Friday, April 30, 2010

45 Anniversary of the liberation

Without planning I got to Song Krang in Chiang Mai, Pii Mai in Luang Prabang and now I have been in Hanoi when they are celebrating the liberation of Saigon. I had a fireworks display right from my hotel room window. I hope my luck continues.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The train ride from Saigon to Hanoi

For those of you wishing to view a gallery of the photos, it is here

It felt good getting onto a train again. The Vietnamese train is not the most well-maintained, but it was so far the most comfortable train ride that I have had. I was in a compartment with four beds and all the people that I rode with were Vietnamese. I was very fortunate, for most of the way, I had the company of a magazine editor, Khai. During the war, he worked for Radio Vietnam. And he has also worked for Vietnam tourism and has traveled around much of Asia. It was a valuable insight into the Vietnamese view of history.

Some of the things that I learned from Khai is that the Vietnamese people had be colonised and traumatised first by the French and the Americans. Da Nang was the port of entry for both the French and Americans. From the point of view of the communist, they were not fighting an ideological war with western powers, they were fighting for their country. This was a viewpoint that I have not come across before. And there were problems after the liberation of Saigon, but the future of the country was in the hands of its own people as it should be. And Khai himself admitted that in Vietnam today, there is a problem with infrastructure, education and corruption, but still, seeing what I have seen in Saigon and Hanoi, the people are thriving and there is an energy of hope here. The Vietnamese have learned more from the Chinese than the Russians, and this form of economic free market with communist government, does not seem to be all that bad.

The train ride once again showed me vast lands, sometimes of woods and sometimes of rice fields and sometimes of dragon fruit farms. And scattered amongst the landscape were ornate graves, sometimes the just the grave of a single person, sometimes a sizable cemetery. And the french legacy was visible too, churches at the foot of hills, reminiscent of country side scenes in Europe. And I wonder about our lives in Singapore, as rich as and privileged as it is, there is a much bigger world out there. I am not saying that I would want to live in a farm in the middle of Vietnam, but I do wonder what the life of those toiling figures that I see in the train's window is like. What are their fears, what are their hopes.

On this journey, I am alone and do feel lonely at times. But I am also comforted by the fact that the world is so big, and I am reminded all those huge problems that I faced in Singapore working and living, is not such a big deal after all. If the people in Vietnam can find hope after hundreds of years of strife, why should I be negative. Khai told me that he does not feel hatred towards the Americans, in fact he sympathizes with the families of Americans who lost their lives in what he considers a futile war.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

One Night in Saigon

For those of you wishing to browse a gallery of the images, it is at

The choices that I make on this trip are truly arbitrary. But aggressive wheeling dealing cities have never been high on my list of want to get-to-know cities. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is known now, is such a place. And if my noise apprentice, Guo Jie, is to be believed, there is almost nothing to see in Saigon (I will use Saigon here because it is more poetic). And he showed me what was worth seeing in one night. I suspect that there is more to see in one of the two major cities in Vietnam, but it is the bustle and human chaos that throws off the gentle soul of Guo Jie. I do not blame him, the bustle jars on my nerves as well.

But it was very nice to have met Guo Jie in Saigon, eat Pho Bo with him and walk to the Majestic hotel to have a diet coke while over looking the Mekong at night. The Filipino band belting out 80s pop music though, were more going through the motions than actually performing.

Over dinner, Guo Jie told me that he was in a panoramic phase, shooting in 16:9 format. And he has found quietness in the anarchy of Saigon. My 16:9 format images for this posting is a gentle nod to Guo Jie's present style, but instead of only finding stillness, I also took pictures of the more typical adrenaline rush of Saigon.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Of Clouds and Silver linings

After dreaming for over a decade and planning for a year to travel overland, deciding to come back to Singapore after three weeks because of diarrhea was not an easy decision for me. But I just could not be sure if I had a parasite in me or not. So I came back and visited Dr Tan Chi Ciu, a specialists in this area. And to make sure that things were ok, I had to go for a scope. I had told him about my overland trip and he joked with me and said ' Just take this like a journey, but a different kind.' Dr Tan is an ACS boy, with a sense of ACS humour.

Well, the good news is that there were no more signs of any infection so there is really no medical reason for me not to continue the trip. And it sounds like I might have taken a break for no good reason.

