Singapore Sling- January 1987
Updated: Jan 20
This narrative forms part of our one year-round-the-world honeymoon. We depart Penang, Malaysia, heading south to Singapore.
When it was time for us to extricate ourselves from Penang, our plan was to catch the Bangkok-Buttersworth-Singapore Express train to Singapore. We were sitting at a popular travellers haunt in Penang's backpacker ghetto and noted an incredibly cheap bus ride to Singapore, less than half the cost by rail.
Sadly, we allowed budgetary constraints to cloud our judgement. We still hadn’t gotten it into our heads that rail travel is the best way to move about in Asia, and absolutely must be the main mode of transport whenever possible.
As Paul Theroux noted in the influential book "The Great Railway Bazaar:"
The train can reassure you in awful places-a far cry from the anxious sweats of doom airplanes inspire, or the nauseating gas-sickness of the long-distance bus, or the paralysis that afflicts the car passenger.
We eschewed this advice, and along with fellow travellers Sue, Lou, boarded another in a series of overnight buses. We crossed the harbour by local ferry, then boarded our bus and made our way down the length of Malaysian Peninsula toward Singapore.
Row upon row of rubber trees; through thick jungle and lush hillsides, we were entranced. Malaysia was more beautiful than we’d imagined, cleaner and more organized than chaotic Indonesia. One’s place perception is often based on comparing the country recently left departed, especially after a long stay.
The hot tropical scene morphed into a magnificent sunset. We noted how frigid the air-conditioning was. Lou noted: “You could hang meat in here!” We hadn’t lately travelled in air-conditioned comfort, except aboard the Kerinci from Java to Sumatra; this was another unusual experience.
The bus was quite uncomfortable for sleeping, despite its wide seats. It wasn’t crowded, very few people smoked, as the passengers list was almost entirely westerners. And, to our great delight, it never once stopped to pick up a passenger! We remarked it was a long way from Indonesia to Malaysia, at least as far as the bus system was concerned. Eventually, I was able to fall asleep, but Elaine mostly tossed and turned all night. At about five in the morning, we came to the Singapore frontier, requiring disembarkation.
Customs at Singapore was a bit of pain: many forms to fill, lots of questions regarding drugs, employment etc…but eventually, the obligatory passport stamp. In the halcyon days, Singapore policy of “no long hairs allowed" meant those on the old hippy trail were served a free pig shave from over-zealous Singapore customs officials.
Back on the bus, we crossed the channel and as if in a mirage, we returned back to the west. Buildings were new or painted, streets clean, modern buses. Well-tended habitations and apartment complexes, a city running headlong into the 21st century. We were disgorged downtown amongst skyscrapers and a bustling cityscape. Excepting for the tropical heat, we could have been in any city in the western world.
Singapore had made great progress moving from a Third World state to a prosperous nation. The strict rule of “King Lee” had forced the largely Chinese population to abandon spitting, smoking in public and jaywalking- three things the Chinaman man does with abandon. I’m not an economist, but I’ve witnessed the Singapore miracle. Crossing the bridge from Johare to Singapore has to be one of the longest journeys, in terms of economic realities, that can be taken by the overland traveller. Nowhere are the contrasts of east and west more evident.
Much has been written about what happens when east meets west. For us, travelling from the relatively backward nation of Indonesia, with its unique appeal, Penang and Singapore were a breath of fresh air, the opportunity to reconnoitre and to take stock. While we’d only been in SE Asia for 3 months, the sensory overload had often been overwhelming.
An intrepid traveller whose paths we had crossed had given us the name of a “crash pad” in Singapore that featured a swimming pool. Crash pads were hold-overs from the old hippy days, when semi-illegal cheap dorm-style accommodations were set up for the budget traveller. The area around Bencoolen Street still provided very inexpensive facilities for we backpackers, but we thought we’d try to find the place with the swimming pool.
It was still very early in the morning, and as the heat of the day hadn’t begun, and the fact that we didn’t have any Singapore money exchanged (no banks open at 7 am), we thought we may as well walk. We were extremely burnt to a crisp from the bus ride, but somehow, after travelling for a time on the road, one’s body is able to perform task heretofore considered impossible. We walked along the shoreline, the view was completely obliterated by skyscraper development.
We ended up near Chinatown, and the address we’d been given in Sumatra turned out to be an apartment complex. When we tried to enter, we were approached by an Indian security guard, who made us fill out a form, and even checked our passport number! We reached the apartment cum crash pad, and found it was full to bursting with Germans, who were in the midst of breakfast. The proprietor, a Chinese woman, said she doubted we could stay for the night. We decided to follow the conventional route of travellers-on-the-cheap in Singapore, and headed to Bencoolen Street.
