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Christmas in Singapore
After a pleasant enough flight with ANA (my only gripe being a couple of hiccups in the video presentation which resulted in me missing chunks of the plot of the film I was trying to watch) I arrived at Changi Airport shortly after 11pm on Christmas Eve, and was met by my friend Annette (British) who's currently working in Singapore. We took a taxi back to the city centre: she's subletting a room in a spacious flat just five minutes' walk from the famous Orchard Road, so the situation could hardly have been better!
On Christmas Day we got up late and walked the 20 minutes to the Hyatt hotel for a buffet lunch, which we had together with Lillian, a Singaporean friend whom I'd met on train when she visited Japan in autumn 1999, and friends of Lillian and Annette's called Fiona and Norm. The lunch was very good, with all the traditional Christmas fare (except the roast potatoes) and plenty more besides.
Christmas dinner at the Hyatt (Fiona, me, Lillian, Annette and Norm).
Once our bellies were full to bursting we decided to walk it off on a trip to the Jurong Bird Park. It was mid-afternoon by the time we got there, and as a result of our late arrival combined with a downpour (to which Singapore is prone, particularly in the monsoon season), we didn't quite have time to cover the park in as much detail as we would have liked, but it was very good nevertheless. A couple of the parrots even spoke to us, albeit in Malay! (Lillian speaks Malay so she was able to tell us this.)
At the bird park: downpour in progress; a colourful macaw; a meerkat on guard duty (not quite sure why there were meerkats in a bird park); us at the waterfall; and one of the more talkative parrots.
After the bird park, Lillian, Annette and I were dropped off at a night market near Lillian's home, and after taking a look around the market Annette and I took the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport railway system) and then a bus to the Night Safari, which is next door to the zoo. Unfortunately the world and his dog seemed to have had the same idea, so we had to queue for over half an hour just to get our entry tickets. Once we got inside we started with the walking trails, since the tram tour would have meant another 40-minute wait. The trails were fairly crowded for the first hour or so, so that we had to queue up to get a look into the enclosures that had glass viewing windows, but once we got onto the second half of the trail the crowds suddenly thinned out, and when we got back to the entrance we were able to catch the first tram that came along. The night safari was excellent, and I'd highly recommend it despite the price ($15.45 plus $4 for the tram ride). We saw everything we were supposed to see, including the tiger, but the highlight for me was having my finger licked by an incredibly cute little creature called a slow loris! Unfortunately the environment wasn't very conducive to photography (though there were quite a few people who ignored the "no flash photography" rule) so the few pictures that I did take didn't come out all that well.
Night safari - a rhino and a giraffe.
Singapore is well known as a "fine" city, where fines are imposed for such offences as importing chewing gum and not flushing public toilets after use. I found this sign, which could be seen on all the buses, quite amusing: no smoking, eating, drinking, littering - or durians! A durian is a fruit about the size of a pineapple with a very pungent smell. I didn't get round to trying one during my stay but Lonely Planet approximates the taste to "onion flavoured ice cream".
Boxing Day tour
The following day Annette gave me a guided tour which involved a lot of walking and took in most of the city of Singapore. First of all she had an errand to run so I had a couple of hours to begin exploring Orchard Road. Most of that time I spent in the relatively downmarket Lucky Plaza shopping centre, which was full of souvenir shops, tailors, little import shops (mostly stuff from the Phillipines) and agencies supplying Filipino maids. When we met up again Annette had some bus tickets to pick up for her next guests, so I went with her to the Golden Mile complex on Beach Road, since that was also where my bus to Malacca was going to be leaving from the next morning. While we were in the area, we walked to Arab Street and took a look at the Sultan Mosque (only from outside, of course).
The Sultan Mosque.
Next we took a bus south to Chinatown and spent a couple of hours exploring that area. I bought a sarong, which I thought I wouldn't make all that much use of but in fact it turned out to be probably the most useful and versatile item in my rucksack. I used it as a blanket when the air-conditioning on buses was turned up too high; as a sheet to sleep under in the guesthouses I stayed in in Malaysia (except in the cooler Cameron Highlands, the guesthouses provided clean sheets and pillowslips but no covers), as a skirt, and even as a towel. Our Chinatown tour ended at Boat Quay, a waterfront area popular for restaurants and nightlife.
Wak Hai Cheng Bio Temple: spirals of incense in the courtyard; making offerings to the ancestors; decorations on the roof; interior of the temple.
Thian Hock Keng Temple (Temple of Heavenly Happiness), which was under renovation at the time so we couldn't see much of it.
