Asian Madness

Singapore, 14th - 15th January

14th January

We wake up in our crowded hostel in the heart of Singapore’s Little India. Let’s see our host neighbourhood then. It turns out that its name isn’t just figurative. Everything that could be of touristic interest is collected in two or three streets. Colourful, busy and smelly as we established with our first steps here. I must admit, this mix of sharp aromas isn’t that enjoyable for my senses. I can’t quite tell where they’re coming from - is it spices, or incense, or cooking. Most likely, it is a strong mix of the three. I don’t take much convincing when Nic suggests we hop on the subway to Chinatown.

There, we are welcomed by a completely different atmosphere. Perhaps the upcoming holidays have a part to play but life is convincingly in full buzz here. And it smells delicious! From the subway, we come out right in the centre of the food court. We wonder, spoiled by options and tangled in translation until we make the final choice. We pass by the fruit cart where we see a careful arrangement of slices of known and not so known fruit. We bet on wedges of pineapple and watermelon - there can’t be any disappointment there, but we are also brave enough to try jackfruit and local persimmons. This time everything is wonderful even the new jackfruit that requires persistence and time getting used to the taste. And after that, we acquire a fried pastry with a sweet black bean filling and another one with leek - nothing with leek can ever disappoint. And most importantly, this breakfast costs us nothing. Well, compared to all other restaurants in Singapore. It’s like we’re not in the same city here. Now, I understand why the mechanic at the garage in Adelaide sent us here.

Well-fed, we enter Marina Bay Sands with a specific aim. We won’t just admire the crazy rich interiors but we will willingly spend some money here as well. One of our wedding presents was a drink or two at the hotel’s Skybar. But you don’t go in it just like that. I have scoured the internet to check the requirements for the dress code and whether we’ll be allowed in wearing shorts and t-shirts. It says they wouldn’t mind typical tourist wear during the day, but we will not be risking it. Nic has carried his shirt for five months through the world for this specific moment. We go into the lobby toilets and come out almost as new people - a dress, a shirt, tidy shoes, jewellery and hair-dos … Maybe we could pass for VIPs.

But to be allowed in the elevator for the fifty-seventh floor, first, you need to pay an entrance of $23 per person. It is regarded as a minimum spend towards all orders on the terrace so there is no “I’m not thirsty”. Whether you drink or not, the view has a price. Up in the skies, we first get stuck at the southeast railings with a birds-eye view of the Gardens by the Bay. Every building and every Supertree as if viewing an interactive tourist map. And in the bay itself, there are many ships waiting. How many, I can imagine only the port centre can say. I just see MANY!

With great luck, we sit at a table right next to the glazed railings. The view towards the marina, the central business district and the rest of Singapore is unobscured. Of course, the entrance fee doesn’t even cover the cheapest gin and tonic on the menu. But we haven’t come up here to be petty. Even if we give £13 for one drink. The gin is called Tanglin and it is produced locally in Singapore. We enjoy it just as we enjoy any other because we know nothing about gin other than the fact we like drinking it.

But even if we aren’t gin connoisseurs, I think we know what a good view is. And this one could top any rankings. I would have probably paid more to allow me to be like a bird up here. And there is no harm that we got a bit dressed up to come. I feel like we belong. With some footage on the GoPro, the first G&Ts are finished and a second glass arrives. We must have gone mad here, but I will probably not get a chance to be in this bar again, especially on somebody else’s expenses. (Also, I find another Bulgarian group to eavesdrop on.)

Slightly tipsy, we go back down on solid ground and enter the colourful Gardens by the Bay. We will be using our ticket for the Cloud Forest. The windows must be all washed by now. Unlike yesterday’s greenhouse for flowers and smaller plants, this one is a complete jungle. A tropical forest - far more impressive than its floral sister next door. In the centre rises a 35-metre mountain, and a tall waterfall drops from its tallest point. Our eyes are wide open, unbelieving. The jaws are almost dropped. Wow!

The entire dome offers different paths, groves and hollows in which you can dive in and get lost. A central path circles the mountain and leads you to its top with hidden views to the waterfall, the orchid gardens, the air-plants installation and whatever not. Green everywhere! Just before we leave, the sprinklers for the tropical fog comes on to show us where the name of the forest comes from. All of a sudden, our view becomes mist, the mountain in front disappears. We are in a cloud.

We accidentally find a Secret Garden under the mountain. An unbelievable, extravagant, creative, beautiful space. When we hear the word garden or greenhouse, we - the ordinary people, usually have a certain, traditional idea. Regardless of how hard I try to unleash my fantasy, I could never imagine, let alone create something similar. The Imaginations that create here are on a higher level, unknown to me. Artscience.

