Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Urban Wanderings - KL and Singapore

The drive from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur was short, but tiring in the still intense heat. Traffic going into the city was not nearly as bad as we feared, and we were pleased to find our hotel with minimal hassle. On going to check-in we were informed that they had no standard rooms left, so we would be getting a complimentary upgrade. However on going up to our room, we discovered that it had not yet been cleaned after it's previous occupant, so went down to inform reception. Our luck continued to improve, and we found ourselves upgraded again. So, after paying less than £20 for a standard room, we found ourselves in the family suite, pleased as punch.

I can't really say we achieved a whole lot else that afternoon, and after some tasty and cheap Indian food we hopped on the monorail to spend the evening in one of Bukit Bintang's many shopping malls. KL is somewhat of a shopper's Shangri-La, with more malls than an ordinary person might deem necessary for one city. Nevertheless, we actually quite enjoy hanging out in these places, as they are usually full of tasty food, air-conditioned, and good places to people watch. We pottered slowly around getting our bearings, randomly stumbling across a mochi stand. For anyone that hasn't tried this Japanese dessert, it is commonly made from glutinous rice pounded into a paste, then filled with a variety of sweet fillings. My favourite was the red bean, but Oli quickly declared undying loyalty to the chocolate mousse version.


Feeling we had already had a good start to our KL days, we were up and about the next morning ready to meet up with Kean. He was in the city for the weekend visiting home, and kindly offered to entertain us for the day. After a visit to the tech mall to buy some much needed memory (to back up all these photos we take), we met up with his parents for a tasty lunch. Letting the locals pick our food turned out to be a wise decision, and the meal was a lovely and much appreciated treat.

We had time for a quick stop back at the house to meet the dogs before Kean had to drive back to Penang. On first glance they appeared to be fearsome guard dogs (and I am sure they would be were a burglar foolish enough to hop over the wall), an enormous German Shepherd and a hefty Rottweiller. However, thankfully being smart enough to recognise us as guests, they were happy for us to come in and play. Much like my Susie at home, they seemed to forget their size, with the rottie  at one point throwing herself onto my lap in order to lick Oli. Forty odd kilos of dog suddenly landing on me was rather surprising, but kind of sweet nonetheless.

We got Kean to drop us off at the Midvalley Mall rather than our hotel, as this was more on his way. This was one ridiculously huge shopping centre, with literally hundreds of shops spread over its three floors. We wandered around for a while, before deciding we weren't really feeling like window shopping and that it was time to go home. This should have been a simple endeavour, as we were but one train stop away. However, we arrived at the station to find an enormous queue for tickets, which looked like it might take a while to subside. Whipping out the map, we discovered that we were only around a mile away. Even with our appalling current levels of fitness we consider this an easy distance, so decided we might as well just walk it.

Sadly it seemed this part of KL suffers from what I would like to term 'American City Syndrome.'* The route we needed to take appeared to encompass not a single concession for pedestrians. We tried a few ways, involving exciting dashes across main roads. Eventually however we were forced to conclude that it was not possible, unless we fancied negotiating a motorway slip road with no pavement. Perhaps walking it might have been achievable for a person very well acquainted with the city, but obviously this was not a category that we fell into. With an air of frustration, we arrived back at the station, and resignedly joined the long queue. Actually it moved surprisingly quickly. Maybe it was the way forward after all.

We found dinner that night at a random street stall just down the road from our hotel. As mentioned in our earlier posts, Oli is absolutely loving the cuisine in this part of the world. Despite having already had quite an impressive amount of food, he decided that an extra portion of rice was essential. Somewhat unsurprisingly this left him feeling rather stuffed, and we had to walk it off whilst trying to find fruit. Luckily for Oli's stomach, this was actually not an easy task, so we actually covered quite a lot of distance before eventually finding the goods.

Determined to do something other than laze around shopping malls like uncultured, mochi munching oafs, we planned to actually do some touristing the next day. On our itinerary were the Islamic Arts Museum and the Bird Park. Conveniently, all KL's museums and tourist attractions seem to be shoe-horned into the same area. Even better, they were a very easy walking distance from our hotel, and pedestrian facilities (crossings, pavements etc.) were a reality in this area.

As the late morning heat was already energy sapping, we decided to start with the Arts Museum, figuring it would be air-conditioned and cool. We shelled out the extra two ringgits (40p) for our tickets to cover the special exhibitions, and wandered in. On reflection, I am not quite sure what we were expecting to see, but we were absolutely blown away by the first exhibition. This was a collection of modern Arabic calligraphy, done in a variety of bold and striking ways. The use of colour in many of the pieces was exquisite, with paint and other media used creatively. Iranian artists featured heavily, which we enjoyed all the more having had such a great time when we visited that country.


