travelogue – Nepal

When people ask where to travel in Asia, I list Nepal as the best destination.

nepal

South of the Himalaya, Nepal is a land of sublime scenery, time-worn temples, & an engaging history. It’s a poor country, but rich in the western imagination.

I’d wanted to go since E de la Nord told me of his Freak street experiences back in the hippy days. 🙂

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I was convinced the girls & women of Nepal are the prettiest in the World. Many are exotic with traces of China, India and Thai.

Many Tibetans look AmerIndian.

Kathmandu is wonderful, popular with tourists. I stayed at Tibet Guest House in Thamel for $6 / night. Excellent!

I hung out mainly at the Blue Note jazz bar.

But Kathmandu is a polluted, congested mess. Frustrating at times.

The city is in an unusual, isolated valley in the foothills of the Himalaya. It almost never snows here.

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Kathmandu’s city structure is a series of interlocking public squares. In places nothing has changed for hundreds of years.

Times were still tough. Life expectancy in Nepal was 52-years in 1996.

Mountain people sling woven baskets suspended from jute headbands. Valley people suspend loads on bamboo poles. Tourists sling packs from their shoulders.

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08It was tough to find a good e-mail cafe in Asia in 1996. The best I found was in Kathmandu.

There seemed to be only 1 bank available for tourists.

A store had recently installed the first escallator in Nepal while I was there, quite the attraction for Nepalis. I watched with amusement as people happened upon this most amazing invention. Many were too nervous to ride it.

Bhaktapur was my favourite square; timeless, clean, spacious. Back lanes filled with kids and monkeys, brick makers, potters, laundry. Dyed bright yarns hung out to dry.

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I cycled there.

Kathmandu is close to the Himalayas, but you cannot see the big mountains easily. I was keen to get closer.

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I first saw fascinating sadhus, Hindu holy men, at Pashupatinath, a busy pilgrimage site, one of the holiest places for Hindus.

Here too I saw my first burning ghat, the corpse covered with wet straw to slow the burn.

Surreal. James Brown played on a public address system.

The smell of sewage overwhelmed the smell of burning flesh.

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The same day I first visited the great stupa of Bodhnath, an impressive Buddhist shrine. It too is a pilgrim spot of Buddhist Tibetans, Sherpa and other highland peoples of Nepal.

I shopped for Buddhas here too — but eventually found the one I wanted at the Golden Temple in Patan.

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Mount Everest was a big draw.

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I had just started reading the first of dozens of mountaineering books at that time. I picked up several in Kathmandu. Just weeks later the May 1996 Everest climbing season turned to disaster. Krakauer’s book was read & discussed ad nauseum by just about everyone I know.

I signed on for a US$99 flight seeing tour to Mount Everest. We were slightly disappointed in Everest — the black pyramid quite distant. Other mountains more impressive from our vantage.

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On the other hand, flight seeing was an amazing experience and one I would recommend. You get personal with the highest mountains in the world.

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Pokhara, Nepal. Wow. I could live here.

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I was disappointed not to have time to hike Annapurna which I had first heard of from EG. The Annapurna Circuit is possibly the best trek in the world.

I vowed to return one day … and did. 🙂

Pokhara offers wonderful hostels and restaurants. I stayed at Garden Rest House though everyone was sick there. Seemed to be water related. A nurse told me the most common way to get sick is to drink drops of water on the rim of a rinsed coffee cup. I’ve been very cautious ever since.

Pokara is a surprisingly quiet place on a tranquil lake.

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Royal Chitwan National Park in the Terai was my next stop, perhaps the premiere park in Asia.

To get there I survived the most dangerous bus ride by far I’ve ever suffered. At least half the passengers vomited en route.

Stupid.

Poorly maintained vehicles, terrible mountain roads, suicidal over-taking manoeuvres, animals, children, cattle and unmarked roadworks. You name it. Seemed like a nightmare.

Signs implore drivers to Use Horn Please.

 

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I was psyched for the rhino search on elephant back. Cool!

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(I was reading the book Travels on my Elephant at the time.)

I am so impressed with elephants. What a marvellous, useful beast.

