close

Asia

Sin Galore in Singapore

chinatown singapore

As we mentioned in our previous post on Singapore, this Southeast Asian city-state was a bit of a mystery to us. For everything we learned during our treks through the city, there were ten more questions as Singapore unraveled before us. We realized that we needed professional help – it was time for a Singapore walking tour. Recommended #1 on Tripadvisor was The Original Singapore Walks, so we decided to join their Secrets of the Red Lantern Chinatown walk.

walking tour singaporeThis was by far the best walking tour we have been on yet. It was saucy and racy and gritty and fascinating.

Bathroom buckets and sardine packed apartments 

Set in Chinatown, we learned the history from the perspective of the Chinese immigrants who flooded to Singapore’s shores in search of opportunity after British businessman Sir Stamford Raffles founded the city-state in 1818 as a trading post for the East India Trading Company. The Chinese who arrived here throughout the 19th century had often endured high seas for months at a time, were penniless, starving and often many friends or family members had died on board the ships. When they arrived to Singapore they were initially given assistance by others who, in their demands for payback, would essentially ensnare them into a form of servitude impossible to escape (similar to the concept of sharecropping in the U.S. South).singapore chinatownOur guide Janet shared the stories of the shophouses, which had factories or shops on the ground floor and 20-30 people living upstairs in one-room apartments. Some had wooden planks as beds, others just the floor, and even these spaces were often shared between those on day and night shifts.

Near the start of our Singapore walking tour she took us into a back alley (which in today’s Singapore is surprisingly clean) to show us little doors in the backs of the shophouses. Stinky buckets of number 1 and number 2 were placed behind these doors, and trucks would come, open them and collect the waste each day. From her explanation and our own imagination we could practically smell the stench of these overcrowded houses and their appalling living conditions.

chinatown singapore

Picking your poison in Singapore

Working conditions were no better, she told us, and the only break the immigrants here could get from the backbreaking labor was in the brothels and opium dens. The opium dens were where the physical pain could actually be lifted for the little while they could smoke. Chinatown was the epicenter for brothels as well, and we learned how to recognize some of the ‘higher class’ establishments, the division among the Chinese and Japanese prostitutes (the latter served only Europeans while the former focused on locals).

Much of the area has long since been gentrified and legal prostitution all but phased out, but she did sneak us past one of the last few remaining legal brothels and we had a sneak peak as we passed. It was a small entrance in a back street that just looked clinical, unlike the roaring scene she described along the way. Janet showed us many of the ‘materials’ used (see below).

chinatown singapore feminine oilSexual liberation in Chinatown eventually led the area to become the unofficial home of Singapore’s gay community – a complicated issue itself. Essentially homosexuality is frowned upon, sex between men is illegal, and yet up until recently Singapore hosted one of the world’s largest gay festivals each year. We really appreciated Janet’s candor about the gay community.

She provided the kind of in depth information that we normally only experience on LGBT-focused tours, even stopping under a rainbow flag waving at one of the more popular gay bars in the city. It was great to see the wealth of information included on the tour about the gay community, even though everyone on the tour but us was definitely straight.

chinatown singapore with gay barWhat we loved about Janet was that she clearly had great relationships with people in the community. We stopped at a Chinese medicine shop and chatted with the owner who supposedly supplied President Bill Clinton with a natural form of a special elixir (think snakes and bugs floating in an liquid meant to…raise the roof…).

She gave us a great advice on where to eat vegetarian Chinese food, which we took and it was delicious! And even though she couldn’t take us in to tour the brothel, it wasn’t for not trying. Singapore Walks actually tried to reach out and create relationships with some of them in order for tours to be able to experience first hand how the brothels work today. Apparently this didn’t go to well…but they tried.

singapore chinatown chinese medicine shopShe left us with this little nugget: back in the day people used to joke that Singapore was just one letter off. Replace the ‘p’ with an ‘l’ and you get the true name of Singapore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Singalore – Sin Galore.

From our drinks at the top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel looking down over the city  in 2012, we would have never known about Singapore’s seedy past, and it was loads of fun finding out all about it.

singapore sunset from top of marina bay sands

 

read more

When travel dreams die…our disappointing trip to The Beach

thailand maya bay with longtail boats

.“You hope, and you dream. But you never believe that something’s gonna happen for you. Not like it does in the movies. And when it actually does, you want it to feel different, more visceral, more real.” Richard, The Beach

Visiting the beach, or rather The Beach was a must for us while we were in Thailand. Few movies/books have played such a role in our wanderlust as Alex Garland’s novel-turned-Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster The Beach. So we couldn’t have been more excited to see that jaw-droppingly gorgeous, secluded Maya Bay in person. It turns out, we almost wish we didn’t come here at all.

