Day 07 leaving KL

Waking at 5.30 is hard. Cyrus has to go to work and I have to leave with him. Neither of us wants to go. By the time we have got outside night is beginning to end, but there is no bus. As usual. In fact hardly any traffic. Finally a taxi. This drops Cyrus at his hotel and takes me on to Pura Central, an airport-like bus station, which looks more efficient than it really is. In spite of my insistence on rock-solid answers, the bus which I had booked, does not leave on time. They wait to see if any latecomers will fill it up. It stops almost as soon as we have crawled out of KlL for some petrol and the driver disappears. I’m already looking at my watch wondering about the likelihood of making my train in Butterworth, again, which I had reserved. After a couple of more stops, a traffic jam which ground us all to a halt for a round an hour and more frantic huffing and anxious staring at my watch we make it to the sprawling transport hub of underpasses, fly-overs, hawker food stalls, abandoned buildings and intense heat of Butterworth. With 10 minutes to spare.

I use my fledgling Malay to get directions, but am met with shrugs and disinterested pointing by the first older guys when they see I’m a foreigner.

Cyrus calls me when I’m at the station worried about my near miss. Worried about my lack of food.

Anyway…and I should have predicted this…the train isn’t even in the station. 30 minutes after schedule a 2 carriage train pulls in, I find my seat and we pull off. It’s more like a rural service, speed-wise, but the rhythm is relaxing. There are no compartments, but pairs of seats either side of an aisle face to face, which convert into 2 bunks, privacy provided by blue curtains. My lower bunk is about 1.5 times the width of the top one and only $2 more. When I finally sleep later on, it’s very comfortable, except for the aisle light which stays on all night. During the ride I read, watch the perfectly planted rows of palm plantations roll by, limestone cliffs and mountains, rice paddies, and begin to chat with 2 French guys, loaded with juggling props who are opposite and next to me. The other guy is Malay and is going to BKK to bulk buy t-shirts to sell back in Malaysia. Half the price in BKK….

The journey is relaxing. For the first time this trip I know I don’t have to move or make any decisions for the next 17 hours.

Crossing the border is very relaxed. Through one office out of Malaysia and through another on the same station into Thailand. Visitors’ visas used to be for 1 month, I notice that now it’s only 2 weeks.

As soon as we enter Thailand the atmosphere of the train changes. There is a whole procession of uniforms….railway police in dark grey with red braid, ticket collectors in smartly ironed white shirts with a buddha hanging from his shirt pocket, a hostess who shows me an on-board menu, a young guy who sweeps the train clean (finally- it was dirty when it left Butterworth) wearing a smart yellow polo, which when only on closer inspection you noticed the red and green trim and the miniscule Bob Marley logo. At the station as we creep into Thailand there is a police officer photographing in detail the train. I’ve heard that there are flashpoints her and it can be dangerous here. Could be this is a security check. There are a group of kids who look hostile, but no stone throwing, as I’d read about.

In spite of no change in latitude the clock go back. 7pm becomes 6pm. It is now dark. Damian (the French guy with 3 diabolos) challenges me to some chess, which to my surprise turns out to be quite even, although I havent played for maybe 15 years. He runs out beating me 2-1 and I eat my meal of soup, rice and 2 veg dishes.

Sleep to the gentle rhythm of the train and Mogwai on the i-pod.

