Category Archives: travel

Thaipusam

People do some interesting things in the name of religion.  (As an anthropologist-in-training, I’m not allowed to call these things “crazy.”)

Thaipusam is a Tamil Hindu festival that is banned in India, but still practiced in Singapore and Malaysia.  Supposedly, the origins of Thaipusam relate to a myth in which the goddess Parvathi gave a lance to her son Murugan, who then vanquished three demons, thereby becoming the destroyer of all evil.  During Thaipusam, devotees give thanks/penance to Murugan by making offerings of milk or honey.  However, they may also pierce their cheeks or tongues with metal skewers several feet in length, which are said to represent Muruga’s lance. Still others bear a kavadi, a wooden or metal shrine that is attached to the body with hooks, chains, and needles. (This is a simplified version, as there are other rituals and prayers involved with these actions.)

What are you looking at?

In Singapore, participants gather at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India to assemble their offerings and/or kavadis and then walk for four kilometers to Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple on Keong Siak Road.

 

You thought the cheek piercing was intense? Try walking 4 km with his kavadi. (The picture isn't clear, but he's pulling the wooden kavadi, which is somehow attached to him via piercings.)

Thaipusam is celebrated during the Tamil month of Thai, which coincides with January or February, on the day  the star Pusam appears.  For 2011, it will be this Thursday, January 20th.  So, if you’re in Singapore, go check it out!  And if you’re not, here’s a 30-second video of scenes from last year:

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Pictures from Myanmar and Vietnam

Can be found here: http://picasaweb.google.com/107243734739290991264

Posts will follow as I battle jet-lag and uncertain internet access for the next week or so.

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KitKat Hunting

As previously noted in my post on crazy Pringles, I love finding unusual flavors of familiar products.  At some point several years ago, I learned that Japan is home to numerous flavors of KitKats, none of which make an appearance in the U.S.  I found some for sale on ebay, but was unwilling to pay $13 for one candy bar ($3 for the bar and $10 for shipping, or something absurd like that) in order to actually try them.

So my tasting experience with unusual KitKats didn’t happen until I flew through Tokyo on my way home for Christmas.  I had completely forgotten about their existence until I wandered through an airport store during my layover.  I felt like a kid in a candy store, which I pretty much was.  I think I spotted the Wasabi KitKats first, followed by a variety pack combining Apple, Cheesecake, Soybean Flour, and Soy Sauce bars.  A trip through another aisle of the store revealed a Green Tea flavor, as well.  I bought them all.

Wasabi KitKat

Hold on a second, you’re saying.  Wasabi?  Soy Sauce?  In a KitKat?  That sounds disgusting!  Yes, I agree.  But it was too bizarre to ignore.  The tastiness (or lack thereof) of these flavors is at least aided by the fact that they don’t involve chocolate.  Rather, the coating over the wafers is wasabi or soy-sauce flavored. (The green tea is similar in that it does not have chocolate.  The Apple, Cheesecake, and Soybean Flour flavors, on the other hand, were incorporated into the chocolate.)

Green Tea KitKats

So what did they taste like?  Much like the lemon-sesame and blueberry-hazelnut Pringles, I would not have known what I was supposed to be eating if it had not been pictured on the package.  The wasabi coating was light green and I suppose had a bit of a zing to it, but not much.  The soy sauce coating was white and slightly sweet  instead of salty, like I was expecting.  It tasted more like medicine than soy sauce, although that’s probably a good thing.  (The Apple, Cheesecake, and Soybean flour flavors were much tastier.  I’m not sure if it was the chocolate, or the fact that they are more traditional Western dessert flavors.  Probably both.)

Since Singapore isn’t that far away from Japan, relatively speaking, and we get crazy Pringles flavors, I’ve been keeping an eye out for special KitKat flavors.  A few weeks ago, my friend Juliana saw an article in the paper about Raspberry-Passionfruit and Matcha-Sakura (Green Tea-Cherry Blossom) KitKats for sale in a small Japanese food store.

That weekend we decided to go KitKat hunting.  Sadly, we discovered that other hunters had exhausted the supply before our arrival.  We even saw proof that the KitKats had been there – cardboard boxes in the trash, but there were none left for us, and the sales clerk didn’t know if/when they would be getting anymore in.  They did have bags of Maple-flavored and Flan-flavored KitKats, but I didn’t feel like spending $9 on a bag.

