One more step along the world I go

This is what I wrote at the airport:

So here I am at Singapore Changi Airport, waiting to board my flight to Melbourne and to the next part of my journey. It’s been a varied and fascinating two months, I’ve done things and reacted to events in ways that have surprised me, and I’ve had all sorts of experiences. I’ve learned Scuba dive, to cook Burmese food, to ride a moped, to teach English and to eat dhal with my hands. I’ve had a go at working with people with special needs, refugees and homeless people. I’ve taken lots of trains, eaten all kinds of food, met people from all over the world and experienced the distinct cultures of four very different countries.

The trip I’ve done has ended up being very different from what I originally envisaged in almost every sense; the location, the company, the activities, and I am grateful that things turned out the way they did. One of the unexpected joys for me over this trip has been the realisation that, not only am I capable of travelling alone without panicking or being too organised, but I actually really enjoy it. Turns out I’m actually a pretty good travelling companion.

I’ll be taking a bit of a break now while I set myself up in Melbourne and get used to real life again, but I’ve got some travels planned and I’ll be blogging again in a few weeks time.

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Singapore: it’s clean

After two days in Melaka, I had planned to get the train to Singapore early, at 6:30am, in order to enjoy the afternoon in my final stop before heading to Australia. However, given how long it took me to get from the train station to Melaka when I arrived, and that a taxi would be very expensive at that time in the morning, I ended up getting the train from Tampin at 3:30pm.

The journey took just under five hours and the train was comfortable with a café carriage and an air conditioned superior class. I was in standard class which had no a/c but it was perfectly fine; it had the colourful patterned seats that remind me of old buses, and wasn’t busy at all. Outside the railway looked well maintained and most of the line had steep embankments and high fences; it could hardly be more different to the first train I got on this trip, the night train in Myanmar where there were no barriers at all and people lived and walked right alongside the track. I didn’t plan it this way but on this trip I feel like I travelled progressively forwards in terms of economic development, infrastructure and general wealth, ending in the affluent and confident Singapore. The train itself actually ended to Johor Bahru, just across the water from Singapore, and from there I got a shuttle train across the Woodlands Crossing Bridge, a bus to the MRT underground station, and then a train to downtown Singapore and my hostel.

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Train to Johor Bahru

The most common description of Singapore that I’ve heard is that it’s ‘clean’, and that’s certainly true, at least in the Downtown area; it’s not just that there’s no rubbish or chewing gum on the streets, but the buildings are neat and tidy and the bus stops, bins and street lamps are all functioning and well-maintained. The people are well-dressed and there were no crowds and a feeling of space, even in busy areas, which made it feel like I was walking around in one of those artist’s impression pictures of new public spaces. I had thought it might be surreal or a bit creepy but it was actually very pleasant, although the people in the business district did walk around with the same glazed, no-eye-contact expression as you see in London.

Just like Melaka, Singapore’s Chinatown is an important cultural focal point of the city, and is also a hub for nightlife, with a variety of roof-top bars and trendy hotspots with London prices. It’s also a great (and more affordable) place to eat with hawker centres, the Singaporean regulated equivalent of street food, selling mostly Chinese food but also Indian and Malay dishes. It was in one of these that I got some dimsum, some greenish doughballs that I assumed were filled with meat. I enthusiastically dipped it in soy sauce and took a bite, and realised it was sweet and filled with bright green jam goo. Soy sauce was a mistake.

I spent my first morning looking around the colonial quarter, including the former parliament building and the famous Raffles Hotel, birthplace of the Singapore Sling. These old buildings are all in excellent condition and many have been sympathetically updated with ultra-modern additions, in a similar vein to many of London’s old buildings. I think the fact that these buildings aren’t preserved in their exact original state as museum pieces, but allowed to evolve and change with the times lends a sense of continuity to the city, which was perhaps missing in other cities I’ve visited on this trip. It even made me feel like there was a sense of pride in Singapore’s colonial history, which was almost enough to nullify my post-colonial embarrassment; the urge to apologise personally, on behalf of my country of several hundred years ago, for the events of colonialism.

Of course, as well as colonial period architecture, Singapore has plenty of skyscrapers and modern buildings, some of which are verging on the ridiculous. A highlight is the designer shopping centre with an ice rink and a gondola lake/swimming pool, opposite the Marina Bay Sands, a gigantic hotel formed of three 55-storey towers with what looks like a submarine balanced across the top of them. Next door is Gardens by the Bay, a nature park with Eden Project-type eco-domes and huge vertical garden towers, as well as some lovely gardens and a lake.

Another outdoor attraction that I enjoyed was the Southern Ridges, a 9km trail to the southwest of downtown, which passed through botanical gardens, rainforest parks and a University campus. Canopy walks and modern bridges connect the different parks together and there were some lovely views of the south coast of the island. The trail ends at Mount Faber Park, from where I planned to cross the water to the beach resort island of Sentosa but, as I had been warned, the heavens opened in the afternoon and it was decidedly not beach weather.

As I headed to the airport on the MRT in rush hour, I caught a glimpse of how genuinely polite Singaporeans are. Brits like to think of ourselves as being ruled by politeness, but we’ll still push our way onto a busy tube, we’ll just look apologetic as we do it; we’ll still tut at the tourist with the huge rucksack who dares to travel at peak time, we just won’t actually say anything. In Singapore, however, once the train was at a certain capacity everyone seemed to silently agree that this was as full as it could get without anyone’s personal space being invaded; when people got off, the same number got on and anyone else waiting on the platform cheerfully waited for the next train. It was a fascinating view of community telepathy and it made me think that, despite the rain, Singapore is probably a very nice place to live.