Wednesday, October 1, 2014

a day in Singapore

I woke up at eight o'clock.

I passed a bundle of laundry to the desk clerk.

I asked for a towel and got one.

I showered and shaved. 

I marched down Kitchener and Serangoon Roads to the Mustafa Centre, where I exchanged 220 Thai baht, 10 U.S. dollars, and 361 Malaysian ringgit for 161 Singapore dollars. 

While I was there, I bought a padlock for my defunct locker back at Tresor Tavern.

All this I accomplished before eleven o'clock. 

I went back to the hostel and sat in the lobby, sweating, updating my journals and letting my parents know I was still alive. I also spent some time writing down the addresses of everything I wanted to see and eat in this town today (Thursday, July 31). 

I went to Chinatown to check out the Heritage Centre and was told it cost $10 SGD to get in. 

I said "Screw that with a pitchfork." 

I went to the foodie street and had some laksa, a spicy noodle soup in greasy orange broth which is central to Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) cuisine and Malaysia's national dish. It consists of rice vermicelli (though this touristy dump used spaghetti) in coconut milk and curry broth. My bowl included hard-boiled eggs, cockles, bean curd puffs, and bean sprouts, and cost $4.50 SGD.

I did not take a food selfie. Too hungry. 

On an impulse I walked across South Bridge Street and caught the open-top sightseeing bus for $25 SGD. We swung out west, down shady, tree-lined Havelock and Zion Roads, curving up to the Botanical Gardens (the one thing in Singapore that I didn't see and wish I had). Then we went dead east on Orchard Road. As clean, bright, and shiny as this city was, dazzlingly clear as it dried from the previous night's rain, there wasn't much to it besides shopping, eating, and authoritarianism. "HAPPY 49th BIRTHDAY, SINGAPORE!" squawked loud orange banners on every lamppost, but on the subway trains were stern admonishments to the citizens to be polite when boarding or exiting, to move to the back or offer your seat to an invalid. Public service announcements printed starkly in black, white, and red urged citizens to perform the vital five-step method to eradicate dengue fever (promptly emptying every container on your property of standing water). 

What was most jarring was seeing so many Occidental franchises. Malaysia and even Cambodia had KFC and Starbucks, and Seoul has Burger King and McDonalds and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, but Singapore was just mad—Long John Silver's, California Pizza Kitchen, Coldstone Creamery, Quizno's Subs, and everything else British or American. I was disappointed. Foreign excursions are supposed to be...well, foreign. And I hated to think that the average Singaporean's idea of western culture was a soggy McDonald's sandwich, some limp fries and a syrupy soft drink. 

The Singapore River. Really takes your breath away, doesn't it? 

After a short foray north and east to Sungei Road, the sightseeing bus dumped us out at the Singapore Flyer. Think the London Eye, but bigger—"the world's tallest observation wheel," proclaimed the posters and brochures. That was a blatant falsehood, as the High Roller in Las Vegas is actually taller, but I'm not the quibbling type—not when sweat's soaking my collar and the red bandanna I'd tied around my right hand and wrist for mopping and sopping purposes. 

Pro tip, kids: this is more fashionable than wrapping it around your forehead and more sanitary than sticking it back in your pocket after every wipe. Just be prepared for lots of concerned fellow travelers to ask you how you hurt your wrist. 

I caught the next bus to Clarke Quay and switched to the metro. I went back to the hostel, rested, rehydrated, and wrote some postcards (the fifth of seven batches). At 6:45, a time I judged with a pilot's careful precision, I caught a taxicab back to the Flyer to see the sunset from on high. 

The Flyer isn't very popular with the locals. According to TIME, they gripe that it's too far away from everything and costs too much. I didn't sympathize with the former sentiment but certainly the latter: tickets were $33 SGD. Concordantly, there wasn't much of a crowd. I rolled up at seven o'clock, bought a ticket, hustled through all the supplementary bullshit they put up to make waiting in line more interesting—planetariums and historical placards and whatnot—and got some fantastic views of the downtown area and Marina Bay. 

