...and a jungle railway thrown in for good measure!
24.07.2010 27 °C
Spending a long time in many South East Asian countries can easily make you forget how nice it is to travel on fast, reliable and efficient transport, such as that found in Singapore. From the moment you step off the plane it's clear that you are now in a totally different country (or in many ways seemingly another world) with its clean surroundings, official (if a little stern) looking security officers and easy to follow sings. In the same way, stepping onto the quick and efficient transit system, which covers most of the country, and puts London Underground to shame by being not only reliable but also cheap and spotlessly clean, is a far cry from the hot and sweaty overcrowded economy bus journeys in almost every other country so far.
With only one afternoon in which to explore, I wasn't particularly impressed when the first hostel I found asked me to wait 40 minutes before checking in, only to then tell me, after 40 minutes thoroughly wasted, that they still weren't sure if there would be a room available and that I would need to sit around for a further hour and a half for a definitive answer. I angrily declined and looked elsewhere only to discover a strange phenomenon, hostels with no staff! Almost every one I came across simply had a notice board at reception asking you to "call this number if you want to check in" but no phone with which to call them. For someone without a mobile phone and local sim card this proved to be extremely frustrating. When I did finally find one with a real human being, rather than an annoying notice board behind the desk, I had to settle for a shared dorm room (which I've managed to avoid as much as possible so far, realising fairly early on that I'm not much of a dorm person), as with the efficient transport and clean streets also comes the downside of western style prices (so much so that exactly the same bottle of water purchased in the morning for just 10p in Indonesia cost a staggering 10 times as much that afternoon in Singapore).
Many people may argue that Singapore is just another crowded westernised city, much like any other traffic clogged city, with a skyline dominated by skyscrapers and office blocks, large shopping malls, traffic filled streets and a few purposed built park scattered here and there amidst the surrounding concrete jungle. While this is true in many ways, there is still plenty to see in Singapore and with major renovation works in progress it's likely to become even more impressive. The Marina Bay area in particular (which is built entirely on reclaimed land from the sea), where the backdrop of towering office blocks, looking like a New York skyline, is fronted by a large tranquil bay, small park and surrounded by some of the most bizzare and ambitious buildings I've ever seen. While already impressive, the billboards showing the completed area after all renovation is complete, is outstanding.
There are also plenty of less built up areas to explore, such as Chinatown and Little India quarters, where narrow streets host an array of local stores, small shops and packed market stalls, in much more traditional surroundings, housing many ornate (if a little ostentatious) temples and shrines.
At night the Marina Bay area is even more impressive than by day, with the lights of skyscrapers shining off the placid waters of the bay, still surrounded by strange buildings taking on even more startling appearances with the artificial lighting than with the natural light of day. Unfortunately, as my hostel was not in the city centre, my evening ended with the final transit train. I can't say that I've truly experienced the whole of Singapore, as one day is certainly not enough, although, after what felt like 50 miles walked, I feel as though I still saw a fair amount. The weather also didn't help, with relentless rain and occasional downpours forcing a run for shelter in many shopping malls (even though I don't like shopping) or coffee shops (even though I don't like coffee), quite a few times throughout the day.
The following morning I had the same infuriating problem as the day before, whereby Singapore hostels don't appear to need staff at reception. So, after 40 minutes wasted, sitting around for someone to come and give me my key deposit back, I finally managed to check out and make my way on the 6 step journey to Gemas in Malaysia (to think a journey involving 5 changes of transport would have freaked me out back in January and now doesn't even warrant more than a line in this blog. I must be getting used to local transport after all!), where I would later catch the jungle train to the northern border town of Kota Bharu.
THE JUNGLE RAILWAY
Gemas is a small town consisting of nothing more interesting than a bus stop, a train station and two rather rough around the edges hotels, so I won't bore you with any more description than that. I tried to buy a ticket on the "jungle train" described in Lonely Planet as a slow, trundling, local transport, used my masses of locals and school children, with only a very cheap third class. I was also told that the train departed at 6am but when I went to buy the ticket the lady told me there was no train at 6am and that the only one came up from Singapore at 9.20am. This immediately put me in a bad mood as I'd wasted a whole day travelling to Gemas (supposedly the start of the jungle line) and a boring afternoon and evening, only to find out I could have caught the train direct from Singapore in the first place. It also didn't help my mood when I boarded to find that I'd been sold a 2nd Class ticket (on a supposedly 3rd Class only local train) where the windows were tinted, dirty and didn't open, kind of defeating the whole point of travelling on the train, where the spectacular view is what it's known for. As a result I spent most of my time sitting by the open door between the carriages, which the inspector treated with indifference, as trees and tunnels flashed past only inches from my face.
Leaning out of a speeding train. You wouldn't do that back in England!
