No. of Recommendations: 27
32 11 Feb 2013 Port Blair, India VX

We have heard about the snow and cold weather back home. Better here than there :- ).

Every day, every night, we notch the clocks a bit. Sometimes by a half hour, sometimes by an hour. We now move from Rangoon time to Bangkok time and shortly to Hong Kong time. The half hour jumps are a bit weird.

Import duty on gold has been raised from 3% to 6% to reduce the trade so that people will put money in banks rather than in the yellow metal.

Floating in splendid isolation in the Bay of Bengal is an archipelago of 572 islands, islets and rocks, stretching over an area of more than 700 km from north to south. Only 36 of these islands are inhabited. Known as the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, this Union Territory is a part of the Republic of India.

Port Blair, the administrative capital and only town of significance in the Andaman Islands, has the lively air of an Indian market town. Indian Immigration authorities confused everyone by handing out custom forms and then conducting face to face interrogations of each passenger. We’ve been asked to fill out Indian customs forms indicating what model camera, amount of money, etc. that we will be bringing ashore (everything in duplicate, of course). I can’t figure out what the intent of this is and the forms are not checked when we disembark and not collected when we return. I assume they were looking for bribes rather than free meals in the ships buffet.

I have heard stories about the red tape in India getting in the way of business and growth. While I have opened a US corporation in a matter of minutes, on-line, without the assistance of an attorney and for a few bucks, here it apparently takes months of paperwork and approvals. If our dealings with the inconsistency and piles of useless paperwork involved with Indian Immigrations at the various ports are an example, this country will have a hard time keeping up with China and growing as quickly as more nimble Asian competitors.

I suspect the only tourists who show up here are the occasional scuba diver (as the crystal clear water around here is teeming with coral and marine life) and the very occasional cruise ship. While they weren’t allowed into the port, groups of uniformed school children whistled smiled and waved from terraces outside the gates. We had to scan our bags in X-Ray machines on the way out and it was interesting to see women security guards wearing olive drab military saris.

While we only spent a few hours here, I have to admit that I enjoyed every second of the experience. This is a filthy, smelly, crowded town. The odor of fermenting sewage wafts from between the blocks forming the sidewalk which apparently covers open sewers. Cows wander at random, kids play cricket, shops display their wares in a thousand colors under signs bearing the merchant’s Muslim names. The skins of the population are generally darker that those in the north.

We bargained for a small taxi and went to town with the friends (Jan and Gerard) who surprised us in Dubai. We paid 3 Rupees (though the “Auto Rickshaw” taxi meter would have cost less) and drove the couple of kilometers to town in the Hindi Motors antique. The traffic is the usual chaotic mob found in India with cars and tuk-tuks only inches apart vying for advantage and blaring horns. For the American tourist pedestrian, survival (and sanity when in a taxi) requires continually reminding one’s self that traffic is coming from the wrong direction (as like India, Malaysia and Singapore the driving is on the left here).

Port Blair has an aquarium (not SeaWorld, but since it only costs only 5 rupees, wad’ya expect?) behind which the ferry to Ross Island, an overgrown former British enclave abandoned after a 1941 earthquake as the Japanese approached) hides. Unfortunately the ferry runs every two hours and it would be risky as any challenge would make us miss the ship.

The nearby Cellular Jail was built between 1886 and 1906 by the British to house dangerous criminals, and it was subsequently used to place Indian freedom fighters until independence in 1947. This colossal edifice has mutely witnessed the most inhumane atrocities borne by convicts, who were mostly freedom fighters. Now declared a National Memorial, there is a site museum with photographs and a list naming the convicts held, a death house and the gallows. We wandered around the town watching the goldsmith blow through a tube to stoke his fire, watching the tailor use his sewing machine and walking alongside women wearing colorful saris. Stores have mixed functions (like goldsmith/dentist, travel agent/internet café) which adds to the fun of the place. The gold jewelry is ornate, but I’m not as trusting of its purity as I would be in Dubai or Singapore. We stopped to watch a game of “Fireball” (or something that sounded like that) which was played on a table (with boards around the edges) measuring about 1.5 meters on each side with a pair of goal pockets. The pieces look like checkers with larger shooting disks and the table top has a pattern drawn in chalk. The disks are flicked with the forefinger (and the game reminded me of “skelly” a game we played on the ground in playgrounds with bottle caps). I bought an hour of time at an internet café for 30 rupees (the performance was lousy, but at least it was cheap).

As Gerard had never ridden in a tuk-tuk, we decided to ride with the four of us in the back of one (at 1.5 rupee) to return to the ship (mimicking a circus act and a feat worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records.

