Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Marina Barrage

This past weekend, Bryan and I headed to the Marina Barrage.  Ever since the Youth Olympic Games started, getting around town has been a little more difficult, and Sunday was no exception.  Bryan was in a hurry to get out there, so he suggested we take a taxi, but we gave up after seeing only HIRED or ON CALL lights for about 15 minutes.  We took the MRT and wandered around aimlessly for awhile after reaching the Marina Bay MRT station- the station was under construction, so it was a little hard to find the bus stop we were headed for, but eventually we made it to our final destination.

Marina Barrage is relatively new, having just been completed in 2008.  The location gained a little notoriety after serving as a pit stop in the sixteenth season of The Amazing Race.  The building of the barrage across the Marina Channel created a reservoir, which has the largest catchment area in Singapore.  The structure itself is very modern-looking, with a unique spiral design and a green roof where people can picnic and fly kites.  Inside the building is a museum/gallery focusing on the history of conservation in Singapore, and highlighting the water issues that have been a problem for the country for decades.

On the way in from the parking lot is a big, funky fountain.  Apparently that big blue thing is a replica of one of the pumps installed in the dam, which assists with flood control by pumping excess water out into the sea.

We were surprised by the number of YOG athletes hanging out in the area.  It looked like they were participating in some of the educational events that are part the YOG athlete's experience rather than competing in actual events.  We bypassed them and made our way onto the green roof, which provided great views of downtown.  It was a nice day, and tons of people were flying kites in the sunshine.
View from the roof

Up on the roof, the sun was beating down pretty intensely so we didn't stay up there for long.  We headed back into the cool, dark building to check out the Sustainable Singapore Gallery.  It was pretty neat- they had used recycled materials in artistic ways, like by creating an entire wall out of water bottles, and another one out of shelves of old, yellowed newspapers.  It was neat to see old trash turned into something fresh and fun.
Water Bottle Wall
Everything in the gallery looked super futuristic, like something you'd see on a spaceship.
There was something interesting in there, I swear
 I liked the little replica of downtown Singapore.  The itty bitty Singapore Flyer is the best!

It was a pretty educational day.  I was especially interested in the Sustainable Singapore Gallery after having read about some of Singapore's water issues when I read A Singapore Story.  Lee Kuan Yew talked about the trials of having to import water, and the major efforts of cleaning the Singapore and Kallang Rivers, turning them from squalid filth into clean waterways with effective waste management systems.

We ended our day by reading at the Coffee Club at Raffles Place for awhile- it was nice to mellow out for awhile after being surrounded by people at Marina Barrage all afternoon. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weird Food Gets Weirder

Just when I thought I couldn't be any more stunned by the culinary offerings of southeast Asia, I stumbled upon this delightfully bizarre treat.  At a KFC in Phuket, Thailand, you can get a salmon stick- a stick of spaghetti, salmon, and cream sauce, deep fried and served up in a paper sleeve.  Because, obviously KFC will "go to great lengths  to please you!"  Ick.  I was reminded of McDonald's brief misadventure with McSpaghetti back in the '80's.  Also gross.

And as a special bonus, when I got home and looked at the photo, I spotted this in the background:

Also offered by KFC, it's a "chocolate cake roll sundae," which appears to be a chunk of Swiss roll plopped into the middle of a regular hot fudge sundae.  Yikes.  I'd never eat the salmon stick, but I might be convinced to sample the sundae...

Mark and KT say Goodbye

We had a few extra days in Singapore before we all headed to the States.  I would be leaving a few hours before Mark and KT, to see my friends and family in Ohio for the first time in eleven months.  I was really excited about it, and incredibly grateful that Mark and KT had been around for the past few weeks, keeping me sane while I was anticipating the trip home.

We planned to make the most of their last few days, and Mark popped out of bed bright and early our first day back.  He took off on his own, ecstatic to be back in Singapore.  KT and I slept in and then went to a wet market to pick up some more tropical fruit to taste (starfruit, yum!).  Then we walked over to Chinese Garden, where we checked out the sites.
One of the twin pagodas

We enjoyed walking around the Japanese Garden, looking for the oldest bonsai.  Some of them are over 300 years old!

This one's my favorite!  I think this style is called "full cascade form."