The bad news is that after the violent diarrhea that I had, I now have irritable bowel syndrome, so whether I have an infection or not, I can get diarrhea like symptoms. So traveling on 10 hour bus rides with no toilet breaks would be a horrible idea.

The good news is that I have been given medication to control my stomach and so far I seem to be almost normal, except for feeling a bit bloated.

The bad news is that the scope and the medication cost a bomb. And I am going to carry even more medication in addition to the considerable amount of medication I am already carrying.

The good new is that the travel insurance will be paying for the expensive scope and medication.

The bad news is that aside from checking the diarrhea, Dr Tan found a polyp in my intestine which can eventually become cancerous as well as Helicobacter Pylori which leads to stomach ulcers and cancer.

The good news is that Dr Tan removed the polyp and he will be treating me for the Helicobacter Pylori infection when I return from my trip.

Well, the calculation on whether I should have come back in hind sight is way too complicated for me to compute. I really do not know. I talked to a friend of mine and she cut the Gordian knot for me. She told me that I was already back, there is no use looking back. And she is right, I cannot go back now and there is no use wondering what if. I mean this diarrhea has inadvertently helped identify two possible causes for stomach cancer in the future. I had a full health screen before leaving on this trip but without the scope, none of this was picked up. If anything, I think the diarrhea and the medical examination is a blessing in disguise. So I broke my overland trip but in life, shit happens, literally.

So tomorrow, Monday, I fly to Ho Chi Minh City to take the two day train ride along the coast of Vietnam to Hanoi. And this was the other complicating factor, the red shirt stand off in Bangkok. My original plans was to go back south from Laos to get to Ho Chi Minh City to do this train ride, but that would have meant passing through the volatile Bangkok. And if my tummy had held out in Luang Prabang, I had decided to cut west across Laos straight to Hanoi, skipping the two day train ride. But now since I am taking a few flights anyway, I am going to get to go on this exciting trip. And I am looking forward to it.

A friend of mine suggested that maybe I should remain true to the overland journey and start over again. I am sorry, at this point of time, I really do not want to go through Thailand. Things are on a knife edge there. And any train journey would take me to Bangkok, the centre of the tension. After reading Terzani's book, one other option occurred to me, to take a boat some where. And I checked it out, there is a cruise ship that would go to Hanoi and then to Hong Kong, but it would leave on the 1st of  May. It would mean that I would skip the Vietnam train ride and that I would by bypass Guilin too. This is because I have a set timing for my tour in Mongolia and if I leave Singapore later, I would have to forgo certain places. I realise that I am being way too pedantic about going 'overland'. I could be technically correct by not taking the a flight out, but I would be missing the fun exciting parts of the trip, the real adventure of the trip. My greatest lesson from Song Krang in Chiang Mai, don't take life too seriously, have fun.

I am flying out on Monday for Ho Chi Minh City. I am having dinner with my noise intern Guo Jie on Monday night and then I am going on a beautiful train ride. Life is good.

I was in Singapore for a week. I had no idea what was happening or what to do. But I managed to catch Ming Wong's installation 'Life of Imitation', 'Through the Looking Glass' at 2902 gallery which has a few really good John Clang works, the gala premier of Wild Rice's 'Animal Farm', Theatrework's 25 anniversary 'Time Capsule' exhibition, 'Kick-ass' which Kicks Asss and 'Mao's Last dancer' which made me cry.

There is so much happening in Singapore and I am so happy. But I need time for myself, to just find new horizons. I was in Singapore for a mere week with a medical situation and I was approached to participate in a civic project and to do an additional couple of shoots. While I appreciate being wanted, this time for myself is critical. This trip is part of my training, to help me find my focus again, and to re-energise myself. And I will come back to Singapore and work again, this is my home. But I believe that I will come back re-invigorated and being able to do even better work, both for myself and for people who would hire me.

The trip continues. The next post will probably from Vietnam.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Luang Prabang in Black and white (Blanc et Noir)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Thoughts before a break in the journey


On the last night in Luang Prabang, I had a Hawaiian pizza for dinner. I have conceded that not all is well with my tummy and that I need to return to Singapore to make it well before I continue with my trip. So eating a Hawaiian pizza was actually pretty good. It tasted nice and it sat well within me.

