Often overlooked as a holiday destination in favour of a stop-over Singapore is a world of beauty, offering an immense variety of activities to suit all tastes. Located off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore is a highly urbanised country. Its skyscrapers and subways reflect modern times, while the Chinese, Malay and Indian influences provide an abundance of cultures. The tropical climate, fantastic food and great shopping make the English-speaking Singapore an ideal choice for a short break.
Founded in the early 1800s as a British trading colony, Singapore is one of the world’s most successful countries and has the world’s busiest port. Just north of the equator, it doesn’t matter what time of year you decide to visit, with weather remains relatively the same year-round. Generally sunny and warm, small showers are experienced at least once almost every day, with the most rainfall during November, December and January. Severe thunderstorms can also happen at any time, so you might want to be prepared just in case.
With just over five million people on the island, Singapore is the second most densely populated country in the world – yet more than 50% of the area is covered by parks and reserves. Being small makes Singapore ideal for a few days break, and despite its size, there are plenty of places to see. The centre of the city includes Orchard Road – which is well known around the world for shopping; Marina Bay, which features the famous boat-shaped 'SkyPark', perched atop the three towers that make up the world's most expensive hotel, and also includes casino, shopping mall, convention centre and museum; Riverside with its museums, theatres, restaurants and clubs; and the financial district Shenton Way, known for its commercial skyscrapers on both sides of the road.
The northern part of the island (Woodlands) is home to Singapore’s residential and industrial neighbourhoods; the north-west is jungle – ideal for the military training that is completed here; and in the west, and along the east coast, you will find predominantly residential precincts as well as many kilometres of beach (on the east coast). If you want to see the “real Singapore” away from the Central Business District (CBD), these are ideal places to visit.
You have probably heard about the “strange laws” in Singapore – the rumours are true. You can receive fines, a caning, hard labour, or even jail time, for things like not flushing the toilet after using it; littering; selling chewing gum; walking around your house naked; “excessive” hugging; and connecting to an unsecured wi-fi network (considered hacking). You also can’t take more than one packet of cigarettes into the country; yet – prostitution is legal (although low profile). Go figure.
Shopping is a great way to spend a day or two, or five, in Singapore. There are malls and markets, not to mention low taxes, and with most shops open from 10am til 10pm, you can’t go wrong. Shops along Orchard Road and Scotts Road form Singapore's premier shopping district, with several kilometres of shopping malls and variety and quality products to suit all tastes. Mustafa in Little India spans two complexes and is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with everything from jewellery to electronics. Got some last minute shopping or wanting to avoid the day time crowds? Mustafa is the place to go. ION Orchard looks very futuristic and has eight floors of shopping, with more than 300 stores. Meanwhile, if you’re after some great souvenirs, Chinatown is one of the most dynamic in Asia. Looking for a market, the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market is Singapore’s oldest flea market where you can find a range of antiques, arts and crafts, jewellery, used and new clothing, bric a brac, and more.
When it comes to eating, with Malay, Indian and Chinese influences, there is no doubt that food in Singapore is amazing! Often, the best places to eat are found down side streets – small cafes with just a few tables and chairs provide a variety of local, authentic, flavours. Tasting one of the “local” dishes is one of the best experiences you will have in Singapore, from sambal stingray, to clay-pot seafood and beef rendang. You will also find quality restaurants with world-wide cuisine, from American take aways, to Japanese, Thai, Italian and French restaurants. Head to the SkyPark and have a luxury (and expensive) meal or snack with a Singapore Sling; or take yourself down to China Town, sit and relax with a bottle of Tiger beer and enjoy some of the best food the region has to offer.
Whether you only have a few days, or a week, there is plenty to see and do in Singapore to ensure your visit here fully takes advantage of this stunning country. With a range of museums and galleries, colourful nightlife and watersports, rainforests and theme parks, there is something for the entire family. A great way to see all the sights is to do a hop-on, hop-off bus tour around the area – it will take you past all the most popular areas, and give you the chance to explore at your own leisure (all you have to do once you have seen enough of one place, is to get on the next bus). Travelling around this way, you might see more of Singapore in a day than you would otherwise see in a week; and if you’re planning on staying a while – you can also source which places you would like to return to if time runs out in the first day.
If you are a lover of history or art, there are a number of museums and galleries to visit. One of the most notable historical museums is the Changi Chapel and Museum - an important monument in Australian history. The museum is associated with the former Changi Prison, which was built in 1936 by the British, and commemorates the World War Two Allied POWs who suffered horrific treatment at the hands of the invading Japanese. In 1942, 3,500 men, women and children were forced into the prison, where conditions were so bad that many did not survive. Their stories are told through some rather emotional photographs, letters, drawings and murals.
