Far East Files-8. Back On The Rim

I am homeward bound; first on a packed-full 747 from Singapore and then a sleek 777 from Hong Kong to LA.  Along the way we pass over that arbitrary, time-warper of a boundary, the International Date Line.  The IDL allows me to leave Asia at 2 pm and arrive the US at 2:35 pm the same day.  All I know is that splendid Cathay Pacific, an airline that US carriers should emulate, delivers me 12 hours later to La La Land.

I arrive, of course, jet lagged beyond belief and still spaced out from the two Bollywood movies that I indulged in while over the ocean. This is the far edge of the Pacific Rim, a mental frontier where the cultural Asian tide spills into North America stretching from Los Angeles to Vancouver. It signifies the termination of my Far East fling and what a ride it was.

To contemplate the journey and recharge the sleep cells, we head to Venice Beach for the night, a funky California enclave that I have visited sporadically over the decades.  Dinner at oceanside Larry’s offers Western fare and a choice of 20 draft beers.  I chomp down on arugula salad and a cheese burger.  The meal is a hefty wake up call from the delicate dim sum that I devoured a day ago during a Hong Kong lunch.  Duvel from Belgium and an IPA from the LA-based Smog City Brewery supply the elixirs for the trip’s review.  We’re a million miles away from ordering a Chang.

This adventure had some surprises for me.  I found Thailand underwhelming and its natural world either overrun by tourism or filthy from overuse and neglect.  Still, the people were generally friendly and the food was ooooo la la.  I ate at least one curry every day, sometimes three.  The city of Hong Kong and the island nation of Singapore, however, we’re pleasantly amazing.  Those places throttle the Asian verve into high gear.  They are modern, fashionable, prosperous & preposterous, metal & glass hot spots of the Far East.  I could sense their monetary moxie while wandering the busy streets.  I was also amazed at how efficiently these urban centers handle the millions of people that reside there.  It was an impressive display of two 21st. Century Asian societies shaping the global economy and the world’s destiny.  Images from nearly a month in the Far East now flood my mind…

With Larry’s complete, we weave back to the hotel through skateboarding hipsters, scantily clad beach babes and delirious homeless people. One street vender has his sleepy dog lay prone on a pillow, adorns the furry one with pink panties stuffed with dollar bills (hint, hint), and posts a small sign that says, ‘This ain’t no Disneyland’.  Ah, you gotta love dysfunctional Venice.

The sun is setting golden over the Pacific while I gaze west to ponder the East.  It has been a voyage of discovery, one of personal growth and awareness.  I laugh now at my childhood impressions of Asia as delivered to me by the film character, Charlie Chan.  He often quoted Confucius, that Tang Dynasty cheerleader and philosopher, at critical points in his detective movies.  So to end the Far East Files, I choose the eloquent Charlie to close for me.  “Confucius say… Old age, believe me, is a good and pleasant thing. It is true you are gently shouldered off the stage, but then you are given such a comfortable front stall as spectator.”


Far East Files-7. The Only Cowboy In Singapore

I always seek out Irish pubs when abroad.  Of course, it is pleasant to have a fresh pint of Guinness and pass away the day.  But more importantly, I enjoy seeing how these establishments are shaped by their surroundings, far from the influence of the Emerald Isle.  Such is the case with the Dubliner Pub in Singapore.  It is housed in an early 20th century colonial home, originally called the Oxley Mansion. This old Sino-Portuguese house has an interior of stone, brick, wood, copper and marble, materials of choice from an age gone by.  It is a pleasant refuge away from the new Singapore of soulless glass, concrete and metal.

We sit with our good friend Kashyap, who along with his wife Asha, has been so gracious as to open their Singapore home to us for a week.  We look out from the pub’s front porch toward the busy Penang Road.  Directly before us is a bus stop.  There is also a cowboy.

I ponder these strange circumstances.  I am in Singapore, in an Irish pub, looking at a cowboy.  Hmmm.  And this guy is a real cowboy, at least in garb—a big white cowboy hat, a belt with the mandatory oversized buckle, Tony Lama imitation ostrich boots, and a thick chain linking his pocketed wallet to tight fitting jeans.  Kashyap proposes that the wrangler could be from Malaysia, or perhaps the Philippines.  While we ponder his homeland, buses come and go.  The cowboy looks expectantly at each one as they arrive.  Big, red & purple SBS buses arrive.  Tourist buses also pull in and pause.  An Indian workers bus makes an appearance.  But the cowboy still remains.  “Maybe he is waiting for his horse,” quips Hettie.  We all bust up.