For some reason, the longer we stayed at the garden, the worse I felt.  When we got to the seven-story pagoda, KT wanted to go to the top, but I was feeling so bad that I hung out on a bench and waited for her while she scaled all the stairs.  I couldn't help but laugh when, four minutes after she walked away she returned with a guy in tow.  "Hey Crystal, this is Phillip," she said nonchalantly, as though everyone picks up a guy in four minutes.  Phillip was a British tourist with some questions about what to see and do in Singapore, so we chatted with him for a few minutes before leaving him for the sculpture garden.  The sculptures taught us that Mulan looks nothing like the Disney version.

After the sculptures, I was feeling pretty beat and we headed home.  I ended up sick in bed for the next few days.  Who's to say whether I picked up the bug on the train or if it was the result of prolonged sleep deprivation?  Either way, I'm guessing it was related to Vietnam.  While I laid low, my friends continued adventuring around the city.  In their last few days they managed to hit up the Singapore Zoo, do one last shopping trip on Orchard Road, hang out at Jurong Point, and Mark even made it back to Chinatown.  When I finally left them, still sick and facing a series of long flights back to the U.S., I was satisfied that they'd gotten a great overview of Singapore in the time that they spent there.  It was fantastic having company from home and even though I wasn't looking forward to traveling while under the weather, I was really eager to finally see my family!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Adventures in Da Nang

Usually blog posts cover one day, but as soon as we left Phuket, time started playing tricks on us, probably because we weren't sleeping regularly.  Our time in Da Nang is kind of all blurred together in my brain, which I think was scrambled from lack of sleep.  But here's my best account of it all:

The first day we were there we arranged a flight back to Singapore for late the next afternoon.  I think we were all a little disappointed in not being able to see what we wanted to see in Vietnam, but I guess sometimes you just have to improvise.  At that point in our trip, we could have tried to scramble and get something together to try and do some other big thing in Vietnam, but we were a little out of sorts with where we were and what was around us, and there was still plenty to see back in Singapore.  Gaining a couple of days there would do us no harm.

Mark's spirits lifted significantly once we had solid plans to go back to Singapore the next day.  He had really taken to the city, and was looking forward to having more time to explore.  After we booked the tickets, we consulted the yellow bible to see what it said about Da Nang.  It recommended a vegetarian restaurant in the area.  We walked and walked and asked directions a couple of times, and we finally found it, closed up tight.  No vegetarian food for us.  Our venture did land us at a pretty neat Buddhist temple though, and we wandered the grounds awhile, admiring the architecture and behemoth statues.

Before too long, our hunger overpowered our desire to explore, and we headed out in search of food.  Near our hotel, we found a chic little cafe, where KT ordered some of the best potato soup I've ever eaten.  We washed it all down with yummy lime sodas, which I'd never had before.  They were pretty much just limes squeezed over ice, with soda water poured over it, and they were really refreshing after bearing the heat.  As usual, Mark ate like a teenage football player.  When we ate at the same cafe the next day, Mark double-fisted sandwiches while KT and I watched him in awe.
What?  Doesn't everyone order two meals?

Walking around Da Nang was interesting, as the town is fairly scenic, particularly along the river, which is spanned by a colorful modern bridge.  Along the river a number of similar fishing boats are docked all together.  With the Marble Mountains as a backdrop, the effect is pretty striking.

In the evening of the night before we left, we again ate dinner in the awesome hotel restaurant.  Located on the eighth floor with panoramic windows all around it, the restaurant offered a dizzying view of the city at night.  We ate dinner off of a delightfully Engrish menu (my favorite menu item was "rice with mixed foods").  We had a marvelous time ordering drinks and seeing what they would bring us.  For example, "egg nog" was some bright pink concoction with a neon green cherry, served in a margarita class.  Obviously.  Every time they brought something new to the table, we politely said thank you, bit our lips until the waiter walked away, and then burst out laughing at whatever new invention had arrived at our table.  KT ordered spring rolls, and a plate of beef was brought to the table.  Mark ordered a mixed drink, which was served in an aperitif glass.  We were busting up, thoroughly enjoying our new game.

After our raucous game of menu roulette, KT and I decided to go out and get a few beers to bring back to the room for the evening.  There was nothing like a store anywhere near our hotel, so we stopped to talk to an old lady selling beer along the side of the street.  She didn't speak any English, but through sign language we managed to get six Heineken in a plastic bag, the classiest six-pack I've ever purchased.  When we got back to the room and took the beer out of the bag, KT and I started laughing again- the cans were filthy.  It looked as though someone had played kick-the-can in the dirt with each one of them!  We wiped them all off before drinking.

