Tag Archives: city

Bangkok Weekend: Too Much, So Much, Very Much

A few weeks ago (actually over a month ago by now), there was a long weekend for international Labor Day, and Alex and I decided to head out of town for the big city–to Bangkok.  I’ve been in and out for flights and layovers many times already, but hadn’t really spent much time actually in the city before.  In general, the weekend wasn’t so much about what Bangkok is, but more about what Vientiane isn’t, as we tried to indulge in anything we can’t get in Laos.  We went to an awesome Mexican restaurant (Charley Brown’s) twice, and to a jazz bar, both of which don’t really exist here.  We went to Siam Paragon, the shopping mecca, dazzling with its modern decor, movie theater, phenomenal food court, and stores with real brands and fixed prices.  After getting used to shopping at Talat Sao, it felt like being rocketed back to America.
Bangkok’s modernity is striking, even coming from the most cosmopolitan city in Laos.  Just a few moments in Siam Square are enough to feel a drastic difference with the countdown traffic lights, fast pink taxis, and concrete overpasses with escalators.  There’s even an Apple store!  We toasted to the glamour of the big city life on the top of the second tallest building in Bangkok, where the Sirocco sky bar and restaurant provided a panorama of the city at night, complete with classy live music, and shockingly low glass walls, separating us from the city below.


View over Bangkok from the Sky Bar.

Bar on top of the city.

The population of the city is larger than the entire country of Laos, so it makes sense that there’s so much more–restaurants, malls, traffic, in-your-face pop culture.  Thai pop culture is exported in mass to Laos, so we’re already rather familiar with it.  It seems like almost everyone in Vientiane (and likely in other more educated cities close to the border) can speak, or at least understand, Thai.  There’s so much more media in Thai, of a higher quality and bigger variety, that Thai pop culture often seems to dwarf, or at least be inseparable from, pop culture in Laos.  And after only a few hours in Bangkok, I too became a hapless victim of Thai pop, becoming mildly obsessed with a very popular Thai tune of the moment:  “Too Much, So Much, Very Much,” the title of which largely sums up the Bangkok experience overall.

One of the other highlights of the weekend was visiting the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, a modern art gallery and community center of sorts in the Siam area downtown.  Fine arts are something largely lacking in Laos, and something that I’ve really missed.  Sure there are plenty of street artists at the markets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and lots of impressive handicrafts, but non-traditional creative arts hardly exist.  The music scene in Vientiane seems to be picking up, but lots of good bands still play English and Thai covers, and it’s hard for even well-known and talented stars to actually make a career out of music.  There seem to be very little in the way of dramatic arts or visual art that pushes the boundaries of the traditional.  There are lots of reasons that could explain this, from politics, to history, to economics, to name a few, but that could be the subject of a whole separate post, and honestly I still don’t know enough to feel as though I can speak about this as anything but a casual observer.

Colorful ramp in the BACC.

Inside the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.

So the visit to the BACC was like a breath of fresh air.  Here was modern, interesting, Thai art that made a statement, was confusing, had so many different styles and textures and messages…we easily spent the better part of the afternoon exploring.  One of the more interesting temporary exhibits touched on the issues of all of the hydropower dam projects on the Mekong River, which has been major and controversial news here in Laos lately (it even made the New York Times recently, which is unusual).  It’s an issue that affects all of the countries in the region and it was interesting to hear so many critical and questioning local voices expressing themselves creatively.

The tuk-tuks in Bangkok are classier.

Although I certainly enjoyed the indulgences and sensory overload of a weekend in Bangkok, I didn’t feel any regret getting in the overcrowded bus to cross the Friendship Bridge to return to Laos.  Bangkok is fun, but I’d rather be in Vientiane.  It may not have a modern art center (yet), or really good fajitas, but there are still exciting things happening everyday.  Just last night I went to the finals of the Tiger Beer-sponsored Battle of the Bands, where I watched the kids from one of the my favorite sandwich shops (who serve me chicken sandwiches or noodles for lunch by day) rock out to a cheering crowd who were wearing matching tshirts that said BabyRock.  Sure, they sang cover songs, but they put their own twist on them.  Vientiane is changing by the day, and it reminded me how lucky I am to be here for another year.

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Singapore

January 1-4: Singapore

I arrived in the Lion City, as Singapore is known, and was predictably shocked by the Western comforts and extreme contrast with India.  We were coming from a place where only 1 in 4 bathrooms had toilet paper, and suddenly–hot water!  Toilet paper!  Trashless sidewalks!  A logical flow of traffic!  Delicious Western food!  I felt as though I had arrived back in the US, except a more orderly version of all of the major American cities.  Coming from India, Singapore was almost unnervingly clean, like some sort of fake, unlived-in movie set instead of a real, thriving metropolis.  The streets were impeccably clean, as was just about everything else, and everything worked extremely efficiently and logically.  In comparison to the ridiculously user-friendly Singapore MRT, the NYC subway seems like it was built in the stone age.  The city was plastered with PR campaigns to “be a good person,” “prevent crime,” “move to the side of the train when you get on,” “speak better English,” and every other self-improvement possible.

Confronted with American chain restaurants after 3.5 months in Laos (which is thankfully free of them still) brought out the hidden fast-food junkie within, and I found myself at McDonald’s and Starbucks more than once over my 4 days in Singapore.  Luckily, the city had much more to offer in the way of food as well (although everything seemed incredibly expensive compared with Laos, Thailand, and India).  On my first day, Andrew took me to a hawker center, which is essentially a food court.  These renowed Singapore street vendors used to be on the street, but the government decided to centralize all of the vendors at food courts around town.  The result was a 2-story building of deliciousness, from personal pizzas, to all types of Chinese food, to freshly-pressed sugar cane juice.

