Shanghai Expat: February 2010

I spent much of February traveling, not in Shanghai. (I visited Hong Kong for a weekend and, later, I escaped Shanghai for a longer trip to both Singapore and Cambodia.) Thus, I have less than usual to discuss in this post.

I took my longer trip over Chinese New Year (CNY). Chinese New Year is a big holiday: most companies, including mine, give employees the whole week off. Everyone travels home to celebrate with their families. Having heard stories about massive celebrations, fireworks at all hours, etc., I was looking forward to it. Some of my coworkers tell me amazing stories about parades of massive dragons held up by dozens of people, about a huge seesaw to pound sticky rice into flour to make cakes, and more. However, I was told by everyone I talked to who had spent Chinese New Year in Shanghai that Shanghai was boring -- everyone travels to their hometowns. Because Shanghai grew so much due to immigration, it's effectively depopulated.

Indeed, half my office took off the whole week before Chinese New Year for vacation. By the Thursday before CNY, maybe an eighth of the office remained. After 1:30pm on Friday, I didn't see another soul in the office. On Saturday when we left for the airport, the roads in Shanghai were practically empty.

Anyway, suffice it to say: this holiday is huge in China. I expected something comparable to Christmas or New Years in the states, but this was way more. For comparison, in California, I see more people in the office on the workdays between Christmas and New Years than I saw on the Thursday before CNY in China. Furthermore, I even see more people in the office on a weekend between Christmas and New Years in California than I saw on the Friday workday before CNY. And whereas restaurants in the states close only on the day of the holiday, some of our favorite small, family-run shops were closed the whole week leading up to CNY and the first two weeks of the new year as well.

We saw many stands selling large fireworks, some with big cylinders, larger than I've see sold in the states. Di Yin observed that one such stand near our apartment in a block away from a sign that says fireworks are illegal.

The holiday continues for fifteen days, though the first few are the most important (and the only ones people get holidays from work). Nevertheless, even in the middle of the second week--I was back from my longer trip by then--, we'd hear occasional firecrackers in the evening, and this is a part of town where the police enforce noise restrictions. In places with less enforcement, it was worse: some of Di Yin's family friends said they had trouble sleeping due to the noise. I can believe it: Di Yin and I went to their apartment for dinner on the last night (the 15th day, which was February 28th this year) and the noise was incredible. Admittedly, this night is a bigger deal than the other nights in the last half of the holiday, but it made such a crazy racket that speech was difficult. Furthermore, the racket lasted for hours. See the pictures for photos from this dinner and a recording of the sound.

All this goes to further emphasize the scope of the holiday. Can you imagine people in the states setting off fireworks on, say, July 16th (an arbitrary day in the middle of a week, far after July 4th) or January 5th (ditto, except relative to New Years)? It's inconceivable. But the holiday continues here in China for two weeks.

Here is the smattering of photos from my various outings in Shanghai this month. They document outings not mentioned in this post.

Dumpling Quest
One day soon after our return from Singapore, we decided to go out for some traditional Shanghainese dumplings. We selected Din Tai Fung (DTF), a well respected Taiwanese chain that specializes in xiao long bao (soup dumplings). Though an expensive meal by Shanghai standards and though it was in a classy setting and had good service (a rare event in Shanghai), we were disappointed with our food. Admittedly, we didn't go to DTF's flagship Shanghai restaurant in Xintiandi.

We decided to round out dinner by going for a stroll to the food street not far away.

Sadly, the food street was closed and clearly in the process of being demolished. Instead, we re-explored Wujiang Road, which we'd previously visited for pho. There, we went to a local chain, Yang's, basically a hole in the wall which specializes in a version of pan-fried soup dumplings. (I visited a different instance of this chain last summer.) This was so much better than DTF that there was no comparison. I've very glad we followed DTF with these; they made our night's quest for Shanghainese dumplings a success.

Ice cream for dessert wrapped up the whole evening well.

I took pictures of the evening outing, including the nicely decorated streets.

Oddities & Other Remarks
Only when reading my Hong Kong guidebook did I realize why my office building is missing a 14th floor. I knew 4 is an unlucky number because it's a homophone in Mandarin to the word "death." 14 is apparently very unlucky because it could either be said as "ten four" or as "one four"; the latter is a homophone for "want to die" (in Mandarin) or for "certainly die" (in Cantonese). I guess this is the equivalent of skipping the 13th floor of buildings in the western world. Incidentally, some buildings skip the 4th and all other floors that end in the digit 4; mine, oddly, only skips 14.

In restaurants in China, when you put your jacket over the back of your seat, they put covers over your jacket. The covers are shaped like seat covers (not coat covers), basically holding the jacket tightly against the seat. I'm not sure why the practice started: protecting against spills, preventing someone from stealing the jacket, compressing bulky jackets so they don't get in the way, or securing jackets so they don't fall on the floor. Regardless, though it's probably a good policy, it's a bit hard to get used to. It always surprises me when I'm sitting and talking and someone starts doing something to back of my seat. Of course, at some restaurants, they're slick enough that I don't notice when they cover our jackets.

I will never understand or be happy living in a country where people at home commonly accept being cold enough to see one's breath (despite having a heater and earning enough money to pay the electricity bill).

Singapore: Feb 24: Actually Flying Home

Wednesday, our actual final day in Singapore, was uneventful. These pictures document some of what we ate during the day.

