See You Later, Kyoto

June 24, 2007

I remember my first morning in Kyoto. It was more than five years ago, when I first came over to Japan for study abroad. The night before, I had been so tired and scared that I had locked myself in my hotel room and gone to sleep immediately. I woke up the next morning at 2 a.m., watched Japanese TV – of which I didn’t understand a word, and waited for the sun to rise. Around 6 a.m., I hesitantly ventured out into daylight.

The Higashiyama hills, vibrant with the morning sun’s rays, greeted me. I strolled along the picturesque Sosui canal, venturing over to Heian Shrine. I was stunned by its magnificent orange and green paint. This is Japan! I thought. It was love at first sight.

Like any long-term relationship, I outgrew the honeymoon phase. I went to work in the “real world” in two ultra-conservative work environments: the government and a 117-year old hotel. I got annoyed with the bureaucratic, inhuman aspects of this society – the facades of politeness that greeted me at every store, every office, everywhere. Once I understood Japanese well enough to watch TV, I realized most of the shows were about as unfunny and uninteresting as watching plants grow. As a foreigner, I grew isolated – not quite fitting in with the NOVA English teachers but never really accepted by my Japanese friends either. It seemed both groups just couldn’t comprehend the idea of a foreigner in Japan who spoke Japanese and understood Japanese culture. In other words, my relationship with Japan soured. I wanted out and I decided to go back home, to the US.

With not even two weeks left in Japan, I decided to make a final trip to Kyoto, to take care of a few chores and to say goodbye. I had anticipated the trip, but oddly, when I stepped off the train from Nagoya, I felt no grand feelings of “I’m back!” Walking through Kyoto Station felt too natural for that. My instincts took over and I only thought of the logistics – find a coin-operated locker, find my exit, buy a bottle of water. Perhaps thinking of only the mundane is the mark of a true resident.

I stayed at a guesthouse, Waraku-an, on Marutamachi-Higashioji, directly behind Heian Shrine. A remodeled machiya, Waraku-an reminded me of my own machiya that I had lived in only a few months ago. It seems like more time has passed since then. At the time, I had a routine. Wake up, get dressed, go to work, come home, cook dinner, take a shower, go to sleep. I rarely stopped to realize that I lived in such a perfect house, as decrepit and rodent-infested as it was.

This morning, I woke up early by no fault of mine; the other girl in my room was noisily packing her bags. As Japan is now in its rainy season, many of the flowers at Heian Shrine are in bloom. On a whim, I decided to visit. Again, I walked along the edge of the Sosui canal. Again, the sun shined brilliantly behind the eastern mountains. Again, I washed my hands at the shrine and heard the gravel crunch under my feet. I paid my admission and looked around the garden, the irises and lotuses in full bloom, the hydrangeas just past their prime. It only struck me on the return to my guesthouse how things had come full circle in such an unexpected, unplanned way.

Now, as I begin canceling my credit cards and making arrangement for my pension refund, I remember my life in Japan as beautiful and hazy, like a 1940s movie star during her close-up scene. I can remember only the good, and the bad seems as inconsequential as a mosquito bite. Endings can do that, I suppose. I have a lot of regrets, too. Why didn’t I appreciate it more? Why did I choose to stay in a job that wasn’t right for me, not once, but two times? Could I have done something differently to make it work?

I hope that this is merely a “Kyoto, see you later,” and not “goodbye.” Not because I love Kyoto and could probably be happy living here for the rest of my life. But, because there are temples left to visit, markets to shop at, festivals to attend, cafes to try. I feel like I didn’t do Kyoto justice the first two times. And they say that the third time is a charm.

Meiji Mura

June 20, 2007

What happens when Japanese cities and prefectures decide they don’t want their historical buildings anymore?

They get sent to an orphanage. No, really. They get dismantled piece by piece and sent to Meiji Mura, in Aichi prefecture, about 1.5 hours away from Shin’s house in eastern Nagoya. For those who are behind on their modern Japanese history, the Meiji era lasted from 1868 to 1919. It was a time when Japan completely flip-flopped from a dying feudal system to a country scrambling to modernize or face the consequences of colonialism, as many of its Asian neighbors already had. Brick buildings, steam engines, Western furniture and dress, and curry rice took the country by storm, and Japan prospered.

Japan is a country that resists change. But, when the pressure’s on, Japan is a country that can change as fast as a chameleon. What happened during the Meiji era would happen again once or twice more in the 20th century. Somewhere along the line, those stately brick buildings, those stone hotels, those Japanese tea houses, those steel bridges went out of vogue. Cities and prefectures see their maintenance as a budget-eating nuisance. Many of them are designated as Important Cultural Properties, which makes their upkeep even more expensive. These buildings are timepieces, but they’re a burden.

That’s where Meiji Mura comes in. Run by the Meitetsu Group, the same Goliath that owns department stores anddsc03162.jpg railroads, Meiji Mura does not bill itself as a theme park, although its grounds are on that scale. It is a museum, for buildings, paintings, utensils, china, machines, lighthouses, lamp posts, and many other relics of the Meiji era. Admission is a staggering 1600 yen, or 2200 yen if you include the all-day transportation pass that allows you to ride on an actual steam engine, a trolley, and the very cute maroon buses that run around the park.

