Saturday, August 31, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 8

We eased into Saturday, letting the light slowly fill our villa, and watching the early morning rain give way to a beautiful clarifying heat; it was simply a gorgeous day. We'd booked a car for 10 am; our driver was Agusta. Our desired destination was the beach resort of Sanur, although he didn’t really try to hide his view that this was a somewhat lowbrow request – we explained that we were specifically doing this as a contrast, to see the other side of Bali, but I think he still thought it was a dud choice. However, he elevated the tone of things with well-chosen diversions on the way.
First we stopped at a plantation where they grow various organic crops, and produce numerous varieties of coffee and tea and chocolate, as well as wine and other sundries. The speciality is the luwak coffee, made with beans that have gone through the digestive system of the Asian palm civet. We each had a cup of this, as well as sampling fourteen other flavours of tea and coffee (which thankfully failed to turn us into high-strung messes for the day) and two kinds of alcoholic beverage. Frankly, I wouldn’t have said the luwak coffee really benefitted from the extra work – not that I’m a connoisseur in this area (a Google search suggests this might not be an uncommon assessment though). Anyway, we bought quite a few things in the gift shop, as was no doubt expected of us.

Then we stopped at the Pura Puseh temple in the village of Batuan, some parts of which date back a thousand years. It’s obligatory for visitors to wear a sarong, thus generating the only photo that’s ever likely to exist of me in such an item. It’s a magnificent space, and seemed quite busy with local as well as tourist activity. Once again, I noted as we drove along that Bali seems over-supplied with unsold stone statues, but Agusta didn’t seem too worried on the stonemasons’ behalf. We passed through one village where it seems every second building houses a wood carver; another where everyone seems to craft jewelry; these groupings, it seems, reflect and reinforce the continuity and coherence of Balinese families and communities. Certainly the people we’re talking to seem wonderfully serene and grounded, although I suppose that might speak in part to the power of the Four Seasons brand (by the way, some 300 people apparently work at the hotel, and there are two sniffer dogs; celebrities who’ve stayed here include Julia Roberts, Cindy Crawford, Steven Seagal, and most recently, Metallica, as a break prior to the Asian tour I mentioned the other day).

We eventually reached Sanur, and no doubt he’s right – beach resorts are more the same the world over than they are different. But it still turned out perfectly because it has a path along the edge of the beach that goes for several kilometers – we didn’t even reach the end of it before turning back, because I guess we’re too nice and thought we might be keeping him waiting unduly. Much of the beach belongs to hotels or private clubs,  but at least they let you pass through, unlike some irritating places we’ve been which impede the flow of public space (he wrote as he looked up and surveyed the view from his villa). Of course, your progress is constantly accompanied by people trying to sell you a boat ride, or souvenirs, or (today’s variation on the vending activity) massages and facials, but they’re seldom very strident about it. In general it didn’t seem particularly busy, even though I believe this is one of the peak seasons. The only group I would have identified as being at a possible tourism peak was the, uh, older crowd – I haven’t seen so many elderly people since I went to the matinee of a Woody Allen movie. And most of those kept their shirts on. Anyway, we stopped for lunch along the way and it was a very pleasant few hours.
The roads around Ubud are generally quite narrow, with a rather startling number of seemingly perilously young kids on motor scooters. Apparently the official driving age is 17, but the police don’t enforce it on the smaller roads. Quite a few times as we drove along, I imagined we were going to plough right into the bike in front of us, but it probably all co-exists in deceptive equilibrium: drivers don’t seem aggressive, and you can stop the flow of traffic by stepping out into the street. Anyway, on the way back we stopped at a “batik,” where we observed a group of women (and one man) dyeing and designing various fabrics; someone showed us the process and then, naturally, led us into the accompanying store which (not to seem obsessed by this point) contained more inventory than a group of workers of that size and apparent pace could have produced if they’d been at it for a millennium. Ally bought a robe, similar to the one she’s been enjoying wearing at the Four Seasons.

And then we came back – she had a swim again, I sat at my desk again…all as if we’d been doing it for years. I had a bath later, although I just had a boring regular old bath rather than summoning someone to our villa to prepare a “serenity bath,” a “reconnect together bath” or one of the four other options. The resort has a great number of special spa treatments, guided walks and other offerings (for example, an eight-hour package which supposedly allows you to experience the life of a Balinese rice farmer), but as you see, we generally prefer to design our own events.
The hotel restaurant was running another theme night, based around a local Ubud feast, with a suckling pig as a highpoint. It looked great, but it was much more food than we needed, so we just ordered off the regular menu. We were soon, yet again, the only table in the place, and once the staff satisfied themselves no one else was coming, they all started enjoying the pig themselves, and why not. Once again we drank our wine outside our villa, the perfect vacation day being an artful mix of discovery and of repetition…

