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Archive for the ‘Singapore’ Category

A fragmented but adequate night’s sleep in Singapore; no parties into the early hours, although when I popped to the loo at 2am there was a group of Chinese girls sitting around in the kitchen – fortunately a fair distance away from our 7 square metres of room. We were awake around 7am and our efforts to have an enforced lie-in came to nothing; once Ellen is awake and in a silly mood, that’s it…
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We explored the local breakfast options, eventually settling on Starbucks. Not our usual choice, but it did the job this morning; the breakfast deals took the edge off the premium prices and we enjoyed a freshly-baked roll, a fruit ciabatta and a couple of Belgian waffles along with a banana and a small bunch of grapes – oh, and a hard-boiled egg. We lingered as long as we could, browsing magazines and relaxing on the comfy chairs.

We then returned to our room via a supermarket to stock up with drinks and snacks to see us through 12 hours at the airport. Half an hour lying down on our beds (the last opportunity for horizontal rest until we reach England), though Ellen was wriggly and Hannah wanted to sketch fashion designs – we did our best to explain that it would be nearly midnight by the time we got on the plane, and they’d be begging to rest by then.

The hostel staff kindly let us keep our bags in the room beyond the noon checkout deadline so we could nip out and get some lunch (at a German bakery called Werner’s). Just after 1pm we hit the street to catch a taxi, but the man at Reception then followed us out to explain that all the taxi drivers were on their way to have their lunchtime break (that’s why they wouldn’t stop for me) so he phoned for one instead.

While we waited, he explained that in Singapore no-one would ever take their children out of school for a year, even to travel the world; there is too much pressure to achieve top grades, to excel academically.

It was a quick 15-minute trip to Terminal 1 where we were able to check in for our flight a full 10 hours early at a special desk. Excellent! No waiting in line, our pick of the seats (we have a block of four, as we wished) and no heavy bags to cart around. Meanwhile the standard Qantas desks grew clogged and snaking queues.

So, what to do for the next 0.417 of a day? We took an escalator upstairs to a section undergoing refurbishment; it held no attraction but for empty seats to sit on and acres of clear floor space for the girls to run around on. We installed ourselves, snacked and played tag on the tiled floor – the strips of darker tiles made suitable bases, and there was no-one around to annoy or collide with.

Just after tea time we decided to move through to the Departure Lounge. We assumed we’d have to leave our drinks behind (and duly binned them) but there was no check at all, despite the big prohibition signs and rows of officials. One of the most extensive airport shopping complexes I have ever seen (is this why Singapore gets voted the world’s best airport?) with a food court upstairs.

We sat in front of a row of three shops: a sweet shop, a toy shop and a bookstore. It made me slightly sad that the girls expressed not a flicker of interest in the first two – have we been such ogres that they are resigned to the realisation that there’s no chance of making an impulse purchase in either? Anyway, we looked in the bookshop where Hannah and Kirsten bought magazines and Ellen later got a Madagascar book.

The girls spotted a sign for Subway, so that was supper sorted – we haven’t been to one since our first stay in Singapore. A Taiwanese family was fascinated by our extended travels – photos all round as we shared our 12-inch honey oatmeal tuna salad baguette.
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Now for the last four hours of waiting…

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Durian cake

I slept reasonably well after staying up late to put some recent photos on the blog, but Kirsten was kept awake for four hours until 3am by thumping music downstairs. The hotel also operates a nightclub, however much of a conflict of interest there might be between people requiring a good night’s sleep and people requiring a good night out, separated by only a few metres vertically. And this was a Wednesday night? Fortunately the girls were oblivious to the noise.

We didn’t take long to gather our things and check out, although the reception staff got all fussy about whether we had used two bottles of mineral water. They should be complimentary (the bottles and the staff), but that might depend on whether you used the glass bottles in the bathroom (which I assumed were for brushing your teeth) or the plastic bottles in the fridge. We had just coughed up £50 for the two rooms, and here they were being petty about bottles which cost 10 pence in the shops (even less wholesale, no doubt). It’s also the way they ask you to wait while they call Housekeeping to check your room and fridge, just in case you’ve trashed the place or lied about your minibar consumption. I.e. they say “First we send someone to check your room/minibar” rather than simply getting on with it discreetly. Only in Bali.

