Thursday, October 24, 2013

Singapore, Gardens by the bay

Andrew had a brief trip back to NZ for a meeting.  On the way there he had a short stopover in Singapore.  With a few hours up his sleeve he headed into the city on the MRT to the Gardens by the Bay complex.

The complex was opened to the pubic in late 2011 and cost a billion dollars to build.  And it seemed to be well worth the expenditure.  A very good background on the gardens came from a 2013 article in the Financial Times FT: Worth the Gamble

The outdoor gardens are free and the two domes have a combined entrance fee of $28 Singapore (about NZD 28) After visiting, Andrew felt this was very good value for money.  The area of the gardens, the number and variety of plants were substantial.  They free outdoor gardens were being used by many members of the public - lots of pictures being taken and people having picnics.

Gardens by the bay

Gardens by the bay2

There are 2 large domes.  The first the flower dome, a cool/dry conservatory with garden from South Africa, the desert, the Mediterranean, India etc.



The second dome was a Cloud forest, is a Cool-Moist conservatory, with waterfalls and high ranging structures.  You could look at the views from below, above, inside.



And if you looked closely you could see the ventilation ducts partially hidden in the foliage


There was art everywhere and the signage was very well done.



Outside there are enormous tree structures and suspended bridges.


Gardens by the bay3

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Out and about around NPT

Wrapping up my time in NPT:

One weekend I visited a village on the outskirts of town and as you drove out of the city it was like an invisible line had been crossed and suddenly we were in a more familiar world again. There were people, shops, shop houses, dogs, traffic – all those things I seen everywhere in Asia, even down to bullock and cart transport. There was a lively market and there I got asked to stop for a photo – so I reciprocated and took his photo.


Watermelon & Betel

There are not a lot of big attractions in the city – given that the Gem museum sounded dull and the water fountain park only worked periodically, and we weren't sure when those periods were.  There is the Uppatasanti Pagoda, built as a replica of Shwedagon in Yangon, but measuring 30 cm shorter than the original.  It certainly stands out and could be seen from my hotel 12 km away.


At the pagoda are also white elephants.  I had never seen one before and they are considered to bring good luck.  There were 3 adults and a baby that was born in captivity.  Only the Thai royal family have more white elephants (10).  I told my Myanmar colleague about them and he didnt even know they were there.  I tried to explain they weren’t white like the paper we were writing on, rather the were sort of coloured like…me.


Even though the city was...unusual, the people were superb. Everyone smiled and wanted to wave or to say hello. Every time I walked out in the extensive grounds of the hotel the garden staff always waved at me, shyly. One older chap was very brave and he asked me where I was from, and if I was off to market. I was off to the mall but I agreed I was off to market (to buy chocolate and chippies rather than vegetables Smile)

Walking to the mall one day a car stopped and asked where I was going and when I told them, the family offered me a ride because “it is very hot outside”.  I declined but it was just lovely that they made it.. The mall was good and the Ocean supermarket had a wide selection of items for sale better than anything I could buy in Laos.

There are not a lot of foreigners and no obvious watering holes, they might exist, but no one I talked to knew any better. So when you see one you pretty much stop and chat – Hi, where are you from and which NGO are you with? I met some interesting people.

None of the roads we travelled were busy.  The busiest places I saw were away from the hotel zone and near the worker accommodation.  Staff live in rent free, government provided, accommodation and are transported to and from work each day by provided trucks/buses/transport. Once a week the transport takes them to the local market and waits one hour before taking them home. On that day it is a MEGA-market as all government employees are delivered there on the same day – and all the local vendors turn up.  I drove past the market once on that day and it was the most normal scene i had seen within the city itself. 

hotel road

This was how the road  from my hotel to the main road 1km away looked on any given day (2 lanes each way).  In the time it would take me to walk that distance I would see a couple of cars, a few motorbikes and lots of nothing.

In an odd coincidence another foreigner in my hotel was also working for the same ministry, so we car pooled. He was a nice man, but rather boring.  And he wanted to have dinner together every night. It was pretty hard to avoid as I didn’t have a vehicle, the nearest alternative eating place was a 30 minute walk away and taxis weren’t so easy. So lots of meals in the hotel restaurant (good food) making small talk and trying not to look like I was sleeping with my eyes wide open. And the interminable ride to and from work with the same observations each day…joy…joy…joy.

main road

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The office continued…

office 6_thumb[3]

The level of English in the department was not high and I had a translator for 90% of the assignment. Generally the older generation had much lower English skills as it had been forbidden to learn English for a long period, but younger staff had been learning in schools. One staff officer told me they learnt English reading, writing & grammar but that had not included speaking.

My translator was in his late 20s and was kind and patient with the translating duties, but it was interesting to see how little he knew of the world. He knew of New Zealand due to the dairy exports, but could not place it on a map. Europe was a theory and he really had no idea where countries were or much about them. Fair enough, Europe is not close and not very familiar. What surprised me was he didn’t know where Laos was, even though it shares an international border with Myanmar. Also interesting was the foreign music he knew. He suggested U2 and Pink Floyd as being good music, but had never heard of Beyonce or some more modern artists I suggested. (I checked with Andrew and while he didn’t actually know who BeyoncĂ© was he had heard of her).

