Thursday, May 29, 2008

ALIVE AND WELL IN TOKYO: HueBin Survives Godzilla Attack!

Okay, not really. We ARE alive... but there was no Godzilla attack (as far as we know; we have been known to be oblivious to massive natural disasters).

For those of you keeping score at home, we realize that we (ne Huey) are a full week behind in our blogging. We apologize for any inconvenience, but we have just been having too much fun, you know, VACASIANING. We (ne Huey) PROMISE to have the blog fully caught up before this weekend is over.

And that's the truth... or our name ain't HueBin!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

VacAsian Day Nineteen (Wednesday, 21 May, Bangkok and Kanchanburi)

There are those very rare occasions in Life when something seems too good to be true and it isn't. Today was one of those occasions.

Flying from Singapore to Bangkok on Thai Airways, Huey flipped through the in-flight magazine and came across an article on Wat Luang Ta Bua Yanna Sampanno, better known as "The Tiger Temple." At this Buddhist monastery in 1999, a young tiger abandoned when its mother was killed by poachers was adopted and the monks began to raise it. Word spread quickly, and soon other abandoned or unwanted tigers were adopted at the monastery. In an effort to continue to care for the tigers and to build better facilities for their housing, research, and interaction with the tigers, the monastery began accepting donations in exchange for photo opportunities and physical interaction with the tigers. Needless to say, a place like The Tiger Temple becomes a tourist haven (or trap, depending on your point of view) quickly. And who are we to buck the trend?

Upon our return from Chiang Mai last night, we booked a basic car and driver for 10 hours to take us to The Tiger Temple and other attractions in and around Kanchanaburi. After breakfast, we practically ran down to the porte coche expecting to be whisked away in a Toyota Camry. Instead, we were informed that we had been upgraded (again!) and would be rolling up to the big cats in a Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan. (We, of course, said "OK.") Huey worked on this blog as we drove, while Robin read and napped. The two-and-a-half hour drive from Bangkok took us through a number of small towns and villages, none of which managed to escape the influence of Western culture, no matter how traditional or provincial they appeared. We saw KFCs, 7-Elevens, and Esso (Exxon) stations in almost every town, and as in the US, McDonald's and Starbucks are omnipresent.

The turnoff for The Tiger Temple was marked with a not-so-special billboard, like any you'd see along the roadside driving through Florida. Continuing down the road toward The Tiger Temple, our anticipation mounted, and though we’re not sure what we expected to find once we arrived there – thirty foot walls with guard towers and snipers with tranquilizer darts? Exxon and Kellogg’s billboards? Siegfried? – the entrance to The Tiger Temple was not as exciting as what was inside. We paid the fee and were directed to walk through a grove of trees that lead to the action. Emerging from the trees, we saw a monk and a volunteer walking with a full grown tiger in the direction of Tiger Canyon, followed by a group of guests. As they passed, three more tigers came in to view tethered to trees in a shaded area, waiting to be walked down to Tiger Canyon. We took our place in the queue of guests waiting to escort a tiger to and interact with the tigers in Tiger Canyon, and as we joined the queue, we casually passed well within pouncing distance of the lounging tigers, as if they were our own cats Stanley and Stella. Our turn came to follow a monk and volunteers to Tiger Canyon, and each of us had the chance to go to the front of the group with the monk and walk alongside the tiger, while a volunteer grabbed our cameras and took pictures for us.

Once at Tiger Canyon, all of the tigers – about 10 or 12 of them – were tethered to trees or otherwise secured and volunteers tended to and played with them, as one would play with a house cat laying in the sun. And just like a house cat in the sun, these big cats became extremely relaxed and far more docile. It was at this point that we were permitted to get “up close and personal” with the tigers, and that’s just what we did. Both of us had the opportunity to not only pet several tigers, but also to get down on the ground and interact with them, in some cases, wrapping our arms around them or laying their heads on our laps.

If The Tiger Temple sounds like a petting zoo for big cats, that’s exactly what it is!

The experience was mind-blowing, like nothing either of us have ever done, on the VacAsian or at any other time. The experience is made even more special when we consider that we walked and sat and posed for pictures with and among as many as a dozen tigers, but at no time did either of us feel the slightest bit of fear or apprehension. Make no mistake: these ARE wild animals we spent the day with, wild animals with all the teeth and claws and innate tendencies they were born with. But the tigers at The Tiger Temple are raised by the monks, who treat them at all times with the dignity and humility and respect for their power and pride that the tigers deserve, so the tigers grow up not fearing humans. The tigers live and play and eat and sleep in a very tranquil and angst-free environment, and the monks and volunteers work hard to make sure that nothing disturbs that environment. As such, the tigers learn to treat the monks, the volunteers, all other humans, and the other animals at The Tiger Temple in the same gentle and peaceful way they are and expect to be treated. It’s a careful balance that works very well at The Tiger Temple.