Friday, August 30, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 7

We both unthinkingly drank some of the tap water here (which is fine to do in Singapore but not in Bali) which may have contributed to neither of us getting an ideal night’s sleep. Once we got past that, we continued our marveling at where we’d found ourselves, wondering how we’d ever do justice to all our space (no matter how large our hotel room, we both typically end up huddling on the bed). We had a heavy downpour around 9.30 am (we were using the outdoor shower at the time,  so enjoyed the groovy intermingling of the hot water and the rainwater), and left the room around 1o.15. We walked round the resort a bit – quite an undertaking in itself. It’s a gorgeous feat of design, albeit that you might say it just commandeers a big chunk of the island’s common heritage for the benefit of a few people (the beautiful view of the river above, for instance, is locked deep within the grounds of the hotel), and a place where seemingly everything has been anticipated; for example, we found a kids’ entertainment area with a hotel employee sitting alone inside, apparently in the forlorn hope of any kids turning up. We wondered whether the hotel was largely empty (it can’t be full, given how we were upgraded) but then we started to see more people here and there – I guess the whole art is in making you think you might be unique.

The hotel has a shuttle to and from the nearby town of Ubud every couple of hours during the day, so we caught that at 11 am. Confirming last night’s impression, the turn-off to the hotel is just slotted innocuously between other places you wouldn’t blink at; you’d never imagine that if you drive a couple of minutes back from the road, and get past the guards and the sniffer dog, a whole lush world opens up (the sniffer dog seems pretty lucky because based on what we saw, all the other dogs around Ubud are strays). Soon after arriving there, we embarked on one of the most lovely walks we’ve taken in all our time together, through the rice fields above the town. The start of the walk is barely signposted, and initially takes you past a dense series of tour guides and cafes and art stores and suchlike, then they thin out and the rice fields come into view, dazzlingly vast and green, with farmers positioned at picture postcard intervals, and it goes on like that for almost an hour if you follow the main trail as we did, and perhaps forever if you take some of the side trails.

It’s a very peaceful walk, although you have to regularly stand aside for motorcycles, and every few minutes along the way you encounter further vendors of, usually, either art or coconuts. You pass some surprisingly serious-looking houses along the way too, some of them advertised as being for rent – it’s rather beguiling to think one might impulsively decide just to stay in the heart of the rice fields for a month or two. At the end of the trail you can loop back along a road, but it seemed much nicer just to retrace our steps. We forked off in a slightly different direction, and found a remote-seeming café where we decided to have lunch, the Sari Organik Café; it was surprisingly full of tourists, so I think it must be a bit of a destination in itself, as a place to watch the rice farmers as you eat, without having to walk too far from town (it doesn’t take long to learn that prices in Bali are much cheaper than those in Singapore, at least the way we did it – our lunch cost about $15, but would probably have been two or three times as much there, and four or five times as much at the Raffles). From there we walked back down into Ubud, but we could almost have turned right round and done the same walk again.

We walked up and down Ubud’s central street for a while. It consists mainly of art stores and galleries, with a relentless soundtrack of people asking if you want a taxi; and so many temples that you imagine it would be hopeless for anyone to try to inventory all of them. It’s pleasant enough, but probably not vital to an emblematic Bali experience (it seems bizarre that so many tourists would just walk up and down the street and let the amazing sights above the town go unseen, but that’s what the relative numbers seem to suggest). We caught the shuttle back, but with definite plans of returning to Ubud as a starting point for a further walk. They’d put some kick-ass chocolates out for us in our room. Ally swam in the pool and I sat at my desk doing this and the other stuff I do, and time went gently by. It rained heavily again for a while, so I guess we were lucky to have avoided it on our walk (in Singapore, strangely or not, it rained around 1 pm on I think three of the five days we were there). We both went to sleep for several hours and woke up in what could have been the middle of the night. It was actually around 8 pm, a time of day I enjoy because it’s 8 am back home and I can see Ozu on the Urban Dog webcam (he looks fine!)

We ate at the hotel restaurant again. It was a theme night built around an Indonesian feasting concept – earlier on there’d been a dancing performance. By the time we got there at least, only a few tables were occupied. They’d brought in a near-coachload of young girls as extra waitresses, all in local costume. The food was good, although I’m not sure it really embodied the subtle contrast of flavours described on the menu: the main course for instance had five different meat/fish dishes which inevitably tended to blend together. Afterwards we returned to our villa and drank a bottle of wine by the pool. Except for the occasional barking dog in the distance and some mysterious rustling in the trees, we might have been hours away from any other major form of life…

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 6

We certainly aren’t fooling ourselves that five days  is enough to glean much of a sense of the real Singapore. Given the pervasiveness of English at least in the areas we visited, you wonder whether many residents must feel somewhat distanced from their own country. Plainly, the wondrous development we’ve seen downtown doesn’t directly affect the lives of most people. It’s apparently a fairly authoritarian state, but we haven’t seen that either. Some of the older looking apartment buildings are festooned in national flags, which one of the cab drivers told us (we think) indicates subsidized housing, including a program in which people are paid for living with their parents for as long as the parents are alive. Presumably, as you get further from anywhere the tourists would likely go, you encounter lives governed more by such calculations. You see little trucks zipping along, with maybe ten people riding in the back, often all wearing matching jerseys; we take them to be transporting construction crews to and from wherever they’re staying (you see them in the middle of the day too, all stretched out in a row in some shady spot, having a group nap). The hostess at the Long Bar told us she’s from the Philippines and rides over an hour to get home every night. These are just fragments pointing to the inevitable unreliability of our impressions.

