Singapore and a flying Indonesia visit

Wednesday 07 December

Often referred to as “The Lion City” or “The Little Red Dot”, Singapore is the world’s only island city-state.  It was founded many moons ago by Malay fishermen, and has grown to become the second largest port in the world (the first of course is Shanghai – but you all knew that didn’t you?  You smart cookies you).  The British used the city as a strategic base during WW2 (my great uncle was stationed here before his capture and the fall of the city to the Japanese), and today it’s become one of the most prosperous countries in the world.  And one of the most expensive.

Marina Bay Sands on the right.  Playground of the rich and famous.

Marina Bay Sands on the right. Playground of the rich and famous.

Why I initially came to somewhere that charges 8 quid a pint is almost beyond me, especially considering the countries I’ve come from.  It’s a reverse culture shock paying London prices once more, and it certainly prompts me to seriously tighten the purse strings.  But considering the ease of hitching in Malaysia, it would have been rude not to at least pay it a visit while I’m in the neighbourhood.

The Singapore Flyer - and grey skies all day.

The Singapore Flyer – and grey skies all day.

So after negotiating through the shit-show border crossing and finding a ridiculously average hostel (9 quid a night for a place that shouldn’t be worth 3), I begin my day exploring The Gardens by the Bay – a relatively new attraction consisting of vast garden walkways, lakes and “supertrees” – which have become something of a famous picture postcard for the Singapore skyline.  It’s all very pleasant – in spite of the gloom and rain, but there’s one thing I discovered that was to become something of a challenge in Singapore: the art of not spending any money.

The supertrees.  Charge to go up them.  Obviously there's a restaurant at the top of the tallest one.  Any chance to make a buck.

The supertrees. Charge to go up them. Obviously there’s a restaurant at the top of the tallest one. Any chance to make a buck.

I did want to do certain attractions, but not enough to warrant paying through the nose for them.  Everything – it seems –  is geared towards making money.  Close by is the impressive (and bizarre) Marina Bay Sands complex which has the highest infinity pool in the world, and boasts an observation deck of significant note.  However it costs $25 dollars for the privilege – and you’re not allowed to see the pool unless you’re a guest – and I’m not going to pay upwards of $500 a room.  It’s the most expensive resort in the world – something you can glean from wandering around the mall at the base of the towers, and the calibre of the shopping therein.  The bustling casino is always busy, you can hire supercars to drive around and pick up girls for 250 bucks a pop, and there’s even a boating canal just to be super kitsch.  The flagrant display of wealth is sickening.

Marina Bay Sands Resort.

Marina Bay Sands Resort.

A boating canal in a mall - obviously.

A boating canal in a mall – obviously.

Cash machines on the left, casino at the end on the right. The house always wins folks, but people flock here in their droves.

Cash machines on the left, casino at the end on the right. The house always wins folks, but people flock here in their droves.

...to maybe afford one of these.  Supercars for hire.

…to maybe afford one of these. Supercars for hire.

You can’t miss Marina Bay on the Singapore skyline.  It’s the three curved towers with a boat sitting on top of them.  Apparently the design is taken from a Chinese superstition that living at the end of the block is a bad omen, so the towers were constructed curved, with the space between them to let energy flow through.  Personally I can’t decide if I like it or not, but it certainly is unique, and with the nearby supertrees lighting up at night, makes for an interesting spectacle.

Hindu temple in Little India.

Hindu temple in Little India.

By stark contrast (and more my taste) is Chinatown and Little India – two famous districts of the city, popular with locals and tourists alike.  I pay a visit to the Thieves Market in the latter, a seedy underworld that smacks of old Singapore – shady, insalubrious stall holders peddling their (suspiciously acquired) wares.  Here you can buy almost anything, including thousands of watches, rusty nails, bottles of decades old coke, and one shoe – should you already have the other one.

Fancy a coke?  Old tat at the Thieves Market.

Fancy a coke? Old tat at the Thieves Market.

Singapore is a food lover’s paradise – and boy is the cuisine tasty.  I’m not one for food writing, as to do this city justice would take a verifiable culinary word-wizard.  But they have these amazing food courts with “hawker” food stalls selling all kinds of gorgeous grub – for relatively low prices.  And I have eaten at my first ever Michelin Starred restaurant.  For $3.80.  The world’s first street food stand awarded the coveted decoration.  It was worth the hour it took to queue for it.

One of hundreds of"hawker" food courts.  Amazing food for less than the cost of a Big Mac.

