Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hong Kong

February 15, 2015

When we woke up Saturday morning and walked out on our balcony we were greeted with the rising sun casting its first rays on the stunning skyline of Hong Kong. Like Singapore, Hong Kong was part of the British Commonwelth so, again like Singapore, it is a very westernized city. Unlike Singapore, Hong Kong is teeming with people. There were crowds wherever we went. While we loved Singapore, it certainly did not have the same energy as Hong Kong.

On Saturday morning we took a cruise-sponsored tour of Hong Kong, the first stop being Aberdeen Fishing Village, the oldest fishing village in Hong Kong. Silly us, we thought there would be a short drive through the country to get to this village. How wrong we were. Aberdeen fishing village is nothing more then a marina amongst all the skycrapers and apartments. Here we took a 30 minute Sanpan ride around the marina, seeing large, exceedingly expensive yachts next to old, rust bucket fishing boats. It sounds strange but was a lot of fun. After the boat ride the bus drove through some very expensive neighborhoods, taking us to the Stanley Market. This market was very similar to the Night Market we visited in Bangkok; a nice blend of interesting, upscale shops along side cheap souvenier stores. We spent about an hour strolling through the Stanley Market and then it was back on the bus to catch the tram to the top of Victoria Peak. Victoria Peak is the tallest mountain/hill on Hong Kong Island. For Tim the tram ride to the top was very harrowing; for Lynda, more "eh." But the view over Hong Kong was incredible. Fortunately for Tim, our bus met us at the top of the peak so we did not have to ride the tram back down. We returned to our ship from Victoria Peak and spent the rest of the afternoon packing and preparing in general for our disembarkation Sunday morning.

We sadly left the Celebrity Millennium about 8:30 Sunday morning and took a cab to the hotel we had booked for Sunday night. It was too early to check into our room, but we stored our luggage and ventured out into Hong Kong. Directly across the street from our hotel was a flower market. We would like to claim that we chose our hotel, after careful research, because of its location by this market. That would be lying. Sometimes it's better to be lucky then good. The flower market took up several blocks and it was literally nothing but flower stores with most of the flowers on display on the sidewalk in front of the stores. The street was a riot of color, or, as Tim likes to say, a visual cacaphony. There were cut flowers as well as potted plants. Some of the cut flowers were at least 3 feet tall. There were also even taller bunches of cut pussy willows. Orchids were the predominant potted flower. We also identified gladiola, lillies, azaleas, daffodils, mums and dahlias. Some of the dahlia blossoms were the size of a dinner plate. We suspect that the Market was particularly crowded because of the upcoming Chinese New Year on February 19.

We immediately went from the sublime to the bizarre as we came to Yuen Po bird street. This was a narrow (think wide sidewalk) two block long street lined with short trees where old men bring their caged birds, hanging the cages in the trees so the birds can get some fresh air. We kid you not. It said so in our guide book. There were also small stores along the street selling birds, cages and all the necessary accessories. The men all stood around talking, probably solving all of the world's problems. There were no women, other then Lynda, on the street. We decided it was probably easier for these guys to get out of the house telling their wives they're taking the bird for a walk then to get permission to meet their friends at the bar. We told you at the beginning of the paragraph it was bizarre.

After spending a couple of hours in our hotel room, we took the subway to the harbor. Hong Kong is actually a group of islands. Our hotel is located in Kowloon which is across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island. Kowloon is where most of the nightlife of Hong Kong is located; Hong Kong Island is more of the business/financial section. The famous Star Ferry Line runs continuous ferries between the two islands. Lynda claims to have read about the Star ferries in 4 or 5 different novels. According to her, the hero is always making his escape from the bad guys on a Star Ferry. Given the speed of the ferry, Tim wondered how the hero ever escaped, but Lynda assured him that he always did. Of interest on the Hong Kong side of the harbor was a sculpture created by Henry Moore that one of the major financial companies had commissioned and erected in a plaza in front of their building. Everywhere we went on both of the islands we encountered endless stores: Prada, Gucci, Ferregamo, etc., never-ending jewelry stores, and the ubiquitous stores selling fake high end merchandise. Battling the constant crowd of people is exhausting so we went back to the hotel to rest for this evening's sojourn.

