A Travellerspoint blog


Mother Nature does not add to Philippines' capital's sparse charms

storm 92 °F

View of Manila's waterfront from the walled Intramuros section

The Philippines were a late addition to my SE Asian adventure I'd planned for the summer. Singapore was my first destination of choice, and a travel friend's recent pictures from Laos convinced me to make it part two. However, once I'd counted up the days, I still had a little less than a week before I had to be back in the states. So, where to? I'd seen photos of the beauty of the various islands of the Philippines, so did some research. I decided to do a four-night stop on the island of Palawan, which was supposed to be a lot like Vietnam's Halong Bay, as far as natural scenery goes.

Manila's old town walls

First impressions can be misleading sometimes, but other times they are good omens. Or bad omens -- depending on the impression in question! I'd read to avoid the taxi touts at Manila airport, and my hotel confirmed the advice. They said to make sure I took a metered taxi from the official taxi stand. I brushed past all of the ride solicitations (probably several dozen) to join the long line of people waiting. Every two to three minutes or so, a single, sometimes two, cab would pull up and the line would inch forward. A full 50 minutes I waited, but my frustrations with Manila public transit had only begun. I'd pulled my IPhone maps app up, and entered my hotel. Turns out that it was only 4.6 miles away, which in Manila traffic means, oh, 45 minutes, at least! Seriously! We inched along, changing lanes, tooting horns, merging, re-merging, and in general, getting nowhere fast.

Cannons on one of the town wall batteries

I'd landed in mid-afternoon and thought that I'd be able to get in some sightseeing that day. Wrong! Another feature of Manila is that most sights close by 5 pm. Plus, the rain let loose soon after I arrived. The only thing I did that evening was walk to the local mall which had dozens of restaurants to choose from. I was staying in the Ermita district because it was close to the sights I wanted to see in Manila, but my guidebook said it was a tourist-friendly area with lots of amenities. Except that Lonely Planet forgot to mention the war zone look to the neighborhood, and the thick, overlaying patina of seediness. The Philippines is my 83rd country, so I am no casual traveler. I have to say Manila is the seediest looking city I've visited, beating out Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa. I returned relatively quickly to my poor stepsister of a Best Western hotel that I'd booked on hotels.com.

Freighters and buildings reflected like a mosaic on the water

The next morning was sunny, so I set out with the hope last night's impressions had been soured by the transportation frustrations. It was easy to navigate my way with my guidebook and IPhone maps to the walled city part of the Old Town known as Intramuros. I'd originally planned to stay there instead of Ermita, but a review saying there were no restaurants or services in the area open in the evening dissuaded me. I had to fend off regular and repeated solicitations of a bicycle pedicab tour of Intramuros from the moment I got within a few blocks of it. I walked around a bit before I got my bearings, then headed to the Visitors Center for one of their free maps. The black and white line drawing of the outline was not the most impressive I'd seen, but it did the job.

Fort Santiago in Intramuros part of Manila

I began with Fort Santiago, built by the in the 16th/17th century by the Spanish, it is currently undergoing renovation. Sections of are completed and look nice, with access to the battlements, which held batteries of cannons. You can walk a good portion of its walls -- just like with the Old Town itself. Fort Santiago is the tip of the Old Town, guarding the port. After leaving the fort, I found steps leading up to the town walls and walked a little less than a quarter of their circuit. My view from atop confirmed what I'd suspected as I was circling the town looking for the entrance. The green area outside the walls -- likely the former moat -- has been turned into a golf course! I saw pairs of golf carts buzzing along, and groups of golfers teeing up next to blackened stone fortifications. I couldn't decide if it was an ingenious use of city green space or somehow wrong. Nevertheless, it was a way to keep the area surrounding the town walls green and pristine -- a problem Manila obviously suffers in most of the city.

Golfing next to History

I checked out the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church -- the oldest in the Philippines. Manila Cathedral has been rebuilt many times over, the latest following the almost complete leveling of the city in WW II. The cathedral is venerable looking on the outside, but more modern on the inside. Unfortunately, I saw only the outside of San Agustin. I arrived at "siesta time" --when it closed down for an hour and a half at lunch -- a cultural adaption from the Spanish colonizers. I loved its decoration, from the ornate wooden doors to the stone carvings of saints and Chinese temple dogs. I made plans to come back, but Mother Nature would have other ideas.

The interior of Manila Cathedral

I continued my way on towards the San Diego gardens, which had access to an interesting section of the town walls. Some were in ruined state, while others were in better shape. I watched as golfers finished off a hole which lay just a handful of yards away, beneath me. I spent awhile exploring the fortifications, then returned and check out the gardens. By this time, I was really sweating in the 90 degree heat and humidity. I needed to cool off in some air conditioning. I remembered the hotel I was planning on staying at in Intramuros had a rooftop bar. I checked my map and walked the short distance there, all but sighing audibly when I entered its air conditioned lobby. Although the bar wasn't open yet, the gracious reception urged me to take the elevator up and check it out. The view was fantastic, and I could easily see myself relaxing in my evenings there. The restaurant was the next floor down, and I checked out its menu and decided to splurge on a pizza and San Miguel Negra. While enjoying the view, the food, and the four star ambience, I decided to cancel my reservation at the Best Western for return stay in Manila, and book the Bayleaf, as it was called. The price was only about $10 more, and I figured it would be worth it. I logged on to hotels.com and took care of it there and then.

Sentry post along the walls of Fort Santiago, Manila

While eating lunch, I'd noticed a section of the battlements that was more complete and with numerous cannons. I headed down to investigate. While checking it out, raindrops began to fall. I debated between returning to San Agustin or heading over the Museum of the Philippine People, whose description sounded interesting in my guidebook. In view of the increasing rain, I chose museum, planning to spend an hour or so there, during which time the rain would hopefully stop. And then the Heavens opened up. I pulled on my rain jacket, but my legs were soon soaked to the skin. What's more, drainage had apparently not been discovered in Manila, and I was soon wading through lakes as I navigated my way (poorly) towards the museum. My frustration mounted as each entrance I discovered shooed me on the the "main" one, on the opposite side of the sprawling, gated complex. I finally arrived, dripping, to find the most air conditioned public space I'd encountered, yet.

San Agustin Church - the oldest in the Philippines

So poorly did I navigate that I actually ended up at the wrong, but similarly named (and adjacent!) museum. I wanted to see the National Museum of the Philippine people, which is essentially a history museum. I ended up at the National Gallery of the Philippine People -- which is an art gallery, as it sounds. Nothing against art, but History's my passion. I was quite bored as I dripped, cold and damp, through the various rooms looking at painting and sculptures by people I'd never heard of. By the time I was done, the rain had dialed back from Epic Biblical scale to a normal rain. I decided to take a cab back to the hotel to avoid wading through any more lakes, er, streets. However, everyone wants a cab when it rains in Manila, and there are none to be had. Praising Manila every step of the way back to my hotel (okay, maybe not), I returned to dry out my clothes.

Painting of Japanese WW II prison camp scene in the National Gallery

If I thought my frustrations were at an end, I was mistaken. I'd made plans to meet up with Ian -- an Australian history buff and gamer who I've known through the years. He'd picked out a bar 3.7 miles away (according to my iPhone maps app). My hotel said they'd get me a cab, and Ian said to leave at 6:30 pm, and that he'd be there at 7 pm. Guess how long the ride took? Two hours. Yes, to go less than four miles! Apparently, this is normal for Manila. Though I had a great time talking to Ian and his friend Colin, I could not fathom how anyone could live in this and stay sane. Apparently, the subway and train are equally useless (unless you ride when no one else wants). Manila's streets of pedal cabs, motorbikes, motor tricycles, jeepneys (exhaust spewing monstrosities that most citizens use), cabs, trucks, and people hawking wares in the road combine to create the modern world's worst example of an urban Hell that I've encountered. When you must budget an hour to go 4 miles...really?? If the new Philippine president truly wants to better his country in a significant way, he'd fix this monster that urban overcrowding has created. That said, it is amazing how friendly and upbeat most Philippinos remain. My hat is off to them for smiling through what to me was torture. Honestly, I have no intention of returning and spending time in Manila. It is just my opinion, but it was truly the seediest, most broken-down city I've visited to this point.

Have I been unfair to Manila in this blog entry? Let me know yes or no...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:47 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Hiking in Singapore's Garden

A selection of canopy walks

sunny 91 °F

Singapore's downtown district amidst the greenery of its parks and green spaces

I had a bonus day of sightseeing when I returned from Laos, and before my next flight out. I'd seen quite a bit so far, but one thing I hadn't gotten to yet were any of its parks. Singapore is supposed to have quite a bit of forest and hiking trails, including walks in the tree canopy. My guidebook had a great day's of walking mapped out, so I decided to follow its lead.