In front of one of the more brightly painted shophouses in Chinatown.
As evening approached we went up to Little India, where we walked up Serangoon Road then spent a bit of time exploring the fabulous Mustafa's department store (where we met up with Lillian), before meeting Fiona at the Newton hawker centre. Hawker centres - or food courts in the shopping centres - are one of Singapore's best features. You bag a table then go and order food and drinks from one or several of the numerous food stands, and usually pay for each dish as it's delivered. This allows everyone in your group to have a different type of food if they want to, and everything is pretty cheap (though it's even cheaper in Malaysia). (Public transport in Singapore isn't expensive either; people who say that Singapore is expensive are comparing it with other south-east Asian countries, not with Japan or Western Europe!) How the stallholders keep track of which eating utensils belong to whom is a mystery! I was introduced to the local specialities of stingray and carrot cake, both of which were good. The carrot cake bore no resemblance whatsoever to what we'd call carrot cake in the UK - it was more like a kind of omelette. Of course there was satay too: marinaded chicken skewers served with a spicy peanut sauce dip.
The entrance of a Hindu temple in Little India.
Lillian, Fiona and Annette at the Newton hawker centre.
The following morning I took a cab to the bus terminal (where I promptly fell down the concrete steps while fumbling for my ticket, but fortunately wasn't hurt much), then a bus to Malacca in the south-west of Peninsular Malaysia, about four hours away. The bus was quite luxurious, only three big plush seats wide, and we had to get off twice for border crossings. The second crossing, entering Malaysia, required us to fill in an embarkation card, but I had no idea where to get one and it wasn't until I got to the counter that I was given one to fill in. (They appear to have done away with the requirement that you declare all the currency you're carrying, by the way.) As I was already at the back of the queue, I was the last one back on the bus. For the rest of the trip, unfortunately, we were subjected to the excruciating Ace Ventura 2, followed by something almost as annoying (I can't think of anything else quite as annoying as Jim Carrey) that looked a bit a like a local version of the Eurovision Song Contest only with the presenters doing most of the singing. Although each seat was supplied with headphones, the video soundtrack was provided over the speaker system and earplugs weren't very effective at shutting the noise out. When we reached the Malacca we were dropped off not at the bus station as I'd been expecting, but in front of some hotel or other. Fortunately two of the other bus passengers, who were picked up by a relative, gave me a lift to the bus station.
The first thing I did before heading for my guesthouse was to buy my bus ticket to Kuala Lumpur - hereafter KL, as it's almost universally referred to - for the next day. This year Hari Raya, the Moslem festival at the end of the Ramadan month of fasting, fell on December 27th, and as a result public transport was very busy - Lillian had struggled to book the bus ticket to Malacca for me a week before my arrival in Singapore - and most of the country's Moslem enterprises were closed for a week. The Malaysian population consists mainly of a mixture of Chinese, Malays (who are Moslem) and Indians (Moslems and Hindus). The west coast is predominantly Chinese-influenced, whereas the Indian influence is stronger on the east coast. I stuck to the west side of the country for my trip since it was monsoon season and the west coast is relatively unaffected.
Having bought my ticket, I eventually found my way to the Robin's Nest guest house, not far from the historical centre of town, and checked in. The guest house was fine - a little on the shabby side, but clean and comfortable. It's a well-known place and you can find it in the guide books; there are also several other budget places on the same street. I was sharing the dorm with two other people who had also come from Japan: a Japanese guy and another JET ALT like myself. You just can't get away from those JETs!
I spent the afternoon wandering around the town; there wasn't a lot else to do anyway, since it was a public holiday and most of the museums and other tourist atractions were closed. Half a day was enough to get a fair idea of the layout of the town, though you'd need two or three days to cover the various attractions such as the river trip, the maritime museum, the People's Museum, the Stadthuys and so on.
Malacca: A Famosa (the gateway which is all that remains of the Portuguese fort) and the ruined St. Paul's church on top of the hill; Christ Church; a view of the river; the Dutch-built Stadthuys.
The following morning I spent a couple of hours in the People's Museum, where they have a fascinating, albeit grotesque, exhibition entitled "Enduring Beauty". It's all about the discomforts that people endure in order to achieve their culture's idea of beauty, and covers such delights as tattooing, scarring, lip plates, footbinding, head shaping, and so on. I never made it to the exhibition of kites on the top floor, because I had to leave to catch my bus to KL.
