The difference between Asia and the US

Here is a news item from the entertainment section of the Straits Times that illustrates a significant difference between Asians and Americans:

“Hong Kong actor Francis Ng and his Singaporean wife, former Star Search finalist Ong Lay Pheng, had a son in Hong Kong on Saturday. They are naming the boy Feynman, after the late American scientist Richard Feynman.”

Do we need any more indication than that to know that the future center of science will be in Asia?



Nestled in our Singapore hotel

We have arrived safely in Singapore where we will spend ten nights before moving on to Sri Lanka. Since we are staying in one spot so long, we moved in to our hotel room at the Amara Hotel. We unpacked our bags, filled up the closet with clothes on hangers, put underwear in drawers, and visited the supermarket to stock up on breakfast supplies. It felt glorious.

We went out for dinner and were reminded of one of Singapore’s best features: the food. We had a spicy tofu appetizer and a Madras curry and rice at what amounted to a pub a block from our hotel. I also had a pint of the local brew, Tiger beer that will probably help me get to sleep tonight. On the way back home, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall cafe to buy some bao for breakfast. I do not know if he recognized me, but it was the same vendor who I got bao every evening from for the two weeks I spent alone in Singapore almost three years ago. He has kind of a perpetually sour expression and is one of the world’s worst salesmen. He reminds me of a Chinese Abe Vigoda from that old TV cop comedy show (what was that called anyway?) For some reason, despite his attitude, I found him irresistable and bought two bao from him every night for my breakfast the next morning. Kris helps me act more civilized than when I am alone and I doubt that she thinks bao for breakfast is a good idea on a regular basis.

Today was one of our most enjoyable travel days. Pchum Ben is still going on and Phnom Penh is still pretty quiet. So we had a swift ride to the airport. Things went smoothly at the airport and our Silk Air flight was only half full. Silk Air served a reasonably competent hot lunch during the two hour flight. The Singapore airport was also not busy and we did not even have to wait in line at immigration or customs. We waited approximately 60 seconds for a taxi which whisked us from the airport to our hotel downtown.

Note to TSA: Lines actually move faster if you have a few people helping passengers unload their laptops, empty their pockets, and take off their shoes before passing through the security screening. Helpers in front of the metal detectors are the norm in Asia and it makes the security screening process so much more pleasant. But as I may have mentioned previously, all the security people in the airports we have passed through have been very thorough and professional. The metal detectors are set so tight that I have been “wanded” and patted down at virtually every airport despite emptying my pockets beforehand. So the more pleasant screening process has not come at the cost of laxer security.

Our job in Singapore is to rest and regroup. I am in bad need of a haircut, for example. I plan to do some shopping for computer parts and books on parallel computing to help me prepare to teach once I get to Kandy. But we will also be doing some touristing. We decided to take a day trip to Malacca, Malaysia and to spend a day at Singapore’s aviary, so expect future updates.


Chongqing photos posted

I’ve posted my pictures of our brief day in Chongqing, China. It was not a very pleasant day for us, but the photos do not reflect our aches and pains:

We have found the least pleasant days during our trip have been the travel days, not unexpectedly. We woke up relatively early in the morning and were driven to the Xian airport, which takes an hour. Then we go through the usual processes of checking in, going through the security check, waiting for our flight, crowd onto the airplane, etc. The flight from Xian to Chongqing was mercifully brief and we were met by our guide and driver at the Chongqing airport all before noon.

And that was the problem. We could not board the cruise boat for our Yangtze River cruise until 5PM. So, we were scheduled to have a tour of Chongqing. In theory, not a bad idea. It was the practice that was the problem. Chongqing is one of the four largest cities in China. So large (33 million) that like Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin it is administered just as if it was its own province. Chongqing sits at the confluence of the Yangtze River and a major tributary, the Jialing River. The Yangtze cut a tortuous path though mountainous terrain. Thus, Chongqing is built on the sides of steep hills. No imagine yourself being driven from point to point all over such a city in the back seat of a minivan through heavy, stop-and-go traffic at wildly varying speeds. We were so beat up in the process that we cut the itinerary short.

The first stop was the Chongqing zoo to see the pandas. I had not done my homework. I vaguely recalled that there was a center of research on pandas in this area of China and assumed that this is what we were going to see. But the research center is in Chengdu, China. At some point, the authorities shipped about a half dozen pandas from Chengdu to the zoo in Chongqing.  So, if you have been to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, there is no real reason to see the pandas in Chongqing.

The highlight of the day was a guild hall, a center of commerce in ancient times. Even I succumbed to buying a piece of jade, about 100 years old, carved with the image of a scholar. Another suprise was the General Stillwell Museum. The museum sits high on the hill above Chongqing and celebrates General Stillwell who managed the delicate alliance between the US and two Chinese factions (the Nationalists and the Communists) in fighting the Japanese during WWII. The museum is housed in the building that was used as Stillwell’s headquarters during the war.

