel). The fireworks were a fitting end to a day that began at Sha Tin, the horse racing track in the northern part of the city.

When you say "horse racing" and "Hong Kong" together, most immediately think of Happy Valley, the racing facility in Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island. It has great views of the city, and races are held there on Wednesday nights. We timed our trip to be there on Wednesday, but since that was National Day, the races were held during the day at the newer facility up north, Sha Tin. So, that's where we went. It was a warm and hazy day for the first of October, but it didn't seem to bother the horses (and it didn't really bother us, either!). We won some early, and then I proceeded to give most of it back. But, the action was fun, and it was interesting to see the horses run backwards (well, not backwards, but in a clockwise direction).

The rest of the time during my visits with Claire and Alex were spent seeing the sights that have become familiar to me from my previous journeys to Hong Kong. Every time I go, I am reminded how it is my favorite city in Asia.

Travel: Angkor Wat to Bangkok

Siem Reap means “The Defeat of Siam”. The city was the once the capital of Cambodia (now Phnom Penh). But, I didn't see much evidence of this (either a capital city or animosity towards Thailand) while I as there, as for many visiting tourists, the city is a location to unwind after a long day at the temples. So we headed out to the aptly-named Club Street in search of dinner. This after I took a swim in the pool, the temperature of which made it resemble more closely a bath. It wasn’t quite the refreshing dip I had hoped for, but it worked.

We found local cuisine at Khmer Family Restaurant (Khmer denoting the local people of Cambodia, who actually call their country Kampuchea). Like my lunch, the food was delicious.

While Club Street wasn’t the raucous place I had anticipated, we were drawn into one establishment, mainly from the strains of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” coming from the house band. It was fun, with a mix of old and new music, but it never quite lived up to the promise of the John Denver tune.

We had an early afternoon flight, so we had to leave around noon. That left us a couple of hours in the morning for one last trip to Angkor Wat. Guideless, we took a tuk-tuk to the temple complex and set out for our own bit of exploring. It is a different place in the morning (and I’ll bet even moreso at dawn – we arrived after 9 am). It was already hot in the sun, so I sought the shade, which is plentiful inside the temples. With fewer visitors at that time, it is nice to be able to explore nooks and crannies with little company. The complex really merits at least a full day and probably two or three for a proper visit. There are so many stories there just waiting to come out of the stones, if you just give them enough time. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough of it.

We sat in the quaint Siem Reap airport waiting for the bus to take us across the tarmac to our Bangkok Airways flight when the rain came down. We were lucky to avoid it during our temple visits, so I wasn’t going to complain. And the tarmac workers even set up a canopy with two umbrellas that allowed us to board without getting (too) wet.

Bangkok Airways (self-billed as Asia’s Boutique Airline) is the only carrier that offers direct service from Siem Reap to Bangkok. This seems odd, but they enjoy it, charging monopoly prices for the hour plus flight to the Thai capital. It was pleasant enough, and even with the interminable and packed bus ride from plane to terminal, journey through Immigration, baggage claim, and Customs, and ride to the hotel, we arrived while the sun was still up. We were beat, however, so after the nicest dinner of the trip, it was time to retire for the night.

There are a few things one has to do in Bangkok, and I have now done them three times with different visitors – ride on the Chao Phraya, visit Wat Arun, and tour the National Palace grounds. This time offered one difference, as Claire had to buy a new blouse to cover her shoulders in the National Palace, a requirement neither of us realized. I also took a different view of the detailed model of Angkor Wat, dated to 1922 and housed within the palace grounds. This shows the complex as it was in its heyday (or at least planned), with nine complete towers.

It had been a whirlwind five days - Singapore to KL to Siem Reap to Bangkok. We would get a few days back in Singapore (work for me, touring for her) before we were off to Hong Kong at the week's end.

09 November 2008

Travel: Angkor Wat, Part 3

We only had about an hour and a half at Angkor Wat, which is a very short time to really explore the vast complex. We would return there on our third day, unaccompanied by our guide, to do some final exploring.

Upon the end of our first day (it was hard to believe we had been out only five hours!), we were beat. We had thought about exploring the central market or Pub Street, the places most visitors head for after a day at the temples, but the hotel was too comfortable. We sat outside by the pool, even as the rain came down, listening to the sounds of local music played on a roneat ek, a wooden instrument resembling a xylophone. The following day was to be a long one.