Our taxi took us to the airport where we were still a little early for our check-in. We sat around and browsed the limited shopping opportunities, getting Ellen a Kids’ National Geographic. A minimal queue when we dropped off our three bags full (which are lighter than they’ve ever been – we’re now throwing our old dirty clothes away rather than washing them). We took the escalator upstairs and paid our departure fees (another £45 on top of the £70 we paid when we arrived; again, only in Bali). An hour or so to wait before our flight was called; we watched the incoming planes approach us (nearly) head-on from the sea and spotted ours arriving right on time. Once our flight number was Tannoyed, we dropped our remaining drink, went through a second luggage scan and found ourselves in an otherwise empty departure lounge. Where’s everyone else? We had fantasies of our own private jet – “One of us could sit in each corner of the aeroplane”, mused Ellen. Still no-one came. Perhaps they’ll squash us into a Cessna.
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But after a quarter of an hour, a group of four Chinese came to sit just across from us, followed by a steady trickle of other passengers. Once it was time to board, we grabbed our bags, ready to maintain our place in the queue (if such a concept exists here). But it was Priority seats first, followed by the back half of the plane, then the left-overs (they don’t even bother with row numbers for the left-overs). None of this ‘families with young children first’, like we used to get in South America. I mean, Ellen won’t be six for much longer, so we want to enjoy it while we can…

On board we were asked to pay attention to the safety demonstration given by flight attendants “Cha Cha, Chi Chi and Chu Chu”. What is this? Job opportunities for giant pandas? The emergency exits are located… Eats, chutes and leaves?

And thus we left Bali. I think I’ll have recurrent nightmares about walking into the local Co-op back home and picking up a can of baked beans, only to be cornered by a sales assistant who pesters “£5, sir! Good price, normal £10. Okay, £4. Genuine Bali beans. For you, sir, £3. You want two? I give you two for £2 each. Is very good price. You buy?”

Some random recollections of our stay. Why would anyone buy a rehydration drink called ‘Pocari Sweat’? It is possible to carry three double mattresses on the back of a motorbike; I’ve seen it done. And those big signs advertising enormous sacks of ‘Semen Gresik’ – it’s a make of cement, folks…

At 3.15pm we landed in Singapore for the second time on our trip. We remembered not to dare approach the Immigration desk as a foursome so we split into two pairs, adult and child in each. After a pause for a loo stop ours were the last lonely bags still riding the carousel; we got cash from an ATM and bought some savoury pastries from an airport stall. (For some inexplicable reason we had not pre-booked any meals for the flight, but at least we had a break from chicken focaccia.) We followed up with an eclair, a slice of apple crumble, a cream coffee slice and… a slice of durian cake! Probably because we won’t have the opportunity of trying this infamous fruit once we’re back home. (This is the one they ban from hotels because the foul stench cannot even be contained by multiple layers of plastic wrapping.)

We took a taxi to the cryptically-named Aces Lodges @ Siglap. It’s glowingly reviewed on the internet (“the best hotel in Singapore”, etc.) but our initial reaction was “is this it?”. Our room is the second most cramped of our trip (after Puno) with two bunks, a tower of metal lockers and a smidgen of clear floor space (until we dumped our bags). The window overlooks a main road, the curtain does not black out the street lamp right outside and the air conditioning gives you a choice between too cold or too warm.

There is a kitchen area fully equipped from Ikea (just like the Apollo Bay Youth Hostel), but there the resemblance ends. Despite all the adverts, here was an Ikea table that had been cruelly assaulted and left for dead, its swollen woodchip innards bulging out through multiple gashes in the veneer; indeed, it was in such a sorry state the Kirsten refused to believe it could be of Scandinavian origin until I located the telltale label on the underside.

We sat at a healthier slatted table and had our sweet pastries. I was the only one to tackle the durian concoction, and although I could bear a few mouthfuls of it, I was left with an unpleasant aftertaste for hours afterwards. And the taste is supposed to be far more pleasant than the smell…

We explored the neighbourhood, letting the girls have a quick play on some nearby climbing equipment before looking for somewhere to have supper. We unimaginatively settled on Pizza Hut and ordered a couple of Kids’ Menu items (just to demonstrate to the girls that grown-up food is far tastier) along with a baked rice dish and a salad. The meal wasn’t as bad as I had feared, although the choice of mood-setting music was a little unorthodox; they chose to play a CD by some purveyor of rap which featured a charming ditty about a certain Mother Farquhar.

