They Do Jaywalk in Singapore

Finally, Singapore! I went into the trip looking forward to Singapore the most, and it didn’t disappoint. Some people dismissed it as clean and boring, but I felt at home in its Westernized, good-infrastructured arms. Here are the fond memories:

  • Contrary to expectation and law, people do jaywalk. Even I was jaywalking by day 2, although I tried to do it in crowds of people.
  • The city is super clean – the streets are washed, the windows are shined, and you can’t even bring a drink into the metro (much less sip it).
  • The population is over 70 percent Chinese, and I’ve heard they’ve been welcoming immigrants from mainland China lately. But only 63 percent are citizens.
  • Singapore is the most expensive country we visited – a mediocre hostel was US$16/night, and I was reduced to grocery-store sushi to curb my cravings.
  • Smoking is prohibited in many public areas.
  • Arguably the best food (not in my opinion, but alas) can be found in hawker centres, with rows and rows of tiny shops selling cheap dishes – say, $3/plate.
  • Around Chinese New Year, downtown comes to life with the Chingay parade – featuring bright, rainbow floats and dancers representing the Chinese, as well as Indians, Malay, and others.

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Multicultural Malaysia

Malaysia was the first country where I arrived on my own, while Fred soaked up some more sun on the beaches of Thailand. (I’m not complaining – I spent the time meeting loads of inspiring entrepreneurs.) I flew in late at night, to a city that seemed more run-down than any we had visited so far, but Kuala Lumpur grew on me over time. Here are the highlights:

  • Islam is the state religion in Malaysia, and over 60 percent of Malaysians are Muslim. And it shows: you’ll see girls in hijabs everywhere, mosques ringing at all hours, and a female-only car on the commuter train. I felt a bit out of place with my revealing (but absolutely necessary) shorts.
  • Still, Malaysia is the most multicultural country I’ve visited so far, with lots of Chinese and Indians as well.
  • Prices are relatively inexpensive, somewhere between Vietnam and Thailand – a metro ride can be as little as 33 cents, and $3 meals are easy to come by.
  • I didn’t experience much of the local food, but I understand Malaysian cuisine is famous for satays and soups. I also tried several fried, fruit-filled concoctions off the street, at the urging of one of the entrepreneurs I met (thanks Daniel!).
  • English is widely spoken, making it easy to get around.
  • Kuala Lumpur is one of the most green cities I’ve seen in Asia, with trees dotted among the skyscrapers.
  • Malaysia, especially the Chinese enclave of Penang, celebrates Chinese New Year with vigor – featuring red lanterns, lion dances in the malls, and mandarin oranges aplenty.
  • The local brew of choice is Ipoh white coffee, whose beans are roasted in margarine – making the coffee buttery and tasty (even for an occasional coffee drinker like me).

Thailand: No Elephants in Bangkok Anymore

Most of my 3 weeks in Thailand were spent in family dinners and excursions, so I don’t have a full grasp of the country. We stayed in Bangkok for 2 weeks, then headed to the touristy islands of Phuket and Ko Phi Phi. In any case, here are some of my observations:

  • Huge portraits of the king are everywhere, framed in gold. I’m told the Thais actually love their king.
  • Before movies, they play the national anthem and viewers are expected to stand up (I did, begrudgingly).
  • Temples and palaces look different from their Chinese and Korean counterparts, with thin gold points sticking up from the gilded roofs (see below).
  • Thai people put their hands together in a prayer-like gesture for greeting others and saying thank you.
  • Bangkok is full of malls, possibly because they provide an air-conditioned escape from the tropical temperatures.
  • Apparently, Thailand has become much more expensive in the past few years – but prices are still cheaper than, say, Korea or Hong Kong
  • Pad thai is indeed ubiquitous, as well as different soups like tom yum.
  • On the table at a Thai restaurant, you’ll generally find seasonings representing the 4 tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy.
  • The bus system in Bangkok features a dedicated highway lane and a gate/platform system like a metro, making it fast and easy.
  • A more quaint way of getting around is the tuk-tuk, an open-air taxi named after the sound it used to make.
  • Unfortunately for me, Christmas isn’t celebrated because much of the country is Buddhist, so there were fewer decorations than in Vietnam.

