Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Vientiane, Laos- the farthest place I have been from home...

After we left Siem Reap, Cambodia, we went to Vientiane, Laos.  Vientiane is the capital of Laos and its largest city.  The population of the city is less than 300,000 people though.  In many ways, the city made me feel even more remote from my comfortable surroundings than Siem Reap.  Vientiane is the farthest place from home that I have been.  I do not think that is literally true in the geographic sense.  I mean that in a more metaphorical sense.  So I guess I should say "Vientiane is the furthest place from home that I have been." in order to be grammatically correct.
The pic in the post is from our modest (and I mean modest by western standards but pretty damn palacious by Lao standards) hotel.  The sand and river bed you see in the pic are of the Mekong River.  Yes, the same river to which your fathers or uncles may refer in their Vietnam War stories- just a little farther north.  While the I never felt threaten by the locals on the street, the fact that the US government is still not on decent terms with the Lao government, that there have been some disappearances/kidnappings of US citizens and other Western civilians, the presence of corrupt law enforcement at every level, and the status of Lao justice and prison conditions made our stay in this country a little disconcerting to say the least.  The vast majority of tourists do not have a problem, but then again there are not that many tourists.   There are some interesting sites and beautiful things to see.  There are also some reality checks and horrible smells to experience.  Like most places, there are always opposites and paradoxes to define it.  For example, in the pic you can see a paved road and cars traveling along it.  You can also see the thatch riverside huts that serve "street" food which may or may not make you ill and whose workers are poorer than poor and personally can't even afford the bottle of beer that they so desperately want to sell to you for less than $1US.
I heard that there are plenty of good things to see in Laos, and I am sure there are.  However, it is not a place that I need to see again in the near future...
It would be on my list if I come back to the SE Asia region for an extended period of time.

Siem Reap, Cambodia: A dusty, poor, tourist city with charm...

Hello Everyone,
Siem Reap is the Cambodian tourist town that now serves as the depot for the tourists coming to see the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor.   Although the city existed before the French colonization and grew during the occupation, it has definitely been shaped by the modern influx of tourists.  But even with the tourism industry, the city still retains much of traditional Cambodia and its charm.  The "charm" may include dust, garbage, and destitute local people, but it also includes tuk-tuks, broad smiles, and the old ways.  It is the type of city that is far enough removed from western civilization that you really do feel completely isolated from everything that is familiar to you.  That was one of the experiences I was hoping to have on this trip.
It was a very fascinating place.  Ozell and I both agree that we would like to revisit and see more of Cambodia.
Here is just a generic pic of part of Siem Reap from a rooftop terrace of an ex-pat pub called "X-bar".  They actually had a skate board half pipe on the top level.  Lol

Angkor Wat- an overhead pic...

Hey Everyone,
Even though it has been about two weeks since we were there, I wanted to include a picture of a postcard Ozell bought showing Angkor Wat from the air.  It is the only way to come close to capturing the size and scale of this single temple.  And even the postcard does not do it justice, but it is much better than any of the pictures we could take with our camera.  To provide some scale, the outside walls of the main section of the temple are over 1 km long per side...

Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia- Oh, My!

Good Day, Everyone!
Yes, it has been quite a long time since Ozell or I have posted to the blog.  Some of that is due to the lack of internet access in SE Asia.  Some of that is due to our attention being diverted from the blog to the locals in Bangkok.  And some of that is due to our laziness. 
So, I have promised to myself that I would get caught up on the blog posts until I am current.  Currently, we are in Perth, Australia!  I am happy to be inside the ole' English Empire for the rest of our journey.  We are very surprised at how expensive Australia is.  Unfortunately, this looks like it is going to have a negative impact on our travel itinerary.  :(
But I need to recap all of our other stops.  So I am going to add some posts about Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore Part II, and Australia.
So here we go...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Asian Tourists in Asia

