Daily Archives: March 3, 2012


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.

Yet another Singapore rule

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?

Let’s back-track.

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.

Riding the MRT

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?”

Haw Par Villa

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.

Where to start?!

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! 

Fast forward.

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.

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Leaving on a midnight train to… Bangalore.

Bus travel can be fun! So imply the clever marketers of coaches. I agree and add that bus travel is educational. Not your normal claim, eh? Not one the National Express will be half-inching for their next ad’ campaign. (Although hands up who is already humming the classic Divine Comedy track at the mere mention of the venerable coach company? “And it’s hard to get by…” If you’ve never heard it, get onto YouTube for the typically witty video.) How does one justify such a dotty assertion? Well, I’ll go further. It’s not just educational, it’s a belief of mine that the way to get to know a place quickly and authentically is simple: Ride as the locals do. Not only do you see all sorts, but you meet people too. For peanuts!

You’re not buying it are you? I can tell. Suit yourself. In any event, we’ve lived to tell the tale of (possibly) the shoddiest bus in the Indian sub-continent. Now there’s an accolade that i) no one would want and – paradoxically – ii) is subject to some pretty stiff competition: India is home to the truly crappy bus.

So what of the railways? In 1994 I rode thousands of kilometres by rail across wonderful India and wanted the Beers to have a taste. Hence we are riding overnight Madurai to Bangalore.

“Marvellous” says in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound I.

“Not so sure” says comfort enthusiast Mrs B.

All booked from the comfort of the UK. Isn’t t’internet wonderful?

Well, er, no.

Lost in the ether was the minor details of the ticket requirement. Or as later pointed out by a local, more likely minor corruption at work. Three separate forays to the railway station only gives patchy information on our pre-booked tickets.

(Personal aside: At the occasion of my 3rd in-person visit to the station to get the opposite of definitive information, I experience sense of humour loss. Again. (For the second time in 24hours.) This involves having a Reggie Perrin moment where I can clearly see the – so-called – “General Information Officer’s” face as I hold his head under the surface of some water. As I float back to what I am loosely terming reality, I consider bursting into tears. This feeling of helplessness – with a side order of “beam me up Scotty” i- s enhanced by several things. One, I’ve had little sleep, am wearing a heavy rucksack and it’s 35C. Two, I am under self-imposed pressure to provide a positive train experience to match the hype I have been (unwisely) generating. And then there’s the utterly different social rules in this culture. In this case, concepts of queuing and ‘personal space’ in India. Whilst queuing seems to be happening, it actually isn’t. You can’t just march up to the front surely? No. Yes. Oh I don’t know. Then, finally at the counter leaning in to hear what’s being said you are jostled left and right by people trying a) to hear what you are on about – IE: being openly nosy – b) to get their own stuff sorted and c) to literally just see what’s going on. The former and latter are subtly different. The Indian people love to openly watch and stare: their rules of etiquette around this unsettle us stiff Brits. My final note on the matter: you can’t expect full and frank information in India. That’s not how they roll. You have to ask multiple times from every conceivable angle and then fill in the gaps. Frustrating with a capital F? Yes. But that’s how it is… you have to soak up the punishment and move on. Control freak? Don’t come here: your values/standards won’t wash.)

Armed with less than perfect information we are on the utterly filthy platform for our on-time train. We find our carriage and… oh. The super efficient “who’s where” system is crystal clear: We have two berths.

Four reservations made equals two berths on the train. Specifically, Ian & Gillian have beds. Bye-bye kids, see you in Bangalore?
We board anyway and the train conductor – several cuts above your bus equivalent – allows us to squidge in. (Generous of him personally, but as I’d actually paid in full for all four of us…) And we’re rolling. It’s a particularly Indian experience to be thrust into a tiny little community which is your curtained compartment. Within minutes we’ve all shaken hands, children play, grandparents offer us food and the lone businessman – Bank Manager M. Desikan – gives up his bed for Mrs B. (He’s only aboard until 1AM he reasons…)

As the rest of the Beers bed down, Desikan and I have a wide-ranging conversation. How global and well read the Indian business perspective can be. Puts me to shame. We talk into the small hours as the train trundles along. As a compromise to Mrs B we are travelling AC2 tier. IE: Posh. Sheer luxury! Air-conditioned with “only” 2 tiers of bunks as opposed to three or even four layers with paneless windows for ventilation for those further along the (enormous, twenty carriage) train. Your Indian train rides along wider gauge tracks so the whole affair is on a bigger scale than our trains. Ironic since “we” (Brits) built both: in India we had the blank canvas to do things properly.
Other things are not proper though. How come a bank manager who books the day before can get a berth where the tourist booking and PAYING 3 months in advance can’t? (Nothing personal against the gentleman who gave up his bed.)