Each night at 8:00 the Hong Kong Tourist Council presents a Symphony of Light Show over Victoria Harbor. We went down to the harbor to watch. Words can't describe what we saw. The skycrapers across the harbor were used as canvases for the multi-colored show of lights. The different light designs were done in sequence with music playing over loudspeakers. There were also green and white (!) laser lights at the top of a few of the buildings that occasionally added to the overall effect. It was hard to follow all of the lights on the different buildings because the buildings were so wide spread. It was a pretty spectacular way to spend our last night in Hong Kong. Our last stop was the Temple Street Night Market. This was decidedly low-end goods but the vibe on the street was obvious. At one point on the way back to the hotel Lynda turned to Tim and said, "We certainly wouldn't be doing anything like this in Mason on a Sunday night!" As always, she was right.

This is our last blog posting. Tomorrow morning we fly home. Between the 20 hour flying time and the 13 hour time change tomorrow will be like a day and a half. Thanks again for following along. We will be glad to talk to you in greater depth about the trip. However, a word of warning. Don't ask to look at pictures. You'll be sorry.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Halong Bay, Vietnam

February 11, 2015

We are going to begin this posting with something we read the other day aboard our ship that really resonated with us. This quote may give you some insight into the wanderlust that overtakes us on a regular basis. This is from Michael Palin of Monty Python fame:
"Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote and I know I shall be happily infected until the end of my life."

Wednesday morning we entered Halong Bay in north Vietnam, a world heritage site made up of over 2000 stark, stone islands jutting out of the sea like stalactites (or is it stalagmites?) in a cave. It was a foggy morning so there was an etheral feeling to the view from our balcony. Ordinarily a local pilot boards the ship about 20 minutes before entering a port to help guide the captain. On this morning the pilot was on board two and half hours ahead of time indicating the perilous nature of entering Halong Bay. We anchored in the bay at 1:00 p.m. and the tendering process began for those wanting to go ashore. There is actually no port, as such, in Halong Bay so our lifeboats are used for the 15 minute transfer to land. The reason for this port of call is Hanoi. Unfortunately, Hanoi is a three hour bus ride from Halong Bay so we chose not to go there. Instead, we spent Thursday lounging around the ship. Actually, Lynda spent Thursday afternoon lounging while Tim took the tender ashore to find a free wifi connection. Wifi aboard ship is slow and expensive so we look for free wifi on shore anytime we can. Directly across the street from where the tender docked Tim found a bar that fit the bill and spent a relaxing hour drinking excellent local beer and catching up on e-mail, blog posting, etc. It's dirty work but someone must do it!

Friday morning we took a tour through the Vietnam countryside to a small village located in the mountains about 30 miles from Halong Bay. The countryside really was quite beautiful. Located in the village was a breathtaking Buddhist Temple. It was the setting for this temple that made it special. Its location in the lush mountain greenery with numerous flowering plants on the grounds almost made one want to convert. After leaving the temple we were taken to a family home in the village. Our guide must have called ahead because our hostess had warm tea ready for us. In Vietnam families live together. In this home was the Grandmother, her daughter and husband, and her grandson. Nothing was said of a Grandfather so we assume he was deceased. Several of our guides have told us of this family custom and that in the homes where there is a Grandfather, he is revered as the patriarch of the family. Tim wishes! We did not get inside the house but saw where ducks, geese and chickens were raised as well as the rice fields the family tended. The poultry was either used by the family or sold for income. In order for the family to be able to afford this house the husband worked during the week in Halong Bay to supplement their income from their small farm. We are sure that the cruise line pays them quite nicely as well for hosting us. When we left the village we were taken back to Halong Bay where we visited the central market. Normally, we enjoy these markets, but this one was quite grungy and foul smelling, especially since local fishermen were cleaning and selling their catches. Not exactly a Chamber of Commerce moment. Quite incongruously, there was an upscale mall located next to the market where we picked up a few snacky items for our cabin.

