My friend in Melaka, Raymond, suggested that I take the Dilema Bus to Singapore. Despite the ominous sound of the name, I trusted him and was not disappointed. The bus was, as with the others, a comfortable ride. I was only saddened that our trip did not take us through any countryside villages and towns, as it was highway all the way. There were some beautiful hills and mountains in the distance. Oh well, it gave me the chance to catch up on my sleep before hitting Singapore.
The immigration check on the Malay side was a breeze. By that time, there were only three of us left on the bus. There weren’t so many people on the Singapore side either, but just as I was passing through the security scanner, a group of five Chinese sort of just all barged through too. We really got no clear message on what to take out of our bags and pockets, so of course, the bells were ringing like crazy…. The people before and after me were stopped for a baggage check…. I just grabbed everything I owned and ran for the bus!
The hotel in Singapore ended up being in a good location, but thank the gods I did not spend much time there. The bathroom was larger than the bedroom and right near the check- in counter. The staff talked all night long and with the early departures clunking around their luggage, I could have worked the desk for all the sleep I got!
My first morning I was stirred by a polite knock on the door, followed by a loud,”BREAK-FASSS!” just in case I thought this was going to be any different than the volume I had to suffer through the night before. “Breakfasss” consisted of one fried egg; two suspicious pieces of toast that were singed but still could not hide the fact that they contained what I think was a healthy mold growth on one of the pieces; and a medium-sized hotdog masquerading as sausage. The milk was reconstituted and warm— ugh! As there was no safe in the room, I requested that my valuables be kept in the hotel’s safe. As I turned around, I saw the hotel attendant trying to cram it into the hotel’s cash register…. It took a while, including the manager’s assurance that if I just kept it in the room, it would be fine. We finally settled on a locked drawer in the office! Well, the hotel was clean and had great free Internet service!
The first thing that impresses you about Singapore is that it is super-clean, even the back alleys of Chinatown! The second is that it is more expensive than any other country in SE Asia. Singapore is a “first-world” country in an “emerging world” region. Everything seems to be at least three or four times more expensive than Malaysia, but if you are careful you can survive the shock. If you stay out of the tourist areas, great food can be had for a fairly good price. (This is true for most countries actually!) Singapore is served by a subway system that is pretty effortless to master. I first zipped down to the city center, which is the sight of the colonial buildings and the Raffles Hotel. As in Kuala Lumpur, there is a large field that was the center of British colonial life. The Raffles Hotel still looks grand. It is quite large, but many of the areas have long given way to expensive shops and chi-chi little restaurants and cafes. Of course, I felt quite clever when I managed to clip about 5 embossed Raffles paper napkins from a service cart and slipped them into my tour guidebook. The only problem was that I forgot and there in the lobby to the main hotel as I took out my guide book, all the napkins fell floating gracefully to the well-polished floor. I quickly snapped them up and put them in my knapsack, but too late. I got a quizzical look of mild contempt from the concierge. Oh, and that is when I saw the sign that tourists were not permitted in the lobby for the hotel. I noticed that after snapping off a few very high-flash photos….. Needless to say, I quickly exited feeling like total white trash! Singapore took comfort in the fact that I did account for myself with better behavior as I wandered through St. Andrew’s Cathedral and other points of interest in the area.
After a quick lunch, I went to the Singapore Museum of Art. They were having an exhibition of early video art. Some of it was interesting enough, but most of it just wasn’t my thing. A thirty-minute video of Asian men pulling rickshaws along the sea floor to represent their escape to foreign lands as refugees left me more than a little perplexed. Not by the message, just why did they MAKE it is in the first place! All day as I made my way around the central area, I was in view of the SkyPark, a three-building structure with a top part that resembles a sleek train. I had seen pictures of this building on line and as the afternoon went on, felt drawn to it. Singapore is an extremely walkable city, so I made my way by foot around the bay to the building itself. There are many interesting features to this building. It houses the Sands Casino and hotel. The view from the top is astounding. They also have a pool area that is so constructed as to give the illusion that the water from the pool is flowing off the edge of the building! Very cool. I take many shots from the top before descending and heading back to my little corner of the city, and I do not mean at the Raffles Hotel… They probably have my photo on file already!
The next day, I skipped breakfast and made my way to the wonderful restaurants near the subway stop of Lavender. Had a very satisfying dish of rice and mildly spiced chicken and vegetables. My goal is Chinatown today. I got off at subway stop and made my way along the traffic-filled street to get to the main part of the Chinatown area. The problem with Chinatown is that it is so interesting that you find yourself ambling along the side streets and then finding another just as interesting. If you have a place as a goal, you’ll get too distracted to make it there any time soon! The old shop buildings that line so many of the streets have been remarkably preserved and painted in bright colors. The sidewalks, as in many of these colonial cities, are sheltered by arched covered walkways to shield you from the sun and the rain. I eventually made my way to Pagoda Street. This is the center of the district and crammed with tourists and hawkers trying to sell them everything imaginable.