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Much like the hawker centers, Singapore’s famous ethnic neighborhoods, like Chinatown and Arab Street seem like sanitized versions of the real thing.  The falafel and spring rolls are fresh, and the decor seems authentic, but everything still has a modern, cleaned-up Singaporean feel.  In Chinatown, for instance, we visited the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, complete not only with a supposed tooth of Buddha’s (which I didn’t see because it only comes out on holidays), but with an elevator, underground parking decks, digital map of the temple, and rooftop garden.  21st century Buddhism at its best.

The Singapore fellows also took me to the ultra-stylish downtown area of Singapore at Orchard Road, which they described as “all of midtown Manahattan in a few blocks.”  We got off the MRT at the Singapore equivalent of Times Square, with flashing billboards, and oversized stars and Christmas trees still adorning the boulevard.  Multiples of every luxury brand (at least three Louis Vuitton shops in sight) beckoned well-dressed customers.  Our walk took us to Marina Bay, for an impressive view of the skyline and a look at the swanky Marina Bay Sands hotel/mall, which is designed to look like a ship on the top of a skyscraper.  Malls literally connect to other malls underground.  We ended the nighttime stroll near Singapore’s mascot, the Merlion fountain.

On my last day in Singapore, I took a walking tour during the day which included the Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling was invented in the bar, and rooms start at $700 per night.  I ended my visit with some luxury of my own at the New Asia Bar, which is on the 70th floor of a building downtown and offers impressive panoramic nighttime views of the city.

Even leaving Singapore was an attraction, as the budget terminal of the Changi Airport is probably nicer than half the hotels we stayed at in India.  There’s a crayon and stencil craft area, free wi-fi, free computer consoles, couches, a playground…  It was tempting to stay, but Thailand beckoned.  Next stop: Chiang Rai.

See more photos from Singapore here.

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La vie est belle

The first few days here in Paris have been somwhat of a whirlwind, and I’m finally settled now.  Two friends from Princeton came up from Bordeaux (where they’re taking an archeology course) for the weekend, so instead of spending the weekend resting/posting photos, I was thrown straight away into life in the city.  On Saturday, we hit all the major sites–from the Sacre Coeur to the Arc de Triomph–which are impressive no matter how many times you’ve visited them.

the Sacre Coeur

the Sacre Coeur

I’ve found myself appreciating many of the quirky little things you notice walking around the city (like a giant IranAir store on the Champs Elysees, which I don’t imagine is doing great business these days), and I’m looking forward to spending more than just a few touristy days here.  There are all sorts of holidays and fun-sounding festivals going on while I’ll be here that are being advertised around town, including apparently yesterday a big gay pride festival…which I didn’t know about until I got back that evening, but now explains perhaps why we saw some 6’4″ drag queens in fabulous pink cinderella dresses and ridiculous wigs in front of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame meets drag, apparently

Notre Dame meets drag, apparently

We also had a wonderful lunchtime picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower, and as there is no shortage and beautiful green spaces (with free WiFi!) around the city, I’m sure it will become a tradition.  I love how outdoors friendly Paris is compared to other large cities.  No matter where you’re walking there’s always somewhere nearby to stop and enjoy your baguette.

Today, we did some final meandering before my friends left, and discovered a little carnival next to the Louvre: cotton candy, haunted house, boardwalk games, the whole nine yards.  Took the spinning swing ride, and enjoyed the slightly surreal feeling of whizzing over Paris in a tiny chair…Louvre, park, tower, park, street, Louvre…

view from the swingset

view from the swingset

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Cagliari

My final stop: Cagliari, la porta della Sardegna. It’s the biggest city I’ve been in since leaving Nice, though still in many ways distinctively Italian and Sardinian there is much more of an urban, modern atmosphere (although not a big city by American standards with less than 200,000 inhabitants). And as much more a of a tourist hub (I finally noticed some other Americans) it has many more of the gimmicks and traps that tourists attract: foreigners selling fake Pradas and Fendis, fast food, rip off souvenir shops, street performers (although I saw one of the most original yet today…a man who had some live mice and cats that were playing together on a stool and was charging for a photo), cat-callers. After feeling entirely safe in the other island towns it feels weird to have to remember to watch my purse again and navigate crowded, pigeon-filled piazze, and run across busy streets while vendors try to lure me into their kebab shop/jewelry store/pizzeria.

duomo and the old city

duomo and the old city

The hostel I’m staying at is great though. This is the first town that has actually had hostels in the traditional sense and I’m very impressed at how impeccably clean and well-run this one seems. The dorm style-room I’m in has 2 private bathrooms and stairs leading to a second level of beds (no bunks!).

I’ve spent a lot of time walking around in this final Sardinian city, from churches, to several museums, to the old castello district, perched high above with views of the water. And on my last evening I met two Canadians, from Calgary, who were in Sardinia as the final leg of a backpacking trip. We took the bus to the nearest beach, Il Poetto, to see the sun set and get dinner together and it was so nice to finally have some company…and people to speak English with! I felt so talkative, realizing I could say anything I wanted without having to think of the right words or wonder whether they would understand me. It was a great way to end the trip.

Il Poetto, the nearest beach to Cagliari

Il Poetto, the nearest beach to Cagliari

But I’m ready to go back to Paris, feeling worn out from the constant movement from one place to another, and the loneliness of traveling by myself. I’m looking forward to being settled in the Parisian apartment, where more adventures will certainly ensue (though of a different sort). Stay posted for news on life in the “City of Lights” and hopefully soon, all of the photos from this whole island voyage.

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