After a few weeks apart, and for the second time in less than a year, Amy and I flew from opposite sides of the world to reunite in an unknown airport in Africa. This time, far from the chaos of Douala, Cameroon, we met in the decidedly modern and western airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Amy had spent the better part of June and July gallivanting through the U.S., while I, alone and lonely, slaved away at work back in Singapore 🙂
We were meeting in Johannesburg to visit our friends from South Africa who currently teach alongside Amy in Singapore. They had graciously invited us to spend the week with them on a whirlwind tour through a few of the country’s highlights.
Our trip may have been short on time but it was certainly not short on things to do. After a jet lagged but enjoyable day with our friends and their family in the suburbs of Johannesburg, we flew off to Kruger National Park for two days of safari. Definitely one of the most memorable parts of the trip – or of any trip for that matter – animal spotting through the vast African wilderness was a real highlight.
Due to poor planning, I was ill equipped to capture the experience on film as I didn’t bring – nor do I own – a proper camera (there are some things an iPhone camera just wasn’t made for). So please bare with the often grainy quality of the pictures below -hopefully some pictures are better than none at all – although many of our best sightings were seen through binoculars, where no photographs were possible.
In addition to the above, we spotted a whole range of other animals including lions, crocodiles, impalas and whatever this animal was. . .
For carnivores of the human variety, South Africa is second to none. There is no shortage of savory, well-seasoned meats for all occasions: tasty sausage and bacon for breakfast; biltong (dried cured meat, similar – but admittedly better than – American beef jerky) and droewors (dried sausage) for snacking; not to mention chicken, beef and a whole lot more sausage for the (almost) daily braai (the all-occasions South African BBQ).
Our short time in South Africa was punctuated by one delicious meal after the next – most prepared and cooked by our excellent hosts.
When the weather cooperates, Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. During our three days in the city, we were privy to the full spectrum of Cape Town winter weather: from beautiful blue skies to torrential downpours, and everything in between.
Our tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, was partly conducted by a former black political prisoner. His poignant reflections of apartheid South Africa, and his first-person account of life behind bars, were both heartfelt and unsettling.
The surrounding environs of Cape Town are (justifiably) well known for their great wines. We spent a full day wine tasting about two hours from downtown Cape Town. The following morning, the start of my last full day in South Africa, we woke to rain and thunderstorms – the perfect weather for a beachside drive down the edge of the continent!
A few months ago, Amy and I began to plan our trip home this summer. At the time, I was beginning to worry that future airline mile devaluations could further erode my Chase Ultimate Rewards point balance. Rather than continue to stockpile points (a depreciating and unpredictable asset), I thought it would be a good time to use some of our points to fly back home in (relative) comfort.
Through the Chase Sapphire web portal, it is possible to transfer miles to a large number of frequent flyer programs that operate from Singapore including United, Korean Air and Singapore Airlines.
In general, Singapore and Korean offer superior products. However, the United website is far easier to use and provides availability through several Star Alliance partner airlines. After searching all three websites I found a good flight on the United website with two business class seats available. Our one way itinerary was the following:
Flight 1 – Business Class:
Singapore to Tokyo Narita
Operated by the Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA)
Flight 2 – Business Class:
Tokyo Narita to Toronto Canada
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
Operated by Air Canada
Flight 3 – Economy:
Toronto Canada to Washington DC (Dulles)
Operated by Air Canada Express – Air Georgian
We were able to book the above itinerary using a combination of existing United Miles and transferring Chase Ultimate Reward points to my United account. In all, the above itinerary cost 80,000 points for each ticket and approximately US$55.00.
If we had purchased the tickets instead of using miles, they would have cost anywhere from US$8,000 to US$10,000 for the pair.
Occasionally, there are some inconveniences with booking partner awards on the United website. In this case, we were able to pick our seats on the first leg of the itinerary (i.e., the flight operated by ANA) but not on the second and third legs (the Air Canada flights). Rather annoyingly, Air Canada does not allow travelers who purchase their tickets on partner airlines to pick their Air Canada seats until they check in for the flight.
