Monday, July 6, 2009

Endings and Beginnings

Here's a long awaited update...starting from where I ended last time.

Wednesday night: Long story short, we ended up going back to Zirca instead of checking out Butter Factory...but it was still tons of fun. They played both "Hips Don't Lie" and "Paper Planes" on the dance floor, and I was complimented on my dance moves multiple times.

On Thursday (June 19), we had classes in the morning and then spent the afternoon at the Singapore Zoo. Despite the island being so small, their zoo is very nice, although some of the exhibits seem kind of small for the animals they house. Later, we all went to the Night Safari, which takes place in part of the zoo that's closed during the day. I expected it to be an exhibit of nocturnal animals, but some of the animals they had were definitely not nocturnal...I DID get to see a fishing cat, though, which was cool.

I was a huge fan of these gorgeous beasts

On Friday morning, Sean and I went to the Chinese Gardens, which are only a couple of MRT stops away from PGP. The gardens were very nice (it's always somewhat relieving to see a large, open space in Singapore), but it was really hot outside even though we went in the morning. We spent a little while there before heading back to the dorms to work on our papers for Dr. Emmanuel's class. That evening, we were supposed to go on the Singapore Flyer (the largest ferris wheel in the world) with a group of people, but after getting separated due to overcrowded buses, we ended up spending the night hanging out at Clarke Quay instead.

Chinese Gardens (a very modern pagoda...)

You can see HDB flats in the background

On Saturday, we headed out to Pulau Ubin, which is a small island that is technically part of Singapore. It only takes a short boat ride to get there. Pulau Ubin is really interesting in the sense that it looks much more like Malaysia than Singapore. We all rented bikes and explored the island, which would have been awesome had it not been so hot outside! We were out in the middle of the day, so we gave up biking after a while and explored the beach a bit. A few of us bought fruit from a local shop, which was extremely refreshing.

Shores of Pulau Ubin

Part of an awesome mural


Sunday was devoted to finishing the essay for Dr. Emmanuel's class. Mine was about Malaysian forestry policy post-independence, which was actually really interesting (at least to me!). Monday was our Singapore farewell dinner, which we had in a fancy Thai restauarant. Tuesday was our last day of classes in Singapore, so we had an in-class essay for Dr. Emmanuel. After we finished, he threw us a mini party with drinks and cakes from local bakeries, which was really nice.

After lunch, Yong brought us to the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority, where he recently got a job. The office was actually really cool--they had a bunch of exhibits set up for the public (information, interactive things, models of the city, etc). Singapore is definitely running out of open space to develop, so it'll be interesting to see what sort of schemes they think up in the next few decades to allow continued construction.

One of the many models of the city at the Urban Redevelopment Authority

After spending a couple of hours there, I wandered around downtown with Allison for a while and visited the National Museum very briefly before meeting up with Lionel, Nadiah, and Nadiah's friend from UNC so we could all go on the Singapore Flyer. Our tickets were a special rate for students, which definitely made it worthwhile. You get great views of the city from the top (it moves slowly enough so that you can take pictures), and since we got on at around 7 pm we got to see all the transition from late afternoon to evening. After the ride, we went to Orchard Road and grabbed a quick dinner.

The Flyer! It was still bright outside when we got there

...and it was dark by the time we reached the top

On Wednesday morning I got up early to mail postcards, and then we all checked out of PGP and headed to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. Nadiah and Yong came to the airport with us to see us off, which was really nice. The flight was uneventful, but I am quite determined to purchase a suitcause WITH WHEELS before coming back home. Lugging a 50 lb duffel bag (plus backpack, laptop, and purse) around the Singapore and Bangkok airports was...trying. Anyway, when we got to Bangkok we were met by some Mahidol University International College (MUIC) students and were taken by bus to the Salaya Pavilion Hotel at MUIC. The hotel is a part of the hospitality school and acts as a training center (and it's on the top floor of the same building our classes are in). The rooms are very posh, and we have roommates here, which is fun. Stephany is my roomie, and we're just so awesome that we always have other people hanging out in our room in the evenings...

After taking our luggage to our rooms, we had a welcome dinner in a sort of outside cafeteria/meeting area at Mahidol. The food was very tasty, and afterwards we got to see a Muay Thai (Thai boxing) demonstration and a few dances performed by students. The students had also arranged a welcome ceremony for us that was sort of a shortened version of the one they put incoming freshmen through. We all sat in a circle with candles and flowers in front of us and Mahidol students circulated with strings to tie around our wrists (to "tie" us to the university) and to wish us well during our stay.