Not knowing what to expect, I envisioned a Meiji-era Disney World. I thought there would be a mandatory character show (Admiral Perry and His Singing Black Ships!) or overpriced ice cream cones shaped like a corseted lady. I envisioned souvenir shops and obnoxious loud-speaker ads and jingles. But, no. This place really was like a museum. The quiet was broken in places by atmospheric classical music. Commercialism was kept low-key, perhaps almost too low-key; walking around in the heat, I found myself craving a few more vending machines and snack bars.

Along with your garden variety gimmicks like dressing up in gowns of the era and taking a 19th century style photos, the museum featured one of the most original schemes that I’ve ever seen. At the Uji Yamada post office, formerly outside of Ise Shrine, Japan’s most important shrine, currently one of the showpieces of the museum, visitors can mail letters and packages, and also access their postal savings accounts. In addition, they can also write a postcard to themselves, which the Meiji Mura post office keeps for ten years and then mails back to them.  At Meiji Mura, they obviously like the whole time capsule theme.

dsc03127.jpgThe museum showcased a wide variety of buildings, really enabling me to get a picture of what a typical Meiji Era street might have looked like. Three kinds of churches – from a soaring cathedral to a house of worship that looked more like a barn, sake breweries, private residences – both Japanese and Western, hospitals, schools, post offices, prisons. Even buildings that Japanese emigrants to Hawaii, Brazil, and Seattle lived in, all of the era, of course. Most of the kanji in the museum was written in the childlike font of that time, and backwards from right to left, rather than the opposite in use currently.

Perhaps most astonishing to me was the amount of important buildings in this “orphanage.” The former lobby of the dsc03123.jpgTeikoku Hotel in Tokyo, still one of Japan’s most famous hotels, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself. Decorated with stone, brick, and terracotta facades, the lobby, with its low ceilings, has a dark, cavernous feel, certainly not the style for hotel lobbies these days. Apparently, the Teikoku had intended to completely destroy the old lobby, until conservationists at Meiji Mura stepped in. Two other buildings that knocked me off my socks were the former houses of Japanese literary demagogues Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki, and Koizumi Yakumo. For those that don’t know, Natsume Soseki is such an influential figure in modern Japanese history that he was on the 1000 yen bill. Coincidentally, he and Mori shared the same house, although not at the same time. Meiji Mura also holds the residence of Koizumi Yakumo, known otherwise as Lafcadio Hearn, Japanophile Numero Uno, who not only wrote books about Japan in English, but became famous throughout Japan for his short horror stories and drawings.

dsc03160.jpgI left Meiji Mura with mixed feelings. On the one hand, this museum serves an invaluable purpose in gathering and preserving buildings from one of Japan’s most dynamic and exciting eras. On the other hand, I kept wondering “Why wouldn’t the local authorities want these buildings? Can’t they see the value in having this kind of architecture lining their streets?”

Like cars, cameras, kimono, and Louis Vuitton bags, no one wants used buildings. Meiji Mura houses the fortunate ones. How many others must have met their final resting place in a junk yard somewhere, casualties of a country obsessed with the shiny and new?

Japanese food is healthy, one of the great myths of this country.

From macrobiotics to The Okinawa Diet Plan, Japanese food is billed as the food that will save your life. Seaweed, fish, soy products, rice, green tea, how many times have we heard of the benefits of consuming these?

At the same time, the Japanese have many startling eating habits that are downright unhealthy.

First, there is no concept of lean or low fat here. While there may be ten different brands of milk on the shelf, perhaps only one of those will be a low fat version. Skim? Don’t make me laugh. Japanese people also eat eggs with abandon. An omelette for breakfast, an egg scrambled into stir-fry, sliced beef dipped in raw egg. There are eggs everywhere! Then there’s the meat. When first learning how to cook chicken, my mom always told me to make sure I cut off all of the fat. Try that here and you’d be cutting for hours. Steaks come lined with half an inch of fat on them. Sliced beef and pork for stir-fries and hotpots consist of mostly fat. And prized Kobe beef, which can run up to $100 for 100 grams (3.5 ounces), makes me nauseous, since there’s so much fat marbled in the flesh.

Second, the Japanese love deep frying. Whereas this form of cooking has become taboo in the States because of its high fat content, the love for dunking things in gallons of hot oil still burns strong in the Land of Rising Cholesterol. Fried chicken, fried pork cutlet, fried oysters, fried tofu, these are especially common menus for children and workers subjected to company cafeterias.

Third, high sodium content. Did you know that, compared to the West, the Japanese have a lower incidence rate for nearly all cancers, except stomach cancer? One of the leading causes of stomach cancer, it is believed, is a diet high in sodium, which the Japanese get plenty of in soy sauce and miso. See here for more info. They tend also to prefer tea over water, which I’m sure doesn’t help in rehydrating.

Fourth, surprisingly, it’s very difficult to eat vegetables unless you make a concerted effort to. In a typical bowl of udon, the only greenery might be a spoonful of green onions or a couple pieces of seaweed. In the US, a sushi set might come with a salad, but this is a convention created to appeal to Western tastes. In Japan, sushi is fish and rice, with maybe a bowl of egg custard to clean the palate. The hamburger you ate for lunch might have come with a leaf of lettuce. A side salad can be constituted as three pieces of iceberg lettuce, some cabbage shavings, and two slices of red onion. And everyone knows the stereotype of how expensive Japanese fruit is. The prohibitive costs of eating fruits and vegetables – both in restaurants and at home – can often make frozen potstickers and croquettes easier on the wallet, not to mention easier to prepare.