It was still light when we emerged at 7.15; we must have flown a sizeable fraction of the Earth’s circumference this afternoon to delay sunset by over an hour. We walked back to the hostel, did diaries in the upstairs lounge and retired to our tiny little room, hoping for better sleep than we have ever had in Singapore.

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Another relatively peaceful night, apart from some semi-distant noise well after the curfew time. We surfaced at 6.30am in order to have a rapid breakfast, pack and get a taxi to Lavender Street, managing to leave Costa Sands by 7.55. Never, ever to return, if we can help it.

En route we passed other boxy Toyota taxis just like our own, each shaped like a child’s drawing of a car. One advertised a website on the rear of the vehicle: catchcheatingspouse.com.

We reached the bus station by 8.20, in ample time for our 9am departure.
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In due course we were called over for boarding; nice wide, plush seats with imitation walnut armrests and the all-important air conditioning. We found ourselves a block of four seats, although our ticket seat numbers bore little relation to the reality. A nearby coach also bound for Malaysia enthused ‘Mesmerise in its splendour’.
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Away through the metropolis, a curious mix of hothouse foliage and high-rise architecture. We passed the Big Wheel (or Singapore Flyer), which outdoes even the London Eye, then made our way north towards the causeway linking Singapore to Malaysia. Time to reflect on what Singapore does well; four good ideas came to mind, where someone has clearly thought long and hard about what is needed.

One: the deposit system for MRT (tube) tickets, so you get $1 back for returning your pass at the end of the journey. This virtually eliminates litter and enables more costly ‘smart’ cards to be used which merely need to be waved over the barrier to let you through (no moving parts to go wrong).

Two: the simple but effective use of LEDs on the station map inside the underground trains; green shows stations served by the train in question, and red indicates the next stop. No more wondering which branch line the train will take or relying on counting down the number of stations until your stop.
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Three: the Downtown East car park has displays to show how many spaces remain on each level. No more aimless driving around each floor – go straight on up to where the gaps are.

Four: the ultraviolet readmission stamps at Wild Wild Wet. Much harder to forge, and your elegant, tanned limbs aren’t spoiled by an ugly smudge of ink. Might look pretty cool at the disco, too…

As we neared the perimeter of the city the lanes diverged with some for cars and others for ‘Bas, Lori, Teksi’. We all got off with our passports to check out of Singapore. A sign urged us to be friendly to the border staff; if only they would reciprocate.

Causeway between Singapore and Malaysia.
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On the bus, across the causeway and then off again to be stamped into Malaysia (after hurriedly filling in the usual forms – they didn’t pre-issue them on the bus like they do on the plane), as well as an X-ray scan of all our bags. So by 10.15am we were in the ninth country of our trip. An immediate change to endless tropical greenery stretching away on either side of a nearly-deserted three-lane motorway. Few signs of habitation, but a string of toll barriers to impede our progress (they’re the stop-and-pay type, not the electronic whizz-through ones).

A stop for the coach to refuel (diesel costs around 32p/litre here) which doubled as one of the two loo stops. Then on up the highway towards Kuala Lumpur and Melaka, passing roadside advertising hoardings which tantalised us with our first glimpses of Malay. SUDAH POTONG? asked a bloke brandishing huge garden shears near a coily telephone cord. A packet of something edible boasted BERAS WANG! And several advisory roadsigns concluded with the evocative MEMOTONG; clearly an indispensable tool for removing those pesky Post-it notes. A sheer ice wall of language offering no footholds or handholds to get started. Even the few Rosetta Pebbles strewn around the coach (No Smoking, Please Keep Clean) offered no help.

We arrived at Melaka Sentral Bus Station an hour later than we expected, at 1.30pm. After withdrawing RM500 from a cash machine inside a 7-11 within the station, we took a teksi to our hotel in the centre of town; RM15. (You divide by 5 to convert to sterling, more or less.) The driver was chatty, recommending what sights to see, and he gave me a free map at the end. The plan was then to check in, dump our bags and then have a well-earned rest.

