Thursday, May 26, 2011

The UK and Singapore

How odd to juxtapose these two parts of the world, but that’s the way we did it… (with Kuala Lumpur jammed into the chronological sandwich).

England and Scotland

Sitting on a stifling boat just over one degree north of the equator (in Johor Bahru, Malaysia about 500 metres across the straits from Singapore), we packed for spring in the UK. All the cold clothes we possess on the boat went in… most of them having been purchased in haste and dire need in Hanoi recently. How wonderfully surprising it was therefore, to be in Scotland and England during their “hottest” April in recent memory; the whole delightful experience of being with our family enhanced by swathes of daffodils, bluebells, pink blossomed- or freshly greened trees, and emerald green fields speckled with new-born lambs!
Rolf and Irene spent the first week “doing” London (daily programme dictated by Barry’s spread sheet); and no, you cannot get tired of that city!  

We loved it all: the feel of this cosmopolitan city, which is surprisingly ‘small’ and unintimidating; the amazing works and displays in the museums and galleries; the contrasting atmospheres in different areas (Regent Street above, Camden below, Notting Hill, Hampstead, Richmond, kids’ home turf of Clapham); the ease of getting around on public transport.

And then the six of us met and flew to Inverness in Scotland for the start of our road trip. A tribute to our children: they are gracious when squeezed into a vehicle adequate for six smaller people and no luggage, tolerant of the more-aged’s regular needs to stop the car (life does have this way of turning the tables!), patient with burble and commentary from the back seat and the need to speak louder!

This is how it goes on such a road trip: the driver (of the Vauxhall Zafira) has space and comfort which he trades for enduring disparaging family back-seat-driving chirps; the passenger seat occupant is navigator (blue blob on iMaps helps) and dispenser of snacks (cookies and fruit from the B&B or chocolates endlessly purchased by Rolf); the 3 in row 2 are up-close and personal, so a shared activity is best (good example: crossword; bad example: reading a newspaper); the lone soul in row 3 zones out and props up most of the luggage. And sometimes calls the shots for stops…. and the need to change for a forward berth, depending on the queasiness level…

What an amazing holiday: Scotland saw us at Loch Ness (some swam: it was freezing; we walked in atmospheric woods and searched for Easter Eggs in same), Fort Augusta, Oban whisky distillery (of course!) and Edinburgh.
 We saw Scotland’s best face in the wonderfully gentle weather, allowing us to enjoy the ruggedness of high rural areas and lowland lakes with Highland cattle peering through their fringes alongside flocks of sheep in dire need of shearing.
 To visit Edinburgh has long been a dream and it lived up to all expectations: from the underground galleries of the ‘bridge’ and the narrow alleys of the ancient city to the modern high-end shops and accommodations, with that beautiful park at the base of the huge castle.
 So many faces to the cities of London and Edinburgh make them such desirable places to visit. The pubs were great, particularly the one in Edinburgh that had to tolerate a raucous family tradition: our own version of Balderdash, which requires reading out loud individual contributions to word definitions, this to be done above the general pub hubbub and particularly above the squeals and peals of laughter greeting each new definition.
We drove down to the Lake District, with quaint towns and glittering lakes in the sunshine. Walks, sheep dotting the fields delineated by endless miles of dry stone walls, narrow country lanes, lakeside wandering, swans... how typically English and wonderfully enjoyable!

That gave way (on the day of THE wedding… were there more loo stops that day, to catch up on the “I do” ceremony on Sky TV??) to a drive to Lynton in Devon overlooking the sea and gazing up to the Welsh coast. All the Lynton inhabitants appeared to be enjoying a “Right Royal Knees-Up” party at the town hall to celebrate the wedding. A few days were spent here, with a walk on the cliff paths and forays to the town of Lynmouth (directly below Lynton on the hill) best made by an ancient gravity train!
 Finally, we were off to the lovely city of Bath for a couple of days. In our case all get-togethers require the presence of a ball or two: in this case tennis balls from Malaysia and London and football from SA. No walk, whether in the woods, country roads or busy streets went without ball-tossing/kicking, and if the resources at hand included a body of water over which to skim the ball, so much the better!
 This exercise did not occur without its rescues: from rivers / balanced precariously on the edges of cliffs / claimed from the centres of busy roads (the tolerance of local drivers for “those bloody tourists” being tested!). 