We certainly appreciate the fact that no one pays attention to us, since any attention you attract as a tourist is usually at best annoying and at worst outright dangerous. The only real exception is that there are always rickshaw drivers outside the hotel who try to get us to take a ride. They’re a bit of a mystery actually since we’ve only once or twice seen them anywhere other than around the hotel, and they all look too old to go very far, so I’m not sure how much action they can possibly have going. Anyway, we liked Singapore even more than we expected to; we settled into it quite completely, and can completely imagine coming back one day, although I suppose that’s unlikely (if we do, we want the same room, #130, or else one of those next to it – it’s hard to imagine one of the rooms in the main building would have felt as special a hideout, even if they’re more luxurious by some measures). Even the heat becomes less of an issue with every passing day, as you ease into ways of dealing with it. For example, back home everyone stands at the edge of the street waiting for the lights to change, but here they hang back in the shade until the green man actually appears.

On our last day we checked out and left our bags, and then walked to the last major area we hadn’t covered, the historic Chinatown. Whereas Little India feels like a thriving, warts-and-all neighbourhood, Chinatown is clearly much more designed for visitors: you have signs throughout educating you on the wretched lives of the earlier inhabitants of the area, but now it doesn’t feel like much real life goes on there, let alone much suffering. Everything is clean and quite spacious; there are several very handsome temples - we went into one which felt like a happy meeting place. From there we wandered through some nicely preserved old streets, mostly home now to nightclubs and galleries, but with some interlopers such as “O’Bama’s Irish Bar.” We walked back through the heart of the business district, in the middle of the lunchtime rush, and then back along the river one last time. Just a perfect morning walk.

The hotel let us freshen up in the spa, and we caught a cab to the airport, where the whole check-in process took about ten minutes. We took the KLM flight to Denpasar in Bali, lasting around two hours: I slept for most of it, Ally a little less. Compared to the absolute serenity of Singapore airport, Denpasar airport had more of the happy chaos of a tourist destination, but fortunately we’d prearranged a ride to the hotel, so someone met us and walked us to the car. The ride took about an hour, almost all through somewhat chaotic traffic with motor cycles weaving in and out; the roadsides were a constant stream of low-end commerce – people selling things out of carts or off tables or in whatever way they can, punctuated throughout by little stone masonries displaying what might be a lifetime’s worth of inventory (the potential customer base is significant I guess, because we were told every home in Bali has its own temple). We went through one area where you could fleetingly smell the presence of surfers, but it was too dark to glean much (aside from again, the overwhelming presence of know, I think Esperanto may not be doing so well on becoming the global language).

Suddenly in the middle of all this, the entrance to the Four Seasons resort appeared, and after a security check (complete with sniffing dog) we were in an entirely different world. Actually, given the darkness, we’ll have to wait for tomorrow to discover quite how different. But we’ve been upgraded to a private villa with a somewhat unprocessable three thousand feet of space, including our own pool and four different seating areas to lie around it, two showers (indoor and outdoor), a bathtub (which when we arrived had been filled with floating petals) and a general feeling of staggering secluded opulence. We couldn’t really take it all in, and so didn’t try. We went for dinner at the hotel restaurant, on a vast and gorgeous sheltered terrace, where the only other diners left after ten minutes or so, leaving it all to us (it rained for a while, making it feel even more exotic). We ordered from the Indonesian side of the menu, which was excellent, although I swear that my tofu and mushroom main course was overwhelmingly reminiscent of meals Ally has made at home. The walk back to our villa took only about two minutes, but we were still asked twice whether we wanted to be driven in a buggy. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of things like that since the main notion seems to be that you stay at the resort and relax rather than explore (we’ll see how it works as a base for doing the latter). I would say we fell asleep in a state of happy bewilderment.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 5

One of the many nice touches at the Raffles is that, when they do the turndown service, instead of leaving a chocolate on the pillow they leave a little card with extracts from a book on the hotel’s storied past. One night it was about the party scene in the 1920’s and the ease of racking up huge drink bills (not much change as far as that goes - the place definitely applies its own pricing scheme); another night we got a memoir about a female guest from around the same period, and her feelings about staying here at a time when most of the other guests were men; on another occasion it was about the time Miley Cyrus embarrassed herself in the Long Bar. I may have misremembered one of those. Actually, although I can’t stop myself from reading online while on vacation, I still have mixed feelings about it. Our room is so secluded, with a deep, lush layer of foliage separating the veranda from the central courtyard, that you can barely tell in here whether it’s day or night, or this century or the last; it seems a shame to sully that privileged seclusion by lying on the bed reading about the latest contrived scandal (but then, to immediately contradict myself, I missed the New York Times website today, which was down for hours due to hackers).