[Okay, okay: I’ll let it go.]

We part on good terms at 01.30 when all is quiet aboard. Soon I am feeling the great luxury of lying flat when a new noise joins the ensemble. THUD! Parental heads poke urgently through curtains. A small Indian lad has fallen off the top bunk onto the hard floor.
Isn’t it amazing hows kids bounce?
We’re all awake at 05.45 – that’s the western loo and a man under a sheet on the video – as the train makes its way into the outskirts of Bangalore. I hold Mog & Jojo as they lean out of the open carriage door Indian stylee. Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. (Whaddya mean I’m a bad parent? We weren’t going all that fast. I was being educational: “Looks kids, you can’t do this in the UK.” Just don’t tell their Mum.)

Bangalore City Junction station 06.45 on any old Saturday morning is like Twickenham or Cardiff Central on a Six Nations day. (Ahhhh, this’ll be the sweet weekend where Wales beat England I feel.) We follow the herd out of the station to encounter a smiling face. Why it’s Mr Saty Joshi as I live and breathe! Saty and I sat next to each other in a UK office before he relocated with the company to India.

Not only have we got him out of bed early on a Saturday – following a mega busy Friday – but he’s extending us full hospitality. Soon we are being transported in comfort to his apartment. This is just as well as Bangalore traffic is howling, slavering, twitching, barking mad. It’s like the rest of India but with faster, more numerous cars on wider tarmac with greater urgency. After some ado we’re at Joshi towers and being given breakfast by Priti, Saty’s better half. By anyone’s standards they have a lovely pad and it’s decor is delightful. Would we like a shower? We bite Priti’s hand off down to the ankle.

Suitably cleansed we take in the sights and meet up again for lunch. It’s at the 21st century mall – where Saty’s office is – with a collection of nice cafes and restaurants. Nice in any country: unreal in India. Within minutes we’re munching pizza and gossiping away like we do this every Saturday.

Afterwards, the ladies go clothes shopping Indian style: for a sari. The mind-boggling quantity and variety of garments is used to great effect by master Bangalore sales people. They see reactions to the theatrically spread items – “oooh, that blue is nice” – making more and more effort going for the guilt purchase angle. The men folk – Saty as my expert guide – are treated to coffee/pop and a sit down before being commanded to get the wallet out. British shops take note?

Several saris later it’s back to the ranch to try out the pool. Apart from a quick dip in the sea at Alleppey, there’s been no swimming on the trip. So eyes bulge from sockets when a groovy, deep blue, empty private pool is proffered. Much childish excitement and splashing ensues. Josie & Morgan were eventually allowed in for a swim too.

Dryed off we have a fascinating conversation with our hots about the way things work in Bangalore. The theory of the train ticket “mistake”? More like corruption and backsheesh. State bank manager versus foreigners? Guess who wins. It’s an education for Gilly & I in the “rules” of modern Indian society. Saty & Priti are doing their bit to right some wrongs in their neighbourhood: direct action rocks.

Murugan Fast Foods: Madurai Junction

Before you know it, we’re waving goodbye – after Masala Dosa, yum! – and heading for the airport. This journey will be easier in years to come as there’s an airport express in the works. However, in true Indian fashion, whilst they build it the road to the airport has dirt-track chicanes where major works are undertaken. The recipe? No signage, no lighting: a kilometre or two of full-beam dual-carriageway foot-down followed by swerving off the road, bumpety-bumping over the shoulder, around the enormous concrete blocks and repeat. (Sprinkle in oncoming headlights and crossing ox carts to taste.) It’s not an aggressive ride, just too fast and a little bit squeaky bum for us passengers.

And then we’re into the late evening terminal and it’s next stop Singapore…

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