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- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Breakfast at Fartini's|
As I sit and write we can hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in the Islamic town of Kota Bharu. We left the west coast of Malaysia this morning and headed across country for eight hours by bus to reach here. It was a pretty uneventful journey. The bus was the same type as the one we got up to the Cameron Highlands. With only twenty seven seats on board a full sized coach (two seats on one side of the aisle, one seat on the other) it meant that everyone had lots of space and you could easily recline your seat without bumping into the person behind you. The only snag was that we were in the back row and above the engines so it was a pretty noisy trip all the way, although this did drown out the sound of the local radio so there was also a positive side.
We both dozed off and on throughout the journey, slightly defeating the purpose of taking a day bus rather than a night bus. Partly this is due to boredom setting in and partly due to the heat as the aircon was not very effective. When I was awake the scenery we passed through was more of the same tropical jungle with palm tree plantations lining the roads at some stages. We passed through an industrial area that seemed to be a prime area for making cars.
The road climbed up through the central mountain range and as it dropped down the other side we crossed over the Tasik Temengot, a large reservoir with a few hotels dotted around the shores. In the villages we passed people again seemed well off compared to other Asian countries we have been in. The hosues were made of bricks and most had cars parked outside.
When we reached Tanah, a meeting point with the railway, the bus stopped briefly to let people off. A chap came down the back of the bus to us asking if we wanted to go to the islands, which we do but not today. I thought he was from the bus company saying that this is where the bus went to rather than Kota Bharu but Stef had got his measure. He was a local taxi driver plying his trade and trying to entice us off the bus early – cheeky chap!
Kota Bharu itself soon appeared, another sizeable town whose welcome monument proudly confirms that it is an Islamic City. Having seen Tesco and Courts furniture store in Georgetown we were met here by A&W, a Canadian burger chain that served us well for lunchtime stops as we made our way from East to West Coast. The bus dropped us somewhere where lots of taxis were on hand and we were soon whisked away to our hotel of choice, the Safar Inn. It is clean and comfortable but I am not sure that pink walls with orange skirting boards and door frames is really my ideal colour scheme!
We spent some time this evening trying to plan out our last few weeks in Malaysia. Time seems to be running out on us so we put a stake in the ground in KL and booked our onward flights to Africa. Now we are struggling to try and fit in all we want to do and see in Malaysia before we leave. The lack of easily accessible and up to date information about bus, train and plane connections makes it a complex task.
In the evening we headed out to try and find somewhere to eat that would match up to the tasty food we had in Georgetown. Our map showed hawker stalls by the river and that was our first port of call. Althugh a couple were open they had a distinct lack of food and we decided to carry on. We turned back towards the main centre of town following the rbight lights to be met by the golden arches of a McDonalds, one of two in very close proximity to each other. The street, Padang Garong, led us down past what should have been the night market but what now is a building site. A couple of LP recommendations were further on and we passed another A&W and Pizza Hut on the way there.
Even here in the centre of town the streets were quiet and not much seemed open. We went to the Golden City restaurant which, at nine pm, told us their kitchen was already shut but they could do us a bowl of noodle soup. I opted for the soup, Stef picked up an A&W on the way home. Back at our hotel we opened the door to see a cockroach a couple of centimetres long scuttling away under the bed. We attempted to find it to no avail, no doubt it was long departed and, more importantly, it did not pay us a repeat visit during the night.
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Idyllic beach and sea Pulau Perhentian|
Our disappointment with the Safar Inn continued this morning when we went downstairs for our breakfast only to be told there was a problem and there was no breakfast. This was frustrating more than disappointing as we had asked last night if it was included in the room rate and were told it was. There was no attempt to even offer us a cup of tea. We got our bags and as we checked out another couple, who I think were Malaysian, were also given a story. I was waiting to see if food miraculously appeared for them but no.
We tried to ask the reception staff if there was still a train ticket office at the southern bus station but communication broke down. As we were trying to work out what to do next a single Welsh guy also came down for breakfast and was not impressed to find there was none. It turned out that he was Richard Watkins, the author of the Lonely Planet guide. He too was surprised at the standard of the hotel and said it was very different to when he came here before. I suspect it will not be included in the next edition of the book.
He is back here in Malaysia doing research for the next edition of the book which is due out in January next year. Contrary to the glamour impression you have of the travel journalists lifestyle he said it could get pretty boring traipsing around towns in the heat checking out the latest information. He is only here for eight weeks so it would be interesting to know how much information actually gets updated in each edition but the conversation took a different turn. He gave us his recommendation of where to stay on the Perhentian Islands, our destination for today.
Before hitting the islands we wanted to book our tickets for the Jungle Express train that will take us south. The hotel simply waved at a street when we asked them where we could get a taxi. We shouldered our packs and set off with no confidence at all of finding a taxi stand but we did wave one down in the street. The driver was very grumpy, gave us no help with our bags and seemed to be trying to get more money than the agreed fare when he dropped us at the Jalan Hamzah Bus Station.
The bus station is pretty small with just a collection of ticket offices and an open space where the buses pull in We went in search of ticket office number five which oddly is not next to number four or six but is on the other side of the coach park in a separate strip of buildings. There was a very friendly lady there and within about five minutes we left tickets in hand. Neither of us had expected it to be so straight forward so time will tell if we end up on the right train and in the right sort of seats.
From here we needed to get south to Kuala Besut from where you can get a boat across to the Perhentian Islands. Strangely for a bus station this one had no taxi rank and there were no taxis in sight. A chap, who had obviously been watching us, came up to Stef and offered to take us there for RM40, a reasonable price. He told us he had a very good car which turned out to be a total rust bucket. I could not work out whether the kangaroo hopping was due to his driving ability or the quality of the car. It did not bode well when he almost conked out at the first island and my suspicions grew deeper when we had to part pay in advance so that he could put petrol in the tank!
We made it out of Kota Bharu and Stef sat following where we were going on his map just to make sure we were not being ripped off and about to be dropped in the middle of nowhere. We passed through agricultural land which changed from rice to tobacco crops as we went south. Miraculously the car made it in one piece to Kuala Besut, although the driver did have to catch his door which flew open after one bump in the road. He tried to drop us off near to the jetty where no doubt he had an arrangement with a tout for a backhander. I had seen a tour agency recommended by Lonely Planet so we made him stop and we walked back to the agency.
Our experience of Perhentian Pelangi Travel & Tours was very good. They arranged our boat to the island, booked us into the hotel recommended by the Lonely Planet author and also said they would give us a lift to the train station when we got back from the islands. For the latter we will just have to pay for petrol as the agency owner has not been to Tanah Merah for a while and wants to catch up with people there, or at least that is the story we were told.
