The Many Faces of Singapore

Trip Start Apr 23, 2011
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Monday, May 10, 2010

Monday 10th May.


We arrived at Singapore's Changi Airport at about 5am after the 5 hour flight from Perth. We were both shattered. It was going to be a long morning as the room we had booked in Perth wasn’t meant to be available until 2pm. Our best deal was to hang out at the coffee shop and kill a few hours. Shazz took the opportunity to catch some sleep while I sorted out the wi-fi and did some work on the computer.

Around 8am we went and checked out the MRT, bought a pre-paid card and headed for our hotel. The Al Junied Station is closest and we got off among a throng of school children and people headed to work.

Right away we could see the Geylang area was not the Singapore we remembered from 13 years ago. This was more like Delhi. Hawker stalls lined the streets and corners with their plastic tables and chairs, their picture board menus and neon lights ready for action again tonight. People pushed past each other along the narrow porticoed spaces while others just simply walked on the road with the already rampant traffic. The sidewalks were jammed with signs for pubs, cafes, internet cafes and 7/11’s (The Pre Eminant Frog Porridge sign was probably our favourite!). Portable display cabinets full of food, watches, mobile phones and drinks blocked everybodys paths.

Shazz and I, once again, looked right out of place amongst the tide of locals going in the opposite direction. We had already sweated up to the point of saturation but were gladdened by the familiar smells of oriental cooking. Memories of South East Asia came flooding back and we looked at each other with smiles on our faces as if to say – "Yep, we’re back!!"

Hotel 81, Lorong 16, no.20 looked just like it’s bookend partner across the street – Hotel 81, Lorong 16, no.23. In fact, they were identical. Not only that, they looked suspiciously similar to two more we had passed in the 3 blocks we had walked to get here! We were to learn later there are 10 of them in Geylang. At the reception, the disinterested girl informed us that we were still too early, but the room could be ready at 12noon. So she locked up our packs for us and we decided to explore our local area.

Geylang, I’m pretty sure, is what Bugis Street used to be – but on steroids!! It makes King’s Cross look like a Fred Nile approved bible convention. It is a densely packed, vibrant, colourful and a little bit scary red light district. For the unsuspecting traveller – it makes no apologies, its business as usual as even we begin to blend into the myriad of different characters who call this place home.

After walking around for about 30mins, we were hot, wet, tired and hungry. We called into an Indian Muslim bolthole cafe, one of those ones which are indecipherable amongst the rest of the signage on the block. The guy who touted us seemed friendly enough and his picture board menu looked OK. We picked a table under a fan and filled up on rice and noodles as we watched the organised chaos go on outside. It’s a people-watchers paradise – Stone’s Corner on Steroids!! (for those Brisbanites who know me).

Just before midday, the girls began to appear. It was all long black hair, short, tight miniskirts and a handful of tattoos. I think the tattoos were a mark of their jobs rather than any deepfelt interest in the art. A lot of the girls are young (some very) and gorgeous. It was a little sad to think, that, with an education you could take them anywhere. But a lot of them are just girls and easily influenced by any number of the dodgy characters malingering around here.

By Midday our room was ready, it was a neat, clean and tiny room with air con and a TV. The shower, toilet (Western), and vanity basin were all together in a small cubicle which meant the lot got wet when you showered. The air con was a gift from above though. We threw off our long pants, had cold showers and crashed on the bed for the rest of the afternoon.

When we finally awoke it was dinnertime and we were keen to go back see our muslim mates down around the corner. Outside now was going off. It was loud and raucous, the place had transformed into a neon circus, smoke from cooking fires drifted up into soupy sky, car lights illuminated dark corners, loud music beat the tempo of the night and the smells fuelled everyone’s desires. In our Lorong (street), there was no street lighting in contrast to the end of the block and Geylang Road. Lots of shady looking characters (mainly young Indian guys) sat around next to the open drain. On both sides of the street there were walk-up brothels, in fact, most of the buildings here had brothels at ground level at least. As dark as it was, this is where the business happened. The girls did their picking up on Geyland Road under the neon lights where their sequined miniskirts had most effect.

Shazz and I tucked into some more rice and noodle dishes but the highlight of the night was our Tiger beers, or, should I say, the Tiger Beer Girl. A tiny thing with skinny legs, pidgeon toes, tattoos and a mouth full of cheek, she was obviously a former working girl and, at what I’d guess would be 45, she’d been a staple here in Geylang all her life. She would emerge from the back of the narrow restaurant with two more beers as soon we’d finish. Then she would tease the boys cooking, taunting them in some kind of chinese – Malay dialect then running up behind them and bashing them with a solid blow to their backs with her fist. After getting a couple of them into a headlock and donging them on their nugget, she’d hightail back to the back of the shop very content with her efforts. I can see we won’t die of boredom around here!