Hanging out in the room gave us the opportunity to take inventory of the minibar, which yielded this gem.  White Fungus Bird's Nest Drink.  Mmmmmm, nothing says thirst-quenching like bird's nest.  Yessir, pass that right on over here.  I'm pretty sure this is made of swiftlet nests, which the birds build from their own saliva.  It just gets more and more appetizing.

We had an enjoyable night, drinking beer and watching X2.  The next day we got some lunch and headed to the airport to catch our flight back to Singapore.  The airport was a disorganized nightmare where everyone squished together and shouted at the ticket agents.  It looked a lot like the stock market floor.  But we'd anticipated some chaos and arrived early, so we were some of the first passengers through, which gave us time to explore one of the most unusual airports I've ever been to.  Mark found a couple of Christmas trees in one of the was June.  Obviously it was time for dilapidated holiday decorations.

We flew first to Ho Chi Minh City, where we had sushi and Mark got his daily allowance of cake.

We finally got on our flight and got back to Singapore.  We were a couple of days early, and I hadn't told Bryan because I thought it might be nice to surprise him.  We were all really happy to be back on familiar ground, and I was excited to see Bryan.  Going up the elevator to my apartment at two in the morning, we were talking about how great it would be to sleep in familiar beds.  We didn't anticipate that Bryan would have put the chain on the door, making it impossible for us to get in. And he was sleeping in our room at the back of the apartment, with the door shut and the noisy air-con running.  Crap.  My phone battery was dead, so I couldn't call.  I resorted to yelling through the crack in the door- "BRYAN!!!! BRYAN!!!" but I was feeling guilty about possibly waking up the neighbors, who all have young children.

As a last resort, Mark and I walked all the way to the 24-hour McDonald's with my phone charger so I could call Bryan.  When we got there, we were both astonished to see about sixty men inside, chilling and watching the World Cup.  Singapore really needs a few more bars.  Anyway, I felt like I should buy something, so I got a small Coke, only to realize that the only cash I had was a $50 bill.  After being stared down by the disgruntled fast food worker, we made our way through the crowd to the only open table, conveniently located next to the only outlet.  I plugged in my phone and commenced repeatedly calling Bryan, to no avail.  I knew his phone was probably still on silent from work that day, sitting on the table in the dining room.  Dang it.  We walked all the way back, and were contemplating hanging out in the stairwell until Bryan got up for work in a few hours.  As a last-ditch effort I mustered up the loudest shout I could manage, and a very confused Bryan stumbled out of the bedroom, thinking that I had shouted "FIRE" instead of "BRYAN"  He stared at us, asked me what day it was, was everything okay, where did we come from?  Was there a fire?  I gave up trying to explain, and the night's misadventure finally ended with everyone happily asleep inside the apartment.  Next time I'll call first. Worst surprise ever.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Murder Train

We weren't able to fly directly to Ho Chi Minh City from Phuket, so we flew from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur, where we slept overnight in the airport, and then flew from KL to HCMC the next morning.  The trip went fairly smoothly, although at one point we were awoken by a police officer in the airport.  Apparently the place we had chosen to go to sleep was not satisfactory, and we were sternly told to get a move on. But we quickly found a new place where lots of other people were sleeping, and KT and I curled up on the cold linoleum floor and drifted off right away.  Mark wasn't so cozy, and spent the night roaming the airport, eating, and chasing away some creeper who thought it would be interesting to stare intensely at KT and me while we slept.  The next morning we got some coffee and caught our next flight.  It had been a long night, and we were all doing OK, but I think it's fair to say that we all got a little loopy...

Once in HCMC, we were planning on catching a train to Dong Hoi so that we could go to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park.  We were supposed to have the tickets delivered to us at the train gates, but in order to avoid the delivery charge, we decided to take a taxi to pick them up.  This turned out to be quite an adventure into some out-of-the-way neighborhood, then into a back alley where some guy came out of his house toting his kid, and handed us an envelope.  It most definitely looked like some sort of illicit drug deal had gone down.  Anyway, we came back out of the alley and eventually flagged down a cab.  I was used to the traffic from the last time I'd been in the city, but my friends were still completely flabbergasted by the racing, disorganized hordes of motorbikes, and I kept losing them when we attempted to cross the streets.  Once we made it into a taxi intact, they were free to ogle the crazy tangle of traffic from relative safety.  I told them to keep an eye out for strange things attached to the backs of motorbikes, and we spotted some whole families piled onto one bike, boxes stacked over four feet high and lashed onto the bike seats, and strangest of all, a live cobra in a little mesh cage, strapped onto a seat.
Traffic through the windshield.  Why is that traffic coming at us head-on?!
Mark didn't seem to be enjoying the bustling city or the non-stop traveling we'd been doing over the past few days.  He looked like this as he loudly proclaimed his dislike for Vietnam:

