The World’s Greatest Airport

Yesterday, I had a long layover in what some consider to be the world’s greatest airport, Singapore’s Changi Airport (SIN). As I’ve previously written on this blog, I’m a huge fan of long layovers especially when the country offers visa free entry and decent food. Singapore ticks the necessary boxes. While I was looking at various things to do on a 16 hour layover, I found the usual recommendations for tourist sites and good eating around the city. However, another recommendation kept resurfacing: the airport itself. I never thought of an airport as an attraction.

The kiosk

After landing, I was headed towards immigration to head into the city when I noticed a kiosk advertising free Singapore tours. I stopped by. During the day, there are free heritage tours to the city. In the late afternoon and evening, there are free city lights tours. My flight arrived just in time for one of the late afternoon city lights tours. The tour was led by a local tour guide named Daryl. About 20 folks from all over the world joined Daryl’s group and boarded an air-conditioned tour bus to the city. Daryl taught us about some of the history of Singapore while pointing out some of the famous sites. One of the stops was Gardens by the Bay. The massive garden features super trees, which are concrete and metal structures in the form of trees that are home to various plant life. At night, they are brilliantly lit. Not too far away is Satay by the Bay, a food centre with various types of tasty local cuisine. After 2.5 hour jaunt around the city, we were headed back to the airport.

One of the super trees at dusk
Satay on satay on satay!
Part of the Singapore skyline.
More of the super trees. After dark.

When we returned to the airport, some of us decided to check an art installation in the airport called Kinetic Rain. The installation features several copper-coated droplets moving artfully in sync.

The art installation.

The airport is home to different gardens including a cactus garden and a butterfly garden. For the tired feet, there is a plethora of foot massagers. There are several lounge spaces with comfy chairs to relax. In Terminal 2, there’s what they call the Entertainment Deck. Several video game stations are set up for the traveler’s leisure. The selection of games is pretty good, as well. Around the corner, there was a room with computer gaming and an arcade-style setup for various (mostly fighting) games. In Terminals 2 and 3, there are small movie theatres. Each has a daily rotation of 5-6 movies. There are also several computer terminals set up for internet browsing in addition to free WiFi.

All of the above mentioned stuff is free. There are paid options as well. For example, there’s a gym, a few spas, and several paid lounges. For those that need to rest in more traditional settings, there are hotels in the airport. One of the hotels has a swimming pool available to their guests, and outsiders (for a fee).

After my short stay in Changi, I can definitely see why it’s considered the world’s greatest airport. It seems to be an airport designed by someone who spent too much time in airports twiddling thumbs thinking, “there has to be a better way”. It absolutely challenged what I thought an airport was, and could be. Of the airports that I’ve been to, Changi just might be the best. It’s definitely the most engaging. It’s also the place that I’d most want a long layover, or a flight delay.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

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Monday in a Picture – Fish Foot Massage

Last week as I was riding around the island of Siquijor, I saw one of the suggested tourist sites. There was a massive tree that was more than 100 years old. At the base of the tree was a small pond. The pond was home to several fish of varying size. All of the fish were very eager to chomp on some dead human skin. Luckily for them, I had some to contribute. I had heard of such fish foot spas around Asia, and I had been intending on going. But intentions fall victim to the immediacy of life. Alas, here I was.

The initial rush of fish on my feet was part startling, part tickling, part strange. A few seconds in, followed by many more seconds out. After several cycles of this, I was comfortable enough to relax and enjoy the fish nibbling. Even the larger ones. The above video was recorded once I actually relaxed.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Dutch Pancake Party

I know. I know. You may have seen the title and thought, “I didn’t know that Kirby was going to the Netherlands”. I didn’t. I arrived in Philippines after a wonderful time in Vietnam. As I do when I get to most new cities, I checked out what was going on in the local Couchsurfing community. Manila was no exception. Some locals and travelers were getting together to walk around and explore Manila a day after I arrived. Perfect!

