Upon returning…

We endured fifteen hours on an Airbus. No TV or other distractions, and all food to be paid for. Add to that the quite uncomfortable seats and you’ll guess that this was a budget airline. Air Asia is a very good low cost airline, we’ve flown several times with them now and the service is always very good. The ticket price was half that of BA so it made sense to go with them, it was just a bit tedious.

Back home then. Obviously the most striking thing is the cold; you forget how it chills your bones when you live in the heat. The lives people live in hot countries and cold differ enormously. In the European winter we shut our ourselves away at home, venturing out as needed in heavy clothes. Going out through necessity, rather than the desire just be out interacting with the throng. Most of our daily social interaction seems to be via the TV, telephone or internet. That’s why I prefer hot countries; being outside is not different to being inside. Life in the street is comfortable and often cooler than inside, so people live far more outdoor lives. I enjoy sitting on the pavement and watching the world go by with a coffee or a beer. Not really an option here in the winter. I’ve always thought that ‘Rain stopped play’ would be an accurate strap line for our country. Any activity that takes place outside, from garden barbecue to royal parade is likely to be quashed by appalling weather, whatever time of year. In hot countries things can be planned knowing that they won’t be a washout, therefore they can be more elaborate. I’ve noticed that people are generally happier in the sunshine. I’ve never been a fan of the British climate and our trip has underlined that for me. Some like it hot, including me.

Although I’m sure our climate and weather is at least part of the reason we have such a strong media and arts scene. I think our TV, Radio and Newspapers are among the best in the world, because during our cold indoor winters we need something to focus on, and a way to connect with others. Our media is certainly streets ahead of the countries we visited on our trip, even though several of them pad out their TV schedules with BBC programmes much of the time.

Let’s go shopping…

Your bum WILL look big in this. All sorts on offer at the shopping mall.

The world’s favourite pastime so we’re told. During our trip we’ve visited very many Meccas of retail. The American invention of the shopping mall has spread everywhere, and I have to say that those in the UK are inferior to almost everywhere else we saw. Why so? From Auckland to Darwin to Kuala Lumpur shopping malls have a food court. UK malls also occasionally have food courts, they consist of overpriced KFC and McDonalds and perhaps a few more big chain cafés. Abroad, a food court often has ten or twenty options, offering good quality affordable food from Thai to British, Italian to Indian. In Australia and NZ these places offer the best value meal out, cheaper than cooking it yourself. Our first food court was in Auckland where we had an excellent Korean meal for very little money. In Darwin we had excellent Indonesian food, in Asia every city spoiled you for choice with the offerings from the shopping mall food court. Often the food court in the eight story shopping mall wasn’t even advertised, it’s just a given that on the top floor you’ll find it. The one near our hotel in KL took some finding, tucked away with the karaoke lounge and amusement arcade, but again it was excellent. We had fantastic and plentiful local food for next to nothing. We did eat at proper restaurants most of the time in Asia, but food courts were always a welcome alternative.

The 'Grand Mall' in Java. Everyone said hello and smiled at us as tourists are a rare sight here.

Even the swankiest shopping mall in Asia has an affordable and none too upmarket food court. I think this is the problem in the UK. The rents are so high in our shopping malls that only the large chains can afford to be there. Whether food or fashion outlet, few independent local businesses can afford the big rents. The result is less choice for us, and all shopping malls being clones of each other from Glasgow to Southampton. In Asia the small shops and market style stalls sit along side the big western chains. The small fresh coconut stall sits alongside the McDonalds. The choice available to shoppers is vast; the rents in Asia are obviously not exorbitant. These places offer a choice of food and products unseen in the UK. Out of town shopping is coming to Asia, we saw a few big Tesco stores out on the side of the motorway in Malaysia, we didn’t visit needless to say. It’s also curious how Western fast food is aspirational in much of Asia. I sat in a place that was a local copy of McDonalds in Cambodia (to get a nice coffee). The patrons were exclusively well to do families, parents spoiling their ‘little emperor’ offspring with the finer things in life…chicken nuggets. I kid you not but this place also had the most podgy, chubby, fat faced children I’d seen in Asia. Proof that aspiring to fat laden fast food is bad news for kids. The nutritional future does not look promising for these nations of lean and mostly healthy people…if the marketing departments of the big fast companies get their way. There’s no visible obesity problem in Asia, but no doubt it will emerge as the opportunities for quarter pounders with large fries increases.

