Posts Tagged ‘singapore’

When the opportunity to fly to Bali on a cheap flight out of Singapore came up I jumped at the chance. My wife Patricia and I had first visited together twenty two years before with an eighteen month old infant son in tow. We were stoked to go back on our own as fancy free adults and perhaps relive a few of the fantastic experiences we had wrought in the past. A S$-70 dollar return fare from Singers to Denpassar on Jet Star Air was the only catalyst we needed. Although we hadn’t planned to go to Indonesia the temptation was just too great. We were too far down the rabbit hole of close conversations over Masala Dosa about the ancient temples, beautiful beaches, enthralling culture and the magical Monkey Forest Road of Ubud and quickly talked ourselves into buying the tickets on a whim. If nothing else, Pat and I are whimsical travelers. As Oscar Wilde said “The only thing I can’t resist is temptation”.

The Mandarin Oriental hotel in Singapore we stay at as regular guests was happy to accommodate us by rearranging our reservations at no extra cost. They also offered to store our excess baggage in their left luggage closet for the week we would be away. My wife sometimes accuses me of being too chatty with every one we meet along the way, but I have found that by meeting people on their own terms and recognizing every person as a human being  brings great rewards. The main benefit of being easily recognized and generally well thought of is that most people will go out of their way to do special favours for you if they like you, so be nice to the staff fellow travelers, you may need a favour sometime. It’s OK to talk to strangers when you travel, within reason. I find great people everywhere we go. Being a loyal guest at hotel chains will also get you great upgrades and free breakfasts etc. I nurture my professional travel relationships for this reason.

Patricia and I still get excited when we travel. We still fight over the window seat, she always wins. The process of travel has become slightly more arduous because of  security and immigration concerns, but we turn a blind eye to all that and stay keen on the destination and never dwell on the hassles of getting there. When we’d last visited, Bali had been a highly spiritual place with peoples main focus being on their daily rituals. This was one of the main reasons the environment had been so endearing to us, it had been like living in a dreamworld of chanting, incense and flowers. Even further back, when I had first been there in the 70’s as a hippie trader, Bali had been an island of villages barely connected to one another let alone the pathways to the modern world. At the time we had last visited these neo-Hindu-Buddhist people had managed to escape the ravages of the twentieth century by some cultural miracle. To the relatively few spiritually sensitive westerners who had visited up until then, and I’m talking 1975, it was a heaven on Earth.

Until the age of guide books and the mass tourism that was created by their publication, Bali was a retreat for a few off beat surfers from Australia and California. Later came the routards who had chanced upon the stunning textile design, silver work and abundance of decaying wood sculpture by accidental cross cultural exchange between  surfers and the road warriors in spots like Oahu and Peru where meetings of travelers and surfers were common for the time. I started hearing of this fantastically creative place while traveling in India from other traders who were collecting goods for sale in the west as I was. Stories spread and attracted the guide book writers leading to the devastation of once pristine places every where.

Bali in the 70’s consisted of a few surf shacks bunched together along a pristine stretch of beach known as Kuta. The hippies had trekked into the hill country where the Ubud Balinese had established communities of traditional carvers, stone smiths, jewelers and textile weavers, all for use a ritual items in their ceremonies. The coolness factor was admired in the west as fashions were based on the display of oriental finery at the time. Anyone who got their hands on the products of Bali found themselves able to make easy money as these were the first Balinese offerings being made available and the styles were much more spiritually resplendent than the Indian wares had become. Families that had been producing traditional ritual finery from tiny jungle villages were finding that the hippy travelers were seeking them out and beginning to live among them.

Patricia and I were fortunate to see the last of that traditional Balinese culture as it had been practiced for centuries before tourism overwhelmed the island kingdom. Within five years of the Lonely Planet guide being published thousands upon thousands of mainstream backpackers had descended on Bali.  In a very short time foreigners began buying land and building guest bungalows for the invading hordes of magic mushroom and suntan seekers attracted by the prospect of piggybacking a spiritual experience for the duration of their package vacation. Balinese culture kept the facade of ‘cool’ flowing for a short while, but soon the Balinese were pushed out of the traditional village life by another group, the Javanese, who brought mainstream business from the ruling Indonesian culture to displace the old ways  with commerce.