Which is what we did until Hannah came to the upsetting realisation that she had left her Peruvian bottle-holder on the coach, underneath the seat. Not again… We piled downstairs, got another taxi back to the bus terminal, this time with an Indian driver, Nathan Krishnan. He too was keen to enthuse about the highlights of Melaka (e.g. the Chinatown market tonight and tomorrow night), and when we explained the reason for our journey he took us straight to the bus company’s booth, talked to the man there, got the phone number of the bus driver (because he had left for Singapore twenty minutes earlier) and rang him up. He even offered to chase down the bus to retrieve the holder.

But sadly the driver was adamant that nothing had been left on board when he had checked at 2 o’clock. We explained that the bottle might have rolled into a far corner, but we got nowhere. Our taxi driver then insisted on getting a smile out of Hannah, philosophising that a loss like this was not important in comparison to having good health, and that we should be grateful to Hannah for giving us this learning experience, and next time we will check more carefully. (Like we said after Ellen left hers behind…) And we explained that it’s not an object of value, but it’s so useful and seemingly irreplaceable outside South America, as well as having sentimental value as an integral element of our trip; it’s been everywhere with Hannah.

We rounded up the taxi fare a significant amount in appreciation of Nathan’s time and assistance; we realised we couldn’t have done this much ourselves, and that there is little more that anyone could have done to retrieve the holder. By this time it was after 3pm and we still hadn’t had lunch, so we walked down our road to a bakery where we chose a tuna croissant, a chicken curry puff, a chicken pie, an apple pie and a cheese stick, along with two soft drinks. (It all came to a bit under £2.50, or less than one Singapore coffee.) Also an ice cream at the end, to cool off and to raise our spirits.

Back in our connecting rooms we had a bit of a rest while Kirsten typed up her blog notes for yesterday. Just before 6 o’clock we got ready to explore Chinatown and its street market, following the rave review it got from both our taxi drivers. We walked down Jalan Bunga Raya to the town square with its Stadthuys (the Dutch got here in 1641), then across the bridge to the main market street.
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They were just finishing setting up the stalls, and what an overwhelming cascade of sights, sounds, smells for the senses! So much to take in, and so much more appealing than the many street markets we have seen in our travels. A relaxed, safe atmosphere, and the place was not flooded with tourists (such as ourselves). I don’t know what many of the edible items were; even when labelled, what is ‘sea coconut’? But we later tried a few random nibbles and all were utterly delicious. Spring rolls of such crispness, succulence, consistency and flavour that they redefine spring rollness for ever. A fruit kebab dipped in chocolate and sprinkles, not ‘here’s one I made earlier’, but freshly assembled and dunked to order. (There was even a tomato in there, despite the saying that ‘knowledge is realising that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting one into a fruit salad’.) And a selection of flavoured sausages; lemon, anyone? Though we stuck with the ‘original’ for the girls.
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Apart from the amazing arrays of eats, we browsed shoe displays to find flip-flops for the girls. Hannah got an embroidered, soft-soled pair made in Thailand, and Kirsten found some ‘Birkenstocks’ (‘made in Germany’) for only £6. (Forgive the skeptical quotation marks, but if they’re German then so am I..) They’re comfortable, anyway, and at that price easily replaceable if necessary. Ellen is still looking; she would prefer a size 7 with turtles on, but we haven’t yet found those two attributes combined.

When lightning flashed cartoon-like in the sky to the north, we began to make our way back to the hotel, getting there just as the rain began in earnest. Showers and baths all round to wash off the stickiness, then a good rest with no need for an early start; they serve breakfast until 10am.

Yes, our first impressions of Malaysia are positive. The people are ever so friendly, thoughtful and accommodating (for instance, if they’re blocking the pavement they’ll actually move out of the way if they see you coming) and there’s a heady blend of traditional cultures alongside all the modern conveniences (there’s even a Tesco opposite the bus station). It’s still a shame about Hannah’s bottle-holder, which we are still convinced is on that coach – the driver must be from Singapore…

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Wildly wet

Oh at last the joy of a good night’s sleep!

Our young neighbours fell quiet shortly after 11pm and most of us slept solidly through until gone 7am.  I woke briefly around 2.30am and noticed the pleasant tranquillity around us.

We all felt happier and slightly refreshed and decided to have our breakfast outside our room on one of the many concrete benches.  Fresh bananas and banana/walnut bread was washed down with coffee, tea and fruit juice.
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As we are travelling to Malaysia tomorrow, we decided to buy our bus tickets today to save ourselves time tomorrow morning.  We walked to the MRT metro station on Pasir Ris Dr 3 which took us only about 15-20 minutes, but felt a lot longer as it was humid and hot.