Also in Asia we saw a proliferation of designer labels shops; Gucci, D&G and all those overpriced luxury goods for the well heeled. There are certainly more of those than in the UK, but then there are probably more millionaires per capita. Whether the wealth comes legitimately, or from worker exploitation and/or corruption there’s clearly a big market for these icons of global aspiration.

Of course when something is successful others emulate it for a share of the spoils. Copyrights and patents do apply in most of Asia; most countries in the region are members of the World trade Organisation. This means the government has a legal duty to prevent fake goods and piracy, you wouldn’t know it though. Cambodia is the worst offender, in the poshest shopping mall in their capital there are many big shops selling fake watches and bags etc. They look like good copies too. In Cambodia books are photocopied and you see entire bookshops of photocopied books. They are in colour and often good quality, wrapped in cellophane on the shelves you can’t tell the difference. Except that they are about one quarter of the price. Every Lonely Planet guidebook is available for £3 instead of about £20. We saw some of them with pages missing and unreadable maps, and others that were almost as good as the original. It’s very ingenious if nothing else. You can buy a fake Casio watch (why bother) or a fake Zippo lighter (to look like a US soldier). You can buy fake Nike shoes and Levi’s. Most places had shops and stalls selling DVDs for a dollar. All the latest films, including some not yet released, are available. Hundreds or thousands of films are sitting on the shelves. We saw a box set of BBC documentaries in one shop window, David Attenborough etc, for only £5. It was well packaged and contained 29 DVDs, I’d guess an original of that would cost a few hundred pounds at least. The same places sell computer software, everything you could want. A hacked Windows 7 disc is about £1.50.

The market for fake goods is worth more than the market for the real McCoy in these countries. The mostly American companies that lose out do complain, but little seems to be being done. Perhaps they are being too greedy though, most Asians couldn’t pay full price for a Windows disc. In global markets goods are priced the same all over the world, a Windows disc in New York costs the same as one in Saigon. But few could afford that in Saigon, so locals innovate and produce something they can afford. Yes it’s illegal, and is denying revenue to some of the world’s biggest companies, but it enables these countries to get on, to develop their skills, business and products. I can see both sides of the argument. In a way you could see this illicit trade as a form of western economic aid. Bearing in mind that much of the money officially given as aid for development is used to pay contractors and business in Western countries to deliver these development projects. Therefore the aid money, the 0.7% of GDP that most Western countries pledge to give annually but don’t, actually benefits the donor countries as much, or more, than the recipient countries. So maybe this piracy crime is no worse, seen in that context.

So variety was the spice of life when it came to shopping and retail on our trip. Even though the price of everything in Australia, slightly less so NZ, was a fair bit more than the UK. Purely because of our weak pound and their strong dollar. The smaller populations in those countries is reflected in the lesser range of products on offer, in supermarkets especially. The range of products is good, but not the cathedral of choice we’ve come to expect in the UK.

Sometimes you come across strange anomalies when you travel, in Australia and NZ washing your clothes transports you back to the 1970’s. The washing machines you come across are all top loaders and most are cold water only. There were a few front loading automatics in the shops, but only a few. The European brands were mostly absent and those you could buy were about double the price we’d expect to pay. This was a problem in that we did need to wash our clothes as they do get dirty when camping. A top loader cold wash with soap powder just didn’t work; clothes came out almost as dirty as when they went in. A local woman told us that they usually put in some nappy san with the powder to try and get the dirt out, the stuff that’s designed to clean soiled nappies. This all seemed very retrograde to us. The problem of washing your clothes properly was solved years ago, but the required technology has not yet made it to this part of the world. Conversely we noted that in Malaysia and Indonesia the washing machines are the modern ones we are familiar with, and they work. So why are Australia and New Zealand languishing in the washing machine dark ages? All very strange, slightly quaint, but it also means you go around looking a bit like a hobo. And smelling like one too.

That’s all for this instalment, next time a bit about transport and hotels.

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Paradise found, briefly.

