First Stop, Singapore - days 2 to 6
Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
13Trip End Ongoing
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We finally found our exit; the Singaporean metro, the 'Mass Rapid Transport' system (MRT). We enjoyed our first glimpse of Singapore at ground level, passing through the suburbs on the way into the city centre. It was when we had to change trains at an overground station that we first encountered the thick humidity and heat (even before midday); a bit of a shock as we stepped out of air-conditioning for the first time for almost 24 hours. Cargo trousers were quickly rolled-up and trainers became flip flops!
From the metro map, we thought a good place to venture out would be from City Hall station, which was intersected by other lines and appeared close to the ghettos of Chinatown and Little India. How wrong we were! We quickly realised we were in the heart of an administrative district, far from town. We got a taxi to the other side of Chinatown, and then spent the next seven hours (!) trawling our wheeled backpacks across the city.
After investigating accommodation possibilities we picked-up along the way and inspecting countless rooms (all far over our budget), we happened upon a little oasis in the mire of overpriced and sub-standard 'budget' accommodation. Perak Lodge Hotel was a small single-floored building on the outskirts of Little India; exhausted from lack of sleep, overexcitement (now rapidly decreasing), and on the verge of heat stroke, we collapsed inside.
After a night spent recouperating, we armed ourselves with a map and ventured back out into the heat. We had little idea of what there was to see or do in Singapore, and so figured that a general tour of the city would help us to gauge the area and plan the coming days; the Hippo Tours hop-on, hop-off bus presented itself conveniently, and we spent the next few hours circling the city centre then an half hour boat ride along the mouth of the Singapore River and harbour front. This familiarised us well.
We had been looking forward to experiencing Singapore so much, however, that a scenic tour on ground level just wasn't enough at this point; we headed for the London Eye imitation, the Singapore Flyer. Ross had it in his head that dusk would be a great time to view the city; the sun going down, the haze, and neon lights of the business district gradually setting the city alight. Lauren, on the other hand, keen photographer that she is, had been pushing to go in the middle of the afternoon, so the lighting would capture the greenery juxtaposed against the concrete masses just right. The photos Lauren came away with were worth the wait until the evening.
On this first day of exploring, a little in shock at the relatively low prices on most things (except for accommodation), we decided we could afford to treat ourselves to a bit of luxury. Whilst in Chinatown we were lured into having foot reflexology (of course, telling ourselves it was well-deserved, after the pavement pounding we had done the previous day), and later, whilst descending through the Flyer complex after our 'flight', a strange thing caught our attention. A shop seemingly lined with knee high water tanks was offering a 'fish spa' and shoulder massage; closer inspection revealed hundreds of tiny fish in each tank, all desperate to eat dead skin from legs dangled in the water. Well, experiencing new things is the remit of our travelling, and so we both got skinned. A very odd sensation, slightly overwhelming (for Lauren) at first, but very pleasant and fascinating.
Saturday the 10th was Lauren's 26th birthday. Lauren had said long before that she wanted to visit Raffles Hotel on her birthday. So, in the afternoon, we made our way there; first stop, the famous Long Bar, where the infamous Singapore Sling originated. We were served the overpriced, pre-made cocktails (at 15 pounds each!) and did our best to enjoy them and the surroundings. Though enjoyable enough, the place is too much of a tourist attraction, but it had to be done. The highlight was joining the longtime tradition of eating from a bowl of peanuts at each table, and discarding the shells on the floor! Perhaps the most organising Ross had managed to complete successfully before departure was pre-booking a table for two for High Tea in Raffles' Tiffin Room. After ever so elegantly gorging ourselves on a range of delightful food (mostly Oriental), tea and finger cakes, it was time for Lauren's next birthday treat; a body scrub and massage at a spa in Chinatown. After leaving Lauren with the therapists, a cup of ginger tea, and a slight look of trepidation on her face (perhaps it was the bulky stature of the masseuse), Ross took off for something a little less relaxing.
The first challenge was to find the Malaysian railway station near the docks; the intention was to buy train tickets for the short journey across the Malaysian border into Thailand, so that we could demonstrate to Malaysian immigration officials that we had no intention of permanently staying in their lovely land, similarly as we done for entry into Singapore by having bought Air Asia flights from Changi to Kuala Lumpur before we left the UK. We had read plenty of advice online about people being refused entry to various countries in the region without proof of onward travel, and the idea of travelling to the northernmost area of Malaysia, and the cheapness of the tickets (if we changed plans later), appealed. Once there, the second challenge proved to be actually booking the tickets, as the ticket office staff were Malay with limited English. After 20 minutes of discussion and much amateurish gesticulation by Ross, he finally had two tickets for Pedang Besar to Hat Yai for a random date of 4th June in his hands. (What really pissed him off, though, was finding at the end of all this that the only person he hadn't been referred to was the only English-speaking officer they had, who had been in the office the whole time. Ross kept a smile whilst being interrogated about where he came from and which football team he supported; the guy was an ardent Chelsea fan, it transpired.)
