To see annotated photos jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s photo archive.
I flew to Singapore unexpectedly much against the advice of backpackers.
Unexpectedly, I quite enjoyed the city state.
Though Singapore is only 100km from the equator, the weather was lovely while I was there.
It’s ultra-modern, ultra-clean and impressive to look at. Many credit former leader Mr. Lee for steering Singapore to juggernaut economic status.
Many blame Lee too for creating a police state. I chewed gum when I was there — a crime in Singapore.
It’s known to be expensive — but not if you if you stay in Little India & eat on Arab Street. Masala Dosa at famous Komala’s. And the street food at the night markets is the best I’ve ever found.
Raffles Hotel Singapore.
All the fables of the exotic East.
The Russells told me to visit the zoos of Singapore, perhaps the best in the world. The beautifully landscaped Jurong Bird Park expanded my appreciation. I’ve been a closet birder ever since.
Jurong Bird Park is very well done. Beautiful landscaping.
At the excellent raptor show, I was first to volunteer. A number of impressive carnivore birds landed on my gloved fist. They pack a surprising wallop.
Singapore Zoo is best known for its orang-utan enclosure. They are so human, even super-human, that it’s scary.
Singapore Zoo allows close contact with animals. I spent all day there, following the feeding schedule. A fantastic place.
I took a break for dinner, then returned to enjoy the zoo at night. You can both walk the enclosures and take a small, slow train.
Some day all zoos will be like the one in Singapore.
An important site for me was the Changi Prison memorial, out near Changi airport.
James Clavell’s King Rat, based on his own experiences as a Japanese POW there, is one of my favourite books. It was a pilgrimage for me, inspired by instructions from IB.
To see annotated photos jump to the permanent webpage in Rick’s photo archive.
I was really looking forward to Thailand in 1996, undoubtedly the most exciting destination in Asia, in my mind. It was my first visit.
Great beaches, sexy women, great food, breathtaking natural beauty & ruins of fabulous ancient kingdoms.
But transport from the airport to the backpacker centre of Khao San Road was insane, one of the least pleasant airport runs in the world. It was an inauspicious start.
Bangkok is one of most polluted and congested cities in the World.
The climate is great — between November & February. The rest of the year it is either sweltering or flooded.
Sooner or later, every Asian traveller arrives at Khao San Road.
Khao San Road is one of the three Ks of Asia: Kuta Beach (Bali), Kathmandu and Khao San Road.
I was overwhelmed at first. But later grew to love the scene.
I met Sin on Khao San Road, a lovely guy & very organized 26-year-old Japanese backpacker who was travelling 50 countries over 3 years. Sin was the first serious traveller I spent time with.
I was impressed. He definitely influenced my growing love of travel.
Sin’s girlfriend had caught malaria in Africa and was suffering a flare-up in Bangkok. Every second day she needed to lay in bed. Alterrnate days she toured with us, completely healthy.
The Japanese doctors advised her to stay in Bangkok for treatment rather than return home as the doctors here were far more familiar with the disease.
The infamous Tuk Tuk, symbol of Bangkok.
A louder, smellier, more dangerous mode of transport is hard to picture.
Beware anyone who offers you a free Tuk Tuk ride. There are scams aplenty in the sleazy city.
Khao San Road grew up because it is close to major tourist attractions of Bangkok; the National museum, the Grand Temple & Emerald Buddha, and my favourite, Wat Pho.
The second largest Buddha image in Thailand is housed in this, the oldest and largest wat in Bangkok.
Built around a brick core and covered with plaster that is finished with gold leaf, the eyes and feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
This Buddha is huge. And the first reclining Buddha I had come across.
Wat Pho is my favourite temple complex because it is alive, full of monks, kids, students, festivals, soccer games, yoga classes & massage tables.
It houses a bizarre collection of salvaged Buddhas and statuary.
I read more about Thai culture than any other in Asia. Fascinating.
Insects are a popular treat though I passed on the fried scorpion.
Kids catch huge flying insects with butterfly nets, then roast them over the open fire as snacks.
I first saw a Mantis in Thailand, easily the most impressive insect. (Might be tasty too, I wouldn’t know.)
I was keen to visit Patpong, the famous Red Light district of Bangkok.
But by 1996 it had become more tourist attraction than brothel. Families wandered about clicking pictures.
I had a beer in one bar featuring Kick Boxers as entertainment. And I saw the famous clubs where bored topless girls sit behind glass walls watching TV — identifed by felt pen marker like triathletes.
But I left only with fake designer watches. Patpong has become the best night market in town.
Shopping for Buddhas is a popular pastime.
My strong interest in Buddhism started here in Thailand. I like the philosophy & was struck with the contrast between the tolerant Eastern God symbol of the wet paddies as compared with the harsh, unforgiving God of the desert.
I loved a tour to Ayuthaya, one of the ancient capitals.
