Singapore: Shopping Malls, Food & Gardens

Some of the busiest days we’ve had on this international trip so far were spent in Singapore. There is just so much to do there that we were often off the ship first thing in the morning and returning late in the evening. We were lucky in that the Crystal Symphony was docked there for three full days, and then made a round-trip voyage returning to Singapore two weeks later, this time docking for two full days. That made for five days of exploring time, and it gave us the chance to really get to know the city.

Our arrival into Singapore was really interesting in that it was one of the few times the two Crystal Ships have ever shared a docking location. The Crystal Serenity had docked there a day earlier and on the morning of our arrival, we pulled up alongside her on the Crystal Symphony. They had arranged it so that all guests and crew could move between the two ships that day. That was pretty special, and we’re lucky to have been on board when the two ships met like that.

The ship’s shuttle bus dropped guests off at the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which has become one of Singapore’s iconic buildings, with its three towers topped off by a massive sun deck that contains a bar, restaurant, viewing deck and infinity pool. Attached to the bottom level is a massive, high-end shopping mall. We would quickly see that this is a theme in Singapore, as there are more shopping malls per square mile here than any place in the world. I have never seen so many Louis Vuitton stores in such a small area! Karen and I aren’t really the shopping type, though, so we were happy to find that there are loads of other things to see and do in the city. On our first day, we visited the historic Raffles Hotel, and had the obligatory “Singapore Sling” cocktail. The hotel is beautiful, and named for the explorer who founded the city.

We then took a ride on the giant observation wheel, which is located right on the water and offers spectacular views of the city. Each car is like its own glass room that you can walk around in as you slowly make your way up and around. The only unfortunate thing was that, during the time we were there, Singapore was experiencing high levels of smoke and haze. This was a result of the plantation burning that takes place at this time of year in Indonesia. It made for hazy photos that were less than ideal.

On that first day, we also had the unique experience of trying out a fish spa. This is where you dangle your feet in large tanks of water that contain hundreds of these little “doctor fish” which nibble away at dead skin and are supposed to heal all kinds of foot ailments. It’s a very strange experience, especially so if you have ticklish feet. Karen could barely sit still while we were doing this!

On our second day in Singapore, we spent a lot of time walking around Chinatown, which was extremely visually interesting. There are loads of vendors selling everything from cheesy souvenirs to fine chopsticks, teas and antiques. There is also a “food street” there that is just wonderful. It is mostly covered and is completely lined with beautiful food carts selling all kinds of asian food. Being that it’s Singapore, it’s also extremely clean and well-maintained. This was a very different kind of Chinatown experience than you’d get in other cities. Everything in Singapore is clean and beautiful. The residents take great pride in the cleanliness of their city, and we were just thrilled with that. Even the public restrooms are spotless!

In the evening, we took a river cruise on the waterway that runs through the city. It was narrated by a guide that showed us many of the historic parts of the city, throwing in some history as well. Part of this waterway (the Clarke Quay area) is lined with beautiful restaurants, bars, pubs, etc. and it really comes alive at night. All of the restaurants have waterside dining, and we couldn’t resist spending an evening away from the ship’s dining room to try one of these great local places. There are loads of ethnic options, and we ended up going with Indian.

Singapore also has some great garden locations, and we spent a lot of time at them. First, we went to the Botanical Gardens, which are located close to the edge of town. It’s a huge park, separated into different areas like the Ginger Garden, The Orchid Garden (which is huge), etc. And then there is Gardens By the Bay, and I would really recommend visiting this if you’re ever in the area. Located right on the water, Gardens by the Bay is a HUGE expanse of gardens, parks, conservatories, etc. And then there’s the “super trees.” These are gigantic tree-shaped structures completely covered in different types of plants and flowers. You can take an elevator to the treetops and follow a walkway around the canopy as well. One of the super trees even has a restaurant and bar, and we spent a sunset at the top with a cocktail, watching the city light up. There are many different gardens within Gardens by the Bay (the Chinese Garden, the Indian Garden, etc.) and then there are two gigantic conservatories, one for flowers of the world and another called the Cloud Forest, featuring a mini mountain with a waterfall coming off of it and walkways on all the different levels. Everything is covered in plants. It’s kind of like a man-made rainforest under a gigantic dome. To be honest, it’s quite hard to explain to someone who has never been there. Hopefully some of the photos do it justice!

As you can tell, we did a lot in Singapore, some of which I didn’t even write about (including the Duck Tour, Little India and the Jurong Bird Park). It’s definitely the kind of place you can spend a lot of time exploring in. Now, I’ll leave you with some photos:

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Brunei: Sultan Splendors, Water Villages & Mosques

Our next port of call would provide a stark contrast to many of the previous ones in Indonesia. Whereas in earlier ports, we saw a lot of extreme poverty, in Brunei we saw a lot of extreme wealth, especially when it comes to anything relating to the sultan, who is one of the richest people in the world. His palace has a whopping 1,788 rooms! He does spread the wealth around, however. Both healthcare and education is free to all citizens, and there’s also no personal income tax. The city is very nice and the streets are very well-maintained.