We flew through Guangzhou to Shanghai. Shanghai was a comfortable temperature when we landed (18 C / mid-60s F) -- quite a surprise to us given our experience with Shanghai's winter.

Singapore: Feb 23: Attempt to Fly Home

Tuesday was an adventure. I had an early morning meeting at work. Then, before we ventured to the airport, I dragged Di Yin to various eateries somewhat near work that I wanted to hit for breakfast/lunch or that I wanted to stop by to pick up food to bring on the plane. After our excursion, we took the mrt to the airport.

The pictures document this morning excursion, and more.

We arrived at the airport to learn we missed check-in! Too much running around buying last minute food... I was too ambitious in constructing my food list, and the worst offender on it was the (disappointing) prawn omelette, which took an especially long time to arrive.

China Southern was nice enough to re-book us at no cost. We couldn't get a flight out of Singapore the same day, so they placed us on the same flight the following day.

Using the airport's free wireless, I found us a hotel in Singapore for the night: the Aqueen Hotel (Lavender). It turned out to be a modern yet inexpensive hotel, better than the price would indicate. A new hotel (built in the last year), it was probably under-pricing its true value in order to build a reputation and customer base. A sign of how modern it is: the doors open by RFID -- even fancier than the electronic key cards you have to slide into a card reader on the door.

Incidentally, the hotel is in Jalan Besar, the neighborhood I did a walking tour of two days before.

We settled into the hotel and ate a light dinner made from the food that was intended for the plane, then used the extra night in Singapore to do something I'd been itching to do: go to 2am Dessert Bar. I had a friend, D, who's been multiple times and raves about it.

We rode a double-decker bus across Singapore to Holland Village, the Singapore's expat hangout. The temperature was nice. I'd been to Holland Village once (ever so briefly) a long time before. After a bit of searching, we found the narrow entrance to 2am Dessert Bar at the building at the end of the block and climbed the stairs to its lounge.

2am Dessert Bar predominately serves desserts and beverages. Following the recommendation of my friend, we elected to do the six course tasting menu. We declined a beverage pairing. (They offered three different pairings: beer, wine, and tea!)

The meal was amazing, like nothing I've ever experienced! (For details see the pictures.) Now I will join D in raving about this place. The six courses were enough, but I wish there was more, though I can believe D's advice that ten would be too many. In addition to the desserts, the very friendly and chatty host/sommelier didn't hurt the experience either. I'm almost glad we missed our plane because it allowed me to go to this place.

After another double-decker ride back to our hotel we called it a night.

Singapore: Feb 22: A Workday

I went into my company's Singapore office and made this day, a Monday, a standard workday.

For lunch, we went to Maxwell, the local high-quality hawker centre. I decided to try the rice soup (congee) at Maxwell's famous congee stall.

In the evening, which was a surprisingly nice temperature, we took a bus to Katong for the highly reputed katong laksa, a famous Singaporean soup I hadn't yet tried because I wanted my first try to be an exemplary instance of the dish. We went to a well respected outlet of one of the original vendors: 328 Katong Laksa at 49 East Coast Road (at the intersection with Ceylon Road).

The pictures document and describe my meals.

In the evening, we checked into the Link Hotel, which we thought would be our last hotel in Singapore. (Our flights were booked for the following day.) (We decided not to stay in our previous hotel, the Furama, because the price rose more than 50% for this night, a Monday night.) The Link Hotel is aptly named, as it spans multiple blocks and is on both sides of the street, with buildings connected via elevated pathways, i.e., links. Otherwise, the hotel was basic.

Singapore: Feb 21: Jalan Besar

After breakfast in the hotel, I went to work to use the internet and printers in order to plan my day. By noon I was on my way to explore Jalan Besar, a neighborhood just north of Little India. I choose the word neighborhood specially -- the area has a neighborhoody feel. It also has tons of shophouses; I took some good pictures of those.

I followed my walking tour map and walked this route around Jalan Besar, taking these pictures on the way.

The weather was fickle, changing between blazingly sunny and hot to cloudy and ickily warm to rainy. (It rained once while I was walking--I took shelter--and again later--a serious downpour--during dinner.) When there was a breeze and I was in the shade, it was okay. Otherwise, ...

The pictures document my walk; I have nothing to add here to them.

I met Di Yin for dinner at Food Republic. After dinner, we headed to our hotel to re-check-in. It was actually the same hotel where we stayed the previous two nights. (I didn't book a longer period at this hotel originally because I wasn't sure we'd like it. We did.) Checking in was a complicated affair because the hotel didn't have a record of our expedia reservation. I think the hotel ended up using the expedia itinerary number and called expedia to sort it out. Eventually we were given a room, yet again with a free upgrade (though to a different class of room as our last upgrade). (I imagine they were out of rooms of the class we reserved.) In comparison to our past upgrade, this time our room was smaller but had much better views. (It was on the 20th story.)

Singapore: Feb 20: Chinese New Year Festivities

I took these pictures this day. Di Yin also took pictures. The link goes to the first picture from this day (picture #531) in the album from this trip. When you come to a picture of another breakfast (picture #560), you're gone too far. I'll link to the rest of her pictures in later posts.

