Malay Peninsula 4: Where did my comfort zone go?

I’ve been enjoying traveling for many years, and had fallen into the silly habit of thinking that I was seasoned, unflappable and able to roll with any punches. Malaysia (and for that matter Thailand) made me totally rethink this. Even though I’ve gotten comfortable with unique and often unidentifiable food, sleeping on the floor, carrying my own TP, using a hole in the ground for a toilet, hardly speaking the local language, and navigating some of the most complex public transit systems on the planet, it turns out this crazy world can still transport me right outside my comfort zone on a whim.


Bus to Malaysia

Buying a bus tickets in SE Asia was a new experience. It seems that even in fancy first-world Singapore, bus terminals are an agglomeration of travel companies, bus companies and booking companies. There are a myriad of ticket windows and you just find one you like that is going where you want and they book your bus ticket for you. I filled in some paperwork and was told to return to the window a few minutes before the bus left to collect my ticket. Fortunately, the bus terminal is attached to a shopping mall, and I was able to kill the time inside. When I got my ticket, it was a combination of printed, handwritten, and confusing. Then I was pointed in a direction and told to go to the end of the block and the bus is this color (pointing to a picture). There is no “boarding” area to speak of; there were a couple buses on the street and none were labeled, nor did any seem to match the color I’d been shown. Finally, I succumbed to asking and it turned out that the handwritten scribble on my “ticket” was the ID of the bus (this tidbit makes all subsequent bus travel a little bit easier). Thus I became one of 6 passengers on a very lux bus to Kuala Lumpur.

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The rest is mostly a boring story of how I slept on the bus. Points of minor interest include that the bus company forgot to charge me at the ticket counter, then called the driver later to ask if I could give him the ticket fare instead; the crossing over from Singapore immigration took FOREVER because every single busload of humans was going at the same time and there were like 5 clerks working veeeery slooooowly (seriously, like an hour of the bus creeping forward by millimeters to get to the drop off, then another hour of standing in line to get an exit stamp) The native Malaysians on my bus were furious and said the whole thing should usually take less than 15 minutes; and lastly, getting Malaysian sim cards is super cheap and easy. I got one at the first rest stop we pulled into and had all the data I needed.

KL

Because of the immigration delay, my anticipated 8pm arrival became a 10:30pm arrival. Since the bus terminal was a bit outside of town, I called for an Uber to come and get me. I used Uber in Singapore with great success, but Malaysia seems to still be learning the ropes. I went to the taxi stand/car pick up area of the bus terminal to wait and watched on the Uber map as my driver went around the overpasses in circles a few times. I couldn’t really imagine why he thought I’d be waiting on an overpass with no pedestrian access, but after a good 30 minutes, he finally made it down to the taxi area. The main frustration with Uber at this point is that even if your driver is lost, you’ll still be charged for cancelling a ride, no matter how long you’ve been waiting. You can appeal for a refund, but it’s annoying. Part of me wanted to just jump in a taxi, but I held out for the Uber because the fare in the end was drastically cheaper.

My driver had only been working for Uber for one week and had no idea how to navigate KL or how to use his GPS. As we drove in more circles around my hotel and I watched him try to take on one way streets the wrong way, I started to understand why he’d had so much trouble at the bus terminal. I pulled up google maps after a minute and started trying to navigate, “no please don’t turn here, just go straight and it’s ahead”. But he turned anyway, “no I think it’s this way”, as I watched our blue dot veer farther away from the hotel.

By the time I got to the hotel it was about 11:30 at night. I found the entrance to the hotel in the back of a cramped convenience store and managed to check in with a woman who could neither make change nor print a receipt (needed to prove to booking.com I paid, since I had to use cash). 20170118_231657.jpgThe hallway with the rooms was brushing my shoulders on either side as I walked through and was not wide enough to open the room doors all the way. It was also painted red and gave me a very eerie Twin Peaks vibe. The room was dirty, a soaking wet bath mat on the floor by the door and some kind of horrible mildew meets sewage smell coming from god knows where. I dropped my bags and went back out to the street to find food, but the street stalls were only selling fried things of a questionable nature and I couldn’t see any restaurants nearby. The midnight streets were dark, crowded and very dirty and also had rats scuttling around in the rubbish. I finally just got some yogurt and bread from the convenience store and went upstairs to sleep.

It was the first time in a long time I’d been shoved so hard outside of my comfort zone. I’ve got a pretty big comfort zone. Weird food, weird toilets, foreign languages, crammed public transportation, and just generalized unfamiliarity are all things I’m comfortable dealing with. Apparently rats and mildew are outside of that zone, and to be honest, I think I’d like them to stay outside my comfort zone. However, it was a good reminder that the gross and icky may be a part of adventuring.