Back to London via moody (and now chilly…. the weather was changing) Stonehenge… and home. It was a real treat to enjoy so much of the UK in such a short time, to appreciate its diversity, beauty and history, and especially to experience all of this together with family. Plans are afoot for the next family holiday…!

Back to Asia: Kuala Lumpur 

Hop-on, hop-off buses. That’s the way to do it. Well, let’s qualify this: if time is short and / or you are jet-lagged and / or you arrive in a city too early to find anything open, these buses are the greatest way to get a brief history and guided tour of the highlights of a city and a sense of its functioning.
 With all of the above applicable in our case (London flight landed at 0530) and only one night allowed to ourselves in KL, we locked the bags away in a bus station locker and hopped onto one of these buses with a small shared bag of clothing. The ‘hop offs’ alternated with an occasional on-board nod-off but we enjoyed what we saw of this relatively small, modern city, particularly the Islamic buildings with beautiful domes, arches and delicate intricate decoration contrasting to adjacent modern high-rises and small, well preserved historical buildings amongst the towering modern structures.
 A Malaysian thing: street lights are all decorative, and appear to have themes along streets.
  Guided by Lonely Planet’s advice of a central area to stay cheaply, we hopped off, found the closest back-road Chinese walk-up hotel above a busy food court and checked in, getting this view of real life.
 From this base the bus and main shopping / walking streets were easily accessible, so the day became full, fun and busy: enough time for us to see and do what we had set ourselves in the city, including seeking repairs for an iPhone. This took us to one of many huge shopping malls where the repairs were done quickly and cheaply …. we declined the widely advertised offers of “cell phone accessories and unlocking”, which is a euphemism for “we do anything on any phone, including jailbreak programmes and pirated apps fully installed and optimised”. 

The next day, a 4-hour bus trip took us through lush green rolling countryside(however, great tracts of indigenous forests have also been decimated and replaced by oil palm plantations) to Johor Bahru, back to a very dirty boat, its recently-buffed and polished topsides and decks having been exposed for a month to fine black dust courtesy of construction alongside the marina and extensive aircraft exhaust from nearby airports (and the dust ground into the sides permanently by rubbing up against the fenders). All else was well and we were grateful for a home that was otherwise in good shape, so … soon after meeting our fellow Sail Malaysia Rally yachties … we briefly departed from the rally programme and sailed to Singapore for a 4-day visit: a city not to be missed when the opportunity to visit it relatively cheaply was at hand.


Maybe we are just easy to please. But we loved being in Singapore too! Having said that, we did not love it in the way we enjoyed Bangkok and London and Edinburgh.  The cultural diversity in Singapore is great: it is a melting-pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Arab cultures (although harmony between different groups does not necessarily indicate embracing each other’s ways), but the strict rules governing society and the single minded pursuit of profit gives a less vibrant feel - and the city feels somewhat soulless.
 It is also very, very expensive! But public transport works pretty well and our penchant for exploring cities by ‘hop on, hop off’ tour bus again served us well.  As in KL, the building developers and their architects extended themselves and the result is a city full of really interesting buildings and bridges.
 It is so refreshing to see that cost effective commercial buildings do not need to be the boring and ugly rectangles that dominate the CBD of so many modern cities. 

Then there is the interest provided by the juxtaposition of huge modern structures against the original China Town, Little India and the Arab area.

 No end of things to do here (fortunately we are not shoppers, for we would have spent too much time and money on Orchard Road, home of ALL the major brand names) …
 We spent hours in the Asian Civilisations Museum, which has incredible ancient Asian artefacts, amongst which this magnificent centuries old copy of the Qu’ran

… and this duck!
 … and also spent a great evening at Fort Canning Park, having a picnic with friends and watching MacBeth, a production done really well.

So we set off from Singapore, down the Singapore Straits again and dodging the heavy shipping traffic in this area. We are the little black boat in the pic; the rest are the AIS (Automatic Identification System) signals of big ships, and the ones closest are outlined in flashing red as the alarm rings to tell you to beware!
 Hmmm… like you cannot see them….! But it is very helpful at night… and the ships (big and small) without AIS are the real problems.
 Now it is back to the islands, on the Rally route in the South China Sea that will take us up the east coast of peninsular Malaysia and then across to Borneo and the Malaysian states along the west and north coasts of Borneo. We are relishing being back in clear seas again with healthy coral and great marine life … more about that later.