People's names were not gender specific - Win Win Zar could be male or female. And there is no family naming convention so a child could be any combination of names, usually none of them related to their parents’ names.

They did use a more casual  "Older Sister / Brother" reference, like in many other parts of Asia.  Ma Ma for ladies, plus a cut down of their name, not their full name. So I became Ma Ma Pau.

With the office being 20km from the Hotel the GM told me they would provide my lunch each day and asked what fruit would I like for a snack. And every day I had lunch -noodles, rice or soup-served at a desk outside my office right smack bang in front of the finance department.  I had brought some ground coffee and a thermos with me from Laos. A month being served instant coffee was not an option for me. When I told my translator I had come prepared they made me pots of real coffee for lunch and afternoon tea. As well as fruit snacks I was pressed daily to try traditional Burmese snacks. Plates of sticky rice and coconut, fried wonton things, condensed milk cake…no need for those muesli bars I brought with me for emergencies. I didn’t like everything served up, but on the whole –Yum.

Then one morning I got called out to my “eating desk” and was served Mohinga, a local speciality fish soup curry with noodles. I had had it last time we were in Myanmar, and it is delicious. But what made it special was the GM had told the admin girls to buy the ingredients the night before at the market and make it from scratch for me. That happened once a week and one week instead of Mohinga it was local Shan noodles for afternoon tea. Some days I didn’t need dinner back at the hotel. Oh, and a girl usually stood and waved a fan over me to keep any random flies away - Andrew doesnt do that for me!


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The office

After a career working in offices that have always had computers it was huge shock to walk into a Finance Department that looks like this…


A big room with about 90 staff, one computer in the director’s office and 7 in the computer area. Although given some looked to be a good 20 years old and there was dust on them, I don’t think there were really 7 operational computers. So there are piles and piles of paper in the office. Cashbooks and enormous ledgers, which I have only ever seen in archives.

Looking through the Fixed Asset register also brings it home what reality is here. On top of the items I expect to see, there are pages of typewriters and Gestetner machines. If you need Gestetner explained, you are too young to understand…I vaguely remember them from primary school back in the 1970s. Their official government accounting manual was written in 1951.

Staff sit on wooden chairs, two to a desk, hidden behind piles of books. It looked promising when I found that monthly cashbooks were summarised into a computer database. But then I found the resulting monthly printout was handwritten onto a monthly schedule which was then handwritten into a ledger book (about 1 meter wide) About 90 schedules and ledgers representing the various locations.

I was constantly surprised about work methods. For example - the process of making bank transfers to other locations: You don’t hop on internet banking or go down to the local branch to arrange a transfer. No, finance write a letter authorising an amount for transfer and the envelope for the letter is then sealed with wax. The distant office takes the letter to their local branch to effect the transfer. Most people here don’t have bank accounts and the staff in this Ministry are still paid once a month in cash.

The GM Finance has a separate office as does the Director Finance. My translator and I were given the director’s office and the director sat out with the troops.

For 90 people - the office is remarkably quiet. At regular intervals through the day noise would naturally creep up, I didn’t notice – until a loud Shhhh was spread through the office – and silence reigned. I found out that each day people were appointed noise controllers (noise monitors was the term that popped into my head) Of course you could tell when the GM was coming back to the finance office by the level of urgent shhh shhh shhhs being made. And of course every so often there was the sound of a typewriter from the other end of the room – but I have to admit even though I heard it I never actually saw where the typewriter was – maybe it was obscured by paper piles.

Office 4

On the desk of the GM there is a doorbell. When something was needed a ding-dong rang out across the Finance department and one of the girls closest to the GM office went in to see what was needed. The office had a small number of landline telephones, but they didn’t ring very often. Mobile phones were not allowed in the office and if you wanted a conversation you needed to go outside.

Usually the people would come to my office to answer my questions – places to sit for multiple people. When I went out the main office to ask a question of one of the staff officers, their section and surrounding people hung on my every word. When I learned a few local words they giggled each time I used them. Once I went to talk to one of the Staff Officers and she was so uncomfortable. It turned out she was embarrassed there was nowhere for me to sit. But they got used to me wandering up and asking questions and wandering away and they learned that I survived without needing a chair to sit on.

to be continued…

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Quiet time in the Capital

For the last month, September , I have been working solo up in Myanmar on a Financial Procedures & Capability review project in one of the government ministries. I didn't want to post anything while in the country in case it affected my work. I have also deliberately not named anyone or identified anything specifically and this is part of the reason why there is not an overload of photographs.

I was a tad apprehensive heading off to Myanmar by myself and presenting myself to the GM Finance and then heading into an intensive review program. And I was leaving Andrew back in Vientiane to fend for himself – always a bit of a risky strategy. However I was treated with such kindness and generosity, that it rates as one of the best and most interesting work assignments I have ever done.

So first off a bit about the city, then later the infinitely more interesting description of the offices and people I met.