And speaking of other animals, The Tiger Temple is home to many other species of indigenous animals, all of which roam freely about the grounds, including deer, cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses. All of them share the tigers’ calm demeanor and rapport with humans. For example, as we watched a herd of cattle pass us in the grove as we were leaving, one of the younger members of the herd broke away and nonchalantly walked up to Huey (who incredulously captured video of the encounter), as if asking for directions. (See video below.)




Our driver was waiting with the car on when we came out of the front gate, so we jumped in to the VERY COOL car, where he offered us chilled face towels and bottled water and asked where we wanted to go next. We told him we wanted to see Erawan National Park and its renowned waterfall. He agreed to take us there and also suggested that we might enjoy visiting the nearby Elephant Camp. We already had the makings of a Wild Animal Encounter Theme Day developing and if there’s one thing HueBin enjoys, it’s a good theme day. (COMING SOON: Wear Your Shoes On The Wrong Feet Day and Guess Your Co-Workers’ Weights Within 50 Pounds Day.) So Elephant Camp it was!

The relatively short drive to Elephant Camp took us through small towns and residential neighborhoods before we turned down an unpaved road that lead to a stream or tributary. Our driver jumped out, spoke to the proprietor in Thai, and motioned for us to come on out. We paid the fee and were directed to the top of a platform next to a clearing in which a half dozen or so Asian elephants were corralled. We stepped off the platform and on to the canopy on the back of one of the elephants and we were off. Our ride, which lasted about 45 minutes, took us “over hill and dell,” in and out of the murky stream, and through various patches of dense vegetation. The latter, of course, was at the elephant’s election – did you know elephants eat in excess of their body weight each day? – and we were rather entertained as the elephant driver, who sat in front of us just behind the elephant’s neck, alternated between instructing the elephant when and where to move and submitting to the elephant’s gastronomic whims. What was NOT entertaining was the oppressive heat and humidity and the sheer numbers of bugs we managed to attract (probably with some help from our pachyderm pal). We are pretty sure we were sampled by every bug in Kanchanaburi and that bugs from neighboring towns dropped in to check us out too. When it was over, we almost literally jumped off the elephant’s back and ran for the sanctuary of our climate-controlled sedan.

Right about now, a cool, beautiful waterfall sounds like just the ticket, doesn’t it? That’s what we thought.

We told our driver we were now ready to go to Erawan National Park, only to have him tell us that the park closed in 45 minutes and it would take us almost a half hour more than that to get there. That being the case, you may wonder (as we did) why our driver didn’t take us to the waterfall FIRST, then bring us to Elephant Camp. Our guess is it had something to do with the conversation our driver had with the proprietor of Elephant Camp, in Thai and out of earshot, when we arrived there. In other words, there may have been some “enticement” for him to bring us to Elephant Camp, while there was no admission, and therefore no similar enticement, at Erawan National Park.

Our next stop was The Bridge on the River Kwae, on the way to which we encountered a group of wild monkeys by the roadside. (They appeared to be either missionaries or hitchhikers. In either case, we didn’t stop.) Also known as “The Death Railway Bridge” and also in Kanchanaburi, the bridge is the subject of the multiple Academy Award-winning movie of the same name. This famous World War II site of numerous Allied attacks during the Japanese occupation of Thailand has been rebuilt several times and still carries railroad tracks across its span. It is a major tourist destination, and since you can’t swing a tourist's camera without hitting one, there is – you guessed it – a market adjacent to the bridge. Never one to pass a market without darkening its door, we stopped “to look” and walked away with a handful of goodies.

Our “entrepreneurial” driver returned us to the hotel, where we showered, dressed, and enjoyed fruity drinks at the 63rd floor rooftop Sky Bar. (Original, hunh?) The views were amazing and the night was cool and comfortable. From there, we went up in to the dome atop our hotel to the Italian restaurant Mezzaluna. Mezzaluna is the kind of place that suffers under the self-fulfilling prophecy in which the prices bear no rational connection to the amount or quality of food you get, so nothing is as good as it should be. We scratched our heads, paid our inflated check, and moved on. At this point, we hoped our “old faithful” Café Mozu could renew our faith with a particularly appealing dessert (or desserts). No such luck.

We packed it in and returned to our room for the night. Tomorrow is a very special day, a day of which Robin has seen a few and of which Huey is about to experience his first of many.

HINT: There’s a CAKE named after it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

VacAsian Day Eighteen (Tuesday, 20 May, Chiang Mai and Bangkok)

Our wakeup call came at 8 AM today, and we jumped out of bed pumped for the day ahead. Breakfast, included in the already ridiculously low room rate, was one of the best we’ve had on the VacAsian so far. (Go figure.) We checked out after breakfast and waited in the lobby. And then it arrived: the van to Flight of the Gibbon Canopy Tours (FOTG).