The main beach at Cenang on Langkawi

There’s a boat service from the harbour in Penang that runs out to Langkawi Island. Langkawi is just south of the border with Thailand and is Malaysia’s version of  sun-kissed tropical party islands such as Kho Samui, not far away in Thailand. The Thai islands are about lazing on the beach by day, and partying with glow-sticks and various forms of drug by night dream by night. The film The Beach captured all that very well.

Malaysia is an Islamic State so debauchery and drugs are not really on the menu. No funny smelling cigarettes and groups of predatory ladyboys here. Actually we did spot some of the latter in Langkawi, quite surprisingly. Malaysia has laws forbidding the love that dare not speak its name. Prime Ministers have used them to have opposition leaders locked up on almost certainly false charges, a handy way to stay in power. I’m diverting off-topic a bit but it’s interesting that in this country where such acts still mean prison, we’ve seen quite a few men going about as ladies. With varying degrees of plausibility it has to be said. Examples you say? CM crept up to the free squirt of perfume counter at a top Department store the other day (Similar as John Lewis). A make-up girl saw her and rushed over to be of assistance, as always they want to make a sale. Only the well turned out make-up girl was, behind all the foundation,  a Chinese looking man. He/she was clearly a man in body and voice. I couldn’t imagine seeing that in John Lewis, are we really as liberal and enlightened as we think we are? Perhaps less enlightened than this Islamic state in some ways. In Langkawi they have an English Tea shop, bone china crockery and Devonshire Tea’s and all that. The young lady who served us was also a man, although more convincing than the perfume man. Lastly, while strolling down the main street by our hotel a woman in tight jeans with faultless complexion, very long hair, and very feminine features sashayed past us. CM though could see this was a man from his walk, I have to admit though, at first pass I was fooled. You see all this a lot in Thailand, but I’ve been surprised to see it here. Government aside, it says something about people’s willingness to accept people for what they are here. It probably helps that many men here are often fairly androgynous looking, unlike in the west.

Anyway, our boat to Langkawi took three hours, below deck it was the icy blast of huge air conditioners, up on deck it was lovely views and a hot day. We arrived and got a taxi to the main beach for affordable accommodation, called Cenang. It didn’t look too impressive at first sight, a bit tired looking and the hotels were either silly money or ramshackle. But we found an ok place for £20 a night which is a good price here. Most of the other visitors to the island are local Malay’s and other Asians. This was a good thing as it meant it wasn’t backpacker central with noisy drunken westerners roaming around making the place look untidy. Most of that crowd were no doubt holed up not far away in Thailand. We spent a relaxing five days one the beach or in the many beach café’s. The weather was almost too hot (I got burnt) and the sea was the temperature of a warm bath. The beach was quite a scene with lots of water sports in progress; there were also groups of Koreans having boisterous fun accompanied by near continuous shouting much of the day. Many Muslim women remained covered up in the 30+ degree heat. They were usually sat away from the sea under the palm trees together, while their men and children frolicked in the sea. Sometimes you’d see a woman totally covered, walking along the shoreline behind her husband (who’s in shorts and T shirt). All she is able to do, apart from swelter, under this burning sun is get her ankles wet. Seaside fun all but denied.

Local ladies cover up while foreigners sunbathe

Penang Langkawi beachfront

Golden sands and warm waters, perfect.

We came the week of a big bi-annual military air show and regional gathering. Fighter jets and big troop carriers flew over the beach much of the day putting on a display of military might and acrobatics. The sound of those powerful jet engines went right through you at times. At night the place comes alive and looks very attractively lit, dozens of restaurants near the beach and on the beach, and one or two bars. Although only one or two. Despite this being a duty free island, meaning that alcohol is very cheap, beer is relatively scarce. Beer is half the price of the rest of Malaysia but the Muslim majority don’t drink (officially at least) so it’s not available everywhere. This seemed a bit barking, especially to CM. Surely the guzzling of beer and wine should be mandatory on a duty free island? They had duty free shops but they stocked more European chocolate than booze. However we seek out the well stocked but unadvertised chiller cabinets stuffed with cheap but high quality beer; and lo, it was good.

