Looking back at this exact same period last year, it is amazing how much my life has changed. Sometimes it feels like I am living another life. I am blessed that I somehow always meet nice people in every stage of my journey through the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world. Undeniably, I have met people who are less kind and more selfish but why focus on the negative aspects when you are given so many positive things?
I met Marcus at the Books and Beer event in March and we have been hanging out almost every week. He is quite a rare kind of guy who likes to read, write and listen to classical music. I remember this day as the day that I drank the day away. We went to Milagro restaurant at Orchard Central, ate and drank a little. We later proceeded to a Japanese place at Marina Square and continued to drink cheap beer and talk. I remember we spoke about how sad it is that as we grow older, close friends just drift apart. We agreed that what frustrates us is not that people have different priorities but how they no longer make the effort to stay in touch. That night, I met Rowena at Robertson Quay and ate chirashi-don, drank sake and reminisced about the good, old JC days. I remember we tried to recall the lyrics of the school song but we couldn’t remember so many lines. In the end, we searched for the lyrics online and as we looked at the lyrics, we wondered what some of the words actually mean. It is funny how such thoughts never crossed our minds back then. 🙂
Yuebo is pursuing her Masters in Science Communication at NUS and one of the graded components of the course is to give a scientific presentation at Science Centre on a Saturday. Marcus and I went for her talk and watched how she used simple demonstrations and cartoons to explain the reaction between Coca-Cola and other commonly found items at home. The other presenters also attempted to explain scientific concepts in very fun ways! I especially remember the lady who made a piece of glass disappear in a solution of oil. After the program, we went to explore Science Centre and watched an iMax movie.
I did a solo trip to Sapa, Vietnam over the Good Friday long weekend. I went to Sapa with Vegan Travel which was a travel company based in Hanoi. Along with 4 other tourists, we took the sleeper train from Hanoi to Sapa and we spent the next two days walking through the rice terraces and the villages under the hot sun. It was quite a funny experience because there was no guide who was with us throughout the whole journey and if not for the group that we had, I am sure I would have been lost somewhere. The Hanoi guide took us to the train station and left us once we got on the train. When we arrived at the Lao Cai train station, someone picked us from there and brought us to a very nice hotel where we got to shower, eat a nice breakfast and leave some of our belongings. Another person, a local woman, took over us from there and she was our guide for the 2-day trek. When we started the walk, a few local women started walking with us. At the start, I was rather apprehensive as I thought that they would be aggressively selling things to us. However, contrary to my expectation, they did not force us to buy anything during the course of the journey. The local women helped us a lot through difficult terrains and when the going was easy, they just talked among themselves. When we finally parted ways at the lunch venue, the ladies tried to sell some local products to us and all of us bought something from them. I guess we were all rather grateful for their help through the difficult part of the hike and buying from them is a way to show our gratitude. 🙂 Below is a picture of the woman who was helping me and I. She is apparently 60 years ago; I cannot believe that because she seemed so fit and nimble!
According to the local guide, the men in Sapa are very shy so they just stay at home and do farming. We also learnt about the complicated familial rules regarding land inheritance in Sapa. We also saw a gorgeous sunset from the homestay at one of the villages and we ate a really great dinner with the local family who was very hospitable. 🙂 I feel that even though the people in Sapa are poor in cash, they seem a lot more contented than us. The Dutch guy on the trip said that it is the concept of “more, more, more” that is making us unhappy because we are never quite satisfied with what we have.
Chizuru came to Singapore for a 3-day visit on very short notice and I was very lucky that I was not too busy during that time and I could spend quite a bit of time with her. I showed her around the cultural area (Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam) on the first day. I remember we took a break at the National Library and she commented that she liked the library (maybe for the A/C :)). On the next day, we went to Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands. Prior to her visit, I did not know that TWG is a Singaporean tea company; I always thought it was British. We went to have afternoon tea at TWG in Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands and it was funny when we realized that the other customers in the restaurant were all Japanese. I told her that they must be all reading the same Japanese guide book which strongly recommended this place. 😀 In the evening, I invited her to my house for a simple home-cooked dinner and we went to Night Safari after that. Before she left on the third day, we went to NUS together and she seemed to like NUS (especially Utown) quite a bit. Chizuru looks like she has gotten used to her work now even though she is still working insane hours. I hope that she will continue to find happiness and meaning in her crazy job and I really hope to see her very soon in the near future.