Canopy tours, also known as “ziplining,” involve strapping one’s self into a rock-climbing type harness, popping on a helmet, climbing (or in our case, driving) up into the treetops, and “flying” between the trees on thick lengths of wire by means of the carriage apparatus attached to your harness. (Imagine how a cable car works. Now imagine you ARE the cable car, only you’re traveling at much higher rates of speed. THAT is ziplining.) Huey had tried ziplining before at the much lower, but no less exciting Cypress Valley Canopy Tours outside of Austin. For Robin, however, this was a first. A first for both of them: FOTG’s Flight Three, the highest zipline in the World.

The drive took over an hour, as we climbed high in to the mountains above Chiang Mai and into the clouds. We passed village after village, each one different than the last, yet seemingly self-sufficient and obviously proud. What was most remarkable as we climbed higher and higher, farther and farther away from "civilization," was that all of the roads were paved and power lines followed them all the way to the top. We disembarked at the FOTG office in one of the villages, met the manager of FOTG and our guides, and pressed the "FUN" button.

If oblong is a shape, that perhaps best describes the "shape" Huey is in physically. There was a time - back when Huey "played college ball [SNIFF]" at Penn State and North Carolina - that he was a "man among men," a time when he would do a triathlon, pause for a Snapple and a banana, then do the triathlon backwards. His intramural greatness (he has the "Carolina Intramural Champions" t-shirt to prove it!) having long since abandoned him, the Huey of today is, in a word, a creampuff.

Our canopy adventure began as most canopy adventures begin: with a climb up a waterfall. The Maekampong Waterfall, to be exact. Like an instant replay of her scaling of The Great Wall (see VacAsian Day Ten), Robin sprinted to the top like Sir Edmund Hillary and struck her victory pose. Similarly, much like his disappointing showing in Badaling, Huey once again collapsed in a puddle.

Literally.

Returning to the FOTG office, we had a traditional Chiang Mai meal - and several electrolyte drinks - at the cafe next door, then strapped on our harnesses and helmets for the main event. Flights One and Two - the first two ziplines - were "for practice." Flight Three is the highest zipline in the World. We're not sure where this sort of logic comes from, but it's a bit like teaching a baby to walk, then expecting her to pilot The Space Shuttle. In any case, that we are posting this blog is evidence that we lived through Flight Three and all the others, as well as the several canopies from which we had to rappel down to the ground or to a lower canopy. If, however, you require additional proof, please check out the photos, or better yet, this video.



Among the many new and different experiences we had today, we tasted tea leaves right off the tree and learned the word for "Tiger" in a regional Thai dialect. (Foreshadowing.)

As luck would have it, just as we rappelled down from the final canopy and touched terra firma (we're not sure how that translates in Thai), we learned precisely why they call them "rainforests." The sky opened up and we ran for cover in the "hospitality gazebo" at the end of the tour, where we waited for the rain to stop. Of course, this being a RAIN-FOREST, the rain did NOT stop, and our guides tore banana leaves off trees to cover us as we dashed for the waiting van. We returned to the FOTG office, took pictures, said goodbyes, and began our drive back to the hotel, which drive conveniently coincided with rush hour in Chiang Mai.

From the hotel, we made our way to the famous Chiang Mai - you guessed it - Night Bazaar. We proudly and amply contributed to the local economy of Chiang Mai and that of the US, as we also patronized Starbucks and Burger King. (Long live the King!) Our Night Bazaar trip ended with our first tuk tuk (a motorcycle taxi) ride through the streets of Chiang Mai and back to the hotel.

Our tuk tuk ride highlights a few interesting points that we believe deserve to be made, particularly for anyone planning to visit Thailand. First, like Singaporeans or those wacky Britons, Thais drive on the LEFT - or as we self-centered Americans refer to it, the "wrong" - side of the road. More importantly, lane lines in Thailand are merely a suggestion. Street decoration is really all they are. We didn't think it possible to drive in four lanes at once, that is, of course, until we came to Thailand. Similarly, traffic lights and turn signals are more optional advice than statutory admonishment. All of these facts, which we had more or less taken for granted when were riding in enclosed cars, became glaringly obvious to us as we rode in the back of the tuk tuk. If you ever played the video game "Frogger" and wondered what the frog felt like, try riding in a tuk tuk in heavy, fast-moving traffic.

From the hotel, we shuttled to the airport for our 10:20 PM flight. Back in Bangkok, we taxied to the hotel and made travel arrangements for our next great adventure. Before turning in for the night, Huey wondered to himself what it is that turns a once fine human specimen in to such a common pastry - soft and sweet on the inside, crusty on the outside. Pondering this not-so-age-old question, Huey arrived at a simple answer.

