Monday, 19 June 2006

First Stop—Singapore


I write this in a seedy (but not sleazy) hotel in Kuala Lumpur’s bustling China Town, however, that is another story for another day. Here is my account of my few, but interesting days, in Singapore—

To describe my experiences I will first have to make what many readers will believe to be a digression, however, as you will soon see there is a point to this excursus, one, which, I am sure you will agree, is both necessary and educational. Picture, if you will, in your mind’s eye, yourself, walking the streets of Perth, going about your everyday, lawful affairs. As you progress through your activities you will from time to time glance around, and occasionally view a peculiar individual. This stranger has a hagged and worn mien, is clearly deficient in sleep, and has a look of permanent bewilderment upon his befuddled face. With closer inspection you will also see a backpack slung uncomfortably over one shoulder and a camera clipped to his belt (I am visualising a man, feel free to do as you will). To complete your identification of this person one needs to merely glance at his hands, if they hold, tightly clutched, a handful of bedraggled maps, which are continually and hurriedly folded and unfolded, opened and closed, read and then put aside, you have all you need to clarify the identity of the person espied—that most pitiful of individuals—a Tourist.

Many is the time I gazed at these folk, wondering why they came so far to photograph so much of so little worth—I mean how many photos of kangaroos does the world need? As the kind and generous person I am, I have even, from time to time, offered a measure of assistance to these people, helping them hurry through their ever repeated journey from landmark to landmark. But it is now time to end this digression and return to the topic of this journal, me. Into every man’s life there comes a time when he must confess his sins, acknowledge his faults, and pay his dues. Humble reader, at this moment the fundamental dynamic of the voyeur/tourist relationship has changed, the scales have been turned, the chicken has come home to roost, and the trap sprung. Return to your mental image of the befuddled tourist, remove him from the streets of Perth and place him onto the busy thoroughfares of Singapore. Then (mentally) remove the face of this generic stranger, and, and, and, replace his face with that of mine, for the tourist we are now discussing is me!

Yes, for a week I wandered the streets and crossroads of Singapore as a tourist! What can I say? It was me. I ambled about, I stood on footpaths, I gazed, I even stopped and stood in the middle of roads when something caught my eye, I even got lost! The daily environment of Sing was fascinating to me! So now listen, gentle reader, to my thoughts, deeds and actions on that fair jewel of the far east, Singapore (to the north of Perth, closer than Sydney).

As you already know I arrived in a freighter. As I suggested in my previous post, leaving the ship was a bit of a break. Strong bonds are made between people in the closed confines of ship board travel, fortunately these bonds are both quickly made and then quickly broken. As soon as my feet hit the gangplank I was ready to go (of course I had not slept in the previous 24 hours, I remained awake all night to view the fascinating experience of a big ship approaching, entering and docking in Sing harbour). Here begins my first humorous experience on land. The agent from the freighter company drove Christine and myself from the ship to my hotel. Before this a couple of customs flunkies came on board, asked if we had any cigarettes or alcohol, and then stamped our passports with our visas (only 14 days if coming by sea). We were then to be more rigourously inspected on land, however, when we were driven to the customs point there was no flunky on duty, the agent sounded the car horn, looked around, then shrugged and drove us through check-point charlie into Singapore! So, at last I am a fugitive from justice.

I spent a week in Singapore, and enjoyed it all. I will not bore you with a detailed account of every activity nor explain each and every tour I went on, suffice it to say I had and did a lot of each and found them all fun. I even simply wandered the streets to see where I would end up. Singapore works hard to make sure that its tourist visitors have lots of things to do, and opportunities to spend their cash. So I will do no more than make a series of observations of my experiences and let you be the judge of their worth:

English tourists
For some reason the tour people at my hotel stuck me with a bunch of retired, but not retiring, English folk. Now, I do not mind the English, but I have to tell you that I found the entire day a drag. These guys complained about the weather (yes, Sing is hotter than the UK, really, and that will not change), the food (!), the price of beer, and probably other things I have managed to successfully suppress, however, at our evening meal one of my co-tourists said something beyond belief. We were eating at an outdoor restaurant on the waterfront where the meat (steak or fish) was served raw on a ‘hot rock’ and the consumer of such things cooked his or her meat to his or her own individual taste. This chappie looked at his (to my inexperienced eyes) fine piece of meat and said (in essence) ‘this is not cooked, I did not come all this way to cook for myself, my wife cooks for me at home’. Upon my return to my hotel I told my tour guy that I would prefer a new group of people for the following day, any group of people. Yet, I am sure there are lots of really nice English people in the world.

Singapore and Tourism
I first came to Sing three decades ago. A lot has changed since then, I am better looking, slightly taller, and more wittier. Sing has changed also, back then one came for the cheap clothes and shoes, but, to state the obvious, this is no longer the case. Even one of my tour guides confessed that Sing was no longer a haven for cheap shopping, except, he hastened to add, for electronic gadgets. If you are looking for bargains look further north, however, more on this in my next blog entry.