Bali in the year 2012 is not the funky traditional village culture it once was. So what was the draw for us now? A S$70 ticket was one thing, another was the idea that we could possibility relive a past experience if we got off the beaten track and away from the tourist rut. This proved impossible, Bali has become a mere caricature of what it once was, scratch the surface and only tourist infrastructure remains. Kuta has become a bar zone and disco hovel for sex tourists and boozers of all ages from any number of countries. Gone are the quaint ceremonial customs replaced by hotel tourism and heavy traffic. Ubud’s Monkey Forest Road is now an end to end trail of exhaust belching tour buses filled with giddy tourists. There was a sweet fragrance to the island thirty years ago, now the sewage overflow stings the air and permeates every aspect of ones day.

Once pristine beaches are now dark with pollutants from the restaurants and hotels that have been piping them a short way out into the surf only to have the sewage wash ashore with the next high tide. The water is so thick with raw sewage effluent that it is impossible to imagine swimming anymore. In heavenly Ubud the same problem exists where the tourist structures all pipe the untreated effluent into streams running in the ravines behind the hotel strip but the water run is insufficient to carry the volume of muck away and the banks are layered with stinking toilet waste. In the upscale beach resort of Sanur I watched as the hotel staff had to continually rake the tidal sewage off the beach so that the tourists wouldn’t see what had come ashore. The water however was a grey greasy pulp in the same way as other beaches around the island. I found that the design world of the Balinese had been hijacked and has become boring and predictable, no longer driven by spirituality, but by commerce alone. In fact, one Australian ‘entrepreneur’ has legally copyrighted all the traditional designs so that no one can produce authentic pieces anymore. He lives in splendor, close to Ubud, in a spiritual graveyard of his own making, the master of nothing.

Anyone could argue that the tourist trade has increased the standard of living for the Balinese. Who am I to argue against these people joining in the rush towards modernity? Patricia and I continued to look for any signs that Bali was still alive under the thick blanket of mass tourism. The culture remains although barely noticeable. People have in fact joined the modern era, working seven days a week to pay off banks loans they have taken out towards mod-con appurtenances. But there is nothing of the Bali I knew left to make me want to visit again. After searching for something real we were left with the impression that an old friend had died. Rest in Peace Bali, we will never go back, as far as tourist destinations are concerned , there are much better preserved in the world. Bali has become a choice made available by ultra cheap air fare offerings. It is not a magical magnet that one must see.It is one of the most extreme examples of how the destructive power of the guide book culture can literally tear the soul out of a beautiful place and leave it unalterably changed.

International tourists come to Bali in droves, sold on the cheap tickets and the dreams that guide books still falsely perpetrate. These people see a sham of what the business community has designed for their temporary pleasure. I have gone on to seek my pleasures elsewhere.

My editor has requested that I try to keep my columns  to 2000 words or less. This is not normally an issue, but this week is different. I have recently completed a circumnavigation of the planet in the space of 30 days. I waited a lifetime to do this, 2000 words is hardly enough.

I had always dreamed about circumnavigating the planet. I had coveted those ‘around the world’ tickets advertised in the newspaper travel section since I was a little kid. Some people read the sports page, others the comics, for me it was always the travel section. The idea appealed to me as being the keystone of the travelers Shangri-lah . I could be Cook or Magellan for a paltry $2500.00.It was the dream of a child, $2500 dollars was kings ransom and still is, an impossible dream.

 

It would remain my ultimate fantasy into adulthood. In spite of later traveling to 70 plus countries for business and pleasure over a thirty year period, I had never accomplished to circle the globe in one continuous flight-line. When the opportunity arose I leapt at the chance like a hungry tiger.

Fellow time traveler and captain of my heart Patricia and I spent several weeks plotting out our trip like two blue water sailors pouring over a chart table.We decided to visit as many favorite old favorites as  discover new destinations. We like to kick back in an old haunt and revisit a precious memory or two as much as making new ones. Travel is about relaxing, time on the road carving out new directions can be exhausting, a little ‘hammock time’ is good for your soul.

