Singapore, February 25th-28thDusk fell as I arrived in Singapore aboard a high speed ferry from the Indonesian island of Batam, which was as far as my plane had taken me. I was greeted by a high rise skyline a world apart from that of Indonesia. Singapore is the world's busiest port and cargo boats constantly cut through the choppy South China Sea; I watched the aptly named Ocean Dragon sweep by in front of us as the ferry came in to dock at the World Trade Centre. I had arrived in mainland Asia.
From here on the journey will continue overland, and with a little luck take me across Asia and Europe to France, where a mere twenty two miles by hovercraft will bring me finally back to the UK.
Night fell and as I loaded up the bike, an old character wandered over. In a friendly manner, he introduced himself as Poh. He too had cycled up to Malaysia 'many years ago.' He explained how to get into the city centre, managing to convey what seemed like a straight forward route into a confusing set of instructions! Needing some time to absorb his scribbles, I sampled my first Singaporian 'cuisine' at a supermarket in the mall: some delicious freshly-made noodles and spring rolls, before setting off into the night towards the city lights...
High rise buildings, enormous banner advertising, immaculately clean streets, Singapore is unlike anywhere I have been. Marvelling at the skyline, I cycled with my head craned up through Chinatown, the Central Business District, and on to the bustling Orchard Road, in search of an internet cafe, to get an address of a contact for a bed for the night. I was dismayed to find that the 'hotmail' network was down.
I chatted to a friendly janitor, Zeinal, who I had found to look after my bike. He talked about the state of the economy, life in Singapore and putting his children through college. I was to find that during my short stay in Singapore that everyone speaks good English and has an understanding of business, from whatever walk of life they come. Aspirations of success and a grasp of what is going on in the society economically, seems to be a Singaporean trait. He pointed out the lack of space as much of the city is reclaimed land; in Malaysia one might have a small plot of land to grow fruit and be a little self sufficient, but not here. Thus everything costs money: you have to work to live. But balancing this against the safety of the city for his children and the standard of living, Zeinal felt it was worth it. Nevertheless his recomendation of a hostel was not quite as I had hoped for!
The mattress I Iay my head on that first night was a paltry 2cms thick. I was on the seventh floor of a run-down hostel in the backpacker part of town. Gladly I left it the following morning for a more homely place which shared the same road name as Singapore's colonial showpiece, Raffles Hotel, if not its opulence. I was politely turned away by the porters when I came closer to inspect this building steeped in history! Having jettisoned all clothes save a t-shirt, shorts and sarong, city dress code came as something of a shock... Suddenly, I was back in a western environment, and in one of the most commercial cities in Asia.
Singapore gave me the opportunity to service the Psion and free it from all the dust and grime that had accumulated over the last few months of travel. Adrian put in a new keyboard and after giving it a complete service, it was running as new. I was also able to successfully test out my new mobile phone, the hot off the factory floor, Ericsson I-888 World! But problems with the IBM server, which allows me to use local numbers to keep costs down when sending and receiving emails, meant my 'mobile communications unit' had been out of action for a couple of weeks. The web site was falling behind and I was made to realise how much I rely on this luxury kit. It has made me realise the importance of keeping a list of internet cafes in the countries ahead, where Vodaphone does not operate. Thanks to Adrian's help at Psion, Singapore, computer guru Struan of NewsNow and the people at IBM net, coordinated from Dorset by 'homebase,' the problem was resolved within a couple of days. Again, I have Security Despatch to thank for sending out important parcels to me, so willingly, from 'homebase.'
With the redevelopment of Singapore, in its effort to modernise, many memories of its rich architectural past have sadly been replaced by these awesome, though somewhat sterile, high rise buildings, brimming with banks, offices and apartments. But there is now a heritage program that protects the exteriors of the remaining old buildings, behind which are yet more offices and trendy restaurants. Building goes on around the clock, skeleton frameworks loom on the horizon, rising higher and higher by the day. Dual carriageways feed business men into these gleaming high-rise towers, and again I was struck by the differences between Singapore and Indonesia. No chewing gum, no jay walking and above all, no spitting!
I met up once more with Tammy 'Whatever!' Freiheit, who always seems to have, as the Indonesians would say, a 'schedule.' She took me on guided tour of another of Singapore's new miracles: the Mall! Gliding effortlessly around these mega-structures, I followed wide-eyed in her wake. A Toronto resident, Tammy seemed to have a mystical in-built knowledge of the mall layout and led me down neon corridors, interconnecting escalators and across vast marble halls into the natural daylight again...