One of hundreds of”hawker” food courts. Amazing food for less than the cost of a Big Mac.

Had an amazing soup from this place - super nice chefs too.

Had an amazing soup from this place – super nice chefs too.

Cheapest Michelin starred food in the world.

Cheapest Michelin starred food in the world.

One of the delicacies here is something called “chicken rice”.  It’s a deceptively simple dish of rice, which is cooked (sometimes for days) in chicken stock.  Then you add fresh, succulent chicken, often with a sauce, and green vegetables or some other accompaniment.  Famous chefs from all over the world come here to learn how they make it – and it’s goddamn delicious.  I practically live off the stuff for my time here.

Chicken rice.  Because I'm not one of those pillocks who takes photographs of my food, I borrowed this from google.

Chicken rice. Because I’m not one of those pillocks who takes photographs of my food, I borrowed this from google.

For me it’s a city of two halves.  There are parts of it that are charming and beautiful, with plenty of green space and botanical gardens.  The other half is one giant shopping mall – and it’ll make you sick in your mouth.  SPEND! SPEND! SPEND!  CONSUME! CONSUME! CONSUME!  I decide to get out as quickly as possible – in the form of a quick, two-day excursion to Indonesia.

One of Batam's famous malls.  More consumption.

One of Batam’s famous malls. More consumption.

Batam island is only 50 minutes away, but as it’s considerably cheaper and a place I’ve not been, I decide to spend a couple of days there – and wish I hadn’t.  Granted in hindsight I should have looked a little further afield to one of the other islands, as Batam is little more than Singapore’s toilet.  It’s central town of Nagoya is a dirty shopping district, which many Singaporeans visit to get stuff cheaper than back home.  More spending money.  More buying shit people don’t need.  You can get anything you want here, with some notable exceptions:

No Indonesian flag stickers.

No clip-on sunglasses for my prescription specs.

No Fat nib magic markers in any stationary shop.

There’s fuck-all else to see and my entire day isn’t even successful on what I needed to purchase.  I could have got a Liverpool shirt for 3 quid though – however I probably was right not to after I watch them throw away a two goal lead TWICE, to lose to lowly Bournemouth that night in a bar.  I was back to paying sensible prices for a beer though – so it wasn’t all that bad.

Scooter park.  Thousands of them in the depths of the malls.

Scooter park. Thousands of them in the depths of the malls.

Nagoya town centre on Batam.  Shit hole.

Nagoya town centre on Batam. Shit hole.

But I did see modern Herbie!

But I did see modern Herbie!

I decide the best option is to just cut the moon and stars off the corner of the Singapore flag and pass that off as Indonesian.  Either that or turn a Polish flag upside down.  I’m always the first one who lays waste to claims that people have seen a country if they’ve only spent a couple of days there – and for sure I’ve not seen anything of the real Indonesia at all.  But although Batam is a dump (and arguably the worst place I’ve ever been) the people and the food were wonderful.  Perhaps one day I’ll be back to explore its more attractive islands – which if you did one a day it would take you around 49 years to visit them all.  Time is not on my side.

"Bill...strange things are afoot at the Circle K."

“Bill…strange things are afoot at the Circle K.”

I return to the mainland (which is still an island) and bed down with a couchsurf host for the evening.  A few days previous, I sent a brass neck email to Legoland, requesting a complimentary ticket to visit their Malaysian resort.  I’ve been a die-hard Lego lover since my first set circa 1984, but have never had the chance to visit the theme parks.  If you don’t ask – you don’t get.  With this in mind, I stall my departure from Singapore in the hope they respond positively.  But time has run out, and so on the morrow I exit through the gift shop for my history fix in the old colonial town of Malacca, Malaysia.  There I will reside over the weekend – finally getting out of big cities – and hoping that Legoland get back to me before my stay in the country is over.  I want to be a 37 year old man wandering around Legoland theme park on my own.  That’s not dodgy at all.

Time for tea - I pick one of these up as my Singapore memento.

Time for tea – I pick one of these up as my Singapore memento.

I don’t regret coming to Singapore – but I wouldn’t recommend it as a travel destination.  Unless you’re filthy rich of course.  David Beckham’s smug face flashes regularly on billboards and video screens.  This is the kind of folk Singapore wants and does attract.  Clearly I’m not in the same league.  I’m coming back Malaysia – all is forgiven.

