31 August 2009

Buddha Pest

I knew it was tell-tale when I entered the National Museum art galleries and all I saw was Buddha. True, Thailand does have an extensive tradition of art and the artifacts to prove it; but equally extensive is its display and revering of Buddha over every inch of the city!

In the United States, people take cautious meas
ures toward tolerance of all religions and not "flaunting" one religion over another. In Bangkok, it's no holds barred. Buddha is about as omnipresent as the heat and humidity. The smell of incense fills
the streets; Buddhas of every shape and size are sold street-side; alters are set up outside of buildings and homes; and you cannot walk more than a couple blocks without seeing a Wat.

The Wats themselves do not blend seamlessly into the local architecture as churches and mosques do back home. Nope, their vibrant colors, ostentatious architecture, and gold-trimmed roofs make Wats a conspicuous ever-presence on the Bangkok skyline. And if the sheer number of Wats don't hint at Bangkok's Buddhist majority (95% of the population practices Buddhism), just enter Wat Pho and it will become clear how reverently he is regarded. Idolically reclined within its overwhelmed walls lies a 46-meter long gold-plated Buddha.

But despite the innumerable Buddhas present in every corner of Bangkok, I was still able to find 1 (yes, I only saw 1) familiar face.

28 August 2009

Culture Shock!

You know a museum is good when the artifacts speak for themselves: no fancy displays, no state of the art lighting or audio-visuals, and maybe even a lack of air conditioning despite sweltering heat. This is exactly what I found in Bangkok. Between visiting the National Museum, the Grand Palace, and the Dusit Palace complex north of the city, the sheer number, types, sizes, and ages of artifacts on display was a complete culture shock!

The gold trimming, grandiose architecture, and mosaic tiling make a life-sized mega-artifact of the Grand Palace. Inside you'll find Hindu mythological panoramas depicting Rama's encounters with Ravana. Beautifully intricate, colorful, and expanding hundreds of meters, it's a wonder that most tourists shy away from the murals in favor of the architectural wonders surrounding them. Additionally, a to-scale representation Cambodia's (once Thailand's) Angkor Wat lies proudly amidst the the life-sized buildings of this former King's palace.

The National Museum, though humbly small, boasts an in-depth history of the Thai kingdom, a gallery full of intricately carved ivory tusks, an extensive collection of ancient Thai games, musical instruments, textiles, and art, just to name a few. Despite its size, I easily spent 2 hours here to satisfy my cultural curiosity.

But just when I thought my museum-junkie tendencies had been maxed-out, I approached the Dusit Palace complex on a whim. It is the Mecca of Thai art and history to say the least. The central attraction is Rama V's teakwood mansion (Vimanmek), the largest of its kind in the world. But its real treasures are housed in 12, 2-story wooden cottages that are scattered throughout the Dusit complex. Clocks, carriages, palanquins, money, weapons, ceramics, seashells, and hundreds of intact prehistoric pottery recovered from the Gulf of Thailand's maritime heyday. The artifacts were in impeccable condition dating back as far as 2,000 BC!

But it is not only the old and ancient you'll find here. This grandiose Throne Hall of European architecture is a showcase for the cultural initiative of Thailand's queen: the rebirth of the ancient and creation of new Thai art forms. In a setting fit for royalty, mother of pearl, gold, diamonds, jade, and even beetle wings glitter on everything from thrones to purses to plates and menu covers. It's entrancing, exalting, and overwhelming. And just when my aesthetic senses reached their limit, the less than glitzy intricacies of the wood carved murals and embroidered tapestries surprised me once again.

It is not just Thai and Southeast Asia's art and artifacts you'll see here either. Thanks to Rama V's 2 trips to Europe (he was the first Siamese monarch to do so), you see a mix of conventional European and traditional Thai everywhere you look. Thailand is obviously a country that both values and takes pride in its rich history and culture, while integrating and embracing the art of its countreymen and European counterparts alike...a true culture shock!