"Love."

That says it all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

VacAsian Day Seventeen (Monday, 19 May, Bangkok and Chiang Mai)

Rule Number One of Massage (and/or Greco-Roman Wrestling): Always, ALWAYS drink plenty of water afterward. Huey forgot this important rule, and consequently woke up very early, aching from head to toe. He downed an entire bottle of water in about 20 seconds flat and returned to bed to wake up later, refreshed.

Upon waking up, we booked roundtrip airfare (US $120 for both of us) to and a three star hotel (US $48, with breakfast) in Chiang Mai for that evening for an excursion we have planned (more on that later). After breakfast, we looked in to shipping some of our stuff home to avoid further diplomatic conflicts in the airports of Southeast Asia. (We have really accumulated a lot of stuff.) Then we taxied to Pratunam Market because, well, you know. When we got there, the combination of the heat, humidity, and smells was too much. Huey already wasn’t feeling well, and but for a few specific items she still needed to pick up, Robin was still over shopping for a while. We taxied back to the hotel and watched the movie “Dangerous Beauty” on DVD (which, incidentally, we also watched on our third date) to conserve our energy for the evening’s and the next day’s excursions.

We packed for Chiang Mai, then the tailor’s driver picked us up for our final fitting, after which the tailor’s driver dropped us at the airport for our 8:20 PM flight. We arrived in Chiang Mai at 9:30 and taxied to our hotel, the Novotel Chiang Mai. We checked in, went to our room, and debated hitting the Night Bazaar, but opted to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow promises high-flying adventure in the rainforests of Northern Thailand.

VacAsian Day Sixteen (Sunday, 18 May, Bangkok)

Today began with a spectacular breakfast buffet at the hotel (suffice it to say, after the chauffered car, VIP check-in and fireworks last night (see VacAsian Day Fifteen), we didn’t expect stale bread and water) as we prepared to spend the day at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. Can you guess which half of HueBin was more excited than the other? (See VacAsian Day Seven.)

Having only our Beijing Silk Road Market foray as a reference, we were not prepared for the blissfully disorienting shopping experience that is Thai market shopping. Stall after stall with every saleable item (not to mention some that probably shouldn’t be sold) known to humankind was available for the right price at Chatuchak. What could possibly be wrong with that, the shopping enthusiasts (and/or possession obsessed) among you may ask?

The answer: no organization.

Whereas the Silk Road Market was organized by floors, which generally grouped related items for ease of comparison and purchase, Chatuchak hinted at organization, but offered only a pleasingly distracting menagerie of hungry vendors as eager to peddle their wares as the shoppers were to find bargains. Imagine a t-shirt vendor next to a food vendor next to a silk vendor next to an electronics vendor next to an exotic bird vendor next to a shoe vendor next to a lingerie vendor next to a housewares vendor. Then imagine that if you wanted to get the best deal from any of them, you’d have to push your way through the crowds, tight passageways, and rain at this expansive bazaar in hopes of accidently encountering another vendor offering the same merchandise, only to hope you might be able to find the first vendor if the next vendor’s price wasn’t right. Of course, as Murphy’s Law of Market Shopping would have it, when you’re looking for a specific item, there is not a vendor in sight who has it for sale, yet you can’t swing a smoking incense decanter without hitting a vendor with every variety of every useless bauble you’re NOT looking for. Such is the joy of the Thai bazaar.

We were but three hours in to the Chatuchak consumer chaos, with bag after bag of bounty to show for it, when Robin uttered the words Huey thought he would NEVER hear:

I’m done with shopping.

“I’d rather play video games than read,” perhaps. “I have ENOUGH shoes,” maybe. On her WORST day possibly “No, thank you. I don’t want any CAKE.” But never did Huey expect THESE words to cross Robin’s lips. Quickly checking the air temperature and skating conditions in “H-E-Double Hockey Sticks” and confirming that Robin was, in fact, conscious and not delusional, Huey was confronted with an unsettling reality.

He was NOT finished shopping.

Perhaps it was the stifling humidity slowly soaking through his dura matter or maybe it was just those gosh darn cute Buddha marionettes, but Huey was ENJOYING unfettered, mindless, full contact, blatant consumerism at its best (worst?)… and he wanted more. But, as with his affinity for Blackjack (and “Judge” reality shows), Huey knows when to say when.

We taxied back to the hotel, where we took much needed showers. (We forgot to mention how utterly dusty and gritty bazaar shopping can be.) We had lunch at Café Mozu, where we had our first night’s dinner and breakfast this morning, then we went to the shopping center in State Tower for massages at Spa Royal Botanic (we presume no relation to Spa Botanica (see VacAsian Day Fourteen)). Robin had a ONE HOUR foot massage, followed by a ONE HOUR manicure, which included a head and shoulder massage; Huey had a ONE HOUR traditional Thai massage and a ONE HOUR foot massage, with a head and shoulder massage thrown in for good measure. The cost of all this corporeal manipulation? Less than US $50 for both of us.