For nature lovers, the Botanic Gardens will have you wandering through the rainforest and taking a walk amongst more than 1,000 orchid species and 2,000 hybrids. Founded in 1859 by a horticultural society as a leisure garden, in 1990 the gardens came under the management of the National Parks Board and saw a comprehensive improvement programme which helped to bring it to the forefront of botanical and horticultural activity. There are also a number of other landscaped gardens and parks on the island. If you want to get up close and personal with the animals, Pulau Ubin is an island off the Changi Village and includes a tortoise and turtle sanctuary; or you might like to visit the island’s infamous zoo, bird park or marine park.
With so much ethnic variety, Singapore is a great way to experience a range of cultures, through a simple tour of the region. Little India, Chinatown, Kampong Glam, Joo Chiat and Katong are just some of the areas where you will experience many forms of Chinese, Malay, Middle-Eastern, Indian and European influences. Singapore is also home to a large variety of temples and mosques, including Thian Hock Keng Temple - a taoist temple dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of the sea, which was built in the 1830′s; Sri Mariammamn Temple - Singapores oldest Hindu temple which dates back to 1827; and Abdul Gaffoor Mosque – a south Indian style mosque which was built between 1891 and 1919.
With so much cultural diversity, there are also a great number of festivals and events held each year, including the Singapore Food Festival in July, the Singapore Grand Prix, Hungry Ghost Festival, Singapore Arts Festival, Chingay Parade, Dragon Boat Festival, Singapore Sun Festival and World Gourmet Summit – to name just a few. No matter what time of year, you are bound to find a festival somewhere on the island, where you can experience an abundance of colours and flavours.
You will have no problems finding fun in Singapore, with one of the most notable attractions – and popular for families – being Sentosa, a separate island that has been transformed from a military fort, into a resort and theme park. Take the skyrail or monorail across from the mainland, and look out in wonder at the country from above. Visited by around five million people each year, Sentosa includes Fort Siloso, a 2 kilometre sheltered beach with restaurants and resorts, and Resorts World Sentosa, which includes Universal Studios theme park, a casino, and the world's largest oceanarium. And if you’re after adventure, you won’t have any trouble finding activities, with everything from diving with sharks and mountain biking, to water-sports, go-karts and rock climbing.
No matter what your flavour in food, lifestyle and experiences, Singapore is a country that is brimming with beauty, culture and history, with exciting attractions and events all year round.
I hadn’t been looking forward to staying in Singapore but I had an extra three days there after the tour finished – there were no earlier flights home. I’d been told it was expensive, but as it turned out, I was happy I had extra time there and could have stayed longer.
According to Malay legend, the story of Singapore is that long ago, a Sumatran Prince visiting the Island of Temasek saw a strange animal, identified to him as a lion. The good omen prompted the Prince to found a city on the spot of the sighting, which he named Singpura – “Lion City”, Sanskrit.
Singapore was originally a Malay settlement and the first European settler was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who arrived in 1819 and established the city as a trading post for the British East India Company. At the time the population was mostly Malay fishermen, but numbers increased as immigrants were brought in from China and India to help develop facilities for the port. Sir Raffles was officially declared Singapore’s founder in the 1970s to settle a rift between the Chinese and Malays.
Trade and settlement grew under British rule until 1942, when the Japanese occupied the Island. The British returned at the end of World War II, however with the election of the first Prime Minister in 1959, Singapore achieved independence. In 1965 the city withdrew from the Federation of the Malaysia and became totally independent.
Singapore is famously known for its strict laws. Restrictions on chewing gum and fines for littering and spitting have led to a label for Singapore as a “nanny state”. Fines include $1500 for smoking in public; $500 for chewing gum; $1500 littering; and a jail sentence for vandalism.
Capital Punishment is the penalty for possession of more than 20g of drugs and murder, and Singapore has the highest per capita legal execution in the world with more than 400 people hanged since 1991.
In late 2005 it was brought into the spotlight with the execution of Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van, who was caught with 151.5g of heroin strapped to his body and a further 244g in a bag in his backpack. *
It’s really a matter of personal opinion as to whether it was right or wrong to execute Nguyen, but the fact is he knew the penalty in Singapore before he attempted to traffic the drugs, yet he still did it. The amount of heroin he was carrying was 25 times the amount that attracts an automatic death sentence, and as Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, Nguyen’s 400g of heroin was the equivalent of more than 20,000 hits. That’s a lot of lives at risk. Despite desperate plea calls from the Australian government and governments around the world, Queen Elizabeth II and the Pope, the execution went ahead.
Aside from the strict laws of the country, Singapore is an extremely popular travel destination among international travellers, making tourism one of its largest industries. Part of its attraction is its cultural diversity, reflecting Malay, Chinese, Eurasian, Arab and Indian history.
I stayed in Little India – a modest but colourful area of wall-to-wall shops, pungent aromas and Hindi film music. I was there for five days, which I spent sightseeing, shopping and feasting on AUD$3 duck with noodles.