Day 06 – KL

Waking up and keen to go out, but blasting sun at the bus stop at Merdeka Villa and no shade. It takes 40 minutes to arrive. I go to Petaling Jalan and have the veggie buffet meal I’d been longing for since last year, then some soya cincao drink and a pineapple guava juice from the hawkers.
I sit on the steps of a now derelict hotel, which last year had given me a wi-fi signal. I watch the stall holders in action. The guy at the perfume stall trying all his charm in vain to get his products shifted. The teenage boy trying to sell his KL t-shirts to a German family with 4 awkward-looking, too tall teenage girls, who then come and sit on my steps as the rain comes. He bangs his stool with his fist in frustration as they walk away. Business is slow today.
The boy and his stall-holder mate (family? friend?) sense the rain even before it falls and he springs about the stall of t-shirts and minature twin towers to roll down some plastic sheeting. Back under cover he pulls up his t-shirt to pat his fat-less perfect slim stomach, flashes it to the girl who is working with him who pats his ass. She looks too old to be a girlfriend and I ponder their flirtatious relationship. About who they are, their education, their background, but there are no clues.
As the rain persists I seek refuge in the Guandi Temple with its burning incense coils and worshippers buying their offering package of incense sticks and coloured paper to throw in the brick oven in the courtyard. You would think the joss sticks and candles offered at the altars would be left to burn to the end, but there is a cleaner type person systematically stripping the altars and dipping these items in a plastic bucket of water before binning them.
Back at the market I buy reluctantly an umbrella, as there seems no likelihood of an easing up of the rain. later finding out when walking with Cyrus through the park behind the twin towers that it is barely water-tight let alone waterproof.
Cyrus finally meets me inside the mall at 4.30 and we go to the gallery but the exhibition doesn’t grab me: it’s about art and fashion. Cyrus asks me if I understand a painting there and I try to prompt him to ask questions: does it make him feel happy/sad/angry? does it remind him of anything he has seen before? do the colours make him react in any way? does he see shapes or randoms? what are the shapes? would he like it on his wall? does he like it?……
At the mall I think I have found the toilets, and nearly charge in desperate for a relief, ready to open my shorts…but warned at the decisive moment that those are the prayer rooms. The toilets are next door!
We head out to the Thean Hou Temple, which according to Lonely Planet is a monorail ride and brief walk away. The first part is right. The second part is at least 20 minutes along a busy dual carriageway and up a steep hill in extreme humidity. My head is boiling. Smog humidity headache. Getting across town at that time is hell. So many people everyone moving….
The temple is modern and has 5 floors. The ground floor is hosting some kind of contest with teams of young girls wandering around in brightly coloured silk uniforms. Up the steps to the first floor there is some kind of concert. We go up to the temple, which is being renovated and the inner hall is partially hidden by scaffolding. The temple area is empty and we go to the top level of the pagoda, eye-level with the dragons and peacocks on the corners of the roof. We sit shoulder to shoulder and I tell Cyrus about my dream and how scrambled my mind is, and how I don’t know what is out ther or what I may become…maybe a buddhist monk (half in jest). He sits in silence. I know I have affected him and I see a tear drip from his eye. He is scared of losing me, as I am of him. He had told me of his dream of going back to UK to do a masters, but it wouldn’t be in Brighton. This makes me feel lonely too. We walk back to the monorail as dusk settles in furtively hand in hand.
We change the mood and I take him to the Blue Boy Vegetarian Centre, which actually is hidden away under a block of flats, and you would never find unless in the know. We have some vege versions of some typical Malaysian dishes (laksa and fried noodles). Cyrus is impressed that they are so good without the meat. We pick up some fruit which has unnecessarily some spices strewn upon it. Mango, apple, guava. Down comes the rain as we walk through Bukit Bintang, where I’d earlier struggled to find anywhere prepared to sell me Thai Baht, through Pavilion Mall, the poshest one in KL, with an unbelievable display of Christmas decorations, matching the austentatiousness of the shops within. Designer and London prices.
Another long wait in the rain for a very packed bus, which gets stuck in a stream of traffic. When we get back for our last night together for a while I need to pack. Sleep comes quickly but is short……

Day 05.5 Dream KL

I had a very disturbing dream, and Cyrus tells me I cried out in my sleep.

The details now escape me, but they focus around the fact that I have killed someone, a woman, and buried her body in pieces under a building. In the dream there is an investigation and the on-going mood is one of extreme fear that I will be discovered.
My mind is scrambled. I think I have had this dream before. Or, is it a dream that I dreamt it before. Just like in the dream I “know” that I have killed someone. In the dream things get confused but I wake up believing that I have understood everything. That I do not actually “know” if I have killed someone. It could be true and I have just chosen to shut it out of my consciousness, and that only when I dream my sub-conscious becomes active and these memories become knowledge. Isn’t this a common thing with people who suffer trauma? That the shock pushes it out of their active mind. Then I “realize” that this “truth” is not about me now, but of a past me. A previous incarnation. Yes. I wake up and I understand everything. I don’t like my life an who I am and I have failed and lost because of karma from this previous cardinal sin and I am now paying. Can you be convicted and punished for the wrong-doings of your previous “you”?
Buddhism. These are things I have never really considered. Cyrus has left for work by the time I reach these conclusions. Lying for half an hour it all makes sense. I feel I know nothing and what I “think” could be anything but it certainly doesn’t mean it is true. I lost control of my mind then. Or maybe what we usually do is try to control and refuse to explore different ideas and ways of thinking. Denials.

Day 05 – KL

So this blog has fallen by the wayside due to lack of internet, tiredness and distractions, but I’ve been keeping notes in my little book which looks like a Thai passport.

