Friday, December 5, 2014

Visiting Singapore

From Manila I caught the relatively short flight over to Singapore on Sunday. I had an interview there on the Monday, but was planning to spend the week, explore the country, and have a few other meetings while I was at it.

I arrived at Changi Airport mid-afternoon. Singaporeans seem pretty proud of this airport, and it is really rather good. From touching down to getting your bags and out the door all in 20 minutes. It took me longer though, because I had to get a SIM card and catch a shuttle to my hotel. 

I was staying for the first night at the St. Regis, complements of the company I was meeting with. It wasn't highly rated on TripAdvisor, but I was quite happy with it. The rooms were very small, but they had done a terrific job of designing them, and bringing some of the bathroom into the room with the bed, so that they felt larger than they were. The only challenge was when I went to turn on the shower, didn't notice that the nozzle was pointing into the room, and happened to spray a large portion of my room.

Just across the street from the hotel.

Singapore is a fascinating place. It has boomed over the past decade and is now the undisputed non-Chinese centre of commerce for SE Asia. It's just a small island nation, with 5 million inhabitants. But of those 5 million, 1 million are expats, bringing business and money to the city. The city is clean and modern. I used to read a lot of criticism of it being the most boring place in the world, (see William Gibson in '93) but I get the sense that it's scope has expanded so much lately that this critique no longer applies.  Although, when compared to the regions other options, like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, or Jakarta, maybe boring and clean isn't such a bad thing.

Singapore is also extremely expensive. Particularly when you're traveling on a budget, as I've been doing, so my hotel and dining options had to take that into account. My Monday meetings went well, but I tend not to write much about those here. After them I checked out of my hotel and moved to a more affordable place. I had found Singapore's The Pod boutique hotel online and was intrigued by the idea. I checked in and got my pod, an upper bunk in a room with a 5 x 2 stack of rooms. Eight single beds and two queens. The hotel seemed to have three floors of these rooms, with a few rooms on each floor. Each pod had a bed, electrical outlets and lighting, with nice shared shower facilities down the hall. It also had free laundry facilities, and one piece of free drycleaning each day.

The Pods were actually pretty nice. And after a day of sweating walking around this always hot city they were rather pleasant to come back and crash into. They didn't seem too small, until you woke up in the middle of the night and had your worst being-buried-alive-in-a-coffin dreams come true. Very Kill Bill 2.

Comfortable pods. Not too small.
Overall, the Pod hotel was not a bad option for a single traveller on a budget. Breakfast was included, but was disappointing, but overall this was a decent way to visit a pricey city.

Dining in Singapore is terrific, if you've got the wallet for it. There are beautiful restaurants all over the city with any kind of cuisine you might want. Of course, I didn't have the wallet, but the options were still pretty good, because Singapore prides itself on its food hawker centres. These are sort of food court buildings all over town that house dozens of mini-food stalls. I hit a few of these while in town, with varied results.

On my third day in town I visited Tian Tian Chicken Rice in the Maxwell Food Centre. This is one of Singapore's most famous hawker stalls. The one Anthony Bourdain visited when he was writing about hawker markets. And they serve Chicken Rice, which seems to be Singapore's signature dish. Just rice and chicken, with the chicken broth poured over it. Bourdain said it was about the best thing ever. I stood in the long line and got myself some. I found it cold, somewhat flavourless, and disappointing. Oh well.

Tian Tian Chicken Rice


On one of my days in the city I decided to visit the botanical gardens. It's always hot in Singapore. Since it's right on the equator the temperature never really varies from a humid 30 degrees all year. But the gardens are a beautiful oasis in this city. They've been there for over a century, originally being what appears to have been a British colonial pasttime. This is wonderful, because there are some truly ancient trees, lovely lakes and spectacular flower gardens throughout this 74 hectare park. It was easily accessible from the city centre via bus, and once inside it the noise of the city quickly fades away. Apparently it's open early in the morning too, so it is likely a beautiful place to go for a run if you can get there before it heats up.

Giant ancient trees in the Botanical Gardens.

Within the Botanical garden is Singapore's orchid garden. There's a small fee to enter, but it's absolutely worthwhile to view the hundreds of orchids on display. Frankly, you can get a little orchid'd out, and it can become difficult to tell one from another, but it's a wonderful place to walk through. They've been hybridizing orchids here for a very long time, and there's a VIP section for special orchids named after visiting politiicians, and a celebrity section for hybrids celebrating film and music star visitors. There's also a climate controlled orchid room with the densest collection of special breeds, which is wonderful just to have a slightly cooler experience.