It also forced me to look my privileges and prejudices right in the face. I recognize that I am privileged to live a life where rats and mildew do not appear regularly. I was letting my prejudice come out, forming negative opinions about the people who don’t have that privilege. I had to remind myself to direct that negativity at the economic systems of entrenched wealth and oppression that condemn large chunks of the world to that level of poverty, and that these people probably don’t even really see themselves as poor because there are people even worse off. I cannot say I liked it, but it was probably good for me.


More than once on this holiday adventure, I had experiences that pushed me. I debated about how to share them, or even whether to share them, but in the end, I decided it’s too important. I learn and grow when I’m challenged, and people who travel or want to travel should know that the hard parts are inevitable, but have a value of their own and shouldn’t be swept under the rug when we make our photo albums or memoirs. Stay tuned for the next beautiful adventure in KL by day when I visit the famous Batu Caves. Thanks for reading! ❤

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Malay Peninsula 3: Singapore Temples

Here in Korea, the insanity of the first month of school is winding to a close, the root canal adventure goes on with no end in sight, and the first cherry blossoms have burst forth, promising at least two weekends of magical pink snow beauty and wonder. In the mean time, here’s the story of my second day in Singapore exploring the famous temples in Chinatown.


20170118_104531After an incredibly full first day in Singapore, I had a much lighter day of temple viewing planned before I hopped on the bus to Kuala Lumpur in the afternoon. It’s never hard to wake up in a dorm hostel, since everyone else is waking up, too. After packing up and enjoying another cup of teh tarik, I headed out to catch the sights. The night before, I’d run across a giant rooster in the street (in anticipation of the impending lunar new year holiday), so I did a quick rerouting to pass back by in the light of day. Chinatown was already putting on a decorative show two weeks before the holiday; I can only imagine how crazy it was on the actual holiday weekend. 20170118_104832In addition to the stunning decorations, I passed by a street artist sitting in the shade of an overpass and working on the beginning of a painting of the festivities. He was kind enough to let me take a photo and we wished each other a happy new year in parting.

I found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in the middle of a sprawling street market. One major advantage to backpacking is the space restrictions prevent you from picking up souvenirs. Otherwise, I might have been in danger (I love the red paper cut art!). After locating the temple, I ducked into a little food court and wrangled some dumplings and fresh lime juice for breakfast. I seriously dig the Singaporian food court concept, using a larger space to allow a multitude of different cultural food shops to share a common dining area. We have them in malls in the US, but they are usually terrible food and not a wide variety (plus embedded in a shopping mall, ew). In Korea there are dozens of tiny restaurants with very small seating areas, so you can get variety, but if one place is more popular, seating is limited. None of the food courts in Singapore were top notch restaurants, but they were all several steps above corporate fast food. Just in case anyone is looking for a new business model.

The Love of Money…

20170118_113909After breakfast, I headed into the temple. I generally don’t wear short shorts, and while I go wear sleeveless in heat sometimes, since my plan for the day was temples, I was dressed appropriately. However, for the tourists who weren’t, a staff of firm but polite people arranged for them to wear long skirts or shoulder wraps from a shared bin. Once past the main entrance, I walked into a smaller room where two monks were performing a blessing on a couple donating to the temple in a red envelope (traditional for money gifting at the new year). As I watched, I realized people around me were taking photos and video and I was surprised. I looked around for any signs about cameras, but there were none. It seemed that the temple allowed visitors to take pictures. It felt very strange taking pictures in a temple, and in the end I could only take a few before my sense of unease overcame me.

20170118_114516The main hall on the ground floor was an ode to opulence. I’m used to Buddhist temples being ornate. Wood and stone carvings with intricate detail are common (though never boring). Paintings or works in colorful semi-precious stones, and even the occasional gold paint or gilt covering to add some shine. The point is, that I’m used to temples being about effort and time and skill, rather than about blatant displays of wealth. In fact, a common art form is the sand mandala, which is made over weeks or months of painstaking hand work, then wiped out to represent the impermanence of reality. I don’t have an issue with beauty in a temple, I go to temples in part because they are beautiful, but something about this temple and it’s over the top gold, it’s donation jars every few feet, and it’s designated VIP seating for supplicants just did not sit well with me.

