Singapore Makes 25

With our move to Australia, Todd is now in charge of the Asia-Pacific region and of course everyone wants to meet him.  There were some meetings planned in several offices, so he is doing a whirlwind tour of the region and of course Kelly was not going to be left behind when she heard one of the offices was in Malaysia!

While making travel plans we realized that we had to go through Singapore and so we planned a weekend stopover in Singapore on our way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Todd had a trip to Brisbane planned first and since Kelly had already been, she opted to stay home with the pets for an extra two days before leaving them in the capable hands of a lovely pet sitter we managed to find last minute.

So Kelly left from Melbourne and Todd caught his flight in Brisbane and we both endured the 7 hour flight alone to Singapore (It’s amazing how 7 hours no longer seems like that long of a flight!).

Todd landed a little bit earlier than Kelly, allowing him to meet her at her gate as she arrived and then we both flew through customs with little fanfare and made our way to the hotel.  Because the stopover is on our bill we opted to use our points and stay at a Hilton.

It was late when we arrived, but the hotel lounge was still open and bustling, so we enjoyed a glass of wine and toasted our 25th country together (in just under 13 years) and then headed up for some much needed sleep.

The next morning, first thing we noticed about Singapore was the heat and humidity (90 degrees and 100% humidity) and the second thing we noticed was the fact that we were surrounded by Western shops. Our hotel was on Orchard Road, the main shopping drag in Singapore and we were surrounded by Starbucks, California Pizza Kitchen and Victoria Secrets and countless other brands from the States.  There were actually more brands we recognized here, in Singapore, than in Australia.

We wanted to experience more than western shopping in Singapore, so we decided to jump onto a hop-on, hop-off tour bus and see the city.  While it may seem overly touristy and not our normal modus operandi, we find that, at times, it’s a great way to explore a city in a short amount of time.

We road the entire route, listening to the information about Singapore and planning our next move as we saw stops we wanted to explore more.  Some of the informational facts that jumped out at us as we motored along:

– In order to manage traffic and CO2 emissions, Singapore requires drivers to pay the equivalent of $50,000 USD to get a permit to own a car and then  pay an additional 100% tax plus a lot of yearly fees once you buy car.  That permit is only good for 10 years and then they have to pay the $50,000 and start all over.  So owning a car in Singapore is three times as expensive as it would be in the US.

– Singapore’s population is 74% Chinese, 13% Malaysian, 9% Indian with the rest being a mixture of Western countries.  Its diverse mix of residents are reflected in the fact that there are 4 official languages in Singapore: English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

– Singapore has the second busiest container port in the world and the third largest financial district.

– With a booming population Singapore has increased its available landmass by 25% by bringing in sand and slowly adding to their islands and mainland space.

– Because of the two previous points, real estate is crazy expensive and over 80% of Singaporeans live is government assisted housing.  Once they turn 35, they can apply for a 99 year lease on a spot from the government.

– With the heat and the lack of available land, Singapore has recently started developing downward.  There is an underground network that gets you just about anywhere in the city, meaning you could spend days without ever seeing the sun (or experiencing the heat).

Once we completed the bus circuit we decided to head over to the marina area and get off to do some wandering there. The first thing we did was to purchase tickets for the Singapore Flyer, the large ferris wheel that gives you good views of the city.  The most impressive thing we noticed as we got to the top of the ride was the number of ships that were lined up to get into the port.  There were dozens of large ships stretching off into the distance, each anchored just waiting its turn.

After descending from the ferris wheel we headed across the river to the gardens. On our way we crossed over a bridge that was shaped like a DNA double helix. The structure twisted and turned around the walkway across the river, leading us to the air-conditioned sanctuary of the Marina Bay Sands Mall/Casino and the lotus-flower shaped science museum.

After enjoying a respite from the heat we wandered through the Gardens by the Bay. It is a massive garden on reclaimed land that spans more than 100 acres. We strolled over the bridges and along the paths, enjoying the greenery and statutes. The gardens have two large glass building that serve as conservatories for various plants and a grove of several “supertrees” that tower more than 100 feet above the gardens. The Supertrees are man-made structures that are covered with ferns, vines, orchids and other plants that serve a variety of functions – they produce solar energy, collect rain water and function as air intake and exhaust outlets for the glass conservatories.

Next we caught another hop-on-hop-off bus and headed over to Little India and wandered around the shops and alleyways before heading back to the hotel for a refreshing and much needed shower.

That evening we met one of Todd’s co-workers for dinner.  They picked out a lovely restaurant close to our hotel that had a large selection of local delicacies.  We chose to sample some Chinese dim sum and other Chinese dishes.  It was good to catch up with Todd’s co-workers from Denver and enjoy a delicious dinner.

The next morning, we decided to explore the seemingly endless underground shopping zone of Orchard Road. The shopping went 2-3 levels below ground and several above ground and stretched over several city blocks.  We seamlessly passed from one mall to the next in what seemed like a never ending shopping maze.