We purchased our single tickets at $2.60 each.  $1/Ticket was refunded at the end of each ride when we put each card back into the machine.  No reduction though for the girls as they didn’t have an EZ card. The underground was straightforward, clean, spacious, fast and efficient and 11 stops or half an hour later we arrived at our destination of Lavender Hill.
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We walked down Kallang Bahru for about 15 minutes before reaching the bus station.  We had thought of catching the 10.30am bus to Melaka, but the man in the ticket booth explained to us that there was a faster coach leaving at 9am.  This coach only had 27 seats (so lots of space) and wouldn’t have as many stops.  The journey would only take three and a half hours instead of four and a half.  The man also explained that we would need to leave our accommodation in Pasir Ris at 8.15am the latest as traffic would be pretty busy.

We chose to pay the extra $2/adult and $1/child and booked our tickets for the more spacious coach.

By now we were all very hot and sticky and didn’t really feel like exploring the area.  Instead we returned to the MRT station via a Chinese foodstall where we sat down for a cold drink.  The girls and I each chose three items of fresh fruit from the chilled cabinet for the lady to squeeze into a delicious juice.

Tim chose a lime cordial, Hannah chose pineapple, orange and kiwi.  Ellen’s drink had pineapple, orange and watermelon and I opted for pineapple, orange and honeydew melon.  All the drinks were extremely tasty and very refreshing.

On our way back to the hostel we stopped at the Downtown East shopping centre for lunch.  The girls had spotted a Subway yesterday so we popped in there for our usual ham or tuna sandwiches.
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We had promised the girls an afternoon at Wild Wild Wet waterpark near the other Pasir Ris resort. We went back to our room, changed into our swimming costumes and shortly after 2pm arrived at the waterpark.

When booking into our hostel we received three vouchers for several attractions nearby, so once at the waterpark we quickly exchanged our vouchers (1 voucher per 2 people) and put our valuables in a locker.

By now it had started to rain.  Never mind, we were going to get wet anyway.  We put our bag with towels somewhere safe and dry and rushed over to the fast flowing moat.  At last we had found the entrance to it, we dashed over and just as Tim was about to put his big toe in… we were all called back to come out of the water.  What??!!  Why??!!

The announcement said: “Your immediate attention please! Due to inclement weather the park attractions are suspended.  Please return to your nearest sheltered area in an orderly manner!”  This was repeated over and over again in four different languages.  What’s going on?  It’s only a shower, right?  We were baffled and disappointed, to say the least.

But then lightning struck, followed by some thunder and Ellen getting pretty upset.  We waited around for about half an hour, hoping the rain would stop or at least ease off and we would at last be allowed in the water.

No chance of that happening as the thunderclaps increased in volume, so much so it even made me jump.  We finally gave up and got dressed.  On the way out we were all given an invisible stamp in case we wanted to return tomorrow, except we won’t be here…

We sheltered in the Downtown East shopping centre, away from the rain and thunder and cheered the girls up with some chocolate.  We popped into a cafe for a bland cappuccino and tea to accompany our slice of extremely bland tiramisu cake (no alcohol in it!).

We had one more free voucher left, which we used on the indoor ferris wheel.  It was pretty small and only went round twice, but we enjoyed it and it put a smile on the girls’ faces.

Wheel with a view.
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The rain had all but stopped and we returned to our room to catch up on blog and diaries and to have a rest.

Well over an hour later we returned to the shopping centre yet again, this time for supper.  We stopped at a Chinese restaurant called “Streets” where Hannah chose a ham/cheese sandwich and a bowl of chips, Ellen’s choice was fish and chips and Tim and I decided on a meal deal for two.  We had sweet and sour pork, crunchy silver fish, vegetables in garlic sauce and plain rice.  The food tasted absolutely delicious and so much better than our local take-away back at home.  And yes, we ate most of it with chopsticks, including the rice!
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Back at our hostel we packed almost all our belongings and set the alarm clock for 6.30am ready for a quick getaway to catch our coach to Malaysia.  This is one place I won’t be sorry to leave, and fortunately that has only happened once before on our trip.

