Saturday, October 3, 2015

One last stop before we head home! Singapore

We were really conscious of the fact that we were on our way home as we landed in Singapore. This was the beginning of our "Western inoculation" as we transitioned from South East Asian culture back to our own. Of all the major airport locations in South East Asia, Singapore is probably the best for this process as it is the most orderly place in the region, but still with that Asian flavour. Of course, the Singaporean take on social order is quite Asian (i.e. a little more individual sacrifice is demanded than would be tolerated at home, which is very Confucian), but that will only make us appreciate our home the more. But first, we had to check out this fascinating place.

The first exposure to what would become "normal" for us in Singapore- the bombardment of rules governing public behaviour.

Our hole-in-the-wall room. The low ceiling caused a few headaches. Poor Bowen spent a lot  of time in this closet feeling ill. This was the most expensive room we rented, which caused Remy and Liz to feel a bit ill as well.

A lot of  money has been spent on cool architecture in Singapore (many more photos to follow).  This office tower incorporated open garden spaces in the structure, which of course is easier to do in a tropical climate.

They grow their mangoes big around Singapore, but they come with a big price tag,too - about $8 Cdn for one of these babies. To put it into context, You could feed yourself very well for about $5 at one of the food hawker centres.

We discovered one of the oldest coffee shops in Singapore, which sold some of the best coffee we had on our trip, which is really saying something in this part of the world!

Our enjoyment of the coffee was enhanced by the great pottery in which it was served.

All too often, we were reminded that we were in a major financial centre of the world. Like Calgary, the abundance of easy money has created a standard, and cost, of living that is unlike anywhere else in the region.

In the background is another view of the amazing architecture of Singapore, while in the foreground shows how you have to stack people one on top of the other when you are an island city state. As you can see, it would be a good living to be an AC technician here, or to own shares in the power company.

Everywhere you turn in Singapore there are more examples of interesting architecture.

This sculpture in the centre of the financial district reminded us of "Wonderland" in front of the Bow Tower in Calgary. 

Even the back alleys in Singapore are clean and orderly. It is rumoured that the rats here are licensed. The tower in the background has the tallest rooftop bar in the world.

One of the food hawker centres that are spread around the city. This is where the working class folks eat, and it is possible to have a delicious bowl of food and a drink for about $5 Cdn. There is something for everybody- Chinese, Indian, Malay and Muslim halal.

The fact that Singapore is so comprehensively wired has rendered the commute home quite anti-social.

The subway system is amazing- spotlessly clean, safe, efficient and economical. Too bad we have no such thing in Calgary.

The shopping mall at the Marina Bay Sands was surreal- every luxury brand in the world is represented here, and often more than once. Bowen was still feeling quite ill, but we doped him up on medication and he was able to take in a lot of it. We had to see it as a phenomenon, but it was still just a mall- yech!

We had lunch at a dumpling restaurant in the mall that the New York Times had rated as one of the top five places to eat in the world. We are not too sure where else the writers at the NYT have been, but it was OK. This is certainly not how the same dumplings were prepared in Malaysia or Cambodia.

Bowen was excited to see the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in real life. It is an amazing structure, and Bowen was able to educate us on the manner of its construction after he had extensively researched it online.

The interior view of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Every room has an exterior view of either the inner harbour of the the straits, some with big balconies, and the entrance to the rooms is from these open walkways which allow a view down into the lobby. It was not cheap, and the hotel was quite well booked. 

From the Marina Bay Sands you can connect with the Botanical Gardens. This is the view of the gardens from the hotel. Most of the trees are real- can you pick out the ones that are man-made?

The three towers of the Marina Bay Sands, with a view of the underside of the roof-top gardens and pool.

Family shot overlooking the garden park. The "trees" in the background light up for a show twice each evening, and the largest of them on the right has a restaurant with, reportedly, expensive and sub-standard food. Shocking to hear of in this surreal paradise!

Album cover shot of the boys as we descend the escalator to the botanical gardens.

As you can tell, the Marina Bay Sands is very photogenic. The rooftop garden looks like a ship's hull, afloat on a sea of green.

Inside the "jungle"building of the botanical gardens. It was possible to climb up the interior of the mountain behind, which gave a great panoramic view of Singapore and the straits from the top.

Bowen was still feeling yucky, and had to take a break from touring the temperate gardens, which would have otherwise been of surpassing interest to him.

We never got to see any real Rafflesia flowers in Borneo, and so had to settle for these Lego versions in the botanical gardens.

Don't think we have to name that building for you. This was the view from the top of the jungle mountain.

We found a very hip and trendy roof-top bar overlooking the inner harbour to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. As you can see, we really dressed up for the event.