20170118_115923I found the elevator and went all the way to the roof to see the orchid garden. That at least was in keeping with temple life as I think of it. Although orchids are rare in the world, they are common in Singapore and the difficulty of their cultivation reflects the work that monks and nuns put in as part of their practice. Below the gardens, the top floor contained the relic for which the temple is named, a fragment of the Buddha’s tooth. It was also the only room in the building where shoes and cameras were prohibited. There were dedicated meditation mats along the windows where a few people were sitting in silent contemplation, and there was another large gold display.

I don’t actually believe in holy relics. I did not come to the temple to be close to a piece of the body of the Buddha. Aside from the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that this bone was really from the human being known as Siddhartha Gautama, if one embraces the ideals of Buddhism, one would know that the body is not the person, and even beyond that, the idea of separate person-hood or individual ego identity is an illusion. I almost understand Christians who seek holy relics because they are thought to be touched by the divine, but I scratch my head at Buddhists who think that enlightenment may somehow be transmitted through dead tissue.

A sign next to the relic boasted that the shrine housing it was made of solid gold (not merely gold plated) and went on to say that offering gold to the Buddha (meaning of course the temple) was a high honor and was greatly encouraged. I nearly gagged.

20170118_114221I’ve seen American “mega-churches” that have gold plated elevators and preachers with 5 cars and 3 houses and a minimum annual income requirement for membership. These also disgust me and I often wondered how any Christian could justify that kind of obvious money-grubbing and wealth favoring within their doctrine. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Buddhist “mega-temple”, and it was awful. It made me feel ashamed to be associated with the faith. It made me want to run around to tourists and exclaim “that’s not what Buddhism is about!”. It made me want to drag out some scripture and ask the people praying there if they’d even read it. And for just a moment, it made me think about Terry Pratchett’s Yen Buddhists, whose main theological argument is that:

excess money and valuables are a drain on one’s spiritual welfare and an active impediment on achieving dharma and oneness with the universe. Therefore, the monks make the world the selfless offer that they will undertake, at the risk of their own union with the godhood, to take away this impediment to other people achieving consciousness and the opening of the Third Eye. They accept the spiritual tarnish that comes with being one of the richest religious sects on the Disc so that you don’t have to.

Sadly, I don’t think that the Buddha Tooth Relic temple had such altruistic motives in collecting wealth.

20170118_120625I headed down to the third floor to see the museum, which was a worthwhile collection. It was a nice museum of Buddhist art and man-made relics that included a sort of “intro to the Buddha” story on signs around the displays. Like the rooftop garden, it felt far more authentic and enjoyable. The relics were primarily stone, clay, bronze or wooden and had clearly been the result of effort and craftsmanship. Although the extraordinary focus on Guan Yin and the Maitreya was a little overwhelming, it did point to the fact that the temple’s own branch of Buddhism was a salvific form that relies on Bodhisattvas and future Buddha’s to save the world, rather than on the practice of self cultivation for individual enlightenment.

20170118_122525.jpgThe second floor had a nice place to rest, which I desperately needed. Adjusting to the heat and extra walking was taking a toll. It was such a great contrast to my energy level in New Zealand where the weather was cool. Just minimum exertion in a hot humid climate seems to drain me like a marathon! After a rest and a look through the last floor of displays, I made my way back to the ground floor, once more shaking my head at the ostentation, this time walking past the VIP seats they were filled with supplicants who had paid I’m not sure what to get past the velvet ropes. All in all, I’m still glad I went to see it, because I learned something about the corrupting properties of money. All temples ask for donations to help feed the monastic population, pay the basic bills, and to provide services to the community. Money is, in this world, unavoidable. However, when a house of faith relies on wealth or doles out blessings for cash or claims that the donation of great wealth is a higher holy act than living a good life, that’s corruption.

Count your deities, count your blessings…

20170118_132532.jpgAfter the Buddhist temple, I took the short walk two streets over to see the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore: Sri Mariamman. This humble wooden structure was not a display of wealth, but was still anything but plain. Wooden carvings covered every inch of the outer facade and were brightly painted besides. Anyone was welcome to enter, leaving their shoes behind on racks on the sidewalk. There were saris for anyone who felt inadequately dressed, and while we were free to wander around the grounds barefoot, the main areas of worship were cordoned off, not for a fee, but for the faithful. I am not a Hindu, so I contented myself with observing from behind the lines. The interior of the temple is a large courtyard with smaller buildings, each one dedicated to a different divinity. There are over 330 million gods in the umbrella of Hindu faith, and while only a couple dozen are among the most popular, it can 20170118_132153.jpgbe hard for a layperson to know which altar is for who. I found 10 names of deities for this temple on it’s Wikipedia page. There might be more. In addition to the colorful decor and variety of spots to worship, there appeared to be a large hall at the back used for everything from yoga classes to wedding ceremonies.