The museum ended up absorbing the majority of our day. As well as the vibrant modern pieces, the museum also housed more traditional exhibits such as beautiful Qur'ans. The patterns decorating some of these were so intricate that it was quite humbling to imagine the amount of work that must have gone into their production, and how long it must have taken. There was also a hall containing nothing but scale models of various famous mosques. It was fascinating to see how the architectural style varied so much depending on the cultures that had built them. Having expected a small but diverting museum, we were very impressed with the place, and any initial desire to visit the bird park lay forgotten.


The next day was our last in KL before heading off to the bright lights of Singapore. We ended up spending the majority of the morning getting organised, booking ferry tickets and accommodation for our Tioman break, as well as sorting out some bike work. All this meant that it was fairly late by the time we got going, so we started our day with some tasty vegetarian nasi kandar style food. The owners of the stall were lovely, and gave us some extra freebies. This seems to happen to us rather a lot in Asia. Maybe we look so shabby that people feel sorry for us, or maybe people are just generous. We followed our main with a dessert that quite frankly looks disgusting, but is actually awesome. Cendol is a Malaysian staple, and our treat below was a random version of this. If anyone reading this comes / goes to Malaysia, I speak with all seriousness when I say do not miss trying some cendol.


Accepting that we were in one of the shopping capitals of the world, we continued the afternoon in the same vein, ending up at the Pavillion Mall. My main riding t-shirt being full of holes and thin to the point of becoming indecent, I treated myself to a new top. Rather enjoying the feeling of not looking like a tramp, I decided to have an impromptu haircut. The last time I had it chopped was in Turkey. Attempting to brush it after a day on the bike was starting to resemble a cruel joke, and it had got to the stage where I could hardly stand it any more. It was one of the many experiences on the road that makes us feel like we get a bit ripped off in the U.K., as for just £13 I got 5* service and a brilliant haircut. As an added bonus, the stylist even politely managed to hide his horror at the terrible condition of my hair. Almost.


We were rudely shaken from our relaxed existence the next morning, as we needed to catch our morning bus to Singapore. The service put Megabus to shame (what doesn't?), and we were amazed at the space we had to stretch out in. An announcement at the start of the journey declared that a meal would be served, as well as delicately asking passengers to use the toilet facilities for 'light relief' only. Entirely due to my own error, I had forgotten to inform the bus company that I was a veggie. Oli was delighted by this, demolishing two rounds of sandwiches, but still managing to complain of hunger before we arrived in Singapore.

Our hotel was conveniently located in Little India, home to a lot of budget accommodation, and even better, lots of cheap, good food. Said good food was our first port of call after settling in. Although Singapore really is very expensive when compared to the majority of it's South East Asian neighbours, budget friendly food is still easy to come by. We ate in a small restaurant that seemed to be popular with the locals, which was excellent value. Full and happy, I took Oli for a wander through the streets, stopping at the famous Mustafa's department store. This seems to have grown considerably since I was last here, four and a half years ago. It has now expanded to the point where I think it might actually eat Little India. We shall see.

We spent the next day happily pottering around the city. Singapore is not a big place, and the central areas are all within fairly easy walking distance of each other. We strolled around the Arab Quarter and the surrounding area, then caught the MRT down to Chinatown. Compared with the rest of Singapore, Chinatown didn't really sing to us. The main drag seems to have squarely aimed itself at tourists in a way that the rest of the city has managed to avoid. Essentially the pretty streets have been transformed into an extensive market, but sadly all the stalls seem to sell nothing but crap souvenirs. The restaurants all seemed to chase the tourist dollar, and the prices were pretty expensive for what was on offer. However having said this, the area around the MRT retained a more working character, and had a pretty awesome food court, so it wasn't all bad.


From Chinatown it was an easy stroll to the Clarke Quay area. Around here is the Singapore of postcards, with glittering skyscrapers rising sharply over the waterfront. We paused to admire them for a while, before making our way a very short distance to see a rather unusual building. Used as the offices for the Ministry of Communications and Information, it is characterised by its brightly coloured shutters, graduating through a full rainbow of colours. It sits brightly against the urban landscape, one of the many random things that makes Singapore an interesting place.


Having felt like we had all the time in the world, we ended up bolting down a rushed dinner in fear of being late. We were meeting up with a fellow traveller, Uli (one of the bikers from Nong Khiaw). A resident of Singapore, he was kind enough to treat us to a beer and a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Long Bar. It was great to catch up, and we felt lucky to have seen him, as he was actually due to fly out to Nepal just two days later for the next stage of his adventure. We had a lovely evening, and look forward to hearing all his stories from the India and Nepal part of his travels!

We didn't achieve much the next day, spending most of the daylight hours happily wandering and eating. Singapore really is a delightful place to just hang out in, with plenty of food and drink to compliment this. That evening however, we took a walk down to the Marina Bay area. This is the perfect place to see the spectacle of the city in all its flashy night time brilliance, with bright urban vistas in every direction. One feature of this area that I was particularly keen to see again was the Merlion statue, the slightly bizarre icon of Singapore. With the head of a lion and the tail of a fish, it appears an odd creature, and apparently represents the city's origins as a fishing village, as well as its original name of Singapura, meaning 'lion city'. Make of it what you will, it is somewhat of a Singapore icon. Oli was unimpressed, and I found myself defending it without really knowing why I liked it so much.


