Singapore

Another big city, an urbane Hong Kong; I liked Singapore. We didn't have long enough to experience everything, money also played its part but overall I appreciated what I saw.

It was a clearly defined and efficient city. Sky scrapers were present but not on a Hong Kong scale. The elegance of Marina Bay Sands epitomises the image Singapore are trying to project. It is potentially isolating, as Joe said everyone on the underground is glued to their smart phones and the endless malls bring an alienating feel to the streets. Modernity has sacrificed some character and charm which isn't a problem for the locals but diminished it in my eyes. It is provocative through its ideals making it noteworthy but not endearing.

The botanic gardens were a brilliant antidote to the metropolis. Beautifully kept and deftly designed; I spent an afternoon exploring the area. They were definitely worth a visit.

Less cultural activities included Nandos and a 4am viewing of the European Cup Final. Chelsea players bringing it to the biggest stage once again. I'd also like to take this opportunity to clarify a few common misconceptions about football fans outside of Europe. As a result of stringent empirical evidence, I can safely say that Chelsea are the dominant player in the worlds fake football shirt market. Even in Asia, Chelsea had 3 times the presence of United. City may as well not exist and Liverpool were a distant third.

Our long haul flight to Uganda with Qatar Airways lived up to our high expectations. Five films were seen: Chronicle, The Book Of Eli, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Young Adult and John Carter. Jason Reitman has never disappointed and EL&IC merited its Oscar nomination. The rest were a bit mediocre except for the start of Chronicle.

Uganda has been enlightening so far, not in all the ways that I had expected. I will bring thoughts soon.

Singapore Botanic Gardens

North Thailand

After crossing the border into Chiang Khong we started to work our way down to Bangkok where we would catch our flight to Singapore. I was in Thailand for a few days last year and visiting the more 'cultural' North was something I had been anticipating.


In Chiang Mai we visited the Maesa Elephant Camp. I would cautiously say that I enjoyed the experience, the elephants are well looked after and are inherently playful animals. We went for a ride through the jungle and then watched as they skilfully showed off their painting, football and dart skills. While I wasn't completely comfortable with everything that went on, I think the camp is putatively better than the alternative; Which can either be more severe captivity (such as circus work) or into the wild (where insufficient protection exists to insure their safety). After spending the morning with the Elephants we visited the nearby Tiger Kingdom.


If the Elephants were borderline, Tiger Kingdom sprinted past the lines of acceptability. It is hard to write this and not appear particularly moralistic but I think, on some things, the issue of right or wrong can be fairly clear. Tiger Kingdom is a business where people pay money to take photos with the animals. The smaller the tiger the more you pay. People are able to get near to the Tigers as they have been heavily drugged which leaves them lying lifeless on the floor. The owners try several tricks in order to try and get the the tiger to lift their head off the ground, they do this so the tourists can get a photo which creates the allusion of the tiger actually being in a normal state. The tourists, when prompted by the owners and sadly also by their own initiative, take advantage and do various things which humiliate and degrade the prone tiger. These include pretending to bite the tail and by straddling the animals back. While others from our party went in, we looked into the cages from the café on the side. We were there for a couple of minutes before deciding to wait in the car park instead.


The View
It's not one of the things I will have fond memories of. I hate feeling powerless to stop something such as this. They are amazing animals and have had their dignity stripped away from them. As Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for my peers, the least I can do is raise a bit of awahness.


As is our wont, we visited several different wats and palaces during our time in the country. The White Temple or Wat Rung Khon was unique to anything we had seen before. It was pristine white and dotted with crystals and glass. The most quirky aspect was the wall of hell which I briefly mentioned last time; It had a fat, happy buddha at one end and a wall of hell (featuring anything remotely western) at the other. Its message is that through consumption of our converse shoes and superhero movies we become corrupted and are therefore unable to reach 'enlightenment'. I guess the monk we found conversing on his iPhone 4s is treating it as a work in progress. Other tourist check points included the Grand Palace and the worlds largest recling buddha at Wat Pho (he was huge). 


Moving past the everyday pad thai we experienced two extremes of the food scale during our time in Thailand. We had a representation of both its cultures, the traditional meal of roasted insects and a glowing tribute to the western world with its fast food on steroids. Two highlights from the latter were the double big mac from Mcdonalds and then the triple outlaw from Burger King. The double was literally two big macs one on top of the other, the outlaw was a triple whopper with onion rings and bacon squeezed in between. Needless to say, both were incredible. The insects, however, were foul and were only consumed on the basis that it was a 'cultural meal' and therefore it had to be done. Joe distinguished himself during the ordeal as we each worked our way through seven different weird and wonderful insects. The grasshopper was the final straw for me but Joe nobly went on and finished the brutal cockroach. 


Words:
Wont - An established custom
Putative – Generally considered to be

Laos


I have naively in the past collectively called all the 'temples' temples. Of course there are many nuances that I have failed to pick up on which are crucial in separating a pagoda to a wat. However, for the time being there were mainly pagodas in Vietnam and there are mainly wats in Laos. We visited several of them in Vientiane and then more later in Luang Prabang.


To say the wats were particularly inspiring would be an aggrandisement. I thought they were interesting but at the same time I found the ostentatious nature of them slightly ironic given they  represented a culture that stresses its displeasure with western ideals. The white temple 'wall of hell' is something I'll talk about next time but for now I'll tell you Kung Fu Panda, Neo and Converse Shoes all featured.


We spent a couple of days in the infamous town of Vang Vieng, where the priggish traveller is confronted with the hedonistic explorer. Thankfully it isn't mutually exclusive and you can enjoy the 'tubing' without taking 'happy milkshakes' and admire the incredible scenery without wearing an anorak and a superior frown on your face. Tubing is the divisive activity which everyone talks about. It involves renting out a rubber ring, drifting down the Nam Song river and stopping off at various bars as you go.