A group of about ten folks showed up in the park for the day’s activities. What I didn’t know was that the day’s activities would conclude in a Dutch Pancake Party at a local hostel. Robin, a self-described Dutch nomad, started throwing these parties some years ago. It all started with a conversation about food. Someone who was hosting Robin asked him to make some Dutch food. He admitted that he didn’t know how to cook, and made the only thing he knew: a Dutch pancake. Following the excitement of the first, he organized another, and then another. Now, Robin has hosted more than 100 of these events in more than 80 cities.

It was really cool to see all of the people coming together to share in pancakes. There was a very social atmosphere that extended beyond Couchsurfing. Good times were had as many pancakes were devoured. The above picture was taken before the event started as we were making pancake batter.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Halong Bay

A few years ago, I saw pictures of what I would learn is Halong Bay. One of the pictures was so magnificent that I decided to make it the background on my phone. I wanted to get there. To see this beauty in person. To be amazed and in awe. As my time in Vietnam was drawing to a close, I decided to prioritize going to Halong Bay over everything else. The Ha Giang Loop. Sapa. Ninh Binh. Hanoi.

While spending some time on the island of Cat Ba in Lan Ha Bay, I took a day boat trip through that bay to Halong Bay. It was just as beautiful in person as it was in the picture saved as my screensaver a while ago. Activities in the bay included swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. The tour guide also pointed out several of floating communities in the bays. The 1,969 limestone karsts protect the communities from typhoons, tsunamis, and the like. There are some communities that have a small tunnel entrance. One such entrance is only accessible during low tide. Many of the floating communities have fish farms. The above picture was taken just before kayaking around some of Halong Bay. If you look closely, you can see some of the passages we kayak through.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

The Caves of Phong Nha

After a brief stay in Hue, I took a bus to Phong Nha. The small town is the base for many local and international travelers visiting the national park of the same name. Apparently, ten years ago, the main road in the town wasn’t paved and businesses were sparse. While the road is tarred and small businesses catering to travelers are plentiful, the town maintains its small town feel. The biggest attractions of the national park are the caves.

After meeting up with some other backpackers at a local hostel, we walked along the main road to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang Tourist Centre. This is where you can buy entrance tickets and rent a boat to go to the Phong Nha cave. Boats seat up to ten people and cost the same price regardless of how many people (up to ten) are in the boat. Thankfully we were able to divide the cost among seven of us. The return boat trip includes a captain and assistant. To visit this cave, a boat is necessary as a river flows through the cave.

While I’ve been to caves and caverns before, this was my first time exploring one with an actual river inside. During the war, the American military bombed the region heavily during the day. For protection, many local people lived in the cave. There was a field hospital, school, and living quarters among other things. As we floated through the cave, the sheer massiveness of it was impressive. It was like a small town into itself. As I walked around the caves, I remember thinking, “it’s truly amazing what millions of years can do”.

There are other caves in the park open to visitors as well. To my knowledge, none of these were used for similar purposes. The only other cave I visited was the Paradise Cave, and it was just as massive. I wouldn’t be surprised if entire communities and market systems existed in it at one point. While I didn’t visit the Dark Cave (named such because it has no artificial lighting inside), I was told that it was amazing and included a lot of fun activities like zip-lining, kayaking, and a mud bath. A motorbike ride through the national park was quite spectacular with sights to rival nature’s most picturesque scenes.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Hai Van Pass

Moving around in Vietnam can be done many different ways. Private cars can be hired. Bus, plane and train tickets can be acquired for travel. Then, there are motorbikes. Scooters. Motorcycles. Mopeds. They are extremely popular around the country. I learned shortly before visiting Hoi An (in central Vietnam) that it was possible to take a motorbike tour from Hoi An to Hue, a city about 100 kilometers north also in central Vietnam. I had also heard that the route was absolutely beautiful.

For the motorbike bike tour, there were two options. Option one would put me on the back of a guide’s motorbike to relax and enjoy the ride with the views. Option two would give me a motorbike to ride on my own with the guide riding another motorbike. I promptly chose option two. Last week, the time had come for me to leave Hoi An and set off for Hue. A tour guide and two motorbikes arrived at my hostel during breakfast. We were on our way.

