The Philosophy of Travel

February 12, 2012 § 2 Comments

The Philosophy of Travel
by George Santayana

Has anyone ever considered the philosophy of travel? It might be worth while. What is life but a form of motion and a journey through a foreign world? Moreover locomotion- the privilege of animals- is perhaps the key to intelligence. The roots of vegetables (which Aristotle says are their mouths) attach them fatally to the ground, and they are condemned like leeches to suck up whatever sustenance may flow to them at the particular spot where they happen to be stuck. Close by, perhaps, there may be a richer soil or a more sheltered and sunnier nook; but they cannot migrate, nor have they even eyes or imagination by which to picture the enviable neighbouring lot of which chance has deprived them. At best their seed is carried by the wind to that better place, or by some insect intent on its own affairs: vegetables migrate only by dying out in one place and taking root in another. For individual plants it is a question of living where they are or not living at all. Even their limbs can hardly move, unless the wind moves them. They turn very slowly towards the light, lengthening and twisting themselves without change of station. Presumably their slumbering souls are sensitive only to organic variations, to the pervasive influence of heat or moisture, to the blind stress of budding and bursting here, or the luxury of blooming and basking and swaying there in the light. They endure in time and expand vaguely in space, without distinguishing or focusing the influences to which they are subject; having no occasion to notice anything beyond their own bodies, but identifying the universe, like the Innocent egoists they are, with their own being. If ever they are forced into a new pose, which might be of permanent advantage to them, they revert to the perpendicular when the force is relaxed; or if the pressure has been brutal, they may remain permanently a little bent, as if cowed and humbled by the tyrant into a life-long obliquity. Often all the trees in a row lean to the prevalent leeward, like a file of soldiers petrified on the march, or a row of statues unanimously pointing at nothing; and perhaps their crookedness may prove merciful to them, and enable them more comfortable to weather the storm, in forgetfulness of perfection. If it were not that the young shoots still tend to grow up straight, I would almost believe that distortion had become their proper ideal and was no longer distortion but character. Certainly among mankind, when vices become constitutional, they turn into worldly virtues; they are sanctioned by pride and tradition and called picturesque, sturdy, and virile. Yet to a wider view, when their forced origin is considered, they still seem ugly and sad. Sin is sin, though it be original, and misfortune is misfortune so long as the pristine soul stirs within the crust of custom, tortured by the morality which is supposed to save it.

The shift from the vegetable to the animal is the most complete of revolutions; it literally turns everything upside down. The upper branches, bending over and touching the ground, become fingers and toes; the roots are pulled up and gathered together into a snout, with its tongue and nostrils protruding outwards in search of food; so that besides the up-and-down and inwards-and-outwards known to the plant, the animal now establishes a forward-and-back- a distinction possible only to travellers; for the creature is now in perpetual motion, following his own nose, which is itself guided and allured by all sorts of scents and premonitions coming from a distance. Meantime the organs of fertility, which were the flowers, sunning themselves wide open and lolling in delicious innocence, are now tucked away obscurely in the hindquarters, to be seen and thought of as little as possible. This disgrace lies heavy upon them, prompting them to sullen discontent and insidious plots and terrible rebellions. Yet their unrest is a new incentive to travel, perhaps the most powerful and persistent of all: it lends a great beauty to strangers, and fills remote places and times with an ineffable charm. Plants had no such possibilities; they could not make a chance acquaintance, they could not fall in love, and I am not sure that in their apparent placidity they were really happier. There is something dull in the beauty of flowers, something sad in their lasciviousness; they do not crave, they do not pursue, they wait in a prolonged expectation of they know not what, displaying themselves to order like a child decked out for a holiday, vaguely proud, vaguely uncomfortable, vaguely disappointed. The winds are impatient wooers, and a shower of gold-dust is a poor embrace. They fade, thinking they are still virgins; they drop their petals in sadness, and shrink nun-like into a withered stalk; there is an acrid savour in their elderly sweetness: they believe they have missed something which they pretend to despise. Yet they are mistaken; they have altogether fulfilled their function: they are grandmothers without knowing it. They were married long ago, with only a faint sense of being present at their own wedding; they have borne children as is consonant with their nature, painlessly and in quite other places; they have marched unawares, veiled and honoured as mothers, in the procession of time.

