From Kuala Lumpur it was south again, on an overnight train leaving at 10:30pm. It transpired that we were able to get a deluxe sleeper for around £20 each, and the overnight train performs the nifty trick of saving you money on accommodation. “Deluxe” class got us a whole compartment to ourselves, with shelves, two narrow bunks, and – glory of glories – a bathroom of our own with a shower, plus dinner (which we ignored) and breakfast sandwiches (which we wished we could ignore). We’ve become quite adept at sleeping on trains, and the ride was smoother than, say, the Vietnam Reunification Line, but the track took some steep curves that nearly threw me out of my bunk. Sleep did not come easily.
This brings us to another reason I so thoroughly did not get along with Kuala Lumpur: sleep. For the first time in Southeast Asia, we were sleeping in a room without air-con, and even with the windows open and a fan running full blast, we got only restless, sweaty sleep. Running four nights short, after negotiating the long immigration queue in Singapore Woodlands station at 7pm, I retired to bed for several hours. If we’ve learnt one thing from travelling this long, it’s that sometimes you just have to take the day off, and our first day in Singapore was definitely one of those days.
We were in the lucky position of having been invited to stay with Loz’s friend Tim, his wife Sue, and their toddler Jenson. This gave us a comfortable place to stay close to Singapore’s Little India and good company and advice. Singapore certainly scored considerably higher than Kuala Lumpur on the walkability scale; despite the equatorial heat and legendary humidity, the central streets are well-signed and equipped with good pavements, and the metro system is extensive and easy to navigate. Somehow trouble seemed to have followed, or preceded us, again, with race-based rioting in Little India just before we got there – the first time this had happened in straitlaced Singapore in more than 40 years. I found this particularly interesting after our crash course in the racial and ethnic dynamics of the area via the National Museum of Malaysia and (in a considerably less PC version) Suresh, the Indian guide. “Racial harmony” is considered so important to the success of Singapore that the government has formally incorporated it in “Singaporean values”, and celebrates an annual “Racial Harmony Day”, but for the first time in decades, some of the cracks were visibly showing. (Another interesting note: the National Museum of Malaysia gives the impression that Singapore left Malaysia by mutual agreement, the Lonely Planet Singapore uses the phrase “kicked out”, and Suresh’s version, which aligns with the view of most political scholars, is that it was a calculated move to neutralise the growing power of the Chinese lobby in Malaysia. While modern Malaysia is 30% Chinese and 52% Malay, Singapore is fully 74% Chinese, and in both countries Indians sit at the bottom of the social hierarchy.)
We began with a walk through the Singapore Botanic Gardens, laid out with almost pedantic neatness, but lush, green, and relaxing. It contains an extensive and beautiful Orchid Garden, which showcases rare crossbred orchids that have been created to honour important visitors; Princess Diana has one (a delicate cream marbled with pink), as does Nelson Mandela (rich purple). From there, we spent time enjoying some of Singapore’s well-curated modern museums, starting with the National Museum of Singapore. Their exhibits included one on the introduction of TV to Singapore and the role it had played in shaping Singaporean culture, as well as one on the street food of Singapore, and the Chinese-Malay-Indian influences that had given it particular dishes. To round the day off, Tim and Sue took us to the SkyBar, 57 floors high, to watch the sun go down over the city.
The next day, we took in the Singapore Art Museum, where I indulged myself in a stunningly presented and often unsettling selection of art. Singapore has a certain… sterility to it, and its creative arts are lacking the kind of ragged, bleeding edge you’d find in London or Hong Kong, but the art museum brings in works from all over the region, and has plenty to interest. Afterwards, we took in the ArtScience museum, designed in the shape of a deconstructed lotus flower, but more popularly referred to as “THE CLAW”. The idea of an ArtScience museum that refuses to draw a line between the two is like catnip for me, and I enjoyed the place hugely. Their showcase exhibition at present is on the work of Charles and Ray Eames – a married couple, not brothers – who created not only a dozen pieces of iconic furniture for the Herman Miller company, but conceptual and educational videos and museum displays, and a bentwood splint for the U.S. Army that used revolutionary techniques. The relics of Charles and Ray’s life show a couple so in tune with each other and with such a common vision that they were able to amplify and build on each other’s work to make something greater than the sum of their parts. I felt both jealous, and deeply touched. Charles was also a photographer, and the dozens of his photos displayed show someone with an eye tuned with microscopic precision to texture, shape, and juxtaposition. (When his sister called from Louisiana, the story goes, to report that a hurricane had hit the area hard but she and her family were all right, Charles responded, “Yes, but did you get pictures?”) It’s a fantastic exhibit for anyone interested in design, symmetry, or – believe it or not – mathematics.
We rounded off our time in the city by having dinner with Sam and Coco at a vegetarian Peranakan (Malay/Chinese fusion) restaurant, before catching a cab to the airport for our red-eye flight to Sydney, and a whole new phase of the trip.