Marina Bay Sands & Gardens by the Bay: Week 185

Polaroid of the Marina Bay Sands and Helix Bridge: Singapore

Barret grabbed the railing above his head as the train picked up speed. The Circle Line to Bayfront was an air-conditioned bubble packed full of locals and tourists. Aside from the announcements, there was also a route map on the wall which Barret used to track our progress.

“Only six more stops to go,” he whispered as he leaned in my direction.


“Six more stops,” Barret repeated, but I still wasn’t paying attention. A pungent odor had drifted my way and I needed to find the source. “Hey…” I cautiously began. “Did you put any deodorant on?”

“Nope. I didn’t have time.” This declaration made Barret feel proud. It was the same kind of conflicted pride that people get when they videotape their kids redecorating the kitchen with a bag of flour. It’s a disaster, but it’s also a very well executed disaster that could go viral.

“Funny how that always happens right before we go somewhere humid.”


“You think maybe that would be the first thing on your list…”


“Yeaaaah.” It was too late to turn back to Changi Airport, where we had left our luggage for the day. “Just keep your arms down.”

Ticket for Flower Dome at the Gardens by the Bay: Singapore

Singapore is hot and muggy all year, but that doesn’t deter tourists. Respite from the temperature can be found at Gardens by the Bay. Two separate UK firms designed the massive gardens which only recently opened to the public in late 2011.

The main attractions are the two conservatories and the Supertree Grove. Barret and I visited the gardens on the only Monday in September that the Cloud Forest conservatory was closed for maintenance, so it was an easy decision to visit the Flower Dome instead.

Polaroid of succulents inside the Flower Dome: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The garden was a beautiful mixture of plants from all over the world. There was everything from succulents and orchids to kangaroo paws.

Polaroid of small crystal garden inside the Flower Dome: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

One part of the South American display had a small crystal garden, another part had an anatomically correct cactus covered in white hairs. It was called Old Man of the Mountain.

The conservatory dome arched way above the multilevel grounds and through the glass we could see the harbor and Singapore skyline.

Ticket for the Supertree Grove Skyway: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

After spending a few hours in the Flower dome, we walked through the outdoor gardens to the Supertree Grove. This main grove has eleven fuchsia tree structures which perform a variety of functions. Some of the trees harvest solar energy and others serve as ‘air exhaust receptacles’ for the conservatories. From 9am-9pm a canopy walkway is open and at night the structures are illuminated for a synchronized light display.

Supertree Grove: Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

An hour or two before sunset, Barret and I walked back to the bay to get a look at the Marina Bay Sands. It was a stunning hotel from the outside, but it was even more airy and delicate inside. From the lobby, the structure reminded me of a delicately balanced house of cards.

Lobby of the Marina Bay Sands: Singapore

From there we walked along the bay, past the flower-shaped ArtScience Musuem, and across Helix Bridge. There were several promontories along the route with great views looking back at the Marina Bay Sands.

View of ArtScience Museum and Marina Bay: Singapore

We continued walking past joggers and stroller-pushers, the people who come out for the beautiful night breeze. An amateur photography group set up on the sidewalk to capture the highrise buildings and the bay.

Our visit was just a taster of what Singapore has to offer. We wanted more time to explore the colonial neighborhoods and the vibrant Little India, but we had a plane to catch and Changi Airport had an excellent shower hire facility. There was no way we were going to miss that before our international flight. No way at all.

How to get to the Marina Bay Sands: MRT Bayfront Station

Lobby of the Marina Bay Sands: Singapore

How to get to the Gardens by the Bay: Via Circle Line or Downtown Line- Take Exit B at the Bayfront MRT Station. Follow underground linkway and cross the Dragonfly Bridge or Meadow Bridge into the Gardens by the Bay

Chiang Mai: Week 140

The Iron Bridge under seige during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bangkok was in the midst of a revolution; Chiang Mai was in the midst of war. Rockets blew divots out of the banks of the Ping River while the trees were pocked marked with self-immolating lanterns.

Across the chaos spanned the Iron Bridge. The local teenagers who overran it were clumped along the rails like caviar, tossing fireworks into the river and at each other. The most popular firework was handmade and tied with a red plastic cord to the end of thin reed.  Notoriously inconsistent, sometimes they exploded as soon as they were lit while other times they shot across the sky.