On Thursday, we sat through an orientation, which involved a crash course in Thai language (mostly involving food and how to order it) and a presentation on Thai culture. After eating lunch in the canteen (which is both cheap and extremely convenient, as it's in the same building as class/the hotel), we had a quick campus tour. The campus here is beautiful, and we're only on a satellite campus. We're in Salaya, which is a suburb of Bangkok--the main campus is in Bangkok proper, I believe. That evening, a small group of us went downstairs to where the welcome dinner had taken place to participate in the Mahidol Thai boxing club. An instructor from a nearby gym comes and teaches the students, so we spent 2 hours learning some basics, which was quite a workout. After that, we crossed the street to find dinner. There are a bunch of street vendors on the opposite side of the street from the hotel in the evening, so you can get a variety of great food for almost nothing.

On Friday morning we had classes (Thai history with Dr. Copeland, who's an expat, and Dr. Steiner's class), and ate lunch in the canteen. After that, some of us went to the nearby Tesco/Lotus, which is kind of like a mall with a Super Target on top, to pick up some groceries. Lea and I found a Dunkin Donuts and treated ourselves to some.

On Saturday, we were split into three groups and were led around various areas of Bangkok by MUIC students. I was in the "cultural" group, which meant we spent most of our time in Little India and Chinatown. We started out our day by going to a small Buddhist temple, where one of the students bought us all incense and candles and led us through the ritual of lighting them as offerings. We then went to the only Sikh temple in Bangkok, which is a beautiful building (and fairly large). After that, we walked through some of the markets in Little India before eating a delicious Indian lunch. After eating, we all got in tuk-tuks (these vaguely horrifying bike/taxi things) and went to Chinatown. The Chinatown here is much less tourist-oriented than the one in Singapore--there's a lot of food, fruit, and spice vendors along the street, and then some other open-air markets similar to the ones in Little India. In the late afternoon, most of us opted to take a break and get traditional Thai massages. Some people got full body massages, but I got a foot massage (which turned into a foot/leg/neck/back massge). It felt wonderful, and it was only 250 baht (less than $10) for an hour! Hopefully I'll have time to get another massage before I leave Thailand. Then we took the SkyTrain (aboveground metro) to the Siam Paragon (a big mall), where we met up with the other two groups. We all ate dinner at the mall and then managed to convince taxis to take us back to Salaya in the middle of a torrential downpour.

We were up early again on Sunday so we could go on a tour of Mahasawat Canal. After driving to the canal on a bus, we split up into small groups and got into small motor boats which took us along the canal. We stopped at four places along the way, the first of which being a lotus farm, which was really cool to see. We got to go out in rowboats to try to pick our own lotuses, but there weren't that many that were in bloom. The second stop seemed to be mostly snack-oriented, but there were a couple of cats there that I befriended. The third stop was an orchid farm, which was pretty amazing to see. The fourth stop was another snack stop, but it invovled a lot of fresh fruit (bananas, jackfruit, pomelo, etc.), so I was pretty excited. After eating, we got back on the bus and drove to the nearby Don Wai market for lunch. The market is on the waterfront (of the canal), so it was pretty cool. I ate lunch at a seafood restaurant with a group of people that included one of the Thai students, which meant that we got to try a whole bunch of different dishes. We had squid, shrimp, vegetables, tom yam soup (sour and spicy with seafood!), and this amazing fish in a sort of garlicy sauce. So delicious.

View from the boat

The lotus farm

Orchid farm

Temple on the shore of the canal

View from a bridge

We had class as per usual on Monday morning. In the afternoon, we went to the nearby Salaya open-air market to buy food for a picnic which we had at Buddhamonthon Park, which is very close to the university. The park is beautiful--lots of lush, green open space with a giant statue of Buddha in the center. Sadly, it started to rain almost as soon as we got there, so we ate our picnic under one of the many little pagodas surrounding the Buddha.

On Tuesday after classes and lunch, we headed into Bangkok to meet with a representative from the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which is a conglomerate of NGOs (12 in total, I believe) that helps administer the nine refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. The presentation was really interesting--the lady who gave it was obviously extremely knowledgeable about the entire situation. It was especially helpful to me because my group has to do a presentation on refugees in Thailand for Dr. Steiner's class next week. After the presentation, we went to Suan Lum night market for dinner and shopping before heading back to MUIC.