I suspect that tourism is not as important to Sing as it once was. Even though the entire city is still organised to pleasantly extract money from its visitors there is not the same emphasis or importance attached. Sing makes a huge amount of money from its position as one of the world’s big freighter ports, and also from its role as a financial hub, plus general wheeling and dealing. I have no idea of the stats, but I am sure tourism is no longer the big ticket item on the economic agenda. Having said this the Sing government is not abandoning the tourism biz, the opposite in fact, it is making plans to expand the range of touristy things available. Principally, there is a big, big, casino, hotel and shopping (surprise) complex under construction, plus upgrades and expansion of existing facilities. Clearly Sing is sticking with a winner.

After a day or two at looking at an ever increasing number of exhibits, all of which exit into exhibit shops, I gained the impression that the Sing tourism experience is just a little contrived. Evidence for this conclusion came came from one of my guides who told us that every old building was either to be demolished or converted into a museum (or other touristy thing). Everything that can be used for tourism is or will be used. Santosa island, for example, which one reaches via cable car (exciting) consists of a museum displaying Sing’s history (in a rather superficial fashion), plus other diversions (including another ride which carries people up into the air—fun, but just how many of these things are there in the world?). There was nothing intrinsically significant about the island, but for the price of S$60 you can spend four hours there via yet another tour.

I also gained the impression that Sing is trying to corner the market on Asian tourism, or at least stay a step ahead. Signs of this are the increasing number of tours which include aspects of other Asian countries. One can visualise the future slogans, ‘Don’t bother going to China/Malaysia/Cambodia etc., just come to Singapore and see the best of each’! Perhaps in a decade there will be a replica Great Wall of China in Singapore?

One amusing insight into the tourist mindset was provided to me by the Night Zoo Safari—this is a tour through Singapore’s zoo, on a ‘safari’ bus, where one views various Asian animals, at night. There is also a display of Asian cultural activities (dancing, fire eating, dart blowing, and spears). In summary it was great: smoothly managed, and entertaining. I would recommend, but the amusement came from a Perth couple who I later bumped into who had been on this tour and who told me how much they had enjoyed. I immediately asked them ‘Have you been on the Perth zoo night safari?’, to which they replied ‘No’! People will travel 1,000s of kilometres to do things they do not do at home!

In my peregrinations I did visit the backpacker area of Sing. In days past the Sing authorities frowned upon the humble, mendicant, backpacker, but now, possibly because the world tourism biz has belatedly realised that BPs do spend the cash (but over a longer stretch of time) these folk are now welcome. I saw a half dozen or so Backpacker hostels ranging around S$20 (my shipboard pal Christine emailed me to say she found a place at $10 with breakfast!). They all looked neat, clean and tidy (as one would expect in Sing). I did not see a huge number of backpackers, possibly I was there too early in the morning? If you fancy yourself a BP do not cross Sing of your list of countries to visit.

A few more thoughts. You cannot really get lost in Sing, the taxi’s are cheap (S$5–$10 for most trips)—just raise your arm, wait a minute or two, and one will appear (in fact I cannot see how the taxi drivers make a living?), there are also several cheap (S$6–$25 per day) tourist buses continually making their way around the tourist circuit, ready to whisk you where you will. Sing is also a safe city, you can walk anywhere without trouble. One amusing aspect of my travel itinerary was my status as a sole traveller. Personally, I did not find this a problem, there were always people to talk to, both locals (‘where you from’, etc.) and other tourists. However, when going or doing something I was often asked ‘Are you alone?’ with an accompanying look of surprise. Some ticketing people even automatically charged me the price of two tickets. In my time in Sing I found only one other person who I was sure was also enjoying the freedom to travel as you will. Even the intrepid backpackers invariably moved in pairs or groups. Another item of note, the weather, yes it is the tropics, so humidity reins supreme, but it did not seem that bad to me. Also rain, June is the ‘off season’, due apparently to heavy rains. During my stay in Sing there was no rain. The good thing about the off season is the lower prices and the opportunity to get discounted accommodation. I found the hotels reasonably priced. My hotel, the Miramar, was the hotel the freighter crew (officers) stayed at while in port, it was S$100 per day, with a full range of services (4 or 5 star, never checked—enough for my simple needs). Other hotels range both up (towering edifices of stone and steel) and down to worn and small (at around S$50).

I will finish with one last piece of wisdom—Ian’s quick guide to tourist spotting:
English tourists: they ‘come from the nOrth’, complain about the weather, and are 60+ in age.
Americans (USofA) have the best cameras, but don’t talk to anyone else (or at least not to me).
Japanese girls travel in groups of 3–4, photograph everything possible, but one of them must be in each frame.
Australians seem to quietly hang at the periphery of each group and not say much.

On my last day in Sing, I gathered all my possessions, thought of the other things I could do in Sing if I was so inclined, and then headed to the train station for the trip to Kuala Lumpur. My stay in KL will form the subject of my next blog entry.

ps my friend Grant, who is looking after my house, has told me that my cat, the cat I rescued from a life of penury and poverty, cared for, fed, and whose medical bills I have paid, is not pining away during my absence, rather he is happy and frisky, and clearly misses me to the sum of zero.

Here are a two snaps. I did not take many pics in Sing, perhaps I did not find it as interesting as my journey on a freighter?

The first is the ride in the Sing hot air balloon! The second the ride on the cable car to Santosa island. Both were fun.

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