Sunday, March 5, 2017


It was Chinese New Year's Eve in Singapore where most of the city is Chinatown.  The Year of the Rooster.  Giant colorful roosters adorned the main streets in town.   The locals scrambled around, doing last minute shopping before stores closed for the holiday.  People were in a partying mood.   Chinese music was blaring from loudspeakers.

Our dinner reservations were at the Mouth Restaurant.  This was to be authentic Chinese food.  It was so authentic that none of the staff spoke English.   Fortunately for us, the menu was in both Chinese and English.  We pointed to the menu so the waiter would get our orders right.   There were six of us seated--the four New Yorkers,  Dianne and I.  The women ordered Maine lobster, and the cost was fairly reasonable.  I had tenderloin beef tips with Kobe sauce.  I think Kobe is Japanese, but that's close enough.   Everyone had spring rolls and shrimp fried rice, and it was delicious. 

Outside as night fell, it was a sea of neon lights and wall to wall revelers.  We reflected on our adventures of the past two weeks.


Sri Lanka is a teardrop shaped island off the South coast of India.  It used to be called Ceylon.  Today its official name is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka which sounds scary to most Americans, but actually, compared to India, it is very progressive.   The government is the oldest democracy in Asia.  Most of the people are Sinhalese, with minority populations of Tamils and Malays.  There is also a small aboriginal population.

In contrast to India, the capital city of Colombo is very clean.  The people are hard working and prosperous.  You don't see much poverty in Colombo.  The prevailing religion is Buddhism, and many of the houses have shrines in front. 

Sri Lanka under British rule until 1948 was essentially a plantation economy.   The most important crops were cinnamon, tea and rubber, and they are still important although the economy is diversified.

Several years ago, Sri Lanka was the battleground in a civil war.  Government forces were battling a terrorist group called the Tamil Tigers.  Don't confuse these guys with the Detroit Tigers.   Tamil is a state in Southern India where many Sri Lankans are descended from.   The Tamils make up about 15% of the population of Sri Lanka; they are primarily Hindus; and they claimed to be persecuted by the Buddhist Sinhalese.  Their aim was to set up an independent country on the North part of the island.

According to our guide, the Tamil Tigers were a Marxist organization run by a psychopath, one Velopillai Prabhakaran who was wanted by Interpol for murder, organized crime, you name it.  Their contribution to world culture was the suicide vest.  They pioneered the use of women to wear the vests. 

The organization's other claim to fame was its assassination of two world leaders--former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lanka President Ramasinghe Premadasa in 1993, not to mention other high ranking officials.   The U.S. declared the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization, even more fearsome than Al Queda.  Eventually, in 2009, the Sri Lanks military caught up with Prabhakaran and killed him in a gun battle.  With the loss of their charismatic leader, the terror organization faded away quickly after that, and the country today is safe for tourists. 

Kandy Kingdom

Kandy, a city of 125,000 in the central highlands, is the second largest city in Sri Lanka.   It is interesting, not necessarily because of its name, but for the fact that beginning in the 1400's, it was the capital of the Kandyan Kingdom, an independent country which successfully fended off the Portuguese, the Dutch and others, until the British defeated them in 1815 and incorporated the kingdom into Ceylon. 

Even after that, the Kandy people weren't easy to subdue, and the Uva Rebellion in 1818 created a tragic situation.  Between the British massacre of thousands, and European diseases like smallpox, the population of Kandyland was decimated and was never a threat again

Kandy is considered a sacred city to the Buddhists.  Its most famous shrine is the Temple of the Tooth and should be on the bucket list for dentists around the world.  It is one of the holiest places of worship and pilgrimage for Buddhists because it contains the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha.  Apparently somebody got the Buddha's dentist to testify that this was the real McCoy, and the pilgrims overwhelmed the place.  The Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

You may recognize Kandy from the movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which was filmed there. 


Before you get in trouble,  I want to point out the Thais pronounce the city  "Poo-ket".  .  Phuket, on the coast of the Andaman Sea, is a popular resort area of Thailand.  Among its sister cities are Nice, France and Las Vegas.    Phuket suffered major damage and loss of life in the great tsunami of 2004. 

We hired a local guide to drive us to the Tiger Sanctuary.  We first signed a waiver that no attorney would recommend signing, and we were allowed to walk into a tiger cage containing 5 full grown tigers.  We were accompanied by a photographer and a trainer wielding a 2 foot stick to control the animals.  The Tiger Sanctuary appears to derive much of its income from selling photographs and t-shirts with photographs engraved upon them.    The tigers were raised from infancy, so they are accustomed to people.