Statues of Malay soldiers at Reflections at Bukit Chandu - a museum dedicated to Malaysian troops who defended the island in WWII

I took the subway to the Pasit Panjang stop -- at more than a half hour, easily the longest ride I'd taken on the city's metro. From there, I followed by smartphone's map app up a forested hill to Reflections at Bukit Chandu. This tiny museum tells the story of the Malay regiment that defended this ground tenaciously against the overwhelming Japanese advance in WW II. There were two audio-visual presentations, one a standard overview of the battle and another a mildly cheesy narrative by a dramatized Malay soldier. It was neat to see a couple examples of the bicycles that Japanese troops used in WW II to advance quickly down the Malay peninsula. There was an attempt to personalize the stories of the soldiers, but it was not nearly as extensive or emotional as the Changi Chapel Museum I'd visited last week.

The elevated pathway and canopy walk at Kent Ridge Park in Singapore

I had to read between the guidebook's lines to interpret how to get to the canopy walk at Kent Ridge park. It was a short walk on a wooden platform that ranged in height above the ground. Of the three canopy walks I'd do today, it was probably the least impressive. The different types of trees were signposted, but the views of the forest and city beyond were mediocre. However, the walk was the beginning of a string of hiking trails that thread their way across the spine of Singapore, so things would go up from here. The walk through Holtz Park would be very interesting if I was into the different types of plants that grow here. It is a series of gardens that are well documented for visitors, but I was looking for elevation. I kept following the signs to the Alexandra Arch Bridge, and eventually arrived.

The pathway truly does snake its way in and out of the treetops

The bridge itself is just the beginning of a spiderweb of metal walkways high above sprawling forest. It is really cool how these parks thread their way through the concrete jungle of the metropolitan area. Singapore's government has stated that it wants to transform itself from a "garden city" to a city inside a garden. The view out over the city kept getting better as I followed the aluminum skyways ever upwards. The signs pointed towards my next goal, Henderson Waves, but I was enjoying my journey there. The walkway zigzags back and forth, with the way ahead hidden by the trees. Strangely, I thought this would make a great setting for a Jurassic Park movie, with the characters being chased along the metal walkways.

The surface of the pathway on the canopy walk is easy to walk along with plenty of stops for great views

No dinosaurs appeared, but I eventually came to Henderson Waves. This is a clever, architectural bridge that has a series of arches undulating high above the city. The tops of the arches are converted into shaded alcoves where residents were picnicking and enjoying the view. The surface of the bridge itself is teak planks, and it curves both side to side and ripples up and down. It is much shorter than the Alexandra walkways, but easily had the best views of Singapore, so far. The pedestrian bridge leads to Mt. Faber Park -- Singapore's highest point. There are restaurants and a cable car at the peak, and I'd planned to relax and cool off there after my hike, and maybe spare my feet with a ride down.

Singapore's architecture is futuristic - check out the high walkways (with trees!) connecting the buildings!

The view continued to improve, and from the top of the hill, were simply spectacular. I found a breezy cafe to rest from the muggy, 91 degree heat. A pint of cold Tiger beer help refresh me, as well. A fan blew on me as I admired the view of the city spread out beneath me. I read some review online about the cable car, and decided to take it. Touristy, yes, but at just over $20, it was reasonably priced for this relatively expensive city. After finishing my beer I walked to the cable car. Singapore is a clean, efficient, and well-run city. I'd rarely felt overwhelmed anywhere by hordes of tourists. All bets were off here, though. It was a mob scene. No signs pointed towards a counter to buy tickets, and the line to ride snaked back and forth like an amusement park. The crowd clamored loudly as it waited its turn to be stuffed, eight at a time, inside the black plastic shells. When I finally did find the ticket counter, both positions were marked "Closed," despite a bored-looking attendant seated at each. There was one self-service kiosk, and a line of people trying to get it to scan and approve their preprinted vouchers. Was it worth it? Would I really enjoy being completely enclosed inside a cable car with seven strangers? Would I even get any good pictures through the tinted windows? There WAS a pathway down the hill. If I took that, I would enjoy the view in silence and not have to jostle strangers for photographs.

Riding the cable car is a good way to either begin or end your canopy walk

I decided to go with nature and hiked down the hill. It took a surprisingly short amount of time, and the views in the first five minutes alone made me happy I chose that path. In fact, most of the way down was stone steps, which meant I did not envy those I passed toiling their way up. It was getting late in the afternoon by the time I arrived at the metro station at the bottom of Mt. Faber. I made my way back to my hotel, a bit sore from the hiking, but pleased with my sunny walk in Singapore's garden.

The walk has many amazing views of the city as you wind your way among the trees high above the ground

Posted by world_wide_mike 05:15 Archived in Singapore Comments (1)

What Wat?

Temples abound in Vientiane

rain 93 °F

Patuxay Monument, built in the 1960s with a blend of European and Laotian styles, commemorates the country's war dead

I landed in Vientiane in early afternoon. It was sunny and hot. Vientiane looked more like a city to me than Luang Prabang, which had the feel of a small, provincial town. Here there was traffic, street lights, horribly-complex looking strands of electrical wires overhead, and the feel of a rushing city street. Luckily, most of the sights are concentrated in a central area, so I could walk virtually everywhere I wanted to go.

One of the stone jars from the Plain of Jars, used more than a thousand years ago for ceremonial burials

Just two blocks away was my first sight, the Lao National Museum. It had a few of the jars from Laos' famous archeological site, the Plain of Jars. These massive stone jars were used for ceremonial burials more than a thousand years ago. I really wanted to visit the site, but it was far away from both Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Too far for a day excursion, it would have required at least one, probably two, overnights. I did not want to take time away from either of the other destinations, so I would have to settle for the museum's examples. The museum had a number of other artifacts, too. There were a few nice statues from the ancient and medieval cultures -- including Khmer style temple carvings. One of the jars was there, plus two were in the garden outside. I have to admit they weren't much to look at individually. An entire plain covered with them would have been an interesting sight, though. The museum had no air conditioning, and was fairly stifling inside. Once I reached the colonial and more modern era sights, I whipped through them more quickly. The communist propaganda on the signs showed through fairly overtly, all but calling the French and Americans "foreign devils."

Teens that are going through their time as a monk - something many Buddhists do during their lifetime

A curious thing about sights in Vientiane is how early everything closes in the afternoon. Checking my guidebook, there was only one temple I'd be able to get to in time. I was able to navigate Vientiane's grid pattern easier than Luang Prabang's curving street layout. However, once to the right place, I ran into a new problem: which temple was the one I was looking for? Yes, it was a case of What Wat? Almost none of the signs are in English, and the Lao script is unique. There are so many temples, or wats, on Vientiane's streets that you could spend months examining them all. They are very colorfully decorated, and have similar architectural features and styles. I think I found the one I was looking for, but couldn't really be sure. Since Imahd arrived in Laos, I had been amused by the sight of monks on their cell phones, playing games or goofing around. I was happy to finally get a good picture of one doing so. I always try to be respectful and ask before I take pictures of people, and this group of four boys were happy to be photographed.

This colorful, bustling Wat (temple) was thronged with worshipers and was a popular stop during the day in Vientiane, Laos

In general, there were fewer sights in Vientiane than Luang Prabang. I should have probably shifted a day between them, making it four in Luang Prabang and two here. The next morning, it was raining fairly steadily, so I delayed my sightseeing for an hour or so. My fist stop was a fascinating temple, Wat Si Saket. The inside walls were covered in medieval frescoes that were being restored by a team of specialists. It was interesting to examine the ones they'd already restored and compare them to the salt and water damaged originals. One showed a scene of battle between two kingdoms, with spearman, swordsman, and a number of war elephants. I recognized the Burmese style of elephant soldiers, with four platforms (one above each leg) and a central howdah. Multiple signs prohibited photography, unfortunately. Humorously, there were even signs prohibiting photographing from outside the temple looking in. I would really have liked to had pictures of the frescoes, but had to settle with taking a picture of a page in a book they had onsite. An interesting feature of Wat Si Saket is its cloister, a covered gallery surrounding the temple on all four sides. Along the outer wall of the cloister are thousands of niches, each with a small, bronze Buddha. Larger statues sat, cross-legged in a row in front of the niches. It was probably the nicest Wat in Vientiane -- or at least the most historically interesting.

