Kuala Lumpur to Singapore
18.08.2000 - 10.09.2000
Hello everyone :-)
I'm starting to write this episode from Mook Country Lodge just outside Kota kinablau - Borneo. It's a lovely lodge that's set on a small padi field island surrounded by jungle and nature. It's large, has three bedrooms, two kitchens and two bathrooms. The veranda's at the front and rear are huge and the views are amazing....water buffalo wallow in the pond at the end of the fruit garden and butterflies glide between coconut trees, mango trees and pineapple bushes with their wings as if on fire with colour. Birds sing, and the sounds of nature change from day to night as blissfully as the sunrises and the sunsets. I've been here for the past ten days and have spent much of my time relaxing and recuperating from my travels and experiences, but who knows where I'll be when I complete this part of my blog :-)
From 18/08/07 to 10/09/07
The flight fom Phuket to Kuala Lumpur (KL) was soooooo turbulent....there really were times when I thought we were all going to crash!! I know that sounds melodramatic, but it's true. The plane was flying well and all of a sudden it drastically dropped, the change in altitude was so severe that a young girl a couple of rows in front of me vomited over her patient parent and I'm sure I heard the hostess muffle a scream too!
Fortunately I landed safely and Will, who I met in Kata (Phuket), met me at Kuala Lumpur's airport....from the hedonistic heights, poverty and prostitution of Thailand...KL's a most welcome place...a modern metropolis that's set in a jungle landscape where its ethnic triumvirate (Chinese, Indian and Malay) maintain their cultural orbits while producing interesting and exciting areas to visit and explore too.
The Chinese markets are as vibrant and dizzying as almost any disco, and the sights and sounds are equally as disorientating....especially after a liquid lunch! Little India is as colourful as a rainbow and while exploring the area it feels as though a Bollywood movie is about to be filmed...from large shop front speakers Bangladesh music puts beat to the feet and the smells.... the smells of spicy food being cooked hits your senses like an opiate. Fashion is as equally diverse as KL's areas and it's not uncommon to be sitting at a corner cafe and a Muslim woman in her bright multicoloured clothes walks by... followed by a Chinese woman in a catwalk mini skirt and tank top with her two children in tow... both of whom are dressed as Gothic as many Western teenagers do - though the eerie thing is that these young people have a manga cartoon like twist that enhances the portrayal of their dark-sided persona, like child vampires or anaemic kids gone wild with their mums mascara, powder and lippy! ...on the corner there's an older Indian woman in a sari with her daughter in jeans and flip flops, her son is in a designer suit, and they all wear bindis - the Hindu forehead dot.
Bukit Bintang was the first and only place I've I regretted staying.... it's a backpackers paradise that caters for the real budget conscious traveller who doesn't mind staying in KL's equivalent of the Bronx, it's loud and cheap! Not only that, it's also a place where I was ripped off....it was only twenty quid, but still...not a nice experience! I just arrived in KL and tried to check in to my prebooked Homestay (The Pujangga) only to be told that there is no room due to renovation. The receptionist, and I use the word loosely, let me know that there was a room available at The Summers Guesthouse just around the corner, he also told me that it had been arranged that I pay the same price as agreed with Pujangga and I could collect the deposit I'd paid the next day - when the managers there!. I asked to be shown The Summers Guesthouse and was dully dumped on its doorstep, as I looked around, like Mr Ben, the receptionist simply vanished! Obviously it turned out that I was charged more at Summers, and that was kind of ok....It was a huge, fastidiously clean and fresh room. Although when I tried sleeping there.... the pubs and clubs below played music until 4am and the revellers were still singing at 5am! The next morning Will met me and we walked around to the Pujangga to obtain the deposit I paid them. I thought having Will with me, a Malay person, would help my situation.....of course I never got the deposit back! Will, bless, was no help and I was far too tired to put up much of a fight!! Will's a nice guy, kind and most generous with his time. He's a practising Chinese Buddhist who chants, repeating the same three words three hundred times, twice a day. And like many people I've met in Southeast Asia, his confidence and self-esteem are low and his way of life doesn't involve confrontation.