I woke up on day 5 with a headache and the fan in Cyrus’s room makes me feel like I’m inside a washing machine. And it’s hot. I have to sit in the living room and close my eyes. It begins to rain and I can hear it drumming on the tin roofs below.

Cyrus and I deliberate on where to go and settle on the Batu caves, which he has never visited. We don’t get out until 4pm and it’s wet still. The bus we have to get leaves from the centre and immediately it gets stuck in immovable traffic. Later we find out that there is a direct train link there, but it isn’t in the Lonely Planet and it wasn’t there a year a go when I last went there.

This time the enormous 50m statue is cloaked in scaffolding.

Our banana leaf curry at the Indian Veggie restaurant at the foot of the steps going up into the cave temple is cold. Climbing the steps in the rain we are observed by monkeys. Suddenly a scream and I turn round to see a terrified girl retreating from a snarling monkey who has snatched her carrier bag of jasmine flowers intended for a Vishnu statue. He shoots up onto a pillar to eat the flowers.

Inside the cave at the 2 temples it is the time of day for blessings. At the top temple I light a ghee candle and am blessed by a sadu who asks my name then daubs my forehead with a red dot. His friend photographs us. Cyrus is reluctant to enter the temple. At the foot of the hill there are 3 more temples. At one there is a lavish wedding. At the next, which is a new one there stands a towering green statue of the god of health, who is ripping open his hear to show Vishnu and Shiva. In the temple is some kind of informal gathering and eating. A holy man notices me and invites me in to share some food: idli, chick peas, sweet potato, rice. After a bit of persuasion Cyrus joins me to eat. But, we are already full.
Back in KL at the twin towers it is strangely hot at 9pm. We join the throngs of tourists to take some nocturnal illuminated shots of the towers. My camera mists up in the rain and gives some interesting ghostly haloes to the pictures. We have no idea what to do next and walk in circles. Cyrus doesn’t know the city and can’t suggest what we can do. So, we head back to Ampang and spend half an hour at the food court. I’m the only white person there and still have my red dot on my forehead. I have a beer and a lime juice, which turns out to be slices of lemon in iced hot water.

Day 04 Singapore to Kuala Lumpur

Getting the bus from SG to Johor for picking up a bus to KL was easy.  Crossed Singapore island and it’s striking how green and forested it is, just sliced apart by motorway and high rise. On driving out of SG city I realized why there was so much construction work going on: they’re  digging a new underground line. The scale of it is immense and hence the thousands of sub-continental Asians here, hanging out on the streets in Little India at weekends and tired sitting on the streets after work around the construction sites after dark. What else? Far more churches than I would have expected: neo-gothic, like little French churches, but washed in white and paradoxically dwarfed by the new buildings of religion: the malls and finance offices. Money is the new God, and the churches look like toys amongst the new towers of worship.Some tedious customs clearance: on and off the bus twice either side of the causeway, and having to run to make sure the bus driver didn’t leave without me (which he nearly did). On getting to Johor, I switched to a “VIP” bus to KL. Air-con, so cold it made me shiver and upholstered in garish red carpet with flouro yellow flowers, and heavy gold curtains fringed with tassels, more suited to a Persian restaurant.  I was promised 4 hours but precision is not a Malaysian characteristic. Neither was the destination accurate: for KL read city suburbs, which meant a train into the city.

But anyway the journey was a mere £7, and allowed me to compare SG with Malaysia: what immediately strikes you is the lack of refinement: Malaysia is battered grubby and the buildings and towns show no sense of planning or aesthetic. Cheap concrete houses, metres of advertising hoardings for haircuts, car electrics, phone packages, and Malaysian flags. In SG you don’t see this earnest outpouring of patriotism, and the advertising seems to focus on much higher value services and products. Brands, not deals. Lifestyle not products. Much of southern Malaysia seems to be taken up by mile upon mile of palm plantations, dense dark corridors disappearing in the distance between the surprisingly regular and neatly planted 10m tall trees. Muslims are more numerous here, with many women with covered heads getting on the bus.

When I finally make it to KL Sentral Stesen I have to get a new Sim card as my old Malaysian one stupidly was cut off after 3 months. Finally this enables me to make contact with Cyrus and meet him under the twin towers. When He arrives I’m engaged in a conversation with a Malay who now works in Vietnam who wants me to practice English with his cousin. The first thing Cyrus says is some comment about my legs (the red blotches that have now developed), which convinces me to get to a pharmacist and get a different cream.

