For those who don’t live in the Land of Smiles, let me remind you that the Songkran Festival is the Thai celebration of the Buddhist New Year and is celebrated in the middle of April. Festivities usually last three to seven days and their main focus are on partying and water-throwing. Whereas the original festival was respectful and fun, nowadays it has completely degenerated into a drunken orgy of water hooliganism, harassment and binge drinking. No wonder that almost 500 deaths on the roads and several thousands of accidents occur yearly on Thai roads during Songkran. By the way, I completely disagree with most travel guides that say Songkran is one of the best times to visit Thailand. In my opinion, it’s one of the worst.
The festival isn’t about gently pouring water onto people’s hands anymore as it used to be; it has become real guerrilla warfare where water cannons, dirty water and even ice water are used as weapons. Many sexually frustrated male punters also seem to think that groping females is a legitimate part of the ‘fun’. In order to avoid this misery caused by bullies and barbarians, many foreign residents barricade themselves indoors for several days during this period, I kid you not.
This year, the missus and I decided to go on a 10-day trip to Singapore and Malaysia, partly to avoid the above-mentioned hysteria. I had been to the southern part of Malaysia (Langkawi and Penang) before but never to Singapore. She hadn’t been to either. Thanks to the Internet, I managed to buy some very reasonably priced aeroplane tickets to go from Bangkok to Singapore and come back from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok. These ‘open jaw’ tickets made it possible to see both countries without having to do any backtracking.
Although some friends and colleagues had depicted Singapore as rather dull and outrageously expensive, I wanted to see for myself. Most also reckoned that a two or three-day stay was ample time to see the mini-state, one even thought that one day was more than enough. How wrong they were.
My first impressions of the smallest South-East Asian country were very positive and I soon realised that one could easily spend a month there in order to explore every nook and cranny without getting bored. That is, if one had the time and money to do so. Although prices in Singapore aren’t prohibitively high, the country is truly expensive when compared to Thailand.
While walking along the Singapore River in the evening of our first day, my reaction was: ‘This isn’t Asia’. Singapore is really very different from most Asian countries I have visited. All the streets are clean. Traffic is very light. All motorists and pedestrians obey traffic rules. There aren’t any food stalls on the pavement or mangy dogs in the streets. Whenever there is an open space, there are some trees and well-kept grass instead of a pile of rubbish. New buildings are modern while old and historic buildings are tastefully renovated. Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere.
The reason behind the light traffic is a government policy that forces car lovers not only to buy a vehicle, but also a permit to drive it. This so-called Certificate of Entitlement (COE) costs about as much as a small car.
Singapore struck me as being similar to several western cities. I thought it combined the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Sydney, the sophistication of London and the homeliness of Amsterdam. Remember that this is just an impression based on a three-night stay. Thinking of the saying that a new broom sweeps clean, my positivism might erode with time.
Anyway, I’ll go over the most interesting facts of our stay without trying to bore you with every detail. Accommodation is expensive: dorm beds start at 20 Singapore dollars (SGD), the shabbiest hotel rooms go for 50 SGD. You’ll need to pay at least 70 to 100 SGD for a half-decent room, as we did in Little India, one of the cheaper city districts.
There are plenty of things to see and do; unfortunately they all cost money. We did seven of the ten must-see attractions (the iconic Merlion Park, tourist-friendly Sentosa Island, the original Chinatown, historic Clarke and Boat Quay, authentic Little India and alleged shopping paradise Orchard Road). Because of time constraints, we basically skipped all the animal and natural attractions such as Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park and the Botanical Gardens. There are lots of good photo opportunities, so don’t forget your camera.
Tourist brochures are plentiful at Changi Airport, but they are disappointing as they mainly focus on high-street shopping and swanky dining, both of which cost tons of money. As I’m based in Bangkok, I’d never go to Singapore for shopping. An Arab wouldn’t go to Australia to buy a camel, would he now? (Yes I do know there are camels in the Outback.) Actually, we cut short our trip to Orchard Road, as seeing expensive department stores is not my idea of fun while on holiday.
If you want to put your platinum credit card to good use when you’re getting hungry, you can wine and dine at the ubiquitous classy restaurants found all over the city centre. However, if you aim is to keep the food bill affordable, try eating at food courts or local, down-to-earth eateries, where the food is usually just as tasty but where you won’t need to sell a kidney to settle the bill. Food courts can be found in most shopping areas while basic restaurants are abundant in the ethnically diverse districts such as Little India and Chinatown.
There is no Singaporean language. Most people speak Malay, Chinese or Hindi. Just about everybody speaks very good English as well. It was actually a relief to be able to speak English again wherever we went – contrary to Thailand, where hardly any local has the skill to conduct a basic conversation in fluent English.