I have hundreds of orchid photos from this place. They all look essentially the same, and my iPhone 4 doesn't do a great job of capturing them.

Singapore's orchid garden.

Orchids, orchids and more orchids.
On another day I did the tourist bus tour around the city. I used to look down on these buses, but I've come to accept them as a good way to get an overview of a city and figure out where I want to go and what I want to do. Singapore's bus tour was well worth-while, although getting a seat in the shade is important if you aren't ready to get roasted.

Doing the bus tour I realized that there's only so much to see and do here. It's a beautiful place. Clean. Incredibly safe. Lots of interesting neighborhoods. But it's also a fairly small place, and by the time I did the tour I'd already seen most of the things worth seeing. Maybe this is why one of the most positive things that everyone points to about Singapore is how central it is to getting to everywhere else in SE Asia. Everyone seems eager to get away for quick weekend jaunts on the local low-cost airlines.

Raffles hotel - Home of dramatically overprices Singapore Slings.
Impressive skyline. New CBD all lumped together.

Parliament in front. Business in back.

Without a doubt, the most impressive building in this city is the Singapore Marina Bay Sands hotel. Built in 2010, this is the world's most expensive building. I had heard prices ranging from $7B to $4.7B - Perhaps the former was Sing dollars. Either way, this place is simply amazing. Colleen and I had watched a documentary about its construction about 6 months before I visited, so it was great to see it in person. Unfortunately, since she wasn't with me, I decided to not go to the top, where there's a pool and a lounge. I had to save something for when we visit together.

This hotel was crazy expensive to develop, but I also heard that it broke even after only one year in operation, because, in addition to the hotel and the huge shopping mall, there's a very large casino in the basement across the street. And this casino has been brilliant at bringing the the Chinese tourist dollars. I paid the casino a visit, but didn't play. One very intersting fact about the casino - I was able to enter and exit for free as a foreign tourist, just by showing my passport, whereas locals had to pay $100 to enter. So Singapore is quite happy to take foreign gambling money, but discourages its own citizens from playing. Kinda clever.

Like orchids, I took way too many photos of the Marina Bay Sands. A beautiful building.
Right behind the hotel is a hundred+ hectare garden called the Gardens by the Bay. It's a sprawling manufactured forest, with paved trails going all over it. When I visited, in the late afternoon, it was very busy with runners and families out for a walk. Within the Gardens are two very unique, and I'd argue quite spectacular, glass buildings containing demonstration gardens. There's the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. After a quick review of online commentary I chose to visit the Cloud Forest. which simulated the flora at varying heights up a tropical mountainside. While there were lots of lovely flowers, there wasn't a great narrative to what was on display, and it was kind of confusing. The architecture is magnificent, and what's in the building is worth seeing, but it was still a bit of a let down.

Orchids in the Cloud Forest.

Interior of Cloud Forest building.
I'm glad I'd visited Singapore. I had considered living there, and would still entertain the possibility more than any other SE Asian city. It's completely different from anywhere I've ever been. Yes, it's a little sterilized, controlled, and perhaps lacks drama. But it also seems like it could be a very nice place to settle down for awhile, assuming one could afford it. It was a worthwhile visit.

Next stop - the polar opposite. Cambodia.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A week in San Juan, La Union

The trip to San Juan was in interesting one. The El Nido airport is a 20 minute tricycle ride out from the town. It's a small airport with an open waiting area, but it's quite nice. And the flight over to Manila's domestic airport is beautiful, flying over dozens of pristine looking islands.

Upon landing in Manila the airline put us into a lounge, with pretty good food, while we waited for our bags to be unloaded. This was a nice touch that I've never seen elsewhere.

A cab ride over to the bus depot, and a short wait, and I was on the bus to San Juan. It's not very far to get there. Under 300 km. But Filipino traffic is terrible, and it take 7 or 8 hours to get there. I think you just have to put it out of your mind and focus on something else.

I wanted the proper surf vacation experience, so I'd booked a room in a dorm at a hostel called Flotsam & Jetsam. (They had other room options, including an RV, which I thought was pretty amazing.) I got to the hostel and was immediately taken in by the experience. They were wonderfully welcoming, and it was a super chilled-out place. I arrived on the Sunday, when they were wrapping up from the weekend. Apparently it's not a huge place for international tourists, and most of their business came from Filipinos from Manila coming up on the weekend, so it had emptied out and I had the place largely to myself. But the staff, the owners and friends were still around. That first evening a music session broke out, with one of the managers, a guy who owns a coffee shop down the street, and an American woman who is friends with the group playing folk music. It was pretty wonderful.