It’s easy to day trip from Khao San Road. Buses and vans roll in day & night.
Wat Pra Sri Samphet in Ayuthaya, Thailand.
I prefer ruined ruins. They are more evocative of the past than those restored.
The lovely and bizarre Bang Pa-In Palace in Ayuthaya .
Back in Bangkok, I learned to commute by river taxi. Quick, convenient and scenic. The only way to go.
Somewhat disappointed with the crush of Bangkok, right up my alley was the lure of a hill tribe trek in the rugged north.
Our guide was Tien, a former kick-boxer who had travelled in France, fought the Lao in the army, worked for the mafia, & shot tiger with a head torch.
He led us on a three-day trek in Doi Inthanon National Park; Meo country.
We had a good group, all pleased to be getting out into the jungle. This is a very popular tour — over a million take it every year!
The raft trip is a blast. We floated and poled our way through jungle for several hours.
After sleeping in an authentic Karen village, the big highlight was an elephant ride.
Later I travelled to South Thailand and visited a butterfly enclosure. Wonderful.
I’ve taken every opportunity to commune with flutterbys ever since.
I made every effort to avoid it but still somehow found myself in sleazy Phuket, haunt of European sex tourists.
Actually I quite enjoyed a day trip from there to James Bond Island, one of the striking limestone formation typical to this part of the world. We stopped at a Cashew factory & a unique Muslim fisher village on stilts. Sea food dinner was great.
In 1996 the next big thing in Thailand was Ko Tao, a comparatively unvisited and undeveloped island known only to scuba freaks.
I love snorkelling so it immediately became my destination.
Wow. Ko Tao.
The Koh Nangyuan Dive Resort is paradise — the triple bay layout of the island means good snorkelling regardless of weather.
I floated many wonderful hours here.
On a whim I decided to kayak around Ko Tao, a trip which took me about 8 hours.
Unfortunately I got sunburned, so badly so that I felt I should seek medical attention in civilized Singapore.
I would return many times.
Last word: Thailand is often noted for the warmth of the people. I had the opposite experience. I found the Thai cold and aloof, perhaps sick of tourists. The folks in Cambodia, Lao and Myanmar are much happier & more patient with us.
I consider Hong Kong my home away from home in Asia. I could live there.
In 1996 jets still landed at the infamous Kai-Tak Airport (closed July 1998). This approach over densely populated apartment buildings was scary spectacular!
I was forewarned of the high cost of travel to Hong Kong. Backpackers held the city state as a place best missed.
Wrong. I loved Hong Kong instantly and found it quite affordable for the careful penny pincher. This was the first of many trips here.
A typical scene in the tourist ghetto of Tsim Sha Tsui, at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula. Shops, restaurants, pubs, topless bars and camera stores.
Kowloon is also home to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the Space Museum, the famous Peninsula Hotel and the Museum of History.
The Promenade, in East Tsim Sha Tsui, is a great place for a stroll, and has wonderful views of Victoria Harbour, particularly at night. The liveliest night market in the territory is on Temple St in Yau Ma Tei.
I stayed first at the infamous Chung King Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui.
I ended up on a top bunk bed with a window looking down 45 floors. What if there was a fire? An earthquake?
It’s amazing these buildings have not been torn down.
I made every excuse I could to hop on the Star Ferry, an inexpensive commute across Hong Kong harbour.
East meets West here. It was the confluences and contradictions which most attracted me.
The public transportation system is terrific. It is easy to get anywhere quickly.
I made the manditory tourist pilgrimage up the cable car to Victoria Peak. 552m (1810ft)
The vista is amazing.
My second night in Hong Kong I moved to Mt. Davis Hostel, high up on Hong Kong island with a harbour view. What a discovery! It became my hostel-away-from-home in Asia on many future trips.
At the hostel the talk was much focused on the hand-over from the British to the Chinese which was to happen a year later in 1997. Many residents were nervous. Affluent Chinese families bought homes in Vancouver and Sydney … just in case.
This is a laugh riot I penned (after returning from the Middle East) for a friendship newsletter put together by Ron Shewchuck and Kate Zimmerman.
Here comes the end of the World.
This is no “Howling Down the Middle East” but rather “Howling Down Middle-age”. The Lifebeat Man should deny aging as he denies death, winter, and the dangers of aspartame.
But, in the fall of ‘94 I started to feel old. I don’t know why. The receding hairline? The steady decline of body functions? Or the fact that I really am old? After all, we’ve been running this fu¢k!ng planet for a long time; the novelty is starting to wear off.
When I reminisce of youth, I think of Mason — that great jumper-off-cliffs. Did he die at 19? Or did we all live forever like I thought at the time? Where has youth gone?
I left Calgary in 1990. Now it is ‘95 and I live in icy Saskatoon, where all forms of sexual deprivation are practiced. What have I done for the past 5 years?