25 August 2009

"Thai"na Town

Now that you've heard my sister's perspectives, here are a bit of my own:
My Bangkok hotel accommodations were located just blocks from Chinatown. And to be honest, I think the Thai do it better than the Chinese! Compared with the manicured almost Disney-esque feel you get from Singapore's Chinatown (the only person cooking on the street is an Austrian guy selling brats and pretzels!), Thai-na town is exactly how I imagine it should be: bustling streets, roadside food vendors, chaos but little crime, and curiosities at every turn.

Anything from noodles, to chicken on a stick, to shark fin and fish head is easily found on the streets and in restaurants. My "peking" duck and shrimp dumpling lunch rivaled those I've tasted in, well, "Peking." Green onions stood erect in beer mugs for "whole" eating alongside dim sum dishes. Kitchens were conveniently located in front of restaurants but behind their to-go stand counterparts servicing customers inside and out. Yes, this is the Chinatown I imagined.

But beware of relying too much on landmarks as you navigate Chinatown's serpentine streets. Things tend to transform at a seconds notice, metamorphose throughout the day, or simply relocate...shop, merchandise, and all!

But regardless of the location or mis-location of a particular "shop," rest assure you can find what you need in Bangkok's ethnic backyard. From cookware, to dried fruits, to glasses and dentures, all your trash and treasures can be found here. And when the shoppers start to drop, there are food vendors at every turn selling anything that can be grilled, boiled, fried, roasted, or dried.

With no hard and fast rules for what belongs on sidewalks and what belongs on streets, cars, people, and vending carts all vie dangerously close for positions on both. Yes, Bangkok's "Thai"na Town is my quintessential Chinatown.

22 August 2009

SE Asia's Top 10 Under $10

I haven't been able to visit everywhere in Southeast Asia over the past 6 months. But for the places I've been lucky enough to experience, here are some highlights for the budget-minded traveler:

10. Beach-Side Massage (Boracay, Philippines): 1 hour of pure relaxation is what this entails. Waves crash a mere 10 feet from your massage bench, and the smell of coconut oil fills the air as the ladies work their magic over your entire body.

9. Beach Chair and Beer at Patong Beach (Phuket, Thailand): Day-rental beach chairs with umbrellas and cheap beer from the drug store make a day on Patong Beach both fun and affordable!

8. Dinner at Lau Pa Sat (Singapore): We all know Singaporeans love to eat. And the most popular place for good, cheap food is the local hawker centre. Chicken rice, dumplings, popiah, chicken satay, or curry fish head for the more adventurous; and if you're lucky, you may catch some live country music on the centre's stage.

7. Riding the River Ferry (Bangkok, Thailand): Don't buy the tourist day pass; for 27 Baht (about 80 cents) you can view Thai architecture, be part of the daily commuting bustle, and take in some breeze and shade while riding the length of the Chao Phraya River.

6. Posing with Parrots at the Bird Park (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia): Just a couple of dollars will get you some portraits to remember! Simply pick a couple parrots and perch them on the appendage of your choice.

5. Cambodian Kickboxing (Phnom Penh, Cambodia): If you don't mind a bit of bashing and blood, kickboxing is a no-miss in Cambodia's capitol city. Full body use to combat the opponent makes for an intense, attention grabbing sports outing.

4. Rhythm in Bronze (Singapore/Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia): This KL-based and internationally renowned musical group takes traditional Malay music to a new level. Using bronze percussion instruments of ole, it is a show not to be missed! See video

3. Feeding the Giraffes (Singapore): Don't miss feeding time at the Singapore Zoo! For about $2, you can get up close and personal with our tallest animal friends.

2. Water Puppet Show (Ha Noi, Vietnam): For less than $5, you can experience this uniquely Vietnamese folkart first-hand. A beautiful fusion of traditional music, story telling, and puppetry, the Water Puppet Show highlights Vietnamese life and legends in a way that's both intricate and entertaining.

1. Petronas Towers (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia): These picturesque towers put KL on the map, and for good reason. Towering high above the city, the white and silver-clad twins with curves to kill cause onlookers to stop and stare. It's free to enter the skybridge for a view, but only available for the early birds willing to wait in line and battle crowds for tickets.

18 August 2009

Gentle Land, Gentle Mindset: Laos

Guest Blogger: Laura Seewoester
As we heard, Luang Prabang is undeniably beautiful. It is nestled between where the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers come together, cradled at the base of small but lovely mountains. Flowers bloom all along the streets, and the city (at least where we are) is clean and doesn't smell like urine (or maybe that was just the durian).