Fifth, the Japanese love mayonnaise. As salad dressing, on pizza, on pasta, on omelettes. There are even certain people called mayoraa, a creative Japanese fusion of the words “mayonnaise” and the suffix “er” (i.e. a player being someone who plays, etc.). A mayoraa is not just someone who likes mayonnaise, but who puts its on everything, even on top of white rice. Puke!

Sixth, the Japanese obsess over sweets like I have never before seen. We Americans can hold our own in the doughnut and ice cream department, but the Japanese covet cake, pastries, bread, and chocolates, as demonstrated by walking into any convenience or department store. All-you-can-eat cake buffets are a staple in most nice Japanese hotels and women flock there like, well, kids to a candy store.

Now, many Americans might be asking, if all I eat is fat-free bran crackers and the Japanese are over there pigging out, why is it that we get all of the negative publicity? Why aren’t the Japanese as fat as we are? Simple. They eat less and exercise more. After living in Japan and seeing what most people eat on a day-to-day basis, I’m more convinced than ever the “secret” to staying thin is portion control and exercise. An example: when I first came to Japan, I went to an Italian restaurant called Capricciosa, where I was served a miniscule calzone which I gobbled down in five minutes. Now, five years later, when I go to that very same restaurant, I usually can’t finish my meal. The actual portion size hasn’t changed, but the size of my stomach has. Mind you, a serving of pasta at Capricciosa is about one-third the size of a serving of pasta at The Cheesecake Factory.

In certain slices of the Japanese population, the over sixty crowd, for example, it is still very common to eat a traditional, healthy Japanese diet and get daily exercise. These are the people who live until 113. But give the Japanese one more generation and their life-spans will probably decrease. Give them two generations and who knows? They may even get as fat as Americans.

Okaeri

June 6, 2007

During my time in Southeast Asia, three non-Southeast Asian countries always loomed large in the background, like the shadow of a passing cloud.

One was India. As the birthplace of Buddhism, the religion, architecture, and even food of the region often harks back to this cultural giant. Especially in Thailand and Cambodia, India constantly whispered its influence.

The second was China. Again, religion – Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucist – food, language, architecture. In every country we visited, but especially in Chinese “centers” like Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, we couldn’t escape the colossal influence that this giant has had over all of its neighbors.

But, if India and China are Southeast Asia’s past, it is Japan, the third shadow-country, that Southeast Asia looks to in the present. In Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, there was anime, manga, sushi, ramen, Hello Kitty, Japanese fashions, Japanese make-up, Japanese everything. Made in Japan signs proudly stood outside of trendy stores, and boutiques and nail salons featured Japanese magazines, even though most of clientele were locals who could only look at the pictures.

At the time, this was all very amusing. But, being back in Japan, I admit that I’m now looking at everything with a new appreciation, too.

When I left for Southeast Asia in January, I was burnt out on Japan. Everything about this country annoyed me. Everything was plastic, cheesy, and ugly. Everything was expensive. People were polite only on the surface. But, travel provides perspective. I remember walking on the humid, garbage-lined streets of Phnom Penh, longing for “ugly” Japan, where on a bad day, there may be a few cigarette butts strewn on the sidewalk. After one too many greasy, spicy, peppery meals, I craved the simplicity of udon or rice and miso soup. The Japanese food in Southeast Asia rarely satisfied. It was always missing something. A Japanese waitress or shop clerk would never laugh at the customer. If a guest was checking into a hotel, they wouldn’t wait until the commerical break of the soap opera they were watching to acknowledge your presence. I admit, I was getting tired of Southeast Asia manners.

Although I’ve only been back in Japan for a few days, I realize I’m a much happier person than when I left. For all of its faults, Japan is clean and well organized. Its politicians and government officials are somewhat efficient and, to a certain extent, honest. While the press may practice self-censorship, if I decided to criticize the prime minister or royal family, I could without fear of being throw in prison. I can fill up my water bottle at any faucet and eat food without regretting it the next morning. Most important, I can walk into a bank and open an account, ask about a letter I got regarding my payments to the National Pension, make an airline reservation, explain how I want my hair cut at the salon, request my salad dressing on the side, and, in general, live my life here normally because I speak the language and know the culture.

Travel is great, of course. But, there really is no place like Japan.

On the last days of my trip, I treated myself to a few luxuries.

First, back in March, I got measured for a custom-made suit at Raja’s Tailors, on Sukhumvit Soi 4. Raja’s prides itself on their high-quality English and Italian fabrics and their 43 years of expertise in cutting great suits. Indeed, it seems that every member of the nearby US Embassy staff gets their suits made there. Raja’s has also been recently featured in Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Finally, signed photographs of Bob Hope, Bill Clinton, Bob Kerry, and other eminent figures hang on the wall, attesting to Raja’s slogan that they are the place where “every body recommends.”