Simon & Will
Tunes hotel (tunehotels.com) was my next port of call and this funky cheap hotel was perfect, its brightly painted red and white exterior was inviting and the staff are excellent. Its an extremely minimalistic hotel that's situated close to a railway station and monorail, and for less than ten pounds per night it's where I spent the next six.
Exploring this city by day was made very easy as I was near both mono and rail lines, exploring the city by night was even easier as I now have a local friend who is also a very good guide. Will sorted the Tunes hotel for me and took me to many places most travellers never go. The restaurants were especially good and I was usually the only Western person there, which was a bit odd! As some of you may know...I kinda like attention, but being the only white person often involved adults staring and children pointing...it was like being the odd one out! I guess I felt the same as any minority group member feels when surrounded by people who are different, but white, gay and Welsh.....that's a bit of a challenge :-) The food was a gastronomic treat though, fresh sea food like crab or tiger prawns were wonderfully cooked and a meal for two cost around five pounds for a feast. The soup kitchens are fantastic and when you arrive you're seated on a table with its own gas ring and given a pot containing a vegetable/chicken broth. You then choose what you would like to add.....mushrooms, noodles, meat etc, its all brought to the table where you cook it yourself. The soup kitchens are a little more hygienic than many of the kitchens I saw. Most are set outside and although the customer can see the preparation and the food being cooked, the flies and cleanliness levels are a bit scary and are certainly not up to the standards of British establishments.....but then again, what should I expect for a few quid a meal!
The Jalans (streets) of KL are as lively as ever I saw, the colourful people already mentioned, colourful shops and shopping malls too...some malls have full size ice rinks in and they all make the Trafford center look like the corner shop. Hundreds of malls fill vast areas of KL and fortunately for me the big sales were on, to say I went a little berserk would be the understatement of 2008! Bargains galore overflowed from the shelves and they were all so cheap...genuine labels such as Versace, DKNY, Gucci and all were crammed in my repaired rucksack and some lovely silks were flown back to Wales.
Many days were started at Starbucks listening to the cacophonous sound of the city waking up. A city that was also getting ready for its Medeka day (the 50th Independence day) extravaganza.....posters, lights, balloons and banners were being strewn across every jalan and the party buzz was already electrifying the atmosphere. A Starbucks latte consumed and the days sight seeing began....
....Masjid Jamel Bandaraya is one of the many mosques I visited and is a spectacular piece of architecture that sees many hundreds of visitors visit each week.... KL's Muslim mosque, one of the biggest in the world, is awash with peace and tranquility which utilises water and minimalism to aid the believers prayers to Allah.... Monument park is a memorial to those Malaysians who fought the wars and the statues and fountains therein are striking features....and the magnificent Petronas Twin Towers are two of the biggest erections my eyes have fallen upon, they tower KL's skyline by day like beacons, and by night they glow and light the sky as if an alien invasion is about to begin.
Before riding the lift to the top of the twin towers it started to rain and I took shelter in a near by cafe, ironically I met a group of young men holidaying from Iraq and as we chatted I became engrossed in a conversation that was both enlightening and enriching. They talked about their fears living under the rule of Saddam Hussein as they all worked for UK and USA based companies; they lived in fear not only for their own lives, but for the lives of their family members too! One chap talked about how he would be escorted to and from work, he wouldn't dare leave his house other than to go to work and when there he constantly worried for the safety of his wife and young children. All of them disclosed their concerns about independently travelling almost anywhere in the world simply because their Iraq citizenship is stamped on their passports....they said that they had been discriminated against in their own country and now are only welcome in three of the worlds countries too! Each of them expressed happiness at the demise of Saddam Hussein and each of them expressed further fear as well....the fear that now exists for them is a fear of the worlds view! And they're right! Even as I sat chatting with these nice people interjects ran through my mind....what if this, what if that....mad, I know, but the messages we receive from the media can so influence our subconscious ...we can perceive all Iraq's citizens as a threat!!