Tuesday 11th May

We decided to adopt the Indian Muslim restaurant as our base and have breakfast there each morning. They genuinely seemed happy to see us back. Breakfast was Prata for both of us with a condensed milk coffee – yum!! Prata is like Roti and I would have it with banana and Shazz with egg and cheese. The fellas bought out some curry dipping sauce to go with it.

After breakfast we went down the block past dozens of other tiny cafes and numerous young girls still stretching out their shifts to the bus stop and caught the no.100 through to Collyer Quay. We had arranged to catch up with Julia and Nick (Jenny’s friends we’d spent Xmas with at Jenny & Joe’s place a few years ago) but Julia was away, so Nick suggested we catch up at TGI Friday’s on Orchard Rd after lunch.

Collyer Quay is behind Boat Quay where we were headed for to do some looking around. Getting there though was hell. We had to navigate through a myriad of underground passes and MRT stations to eventually come out somewhere nearby Boat Quay. Boat Quay is essentially a collection of Singapore-Style seafood restaurants which wind their way around the riverbend until a bridge stops them. On the overside of the bridge and opposite bank is Clarke Quay, another conglomeration of eateries also winding their way around the concrete riverbank. Shazz and I ran the gauntlet of the touts (as polite as they were – and as inviting as the pictorial menus seemed) and kept walking past the Quays and headed North through parklands around Fort Canning Hill to Orchard Road.

Orchard Road is just as we remembered it. Loud, bustling, glistening, in-your-face commercialism. Like praying is to the church, shopping is to Orchard Road and God is the Dollar.

We had both walked quite a way in the soupy humidity and were drained and drenched. We headed for a foodcourt for replenishment and air-conditioning. It was really nice food and the choices were hard to make but this place was popular and it was lunchtime. Sharing tightly packed lunch tables with about 400 or 500 others in a tiny basement was like trying to eat in a tumble dryer with a thousand screaming monkeys! I could tell everyone was watching me, seeing how I was going to use my chopsticks for the first time in years. After a couple of nervous goes, I managed to feed myself without causing a scene or getting food over someone else.

By the time Nick arrived we had managed to check our email and get a nice cold Tiger beer. Nick hasn’t changed a bit since we saw him last at Jenny and Joe’s. The Eccentric Englishman owes a lot to Nick. He’s charming and learned, well-travelled and eloquently well-spoken. He is a qualified tour guide with a few of the museums here in Singapore and has offered to guide us around his favourite – The Asian Civilisation Museum next to Boat Quay tomorrow.

After a couple of beers, Nick took us to a giant department store (Tamagoyoshu?) as we were looking for MP3 players and maybe a phone. It was all out of our price range, but we didn’t have the heart to tell him we’re cheapskates.

The No.7 bus took us promptly back to Geylang, dropping us down the other end of the road. Apart from the Illegal Indian Immigration Workers Home (Yes, the official title), everything else down here was concerned wholly with the pleasures of the flesh. We dropped on in our mates once again for dinner. Tiger Beer Lady was again in fine form keeping her crowd of two entertained.

Wednesday 12th May

Tiger Beer Lady isn’t there in the mornings (maybe a throw back from the old days) but we have what could pass for her mother. Chasing down our coffees each morning, this quietly spoken, waif of a woman has a sweet smile and bow legs. She always has the correct change on hand and quickly busies herself out the back. She can’t speak a word of English but I’d love to talk to her about her life here.

Nick shimmied down the wide staircase of the front foyer of The Asian Civilisation Museum like Grace Kelly on the red carpet in Monaco – he was totally at ease in an environment that he understood completely. Confidence oozed out of him as he prepared us to be entertained and informed. The museum was everything he said it was, and, while he led us around at a good pace, keeping it short and sweet, an hour passed without any effort at all.

The Chinese Famiel Piety section particularly touched a nerve as it insists children should stay with their parents, but, if they can’t they should contact them as often as possible. The symbols they use for this is the Old being supported by the Young.

Nick is also right up on most religions and his stories of Buddha from around the world were very interesting, especially after Buddha spent many years of self deprivation only to discover that desire was the only fundamental sin of humanity. It might explain why some people who need everything (or something more than anything else) often end up with nothing. Watch out – I might start giving Jimmy Swaggart a run for his money!!

From the auspiciousness of the museum, we ventured across the bridge to the Penny Black pub for lunch. This was the pub from where Nick Gleeson, misty-eyed one night, hatched a plan to make himself and Bearings Bank rich. Unfortunately, it all went pear-shaped and he very nearly bought the world banking industry to its knees. You and I are both worth more than Bearings nowadays!