With that said, I felt apprehensive trying on my suit. I requested a sleek, streamlined suit that would hug my body. Instead, at my third fitting, when the jacket was nearly complete, I looked bulky. There was about two inhes of extra fabric under my armpits which the eponymous owner-cum-tailor Raja Gulati and his son, Bobby, insisted was normal; I just didn’t feel right. In fact, I think that would sum up the whole experience. While the tailors are apparently famed for remembering every customer’s name the minute he walks through the door, they could barely remember that I was even the customer, at first only addressing or looking at Shin. In addition, their shop was always overrun with the regulars, a good sign in terms of their quality, but who the tailors fell over themselves pleasing, whereas I would be left waiting, ignored, and annoyed. During my fittings, I rarely got anyone but the non-English speaking Thai tailor’s full attention. When I commented that my suit felt big, I was given the age-old line of “we do this everyday, you should trust us,” as if I were too ignorant to know how clothes should fit my body, which I live with everyday.

Raja’s tailors very classic, conservative suits. I wanted something trendy; I ended up with something in the middle, but nevertheless, a very well-tailored suit that will still look great on me. The total cost? A whopping $250, dirt cheap compared to a suit bought in Japan or America, on the cheaper end for suits that Raja’s normally makes, but extremely high-end for Bangkok, where at other inferior tailors, $100 can buy two suits, five shirts, and a few ties.

Luxuries number two and three were a haircut and manicure/pedicure. I got my hair cut at Toni & Guy Essensuals, on the 1st floor of MBK, by a Senior Stylist for $20. While it didn’t come with all the frills I’ve gotten at Japanese salons (head massages, seven shampooings, a bajillion staff loitering about), I still got a great cut, despite the fact that I couldn’t really communicate with the stylist and I only had a vague idea of what I wanted. But, given that this was my first haircut in a year (I know, I know), it felt great taking off three inches of split ends.

The manicure and pedicure cost me $13 at an immaculate salon called Daily Nails in the Ploenchit Center, on Sukhumvit Soi 2. The salon had only recently opened and had all of the latest nail products and doo-dads. I had my nails done while lounging in a massage chair that, after one hour, began to bruise my lower back. Nevertheless, the two “girls” (one was actually a ladyboy) working on my nails were incredibly professional and experienced for Thailand and, for once, I got a mani and pedi that I was actually 100% happy with.

Last but not least, the ultimate luxury, and one which I had absolutely nothing to do with, came last night on the flight from Bangkok to Incheon Airport, where I’m now writing this. We checked in as normal, received our boarding passes as normal, browsed the shops as normal, and then proceeded to the gate where, when we showed our boarding passes to the gate staff, they ripped them up and handed us new ones in seats 1E and 1G. In other words, business class. This was my first time experiencing such a luxury and I was flabbergasted, jubilant, and very smug as I pre-boarded before the hoards of people already thronging the gates.

Business class is every bit as decadent and bougie as it’s made out to be. Of course, we had champagne before take-off. The flight attendants addressed me by name and we had personal TVs with good movies, not films like Spy Kids 2, which I have actually been subjected to once back in cattle-car class. We ordered our entree and drinks like in a restaurant, no beef-or-chicken carts for us, baby! And the meal didn’t come on a tray. Oh no, it came in four courses in fact: salad, appetizer, and bread, main dish, fruit and cheese, and cake. The wine was not only drinkable, it was good, rather than the vinegar-like concoction they try to pass off as wine in economy. And the seats! Seats I will never forget. Roomy, comfortable, fully adjustable, from the recline to the lumbar to the footrest. In the bathroom, amenities like toner, moisturizer, cologne, floss, and disposable toothbrushes sat on the counter, next to a vibrant, purple orchid. It was the only flight I’ve been on that I didn’t want to end.

I’ve been spoiled in the last few days, but in several hours, when I’m back in Japan and have to worry about finding another job, at least I won’t feel so bad, knowing that all of my pampering came at a bargain price.

Yellow Monday

May 30, 2007

Mondays in Bangkok are a sea of yellow Polos. Waiters, taxi drivers, and office workers alike don the ubiquitous shirts to express their love for the king.

The “yellow fever” epidemic began thusly: in Thailand, every day of the week is assigned a color. The king was born on a Monday, therefore Monday’s color is yellow, Thailand’s royal color.

Unlike other modern monarchies where subjects belittle, gossip about, or ignore their royalty, Thais revere their king. This patriotism has increased this year in particular, the sixtieth year of the king’s rule. (Sixty, in Asian cultures, is one of the most important birthdays in a person’s life and so I’m assuming it’s the same with anniversaries, too.)

The king seems immune against the criticism faced by most heads of state (not counting the continuous terrorist attacks in the Muslim south as any kind of direct criticism of the king himself.) Nearly every Thai I have spoken to, from the remote Pai mountains to the tropical Andaman islands, adores the king. Posters of both him and the queen are displayed in shops, hotels, sidewalks, and even the roof of taxis. In Kuala Lumpur, while flipping through our guesthouse’s guestbook, I came across a message from a Thai guest: “Long Live the Thai King!” Last night, we went to see a movie. After the previews, the royal insignia flashed on the screen and an announcement informed us to stand for the national anthem. Images of the king mingling with his people played one after another. Similarly, TV screens at one of Bangkok’s central monorail stations played a national anthem tribute video, as well.