We bought a few items that we couldn’t find in Australia; however we quickly gave up on shopping for clothing because the sizes were for locals – with Kelly buying one dress she fell in love with in size XL (in the States she is usually a S or M)!

After we reached our limit of window shopping, we packed our bags and headed to the airport for the quick hop to Kuala Lumpur. Upon arrival in our 26th country, Malaysia, we had to stand in an obscenely long immigration line filled with rude tourists groups that kept pushing us from behind. After 30-40 minutes of being pushed and jostled we made it to the front of the line only to have one of the tourists cut in front of us. In the end we had the last laugh as the offending tourist got pulled aside for extra questioning by the immigration officials – karma!

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We hopped on the train for a short ride to our hotel. When we exited the train, we knew that the hotel was right across the street; however the train station was also connected to yet another shopping mall with no clear sign as to which way to go.  So after wandering in circles for a bit, while dragging our luggage, we finally found the way out, checked in to our hotel and collapsed into bed.

Our first day in Malaysia was a state holiday, celebrating the coronation of their new king.  Apparently, Malaysia was the combination of 13 states that were all independent at one point.  9 of the 13 had royal families and so every five years they have an election among the 9 rulers and determine which one is “in charge”.  Of course they are a figurehead ruler like the royal family in the UK, with the Prime Minister being the actual governmental leader.

Since it was a holiday, Todd got a few things done in the morning and we  took advantage of the quite day to do some site seeing.  We jumped on a train and headed to the Batu Caves.  One of the amusing things about the train was that two of the cars were marked “for women only”.  Although no one seemed to be abiding by that rule, we are guessing that during rush hour it is enforced more.

We found Malaysia an interesting culture to observe.  There is a large muslim society, with most Malay women wearing a hijab; while some cover with the full burqa, and they have signs on public transport and in public areas indicating that it is not appropriate to show PDA in public (something Todd had to be reminded of constantly). In our hotel room, in place of a Gideon Bible, there was a prayer rug and an arrow showing the direction of Mecca so that you could face the correct direction to pray.  In seeming contrast to the dress and convenient prayer rug,  Malay women are very independent and most work, drive and seem to be not all impacted by the conservative culture.  Every lawyer in the Malaysian office that Todd deals with is a woman – a very intelligent, capable and fun group!  We did not observe any violence, mistreatment or subservience of women – no women walking behind men or segregation of any type other than the train cars.

After the brief train ride, we arrived at the Batu Cave stop.  One of the first things we noticed was the the tourists wrapping themselves in sarongs and shawls.  When we travel, we try to be mindful of the culture that we are traveling in and adopt our dress and our actions accordingly.  This usually means that shorts and sleeveless shirts are not permitted in religious areas – the Batu Caves were no exception, with their multiple Hindu temples.   For their part the Malaysians were making good money charging $3 for those tourists to borrow shawls to cover up with, since there was a dress code that included covering everything between your knees and shoulders before they would allow you to climb the 272 steps that lead to the caves.

At the base of the steps is a towering (apparently the second largest Hindu statue in the world!) gold statue of the Hindu god Lord Murugan.  If you are appropriately covered, there is no fee to explore the caves.  As we got ready to start our climb, a gentleman tapped Todd on the shoulder and pointed to several buckets of sand sitting nearby.  “You carry to top?”, he asked.  Apparently they are doing construction at the top of the steps on one of the temples and do not have any way to get their needed supplies to the top without carrying it up in small batches.  Todd and Kelly each gladly grabbed a bucket of sand to help them along.

As we climbed the 272 steps, with buckets of sand in hand, we started seeing monkeys.  They were everywhere and obviously counted on tourists to feed them.  We saw one monkey with a soda in hand, trying to get the last drops out of the can and another munching away on a bag of chips.  Several were eating bananas that were sold to tourists to feed the monkeys.  The monkeys were quite brazen, with their hands out to beg, holding their ground until you got right up to them.  Once they realized that they weren’t going to be fed, they would dash off to another group of tourists for another try.

When we got to the top of the steps, we dutifully dropped off our buckets of sand and continued into the cooler caves.  There were several Hindu temples with rituals being performed as tourists gawked and took pictures.   While we enjoy learning about and experiencing different religions, it always feels somewhat sacrilegious to walk into the middle of a religious ceremony and start taking pictures, even if that religious ceremony is happening in the middle of a large tourist attraction.  So we respectfully kept our distance and made our way through the caves checking out all of the “scenes” they had depicted throughout the caves.  We heard there was an audio tour that you could do, but we never saw a place to get it.  We wish we had though, because the scenes were intriguing with statues depicting Hindu gods with humans and animals; we wish we knew the stories behind them.

The caves themselves were immense and beautiful, with large stalagmites and stalactites everywhere.  The roof of the largest cave was over 300 feet high!