We returned to Singapore from Cambodia on Friday night, February 19, 2010. Because we arrived at our hotel, the Furama City Centre, late at night, we got upgraded to a suite. Admittedly, it wasn't as nice as our suite in Cambodia, but it was pretty nice nonetheless. I love checking into hotels late. :) As part of the upgrade, they said we were now allowed to attend the breakfast buffet for free. They didn't have to do that. We took advantage of their generosity and ate breakfast at the hotel: not bad.

I forget what we did between breakfast and lunch. Perhaps went to my company's offices to use the internet?

Lunch was at Maxwell Food (Hawker) Centre. After lunch, we took the bus to meet M, a friend of mine and of Di Yin's, to pick up our baggage. (He was kind enough to keep the bulk of our baggage at his place so we could travel lighter to Cambodia.) Because it took longer to get to his place than I expected, I knew I was going to be seriously late for my haircut appointment.

This haircut was a big deal to me. I didn't want to get my hair cut in Shanghai because practically zero barbers have any experience cutting hair like mine (i.e., white people's hair) and, regardless, I wouldn't be able to easily communicate to tell the barber what I wanted. By this time, my hair was longer than I was used to -- it was a month after when I normally would've gotten a haircut.

After some research in Singapore, I found a couple hair salons that specialize in cutting Caucasian hair. They weren't easy to find--Singapore's white population is small--but they existed, unlike in Shanghai. I made an appointment.

Because I was looking forward to getting my hair cut for so long, I was panicked when I knew I would be late. I tried calling but couldn't get through. I took a taxi straight from my friend's place directly to the salon in a (successful) attempt to eliminate the time I would've lost by taking public transit to the salon. Incidentally, the taxi, despite the ride being twenty minutes (which would've been at least double with public transit), was surprisingly cheap.

I made it to the salon twenty-five minutes late. They didn't complain and took me right away, though they did give me to one of the employees in training (which made me a little nervous), not the senior stylists.

The experience of getting my hair cut at this salon was a little overwhelming: they washed and rinsed my hair three times before cutting and blow-drying it, quite a change from my cheapo barber shop. That's probably why it was expensive: more than twice what I normally pay.

The money was worth it. And, even though I was cut by a less experienced staff member, the haircut was excellent. It was a good investment, and it held up better over the next couple months than other haircuts I've had.

After the haircut, I met Di Yin at the hotel and we emerged to explore Chinatown, hoping to see some of the Chinese New Year festivities that we sought but failed to find in Chinatown on the first leg of this trip. Happily, Chinatown was now active. We looked around, walked down the food street, and ate dinner in the Chinatown Complex hawker centre. The temperature was pleasant at first, but later in the evening it became hot and sticky.

From dinner, after a brief but necessary detour, we headed to Marina Bay to catch the special Chinese New Year excitement. Precisely, I wanted to see the Chingay Parade and to re-visit the River Hongbao festival at night. (This night, Saturday night, was the last day for each of these events.) The opportunity for seeing Chinese New Year festivities are why I chose to go to Singapore over the holiday and why I planned the exact Singapore and Cambodia travel dates I did.

The celebrations were fun, energetic, dazzling spectacles. See the pictures. Incidentally, I say this even disregarding the fireworks that we saw unexpectedly.

Di Yin tried to convince me not to go to Marina Bay for these events (because my stomach was acting up) and often pushed me to leave early (because she doesn't like crowds). I'm still annoyed at her for acting so unhappy during the last half of our excursion. Though seeing Chinatown and Chinese New Year festivities was the point of / highlight of my trip to Singapore, I now think of these events with a mixed memory. [I wrote this paragraph later that day. However, by the time I posted this entry, I'd forgotten about the incident.]

Cambodia: Feb 19: More Siem Reap

Because our arranged tour lasted only three days, we had this day to ourselves. We used it to explore more of Siem Reap. Although we'd already seen the Old Market and the touristy area nearby, we hadn't yet walked everyday streets, seen any of the notable buildings or temples, or strolled along the river.

These pictures capture highlights from the day. Di Yin took many more. The latter link goes to the first picture from this day (picture #452) in her album from our trip to Singapore and Cambodia. When you see a picture of us landing in Singapore at night (picture #530), you're done with her pictures for the day / from our trip to Cambodia. I'll link to her Singapore pictures in other posts.

We began the day at 7:30am (before the heat) by walking to downtown from our hotel (a mile or two), observing morning life along the way (students in uniforms on bicycles heading to class, etc.). Once downtown, we walked through the Central Market but found we were there too early and most shops weren't open.

I grabbed breakfast from a street stand, and we made our way to see one of the town's temples, Wat Damnak. It's a large complex with many towers and many kids at play, hanging out, etc. We also went to another temple complex, Wat Preah Prom Rath, with monks and a large Buddha statue. I think I read that this was the oldest complex in Siem Reap, but I can't make out my notes clearly.

For lunch, we returned to the The Blue Pumpkin, where we ate the day before. It was decent.

We headed through the Central Market, which was open by this time. It's like the Old Market but less cramped.

We had planned to returned to a place for ice cream--we had even discussed and selected our flavors (banana and galangal)--but nixed the idea because it required too much of a walk in the heat.

We walked back to our hotel from downtown, seeing a variety of sights along the way (mostly documented by the pictures). We stopped by the McDermott Gallery, a gallery created by a photographer famous for his pictures of Angkor. And, yes, he had some pictures that I wish I took. Anyway, we ambled slowly back to our hotel, partially due to the heat and partially because I was feeling a little odd (and hence I had less energy than usual).

