Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Singapore has a strange combination. It's not a very open society, meaning freedom of speech and of the press are restricted, and the government is quite controlling. The political scene is not very pluralistic, as the same party has ruled since the founding of the country. However, Singapore is also one of the least corrupt countries in the world. It is very wealthy, highly developed, and has a great infrastructure. Almost all citizens enjoy a high standard of living. These characteristics don't often come together.

People describe the government as having a master plan. Since the 1960s, the government has tried to "engineer" society. It has, for the most part, been very successful. Not many other countries have leaped from third world to first world status in a few decades - and Singapore is not only "first world," but its living conditions are among the best. Unemployment is at a low 2%, nearly all residents have affordable housing, and business, especially foreign business, is thriving. Despite the population density, the city is immaculately clean, there are nice parks, and pollution levels are low. Crime rates are extremely low.

Of course, a few factors have been in Singapore's favor. The government only had to plan out a country the size of a large city, rather than a huge landmass. Smaller means easier to keep tabs on and control. Also, since Singapore had been under British control, English became the official language, and that always is helpful in terms of business development and innovation.

I think of the government as authoritarian but benevolent. It has a lot of power, but this hasn't corrupted the leaders. The leaders want to improve the country and satisfy the citizens. They realize that this is the best way to perpetuate their power. The plan has worked - you can hear people now and then mumbling and grumbling about the power of the party, but no one ever does anything. Everyone is too content with their lives to risk disrupting the equilibrium. If you have housing, a stable job, and good schools for your kids, there isn't much incentive to try to change the political scene. How would a change of government benefit you?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Best Moments of Summer 2011

Eating my first delicious banh mi sandwich upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was from a roadside vendor and cost 50 cents. The lady took fresh-baked french baguettes, sliced them open, and slathered them with a special mixture of sauces and pickled vegetables. She then quickly fried up a few eggs in a sizzling hot pan before slipping them into the sandwich. The best of roadside food, period.


Swimming in the infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands, the iconic 55 floor resort/casino/hotel in Singapore. The view of the cityscape in the light of the setting sun was breathtaking. The cool water contrasted perfectly with the blazing rays of the near-equatorial sun. Fun fact: did you know that in terms of revenue from gambling, Singapore has surpassed Las Vegas? It is number two in the world, only behind Macao. I had no idea.


Witnessing a beautiful wedding in the oldest cathedral in Manila, the San Agustin Cathedral. Here all the guests are turned around to view the procession of the bridal party, and later the bride. Everything, from the music, decor, outfits, as well as the cathedral itself, was breathtaking. We were just touring the building and stumbled across a balcony in the back from which we could view the ceremony. I must have stood by the railing for a good twenty minutes, watching the procession and waiting for the entrance of the bride.


Exploring the Monkey Forest in Ubud, the geographical and cultural heart of Bali, Indonesia. This lush forest was crawling with free roaming monkeys of all ages. There were little babies with their mothers as well as wizened old geezers. They warn you not to get too close to the animals and not to bring in any food, for good reason! These monkeys aren’t trained or domesticated. Despite their cute appearances, they are not afraid to attack you and your possessions!


Walking along Jonker Walk, a winding street full of food vendors, boutique shops, and souvenir places, in the historic center of Malacca, Malaysia. This place was so festive that we had to come back three times! We strolled slowly along the street, stopping and buying cheap night snacks whenever they looked appealing, and browsing all the wares in the cute little shops. The boutiques sold everything from unique clothing to local traditional foods to handmade jewelry. There was also a huge outdoor stage where old people sang Chinese karaoke in front of an eager crowd.


Boat ride in Bangkok, Thailand. The small boat was just big enough for our group of travelers. We rode along the main river, taking in the city, before turning into networks of small canals that led us past neighborhoods of houses standing on sticks and platforms. Bangkok is known as the Venice of Asia, if I recall correctly. The driver took us to temples and pagodas, as well as a wonderful floating market, before dropping us of at our final destination, the Grand Palace..


