Category Archives: Asia

Will Wonders Never Cease: Singapore

Gardens by the Bay.

Gardens by the Bay.

We got the day going with a short river cruise on a traditional “bumboat” which used to ferry cargo here.  We cruised around the interior bay for a nice perspective and enjoyable 40-minutes.  Then we trekked over to the iconic Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay, eventually figuring out how to get a ticket for the OCBC Skyway, 66 feet up.

Walked over the Dragonfly Bridge to view the dramatic evening light show among the Supertrees.  Standing by Dragonfly Lake was a perfect spot to take in the perspective. They do the 12-minutes show twice a night – at 7:45 and 8:45. The complex is huge, with domes gardens and a wide array of specialty gardens, you could spend a week.

No visit here would be complete without a visit to the adjacent Casino and the huge, multilevel high-end shopping mall, all by the Marina Bay.   The good news was the Casino has seriously limited smoking, the bad news was the minimums were $50 in honor of the Chinese New Year.  In case you’re wondering, maximum bet allowed (at a normal table) was $500K. We did not see any craps tables and no, we did not win money.  The mall mirrored shops like Prada, Tiffany and Armani found on Singapore’s famous Orchard Street. They love to repeat stores here, so for example, you might see three Cartier shops within a block and a half.  You could spend some serious money here.

Our final dinner in this great city was for typical dumplings, wontons and egg fried rice at Ding Tai Fung  a famous Taiwanese spot, rated one of the top ten by the NY Times.  Floor to ceiling windows allow visitors to watch the young men make the intricate dumplings.  The food was great, we were not disappointed.

Looking up at the Marina Bay - that's the bottom of the pool.

Looking up at the Marina Bay – that’s the bottom of the pool.

Feng Shui in Action: The City-State of Singapore.

The Merlion.

The Singapore Merlion.

It’s hard to find anything bad to say about Singapore.  It’s clean and buildings are either new, freshly painted, or painstakingly restored.  Lots of former British Colonial buildings have been repurposed as things like cultural centers and even hotels.  It’s actually reminiscent of EPCOT, except for the lurking presence of a Universal Studios on one of the adjacent islands. The only downside is the heat and humidity, but then that’s just like summers at home in Miami.

Growth here is controlled, there is good rapid transit, and cars are very expensive ($125K for a Toyota sedan); therefore, traffic is under control.  This island city/state is very green with good use of vertical and rooftop spaces.  Feng Shui also plays a key role in architectural and planning decisions. Our Miami-Dade planners should come over here and take some notes.

There is a bit of Big Brother here with cameras pretty much everywhere, even on many cars.  Petty crime is low because they WILL have your crime recorded. International crime may be another story – we saw a huge Interpol building, and the banking laws attract many uber-wealthy à la the Swiss and Caymans.   There are all sorts of fines for bad behavior, and you’d better not chew gum because that is one of their many rules. People here do follow the rules, and I enjoyed the security and order of it all.

The Arab section.

The Arab section.

We really enjoyed our time here.  To make the most of it, we hired a great, young guide (contact info below) recommended by some friends, and spent an entertaining six hours touring the various neighborhoods and important sights.  When we visit a city, we always love to see the neighborhoods, and we covered the gamut here, from the upscale Dempsey Hill area, to the ethnic enclaves of Indians, Muslims and Chinese, as well as the beautiful embassies, mansions and restored (now-coveted) black and white houses from the Colonial days.  We also went up to Faber Peak for the cool breeze and nice view back towards the port area.

A Hindu Temple.

A Hindu Temple.

One highlight was a visit to one of the traditional hawker areas (Tiong Bahru) for some delicious local food.  Hawker stands are like food courts, but with more of a food-truck vibe and cuisine; one even has a Michelin star. We trusted our guide to just get different types of dishes for us to try, with our one caveat to not be too spicy! We had an amazing eggplant dish, chicken, noodles and some sort of wrap.  I do have the names of the dishes, but doubt I will ever find them on a menu again.

We caught one of the two evening light shows on the Bay, where they did some incredible things with holograms. Having managed to eat and drink quite a bit during the day, we settled for a late-evening tea and pastry before calling it a night.

Tip: Great guide Phil Choo: choozhphil@gmail.com

Little India.

Little India.

Chinatown.

Chinatown.

How Many Cats Does it Take . . . .

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I finally got to go to a Cat Cafe!

I knew they were popular in parts of Asia and was thrilled to find out there were several in Singapore.

There were 15 cats – all rescues.  Very cute with their individual collars, bows and scarves. The $15 (Singapore dollars) fee goes to their support and maintenance. Visitors leave their shoes at the door and Purell their hands before entering this kitty-haven. You can stay as long as you like, order a coffee or food, pet them, play with them or just let them sleep on your computer while you do your homework, whatever. Cats curled up on table tops and backpacks, one was walking along beams about 10′ off the ground and another was trying to escape. They had plenty of play towers and special beds.  Most were sleeping soundly and all were hard to photograph.img_0070-copy

I wish I could’ve stayed longer and I hope my kitty, Pippi, never finds out . . .