On my first night I was shopping in China Town, while most of the tour went to the Singapore Zoological Gardens for a Night Safari – as with the safari park in the Netherlands, after having been to Africa I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing the animals locked up. China Town was amazing and I shopped until my purse ran dry, buying up as many little trinkets, Buddhist wall hangings and lanterns as I could muster. I ended up having to buy another bag, just to take them all home with me.
The next day I went to the Marina and sat at a little bar drinking icy cocktails, looking out at the country’s trademark – a statue of Merlion, with the head of a lion and body of a fish – which guards the entrance to the Singapore River. That night the group headed to the infamous Raffles Hotel for after-dinner drinks – following tradition with a Singapore Sling and to say goodbye to my fellow travellers. Our tour had come to an end.
I spent the next morning on a Hop On Hop Off bus tour of the city, passing through the expansive shopping area around Orchid Road; Raffles Place, the city’s financial heart; and past the Botanical Gardens.
I returned to the Gardens in the afternoon – a peaceful serenity on the outskirts of the city. The gardens are a legacy of British rule and were established in the mid-1800s on 128.5 acres. It was quiet and relaxing walking through one of the world’s largest orchid displays, and through the herbarium, which has more than 600,000 botanical specimens and a library of information dating back to the 16th Century. It was nice getting back to nature and forgetting about the bustle of the city just a short distance away.
Later I went to Suntec City Mall, with the Fountain of Wealth. Supported by four 13.8m high bronze legs and spread over an area of 1683.07m, it was named the World’s Largest Fountain in the 1998 Guinness Book of Records.
On my last morning before my return to the ‘normalcy’ of home, I went to the Changi Chapel and Museum, a former concentration camp from World War II. Letters, photographs, drawings and personal effects tell a horrific story of war and imprisonment for more than 50,000 soldiers and civilians, where life was a daily struggle against loss of freedom, hunger, humiliation and disease. There are stories of the Japanese secret police, Kempeital, taking away prisoners – many of whom never returned and those who did, bearing the scars of torture.
Many of those imprisoned here had nothing else to do but to turn to “God” for support and although many chapels and churches were built here, they were torn down after the war ended. In 1988, a simple chapel and museum was built next to Changi Prison - a replica of those built during the War. The building was moved in 2001 when the Prison was enlarged for the relocation of all Singapore prisoners to the site.
The Singapore Tourism Board bought land 1km from its previous site, and the chapel was re-placed here with a new museum erected. It’s now used for Sunday services and weddings, and a notice board inside the chapel is covered in memorabilia and notes, serving as a reminder of history. I became choked up seeing the notes written by Australians for family members they lost here during the war.
Finally, it was off to the airport... where I would wait out the next few hours before my flight home.
What a strange feeling knowing I will soon be back in Australia with my family and friends. I’m so excited, yet so sad to be leaving this carefree life behind. What a year it’s been - an amazing journey.
Through the deserts and animal kingdoms of Africa; to the green hills and royal ministries of Great Britain; the landmarks, tourist spots, bars and oceans of Europe; a new life and first love in the Netherlands; to the dirt, the wonder and the mixture of orients in South East Asia.
What a journey of life and laughter. I was terrified of leaving my world behind… now I am terrified of returning!
* Information taken from Public Prosecutor notes found at: http://www.geocities.com/law4u2003/nguyentuongyan.htm
I arrived to stinking hot weather in Kuala Lumpur (KL), but quickly made my way to the air-conditioned comfort of the nearby shopping centre. Here, I was overjoyed to find western-style toilets and sat there for longer than needed, just to relish in the comfort. It was so nice to relieve myself without having to worry about losing my balance and falling into the mess on the ground.
At night I went to the infamous KL Chinese Night Market in Chinatown, where streets are littered with vendors selling pirated CDs and DVDs; fake Rolex watches and fake perfumes. As with Bangkok, the making and selling of illegally copied material is a booming trade, although the police and government have tried to stop it. While I shopped, I watched in surprise as all the “pirates” rushed to pack up their stalls in record time – word had come through the Police were on their way. The selling continued however from the back of vans and it must have been a false alarm because I didn’t see any police.
The following morning, I began my cultural excursion of KL. In many other places I’d stayed at, I hadn’t really taken the time to visit the museums and learn more about the country, so I decided I’d do this as a great way to stay out of the unbearable heat.
KL is the largest city in the country and there’s plenty of things to see, like the Petronas Twin Towers – the world’s tallest twin towers and second and third tallest singular towers; Planetarium Negara – a centre for Space Science Studies; the Lake Gardens – a 920,000 square metre garden with a Butterfly Park, Deer Park, Orchid Garden and Bird Park; and Muzium Negara – the National Museum.
Because the group was going to Petronas the next day, I started my day at the Planetarium where I watched a show of the stars. It was nice to see and good to be out of the heat for a while, but it wasn’t anything spectacular to Malaysia itself.