I will write more about the flights in future posts, but I’ve included a few preliminary photos below. Unfortunately, I left Singapore just as I was coming down with a bit of a cold. So although the business class seats were fantastic, and far superior to the equivalent in Coach, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the business class experience.
The city of Hoi An is located in Vietnam’s central coastal region. Last Friday we flew to Da Nang and took a bus the 45 minutes south to Hoi An, where we spent the weekend. We were there with a larger group to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The busy weekend included a bicycle tour, a cooking class and an afternoon spent walking around the city’s old town neighborhood, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although a bit touristy, Hoi An has a lot to offer. Here is a glimpse of the trip in 12 photos:
We spent two days and three nights in Dimako, a town situated in Cameroon’s East Province approximately 200km from the Central African Republic (CAR). Dimako is an anachronistic puzzle. A place where people have cell phones (flip ones mostly) but no running water. A place where the heat tops out above 90°F (32°C) but young men wear winter jackets and ski caps – they believe Malaria is spread by the wind. It is a place not immune to the long arm of global capitalism; where the forests are plundered for wood but poverty remains endemic. It is a place where alcoholism is pervasive, electricity sporadic, and where schoolchildren gush over a passing jetliner but have little hope of ever boarding one.
Our time in Dimako was limited to just two full days. To make the most of our visit, we tried to see and do as much as possible. This included a visit with the indigenous Pygmies (the Baka People), a walking tour of the town, and visits with a family of American missionaries who have made Dimako their home. I’ve described a few of the highlights below.
Michelle is the latest (and possibly last) in a long line of Peace Corps volunteers who have set up temporary residence in Dimako. Like her predecessors, Michelle lives in a concrete ranch-style house, a short walk from the center of town.
Several smaller houses are located on the same lot of land.
The house is actually reasonably large, with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a large living room. There is also a “shower” room adjoining the master bedroom.
The bathroom, or outhouse, is located around back.
In case you’re curious, here is a picture of the inside.
Cockroaches swarmed the outhouse at night, but it was reasonably clean during the day.
The primary means of affordable transportation (aside from walking) is riding on the back of motorbike taxis. As soon as we left Michelle’s house in the morning (we were on foot walking along the road) moto drivers zoomed by speaking rapid fire French and offering us rides.
We rode on these motorcycles just once, when we went to see the indigenous Baka people.
The Baka people
One of the highlights of our time in Dimako was visiting with the semi-nomadic Baka people. These friendly, but largely marginalized people live in the southeastern rain forests of Cameroon.
The motorbike ride into the jungle was terrifying and exhilarating. We had been told the French word for slow down, but our driver (Amy and I sat together on one bike) either ignored us or simply didn’t care. We drove fast; first on the highway, hugging the shoulder so trucks could fly by, and then, turning off the main road, we flew down dirt roads and around blind curves, leaving a trail of dust in our wake.
The Baka family that we met lives in a small clearing that is also home, surprisingly, to a family of American missionaries. These missionaries have been living in the African jungle for years and years. They were just loading up a van with their kids for an annual New Year’s retreat in Western Cameroon when we arrived. Unfortunately, we were not able to talk with them for long. I would have liked to have heard more about their fascinating lives.
The Baka people speak their own language, so communicating with them can be difficult for many outsiders (although the American missionaries have learned the local Baka dialect). Fortunately, one of the Baka men we met with spoke French and was happy to talk with us (through Michelle).
The Baka people live in temporary huts made largely of leaves and sticks. The man we spoke with said his whole family lives in one hut that is reconstructed every three months or so.
We were given a tour of the inside of the largest hut, where the remains of a fire were burning in the hut’s center. With three people looking around inside, I found the hut to be a bit claustrophobic, but we were told that eight people usually sleep there at night.
Outside, a family was cooking over an open fire. The food did not look especially appetizing. They were cooking field mice that the family had caught using outdoor traps.
