Hambantota, Sri Lanka

     On March 20 we arrived at Hambantota’s spanking new cruise port.  This was Amsterdam’s maiden visit & only the 2d by any HAL ship, Rotterdam having visited here a couple of weeks earlier.  We were told that the local tourist board had a special meeting the day before our arrival to prepare.  We were met on the dock by dancers & musicians, as we had in a number of ports.  As our bus left the port we passed a large crowd of taxi drivers waiting to recruit passengers leaving on their own.  We were glad we were already engaged.

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     Hambantota is a small town (about 12,000) that is likely to get a lot bigger soon.  Originally settled by Malay fishermen, Hambantota has the largest percentage of Muslims of any town in Sri Lanka. Its name is a corruption of “Sampan-thota,” which means port for sampan boats. It was all but destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, which killed a large portion of the townspeople in just a few minutes.  It has been rebuilt near the original spot and the Sri Lanka government (headed by a Hambantotan) now plans to make it the second largest city in Sri Lanka.  They have already mostly finished a new port that is one of the deepest in the world, which is where we docked, and are building an international airport as well.

     We really didn’t get to see much of Hambantota (which we understand has little to see) because we were on an excursion to Mulkirigala, a fascinating series of ancient temples built into caves in a mountain.  On the long bus ride to the site, we were able to see some pretty countryside & some village scenes as well.

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     Most people seemed to be dressed in western garb but there were many men wearing sarongs & women in sari’s.

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     Mulkirigala is a huge rock outcrop more than 600 feet high.  There are seven Buddhist temples built into caves on four levels.  There are 533 very steep steps to reach the top (getting steeper & more difficult the higher you go).  The temples date back to 300 BC & were completely restored in the 18th century.  (Note that the caves were pretty dark & no flash was allowed, so a lot of these pictures are blurrier than we would have liked)

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     On the first terrace were two temples, each of which had a 45 foot long reclining Buddha (unfortunately difficult to photograph because behind glass). There were also many colorful paintings on the walls & ceilings showing Buddhist & Hindu gods & stories.  As usual, you were required to remove your shoes before entering each of the temples.  Also on this level we encountered a number of monkeys, with what looked like Beatles haircuts & dark ears that looked like they had been pasted onto their fur.

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     We walked up the stairs to the second terrace, where there is a stupa as well as a temple.  Inside was a reclining Buddha, thankfully not behind glass this time, with some attendants.  Reclining Buddhas, as we understand it, represent Buddha on his deathbed.  If his feet are together he is still alive, if apart he is dead. More interesting paintings were on the walls.

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     The third level has four temples, although it is not clear at this point which of our pictures applies to which temple.  Anyway, two of them have reclining Buddhas (one of them is the only dead Buddha on the site).  One of them has a separate vestibule, paved with Dutch floor tiles and its walls covered with dramatic sculptures.

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     The climb to the fourth level was really unreasonable, with steps cut out of almost a cliff wall.  But we made it up there (and down, which may have been harder, since you had to do it ladder-style).  No temples up here on the very top of the mountain, but there was a stupa & a small building called a dagoba, where another monk was selling blessings.  Behind the top you could scramble down (no steps) a hillside to stand on the top of the rock & look out over the countryside for quite a ways, so Rick did that.

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     So then we climbed down, which sounds pretty simple but actually wasn’t.  You might wonder what we could have been thinking going up those last flights of steps, but everyone got down OK.

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     Perhaps this is a good place to show a sample of the flowers on display at this site.

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     At the bottom are a number of shrines, one of which was attended by a couple of elderly men in sarongs.  We got back in our bus, but had to wait 20 or 30 minutes for the last passenger to show up.  We were beginning to wonder whether, if someone fell off the top, anyone would notice them.

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     Our final passenger finally showed up (we never heard what delayed her) & we drove back to the ship.  We passed more town & country scenes.  Sri Lanka has, since ancient times, been building earth & stone pools for water retention that they call “tanks,” which have served very extensive irrigation systems. Usually they build a small dam around a depression in the earth.  We saw a few of these on our trip back.  There was also a pond where egrets, ducks & other birds had gathered.