On my way out and back to grab my bag from the hostel, I passed by one more religious building, a famous mosque. It struck me then that within only a 20170118_132927.jpgcouple city blocks, I had passed 3 major religious buildings, and I knew from the map that a Christian church was not far off. Curious, I looked around the map for a synagogue and found one a little over 3km away, and it was neighbored with another church, Hindu temple, and Buddhist temple. It seemed that it wasn’t hard to find a spot in Singapore where at least 4 out of the 5 major world religions shared a small space and yet no one was getting blown up, shot or even harassed on the street! While I’m sure that Singapore’s strict legal code has something to do with the lack of violence, I like to think that pluralism in the culture helps everyone to get along. People of other faiths or cultures seem less scary when they are our neighbors and not “those others”.


Please check out the rest of the photos in the Facebook albums: Around Singapore and Singapore Temples, and stay tuned for the next installment where I leave the clean and ordered city-state of Singapore and experience a mighty dose of culture shock in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). As always, I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading!

Malay Peninsula 2: Singapore Night Safari

March Madness does not just apply to basketball anymore. I missed it last year in part because I had the horrible avian death flu and in part because I was totally new to Korea and insulated from the madness. However, I’m getting it double this year, since I’m no longer the (complete) outsider. March is the start of the new school year, when every single bit of bureaucracy must be done while you’re trying to get to know new students and new co-workers! I used to have an hour or two of “me time” in the afternoons after all the work was done, but recently, it’s been a non-stop Alice in Wonderland style caucus race. So forgive me – the blog has fallen behind. Here’s the second installment of January’s adventure that made me rethink zoos forever.


Bad Tourist, Bad!

The day at the Gardens by the Bay kept me walking for the better part of 7 hours, more than half of that in the sunny, humid outdoors. I suppose I could have hustled over to see more of the heritage gardens, but since my night was going to be full of 5 more hours of walking around outside, I decided to hold still for a while and sip some more of the unique coffee.

While I was sitting in a nearly empty (indoor and AC’d) food court, I watched an abomination of tourism. In stark contrast to the fun, kind folks I’d been meeting all day, this man walked up to the coffee shop and demanded to know if they had a flat white or skinny latte. They did not, since it was a traditional Malaysian style coffee shop. The man then went on to berate the poor employees along the lines of how can they be a “coffee shop” if they don’t even serve a flat white or skinny latte. He was rude, angry, and belligerent to the staff, and seemed to have zero interest in finding out what the cafe did have (awkward since they totally serve coffee with milk, they just don’t call it “flat white”). I can understand the desire for something familiar when travelling. I personally think it’s important to try new things, but I know that if you’ve had new things out your ears for days, there is value in the familiar. But there is just no reason ever to get mad at a shop in another country for not being like a shop in yours. And yes, I did talk to the staff afterward and told them I thought that guy was being a jerk and that visitors should be more willing to try the local way. Don’t be that guy.

Taxi Driver History Lessons

I left the SuperTree grove around 6:15 and took a taxi on the long trek across the city. Although I hear the public transit system is spectacular, the distance I had to travel would have still taken about 90 min, so I opted for taxi instead. I ended up having a great chat with the taxi driver who was a Singapore native and rather older gentleman, so he was able to talk with me about some of the changes that had occurred in the city over the last couple decades. The biggest one seemed to be the land reclamation. Every bit of land I’d been on during the day was actually reclaimed from the ocean and the road that now lay inland called “beach road” was so named because it literally used to be a beach!

singapore

I also discovered that Singapore has no minimum wage, although while he was complaining about the low wages that fast food level employees made, he did let slip a number that was rather higher than the US minimum wage. It makes me wonder about the economics of a situation that, without government enforcement, and with access to cheap immigrant labor, the average low end employee is still making more than the US burger flipper. I am willing to bet it’s related to the small size of the nation, and the fact that it is nearly all city.

And lastly, I discovered that there is a severely classist system for immigrant workers, with no wage regulation and heavy taxes. Inexperienced foreign workers from say… Bangladesh or the Philippines can end up taking home as little as 18-20$ a day. It’s not as bad as the situation in Dubai as far as exploiting foreign labor goes, but I have to say I was a little disappointed that Singapore, a model for environmentalism and safety, did not have sufficient laws in place to protect workers.

We drove through more animal conservation lands, and the driver pointed out to me a land-bridge that had been built to help animals move safely from one side of the highway to the other, as well as the area abutting the zoo where the wild sanctuary animals and captive zoo animals would occasionally encounter one another through the fence.

