Singapore & Supertasting

So here's my first impression of Singapore so far. It's pretty much one big urban sprawl of glass and concrete as far and wide as the eye can see. There is no shortage of shopping as you have multiple, giant mazes of air-conditioned malls to choose from, spanning the spectrum of retail; everything from Forever XXI to Armani Exchange. The streets are full of speeding cars and taxis and while there is public transportation, it seems to be underutilized. It's also an interesting feeling to be the ethnic minority as Singapore is mostly made up of Chinese, Indian & Southeast Asian inhabitants. It's not really intimidating though, because almost everyone speaks English and there are enough Europeans and Ex-pats around that my sister and I aren't much of a novelty. 

There are some green spaces that serve as a respite from the industrial landscape, which I have yet to visit but am looking forward to. The city is pretty modern with a few strict rules like imprisonment for chewing gum and the death penalty for trafficking drugs.

Death to drug traffickers

Death to drug traffickers

(However, I find it ironic that they don't want drugs and gum littering their streets yet a ton of people smoke and there doesn't seem to be much consequence for stray cigarette butts.) I love the architectural and cultural diversity as you can see Sikh temples and Buddhist temples and Catholic Churches all within a few blocks of each other and according to my Uber driver at least, everyone is pretty tolerant of each other. For such a modern city, I haven't noticed a ton of recycling, but I do like that all of the restaurants (except the American fast food joints which we avoid, of course) use metal utensils and real, washable dishes. 

I flew from Cairns to Darwin to Singapore and Jamie met me at the airport. I'm incredibly thankful that I get to stay at her flat for a few days and I even get my own bed since her roommates went back to Switzerland. My fist meal was at a Hawker Center, which is basically a Pan-Asian food court on steroids. Think of the foodcourt in your local mall, then dim the lights, double the amount of people and triple the overall size. 

There was little English and even fewer vegetarian options, but I found a cool little spot where you use tongs to fill a metal bowl with fresh, raw veggies and protein of your choice before they weigh and cook it. The cashier asked me two questions: soup or dry and spicy or not spicy. I very clearly said dry and not spicy but they took the liberty of adding peanuts, a not-at-all-mild sauce, chunks of red chili pepper and cilantro to my bowl during the cooking process. Gag. 

Hawker Center = Singapore food court

Hawker Center = Singapore food court

Notice that nothing is labeled

Notice that nothing is labeled

OK I'll admit to being a bit of a picky eater - but now I can prove it's genetic and there's nothing I can do about it! I hate cilantro because I have this recessive gene that makes cilantro taste like soap. Seriously, it's science. And my sister has suspicions that I might be a supertaster after she stumbled across some research about it so I investigated further and now I'm 99% sure I am.

About 25% of Americans are supertasters, which means we have an abnormal amount of tastebuds and are far more sensitive to taste. Particularly the bitter stuff like coffee, beer, grapefruit, dark chocolate etc, which are all things I find repulsive. We also tend to avoid really fatty foods which would also explain why I don't like meat or things smothered in cheese. More intense taste also means that I have a lower threshold for spices so a dish that may tingle someone else's tongue will set my mouth on fire. And as much as I hate bitter food, I alternatively love the sweet stuff. Even as a baby, my mom said the only baby food I liked was carrots and sweet potatoes; so much so that I actually turned orange. It all makes sense now! See, mom, green beans really do taste like anger and misery if you're a supertaster! 
(Sources: WSJ, Supertaster Labs, Wikipedia

So back to my first meal at the hawker which turned out to be burn-your-face-off spicy. I could barely eat it so my sister took on some of the torturous food as well. After that, we planned the rest of our meals a little more carefully. We went grocery shopping and have cooked a few meals at home, paired with white wine, which is hella expensive. It's hard to find anything under $25 per bottle - even the Australian Yellowtail costs over double what it does in the US - which is about as close to local as you can get here.

When dining out, we had an amazing soup and salad lunch in Chinatown and a delicious dinner in Little India. We're still not sure exactly what we ate at a place called Komala Vilas but I wasn't particularly worried because the menu was all vegetarian. Our food was served on Cafetaria style metal trays and Jamie's involved some kind of Briyani rice with lots of side dishes, I had a Masala Dosai which was kind of like an Indian burrito and that radioactive-Pepto-Bismol colored beverage was rose milk. Mmmm, flower flavor! (We asked for tap water because its totally safe to drink here but he brought us a bottle instead.) We were definitely both full for just $16.90 SGD ($12.50 USD). Then we spent the rest of the night wandering around Little India, taking in all the exotic sights, sounds and smells before cabbing it back to the flat. 