Maple and Flan KitKats

I also found an online reference to sweet potato-flavored KitKats available in Bishan.  My love of sweet potato is akin to my love of pumpkin, but I unfortunately haven’t had time yet to trek out there and check it out. Given our failed attempt to procure other exotic flavors in Singapore, my hopes for finding the sweet potato ones aren’t high, but I will nevertheless venture out there soon.  If they exist, I will definitely post a review.

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Pretty Much the Best Menu Ever

Sadly, I had already eaten lunch when I spotted this sign.  Otherwise, I would have had a difficult time deciding…

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How to Make Friends and Break Out of Guest Houses in Laos

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.)

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Notes on Manila

I’m actually headed back to Manila in two weeks for a conference (a consequently crazy work schedule is the main reason my posting frequency has declined), but here are some of my first experiences in the city.

Transportation

Transportation in Manila was characterized by a lack of information.  The bus from the airport into Manila made several stops, but never announced the names of the stops.  Guided by some tourbook maps of the city (my contribution) and a good sense of direction (not my contribution), we managed to pick the correct one.

Later, we attempted to ride the subway/light-rail system.  The first thing we noticed was a huge line to get into the station – security was checking everyone’s bags.  (This turned out to be fairly common in Manila, as it also happened in shopping malls.)  Once inside, I was again surprised by the lack of information.  You get fairly used to subway stations having maps, so that you can figure out which train you need.  (All we had was the name of the stop we wanted.)  There was only one line, but we still didn’t know which direction we were supposed to head.  There might as well have been a scarecrow pointing in both directions.  We found a security desk and the guard helpfully pointed in only one direction.

We headed for the platform, which was pretty crowded. However, it was nowhere near as crowded as the train that arrived a minute later.  Manila doesn’t hire train pushers like Tokyo to squeeze as many people in as possible, but they might want to consider it.  I did notice that there was a separate boarding area for the elderly and women; when I got in the normal car, I appeared to be the only woman in a car packed with men, all of whom appeared to be staring at me.  At the next stop (again, no announcement – we had to peer out the window to try to catch the sign on the platform), the crowd shifted a bit and I was slightly relieved to discover I was not actually the only female in the car, although I was still getting stared at.

At the second stop, we couldn’t see the station sign.  But since everyone else seemed to be getting off the train, we decided we should too.  We had reached the end of the line, but the station was not the one we wanted.  After a few minutes of feeling confused and disoriented (why aren’t there any maps?), we discovered the next station we wanted was connected via a short walk.   Thankfully the next train was less crowded and we arrived at out destination unscathed, but ultimately decided to take a taxi back to the hotel.  (Cost of the train: 50 Pesos ($1US); Cost of the taxi: 150 Pesos ($3US); Getting home directly and not having to deal with the insanity: priceless.)  I’m glad we tried the trains, but we stuck with taxis for the rest of the trip – they were more convenient, quicker, and cheap.  I think our most expensive ride was $3US, and it was at least 15-20 minutes long.

Sadly, we did not attempt the most popular form of transportation in Manila – the jeepney.  Jeepneys (jeep+jitney) appear to operate like a cross between a bus and a taxi.  They look like elongated aluminum jeeps decorated by someone who just discovered color after living in a black-and-white world. (And who has a fondness for random Americana – ie Micky Mouse and the NY Giants – or religious depictions/quotes.)  They have signs with certain destinations and I think you can flag one down and travel to a destination along its route.  But since our geography of Manila was not all that great, we weren’t sure where we’d wind up if we took one.  I’m hoping some local Fulbrighters at the conference can show me how it’s done.

Food

Filipino cuisine is notable for some items that are pretty exotic to Westerners.  You may have heard of balut – a fertilized duck or chicken egg, with a mostly developed embryo, that is boiled and eaten.  Or if you’d prefer not to see something’s eyes, you can move to the inside of an animal and eat isaw – barbequed chicken or pig intestines on a stick.  (Everything tastes better on a stick!)  Despite being an adventurous eater, I wasn’t sure how I felt about either of these dishes.  But I never actually saw them for sale, so my willingness to try new things was not properly tested.  I’m still not sure I could handle balut, but if I see some isaw in a few weeks, I might be able to try a bite.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of balut and isaw, we had a tasty time in Manila.  The main dishes we tried were: fresh lumpia (a type of spring roll made with hearts of palm and other veggies); a few types of pancit (stir-fried noodles);kare kare (oxtail, tripe, and vegetables in a peanut stew); adobo (chicken and/or pork cooked in a mixture of garlic, soy sauce and vinegar, although there’s supposedly 100 ways to cook it in the Philippines – it was salty, but delicious); and, possibly my favorite – bibingka.

