Slinging around Singapore

Singapore is a city unlike most others; it’s clean, there are no traffic jams and everything runs on time. There is simple reason how this can be so in a city of almost 4.5 million: the government. Singaporean authorities garner great authority here and their influence on the urban population is obvious. Littering, drug trafficking and yes, the ban against chewing gum are all heavily enforced. I even felt a heightened awareness of my behavior, willing myself not to jaywalk (or risk a fine of S$50) despite all of my NYC instincts honed to do just the opposite.

The city is so orderly in fact, that it lacks the authenticity that so many other capitals have earned with grit and character. Singapore feels more like an amusement park-version of a city, where a dedicated staff attends to each discarded piece of garbage and trims any untidy bush. It also lacks its own indigenous culture, taking a page each from China, Malaysia and India to make up it’s ethnic landscape.

That being said, there is no denying Singapore’s beauty. The architecture is stunning, the river peaceful and the greenery lush. People are clean-cut and educated. There are no beggars or buskers. The transportation is perfection and lacks the usual traffic-jam anxiety. World-class shops line Orchard Road where Singaporeans and visitors alike can burn up a pay check in one session. Or for the more frugal shoppers, there is Bugis Street market, a former haven for prostitutes and transvestites, but that now boasts the largest street shopping in Singapore. It’s a bit lame coming from Thailand, but the hundreds of stalls filled with cheap clothing and tacky knick-knacks are bound to thrill some.

The luxurious colonial-style Raffles Hotel was the best of my experiences in Singapore. A trip to the Long Bar to have a Singapore Sling where it was first concocted is a trip back in time. The barmen are traditional in white jackets, the bar looks well worn and weathered, and patrons still throw peanut shells on the bar floor. And the “Sling” you ask? Best I’ve ever had.

(Is my recommendation less convincing since it also happens to be my first?)

Music by DeVotchKa.

Butterflies, bees and lots o’ tea

Craving a respite from the heat and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, I took a five-hour bus ride northeast to the Cameron Highlands, a small cluster of towns in the hills where relaxation and a taste of nature are the only things on the agenda.

I stayed in a small town called Tanah Rata, the most popular of the highlands towns for tourists. It is a one-road town with a couple of restaurants, shops and an internet cafe. Oh, and a Starbucks of course, massively out of place in this simple area. The people here, as in Thailand, are very friendly. My tour guide, knowing I had spent a birthday dinner alone, took me out to eat Malay and even produced a lovely slice of birthday cake with a candle. I spent that evening sipping beers and swapping travel stories around a campfire with a group of international travelers. The group was eccelectic, the conversation hysterical and the laughter fueled by German brew.

As it is my first time traveling alone and being quite an independent person, I didn’t expect to meet as many people as I have. These friendly folks have welcomed me into fantastic conversation and in some cases provided me some much needed help. There was the English dive instructor Thomas who has been living in southern Thailand and has a Leeds accent so thick in some instances that whole sentences of his were indiscernible. There was the gay Philippine boy, whose laughter was so infectious it would set the whole group rolling. And then there was the couple from Portugal on their honeymoon, who upon arriving in Singapore, piled me into their van and gave me some money to get to my hotel as there were no ATMs to be found.

Now in Singapore, I’m looking forward to another few days of adventure and realaxation before getting back to the real world. Except my version of the real world now is Bangkok, which is still a vast urban expanse of new experiences and possible new friends. Boy … tough life.

Music by Pascal Rogé.

Kuala Lumpur: Small and steamy

After a few days spent meandering down Kuala Lumpur’s cracked (or non-existent) sidewalks and taking in the sites recommended by my Lonely Planet guidebook (can I get a cut for free advertising?), I feel I finally have a pulse on this city. In the initial hours, it was hard to put my finger on why I didn’t like it here, why there was something strange and uncomfortable about it (aside from the suffocating heat).

The city itself feels like the shell of a formerly bustling city that has been abandoned. There is life in the streets; an impressive array of cultures and religions all trying to navigate the narrow, cracked sidewalks. But this life only seems to exist in the intense heat and sun of KL; the buildings are run-down and could easily be vacant. There never seems be life or light in these hulking and dull structures.

From far away, buildings, gardens and landmarks all look impressive. The Tudor influence at the Royal Selangor Club or the rainbow-colored flowers that rim a fountain look elegant and tidy from a distance, but close up they are dilapidated and graying. The one bastion of modernization and beauty here are the Petronas Towers. It is undoubtedly an example of the modern “bigger is better” theory of urban development (up until recently it was the tallest building in the world), but in a city that lacks excitement and 21st century flair, it is a welcome sign of Kuala Lumpur’s efforts to modernize it’s relatively young city.