In animals the power of locomotion changes all this pale experience into a life of passion; and it is on passion, although we anaemic philosophers are apt to forget it, that intelligence is grafted. Intelligence is a venture inconceivably daring and wonderfully successful; it is an attempt, and a victorious attempt, to be in two places at once. Sensibility to things at a distance, though it may exist, is useless and unmeaning until there are organs ready to avoid or pursue these things before they are absorbed into the organism; so that it is the possibility of travel that lends a meaning to the images of the eye and the mind, which otherwise would be mere feelings and a dull state of oneself. By tempting the animal to move, these images become signs for something ulterior, something to be sized and enjoyed. They sharpened his attention and lead him to imagine other aspects which the same thing might afford; so that instead of saying that the possession of hands has given man his superiority, it would go much deeper to say that man, and all other animals, owe their intelligence to their feet. No wonder, then, that a peripatetic philosophy should be the best. Thinking while you sit, or while you kneel with the eyes closed or fixed upon vacancy, the mind lapses into dreams; images of things remote and miscellaneous are merged in the haze of memory, in which facts and fancies roll together almost indistinguishably, and you revert to the vegetative state, voluminous and helpless. Thinking while you walk, on the contrary, keeps you alert; your thoughts, though following some single path through the labyrinth, review real things in their real order; you are keen for discover, ready for novelties, laughing at every little surprise, even if it is a mishap; you are careful to choose the right road, and if you take the wrong one, you are anxious and able to correct your error. Meantime, the fumes of digestion are dissipated by the fresh air; the head is cleared and kept aloft, where it may survey the scene; attention is stimulated by the novel objects constantly appearing; a thousand hypotheses run to meet them in an amiable competition which the event soon solves without ambiguity; and the scene as a whole is found to change with the changed station of the traveller, revealing to him his separate existence and his always limited scope, together with the distinction (which is all wisdom in a nutshell) between how things look and what they are.
A naturalist who was also a poet might describe the summer and winter tours of all the animals- worms, reptiles, fishes, birds, insects, and quadrupeds- telling us what different things they travel to see or to smell, and how differently they probably see and smell them. A mere moralist is more cramped in his sympathies and can imagine only human experience. And yet, when once the biped has learned to stand firmly on his hind legs, the human mind, more agile if less steady than a camera on its tripod, can be carried nimbly to any eminence or Aussichtsthurm; and if the prospect is unpleasing, it can scamper down again and perhaps change its chance environment for a better one. It is not the eye only that is consulted in surveying the panorama, and choosing some striking feature or hill-top for the end of the journey. The eye knows very well that it is only a scout, a more dignified substitute for the nose; and most of the pleasures it finds a vicarious and a mere promise of other satisfactions, like the scent of game. A search for the picturesque is the last and idlest motive of travel. Ordinarily the tribes of men move on more pressing errands and in some distress.

The most radical form of travel, and the most tragic, is migration. Looking at her birthplace the soul may well recoil; she may find it barren, threatening, or ugly. The very odiousness of the scene may compel her to conceive a negative, a contrast, an ideal: she will dream of El Dorado and the Golden Age, and rather than endure the ills she hath she may fly to anything she knows not of. This hope is not necessarily deceptive: in travel, as in being born, interest may drown the discomfort of finding oneself in a foreign medium: the solitude and liberty of the wide world may prove more stimulating than chilling. Yet migration like birth is heroic: the soul is signing away her safety for a blank cheque. A social animal like man cannot change his habitat without changing his friends, nor his friends without changing his manners and his ideas. An immediate token of all this, when he goes into a foreign country, is the foreign language which he hears there, and which he probably will never be able to speak with ease or with true propriety. The exile, to be happy, bust be born again: he must change his moral climate and the inner landscape of his mind. In the greatest migration of our time, that of Europeans to America, I know by observation how easily this may be done, at least in the second generation; but a circumstance that makes the transformation easy is this: there need be no direct conversion of mind or heart, or even of language, but only an insensible exchange of old habits for new, because the new are more economical and soon seem easier. The adaptation, like all the creative adaptations of nature, is imposed by external influences, by compulsory material arrangements, by daily absorption in the prevalent forms of thrift and management, and yet it seems to come from within. The old habits may thus be soon shed completely and without regret. Colonists, who move in masses into lands which they find empty or which they clear of their old inhabitants, have this advantage over straggling immigrants worming their way into an alien society: their transformation can be thorough and hearty, because it obeys their genuine impulses working freely in a new material medium, and involves no mixture of incompatible traditions. America is a vast colony, and it still seems such to people who migrate even into those prosperous parts of it, like the United States or the Argentine, which have long-established constitutions and manners. The newcomers make themselves at home; they adapt themselves easily and gladly to the material environment, and make a moral environment of their own on that solid basis, ignoring or positively condemning the religion and culture of the elder Americans. Perhaps the elder Americans are assimilated in spirit to the new ones more readily that the new Americans to the old. I do not mean that any positively German, Italian, Jewish, or Irish ingredients are incorporated into American traditions: on the contrary, the more recent immigrants are quick- much quicker than the British colonists were- to shed all their memories and start afresh, like Adam in paradise: and for that very reason they stand out as naked Americans, men sharply and solely adapted to the present material conditions of the world: and in this sense their Americanism is louder and bolder than that of the old Yankees or the old Southerners, to whom the merely modern world seems perhaps a little deafening and a little unprincipled.

