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.

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.

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!

Things That Stick Out in Hong Kong

We arrived last night and dove right in today–with dim sum, a tour of Wong Tai Sin temple, Hong Kong desserts, a ferry ride, a Chiuchow dinner, and swing dancing.

I was expecting some kind of minor culture shock–language, food, or otherwise–but the worst turns out to be the doors. Minimalism seems to be in vogue here, which is sleek but confusing. I was puzzled by our closet door (Fred had to open that), a gym locker (I furtively peered at another girl opening hers), and a diagonal-slanted bathroom stall. But otherwise the city is gorgeous–huge, tropical, and hilly. There are lanterns everywhere.

I’ve also experienced some culinary immersion by successfully downing chicken feet and goose intestine. The dinner waiter, however, was less confident of my digestive abilities and encouraged our dining companion to order sweet and sour pork “for the white girl.” (I admit, that was good too.)