Oh well. We walked this morning to the Little India district, to continue our exploration of Singapore’s underappreciated diversity. We came to two temples with some kind of group ceremony going on outside, and assumed we must have found it, so that we were surprised when the Indian flavour almost immediately ran out. On consulting the map we realized the real Little India was several blocks further on, so we must have found a Tiny India. The real Little India is a densely packed area of commerce and more temples, with some of the poorest looking streets we’ve seen so far, but unquestionably with a sense of real community. Even here though, Singapore’s construction mania is visible, with a big Indian Heritage Centre project in progress, which seems a bit ironic given how much of the local heritage must presumably have been knocked down to open up the site (as an aside, the city is building several new downtown subway stations – one quite close to Little India – which we can’t help but contrast with Toronto’s endless, unproductive debate on such matters).

We wandered back through some different streets, eventually arriving again at Clarke’s Quay, where we ended the evening of day two. We knew the area only came alive at night, but didn’t realize that was true to this extent – the place was all but deserted. We’d talked about going to a movie today, to continue our long tradition of checking out the movie experience in foreign destinations. But the movies playing here are almost exactly the same as those back home – Elysium, Jobs and so forth – and the multiplexes don’t look at all different either, so we didn’t think it would be a worthwhile use of time. Global uniformity has its pros and cons (in another example of this, posters inform us that Rihanna, Justin Bieber, The Killers and Metallica are all playing here in the next month or so – at least three of those four have also performed in Toronto this year). Anyway, we went back to the hotel, arriving once again almost exactly as a heavy rainstorm was breaking out. Our room was in the process of being cleaned (I think this place has the most meticulous housekeepers in the business) so we sat at another of the hotel’s many locations, the Courtyard Bar, and had a drink. Today was another day when I was more tired than Ally, and could have consumed juices and ginger beers and suchlike all day long – for a while today, I was pretty much just finishing one and then immediately buying another.

I mentioned previously how we’d quickly covered the downtown map from left to right, but that understated how much work it takes to explore everything in between – the more we walk, the more of it there seems to be. But we’ve done a pretty comprehensive job I think. In the evening, after our customarily extended afternoon break, we went to the Night Safari, apparently the only one of its kind: a whole zoo, geared towards nocturnal animals, open only after dark (currently meaning around 7.30 pm), hence theoretically allowing you to see the animals at their prime. Because it’s a bit of a distance from downtown we were going to take a bus, which Ally had meticulously researched, but not untypically for us we got tired of waiting for the bus and took a taxi instead. Anyway, we ended up leaving after most of the return buses had already gone; it felt like we were among those closing the place down, although we only did what you’re supposed to be doing. when you visit there.

The tour has two elements – a tram ride round the major exhibits (maybe many viewers only do this bit) and then various walking tours which cover some of the same enclosures from different angles as well as some other animals not visible from the tram. The darkness makes the walking tour somewhat unconventional, and in some cases – mostly smaller animals like deer or otter – it is indeed easier to imagine you’re seeing them much as they’d appear in the wild. With larger animals, it’s inherently harder to get past the constraints of their situation. We had some Indian food at one of the vending stations near the entrance and took another cab back.
We went for a final visit to the Long Bar, where one of the hostesses recognized us from before and gave us a Singpore Slingshaker, apparently as an apology for not remembering our name initially (not to be cynical, but they sell for just $2-  the only low-priced item within the whole Raffles complex -  so she’s presumably authorized to give away as many as she likes). It was quite empty tonight – it felt like we were closing that place down too. And the band upstairs was playing songs we’ve heard them play before. So I guess that all meant it was time to move on to Bali.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 4

Predictably by now, we were both awake well before 5 am, and we charted new ground by hitting some of the local breakfast spots before they’d even opened for business. Eventually we gave up on that and just caught a cab, traveling twenty minutes or so to the Jurong Bird Park. The driver commented several times that we’d have done better to come out after 10 am when the traffic was lighter, but by city standards it really wasn’t that bad – everything moves along efficiently, with an apparent high degree of road etiquette. On all our cab rides, the radio has been tuned to local English language stations, which sound almost exactly as chirpy and banal as all over the world, with the same bland playlists (the station this morning even had the same name as one of the Toronto stations – Kiss92). The Singapore morning traffic seems to consist more of general displacement across the city than of a big funnel into downtown, as in many other places. Outside the core, it’s a constant series of massive high rises, some of them quite visually striking and very few seeming rundown, and industrial strength – everything we saw speaks to the place as a thriving powerhouse.

