DAY 34 - Thursday 30th July - Shining Singapore

As the taxi whizzed us into the country-which-isn't-quite-a-country-but-is-more-like-a-large-city, it became quite evident that Singapore is, in fact, a giant construction site. A huge, invisible sign looms over the sprawling metropolis, declaring: "Construction in progress; please return in five years!" Three enormous concrete towers have sprung out of the harbour, dominating the city skyline, draped in a cobweb of cranes and scaffolding. Nick's parents, having stayed in Singapore for a few days, described the towers as casinos, Singapore's first ever. The Singaporeans were certainly taking their debut into the wicked world of gambling in their stride.

The casinos

While Joy, Nick's effervescent and charming mother, chatted to the taxi driver, we relayed our journey to Nick's camera-enthusiast and equally football-mad father Steve. They had picked us up from
Singapore's surprisingly diminutive train station, the destination of our lengthy day-long journey from Kuala Lumpur. The rolling green fields and luscious forests had met a rude halt at the river, the divide between Malaysia and one of the world's smallest and most prosperous nations.

Due to an amusing misunderstanding, my train ticket named me as "Mr Edward Carles"! Ho ho ho!

Oh, and the toilet was just a hole in the floor of the train, with a toilet plastered over the top.

Our hotel, the Pan Pacific, was worthy of several attacks of hyperventilation. Upon entering the cavernous lobby, it took a few seconds of stupefied blinking before our eyes were drawn irrevocably upwards, darting from the gleaming glass lifts, settling on the first few levels, before travelling up the jaw-dropping, sky-high triangular corridor of floors, the ceiling barely visible. I would not have been surprised if the highest floors had been shrouded in clouds and their rooms inhabited by heavenly beings. Well, this is a lie. I would have been very surprised. But that's beside the point.

"...our eyes were drawn irrevocably upwards..."

It was safe to say that our new hotel was jolly impressive.

Looking down from our floor.

After an ear-popping ascent to the twentieth floor in one of the smooth lifts, and after studying the complimentary shampoos and deciding which were worthy of thievery, my attention turned to the room itself. It is my belief that a hundred words can, on occasion, be summarised by just one. The occasion is now and the word is this: "wow". A seizure-inducing television set; lazy, remote-controlled curtains; a foolproof, spring-loaded mini bar (blast it); the shower which could peel skin from bone with a single blast... Sophistication reeked from every nook of this room (or perhaps that was just the post-journey stomach wind) and has, thus far, remained undefeated in terms of sheer, wonderfully unnecessary luxury.

"...sheer, wonderfully unnecessary luxury."

And the view. If I was equipped with a head susceptible to black-outs upon being faced with dizzying heights and a stomach prone to spilling its contents at the slightest increase in altitude, then the view from the balcony would have been practically vomitorious. It opened onto
Singapore's commercial harbour with the towering cityscape providing the backdrop, and, if you dared to lean out precariously and crane your neck to the left, it was possible to see Singapore's latest iconic addition, the Singapore Flyer, just one-year-old and current holder of World's Largest Wheel record, having snatched the title from our very own London Eye. (Conniving bastards.)

My stupendous photography captured the Singapore Flyer at night beautifully, I think.

The evening beckoned, and our stomachs demanded nourishment. Taking the advice from James, a friendly manager, and with Nick's parents leading, we found our way to
China Town.

You could be forgiven to expect a bustling, thriving
China Town community in any city to be caked with grime, the pavements littered with old grease-stained boxes, drinks cartons and possibly chopsticks. Not in Singapore. It was extraordinary; every paving stone and curb seemed to gleam, as though recovering from recent and repeated attacks from a wire scrubbing brush; not a single splodge of chewing gum blemished the cement – an inexorable and permanent plague in British cities; there were no graffiti murals to be spied besmirching the building walls and rubbish bins sat on corners, the very idea of a spillage of their contents an unspoken blasphemy. The explanation to this borderline-OCD spotlessness is, quite simply, because filth is illegal in Singapore. Tempted to carelessly toss a wrapper over your shoulder? Be prepared to be presented with a cool $500 fine. Itching for some gum? Can't be bothered to spit it into a bin? You may as well write out a cheque for $600. And so on. Like Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Petronas Towers and the Sydney Opera House, the Singaporean Government's addiction to cleanliness is legendary and replaces any need for a defining, symbolic landmark despite their efforts to provide one, whether a glorified ferris wheel or a mermaid-lion statue (more on that later).