Compared with the emigrant the explorer is the greater traveller; his ventures are less momentous but more dashing and more prolonged. The idea of migration is often latent in his mind too: if he is so curious to discover new lands, and to describe them, it is partly because he might not be sorry to appropriate them. But the potential conqueror in him is often subdued into a disinterested adventurer and a scientific observer. He may turn into a wanderer. Your true explorer or naturalist sallies forth in the domestic interest; his heart is never uprooted; he goes foraging like a soldier, out in self-defence, or for loot, or for elbow room. Whether the reward hoped for be wealth or knowledge, it is destined to enrich his native possessions, to perfect something already dear: he is the emissary of his home science or home politics. Your rambler, on the contrary, is out on the loose, innocently idle, or driven by some morbid compulsion; his discoveries, if he makes any, will be lucky chances, to be attributed to sheer restlessness and fishing in troubled waters. The inveterate wanderer is a deluded person, trying like the Flying Dutchman to escape from himself: his instinct is to curl up in a safe nook unobserved, and start prowling again in the morning, without purpose and without profit. He is a voluntary outcast, a tramp. The maladaptation from which he suffers and which drives him from society may not be his fault: it may be due to the closeness of the home atmosphere, the coldness there, the intolerable ache of discords always repeated and right notes never struck. Or it may express an idiosyncrasy by no means regrettable, a wild atavistic instinct, or a mere need of stretching one’s legs, or a young impulse to do something hard and novel. The mountain-climber, the arctic explorer, the passionate hunter or yachtsman, chooses his sport probably for mixed reasons: because he loves nature; because having nothing to do he is in need of exercise and must do something or other; or because custom, vanity, or rivalry has given him that bent; but the chief reason, if he is a genuine traveller for travel’s sake, is that the world is too much with us, and we are too much with ourselves. We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what. In the wake of the explorer another type of traveller is apt to follow, the most legitimate, constant, and normal of all: I mean the merchant. Nowadays a merchant may sit all his life at a desk in his native town and never join a caravan nor run the risk of drowning; he may never even go down into his shop or to the ship’s side to examine or to sell his wares. This is a pity and takes half the humanity and all the poetry out of trade. If a merchant may be sedentary, it should be at least in one of those old mansions in Amsterdam where the ships came up the canal to the master’s door, and the bales of merchandise were hoisted into the great lofts at the top of his house by a pulley that, like a curious gargoyle, projected from the gable. There the comforts and good cheer of family life could be enjoyed under the same roof that sheltered your wealth and received your customers. But if the merchant now will not travel, others must travel for him. I know that the commercial traveller is a vulgar man, who eats and drinks too much and loves ribald stories; he, like his superior, has been robbed of his natural dignity and his full art by the division of labour, the telegraph, and the uniformity of modern countries and modern minds; nevertheless I have a certain sympathy with him, and in those provincial inns where he is the ruling spirit, I have found him full of pleasant knowledge, as a traveller should be. But commerce has also its sea-faring men, its engineers, its surveyors, its hunters and its trappers; all indefatigable travellers and knowers of the earth. My own parents belonged to the colonial official classes, and China and Manila, although I was never there, were familiar names and images to me in childhood; nor can I ever lose the sense of great distances in this watery globe, of strange amiable nations, and of opposed climates and ways of living and thinking, all equally human and legitimate. In my own journeys I have been enticed by romantic monuments and depth of historical interest rather than by geographical marvels; and yet what charm is equal to that of ports and ships and the thought of those ceaseless comings and goings, by which our daily needs are supplied? The most prosaic objects, the most common people and incidents, seen as a panorama of ordered motions, of perpetual journeys by night and day , through a hundred storms, over a thousand bridges and tunnels, take on an epic grandeur, and the mechanism moves so nimbly that it seems to live. It has the fascination, to me at least inexhaustible, of prows cleaving the water, wheels turning, planets ascending and descending the skies: things not alive in themselves but friendly to life, promising us security in motion, power in art, novelty in necessity.