By now, it was fairly hot, and we were frazzled. It was about a twenty minute walk to the district, and as soon as we reached the right neighbourhood, with Lonely Planet’s SouthEast Asia on the Cheap aka the yellow bible in hand, we were approached by a young tout, who handed us a flyer for the Hawaii Guest House (the name may have reflected a desire to present it as a vision of paradise). He promised beds, shower, and a locker in a dorm for $5/each.
Our dorm had beds for eight people, and was quite clean. We were on the tenth floor of an older office building, and included a fairly good view of the city. As we were located in a fairly central part of the city, exploration by foot was a definite option. It did take us a while to get our engines back into gear, however, as we had once again pushed our limit of endurance. We decided to stay in Singapore for at least three days, to let our system recover.
Singapore is the first world, which means it attracts a lot of “tourist class” travellers. In its zeal to become more like the west, many splendid examples of colonial architecture have been razed. As we sat on our beds reading The Singapore Official Guide, we knew we’d probably skip the “All-Asia Festival: 45 minutes of a tour of Asian culture”. Also crossed off was Peppermint Park, which “recreates open-air ambience, with stars, lighting (sic), thunder and chirps of crickets overhead.”
Lest we sound like the ungrateful tourist who has wandered inadvertently into his own backyard halfway around the world, it should be noted how much we began to enjoy the special delights Singapore offered. Our first order of business was to catch a bus to the Canadian Embassy. There was plenty of mail from home, our first correspondence since New Zealand some three months past.
We explored the fascinating ChinaTown, which had been somewhat preserved from the wreckers ball, dwarfed by towering high-rises around its perimeter. The night food markets presented such a wealth of food from all over the world that we fairly gorged ourselves with Thai, Malaysian and Singaporean delights. Along the quay, Indonesian wooden ships tied up, and we discovered an amazing soup called Laksa, hot and sour with coconut milk, clams, shrimp, Chinese sausage, bean curd, noodle, and tiny quail eggs. Obviously, the trend of pigging out on exquisite cuisine begun in Malaysia continued in Singapore.
While on the topic of food, (which never seemed too far away), we heard but were unable to confirm the existence of two very exotic dishes peculiar to the region. One cult favourite was said to be monkey’s brains, served with the cropped skull poking out of a hole in the middle of the table (I’ll pass). The other was a “live fish”, where the fresh fish was cooked in such a manner so it was still flopping in the pan when served (a claim I’d heard back in Canada many times, but never actually seen).
Of course, dining on exotic vittles is nothing unusual for the Chinese, who had a reputation of “eating everything with legs except a table, and everything that flies except a plane.” Eating endangered species was still quite common in Asia, due to beliefs in the animal’s curative powers.
Our adventures were less extravagant, and we decided to visit the Jurong Bird Sanctuary on the outskirts of town. The weather was fairly stable at 1 degree north of the equator during our stay, and it rained most days. The best part of the bird sanctuary was when we entered “the world’s biggest aviary, a giant net enclosing a tropical paradise. Inside, birds of every shape and colour pranced about, providing a cornucopia of sights and sounds.
GHOSTS OF THE EMPIRE
Meanwhile, back in town, we thought it expedient to call Canada, because we’d heard the phone system in Singapore was second to none. When we entered the post office-telecommunications centre, we almost had a heart attack. After the chaos of post offices in Indonesia, here was a gorgeous Victorian building regentrified, with yuppie flamingo pink carpets and key lime pie green walls. It was so quiet inside, you could hear a pin drop.
It was a simple matter to place an international call: write a number on the form provided, hand it to the friendly receptionist, who placed the call on her high-tech console. Sit back in a plush chair, read a magazine, and five minutes later, step into an elegant glass booth. Pick up the phone, and a crystal clear voice, connected by at least two satellites, almost exactly halfway around the world. No lag time or delay at all, as if we were placing an order at the Pizza Hut around the corner. One only has to travel to as many Third World countries as I have, and tried to place phone calls to North America, to appreciate the splendour of the Singapore telecommunications system. Why, I can remember being unable to call North America for three days from Palenque in southern Mexico. “Sorry, senor, but all zee lines are beezie.”
Mold had made its way into our zoom lens for our camera while in Fiji, so we decided to upgrade our equipment Singapore. Prices were fairly reasonable, and we secured a new lens, stocked up on film, filters, a new camera case (ours was battered beyond repair) and a few other odds and ends. So, after spending three days in Singapore, eating and resting, walking all over its refurbished city centre, drinking water out of the tap (an unheard of luxury in SE Asia), and the western status symbols called Sheraton, Holiday Inn, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Seven-Elevens, Pizza Huts, Hollywood Movies (the premier of Eddie Murphy’s forgettable The Golden Child), et al., we decided it was time to head out of Disneyland back into the “real” jungle. In other words, vamos a la playa!
Next Stop: East Coast of Malaysia