The National Museum’s gallery, on the other hand, is built in the style of a Malay palace and shows off the history and culture of the country through a range of exhibitions. There are also regular shows about life and cultures from around the world. When I was there, it was an intriguing, yet horrific, display about the Chinese tradition of foot binding – a custom which was practiced for more than a thousand years where young girls were put through years of agony in an attempt to stop their feet growing.
If you try to imagine it, it makes no sense at all. Girls as young as five or six, with their feet wrapped tightly in bandages, sometimes with broken glass and tiles inside the bounds to cut and break the skin so it would drop off – something which often caused gangrene and led to the death of the child. In other cases, the feet would break and become so deformed as the girls reached adulthood, they could no longer walk. Bounds were often wound so tight it would cause circulation to be cut off and feet were often amputated.
In a sickening twist, it was the girl’s mother who would complete this task, usually started late in the fall or winter so the foot would be numb. The feet would first be soaked in warm water or animal blood and herbs, the toe nails would be cut and the girl would receive a foot massage, ending in the breakage of her four smallest toes on each foot. The bandages would then be soaked in the same liquid and wrapped tightly around the foot. These were changed every two days for at least ten years, pulled tighter each time.
It was a status symbol, since only the wealthy could afford to keep women unproductive, and the feet were not allowed to grow any larger than 10cm. I saw displays of tiny shoes, as little as 5cm, which had once belonged to a grown woman. It was scary and extremely brutal.
While history relates different reasons behind the practise, they all centre around one thing – finding a good man. According to one theory, men found it most arousing because a woman with bound feet would not be able to stand or walk without his help, keeping her dependent on him. Sexual pleasure was also said to be enhanced by the binding, with the posture and gait of the woman said to shift the pelvic area, tightening the pelvic muscles and making sex more pleasurable for the man. But mostly, bound feet were simply considered beautiful, even though the men would rarely see the feet outside the shoes.
It became such a big thing parents would actually hold contests with each other to see how small they could get their daughters feet to be. Apparently men wouldn’t marry a woman who didn’t have bound feet and the smaller her feet, the nobler the man was likely to be.
There are other stories as well, of prostitutes whose pimps would have to carry them on their back because their feet were too small; and the story which made me most squeamish was of the men who would grab the woman’s feet during sex, enhancing their own pleasure but causing her tremendous pain.
It sickens me that this continued for so many centuries and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that people and governments actually started protesting against it. Binding was finally banned in 1911 and women were told to take their feet out of the binds or they’d be killed. Over the years, small feet became a turn-off to men and the practice eventually died out, although it’s widely believed to still exist in some regions. In Melaka, a shop sells the shoes as souvenirs of China’s horrific and brutal past, and a reminder of the extremes one sex will go to in order to attract the other.
I walked back through the Lake Gardens to the air-conditioned comfort of the shopping centre near the hotel, to waste away the afternoon. The good thing about Malaysia is while the heat is sweltering during the day, particularly around 2pm, it seems to always rain at about 5pm, cooling things down for the night.
After a visit to the Twin Towers the following morning, we set off by bus for Melaka.
Melaka is in the south and is the oldest city, founded in 1400 by Sumatran, Prince Parameswara. The city shows off the rich cultures of all who’ve settled here - the Chinese in 1405; Portuguese in 1510; Dutch in 1641; and the English in 1795. Each influence is seen in the architecture – Fort A’ Formosa, constructed in 1511 by the Portuguese; St John’s Fort, reconstructed by the Dutch in the 18th Century with its canons pointing inwards towards the mainland to combat the threat of invasion from inland; St Peter’s Church, built by the Dutch in 1710 and the oldest Catholic church in Malaysia; St Paul’s Church built by the Portuguese and later turned into a burial ground for Dutch nobles; and Francis Xavier Church, a gothic church built by the French priest Father Paderi Fabre in 1849.
I thought I would have museum-ed myself out in KL, but still went to see the Muzium Rakyat – the People’s Museum; and the Beauty Museum, which was actually pretty interesting and had pictures and articles of every form of body “beautification” from around the world – including foot binding.
I saw a range of weird traditions, from tribal scars in African and Aboriginal cultures, plastic surgery, piercing and tattoos, right through to foot binding, neck stretching in African tribes and corsetry, or tight lacing – including graphic photographs of Ethel Granger, who, with a 23 inch waist, purchased her first corset before World War II and continued to tighten them to make her waist smaller, until she hit a 13 inch waist 10 years later. She was named in the Guinness Book of World Records and is still known as the woman with the smallest waist on earth.
Watching a Sound and Light show of the history of the city was my farewell to Malaysia and the following morning we set off on our final journey to Singapore – my last stop before home.
Our first stop in Malaysia was Penang and as we caught the ferry over from the mainland, I was a bit fearful – I’d been told crime was really bad and I’d need to ensure my property was safe in my rooms and on my boys; I was also warned about rats in the hotel and told not to go out at night unless I was with a big group of people. It was a bit daunting because in Krabi I was quite content walking around on my own. Here, I couldn’t be so blasé.