With tickets and park entrance fees paid for we were bundled onto a speedboat and whisked away across the twenty kilometre stretch of water to the islands. The further away from the mainland we got the more milky green the sea became turning to clear blue near the islands. The speedboats operate a sort of ferry service taking supplies as well as tourists to the island. We made one stop at Perhentian village to offload ice and bread before continuing to the middle of the Kercil island.
This area is prime backpacker territory and this is reflected by how you get from boat to water. I was really glad we were not staying there. Small motorised boats (which they called Tuk Tuk’s) came up along side the speedboat and those getting off had to pass their bags across and then climb across themselves. For most of the journey we had been in calm seas but here the waves were pretty high and the height distance between the boats changed quite significantly. It also looked like it was a wet landing when the taxi reached the beach.
We were staying on Besar, the other Perhentian Island, at the Tuna Bay Island Resort. I am happy to say that here they had a floating landing stage so there was no hopping from one boat to another. We arrived at low tide so had a dry landing but at high tide the ramp leading up to the floats is well and truly submerged.
Stef got a bit humpy when we checked in as they do not have a room with a sea view for tonight, but do for the other two nights we are staying here. We had not pre-booked so why he got the stops is beyond me as I was just happy that they had a room. It made for a tense hour or so this afternoon but soon the lapping of the waves on the beach calmed us down and we were friends again. The room we have is very clean and tastefully decorated, looking out onto a small garden.
We dumped our stuff and headed for the beach. The sand is very soft and fine, almost like flour, and, considering how hot it is, it was surprisingly cool underfoot. As you get closer to the water line the soft sand is replaced by shale and what looks like pieces of coral before becoming soft (and velvety according to Stef) again further on. We have hired snorkels and masks and spent some time just swimming around watching the fish below. Most were back and white striped like zebras but I also saw some that were blue bodied with gold fins and others that were white. Some of them were also inquisitive and came to investigate a new source of food - our legs.
The afternoon passed us by and we were both happy to simply chill out. The stretch of water in front of makes for interesting watching as there are fishermen, water taxis and boats full of people in scuba gear off for a dive somewhere. There always seemed to be one or two people snorkelling in the sea in front of the hotel but generally the whole place has a quiet, low season air about it.
Having not seen a good sunset for quite a while we were treated to a rare show this evening. We had the usual display of salmon and golden colours merging and extending across the sky but at one point a cloud must have been directly in front of the sun and it sent a beam of shadow across the sky. It was as if a searchlight had been switched on but the ray was shade not light. Neither of us has seen anything like that before and we think it was probably a rare treat.
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Paradise on Pulau Perhentian|
|Barbie on the beach|
To quite a Stef phrase “eh, it’s a hard life this life of a world traveller” (his other favourite phrase is "Not sure we can put this on expenses for the BBC"). Today’s “hard life” was a prime example. We got up, had breakfast, donned our beach gear put up the parasol over our sun loungers and spent the day on the beach. Probably one of the most energetic things we did all day was to move our bags from our garden view room to a new one with a view over the beach!
That’s not to say we simply lazed about all day. We went for a swim a couple of times, and wandered down to the local beach front café for a spot of lunch but most of the day we spent relaxing, reading or playing cards. There is a really refreshing breeze here so you do not get too hot during the day. We both spent the day sitting in the shade so we would not burn but even so still picked up colour while we swam.
In the evening we headed back to our little beach front café for dinner watching as the tide came ever closer. They have sandbags piled up two high to stop the water coming into the café but it would have been fun to sit with feet being cooled by the sea as we ate. After dinner we strolled down the beach under the light of the stars (and a few buildings!) dodging the volleyball net and anchor chains as we went.
The night sky here is fabulous. With little light pollution you can see thousands of stars but as usual we could only identify a few. While we were eating we watched a thunderstorm across the bay on the mainland. Huge flashes of thunder lit up the clouds over land, seeming to come closer and closer to us. As we walked along the bay, the storm also seemed to be coming round the headland in front of us. Where we saw bright stars one minute, clouds obscured them the next with lightning flashes streaking across the sky at an increasing rate. The storm never hit our little part of the world though.
Even at night the sea was lovely and warm as we paddled up and down the beach. In some places you have no choice but to paddle as the beach is narrow and when the tide is in it is submerged. If you wanted to play volleyball at night half of the “court” was under an inch or two of water. Back at our hotel we sat in the bar drinking expensive Tiger beer (about £1.50 a can) and playing gin rummy which ended up in us having a later night than we have done in ages. It was just a really relaxing place to be. I suspect that if we had not already booked our train tickets south and had more time we could quite happily stay here for a few more days.
Ah, it’s a hard life!
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Colourful fishing boat in crystal clear water|
We had good intentions of being more active today but they turned out to be short lived. There are a few trails through the island that connect up so that you can do a round circuit. We set off down the beach going up a very decorative staircase to them come down into the next bay. Here the local fishing fleet were at rest, the day’s catch already done and dusted. The men were now dealing with their domestic chores, washing clothes and chatting to each other.
On the hillside were the remains of some old chalets and small hotels. One was very definitely deserted but with another we could not decide if it had just not yet opened for the season. It will need a fresh lick of paint if it is opening. We found the trail to connect through to the next bay and set off. It was a very narrow path and pretty overgrown so you were continually moving branches and twigs out of the way. We fully expected the path to get worse further up and decided it was a long trousers job, a problem as Stef only had his shorts on and me a sarong.
Rather than battling through we decided to turn back knowing that there was always tomorrow still in hand to do the walk. This meant that unfortunately we had to spend another day simply relaxing on the beach and taking the odd dip in the South China Sea – such hardship!
Even as late as six in the evening it was still warm enough to be out on the beach and taking a swim and we made the most of the chance to do so with a late dip. A local man was standing near the shore with a bag of bread feeding the fish. This had the great effect of stopping the kids in a Swedish family from scrapping with each other as they went over to join him. It seems to be a daily routing and one I found surprising. This area is a marine park and I would nto have thought they would want the fish to become dependent on humans for food.
We had a few more rounds of Gin Rummy, a couple of beers and dinner in the hotel before hitting the beach again for more star gazing. Most people seemed to be either on the beach or just sat on their balconies enjoying the relative cool of the night air, the peace, quiet and tranquillity.
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Fish heads, raw ingredients for keropok|
Sadly today we had to leave our little tropical paradise and continue on with our travels. But not before we took the opportunity for one last dip in the sea. The weather seemed to know that we were moving on as it was cloudy and a bit overcast and there was a stiffer breeze than we have had over the last few days. We waited until about ten before taking our dip as the sun by that time was struggling to break through the clouds. I cannot recall ever having swum in sea water as clear and warm as this before. It is very salty, not great when it mixes with sun tan cream and drips in your eyes, but good as it gives you extra buoyancy for floating and watching the marine life go by beneath you.