33 12 Feb 2013 At Sea
34 13 Feb 2013 Porto Malai, Malaysia

The history of the current countries of this region date back to the arbitrary splits and combinations of ethnic groups by the European colonial powers during the 16th – 20th centuries. Malaysia was formed in the early 1960’s from seven of the small British colonial states on the Malay peninsula and around the Straits of Malacca (other Malay populations which were ruled by other powers, such as parts of French Indochina, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines ended up in other countries). Shortly afterwards, Singapore was merged in. This created a problem because the Chinese political parties which controlled Singapore started to attempt to spread their influence over the rest of the country and the Muslim Malay majority ejected the state to fend for itself. Brunei, which shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia, elected not to join the country of Malaysia. During the 1960’s there was tension between Malaysia and Indonesia over the border in Borneo, but this seems to have been solved long ago and the two countries seem to be at peace and I was told that the threat the Malaysian military was most concerned about was Singapore – perceptions can be funny sometimes.

Malaysia has a British style parliamentary system. There is a king as well which is elected every five years from the Sultans who rule each of the states on a hereditary basis (think Muslim version of the title “maharaja”). These gentlemen are quite wealthy as is the independent Sultan of Brunei (who, rather than collecting taxes pays each of his subjects a stipend each year).

The official name of this island is "Langkawi”, the Jewel of Kedah. We shared a taxi with three other passengers and rode the aerial tramway up the side of Mt. Mat Cingcang and walked the modern-art Skybridge. The weather was hot and the line was hundreds of people long, so we decided to pay double the tab (ended up at about $30 each) to jump to the head of the line as VIP’s (it was either that or simply not going up as the line was too long). Langkawi Island drops sheer and green below your feet while the Langkawi archipelago is strewn all around you, emeralds on the light blue field of the Andaman Sea. We drove to a glass blowing establishment and a beach advertised as having black sand (I guess a bit) to a hot spring, rubber plantation, a rice paddy and then on to a market or two. Gasoline here is government subsidized and costs about $2.25 a gallon. While this is a duty free island, added transportation costs take away some of that advantage. Cars are duty free here and a Japanese Mitsubishi is similar in price to a Malaysian built Proton (these are much cheaper in the rest of Malaysia where foreign cars are taxed), so people favor the foreign imports on this island.

I was able to hook up to wi-fi at the hotel near the cruise pier (password: abcde12345) and upon leaving noticed that spa stuff started out cheap and was the discounted 30% - well maybe next time.

This is an island which is beginning to be developed, but still lacks much to do. I would say that it might be perfect for honeymooners who bring they own recreational activities.

35 14 Feb 2013 Port Kelang, Malaysia

Port Kelang is the gateway to KL (Kuala Lumpor). Four of us took a taxi (35 ringgits, or about $11US) to the KTM train station about 13km away. The train to KL Sentral (not a typo) costs about $1 and takes about an hour and a quarter to get you into the center of the city. We then took a 1 stop ride on the “subway” (1 ringgit or $.33) to the central market and a free shuttle bus to KL Tower – once the tallest tower in the world at 300+ meters, but now eclipsed by some others. The elevator to the top was about $15 and the city views were fabulous (I took a number of shots of the Petronas twin towers across town).

The architecture of Kuala Lumpur is a blend of old colonial influences, Asian traditions. Malay Islamic inspirations, modern, and postmodern architecture mix. Buildings with all-glass shells exist throughout the city, with the most prominent examples being the Petronas Twin Towers and Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. The subway is cheap and ultra-modern with Chinese built trains.

The city has many places of worship catering to the multi-religious population. Islam is practiced primarily by the Malays and the Indian Muslim communities. While Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism are practiced mainly among the Chinese, Indians traditionally adhere to Hinduism. Some Chinese and Indians also subscribe to Christianity.

As of 2010 Census the population of Kuala Lumpur was 46.4% Muslim, 35.7% Buddhist, 8.5% Hindu, 5.8% Christian, 1.1% Taoist or Chinese religion adherent, 2.0% follower of other religions, and 0.5% non-religious.

We retraced our steps to the central market (apparently opened in 1888) where I treated myself to a strong coffee/dark chocolate iced drink at “Uncle Wah’s” between the market and its annex. I offered a sip to my companions who were frightened by the thought of drinking the local water (or melted ice cubes). I figure it may be an improvement on prunes for breakfast and besides, the drink was to die for :- ). Due to bad planning, we are now forced to figure out what to bring to to the family we are meeting on Lombok in Indonesia, but at least we are in a huge market which sells the breath of what southeast Asia has to offer.

