Singapore was the first stop on our 2008 monthlong jaunt through Southeast Asia. It's a fascinating place, an amalgam of cultures and customs that sprawls across the densely-packed island city-state, in the shadow of gigantic gleaming skyscrapers that house corporate headquarters of multinational outfits. We found wandering through Singapore's ethnic neighborhoods to be a great antidote to its no-gum-chewing, intimidatingly squeaky-clean reputation.
There's nowhere the melting pot is more obvious than in its houses of worship. On one street alone (the aptly-named Temple Street) there are mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, and Christian churches all within a block or two of each other. Here's a small sampling of some of our faves from throughout the city:
Ron Jeremy visits Sri Veeramakaliamman
ornate gopuram of Sri Veeramakaliamman
Kwan Im Tong Hood Che temple
Don't forget to visit DeliciousBaby's Photo Friday for more fabulous travel pics!
We're en route back home today, via Singapore, with a brief stop in Tokyo's Narita Airport. After a month on the road, with the occasional questionable toilet facilities, I have to admit a certain jubilance at the high-tech Japanese commodes at the airport. For the uninitiated, toilets in Japan are not only spotlessly clean but also feature state-of-the-art features such as heated seats, bidet spigots, and even a faux flushing sound to cover any undue bodily noises. They're not terribly exciting in and of themselves, but again, after a month of Asian squat toilets (with mandatory swarms of mosquitoes) and other sketchy plumbing adventures, it was a welcome change.
There will be lots of catch-up over the next month or so as we process the four DVDs full of pics and videos, and convert journal entries into engaging blog entries. So be sure to watch this space in the weeks to come!
But first, a glass of red wine and a visit to our nice soft bed.
Today was a travel day of exhaustion, unlike any I've lived through since my Red Umbrella travel day in Costa Rica. We started off with a spot of brekkie, confident in our revised booking on a long-haul bus to Kuala Lumpur. Sam, the Fern Loft manager whom you may recall from such misadventures as yesterday's Oopsie, That Wasn't a Real Reservation After All -- had assured us several times yesterday that we were to catch the bus "right out front!" By the third or fourth time, we asked, "Really? Just right out there on the sidewalk?" I started to feel like an idiot. I tromped out to street level about an hour before the bus was scheduled to arrive, to wait for... something... to show up. Meanwhile, scores of old people disembarked from city buses and made their way painstakingly up the sidewalk to the temple next door, staring suspiciously at the strange farang sitting there looking completely outta place.
The longer I sat, the more nervous I got. Of course Sam wasn't due in till 11am, a good two hours after we were scheduled to depart, so there was nobody around to query as to the status of our transport. Meanwhile, more than an hour had passed, and nothing resembling a long-haul bus had come anywhere nearby. Thanks for nothing, Sam! Before I continue on with our tale, allow me to pause and demarcate two important Travel Lessons Learned:
1) Never trust the Gen Y staff at a hostel to book your travel for you. The owner, perhaps. But only if you've got his cell phone number as a backup.
2) Always get a confirmation number, in writing, as well as a phone number for the transport company. This is not failsafe, as many of them don't bother to answer the phone, but at least you can call them later and demand your reservation fee back.
Right. Seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily when you're in the thick of it.
Despairing of ever leaving Singapore, we decided to take matters into our own hands and go down to the bus station and get our own damn tickets our own damn selves. Which is what we should've done in the first place. ::: sigh ::: We got in a cab and headed down to the Harbourfront Centre, where we were to find the Aeroline bus office. Aeroline had been recommended by Ken, our couchsurfing host in KL who was already planning for our visit in two weeks, so we figured it was a solid pick. Finding the office, however, took some doing. The "bus station" was also an enormous cruise ship port. Busload after busload of Asian tourists streamed endlessly through the parking lot, but there was no obvious bus office. After a few wrong turns, Mark found the counter inside a huge warehouse, and meanwhile the 11am to KL pulled up outside, where I was standing guard over our stuff. I did a few quick calculations in my head and determined that this bus was probably our last chance to make our flight to BKK. Typically, Mark was nowhere to be found. He finally reappeared, but sans tickets since the money was with me. I dashed up to the second-floor ticket counter, only to have the nice headscarved lady pleasantly tell me there were no seats left on the bus. What?!?!? You've got to be kidding me. Apparently she was, because when she looked again, two seats had magically appeared. OK, 94 Singapore dollars please. Cash only. Ehm. I only had 70 (which was the price of the nonexistent bus booked by that no-good Sam)... how 'bout some greenbacks? I keep a fistful of USD around for just such purposes. No dice, Singapore dollars only. Somehow I managed to dash downstairs to the exchange desk, back up to the ticket counter, and out to the bus with a handful of seconds to spare before it departed.