Probably my favorite temple in the capital, Vientiane, was Wat Si Saket for its historical feel

Laos' sights close down for an hourlong siesta at noon, so I found an air-conditioned restaurant to relax with a cold drink. I was in my usual travel mode of skipping lunch. Next, it was about half a mile walk to the city's most bustling Wat. Here, monks accepted donations inside the temple and would, in turn, perform a blessing on the donor. I saw gifts of food, decorative baskets, even a flower-like arrangement of 1,000 Kip bills (about 13 cents in Lao currency). The streets surrounding the Wat were full of vendors selling potential gifts to temple visitors. Outside the temple, colorfully-painted, larger than life statues of deities and mythical animals were spaced within the temple compound's walls. Behind the main temple were the crumbled ruins of a 5th century temple, still venerated by a golden sash wound around its fire-darkened stones.

Much as I would loved to photograph the colorful interior walls of Laos' temples, most prohibited photography - this picture being an exception

The last two sights of the day had to be reached by tuk-tuk. These come in various sizes, and are essentially a small passenger trailer welded onto a motor scooter. The first stop was That Luang, or the Great Stupa. This is a stupa rather than a temple, so it is a solid monument, not something you can go inside. It was huge and painted in gold. This meant it was not as impressive as Myanmar's Schwegedon Pagoda, which is actually gold plated. Nevertheless, it is a venerated sight, and actually appears on the Lao currency. Visitors and worshippers circled its expanse, taking pictures or leaving offerings.

Reached by tuk-tuk, the Great Stupa, is one of the most venerated temples in the country, even appearing on its currency

From there, it was a dusty, 45-minute ride to the Buddha Park on the outskirts of town. Although a modern construction, this collection of dozens and dozens of varying sizes of statues from Buddhist mythology was a treat for the eyes. Some were massive, multi-level ones that you could climb inside. Some were gigantic Buddhas or creatures, others were man-sized, or smaller. They are arranged in groupings, and it was fun to wander amidst them taking photos. The gray or white stone from which they were carved was weathering aesthetically in the damp climate, giving them an ancient appearance. Although 45 minutes in tuk-tuk, sucking in dust and exhaust is not a pleasant time, the park was one of the highlights of Vientiane, I felt. I had originally planned on taking a taxi there, but sightings of these are rare in Vientiane. So, I had to settle for a tuk-tuk.

Buddha Park on the outskirts of Vientiane, features collections of stone statues acting out scenes from Buddhist mythology

By the time I arrived back in town, all of the tour offices were closed for the day. I had planned on booking an excursion for Day 3, but got back too late. This meant my final day of sightseeing in Vientiane would be relaxed, and less intense. It included a quick perusal of the Morning Market (nowhere as impressive as Luang Prabang's Night Market). I followed this up walking to the Victory Monument, a towering pagoda-like construction that brings to mind France's Arc di Triomph. Much to my surprise, you can climb to the top of it for a view of Vientiane. There was a nice panoram of the city from atop it. I checked out a centuries-old, brick and stone stupa, That Dam. I also wandered along the riverfront, which Laos is slowly developing as more tourists come to Vientiane. I was thinking that it was a low-key way to end my sightseeing in Laos. So, just to make things interesting, a torrential downpour hit Vientiane as I wanted to venture out for dinner. Riding a tuk-tuk through flooding streets was a thrilling and humorous way to end the visit. I think I will remember Laos' wats the most, even after the name of what wat disappears from my memory.

Another sprawling statue from Buddha Park

Posted by world_wide_mike 15:52 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Riding an Elephant in Laos

There IS a reason I nicknamed him Bronco

sunny 90 °F

Part of day 3's Elephant Excursion was riding them into the river for a cool, refreshing bath in Laos' heat

I was thinking that I'd see all the temples on Day 2 in Luang Prabang, and take an excursion out of town my last day there. Even though it did not get to all of the temple I wanted, I decided to go ahead and do the Elephant excursion, anyway. There would be more temples in Vientiane. A chance to ride an elephant through the jungle, and into the Mekong River, was something I didn't want to pass up.

me and Bronco

The van picked the eight of us from various hotels, but luckily I was last. As it was, it was about a 45-minute to an hour ride to the tiny hamlet in the jungle where the elephants were kept. Along the way, I saw Laotian village life -- rice paddies, Asian cattle, goats, and tradition homes on stilts. What I'd read about Laos' roads was true. They were windy, in poor repair, and only got worse when we turned off the main highway. Scooters, tuk-tuks, and automobiles jockeyed for position on the roads, all in a hurry to get to the magical, mythical place at the head of the column of traffic.

The cliffs along the river and its muddy brown current

When we arrived, the elephant mahouts quickly started rounding our mounts up in line. They placed a cloth over their backs to cushion the howdah -- a bamboo construction wide enough for two to sit side by side. One couple insisted on riding bareback astride the elephant. They accommodated them, but we'd find out that all of us would eventually ride astride when we took our elephants down to the Mekong to bathe them. They lined them up next to a two-story building where we would mount them. I initially nicknamed my elephant "Buddy," but would later change it to Bronco -- for reasons that will be clear soon. Our's was the lead elephant, and we led the string of four. I shared the howdah with a teacher from the Philippines named Carol. She was a good sport and enjoyed the ride, plus was much better at elephant selfies than I was!

The first portion of our ride was in a howdah atop the elephant's back

We trekked for just under an hour through steep jungle pathways. It was easy to get used to Bronco's swaying gait. The cushioned howdah was comfortable, and I could imagine myself in India hunting tigers on elephant-back. Bronco had an uncanny ability to know which pair of trees he and the howdah could fit between and which he could not. He would resist our guide's lead from time to time, indicating which path he preferred. An elephant's skin is very rough, like sandpaper. Sparse black hairs stick straight up, like a fly's. Bronco flapped his ears back and forth repeatedly, probably to shoo off any insects. I nudged off a huge, black fly a few times with my sandals.

A French couple chose to ride their elephant bareback, as we swayed through the woods

After our ride, we lined up next to the second story of the building and clambered off. It was at this point when I should have taken the guide's suggestion and changed into a bathing suit. A few of the group had better advance information and did so. Instead, I took some pictures of Bronco and the other elephants. They stripped off the howdahs and we remounted bareback. Oblivious, my Spidey sense was not tingling. We slowly made our way down to the mighty, mighty Mekong River. Elephants do not like descending stone steps, by the way. Bronco tried to talk our guide into detouring through a thicket, but his barking commands convinced our mount otherwise. We continued on towards the muddy brown water.

"Do you want to stand up on his back?" the guide asked..."Sure," I replied to the spider, as I stepped naively onto his web...

Once we entered the water, each guide began to smile mischievously. Uh-oh, I thought. Thank god I'd left the camera bag in the van and had given one of the guides my phone to take pictures. I performed a mental checklist. What was I wearing? Wallet in pocket with tons of low-value Lao bills. Money belt, with a handful of US 20's. Hmmm. This could be bad. Riding bareback on an elephant, by the way, is much more precarious than in a howdah. Several times I was sure I was going to lean too far one direction and be pitched into the mud to my undying shame. I held on....for now. Eventually, my guide could not contain his mischievous streak any longer. He stood up on the back of the elephant, encouraging me to do the same. Like a good dupe, I did. At his point he barked out a command to Bronco, who began to shake like a wet dog. I was unceremoniously tossed into the water, as was Carol. The shock of the cool water, along with the realization everything I wore was now soaked, took a few seconds. Finally grieving to a fault, I helped Carol clamber back astride, and then pulled myself up. Fools. Twice more, we were pitched into the water by Bronco's skilled bucking. A few of the other tourists declined to get back atop their elephants. I was a good sport, and forgave our guide every time. Soon, the guides grew bored of our incompetence, and used Bronco to stage a Mekong rodeo. Our elephant was the best bronco, thus I gave him his name. It was fun to watch our tormentors get tossed unceremoniously into the muddy, brown water.

And it is here that Bronco, my elephant, earns his nickname as he shakes us off of his back

Eventually, we remounts for the ride back up from the riverbank. The lunch was a bit of a surprise to all of us. My regular readers know that I can in no way be confused with Anthony Bourdain. Still, it is always good to eat local food prepared by locals. I befriended the village puppies and shooed off the village cats...surprise, surprise! Soon it was time for the ride back home. As a group, we voted to skip the Lao whiskey tasting and power on through. It was undoubtedly a good excursion. It was fun talking to the other travelers, especially the French couple on an 11-month, round the world trip. One day, I tell myself: when I retire, I will take an around the world cruise and finally do my circumnavigation.

Even my seated companion couldn't stay on the back of Bronco when he shook so quickly back and forth

Once back in my hotel, I carefully separated every bill in my wallet and set them in between the slats of the chairs on my deck. The rest of my damp clothes were likewise set outside, quickly drying in the intense! Lao heat. I changed into my bathing suit -- hours later than I should have, obviously -- and jumped into the hotel pool. It felt great to cool down and unwind in the perfect temperatures of the pool. I couldn't resist ordering a big Lao beer (things are cheap here), and savoring the sunshine, warmth, and chance to just sit and let Southeast Asia drift by.