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    As in Cambodia, we thought the written language of Sri Lanka was quite beautiful.  Here are a few examples with English translations. Note that there are two official languages in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese & Tamil.

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     So our visit to Hambantota came to an end, but we would see more of Sri Lanka the next day.

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Phuket, Thailand

     On St Patrick’s Day, March 17, we arrived in Phuket, an island at the very bottom of Thailand.  I know this will be a disappointment for some, but the “Ph” in this name is not pronounced like an “F,” and the name does not rhyme with bucket.  The “h” is silent & it is pronounced “Poo’-ket,” which I guess is bad enough.  Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by Europeans, retaining its ruling monarchy, famous to westerners from The King And I (which is disliked here for its portrayal of their king as a strutting buffoon in need of tutelage from a young European woman). 

     Phuket is primarily a resort area today, known for its fine beaches.  A dozen years ago it was a victim of the devastating tsunami that killed thousands here. Our day here turned out to be sunny & hot.

     We are not beach people & there really isn’t much to do on your own here, so we signed up for an excursion to an elephant refuge.  In 1989 commercial logging was outlawed, which left a great many elephants (who moved the timber) & their handlers without a job.  Siam Safari was opened that year to help them out as a sanctuary & hospital for elephants.  In 1994 became the first company to offer elephant trekking in Phuket & it has received recognition for its care of the animals. Today there are between 6000 & 7000 elephants in Thailand, down from 100,000 in 1900.

     We set out in the morning for the bus ride to the elephant camp.  Near the end of the ride we spotted the 125 foot Big Buddha they have almost completed, sitting on top of a large hill.  It is, indeed, very big & very white.  We transferred to a smaller vehicle which took us up a mountain to the camp.

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     We had understood that this was just an elephant camp, but it turned out to have much more than that for visitors.  First we met a water buffalo, had a ride in a buffalo card (slow & not too exciting) & were shown a demonstration of how water buffalo are used to help plant rice.

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     We were shown how rice is husked & prepared for market.  They showed us how to prepare pineapple curry, which was really delicious (Rick had two bowls).  Then they showed us how rubber is produced, from tapping a rubber tree to rolling it out into sheets in what looked like the top of an old fashioned manual washing machine.  They come out in the middle of the night to tap the trees, wearing head lanterns with flames in them.  Each day one diagonal line is cut in the tree & a spout & cup are mounted to catch the sap.  Rubber trees originated in the Amazon region of Brazil & they prohibited the export of the trees, which gave Brazil a very lucrative monopoly on rubber.  But saplings were smuggled out to Britain, who replanted them in Asian colonies from which they spread to Thailand.  The guy who smuggled them was a wanted criminal in Brazil, but was knighted in Britain.

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     Next we were taken to meet a young elephant, who was mostly interested in being fed.  She kept moving, walking around her pen then coming back to the people who were there.  Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, have much smaller tusks & have two large bumps on top of their heads. All of the elephants at the camp when we visited were females, with no visible tusks.

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     We rode elephants through the jungle for half an hour.  Our elephant was named Boso.  You mount the elephant from a platform & sit on a bench mounted on the elephant’s back . . .  easier than stepping into a tender boat from the ship! A skilled handler sits on the elephant’s neck & controls the animal.  It seems that the handlers work with the same elephant all the time.  The had short sticks with a curved metal point to direct the animal, but this was used gently on top of the elephant’s head to indicate directions.  We never saw anyone hit any of the elephants.  We were told that we were a very light load for an elephant, who can carry really large weights.

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     We walked through the woods, swaying gently from side to side. A couple of times our handler asked us to move a little to balance the load.  It was easy to slide back & forth on the bench as the elephant walked, but there was (happily) a metal bar across our laps to keep us from falling out.  The handler kept his feet behind the elephant’s ears, which probably assists in directing it.  Occasionally an elephant would stop to get a bite to eat, or to scratch an itch on a rock, or other rather natural things.

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     We stopped at a scenic overlook of the seashore.  As we approached it we noted the head of the Big Buddha peeping over the trees on top of a nearby mountain.  The elephants rested & milled around for awhile at the overlook, while passengers snapped pictures of each other, before heading back.

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     So then we returned to the camp & dismounted onto the platform.  This was a really fun outing.