Sweaty, frustrated, and exhausted, we flopped into a pair of seats at the back of the bus. And we hadn't even left Singapore yet. Oh, it was definitely gonna be One of Those Days.
After all that, our bus ride to KL was actually quite pleasant. We met several friendly denizens of the bus, including a Filipino restaurant owner who said he wept tears of joy when he heard of Obama's victory, and a Malaysian guy who warned us of the pitfalls of the area's budget airlines. The bus itself was a nice cushy double-decker with meal service, reclining seats, and movies on the big screen. Although I probably could've lived without seeing "Alvin and the Chipmunks," and their version of "Bad Day" will be haunting me for the forseeable future. Even the border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia wasn't all that bad, even though we had to go through twice (once on the Singaporean side and once on the Malaysian side). The one stop, at a Malay rest stop about halfway, was an interesting forshadowing of things to come after our Bangkok sojourn. The place was swarming with flies, peopled with many women in headscarves, and as the only farangs we got lots of stares. I did take the opportunity to pick up some random Malay snacks, though. You just never can get enough fish-flavored chips, is what I always say.
We arrived in KL with plenty of time to catch our Air Asia flight, which was handy because getting to the gate was a whole other adventure. We got detailed directions to the airport from the bus attendant, strapped on our bags, and made our way through the rain to the LRT, Singapore's light rail. We just missed the train to KL Sentral, and by the time the next one appeared, a huge crowd had amassed on the platform. Well, this should be interesting! I guess it is rush hour, after all. We crammed onto the already-full train, as usual the only whiteys aboard, while the locals had a good stare. Fortunately it was only a few stops. After asking a few different places, we found the counter for the KLIA Ekspress, a swanky nonstop train that would take us right to the airport. It was lovely, air-conditioned, with padded seats, and unfortunately it took us to the wrong place! Which leads me to...
Another Important Travel Lesson Learned:
3) Always double-check to see if the low-cost carrier flies from the same terminal as the regular flights. Often it does not! And sometimes the other terminal is nowhere near the main one!
Ah. Right. Thought that whole KLIA Ekspress thing was too easy. So we grabbed a cab for the 30-minute journey to the LCC (as in "Low-Cost Carrier," ah yes! I get it now!) Terminal. To get there by public transport, I think we would've had to catch a bus at KL Sentral. Anyway, we had some time to spare, and it was only a $10 cab ride, so no harm no foul. We checked into our flight to BKK and even had time to grab our first taste of cheap Malay fast food: chicken and mee hoon. A bit greasy, but not bad. We even found a WiFi hotspot, one that actually worked! Things were looking up.
Air Asia has no assigned seating, so people tend to line up at the gate like sheep a good while before the flight is called. Which is a bit silly, because typically you have to walk outside and around the block to get to the plane anyway (or sometimes they send a shuttle bus for you). It didn't matter in this case because the flight wasn't nearly full. What a refreshing change! Air Asia gets top marks in my book. The web site is user-friendly and it's easy as pie to book online. I don't know how they keep the fares so low -- and no fuel surcharges either -- but the experience was consistently pleasant and the flights were on time throughout our entire SE Asia junket. Oh, and they didn't lose our bags once. Remarkable! (And, no, they're not paying me to say this. I'm just so shocked to be so pleased with an airline that I had to share the love.)
