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.


  1. Wow, what exciting and varied adventures. Do you prefer the crowds (plus/minus slimy foam) or the solitude? How are you enjoying the youth hostel circuit? And was that $50 cocktail worth the price? Man I'm jealous of all your reading time - and glad to hear you admitting to the occasional trashy novel after all the mighty classic tomes you've been powering through (but Mills and Boon... really!).

  2. Well I'm not sure if I prefer one over the other straight, variety is the best. But I must say that I get more sick of crowds and partying than I get sick of solitude. I suppose that means I'm an introvert. But I have been staying in Bangkok recently which is pretty full-on.

    The youth hostel circuit is really good - I've met a lot of great people. That $50 cocktail was not worth the price, but we'd traveled a long way for it so we knew we had to buy it. I'm never much of a cocktail drinker anyway.