Thailand’s king is revered for many reasons, most of which a casual tourist cannot understand. However, based on gleanings of information that I’ve received from Thais, the King is regarded as a humble, selfless figure, working totally for the benefit his people. Policies that he has enacted have helped to raise many sectors of the Thai population from poverty, encourage modernization, and discourage unhealthy practices in the country. One example comes to mind: the King sponsored an agricultural program to assist Thailand’s northern hilltribes in replacing their major crop from opium to strawberries.

As a cynical American who believes that lampooning our politicians ranks up there with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I wonder at a population that loves its leader this much. However, the Thais prove their sincerity in their devotion and love for the King, when, every Monday, the streets of this city turn into a river of gold.

Joo Chiat Food Tour

May 26, 2007

Last night, we took a food walking tour of the area where we’re staying, Joo Chiat. The owner of our guesthouse, Tony of The Betel Box, acted as our very competent tour guide. As our numbers were small – only four participants – we only got the condensed version of the tour, which still ran over four hours!

The Joo Chiat district is one which few tourists visit. Located in the eastern part of Singapore, the neighborhood is home to much of the country’s Malaysian population. Pastel-painted shophouses line the streets of Joo Chiat Road and, in many ways, it feels like we ended up right back in Penang.

Our tour began with Tony providing a succinct history of the neighborhood. Once an area occupied by Singapore’s indigenous Malay population, Joo Chiat served as the weekend retreat for the country’s early European and wealthy residents. The district grew affluent from coconut plantations and still houses wealthy Singaporeans, the president included (more on that later.)

dsc03111.jpgTaking a ride up the elevator of the Joo Chiat Complex, an apartment building on the north of Joo Chiat Road, we received a bird’s eye view of the neighborhood. Red-roofed shophouses criss-crossed in uneven grids with the apartment complexes that dominate Singapore’s landscape. Tony explained that land prices in this area are on par with London, and that a dilapidated, run-down shophouse can start at around $1 million SGD. Given this, most Singaporeans live in apartments like the one we visited.

After our orientation, the gorging began. We started with curry puffs. A yellow crust covered a mixture of curried mutton, potatoes, and vegetables. While the curry filling was wonderful, I appreciated the different textures best: the crispy, flaky crust, the chewy mutton, the soft potato. We got two curry puffs each, a flat, patty-like puff and a soft roll.

Moving on, we stopped for Peranakan-style dumplings at Kim Choo, where they specialize in sticky rice-based snacks and desserts, with adsc03114.jpg variety of different fillings. While I enjoyed the sticky rice coating, some of the fillings I didn’t warm to immediately, for example spicy dried shrimp paste or sickly sweet coconut sugar. We also tried otah-otah, a neighborhood specialty, which I can only describe as spicy mackerel steamed in banana leaves. According to Tony, they go great with a cold beer.

Passing some tempting Chinese seafood and Nonya restaurants, we arrived at our next destination, Just Greens, a place specializing in vegetarian Chinese. This may seem like an oxymoron to most Americans, whose image of Chinese food is spicy kung pao chicken or succulent pork ribs. Given that one of China’s major religions in Buddhism, however, vegetarian Chinese food really isn’t that odd. Just Greens’ specialty is not only veggies and tofu, they also cook up faux animal products, like the cashew “chicken” and deep-fried ”shrimp” that we ate. To be honest, I’m not a fan of fake foods. I don’t like fat-free ice cream or Diet Coke or baked potato chips, and I especially hate soy-based dairy and meat products. While the sauces, veggies, and tofu at Just Greens were really fresh and flavorful, I just couldn’t stomach the rubbery shrimp, especially after Tony told us that they use all kinds of chemicals to produce the shrimpy taste and texture. Nevertheless, it was an altogether new Chinese dining experience for me.

By this time, our guts were bursting. Between two curry puffs and five sticky rice dumplings each, and five shared Chinese veggie dishes, we had eaten a day’s worth of food in one meal. But the adventure wasn’t over. Waddling down the streets of Joo Chiat, Tony took us to a Eurasian museum that highlights who these people are and the role that they have played in Singapore’s society. Descended from, you guessed it, European and Asian parentage, the Eurasians add another dimension to Joo Chiat’s cultural mix, with many still celebrating traditions and eating foods that their English, Portuguese, Dutch, and, of course, Singaporean ancestors did. Like a similiar community in Malacca, they also speak their own unique language, Kristang, although I imagine it wouldn’t be very widely spoken.

Before heading over to the Dunman Food Centre for dessert, we passed the president of Singapore’s house. And guess what? He was at home, sitting in his den on the second floor, reading, as he often does, Tony told us, in a white wife-beater. Now, when I tell you we passed the president’s house, perhaps you’ll imagine a sprawling estate with armed guards flanking an impenetrable iron gate. But, no. His was an unassuming, two-story house, with a small driveway, only yards from the road, with one guard standing at attention in a booth. I could never imagine any American president living so close to ordinariness. There was something really appealing and refreshing about walking by the head of state as he sat around the house in a wife-beater.

dsc03115.jpgOn to Ken’s Delights for a dessert of various shaved ices. We played musical sweets, passing around bowls of shaved ice with various fruit toppings and fillings like coconut milk, condensed milk, sago (like tapioca) pearls, etc. My favorites were the soursop with longan and honeydew with sago.

