15 September 2009


Big cities of the world have big taxicab fleets. Some of the big cities also have signature taxis. London has the Black Cab (other colors exist), New York City has the yellow cab (a tribute to Checker Cab) and Mumbai has the black and yellow Fiat. The universal call for a cab is the outstretched-arm-wave, just as the lighted sign on a cab’s roof is the signal of availability. Singapore, too, has its fleet of taxis. The city-state does not have a signature style auto, but it does have a signature style for summoning. In Singapore you don’t hail a cab – you text it.

The city moves people. 4 million live on the island nation, so public transportation is a popular way to go. It has two major bus carriers with single deck and double deck vehicles. The service spans the entire island. The subway system, built in 1982, is not as extensive as the bus routes. It runs 99% on time and is squeaky clean. Being the fine city that it is, subway riders receive a S$500 ticket for eating and drinking on the platforms and in the cars - even for carrying durians! Both the bus system and the subway system operate on the pay-the-distance-traveled approach: the longer the ride the higher the cost, just like taxicabs. It is debatable whether taxis are considered mass transportation, but with 24,000+ steering the streets it’s fairly massive.

Over half a dozen taxicab companies compete for fares. Most models are Toyota Crowns or Hyundai Sonatas and the colors are specific for each major corporation. Comfort’s cars are blue, Citycab yellow, Transcab red, and SMRT white. Although it is not against the law to flag down a cab, the rules of the road make it difficult. In addition to no-pick-up zones in the busiest parts of the city, sidewalk barriers keep the drivers from pulling over and picking up passengers. To keep the trade moving on the street, people wait for a driver at a designated taxi stand, or taxi queue. Like waiting for a walking sign to cross the street (S$500 fine for jaywalking), people wait for cabbies to collect them in authorized locations.

Rather than stand in the scorching Singapore heat, people text for taxis. It’s cool. Simply text a booking number by writing “pick up” and the zip code/ location, then write “waiting in lobby” or the exact spot. In seconds the reply says the length of the wait and the last four numbers on the license plate. The other day I was at the end of a long taxi line. Because it is standard practice to text, no one got out of order when I jumped the queue as my ride pulled up! It is also easy to dial. Before I step out for the evening, I call for a cab. The automated booking agent remembers my location, so all I have to do is confirm and hang up. I leave my apartment without worry or wilt as I get to where it is I have to go. Of course there is an added surcharge for texting and calling. Fares and fees have peak and off peak pricing. Basic cost for a ride is about S$3 and S$0.20 roughly every quarter mile. The standard pre-booking fee is a little over S$2.

Singapore’s entire transit and traffic scheme would make NYC’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, green with envy. In addition to pedestrian loading and unloading zones, the city charges vehicles to pass through high-traffic areas during certain hours. Computer chips on car dashboards get zapped as they pass under toll bridges that look like scaffolding. As Mayor Bloomberg hacks his way through congestion pricing legislation maybe he should look to the metropolitan transportation authority: Singapore.

01 September 2009

Angkors Away!

My first houseguest in Singapore arrived this summer. Stephanie, my sister, sent her kids to sleep away camp and decided to have a sleep away of her own. She soon discovered the best part about living in Singapore is leaving it, for Cambodia was just an hour's flight away!

Angkor, Cambodia was once a mysterious and far-away land. Some of the Khmer temples date back to the 9th century, but the earliest western accounts date only back to the 16th century. In the mid-1800s a French naturalist measured, surveyed and published his findings of Angkor Wat and the other ruins. Henri Mouhot’s journals set in motion expeditions and pilgrimages to the area, which led to the tourism and conservation we see today.

Books, magazines, travel guides and online journals made it easy to learn, plan and chart itineraries to Angkor’s temples. But nothing written prepared us for the mind-blowing sight of temples overgrown with time or the feel of cool, moss-covered stone structures built in the name of kings for gods. We visited the monuments with groups of others, yet we still felt a sense of discovery – a humbling feeling of knowing we are just a passing instant in a great, big, old world. Even though Angkor is known worldwide and relatively easy to get to, the mysterious power of the land still remains.

With the tropical forests surrounding the temples, we explored with our senses and our imaginations. We began at Angkor’s water source in the Kulen Hills. Kbal Spean is a holy site honoring fertility. Water runs over the symbolic carvings in the riverbed and on boulders. With our machetes we hacked our way through the thick of the Cambodia jungle. Our clothes drenched with sweat. Exposed to the dangers of poisonous snakes and blood-sucking mosquitoes on a mission to find the fabled River of a Thousand Lingas…O.K., so we didn’t exactly rough it on the jungle trail with our cameras, packs, bottled water and insect repellant, but we still faced hazards. When we strayed off the beaten path, we were greeted by a sign warning us of the dangers of landmines still in the area.

Our imaginations continued to flow when we visited Ta Prohm. Archeologists left the temple with the trees and roots growing in, on and under the ruined structure. We’ve been in the shit now for 2 days. The rain hasn’t stopped and the sponge like mud holds our boots to the ground. The jungle is a creature pulling us in to swallow us whole. We must find the temple soon or I might not live to see another sunny day…O.K., so it rained every day while we were tomb raiding, we never felt as if we were in the middle of a war-torn Vietnam battleground. When we visited Ta Prohm it was wet and steamy. The mud added to the atmosphere.

No matter where we visited, we always felt we were the first and only ones unearthing the architectural wonders. The people around us did not take away from the adventure. We awoke at 0-dark-30 to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat. The spectacular sight of the sun’s golden rays washing over the Khmer masterpiece is said to cure the blind. All was still except for the harmonious songs of the birds welcoming the dawn of a new day…O.K., so watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat will not cure the blind – it isn’t even a legend. Our sunrise was blocked by the clouds, but inspirational nonetheless. Dozens of people were there sharing the experience. All the languages spoken at once sounded like a song and the clicking of cameras sounded like applause.

Angkor’s centuries-old ruins are a world wonder. The temples unite all religions, races and nationalities as they “worship” the splendor of the ancient Khmer people and their art. Whether a visit is to sample a few monuments or 10 wats in 10 minutes, or if a trip is photojournalistic or historic, every traveler will pay for it the same way. Angkor may be the land of gods and rulers, but US cash is king! From entry and exit visas to tuk-tuk rides and bottles of water, the almighty dollar reigns supreme. Cambodia accepts all tourists, but they don’t take American Express.

Thanks for the pictures, Steph!