For this Thai island we opted for a tour which highlighted the key export for the island-coconuts. Starting with a brief overview of the importance and multiple uses of the crop, we went on to learn about the short-tailed macaques monkeys trained to pick the fruit. Training takes about 6 months, with the monkeys responding only to the voice of their owner/trainer. During their attendance at monkey university, they are taught to climb the trees, jump to other trees, select the perfectly ripe coconut, and then twist it until it drops. Each monkey harvests about 350 a day at 5 baht apiece, contributing to the island's export of one million coconuts per month. Local unskilled labor earns the equivalent of $7-10 USD/day. In an 8-9 hour work day, with breaks every 15 minutes, the monkey produces about $55 USD income per day. The monkeys are treated like family, and eat, sleep, play, and even watch tv with their owners.
After our visit with the monkeys, we walked through the nearby traditional fishing village of Baanttua Tanon, which ended at a seafood and produce market offering a fabulous variety of local fresh foods. The perfect growing climate, hot and wet, combined with the ability to grow on flatlands or in the mountains, results in a great diversity of crops, such as 20 different eggplant. Street food was offered along our walk but cleanliness made any of the food suspect for our consumption and even the locals drink only bottled water. Markets open around 4AM, and cooks wanting to purchase the best and freshest ingredients arrive long before daybreak.
We saw a large number of western travelers and expats during our trip, drawn by cheap prices, white-sand beaches, and diving and snorkeling opportunities. Our guide tried to impress upon us the dangers of foreigners driving on the island. "Green means go, yellow means go faster, red light means go faster still." Anyone slowing for a yellow light will surely be rear ended, and would be at fault for the accident. Generally westerns are at fault for any accident irregardless of what has transpired. Also, the government has instituted seat belt regulations which requires use by passengers in any vehicle. Non-use will result in a 5000 Thai bhat fine ($158 USD) but if the said vehicle doesn't have seat belts the passenger is at fault, not the driver providing the vehicle! Quite a racket for local police, who are paid on the spot for infractions.
We continued our visit by traveling to Wat Phra Yai, a 49-foot tall seated Buddha, built in 1972 and perched atop a rocky islet on the N/E coast. Nearby shops allowed us to easily spend the remainder of our Thai money. We also had the opportunity to use our first Asian-style toilets here, the squat over a hole variety, which is an experience I can pass on again unless absolutely necessary. This small island, of 250 square miles, was easily circumnavigated during our 4-hour tour.
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At Singapore, our ship, the Volendam, stopped to disembark 1200 passengers departing the first 2-week cruise and to upload 1200 for the remaining 2-week Indonesian trip, on a vessel carrying 1400 guests. At 241 square miles, the official population of this city-state is 5.7 million, but the actual number may be quite a bit higher. Population density is the third highest in the world with roughly 18,645 people per sq/mi. Driving and walking around, it was hard not to notice it is clearly the cleanest city we have ever visited. Strict regulations on litter, even spitting on the sidewalk, are enforced with significant fines. No food or beverages, even water, are allowed on any public transport. Singapore is perhaps what could be called a benevolent police state. Countless regulations with harsh repercussions for not following the law are in place. I spoke with a Dutch couple living in Singapore. Their 14-year old son was arrested for reading a Playboy magazine in a public park. He wound up being released due to his age, but they said he would have served time in jail if he had been 15. Kinda scary stuff!
Luckily, for us, English is the primary language, and is the one used for government transaction, business, publications, and finance. Singlish, not one of the official languages, is an English slang used by most Singapore residents on a daily basis.
During our brief overlay we hopped on a tour, which headed first to the Singapore Botanical Gardens, but specifically to the National Orchid Garden. At over 60,000 orchid plants, it is considered the largest display in the world. Thousands of varieties are grown and they all seemed to be in bloom, gorgeous.
Next, we continued to Arab Street for a stop at the gold-domed Sultan Mosque. Here we had a chance to wander the streets filled with Turkish restaurants and a number of textile and carpet shops. Food we saw being served at the street-side cafes looked incredible, but time restraints of the tour didn't give us an opportunity to stop.
Moving on to the Esplanade Walk, we had a view of the Marina Sands Resort, for $23, they provide an overview of the city from their observation deck. For an additional $27 you can enjoy a beer with your view. This walk is also home to the Merlion, a water-spouting, half-fish, half-lion creature that is the iconic symbol of the city. It also provides a view of Lau Pa Set, the heart of the financial district, with this entity being the 3rd largest financial market after New York and London.
Finally, we made a stop in Chinatown. This enclave was in riotous, high gear for the upcoming celebration of Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dog. Red and gold banners, flags and kites were everywhere. Herculean feats by the tour bus drivers in all large cities are common and moving out of Chinatown was a challenge. Generally, though, the traffic in the city moved very smoothly. A fast and inexpensive mass transit system moves residents and visitors efficiently throughout the city. And, unlike other SE Asian countries, drivers follow the rules of the road due to heavy penalties for infractions. Car ownership is very expensive, with a basic Toyota Corolla selling for $110,000 according to our guide. Also, car sales are strictly controlled in a complex system. Old cars must be retired for new cars to become available.
Interesting city but time to move back to the ship. Now on our way to Java.
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This carved wooden structure is located outside Pattaya, a smog-filled industrial and resort city of one million. The Sanctuary, however, is locate away from the city views, along the waterfront at Rachvate Cape. Started in 1981 by business tycoon Lek Viriyaphanl, there are about 250 Burmese craftsmen and women responsible for the daily progress. Teak, mahogany, and redwood are the woods used, with the top of the structure reaching 344 feet. Construction is tongue and groove and it is being completed without the use of nails. Special flexible joints have been created that allows it to sway during earthquakes. It is complex and phenomenally beautiful project.
While elements of Buddhism and Hinduism are reflected in the carvings, it is not considered a temple. It hopes to instill the concepts of family, truth, and living together peacefully.
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