After dinner I walked through the night market, looking for something to buy with my remaining kip. My body felt out of sorts, but I suspect that it was more to do with the stress of deciding to return rather than the effects of diarrhea or dehydration. I looked at the tourist souvenirs on sale and realized there was nothing that I would be happy to put on my wall or give away. And behind the stores I heard the sound of Laotian Music. It was a new year's celebration happening at Wat Mai. So many Laotians, dressed up and wearing a beautiful sash across their bodies, were making offerings to the buddha. Offerings of candles and bunches of Magnolia flowers, simple and elegant. Although there were tourist mingling with the crowd, this was not a tourist affair, like the huge parades they had down the streets during the day. This somehow was a slice of the life of the Laotians.

At the back of the temple, was a group of Laotian Hanumans, dancing before a local audience. The night before I had gone to the Royal Ballet Theatre hoping to catch a performance but was turned away, perhaps because of a power outage. And now before me, were Laotian dancers performing for free. After the group of monkeys came a group of demons. Each group had differing movements, concise and purposeful. The locals and tourists clapped appreciatively after each group. And then came a group of female dancers, the lead dancer in white and other dancers wearing red and gold behind, one dancer looking no older than eight years old. I have seen 'local dance' for tourists, there were some in the temples in Chiang Mai, thoughtlessly going through meaningless stylized motions for money. This was something different, every dancer was dance. They were deep in concentration and somehow it felt like the movements were not meaningless, it was an articulation of their ideals, their essence. And they were not performing for money, they were performing for their own people, in front of their buddha. I was mesmerized.

I know some people like my travel photographs and I am grateful for that. But I do not travel hoping to publish a book, or to check off some list of things to do. I travel in the hope that by allowing myself to live my life, experiences happen. And there are experiences like the wildness of Song Krang, and the purity of the dancers in Wat Mai last night. I suppose that the stomach problems that I have been having are just as much a reality as the wonderful experiences. There is no sanitization of reality. I think that we go to the theatre to watch live performance instead of just buying a video of a performance is that the performer can fail during the performance. On the other hand, the performer may give the performance of a lifetime. So the experience is priceless, the photographs are just shadows.

So little is going according to the plans I made in Singapore, and yet it already is turning out to be a truly personal journey.

One of the reasons I am on this journey is because I have never been physically robust and I have been over protected. I was not allowed to join the scouts. I went to London Contemporary Dance School for a year training to be a dancer but I fell sick so often I realized that my body has its limitations. It was a bitter blow to give up dance. And once again, this stomach problem is a reminder that I am not made like an explorer. But I refuse to accept this limitation. I refuse to stay at home and wrap myself away from harm, because this would mean that I would cut myself off from living as well.

My parents were so worried when I went to dance school because I have a back problem. They were probably waiting for me to become paralyzed from the waist down. But that one year in dance school, was the happiest year of my life. There has been no other defining experience in my life like that year. And for a moment, my body has woken slightly from its slumber and I could feel life to my finger and toe nails. In the end, it is my personal need for living life to the full that stopped me from pursuing dance as a career. My own personal limitations would have made me unhappy and bitter. And now in photography, I have found a more appropriate mode for living.

This personal journey, is to travel in spite of myself. There is no perfect time, body or circumstance for travel. And now I have to make a detour, I am not going to give up and call it a day. I will get back to the journey and do whatever I can. The cocoon of security in Singapore is something that will be good and useful when I am old and frail. Imperfect as I am, I want to be as open to doing as much as I can. And the challenges that come with moments of experience, are all on par for the course of living. Ultimately death will come, but until then why would I want to live a surrogate life, a shade of death of my own fear's making?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Going with the flow and stopping the flow

Except for the idea that I want to go overland from Singapore to London, which I have already failed, there was no grander plan to this trip.  There is no agenda to the trip other than taking the trip. A grand dreamer and the points along the route are arbitrary. Whispers and recommendations from the past mingling with what is possible now.

I used to go to Penang Hill with my family when I was younger, but I hardly saw George Town. Now I know it a little better. I followed my father when he started learning meditation in the North of Thailand. It was close to Chiang Mai, but we never went to Chiang Mai. There is a difference between the beautiful temples in Chiang Mai and the austere, basic wat in Hit Mat Beng. It always seems to me that religion has two separate paths, one for people who are seeking answers, and those who wish to purchase their salvation.