Despite all of the warnings, Penang is still called the Pearl of the Orient and is a paradise for food lovers with Chinese, Nonya, Malay and Indian cuisine reflecting the cultures that exist throughout the country.
My two nights in Penang were not as scary as expected. The hotel was a bit dodgy and it certainly wasn’t strange to see a few rats; prostitutes hung out just a few doors down; and I was right in the middle of China Town and Little India, so it didn’t really seem like the best location anyway, but no one in our group had anything bad happen to them or to their luggage. We might have just been lucky.
On our first night I went to an Indian restaurant where my meal was served on a banana leaf. It was the first time I’d eaten Indian food and my mouth and throat were burning as soon as the food touched my tongue. I soothed the pain with beer before racing back to the hotel’s toilet where I spent the next half an hour saying goodbye to the meal I’d just consumed.
If you’ve ever seen the movie The Beach, then you can imagine my room in Penang. The wall and the roof didn’t meet, with about a foot gap in between. Thinking of that movie, I kept looking up at the gap, waiting for some psycho to jump up there from the next room and start hurling abuse at me. Thankfully, although I did hear the voices of the people in the next room, there was no psycho that I knew about, but I swear I had one eye open all night – just in case.
I spent the next morning on a two hour, group rickshaw tour - men pedalling bikes with carts carrying us in the front. The men would have all been over 60 years old and I felt sorry for them, but they were obviously fit. The driver of my cart acted as tour guide and was an extremely well educated man. Not only could he speak six languages, but he’d also been a university lecturer around the world. I couldn’t understand why such a well-educated, well-travelled man would leave behind a life overseas and return to this world - to spend his days riding a push-bike around town for a very small amount of money - but he told me he loved it and after retiring from teaching, this was the only place he wanted to be.
After the ride, I went to Kek Lok Si Temple, at Ayer Itam – the largest Buddhist temple in South East Asia. Construction of the temple began in 1893 and was initially completed around 20 years later; but the temple that stands today wasn’t finished until 2002. In 1930, the seven storey main pagoda – Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas - was built and, finally, 2002 saw the completion of a 30 metre bronze stature of the Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin) – the Goddess of Mercy, on the hillside above the pagoda.
Built in tiers, the temple is layered with Buddhas of every size and kind. The Pagoda is breathtaking with so much care taken to place each Buddha in just the right spot, the golden shine that comes off every statue, the obvious offering of a gift for the world to see - it offers an understanding of the depth of the belief in Buddhism and offers inspiration to give, in a world of take.
The massive statue of the Goddess of Mercy stands higher than the temple itself and you need to get a cable lift to see it at its best. The Goddess is simply beautiful as she watches over Penang, protecting it. Standing here, you can see the entire city and from this distance it looks much like Brisbane, although with a blanket of dirt and pollution.
I thought it was strange, knowing the main principle of Buddhism is “materialism causes suffering”, yet the temples are filled with gold and statues and obviously cost millions to build. I guess it’s like that as a true mark of respect to the Buddha – who lived on the kindness of others and never asked for anything. Perhaps this is the people’s way of honouring him in the afterlife – by presenting his temples with the jewels and lifestyle he gave up when he left his parent’s kingdom as a young adult. It’s interesting to see the dedication and obvious respect the people have for their religion.
As a whole, Malaysia seems friendly. The people give seemingly endless smiles – they don’t care they have no possessions, they don’t need them. I saw this in Africa and Thailand as well and it’s strange how different life can be when you grow up in a different world. While those in Australia and Europe are busy worrying about the new Ipod or Xbox, there are people of the world who are simply happy to live in what we term as “poverty”.
The thing is, although we may call them poverty-stricken, it seems as though they are truly the richest people in the world because from all my travels so far, the people who have nothing seem to be the happiest. I respect that so much and often think how much easier life would be if we all felt that way.
The tour continued on to the Cameron Highlands, where three small towns are surrounded by breathtaking scenery, dotting the winding road to the tip of highlands - lush mountain peaks, waterfalls, tea plantations and terraces of vegetable, fruit and flower gardens.
Around 150km north of Kuala Lumpur, the Highlands reach 5000 feet above sea level and is the highest area on the mainland. It’s a cool escape in the heat of Malaysia, with temperatures no higher than 20 degrees and rarely lower than 10 degrees all year round.
The area was named after William Cameron, a colonial government surveyor who discovered the plateau in 1885. During the 1920s, the British realised the potential of its fertile mountain slopes for growing tea, a prized commodity. It’s still Malaysia’s largest tea-producing region, as well as being the major supplier of legumes and vegetables through Malaysia and Singapore.
I went on a day tour around the highlands; including visits to Boh Palas Tea Plantation, a strawberry farm, honey bee farm, market square, a small Buddhist temple, a rose garden and butterfly farm. The rose garden was near the top of the highlands and allowed extraordinary views of the plantations and towns below us.
