I spent the Christmas and New Year holidays with my cousins, who live in Singapore. They’d invited me for a visit, and did a stellar job of hosting me, showing me around Singapore and bustling me off to Malaysia for a week. I offer you a rewrite of a few scribbled diary-like notes, plus some photographs that cannot begin to convey the atmosphere. If only I could figure out how to create a digital scratch-and-sniff photograph that could move beyond rich visuals to include multi-sensory scratches for the strange and tantalizing scents, the mix-tape of sound, myriad flavors, and the heavy weight of non-stop heat and humidity.
It all began on my drive to the airport in France, when I started having an allergic reaction to I don’t know what. Because my flight into Frankfurt was 45 minutes late out of a 1-hour layover, I had to do my best impersonation of that old OJ Simpson ad, with a breath-defying sprint through the giant Frankfurt airport in order to make my flight. The combination of my not being a runner, plus the attendant stress of the situation, turned that allergic bout into a nasty cough that I had through the whole trip. Aboard the plane, there were surreal moments for this American when our flight path from Frankfurt to Singapore took us into Afghan and Pakistani airspace. Once we landed in Singapore, I learned—no surprise—that my luggage had not flown with me, a tactical dilemma as we were all to leave the next day for a week in Malaysia. With no time for shopping, my cousins came through, all four of them searching for clothes to lend me until I finally got my suitcase several days later.
We flew into Ipoh, then took a shuttle to the Cameron Highlands, a former retreat area for the ruling British. Now it’s a high-altitude combination of lush rainforest, gorgeous tea plantations, random piles of trash, and heart-breaking, horrendous over-building. The tall new hotels and apartment buildings often fall apart before they’re completed, and then they’re simply abandoned and left to rot.
Our first day, we had a dandy hike—steep, muddy and green—with the delightful Madi, a local plumber and nature lover. He helped us understand the interconnected canopy of trees and ferns, found countless varieties of orchids, showed us black panther scratches on a log, pointed out medicinal herbs and described their uses. He was a perfect host: considerate, passionate, and knowledgeable. Madi is also a one-man environmental movement, doing his small part every day to preserve the lands he loves.
I took the next day off to rest while the others went on a guided tour that included tea plantations, a strawberry farm, a hike in the (muddy) rainforest and more. Some employees of the hotel made and signed a get-well card for me. These people were so kind and helpful, and the card was a lovely gesture that touched my heart (photo below).
The day we were to leave Cameron, my cousin and I got up early to take a short drive to higher elevations with another guide. This young man had left home to study engineering but found that he didn’t love it. He followed his heart and returned to Cameron to be a guide. He also studied for three years to become a tea taster (like a wine sommelier); he shattered some myths about tea, and taught us some things along the way. It was a gorgeous morning and I’m glad I got to experience it.
Later we took a shuttle back down to Ipoh airport, where I was eager to retrieve my suitcase. I was shown into a back office, alone, and grilled about the two bottles of wine I’d brought from France. My original plan had been to leave the wine and other gifts in Singapore before we flew to Malaysia, but of course that didn’t work, and the delayed luggage was forwarded to Malaysia. Because Malaysia is a Muslim nation, alcohol is heavily regulated, and you can only bring in one bottle per person. They finally let it go because my cousin was with me, so with a stretch, it worked for the two bottles. But you can’t carry any quantity of alcohol from Malaysia to Singapore, so we had to drink it while in Ipoh.
The setting for Ipoh is gorgeous: flat land dotted with steep humps, which are actually limestone hills completely covered with greenery. There are monkeys and birds and a seemingly endless variety of strange and colorful flowers.
We explored Old Town Ipoh, aiming for the famous Concubine Street, formerly offering an obvious trade and now a fairly tacky tourist mecca. Just beyond, however, we found what my cousin called an authentic Asian lunch experience: a large space with small food-prep stations at the front and sides, crowded with tables in the middle and back. It was bursting at the seams with customers, along with the servers who were bustling around to get food delivered to tables. One unique item: you identify the table you want, and go stand right behind the people who are still eating. You could be standing there for half an hour; this claims the table for when the current diners leave, at which point you grab the table, and then go order food. It felt much like a lodge at a ski area, where people in very large boots hover over tables until the people sitting there decide they’ve finished and relinquish the table.
Dinner one night was in one of the most unique and awe-inspiring restaurants I’ve experienced. It’s a 260 million-year-old limestone cave, complete with formations and pools that look much like a miniature Mammoth Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Dining tables are on platforms constructed throughout the cave. It was a wonder-filled evening of glorious food, beautiful decor, and excellent service, all in an other-worldly space.
We took a day to visit Panang, a former British outpost that was heavily damaged by the Japanese during WWII, and saw a Buddhist temple, an intriguing old town, and on the way home, a pomelo farm.