We packed our bags and waited for our boat to turn up to take us back to the mainland. We had hoped to be on the afternoon boat but had to leave at midday as the later boat apparently is not running yet, odd as this is the one the agency booked us on to. On the way out the boat had been smart and relatively new and was not packed to capacity, although the sign saying “maximum ten passengers” was well and truly ignored. Our boat back was pretty different. By the time it got to our jetty it was already pretty full and there was barely room for us and our backpacks. It was also a bit of a rust bucket. As I held on to the handrail next to me it gave way as the joint had well and truly rusted away.
Although the wind had died down a bit since this morning it still made for a choppy ride. No glass like seas as we had on the way across. The boat was very low in the water and my nerves about small boats kicked in immediately as any slight deviation from going straight made me think we were going to capsize. We did not, and made it safely back to land, but those of us unlucky enough to be on the outside of the boat got a good soaking into the bargain.
We headed back to Perhentian Pelangi travel to find that the lift to Tanah Merah with us just paying for petrol had, not surprisingly, turned into a taxi for which we would have to pay full fare. We chatted briefly to a young couple from Bromsgrove who were just on their way to the islands and then set off on our way.
About ten minutes down the road the taxi driver stopped so we could take a look at a place where they make keropok, more familiarly known to you and me as prawn crackers except these are made with fish not prawns. They mince the fish and roll the resulting paste into large Swiss roll shapes and then steam them in big vertical kettle type contraptions. The end result is then sliced and put out to dry in the sun on large bamboo racks. It is deep fried before you eat it. From the paste they also make fish sausages which you dip in a sweet dark sauce before eating them. They were OK but not great. It was an interesting little stop but food hygiene standards have not yet hit this part of the world. All the equipment looked like it could do with a clean and there were flies everywhere.
It took us about another hour to reach Tanah Merah. Our route took us through agricultural land where tobacco and rice are the main crops. Our driver did not seem to be a fan of his local area as he kept saying “there is nothing to see here”. Stef had a quick lesson in Bahasa Malaysia in exchange for complementing the driver on his English. He dropped us at the train station having pointed out to us the KFC which seems to be a highlight of town.
As we had to leave the islands early we were at the station three hours before our train, too long to just there and wait. A quick scout of town showed that KFC was probably the best place to wait and against our better principles we headed inside into their cool air conditioned environment. Here we are definitely a novelty factor. We saw no other tourists but attracted quite a few stares and a lot of giggles from the kids who came in and out. It was a busy place with whole families coming in for dinner and a roaring trade in take aways.
With about half an hour still to go we headed back to the station to wait for our train. It arrived on time and we quickly found our seats, a task made much easier as the platform tells you which coach will be where when the train stops. It was cool inside, so much so that we had to dig our coats out after a couple of hours, and we had comfy seats with lots of legroom. A TV played the train channel, pictures no sound, showing films and a programme about a German high class delicatessen that has now opened a branch in Tokyo
|Tanah Merah train station|
The buffet car had a regular supply of food and drinks going up and down the train although they did not seem to be selling much. All went quieter as it got to eleven pm and even the group of Chinese people on board seemed to stop walking up and down between the carriages to have a chat with their friends. Stef had a quick snooze but despite setting the alarm on my phone I stayed awake to ensure we did not miss our stop.
On time we arrived at Jerantut at midnight. The station here was pretty much the same as Tanah Merah. Both had one platform, a few seats, a ticket office and a small café. Guards in light blue uniforms checked tickets on the train and made sure people got off at the right stop. Those on the ground were ready with their flags to conduct proceedings and get the train underway again.
We were both glad that we had called ahead and booked somewhere to stay and a pick up. We were also glad that we had double checked earlier today that they had out reservation because it had seemed to go walkies. A bus was there to meet us though and a friendly chap took us to our hotel. We had opted for the Hotel Sri Emas, which is referred to in Lonely Planet as backpackers central for those going to Taman Negara. We were both pleasantly surprised at what we got.
It was a steep climb two floors up to our room which, although small, was spotlessly clean and came with its own bathroom. A quick round of splat the mossie (we drew 1-1) brought an end to what had been a long day and we were soon curled up in bed both trying to switch off our minds and get some sleep.
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Longboats to get into Taman Negara|
We were up and out early both feeling the effects of not enough sleep and knowing that we probably had another long day ahead of us. Before eight we were downstairs where there is an office for MKS Tours, who had picked us up last night and who seem to own the hotel. They have everything pretty well wrapped up. Last night we were given a couple of sheets of paper, one all about the hotels the company has the other a tick list of what there is to do and where there is to stay in Taman Negara.
While Stef went in search of a cash point to replenish our dwindling stocks I sorted out what we would do for the next couple of days. Fully expecting that last nights cleanliness and comfort is well and truly unusual for a backpacker pad we opted to stay in one of the better hotels at Taman Negara, not the Mutiara resort but the Rainforest hotel on the other side of the river. We opted to take the three hour slow boat to get there but the bus back and have also booked up a night safari by 4x4 and a walk for tomorrow morning.
As we sorted our tickets and park passes out a steady stream of backpackers came into the café from the hotel’s other building slightly further up into town. A slightly battered bus turned up outside driven by the chap who had brought Stef his coffee and everyone piled on board. We had a short twenty minutes or so drive down to the boat jetty from where we got our boat up to the park.
My tummy sank when I saw what I had in store for the next three hours and I regretted not checking the size of the boat when we booked. It was the same sort of thing we had been on I the Mekong Delta in Vietnam but this one had no seats. There were simply padded cushions on the bottom of the boat and on the wooden dividers that acted as seat backs. It was slung low in the water and I knew that I was going to have an anxious few hours ahead of me. At the outset I got jittery as they realised as we moved away from the jetty that the boat was unbalanced and people had to stand and shuffle about to sort it out.
We were both disappointed with the boat ride. When we went to Yacutinga Lodge in Argentina they also took you to the lodge by boat and brought you back by road. There though we had the hotel owner and guide with us and the trip was a nature trail in its own right. We stopped along the way to see the local flora and fauna and it was an interesting trip. This was just three hours of monotonously chugging up the river. The monotony was only broken by the engine conking out (which really gave me the collywobbles) which happened on a regular basis or by the pit stop required for those who had not heeded the warning to go before we set off.