The latest type of traveller, and the most notorious, is the tourist. Having often been one myself, I will throw no stones at him; for facts or for beauty, all tourists are dear to Hermes, the god of travel, who is patron also of amiable curiosity and freedom of mind. There is wisdom in turning often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour. I do not think that frivolity and dissipation of mind and aversion from one’s own birthplace, or the aping of foreign manners and arts are serious diseases: they kill, but they do not kill anybody worth saving. There may be in them sometimes a sigh of regret for the impossible, a bit of pathetic homage to an ideal one is condemned to miss; but as a rule they spring not from too much familiarity with alien things but from too little: the last thing a man wishes who really tastes the savour of anything and understands its roots is to generalise or to transplant it; and the more arts and manners a good traveller has assimilated, the more depth and pleasantness he will see in the manners and arts of his own home. Ulysses remembered Ithaca. With a light heart and clear mind he would have admitted that Troy was unrivalled in grandeur, Phaecia in charm, and Calypso in enchantment: that could not make the sound of the waves breaking on his own shores less pleasant to his ears; it could only render more enlightened, more unhesitating, his choice of what was naturally his. The human heart is local and finite, it has roots: and if the intellect radiates from it, according to its strength, to greater and greater distances, the reports, if they are to be gathered up at all, must be gathered up at that centre. A man who knows the world cannot covet the world; and if he were not content with his lot in it (which after all has included that saving knowledge) he would be showing little respect for all those alien perfections which he professes to admire. They were all local, all finite, all cut off from being anything but what they happened to be; and if such limitation and such arbitrariness were beautiful there, he has but to dig down to the principle of his own life, and clear it of all confusion and indecision, in order to bring it too to perfect expression after its kind: and then wise travellers will come also to his city, and praise its name.


Taken from The Birth of Reason and Other Essays
Photo by By Time magazine ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Serendipity In Hanoi

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Recently, I spent 10 days in Northern Vietnam, most of which I was helping to manage student volunteers at a local orphanage. After my responsibilities were done, I was most lucky to spend time with Vietnamese friends in the beautiful highlands of Sapa.

Hanoi in the fall certainly feels different than when I was here last summer. It is 21 degrees Celsius. I am wearing jeans, t-shirt and a sweater, instead of t-shirt and shorts, and flip-flops. Instead of blue skies I get mostly grey. But everything feels much more at ease than in summer. I can stroll along Hoan Kiem without breaking a sweat, keep hands in my pockets, sit down on a nearby bench to people-watch. Even Fanny’s ice cream tastes unique in the fall. No thirst to slake, no heat wave to cure. Just simple enjoyment of frozen Franco-Viet delight.

It is during this fall in Hanoi that my thoughts do ramble to many who say that “one week in Vietnam and you’ve seen it all.”

This is a city where you will be punished with frustration, confusion, disappointments, dissatisfaction, dry mouths, and god-forbid, boredom.

All you have to do is be impatient.

If you have a checklist of things you want to do, see, and buy in Hanoi, you will not leave here feeling happy and satisfied with your holiday. Even if you’ve managed to tick off almost everything on your list. Simply put, this is not a place for you to “get things done”. And that is a good thing. Because it means serendipity has a greater chance of befalling upon you.


1. An unsought, unintended, and/or unexpected discovery and/or learning experience that happens by accident and sagacity.

Serendipity is god’s gift to the routine-weary, to-do-list tied, 9-5 grounded life of any aspiring traveller.

Hanoi is not Singapore. Hanoi is not Bangkok. Hanoi, is Hanoi.

If you want a different experience from what you’ve been having back home, you have to live the Vietnamese experience. The overused but somewhat appropriate cliche here is “When in Hanoi, do as the Hanoians do”.

That means taking two hour lunch breaks (includes one hour of siesta), spending forty five minutes with your iced drip coffee while you amaze at the shoe-shining skills of street shoe polish-guys, who are masters at the art of making your shoes shine as bright as mirrors.

I don’t want to lose my national identity and cultural habits of a Singaporean. I only ask to become self-aware of them. So that I can shed them when it’s beneficial to do so. After all, aren’t I here in Hanoi for some rest and relaxation?

The mind must not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions. Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest


Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher was a great critic of mindless wanderlust and hurrying from place to place, however. That the drifting from location to location in pursuit of various sights and experiences is a sign of a hunted mind, weighed down by emotions and troubles. One is still harassed by the tossing and waves that hit us from the daily routines back at home. So instead of putting our burden down, we carry them wherever we go. It is something worth noticing in ourselves, when we travel.

Of course it sounds easier said than done, and the ideal form of travel (with the intention of relaxing) would of course have a deep immersion into land, people and culture. In fact not many of the tourist trails can provide this. One must then choose his travel companions carefully. Will my fellow traveller remind and reinforce habits and trappings of life back home? Will I be harangued by things I want to put down, even if just for fourteen days? How can I have a tranquil mind if at all times of the day my manner of action, speech, and thought is no different from what I experience back home?

“But I have no friends or family in these places I visit!” you say. Ye of little faith in Serendipity, I reply.