I should not be surprised by the appearance of a cowboy in this city.  Singapore is a place of tremendous human diversity.  It is Asia’s melting pot.  Just stroll through its neighborhoods and you will see Chinese, Indians, Malays, Filipinos, Australians, Brits, Indonesians and an ex-pat community representing a league of nations.  In one afternoon I get to watch a cricket practice, eat savory Chinese dumplings, dine on a tasty curry from Chennai, India, and pose in front of Prada in the posh dark of night.  This city is home to everything and everyone.

But back to the only cowboy in Singapore…  The clock hanging on the faded wall at the Dubliner clicks to a new hour.  By the time Bus # 2476 pulls up, our pints are dangerously low.  The cowboy anxiously reads the number and quickly mounts his ride.  In the waning moments of dusk, he finally rides off into the urban sunset.  It is time for another Guinness.  And time to find the next street drama.

Far East Files-6. The Lion City, Old & New

It was way back in the 1300’s when a Sumatran prince named Sang Nila Utama claimed that he saw a lion (singa in the Malay language).  He declared the spot where this vision took place should be called Singapura (pura meaning island) from that day on. Sang must have been ingesting some mind altering substance for there is no evidence that lions ever existed on the island.  There were, however, tigers.  The last one was killed in the 1930s.

Today, Singapore is recognized as an Asian economic tiger along with its go-go counterparts, Hong Kong and Shanghai.  This island/nation has 5 million people residing in an area three and a half times the size of Washington DC.  It ranks 11th globally in The Economist Magazine’s Quality-of-Life Index.  Singapore’s open business environment has produced one of the highest per-capita gross domestic products (GDP) in the world.

That enormous wealth has transformed this place rapidly in the past 50 years.  That is most evident in the city’s architecture.  Modern monuments of which glass and steel abound.

But tucked away between the towers of concrete and moxie are resilient remnants of Singapore’s past. Shophouses are the best example.  These are two or three stories high buildings that traditionally had a shop on the ground floor for mercantile activity and a residence above.  These can be still seen in Chinatown and along the Singapore River.

The British controlled Singapore for more than a century and their colonial architecture also edures.

Plus, there are many Hindu and Buddhist temples throughout the city.

But I am a lifetime too late to see the Singapore of old, the one I see displayed brilliantly at the National Museum, which held my imagination hostage for a day.  I yearn to see the Singapore of yesteryear, the one of rickshaws, opium dens, and bum boats.  Gone are the days when pirates ruled the seas and wild tigers terrorized the island. The best I can do these days is to gaze at the intricate details of the Lion City’s historic architecture while the throaty roar of a passing Maserati echoes between the concrete canyons of light and chrome.  Perhaps I can blame famed Indian writer Rudyard Kipling for my malcontent.  Kipling, a frequent visitor to Singapore, probably summed up its paradoxical exoticness best when he wrote, I have always felt the menacing darkness of tropical eventides, as I have loved the voices of night-winds through palm or banana leaves, and the song of the tree-frogs.

The Far East Files-5. Chillin’ At The Lake

 Cheow Lan Home of the Black Panther

We had successfully completed our first day in the Thailand’s Koa Sok National Park.  An hour ride by long boat is the only way to get to our lodging, a raft house on Cheow Lan Lake.  This place is known for its towering limestone formations that soar hundreds of feet above the water.  It is also home to an ancient 160-million-year-old forest ecosystem that is older than the Amazon rainforest.  Short excursions by long boat reveal some of the wild residents of this area.  We see three species of hornbills, brightly colored, long-beaked birds that inhabit Southeast Asia.  While sitting in the long boat looking at eagles, I spot a Great Hornbill nearly four-foot long flying toward us 100 feet in the air.  Once overhead, we hear the rhythmic, slow motion whoosh-whoosh of his wide wings.  The evocative sound is as clear as if the bird was cruising next to the boat.  Everyone aboard, including the guide and boatman, are in awe.

There are other encounters of the wild kind.  Black and blue butterflies the size of small pancakes flutter in groups at water’s edge.  A speedy, tan-spotted horned lizard nabs a lime green grasshopper and devours it. A Crested Serpent Eagle in all of its majestic glory perches on top of a bare tree as our boat drifts below the raptor.  Our guide, You, tells about other Koa Sok residents like the barking deer, gibbons (apes which we spot often frolicking high in the trees) and the clouded leopard.

“We also have black panthers here,” claims You.  “One day I got lucky and saw one laying on a branch of a tree.  I could have grabbed its tail it was so close.  He took one look at me and dashed away.”

