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Guest Post: Singapore, A Place to Love

This is a guest post from the awesome David Press-Dawson (Check out his Instagram here), who I met in Singapore for three brief days. We had an awesome time, and he has an awesome passion for the minuscule country. With that in mind I asked if he wanted to write a guest post, and he delivered in a big way. This is a fantastic post that does a great job of explaining the city to anyone who has never been there. Enjoy!

“I met Sam while I was managing a small hostel in Singapore. We became friends after a short conversation and toast. I can’t be totally sure, but I think Sam ate six pieces of peanut butter toast during our initial talk. The man likes his toast.”

I will start this by saying, I am not impartial, nor am I going to be my cold logical self. I’m biased as f–k. I love Singapore. I love Singapore so much I have visited it three times over the last three years, totaling six months of actual time spent in the country. I have chosen to be in Singapore over the nearby countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. I am not saying you should not visit those other countries, nor am I saying Singapore is better than those countries, but I am saying Singapore is amazing and worth your time and money.

Singapore, a White man’s door to Asia

A picture of the Mall in Singapore

The only mall I’ve ever been in that has canals in it!

Asia is a vast and unknown place for most people, especially White people. Most people can summon a few stereotypical things about Asia, but that’s about it. You might hear about the dog eating in South Korea, or the used panty machines in Japan, or the squat toilets of China, and you might think to yourself, “I don’t want anything to do with that!”

I wouldn’t blame you. Culture shock is a thing. If you want to visit Asia, but you do not want to encounter the oddities of Asia, then Singapore should be your pick. Singapore was a colony of Great Britain for a little over one hundred twenty years. They still embrace the Queen there and her language.

This is a huge boon to any prospective visitor. You can easily talk to any one if you are lost or read the street signs when trying to find that elusive Hawker stall (more on this later). You can also find some of the best malls in the world, if shopping is your thing. Singapore strives to be modern. You can find Western toilets, clean, drinkable tap water (something no other South East Asian country can claim), and a public transit system that is unparalleled in Asia. And if you want to say you tried a squat toilet, the five-star Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel and casino has them in the mall portion, just sayin’.

Singapore, a Safe Place

Upon arriving to Singapore you must sign a card that says, “The penalty for drug smuggling is death.” Maybe not those words exactly, but “death” is definitely on there. Although Asia is generally a safe place. There are some places that are a little less than perfect. Not so in Singapore. You can rest easy knowing that your stuff is safe in the hotel room. That your backpack won’t be slashed open. No one is going to be messing with you. Day or night, the streets of Singapore are clean and safe. Here, rules are king and the fines are high. I told guests at the hostel there is no grey zone, only black and white. Basically, just do not act like an asshat and you are gold.

Singapore, Get Fat or Die Trying

A picture of a soup dish in Singapore

Soup is Delicious in Singapore

Whenever I start talking about Singapore’s food, I lose control. I can’t stop praising it. It evokes a childlike enthusiasm in me. Sam wrote an article about Malaysia and said the food was excellent, BUT unsafe (he got food poisoning three times). That will not happen in Singapore. They are the only Asian country that has banned street food entirely. Instead, they brought all the street vendors inside. They are located in massive, government-run, open-air buildings called, food centres or “hawker centres”, colloquially. In these bustling food temples you can find everything you could want and many things you didn’t know you needed in your life.

Singapore’s financial success has made it a hub for immigration. You can find Indian, British, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Indonesian, and even Western stuff like salads inside an average food centre. Singaporean food is closely tied to Malaysian given that they were one country for many decades. The native food is amazing. For many, it will resemble Chinese food, but amped to eleven. The cost of such amazing food? Somewhere between two and five dollars per meal.

A picture of a traditional breakfast in Singapore

A traditional breakfast in Singapore

Yes, you can eat even cheaper in Thailand or Indonesia, but the food standards are nonexistent and you can pretty much only eat Thai food in Thailand or Indonesian food in Indonesia, but in Singapore you can get great quality food from everywhere throughout Asia. Lastly, if you ever feel like splashing out you can find great restaurants in Singapore as well. The Michelin Guide(a ranking service of the World’s Best Restaurants) has many places in Singapore that it has bestowed with its recommendations and awards.

Singapore, the Ugly Bits

Okay, so there is a lot of stuff to love about Singapore, I said I’m biased, right? But you should be aware of a few things that might make it harder to smile about. It is hot. Singapore is pretty much located on the equator on the planet. Meaning, the climate is tropical (think ninety degrees Fahrenheit with ninety percent humidity). Every day the weather report will read “tropical storms”, but in reality the rain comes in about once a day for about thirty minutes. When it does rain, prepare yourself. Let’s just say, bring an umbrella.

