Sunday, December 16, 2012

Awestruck in Borneo

 We just completed a 5-day trip to the Indonesian portion of Borneo, in the large province of Kalimantan.  This was an unforgettable trip, as we were transported physically and mentally to a remote and amazing place, Tanjung Puting National Park on the southern coast where a sizable population of orangutans is thriving.  We stayed in a rustic camp environment and visited this lush rainforest via the Sekonyer River that snakes through this part of the park.  We were awed by the orangutans, as well as gibbons, proboscis monkeys, macaques, monitor lizards, butterflies, all accompanied by the incredible sounds of the tropical jungle environment.

I'll probably post more about this trip, as I want to gush endlessly about what we experienced, but I must get on a flight to the US tomorrow morning, so it will have to wait (I can hear you holding your breath! Ha!)

In the meantime, please visit if you are so inclined.
Proboscis Monkey

A curious macaque

Pangkalan Buun

Feeding time


On the river

Friday, December 7, 2012

Bar Bar Black Sheep

Yes, that's the name of a neighborhood hangout we discovered a while back.  It kind of has the feel of a British pub, and serves very good Thai and Indian food, if that makes any sense.  Usually filled with expats, but Singaporeans seem to like it as well.  The good news is that it is within walking distance from our condo, and they are fine with pooches on the patio.  We try to get a table on the outside so Lucy can lie down in her favorite spot and block the sidewalk.  Folks don't seem to mind...  For those of you in Singapore, Bar Bar Black Sheep is located at 362 Tanjong Katong and there is one at Robertson Quay as well.  Cheers!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Chinatown Tailor

Had a small adventure this week on Pagoda Street in Chinatown.  I needed something to wear for a quasi-fancy performance at the American Club  -  a gig with the American Women's Association Choir here in Singapore.  Normally, I'd just grab a black pair of pants and a black blouse, but these gals tend to dress to the nines for events like this, so I figured I better make an effort.  I was thinking about something simple - a long Chinese-style dress with a mandarin collar and short sleeves.  So I headed to Chinatown, wandered around a bit, worked up my courage and walked into a shop called, "Silk of the Orient".  The owner and head tailor's is Feroz Akbar and he's apparently been in the business for 30 years.  We discussed what I wanted, surrounded by colorful silks, wools, cashmere, a large cutting table and accompanied by the soundtrack of a mesmerizing Moslem prayer recording.   I selected a gorgeous black Shantung silk, Mr. Akbar's assistant measured me and we were off and running.  The whole transaction lasted not more than 10 minutes.  It was ready two days later, so I returned to Pagoda Street, tried on the dress (it's beautiful) and could barely sit in it, let alone imagine playing the piano in it.  That Chinese style, after all, is meant to be slim-fitting.  But, not to worry - they let out the seams a bit in the hip area, so I'm good to go.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Woofy Nanny

Hey, Folks!  Lucy, here!  Just wanted you guys to know that whilst Chris and Ricky are galavanting all over SE Asia, I'm actually having fun, too!  They finally heard of a nice human who loves dogs, and runs a great doggy hang out place out of her home.  It's a small operation, hosted by my buddy, Frodo (that's the guy in the middle of the pack there with the big smile), so the number of dogs are minimal and I get lots of attention!  And if I visit on a Monday, we go swimming!  So, if Ralph's humans are out of town when I need a place to stay, it's OK; I'll come here and play!

Rainy Season

Can you see the rain in this picture?!!!?  I think I need to up the ISO or the speed to capture the volume of water that is currently descending on this part of Singapore.  Holy cow - we have a rainy season with a vengeance this year!  More frequently than not, the rain arrives horizontally, in sheets, so any kind of "brelly" or waterproofs are useless.  Glad I ran Lucy out before it started - still caught a bit of it, whereupon, she tried to do her usual drying off by going back and forth between my legs.  She gets dry; I look like I peed myself....

