Merlion symbol of Singapore

Friday, January 20, 2012


My friend Lydia came from California last week for a visit to Singapore and Bali. We did the standard sightseeing activities of Singapore; water taxi on the river, drinks at the top of the Marina Bay Sands, plus many museums looking at art and textiles. It was interesting to see the city through an artist's eyes. We were lucky to find the decorated elephants all lined up ready for auction the following week. There were 162 of them displayed first around Singapore and then all together in the Botanic Garden; what a sight. They ended up raising over $1million for the Save the Asian Elephants campaign. The one decorated like a durian fruit was a personal favorite.

From Singapore we flew to Bali for four days, staying in Ubud, the artist capital of Bali. We were able to visit artist studios, weaving shops, museums, do several hikes and walk on the beach. Although the Ubud area has grown immensely since my first visit 25 years ago, there are still a lot of quiet, agricultural areas and many temples. The Balinese are mainly Hindu and worship multiple gods; giving offerings daily. Every morning at our bungalow the staff would be out placing the small offerings not only at the temple area but along the walkways and on their vehicles. The people are so friendly, and beautiful, especially the kids.

As usual we had to have an adventure. Following the guide book for a hike between Kastala and Tenganan to see the ancient village and weaving there; our driver dropped us off as close as he could get to Kastala. Even getting there involved stopping to ask locals along the way, getting lots of advice and probably telling our driver we were crazy! We got to Kastala and were greeted by a family requesting a "donation" to get across the bamboo bridge to start the hike. We signed the register and paid our donation and were told we really needed a guide. As the price seemed high and the guidebook indicated it was a known trail we started down the hill. The guide continued telling us we needed help and dropped his price. He seemed knowledgeable and the price dropped to $5 for each of us so we hired him. What a life saver, we would never have found our way after getting across the bamboo bridge-which consisted of three large pieces of bamboo lashed together. The trail was mostly along a water canal to bring water to the rice fields and often was through the fields themselves. We came upon small villages and a school, but then would set off through the jungle again. In one village our guide found his buddies and we stopped for a drink of rice wine; one sip was plenty. We watched them thrashing rice by hand and sweeping it off the driveway into bags for market. Just as we came to the end the skies opened up and it started pouring. Our guide had us run to a home of some people he knew and they fed us pineapple, durian, bananas and showed us their basket weaving and cloth weaving as we waited out the storm. The rest of the walk then became wading through a stream that the trail had become to get from the village. In the end it was the best $5 we spent and we gave him a large tip for getting us through the rice fields and out of the rain.
To see Lydia's pictures of the trip go to:
More Save the Elephants statues, auctioned off to raise money for Asian Elephants

Save the Elephants Campaign, this one decorated to look like a Durian fruit
Shop in Celeluk, town known for silver work

Offerings at our bungalow
Local stonework

Home and artist studio and temple; all in one

11th century memorials to royalty
White herons in the trees, they look like flowers

Water temple, women are being blessed in the water

Rice terraces and worker

Yarn being dyed before putting on the loom
Lydia and I walking through the rice fields

Kids going down the water canal on a banana tree stalk

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Bob, Cameron, Kevin and I headed to Vietnam for the week of Christmas. We stayed on the island Phu Quoc off the southern coast of Vietnam, very near Cambodia. The island is the same size as Singapore with a population of 85,000 compared to 5 million in Singapore; a noticeable difference. The island is still very sleepy and undeveloped with one main town and airport. Most of the roads are still dirt, but they are slowly putting in a major divided highway. We discovered it on our tour of the island on motor scooters, but as only bits and pieces of the highway are finished people drive in both directions on either side of the median. Very confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it you just stay in your lane and only cross over when the road on your side ends. Luckily there is very little traffic with only a few vans and trucks, mostly motor bikes on the road. We stayed in an ecolodge made of local materials including palm fronds for a roof. The bathroom was outside and we were watched by geckos and frogs while in the shower. The water was solar heated so you made sure you took your shower before nightfall to have enough hot water. They had fans instead of A/C and coolers rather than a minibar, but it all worked out. Just a big change from the Four Seasons on Maldives! The hotel restaurants were great and the chicken mango sandwich on pita bread became the standard lunch for the group each day. We did some snorkeling and diving and one day we rented motor scooters and headed out for a tour of the island. Luckily there aren't too many roads although there aren't many signs either and we did manage to get lost and have to cross a stream and then back again before finding our way. At least on an island you can't go too far before running into water. The island has beautiful beaches and a lot of greenery, but it isn't as humid as Singapore and doesn't look as much like a jungle. 