One of the biggest attraction of the route is the 21 kilometer long Hai Van Pass. The mountain which the pass runs through separated two kingdoms in what is now Vietnam. Other than a few flash rain showers, the sun shone through some clouds throughout the day. The entire route was a visual treat. I remember riding and questioning whether or not what I was seeing was actually real. I was wondering how I’d somehow transitioned into a postcard or painting. It’s just that amazing. The photo above is a view of DaNang Bay from the Hai Van Pass.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – here’s a picture of me on my motorbike for the day. All smiles!

The Story of War

What a story tells often depends on who is telling it. In the 1960s and 1970s, a war was being fought in Vietnam. There were disagreements about which groups and ideologies would rule the country. I’d always known this event as the Vietnam War.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a museum documenting the event. At the War Remnants Museum (and around Vietnam), the event is known as the War of American Aggression. War era aircraft and artillery are on display at the museum. This is in addition to other artifacts, pictures, and stories. One display shows the service medals of a U.S. soldier, who donated them to the museum and apologized for his role in the war. Two exhibits stood out to me. One featured the photographs from various photojournalists who documented the war, and captured the day-to-day essence of the happenings on the ground. The other exhibit featured the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people during and long after the war.

Here are two of the pictures I snapped on my visit to the museum. The first is named “Mother”, and was made from bomb fragments. The second is of one of an aircraft in the courtyard of the museum.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Koh Rong Sanloem

I had never associated Cambodia with islands and beaches. In southeast Asia, I had heard phenomenal things about the island beaches in Thailand and the Philippines. I forget who made the suggestion, but someone offered that I could find a piece of island beach paradise in Cambodia on Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem.

I chose to head to Koh Rong Sanloem, the smaller of the two. I’m not sure how many people live on the island, but there is a village community on the northern tip of the island called M’Pai Bay. The community mostly consists of Khmer families, guesthouses, basic shops, and restaurants. The island doesn’t have any cars, but motorbikes are present. The motorbikes aren’t used nearly as much as they are on mainland Cambodia. Moving around the island is typically done on foot (If it’s close enough and there’s a path) or by boat. The interior of the island is dense jungle. I attempted to walk through the jungle on a path to another beach. While I made it to the other beach, it was a bit more of a hike than I was prepared for. The beach, pictured above, was definitely worth it. Of course, I got lost on the way back. Thankfully I found my way before sunset. For reference (if you ever want to go), I took this picture at Clearwater Bay on Koh Rong Sanloem.

One of the biggest attractions of the island, aside from its clear water and beautiful beaches, is the bio-luminescent plankton that can be seen just off the shore at night. In waist deep water, I could briefly see the shimmering light of plankton. As I walked in deeper and disturbed the water even more, I saw more plankton. Moving my hands underwater provided quite a show. It felt like I had figured out to do magic. It felt like I was a deity showing off my powers. This easily kept me entertained for the better part of 40 minutes. For those who may be wondering, it wasn’t possible for me to take pictures of this happening. It is truly something that you must experience in person.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

“Oh…you went to the real [insert place name here]”

Last week, I made my way to southern Cambodia. Kampot, to be specific. I had been told about the pepper farms and caves nearby. I also has heard about the crab market in the nearby town of Kep and the surrounding parks. I wanted to get out and see all of the things, so I rented a motorbike for the day.

After an exciting day eating and riding through the Kampot and Kep provinces, I made my way back to the guesthouse. During happy hour, various people were talking about their day’s events. The conversation turned to me. I talked about seeing the sites and eating delicious food. Someone remarked, “oh, you saw the real Cambodia today”. I’ve heard similar remarks several times before. While living in rural in rural eSwatini, some said that I was living in the real eSwatini. Wandering around Salvador Bahia and beyond inspired comments about seeing the real Brazil. But during the happy hour conversation, something clicked.

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, is just as Cambodian as rural communities in the Kampot and Kep provinces. Even with its high rise buildings and KFC, it’s real Cambodia. Rio de Janeiro is as much Brazil as other Brazilian cities, towns, and villages without a picturesque Copacabana Beach. Furthermore, Copacabana Beach is as much of real Brazil as the favelas around the city. Manzini, the most populous city in eSwatini, is just as authentically Swazi with its busyness and amenities as Lushikishini (the rural community where I served).

