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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