The people and the atmosphere here are as gentle as the scenery. Even the heat and humidity seem less stifling. Adding to the natural beauty are glittering wats at almost every turn, all bearing the orange robes of monks blowing in the wind as they hang to dry. At first you almost don't realize you are in a big tourist spot until you see all the Western style restaurants, not to mention the Westerners that crawl out in the evening. The slow pace of Laos is a refreshing break from the craziness of Bangkok and Siem Reap. All the businesses and tours close or end by 3:30, so the afternoons are spent napping or chilling with a Beer Lao.

The Lao cuisine is excellent. Traditionally, they make a series of small dishes and dips that are eaten using sticky rice (much like Ethiopian food is eaten by picking it up with the bread). Everything is fresh and flavorful. We took a cooking class, so I will be able to try my hand at it. Tomorrow we are off to ride elephants in the jungle, and then to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. I hope everyone is doing well.

Yuk yuk.

15 August 2009

Touring the Temples of Angkor

Guest Blogger: Laura Seewoester
Crossing the land border into Cambodia was a little like walking over to Mexico but more humid, less organized, and more confusing. You immediately get that 3rd world atmosphere when seeing someone abuse their child so the crying child may pickpocket a sympathetic tourist.

Cambodia exudes desperation. You see things that break your heart; a mom begging for milk for her child, and what really gets me are the landmine victims. We haven't even seen much of the real Cambodia, as we are only staying in the tourist mecca of Siem Reap, the city by the temples of Angkor. At least here there is opportunity with the constant influx of tourists, so instead of flat out begging the children relentlessly ask if you want to purchase a postcard/book/10 bracelets for $1. Everything is also priced in USD, so they make a little on the exchange rate but for us it is pennies (and quite convenient, annoying for non-Americans). All this is centered around the Cambodian pride and joy: the temples of Angkor Wat.

The temples of Angkor is a series of Khmer temples that holds the title for largest religious building in the world. The largest temple (Angkor Wat) is massive and glorious, as is its moat. It's so big that despite the crowds it is still possible to find a little place tucked away from the people and enjoy some peace and quiet. The most interesting temple is probably Tom Prah, where the jungle has completely taken over the structures, and trees grow through and around the stone. Each temple has its own slice of history in the Khmer empire, making each one unique in construction and design (yet somehow at the end of the day, they all look the same...).

I have to say, something that is pleasantly surprising here is the food. Khmer food is similar to Thai food, but not as spicy. They have the coconut curries and some excellent blending of flavors and spices (like pumpkin and coconut). Too bad there aren't too many (or any?) Khmer restaurants in Dallas.

Unfortunately Siem Reap is all we will see of Cambodia; we will leave the "real" Cambodia for another trip. As we leave today we head to Luang Prabang, supposedly the most beautiful city in SE Asia. My camera is ready and waiting.


11 August 2009

Bustling Bangkok

I'm currently on a 3-week excursion across Southeast Asia. But not to worry, you'll still get your blogging fill. My sister just completed a similar trip, so the next couple of blogs will be her perceptions of the same areas you'll hear about from me once I'm return. Enjoy!

Guest Blogger: Laura Seewoester
Bangkok smells of rice paper and sewage. The streets are constantly screaming with the chugging of tuk tuk engines and sizzling fryers of street vendors. The 12 hour time difference has made the jetlag particularly grueling. We find ourselves almost unable to stay awake in the late afternoon and unable to sleep in the early morning, which turns the days into a series of second winds. Coupled with the heat, we are stuck in a perpetual daze.

The people are remarkable friendly and are not shy to approach and speak with us. From the man at the bar giving up his seat by the A/C after noting two very sweaty tourists to the stranger on the street looking to give us directions, everyone is warm and inviting. We can't help but think what is in it for them and half expect a plea for money at the end of each conversation. Was that stranger on the street in cahoots with the tuk tuk driver vying for our money down the way? One can't be sure. Maybe they are mesmerized by JP's red hair, or my big boobs (or both), maybe they just want to practice their English, or maybe it is a general obsession with all things American.