We left Nick there as we headed to Chinatown (just down the road). Centred around the Smith Street Hawker Stands Chinatown has a series of small laneways that are lined with cheap trinket shops and food vendors. Shazz and I pulled up stumps under the awnings of a typical corner restaurant and got their Tiger Beer girl busy. They have a different girl for each different beer available. It all comes with its own glasses and jug emblazoned with the sacred logos.

Halfway down one street Shazz was surprised to run into here friend Annie from work. She was here by herself and doing some shopping and sight-seeing. She was on her way to Suntec before it closed, so we bade her farewell after 5 mins.

We moved on to one of the cheap food stalls for dinner, a nice stir fry of noodles and seafood. The MRT took us quickly back home to Hotel 81.

Thursday 13th May

Day four in Singapore saw us head off to Sentosa Island. This place is amusement park central but we weren’t there for the rides – I wanted to see Underwater World and all the pretty little fishies. I can’t walk past an aquarium anytime, so this was a definite must see for me.

At the bus stop we were approached by a family of Taiwanese people wanting to know if we knew Singapore. When Sharyn asked where they were off to, the lady who spoke some English, assured us that they were going to follow us to Sentosa. So, unsure if we were being stalked, we set off on the No.100 bus with a Taiwanese family complete with 2 kids and a grinning grandmother in tow.

As we weren’t entirely sure how far this place was ourselves, it wasn’t too long before we began to get some anxious looks from our adopted family (although Grandmother seemed to be having the time of her life).

Fortunately, after passing by miles of docklands we found ourselves unloaded in front of a massive shopping complex – VIVO City. Well, we were now being mentioned in wills in Taiwan and Grandmother was hugging my leg! We politely said something about the monorail across to the island and left them to shop – I hope they never spent all their money!!

Once the monorail dropped us and 30,000 rabid Indian students wearing yellow T-shirts off, a storm broke loose over us and pelted the place. It did nothing to damage the enthusiasm of the Indian students though.

We managed to find our way up to a hilltop cafe to wait it out over a coffee. When it eased up we took a walking trail via an area of remaining rainforest and spotted some monkeys and a squirrel – I thought the tourists were the only wildlife here on Sentosa. Our little 20 min walk took us down to Underwater World where we shouldered up with other visitors for a glimpse of the piscatorial kind. Whilst it’s not 5 star, anything with fish in it is good viewing. I can’t usually walk past a fish tank without a thorough examination of its contents, so this was time well spent as far as I was concerned.

After we checked out the pink dolphins and a seal show, we caught the bus back to where we started – BUT, got off too early and ended up walking back to the VIVO centre across the bridge. Of course, that was my fault! But I still managed to get us back to the MRT station without needing medical rescue.

We couldn’t have been too knocked up as we chose to go to Little India next and see what had changed since we stayed there last time. Bugis Street Market is an undercover area of laneways cramped with tiny stalls selling all manner of useless junk – Shazz bought a new pair of sunglasses for $AUS10 – she’s already lost the last pair.

We had a late lunch at a food court and a beer each and decided Little India wasn’t doing it for us. We made our way down North Bridge Road to Raffles for the obligatory Singapore Sling in the Long Bar. At $AUS27 each you shouldn’t start to get a taste for them – we didn’t and moved on!

Down at the library people were doing an outside exercise class with an instructor. Shazz and I decided it was a good place to try and pick up some wi-fi, something we’d been almost totally unsuccessful with the whole time. It had become a frustration of mine after hearing and reading how easy it was in Singapore to get a wi-fi connection. As expected, we couldn’t get on.

We figured we’d drown our frustrations with a couple of Tiger beers at a nearby foodcourt. An old lady insisted we have something to eat, so we got a plate of satay sticks that were pretty good and we were happy again.

Friday 14th May

We headed off to Orchard Road first thing this morning to end this drama about wi-fi access. At the Visitor Information Centre they suggested we go down the road to M1, a communications shop where we wasted another half an hour finding out they had nothing to do with wi-fi connections. A young waitress in Starbucks across the way gave us her username and password. This enabled me to do a couple of quick jobs but as I went to send them we lost connection. This ensured another couple of laps of Orchard Road, me steaming, wanting to kill someone.

The only thing left to do was to buy a SingTel sim card for our phone and try and connect up that way. The only problem was, we needed internet access to do so. Shazz went and bought a sim card and a 8MB memory card and earphones so we could use the MP3 player in the phone as well.

