Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Escape from Singapore

It seems that the more stuff I get up to the more there is to write in my blog, but the less time I have in which to write it. Another of nature's annoying positive feedback loops.

I'd just left Deon's flat in Singapore with a list of complicated instructions on how to get to Johore, the Malaysian town on the other side of the border. It involved catching about 3 buses and a train, and on the final bus I had a massive miscommunication with the driver and got off about three kilometres too soon. "No worries" I thought, "I'll walk it". This was to be a little more arduous than anticipated.

After about an hour of negotiating freeways and figuring out if I could more accurately be described as a bus or a motorbike for emigration queues I at last had my passport stamped as No Longer In Singapore and to celebrate decided to continue my walk across the causeway into Malaysia.

I think Singaporeans and Malaysians have different ideas to each other about footpaths - along the two kilometre or so gap between the two countries the footpath just sort of petered out until I was walking on the road, hoping my bulky backpack would provide some protection in case of vehicular impacts. Pretty soon this road became a freeway, and I still hadn't entered Malaysia. After another kilometre or so I came across a construction site for a new set of flyovers and the engineers there (probably sensing they were among a kindred spirit) politely waved me through towards my destination of Malaysia (I wonder who pays for freeways between countries?), which was by now encapsulating me in a tall barbed wire cyclone fence.

After squeezing my way along the 30 centimetre wide shoulder I walked underneath an overpass (hanging in Malaysian airspace) upon which a heavily armed policeman was shouting directions at me (which amounted to "Pretend you're a bus, not a motorbike - it's easier to go round corners"). I was pretty relieved he was friendly, but of course this Malaysian cop couldn't actually get to me as I was not under Malaysian jurisdiction - I was in Limbo Land, which didn't seem to have its own police force.

On these sorts of occasions it does occur to me to wonder what Normal People do when they try to get between two widely separated national borders without resorting to motorised transport. These sorts of experiences just don't seem to crop up in other travelers' accounts.

Eventually I got through and into Johore, another urban-prairie/gleaming-city so fashionable in Malaysia. I booked a night train and spent the afternoon wandering around overgrown shopping malls and abandoned waterfront resorts, smelling fennel and admiring vines as they jealously embraced their rotting rafters.

As I sat on the platform waiting for my train a sudden feeling of horror filled me. I had realised that I was about to take a train all the way up to the Thai border, sleeping through the ancient rainforest of Taman Negara and associated highlands that everyone seems to rave about. I checked my guide book to make sure I wasn't missing anything but I got a cold dread when I read that one would have to be a moron to take the 'Jungle Train' at night. I felt so bad I considered abandoning my ticket and not getting on board at all, and when I did reluctantly board I spent most of the night squeezing my face against the window in a vain attempt to see something cool.

Sometimes I find myself thinking I'm living in some kind of Panglossion Paradigm - 'All is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds'. I know it's not very atheist of me - I'll have to pay penance to the patron saint of atheists for that - but I suppose it means I'm an optimist at heart. In this case I soon decided that making my way to Thailand as fast as possible (delayed only by having to take two more busses and another train as well as walking across another border - more easily done this time) was quite a good thing - Malaysia is actually a lot more boring than Thailand. Sorry guys, you tried.

On the train through southern Thailand I finally finished reading 'War and Peace' and hefted it around triumphantly at the other passengers. It really is an amazing book - a vast epic with hundreds of complex but flawed characters and incredibly vivid scenes. Not once was I bored reading it, except for at the end during the very long second epilogue which was a snore inspiring dissertation on the forces of history (including a big whinge about Tolstoy's contemporary Charles Darwin - he obviously upset old Leo's religious sensibilities).

Once I'd finally looked up from the pages of the book I noticed some things about Thailand that are distinctly different from Malaysia - firstly it's much more yellow, Thailand's favourite colour. Secondly, I discovered I could no longer read. This was a bit of a problem as I was used to knowing at which station I needed to alight (although luckily I've retained the ability to decipher information derived from my own world). Another observation is that this was the boundary where the Dutch tourists fade out and the French tourists fade in - vestigial colonialism at work. Finally, I noticed that the usually sharp definition between the sexes is in this country... somewhat indistinct.