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     At the elephant camp we saw quite a bit of pretty flora, and some unusual fauna.  In particular was a very large yellow spider, scary but fortunately too far away to do any damage.  And there was a very tiny frog.  I didn’t see it when taking a picture of a water lily. It was only later when I cropped and enlarged the water lily picture that I noticed what looked like a worm on one leaf.  Enlarging it further, it turned out to be a tiny frog, probably only about an inch or so long.

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       We came down from the mountain & went to lunch at one of the best local restaurants located right by the water.  It was delicious Thai food (& lots of it), but not as delicious as that pineapple curry we had at the camp in the morning!

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     After lunch we visited Wat Chalong, the largest Buddhist temple in Phuket, which was built in 1837.  It is very colorful & elaborately decorated.

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     While we were walking to the temple there was suddenly loud explosions, sounding at first like gunfire.  It turns out that there is a tradition here of setting off firecrackers in a small building near the temple as thanks for a wish fulfilled.  It was startling (& very loud) at first, but it happened a number of times while we were there, so it must be pretty routine.

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     Down a short path from the temple is a much more recent building called the Chedi.  It is 3 stories, much larger than the temple, & houses in the top story what is reputedly a bone fragment from the Buddha himself.  It is in a reliquary & in a room behind glass, so you can’t really see it.  But the Chedi is quite beautiful, with the first floor filled with gold colored statues of Buddha & others.

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     We returned to the ship & sailed away from Thailand as the sun set, ending our sojourn in Southeast Asia & heading for Sri Lanka, with two sea days before us.

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Singapore (Day 3)

     March 15 was Mary’s birthday, but that was no respite for us from exploring all we could of endlessly interesting Singapore.  We took the subway to Little India this morning and walked down Serangoon Road among the kiosks, notably the flower shops selling garlands of fresh jasmine, roses and other flowers for prayer offerings.

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     The Indian community here dates to the import of convict laborers from India beginning in 1825, who were used to build many of the colonial buildings in Singapore.  As we saw on day one, the population today is large & immigrants continue to arrive from India & Bangladesh.

     We came to our second Hindu temple in Singapore, Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (don’t ask us how to pronounce it).  Built in the mid 19th century, it is dedicated to the goddess Kali.

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     We took off our shoes & went inside.  The temple is filled with sculptures of Hindu divinities and, because it was a Hindu holy day, there were quite a few worshipers as well.  A lot of bustle & a very colorful space.

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     We spent some time walking around & perusing the shops, particularly in the Little India Arcade.  There was much of interest.  Characteristic of all the older parts of Singapore is the shophouse, a 2 or 3 story building with an open store on the first floor and living quarters upstairs.  Actually, we have seen this kind of building all over Southeast Asia, but in Singapore the architecture of the upper floors is much more interesting & diverse.

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     We walked over to Kampong Glam, the Arab neighborhood.  Arab street is famous for its textile shops, with many silks & batiks at widely varying prices.  Vendors are fairly aggressive, but no one was rude.  Nearby is the Sultan Mosque, originally built in 1827 with financing by the East India Company as a result of the treaty between Raffles & Sultan Hussein Muhammed Shah. The current structure, with its fabulous golden dome, was built a century later.  Sadly, we arrived just 10 minutes after it closed for two hours at mid-day, so we could not go inside. 

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     Next to the mosque is the Istana Kampong Glam, which was the Shah’s official residence, built in 1840.  The back of both structures are on Muscat Street, named for the capital of Oman (which we will be visiting later) because the Omanis helped finance the development of this area.

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     We walked to Chinatown, passing some interesting skyscrapers on the way.

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     In Chinatown we had lunch at the very Chinese sounding Wall Street Café (which did have Chinese proprietors) on Pagoda Street.  In the 19th century this was lined with shophouses & itinerant vendors, along with opium dens and slave traders dealing in Chinese laborers.  At one end is a set of sculptures evoking that period.

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     In Chinatown we visited two temples.  First was the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, completed in 1843.  It is dedicated to Mariamman, a divinity with healing powers. The gopurum is populated by more than 70 Hindu deities & the wall around the temple grounds is topped with sculptures of sacred cows.  During an annual festival devotees walk on hot coals here.  Near it is the green Jamae Mosque, built in the early 1830’s.  The minarets in its façade are not real, but look like part of a model of a mosque sitting over the entrance.