Tonight, we have decided to observe the light show Rhapsody of the Supertrees. But before that, we will look for food and visit two or three malls we haven’t yet seen. You go to Rome for fountains and churches. To Singapore - for Supertrees and malls. As we wait for food to arrive, we discuss our plans for tomorrow. We should be leaving for Kuala Lumpur but we have neither reserved our accommodation nor have we decided on a specific mode of transport. Yes, yes - we are talking about crossing into a different country in less than 24 hours. Isn’t it perfectly normal to not have concrete plans? Ergh …

Exiting Marina Bay Sands, we decide to stay at the end of the bridge to wait for the beginning of the Rhapsody. We see all Supertrees in the Central Grove perfectly from here, and as the sun sets, the GoPro can follow the change in the colours of the sky and the light on the pink tangled structures. It starts. We don’t hear the music from here, but we wait long enough to take good footage after which we sprint into the centre. Here, the experience is full. Perfectly synchronised to the music, the lights are dancing to the background of an eccentric mix of musical pieces - Offenbach’s Can-Can, the soundtrack to Disney’s Little Mermaid and Pinocchio and even melodies from Phantom of the Opera. Well, this should not be missed! Not at all! And even after the performance, the Supertrees stay in full stage costumes for more photographs.

Another full and colourful day. But back in the hotel, we face some serious issues. After our last conversation, I am very worried about Nic’s plan on travelling to Kuala Lumpur. At the moment, he is planning for us to get up at 5 am and arrive after 6 pm which includes, a bus, a train, a shuttle, two more trains and a taxi, while passing a border; none of this transport can be pre-booked. So much can go wrong and with all of our luggage, the nightmare will be real. No, there has to be another option. Should I Google it …

After a quick check, I see that the standard transport between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is just a bus route that takes you through the border and you’re at your destination in only a few hours. Plus one of the stops is right in Little India, do we don’t need to drag our rucksacks far. Isn’t this a better option? - I wonder modestly. We buy the tickets, organise the mess in our corner and go to bed relaxed. We won’t be getting up at 5 am and running around like headless chickens. There will even be time to eat in Chinatown again.

15th January

This morning everything begins as planned. We sleep until our roommates wake us up which doesn’t take them long. After that, we manage to somehow stuff our belongings back into our rucksacks although they had uncontrollably exploded all around us. It is some sort of magic to pack luggage that clearly multiplies over a few days, even though you regularly lose a t-shirt on the way. We dump our bags at reception and sneak out to Chinatown. The valuable discovery that you can eat much cheaper there will be used today as well.

Back in Little India, we decide this is the right time to find the bus stop so we don’t wander aimlessly in an hour with the luggage on our backs. Google guides us towards the covered neighbourhood market, but nowhere can we see a designated stop or even a sign. Maybe it is at the other end? Or maybe around this corner? Let’s just ask, it’s not going to work otherwise. We find a friendly young man who confidently walks with us to the stop. “This is where the bus to Kuala Lumpur leaves from” - he explains with conviction, standing in the middle of the pavement in front of a few shops. There is no lay-by for a car to park, let alone a whole bus. “Here?!?” - we don’t quite believe him, but it is also so typical for Asia for international transport to leave from nowhere. We will wait on this tile in an hour then.

After last checks in the hotel lobby, we put on our camel humps and set off for the designated tile. There is still half an hour until the bus leaves so we won’t miss it! Just in case, we ask the guys in the shops that we are standing in front of. “Yes, yes! For Kuala Lumpur, at the front there!” Well, all is right! No panic, please!

Leaning on our rucksacks, we scan the street in every direction. We observe the people and their habits, but we are mostly waiting for a bus-like vehicle to arrive and pick us up. The leaving time comes and yet nothing can be seen on the horizon. A quick check online assures us that this bus is always at least an hour late - nothing to worry about. Patiently waiting is not my strong suit, but I’ll wait. Half an hour passes and we call the company so they at least know we’re here. And what do we hear … “The bus has passed the border.” What do you mean it’s passed the border? We’re waiting in Little India.

What exactly are we meant to do right now. It’s not like we haven’t booked a luxury apartment in Kuala Lumpur with a view to the Petronas Towers. We can’t stay here one more night. We call again. Can we get on a different bus today?! “Well, no. This is the last one today.” Give us our money back then? “No, no, we can’t because you aren’t on the bus”. We know we’re not on the bus, that’s why we want a refund!!! You have left us in Singapore and now you won’t even pay us back! Seemingly, we agree that there is a way to get a refund in 30 working days. (We never did.)

I can easily say we’re both starting to go mad. We are incredibly angry at the situation but also helpless in the first minutes. How could we have expected that we’ll buy tickets online and nobody would lift a finger to pay any attention to us? With slight panic, we manage to stay calm. We don’t have much of a choice - we have to find new transport today. We get in a taxi and go to the bus station. The entire idea was to save those expenses, but it wasn’t meant to happen. Otherwise, what will we have to talk about if we just got on a bus and arrived in Malaysia unobstructed?

In the bus station, we relax. Everything here is working like a real transport company and there are still a few buses that can take us to the next capital. We buy tickets for the first one and ask three times exactly where we need to be. There, we sit down immediately, regardless of how long is left till the bus leaves. We can’t risk it leaving without us. We get on it on time and set off. One last wave to Marina Bay Sands and the Supertrees.