Well, I have become a student of LIFE — which may be preferable to actually having a life. In preparation for this missive I read Maugham and Hesse. I watched The Shawshank Redemption and Groundhog Day. I re-watched The Big Chill and re-read Time Enough for Love. What better sources of life wisdom are there?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure that I’ve gotten any closer in my pursuit of life wisdom. I’ve had a good time trying, though.
And I’ve done a few things right. I traveled to visit with friends who had seemed to disperse in some weird Brownian motion. I’ve traipsed some damn fine golf courses. After all, no one on their death bed wishes they had spent more time in the office.
I’ve had the best possible mentor in Keith Russell who taught me to pay a little closer attention to detail, along with everything else.
And I’ve traveled the World. If you’re going to tread water, you might as well do it in the Nile.
I liked the Middle East; the spectacular desert landscapes, peerless architectural sites, the haunting call to prayer, and the fantastic starry, starry desert night.
The people are wonderful, especially the proud Bedu. Camel-herding desert nomads, the Bedouin are a cultural, not an ethnic, group. Their poverty and hospitality is legendary. In the land of baksheesh, they refuse money with contempt. They are untaxed, ungovernable, and free.
Our perception of the region and religions is laughably wrong. “Islamic fundamentalists” are the most honest, charitable, and least hypocritical people in the world. Jordan and Syria vie for the friendliest people in the guidebook awards every year! (Mohammed did muck-up when he included, in the Koran, that straight-to-Heaven Holy Jihad clause.)
Indeed, the evil Syria is probably the last best tourist destination left in the world. Jordan was even better until King Hussein opened the flood gates to Israel in ‘94. It is already too crowded with neo-crusader, white trash tourists.
I’d recommend travel in the Arab countries to anyone who has a stoic tolerance of raw sewage and intense cigarette smoke.
My main complaint is the plight of women in Islam. It is still 1100 AD for Muslim ladies there. I now realize that the single greatest advance of man is the emancipation of woman.
The study of Egyptology is the study of death preparation. The Pyramids were ancient when the Biblical Abraham got there. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any secrets in the tombs nor from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead”.
Another Western seeker entreated a monk at Mount Sinai, Is there anything I can send you?
The monk replied, with a smile, What I want, you can’t send.
So, is it game over? No fountain of youth? No loopholes? No back door to Heaven?
Well, …I’ve checked out Hinduism and Buddhism and plan to report back. Perhaps there’s something in this reincarnation business.
In the meantime, did you notice that old age is mellowing the Lifebeat Man? That this is a kinder, gentler Lifebeat column? Devoid of personal attacks. No exposé by way of exaggeration and selective grotesquery. No libel.
Nah, I ain’t mellowing. It’s simply fear of the looming Day of Atonement. I don’t want to have to answer for additional sins to a vengeful Western God. That’s all.
May your moisture not be fled.
Ma sha Allah!
Apologies to Rob Glaser, Keith Russell, Ramses II, some monk, Mohammed, & Konwicki.
masterful Photoshop work by Ron Shewchuk 🙂
When I wrote this I had just moved from Calgary to Saskatoon, the summer of 1990 — expecting to stay 1 year.
I was a tourist in Saskatchewan.
I drive home alone from Saskatoon to Calgary, in September, in the late afternoon. I take the smaller, stair-casing highways, speeding with impunity. There seems to be no R.C.M.P. left in Saskatchewan.
I drive through towns with great names like Bounty, Wartime and Conquest. Who got to name these places?
The prairies are a never ending stream of checkerboard fields, barns, churches, cows, dust-devils, road kill and ponderous, overloaded farm trucks. The heat rises off the roadway and seems to evaporate the mirage pools of water before I can enjoy splashing through them. The smells are … well, unique to the Prairies. And I never knew there were so many hawks in all of the world.
Grand daddy grasshoppers wing by as big as birds. Slower, less experienced insects splatter my windshield. The freshly oiled gravel roads splatters my car as well, but I don’t care.
I stop at Outlook, Saskatchewan and sit out in the middle of a sandbar in the middle of the Old Man River. The air is calm, the sun is smoking and the song in my head is called …
I never believed that I’d grow old.
The sandbar is the highlight of the drive. Glorious. The last day of the longest summer of my life. I wish it would never end.
If I could make a wish,
I think I’d pass …
Like everyone else in Saskatchewan, I listen to CBC AM radio constantly. The weather is updated every 15 minutes. They report that the canola is too dry to reap. It will shatter if harvested. But the wheat is still too moist to take off the field. Saskatchewan is one big Catch-22.
Driving West into the setting sun, I find myself alone with my thoughts. I dream a grand scheme.
As night falls, I approach Drumheller and the badlands. The warmth from my big mug of tea is comforting.
It’s harvest here. Dusty farmers take dinner on the tractor this evening and plan to work all night. I see the bright lights of combines bobbing along in the dark in every field.
I drive home alone from Saskatoon to Calgary in September.