It’s been a couple of days since I’ve actually written anything new: too busy editing and uploading previously penned posts. So now I’m having a little moment to reflect in the strange calm of seat 10A on SilkAir 396 to Kota Kinabalu. The aircraft is full – maintaining a 100% record for our trip – and alongside a handful of westerners are two parties of excitable Singaporean teen girls: fifty plus. (“Sch-u-wing” is all I wish to say on the matter.)
Random: Singapore Airlines & SilkAir have REAL cutlery. Haven’t seen that on a plane for a while. (Or have I just been flying dreadful airlines?)
In the melee I pretty much didn’t notice that we’d left India behind. So packed was our intinerary in the last day or three there that time to ponder it all was overlooked. We rushed headlong and forgot to say our goodbyes. Luckily, Gilly has done so in her Nanni post.
The view out of my porthole is due north across the South China Sea. In the distance (around the curvature of the earth) the map tells me that we have Vietnam, Cambodia and China herself: the closest we’ll get to these countries on this trip. They are out there somewhere… it’s difficult to tell where the horizon of the azure sea meets the beautiful blue sky as there are mesmerising cloud formations at several altitudes. Spectacular.
In fact, a similar blurring of horizons took place with a seamless Singapore departure experience. The very embodiment of integrated transport efficiency: you can’t tell where different authorities/organisations hand over. Bus, MRT (metro), airport. It works flawlessly. (After India, this concept is quite a shock.)
This is not the only analogy on my mind.
Imagine if you will a mountain range in cross-section. Like they show a Tour de France stage in profile on the telly. On the left you begin on the plains slowly rising until you have foot hills which then give way to peaks with a striking summit in the centre. Then pretty much a mirror image until you reach the plains again on the right. Got that?
Then replace the legend “mountain range” with “global market society” or “rampant capitalism” or “conspicuous consumption”. Then start labelling the minor peak on the left flank Bangalore, the right Kota Kinabalu and the whopping pinnacle in the centre Singapore.
Bless my cotton pinkies ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. You probably knew this. You’ve already been, I’m sure. You know your history. You know your global markets. You get the principles of globalised supply chain.
Singapore is capitalism turned up to 11.
The most efficient machine for cash extraction I’ve been to and, let’s not forget, a dictatorship. Albeit a benign one.
When we depart via Changi airport – a true 21st century transport hub, I doff my cap to the folk with the vision to put that little lot together – a quick Singapore dollar count revealed we were strapped for cash. (The words “budget” and “Singapore” aren’t going to have a happy and lasting relationship together unless you prefix “budget” with the word “unlimited”.) So to stretch our S$30 and keep little people onside we find a McDonalds.
Over a plastic burger I find the parallels here striking too. Well thought out, ever so clean, brightly coloured, functional, not very good for you if you over indulge, strangely sinister, safe, trance inducing and the feeling you are being processed. A very American dream.
And what about McDonalds? Yet we all like a dose of fast food now and then don’t we?
We arrived bleary eyed at 06.00 from Bangalore two days previously and the contrast is surreal. I was genuinely taken aback by Singapore. It begins the moment you pass security to get in to the terminal at Bangalore Airport and – effectively – leave India behind. By lunchtime that – or is it the next? The previous? – day we are jet lagged and famished in tropical Singapore. Small Beers are soldiering on but making increasing noise about wanting comfort food. So to complete the interplanetary transition we touch down at a Knights of Old themed restaurant on a balcony in mega-shopping-complex Vivo City. Fish & Chips for Jojo, Spag-Bol for Mog and a salad for Gilly. I realise when my food arrives that I ordered half a cow and half a pig on a plate combo. (My less conscious self craving red meat after two weeks of veggie fodder?) We stuff our faces like savages. The backdrop to our Simpson-esque feeding frenzy? Our table affords a bird’s eye view of the cartoonish Sentosa island resort and the equally fantastic commercial container port.
The latter serves to remind that Singapore is a global trading hub. All this money is not here by accident: a lot of stuff passes through this place. From our vantage point, the shipping containers look like thousands of Lego bricks. The ships, toy boats. The docking cranes, Meccano models. Only the scale is 1:1. It’s just my perspective that’s off kilter. (Ted: “Dougal, these [cows] are very small, those ones are big and far away…”) For an engineering buff such as myself, the visual poetry of a working mega port is spellbinding. In this – indeed, almost every – party, this makes me a minority of one.