After spending the night in Phatthalung - the train line's closest approach to my destination on the coast (I like to macro-navigate by compass when there's a lot of public transport) - I headed to Krabi, a karsk formation environed sea-side town. After finding an appropriate hotel with a balcony overlooking the ocean my first act was to check what geohashes were going that day - there was one 25kms to the east (a 70 km ride in all) - right on the boundary of accessibility for three pm. Nonchalantly I decided to go for it, but after several hours riding a hired mountain bike to exhaustion, being chased by wild dogs and finally failing the geohash by 1.4kms due to a missed turn off and impenetrable jungle I had to admit that it had out-epic-ed my expectations.

The following day, despite my natural aversion to guided tours, I went on a sea-kayaking trip. This was pretty awesome. The highlight was dragging our kayak along several kilometres of deep mangrove mud because of a king-low-tide. My guide kept saying "This is your trip, it's your choice if we push on or turn back now". I've always had trouble with that choice. In the end he told me he'd never attempted doing that before and was amazed that it was even possible.

While kayaking I met two English guys called Paul and Karl and for the next couple of weeks we'd frequently separate and rejoin like a flat stone skimming across a still pond, or more accurately (and awesomely), like a B-52 bomber armed with twin 40 megaton thermonuclear devices being refueled mid-air while continuously circumnavigating the territories of the Soviet Union... but without any of the sexual connotations. We were to meet again the next day for a chartered long-tail boating expedition to some nearby islands.

This day turned out to be one of the highlights of my whole trip. Exploring beautiful deserted beaches shaded by rainforest, climbing overhanging sea cliffs, snorkeling through sea caves and wandering along narrow spindly beaches as they were submerged by the tide on both sides before our eyes, the water so glassily transparent above the sand it looked like bad computer graphics.

On our return we decided to hit the bars along Ao Nang beach, playing pool and drinking buckets (I think I'll have to explain that one later). I had to conscientiously check the time in order to catch the last bus back to Krabi and, not having much experience having to catch the last of anything, missed it. As it happened there was an aboriginal girl from Carlton with us who was on a month-long rest day while cycle-touring from Chiang Mai, and she graciously let me borrow her bike for the night. My bed in Krabi was over 20 kms away.

After a couple of wrong turns (I didn't have a map and had left my compass in Krabi) I slowly threaded my way towards home along a road through the jungle and between looming karst formations. Within a few kilometres of my hotel I relaxed a bit and let the gravity well of Krabi pull me in. Unfortunately, like a frog being slowly boiled after being submerged in a bucket of cold water, it failed to occur to me that I had got so far off the beaten track that I had become lost, roadless and lightless, in a plantation forest. Awoken from my daze by a pack of wild dogs I had just enough time to see the humour in being chased on bike by wild dogs through a dark plantation forest twice in a little over two days before I legged it under the influence of a previously undiscovered reservoir of adrenaline. But the worst part was that I had to ride the bike back in the morning.

My next destination was Phuket. A town so dead and lifeless it had me wondering if I'd got on the wrong bus again. I spent a day reading two books that both coincidentally featured the extinction of humanity by oceans - one, 'Ark' by Stephen Baxter, because the sea levels inexplicably rise by 20 kilometres, and the other, 'Cat's Cradle' by Kurt Vonnegut, because the oceans suddenly turn to ice - I had a lot of trouble separating fiction from reality in that town. Nice architecture though.

The next day I checked out of my hotel and took a local bus to Patong beach. I looked around and warily observed the sinister atmosphere and disphasic inhabitants. I got the distinct feeling I was living in that popular science fiction genre where a planet is discovered in a complex orbit around a multiple star system, but when an eager yet inexperienced batch of young colonists arrive just before a rare period of darkness they realise, naturally to their horror, that the planet's unobserved nocturnal biota is not as benign as its diurnal. I had to get out before nightfall.