A quick note about traditional Chinese v. traditional Thai massage. The former is akin to deep tissue Western massage with the addition of very intense acupressure. The pressure is extreme, even painful at times, but it leaves one feeling relaxed, rejuvenated, and with a clear head. Thai massage, by contrast, is more like Greco-Roman wrestling where only one competitor knows the rules. It is performed on a platform or low table, rather than a massage table, and the therapist (opponent?) is, at times, on the platform with you, pulling your arms, legs, torso, head, or neck this way or that and running you through various sleeper, half-, and full-Nelson holds. It leaves one feeling relaxed, but confused and a bit violated. In the end, though, the Thai sparring match is markedly cheaper than its Chinese counterpart.

From the spa, we taxied to Embassy Tailor for our first fittings. Huey was ecstatic with the fit of his new togs, and with some minor adjustments, Robin, too, was pleased with her custom gear. (We even added more to Robin’s order.) The tailor’s driver returned us to the hotel, and we packed it in for the night.

Final score: Team Spa Royal Botanic 1, Team HueBin 0.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

VacAsian Day Fifteen (Saturday, 17 May, Singapore and Bangkok)

We said goodbye to Singapore and Clarke Quay this morning and looked forward to our passage to the third country on our itinerary, Thailand, formerly Siam, made famous by, among other things, the book Anna and The King, which, of course, begat the play and movie "The King and I," which, as everyone knows, saw its modern adaptation in the form of the "Rush Hour" trilogy.

Yet again, US diplomatic relations with Asia came within seconds of being severed forever, as we played the game that is quickly surpassing "Deal or No Deal" as the most popular game involving suitcases filled with valuables, namely, "How Many Bags Are We Allowed?" The answer changed several times (again) before we were permitted to check four of our five bags and treat the final bag as a carry-on. Alas, the US State Department did not have to intervene, and the US Ambassador to the Republic of Singapore did not have to be pulled away from her Warm Tibetan Oil and Healing Clay Massage and Wrap at Spa Botanica. (You're welcome, Honorable Ms. Herbold.) Per usual, we were fed extremely well on our flight. (Editorial Note: We have had an exceptional meal on every leg of every flight during the VacAsian, and we can't help but think that if US airlines put as much effort in to customer service (and catering) as their Asian counterparts, there might be fewer bankruptcies.)

Upon arriving in Bangkok, we were met by a representative of our hotel, lebua at State Tower, offered orange-scented cold face cloths and bottled water, and whisked away in a chauffeured BMW 700 series sedan. At the hotel, we were met immediately by another representative, who escorted us past the front desk and directly to our room on the 59th floor. "Check-in" took place on the sofa in the living room of our two room suite, while we scarfed down the complimentary box of "Welcome Chocolates." Before she left, our representative unlocked the door to our stunning marble balcony overlooking Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River. (If we don't return to the States, you know where to find us.) Believe everything you have heard about how inexpensive Bangkok is. Despite all these amenities (not to mention the many others not mentioned here) and the five nights we'll be spending here, this will be the least expensive of our five stays on the VacAsian.

About an hour after we arrived and settled in, our hotel driver chauffeured us to Embassy Tailor, Bangkok's only British tailor, where we were measured for and ordered custom suits and shirts. "Our driver" waited for us outside the tailor shop and returned us to the hotel, where we had a great dinner on the outdoor patio of Cafe Mozu. Apparently, someone phoned ahead with the news that HueBin was in town because an impromptu fireworks display erupted about 15 minutes in to our meal. Or maybe His Majesty King Bhumibol has been reading this blog.

Long live the King!

VacAsian Day Fourteen (Friday, 16 May, Singapore)

Yes, Virginia! There really ARE pink dolphins!

We were up really early this morning because we had plans to swim with the rare Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, which are born gray, but turn pink as they mature. We taxied over to Sentosa Island, a tourist and resort hotspot just off the main island of Singapore, and were dropped off at Dolphin Lagoon, home of the pink dolphins. Over the course of an hour, we painted and swam with and were serenaded by a total of five pink dolphins of varying ages. We laughed and giggled like five year olds and the pictures tell it all. It was like nothing we've ever done before and we doubt anything could match it!












As you might guess, wearing a life jacket and bobbing in the water like a couple of meat corks while a handful of the most beautiful and gentle creatures on the planet swim around you is hard work. The solution? Spa time. We checked in at Spa Botanica, only a few steps away from Dolphin Lagoon, had a delicious lunch, and indulged in separate three hour spa treatments, including all manner of scrubs and rubs and wraps and baths and showers. Then we reemerged in to the oppressive, death grip-like humidity of Singapore and instantaneously undid everything our friends at Spa Botanica had done over the preceding three hours.