Flotsam & Jetsam was a great place to stay for the week. The rooms were pretty basic, but the beds were comfortable and the space was clean. The breakfasts were simple, but there was lots of good coffee and bread and fruit. They did a very nice job with the dinners. And their bar served good drinks at a very reasonable price. It's a few minutes to walk over to the primary beach, but not too far.  They have an adorable dog named Gus Gus. I'd recommend it for anyone going to San Juan.

The following day I had my first surf lesson. One of the team at F&J had set me up with an instructor named Chris. I won't go into depth about my lessons, other to say that I'm a pretty poor surfer. The first day was surfing in the whitewater, after the waves had broken. I did ok at that. The next day was heading out to the line-up and trying to catch waves properly. I wasn't hopeless, and I caught a few, but I wasn't good at all.

I suspect that have my challenge isn't in the surfing, but in getting to the surf. I'm not much of a swimmer. In my head swimming is an exercise to prevent drowning. It isn't something that I enjoy at all. I sink. And so I find swimming pretty stressful. And the thing about surfing is that once you go down, you've got to battle your way out, heading out through the impact zone, with the waves trying to beat you up all the time. When you combine my stressiness around swimming with having to make my way out after each attempted ride, it's an exhausting situation. So while I enjoy the surfing, the work around it becomes pretty unpleasant, and it's not a good tradeoff.

On my third day there I called Chris to find out what time we were starting and he said the waves were just too big for us to give it a try. They had been a very good size the day before, so if he didn't think it was a good idea to go out I was happy to comply. I ended up having a nice relaxing day.

The next day unfortunately the waves were just too big for a lesson again. I didn't feel like hanging out again, so I broke out the guidebook, which said that Vigan, about 140 km to the north, was a place not to be missed. I asked how long it would take to get there, and was told to take a tricylcle to San Fernando, just to the south, and then catch a bus from there up, which should be a couple of hours. This turned out to be some pretty poor advice for two reasons. One, you can just catch a bus in front of the hostel, you don't need to go to San Fernando. Two, the bus takes closer to four hours. Oh well, just another travel adventure.

To be honest, Vigan was a little disappointing. Yes, it has some of the last remaining colonial architecture left in the Philippines, after most classical buildings were destroyed in WWII, but it's terribly worn down. And there are really just a couple of streets of it. I think the highlight was being able to walk through one of the old mansions that's been opened as a museum, and check out the windows that were made from sea shells. Overall, Vigan wasn't a bad way to kill a day, when I couldn't surf, but I couldn't recommend it to someone as a place they needed to go.

On the positive side, I had delicious empanadas at a makeshift restaurant that seemed to be in a lot where a building had fallen down. The best meal under $2 that I've had in a long time.

I had one more day of surfing before I had to leave. The waves were still pretty big, but Chris was up for giving it another try. I was a better surfer that day and had some nice waves. Unfortunately, my swimming anxiety didn't improve much, so what should have been a great day was just OK. I love the idea of surfing, I love being in the waves, I love the beauty of the sport, but I guess I just have to accept that it's not really me.

The following day it was time to leave. I had to head over to Singapore in a couple of days, where I had a meeting to atttend. I stood on the road and caught a bus back to Manila. Every bus ride in the Philippines includes a TV playing usually pirated movies, with the volume blasting, but where even if you did want to watch the movie you still wouldn't be able to make out the dialogue. This bus was no different, and the bus took about 8 hours to cover the distance.

I stayed at a less than great hotel called the 88 Courtyard, whose restaurant was the Kenny Roger's Roasters chicken next door. Surprisingly not bad food. But not something you'd want to make a habit of.

Whenever I'd asked people what to do in Manila I'd always been told to go to malls. Not my favourite thing in the world to do, but I had a day to kill the following day, so I thought I'd give it a shot. I took a short cab ride down the street to the Mall of Asia. I had read that this was the biggest mall in Asia, so I expected great things. It was actually a little underwhelming. It was big, but not as massive as I'd expected. And other than the ice rink in the middle of the mall, which was pretty surprising, it didn't seem terribly special. I took a look through all the stores to find a jacket in my size that I could wear to the meetings in Singapore, but struck out. In the rare instances that I found something decent looking they would have small Filipino sizes or giant American sizes. Nothing that might fit a mid-sized Canadian.

