Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Watch out for the Durian

Okay, so we know that Singapore is one of the great economic success stories of South East Asia, the city state that's made it big, and we want to visit to see our friends - Jake, another SOAS escapee, and Kenny who we met with Keng-Rui in a pokey little restaurant at Petra in Jordan more than a year ago. But the accomodation is prohibitively expensive and we think it'll be a flying visit. There are some options - maybe we could just blow a bubble-gum bubble at a policeman, toss the wrapper on the street and then jay-walk with the hope of a cheap night in clink and a warning from the judge in the morning? What are we thinking - we could Couch Surf. But we really only want to meet up with Jake and Kenny and that's not the Couch Surfer's etiquette. Thankfully Kenny writes to say we could squeeze into his family's flat - it's a generous offer and we can't refuse.
So in a whirlwind visit we meet up with Jake and his mate Jim and with Kenny and Esther for a quality curry (thank you Jake!) in Little India. It's strange to be meeting familiar faces again and out socialising but hugely enjoyable. We've done more of this in the past month than we have in a year. Luckily Kenny and Esther are just finishing their teacher training before starting the real thing in June, so they are able to show us some of Singapore's highlights. We wander through the botanical gardens which are extensive and impressive before heading to the bird park where there's a great collection of birds. The following day we get down to the zoo, something we might normally avoid, but Singapore Zoo has a good reputation, and the animals and enclosures are well-kept and fairly spacious. Again, we are impressed, although the tropical climate might be a little tough on the polar bears and penguins. They do get air-conditioned quarters though.

chopstick lesson
I think when we last saw Kenny we had been quibbling over the price of a cup of tea with a cafe owner at Petra, so we know he understands our budget travel mode. Throughout our stay he looked after us really well - tipping us off to quality cheap eats - and taking us out for a classic Singaporean meal of chilli crab and finishing off at a....er...oh 'eck, is that what we think it is? It is. It's a durian stall. In fact it's a durian bar. Now, anyone whose travelled in these parts will probably have come across this fruity delicacy and will know that this large spiky and pungent fruit is banned from most public transport systems and most hotels, simply because it smells rather strongly. In fact it stinks. But break open the outer shell and inside are pods of yellow custardy flesh that are savoured by most locals. We choose one and the vendor slices it open at the table and we tuck in. Kenny eats with vigour, but Esther is a little slower, having overdosed on durian when she was younger. Gayle seems happy enough but I'm really struggling with the strange flavour. We finish it off and we live to tell the tale.Kenny's family live in one of the four large housing estates built across Singapore, dense appartment blocks that are brightly painted and look well maintained. We are very grateful to his family for putting up with us, as their flat has only two bedrooms, a small bathroom and a kitchen/living room. Kenny lives here with his sister and parents and a necessarily small dog. Demand for housing is unsurprisingly high in this small island state and space is at a premium. Despite this, the urban environment seems to be managed very effectively. The estate is green, clean, pedestrian-friendly and well-lit at night. At street level there are cafes and food courts, shops and a market full of fresh produce. We are treated to some weird and wonderful foods which Kenny finds for us with an evangelical zeal. The majority of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese and the food reflects this. Instead of hawker stalls on the street, most cooked food is served at food courts - with a seating area surrounded by a variety of counters, many serving their speciality dish. It's a convenient way to eat cheaply and its a sociable scene, as everyone gathers to chow down or shlurp an iced drink. When we compare this with the grim housing blocks that used to fill Manchester city centre and still survive around Britain, we are also reminded of the Soviet-era housing in some Central Asian towns we have passed through. Here in Singapore it seems they've done it much better. The small police post next to Kenny's block was closed a while ago through lack of need.
Downtown we amble along by the old quayside at the heart of the banking district, overshadowed by buildings that deserve to be called skyscrapers. We cut across past some of the city's old administrative buildings, one now a museum of "asian civilisation" with a great collection from the pacific to west asia, and mooch on past the durian-like theatre complex. This is a recent addition and it looks like Singapore is pushing the development of an arts scene. We return here on a weekend evening with Kenny and Esther and it's teeming with mainly young people. An Indonesian rock band is playing on a small stage. A large screen is showing a Manchester United match (what is it with Manchester United?) On another night we wander around the old Chinatown area, which still has streets of old shophouses and a night market. It adds a little flavour to a very modern city.