What’s the worst that can happen if you’re alone in a foreign land? That you may spend the entire trip alone? There is much that you can experience yourself in a place you don’t know. After all, the joke goes that if you can’t stand the company of yourself, how dare you inflict “you” upon others? Be prepared to be alone most of the time. Love companionship, but be at ease and be prepared to do without it.

Yet no one is truly alone in a foreign land. You will have to sharpen your senses of empathy and social being to look for directions, buy necessities, and find a restaurant. With experience, you will make new friends and acquaintances. Can you withhold judgment on others’ practices and habits? Would you be curious about them instead? Why aren’t men usually seen in the kitchens of Vietnamese households? Why are the streets of downtown Saigon eerily quiet on a Monday between 12 to 2pm?

Earnest curiosity and an appetite to learn from locals brings rewards in spades most of the time. Maybe you’ll receive warm hospitality beneath apparent wariness and coldness from locals.

Serendipity came knocking when I had no plans for my weekend in northern Vietnam, when I couldn’t help but notice the dedication of a few local volunteers who helped out our group of students, who were volunteering at a local orphanage. Serendipity knocked thrice when curious conversations and genuine attempts at friendships ultimately gave birth to a weekend with guided locals in her beautiful highlands hometown of Sapa.

Serendipity also made sure it was more than an amusing diversion or relaxing trip: the time in Sapa became an unforgettable dream.

A Parallel Between Travel and Life I’ve Nearly Missed Out On

November 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

photo by photobunny

Of all the traveling I’ve done, I haven’t learnt one of its most useful lessons, until recently when I sat down with a friend to discuss ( and of course me getting a second opinion) about life and career choices.

In independent travel, we often say that we “have the destination in mind, but not knowing how we’ll get there”. This is the novel and excitement that independent travel brings. The way I travel, say if I want to get to Bangkok from Singapore, I wouldn’t be the type to look for air tickets six months ahead. The way things are going in my twenty-something life, I can never exactly know what would happen in six months. For now, I wouldn’t want it any other way either, but just leaving it to the logos, and not fighting it.

So back to the Singapore to Bangkok example: there are many ways to do this. If I wanted to truly enjoy each step of this journey north through West Malaysia, I could take the Malayan Railway (KTM). And still within the KTM there are choices, of either the standart West Coast route that runs through Kuala Lumpur or Penang, or the more exotic Eastern Jungle route, which runs at snail’s pace but provides for an amazing sightseeing experience through the Malayan jungle. Both the Western and Eastern routespass the Malaysian-Thai border at Hat Yai. Here I might add that the alternative choices to rail (I’m a big fan of the rail, wherever I go) would be to take buses, ride a bicycle, hitch a ride (if you’re so inclined). All can and have been done before.

If I took the overnight sleeper train in Penang, I could reach Bangkok in the next 24 hours, hitting sights such as the Bridge over the River Kwai (aptly renamed by the Thai authorities). But if I was in no hurry to reach Bangkok, I could take buses from Hat Yai to the heavily touristed Phuket and Koh Samui.

All else failing, I still have the choice of simply buying an air ticket from Kuala Lumpur / Penang to Bangkok. The destination and journey remains the same: Singapore – Bangkok. The adventure and meaning lies in not planning out exactly how I’ll get there, but to actually do as the situation and circumstances fit. What if I make new friends along the route and decide to explore Koh Samui instead of rushing to Bangkok? I can do that.

I wondered why I never thought of life in those terms: of having a destination in mind, yes, but realizing that there are a multitude of possibilities to get there. Maybe its because I’ve always preferred to think of life not as a destination, but more of a piece of music, not intent of getting to the end, but enjoying every moment of it, whatever it may give. The analogy of life as music and dance hits me hard and I would love to write more about this someday.

The more I put thought to this, the more I realize it is the best and possibly the only way of avoiding what Robert Greene calls “tactical hell” when living out one’s own life. To think of the larger plan, the grand strategy, rather than being mired in the miniscule battles and events that we deal with everyday.

Not every battle needs to be fought, not one particular mode of travel needs to be taken for me to get to my destination, to achieve my “grand-plan”. I pick and choose my battles, can do them at a later time, or avoid it completely, as long as they all bring me somewhat closer.

If I can just keep this in mind I might just save myself the grief and pain of worrying about career  and life choices I make. I would still put thought into them, but instead of worries, all I need to keep in mind is: Whatever I choose to spend my time and effort on, so long as it puts me closer to where I want to go at the end of the day(s).

Life is too short to be spent worrying.

(Thanks to Shannon Low for inspiring this post)

Cities and Ambition

November 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Unless you’re sure what you want to do and where the leading center for it is, your best bet is probably to try living in several places when you’re young. You can never tell what message a city sends till you live there, or even whether it still sends one.