We arrived at the Bird Park ten minutes or so after it opened, and had breakfast at a restaurant just by the entrance. For most of our visit, we had the place to ourselves. It’s apparently the largest bird park in Asia, and a mostly pleasant place to walk around for a couple of hours, although if you’ve ever been to a zoo, much of it can likely be imagined fairly accurately without actually going there. Some birds obviously fare better than others – they have hundreds of flamingoes for instance, all hanging out in an enormous space. On the other hand, close enough by to hear the happy flamingoes squawking away all day, a solitary shoebill was left to stand in his much more limited environment, with just a single stork or something for company, looking absolutely miserable. The poor shoebill was actually my favourite of the attractions. Other areas include the inaptly named “Parrot Paradise,” which actually seems closer to some kind of Parrot Hell, marked by bone-curdling screeching and aggressive confrontations; and yet another stunning artificial indoor waterfall. Supposedly, at the summit of the waterfall you could study all kinds of exotic birds feasting on fresh fruit – but once we got there, we found only the dullest and mangiest looking bird in the whole place. They also have a big performing space with big posters announcing the stars of the show, such as Sassy the cockatoo, Mr and Mrs Horn the toucans, Alfred the parrot, and Brian Dennehy (I made one of those up). Anyway, we didn’t stay for that.

It was filling up considerably when we left. We found a cab sitting right outside (our traditional vacation luck is turned all the way up on this trip) and came back to the Raffles, from where we explored some other areas of the preserved colonial core. Right across from the hotel there’s a former convent which now holds a collection of restaurants and bars; a little up from there you can find an old post office and stamp museum – these parts of town remind us very much of Bermuda, although I think the past is even better preserved here, looking as if it were freshly painted just yesterday: the difference is, in Singapore they’re just little enclaves of the past, easily overlooked unless you go looking for them, whereas Bermuda still insists on them as central to its present (by all accounts, a faltering economic and cultural strategy). But as an aside, the travel guides don’t really convey how varied and pleasurable it is to walk in Singapore (the heat being the main impediment) – the longer we’re here, the more we’re appreciating its understated diversity. Our walk also took in the site of a historical fort, Fort Canning; the burial site of a former Malay king; and a modern sculpture garden – as with everything here, all perfectly tended, and seemingly under-appreciated.

We kept our afternoon sleep shorter than the last few days, to be sure we’d make it to the Singapore Art Museum a couple of hours before closing time. The building used to be a mission, although in this case the conversion is only partially successful – it feels like there are just a few galleries, separated by too many odd corridors and functional spaces. It certainly shows some active curating though – the main current exhibition was about ways of engaging and representing with current events in the Middle East, and other rooms seemed concerned with stimulating children or the uninitiated (for example, through a gallery where none of the works had titles, encouraging visitors to write and put up their own). Again though, everything was only in English, which might seem here like a different form of cultural elitism. The last part of the exhibition is in a separate building across the street, including several rooms made up as 360 degree fantasy spaces; even requiring 3-D glasses in one case. Anyway, when the clock hit closing time at 7 pm, the staff all poured out of there and plainly couldn’t say too rapid a goodbye to the last few remaining guests.

We walked around a bit more, skirting some of the same neighborhoods from this morning and then wandering down to the river, The skyline looked spectacular tonight, and there was a general air of contentment and well-being. We came across a restaurant, Indochine, with a vast patio and a perfect view of all this – it seems to belong to a high-end regional chain, but it was exactly what we were looking for (strangely enough, just by circumstance, we hadn’t eaten Chinese food on the trip yet). We walked back from there, spending the last few minutes on our veranda. If this isn’t the best hotel we’ve ever stayed in – and it probably is that – it’s certainly the one where the ambiance most shaped our sense of the visit: Singapore would be great enough if experienced from a comfortable modern room (and there seems to be no shortage of those – I’ve seldom seen such a concentration of enormous hotels) but with the Raffles as a base, your sense of history and modernity, of secret places and stories winding around the steel and glass, is gloriously amplified…

Monday, August 26, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 3

We were both up at around 5 am, although Ally later went back to sleep for a while; we left the hotel a little later than yesterday, although still early by our historical vacation standards. We had breakfast in the same hotel bakery again (it’s not that we were trying to be dull – we just couldn’t find anywhere else in the immediate vicinity that worked as well) and then took a taxi to the Bukit Timah nature reserve, only about a fifteen minute ride, but once you get there a much larger slab than we saw yesterday of the original forest, now reduced to 0.2% of its former volume, or something like that.