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     Finally, we visited the Thian Hock Keng Temple, completed in 1842, the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore.  Seafarers came here to give thanks to Ma Zhu Po, protector of sojourners, for safe passage to Singapore.  It is supported on bricks and wooden posts, with no nails used in the main structure.

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     We returned to the ship feeling rather tired, having walked almost 10 miles in very hot weather for the second day in a row.  In the cruise terminal (a huge building with three floors of shops & restaurants) we searched & searched for a place to have a beer to celebrate Mary’s birthday, and finally ended up in a sports bar that seemed to be the only place serving alcohol.  At dinner that night all the waiters sang an Indonesian birthday song to Mary & we were served a birthday cake (Mary’s birthday was in their records, Rick did not tell them!).  We felt that we had seen & done quite a lot in our 2+ days in Singapore, but that there is a whole lot more left to see and do on a return trip in this unusual & diverse city.

Singapore (Day 2)

     We got up as early as we could on March 14 and after breakfast headed into town.  This is no easy thing.  We were all given our passports for this stop (usually the ship holds onto them).  It was a long walk from the ship through indoor passages to the desks where we had to line up to have our passports & landing cards checked & scanned, then another line to go through a metal detector & have anything you are carrying scanned.  Another ship had just docked, so this area was pretty jammed.  After running that gauntlet we had to figure out how & where to board the subway.  We spent some time in the wrong line (there are a lot of lines), but finally found the MRT ticket office.  There we bought two 2-day passes & went off to find the entrance to the subway line we wanted, to take us to Chinatown.  All in all, it was close to an hour between stepping off the ship & stepping on the subway.

     Singapore offers a lot to a visitor, with several diverse ethnic neighborhoods, many gardens & amusements, museums, history and a wealth of shopping opportunities.  But our reaction was that it was a lot like Disney World (we aren’t the first to notice this).  It is very clean & neat & easy to get around with a very efficient subway system.  It has several different self-contained attraction areas, which could as easily be called Little Indialand, Chinatownland, Arabland, Colonialland & Big Businessland.  It has rides, three of which you saw in the first episode.  Everything seems carefully planned and executed to make enjoyment of the city easy for the visitor.  None of this is bad (we love Disney World), but the theme park feeling is a bit unsettling (at least to us), even though there is quite a lot of real life to be seen & experienced here.

     Singapore is a small island nation with no natural resources. Everything is imported & taxed. Singapore was a small fishing village of about 1000 people until the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819 to establish an British colony.  You may remember him from an earlier episode when as governor of Java he set in motion the recovery of Borobudur temple. He concluded a treaty with the local chieftains & by 1824 Britain had obtained full control of the island.  In 1822 Raffles decided that the growing ethnic groups in the city should be segregated into separate areas & he drew up demarcation lines that still pretty much mark the boundaries of the Chinese, the Muslims and the commercial district. Raffles died of a brain tumor in England four years later, but the island flourished as an important trading post half way between India & China.  By 1860 the population reached 80,000 & by the turn of the century its status a trading hub was well established.

     In 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese. Its defenses, called “Fortress Singapore,” all faced the sea but the Japanese came by land from the Malay Peninsula in the north.  The 3+ year occupation was harsh, many people killed, sent to prison camps or sent north to work as slave labor on the railroad the Japanese were building. After the war the British returned, but in 1963 Singapore became part of the independent Malaysia and two years later separated into an independent country.

     Lee Kuan Yew was the political strong man of Singapore from independence until his death a couple of years ago. Under his rule Singapore developed into an economic powerhouse, but also a repressive society characterized by innumerable rules coupled with harsh punishments.  The media have been tightly controlled and political opposition has not been tolerated (successful opposition politicians often found themselves in serious legal difficulties). Bringing drugs or even an unloaded gun into the city is punishable by death and there are signs everywhere telling you what is disallowed & warning that police cameras are in operation (not all of these restrictions are necessarily bad ideas). 