Local teenagers gathering on the Iron Bridge during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Loi Krathong is a Buddhist holiday the falls on a full moon between the October and Novemeber. Loi means to float while Krathong refers to the decorative float that is usually made from biodegradable materials like banana leaves.  During Loi Krathong, thousands of candlelit floats are released into the Ping River and the canal around the old city walls. While it is a national holiday, only in the north has it become synonymous with silly amounts of fireworks and the local Lanna tradition of Yee Peng: the lantern festival.

A bar on the the banks of the Ping River where people launched their krathongs: Chiang Mai, Thailand

While I waited at the foot of the Iron Bridge to send off my krathong, I pulled a piece of paper out of my pocket. It was the Loi Krathong song translated into English:

November full moon shines

Loi Krathong Loi Krathong

And the water’s high in local river and the klong

Loi Loi Krathong Loi Loi Krathong

Before I could finish I was distracted by a woman’s scream. She was ten feet in front of us and her hands were covering the side of her face. “She was hit,” my sister observed. “A firework right to the cheek and it’s the one night I didn’t bring my med kit.”

The small handmande fireworks that are so popular during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai was established in 1296. Today it’s one of the most culturally important cities in Northern Thailand and also one of the most popular cities on the tourist trail. People who knew it ‘way back when’ might mourn the modernization and the volume of tourists, but neither of those detract from the city. It’s not hard to dig behind the tourist façade; all you need is a moped and time to kill.

Krathong that washed up along the banks of the Ping River: Chiang Mai, Thailand

One afternoon my sister and I were wandering around when we passed the Chiang Mai Technical College. The entire school was out in the courtyard inflating giant handmade lanterns. An electric fan first puffed up the lantern and after a few minutes one of the kids thrust a flaming torch inside. Right before the lantern was released, fireworks were attached and their long fuse lit.

Students inflating their handmade lantern at the Chiang Mai Technical College during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Most of the lanterns rose high over the city, some collapsed, a few burst into crackling flames over the crowd- the announcer seemed to enjoy the failures the most.

Even without the festival, there was so much to do in Chiang Mai. Tuesday night my sister and I went to the Kalare Boxing Stadium which was only a stadium by name. In reality it was a large outdoor canopy behind the Night Bazaar.

A Muay Thai Fight at the Kalare Boxing Stadium: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Before each match, the Muay Thai boxers performed a traditional ceremony. They began by visiting all four corners of the ring to claim their territory. This is called the Wai Khru. Afterwards is the Ram Muay, a dance which shows respect for the person they are fighting as well as for their teachers.

After watching the dance off, I picked a winner and waved 200 baht at the wandering bookie. He had heavy, puffy eyelids and a dingy pink shirt. The overall impression he gave was that of a contentedly drunk person.

A slow tempo began and steadily intensified until it suddenly crashed, ending the round. I won my first bet, but lost the following three. I couldn’t help but feel that my win had been a carefully calculated strategy. Bookies, I came to realize, only took bets that worked in their favor.

An outdoor pavillion along the Ping River: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Because Loi Krathong and Yee Peng bring so many people to the city, the festival lasts about a week and for 2013 it ended on Monday with the Grand Krathong Procession. It was the last of the five scheduled parades and the only one to get rained out.

Loy Krathong Grand Procession: Chiang Mai, Thailand

The parade was filled with perfectly coiffed hair and youthful faces. One particularly large group sponsored by AirAsia was just a procession of beautifully dressed couples, each followed by a shirtless and shoeless boy holding a canopy over their heads. A young guy with a loose pony tail walked alongside the procession and dabbed the sweat off the ladies’ brows. He didn’t bother with the awkwardly pubescent boy-servants.

Loy Krathong Grand Procession: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Like many of the events, they proved to be so popular that it was difficult to control the crowds. A ceremony at Wat Phan Tao was completely overrun with over-zealous amateur photographers. On the other hand, the temple next door was completely empty.

Wat Phan Tao - Yee Peng Ceremony: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wat Chedi Luang was originally completed in the mid-15th century and is such a sacred place that no visitor is allowed up it. Most of the monks aren’t allowed either, however during Yi Peng it kind of became target practice for novice monks with itchy fingers.