The reserve is nicely arranged for walking, with a series of loops which you can add on incrementally, so you don’t need to commit yourself to more than you can handle. Naturally, we ended up doing all the trails indicated on the main map, which took about two and a half hours. It’s a bit of a work-out given the heat, and also because relatively little of it is ever flat, so you’re nearly always either steeply ascending or descending. At the start we were seeing a large number of mostly older locals sweating through their morning exercise, but they plainly know to come early, because when we exited at around 1.15, there was almost no one around at all. The forest is too dense to provide many views, with one main exception where you get a good look at the sweeping skyline, but we enjoyed just pushing ourselves along, and it’s good that it has an official sign to mark the summit, so you feel an appropriate sense of achievement. Fortunately too, the heat didn’t seem to keep rising too much today, given the looming prospect of rain, so the closing stretch felt almost cool by comparison (if only in relative terms, but when you’re doing such a walk at such temperatures, perception counts for a lot).

The forest has numerous signs warning against feeding the monkeys, but except for a few of them around the parking lot when we first showed up, we only saw one monkey the entire time (and barely any birds either – however, we had the almost constant background of cicada humming, often almost deafening, like a whole parking lot of car alarms). We were talking about this as we walked back to the road, and then suddenly we started to see monkeys everywhere – in particular, one otherwise nice-looking house seemed to be overrun with monkeys, to the point where they can presumably never open the windows or sit outside with food or anything like that. It might be a form of hell on earth, who knows. Anyway, our study of the monkeys was curtailed when an available taxi came by, and we decided to grab it. We were extremely lucky in this, because during the cab ride it started raining fairly heavily; the downpour lasted almost the exact duration of the ride. On the other side we walked round a bit and went into a nearby mall – Raffles City – where we found a Ben and Jerry’s in the food court, so we got a decadent snack there. It was looking like rain again, so we went back to the hotel for a while.
I mean, that was our intention, to go there for a while, but I ended up sleeping until almost 7 pm again – so for now I seem to be locked into sleeping in two roughly equal four-hour blocks of time, which I think I read once may make good sense from a physiological point of view, but isn’t so friendly to maximizing your city experiences (we’d talked about going to one of the galleries for the last couple of hours of opening time, but had to abandon that). Ally slept less than I did, but as it was raining heavily again for some of the time, she didn’t make an effort to wake me. Anyway, like last night, it wasn’t far off 8 pm when we left the hotel. We walked down to Arab Street, listed on the Frommers website as the number one Singapore attraction. As the name implies, it’s a thriving little area, dominated by an imposing mosque and populated by a squeeze of stores and restaurants, mostly supporting the main theme but also with some odd interlopers (e.g. “the Sleepy Kiwi”). It’s probably a more colourful neighborhood during the day, but it was fun to walk around, and we ate at a Lebanese themed restaurant, Beirut Grill, which was very good.

We walked back and went into the Long Bar again. The same band was playing upstairs, covering the likes of Hotel California. Like the other night, the place seemed to have unusually rapid turnover for a bar. But maybe that’s something about Singapore more generally – Ally read that the average visitor only stays 3.5 days, so our five nights virtually qualifies as moving in (at the airport when we arrived, we were surprised how few of the passengers seemed to be ending their journeys here - judging by the luggage carousel, virtually everyone was transferring). And moving round day to day, it’s unusually difficult to get a sense of who might be native to the country, as opposed to being a visitor or recent immigrant (as an aside, we’ve seen numerous cases where an older, like much older, white man is accompanied by a young Asian woman, tagging along in a way that just looks flagrantly transactional, but I doubt this comes even remotely close to the volumes one might see in some other Asian countries).
Even the Raffles, which sells its heritage to the hilt (I doubt that many hotels could stock a gift shop with so much memorabilia about themselves), is something of an illusion in that much of its current state only goes back as far as a big refurbishment in the late 80’s. It’s on “Beach Road,” but it takes quite an effort of imagination to believe that this was so-named because it was originally on a beach – it’s far removed from that now, given subsequent land reclamation. And legend has it that the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot at the hotel – some stories say in the Long Bar. Well, who knows? But as we sat on our veranda at the end of the night talking about all this, we agreed it was all a myth well worth surrendering to.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 2

We were both awake at 3.30 am, and ate the bananas out of the fruit basket; Ally went back to sleep, but I never did. I wrote this diary and visited my usual websites, mostly newspapers, although I’m already too far behind to catch up. We’d decided to try getting going earlier than we usually would, to avoid the worst of the heat, and we managed to leave the room not too long after 8 am, almost unprecedented for us on vacation. We had breakfast in a bakery café that’s part of the Raffles complex, and then retraced our steps from last night, heading down Orchard Road. Of course, this time on a Sunday, there weren’t many people out, and much of the activity that did exist may have been church-related. A couple of these churches, and various other buildings in the vicinity, have survived with the Raffles from a different age, and from certain highly selective angles you could almost have the fleeting impression of being in a small freshly-painted colonial town. Well, almost (the managers and receptionists in our hotel wear pristine, blemish-free tan-coloured suits and white shirts, a look which can only possibly be sustained by never going outside in those outfits, and so which somehow seems like a kind of gentle fantasy of denial). Anyway, we walked all the way to the end of Orchard Road, ticking off every high-class retail name at least once if not twice, and then kept going through an area of presumably upper-end residences and embassies. Only one of them, the US embassy, had a sign prohibiting taking pictures, although given the deadly look of the place, this may have been based in artistic rather than security considerations.

