A short flight to the South West took us to Singapore. I actually enjoyed this flight a great deal more than the last one as it didn’t last nearly as long and the views from the cabin were quite simply stunning. We flew over Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia at what seemed like less than two thousand feet although this was mainly down to the weather which was so clear and still that you could see everything below like a fabulously rendered relief map of South East Asia. My favourite air hostesses were also back to ensure that I didn’t suffer from dehydration with a steady stream of German beer.
This idyllic flight was only spoiled by the immigration form which was handed out about half an hour before we landed. It contained the usual ridiculous questions like;
‘Are you travelling to Singapore to engage in acts of terrorism?’ and ‘Are you smuggling taxable or controlled substances into Singapore?’
I fully understand that no country wants to inadvertently allow terrorists in and smuggling is illegal but I can absolutely guarantee you that nobody has ever answered yes to those questions. Apart from perhaps the odd comedian who will have been given more than enough time to come up with some better material sitting fifteen to a cell in a foreign prison. The clincher for me however was at the bottom of the form, in red block capitals where it said something like;
‘ANY PERSON FOUND TO BE CARRYING ILLEGAL DRUGS INTO SINGAPORE WILL BE SENTENCED TO DEATH’
Now even when you are not carrying any illegal drugs, that is a little bit scary. Particularly as it is not uncommon for drugs to be planted on an unsuspecting traveller in one airport and then discreetly removed in another without them ever realising they have just smuggled them in. This creates a perfect scapegoat because everybody claims they had no idea that they had anything illegal with them and if you are caught red handed like that then it doesn’t matter what you say, nobody is going to believe you.
As it turned out this was not a problem as customs in Singapore seem to rely on this warning as their sole deterrent because when we got to the customs area there was nobody whatsoever to check that you had been honest on your declaration form or not. So we breezed through and into the main airport, which was surprisingly tiny and quiet compared with Hong Kong.
We made our way to the information desk where we wisely enquired about hotel transfers. It turned out that there were regular minibuses which would drop you off at your hotel for a very reasonable and not unfamiliar fee of two dollars so we waited for ten minutes before hopping aboard one and heading to our hotel, the Broadway on Serangoon Road which I had also blindly booked online from the same website as before. Half an hour passed and people were dropped off at various plush looking hotels and resorts until we were the last remaining people on the bus. Soon we pulled up outside the hotel, unloaded our bags and headed inside. It was very small and very stuffy inside. If it had ever had an air conditioning system it had long since packed up. We booked in with the concierge who gave us our room key and told us where to go.
The Ramada Kowloon was middle of the road. The Broadway was not. Instead of a regular shower there was a wet room which flooded to a depth of about six inches within five minutes of turning on the shower. The bed sheets smelt as though they had been used as towels by the local rugby team since they had last been washed, the mirror was in two halves, the ash tray still had somebody else’s cigarette butts in it and there were dead cockroaches dotted about the carpet. But worst of all, the only other guests were German, so if we wanted to eat breakfast, which was only toast and marmalade anyway, we would have to ensure that we were on the veranda where the food was served by 3 a.m. at the latest. It did have an Indian restaurant attached to it but having seen the state of the bedrooms we didn’t even want to imagine what the kitchen was like and decided to give it a miss. At the end of the day though, you get what you pay for. And I paid very little.
All of this sounds like I am complaining but in fact I am really not. I much prefer to stay at the lower end of the market as too many creature comforts will only act as distractions that will stop you from exploring your surroundings and getting the most out of your experience. For example, a lot of people will only stay in a hotel with a pool. Why? There is a swimming pool in every leisure centre in every major town in every developed country in the world. And hardly anybody ever uses them.
However there were absolutely no distractions in the Broadway Hotel to keep us from exploring Singapore and so we wasted no time in having a wash and heading out to have a look around. First we decided to take a stroll along Serangoon Road and see what was nearby. The first thing that struck me was that it was absolutely nothing like I had expected. For a start, everybody was Indian. Everybody spoke Indian, all the restaurants were Indian and there were stunning Hindu temples all over the place, all with hundreds of pairs of shoes neatly lined up on the pavement outside. The temples were like nothing else in the world, lavishly decorated with every colour you could imagine, huge three dimensional depictions of the gods were expertly sculpted into the architecture. Arches and spires and domes were dotted all over them and nearly everything was edged or plated with gold. We later discovered that all this was here because we were staying right slap bang in the middle of a part of Singapore called Little India. And in the dry equatorial heat, we might as well have been in India.
Faye had gone out wearing only a pair of shorts, a pair of sandals, a bikini top and an open shirt in an attempt to combat the heat. This, it soon became apparent, was a mistake. Initially I had assumed that people were admiring what a dashing silhouette I cut in my big leather hat, which I had decided deserved another chance, until I followed their gaze and realised that it was in fact Faye’s ample cleavage that they were so interested in. This coupled with her ginger hair made her almost newsworthy to the local population. In fact we soon had a sizeable entourage of amorous gentlemen following our every move, or more accurately Faye’s every move, some of whom were even brazen enough to be taking pictures of us. The guide books had said that women needn’t worry too much about covering up as attitudes towards clothing were pretty liberal so we had not expected a reaction like this. At first when I realised this I was worried that perhaps we had made some kind of horrible social faux pas and were risking offending people, but I needn’t have worried because if nothing else she had certainly brightened up a lot of people’s days.