Our tour guide picked us up at our hotel and delivered us to the airport, and we returned to Singapore. Di Yin flew economy; I flew back to Singapore on business class because, when I bought the ticket, it was the only ticket available. Sitting in business class, I got lots of attention, which was a little overwhelming at first.

Cambodia: Feb 18: Floating Village, War Museum, Artisan School, and more

For a change, we spent time on Thursday seeing things besides temples (though we did spend half the day seeing temples too). I took a ton of pictures. Di Yin also took many. The latter link goes to the first picture from this day (picture #325) in her album from our trip to Singapore and Cambodia. When you see a dark, blurry picture of jackfruit (our dinner's dessert) (picture #450), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the later pictures in the following posts.

After our long previous day, we slept 9.5 hours before being woken by my alarm. We had breakfast in our hotel again, which was much less crowded today at 8am than yesterday at 7am. We then ventured out to see a few more temples and other sites. The largest place we visited was Preah Khan (Sacred Sword Temple), which was like Ta Prohm in that both are partially collapsed and somewhat invaded by trees.

For lunch, our tour guide brought us to downtown Siem Reap where we had a good, interesting meal at The Blue Pumpkin, a place so welcoming and with a tempting, eclectic menu that I'd probably visit it regularly if it were in California.

Our tour guide picked us up and brought us to the War Museum, a haunting place with many tanks, assorted artillery, some rocket launchers, guns, and more, supplied by Russia, China, and the United States. We also saw a variety of land mines and their different effects, trigger methods, etc. Our general tour guide handed us off to a specialist guide for the museum. The museum's guide, younger than us, grew up during the war. He can recount many personal, brutal stories: encounters with mines, grenades, etc. We kept needing to stop him from telling us some of the disturbing details and from showing us his eye injury. While I think seeing this museum and hearing these tales is important, I'm glad this will be my only encounter with the brutal recent history of this country. Even this was a little too much.

Next up was a school for artisans, designed to teach disadvantaged young people traditional handicrafts. The public is allowed to tour the school and see people at work. It was neat watching these skilled artists at work; we saw silk painting, wood carving, soap carving, lacquering, varnishing, and stone carving. Some of the pieces went through a process to make them look more antique. (I'm not sure how I feel about that.) Most items produced are high quality and are for sale at the school's shop. Like the museum, we also had a specialist guide here, though this one was in too much of a hurry -- I didn't get to watch the artists as much as I wanted.

Our last outing of the day, and the one that took the longest, was a visit to a floating village outside of town. We took a tuk-tuk there rather than our regular car. Though I think the switch was because our guide was saving gas money, I liked the substitution because the tuk-tuk let me take many pictures of town and rural life at a slower speed and without any obstruction from windows. Our guide had discouraged us from going to the village, claiming it was dirty and smelly this time of year. While it was a bit dirty, it wasn't that dirty and it certainly didn't smell. In fact, I thought the trip was really cool, both the boat ride around the floating village and the tuk-tuk ride.

We returned, ate an early dinner, and retired to our hotel.

Cambodia: Feb 17: More Angkor Sites

Wednesday was a long day, beginning at 5:30am and ending at 9pm. We awoke so early to see Angkor Wat at dawn; we ended so late to see a Cambodian dance performance. In between, we saw many temples. Again, I documented this day with nearly a hundred pictures (yet I wish I took more). Di Yin also took many. The latter link goes to the first picture from this day (picture #233) in her album from our trip to Singapore and Cambodia. When you see a picture of women in the back of a pickup truck (picture #325), you've reached the next day's pictures. I'll link to those pictures in the next post.

Watching the sun rise at Angkor Wat wasn't as impressive as I was led to believe it was going to be. Frankly, watching the sun rise behind any structure, which makes it hard to see anything but silhouettes, makes for pictures that hide many of the features that make a place interesting. The only picture I really like from the morning looked westward.

After dawn, we returned to our hotel for breakfast, then departed again at 9am for more adventuring. We explored a few temples, including Ta Prohm, also known as the Jungle Temple because it was taken over by huge trees and forest. While most of the forest has been trimmed back / cleaned up, some huge trees were left because they've grown through the walls and buildings such that removing them would cause a collapse. I'm glad some trees are left; I love the atmosphere they lend the temple. Something about the decrepitude of it appeals to me.

For lunch, we were deposited at the restaurant Borey Sovann, where we had another decent meal. After lunch, rather than let our guide drive us back to our hotel (as he suggested), we decided to explore downtown Siem Reap and have him pick us up there for our mid-afternoon and later activities.

We wandered around the Old Market (Phsar Chas) and the touristy center of Siem Reap. The Old Market, which has both food for locals and retail shops for tourists, is big, and most people in the retail section are foreign. The food market is much like food markets in Shanghai, just with more flies. The retail section is also like tourist markets in China in that there are many identical stalls selling identical goods.

When our guide picked us up again, he took us to see more of Angkor Thom. We first stopped to browse the reliefs on the outer temples surrounding Bayon and to see the temples nearby. The reliefs cover a surprising variety of topics, as I discussed in more detail in my overview post. We then drove a little farther and walked along two famous carved terraces, at the same time glimpsing yet two more temples through the trees.