On another day we rented a scooter and rode around the island, it’s a beautiful unspoilt place. Very little traffic and good winding roads through the thick verdant rainforest. This is probably what the rest of Malaysia looked like before the oil palm plantations came along. We went up to a cable car attraction which was very impressive, really spectacular views at the top and the cable car itself was probably the steepest one I’ve been on. They do know how to make a good job of things in Malaysia, this Swiss built cable car and ‘floating bridge’ walk at the top was first class. See the pictures below.

The cable car and views out over the islands

View from the floating bridge at the end of the cable car run

The end of the cable car run and the two viewing platforms left and right

On our last day on the island we got all extreme sports and went up parasailing. We did a tandem flight, neither of us had done it before but it looked fairly safe. It turned out the three young lads running the operation were a bit fly-by-night, but we got up and down in one piece and it was a great feeling. Once up in the air it was almost silent as we went along high above the beach. Very peaceful, and a beautiful setting in which to look down from above. The ride wasn’t very long but it was hugely enjoyable, if slightly uncomfortable in the harness. The ground crew gave us hand signals, telling us what to do in order to land safely. We followed them and hit the sand only to crumple in a heap; it was quite funny and didn’t hurt. See a couple of pictures below.

Us flying high over the beach

Splat!!!

We left Langkawi quite satisfied, we’d had a few relaxing days on the beach in a truly exotic location, we’d also drunk quite a lot of beer. We now had to head back to Kuala Lumpur, where we would soon be leaving the heat and sunshine behind, for the bitter cold of home. We caught the ferry to the mainland, and then a day bus to Kuala Lumpur which took about nine hours, far longer than advertised. In KL we went back our favourite hotel for two more nights. KL has become one of my favourite cities, it’s friendly and all the mod cons are there. It’s not sophisticated like Singapore, but it has everything you want and it’s all very affordable. While there we ingested as much good Indian food as was possible, having curry for breakfast both days. We did some last minute shopping in the dauntingly large shopping centres, and just soaked up the ambience.

East is east and west is west, as they say. No European city feels like an Asian one, you have to board a plane and fly south and east for at least ten hours to experience the vibrancy and buzz of an Asian city. I hope it’s not too long before I do so again. After all, they say the 20th century was the American century, but the 21st will belong to Asia. Based on the hard graft and investment we’ve seen in most Asian cities (Phnom Penh excluded) I’d agree that this is the region of the world that’s doing the most to get ahead.

Travel must end at some point I suppose, although this does feel a bit premature for me I have to say.  I still plan to write a bit more on here yet, some collected thoughts about the whole experience and places we’ve visited. The world is changing fast, in the twenty years between my first long trip and this one places, and the whole travelling experience has changed. In some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worst. I will put something more about this on here very soon. Until then if you’ve read some of this blog and have wanted to make a comment but didn’t, or had a question to ask but didn’t now is your chance. I may of course be blogging into thin air and nobody may be reading my ramblings, although this websites visitor statistics indicate there is a small audience (aside from the regular commenters).

I’ve enjoyed writing this stuff as we’ve gone along. If nothing else it’s a diary and an aide-memoir for us. Something to recall when we peer out of the window at the grey sky and rain on a winters day in coming months. I can’t overstate how much I’m not looking forward to going back to the English winter. Whose idea was it to set up camp on an island in  such a northerly latitude? Why didn’t they all pack up and move south a few millennia ago, somewhere in the region of Italy or Greece  would have done nicely.

Stay tuned, more to follow soon.

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Penang – The place that has it all.

On the way out of Singapore we were slightly done by the taxi driver. They are something of an occupational hazard as a traveller and we try to avoid using taxis if at all possible. It was a tried and tested trick, the meter was on target and the fare looked right, then as we arrived at the bus station he reached across and flicked a button on the meter, the fair then doubled. I had hoped Singapore was above all that, I suppose not.

Our night coach to Penang was luxury, only three seats across. Seats that reclined almost flat and a seat-back TV with films on demand. Better than any bus I’ve seen in the UK. The only problem was the turbo blasting air conditioning. It was like stepping outside your tent in Antarctica, CM was not amused. But the journey was as good as could be, and we arrived about 7:00am as expected on Penang Island, via the very long roadbridge.