Then, of course, I went to O'Leary's Sports Bar & Grill—foreigner-owned and foreigner-run, looking like it had sprung from any broad boulevard in the Inland Empire—for a nightcap. What else but a Singapore sling? 

It was weak and sickly-sweet and cost $17 SGD, but what the hell. I can say I've had a Singapore sling in Singapore. 

I'd meant to sample the best that Little India could offer me in the way of eats, but my internal compass was taking a much-deserved rest. I couldn't find my intended destination, Bali Nasi Lemak in Geylang. So I went back to the neighborhood of my hostel and sat down in the same little halal Sri Lankan/Thai cafeteria where that snaggle-toothed Samaritan Singaporean had bought me a bottle of water the previous evening. I had some iced lychee juice and a plate of nasi goreng thai for just $4.50 SGD. For afters I had some sort of fried fish dumpling, also delectable. I couldn't discern the waiter's thick Tamil accent when I asked what it was. Sounded like "kampop." 

I got an A&W root beer for dessert (you don't see those every day in Asia) and returned to the hostel to update my journals. My time in Singapore was at an end. The next morning I would mail postcards, check out of the Tresor Tavern at noon, and catch the metro for Changi Airport. 

If you'd like to find out why I hate Singapore, come back tomorrow. 

Butterworth to Singapore (the worst bus ride ever)

Long story short: 

I was forced to ride a bus from Butterworth to Johor Bahru in southern Malaysia, and thence to Singapore. Thanks to Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan, all the trains were booked up. It was a rumbling, clattering misery machine a bus to Singapore or nothing at all. 

I woke up at 5:45 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, July 30, slipped downstairs in the predawn darkness, gave my postcards and 10 ringgit to the night clerk and asked him to mail them for me, and caught the first ferry to the mainland at 7:00 sharp, crossing a calm strait under the pale light of dawn.

What little information I could find online suggested that express buses to Singapore (Woodlands) would be readily available. Apparently those were all booked up too. The best I could do was catch an express bus to the border town of Johor Bahru at 8:30 and figure things out from there. It was a nice bus, at least. It was plentifully air-conditioned, clean, and had seats which reclined fully. I settled in for a long ride and was just getting comfortable when...

...bam, we were in Kuala Lumpur. 

Not my photo. 

A skinny shrimp of a 2nd-generation Chinese-Malay woman kicked everybody going to Gelang and Johor Bahru off the bus. With her hectoring voice, baseball cap pulled low over her eyes, and flicking ballpoint pen, she herded us out of KL Sentral Station and across the street to a pair of considerably older, dirtier, hotter, and less comfortable green buses. A pair of creased, loud-voiced fellows in polo shirts and jeans with walkie-talkies clipped to their back pockets shouted as us to load our luggage and get aboard, and be quick about it. 

Then the agony began. We'd already been on the road five or six hours, but we happy few going to Johor Bahru would remain for a further 8.5 aboard that boiling, filthy bus with precious few rest stops, no food, and shock absorbers that amplified every bump in the road. 

You can't imagine how glad I was to stumble off that accursed machine at Larkin Sentral Station in Johor Bahru, wobbly-legged, sweat-grimed, weak-stomached, bleary-eyed, and foul-tempered. For my trials were not yet over: I thereupon boarded another bus, the 170 for Queen Street in Singapore. I got on and off that bus three freaking times—once to exit Malaysia (and get my exit stamp from a callous-looking woman in a black hijab), once to enter Singapore at Woodlands (which necessitated waiting in line for 40 minutes, and I had to go back to the end of the line once because I forgot to fill out a damn entry card), and finally to go through customs inspection. Each time I stepped off the bus into the steamy night air, my glasses fogged up and my pores began oozing sweat. It crusted my hair, soaked my skin and clothes, and soured my mood. I hate sweating and I hate climates like what they've got down in Southeast Asia, irresponsibly warm and humid. Furry mammals—particularly clothed human beings—have no business living in places like that. It's better if we leave the whole cockamamie place to the reptiles.