I spent the afternoon lazily at the beach, dread still tingling in my lymph system. Succeeding this time in catching the last bus out of there I got a call from Paul. By this stage I was hanging by one arm from the back of the comically overcrowded bus, torqued precariously by my book-loaded pack as the vehicle roared up a hill in first gear a few kilometres away from Patong Beach. Paul and Karl were staying there and wanted to know if I'd care to join them. My curiosity was piqued.

Well, there was no way I could fight my way through the crowd to tell the driver to let me off there, but the bus was traveling at a sedate 15 kms an hour or so, and there was no traffic to speak of behind it, so there was an alternative...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Christmas in KL

Feeling guilty about having spent so much time not really doing anything in the Cameron Highlands I took a bus south to Kualar Lumpur where I spent an equal amount of time doing an equal amount of not really anything. The bus drove down a rainforesty road that wound its way through the mountains, and when it got to the flatlands offered spectacular views of some crazy droog things (yes, droogs! Look them up!).

And guess who I found in KL - my old pal Jasper! He was on his way back to Europe after some crazy times in Bali and needed to do some Christmas shopping. So Jasper, a Dutch girl called Margot and I spent the next few days exploring all KL had to offer - its malls.

In the first mall we came to we discovered a small bookshop somehow enclosed within which was an estimated cubic metre of Mills and Boon romance novels. Naturally we had to avail ourselves of this bountiful resource by buying the one with the stupidest title: 'The Ruthless Greek's Virgin Princess' (actually, they were all about that stupid). The hostel's rooftop garden and its views between the city skyscrapers were the setting for an evening of reading aloud the erudite tome but the others lost interest between the sex scenes. Come on guys - you've got to appreciate its literary style!

Other activities in KL included hanging out at the Beatles Bar, which played the same 20 Beatles songs on repeat, arguing over the rules of the card game shithead, singing karaoke with varying degrees of talent and success, looking up at but not from the Petronas Towers (Malaysia's proudest achievement in its 50 thousand year history), not forking out for an indoor rollorcoaster ride after an epic search for it, and seeing 'Avatar' twice because it was friggin' awesome. I actually stayed an extra night in this mall city just to see it for the second time.

Christmas was spent ten pin bowling at midnight (Jasper's superior skill and uncanny luck won him every game), searching for an open bar at 2 am, and during the day in a brief phone call to the family at home and then churning through 'War and Peace' in my hotel room.

I miss Sumatra: the chaos, the gritty reality, the brash cultural idiosyncrasies, the cheap food. Malaysia is all so... easy. Things run on time, people speak English, there aren't any surprises and fewer catastrophes. Malacca, my next destination, with its grungy Chinatown, awkward suburbia sprawling from its historical centre and subsequent identity crisis is a reminder of what I'd left behind. Here I visited four musea in one day and ate at a self-deep-fry restaurant (where I skewered my thumb so deeply with the tail of a prawn that our whole table got free beer). I even tried to see the real Malacca by hiring a dual suspension mountain bike but I ended up just heading to the nearest non-oil-refinery-contaminated beach, which turned out to be about 35 kms up the coast.

The next stop was Singapore, the setting for the greatest cyclo-battle in world history. I can't help barracking for the Japanese whenever I hear about that one. As soon as I entered my dorm here I knew that my time in Singapore would be dominated by partying when a group, already frenetically drunk, immediately absorbed me into its immanent town hitting expedition. We traveled via the exquisitely efficient metro system to a bar called Zouks which turned out to be so packed with hundreds (thousands?) of people that I experienced a rare feeling of claustrophobia, and, not having a Singaporean SIM card at this stage, lost everyone almost instantly and spent the next 40 minutes struggling impolitely for the door. Baulking at a taxi-ride home in Singaporean dollars (which are about the same as Australian ones) I chose to run it. At every turn locals responded with my pleas for directions with the qualifying addendum 'But you'll never make it'. Needless to say that I did.