The nice thing about wandering is that you never have to worry about going in the wrong direction. I spent the day traversing the narrow winding streets popping into a temple here or a mosque there. I was very lucky to go to a Hindu temple at the time when they were celebrating the bimonthly Pradosham ceremony. The priests praying in the inner sanctum and emerging to offer holy water and other items to the faithful. One of the men who work at the temple explained what was going on as best he could. With the drums and horn being played in the background, it is a hypnotic moment.
On my third and last full day here, I decided to focus on Little India. I looked at the subway map and then realized that I could probably walk there from the hotel. I google mapped it and got street-by-street directions that proved to be completely accurate. Amazing! Well, I have the tendency to get distracted as I walk, but the end goal was there. As it was, it only took me 30 minutes to walk and I arrived at the very Hindu temple I was going to visit. With the heat of the late morning, crowds, clouds of incense, music and ceremony I felt transported as I sat there meditating on all the sights, smells, and sounds going on around me. Little India is a terrific place to wander around. Every side street has a different character and its own unique surprise in store, be it an artist community, food stalls, brightly painted building, or just a smiling face to greet you. I ended up heading south and at the very fringe of the area stopped for lunch in a little hole in the wall restaurant that served the best meal I had in Singapore— cumber, onions and other vegetables lightly sautéed in curry, tofu and long beans also cooked in a mildly spicy red curry, and rice flavored with coconut, a specialty.
I spent the rest of the afternoon walking everywhere. Orchard Street is the high-priced shopping area, but I do not spend any money here! Next, I went to Canning Park in the center of the city. It is a beautiful park more fauna than flora. I was rather shocked that I only encountered about 10 other people as I walked through the park’s meandering pathways. At the other side of the park, I exited to Clarke Quay, which is the tourist restaurant and entertainment area. Looks like it must be a lot of fun at night… but very expensive! I stopped to enjoy an ice cream cone and sit my the river talking to one of the river boat workers. A perfect way to idle away as my time in Singapore ended with the waning light.
RETURN TO KUALA LUMPUR
I was never so happy to check out of a hotel as I was that morning… oh yeah, there was that hotel in Savanakhet, Laos with the ancient Russian air conditioner that did not work and also the one in Fang, Thailand years ago where you had to decide at night whether to take your chances with the cockroaches in the room or the wild west shootouts and prostitutes on the street of that crazy, golden triangle opium town! The bus depot was in a little section of Singapore that was like Little Thailand.
Anyway, back to the grittier and much-preferred Kuala Lumpur after a five-hour bus ride. The driver loved to tailgate at 60-65 miles per hour. I was fortunate that there were so few people on the bus, so I was able to move to a safer section of the bus that had a functioning seatbelt! I stayed at a hotel like so many others, nice enough but decorated in the same tired style as so many others. I think I am getting hotel fatigue! If you ever find yourself in Kuala Lumpur, just stay in the Bukit Bintang area of the city. Trust me.
Took the LRT to the Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) and finally got the chance to visit Masjid Jamek mosque. I had lunch in an Indian vegetarian restaurant and had the best Indian food I have ever had outside of India! The Aloo Gobi Masala (potatoes and cauliflower in curry) served with Nan bread was unbelievably flavorful and I savored every mouthful. Bakti Woodlands Restaurant near the Masjid Jamek— remember it! The wait staff were very friendly and had many questions about New York– photos, of course, before I went on my way.
Fortified with this phenomenal lunch I headed out in search of the Lake Gardens. What a walk that was! The park was wonderful. Laid out around a long lake, it is quite hilly, but manageable. Spent a lot of time there, so I had to race through the National Museum, which had interesting displays from the various eras of Malaysian history. Next, stop was the old KL train station, which is an architectural masterpiece of blended Malay, Islamic and colonial forms. Further along I opted to pass on the National Mosque in favor of the Islamic Museum. It is beautiful with well-spaced displays in a very quiet, dimly lit environment. ..Then walked to the KL Sentral terminal and caught the monorail back to the hotel. Totally exhausted after walking in the heat fairly non-stop from 9:00 to 7:00!
The next day, took a more relaxed pace as I journeyed to Chinatown on the monorail. There were some interesting temples here, but the Chinatown area is small and loaded with stalls selling cheap products obviously targeted towards the tourists. I ended up at the food court at the Central Market and enjoyed chicken sataay and fried rice– delicious and cheap! In the evening I found myself at the outdoor restaurants in Bukit Bintang I had frequented during the beginning of my trip here. I said my goodbyes to Kuala Lumpur and took the monorail back to the hotel. Only problem was that it was now 9pm and I exited the monorail station from the wrong direction! I resolutely walked forward for about 10 minutes before realizing I was lost! It wasn’t long, however, before I few passersby got me in the right place. Well, at least I saw another part of the city I had not seen before!
The next morning awoke early and left after breakfast on the monorail bound for KL Sentral for the express train to the airport. It was rush hour and I was thankful that I was traveling light as we all squeezed on to the monorail! Made my way to the airport express. This is a train that travels fairly fast on regular rail track and for 35 ringgits (about $13 US) you are transported to the airport in comfort and with free high speed Internet!
The flight back to Bangkok was smooth and enjoyable. I hated leaving Malaysia and know that I will be back. I met so many wonderful people there, I just knew it will not be for the last time.