Inside the Twin Towers is nothing too special, expensive shops, cafes and restaurants all help the tourist shed a few pounds, yen and ringgit....but the city views are breathtaking....for miles one can see a plethora of chophouses, malls, parks and stadiums. The park behind the Twin Towers (KLCC park) is a restful place which incorporates some amazing sculptures, a man made lake, and refreshing water features all help one relax after spending a small fortune in Louis Vetton and alike.... It's surrounded by some very trendy bars too, one in particular serves a delicious cold pint of Guinness and some lovely calamari....Mmmm!
Twin Towers at night
I checked out of Tunes hotel after seven days and booked a weekend in Malacca before returning to KL for the Merdeka festivities, Batu caves and the opportunity to meet Mahathir Mohamad (Malaysia's Prime Minister).
Malacca is a seaside town that's about a two and a half hour drive from KL and Its Portuguese and Dutch influences remain in the architecture that surrounds the main square there....the windmill, fountain and church are a sight to behold, and the museum takes you on a journey that exhibits the historical roots to contemporary living in Malacca. The old monastery, at the top of the hill, evokes images of bygone days and of the invasions that the town suffered, and the graveyard tells a story of the troubles faced and overcome with tomb stones that date back hundreds and hundreds of years.
Malacca's five star Renaissance hotel was a welcome change from budget accommodation and includes a bath in the bathroom (as opposed to just a shower), sauna and steam rooms on a lower floor, a wonderful breakfast buffet, and the roof top swimming pool afforded magnificent views of the towns skyline too. I know it may sound a bit odd, but to have a bath was an amazing luxury. You see, for what seemed like months, I hadn't had a bath and I love my baths (of course I had many showers!).... to have an actual bath in my bathroom was like having my own little peace of paradise. I'd fill the bath with almost a bottle of bubble bath, shave, apply a face pack, pour a glass of oak aged red wine, put on some soul full tunes and just lay back and relax....ahhh.... Bliss! A trip for a sauna and steam heightened my glow and Malacca's nightlife unfolded with flow. Not that the nightlife was hectic, in fact it has no clubs and the pubs are set in the outdoors just at the edge of the colourful market place. Tourists and locals chatted and danced the night away while local bands played a mix of European pop and American rock and Roll....the atmosphere was superb and the people ever so friendly.
Back in KL for a further week and I checked in the Orchid hotel near little India.....a nice, reasonably priced, abode with rooms that had big beds, air conditioning and a good sized bathroom....albeit no bath!
I thoroughly enjoyed taking a trip to Batu caves and they're not only magnificent, but are filled with holy shrines and hundreds of monkey too. The caves are an hours drive from KL and are a treat for the adventurous traveller.. I say adventurous because there's a three hundred step staircase to climb before entering the caves gargantuan mouth, but when inside the trek is certainly worth every intake of breath. The mini-temples that reside there are visited by many Hindu worshippers, witch doctors sell their potions and holy people give blessings, dotting a bindis on the forehead of anyone willing to pay a ringgit or two. While I was there I witnessed, what appeared to be, a crazy woman having an epileptic fit. Concerned, or rather nosey, I rushed over to see what the commotion was about and was told, by a believer, that the woman had just been possessed by an ancient spirit....sure, I thought! When this woman was de-possessed, and remarkably quickly recovered, she was able to pass a tin around as if nothing had just taken over her nervous system! Within a matter of minutes her tin overflowed with money and she disappeared inside a temple to be cleansed...apparently!
Of course scams have happened here and there, but there is no doubting the wonderful natural phenomena of Batu caves themselves. Walking inside was like steeping in a cool fridge, the walls are adorned with holy pictures and statues of various gods are located all around. After walking about three hundred yards the ceiling gives way to a gloriously framed sky, mother natures beauty shone and cotton candy clouds floated by. The sky was a beautiful baby blue and the hole in the ceiling was framed by lushes flora and fauna that draped the walls as if growing upside down. Water cascaded from the mountain above and dripped down the caves walls feeding plants and allowing the light to reflect and dance....it was like a mirror ball effect in a prehistoric discotheque :-)
Descending the steps from the caves mouth gave an awe inspiring panoramic view of the surrounding areas and was like walking the set of a Tarzan movie. Monkeys swung in the trees that lined the steps and some actually sat on the steps being fed by anyone who happened to have a banana, sandwich or snack handy. It was soooo cute seeing one monkey drinking from a can of coke and another trying to open a bag he/she had unscrupulously stolen from an unsuspecting passer by.
