We were soon to leave the island state of Singapore to return to Malaysia, but first we enjoyed a last breakfast on the terrace outside The Line. There was no more rain. Isn’t that typical? It had rained off and on the whole time we’d been in Singapore but on our day of departure the sun decided to shine.
As Monsieur buried his nose deep in a newspaper, keen for an update on world events, I dashed around with my camera, snapping the lush surrounds without raindrops distorting the view of the lens. The three-hole putting green amused me; too small to be of any real use, and vaguely decorative, I suppose… As I pondered the wannabe pro golfers who might find it a beneficial amenity, the mysterious mist rising from a valley in the gardens lured me away. Following the quiet path, I found at its end a gazebo overflowing with orchids and tropical flowering plants. It was a florist’s own Shangri La. I managed to snap a few pics of the stunning flowers, colours clashing happily in the shade and a testament to a loving gardener. Then I heard Monsieur calling. It was time to go.
We checked out and walked straight into a cab that was waiting for us, bags already loaded in the boot. Now, that’s what I call efficient. As we drove through Singapore to the Lavender Road bus station, it felt a bit sad to be leaving with so much still to see, but we didn’t have time for regrets. It was now Melaka’s turn to enthrall us.
The bus was full this time. Italian girls chattered away on the back seat as Chinese families unwrapped home-made snacks, bringing forth aromas of chilli, soy, noodles and a sniff of something fishy. Once more we cleared customs twice before zooming along the Malaysian jungle highways. There wasn’t a lot to see. Just trees, a straight road and clear blue sky. We made one rest stop at a small clutch of uninspiring roadside buildings. This time, I did not visit the ladies’ room. I didn’t need to, and didn’t think I could stomach it alongside the pervasive cooking smell from an adjacent noodle bar. Instead, Monsieur and I basked in the warm day, stretching our legs in anticipation of the last stretch of journey.
As we neared Melaka, we drove past a large man-made waterfall gushing water over perfect rock formations. Then I heard ‘Hey Mambo’ playing. At first it sounded like a ringtone and I silently cursed the owner of the offending mobile. The music got louder. It wasn’t a phone, after all; it was the bus’s sound system.
‘Hey, mambo! Mambo italiano
Go, go, go you mixed up siciliano
All you calabraise-a do the mambo like a crazy with a…’
and, joy of joys, for all the Rosemary Clooney fans out there, it continued on a loop:
‘Hey mambo, don’t wanna tarantella
Hey mambo, no more a mozzarella
Hey mambo! Mambo italiano!’ and on…and on…and on it went. We were stuck in a traffic jam for ages, but that’s okay. We could mambo our way into Melaka!
By the time we reached the Sentral bus station, we were just a little bit mamboed out. The station itself was a modern hub of shops, stalls and ticket counters. There were racks of colourful headscarves next to bright plastic toys and snack stands. Locals and travellers milled around waiting for buses to somewhere else. Monsieur and I dragged our bags to a cab. Boy, did we ever have a friendly driver. He wasted no time finding out what we were about.
“You on honeymoon?” Not exactly. “No, we’re just on holiday.” we replied. Driver beamed a smile as warm as the sun outside. “You like Malaysia?” he asked. “Yes, we love it. It’s a fascinating country.” I enthused. If possible, Driver’s smile widened. He was obviously proud of his homeland. A brief but searching Malaysian Inquisition commenced, covering our itinerary, where we’d been so far and where we were headed next.
“You return to Malaysia one day? Maybe on honeymoon?” Ah, how to answer this one without Monsieur running off for the Cameron Highlands. “Yes, definitely, we’d love to come back.” That satisfied Driver for the moment. Now it was my turn to interrogate. “What’s your favourite food?” I asked. A menu of dishes tripped off Driver’s tongue. “I like pineapple fried rice, sweet and sour chicken with pineapple, seafood with pineapple, Singapore noodles with pineapple, and fresh pineapple.” Wow. My mother likes a good Hawaiian pizza from time to time, but this was pineapple overdrive. The man was in the wrong business. He should be working for Dole in Hawaii.