I have no idea how this country works as each ethnic group (Chinese, Malay, Indian/Tamil) speaks its own language (to the exclusion of the others) and a bit of highly accented English and communication seems a bit challenged. It seems to work well enough, however, for the country to be relatively prosperous. The dialect of Malay spoken here is, other than accent, basically the same as the Indonesian Bahasa language.

While it rained heavily while we were in the market building, it stopped shortly before we stepped outside and retraced our route back to the ship. On the way we saw a long line of foreigners at an Immigration office. Kuala Lumpur's rapid development triggered a huge influx of low-skilled foreign workers from Indonesia, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, and Vietnam into Malaysia, and while many of these low-skilled workers enter the country illegally or without proper permits, the line we saw was of those applying legally.

36 15 Feb 2013 Singapore

Only 80 miles north of the equator. Tomorrow pollywogs become leatherbacks (though I think this has been toned down to only include the crew).

The idiots who scheduled the itinerary have left far too little time to see Singapore, but fortunately, those of us staying on for the round trip will be visiting again. Cruises do not allow you the time to do more than scratch the minimal veneer of a place. There is a comment heard that they give you a taste and if you like a place you can return for a longer stay at a later date. In reality, few ever do and the world seems separated into land travelers and cruisers with each group having little to do with the other (though we seem to be the relatively rare exception).

Impressive. Inspiring. Those are the words that describe this city state. For those who have never been to Singapore, we always hear about the things Singaporeans can't do. Like import gum. What is not widely known, is how Lee Kwan Yue, a young Chinese man, educated at Oxford, in the U.K. had a vision for his country to become a modern miracle which could be used as a model for the world. This quite literally is a successful experiment in social engineering. Have they given up some things? Yes. But, it seems worth it. One can imagine that this is what India would look like if it was governed by Chinese (though it is difficult to imagine this being scaled to encompass India).

When Raffles stuck down the British flag in the 1800's it was a swamp in the jungle, with a view to the ocean. Singapore and its people suffered horribly during the Japanese occupation of World War II. It was later part of the merger that established Malaysia. When they acquired independence it was socio-politically volatile and economically undeveloped and largely illiterate, with no natural resources. The following major ethnicities live here: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Arab. It only occupies 238 square kilometers. Today Singapore has the highest standard of living in Asia. Measured by GDP per capita, it is the 22nd wealthiest country with a foreign reserve of US$119 billion (these numbers are a couple of years old, so might be slightly different now). There are no slums - 80% of the people live in government built apartments that they buy. There is virtually no crime and drug dealers face a mandatory death penalty. There is 2.2% unemployment. The society is tolerant, and integrated. The city is unbelievably clean. This is the most expensive place in the world to own a car (a government policy to reduce pollution and reduce the use of valuable natural resources). Motorized traffic is controlled and only 3% of the population can own cars and one must pay about $75,000 Singapore dollars for a 10 year license over and above the cost of a new car (plus unbelievably high taxes of 300-400% on top of that). Smaller BMW’s and Audis make up a large percentage of the cars on the road (as I guess if you can afford the tax, you can afford the car). Traffic is monitored and controlled. They drive on the British side here, but the traffic is not chaotic and pedestrians are given a fighting chance of survival (actually, the drivers are accommodating and polite, like everything else here).

The MRT (mass rapid transit), which is modern and clean, is used by nearly half of the population daily. As a result of efforts to control motorized traffic, the maintenance of natural greenery, strict regulations on industrial locations and emissions, and other pro-environmental initiatives by the government and the private sector, Singapore has been able to control its pollution levels to well within World Health Organization standards.

Education is compulsory. There is 99% literacy, and 1/3 of a monthly tax goes to education, 1/3 to medical, and 1/3 towards pensions. When one retires they can move to government housing (preferably close to family) in a senior’s area which is subsidized and inexpensive.

If you ask a local for directions, expect to be taken by the hand and led to your destination – everyone is incredibly polite, helpful and friendly (and everyone speaks fluent English as it is the basis of communication between the various national and ethnic groups).