 We headed to Pho 24 so everyone could have some authentic Vietnamese pho and spring rolls.  The food was restorative after all the traveling we'd done, and Mark started to perk up a little, especially once he'd had some dessert.  He still wasn't quite up to par, so after lunch KT and I left him in a coffeeshop with our bags so we could wander around the Pham Ngu Lao area a bit.  KT went a little souvenir-crazy at one of the shops.  She was gathering up so much stuff that the proprietor closed the door, turned on the air-con and offered us a drink, which made me giggle.  In the end, KT walked out with an armload of gifts for people back home, and I had one scarf for my mom.  I think the woman closed up shop and took the rest of the day off after we left!

It started to rain pretty heavily, so we hung out at the coffeeshop awhile before heading to the train station to start our 30-hour journey.  On the way there, Mark said "Man, after sleeping in the airport last night, this train's going to be like a 5-star resort!"  I gave KT a terrified look, knowing that the train would, in fact, be nothing like a resort of any kind, but not wanting to crush Mark, who was still tired and not feeling well.  I said quietly, "Mark, I don't know much about the train, but I really don't think it's going to be resort-like," to which he replied, "Well at least I'll be able to get a shower," which forced me to break his heart further by saying, "Yeah...there aren't going to be any showers..."

The train station was an adventure in itself.  Maybe the fact that we were some of the only tourists in the place should have tipped us off to the fact that the train wasn't what we were expecting, but at that point we were just looking forward to getting into our sleeping berth and stretching out on our beds. 

After a couple of hours, the train started to board and we walked up to our car, showed our tickets to the worker, and were pointed to another door, down the platform.  We went there, showed our tickets, and...were pointed BACK to the first person, who pointed us BACK to the other person.  This went on like a bad comedy sketch until I grabbed the train worker's hand and tried to drag her along with us, which she refused, and looked at me like I'd lost my mind.  We snuck onto the train behind her, and someone else helped us find our berth.  The berth was...interesting.  It was small, which I expected, and old, which I also expected.  The unexpected part was the fact that it was HIDEOUSLY DIRTY.  There was a dead bug on my pillow, placed as neatly as a mint at a nice hotel, and Mark's sheets had what appeared to be blood spatter on them.  I said c'est la vie, and plunked my bag on the floor and my butt on the bed.   Mark stared at me miserably and said, "Where's the nearest airport?"
Pictures REALLY don't do it justice
Two days without sleep will do this to you...

 Before long, we were joined by the fourth person in our berth.  I couldn't help but smile when I thought about how Bryan would react to this guy- he was Spanish, and he was one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen in real life (except Bryan, duh).  He stood in the doorway like an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, introduced himself, then got comfortable. 

As soon as the train started moving, a voice came on over the loudspeaker and made a bunch of announcements in Vietnamese, then English.  One of the first things the voice said was, "In the event that you find any body parts, or a corpse..." We didn't hear the rest because we were too busy shouting "WHAAAT?!?!"  It was thereafter referred to only as the Murder Train. 

After awhile, KT, Mark and I decided to try to find the dining car.  Oh, boy, venturing outside our berth was quite an experience.  There were men sitting in all the aisles in lawn chairs; there were people jammed into cars like cattle; people were peeing in the hallways, or holding babies out in the air and letting them go to the bathroom.  There was a bathroom at the end of our car and even though the train had just started moving, the toilet was full of urine, which was sloshing out with the motion of the train.  At that point, I resolved not to drink any water for the rest of the train ride.  The whole place smelled like durian, pee, and body odor.  I was taking it all in stride, knowing that we'd only be doing this for a little more than a day.  As I reassured myself, I felt someone grab my arm.  Assuming it was someone who had tried to stand up from their seat and inadvertently grabbed onto me, I turned around to smile, and found an old man leering at me and clutching my forearm.  I yanked my arm away, and right about then, KT and Mark turned around, wide-eyed, and said, "Go back.  We don't care about the food car.  Go back."  We booked it back to our car with all eyes on us, the conspicuous foreigners.