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Due to cost they are being phased out all over Asia, unfortunately.

Up to 4 tourists sitting in Howdahs set out with cameras looking for Tiger and Rhino.

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In 1911 one hunting party here killed 39 tigers and 18 rhino in 11 days.

One guide had only seen 2 tigers in 6 years working in the park! He saw more rare sloth bears than tigers.

I saw a mother Rhino with baby. And later this male who had been wounded in the rear end — punctured by the horn of another male, no doubt.

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The park was terrific. I nearly sat on a scorpion, went early morning birding with a guide & learned the marvels of dung and straw as a building material. It sets like concrete.

Another day we went rhino spotting on foot! Our guide had trained us to scramble up a tree if we came upon a rhino. They are dangerous.

When I spotted one about 20m away, a British doctor in our group refused to climb the tree as instructed. The guide threw his body on top of the doctor to protect him in case the rhino charged.

The doctor was most ungrateful when it turned out the rhino did NOT charge.

99Nepal is one of the last great places on Earth. I’ll go with you any time.

It lingers in your dreams long after you leave.

 

 

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travelogue – Cambodia

cambodia

I had never heard of Angkor Wat in Cambodia before I saw John Fair’s amazing photos. It was too Indiana Jones to be real!

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John had visited while a civil war raged with the Khmer Rouge. This was a war zone. John had a military jeep escort.

In 1996 I visited during a lull in hostilities. No major problems though I watched the mine sweepers every morning. The few tourists were swallowed up by the massive site.

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Angkor is the best known of about 100 temples, the remains of a huge centre sprawling over 75 square miles, perhaps the largest religious site in the World. The temples were built between the 9th and the 13th centuries.

Large artificial lakes, the barays & a sophisticated canal system made possible 3 rice harvests per year.

Most of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century. The temples became cloaked by forest & were lost for centuries.

Angkor is a living temple, not a museum. We enjoyed this annual festival where HUGE vats of food were prepared.

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The mighty Khmer Empire, which ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand & Cambodia is forgotten, but Buddhism persists much the same as hundreds of years ago.

I spent 3 days at Angkor with this lovely British couple. We flew in together.

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Our first meal in Siem Riep was memorable. Some sort of cold mush with slightly cooked chicken. When I went back to see the outdoor kitchen I noted the stove was wood fuelled! Electricity was not reliable.

When not touring the ruins, we chilled in their air conditioned room watching World Cup cricket. (Sri Lanka shocked everyone that year defeating Australia in the final.)

For security & safety, it was still required that every tourist have their personal motor scooter escort. Every morning I hired a bike guy for US$5 for the day.

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The people were wonderful in 1996. Happy, smiling, laughing. They knew very few words of English. Charming.

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The Cambodian people in 1996 were about 95% Buddhist. But the ruins are largely Hindu in design.

angkor_trickMost tourist including myself wandered randomly, a surprise found around every corner.

My favourite ruins were those not cleared of jungle trees.

Strangler Figs and Kapok trees entwine themselves around the ruins of Ta Prohm. Their roots burst apart even the thickest of walls, yet their clinging embrace prevents the walls’ collapse.

Everyone speaks of the victory of nature over the works of man.

My last day I convinced my motorbike driver to take me out to Banteay Srei Temple 25 km north of Angkor.

I was certain there would be no other tourists there. In fact, I was the first tourist there in a week.

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However, locals still jumped me with Coke, cheap tourist knickknacks & offers as tour guide.

I normally chase them away, but this day I enlisted a 10-year-old boy with astonishingly good English and a complete mastery of Khmer history. The site was excellent.

Cambodia is poor. They have none of what we consider essential for civilization. Yet they survive.

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One of my favourite countries visited.

After 3 days tramping Angkor for as many hours as possible, I caught the boat to Phenom Penh. It was a mad scene trying to disembark without being knocked off the rotted dock by vendors.

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I knew where to go — Cloud 9 — a righteously named backpacker hostel with a bar floating on the lake. Bowls on every table filled with free weak marajuana!

… but everyone there was too stoned-lazy to clean and roll any more joints. Almost none ever left the restaurant.