Legit Indian Food

Legit Indian Food

Statues for sale in Little India

Statues for sale in Little India

Another highlight so far was a free concert by the Victoria Alumni Chinese Orchestra that was part of Singapore's Festival of Biodiversity which we discovered accidentally, but enjoyed for sure because the Chinese instruments gave it that twangy, distinctly Eastern sound. My sister and I also have a tradition of getting a manicure and/or pedicure together so we continued that legacy as well with an Express (no spa stuff and cheaper price) to freshen up our feet. 

 

Viva Los Visas

The most time consuming and complicated part of this whole planning process are the visas. Every country has different costs and requirements and procedures and it's kind of like putting together a big puzzle. Again, a great resource for me was Visa HQ.com where you can easily find all the information you need and they can even take care of all of them for you, for a hefty fee. In my case, it would have pretty much doubled the cost of the visas themselves. However, I was able to take care of most of them myself, then left the really finicky one for India up to Visa HQ. (The following info only applies to US Citizens of course and currency is USD.) 

Australia
This one is easy. A tourist visa is $20 AUD and can be applied for online on the ETA website. With this visa, you can stay for up to 90 days at a time and re-entry is permitted within 365 days without needing a new one. I received one during my last trip in March, but I've renewed my passport since then and since my passport number changed, I had to apply for another one. But the turnaround is pretty quick, though and I had an approval email in my inbox in less than 24 hours. 

SIngapore
This one is even easier. No visa required for stays up to 90 days. All I have to do is book a flight! 

Sri Lanka
It's $30 for a double entry tourist e-visa up to 30 days, which is easily attainable online. I talked with my contact in the country since I'm going to be there slightly longer and she said I could easily get it extended there but it will cost between $60-$100 USD. 

India
This one was a particular pain for me since you have to apply for your visa within one month of arrival and I'll already be somewhere in Southeast Asia by then. I attempted to figure this all out on their website but it was super complicated so I just hired VisaHQ to take care of it. For a single entry tourist visa up to 30 days, the embassy fee was $60 and the service fee nearly doubled that cost at $49 but definitely worth it for the peace of mind. 

Indonesia
Also easy. You'll get a 30 day visa on arrival for $25. 

Thailand
Same as Indonesia, you can get a 30 day visa on arrival but I'm going to be there longer than that. My best option is to get the 60 day visa either through VisaHQ (for an additional $79) or at a Royal Thai Embassy or Consulate. Luckily, there is a Royal Thai Consulate in Miami, however with very limited hours, so I completed all the paperwork and actually got approved for a six month visa for $80 (plus about $20 for a prepaid Fedex envelope so they could mail me back my passport since I was moving and wasn't able to drive back to Miami to pick it up.) I was only originally planning to stay in the country for six weeks but I had to get a six month visa since the visa starts from the day you get it approved (which was not mentioned anywhere on the Consulate website that I could find.)  So I guess I have a Plan B and can change my plans if necessary and fly to Thailand at any time in the next few months - but this probably won't happen. 

Cambodia
Easy enough to apply for a visa online for $40, but you have to apply within three months of arrival so I'll have to wait until September. I'm not too worried since I have a three month window. 

VIetnam
Also easy enough to acquire online via myvietnamvisa.com, which is actually a third party that will get you a pre-approval letter for $19.99 so that you are guaranteed a 30 day visa on arrival, which costs another $45 at the airport. You also have to provide 2 passport photos and fill out a form. 

The easiest thing it to just outsource all this work and mail my passport to VisaHQ but it would have cost me an additional $325 in service fees. I'd rather spend that money on some delicious street food or on temple tours. The basic takeaway here is that you'll have the least hassle by just staying in places for less than 30 days, but I'm being a little bit stubborn. Overall, I feel like you are punished for planning in advance when it comes to Visas and it's a bit of a Catch 22 because they want you to have all your flights and things booked before applying, but there's no point in booking travel somewhere if you don't get approved for your visa. Que sera sera.