Bibingka is apparently a dessert, but I didn’t realize that at the time and ate it as dinner.  (If only I could unlearn that  ice-cream, cookies, and brownies are desserts…) I read about bibingka on the in-flight magazine on the way to Manila, which I just googled – the description I read was of  a “wood fire-cooked rice cake in banana leaves and covered with butter, cheese and grated coconut.”  I guess I remembered “rice cake” and “cheese”, which brought to mind something savory, given that Quaker rice cakes aren’t sweet (unless you get the kind coated in chocolate).  Now, if I focus on “cake”, “cheese”, and “coconut,” I can see how it would be a dessert.  Oh well, it was a delicious misunderstanding.  To me, it tasted like an arepa (only fluffier, thicker, and sweeter) that had been inverted (given the cheese on top). I’m not sure where the corn taste came from.  I suppose I’ll have to figure that out in a few weeks.

Sights

We only had about a day and a half in Manila, but we managed to fit in a lot.  Our first stop was Intramuros – the oldest district of Manila, built by the Spanish in the 16th century.  Within its walls, we visited the Manila Cathedaral, Casa Manila (a recreation of a colonial-period house); and Fort Santiago.

Despite my love for colonial history, my favorite sight in Manila was the Coconut Palace.  The palace was built in the late 1970s by former First Lady Imelda Marcos in honor of an upcoming visit by Pope John Paul II.  However, when the Pope arrived in Manila, he was appalled and suggested the US$37 million spent on the palace could have been spent instead on clean drinking water for the Filipino people.  He refused to stay and somehow the palace was officially “opened” at a later date by Brooke Shields and George Hamilton.

We had our own tour guide who enlightened us with trivia about the palace (the dining room table has 40,000 pieces of inlaid coconut shell) and encouraged us to sit and take pictures at the dining room table and in former President Marcos’ office chair.  He even removed a “please do not sit” sign from Imelda’s mother of pearl chair and invited me to sit down.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he told us we could take a nap in the Marcos’ bed.

After the Coconut Palace, we headed to the nearby SM Mall of Asia, the fourth largest mall in the world.  It has four buildings and I think we were only in two of them, so I’m not sure I properly grasped its size, although I got a sense through the interactive maps.  All of the directories were electronic; you picked a store (or in our case, a restaurant) and it would give you walking directions.  I was somewhat surprised the mall was on Manila Bay, but it was nice to end our visit by watching the sunset over dinner and drinks.

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How Not to Fly From Manila to Kuala Lumpur

The short answer is on a budget airline. We booked flights to and from Manila on Tiger Airways, which is the cheapest of the cheap. Our flight to Manila was direct from Singapore, but our flight from Manila to KL involved a one-hour layover and a plane change in Singapore. The fact that we could not book this as one ticket and had to individually book the legs from Manila to Singapore and then Singapore to KL should have raised a warning flag.  It was, but it was not large or red enough as we ultimately decided that since the tickets were on the same airline, they should let us check-in for both flights in Manila and hopefully accommodate us if the first flight was late. Ha. You get what you pay for and this was not Singapore Airlines.

Spend six hours getting to/waiting at the airport

I suppose too much time is better than not enough, but our first adventure was actually getting to the airport. Flying a budget airline to/from Manila involves the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (formerly Clark Airforce Base), which is a good two-hour bus trip from the city.  The shuttle schedule meant a 6:30 am bus, which got us to the airport at 8:30am. The check-in desk for our flight didn’t open until 10:40am and the flight didn’t leave until 12:10pm. I was glad we had a deck of cards and a box of doughnuts.

Spend all of your currency before you get to the airport

We immediately noticed two interesting things about DMIA. The first was that only ticketed passengers were allowed into the airport. The second was that there were signs announcing a 600 Peso (US$12) departure fee. I had about 140 Pesos on me. I tried the airport ATM, but it wouldn’t give me any cash. This was not entirely surprising, as I’d had about a 50% success rate with ATMs in Manila. Thankfully, I still had some Singaporean dollars on me that I was able to exchange, or we might still be cleaning the bathrooms at DMIA.

Realize you have (maybe) 20 minutes to clear immigration/customs and check-in for your next flight.

