Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011 (Singapore)

SO, THAT'S WHAT THEY ARE: From the top of the Marina Bay Sands Casino, you look out toward the ocean over the top of a huge landscaped area. Dotting the place are numerous tall structures--about 25 meters high and up (right). They look like GOLF TEES for Paul Bunyan. We lazily wondered about them.
Today, because I stuck my head into the Marina Bay City Gallery I found out what the heck they are. I overheard a tour guide telling students (above) about something called "supertrees" that are sprinkled throughout the area. These are basically "vertical gardens" that will eventually feature flowering tropical climbers, ferns and other plants. They will be lit up at night. These will provide shade. From the Web site above:
The ‘Supertrees’ are man-made structures that will incorporate vertical greenery with environmentally-sustainable functions such as collecting rainwater and recycling heat.
We'll be gone before we can get an up-close look. Might be worth coming back to see them when they are done.

IT'S OFFICIAL: Today's Straits Times captured what will be a historic moment. Lee Kuan Yew's tenure as cabinet member here in Singapore. The news of his intention to leave the cabinet was in the news last Sunday (when we were in Seoul). It's not exactly an Arab Spring here, but this is a significant event for Singapore. It remains to be seen how things will change. But it is clear that many Singaporeans were very upset with a pronouncement Minister Mentor Lee made before the election, essentially threatening voters in a certain district with repercussions if they were to vote against his People's Action Party. (He said they would have "five years to live and repent" their decision. Not very statesman-like.)
For a non-official view of his departure and career, try this "Online Community of Daft Singaporean Noises". The official responses are very easy to find.
The man and the city-state are hard to separate. He was one of the most enduring and profoundly important leaders of the last 50 years. The change here is worth noting, both officially and unofficially.
Toronto's Globe and Mail puts this in a healthy perspective--summing up the change ("Singapore's Minister Mentor Steps Down but Not Out") and crediting a Singaporean novelist with starting a healthy change here (in 1994)--see "The Little Article the Rocked Singapore".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Thursday, May 19, 2011 (Bangkok and Singapore)

SO FAR, SO GOOD FOR APPAREL FROM TOM'S: A centerpiece of yesterday's circuitous and tortuous trip to the Grand Palace was the tuk-tuk-fueled 10,000 baht ($320.00 US) pit stop at Tom's International Collection in Bangkok. (I found the picture above while dredging the Web, and I'm pretty sure that was the store my little tuk-tuk took me to.) As mentioned yesterday, the company did, in fact, deliver the SIX SHIRTS and TWO PANTS to the hotel by 7 p.m.
Today, I decided to take them for a test drive on Singapore Air (Bangkok to Singapore). The results are good. In fact, good things happened even before we got on the plane. For one thing, I swear that I overheard someone in the Bangkok airport point to me and whisper to her friend,
"He shops at Tom's."
When I turned, they pretended not to be looking at me. The ensemble also survived the flight. The clothing was NOT affected by the altitude changes. I spilled NO RICE on the shirt. The photo at right (taken by Sandy) gives a decent indicator of how good you can look after shopping at Tom's (de Bangkok).
I consider this a great triumph. Bangkok is a GREAT PLACE!
The close-up of the pocket (right) shows that the tailors made some effort to LINE UP THE STRIPES where the pocket lies over the shirt. Good job! All in all, I'm satisfied with the clothing. I might have lucked out. I did do some Google searches on Tom's (de Bangkok) and some irate Australians had a lot to say. But they bought SUITS. I played it safe with shirts and pants.

SPEAKING OF CLOTHING.....: Today we got an email from Terry Kerr of Henley and Sloane (boyfriend of Katie and purveyor of fine men's clothing and accessories). He noticed, from a close reading of the Economist article Power and Pinatas that a major hedge-fund investor was photographed wearing one of the cuff links Terry sells exclusively (online, at shows and in Nantucket). Tom's (de Bangkok) doesn't carry this stuff. Some of Terry's designs are based on SINGAPORE coins.