By the end of two hours we were both thoroughly uncomfortable and bored. I made it through the last hour by just covering my eyes and pretending to be asleep, as every turn of the boat brought the prospect of capsizing ever closer to me. I felt pretty shaken by the time we got off the boat at the NKS café and also had a bad dose of ship roll which took a few hours to shake off. The boat stopped at the tour company’s office, which just happens to be inside their café, and we were bundled out, given some maps and had them explained to us. Stef just wanted to push on but I still needed to calm my nerves so I forced him to sit through the waffle!
It was worth the wait as we firmed up our plans and the tour agency arranged for our hotel to come and pick us up. We just had to walk with full packs across a plank to get to dry land and then up a sandy slope to the car park. The shuttle bus from the hotel arrived pretty quickly and within minutes we were checking in. We opted to upgrade the room to get a better view which ironically means we are now paying the same as the cheaper accommodations in the resort in the park. Ah well.
We offloaded our packs and cooled down for a while before heading out to get more information on possible walks while we are here. The hotel shuttle dropped us back down to the river where we had to get a sampan, a small motor boat, across the river to the national park. Having recently vowed I would not get on another boat in the near future here I was back on a tiddler. It was a short hop across the river with the boat pretty much being pushed to where it wanted to go by the fairly strong current.
|Rubber tapping (abandoned in favour of building lots of guesthouses)|
The Mutiara resort looks very plush and comfortable although we have not seen inside the rooms. We bumped into a young couple who were on our boat and chatted for a while before finding the parks office. I think we had both expected to get more information here than we did. We want to do some walks in the jungle but want a guide with us who can explain what trees, birds and other animals we are seeing along the way. We were left with the distinct impression that the guides would simply show you the trail and not give that extra information. We bought a map that shows the different trails and have some options of what we could do for the time we have not yet booked up but we probably will not decide for definite until tomorrow.
We stopped for a late lunch at the resort’s restaurant which was very smart, served up tasty food but had even more outrageously priced beer than Tuna Bay on the Perhentions. Here it was £3 for a can of Tiger beer. With no real options to fill the time we have left this afternoon we opted to go back to the hotel and catch up on diaries for a while. A sampan took us back across the river and we decided to walk back to the hotel rather than calling for the shuttle.
The climate here is strange. When you are still it does not feel too hot or oppressive but as soon as you start to move the sweat simply pours out of you. We climbed up the stairs from the river bank meeting some young kids coming down who asked to have their photo taken. They chucked and smiled when we showed them the end result and then just toddled off on their way. We walked back through the town which is nothing more than guesthouses, a small medical clinic and a school and down to our hotel.
Just before the hotel is a small plantation of rubber trees which have all been tapped. The coconut shells tied to the trees were full of what looked like dirty, over sized marshmallows. We are not sure if this is what it is meant to look like or whether these are just not well cared for. A couple of shuttles from the hotel passed us on their way into town and you could see that the drivers were wondering why we had walked instead of using them. Having just spent a few days lazing around on the beach we both needed to loosen up a bit before our walk tomorrow.
In the evening we headed back down to the river to the café where we were dropped off so that we could watch their video about the park and home some dinner before our night safari. This was definitely back packer territory and I think we raised the average age of their customers by quite a margin. Young men coming down to the café would jump halfway down the sandy slope and then hop across the wobbly planks to the café, al no doubt to impress the girlies on the inside.
The food in the café was not great and the quality of the video was pretty dire also. One TV had it in black and white, another had it in colour but you could not hear the commentary so there was not much point in going to see it. At just before nine we were bundled back up the slop to get into our 4x4 for the night safari.
The jeep headed out of town and into a palm oil plantation. Unlike the night drive that we did in Cat Tien in Vietnam here we had slim pickings. We saw a couple of leopard cats, a civet cat, magpie robins, a barn owl, domestic cats and, on the way back, two dogs lounging by the road. It was disappointing that we had not seen more but there is no way to control the animals. Our spotter did the same spiel as the one in Cat Tien, “it is normally my friend but he could not come tonight”. Whether that is true or not we will never know but with him and the driver chatting loudly and smoking during the drive they probably frightened away more than we saw.
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Spider, apparently only a little one for these parts!|
We headed back down to the NKS café this morning for our other tour with NKS. Today we will “do” the main attraction of the park, the canopy walkway, and then carry on further up to the top of Bukit Teresik. I think we were both dubious about the quality of the guide we will have with us and whether it will make it worth us paying for a tour as the walks we will do today you can do on your own.
Back at the café we were introduced to our guide who is commonly known as Crazy Monkey. Since he was a small boy he has been fascinated by tarantula spiders and this, combined with his penchant for climbing tall trees has earned him his nickname. We reckon he was in his early twenties and looking around during the day he seemed to be the youngest of all the guides. Guiding here does not seem to be a skilled profession and the guides are not armed with lots of knowledge about the local fauna and flora. Most simply seem to be young men from the village who know about the forest from playing around in it and tourism gives them an alternative job to poaching.
We had to walk through the Mutiara resort to get to the start of the trail. It looks like a very large hotel with chalets and cabins stretching back through well tended garden. A sign part way through tells you about the animals that you are likely to see wandering around through the gardens – various types of birds, monkeys and wild pigs.
As we started out on the trail to the canopy walkway our guide dropped some bad news. This weekend there are lots of school and university children in the park so the trails will be very busy. The chances of seeing any wildlife are low unless you do multi day treks that take you into the wilds of the park, but hordes of students will reduce our chances of seeing anything at all in the park.
The path was well trodden and along the way numbered signs were placed on many of the trees. Crazy Monkey gave us an explanation about some of them but not many. It would be easy for the park administration service to produce a booklet giving background information to these signs so you know what you are seeing as you go but they do not seem to run the park with this type of thing in mind.
It was heating up quickly as we walked and before long we were both drenched in sweat. Our guide set a fast pace, OK when you are used to the trails but they were quite matted with tree roots and it was an easy place to lose your footing or trip on a root. Apart from the heat and humidity we could pretty much have been on a walk anywhere especially as there little explanation of what we were seeing around us and no hope of animal spotting due to the volume of traffic.
A steep climb up a set of stairs brought us to the start of the canopy walkway. For safety reasons they restrict the number of people on the walkway at one time. We signed up for our turn, glad that we had made it before the large groups of students or we would have had a long wait. As it was we only waited about five minutes before we were able to climb up the first support tower and set off on our way.
The walkway is like a rope bridge suspended above the canopy of the forest. In effect they have suspended a large net among the trees and then put down ladders and planks of wood to create a path in the middle of the ropes. Walking the plank suspended 40m above the floor of the jungle is quite and experience, especially on the really wobbly sections. I had thought that Stef’s vertigo would kick in but once you are up there you have no option but to keep going to the end.