Hey Everyone,
One of the nights in Siem Reap, Dara picked us up to take us to a restaurant in town he suggested earlier.  I can't remember the name of the place, but it was a pretty large restaurant in the main part of town.  The restaurant was buffet style with various Asian foods to choose from and the dinner price included a show of traditional Cambodian dance after the meal.  The show actually featured a live band and live singers accompanying the young dancers who did about five or six different performances/routines.  The interesting thing about the dancing was that a couple of the routines obviously told some type of story, although I couldn't tell you exactly what story they were telling.  The costumes were also very beautiful and it was nice to watch the dancers various hand and body movements, some of which required great balance. 
One of the interesting things about the restaurant and about Siem Reap in general was the number of Asian tourists.  Obviously, Cambodia is a lot closer to their home countries and it's natural that people will vacation more often in places closer to home.  I have just never been somewhere with such a high percentage of Asian tourists and I found it especially interesting being in an Asian country.  I just wondered if the locals receive the Asian tourists the same they receive Westerners.  I've learned that money is money no matter where you are in the world so at the end of the day it doesn't matter where you're from; but, given the huge economic disparity between places like Cambodia and Japan or certain parts of China, I am just curious to know how Cambodians view other Asians, especially considering factors such as war and history, which obviously has a lot to do with the wealth of any nation.
Anyway, after dinner, we went back to the guest house and had more beers while playing a few games of pool and bowling on the Nintendo Wii.  After seeing what we wanted of Angkor Wat, it was time to move on to the next stop on our South East Asia itinerary.  Since we're trying to limit our time in the region to one month, we aren't staying too long in many of the cities.  On Wednesday, we flew from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Vientiane, Laos.  More on that later. 
Cambodia COE:
Pack of Cigarettes: $1.50
Pint of Beer at a Bar: $1.00
Can of Beer at the Store: $100
As I mentioned in a previous post, most things seem to cost $1.00 in Cambodia.  I even got a pack of cigarettes for $1.00 from a street vendor late one night after the convenience store had closed, but the regular price for cigarettes seems to be closer to $1.50 at the store.  Sorry, no McDonalds in Siem Reap, but the food is pretty cheap.

Ta Prohm: Angkor Untamed

Greetings Everyone!
Sean and I spent the day Monday visiting various temples and ruins of the Khmer Empire.  We weren't as adventurous as many tourists who start sight-seeing at dawn to watch the sunrise at one of the higher temples.  We figured a 09:00 a.m. start was sufficient enough.  With about 40 different sites in the Angkor area, there was no way we were going to be able to see everything anyway.  Our plan was to see some of the main sites and whatever else we could before we got too tired or hot.  After breakfast at the hostel, Dara, our driver, met us out front with his tuk tuk to take us to our first stop, Angkor Wat. 
Angkor Wat is the largest and most well preserved site in the Angkor area.  The site is absolutely huge and took a couple hours for us to tour.  It's surrounded by a pretty large moat and it's characteristic five towers rising up from the middle of the huge complex are what most people recognize from pictures.  Actually, the towers viewed from directly in front of the temple is also depicted on the Cambodia flag.  One of the most impressive features was the bas reliefs covering many of the walls.  These carvings and inscriptions telling various stories are so intricately carved and beautiful, even today, one can only imagine what the complex what have looked like when it was first built.  We couldn't help but compare Angkor Wat to Machu Picchu from an engineering and architectural perspective in the sense that it's hard to believe something so impressive could even be built so long ago given the tools and knowledge the people had at the time.  It would be an engineering marvel to build something like Angkor Wat even today, and as you look at the site, it's hard to even fathom how many people, how many materials, and how much work it took to build something so massive and beautiful.  It's also amazing to learn that the entire complex only took about 30 years to build.  We took a ton of pictures of Angkor Wat so be sure to view the photo album. 
After Angkor Wat, we visited a few more temples, including Prasat Ta Keo and Bayon, the latter of which is known for the many massive faces carved into it's stone towers.  But of all the places we visited, one of my favorites, by far, was Ta Prohm.  I have to give credit to Dara for being such a great guide and making sure we didn't miss out on some of the last temples we visited.  After the first few sites, we stopped and ate our packed lunch, but it was so hot, it was hard to continue on climbing the steep stairs of many of the temples and just being out in the heat and humidity.  We were ready to head back to the hostel, but Dara convinced us to check out one more site after one more site.  He really wanted to make sure we saw the best things and got the most out of the fact that we only had a one day pass.  
Ta Prohm, as I mentioned, was one of my favorite sites and one of the last that we visited.  Unlike most of the other sites, this particular temple had very little excavation and restoration done and aside from the path that was cleared leading to the temple and a few structural braces, the temple was left pretty much as it was found, presumably as an example of how the jungle completely takes over and to give people an idea of how most of the sites looked like when they were rediscovered.  There was a very good documentary on Discovery Channel last year called something like, Earth After People, which basically discussed and showed what would happen to all of man's structures and creations if all of human kind were to suddenly disappear and nature were allowed free reign of the earth.  The show focused on how long it would take for certain things to stop working, fall apart and ultimately disappear into the natural environment.  It was amazing to watch the computer-generated pictures showing how traces of mankind such as roads and buildings could disappear completely in just a few hundred years.  Well, Ta Prohm was a perfect real life example of this.  Remember, this place is located in deep jungle, a location that gets plenty of rain and sun, and where trees and plants grow wild and fast.  The most amazing thing was the sheer number of trees literally growing out of the structures of Ta Prohm.  There were trees even growing from the roof of the buildings, their roots snaking down the outer walls to the ground.  To borrow a simile from Sean, the tree roots were like candle wax dripping down from a candle.  It was just amazing that a tree could even take hold, let alone grow so large and remain so stable while sitting atop a stone building, which says a lot about the building itself.  Sure, there were some walls that were in danger of collapsing and some parts of the ceilings had long caved in, but many parts of the building were still standing, with these massive trees weighing tons just growing right on top of them.  Now, how many structures do we build today that can withstand the weight of such a massive tree standing on it's roof or atop one of it's walls?  It truly must have been an amazing sight to happen upon for the person who rediscovered the temples of Angkor.  So many amazing structures lost to the jungle, taken over by nature.  I can't imagine the intricate work involved in clearing the other sites that had been swallowed by the jungle, nor the amount of work involved in maintaining them and keeping the jungle at bay.  And while places like Ta Prohm showed amazing ability to withstand the forces of nature for so long, it's quite apparent that the entire place would not have held up for another hundred or two hundred years.  It's a great thing that we have stepped in to save them. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