We decided to do a spot of shopping and so headed to the nearest Bureau De Change to cash some traveller’s cheques. This usually simple affair was complicated somewhat by the fact that the street that the Bureau was situated on was called Havelock Road. By some coincidence, at the time, both of our parents happened to live on the same street in England which was called, yup; you guessed it, Havelock Road. Unfortunately this meant that the man cashing our cheques thought we were giving him the address of our hotel in Singapore rather than our home addresses. This took some time to rectify, not helped by the language barrier but eventually we persuaded him to give us some money and headed off to sniff out a bargain or two.
Having wandered around Little India for a couple of hours and tried our hand, somewhat more successfully this time at bartering in some of the local clothes shops, we decided to get something to eat from the Seven Eleven and go back to our room to relax on the veranda for the evening. A few yards down the road from the hotel, next to one of the temples was a patch of grass. It couldn’t really be said to be a park, more an area of well cared for waste ground. During the day people had been sitting cross legged in the sun, eating their lunches or watching their children play, but in the evening it became something else entirely.
While we had been exploring, some people had turned up with an enormous plywood wheel about six feet in diameter and painted with red and black numbered segments like an enormous dart board. At the top was an arrow which pointed down at the board. This was obviously a very popular pastime as it looked as though every Indian man in Singapore had turned up to play. The game, from what I could gather, was a bit like roulette, whereby the wheel was spun and people would place bets on either the number or the colour that the arrow pointed to when the wheel came to rest. Hundreds of men clamoured around holding out fistfuls of banknotes which they exchanged for betting slips before every spin of the wheel. Then once all the bets had been taken, a man spun the wheel as hard as he could and everybody waited with bated breath for it to stop again. As it slowed down, the tension in the crowd became almost palpable and everybody went quiet for a few seconds before becoming even more animated just before it stopped. When it finally came to rest, a few cheers would punctuate a swell of disappointed groans, the winners would be paid and then it would all start again. This went on for a full four hours until it was too dark to see the wheel anymore and everybody went home.
The next morning, after we had sat out on the veranda with our German friends, eating a leisurely breakfast of toast and marmalade, we decided to venture a little further afield and headed off in the direction of the botanical gardens. It was only a couple of miles on foot but it soon began to seem a lot further as the heat started to take its toll. We had yet to acclimatise to the weather and we made hard work of the walk. To put this in perspective the lowest ever recorded temperature in Singapore is just over nineteen degrees Celsius. That’s a respectable British summer’s day. By the time we got there we dived straight into the nearest pub, an Irish themed bar with a wonderfully colonial feel to it. It was a beautiful white stone building with a flagstone veranda overlooking a spacious plaza, small palms and tropical ferns potted between the tables. They also served an excellent pint of Caffrey’s and top notch pub grub and so for the next hour or so we sat in the sun, eating, drinking and feeling like we were a part of the old British Empire. Eventually we went over to the plaza in front of the pub. It was wonderfully manicured and planted out with a little pond hidden amongst some trees which was teeming with terrapins of the sort that you would only normally come across in an exotic pet shop. We spent quite a while just wandering around it, stopping for a cigarette or two (which I was very careful to crush out in one of the multitude of ash trays in order to avoid the enormous fine for littering) on one of the many benches and just generally enjoying our surroundings. In fact, we spent so long ‘just generally enjoying our surroundings’ that by the time we finally decided to go into the botanic gardens they had already closed.
As we made our way back to the hotel the sunlight began to fade, the tropical birdlife broke into a discordant symphony and it became apparent that Singapore’s reputation as the cleanest and safest city in the world is not undeserved. Everything is hewn from spotless white stone, the buildings, the pavements, the roads. Everything. And there are no shady looking characters on the streets, no groups of young men looking threatening, or even trying to look threatening. No beggars or homeless people like in every other city in the world. Instead it looks like everybody is fairly happy, law abiding and at least reasonably affluent. In part this is due to the almost draconian punishments for small civil infringements. The fine for smoking in a non smoking area for example is one thousand dollars. The same applies for littering and many other small misdemeanours. Chewing gum, although not illegal to consume in Singapore is not available to buy anywhere and is not allowed to be taken into the country. Although these laws are not strictly enforced, they are enough of a deterrent to ensure that on the whole people adhere to them. More serious crimes such as theft and rape are punished by caning, a very unpleasant affair which although it sounds like an easy option, is really not. It is certainly no slap on the wrist: strokes from the thick rattan cane are excruciatingly painful, take weeks to heal and scar for life, and of course, as is well known the most serious of crimes in Singapore are punishable by death. All in all it’s not somewhere you would want to go breaking the law and in my opinion, it’s a better place for it too.
When we arrived back at our hotel after a delightful evening stroll through the streets of Singapore we thought that the best plan for our last night here would be to sit down on the veranda and watch another few hours of wheel of fortune or whatever it was which was all the more entertaining as we still had very little idea of what was actually going on.
The next day we checked out of the hotel in the morning and took the train back to the airport. This cost the equivalent of twenty pence to ride the mass rapid transport system or MRT, the cleanest and most efficient public transport system that I have ever been on. We were due to fly out to Perth at 10 a.m. We had yet to realise at this point but the big adventure was about begin.
Going Somewhere – An Australian Adventure