We also stopped by a small exhibit on how the Angkor temples are being restored. Restoration is made harder because they need to find stone of the same color and properties as stone already there, and the only source for this stone that they discovered is near the former base of the Khmer Rouge, a heavily mined region.

After the terraces, we headed to Phnom Bakheng, a temple at the top of a hill, to view the sunset. We hiked up the hill along with hundreds of other tourists. We actually went down the hill before the sun turned a brilliant red because we had to return for dinner and a show. Although the view from the top wasn't that exciting, I was a bit annoyed we had to leave early. While I appreciated that we got to descend before most of the crowd, I think it was bad planning of our tour guide, who, when re-scheduling our itinerary compared to what the tour company planned, scheduled the sunset viewing and the dinner show on the same night. (Our tour guide rearranged the schedule based on how crowded things were and, in his experience, the best times of day to be certain places.)

Our dinner destination was the oddly-named Amazon Angkor, where we partook of an extensive buffet and watched traditional Khmer dances. The meal was okay; I found a couple dishes I liked. Some dishes at the buffet were made as we watched (e.g., pad thai, papaya salad), though that didn't make them any better than the other dishes.

The show, on the other hand, was pretty fun. I recorded some pictures and movies.

Returning to our hotel, we called it a day.

Cambodia: Feb 16: Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

To get to Cambodia from Singapore, we awoke at 4:15am to get to the airport for our god-awful-early 6:00am flight to Siem Reap. We had a night-time stroll through Changi Airport's small cactus garden. (Yes, Changi has a cactus garden along with, according to the airport guide, other gardens and additional diversions such as art exhibits.)

Our flight to Siem Reap was uneventful. Upon landing, though, we couldn't find our tour guide! Di Yin took control, borrowed a cell phone, made some calls, and he soon showed. Apparently he'd been having digestive problems for the last few days after drinking too much at a lunar new year party.

He and the driver brought us to our hotel, the Angkor Home Hotel, where we checked in and had a breather before heading out again. The hotel was nice, and our suite especially snazzy. It's at this point that I began taking pictures.

Incidentally, Di Yin also took many pictures this day. The link goes to the first picture from this day (picture #98) in her album from our trip to Singapore and Cambodia. When you see a picture of me lying in bed (picture #232), you're done with her pictures from the day. I'll link to the rest in later posts.

When we headed out, we went straight to the Angkor Archaeological Park, got photographed and received our three-day passes (which had our pictures on them), and began exploring Angkor Wat. After exploring Angkor Wat, both its outer and inner temples, our guide brought us to an adjacent monastery to look around. Then it was lunchtime, and our guide dropped us off at our arranged lunch spot, a restaurant literally across from the street from Angkor Wat's moat. Our lunch was good. I thought we chose dishes well, but as it turns out my happiness was just the first sign that we generally like Cambodian food.

After lunch, we drove a little farther north to the south gate of Angkor Thom. The driver dropped us off and we walked across the bridge and through the gate and got picked up on the other side. hehe. Though I laugh, I admit that this method of seeing the moat and gate was much better than, say, stopping the car, looking around, taking pictures, and getting right back in.

We continued north to Bayon, the temple in the center of Angkor Thom. I enjoyed Bayon more than Angkor Wat because Bayon is smaller, more compact, and therefore more dense, more intense. Of course, this impression may be simply because we ignored the surrounding temples within Angkor Thom, saving them for another day, whereas we walked through most of the temples in the Angkor Wat complex.

Bayon is noteworthy for its two hundred (or so) Buddha faces carved into the several dozen towers in the temple, often four faces per tower with one facing in each direction. It's remarkable--everywhere you looked, you saw these faces gazing down on you. These faces are the thing I most remember from this trip to Cambodia. Although I took many pictures this day, I nevertheless wish I took more here. I didn't take many, and those I did often didn't come out as well as I hoped.

We left Angkor Park and thus ended our exploration for the day. Yes, irritatingly, our tour guide dropped us off at our hotel at 3:30pm. I wanted to explore more! But, as I lay in bed, relaxing, and then went swimming (our hotel has a pool), I got more comfortable with the idea. Besides, I couldn't ask someone who has to do this job day in day out to mirror my intense exploration days. Also, our tour guide was feeling sick from something he ate.

Our dinner voucher was for the restaurant next door to our hotel. The restaurant was empty when we arrived and only welcomed one other couple during the time we were there. Nevertheless, the food was decent all around.

Cambodia Overview (Siem Reap, Angkor)

I spent Tuesday, February 16, 2010, through Friday, February 19, in Cambodia, exploring the Angkor temple complexes (world heritage sites) and Siem Reap (the adjacent town).

Although Cambodia certainly is a developing country, the Angkor area is such a tourist destination that Siem Reap has become a town that is comfortable for foreign visitors. It's developed rapidly and now has many modern hotels. The town itself is pleasant, very walkable, and has a nice river. It's easy to navigate without speaking the local language. People who work in Siem Reap know enough English to do business in it: restaurateurs can converse about their dishes in English; tuk-tuk drivers can talk about where you want to go; salespeople can tell you what a great product they're selling and why you should want it enough to pay their absurdly high opening offer (which you'll end up paying less than a third of).