“Ah, see that place there?” Driver asked, pointing at a humble-looking tented hawker stall with a dozen white plastic table sets surrounding it, “you eat golf balls there. Best golf balls, haha.” He laughed at his own joke, creasing his happy eyes almost closed in mirth. “Hainanese chicken rice balls. I call them golf balls because they look like golf balls.” he chortled. Driver’s humour was infectious. I giggled along with him.
Soon we reached the hotel and removed our bags from the boot. The driver shook our hands warmly. “You each gain six kilo before you leave Malaysia,” he instructed, “or we not welcome you back, haha!”
Even if we did not know it at the time, our gaining weight was not to be a problem.
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Monsieur and I left the bowling ball bullfrog behind on Clarke Quay as we jumped on a bumboat (a.k.a. junk) to take us up the Singapore River. It was late afternoon grey as our almost empty boat set off from the jetty. Up the green river we went, under the pedestrian Riverwalk bridge and adjacent North Bridge Road, heavy with traffic, then on past a bustling Boat Quay already busy with diners at its myriad eateries.
The stunning Fullerton Hotel, rival to Raffles, impressed in full Palladian splendour at its prime position on the river as we motored on by. We doubled back near Merlion Park where a 70 tonne mythical animal (head of lion, body of fish) stands guarding the river. (This beast is called a ‘merlion’, hence the park’s name.) Close by, the skyscrapers of the business district loomed large above us, the neon signs of the world’s biggest banks recognisable against the now darkening sky, but it was difficult to take photos as the boat churned and chugged on the busy river. Every image blurred.
En route back to our starting point, we passed the Raffles Landing Site, with an impressive statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (July 6 1781 – July 5 1826), himself, looking down on us, specks on the water. He was the acknowledged father of Singapore as we know it, but outside of this island nation is probably best known for the hotel of his name. A little further along we saw the colonial style of Old Parliament House next to the stark modern equivalent before returning to Clarke Quay and its Friday night revellers.
We alighted at the same platform where we’d left the bowling ball bullfrog and I was hoping to see him again, but I guess it was his Friday night, too, so he’d no doubt gone for a Bud – weis – errrrrrrrrrr.
As we walked along Clarke Quay, we noticed the many different styles of restaurant luring people out for a treat. There was the eponymous select-your-dinner-from-the-tank type of eatery, next to ethno-cool, with traditional Chinese dining rooms standing, lanterns waving, in between. Perched riverside were the off-shoot bars of some of the hipper restaurants, smart square umbrellas raised lest rain should threaten a steamy night of cocktails by the water. One such place heaved with be-suited boys from the C.B.D., attracted, no doubt, by the waitresses – slim Chinese beauties sporting bright orange hot pants. Monsieur’s jaw hit the floor but I refrained from hitting him. Just.
We wandered across the pedestrian Riverwalk Bridge before jumping around in the unpredictable traffic, of which there was much, as we crossed North Bridge Road to reach Boat Quay. This would be a great place for Jackie Chan (or similar) to practise his flying side kicks and avoidance leaps with the Singapore cabs. It’s crazy! Eventually we made it, breathless but alive (amazingly) with appetites. Following a trail of tantalising cooking aromas we found Boat Quay soon enough, a total change from Clarke Quay. The two are like chalk and cheese (or should I say ‘rice and noodles’?) The former is tourist trap central, replete with laminated point-and-order menu boards and eateries battling over patronage; the latter is confident cool with maitre d’s who’d never dream of hustling you in off the street. Reservations are the way forward on that side of the river.
On Boat Quay we had to fight our way along the path separating the restaurants from their outdoor seating areas. Had I had a sword, I would have swashbuckled. It was so crowded with touts and meandering tour groups that the grabbing hands and immovable clusters of people who thought nothing of stepping into your personal space deserved a clunk on the head with my mighty (imaginary) sword.
