I couldn’t let my 4-country, 10-day trip to Asia pass without a few thoughts.
When my brother took the chance earlier this year to spend 5 months in Singapore for work, I was excited for him. Sounded like a great professional and personal opportunity, particularly for someone as ambitious in his career and adventurous in his travels as him.
I was also excited because, dude, I’d get to visit.
Finally finding a window of time where I could sneak away to literally halfway around the world, and accruing enough credit card bonus points to book the trip for free (🙌🏼), I set off for the Middle East and the Orient. Here are some randomly assorted thoughts and observations from my travels.
I left Tuesday, May 2, on a flight from New York to Dubai. Arrived there Wednesday afternoon. Stayed through Thursday night and hitched a flight at 2:30 a.m. Friday to Singapore. Met my brother in the airport and immediately took a quick jump to Kuala Lumpur for the weekend. Sunday night, we returned to Singapore, where I stayed until my flight home (Singapore to Dubai to NYC) at 1:40 a.m. Friday.
Got it? It reads like a lot. Six flights in 10 days totaling 43 hr 04 min and 21,756 miles. It was a lot. Honestly, though, it didn’t feel like too much. That being said, I traveled solo. No significant other to worry about. No kids to wear me out. Your mileage may vary.
–The first thing that struck me about Dubai was that there were no women in my metro car from the airport to my hotel. I knew Middle Eastern countries didn’t have the rosiest history with women’s freedoms, but this struck me as a bit much. Then I learned the Dubai metro has sections at the front of each train specifically for women and children. These were marked by a demarcation line in the middle of a car, hilariously so that I even saw one family where the dad stood on the men’s side of the line, while his wife and children deserted him because there were seats available across the border. I think such a women-and-children-only arrangement would be very welcome in New York.
–Speaking of: allow me to take a stand in defense of the New York City subway. No metro system takes more crap than the MTA, but I will die on the hill defending my beloved. Look, the Dubai metro was impeccable: fresh, clean, ran with machine-like precision, and did so completely driverless. Great! It also closed for 8 hours overnight and consisted of only two lines and 49 stations. The New York City subway runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, on 36 lines and 472 (!) stations. It’s over 140 years old. Dubai’s is less than 10. You don’t think if New York got to start from scratch now at a fraction of the expenditure, it wouldn’t have the best subway in the world? And we get all that for $2.75 to go literally anywhere in the city? Give the MTA a break, it’s more awesome than you think.
–Dubai did name certain stations after corporate sponsors, though, which sounds to me like a revenue boon for other cities. Could you imagine riding the 7 into “JetBlue Station” instead of Queensboro Plaza? I’ll take my commission now, de Blasio.
–The thing I found most fascinating about Dubai was the drive to be the world’s biggest and best at everything. I visited the world’s tallest building, largest mall, biggest flower garden, tallest residential building, largest manmade island, and tallest hotel. And that’s just what I had time for. The citizens seemed non-plussed about it all, but obviously those in charge feel differently.
–While I loved the grandeur and splendor (and found my new favorite building, above), I felt I got everything out of Dubai I needed in the 32 hours I was there.
–Giant statues make for great photo ops.
–Nobody uses napkins. Restaurants don’t give them to you and no tables have them. I found this the most unsettling part of the whole trip.
–The Petronas twin towers felt like the Camden Yards of skyscrapers. Opened in 1996, they don’t have the modern sleekness or bells and whistles of the Burj Khalifa or One World Trade. But they still hold up, look iconic, and make for great photo ops too.
–I also learned on this trip that I love rooftop infinity pools. Sadly, I think the lack of exchange rate prevents me from ever staying in a hotel as luxurious as this in the U.S. When the dollar gets you 4.2 Malaysian ringgit, you can ball out.
–My brother and I hopped a ferry to Indonesia for a daytrip just to say we did it. We walked around, go-karted, and ate seafood for lunch that we picked out while it was still alive. Not much to report back. Except that the exchange rate was even more absurd, as one U.S. dollar bought you 13,300 rupiah and the chance to take pictures like this.
–Had no idea what to expect from Singapore. All I’d heard was that it was a planned, “fake” city basically constructed from scratch to represent 21st-century Western ideals in Southeast Asia. That pretty much held serve. All I saw were clean, modern buildings, tons of luxury food and shopping, and a lot of people living there from other countries.
–All that said, I was pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed myself. The architecture looked unique and not at all homogenous. Plenty of visually striking landmarks existed. And – despite the confluence of Louis Vitton stores, Michelin-starred restaurants, massive shopping malls, and overpriced Irish pubs – the place still offered plenty of charm thanks to the city not trying so hard (cough, Dubai).
–They didn’t use napkins here either. I still don’t get it.
–Sweat. So much sweat. Dubai was a dry heat and I still sweated my ass off in their 105-degree temperatures. But Singapore and its 75-90% humidity would have you sweating without even moving. Take into account that I walked 10+ miles a day sightseeing and you can imagine the Super Bowl-winning Gatorade bath it looked like I took by the end of each day.
–Dubai and Kuala Lumpur each boasted tons of giant malls. But Singapore actually built a full-fledged mall into each of its downtown train stations. Growing up in New Jersey, I thought I was overexposed to malls growing up. This proliferation of Sephoras, food courts, and H+Ms took even me by surprise.
–All in all, a lovely time. But what an expensive city. Caveat emptor if you ever visit. During a happy hour “special,” we paid the equivalent of USD $9 for one draft beer. I guess they need to pay for all those malls somehow. Yet no napkins to be found.
–I definitely get how the rest of the world can hate Westerners sometimes. We can be obnoxious. Case in point: at that same happy hour, a group that included a Brit, an Australian, and an American knocked a beer off their wobbly table. Instead of admitting they messed up, they started trying to guilt their young waitress – who didn’t speak much English – into a free round because the restaurant “had crap tables.” These guys had no issue with the table for the half hour prior. But they wouldn’t leave her alone, ceaselessly throwing in passive-aggressive jokes like “well, at least the pigeons will get drunk!” until a manager finally relented and gave the ringleader a beer to replace the one he lost. My fellow Americans: please be more considerate when traveling. Sometimes we’re in the wrong. Own it.
–Saw a John Cena t-shirt for sale at a Chinatown flea market in Kuala Lumpur. Nothing to add except that’s awesome.
–Lastly, two corporate shoutouts: one to Emirates Air. Spacious economy cabins, an unfathomably deep entertainment selection, and still bringing respectability to airline food. I see what you love so much about them Jennifer Aniston. Another to the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. It was on that card’s bonus points that I was able to even book this trip. But it was also that card which allowed me free entry into VIP lounges in every airport I visited, covered my Global Entry renewal fee so I could skip customs in America, and let me rack up more points for my next trip with no global transaction fees. I wasn’t paid for any of this paragraph, but I’m happy to take a check if anyone’s reading.
–OK one more shoutout: to my brother Brian. The best travel companion I’ve ever had, we’ve now been to 18 countries together. Thanks for being one hell of a host.
So that’s it. If you’ve made it this far, you must feel the way I did after finally landing back at JFK. And probably need a nap or a shower or some food. I just hope you have napkins.