The vast majority of transactions take place in U.S. dollars! I didn't believe it at first when I read it in a guidebook, but it's true. And it's true not only in places on the regular tourist track such as historic sites or restaurants; it's also everyday places such as a local grocery store I wandered into. I think the choice of a non-Cambodian working currency reflects more the level of trust in the Cambodian economy than in the number of tourists in town. (Even the fee one must pay the government for an overstayed visa must be paid in dollars!)

As a developing country, most roads in Siem Reap aren't paved, and there are few traffic lights. Nevertheless, drivers are careful: they signal, proceed slowly, and are reasonably courteous; the the lack of traffic lights doesn't seem to be much of a problem. Obviously, larger, heavier vehicles have priority, but everything seems to work okay. Also, there's little honking (in contrast to India). Also in contrast to India, it felt as if there was relatively little pollution. The only time I noticed pollution was while walking alongside a major road, and that's to be expected. I had imagined that tuk-tuks, which are rickshaws made of a motorcycle pulling a covered seat in the rear, would be polluting, but I guess there aren't enough vehicles (tuk-tuks, cars, buses, or otherwise) to amount to much pollution in the end.

We discovered we like Cambodian food. It's a pleasing blend of Thai and Vietnamese dishes.

Di Yin noticed that Cambodians seem possessive of their country and government. For instance, people seem to say "my country" and "my hometown" and "my king" rather than, as people say in other places I've been, "the king", "the president", and "I grew up in ..." I'm not sure what this implies, but it's an interesting linguistic observation.

We visited in the cooler, drier season. Nevertheless, it was hot! I wrote in my notes on the first day that it was like a furnace in the sun. Also, the sky was rarely cloudy, which meant we were often in the sun unless we were under the cover of ruins or in the car. The clear skies also had another negative effect: it sometimes spoiled pictures. In particular, the blazing sun made it difficult to get the contrast right; shaded buildings would be black and bright objects would be overexposed whiteness.

Being Hassled
In Angkor itself, I was repeatedly offered t-shirts, books about Angkor, postcards, fruit, and drinks. Sometimes people asked a few times, not taking the initial "no." In this way, it was like traveling in India. However, in Siem Reap, the shopkeepers and tuk-tuk drivers usually asked once, then left me alone. They seemed to respect my answer more (or cared less about doing business), and fewer tried to engage me in conversation as an indirect way of getting business (or perhaps they were simply less interested in foreigners). Whatever the reasons, I found walking around town fairly comfortable (in terms of how I was treated, not in terms of temperature), less irritating than walking around towns during my trip to India.

Historical background: The Khmer empire ruled the region for several hundred years around the turn of the first millennium. The Angkor temples were mostly built around the twelfth century, during the height of the Khmer empire, at which time Angkor served as the empire's capital.

As for the Angkor complex itself, it wasn't like I expected in both state and size. I expected a couple of impressive, moderately-sized ancient temples. What I got was a large number of large old temples that clearly have been neglected for hundreds of years and are now in varying states of disrepair. That said, the way in which these temples have begun crumbling / succumbing to attacks by nature can be rather attractive. Some of the most memorable photos I took are of temples (about a millennium old) that came into conflict with now-huge trees (several hundred years old) and of the way in which both bent, warped, twisted, and sometimes broke as a result. Incidentally, these trees are usually the members of the group referred to as strangler figs, an appropriate name given their destructive power.

In addition to the temples' state, the size of the Angkor temple complex was the other way in which things weren't as I expected. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are large, grandiose, royal. They're meant to impress by sheer scope. In addition to these two huge temple complexes, each with outer walls, moats, and a series of large multi-level concentric temples within, there are dozens of other temples, many sizable and interesting in their own right. For instance, to give a sense of the size of the area: it takes half an hour of driving (at admittedly not a high speed) to go from the park's entrance, to and around Angkor Wat, through the gates of Angkor Thom, and around its central temple to the rows of temples and terraces on the far side. (And this is the densest part of the archaeological park--there are temples farther afield then these.)

Given the size and history of the Angkor area, I can certainly understand why the Cambodian government chose to put images of the temples on its flag and on its money: it gives the country an aura of historical depth and of size and formidability that it perhaps lacks in the modern world.

Both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom have stone reliefs worth highlighting in this post. I'm not referring to the numerous reliefs of aspara dancers--I guess artists everywhere like portraying images of semi-nude women--; rather, I'm referring to the hundreds of meters of continuous reliefs covering a surprising variety of topics. Many reliefs present images of wars, but they also show sports (e.g., cock fighting, dog fighting, boxing) and scenes from normal life (e.g., the market, the zoo, a barbecue). One guidebook says there's a "real sense of humanity to these images."

Other Highlights
I greatly enjoyed my rickshaw ride to the floating village and the floating village itself. It provided an attractive, interesting peek at the daily life of these sub-urban and rural Cambodians. (I wonder how similar their lives are to people living in rural China. Though I'm living in China, I haven't visited rural China so I can't make the comparison.)

Package Tour / Guide
I enjoyed traveling as part of a package tour. (I selected this three-day tour but stayed an extra day.) This tour was private--just Di Yin and I--which meant we could stay as long (or as short) as we wanted at every site. No waiting for or being hurried by people I don't know!