I have heard so much about Luang Prabang from my cousin Alison and how beautiful it is. And it is a beautiful city, an amalgam of rustic charm and french chic. What I did not plan for in my travels is to be in the Lunar New Year, both in Chiang Mai and in Luang Prabang. This was just good luck? I do not know, but I have seen a lot celebration on this trip. I guess what all this celebration is trying to tell me I should not take life too seriously. Like all the water being thrown around, ultimately, I have to go with the flow.

Unfortunately, my tummy is still flowing after two weeks. I thought that it got better after taking a course of antibiotics in Chiang Mai, and there are days I am perfectly fine, but at other times my stomach still runs. I do not feel very sick but I also realise that I am in no state to take long trips on trains and buses for now.  Sometimes shit happens.

Anyway, I am returning to Singapore to sort my tummy out. After two weeks this seems rather pathetic to me, but I guess that this is part of the 'flow'. I will have to decide later where to take up this trip again. For now, I am pretty upset, and I am not talking about the tummy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Packing for travel

Traveling out of a bag for several months is challenging. Deciding what to take along took some thought.

I guess to start, I decided to take two Olympus E-P1s on this trip with me. I have the 17mm pancake lens which I use the most. I also have the 14-55mm kit lens. I also got a Panasonic 40mm portrait lens. After shooting day in and day out on a Canon 5D and 5D mk II, I find that the E-P1s do not capture as much detail, especially in the shadow areas. That being said, I once went to Europe carrying just a Canon 350d, and the entry level of the Canon cameras also had a less than superb dynamic range. However, by shooting in raw and working on the files, I get pretty decent results. I think carrying a 5D and lenses would leave me too tired to enjoy the trip. And for me, the experience of traveling is more important than carrying all that weight. I am just happy that the E-P1 came out last year. It is just the correct compromise for the trip. I could have bought something like the Canon powershot G11, which would have worked for the day photos. But the E-P1s come into their own at night, in street scenes. Even with less than perfect autofocus, I find the E-P1s good in low light. A lot of people have complained about the focus performance of the E-P1s in low light, comparing it to DSLRs… compared to the G10, it is pretty darn good.

To process files and make blog posts like this one, I brought along a Mac Book Pro 13". I really needed something with some processing power, the Air would just not have cut it for me. The other option is the entry level Mac Book, but the 13" Mac Book Pro is actually lighter than the plastic Mac Book. Once in a while our eyes fool us. I got a portable firewire housing for an external 500gig drive. I use carbon copy cloner and back up my entire Mac Book Pro drive to this external drive. The best thing is something happens to the main drive, I can still boot from the firewire drive.

I bought 'Surge' by Novothink for my iphone. It is an extra battery pack with a solar panel. So far, the solar panel does not seem that effective. But the battery pack works well. I have enough juice in my iphone for two days. But I am careful, switching off 3G and wifi when I am not using them.

With the suggestion of Wan Sheng, I subscribed to Bridge, a data roaming service for Singtel. I bought the 15mb package and it is not really enough for extensive use. Finding wifi hotspots is much more effective. However, there are times when I am lost, having a data link is useful to get map info.

It is funny, but the clothes actually do not take up much space. It could have been even lighter, but I have a very warm sweater, a pair of gloves and a woolen cap for Mongolia. It is cold there throughout the year. Perhaps I should have left this with my friend in Hong Kong. Ah well.

I am caterpillar boots. The boots have ankle support, which is important, but have quick release. I toyed with the idea of wearing the new Gortex army boots for this trip, but tying and untying shoelaces would be such a pain in ass. And considering the number of Buddhist countries I am passing through, where I have to take off shoes to get into temples, this is unthinkable.

I think that the star find for me though is walking trousers from Marks and Spencers. They have a line of outdoor clothing called Blue Harbour. They have many pockets and some of them with zips. Very useful for passports and money. Honestly, I know about neck safes and wallet pouches, but they both make me feel uncomfortable. These walking trousers rock!!

So I packed everything into a High Sierra backpack. I do not know anything about backpacks but this works for me. For security I bought a pacsafe. It is a wire mesh which covers the bag and allows me to tie my bag to a pole or something solid.