I decided to walk to the bus station rather than attempting to negotiate the local buses again (on my previous attempt I'd overshot my stop by about 1km and had to walk back). Still managed to take a wrong turning somewhere along the line, but I made it in time. The next challenge was to identify which of the buses I should be taking; several different operators had buses going to KL. Fortunately there were helpful people around who pointed me in the right direction (and they were all consistent, so it wasn't just a matter of giving any answer, even a wrong one, so as not to lose face, as you sometimes find in Asia). The journey was uneventful until we pulled into a large car park, full of coaches, near the National Sports Complex. I wasn't the only one who had no idea what was going on! It turned out that we had to get off the bus here and catch a local shuttle bus for the 20-minute ride to Pudu Raya bus station in the city centre.
After getting to the bus station (a nightmarish place) buying my onward ticket to Lumut, I went to check in at the Pondok Lodge (firstname.lastname@example.org). Nice place - homely, clean and comfortable, and in a central but relatively quiet location. It was carpeted and had a fairly large rooftop garden/patio area. There was even a hot shower, though you couldn't control the temperature and it alternated between scalding and lukewarm. A bed in a 4-bed air-conditioned dorm cost RM15 per night, which I think is a pretty good price for KL. (Later in my trip, I spoke to a couple of people who'd stayed at the guesthouse in the railway station and they said it was very dingy and they wouldn't go back there.)
Pondok Lodge - on the top floor of this building.
Spent that evening exploring the BB Plaza / Sungei Wang shopping complex, about 5 minutes' walk away from my guesthouse, and the lively night market in Chinatown.
Chinatown in KL.
The next morning I set out fairly early, with the intention of getting to the Petronas Twin Towers (world's tallest building at the time of writing - the public can go up as far as the 41st floor "skywalk") before a queue formed. I got there at 9.15, just as it was due to open - only to find that the place was closed for Hari Raya until January 2nd.
Petronas Twin Towers.
Shortly after that I met a Pakistani electrician called Hussain (not sure I've got the spelling right) who worked in Ipoh and was in KL to get a new passport. He promptly adopted me and spent the rest of the day leading me all over the city, frequently telling me what a good day this was for him, what with getting a new passport and having a guest (me) to show around. We walked through Little India, along Merdeka Square, through Chinatown, to the railway station (where the only open tourist information office was located), back up through Little India to Chow Kit, and then back to Chinatown, with numerous detours on the way. He even took me to a Pakistani mosque in Chow Kit for lunch, which he wouldn't let me pay for. I'd made the faux pas of wearing a sleeveless top that day (in the belief that KL dress codes would be less conservative than smaller towns, besides the fact that I hadn't been expecting to visit a mosque) and one person actually pointed out to me that I was improperly dressed, so I bought something a bit more modest at the first shop I came to after that.
My guide; KL railway station; the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, opposite Merdeka (Independence) Square.
Although Hussain looked after me well and was very generous, I had such difficulty understanding his English over the traffic noise that a lot of the time I found myself wishing I was on my own and looking forward to the time he had to go and catch his 6.30 bus back to Ipoh. However, in mid-afternoon he started saying he was going to cancel his bus ticket and go back to Ipoh in the morning instead, and take me out to dinner at some place called Sunway Lagoon which, as far as I could gather, wasn't even in the city. Under different circumstances a trip to this Sunway Lagoon might have been nice, but at that point I just didn't feel up to it, besides which I wasn't keen to let a stranger take me to some place I'd never heard of. On top of that, I was pretty sure that his bus ticket was non-refundable anyway (most of them seem to be), though he was adamant that he was going to cancel. So I pleaded exhaustion - I must have walked close to 30km that day already, so I wasn't lying - and went back to my guesthouse for couple of hours, after arranging to meet later for dinner locally if he was able to cancel his ticket. He didn't show up so I guess he took the 6.30 bus.
Instead I ended up spending the evening with a guy called Kelvin who was being used to demonstrate some kind of Chinese vacupressure treatment on the same street corner where I'd arranged to meet Hussain. Had a very mediocre meal in a shopping centre food court then went to see "102 Dalmations" at the cinema, with Malay and Chinese subtitles, for about a tenth of the price I'd have had to pay in Japan. (Enjoyable film, but not much different to its predecessor.) By the end of the day I had blisters on my blisters after so much walking.
This treatment demonstration was quite interesting to watch: he sat with these bamboo cones stuck to his back for a few minutes, then they were removed, leaving circular bumps on the skin. The areas where the circles were purple indicated problems with the corresponding body parts, and these were treated by bleeding the affected areas, using a further vacuum treatment to draw the blood out. The vacuum was created by momentarily holding a match inside a glass jar and then applying the jar to the area of skin.