The great benefit of the tour was that they arranged everything, and arranged everything well. We liked the hotel they picked for us; we enjoyed the selection of restaurants; I appreciated not having to do research to decide which sights to visit and when (e.g., which temples to see and what time of day to see them at) and where to eat and what to order; we liked having an air-conditioned car and driver and a trunk-full of bottles of water that were there for us whenever we wanted.

The only feature Di Yin and I didn't like about our package tour was the guide. It was clear he doesn't like his job, which he does rather perfunctorily. By listening sporadically to other guides (when we were within earshot), I can say definitively that he knows less than them.

Di Yin says even if the guide did nothing else, he's worth it for pointing out where good photo opportunities are and for his willingness to take pictures of us.

Also, as a meta-observation, I enjoyed paying in a lump-sum and not having to deal with or think about money on a per-expense basis. We had vouchers for all our meals, shows, and entrance fees. We could decide what to eat without feeling guilty: "maybe I shouldn't order that; it's likely over-priced." Indeed, in most of the restaurants we visited, we weren't even given menus with prices. Also, the hotel we stayed in was nicer than what I would've likely booked myself had I needed to think about its price individually, but I don't regret in the least paying for a package that put us in a nice hotel.

Other Observations

  • Many businesses advertised themselves as "run by the Japanese." One could take this as an indication of respect for Japanese management culture or as a lack of respect for Cambodian management. Some may also take it as an indication--I don't--that all the profits from developing Cambodia are going to people in other countries.
  • We saw a large number of (tame) stray dogs.
  • Cambodia, at least the part around Siem Reap, is remarkably flat.
  • It's probably some combination of the temperature and the humidity, but Cambodia does good things to my hair. :)
  • Before being ruled by the Khmer Rouge (which I'm sure everyone has heard of), Cambodia was a French colony (like Vietnam). I can't believe I didn't know that previously!

Singapore: Feb 15: Joo Chiat, Katong

On my last visit to Singapore, I visited only part of the Joo Chiat neighborhood in Katong. This time, our hotel was in this neighborhood, giving me the easy opportunity to finish my walking tour. We did. I took this smattering of pictures along the way. Di Yin also took pictures this day. The link goes to the first picture from this day (picture #76) in the album. When you see a picture of a woman sitting with a kitten at a bus stop (picture #97), you're done with her pictures from the day. I'll link to the rest in later posts.

The area feels like a neighborhood. The main street, Joo Chiat Road, has many clubs, especially ktv clubs (a type of karaoke club, sometimes sketchy). I was surprised to find a museum in this neighborhood: an upper floor of the Eurasian Community Centre has a display on Eurasians in Singapore during WWII. The exhibit was brought effectively to life by quotes from people who were there and by newspaper clippings.

We tried to have an early lunch (I had only a slice of pineapple for breakfast) at one of the famous Katong laksa places. However, they were all closed for the holiday. :( Instead, we returned to the Geylang Serai hawker centre, where I had a meal that completely satisfied me.

After lunch, we returned to our hotel for a quick shower--walking around in the blazing sun causes one to sweat--then headed to my company's office to relax and do some planning using the internet. Later, we headed to a friend's place for dinner with him and his family. (We also visited them on our previous trip to Singapore.) We had some good grilled steak for dinner (apparently he's now into meat) and received a tour of his awesome house. (He moved since our last visit.) The new house is very well designed. I want to live there. Sorry, I won't attempt to describe the house in writing in this post.

We returned home to go to bed early: the following morning we were flying to Cambodia.

Singapore: Feb 14: Chinese New Year Festivities and more

I took these pictures this day, which we devoted to exploring Chinatown. I'd hoped it would be lively on Chinese New Year's Day. Instead, it was the quietest I've ever seen it.

Di Yin, as usual, took more pictures than I. The link goes to the first picture from this day in her album from this trip (picture #4). When you hit a picture of a sleeping cat (#70), you're done with the pictures for the day. I'll link to the rest in later posts.

Di Yin ate breakfast at the Geylang Serai hawker centre, kitty corner from our hotel. (This is not the same hawker centre, also a block from our hotel, where we ate the previous night.) Because the neighborhood is mostly Malaysian/Muslim, biryani and nasi-something places abounded, some with long queues, others with shorter. Di Yin got a nasi padang (from a stall with a long queue) with fried chicken, eggplant, cabbage, cabbage and tofu, and some sort of shredded stuff. The whole plate was delicious. (I tried it.) I waited to have my small breakfast at a different hawker centre--there was a dish I was eying.

After breakfast, we rode a double-decker bus to Chinatown, then wandered through Chinatown, which was mostly shut. We saw lots of remains from the big party the previous night.

For lunch, we hunted for a food place that was open and inspired us. After much trying, we ended up at the dependable Maxwell's Hawker Centre.

We relaxed a bit in my company's Singapore offices. Combine beanbag chairs and massage chairs with great views, good snacks, a pleasant temperature, and wireless internet -- what more could one want?

In late afternoon, we emerged from our lair to explore the River Hongbao Festival, a festival related to Chinese New Year, in Marina Bay (a waterfront near the spiky building). Marina Bay was a happening part of town: the activities I expected in Chinatown were occurring here. We found a carnival, many new year's displays, and crowds.

The festival was jointly sponsored by / celebrating a partnership between Singapore and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China. As such, the food pavilion was devoted to Sichuan food. I ate dinner there. Di Yin doesn't go for most Sichuan food; she waited for dinner until we retreated to an air-conditioned mall. In the mall she had delicious chicken rice. (I tried her food again.) How does she always pick so well?