Admittedly, there are those special moments that make ‘hard travel’   worthwhile when something amazing appears out of nowhere after a long day beating the streets of a far flung capital or a trip through  bus travel hell to some jungle hideaway . One perfect photograph in the can or an idyllic sunset emblazoned on your conscious  is worth a million miles of trekking, bone cracking hours of riding a chicken bus, and the costs and effort of finally ‘being there’. If die hard travelers were a Medieval religious order we’d  be referred to as ‘fanatics’.

Our route would take us west across the Pacific, first to Hong Kong, then Beijing, down to Singapore, Shanghai via Bangkok, across the Russia’s to Helsinki, London, New York and finally to the back of beyond…Vancouver. We decided that we would accomplish all of this in 30 days. The confluence of time and budget were perfect but proposed certain limitations. We would be traveling on Air Miles , most accumulated from previous trips. The flights we booked and the hotels we stayed in had to be carefully picked as part of the ‘One World Alliance’ so that we could take full advantage of the discounts offered.

Day one was a flurry of activity, I was as giddy as a school girl skipping along on a summers day. This was the culmination of a lifetime of desire. My logistics coordinator and chief strategist had booked us on a flight leaving Vancouver at 10:00 PM Pacific Coast Time. This was designed to get us into Hong Kong with plenty of time to drop our bags at our favorite hotel, the Nathan, suitably named, on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon and be in time for a great seafood meal under the stars at the restaurant nexus in the middle of the Temple Street market.

The plan worked out perfectly. The following morning, after a Melatonin induced sleep for jet-lag we hit the early morning dim sum tables in Wan Chai on  Hong Kong island and then sped out to Mong Kok for some quick shopping. We knew HK well enough to have decided to spend an extra day in Beijing instead of hanging around. Chep Lap Kok  airport is only a short cab ride away. Off to Beijing.

Patricia had got a fantastic offer from The Wangfujing Hilton in Beijing on a three night stay. I was impressed by the luxury our budget had been able to buy us. Wangfujing District is central to most of the walking tours that fill central Beijing with options. We decided against the expensive tourist trap called the Great Wall and decided to spend our time with the people of Beijing. We found the famous Silk Road markets to be extensive, the food far too laden with MSG to be healthy and the Forbidden City so fantastic that we spent two full days wandering around like two dazed aliens pumped up on some kind of happy serum.

Singapore is an old favorite. It is a layer cake city, one above ground and one below, each equally as packed with things to do and see as the other. The super humid ground level Singapore is of course incredibly beautiful. The sea wall allows people to enjoy the entire city scape while dining al fresco under the stars while listening to free concerts or watching international street performers entertain the crowds. It is of course , very hot and humid.

But there is nothing like the Singapore experience of taking a tin plate of steaming fresh food from Smugglers Cove or Clark Quay and eating under the view of the famous Merlion water sculpture, the city line and now the new Marina Bay casino with it’s roof designed to resemble an ancient Arab Dhow plying the trade routes which made Singapore what it is. I stayed across the street from the Esplanade at the Mandarin Oriental to luxuriate in their infinity pool and to relive the famous breakfast spread.

 

The underground level of Singapore takes many first time visitors by surprise. In air conditioned comfort it is possible to commute from one side of the city to the other through and underground shopping concourse the likes of no Canadian city has envisioned. Singapore is also a city of neighborhoods. The Indian district centered on Serangoon Road host some of the finest Indian cuisine in Asia. Try the Masala Dosa.

Bangkok is a second home to Pat and I. We would never fly to Asia without staying for a few nights. For this very short visit we stayed in Bang Rak at the Best Western affiliate. The area gives you excellent access to the Chao Phraya river transportation and other transport options, like the Skytrain, to whisk you all over the city in air conditioned style. One train will take you north to Chat a Chak , or JJ market as its called locally.