I headed back to the hotel and used their small pool to cool down. For dinner I thought I'd walk down the street and through the market by the hotel. It turned out to be a bad idea when a child started accosting me and decided that the best way to get what she wanted from me was to repeatedly hit me as I walked down the street. I couldn't lose this kid. Every time that I thought I'd ditched her she'd reappear and start hitting me in the arm again. It was ridiculous. I gave up and went back to Roasters for dinner. After all, I had to be up early the next day to catch my flight to Singapore.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

El Nido for a few days.

I don't post often enough, because it sometimes feels like a burden. And it's my own damned fault, since I seem compelled to write exhaustive and exhausting diaries about everything that happened. Well, now I'm so far behind that I feel OK about summarizing and trying to catch up a bit.

So I left the Jungle Beach Resort and, after waiting for an hour plus, got my bus. It would have been great for Jürg to let me know when the bus was to come, but he had taken off, as had all the other staff who spoke English, so I just had to guess at it. It was a five hour ride north to El Nido. Long and a bit painful, but not too bad.

When I got to El Nido I checked in to the Our Melting Pot hostel. I'd decided to save a few bucks, and stay somewhere where I could meet some people. I hadn't gone all the way though and gotten a dorm room. They had a single room for me. It sounded good, with AC and all. But it wasn't. It was the smallest room I've ever seem a bed fit into. Less than a foot of space on the side of the single bed, and the room was at the front of the building on the ground floor, right on the street. So very noisy. Plus, the power goes out, as it does in all of El Nido, at 6:00am until 2:00pm, so the AC goes off and the room just heats up.

I had dinner at the place recommended by the hostel, which wasn't very good, and signed up for one of the four tours on offer the next day. Tour A.

The next day one of the staff from my hotel walked me over to where the tour started. On the way he was telling me about his mother, who married a Canadian guy who lives in Vernon, and she had located there. She wasn't happy there though. It was too cold. He was planning to join her though in BC. I gave him some advice and my e-mail address for when the time comes.

Tour A was a tour of a selection of grottos and beaches around El Nido. About 16 of us climbed on board. About 11 Filipinos, a woman from Hong Kong, and older English guy, two German girls and myself. They hooked us up with snorkel, mask and towel, and we took off. Half an hour later we arrived at our first lagoon, which was a "secret" and could only be found by swimming through a hole in some rocks. It was actually pretty cool.  We next went to the "large" lagoon, where we didn't swim, but we got some nice photos. Next was a lagoon where there was some great snorkelling with the fish. And then we stopped for lunch at a beach on an island. While the crew / tour guides cooked we explored the reefs around there. And then we tried to get to our last lagoon, but apparently the currents and waves were picking up so we went snorkeling in one more reef area.

It was a great tour, showing off the beauty of the El Nido area, and giving us a great chance to visit the reefs and commune with the fishes. I had originally been considering just staying in El Nido for the one day, but I decided then to book another trip the next day and see some more things.

We headed back to the town and cleaned up. I went to a terrific pizza place for dinner then tried to join the group from the hostel at the reggae bar on the beach. It was a great place, but it was a bit much after a long day and I left and returned to the hostel to read a book. Very civilized.

The next day I got up to go on Tour C, which I'd been told was also pretty terrific. Unfortunately, while I was eating breakfast I was informed that the tour had been cancelled. The ocean currents were too strong and the waves were too big for the boats to head out. I offered to switch to another tour, but it seemed that they were being cancelled too.

With none of the standard trips happening that day many of the people at the hostel didn't have plans. The number 1 thing to do in El Nido was to visit Nacpan beach, about a 30 minute tricycle ride out of town. So about 7 of us got together and headed out. The folks at the hostel said it should be about a 1000 peso ride, but the group decided to negotiate and got it down to 750 or so, and we headed off.

It had been raining a lot recently and the ride to Nacpan was insane. It wasn't 30 minutes. It was more like an hour, with the driver having to battle massive mud ponds and deeply rutted roads. I was sure we were going to have to get out and push, but our driver knew what he was doing. Others weren't as lucky.

When we got to the beach, to be honest, it was just OK. Certainly not deserving of #1 billing. There were a couple of restaurants serving local food, but they did a very poor job of it. The beach was nice, but not spectacular. The only really great thing was the water was warm and the waves were big, so we had a good day playing.