The cool weather and beautiful scenery was a contrast to the heat and bustle of the city – and after a short break, relaxing in every sense, we continued back into reality again as we drove off down the mountain side towards Kuala Lumpur.
The impending peaceful journey down the mountainside quickly became the bus ride from hell. To begin with, the crazy bus driver only filled the luggage holds half full, and piled the rest of the bags into the aisles so it was impossible to move from our seats. Within half an hour of driving, we stopped by the roadside. With no idea why, and the driver wasn’t tell us anything, we all just sat inside the bus, waiting, while the driver wandered around the roadside looking out into the tea fields.
Finally, 20 minutes later, he came to us and told us, or rather, acted out to us, that if the bus continued to drive this road, we would die. The brakes were failing. We were stranded for more than three hours while we waited for another bus to arrive from Kuala Lumpur.
Thankfully, the rest of the journey was smooth, although the driver chose the worst possible toilet stops. I would have preferred to do the same as we did in Africa – and just squat beside the highway – than use the disgusting holes in the ground we were taken to.
Toilets were the one thing I hadn’t been able to get used to in Asia. The most common type is Squat Toilets, which are all through Thailand and Malaysia, except at many hotels and restaurants where you’re treated to a normal sit-down western-style toilet. There are two types of Squat Toilets - one is basically just a hole in the ground, while the other sits around 15cm higher.
For those not used to relieving themselves on a squat toilet, it can be challenging. There is also no toilet paper – the waterways are in a poor state so to avoid further pollution you cannot flush paper. The local people use water and a bucket is filled next to the toilets with a scoop to get the water out. This water is also used for flushing the toilet if there is no conventional flushing system. If you do take your own tissue with you, you have to put it in a bin nearby. Some upper-class facilities have a “butt-spray” – a small nozzle attached to a hose at the side of the toilet. You point the nozzle and push the lever down to wash yourself.
Although while camping in Africa, and on many drunken nights as a teenager, I’d become accustomed to squatting, I couldn’t shake the horrible feeling I got every time I needed to go to the toilet; or the sick feeling every time I stepped in to the water beside the squat hole, wondering just how many germs from people’s anatomies were lurking there. I spent most of my time trying to balance and not fall over, or get my pants wet.
I’m almost positive of one thing though – you would never have to wait in the mornings for the man of the house to finish in the toilet while he read his newspaper or magazines – surely, it would be physically impossible to squat for such a long time.
Our stops along the road to Kuala Lumpur had the ground-level squats; and the stench and colour of the water around the hole was disgusting. Obviously days, perhaps weeks, worth of stench and leftover faeces – my stomach heaved. I walked in, busting to go to the toilet, but my need quickly disintegrated and I decided I would wait until we reached the city. Never have I wished I was a man more than at this moment – how much easier it would have been.
Bangkok is one of the fastest growing cities in South East Asia and my first impressions were similar to those of Hong Kong - lots of buildings, traffic, pollution and people - although there seemed to be a lot more poverty here.
Locals believe Bangkok will soon rival Hong Kong and Singapore as a regional centre, but its rapid growth has caused major infrastructure and social problems.
Almost immediately the extent of the poverty shocked me. Driving from the airport the roadsides were littered with run-down houses, similar to those I saw in the townships of Africa. Some were actually apartment buildings that seemed irreparable and unliveable, yet they were cherished homes.
Living is cheap here and the cost of food is similar to that of Zimbabwe, with a full meal costing just a couple of dollars. My first stop after checking in to the hotel was a small café where I had my first taste of local cuisine. I opted for some fried rice with pork.
Just a few weeks earlier, there’d been an outbreak of Avian Flu (bird-flu) in the region, with a number of people dead and many others hospitalised. Although the government had determined the region was now disease free, I didn't want to risk it, so my plan was to steer clear of chicken. I’d almost finished my meal when I realised the fried rice was filled with egg. It was too late to do anything about it, so I kept eating. By dinner time I was still fine, so I decided to take a chance and started eating chicken. The Prime Minister of Thailand had confidently said if anyone got sick from the flu, he would award them one million baht – around $35,200 – so I figured even if I did get sick, at least I would be rich. But I was happy, poor and healthy for the rest of my holiday.
Bangkok is famous for its markets and, particularly, the sale of illegally copied DVDs and CDs. Many attempts have been made to crack down on the trade, but raids have been ineffective and illegal copying is still a booming business.
As soon as I stepped onto the footpath of the markets, I was accosted by groups of people - some trying to sell me their products, some simply telling me how lovely my "white skin" was and others were trying to convince me to get a tuk-tuk to tourist sites which were apparently "only open one day". After much haggling on both sides, I finally gave in and for 30 Baht (AUD$1) I was taken on a three hour tuk-tuk ride through the city.
The city is dotted with 400 Buddhist temples, palaces and shopping centres. My first stop was Wat Intharawihan, a 32 metre tall Gold statue of Buddha. Construction began in 1867 and ended 60 years later. Standing in front of it, I was in awe at the dedication the people have to their religious beliefs. Having studied Buddhism myself for a few years when I was younger, I couldn't help but embrace the feeling of peace that washed over me as I stood next to it. It was overwhelming.
