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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 11, April 29, 2002
Compulsive Consumption, Eating Sh--, How to catch a Python
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Sight Unseen

One thing India does do very well is prepare you for Singapore. I am not normally the greatest fan of this squeaky clean little city state, but, after 15 weeks in a country where every single surface could do with a damn good scrub, I was ready to clasp Singapore to my dumpy bosom. Of course, if we had actually paid for our own accomodation, I might have felt rather differently, but an ex-colleague of Jane's, Luigi Bonini, very generously let us crash in his (serviced) apartment. For some reason, I have never stayed in a serviced apartment before. But having done so, I am extremely keen to repeat the experience and would be grateful if anyone with one of these wonderous inventions in Asia, Australia or South America could drop me a line at the usual address.

Of course, there is far more to Singapore than just desirable real estate: it also has terrific shopping with plenty of major western brands. Having succesfully kept it real in terms of Indian culture (skanky trains, street food, etc.) we were naturally keen to go native in Singapore too. So we embraced the local mores with considerable enthusiasm, visiting many hundreds of different upmarket shops in our three days as well as a number of swish restaurants. In order to get between the two, we also took plenty of taxis, whether we needed to or not. To be fair, I did slip once and found myself on the metro, but it just didn't feel right and I soon spent a load of money on diving kit to compensate. Interestingly, post Singapore, we would meet a few other travellers who earnestly reeled off the attractions they'd taken in during their time in the city-state. They would then ask us which must-see sights we'd seen. I was proud to reply 'None.' Unless, of course, the inside of the Burberry boutique counts.

But after a few days Singapore begins to pall. Everyone looks pretty much the same and walks around purposfully generating GDP or happily consuming consumer goods: it is a place designed by management consultants. The sole act of rebellion I saw was a bloke doing BMX stunts next to a 'no cycling' sign on the steps of a shopping centre and even he was wearing a safety helmet. Everyone has two mobile phones (and four batteries). And, at the pedestrian crossings, they have digital coundowns to tell you how long you have left to cross the road. Here, you feel, is a society that that has reached a sort of dull perfection and is now just tinkering around the edges.

Interestingly the two things that are very expensive in Singapore are books and foreign newspapers. I presume this is because new ideas are sometimes found in both and if there is one thing the Singaporean government is not famously keen on, it's ideas (unless, of course, they increase per-capita productivity). I also noticed that a great number of Americans (who all look like they eat too much beef) take holidays in Singapore. I was a little surprised at this, but I guess it makes perfect sense. Singapore is a place where the national activity is buying lots of stuff and hardly anyone gives a toss about the arts, literature or what politicians do in their name, so the Yanks must feel right at home.

Eating sh...

While we were availing ourselves of this nation's fine facilities, Jane - who had been experiencing near constant low-level stomach trouble since Darjeeling - took herself to see the doc. After a swift and characteristically efficient examination, he diagnosed amoebic dysentry, proving that she really hadn't been making it up. He then prescribed her a course of weapons grade antibiotics to deal with those pesky amoebas - rather charmingly these live in the lesions the condition creates in one's stomach. And, as if this were not enough medical detail, he added that dysentry is almost always contacted by eating someone else's faeces. Usually as a result of inadequate restaurant cleanliness (i.e. washing one's hands, post defecation). All this goes to prove, I suppose, that Indians are anal about food hygeine, though not in the sense you might hope.

When the time came to leave Singapore we elected to take the train - handily Singapore is at the southern terminus of the the Malaysian railway. But judging from the reaction we got to this plan, I don't think many people in Singpore take trains - except perhaps the ones who clean the bogs. It is the kind of place you only ever leave on a plane. In fact, most Singaporeans we spoke to didn't actually know that there was a train and even our cab driver, although vaguely aware of a train station was sketcty on its whereabouts. Arrival at the station, which is a grand building but has a forgotten, neglected air about it confirmed these suspicions. To go inside is to leave Singapore and rejoin the rest of Asia. Food is cheap and the eateries none-too hygienic looking, the people are both darker and poorer, there are a couple of spivvy money changers and the place looks as if it was last decorated in 1962.