“Free bottle of wine! Free bottle of wine with dinner!” implored one tenacious tout, waving a menu at my nose. “You eat here, I give you free bottle!” We marched on but the tout remained unfazed. “TWO free bottles, I give you TWO free…” Pushing ourselves clear of the mania, Monsieur and I recovered by sitting awhile on a piece of clear embankment at the end of the food strip. We breathed deeply, watching the comings and goings on the Singapore River before retreating to Clarke Quay.
In the end we dined at a restaurant called Indochine, a stunning glass-fronted restaurant and bar which has been built into the sensitively restored Empress Place Building, now housing the Asian Civilisations Museum just by Raffles Landing. Had it not been so rainy, we might have sat on the waterfront terrace, but the outdoor tables were damp and deserted, so inside we went.
Our fellow patrons formed a microcosm of cosmopolitan Singapore: mixed couples enjoying quiet têtes à têtes, boozy bankers watching football on plasma screens above the bar, large groups of business associates from the four corners of the globe relaxing after a conference, and keen foodie tourists like ourselves. It was all so vibrant. The waitstaff were also noteworthy as they managed a perfect level of attentiveness without being intrusive. As we filled up on fresh spring rolls and (more) soft-shelled crab, I marvelled at the stunning Buddhist art hanging on a rear wall, and pondered how great the equilibrium was in this place. There was old and new, young and old, modern and traditional, all existing quite happily together.
As we finished eating, I felt one of those waves of uncontrollable emotion, that we females of the species are so prone to get. At least this time it was based in positivity; this trip was making me feel very, very lucky for all sorts of reasons. As my eyes filled involuntarily, Monsieur stared at me with furrowed brow. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Nothing,” I replied, “We’re just so lucky to be here,” I smiled at him as a tear plopped down my cheek. Monsieur looked back at me with that face that says ‘Women. How do you ever expect us to understand you when you do weird things like cry because you’re happy?’
Back at the hotel we were keen to celebrate our last night in Singapore with a drink at the Blu Bar on the 24th floor. The bar’s name comes from the bar itself, an island in the centre of the room, backlit with cool azure blue. As we teetered on stools at a window table, an energetic barman added percussion to the eighties music as he shook cocktails to the beat. Most of the patrons around us were businessmen, ties loosened or absent, easily beguiled into ‘just one more’ by the waitress, a stunning girl who’d been poured into her black cheongsam. A slit rose up one of her thighs, just short of being indecent, but you couldn’t question her work ethic. She flitted from table to bar and back to table, quietly reproaching anyone who pushed the boundaries of flirting as she repeatedly cleared and served whilst ensuring that no one was left unattended.
Monsieur and I sipped on Long Island Iced Teas as we chatted about adventures achieved and adventures yet to come, looking out at the vista of the dark Botanical Gardens and the lights of a distant port. The Power of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (cue brown paper bag) played, instantly transported me to 1985 – I’d stopped biting my nails and knew every song on The American Top Forty. Isn’t it strange how music can do that?
Back in our room, lights off, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I could hear Monsieur across the huge bed. “Darling, he said, perhaps everything’s good now because you deserve it.”
That night, I was Conway in Shangri La.
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Today Monsieur and I swam before breakfast. Down at the pool it was raining hard and an attendant wearing bright orange gators stopped us before we could swim. “If there’s thunder or lightning, you must get out of the pool EE-ME-DEE-AT-LEE.” he stressed each syllable and looked us hard in the eyes to be sure we’d understood. We assured him we had, thankful in part for such horrible weather as it gave us the pool to ourselves. As we started to lap back and forth, I pondered the attendant’s warning and the penny finally dropped. Oh hell. We could apparently be electrocuted if a lightning strike hit the pool with us in it. Looking up at the Garden Wing where flowers spilled from each room’s individual balcony, I figured there were worse ways to go.