The tuk-tuk driver waited for me at each stop along the tour. It must be a horrible job – and thinking about it now, getting paid to drive someone around for hours in the heat, for a measly dollar, is really quite sad - but for them, it’s a way of life and without it they probably wouldn’t survive; and despite it they are friendly and always smiling.
We rode on Wat Suthat Thepwararam - a royal Buddhist temple constructed in the early 19th Century; and Wat Ratchanaddaram temple - best known for the Loha Prasat, a one-of-a-kind pagoda which stands 36m high and has 37 metal spires, signifying the 37 virtues of enlightenment. I entered into the Wat Ratchanaddaram temple, my shoes off, and looked at the craftsmanship of the temple's features. So much time and effort had gone into the construction.
As I stood, a Buddhist monk came up beside me and motioned for me to pray with him. He led me on to my knees beside him and I followed his movements as he said his prayers. The experience lasted around 10 minutes and the peace that had washed over me at the statue, multiplied by hundreds. For those moments, I’d forgotten the world outside and I focused only on the monk, the Buddha and myself. It was the most spiritual moment of my life.
We travelled along Khao San Road, past the vibrant markets filled with crafts, paintings, clothes, food and pirated DVDs and CDs.
I thought I was home free as we headed back in the direction we’d come. I’d been warned by a few people about tuk-tuk drivers taking you to tourist spots, but stopping at suit and gem shops. I thought I’d escaped unscathed, until he said he needed to stop to pick something up, which just happened to be in a suit shop. After spending half an hour in there, trying to convince the owners I wasn’t interest in suits, I was taken to a Gem shop “to pick something else up”. Here, I gave in and bought a purple amethyst ring, something I'd actually always wanted. Now I’m just hoping it’s authentic because it cost me more than my entire stay in Thailand.
I spent three days in Bangkok before doing a 17-day tour to Singapore.
The following morning I treated myself to a boat ride through the canals. With so many canals and Chao Phraya River running throughout the city, Bangkok is dubbed the "Venice of the East" and is a mixture of modern and traditional life. Bangkok's history is closely connected to the waters and it used to have many more canals which have been dried up to make roads.
The one-hour trip took me past the Grand Palace, The Royal Barge Museum and the colonial-style Thonbury Railway Station, as well as fishing villages and stilt houses. The people are very poor here and grow their own fruit, vegetables and orchards to send to markets or to sell from their boats along the canal to tourists like us.
The homes are old and run-down, but the people don't seem to mind. This reminded me of Africa because no matter the circumstances, the people are always smiling. Perhaps with their Buddhist beliefs - which condemn materialism - they don't want or need much.
It was strange to see million dollar resorts next to run down shacks which were so trashed, in our culture we wouldn't even let our animals sleep in them. Yet, to these people, they are treasured homes and they are worth more and stand prouder than the resorts beside them.
Later that night, we caught an overnight train to Surat Thani, an 11-hour journey, and on to Krabi for five days of relaxation in the seaside town.
Krabi is in the southwest of Thailand and has around 130 islands, the most famous being Phi Phi Island (Ko Phi Phi Lee), used as the set of the Hollywood film, The Beach. It’s also not far to Phuket, Thailand's most popular beach.
Krabi’s coastline is dotted with tropical islands, palm fringed beaches with mountains towering over the sands, and coral reefs. Inland is a jungle, waterfalls, caves, hidden lagoons and limestone rock formations. Most of the area is National Park, including many of the beaches and more than 80 islands.
We stayed at Baan Pimphaka Bungalows, gorgeous accommodation just a short walk from the beach.
A boat ride to four islands - Poda Island, Chicken Island, Taloo Island and Phranang Cave – was a great introduction to the area.
Poda Island is most popular for its white sandy beaches, colourful corals and reef fish; and Taloo Island is a tall rock rising out of the sea where you can snorkel and admire the island's beauty from under the sea.
Chicken Island is a rock which, as the name suggests, looks like a chicken. We went snorkelling here for hours, surrounded by the most colourful and beautiful fish I'd ever seen. There were so many species and they were so close you could actually touch them.
Phranang Cave (The Princess Bay) is the most famous and houses the Princess Spirit House, dedicated to an ancient fertility goddess and worshipped by locals. It's a popular spot for tourists, and if you're lucky, you might run into someone famous. You can walk inside the cave and look out towards the ocean for a postcard view through the cavern walls to crystal waters and white beaches.
The following morning I left the beaches behind and headed into the jungle to try elephant trekking. It was something I was afraid of, but still wanted to experience. I’d always had a fascination with elephants, but although I knew nothing would ever come close to the beauty of the African Elephant in the wild, I still wanted to see what it would be like sitting on the back of a smaller Asian one.