HOME AGAIN: It was very good to get back to Singapore--home. When we got into the cab at Changi Airport, the driver...
DID NOT ask "How much will you pay me to take you there?"
DID NOT insist that he take us by a clothing store so he could get a gas coupon.
DID NOT have to keep his head on a swivel to watch for motorbikes buzzing at him from all directions.
DID NOT take one look at me and think to himself, "Here's a sucker."
For that last one, I attribute my new shirt from Tom's (de Bangkok).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 (Bangkok, Thailand)

If ther's one place to see in Bangkok, someone told me, get to the Grand Palace (pictured above). OK, I thought, I'll go to the palace first then go to the Jim Thompson House. I plotted my course: Walk 10 or 15 minutes to the Sala Daeng Sky Train station, take the train toward the Wongwian Yai terminus, get off at the Saphin Taksin station, catch a river taxi at Tha Sathon or Tha Oriental; get off at Tha Tien or Tha Chang and walk over to Wat Phra Kaew (Emerald Buddha) and Grand Palace. Really. How hard could that be for someone who has been living in Southeast Asia since early February?

Getting off on the wrong foot: Someone suggested I take a taxi on the first leg of this trip instead of walking to the Sky Train station. That's when the trouble began.
For one thing, the taxi driver took me to the WRONG STATION (Si Lom), which was on an entirely different train line. That cost 100 baht (about $3.50 US). He left me quickly. I stared for a while--with dim wits--at a sign while squeezing the life out of my street map. As if on cue, a gentleman stepped forward when he noticed my haplessness. He said--in quite good English--he had a better idea than taking the Sky Train to the river from the wrong station. As he squiggled excitedly in red ink on my wrinkled map, he also MIGHT have said the Grand Palace isn't all that great, anyway, so don't worry about getting there right away. Some mysterious orchestration had begun. The SYNDICATE had moved in. I was about to be played, like a concertina--whatever that is.
My new pal said the best way to get to the river taxi would be by a tuk-tuk, waving his hand toward one of Bangkok's distinctive three-wheeled "taxis" (see public-domain photo at right of tuk-tuk whizzing past the palace, where I wanted to go). He crossed the street with me and introduced me to the driver. I had heard of these vehicles, vaguely, and I think I rode one once at an amusement park in Ohio.
The Crash Test Dummy Climbs Into the Back Seat: I stared at the car and counted the safety features--on one hand, one finger, actually. I got in. I mean, how hard could it be to catch a river taxi and zip up to the Grand Palace?
The driver's name was Lob. His English--while vastly superior to my Thai--was absolutely, utterly, incredibly horrible. He did laugh a lot. Squealed in delight, really. He took me to the river, all right. But it was to a wharf that had NO river taxis. Instead it had a boat that could take me to some canal network. The Wharf Master tried to talk me into getting onto a boat that could take me to some tourist attractions with names I could not pronounce somewhere along some canal near the river. I thought of Burma. I said I simply wanted to get to the Grand Palace and really wanted to catch a water taxi there. The man at that wharf gave up on this particular hustle and told me the nearest river-taxi stop was a bit up the river. He pointed to a wharf with a blue roof only about 150 yards up river. I started backtracking so I could walk to it, limping slightly thanks to the reawakened plantar fasciitis.
Caveat Emptor: Lob, who thought he had done his job and delivered me on a silver platter to some emporium on some canal, was clearly startled when he spotted me out of the corner of his tuk-tuk.
He saluted me--"Yo! Mr. Frank!"--and said he could take me to the Grand Palace himself for 40 baht. There was just one catch. (Those of you who have been to Bangkok know what it was, of course.) He had to make a "stop for gas"--maybe two, he told me. Fine, I thought, although the gas tank couldn't possibly be big enough for two fillings. But I don't want to walk. I thought I would just sit in the back of the tuk-tuk for however long it took and inhale what's left of his exhaust fumes.
It turns out he wasn't entirely honest about the "stopping for gas" part of it. Or, rather, I'd say he was lawyerly honest about it. It turns out he really wanted to bring me to a men's clothing store--Tom's International Collection. (I had not heard of this place.) If he steered me there, I learned, he would receive a VOUCHER for free Esso gas. So, yes, he was technically "stopping for gas."
By then I knew I was either in a slasher flick, in a scene from Bourne Identity VIII or in some international commercial swirl that was out of my control. I decided I was just going to have to close my eyes, lie back and think of England, as they say.
On my merry way to the Grand Palace, of course.
A few illegal lane crossings later, I found myself strolling into the aforementioned Tom's International Collection. Just like the tuk-tuk, I was fuming. But I remembered to simply think of England. So I played nice. There were bolts of cloth there. They must make something. I decided I would buy something. Thanks to some help from a smooth-as-silk salesman/tailor named Alex (right) I walked, nay, strutted out of there poorer by 10,000 bahts (about $360 US) and clutching the promise that six tailored shirts and two tailored pants would be delivered to my hotel by 7 that night. Sure they will. And they'll be delivered by elephant..... Granted, I still wasn't at the palace, but at least I could dress for a palace visit if I ever had one.