You walk for about 500m in total along the walkway. There are a few platforms along the way which are the only places you are meant to stop to take photos. Most of the sections were OK, just a little wobbly, but there was one section where the netting either side of you is quite low and it makes for a less comfortable wobble across the planks. While the whole experience was a bit of fun we didn’t really get the chance to see what was around us because of the need to keep moving. Whether it is better on a quieter day or not I don’t know but I suspect they will keep you moving irrespective of the volume of traffic.
We both had slightly wobbly legs after the canopy walkway not so much because the walk itself was difficult but more because you are tense all the time not wanting to miss your footing and stumble into the safety nets. Our guide then set off hopping up the path leading to the top of Bukit Teresik. By this time it was really hot and the combination of heat, speed and steep slope was too much for me. I left Stef to go on alone to the top and worked my way back down to some benches in the shade. Here I was kept company by a jumping spider, big ants, butterflies and different midge type bugs while I waited for them to come back down. A fairly steady stream of people passed me by including big groups of students who all stopped to say hello and practice their English for a while.
|Taman Negara has big ants (and crazy Italian guys who play with them!)|
After about an hour Stef re-appeared on his own. Our ever professional guide had stopped to chat up a couple of British girls and Stef understandably got fed up waiting. I suppose it made a change from him stopping to chat to his mates and sharing a cigarette with them which was another favourite pastime of his. The views from the top out and over the park were worth the climb to get a feel for the size and scale of it. It felt like the Amazon, a large jungle stretching away beneath you with no signs of man.
On our way back down we spotted a wild pig scratching around in the trees a little way off the path. This and a forest gecko were our only wildlife spots for the four hour duration of being out and about. When we reached the hotel we parted ways, our guide heading back across the river and us heading to the resorts restaurant for a cold drink and a bit of lunch. It was easy to tell which of the people you had seen in the morning were staying on this side of the river. They had all stopped off for a shower and change of clothes before coming for lunch whereas we sat there rather soggily.
After quite a few fresh lime juices we both finally felt refreshed but neither of us felt inclined to set off for another walk in the heat. Instead we opted to see the National Parks own video about the park. Their video room is tucked away at the back of the resort and is an air conditioned haven away from the heat. From the clothes people were wearing the video must date back to the early 90’s and it was a bit on the blurry side but it did give a better overview of the park. At least we could hear the commentary this time.
In the late afternoon we headed back to our hotel and a much needed shower. We spent a couple of hours catching up on diaries before heading to the hotel’s café for dinner. Considering how much the rooms here cost the facilities of the hotel are pretty basic. There isn’t really a restaurant here for full meals, but you can get local snack food such as roti canai (roti with a small bowl of chilli sauce) and nasi lemak (coconut rice served with peanuts, small dried fish and chilli sauce) both of which are very tasty. The drinks are also “local” drinks by which they mean tea and coffee either iced or hot. If you want “western” canned drinks you have to get them from the small hotel shop. Fed and watered we headed for an early night.
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Sweating it off in Taman Negara|
We woke to a cloudy sky this morning and while we both wanted clear skies the cloud at least keeps the temperature down a little. It didn’t last long though and soon the sun was back blazing through the tree tops. Our plan for today was to do an 8km walk to Lata Berkoh and to get a boat, which we booked yesterday, back down to the village.
The trail starts from a different side of the Mutiara resort at the back of the campsite. Here a large pile of rucksacks from the students we had bumped into yesterday was all packed and waiting to go. A couple of the people on our boat up the river to get to Taman Negara were also sorting out their tent. It must have been so hot here over night, I am really glad we had air con, although from the large amount of clothes hanging on lines to dry it looks as if people had a soggy night. We later found out that there had been heavy rain here last night.
We set off down the trail which initially was a slightly raised path made from strips of metal. It wound down towards the river where there was a place you could easily get into the water to go for a swim. It led back up into the jungle and we passed a solid wooden bridge and then further on a canopy bridge, similar to the walkway yesterday. For the most part the path was pretty clear but a few large trees had fallen across it which I had to just sit on top of and swing my legs over.
After a while Stef started to spot the leeches which have been brought up by the rain. In Cat Tien I only saw them when they were sucking blood off my legs. Here, the trick of giving our boots a good spray of insect repellent seemed to work and we both ended our walk leech free. They must feel the vibrations of your foot falls which brings them to the surface of the ground out of the mud. Here they extend themselves upwards swaying around almost sensing where their next dinner is coming from. Seeing them reminded me of the snake of an Indian snake charmer.
At some stage we must have missed a turning and lost the main trail. We came to a point where for about five metres there were large tree trunks crisscrossing the path with no obvious path on the other side. By this stage we were also both very hot and sweaty and Stef was getting more and more paranoid about the leeches, almost counting them as we went. Not wanting to lose our way we decided to head back. I kept look gin to see where we had gone wrong but couldn’t see a different path that we should have taken.
Back at the park office we explained our dilemma but the park warden there was unable to explain to us where we had gone wrong. We had only seen one sign posted junction and had followed the path along the way pointed by the sign. The signs were on the floor rather than secured to a post so someone could have shifted them about a bit. Having already paid for the boat to pick us up at the other end, and with no refund forthcoming, we set about changing our plans and getting the boat to take us up river as well as bringing us back down. We went for a cold drink while the park warden went off to get our boat, a few hours earlier than the boatman had expected.
And so I found myself back on yet another small boat. This one was could take four passengers and had the boat man at the back sorting the engine and another chap at the front keeping an eye out on what was coming. I immediately felt confident with this crew and felt more at ease that I have in any of the other small boats we have been on. We puttered around the main river to cross up into the quieter Sungai Tahan river and before long the only sounds we could hear was the engine droning above the noise of the jungle.
We passed the swimming pool we had walked to earlier and when we got to the solid wooden bridge saw a familiar couple sitting cooling their feet. It was a Scottish couple we had bumped into on the way back from our walk. They were heading out to spend a night in one of the park’s hides with the hope of actually getting to see some wildlife. Just a bit further on from there we were treated to a rare sight. A whole family of otters were out taking a swim. There must have been about ten of them and there was a mix of young and old animals. It was a really beautiful sight to see, they are such graceful animals, but unfortunately we were past them before we had chance to get good photos.
The trip up river was quite entertaining. We had noticed by the river crossing at the village that the water level is dropping by about half a meter or so each day. This means that some sections of the river we were on this afternoon are quite shallow and we had to pass over some mini “rapids” to get up stream. The route is obviously well known as our boat crossed from one side to another of the Sungai Tahan, which was probably 20m wide, to stay in the deepest water. Even so we had a few close shaves with a couple of large boulders and we scraped along the bottom a couple of times.
