SE Asia

Singapore - Welcome to the Future

Singapore is like stepping into the an episode of the Jetsons.  It's unlike any other place we’ve ever been, and it stands in juxtaposition to all other countries in SE Asia with its cleanliness, efficiency, and economy.  Needless to say, the nerds in us loved this place.

A quick back-story—Singapore was a British colony until granted independence shortly after World War II.  Unfortunately, the war had destroyed its infrastructure and the country was a mess.  The government merged with Malaysia in an attempt to get balance and upswing, but the two governments disagreed on huge amounts of policy.  The result was a vote in 1965 by the Malaysian Parliament to kick Singapore out of the club .  What happened next defies all normal standards.

Singapore was left with no economy, infrastructure, or organization of any kind.  A family friend, who has lived through Singapore’s tumultuous 50 years, describes the Prime Minister’s speech as saying “We are on our own.”  The government’s first stroke of brilliance was allowing the British forces to stay on the island at their base, therefore protecting the island from invasion.  With safety guaranteed, they fixated on economy.  To oversimplify, the government focused on making Singapore the ideal place to invest.  In the span of a single generation, Singapore moved from a third-world economy to first-world affluence.  Today, it is an international hub of commerce, finance, and transportation with the 3rd highest GDP per capita in the world. 

There is nowhere else like it.  The taxi drivers beam with pride when speaking of Singapore’s technology sector.  It’s illegal to chew gum or spit in the street (after going to the rest of SE Asia, we understand why…).  The Botanical Gardens alone are a testament to scientific achievement and advancement. 

Unfortunately it’s also expensive, so we were back on the hostel route so we could focus on activities.  First up was a walk around to get our bearings and admire the gorgeous architecture.  WOW.  Next we hit up a Blakely delight—the Gardens by the Bay.  Gardens by the Bay is a national park spanning 350 acres and is part of the strategy to transform Singapore into a “Garden City.”  The Gardens consist of three waterfront gardens that each showcase different flora and fauna.  They hold conservatories, themed gardens, a flower dome, children’s garden, and on and on. 

Singapore Skyline
Singapore skyline
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the Bay
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the bay
Garden by the Bay
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The Supertrees deserve their own entry—they are vertical gardens for unique and exotic ferns, vines, and orchids.  They are outfitted with technology that mimics the function of trees—harnessing solar energy, rainwater, and even serving as part of the conservatories’ cooling system through intake and exhaust functions.  So.  Cool.  As if that isn’t enough, at night there is a music show called the OCBC Garden Rhapsody, and when we went it was Broadway themed.  Blakely’s heaven realized.

Supertrees
Supertrees
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Supertree Night Performance

In a world of juxtaposition, it somehow fits that besides efficiency, cleanliness, and economy, Singapore is known for its street food.  Our two favorite places were the Singapore Food Trail and the Maxwell Food Hawkers.  Absolutely delicious.

Maxwell Food Hawkers
Hawkers Food

To complete our garden tour, we headed to the famed Botanical Gardens, which holds the world-renowned Orchid Garden.  Of course, being Singapore, this isn’t merely a garden, but an opportunity for botanists and scientists to mix super-orchids.  Then, the PR team comes in to dedicate each unique orchid to a world celebrity.  Brilliant.  We even went back later for a picnic and performance by the orchestra!

Singapore Botanical Garden
Singapore Garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
VIP orchid garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore Orchid
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore botanical gardens

The last nature activity we recommend is a MUST: The Singapore Zoo.  You’ve likely been to zoos before, but none like this.  The cleanliness, organization, and range of animals are of course incredible.  But feeding the giraffes stands as a highlight of our entire trip.  Their purple tongues are huge and it was such a surreal experience (in a trip of many surreal experiences).

Feed Giraffe
Giraffe tongue
Feed Giraffe Singapore Zoo
Giraffe Tongue

When this next museum was recommended to us, we were a little skeptical.  However, it’s no exaggeration to say it was one of the most fascinating we’ve ever been to.  The Singapore City Gallery is a museum dedicated to Singapore’s development over the past 50 years (sounds like a snooze fest, but trust us).  Full of interactive exhibits and even an enormous model replica of the country, we never expected a development museum to be so cool.  Living in New York has given us a huge respect for city planning and efficiencies, and learning more about Singapore was invaluable in understanding its uniqueness.  The museum is an absolute must.

Singapore City Museum
Singapore skyline
Singapore Skyline

We didn’t only tour and nerd out—one night we dressed up and headed to swanky cocktails at Mischief and the fabulous Marina Bay Sands casino for a taste of how Asians gamble.  VERY bizarre experience.

