Travel Adventure in Southeast Asia

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A Savannah Girl's 10 Day Journey
in Southeast Asia

by Katherine Rachel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“PLEASE be aware that Singapore is a country of strict legislation. You are expected to know the laws before arriving. The penalty for trafficking drugs is punishable by death,” the pilot announced when we began our descent after an 18-hour direct flight from New York.

While I was still reeling from the severity of his words, the passenger next to me added to my chagrin, “Littering is a fine of up to S$1,000 (US$650) and no smoking in public spaces! The police wear plain clothes to catch offenders unaware. Chewing gum used to be banned too, right up till Jan 2005!”

Thank God, I had quit smoking two years ago. And what was that about chewing gum, I wondered. I felt stupid not reading up on the laws before. It was not that I did not do sufficient research on the things to do, what to see and eat. I had it all planned. After wowing all my friends and colleagues telling them how I would storm Southeast Asia all on my own, it seemed foolish now that I had overlooked the basics that could get me into serious trouble. Hopefully, nothing would go wrong.

My holiday plans were to spend an initial three days exploring Singapore and finish with a four-day-three-night-cruise on the Superstar Virgo to Phuket (Thailand) and Langkawi (Malaysia).

The biggest enticement was the advantageous exchange rate of our strong US currency in all of South East Asia. Everything would become cheaper and cheaper as I traveled, from Singapore, to Malaysia, and finally, Thailand.

Singapore is often mistakenly thought to be part of China, or Vietnam, but it is an independent nation no larger than Austin, Texas (or 682 square km), and with a population of about 4 million. Commercial skyscrapers and residential homes expanding vertically are the norm. The average household lives in 30-storey flats housing approximately 180 apartments, or ‘pigeon holes’, as the locals call them.

Geographically situated at the tip of Malaysia just above the equator, and surrounded by Indonesia, the climate is warm, humid, with no natural disasters, not even the tsunamis, thanks to the protective circumvention of the two neighboring countries.

I stayed in a hostel in Singapore’s Chinatown, where the rates went from S$55 (USD 35) per night for a standard double room. The location is ideal, near the Outram Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train station, where the two (and only two!), cross-directional, train lines by-pass as they run across the entire island.

Turned out it was a good choice for I got to the Geylang red-light district, Orchard Road, Esplanade, Little India, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo and Night Safari with apparent ease over the next 3 days.

Yes, on my first night, I went to the red-light district. Not so to satisfy some nocturnal biological desires, but to delight my palate for tropical fruit tasting. I tried Durian, declared as the ‘King’ of tropical fruits; and its counterpart, the Mangosteen, the ‘Queen’. Apparently, the two fruits go hand in hand. The locals teach me that you start with Durian and end with Mangosteen to wash down the strong after-taste of the former.

I didn’t think I liked Durian when I first smelled it. It reminded me of bad eggs. And the fruit had a green, thorny outer shell, which looked suspiciously poisonous. But the locals convinced me to put one seed in my mouth, and I was pleasantly surprised by the soft, yellow flesh of the fruit melting on my tongue with a bittersweet taste. It was awesome!

The oddest part was that after my first savory encounter, the fruit no longer smelled bad! My olfactory lobes were somehow altered and my brain registered the fruit’s smell as gorgeous. That was bizarre! The locals gave me a knowing look, as though they had all gone through the same transformation before!

I was going to bring some back to the hostel, but the fruit seller warned me that it was not allowed on public transports. Apparently, it is a forbidden fruit in most enclosed places because of its pungent smell. There were fines for that! Gosh.

The next day, I took the Northeast line train to Orchard station. Orchard road is a shopper’s paradise with about three miles’ worth of shopping centers, plazas, and buildings selling anything and everything, from branded merchandise to local knickknacks. You just need the stamina to search out what you want. I gave up after 2 hours of walking and window-shopping, both above ground and underground, and following the trail of more than three train stations, from Orchard to Dhobi Ghaut.

From Dhobi Ghaut station, I took the train to the Esplanade station.

Esplanade is an impressive, concert theatre comprising a 1,600-seat concert hall, a 2,000-seat theatre and several recital rooms, theatre and rehearsal studios, as well as outdoor performing spaces. Located at the waterfront overlooking Marina Bay, its most distinctive characteristics lie in the numerous green, prickly flaps spanning two, huge dome-shaped roofs that looked oddly like the shell of the Durian fruit.

Later, I found out that if you got into a taxi and told the driver to bring you to ‘the Durian’, he would understand what you meant! It was a native joke to nickname the multi-million dollar complex after their favorite fruit.