Shopping at the Luang Prabang Night Market

After dinner -- okay, I broke down and had a pizza -- I shopped at the Night Market. I'd been tempted by the gorgeous fabrics, but ended up buying a paper lamp with scenes of Laos village life on its four sides. Luang Prabang was a great stop. There are lots of travelers, so all the amenities are there. It still has that backpacker vibe, I feel. So. It was neat to return to my traveling roots, so to speak. If I were to come here again, I would definitely stay I town. I loved my hotel and it's genuine and unending graciousness. However, there are simply so many hotels in town there is really no reason to stay a 15-minute walk out of town.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:37 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Lost in Luang Prabang

Navigational failures don't mar visit to amazing temples

sunny 94 °F

View from the bridge of the river and temple complex at Luang Prabang

When I was researching Laos, Luang Prabang was praised universally by the guidebooks. The medieval capital of Laos, it is home to dozens and dozens of wats, or Buddhist temples. A highlight of my three days would undoubtedly be experiencing them, and marveling at the gorgeous ornamentation. My flight from Singapore to here utilized two budget Asian carriers -- NokScoot and AirAsia. There was a pretty long layover in Bangkok, but the flights went smoothly,,and my hotel's van was waiting once I'd cleared immigration. The guidebooks kind of let me down on this, I should have brought a passport-sized photo and found the paperwork for a visa on arrival to clear even quicker.

My Dream Boutique is located across the river from downtown Luang Prabang, and is an oasis of quiet. The staff is incredibly gracious and accommodating, and always greet you with a smile and "Sabadee" (Lao greeting). It was early evening when I arrived, so after unpacking, I decided to have dinner at the hotel. The hotel got rave reviews on hotels.com, and they praised the food, as well. One drawback of tropical, outdoor dining, though, are the mosquitos. They started to chew me up pretty good, and I was thankful for the double protection of the sealed, air conditioned room and graceful mosquito netting surrounding my bed. As it turned out, that was the only bad experience with mosquitos in Luang Prabang.

The footbridge that I had to cross on the way to town from my hotel which was across the river

After dinner, I decided to walk into town and find the Night Market, which was supposed to be spectacular. I didn't take the map the hotel gave me, preferring to depend on my Smartphone's map feature. The fastest way into town is across the bamboo bridge, about ten minutes walk away. Somehow, I found the stairs leading down to it in the humid, inky blackness of the night. The bridge is not quite an Indiana Jones rope bridge, but it only about one step up. It was a thrill to walk across it, hearing the river chattering just a few feet below you. During the daytime, a Lao family collects a small toll to help with its upkeep. Once on the other side, and after climbing the stairs to the street, I pulled out my phone to get my bearings. Oops. I had yet to buy a Lao SIM card, so once I'd left my hotel's wifi, the maps feature was useless.

I made a right turn, walking along the main road alongside the river. Unwittingly, I was going the long, long way. Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula created by the Mekong River and a tributary. I crossed about halfway up the peninsula, and my right turn set me on a looping course to the far end of the peninsula and back down the other side. Eventually, I realized my error, all the while marveling how much bigger this town appeared than on the map. It wasn't to be my first -- or worst -- navigational error in Luang Prabang, though. After cutting off the river road towards what looked like the center of town, I eventually found the Night Market. The gorgeous fabrics, carvings, jewelry, lamps, and other souvenirs were spread out on tarps beneath temporary cloth awnings. Each evening, vendors stake out a spot along the main road, next to the National Palace Museum. The market has essentially two rows, and stretches for about about a quarter of a mile. This would be just a scouting mission. I'd come back to shop another evening.

The oldest of the temples in Luang Prabang, Wat Visoun, built in the 1500s

After breakfast the next morning, I took the alternate way into town. This railroad, scooter, and bicycle bridge also has a separate section for pedestrians. Beneath me, the river ran a muddy brown, with the long thin boats of fishermen poling across its surface. A short walk brought me to Wat Visoun, the first temple on my list to visit. Built in the 1500s, it is the town's oldest. Inside, centuries old Buddhas lined the walls. Signs explained what each of the poses means in Buddhist myths, from the "praying for rain" to the "stop fighting" aspects. The main Buddha image was golden, and at least 20 feet high. An altar of smaller Buddhas and offerings lay at its crossed legs. Facing the temple was what is known as the watermelon stupa (for the shape of its top portion), a solid brick structure covered in weathered, gray stone facing. A stupa differs from a temple in that it is usually solid, with no inside, and contains a relic of the Buddha. They are usually bell-shaped, tapering to a point at the top. I was surprised to have to pay a fee to enter, as the temples in Singapore that I'd visited were all free. This would prove to be standard for Luang Prabang. Virtually every Wat charges a small admission fee, usually 20,000 kip (just under $3).

Buddhist deity guarding the entrance to Wat Aham

Adjacent to Wat Visoun was Wat Aham. It's whitewashed exterior is guarded by two crouching Buddhist deities, one green faced, the other red. Both leered colorfully at visitors. Inside, it was the opposite of Wat Visoun's dusty, somber feel. The walls of this temple were brightly painted with dozens of scenes from Buddhist mythology. Some colorful paintings depicted the life of the Buddha, others scenes of torture and suffering in what I assumed was the Buddhist version of Hell. The vivid colors reminded me of Caribbean paintings of town life -- especially the bright blue skies.

My next stop was in the Dara Market to obtain a SIM card for my Smartphone. I think it is upon leaving the market where my mind became turned around, as far as directions go. I was using the hotel map and navigating fine, so far. However, I proceeded to march off in the exact opposite direction I needed to go. Referring to the map function on my phone was no help, for once. It simply did not have enough landmarks or streets programmed In to orient myself. I steadily became more frustrated, and hot, in the 90+ degree humidity. Finally, I gave up and paid a tuk-tuk driver to take me back to the hotel. I needed to rest, cool off mentally and physically (a dip in the hotel pool was the cure I needed), and then set out again.

Colorful gold figures decorate the outside walls of temples in Laos

When I ventured out again, I used the bamboo bridge to head into town. My first stop was Wat Sene -- a Thai-style temple. Contrary to what my guidebook said, the main sim (temple) was closed, but the grounds were open. Wat Sene was a red and gold beauty. The stenciled golden images of warriors on the deep red walls and pillars was striking. A number of temples lined the street heading up from Wat Sene, but I hurried to one of the most impressive, Wat Xien Thong.

The carved, gilded images depict scenes from Buddhist mythology

This is a large, walled complex stretches all the way to the river bank, and contains a library, monk's quarters, drum pavilion, small chapel, and even a building to house a funeral chariot built to carry a king's body to his cremation. Of course, it also contains a gorgeous main temple or sim, decorated on the inside in striking black and gold designs. The outside was gilded, colorful, and blazing in the afternoon sun. It was easily the coolest temple I would see in Luang Prabang. Locals consider it the country's most important religious site.

Laos' temples are known for their beautiful roofs, and the graceful architecture

After relaxing with a cold beer in a breezy cafe, I was fortified to continue my travels under the hot afternoon sun. Make no mistake: Southeast Asia can be brutally hot in summer for sightseeing. I arrived at the National Museum complex -- formerly the Royal residence -- after it closed. Many sights in Laos close early, it seems. I was able to get some nice pictures, though, by climbing the slopes of Mt. Phou Si, a hill that rises up on the middle of the peninsula. I did not count the 328 steps that lead to the top, but the view from up there was spectacular. Trees blocked the view of the main town, but the surrounding countryside was laid out in full glory. Though an invigorate climb, it was well worth the effort.

The lovely view from the top of Mt. Phou Si (which you get after climbing 328 steps!)

Strangely enough, this concluded the sightseeing portion of the day. The heat, combined with my navigational mishap earlier, subtracted a lot of the sights I'd plan on cramming in on "temple day." Still, Luang Prabang did not disappoint. My first two days in Laos were living up to expectations.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:35 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Stormy Skies, Scenic Views

A slower paced day two & day three

storm 89 °F

One of the mirror spheres outside the Asian Civilizations Museum

My second full day in Singapore began early. I was awakened by the sound of a howling wind outside the sliding glass door to my balcony. It sounded like a typhoon blowing between the skyscrapers. I sat in my bed and listened to its banshee shriek for awhile. Then, a torrential downpour began. I opened the door and stepped out onto my balcony to watch sheets of water falling. I crawled back under the covers, hoping the storm really wasn't a typhoon, and the rains would end by morning. I woke up late in the morning, and checked outside. Rain was coming down hard enough that I postponed any sightseeing until after lunch.