Vietnam, Land of Motorbikes

If I had to describe Vietnam in one word, it would be “motorbikes.” Not only do they clog the streets and the sidewalks, but hawkers are constantly yelling at you to take a ride on their motorbike-cum-taxi. Tomorrow is our last day here, so below are a few of my other impressions from our tour of Vietnam, which included Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and Saigon.

  • Vietnamese cuisine boasts a lot of rice and rice noodles, soups like pho, fresh herbs, and lemongrass. One specialty of Hanoi is Bia Hoi, fresh, weak beer you can get for under 50 cents.
  • Lots of restaurants are simply a cluster of plastic stools around a food stall. I’m told this is because many residents technically have no permit to live in the city, so they can’t open an official business.
  • Vietnamese trains are a bumpy and boisterous experience, with attendants knocking on your sleeping compartment around 7 am to offer breakfast and locals opening the blinds and chattering at a similar hour.
  • Copycats abound. We saw things like an HP hotel with the Hewlett-Packard logo (the old one), a Donut’s Donuts with Dunkin’ Donuts colors, and taxis that imitate the “reputable” brands (Vinasun and MaiLinh become Vinason or Vinasum and MeiLinh or MaiLin).
  • Vietnam has a higher concentration of tourists than China and the country caters to them, with tons of hawkers, bootlegged Lonely Planets, and Western restaurants featuring burgers and pizza.
  • The critters you’ll see the most of in Vietnam include tiny ants, which we found in all our hotels and hostels, and wall- and ceiling-crawling lizards.
  • Even the biggest cities, Hanoi and Saigon, don’t seem to have huge downtown areas with modern skyscrapers. (The photo below is Saigon and its most conspicuous skyscraper.)
  • Houses are very narrow, with a thin facade facing the road. Our host in Saigon lived in a 4-floor house with one bedroom and ensuite bathroom on each upper floor.
  • Vietnam is cheaper than China, with private rooms for as low as $9 and meals for under $5. (Hanoi is cheaper than Saigon.)
  • Almost every shop, hotel, and restaurant has a table full of food and other offerings for ancestors, and you’ll find incense sticks stuck on everything from sidewalks to tree trunks.

How (Not) to Get Tailor-Made Clothes in Vietnam

Hoi An is a coastal town in central Vietnam and a World Heritage site. It’s also a haven for those seeking custom-made clothes, with tailors on (and in between) every corner. So we couldn’t resist giving it a try.

I started with a green satin dress and dress pants, added two shirts, and finally ordered a forest green winter coat, all for $125. Fred got a three-piece suit, a white dress shirt, and two jackets. We dutifully got measured by a friendly but pushy assistant who kept asking, “You happy?” and we came back the next day to try on our creations.

Unfortunately, we weren’t prepared for all the alterations that would be necessary, from a tailor that came highly recommended (we don’t recommend them). I wanted a low-backed dress with wide-set straps, and they had trouble getting the top to fit snugly – so much trouble that I had to be motorbiked to the workshop so I could try on the dress after three, four, five alterations. The workshop was a small three-room building strewn with fabric scraps and Vietnamese men playing cards on the floor. The aforementioned talkative assistant herded me into the bedroom and quickly pulled clothes on and off me, examining the fit. (Finally, they got it right.)

Fred wasn’t so lucky – apparently (though I can’t tell), his suit still has flaws. Also, the dress shirt isn’t high quality material, and the casual jacket isn’t casual. Plus, he discovered that they were cheating us (and everyone else) with an exchange rate of 22,000 dong for every USD, when it should have been 21,000.

