Yet another reason to love Singapore.
Apparently many Singaporeans think you can avoid Hep B simply by avoiding clams. I’d seen a few billboards with a similar message, but the clam-people definitely caught my attention.
I recently returned from a quick trip to Thailand and Laos, for which I flew to and from Bangkok on Tiger Air. Given my adventures on Tiger Air last time, or the ongoing protests in Bangkok (I arrived the morning after the PM declared a state of emergency, and came back to Bangkok three days after the situation got violent), you might expect that the craziest part of my trip happened en route to/from Bangkok or in Bangkok. However, both were thankfully uneventful and the most entertaining aspects of my trip were the 48 hours I spent in Luang Prabang, Laos – a charming, relaxing little town I fell in love with immediately. In addition to seeing a number of temples, exploring the Royal Palace, and taking a boat trip up the Mekong to some nearby caves, I also: practically had dinner with two celebrities; broke out of my guesthouse before 6am; and discovered an innovative way to make friends at the airport.
My first night in Luang Prabang, I wound up at a place called Tamarind for dinner – I’d heard it had great food and was part of the Stay Another Day Organization, which promotes sustainable tourism. It was a small restaurant with only a few tables, and I sat at a counter, in front of a window that looked out onto the quiet street. There was a temple across the way and I could see some monks in the courtyard. So, I ate a delicious dinner while enjoying the view.
But the view was about to get better. Two customers arrived on bikes – the first thing I noticed was the woman’s stylish, bright-red outfit. The next thing I noticed was the man behind her, and that he was Jude Law. I admittedly stared for a bit trying to figure out if it was actually Jude Law. It was hard to believe that out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, he walked into mine. Especially since I was in a small restaurant in a small town in a country that most people on our half of the world can’t even locate on a map, let alone make plans to visit. The woman also looked vaguely familiar, and I realized she was Sienna Miller, his on-and-off girlfriend.
Now you may be wondering if I talked to them or asked for a picture. I did not and here is why. It was Friday night. I had flown to Bangkok on Thursday morning, walked around Bangkok for a few hours, gotten sweaty, and then boarded an overnight train to Chiang Mai. I had arrived Friday morning, walked around Chiang Mai for a few hours, gotten sweaty, and then boarded a plane to Luang Prabang. I tried going to my guest house to check-in and shower, but no one was there. I changed my shirt, walked around Luang Prabang for a few hours and got sweaty, before ultimately finding my way to the restaurant. I did not exactly look nor feel my best, and had no desire to record the moment for posterity while standing next to two incredibly attractive people. Also, I can’t exactly call myself a fan of theirs. At the time, I could only think of two of Jude Law’s movies (Alfie and Sherlock Holmes, neither of which I thought was that great) and nothing that Sienna Miller had done. I have since learned that Jude was nominated for awards for his roles in Cold Mountain, the Road to Perdition, and the Talented Mr. Ripley, among others, but I haven’t seen any of those movies. Anyway, the point is, I had nothing to say to them. If it had been almost any other British actor (Hugh Grant, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Daniel Radcliffe…) I probably would’ve said hi. So unfortunately I called it a night without becoming best friends with Jude Law and Sienna Miller.
The next morning I woke up at 5:30am. Why would I do such a silly thing on vacation? Well, one of the main things to do in Luang Prabang is to watch the monks go through town collecting food offerings from locals (and tourists), which for some reason they do before 6am. I thought that waking up that early would be the hardest part about seeing the monks, but I was wrong. When I went downstairs to leave,I discovered that the front doors were locked. At first I couldn’t figure out how to unlock them – it was 5:30am after all, so it was dark. I finally found the latches at the top and bottom of the doors, which opened to reveal another set of doors. They had the same latches and I opened them thinking I was free, only to be greeted with a tall fence and a gate, which was padlocked. At first I couldn’t see how to escape without killing myself – either from the sharp spiky things on the top of the fence, or the jump to the other side. I found a chair, pulled it over, and stood on it. The jump down still looked too treacherous. So I found another chair, pulled it over, dropped it on the other side of the fence, and jumped from one chair to the other, embracing my freedom. I felt like I had escaped from prison. I made it to the top of my street just as the monks started to arrive, it was perfect.