A neat juxtaposition of colonial and modern architecture. In the foreground are administrative and government buildings built by the British that line the harbour.

Anniversary treats, for about 80$ Cdn. Remy ate all six oysters, but only three of them worked (old joke).

Art shot of the Singapore skyline, with all the beautiful people from the nearby financial district who shared our roof-top patio.

Another artistic shot of many of Singapore's iconic structures. Liz has become a fantastic photographer over the course of our travels.

We are used to doing interesting things to spice up photos of tourist attractions, but this took the cake.

Bowen hamming it up with the Merlion. This is the symbol of Singapore.

A view of Singapore's financial district from the waterfront. The city captures the tropical evening light nicely.

The light show at the botanical gardens. Music was broadcast in conjunction with the lights- pretty cool!

Then we had to run across to the harbour for the light show there. Lasers were played on jets of water, set to music, which made for an amazing show. It was the 50th anniversary year of the creation of Singapore as an independent state, and the show had this theme. Pretty amazing what they have managed to create in that time. 

A Porsche, a Mercedes, and  McLaren- over a million dollars' worth of cars. Wonder what the rent is at those apartments.

We managed to make it onto the roof-top terrace of the Marina Bay Sands without paying- our idea of fun! The Botanical Gardens and the entrance to the harbour in the foreground. Some military aerobatics team was practicing over the straits, so we got a free air show as well.

Panorama from the roof-top terrace of the marina Bay Sands.

One of two roof-top restaurants at the Sands Hotel, with the pool in the background. The pool has an infinity edge on the side overlooking the harbour- freaky! 

Inside the Louis Vuitton store. This hammock, made of leather and with gold-plated fittings, would set you back about $38,000 Cdn. We ordered a his and hers set.

Still feeling ill and exhausted from walking all over Singapore, Bowen had a nap on the outdoor balcony of the Louis Vuitton store. Again, this is our idea of fun! We had the place to ourselves for well over an hour while we relaxed and listened to some very hip music.

Simply the nicest bathroom we encountered anywhere in South East Asia. Not surprisingly, this was at the Louis Vuitton store. You still had to wipe your own bum, though.
Singapore was a nice end to our journeys around South East Asia, but we had become used to the grit and economy of the region, so it was somewhat jarring to encounter the orderliness and cost of this place. It was a drag that Bowen, who had been so excited to see Singapore, was so ill for most of our stay. And, we have to admit, our minds had turned toward the return to Canada, and we had to keep reminding ourselves to enjoy our time here, as the trip and this reality was coming to an end. Next up was the arduous journey (well, not that arduous) to Vancouver via Beijing. Lots of time confined to aircraft seats with mindless entertainment and crappy sleep ahead. Travel is not easy.


Thursday, August 20, 2015


We felt that we could not really claim to have seen Indonesia without going to at least one island other than Bali. As the most populous Muslim nation on the planet, we knew we had to get off the country's only Hindu island to experience and form an opinion of Muslim Indonesia. The place we chose to do this was in Yogyakarta, on the island of Java. This ticked another box, as Remy and Liz are both big fans of coffee, and how could we not visit an island whose name is synonymous with the stuff?

Yogyakarta is known as the cultural capital of Indonesia, with a still-sitting sultan in a still-working palace who doubles as the region's governor. That was the draw that took us there. There was a definite change in feel between the beautiful, modern airport at Denpasar and the drab, rundown facility in Surakarta (AKA Solo) where we first arrived in Java. That continued on the cab ride to Yogyakarta - gone were the beautifully manicured rice terraces and elaborate architecture that we had become accustomed to in Bali, and we were back in South East Asia, with bad roads, pollution and rundown buildings.

We installed ourselves in a nice guest house whose proprietors had lived for a long time in Minnesota (he was an academic working at a university). We had a pool and a decent room, and the owner apologized for the fact that he had a couple of groups of national tourists staying there who would likely be making a lot of noise. After a year in this part of the world, we know how to live with the locals and assured him of such.

As much as we pined for the beauty of Bali, we still made a real tour of Yogyakarta, as the pictures below will show. We did a great bike tour through the nearby countryside, haggled a lot with becak operators, and managed to find some good food.

Our first stop on the bike tour. Believe it or not, this is a commercial kitchen! We are glad we don't eat the snacks produced here.

Examining a roadside fish farm, whose catfish will be fried up and served at a nearby restaurant soon.
Another view of the cassava chip factory we had to break and enter because it was a holiday. 

Here we are at the allergenic Indonesian farmers "bank". When a family gets ahead a little bit, they invest in a large animal (usually a cow) which they house at this cooperative farm and hope to be able to sell it at a profit to some rich city slicker as a sacrifice just before the beginning of ramadan. 