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Nikoi is a lovely 15-hectare private Indonesian island - between Singapore and Sumatra.  We booked two nights there earlier this week, and I could have stayed a third....  One gets there by an hour-long ferry from Singapore to Bintan (another, bigger, island), an hour and a half car-ride across Bintan, followed by a private launch from Bintan to Nikoi.  It's worth it, and it's still better than getting on a plane.  There isn't much to do there, hence the allure.  Accommodations are all sea-front bungalows, open to the outside - breezes are such that A/C is not missed - with a lovely deck for reading, sipping a glass of wine, or just gazing out to the horizon.  It's a bit pricey, but I think one pays for the low density.  40 is the maximum number of guests, and since we were there off-season, there couldn't have been more than 20 on the island - indeed, we seemed to be outnumbered by staff!  The style was "elegant casual", if that makes any sense.  For example, the dining area, also open on the sides to the elements, included linen napkins on the tables, yet no floor, so one could dine and sink toes in sand for the duration.  Lovely.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Saigon and the Mekong Delta

Chris scheduled a business trip to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) last week, so I decided to tag along.  We had been there in 2007 with our dear friend, Joni, but we hadn't made it to the Mekong Delta area just southeast of the city, and it was on my list.  So, I contacted a tour company with a fleet of sampans and scheduled a day in the Delta while Chris had meetings. But I'm getting ahead of myself.  We arrived on a Sunday morning, and since Chris was free until Monday morning, we wandered around the Dong Khoi area of the city, a kind of tourist section with hotels, restaurants and shops.  We visited the cavernous indoor Ben Thanh Market and I tested a new zoom lens on the thousands of motorbikes whizzing past.  (I was told that there are 10 million people in Saigon, and 9 million motorbikes.)  Indeed, we had to keep our wits about us crossing the street!

Monday morning I was picked up at the hotel by a driver and guide, and then we drove a couple of hours to the Ben Tre area of the Mekong Delta.  Ben Tre is a sizable town, but we stuck to the river, bike paths and villages.  I could hear the sound-track to "Apocalypse Now" as we motored down the small tributaries with the palm fronds nearly touching from either side.  Occasionally, we'd spot a sampan carrying fish traps or bags of rice going to market.  My guide, Tho, and I disembarked and mounted a couple of 3-speed bicycles that took us to a few family-run businesses all using rice, which is abundant in the area, or clay from the river banks.  To picture our route, just imagine a partially-paved bike path snaking through verdant jungle with small houses peaking out from behind palm trees - it was magical.  We observed rice noodles being made, using a machine that looked like a primitive shredder; we watched a woman making rice won ton - style wrappers on a clay steamer; and toured a small brick factory with ovens fueled from rice and coconut husks. Later, we enjoyed an incredible 5-course lunch at a river-front house used by the tour company as a home-stay.  (Will chalk that up for future reference....).  It was quite a day - just wish Chris was there to enjoy it as well.
Inside a brick oven

A denizen of the Delta
At the War Remnants Museum
A side trip:  I flew home to Singapore on a Tuesday evening, so that morning, I decided to seek out the War Remnants Museum which was founded shortly after the "American War of Aggression".  It was sobering to see the exhibit of photographs, guns, airplane fragments, tanks, choppers and claymore mines from the Viet Cong point of view.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Banyan Tree at Bintan