We arrived at our destination, the Singapore botanical gardens, and spent the next couple of hours exploring the grounds fairly comprehensively. Given how even an average city street here seems painstakingly cultivated, it’s no surprise these gardens are a showcase, and as with everywhere we’ve seen so far, the no-litter laws are certainly scrupulously observed (I don’t know what the penalties are – maybe it’s death, as the immigration form told us it was for drug trafficking). The gardens were quite pleasantly busy, with many family outings, and with numerous groups of picnicking young women: on our walk over, we’d already passed through several blocks overrun by similar-looking women. It would have been a mystery to us, but we’d seen something similar in Hong Kong years ago and learned they were all nannies, getting together on their only day off. It must be lonely if you have an employer who insists you take your day off on Tuesday.

The highlights include a national orchid garden, where it seems some serious flower photographers might spend entire days - it includes orchids named after the likes of Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher (surely should be a cactus, rather?) - and a portion of rainforest of the kind it says once covered most of Singapore, but it seems to contain areas devoted to just about every kind of horticulture. Comparing it to a Sunday park outing back home, I don’t think there are many dogs in Singapore, and most of those that exist must spend their days dreaming of jumping into a nice cool lake. It was just about as hot as yesterday (the forecast suggested possible thunder storms, but they never transpired) but the availability of shade made it seem much more manageable. In retrospect, the relative extreme lack of shade on the walk we did yesterday morning may be a serious design flaw, if they intend people to actually use and enjoy all that expensive new public space.

We ended up walking back all the way too, although more than Ally, I started to get seriously tired after a while: I think the afternoon nap I’ve been having over the last year or two may be wired into my system now. By now the streets were almost as busy as last night, with Sunday shopping outings presumably in full swing. We stopped for lunch at the same place where we’d had breakfast, and both fell asleep not long after returning to the room. Ally woke me up around 6.30 pm – I guess something that lasts close to four hours can’t really be termed an afternoon nap – although she later went back to sleep herself. We didn’t end up leaving the room until around 8 pm. At one time we might have thought it was missing an opportunity to spend so much of the day in the hotel, but now we’re more philosophical about following our natural inclinations. Plus, the more time we spend in here, the more it justifies the cost of the room (although I guess to justify the cost of this room we should be holding cocktail parties and signing business deals in it, not just sleeping).

Anyway, we had a completely wonderful evening. This morning we’d already done a big chunk of what we most like to do – create a mental map of the city – by walking off the left side of the tourist city map (and yesterday we’d already walked off the right side). Now we filled in some of the space round the hotel by exploring the surrounding blocks, although that didn’t yield much, except a few streets of mini-Chinatowns (in the mysterious way of such places, these streets themselves were crammed with busy restaurant activity, but the surrounding areas showed no evidence of anyone either arriving or leaving). We kept on going towards the river, through the Esplanade Park where young people were gathered in groups, many of them conducting sing-alongs. It was completely dark, and not very well-lit by Western standards, but didn’t seem at all threatening. We intersected our Marina Bay walk route from yesterday, but kept taking a longer-established route along the water, past a series of relatively earthier bars and restaurants, none of which really grabbed us. Eventually we ended up at Clarke Quay, another of the visitor-friendly concentrations you find in every waterfront city: it was around 9.30 pm by now, and very happily busy, the atmosphere aided by quite active boat traffic (I don’t know whether the boats are really doing anything or are just for show). We ate at a Thai restaurant, Renn Thai, which I’m sure wouldn’t push its way into the guidebooks, but completely satisfied us (if you're ever looking for it, it's right by the Singapore Hooters). A couple of hours later when we left, things were trailing off a bit, but not so quickly that it wouldn’t keep going well into the night. We took a cab back to the hotel, and sat for a little while on our veranda, you know, as you do when you’re staying at the Raffles. We had a nice handwritten note informing us that Alison’s umbrella, which she’d left behind this morning in the breakfast place, had been returned, and we should contact one of our butlers to obtain it. Maybe they can also bring us more bananas!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 1

We’ve had little to complain about with the logistics of our recent travels, and the journey to Singapore didn’t change that at all. We left Toronto on time, 8.40 pm on Thursday evening, and reached London half an hour early; the connection was easy, and on the longer flight to Singapore we had an empty seat next to us and a general feeling of ease and space, by airline standards anyway (the take-off was so graceful that neither Ally nor I even felt the plane leave the ground, which I think is a first, so I guess those 380s really are a better class of flying machine). We both slept maybe seven or eight hours out of the overall 22 hours of traveling time, which wasn’t too bad, and Singapore Airlines had an astounding selection of movies. I watched the Hong Kong film The Grandmaster, which actually opened in Toronto the same day, except that the critics all complained about getting a version with twenty minutes cut out of it, whereas the airline had the full version, so it’s like I was scoring points! The selection was so good that I even watched a second movie, the French In the House. Ally watched Robert Redford’s The Company you Keep and quite a few episodes of The Sopranos.

