Monday, March 27, 2017

March 24th – A Stairway to Heaven in KL

As a city, Kuala Lumpur has a lot of things going for it – a booming economy, excellent infrastructure, diverse cultures, and an interesting mix of historic and ultra-modern architecture. But, for cruise passengers, its main drawback is its location – a good hour's drive from Port Klang (with the potential for longer, if the traffic seizes up, which it often does).

That means that most tours into KL tend to be flying visits. So, you're best off not trying to see too much, and just try to pick off one or two things to concentrate on. So, today my mission was just to visit the Batu Caves – an enormous set of limestone caves in the hills on the edge of the city that have become sacred to the city's large Hindu population.

Maybe it's the daunting physical task of getting up to the caves that gives them their mystique. In the shadow of a huge golden statue of the God Murugan, you have to climb up 272 very steep stairs to get to the top, whilst at the same time running the gauntlet of a troupe of rapacious monkeys who stalk you all the way, on the lookout for food – if you're not offering any, they're quite prepared to come and take it for themselves. In fact, Tracy and I were mugged by these simian bagsnatchers last time we were here – they ripped open my bag to steal an apple out of. Being mentally scarred by that experience meant that I made sure I was carrying no food, and gave these cheeky monkeys a very wide berth.

At the top, there's a few temples decorated with their typically florid statues, but the caves were emptier than I had remembered, mainly filled with puddles because the heavens had just opened, and dripping water was filtering its way through the limestone. But, it was an atmospheric enough spot, and at least the monkeys kept their distance.

On a muggy day, the climb up and down meant that we were all covered in perspiration at the end of our cave-pilgrimage, so it was good to get into the air-conditioning at the Royal Selangor Pewter Factory. To be honest, I'm not really in the market for some pewter mugs or jewellery, but it was relatively interesting to see the processes they go through to produce the pewter, and at least it acted as a reminder that it was tin mining that caused KL to be founded out in the jungle in the 1850s, and tin that fuelled much of the growth of the early colonial city.

If you wanted any proof that KL has moved on from low-tech mining to hi-tech manufacturing and oil production, then our final photo stop at the gigantic Petronas Towers confirmed this. In the 20 or so years since they were built, the towers may have slipped down the rankings from the World's Tallest Buildings, to now just Numbers 11 and 12 – but they are still an impressive statement of intent from a country with lofty ambitions.

Whether its tall staircases or tall buildings you're after, KL has plenty to offer – if only it were closer to the port.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

March 22nd – Enjoying Some Man-Made Nature in Singapore

Every time I come back to Singapore, my admiration grows for what they've achieved here. This is a tiny city state, with no natural resources, that was a lowly Third World Country when it achieved independence 60 years ago. Now, it's one of the richest countries in the world, with probably the best infrastructure of any country that I've been to.

Even though this is the second most densely country on the planet, the super-modern public transport system is so comprehensive, so integrated, and so efficient that there scarcely seemed much traffic on the roads. Having come from the gridlock of Bangkok, and to a lesser extent of Ho Chi Minh City, this is a lesson in organisation that both those cities could learn from. In an egalitarian city like Singapore, there's no stigma in catching the subway, and definitely no danger in this pretty much crime-free environment.

As property prices rocket, every time Singapore reaches its capacity, they just build more land out in the Bay. So, we went to see Singapore's new icon, the Marina Bay development, all dominated by the stand-out architecture of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, its three towers topped with its distinctive boat-like platform. We've been to the viewing gallery up at the top of the Hotel before, so today we went to see what was down below it, at the futuristic Gardens By The Bay.

Fittingly, for a place where man has triumphed over nature by filling in the ocean, this artificially created environment of bio-spheres and metal trees feels as close to nature as you can get in Singapore's concrete jungle. In fact, the longer we were there, surrounded by the lush greenery and swaying palm trees, you began to forget that none of this was natural, and didn't exist 5 years ago. As ever in Singapore, it was the attention to detail that made it all work so well.

Having ticked off this "natural" wonder, we then confined ourselves to the activities that Singapore does best of all – shopping and eating.

This has got to be the easiest place to live in South East Asia (as long as you have plenty of money).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

March 20th – A Relaxing Day in Ko Samui

Before Ko Samui started to add monkey shows, elephant rides, shooting ranges and all manner of other tasteful activities to entertain us tourists, this place always used to be about the simple pleasures in life – beautiful beaches and laid-back lifestyles. Our mission today, was to get back to what Ko Samui does best.

So, from the rather scruffy main town of Na Thon, we headed about a 10-minute drive south, to one of the smaller scale resorts. Actually, getting a taxi to take us there was a trial in itself. Even though all the taxis had "Meter Taxi" written on top of them, getting one to put it on the meter proved to be an impossibility. As soon as we told them where we wanted to go, they'd get out their laminated map of the island and told us they'd take us on an island tour for an exorbitant price. Finally, we got a tuk tuk driver to wearily agree to take us there for something approaching a reasonable price.

Our destination was an attractive little boutique hotel called the Siam Residence – it sits on the beach, and has a restaurant, a large pool, and 10 holiday cottages. The restaurant manager told us that the island's beaches had suffered badly in some serious floods that hit 3 months ago, so the beach wasn't looking its best – but, even so, those white sands looked pretty inviting.

We didn't have long, so we had a relaxing dip in the pool, and then had a lovely alfresco lunch looking out to sea. As ever, the Thai curries were gorgeous.

When you don't have long in Ko Samui, it pays to go back to basics.