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     We rode on the subway to the Chinatown stop & stopped in a small park above a street to reconnoiter. Nearby was the defunct  Majestic Opera House & in the middle of the street below were Disney-looking artificial trees.  We left the park & a few minutes later Rick noticed he didn’t have his camera!  He ran back to the park & the camera was still sitting where he left it on a table, undisturbed by others in the park.  In most cities it would have been long gone.

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     We walked down to the financial district, with its huge skyscrapers, to the River Walk.  This is a landscaped path along the riverside on the opposite side from where our boat trip ended the night before.  It has not only many lovely real flowers, mostly growing on trees or bushes, but also large sculptures of flowers. We had been told that this one city has 100 Starbucks outlets & at the river walk we spied number 100 itself.

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     We walked by the beautiful Fullerton Hotel seen in last night’s pictures, built in 1928 as the General Post Office.  From here we could also see the new & huge Sands Hotel, owned by the same people who own the Sands in Las Vegas.  It is really 3 buildings with a common rooftop that looks like a long boat.  People who visited the top told us that the viewing area is now tightly roped off so that you can’t approach the swimming pool or the palms or take any interesting pictures.

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     We walked past the Cavanagh Bridge (which we went under last night), constructed in 1869 by Indian convict labor.  Then we visited the Victoria Theater & Concert Hall.  The theater was built in 1862 as Singapore’s town hall & the concert hall was added in 1905 for Victoria’s jubilee year. In front is an 1887 statue of Raffles that was moved here in 1819 on the 100th anniversary of his arrival in Singapore.

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     Nearby is the old Parliament House, built in 1827 & now converted into a contemporary art gallery.  In front of it is a bronze elephant given to Singapore by the King of Siam (the father of the one depicted in The King And I) after he visited in 1871, the first foreign trip by a Thai king. Trying to find this sculpture we approached a guard behind a fence on the other side of the building.  He said there was no elephant sculpture on the grounds & gratuitously asserted that we couldn’t enter the gate (we hadn’t asked to).  Not far away is the old Supreme Court which, along with the old city hall, is now the National Art Gallery of Singapore.

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     We went off in search of the cathedral & promptly got lost.  But even when lost there are interesting things to see in Singapore. We came upon the candy-striped Central Fire Station, built in 1908.  Although it is still in operation it also includes a museum of fire fighting (which we didn’t see) & a sculpture of a fireman on the second floor.  We also passed the very colorful MICA Building, which used to be a police station but now houses the Ministry of Communications and some art galleries. Finally we found St Andrew’s Cathedral, completed in 1862 with Indian convict labor.

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     What would a visit to Singapore be without a visit to the famous Raffles Hotel, birthplace of the Singapore Sling in 1915.  It opened in 1887 & attracted many literary figures over the years.  Somerset Maugham, who supposedly wrote many of his Asian stories in the gardens, said it “stood for all the fables of the exotic East.”  The Long Bar where, as Amsterdam’s location guide put it, you can buy a Singapore Sling for approximately the price of a small house, was closed the day we were there. 

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      We walked through CHIJMES across the street from the hotel.  This is now a mall  with shops & restaurants, but was originally the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (from which come the first 4 letters of its name).  Founded in 1854, the convent operated a school and a women’s refuge.On its other side is the lovely former chapel of the convent, no longer a church but a recital, wedding & exhibition space.  This brought us to the Central Library, a large & very modern building, but always one of our favored destinations.

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     By now it was getting late & we were getting tired.  We walked a total of 10 miles this day, & it was in stifling heat.  We had one more place we wanted to visit, the Chettiar Hindu Temple. This temple was built in 1984 to replace a 19th century one that had been financed by Indian money-lenders, called chettiars.  But it was not close by, and our walk there took us past the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, two large domed buldings that the locals call the Durians because of their spiky shells.  We also saw some nice flowers as we walked through Ft Canning park.

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    The Chettiar Temple is dedicated to Lord Murugan.  Like many Hindu temples, it has a five tier entrance archway, called a gopuram, filled with colorful sculptures & reliefs. The front door was open when we got there, but no one was around and there was a sign saying not to go in.  So we didn’t, but we did take a photo through the front door.