We enjoyed a picturesque cable car ride from Sentosa up to Mount Faber on the main island, overlooking the Central Business District of Singapore, and back down before returning to the hotel. Dinner was Persian food at Shiraz in Clarke Quay, followed by a little shopping (imagine that) in the "weekend market" set up in Clarke Quay, before we packed it in and called it a night.

Tomorrow, Bangkok. (Thailand, that is.)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

VacAsian Day Thirteen (Thursday, 15 May, Singapore)

Before we go any farther, Huey would like to emphasize to all of you who are not familiar with Singapore's geography (which we were not prior to the VacAsian) that Singapore is a mere 85 miles from The Equator. This location lends itself to three things:
1. Heat;

2. Humidity; and

3. Humidity.

Singapore is the kind of place where it is socially acceptable to coat yourself in baby powder on a crowded sidewalk. Singapore is the kind of place that makes you long for the "dry heat" of Houston or New Orleans or the Amazon Basin. Singapore is the kind of place that when folks ask "How much more humid could it be?" you are inclined to answer "None. None more humid," a la Nigel Tufnel. If you have ever used a towel to dry yourself, only to realize that the towel was using YOU to dry itself, you MIGHT have been in Singapore. With that in mind, you should infer at the end of each sentence of our Singapore postings "and we were drenched in sweat."

This morning began with breakfast at a little "mom and pop" place called Starbucks (they're small and local now, but look for 6 or 19 of them to open up on your block any minute now), before we hoofed it over to the Bugis Street Market, which is, like the markets we have and will encounter throughout Asia, cramped, crowded, hot, and busy. From there, we made our way to the internationally-known Orchard Road shopping area, followed by a stop at the World-renowned Raffles Hotel, where we sampled The Singapore Sling in the place where it was created, the famous Long Bar.

Next, we took a scenic "flight" 50 stories above Singapore on the World's tallest Observation (Ferris) Wheel, The Singapore Flyer. We had dinner at the aptly named The Steakhouse in Clarke Quay, where Huey enjoyed a delicious Wagyu (akin to Kobe) steak. (Said Huey of his steak, "It's like there's a party on my plate, and everyone's invited!") Dinner was capped off by a scrumptious chocolate souffle (HACS rating of 7.5) and a delightfully rich chocolate lava gateaux (HACS rating of 8.8).

After dinner, the night was just getting started. We doused ourselves in insect repellent and headed for the Night Safari at The Singapore Zoo. The Night Safari is a completely different zoo experience than any you've had anywhere else in the World. Most significantly, the Singapore Zoo has no cages or enclosures, but instead is made up of habitats that are landscaped with pits, moats, and other natural elements that separate the animals (us) from the Zoo's inhabitants. The Night Safari features well over a hundred species of nocturnal animals, lit by ambient lighting that simulates natural environments in the wild. A 40 minute silent tram ride through the park is coupled with three walking trails, all of which get you up close and personal with the Zoo's inhabitants, some of which are within arm's reach. For two animal lovers like us, it was a once in a lifetime experience.

To quote one of the nocturnal animals we saw on the Night Safari, it was a "hoot"! (That joke courtesy of Robin.)

VacAsian Day Twelve (Wednesday, 14 May, Singapore)

"Rain, rain, go away!
Come again in another place where we're not traveling and have only limited time to enjoy ourselves outdoors!"

On the morning of our first full day in Singapore, we slept in and opened the blinds to reveal an ominously cloudy sky. We opted to walk around Clarke Quay in search of a coffee shop or bakery, but as Clarke Quay is the nightlife center of Singapore, morning vittles are not exactly its raison d'etre. We did manage to get caught in the rain, but as luck would have it, much of Clarke Quay is covered by a canopy 10 or 15 metres (that's metric, y'all!) overhead. We settled for breakfast at the hotel.

By the time we returned to our room after breakfast, the shower we frolicked in just moments before (yes, Robin and Huey frolic, and we believe everyone should frolic, or at least scamper, as often as possible) was now a major downpour, which darkened the city and confined us to our hotel room. Huey seized the opportunity to catch up on e-mail, journal, and blog, while Robin opted to read, which, of course, leads to napping. The rain let up, and Robin awoke from her nap and took a walk around Clarke Quay while Huey continued to work. It wasn't long, though, before Robin rushed back to the room to advise Huey that there was something at the Royal Selangor shop that was "perfect" for the wedding and that he had to see. If you know Robin, you know how persuasive she can be; if you know Huey, you know he can't say no to Robin. Cutting to the chase, it's a CAKE serving set and it IS "perfect" (DUH!!! It's used to serve CAKE!!!), so we have purchased the first of many items for our wedding.