Penang was a major trading port in the empire days, there are still many grand colonial buildings dotted about. The place had ‘The British were here’ stamped across it. We headed for Georgetown where there was a big clocktower monument from the time of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The old town is now a heritage preservation area, there are also a lot of old Chinese shop houses. Used as everything from engineering workshops to cheap hotels. I had an enjoyable week here 20 years ago and it looked much the same, a quaint yet busy working town. We found a basic room for the first night, and then located the ‘good but cheap’ Chinese hotel and stayed there for the duration. People are friendly in Malaysia, and more so in towns where tourists are a common site. Most also speak English and will sometimes just come and say hello and ask you if you like Malaysia, and whereabouts you come from. It’s an easy place to travel in, you feel that generally public goodwill is on your side and you don’t have to carefully count the change every time you make a purchase. Georgetown is truly multicultural, I wandered out to the cash machine early one morning, I passed the Chinese temple where the burning joss sticks were 6tf tall and causing a pungent smokescreen. Chinese people stood outside worshipping their ancestors, at the same time the Christian church nearby was peeling its bell. The pavement opposite was full of Indian diners, sitting chatting over their spicy breakfast and stretched tea. Then there were the random Europeans like me, soaking it all up.

We hired a scooter and rode around the island, a distance of about 50 miles. The east coast was congested and full of high rise tower blocks, nothing to see here. The west coast and centre though was still mostly rainforest, quite hilly with good roads and little traffic. Perfect biking territory in perfect weather.

Just north of Georgetown is a holiday resort area called Batu Ferringhi, dozens of high rise hotels and a small beach area. All of it fairly new and fairly soulless. If you take a two week package holiday to Penang this is no doubt where you’ll be sent. It was like a smarter version of Torramalinos, we didn’t stop. We did stop at a siding on the coast road where there were a few outdoor cafés right beside the beach. This was a local beach, local families playing on the sand and in the water. Much fun was being had, although slightly less by most of the girls. As faith dictates they remained fully clothed with heads covered. It was about thirty degrees and while the girls got their ankles wet, the boys splashed and swam. The girls stood and watched, but fun by proxy is a secondhand experience. It was here that I partook in an iced Kacang (pronounced Kachang). It’s a fruit and vegetable dessert that is made mostly from ice shavings milled from an adapted workshop pillar drill. Added to that is chopped lychee, star fruit, berries, and curiously some kidney beans and topping of sweetcorn in syrup. Sounds an odd combination but it’s deliciously quenching on a hot day. It’s not everyday that you’re introduced to an exotic new dessert.

The Ice Kacang production facility

The Ice Kacang in all it's frozen glory

Back in Penang we met a few other travellers and ended up having a night on the town with them. We went to a place that was a big food court with live music where some not unattractive girls danced and sang to the diners. Sort of like an old Top Rank club, Malay style. There were about 10 on our table and we ordered the mighty Carlsberg Tower, two of them. See the pictures below, it wasn’t cheap and is also smaller than it looks as a thick tube of ice runs through the middle. The waitresses refill your glass after almost very sip, they are intent on the tower being drained as fast as possible, so a refill can be ordered.

The empty beer towers and our group at the Red Dragon night market/entertainment complex

By the time ours was finished the dancing girls were around our table goading us to do a conga around the room. We were the only big group of tourists and had drunk most of the beer. CM needed no encouragement by this point and was rallying the troops. The mostly local, sober and more conservative locals looked on at the raucous tourists. No doubt they blamed it all on the Carlsberg beer tower, and they’d be right. It was a good night out with a group of people who’d only just met a couple of hours before, much fun was had.

CM hunkers down to a tasty Tom Yam soup at Penang's newest food court

Penang is renowned for having the best food in Malaysia, the melting pot of cultures means all sorts are on offer, including many varieties of cuisine I’d never heard of. Much of what’s on offer is sold by street vendors who appear in the early evening with mobile kitchen and plastic tables and chairs. The rest is served in dozens of budget priced restaurants, mostly of the Indian, Chinese and Malay variety. Needless to say our time was spent in the Little India area. We had some great meals, including curry for breakfast in the form of the traditional Roti Canai, CM is hooked on those. Although not as hooked as on Nasi Lemak, which is a rice and coconut based small breakfast. It comes in a banana leaf or newspaper and one serve costs about 30p. A good one sets you up for the day. Below are a few pictures taken on the street showing the food related street life.