Last but not least, we partied at a local bar, 57 Chevy, on East Coast Road. Owned by a Eurasian, the bar features live music on most nights. Tony told us that on some nights, a Filipino guy performs Indian Bollywood music, expertly singing both the male and female parts. Besides the Bollywood music and friendly, local atmosphere, 57 Chevy’s other draw is country line dancing. About seven middle-aged ladies dominated the floor, line dancing to country songs that I had never even heard of. I had to pause for a moment and appreciate the irony that the first country line-dancing bar I’d even been to was in Southeast Asia.

With stomachs at the bursting point, we tripped back to the guesthouse, with Tony pointing out all of the neighborhood highlights that we had unfortunately missed, such as the board game café, where patrons can choose between 100 games, and the places we had fortunately missed, like the bakery specializing in durian puffs. (Durians, for those who aren’t in the know, are cantaloupe-sized, spiky fruits that smell like decaying roadkill and have a creamy texture.)

Overall, a delicious evening that will stay with me for a long time, mostly around the stomach and hips.

There are two kinds of travelers: those who like Singapore and those who don’t. I, for one, like Singapore.

The detractors say Singapore has become too sterile, gentrified, Westernized, draconian. Taking an informal walking tour of Chinatown yesterday, I can understand their point. Once the heartland for Singapore’s overwhelmingly Chinese population, the district now feels like an EPCOT showpiece. With brightly colored cookie and tea shops lining the street, stereotypical Chinese red lanterns crisscrossing overhead, and more foreign tourists than actual Singaporeans browsing through cheesy chinoiserie like silk placemat sets and your-name-written-in-Chinese-character posters, the place has lost the distinctly chaotic but colorful atmosphere exuded by most living Chinatowns.

Singapore also has a bad rap for its harsh laws against relatively pedestrian crimes. We’ve all heard about the country’s infamous chewing gum ban or 1994 caning of American Michael Fay for vandalism. The Singaporean government frowns upon anything disordered, from crummy buildings in the city center to jaywalking.

Nevertheless, I like it here. The streets are relatively litter-free and well-tended landscaping lines the sidewalk. In little Singapore where land is scarce, most people live in apartment blocks. However, the buildings wear a fresh coat of paint, parks and greenery are interspersed between complexes, flyers advertising community activities lie in neat rows on local bulletin boards, and, in general, the neighborhoods seems less bleak than similar set-ups in Japan or America. Most people dress well, if a bit unexcitingly, and I haven’t seen any beggars or homeless people since I’ve been here.

With that said, Singaporeans share two of my passions: shopping and eating. From food courts to trendy cafes, the choice of delicious food is endless. Yesterday, we tried to eat lunch at a hawker center in Chinatown. Browsing the aisles, savoring a visual feast of spicy bowls of noodles, rice porridge with arrays of side dishes, steamed dumplings, curries, we actually left because choosing only one seemed an impossible task. The plague of the indecisive.

And that’s just the local food. Besides that, there’s also the chic restaurants featuring nouveau Japanese, gourmet dim sum, Vietnamese fusion, Italian, barbeque ribs. Most five-star hotels lure sugar-hungry customers with high tea buffets, featuring curries, puffs, pastries, cakes, tarts, and, of course, tea.

Finally, there’s the shopping. Starting on Friday, the country will break into shopping fever with their annual Great Singapore Sale, two months of glorious consumerism. Almost everything on the island goes on sale, it seems, and shoppers come from all across Asia. They can choose between the shopping malls every mile or so around the city, or if that’s still too inconvenient, flock to Orchard Road where, for a mile, every building on both sides of the street is either a five-floor shopping mall or an international class four- or five-star hotel. Some may call it excessive; I call it a challenge.

On the agenda for tomorrow: I’m hitting the pre-sale sales in part one of a two-part shopping bacchanal. Given my propensity for walking away when faced with the pressure to choose, I figured it was probably best to give myself two opportunities to restock my wardrobe.

At least that’s how I’m justifying it.

In four months, I have been to twenty-two beaches in four countries.

In the guidebooks and on internet forums, it’s easy to find information on beaches in one particular country. I would estimate that half of the posts in Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum go to discussing which Thai island or beach provides the perfect strip of sand. Still, it was a challenge finding international comparisons. Yes, Thailand’s west coast beaches are glorious, but how do they compare to Vietnam’s? When the Cambodia guidebook says so-and-so beach has fine water, do they mean in comparison to the Cambodian coast or to every beach that particular author has ever been to?

From the first moment my toes hit the sand, I began comparing. I wanted to decide absolutely and without prejudice (okay, maybe a little prejudice) where the best beach in Southeast Asia was.

I’ve ranked beaches according to three factors: Water, Sand, and Atmosphere, with 1 being the worst and 5 being the best. I’ve also written the time of visit, as things can change depending on the monsoons. For the best overall beach, you’ll have to read towards the end.

Vietnam: Phu Quoc Island (February 2007)

pq-long.jpgLong Beach
Water:3 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 4
Phu Quoc’s “main strip” where all of the hotels and restaurants are located. For being the most built-up beach on the island, it was extremely quiet and relaxing. Calm waters with the occasional jellyfish. Coarse, shell-less sand squeaked under my feet whenever I walked on it.

Sao Beach
Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 5
An hour motorbike ride away from Long Beach down red, dusty road, this beach was worth the trip. Gloriously isolated, except for two restaurants serving fresh, cheap, and the most delicious seafood on the island, Sao is surrounded by green hills. There was no boat traffic in the bay at all.