We occasionally read our past blogs to relive our trips. During a recent reading we noticed that food seemed to play a major role in the blog so we consciously decided not to mention food so much in blogging about this trip. However, we must tell you about our meal Thursday night aboard ship. We went to one of the specialty restaurants called Qsine. It advertises itself as "a uniquely, unordinary culinary experience." It was all that and more. The decor was very contemporary and hip and from the start we knew it was going to be relaxing and fun. Our waiter, who said he was our "culinary guide" for the evening gave us each an ipad that served as our menu. We were to chose as many courses as we wanted that we would share.  We added items to our "favorites list" and then gave the ipads back to our culinary guide.  No need for him to write down our order. Out of twenty possibilities, we agreed on six courses: a salad, a shrimp starter, a crab starter, a meatball trio (beef, veal, and turkey), a filet mignon, and crunchy munchies which consisted of several different types of french fries including sweet potato fries. The portions were small and the presentation was whimsical. For example, the "Disco shrimp" was served in a glass dish with what appeared to be a blue-lit glacier in the bottom with a conical dish above containing avocado cubes with shrimp salad on top. Our servers went out of their way to make the meal a fun experience.  When it was time to order dessert we were given cubes that reminded us of a Rubik's Cubes. We opened the cube in various different ways to find the dessert offerings. Lynda settled on the Qsine suprise that ended up being a macadamian nut concoction with vanilla ice cream. Tim ordered what was called a "cupcake affair." When his dessert was delivered to the table it looked like a big box that actually was three boxes stacked on top of each other. One contained a red velvet and a vanilla cupcake without frosting; the next box contained three small pastry funnels with frosting in them (peanut, strawberry, and nutella frosting); the third box had three cups containing colorful sprinkles, chocolate pearls, and sugary crystals. Tim had great fun preparing each of his cupcakes. We agreed this would be an excellent idea for a children's birthday party. The meal certainly lived up to its advertisement. Later we enjoyed a very good musical/dance review called iBroadway in the theater. A very enjoyable evening.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Sunday, February 8, 2015

We docked this morning at Phu My, Vietnam and by 7:30 we were in a bus on our way to the CuChi Tunnels. The bus trip to the tunnels was three hours long and, because of the uncertainty of the road conditions, Tim took a Dramamine before departure. Combined with an antihistamine this resulted in Tim sleeping most of the way. Lynda reports that the two lane road that we took was an endless stream of small shops. There were small, dirt alleys that led to housing behind the shops. Very occasionally we went by rice fields.

The CuChi Tunnels are located northwest of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. There were over 300 kilometers, 180 miles, of these tunnels that the Viet Cong used in 1964-65 during the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong pretty much lived in these tunnels and would pop out, ambush American and South Vietnam soldiers, and then jump back in. A few of these openings have been maintained and would have been virtually impossible to detect. A very small section of the original tunnels, about 20 yards have been expanded by 50% and we were given the opportunity to go down in the tunnel. Before descending into the tunnels we were told that there was no light in the tunnel and there still remained sections where we would almost have to crawl through. Tim had no interest in going into the tunnel. Lynda started down and came to a small landing. When she realized she had to descend further she decided climbing back out at the other end would be a problem so she went no further. We talked with several people who did complete the short trip through the tunnel and found they all thought it a very strange experience. We were also shown several different types of traps used by the Viet Cong to kill or seriously injure enemy soldiers as well as below-ground rooms that served as hospitals and meeting rooms. The Americans eventually formed a unit known as the tunnel rats that would locate these tunnels, drop into them and kill anyone found in the tunnel. To give you a sense of the size of the tunnels, a soldier had to weigh less than 100 pounds to qualify for this unit. The Viet Cong had purposely located these tunnels near an American base, close enough that the Americans could not bomb the tunnel area without fear of bombing their own base by mistake. It wasn't until the base was abandoned that the Americans were able to bomb the area and thus neutralize the value of the tunnels to the Viet Cong. We both found this to be an unsettling, almost eerie experience. But we also agreed that we were glad we had experienced it. Interestingly, at one point our Vietnamese guide told us that, while it was called the Vietnam War, that was only because it took place in Vietnam. He said it was really a war between the Americans and the Chinese.