With a soggy behind creating an attractive wet patch in my shorts, we went for a buffet breakfast at The Line. In spite of our unkempt post-sporting look, a maitre d’ still took the time to show us the various options – similar to the Biba’s set-up in KL with the addition of a pancake station. Decision made – pancakes it was, with fresh strawberries and maple syrup. Yum, scrum. Meanwhile, I watched, fascinated, as Japanese tourists flocked around the Japanese food island, Brits went for their full English, size-zero American women nibbled on fruit and businessmen filled themselves up on porridge or pastries.
Later that morning we visited Chinatown. The grey sky and intermittent downpours only increased the dramatic impact of the zig-zags of red lanterns moving back and forth across the streets. Huge signs bearing Chinese characters were all around us. Souvenir shops spilled onto the street, their plasticky wares and pirate DVDs of martial arts greats sheltering beneath make-shift tarpaulins. Cheongsams of all sizes flapped with the wind and baskets of Durian fruit sat on grocery stalls, their smell diffused by the stormy air.
Escaping the rain, Monsieur and I decided to learn more about this area of Singapore by paying a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Our leaflet described it perfectly: “a…time capsule of the Chinatown of old.” Within the themed rooms, set up to show gambling dens, tailor shops and living quarters, monitors showed documentary footage of Chinatown’s former residents. Their stories told of the hardships in China, pushing them to leave and seek better opportunities in Singapore. Families separated in the hope that more income would help their loved ones in the villages at home. However, there was a dark side. Many men fell prey to vice as loneliness saw them seeking comfort with prostitutes who often infected them with STDs. Opium addiction was also rife as people battled homesickness with the numbing effect of this popular drug.
Back outside, we were surrounded by the signs of healthy commerce in the Singaporean Chinese community. From humble beginnings here, they certainly seem to be thriving at all levels now. The high rises of big business climbed into the sky next to older buildings where small merchants prospered in retail. The rain splashed down on us in bucketloads. My shoes leaked water in to squelch around my toes and took a couple of days to dry out. We sheltered next to the Sri Mariamman Temple until a break in the weather afforded us time to get back to the beautifully named Da Dong Restaurant, part of the Fatty Weng group. Don’t you love the names? So evocative. Anyway, lunch at Da Dong was simple Chinese fare – scallops or beef with rice and a Tiger beer each but, most importantly, we managed to dry out a bit while we were there.
After lunch but still squelching, Monsieur shopped for mementoes while I braved a Chinese fortune teller. This was a mixed experience. A lot of what Fortune Teller told me was so wrong she could have been reading Mickey Mouse. She seemed to be trying to fill me with fear that I’d gathered a lot of negative past-life karma, requiring impossible acts of atonement.
“You are not kind. You should use money to be kind.” she suggested,
(If I had any spare, I thought…Monsieur was paying for most of this trip, which I could never have afforded to do on my own, and I was doing my best not to go broke as I chipped in for daily expenses. Besides, what’s all this about not being kind?)
Fortune Teller wasn’t finished yet: “You should find 108 old people and buy them all a new set of clothes. Then cook all the meals for the old people for 49 consecutive days. That’s three meals a day and you must make everything yourself. Only that way will you neutralise your karma.”
I don’t know what she thought I did all day, but Boss certainly was not going to give me 49 days of leave to atone for the sins of my past lives, and even with the advent of Primark, it was going to cost plenty to clothe 108 people. If I completed Fortune Teller’s task, I’d be without money, without job and without marbles. Besides, my friends and family know I’m kind. I didn’t recognise the person she was describing, not one bit. My theory is that somewhere in the numerology she’d made a mistake and created a chart for the wrong person; Jack Nicholson perhaps. Just after happily stating that 2008 would be a bad year for me, bringing lots of tears with it, she suggested I spend SING$500+ on a Tibetan amulet to protect me from harm. Notice anything suspicious about that? Without the amulet and almost two years later, my life is better, not worse than when I met Fortune Teller in Singapore. I think she may have been a few tarot cards short of the full deck.