Without a guide; without a clue: Next, Lob, who was beginning to really feel it, whisked me to a jewelry store. There, in a walking coma, I plunked down a crisp 100 baht note (about $36) for jade earrings for a neice who has never to my knowledge ever said anything about liking Jade. My driver picked me up when I emerged. As he tuk-tukked his way into snarling traffic I found myself tapping out the rhythms of Van McCoy's great "The Hustle" the the cadence of the tuk-tuk. I was certainly being played. I kept thinking of England.
Then things got worse.
As we chuttered through Bangkok, and speaking loudly over the tapping of the cylinder(s), announced loudly that he had to get home to "FEED MY BABY"--whatever that means. I nodded dumbly and yelled, "That's OK, so long as your baby is in the Grand Palace." He did not get my little joke. That was OK because I really wasn't joking.
He pulled over and waved to a fellow conspirator, er, fellow tuk-tuk driver. He explained the situation. Lob waved me good-bye, took NO MONEY from me and assured me that his friend would drive me to the Grand Palace for the same 40 bahts that Lob has been promised.
Again, I just closed my eyes and thought of England.

Can Somebody Help Me Find a Word that Rhymes with Tuk-Tuk? I snapped one picture from the back of the tuk-tuk, and have included it at right. As you can see there's an air bag. Oh, no. I'm WRONG. There's NO AIR BAG. It's just plenty of AIR with NO BAG at all.
My new driver, whom I will call A.J. for an obvious reason, took about fourteen turns (probably at the same three or four intersections for all I knew) and I was feeling confident. "How far to the palace?" I asked cheerily (thinking how friggin' big can this city be?). He muttered. My English wasn't working.

The accident: A.J. stopped at a T-intersection. Then he edged boldly into traffic in the tuk-tuk's classic staggered bursts of speed. He looked in one direction, did NOT look the other way, and forged ahead. I saw it. He didn't.
I yelled "Look out" in totally useless English. He rammed right into the back of a motorcycle, which had stopped suddenly (IN THE MIDDLE OF AN INTERSECTION). (The aftermath of the collision is shown at right.)
There I was, sitting in the back of a very thin-skinned tuk-tuk in the middle of a busy intersection soemwhere in the bowels of Bangkok, surrounded by random pieces of a motorcycle fender, with the smell of gasoline drifting my way. I thought, again, of England.
I just wanted to get a ride to the Grand Palace. Is this too much to ask? Evidently.
I waited for the motorcyclist to haul off and utterly box A.J. in his ear. Didn't happen. The motorcyclist was still picking up pieces when A.J. did a hurried bow, with palms dutifully pressed together at chest level, and scrambled to his tuk-tuk, waving to me to get in. I don't think EITHER driver wanted to talk with ANY police officer about ANYTHING. The tuk-tuk had a pretty good dent, but it could move. He eventually brought me to the east wall of the palace grounds. He had the utter gall to ask me if I wanted him to wait so he could drive me back to the hotel. THAT's when i STOPPED THINKING OF ENGLAND and stiffened by back, snapped my head up, and said, bravely, "No."
I did tour the palace (see below). Then, I grabbed a metered cab for the ride back to the hotel (after actually getting OUT of the cab when another driver wanted to charge me 400 bahts for the trip). I didn't pass Go. I didn't go to the Jim Thompson House.
When I got safely back to the hotel, I enjoyed a cup of green tea (right) and then went up to the room and assumed the fetal position.