It amuses me, but I lined my back pack with a black trash bag. A throw back from my army days. I guess I learnt something there.

Thailand - Black and White slideshow

Songkrang - Chiang Mai 2010

Chiang Mai impressions


I seem to have started very fast and then simply stopped here in Chiang Mai. I have spent a week in this city. It is not too big, but also not a straight forward city. I did spend a fair amount of time in my room trying to calm an over exuberant tummy, but I also slowly explored this city. I was quite upset on the first night I went out into the night bazaar and found a perverse Disneyland of t-shirts tailored to tourists. It reminded me of that song, 'Love for sale', where you can buy young love, old love, any kind of love but true love. But something in me decided to give it a chance. And the next night, I found the market that the locals go to. I also found a row of more upmarket shops along Charenras Road. I am particularly fond of The Gallery, an old Chinese wooden shophouse, which is now an upmarket gallery and restaurant. The food is good and reasonably priced.

I find the temples in Chiang Mai beautiful. And even though it is a tourist destination, Wat Doi Suthep in the hills outside Chiang Mai is still worth the visit. I find the rich gold on red walls elegant. And it has been hard for me to ever find gold elegant. And the buddhist statues of saints and the buddha, slowly being covered in fluttering gold leaf, seems to reflect that one does not reach enlightenment unscathed, intact, but via a path of imperfect trials and tribulations. And there is humor here too. At the front of what is proclaimed 'The Centre of local Culture of Wat Pupparam', is a life sized statue of Donald Duck. And it little shrines all over the city, are toys amongst the religious figures. But the ultimate sense of humor must be their religious new year, Songkran! This must be the largest water fight in the world, and it lasts about a week! I have never seen so many super soakers and pails in one place before. And everyone gets into it from the kids to uncles and grannies. I think life, via Songkran, is trying to tell me to loosen up. Life should not be taken too seriously. And with so many people on the streets, dancing and having fun, it is a potent message.

Oh yes. And thank goodness for Zip Lock bags! Essential for Songkrang.

In spite of the turmoil in Bangkok, and over twenty red shirt protesters dying, it is still peaceful here in Chiang Mai. I heard that there is unrest here too but I have not seen it. What I do find extraordinary is the grace of the people. There is very little hard sell here in Chiang Mai and I get a sense that the Tuk Tuk drivers are not as mercenary as those in Bangkok.

I have not explored the villages around Chiang Mai. I guess this is for another trip.

It may be the April heat, but Chiang Mai has left a mixed impression on me. I guess like any largish city, one must separate the wheat from the chaff.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Malaysia - Black and White Slideshow

I was at a local night market in Chiang Mai last night and I decided to convert the images to black and white. And suddenly it hit me, this is not a tourist journey, but a personal one. I went back to my Malaysian images and started converting more images to black and white and I think it portrays my journey better than the colour ones.

A first compromise

I thought that my tummy was better yesterday, but it woke me up this morning and I realised the situation is a little more serious than I took it to be initially. (This is definitely a Penang bug.) So I took a Tuk Tuk to the Chiang Mai Ram hospital and got checked up by a doctor. He gave me a course of anti-biotics, as well as Kaolin and oral rehydration salts. The anti-biotics course is for four days.

I actually feel fine and the doctor says that in general I am fine too. It is just that I have no control over my marathon tummy.

Well, I really cannot take a long bus ride or boat ride right now. The three day trip to Lao Prabang by bus and boat is simply fool hardy. I am staying a couple more days in Chiang Mai now and taking a flight to Lao Prabang on Wednesday. Fingers crossed all will be fine. Otherwise, I may take a flight home to sort this out. So unglam I cannot believe it! But I guess that this is not life threatening and in other respects I'm fine.

On the other hand, I found a really nice guest house closer to the river yesterday, and I hope to shift there for the extra two days in Chiang Mai. And the other thing is that I will be here for the first day of the Songkran Festival, the wet and wild one.

I had plan to take one flight while on tour in Mongolia. But it was not really a compromise because the trip from Singapore to London would have all been by land. This trip from Chiang Mai to Lao Prabang though would be the first compromise.