Singapore has the easiest-to-use bus system in the world -- at least that's what I found

When I finally did venture out, I decided to add the local bus system to my repertoire. The front desk of the Village Hotel Katong graciously explained what bus I needed to catch to reach the Metro station -- saving me a 30-minute walk in the rain. Singapore's buses are every bit as organized and easy as the Metro, and air conditioned, too! I was headed to the Changi Chapel and Museum, and found it with no problem. Each bus stop has a name, and by taking a picture of the route sign with my smart phone, I could look at the window and follow our progress. It reminded more of a train or tram travel than a city bus line.

Entrance to the Changi Museum, which commemorates the POWs of the Japanese during WWII

Changi Museum is built on the site of a chapel that WW II POWs built for themselves after they were captured by the Japanese, following the surrender of Singapore. The museum's signs are all in English, and do a great job setting the scene of the British blundering defense of the island they considered impregnable. The attacking Japanese were outnumbered 3-1, but did have air superiority and much better equipment. All of the allied prisoners were rounded up and interned in various overcrowded and inadequate camps. Even European civilians were imprisoned and squeezed into cells, the men kept separate from the women. One of the best features of the museum's audio guide were the recorded oral histories of various prisoners. The gut wrenching account of a Chinese woman tortured for passing messages for the allies brought tears to my eyes. There are numerous letters from former prisoners or their children, spilling their feelings and telling their stories as a form of catharsis. I was disappointed that no photographs inside were allowed, but you could take photos of the reconstructed chapel outside.

Looking like something out of the Jetsons cartoon, Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Hotel

I actually took it very easy on day two, partially to let my blisters I'd worn into my soles on yesterday's death march heal. I took advantage of the supermarket in the hotel's shopping center to buy some nice, waterproof band-AIDS, which would come in handy until my foot healed up. And they were actually feeling much better the next day, when it was time to explore more of Singapore.

View from the observation deck of the Marina Bay Sands

With the sun shining again, I decided to start at the top, literally. I rode the Metro down to the Marina Bay Sands hotel. It is a futuristic looking building that I could easily see featured in an upcoming Star Wars movie. It is composed of three modern hotel towers topped by what -- for all the world -- looks like a giant hovercraft. It extends past all three towers and contains an observation deck, restaurant, infinity pool, restaurant, bar, and garden. All of Singapore is laid out beneath you as you stand atop it, 56 floors up. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and you could see for miles in every direction. Even though it was a weekend, the observation deck was not crowded. The other visitors and I wandered slowly around, enjoying the panorama, and taking pictures. One of the things that struck me was the multitude of cargo ships in the bay, moored, or waiting to dock. It looked like the movie scenes of the allied fleet at D-Day, gray ships receding into the distance. The next thing that strikes you are the towering skyscrapers. All the of them are sleek and modern, and they dwarf the tiny two to three story, more traditional buildings of Singapore's earlier history. There are numerous stadiums, including a twin pair nicknamed "The Durien" after Asia's notorious, spiky-skinned fruit. To me, they looked more like an aluminum spiky brassiere, discarded by some titanic Madona. There's even a floating field in the bay that can be used for sports or concerts. The view was amazing, and that would prove to be the theme for the day.

Singapore's harbor as seen from the Marina Bay Sands observation deck

Descending, I crossed back to the main island on the pedestrian Helix bridge. The walkway is encapsulated in a gleaming aluminum structure looks like a monstrous DNA strand. There are four observation platforms along the way, each providing wonderful views and massive selfie opportunities for strollers, their cell phones, and social media. Speaking of which, anyone who thinks the obsession with our phones is an American thing has not been to Singapore. There are just as many faces glued to miniature screens on subways, in restaurants, and even walking down crowded streets. It is a world thing, now. We are all captivated by our connection to the Internet and our friends and family. I retraced my steps from day one's night time stroll along the waterfront, this time enjoying it under blue skies. I wanted to visit the Merlion, a massive fountain of a hybrid fish-lion. It was here that I truly ran into throngs of tourists. Many of them were doing my all-time, least-favorite thing: posing so the jet of water issuing from the statue's mouth appeared in their friend's camera to fall into their cupped hands, mouth, whatever. The Singapore equivalent of "holding" up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Bleh. I took some photos and moved on.

Very cool walking bridge in the Marina Bay area

After a brief stop to get photos of the giant, mirrored balls (think a half dozen, spherical versions of Chicago's famous bean), It was off to Chinatown. I know, it seems odd to me that a city of mostly Chinese descent would have a specified Chinatown. However, the island is on the tip of the Malay peninsula, so there is a significant population of Malaysians, Indian immigrants, British, and more. Along the way, I stopped at another Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman. Even though it is billed as Singapore's most colorful, I actually preferred the Kali temple from day one. The temple was thronged with worshippers in colorful garb, offering sacrifices and praying. The afternoon sun beating down was getting intense, so I backtracked to a pub I'd spotted on the walk here and enjoyed an ice cold water before savoring an excellent Archipelago Irish Ale. It hit the spot and fortified me to push on in the heat.

The Merlion - an iconic fountain in Singapore that people come to photographed standing beside

Next up was the five-story Buddha Tooth temple. This modern, gleaming building with its gray-green, pagoda roofs was air conditioned, airy, and spacious. Hundreds of statues from the Buddhist pantheon of every size lined the walls. Worshippers and tourists made a circuit, one lighting joss sticks and bowing in prayer while the other admired the beauty and took pictures. Coming here, I'd noticed several streets with market stalls, so I spent some time roaming them, looking for souvenirs. I did find a lapel pin of the Singapore flag for my map at home, and was intrigued by the lacquered wood screens painted with various scenes. I really liked the one with the Great Wall, and mentally made a note to keep an eye out for more like this in other shops. I was actually killing time with my shopping, waiting for the 6:55 pm Lion Dance which would be performed on the streets. From the picture, it looked like one of those cool, multi-person costumes the Chinese are famous for using in celebrations. When I headed back to get a good viewing spot, I noticed the fine print on the sign: "Cancelled today"...d'oh!

The gleaming, modern Buddha Tooth Temple, which houses a...well, I think you can figure it out!

A quick Metro hop brought me to the day's final stop, Clarke Quay -- Singapore's river walk of restaurants and bars. Boats leave regularly to cruise along the waterfront, and at night it colorfully lit up with lights. After a couple days of Asian food, I was looking forward to more choices. I ended up having shish kabob at a Middle Eastern place. I finished the day off with a Tiger beer at a cafe along the waterfront, watching the boats cruise by. Although much less packed with sights than day one's overdose, day three was a pleasant way to wrap up my first half of this trip. Tomorrow, it was off to Laos for a week. I'd be returning here again later, before I flew back home.

The Clark Quay area in Singapore where there are lots of restaurants and bars

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:04 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Singapore - So Much More Than Just Another Big City

What to do on Day 1? Why, a "Death March," of course!

sunny 94 °F

Statue of Stamford Raffles, the Brit who won the rights to build a trading base in what would become Singapore

Before I began researching it, I guessed that I would need 3-4 days to see the sights I wanted to in Singapore. I mean it is just a big city, right? There would probably be one or two museums I'd want to hit up, a few historic sights, a couple nice views, and then I'm done. Right? I'm not necessarily a big city guy. I've never wanted to live in L.A., fuggiddabout it New York, and I really only like Chicago because of its pizza! Boy, was I wrong about Singapore!

Waterscapes and tall, modern buildings are a major part of walking around Singapore

As I was compiling my list of things to do, it kept growing and growing. So many amazing temples or religious sights from a half-dozen faiths. Outstanding nature, great museums, History -- my notes kept doubling in size. I came to the realization I should have budgeted a lot more time when I purchased my plane ticket. I decided I would simply make do, and check off as much of the things I wanted to experience as I could. Those who know me realize what that means. And those who have traveled with my were probably breathing a secret sigh of relief that they wouldn't have to endure that interesting -- but potentially excruciating itinerary -- the Worldwidemike Death March. Toss in the 90+ degree Southeast Asian heat and you're talking serious potential for injury!

Singapore's lovely Perankan-style, traditional homes

A few days before I began my 30 hours and three flights to get from Columbus, Ohio, to Singapore, I had one of those moments when I thought: "Wait a minute, did I...?" The question was, since my flight arrived after midnight, did I book my first night's hotel for the correct date? Even though I technically arrived on the 23rd, I would need to reserve a room for the night of the 22nd. After more than a solid day of travel the last thing I would want to do would be to cool my heels in a hotel lobby for half a night! I checked. Nope. Booked it to start on the 23rd. Sigh. What's more, my awesome deal for the normally $200 a night Hotel Village Katong (for just over a quarter of that price!) was no longer available. Oh, they had rooms, but they'd charge their normal rate to extend my reservation a day forward. So, I ended up instead at the $50 a night Noble Hotel in the Little India neighborhood, finally checking in at 3 am.