Let’s hope we’ll have another good sleep…

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Night of din

Ha. Some hope. Our noisy neighbours, plus their numerous adolescent friends, kept us awake the entire night. When the TV went on at a quarter to midnight, I threw on some clothes and went outside to explain that we had a young family trying to get some sleep, and that I was sure that they were aware of the 11.30pm curfew. I continued to Reception to make them aware of the situation (our block is right on the edge of the site), but it was closed for the night.

The TV went off, but the milling youths kept chatting, coming and going. Who are they? Students living here during termtime? We drifted off to sleep for a while, and things seemed to go quiet outside. Until 2.15am when the party started up again. Doors slamming, shouting, screams, boorish behaviour, the sort of thing you occasionally get from drunken yobs in Market Lavington carpark (but never this late). I gave up on expecting to quieten them myself, and the resort management are clearly indifferent to or unaware of the problem, so I let the video camera roll. Mainly sound, but also a glimpse of some of the offenders through the window.

When are these people ever going to get some sleep? If they’re students, don’t they have lectures tomorrow? I’m so surprised to find this frat-house mentality in Singapore, and it’s not just the lads, but girls as well.

Some peace (and sleep) at last, then at 3.45am it all started up again, louder and for longer. Is this group moving around from room to room all night? And there must be dozens of them. Eventually I dozed through the racket as dawn approached, and we were still being disturbed at 6am and later.

After a grim night of scrambling from shell-hole to shell-hole of unconsciousness beneath this barrage of noise, I began to wonder what we have let ourselves in for here. We assumed that Singapore would be an orderly, polite and tidy city/country, and we also assumed that this mirrored the ingrained nature of the residents – all those rules (no chewing gum, etc.) were simply to make sure that visitors didn’t spoil things for them.

But is it a place of nascent chaos barely held at bay by a flimsy net of officiousness? Do those oppressive and constricting regulations in fact breed rebellion at every available opportunity? There came the image of one of those novelty-shop squishy balls that erupt with vulgar pustules when you grip them too tightly.

We allowed ourselves a late start, and around 9am returned to Reception to request a change of room. The girl did not seem too surprised, but asked us to come back later once some rooms had been cleaned. We tried the on-site cafeteria for breakfast; three plates of toast, frankfurter and beans along with four mini-muffins, two coffees and a can of pineapple juice (the more adventurous choices of coconut milk, guava or mango can wait for now).

We sat by the pool for a while, but with temperatures pushing 30’C we took the plunge before too long. And even Kirsten found the water refreshing but not too cold…

At 12.15pm we dried off and went in search of lunch. There is a shuttle bus to the nearby Downtown East shopping centre, but it doesn’t run for two hours after mid-day. So we walked in the full heat of the day the half mile or so through Pasir Ris Park and found a plethora of eating establishments alongside the ‘FairPrice’ supermarket.

First some new water bottles, biscuits and juice from the supermarket, all coming to only £3! A relief to find financial conditions easing in our favour at last, and Malaysia should be cheaper still. We then spent a further £3 on lunch of freshly-made waffles, some filled with chocolate and some with blueberries. (We’ll have a ‘proper’ meal tonight, and there’s a delicious choice of options out there.)

We returned to Costa Sands and asked again about a new room. The manager came out and suggested an alternative in Cell Block H (okay, so I added the ‘Cell’), and when I recounted our night of din he too was unsurprised. “It’s what these kids do, when they’re away on their own without their parents”. Great. So you’re not exactly convincing us that tonight is going to be any better, or that you’ll take any steps to enforce your own rules.

But he did say he’d ask Security to check that our area was quiet, and that we should dial ‘0’ to report any problems. We dragged our luggage to the new room (pretty much identical, and quite comfortable as it turns out) and flopped in front of South-East Asian TV for the afternoon.

We returned to the shopping centre for supper, dining at ‘Teasire’. Ellen went for spaghetti with sausage, Hannah chose fish and chip [sic] and we had a set menu with mushroom soup, chicken and then ice cream. All meals came with a ‘soda fizz’; we had seen these brightly-coloured drinks served in bowl glasses earlier in the day, but ours were served in standard school canteen tumblers, unmixed – the juice syrup slumped at the bottom. And my ‘red plum’ was just Hoi Sin sauce sitting underneath fizzy water, I’m sure; not especially nice as a refreshing drink.