The Reggae Bar's BBQ dinner. Note the fish cleverly carved from carrots!

Having a late night curry on the street in Penang. Total bill for five people was £3.50, and they refused to accept any tip.

This lady could cook up a great meal in a few minutes. I had spicy prawn noodles which were lovely.

Note the Reggae Club. Every tourist town near the sea has a reggae bar with Bob Marley on a permanent loop.

We both ate well in Penang, staying here would be the ruination of my diet.

Finally, we were lucky enough to be in town when there was a motorcycle street race on. Several streets were fenced off and a street track was created, the racing bikes were not big GP bikes but tuned up scooter style bikes. This was serious racing, but affordable  and still quite fast. These 125cc bikes are based on the scooters that everyone rides here, these tuned versions  can reach 100mph. About 50 racers at a time took to the track and the sound was impressive. It’s amazing how this scooter design from the 1960′s has evolved into the still desirable machines of today. A new road going scooter of this type costs only around $1000 new.

For the bikers reading here are a few pictures.

The Suzuki GSX-R scooter

The Honda RSR scooter

Knee down on the corners

Lastly,  there was a bit of a road show beside the track. We went in admired the bikes and the roadshow girls wanted my picture, who was I to let them down. For just a moment I felt like Bradd Pitt.

Local beauties and the beast. Somebody's got to do it!

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Singapore – that’s the way to do it.

We arrived in Singapore where passport control was quick and cheerful, they even had a box of sweets on the counter that you could chose from as you got your free 90 day visa (In Vietnam it was $40 for one month). We were met from the airport to be taken to our room in the Little India area. A central suburb with very small cheap rooms and as you would imagine excellent food. Our room was compact to say the least, just enough room for two bunkbeds. Luckily we were only there for one night, they were fully booked after that. The place was a modern backpacker hostel in an old building. The guidebook was said it had a ‘chilled out vibe’ and was a great place to meet people. The place was packed though and you fought for a seat in the comfy lounge area.

We headed out for some food. After Vietnam it truly was a pleasure with the many veritable feasts on offer. It’s like a cleaner, better, cheaper version of Brick Lane in London. South Indian food blended with some local specialities that have evolved to be uniquely Singaporean, such as Laksa or Prata. For a couple of days we ate like kings, or Raja’s perhaps. The most delicious hot and spicy vegetarian food you can imagine. All the joy of eating in India itself, but with hygiene rather than listeria added to the mix. I think we both just looked forward to the next mealtime as much as anything else. Little India is an enclave that feels just like a suburb of Mumbai or Chennai, but without the poverty and pollution. The smell of jasmine and incense, the sound of Hindi music and twenty different conversations within earshot. Hundreds of shops selling all the flowers, fruit and effigies of Shiva you could ever want. On our second night we moved to a tiny room in a nearby hotel. We’ve learnt that if you want a clean, friendly cheap hotel room in Asia look for the Chinese run places that are usually not in the guidebook. We found one of those for £40 a night, which is a rock bottom price for Singapore. The room was just about big enough for the bed to fit in.

Our forty quid shoebox room. CM was well impressed.

CM tries out for a char lady job. They said she was too enthusiastic, they weren't looking for Wishy Washy!

The average wage in Singapore is higher than the UK, it’s a major trading hub and the economy is booming. As with much of Asia the government keeps a strong hand in people’s affairs with regard to political activity and internet controls but it does offer welfare, housing, and very good public transport and infrastructure in return. Some say Singapore is boring and sterile. I half agree, it is cleaner than much of the rest of Asia, cleaner than London. If that means sterile then I’m all for that. It may not offer the exotic thrill of somewhere like Cambodia to the transient traveller, but for locals it ticks all the boxes. Affordable and good housing, great healthcare with fantastic (and cheap) public transport. With jobs aplenty on top, Singaporeans have all the ingredients for a good life. This small island country was formed when it broke away from Malaysia to fly its own flag in 1965. With no natural resources and no standalone economy it was a risky move. But strict and focussed leadership, together with the strong Chinese work ethic, led to the island being transformed. In the 1960’s a manufacturing based economy was created from nowhere, it’s now a major services and shipping hub, and a trade gateway into China. Most people are multilingual and most people speak English to some degree.