Cambodia was the least developed country I had ever visited. People were unspoiled. There were no electric street lights.

At the hostel I heard that an Australian known as AK Ray (a gun runner) had been killed & dumped in the centre of town as a warning.

For a rush I decided to wander deserted streets in the dark. Scary. The highlight was watching fat pigs eat garbage on what I assumed was a dirt road behind the hostel.

Next morning I noted it was the MAIN STREET of Phenm Penh.

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I read the horrific history of Cambodia. The Killing Fields I opted not to visit — but the Museum of Genocide disturbed me.

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Of more than 20,000 brought to this interogation / torture jail only 7 survived: sculptors who had to produce busts of Pol Pot

If you want to know more, read on. This is a Lonely Planet summary:

The French arrived in 1863. After some gunboat diplomacy and the signing of a treaty of protectorate in 1863, the French went on to force King Norodom to sign another treaty, this time turning his country into a virtual colony in 1884.

In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne, on the assumption that he would prove suitably pliable. This turned out to be a major miscalculation as the years after 1945 were strife-torn, with the waning of French colonial power aided by the proximity of the Franco-Viet Minh War that raged in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodian independence was eventually proclaimed in 1953, the enigmatic King Norodom Sihanouk going on to dominate national politics for the next 15 years before being overthrown by the army.

In 1969 the United States carpet-bombed suspected communist base camps in Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country in 1970 to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces but were unsuccessful; they did manage, however, to push Cambodia’s leftist guerillas (the Khmer Rouge) further into the country’s interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire country, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s leadership, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.

Currency was abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Responding to recurring armed incursions into their border provinces, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border. From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.

In mid-1993, UN-administered elections led to a new constitution and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, rejected peace talks and continued to buy large quantities of arms from the Cambodian military leadership. In the months following the election, a government-sponsored amnesty secured the first defections from Khmer ranks, with more defections occurring from 1994 when the Khmer Rouge was finally outlawed by the Cambodian government.

The uneasy coalition of Prince Ranariddh’s National United Front and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party fell violently apart in July 1997, and when the dust settled Hun Sen assumed sole leadership of Cambodia. Elections in mid-98 returned Hun Sen to this position, despite grumbling from opposition candidates about dodgy electoral practices. While his democratic credentials are far from impressive, the one-eyed strong man has proved to be something of a stabilising force for Cambodia.

Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 from an apparent heart attack was greeted with anger (that he was never brought to trial) and scepticism (he has been reported dead many times before). The UN has pulled out of trials of other surviving ‘top level’ Khmer Rouge leaders on war crimes charges because the independence of the tribunals is doubtful. Future stability is also tied to improving the country’s notoriously dodgy economy (dealt a body blow by the devastating floods of 2000), eradicating the entrenched culture of corruption, reducing the size of the military and answering the troubled question of who will succeed King Sihanouk, the last in a long line of Angkor’s god kings.

Rush hour in Phenm Penh.

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Much of the wealth of Cambodia was siphoned away to Bangkok. Cambodians aspired to the western ways of their Thai neighbours.

In the heat of the day I hung out at the Foreign Correspondents Club. At night I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me to the Heart of Darkness bar, the main expat hangout. Few tourists risked the streets after dark. I sat most nights with Hal, an Irish raconteur who explained the scene.

Many expats were there for the cheap prostitutes, an industry much patronized by UN peace keepers. Best deal in town? US$4 for a beer and a BJ.

One morning to the Cambodian Circus School & my route happened to bisect the red light district. It was interesting the see the girls just waking up, washing clothes, chatting like the kids they were. They all waved cheerfully.

Later I toured the tourist sites with one of the girls from the hostel.

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The National Museum is one of the most memorable I’ve visited. A gorgeous building. Limbless landmine victim beggers were stationed on the walk up.

An estimated 1 million bats live in the roof of the museum. They stink and squeal but no one wants to remove them as they control the insect population in the capital.

Australia sent a work crew to build a sub-ceiling so the bat guano would not soil precious heirlooms and tourists. The Aussie workmen reported that every night trucks would loot relics from the collection.