The next day we returned to Singapore, hotter and still quite humid. My cousins were terrific hosts, taking me to see a variety of sights around the city. I thoroughly enjoyed the excellent Botanical Gardens, plus the Gardens by the Bay (more on that later). My cousin’s wife took me to the Peranikan Museum, where she’s a docent. “Peranikan” refers to people of mixed heritage, usually a native mother and an immigrant father. Most often, the men would have been of Chinese, Indonesian or Indian descent, although there were others. Usually they were laborers who left home to forge a better life, coming to the Malay Peninsula (which includes Singapore), as well as other areas. (Thus Peranikan is similar to Cajun in the U.S., and even related to Creole). For this particular museum, the focus is the Chinese Peranikans, and their fascinating, structured and highly detailed lives.
We ate a lot of marvelous food during my visit, and I was reveling in all the spice. My cousins were eager to share a local tradition: the food courts that are called hawker centers. Picture it like this: start with an empty big-top tent from a circus, add dozens of different food stalls, mix in a few tables (there are never enough) and then top off with masses of hungry people. That’s a hawker center, where you can count on a good meal at a reasonable price.
One night we went out for a Peranikan dinner, one of my favorites of the trip. One dish we ordered was rendang, something that I had discovered in Steamboat Springs. Now I know the origins of this heavenly spicy stew! For my readers in Steamboat: if you like spicy food, check out the rendang at Sambi, but do call ahead because it’s not always available. It takes at least a day to prepare.
We had reservations for dinner atop one of the trees in Gardens by the Bay, which has a small forest of tall steel “trees” that are right out of a fantasy film. Before dinner, we visited the Cloud Canopy. It’s a huge glass dome that contains a tall central “mountain,” which is basically a tropical hanging garden, with a waterfall on one side. You enter at the bottom, take an elevator to the top, then wind your way back down on suspended walkways. The outside structure is glass, so you also get nice views of the bay and the Singapore skyline. Back outside, we darted through crowds of people toward one of the bigger steel trees, where our dinner awaited us at the top. As I’ve experienced in some American national parks, we had so-so food and indifferent service, while sitting in a truly magical location. The crowds below were there for the hourly light show, which we could see from the restaurant. The general consensus was that you go for the scenery and tolerate the dinner.
One day the girls and I visited Little India, where the streets were crowded with people, and there were endless shops selling cheap knockoffs of anything imaginable. Everywhere I turned, there was vivid color: women wearing brilliant saris, buildings painted in multiple rich hues, and sidewalk stalls selling most anything imaginable, including garlands of fresh flowers (covered with happy, busy bees) for taking into the temples. All overlaid with the damp heat and the tantalizing smells of spices. It’s much how I imagine India itself.
To reduce crime and keep the city clean, Singapore is heavily monitored and regulated. My cousin said that when he arrived six years ago, he was told there were over 160,000 security cameras in the city. I just read that there are now over 2 million CCTV cameras installed around the city, and you see them everywhere. Every. Where.
And they do like to exert some control: at gas stations, the tarmac is clearly painted with boxes to indicate exactly where your car should be placed for pumping gas. Subway platforms are painted with similar boxes that also come with helpful arrows; these boxes are one color for people exiting the train and a different color for people who are waiting to board. And in every subway car I rode, there were signs indicating what was forbidden; the list includes food, cigarettes, things that blow up, and one tropical fruit that apparently smells a little too much like raw sewage. I tried many new foods on this trip, but I did not try durian, and even if I had tried it, I certainly couldn’t take it with me on the subway. It’s popular in Southeast Asia, maybe with people whose noses tell them they’re smelling perfume.
One observation: in Singapore, I was in a relatively exotic place (for me). There’s a true multiculturalism there, with expats from all over the world living amongst people from a variety of regional southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, China, India, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and more. As I walked around, I experienced a palpable assault on my senses. My eyes saw the faces of the world, a variety of houses of worship, and endless different styles of clothing; my nose smelled many different cuisines. And yet through all of this, my ears heard English, the official language of Singapore. On the other hand, I live in France, which is not as exotic, and yet I don’t follow other people’s casual conversations on the sidewalk or in the subway the way I was able to do in Singapore.
It was an excellent adventure!
3 thoughts on “Southeast Asia”
I always stop what I am doing and travel with you and your lens. Thank you for the respite. Miss you and hope to see you again my friend.
Bo, thank you so much for writing, and for saying what you said. You have made my day. And I miss you, too.
My friend Judy wrote to ask about the tea taster myths that got busted. The first wasn’t so much a myth as a fuller explanation. Caffeine (usually associated with coffee) and theine (usually associated with tea) are actually the exact same chemical element. The difference comes with the carrier. A cup of coffee gives a quick burst of energy that lasts a couple of hours. On the other hand, tea leaves contain polyphenols, which act to slow down the jolt, providing a slow but steady energy over about eight hours. The main busted myth from our tour was something I’d learned long ago, that brewing a second cup of tea from whole leaves produces a drink with less caffeine; on our tour I was told that this is absolutely not true, because the amount of caffeine in the leaves is not reduced simply by a few minutes in water. And finally, like coffee, tea is better the fresher it is, and the freezer is not kind to tea leaves.