Saturday, 1 April 2017

Pleasantville


Well if Malaysia is the Land of Do Not, then Singapore has to be the Land of Pure Genius. Singapore is Pleasantville, a place where everything is impossibly perfect, where every little detail has been thought of and implemented to the highest standard. I've never been anywhere like it, in fact I'm not sure anywhere comparable exists. We'd been warned before we went that Singapore would drive us crazy, that the levels of 'me first' so prevelant in SE Asia would reach new heights, but in reality it was calm and orderly, people were friendly and extremely helpful.

Bikes safely stowed in JB, we made our way to the causeway to catch a bus to Singapore. Some research had shown that pretty much every bus leaving the station went there, so how hard could it be? Not at all in fact, if only several thousand other people weren't trying to do exactly the same thing as we were. At the bus station we cleared immigration and headed down to the bus lanes. Each channel had a queue as far as the eye could see, hundreds of people in each line, but which was the one we wanted? After some deliberation a kindly bus station attendant saw us floundering and said 'pick a queue, they all go to the same place!'. For the next hour we shuffled slowly forwards towards the front of the queue until eventually we were shoved into a bus filled to at least double its capacity for the five minute ride across the bridge. Honestly, we could have walked across the bridge in a fraction of the time this whole debacle took. At Singapore immigration we queued some more before eventually we got our entry stamp and were deposited at the nearest train station to catch a train downtown. 

Singapore is expensive. Despite there being hundreds of accommodation options, the cheapest we could find at $24 a night was a capsule hostel near Lavender Station, a reasonably central location right in the heart of all the things we wanted to see. Having never stayed in a capsule type accommodation we were intrigued and upon arrival we were shown to our pod. Disappointingly the pods had only curtains to shut off the outside world rather than proper doors, but otherwise the facilities were reasonable and breakfast was included. We stashed our things in our under-bed lockers, smug that we could fit both our packs in one drawer, unlike the majority of our room mates whose enormous backpacks littered the communal floor space, and set off to explore.




The weather was nice, perfect for hiking, so we jumped on a bus headed towards the Southern Ridges. I'm not sure where I'd heard about this place, but it's unsurprisingly in the southern part of Singapore and consists of a series of canopy level walkways through the forest, interspersed with trails and paths through gardens and landscaped areas. The paths run for several kilometres, ending with the Henderson Waves, an unusual undulating wooden walkway with some spectacular views. For several hours we meandered through the treetops, enjoying the relative cool of the forest shade before finally emerging back into the bustle of the city in dire need of a cold drink.



















Earlier in the day we'd noticed a sign in a bus window that read 'Due to the Chingay parade tonight, this bus will not travel down x,y&z streets'. Intrigued, we decided to head to Chingay Street to find out what was going on. It turned out that it was the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations and that it is traditional for the 15th day to be celebrated with parades and floats and festivities, a festival known as Yuan Xiao Jie. For some reason that we never did discover, even though it was billed as a parade, it didn't actually move. The floats, which had apparently taken part in a parade a day or two before were stationed at intervals along the road, surrounded by a complicated system of barriers to keep people away from them. After standing watching for a while a friendly lady steward motioned us over and told us that we could come into the compound, but that the entrance gateway was a hundred yards or so down the road. We set off in that direction to find that she was correct, but that the gateway was only a tiny gap in the barrier that had been opened by a police officer to let people in and people were streaming through it. As if unsure exactly how many people he was supposed to let in, as we reached the front he panicked and shut the gap, shouting to people to wait. This of course fell on deaf ears and people continued to surge forward, crushing the people at the front. Just as it was starting to look a little hairy, he relented and opened the barrier again allowing people to flood in, us included. 

We spent the next couple of hours thoroughly bemused, being cajoled into having our photos taken with a variety of different characters and watching performances and dragon dances, complete with the obligatory fire crackers. Extra loud ones of course. Eventually we decided our feet could take no more and we made our way slowly out through the crowd to try and find a subway station that was open. As we left the area a German guy stopped us and asked how we'd managed to get into the main arena. Apparently, almost immediately after we'd entered they had shut the barrier and that was it for the night, no more people were allowed in regardless of how many people left. I felt sad for him and everyone else who had ended up shut outside, unable to see anything much at all. For a country so organised and logical, a simple 'one in, one out' system seemed beyond anyone that night. A rare lapse in an otherwise seamless system.




