Mercifully, the day ended with our being installed in a luxury stateroom of the President 1 for our cruise down the Yangtze. We were beat and crawled into bed early. The next dawn brought the start of a much more enjoyable day. More later.


One does pronounce the “P” in Phnom Penh

(Note added November 23rd: For actual information on the pronunciation of Phnom Penh, click here. The title of this post was intended to be slightly whimsical. This posting does not actually discuss the pronunciation of Phnom Penh.)

Every once in awhile it hits me. I woke up this morning and had the moment where I wondered where I was. Definitely not my own bed. Then I remember. I am in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, having arrived yesterday after a five hour speedboat ride down the Bessac River and up the Mekong River from Chau Doc, Vietnam. If it were not for the fact that Chau Doc is a provincial capital, it would likely take someone quite some time to locate  even in a good world atlas. We have completed an incredible Asian tour that started in Beijing, China and ends here in Phnom Penh. Tomorrow, we fly to Singapore to visit friends and prepare for work in Sri Lanka. It boggles my mind that we have had this wonderful experience.

About 1985, we visited Amsterdam. Quite accidentally, our visit coincided with their national holiday, the Queen’s Birthday. We barely managed to get a room and discovered some delightful things about the Dutch and the Queen’s Birthday. First, on the Queen’s Birthday, everyone either gives a public recital of their amateur musical skills or conducts a rummage sale in a public park. Second, we found it absolutely impossible to cross a street in downtown Amsterdam because of a dense, lively, happy crowd of people all drinking Heineken beer. As it turns out, today is Pchum Ben Day in Cambodia. We were told it is one of twenty-six national holidays in Cambodia, but this is one of the most important. What this means to us is that we have Phnom Penh pretty much to ourselves as all two million inhabitants have gone home to the countryside to spend time with their families and worship their ancestors. Almost all shops are closed, though our guide did find us one pretty good souvenir shop where Kris bought some silk scarves and some silver jewelry.

The Royal Palace grounds were off-limits today and that precluded visits to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. Disaster was averted because the National Museum was open. This was our primary reason for visiting Phnom Penh in the first place. When we visited Angkor Wat three years ago, we discovered that many of the best sculpture had been removed from Angkor and moved to the National Museum for safekeeping. On that visit, we went to Siem Reap via Bangkok and did not come through Phnom Penh. The National Museum was as good as advertised and even better than we expected. Visiting the museum complements a visit to Angkor in two ways. First, it does contain some of the best pieces of sculpture from Angkor and it was very satisfying to “complete” our visit to Angkor by seeing these fine examples of carving. Second, the National Museum contains many pieces of sculpture that a) are not carved stone, and b) are either from pre- or post-Angkor periods. This helped to put what we saw at Angkor into a broader historical perspective.

Phnom Penh is a city of contrasts. Our hotel is a bit of a thrill for Kris and it apparently grew out of the Foreign Correspondent’s Club here. Everyone here just calls it the FCC. There are only four guest rooms and they are very nice. The floor above us is a restaurant and it is also very nice. Unfortunately the restaurant charges Western prices. We have been spoiled by Vietnam and its excellent, cheap food. In our touring around town, we have seen the homes of some of the people getting rich off of Cambodia. Unfortunately, the tourist sites also display some of the most miserable beggars we have ever seen, many with war-related mutilations. Near the National Museum, we saw families camped under tarps on the sidewalks. One city park has been occupied by a squatters camp. Our guide praised the NGOs who have come to Cambodia and concentrated on giving work to the poor and the handicapped.

We’ve eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the hotel restaurant because of the holiday and now it is time to head off for dinner at the same spot.

Take care.


The great train experiment

Our great train experiment ended up as a qualified failure. Our plan was to take the overnight train from Hanoi to Hue and then from Danang to Saigon. We did take the train from Hanoi to Hue, but ended up deciding to take a plane from Danang to Saigon.

The Vietnamese railroad has some “special” (express) trains that run from Hanoi to Saigon and back. The first class sleeping cars are air conditioned and contain four bunks. A ticket from Hanoi to Hue cost about $60 if I remember correctly, but our tour agency guaranteed us a private compartment by buying us tickets for all four bunks. This doubled the cost and the conductor was not too happy about it. Having the compartment to ourselves was kind of nice and saved us potential hassles with roommates. The air conditioning was  intermittent and just barely adequate. The train left Hanoi at 7PM (sharp), so it was dark outside and there was not much to see from our large window. The compartment itself was not all that clean. It was not all that dirty, but there was a bit of a greasy film on the compartment walls. Examining the mattress and single, off white sheet, we were a bit worried about the bedding containing six and eight legged fellow travelers, but, in fact, we had no indication of any actual bugs or bites after our night in the bunks.