While I managed to escape my guest house without hurting myself, I did not manage to leave Laos without hurting myself – or at least my pride. My last stop before I left Luang Prabang was a restaurant I hadn’t had time to try. I’d heard good things about their pork casserole in coconut milk, so I decided to get it to go and take it to the airport for my lunch. However, it was not a casserole. It was simply pork in coconut milk – boiling hot coconut milk that was packed, like all takeaway food, in a little plastic bag. Thirty minutes later after I’d arrived at the airport, checked-in, and gone through immigration, it was still so hot I couldn’t rest it on my legs. I knew I had to be careful eating it, but somehow halfway-through it magically exploded all over my legs. And my chair. And the floor. And my bag. I’m pretty lucky I don’t have burn marks, because it was still that hot. And while I felt like an idiot, I managed to make new friends. The Japanese girl sitting across from me immediately offered me some moist towlettes and then ran to the bathroom, coming back with a cloth towel she used to help me clean up. We hadn’t spoken before that, but afterwards she showed me pictures from Japan on her camera. Similarly, the Canadian guy sitting next to me began talking to me. Apparently spilling curry all over yourself is a great way to start a conversation and make friends in a small airport. Shortly thereafter, we boarded the plane to Chiang Mai, where more adventures were in store. (Stay tuned.)
There are not many things in life, or in Singapore, that are free. Fortunately, however, Singapore’s most bizarre attraction does not cost anything. Haw Par Villa (originally called Tiger Balm Gardens) was built in 1937 by the brothers who invented Tiger Balm. Haw Par Villa is frequently described as a theme park (and it did have some rides in the 1990s), but a more appropriate description would be a sculpture park. A very odd sculpture park. The statues depict scenes from Chinese folklore and legends that are supposed to teach Chinese values and morals. The most interesting – and most gruesome part of the park – is the 10 Courts of Hell. However, you have to pay to enter Hell; it will set you back one Singaporean dollar. (About US $0.72).
Before you enter Hell, you see a set of statues that appear to be rabbits and rats fighting each other, with some guinea pigs thrown in for good measure. You have no idea what this is about, nor what it is supposed to mean. This is not an unusual feeling at Haw Par Villa; sometimes there are descriptions explaining the scenes, sometimes there are not; sometimes the descriptions leave you just as confused as those without descriptions. It’s almost like going to a modern art museum and wondering what the artist was trying to say.
We asked the attendant of the nearby shop for an explanation and he excitedly led us back to the diorama, where he told us that the rabbits and rats were in a war. “This one kill, you see?” He was very friendly and eager to help, but we still had no idea why they were fighting or what we were supposed to learn. Fortunately, the shop had a book that shed some light.
Once upon a time, two white rabbits were happily married. One day, a black rat came along and seduced the wife. The rabbit and his compatriots were outraged and declared war on the rats. The book claims it’s unclear which side the guinea pigs were on, but there’s a picture of a guinea pig consoling a rat, and I think guinea pigs look more related to rats than rabbits, so I assume they’re evil. Apparently (according to the book), the lesson to learn from this is that bad things happen when strangers interfere. (Or, alternatively, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife/thou shalt not commit adultery?)
Once you enter the gates of hell, you walk by dioramas depicting each court of hell, with descriptions of crimes and their associated punishments. I’m not sure I necessarily see the association between a crime and its punishment or the relation between some of the crimes that are grouped together. Here are a few examples:
|Ungratefulness, Disrespect to elders, Escape from Prison||Heart cut-out|
|Plotted another’s death for property or money, Money lenders with exorbitant interest rates||Thrown onto a hill of knives|
|Cheating, Cursing, Abducting People||Thrown onto a tree of knives|
|Misuse of Books, Wasting Food, Possession of Porn||Body sawn into two|
And here are two examples of the accompanying sculptures:
Hell is only one small part of Haw Par Villa – there are lots of other (less gruesome) statues that I also found interesting and perplexing. So, I highly recommend a visit to Haw Par Villa if you wind up in Singapore – not only is it (almost) free, but it’s definitely a unique experience.