While on the bus from Malaysia to Singapore, I reflected on all the Southeast Asian countries we’d traveled through. Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, in that order. I realized that (excepting a small backwards step to Cambodia) we had been easing ourselves back into the first world with every new country we visited.
Once I started to look for them, I found arguments to support this theory everywhere. Bathrooms steadily improved, from bucket-flushing in Laos to modern toilets in Thailand and beyond. Hotel keys changed from big, metal skeleton keys to RFID-enabled plastic cards. Safe drinking water was more readily available; we could once again drink from the taps in our Singapore hotel. Internet access speed increased and wifi hotspots, while more prevalent, were also more often locked down and monetized. English in Laos was only found in hostels and travel agencies, but by the time we arrived in Kuala Lumpur it was the de facto standard. In Singapore, we could watch the local news (a novelty for us!) because the major newspapers and television news broadcasts were all in English.
Perhaps the most obvious indication that we were climbing back up to U.S. standards was the lessening number of scooters on the road. It was literally impossible to view any stretch of road in Vietnam, no matter how short, and not see a motorcycle somewhere. There were fewer in Cambodia, fewer still in Thailand. By the time we arrived in Singapore, it was almost all cars again.
Anyone who has traveled extensively knows that reverse culture shock is a very real thing. Setting aside the psychological problems that some travelers cope with after being in a third-world country long enough (being unable to share experiences with friends and family because they’re don’t care about or, conversely, are jealous of them; difficulty readjusting to “the daily grind,” etc.), there are many surprises – some good, some bad – waiting for you when you return home. Toilet paper in public restrooms. Drivers sticking to their lanes. People showing up to appointments on time. Having to make hundreds of choices in a grocery store. High prices. The constant barrage of advertising.
Personally, I’ve noticed it always takes me at least a week to stop mentally preparing my approach to each and every person in public. How do I translate my question into Spanish? What gestures can I make if they don’t understand me? Shut up, brain! I’m back in the States! I can just ask in English!
After a year on the road, I expected our reverse culture shock to be of epic proportions. I was honestly worried that Australia would be too much for us when we arrived, but something as simple as our route through Southeast Asia put my mind at ease. Instead of being hit with it all at once, we eased into our reverse culture shock over the course of an entire month.
In some ways, Australia turned out to be a step backwards. Singapore was the wealthiest country we visited on our entire trip (by gross domestic product, at purchasing power parity, per capita.) And that includes the United Arab Emirates (Dubai)… and the United States of America! Singapore is 3rd in the world after Qatar and Luxembourg. The U.A.E. is 6th, the U.S. 7th.
It occurs to me that someone new to travel, someone who wants to see Southeast Asia but is worried about diving right in, could take a lesson from the story above. They could reverse our route, start in Singapore, and ease themselves into the countries that are more difficult to travel through. Anything you can do to lesson culture shock – or reverse culture shock, for that matter – can only make your travel easier and more enjoyable.
Like most first world countries, Singapore has a high regard for the rules. You might remember the controversy when an American broke one of them a few years back and was sentenced to caning as punishment. Oksana had her first run in with the rules at the border.
While we were standing in line at immigration, we could just barely see a LCD-screen playing a loop of prohibited items. There were plenty of the things you’d normally expect to see screened at customs: no guns, no live animals, no seeds – those sorts of things. Only two items gave us cause for concern: My Swiss Army knife and Oksana’s chewing gum. (If we’d been arriving from South America, I might also have had to ditch any bootleg DVDs I’d bought, but I’d long since stopped carrying those around…)
The ban against knives was ambiguous. The screen said no knives, but the accompanying pictures showed things like swords and bayonets. I decided to take my knife out of my pocket and bury it in my big backpack instead. Argue to keep it if it ever came to that. Oksana decided to declare the big container of gum she’d just purchased in Kuala Lumpur.
When she did, the customs officer opened up the canister and looked inside. When he saw all those chiclets, he shook his head and tsk tsked us. “You can’t bring gum into Singapore,” he said. Oksana was already resigned to losing it; she simply sighed and picked up the rest of her stuff from the x-ray belt. But then the customs agent leaned in and said, “Here. Hold out your hand.” He then shook out a generous portion and smiled. What the hell, I thought, and stuck my own hand out. He winked and gave me a handful, too.
