Piercings but no chewing gum

Trip Start Jul 2003
Trip End May 2005

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Number 30 (19th January 2005 - 3rd February 2005): piercings but no chewing gum

Arriving in Singapore by train we barely had to get out of bed for the smoothest of border crossings. Checking into a hotel with far too much technology (half price if you book via the internet) we joined the ex-chairman of Smith Klyne Beecham for endless pints of excellent English beer in an English pub. Our westernisation transformation had begun.

Back in the good old days, the forward looking Thomas Stamford Raffles did not allow personal woes and occupational jealousies to blur his vision of the future of Singapore. Once populated by a small group of fishermen, he managed to secure a stronghold here against the increasing Dutch influence in the area, and the tiny island was thus annexed for the sprawling British Empire. Relieved of his duties by falling out with his seniors he returned to London and, presumably to prevent any embarrassment to senior politicians, was knighted. The great man's legend lives on more so than any other colonial empire builder since everything is named after him. And he would probably be proud of this: Singapore is just fantastic.

There is a total mix of cultures, predominantly of Chinese origin with a healthy sprinkling of Westerners (including Japanese) and a pocket of Tamil Indians in the middle. Singapore English (Singlish) is the main language, nearly everything is imported directly from the UK or Australia and everyone seems to be very pro Britain. Irrelevant of their origin, everyone is very proud to be Singaporean. High prices were our only expectations before arriving, but this is only really true in comparison with the rest of South East Asia. Locals and visitors are treated as equals and therefore pay the same prices, and good value prevails.

We arrived in the midst of Chinese New Year, and it was still in full swing as we left. Large festivals are frequent: there are more public holidays here than anywhere else in the world. The Indian Thaipusam celebrations gave us the opportunity to witness men pierce themselves through the face and body with large pieces of metal, suspend limes and bottles of milk from the piercings, and walk through town (relatively bloodless).

Whilst tuning a Bakelite radio in a dusty antique shop we picked up the announcement, '....and the sheep have finally arrived in the harbour and will be reaching the city's mosques shortly...." Finding it necessary to seek out the nearest Muslim place of worship to try and explain this we stumbled into Eid Al-Adha, the 'Festival of Slaughter'. A hundred confused looking sheep were harried through an overly excited, apparently compassionate crowd filling the Sultan Mosque, before being bled to death, skinned and hacked to pieces in front of us. Huge awaiting cooking pots produced very fresh lamb curry very shortly afterwards. The shock factor of the Hindu body-piercing was mild by comparison.

The city-country of Singapore has a huge income from its ports, shopping malls and offices, and with relatively little to spend it on everything is near perfect. The only exception appears to be the financial support given to the elderly, resulting in you being served by your grandmother in McDonald's which was extremely pleasant ("Extra mayonnaise, dear?"). Most people live in state built accommodation sold to them at a bargain price. The shopping malls are huge and spotless, and there are more than you could possibly visit. You can walk (well, ride on horizontal/curved/endless escalators) all afternoon without actually going outside or seeing the same shop twice. When you do finally feel the need to go out into the sweaty heat, the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) system shoots you off to a huge range of attractions.

The biggest disappointment here is probably the Raffles Hotel. Looking spotless in its centre of attention location, it lacks the grace and charm of its older sister, The E & O in Penang. Shockingly, the Singapore Slings at the Long Bar actually came out of a machine. The huge sacks of free peanuts were perhaps the best yet, however, and the tradition of casually casting empty shells on the floor was appreciated.

Singapore is a 'fine' city. Imposed by law, you can get a hefty bill for doing anything wrong from possessing chewing gum to not flushing a public toilet. Smoking, or holding open packets of food or drink is pretty much banned everywhere. Although the strangest official sign seen was, 'No studying', it does feel very much like a university campus. With a general feeling of safety and with few visible police, presumably everyone is behaving themselves through choice (or imposed guilt).

We've now sat around on boxes in the docks for days like a couple of emigrants, and loitered in yacht clubs. Failing to find a reasonably priced ship eastwards (a shocking 2,600 on a container ship being the cheapest), we've finally relented on our flightless travel. We're happy we've made it from England to Singapore overland; it's been relatively simple and would recommend the route to anyone. From here there are opportunities to catch a yacht back to Europe via the Maldives and the Suez, but it's circumnavigation for us. Any guesses where to next?

Gin and Sling

p.s the Singapore food is awesome everywhere, particularly the Japanese fast-food outlets. A bit like in the UK, in one afternoon you can eat high quality food from most countries of the world, with a large A to D letter indicating the venue's cleanliness. Local specialities include chilli crab (huge), murtabak (fantastic stuffed paratha with a mulligatawny 'cemetery' soup), Kaya toast and eggs, 'real' north and south Indian curries etc etc
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