After an hour and a half, we are at the border between Singapore and Malaysia. Leaving the country is quick, easy and painless. Everything is going smoothly so far. Not long before we get off at the Malaysian border. But the crowds here are huge. Each of us with all of our luggage as it needs to be scanned after passport control. We join the queues - some quicker, some not. Air-conditioning - non-existent.

One of the border officers waves at us and separates the end of the queue to go to the building in the back. Maybe there we’ll be processed quicker. Here at least, there aren’t separate queues but just two big snakes. For all, about two hundred people, only four desks are open. We summon our entire patience and tolerance towards fellow tourists and we wait. We kick our rucksacks forward every so often and we wait. We turn passports into fans and we wait. We see how the desks go down to three, then two; only one left. We wait and we wait. They go back to two. The queue only grows behind us. We wait.

I don’t know how much time passes but we’re probably here for two hours. The heat rises. Overtaking and intolerance even more. Nic and I joke that the bus might leave without us. Actually, when we look around, it is clear we are the only ones from our group in this building. Everyone else stayed in the first queues. But it is just a joke, what sort of luck would we have if a second bus leaves us behind in one day ...

Finally, it is our turn to head the queue. The lady calls me to her desks. She acts quickly, makes the check. But before she gives me back my passport she closes the desk. She passes it to me on the side and I am stunned. Nic is still in the queue and she just closed the only desk on our side. OH, GOD! This is worse than any Bulgarian border incompetencies! Another five minutes before Nic can get his way into the other queue. My nerves are stretched to the edge, but at least we are done. The luggage is checked and we can get on the bus.

We see it in the distances but it is locked and there is no one else around us. How could that be … after this much waiting, we can’t possibly be the first ones to arrive. A lady approaches us and kindly asks for our tickets. We pass them as she goes to consult with a colleague and sends us back to the exit to the passport office to look for a guy in the company’s uniform. He sees us from a far: “Where were you? Your bus is gone!” WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!! If I don’t start crying now … Fortunately, they are a big company and the next bus will arrive soon. We will sit mindlessly waiting again, but we will get there.

But instead of eight o’clock, we won’t see the streets of Kuala Lumpur before eleven. We let our host know that we’ll be late and they kindly inform us that they don’t accept guests after ten pm and the deposit is non-refundable. Are we supposed to sleep on the street then?! Will this day ever end? Doesn’t have to be successful. It just needs to finish.

The saviour bus arrives and Nic manages to convince the apartment to return our money. At the end of the day, these circumstances weren’t in our control one bit. On the bus, we book another flat online right next to the bus stop. I willingly sacrifice the view of the Petronas Towers if it means I don’t have to walk 20 minutes with the luggage. What would we have done without today’s technologies? (Other than the fact we wouldn't have been here at all, to begin with.)

The rest of the journey is calm. It gets dark so the views outside disappear. I would usually be disappointed, but I don’t have the emotional strength any more to soak in new information. I just want to get there. Until … in the distance I see the glowing twin towers. Kuala Lumpur’s symbol. Suddenly, I am recharged with enthusiasm and calm. We made it, even through this day.

We arrive at Berjaya Times Square at 11:30 pm. This is one of the many twin towers in the Malaysian capital. After Petronas, it must have been quite the trend for architects to express themselves through symmetrical twins. With a few instructions, we head to the east tower. That’s where the individual apartments are, the hotel is in the west wing. Between them, there are nine floors of a shopping centre and six more floors for communal areas, including a rooftop pool. There are a lot of people in the lobby of our tower. Each of them represents the different flats and are waiting for their guests to arrive. We are sent to our hosts and he wastes no time to take us to our room.

The luxurious lift requires a key-card to take us to the private apartment floors. The design of the room hasn’t aged well, but it is clear that it used to be the best of the best. Clearly a lot of money was put into expensive materials and interior designers. It can be expected, that after sixteen years of use and minimal maintenance, not everything will be shiny and new. However, regardless of the way it looks, the important thing here is the view. Oh, the view! Yes, we don’t see the towers from here, but we see the lit-up pool, the capital’s TV tower and so much more of Kuala Lumpur. We are on the 19th floor after all.

We don’t expect there are many vegan options around us after midnight. We quickly poor hot water over our dry pot noodles. It was a smart decision to get them from the border. We sip our soups and crash on the bed.

We’re in Malaysia!

There isn’t much more that I can summarise about Singapore - expensive, colourful, lovely. Whatever amount of money we left for the local economy, I don’t regret a penny. Everything was part of one wholesome experience which you can’t avoid in Singapore if you want to get to know it well!

In other news … Forever lost in translation. Forever in the last minutes. Forever unclear. I wish I could say that I regret the events of such days. But the truth is that I love them. Yes, it was difficult. But we haven’t come to explore a new culture and expect that everything will go down perfectly. And yet … could you imagine if we had followed Nic’s initial plan of one thousand and five transfers and one thousand and six transports. Even he finds it funny to think how much of a catastrophe it could have been. Fortunately, only a small part of his ideas need checking and correcting.

Stay Vivid,

Vassya (and Nic)

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