Zoo Shows

20170117_190355As I got out of the taxi, I walked past a peacock that had either escaped, or was deliberately placed at the entrance for effect. The bird seemed unperturbed by the traffic. Even though I was a little early, the courtyard was packed full of tour groups and I had trouble pushing my way through to an info counter just to find out where to go. I stood in a long line as we all had our tickets scanned and everyone streamed into the Night Safari like the opening bell at Disney.

The Singapore zoo has, as far as I can tell, four separate parks. The main zoo, a rivers of the world event, a bird event, and the Night Safari. At first, I thought it was simply a night time version of the main zoo, but later I realized that it is a separate park that simply doesn’t open until 7pm. It is entirely filled with nocturnal creatures and kept at a low light level so the animals are not much disturbed. It’s designed to be as open and natural as possible, allowing the visitors and animals to get as close as is safe, and is filled with hundreds of creatures that are almost always asleep during regular zoo hours.

20170117_194026I had missed the first fire show at the opening, but since it happened every hour until 9pm, I wasn’t too worried. I headed instead for the animal show at the advice of one of the zoo staff. This was just as well because the lines for the tram were insane. Being a lone traveler is sometimes advantageous, like when trying to find a seat in a crowded theater. I wedged myself in between two families in a fairly good spot and sat down to watch what I fervently hoped would not be an exploitative performing animal show. I was not disappointed. The “show” was largely animals being brought forward while the main announcer talked about the species being shown. There was humor and a few animal tricks, but these involved a large cat leaping, a raccoon going through a “garbage can”, and an otter doing some recycling (which may be one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen). The last one led into a great discussion of what happens when urbanization encroaches on 20170117_195114animals habitat and on what we as humans can do to help better preserve the environment. I know some people might think it’s a little preachy, but I was personally gratified to see the zoo using it’s platform of animal entertainment to help educate visitors on conservation and preservation.

After the animal show, I headed back out to the main plaza to t20170117_2005001.jpgake in the fire show. Although the zoo website makes it seem as though this is some kind of traditional tribal fire dance, in reality it is a modern dance with a totally made up tribal sounding name. It was still fun and pretty, just not particularly traditional or historically accurate.

Walking with the Animals

Next, I decided to do a walking path or two. There are several walking path sections in the safari and each one highlights a different environment of animal. I started out on the “Fishing Cat Trail”, the primary attraction of which was a fishing cat that uses it’s claws to hook fish out of the river for dinner. The main area of the plaza is loud and bright with shops and restaurants and the waiting line for the tram, but once you get out of the main area and onto the walking paths, the zoo becomes dark, quiet and peaceful. Quite often, I was the only person on the path, or was only sharing it with a couple other people. From time to time, larger noisier groups would pass through and glance at the brush, then seeing no animals would complain loudly and move on. I just waited for them to go.

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Not the fishing cat. Just a cool leopard with better than average lighting.

The animals aren’t “on display”. The environments are designed to be natural while still giving the humans a good view. Plus, it’s dark, cause well, night safari. While I was shocked at the number of people who simply couldn’t get the idea, it didn’t take long to realize that all it took to have a good experience was a little patience. The animals would often retreat from large noisy crowds and only return to their normal nighttime activity after things had calmed down. I stood next to the fishing cat stream for several minutes trying to spot the cat, and finally my patience was rewarded as a medium sized feline came out from behind some trees and began to stalk fish in the small stream next to the path. I don’t know how long I stayed and watched. It was amazing. There was hardly any distance between myself and the fishing cat and yet his environment was so natural, he was comfortably hunting his dinner.

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Still not the fishing cat. Pelicans enjoying a night swim.

The vast majority of the displays were like that, close and open and natural making you feel like you’d just wandered into their home rather than like you were viewing a caged animal. The most dangerous animals were separated by a larger gap, and the tiniest animals were in display boxes (although we still couldn’t always find them). I didn’t get to see every animal. Most were completely hidden when I walked up and only came out after a few minutes. A few were on grand display, like the pelicans and otters. At one point, while crossing a bridge over a small stream, I looked down and spotted an enormous crocodile. He could easily have blocked the stream if he’d lain sideways across it. It was a bit terrifying to be so close with nothing between us, even though the bridge was well above his reach and the sides of the stream were too steep for him to climb. Many animals were hidden, but could be found with some searching like a hidden picture puzzle. And a few I never saw at all.

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I’m not sure I believe that flamingos are nocturnal, but they are pretty at night.