On Mother’s Day, I met up with Marcus and we ate at the Redpan at Marina Square. Redpan sells fusion food which is not exactly my cup of tea but nonetheless, it’s a great place for food and drinks. We went over to Esplanade to watch a free Beautiful Sunday concert. For this concert, veteran singers sang beautiful Chinese oldies (e.g. 月亮代表我的心) so as to celebrate Mother’s Day and it felt a little bit like an indoors getai. Marcus usually watched classical music performance so I was happy that he indulged me by joining me for the concert. I think we were among the youngest audience in the whole concert hall. One of the songs had a pair of lines that really resonated with how I feel lately: 命里有时终须有 命里无时莫强求. I believe that we are where we should be at any point in time and we are meant to do the things that we do and meet the people that we meet. Things will come your way if it’s meant to be that way so there is no need to force the issue. Maybe this is a passive way of thinking about life and it may not be suited for people who want to do big things. But for me, I think this mentality makes me a happier person and if I somehow rise to every challenge that is thrown at me, I think I can achieve my own kind of success. All I do not have is a plan as to why I have taken each step. But to be honest, who live life according to their own plan?
We had a belated Mother’s Day dinner at Marriott Hotel with the extended family on my dad’s side. Before dinner, we went to ION SKY and observed Singapore from above. We agreed that the buildings look a lot more imposing and beautiful from ground level. From the top, buildings look rather toy-like and unreal (do people even live inside them?). We also spent a lot of time debating on the location of various buildings that we are accustomed to and it was quite fun. Dinner was expensive and fancy and we overate quite a bit.
Over the Vesak Day weekend, I went with Rowena to Yogyakarta – a part of Indonesia that I always wanted to visit. We had a good mix of cultural things and outdoor activities over the short trip. Marman was our local guide and he was really professional and we loved the fact that he brought us to places that didn’t have too many foreign tourists. I feel that the places that I loved most about the trip were not the ones on the “to-go” or “must-do” list. Prambanan temple, a Hindu temple built in the 9th century classified as a UNESCO heritage site, is very beautiful but it has too many people for my liking. The temple that I prefer is the small and empty Buddhist temple which charges a small nominal fee of 2000 rupiah that is not located too far from Prambanan temple. I don’t know its name but when I think of temples in Yogyakarta, the image of that Buddhist temple comes to my mind. We also watched a Javanese ballet on the epic love story between Rama and Sita in the city centre at night. The ballet was quite intense at some point as they used real fire for the scene in which the white monkey was burnt. On the next day, we climbed an ancient volcano and saw a very nice panoramic view of the Javanese countryside. After that, we visited Goa Pindul where we did cave and river tubing. It was quite amazing to see colonies of bats inside the dark cave and it was some fun to do a bit of cliff diving inside the cave. After lunch, we did some beach-hopping and we were impressed by the very huge waves which struck the cliffs mercilessly. Apparently, no island stands between the South Pole and this Indonesian coast and that is the reason why the waves are so huge in that area. Yet again, I am in awe of how big the world is and how small and insignificant humans are. If we are more aware of how small we are, will we lead lives with more humility and will our daily struggles and frustrations seem more unnecessary and futile? I remember Marman played English pop songs in the car on the journey back to the Yogyakarta city and we had fun singing karaoke together. Here is a happy picture of us at the final stop of the day. 🙂
One afternoon, I went for lunch and desserts with two of the co-workers, Qianyu and Xinrong. It was funny because that was the second day of Ramadan and many cafes in the Kampong Glam area were closed so in the end, we settled for a Japanese eatery in Bugis Junction. After lunch, we went for nice Korean desserts at Nunsongyee and chatted a little while longer. To be honest, that’s one thing I don’t quite like about this job – the fact that we have our own timetables and it’s sometimes close to impossible to find time to eat together and chat over food. It was good that we finally found time to get to know one another more and I really hope that this was not the last time. They are really lovely ladies who have helped me tremendously in more than one way and I want to keep in touch with them whatever the future may bring. 🙂
Laia came to visit for 2 weeks during the June holidays and it was so awesome and normal to have her around. I really like how we pushed each other out of the comfort zone, how we both loved having deep conversations about the meaning of life and how we could sometimes understand each other without speaking. Like how we put it, we are same but different. It’s really cool how sometimes the same thought occurred to us at the same time. 🙂 Laia had a little issue with the flights on her way here so she flew in 12 hours after her original departure time. I brought her on a little tour of Singapore on the first day and we saw both the heritage areas and the fancy, artificial area around Marina Bay. Here’s a happy picture of us at Kampong Glam. Before the flight to Thailand, my dad drove us to NTU and we saw the Hive (aka Dimsum building) and we all agreed that it was a way too fancy Student Hub. Maybe I will be able to make use of the space in the later part of the year. 😉
We spent two days in Chiang Mai and two days in Bangkok before heading off to Myanmar. In Chiang Mai, we took a one day tour that took us to places, including the Wat Rong Khun, the Golden Triangle and the village with the Long Neck. Interestingly, the tour guide spoke in two languages – English and Chinese and that’s probably a quick indication to show how popular Chiang Mai is with the Chinese tourists. Wat Rong Khun is essentially a one man project designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat and even though the temple was badly damaged in the 2014 earthquake, the artist decided to restore the contemporary temple. The toilet beside this temple was perhaps the most fancy toilet that I have been to. The Golden Triangle is the tripoint between three countries – Thailand, Myanmar and Laos and the area is the second biggest producer of opium in Asia. Apparently, after the death of the drug lord Khun Sa in the 90s, the Thai government has managed to convince the indigenous people on their mountains to grow tea and coffee instead of poppy. Eradicating poppy fields is not as easy as it seems because 1) the sales of opium is more profitable than other crops for the farmers and 2) there is still guerrilla fighting in the mountains, especially in Shan State, and that makes it hard to enforce the law. The Long Neck tribe (Kayan people) is one of the victims from the unrest in the mountains and they fled to Thailand to escape from the conflict. The Kayans are given “conflict refugee” status by the Thai authorities and consequently, they are not allowed to find employment as they are stateless. Making a tourism business out of the stateless Kayans involves quite a bit of ethical issues: http://epicureandculture.com/thailand-long-neck-women/ Can we even do something for them?