It’s rural Cambodia. But it’s giving me memories of rural eSwatini.

I’ve never heard anyone describe the U.S. with similar language and sentiment. If someone visits Manhattan in New York and doesn’t leave Midtown, they have visited the real America. If someone visits Manhattan in Kansas and doesn’t leave the Kansas State University campus, they have also visited the real America. America, and by extension – Americans, is allowed to be more than one thing. At the same time. America can be simultaneously rich and poor, urban and rural, animal loving carnivores and animal loving vegetarians. All of this is the real America. This has been normalized. But Cambodia can’t be the urban sprawl of Phnom Penh and the rural fishing village of Chamcar Bei? Why can’t both Manzini and Lushikishini be viewed as real eSwatini?

I believe that the fuel behind this idea is the same one that fuels ideas of white supremacist racism and sexist chauvinism. It’s the idea that says if you’re non white, you can only be one thing. The same idea suggests that if you’re non (cis) male, again you can only be one thing. You want to be a Black man pursuing a PhD, and freestyle rap over beats you produce? Nah. Pick one. You want to be a woman who’s career focused and sexual liberated, or a woman who’s strong and nurturing? No can do. In a similar vein, you want to be a developing country with fanciful urban areas and abundant agricultural lands? Nope. It’s a single story, and as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us-it’s dangerous.

The motorbike was full of petrol, and this guy was ready to explore.

The truth is, we are much more alike than we like to admit. Sure, our cities, suburbs, and rural communities may look different. We may cook things in different ways, but we tend to cook similar things. We may speak different languages, but we’re all simply seeking to communicate and be heard. Regardless of what stage of development a country is in, that country is allowed to be multiple things. At the same time. Just like its residents.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

Monday in a Picture – Mondulkiri Project

Shortly after arriving in Cambodia, I was in a hostel in Phnom Penh talking with PCV who is currently serving here. We talked about our experiences in Peace Corps and life. I asked the Cambodia PCV for recommendations on things to do while here. He spoke very highly of the Mondulkiri Project in northeast Cambodia. The project has an elephant sanctuary for rescued elephants, and offers jungle trekking in addition to visits to the sanctuary to feed and bathe the elephants.

My interest was piqued. I read more about the project, and knew that I wanted to go. The project is home to five elephants. At least one was formerly used for elephant rides in Angkor Wat. Another was used for hauling logs from the jungle. Another was abused by her caretaker. The project also employs Bunong people, who live in the local community where the jungles and forests are.

The 18 kilometer trek started at the tour guide’s homestead just before 9 am. The views from the trek were quite awesome. Apparently, it’s the end of rainy season so the mosquitoes were minimal, but jungle floor was very slippery. This was especially true on inclines and declines. I lost my footing a few times and was invited to promptly sit down on the jungle floor. The trek included swimming in a river at a waterfall right before lunch. During the after lunch trekking, the rain started. Although it started as a light drizzle, it progressed into heavier rain. The jungle floor became even more slippery. We finally reached our destination: the Jungle Lodge. They had hammocks with blankets set up for us. They also served dinner, which included bamboo soup (made in real bamboo), breakfast, and lunch the next day.

The second day was all about the elephants in the sanctuary. We went down to the sanctuary with many bananas. We were able to feed the elephants in the jungle sanctuary. Once the elephants saw that we had the bananas, the gentle giants approached and took the fruit from our respective hands. Some elephants allowed us to remain close while others walked away to munch on some young bamboo. In the afternoon, we were able to swim with and bathe the elephants in the river. After a full two days of activity, I was tired and sore. I’m super thankful for the hot shower and delicious food I had back in town. The above picture is of me admiring the view at the beginning of the trek, when I was still dirt-free.

Be kind to yourself.
Onward.

P.S. – Here go two more really cool pictures. The first is of a leaf that apparently ran out of chlorophyll. The second is of an elephant munching