Singapore is expensive. It's not so much that individual items in Singapore are individually more expensive than elsewhere, although they are, it's more that staying in a place like Malacca one can get a feel for the town by living cheaply. In Singapore one can only get a feel for the town by living it up - I was spending $100 per day for my week here, four times more than average. On one night out on the town I contributed to the purchase of a $50 cocktail - an 'intravenous drip' at a medically themed bar. At another bar - from which we with difficulty escaped wallets intact - a jug of ordinary Hoegaarden cost $120 (but, as the waitress explained sympathetically, if we bought two we could get a third for a measly $40).

Happy hours are often great value though. After I'd been taken under the wing of my orchestra's harp player and girlfriend of my replacement at the Paint and Wallpaper, Deon, we steeped ourselves in an afternoon of happy hour beer at a waterfront brewery. It turned out that sitting right next to us was my friend Lucia, a viola player also in orchestra. Small microbrewery-in-a-large-city world.

But the main event here was New Year's Eve. In fact, that's really the whole reason I came down to Singapore in the first place. The Welsh persons and French Canadians from my dorm and I headed down to the super-commercial Sentosa Island during the afternoon, which one reaches by monorail, for some beach party awesomeness. I was initially quite disappointed, the weather was gloomy and there was an evident lack of fun people. I mainly amused myself during this time by visiting the purported 'Southernmost Point of Continental Asia' - i.e. the furthest south you can go without gravitationally disconnecting yourself from land, although they didn't express it like that.

But pretty soon the party got started. Thousands of people were thronging the beach, initially only pretending to be drunk to save money but soon falling into mutually reinforced enjoyment. As things ramped up towards the big moment we all got pretty wild about some of the bars along the beach: one had a swimming pool that was swamped in foam such that it made everyone wet and slimy - it's been a while since I've had so much fun at a bar. In fact this fun was so all-encompassing that it took me some time to figure out why everyone was shouting out in unison single digit integers in reverse numerical order.

At about 5 am I decided it was time to pack it in. I'd lost my companions to homeward urges long ago and so decided to wait it out until the trains started in the morning by asking for a garbage bag from one of the Aftermath Crew and sleeping in it on the beach - those things don't really breathe well.

But Singapore isn't all fun and parties, there's a serious side to it too - it is, after all, a police state. At one point I saw about a dozen cops in riot gear marching purposely down a well-behaved shopping street at five metre spacings toting fully automatic weaponry - their fingers poised precariously on the triggers and their faces sporting expressions of hardened determination as though preparing to massacre a band of gum-chewing miscreants. Despite the fact that Singapore has so many excessively strict laws I'm pretty sure I managed to obey all of them during my time there (except of course public urination, but we're all human). And yes, the trains do run on time.

A beautiful city though. It has some spectacularly massive buildings spanning all architectural eras of the last two centuries: Neoclassical, Victorian Colonial, International Style and Whatever The Next One Will Be Called. One vast Art Deco monumental skyscraper adorned with sombre high altitude male caryatids looked like an evil vision of the future - if the year was 1936 and the future was 1963.

For the last couple of days I had accepted Deon's extremely generous offer for me to stay at her flat in what Singaporeans affectionately misnomer The Heartland (what we would call suburbia) - I think a more anatomically correct term would be Skinland, or at least Muscle-Tissue-Land. In order to visit the Singapore Botanical Gardens (which I found, like many things, to be inferior to Melbourne's) I ended up having to take seven buses. However, Deon's place was amazing - I spent a non-negligible amount of time enjoying her huge swimming pool and learning to play her harp (and doing pretty well too I might say). She has three generations of women living there: grandmother, mother and herself. We capped off my stay with a rambunctious video chat involving my old household, the Paint and Wallpaper, over a couple of... over a reasonable number of beers.

The next day I extracted myself from Singapore knowing not my destination but only a direction - north. My departure would prove to be a little more involved than might be assumed.