We arrived at BKK about two hours later. Finally! Got through immigrations and customs, hit an ATM for some Baht, and found our way to the appointed Starbucks on the third floor to wait for Zoe to show up. Actually, her family got there first: mom Tuk, brother Ja, and son Ben. We chatted with her mom for a bit while Ja went to find Zoe. Ms Thing showed up a short while later, looking all put-together and fabulous, while the two of us were totally bedraggled and scuzzy. Figures! That's OK, we're not here to impress anyone with our fashion sense. (And thank god for that.) We all piled into the minivan -- complete with *driver* -- and headed for home. As expected, the place is absolutely gorgeous, even in the dark. We have a beautiful 5-star suite in a separate building by the pool. Everything is decked out to the max with all manner of antiques. It's a bit insane. Fluffy towels, a stash of bottled water and sodas in the fridge, really nicely-appointed bathroom, great bed with tons of pillows. We didn't have a whole lot of time to take it all in before crashing, but it was a happy ending to a very stressful day.
Ahhhhhh, travel. It tests you. And just when you think you're ready to pack it all in, the travel gods surprise you with a happy ending.
Long story short (you're shocked, I know) we were supposed to leave Singapore today, and travel to Malacca, Malaysia, for a cooking class and some couchsurfing. Sounds like fun, yes? But although the folks at FernLoft had said they'd booked us two bus tickets - OOPS! - it turns out the bus was oversold and we had no way of getting off the island. We tried all morning to remedy this, but as luck would have it, Singapore is not so much a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travel destination. There was just no way to get to Malacca in time for the class. So when Sam, the Fern Loft manager, arrived around 11am, we were just about at our wit's end and had given up on all attempts to leave town that day. I'd tried in vain to book both bus and train tickets online, to no avail, and happily agreed to let him book us two slots on tomorrow's 9am bus to Kuala Lumpur, where we could catch our onward flight to Bangkok. (Savvy readers will no doubt be waving the red flag at this point... Hey! These are the people who screwed up your reservation and prevented you from leaving on time today! You're going to let them try again??? Hellllooooo?!?!?) After about three hours of trying to manage this on our own, we were more than glad to abdicate responsibility.
Friends and neighbors, what's that I smell coming down the pike? Could it be a big fat *Lesson Learned*?? You'll just have to wait till tomorrow's spellbinding entry to find out, because we have more fun pursuits to pursue! Singapore awaits!
The remainder of that hot, humid day was a jaunty blur of splendid Buddhist-Islamic-Hindu temples, tasty eateries of every imaginable ilk, and the wackiest flea market we'd ever seen. Mark and I wandered through Temple Street, Chinatown, Little India, Little Arabia, and some neighborhoods not spec'd out by the likes of Lonely Planet. Singapore has the bad rap of being strict, rigid, orderly, sterile. While this is often true (witness the spotless men's room at the airport), we discovered parts of town with plenty of personality. At a colorful and chaotic ceremony at the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple, we stood in silent awe as scantily-clad priests chanted, musicians squonked out some traditional beats, and the faithful lined up for blessings and dipped into red paint for dots on their foreheads. As the only whiteys in the joint, we stood to the side, tried to make ourselves as unobtrusive as possible, and hoped we weren't disrespecting any particularly angry or wrathful gods. Next door, at Kwan Im Tong Hood Che Buddhist Temple, throngs of worshippers knelt in prayer in the center, burning incense and shaking containers with sticks, or walked clockwise around the perimeter and past the enormous gold altar at the front. On the same street, several other denominations were represented -- church, mosque, and of course the almighty dollar, with myriad shops and vendors providing flowers, incense, and snacks.
On the periphery of Little Arabia, we had a great adventure trying to order lunch at Singapore Zam Zam (which, to be fair, *is* listed in LP, although we didn't discover this till the end of the day), a place with all the ambiance of a busy truckstop diner but with the most gorgeous chicken murtabak you could ever hope for. En route to Little India we passed the hugest, most random flea market. It seemed to stretch on for miles, through a park and neighboring side streets, spilling off sidewalks and into alleyways. For sale was just about everything imaginable... old shoes, dusty ancient electronics, all manner of pirated DVDs, clothing, stuffed animals, odd knickknacks. Super bizarre bazaar.