Chinatown isn't full of caucasian disabled old men, I just somehow captured one in the photo. Just in case you were, you know, confused.

Much menu-eyeing and laborious decision-making later, we finally settled into our seats in a traditionally Chinese steamboat dinner restaurant. The concept of a steamboat dinner is an unusual one. Despite the name suggesting as much, each table is noting fact equipped with a miniature edible ferry, but a large heated metal basin divided into two sections, each containing bubbling and frothing flavoured waters, emanating mouth-watering odours. After placing each order for our choice of ingredients, several waiters would swoop into the room, each bearing countless platters of sliced-up raw meats and vegetables, only to encourage us to fling them into the bath, allowing our dinner to be boiled within seconds.

The steamboat.

This was the easy part. To my dismay, I discovered the only way of transferring food-to-mouth would be through the use of chopsticks. I spent the next hour or so suppressing my desire to request a good-old knife and fork, stabbing at random grains of rice, fishing in the basin, dribbling sauce across the table and lifting precariously captured pieces of chicken or beef towards my mouth before realising they had mysteriously vanished and weren't to found anywhere. By the end, the table looked as though it had been the centre of a violent food fight.

Despite feeding mostly on air, I managed to leave the restaurant feeling quite full, occasionally snacking on pieces of food stuck in the crevices and folds of my clothing. We walked out of
China Town and flagged down a taxi, eventually finding ourselves back at the Pan Pacific.

Although we had only been introduced to but a fraction of
Singapore, I had already enjoyed what we had so far discovered and the impression the gleaming country had made on me.

(Although staying in a 4-star hotel admittedly helps.)

The lifts in the lobby.

DAYS 28-34 - Friday 24th-Thursday 29th July 2009 - Kuala Lumpur

Landing in Kuala Lumpur’s airport was not, by any means, a reassuring experience. During the hop from Phuket to Malaysia’s capital city, we were thrown blank forms demanding, alongside the usual passport and personal information, notification of any signs of high fevers, coughs, sneezes, shortness of breath, and all previously visited countries prior to entry of Malaysia. Yes, it had finally arrived. The H1N1 virus, also known as The Dreaded Swine Flu, after weeks of avoidance, had finally, rudely thrust its presence upon us. Failing to recall any examples of the daintiest sneeze, or the most delicate rise in temperature, I sheepishly ticked every “no” box.

Tick "yes" for immediate quarantine and fugitive status.

Nick fills in his form.

Before Passport Control, we were alarmed to discover the walls pasted with terrifying warning posters and throngs of mask-clad guards patrolling the area. We dutifully and nervously lined up and passed under the stern, impassive gaze of the heat-detecting camera. After it became clear we would not be bundled into black sacks, sealed in boxes and probed in unmentionable places, we passed through the rest of the airport and managed to snatch a taxi after waiting in many agonising queues.

Friendly warnings

We arrived at our hotel, the Impiana, and were ushered inside. Nick and I were suddenly horribly conscious of how out of place we were, standing in the middle of a sparkling marbled, chandeliered lobby in our shorts and (dirty) sandals, flanked by immaculately suited staff while a three-piece live band tickled their instruments, showering the room with music. We muttered our agreement to sport jeans for the next few days. After being led to our hotel room and marvelling at the masses of more marble and fine furniture, and a quick trip out to the local food market where we dined on Malaysian cuisine, we collapsed into our respective beds to hibernate our minds in preparation for the morning.

Masses of marble.

The next day invited us to wander the city. As we wandered, I was struck at the sheer scale of the city. The countless skyscrapers and towers reached skywards, and looming above them all, the renowned and iconic Petronas Towers hovered like two sentinels, ever present, ever visible and ever watching. I felt drawn to them; it was impossible to wander a few steps without throwing my head upwards to gaze at and take in their elegant structure. It struck me that they symbolise a Kuala Lumpur torn between two identities; its desire to succeed, to be wealthy, and to be strong and powerful: an imitator of the United States of America, further reflected in the towers’ decidedly American scale and height. On the other hand, Malaysia is an Islamic state, deeply rooted in its religion and spiritual identity. The towers are based upon ancient and typically Islamic architecture, which stands in stark contrast to the bland, blocky skyscrapers found in America. They are exquisitely designed structures, reflecting the Islamic appreciation for aesthetic appeal and beauty.