On Day Two we board another long boat.  This one is skippered by a guy name Lek.  That word means leak in Dutch.  I am skeptical since we are about to travel an hour by water.  Lek sports a large black cowboy hat and a T-shirt that boldly proclaims, West Coast Boy Watcher’s Association. I christen the boatman Cowboy Captain and go on to explain to him what his t-shirt says in English.  Lek looks down to the writing and just laughs.  “I can speak some English but not read well,” confesses Cowboy Captain.  “I chose this one because I liked the colors.”  Our guide, You, kids Lek relentlessly about the T-shirt.  And with that, we are off.  The roar of the long boat’s massive diesel truck engine takes over and all aboard drift into their individual dream worlds.  Our destination? The Indiana Jones Cave.

The actual name of the grotto is Tham-nam Thalu.  Cowboy Captain navigates the long boat up a narrow channel to get to the trailhead.  With the boat’s enormous length and no reverse on the engine, I wonder how we will ever get out.  No worries now.  The immediate challenge is the trail ahead.  We have been warned to wear water shoes.  All of our gear for the day is stowed in dry bags.  You tells us that we will traverse a river dozens of times by the time we get to the cave.  And so it goes.

Following You to the cave.

We arrive at the entrance of Tham-nam Thalu an hour later.  Neither You nor Cowboy Captain explain to us what is ahead.  They assume that an adventurous surprise is probably what we really want.  Ignorance is bliss as we don headlamps and plunge into the darkness.  The floor of the cave is the same stream that we crossed multiple times on the hike.  The water is cool and its noise amplified as it bounces off the walls of the cave.  There are crystal formations along the way that gleam in our lights.  We see hundreds of bats above clinging upside down to the cave’s ceiling.  They are not appreciative of our illuminated intrusion.

After a 15-minute slog, the floor of the cavern begins to descend steeply.  The walls close in and both hands and feet are needed to scale down the slippery surface.  The noise of the water increases making conversation difficult.  And then there are the bugs.  They swarm to my light in a cloud so thick that I have to close my lids to mere slits to avoid them landing on my eyes.  I can barely see.  Occasionally, I turn off my lamp and try to negotiate with the light from the others.  This gives me temporary relief from the insects, but I can only do this for so long.  With my light back on, the bugs immediately swarm around my face.  Are we having fun yet?

As we venture downward, the insects finally relent.  A cool and sudden temperature change forces the bugs to flee.  But the ‘trail’ now has turned into a narrow slot canyon reminiscent of Utah’s canyonlands.  The noise of the stream is now thundering.  At one point, we have to chimney down 20 feet and into the water below.  The stream is deep here and my feet find no bottom.  The current pushes me along and I have to duck my head in spots to avoid hitting rock formations hanging down.  It is the kind of place at which Indiana Jones would start grimacing just as the bad guys gain in a close pursuit.  Me?  I’m just wondering how the hell we are going to get back out of this cave against the current.

The water becomes shallow again and the terrain flattens out somewhat.  I peer ahead and actually see daylight.  Once my eyes adjust, I can see lush jungle vegetation outside.  My internal light bulb clicks on.  I realize that Tham-nam Thalu has multiple entrances.  We entered hundreds of feet above and spiraled down Inner Earth to this lower opening.  I’m relieved to know that for us today, this is a one-way street.

Once out of the cave our guide, You, tells us about what happened here 5 years ago. The eight foreign tourists were trekking with two local guides when heavy rain started in the afternoon.  That caused the stream inside Tham-nam Thalu to rise suddenly.  It became a flash flood, a wall of water that rushed through at blistering speed.  The cavern quickly filled with water. The sole survivor was 21-year-old British woman, Helena Carroll, who had climbed upward to a rock shelf just in time. She was rescued from the cave the next day, ending a 20-hour nightmare.

With the tale complete, I look up to the forest canopy and toward threatening, gray skies.  Thunder rumbles overhead as if on cue. We quickly head down the trail and back to the long boat.  No one says a word as the rain begins to fall.  It is time to start chillin’ at Cheow Lan.


Far East Files-4. Riding Elephants

It was in 1968 when a squad of US Army soldiers was transported to Cambodia under the cloak of darkness.  This was a clandestine operation to gather information on Viet Cong troop movement through a remote mountain region.  The mission was also breaking the international law of the day since the United States had not declared war against Cambodia.

The squad was dropped off by helicopter, set up a security perimeter and then awaited orders.  The orders never came.  Days passed into weeks and finally, into months.  The young American soldiers, bored out of their minds, passed the time by cleaning their guns and smoking pot.  And they rode elephants.