After a refreshing mango lassi and an even more refreshing shower back at the hostel -- this town is a sauna! -- we recharged with a power nap, and emerged around 11pm. For convenience sake, we headed back down to Clarke Quay, the very touristy French Quarter/Georgetown -ish section by the river packed with bars and restaurants. We took a quick peek at Pyramisa, a purportedly "authentic Arabian and Middle Eastern fusion" bar & restaurant with bellydancers. The place was cavernous, empty, and throbbingly loud. No thanks. Searching for some late-night grub, we finally found a tapas place that happened to be across from one of the many chi-chi nightclubs. It was a great place to grab a front row seat to the ensuing drama, as club kids and ladyboys sashayed by, preening and primping and trying to out-fabulous each other. Our friendly waiter Gary provided color commentary. The highlight of the evening was watching one particularly dramalicious drunk girl get wheeled away in a wheelchair from nearby medically-themed "Clinic" bar. Hello, kitty!
We made it through the gauntlet of flights and timezones with very little drama, albeit very little sleep. Tuesday night was a blur of election celebrations -- people, the state of Virginia went BLUE for the first time in over four decades, can you gimme hallelujiah? -- and last-minute packing and prep. We had to leave at the butt-crack of dawn for our 7am flight on Wednesday, so you can imagine how much fun that was. But we managed to make it on our flight to Chicago, connecting flight to Hong Kong, and layover to Singapore, with nary a hiccup. We even lucked out and sat behind a deadheading flight attendant who kept passing us surreptitious snacks from the depths of the plane's galley. And in a bizarre twist, seated in front of us on the airport shuttle to our hostel in Singapore was a guy named Joel from Arlington, who'd just taken the same series of flights and would be in Southeast Asia for the exact same amount of time as us. If we see him on the flight back I'll have to buy him a drink.
Got in late on Thursday night, checked into Fern Loft Backpackers on East Coast Road, and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately we only booked one night, and they're full tonight, but David the owner is an extremely friendly and helpful guy and got us a spot at their other location downtown. We grabbed some lunch at a nearby Vietnamese place, and had a lovely conversation with manager Priscilla over a delicious claypot meal. If you're ever in Singapore, definitely seek this place out! Details below. Unfortunately we didn't take the camera with us (blame the jetlag!) so there are no pics of this delightful woman, but she was great fun to chat with. And the food was deeeeeeelish! Not just because it was our first real meal in about three days, either.
David gave us a ride over to Fern Loft River Valley, where they checked us into another nice room and booked our bus ride to Malacca tomorrow. We had some vague notion of wandering around town, but opted for a nap instead. And now, if we can rouse ourselves, it's out for some more of Singapore's legendary chow! We had a brief debate earlier about whether or not there really is any "Singapore" cuisine, but it seems as though the endless choices of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and other Asian fare *is* the native nosh. Multiculturalism is what it's all about in this incredibly neat and orderly town. It's a nice unchallenging place to land and shake off the jetlag for a bit.
Fern Loft Backpacker Hostel, East Coast Road
693A East Coast Road, Singapore 459058
tel: +65 6449 9066
* near the airport and lots of restaurants
* friendly staff, especially the owner
* reasonably-priced, by Singapore standards ($40 for a private room/$14 per dorm bed)
* free internet/wifi, and there's a pub downstairs so it's a pretty social place
Claypot Cuisine 723 East Coast Road, Singapore 459071
Tel: 6444 5546
delicious Vietnamese food, extensive menu (with pictures!); and be sure to seek out Priscilla, the gregarious manager who loves to make everyone feel at home
Fern Loft River Valley 301 River Valley Road, Singapore
* walking distance to Clarke Quay and not far from Orchard Road
* same friendly staff
* a bit pricier than the other location, but roomier and sunnier