Marina Bay Sands Casino

Gambling is HUGE in Asia, where luck and superstitions are constantly considered when making everyday choices.   Even casinos in the U.S. have caught on and market heavily to Asian tourists as well as provide food and entertainment to interest them.  But this Singapore casino was far from the Vegas experience—no smiles, no loud voices, and we were the only ones we could see drinking.  The blackjack dealers don’t give advice based how close you are to 21, but how lucky the numbers are that you’ve been dealt.  The patrons took their gambling seriously, and it was clear that this was not a game to them.

Our last favorite was one of luxury, and cheating on the roughing it theme of our adventure.  But when spending 12 months in transit through foreign lands, these breaks become necessary.  We treated ourselves to a full American diner dinner, a walk around one of the gorgeous luxury malls, and a full movie in blissful air condition.  Worth the cheat night.

Singapore Luxury Mall
Singapore American Dinner
Singapore American Dinner

This break was especially necessary because of where we headed next.  Continuing our current theme of contrasts, we headed to a country that is possibly Singapore’s opposite:  India. 

Laos or Bust

Laos is one of the few places in Southeast Asia that remains off the beaten path.  That makes it more valuable of a trip, but also more difficult to explore.  Luckily, Blakely’s hometown friend Ryan found love and relocated to a charming, old French colonial town in Laos, and he showed us the best and behind the scenes spots of this spectacular place.

Luang Prabang is the cultural center of Laos and the headquarters for any visit.  We stayed in a fabulously central hotel called the Vilayvanh Guesthouse, which allowed us to walk most places on our list.  Our first dinner was a treat:  Buffet with the locals where we barbequed our own meat in hot oil in the center of the table.  YUM.

The next day, Ryan and his fabulous wife Daolinh took us to a festival that her family’s village had that day in honor of the harvest season.  It was an invaluable opportunity to be hosted in such style by her family and friends.  We tried to keep up, but these people know how to party!

This traditional preparation of purple rice cooked in bamboo was absolutely fabulous.

Crunchy crickets were....crunchy.

That day, we also stopped by a local treasure, the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls.  It was perfect for the hot day and gorgeous to explore. 

Laos Waterfall

For dinner, they took us to Secret Pizza—an absolute must for your stay in Luang Prabang.  They serve delicious Italian cuisine (our favorite and something we hadn’t had in QUITE a while!) and the ambience is super fun and casual.

One of the coolest things to see around Luang Prabang were the monks.  More on them later!

Laos Monks

 

For the weekend, we traveled to a river village called Nong Khiaw for a little getaway.  The hotel, Nong Khiaw River Cottages, had gorgeous standalone cottages that overlooked the river (I guess the name is a giveaway!).  They perfectly combine comfort with luxury. 

Nong Khiaw holds lots of fun activities, but first we chose a bike ride to the local caves.  The countryside is gorgeous to bike through, and the caves were super cool, even though Blakely isn’t such a cave person.

The next day, we took a boat ride down the river with a few friends of Ryan and Daolinh.  Not only did they catch our lunch, they proceeded to grill it right on the riverbank using bamboo.  We ate on huge banana leaves, and we tried to act like this was something we did every day.  What the photos can’t show is the crazy music blaring—Laotians LOVE their music. 

Afterwards, we had drinks at the boat driver’s house with his lovely family, where the music and fun continued.

Laos Drinks

This baby was absolutely passed out, despite the blaring music!

Laos Picnic

That night, we had dinner at a local nameless duck restaurant, and then had one of the best nights of our trip.  We were met by two of Daolinh’s friends, who were off duty from guiding a tour group.  We loaded into the tour van, and they took us to a local karaoke place.  If you’ve never been to karaoke in Asia, YOU MUST.  It is a necessary cultural experience because it is SO different from any other karaoke.  Singers remain seated, and grown men in business suits go by themselves and proceed to sing love ballads endearingly, though rather quietly, into the mic.  This particular karaoke place didn’t have many English songs or a list of what songs it had, but we were in luck and were still able to sing our rendition of New York, New York (with all of the hand motions, of course).  In our passion for the song, we forgot the no stand-up custom, but our performance was all the better for it.   Obviously, Blakely wowed with belting out, at the top of her Southern choir trained lungs, I Will Always Love You.  While there is footage of the performance, it will never see the light of day.  To our valued readers, we do offer these snapshots so you can fill in the blanks.

Every performer knows you end on a curtsey.

Every performer knows you end on a curtsey.

We’re positive those poor businessmen will never be the same. 

We finished our fabulous time at a late-night bocce bar (they call it pétanque, thanks to the French).  Who won the game?  No idea.

We went back to Luang Prabang, but before departing Laos we were able to witness a must—the Alms Giving.  Every morning, the monks travel around the city to collect their food for the day.  The citizens turn out in droves and give food on bended knee.  Super early, but really cool to see.