After stopping for lunch, our return trip to the ship took us through Ho Chi Minh City. The most striking feature about Ho Chi Minh City was the traffic. Well over 50%, maybe even approaching 75% of the vehicles on the street were motorbikes. It was not at all uncommon to see a small child standing in front of the seat holding onto the handle bars as an older person actually drove the motorbike. Several times we actually saw a family of four on one small bike. Not surprisingly, we saw many shops selling motorbikes along the streets.

Monday, the 9th, was spent at sea. We use these leisurely days to write our blog and read. We both have lost track of how many books we have read. On Tuesday the 10th we docked at Chan May in Central Vietnam, the ugliest, most forlorn pier we have ever experienced. Seriously, there was a dock only large enough to accommodate our ship, a large office building and a parking lot. No village or shops. The main attraction at this port of call is DaNang. Before the cruise we had discussed just taking a cab into DaNang and exploring on our own. We have done this in the past with great success. Once on board we went to the excursion desk to discuss this option with the people there. We were told that we would have great difficulty finding a cab at the port and additional information that Hoi An, a small town near DaNang, was actually a better choice for what we had in mind. The ship offered a bus transfer to Hoi An with 5 hours of free time to explore. Fortunately, we decided to take this option because there was nary a cab in sight at Chan May. Those of you who grew up during the Vietnam War will recognize the name, DaNang, and the Mekong River upon which DaNang is situated. DaNang is about 50 miles south of our port located on the South China Sea. Hoi An is another 10 miles or so south of DaNang. We saw little of interest as we drove through DaNang on our way to Hoi An. For whatever reason Hoi An suffered little damage during the war. It is located on the Hoi River and has lots of wonderful little shops to explore. As with the previous tours, on arriving in Hoi An we were subjected to a compulsory visit to a shop, this one being a workshop specializing in silk goods. There was an interesting display and explanation to how silk is produced, a quick demonstration of the machine that weaves the silk and then, unfortunately, a chaotic rush through the showroom where goods could be purchased. We actually saw a silk table cloth/napkin set that we would have been interested in looking at further but were not given the time. From the workshop our guide took us to a 15th century Japanese Covered Bridge. This was to be our meeting place after our free time. Once we were given our meeting time we were on our own. Confucianism is the main religion of this area and we visited a lovely temple. We also visited a home that had been built in the 17th century and still owned by the family that built it. Otherwise, we shopped. The Vietnamese currency is the dong and there are approximately 21,000 dongs to an American dollar. Tim went to an ATM and withdrew 2 million dong, just under $100. We felt like we were spending Monopoly money. We bought a lot of gifts (!) and also found a piece of art for the lower level. Lynda was once again thrilled to be dickering prices with the merchants we visited. We felt very decadent when we finally figured out we had spent over 7 million dong in a little over 4 hours of shopping.

Our ship has several specialty restaurants for which you pay an additional fee and must make a reservation in order to dine in them. To celebrate Tim's 29th annual 39th birthday we went to one of these restaurants, dining on Chateaubriand and enjoying a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Tim enjoyed a dark chocolate souffle for dessert. It was an enjoyable end to a wonderful day.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

One Night in Bangkok

February 7, 2015

Thursday morning we docked in Laem Chabang in Thailand. Bangkok is a two hour bus ride from this port so we decided to take advantage of the overnight in Bangkok excursion offered by the ship. The ride into Bangkok was interesting. We saw the first field of rice that either of us had ever seen. We also saw multiple fields of a crop that we did not recognize. When asked, the tour guide told us it was tapioca. Turns out tapioca is a root vegetable. Given Tim's disdain for root vegetables in general he marveled that he has been able to choke down tapioca pudding all these years. Should tapioca pudding now be classified as a vegetable? As we drove through the countryside our guide pointed out numerous Buddhist Temples. We should have taken that as a warning sign.