As we were preparing to leave, we saw this child coming back from the fields. He was dragging a large machete as he walked.
The open air Dimako market is a short walk from Michelle’s house. The best time to go is early in the morning, so we set out before the sun was fully up.
The market sells a variety of vegetables, meats (both fresh and not so fresh), fishes and spices. In addition, there were piles of clothing, shoes, machetes and African print dresses for sale (just to list a few of the things we saw).
The local butcher slaughters a cow every three days. We happened to visit the market on the third day and the remaining meat, such that it was, looked, without the benefits of refrigeration, like it was probably unfit to eat.
Michelle is not the only American living in the small town of Dimako. A friendly American missionary couple lives down the road with their four adopted children and a temporary home school teacher. They welcomed us into their home and we enjoyed talking about their work and their lives in Cameroon. Their work – to translate the bible into a language that has no alphabet or other written form – sounds both fascinating and exhausting. You can read more about them here:
During our walking tour we visited the remnants of an old, colonial-era logging plant. Along the same tree-lined road we came across a half-dozen abandoned French houses.
I would imagine there’s a lot of history behind these houses, not all of it good.
We also visited the local hospital which has intermittent electricity and no running water. Later we went for a chicken dinner that we prepared, with the help of a gracious local family, from farm to plate.
Food is an important part of Singapore’s identity. The city-state is home to not only a diverse mix of cultures and languages but also cuisines.
Before moving to Singapore, I knew little about the country’s rich culinary history. Even today, after living here for almost a year and a half, I remain woefully ignorant regarding the names and unique ingredients that make up many of my favorite dishes. My food choices are often based on recommendations from friends and my own rather arbitrary sampling.
Many of my favorite Singapore dishes are from hawker centers. These outdoor food courts offer a wide variety of food options at very reasonable prices. Over the last few days, I’ve tried to document a few of the meals I eat during any given week (at hawker centers or otherwise). I do not profess to be a food critic, or to even be an exceptionally picky eater, I just know what I like (most Singaporean cuisine) and more importantly, what I do not like (see pig liver and durian). But in general, I will try most things at least once.
The list below, in chronological order, represents a few food highlights from the last week. Hope you enjoy.
Monday lunch – Fried fish in a spicy tom yam soup with yee mee egg noodles.
Hot fish soups, in various forms, are popular dishes in Singapore. It can take a while to get used to eating hot soup in the blazing Singaporean heat. But for those willing to sweat a bit (or a lot), it can be well worth the effort. My favorite variant is a simple sliced fish soup bee hoon. This rice noodle soup contains a broth made with a small amount of milk and lightly cooked sliced white fish. In contrast, the soup below was made with fried white fish, egg noodles and a spicy, Thai influenced, tom yam broth.
This is from a very small hawker center / coffee shop on Boon Tat street near the Telok Ayer MRT. The queue was long but well worth the wait. In Singapore, a long line generally means one of two things: either the food is very good; or the food is very cheap. It is rare to find both. At S$4.00, this dish was actually near the more expensive end of the spectrum. Very cheap hawker food can run for as little as S$2.50.
Tuesday lunch – Chicken rice from one of my favorite hawker centers, Golden Shoe
This popular downtown hawker center is one of my go-to lunch options. I particularly like this chicken rice stall on the second floor.
This is labeled boneless chicken rice, but it is still good to ask for no bones. The juice from the chicken at this stall is unbeatable.
My large portion was S$4.50. The rice is cooked in the chicken stock and the chicken is steamed (the other method, more palatable to some, is a roasted variant). The black sauce on the side is a dark soya sauce. Next to it is a red chili sauce that adds a nice kick. Both are great complements to any chicken rice meal.
Wednesday lunch – Indian food at Shenton House
With a population that is approximately 10% Indian, Singapore has no shortage of good Indian restaurants. Hawker centers downtown are an especially good place to find quality Indian food at reasonable prices (Indian food is generally a bit more expensive than its Chinese and Malaysian counterparts). This Indian restaurant is located in Shenton House, a commercial high-rise building with a popular food center on the second floor.