But we can't impose on Kenny and his family forever, and we finally shuffle off back to Malaysia to find a beach and a little peace and quiet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Cor, it's hot. Apparently I've got to stop saying that, now that we finally made a decision on The China Conundrum i.e. when to go there. We have decided to continue on our Plan A which takes us through Indonesia and the Philippines before reaching China. We sweated over this one. Although one friend did point out to us how we sounded: "So, shall we go to China today or,hey, how about Bali?". Anyway, it's hot and it will be hot for the next six months, so please take it as read.
From the only hill in Melaka, upon which stands the ruin of a Portuguese church, Gayle spies an outdoor swimming pool, so after a morning of sight-seeing in the old Chinatown area we make a bee-line (here's one I don't get - a bee-line is a direct route and yet bees are supposed to fly in anything but a straight line, aren't they?) for the pool. There's a strict dress code - only swimsuits, trunks or penguin suits. Gayle has a bikini and I've got swimming shorts, and they seem okay with the bikini, but not with my shorts. Okay, just this once, they say. The pool is 50 metres and there's hardly anyone swimming, and even better, the water's not warm. Next day we do the same thing, only this time I bring my underpants. In hindsight maybe I should've tried Gayle's other bikini. I got past the ticket desk and into the pool before anyone saw me, but after half an hour I eventually climb out for a rest. The lifeguard is on me faster than a 'flu bug and promptly throws me out for wearing "an undergarment that might contain unhealthy diseases." Charming. "But they're clean on today!" I find myself blubbering. Oh the ignominy. In the first place, I have to wear my underpants to swim and then, I get kicked out for it. I probably offended them by only swimming widths at the 5ft marker........
After this incident it knocks the shine off Melaka for me. Compared with Penang it's a little too
touristy - the old Chinatown area, full of shophouses, has been turned into a tourist trap of cafes, restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops, but there are busloads of nationals and Singaporeans so maybe it works. The shophouses are built in terraced rows, about 7 metres wide at the front, but they go back about 70 metres. The street level front is used as a shop, or workshop, or coffee house. Within the building there are airwells and open-roofed voids to allow light and air circulation, with a yard at the back. Here in Melaka the shophouses have been repainted and the fronts smartened up and some are open to the public. We follow the river along a newly built and landscaped path that takes us inland and into one of the old kampung, village communities. The houses are built out of wood in the traditional Malay style, on stilts in case of flooding. This particular kampung has very smart examples, well-maintained and freshly painted. The windows and doors are left wide open to catch any breeze off the river. We nose around and take photos and people say hello to us. It's a sleepy quiet little place right in the middle of the city.
Before we leave for Singapore we come across a second-hand bookshop with a copy of an Indonesian guidebook. Ruth had brought us one out from home, but in a rash moment we traded it for a China book. So now we try to trade it back. The man is reluctant at first and it takes some bluffing from Gayle (the old 'toss it back down and head out the door' bluff) before we finally strike a deal. Unbelievable luck - the man had only had it about a week and he knows they're rare. Now there's no way we're changing our route plan...............for the moment.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Let me just say, it's a real skill to eat a choc-ice without getting it all over your clothes in this part of the world. Having wandered well off the old Silk Road, we find ourselves drifting again towards the part of the world where international trade and cultural exchange also took place, but several centuries later. Because it was by sea that the Chinese and Arab traders explored these parts, followed by the Europeans. We are in Malaysia visiting what were the old British Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore. After a very comfortable train ride through Thailand from Bangkok we were greeted at the Malaysian border by officials all wearing face masks. Following the usual immigration and customs formalities we were asked where we are from. "The United Kingdom" we replied. In that case, would we fill out this form please and take this card? The form asked us about our health, with the obvious implication that if we ticked any box we would be whisked away by health officials in full white body suits to some unseen quarantine area. We tried to explain that we haven't actually been in the UK for more than two years and eventually, after repeating this several times, everyone seemed to relax a little bit and we were allowed through. The card they gave us was for us to take to a doctor in case we felt any of several symptons that might indicate we had swine 'flu. Apart from "loose bowel movements", "sore throat" and "nausea" I didn't have any.The old part of Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang, is very laidback and relaxing and the buildings and people reflect the history of the place. We're happily wandering the streets, taking in the old shophouses of Chinatown, sitting down to eat at a food stall, looking inside some of the 'clan' temples of the Perankan (Malayan Chinese), admiring the peace and quiet on the streets of Little India (so unlike it's big brother across the water), and marvelling at the multi-ethnic atmosphere of Malaysia - quite a change from some of the other countries we've visited. There's one street with cheap hotels for backpackers but nothing too touristy here. At sunset the call to prayer comes from the local mosques, and the food hawkers set up their tables and chairs for the evening business of chowing down. It seems like most locals eat at least one meal outside of home, if not all of them. There's a good choice - Chinese, Indian or Malay - or you could opt for the Manchester United Burger if you're that way inclined.......