Bangkok turned out to be an enormously spread out city with no sense of a centralized city center. It is known as the "Venice of the East" due to all the canals. All three site-seeing stops on Thursday were Buddhist Temples. It turns out that there are over 4000 wats (temples) in Thailand, over 400 of them in Bangkok. The first temple featured "the reclining Buddha." This Buddha was 150 feet long, completely covered in gold leaf. "The reclining Buddha" is said to represent Buddha on his death bed. It was quite impressive and a bit overwhelming. This temple, as with all the others we visited, contained areas with multiple small sitting Buddhas. The sitting Buddha is the figure most of us are familiar with. Each of these figures is constructed and maintained by individual families. Obviously, wealthy families. Each Buddha has the same pose, one hand in his lap and the other over his knee. However, each has a different face. We saw several that were black indicating that the family ran out of funds to put gold leaf on the Buddha. We were not told if this ultimately brought bad luck on the family. To see an upright Buddha is considered a rare sight but we did see a mammoth Walking Buddha (one foot slightly in front of the other) in the country side - again gold!

The second Temple we visited was located at the Grand Palace of the King of Thailand. This would be a good time to discuss the politics of Thailand. We think the Kingdom of Thailand, originally Siam, was establish around the 1780's or 1790's. The present King is the ninth in this particular lineage, hence his name, Rama IX. Rama IV is the king upon whom the  musical "The King and I" is based and bringing Anna to the court to teach his children resulted in a the Western influence on Thailand. Interestingly, "The King and I" is banned today in Thailand because it depicts the King as human. The King now has little, if any, political clout. This past May a military Junta took over the democratically elected government and there is Marshall Law in effect in Thailand. Other than a military presence at the temples, we saw no sign of Marshall Law. While at one time the home of the King, today, the Grand Palace is for ceremonial use only. The Temple on the grounds of the Grand Palace features the only known Emerald Buddha. Unfortunately, the Temple closed just as we arrived. Evidently, this is a common occurrence according to our guide. Maybe if she had not been so verbose earlier in the tour we would have gotten closer to the Emerald Buddha

The Choa Phraya River cuts through the middle of Bangkok and is an important part of the economic well-being of Bangkok. From the Grand Palace, which sits on the banks of the river, we took a boat across the river to a restaurant where we had a wonderful lunch featuring Thai cuisine. After lunch we crossed back over the river, got back on the bus and went to a third temple. Traffic is horrendous in Bangkok so that it took longer to get to the various Temples then to actually visit them. This last temple was one of the newest built in Bangkok and featured a solid gold Buddha. When this particular Buddha was discovered it was covered in plaster. It weighed over 5 tons and during the moving of the statue it tipped over, breaking off a small chunk of plaster. This was when it was discovered to be solid gold. At this point in the tour all of us were a bit "templed out." Tim and a fellow passenger cynically decided that we had to take it on faith the this Buddha was, in fact, solid gold.

With a palpable sense of relief from everyone on the bus, we headed to our hotel, the Sheraton Royal Orchid, located on the Choa Phraya River. We had several hours to luxuriate in our room, at least four times the size of our cabin aboard ship. With a strong and fast wi-fi connection, we were able to catch up on e-mail and facebook as well as finally posting our last blog post. At the dock located in front of our hotel we boarded a boat for a lovely dinner cruise on the river. The dinner was a buffet, again featuring Thai food. It was also very tasty. Of particular note was dessert. We both enjoyed the sticky rice and mango and a concoction of coconut pudding over a layer of tapioca. Both desserts were served in a small bowl constructed out of leaves. After the dinner cruise, the boat dropped us off at the night market. When we were told earlier that we would be going to this market we were excited as we anticipated a market similar to the one we visited in Singapore. Unfortunately, this market consisted of hundreds of little upscale shops. It was really more like a shopping mall then a market. Of course that did not keep us from buying a few souvenirs. The evening was completed with Lynda having a Thai massage in our hotel room. (Tim is skipping over this massage as unimportant - he is wrong! For 90 minutes the woman gave a thorough massage - without a table. She simply put towels on the bed and climbed on it with me to work out my kinks! Of course this was from 10:30 - midnight and Tim sat reading rather than sleeping as he would have liked. For this great treatment I paid all of 1000 baht - $33!)

