An uninhabited swamp until 1819, 227 square mile Singapore, on the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, has more than 5 million residents who speak 54 languages, English being the official one. It is one of the cleanest, most modern cities in the world. Not surprising in a country where chewing gum was once illegal, smoking in public is still illegal (though you wouldn’t know it looking at the sidewalks in parks), and there is a fine if you don’t flush the toilet—I wonder who checks on that. Caning is still a punishment for some offenses, which is hard to reconcile with such an ultramodern city.
But the charm lies not in the new, but in the older sections such as Chinatown and the Arab and Muslim areas, as well as the famed hotel Raffles. We wandered the photogenic streets and alleyways of Chinatown prior to lunch at a little restaurant on aptly named Food Street. In the past, we’ve eaten at one of the Hawker food courts, but on a hot, humid day, a rare air-conditioned eatery that served dim sum seemed just right. And while the others enjoyed their lunch, I was happy to have a plate of the Singapore noodles I prefer here.
Back to the ship for a rest before venturing out to another Peking Duck dinner. The taxi driver didn’t like our choice, saying it was far from the ship, a long, expensive ride, and taxis would be hard to find after dinner. He wanted us to enjoy our dinner without worrying about missing the ship (which he hadn’t done until then). Instead, he suggested a restaurant in the hotel five minutes from the ship, also known for Peking Duck, and he deposited us there instead. After entering the lobby which was also connected to a massive luxury mall sporting an artificial river complete with small boats in it, we were baffled which way to turn, when our driver came running up to us with the exact location of the restaurant written out for us. Best cab driver ever, and they don’t take tips here—probably punishable by a fine!
The restaurant was at the top level of the atrium style building, and as I looked over the half wall, I told Elton I was looking down at the largest, busiest food court I’d ever seen, wall to wall large oval green tables, all filled with people. Oops, turns out I was looking down at a casino, a very, very busy one. Oh, well.
Tables at the Imperial Treasure restaurant, like others in Asia are set for three or five, never four, which represents death. The beautifully presented, delicious duck, was not quite as tender as the previous one in Hong Kong—we are becoming overly picky about our ducks–but not a scrap was left behind. Still hot and humid outside, we took a stroll in the mall of ultra expensive, fancy shops—and made a purchase: black shoelaces for Elton—one lace had broken on his dress shoes.
That was April 4th, and the following day, we were in Malacca (or Melaka), Malaysia. Its strategic location on the spice trade route was important to its existence since it has no natural resources. From the ship one sees only a few tall buildings in the distance, and it has a bit of a look of a place time has left behind. As this was the second of three hot, humid consecutive days ashore, and the mile-long walk into town would be on bumpy roads with traffic impervious to those crossing streets, Elton opted to stay on board, and I wandered into town.
The fun way to get around is on tri-shaws were available, bicycles attached to the sides of carts of the sort used in rickshaws, and these look like they were made for Disneyland! When I am able, I will send a photo, because words alone cannot describe these ‘vehicles’ covered with big stuffed animals attached to the fronts, seats and tops—Hello Kitty, Minions, Disney characters, and streamers, artificial flowers, giant butterfly wings flapping over some tops, all sorts of shiny objects—and to top it off, they are all blaring loud music from boom-boxes unless you beg them to turn it lower.
I walked up and down the famous Jonker Street that supposedly had wonderful antique stores, but in reality, it had more of a flea market feel. The one that said Antique Paintings and Art Supplies, of course was closed. There were shops selling traditional clothing, souvenirs, toys, some cafes, and occasionally one was air-conditioned which warranted a quick reviving visit, no matter what it sold.
Every so often a putrid odor wafted through the air—rotting food or sewage, I couldn’t tell which it was. And then I discovered the source—Durian. I had heard about this large, ugly green fruit that is illegal to bring onto public transportation in Singapore, had seen in the past before I knew what it was, but had never before smelled it. The smells were coming from fruit stands and, of all places, ice cream stands that sell Durian flavor. I was not even tempted to try it.
After a colorful few hours on shore, a hot shower to remove any Durian smells that might have clung to me, and it was time for the evening’s entertainment of the most remarkable acrobats—she did a one arm hand-stand on his head while he was sitting, and then he stood up with her still balancing there—on a moving ship. We intended to try this, but I couldn’t remember which arm to use, so we abandoned the effort!
Onto our next port, Gerogetown, the capitol of the island of Penang, Malaysia. We had hired a guide for the day—King Bee Chen, his given name so he claims. And spending a day with King Bee proved to be most interesting. His vehicle was an air-conditioned van complete with a driver–Score one for the King! We visited an elaborately gaudy Thai Buddhist Temple with a Reclining Buddha, and an equally gaudy and gilded Burmese one across the street. The Thai temple is older but has more land area, so the Burmese made certain their temple would be taller! One building at the Burmese compound was the monks’ living quarters, and their laundry, consisting of socks and various lengths of orange and rust color fabrics, were hanging on clothes lines.
Lunch was at King’s favorite ‘Zim Sum’ (as it’s called here) food court, one only frequented by locals. As happened in Shanghai, a table magically cleared for five of us, and a waitress approached with glasses and bowls of various colored liquids to drink, leaving her disappointed we preferred tea and sodas. On one side of the massive hall was a long counter brimming with plates, bowls, covered baskets, and trays of every sort of ‘zim sum’ imaginable. One takes a tray, points to your choices, and the next thing you know, it is filled with aromatic little plates and bowls. I am not ashamed to admit that since I could not finish all I selected (the weather was too hot to eat much), I had the remains packed into little baggies I took back to the ship for my dinner. The cost of lunch for five people, a total of 16 or 17 dishes came to $15 US!