If you've ever been on an Indian sleeper train, your first reaction to its Malaysian counterpart is 'Wow, what a spiffy train.' This pleasant surprise lasts until the train starts moving. The Indian railway is a broad gauge; the Malaysian exceedingly narrow. In non-trainspotter terms this means that the Malaysian trains, especially as they thread their way through the peninsula's thickly forested hills, rock from side to side in the most nausea-inducing way possible. Still, there were some plus points: for instance the dining car served coffee with condensed milk producing a remarkable - if rather revolting - layered drink where the milk sat on the bottom.

After the extremes of India and Singapore, Malaysia seems like an agreeable compromise: it's hot, languid and (despite the best efforts of timber companies) impressively jungly. But people don't descend on you like a pack of jackals when you step off a train and the locals don't treat the entire nation as one big dustbin. Indeed, by South East Asian standards at least, Malaysia is a wealthy and expensive nation. This is good news for a couple of reasons. For starters you are likely to meet a lot of Malaysians on holiday and they are often better company than other travellers. Though the ones our age do speak in a curious, heavily Americanised English (even amongst themselves). Malaysia also attracts a better class of traveller - the prices, still very cheap compared to the UK, discourage the kind of dreadlocked grot-bags who enjoy bragging about they can live on 50p for three weeks.

In a speed boat that was exactly what it said it was which banged across the waves so fast it threatened to fuse the spinal bones of its passengers, we reached the Parenthian Islands. After India's beaches, I'm not sure I was expecting much, but the Parenthians really are pretty close to a bounty advert. The beaches are white, the water turquoise and the jungle a vivid green. At noon, the colours are so bright as to be almost preternatural - the kind of place that makes you think that perhaps postcard maufacturers don't always fake the colours. Moreover, for small islands, they have an impresive variety of wildlife. Below the water there are the kind of surreal, luridly coloured creatures you'd expect in a pimp's fish tank. And back in the jungle, there are spiders that look like man-eaters and huge (2m plus) monitor lizards which move with a crocodile's powerful, muscular shuffle.

Python Syphon

Most dangerous -and therefore most impressive - though were the pythons. These are pretty rare and shy but I spoted one which I suspect could have, at a squeeze (geddit?), crushed me to death. Naturally, I gave the snake the respect that was its due and ran away squealing like a girl. Later on, I was chatting to a Malaysian guy in a restaurant and we got to talking about catching pythons. What you need, he said, is three or four men. Then you find your python's hole. Depending on the size of the burrow, one of the men inserts his arm or leg and waits for the python to start swallowing it. When the snake's head has got to the point where it can swallow no more (usually just above the knee or the elbow), the catcher's buddies drag him and the snake out. They then pull the snake off the swallowed limb. All of which, presumably, explains why pet pythons cost an arm and a leg. (NB: this really is how you catch a python in these parts but judging from by the bloke's reaction, this gag is not very funny if English isn't your first language. Or even if it is.

Far more amusing than my crap snake puns, though, are Japanese holidaymakers. To check out the pimptastic marine life, I had taken an extended snorkel around the bay - and truly the coral, giant clams and fishy denizens were a wonder to behold. When I resurfaced, it was next to a dozen or so Japanese who were all wearing snorkels with lifejackets and listening intently to a Malaysian bloke. When they'd all gone face down in the water, I asked him what was going on. He explained that he was teaching them to snorkel. I wondered exactly what 'skills' one learnt in a snorkelling lesson and asked him this. He held his hands out and shrugged. 'They told me they want to learn to snorkel,' he said, 'and I say you can just do it without the learning. But then they said have to learn and that they'd pay me a lot. So I said OK.' He shrugged again then laughed : 'Money for standing in the water doing nothing. Lovely job.'