That evening we set off in pursuit of the area known as 'Little India', and the 'cacophony of colours' which the official Singapore tourist guide had promised. We peered into shops filled with silks, saris and gold sellers, food filled shops and sellers of jasmine garlands. The smell of curries filled the air and stalls were lined with Hindu offerings of flowers and candles. After a fine meal, (did we stand out using our fork and spoon whilst everyone tucked in with their hands?) we wandered through the streets, amongst the trishaws which manouevred boldly through the human traffic. Little India had given me my first micro taste of the India to come, way up along the road.
Food is clearly a very serious matter in this city. The food halls, often deep in the heart of the malls, are brimming with dishes from around both Asia and the rest of the world. For as little as a few Sing Dollars (around £1), a huge and tasty bowl of prawn and noodles can be bought, or a platter of Indian food, or a creamy Thai curry, or...The list goes on and on, the only real question is what to try next. Finding my way into the main market in Chinatown, yet more stalls were squeezed in side by side, each offering its own speciality or rendition of a favourite. Food is of great importance to the Singaporians, and in that way I definitely felt very much at home...
Moving out of my humble backpacker dorm, I was invited to stay the night with Reggie Chew (MD of Euro RSCG Singapore) and his family, on the East side. The perfect hosts, I was treated to fresh towels, a clean T shirt and even a new toothbrush and toothpaste! In the evening we went to a little gathering for drinks where, amongst others, I met Sarah and Andrea, fresh from Uni and out working in Singapore from the UK. The following day, Reggie and I went out for lunch to a delicious prawn soup restaurant, packed with people and energy. Reggie is a busy man and Reggie's mobile rings systematically every few minutes... Deftly, he flicks it open and shut; I noticed the Nokia emblem was worn down through constant use...We chatted and I told him about the ride and what it meant to me. We talked about the crisis in Indonesia; how the country's super rich (wealthy enough to charter Boeings to bring friends over for the weekend) were mistreating the country's funds, leaving their people to go hungry. The Indonesians are a very peaceful people, who have simple wishes and hold their families in the highest esteem. The fact that they had been forced to turn to violence was all the more tragic. I was reminded of a saying which one Balinese living on Batam had told me: 'Hunger is anger, anger is hunger'.
That evening we went out for supper en famille, even the youngest and tiniest son whom he doted over came along too. Again the meal was outstanding. Plate upon plate arrived, the showpiece being two Shri Lankan crabs, each a hefty two kilos...It was the last couple of days of the Chinese New Year (Year of the Rabbit, accounting for the many larger than life rabbits around town) and we ceremoniously mixed the food up, high in the air with our chopsticks to ring in a prosperous year. I would like to thank Reggie and his family for all their kindness and for making me feel so much at home.
I would also like to say a huge thank you to all those at Euro RSCG Singapore who were so friendly and accomodating, and particularly the pommie Sydney resident and bossman, Tom Moult, for coordinating all this help. The advertising agency are allowing me to use their offices, throughout Asia, to send and receive mail, and gather my thoughts. At their head quarters in the CBD, I was shown to an office, (which I shared with Flash and Ram, in creative) with access to the internet. There I whiled away the daylight hours catching up with emails, writing some articles and planning the next 'leg' of the journey. For a few days I became a regular to the office, trundling in with my shorts and T shirt amid the high powered advertising execs.
Earlier in the week, I had been contacted by Wendy Chan, part of a cycle group called Bike Aid (Singapore). Wendy trawls the net regularly with her portible Toshiba 'Libretto', and had pinpointed the site when it was in a Yahoo selection; by chance, I was in Singapore when she emailed me. Both a professional photographer and proud owner of a gleaming Chas Roberts custom-made mountain bike (with hyperlight parts), she had arranged for the club's regular Sunday outing to replot its route and accompany me over the Singapore/Malay border. I spent the following night at her house and we spent the evening discussing subjects as diverse as lightweight bike parts(!), the array of technology that floods the Singapore market, photography, movies and music before crashing for an early start the next day.
The next morning I met Bike Aid, a bunch of avid bike fanatics who organise fund raising events through sponsored rides, raising some serious cash in the process. One of their schemes which particularly impressed me was the reconditioning of old bikes for kids in Thailand to ride. At the arranged rendezvous I met Rama, John and Mike, each standing proudly by their steeds.
It had been a short but sweet visit to this small country, and I was left
with memories of delicious food, a very welcoming people and a spotless,
safe city with a dramatic skyline. Together we rode off, across the
Singapore border, over the bridge which connects it to the mainland and
towards Jahore Bharu, first port of call in MALAYSIA...