Cambodia: Sihanoukville (March 2007)

sihanoukville.jpgSerendipity Beach
Water: 2 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 1
Had the water and sand not been filled with garbage, this beach might have gotten a better score. Combined with the nearly constant flow of beach vendors trying to sell you everything including the kitchen sink if they could carry it on their heads, this beach gets my vote as worst in Southeast Asia.

 Thailand (April 2007)

Railey: Phra Ngan
Water: 4 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3phra-ngan-railey.jpg
Glorious green water, clean sand, dramatic cliffs on the one hand, and on the other, kids trying to sell you cold beers every two minutes and hundreds of sunburnt Europeans.  The beach is best before 10:00 a.m., where you can savor all of the former without all of the latter.

Railey West
Water: 2.5 Sand: 2.5 Atmosphere: 2.5
Went here for about ten minutes. Didn’t like it. Went back to Phra Ngan. Everything is twice as expensive as Railey East.

Phi Phi: Long Beach
Water: 3.5 Sand: 2.5 Atmosphere: 3
Rough waves combined with dead coral on the beach made for an uncomfortable beach-going experience. The morning, with less crowds, less longtails, and calmer seas, was much more pleasant.

Phi Phi: Tonsai
Water: 4 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 1
Muddy sand littered with broken beer bottles.  Crowded and constantly filled with the sound of longtails.

pp-monkey.jpgPhi Phi: Monkey
Water: 4 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 3.5
Visited on a snorkeling trip, this beach had truly stunning turquoise waters made a bit milky because of the rough surf. Great snorkeling offshore. Too bad the beach was lined with boats from other snorkeling trips.

Lanta: Klong Dao
Water: N/A Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
Approaching the monsoon season, this beach was very quiet and the waves were rough. Tacky restaurants line the beach, most of whose menus didn’t look very appealing at all.

lanta.jpgLanta: Kantiang Bay
Water: 2 Sand: 3 Atmosphere: 3.5
Billed as one of the best beaches in Lanta, this beach disappointed. Muddy sand, murky waters, and a rough tide. However, development was pretty inconspicuous, with trees surrounding most of the bay.


Lanta: Koh Rok

Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 2/5
We visited Koh Rok on a snorkeling trip. Hands down, these two little islands provided the best snorkeling I had in Southeast Asia. Thekoh-rok.jpg beaches were superb as well. One drawback was that all of the snorkeling trips docked at the same time and same location, hogging up precious beach space and making for a loud, obnoxious time. However, walking a little ways away over a cluster of rocks, I found a lovely, deserted beach. The trip cost a whopping 1300 baht, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.

koh-kradan.jpg

Lanta: Koh Kradan
Water: 3.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 2/4.5
Again, I visited Koh Kradan for only about an hour on a snorkeling trip, with very much the same situation as Koh Rok. Glorious beach marred by too many boats. Going further down the shore where there were less people paid off again. The sea here was a bit rocky, with leaves floating on the water.

Lipe: Sunlight
Water: 4.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere 4.5
Gorgeous water, soft sand, longtails parked all along the shore, lined with ratty-looking restaurants and bungalows. Decent snorkeling just a few hundred yards offshore.

lipe-pattaya.jpgLipe: Pattaya
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 4
The crystal-clear water and powdery sand was unluckily spoiled by trash and debris from a big storm a few nights before. The high tide made sitting on the shore difficult. While development in the central beach area looked run-down, the farthest ends of the beach looked a bit better.

Malaysia (May 2007)

Perhentian Besar: Perhentian Island Resort
Water: 5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 4.5
In particular, the west end of the bay, closest to the jetty, provided the most paradise-like beaches, with huge boulders and jungle framing sky-blue waters and powdery sand. The only drawback to this beach was the obstructive jetty and the occasional boat traffic. Good snorkeling, too.

per-mamas.jpgPerhentian Besar: Western shore by Mama’s
Water: 3 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 3
This beach is unsuitable for swimming because of all the dead coral. The bungalows lining the shore were pretty lowkey. I rarely saw people swimming or sunbathing on this beach.

Perhentian Besar: Western shore by Abdul’s
Water: 4 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
Nicer beach than Mama’s, with less coral. However, there were still rocks in the water. With the construction of a new jetty, the atmosphere was less-than-idyllic.

Perhentian Besar: Telek KK
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atsmophere: 5
Deserted beach on the southwestern shore. Clear, calm waters interrupted occasionally by boat traffic.

per-turtle.jpgPerhentian Besar: Turtle Beach
Water: 4.5 Sand: 5 Atmosphere: 4.5
The mingling of the fresh water stream on the beach with the salt water caused strange things to happen to the water here. While turquoise and clear, the water on the eastern half of the beach looked blurry, for lack of a better term. Still gorgeous though. Coming to this beach is luck of the draw, however; when I arrived, it was deserted. When I left, I left with five other boats, each carrying three to four people per.

Perhentian Kecil: Long Beach
Water: 5 Sand: 4 Atmosphere: 3
Beautiful water and coarse sand. This beach would be perfect if the development weren’t so haphazard and ugly.