What to do? When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

RED means STOP

My initial plans for my travel through Asia was ambitious. After Chiang Mai, I intended to take a boat trip to Lao Prabang in Laos and there after a bus ride to Vientiane. Then I would go back to Bangkok, go through a relatively questionable trip through Cambodia so that I could arrive in Saigon in Vietnam. This is because I heard that the two day train journey from Saigon to Hanoi along the coast of Vietnam is beautiful. The snag here is that Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has just issued a warning against visiting Bangkok and other nearby regions because of protesting red-shirt supporters of Thakshin.

Hmmm… I am not a photojournalist, and this civil unrest does not attract me. I am sure that I have friends who are flying into Bangkok to cover this unrest, and I wish them the best.

So a week into my trip, I have to make a major change. Instead of going back South after Vientiane, I will be cutting across east to Vietnam instead. I can still can part of the train ride to Hanoi from Vinh. But this means that I will have quite a few days to spread around. Just as well, my tummy is still running faster than I am in Chiang Mai. So I will be taking a bit more time here in Chiang Mai, in Lao Prabang and in Sarpa. I guess the two day trip from Saigon to Hanoi can wait for another trip, another blog.

The distance I have traveled so far is 2113 km. I sure it is more because the tool I use has the direct distance between cities, but I guess this is not too far off.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sleeper trains

It has taken me two days to get from Penang to Chiang Mai. I took a ferry from Penang to Butterworth and took the IE36 train to Bangkok. On the train were backpackers, Malays and Thais. The backpackers were the loudest bunch, talking about the places they have been to, the food they have eaten and the things they have done like diving and surfing. One British couple had a huge surf board with them. They were told that they could take it onto the train without any extra fee at Butterworth, but once we passed the Thai border, they were asked to place the surf board in an unsecured hole and pay an extra 150 baht fee for the board. They were issued a receipt for the money.

For most of the 22 hour trip from Butterworth to Bangkok, we sat on the train seats. But the seats were transformed into surprisingly comfortable beds by the train attendant. It was a whole load of fun, but bumps and rocking of the train, does make it more difficult to get a full nights rest.

Hualamphong Train Station

I got into Bangkok at 11.30 and went immediately to buy my train ticket for Chiang Mai. The train left at 6.10 pm and I had about 6 hours to kill. I went to an internet cafe next to the station to book my hotel in Chiang Mai and check up on email. The owner of the internet cafe asked me where I was from and when I said Singapore, he said it was a great city. And I smiled. And as he said, 'You want to live in Thailand?', two truck loads of red shirt protesters drove past the shop. 'No, I guess I would not want to be living in a place of civil unrest.'

Hualamphong Train Station

After squatting for a few hours more at the Black Canyon cafe in Hualamphong train station, I got onto the special express train 1 for Chiang Mai. This time I had a Thai artist sitting opposite me. His name is Meng Kai. He was furiously doodling on any surface that had space for him to draw on. He told me that he knows a Singaporean artist living in Bangkok, Joseph Ng. The world seems small. We talked about pop art, Japan and architecture. He does not like Frank Gehry but prefers the simple lines of Endo.

Next to us is traveling a family of a Thai woman with American accented son and daughter. Her traveling companion was a bald headed Sri Lankan gentleman that engaged in conversation with Meng Kai and I by calling us brother.

On these long train rides, the landscape changes, some times rice fields, sometimes palm trees, sometimes, coming close to Chiang Mai, a sparse forest reminding me of the title of a book I read years ago, the Stik of Stik. And whether in small towns or big cities, what is obvious is humanity, unglossed, stoic, living in spite of the circumstance.

For me I am traveling in spite of myself. I had a mild cold just before I left Singapore and a remnant cough continued to follow me to Chiang Mai. More disturbing is that I must have eaten something bad in Penang, and my stomach has been gradually getting more upset. I thought that if I just let it be it would resolve itself. But it has not.

So I got into Chiang early this morning, at 7.45 am and checked into my hotel. I have spent the day in bed eating the medicine my father bought for me in Singapore. Fortunately, I took this opportunity to finish off the book, 'A Fortune-Teller Told Me' by Tiziano Terzani. I had already read 'The Great Train Bazaar' by Paul Theoroux before I left Singapore and although an easy read, I found it a little dry. Terzani's book was much more of a personal journey, insightful into the politics and nature of the places he visited.