Another thing is that it is not exactly cheap (for Asia). Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia are cheaper places to visit. Like really cheap. But if you come at Singapore thinking it is a Westernized place, like London or Paris, it is a bargain. Using taxis, the subway (MRT) or the bus system is very cheap and extremely reliable, also air conditioned. You will pay more than other spots in Asia, but you will get more as well.

Singapore, a Place to Love

A noodle dish from Singapore

A shrimp noodle dish

So that is my pitch. Singapore is a place that offers unparalleled delights. I am not joking when I say the food is good. If you like food, you will love Singapore. If you like history, Singapore has a many first-rate museums and a botanic garden straight out of Victorian England. If you like architecture, Singapore has buildings that look like they were imported from the future. If you like shopping, Singapore has malls that outclass any mall in America or Europe. If you are a crazy person and love hot weather, Singapore has it in spades. Pretty much everything about Singapore is fun for a rollicking. And as they say, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen!”

Thanks David! Be sure to check out his Instagram for awesome pictures of food from across the planet.

Dinner With Friends in Pai

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To reach Pai from Bangkok you have to take a thirteen hour train ride through the oscillating countryside of Thailand. You disembark in Chiang Mai, take a taxi to the bus station, and then take a four hour bus ride up through the mountains.A bus ride to Pai Thailand If you’re lucky your driver won’t be a homicidal maniac. However, most people are unlucky, and they spend most of their ride clutching the seat in front of them, as the bus barrels through hair pins turns at 40 miles an hour.

Despite the hardships, the journey is worth it. Pai is a small town tucked up in the mountains of north Thailand. It’s easy to imagine it twenty years ago as an underdeveloped village with cows and people riding bicycles. Tourism has changed that. The main road that runs through the center of Pai is a quagmire of inexperienced tourists driving scooters, and people selling fruit smoothies along the side of the road.

In our five months of travelling together, this small village held me and Joanna’s attention longer than anywhere else. We had planned to spend a week there, and wee ended up staying for three times as long. In one sense, it’s funny that we would choose to spend so long in a small mountain village, while actively hating the bustling Bangkok. The pieces fall together once you know Pai, and it’s easy to understand how you can become trapped.

Switching Hostels

Darling Hostel in Pai ThailandWe started our journey in Pai three strong. Me, Joanna, and her friend Asger from Denmark. For a week we stayed at Darling Hostel, where we had an incredible balcony that gave us a beautiful view of the entire town. Every night the expansive deck became a bar, and after five days we had filled a thirty gallon wicker basket with empty bottles of Chang.

Apart from drinking a liver busting amount of beer, the most fun we had was our two days playing with the bikes. In Thailand it’s easy to rent a dirt bike or motorcycle. This was especially true in Pai, as multiple shops had shiny new bikes sitting in front. Asger had driven a bike twice in his life before, and he was confident he could do it again. So I rented my first crotch rocket, albeit a small one, and Asger opted for the dirt bike. We drove them for hours through the mountains surrounding Pai. A better time was never had.

Asger riding a dirt bike in Pai ThailandUnfortunately, unlike me and Joanna, Asger had limited vacation time. After just five short days he flew back to Denmark, leaving me and Joanna to continue the adventure in the tiny town. While staying at Darling, we had been hearing music waft over from another hostel about a quarter mile away. One day a particularly loud drum caught Joanna’s attention and she went to check it out. She came back two hours later.

“Guess what?” She said to me with a grin.

“What’s up?”

“I booked us a room at Circus.”

“Damn, so it’s cool huh. When are we going over there?”

“Tomorrow. Do you remember Eddy from Koh Rong? He’s over there right now. We can go over later and jam with them. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s really freaking cool!”

So it went. That afternoon we went over to Circus and we met Eddy, who we had seen for the first time in Koh Rong, 1,400 km away. Even though the odds of this happening seem low, it’s simply not so. There are only so many popular tourist destinations in Asia, and when you potentially meet dozens of people at every hostel, you’re bound to run into some of them again.

Living at the Circus

At Circus, the bungalows are made out of bamboo with no insulation. High up in the mountains, we nearly froze to death our first night. Three blankets did little to dissuade the frigid air. I remember being close to Joanna under the blankets, hugging her like I would drift out into space if I let go. Poor sleep became a theme at Circus. Loud music, an uncomfortable bed, too little beer. None of it helped. None of it mattered. Circus was a great experiment in happiness.

In our five months of travel we had few lasting rituals, as we changed cities to quickly to allow for them. However, at Circus, we developed the great habit of a nightly dinner. Circus is located fifteen minutes outside of Pai and we rented a scooter to get around. $2.50 a day gets you a ride that turns on and violently protests if you try to go over 20 mph.