From ancient fortunes we moved back into 21st Century Singapore. Monsieur loves IT paraphernalia and had been recommended to visit a specialty shopping centre not far from Chinatown, so off we went, but far from being competitively priced, Monsieur felt he’d get a better deal back home. Apart from the basics, I don’t get all the bits and bytes and RAMs and LANs so we didn’t hang out there for long. But being typically Epic, I did find a really good bookshop in the Fu Lan IT Centre. There were various biographies for Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew on the shelves, next to the latest novels and Jules Oliver’s book Minus Nine to One. Those Olivers get everywhere! The bookshop was also a great source of travel magazines, but they would have been too heavy at this stage of the trip, so I tore myself away with a small paperback on Buddhism, instead. Was there anything in Fortune Teller’s recommended atonements? I was keen to find out.
Leaving the boys’ toys behind us, I dragged Monsieur off down the road to Raffles Hotel. It was not possible for us to leave Singapore without visiting Raffles. Besides, I’d visited with my parents as a teenager and wanted to share the family tradition of a gin sling at the Long Bar with my long-suffering Frenchman. Raffles is still a beautiful hotel, exuding colonial charm with its whitewashed verandahs and internal courtyards. The Long Bar, however, has changed a lot since my last visit. If it was called Hard Rock Cafe, Raffles, it would be more appropriate. Thankfully, some of the bar’s character remains unchanged. For instance, there are still peanut shells on the ground in this, the last place in Singapore to allow littering, and there are still slings on the cocktail menu. The waiters still wear long sarongs with high-necked chef shirts and the decor is still that of a Malayan plantation house, with rows of palm-shaped ceiling fans flapping back and forth above the cane furniture. However, the slings are pre-mixed from cocktail formula and taste about as alcoholic as straight orange juice. I was horrified to see that for an extra charge you could take home a souvenir Singapore sling glass and the drinks were expensive enough, thank you very much, considering that they contained about three per-cent alcohol. You’d get more action out of a 10ml shot of cough mixture.
It’s a very different memory I have of coming here in 1989. Our family of four were the only people in the bar that afternoon. We had a table by a window and the quiet to observe the venue so steeped in Singapore’s history. Now we were lucky to get a seat, alongside tables of Birkenstock-wearing tourists, with ripped Def Leppard tee shirts. Once upon a time, this bar had a dress code. I guess I’m getting old.
As we sat flicking our peanut shells, I picked up a Raffles Hotel leaflet. Inside, there were a couple of names that made me smile: The Tiffin Room, apparently the place to go for ‘an international high tea spread’, Ah Teng’s Bakery, another of those wonderful Chinese names, similar to Doc Cheng’s, the Raffles restaurant where the signature dish is ‘Jaggery Cured Ocean Trout’ and ‘Saffron Pineapple Marmalade’ might just tickle the sweet tooth’s tastebuds.
The English influence was also there in the naming of the Empire Café and Jubilee Hall, but as we explored the hotel, Asia was certainly present. We passed an open kitchen in the midst of a courtyard. There, two chefs shook their woks vigorously over dancing flames. Sweat dripped from their faces, but the fact that they could cook in plain view was great for passers-by, like us, and was no doubt preferable to being closeted away in an airless indoor kitchen. We stood and watched them flip and toss and chop and stir, mesmerised by the unexpected culinary display.