Our favourite building here is the 'Irn Bru Mansion' (it's made of iron girders from Scotland). Built by a man who left China as a penniless boy but made it big as a trader and diplomat in Penang, the Cheong Fat Tze mansion (that's his name) has been restored to former glories and is well worth a good look round. Down the road there's also the biggest Buddhist temple complex in Malaysia, with good views from one of its towers. The approach to it is through a large tat market and even inside the temples there are counters selling souvenirs and paraphenalia. This is in sharp contrast to the large mosque built by Indian Muslim workers who were brought here by the British, many as indentured labourers. The city had lost its status by the 1900's to Singapore, but one significant event did take place in the 20's - Sun Yat Sen held a conference here that laid the foundations of modern China, putting an end to the dynastic rule of emperors and forming a republic. I wonder what he would make of it all now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Turning Siamese

"Be prepared for the culture shock", we are warned before we arrive in Bangkok. We're staying with Fiona and her partner Gordon until we have recovered. Flying definitely exaggerates the differences. No time to get used to the change, you step from the shabby departure lounge of Kolkata and emerge from the plane into the gleaming shiny space of Bangkok's newish airport. It's a relief to go from the heat and humidity of Kolkata to the...erm.....heat and humidity of Bangkok. But here everything seems to be air-conditioned. And spotless.
And it's not all temples and seedy sex shows (anyone for ping-pong?). There's the old part of the city along the river, with a variety of wats (temple complexes) and the old palace buildings, Chinatown and its markets. This area is then surrounded by the modern development - a host of high-rise buildings, shopping malls, busy roads and the Sky Train - the elevated railway which makes for a great ride through the concrete jungle but cuts out the sky when you're down on street-level. This is the most modern city we have visited on our journey by far. We are very well looked after by Fiona and Gordon, who are generous hosts. They feed us well on healthy breakfasts and good dinners and take us out to swim and eat at the British Club, an oasis of calm and peace slap bang in the middle of it all. With a very good all-day English breakfast to boot. Out on the streets it's a totally different eating experience, as hawkers sell food at pavement stalls everywhere. Sometimes the stall does a one-dish speciality, or there's a few things to choose from. Of course our Thai is lousy, but the old finger-pointing and a lot of smiling does the trick. Everyone is happy to help. We're not always certain what we are eating (what is this mushy green mini-loofah thing in the soup?), but the standard is good. We haven't eaten so much pork for a long time, and we're hoping the swine 'flu doesn't make it here.....
Bangkok is awash with markets and some are open only in the evenings. It seems like Thais love shopping - what with all the shopping malls, the markets and a 7-11 every 50 metres down the street (handy for choc-ices). We can pick up guide books, flip-flops and clothes - the price determines whether you are buying a fake copy or the real thing. It's difficult to discern in such a short time spent only in Bangkok whether there's anything more to the country than just eating and shopping.........(did someone say beach?)
Gayle and Fiona were at SOAS together and at the week-end there's a 40th birthday party for another SOAS friend, Ashvin, at the beach. There's a chance to catch up with other old lags from university and meet some of Ashvin's colleagues. It's our kind of party - Ashvin has arranged for a barrel of beer, wine and some tasty food at a little beach shack. Sadly, the DJ gets drunk and ends the night playing maudlin songs from the 80's, but you can't have everything.
Back in Bangkok we start to have second thoughts about our route plan. Our intention was to travel southwards through Malaysia to Indonesia and then up to the Philippines before heading to China. Now we are considering a quick visit to Malaysia and then returning to Thailand and getting to China via Laos. This leads us to think about Myanmar as well. Our route plan is in danger of looking like a monkey-puzzle tree. As always when faced with a choice, we are lousy at making a decision. However, we are good at procrastination, so we buy a train ticket that will take us to Penang in Malaysia and defer any decisions until we've done some research/coin-tossing.
Our last night in Bangkok is spent wandering around Chinatown looking for food. We are accosted by Dia, who was at the beach party, and who is helping out at her mum's stall. It turns out that pork dishes are not doing so well, what with talk of swine 'flu, so chicken has been added to the menu. Dia's grandmother left China to come here and gave her daughter a Thai first name. Dia's mother in turn has given her a full Thai name. When we ask what part of China her grandmother comes from she doesn't know, and neither does her sister. So, we ask, are you Chinese or Thai? Both, comes the reply.