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Hitchhike to India leg 56: Kuala Lumpur to Singapore

Wednesday 30 November

“I’d never have thought of that” comments a British Red Coat as Captain Jack Sparrow expertly removes Elizabeth Swan’s corset with a knife in The Pirates of the Caribbean.  “Clearly you’ve never been to Singapore”, he fires back.  Oddly enough, that one line resonated enough from the 2003 movie to make me want to go.  That – I’ll admit – is the sole reason I’ve decided to push on down Malaysia to visit country/territory/city/state number 60.  To learn how to take girls corsets off with a knife.

I’m kidding I already know how to do that.

Armed with the knowledge that Malaysia is the best country (so far) for hitchhiking, I ignore my alarm and sleep in.  I was to find later that this was something of a mistake – but not regarding the actual hitch.  Once again the locals did not disappoint, with what turned out to be another astonishingly easy journey.

Someone change my shorts.

Someone change my shorts.

Hitchwiki isn’t particularly helpful on this occasion.  It tells me something about illegally crossing rail tracks, or walking a fair distance, or hitch spots that aren’t easy to get to.  Instead I use my noggin and figure it out myself.  That and I ask the hostel staff which train station I need to get off at to access the highway south.  It’s not rocket science.  Around midday I’ve reached a very busy carriageway, and the speed of the traffic nearly persuades me into a cab for deposit at the toll station.  But where’s the adventure in that?!  Gritting my teeth, I hike a few minutes up the road to a flyover.  Traffic is slowing for the hill and round the apex of the bend, and there’s plenty of room for them to pull in, but it’s still hair raising.  All I have to do is not fall off – it’s a long way down – and more than a little vertigo kicks in when a big rig thunders past and blows me in the direction of the edge.

But barely five minutes go by when a couple of young lads pull in and save my bacon.  They can take me to the toll booth, which leads directly onto the highway south.  Cooking on gas.  However after they depart, I feel I’m not quite in the right place.  I hastily change the back of my sign to read ‘E2′; the highway I need to be on.  But a short walk in the direction they showed me and I’m back on course, looping round a lengthy slip road to a busy motorway.  Luckily there’s construction underway on my left, and a large space for fast traffic to pull into.  A workman shouts “Singapore!” upon spotting my sign, and then points me in the direction I’m marching.  The tea leaves are encouraging.

Not my best work.  The long trudge round the bend with a new sign.

Not my best work. The long trudge round the bend with a new sign.

But with the sun high and searing my skin, for this volume of traffic and no stops it’s a little concerning. I alternate between the ‘Singapore’ side and the ‘E2′ side of the sign.  As I’m actually on the latter, I adjust my thumbing action to a new wave and point technique I’ve been trying recently.  Try it yourself!  Wave your arm as if saying ‘hello’, but finish with a point in the direction you wish to be going.  It’s working wonders.

Someone change my shorts 2.0.

Someone change my shorts 2.0.

Hitching trick - if it's safe to do so - put your stuff down and walk away from it - the time it takes a driver to spot you and decide to pull in - 9 times out of ten they'll be right by your bag.  Super fast pick ups!

Hitching trick – if it’s safe to do so – put your stuff down and walk away from it – the time it takes a driver to spot you and decide to pull in – nine times out of ten they’ll be right by your bag. Super fast pick ups!

And just when I thought I might have to rethink (entirely due to the sun and not the lack of a ride) a lovely couple swing in.  Speaking native English, they can take me some 20 KM to a service station.  As I’ve not yet eaten (hunger gives me an edge) I’m more than grateful for this stroke of luck.  We natter non-stop for the duration of the disappointingly short journey, before I’m wolfing down a rice-egg combo breakfast washed down with a vat of water.  Then it just gets better.

Leaving this in full view while eating at a service station clearly pays off.

Leaving this in full view while eating at a service station clearly pays off.

It’s a large service area with a lot of traffic.  Two petrol stations are rammed with cars, and the food court is full to the brim with road weary locals.  This is going to be easy, but I didn’t realise quite how easy!  I’ve barely left the dining area when a 30-something guy pulls in behind the wheel of a nice motor.  He’s spotted me while having breakfast (which is why I always leave my sign hanging) and he can take me to Johor – which is basically right to the border.

In Malaysia many drivers carry this device - which is for a rapid exit through toll booths.

In Malaysia many drivers carry this device – which is for a rapid exit through toll booths.

And here it is in action - Hafizi scans the toll booth gate and - if you're all paid up - the barrier lifts!

And here it is in action – Hafizi scans the toll booth gate and – if you’re all paid up – the barrier lifts!