Here are some photos:

Sensory Overload in China

Somehow, after only planning a month in China, we ended up spending 6 weeks there. For me, that included a seat at TechCrunch Disrupt; for Fred, visits to the Shaolin Temple – birthplace of kung fu – and the terracotta warriors. Luckily, we also made it to the Great Wall, on a gorgeous day (see below). Some of the highlights from China:

  • The pollution in Beijing really is as bad as they say. On a few days, we awoke to what looked like a heavy covering of fog, but was actually smog. We bought face masks and looked like real tourists.
  • Be on the lookout for stinky tofu, a putrid concoction that many Chinese love. I literally had to refrain from breathing through my nose in much of Old Beijing.
  • Restaurants often offer utensils wrapped in plastic, for a small fee. From what we could tell, dirty ones are shipped back to a cleaning company, which power-washes them to remove any germs and sends them back wrapped up.
  • Chinese food – at least to me – was way too greasy and salty. But I did find the best salmon handrolls I’ve ever had, for just over $1 at Itacho Sushi.
  • KFC, McDonald’s, and Starbucks are ubiquitous.
  • In the street and on public transport, people are extremely pushy and aggressive – if you don’t assert yourself, you’ll get cut in line, trapped in a crowd, or squeezed off a metro car.
  • Domestic plane rides can be a boisterous social experience, with passengers jabbering, sharing food, and selling stuff.
  • Avoid Beijing during National Day – which in fact lasts a week – unless you love huge crowds. The government also tightens up Internet censorship during that week.
  • Speaking of Internet, it’s slow and spotty. GFW, anyone?
  • I’m told that heating is government-controlled and only goes on when the State decides it’s cold enough – which means a cold October in some Beijing courtyard hostels.
  • High-speed trains that average 125 mph make a clean, fun, and fast way to travel – only 5 hours between Beijing and Shanghai (a trip I did three times).

Seoul: The Mystery of Korea

I’ve been in Beijing for a week, but poor Internet has kept me from finally writing this. We were beginning to get the hang of Seoul just as we left, and I must admit that I miss the deliciously un-sauced, un-salty Korean barbeque. Anywho, here are the highlights of Korea’s capital:

  1. Barbeque is everywhere, and most places specialize in one type of meat, like pork, beef, or chicken.
  2. Almost all meals come with an array of kimchi, pickled sides, and salad with mayonnaise or vinegar dressing.
  3. The chopsticks are metal.
  4. Unlike Hong Kong, restaurants do serve water, in metal cups stored in a sanitizing container.
  5. Most people don’t speak much English.
  6. Plastic surgery ads are everywhere (bigger eyes, nose job, jaw alignment, you name it).
  7. Cobblers can be found working away in little pods on the sidewalk.
  8. Restaurants, houses, and offices have a built-in square of floor where you can leave your shoes.
  9. Showerheads are in the bathroom, with or without a curtain divider.
  10. Sheets are thick and somewhere rough, and there is only one (on the bottom).
  11. When you wave someone to come to you, your hand faces down (up is reserved for animals).
  12. The swing scene is huge, with more than one venue every night.
  13. For relaxation, baths, and a good scrubbing, Koreans visit mega-spas called jimjilbangs.
  14. You won’t get phone service unless you have a government-licensed number.

Food Adventures in Seoul

While the highlight of Hong Kong was the view from the peak, the highlight of Seoul was a food tour we took this week. The tour was free, thanks to the Korea Tourism Organization and its German president, Charm Lee – also a naturalized Korean and a Korean TV star – who joined us on the tour.

We began at a small local restaurant for tofu, kimchi, and makgeolli (rice wine), where our guide, Daniel Gray of O’ngo Food, taught us to pour drinks for others and receive a drink with both hands. Charm Lee whipped out a special chili powder, purported to include the five different tastes, to add to the makgeolli.

Next was spicy chicken with yam noodles at a nicer restaurant. Daniel taught us a drinking game: diners take turns flicking a thin piece of metal attached to a bottle cap, and when someone flicks it off, the two sitting next to him have to do a “love shot” –  a shot with their arms intertwined.