My last stop that day was Little India station. Little India, as its name suggests, is a miniature version of a town in India. I was there in the evening, when the entire place bustles with swarthy Indian and Bengali nationals. There are so many of them that driving your car through the roads is almost impossible. Drivers are usually warned to divert from the area before sunset as the men gather daily after work and stand chatting both on and off the roads with no regard to traffic. I thought there must have been at least 2000-3000 people packed like sardines in a space of half a football stadium. Interestingly, many of the young men were holding hands and strolling, but I was told they were not gay. It was their culture for men friends to hold hands while walking!

Somehow, I managed to squeeze out of the jostling crowd and find my way to the spice market where the aroma of turmeric, curry powders, ginger, onions, garlic and other unidentified seasonings met my nose. Various quaint, ethnic objects were also peddled, though none caught my eye. Perhaps I was too tired to shop anymore, or the smell of the unusual spices made me nauseous, but I decided to call it a day.

The following day, I visited the Jurong Bird Park. It holds an extremely wide collection of feathered friends, housing over 9000 birds of 600 species, not limited to tropical ones. The most impressive of which was where I had my lunch in the park’s renowned restaurant, The Lodge on Flamingo Lake, while gazing at one thousand and one flamingoes enjoying their leisurely lives, one leg at a time!

I was also amazed at the park’s effort to re-create an environment from the Antarctic so that a school of penguins could live unaffected by the external tropical climate. The walk-in Waterfall Aviary was the largest in the world with more than 1,500 free-flying birds from over 60 species, but the humidity hit me in less than an hour and I found myself turning back to get out. Still, I managed to catch a glimpse of the waterfall within, which, standing at 30 meters above ground is, apparently, the world’s tallest man-made waterfall.

I was told I could have done the bird park in the morning, the zoo in the afternoon and the night safari in the evening, but I was glad I didn’t rush.

Especially when I got to the Singapore Zoo the next day and found that I really couldn’t complete it in half a day by the sheer size of it, occupying 28 hectares of land! Built along the margins of Upper Seletar Reservoir within Singapore's heavily forested central catchment area, the scenery by the reservoir lake was breathtaking.

Feeding times and shows are at designated hours. Being an animal lover, I didn’t want to miss any of them, particularly when most of the shows are educational in nature. In the mornings, there is also a special program where visitors can breakfast with the Orangutan, a huge brown ape, and the python, although neither of which I fancied being too close, so I skipped that. The rest of the attractions were great though with the animals living in an open-moat concept, where a wet or dry moat separates the animals from visitors.

The Night Safari, located next door to the Singapore Zoo, would have been exciting had I been able to see the elusive creatures, but I kept missing them in the dark. My sluggish eyes were slow to attune to the various silhouettes even as the tram guide repeatedly pointed out animals amongst the bushes, trees and shrubs. By the end of the ride, I suspected I was the exhibit for the animals rather than the other way around.

Superstar Virgo was as I expected it to be in size, abundance of quality buffet food, variety of activities, its infinite sea views and more. The merry crew, regardless of rank or job onboard, piped their greetings not only when I boarded at 2pm that Sunday but throughout my stay. They seemed always joyful, ready for fun and laughter and provided their service with cheer.

We docked in Phuket in the dark after more than 24 hours of travel up the Straits of Malacca. Known for its beautiful waters off the West coast of Southern Thailand in the Andaman Sea, I was sorry I wasn’t able to see much as it was nighttime. Not to be dampened in spirits, I took a ferry ride to the shore and combed the flea market for souvenirs. Items that would have sold in the US for ten dollars were going at a couple of dollars. And I heard some customers bargained till they got their wares for less than a dollar. It was unbelievable!

The next morning, we arrived in Pulau Langkawi, an island off the North Western Coast of Malaysia. The place reminded me of the exotic tropical scenes from Peter Jackson’s King Kong with its archipelago of 99 islands and their mountainous greens hills covered with rainforest. The guide on my island-hopping ferry explained that up to 104 islands could appear during low tide.

The highlight of the day, in particular, was the Tasik Dayang Bunting (or Lake of the Pregnant Maiden), the largest lake in Langkawi. The outline of hilly terrains on one side of the lake resembles the shape of a pregnant maiden laying on her back, hence the name. Moreover, legend has it that any childless maiden who bathed in the lake would conceive as a fairy princess has blessed the waters. I wasn’t ready for child-bearing, but I was ready for the inviting, cool lake in that hot, sweltering weather!

Southeast Asia is beautiful, with its exotic flora and fauna, but the weather was too warm and humid for me. After eight days of sun and perspiration, I was ready to go back to a cooler climate.

My tropical holiday spanning Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand went without a hitch. I had taken advantage of wonderful bargains in Phuket and enjoyed the raw, unspoilt landscape of Langkawi. Best of all, I wasn’t pounced upon by plainclothes men as previously feared for not flushing the toilet, littering, spitting, bird-feeding or smoking in Singapore, all of which undoubtedly contributed to the beautiful and clean image of the ‘fine’ city. But then, I did find out about the laws after arriving and behaved myself sensibly, as all travelers should in a foreign country.

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