So, it wasn’t luxury travel, but that is not what caused us to opt to forego the second leg of our train journey. The real issue turned out to be the violence of the train motion. We were tossed around in all directions in a seemingly chaotic fashion. This might have been tolerable except that the train motion also included a kind of “crack-the-whip” component that caused a violent, front-to-back lurch at unpredictable times. This knocked anything on the little table between the lower berths off onto the floor and startled one out of any level of sleep one might have been experiencing.

To add insult to injury, the bathroom next door to our compartment was of the squat variety. I was fine  given the flexibility and standoff nature of my male equipment. Not so lucky, Kris gamely made the best of it. Kris had done some online research on the proper use of a squat toilet and aimed to master the technique. However, I cringed when a crack-the-whip episode occurred while she was in the bathroom. Sure enough, she appeared a few minutes later, proud, unbowed, head high, but rather damp overall. (To make matters somewhat worse, we discovered in the morning that the bathroom at the other end of our train car was Western-style.)

In the end, Kris did not sleep at all because of the train motion, which was an unacceptable outcome. When dawn finally came, we were rewarded by a few hours of some breathtaking views of the countryside. The sun came up. Farmers were out in the rice paddies, plowing their fields with their water buffalo. We actually saw water buffalo cavorting with each other, demonstrating a lighter side of that usually solemn beast. Later, we saw uniformed school children waiting at the railroad crossing for the train to pass. We got big smiles and friendly waves as we (they?) zipped by.

The organization on the ground that is handling our Vietnam tour is called “Trails of Indochina.” They have been great. On arrival in Hue, we told our guide that we wanted to change our plans and take a plane from Danang to Saigon. The guide called headquarters and they just made it happen. Our flight to Saigon was the usual modern airplane ride: uncomfortable, but only an hour long. As it turned out, Kris had some beautiful views of Vietnam from the air on the way down the coast. We also got a little more downtime in Saigon than we would otherwise have had.

A real question is what this experience means for our plans to take the train in India on our way back home from Sri Lanka. If the train motion is this bad in India then we may need to punt and come up with a better idea for getting around.


Terra Cotta Warrior photos online

I posted my photos taken in Xian. Most are of the Terra Cotta Warriors, but there are a few of the town of Xian and food in Xian.


Visit to a Vietnamese pharmacy

As you may have gathered from previous posts, I have not had the best luck on this trip, medically speaking. When we moved from China to Vietnam, I came down with a cold. It was an amusing cold, the mildest cold I can ever remember having. A tickle in my throat, moved to a mild congestion in my sinuses, back to my throat. It really was not a problem, except that I developed a cough that was driving Kris crazy, keeping her from sleeping one night in Hue.

So, I took my self off to find a pharmacy. The hotel desk let me know that there was a pharmacy at the entrance to the hospital that was only a block away. Having once again survived crossing a busy intersection in Vietnam, I found myself at the hospital entrance. I entered the grounds and followed the signs to an open air shop. There was a man in a white lab coat smoking in the open doorway, but when I approached the shop window, I was assisted by a forty-ish Vietnamese woman.

She was familiar with communications difficulties with foreigners, so she handed me a scrap of paper and a pen. I wanted to refill my Spackle supply and get something like Nyquil to deal with the cough. Starting with the Spackle, I attempted to use what I had learned in France, and wrote “montmorrillonite powder” on the paper. No recognition. So I tried the Chinese brand name “Smecta.” Big, vaguely sympathetic smile. “How many days?” I was asked. “Five,” I responded. So ten packets were counted out. At these pharmacies, you buy by the pill or dose, not by the box.

Now for the harder communication. I pantomimed coughing. Waved my hand next to my throat with my mouth half open, half gagging, to indicate that my throat was irritated. This sort of worked. She came up with some lozenges called Strepsis. I read the directions and indications. This was really more for a sore throat than for coughing, but I felt they might act as cough drops and help Kris out. Somehow, the pharmacy lady interpreted my indecision correctly and next produced codeine tablets. I freaked a bit and tried to communicate that I thought this was too strong. No luck. I read the indications and directions and knew that codeine is effective with coughs, so I ended up deciding to take a five day supply of this as well.

Then the lady tried to sell me a course of antibiotics. My American cultural training freaked a little again. I did not recognize the type of antibiotic and I was not feeling feverish or anything else to indicate a bacterial infection, so I passed on the antibiotics. Then, as I was pulling out my wallet to pay and she was putting my purchases into a sack, she offered me a free menthol cough drop for giving her my business. Geez! If she had offered me cough drops at the start of the transaction, I may have bought only cough drops in the hope that would allow Kris to sleep. Did the pharmacy lady know this? So, twenty cough drops get added to the sack and the bill.

