I’ve been to Southeast Asia quite a few times. My first trips there were in 1997 when the high-tech company I worked for would send me to visit the support centers around the world. Recently I’ve been fortunate to speak on cruise ships all over the world, and Singapore is a popular port for beginning and ending these cruise experiences. I’ve been on several that have ported in Singapore; this set of experiences is about an eight-week four-cruise adventure in early 2017. It was late February when my wife and I boarded a plane in San Francisco and flew non-stop to Singapore—a 16.5-hour flight. Arriving two days later in the morning, we checked into the hotel (booked for the previous evening) and then went walking. We were in the Chinatown area so we looked for a place to eat. We found an open market area where competing cobblers were making shoes by hand for their customers; there were no machines involved in the process. Beckoned by several vendors (food vendors not the cobblers), we finally picked one where we ordered a bowl of soup and a rice dish, along with a cold Tiger beer for each of us. It was only 10 AM but our bodies had no idea what time it felt like. We shared our meals—one was a bit spicy and the other was quite plain—and we continued our adventure through the intersecting maze of streets. A keen sense of direction is very helpful here because it would be easy to not know which way was which and you end up going in the wrong direction.
The constant humidity (Singapore is just a little over one degree North of the Equator) and the frequent rainfall keeps the place green and there are plenty of trees that are pruned to resemble an umbrella. The branches open out wide at the top to intercept the incoming sunshine, leaving plenty of space underneath for comforting shade. As you walk along one thing you notice is something that you don’t see—litter. The Singapore people take extreme pride in the cleanliness of their city (Singapore is also the state and the country), plus there are fines if you are caught littering. Besides having amazing food choices, Singapore is also a shopper’s paradise. My wife really likes to wear Crocs™, and we saw a sign outside one of the ever-present shopping malls—you know, the kind where you go in for shopping and then you get lured downstairs to the amazing aromas emanating from the food court! The shoe store was on the main floor, a small corner store, but my wife found a style and color she liked, and so our already packed suitcases just got one more thing to fit in them—and we haven’t even started the cruise yet! We did a lot more walking around while there, strolling along a riverfront area lined with bars and restaurants, and just sitting in a park watching people scurry to work, to appointments, to dates, to shopping. And then came Saturday, time to board the Celebrity MILLENNIUM for the first of our four back-to-back cruises.
After two full days at sea, our graceful ship entered the Gulf of Thailand and into the port at Laem Chabang. Some of the smaller cruise ships (no more than a few hundred passengers) can actually dock closer to Bangkok, but the majority of the ships dock about a two-hour drive away in Laem Chabang. Sadly, there’s not much to do in the port area, and the “town” itself is a distant walk; so you’re left with taking a tour to Bangkok or to Pattaya—I’ve done both. There are many highlights in Bangkok, with the Grand Palace being the “biggie.” I’ve been there when the motor coach was able to stop close to the main gate. On this latest trip, however, we had to walk about a mile in the searing heat—we were told the reason for not getting close was because their beloved King had died. Why that meant we could drive closer is beyond me; it’s not like our getting near the gate (which we did by walking) was going to make him any more dead. And his body wasn’t there anyway. Oh, well! You do what you have to do. Most tours, especially those from the ship with the two-hour drive each way, don’t spend much time inside the Grand Palace. It’s not that there isn’t much to see—there is. The reason is so you can go see other temples and statues of Buddha. So the best thing is to stay overnight in Bangkok, which has several benefits. You can enjoy some of the Bangkok nightlife and food. You can also get to the Grand Palace when it first opens, thus beating the huge crowds that are there mid-day.
Gold abounds inside the walls of the Grand Palace, and I don’t think it’s possible to look anywhere and not see something made of gold, covered in gold, has gold highlights, etc. Removing our shoes and putting them in a place where we’d remember where they were, we got in line to visit Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Although the statue is only about 28 inches high, it and the temple are regarded as the most sacred Buddhist statue and temple in all of Thailand. As such, only the King and the Crown Prince are allowed to touch the statue and to change out its gold and jeweled garments, which is done three times a year to match the seasons. There is also no photography inside the temple, so I took my photo outside, zooming in the best I could. There wasn’t much more we could see as many of the buildings are closed to tourists, so we went to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, What Pho. The statue is so long that you can’t get a full picture. Seeing the Mother of Pearl soles of the feet—measuring about fourteen feet long by ten feet high—was truly amazing. Also amazing was our twenty-minute ride in a tuk-tuk. The best advice when riding in one, “Keep your hands inside!” You can see more of the photos I’ve taken in Bangkok on my Bangkok Travel Photos page. There’s also a link on that page to the YouTube video of part of our tuk-tuk ride; it wsa definitely exhilarating!
Heading south from Laem Chabang (instead of north to Bangkok), we are able to get to the coastal town of Pattaya in under an hour. The Sanctuary of Truth is clearly the cultural highlight of the area, and it’s fun to see these large motor coaches wind their way through the narrow streets and alleys where there is no room for making them wider. Using no metal fasteners at all, the craftsman continue to add and replace pieces and sections of intricately carved wood for its purpose to use art and culture as “a reflection of the Ancient Vision of Earth, Ancient Knowledge, and Eastern Philosophy.” My late father was a carpenter (I have a carved mahogany table he made in 1960), and I can appreciate the skill it takes to use a hammer and chisel, especially when there are no “do-overs.” The Floating Market in Pattaya is a representation of how societies functioned living along the water. The waterways here, however, are man-made, but it’s still an interesting place to wander around while shopping for souvenirs or a tasty place to eat. I’ve done both in my visits to the Market, and the Tom Yum Soup I had was truly authentic, spicy, and yummy (pardon the pun)!
Our two days in Thailand were definitely packed with lots of activity; it was good to have a sea day before reaching our next port—Phu My, Viet Nam. “What’s in Phu My?” you might be thinking right now. The simple answer is, “Not a whole lot.” But it is where we board the coach for the ride into Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), aka, Saigon (what had been the capital of former South Viet Nam). There are many highlights in HCMC, and I’ve been fortunate to have been there several times; but there’s always more to see. Certainly one of the main features is what is now called the Reunification Hall (photo on left), the former Presidential Palace of South Vietnam until the North Vietnamese tanks came crashing through the main gate on April 30, 1975. Instead of tanks, now it’s motor coaches of tourists who come through that main central gate. The helicopter on the roof do bring back memories for those of us old enough to have experienced the war (it’s called The American War here in Viet Nam). But every time I’ve been in Viet Nam, no matter what city I’m in, I’ve always encountered friendly people, even those from “the North.” You wonder how people who’ve been strafed and bombed and burned can have such a positive outlook; if only everyone could be that positive. Hopefully, that’s one thing we can all get out of a cruise—a new outlook on life! Our visit to the Botanical Gardens was highlighted by watching groups of young school children being enthralled by puppets and jugglers. Fun is universal!