Singapore was the first stop in a two week mini tour of Malaysia. I knew from my expat friends and hosts that for the next three nights the weather was going to be warm and humid. However this mental knowledge did not fully prepare me for the assault my body was subject to on leaving the beautifully air conditioned Changi Airport. I guess heat is relative, and this heat was nothing that I could relate to in the UK and I was happy to find myself within the cold shelter of a taxi in only a few minutes. Despite that, the sweat had already broken. Within a few minutes of dropping our bags at my friends’ condo, we found our selves over at the local hawker centre on Old Airport Road. For the second time in an hour, my senses were on high alert as this food court was full of amazing local food, with a taste and smell that would quickly become my staple diet for the next two weeks. As with the weather, when they say it’s hot, they mean HOT. Another friend of mine who had visited previously told me to ‘go brave’ at the hawker centre, which basically meant, try some fried feet, or stomach. Maybe I just wanted to acclimatise, or maybe I’m a wimp, but I passed on such delicacies for the time being, and stuck to a dish that would not have been out of place served at my local Chinese in East London.
A night struggling with jet lag soon saw the arrival of dawn, and once my friends had gone off to work, we headed back over to the hawker centre for some breakfast. Fried chicken and noodles for dinner is one thing, but it was going to take a while to get used to having it for breakfast as well. Our friends being accustomed to having guests stay and explore Singapore for a few days had some metro cards for us, and so we popped down to the nearest station to get catch a train into the city centre. There were two notable things about this metro. One, was the icey temperature that the air-con was pumping out, and two the cleanliness of both the stations and the trains. I hope Mr Boris Johnson visits before the London Olympics so he can see what an underground urban train system really looks like. We exited the metro to find that the temperature was now boiling, and being a blue eyed blond, I was already seeking out shade, but we both resigned ourselves to the fact that we would become sweaty messes and so started to explore.
The humidity and heat haze do not actually make Singapore a great place for photography, certainly for any long distance shots. A trip to the roof of the new $4.5bn Sands Marina Bay casino and hotel did offer great views for the tourist, but little opportunity for decent photos. Although I must admit, the infinity pool that was part of the hotel did look spectacular, and I’m sure coming up here at night would also offer some amazing views. So from here we decided to make a beeline to Chinatown and as the sun went down, the prospect for good photos went up. Located in Chinatown is one of Singapore’s most interesting temples. The Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple is adorned with many colourful characters, inside and out, with the gopuram (tower) being the most visible creation. It’s in these local districts that you see a different side to Singapore which is not all just glass and concrete skyscrappers as many people think. As would become a trend during this trip, local street markets soon offered themselves to be photographed accompanied by plenty of offers for tailored suits, and ‘quality’ cameras from local stall owners who thrive on Western tourism.
Some good advice from our hosts saw us taking the bus to Changi village, and then a bumboat over to Pulau Ubin. It’s said that visiting this island is like stepping back in time as it’s here you can glimpse one of the last visions of how Singapore would have looked like back in the 1960s. There’s not much from the modern world to be found here, and let’s hope it stays that way. Once we’d transfered to this small island we’d quickly secured a couple of hire bikes, water and a sense of adventure. I had taken my friends advice though, and upgraded to a superior bike for a whopping SD$15 (£7) which afforded me the luxury of both front, and back brakes. We hadn’t actually cycled more than 20 metres before we were off the bikes and snapping away at shrines, and wildlife. It was probably at this point that the mosquitoes saw fresh lunch, and started their feast as by nightfall my legs were bitten to hell. As I’ve mentioned before it was hot, so cycling around with a backpack full of water bottles, sunscreen and camera gear in the midday sun was perhaps not the best idea on paper, but the experience was very much worth it. This was like a tropical safari tour on bikes where the local wildlife and human population stared at us in equal measure whilst a couple of telephoto lenses stared back. After we’d returned the bikes we took the wise decision to sit down and get some much needed fluid, which in this case took the form of fresh coconut juice.
For some Singapore is just too clean and modern, but if you look in the right places, you will find a deeper history. Certainly places like Raffles Hotel are full of colonial interest and I found it hard not to be impressed with the place. One thing is certain, and that’s Singapore is a great base from which to explore further parts of South East Asia, helped by the good, cheap, but very often late, budget airline, AirAsia. And so, it was quickly enough, that we found ourselves heading over to the huge island of Borneo, and to Kota Kinabalu.