The towers are a testament to the booming and rapidly expanding Malaysian economy: while walking around some areas of the city, it was impossible to ignore not only the smell of wealth thick in the air, but also the stench of open sewers by the pavements, and the feeling that Kuala Lumpur is vibrant, alive and constantly growing. The duality continues. It’s possible to spot the occasional Malaysian gentlemen can be seen waddling around, their belts stretched by excessive wealth and the pleasures it can afford (obesity being a rarity in the neighbouring countries) accompanied by their wives clad head-to-foot in black Islamic dress; we once saw three sleek and expensive sports cars tearing down the roads, outstripping spluttering taxis; and, as ever, the gleaming towers pierce the sky, while run-down and filthy buildings and markets clutter at their feet.

Islamic mosque.

Following the inevitable photo opportunities in and around the Petronas Park with the towers as our backdrop, we elected to spend some time at the Kuala Lumpur Aquazone, apparently the world’s largest aquarium. We peered at various fish and other sea-dwelling creatures writhing inside their tanks, feeling decidedly smug of our personal acquaintances with quite a few of the displayed specimens, having met them in their natural environments.

An old friend.

Kuala Lumpur certainly possesses one of the most successful public transportation systems I have ever encountered. As Thailand had required us to walk anywhere and everywhere, buying a pair of monorail tickets heading to the City Centre became something of a luxury, allowing us to join the diverse masses of multi-ethnic citizens flowing in and out of carriages.

A monorail ticket...I'm struggling to stay conscious over the excitement of this photo...

Walking to the monorail, I had a disturbing experience. This experience materialised in the form of, believe me…a monk. Shaven headed, bespectacled and draped in grubby yellow robes, resembling a discount Dalai Lama, he bounced in front of me, eagerly shook my hand, and, reaching into the depths of his shawl, produced a small, gold-coloured plastic card imprinted with a Buddha. Grinning widely, he pressed the card into my hand and whispered: “Peace!” I blinked. He repeated. “Peeeace!” I smiled politely, thanked him for his kindness and attempted to edge around him. His brow furrowed and he whipped out a tiny book, rifling through the pages before cramming it into my other hand. I looked down, sweating. I was beginning to grow hot and embarrassed as I saw the list of first names scribbled down the page, each one declaring “peace”, followed by a number hugging an unorthodox amount of zeros. Deciding upon a policy of appeasement, I followed with my name and the beginning of a number before realising suddenly what this was. Money. The numbers were donations. I frantically scribbled out my line. “Oh no! No, no, I can’t, I don’t have that much money!” I spluttered. His smile vanished. His expression darkened. He snatched back the book and card before storming away, leaving me, caked in shame and embarrassment and guilt and sweat, to wrap my head around the fact that I had almost been robbed by a monk.

Kuala Lumpur, confusingly, appears to have two centres; the business district, where the Impiana is located within rambling distance of the towers; and the actual, actual centre: a mess of cultural markets, Islamic architecture and ultra-modern, oversized shopping malls. In fact the malls, specifically the many located in and around the business district, became our havens, providing restaurants, entrance to the metro and shelter from the sweltering Malaysian heat.

Nick waits for me in one of the oversized shopping malls.

The metro provided the most convenient and cost-effective means of finding our way around the city. At the astonishingly reasonable price of 1.60 Malaysian Ringgit (30 pence) per single journey, it was the ideal means of transport to ply to my tight, inflexible frugality. It was also rather pleasant to find ourselves surrounded by everyday travellers; teenagers with bags slung over their shoulders, beshawled and beveiled women perusing their shopping lists, elderly ladies with their mouths and noses wrapped in pollution and swine flu masks, and the aforementioned portly businessgentlemen, one of whom wedged himself into the packed carriage, crushing the air from my lungs and forcing my face to press up against the glass.

Awaiting the metro.

Dash for the carriage.

The next few days passed casually; Nick and I stalked the city, visiting various sites of interest such as Merderka Square where several thousand cheering Malaysians declared their independence fifty-two years ago, and the national museum, containing extensive and detailed history, entailing the ancient past, conception and present day of modern Malaysia.