By this time it was pretty late at night, and we very slowly strolled back towards home. Singapore is apparently one of the safest cities in the world, and we have to agree that it really feels so. Even though almost everywhere feels safe compared to Manchester, Singapore seems to be in a league of its own. Whilst we have by no means felt unsafe in Malaysia, it offered an interesting comparison. Crime is obviously a concern for people there, with warning signs advising you to take care with all manner of things. Notices warned us to beware of snatch thieves, or not to put a bag behind oneself when using shopping centre toilets (in case somebody reaches over the partition). People would advise us to take care in cities, and to always watch our belongings. Either people are a little paranoid about safety, or Malaysia has crime rates somewhere on a par with Gotham City. Singapore however seems to revel in its safe reputation, and although we were obviously still careful, it was quite pleasant to go about our business without being warned to be on constant high alert.

The morning of our last day in Singapore began successfully. We sorted out our Indonesia flights, and also took delivery of our new rear tyre. We were actually somewhat grateful that for once it wasn't a sunny day, with dark clouds threatening rain. Singapore and Malaysia were having a long dry spell, very bad news for countries where it should rain most days. Rain would hopefully mean good news for the water supply, farmers and gardeners alike, as well as taking the temperature down a notch. The cloud cover also meant that it was quite comfortable to be outside, so we decided to take a trip to the Botanic Gardens.

Not realising that the gardens actually have their own MRT stop (we would discover that when we got there), we caught the train as far as Orchard and then walked the rest of the way. This was quite a lot further than it looked on the map, and the heat that we had declared comfortable at first seemed to build somewhat as we walked. However, there was a silver lining. The road we had to take turned out to be incredibly posh, with enormous and flashy mansions lining the edges. Oli and I enjoy a spot of house perving, and frequently paused to look. Looking back, it's a wonder that none of the security guards politely asked us to move along.


The gardens themselves were fantastic. Spread over a huge area, the majority of the park can be strolled through for no charge. However, we decided to pop into the National Orchid Garden, as the fee seemed pretty reasonable and I do so love a colourful flower. The sheer number of species cultivated in this place was staggering, with flowers abounding in a rainbow of vibrant colours. Randomly, the place also plays host to a 'VIP' orchid garden, with new species being named after visiting dignitaries. We were surprised / perturbed to spot amongst the flowers a special Margaret Thatcher orchid. It was the only one that seemed to warrant a memorial sign dedicated to its namesake, and said sign made no allusion to the fact that she was arguably the most controversial figure in Britain's political history. I can certainly think of a few people who will not approve of it when they read this!

Moving on from divisive orchid names, we wandered along to what was termed the 'Cool House'. The humidity was rising as the storm clouds approached, so the prospect of a little air-con was rather tempting. Even without the temperature incentive, it was an interesting diversion. Amongst many other plants, it also contained several carnivorous ones, namely the pitcher plant. Even as adults, we find the existence of insect eating plants darkly fascinating, and must have seemed like children as we excitedly pointed them out to each other.


The weather finally broke as we were sat in the Ginger Garden, the leaden clouds pelting the ground with heavy droplets. We took shelter, enjoying the refreshment of the sudden rains. Eventually it eased, and we fittingly concluded our park visit with a stroll through the rainforest section. Feeling energised, we decided not to make use of the newly discovered MRT stop, and to walk back to Orchard instead. Oli decided that the wet weather fully justified his use of what he has termed a 'city bag', as it was nicely waterproof. For those not in the know, the city bag is just a plastic carrier bag, which Oli has started to prefer to the backpack. His justifications for this are many fold, and my attempts to get him to abandon it fruitless.

It had been a great visit to Singapore, but we were looking forward to getting back to KL to pick up the bike and get back on the road. We managed to get on the bus with our tyre with only a few strange looks, unsure if we were going to have trouble at Malaysian customs. The customs officer looked suspiciously at us, asking us if the tyre was new. We confirmed it was, and showed her the receipt. After looking at this she just walked off, saying something in Malay to her colleague, who promptly ignored us and sat with his back to us around the corner. Unsure if we could go or were supposed to be waiting, we read the signs around us, which seemed to advise that our tyre value came under the value for tax. Hanging around for a while with nobody taking any notice of us, we tentatively wandered outside, where we were collared by our bus driver, who ushered us on board to join the waiting passengers. Hopefully we were actually supposed to leave, and are not accidental tax dodgers!

Getting back to KL felt weirdly like going home. I suppose we have been on the road for so long now that we attach to places very quickly, and actually returning to the same place more than once makes it feel very familiar. The bike was still there and in one piece, and after anxiously checking it we went straight back out for dinner. The busy cities of Singapore and KL had been good to us, as both are vibrant and exciting places. However, we were very much looking forward to getting to the relative quiet of Melacca the next day. Old town charm and tasty food await.

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