Despite the noise of the engine we also managed to get some sightings of birds. A bright blue bird with some patches of green flew across in front of us and along the river bank for a while. We think it was a stork billed kingfisher, based on the description we gave to someone who knows their birds. Further on a bright orange bird with a long forked tail flitted about a tree, and this we think was a Raffles Makoha. They were incredibly intense colours and the birds shimmered as they flew and the sunlight caught their wings.
After about half an hour we reached the point where the boats stopped and that we would have reached on foot if we had found the path. It would have felt like a very long walk in this heat. The boat pulled up to a small sandy “beach” and we hopped out. A short walk from here takes you to the Lata Berkoh, a small stretch of river with big boulders that forms a cascade. You are meant to be able to swim here but big signs warn of strong currents and whirlpools and state that no swimming is allowed!
We walked back downstream a bit to where the water looked calmer and then climbed down to the water’s edge. Stef dipped in his toes and then changed into his trunks and went for a full soak in the river. Even here the current was pretty strong but he declared the water to be cooling and refreshing. Reinvigorated he went flying back down the path to our boat, literally. Somehow he stumbled on a hidden rock or tree root and end up twisting his ankle. It was a bit of a slow hobble back to the boat with me grateful that he had landed more heavily and suffered a break.
|Cooling down in the river, perfect!|
On our way back down river the engine was turned off so we were floating along in peace and quiet – until a boat came up the other way. As we walked up to the cascade we passed a small group coming the other way but had the cascades to ourselves. It turned out to be good timing as one boat after another passed us going up as we were coming down. It is amazing how noisy the engines are, you don’t realise it until you are floating in silence.
The otter family had disappeared by the time we got back and we didn’t see and new birds either. However we did see a couple of Monitor Lizards. One was a pretty large adult which was just finishing a cooling dip in the stream. It watched us as we stopped and watched it and then it crawled up the bank and out of sight. Further on we saw a small lizard also just finishing its swim.
Our boat dropped us on the land side of the river. We stopped for a quick drink before heading back to the hotel, Stef hobbling along on a slightly swollen ankle. The hotel redeemed itself slightly with a coffee shop that was still just open by the time we got back and served up a very tasty nasi and chicken curry for lunch. It took ages to arrive but was freshly cooked and extremely tasty. We had been able to keep our room during the day so went back and showered, changed and packed ready for our bus back to Jerantut.
We were the last pick up in town and the bus was already pretty full by the time it got to our hotel. Having endured a three hour boat trip on the way up we both just wanted a faster road option to get back. It was dark and apart from the Japanese family in front of us going “ooh, aah” every time we passed a cow on the side of the road, the journey was uneventful.
The Sri Emas hotel is well geared up to people on the Taman Nagara trail. Train based transport connections arrive and depart in the middle of the night and they provide showers, a luggage store and a waiting room for those with onwards connections. We got back to the hotel just after nine and our train down to Singapore leaves at 2:20am, so only a five hour wait to go!
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Night train to Singapore|
The time passed surprisingly quickly in the Sri Emas waiting room. There was about 10 or 15 people all with onward train connections some going north, some south. Some people had booked a room to get some sleep while they waiting but we just sat it out, me catching up on my diary and Stef having a snooze. A bit before 2:00am they took us up to the train station and within minutes our train arrived.
We found our carriage and our beds. In China we had had a little cabin with four beds in it. Here it was the open carriage with beds lined up on either side, each having curtains you could pull across for privacy. As we were sorting our stuff and getting in to bed the train pulled away, only to stop again a few minutes later. It seems that most of the line is only single track so we had to move out onto a siding so that the north bound train could get into the platform.
Before long we were both tucked up in bed and although it was very early in the morning I could not sleep. I was waiting for us to be on the move, fully expecting that the motion of the train would help to rock me to sleep. Our departure time of 2:20am came and went but we were still at Jerantut station. A little before 3:00am the northbound train arrived, stopped for a couple of minutes for people to get on and then set off. We were then free to start our trip southwards.
Before long I had nodded off and I had a short but surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. I woke at about 8:00am to see palm trees out of the window and the odd small village. Around me were the combined sounds of people snoozing, the guy opposite us had been gently snoring since we got on board and was still doing so, and people stirring and getting up. I got dressed and peeked in at Stef to find that he was awake having also slept well.
We chatted, played cards and watched the world go by out of the window. At Johor Bahru, Malaysian immigration came on board to check people’s passports. At Woodlands, on the southern side of the Strait of Johor, everyone had to get off the train with their luggage to go through Singapore immigration and a security check. As we got off the train Police with sniffer dogs got on the train. After a short wait we were back on board for the last part of our journey.
Again we had to wait for a train coming in the other direction. They are also doing work here upgrading the track so having been on time for most of the journey we arrived about ninety minutes late. Watching the people working on the track was quite entertaining. It looks like there used to be more tracks but they are now well and truly overgrown. About ten men were involved in the process of using a JCB to lift old overgrown sleepers off the ground and to put them in the back of a big truck. Of these, two actually lifted and guided the sleepers the rest just stood around and watched.
The train ride through Singapore Island gave us a glimpse of what we think we have in store to come. We passed housing estate with large, smart houses with immaculately tended gardens surrounding a private pool. There were huge apartment blocks and then some smaller, older houses and flats. A high proportion of the land has either already been built on or is in the process of being built on but there were also some open stretches of green parkland. Singapore train station itself was not what I had expected. I knew it would be small but as an international gateway I had expected it to be newish and fairly modern. Not so, it was a small provincial railway station in need of a lick of paint.
With no local cash we looked for an ATM and were surprised to find that the train station did not have one. It did have a moneychanger and US dollars were soon swapped into Singaporean dollars. A taxi whisked us to our hotel. We have continued our big city trend and gone for a spot of luxury and are staying at the Copthorne Kings. Cost wise we both are anticipating that Singapore will be the same as Hong Kong, certainly the good hotels are a lot more expensive than elsewhere in Malaysia.
|Singapore train station|
One of the attractions of the hotel is that it has a self service laundry, much needed because most of our clothes are dirty and those that we wore in Taman Negara are also extremely smelly. We spent a couple of hours getting ourselves and our clothes cleaned up and then headed out into Singapore. It was already late afternoon by this stage and we had only planned to have a quick trip out. First off we went and picked up a replacement lens for our camera so Stef is now a very happy chap with a new toy to play with.
A taxi then took us to the Great World City Mall, one of many malls in Singapore, which is home to the Golden Village multiplex. Lonely Planet features this cinema and in particular its Gold Class screen so we though we would give it a go. We went to see Munich, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. I am not sure which was better though, the film or the experience.