The first part of the journey was actually quite nice, with not a single other tourist having made their way to Gemas for the train, but this soon changed when we arrived at the station for Taman Negara National Park, where about 50 tourists boarded, dragging their posh pull along suitcases, with every single one piling into my carriage (obviously the nice air conditioned one set aside for tourists). I proceeded to spend even more time between the carriages talking to the locals and the conductor, leaning out of the open door when there was nothing coming, only to dart back in as the solid brick wall of an oncoming tunnel quickly approached. The view was fairly good, with some large limestone cliffs and mountains, and plenty of jungle surroundings, although not the breathlessly spectacular views that I'd read about from other travellers. What's more, when it started to rain, forcing me away from the open door and back into the air conditioned carriage, the view totally obscured by the fogged up windows and driving rain, surrounded by Europeans, I could have almost been on the Southern service from Gatwick airport back home. How depressing! My mood darkened further when I arrived at Wakaf Bharu (the train station for the town of Kota Bharu), where Lonely Planet said local buses head to the town centre for RM1, only to find that the last bus goes at 6pm (and it was now 7pm) meaning I had no choice but to pay 20 times as much for a taxi to the town centre.
Head in, tunnel coming!
The following day I headed to the Perhentian Islands, involving one extremely terrifying taxi ride (hurtling along at what felt like 200km per hour, narrowly avoiding several oncoming vehicles), although if I thought that nearly killed me, I hadn't anticipated the nerve wracking speedboat ride to the island. With a fairly stiff breeze whipping up the waves, the speedboat proceeded to fly over them, shooting out of the water, high into the air before crashing back down with bone jarring intensity. With every slamming down came a sudden torrent of water gushing over the side of the boat, blinding not only us but also the driver who continued undaunted despite not being able to see, and soaking every inch of the boat, including us, our clothes, our bags and everything else we owned. Despite the feeling of near death, the ride has to be one of the most fun journeys to date, until one moody German at the front yelled "You think maybe you go too fast! I think you slow down NOW!!!". Luckily the driver ignored him, as did everyone else on the boat.
I find it hard to believe that after 6 months of travelling, I may just have discovered the perfect beach and island getaway, with only two days spare in which to enjoy it. With sweeping white powdery sand, as fine as flower beneath your feet, and clear turquoise seas as warm as bath water, enough tourists to keep a fun, lively atmosphere, yet not so many that you can't find a peaceful, quiet stretch of sand to lay your towel beneath the shady overhanging palms, away from all distractions, it may just be the paradise beach everyone is looking for. The only down side to the island was the overpricing (especially as it's now the middle of high season and a weekend, where prices jump dramatically) and the lack of accommodation. Sit on the beach any time after mid morning and you're bound to see backpack carrying new arrivals trudging the length of the coast, getting hotter and more red faced, as one guest house after another says the dreaded words "Sorry. FULL!". I too had the same problem and ended up paying far more than expected after a long, hot hour searching high and low for a cheap room. I anticipated moving out first thing in the morning to a cheaper guest house but even this proved futile as the type of people staying in the cheapest rooms on a perfect tropical island don't get up early to check out. As a result, by the time a few people were checking out, the incoming new arrivals had flooded the beach searching with just as much intensity (if not more as they didn't already have somewhere to sleep) than I was.
The following day I booked a half day snorkelling trip around the island, just able to fit it in before the boat back to the mainland, and although not expecting much after so many amazing snorkelling trips, was blown away. Although the coral is nowhere near as vivid or varied as the Philippines or Komodo, the fish, in both size and scale, was breathtaking. Typically, it was the first time I didn't have my underwater camera case with me, although part of me was glad as I was able to appreciate the surroundings without having to do it through the lens of a camera for once. The first stop was at shark point, where we did indeed get to swim with sharks (and although I have done so already, I can't really count the whale sharks of Donsol as they are more like whales than sharks). Swimming along and watching these swift and fierce looking creatures, with their black tipped fins, the theme tune from Jaws coming unbidden to mind, is certainly an experience I won't forget. In addition to the sharks there were also hundreds of other fish, including a school of thirty or more enormous beasts, each about half the size of me, just casually drifting along beneath us. With the scale of fish and size of underwater boulders, covered in huge coral formations, it truly feels like swimming in a prehistoric ocean, or even as though you've been shrunk to a fraction of your usual size as every thing around you grows larger. If that wasn't enough then the day ended on even more of a high when we were able to spot a turtle swimming in the deep crystal clear waters and jumped in to calmly follow it on its journey.
Not my photos but to give you an idea, this is what I saw
Black tipped reef shark
A school of enormous hump backed parrot fish
Swimming with turtles
Are the Perhentians the perfect beaches and islands? With the exception of deserted bays on the uninhabited islands around Koh Phi Phi and Palawan (which don't really count as you can't actually stay on them), I think that they may just be. If you're out for Robinson Crueson effect then perhaps not, as they are very touristy, but if you want both peace and quiet during the day, plus a decent social atmosphere late at night, when small tables and roll out mats are placed along the beach, surrounded by candles and flaming lanterns on bamboo poles, with the mellow beach bum style music playing in the background, then Perhentian Islands are for you. It seems a shame that I could only spend two days here, and that I discovered them right at the end of my journey, although I certainly couldn't have asked for a better place to relax for my last couple of days before setting off for Bangkok, and I'm glad that my final beach experience on this trip was one of the best so far. Save the best for last, as they say!