I opted to go for an à la carte option that was more expensive than some of the pre-set meals.
I had butter naan, a cauliflower and green bean vegetable and a spicy chicken dish (not butter chicken). It tasted great but at S$9.50, it was a bit pricey, especially when a nearby hawker center also offers high-quality Indian food at much better prices. You may be paying a bit of a premium here to eat indoors.
Thursday lunch – Chicken and noodles from Chinatown
This was possibly my favorite meal of the week. The soya chicken was perfect – juicy and plump. The noodles were also great. I was with a large group of friends so we ordered a whole chicken.
The chicken went fast.
We got to the restaurant early to avoid the lunch rush.
My friends ordered in Chinese so I’m not sure what other foods are offered at the restaurant. However, I will definitely go back for the soya chicken. The meal was about S$6.00 per person, including drinks.
Sunday dinner – Crab Bee Hoon Soup
Amy and I went out to a famous Singapore crab restaurant, Mellben Seafood, which is about a 15 minute walk from our apartment.
The wait was about an hour but we were rewarded with a delicious, although messy meal of the restaurant’s famous crab soup.
We also ordered a medium, salted egg crab (think deep fried goodness).
It took a lot of work to get through this meal.
By any measure, this was not cheap. Each crab came in at nearly S$70. However, it served as a satisfying conclusion to another great week of Singaporean food.
We spent our first night in Africa at the Star Land Hotel. The hotel was impeccable by Cameroon standards with modern amenities and a nice food selection. This was by far the nicest place we would stay during our trip and served as a nice transition to the country.
Michelle arranged for a driver, Julian, to take us around the country. He lives near her village in Eastern Cameroon. On our trip he drove a yellow truck emblazoned with the MTN logo on the front and sides. Our luggage was tied to the bed of the truck and covered with a large tarp.
MTN is a South African telecom giant that appears to be in a fierce battle with the French multinational, Orange S.A. for Cameroon customers. Advertising for both companies was ubiquitous throughout the country with signs plastered on nearly all available surfaces and store fronts in Douala and elsewhere.
Julian was unfamiliar with the confusing Douala roads, so he enlisted the help of his friend to navigate us through the city from our hotel. We piled into the backseat while Julian’s friend sat up front and helped navigate.
The drive from Douala to Michelle’s village, Dimako, is listed at 8 hours and 12 minutes on Google Maps. The route we took is shown below.
Unfortunately, the drive took closer to 10.5 hours after accounting for traffic, poor road conditions and multiple “security” checkpoints. However, it provided a good chance to see the country.
The roads directly outside Douala were badly in need of repair and Julian had to constantly swerve to avoid potholes or slow down when obstructions blocked the road.
Our drive to Dimako passed us through the outskirts of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. In the interest of time, we decided not to stop. After driving through the city, we took a quick break for lunch.
Lunch was at a small roadside “restaurant” where we ate an interesting dish that was a hybrid of tomato omelette and spaghetti. Or maybe it was just an omelette with spaghetti in it. Either way – it was one of my favorite meals on the trip.
The food was made to order on a small stove top.
After lunch Amy and I stopped in the street for a quick picture before we continued on.
The remaining drive was long and uncomfortable. The roads were already bad during the day – but after the sun set they became downright terrifying. Julian drove way too fast considering the poor road conditions: low visibility (of course there are no street lights) and lots of unexpected turns. The presence of huge lumber trucks speeding along in the opposite direction, weighed down with massive payloads, added to the real sense of danger.
Another danger was the inexplicable presence of pedestrians walking down the middle of the road at night. Julian swerved at the last minute on multiple occasions to avoid hitting people.
We passed several accidents on the drive. These were made all the more frightening by the presence of large crowds gathering around crushed cars or toppled motorcycles with no sign of forthcoming (trained) emergency assistance.