Bowen and our tour guide in the countryside. She was completely covered, not out of Muslim modesty but for Asian vanity - she was attempting to keep her skin as lightly coloured as possible. It must have been hot. 

Bowen and a young brahma. The animals are very well fed and cared for, getting regular baths at the well or in the nearby irrigation canal.

Trucking through a small village. Liz had one of the more modern bikes in our group.

Checking out the rice husks. Like the Inuits and snow, South East Asians have four different names for rice depending on what stage of processing it is at. 

The family that cycles together, has sore butts together! We are now a group of paddie whackers.

It was nice to be out of the hustle and bustle of Yogya (as it is known to the locals) and to see village life.

We stopped in at a rice threshing bee and all took turns separating the rice seeds from the stalks. 

Here is a good view of the threshing machine, which is homemade from a couple of bike parts and some long spikes. We were painfully slow at this compared to the women in the photo. It was a bit scary, since if you lost your balance while pedalling the machine with one leg it was possible to pitch forward onto the whirling spike drum that you see in the foreground. That being said, we had seen other people threshing completely by hand, whacking small bundles of rice stalks against a small pallet stood on edge. This terrifying machine speeds up the process greatly.

We stopped for some snacks at a roadside loafing shelter, which gave us an opportunity to ask our guide about her life as a young woman living in Indonesia. The sweet rice snacks were delicious.

We said, "Flock it!" and stopped to visit with some sheep.

It was livestock washing day, and here some of the locals have their pride and joy in the irrigation canal for a good scrub. Yes, the same canal that provides water to grow crops. You definitely come out of South East Asia with a robust immune system, if you do make it out.

We stopped at a brick factory. This fellow makes mud bricks by hand, about five hundred per day. Once they are fired, that many bricks will earn him about $30. It is hard work, but he makes it look easy.

Liz and our guide getting their hands dirty.

We got to mark the bricks we made, which actually serves a practical purpose. The grooves in the bricks help the mortar cement the bricks together when they are piled to build a wall. The middle row of bricks were made by the Dutch couple that came on the tour with us.

Another commercial kitchen we visited, where they were making tempeh. The woman that ran this kitchen had won awards for her cooking, and had trophies on the shelf to prove it.

A welcome surprise - they served us cendol, which only Remy could really enjoy. Everyone else was turned off by the colour, and the slimy, worm-like texture of the rice noodles.

This is the assembly line where small portions of cooked and stomped soy beans are folded into banana leaf packets. Naturally occurring yeasts ferment the beans inside the packages, which creates tempeh. Like many other "simple" foods of South East Asia (rice included), tempeh takes a phenomenal amount of labour to get it to an edible state. Bowen would argue that it still is not edible.

It is monotonous, back-breaking work, but someone has to do it.

Our tour group in the tempeh kitchen, making our best Asian photo.

A more natural image of our bike tour group.

Here we are making our best Western photo.

We're not sure who is guarding whom, but both are about equally effective.

When you need a licence plate for your scooter, you go to this guy and tell him what letters and numbers you need. He goes out back of this booth, hammers them into a piece of aluminum by hand, then paints them. He made a series of vanity plates for us that we used for gifts and to memorialize our trip.

There was a street fair in front of our guest house the day before we left. This is a traditional dance group from elsewhere on the island, a member of which became possessed by a visiting god and had to be restrained by some of the street marshals. This was not very Muslim, and our guest house owner let us know how he disapproved of this.

This is considered to be a very macho form of dress, but Remy thinks it makes them look pretty. The pointy Spock ears are a sign of wisdom.

The training shoes don't go well with the rest of the ensemble.

While other businesses had stages with gaudy fashion shows or bad rock and roll cover bands singing at top volume for the street festival, our favourite restaurant had this totally charming, traditional duet singing for us during dinner. 

Our hosts were open to suggestions about how to make the stay for Westerners more comfortable, and Liz suggested a book swap. Within hours, they had this bookshelf installed in the common area, seeded with a few novels and a number of academic texts. It was a very nice gesture, and Liz has left  her mark on Yogyakarta.

Waiting to catch our 7:00 AM flight at the Yogya airport. Bowen was becoming very ill at this time,  and would only get worse in Singapore. Bummer!

After a week in Yogya, we had accomplished our aim of developing a bit of a fe el for other parts of Indonesia as a counterpoint to our experience in Bali. We know that with 1,700 islands and 350 million people, with thousands of dialects and their associated cultures, the rest of Indonesia is different from this one little area of Java, but we feel we have earned the right to sew that Indonesia patch onto our packs. It provided us with one final, small dose of the grittiness and economical living that characterizes South East Asia as a send off before we begin our Western inoculation in Singapore.