Hawker’s Delight

Southeast Asia is a dizzying swirl of motos, heat, pollution, and arguably some of the world’s best food. Amidst this frenetic thrust of humanity, Singapore emerges as an oasis of calm. The motos have been up-scaled by European cars and the MRT, the scent of orchids (and the occasional durian) lingers in the air, and you don’t seem to mind the heat and humidity when you’re distracted by Singapore’s many other charms. People who like to chew gum may argue that it’s a bit too uptight and boring, but after living in two countries in SEA it’s a feat that such a place exists, and continues to defy the expectations of its neighbors. From the moment you arrive at Changi airport, Singapore is a breeze. People speak English, Western toilets are ubiquitous, the water is potable, and things run efficiently. Yes, there are times when you feel like you’re taking part in some massive social experiment, or trapped within the pages of Brave New World. Aldous Huxley may have been envisioning the future Singapore when deriving the motto “community, identity, stability” for his utopian World State. Interestingly, the two most taboo topics in Singapore are criticizing the government (Big Brother is watching you), and racial discrimination. Even the Housing Development Board (HDB) goes to great lengths to maintain social stability. They are currently building and renovating millions of flats, each of which have their own schools, markets, playgrounds, and food centers. These flats have strict quotas of racial mixing, and generally are comprised of 33% Indians 33% Chinese and 33% Malaysians. Despite the social engineering at work, Singapore is a dynamic and multi-faceted place. The best way to discover its many facets is to embark on a gastronomic tour de force throughout the city.

The ideal starting place for a food tour of Singapore is the hawker centers. The hawker centers brings together the Singapore of new and old, and fluidly meld the countries varied culinary traditions. For those not familiar with hawker centers, a hawker centers is a Southeast Asian market where vendors sell food from small booths- more or less a love child between food carts and food courts. Long before hipsters were frequenting food carts in Portland, immigrants from all over the world were frequenting hawker centers in Singapore. Lau Pau Sat, the “original” Singaporean hawker center first opened in 1838, and currently stands amidst a busy commercial district surrounded by sparkling skyscrapers. While eating satay and guzzling down Tiger Beer, it’s amazing to think that just 50 years ago Singapore was a squalid island exhibiting little economic prowess. As each wave of immigrants arrived to Singapore (predominantly Chinese, Indian and Malay) they brought with them their own cuisine. Today, most of these cuisines remain undiluted, although every once in a while they fuse together to create local favorites like chili crab, laksa, and fish head curry. The last time I came to Singapore, a friend passed along her copy of the book, There’s No Carrot in Carrot Cake. Before heading to the hawker centers, pick up this book to give you some insider info and a visual of the foods you’ll be sampling. Once you’ve mastered the art of hawker centers, you’ll be fully prepared to explore the more upscale dining establishments, without the risk of spending your money on something you won’t like. Wherever you end up, rest assured that you’ll never grow hungry in Singapore- it borders on mania how many places there are to eat in this city.
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The other anomaly that you’ll discover in Singapore, and won’t in SEA’s larger cities is Singapore’s commitment to sustainability and green space. In 2002, Singapore launched the Singapore Green plan, a plan that continues to improve the quality of air, water, waste management and ecology. The island that Sir Stamford Raffles first happened upon was an uninhabitable swamp with next to no natural resources. Since then, Singapore has worked tirelessly to reinvent itself (they’ve even chosen to add on more land to the island) without forgetting its formerly fragile self. We traveled to the neighboring island, Pulau Ubin to see what was described to us as the “old” Singapore and were left somewhat disappointed. The island was beautiful, and like the old Singapore it was full of mangrove swamps, but given the amount of time it took to get there and the smallness and over-security of the island it wasn’t worth it. We rented mountain bikes in hopes of some rugged terrain, and were left with gently rolling hills and highly guarded areas that visitors were unable to trespass. Later in our trip we decided to visit MacRitchie reservoir, which we found to be far more satisfying. The reservoir is home to primary and secondary rainforests, and also some very friendly monkeys. My other favorite retreat (and I don’t seem to be alone in this) is the botanic gardens. Every time I visit, I’m amazed that an island as small as Singapore can contain more plant species than all of North America. One look at my backyard and Colorado, and this could be confirmed. The last out-of-doors recommendation I can make is to visit the Night Safari. As the safari cart snakes through the zoo, you almost feel like you’re encroaching on some sacred time of day for the animals, but you can’t bring yourself not to pry. Antelopes come within a hands reach, as flying foxes loom overhead. The evening concluded with a nighttime creatures show, and I almost died from cuteness overload when a small otter swamp up to the stage to show the audience how to recycle. He dribbled around the aluminum, paper, and plastic before slam-dunking each into their respective bin.

Sitting in Chiangi airport before my flight home to Indonesia, I mentally began preparing myself for the third world and its constantly entertaining bucket showers and squatty potties. I couldn’t help but wander the price that is paid to live in a developed country. It began to boggle my mind the amount of economic, environmental, and political strain countries like Singapore endure in order to exist in the first world, while their neighbors struggle to exist in the third world. Each day new citizens and tourists arrive. Many of these people have never had the luxury of potable water and hot showers, and there are others, like myself, who have lived a whole life in a developed country, but greedily consume the resources before returning to my new life in a third world country. In his book, Collapse, Jarred Diamond states that one of the world’s biggest problems is the “increase in total human impact, as the result of rising Third World living standards, and of Third World individuals moving to the First World and adopting First World living standards. “ However, the perspective of a person from a developed country living in developing country slowly but surely loses its acuteness. Somehow Perceptions changing is different from changing perceptions. For the sake of all of us, it’s important to remember to draw the line at losing some acuteness rather than losing some sensitivity.
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Laid Back Laos

Laos is by far SEA’s most languid country, and also its least accessible(so whatever mode of travel you’re using make sure you allow enough time). If there’s one thing I can recommend you NOT do, it’s taking the fast boat from Chiang Kong, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. This was perhaps the most harrowing adventure of my life, and after 8 hours of ricocheting off rocks along the Mekong, I feel fortunate to have survived. The slow boat is a much safer option, and will get you in more of a Laotian state of mind.

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Luang Prabang was one of my favorite cities in SEA, as it is isolated, well preserved, and not buzzing with incessant motos. I rented a bicycle here, and found it fun to cruise around and look at the numerous wats, or stop in at some of the cafes (the French influence is more evident in Luang Prabang than in the other cities in Laos). Make sure you get up extra early and give alms to the monks, and also don’t miss the night market if you want to stock up on souvenirs. If you’re interested in cooking classes,they offer a good cooking class at the restaurant Tamarind in Luang Prabang. If you decide you don’t want to cook, they supposedly have wonderful food (it was closed when I was visiting).

The true beauty of Laos lies in its verdant landscapes, so I would try and spend more time exploring its waterfalls and mountains than in Vientiane or Vang Vieng. If you decide you want to see Vientiane, I think a day or two should be more than enough time. I would bypass Vang Vieng as it’s been overtaken by eternal spring breakers.

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