At nearly eleven o'clock, 17 hours after waking up, 14.5 hours after leaving Butterworth, and three hours after arriving in Johor Bahru, the 170 bus dumped me out on Queen Street. I had to walk another five or six blocks (and ask a kindly cabbie for directions) but I made it to my hostel, the Tresor Tavern on Jalan Besar in Little India near Farrer Park. Before entering I tried to buy a much-needed 1.5-liter bottle of water with my debit card, but the Sri Lankan shopkeeper didn't have a card reader. That's when a random Singaporean, a tottering old fellow with a shock of gray hair, bulging eyes, and a broad mouth filled with crooked teeth lurched up to the counter to buy a pack of gum. He and a friend had been sitting and eating and boozing it up for who knew how long before I'd walked in. This elderly Samaritan grokked the situation in a blink. Without hesitation he bought the 1.5 liters of water for me, and handed me ten Singapore dollars on top of that. Then he lurched away without waiting for a thank-you. I honestly didn't know what to do, say, or think, and that combination's rare for me. You hear a lot about the kindness of strangers when you're out traveling the world, but the reality of it really hits you in the old heartstrings. That first drink was the coolest and sweetest gulp of water I've ever had.  

My rehydrated corpse hit the rock-hard mattress of the Tresor Tavern's third-floor mixed dormitory at almost midnight. The room had twelve beds, bunked and curtained, the frames bare metal and the rings squeaky. The floor was concrete, the walls bare, the ceiling choked with exposed pipes—"Like a jail," said my elderly Indian roommate. Garbage was stacked atop every locker, none of which actually locked. The wireless Internet only worked on the ground floor, none of the upper floors. It seemed I would have to physically place an order for a towel. Two things did work, however: the air conditioner and the light switch. 

Good night! 

Monday, September 29, 2014

a day in George Town

Not pictured: knee-biting lunacy.
A little historical context first:

George Town is the capital of the state of Penang, one of the smallest provinces in Malaysia, which not only incorporates Penang Island but also a decent wodge of the mainland, including Butterworth. It was named after King George III. That's right, folksCrazy George, the mad king of Britain and Ireland during the American Revolutionary War. 

The island was originally part of the Sultanate of Kedah, until one day in August 1786 when an enterprising young sea captain named Francis Light of the British East India Trading Company landed there. He wound up marrying the sultan's daughter and Penang Island was ceded to the British Crown as part of her wedding dowry. Captain Light promptly established George Town, Britain's first permanent colony in Southeast Asia. It initially had only four streets and a couple of jetties. A fort was built in the northeast corner of the municipality, commanding a 270-degree view of the sea. The Netherlands Trading Society, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Company (known today as HSBC), the Chartered Bank (now called Standard Chartered), Boustead & Co., and a dozen others all set up shop here, and the town and the swampy island it sits on were the center of British trade and shipping in the area for quite a few years. There was a nasty problem with malaria in the early years of the colony, earning it the unfortunate nickname "White Man's Grave." 

There were geopolitical speed bumps as well. Captain Light had promised the Sultan of Kedah that the East India Company would offer him military protection in exchange for the island. In so promising he had acted without his superiors' approval. When the Siamese attacked the sultanate a few years later, no British help was forthcoming. The enraged sultan tried to take the island back by force in 1790. In this he failed, and was not only forced to give up the island permanently but also to pay the Crown a sum of 6,000 Spanish dollars per annum. This was later upped to 10,000 Spanish dollars when Province Wellesley (now modern-day Pulau Penang) was incorporated in 1800. Even to this day the Malaysian government pays an annual honorarium of 10,000 ringgit (around $3050 American) to the state of Kedah. 

In 1826, Penang (along with Malacca and Singapore) became part of the Straits Settlements under the British administration in India, and came under direct colonial rule in 1867. In 1946, it was absorbed into the Malayan Union and in 1948 was designated a state of the Federation of Malaya. This federation gained independence from Britain in 1957 and became modern-day Malaysia in 1963. The island was a free port until 1969, and even after losing its free port status became one of the world's foremost centers of electronics production in the '70s and '80s. In 2008, George Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has seen an influx of tourists ever since. 