We had some free time on Wednesday after classes, which Stephany and I used to catch up on work and sleep (as you may be able to tell, we haven't really had any chances to sleep in late on this leg of the trip...). On Thursday afternoon, we went to the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) regional headquarters in Bangkok for some presentations. Needless to say, that was awesome, if only for the fact that we were in a regional headquarters of the UN! We sat through a few presentations on different types of refugees in Thailand (Burmese, urban, etc.) and had a few minutes to ask questions at the end. Afterwards, since we were already downtown, Stephany, Allison, Peter and I decided to explore and eat dinner in the city. We ate dinner in a small Thai restauarnt that Peter had discovered earlier and then walked through Khao San Road (famous for backpackers) just to have a look around. After that, we took taxis to Chinatown (sadly, it was mostly dead by the time we got there) and Baiyoke Towers (the tallest building in Bangkok).

There was no class on Friday, so we all left bright and early to visit the Grand Palace and Wat Prakaew (also known as the Temple of the Emerald's within the ground of the Grand Palace). Seeing those was amazing--some of the buildings in the compound were centuries old, but they've been extremely well-preserved. After walking around the palace/temple complex, we had lunch nearby and then went to the Siam Museum. I wasn't a huge fan of the museum. It was very "modern," for lack of a better word. There were only a few actual artifacts (and no signs to tell you what they were); most of the museum was devoted to written displays in dimly-lit areas with a few ill-conceived videos and interactive exhibits along the way. The fact that I was tired and dehydrated before even starting to walk through probably did not contribute positively to my appreciation of the place. It was late afternoon by the time we were finished with the museum, so although I wanted to stay in Bangkok to explore, I went back to MUIC to rest.

Saturday (the 4th of July!!) was our day trip to Ayutthaya (the old capital of Thailand), which is a little over an hour away by bus. When we got there, our first stop was the Ayutthaya Historical Center, which was basically another mediocre museum. Thankfully, we didn't spend much time there. From there we drove a little way to an elephant camp, where we all go to ride elephants in pairs (and yes, Mom, there will be pictures). We were driven to a mall to have a lunch before we headed to the ruins of Ayutthaya. I think the best thing to do at this point is to post pictures:

The elephants we rode

The first part of Ayutthaya we visited

All of the Buddhas are headless due to an enemy attack

The second place we visited

Since it was the 4th, Dr. Steiner and his family offered to have us all over for a makeshift celebration at the house they're staying at, which is really close to MUIC. While other people showered, I went to Tesco/Lotus with Kelsey, Hanna, and Allison to get food and supplies for 30-some people. We are quite the super shoppers...there was certainly no shortage of food. Monique and Laura stayed at MUIC and ordered pizza (since we lacked facilities for a legit cookout), and the group of us that went to the grocery store bought chips, cookies, drinks, watermelon, oranges, cucubmers, ice cream, and doughnuts. We all squeezed into the Steiners' house and alternately chatted, watched Venus and Serena play each other in the Wimbledon finals, and had a patriotic/UNC themed sing-along. All told, it was a pretty amazing 4th of July.

On Sunday, we woke up early YET AGAIN to go to JJ Market, which is the largest (and I think cheapest?) open-air market in Bangkok. It only operates on weekends, I believe. I only stayed for a couple of hours, but I got a fair amount of my shopping for friends and family done. I spent the rest of the day trying to catch up on work for class.

We had class today, as usual. Sadly, it's some sort of holiday right now, so MUIC is basically dead (ie, nothing on campus is open except for the restaurant associated with the hotel). I was planning to go into Bangkok this afternoon, but I decided to stay in to finish writing this and to do research instead. It was probably a good decision--it's been raining pretty heavily for a while now. If the weather clears up a bit, I might go back to Suan Lum night market this evening to finish up my souvenir shopping. Tomorrow I'm going to go into Bangkok for sure to check out some things I've been meaning to see.

Only a couple more weeks until I'm home again! Oh, and Lionel's birthday is tomorrow...we'll find some way to celebrate with him, I'm sure. I'll update again soon!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Malaysia, etc.

On Friday morning we left bright and early for a short trip to Malaysia (by bus). We were joined by Nadiah, Dr. Emmanuel, Dr. Steiner's family, and a tour guide named Francis. Francis meant well, but he was rather...talkative. Almost none of us had eaten breakfast, so after we crossed into Malaysia we stopped in a small town for prata and pulled tea (this amazing milky, sweet tea you can get here). There were tons of stray cats hanging around, but I managed to resist buddying up to them.