When we got back, our Spanish roommate was leaving to go get a drink.  As soon as he was out of the car, we started talking about our journey through the train.  Up until my friends opened their mouths, I thought we were OK.  I knew the train was kind of shady, but I figured we'd stick it out and then maybe find an alternate means of transportation from Dong Hoi back to HCMC.  But as soon as the door closed, KT expressed her opinion- "We need to get off this train," she said, "Now."   Mark vehemently agreed.  When they said that they weren't going to eat anything from the train because of the nasty conditions, I knew things were serious- these two need to eat every five minutes.  I took a deep breath and we started to talk about our options.  According to trusty Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, Nha Trang was the next stop with a large enough population to support things like hotels and transportation back to HCMC.   We wouldn't be there for about eight hours, at 2 AM.

We planned on getting off at Nha Trang, and spent the next few hours watching the scenery outside and reading books (Waiter Rant really got me through that ride). At one point, I spotted a sizable cockroach crawling around on my bed, and I leaped into KT's bed with her.  As 2 AM got closer, we all huddled near the glass and watched for signs of an approaching city.  The three of us must have made a pretty pitiful sight, all nestled in next to one another, desperately watching the windows and whispering to avoid waking up the random guy in our bunk.  The train was running late, and time dragged on.  We saw no city lights....and still no city lights.  The train rolled to a stop in Nha Trang, but we couldn't see any signs of the city from where we were.  In fact, the train stopped in what appeared to be a large railyard, next to a hobo warming himself by a fire.  Despite all of that, we still wanted to get off the train, but there was a train worker blocking our way.  He didn't understand English, so I kept pointing at myself, then tapping on the window, repeating "Outside," over and over again.  He shook his head, pointed to our tickets and said "Dong Hoi," authoritatively.  As the train started rolling again, Mark moaned, "I think that was the most crushing disappointment I've ever experienced in my life."
Crushing defeat

I again consulted Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, which I'd begun to think of as some magical genie with all the answers.  The genie told us that the next best place to get off would be Da Nang, around 11 in the morning.  So we stretched out on our disgusting beds and got some sleep.  I marveled at KT's ability to sleep while touching the smallest amount of the mattress possible.

In the morning, as we waited for time to pass, we watched the scenery passing by.  As much as we disliked the train, the Vietnamese scenery outside was really beautiful.  As expected, pictures through the window didn't turn out very well.

A couple of stops before Da Nang, our roommate hopped off the train with some Vietnamese guy he'd just met.  He was all excited about going to hang out at this guy's house.  We were just glad we wouldn't have to explain why we were getting off the train early, so we happily said goodbye to our traveling companion.  We finally pulled into Da Nang, and this time a lot of people were getting off, so we lined up with them.  Someone pointed to our tickets and said "Dong Hoi," but we so adamantly protested that they just gave up and walked away.

This time we successfully got off the train and got a taxi.  We asked the taxi driver to take us to the airport. After our misadventure on the train and our re-routing to Da Nang, we'd decided to give up and try to head back to Singapore. When we got there, I laughed at the site of an airport about the size of a KMart.  The international terminal was closed but would open in a few hours.  The agent at the desk told us we wouldn't be able to get tickets, but we decided to give it a shot anyway.  In the meanwhile, we got some lunch at an attached cafe.  Sure enough, when the international terminal opened, we couldn't get tickets, so we asked the desk agent for an expensive hotel- we wanted something nice after the way we'd spent the past couple of nights.  When he asked us how much we wanted to spend, I said "Whatever.  Something really nice.  Eighty dollars."  He looked at me like I was bonkers and said, "We don't have anything that expensive."  We gave up and requested that a taxi driver take us to a decent-looking place that I found in the yellow bible

When we got there, we saw the impressive SunRiver Hotel next to it, and I knew that was the place I wanted to stay.  The building was tall, there was a big front desk and a marble floor, and the lobby just looked so clean.  I could have slept more comfortably on the couch in their lobby than anywhere I'd slept the past two nights.  We went there and booked a room at $60 a night. 

As soon as we walked into the room, I hopped into the shower.  It was one of the most wonderfully satisfying showers I've ever had in my entire life.  Afterward, we ate dinner on the 8th floor of the hotel, overlooking the city.  KT and I each had a strong drink, and I was passed out asleep by 9 PM.  I hadn't slept in a real bed since Phuket two nights before, and I slept like a baby in an air-conditioned room, between deliciously clean sheets.
Da Nang at night