How Many People Can You Fit on One Scooter?

Greeting from Cambodia!
Sean and I arrived in Siem Reap early Sunday morning.  Like most tourists to Cambodia, our primary reason for visiting was to explore the ancient Angkor temples and remains of the Khymer Empire, the largest empire in South East Asia.  The most famous and well-preserved of these sites is Angkor Wat, a temple in the ancient capital city of Angkor, which was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world, even larger than present-day New York City.
I knew very little about Cambodia before we arrived here and it wasn't really one of the places on my list of countries to visit.  As our time in Africa winded down, we started brainstorming about different places we wanted to visit in South East Asia and Cambodia ended up on the itinerary.  Siem Reap is a town of about 140,000 people and is most known for it's proximity to Angkor Wat, which makes it a big tourist draw.  Most of the people in the area work in tourism in one way or another.  Cambodia is one of the poorest countries we've visited on our trip, but like other poor countries, begging and crime are much less than what you would find in even more developed countries.  People are very friendly and most speak at least a little English, although the accents can be a little difficult to understand at first. 
Tuk Tuk's:  One of the primary ways to get around in Siem Reap is by tuk tuk.  A tuk tuk is basically a small scooter or motorcycle with a two-wheeled, open-air carriage attached to ferry passengers around like a taxi.  They typically only have a 100-125 cc engine so their top speed seems to be somewhere around 30 mph at most.  Tuk tuk's drivers can be hired for short trips like airport pickups, or you can hire one for a whole day, which is what we did when we toured the temples.  If you hire a tuk tuk to go out to dinner or get to the city center, the driver will usually wait for you and take you back to your hotel afterwards.  It's very convenient and very cheap.
Cars and Driving:  Driving is very slow in Cambodia.  You rarely seen anyone going faster than 30 mph, even on main roads.  One of the interesting things about cars is that, although they drive on the right side of the road, as we do in the States, you will see cars with driver seats on either side.  We figured that for such a poor country, there isn't much of a market for new cars, so they probably get whatever they can in the form of used cars from neighboring countries.  There are few traffic signs and even fewer traffic lights in Siem Reap and people seem to ride all over the road.  For instance, when making a left turn, it's not uncommon for a driver to pull all the way into the lane of oncoming traffic to wait for a break to turn.  The oncoming traffic will not necessarily stop, but drive around him.  When making a left turn onto a main road from a side street, scooters especially will just drive in the parking lane or along the shoulder on the wrong side of the road, until they have a break in traffic allowing them to cross to the right side.  Driving is definitely strange and not always safe, but with the slow speeds, everything seems to work just fine. 
Scooters:  While I'm talking about driving, there are two interesting things about scooters in Cambodia that I haven't seen anywhere else.  First, ladies usually ride side-saddle as passengers on a scooter, meaning they sit with both legs on one side of the scooter, usually, but not always, with their legs crossed at the ankles.  At first I thought this was just for ladies wearing skirts, but even ladies with pants on will typically sit side-saddle.  If driving the scooter, the ladies obviously straddle the bike the way a man would, but if the woman driver has a woman passenger, the passenger will typically sit side-saddle.  If there are two women passengers, (yes, that's three people on one scooter), each woman will sit side-saddle, but with their legs on opposite sides of the scooter.  While I look at it as being very considerate and lady-like, it's not a very safe way to ride a bike and I imagine it also makes balance quite difficult for the driver.  The other interesting thing about scooters are the sheer number of people Cambodians seem to fit on one.  I have seen up to four adults on one little 100 cc scooter.  I have also seen three adults and one child on one scooter, as well as whole families (two adults and two kids) on a scooter.  I have seen single parents riding a scooter with one hand on the handle bars and the other holding a baby or toddler between their legs.  These aren't just occasional sightings; this is just what everyone does so you see it all day, everywhere in the city.  Scooters are the way most people get around so I understand fitting as many people as you can on one, especially since most people could never afford the expense of a car.  I'm just surprised the small little scooters can handle such heavy loads as three or four adults.  The weight limit on my Ninja 650 was 400 pounds. 
Money:  Cambodia was the first place on our trip and the only place I've heard of, where US dollars were the standard currency in use.  Yes, Cambodia has it's own currency, the Riel, but only locals and business catering to locals use it.  Most other businesses, including anywhere you're likely to go as a tourist, have prices listed in US dollars and accept US dollars.  Even the ATM machines dispense only US dollars.  The cheapest goods, like a soda or bottle of water, are priced at $1.00 or two for $1.00.  There are no coins in use, so to give change for something less than a dollar, the Riel is used.  And since the rough conversion rate is $1 US dollar to $4,000 Riel, the $1,000 Riel note is basically used as a quarter.  Around the temples, people sell guidebooks, postcards, musical instruments and anything else tourists might want.  And as you can probably guess, almost everything costs $1 US dollar. 
More on the temples next. 