We pulled up stumps at the Outdoors Bar on Orchard Road and had a couple of jugs of Tiger to calm us down and fill in some time till we went to the Night Zoo.

The MRT took us all the way up to Krangi Station (near the Woodlands Border Crossing to Malaysia) and we finally had to get a taxi to the Night Zoo as there was no bus. First thing we met Zarina at the entrance, she is a Singaporean girl who stayed with us in Brisbane (along with Jacinta who’ll we’ll meet on Sunday). Zarina gave us a two for one ticket to get in to do the Night Safari, a 3.2km walk through the rainforest with a lit section every 50m or so showing the nocturnal animals that live there. It was well worth the effort as you get to see animals you wouldn’t normally see in the daytime. They had tigers, lions, civets, hyenas, cloud leopards, all sorts of things. They even had a giant aquarium at the half way stage to sit in front of and cool down

We said goodbye to Zarina and got a taxi back to Krangi MRT and went straight home. It had been a long day, but the Night Safari had made it worth it.

Saturday 15th May

At breakfast this morning we were being eye-balled by some Chinese guy who was obviously asking the staff about us. Our boys set him straight, but he remained in the cafe and gave Grandmother Coffee Chaser a hard time. The staff let him go and he remained there, I figure he pulls a bit of power around here and the boys didn’t want to upset him too much. He watched us leave and didn’t say anything – we wouldn’t have understood anyway. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for him later.

As Shazz and I were meeting Julia and Nick for dinner and I had some major accounting work to do, we figured we’d hang out at Boat Quay for the afternoon and relax. Fortunately for us, Boat Quay was the scene of Dragon Boat races all day, they even had a few Aussie Expat boats going around. We sat ring-side and ordered some food and beers. It was a nice day and the racing was fierce, a nice place to enjoy a few drinks, some seafood and the competitive atmosphere.

Later on, we made our way over to the Marriot on Orchard Road to meet Julia and Nick. Julia looked great even though she had been sick. We caught up on each others escapades and had some dinner and drinks. Nick had a bit of a bad turn though and we figured the best thing was to get him home. So we saw them off and headed back to our hotel. No sign of the local mafia.

Sunday 16th May

It was a house-cleaning morning this morning as we collected up all our dirty clothes and headed over to the local Laundromat. It was nice and clean and they even had a change dispenser. An hour later everything was washed and dried and repacked away.

We decided to try out the SingTel wi-fi connection and headed to Raffles City shopping centre. Starbucks was wall-to-wall laptops and SingTel wouldn’t let me on – Not happy Jan!! I finally got on using Starbucks own wi-fi hotspot that doesn’t require a password. It was a real eye-opener, there had to be at least 50 laptops going at once. At one small table 6 laptops competed with each other for room and coffees must have been on the floor. Technology is the one real contrast between this trip and our last one 13 years ago. Now we have so much extra stuff to carry. My day pack now is home to our laptop, Skype headphones, charging leads, a wireless mouse, a wired mouse, various cables for downloading, my mobile phone, 3 USB memory sticks, an assortment of pens and my work diary. Then there’s my camera, water bottle and rain jacket and it nearly weighs as much as my big pack.

We arrived back at Al Junied MRT Station 10 mins before Jacinta picked us up. Her mother had driven her down and she greeted us very warmly before putting us in the car and taking us up to the East Coast Seafood Park, a string of up-market seafood places set in parklands near Changi Airport.

Jacinta is an only child who has a vivacious personality. It was great to see her again, she is a real character. Her mother, a professional woman, is of Chinese descent, I think, and has a warm personality as well and enjoys teasing Jacinta about boys. They seem to have a good relationship and are more like sisters. Later in the restaurant we met Ice, Jacinta’s new boyfriend (although she insists there’s nothing to it!!). Ice is 18yrs old, all muscle and rows dragon boats at the highest level. Sharyn and Jacinta’s mum both thought he was cute! He seems like a nice kid.

Dinner consisted of a set menu of Bamboo clams, garlic prawns, Chilli Crab (a signature dish in Singapore), cockles with vegies and, to finish us all off, ice cream with glutenous black rice served with a bowl of dry ice under it. It was a pretty impressive spread after what we usually order. After dinner (which was taken care of for us!) we headed back to Geylang in the car, but not before they insisted we buy some Mangosteens. The offer of Durians was batted away politely from the start!

Ice told us that each Lorong was run by a different group of thugs and that occasionally their activities overlapped causing trouble for anyone caught in the way. They insisted dropping us to our doorstep which was very kind. We hope we can have the opportunity one day to reciprocate the kindness and hospitality shown to us. We will certainly remember our time with Jacinta today.
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