I always assumed that the U.S. was the pinnacle of rules-based societies, but Singapore has us beat. Some of the rules I agree with and would happily endorse: No smoking in public places, no littering, and stiff penalties for things like drunk driving and “crimes that disrupt racial or ethnic harmony.” On the other hand, they also go to ridiculous extremes. No chewing gum (unless it has a therapeutic value), no spitting, and mandatory flushing of public toilets – all are fineable offenses. Sadly, there are also some laws that I flatly disagree with. For instance, homosexuality is strictly illegal in Singapore.
A great byproduct of all those rules, however, is a sense of safety and security (assuming you’re not gay.) Oksana and I had no concerns walking the streets late at night. In Vietnam, I heard horror stories of cab drivers extorting huge fares from unwitting tourists. In Singapore, that shit is illegal. Taxis not only are not allowed to overcharge (everything is by the meter), but they’re not allowed to tout, either. That was a huge relief. We’d much rather stand in line for a taxi than have a dozen drivers shouting at us the moment we set foot in a new city.
While there are plenty of countries smaller than Singapore (it ranks at 193 out of 249), it’s still pretty darn small. Total area is about 270 square miles, which is still only a quarter the size of our smallest state, Rhode Island. The country is so tiny it can truthfully be called a city-state.
Already, there are over 5 million people living in Singapore. That’s a lot of people in a relatively small area (the aforementioned Rhode Island has barely more than 1 million.) As a city, it’s not exactly high on the population density list, but as a country it sure is.
Singapore’s urban planners are doing a good job conserving what land they have. We saw many examples of their efficient usage of space while we were there. Skyscrapers were the most obvious and visible examples. When land is scarce, build up!
We also saw entire malls with subterranean levels. Enter on the ground floor and you could shop up or down. Our bus drove under the airport, on a busway that entered on one side and exited out the other. Not only was it space-saving (just like the terminals stacked on top of one another), it also served to keep us out of the rain… like the bus station in Kuala Lumpur!
Perhaps the most extreme example of space saving was the soccer pitch we saw down by the marina. Or, I should say, the soccer pitch we saw floating on the marina!
Christmas certainly is different in Singapore. I don’t know what the major religions are, but it appears that only the shopping part was adopted from this Christian holiday. Oksana and I went out to record our McDonald’s video at 10pm on Christmas Eve, thinking the streets and malls would be clear by then, but boy were we wrong!
Midnight, Christmas Eve, is a huge event in Singapore. In the States, people are more likely to be going to midnight mass (religious), or trying to sleep (with kids), just before the clock ticks over to Christmas day. Singaporeans are more likely to be shopping shoulder-to-shoulder before heading out to the streets to count down the seconds until midnight together, New Year’s Eve style.
It was all a little much for Oksana and me, especially considering we had a flight to catch the next day and the rain wouldn’t let up. The street decorations were nice, though.
The rain was spectacular in Singapore. It rolled through the city, multiple times a day, and trapped everyone in mall entrances. There were times when it hit and we were only a block away from our hotel, but we didn’t dare make the dash back. Better to duck under an overhang and wait it out.
We packed lightweight rain jackets, of course, but we didn’t carry them around with us in Singapore. Too hot. More than once, Oksana and I took the rain as an excuse to laze around at Starbucks and browse the internet on our iPhones. Eventually we bought a cheap umbrella from 7-Eleven just so we could get back to the hotel with our top halves dry.
About that “third wealthiest country in the world” thing? Yeah, it affects prices. We knew that going in and decided not to skimp on our hotel accommodations. After all, Singapore was the last country on our trip, so why not go out in style?
We stayed three nights at the four-star Rendezvous Hotel Singapore for an average of USD$118 per night. Normally it’s up around USD$150 – a far cry from our target of USD$20 throughout most of our travels – but we’d been wisely booking our hotels throughout Southeast Asia on Hotels.com and we’d built up to a coupon code worth about USD$100 off our stay. Made the added luxury a little easier to rationalize.
We didn’t buy much more than food while we were in Singapore, just window shopped our way through a few malls. The food we did buy was mostly through grocery stores. We’d spent so much on lodging, we had to find ways to save in other areas.
One thing we couldn’t avoid was laundry. Other than hand-washing a few items in the sink, we hadn’t had clean clothes going all the way back to Koh Mak in Thailand, three weeks and as many countries before. It was the single longest stretch we’d gone without doing laundry on our entire trip and I’m sure we looked quite the sight when we walked into the Rendezvous lobby with giant backpacks and rumpled clothes.
