SINGAPORE—I used to like Singapore. I really did. It was a soothing, calming, well-mannered tonic to the chaos that was Pakistan. Whenever I visited, Singapore was like a gleaming, neon beacon in the wilderness, promising good bars, great food and a chance to let worries about security slip for a bit. Here, that’s the government’s job, after all.

And boy do they take it seriously. After a few days in the Lion City, Singapore’s cloying nanny state has gotten under my skin, like bedbugs. Walking the streets now, with the innumerable construction detours, droning warning signs and pedestrian barriers that herd us like cattle where the city deems we should walk, I find it all tedious and tiresome. Too often these last few days, I’ve had to walk a circuitous kilometer, almost, just to get to a taxi stand that I can see across the street with my own two very eyeballs. Eyeballs, by the way, that—thanks to their frontal positioning—provide binocular vision and allow me to estimate the speed and distance of oncoming objects like, say, a car. Yes, Singapore: I can cross the street on my own because of thousands of years of evolution that allows me to judge oncoming traffic. Read More

And so, after almost four months in Bangkok and Thailand, it is time for me to move on. I do so with a great sadness mixed with my usual restlessness. For Thailand is a wonderful, interesting and, yes, often infuriating and confounding place. But as most people say, there’s no place on earth like it.

I’m writing this from a train en route to Butterworth in Malaysia, the little town that seems mainly to exist as a train terminus and a port for the ferry to Penang. From Butterworth, I’ll head down to Kuala Lumpur, and thence on to Singapore. On Dec 10 or 11, I’ll board the White Star freighter ship and start the 10-day journey to Perth. In all likelihood, I will miss the Dec 21 end of the world as predicted by the Mayans and I will definitely miss the premier of “The Hobbit.” Which is worse will be left for historians and film critics. Read More

HANOI—Hanoi! The very word sounds exotic, doesn’t it? I arrived Oct 15 after a—I kid you not—26-hour bus ride from Vientiane to Hanoi. And just as all happy families are alike, all awful bus rides in Southeast Asia share miseries. In this case, the points of common awfulness include:

  • A long trip over bad roads. Laos is an economic basket case, and its infrastructure shows that. The road to Hanoi is dusty, rough and contains enough potholes to make you think it hasn’t recovered form the bombings of the 1970s. And since the motley collection of western backpackers were all shunted to the back of the bus, we felt every divot and pit alike as the jolts rattled our coccyxes.
  • The seats are abysmally small. I think they were designed not only for smaller Asian frames, but with specific, “enhanced interrogation”-style stress positions in mind for larger folks. For instance, the sleeper seats lean far back—almost to the horizontal—but that just means the back of the seat in front of me compressed the space for my feet into a wedge resembling the silhouette of a MacBook Air. Have I mentioned I have large feet?
  • To keep the driver awake, who is already hopped up on Red Bull or whatever weird, knock-off energy drink he has handy, the bus company plays awful Thai and Vietnamese karaoke videos at maximum volume every minute of the trip. I think they also played some bizarre spy movie, but I honestly wasn’t sure.
  • Crossing the border into Vietnam was accompanied by a great deal of shouting and pointing, concluding in everyone lugging their bags through Vietnamese customs. Admittedly, this was more of a pain in the ass than “horrible bus story,” but still.

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