How many times has this happened to you? You're at a business function, conference, or boy band reunion, you make an acquaintance and exchange cards with someone from some far off place you just KNOW you'll never visit, and you vow to "keep in touch." Inevitably, one of you will utter that hackneyed cliche that usually goes something like this:

"Hey, the next time you're on Mars, give me a call. We'll get together and have blarg!"

Both of you know you'll never visit the other, but you say it anyway. Exactly two years ago, at a conference in Toronto, a colleague of Huey's said "If you ever make it to Singapore, let me know. We'll show you around." Well, guess what...?

Robin and Huey met his trademark lawyer colleague Tasneem Haq, a native Singaporean, and her husband Daniel for dinner this evening at Satay King in Clarke Quay, had after dinner drinks at Cuba Libre in Clarke Quay, then had coffee and shortbread at their flat in the Western part of the island. We got a chance to see Singapore away from the tourist areas and the thriving nightlife and through the eyes of someone born and raised there. It is one of the highlights of the VacAsian to date. Thanks, Tasneem and Dan!

Friday, May 16, 2008

VacAsian Day Eleven (Tuesday, 13 May, Beijing and Singapore)

Today we leave Beijing and Mainland China. Like every other day, it began with breakfast in the hotel, but this time, there were tearful goodbyes, heartfelt words of encouragement, and warm hugs all around. In the midst of packing and preparing to leave for Singapore, we called and responded to e-mails from many of our friends and family, concerned about us as the news of the Chengdu earthquake played out on the morning news in the US.

We said goodbye to Beijing, as our car took us to the brand new Terminal 3 at Beijing's Capital International Airport. Although we arrived at this terminal last week, it was far too late - and we were far too tired - to appreciate the beauty, style, and grandeur of this building, like so many other things in Beijing, built for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. While it's not "The Bird's Nest," it is a modern architectural marvel - presently, the largest airport terminal in the World - in its own right.

We narrowly escaped an international incident at check-in as we confounded virtually every Hong Kong Dragon Airlines employee (and ourselves) with the questions of how many bags we were each allowed for our flight to Singapore and/or how much of a weight allowance we each had. Ultimately, we checked six - yes, SIX: we did A LOT of shopping in Beijing - bags, and except for a minor hiccup related to our SIX BAGS during our connection in Hong Kong, our flights to Singapore were uneventful. Huey had the opportunity to sample more Asian CAKE during our Hong Kong layover, but the sub par carrot cake only mustered a HACS rating of 4.7. (Get in the game, Hong Kong International!) Fortunately, the meals (full lunch and dinner on each leg of our flight, respectively) were superb.

We arrived in Singapore at about 11:20 PM, and following an almost vaudevillian floor show in which we condensed the contents of our SIX BAGS in to four bags in the lobby of Singapore's Changi International Airport, we drove through beautiful Downtown Singapore to Novotel Clarke Quay (pronounced "key"), where we'll be staying until Saturday. By the time we made it to our room, we were both wide awake (and a bit gamey), so we showered and watched "Juno" on DVD before we fell asleep. In separate beds. Just like Lucy and Ricky.

"A Source Close To HueBin Had This To Say...."

In an ongoing effort to maintain your interest and keep you entertained (and to make this blog more like a tabloid news show), we are pleased to introduce a segment we like to call "A Source Close To HueBin Had This To Say..." This first installment refers to "VacAsian Day Ten."

Commenting on the coincidence of Huey "reproposing" to Robin at The Great Wall of China and the earthquake in China's Sichuan Province (and with all due respect and sympathy for the victims of that tragic natural disaster), a source close to HueBin (you know who you are) had this to say:

So strong is [Huey's] love for [Robin] that he moved Heaven and Earth to propose to [her]. Well, maybe not Heaven, but the Earth definitely moved!

And this has been "A Source Close To HueBin Had This To Say...."

Why Have HueBin Withholding The Photos From Us? (or Have HueBin Playing A Cruel Trick On Us?)

OK, let's clear the air here.

There may be some of you operating under the cynical impression that this whole "HueBin VacAsian" deal is a hoax, a clever ruse designed to deceive everyone - and, most importantly, avoid working - for 30 days, simply because we have not posted a link to our pictures. While we must agree that if "illusionist" David Blaine played hookey for a month, he would likely do so on as grand a scale as this, we can assure you that we really are touring five countries in Asia for the entire month. Beyond the handful of photos we have included in the this blog, there are a few reasons we have not posted a link to more of our digital snapshots.