Friday morning we once again boarded a boat for a not-so-leisurely cruise on the Choa Phraya river. Our guide pointed out many interesting sites along the river; mostly more temples. Is there anything else to see in Bangkok? Actually, there is. Our first stop was at the Royal Barge Museum. All of the royal barges were on display here. They are all propelled by oarsmen. The larger barges used over 50 of these men. Originally, these barges were used to lead the Royal Navy in battle, repelling invaders. Later they were used only for processions, the last time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of King Rama IX's reign. According to our guide, it has become so expensive to use the barges for these ceremonial uses that they may not be used ever again. The Royal Barge Museum was located on one of the canals off of the Choa Phraya River. Once back on our boat we cruised on this canal observing the way the locals in this area lived. These houses were on stilts on the edge of the canal, most in not particularly good condition. Once back on the river we made our last stop at the Temple of Dawn. This temple featured a beautiful pagoda over 100 feet tall. There may have been a Buddha located in the pagoda but we don't know for sure as we did not climb it. It was too steep a climb and we had seen enough Buddhas. Of more interest to us was a small market next to the temple. This was more the type of market we were looking for. Lynda was in her element negotiating prices for the things that we purchased. From here our boat took us back to our hotel where we had lunch, checked out of our room, and boarded our bus to return to the ship. There was one last stop. We are finding that on most of these kind of tours there is always a stop at a jewelry/art store. At this particular shop we first passed through an area where we watched artisans making the jewelry. Once we entered the display area a young women followed us throughout and was at our side to answer any questions we had anytime we showed the slightest interest in a piece of jewelry. In all fairness, the pieces on display were quite nice and the prices were very reasonable. Family -  that should pique your interest.

While Bangkok will not go down as one of our favorite cities to visit, never the less, we are glad we did. It was an interesting but exhausting two days and we were quite glad to be back aboard our ship. We have another day at sea before arriving at the first of three ports of call in Vietnam. We will report back in a couple of days.

Reclining Buddha

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Leaving Singapore

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Good Morning from aboard the Celebrity Millennium -

Before we start, Tim had an interesting encounter with a fellow passenger. Monday morning about 6:30 Tim went to work out. When he got on the eliptical machine the man next to him asked if he was up early because he was an early riser or because he still had not adjusted his biological clock. Tim informed him he was still having problems adjusting to the time change. The man then asked Tim where he was from. When Tim answered Michigan the man immediately said "Go Blue". It's amazing how quickly the crew responds to a man overboard! We've since found out that there are people from 55 different countries aboard - what are the chances that Tim's first encounter would be with a U of M fan?

Sunday morning, while waiting to go to our ship, Tim took a short walk about. During our tours in Singapore we had driven by the St. Andrews Cathedral many times. It was a short distance from our hotel so Tim decided to walk to the Cathedral for a visit. St. Andrews is the oldest Anglican church in Singapore. While it is called a cathedral it in no way matches the size of the famous European cathedrals. Despite its small size it was a lovely church to see. It was built in 1863-64 in the Gothic style using Indian convict labor. The interior of the church was lovely in its simplicity; the walls were painted white and the ceiling a dark royal blue, not quite navy blue. Unfortunately, there was a service in progress so he was unable to walk around the inside of the church.