After a few hours we all headed back to the town, another painful drive through the mud and pothole filled road. I grabbed a forgetable dinner, and read my book. I wanted to get in early, so that I could be ready for the next days long trip to San Juan, La Union on Luzon.  I was planning to go to learn to surf.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jungle Beach Resort

I had booked myself for three nights at the Jungle Beach Resort on Palawan. It came highly recommended on TripAdvisor and sounded like a nice place to chill for a few days.

I had breakfast at The Green House, then chatted with Ad, the B&B owner, about my plans. His wife had suggested that I take a tricycle over to the bus station and catch the bus from there. Ad very generously offered to drive me over. First we stopped at Ad's favourite coffee shop, Itoys, and I hit the bank to get some cash. Ad had sorted out my ATM problems the day before. Apparently there was an Asian block on my ABN AMRO card that prevented me from getting any money. A few adjustments on my account and I was good to get cash again. It's a good thing I brought my e-dentifier with me.

This access to cash was a good thing, because I knew credit cards weren't going to be accepted in many places, and I'd read that there were no ATMs in El Nido, which was my destination after Jungle Beach. So I maxed out my withdrawals on a couple of account and I was set.

Ad then drove me to be bus terminal, which was a good distance out of town. He let me know that during regular hours it could be an hour and a half drive just to get to the station. That's what happens when there's just one road on the island.

Catching the bus was challenging. It shouldn't have been, but when I got there there didn't seem to be any logic for what was going where, or what buses were the ones I wanted. To make it worse, there were drivers everywhere yelling at me to come with them, and it was crazy hot out. I eventually found a bus that said it was going the right way and jumped on. I was the only guy on it. About 45 minutes later the bus was packed full, with people hanging in the aisle, and it was just getting hotter. But we finally headed out.

I later discovered that pretty much any bus going north would do. There's only one road, so as long as you don't head south, or to the underground river, you're good.

The trip was long and uncomfortable. We'd stop periodically and vendors would jump on to sell water, eggs, or whatever else they had. I counted down the kilometers and at the 73k signpost I jumped off and Jungle Beach was right there.

It's a small place. I think there were only four places to sleep. I had the Papaya hut. On the beach. No AC, but a fan. And a nice patio leading out to the water.

There weren't many others there. At the moment it was just Jürg, the Swiss owner, and a Filipino guest from LA who was in the Philipines to visit his grandmother. Jürg's wife Birgit was home in Switzerland visiting family. Later that evening another couple, also from Switzerland, arrived. They had stayed there before and weren't happy with the next place they'd visited, so they'd come back.

Jungle Beach also had its collection of animals. There was Gina, the dog who would chase sticks and rocks all day. There were a few other dogs, whose names I didn't pick up since Gina was the star. There were three monkeys, usually tied up on a long lead in the back of the main building, but Jürg would hang out with the youngest monkey on his head. And Desiree, the chef, would spend some quality time with the monkey.

Jungle Beach is a great place for scuba divers. There's a reef just off the shore, and more if you want to swim out. Jürg was very eager to loan out diving equipment but, while I'm PADI certified, I haven't been diving in a few years and wasn't feeling like just jumping in and giving it a try. Jürg would probably have provided a refresher course, but I was perfectly happy to head out snorkelling a couple of times. To be honest, the reef is so near the surface that I don't think I would have got a lot more out of it if I had gone down.

There's usually a sandy beach in front of the resort, but there wasn't while we were there. Jürg said that the waves and rains take it way from August to October, and by the end of November it's all back again. So it was rocky and tough to get in the water while I was there.

There were also huge rain storms that came in during the evenings that made us hide under cover. A lot of reading was done, and one evening we had a big game of Risk. Teaching the rules of a fairly complex board game to people who don't speak much English can be tough, but we got through it. Plus, amazingly for a game of Risk, no one hated anyone else at the end. But maybe that's just because we didn't play to the bitter end.

Breakfast and dinner were big buffet spreads. Delicious foods prepared fresh by Desiree and some other staff. Lunch was available if needed, although the breakfast was so big that you could make your way to dinner without. My only issue with this was that they made lunch seem like an imposition, so if you were hungry you felt not great about asking for food.

A couple of days at Jungle Beach was perfect. Very relaxing. However, as a solo traveller, I don't know if I would have wanted to stay for longer. There weren't that many options for things to do, and at some point I needed to move on. After three nights it was time to head the rest of the way north on Palawan to the town of El Nido. I'd heard mixed reviews about it, so was a bit apprehensive, but I was going to give it a shot.