at Sea Cruising from Singapore
Photos and story by Brad Hathaway

High on Adventure, July 2017


United's longest flight - #001 - took us non-stop the 8,448 miles from San Francisco to Singapore in a mere 17 hours and 6 minutes aboard a 787 Dreamliner. My wife and I were to catch Celebrity's Constellation for a two-week voyage around Southeast Asia, but we had a few days to explore Singapore, an astonishingly contemporary city-state.

We used the Park Hotel Clarke Quay as a base, located as it is just steps from the Singapore River, offering either a pleasant walk along the banks or a unique bumboat ride down to the Marina area. That is where we could find the lotus-like Art & Science Museum, the ultra-modern Opera House/Concert Hall/Theater, and the triple tower of the Marina Bay Sands shopping mall and hotel complex.

  Celebrity Constellation  
Celebrity Constellation
  Singapore Art and Science Museum   Singapore River   Singapore Concert Hall  
Singapore Art & Science Museum
Singapore River
Singapore Concert Hall


But not all of Singapore's charms are found along the river.

One evening we were hosted at a Taoist Temple where the Second Group of China's Guangdong Teochew Opera Company headed by Zhan Shao Jun was staging classic performances in celebration of the birthday of one of their gods.

  Singapore Guangdong Teochew Opera  

This night the opera was Lim Li Qin's "The Lu Empress." Our host, noted theatre critic Chua Soo Pong, explained the plot and the characters during the first half hour or so of the opera and then left us on our own. It was surprising how much of the performance we could follow from then on.

Singapore Guangdong Teochew Opera

The sound may have been foreign to our ears and the visuals exotic, but theatrical conventions are universal and we could distinguish fear from joy and lust from conspiracy as the events in a 2,000-year-old Chinese court were staged. The costumes were sumptuous, the settings colorful and the stylized makeup of the characters spectacular.

As it happened, the drama of the opera was easy to discern and thrilling to hear. The company couldn't have been more welcoming of us as "honored" visitors from the United States and the entire evening was an event to be remembered.

Other Singapore delights included a visit to the Orchid Garden of the Singapore Botanical Garden and a stop at the historic Raffles Hotel. It was closed for renovation but the bar was still open to offer the traditional libation, the legendary Singapore Sling.

  Singapore Orchids   Singapore Raffles Hotel  
Singapore Orchids
Singapore Raffles Hotel
  Singapore Tripple Tower   Singapore River Bumboat  
Singapore Tripple Tower
Singapore River Bumboat

We finally boarded the Constellation for the cruise, which was to take us to Vietnam, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Malaysia. Most of the ports of call were a full at-sea day apart, which gave us time to recover with hot-tub soaks, sauna sessions and not a few libations after very active days touring each fascinating port of call.

First up was Phu My, Vietnam. There isn't really anything to see in Phu My, but an hour and a half bus ride up the legendary Route 1 took us into Ho Chi Minh City. There the number of motorbikes is reported to have nearly exceeded seven million meaning there are almost as many "scooters" as people in the former Saigon.

  Vietnam Motorbikes   Vietnam Reunification Palace  
Vietnam Motorbikes
Vietnam Reunification Palace

One oasis in that sea of scooters is the former Presidential Palace, now referred to as the Reunification Palace, a surprising piece of 1960s architecture. A walk through the public areas is pleasant, but a visit to the Presidential bunker in the basement brings the drama and pain of the final days of the battle between North and South into sharp focus.

After a restorative day at sea, the Constellation brought us to Chan May where we again boarded a bus for a lengthy drive, this time into the more distant past where Vietnamese royalty ruled from the Imperial Palace and Forbidden City of Hué. While not all the considerable damage from the war has been repaired, enough of the glories of the reign of Viet rulers are visible to make the spot worth the long drive.

Hue, Vietnam
Hué, Vietnam

While the Constellation voyaged further north we sampled some of the offerings in the ship's theatre. Throughout the two-week voyage, we were presented with a mixed bag of shows. Some, like the vocal stylings of a young Australian Will Martin, the country-western patter of Bayne Bacon and a Hollywood movie-themed production show were thoroughly satisfying. Others, not so much.

The one stop on the cruise that disappointed was Hong Kong...but it was more the weather that was the problem. Victoria Peak was totally encased in clouds and the dark, damp, dank city which can be such a glowing jewel, just wasn't for the eight hours of our visit.

Landfall in the Philippines, on the other hand, was a sunlit delight. We opted to skip downtown tours of Manilla. Instead, we traveled south to the Laguna area where we visited Villa Escudero Plantation, which presented both the tackiest and the most enjoyable offerings of our time in the Philippines. Tacky...the pink-painted museum which housed an odd and oddly curated collection of religious paraphernalia. Enjoyable...lunch at tables anchored in mid-stream below the waterfall of the plantation's hydroelectric plant.

We removed our shoes and waded into the shallow swift stream to a Philippine buffet, gathered delightful delicacies and sat to scoop the food into our mouths with our fingers as no utensils were offered. Instead, we rinsed our hands in the stream between bites!

  Philippines Pink Museum   Lunch in a Creek  
Philippines Pink Museum
Lunch in a Creek

The next day took us to Boracay's White Beach, just a half hour tricycle cab ride from the dock where the ship's tenders delivered us to a small island between the Sibuyan and Sulu Seas. The White Beach is lined with touristy shops and beer bars, but the beach itself is a delightful stretch of glittering sand lapped by warm clear clean waters.

White Beach
White Beach

  Filipino Market   Our final stop was in Malaysia - the surprisingly cosmopolitan city of Kota Kinabalu on Borneo, the world's third largest island (after Greenland and New Guinea). Its Filipino Market offers acres of stalls under corrugated tin roofs with trinkets, jewels, pearls and jackets galore.  
Malaysia Filipino Market

A final at-sea day took us back to Singapore where we boarded United's flight #002, which, due to tail winds, took only 14 and a half hours to return us home, having tasted (literally) a sampling of Southeast Asia.

United787 Dreamliner
                 United787 Dreamliner   Courtesy United Airlines

  Brad Hathaway retired to live with his wife on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, after nearly two decades covering theater in Washington, D.C., on Broadway, and nationwide. He is the vice chair of the American Theatre Critics Association’s Executive Committee.   Brad Hathaway in Vietnam  



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