A Singapore Sandwich

As you may remember, I was in Malaysia, soaking up all the culture, food, and things that make this part of the world so different from mine. I was also soaking in sweat and getting tired of being gawked at and just a tad uncomfortable all the time. So I decided to sandwich a visit to Singapore in between less-developed Malaysia and Indonesia,

I spent three full days walking (and walking, and walking) around the city. It is fantastic. It reminds me of London – very international, excellent public transport, and they drive on the left – mixed with a little bit of Las Vegas. But with SE Asian spice. The majority of residents in Singapore are Chinese Buddhist, but you can find the blend of Malay Muslim and Indian Hindu that seems to be the standard for this peninsula.

But Singapore could not be more different from its peninsular neighbor to the north. Where you cannot go a second without seeing litter in Malaysia, Singapore is impeccably clean. There are plenty of Aussies, Kiwis, Europeans, and Americans roaming about, so I was in no danger of causing pandemonium. Of course everything is more expensive in Singapore too, but I definitely enjoyed all the shiny modern buildings and the fun cultural events and Gardens by the Bay.

I took three walking tours, around the Malay, Chinese, and Indian sectors, learning about the development of this city-state and some of the social support systems they have in place. Most people live in government housing – I forget the exact figure, but it was like 80 percent. However, instead of just living there they buy it from the government (for 99 years) and then can do what they want to it (remodel it, rent it out). The government regulates who can live there, setting income limits and racial quotas for the buildings.

As I learned at the FABULOUS Chinatown Heritage Center, when the Chinese started arriving, apparently it was a small fishing village of a few hundred people. Quite a bit different from the city of 6.5 million it is today. The Chinese, fleeing famine and rough conditions in their own country, set up shophouses and lived in some pretty cramped, unclean “cubicles” (basically 6 feet by 6 feet) in these buildings. Singapore was, of course, part of the British colonies as well until fairly recently.

Very cool place to explore, and I definitely hope to go back. When you visit, be sure to get to the airport early. Singapore has the best airport in the world, and you can easily amuse yourself for hours with gardens, giant waterfalls, shopping and dining. Me personally, I crushed some Shake Shack. No regrets.

 

Remembering Why I Travel In Malaysia

I’ve been in Malaysia for over a week, and it is an exciting place full of learning opportunities. It is a majority¬†muslim¬†country that, in addition to the Muslim Malay population, is also home to large populations of Indian Hindus and Chinese Buddhists. There’s a lot of mixing of cultures, religions, races, and food (although, there’s definitely still segregation and racism). The country was also part of the British Empire until 1957 or 1963, depending on how you count it. Either way, when my parents were born, it was a British colony. Whoa.

You can still see some traces of colonialism, in more than just the architecture in the cities. The Malay language (Bahasa Melayu = BM) is the main language spoken here, but its alphabet was changed over to the latin one (i.e. the same alphabet as English). In fact, in addition to BM, Tamil, and Chinese, quite a few people speak English, especially in cities. People drive on the left here, and I have heard their hospitals are quite good.

Despite the presence of the British, I have been in places where I have not seen many (or any) white people around. From the stares, you can tell they don’t get a lot of people who look like me passing through (especially since I am also probably taller than the average man here). In Taiping, my friend who is teaching English here (she’s American but of Chinese descent), asked me to wait in the car while she dropped something off because my whiteness would likely cause pandemonium. Again, whoa.

Malaysia has also presented me with my first visit into a mosque. I have, of course, seen many mosques before, but never covered up my head and went inside the grounds. They tend to be lovely buildings, with domes and minarets, and the National Mosque in KL was no exception. It was a stunning building, and we were warmly welcomed by a volunteer who was very excited to talk to us and teach us a little about his religion.

I would probably say Malaysia is the least developed (and least Western-oriented) country I have been to so far – except maybe China. I’m definitely missing some of the comforts of home. Like showers. Showers here are basically a shower head on the wall of the bathrooms. Which is fine, at least there’s running water and a water heater! But there is no way to keep the whole room from getting soaked, which is not as nice when you are sharing a bathroom and constantly have to sit on a wet toilet.