It was a great day, we went with the group of people we were travelling with and had our first real experience of monsoon torrential rain. You tended to drift down as a group and at one point we had over 40 tubes all connected, meandering its way through the landscape. It was one of those surreal moments where you looked around you and struggled to believe you were actually there. Mountains and never-ending green forests lined the river on either side while you seemingly drifted into the middle of nowhere watching the sun go down.


After a couple of days in Luang Prabang, which included our brilliant Snake and Dog barbecue, we caught a long boat to travel along the Mekong river heading for the Laos/Thailand border. It was a relaxing couple of days with stunning scenery following us as we went. The time was spent honing my  cribbage skills against Joe and reading The Great Gatsby which was subtlety provocative. We have a few days in Northern Thailand before heading off to Singapore.


Words:
Aggrandisement - The act of increasing prestige or power
Prig - A self righteous overly moralistic person

Vietnam

A country is special when you find its most simple activities as beautiful as some of it's most lauded natural wonders. It was austere yet overwhelming. A place where everything appeared chaotic yet strangely peaceful. People just seemed to be content.

We roughly followed the Top Gear route starting in Saigon and finishing in Hanoi. As a general rule there is usually a distinct difference between the rural areas and cities of a country, each having a different vibe and a antithetic set of people. Vietnam felt different, there was a mellowing stream following us up North. The peculiar allure of the hustling cities was found in equal measures in the distant countryside. The flow of the traffic meandered into never ending paddy fields.

We only planned our time here half way through our trip and I'm really glad we did. It felt cultural but youthful at the same time. A country with strong heritage and a young population - the average age being 27.  Every place had something slightly different to offer in addition to the usual museums, temples and markets. Freedom to explore the dusty, country roads was something I thoroughly valued.

Learning about the severe realities of the Vietnam war was a humbling experience. I was embarrassed I knew so little. I don't understand it. Ignoring the highly questionable motives, the use of Agent Orange, amongst other chemicals, was one of the most cruel legacies the war left. It broke international law and it still effects babies today - over 40 years after it was deployed - as the chemical damages and disfigures up to the 3rd generation. 

As we explored we met happy and optimistic faces. Yes, the Americans and French aren't welcomed with completely open arms but any resentment and bitterness has been replaced with a desire for a better future. Countries often begrudgingly focus on their past, Vietnam is looking in the other direction.

Over night trains were something we were new to. Apparently we stayed in first class although I was never truly convinced. Ignoring the insects and cockroaches it had two traveler luxuries: 1) Relative Comfort 2) Privacy. Lying in your own secluded cabin you could happily ignore the noisy, bumpy train ride and put the Kindle to full use. Taking a break from novels I have caught up with some of the periodicals I keep track of, The Atlantic and The Economist being my favourites.

Highlights from the last 11 days include ever riskier ventures into the world of street food, serene bike rides into the country and the expansive Halong Bay. I hope Laos and Thailand match the high standard set in Vietnam as we continue to travel through SE Asia.


Words:
Austere - Basic or simple, Stern or severe
Antithetic - Sharply contrasting

Hong Kong

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness" - Mark Twain

It is near impossible to go away travelling and not have your mind opened to scores of new ideas and ways of life. The juxtaposition of the different places we have visited has polarised the individual cultures that we have been fortunate to encounter. A clear example of this happened last week when we moved from the tranquillity of Fiji to the mayhem of Hong Kong.

Negotiating intense public transport, classic tourist points and obscure food made up a lot of our time. Going to Stanley in the South of Hong Kong island was one of my favourite excursions. It was one of the few places where you could see the British influence and this picturesque market town was a great escape from the main city.

The architecture in Hong Kong is not presented in a grandiloquent way but simply through size and stature. Thousands of incredibly high buildings packed tightly together with an unspoken acknowledgement of its own gravity is enough to create a slightly domineering effect. Impressive in one sense, it lacks poise and eloquence in another. Getting lost in the city has again made me realise that it's the idiosyncrasy of home which I value more. Black and white Tudor buildings, cobbled streets, crumbling Roman walls and a lazy river provoke much warmer feelings than the intimidating, grey and antisocial background I often found in Hong Kong.

The food is not something I discountenanced but it will take me longer to fully adapt to the Asian cuisine while I still have a bit of a hangover from America. The fun game of Chinese roulette gave us some interesting meals but without wanting to demean this culinary genre, most meals fall into two general categories: meals with rice or meals with noodles. Having made this initial decision you move into the more varied meat section which on a good day has a wider choice of four: chicken, pork, beef and shrimp. These eight meal choices weren't sufficient to sustain me for all three meals so I often retreated to the global safe haven of McDonalds. McDonalds shares a love/hate relationship with travellers. On one side you are cheating the system and not fully engaging in local culture (although you will find the majority of the locals in there) and on the other side it represents guaranteed 'decent' food, cheap prices and free wifi. On most occasions I unashamedly fell into the latter category but on every day I risked my health on at least two street food meals.


The first two nights we couchsurfed in Kennedy Town, in the West of the city. On the second two we stayed in the infamous Chungking Mansions. This was recommended to us by a couple in Fiji and while they said it was terrible they also said it was a must to do. We decided to overlook the terrible part and decided to stay in this rabbit warren in the heart of Kowloon. Home to over 120 nationalities, the place is constantly full of activity and people. When we arrived at the airport with all our items intact and with our health in relatively good order, I can look back and call it a positive experience!

It was enjoyable to explore the city and no doubt I will return to it equipped with a more cultivated perspective. Next stop is Vietnam.


Words:
Idiosyncrasy - A peculiarity
Discountenance - To show disapproval