Lauren still had a while in the spa when Ross returned, so decided to relax with a beer in Chinatown. His first real experience of culture shock came when he happened upon an open square full of dozens of middle-aged Chinese who were dancing in time in a sort of Country & Western line-dance style!
After collecting Lauren (who reminded Ross they may not be so crazy; afterall, line-dancing was hugely popular in the UK once upon a time...), we explored Chinatown a little more. It was there that Ross (in the midst of feeling guilty about not having a present to give Lauren on her birthday) suggested that a nice tradition to start for the rest of our travels would be to buy Lauren a piece of jewellery, as ethnically-relatable as possible, at the end of each country stay as a memento for that country. With a huge grin, Lauren was quick to dash to the nearest street stall. After a little searching, we found something quite perfect (for Lauren's aesthetic, and for Ross' wallet); a Chinese-style Agate stone bracelet.
The Sunday was the long-anticipated visit to the famous Singapore Zoo and the new Night Safari next door. We set off fairly early in order to make the most of the day, though little did we conceive that we would end up spending over seven hours in the zoo, and then a further four hours in the Night Safari! The zoo was quite different from the typical UK fare; the climate allowed for tropical species roaming outdoors, thus offering great views. The fame for the zoo largely came about from its inhabitants being free from cages or screens, usually with just small moats separating them from the visitors. Lauren was in her element with this, snapping away at all comers.
Our favourite animals included the old tortoise, the tigers, the polar bears, and of course the most famous inhabitants of the zoo, the Proboscis monkeys (so named on account of their huge, bulbous conks - by which we refer to their noses - though other body parts cannot be ignored!). In the heat and humidity, Ross came to realise that his primary sidekick on this journey of discovery was not going to be Lauren, so much as the small blue microfibre handtowel we had brought with him to wipe away the sweat that never, ever ceases (see photo of the handkerchief hat! That idea lasted all of five minutes, Ross hastens to add!). The Night Safari (the premise being visitors could take a tour on a tram or walk round after dark) was an interesting experience. However, we could not help but feel that it was little more than the zoo being recycled. Lauren suffered her first mosquito attack that night (we would only realise a week or so later what a problem that would become).
The Monday marked our last full day in Singapore. Feeling that we had seen Chinatown, Little India, and the city sights several times over by now, we thought we should visit Sentosa Island. It is a little island a short distance from the south of the city, which is being built into a playground for locals and tourists alike, with resort hotels, man-made beaches, theme parks (including a new Universal Studios later this year) and other attractions. We were to enjoy the view on a ride across to the island by cable car from the mainland. Much to our disappointment, the cable car was out of service for a while for maintenance. The other option was a monorail train, so we hopped aboard. Taking this route, it was evident that Sentosa is still a work in progress, and though attractions had been advertised, they were not quite yet ready for us to enjoy. We disembarked right at the far side of the island, on the beachfront overlooking the ocean. There we found the Skyride & Luge; the Skyride much like a ski-lift, taking you up to the peak of the island; the Luge was the means of getting back to the beachfront, and was more or less a toboggan with wheels on a slalom race track. Those who know Ross well know he is not adventurous with heights or rides; Lauren cajoled him into the queue, and it was too hot to argue.
The two-seater Skyride literally swept us off our feet, our buttocks smacking against the thin wooden slats that were the seat. It didn't go too fast and didn't stop-start (unlike the Flyer) much to Ross' relief. However, the tranquility of the initial incline soon gave way to high-rise tension upon being jerkily clanked past the first relay post, and also the trees. We both looked below, ever so briefly, to see that we had cleared the illusion of a carpet of treetops only a small drop below and now the only thing between us and the concrete road below (apart from the thin wooden slats) was about 20m of nothing. Lauren shifted her grip (as evidenced in one of the photos Ross bravely managed to raise his hands a fraction for), and for once Ross was quietly satisfied to see the no-fear Lauren was uncomfortable with heights for a change!
We walked to the western part of the island, which is home to Fort Siloso. This fort, built when Singapore was a prime British trading post during the Victorian era, notably saw action during WWII as defender of Singapore, but quickly succombed to Japanese invasion and then became a POW camp for the rest of the war. As well as these few hours informing us more about the colonial influence on Singapore than we had previously realised, the views from here to the outlying smaller islands and shipping lanes were impressive.
If it wasn't for it smashing our daily budget, and the fact that we had flights booked to Kuala Lumpur, we would have stayed a while longer in Singapore. There was plenty that we didn't get the right chance to see, particularly places outside of the city proper (for example, the treetop walkway at the MacRitchie Reservoir). What we did get to see was photographed extensively, though unfortunately the climate disposes the skies to grey a lot of the time. We agreed that Singapore is somewhere we could both live for a few years. We had anticipated it being a rather clinical (perhaps boring) place, but found that whilst it is remarkably efficient in its running (and the government might seem cringingly enthusiastic to get the right message across - safety signs were everywhere, as well as posters to motivate their people into being perfect citizens), life is vibrant, busy, and with enough diversity to make the place unendingly interesting.