Sated, we ride the (spotless) MRT in a kind of daze. I find the malls strangely sinister as streams and waves and torrents of Singaporeans go about their mass consumption. They are having a perfectly normal day of course. We’re a bit intimidated by the quiet, focused shopping centre throng. In truth we’re all a bit exhausted – punishing schedule, my bad – and jumpy. The pushy clamour of Chinatown is a little more reassuring somehow having just come from India (the real one, not Little India): getting one-to-one hassle seems normal right now.
So, all hail the wonders of www.airbnb.com where we found our Singapore pad. Diane & Damian have a lovely condo, with a pool! A pool!!! J&M are beside themselves and take advantage: two happier kids I can’t imagine. Diane is a gem and we feel right at home, sleeping like logs. We have our own keys, tickets to ride public transport and – thanks to some great inside info – a few things we want to see.
The super-slick Night Safari is a big hit. Particularly the Mangrove Walk which is basically a bat feeding zone under netting. Fruit-bats, Flying Foxes and smaller bats whizz past centimetres from your head. Three of our party are spellbound. One covers their mouth and shrieks like some muted horror-movie sound effect. Morgan shakes his head in disgust and announces it “really cool”. [The staff still talk of a lovely lady from Essex who screamed so much that the bats were traumatised for a month.] We stick around to watch a party of way-too-cool-for-school Singaporean teens – trendy young fellows with multiple hairstyles and an ill-fitting trouser – shrieking full volume. Morgan shrugs as if to say “Teenagers eh?”
We take in the gory kitch of Haw Par Villawith pleasingly free entry. We didn’t need to know, but are now fully au fait with the ten stages of Chinese mythic hell (explained in brutally graphic models). J&M squeak with delight. Then we have an accidental Korean banquet for lunch.
Accidental? We point at a few bits on the menu thinking “snack” and the staff bring half the kitchen plus the extra dishes we pointed to. Ho hum. (We had a side of Ho Hum, it’s a delicacy in Seoul dont-cha-know.) Several new food experiences for all concerned followed by a MasterCard testing bill.
Later we ride the excellent, if ruinously expensive cable-car to Sentosa where I melt in the heat (much to Gilly’s amusement). The highlight is meeting cousin Cosmo at the hawker centre in Chinatown for dinner. (His treat under strict orders from Mum. Thanks Cosmo: the lobsters were delicious and that Krug went down a treat.) Apart from it being great to see a friendly face with some excellent inside knowledge, it’s a fun place to eat. Think of a high rise 1960s inner city council estate in the UK. (Bracknell market is spookily similar in terms of construction.) Head for the lower levels and turn up the heat to a humid 30C. Then fill every corner with a teeny-tiny little roller-shuttered shops making one specialist oriental foodstuff. Fill central areas with tatty tables and chairs. Add a soundtrack of oriental chatter and we’re there.
We had beers from the Beer Stall. Noodles from the Noodles man and so on. Delicious and great value. (Especially since we weren’t paying.) The kids have satay, I have something noodley which I ordered by pointing at and paid S$3. (We chuckle about the food hygiene ratings on display. My grub came with a B. This might either be close to outstanding or last on a two letter scale: who knows? Who cares!) Plates cleaned, we head into the sticky evening pausing only for Bornean favourite: SourSop.
Cosmo and family are experts on the Sabah region: we’re very grateful for the inside track. And when I say expert, I mean EXPERT: here’s a book recommendation!
And now we’re touching down in Kota Kinabalu (KK) the capital of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. You were expecting a metal shack for an airport building? Think again. Dual carriageways, Beemers, traffic jams, KFC. I write this paragraph from a capsule (Tune Hotel) room in a mall complex called 1 Borneo http://www.1borneo.net/. “The 1st & LARGEST hypermall in East Malasia!” Heaven help us. It’s as huge as the hyperbole suggests – first AND largest! – and could easily be in the USA. (Until you notice the differences in – say – food offerings where there’s no pork on offer and lots of headscarves on sale. Our hotel room has a small mecca locating arrow on the ceiling.) Still, there’s budget concious method in our madness: we booked in advance to pay £7/room or thereabouts.
Travelling with your kids gives a perspective that you’d miss as grown ups. In India they went with the flow and were gracious. In Singapore we had some brattish outbursts because they demand the candyfloss offerings that modern advertising has educated them to crave. “Please, please, please Mummy can we have that….” er, utter crap. So goes the whining refrain. a: we’re being re-infected by consumerism. We could be in a sweaty version of Swindon. Can’t wait to get back off the beaten track again.
Time for a tropical island antidote.