Many are disappointed with Phnom Penh, but I liked it. When I was there the roads still had no names.

We visited a Buddha factory. One of my favourite travel photos ever. 🙂

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This is another French colonial city. As usual, the French legacy left little … but they do have wide boulevards and good French bread!

The Royal Palace was not open to tourists, though we could look in from outside the fence. The Thai and Khmer architecture is evocative.

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A tourist couple I was travelling with took me to the market. Huge bales were displayed. We were unable to communicate with the sales woman.

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Eventually one tourist offered her a US$1 bill. She proceeded to stuff a plastic bread bag with herb.

I still look back fondly on Cambodia. More tourists are travelling there since overland transport opened.

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No one leaves this unique country unmoved.

travel – Fair-Ace Memories of Europe 1976

March 1996

Jots from the 20 year reunion party of 4 friends who traveled Europe when they were 18-years-old.

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• Four highschool pals went to Europe in 1976; Rob fell in love on the plane. I was excited; sleeping only 4 of 44 hours on that flight.

• Rob’s uncle rented an orange (“Drifters”) VW van (what else?) with 8-track! In short order Ron crunched it into a parked car. “Don’t worry Ron. We won’t have any more than the usual objections to your driving”, quipped Rob. (Actually, my diary reveals that the main accident-waiting-to-happen was Glaze driving TOO far on the right side of the road.) The driver chooses the tunes; Ozark, Doobies, or Mott the Hoople?

• Holland; Raw Herring mit onions, Potat Frits with Mayonaise, Emannuele 2. The stunning Monique.

• Germany; Munich, Deutches Museum, Dachau, German beer, 10 CC.

• Austria; Vienna, Innsbruck, skiing, and a blonde hitch-hiker from Mad city, Wisconsin.

• Rich; morning horks and vivid dream tales. One even had a title: “The 500 Million Dollar Bet or The Man Who Beat God”

• Italy; Karen (the Tigress) from Bawston at Florian’s Cafe, San Marco Square, Venice. Easter Diner in a rich Italian villa near Verona, the “King Kong” dance and, later the “Sift”. Calzone. Florence!!; Ufuzi, Michaelangelo. Urbino!. Rome; Saint Peter’s was too grandiose to Grok. I rode the city on a rented Vespa wearing ski goggles. Hey! Ron bumps into Mary Forest! Wow! Flaming Arrows to celebrate!

• Greece; the highlight. Corfu, fireflies, Domestika. Wonderful breakfast. The freedom of our own co-ed dorm. Rob Dunn Kirk Wanvic’s solo dance to Kung Foo Fighting. “Jesus, he’s going to be better than Bruce Lee.” The Greek “snake dance” followed. Kirk later showboated his rented motorbike over a bridge.

• The Bazooki bar with stolen Cami; her brother’s finest. Scotch and smashing plates. Surreal.

• Rob and Kim and a slimy sleeping bag …. The “points race”.

• Papa said, “I love everybody from the orange van.” Of course the Greeks loved Ron best. Fishing trips. Free meals. Beware Greeks bearing gifts?

• Ron kissed the ticket-girl Mary Beth good-bye leaving Corfu. A nice touch excepting that she was passed-out drunk.

• Ron declared, “If I don’t get laid before I get to Den Haag, I’ll cut my wang off.”

Ron waxed poetic …

Whether Blonde or Brunette
Whether sink of Bidette
Man it’s all the same to me,
Whether skinny or fat
I’ll be hanging a rat
And baby it’ll be aimed at thee.

• Cut-offs, tanned youth splashing in white breaker waves.

• Athens; Plaka, Acropolis light show, the BEST way to hold hands, souvlaki, Tiger balm. The night we were were wined, dined and feted at the Discotek until 3:00 am?

• Olympia; who won that race, again? Glaze was Adonis for the admiring Greek tourist girls.

• Ask yourself seriously —
is there life after youth?

• Italy; I remember leaving Pompeii. It was the first time in over a month that the four R’s had the van to themselves again. The exhilaration of freedom.

