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Singapore, 2012

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Singapore: The Very Model Of An Asian Tiger Economy

When Singapore gained its independence from Britain in 1959 it was a poor country with an uncertain future. Unease over whether the government of the newly independent country would continue with business-friendly policies led many companies to close down their operations in the city. In fact the number one priority of the new leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was to promote prosperity and political stability. Under Yew’s leadership the economy grew rapidly and his policies became a model for other Asian economies to emulate.

Singapore is far wealthier on a per capita basis than any other country in the region. It’s is not a budget travel destination like Thailand. The cheapest room I could find to book online was in the Little India neighbourhood and it cost $50. There was scarcely room for the bed, which was a single. It was clean though and provided a safe spot for my gear. That’s all I cared about.

Most Singaporeans are of Chinese heritage but there are significant numbers of Indians and Malays. All three of these cultures have their own scrumptious cuisines to boast about. On top of that there is Singaporean food which is an amalgamation of all 3 of these. As to be expected, the food in Singapore is delectable, especially for those with an appetite for savoury cooking. Probably the best place to tuck into this delectable nourishment is in one of the food markets called “Hawker Centres”. It’s taste bud heaven.

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Laos, 2011

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Laos: South East Asia Without The Beach

It’s likely that Laos will never become as much of a tourist hub as neighbouring countries like Thailand or Vietnam. For starters, it’s a landlocked country completely lacking in palm-fringed beaches upon which to build all-inclusive seaside resorts. There are also no hugely famous tourist sites in the country. The traveler scene in Laos is mostly centered around the backpacking set.

There’s plenty of reasons for the independent traveler on a budget to make time for a visit to Laos. Prices are low, the food is as delicious as anywhere else in South East Asia, and travelers never have to deal with the crush of tourist throngs. Even in Luang Prabang the country’s number one draw for visitors, there are no lineups to get into any of the many temples.

With fewer than 7 million people, Laos is far less populated than other countries in the region. For this reason most of its forests are still intact and its natural beauty remains abundant.

Ostensibly a Communist country since 1975, the Laotian government has embraced pro-capitalist market reforms since the 1980’s. Once you arrive in the country there are almost no reminders of its recent revolutionary past.

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Thailand, 2011

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My Third Time In Thailand

In January 2011, I returned once again to Thailand. As before I flew into Bangkok and booked a room in Chinatown, my favourite neighbourhood in the city.

My main objective on this trip was to visit Laos. Back in 2008 I had spent a hurried few days in southern Laos. I had cut through that part of the country on my way from Vietnam back to Thailand. Unfortunately I had little time to spend in Laos because my return date back home from Bangkok was fast approaching .

Before journeying on to Laos I took a day trip from Bangkok to Lopburi, Thailand. Lopburi is famous for being a town where monkeys and people coexist peacefully together. Most of the time anyway.

The monkeys of Lopburi belong to a species known as Crab-Eating Macaques. They have free reign over the city. Not only is their presence just tolerated, they are regularly fed by the local people . In fact, since 1989 there has been an annual Monkey Festival held in November in honour of the simian residents of Lopburi. A huge, elaborate feast is laid out for them. In addition to tons of fresh fruit, cakes and ice cream, sticky rice and other treats are set out for the macaques to help themselves to. As the macaques throw themselves on the piles of succulent treats, mayhem ensues. They gorge themselves with abandon. They often also resort to food fights with each other. Imagine the mess they must create. I wish I had been in Lopburi to witness the Monkey Festival.

Monkeys have an honourary place in Thai culture because they are associated with the brave deeds attributed to the monkey-headed Hindu god Hanuman. Because of this, they are thought to bring good luck. This helps to explain why macaques get the red carpet treatment in Lopburi.

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Shanghai, 2011

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Shanghai: China’s Hyperkinetic Mega City

 

Before the banking crisis of 2008 a quarter of all the construction cranes in the world were in use in Shanghai. The rapidity of growth in Shanghai has been breath-taking. The Shanghai guidebook I used as a reference to the city was 3 years old in 2011, the year I visited. Near the back of that book was a map of the Shanghai subway system showing 6 different subway lines. By the time I arrived there were 13 subway lines!

With a population of over 20 million, Shanghai is a megalopolis. It’s galloping growth has been largely fueled by the throngs of country dwellers pouring in to flee the poverty of the countryside.

If you arrive in Shanghai via Pudong International Airport you have the option of journeying to the center of the city by taking the Maglev train in. This should not be missed.

The Maglev is the fastest train in the world. It can top out at 430 km/hour (270 miles/hour). Each car has a digital speedometer displayed overhead that allows passengers to know the speed the train is going. The ride is quite smooth and reasonably quiet until another train going the opposite direction passes by. Oncoming trains announce themselves with a loud bang as air is rapidly compressed between the sides of the passing trains. This lasts only a fraction of a second because of the incredible speed the trains are moving past each other. It’s quite a jolt when it happens to you the first time.

Maglev is short for “magnetic levitation”. The smoothness of the ride is due to the fact that the train travels along a guideway that uses magnetic forces that provide lift as well as propulsion. Friction is greatly reduced this way.

The Maglev travels 30.5 km from the airport to the outskirts of central Pudong in only 8 minutes. It’s like an allegory for the breakneck pace of development in Shanghai in recent decades.

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Detroit, 2010

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Detroit: Blighted But Also Blessed

My parents used to live close to Detroit on the Canadian side of the border in a town called Sarnia. That’s not where I grew up. It’s just where my parents retired to.

On one of my annual visits to see my parents I thought it would be a good idea to travel the short distance to Detroit and spend a few days there. Why not? It was just over the horizon after all. I booked a hotel online and headed across the border. This was on a Sunday in March, 2010.

After I was checked into my hotel I grabbed my camera bag and went out to have a look around. Downtown Detroit was deserted. I saw more cars than people, and I didn’t see many cars. I could walk for blocks without seeing any sign of life. Many of the buildings were shuttered and desolate. Even many of the stores that appeared to be still in business were closed.

I walked over to Woodward Avenue, the main north-south roadway. The street was mostly desolate but I saw a restaurant and bar called the Hockey Town Cafe that was open and I could see some people inside. Next door was a grand old theatre called the Fox. It was quite imposing and obviously still in operation. Even here though it was largely barren of other people. The occasional car or pedestrian would pass. Of the few people on the street some appeared to be homeless.

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