Total cost for five days supply of Spackle, twenty cough drops, five days supply of Strepsis, and a five days supply of codeine came to 300,000 Vietnamese dong or $18. As a comparison, a nice seafood dinner for the two of us in Hue cost about the same. The codeine was very effective in silencing my cough. I also slept pretty well.

By the way, I think I have discovered why Vietnamese kids are so good at math. The exchange rate is 1,600 dong to the dollar. I have found scientific notation to be useful in estimating how much we are spending.

Out of curiosity, not necessity, when we got to Saigon I looked over the offerings in a more urban pharmacy. I found many more brands in use in the US, including such staples as Immodium. There were also Z-packs for sale, that is, courses of Zithromycin. I almost bought Kris a Z-pack as that is known to work on her sinus infections, but my American cultural training held me back. I wonder what we will find in Sri Lanka?

Fortunately, I have not had to use much of the medicine I purchased in Hue. I am now fully weaned from the Spackle and my cough has subsided to the point that I may or may not take two codeine tablets tonight before I go to bed. Will I sleep as well if I do not?


Photos of last day in Bejing

I’ve posted photos of our last day in Beijing on my Picasa page. These include photos from the Lama Temple, the Hutong Tour by cyclo, and the grounds of the Temple of Heaven.


Odd Observations

Why is it that in Asia, presumably the home of great tea drinkers, restaurants and stores proudly advertise that they serve and sell Lipton’s tea? In the US, Lipton’s tea is synonymous with mediocrity.

Traffic in most of China and all of Vietnam is anarchic. The road is shared by pedestrians, hand drawn carts, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, trucks, and buses. The major rule of the road seems to be that you yield to vehicles that are bigger than you. A sop to smaller vehicles is that if the smaller vehicle is moving at constant speed in a constant direction, larger vehicles are expected to solve the equations of motion and steer in such a way to avoid crushing the smaller vehicle. This is also the rule for pedestrians crossing the road. You move at a steady speed, careful not to change course or speed in response to the traffic and the vehicular traffic will steer in front of you or behind you to avoid hitting you. As a driver, you use all the road, both sides almost without prejudice. When you need to stop, you just stop. When you need to turn left, you turn left. When you need to do a U turn, you do a U turn. All of these actions are taken independent of what the other traffic is doing or any signage. Here is a trick I learned from our Shanghai driver as we traveled from Shanghai to Suzhou on a brand new, four lane, limited access highway with relatively light traffic. The driver mostly drove in the left most lane at the highest speed traffic would allow. When he approached an interchange, he moved to the right lane, then he moved to the exit lane, then, just before the exit lane actually exited, he attempted to swoop back to the left most lane. He never succeeded, of course, because actions like this, combined with traffic entering and leaving the highway, created a traffic jam at every interchange no matter how light the traffic. It is insane and means that there is no highway in China or Vietnam that averages more than about 30 mph.

Many travellers are familiar with the problem of taking a taxi in a country where you do not speak the local language. Hotels have a cure for this. If you ask at the hotel desk, they will give you a card with the address of the hotel and a map showing the location of the hotel printed on it in the local language. We tested this out in Beijing. Our guide and driver left us off at the theater where we watched a splendid performance of Chinese acrobats. After the show, we confidently walked out to the street to hail a cab. As you might expect when a performance lets out, there were many patrons in need of a cab. As I had learned was necessary in China anytime one had to wait one’s turn, I had to be pretty aggressive to get us a cab, finely barely edging out a young Chinese woman who glared at me when I used my longer legs to get to a cab first. She had given up the natural advantage of her youth by wearing high heels, an extremely common choice in both China and Vietnam. Kris and I climbed in the car, handed our card to the driver, and discovered the fly in the ointment. Not only do the cab drivers in Beijing not speak English, they can’t read Chinese! And even if they did, the streets in Beijing are like the streets in Galway, Ireland: they change names virtually every block. Thus, it is impossible for any cab driver to be expected to know how to find any given place in a city of 17 million people just from the address, even if he could read Chinese. Meekly, we turned the cab over to the now smug faced young woman. It took us hailing five more cabs until we found one who could read the map and who took us back to our hotel. Browsing the Lonely Planet several days later, we learned the fool-proof method is to carry a cell phone, call the hotel, and hand the cell phone over to the driver and let the hotel staff instruct the driver how to get to the hotel. On a related matter, we saw no evidence that GPS has any presence yet in China or Vietnam. Since the signals are surely available, I suspect the issue is getting maps that can correctly locate a given street address.


Great Wall Photos

I’ve uploaded my photos of the Great Wall of China to my Picasa web site.


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