AT THE GRAND PALACE (FINALLY): As mentioned, I did make it to the Grand Palace and the contiguous temple. The temple (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is really the great attraction, not so much the palace, which has very limited access. At least I got a chance to see yet another changing of the guard (above).
The temple area has plenty of sights, even ones that a Buddhist monk might want to record on film (right). The temple is also known as Wat Phra Kaew. The complex features eye-catching buildings relating to both the ruling family and Buddhism. The centerpiece is the so-called "Emerald Buddha", which is really made of jade. it is north of the royal residence and is one of the holiest sites in Thailand. The Buddha sits on a gilded Thai-style throne. It was discovered in 1434 in a stupa in Chiang Rai. That statue is what the monk in my photograph is focusing on. And the complex has a small replica of Angkor Wat, for those who can't get over to Cambodia.
I enjoyed coming across an artist who was working in the galleries of the Royal Monastery (right). The artwork on the wall presents scenes from the Ramakien, the national epic of Thailand.
Back to the palace.... One building, the Borom Phiman Mansion, was built in 1903 by King Rama V for the heir apparent (No. VI). It clearly reflects the European influence on the king. So does the larger building of the palace area, which is the actual Grand Palace.
It's shown at the top of today's entry and features a distinctive Thai-style roofline, atop a very European body. King Rama V (right) visited Europe for the first time in 1897, the first Siamese king to do so. He's the one about whom my great aunt wrote an intriguing (but unexplained) item in a diary she kept as a 17-year-old in 1904. She was in Paris at the time, and her efforts to buy a hat had been thwarted because the Duchess of Marlborough had swept in and bought it before her. She wrote that the incident reminded her of "Lucy [her sister], the King of Siam and the studs in Geneva."
That's all I know. Think those studs might still be in the palace somewhere?

THE TAILOR COMES THROUGH: Just want to let you know that Tom's International Collection did as they promised. The shirts and pants were delivered to the hotel by 7 p.m. Sandy and I have looked at them. Some stitching may be a bit too obvious and I don't dare try any of them on just at this moment, but the clothing got here as promised. For that I am relieved. Maybe the tuk-tuk adventure was worth the hassle after all.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011 (Seoul, DMZ, South Korea)

AT THE DMZ--WHAT PART OF "NO" DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? Took a tour north from Seoul to the DMZ. We stopped at Imjingak. Then we went to an eerily empty (but totally modernized) train station. It was built in expectation of eventual in-and-out traffic between the Koreas.
One stop was at the Dora observation deck. Our tour guide mentioned, oh, maybe, eight thousand times that we should take photographs of North Korea from behind a designated BRIGHT YELLOW LINE. (Taking a photo from any other place might give someone a view of the disposition of South Korean military personnel and equipment--which is probably already exposed by something like Google Earth.)
We were told that the ROK military were especially diligent about the cameras and can take the camera away in three languages--English, Chinese and Japanese. (Actually, they will return the camera after deleting the photo.) Anyway, rules are rules. No problem. I took my panoramic shot (above). Upon further review, low and behold, I caught a tourist in the VERY ACT of photographing some of ROK's military emplacements. To help you, the reader, I have circled the man in THREE versions of the photo (above and at right). VERY shortly after the photo was taken, a guard did, in fact, grab the camera and set things right with the man.
From this spot, you can see Kijong-dong, which certainly looks like the Potemkin village that the South Koreans say it is.

TUNNEL VISION: We also went to the Third infiltration tunnel, which is a pretty daunting place. Hard-hatted visitors trek down a steep-sloped 358-meter walkway to intersect with one of the tunnels that North Korea evidently tried to build to bust deep into South Korean territory. Then, visitors walk about 250 meters to a barrier. That horizontal walk requires some crouching for anyone taller than 5 feet 6 inches or so.
We weren't allowed to take pictures in the tunnel, and I noticed NOBODY doing it. What I did notice was a LOT of elderly tourists (mostly from China) making this grueling trek underground. Very impressive in their dogged determination to do this.
The map above shows the arrangement.
I also included (at right) a poster touting a special DMZ chocolate. I didn't find it, but it offers a good illustration of the way South Korea has parlayed a COMMUNIST incursion into a robust CAPITALIST enterprise. This is one of the busiest tourist destinations in South Korea. Might be the busiest.
The tunnel was discovered in 1978. Number crunchers say that about 10,000 soldiers (small ones, anyway) could move through the tunnel in about one hour.