Ellen seemed to have the biggest portion, but ‘fish and chip’ wasn’t far off the mark, Hannah having perhaps 10 chips underneath her breaded fish. She was also upset to be given a ‘baby’ fork with pictures of teddy bears on it (perhaps they think it’s cute over here, but she *is* nearly nine), so we got her an upgrade. We sat next to an indoor Ferris Wheel dressed up with rainbow LEDs, one of the attractions for which we have a complimentary ticket (part of the Costa Sands deal)

Back to our new room to find Block H buzzing with groups of people sitting outside around their barbecue areas. One end cabin was preparing for a party, but things seemed tolerable – we had been assured that there would be no noise after 11.30pm.

We got the girls into bed just after 8pm, and almost immediately we were blasted by our neighbours’ sound system, so loud that we could hardly hear each other inside our room. At least two other stereos were playing further down the row. So much for our new secluded location. Unamused, I strode down to Reception, noting that every other block on the site was relatively quiet – certainly no blaring music. I explained the problem, that my children were close to tears because of the disturbance, that we had just been moved to assure us some peace.

Two security staff came down with me, spoke to the neighbours and then showed me yet another alternative room, in Block D. They explained that people came here to have some fun, enjoy themselves, have a party; they couldn’t ask them to stop, and this resort probably wasn’t a good choice for people like us. [Kirsten thought that our neighbours were smoking funny things by now as well.]

Great. This *is* a Youth Hostel, among other things, and we expect certain standards. Is it us? Are we the antisocial ones, and the right way is to sit outside and turn up your own music if the neighbours are too loud? I am sure that most of the people in this resort are Singaporeans, and I am astonished by their lack of consideration; this is absolutely the last country where I expected this to happen (even in dire Puno the staff were on our side).

So we ended up relocating to our third cabin within a space of 24 hours, in the dark and with the girls in their nighties. We were now next to an unsupervised cabin of ten-year-olds on some course here (language?). They were chatty for an hour or so, but we were relieved to be in a position to get some real sleep at last.

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And so we bid farewell to Australia. We’ve enjoyed our time here more than we expected, in contrast to New Zealand’s various small disappointments. I feel we did things in the right order, so while our first week in Sydney didn’t give us much sense of the spirit of Australia, from Tasmania onwards we really started to get the flavour of this vast and unexpectedly varied land (also helped by the transition to drier weather at last).

We’ll miss the Northern Territory with its four-digit road distances. The TV adverts here have no time for fancy cosmetics or fragrances; you get Mount Isa Steel Supplies or the forthcoming Mining Expo. Another ad starts by referring to “that welding job the wife has been nagging you about for months”, and there’s nothing remotely kinky about Outback Whips and Leather. And I hear that up in rough and ready Darwin it’s survival of the fittest…

My Kitchen Rigged? As we watched the final yesterday evening it became apparent that for the format to work it was essential to have one team representing each of the two initial rounds. (Each team cooked for the judges and their own eight fellow contestants, plus family members.) Did they tweak the scores to bring this about in the semifinals? There were certainly a few rogue results – we expected to see two teams from the first batch battling it out for the title and $100,000. How can you judge one course to be ‘perfection’ and another the best you’ve ever tasted and then score only 8/10?

I’m hoping for the best and preparing for the worst with our Singapore Youth Hostel tonight. They have not replied to my emails and when I ring them there’s a permanent answerphone, so we just hope they do have a room for us and they’ll still be open when we get there late this evening. Just in case we’ve looked at back-up options with the help of TripAdvisor; so many places have dire reviews – bed bugs, dishonest staff, red light district location – including some praised by Lonely Planet.

On the other hand, we have five nights sorted in Melaka (Malacca); two interconnecting rooms in a nice hotel. I’m looking forward to the sights, sounds and tastes of South-East Asia (don’t know about the smells yet); the guide book is full of interesting things to do and places to go. I mean, even Market Lavington doesn’t have a restaurant where you sit with your feet in a bowl and have the dead skin nibbled away by Doctor fish.

Now waiting at Alice Springs Airport; we board in half an hour. Hayley woke us an hour too early this morning, silly girl, so we were ready and packed by 8.30. It’s so liberating to be down to our original six bags again (plus an optional ‘luxury’ cool bag with fluffy towels), and no car. We can carry everything we own; Kirsten’s big rucksack doesn’t even weigh 10kg now that we’ve sent stuff home. Talking of which, how is it that it costs us $12/kg to send stuff to England by ship, but the local supermarket is selling Jarlsberg cheese shipped refrigerated from Norway for only $14/kg?

