The Mekong Delta

We took a long (7 hour) trip out to the Mekong Delta, which is about a 90-minute drive from Saigon. As usual, motorbikes were everywhere on the roads.   In Viet Nam, traffic lights (a rarity) and Stop signs are mere suggestions so the drive was took us through the usual chaotic traffic.

When we arrived we sailed along the Mekong River on a Vietnamese junk. Quite an experience.

While Saigon is pretty vibrant and developing rapidly, sailing along the Mekong River presents a very different picture. Though there are occasional Wi-Fi signs and Cable Dishes, it reflects a more traditional way of life. Cable dishes notwithstanding, the Mekong River coastline is dominated by ramshackle houses and stores. They appear to be rather primitive and are geared toward life on the river. They are certainly not close to Western standards.

So the photos that are included with this post are ones that try to capture the essence of what we saw of life along the river for the Vietnamese people who make their homes and businesses there.

Vietnamese Woman Navigating the Mekong River
Vietnamese Woman Navigating the Mekong River
Woman with Baby in Vietnamese Junk on Mekong River
Woman with Baby in Vietnamese Junk on Mekong River
Trader Displays Her Wares in Floating Market of the Mekong River
Trader Displays Her Wares in Floating Market of the Mekong River
Vietnamese Woman with Fruits and Vegetables on Board a Junk on the Mekong River
Vietnamese Woman with Fruits and Vegetables on Board a Junk on the Mekong River
Workers making coconut candy in a village workshop along the Mekong River
Workers making coconut candy in a village workshop along the Mekong River
Ferry Boat Lets Off Passengers
Ferry Boat Lets Off Passengers
Vietnamese Junk on the River
Vietnamese Junk on the River
Resort along the Mekong River
Resort along the Mekong River
Houses and Stores on Stilts along the Mekong River
Houses and Stores on Stilts along the Mekong River

Good Morning Viet Nam…

Saigon is now officially Ho Chi Minh City but the locals call it Saigon anyway. It very much resembles Paris; not too surprising since much of the architecture is from the French colonial period. It is a study in contrasts: an old city, filled with young people, ancient traditions and unbelievably chaotic traffic mostly led by motorbikes. It has to be seen to be believed. Here are some photos.

Joe

Water Puppet Show Masters
Water Puppet Show Masters
The busy streets of Saigon
The busy streets of Saigon
View from the Rooftop Bar of the Rex Hotel
View from the Rooftop Bar of the Rex Hotel
The Saigon Post office built by France during the colonial era.
The Saigon Post office built by France during the colonial era.
Outdoor Market in Saigon's China Town
Outdoor Market in Saigon’s China Town
Noodles for sale in an open market in Saigon's Chinatown.
Noodles for sale in an open market in Saigon’s Chinatown.
Motorbikes whiz along the streets of Saigon
Motorbikes whiz along the streets of Saigon
Saigon's streets are crammed with people riding motorbikes.
Saigon’s streets are crammed with people riding motorbikes.
Photo of burning incense in a Buddhist Temple in Saigon, Viet Nam
Photo of burning incense in a Buddhist Temple in Saigon, Viet Nam
Bikers weave in and out of Traffic
Bikers weave in and out of Traffic
Biker Takes a Break
Biker Takes a Break
Inside a  Buddhist Temple in Saigon, Viet Nam
Inside a Buddhist Temple in Saigon, Viet Nam

Thailand and Cambodia…

Quite a few photos here including street scenes, outdoor markets, and of course, Temples and Pagodas. Cambodia and Thailand are studies in contrast. The beach resorts we visited are first rate. Not so much the villages and small cities outside the upmarket tourist areas.

Joe

Woman Paddling Through Floating Markets in Thailand
Woman Paddling Through Floating Markets in Thailand
Woman cooking meals in open market in Cambodia
Woman cooking meals in open market in Cambodia
Thatched Umbrella at Beach Resort, Cambodia
Thatched Umbrella at Beach Resort, Cambodia
Statuary in the Gardens of the Ancient City of Bangkok
Statuary in the Gardens of the Ancient City of Bangkok
Sokha Beach Resort, Cambodia
Sokha Beach Resort, Cambodia
A small boy clinging to the driver of a motorbike in Cambodia
A small boy clinging to the driver of a motorbike in Cambodia
Pagoda on the Water
Pagoda on the Water
Life Guard Station, Sokha Beach Resort, Cambodia
Life Guard Station, Sokha Beach Resort, Cambodia
Guanyin, the Goddess of Justice and Mercy
Guanyin, the Goddess of Justice and Mercy
Garden Statuary Thailand
Garden Statuary Thailand
Floating Markets of Thailand
Floating Markets of Thailand
Floating Markets in Thailand
Floating Markets in Thailand

Farmers Market in Cambodia

Buddhist Pagoda in Thailand
Buddhist Pagoda in Thailand
Young boy on the back of a motorbike in Cambodia
Young boy on the back of a motorbike in Cambodia
Replication of Pagoda in Ancient City of Bangkok
Replication of Pagoda in Ancient City of Bangkok

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day from Cambodia!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Cambodia!              March 17, 2016 7pm

We’ve left Malaysia and have now seen parts of Thailand and Cambodia, on our way to Vietnam. What a contrast between Thailand and Cambodia – Thailand prospering, and Cambodia struggling to recover from the atrocities of the recent past.