Often your information will be wrong: I tried living in Florence when I was 25, thinking it would be an art center, but it turned out I was 450 years too late.”

-Paul Graham, “Cities and Ambition

Bhutan: What I Really Know About the Country, and Why I’d Like To Visit

October 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

Photo by Marina & Enrique

“The Bhutanese do not reject their cultural and spiritual heritage in favor of modern imported values. Never having been colonized, always fiercely independent and proud of their traditions, they see no need to adopt ideas simply because they come from more developed and powerful countries. Using common sense, they accept only those concepts that help them improve their way of life and develop their country within the framework of their own traditions without destroying either the spirit or the environment.”

-Francoise Pommaret, Bhutan

Dreams of world travel, reading up stories of adventure, an inner desire to seek unfamiliar lands and people have prompted me to, more than once, sit down at a table with a blank piece of paper with the intention of drafting a list of countries I’d like to visit. They say exclusivity makes the forbidden fruit even sweeter. It then made sense why Bhutan might be on the top of my want-to-visit country list.

At the expense of making myself sound like a mumbling fool, the  frog-in-the-well, I’ll rattle off what I know about the country, at the top of my head. Without consulting either Google, the Internets, or any physical text that would have been handy.

-Buddhism plays a major part of the everyday life of every Bhutanese citizen, be it domestic, administrative, or political affairs. This is in contrast to my often-visited Vietnam, whose population’s alignment to the varying religions of Buddhism, Catholicism, and the eccentric Cao Daism stops short when it comes to political and administrative matters. i.e when it comes to that, bureaucrats are atheist in method.

-Bhutan uses GNH: Gross National Happiness as a measure of socio-economic progress, as opposed to the commonly used GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or GNP (Gross National Product)

-Immigration and tourism is heavily regulated in Bhutan, as part of its beliefs and policies of preserving its cultural and ideological heritage. This minimizes the downside that foreign influences bring.

-Bhutan is transitioning into a constitutional monarchy, even though its populace is reluctantly agreeing to this change proposed by the King himself. A testament to the respect and trust they have for their monarchs over the generations

-The country often appears on the “world’s poorest” or “Poverty-stricken” country lists, but don’t be fooled- Bhutan’s people, while having to work to the sweat of their brows, are some of the world’s happiest people. Thus the paradox that they simultaneously appear on “World’s Happiest / Contented” lists.

-Archery competitions amongst villages are a longstanding tradition in Bhutan. Rudimentary bows are used to shoot arrows over incredible distances, at targets equally incredible. These targets are smaller than your city’s STOP signs, with concentric circles painted on them. A celebratory dance by the scoring team is expected should an arrow land on the target. Women from the opposing village are allowed to jeer and use vocal taunts to distract archers as he lines up his shot. Sort of like the opposing team waving banners and whatnots during a basketball free-throw, but much more in-your-face.

-It costs a minimum of US$200 a day to visit Bhutan as a tourist: this covers food, lodging and other travel expenses. This amount fluctuates slightly during peak and off peak tourist seasons.

-The only other way of entering the country is by invitation. My question: Invitation? Do invites come from the country’s civil servants and other VIP? Or are ordinary Bhutanese folk entitled to hand out invitations to their homes as well?

Anyone has a Bhutanese friend to introduce?

Making Peace With My History: A Tale of Two Cities and Two Avenues

September 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Its 8:15pm here in Saigon, Vietnam. Just like in Singapore, my shirt immediately becomes a rag after a 15 minute walk along the heart of this city. Arguably, the main artery of this heart would be the main street Dong Khoi (Uprising) or what used to be known as the rue Catinat.

Top: rue Catinat in the 1950’s courtesy of Saïgon Vietnam

Bottom: Dong Khoi, in 2010

The rue Catinat It got its name from the French: Admiral-Governor de la Grandièrele on February 1st, 1865, in honor of the corvette ‘Catinat’ (Nicholas Catinat was Maréchal of France from 1637 to 1712), which had taken part in the attack of 1856 at Tourane (Da Nang), and 1859 in Saigon.

Along this street, I wanted to retrace Graham Greene’s Saigon of 1955. Much of its world famous hotels seem intact: The Municipal Theatre, the Continental Hotel, the Majestic. The 60’s war-famous relics: the Caravelle, the former haunt of the press corps and site of the daily news briefing during the American War in Vietnam. And the Rex, with its famous rooftop bar, are still there too.

A few things are noticeably missing however: its landmark cafes. The Givral, and Eden Centre building, where Greene wrote The Quiet American, has been boarded up, its fate is to join one of the numerous featureless shopping malls along this famous street. I was told of its French tradition, with fresh pastries, collared waiters and elaborate portions of ice cream.