With a plethora of 7-11s, American ads, and the constant blare of American music from the radio, one can't help but think that we, as tourists, are as much a novelty to the people as the latest American fashion or hit song. They certainly know more about our culture than we can begin to understand of theirs. Regardless, the friendliness of the people make Bangkok much less intimidating for a wayward traveler.

Next we are traversing the road to Siem Reap, a route notorious for bad roads and scams. The only other alternative is a $200 one-way plane ticket on the only airline that flies there from Bangkok. Wish us luck.

Peace in the southeast.

08 August 2009

(In)tolerance in Singapore

Singapore prides itself on being a nation of tolerance: tolerance for different heritages, languages, backgrounds, and ways of life. Every year, the nation even places these difference in the celebratory limelight during the country-wide HeritageFest. But how tolerant is Singapore truly? And are those who aren't Singaporean granted the same rights as citizens or even as human beings? I won't get up on my soap box, but here is some food for thought regarding one of the most "tolerant" countries on earth:
  1. Muslims are not allowed to wear head scarfs in public schools.
  2. Foreigners with HIV will not be granted work permits.
  3. Foreign service workers who become pregnant while employed in Singapore will no longer be eligible for work in the country...ever again.

04 August 2009

Life's a Mall

Just when I thought Singapore had reached its saturation point, Orchard Road outdoes itself again. On the corner of Orchard and Scotts roads, Singapore's major shopping district, yet another mall has opened. And this one is a monolith to say the least! "Ion Orchard" is a immense shopping structure that boasts 8 levels of shopping, offers 66,000 square meters of retail space, and crosses 12 lanes of traffic below ground. Housing everything from Dunkin' Donuts to Steve Madden, this new mall puts its neighbors to shame.

Jumping water fountains line the sidewalk by its main entrance; a grandiose spaceship pod-like entrances makes you feel like you're entering another world; and the multi-screen jumbo tron plastered on the building's facade dwarfs the massive TV screen advertising new release movies across the street. This intersection's only saving grace from mall supersaturation is a Marriott perched on the northeast corner.
To add to its grandiose feel, the new mall is attached through above- and underground links to neighboring malls. My commute home now involves about a quarter-mile of indoor, air conditioned, and crowded mall hallways.

But with so many malls, you would think competition would minimize crowds. Not so. Apparently malling is a Saturday night activity. Returning home this past weekend around 10:30pm, the party was just starting at the Ion. Thousands of shoppers crowded the malls as they hung with friends, window shopped, and socialized.
In Singapore, life truly is a mall...and all its men and women merely shoppers.

01 August 2009

A Medium-Sized Move

One of my good friends here in Singapore just informed me she is moving to Switzerland. She's Eurasian (half Chinese-Malaysia and half Swiss) so the destination did not strike me as out of the ordinary. But the immediacy of her move did!

During our conversation over the last meal we would share in Singapore, I asked her "why the sudden move?" After all, she has a boyfriend here, plans to attend university in Singapore, and her school start date was just week away! Well, as "luck" would have it things had not been going her way. She was no longer welcome at her accommodations in Singapore, she had been battling an illness for weeks on end, her school was being less than helpful with registration, and then of course there was her aunt's medium.

Her family of Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) heritage living a couple hours north of Singapore is Taoist. As such, they consulted with their Taoist medium regarding my friend's time here in Singapore. Similar to the process I mentioned regarding wedding dates in Singapore (see my
Luck of the...Asian? post), my friend's family gave the medium her birth date and Chinese name in hopes that some answer would come. Well, it did but not the one she had hoped for.

The knife radical in her Chinese character name, alongside various numerology tactics based on her birthday, revealed it dangerous even to the point of death for her to stay. Though not a practicing Taoist, she told me once that she finds herself caught between the Christian and Taoist world's because of her mixed background. Seeing as this medium had advised her family for over 15 years, she decided to heed his advice.

Perhaps she finds truth in the reading, perhaps she trusts her family in Malaysia, or perhaps the threat of death makes any warning worth heeding. Regardless of her reason, back to Switzerland she goes, leaving Singapore behind for now, in her medium-sized move.