Monday, 26 January 2009

Singapore: They Can Keep It

I walked from the bus station with a German girl and a Danish lad. The pack was killing me in the heat. Lugging diving gear around is bad enough if you can actually use the bloody stuff. I'd seen a place in the Rough Guide which sounded reasonable enough. Got there and it had closed down. So far, so good. One of the builders recommended another budget place, so I tramped over there...only to find it was 75 quid a night. What kind of budget is that, then?

So off I went, and checked out another from the Guide. It was 40 quid for a very basic room in a hostel. This was a shock to the system after Thailand. I told the lady I'd have a look around, and come back if I saw nothing else. She wasn't taking me on with the bartering I attempted, not even a dollar. So back out into the merciless sun, seeking refuge at a fraction of the price. It wasn't to be.

I checked out one place, listed as reasonably priced with a good atmosphere in the Rough Guide. Reasonable, it was; but a good atmosphere? Well, I suppose that compared to S-21 or Riker's Island, yes...the place was homely. The fact that if you left a dog in a place like this in England, the Guardian would be demanding the reinstatement of Capital Punishment, seemed immaterial. The guy on the desk had said there were secure lockers for everyone. These were on the landings, and had that many bends in the doors and crowbar marks, it was laughable. Needless to say, I wan't staying. I headed to the internet cafe next door and did some more research on potential places to stay. Half an hour later, I was none the wiser. I asked the lad on the desk if he knew of anywhere. He suggested next door. I said "No, mate...I would not put my dog in there" and turned to leave. Who should be sat at one of the terminals, but the receptionist I'd just left? Ah...

20 quid a room it is. I returned, dumped my stuff and made the most of the inclusive web access. Despite the efforts of a ripe-smelling Frenchman to dislodge all and sundry from the internet room...my word. There's always a catch if something's free.

I decided to take a wander. Singapore is clean. Too clean. It's like a massive show-house on a Barratt estate; it looks like everyone has just moved in. They banned chewing-gum. Dropping rubbish is punishable by public flogging (OK, so I made that one up). I considered taking up smoking for the next 24 hours, just to litter the soulless place with fag-ends. But there's fines for everything, indeed the locals refer to this place as "a fine city". There were $5000 fines for riding a bike through pedestrian tunnels. $500 for eating food on the tube. You probably get fined for farting. Or complaining. Imagine that? I'd be broke.

I saw one just hip area, Hadji Street in the Arab Quarter. Great boutiques and second-hand shops. But the prices were still outrageous. I saw a guy making similar marble carvings to one I'd bought for my Dad in Laos, and it was four times the price. I know things are different in a big city, but when a can of lager is £4 in a corner store, compared to the 6 for a fiver in London...you end up walking around with your mouth agape.

Orchard Road is a mile of shopping malls. And they're building even more. It's a shopper's heaven; and my personal hell. How many shops do you need, exactly? I passed the above sign, Oldham Street. If only. Should this road actually lead to Oldham, Lancashire, I would personally direct traffic along it. "This way to the real people...don't stop til you see men in flat caps with whippets." I might even have led them there, like a Northern Moses. There were tourists having their photos taken outside the more expensive stores...what's that all about? I can imagine their rapt audience of friends crowded round the snapshots back home. "Yeah...this is me outside Gucci...erm, this is me at the entrance to Karl Lagerfeld...no, no...they wouldn't let me in. Here's me outside another branch of Gucci, a smaller boutique opened in 1997...that's the secirty guard who has me in a headlock, friendly sort..." Unreal.

Mercifully, I was only in Singapore two nights. I wandered down to Clarke Quay, the in-place for people to hang out. It's a spiritless ex-pat watering hole. Bar after bar full of moneyed, vacuous people holding my daily budget in a cocktail glass. I didn't hang around. On the way back up the strip, the same glassy-eyed touts I'd turned down 5 minutes earlier bared their plastic grins to entice me into brightly-lit restaurants. There's nothing cool about this place. Even if you had the cash to visit the hip joints, there'd be no soul.

I showered early the next morning, to the barely-concealed grunts of an amorous couple in the next cubicle. Thrills were the only things going cheap here, it would seem. 

I got chatting to a French girl who lived in the hostel, she taught English nearby: the cheek of it. Her brother lives on Deepdale Road, home of the famous Preston North End. She offered to take me off to the beach with a few friends of hers. It was a nice offer I appreciated but, as I didn't have long before leaving, she suggested I check out the Botanical Gardens. It was a shame about the beach day out, so I said "Ah well...next time, eh?". It's an everyday, throwaway comment she took too literally. "OK...when are you coming back?" Erm...when Hell freezes over?

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