I shook myself from my poolside lethargy. A gin and tonic down at the Givral Cafe was on my mind. That hospitable old establishment occupies a corner on Lam Son Square just a few doors down from the Continental Hotel and directly opposite the Municipal Theatre. Always a good spot for keeping an eye on downtown doings, the cafe had been one of the chief rumor mills during the war.
-Paul Martin, Land of the ascending dragon: Rediscovering Vietnam

The Brodard Café, too, has been replaced by the Australian coffee chain Gloria Jeans. Maybe it is some consolation that it still exists as its original function of providing light eats and respite from the blazing Saigon sun.

Top: The famous Brodard Cafe in the 1950’s courtesy of Saïgon Vietnam

Bottom: The Brodard Gloria Jeans today

But beyond its façade of buildings, my guess from pictures is that little remains or resembles the Graham Greene Saigon. Indeed, I shouldn’t be using the term “Sai Gon”, since the city’s bureaucrats go by its official name Ho Chi Minh City. HCMC certainly is modernizing fast: its old is under threat and to be replaced by the new. Yet its modernization and pace of revamp can hardly compare to what was once Britain’s crown jewel of the East: Singapore.

Just like Vietnam, here in Singapore, things we need to keep and conserve are not immediately obvious sometimes. Some actually become easy targets for removal and change.

I had a chat with Derek Sivers when he visited Singapore recently, taking in the city’s offerings for a week. During our conversation, he mentions of a major complaint that many Westerners have of Singapore, that he does not share. That Singapore is faceless, cultureless, everything so bland, and metropolis-like.

Derek found it absurd that a young nation like ours should be subject to those claims. Having been to various cities in Brazil recently,he found that the country had a unifying culture. Many of its little cities didn’t have their own “unique culture” either, but shared a common heritage with the nation (and sometimes the continent) as a whole. (read: The Motorcycle Diaries)

Then why should Singapore be any different? If one looks at the bigger picture, you will see that the whole of Southeast Asia has a shared heritage, even if we’re made up of many different nations.

Granted, we’re a nation of our own, independent since 1965, have the most thriving economy in the region, most modern, etc. etc. But if we were to build any lasting heritage and culture of our own, it will take time. Lots of it.

I find it curious though, we’ve done the opposite for our physical heritage. We’ve left very little legacy since the 1960’s. (Not that I’m that old to know…) Has short-sightedness and alternative priorities removed much of it?

Here in Singapore, anything colonial or Peranakan, is easily identified as “for preservation”. Not so obvious are the buildings of our founding years. I still have fond memories of our old National Library at Stamford Road. Its closure and removal for a “Fort Canning Tunnel” was met with anger and sadness for many Singaporeans. Who has the final word on a country’s future physical landscape?

We’re left with a gaudy monstrosity (IMHO) of a building on North Bridge Road instead.

Left: Singapore National Library at Stamford Road in the 1960’s

Right: The new building on North Bridge Road today, courtesy of  xcode

Along with the Bugis Junction “mall”, the new National Library Building sticks out like a sore thumb on this historic street, against the Raffles Hotel, Sultan Mosque, and Chjimes.

The next not-too-obvious historic piece on North Bridge Road I’d like some attention on would be Capitol Theatre, opposite the oldest cathedral in Singapore: St Andrew’s.

Top: Capitol Building in the 1950’s

Bottom Left: Capitol Building today

Bottom Right: Capitol Theatre (behind the Building) today, in limbo

From Infopedia Singapore:

Capitol Theatre, later known as Capitol Cinema, located at the junction of Stamford Road and North Bridge Road, is of neo-classical architecture. It was completed in 1930 and served as a theatre until the 1940s when the Shaw Organisation turned it into a cinema. The adjacent four-storey building was completed in 1933.

Cinema History
Shaw Organisation, a cinema giant of the time, bought over the building for S$3 million in 1946 and the theatre became its flagship. The 1950s saw the introduction of the Capitol Restaurant that housed the Blue Room, a function room which served as a refuge for local bands. An American band led by Danny Danford performed for its opening. The famous zodiac mosaic on the high ceiling of the dome interior was installed in the mid-1960s. The pair of maidens on white unicorns added to the beauty of Capitol Cinema. This became the legendary symbols of the cinema.

Cinema-goers of the time frequented the Capitol Cinema for dates and social gatherings. Apart from catching a movie, they also enjoyed a variety of performances. Foreign and local entertainers often unleashed their performances before movies were screened. At other times, these performances took over the film screenings. The Magnolia Snack Bar was the answer to filmgoers who looked to satisfying their taste buds. Serving tasty milkshakes and delicious set lunches, this café has shared the glory of the old cinema.