Believe it or not, on Monday the ship had the Super Bowl on the television throughout the ship. They also had a watch party in the theater. The game started at 7:30 a.m. and there was beer, hot dogs and chicken wings available. Even a hardcore tailgater like Tim wasn't ready for a dog and beer for breakfast. Instead, he opted for a tortilla wrap with scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, and an orange juice. Before the game was over we took a cab to the Art/Science Museum meaning that Tim missed one of the best Super Bowl finishes of all time. The Art/Science Museum is an architectural wonder located very near the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. It looks like a lotus flower in bloom but actually depicts a pair of hands intertwined. We did not want to spend $25 each to see the DaVinci exhibit but did go to the free contemporary art showing. This was true contemporary art ranging from the whimsical to the down right bizarre. We have found that contemporary art of this type is meant to be shown in a gallery not in a home. After viewing the art, we walked across the street to the Sands Hotel. Our last posting showed a picture of this resort, but to refresh your memory, there are three towers with a large atrium at the base that connects the towers into one building. What looks like a boat sits atop the three towers. The outside towers each have a bar/restaurant at the top. We went to the top of each, 57 stories, and sat and enjoyed a drink in one of the bars.  Obviously, the views were spectacular and we also had an excellent view of the swimming pool at the very top.  It was a lot less freaky looking from the side then it probably was in the pool itself.

The next two days will be spent at sea as we sail to Bangkok.  Our next posting will be after that port of call.  Hopefully, by then all of our family and friends in Michigan will have dug out from the storm.

Art/Science Museum from atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel 

Pool atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Singapore Fling

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Good morning from Singapore.  It is 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning in Singapore, 7:00 p.m. Saturday back home.  We have both been up since 5:00 a.m.  Yes, even Lynda.  We are having trouble getting our bodies used to the 13 hour time difference.

Singapore is a beautiful, vibrant city.  It has done an excellent job of combining sleek, modern architecure with the older, traditional styles.  It is a clean, safe city and we have seen no sign of homeless people nor any panhandlers. Until 1965 it was a British colony so, not surprisingly, English is the official international language of Singapore and everyone speaks English and most signs are in English. They even drive on the "wrong side of the road".  We were surprised to learn the that Chinese people make up 75% of the population of Singapore. We have been captivated by Singapore.  Too bad it is a 20 hour flight from Detroit.

We left Detroit Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. flying non-stop to Tokyo, arriving in Tokyo about 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Tokyo time.  An aside to Tim's golf buddies: we flew over at least a dozen golf courses in our short approach to the Tokyo airport. Most were 9 hole tracts. Our connecting flight to Singapore was to leave at 6:00p.m.  Unfortunately, the plane arrived an hour and a half late. We were told this was due to the "big snow problem in the U.S."  Our departure was further delayed by a minor mechanical problem involving lights of some sort. Unbelievably, the Tokyo crew had to take pictures of the pnroblem, fax or e-mail them to Delta headquarters in Atlanta and wait for a return fax or e-mail in order to fix said problem.  The problem was eventually fixed but resulted in us arriving at our hotel in Singapore at 6:00 a.m. Friday, Singapore time. We had reserved our room for Thursday night thinking we would arrive around 1:00 a.m. Friday.  We both had four hour naps before showering and getting on with our day.

We have discovered a company called Viator that books tours worldwide. Even on a cruise we, at times, will book a shore excursion through Viator. The excursion will be half the cost of a similar excursion booked with the cruise ship. Before leaving home, we arranged for tours both Friday and Saturday afternoons.  The first stop Friday was the Asian Civilisation(sic.) Museum.  It was a short stop but gave us a good thumbnail sketch of the history of Singapore.  The next stop was the Raffles Hotel.  This hotel was built by two Persian brothers in 1887 and named after Ramfort Raffles, a British citizen who was the  founder of modern Singapore. Raffles Hotel was closed in 1989 for a complete refurbishment and reopened in1991 in its original splendor. Its main claim to fame is the invention of the Singapore Sling in its bar.  In the early 1900's it was frowned upon for women to drink in public. Several enterprising women had the bartender at Raffles invent a fruit drink in which copius amounts of alchol could be hidden so the women could drink undetected.  Hence, the Singapore Sling.  As always, our responsibility to our loyal blog readers forced us to sample one. After careful and thorough research we can report that it was delicious. Our last stop was a 45 minute boat ride on the Singapore River.  While not a major river by any stretch of the imagination (it is only 4 kilometers long!) it is the reason for Singapore's existence. This enjoyable cruise gave us an up close view of both the old and modern Singapore. After an early dinner (no forks!) we returned to our hotel and called it a day.