The original population of this geographic area which stretched down much of Indochina, what is now Malaysia, through Indonesia and into the Philippines was Malay. Indochina also has older populations of Khmers in Cambodia and southern Vietnam, etc. A ubiquitous Indio/Hindu culture spread from India across Indochina, Thailand and into Indonesia for over a millennium. This culture (still seen today in the dancing, puppet construction and architectural styles throughout a broad swath of Asia and the Pacific region left temples such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Barabador on Java). The Arab traders who came in a quest for spices in the 1300’s, and before, brought Islam which was adopted by most Malays in what is now Malaysia, Indonesia and into the Philippines. There are a number of other smaller groups as well. The area has a substantial overlay of ethnic Chinese (Han) as well as “true” Indians and Arabs who are descended from traders/colonizers during the time that they controlled the spice trade. Singapore island split from the Malay Republic (now Malaysia) shortly after independence and has created its own separate destiny ever since. It is largely administered by representatives of the Chinese portion of its population. Its wealth has grown over the last few decades as its low cost of manufacturing brought in business. This has been so successful that the average standard of living is the highest in Asia (excepting maybe Japan) and is equivalent to that found in many parts of Europe or the US. This has caused them to lose their manufacturing advantage and the government is assisting in creating new ways that companies in Singapore can continue to grow by adding intellectual value (frequently in the information technology field) and accumulating valuable data. It has historically been the site of fortresses guarding this entry to whichever empire controlled it (most recently, the British) and evidence of these forts can still be seen. The harbor is the site of a massive oil refinery and huge farms of petroleum product storage tanks.

Pulling into the harbor at Singapore was a revelation. Starting miles offshore we passed row upon row of anchored tankers (and a smattering of cargo ships). This apparently is the cantango fleet that has been talked about where speculators store oil and commodities and reminded me of the pictures of the D-Day invasion fleet (except this one may be larger). For those who follow this sort of thing, virtually all of the ships were riding high and empty. (Note: We entered Singapore early in the morning so I didn’t know the extent of this observation.

The architecture one is presented with upon entering the harbor proper is modernistic and fantastic. There is a miles long aerial gondola run to Sentosa Island – a resort area offshore from Singapore.

Singapore REALLY takes immigration protocol seriously (lines going through customs, passport control, etc. rather than a quick peek by officials more interested in getting a free lunch in the ship’s dining room than busting the chops of passengers or the ship).

People may joke about the laws of Singapore, but they are deadly serious. No chewing gum, no duty free cigarettes (and if you smoke then you had better carry an ash tray when you walk for your ashes), no jay walking, no littering, no durian fruits on the subways, etc.

The MRT subway system is clean, modern and efficient (as expected in Asia), but the bus system seemed plagued by long lines at the ticket booths and cryptic routing. We bought day passes for the ultra-modern subway system ($20SGD, but you get $10 back when you turn in your pass). The modern stations all have elevators and escalators. They use the “double door” system found throughout China and the rest of Asia to protect travelers. While in NYC, for example, every so often a commuter falls (or is pushed) onto the tracks in front of an approaching Subway train (to the entertainment of the newsmen covering the story). Here, the platform is enclosed in glass and only after trains are fully stopped and their doors have opened, do sliding doors on the platform (matching their locations) open up. (Think Disneyworld monorail station).

After leaving the Little India station we turned right on Sarangoon Road and reached the Sri Veerama Kaliamman Hindu temple on the left (the services were in session and very impressive). This fantastic building covered in brightly colored statues of Hindu gods is something not to be missed (Google it for more details). In looking at both the food in the restaurants, the names of the stores and the dress of the locals, it seems that Singapore dodged the strife between Hindus and Muslims which engulfed India in 1948. Further up the road on the right is the Mustafa Centre – an emporium of all things Indian. The 24K gold shop is huge and the workmanship very varied and I picked up another bangle for my wife’s connection. The Singapore government applies a 7% VAT tax which can be recovered once one is past customs.

We dove back underground to surface at the Marina Bay Skypark to eat lunch (I had a bento box with a salad doused in orange based dressing, some sashimi, a snapper fillet in red curry, etc.) high above the city at a restaurant named Ku De Ta (I used the French pronunciation – coupe d’etat :- ).

We had to rush back to the ship as we are leaving at 3:30PM for Indonesia. We’ll be back in about 10 days.

The clock is set back an hour – for a change.

37 16 Feb 2013 At Sea
38 17 Feb 2013 Tanjung Priok, Jakarta VX

Print the post  


When Life Gives You Lemons
We all have had hardships and made poor decisions. The important thing is how we respond and grow. Read the story of a Fool who started from nothing, and looks to gain everything.
Contact Us
Contact Customer Service and other Fool departments here.
Work for Fools?
Winner of the Washingtonian great places to work, and Glassdoor #1 Company to Work For 2015! Have access to all of TMF's online and email products for FREE, and be paid for your contributions to TMF! Click the link and start your Fool career.