Arriving back at the hostel it was already gone 11pm, so we crept about as quietly as we could getting ready for bed and then slipping silently into our pod and laying down. We needn't have bothered because just about every other asshole in the room decided it was fine to blast through the door, turn on the main light, unpack their bag, check out all the stuff they'd bought that day in their rustly carrier bags, chat at the top of their voices, repack their bag, unpack their bag again, go out to brush their teeth/shower whilst leaving the light on before coming back to repeat all those things again before finally going to bed when someone in the room finally popped a fuse and blew up at them. This didn't just happen once, it happened continuously all through the night. For three nights in a row. I lost track of the number of times I lay there, my anger growing to the point where I even commented loudly at one point that if I heard one more carrier bag rustle then I was going to get up and put it firmly over the head of the person who was rustling it. I have never in my life had the misfortune to share accommodation with such a bunch of selfish, ignorant people. And it wasn't the same people every day, people came and went. In what was an otherwise fantastic few days, this was the one thing that let it down. We started each day tired and cranky and it took a couple of coffees to combat it.

Next we explored the waterfront area. Although we were trying to avoid paying out a lot of money for attractions, there was one thing that I wasn't prepared to miss. A few years ago I sat with Bill Loney one evening and watched a documentary about Singapore. A large part of the show was about Gardens By The Bay, a huge botanical gardens with two enormous glasshouses at their centre. I had totally forgotten about this place until I saw a flyer at a subway station with a picture of a Supertree on it, a giant man-made but living sculpture. Regardless of the cost, I had to go. As luck would have it, a quick google search secured us tickets for both glasshouses and the aerial walkway for two thirds of the price of buying them at the gate. We took a bus to the waterfront and walked across the sculptural Helix bridge to the south bank. The harbour area in Singapore is unsurprisingly pristine, its development carefully planned and executed. The Marina Bay Hotel towers above the water like a giant vessel sitting atop the crest of a wave, beyond it the open space of the gardens and next to it the upturned baseball glove-esque ArtScience Museum. Everywhere you look the architecture and layout of the city is truly stunning.







Now Evan isn't a huge fan of plants or gardens and this wasn't the first time he's had to suffer traipsing around somewhere where there's little to focus on but greenery, but this place is so incredible that even he enjoyed it. The first dome we visited, the Flower Dome, covers an area of 1.2 hectares. Humidity is between 60-80% and it was surprisingly cool in there at around 24 degrees. While we were there the theme, which changes regularly, was of course Chinese New Year and dotted between the plants were sculptures of roosters and other zodiac animals made of driftwood, along with dazzling displays of vanda orchids. As if that wasn't mind blowing enough, the second dome contains an entire Cloud Forest eco-system. Cool and moist, you enter past a cascade falling from the rooftop down the side of a 35 foot high mountain, every square inch of which is covered in lush green vegetation. The dome covering it all has a surface area of 12,000 square metres, one of the largest in the world. Starting with an elevator ride to the top of the mountain, we slowly made our way down level by level, along aerial walkways which curved and twisted through the mountain and out to the glass dome itself. I have always been in awe of Kew and have always wanted to visit the Eden Project, but this place easily tops both.
























































When we'd seen all there was to see indoors, we made our way out into the grounds. Dotted throughout the gardens are giant tree sculptures, Supertrees, each one of which is a vertical garden with over 160,000 plants growing on their trunks and in their branches. As tall as 16 storey buildings, the Supertrees come alive at night with lights and sound. Our combined tickets also allowed us access to the skyway, a walkway through the tops of the trees. We saved this until it was dark and spent as long as the rather pushy attendants would allow us enjoying the views across Marina Bay.






















One of the first things we always try and do when we arrive somewhere new is find a vantage point from which we can view the city. In Singapore this proved trickier without wanting to spend a pretty penny for the privilege. Again though luck was on our side, and via a slightly random series of events, we found ourselves admiring the view across the city skyline from a window on the 54th floor entirely for free. For some reason that day Evan had a fixation on jelly beans. Whenever I asked him what he wanted to do next, he'd reply 'Find jelly beans!'. Eventually I decided to call his bluff and without telling him, I found a place that did indeed sell jelly beans and we jumped on a bus heading in that direction. While sitting on a bench outside the shopmunching on said bag of jelly beans, I just happened to look at google maps and saw that we were only a couple of hundred yards from the Ion Orchard Mall. I couldn't remember why that sounded familiar so I googled it. The first thing that came up was an advert for Ion Sky, a free observation deck on the 54th floor. Normally it closed at 6pm, but for Valentine's Day and the couple of days beforehand they had extended opening hours until 9pm. After walking the few short blocks to the mall and then managing to navigate our way around security who seemed to think it had still closed at 6pm, we found our way up in the elevator, through an art exhibition space to another elevator and finally up to the 54th floor. There were only a handful of people there so it obviously wasn't well publicised, but the views were incredible, made all the better by the fact they hadn't cost us a penny. I'm not sure how we do it, but we seem to have a knack for finding these places and being in the right place at the right time.