We subscribe to a travel magazine called Conde Nast.  In addition to a monthly magazine, we get almost daily e-mails on our phones. As luck would have it, Friday's e-mail included a slide show entitled 10 reasons to visit an old neighborhood in Singapore.  Saturday morning we took a local bus to the Tiong Bahru area of Singapore.  First, we visited a wonderful local market. The first floor was made up of a number of fruit, vegetable and meat stands. We saw many fruits and veggies that we could not identify.  All of the fish and seafood appeared to be fresh caught. There were also stalls selling cheap clothing.  The second floor of the market was what we would call a food court. There was a central seating area with a number of tiny restaurants surrounding the area. These restaurants were basicly a 12'x12' stall that served a few dinner items of food. You would go from stall to stall picking out what you wanted to eat and then sit down in the central area. Not having breakfast before leaving the hotel we sampled delicious little custard pies. We have visited many markets like this in our travels and never cease to be entertained by them.  After leaving the market we walked down a street with a varied collection of little shops. Of particular interest was a delightful bookshop, the likes of which you seldom find any more in the states.  Thank you Barnes and Noble!

In the afternoon we took a city tour. We began the tour at the Marina Bay where we were given a few minutes for a photo op with the famous Merlion statue.  The merlion, a lion's head on the body of a mermaid is the symbol of Singpore. This large statue is a fountain with a stream of water shooting out of the lion's mouth into the bay.  While here we also had an excellent view of the magnificent Marina Bay Sands Hotel.  For those of you who watch "The Amazing Race" on TV, this hotel was featured in the last season.  It is beyond description.  We will try to include a picture. The next stop was a temple in the Chinatown area of Singapore. This temple represents three different religions: Buddism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Like most of the eastern religion temples we have visited this one was stunning. From Chinatown we were taken to a gem factory. In this factory semi-precious stones were used to not only make jewelry but also works of art. While not our style we did find them quite amazing; i.e. Jil and Jeff - we didn't spend more of your inheritance. Our next stop was the National Orchid Garden.  We only had about 30 minutes here and would have loved more time. It also occured to us that as much as we enjoy visits to orchid displays we don't have an orchid plant in our house. That problem may be remedied when we get home. Finally, we went on the Singapore Flyer. The Singapore Flyer is a giant ferris wheel with gondolas that can hold 10 people. There are benches in the center of the gondola but most people move about the gondola taking pictures of the spectacular views. It takes 37 minute to make a complete circle on the Flyer. It is situated right on the Marina Bay. Our guide was quick to point out that, while similar to the London Eye, the Singapore Flyer is older and larger.

Also located on Marina Bay is a large garden cleverly called Gardens on the Bay.  One of the displays in the garden is called "The grove of supertrees".  These super trees are 17 metal structures ranging in height from 82 to 160 feet. There are plants on each tree from the base to the top. We took a taxi upon leaving the Singapore Flyer to the garden to watch the light show in the supertree grove that occurs at dusk every night. There is a walkway between three of the trees that is probably 50 feet above the ground.  We were able to watch the light show from this walkway.  It was a pretty cool way to finish our day.

Today we are hanging out in our room. We will check out of the hotel at noon and take a taxi to our cruise ship. The rest of the day will be spent on board the ship, unpacking, getting to know the ship, life boat drill, etc. We don't actually leave Singapore until tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. Depending on tomorrow's weather we have a couple of different ideas of things to see.  You'll just have to check our next blog to see where we went.  How's that for a teaser.

On a more serious note.  We understand that Michigan is in for a major snowstorm this weekend.  To our family and friends in Michigan: be careful and be safe.