After that, we headed to Tanjung Piai Johor National Park, which is home to a mangrove swamp. It's also the southernmost point of continental Asia. We only spent a little while there, which was kind of disappointing since I think mangroves are really interesting.

long-tailed macaque


For lunch, we stopped in a fishing village and had wonderful, fresh seafood. Francis ordered the food for us, so we all got to eat bok choy, tofu, fishball, fried fish, prawns, squid, crab, and possibly the best clams I have ever eaten (they were in a wonderful sauce and were so well-cooked that they melted in your mouth).

The fishing village where we ate lunch

View from the restaurant

From there, we had another few hours in the bus before we reached Melaka (also known as Malacca). Melaka was once an important port on the spice trading routes (it's situated on the Strait of Malacca) and was colonized by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. Influences from all three are still evident today. We stayed in the Puri Hotel, which is in the historic district (it kind of reminded me of the Gloria Hotel I stayed in while in Jerusalem because it also had a central courtyard layout). We arrived in the late afternoon, so after settling in Nadiah took a group of us to the nearby night market (basically, an open-air market that only operates at night). Allison, Laura, Monique and I ended up eating dinner with the Steiners and Dr. Emmanuel, which was fun.

On Saturday, we were all led on a walking tour of historic Melaka by Dr. Emmanuel after eating a wonderful breakfast provided by the hotel. We started out at the Porta de Santiago, the only part of the original Portuguese fort (A Famosa) that remains. It's at the bottom of the hill that is home to St. Paul's Church. After visiting the church, we went into the Melaka History Museum and looked around for a while. From there we walked up and down a few famous streets before eating a splendid lunch at a Peranakan (Malaysian Chinese) restaurant. We were given the rest of the afternoon to explore on our own. That evening, I went back to the night market with Stephany and managed to pick up a few things to give out when I get back.

Porta de Santiago

St. Paul's Church

awesome graffiti/mural

On Sunday, we all checked out of the hotel after breakfast and drove to the countryside for our bike tour. The tour was meant to give us a look at rural Malaysia, and it started out in a palm oil plantation. Almost all of the girls on the trip braved a squatter toilet before starting the journey, which is always tons of fun. I think the bike ride was around 10 km (NOT miles, as many people are claiming) long, and very little of it was on paved ground. One particularly harrowing part was on a narrow path with a barbed wire fence only about a foot away. I managed to make it through relatively unscathed (I have some interesting brusies and scrapes on my legs) although I had a few run-ins with shrubbery and the chain came off my bike at one point after I unintentionally went airborne. The ride was very rewarding (seeing the plantation, some houses, rubber trees, etc.), but I was somewhat relieved when it was over. We ate lunch at a nearby hotel and changed out of our muddy and sweaty clothes in the bathroom before the bus ride back to Singapore.

On Monday, we had class in the morning as usual. I spent the afternoon working, and around dinnertime a group of us headed to K Box, a karaoke bar near PGP. The way karaoke works here is that you and a bunch of friends pay a flat rate for the use of a room with a karoke machine and 2 drinks each. Karaoke was extremely fun, although I'm sure I made a complete fool of myself (you can't really hear yourself singing...). We mostly sang in mobs, though, so it was okay. Selections from the evening: Every Breath You Take, I Believe I Can Fly, Barbie Girl, Wannabe, Hollaback Girl, Toxic, Lady Marmalade, I Want It That Way, Bye Bye Bye, Brown Eyed Girl, Rehab, Say My Name, That's Not My Name, Just Dance, etc...

Tuesday after lunch, Dr. Emmanuel took us around Fort Canning Park and the area around Arab Street. Fort Canning Park once was home to a functioning fort as well as a graveyard. After the tour, a bunch of us ate dinner on Arab Street at this restaurant that makes great murtabak (basically prata with meat in it). I had chicken murtabak, which was both delicious and very filling. Afterwards, Kelsey, Sean, and I bought some mangosteen and then attempted to start researching for our group project, which didn't really work out. However, we DID make it to Clarke Quay in time to get soursop margaritas before happy hour ended (they're significantly cheaper then).

Fort Canning Park

We had free time this afternoon, so I set out on my own to wander around downtown and buy souvenirs for people. I started out at Bugis (there's a big open air market there) and then took the MRT to Chinatown, where I got a bunch of postcards (give me your address if you want one!). Then I got back on the MRT and went to Little India, where I had a delicious dinner of mango lassi and onion masala dosa.

It's Wednesday, which means tonight is ladies' night at all clubs, so we're about to head out to Butter Factory (a club which overlooks the water on Clarke Quay). More later!

Oh, and for the benefit of Noots, a mangosteen experience:

The inside usually looks more appetizing...I kind of mangled this one