I hope that I will be in shape to take the boat ride to Lao Prabang in three days time.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A tourist in Penang

I played tourist in Penang, and it was nice. I did not try very hard to search out hidden secrets, but went with the tourist flow, sitting on a rickshaw and being taken to famous temples and Peranakan homes. And yes, eating well all the way. You can see that the 'modern' world is encroaching on life, but there is still plenty of charm left in Penang.

It strikes me that the scale of George Town Penang, is small, but its aspirations are the same as people all over the world. So many people want to be healthy, wealthy and somehow avoid death. But if you cannot avoid death, let's home that the living relatives will send pleasures like cars and mansions and soft drinks to the other side by burning paper representations of them.

Are we all just searching for other things that we do not know? We are bound by our circumstances, and we try so hard to manipulate it. When our little human efforts have their limited little effects, we pray for higher intervention. We make offerings to figures, hoping that someone else or something else will perform a miracle for us.

I may not have the faith that many people have, I believe in living. This trip is a pilgrimage to life. Taking photos is part of my meditation. Perhaps this act is like that of circling a sacred monument, perhaps it will bring salvation. Or perhaps the moment is perfect, but I am simply too blind to see it.

The first stop on my long journey was very nice and I want to come back to visit Penang again. I do hope that this bodes well for the rest of my trip.

Kuan Yin Temple

Kuan Yin Temple

Altar in a tree outside Kuan Yin Temple

A Hindu altar outside the Kuan Yin Temple

Altar outside the Kuan Yin Temple

Khoo Kingsi Clan House - Part clan house, part religious temple

Khoo Kingsi Clan House

Khoo Kingsi Clan House - Ancestral tablets and a reminder of the inevitable

Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple

Offerings for the dead,Lebuh Carnavon

Altar at the Chew Village by the sea

A relatively modern dream, already cast aside

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pigging out in Penang

I do not know anyone in Penang. I wanted to come to this town where I have heard so much about but have never really visited, but this is the town where Shin, who was my studio manager for a while, was born and raised. Shin is living in Chicago right now but she asked her sister to take me out and feed me. And what a day it has been. Shin's uncle has the most outstanding Hokkien Mee I have ever eaten. It is thick and full of pork lard. And the Penang Char Kway Teow was great too.

During breakfast I learnt that Shin's grandmother had a shop that sold noodles. Shin's parents ran a restaurant in Penang. And now Shin's mum owns stores selling food in Camden, London. And of course, it makes sense that Shin is married to a chef. It's all in the family.

This is the incredibly rich Hokkien Mee.

And this is Shin's uncle who loves his Hokkien Mee.

After this rich meal I visited a Buddhist temple that Shin's grandmother used to go to because Shin's mother was there. I guess that I will visit Shin's mum in Camden when I get to London. Something to look forward too.

I spent the afternoon exploring George Town. But in the evening, Shin's sister came and took be out for another treat! Nonya food. And before you say we have that in Singapore, we do not. I had inche kabin tonight, which I have not had in years! And there was Roti Barbi and Choon Peah which I have never ever eaten before. This wonderful food is really unique!! The otak is pretty good too.

What a day of eating. Penang is defintely worth an eating trip by itself.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Good Bye Singapore

Good morning Singapore. A taxi drive named Gua Chee Leong took me to the train station. The first thing he said when I got into the taxi was 'To the airport?'. I clarified that I wanted to go to the train station and he was saying that not many people go to the train station nowadays. A bit sad. It is a beautiful station.

Samantha came down to send me off. But it was very early, 6.30am and she had to have a cup of Teh Aliah to wake her up.

And Sam taking some photos of me. I guess this is good because there is no way I could take pictures of myself with my rucksack and back pack together. I will have to return to Singapore to see the pictures though. Thanks Sam, for the send off and pictures.

The journey beckons...

Frosted windows looking up at Singaporean flats.

The first thing I notice while traveling, the very first thing really, is how small Singapore is. Sometimes I think of Malaysia as Johor Bahru or Kuala Lumpur, but Malaysia is a huge country. And there is so much space, it just feels more open and reminds me of how small I am.

Kuala Lumpur Central Station

The comfortable clients of KTM.

Afternoon rain.

I am in Penang now. The trip has started and for those of you who were wondering, this is not an April Fool's joke.