Tune hotel had kindly stored some of my belongings before I had left for Malacca and on my return I called in to collect them, unknowingly I arrived just as the Malaysian Prime Minister was arriving to sign an agreement for the hotel group to go national. I did slightly exaggerate earlier, I didn't actually meet him ....although he, and his not so large entourage, was only a matter of inches away from me and one or two other onlookers. It was just surprising to see that he wasn't surrounded by security, one or two minders had visible guns, and hardly anyone had even noticed him!
The Independence day celebrations were as if the city had erupted with colour, sound and light and the influx of people was almost overwhelming. Traffic, which is pretty awful in kL everyday, came to a complete standstill and people and parties spilled and filled the jalans, parks and stadiums. Marching bands played booming tunes, skyscrapers were lite like Christmas, ministers gave speeches, crowds cheered and TV cameras captured it all in spectacular technicolour. The Malay, Chinese and Indian communities came together and with tourist from all over the world, in the immortal lyrics of Prince (or is that the artist formerly known as?) partied like it was nineteen ninety nine.
Singapore, a six hour Aeroline bus ride away from KL, was my next stop on this journey of mine and its reputation for safety and cleanliness is certainly not exaggerated....it's true! No hawkers, no scams and no hassle....my mothers womb was probably the only other place on this planet, so far visited, where I've felt so safe.
The Aerobus ride cost around ten pounds and travelled the Malaysian country side to drop me off in another country. I spent six lovely days in Singapore and filled my days with seeing so many temples that I think I'm now an honorary monk :-)
I checked in the Emerald Fragrance hotel in an area called Geylang. It's another nice budget hotel that's situated only a ten minute walk away from Singapore's superbly efficient MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) rail system and only a two minute walk to the Gay World Hotel. I know what some of you maybe thinking, because when I saw Gay World Hotel....I probably thought similar, but it isn't specifically a 'Gay' establishment. The area, Geylang, used to be called Gaylang until the Singaporean government realised the western connotation of the word 'Gay', they replaced the 'a' with an 'e' .....big difference!
Gay World Hotel
I was lucky enough to have a Singaporean contact....Merv was introduced to me, via email, by Micheal Dobbin who I'd met on Koh Samaui. Merv and I met for dinner the night I arrived and we ate at the Suntec mall...the mall houses the worlds largest feng shui fountain which probably helped Merv and I to get along well. Merv divulged all the local information I needed as we ate fish head soup....it's literally a fishes head floating in a broth that doesn't sound too appetising I know, but it was lovely and apparently the eyes are a delicacy full of brain enhancing vitamins...needlesstosay, I took Merv's word for this piece of information! After dinner Merv went off to meet his friends and I took a look at the aforementioned fountain. Water, lights and classical music simultaneously soothed the senses and refreshed the skin. I left the mall feeling at peace and am still not sure whether it was the affects of the fountain or the several gin and tonics I consumed whist watching it dance.
The following day I took the MRT to the harbour, crossed the sea by cable car, and had a day on the Sentosa Island Resort. Sentosa is a man made island that incorporates many features.... a wonderfully clean beach, restaurants, bars and another stunning visual treat of water, light and music....this one utilises pyrotechnics, fireworks and projection cameras to augment the staffs production of their show too. Although the show tells a story of a captured princess, mermaids and, of course, a baddie; it's mainly for children and young people, but encourages children, young people and adults to cheer, boo and hiss alike.The cable car ride was an amazing experience in itself and journeying over the sea to get to the island gave breathtaking views of Singapore's sprawling metropolis, and the jungle that surrounded Sentosa too....as scary as cable cars can be, this adrenalin infused ride was well worth it, if only to see the show.
