Sunday, May 3, 2009


I have to say, Singapore is RAD. It's like Vancouver and Tokyo had a Chinese baby. The cleanest baby ever.

You've all probably heard about the kid who got publicly caned in Singapore for vandalizing buildings. It's true. But he keyed cars, not graffiti - which in a way, is worse. Here, in efforts to minimize pollution and reduce traffic, the government imposed strict and incredibly high taxes on cars. So, when you see a Honda Civic driving by, in all likelihood it didn't cost $25K like it would in North America, it probably cost more like $80-100K by the time it hit the road. And every car on the road has to be less than 10 yrs old.

So, imagine the shock and outrage when a foreign kid keys 13 cars in Singapore. Not to mention most people in Singapore drive Mercedes or Jags, not Hondas (high end cars cost upwards of $500K to get on the road). I saw more than a dozen Ferraris in one day.

The government is strict here, but this country runs like a well oiled machine. And without a police presence. I haven't seen one police officer since we've been here. Not even a traffic cop giving out speeding tickets. That's because no one dares break the law.

Get this: it is no longer illegal to chew gum in Singapore (it used to be), but it is illegal to sell it. And you can go to jail for littering. Oh, and drug trafficking carries an automatic death sentence. A DEATH sentence.

There's a reason for all this order - there are 4 million people in a country the size of 600 sq. kms. But strangely, there's an absence of traffic and people. The city is gorgeous with grand tree-lined boulevards, beautiful architecture, landscaped promenades, and numerous parks. There are no homeless people (they're rounded up every night and given food and shelter), everyone owns their own home (gov't subsidy program), and everyone has been incredibly friendly.

But it is not cheap.

I've whiled away my time here wandering the streets of Chinatown, little India, Orchard Road, and peaking into various temples. The population is largely Chinese, and the dominant religion is Buddhist followed by Christian then Hindi. And with tomorrow being Buddha's birthday, the Buddhist temples have been alive with rituals and chanting.

Last night I ventured out of the city for something completely different - the world's first night safari. The city has built a jungle safari with natural barriers. You can take an open air tram around the park and see the wildlife up close. The only thing between you and a pack of hyenas or lions is a small moat. They use water and other natural barriers to prevent the animals from escaping. And then as a final defence, there's invisible electrical wires. For some animals, they can get right alongside the tram.

And the cool thing is that the safari isn't a tourist grab. Locals love it, and the government is using it to raise awareness of conservation. I'm so glad I went. I got to see leopards, tigers, lions, zebras, and elephants - and we walked through a free flying bat habitat. Fun!

Apparently the zoo is designed in the same way with orangutans running wild, but I never got a chance to go. Next time.

I'm now off to the airport hotel. I also have a 4 am wakeup call to look forward to. See you guys on the other side.

Photos to come soon!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Plucking your own

Gregg had a 4 a.m. wakeup call, and had to return home from Bangkok. :(

I, however, have continued on to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I've been staying with a friend. Malaysia has a saying here: "same same, but different". That's what Malaysia is to Thailand... so many similarities, but also striking differences. And this time I'm traveling with some locals, so I've had the rare opportunity to see a country from a slightly different angle. I've seen a small slice, anyway, and like what I see.

Kuala Lumpur is a modern city - surprisingly western. KFC dominates street corners and shopping malls, and Starbucks is plentiful, but not yet on every corner. The population is mixed, so half the time you don't really know where you are - there's Malay, Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Phillipino - a lot of them muslims. Women in colourful head scarves eating at McDonalds: that's Kuala Lumpur.

The city is not unlike any other... it's expansive, clean, has some green space, and clogged arteries running throughout. The traffic is arguably worse here than in Bangkok. I read somewhere that Asians here drive in the Buddhist way... I'm not entirely sure how this could be considered buddhist. Everyone ignores traffic signs, doesn't signal, crowds into any vacant spot, changes lanes whenever they feel like it, pushes and squeezes until 3 lanes is 6... with motorcycles finding their way to weave in and out of the hordes. You aren't allowed to hand gesture or express your anger in any way - it's considered bad manners.

We left the congested hazy city after a few days to find fresher air and produce. We headed for the Cameron Highlands, where the soil is bright red and produces an amazing bounty. We visited a bee farm, 'plucked' some strawberries (you pay MORE to pick them yourself), visited a local market in the pouring rain, and went to a tea plantation. Everything grows in the Highlands. I've never seen markets like this in my life... I ate love fruit, pomello, bitter gourd, dried cherry tomatoes, dried roses, bergamot.... and we filled up the trunk with produce. What would easily cost $300 in Canada, we bought for about $30. All organic and locally grown. I even saw a dragon fruit bush and a fiddelhead umbrella tree.

The tea plantation spread as far as the eye could see - vivid green patchwork carpet. And I learned that all tea is from the same plant - the same leaf makes oolong, earl grey, orange pekoe, mango, peppermint.... it's the processing that changes it into types of tea. I'd honestly never given a second thought to how tea was made.

I'm back in KL for one more night before we travel on to Singapore for a few days. Then I will fly home from there...