In Brunei, we visited a museum focusing on the life of the sultan and displaying various items belonging to/given to the sultan, most of which were either solid gold or gem-studded. We then walked around the downtown area, photographing some of the water villages, which are unique to Brunei. The highlight of our visit, however, was the Omar Ali Saifudin Mosque, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Asia. It features giant gold domes and its own lagoon. We spent a lot of time photographing there before returning to the ship. Here are some images from the day:

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Kota Kinabalu: Our first Malaysian Port

After visiting several Indonesian ports, we finally moved on and stopped at Kota Kinabalu, our first port in Malaysia. We decided to explore on our own here, as we did for many of the other ports. What’s nice is that Crystal usually runs a shuttle service from the ship to the center of town. (The only exceptions are when the country we’re visiting has restrictions against it.) This makes it easy to explore a lot on foot… if you don’t mind long walks in the Southeast-Asian heat!

In Kota Kinabalu, we first walked to the local market and actually ended up spending a lot of time there. Markets in different parts of the world can be fantastic for photography, and this one was especially good. It took up an entire city block, with the stalls facing the street making for the best photography (because of the light). There were crazy meat stalls, vibrant spices and loads of colorful chilies. The people were also great, and generally open to having their photos taken.

After exploring the market for a while, we took a taxi to a Malay museum and heritage village. The village featured different kinds of homes and structures that you would have seen in different places and time periods around the country. I didn’t shoot as much here, but it was nice to visit a place less bustling than many of the downtown areas we had been exploring.

Finally, we returned to town and went up to a viewpoint that overlooks the city. It’s at the top of a very large hill that you can hike to via a series of staircases that wind through the trees. There’s a little cafe at the top and that’s where we spent the final part of our day in Kota Kinabalu.

Here are some of the photos I shot there, many of which were from the local market:

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Borobudur: A World Wonder

It’s not every day that you get to visit one of the UNESCO wonders of the world! We were very lucky to have been able to visit the spectacular Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world, on our stop in Semarang. Semarang is on the Indonesian island of Java, on the southern edge of the Java sea. We took the tour to Borobudur because it was quite the trek to get there from Semarang. Not only was it a three-hour bus ride, but the traffic gets so bad there that we had police escort cars the ENTIRE way there and back, with their sirens on and everything. They would stop traffic and lead us on the wrong side of the road when need be, so we were really grateful to have that. If we didn’t, then I’m afraid we’d still be sitting in Java traffic a week later!

As I mentioned before, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, and it’s quite amazing. Not only is it huge, but the amount of stone carvings on different tiers in the temple complex is staggering. The temple was built around 800 AD and was estimated to have taken some 80 years to complete. It measures 403 feet square and 100 feet high! I had seen photos of Borobudur before, and it was definitely on my list of places to visit and photograph. I love all the Buddha statues build into the walls and inside the bell-shaped structures on the top tiers of the temple. I spent every minute I could shooting there before we had to leave for lunch.

Lunch was at the neighboring hotel and we were treated to a beautiful buffet under a tent with a stage in the middle, on which traditional musicians and dancers entertained the diners. Before heading to the ship, we made one stop to see a shadow puppet show, which was much more elaborate than the kind I’ve seen before!

I hope you’ll enjoy the following images from this amazing place, and do put it on your “to see” list, because it is worth it!

Next stop: Makassar. More to come! …

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Street Photography in Surabaya

After leaving Bali, we sailed west to the Indonesian island of Java and docked in the city of Surabaya. Instead of doing a tour here, we decided to head out and explore on our own. When traveling to different and exotic places, you never really know how people will react to Americans with giant cameras and gear. We realized quickly that the locals weren’t used to seeing Americans walking around, especially the kind toting around cameras that must have looked crazy to them. Before shooting a lot, we try to politely test the waters, getting a feel for people’s reactions and gesturing to our cameras in a way that’s asking if it’s ok to take their photo. To our relief, the locals were not only ok with us taking their photos, they LOVED it. Many of them would even say thank you after we took their picture! We could also tell that many of them were excited to be able to test out some of the English they knew with us. People would slow down in their cars or bikes and say “hello mister!,” and things like that.

As far as the city goes, it was very hot and stuffier than what we’re used to. Many of the streets and buildings were rugged, either from time, weather, people or all of the above. We liked all the weathered textures and vibrant colors, but most of all, the smiling people. We walked around for hours, up until we felt like we would melt, and then returned to the ship to review our images.

From Surabaya, we would travel the short distance to Semarang and visit the spectacular Borobudur. More to come!

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