Whimsical bronze statue of children playing along the waterfront

You'd think I'd sleep half a day, but I was awake and couldn't get back to sleep by 8 am. Checkout wasn't until noon, so I went through my list and marked what was nearby in Little India. As it turns out, today would be my Temple Day. I began at the Daoist temple, Leong San See. The smell of incense filled the air, and Daoist music played from hidden speakers. I love the look of Eastern temples. The statues, the gold, and the tiny offerings and devotions of the worshippers. There was an inner sanctuary beyond the first room, all of it gilded and colorful. My guidebook pointed out the carved wooden beams, but frankly, I would have missed them amidst the splendor.

Ceramic statues in the Daoist temple, Leong San See

Next up was a Buddhist temple I just happened to see while I was walking towards the one I'd picked out to visit next. When I peeked inside and saw the massive, brightly-painted, sitting Buddha, I had to check it out. The temple loans visitors a laminated card, which goes into great detail to explain the decorations. It was fascinating reading, and explained everything I was seeing. There were quite a few more worshippers than at the Daoist temple, and as always, I was carefully to stay out of there way and be as unobtrusive as possible. Besides the 45-foot tall statue, my favorite part was the story of the life of the Buddha told through more than 20 dioramas with painted, 2-foot tall statues. The temple even had a relic -- a piece of the tree under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. I'm sure historians would scoff, much as they do about the pieces of the "true cross" that Crusaders found 1,000 years after the crucifixion. Still, it is belief that makes a religion -- not peer-reviewed sources.

Towering seated Buddha in a Singapore temple

A Hindu temple was next, the first of two I'd visit that morning. Sri Srivinasa Perumal Temple was built in the 1850s, and features one of those towering gopurams that make Hindu temples so colorful to visit. What's a gopuram? It is a tower carved with layer upon layer of brightly-painted statues from the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. This temple's tower was 60+ feet tall! and the temple was dedicated to Vishnu the Preserver -- one of the three main gods. An interesting aspect of Hinduism, which many say is the world's oldest active religion, is that all of its hundreds of deities are actually considered to be aspects of one overall God -- Brahman. The individual gods and goddesses are just avatars of how he manifests himself on our world. I explain it to my students to think of him as the giant video game player in the sky, and Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh and the rest are just his "characters" he's created to play this game called life.

Slightly-faded statues along the roof of Sri Srivanasa Perumal temple

The coolest and most colorful Hindu temple I'd see in Singapore was my next one -- Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. It was dedicated to the goddess Kali, who Indiana Jones gave a really bad reputation to in "The Temple of Doom." She is a somewhat gruesome goddess, usually depicted trampling or killing some unfortunate soul, and wears a necklace of skulls. I didn't see any priests pulling beating hearts from sacrificial victim's chests, but both Hindu temples I visited had active worshippers making offerings, praying, and wearing traditional garb. I loved the statues encrusting the roof and walls of the building. Kali was there, along with my favorite -- a lion-headed God roaring his ferocity. The sun shone on them brightly, and against the backdrop of the blue sky, they were an awesome sight.

The Hindu goddess Kali reigns in her intimidating glory at her temple in Singapore's Little India neighborhood

I changed gears next, with a 20-minute walk to the Muslim Malabar Jama-Ath mosque. The Malabar Muslims are from the southern Indian coast, and were some of the first of their religion to settle in Singapore. The interior was very plain, and devoid of worshippers, since it wasn't during one of the prayer times. I was actually disappointed, as there was very little decoration and the blue tiles my guidebook described were nothing compared to the exquisite, Persian-style mosques I'd seen in the Middle East. I had to cross the street to get a decent picture of the mosque, and then left soon after. Checkout time was at noon, and I hurried back to finish packing and take a taxi over to my main hotel.

Colorful statues of Hindu gods make visiting their temples a beautiful and photogenic experience

Village Hotel Katong was gorgeous, easily a four-star hotel (above what I normally stay in, but hey, when hotels.com gives you a great deal, you take it)! I'd booked the entire vacation's worth of nights through hotels.com. I really like how you can read reviews, look at the map view and compare the hotel's location to what you want to see, and make your decisions at your leisure. I unpacked, and relaxed and enjoyed the cool air conditioning. I dug out my map and guidebook and planned my afternoon sightseeing. This is where the "death march" know kicks in, for those who aren't familiar with how I travel. The closest metro station was a 30-minute walk away (tomorrow, I'd learn how to take the bus there). Along the way, I wanted to check out some of the Perankan-style homes. The Perankans are the community that grew up from Chinese immigrants who had intermarried with the Malay locals. There homes are two-story, brightly-painted homes known for the upper level terrace which can be closed off with wooden shutters. The homes are also elaborately carved with columns, animals, and sometimes bright tiles inlaid in the walls. I took lots of pictures, and would notice this style of home throughout my stay in Singapore.

Perankan homes, colorful and ornate, line many of Singapore's streets

After my circuitous route, it was after nearly an hour's worth the of walking under the bright sun and humidity before I arrived at the metro station. I had purchased an EZ-Link card from a convenience store, which you merely tap on the reader to have it automatically deduct the fare for any public transport you take in Singapore. The metro was air-conditioned and modern, with a lighted display board showing exactly where you are on that line. Announcements in English and Chinese detail each stop, along with a British-style reminder to "mind the gap." I alighted at the Raffles Place metro station, found my bearings, and headed towards the waterfront. My first stop would be the Asian Civilizations Museum, which my guidebook quite rightly raved about. I took my time wandering the three stories of exhibits. Everything was thoroughly explained in English, with pamphlets available in each room translating it into other languages. If I neglected to mention it before, English is the official language of Singapore. So, it you're looking to explore a Chinese or Asian culture, Singapore is an excellent introduction for the beginner. It is modern, efficient, friendly, and packed full of sights -- just like this museum. What's more, you are permitted to photograph the exhibits. Some of my favorites were the stone, Southeast Asian style temple carvings. I also enjoyed the intricately carved wooden boxes and furniture, and the brightly-painted porcelain. One really interesting part of the museum is the room containing the cargo hold and relics recovered from a Tang Dynasty ship that had sunk on its way to the Middle East. It was a fascinating treasure trove.

Southeast Asian carved relief in the Asian Civilizations Museum

I wandered along the waterfront for awhile, taking pictures of the massively tall skyscrapers that stretch towards the heavens from Singapore's central business district. Many had interesting or unique silhouettes, or shiny or unusual facings. I was reminded of Dubai and its intriguingly shaped modern buildings. After a fountain soda to cool off, I navigated my way to St. Andrews Cathedral -- completing "Temple Day" with Christianity's most important religious site on the island. It's ornately-carved, pure white spire rises nearly 200 feet above the ground, but still is dwarfed when you compare it to Singapore's skyscrapers.

Singapore's skyscrapers loom in the background over a downtown park

Some destinations have the iconic "thing" you have to do if you're a visitor. For Singapore, it is to head to Raffles Hotel and have a drink at the Long Bar. The Singapore Sling was invented here, and the hotel does brisk business with tourists bellying up to try one. I stuck with a pint of the local Tiger Bear, instead. I was surprised to find bags of peanuts on the bar for patrons to crack and munch on, tossing the shells onto the floor. It seemed somehow un-British to toss your refuse on the floor. I indulged, though, chiefly because I hadn't eaten all day except for two small chocolate buns that were complimentary in my morning hotel. Oh, that's another aspect of one of my death marches -- an almost ascetic, self-denial of food. I honestly think fasting can hone your senses. Plus, airlines tend to over feed their passengers, and it is also partly in attempt to right the balance that I eat little in my first day or so. The peanuts hit the spot, and I would actually go to bed that evening having eaten no meal all day.

The historic and iconic Raffles hotel in Singapore - inventor of the "Singapore Sling"

As I left Raffles, dusk was settling in on Singapore's bustling streets. I headed for the bay to get pictures of the skyscrapers lit up at night. My feet were getting sore, as I'd been walking for more hours than I cared to think about. I was rewarded with a delicious panorama of the city lit up by night. It was also my first real look at the Marina Sands Hotel, a building that should feature in a Star Wars movie. Three futuristic hotel towers are topped by a gleaming boat-like structure that is home to gardens, an infinity pool, restaurant, and of course, observation deck. I would visit it later on the trip, but it rose out of the bay like a science-fiction model, and is surrounded by similarly futuristic looking buildings. The lights of the city skyscrapers gleamed brightly, reflecting on the water. The mirror images of the buildings were sliced apart periodically by boats cutting wakes across the placid surface of the bay. I always carry a tiny, collapsible tripod with me for moments like these. I circled the half moon of the waterfront, taking pictures along the way and savoring the view.