By the time we get out of the mall we have a torrential downpour, which apparently happens like clockwork at 5 each afternoon. Cyrus lives in Ampang, so we need a bus which takes about 20 minutes to get there. He lives in a suburb, very Malaysian, on the 13th floor of a block with some great views and looking down onto the typical Malay kampong: wooden bungalows with corrugated metal  roofs , and yards with dogs. I’m the only foreign face there. There is a number of security steps some of which seem cosmetic like walking past a gate keeper. The flat is secured by a metal gate prison style and 2 padlock, and that’s before opening the front door. If there was a fire you’d never get out. The flat is bare, simple and has the feel of a store room in the living room, and of a place which isn’t really a home. Dormitory town accommodation. Finally behind closed doors we are able to show our affection for each other. It’s so nice to be together again.

We try to get a bus back to town but after 30 minutes waiting give up and get a cab, which actually in KL isn’t very expensive. We get off at China town, which feels very familiar only a year down the line. We pass the bar where the Burmese boys were working last year, but they seem to have left or been deported… The market is a bit too full on with waiters offering us menus and hawkers pirate DVDS, and stall holders T-shirts and leather goods. Plus the veggie restaurants were closed. I lead Cyrus in the rough direction of Little India where we take on board a huge biryani then have to sit out another downpour. The return bus doesn’t come, as we sit beneath a wet Twin Towers. Taxi once more and back to sleepy Ampang.

Day 03 – Last One in Singapore

Haven’t slept that deeply for a long time: was it the jet-lag or the equatorial fugue after I turned off the air-con? Can never sleep with it on, chilling me, sounding like a fridge too.

Those bites on my calves seem to be similar to what I got in the Cameron Highlands last year. I think it’s some kind of allergic reaction. The anti-histamine is turning them into bright red plague spots. At least they don’t itch, but I’m conscious of something under my skin. I’ll give it one more day before I seek a pharmacist.

Today the sky was blue…for a short time and with it very hot sun. This was what I had expected. That meant I got no further than the Sultan Mosque at the end of our street. Wrapped in an electric blue gown to make my legs more acceptable to the prophet, I spent a cool 30 minutes or so admiring the carpet, the inscriptions and neon score boards.

Keeping to the shade I walked 10 minutes to the Sin Lim Square mall to research camcorder prices. Here I met 2 methods of sale: the first one gave up when I told him my price ceiling, the second, between expecorisations, offered me a better and better deal, telling me that they needed the money to fix the ceiling to the shop and carpet it (better for dropped cameras!). I don’t like pressured sales, and even if the price was really good and there were freebies thrown in, I managed to walk away. I had only wanted to find out prices after all, and certainly needed to shop around.

By now hungry. I found a veggie Chinese restaurant and made the mistake of ordering from the menu instead of taking stuff from the buffet as usual. It turned out disappointing and small and a bit boring (mock chicken fried in oats with mango). Then, the waitress tried to give me another dish of sushi rolls that I hadn’t ordered and she didn’t have the English to understand the situation (luckily a guy at the next table translated for me). At least there was a view: passing shoppers, although all smart and good looking, strange how unassuming and characterless they all look. Got into another confusion over the bill, but walked away finally, still a bit peckish and having spent too much.

The sky was clouding over and the humidity dropping a little. I hopped on a bus for Kent Ridge, my plan being to walk the Southern Ridges and find the crazy bridge I had seen in Lonely Planet.  The ride was long and it transpired that Kent Ridge is a hill  with a large number of Christian schools and a university campus. The terminus at the top of the hill was hot, and there was no obvious place to start a walk, so I bought some water and got on the next bus into town.

In China town I went to the People’s Park Complex. This is the mall and square and court where the Chinese go to eat and shop. The other side of the road on Smith street and Temple Street is where the tourists go.

It’s cleaner, more expensive and not so buzzing. The food court at the People’s Park sells frog stew, pig’s intestine soup, and many other Chinese delights. I got myself some almond pudding (like a milk jelly in a cup), and watched the faces. There were guys in front of department stores demonstrating a new kind of mop, cobblers sitting under umbrellas (it had started to spit) gluing soles and hammering heels, old men playing majong. Great photo subjects.

My next plan was to get among the skyscrapers of the finance district, and jaw-dropping they were. I crossed over to the reclaimed island of Marine Bay and was underneath the building I had seen on the post cards and only glimpsed from the bus. The Marina Bay Hotel: three non-identical, non-vertical towers of 60 or so floors and plonked on top is what looks like a squashed airport fuselage or barrage balloon, which happens to be a sky garden. The shopping mall in front of it was like an immense railway station with its elegant arched curving glazed roof. The hotel itself was even more immense inside. The whole ground floor space being a massive public space with fancy restaurants, a 50m ceiling from which was suspended an Anthony Gormley wire sculpture called “Drift”. The outer walls were beautiful: kinetic surfaces of little metal plates which respond and move and shimmer in the breeze, or to the dribbling stream of water on the side face.