First, Robin has a very sophisticated, professional Canon digital camera that takes incredible photos. It also produces ridiculously large files that take forever to upload. (This, of course, begs the question why the photos from Huey's much less sophisticated Kodak Instamatic pocket camera - complete with "exploding" flash bulb - have not been made available, but that's a story for another time.) Second, Robin HAS uploaded many of the photos we have taken to date, but every time Huey goes to update the blog, he forgets to include said link. (For the English majors and other literary aficionados reading this, yes, Huey has become rather astute at referring to himself in the third person.) Third... we really don't have a third... so without further adieu, HERE IS THE LINK:

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

VacAsian Day Ten (Monday, 12 May, Beijing and Badaling)

After breakfast today, we hopped on our coach and headed for Badaling, one of the sections of The Great Wall of China that is closest and most accessible to Beijing. It was a scenic and serene 90 minute drive out of Beijing and up in to the surrounding mountains, as portions of the only man-made structure visible from outer space came in to view ahead of us. When we reached the Badaling Pass and were ready to climb it was cold, damp, and windy. Seriously cold. Colder than [INSERT YOUR OWN ADAGE HERE]! What better reason, then, for Robin to purchase a fleece pullover emblazoned with an image of The Great Wall and the proud slogan "I Climbed The Great Wall."

If you've been reading along, you know that Huey has already regretted not doing more cardio in preparation for the trip. That negligence once again took its toll, as, regrettably, Huey did not make it to "the top" of the section of The Great Wall that we climbed. Instead, he collapsed in a sweating, shivering heap about 2/3 of the way up, where he became ready prey for the parasitic vendors who lined The Great Wall and seemed to metastasize by the minute. Robin, on the other hand, who you may recall "played college ball [SNIFF]" and did six years in the United States Navy [SNIFF], once again forged on and made her way to the top.

Most of you reading this know that Huey proposed to Robin on Thursday, 6 March in Austin and she said "Yes." A few of you may also know that, before impatience and excitement got the better of both of them, Huey intended to propose to Robin at The Great Wall. When asked the question "Where did he propose to you?" many women can answer "At a restaurant," "At my parents' house," "In chat," or "In the conjugal visits room"; few, however, can answer "At The Great Wall of China." So despite having already successfully proposed to Robin, Huey was nevertheless poised to repeat the ultimate entreaty at this most auspicious of locales. Little did he know that Robin would make it so easy for him.

At breakfast this morning, Robin informed Huey that she left "The Ring" in the room because she was concerned about what the conditions and climbing might be like at The Great Wall. Ironically, Huey already intended to return to the room after breakfast to change shoes, but with this news, he devised a plan. He left Robin downstairs to wait for the bus while he scurried up to the room and frantically searched for "The Ring." Finding it, he wrapped it carefully in a clean handkerchief and placed it in the pocket of his shorts. Unbeknownst to Robin, he carried it with them up The Great Wall (or as far as he got anyway), and when she came back down, Huey dropped to one knee and reproposed to Robin on The Great Wall of China! Fortunately for Huey, in spite of the opportunity to rethink her earlier decision, Robin said "Yes" again, and for the second time in less than three months, Huey is both The Happiest AND The Luckiest Man Alive.

There you have it, friends: The Bada Bing in Badaling (or as Robin now refers to it, Bada-BLING)!

We had some overpriced and basically average hot chocolate at the base of The Great Wall before we piled back in the bus to return to Beijing for lunch. Today's lunch was better, i.e., there was more meat and less unrecognizable goo, than past group lunches, and we stopped briefly outside the colossal, one-of-a-kind, jaw-dropping Olympic Stadium, affectionately referred to as "The Bird's Nest," to take pictures. Like The Great Wall itself, this is a building that must be seen with one's own eyes to be believed. But until you can get over here, please enjoy these photos, taken especially for you.



We (and apparently most everyone else in Beijing proper) were clueless, but at or about the time we were having lunch or taking pictures of "The Bird's Nest," the most catastrophic earthquake to hit China in over thirty years was hitting Chengdu in the Sichuan Province, nearly 1000 miles away. Huey just happened to see a passing reference to the earthquake on Yahoo! when we returned to the hotel, right about the time sketchy news reports were reaching the US and incorrectly reporting that Beijing was at or near the epicenter of the quake. Thankfully, we were untouched and unaware, safe in China's capital. Sadly, tens of thousands of Chinese citizens and others were not so fortunate.

We did a little souvenir shopping and sampled McDonald's and Starbucks adjacent to our hotel (just to say we did), before getting ready for Robin's Farewell Dinner. This was the official "last hurrah" of the UT Executive MBA Program, and the sit down affair offered an open bar, exquisite food, great company, and, of course, CAKE!!! Though Huey was too full to enjoy dessert, Robin gave the "Opera Cake" a commendable HACS rating of 7.2. (Way to go, Grand Hyatt Beijing!) Lots and lots of pictures were taken, hugs exchanged, tears shed, and goodbyes said. It was a festive occasion, but a bittersweet one, indeed. For Robin and all her classmates, the evening marked the end of something momentous and the beginning of something even bigger for each of them.