After walking about half the trails, I decided to catch the tram ride. The tram goes on a different route from the walking trails and afforded me a chance to sit down and relax for a little while. I think my favorite part of the tram ride was the rhinos, but it was an overall pleasant experience with light narration and continued reminders about environmental conservation and poaching. At one point the narratress asked us to make a pledge never to buy rhino horn products again, which isn’t usually an issue for Americans, but there are a lot of Chinese and other Asian tourists who come to Singapore who might need the reminder. Side bonus, since I’d waited a couple hours, the tram crowd thinned out and I got a bench to myself, which meant I could move to the left or right and get the best view of the animals.

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We could hear the lions everywhere, but only got to view them from the tram.

 

After the tram circuit, I finished up the walking trails, passing through a free flying bat house(!) and a sort of wallaby ranch. The bat house was easily my favorite thing in the zoo. I’ve only ever seen zoo bats behind glass and here these were flying around my head! The big fruit bats hung lazily from branches that had been strategically placed close to the path and hung with fruit to entice them, while the smaller bats zipped in an out of the trees. One flew so close past my ear, I felt the breeze from his wing as I heard the leathery flapping and sonic skittering. In the flying squirrel walk through, I didn’t get to see any fly, but I did play a fun game of hide and seek with a little tree dweller who was clearly curious about me too. And in the wallaby enclosure, the little hoppers were free to roam around the ground, including onto the path if they felt like it. None did, but even when I knelt down to their level to get a closer look, no one ran away either.

The last place I got to explore was a cave environment with all the little dark cave dwellers on display in a sort of Pirates of the Caribbean-esque themed man-made cave environment. Plenty of spiders and other creepy crawlies, including some black light glowing scorpions.

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I have not mentioned even a 10th of the animals I got to see and hear. The lions were roaring throughout the night and could be heard from nearly anywhere in the park. The hardest part about the Night Safari is the low lighting. I have good night vision, but a lot of guests were struggling to see the animals, and I was a little bit sad that I had no way to take pictures of these experiences. The Night Safari is not just another zoo, it’s the closest encounter you’re likely to have with any of these animals that isn’t directly exploitative the way that zoos in China and Thailand are. The Night Safari won’t force animals to do tricks or pose with guests. And it’s the only night zoo that specializes in showing off nocturnal animals at their natural time of day. It’s clean, well organized, clearly focused on the animal welfare both within and without the zoo grounds and has dozens of totally unique animal encounters. If you find yourself in Singapore with an evening open, I highly recommend spending the full 5 hours there.

Dinner in Chinatown

It was minutes before closing time when i made my way back to the main plaza. I had no hope of catching the bus back to Chinatown and ended up summoning an Uber, which I then shared with another visiting couple who had been trying to get their hotel concierge to get an Uber to pick them up with very limited success. We had a pleasant conversation on the drive and I found myself back in Chinatown after midnight and famished. The night safari had restaurants, but I didn’t have time to sit down and eat and still see everything. My hostel had cup noodles for sale, but I needed something more substantial after my long day of sightseeing.

I took off toward some bright lights and soon found a tiny Chinese restaurant open late. After a few minutes of hopelessly perusing a picture menu, I asked about my all time favorite Chinese dish 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (fried egg and tomato) and got a surprised yes. This may be because I asked in Chinese, but was more likely because my favorite Chinese food is a common ‘peasant’ dish that is not usually on the menu in western restaurants (though it had been on the menu here). Hanging out in Singapore’s Chinatown felt like being in a very clean version of China without the ubiquitous Chinese litter and smog. Most Chinatowns are a sort of fusion of the immigrant and local culture, but Singapore itself is a blend of Malay and Chinese cultures, so I guess it stands to reason that the extra Chinese part would be very authentic.


Stay tuned for installment 3 where I go back to Chinatown in the daytime to check out the famous temples! Sadly, the Night Safari is not conducive to photography so there’s no album accompanying this post, but feel free to check out the Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for more daily tidbits of life between posts. Thanks for reading! 🙂

 

Malay Peninsula 1: Singapore Gardens & Supertrees

This was not an idyllic holiday in sunny weather full of umbrella drinks and relaxing by the sea. It could have been, and maybe one day I’ll take one of those, but this was not that vacation. As I wrote this, sitting in my cold office the day before students returned from winter break, I could not help but feel a little nostalgia for the warm evenings I enjoyed a walk after my shower, but the twinge in my foot and the weakness in my limbs reminded me that this adventure was a physically and emotionally taxing one.