We visited four temples in Chiang Mai on the next day – Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Phan Tao and Wat Chedi Luang. We also spoke to a local Thai teacher who told us that the students here spent 1 hour a week on meditation class. Quite amazing!
We took the night train to Bangkok and it was really interesting to see how train seats could be converted into beds! Bangkok was a lot busier than Chiang Mai and surprisingly, we needed to haggle for the taxi fare in Bangkok as well. We visited the Royal Palace which was crowded with many tourists from China. In Bangkok, we also learnt more about lese majeste and what we should not do to stay out of the Thai prison. After visiting the palace, when I was throwing my ticket for the palace in a rubbish bin, a man kindly told us that the ticket was valid for a few places. So in the end, we spent the rest of the day at the other palace and a few temples. Some school girls helped us to figure a way to take the boat down the river to get to where we wanted to go. We also visited the China town which was bustling with people.
On the next day, we spent some effort to find a way to take the local minibus to Maeklong Railway Market to watch how the train passed through the market. It was really amazing to watch just how nonchalant the locals were to something that was so unique to the tourists. It’s interesting how things could be normalized. After visiting the market, we went for a Thai massage before getting some drinks in a nice Thai bar that we stumbled upon. 🙂 We quickly checked out the Khao San Road which was supposed to be the party district but it was too touristy to our liking.
We spent two days in Mandalay, two days in Bagan and a day in Yangon. Myanmar is a lot poorer than Thailand but the nicer people whom we met were all in Myanmar. One thing that took a while to get used to was to walk around bare footed in the temples. We quickly learnt how different kinds of materials conduct heat differently. For this reason, I am a big fan of the marble tiles in the Burmese temples. 😉 In Mandalay, we saw the Royal Palace which had some restricted areas for the army, the biggest book in the world, a sunset from a temple on a hill and a puppet show.
On the next day, we did a three cities tour around Mandalay and we saw quite a few interesting things. We entered handicraft, family run factories which made golden leaves, wood crafts and silk. We also stopped by a monastery and watched how ~1000 monks stood in two lines and waited for a rich family to hand them food donations. This is not so common because most of the monks actually go around and knock on doors to ask for food in the morning. Interestingly, people give them food and curry even though they seem to not have too much for themselves too. After that, we also visited a free state school where monks, nuns and normal children studied together. Our driver told us that most of the little monks and nuns were orphans and they usually looked at strangers with longing eyes because they imagined that’s what their parents would look like. After that, we went to Ava and we took the horsecart (another first) to visit the many ancient temples on that island. In the evening, we went to U-Bein bridge, the longest teak wood bridge in the world, to see the sunset. That was perhaps what I remember best from the trip. When we asked for a photo from some locals, I accidentally dropped my glasses through the spaces between the teak wood planks. Just when I had got over the fact that I needed to make new glasses, the kind locals who took a photo for us told us to wait here because a fisherman would find the glasses for us. We watched how a fisherman rowed his boat to the area that I dropped my glasses, took off his shirt and dived into the water. There’s no better feeling than the feeling of 失而复得. 🙂
We took a local bus to Bagan and it’s interesting how the co-driver kept shouting at the people by the roadside if they wanted to go in the direction of Bagan. We watched how people got on and off at strange places. Bagan has over 1000 ancient temples and we spent the two days exploring the area on bicycle. It was relaxing and carefree to explore the area on bike. We took the fancy and comfortable night bus to Yangon which was so much busier than Mandalay and Bagan. As it was Laia’s birthday, in the morning, I tried to spring a surprise on her for breakfast after the long night bus but it didn’t have the same effect as I wanted. In Yangon, we saw the Shwedagon Pagoda – one of the most famous pagodas in the world and the lake near to the pagoda. As it was her birthday, we went to fancier restaurants and spent a considerable amount of time there – Rangoon Tea House (supposedly the best tea house in Yangon) and House of Memories (used to be the office of Aung Sang). I hope that she has a memorable birthday. 🙂