The 2 countries share an early past, when the Khmer Empire (Hindu and Buddhist, combined with traditional beliefs such as animism) was the dominant civilization in the area.  In 1238, the early Thai overthrew the Khmer leaders, using their prowess in growing rice to gain power. Over time, Thailand maintained its autonomy by trading out parcels of land to western countries which wanted to colonize the area (Cambodia and Laos went to the French while parts of Malay went to the Brits, etc.).

In more recent times, Thailand has continued to be independent (although it has aligned with various powers in the world wars). And though Cambodia is also independent today, its role in the 1970s left it scarred. In Cambodia’s earlier days (12th century), magnificent temple complexes such as Angor Wat were built, and a highly civilized society existed. But Cambodia had its share of trouble fighting off the Thais and Vietnamese, and spent some years as a French protectorate.

Communist Khmer Rouge rebels seized control of Cambodia and installed a regime led by Pol Pot in 1975. Almost half of Cambodia’s more accomplished citizens were massacred as Pol Pot tried to bring the country back to “Year Zero” as a completely agrarian society; all western civilization’s progress was subject to destruction as towns were emptied (city citizens were told to leave their homes in one day and relocate to the countryside), educators and the educated were killed, religion was banned, land was confiscated, money was forbidden, media were silenced, children were sent to work camps, etc.  Over the course of 4 years, it is estimated that 3 million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge (approximately 25% of the population). The Khmer Rouge finally signed a treaty (the Paris Peace Accords) to end their reign of terror in 1991.

Now Cambodia struggles to bring its 15 million people out of poverty, improve low literacy rates, stimulate tourism to its beaches, recover and redevelop large areas of rubble and trash, develop the oil and natural gas deposits under its waters, and increase trade through its port. Sanitation, health care and education systems are fairly primitive, and we saw several victims of land mines from the Vietnam War era begging in public markets and shrines. The future can’t get here fast enough.

Thailand (the “Land of Smiles”) is a constitutional monarchy with a population of 65 million who adore their King, a former Buddhist monk and a saxophone player of some repute – road signs and flags abound proclaiming long life to the King, who is in his 80s now. Thailand has lots of natural resources and exports (silk, rice, coconut, palm, tapioca, sea salt, fish, fruits). It’s a Buddhist stronghold (95% of the population and home to 300,000 monks), and has an established and thriving tourism base.

Thailand’s government that often winds up in the hands of the military when the farmers and small business owners (the “red shirts”) clash with the elites/monarchists/judiciary/military leadership (the “yellow shirts”).

Bangkok is called the Venice of the East due to its old system of canals (before cars and motors, trading was conducted via boats that roamed the canals selling their goods to those on the shores). Canal markets are still used in Thailand. Many temples and shrines can seen in the cities, mixing with old and new buildings and resorts.

Yes, the story of Anna and the King is true. It’s based on the writing of Anna, who was brought to Siam by the King to teach his children; he valued literacy and education, and appreciated western thought. But Anna’s book was deemed disrespectful, and is banned in Thailand.

So we see again how old and new mix – learning is valued, but so is respect of the past.

Wishing you all a very happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Best,

MA

More Singapore Photos

Mary Anne and I visited Singapore’s aviary–the largest in South East Asia. Here are some photos taken while we were at the aviary as well as a few taken in a man made rain forest.

Joe

View from the Cloud Forest with City in the Background
View from the Cloud Forest with City in the Background
In a tropical forest
In a tropical forest
Ducks in Singapore
Ducks in Singapore
Red Myna Bird on a tree branch
Red Myna Bird on a tree branch
Standing on a rock
Standing on a rock
On a tree branch
On a tree branch

Mary Anne in the Crowd

Mary Anne watching the show

Flamingos by a waterfall

Flamingos by a waterfall

An unusual pigeon
An unusual pigeon
Duck on a rock by the water
Duck on a rock by the water
Bird show at the aviary
Bird show at the aviary
An eared dove perched on a tree branch
An eared dove perched on a tree branch

 

notes about Singapore

Singapore                                                       Sunday, March 12, 2016

Joe has been to Singapore a few times while working, and always had favorable impressions of the city (it’s a city/State actually), so he was eager to return after 10 years away. Well, safe to say, Singapore has prospered and become even more enjoyable since his last visit.