The jungle wasn’t far from Krabi and the captive elephants seemed to be happy and well looked after, but it was still sad to know they had no freedom like the ones I'd seen the year before.
In pairs, we were assigned an elephant and guide. The guides were armed with hammers and sticks, in case they needed to keep the elephants in line. Unfortunately my guide spent most of the journey hitting the elephant on the head for no apparent reason. It was so hard you could hear the hammer crashing down on the skull.
The guide told me the elephant’s skull was so thick it would have felt no more than a light punch, but watching a hammer crash down on the head of such a magnificent animal was upsetting. I’d been unsure of the affect the trek would have on me anyway, but this left no room for enjoyment. The last time I'd seen an elephant in captivity was at a circus when I was about 19 years old. It looked so sad chained to a pole and I sat with it for hours, crying for its lost freedom. My curiosity had turned into consequence and I left with a feeling of complete sadness and despair, vowing I would never return to see such a thing again.
For the last couple of days at Krabi, I relaxed, shopped and partied with the locals. I’d imagined I would be anxious to move on sooner, but it was nice to spend time in the one town - particularly one as beautiful as Krabi.
I often thought about the town afterwards but it was never on my mind as much as when the deadly Tsunami hit on Boxing Day, 2004. The tsunami was generated by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean off Indonesia, and shockwaves travelled thousands of kilometres underwater to create giant waves. These waves destroyed beaches and killed around 275,000 people in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and as far away as Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.
The entire province of Krabi and Phi Phi Island suffered massive damage and loss of life. Although much of the area is now fully recovered, I can't help but wonder if it didn't lose some of its beauty along with its heritage on that fateful day.
I remember when I was a child my grandfather would show me photos of himself boarding a ship to Hong Kong. I remember the smile on his face in the photo and the smile on his face as he told me the stories about how beautiful it was there. My grandfather and I were very close and when he died in 1997 I lost a huge part of myself. I decided I needed to see Hong Kong, because I wanted to see what had made him so happy.
Hong Kong - or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (PRC), it’s full name - was a British colony until 1997 when it became part of the PRC.
A declaration was signed promising a "One Country, Two Systems" policy – so the socialist economic system of mainland China would not be practiced here. The declaration also promised the lifestyle of Hong Kong's capitalist system would remain unchanged until 2047.
Although the laws can’t change, I think many things have. Friends who visited in the early 1990s have described a very different, and much more spectacular, city compared to the one I saw in 2004.
Hong Kong - in a few words - was crowded, dirty and smelly. I don't know if it was simply because I was there alone, but it’s certainly not a city I would ever want to come back to. The traffic build up was massive and pollution levels were soaring. Forget SARS. If I lived there I'd have to wear a mask simply to protect myself from the stench. You walk along the roads, past street vendors, cooking god-only-knows-what, and it stinks - not to mention the number of people who walk past and put their fingers in the food, then walk on without buying anything. It made me feel sick and my appetite was non-existent.
I stayed in Kowloon City, part of the Kowloon region, which seems to be more a part of mainland China, but is still Hong Kong. New Territories is the region north of Kowloon and actually connects to the mainland. Hong Kong Island itself is just a few hundred metres away across the ocean.
Near the harbour I walked past an Australian-themed pub called Ned Kelly's Last Stop. Outside the front door, an elderly Chinese man was sitting on a milk crate, holding on to a bottle of Fosters Beer wrapped in a brown paper bag. It was a classic sight and I felt closer to home than I had in a long time.
I enjoyed an afternoon walk along the harbour where different artistic displays decorated the area with brilliant colours. It was the brightest thing I’d seen since I arrived and for a few moments, just looking at the colours made me really happy.
Looking out over the harbour at Hong Kong Island, the mist and pollution in the air caused a blanket of grey on the water between the two regions. Through the mist, I could see the business centre of Hong Kong. High rises by the dozen. It was beautiful to see, but the smog in between was enough to turn me off actually going there.
The culture shock here was really prominent and I was actually amazed at the effect it had on me. It was really naïve of me, but I honestly wasn't expecting to see so many Asian people. Growing up in country towns in Australia, and then living in the Netherlands where it was extremely rare to see someone of Asian-origin, aside from Indonesians, I think I just didn't know what to expect. I'd never been anywhere like this before and although I should have thought it would be so, it still surprised me.
I know I didn't see as much of Hong Kong as I could have, but aside from having a broken heart - after leaving love behind in the Netherlands - I just didn't feel safe. People stared at me walking down the streets, men leered - some followed me through the streets and kept trying to get my attention by yelling things at me in the little English they knew - so I made sure I was back in my hotel room well before sunset each day. It was my first true journey on my own into a strange country and I wasn't sure what to expect.
Unfortunately, time seems to have changed the country quite a lot since the days when my grandfather was here. I didn't find the beauty he found. Perhaps I just wasn't looking hard enough, but perhaps it simply doesn’t exist anymore.