Needless to say, we survived the drive. We had left Douala before 11:00am and (finally) pulled into Michelle’s house a little before 10:00pm. From Ang Mo Kio, Singapore to Dimako, Cameroon. It was a long trip.
Jetstar has great non-stop fares between Singapore and Yangon. We booked one way flights for less than S$100 each (for timing reasons our return flight was on SilkAir – Singapore Airlines’ sister airline). Our flight was scheduled to leave Singapore at 5:15pm and land in Yangon at 6:30pm (Myanmar is on a weird time zone that is one and a half hours behind Singapore).
The flight was about two and a half hours long but we were late getting out due to bad weather. Once in the air, the flight was fairly uneventful.
It was dark when we landed, and there was little to see out the window. A friend at work had told me the Yangon airport is very modern (built recently in partnership with Thailand), so I was a bit surprised when we disembarked directly onto the runway.
Once inside the terminal, we joined the long, disorganized queue for Immigration.
The line was not as bad as it first looked, and we waited for only about 25 minutes before our turn came. Entry to Myanmar requires an advance visa which we obtained in Singapore the week before (this is a fairly straightforward process for Singapore residents but does involve some planning and a bit of time).
There was a visa on arrival booth at the airport in Yangon but it was unmanned when we arrived. Also, it may be limited to select nationalities, so check before you plan your trip.
Once through immigration we changed US and Singapore dollars into Burmese Kyat. I had read that the currency exchanges only accept US dollars, Euros and British pounds, so it was nice to find a place that took Singapore dollars.
The line for customs was disorganized, sprawling and vaguely reminiscent of Cameroon. Everyone’s bag, regardless of size, had to go through a single scanner manned by two men who were both distractedly playing on their phones. Amy and I were able to bypass what would surely have been a long wait by simply cutting to the front of the “line” and throwing our bags on with a Burmese family.
Once through the terminal and outside, we approached two youngish looking men in official uniforms. “Taxi?” I asked and one of them blew a whistle and a taxi appeared before us. We negotiated the price to our hotel before getting in, 10,000 Burmese Kyat, or about eight US dollars. I did not see any formal taxi lines. The ride to the hotel took about half an hour.
It was Amy’s birthday weekend so we were staying at one of the city’s nicer hotels, the Park Royal Yangon. Hotels in Yangon, unlike Thailand and Vietnam, are expensive and our hotel, with breakfast included, was almost twice the rate we would normally expect to pay in one of those countries.
I was surprised to find that the Park Royal, unlike similar hotels in the area, had a metal detector and baggage scanner at the entrance.
Recently remodeled, our hotel room was clean and spacious with a comfortable bed and large bathroom. Our view was not much to write home about though.
The morning haze brought back bad memories of Singapore last October (luckily, this haze was largely gone by early afternoon).
After breakfast, we showered and changed and then climbed into a taxi for a short ride to the Yangon Heritage Trust, the meeting point for our morning walking tour. The cab ride was delayed a bit due to a morning procession of monks requesting alms.
Our walking tour left from the Heritage Trust’s office next to the Yangon Port Authority (our taxi got lost trying to find the right building).
The tour is $30 per person (fairly expensive for Myanmar) but we were told proceeds are used for preservation and conservation of Yangon’s poorly maintained historic buildings. The heritage trust is also working to transform the urban downtown of Yangon by promoting a revitalized, cleaned up city with more green spaces and a friendlier river front. There is little progress right now but our guide seemed hopeful that the new government, once fully in power, will be amenable to positive change.
The tour was a great introduction to the city and its troubled past through the prism of architecture. There were only two other people on the tour with us – both US expats.
We heard about this government building which was partly destroyed in 1941 by Japanese bombs. Little has been done since to restore it to its pre-war glory.
Remarkably, many of the city’s rundown buildings (including the one above) remain occupied – either by small business owners or residential tenants.
We ventured inside this building which is occupied by several small law offices, lots of families and, disturbingly, hundreds of giant rats. See if you can spot them in the second picture amongst the basement’s garbage.