First a bit of history that hopefully sets the stage: In the 1700s the British East India Trading Company was one of many trading in the Strait of Malacca and nearby places. Britain purchased Singapore (the island at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, about 250 square miles) so that trade through Asia could be chartered through the BEITC.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was the administrator for the BEITC, and he organized Singapore by setting out a plan of roads, trade routes and neighborhoods where locals of different origins could reside (a Chinese area, an Indian area, a Malay area).   The Raffles Hotel which still bears his name (as well as many roads in the city) are a testament to his planning acumen and vision).

Raffles’ stroke of brilliance was in designating Singapore as a free port – no taxes were paid on trades here, and rival ports which imposed taxes suffered as Singapore grew. By the end of WWII, Singapore was a British colony, and this heritage is still evident, even in the perfect Queen’s English spoken by residents.

So, Singapore prospered, but it became a messy place. Enter “Harry Lee’” in the 1950s. Lee Kuan Yew was brilliant local guy who had a vision for Singapore – Lacking in natural resources, Singapore would have to figure out a way for its people to make its destiny by providing value to others.   Harry urged Singapore to gain independence from Britain (which it did), and become an industrial powerhouse. He said, essentially, that Singapore needed to become a first world nation, not a third world nation.

Under Harry’s leadership as Prime Minister, Singapore reclaimed land and build up swampy areas so that businesses and residential areas could be formed. His government (Singapore became independent in 1956) offered incentives to businesses to build plants and employ people. Petrochemical and bioscience companies came to Singapore, and the government offered scholarships to students from other lands to study in Singapore (a period of service after graduation was required, and many students stayed even longer). The population enjoys a 97% rate of literacy, and English and Malay are the national languages. Military training is compulsory for males from age 18 on (reservist style training until age 40).

Many regulations were imposed in prior years to govern conduct, and taxes for violation were imposed (no tossing of cigarette butts into the street, taxes for failing to send children to school, no littering, etc.), and these continue to this day. Singapore is a place today where you get in a line for a taxi at a taxi stand, with no one running ahead of you as you might find in NYC or elsewhere. When a pedestrian crosses the street, the turning cars just wait until there is no one in the intersection. It’s very civil and calm.

There are 2 casinos in Singapore, but the government discourages gambling by locals (a local must pay $100 to go to a casino, but it’s free for those from outside Singapore).

So today we have an island that is largely Chinese (75%), then Malay, Indian and other folks making up the balance. While religion still defines many of them when they discuss themselves, we decided on this trip to Singapore not to focus on the houses of worship, to give you a break from the endless temples, shrines, etc.

Part of the calm that a visitor enjoys in Singapore is due to the small number of cars. On an island of 5.5 million, only 10% of the population owns cars, due to regulations that limit the number of cars. If you wish to have a car and drive, you first must obtain a certificate through a government auction that permits you to drive – this is a ten year permit that costs (base car price) about $45,000 (Singapore dollars, about $35,000 US). Now you buy a car for about S$45,000 (basic Toyota model), pay some registration and insurance fees, and then you can drive for 10 years.   Thankfully, a great mass transit system allows the bulk of Singaporeans to commute to work, school and elsewhere without the need for a car.   The road system, by the way, is very organized and impressive.

Singapore is often quoted as the world’s most expensive city, but we understand from locals that this is due to the auto expense. Our experience on this visit is that the travel/taxi, food, incidental cost is not even close to the expense in NYC.

We’ll post some pix to show the varied architecture of Singapore – it is very diverse, as well as pix from the Gardens by the Bay, the aquarium at Centosa Island (which is a giant resort complex), and the Toronda Bird Park.

The Gardens by the Bay complex is incredible – very environmentally sophisticated and designed to promote consciousness of this aspect of life, but also lots of fun and very colorful.

Tomorrow we are on the road, so to speak. We’re headed to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China in the next several days.

Hope this finds you well.

Best,

MA

Penang and Langkawi, Malaysia – note and pix from MA

Penang and Langkawi, Malaysia                             March 9, 2016

We’ve now spent two day in northern Malaysia, after our fun day in Kuala Lumpur, and we find this country to be even more diverse and interesting than we thought 2 days ago.   The substantial Chinese influence in Penang was evident – red and gold everywhere, pagodas, dragons, lantern lights, Buddhas, etc. – like Chinatown on steroids. Yet, headscarves and burkas were also in view, as well as the facial markings and saris on the Hindu and Indian women.

