During my recent trip to SE Asia, I joined a Vietnamese Travel group called Vietravel and visited Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia with Nguyen and her family. It was interesting being with a group of people in a country where we were all foreigners (though I was the most foreign compared to the Viet group I was with).
Our first stop was Singapore, a place I've been to before and is probably near the top in terms of favorite countries I've visited. It's clean, it's safe, and I think it's like the United States in a lot of ways sans the homelessness and drug issues we have. The feeling of safety is likely due to the harsh penalties Singapore has for breaking the law. For example, while we were there, a 45 year old woman was executed for trying to smuggle heroin into the country.
Upon landing, we immediately began hitting destinations and did a lot of walking. We visited Singapore's giant mall VivoCity, which I didn't care much for, however it was located at HarbourFront. Near there we watched the Spectra water and light show: "See Singapore's cosmopolitan four-part story unfold before your eyes. Told through an amazing choreography of fountain jets, colourful visual projections, lasers, lava and mist effects, and the most majestic orchestra soundtrack". Overall, it felt like we were rushed through Singapore. We were dropped off outside of Gardens by the Bay for only 30 minutes which was disappointing because there was no time for Nguyen's family (who had never been to Singapore) to experience Cloud Forest and Gardens by the Bay which is one of the primary tourist attractions of the entire country. After barely make it to the base of one of the Garden by the Bay "trees", we were then driven to the ferry that took us to Indonesia.
After a three hour or so ferry ride we arrived in Batam, Indonesia and got on our tour bus where we were taken to an open area with dozens of vendors. After stepping off the bus I had this weird feeling almost immediately. I realized that several groups of Indonesian people were walking circles around us and looking our direction. It then struck me that they weren't staring at "us", but were staring at me. I realized that some of these people had never seen someone of European decent before, much less one that's 6' 4" (193 cm). Some of the more bolder ones approached me and asked to take photos with me. This happened several times in the span of just a couple of minutes, and seeing more people walking toward me, I quickly decided to get back on my bus. Traveling to SE Asian countries as a westerner, it's hard to communicate just how strange the experiences are of, for example, walking down the street and everyone stops what they're doing and stares. The best thing to do, I think, is to smile, wave, and say "Hello" (which is more than likely one of the few English words the average non-native English speaker knows).
After that, we were taken to a circus of sorts where a couple of performers danced around as horses and a dragon. Following the dances, one of them shattered glass with his mouth, then had several people in the audience (including myself) feed the broken glass to him where he supposedly chomped on it and swallowed it (though I'm skeptical).
My experience with these travel groups is that although it's relatively cheap, you're rushed through site-seeing and tourist attractions so you can hit the next one. I'm also fairly certain that the travel company has arrangements with local businesses to make stops where the group is encouraged to buy something. In a few cases, it's a legitimate IRL infomercial where you're pitched a product. In one instance we were taken to place that had some similarities to a "rubber" museum, but had clear commercial undertones. We were then escorted to the next room where we sat down and had someone pitch memory foam mattresses to us. Mind you this was all in Vietnamese which was a benefit to me. Then we were taken to the next room which was a showroom of their products with no windows, no obvious exit, and sales reps everywhere.
One of my favorite stops during the entire trip was Malaysia's Batu Caves in Gombak, Selangor. The caves are located at the top of a flight of stairs containing 272 steps and 140' in height. Inside the caves are some Hindu temples (and shops shilling trinkets to tourists).
During the last day we also visited the Putra Mosque in Putrajaya. It was an interesting experience because as a male, I was able to just walk in wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Nguyen, her mom, and her sister on the other hand, had to stand in line for about twenty minutes so they could get a robe to cover themselves, because women are not allowed to enter the mosque unless they were covered from head to toe. Nguyen was bothered by this, as was I, but while traveling to foreign countries, it's best to put most of our sense of ethics on hold. Although Islam is certainly not my cup of tea, the Mosque itself is quite beautiful.
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