Figured it was about time that I create a new post with something more interesting than the cab drivers of Singapore.  The picture to the left was the view from my "villa" the last couple of nights - the water in the distance is the South China Sea.  This was at the Banyan Tree resort in Bintan, which is an Indonesian island an hour ferry ride from Singapore.  I can't believe Chris and I hadn't been there yet, having been in Singapore for a year and a half.  It is probably because we hadn't heard of any resort there that was particularly awesome, and didn't want to take a chance on an unknown.  Then some new friends spent a weekend at this resort recently and raved about it.  So, I decided to check it out on my own, as Chris is in the US, and I needed to get the heck out of Singapore.  This was a departure (no pun intended) for me - it's been years since I have traveled solo, but I decided to use this as sort of a retreat.
I arrived on Sunday afternoon and left the following Tuesday, just enough time to absorb a different environment, escape reality for a while and come back rejuvenated.  I read, meditated, had a spa treatment and soaked up the sun (in the shade, that is).  I went on a guided walk through a Greg Norman golf course (this was a resort, after all), to undeveloped jungle, then a small fishing village, ending at a beautiful almost-deserted beach.  We saw rattan growing in the wild, formosa plants that wilt when you touch them, a kingfisher swallowing a fish bigger than it's head and a tribe of long-tail macaques - my first monkeys since moving here.  

Conclusion:  traveling alone is what you make of it.  I have a tendency to isolate while alone, and when I found myself going in that direction, I reversed.  Had a great time, and will look forward to showing the island to Chris.  One more thing - traveling by ferry sure beats the heck out of getting on a plane!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Singapore Cab Drivers

I got into a cab last Wednesday morning to go across town (it would have taken over an hour on a bus).    By the time I got to my destination, I was ready to hurl.... and that wasn't the first time...  and I'm sure it won't be the last.  What is it with cab drivers here?!?!  Particularly those who are older than ....  50?  Rather than applying the right foot to the gas pedal with a consistent amount of pressure, they do a kind of press... release... press... release... perhaps one iteration per second - and of course this is whilst careening around corners and dodging in front of cars at a frightening speed.  The result is that during this harrowing journey, my body is rhythmically moving forward, then back, forward, then back, as my stomach, of course, continues to move forward.  I think of opening a window for some air, but then realize I'll get a mouthful of humidity and fumes.  What are they doing?!  Is it a combination of bravado and fear?  They wanna go fast, then, no, they don't want to run into the guy in front, then they want to get around the guy on the right, uh, but better slow down - WHAT???!!!  At first I thought it was just the guys driving the "beaters", you know, the ones that look like 1979 Datsuns, boxy, noisy, jerky - but no!  They do it in the new Hyundai Sonatas as well!...................  next time, I'll take the bus.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Lesson from a Tea Master

Yesterday, Chris and I spent a delightful hour learning all about tea, from Vincent Low, a respected tea master who has a tea house and shop in Chinatown.  We had heard of Vincent when we first moved here and had tried to visit with him several times by just dropping by his tea house.  Eventually we realized that an appointment was necessary, as Vincent maintains a busy schedule of workshops and lectures at his shop and in schools and universities throughout Singapore.

His business has two sides, one that houses display shelves lined with teapots and cups and colorful boxes, tins and bricks of tea, and the other which is the teahouse, serving tea and tim sum.  (I think tim sum is the same as dim sum.)  We were seated at a round table in the back of the shop, where an assistant placed a large, round tray/bowl (see picture) with a couple of small teapots, a large teapot with water on top of a brazier and four small bowls containing four different kinds of tea.  Vincent sat opposite us, and started off by saying that there are only four kinds of tea, all originating from the same plant, camellia sinensis - black, oolong, green and white (shown in that order in the picture).  We soon learned that white tea is best, due to the part of the plant that is used, and how it is harvested (by hand) and processed - basically dried in the sun and that's it.  Lovely, delicate flavor and lowest in caffeine - and, as with green tea, high in anti-oxidants for fighting disease and cholesterol.  So, of course, we left with a beautiful green tin of it.  To my friends in Singapore, you gotta check this out - it's a real treat!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Weekending In Sendai

Chuson-Ji temple
This is Chris!  I had work to do in Korea and Japan over two weeks and it made sense for me to weekend in Japan.  Ricky couldn’t join me (Lucy neither), and I decided that I wanted to get out of Tokyo because it was going to be a hot and humid weekend (90+degrees, 90+ humidity).  I went north to Sendai on a tip that I could do some volunteer clean up still remaining from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. 
I did a little bit of work at a temple ruin complex 100 km northwest of Sendai at Hariazuma, but, really, most of the work was trying to volunteer for the work in English when everyone one else, EVERYONE ELSE, spoke Japanese.  I’ve seen four westerners in 72 hours.  And spoken probably less than 72 English words. Maybe that’s the way it is outside of Tokyo (many tell me that English has dropped there too significantly from the heydays of the eighties).  Maybe it’s the scare that remains around Fukishima – and still a scary set of outcomes is still in play.