I know about this secret mission because my friend, Richard, was there.  He and a couple of his squad buddies befriended a couple of local Cambodians who owned elephants.  Richard always rode the same elephant, which he ended up calling Al.  It was a daily ritual for him to get stoned and happily ride his trusty pachyderm pal along the lush mountain trails with an M16 in hand.  Months later, the squad was informed that they were pulling out.  Richard was going home.  He had served his 13 months in the service. As the departing chopper ascended from the jungle, my friend caught one last look of Al.  He would never forget about riding his elephant.

More than forty years later, I get my chance. I find myself on top of an Asian elephant for a morning ride up a river valley in Thailand near the Khao Sok National Park.  My elephant is one of a dozen that slog through the stream to deliver us to a waterfall a half hour away.

I must interject here to say that my personal rule about riding four-legged beasts is being broken.  I have a distrust of doing this unnatural act.  I have refused rides on horses, camels, donkeys, even goats—and wisely so.  No good can come of such endeavors.  But I make an exception today.  Richard’s fond memories of riding Al persist in my memory.  He said that it was the only thing that kept him sane during his precarious stay in Cambodia.  I thought I should give it a go.

My elephant for the day is one of the older ones and also one of the few with tusks.  I like him immediately.  I’m told to mount a makeshift chair that straddles the elephant’s back and we are soon off.  I learn quickly to keep my body balled up rather that spread across the chair at all angles.  Once that is mastered, the ride becomes enjoyable.

The journey is slow and methodical, but very pleasant, at least for me.  I believe it’s just another day at the office for my elephant.  He appears bored and that is certainly understandable.  The elephant handler is constantly yelling orders to keep the animal on track.  The man holds two sticks, one with a mean looking hook on the end, but they are never used.  The verbal commands are all that is needed.  I am relieved.

At one point, the handler jumps aboard and rides the head of the elephant talking to him in soft tones between harsh-sounding commands.  The guy even swats the stinging horse flies that try to bite the animal.  It is good to see the affection, but I can’t help but think that this elephant would rather be free than serve as a beast of burden.

There are wild elephants still wandering Thailand, but their lives must also be arduous.  As humans encroach on their natural terrain, the wild elephants are viewed as pests.  If they are not captured and tamed, they are eliminated.

I have mixed feelings about this ride.  It is a quiet thrill riding upon such wonderful, dexterous animal.  But I lament my elephant’s existence.  I sense that he does too.  Plus, the river habitat upon which we tread is being destroyed with every step.  The elephants follow a well-worn path through the river and along it’s banks day after day.  This riparian area is an eco disaster because of it.

By trip’s end, the tourists are told that they can buy bananas and feed the animals.  I look into my elephant’s eyes and know this is the best part of his day. I buy a basketful and feed my new friend the sweet fruit one by one.  He gently grabs the bananas with the end of his trunk and deftly delivers them to his mouth.  We soon part ways and like my friend, Richard, I also take one last look.  I, too, will always remember riding my elephant.




Far East Files-3. Love Those Buns

For those readers who read the last blog entry, Enthusiasm Journey, you’ve already heard about my adventures on the tiny Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau.  What I failed to reveal is the story that I am about to tell now.

Not far from the Taoist temple called Yuk Hui, I was drawn to a towering scaffold of bamboo.  Years ago, I learned that bamboo is used for scaling buildings due to its amazing strength, flexibility and abundance throughout the world’s tropics. It has long been the choice of scaffolding in China.  However, the practice has been banned in recent years for buildings over six floors due to safety considerations.  In spite of these new regulations, bamboo scaffolds are still in used in the construction of skyscrapers in Hong Kong.  Go figure.

The scaffold I am looking at now in Cheung Chau appears to be about 50 feet in height.  I watch workers high above attach round, tan objects to an inner framework.  A middle- aged man comes up to me and asks in perfect English if there is something he can explain to me.

“Hello, my name is Michael.  I guess you are here for the festival.  A bit early aren’t you?”

“Festival?  I didn’t know there was a festival.”

“Oh, yes.  In just a few days Cheung Chau will celebrate its bun festival.”

I look at the man skeptically.  “A bun festival?”

“Yes,” continues Michael.  “It started over a hundred years ago.  When the plague left Cheung Chau, the people here organized a Bun Festival to express thanks to the gods for blessing and protecting them.  There are Taoist rituals, music, a parade, lion dances, and drum beating.  It gets quite lively.”