For the price of a normal seat at a cinema in London you can get the Gold Class experience. It is a small theatre with just 30 seats. There is a private lounge with waiter service where you can have drinks and snacks before the film. The cinema itself is the most comfortable I have ever been to. There are ten rows of seats in three columns with two seats next to each other. The seats are like large padded armchairs each with a built in footrest and a table in between for your drinks and snacks. It even has a bottle holder to keep your wine cool. Each seat comes with a blanket so you can keep warm if the air con gets too cold.
Part way through the film the waiting staff came in and discretely delivered food and drinks to those who had ordered them in advance. If you want more you have to catch their eye because there is no button to press to get service, probably about the only thing they could possibly improve on here. It was just as well that the film was so gripping because otherwise it would have been easy to nod off. I was curled up and comfy and snuggled up under my blanket. It was pure delight!
We were a short way from our hotel so we ambled back. It still felt warm but nowhere near as hot as earlier in the day. Singapore is almost at the equator but unlike Quito in Ecuador where it was cool and windy I think we will have a hot and sticky couple of days here.
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
Today turned into a bit of a boring admin day. We were up late and after having breakfast headed back to our room and started to catch up again on our diaries and picture uploads. I ended up spending most of the day working on this while Stef went out to run some errands – filters for his new lens and getting information on flights to and from Borneo. We don’t really want to fly, partly because it’s pricey and partly because you don’t really see much along the way, but time is against us and we don’t really have an option.
Stef came back looking a little bit frazzled. I don’t think he has enjoyed his little trip which took in the eastern side of Singapore’s famous shopping street Orchard Road, as well as a couple of shopping centres. He says that Singapore is geared towards car traffic rather than pedestrian which I suspect may just be a comparative thing as we’ve been in small towns lately.
In the evening we went for a wander up Mohamed Sultan Road, just opposite our hotel. Lonely Planet lists a few bars and eateries along here. To start with it was a little like walking in a ghost town. Large office and apartment blocks lined the roads and there were few people in sight. The bars were up at the other end by River Valley Road where there is a little strips of places to go to. From their look and feel some would not be out of place in the UK, the only thing that really told you you were in Asia were their names.
|Cocktails at the day-bed-bar, reclining on our trendy white bed|
We had an amble up and down and ended up in the Day Bed Bar, a new place that is only three weeks old. Their full menu starts tomorrow and they have their official opening on Friday. We had initially walked past it without going in because it looked a bit of a strange place. The walls, floor, ceiling, furniture were all in white and white net curtains were billowing from the windows. It all created a bit of a surreal impression. The staff were also dressed in white uniforms.
There is a small section with tables in a separate room at the front which led into the main bar. The bar stretched along the left hand side wall and was very glitzy with a large flat screen TV showing the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator. A DJ is housed at the back of the bar but its main feature is along the right hand side. Here, on a raised platform are individual “cubicles” each of which is a day bed, again all in white with tables that you can put on the bed to rest your drinks. We chatted briefly to the American owner who explained that it will be open 24 hours a day as a café in the early hours and the daytime turning into a bar/restaurant at night. He still has some work to do with his staff because they are not very familiar with the drinks they serve and my Mai Tai was very different to any I have ever had before!
We stopped for a couple of cocktails before heading over the road for something to eat. A promising looking Italian beckoned but the menu was disappointing. It was too late to head on and find somewhere else so we stayed anyway. I had the special of the day which was an OK pizza, the best part of which was the two free glasses of wine that came with it! The road was even quieter on our way back to our hotel and before long we were tucked up in bed.
- Category: Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (2006, world trip)
|Sir Stamford Raffles|
We had a relaxed start to our day again before heading out and about into Singapore proper. Our first stop was the People’s Park Centre shopping mall where the hotel said there were lots of travel agencies where we could book flight tickets. They weren’t joking. The basement area was simply one travel agent after another all surrounding a central square where hawker food was being cooked and served up. The smells from there generated the usual reaction from us with Stef’s taste buds kicking into action but me thinking it smelled pretty foul and wanting to get out quick!
With no recommendation of a particular company to go for we went to Formosa Holiday Tours travel agency which seemed to be one of the larger ones. It was very busy and noisy inside with the continual ringing of new phone calls coming through. I think I would struggle to concentrate in all that noise but the staff were obviously used to it and just kept focussed on the job at hand. The lady who served us comes from Miri, one of the places we will pass through and potentially stop at in Borneo. For something that it is a simple process it still amazes me how long it takes to book flights in a travel agency. I suppose on line booking lulls you into a fall sense of speed because you forget the time you take to search for flights and compare different times and prices.
The travel agents here were all very much geared towards package holidays. Their windows were all plastered with A4 sized posters offering their latest deals on packages to different places. Mainly they seemed to be to Hong Kong for the latest Disney resort, Taiwan, China and a few farther a field. Names that a year ago would have meant nothing to us prompted wistful sighs as they brought back memories of some of the places we have been to in the last few months.
With flight tickets in hand we made our way out into the shopping malls of China Town for a final look for a tea set (we’ve been looking off and on ever since we were in southern China) but also now for a Tiffin carrier. Needless to say with us both being particularly bad shoppers we didn’t find either but we did get to see shopping Chinese style in Singapore. We started at the Yue Hwa Building, a Chinese style department store. A very friendly and helpful assistant took the time to show us the different options they had but they were not really what we were after.
Further down New Bridge Road we went into the People’s Park Complex, a mall listed in Lonely Planet. Here a lot of the shops were either empty or they had not yet opened up for the day, surprising at it was almost noon. It wasn’t the greatest of malls and we weren’t the only Lonely Planet toting tourists wandering around with a “why the heck is this in the book” type look on our faces. The China Town mall wasn’t much better either. For us, four shopping malls in less than an hour is a real endurance test and it well and truly put paid to any more shopping exploits for the day!
We stopped off for a drink at a corner café with Stef looking forward to a nice cup of Chai. It’s a type of tea that we had in Indian and in Penang which is made by boiling the tea leaves in milk rather than steeping them in hot water and then adding the milk later. A few minutes later a large milky chai latte turned up, not quite what he was after as it had no flavour. He took it back and it was replaced with … another chai latte. He took it back and got a chai masala (tea with cardamom, cinnamon and other spices) tea bag in hot water. They came to ask if it was OK and when he said no they happily changed it again, this time for a cappuccino, which thankfully was good!