Malaysia is a Muslim country and as such the influence of the religion is seen in all facets of life here. Aside from the onion-shaped domes and tall minarets of mosques throughout the city, you see the Islamic influence in the traditional dress of women and the male-dominated societal structure. Wearing typical garb for a day walking around under the abusive heat of the sun, I felt as if I was disobeying all Muslim rules of decency in my sleveless sundress. I might as well have been naked or wearing a sandwich board offering free massages for all of the strange looks I got. Though Muslims dominate here, ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian influences are also pervasive.

I am finding though that after a few days here I am quite ready to move on and see the countryside of Malaysia. I have devoutly followed the guidance of the good folks at LP (that’s another $100 right there) and am not overly impressed with KL’s tourist attractions.

I was encouraged by the guidebook, however, to go to a shopping mall (who am I to argue with the experts?) and had an almost religious experience. There was nothing special about this mall; lots of high-end shops, an elegant design, air conditioning. But looking at the various levels from the balcony, my eye caught a familiar blue sign with three letters. GAP. I was drawn to it’s open glass doors and stacks of jeans like a moth to a flame. This pillar of classic American fashion was exactly what I needed to pretend for 10 minutes that I wasn’t in Asia and that I was in fact on 23rd St. in NYC. I was also able to try on racks of dresses in my actual size without reliving junior high school nightmares of the short pants and tight tops favored by peers who could shop in the kids section.

Music by The “Fadzil Ahmad” Ensemble.

Service… with a pit stop

After weeks of excitement, planning and counting the days, I arrived in Malaysia for the start of a 10 day trip that includes Kuala Lumpur, the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia and Singapore.

Today was not supposed to include much excitement; go to work, fly to Kuala Lumpur, go to bed. But traveling to a new country inevitably includes hurdles you don’t expect. The routine is simple: arrive at airport, get in taxi, sit back, stop for gas. Wait, what?!

After a few miles on the highway, the taxi driver _ who seemed to have trouble focusing, was missing a few teeth and couldn’t get the car above 50 _ started to slow down. Being the untrusting New Yorker that I am, visions of me being hog-tied, stabbed and left for dead in some remote Malaysian overgrowth rushed through my head. Instead, the driver pulled into a gas station to fill up. It took me a good 20 minutes to wipe the incredulous look off of my face (complete with open-mouth, squinty eyes and raised eyebrows).

Thankfully he found his glasses that had somehow ended up near the pedals before getting back on the road. I then happened to notice that the gas gauge still said it had a quarter of a tank left. That the driver was “feeling it out” didn’t instill much confidence. Neither did his jerking of the steering wheel reminiscent of someone dozing off or his preference for the middle of the two-lane highway.

My knuckles have since regained their healthy pink and waiting for me on the other end of the trip was a lavish hotel suite with incredible views of the Petronas Twin Towers. Altogether a perfect place to recover from carsickness. And the room service doesn’t hurt either.

Sunset view from the airplane window

Sunset view from the airplane window

Funny thing about Thailand … T&A

Most people are well aware of the pervasiveness of the sex industry in Thailand, but it’s usually something that stays conveniently out of view unless you choose to see it.

This is not the case at a cute little Vietnamese restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 23. Order a cocktail and it comes in a high-ball glass. Order a beer…

I did my best to embarrass Sarah, who was already mortified, by laughing loudly and taking pictures. Then I ordered a beer for myself, but made sure to ask for a regular glass. The waiter then said, “ahh, no sexy glass.” That’s right. It’s got a nice butt, but it doesn’t need to hold my beer.

Wat about faith in Bangkok?

Daily displays of faith in Bangkok are routine. From offerings given at spirit houses, to monks waiting for a bus, to even letting someone grab the cab you were eyeing all for the sake of the Buddhist concept of merit-making, Thais are devout.

Visiting a Thai temple, or wat, is a must in this predominantly Buddhist country. There are hundreds to chose from throughout the city and they are easy to spot; the elegantly adorned facades glint in the sun and its gold, pointed spires punch up towards the sky. Most of these structures look the same, but the subtle differences in color and decor render each structure unique.

Monks in construction-orange robes meander around the temple and have separate quarters on the grounds where they reside and study. Technically a Buddhist temple cannot be called a ‘wat’ unless at least three monks live on the premises.

Pictures alone don’t do justice to the intricacies in the color, texture and design of these wats, so I’m taking you inside to see just how the Thais praise Buddha and give you a taste of faith on the flip side.

Apologies for the lack of posts this week. I was laid low with a cold but am now fully recovered.