 

For TBT: A Singapore Sling.

It's the 100 year anniversary of the Singapore Sling being invented - right here, at the Raffles Hotel. Can't think when I last had one, probably at the original Ruby Tuesday's on Cumberland Ave in K'Ville.  It seemed only right we had one, particularly since the Raffles hotel is closing in a couple of days for a huge renovation.  We hear it will take 1.5 years.

They are still celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Sling (1915) being invented; right here, at this Raffles Hotel. Can’t think when I last had this gin-based concoction, probably at the original Ruby Tuesday’s on Cumberland Ave in K’ville.  Of course, we had to have one in the Raffle’s Long Bar, particularly since the Raffles is closing in a couple of days for a huge renovation. We hear it will take 1.5 years. BTW, one drink is $22/US.  Cheers!

 

 

 

It’s All About the Pool. Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands.

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We came, we saw, we conquered. You will never see a picture of me in the pool, but I did get in – and it was freezing!

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#AmazingPools, @MarinaBaySands

Thai Massage Anyone? Ko Samui

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We make a short call at the beach town of Na Thon on the resort island of Ko Samui. Not being beach people, it was a perfect opportunity to get an authentic, famous Thai massage. img_0047And so we did. It was rigorous, but we were able to walk out without assistance. It was so inexpensive – about $10 each and that was with a generous tip.

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraJourney @AzamaraVoyages

The Kingdom of Siam: A Visit to Old Bangkok

In the Grand Palace complex.

In the Grand Palace complex.

We did not have a lot of time in Bangkok, since we chose to zip over to Cambodia while here, so we needed to make the most of the time we had.  With the help of our wonderful A&K guide Annie, off we went.

No trip here would be complete without seeing the famous Buddhas.  The guidebooks say if you see one thing here, it has to be the Grand Palace.  We did see the Palace and the Emerald Buddha (actually jade), but my favorite site was not the Grand Palace, but Wat Po, the temple complex that houses the Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha.

The Grand Palace complex is huge, beautiful and has many buildings and even commercial shops.  King Rama IX died in November, and the country has recently completed 100 days of mourning. The Palace complex is very crowded with locals since the King’s body is lying in state and traffic is closed on the immediately surrounding streets. Security was tight, everyone passes through metal detectors and a photo ID, in our case a passport copy, must be shown. Ankles and shoulders must be covered (and not with a shawl). I saw people turned away. Many locals are still wearing black to honor their beloved King.

The Emerald Buddha is small and positioned quite high, and was dressed for winter (one of its three outfits), covering all the jade except his face.  Visitors maybe not photograph inside the Wat Phra Keo (temple) that houses this Buddha, and from outside the temple, only a camera much better than mine would have a lens good enough to get a decent photo.

Area of Wat Po.

Area around Wat Po.

Conversely, the buildings at Wat Po were closer together and look like something in a fairy tale.  As with other ceremonial locations, tiny tiles of stained glass, ceramics and richly painted murals cover every surface inch of space.  The effect is magical, sparkling in the sunlight, vibrant color everywhere. Again, I find my camera lens insufficient to capture what I am seeing.  The 160-foot-long reclining Buddha is far larger than it looks in photos – breathtaking.

I was blessed by a monk here – being “tapped” (it was pretty hard) on the head and shoulder with a short straw broom and basically doused with a substantial amount of cold water. It was so hot, it did feel good. We also visited the massive Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.

The solid gold, Golden Buddha.

The solid gold, Golden Buddha.

Solid gold and weighing in at 5 tons, but skipped a visit to Wat Aron, and settled for seeing it from the river since the entire temple is scaffolded for renovation.  Clearly, these temples are meticulously maintained; they are all so elaborate and seem in perfect condition.

The temples we visited are in Old Bangkok, but the rest of this sprawling, modern city was not unlike our home city of Miami. Skyscrapers, modern elevated expressways, tropical vegetation and sunshine.  Our focus was to see as much of the ancient and traditional features of Bangkok as possible, so we embarked on a private long-tail boat trip through the canals (khlongs) of Thonburi.

A canal vendor.

A canal vendor.

Traveling through locks (they say “water gates”) on the way in and out of this charming area, we enjoyed seeing the wooden shacks, beautiful new homes, Temples, waterside markets and even restaurants with cooks preparing food from small boats in the canal. I’ve read these waterways make Bangkok the Venice of the East, but they reminded me far more of the Florida Keys.

Thanks to the efficiency of our intrepid, always smiling guide Annie, we even managed to get in a ride on a tuk-tuk, one of the motorized three-wheeled carts so prevalent in this city.  Thankfully our smaller ship, Azamara Journey, docked in town on the Chao Phraya River (larger ships dock two hours from town), and we were able to productively use every minute of our time here.

