Final Stop at Fantasy Island

Singapore's flag
Asia » Singapore
October 12th 2009
Published: December 10th 2009
Edit Blog Post

Punk’s Not Dead.

At least not according to the little old lady stood in front of me in the queue.

The charms of South-East Asian travel still involve the occasional encounter with folk dressed head to toe in traditional attire. Sadly, this seems to get rarer with every passing year, globalisation seeping its way ever deeper into the region’s psyche. A West is Best outlook prevails, and sadly the days of conical hats and hand-woven fabrics are well and truly numbered.

In the cities, let alone at the airport where we were now, oriental robes are as rare as Pavarotti on Pop Idol, and everyone is dressed just like round your way, which I always find a tad depressing.

Well, maybe not quite the same.

The fact is most aren’t entirely au-fait with the nuances of western culture, which leads to some interesting sartorial choices, such as big burly blokes in Britney Spears T-shirts or, in our current case, grey-haired old grannies extolling the virtues of The Exploited; Punk’s Not Dead.

It could be, of course, that the wonders of satellite telly have only recently awoken in her a passion for late 1970s anarchic rock’n’roll. Given that she appeared too frail for even the briefest of mosh-pit action, though, I’m guessing she just fancied a nice black t-shirt with some western writing on, and plumped unwittingly for this one.

Easy enough mistake to make.

After all, I did exactly the same a few weeks back at the Great Wall, and am now the proud owner of a shirt that almost certainly translates: ‘I am a stupid white tourist who paid way too much for this grotty piece of shit. Feel free to spit on me.’ All this in only two characters; well they do say they have a word for everything!

I suppose the fact that Gran had been able to buy the shirt at all proves that it’s still partially true. Punk’s Not Dead, but at the very least it has osteoporosis, bunions, and more than just a touch of Alzheimer’s, and I feel it may well die with her.

The corporate music world has now replaced punk with Pink, a heavily watered-down, much prettier version who can more-or-less be relied upon not to spit on the audience, OD on heroin or stab someone to death in a New York hotel room. When all the dust settles this leads to a much smoother cash-flow return, though in the long run it may prove myopic as I very much doubt we’ll be spotting pensioners in Pink shirts circa 2040. If you do see one, it’ll probably turn out to be either Pink herself or me, still striving to be different. I’ve already got a nice Britney top stashed away to embarrass the grandkids with one day.

Today we were leaving Laos to start our long trip home, the last hop taking us to our Qantas rendezvous in Singapore, where they’re already way too savvy for any inadvertent clothing gaffes. One final flight on Air Asia, who I really can’t fault for cheap-as-chips efficient travel, though I’m not sure the planet’s atmosphere will be such a keen fan in the long run. Just like Granny, a staggering 60 percent of passengers are first time flyers. This inevitably leads to amusing scenes on the tarmac, as harassed ground crew frantically attempt to herd a hundred passengers aboard, and prevent them from taking just a few more nice snaps of each other standing beside the plane instead.

And the entertainment doesn’t stop there, as once seated the all-Asian flight crews lead to some magnificently mangled announcements. On this occasion I was particularly stunned to learn that my life-jacket, located as usual under the seat, came equipped not only with a light, but also, uniquely in my experience, a Weasel.

In case of emergency, the weasel should be blown to gain attention. Well, I’m sure it would gain the attention of the weasel, if no-one else, and probably lead to some distinctly uncomfortable silences as you all sat in the life-rafts awaiting rescue.

Fortunately most of this flight would be over land, so there’d probably be no need to awaken my slumbering stoat, but just to be sure I asked the hostess to put a warm saucer of milk by my feet, ensuring he’d be in tip-top condition should the need arise.

Needless to say we touched down at Singapore safe and sound three hours later, all without the need to ferret out my furry friend, and I left the weasel undisturbed, sleeping over in readiness for his return flight home.