Which is not to say I did not have amazing times or enjoy myself, but the trekking nature of my plan meant that I was forced to push myself in new ways, to absorb not only beautiful and wonderful new experiences, but also painful, difficult, and challenging ones. Then again, I suppose that’s why I call myself an adventurer and not a vacationer. Whatever the holiday looks like later on, I hope you’ll find the first installment to be as wistful and enchanting as I did.


Singapore

I decided to model my holiday after a tour package I found online but was unable to join due to conflicting dates. Their schedule was only 10 days and covered more places, I had 12 days and was doing (theoretically) less, so I figured I had plenty of time. My starting point was Singapore.

Coming from winter in Busan with temperatures often below freezing, the shock of Singapore weather was something else. Even dressed in light, summer clothes, I was sweating the minute I stepped out of the AC. The first morning in the hostel, just walking from my dorm room to the lobby gave me a stark reminder that equatorial temperatures are no joke. Although I set off in search of coffee, the hostel’s beverage dispenser included something called Teh Tarik, which I decided to try instead and immediately fell in love with. It’s a strong hot, sweet milk tea but despite being made of common ingredients, I had never had anything like it before.

After my tea, I headed out to try to catch the tram to the Gardens by the Bay, a popular and beautiful botanical garden area that also includes the Super Trees (one of my top to-dos while in Singapore). While I was staring at my map app trying to figure out the best way to go, a nice man asked if I needed help. He turned out to work for the Nigerian Embassy in Singapore and helped me find my way toward the gardens, walking and chatting with me until he had to turn off the main road. I love friendly people!

One of the nice things about walking in Singapore (and indeed most of Malaysia) are the plethora of covered walkways that help keep the sun (and rain) off of the pedestrians. I had my “sunbrella” but found I didn’t need it very often.

20170117_093334Shortly after parting ways with the helpful Nigerian, I walked past what appeared to be a large open air food court. There was a roof and fans circulating air, but the entryways were wide open. There were dozens of food stalls from different nationalities, and tables to sit at between them. I went to one stall to get a fried oyster omelette and another for an iced coffee, then sat down to enjoy them. The omelette was a bit odd. In addition to eggs, vegetables and oysters, it turns out this dish is cooked with a variable amount of tapioca, potato, and/or rice starch. This just goes to prove I should have read more about the food before going, because the gooey texture combined with the heavy oil meant that I only ate about ¼ of the dish before I couldn’t eat any more. The coffee, on the other hand, was intense and amazing. I didn’t know it at the time, but Malaysian style coffee is different from other coffees around the world. I’ll explain more when I get to Ipoh, but for now, suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised.

20170117_100820After breakfast, I passed by all the tall financial buildings and came to the Marina. This beautiful stretch of waterfront goes on for ages with a wide and clean walking path. I came across a shopping mall on my way and decided to head inside for the AC and maybe a restroom. The Nigerian man I’d met advised me that if I ever felt too hot in Singapore, I could just walk inside any building to get some cold air. The mall was nearly empty, which is not surprising for a weekday morning, and I managed to find a 7-11 to get a cheap sim card (less than half of the airport prices). I also got called in to have a sample at two separate skin care shops. The first was a supernaturally charming young man who probably got nearly every woman he met to spend too much money on his skin care products. We chatted and tried out the product and eventually I had to demure from purchase, but he was gracious about it and said he’d had fun talking with me. The second shop was a Malaysian woman who was wonderful and gracious and kind until it became clear to her that I had really meant it when I said I wasn’t buying anything, and then she turned rather sour. Both shops products were in the hundreds of dollars range. It was somewhere around here that Singapore started to remind me of Dubai.

Cloud Forest

20170117_121123I walked more dockside paths and came across a science museum, more flowers than you can sneeze at, and finally some signs pointing to the garden path that was lined with sculpture, topiary and colorful blossoms. Although the Super Trees were my main goal, by the time I arrived at the park’s center, I was hot and tired. I noticed a cool breeze coming from the doors of one particular building and resolved to go inside that. The building was one of the two indoor gardens, this one called Cloud Forest (the other was closed for renovations). It was a massive greenhouse designed to house the ecosystem of a cloud forest, and so not only had pathways winding through beautiful flowers at ground level, it had a miniature mountain in the center that one could ascend and walk around via a series of skywalks that simulated viewing the forest from cloud level and treetop level.

The cool air was not freon induced air conditioning, but a creative cooling system that involved the movement of water and air. The whole thing is designed to be as ecologically conservative as possible. Nonetheless, when I stepped inside from the intense January heat, it was a blissful release to walk in cool air.