Walking along the main street in the heart of town felt like being in some futureworld, especially at night. Giant TV screens, unique and phantasmorgoric architecture well tended greenery and spotlessly clean pavements. Well groomed people in a hurry to get somewhere in their designer clothing. I did feel something of a second class observer to all this. It was a bit like getting to the final round of a TV game show and falling at the final question…’Sorry, but here’s what you could have won’.

An Orchard Road shopping mall

We window shopped and marvelled at the prices. The main street, Orchard Road is a continuous line of high end shopping malls, most at least five stories high, with several floors also below ground level. You could wander through the malls and interconnections for hours without needing to step foot outside. We stopped off at a place on the street which looked like Starbucks (but wasn’t as we don’t go there on principle). A small bottle of Tiger beer cost £6.70p. Probably the most expensive beer I’ve ever drunk. Tiger is a Singapore brand too, the same bottle in Vietnam costs about 50p. Electronics and consumer goods all seemed more expensive than back home.

At night Orchard Road looked great with the Christmas lights on

Raffles Place from the river front

Ground level at Raffles Place, there were dancing girls and all sorts going on.

We strolled around the amazing architecture near the marina, from there you can see a new casino and hotel complex. A giant curved ship planted on top of three massive high rise hotel blocks. It has a swimming pool on the roof that’s the size of three football pitches apparently, you can see the palm trees on the roof from ground level. The noveau riche Chinese have to have somewhere to play. It’s a piece of trophy architecture if ever there was one and certainly was a most impressive feat of engineering on a vast scale.

The three hotel towers and ship shape casino on the top

We visited a couple of museums that were very well put together, one had a high tech audio/visual tour telling the story on Singapore. As you walked up to tv screens playing old footage or interviews your personal headset synced itself with the video on screen and you heard the right soundtrack. It must have all been done wirelessly, all very impressive.

The story of the country is also impressive, a real melting pot of people from across Asia and Europe coming to trade and live on this fairly small island. Apparently for a long time the men out-numbered the women 10-1, and as men by and large could not cook and worked long hours a culture of eating street food emerged. All sorts of dishes from around the world were on offer, cooked up on a wok or hot coals. It was the worlds first fast food, and still today far tastier than anything dreamt up in food technology research labs, where the bland tasteless mass produced fair of the big franchises is regurgitated in different forms. Chicken Zinger anybody? Me neither.

Dunlop street in Little India, a preservation area.

Singapore has nearly five million residents, but only three million are nationals, the rest foreign workers. They need to import people as their birth rate is too low to sustain the population level. Proving again that as people get richer they have fewer children. Apparently 15% of Singaporeans are worth over one million dollars, this small country has the highest proportion of dollar millionaires in the world. Yet it also has free healthcare and housing for those less fortunate. Income tax is also only 10% and it’s ranked as the easiest country in the world to do business in.

We only spent a couple of days here, but it was hugely impressive. Many cities on earth are plagued with problems relating to overpopulation and bad governance. Not so here, when your entire country is just one city on a small island it’s easier to be in control and create what I’d say is the nearest thing to a utopian city that I’ve visited. We both came away wanting to see more and spend more time here. It might be a bit dull for the thrill seeking traveller, but for residents I’m sure they’ve never had it so good.

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Willow the Bush Kangaroo for Real!

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Speakers on and click the button on the left ‘Audio MP3′

Some lovely news to report: our orphaned little joey has made it back into the wild! Her lovely carer, Fay, has reported that she bounded off through the paddocks to join her cousins about three weeks ago. Apparently they just hear “the call of the wild” and up sticks just like that. Although Fay is pleased that Willow has made it back to where she rightfully belongs she is missing her very much. I’m sure it would be quite a wrench looking after such a delightful creature for 6 months almost like a human baby. Such dedication. We’re glad we took the time to stop on the roadside that day, you see hundreds of dead roo’s along the road, Willows chances of survival were very slim at best. Fay finishes her note to us with the following “There are always new babies needing love, and we are always so happy to be able to give love to them. Thank you so much for saving our little girl, without your care, she had no hope.”

We hope to update the blog with some later pictures but we won’t have those until we get home.

Let’s hope she just steers clear of the roads in future…

Click here for the original post about Willow.

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