Sunset at Pai ThailandEvery night around sunset I would take our wheezing scooter into town for dinner. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, food stalls began to populate the streets. Pad Thai, meat on a stick, sushi, and various other dishes were available. With just $5 it was possible to get a belly busting amount of food, and my favorite part of the night was picking it out. Parking the scooter, I would walk up and down the street, passing dozens of stalls, filling my bag with food. Once it reached breaking point I would coax the scooter to life, ease it through the crowd of people, and zoom back up to Circus.

Spreading a towel on our bed, me and Joanna would dig into the food. She preferred sushi, and my main dish was usually something Asian with a list of unidentifiable ingredients. After the main course, we would both finish dinner with meat on a stick. If you’ve ever been to Southeast Asia, or presumably other places, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Business card sized pieces of meat, skewered on a piece of bamboo, doused in sauce and grilled to perfection.

I enjoyed our nightly ritual and I believe Joanna did as well. Every night dinner was different, and it was always exciting to unpack the bag and see the pile of food laid out. Inevitably after dinner we would go out for a beer and a game of pool. The days and nights passed quickly, and before we knew it we had been at Circus for two weeks.

Back to Bangkok, the Saga Continues

After nearly three and a half weeks in Pai we were ready to call it quits. It’s a testament to beauty of that place that a town as small as Pai was able to hold us for so long. In the coming weeks and months I would talk to other people who had been there, and the conversations usually went like this.

Me. “You were in Thailand, did you go to Pai?”

Random person at the hostel “Oh yeah we went there. We we’re going to stay for four days, but then we ended up staying for two weeks. It’s so crazy, we loved it!”

“Yeah the same thing happened to us. Did you stay at Circus?”

“No we didn’t but our friend did. We went there for a day though it seemed so cool.”

The Mountains in Pai ThailandThis conversation repeated itself as we made our way through southern Thailand, and across borders. The above conversation (word for word) happened in Singapore, 2,636 km away from that legendary town up in the mountains.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to Pai. The memories I have of the town are so closely tied to Joanna that it may be more painful for me than enjoyable. Walking through the town, going rafting on the river, drinking beer and playing pool, eating lunch at the same place every day. Dinners on the bed, in a bungalow that was hot in the day and cold at night. Even though Pai may be off my radar for the rest of my life, I look forward to finding other places like it, and creating new lasting memories. When in doubt, take the road less traveled.

How to Make Traditional Ukrainian Borsch

Earlier in life I wasn’t a soup guy. I liked the stuff my mom made but that was about it. Now though, I’ve found a dish I could eat every day for the rest of my life. Borsch is a fantastic blend of vegetables, spices, and magic.

This recipe came from Mama Luda, who grew up in Norther Ukraine and learned how to cook from her mother. She was nice enough to cook it with me one morning and allowed me to write down the recipe.

Remember though, if you decide to make it, you have to eat it with a dollop of sour cream. It’s tradition and it’s delicious.

Ukrainian Red Borsch

Ingredients 

-7 to 10 medium sized Potatoes
-2 Small green onions (regular onions will do too, one medium sized onion is sufficient)
-2 to 3 Carrots
-3 to 5 Beets (plus the leaves too if you can get them)
-1 to 2 Tomatoes (tomato sauce will also work)
-Half head of cabbage
-A teaspoon or so of sugar
-A little bit of fresh dill
-Salt and Pepper optional

Preparation

1) Cut up the carrots and beats into small pieces

2) Cup up potatoes, onions and beet leaves into small chunks and add them to a big soup pot with about 1.5 liters of water. Set this pan on a high heat to boil, and then when it does boil turn down the heat to low

3) Fry carrots in a bit of oil and after several minutes add the beets, tomatoes, and a touch of sugar. Fry the lot of it till the carrots and beets begin to brown then set aside

4) Consider what life must have been like under communist rule

5) Cut up or shred the cabbage into inch long pieces

6) When the potatoes in the pan are soft and ready, then add the cabbage to the mixture

7) Continue to cook on a low boil and add water as you see fit (perhaps another half liter or so, depending on how it looks)

8) If you don’t have tomatoes and are using sauce, you can add it to the boiling water after the cabbage

9) Wash your dill in cold water then warm water. After that, cut it up into very small pieces

10) Several minutes after adding the cabbage, add the beet, carrot and tomato mixture to the boiling water. Put a little bit of water into the pan you fried that all in then dump it into the soup pan, ensuring you don’t leave any delicious bits stuck in the pan

11) Stir, add salt and pepper if you so desire.

12) Once the cabbage, beets, and carrots are cooked and soft, then add your fresh cut dill. Stir it into the soup thoroughly then turn off the heat.

13) Make mental note to buy more vodka as you only have one bottle left and you may want to get drunk tonight

14) Let stand ten minutes and then serve with sour cream on the side (this step is incredibly important and must be obeyed at all costs)

 

You have now made traditional Ukrainian Borsch!