I’ve been to Singapore many times before, but only once got around to leaving the airport. This isn’t nearly as lazy as it sounds, as the airport is absolutely cavernous, and my stays limited to a few hours for refuelling. It was plainly built way back in the day when most folks paid more than tuppence ha’penny for a flight, with still plenty cash left over to spend in swanky boutiques and duty frees.

We contented ourselves with half a Mars bar each, before discovering in the taxi that we needn’t have been so frugal. Singapore, I belatedly noted, had got off to a cracking start, the lady at the Money Changers giving me way too much cash for my Laos leftovers, leaving us smiling ear-to-ear over the prospect of a free dinner. In honour of my good friend the weasel, I’d be having the rabbit.

The taxi driver himself proved a very cheery chap, the local version of a cheeky cockney geezer, and gave us a running commentary on the wonders of the city as we passed by on the way to the hotel, emphasizing, with a knowing look, just what an expensive place it could be to earn a living.

Sadly, after many months on the road, friendly cab drivers, especially from airports, put me right on edge as I await the inevitable rip-off. It all harks back to our initial baptism-of-fire in India, as here, just as in Nepal, Finland, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Cambodia and Laos before, the poor bloke was just trying to be friendly and was perplexed by his passengers’ surly demeanour. Just goes to show, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the whole barrel, even if in India a few adds up to almost a billion.

En route we passed through a city even more amazing than the one I remembered from twelve years before, whole swathes in the midst of redevelopment for the next new exciting project: Casinos, Big Wheels, Skyscrapers, Grand Prix Race Tracks. You’d never get away with it in a western city, where you have to argue for a Millennium just to get a nice new Dome. Huge white-elephants were going up left, right and centre, with not a whinger in sight. Their solution to NIMBYs is just to knock down their homes so they don’t have a back yard left to worry about, rehousing them elsewhere. Amazing what you can get away with in a one party state, where the words ‘No’ and ‘Tough Shit’ are still the height of political correctness. You might even get an ‘I Don’t Give a Monkeys , Mate’ if they’re feeling particularly verbose, the wrecking ball ringing in the changes before you’ve even started penning your next letter to The Times. Still, unencumbered by democratic niceties, its astonishing what has been accomplished by that rarest of beasts, a dictatorship which turns out to be more interested in the public good than lining its own pockets. Not that democracy ever stopped them from doing that in India, or a good many other places I could mention.

Indeed the only whinger I heard all weekend was an Aussie, of all people, complaining that Singapore these days was ‘Fake Asia’, a little bit of the first world misplaced off the edge of the continent.

“The real deal’s in Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos, mate. This place is a waste of time.”

A trifle harsh, I felt. I’m not sure he’d have too keen on me calling Sydney ‘Fake Australia’ due to the lack of Skippies hopping over the Harbour Bridge. Singapore’s not Fake Asia, it’s Future Asia, like it or not. And I have to
Happy DeepavaliHappy DeepavaliHappy Deepavali

The Sign Says It All!
say, compared to the rest of the continent they’re doing a pretty fine job.

Anyway, enough of the politics for one blog, I feel.

We eventually pulled up at our chosen abode, The Albert Court Hotel, a Wotif special pre-booked to treat ourselves for the last few days. I have to say I’m never entirely comfortable using these last-minute websites, forever left with nagging doubts. Wotif the place turns out to be a total shit-hole when we get there? Luckily this has come to pass just once, in Delhi, funnily enough... seems to be a running theme developing here! The rest have been just fine and dandy, but I have to say they’d really pushed the boat out this time, far exceeding our expectations for such a mediocre sum.

We happily settled in and made ourselves comfy for a few hours, relieved, on checking under the bed, to find it a polecat free zone. Come nightfall we headed out exploring, and made our way to the joys of Little India nearby.