Singapore's harbor lit up at night like a Christmas tree

Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel. I limped a bit, having foolishly warn my Teva sandals rather than walking shoes. It would turn out that I had developed and torn a blister on my left foot. After the uncomfortable half an hour walk from the metro station, I picked up a package of Band-AIds to wear for the next few days. Having a shoppingi center -- including a supermarket -- in your hotel is a handy thing. After a refreshing shower, I thankfully settled into bed and slept away the rigors of one of my signature death marches.

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:57 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Bosnian Bonus: Does this count as "visiting" the country?

Driving through the Neum Corridor which splits Croatia into two

sunny 68 °F

Bosnia owns a nine kilometer stretch of the gorgeous Dalmatian coastline

So what counts as to "seeing a country?" You could set some sort of standard, say, visiting a certain percentage of a nation. But what about the United States, where I have lived for 53 years? There are huge parts of it that I have never seen. So, that can't work. What if you go to the other extreme? You could say all you have to do is be physically in the country -- standing on its soil. But then you could count every country you connect through in an airport. That's hardly visiting a county. The key -- to me -- is the word visit. To say you've visited a country, you have to go there specifically to see or do something. That's the mental definition I've been using to get to the 79 countries I've visited, so far.

Lots of coastal development has occurred in the Neum Corridor, as Bosnia can pour its money into a geographically smaller stretch of coastline

For example, when I was in South Africa, I took a day trip to Lesotho. I count that because I specifically went there to see its sights, albeit briefly. The same when I was in the United Arab Emirates. I visited neighboring Oman because there was a really cool medieval Arab fort across the border that I wanted to see. Which brings me to country #80 -- Bosnia-Hercegovina. For spring break, we flew into Venice, spent a couple days there, then drove to Croatia. To get to the southern, coastal city of Dubrovnik, you have to drive through Bosnia. I debated whether to count it or not.

I was expecting to see mosques rather than churches, but considering that most of the inhabitants are actually Croat Christians, I should not have been surprised

The "Neum Corridor," as it is called, is a nine kilometer stretch of Bosnia that pokes through Croatian territory, separating it into two parts. The idea, no doubt, was to give Bosnia access to the Adriatic Sea. Without that, it would be landlocked. So, the town of Neum became Bosnia's biggest (and only) Adriatic resort. It was easily the largest development we passed through along the Dalmatian Coast, excepting Split and Dubrovnik. We would cross through it twice, once going to Dubrovnik, once returning.

Vandalized dual language signs in the Neum Corridor

We'd already noticed that many signs in Croatia were dual language -- Croatian and Italian. However, in the Neum Corridor, they were in Croatian and Cyrillic script, doubtless Bosnian. Many of the signs, though, had been vandalized. The Cyrillic script was spray painted over. This got my curiosity up, so I read up some on Neum. It turns out that when they handed this territory over to Bosnia, the Croatian residents weren't too happy. In fact, I read that 92% of the residents of the corridor at that time were ethnically Croatian. I can only assume the more displeased of those are the ones who vandalize the signs.

Like the rest of the Dalmatian coast, the Neum Corridor is beautiful. We made it a point to stop in places to take some pictures. We also shopped for souvenirs. I decided that this allowed me to "count" Bosnia as my 80th country. I know it is kind of stretching my previous definition, but hey! There are plenty of others who use even more ephemeral and flimsy stop offs to count as visiting. So, there you have it! A little bit of recent history, a little bit of Philosophy, and a few pretty pictures! That is my visit to Bosnia, though I hope one day to return to really do it justice!

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:12 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Comments (0)

Splitting the Day in Croatia

Last two cities on our visit


Roman carvings adapted to be part of the decoration of a Christian church (formerly the Roman Emperor Diocletian's tomb)

On our final day of sightseeing in Croatia, we would drive from Dubrovnik, stop in Split, and then continue on to Zadar for the night. The following morning would simply be our drive back to Venice, so this was our last day to chance to see things. Hopefully, we'd have enough time to see places we'd picked out in both cities, but we weren't 100% sure how long it would all take.

Split is Croatia's second largest city after its capital of Zagreb. The city grew up around a seaside palace that the Late Roman Emperor Diocletian built for himself there. He was a native of Illyria, as that region was called by the Romans. After seizing control of the empire, he stabilized it with a new idea. The empire was too big for one person to rule effectively, he decided. There were too many invading barbarians, and giving lots of troops to generals often led them to launch their own coups to take over. Since, the emperor couldn't lead the army in two places at once, what Rome needed was two emperors. So, he split the empire into Eastern and Western halves, giving his trusted friend Maximian the other half. Then, he decided to fix the succession problem by having each emperor, or Augustus, name a junior emperor (a Caesar) as their successor. So, Rome went from one emperor to having four of them! However, even my middle school History students can spot the problem with the Tetrarchy: It requires four leaders willing to share power. Although Diocletian reigned for more than two decades, the system fell apart after his death.

The walls of Diocletian's palace became a part of the medieval city of Split

Diocletian built his palace in Split on the model of a legionary marching camp. It was walled, square, and bisected by an East-West and North-South road. Since it was a permanent settlement, he built temples, offices for his administration, and even a mausoleum for himself when he were to pass away. The palace was kept in use by his successors, but did not grow into an actual town until centuries later. When the nearby town of Salonica was sacked by invading Avars, many residents of the town fled to the walled palace and took up residence behind its compact walls. Around this nucleus, a medieval town grew -- renovating the palace to turn it into homes, and the temples into churches. Humorously, Diocletian -- who had persecuted Christians mercilessly -- was even evicted from his mausoleum and its squat octagonal structure became a church. Had he known, I'm sure he would have rolled over in his grave! Sorry, couldn't resist that one...

The area in the center of town called the Peristyle has rows of Roman columns that were formerly part of ancient temples

The core of Split is a curious mixture of Roman and Medieval relics. In some places, like the Peristyle, you can easily see the Roman side. Rows of columns enclose paved courtyards. The four gates piercing each wall look like Roman ceremonial entranceways. In other parts, Split resembles the jumble of Medieval homes and churches, with terra cotta roof tiles. You can see the walls, though, that enclose the square core of the palace grounds. For the best view, we climbed the church bell tower attached to Diocletian's former mausoleum. Here, you could clearly see the walls delineating the original Roman square.

The walls define where the original medieval city built around Diocletian's Palace grew up

I found Split to be a bit disappointing, though, like it was neither fish nor fowl. Not Roman enough for me to lose myself in that reverie. Nor was it medieval enough, I guess, being a living breathing city. People still are crammed higgedly-piggedly in every nook and corner in Split. So, perhaps the coolest thing about Split is simply the idea of it. Refugees cramming a former Roman emperor's retirement palace, squatting in it, building new walls to subdivide it into homes, and then having this metamorphosis grow for centuries into a thriving town. And though it is free to enter the "palace," you are charged for every sight -- bell tower, churches, and the cavernous substructure underneath. It was interesting to wander around the town and see the various courtyards, balconies, etc., that had been added on as the town grew. After only about two hours of sightseeing, we were ready to leave and drive on to Zadar.

The ceremonial gate leading to the former Venetian, walled seaside town of Zadar, Croatia

We were staying at the same apartments/hotel as our earlier night-time stop here. Many of the "hotels" in Croatia are called apartments, instead. Considering you can rent them for one night to one week to one month, I'm really not sure why they are not called hotels. Perhaps it is because the owners do not staff a desk 24 hours a day. Instead, they will contact you to see what time you are arriving, so they can meet you and check you in. Although that may sound like poorer service, the Apartments Lavandula in Zadar were the nicest placed we stayed in during our spring break trip to Croatia and Venice. The staff we met were professional and helpful.

The Byzantine-style Church of St. Donatus with fragments of the Roman forum in the foreground

After checking in, we walked into the Old Town part of Zadar. This town was a pleasant find. Compact and easily walkable in the Old Town, it had a number of quality sights. Like Dubrovnik, it is a walled, seaport with roots in the Roman times. My favorite sight was probably the Byzantine-style, 9th Century Church of St. Donatus. It is a wide, cylindrical stone building nestled amidst the ruins of Zadar's Roman Forum. Column fragments, capitals, and even tombstones are spaced in rows in a grassy area adjoining the town's main square. I liked how the city kept them out in public for citizens and visitors to see every day and enjoy. Yes, they'd be better preserved in a museum, but here they get so many more visitors. Behind St. Donatus was the bell tower of the town cathedral. Unfortunately, like most of the other sights in town, it was closed for the evening. We did get to walk around and photograph the exterior of the churches and towers, so all was not lost. It was a cool, pleasant evening and the sinking sun bathed the stones of the buildings with a golden glow.