What is the fate of the legendary Capitol Theatre then? Let’s hope it doesn’t go the way of Bugis Street.

I would have never looked at North Bridge Road this way, if not for visiting Saigon and tracing down the old rue Catinat, now Dong Khoi. Singapore’s North Bridge Road is cousin to Saigon’s Dong Khoi. Avenues that once was a display of European colonial power, their dominion over the local populace, that now remains with some of the country’s most famous and prominent landmarks. Yet also the target for infinite changes.

What about Orchard Road you say? That as the heart of our city? Never mention Orchard Road, for what we know of it today is symbolic of the Plastic Singapore Lifestyle. All that is false, decadent, fat, and complacent.

Let me indulge in a little mysticism, to say that the recent floods that hit the area is symbolic of the faults of our lifestyles. I love the country, but have full contempt of some elements of our culture.

Yet when I speak of cultural preservation and change, I should really put things into perspective. A country’s culture and tradition is always changing. Man lives 70- 100 years or so, but the history of a civilization can be a few thousand. I might be complaining of losing our physical environment, but what would future generations, say 100 years later, say of today, comparing it to their time?

How To Spend A Day In Saigon: Elephant Feet Fetish and Other Bizzaro

August 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

Hotel De Ville / The People’s Committee Building on a Saturday night…. no you can’t go in there.

If you want to enjoy yourself in a hectic city with a heavy motorbike-esque culture like Hanoi or Saigon, the most important thing is not to do too much. Find little spaces around the city to sit, relax, drink, eat, read, write, and think.

Of course, go see the Notre Dame cathedral, walk along Dong Khoi (ex. Rue Catinat) during siesta time (12-2pm), drop into one of those chic fashion boutiques or dusty old bookstore. But you might find that it all becomes too much. The mid-day heat and the honking streets may test your mental well-being, and you find your knickers in a twist.

If so, seek out a little Franco-Vietnamese ice-cream cafe along Ton That Thiep street, order yourself a triple ( 38 flavors to choose from), sit back, enjoy, and watch the Saigonites, and “how the other side lives”.

Watch out for the pretty Vietnamese girls zoom by in their day-glo yellow Vespas, matching white helmets, red heels, and oh-so-short skirts.

A Day At Museums in Saigon

On my last day in Saigon, I wake up with the intention to do the following:

8:00 am: War Remnants Museum

9:30am: Visit Notre Dame Cathedral

10:30am: Reunification Palace  (aka Presidential Palace)


After some light breakfast ( Vietnamese street sandwich baguette), I pedal my way to the museum. Damn I love two wheels.  The war remnants museum is purportedly the most popular museum in Saigon, but I don’t understand why. Not that the museum isn’t any good. It actually is enlightening and shocking. Halfway through Tim Page’s Requiem Photographic Exhibition on the first floor, I thought I was lapsing into a migraine attack, and couldn’t see clearly what was in front of me. It might have been the leftover fatigue of cycling in the Mekong, but I’d like to think the photographs of the “American war” were some of the most extraordinary, revelatory, and rarely seen outside of  Vietnam.

Then I come across this:

Foreboding stuff. Graham Greene-esque. Can anyone verify it?


A few turns around Pasteur avenue (one of the few remaining French street names in Saigon), I find the famous Notre Dame cathedral, and the end of Sunday service. I park the bike, and wander into the cathedral, I realize Saigon has a sizeable Filipino population. A while later at a Pho restaurant I will be amazed at their mastery of the Vietnamese language. Impressive.

This place has some beautiful stained glass.


Church closes its doors early, so I two-wheel my way to the Presidential Palace. Now I have trouble finding this place because I keep circling around the back of it. Dammit I mistook it for a tennis club! The place has three tennis courts in its sprawling grounds. But I make my way into the bike parking anyways. A quick flip to my Lonely Planet: Vietnam and it says:


Time has stood still here since 30 April 1975, a slightly scary thought. The striking modern architecture and the slightly eerie feelign you get as you walk through its deserted halls make Reunifcation Palace one of the most fascinating sights in HCMC…

From the looks of it, it sure feels I’m in the 70’s all right.

It’s like a time warp now…

And of course the local girls had to take the obligatory group shot of the president’s bizzare collection of taxidermy and Elephant’s feet fetish.

But I went up to the fourth floor, and lo and behold, the highlight of the visit: the President’s swanky chic games room.

Complete with a Mahjong game they left unfinished yesterday?

How decadent were they in the 70’s? So very un-Vietnamese, but yet very Vietnamese. Probably would have been a great episode of MTV Cribs never made.


Here’s an interesting article about the Reunification Palace in the New York Times

Stay tuned for a detailed write up on my Mekong adventure…

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