Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Singapore, Sarawak and heading to Switzerland Plus a sodding pottery factory

Callum, my old chum from primary school in Scotland, has kindly invited me to stay with him at his very different Singapore Residence.

It is an apartment in the Wessex Estate, one of the few post-war housing complexes still in existence in Singapore. Built to house non-commissioned officers and their families during the Malayan emergency, the 26 three-storey blocks are each named after British victories – Khartoum, Quebec and, in Callum's case, Barrosa.
The apartments are set in spacious grounds and there's a real feel of old-style colonial living. Even more so is the Col Bar, originally built in 1953, but moved to its present site in 2003 when a major road was planned right through the middle of the building. The Colonial Bar, to give it the full title, is as unlike modern Singapore as is possible to get, so is popular for that very reason. But if you want to eat, get your order in by 8.30pm or the chef will have gone home!

In the morning, I join the commuters on Singapore's smashing Rapid Transit, the SMRT, to head to Changi Airport. The trip, which takes 50 minutes. Costs just $2.20.
Singapore doesn't seem to ever have the horrendous immigration queues of the USA and the UK. Both going in and out takes no time at all. Changi Airport is great, with trolleys everywhere and free wifi - as long as you ask for the password at the information desk.

I'm impressed with Air Asia. My eighty minute flight on a spotlessly clean Airbus has cost me just £48 return, the vast majority of that being fuel or security surcharges and taxes. The staff are really friendly, boarding is professionally handled and, for a 'no frills' carrier, they do it very well indeed.

Just before touch-down at Kuching, the plane passes over the winding Sarawak River. Everyone, even Malaysian Nationals, has to complete an immigration form for Sarawak, on Borneo Island,
but, with no bag to collect, the paperwork is completed within moments.
Fauzi and Amanda have turned up in the Four Points by Sheraton limo, which is a really nice touch.
The hotel is only a few minutes drive away. I have rented a junior suite, which turns out to be one of the biggest rooms I have ever had in my life. The price, about £40 per night, is about half what I paid for my Bed and Breakfast room in Melbourne!

But there's no time to linger because Hadi, my driver and guide, is already waiting for me in reception to show me down town Kuching.
It's an interesting mix of tumbledown and ultra-modern. But whoever planned the itinerary, sending us into town at the end of Friday Prayers clearly hadn't thought it through. Nightmare traffic jams!

We see the impressive town hall, Chinatown, where I by a kilo of sweet little bananas for about 50 pence and visit the colourful and lively bazaar. Long overdue for a haircut, Hadi takes me to a barbershop he knows, where I have an excellent cut for just £2. Already, it is clear that Sarawak is not going to be an expensive visit.
I ask Hadi if he's Malaysian but he is firm that he is a Sarawakian first and formost. Sarawak is actually the largest state in Malaysia and home to 2.2 million folk, a quarter of whom live in Kuching. Borneo island, the third largest in the world, includes Brunei and, in the south, it's part of Indonesia.
After a swim in the hotel's pretty unimpressively designed pool, I walk across the road where I enjoy an excellent meal at the Pandan Thai Delight Restaurant for just over £10. Green lamb curry, spring rolls, crab cake, rice and a couple of beers. What a bargain.
In the morning, much as I detest buffet breakfasts, I actually enjoy the wide range of local and western fare on offer in a pleasantly quiet restaurant. The high-spot for me is Beef Rendang, a very spicy beef stew. Great on buttered toast! But I could have had anything from nasi goreng to scrambled egg.

I hand in a kilo of washing to the laundry across the street, who charge me 4 Malaysian Ringgit, less than £1. It will be ready by teatime. If I had had the items laundered individually in the hotel, I would have paid twenty times that.

Since Melbourne, I have been in agony with a trapped nerve in my neck, which is causing me pain all down my left arm, so I visit the pharmacy. Priscilla Chuo Poh Poh, who learnt her trade at Strathclyde University in my hometown of Glasgow, is not yet in, so I talk to her on the phone and she dispenses accordingly. I pick up what I think is one of her business cards, only to find out later that it is for a doctor Chen Chung Ming, who specialises in Colorectal and Laparascopic treatments, something he learned to do in Edinburgh. I shall bear him in mind.
Mr. Hadi takes me to the Semenggoh animal sanctuary who decide to charge me the entrance fee, despite me being an official Sarawak Tourist Board sponsored visitor. But apparently we don't have 'the correct letter'. Hey ho.

