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
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.
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
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
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.'