As you can imagine, there are lots of rules.  Don't approach the tiger from the front.  Don't start running.  Don't take flash pictures.  Sudden movements are out.  Beyond that, you can pull the tail, rub the animal's belly, hug the animal.   I would expect that the tigers were fed before we entered the cage, so long as they didn't feast on the previous group of tourists.  As a practical matter, tigers sleep a lot in the daytime, and the handlers sprinkle water on the animal's paw to get him to raise his head or open his mouth. 

No visit to Phuket is complete without visiting the Big Buddha, built about 10 years ago as a tourist attraction for devout Buddhists and other tourists.  It is set on the crest of a tall mountain outside of town, and the view is spectacular.  This statue of white Burma marble is enormous and can be seen for miles around.  It is about 150 feet high and over 80 feet in width at the base.  It was and is financed with private donations.  We found donation boxes all over the place.  This is the Buddhist version of the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janiero. 


Our cruise ended in Singapore, the Lion City, one of the richest cities in the world.  Its location straddles the shipping lanes through the Straits of Malacca, one of the most lucrative trade routes in the world.  Its wealth is derived from its industrious people, mostly Chinese,  who control those major trade routes.   You can see all of this from the top of the Singapore Flyer, a huge Ferris Wheel from which you can see container ships backed up offshore for miles in the harbor.  Many of these are for rent, like Hertz Rent a Container Ship.

This was our second trip to Singapore, and we once again stayed at the nearby Conrad Centennial Hotel, across the street from the massive Suntech Mall on three levels.  The malls in Singapore dwarf those in the U.S., and it is easy to get lost.   We stopped in the mall currency exchange to exchange our leftover Rupees and also some dollars.  You get 140 Singapore dollars for 100 American dollars. 

After about a  mile of wandering in the mall, we finally found the McDonalds.  For lunch, I got the Golden Prosperity Extra Value Meal.  It consisted of a juicy beef burger, black pepper sauce, a crispy hashed brown and some onion on a sesame seed bun.  The price was reasonable and I thought the sandwich was pretty good.   I don't think they serve that sandwich in the States.  Dianne didn't like it, however, so I took her to the nearby Burger King. 

We had only a day to spend in Singapore, and we wanted to visit the market where the local shop.  We took a taxi to the Bugis Village, a mile or two away.  This was the low rent district, with many stalls selling bogus (you can joke about the name) merchandise like t-shirts, caps and cheap tops catering to tourists.  There is a classier mall across the street also with the Bugis name. 

Gum Control Laws

In the West, Singapore is known for its strict gum control laws, passed in 1992.  The same law also controls alcohol and tobacco.  It is not against the law to chew gum, only to sell or import it, broadly defined--you can't bring it into the country for any reason.  This law is strictly enforced, and there is a $700 fine for spitting it out on the street..  There is an exception for dental or nicotine gum provided you have a doctor's prescription.  The reason for the law is that vandals were gumming up the works (elevators, keyholes, mailboxes) in high rise housing, and the door sensors in the $5 billion local railway system.  The repairs were costly and time consuming. 

Draconian fines and possible imprisonment solved the problem.  We're talking up to $100,000 for gum trafficking (first offense) and up to 2 years imprisonment.   As a result, the streets and sidewalks of Singapore are very clean.  There is not even a black market for gum.

The Western press seized upon a 1994 case in which an American teen, Michael Fay was sentenced to caning for vandalism.  Fay was actually prosecuted for using spray paint, not chewing gum.  Notwithstanding the press coverage, caning is not a penalty for gum offenses.  We may find it cruel and unusual punishment, but under British rule before Singapore became independent, caning was a very common punishment. 

A BBC reporter suggested to long time President Lee Kuan Yew that such harsh penalties would stifle people's creativity.  Yew's response was, "If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana!"

Gum control came up in the negotiations between the U.S. and Singapore for a bi-lateral free trade agreement.  The negotiations dragged on for 5 years until 2004, and the sticking points were the War in Iraq and chewing gum.  The Wrigley Company hired a Washington lobbyist and obtained the help of my congressman Phil Crane who was then chairman of the Subcommittee on Trade, to get gum on the agenda.  It was a sticky situation for Singapore, and the parties agreed to amend the free trade agreement to allow certain medicinal gum (Orbit) provided it was sold by a dentist or pharmacist who would be required to take down the names of buyers. 



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