Gateway to Akado Inari Shrine
So, instead I just explored Sendai, Hariazumi and Matsushima Bay – which took a significant hit from the tsunami.  Unlike the other temples that have been posted here, the temples in Hariazmi were not painted.  These were from the 14th century and the wood timbers were allowed to weather.  So, you concentrated on the craftsmanship rather than the appearance.  And, really good craftsmanship it is.
Small Temple where many stopped to pray and give an offering
I am also getting to respect the religiosity of the Asian Buddhist/Zen followers.  They are shamelessly devout.  We got a hint of what they pray for when in Myanmar (gratitude and fortunate futures), but people are praying everywhere.

Sunday was at Matsushima Bay, which got hit with a 10 meter (30 ft) tsunami wave in March.  Yes, plenty of residual artifacts here and there and an occasional empty lo where a shop house once was, but, life is back to normal.
Hitchcock Moment
I took a boat out to run through the area with 300 limestone islands scattered across the bay.  Inevitably, sea birds followed close and these guys were quite brazen!
And, a real gem was a small island of Fukuurajima preserved from development and alive with hundreds of tree, plant, flower, bird, frog and insect species that was sheer music! At about the same latitude as Boulder, Philly, Columbus and Brady, NE, this place is an active temperate rainforest and was humming!
Fukuurajima Island
 Sendai is a big place.  Like Colorado Springs, Austin or Des Moines big.  It’s a university town but a retirement location so very young and very old – and not much in between.  Although Sendai is the place during the quake where you saw people running from buildings and debris falling – there is no indication of any aftermath, sixteen months later.

The Tilley hangs in there

Behind the Bird, a small island, about 40 feet high

This weekend there’s a street jazz festival and while I’ve put up with a lot of “Paper Moon”, and ABBA covers, I’m writing now watching a Japanese guitarist with a great voice and a very talented piano accompanist doing an all Japanese set – no western music at all. “Paper Moon” and “Dancing Queen” was all done by Japanese in perfect American English and pitch. Perfect.
The same island covered with fishing debris following the tsunami
All in, a nice way to see another part of Japan and a part that took a big hit and has moved well beyond it. I sure missed Ricky and her instant perspective on things.  Her love of the Japanese culture would be strengthened by what I saw!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

History Lesson in a Cab

I had to make a run today to pick up Lucy's thyroid medication at her vet's office.  It is located in the Ang Mo Kio neighborhood, an area considered the "heartland" of Singapore, with many HDBs (housing development board apartment buildings), hawker stands and local shops that have been around for decades.  The cab driver started describing the history of the area and asked if I knew what "Ang Mo Kio" meant.  I said no, and then remembered that "ang mo" is the Malaysian word for foreigner. Indeed, I am an ang mo.  He said that "kio" means "bridge", and that it got its name from the fact that J.T. Thomson, Government Surveyor in the 1800's, was responsible for building a bridge across a canal between the area and the more central part of Singapore.  So it was a tribute to the ang mo who built the bridge, actually one of several interpretations of the name.

With that slice of history, the cab driver was off and running.  Turns out, his family owns a popular Singaporean cracker company and when he was a kid, he'd drive all over the island with his grandfather, delivering their products and learning about the rich heritage of his country.  I learned that Bukit Merah means "red hill", a shopping area so named because of the hill in the area and the red clay that used to be visible there, or possibly because of the red blood from a murder long ago?.... there have been several interpretations....  Another name, Toa Payoh, means "big swamp", reflecting the landscape before it also became a major HDB residential area.  Near to where we live is Old Airport Road, which used to be a runway for a large civilian airport that was used as a military facility during World War II.