Watching the sunrise in Desaru, Malaysia. We dragged ourselves out of bed at six in the morning, in the dark, and wandered down to the beach, sleepy eyes trying to locate the first rays of day. Sure enough, the sun appeared, with its blinding rays. After we were sure that the sunrise was indeed over, we promptly settled onto beach chairs and took a nap until midday.


Of course, there are many other moments that I will always treasure, as well as some that I may have sadly forgotten already, but these were a few that stuck out to me. I met so many people, saw so many places, and learned a lot about the world around me, as well as about myself. One thing is for sure: I could not have asked for a better summer.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Malaysia, Take Two

For my last weekend in Southeast Asia, we decided to make another trip to Malaysia, exploring other parts of the country. Unlike our first trip, we took a bus from Singapore to our first stop, Malacca, the UNESCO World Heritage Site. There's a lot of history to this small town - it was a Dutch as well as Portuguese settlement, and Cheng Ho, the famous Chinese explorer, visited it. The ride from Singapore was about 5 hours and it was nighttime when we rolled into the sleepy little town.

The area is predominantly Muslim, which explains why so many businesses and restaurants were closed, due to the Ramadan holiday. We wandered around the town for a bit before we found dinner at a busy little Chinese vegetarian place. Along with the requisite veggies, we ordered a spicy mapo tofu and a mutton curry. The mutton was made out of some type of vegetable protein product and it was delicious! All of the dishes were quite spicy.

The next morning, we woke up early to explore the historic city center, where the museums, ruins, and churches are located.

Malacca is famous for a dish called Chicken Rice Balls. This is a spin-off of the Hainanese Chicken Rice, a Singaporean national dish. The Malaysian version is a little anti-climatic: the only difference is that the rice is rolled into balls instead of being served under the chicken pieces. The rice is really tasty because it is cooked in the chicken fat. According to the owner of a nearby smoothie place, we should have gotten the chicken rice balls from the actual restaurant instead of the street vendor, which only sells an "imitation." Oh well, I still enjoyed it, along with a fresh carrot juice from the smoothie maker!

The city streets were lined with souvenir shops, small boutiques, temples, hostels and inns, and galleries of local artists. It was a touristy scene that somehow managed to retain a genuine cultural element.

We explored an old fort in the area. It must have been more intimidating in the olden days, without the tacky playground equipment and tourists lugging around giant cameras. There were also a ton of little museums with really random themes, such as the Museum for Democratic Governance, the Museum of Eternal Beauty, the Museum of Education, the Museum of Literature, and more. To be honest, the displays were a bit tacky and seemed forced.

I also had the experience of attending a Sunday church service at the Christ Church of Malacca. There was a really friendly and diverse crowd at the English service.

The smoothie place owner had mentioned that chicken satays are pretty famous in the area, so of course we had to try the dish. Basically it's chicken that is grilled on skewers and served with a spicy peanut sauce.

There is another fun activity in Malacca - riding these tacky rigshaws! They are brightly lit with Christmas lights and blare loud pop music. The driver will take you anywhere you need to go, and you agree on a price beforehand. I knew we had to have the experience as soon as I saw these wonderfully hideous things. On the second night, we rode one back to the hotel. It was quite an experience, weaving through heavy traffic and honking at nearby pedestrians.

On the third day we headed out to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. The bus ride took about 2 hours. We stayed in a nice little place called the Chinatown Boutique in the heart of Chinatown. Basically our whole trip revolved around shopping and eating, which was perfectly fine by me. Therefore, I don't have too many interesting photos.

For our first meal there, we ate at a hawker center in Chinatown. There was one vendor who sold various dishes by the "scoop:" one modest scoop of a dish was 1 ringgit, or about 30 cents. I picked out some broccoli, pumpkin, salted duck egg, and braised soy sauce egg. It was pretty good.

Our lone "cultural" activity in KL was visiting the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, a large Hindu temple. The architecture was very nice, but there was nothing too remarkable about the place.