Laos alms giving
Laos Alms Giving

Our time in Laos was exceptional to our trip, and it was all thanks to our remarkable hosts, the warm welcome of every Laotian we met, and a fabulous karaoke hut.

Cambodia: Lara Croft vs Indiana Jones

So, a little background first:  Siem Reap in Cambodia holds one of the most fascinating cultural treasures in the world—the city of Angkor.  Ankgor is a humongous park (over 1,000 square kilometers) with over one thousand temples and, as you wander and explore, you begin to glimpse the awesomeness that this ancient city once was.  The city held one of our world’s greatest civilizations, the Khmer people, and ranks up there with Rome, Athens, and our other magnificent ancient cities.  The city’s prime was from the 9th-15th centuries, when it wasn’t only wealthy and technologically advanced, but held an enormous percentage of the world’s population.  At its peak, the city occupied an area greater than modern Paris, and its buildings use far more stones than all of the Egyptian structures combined (Wowza).  

Today, Angkor is one of the world’s top travel destinations and we were able to Indiana Jones/Lara Croft style explore the gorgeous temples (minus the tomb raiding of course).  Each temple was more marvelousness than the last and they peak at the great Ankgor Wat, the world’s largest single religious monument.  While you can zip in and out in 2 days, we splurged and spent 4 days exploring.

Explore Angkor Cambodia

The unstoppable jungle has crept up on Angkor, but the result is a beautiful blend of nature and man.  Massive vines encircle the crumbling temples, which give way to gigantic trees that have replaced the temple ceilings.  And the size of Angkor means that, despite two million visitors annually, you get much of the complex to yourself.

We hired a local tuktuk driver and he became our guide and friend for the 4 days.  With Mr. Reth’s help, we visited over 15 temples!  So as to not bore you with nerding out on all of them, here are our 3 favorite visits.

 

The Bayon— aka The Temple of Many Faces

This temple is our favorite because, while being breathtaking, it is also strikingly different from every other temple in Angkor.  Its most notable feature is the over 200 gigantic faces that cover the towers.  All of the faces have a serene smile that exude an enormous amount of peace, despite 400 eyes on you being slightly unsettling.  The temple is primarily dedicated to Buddha, which brings us to another interesting fact about Angkor.

The years of Angkor’s greatness saw two major religions:  first Hinduism and then Buddhism.  What’s amazing about this is that the transition of the two different religions was peaceful, and some temples are actually dedicated to both religions simultaneously.  This isn’t the only case we saw of Hinduism and Buddhism coexisting peacefully—Asia is full of examples where this is the case.  In a world that religious differences sow the most bitter and destructive divides, it’s remarkable that two major religions could be parallel as well as peaceful.

Angkor Wat— aka the ‘Why Everyone Comes to Angkor’ Temple

Angkor is the largest religious monument in the world and, as it continues to be a place of worship today, it is also the longest used religious site in the world's history.  It is certainly the largest and most elaborate of the Angkor temples, and a sure highlight to any visit.  Angkor Wat is the symbol of Cambodia and the epitome of Khmer architectural style.  It was designed to represent the Hindu’s equivalent of heaven, Mount Meru, and the home of the Hindu deities (the Mount Zion of Hinduism).  It is humbling to behold, especially if you get there for sunrise.

Ankgor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple, but gradually transitioned into a Buddhist temple as the culture of Ankgor changed.  Today, the orange garb of the monks and shrines contrast beautifully with the dark stone of the temples.

The Museum— aka What Does This All Mean?

If you have time, we highly recommend a stop by the Angkor National Museum to give meaning behind the beauty you’ve seen.  The museum building itself is gorgeously designed to showcase their well-done exhibits.  The galleries teach you of the Khmer empire using sculptures, interactive displays, movies and descriptions in 7 languages.  The museum does an exceptional job of informing and condensing the history and art of one of the greatest and most underrated ancient civilizations of the world. 

 

While the cultural aspects of Siem Reap are certainly the draw, we'd be remiss to not mention our other highlight:  The Phare Circus.  

The Phare Circus

The Phare is put on by the PPSA, which was founded by 9 men returning to Cambodia from refugee camps.  The men had found in the camps that art was a valuable tool for healing, and they began giving free drawing classes to young street children.  Over time, their efforts grew into a full K-12 education and art school and today they teach over 1,200 pupils.  All for free.

Ryan got a teensy bit too into it...

The Phare was a spectacular show and you absolutely can't miss it if you're in town.

It was a quick but full trip, and we were better for our time in Siem Reap.  We said goodbye to Mr. Reth, but promised to keep in touch on facebook and to always remember what we learned with him.

Next:  Visiting old friends in their new lives in Laos!