The flight to Darwin went smoothly, starting with clear skies over the red and green outback with Nazca-line patterns of ruler-straight tracks and quickly clouding over as we got into the tropics.
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The plane was a 717, with two seats to the left of the aisle and three to the right; doesn’t it go all lop-sided, or do they put ‘larger’ passengers on the left? Shortly after we landed there was a downpour, but with five hours to wait before our next flight there was ample time for the weather to clear again.

Darwin Airport doesn’t have a lot to help you pass the time, so the girls re-read their latest Hannah Montana books or played quizzy games with each other; they are getting good at dealing with long and boring days of travel. Today’s newspaper headline was on prominent display, highlighting yesterday’s tragedy when a small aircraft crashed here shortly after take-off.
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We checked in again to get our boarding passes for Singapore and passed through Security to the departure lounge. Ellen’s bag got re-scanned before each flight today; not sure why it looks different from Hannah’s. When I returned from a loo visit I was somewhat surprised to see a fortysomething man with a laptop sitting in my place next to Kirsten on a two-seater bench. Had he just plonked himself there indiscriminately? (There were plenty of free seats.) It transpired  that he was doing an Australian Tourism survey and we had been specially selected – but I don’t think he realised what he was letting himself in for.

And so we spent the next hour (probably), ploughing through an interminable string of detailed questions about exactly how long we had spent at which locations, how we travelled there, the purpose of our visit, how much we spent on accommodation, car rental, food, visiting attractions, mobile communications, postage, souvenirs; what categories of tourist destinations/activities we had seen/participated in – museum, botanical garden, surfing, hot-air ballooning, etc. A separate section about Aboriginal sites and tours. This went on and on, and the grand finale was the program’s calculation of the overall total we had spent in Australia (based on my not-too-far-out estimates).

Only the figure was obviously wrong; too high to be per person, and too low to cover all four of us. All that time and effort for a load of garbage to emerge. We sped through international security (ditch the water bottles) and only just made it in time for boarding. A JetStar/Qantas code-share flight, and we passengers were divided into the Haves and the Have-nots; some received a complimentary blanket, inflatable neck pillow and eye mask as well as a choice of hot meals, while others got nothing unless they forked out $12.50 for a ham sandwich and a drink.

Fortunately we were counted among those to get the freebies, and we all chose a beef noodle dish (though the girls preferred the bread rolls in the end). No video screens to entertain us, so it was back to books again (Kirsten and I reading different Jodi Picoult titles). The flight lasted a bit over four hours, getting us to Singapore in darkness around 9.15pm local time.

After we had landed and were heading for our ‘parking space’, passengers did the usual thing of unstrapping and getting up before the seatbelt sign had been turned off. Only this time the cabin crew cracked down on such disobedience, forcing everyone back into their seats. Welcome to Singapore.

Similarly, as we reached the front of the queue for Immigration, we naturally went forward as a family group, only for Ellen and me to be sent back again to await our turn – “one adult, one child”, though this petty restriction was nowhere displayed. In other queues we could see adult couples going forward unseparated – what’s the terrible outcome if there are four of us at once?

Baggage reclaim, an ATM and then the taxi. Another official to ensure we queued nicely and to tell us which taxi to take (number 4 for us). I showed our driver the address; he wasn’t too sure but we got there nevertheless – a mere $12 for the short journey.

Once the taxi had departed we checked in at Reception. Hmm; they had no record of our booking (surprise, surprise). I dug out our laptop and showed our confirmation email; the man scrolled up and down the text, studying it with curiosity. Are we Youth Hostel members? How did we manage to book if we aren’t?

About half an hour later we had a room – there was never a problem with availability – but we were expected to join the YHA. Considering it cost us only £15, it’s probably a good deal, and the card is valid internationally. The girls were absolutely zonked by now (it being after midnight Alice Springs time), so we got everyone into the room, pulled out the rollaway beds and got horizontal.

Some noise from young people in the room next door, but the regulations say ‘no noise after 11.30pm’. This being Singapore, I’m sure they’ll quieten down on cue.

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