On the way to barbeque, we stumbled upon a food stall selling bundigie – silkworm larvae. Fred and a few others downed one each; I respectfully declined. We then passed by some exuberent Koreans making dragon’s beard candy – singing a rehearsed song and shouting “Oh! My! God!” as they showed off their skills – and Charm Lee bought us each a box of the nut-filled, honey-wrapped treat. (I respectfully accepted.)

We then squeezed around two circular tables in a crowded alley for pork-abdomen barbeque, flavored with roasted soybean powder, sesame powder, and onions. Charm Lee showed us a drink he supposedly invented that “captures the essence of Korea” – 60% beer, 30% makgeolli, and 10% Soju – and others did shots of a mix of beer, Soju, and Coke. We grabbed the last pieces of crispy pig off the grill before heading off.

Along the way, there was lots of chatter about Korea. One person said that Koreans were focused on copying businesses and practices from abroad after the Korean War, just to speed up economic development, but now they are beginning to focus on creativity. Another said Korea will become a major hub for Asia. I must admit, though I am less comfortable in Seoul than in Hong Kong, there is something more mysterious about Korean culture that is alluring, insofar as there is more to learn.

Our last stop on the tour was Kwangjang Market, a huge outdoor market filled with stalls of raw beef, shellfish, pyramids of fruit and nuts, barrels of kimchi, and North Korean mung-bean pancakes – our last course. We clambered into a restaurant and used chopsticks to cut crispy pieces of this round, eggy pancake, filled with bean sprouts and onions. And the drinking continued, to calls of “gun bae!” (cheers). It’s fascinating how a group of people can bond over sharing tasty food, and how vital food is to a culture. Yum!

Lost in Translation in Korea

We’ve been in Korea for a week, and it’s very different from Hong Kong. The food is spicy and pickled, and few people speak English. We learned a few phrases on the plane – “thank you” and “I don’t understand” being the most helpful – but Korean is still a mystery. Among our confusing experiences:

  • Everyone thinking Fred is Korean, and the exasperated sighs of cashiers and bank tellers when they find out he isn’t
  • Pointing to menu items for bewildered waiters, and misordered dishes – with mushrooms instead of without, nigiri instead of temaki
  • Going into a convenience store and not knowing what anything is
  • A waitress laughing when Fred played the audio on his Korean language app to ask for a receipt
  • Doing an interview through an interpreter

But once and a while, people are amused by our lack of Korean skills. This includes the two-year old son of our hosts, who dubbed us his aunt and uncle (in Korean, of course); a helpful security guard who called my interviewee and wrote down his office number for me; the owner of a barbeque joint who fed us some succulent pork neck and gave us a free Pepsi; and hopefully others in the next week!

Bustling Hong Kong

We flew to Seoul yesterday; here are some observations from a two-week stay in Hong Kong.

  1. Restaurants don’t believe in cold water or napkins. They do, however, have abundant supplies of toothpicks.
  2. Milk tea – a blend of black teas and evaporated milk – is ubiquitous and delicious, and supposedly extremely caffeinated.
  3. It’s common for people to share tables with strangers at some fast food restaurants.
  4. Desserts are less sweet (paleo win!)
  5. No avocado sushi >_<
  6. Hong Kong boasts tons of Starbucks, 7/11, and McDonald’s and handfuls of Haagen Dazs, Pizza Hut, and Burger King.
  7. Light buses don’t have predetermined stops – you just wave your hand frantically from the sidewalk and tell the driver when you want to get off.
  8. Aggressive older women will push ahead of you on public transport if you hesitate.
  9. Transportation is cheap – less than a dollar for the metro, bus, tram, or ferry and $2.5 for the first 2 km in a taxi.
  10. People drive on the left, walk on the left, take the escalators on the left, but stand on the right on escalators.
  11. Random water drops on one’s head as one walks through the streets (usually from air conditioners).
  12. Most people speak English with a British/Australian accent.
  13. The swing scene is small but very friendly.
  14. Hong Kong is enormous, crowded, polluted, and (in September) humid.