A closer view of the bones...


The Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields...

Before coming to Cambodia, I knew who the Khmer Rouge were and who "Brother No. 1" Pol Pot was.  I have not read the novel or seen the movie "The Killing Fields", but I think that I should.  I did know that I wanted to visit one of the killing fields sites if at all possible during my stay in Cambodia.  Thankfully (for me not the victims), there were numerous killing fields all around Cambodia including this one in Siem Reap.
I will refer you to better historical references than my limited knowledge about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.  But in brief, here is a little of what I know.  The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.  Pol Pot was the movement's leader and was educated in France.  The Khmer Rouge wanted to remake Cambodia (previously a kingdom) into a communist, agrarian utopia.  But with all authoritarian regimes, suppression then murder then paranoid genocide of the opposition and innocents soon followed.  Of course the USA had a hand in the rise of Pol Pot even though your history books will usually only tell you that we opposed the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's regime which is largely true since he was allied with communist China and the Vietnamese.  But it can be logically argued that Pol Pot would never have been able to come to power except that the USA bombed the hell out of Cambodia during the Vietnam War in order to keep the north Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh trail to reach southern Vietnam.  Obviously, many innocent Cambodians did not like losing their family members and way of life to the USA's carpet bombing.  The USA also did not like the king of Cambodia since he wasn't very interested or capable of stopping the Viet Kong from using the Ho Chi Minh trail.  As is typical with USA foreign policy, we worked to weaken and topple the Cambodian king, but as is also sometimes typical, the power vacuum was filled by someone who we liked far less... The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.
The Khmer Rouge only had full control of the government until 1979, but in that short time, they were able to execute nearly 3 million of their fellow Cambodians.  That was about 1/4 of the country's population.  The usually undertook the executions at "The Killing Fields" which were spread all over Cambodia and nearly too numerous to count.  The typical method of execution was to club the prisoners to death usually with blows to the back of the head as they were bound and kneeling on the ground.  Those who did not die right away were then shot.  The bodies were then disposed of in mass graves.  Of course, execution was only one way that Cambodians died.  Many also just died from starvation, infection, and good ole fashion torture while they were in the prisons.  Women and children were just as likely as anyone else to be imprisoned and killed.
Even today, some tourists still see recently unearthed human bones after a hard rain or have found human teeth stuck to the bottom of their shoes after visiting killing fields with shallow, mass graves.
The killing field that we visited in Siem Reap has been mainly paved over and includes this memorial.  The bones and skulls that you see inside are real and belong to a fellow human being 30 years ago.   
But our government never facilitates or commits such crimes....  Other people around the world just "hate us for our freedoms".

A view of the top of Phnom Bakheng...

