Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Concrete Tropics: Singapore, Bangkok and Saigon

Hold it right there, pardner. You've got some things to do before you read any further! Go to your bathroom, turn the heat on full blast, run the shower as hot as it goes, and wait 'til you reach the point where you can't see yourself in the mirror and you sweat just reading a newspaper. No fair going to the political news to jumpstart the sweating. You're there? OK friend, you're now in the correct meteorologic state to bring in the laptop and continue reading.

It was odd going from the northern hemisphere to NZ and Australia, where summer begins with Christmas. Down there, at least it ends, usually around Easter. In the tropics, you're trapped like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, perpetually repeating the hottest day of summer you've ever spent in Tokyo, Houston or Washington DC. Try as you will, you can never escape the heat and humidity, at least not at sea level. And cruise ships are kind of stuck there, aren't they?

But armed with the reassurance of air conditioning and laundry facilities on our cruise ship at the end of the day, we sauntered off to explore some of the great cities of southeast Asia.
Our first stop was Singapore. Despite the mystique that has grown about this place and Raffles Hotel, it's a fairly new city, founded by Sir Stamford Raffles less than 200 years ago. It is a tiny little city-state, about three times the size of Liechtenstein, about one-fourth the size of Luxembourg, but with half the population of New York City. It has four official languages: Malay, English, Tamil and Chinese. Although most Chinese-Singaporeans come from Cantonese or Hokkienese-speaking ancestors, the government has succeeded in making Mandarin the preferred form of Chinese for a large majority of the Chinese speakers, for obvious trade and diplomatic reasons.

We started our exploration with a ride on the very modern subway to Indiatown, where we walked past one of Singapore's many Hindu temples. As we continued, two architectural styles dominated. The newer one was high-rise apartments with these interesting poles for clothes-drying.
With a population of 4 1/2 million, about the same as NZ's in 1/400th the land area, you can imagine how many high rise apartments there are. Indeed, you are never out of sight of them.

Far more interesting were the "shophouses." These are two- or three-story buildings with shops on the ground floor and housing upstairs, usually with two windows and a "door" with louvres to bring in the breezes. The architectural flourishes and colors were stunning.

Adding to the charm were the arcades at the ground level. On Arab Street, a famous shopping area, fabric stores, tailors and clothing stores lived in symbiotic sharing of some of the most luscious fabrics you can imagine.

We enjoyed a wonderful lunch in a byway near another subway stop, but not the home of the culinary delights advertised on this sign. We also passed on the love hotel, despite the quite attractive rates. At last we came to the most gorgeous shophouses of the day before heading back to the subway for a ride to the center of town and a walk along the Singapore River.

A mile beyond and we were in Chinatown, home of the Buddha's Tooth (yes, that Buddha's tooth) Temple. Didn't see any dental relics, but as we entered we followed a double line of chanting worshippers in and stood transfixed by the mellifluous litany. It reminded Jeff of a Good Friday service he once went to in an Italian parish in Little Italy in New York, where ancient men and women went almost into a swoon with their medieval plainchants.

No visit to Singapore is complete without some in loco parentis admonishment from the government. We hadn't actually thought about violating the first such sign, but you know, it's sort of like a sign saying "Don't Think About Sex!" What do you think about for the next ten minutes . . . ? Well, look for a loo, thank you very much!

We didn't see any signs telling us how to get a caning from the government like Michael P. Fay notoriously received 15 years ago, but they did advertise some fines for various aberrant behaviors
that were fairly stiff even after you multiply by 2/3 to go from Singapore dollars to US dollars. Much friendlier were these subway signs humorously trying to increase subway civility. Believe us, we were very polite in Singapore!


Our next stop was Kemaman Malaysia, but the port is little more than a place for Malaysia to ship crude oil from.
Our ship provided a free shuttle to a nearby town which was surprisingly modern, including a small indoor shopping mall where our friend Lucy got her picture taken with a welcoming committee, but with little else to see in town we spent almost the whole day in an internet cafe catching up on email, reviewing bank accounts and credit card bills, and finishing the blog entry for Indonesia. In two years of having to use public computers for such tasks, we had only one problem with misuse of one of our credit card numbers, and it's by no means certain that the breach occurred due to public computer use. Since that problem was quickly resolved without an identity meltdown, we simply closed that card out and continued with other credit cards.

Then came Bangkok, or more precisely Laem Chabang, as far up the Chao Phraya River that our large ship could proceed. From there it was into a bus for a 2-hour drive to downtown Bangkok.

In the 20 years since Louise was last there the Thais have built a toll highway for all but the first third of our route, saving two or three hours from what it would have been otherwise in Thailand's notoriously bad traffic. Thailand is a nation of 63 million, about 5% larger both in size and in population than France, but our visit was limited to that narrow slice of the country, albeit one with over 10% of the country's population.

For only the third (and final) time, we took a shore excursion through Holland America, since this one appeared to be worth the cost in money and regimentation. We were not disappointed. Our first stop was Chinatown with its busy main street and busier side streets.

We hopped off the bus for a colorful and aromatic walk past flower stalls, vegetable and fruit stands with items even Seattle's incredible Uwajimaya Supermarket doesn't carry, and a cafe that would drive a food-lover to distraction and a health inspector to apoplexy.