Menara Kuala Lumpur (Kuala Lumpur Tower) is the imaginatively named competitor to the Petronas Tower’s claim of tallest building in the city. It was late in the afternoon when we found ourselves inside a gleaming lift, speeding up this 421 metre tower. Ears popping, we gaped at the extraordinary view, as the sun sank into the horizon and the lights of the city gleamed into life. The evening was spoiled slightly by the eternal camera versus window reflections battle. Once the view beyond the great glass panes had melted to pitch black, and had essentially turned into a giant mirror, I gave up, smashing my camera against the floor in rage. Nick approached a man and requested he return a favour; the handlebar-moustachioed fellow had previously asked Nick to take at least a thousand photos of him against the skyline backdrop. He cheerfully obliged and snapped Nick and I with the Petronas Towers glinting behind us.

Spot the horrible reflection...

On the final day, we had saved the best until last; the Towers themselves. However, when the alarm screamed at 6:30am and I crawled out of my nest of bedcovers, sobbing, and cursing and damning everything in the universe, I began to seriously question whether it was worth it. I was still questioning as we waited in the queue, a queue stretching from the ticket desk down several corridors, long before the opening time of 8:30am. We were clearly not the only adherents to the “first come, first served” policy. It paid off, however, as we managed to procure free tickets for the perfect time of 10:40am.

A quick breakfast later, we were standing inside the Towers’ skybridge, watching a daring window-cleaner buff and shine the metal beams, hovering hundreds of metres over the soaring landscape. Disappointingly, access to the peak of the towers is, for some insignificant reason, disallowed, despite both of us agreeing that we would have happily paid to be shown the very top.

Views from the skybridge.

A daring window cleaner.

Nick on the bridge.

When the day of departure arrived, we packed, bade farewell to the Impiana, and took a taxi to the train station, the mode of transport which would whisk us to Singapore. Although sad to be leaving Kuala Lumpur behind, we knew that the towers would greet us again; we had not seen the last of the city.

DAY 28 - Friday 24th July 2009 - Temporarily Leaving Thailand

Phi Phi had caused us immense anxiety, tension and stress. The majority of our time spent in Phi Phi Island Village was fraught with fretful challenges, including the heartbreaking choice between fried or scrambled eggs at the buffet breakfast, being banished to wander the island’s beaches while a maid meticulously cleaned our room, and having to unwillingly spend hours on end at the side of the swimming pool, resisting the roasting sun. It had been hell.

The tide when out

The beach

Nick enjoys the pool

In order to cut costs, namely the cost of the hotel restaurant, we explored and discovered a tiny village, which seemed to be entirely made up of mini restaurants. One night we ate here; I dined on a plate of skeletal chips, beaten into submission by my skyrocketing budgetary deficit, while Nick chomped an enormous bowl of curry (or at least it seemed enormous to my hungry, bloodshot eyes).

Phi Phi palms

Nick with the mountains of Phi Phi

The 'fountains' - with an Edward

On a dull, grey Thursday, the 23rd, we went scuba diving. The first dive, after plunging from the speedboat into the sea, passed without incredible incidence, spotting just a solitary moray eel. However, the second dive would come to be my most memorable yet.

Just another dive! ...Or is it?

Towards the end of the dive, as I drifted over and through the swaying reefs, while Nick snapped photos of the many clown fish, lion fish and other interesting aquatic beasts, my head snapped around on cue, the frantic clinking of metal against metal immediately grabbing my attention; our guide, a Thai Dive Master, was banging his air tank with his steel rod, gesturing wildly into the murky distance. I almost held my breath with anticipation, before remembering that I would probably die if I did so. Instead, I let out an ecstatic explosion of air bubbles as I looked at Nick and pointed – it mattered not, his eyes were wide as he had already seen – at the hawksbill sea turtle nestled on a patch of coral. I couldn’t believe it. Phi Phi is known for its turtle population, but sightings are never guaranteed. Dizzy with our luck, I looked on as the turtle gently ate coral, surrounded by darting fish. After what must have been five minutes of gazing adoringly at the beautiful creature, we ascended, and reviewed the video footage and photos during the windy, wet journey back to the Village.

Clown fish - this stunning photo was actually taken by Nick.

The hawksbill

Eating coral

Sadly, all good things come to an end. This rang true while Nick and I once again packed our bags and bade farewell to Phi Phi. Another boat trip to the port, another ferry journey to Phuket and another taxi ride to the airport, we awaited the flight which would take us from Phuket, and Thailand, once and for all – albeit temporarily. Kuala Lumpur was calling, and it was time to go.