Here is a pic from the top of Phnom Bakheng...
The steps at these temples are deceiving steep and very shallow in depth.  Most of the time, only half your foot at most can land on the step.  The weathering and foot traffic also cause the steps to erode at an incline pointing downhill.  These factors make climbing the temples harder and more dangerous than it may seem.  The best way to go up and down (which is harder than going up) is to climb the stairs sideways.
The Angkor site has become very popular in the last decade or so.  Many tourists (like ourselves) make it a requisite stop in SE Asia and rightly so.  But, that also means that you will not have the temples to yourself.  It is inevitable that other tourists will be in your pictures as you can see from this shot.

Phnom Bakheng: The mountain temple at Angkor

Hello Everyone,
Like I mentioned in my last post, we were able to visit one temple our first evening in Seam Reap.  Our tuk-tuk driver suggested going to Phnom Bakheng because it sat on top of one of the few natural hills in the area and is a great place to view the sunset over the Siem Reap and Angkor areas.
Phnom Bahkeng is one of the many temples at Angkor and very close to Angkor Wat.  It was built about 100 years after Angkor Wat and consists of a stepped/terraced square pyramid with multiple towers on each terrace.  Many of the towers have fallen down.  You will notice in our pictures just how badly many of the temples have been eroded and fell into ruin over the centuries.  The cap stones were made of sandstone which does not weather very well, and none of the temples included reinforced masonry or any cement.  Like the Incas in Peru, stones were carved to fit together with nothing else binding them to one another.  The other huge loss to posterity is the erosion of some of the best stone sculpture that man has created.  So much of each temple was covered with sculpted bas reliefs or ornamentation that it defies comprehension, but since these sculptures were also made on the sandstone cap stones, much of the detail and intricacy has been lost to the ages.  :(
Unfortunately, we did not get a good view of the sunset this evening.  It was pretty humid and hazy, and rain showers started rolling in towards the temple.  It was still a very pleasant view and introduction to the Angkor site.

The Khmer Empire and its capital city of Ankgor...

Hey Everyone,
Our first day in Siem Reap, Cambodia we mainly slept away the day since we had an early morning flight from Singapore and did not sleep the night before.  However, during the afternoon our tuk-tuk driver, Dara, took us to the ticket office for the Angkor temples and then to Phnom Bakheng since we could visit it for free after 4:30pm. 
Maybe a little background about Angkor is in order...  Please excuse any mistakes I may make.  I am not an expert on Angkor or the Khmer empire (790-1450 AD).  I am just trying to provide a little background information.
The Khmer people were the people who lived in Cambodia from the 700's through today.  Although there has been some mixing with other people's after the fall of their empire in the late middle ages.  They imported many facets of their society from India including their religious beliefs namely Hinduism although they adopted Buddhism in the late stages of their empire.  Their golden age was from 800-1300 AD when their empire encompassed most of modern Cambodia, Laos, Miramar, Thailand, and the Malaysian peninsula.  Much of their art and architecture was lost until it was "rediscovered" in the mid and late 1800's.  However, much of modern Laos and Cambodian dance and script is derived from the Khmer civilization.  Their capital city was moved a couple of times during their run, but Angkor served as the main city and capital for much of the empire's duration.  Almost all of ancient Angkor was lost to the jungle after the fall of the empire.  The modern Cambodian city of Siem Reap is located adjacent to ancient Angkor and now serves as the tourist hub to visit all of the nearby temples.  The temples at Angkor have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightly so for they may be the most impressive man-made structures I have ever seen.
I would suggest searching online for more and better information about the Khmer empire than I provided here.
In the following posts, we will share some of the pics and thoughts about the temples we visited...

Tuk-Tuks: My favorite mode of transportation in SE Asia...

Sabai Di Everyone,
I wanted to mention "Tuk-tuks" here in SE Asia.  We did not encounter these scooter driven rickshaws in Singapore, but they are ubiquitous in Cambodia and Laos.  They are my favorite mode of transportation in SE Asia.  They are nothing more than a 110-125 cc scooter with a rickshaw trailer attached to them.  I think Ozell may be writing a post about them also.  The very limited power of the scooter motor restricts the top speed to about 30 mph, but the open air (dust and insects aside) and personal driver make the tuk-tuk a very enjoyable ride.  Maybe the novelty would wear off if I were riding in them every day, but I do prefer them over walking in the 100 degree heat and humidity.  In fact, when we were temple sightseeing in Angkor, the sift breeze of the tuk-tuck ride in between each temple was the type of small pleasure that made you feel glad to be alive.  Hahahah
The hostel in which we were staying in Siem Reap had some novelty T-shirts recently made.  I wanted to buy a couple for $6, but we were in too much of a rush the morning we were leaving.  :(  One of the T-shirts I wanted to buy though had the phrase, "Need a break?  Have a tuk-tuck!" where the word tuk-tuck was written exactly as "Kit-Kat" is on the famous Kit-Kat bar logo.  Obviously, that was the pun they were going for. 
I wish I had a much better picture of the tuk-tuk, but I don't currently.  I will try to take one here in Laos before me leave.  The pic attached to this post is from the inside of a tuk-tuk as we were being driven from the airport to our hostel in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Our driver, Dara, ferried us around Angkor and Siem Reap the next two days.  You can have his services for a full day for about $12.  :) 