The bell tower of Zadar's Cathedral that we were hoping to be able to climb, but alas, it had just closed

One curiosity that made Zadar a YouTube sensation is the sea organ. An incredibly clever person designed a network of pipes connected to the ocean, with hollow organ-like passages leading up to the point where the town promenade meets the sea. The effect is that as waves push into the tubes, they force the air up through the openings like an organ. The waves do not strike the tubes in a regular or repetitive pattern, so you get a variety of sounds issuing forth from the pipe chambers as you set and look out to sea. In effect, the sea is playing music for you! What's more, a circular area of solar panels next to the tubes soaks up the sun's rays throughout the day, converting them into electricity. At night, this circular area lights up. Sensors in the pipes relay the information to the display, which appears to assign a different color to each new wave pattern that comes in. So, not only does the sea provide music for you in Zadar, it also gives you a psychedelic dance floor to enjoy it upon (with a little help from humans)!

Zadar's Sea Organ at night, with different colored lights representing each new wave that strikes the organ tubes

As night fell I definitely felt I could have used more time in Zadar. I would not give up Dubrovnik to visit it, but I actually enjoyed diminutive Zadar more than sprawling Split. I would love to have gone through its city museum, climb the bell tower for a view of the walls and ancient town on a sparkling day, and explore its churches. I knew my time in Croatia would be short from the planning stages, though. Spring break is only a week, and with poor connections and expensive flights dictating our use of Venice as a departure and arrival point, the time was cut even shorter. However, Croatia lived up to my expectations. It was worth the decades of waiting to enjoy its sun-soaked coastline and its Roman and Medieval relics. Though I didn't have all the time I hoped, Croatia waited for me before. Her charms will still be there when I return!

The Captain's Tower, part of Zadar's fortifications, and the ancient wells that provided water to the city

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:47 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Dubrovnik: Worth Waiting Two Decades For!

Medieval seaport is a brilliant marriage of History and scenery

sunny 70 °F

Me on Dubrovnik, Croatia's medieval walls

For decades I had been wanting to see Dubrovnik. This fortified, medieval seaport was Venice's rival throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Known as Ragusa back then, the city made alliances to stay independent of the mistress of the seas, Venice. Most importantly for the traveler, her walls remained intact through the centuries and her location on the gorgeous Dalmatian coast had captured my imagination from the moment I first saw photographs of her gleaming walls and terra cotta roof tiles. During the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbian artillery rained down on this UNESCO world heritage sight. The Croats resisted, though, cut off from the rest of their countrymen. The damage has been repaired, and the Old Town greets visitors with shining walls and even freshly scrubbed slick, stone streets.

In fact, Dubrovnik looks so pristine it has been used by Hollywood to film a number of movies over the past few years. I knew that the city is a stand-in for King's Landing in the HBO Games of Thrones adaption. We were surprised, though, to hear we had just missed filming of the next Star Wars installment by a week. Though it would have been cool to be there during the filming, in hindsight, that would have meant closed sights, blocked off streets, and other inconveniences. So, best to miss it, we surmised.

Walking along Dubrovnik's medieval outer walls

Our exploration began on the Stradun, the pedestrian main drag through the compact, walled town. After checking into our hotel, we walked maybe 50 yards, and there we were! It LOOKED like a movie set, it was so pristine. Had they given the walls and streets a thorough scrubbing for Disney? Perhaps. We didn't ask. We checked out a few of the sights, including the Sponza Palace, built in the 14th century and elegantly remodeled during the Renaissance. Not much of it is open to visitors, but there is a photo exhibit in one room honoring the city defenders who died holding off the Serb army. Facing the palace across the square was the Church of St. Blaise, which we ducked inside to see a service going on. Though they were speaking in Croatian, my Catholic upbringing and its ritualistic mass meant I could tell what they were saying.

Dubrovnik's streets -- apparently this one was used as a set in one of the Star Wars movies

As we wandered up stairs and around twisting Medieval streets, we could see most of the city's buildings were made with same light, yellowish stone. It gave the buildings a unity of appearance and made them glow with luster when the sun struck them. Over the next day and a half, we also visited both the Franciscan and Domenican monasteries. Each had similar cloisters surrounding gardens, with carved, stone pillars capped by interesting capitals. We declined to visit the museums in each, as we wanted to save the bulk of our time for Dubrovnik's greatest attraction: walking the circuit of the city's medieval walls. We were biding our time, keeping an eye on the sky. We wanted the best possible lighting for Dubrovnik's premier sight. When the sun broke through in earnest, it was time to begin our assault.

Medieval churches and buildings line Dubrovnik's atmospheric cobble-stoned streets

The walls were built in the 10th century and improved three centuries later. As we climbed higher and higher, the panorama of terra cotta roofs spread out beneath us. Many of the tiles were a newer, brighter orange, replaced since being damaged during the 1990s struggle. Some were relics from further back, and their darker and duskier tones intermixed with the new ones. The colors shining back at you looked like swatches from a paint store's selection of oranges. Rearing up through the ocean of tiles were church bell towers, like giant stone sea creatures, grazing and passively watching the smaller life swim by beneath them. Out to sea, the blue Adriatic sparkled like gemstones, parted by the prows of ferries, tour boats, and speedboats. Beyond the landward walls, green hills rose up like an amphitheater to enfold the city on two sides. White walled houses shined back down at us, their view doubtless the equal of our's atop the walls.

Wherever you look in Dubrovnik, you see the medieval walls looming above the terra cotta roofs

It was easy to get lost in the past, climbing up the stout towers and pacing along the battlements. The quiet, contemplative stroll was suddenly interrupted when a huge high school group of French students burst onto the bulwarks like an invading army. Shouting, laughing, and taking selfies, they marred the dreamlike quality for awhile. Thankfully, they descended the walls at the halfway point, though I cringed the rest of the day when I heard the "musical" (read nasal) tones of French being spoken. One of my favorite things to do when I visit a historical sight is to slowly wander through it. Dubrovnik's walls are perfect for that. I stopped to take dozens of photos -- every set of steps you climbed or medieval turret you peer through is an amazing view. The wedding of the magical Dalmatian coastline with the martial splendor of a medieval walled city has given birth to a world-class sight.

Peering through a tower window at the streets outside the walls

To gain another perspective, we rode the cable car to the top of one of the hills that overlooks the city. Tourists pointed their "selfie sticks" -- one of the more annoying inventions of recent years -- every which way. We were elbowed aside several times by a Japanese tour group, but what could you do? Under sunny blue skies, on a warm Spring day, how could you really get angry? It took a bit of doing to find a view of the city below that wasn't partially blocked by the cable car towers and wires. When we did find it, I couldn't resist a smug satisfaction that the tour group was nowhere around, and seemed to miss out on that secret. I felt less guilty about my feeling when the tour group pushed in front of us and ditched us in line, forcing us to wait 15 minutes or so for the next car.

Medieval fortifications guard the harbor leading into Dubrovnik, Croatia

Once down on street level, we grabbed ice creams and ate them on a bench overlooking the harbor. We then moved to the breezy sea promenade and sat on another bench, marveling at the glorious weather and view. I felt myself dozing off, contented and satisfied. At this point, we'd seen the top sights we'd come to see. We flipped through our guidebooks to figure out how to finish out our second afternoon in Dubrovnik. I picked out the Maritime Museum, which was a mistake. When a History buff is bored, you know it is a poor museum! Next, we decided to take a sightseeing boat tour to get a chance to get a new perspective on the city. It was about a 45 minute cruise in a small boat with only a dozen or so of us. The captain gave us occasional commentary -– the most interesting of which dealt with the millionaire hotels along the coastline leading back to the harbor. I recognized the gardens of the one which had been used in Game of Thrones filming.

If you have watched HBO's "Game of Thrones," than you have seen this view looking down from the hilltop above Dubrovnik

We finished out the afternoon watching the sun sink slowly into the Adriatic Sea from a seaside cafe located just outside the walls. Although they were sold out of virtually everything, they had plenty of Croatian lagers. I had worried that only two days in a city I had waited two decades to visit would not be enough. It had turned out fine, though. Sure, I could have taken an excursion to one of the islands in the area with a third day, but that wouldn't have been Dubrovnik, would it? Two sun-soaked, Spring days to visit this medieval relic of the Middle Ages were without rival. I looked forward to spotting places I'd visited in Hollywood productions for years to come.

A coastal cruise allows you to view Dubrovnik's formidable walls outside of them, from the water

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:07 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

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