It was one of the most multicultural places I visited in Southeast Asia, despite having a population of only 720,000 and being rather off to the left compared to more popular tourist destinations like Kuala Lumpur or Langkawi. There were bearded, robed Arabs walking around; chattering Tamils with pearly white teeth; quiet, dignified Chinese; agile, jolly, skinny Thais; bald, pale, T-shirted English expatriates; and grubby foreigners like me from America, Canada, Spain, France, Germany, Brazil, Australia, and everywhere in between. 

I spent most of the morning of Tuesday, July 29 nursing my katzenjammer. (Seven beers at the Hong Kong Bar the night before, remember?) The Red Inn Court had a free breakfast of noodles in black sauce, toast and jam, coffee, and fruit. That helped a lot, as did the warm shower I took. I'd intended to sally forth and tour George Town promptly, but a thundering rain came pouring down between ten and twelve o'clock, the heaviest monsoon cloudburst I'd yet seen on this trip. The Matrix Revolutions has got nothing on Mother Nature. It kept sprinkling well past one o'clock, by which point I couldn't wait any longer, so with a poncho stuffed in my pocket I sauntered out and commenced my walking tour.   

It wasn't just the Muslims who were having a holiday (Hari Raya Puasa, the end of Ramadan). For the Chinese Buddhists, there was some festival related to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, who has one of the largest and grandest temples in George Town dedicated to her. Crowds of elderly men and women swarmed the temple forecourt, barely visible through the thick, broiling fumes of incense. Prayers flew thick and fast and I couldn't get a show, so I walked on. 

Unfortunately, despite being a UNESCO site, there just wasn't that much to do or see in George Town. I saw the fort; Khoo Kongs, one of the oldest and most famous clanhouses; the jetties; a couple of temples...and, well, that was about it. 

All in all, I was so disappointed by the place (my debauch the previous night notwithstanding) that I ended up taking just six pictures during my whole 48-hour stay, including that one you saw in the previous post. Disappointing, to say the least. 

Lebuh Chulia, where a lot of the bars and noodle joints are.

The fertility cannon at Fort Cornwallis. The largest gun with the widest range, it will also cure barrenness in women, or so the local legend goes. You just need to place some flowers on it. 

After my little walking tour of the town, I got into a cab and tried to send postcards home to the States, only to be gently reminded by the Indian driver that today was a holiday—several, actually—and the post office was shut. I sighed, thanked him, got out of the cab, went back to the hostel, and napped until 6:30. 

Awaking hungrier than a horse, I strode toward what looked like the food-and-drink sector of town, determined to find me a burger and a beer. I was sixteen days into my trip and I had been a very good boy, eating local the whole way. Now I was fed up with rice and noodles and chicken and wanted nothing more than to get a thick, juicy beef patty between my teeth. I stopped off at the SoHo Free House, noting burgers on their menu and cheap beer. Seemed like a winning combo.

Well, it wasn't. That was the worst burger I've ever had in my life. What was supposed to be a rare patty turned out squishy, lumpy, and poorly seasoned; the bun was stale and soggy; the vegetables far from fresh; and the fries limp and cold. The best part about that meal was the mad specials they were having on—you guessed it—Tiger beer. Even so I could only bring myself to drink one. I laid my money down and sped out of there.

Night fell. I wandered, unwilling to give up George Town so easily. I thought vaguely of finding a historic hotel and having a cocktail, but again I felt worried by potential dress code violations, and the proliferation of foreign phonies that were sure to be in the hotel bar, boozing it up. I strode longingly past the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, trying to peer through the big casement windows and catch a glimpse of all the idiots partying inside, but my reconnaissance was for naught; I couldn't make out a thing. 

Not my photo.

I walked home, a bit miffed at the double holiday that prevented me from mailing postcards or exchanging ringgit for Singapore dollars. Testily I went to sleep, ready to rise at 5:45 a.m. on Wednesday morning to catch the long-haul bus at Butterworth Station. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

an evening in George Town, Penang

Travel Truth #7: Holidays and festivals can throw some delightful zest into your trip. Or a monkey wrench.

Things began to go seriously wrong the moment I stepped off the International Express train in Butterworth, Malaysia, fresh off the overnight ride from Bangkok. While the other passengers took the long walk up a series of elevated ramps to the ferry jetty, I turned right, crossed the tracks, and went to the station office to check on train tickets to Singapore. 