A lot of people don’t know the capital of Myanmar isn't Yangon but is in fact, Nay Pyi Taw – NPT. It is a purpose built city started in 2005 located half way between Yangon and Mandalay. One Friday the government announced that all the government departments would move from Yangon to NPT – that weekend. And so it was, and that next day a convoy of thousands of trucks started the transfer process. Initially families of government workers were not permitted to make the move and had to remain in Yangon as there were no schools, or other necessary infrastructure. But this changed and families started arriving – and I would think the atmosphere of the city began to change.

It is a 4 hour drive along a large 200 mile purpose built road that connects Yangon – NPT– Mandalay. It takes a while to get out of Yangon city limits and there is lots of congested traffic. There are few villages etc. along this road, so everyone stops at the 115 mile mark where there are food stalls and restaurants.

road to mandalay

As you get to the city, suddenly the barren land disappears and buildings suddenly rise out of nowhere. It isn't a bustling city, the roads are so wide it appears as though there are no other cars on the road. Apparently the population is 900,000, but the distances are also so large it sometimes feels like a ghost-town.

My hotel was in the Hotel zone, which was a 25 minute walk to the big shopping Mall. The Mall sits in front of the Diplomatic zone, but pretty much no one has moved there yet as most countries are resisting moving their missions from Yangon to NPT. And the office is on the other side of town in the Ministry zone – 15 km away from the hotel. The hotel was typical of the city – over-sized and empty. My detached villa was bigger than our Vientiane apartment.


It took 4 minutes to walk to the hotel restaurant, or you could ring a golf buggy to come & get you (never did that)

Every day I was driven past the enormous Parliament buildings. They sit in grounds of 100s of acres and the scale is hard to envisage. In keeping with the oversize, the road in front of Parliament is 3 or 4 km long and has 20 lanes – 10 each way. A few days I took note of the number of cars on the road. Generally there was one car and one motorbike going in the same direction as us, and a maximum of 4 cars/trucks and 2 motorbikes going in the other direction. (The parliament picture below is from National Geographic)

npt roads

I did not take many photos of government buildings, or the roads around them. Firstly, I was usually in a moving vehicle with tinted windows so quality was likely to be average. And secondly, while there was no obvious prohibition, it just did not feel like the place to take photos. Police stand on corners with their guns and, unlike in Laos, they DO whistle at traffic etc. There are plenty of Police Stations. I saw one with the big sign “May I help you?” in English but no sign saying it was a police station – only my colleague telling me it was a police station, gave me that clue.

Every single day I was there something new surprised me. One evening I was talking to Andrew and I could hear something unusual. So i had a look out the door of the villa and saw smoke. At first I thought a villa was on fire, but then I saw the man mosquito spraying. I’m sure the insecticide was entirely harmless given that he wasn't wearing any protective equipment - yeah, right

A interesting article about the capital and the history can be found here - it is well worth reading. Amongst other things it makes the interesting observation that Washington DC, too, was a purpose built city that no one wanted to live in initially.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Flowers, shopping & eating in Bangkok

As I needed to transit back through Bangkok on my return from Myanmar we decided that Andrew would fly to Bangkok and we would have a couple of days in the big city.  There are some posts coming about a very interesting few weeks working in the capital of Myanmar

This trip we decided we wanted to go a few new places for us.  First up however was the gentle ease back into Bangkok and a return lunch at our favourite French bistro Le Petite Zinc.  Another superb lunch under our belts we had a little rest to avoid the heat of the afternoon and then after 4pm we headed off to the central pier to catch the boat to the flower market. 

The market is supposed to be at it’s most lively at 4:00am, but we thought we would prefer to sleep at that time.  The market was still a riot of colour and sweet smells.  The sheer volume of blooms being sold and still delivered is staggering and the prices were amazing.

Flower Market 1

60 Baht for a bunch of roses is about NZ$ 2.30 or Orchids for NZD $1.35

Flower Market 2

The truck above is packed to the top with roses and bags of marigold heads were being thrown off the top. 
Flowered out, we headed further along the river to a new boutique shopping park located in replica warehouses on the waterfront.  Only open in the evenings people flock here to shop and to be seen.  It was a nice concept – 1500 shops, 40 restaurants and a Ferris wheel.  We were pleased we saw it, but we have no great desire to return.  Particularly as on our return it took 10 minutes for the free transfer boat to be able to tie up at the central pier – bobbing about while the regular boats come and went.  And then there was the length of the line of people waiting to get on the transfer boat – no way would one of us stood in that.

The next day was finally out to Chatachuck market, after years of going to Bangkok we had never been there.  Only open on the weekend it is a massive market and there are an estimated 200,000 visitors per day.  We got there early and enjoyed wandering around for 90 minutes.  It was noticeably busier and more crowded as we left.  We bought nothing except some roasted pork – Andrew was so enjoying it he rooted himself to the spot and wouldn't move until he finished.

A little bit of shopping the afternoon then down to another of our favourite haunts for dinner.  I forgot to ask for Andrew’s Massaman curry to be mild, and they served it up local style.  There was a bit of panting, sweating and the need for a cooling beer.