WINGING IT WITH BIBIMBAP: We caught an evening flight to Bangkok from Incheon Airport. On Korean Air, we had one last taste of Korea. Bibimbap was on the menu, with a special how-to-assemble instructions for those of us unfamiliar with the signature Korean dish. I didn't take a picture (still feeling the effects of the prohibitions on photography from the DMZ), but here's a video from Korean Air that celebrates this dish, which tastes just fine at 34,000 feet:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Monday, May 16, 2011 (Seoul, South Korea)

FEET ON THE GROUND: Spent a lot of time walking through Seoul as part of a tour.
This intriguing calligraphy-brush statue (above) marks one entrance to Insadong, a neighborhood in the Jongno-gu district of the city. There are lots of shops and we strolled the length of it. I expected store owners and workers to try and lure passersby inside, making it a gantlet of sorts. But that didn't happen. We paused to watch a couple of entertaining chefs whip up some kkul tarae. The chefs take a very hard concoction and stretch it into thousands of strands. I dropped 7,000 won on a box of "Cocoa Linings" (about $7). If we eat this with tea, it's better if it is "cold and frozen" (I assume they meant to put an "or" in there instead of "and").
The chefs worked in a singsong manner.

THE GUARDS, THEY ARE A'CHANGIN': Early in the tour (at 10 a.m., actually), we zipped over to Gyeongbokgung Palace to catch the changing of the guard, which revives the glory days of the Joseon period. These guards stood watch over the gates of the city and palace. Responding to the sounds of a large drum. The guards nowadays plant themselves at the Gwanghwamun Gate. The one shown at left is, I think, a Gapso Regular Guard. Of course, I'm not talking about the police officer who seems to be affecting sort of a slouch. We also went to the National Folk Museum, drove quickly by the presidential residence (called the Blue House), and walked through the vast Namdaemun Market.

DOES RYAN HOWARD KNOW HE HAS A FAN CLUB IN SEOUL? The Gyeonghoe-ru Pavilion is one of the places used for relaxation on the palace grounds. There, school kids swarmed us, seeming to pay special attention to the dozens of carp, who sensed food would soon be coming their way. This group wore florescent shirt coverings with the number "6" boldly printed on the back. Any connection to the Philadelphia Phillies All-Star first baseman?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011 (Seoul, Korea)

PERPETUAL REMEMBRANCE: I don't know if many tourists get there, but Sandy and I were very happy to have gotten over to The War Memorial of Korea.
Our appreciation of the exhibits in the museum itself was hindered by our profound lack of knowledge of Korean language and history, although we honestly liked exhibits such as the intriguing Turtle Ship. But our appreciation for the significance of the memorial was keen, especially regarding the Korean War. The setting offers plenty of peace and quiet for prayer (right). Much-bigger-than-life statuary dominates the foreground of the museum. We liked The Brothers (above). It's a poignant symbol of the Korean War. The description posted near the installation puts it this way: "The upper part of the statue depicts a scene where a family's older brother, a ROK officer, and his younger brother, a North Korean soldier, meet in a battlefield and express reconciliation, love, and forgiveness." The fact that the ROK soldier outranks and is older than the soldier from the North is probably unimportant. It's still a moving image. What hugs remain in the future?

REMEMBERED, AND TREASURED: A large part of the memorial was devoted to the many thousands who died in the Korean War, fighting for the ROK or on behalf of the United Nations (meaning, for the most part, the United States). As we walked by the plaques, we came across the panels that included names of American dead. Workers were applying beeswax to the surface of the plaques to help protect the names from the elements (above). One of the workers told me they do it every four years.
When we came to the Connecticut listings we spotted the entry for Lt. Peter Bowen Richardson of Woodstock, a relative (right). It's a tough thing to look at. I had met his dad and know his sister. He was the nephew of Dorothy Richardson Lincoln, whose work with World War One blind soldiers has garnered my attention. While it was sobering to gaze on the name, it was some comfort to know that officials at the memorial are doing what they can to preserve the memory of each soldier and present them in a moving setting.

STILL WORKING THE CHOPSTICKS: Sandy snuck this photo while we had lunch today at the Grand Hyatt. The meal was a delightful Hainanese chicken, with a trio of sauces for mixing. I think they were chilli, mustard and soy. We hadn't used chopsticks for a while, but, like riding a bicycle, it all came back quickly. it was a welcome meal after an overnight flight from Singapore [during which I watched part of Anthony Zimmer, the movie that inspired The Tourist. Zimmer, while less flashy, less visual, less star-studded--and less costly--seemed preferable.] I don't look so good in this photo. Bear in mind that this was taken BEFORE my haircut and facial.