There weren't any. As in, none. Zero. Zip. Nada

I didn't realize that Ramadan leaped around so much. I thought it was pretty much a winter holiday, and that's that. I didn't comprehend that the vagaries of the Islamic calendar could place Ramadan, say, in the midst of summer, but so it had. It seems that I had arrived in Malaysia right at the beginning of Hari Raya Puasa, the "Day of Celebrating the End of Fasting." Today and tomorrow (July 28-29), every Mohammedan in Malaysia (and Singapore and Brunei and the Philippines) would be home with their family, stuffing themselves silly and giving thanks to Allah. All the train tickets back to Singapore were booked up through the end of the week. 


Resolving to worry about all this later, I hefted by backpack, sauntered out into the broiling sunshine, and traipsed my way along the elevated walkways to the ferry jetty. 

The line was about 50 miles long. Twin rows of Malays (mostly young men, I noticed) stood upon the cracked concrete of the shady walkway, arms folded, talking amongst themselves as they waited their turn for a ride to Penang, a medium-sized island just a kilometer or two off the coast, its humped green back just visible in the hazy distance. There were a couple of portly, black-uniformed policeman patrolling the crowd, casting disapproving eyes at the loud and boisterous, their keen eyes seeking out any women and hustling them to the front of the line. One of these policemen spotted me. His eyes swept over me, taking in my misshapen hat, sweat-soaked clothes, lumpy backpack, and ridiculous flip-flop tan, and then darted away like a startled fish.

A second policeman with dark sunglasses came along a few minutes later and motioned me out of line and to the front. Gratefully, I humped my backpack another 200 yards, past a line that would surely have meant two or three hours of waiting, paid my fare, rode across the strait, and spent about a 30 fruitless minutes searching for my hotel (and nearly melting in the process) before a kindly cabbie picked me up and took me there.  

I checked into the Red Inn Court, which wasn't as new or modern or large as Boxpackers in Bangkok but nonetheless clean and serviceable. Thereupon I took three hours to cool off, both literally and figuratively. I also had to wait until after 6:00, when the noodle joints opened up. Then I sauntered into the gentler but still sultry evening, found an open-air greasy spoon crowded with locals (always a good sign) and ordered a plate of delicious, savory char koay teow, noodles stir-fried in rich dark sauce. This particular variety had chicken and shrimp. I sat across the table from a Brazilian fellow named Gabriel who lived and worked in Singapore, and found it horribly boring. We talked, mostly of the shittiness of Asian beer and the emergence of craft brew. 

I sloped a few feet west down Lebuh Chulia to the Hong Kong Bar, a cramped closet of a place with an eclectic mix of rustic decorations, Chinese paper lanterns and WWII British Army jungle hats being the most prominent. Best bar in Asia, bar none. I sat at one of the tables out in front, right next to a pillar, and had seven Tiger beers (for a total of 77 ringgit, or about $23.50). The sun set beyond Penang Hill, lighting the low, glowering clouds a lambent yellow ochre overhead and a fulgent papaya nearer the horizon. Drag queens, ladyboys, tourists, and benighted foreigners strode past and kit cars and scooters zoomed by at ridiculous speeds. I chatted with the Chinese-Malaysian proprietress, an English man and his articulate Chinese wife at the next table, and a youngish Russian woman named Eugenya. She was a scuba diving instructor and was living in Thailand, but was down in Malaysia doing a visa run. She and I were united by literature—both of us were quite well-read, and we discussed our favorite works, Russian and otherwise. One of the most controversial topics we discussed was the plus side and perks of racism—yes, we thought of several good ones. We shared a few off-color jokes between us, including ones at Russians' and Americans' expense. 

All in all, it was a magical evening. As I sat there with a bellyful of horrid Malay beer and the fires of a glorious sunset still dying a slow death in the western sky, the Chinese-Malaysian proprietress laughing at my jokes and slapping me on the shoulder, I could see myself happily moving to George Town and sitting in the Hong Kong Bar and doing some of my best writing. And living.