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Smoking in the Cactus Garden

Hello Folks,
Sean and I left Singapore EARLY this morning for our flight to Cambodia.  Our flight was at 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning, meaning we had to arrive at the airport around 4:00 a.m., so we didn't even bother going to bed Saturday night.  We only plan to spend about one month here in South East Asia, so we will probably only stay in most cities a few days and we will probably have more flights here than we've had elsewhere in order to maximize time.  There are plenty of things to do in Singapore and I could have easily spent more time there.  Unfortunately, since everything is so expensive, I'd rather spend more time in cities here where my money will go a lot further.  You can't have such an extended vacation if you spend too much time in cities like Singapore.  We still have to return to the city for our flight to Australia, so we'll have another chance to do anything we missed that we really want to do, but I'm fairly content with what I saw and did already.  Besides, for someone who drinks and smokes as much as I do, I would have to give up two of my biggest vices to enjoy Singapore.  It would be different if we were visiting directly from the States, but after months of dollar beers and two-dollar packs of cigarettes, Singapore is a huge shock to my wallet. 
For a country that tries so hard to restrict social behavior and imposes so many rules, I do have to give Singapore credit for one thing.  The airport has one of the most beautiful smoking areas I have ever seen.  Set on a rooftop in a section of the airport, they have a beautiful cactus garden that makes San Diego's cactus garden along Park Ave look like an amateur's backyard project.  Unfortunately, it was still dark outside and a little rainy while I was there so I couldn't check everything out and appreciate all that was on display, but the setting was absolutely wonderful.  Much nicer than the tiny smoking rooms in most airports with yellow walls, bad lighting, zero ventilation and so much smoke you don't even need to light your own cigarette.  Many airports these days don't have smoking areas at all, which is one of the things I don't understand.  People have been smoking for centuries and people are going to continue smoking.  With traveling being such a stressful experience in itself, why is it so unreasonable to have a designated smoking area somewhere in the airport?  It's a small way to accommodate passengers who just disembarked from, or are getting ready to board, an eight or ten-hour flight.  I don't expect non-smokers to have to deal with my smoking habit; I just think it's quite easy to accommodate everyone.  So for a country with all sorts of laws governing behavior, I find it quite surprising and pleasant that Singapore is even more reasonable than most airports in the States when it comes to smoking.
Singapore's COE:
Pack of Cigarettes: $8.00
Domestic Pint at a Bar: $7.50
Domestic Can at a Store: $3.50
McDonalds Combo Meal: $6.00
Note: Most bars do have Happy Hour during the day, usually from about 5-9:00 p.m. where you can get two drinks for the price of one.  This is one of the easiest ways to save money on alcohol.  You can also take the "broke college student" approach and buy a few cheaper beers at the store to get a buzz before going out to the bars. 

Now in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Hello Everyone,
Just a quick shout out to you all to let you know that we are now in Siem Reap, Cambodia which is the city outside of the famous Angkor temples from the Khmer Empire from 700-1400 AD.
We arrived from a very early morning flight and slept until the afternoon.  We then bought our tickets to tour the various temples tomorrow, but we also made our way up to the one mountain/hill top temple before we came back to our hostel.
More info and pics to come shortly...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Singapore: It's a "fine" city...

Hello Everyone,
We will be leaving Singapore early tomorrow morning and heading to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Because Singapore was an English colony and most everyone here understands English, this was a nice initial stop in Asia for us.  This city may have been an English colony, but it is everything Asian now.  There are few Europeans to be seen.  Singapore is a melting pot of Asian cultures and religions.  The city is mainly ethnic Chinese, but there are large numbers of Indians, and Malaysians also.  You can also find almost all of the world's major religions here:  Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity amongst others.  We stayed in an area of town known as Little India- and as expected, it is full of Indians.  "India Lite" as one of our friends has described it.
The city is impressive in some areas and oppressive in others.  The architecture, infrastructure, cleanliness, and per capita wealth & living standards are impressive.  The restrictions on social behavior and political dissent are oppressive.  As we saw in some of the tourist craft stalls, they sell T-shirts declaring, "Singapore: a Fine City" with a list of all of the steep fines for "improper" social behavior or independent thought.  It is too much for me.  It is also a very expensive city on par with the west coast and northeastern seaboard cities in the States which is very costly compared to the rest of SE Asia.
We took a city tour.  We made our own walking tours.  We enjoyed the riverfront.  We visited the ethnic neighborhoods and various houses of worship.  We went out to a few of the gay bars and clubs.  It was enjoyable and definitely the most modern city we have been too since Toronto.
But it is time to move on and see the other side of southeast Asia.
I am looking forward to it.
Ciao for now,

Am I a Rice Queen?