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I expected to spend an hour or so inside, but ended up spending 3! The waterfall that greeted us at the entrance was a major photo point, but by no means the only one. Spectacular tropical flowers were in bloom all around, and driftwood sculptures of dragons hid among the foliage making for an interesting game of find the dragon. After walking all around the base, I headed up the mini mountain. At the very top was another tropical garden with a reflecting pond as well as the highest skywalk. At set times, this skywalk produces “clouds” that help water the fragile orchids, and provide a magical mist through which to view the scenery below. It was not cloud time when I set out, so I enjoyed a clear view both down the mountainside and out to the grounds beyond the glass.

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Descending further, there were more walkways inside the mountain structure, another skywalk, and a kind of cave reconstruction where stalactites and stalagmites had been installed around the room with mirrors and informative signs. I hope that given the conservation efforts of the park that these were already broken by some quarrying effort that predated the preservation laws.

20170117_140641The time of clouding was approaching by then, and although the main path did not lead back upward, it wasn’t crowded, so I hopped into the elevator and rode back to the top. I get the impression that in more crowded times, the elevators might be more strictly regulated for the disabled, and the paths through the greenhouse lead firmly one way, but it wasn’t crowded and no one seemed to care if we went the opposite direction. Shortly after 2pm, the skywalk began to issue forth a mist as I set out for my second walk on the sky bridge and was able to enjoy the altogether different view as the fog enshrouded the walkway and the mountainside below.

I thought then I must have seen everything there was to see inside, and so I headed back down through the other skywalk and cave room, but instead of letting us back out at ground level, the path led even further down into a large screening room that played a movie about the dangers of climate change, and an interesting 3-d display of the engineering behind the cloud forest, super trees and other aspects of the gardens.

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After the educational displays, there was one more “secret garden” where a smaller waterfall cooled the air and tiny micro orchids were on display behind magnifying lenses. I took more pictures in that garden than any 2-3 other places combined on the rest of the trip. The flowers were so stunning, and because of the cooling process, the air is comfortable and it’s easy to lose track of time.

Otters?

I had intended to see more of the outdoor gardens, but it was after 3pm by the time I left the Cloud Forest, and my tiny breakfast had completely worn off. Although there were many restaurants near the center of the park, they all seemed somewhat pricey, and so I struck out for the one food area that was described in the park brochure/map as “affordable”. It was another of the “many food stalls under one roof”, but was a bit of a trek from the cloud forest. 20170117_150617Nonetheless, the entire area of the marina is beautiful to walk through. I spotted some otter crossing signs, which are apparently no joke. The environmental reconstruction along the marina has enabled the local otter population to bounce back and they are often seen on the shores near the walking paths in the evenings. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any that day.

I also walked past the Children’s garden, which was a playful garden with animal sculptures and topiary along with a large outdoor fountain/mini water park. Scouting for places to take my niece and nephew that aren’t just another amusement park and this one seemed to pass the grade.

SuperTree Grove

20170117_161628After lunch, I decided i should go find the super trees. It was getting on in the afternoon, and I still had to get across town to the Night Safari for my 7:15 ticket. Although the tall and unique structures can be seen from nearly anywhere in the park, it took a little effort to find the right walking paths to get to them. There are two groves of supertrees, the smaller has only three, which at the time were undergoing a pre-lunar new year makeover.

20170117_164839Eventually, I found the main grove and purchased my ticket for the sky walk. This is a little walkway that is accessed through an elevator in the “trunk” of the trees and lets you walk around the super trees at a good height to both admire them and the overall view of the gardens below. I had a nice walk and an even better view as well as some pleasant conversation with another traveler. No matter how nice the view is, I think my favorite part of traveling is meeting cool people.

20170117_170845The super trees aren’t really trees. They’re man-made structures that sort of look like giant alien trees. They run on solar power and support a large amount of plant and animal life. Plus they light up at night, which is pretty. The super trees are urban art, but more than that, they are a way of combining city and nature and of providing a space for the plants and animals that would otherwise have been disrupted, or even endangered by the urbanization of their homes to have a place. The super tree grove helps to act as a greenspace, cooling and cleaning the air naturally, as well as collecting solar energy and rainwater that are used in running the indoor gardens. It’s basically a big experiment to see if a city can be a modern urban environment AND maintain a natural ecosystem in an economically sustainable way. I hope it catches on. More cities should have giant trees, beautiful flowers, and river otters.


This is but the first of many installments in the Malay Peninsula adventure of 2017. I took so many pictures that day, I can’t possibly hope to show them all off here. Please check out the albums (yes, plural) on Facebook for all the beauty: Around Singapore, Cloud Forest, Flowers of Singapore, and Supertree Grove. Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading! 🙂