Next on the list was a bum boat ride from Clarke Quay. As we walked down the steps to the boat, there on the landing sat a massive bullfrog. He looked at me and I stared at him, but he wasn’t interested in moving. He sat firm, like a door stop. Apparently, in Chinese culture, frogs bring good luck – fertility and prosperity. What an excellent antidote to that horrible fortune earlier in the day! As I looked at the biggest, greenest frog I have ever seen (he was the size of half a bowling ball), I considered his mere presence a sign of great good luck. Fortune Teller could take her calculations and jump in the Singapore River. But then again, just thinking that way has probably brought me more bad karma… and 108 more old people to feed.
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I’m not really a zoo person, but I’d been assured that the Night Safari in Singapore was different. Curious to see for ourselves if it was as animal-friendly as we’d heard, Monsieur and I went back up the road for Johor Bahru to talk with the animals.
The park itself was opened in 1994 and covers 40 hectares of land. It is home to 1040 animals, divided between 120 different species and, according to the Safari website, 29% of these species are endangered. http://www.nightsafari.com.sg/
Visitors can choose to walk on any of three trails around the park, or take a little tram with running commentary. Given the persistent drizzle, we went for the latter. On board, a lively host told us what to look for as we passed various enclosures. This certainly helped because in the dark, with only dim lighting, it wasn’t always easy to spot a well-camouflaged animal blending into its surrounds. “We might not be able to see all the animals tonight,” apologised the chatty host, “some of them don’t like the rain.” In spite of this, we managed to spot them all. There were many Asian varieties of the antelope, deer and sheep, some of which wandered around the park at will, and others which were protected from us (or we from them) by cleverly-engineered ditches, reminiscent of the English haha. There was no visible fencing.
Elsewhere, we saw families of wolves, lions and hyenas and each enclosure’s design incorporated a feeding spot where the animal’s dinner lured it out into areas where they’d be visible to us as the tram glided past. At the halfway point, we were instructed to leave the tram and follow a sign-posted track for the second part of the safari. Immediately, I spotted a keeper with a lemon-coloured python around her neck. She was allowing visitors to pose for photos with the snake and I would have loved to, but Monsieur wasn’t keen. Back on the track, we came across a pavilion housing a leopard. I didn’t like this at all. We came here to see animals in the open. We didn’t want to look through glass at a cat in restricted space. It’s a sad sight. Then again, I suppose big cats are better able to jump across hahas to feed on unsuspecting tourists and fellow beasts.
Further along the track was the flying fox enclosure. Inside, fruit attracted these furry, large-winged bats who hung happily upside-down as they peeled bananas. I didn’t like them. Couldn’t get away fast enough, and the smell of ammonia from the bats’ urine was pretty powerful. The rest of the track took us past pavilions housing smaller creatures, such as nocturnal monkeys, bushbabies and owls. Deer wandered past us in groups as we made our way back to the tram for the final part of the tour. Perhaps they were another reason for keeping the leopard under lock and key.
Back on the tram, we saw strange swine-like creatures called ‘bearded pigs’, water buffalo (so big!) and an elephant family. The keepers were very proud of the baby male elephant munching away on foliage near our track. He had been born at the Night Safari. Baby Male’s mother and other females loped around to the rear of the large enclosure, whilst the adult bull was located at a safe distance on the other side of the track. This enclosure, alone, made our visit to the Night Safari worthwhile. It was also interesting to see animals I’d never heard of before: the Malayan tapir, the babirusa, and the capybara, a giant rodent from South America.
The tram journey finished, the animal smells receded and we walked past a fire-eating performance to the shops. Inside were soft toys of many of the animals we’d seen tonight, along with the usual key rings, souvenir pens and tee shirts. It was time to leave. It was getting late, and it had finally stopped raining.
We returned to the hotel where there was just enough time for a quick bite before bed. At the brasserie called ‘The Line’, we sat on a terrace near the mini-golf course and pool. There, I ate a pile of a local specialty, called Mee Goreng, consisting of fried noddles tossed with onion, vegetables, tomato, chilli and egg. The chef here had added king prawns, just one of many variations on the Mee Goreng theme available from hawker stalls and restaurants throughout Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Following on from a long and busy day, I loved my mee – a perfect (almost) midnight snack.