Wat Chedi Luang - young monks during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Irreverent, rambunctious, rollicking; the novice monks were an incongruous mixture of future religious leaders and uninhibited children all in one. They threw firecrackers across the courtyard and (accidentally) onto unsuspecting pedestrians. Their lanterns floated onto temple roofs and burst into eco-conscious recycled-paper fireballs.

In the grand scheme of things, it makes more sense if you view the monastery as a means for education. Earlier that week Nan and I had visited Wat Chedi Luang for the Monk Chat program. It was an outdoor courtyard where monks could practice their English with tourists.

Wat Chedi Luang - young monks during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Jade, a young monk around twenty years old, spoke very quietly and paused often to choose the right word. The only time he seemed confused was when my sister told him how much a year’s worth of tuition at Harvard cost. Jade quickly punched some numbers into his phone and handed it over to us. “2,000,000 baht…” He shook his head, “I could be a doctor with that much money.” His colleague’s degree cost 7,000 baht a year.

While I already knew that boys were sent to the monastery because of poverty, I did not realize that they also had access to university education and were able to leave the monastery. Oddly enough, it reminded me of a popular education-incentivized program in the US: the military.

Wat Chedi Luang - young monks during Yee Peng: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Despite how lucky I felt to have walked through Wat Chedi Luang that night, I don’t want to give the impression that the best events are always off the radar. Sometimes you want as many people as possible- especially for the Yee Peng Sansai Ceremony.

The night sky just before the lanterns were released for the Yee Peng Festival: Chiang Mai, Thailand

The ceremony, which pays homage to the Lord Buddha and his dhamma teaching, is free and takes place on the grounds of the Mae Jo University. There is another called Yeepeng Lanna International that costs USD $100 and is geared only towards tourists.

The ceremony was fairly lengthy and conducted entirely in Thai by a monk with a peaceful voice. When the chanting finished, the call was given to light the lanterns. All of the Dhammachai lanterns were the same; Thai Industrial Standard 808/2552: 90 cm diameter, recycled tissue paper, a few strips of bamboo and a few heat proof threads. The wick was a disk of compressed paper. The lantern felt more fragile that an eggshell when we held it, but it was surprisingly durable.

Tourists holding their lanterns during the Yee Peng Lantern Festival: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Grey smoke slowly filled the interior cavity and smoothed out the wrinkled paper. When the lanterns were buoyant, a canon rang and each one was released at once. They quickly rose and spread out in the sky like jellyfish drifting in an ocean current. I wasn’t the only one who let out a gasp; my sister quietly teared up.

Yi Peng Lantern Festival: Chiang Mai, Thailand

About: Chiang Mai

About: Yee Peng Lanna International

About: Monk Chat Programs

About: Thai Festivals

How to get to the Kalare Boxing Staduim: Cnr Thapae Road & Changklan- behind the Night Bazaar in the direction of the Ping River

Yi Peng Iron Bridge Taxi

Bangkok & Sukhothai: Week 139

View of Wat Arun from the Chao Phraya: Bangkok, Thailand

“Was that dock eight?” I asked the woman standing at the bow of the ferry. She was holding a small square microphone that perfectly distorted every announcement she made. The boat had only stopped for less than a minute before veering back into the mocha waters of the Chao Phraya, the aorta of Bangkok.

“Where did you want to go?” she replied.

“Wat Arun.”

“AH! This is why I tell people to line up at the back! I always tell people! You. Have. To. Line. Up.” She threw the microphone down in disgust; finally I could understand what she was saying. “You have to be very fast!”

My sister and I got off at the next stop.  As the hull drew alongside the dock, the intercom was a flurry of urgently scrambled reminders. People jumped on, people jumped off; the transaction was over in twenty seconds.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Nan and I were left standing on the Grand Palace pier. From the concrete pontoon, wooden planks led into a small building with low ceilings. For some reason the planks continued throughout the building so that everyone walked a foot and a half above the floor. A cat was curled up in the middle of the walkway, just under the lowest part of the ceiling.

Just outside the dock the vendors had set up shop almost on top of each other. In the middle of the market were the makeshift restaurants. Their tables were low and covered with sticky plastic tablecloths and jars of spicy sauces.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

The most beautiful wats in Bangkok are scattered along the river like glass marbles.