Based on their size, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of food to scavenge.
Many of the buildings were constructed during the country’s British occupation prior to WWII. Unfortunately, many of these buildings have been poorly maintained. Architecture styles ranged the full gambit from Art Deco to neoclassical.
The tour left us off at Bogyoke Market (formerly known as Scotts market).
The tour ended around midday and the heat was becoming oppressive (93 degrees Fahrenheit or about 34 Celsius). Although only a few blocks away, we decided to take a taxi to the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue.
The synagogue is the only one of its kind in a city that has just five Jewish families (excluding expats). At one time the city was home to over 3,000 Jews.
We visited on a Saturday morning and were told the synagogue only hosts Friday night services now. The previous night only three people showed up, not enough for a minyan (the quorum of ten Jewish adults required for certain religious ceremonies).
After visiting the synagogue, we walked to 999 Shan Noodle, where we had a cheap but delicious meal of Burmese noodles. Popular on trip advisor, the restaurant had more tourists than locals. 999, its popularity well deserved, was clean, efficient and served a great meal.
By our glutinous western standards, the meal was rather small (similar to hawker dishes in Singapore) and so we headed over to the historic Strand Hotel for high tea.
There were two options: a traditional British high tea and a more local Burmese choice. We split one of each.
We booked a food tour of Yangon for dinner. At 6:00pm, our tour guide James met us at the hotel, and after brief introductions, we headed to Chinatown via taxi. We were the only ones on the tour.
James took us to a small restaurant and we sampled a range of local Burmese foods. Of particular note for me was the fried tofu made from chickpeas instead of soybeans and the sham noodles (sticky rice noodles similar to 999). Similar to Thai cuisine, many dishes in Burma include peanuts.
James was informative but not overly friendly. It was a bit like an awkward three person first date with stilted small talk: so what do you do in your free time? How did you get into this line of work? Etc. etc.
The food was all good though and it was nice having someone who could order for us and explain the local dishes. We went to four restaurants / food vendors in total. My favorite was probably a sidewalk fish stall in Chinatown that reminded me of the fish mamas in Cameroon. The fish was lightly seasoned and grilled perfectly.
We also enjoyed this local dessert which was reminiscent of Chendol from Penang, Malaysia.
Yangon is a different city at night – much more vibrant, active and colorful.
In the morning we ate breakfast at the hotel – I was pleasantly surprised that many of the hot dishes were new. I also explored the hotel and discovered a large state of the art fitness studio and two bars.
We left for the iconic Shewdagon Pagoda shortly after breakfast. The Buddhist temple is the tourist highlight of Yangon and it was especially crowded while we were there. This was partly due to the presence of a large cruise boat in port.
The tourists were still outnumbered by the local Burmese who came to the temple to worship and socialize at the famous pagoda.
The pagoda has a strict no shoes or socks policy and knees must be fully covered. I was required to purchase a traditional Burmese dress which i personally think looked quite flattering. I received a lot of positive feedback from locals and westerners alike (or at least that’s how I’ve chosen to interpret the laughs and pointing).
After the pagoda we went back to Scotts market and wandered through the Byzantine stalls, eventually purchasing a local acrylic impressionistic painting depicting Yangon in the rain.
We ate at one more local restaurant that served Sham noodles and other traditional dishes and then headed to the airport for our SilkAir return flight to Singapore.
A few other notes and thoughts on Yangon:
-The people were by and large friendly and helpful. At the market we found very few pushy salesmen – instead they were often reserved and rather shy.
– lots of stray animals, especially dogs roaming the city. The pagoda was crawling with cats.
– In contrast to other Southeast Asian cities (e.g. Ho Chi Minh and Bangkok), there were almost no motorbikes in the downtown area. We were told this was due to a long standing ban instituted by a former city general. Although this generally results in a less chaotic downtown it also has the unintended consequence of increasing the number of cars on the road and by extension exacerbating the already bad traffic situation.
– The taxis are all unmetered and fares should be agreed prior to departure.