Following lunch, a ride out to see fishing boats was a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Passing beautiful beaches, King Bee pointed out a small Hindu temple on one of them. The huge tsunami several years ago that killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia, had also hit the beaches on this side of Penang. It was a weekend day and Hindu families were enjoying the beach when suddenly the water receded. The people were at first happily excited and ran out to gather up the grounded fish to take home for dinner. Then the wave roared in and 67 died, many never recovered. King Bee had been at work when the tsunami struck and thought the noise was from thunder.
He told another story which possibly has some apocryphal aspects to it, of a baby on a mattress who was sleeping when the first wave rolled out, taking the child with it. When the wave rolled back in, the mattress returned with the baby, still sleeping, safe and sound. She’s considered a miracle child, and all her private schooling, including college, is paid for by the government.
Of the 740,000 residents, most live in the capital, which is 90% Chinese. Ethnic groups including Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems and Christians live in their own neighborhoods with their own schools. King Bee also pointed out the island once had a few dozen Jewish people, but the last one died in June, 2013—he mentioned it like he was talking about the last of a vanishing species. People get along with one another but certain unwritten rules are respected. This became apparent during our visit to the afternoon ‘wet’ market, and the floor in the area with the morning’s fish catch was quite wet. There were the usual rows of fruits and vegetables, and in one corner, an area was set apart by cardboard walls. That was the Moslem Halal meat area, and only Moslems go in there—just something other people know they cannot do.
Returning to the ship we passed an area on the water of Clan Jetty houses. These are homes and warehouses built at least a hundred years on stilts over the water. Storefronts face the road. In the past they were owned by various Chinese families who controlled waterfront crime, and if a person from one family walked onto another’s jetty, they became fish food. While today there are little coffeehouses and shops in some of the street-facing buildings to service the tourist trade, one cannot walk into the ‘neighborhoods’ where 2000 members of the Lim and Chew clans still live. In response to being asked if they still engage in illegal activity, King Bee said ‘One never knows.” And with that we parted from King Bee and sailed toward Colombo, Sri Lanka, our final Asian port.
I would much rather tell you about our Trivia-playing friends who took a 4 hour bus ride each way to Kandy to see one of Buddha’s teeth (it’s kept in a small casket so you have to have faith it is there). At a typical Sri Lankan lunch, Paula found a cooked chicken head on her plate, and Bill had a bowl of snake curry. Our neighbors across the corridor took a white-knuckle ride in a little tuk-tuk taxi that resembles a tin can and is probably no stronger than that– and saw a snake charmer whose snake might end up in the man’s soup bowl by dinner.
A day with snakes, both alive and served as dinner could actually have been preferable to our tour, the highlight of which was—returning to the ship!! Our tour of the city of Colombo in 96 degree heat started out on a bus with no working air-conditioning, and after a near-riot from the passengers, a replacement bus arrive. And this was before we’d even left the port. There were some interesting sights—temples, mosques, colonial era buildings, partially visible through the dirt- streaked windows as the bus sped past. And the bus did speed and weave as much as possible in bumper-to-bumper traffic where cars, tuk-tuks, busses and trucks often drive on which ever side of the narrow roads suit their fancy.
We saw none of the gemstones, exotic spices or elephants for which Sri Lanka is famous, but a stop at the National Museum boasted a women’s bathroom with the following two signs: “Please do not wash Feet;” and “Sit like a Lady!” A gift shop (nothing interesting) attached to a coffee shop with Wi-Fi kept Elton happily entertained while I trudged through a hot cobbled courtyard to the museum proper. A guard in each gallery sat in front of the only fan. I rushed through due to the heat, passing statuary of Buddhas, elephants, and some rusty jewelry, but one area in particular was quite humorous—a display of urinals used by Buddhist Monks. Looking like stone doormats with foot shaped rises where one stood in the direction of an appropriately placed hole, there were designs carved into them. A placard on the wall sang the virtues of how the monks valued sanitation. These particular stones belonged to country monks who chose a sparse, ascetic life, and the designs on the stones showed contempt for comfort-loving city monks. I have nothing else to add to that!
After the A/C on the second bus stopped working while we were at a Buddhist shrine, we spent another fifteen minutes on it before we could meet yet another replacement bus. Somehow it came back on as 40 wilted people could think of only one thing–showers and cold drinks on the ship.
Looking back at Colombo from the comfort of the ship, it is an old, tired city being torn apart with dozens of construction sites and cranes dotting the skyline. Signs around the sites boast luxury hotel/condo/shopping complexes being erected—Ritz Carlton and Shangri-La among them. A huge hotel/shopping complex is going up near the pier. How the obviously wealthy residents of the buildings will access them in the congested roads where people drive on whatever side of the narrow roads these choose, I can’t imagine. Our guide said that the goal for Colombo not only to compete with, but surpass, Singapore, seems unrealistic.
Yet one never knows since, as in all the places we’ve visited since Shanghai, almost all the building projects are being done by the Chinese. It seems like these places are all pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle they are piecing together. Marvelous cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong are the corner pieces, cities like Xiamen, Penang, and Colombo are going to be fitted together easily, and small places like Malacca are those annoying little one color pieces that take a while to put into the puzzle. The Chinese think in the long-term and are very patient, and if they were to assemble the puzzle now, one piece would still be missing, the same one we missed on this World Cruise, and that is Taiwan!
Today we are off the coast of Somalia in pirate territory. Though not visible to us, Coast Guard boats from the US and Great Britain are sailing nearby, and we have been given instructions in what to do should a pirate boat approach! As I’ve said many times, this is an adventure!
Our next report will be from Africa after our safari!
Elton and Susan