• Glaze and I searched for the “perfect meat”; marble in the famous Carrara pits. A spooky hostel on the Italian Riviera. My first ugly close look at alcoholism — the ex-patriot anarchist philosopher.

• France; Nice, Driving the Grand Prix de Monte Carlo track with Alice Cooper “Under My Wheels”.

• Remember Ron’s French bread baget sandwiches? Fresh tomatoes, mayo, 4 eggs!, with creamy melted butter.

• Best is the naive enthusiasm of youth. I still love to travel, but I no longer promise to write every person I meet.

more poetry

Sunshine

Memories;
Silent fading shadows of what we were
they are our substance
wilting ever
fading never
they always will be there.

Friends;
when we meet again
and search
together
for treasured memories
the sunshine
will still make me cry.

– Ron, Europa (1976)

James Taylor

Long ago a young man sits
and plays his waiting game.
But things are not the same, it seems,
as in such tender dreams.
Slowly passing sailing ships
and Sunday afternoons.
Like people on the moon, I see
are things not meant to be.

Where do those golden rainbows end?
Why is this song I sing so sad?
Dreaming the dreams I’ve dreamed my friend
Loving the love I love to love is just a word I’ve heard
when things are being said.
Stories my poor head has told
cannot stand the cold.
And in between what might have been
and what has come to pass,
a misbegotten guess, alas,
and bits of broken glass.

Where do your golden rainbows end?
Why is the song I sing so sad?
Dreaming the dreams I dream my friend
Loving the love I love to love to love.

Only dreams, it seems;
to hesitate
to pause and think,
to alter fate.

Faces to save,
but more to lose,
a saving grace,
another bruise?

– Rick, ‘76

travelogue – Malaysia

I travelled to Thailand from Singapore overland as quickly as I could. Later I came to regret my rush. Under-rated Malaysia is a much better country for the tourist than Thailand. …

Malaysia mapMalaysia has a superb expressway which runs the length of the peninsula from the Thai border in the north to Johor Bahru in the south. I was impressed with the terrific bus service.

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02I had no interest in stopping in KL which I perhaps wrongly assumed was another polluted Asian megalopolis. But I did glimpse the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. The architecture was inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam protecting it, I assume, from terrorist attack.

Malaysia is considered a Muslim country but I found it a charmingly pluralist place, including a fusion of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous cultures and customs.

We spent some time talking to a Muslim student, son of the owners of a guest house. What I remember best of what he told me was that his most important class was morality (religion).

I headed directly to Cameron Highlands, in the centre of peninsular Malaysia, a series of hill stations at altitudes between up to 1800m (5904ft). The climate is wonderful here when it is sweltering on the coastal plains.

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Hill stations in Asia have a rural, colonial, relaxed ambiance. Nice.

Attractions include jungle walks, waterfalls, beautiful gardens & plenty of wild flowers.

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Malaysia was my first experience in touring tea plantations. I learned this lesson: wherever tea grows, tourists are happy.

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Tea trees look quite normal unless workers start trimming them to the height of bushes. It is an amazing, labour intensive process.

Some trees are hand picked, some trimmed by scissors and workers even use a simple machine trimmer.

Intensely scenic. Textured trees on steep hillsides, terraced, irrigated steps.
My only other stop was Georgetown, on the island of Penang, off the northwest coast, the oldest British settlement in Malaysia.

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Everyone enjoys Georgetown.

Georgetown is an appealing contrasting hodgepodge of influences. The compact town is a delight to wander. Old Chinese houses, vegetable markets, temple ceremonies, mahjong games.

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I‘ll remember just hanging out, playing my Big Dave McLean cassette at the Sidewalk Blues Café.

Farewell Malaysia, the most pleasant country in Asia.

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travelogue – Singapore

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.

000It’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.

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All the fables of the exotic East.

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Cockatoos

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.

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Jurong Bird Park is very well done. Beautiful landscaping.

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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.

Pat

Singapore Zoo is best known for its orang-utan enclosure. They are so human, even super-human, that it’s scary.

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Singapore Zoo allows close contact with animals. I spent all day there, following the feeding schedule. A fantastic place.

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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.

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Some day all zoos will be like the one in Singapore.

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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.

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