I have been keeping count of all the countries I have been in over the years, and this is an anniversary: Malaysia is number 50.
The “executive bus” from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur is spacious, comfortable, and falling apart inside, but I found a seat that worked. The formalities at the border are simple, the bus stops once on the island of Singapore to exit and once on the Malaysian mainland to enter, but the whole thing takes only minutes. We got to the Royale Bintang hotel, with a (partial) view of the landmark Petronas Towers from our room, in the early afternoon and had time to wander.
Like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is a mixture of modern highrise buildings with thundering traffic, and low-key old districts like Chinatown. This one is fairly small but very lively – four large blocks, bisected by two two pedestrianized streets packed with stalls selling watches, cell phones, bags, clothes, and souvenirs, and there are a number of Chinese hole-in-the-wall restraurants.
We also went to the modern district past Chinatown, but it’s basically one big tangle of freeways. Walking is possible but unpleasant. We made it alive to the central train station, and took the elevated monorail train back to Bintang. Looks like futuristic design from the eighties.
Orchard road is Singapore’s main shopping street, but it’s unimpressive. The nearby Fort Canning Park is quite pleasant though, although the fort is curiously absent except for one remaining gate, and the little lake is fenced in and hidden, with big red no-trespassing signs showing a policeman pointing a rifle at a stick figure with its hands up. You can see these signs elsewhere too, welcome to Singapore but stay where you are.
Chinatown is divided into a busy modern main road and an old pedestrian area with narrow alleys crowded by small shops and restaurants, with low old buildings. It’s odd to see how the vertical modern Singapore alternates with old two-story buildings. At a wide section of the Singapore River, the low buildings between the riverfront and the highrise office towers in the background look like flotsam. The bank towers are here because it’s a particularly auspicious place and good omens are hard to come by these days in the banking business.
At the Marina Bay is the Merlion, a statue of a fish with a lion’s head spouting yellowish water, and across the river are the Esplanade theaters, with the main building looking like a crash-landed spiky Durian.
The taxi to the Hangout Hotel on top of Emily Hill is cheaper than the bus for two people. The hotel is simple, clean, modern, and offers free WLAN and a fantastic rooftop terrace.
Bugis street is very close to the hotel. There is a large covered bazaar selling everything – cheap clothes, watches, cell phones, fruit and vegetables, on several floors. There are fruit juice stands, but the red dragonfruit and guava juices were rather bland. Bottled starfruit juice is downright nasty. We also walked to the Indian quarter in the north of downtown and had good Tandoori chicken. I saw two mosques, two churches, one synagogue, and one Krishna temple with gaudy LED ornaments and happy monks daubing a third eye on tourists.
There are large office towers and low two-story and five-story buildings side by side. Everything is squeaky clean – that day I have seen one abandoned plastic bottle, a handful of cigarette butts, and a rusty washing machine. Everything else is spotless. Possession of drugs and chewing gum is illegal in Singapore, but smoking is ok. These people have principles. Street and shop signs are English in Singapore, and it’s disappointingly correct English instead of the hilarious Chinglish they use in China, like my favorite in Lijiang in Yunnan: “Civilized behavior of tourists is another bright scenery rational shopping”.
It’s a very long flight from Amsterdam to Singapore, 12 hours in a cramped cattle class seat, in a row shared with two obese tourists. The video system had to be rebooted twice, and 500 people got to watch the boot messages. It’s an old 2002 RedHat Linux on the world’s slowest processor, a Geode, heavily customized by an Ogre with a broadax – tons of errors and debugging output. If that’s an indication of Boeing’s engineering and quality control, it’s a miracle that the plane managed to take off without losing its wings.
This blog is about to wake up again. I enjoyed a beautiful summer in Berlin, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Portugal (see www.bitrot.de), but now it’s back to Asia. On Monday evening I’ll arrive in Singapore, and from there travel to Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Bali, and other islands of Indonesia and beyond. Let the odyssey continue!