Back in our room, the housekeepers had ‘turned us down’, so to speak. On our pillows were chocolates and bookmarks bearing a quote from the book, Lost Horizon, by James Hilton, in which Shangri-La is a mysterious Utopia where the four survivors of a plane crash seek refuge.
“That evening, after dinner, Conway made occasion to leave the others and stroll out into the calm, moon-washed courtyards. Shangri-La was lovely then, touched with the mystery that lies at the core of all loveliness. Conway was physically happy, emotionally satisfied and mentally at ease.”
Lucky Conway. What an Epicurean state of being.
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The morning of our journey to Singapore, we were woken by an orchestra of wake-up calls and alarms, set the night before to ensure that we did not sleep late. With somewhat fragile heads, the legacy of hitting the KL night life the previous evening, we made it to Pudu Raya bus terminal intact. There, we found a bus with the same bus number as was printed on our tickets but the bus company’s name was wrong. Could it be that we were still feeling the effects of too many beers? After a few enquiries, we were told that this was indeed the right bus and the company name did not matter. That’ll teach us for trusting a tout.
‘Colourful’ is one of those euphemisms which could apply to Pudu Raya, but which is in some ways too benign and in others too banal. There were people of all shapes, sizes, colours and descriptions waiting for various buses: old couples with those red-white-and-blue nylon carry-all bags, women draped in saris, backpackers, the nutcases that are found in stations the world over, and a few bewildered people like us. There were also tiny stalls packed tight with all sorts of snacks and soft drinks, from crackers to 7-Up, with fruit and slices of fresh watermelon or coconut to sustain the bus traveller. In my overhung state I wanted to eat it all.
As we finally pulled out of the station, ready to hit the road for Singapore, we were comfortable in deep, soft, velveteen-covered seats. There were only enough people on board to half-fill the bus. Was this another indication of a drop in tourism, perhaps? Above us, the on-board ventilation system pumped out chilly air, a surprise we had not anticipated. I was therefore grateful for my giant travel wrap and draped it over Monsieur and myself as we dozed off the effects of the long night before, every so often checking on the hitchhiking grasshopper outside our window, to see if it was still there.
The trip from KL to Singapore took around 6 hours, but we wanted to see the land and for such a distance it seemed a more interesting way to travel. As we sped along Malaysian highways dissecting the jungle, I considered what it must have been like here during World War II; such a different fight to the war in Europe. Living in the jungle requires a certain stomach for bugs and wildlife, humidity and, in dense areas, an ability to cope without seeing the sun or sky for long periods. Add to that an enemy more accustomed to jungle fighting, and it’s more than just a minor miracle the Allies won the fight in this region.
Remembering war stories I watched the rows of palms and jungle lining the road. It looked hot out there. This only made me colder and, for once, I was dying to get out into the fuggy day. When we reached a rest stop and left the bus for a while, I walked into the wall of humid air with the satisfaction of a cat on a sunny windowsill in winter.
Monsieur and I headed directly to the rest rooms. This would be interesting. So far, we’d been lucky in KL with western-style facilities, but this was a whole different ball game. The cubicles had porcelain fittings around the hole in the ground, with corrugated foot-shaped areas, presumably to give you extra grip whilst you squat. There was no toilet paper, just a big, long hose attached to one wall. Liberal use of the hose meant that the floor was slippery with water and urine, and this was a really stinky scratch ‘n’ sniff moment. In spite of my OCD squeamishness, this sort of rest room is perfectly normal in the Asian area, if not luxurious compared to some. It’s one of my oddities, I suppose. I am fascinated by loos and feel compelled to analyse them wherever I go.
Back outside, there was a long, covered bar of stalls selling noodles and other local foods. All the tables and chairs were fixed to the ground, and in the midst of the diners, sat a Buddhist monk, bald with saffron robes, quietly slurping on his lunch. I wondered if taking his photo might be possible, but decided against it. He was so serene, I didn’t want to disturb him or make him feel uncomfortable.