After dinner, we went to Orchard Road, walked around a bit, then went back to our hotel. On the way back, we passed an amazingly long series of blocks filled with fruit and vegetable markets. We also passed block after block with tables set outside with people eating. Gosh, I like Singapore.

Singapore: Feb 13: Arrival

After making our way to our hotel and dropping our stuff off, we ventured out to a hawker center a block away for an evening snack. It was open! (This surprised me given that it was 10 or 11pm on Chinese New Year Eve. Many hawker centres aren't open that late on a regular day. This center has long hours and apparently not everyone in Singapore celebrates the holiday.) As we'd learn over the next few days, we were in a lively part of town, and the nearby hawker centers always seemed to be open.

We stayed in the Hotel 81 Classic, a budget hotel on the airport side of the city. You know it's a budget hotel when it has no windows and the staff hands you a television remote along with your room key (which, incidentally, is a physical key, not an electronic one). In addition, the mattress is plastic (and clearly felt through the sheets), the air conditioning unit has no controls, and there's no shower curtain. Nevertheless, we survived our stay after I learned what I needed to wear to sleep to be comfortable given the temperature and the mattress.

I didn't take any pictures on the way to Singapore. Di Yin took three: one, two, three. I'll link to the rest of her pictures from this trip (as well as mine) in later posts.

Singapore Overview

Over Chinese New Year, I escaped Shanghai for Singapore. I selected Singapore because I wanted to spend the time in a place I like, and where I could relax, easily get around, eat well, be warm, and yet have Chinese New Year activities.

I was in Singapore from Saturday night, February 13, 2010, through early Tuesday morning, February 16, and then again from Friday night, February 19, through Wednesday, February 24. (I left Singapore for Cambodia in the middle of week. I'll write about that trip in a series of other posts.)

As this was my third (and fourth, depending on how you count) trip to Singapore, I don't have many new impressions of Singapore to add to my first two overview posts.

On this trip I had a new reaction to Singapore's climate. It was hot and dry when we landed and walked to our hotel. This was uncomfortable weather, making me wonder how I could've forgiven Singapore for its climate on my past visits. Happily, the next day was less hot (though of course still hot) and it was much easier to survive. We also decided on that day that the area we were staying in tends to be slightly warmer than elsewhere in Singapore. From those two observations, I forgave my initial reaction. The following day, however, it was blazingly hot and sunny in our neighborhood. Maybe Singapore is icky after all, or maybe we just walked around too much. It's not a climate in which one should go on long, exploratory hikes.

Coming from Shanghai, I found it hard to get used to crossing the street in Singapore--cars actually stop when you stand near a cross-walk and look like you want to cross!

Also, although I've mentioned this before, I'll mention it again: I'm continually impressed how Singapore's government publishes good guides: walking tours of numerous districts, guides to local food specialists, event guides, overviews of tourist attractions, and even guides with descriptions of fun activities in the airport. Every time I travel to Singapore I discover new ones. They're all designed, organized, and presented well, and contain useful and interesting information.

Shorter observations/comments:

  • I only now noticed that cameras are everywhere in the subway system.
  • I appreciate that food comes in appropriate portion sizes, not in enormous American sizes.
  • I still like the variety and availability of drinks, often freshly blended juices. On this trip, I had watermelon juice, barley tea, ginger tea, oolong tea, and water chestnut juice.
  • Books are expensive.
Sometime around this trip, I learned some interesting little-known facts about Singapore:
  • Singapore had a two-child policy for a while, though it now has many government incentives to encourage people (especially educated citizens) to have three or more. The article, Fertility and Population Policy: The Singapore Experience by Yap Mui Teng, published in 2003 in the Journal of Population and Social Security: Population Study, has a good overview of the policies and their effects. For more analytic articles about Singapore's population, aging, and government policies, see Yap Mui Teng's home page at Institute of Policy Studies in the National Institute of Singapore.
  • Singapore censors and sometimes surveils. I always knew Singapore's government strictly enforces some stringent policies, and I knew at a subconscious level that this includes censoring media (in all its forms). However, because I'm bothered that I sometimes forget this fact at a conscious level, I'm posting this bullet to the blog. By the way, here's the best overview of censorship in Singapore.
  • It's illegal to not flush a toilet.

For my own reference, some other activities I'd still like to try in Singapore (i.e., things I haven't yet done on these multiple trips):
  • Explore more neighborhoods, especially via self-guided walking tours, and more parks and nature.
  • Take a bumboat ride on the Singapore River?
  • Visit Sentosa's Butterfly Park?
  • Wander through Haw Par Villa (a.k.a. Tiger Balm Gardens), an old theme park filled with statues and dioramas from Chinese myths/stories.
  • Play LilliPutt miniature golf, a miniature golf course with tiny models of Singapore's sights?
  • Fish at Yishun Bottle Tree Park or the Jurong Hill Prawn Fishing & Beer Garden?
and some other dishes I've still missed:
  • Yusheng ("prosperity") salad. A salad of raw fish, vegetables, and sauces commonly eaten among Chinese people in southeast Asia during Chinese New Year.
  • roti john.
  • yong tau foo.
(I can't believe I've nearly tackled my entire to-eat-in-Singapore list -- I thought it was almost impossibly long!)