One of our tourguides explained to us that the Malay, Chinese, Indian and Thai people in this area all enjoy a peaceful coexistence because the result is 14 public holidays every year, in addition to religious holidays for Buddhists, Hindi, Muslims, Taoists, Confucionists, Christians and others. We didn’t think she was kidding. Malay schoolchildren are taught Malay and English languages (and Tamil and Mandarin are also taught to children of Indian and Chinese descent, respectively).

Yesterday we saw tons of temples – we took our shoes on and off about 8 times as we visited the Thai Buddhist temple and the Burmese Buddhist temple in Penang (across the street from each other), and then the enormous Kek Lok Si Temple, home to thousands of Buddha statues of all sizes and poses (including a line of large Buddhas in the parking area). This temple is an elaborate complex of various styles that unfolds up a hill with various gardens, shrines and sculptures having been added over time as donations come in for expansion.

We also saw some lovely beach resorts (with prices that are very low compared to anything else we have ever seen), another batik/textile plant and some rubber plantations. And we learned more about growing rice – unlike Indonesia, which has more rain, Malaysians grow only 1 crop of rice each year, not 3.

The Peranakans (the Chinese who came to Malaysia years ago and prospered) lived an extravagant lifestyle in Penang, due in part to the profits from trading opium and other products. We visited a museum that was formerly the home of one of these titans, and saw a young couple posing for pre-wedding photographs, apparently a big tradition for the Chinese. The British colonial style architecture in Georgetown, Penang is beautiful, and reminded us of Bermuda in prior years.

The literal highlight of our trip was a cable car ride to the top of Mount Gunung Mat Chinchang (2800 feet at 45 degrees, 15 minutes up and 15 minutes down). Once you get past the sheer terror of it, it is a peaceful ride, like floating through the air and listening to birds singing. On the ride and at the top, you can look out and see Thailand, the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea.

So as we leave Malaysia (the ship has just started to move out of port), Joe and I wish you Buddha’s 4 blessings: love, peace, happiness and prosperity.

Best,

MA

PS – Almost forgot to mention another benefit of being in this spot today – we saw the total solar eclipse this morning – very cool to see.

some of the cargo passing through the Strait of Malacca
some of the cargo passing through the Strait of Malacca
front of the Thai Buddhist temple in Penang
front of the Thai Buddhist temple in Penang
a few of the Buddhas from the Burmese Buddhist temple
a few of the Buddhas from the Burmese Buddhist temple
just a few of the parking lot Buddhas at Kek Lok Si Temple (looks like a baby Buddha on the far left)
just a few of the parking lot Buddhas at Kek Lok Si Temple (looks like a baby Buddha on the far left)
Langkawi Rice Museum - a few of the scarecrows guarding the rice paddy
Langkawi Rice Museum – a few of the scarecrows guarding the rice paddy
Joe at the top of the Mountain  - note a couple of cable cars working their way into his right hand
Joe at the top of the Mountain – note a couple of cable cars working their way into his right hand
the sky walk near the cable car, in case you want to walk between mountains at 2300 feet high
the sky walk near the cable car, in case you want to walk between mountains at 2300 feet high
that's Thailand in the background!  view from top of Gunung Mat Chinchangm Langkawi, Malaysia
that’s Thailand in the background! view from top of Gunung Mat Chinchangm Langkawi, Malaysia

Penang and Langkawi

Here are some photos taken at Penang and Langkawi, both part of Malaysia. They include a shot of Kek Lok Si Temple, cable cars that Mary Anne and I took for a ride up the side of a mountain, a farmer’s roadside market in Penang, a scarecrow in a rice paddy, a woman working in a Batik factory and others.

Joe

Photo of a woman painting in a stencil in a Batik factory in Penang, Malaysia
Photo of a woman painting in a stencil in a Batik factory in Penang, Malaysia
Scarecrow in Rice Paddy, Langkawi
Scarecrow in Rice Paddy, Langkawi
Pre-wedding photo of a Chinese bride to be
Pre-wedding photo of a Chinese bride to be
Mary Anne at the Top of Gunung Mat Chinchang after trip on the Langkawi Cable Car
Mary Anne at the Top of Gunung Mat Chinchang after trip on the Langkawi Cable Car
Long Chairs on the beach in a Penang resort
Lounge Chairs on the beach in a Penang resort
A Sky Ride to the top of Gunung Mat Chinchang
A Sky Ride to the top of Gunung Mat Chinchang
One of the largest Buddhist Temples in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang
One of the largest Buddhist Temples in Malaysia, Kek Lok Si Temple, in Penang
The Gate of Heaven at Kek Lok Si Temple
The Gate of Heaven at Kek Lok Si Temple