This fantastic open air retail carnival offers one stop shopping for everything made in Thailand. Bangkok is an international design center and an array of clothing seldom seen in the west can be had for very reasonable prices…quickly. I love BKK for the food and Pat buys eyeglasses  because they are six times cheaper than in Vancouver for styles ten years in advance…’nuff said. Bangkok is a shoppers paradise.

A pollution warning over Shanghai caused us to change our plans at the last minute. We saw why when we landed in Shanghai , the entire city had become enveloped in ‘Brown Cloud’, a recent phenomenon in China where smog is so thick that the levels of toxic particulate in the air become ‘officially’ dangerous to your health. This is a good lesson about traveling anywhere, be flexible and ready for change. We didn’t mind missing Shanghai, it had been one of those ‘new ground’ choices and now we got to reschedule our time in places that meant much more to us.

I was fixated for 15 hours the entire time we flew over Russia. The geography is stunning. I became ‘the leaning man’ on the emergency door beside the rear washrooms, an unmoving sculpture with my face pressed against the double pane of plexiglass looking out at the scenery. Every once in a while the topography would change and I would rush back top my seat and click on the flight map to see which country and mountain range we were passing over. I felt childish, as if I were Marco Polo retracing the Silk Road east to west.

Our destination was Helsinki, Finland, a country we had visited previously and had fallen in love with. Pat and I had sworn to return and travel into the interior to discover the rue face of the Finnish people. The capital Helsinki had been built by an occupation force of Russians and Swedes. The Finnish soul was represented inland we had been told. Finland is an entirely under rated and under visited country.

By nature it has it’s solitudes and it is up to the visitor to discover Finland on it’s own terms.From the tropical heat of South East Asia we landed in Helsinki and it was snowing. We’d packed for this. Like the Boy Scouts, a good traveler is prepared. Our immediate destination in Finland after a jet lag rest in Helsinki was the northern resort town of Levi where were treated to reindeer tethered outside out window and Patricia getting her first case of frostbite. My camera batteries had to be specially adapted to the the polar freeze…what fun! Next we would train to Tempere, the second city of Finland.

London greeted us in the form of our friend ‘Ginger’, a cabbie we always call when we visit. He has ‘the knowledge’ and always knows the most interesting ways to Camden Town where we call home when here. There is no place more characteristically British than Camden Town, or should I say that Camden is more like a caricature than a true representation.  Either way, we love this microcosm of English life. Camden is ‘in the moment’ as they say. Wildly fashionable and derelict in the same moment. The High Street is lined with eccentricities that the average Canadian can’t imagine.

The restaurants and museums of London are truly spectacular. Most grand entertainment is free if you are a gallery, park and museum bug as I am. This trip I trod along the foot path beside the Camden Canal that leads to the London Zoo. I had always wanted to see this first in the world Victorian marvel.

 

I was getting settled in and headed out to Marks and Spencer for more Cornish Cruncher cheese and Hot Chocolate sticks when Patricia reminded me that we would be leaving for New York in the morning. “Anything you buy,” she said, “Is going to have to be eaten between here and there”. I love Cornish Cruncher more than I need sleep so we dined on this delightful specialty into the wee hours of the morning. I’m glad the Americans won’t let me bring any cheese into the country. All the more for me.

Flying into New York is a process, not an event. The security has become onerous. I am an extreme bug-a- phobe and ‘The Big Apple’ is suffering an infestation of bedbugs in every star of accommodation. I chose to stay a half hour away in the AKA White Plains suites which had not had a single reported instance. The quaint town is on the rail line direct to grand Central Station, an easy ride from our hotel.

Manhattan is timeless, we walked the chilly streets downtown towards Washington Square and Greenwich Village for coffee and the street life. Just for fun we visited the Guggenheim in the afternoon. A friend invited us for dinner in Chinatown and we finished with desert at the McDonald’s Time Square to catch the neon displays still there in an area that has transformed itself.

As we looked out at the garish lights Pat and I admitted to one another at how exhausted we were after an entire month on a high speed gambit around the world. Would we do it again, you bet. And that my friends, is how you write an article about traveling around the world in 2000 words or less. 1989 words.I just made it. Whew, I’m exhausted.