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Mural inside the Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

Grand Palace: Bangkok, Thailand

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha in particular is completely covered in small glass tiles. From a distance the walls shimmer like sunlight on water, up close the mirrored pieces have small dark splotches like liver spots.

A woman in traditional costume outside Wat Arun: Bangkok, Thailand

Across the Chao Phraya is Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of Dawn. The central tower, or prang, is decorated with ceramic tiles. Unlike glass, the ceramic pieces are cut from special bowls so that they have a delicate curve. The main prang is about 250 feet tall and is reached by steps so steep, it feels like you are climbing a ladder.

The gold-leaf-covered hand at Wat Si Chum: Sukhothai, Thailand

Sukhothai is several hours north of Bangkok and well known for its expansive temple complex. During better times, the historic center was enclosed within three concentric walls. Nowadays, you can move about freely with a moped and a handful of tickets.

The most famous Buddha image (or at least the most recommended) is Wat Si Chum. Built in the 13th century, this seated figure is slowly turning gold. As a way to gain merit, worshippers in Thailand purchase small ½ inch pieces of gold leaf to transfer onto statues of Buddha. Putting gold on the back of the Buddha refers to doing a good deed without seeking attention.

A seated Buddha image at Wat Saphan Hin: Sukhothai, Thailand

Just outside the western end of the Sukhothai Historical Park is a quiet uphill road lined with the ruins of smaller wats. At the crest of the hill is Wat Saphan Hin, a brick ruin with a large standing Buddha and a view of the whole complex.

A small figurine at the foot of Wat Saphan Hin: Sukhothai, Thailand

By the time Nan and I had hiked up the slate steps, dusk was approaching and we were the only visitors. Even out in the middle of the woods, people had thought to bring a few pieces of gold leaf or a glittery figurine in prayer. It seemed a strange thing to take on a hike (water bottle- check, trail mix- check, gold leaf- check), but I guess if your afterlife is on the line nothing is out of question.

About: Bangkok (where even the skyscrapers look like temples)

A tower with a temple-like facade in Bangkok, Thailand

About: the Grand Palace

About: Sukhothai

North Luzon: Week 48

A blanket of fog rolled over the woodsy city of Baguio. As I meandered through the mist I was both offered a teaching job (Baguio’s also a popular destination for foreigners studying English) and a jeepney to the Tam-Awan Village. I chose the model village with Ifugao huts and Kalinga houses. The raised structures had thatched roofs and wood flooring smoothed over time by the patter of bare feet. Dirt paths connected the huts and ran amongst a beautiful green landscape.

Baguio is also an excellent city for dining. In the center of the city was a vegetarian café called Oh My Gulay. It is in a sunny atrium, overrun in the courtyard with plants. The décor is eclectic and the second level terrace, made with bits like ship hulls and found wood, resembles a child’s dream treehouse.

However, Café by the Ruins was the best food we had in the Philippines and the reason we detoured through Baguio a second time. The café’s name is a nod to the original building on the property-the house of the first governor of Baguio. All that remains today is a solitary wall that has been incorporated into the structure of the restaurant.

When the traditional tapuey wine began flowing by candlelight the mood became dangerously romantic. Though my senses were dulled, the ladyfinger curry I ordered cut through the alcoholic fog with warm coconut sauce infused with coriander, chutney and papadum. The lemongrass ice tea slowed my spinning world while the bibingka, a soft and spongy rice cake topped with brown sugar, coddled my sweet tooth. The price for a gourmet feast of local produce and homemade treats for two? $25. Amazing.

The road through the Cordillera Mountain Range was lined with small terraced gardens- where anything (including gardeners) could roll off a cliff and into a canyon. Halfway through the trip we stopped and ate hot sisig (grilled pig jowl) at the Alabama Café. While we waited for our meal we studied the raindrop patterns and cryptic messages generously burned into the table cloth.

Many of the rice terrace plots in Batad were in disuse because the owners had left to seek a living outside of the village. Those that were farmed looked like swimming pools crammed with soft clay. Walking along the stone walls we spent a long time talking with our guide about our hometown of Las Vegas, his dad’s rendition of Elvis and of course Manny Pacquiao.