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     We returned to the subway and made our way back to the ship; the gauntlet of officials in the cruise terminal moved much faster than in the morning because there were fewer people in line.  There was supposed to be a local folkloric show on the ship this night, but they apparently backed out at the last minute (HAL people were livid & we were disappointed). However, that allowed us to get to bed fairly early in anticipation of another full day tomorrow.

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Singapore (Day 1)

     Our first day in Singapore was spent mostly at sea, since we weren’t scheduled to arrive until 6:00 on March 13.  It was foggy & rainy all day; we could hardly see the many ships anchored off Singapore as we approached.  We had a nighttime excursion booked beginning shortly after our arrival & we were becoming more & more convinced that it would be a disaster in the rain, since most of it would be outside.  We even went up to the shore excursion desk to see if we could back out of the tour, but it was closed for the day.

     So imagine our surprise when we trooped out of the ship to the tour bus to find that the rain had pretty much stopped & the fog had lifted, just in time!  The night tour turned out to be great, & we were glad the shore excursion desk had been closed.  (Please note that some of the pictures in this episode are a little blurry because they were all taken at night & many from a moving vehicle. But they are worth seeing anyway.)

     Our bus dropped us off at Bugis Street, once a very rowdy neighborhood but now a crowded covered marketplace.  Bugis (pronounced “boo-gis”) is the name of an ethnic group in Indonesia known for their seamanship.  They built the schooners we saw in Jakarta.  At one time there were fierce pirates among them who preyed on shipping in the area.  From this comes the saying “the boogey man will get you,” used to scare small children into behaving.

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     First on our agenda was a ride through the area in a trishaw.  This is a 3 wheel vehicle comprising a bicycle attached at the side of a 2 seat cart.  There was a long line of these carrying the passengers on our excursion.

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     Our drive through the area passed the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, built in the 1870’s, which is identifiable from the Stars of David on the walls. Best was the drive through Little India, because it was Sunday and many thousands of young men (and a few women) were out & about, overflowing the sidewalks into the street.  Quite a scene.

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     From here we went for a ride on the Singapore Flyer, a 540 foot tall ferris wheel, the tallest in the world. It has glass enclosed capsules that hold about 8 passengers each & it moves very slowly, completing one turn in about 30 minutes.  It is lit up at night (as is most of this part of the city) & the colors are constantly changing.  You can even arrange to have dinner served in your capsule! When it was first opened the builders were surprised that hardly anyone came to ride.  It turned out that the wheel was turning the wrong way under the principles of feng shui, draining the area of good luck.  Reversing the direction of rotation made it a success.

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     The views of the city from the Flyer were nothing short of spectacular.  We were very thankful that the fog seemed completely gone & the night was very clear.

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     Our last outing of the night was a ride on a bumboat on the Singapore River.  The bumboats are traditional cargo boats, with tires on the sides & eyes painted on the front, that brought goods up the river from the port to the “godowns” (warehouses) in the city.  The river is now blocked as part of Singapore’s massive effort to eliminate the need to import fresh water from Malaysia, so the boats are now used just for tourist rides.  It starts at Clarke Quay, which is now one of the hottest nightspots in town with a lot of restaurants & bars.  There is a ride here similar to a bungy, but you sit in a little cage that holds 2 or 3 people that is suspended on a long cord from two towers, bouncing up & down & back & forth.  We didn’t do that.

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     It was not a long boat ride, but pretty colorful with so many of the bridges & buildings lit up in various colors.  Some of the places we would see in daytime later included the Fullerton Hotel, the Dunes Hotel, the Cavanagh Bridge & the Merlion, where the boat trip ended.  The Merlion – half lion & half fish – is the symbol of Singapore, but it is not some ancient mythological creature.  It was created by the Singapore tourist board.  We saw a lot of signs & tee shirts calling Singapore the “lion city” & thought this was just a tourist oriented slogan based on the Merlion.  But it turns out that the city’s name is thought to derive from the Sanskrit word “Singapura,” which means “lion city.” You just never know.

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     We drove back to the ship, happy that this excursion had turned out so much better than anticipated a few hours earlier, & went to bed after a quick meal so that we would be rested for our first full day in Singapore.


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