Moving on to the grocery store, I bought some snacks for the rest of the trip. The selection was amazing – prawn crackers of many different flavours, strangely coloured boiled sweets, unfamiliar canned drinks, seaweed snacks, unusual fruit and packets of dried fish. I could have spent a fortune in the name of experimentation, but it was time to go. Our bus driver shepherded us back into the cold of the bus and we returned to the road, where there were works being carried out on the hard shoulder. The workers wore coolie hats with standard plastic hard hats in primary colours on top. Someone needs to invent a broad-rimmed hard hat to protect these people from the sun!
Towards the end of the journey, we reached Johor Bahru, where the driver seemed to drive in circles around the town, heaven only knows why. Eventually, we arrived at the customs building, where we had to clear customs to leave Malaysia. It was a double exercise because on the other side of a causeway was the Woodlands Checkpoint and gateway to Singapore, where we had to clear customs again. Woodlands is housed in a large, modern building with echoing halls, squeaky floors and hard-faced officials. My official wore serious, wire-rimmed spectacles and darted his eyes back and forth between me and my passport photo, as if I could be the current star on Singapore’s Most Wanted. It seemed forever before the ‘thud-thud’ of the rubber stamp was heard and I was permitted to visit this island city. Then, as I was ahead of Monsieur, I stopped to wait for him before returning to the bus, but this wasn’t wise. Naughty, naughty. A guard shook his finger at me and shooed me out of the hall.
Leaving the Unhappy Valley atmosphere of Woodlands behind, we were soon deposited in central Singapore. A wordless taxi driver took us through Chinatown and up Orchard Road, past exclusive enclaves of apartments and town-houses behind solid walls and intercommed gates. We had reservations at the Shangri-La, a stunning hotel with three blocks of rooms set into acres of lush grounds. The lobby was so massive that you could have squeezed an extra floor into it. As a slightly dippy but sweet clerk checked us in, I looked around. There were huge columns soaring to the faraway ceiling, a sizable expanse of marble floor, long vases spilling over with tropical flowers and a gargantuan painting looming above the lobby bar. Up in our room, the presentation continued to impress and opening the windows we enjoyed a view over neighbouring luxury apartment blocks to the famed Botanic Gardens. Then it started to rain.
Rain is strange. In London, in spite of its reputation for frequent grey spells and plenty of precipitation, the rain is more of an annoying drizzle than you find on the Pacific Rim. There, when it rains, it drenches and cleanses, revives and energises. It’s a whole different experience. We decided to explore Orchard Road, especially because we needed to eat. One of the hotel staff had recommended we visit the Wisma Atria Centre for its fabulous food hall. By the time we got there, the sky was black and shoppers were queuing for taxis. Walking inside was like walking into the light; it was bright and buzzy and you’d never have known how dismal the weather was outside.
At the food hall, there was plenty to choose from – more noodles, crispy fried duck, dim sum, you name it. We settled on a Thai restaurant called Waan Waan, where we gulped down ice-cold Tiger beer and shared a generous Tom Yam soup. I couldn’t resist the soft-shelled crabs and Monsieur tucked into a spicy red Thai beef curry. It was a hearty meal yet didn’t break the bank. It also gave us time to watch people as they selected different meals from the varied stalls.
Back outside, it was still bucketing down. We wandered around Orchard Road in the downpour, hopping from shelter to shop. In Tang’s department store, Monsieur dashed off to the gent’s whilst a cosmetics saleswoman tried valiantly to sell me a wrinkle cream at £100.00 for the smallest tube. Apparently, it had been developed from a stretch-mark treatment. Fascinating, but not for me.
It was now completely dark and still pouring, but we weren’t to be inconvenienced by silly things like bad weather. We were off to find the Night Safari.
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