There was a seperate “Dark Cave” that you could only get into through by an organized tour where you get to spelunk through a 2 kilometer path in the dark.   After waiting out an afternoon shower and enjoying the cool interior of the caves, we made our way back down the steps and headed for the train.

We took the train to the Kuala Lumpur city center to check out the Petronas towers.  They are the tallest twin towers in the world.  They were the tallest buildings in the world for about 6 years, but have since been surpassed.

There is a walkway between the two buildings, about half way up the towers that you can buy tickets to walk across and take pictures.  We decided to skip it and instead explore the park behind the towers.  It was a large park, with meandering trails and little gazeebos set up periodically.  There was a lake in the middle and a large playground with a splash pool .

On our way back to our hotel, we stopped in the train station for a delicious and refreshing cup of lemon Bingsoo.  We’ve seen several of these shops advertising “shaved ice cream”.  Apparently it comes from South Korea originally and is an interesting mix between shaved ice and ice cream.  The lemon flavoring was a seperate bowl of liquid you just pour on top of the plain vanilla bingsoo.  

The next three days Todd had to work, so Kelly was on her own to explore and enjoy Malaysia.  She started her time alone by checking into the spa in the hotel next door for a massage and facial.  That was followed up with exploring the mall close to the hotel, which turned out to have more hijab stores than anything else.

The next day when Todd headed off to work, Kelly jumped in a tour van and made her way to the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary.  It was about two hours away from Kuala Lumpur and the tour guide proved to be very talkative, so Kelly got a lot of local viewpoints on Malaysian life.

The most interesting tidbit pulled from the tour guide was about the complex culture in Malaysia that resulted from the mixture of several extremely devout and different religions.  The tour guide was Muslim and he talked about his Hindu neighbors.  Apparently some Muslim celebration involve slaughtering a cow and his Hindu neighbors keep trying to stop him (cows are sacred to Hindus), yet they generally roast a pig for Hindu celebrations and Muslims consider pig a dirty animal and not to be eaten or handled in any way.  So it sounds like the block parties in his neighborhood are quite the contentious experience 🙂

With one of the main exports in Malaysia being rubber, the tour stopped at a rubber tree plantation (the tour guide kept referring to it as a condom farm) to demonstrate rubber harvesting from trees (like maple syrup) and how bad it smells in its raw form (like a rotting corpse).

The next stop on the tour was an “exotic animal farm”.  While some of the animals were somewhat exotic (a boa constrictor and several colorful birds), most were animals commonly seen animals in the US; apparently exotic here.  There was a house cat, racoons, deer and prairie dogs.  Kelly posed for a picture with the boa, so it made the stop worthwhile.

The next stop was finally the elephant sanctuary!  The sanctuary shelters injured or orphaned elephants.  If they are under 10 years old when they arrive at the shelter, they are kept at the sanctuary for their entire lives.  If they are older than 10, the elephants are rehabilitated and reintroduced back into the wild as quickly as possible.  The sanctuary also offer its expertise in elephant management to relocate animals to other areas if they start interfering with plantations or causing issues with human populated areas.

Kelly’s tour ended up including all the bells and whistles, with bags of peanuts and buckets of papaya to feed the elephants.   So Kelly was in heaven, wandering around the facility that holds  23 elephants of all ages and feeding several of the elephants and learning their stories.  She noticed that most of the elephants would vacuum the peanuts out of her hand with their trunks and then place them in their mouths, while a few would turn their trunks upside down, patiently waiting for you to drop the peanuts into their nostrils.

The sanctuary also has a show featuring  several of the adult elephants that they have had since they were young.  They showed off their skills picking things up on command and offering their legs and trucks to their handlers to climb on up onto their backs for a ride.  For the finale they bring out their youngest elephant, a two year old that was abandoned by its herd, and feed it out of a very large baby bottle.

After the 2.5 hour ride back to the hotel, Kelly quickly changed and jumped in a taxi to meet Todd and his co-workers for dinner at a restaurant called Souled Out.  It was a very touristy restaurant, but had a good variety of local dishes.  We decided to eat family style and just ordered several items and shared them around the table.  It was an evening of great food and fun conversation.

Our last day in Malaysia Todd went off to work and Kelly jumped on the local hop on/hop off bus.  Unfortunately Singapore’s version was much nicer.  There was no information provided and since the sites in Kuala Lumpur are pretty spread out with bad traffic on the roads between them, there was a lot of sitting around on the congested roads.  The entire circuit took over three hours and Kelly came back with a nice sunburn and no idea what she had just seen.

For our last evening in Kuala Lumpur, we decided to head back downtown for dinner at Fuego, a restaurant, that overlooked the Petronas towers.  It was a nice dinner, relaxing on the outdoor patio on the 23rd floor of a sky scraper; however, the view of the Petronas towers has recently been obstructed because they are building a Four Season Hotel right in front of the towers and it blocked Fuego’s view of one of the towers!

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to turn in as we had to get up early for the flight back home to Melbourne.

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