Greetings All!
Thursday night, we had our first clubbing experience in South East Asia.  Since Friday was a public holiday, the bars and clubs were as busy as a weekend night.  And even though homosexuality (or sodomy, rather) is still technically illegal, there are a few "gay" bars here in Singapore, mostly concentrated around the Chinatown area.  We have a few friends who have spent time in Singapore and some of them were nice enough to give us some useful information on where to go.  Many thanks to Oreste for the wealth of great info he provided, not just about bars, but about sights and the city in general.  The Sportsmen Asia store he recommended we check out was definitely worth the visit. 
We had a slight challenge trying to hail a taxi from our hostel.  Even though well over a dozen taxis drove by us with their lights on indicating they were available, all of them kept passing us by, many of them without even a looking, but some of them actually waving us away from approaching them at a stop light.  We didn't remember reading anything about having to pick up a taxi in designated areas, as is the case in some countries, and it's not like we were in a bad area (like our first experience in Cape Town) where taxis are afraid to pick people up out of fear of being robbed.  We were on a main street with plenty of room for the taxis to pull over so we couldn't figure out what we were doing wrong.  Finally, we started to walk back towards the hostel where we saw a number of taxis dropping people off at the nearby bars, but we passed a few police officers on the way and Sean decided to ask them for help.  The police officer was really nice in explaining that no, there was no reason why they shouldn't stop and pick us up unless they were on shift change, in which case their green "available" lights should be off.  He told us that if a taxi had it's light on and didn't stop for us, we should take down their license plate numbers and call to report them.  Well, good to know there wasn't some secret method we weren't aware of, but it obviously wasn't serious enough to go reporting.  We just wanted to get to the bar.  Luckily, after a few more taxis passed us by, we were able to hail one of the Executive Taxi's (slightly more expensive), and even he was reluctant to pull over at first. 
We finally arrived at the bar, Taboo, and were early enough to check the place out and have a drink before it got really crowded about an hour later.  The main floor had a long bar along one wall with a standing area separating it from the dance floor.  There were a couple of tables and chairs in one corner next to the dance floor, but otherwise the place was pretty small.  There was an upstairs lounge area with a small bar, plus an additional loft area above that with a small seating area.  The crowd was mostly Chinese, with a handful of Indians and a few White guys thrown in.  From what I've read, most of the bars and clubs are pretty segregated with the Chinese, Indians and Expats hanging out in different spots.  The crowd was pretty young overall, probably because students didn't have to pay cover; whereas, everyone else had to pay $15 ($10 USD).  The music was mostly Happy Fag with a little bit of electronic music mixed in here and there.  The cover charge included one free drink, which was nice considering a pint of crappy beer or a mixed drink with barely a full shot cost $11 SGD ($7.50 USD).   
There was a surprisingly high number of really attractive guys there.  While Sean is always being teased back home for the number of Asian guys he hooks up with, I can't even remember the last time I hooked up with an Asian guy.  Not that I don't find Asian guys attractive; anyone who knows me knows I don't give a shit about race.  My taste generally has more to do with body type than anything else.  I am usually most attracted to taller guys with bigger builds than my own.  I don't really go for the short and skinny types, which is what I typically find among Asians back home in San Diego.    Here, on the other hand, it seemed like half the guys were within a couple inches of my height, with some being taller than me and a fair number of them a hell of a lot bigger and more muscular.  It's been a while since I've been to a bar or club and found so many guys attractive... I mean, HOT!  I told Sean, I think I'm becoming a Rice Queen!  For those of you unfamiliar with gay lingo, a Rice Queen is a gay guy who is (usually exclusively) into Asian guys.  There are also Snow Queens (into White guys) and Bean Queens (into Mexicans).  Neither Sean or I could recall there being a name for guys who exclusively are into Black guys; I think those guys are just called Bottoms.  But while we were trying to figure out the various other names the following night, I think I even coined a new term, Curry Queen, which of course, is a guy who is into Indian guys.   
Nevertheless, there were a lot of guys at Taboo I would have had no problem going home with.  We went out again Friday night to a couple more bars; first to Backstage and then to Tantric, but even though neither charged a cover to get in, the crowds were not as good.  Backstage only had about ten people there.  Tantric was quite busy, but it was an older crowd and full of White guys and Asian Snow Queens.  We mostly had to entertain ourselves as we tried to avoid the British guy who was after Sean.  Eventually, we ended up at Taboo again and had a good time.  I even met a really hot Filipino guy from Sydney who was here on holiday as well.  Yeah, just call me a Rice Queen, because if the guys in the rest of South East Asia are as good looking as the guys here in Singapore, I think I'll have more fun here than I originally thought. 