As in the sections of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpor we’d stayed in recently, the Orchard Road area of Singapore had no laundry businesses catering to tourists nearby. The best we could find was a small coin-op Laundromat in a mall nearby. Cost us $20 to wash and dry two loads – easily the most we ever spent having our clothes washed – but by that point we would have twice that.
The one thing that was surprisingly inexpensive in Singapore was the public transportation. Both buses and taxis were surprisingly cheap. It cost us less than $4 for the both of us to get to the airport (which took about 40 minutes by bus.) I didn’t think to check, but I wonder now how their gasoline prices compare.
There are cybercafés all over the world. In the smallest place, in the middle of nowhere, if tourists visit, someone will cobble together a couple old computers and charge them to check their email. Oksana and I were traveling with laptops, so we didn’t frequent many internet cafes. More often than not, we looked for wireless hotspots (easily found in restaurants, cafes, and hostels) instead.
Even so, I noticed that cybercafés are big business in Singapore. They’re not like the ones we’d seen in other countries, with hand-me-down computers, fluorescent lighting, and a loud fan pushing hot air around the room. No, in Singapore, there were rows of high-end computers, dressed out in neon lights, in a pitch black room. These were gaming cafes.
When scouting out McDonald’s locations and menus for our video, we walked into one mall that had no less than three packed cybercafés. Right inside the main doors, a giant decal for a popular game was plastered on the floor, advertising league play. As we walked past the open café doors, I spied people playing Counterstrike, Starcraft, and other popular games. Judging from the shouts and cheers coming from different cafes across the multi-level mall, I wouldn’t be surprised if players in one were competing against teams in another.
Oksana decided to have a pair of fake eyelashes applied in Singapore. She’d tried the same thing in Thailand where the prices were much cheaper, but unfortunately you get what you pay for and they started to fall out sooner than she expected.
She did her research and decided on a place in Chinatown. Once we found it, I left her alone to have single eyelashes glued on, one at time, over the course of a couple hours. That’s Oksana’s sort of thing, not mine, so I didn’t think much about eyelashes until after she had them applied. It was only then that I noticed practically every woman we passed on the street had fake eyelashes, too.
Reminds me of the women in Bulgaria who dyed their hair. Just another reminder that different cultures place different values on what they think of as beautiful.
Oksana spotted an interesting store in the Plaza Singapura mall called Toy Outpost. Basically, the “shelving” of the store was row upon row of clear glass lockers. Every locker was filled with toys, mostly collectibles. I saw dozens of plastic movie action figures, Barbies and manga characters arranged in full pose, stacks of Magic the Gathering cards, Beanie Babies… as well as plenty of other things I didn’t recognize.
We finally figured out the business model. The store owners rent out the glass lockers, people fill them with toys or other memorabilia they want to sell, set their prices, and the store handles all sales (and keeps a small commission for their effort.)
It occurred to me that this is essentially a “physical eBay.” Instead of trying to guess the quality of merchandize from a few amateur photos taken in poor lighting, buyers at the Toy Outpost are able to see potential purchases up close. And because the items are right there, there’s no worry that a scammer is behind the sale, either.
What a great idea! I wonder if something like that could catch on in the States.
Well, that’s about it. Twenty-seven “Thoughts On…” articles on Postcard Valet and I’m called it done. I’m caught up!
For the record, there are four countries on this trip that I didn’t write about:
- The United States, because, well, that’s where I’m from everything else is compared to it.
- Canada, because, come on, unless you run into a French-Canadian, you can hardly tell the difference!
- Colombia, because while we did get stamps in our passport for the country, they were only “en transisto;” we never left the airport.
- And finally, Australia, because we’d visited it for the first time in 2008 and I wrote about my impressions then.
I may or may not write an update on Australia after we’ve lived here a year. I’m definitely learning many new things about the country, but they’re not exactly travel-oriented. After a whole year, that could be a daunting post to write. You know what? I’ll probably skip it.
At any rate, finishing up my “Thoughts On…” posts has been holding up my Postcard Valet to-do list for awhile now. Glad to have it behind me. I plan to write the next post about coming to Australia, what we’re doing in 2012, and where we’ll go from here. After that, I really need to make some changes to the site (such as updating the FAQ and About this Site pages) before diving into what I really want to be doing: Writing about many of our adventures on the trip (as well as calling attention to some of our favorite photos, editing together some more videos, and pulling together more infographics.)