I now understand “The King & I” is more fairy-tale than truth (it’s banned here), but do plan to re-watch.

Side bar: Originally, I had wanted to visit the MaeKlong Railway Market, a market that covers rail tracks, and is quickly picked up just prior to the train entering the station. But it’s about 90 minutes out of town and this time of year, the train only comes through twice a day, 8:30 AM and 3:30PM. Apparently, many of the local vendors have quit going to the market, because the growing number of tourists is having a negative impact of their ability to sell their fruits, vegetables, etc.

Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha.

Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha.

 

#LoveTravel, @AzamaraJourney, @AzamaraVoyages

Indiana Jones Territory – but with a lot of “extras.”

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The Angkor Temple complex is huge – with boundaries well beyond the more famous Angkor Wat. Its Hindu origins were easily adapted for Buddhism by the Khmer dynasties.  Temples were being built as early as 790.  Smithsonian Magazine (April 2016) published a fascinating article about a “lost city” likely dating earlier than Angkor Wat, and possibly even a template for the newer site.  Using state-of-the-art Lidar (laser) technology, archaeologists are able to visualize and map structures that are hidden beneath the surface.

The appearance of the Angkor Wat temple site was not surprising, but the massiveness of the entire complex was not expected. Nor were the thousands of Chinese and Korean tourists that flooded the area, in part due to the Chinese New Year holiday, but also because it was a good, dry time of year to visit. I predict UNESCO will have to step in and put in place more restrictions.  They are doubling the entrance fee next week, but I think they will need to limit daily visitors and ban selfie sticks!

The Bayon Temple with its massive stone faces was surreal.  The number of faces seems to be in dispute, but it’s safe to say there are more than 150 and maybe as many as 200. Photos cannot accurately convey the size and perspective found here.

Angkor Wat is surrounded by a massive moat, and the causeways are lined with the body of a large stone snake, Naga, culminating in multi-headed fanfare at each entrance.

Seeing Angkor Wat was incredible, but I actually loved the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm the best.  Even with the hordes of visitors, it wasn’t hard to block them out and imagine what it must’ve been like to discover these incredible structures deep in the jungle. This location was the site of filming for the Angelina Jolie movie Lara Croft, Tomb Raider. The complex was constructed by Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university.

That info immediately brings to mind the great Mayan learning center of Palenque – so let’s put this into perspective. Deep in the jungle of Chiapas, Mexico, Palenque dates from 200, with its major period being from 600-900.  So these great civilizations and centers of learning were contemporary for a few hundred years.  Of note, Palenque features architectural elements unusual for the area, including the use of the lotus flower, so key in Asian sites. In case you were wondering, the Inca’s Machu Picchu is much more recent – built in 1450.

I will now read more about these amazing structures and watch for news of what the new excavations will reveal.

Incomparable Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom & Ta Prohm: Cambodia

10 Million People & 6.5 Million Motor-scooters

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The image of locals bicycling around Vietnam is a thing of the past – now they are on motor-scooters. Sometimes as many as 6 people, an entire family, are on one; mothers are bottle-feeding children, workers are making deliveries; lots of riders are hauling large plants for the New Year.  Well-behaved children smile and wave, geese try to escape, riders don’t seem to worry about their often-precarious loads. Some look like students, many like average workers, and others are quite dressed-up, women even wearing high heels; almost everyone wears a mask against the dust and pollution, and helmets are now required, but not one had any sort of otherwise protective clothing.

As we journeyed out of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City to and from the Mekong Delta, it became an obsession with us, and everyone in our group, to marvel at the massive tide of motor-scooter riders leaving the city for the holiday. They were in every direction, sometimes even in our lane of traffic, coming straight at us.

dsc_0096-copyWe loved getting out of the industrial city of Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city.  The rural countryside was green, the sky blue and air fresh.  From the Mekong River village of My Tho, we boarded a boat to visit a few local island family businesses and sample the locally produced honey, bee pollen, coconut candy and fruit.  We also rode in a four-passenger sampan through a crowed canal back to the larger river.  It was very entertaining and interesting. The young teen and older man who paddled our sampan worked hard.

The river is crowded with colorful fishing boats and all sorts of lively boat traffic.  After leaving the river, we stopped for a traditional Vietnamese lunch that included “Elephant Ear” fish from the river and fish soup. Unlike some in our group, my husband and I were undaunted by having a whole quick-fried fish placed in front of us, and enjoyed the delicious rolls made with rice paper, the firm fish, noodles and very thin slices of mango (I think it was mango); we did ask our server to leave out the lettuce.

img_9759-copyThen back to putting our lives in the hands of our bus driver for the mad-cap ride back to the port. Getting drenched running through a pop-up rainstorm to get on our ship, we barely made it back for the ship to depart on time and make it under the bridge before high tide.  And then, as fast as it came, the rain was gone and we were enjoying the view, as the Azamara Journey sailed south on the Saigon River.

#LoveTravel, @Azamara Voyages, @AzamaraJourney

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