On our last day the sun was still blazing and running short of energy and of things to do for free, we decided to go to Sentosa, a bizarre 'fun' island off the south coast of Singapore. Opinion seems to be divided on the place, I read on someone's blog that it has earned the tongue-in-cheek acronym 'So expensive, nothing to see actually' but we figured if we walked across the bridge to the island it would be free so it was worth checking out. 

Sentosa is like a cross between Disneyland and Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach. Off season. Lots of c-grade attractions and side shows that are either very run down or completely closed, all linked together by little trams and buses that ferry the jolly holidaymakers around. A monorail system also runs the length of the island for free, staffed by much-to-cheery 'greeters' who usher you on to the trains by waving at you with their white gloves and fixed grins. I'll be honest, the place creeped me out. In a land where everything is so polished and orderly, this was just a step too far, too much fake in a place where everything already feels surreal. I didn't like it at all and was pleased to get out of there.

That's not to say we didn't enjoy our day there. First stop was the Sea Aquarium, a vast underwater world of tunnels and aquatic displays. For only the second time in my life I got to see both Leafy and Weedy seadragons. My excitement upon discovering them was akin to a four year old child spotting the sharks for the first time and after 300 attempts to photograph them unsuccessfully, Evan had to drag me away with the promise of ice cream.
























One of my main reasons for wanting to visit the island was to see Fort Siloso. A prominent WWII fort, again by pure coincidence we happened to be there on the exact day of the 70th anniversary of the start of Japanese occupation of Singapore. I have been doing some research over the past few months into the movements of my Grandad who was taken prisoner in Java during  WWII by the Japanese and I know that at some point he was in Singapore. Walking around the fort, through the barracks, tunnels and control rooms I couldn't help but wonder if he'd ever been there. There is an interesting museum at the site explaining the Japanese occupation, even more sobering to read when you have a personal connection to it. We also took a trip out to Changi Prison Museum while we were in the city, another significant WWII location with many artefacts, letters and items from the camps along with first hand accounts of survivors. I've since been told that Grandad was held at Changi Prison at one point which adds another dimension to the place. When I get home I'd like to try and piece together the journey he took and make another visit to include the places in Indonesia and Japan that I know he spent time.

After a burger to keep us going (it's a sad state of affairs when McDonalds is by far the cheapest place to eat) we headed back to the mainland in time for the Wonderfull Light Show, a twice nightly free extravaganza where motion pictures are projected on to fans of water spray. In theory it sounds very high tech, but in reality, was so poorly executed that we found ourselves looking around, bemused, to see if anyone else thought it was as funny as we did. Rain soon stopped play and with everyone fleeing for shelter inside the Marina Bay Shopping Centre, we made our way back to our pod for another night of broken sleep.

























For some reason it seemed like a good idea to cross back to Malaysia late in the afternoon on our last day. We figured it would allow us another day to see things in Singapore and the idea of spending any more time that necessary in JB wasn't appealing, so we wandered a little more around Singapore searching out Ernest Zacharevic murals. In reality though this meant that we got caught up in the insane evening rush to get across the causeway. If we thought getting to Singapore was difficult, then we hadn't seen anything yet. Thousands...no tens of thousands of people, all trying to move through customs and immigration and on to buses. Pushing, shoving, being herded like cattle into a crush. The line ups at immigration, possibly the slowest immigration process I've ever experienced, were horrendous. Officials would coral people towards certain queues, but every now and then a stampede would occur as people raced each other for the shorter lines. Officers would shout and run and try and regain control of their flock in scenes that, had they been at any western airport, would have caused mass panic. We had the same queuing for buses that we'd experienced on the way there, but ten times worse. Nearly four hours after leaving, we stumbled into the Lotus Hotel in JB, releived to find our bikes exactly where we'd left them, exhausted from our journey of a few short miles.

Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. Would I go back again? Yes, I would. It might be a tiny place, but Singapore really is in a class all of its own.







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