We started the next day with a morning view of Angkor Wat, from the opposite side of the main entrance. This stop was only for photo-taking from a distance, as our guide had a full agenda and wanted to make sure we covered everything on it. So, off we were, to Prasat Kravan, Pre Rup, Mebon, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, Ta Prohm, and Phnom Bakheng. Got all that?

Each temple was distinct in some way – in its architecture, its surroundings, its ornate-ness (is that a word?). Some were remote and peaceful, others were ringed with hawkers selling all kinds of souvenirs, complete with kids who would surround the car as soon as it came to a stop, selling postcards and books and all kinds of crafts. These boys and girls were persistent! And quite savvy, too. Claire tried to bargain with one little boy, and he replied that he wouldn't earn any profit at the price she wanted.

Following is a short summary of each temple we visited during our full day in the area.

Prasat Kravan: this peaceful temple is a small structure with the remnants of five towers, each of which holds a chamber or sanctuary within. While small relative to the other temple complexes, Prasat Kravan is significant for the bas reliefs on the inside each of the chambers, apparently the only example of this type of Khmer artwork in the area. I enjoyed the quiet setting - we were joined by only two other visitors during our time there.

Pre Rup: this large complex has towers arising from two distinct levels, which are accessed via long stairways. The ground level features large elephant statues at the corners and grassy spaces that separate the outer wall from the inner structures. From the top level, you looked out over miles and miles of lush jungle. This is another quiet space, even with dozens of other tourists around, and it provides a perfect atmosphere for peaceful contemplation.

Mebon: This temple is very similar to Pre Rup, and we viewed it only from the car. It is in a bit worse state of disrepair. I would have liked to visit a bit more closely, but we had a 30+ minute drive to our next destination, Banteay Srei.

Banteay Srei: This beautiful complex is compact enough to make it feel like an island (it is surrounded by a moat). It was built with a different type of stone, which gives it a reddish-gold color, and the level of detail and intricacy of the carvings is amazing. Its name means "Citadel of the Women", presumably referring to the delicacy of its decoration. What is striking about this temple is its miniature size relative to the other temples we saw, and that every inch of surface is covered with highly intricate carvings.

The area around Banteay Srei is bustling with hawkers and restaurants, so we stopped there for lunch. I had an excellent local dish, chicken amok, which is chicken and vegetables (spinach, I think) steamed with savory coconut rice and served in a coconut shell. With a cold Bayon beer, it was the perfect respite from the hot noonday sun.

After lunch, we headed back towards Siem Reap (Banteay Srei is about 20 kilometres north of the city). Our next stop was to become my favorite.

Banteay Samre: This remote complex has a distinct coloring, a striking gray and black that reminded me strongly of Minas Tirith from the Peter Jackson's film version of Return of the King. The interior of the complex and all the structures are accessed by elevated walkways, about six feet off the ground. Apparently, the grounds fill with water after heavy rains, giving the complex a Venice-like feel (which I would have loved to see!). Clouds fought with the sun during our stay there, giving us intermittent periods of light and shade. It was very peaceful inside the complex, with few visitors. I could have stayed there all day. We also found an interesting piece of history there, as well - a clip from an AK-47, left over from the bloody Khmer Rouge campaign in the 1970s.

Our next stop was the "Lara Croft Temple". The climactic scene of one of the Tomb Raider movies was filmed at a complex called Ta Prohm. A defining feature of this complex is that huge strangler fig and silk cotton trees have grown over and through the stones, creating an eerie scene that looks as if the jungle is going to claim the temples. This has caused a great deal of deterioration in the structure, and there are numerous areas where walls have been fortified with new supports to keep them from collapsing. It had a much more claustrophic atmosphere, as if the jungle were growing inwards on it.

Our last stop involved a 20 minute hike up a hill to Phnom Bakeng (phnom means hill in Khmer). This is a popular spot for sunset, and it gives a bird's eye view of Angkor Wat. Once you reach the top of the hill via the "elephant path" (the steep stairs that go straight up the hillside are now closed for safety reasons), you still have to climb another 100 feet up to the summit of the structure, which is in pretty poor shape. It is the views that are important here, though, and as you can see from the picture, the vista of Angkor Wat is pretty nice. We didn't wait for sunset, as it was getting too crowded, and Sam (our guide) warned us against it. After coming down the very steep steps in the daylight, and then hiking down the elephant path against the crush of people ascending for the sunset, I am glad we didn't do that.

Wow, what a day!