But it's feeding time for the Orang Utans and we watch in wonder as six of the hairy red animals swing through the jungle canopy. On departure there's a real bonus when Hadi spots a mother and her baby pottering along the side of the path, completely unconcerned about us.
It's hard to describe how hot and humid it is, but I am glad I have brought a wet flannel and lots of water. Even so, I buy three cold drinks in the Serikin Market, very close to the border with Indonesia. There's a lot of basket ware, rush matting and really good quality fruit and vegetables on display, but it is really too hot to linger. Sensible locals use brollies as parasols.

Then we have to visit the bloody pottery factory. God! I have lost count of how many trips I have been on that insist on including the sodding pottery factory in the itinerary. There must be a tradition of potters paying tourist boards backhanders or something. It's always the same old rubbish; rarely anything of any real quality. And this was no exception. But there's a bit of fun when I spot one of the assistants fast asleep in an armchair, which amuses the other staff when I take his picture.

In the late afternoon, I have a late lunch at the Taipei 101 restaurant, where lemon chicken, special fried rice and a couple of Tiger beers is less than £5. In my room, Football Focus is on BBC World. Imagine! I am in Borneo watching Premiership action, hours before the programme is aired in the UK.

The Sarawak Cultural Village sounds totally not my sort of thing, a real tourist trap. But we have pitched up early and it's actually very well done, with some really interesting traditional homes to see and folk in their tribal costumes going about their daily business. They are all really friendly and happy to chat. One man is doing some colourful batik prints while a lady is making tasty biscuits over a charcoal fire from coconut milk and flour.
Hadi spots a lovely bright green chameleon in the foliage, who waits patiently for me to set up my tripod before scuttling off after I have taken the snap.

I am told that Singapore would take a dim view if I purchased a blowpipe, so I buy a few bags of pepper instead. I don't think I have ever seen it growing on trees like it does here.
We visit a couple of quiet little fishing villages, where the locals all wave and say hello and boys on bikes show off their wheelies.

At Buntal Bazaar, a light lunch is taken for less than £3.
Final port of call is to the Orchid Garden in Kuching where I learnt that 10% of the world's orchids come from Sarawak. There are apparently 75,000 of them in the 35 acres of the garden, but there are only a few in flower at this time of year.

I have been hoping for a swim, but just as I am about to go down, the skies darken, the heavens open and a tropical monsoon ensues. It's pretty scary being high up in a hotel watching the lightning sear across the leaden skies.
In the morning I make another attempt to see Priscilla the Pharmacist, but she's clearly not an early riser. Once again I speak to her on the phone about my ailments. I think it's lovely that the girl in the shop refers to her as madam. It wouldn't happen in Glasgow, Priscilla!
Air Asia returns me to Singapore, where I clear immigration within moments.
I have been invited to spend a couple of nights at the eco-friendly Siloso Beach Resort on Sentosa Island.
Karl and Zac take me on a fascinating hour-long tour , available to all guests, which really does demonstrate the resort's credentials.

Wherever possible, trees were kept in place during the building of the complex. So much so, that trees actually grow in the middle of some of the 12 villas. The main accommodation block is actually split in two to allow large trees to be kept in place.
They grow their own fruit and vegetables, fertilised with compost produced from waste product in their own wormery.
The huge 95 metre long swimming pool uses ionized salt instead of chlorine to kill any bugs therein and the water comes from an underground spring, which is also used in the gardens. There are fourteen ponds to encourage wildlife, a huge rooftop garden which acts as insulation, thus saving huge amounts of energy.
The Siloso Beach resort's eco-friendly policy goes far beyond anything I have ever seen before, ranging from the way they source their food (locally wherever possible), no wasteful plastic bottles of soap and conditioner in the rooms to the housekeeping staff recycling the contents of guests bins.
It's all very impressive.

But actually what is nicest (and probably the thing that most guests notice) is the way that the complex just seems to fit in with the natural environment It really does give you the impression of living in the middle of the jungle.
I enjoy a quick dip in the enormous pool before a quick bite of lunch with Rae and Ching, the PR team at the next door Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa resort.

Now I have to re-pack my bags for the 12 and a half hour flight to Geneva and my first experience of flying in an Airbus A380.
Something I am looking forward to, almost as much as if it was to be my first flight ever.
Well, if you have the travel bug, it really doesn't matter what age you are, the thrill is just the same. If I didn't get the buzz out of travelling as much as I do, I'd stay at home digging the garden.