The main town on Phu Quoc

Sunset at the hotel

Cameron and Kevin in the water ready for a dive

After the dive

Riding over a bridge on the motor scooters, no railings

Cam and Kevin on their bikes

Walking on Sao Beach

Bob on his bike

Typical village and road on our Phu Quoc motor scooter island tour

From Phu Quoc we went to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to experience city life in Vietnam, what a change. To go from a few people and even few cars and bikes to complete chaos. The taxi drivers use their horns as we use turn signals; announcing their intentions all around, but until you can move it is difficult to figure out who is going where. There are very few traffic signals and left turn on red (our version of a right turn) without stopping is a given. The city is modern with more going on than I expected. There were hundreds of motorbikes everywhere and people madly trying to cross the street in between them. We did a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong had hidden during the war and also toured the War Remembrance Museum. It was pretty anti American, but a true representation of what went on there. The people themselves are very nice to Americans and apologetic of the government's position on how terrible we were. We had a great birthday dinner at a restaurant on the river watching the boats and the city skyline in the distance. The evening ended with a drink on the outdoor terrace on the 27th floor of a building in a modern, happening night club.

The next day was the motorbike city tour of Saigon. The rest of the family was sure I was trying to do them in as we each had a young woman driver on her motorbike show us the sights of the city. Actually once you were in the flow of the motorbike traffic it was much easier and seemed to flow smoothly; not at all the appearance while watching from the taxi. It was a highlight of the trip and I would recommend it and a visit to Saigon.
Cameron in the tunnel entrance
Kevin entering the tunnel at Cu Chi

Bob in the tunnel, he didn't fit as well

Cameron shooting an AK-47

Kevin shooting an AK-47, he hit the target!

Making rice paper for Vietnamese spring rolls

Birthday river trip to visit the Cu Chi tunnels

On the way back

Tourist security officer to help you cross the street

Saigon city tour drivers with us at the Lotus fountain

Our bikes for the city tour

Christmas decorations in Saigon

Reunification Palace

Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon

Statue of Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh)

City Hall

Inside the Central Post Office

Central Post Office
Final ice cream before leaving Vietnam

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Maldives

Cameron and Kevin came to Singapore for the Christmas holidays and the three of us headed off to the Maldives. The Maldives had long been on my list of places to visit, but with it being another five hour flight beyond Singapore we had never made it. The trip is more than worth the extra time spent on a plane and the pictures don't do the beauty of the place justice. The country is made up of over 1,000 islands spread over 35,000 square with a population of 300,000 people. With an average ground level of 4 feet above sea level it is the lowest country in the world. All that water, islands and coral make for an amazing place to go snorkeling and diving (which Cam and Kevin have become addicted to). From the airport in Male you are whisked to the lounge to wait for your seaplane taxi to the island. Each island has its own resort so you are pretty isolated once you arrive.
The seaplane ride was 30 minutes over multiple other islands before landing in the water at Landaa Giraavaru an island in the Baa Atoll. We spent two days here in an over water villa; snorkeling, diving and enjoying the beach. It was so peaceful and beautiful, not to mention all the fish that were just off our deck. The bathroom even had a glass floor so you could watch the fish swim by.
Next we boarded the Explorer, a catamaran boat with 11 rooms for a four day cruise of the area. The staff, food and diving were wonderful. There were three dives or snorkeling trips arranged each day, or you could fish, water ski, tube or just hang out. One afternoon they set up a beach day on an uninhabited island and the chef did an outdoor BBQ for dinner. They even dug the table and bench chairs in the sand. It was a lovely evening with more food than even Kevin could eat! The other guests on the boat were from Croatia, Germany, NY and Paris so we were an interesting and eclectic group, all with a love of the water. A highlight of the trip was getting to see whale sharks, the largest of the shark family. Although it eats mostly plankton, when you are snorkeling towards its huge mouth it's hard to convince yourself of this. We were able to snorkel with several of them before they dove into the depths, what a treat. In general the diving and snorkeling were fantastic, I really felt like I was in an aquarium. There were so many different types of fish and all different sizes. Sometimes the current would carry you along like you were on a moving walkway looking through the glass at an aquarium. There were hundreds of fish all around and we often saw turtles and reef sharks as well.

We spent one afternoon at a local island, seeing the village, the school and watching the boys play soccer and the girls play volleyball. It is a Muslim country so the sexes are pretty separated. The little children were the most friendly to the tourists coming through.

From the boat we were dropped off at the Kuda Huraa resort, closer to the capital Male. It was hard getting back to the reality of having many more people around and not knowing everyone. Although it was a lovely resort and the kids enjoyed the swim up bar, we missed having all the amenities so close at hand. Before we knew it the trip had come to an end and we headed back to Singapore.

Waiting lounge to board the seaplane

Seaplanes waiting to take passengers to each of the islands

Our seaplane (the captain wears flip flops)

Flying over one of the island resorts

Another island resort

The infinity pool at our over water villa

Sunset on the beach

Private island for lounging and a BBQ dinner

Umbrella set up on the beach for our arrival

The beach with sand like powdered sugar

Maldivian girls looking a the picture Cam took of them

Our beach villa, back on land

The outdoor shower

The pool and deck of our beach villa

Sunset view