We almost missed the plane heading back to Singapore because A) we were unaware that the airport is really far outside of the city, B) our taxi was very old and therefore drove extremely slowly, and C) we found out that our flight was leaving from another terminal that was located 20 minutes away from the main airport. Needless to say, it was an extremely stressful morning. But we made it safe and sound back to Singapore, and that same night I said goodbye to Southeast Asia and flew back to the U.S.

What a summer!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Beautiful Bali

The beautiful open landscape of Bali, with its beaches, cliffs, and rice terraces was a tremendous contrast to the hectic cities I have traveled to so far on this trip.

Two things stood out to me on this trip: the slow pace of life on Bali as well as how the tourism industry has completed transformed and taken over the society.

Perhaps it is ingrained in the spiritual culture of the island, but the pace of Bali was extremely laid-back and relaxing. We joked about "Bali time" and "Bali distance." When people told us a time, we could always expect them to be at least fifteen minutes late. When people told us a distance, we could always expect it to be at least ten times further away. Therefore, life on the island is extremely unrushed, and there is the ability to simply enjoy the moment.

The city where we stayed, Kuta, is the backpacker and tourist district of Bali - I shouldn't have been surprised at total domination of the tourist industry. Every single business, whether it be a spa, yoga studio, surf shop, restaurant, hotel, bar, boutique, is catered specifically for overseas travellers. Every Balinese local that I met was working in the tourism industry, whether as a driver, vendor, service worker, or hotel manager. Though these developments have brought a lot of profits and have created jobs in the area, I wonder how much authenticity is left.

We stayed at Fat Yogis Cottages on Poppies I, a narrow street that runs perpendicular to the beach. It was a pretty decent budget option - clean and very simple. For 3 people, it was about $50 a night. The location is about a 5-10 minute walk to the beach.

Complimentary breakfast was provided every morning. We ordered toast with jam, poached eggs, fresh fruit, and coffee.

There is a great tranquil atmosphere outside in the courtyard, with a pool and lounge chairs.

On the first day we hired a private driver to take us around. This is a really good option because it costs about $40 and the driver will take you wherever you want to go for the whole day. We went to Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali. Our first stop was the Monkey Forest. Here, hundreds of monkeys roam around freely. You can interact with them at your own risk.

Some of them were very mischievious and tried to steal people's water bottles. Others were quite zen, like this old fellow below.

We went to lunch in a very cute cafe called Warung Lada. "Warung" is what they call any type of family business. This place serves traditional Indonesian food at very reasonable prices. Each dish is usually under $5. I ordered the gado gado, which is a plate of various items dipped in peanut sauce.

Right outside Ubud are these lush green rice terraces. They are a huge tourist attraction, despite how commonplace and everyday they must seem to the Balinese.

We made it to Tanah Lot for the sunset. Tanah Lot is on the west coast of Bali. It is a temple out in the sea, and another huge draw for tourists. We had to walk through a maze of vendors before reaching the shore. There was even an officially licensed store selling Crocs shoes.

Tanah Lot is a Hindu Temple (Bali is mostly Hindu, as opposed to the rest of Indonesia which is predominantly Muslim). Not being Hindu, we couldn't go onto the temple itself, but at least I got to take photos from the ground!

The next morning I tried something new - Surfing!

There are a lot of surf shops and surf schools that offer full day lessons, but if you just want to "test out the waters," the best and cheapest way to learn is to go to the beach. There are tons of surfer dudes lined up with their surfboards propped up along the beach. They will each offer to teach you how to surf and name a rate. We passed by three different people until we reached a guy who would give us a 3o min. lesson for about 50,000 rupiah ($6). Bonus - he said the lesson would be free if we couldn't stand up on the board by the end of it.

So I didn't get a free lesson!

For lunch we went to this restaurant by the beach. I got this salmon salad. Not sure if the salmon was fresh, but it was still really delicious. Here I tried experimenting with the macro setting on my camera.

In the afternoon we went back to the beach and were surprised at how much the tides had receded. There were huge expanses of sand that went out maybe 100 meters out into the sea. People were playing soccer on the wet sand and kids were building sandcastles.

There was so much left to see, but I'm glad we didn't try to squeeze tons of activities into our limited time. I'm already looking forward to my next trip here.