What visiting “The Beach” is really like

Look, we know that the scenery is truly breathtaking, and some people looking at the images might say they would give an arm or a leg to spend time in surroundings like these…We get that. Read on for why we found the situation to be pretty ugly…

maya bay phi phi lei thailand
After disembarking from our ferry from Koh Lanta, we weaved our way through the narrow streets of Koh Phi Phi, which, rather than any sort of tropical paradise, was cluttered with cheap hostels, overpriced guest houses, souvenir shops, dive shops, internet cafes, tour agencies and western/westernized restaurants. Where were all the Thais? And while we’re at it – where was anyone over 30? This isn’t what our experience was supposed to be like.

koh phi phi tourist streetWe’re not entirely naive. We came over on a ferry with at least 200 people, so we knew that Koh Phi Phi and Phi Phi Lei were not exactly undiscovered.

Maya BayBut at least a small part of us both had hoped for at least a touch of the romanticism and escapism to remain on Phi Phi Lei, the tiny island where the actual film location is set. In the book, The Beach, Garland describes the hand-drawn map discovered in a cheap hostel in the backpacker ghetto in Khao San Road, Bangkok:

The island’s perimeters were drawn in green biro and little blue pencil waves bobbed in the sea. A compass sat in the top-right-hand corner, carefully segmented into sixteen points, each with an arrow tip and appropriate bearing. At the top of the map it read ‘Gulf of Thailand’ in thick red marker. A thinner red pen had been used for the islands’ names. Then, on one of a cluster of small islands I noticed a black mark. An X mark. I looked closer. Written underneath in tiny letters was the word ‘Beach’.

Now here we were on nearby Koh Phi Phi, experiencing the polar opposite of the description above. Dozens of travel agencies were ready to sell us tickets to boat tours to Maya Bay, posters with Leonardo DiCaprio’s face plastered on them urging us to experience ‘The Beach’. But damn it we had made the decision to come here, and committed to seeing what The Beach looked like in real life so we booked a snorkeling tour around Phi Phi Lei, which included a mandatory stop at Maya Bay.

the beach tours Maya BayThe first stop on our tour was Monkey Beach – one of the most disgusting real-life example of apathetic animal abuse either of us have ever seen. The beach is inhabited solely by monkeys, who, upon seeing our ramshackle wooden boat arrive, sprinted and jumped on board. Instead of some fresh fruit or other monkey-friendly food, our soulless tour guide opened up a bag of chips and starts tossing them over the side of the boat one by one to get these extras from Outbreak off our boat.
monkey on boatThe guide threw the empty bag right onto the beach, leaving it for the trans-fat addicted monkeys to tear apart. Some people had jumped off into the water to feed the monkeys as well, and one man, let’s call him Big Fat Foreigner, complained of a monkey bite as he got back on the boat. Ah, yes, Monkey Bite, said the guide. 35 people got bit yesterday, too.

All we could think was – thanks for the warning, buddy.

monkey beach touristsSo now that our hearts have sunk into our stomachs, we were unenthusiastic about the snorkeling stop that came next – and we would stay that way when we saw over 20 boats lined up in traffic – yes, actual traffic, in the main snorkeling areas. The water smelled of gasoline, a Chinese tourist on our boat thought nothing of throwing his empty pack of cigarettes in the water, and though we saw small schools of tropical fish, the coral was barely surviving.

phi phi lei tourist boatsFinally, already entirely disenchanted, we arrived in Maya Bay. Those who know the film may remember that The Beach was closed off to the ocean by massive rock formations around the bay, and it was entirely isolated. In reality, that closed off feeling can only be seen from one specific angle, otherwise it is completely open to the ocean. And anyway, speedboats and mini-yachts lined up on side of the beach, long-tail boats on the other.

maya bay tourist boatsAll together, the boats took up two-thirds of the shore, leaving hundreds of tourists to float in the remaining stretches of warm, knee-deep water. Rather than that idyllic white sand beach where Leo and friends played beach volleyball, or where the Swedes emerged from the water trailing gallons of blood after that infamous shark bite, this beach resembled more Spain’s Costa del Sol in the summer. We were given an hour to mull about, take pictures, buy ice cream and gawk at the hundreds and hundreds of tourists – undoubtedly fans of the film or the book.

maya bay phi phi lei

Maya Bay is the antithesis of the romantic notions of “The Beach”

Not that we place any blame on the author Alex Garland. After all, he places the island in the Gulf of Thailand, not the Andaman Sea. The location scout who discovered Phi Phi Lei isn’t to blame either – he did his job amazingly well. This was the perfect location for the film (and yes, we know that these pictures reveal stunning sights. We’re not trying to sound spoiled here, it was just the antithesis of the romantic notions of travel in the book/film).
maya bay thailandTo be fair, there is no single person, no agency, no one to blame for the overrun beaches, polluted water and unhealthy monkeys. When tourism opportunities spring up for newly popular destinations, individuals jump at the chance to maximize profits and run successful businesses. We just hope that lessons have been learned from this and that in similar situations in the future, sustainable tourism is fostered, encouraged or even made mandatory. We know that we have certainly learned a lesson out of all of this…don’t expect reality to match a work of fiction.

maya bay with longtail boats

Have you been to Maya Bay, aka The Beach? What did you think?

.

read more
1 2
Page 1 of 2