I was so engrossed with what he had to say, that I asked him to wait for me while I retrieved Lucy's meds so he could give me a ride home.  As a result, I enjoyed a round-trip's worth of interesting trivia about Singapore.

At the traffic lights, we shared pictures of our dogs and then I asked if he would take a dog in his cab?  He said yes, but no, he didn't respond to private callers - too busy.  Oh well - hope I hail his cab again to get my next history lesson!

The Golden Triangle

This is the third of three posts about our recent trip to Laos and Thailand - so if you want to take a look in chronological order, then tab down to "Luang Prabang"... or not!

Crossing over to Thailand
Hmong village, Northern Thailand

For our venture into the Golden Triangle area, the area bordering Thailand, Laos and Myanmar,
 we decided to use Chiang Rai as a base,
 as it provided accessibility to Hmong villages and rural Thailand without the big-city atmosphere of Chiang Mai.  We arrived via long boat across the Mekong and sped through villages and rice paddies to arrive at our hotel in time for a soak in the pool before dinner.  We stayed at a Le Meridien - very nice.....  We were met first thing in the morning by Charlie, a very energetic and knowledgeable guide, and his driver, Pok.  Providing too much detail here - must cut to the chase.  We spent two sight-seeing-packed days, visiting temples, hill tribe villages and including a quick excursion into Myanmar, a real treat.  The market in Tachilek, which was right at the border with Thailand, was worth the price of admission by itself.  I was kind of surprised that we were just about the only Westerners there, and learned later that
it is more of a crossing for Thais to take advantage of lower prices.  The five pictures around this text were of Tachilek Market.  Myanmar is now on our list for a week-long visit while we are in Asia -

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Upstream on the Mekong

On the boat
Please see previous post, Luang Prabang, if you want to read about this trip in chronological order.  If not, have at it!  At 6:45am a tuk-tuk transported us to the charter dock in Luang Prabang to board our Luang Say long boat up the Mekong.  We hustled on board, trying to find the best place to camp out on the large "slow" boat, which could hold up to 40 tourists..... and found out that we were the only customers for that trip.  It's good to travel in the off-season!  So, this was a commercial-sized Mekong touring boat outfitted with comfy wicker chairs and sofa, and a dining table where our meals were served to us.  REALLY GOOD meals.  Probably haven't mentioned that I gained about 5 pounds on this trip...  A short distance upstream were the Pak Ou Caves, a centuries-old repository of hundreds of buddha statues that are too damaged or disfigured to warrant a temple altar.  It was an amazing vision, climbing up ladders inside limestone walls with black streaks of oxidation to find rock shelves lined with hundreds of tiny buddhas and some larger standing buddhas as well.  Further upstream, we visited a village where they made textiles from cotton and silk, and whiskey from rice.  That night, we stayed at the Luang Say Lodge, a beautiful open structure with about 16 bungalows set on the river bank.  It was a lovely spot that we had to ourselves - a glass of wine on the veranda and an incredible Laotian meal in the open-air dining room.  It seemed criminal to spend so little time there, as we arrived at dinner time on the first day and left after an early breakfast the next morning.  The next day we visited another village and then passed the point where the left bank of the Mekong became Thailand (previously, we were wholly in Laos).  We arrived at Houei Sai on the Laos side, went through Laos customs, took a ferry across to Thailand - the "ferry" was a small long boat for the four of us plus the pilot - then were processed through Thai customs on the other side, in Chiang Khong.  After a harrowing ride in a mini-van, we arrived at our hotel in Chiang Rai - stay tuned for the next posting...

Pak Ou Caves
View from Luang Say Lodge

Pak Ou Caves

Village and rice paddy

Textiles woven in the village
The Luang Say boat

Luang Say Lodge
Who's on first?
Storm brewing