I learn that Michael is a teacher from Hong Kong island.  He brought his class here today on a field trip to learn about the traditions of the bun festival.  For years, young men would scale the bamboo towers in an attempt to grab as many buns as they possibly could.  The buns at the top were most prized and thought to give the bun grabbers’ families’ good fortune.  Apparently, the competition was fierce in the quest to grab the highest buns. That led to a tragic accident in 1978 when one of the 60-foot bun towers collapsed, injuring more than 100 people. In subsequent years, three designated climbers, one climber to each tower, raced up their respective towers.  These days 12 well-trained athletes are permitted to climb and grab buns.  Lucky guys.

Bun Squeezers

School girls like buns.

Tourists like buns.

Of course, the gods like buns.

I wander away from the busy preparations and down an alley. Through the open doorway of a small bakery, I see a rack of freshly baked buns cooling off.  These are steamed buns and each is stamped with crimson Chinese letters something like this 北社.  It is all Greek to me.  There is no one around and I ponder snatching one of the buns myself.  Then I hear a voice from behind, “In three days, festival starts.”  It is the baker.  Our eyes lock.  He has read my thoughts about snatching one of his buns.  I surrender a smile and so does he.  “Come back in three days.  Many buns to squeeze then.”

With that I am off.  Perhaps another time.  I learn later that the festival always takes place on the Eighth day of the Fourth Moon in the Chinese calendar.  By then I will be deep in the jungles of Thailand.  My bun squeezing will have to wait for another visit.

The Far East Files-2. Enthusiam Journey

I had just ridden the world’ longest outdoor covered escalator system called the Central-Mid-levels; cruised the steep hillsides on the Peak, a cable tram funicular railway that delivered me to a stunning Hong Kong harbor vista; and was jostled in Kowloon’s Chungking Mansions, a menagerie of low-budget hotels, cheap shops, and shifty money exchanges.  It is Kowloon’s melting pot neighborhood where Africans, Indians, Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Filipinos and others gather in a throbbing mass of humanity.

After the downtown urban buzz, it was time for some cultural contemplation.  I wanted to get a look at the ‘real’ China, whatever that means.  Before my trip, others told me that I wasn’t even visiting China, that Hong Kong isn’t the real China even though the country politically absorbed the island territory 15 years ago.  My guess is that because the People’s Republic is so vast, there are many flavors to this immense nation, not just one.  With that in mind, I take a First Ferry out of Hong Kong to get different taste of the Middle Kingdom.

After nearly an hour, I land on Long Island.  That’s Cheung Chau in Cantonese.  It is also referred to as Pirate Island since marauders used to hide out in the coves of this South China Sea backwater.  Even today, Cheung Chau lives up to its maritime past.  It is a bustling working port jammed with fishing boats.  In the early morning, I watch dockworkers load heavy containers of ice on the quay in anticipation of the day’s catch.

The Palace of the Jade Void.

Later I stumble upon the Palace of the Jade Void, a Taoist temple called Yuk Hui.  Legend has it that local fishermen brought a statue of the god Pak Tai, the Supreme Emperor of the Mysterious Heaven, to combat a severe outbreak of the plague that was decimating the population. The disease miraculously vanished.  In gratitude, the Yok Hui Temple was constructed to house the statue.  It remains the cultural heart of the island.


Not Really Sure What This Means.

Climbing a series of nature trails out of the village, I trek to the other side of the island.  A long, sandy beach marks Cheung Chau’s famed, windsurfing hotspot.  This is the aquatic backyard of local Lee Lai-Shan.  She seized the gold for windsurfing in the 1996, the last athlete to win an Olympic medal for Hong Kong.  These days such distinctions are credited to the Republic of China.  I guess that confirms that HK is now part of the country.

Lee Lai-Shan

I look out and notice two robust nets forming a large in-sea swimming area.  Signs warn about sharks and for swimmers to remain inside the inner net.  These sharks must really be bad ass to require double nets to keep them out.  I wonder where Lee Lai-Shan windsurfed in her prime, in or out of the nets?

The day rapidly passes by.  It is time to jump a ferry back to Hong Kong.  But before departing, I sit at water’s edge and sip on a can of Blue Girl, a local pilsner and contemplate the trip. Cheung Chau is definitely light years away from the big city.  It operates on a traditional Chinese fishing village clock in spite of having 7 million people just 10 kilometers away.  I watch two fishermen arrive to board their boat in the harbor.  One of the guys parks his bicycle directly in front of me and chains it to a metal post.  On the center tube of his ride are the words, Enthusiasm Journey.  That eloquently describes my travels of the day.