Next was the Reclining Buddha Temple. Our guide first took us past these impressive statues that came from China as ballast, and we wandered past a few others that made up for shorter statures with greater flamboyance or a crowd of clones. No one does temple spires quite like the Thais, and it was hard not filling up the memory chip on the camera with photos of them.

Of course, the big attraction was the Big Guy himself, and is he BIG! Bet you never thought about his toes before, eh?

Having whetted our appetites earlier at that market, they finally bussed us to a hotel for the finest Thai food either of us have ever had, and that's really saying something since Jeff has a sort of built-in radar detector for Thai restaurants and Louise is always a willing accomplice. Sorry, we were too busy eating and rubbing our tummies to take pictures, and a picture in any event may be worth a thousand words but it's not worth even one bite of food that tasty.

We had seen a number of Bangkok's famous three-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks for the sound they make, but did not get to try one. Instead, we headed to the river for the even more famous transportation mode of floating through the klongs, or waterways. It was a mix of 19th and 20th centuries, temples and riverside homes of modest means.

It was a far cry from what Louise remembered from her long-ago trips to Bangkok, however, as the city has modernised and vendors selling goods from canoes have become almost as rare as this lone figure we put-putted by.
Our favorite house was this one, nearly overwhelmed by their "yacht" the way a place in Fort Lauderdale was when we saw it a year ago, albeit on a Bernie Madoff scale in the Floridian case.

But Bangkok is half a world away from Fort Lauderdale in more ways than one. It's hard not to notice and be moved by sights such as the windowless, breezeless homes in the foreground of this photo. At least they are becoming somewhat less common as Thailand has begun a slow climb to greater prosperity in recent years. Lets hope the current world economic downturn doesn't knock it off that path for long.

With our trip to Bangkok we reached the westernmost extent of our two-year journey, 101° E longitude, a full 188° from our easternmost bike ride through Kennebunkport Maine. We crossed north across the equator the night before landing in Singapore, but remain in the tropics until Hong Kong. So our next stop in Viet Nam is once again quite warm and muggy. Also once again, our ship could only get within 2 hours driving time of Saigon, the port of Phu My. From the top deck of the Volendam we looked westward and could see nothing but jungle, forever.
Our bus ride down the east bank of the river was on a fast highway past an endless collection of small cafes and stores such as this small bike shop and rather larger motorcycle shop, with occasional glimpses of farm life such as this fellow out plowing his field with his water buffaloes.
As we approached Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as maps and government officials (but not real people) call it, the road morphed into a toll road. A toll road! In Viet Nam -- the country tens of thousands of American soldiers died in to keep it from turning away from capitalism to the evils of Communism! It was the first of many ironies to be dealt with this day.

Our bus dropped us off at the Rex Hotel, site of what our older readers may recall as the "Five O'Clock Follies," the cynical name the press gave to their daily news briefing by the US military during the Vietnam War. Across the street was Bac Ho, "Uncle Ho" himself.

There are a few remnants of French colonialism such as this splendid Post Office Building, but you won't find a trace of the American Embassy. The US tore it down and built a new one when relations were normalized and an ambassador was sent for the first time to the now-unified nation of Viet Nam.

Despite its size (6 1/2 million) and history, Saigon did not offer a lot of tourist sights. However we did find some temples to admire, including one dedicated to seafarers that was extremely popular with "boat people" before they took off in the '70s and '80s to escape from Viet Nam. The carving above the entrance was quite special, and the courtyard a misty realm of incense burning from common incense sticks and also from these spirals of incense that burn upwards as they release their powerful aromas.

The overburdened electrical system was another point of interest, perhaps a sign of rapid economic progress and hopefully not of imminent technological collapse. But the things we will most remember about our visit to Saigon were bicycles, motorcycles, and traffic. Bicycles fill an ecological niche occupied by gasoline-burners in our ecology, as some of these photos show. And when the going gets a bit big for a pedal bike, a motorbike will do just fine.
This motorized trike puts a whole new spin on the concept of "bicycle delivery."

And oh, the traffic. There seem to be as many motorbikes as people -- here's a whole parking lot of them, and they treat traffic signals and center lines as optional safety features. We took a taxi ride in a frenzied free-for-all of 4-, 3- and 2-wheeled vehicles for a few miles of the downtown area, and now know why there's no Saigon Disneyland -- Space Mountain would be far too tame by comparison.

The old ways of carrying goods as in this last photo may be almost extinct, but not nearly as much as the classic command economy of communism. Viet Nam may be a communist state in politics, but it has a vibrant entrepreneurial capitalist soul. Just before the bus came to pick us up, Jeff took off for a 15-minute walk by himself. He had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon tried to put his life on the line fighting against the folks who now run this place in ways that even Messrs. Dow and Jones would approve of. Here he was, walking alone down streets that characters trod in great danger in Graham Greene's The Quiet American and Lederer and Burdick's The Ugly American. Past places that far too many young men born around the same time as him cannot now see because they are no longer with us. It's sad, but perhaps it can give us hope that the young people of today will live to walk through places like Iraq, Iran and North Korea some day, and have similar thoughts.

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