No Urinating in Lifts - FINE $1000

Greetings Everyone:
After six weeks in South Africa, we finally moved on to the next region on our travel itinerary, South East Asia.  We arrived in Singapore from Johannesburg Wednesday morning after a 3 1/2 hour delay at the JHB airport; apparently, the airline caterers were on strike.  The wait was quite frustrating considering we already arrived at the airport two hours before our scheduled departure.  After five hours in an airport, one starts to get a little restless.  I'm all in support of strikes and other worker actions; I just didn't understand why they couldn't fly the plane without food.  I mean, just tell everyone to get something to eat before boarding or take food on the plane with them and I'm sure we would have all survived.  It was a 9 1/2 hour flight after all and just waiting around to take off made the flight seem that much longer.  They finally started boarding around 4:30 pm (our flight was originally supposed to depart at 1:15 p.m.) and we took off shortly thereafter landing in Singapore about 11:00 a.m. local time the next morning.  We are currently in the GMT+7 time zone, which means we are 15 hours ahead of California time and 12 hours ahead of you folks on the East Coast of the States. 
So what is Singapore like?  My first impressions are probably no different than everyone else's.  It's hot, humid, relatively clean and quite modern.  Beyond that, there are signs posted everywhere warning you of various laws and the accompanying fine for breaking them.  Smoking is only allowed outside and not in front of building entrances.  Littering carries a hefty fine.  Not flushing a public toilet carries a fine.  No jay-walking, no eating or drinking on the subway and no urinating in lifts (elevators).  Chewing gum is banned in the country completely and drug trafficking, as we are reminded on our immigration cards, is punishable by death.  Things are also quite expensive here, including food and especially alcohol, which (outside of Happy Hour) is even more expensive here than in the States.  And I haven't paid so much for cigarettes since we were in Toronto!  And since Customs won't allow you to bring in any unopened packs of cigarettes, I couldn't stock up before leaving South Africa. 
Singapore is a small island city-state of 4.8 million people located 85 miles north of the equator and connected to the Malay peninsula via bridge (so yes, technically, our Southern Hemisphere trip includes a few places slightly North of the equator).  Singapore is probably the easiest introduction to Asia for most people because it's a very modern and well-developed city, especially compared to most places in South East Asia.  In fact, according to the IMF, Singapore is the worlds fourth richest country in terms of GDP per capita.  The vast majority of the country's people are of Chinese background (~75%) with most of the remainder consisting of Malay (13%) and Indians (8%).  English is one of the official languages of Singapore and is widely spoken in the country.  By law, all signs and official notices are required to be in English.  Like many countries, Singapore also have a few ethnic neighborhoods, including Chinatown and Little India; the latter is where our hostel is located.  The city is safe, has great public transportation and even has a happening night-life, although going out is very expensive. 
The only other thing I want to mention now is the staring factor here in Singapore.  All you Black folks back home, we really need to get out more!!  I haven't been stared at so much and so hard since we were in Peru; it's like I'm on exhibit again.  The interesting thing is that the Indians here are the worst when it comes to staring and I can't figure out why.  Many of the Indians here are very dark skinned, from my color to even darker, so at first I thought, perhaps they are trying to figure out if I'm Indian; but a quick glance, not to mention my clothing and beard are usually pretty good indicators that I'm not.  I have seen a few other Black people since we've been here so while I'm sure we're not seen regularly, it's not like people have never seen a Black person before.  I've decided it's just a cultural issue; some people just aren't shy about staring you down.  The Chinese don't seem to stare nearly as much, or if they do, they are more discreet about it.  But even with the staring, everyone has been very nice and welcoming.  People on the street are friendly and quick to ask if you need help.  Even the police, who we finally had to ask for advice/instructions on how to catch a taxi, were very friendly and helpful.  Now that's something you don't see back home.