I also miss general cleanliness. The rivers here are at least as disgusting and brown/orange as many of the South American rivers, if not worse. There’s visible litter everywhere. Even up in the Cameron Highlands, where people go to enjoy the fresh air and beautiful nature, plastic bottles and other rubbish litter the sides of the roads. Air pollution is high, air quality is low, and visible haze permeates the air around. It’s also so humid that I just sweat and generally feel gross all the time. Ah, the tropics.

But that’s just it. There’s a saying “life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Being uncomfortable forces you to realize that you can deal with it. There’s a lot of “well, that’s not ideal but I can work with that” moments. You learn to plan ahead. You learn to carry your own tp and hand sanitizer. Being uncomfortable also reminds you to appreciate the times when you are comfortable. Learning about new cultures and places, but also learning more about yourself is the very reason I travel. Why do you travel?

Who Should Go To Korea?

I feel like the Republic of Korea (ROK), or South Korea as most of us know it, is not on a lot of folks’ travel lists. It certainly wasn’t on my list of places to go, and I really only went because I ended up having a friend living there during my nomadic years. And now that I’ve been, I feel that I can really assess who should go to ROK.¬†

You should go to Korea:

  • if you consider yourself a fashionista. I am using the term “fashionista” very loosely. If you are into the k-pop scene and think crazy haircuts and boys wearing lipstick is “de mode,” then you’ll fit right in! If you prefer a more “classic” style involving socks with sandals (or socks with anything, the sock game is strong here), then you’ll be good to go. If beige is your favorite color and wearing outfits totally stripped of the ROYGBIV spectrum, you’ll also find ROK works for you.
  • if you like efficiency served with a side of whimsy. Korea has the perfect blending of high-tech and cutesy, like Kakao friends. Take the metro for example. Super efficient. Trains run frequently, and on time. Everything is numbered, from metro stations to exits. This is really handy if you want to know where to go (to get to the museum take exit 8), or how many stops you have left (well we are at 103 and need to go to 112, so…). The train arrives with a jaunty tune and a little animation to accompany it.img_20191004_100302
  • if you don’t want to visit a city that smells like a dumpster. Korean cities are impeccable, spotless. I don’t think I ever saw a piece of litter. I certainly never saw a rat. I couldn’t even find a trash can, that’s how prodigious they are at keeping trash out of site. Don’t believe me? A South Korean mayor had to dump litter on his beach so that volunteers (who were participating in a worldwide beach clean-up day) would have something to clean up!
  • if you love history, whether it be ancient or modern. Korean history is full of exciting sagas of warring empires, peaceful Buddhists, nation building, and perpetual war with Japan. For 600 years Korea was existing peacefully it seems, developing art and their own language, during the Joseon dynasty, until 1910 when things took a turn for the worse. The last hundred years have been rough, as war and domination swept through the peninsula leaving marks that are visible today (I mean literally, just look at a map).
  • if you eat food. Korean food is the bomb diggity, and it’s more than bulgogi and kimchi (although, you will be served kimchi with everything). They eat #allthemeat, they could even put Argentina and Chile to shame. Between Korean BBQ and Korean fried chicken, I was eating a lot of meat. Fortunately, they like their meat with a little spice. And garlic goes in everything. Spice and garlic are two of my favorite things in this world…
  • if you are a living, breathing person. Because really, everyone should go! (Although, real talk, if you don’t breathe you might even do better because pollution in Korea can get wild, which is why people wear masks often. Fortunately for me, air quality was good – I hear it tends to be best in September and October).

And there you have it! Book a flight! Get on it!

On a more serious note, and related to bullet 4 above, something super memorable from my last few days in Korea was going to the War Memorial Museum (for like…5 hours. *cough* nerd *cough*). For me, Korea arrives on the scene in 1950 with the outbreak of the war (unfair, I know) and I have a personal connection to this one. My grandfather served in the U.S. Army in Korea. But I learned more from this museum than I ever did from him.

Why? Because I never asked him. I never asked him where he fought, what operations he was in, or what he did. I never asked him who he met, who he lost, or how he got his purple heart. I never asked him what he saw. I never asked him what it was like to finally come home. And it’s too late now. Going to the memorial was a great history lesson for me, but also a powerful reminder of how history lives on through the people that were there and that we should ask those questions before those stories are gone forever.