Perhentian Kecil: Aur (Coral) Bay
Water: 3 Sand: 2 Atmosphere: 4
Although the water was clear and blue, dead coral and broken shells littered the shoreline, making for a painful swim. The bungalows were more low-key than Long Beach and the offshore snorkeling was good, too

Tioman: Air Batang and Pernuba Bay
Water: 3 Sand: 3.5 Atmosphere: 3
The coarse, golden sands on these beaches make the otherwise clear waters a softer, grayer blue than the island’s cousins to the north, the Perhentians. Rocky and shelly in some places, the southern end of the beach is the only place suitable for swimming. Bungalows and restaurants are cheap and low-key, although the power lines and empty pipes on the side of the road detract from the atmosphere.

Okay so after reading thus far, the top three beaches in Southeast Asia are:

3. Perhentian Island Resort, Perhentian Besar, Malaysia

2. Koh Rok, Thailand

1. Sao Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

pq-sao.jpg


La Vida Isla

May 17, 2007

Back to la vida isla. The splash of waves on the shore. Seafood barbeques. Water like glass. Bugs everywhere. The constant coconut smell of sunscreen. Double-priced sundries. Quadruple-priced internet.

This time we’re marooned on the Perhentian islands. Comprised of two islands, Besar (Big) and Kecil (Small), they are compact, idyllic, and very unlike their Thai counterparts. Shockingly, tourists actually come here to unwind, rather than to get drunk. This is due mostly to the conservative Muslim bent found in the Terrengannu state where the Perhentians are located; alcohol is rarely served and even when on offer, is expensive. Families – both foreign and Malaysian – flock here for good, wholesome fun: diving, snorkeling, canoeing, and swimming in the gorgeous ocean. Although there is a generous sampling of teeny, weenie bikinis on Kecil’s Long Beach, more often than not, Malaysian women swim fully clothed, sometimes even with makeshift headscarves for the water. At night, the only entertainment is eating. After dinner, it’s good, old-fashioned reading or conversation.

After much deliberation on which island to base ourselves, we decided on the western shore of Besar. Perhaps I’ve been traumatized by Bob Marley constantly on loop in every restaurant, bar, and bungalow reception area on every island in the Andaman sea, but I wanted to escape the reputed backpacker scene on Kecil. I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

Pros for the western shore of Besar: it’s quiet and development here is organic. There are no gaudy restaurants or beach umbrellas lining the shore. You can read a book and not be bothered too much by the buzz-saw of motorboat engines. The best beach on the Perhentians, the beach in front of the Perhentian Island Resort, is a short, easy ten-minute walk away.

Cons: there’s not much going on before or after dark, food tends to be slightly expensive, the bay in front of our hotel is littered with broken coral and shells, redering it unswimmable.

On a day trip, we cruised over to Kecil to see what we were missing. The atmosphere was definitely different.

The pros of Long Beach were: great beach, with, shallow, aqua waters and no coral. Cheaper food. More things to do – plenty more restaurants and mini marts, a batik-making class, movie nights, etc.

Cons: The development on Long Beach is pretty ugly. There’s not too much of it (especially compared with Koh Phi Phi or Koh Lanta), but it’s just haphazard and in various states of completion. A more heterogeneous crowd of young, white Westerners.

Finally, we visited Aur (Coral) Bay on Kecil’s west coast, a ten-minute walk from Long Beach. This would probably be the happy medium between Besar and Long Beach. The bungalows weren’t as obtrusive, the scene more laid-back. The half-dozen restaurants and shops were cheap. The beach wasn’t as great, with broken coral lining the shore, but the snorkeling off-shore wasn’t bad either.

dsc02973.jpgOverall, I’m glad we stayed at Besar for one reason: access to some stunning beaches. Firstly, the beach at the Perhentian Island Resort. I thought that this was the best beach on the entire island. Pristine, powdery sand, 100% crystal clarity water, and only mildly crowded. Plus, a quick swim only fifty yards offshore brought us to a living coral reef where I saw a plethora of fish and where Shin even saw turtles, stingrays, and sharks. About a thirty-minute walk in the other direction from our guesthouse, Mama’s Place, was a relatively deserted and very pretty beach, the name of which escapes me now. (It was the bay closest to the west from Flora.) A quick hop away on a water taxi or longer paddle via sea kayak was the dazzling Turtle Beach. Deserted when we arrived, we were given free reign of the cove’s turquoise waters and good snorkeling. There’s even a freezing, fresh water stream that cuts down the east side of the beach. For one hour, we indulged in Robinson Crusoe fantasies, before four other boats pulled into the bay and our solitude was ruined. Still, it was a beautiful beach.

Our guesthouse, Mama’s, was okay, but the disorganization and overcharging involved in getting our onward transportation arranged left a bad taste in my mouth. Speaking of bad tastes, the food wasn’t great either. Watercolors Resort next door picked up the slack in that department, especially with the yummy pizzas and pasta, but I’m not sure what their chalets are like. The barbeque at the Coral View Resort was nice and a good value for two people at 30 RM for fish and squid, including drinks. Word to the wise: bring insect repellant. None of the rooms that we saw anywhere had mosquito screens or mosquito nets, which leaves you with only two choices: keep the windows shut and swelter in your room, or open them and live with the mosquitoes, ants, spiders, and palmetto bugs.

Tomorrow, we have a dreaded night bus ride before arriving at our last stop in Malaysia, Tioman Island, better known to musical buffs as South Pacific’s Bali Hai.