Little India, it turned out, was very like Big India, except everyone was very nice and it was spotlessly clean, so not much like Big India at all then. Still, it was all there, the sights, smells, tumult and hubbub, the more so as Divali was in full swing, the Festival of Lights, the whole place festooned with globes of every colour and endless street parades. It was unrecognisable from the dowdy little ghetto I remembered from a dozen years before. Seriously, if you’ve ever dreamed of going to India but aren’t too keen on folks crapping in the street or lying to your face, this is the place to come. It’s like Morecombe on the Med, all the best bits preserved, but without the howling winds or seagulls crapping in your fish & chips. The more authentic experience is still to be found in the back-alleys, but for those who prefer things a touch more genteel, the main street eateries have gone a bit more upmarket in a hunt for the tourist dollar, even if the touts can be tad pushy. I can see where the Aussie bloke was coming from now, as this is surely Fake India, and all the better for it!

Next day we were up early and eager to get out and about, as it was our only full day in town. We meandered through the university, on to the Colonial District and into the City Centre, before hitting Chinatown for lunch and a spot of post-prandial retail therapy. Singapore’s not two cities in one, it’s at least five! It’s as if some planner has taken all the best bits of East and West, ancient and modern, natural and man-made, and mashed them all together into his own little Fantasy Island, a town which does its very best to have it all and very nearly pulls it off.

Chinatown has some great old buildings, now beautifully renovated, but at the very centre they’ve gone a bit over the top, trying to be more Chinese than China itself, especially around the tourist markets, once again creating something of a fake feel. Ironically over in Beijing they’ve gone the other way and are busy demolishing all the old stuff in an effort to look like Singapore. Still if you can see through the marketing veneer it’s still a great place to wile away an afternoon, happily searching out the perfect souvenir while keeping an eye out for that secret discarded Ming vase just awaiting your discovery. Well, you can always dream, can’t you!

From here it was back to Little India to check out the cheap electronics, which I somehow managed to resist despite being in the market for a new camera, fifteen months on the road having taken their toll on the old favourites. Instead we settled for some sumptuous local grub and a Tiger or two, reminiscing over the highs and not-so-highs of our long trip on this, the last night of our epic adventure.

There remained just one last box to tick-off: the naffest must-do attraction on the whole island, namely indulging in a Singapore Sling at the legendary Raffles Hotel. Everybody does it, virtually a rite of passage, though I’d somehow foregone it on my last visit, something to do with having no-one to share it with and wasting a whole day haggling over the price of a watch. Got it for what I wanted in the end, though!

Next morning, after a luxurious lie-in and splash in the Jacuzzi, we toddled off at noon, ambling the few blocks downtown desperate not to get our smartest clothes all sweaty, as we planned to wear them on the plane home later too. This proved a practical impossibility when only a hop-and-a-skip from the equator, and by the time we arrived I was more in the mood for a few pints of ice-cold lager than some poncy over-priced cocktail. Over the last few hundred yards like-minded oiks started springing from all directions headed for our common goal, to a man secretly worried we weren’t posh enough to get in, and desperately trying to give the impression we knew exactly where we were going despite not having the slightest goddamn clue.

After all, how hard could it be?

I’d envisioned a deserted colonial oasis presenting itself between the high-rises, replete with white-suited chaps in fedoras reclining on wicker chairs, chewing their cigars and hiding behind copies of The Straits Times. Instead, where it should stand on the map, was a vaguely upmarket impenetrable shopping mall, signs giving the vaguest hints that it may well contain the Hotel and legendary bar, but instead directing us through an endless warren of stores touting Longines, Lacoste or Louis Vuitton.

After quarter of an hour spent sweatily stumbling round in circles I was fully ready to Singapore Sling the towel in. Luckily Debbie then did what no man can do and simply asked a passing staff-member for directions.

There were, as it turned out, three choices: The Long Bar, where (it was heavily hinted) low-lives such as ourselves might feel right at home, The Courtyards or else The Billiard Room. Well, as a long-time Cluedo aficionado there was only one choice available, and, pulling my very best Colonel Mustard face, I strode off in the appropriate direction, immediately regretting my failure to bring along the Lead Piping, with which I could have lamped the condescending bastard!