And this is exactly what he does.  My new friend Hafizi (coolest name ever) goes out of his way past his turn off and takes me right to customs.  Unfortunately I pass out for most of the ride – I didn’t realise how tired I was from walking in the heat – and the cheeky rascal wastes no time in snapping the pic to prove it.

The drivers view of my hitchhike.  I'm amazing company.

The drivers view of my hitchhike. I’m amazing company.

There’s time for one more selfie and hearty thanks before he drops me at the border.  It’s just turned 5 pm.  I’ll make Singapore before night falls.

No idea what's going on with my hair.

No idea what’s going on with my hair.

No I fucking won’t!  What follows is an unadulterated, no holds barred, bull-in-a-china-shop, black Friday stampede shit show.  From zipping down the highway in record time, I hit a brick wall;  Singapore customs.  Possibly the worst border crossing ever.  Apart from Azerbaijan.  The organisation is a mess.  I’ve no idea where to go, but follow the sheeple to a bus interchange.  I pay 2 quid for a bus over the bridge link into the city and we’re stuck here for an hour and a half.  It’s dark by the time we’re ushered to customs on the Singapore side.

Border control on the Malaysian side - before the shit hits the fan.

Border control on the Malaysian side – before the shit hits the fan.

The last of the sun crossing the straight.

The last of the sun crossing the straight.

While passing the time I notice this hole in my shoe.  Now should I decide to replace them, or keep it to look more poor?  Answers on a postcard.

While passing the time I notice this hole in my shoe. Now should I decide to replace them, or keep it to look more poor? Answers on a postcard.

It’s a melee of people, trundling along with wheelie suitcases, multiplying out of busses, vehicles as far as the eye can see.  Queuing at the passport control behind an army of humanoids, and you’re taking one tiny shuffle forward every ten minutes.  It’s a logistical nightmare.  When my turn finally comes, I’m asked for an immigration document – which apparently someone was handing out as I approached the throng of longpigs.  Of course this I didn’t see and I complain – but they hand me a copy and tell me to fill it out fast.  Now I’m holding up the entire queue.

“This is the worst border I’ve ever crossed” I exclaim when I finish putting pen to paper.  “Sort it out”.  I huff away with my belongings and through the metal detectors.  There’s not enough space for this amount of people – and not enough room on the conveyor belt for everyone’s luggage.  It’s a free-for-all, and in the ensuing melee, my guitar is knocked to the ground and I lose my shit.

“Watch what you’re doing with my stuff you fucking animals!”  My outburst is met with blank looks.  Nobody bats an eyelid, instead continuing to push and reach and grab and snatch at stuff and things like the boxing day sales.  I tell you truly – I really hate people.

Once through the shambles I fare no different, only now I’ve the added burden of trying to find an ATM.  Malaysian money no longer works, and I’ve not yet had the chance to pick up Singapore dollars.  Now you would have thought that something like an ATM at a border would be a useful installation wouldn’t you?  Nah!  That’s  far too easy!  I’m rescued (and faith in humanity restored) by a young man who asks where I need to go.  He gives me all the info I require and in the circumstances – it was much-needed.  I was about to go postal.

It’s still a fair trek to find a cash point – and of course it just delivers massive denominations.  I can see the shop owner’s face as I buy a $2.40 bottle of water and hand over a fifty dollar note.  Sure enough the pain and fear etch across the man’s visage as I unapologetically thrust over the bill.  Don’t blame me dude – blame the bank.  This kinda shit happens all over the world.  Nobody has change, ATM’s dish out fifties, people get pissed.  Round and round we go.

I get on the wrong bus, even though it’s right, and I’m told to get on another bus with the same number just not this one.  When I’m finally on the right service, it takes an eon to get to somewhere in the vast city – and at the last stop I’m still nowhere near my ultimate destination.  Not knowing the public transport system and it’s getting late – I’m saved by my new (and once again – first) smart phone, and the magic of GPS.  Keeping my beady eye on the little blue dot that is me, I trudge through emptying streets towards the little red dot that is my next hostel.  It’s a long, long way.

I discovered I can do screen shots!  It might not look it - but this was a long way - especially at 10 pm carrying a load of shit and sweating buckets.

I discovered I can do screen shots! It might not look it – but this was a long way – especially at 10 pm carrying a load of shit and sweating buckets.

I collapse into a bed around 11pm.  It’s taken me nearly as long to get from the border to home base than it has to get the 350 kilometres down from Kuala Lumpur.  This does not bode well for my stay in this city.  Singapore – do not make me regret coming.

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