At the check-in desk, we confirmed that we could not check into our second flight. We had asked in Singapore and the desk agent had seemed skeptical that we would make the second flight. While a one-hour layover is normally fine, having to check-in at Singapore changed the game, since the desk closed 45 minutes before departure. This gave us 20 minutes from the time our first plane was scheduled to land to disembark, clear through immigration and customs, and check-in for the second flight. The Filipino desk agent was more optimistic than the Singaporean that we would make our flight. I think this was because she had no idea what was involved.

Bring items that aren’t allowed on the plane

Normally in foreign countries, airport security is somewhat looser than in the U.S. You never have to remove articles of clothing and they don’t seem to really care what you bring in, although there are probably some signs saying weapons aren’t allowed . At DMIA, not only did we have to take off our shoes, but my bag was pulled over for a prohibited item. I figured it was my contact solution, because I had a normal-size bottle and Singaporean security had tried to take it away. (Apparently there is no exemption for medical liquids in Asia.) However, my contact solution was safe because the security guard was distracted by a larger threat – my umbrella.

I was told I could not bring the umbrella on board and could either surrender it or check my bag. This was problematic since we had no time to pick-up checked luggage in Singapore. We also couldn’t wrap our heads around this seemingly ludicrous rule.  In the U.S. TSA makes us take off our clothes, put our 3 oz bottles in plastic baggies, wait in hour-long lines, remove our laptops, and stand on our heads while singing the National Anthem, but they would never take away an umbrella!

I should point out that this is not any umbrella.  It’s a Brookstone wind-resistant umbrella that’s one of my prized possessions in Singapore – during a monsoon, instead of getting completely drenched, I merely get soaked.  Our conversations with security were frustratingly circular (you must check your bag; we can’t check a bag; repeat) and I was ready to relinquish the umbrella.  Somehow, though, they decided to let me check just the umbrella and we were on our way.

Run through an airport terminal like a wild animal is chasing you

Upon arriving in Singapore, our plane proceeded to take a scenic tour of Changi airport while taxiing. After a brief scare wherein we convinced ourselves that the plane was actually taking us to Terminal 1 to clear through immigration/customs, and that we had no chance of making it through and back to the budget terminal in time, we thankfully arrived at the budget terminal.

Before the plane technically stopped, I was out of my seat and was the first person in line to disembark.  (We were in row two, so I only cut about six people.)  I waited impatiently as the crew ever-so-slowly attached the exit staircase to the plane.  They finally opened the door and I ran down the stairs on shaky legs – I couldn’t tell if they were shaky from sitting for 3 hours, the sugar crash from the chocolate doughnuts six hours earlier, or the anxiety of the travel feat I was about to attempt.

I groaned as I entered the airport and had to run up a twisting ramp, but this was nothing compared to what I saw at the top of the ramp.  Our plane had literally parked at the gate farthest away from the immigration point, which wasn’t even visible.  There was simply a sign with an arrow that pointed towards an empty corridor that stretched as far as I could see.  As we ran down the never-ending corridor, we passed several clocks that ominously read 4:20pm.  We had five minutes.  I thought I was in shape, but I had to slow down.  In a high-stakes relay, I passed off our passports and the ticket info and gasped for breath.

I started running again and finally turned the corner towards immigration.  I would say that “Chariots of Fire” was in the background, but it’s much too slow for what was happening.  Unfortunately, all of the immigration lines were twenty-people deep – all except the one for Singaporean citizens and residents.  I don’t think I count as a Permanent Resident (an official category normally implied by resident), but I do have a green laminated visa/training pass and decided it was worth a shot.  I don’t know if it was the visa or the fact that I was panting and looked like I might collapse, but they let us through.

As we ran by customs, I thought we must look suspicious, but we weren’t stopped.  We ran through the doors and were immediately hit by the Singaporean heat and humidity.  I guess I’m used to the weather here, because it didn’t slow me down.  (Although my adrenaline level may have increased by this point and to be fair, the distance was much shorter than the corridor.)

I entered the departure area of the terminal and while I didn’t immediately see the check-in desk for KL, it was there.  We had made it.  We asked how much longer we had, and the desk agent said we were the last ones to check-in.  The clock read 4:25.

After making the flight, I felt like we were capable of anything.  I wish I had a tape to send to the people in charge of casting for the Amazing Race, because I’m pretty sure we’d leave the other contestants in our dirt.  (Well, maybe I should work on my long-distance running first.)

After all of that, the flight to KL and the train into the city was rather uneventful.  Once we got to our hotel, we spent a well-deserved evening relaxing by the gorgeous pool.And when we got back to Singapore, my umbrella was waiting for me.  Coincidentally, it’s monsooned the past two days.

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