The $20 for the roof-top view was a bit too much, so instead I caught dusk over the bay looking at the finance towers of Citi and Maybank and many other hi-tech edifices, dwarfing the Victorian customs house and the colonial Fullerton Hotel, probably the only survivors of that time on the harbour front. The light was just right and my camera battery lasted just until then to get the picture i had wanted and to see the Singapore we all imagine. In front of the Marina Bay Shoppes is a floating glass pavilion which seems to be a Louis Vuitton showroom. Behind it, flooded with red light and a Cartier logo is the amazing sight of the Science Museum which looks like some giant concrete opening lotus flower. As I reached it I could see a guard of honour of liveried men in red bell-boy hats and jackets and a procession of black-tie-evening-gown couples striding in as if to some film premiere.

The high-tech illuminations on the water didn’t stop there. Next I crossed over the river on the Helix Bridge, which has to be the coolest bridge I’ve ever seen. A graceful enclosed footway with swirling twisting chrome lit with Christmas lights, on each promintory stood on guard a 2.5m reindeer adorned with purple lights. Sounds tacky? not at all.

On the city side of the bay the full scale of the Marina Bay Hotel came into view and it served as the backdrop and platform for a rather half-hearted son et lumiere: Louis Armstrong having all the time in the world as laser beams shot out from the roof of the hotel, the Shoppes roof flashed and glowed a medley of colours and some water jets went whoosh. Walking along back into town among the joggers and families out for an evening stroll i passed in front of the Youth Olympic Park. This is a floating football pitch, an island on the water, overlooked by a single banked tier of terracing on the dry land side. Bizarre. My long trek took me past the Promenade Theatre complex, looking like 2 huge glass durian fruits, the old and new parliament houses and up North Bridge Street. An Indian thali at Funan Square mall, past the awesome Raffles Arcade: amazing colonial housing, the weird art-deco marbled Park View (a hotel?) which looks like something out of Gotham city with its huge statues carrying football like globes of light around the top edge.

A shower was well-needed. Tomorrow is an early start. Another country. And Cyrus.

Day 1 Singapore

After 11 hours on a crowded, and restless Airbus I’m finally in Singapore.

First impressions? Well, the people don’t seem to be interested in you at all, which could be good, but not when you turn up at a B&B and there is nobody there for over 45 minutes. Sleepy Sam’s is on a little street with a huge mosque at the end. I’ve stayed in worse. If it was full I think it would be horrible as I’ve got to walk through the dorm to get to my little cell….

Jet lag isn’t so bad, as it’s evening when I get here so I can go to sleep whenever and not feel like I’ve missed a day. I decided to take a walk to Little India, 10 minutes away. Streets and all outdoor spaces are throbbing and jammed with Indian men in their twenties and thirties, with moustaches and neat shirts with collars. There’s a lively buzz, murmur, like the sea…male voices discussing things of import….No women…so weird. And I’m the only white face around, yet no glances of curiosity, no menace, no calls of “Hey you…” It’s nice to be left alone, but there is a strange feeling of detachment. I hang on to my bag, but have the feeling that this is not a dangerous place. But no police anywhere. I find what I came for: masala dosa and mango lassi, and sit communally in a cheap vege Indian eating place, but still no offers of engagement.

The architecture isn’t dissimilar from Georgetown and KL: colonial Chinese shop houses, but here in better condition, and interspersed with high rise malls, hotels and car parks.

I hang out at a bar on a Chinese food court, drink  beer and see Sunderland go a goal down to Blackburn, the goal scored by some guy with a mask like Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The waitress has a limp, and wears a red Carlsberg dress that looks like it was made from a Liverpool shirt. I hesitate to comment..more indiffernce and going through the motions, like everyone here. Withered wizzened Chinese men in vests with fags in their mouths. I wonder how they spend their days. No smiles. Is anyone happy here?

So much for the letter of the law in Singapore. I see Jaywalking, and soon join in too. I see fag butts strewn on the streets and rubbish everywhere. All the signs are in English but I don’t hear a word spoken other than by tourists, or as courteous replies to my requests for information.

The mouse on this computer works back to front and the keyboard is greasy and sticky, so I’ll end here for now.