We arrived in Singapore just after 7 am, and encountered no delays at all either at immigration or in collecting our bags…if only life was always like this. The airport, huge and gleaming, seemed designed to handle about a hundred times more passengers than were actually there (a similar sense of over-capacity would accompany our entire morning). The cab ride to the hotel, which took less than fifteen minutes, was along immaculate straight roads, obviously tended by enormous gardening budgets – every mundane stretch of highway was as striking as the average flower garden. We noticed immediately – and this would also recur all day – how virtually every sign and advertisement was in English, most often exclusively: we’d known English was an official language here, but hadn’t realized it would be quite as dominant. People were jogging and cycling and doing group exercises in the park; the roads were largely empty. It was the kind of arrival that makes you pretty sure you’re not going to have too many adaptation problems.

It was too early to check into our room, but we were at least able to have a shower in the spa area, then we went outside to explore for a while. At that time on Saturday morning it was largely deserted – virtually everything seemed new and gleaming. Actually, most of what we saw that morning is virtually new – we walked round the massive Marina Bay development, which isn’t even mentioned in our 2010 guide book. It’s a 3 or 4 km loop, all with great views of the skyline and the water, and so plainly not concerned with budget constraints that it might seem like a national bragging project – highlights include a science museum that reaches into the sky like overlaid petals, a three-pillared hotel with what looks like a concrete ship resting on top, and a mysterious glass pyramid in the water that turned out to be a Louis Vuitton store. It has any number of water-view eating places, but few of them were open. And it didn’t look like the construction is anywhere near to stopping. There’s a lot of development going on in Toronto too, but this made all that seem merely timid (not that I’m saying development is necessarily virtuous…)

After completing that circle, we walked into another element of the epic vision, the 101-hectare “Gardens by the Bay,” which the website says “enhances the image of Singapore as a garden city,” although given the wondrous artificiality of the whole thing, the key term would have to be “image.” Most striking is a series of enormous “Supertrees,” which might be taken either as a tribute to nature or a parody of it, but they’re certainly hard to look away from. Some of them have bars and restaurants inside and are joined by walkways: they also collect rainwater and generate solar power. We bought tickets to another new structure – the cloud forest – an enormous glass dome built around an artificial waterfall and containing enough plantation to have pillaged a small forest elsewhere. By this time it was already very hot (a feels-like temperature of around 42) and the entrance to the cloud forest provided a gorgeous blast of wet cool air, which I’m sure must be a big piece of the marketing. It also contains some nicely executed although possibly slightly disingenuous displays about the threat of global warming and the like.

By then we were getting tired so we walked back to the hotel, arriving around noon. We’re staying in the famous Raffles hotel, which opened in 1887 and has had such guests as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Michael Jackson. We reach our room by walking out of the lobby and around the west side of the main building, through a private gate, and along a courtyard. The hotel covers a big footprint, a whole block in fact, but a lot of that is restaurants and bars and shops and other spaces: there are only a hundred rooms or so. But ours at least is enormous, skillfully preserving a sense of old-world elegance without showing any signs of wear and tear: we could spend all day here, writing letters on elegant stationery and drinking tea, either inside or outside the door on our veranda! More practically, the room has an enormous bed, and we both fell asleep almost as soon as we made contact with it.

We slept for six hours, and by then it was getting dark, although the heat didn’t subside that much. We walked in the opposite direction from the morning, and had just about the opposite experience – this time we were surrounded by young crowds, often almost suffocatingly. Part of this might have been due to a night festival, anchored from what we saw by mysterious images projected onto buildings and by various musical acts. We walked some of the way down Orchard Road, the main shopping hub, and indeed it’s hard to remember when we’ve seen so much concentrated retail (as well as, echoing an earlier point, such a colossal air-conditioning bill, as the walk was punctuated throughout by ice-cold blasts from various entrances).
Eventually we turned back and went into the hotel’s “Long Bar,” another key component of its classic status, in particular as the home of the Singapore Sling (one of my initial reactions though was that the bar wasn’t actually that long). Indeed, it looks like the most boring barman gig ever – based on what we observed, well over half the drink orders are for that one item. We started with that, which is fine but nothing to write home about on elegant stationery, and then moved on to wine: we weren’t all that hungry, so just had some bar snacks, which worked out very well. A band on the upper floor was covering the likes of Toto and Men at Work and so the time just rolled by. While we were there, many of the tables turned over three or four times – people just coming in, ticking off their Singapore Sling experience and moving on. And eventually, after racking up a truly senseless bill, so did we.