After a bone jarring mototaxi ride, we made it back to the Las Vegas Restaurant for another round of homespun Elvis and dinner. The rice from the terraces is not sold or eaten in restaurants, but it is possible to get a taste of the local grain by drinking it. The tourist information office sells giant bottles of it. Of course.

How to get there:

Tam-Awan – catch a Tam-Awan jeepney from the corner of Shaghem & Kayang

Oh My Gulay- 5th floor La Azotea Building, 108 Session Rd, Baguio

Cafe by the Ruins – 25 Chuntug Rd, Baguio

Batad – From Banaue you can either catch one of the few daily jeepneys or split the cost of  a private jeepney or mototaxi with other travelers. Don’t be surprised if local students ask for a free hitch on your jeepney!

Manila & Palawan: Week 47


Outside of the wealthy bubbles where people walk dogs in master planned communities and get massages after dinner, Manila is crowded and smoggy. Jeepneys and taxis jostled bumper to bumper, their engines expelling thick bursts of exhaust which coated the street-side food stalls like powdered sugar. Although the taxis offered an oasis of air-conditioned oxygen, there was the gamble of being stranded in the unending rush hour listening to “big radio, Big Radio, BIG RADIO. BIG BIG BIG RADIO!!!!”

Barret and I opted for a colorfully themed jeepney ride instead. While everyone warned us about theft and deceitful cab drivers, it seemed as if jeepneys fell outside of this realm. The passenger’s fares honestly flowed down a chain of hands to the driver and vice versa with the change.

It might sound oxymoronic to say I was surprised that the Chinese Cemetery was so quiet, but it isn’t when you consider the neighbors. The Manila North Cemetery, just next door, has a thriving population of several thousand living bodies. Families cook, children play, and a few entrepreneurs even operate businesses from within the mausoleums. So it was interesting that the tombs in the Chinese Cemetery, which resemble small apartments with their running water, AC, rooftop balconies and fenced gardens, would be unoccupied. I guess money does buy privacy, especially in the afterlife.

Intramuros was the original Spanish settlement in the Philippines during the 16th century. Before land reclamation it faced Manila Bay and was fronted by Fort Santiago, which protected it from invading foreigners. The settlement remained intact for several centuries until the battle for the liberation of Manila during WW2. Intramuros was the final stage in the fight against the Japanese- 100,000 Filipinos died in all and only one church remained upright inside the Spanish settlement. We learned this from our guide who cheerfully read all the plaques outside the buildings to us.


Sabang is a small coastal town on the island of Palawan. Little bungalows lined the beach and the buko (coconut) juice was chopped off the palm trees in the morning hour. Aside from the lure of a lazy day, Barret and I wanted to see the underground river which was recently named one of the newest seven natural wonders. We boarded a canoe and paddled into the dark mouth of the cave. The roof was filled with sleeping bats and whenever our flashlights strayed too far from the guide’s itinerary, he herded us back together by pointing out a biblical rock formation.

The beach in El Nido is slim pickings, but the nearby islands are the reason this town north of Sabang is popular. At an eclectic hostel called The Alternative, we booked our island hopping tour. The naturally twisted and curvy ‘found’ wood that was incorporated into the construction lent a slight jungle-y atmosphere.  We waited for our boat from a crow’s nest  suspended over the beach and drank in the crashing waves with our jasmine tea.

Fifteen past the hour we boarded our bangka (outrigger canoe) and headed across the sapphire water for a small island with a secret cove. The sun was high and the sunscreen thick. After exploring the beach we pulled on snorkel equipment to float above sinister urchins and delicate coral. Being an inexperienced snorkler, I choked on the salty water every time I got too excited about cute fish.

“Look Barretschluush! It’sshish gurgle gurgle NEMO schloop gurgle!”

After swimming into jellyfish, the saltwater stung the wound on my butt cheek. So I was glad to be out of the ocean while lunch was cooking. The water was five shades of blue and the sand the color of gourmet vanilla bean ice cream. When the food was served, the fish was rich and flavorful, the roast succulent, the vegetables fresh, the potato salad creamy and the pineapple sweet and crisp. Paradise has a name and it is Tour A.

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