The temples and churches are outstanding in Singapore.....the Thain Hoch Keng, Sri Mariamman and the Buddha Tooth Relic temples are awash with worshippers lighting candles and incense sticks that help create an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Ornate statues, of various Gods, adorn these places of worship and the architecture that houses them are truly a spectacular visual feast. Our Lady of Lourdes church was happened upon while walking to the famous Arab street's Sultan Mosque, it stood out like an iceberg at sea.....large and white, as if floating in an area surrounded by nothing. On entering the sanctuary of the church I felt almost overwhelmed by its serenity, it took me back to my childhood and reminded me of the church I attended as a boy. With Its magnificent stained glass windows, statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the alter, the pulpit, and even the way it smelled transported me in time and back to St Albans church in Splot, Cardiff. Unfortunately the Sultan Mosque had little effect, it looked quite old and in need of renovation. On the other hand, Arab street was pretty unique, it really was like I imagine an Arabian street to look like....silk and carpet shops, cafes and coffee houses, sweet smelling shisha pipes and men with long beards and flowing robes. The Sri Kishan and the Goddess of Mersey temples are a short walk away from Arab street and are amazing structures that stand out with their red brick walls and golden coloured dragons and Buddhas. The Sri Veeramkaliamman temple, situated in Little India, is a monumental masterpiece with a superb Indian cafe just across the road that is not only a great people watching spot, but serves the most wonderful curry I've ever tasted....although, the tea with condensed milk toke a bit of getting used to!
Of course, the obligatory Singapore sling cocktail had to be drank at the world renowned Raffles hotel, declared a National Monument in 1987.... the hotel that is, not the cocktail!....it stands as a jewel in the crown of Singapore's hospitality industry, renowned and loved for its inimitable style and unsurpassed excellence in service and facilities. Raffles hotel opened in 1887 and over the years has evolved into one of the world's most beloved grand hotels that's welcomed innumerable celebrities, writers and royalty as guests. The Singapore sling was a bit of a disappointment and with a margarita in hand I felt transported back to those early days of its roots, but maybe they weren't wearing shorts and flip flops back then?
The Changi war museum is a must for anyone interested in the history of a country and this one is no exception. It's a modern day marvel that chronologically espouses the atrocities of war, encapsulating the horror and suffering human beings can bestow on their fellow human beings. The prolific systematic brutality displayed in this museum is a sad, even sickening, epitaph that also provides an insight into the strength and determination of those who struggled throughout the wars to help so many people evade capture and torture....they saved many lives and risked all to stall, if not stop, the unjustifiable crimes of their tormentors.
On a lighter note....Whiling away the night time hours at some of Singapore's reputable gay venues is a good experience. I met so many good people here and one man in particular stands out from the crowd. Andi is a Singaporean who speaks the English language as if he'd been educated at Eton or Oxford.....he owns a chain of tailors shops and sashays around the scene like John Inman on amphetamines.... John Inman played the gay character in sitcom Are You Being Served. I met Andi as I stood on a corner near Raffles MRT, I was looking at my map like a tourist with a Belicia Beacon on his head that must have flickered 'help'! Andi came mincing over to my assistance and as he is so obviously a friend of Dorothy I felt comfortable enough to ask him to direct me to the gay bars.....I say 'comfortable enough' as I asked another chap for those directions and he just gave me a curious look and scurried off say something I couldn't understand! Oh, and 'a friend of Dorothy' is somebody with an antithetic sexuality, it's taken from the film The Wizard of Oz.....all Dorothy's friends are 'different'. Anyway, not only did Andi give me directions, he showed me around them all over the nights I spent in Singapore. He introduced to many of his friends and we all had such fun....again, somebody good and kind had taken me under their wing and again I felt very safe in a country where I knew nobody. It's so reassuring, the selflessness of others, their acts, and the kindness they show....these people have really made my journey so much safer and easier....I've been made to feel so welcome in so many places......happy days!
My stay in Singapore certainly was an amazing experience and after a wonderful week I heard Borneo beckoning.....