Back in Antwerp for 6 weeks and a preview of travels to come

David and I are happily back in Antwerp, Belgium, for 6 weeks once again cat- and house-sitting for some of our favorite people and cats in one of our favorite cities. As always when in Belgium, we’ll be exploring this beautiful country and scouting great beer. We’ll spend a month in Paris when we leave here, just to touch base in my old home and enjoy the holiday season before heading back stateside.

Coming up in the spring [March-June]: Another Korean Air First Class mega-flight from DFW to Seoul to Singapore(!), a few weeks in Indonesia (Bali, Java, etc.), then back to Singapore to catch a month cruise to Europe (via Sri Lanka, India (Cochin, Goa, Mumbai), Oman, UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), Suez Canal, Jordan (Petra), Greece, Italy). When we get off the ship in Italy, we’ll spend a couple of weeks in Umbria (in an agrotourism farm) and Tuscany (at a small-town apartment) before flying from Florence back to Antwerp.

If any of these interest you, check back in. I’m also always open to suggestions!


Helix Bridge, Marina Sands Hotel & Artscience Museum

I only allowed 2 nights in Singapore, mostly because 1) we arrived early by boat so really had a full first day, unlike usual travel days; 2) I had 2 free nights at the Intercontinental Singapore and didn’t really want to pay for another night or move; and 3) I was really more interested in a quick look and then getting on to later destinations that were higher on my list of things I really, really wanted to see. [I realize there are a lot of “reallys” in the above sentence, but they seem to belong, so I’m leaving them.] Anyway, it turned out that I really, really loved Singapore a lot more than I expected. So, it looks like there’s a return trip in our future.

Singapore is notorious for some pretty strict laws on seemingly minor things (gum chewing, toilet flushing) and the death penalty for things like drug smuggling. David and I had absolutely no interest in drug smuggling, but we were loathe to ditch the two packs of gum we’d brought from home and were sure to need over the next month of exotic, breath-endangering foods in Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. The ship told us not to bring gum, but an Internet search said gum was legal, just not selling gum. First hand reports also said the worst that would happen is they would throw away your gum. So, I stashed the packages in my suitcase and hoped for the best. Sure enough, we discovered a security scan as we exited the cruise terminal, but happily, gum did not seem to be an issue. (Our hotel handed out a brochure saying even gum chewing was legal, just not selling.)

[Cruise Port Info: After security, there’s a visitor center upstairs with free wi-fi, an ATM machine and helpful information people with maps. Taxis are plentiful. USE METERED TAXIS. Ignore the shouts for private cars, walk into the parking lot, past the limos with more shouts that they’re “ready now” for “only” some outrageous price, and follow the signs to the taxi queue. Our delightful driver, gave us a running commentary of the city and suggestions for destinations and charged us a bargain $13.50 spd (appx. $9.72 US) to drive us to the Intercontinental. He declined an offered tip, saying they don’t tip in Singapore.]

Debarkation security line in the Singapore cruise terminal, after baggage collection; long, but efficient

While living under such strict regulations might drive me nuts, it does make for a very clean and orderly society. Subways are spotless, people line up (queue) properly, etc. We also found everyone to be friendly, polite and helpful…and English-speaking, a welcome bonus.

After settling into the lovely Intercontinental Singapore and eating a quick Thai lunch in the attached indoor shopping center, we headed out for my first, dying-to-see destination, the Marina Sands Hotel with its crazy surfboard/boat structure on top which houses and incredible zero-horizon pool, viewing decks, bars and restaurants, and park. En route, we detoured past the Wealth Fountain, the largest fountain in the world (Singapore is big into that sort of thing), arriving during one of the periods where you can walk into the center of the fountain, stick your right hand into a burbling circle of geysers and walk three circles while making a wish.

Inside the Wealth Fountain, walking 3 times around with your right hand in the water while making a wish

Leaving the fountain and its surrounding shopping mall (also something Singapore is very big into), we followed Google Maps down hot streets and yet another huge, lux shopping mall to pop out onto a terrace with our first view of the Marina Sands, Helix Bridge and cracked-egg Artscience Museum. These space-age buildings captured my attention from the first time I’d seen them online and they didn’t disappoint. Wow. [See lead photo above.]

Making our way across the Helix Bridge, we came to another huge mall where we found the underground walkway to the Marina Sands Hotel. We bought $20pp tickets to the Skybar and rode the elevator to the top. Since the Marina Sands is a hotel, there are areas reserved only for guests. An outer observation terrace on this level as is the entire spectacular swimming pool. Still, there are two outdoor bars and an indoor restaurant space available to those with tickets. The $20 can be applied to drinks or food, too. Before you get too excited, the drinks are crazily priced: David had an $16 50ml Hoegaarten draft beer and a $23 mai tai. We shared a table with a newly-wed couple from Bulgaria, just passing through from their Bali honeymoon, each of comfy on our own cushioned rattan couch. David and I enjoyed the drinks, the view and the company immensely, and found the whole experience well worth the price.

The spectacular pool atop the Marina Sands Hotel
View from the Marina Sands Skybar

Dinner our first night was an adventure at Lau Pa Sat, the grande dame of Singapore’s street food venues. Located in a Victorian era pavilion now dwarfed by surrounding skyscrapers, Lau Pa Sat draws crowds of local workers at lunch and more crowds at night when satay stalls open on the periphery. We had fun looking at an array of foods and ordering satay to eat outside…but, boy, was it hot and humid! The satay was good, but not great to my way of thinking: not grilled enough and with a coarse peanut sauce that was a tad too sweet for me. Sauteed local greens were a bigger hit as were stir fried noodles.

Lau Pa Sat, dwarfed by its neighbors
Satay vendors just outside Lau Pa Sat; hot work!

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016