With an MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station opposite us we decided to hop on rather than walk up through town. The sun had broken through the clouds and with all the concrete and glass around it was starting to get pretty hot but it was more to give us the excuse of giving it a go than anything else. The MRT network looks very new and all the passage ways are wide and clean. Although there were quite a lot of people around it was almost silent. Nobody seemed to be talking and there were no buskers or people selling newspapers like you get on the London Tube.
The whole system seems very efficient. The directions are easy to follow and LCD displays dotted about the station tell you how long it is until the next two trains on your line arrive. The chap behind the ticket counter told us it was not worth getting an EZ card, their equivalent of the Oyster pre-paid card scheme, as we ewer only here for a few days. Instead we went and bought our single journey ticket, surprised that a S$1 fare cost us S$2. The tickets are all plastic cards and you get S$1 refunded at the end of your journey if you bother to take the card back to the ticket machine.
Our train soon arrived and as with the station it was cool and clean. We headed down to Outram Park before changing lines and going back up to Raffles Place. Here we got off and found ourselves in the heart of the business district. We could have been in any major city as we were surrounded tall high rise office blocks and people walking around in smart dark coloured suits.
A right turn took us up to the river and to the Cavanagh Bridge, one of the oldest in Singapore and one that is now restricted to just pedestrian traffic. An old sign at the front of the bridge warns that loads in excess of a certain weight are not allowed, a throwback to the days when it was mainly used for horse drawn carriages.
Across the river is the impressive former government offices building which is now home to one wing of the Asian Civilisations Museum. The building is a beautiful old colonial structure which was renovated in the 1990’s since when it has housed the museum. We both really enjoyed what we saw here but it is really one of those museums that you need to tackle in bite sized chunks, coming back several times to take it all in. I feel that we barely scratched the surface of their displays before we both agreed we had information overload and had to call it a day.
The first section in the museum was a fascinating overview of the development of Singapore. A trading centre for many centuries for Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Arab merchants it had gone into a period of decline before Sir Stamford Raffles appeared in 1819. He realised the potential for Singapore to help the British break the hold the Dutch had on trade in this part of the world and he set about establishing a new trading post.
Life must have been pretty tough here with most people living in squalid conditions. Many immigrants came here hoping to make their fortune and whilst some did and others earned enough to be able to send money home probably most still lived in very poor conditions. People were needed to help load and unload the ships coming to the harbour but with the waters too shallow to accommodate large boats, smaller lighters were used to bring cargos from sea to land. They were then hoisted by other porters who took them to the wharf side warehouses known as godowns.
Trade flourished, Singapore grew and has continued to do so. So much so that pollution became a significant problem and in the late 1980’s steps had to be taken. A large programme was undertaken to clean up the Singapore River and ten years later success was celebrated with a mass swim and the launch of river based charity events and festivals. Now the riverside is home to a wide pedestrian walkway lined with bars and restaurants. Tourist boats ply up and down and a few people were fishing along the banks.
The rest of the museum focussed on the different cultures and ethnic groups across Asia. It was packed full of facts and information, artefacts, clothes and textiles, jewellery and ornamentation. Large groups of school children were being shown around the museum with the curators focussing on just one or two items that were bound to catch their attention. It was fun to ear-wig in to the conversations and to see how they drew the children in to their explanations.
One talked about the Dayak people, more commonly known as head-hunters. They believe that the head is very powerful and that it can bring good fortune and fertility to a family or village. When a young couple are to marry, one of the rites the man has to go through is to bring a head to his bride to be. Whether they continue to maintain their tribal cultures in today’s law enforced society was unclear!
From the museum we walked passed the site where Raffle’s landed to see the white statue erected there of him. We wound back around the museum and headed along the Queen Elizabeth Walk. From here you get great views across the padang (open square usually used as a cricket pitch although people were playing football there today) to the classical buildings of the City Hall and Supreme Court. Behind them another building looked like a flying saucer about to land but we weren’t able to work out what building it was.
We strolled up to the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay complex. A relatively new arts and entertainment centre most notable for its design. The centre is two large dome shaped structures which closely resemble the local, and very smelly, durian fruit. A walkway lines the riverfront along the centre and there is a small open air stage here. Inside are a theatre and concert room as well as a range of studios and rehearsal rooms. It looks like a world class venue but unfortunately there were no performances on that tickled our fancy so we didn’t get to see inside the auditoria.
There was also a small shopping mall (of course!) in the complex and one of the shops was devoted to Chinese tea. We had a small taster, very refreshing, and spent a while chatting to the person in the shop who was doing his best to ensure we walked out with a tea set but again we came away empty handed. We retraced our steps and crossed the padang again heading for North Bridge Road where a right turn took us up to our final stop of the day, the Raffles Hotel.
A Singapore institution it almost looks out of place in today’s modern city. Surrounded by high rise towers and shopping malls it is a real haven of peace and quiet and a step back in time. The original hotel was an eight room wood cabin, a far cry from the impressive colonial building it is today. You are free to walk around the outer courtyards, shopping alley (which includes the Raffles shop) and the hotel reception but only residents are allowed further in. It is a place of timeless grace and grandeur and, although we would no doubt have felt very under-dressed and out of place, it would have been tempting to throw caution to the wind and book in to stay for a night. But, a quick look on line showed that the average room rate for a night was S£850, about £350 so it will have to wait for a while!
The dress code throughout the “public” areas of the hotel seems to be relaxed so despite having sandals on we were able to get into the Long Bar to try the infamous Singapore Sling cocktail. Neither of us knew what went into it but we both gave it a go. A tall glass full of dark pink liquid soon appeared and it very easily slipped down the hatch. The bar has moved location within the hotel a few times but its current incarnation has been decorated in the style that Malayan rubber planters would have been familiar with in the early 1920’s. The tables and chairs are all made from bamboo, small fans flap in rows across the ceilings and every table has a large bowl of monkey nuts for you to munch into while you sip your cocktails.
It is now a very touristy affair and there was no evidence that the Singapore Slings were freshly made. From the number of people who were coming in and out, the speed with which the drinks came from the bar and no sound of cocktail shakers to be heard I think it is now all pre-mixed and simply poured from a bottle. It took away slightly from the experience, especially as when you pay over £6 for a cocktail in Asia you expect the real McKoy. AH well. It was fun just throwing your monkey nut shells on the floor and waiting to see if any of the birds flitting around inside would try and nick the fruit off your glass.
We opted to the try the hotel’s Empire Café for dinner as it is a recommended place (by Lonely Planet) to try some local food. Stef had a very tasty noodle dish which I regretted not going for also. My rice with crab was good but not a patch on his noodles. The portions though were huge and if we were in Canada we would have taken a doggy bag with the left overs. A taxi whizzed us back to our hotel at the end of what has been a fun but hot day.