Sources have told me that Thais are envious of Singapore, and so they should be. General living conditions are much better, e.g. no traffic jams, limited air and noise pollution, clean and wide pavements, better working conditions and decent salaries. Also, very few people in Singapore seem sexually confused: there are no ladyboys, transvestites, transsexuals, eunuchs or tomboys to be seen on every street corner, contrary to Thailand. By the way, Singapore has also shown the world that it is possible to have an abundance of squeaky-clean, non-smelly public toilets. I wish the rest of the world would follow suit.
Isn’t there anything negative about Singapore then? I suppose there is, but I just wasn’t there long enough to experience it. Rules are said to be very strict and laws are rigorously enforced. I saw a T-shirt for sale claiming that ‘Singapore is a fine city – smoking $500 fine, littering $1000 fine, jaywalking $300 fine’. Press freedom is supposedly suppressed and the government doesn’t seem to handle criticism very well. Also, if your daily diet requires lots of alcohol, remember that beer is about three times more expensive than in Thailand.
After three nights in Singapore, it was time to catch a bus to Malaysia. To our surprise, we were the only two passengers on the coach to Melaka (aka Malacca), a coastal city in the south-west of the Malaysian peninsula. Malaysian immigration was efficient, friendly and swift. I received a visa-free three-months-on-arrival stamp without even the need to fill in an arrival card.
Although it doesn’t have the sophistication of Singapore nor the sandy-white beaches and nightlife of Thailand, Malaysia is a pleasant and relaxing place to visit with a lot of atmosphere. Melaka, which is rapidly being developed as a seaside resort city cum fancy shopping malls, has lots of interesting buildings, museums and remnants of the colonial era, mainly located around Bukit Saint Paul (Saint Paul Hill), in the middle of the old town centre.
Accommodation in Malaysia is much cheaper than in Singapore, albeit slightly more expensive than Thailand. The hotel room we found was twice as nice and half the price of Singapore. Food is tasty and restaurants cater to most palates, with a mix of Malay and Chinese food being prevalent. Most restaurants are ‘halal’ (conforming to the Islamic dietary laws) of course, as the majority of Malaysians are Muslims. Alcohol is expensive.
Seeing all the sights in Melaka and getting some relaxation took us three days, after which we moved on the capital Kuala Lumpur. After a two-hour bus ride we arrived in KL, as it is commonly known; it’s a big, modern city which doesn’t seem to be plagued by never-ending traffic jams and near-fatal air pollution. A swath of fairly inexpensive but scruffy hotels and guesthouses is located in and around Chinatown, so choose wisely. Most Malaysians speak basic English, although some can be hard to understand.
KL’s Chinatown should really be called Faketown, since I hardly saw anything authentically Chinese sold at the Petaling Street market. Fake perfumes, designer clothes, leather ware, watches, pirated DVDs and the like was all there was. One could of course argue that producing fakes is an art the Chinese have perfected. On top of that, the market was swarmed with herds of obnoxious and bothersome vendors – none of them Chinese – who couldn’t sell a bottle of water to someone stranded in the desert.
The main tourist sites in KL include Independence Square (Dataran Merdaka) with the picturesque Sultan Abdul Samad building, the Petronas twin towers and a number of famous mosques. Besides these, the Lake Gardens in the middle of the city provide a welcome oasis of green with several attractions such as a planetarium, orchid and hibiscus garden, butterfly garden, the biggest bird park in the world and a placid lake with boats for rent. Lake Gardens cover quite a big area, and doing all of it on foot can wear you out in the heat. I wish they would have banned all cars and rented bicycles instead.
After another three nights in KL, it was time to return home. The Air Asia flight was not only cheap but also punctual and took us in two hours back to Bangkok. It had been a very nice break from Thailand indeed. Looking back, I was very pleasantly surprised by Singapore and racked up another positive experience in Malaysia. However, I was a bit surprised and dismayed that a lot more people than I had imagined in both Singapore and Malaysia smoked, with countless cigarette butts littering the streets especially in KL.
Several English language newspapers are available in both Singapore and Malaysia. While we were there, two Malaysian stories caught my teacher’s eye. The first one decried the situation in which youngsters find themselves pushed to the limit by their parents to perform well academically and are dragged kicking and screaming to tutoring schools every weekend, thus denying them the opportunity to be a child and play with friends. It surely reminded me of Thailand. The second one focused on parents’ anger towards a teacher who thought nothing of caning a boy after he had supposedly misbehaved. Locals usually condone corporal punishment and wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if it weren’t for the fact that in this particular case the boy who underwent the caning suffered from Down’s Syndrome.
A belated Happy Buddhist New Year to everyone.