“Come with me, Miss Scarlett, and be sure to keep up! If you lose me, just follow the long trail of sweat!”

Five minutes later, we found ourselves within the cool confines of the Billiard Room. This was more like it! A cavernous hall with spectacular chandeliers and a square central bar, stocked to the gills with a bewildering array of gins, vodkas and scotch, the rest of the room filled with elaborately set tables, and hardly a soul around.

We seated ourselves in an endless expanse of cushioned wicker and awaited the arrival of our personal Jeeves.

Yes, well, let’s just say the dirty scoundrel took his damn time coming!

Eventually Debbie had to bring her feminine charms to play once more and seek out the scumbag. On her return the news was not good. As any man of culture would know, it was strictly Tiffin in the Billiard Room at this hour of the day. The bar wouldn’t open up till past four, by which time we’d be well on the way to the airport.

It was just as well the cad didn’t show-up in person as by now the steam was rising from my forehead and I was ready to blow a gasket. How could it be so hard to get a drink in this godforsaken hellhole? Forget the Lead Piping, I was ready to arm myself with the Rope, Revolver, Candlestick or just use my bare hands to throttle the living daylights out of the next fellow who stood between me and the chance of some bloody alcohol. Let me at the buggers, I tell you!

The Courtyards were a complete no-go at this time of day in the full glare of the sun, not that it seemed to bother the mad-dogs and Englishmen pompously sipping away at their Pimms. For us, though, there was but one choice left, the dreaded Long Bar.

And when we finally found it, there were three surprises in store.

The first was that it wasn’t very Long at all, a distinctly modest arch squeezed into the corner of a space not much bigger than your average living room, leaving me longing to leave already. The second was that the board-shorted Hawaiian-shirted clientele found throwing free monkey-nut shells on the floor, an established Long Bar tradition, was by far the most sophisticated thing they’d ever done in all their lives, grinning and clapping their hands in glee like pink, bloated performing seals. Frankly there’s more class on show down the local Legion. And the third was that, in spite of these first two factors, the price of booze was absolutely astronomical, more than twice what we’d have been charged even in the Billiard Room, had they deigned to serve us.

Clearly someone, somewhere, was taking the piss!

Sure, we could have stayed on and had one after all that hassle, but by now, to be quite honest, neither of us were in the mood. Clearly either we weren’t good enough for this place, or it wasn’t good enough for us. Frankly even now, I still can’t really decide which it is.

Possibly the grace and serenity of Laos and Luang Prabang has spoiled us forever, as just as we were walking out in disgust, none other than John Major breezed in the other way and happily took a pew. It would appear these days I’m of the same opinion as Groucho, not happy to join any club which would have the likes of me as a member.

In the end we traipsed all the way back home empty handed, and enjoyed a perfectly nice Singapore Sling in the Albert Court Hotel all on our own, which quite frankly, suited us just fine.

So where does all this leave us standing?

We’d travelled far and wide for a year or more, survived close scrapes with deadly Outback snakes, several brutal hospital stays, frozen Himalayan mountaintops, scalding Finnish saunas and bug-infested Malayan jungles.

We’d tinkered with New Age philosophies, and witnessed the very best and worst that humanity has to offer, drenching ourselves in the waters of whatever life threw our way. And now suddenly, on our very last day, we find ourselves unable to face the prospect of supping a perfectly nice pint in a bar frequented by former World leaders.


Yeah, me too!

Perhaps it was time to go home.


12th December 2009

Brilliant !
Thank you for posting so many enjoyable blogs during your travel's. They have been a real pleasure to read. This post was very well timed for me, I'm off to Singapore for the umteenth time this week, so I might look at the place through fresh eyes, think of you and have a laugh. Cheers !!

Tot: 0.04s; Tpl: 0.023s; cc: 9; qc: 23; dbt: 0.0072s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.3mb