Singapore Railway Station is an anomaly. If you’re a tourist arriving by air into Singapore, you’re immediately wowed by Changi Airport, renowned the world over for its cleanliness, efficiency and facilities including a free cinema, areas where sleep is actually encouraged and all-night shopping where you could possibly even be arrested for so much as asking for chewing gum.
It’s one of the few airports on earth where I’d actually rather be delayed than on time and, typically, never am. I’d also go so far as to say it’s one of the safest too. When I was in transit many years ago, I treated myself to a shower. I entered the marble shower cubicle with its glass door and looked up to the concrete roof to see a sprinkler. Every shower had one. I checked.
It’s hard to believe that there are people in the world that consider showering in a cubicle made of incombustible materials to be an activity that puts you at so much risk from fire that you need your very own sprinkler. It’s even harder to believe that someone exists on the planet that thinks that an inflammable shower cubicle is the kind of place where a fire might actually start.
But I digress.
Basically, you arrive in Changi and you are welcomed into the tourist haven of Singapore. You arrive at Singapore Railway Station and you can be forgiven for thinking that they’d rather not have you here at all.
There’s no tourist information whatsoever. There isn’t a single map of the city within four hundred metres of the building that isn’t sealed in plastic in some bookshop and costs more than breakfast. They haven’t bothered to connect it to the subway system. There isn’t anywhere to leave luggage. In fact, pretty much anywhere you ask in Singapore about storing a couple of backpacks for a few hours and you get the answer “Oh, you should go to the airport. I think they do it there.”
So, we were staring the possibility of looking around steamy Singapore for the day with our baggage on our backs. Not fun. That is until Sheena spotted (as only Sheena can) a coffee shop she recognised: Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Memories of Korea (thankfully, the good ones) came flooding back. Coffee Bean is, outside the US, only available in a few select countries. Sheena spent more time in them in Seoul than she did at home (not really, but it seemed that way sometimes )
I left her happily sitting there while I went in search of a place to leave our bags and a hotel that would possibly let us use their pool for a price. After two hours, Sheena had achieved more by sitting on her bum in Coffee Bean than I had hot-footing it all over the city. She also had less blisters. The woman serving her had chatted and, hearing our story, had offered to put our bags behind the counter while we headed off to explore. Ah well, at least I got to see the inside of some nice hotels.
We decided that we’d head off to Chinatown as it was nearby and was one part that Sheena hadn’t seen before. I was also interested in seeing how it had changed since I’d visited it when I was a teenager back in the mid-1980s. It has changed remarkably in fact and much much more for the better I thought.
Singapore has worked hard, it seems, to actually preserve a lot of the buildings that give Chinatown its charm. There are still streets of shops selling absolutely nothing anyone in the world needs. They are still densely packed with people with surplus income. But the architecture has been lovingly and tastefully restored. Buildings have been painted in vivid shades of colour which, in the strong tropical sunlight, really stand out and this has been complemented by pedestrianisation and the installation of modern architecture which tastefully integrates the whole.
Some of the charm of Chinatown has disappeared in this redevelopment it has to be said. Gone are the streets of rubbish-strewn gutters. The pavements show a marked absence of phlegm and you can actually hear your companions speech while sitting on the pavement terrace of a restaurant without it being interrupted by horns, shouting street-sellers or the general cacophony of Chinese conversation. But progress has its price I suppose.
We visited the Lucky Lucky Restaurant for lunch. It’s always a good rule of thumb that any restaurant abroad, no matter how bad it looks, is usually worth visiting if it’s packed out with locals. This was what led us to the place and proved absolutely true. We had some prawns in ginger and frogs legs with garlic and lemon all washed down with a Tiger Beer and a ginger tea to finish. Fantastic!
We also took the opportunity to visit a couple of temples that I hadn’t seen before. I always have mixed feelings visiting religious buildings of any sort. Cathedrals, shrines, temples, football grounds: they all fill me with sadness at the efforts to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. They spur me on to tell the world that Jesus did it so we don’t have to.
If you’re into Buddha in any way, then the temple in Chinatown is for you. I’ve never seen so many before.
We’re not particularly into Buddha so we didn’t stay long. On the way out, I picked up a little booklet entitled “Everyone can get to heaven, just be good!” It was packed with advice on being good… just trying hard is all we need to do. Find me a single person on the planet please who has successfully become good by trying. Bring them to me and I will buy them lunch. During lunch, I guarantee you, they will so something bad. I’ll make sure of it.
Anyway, I digress again.
We wandered back to Coffee Bean, picked up our bags and headed out to Changi Airport. We had a flight to Australia to catch and, for the first time, we were flying Qantas’ budget version, Jetstar. But that’s another story…
We said goodbye to Razali at KL Sentral Station where he drove us to meet our overnight train to Singapore. As we’d saved so much money on all our budget flights, I’d gone overboard with this train journey, spending a whole £20 each for a Deluxe Sleeper Compartment. It came complete with shower, two bunks, a TV, bedding and breakfast.
Also included, importantly was a little toiletry set each. As I’d left mine in Cambridge, this meant I could stop sharing Sheena’s toothbrush.
As soon as we got into the compartment, I got in the shower and spent the next twenty minutes washing the grime of Chepor off me. By the time I emerged, we’d been given breakfast. It wasn’t great, in fact, we weren’t sure that it wasn’t meant to be dinner. It consisted of coconut rice, without any coconut, and fried chicken which tasted nothing like chicken. At least the water was genuine.
We settled in for the night cosy in our blankets as the train rattled south through the palm plantations of Malaysia.
About two hours after we’d fallen asleep, I woke up shivering. The airconditioning was pretty efficient. I put on my jeans, a long-sleeved top, my fleece and some socks and wrapped myself back into the single blanket we’d been given. It made no difference. Sheena was also freezing.
What made the cold worse was that we were travelling just north of the Equator and just the other side of the glass, people were sleeping in the warmth of a tropical night for free. We foreigners were paying to freeze to death.
As the train came to a stop somewhere in the night, I stumbled into the deliciously warm corridor and went in search of a guard. He was as sympathetic as hairdryer. “Could you turn down the air conditioning?” I asked. “Not possible change or turn off.” (sigh) The question, “Do you have any more blankets?” resulted in a terminal “No.”
Well, something must have happened because when we got to the Malaysian side of the border and shouts went up to get our passports out, we awoke to a compartment that looked as if it had been sweating heavily. Every surface was covered in a dense layer of condensation.
Initially pleased to be somewhat warmer again, we were suddenly cursing the return of humidity as our own temperatures started to rise. We were contemplating a first in all our travel experience and it was not a happy thought. Now, in decades of travelling I have never, ever, absolutely no way come close to losing my passport. Ever.
But as I turned over bags and lifted clothing to find it, my efforts were in vain. The immigration officer entered the compartment and did Sheena’s passport. I was still frantically pulling the place apart. It didn’t help that I’d been woken up abruptly, that it was somewhere around 4am and I was probably sleep walking and this was all just a dream in seriously bad taste. The immigration officer had exhausted his patience. “You come find me with passport” he announced somberly and vanished down the train.
But it wasn’t there. My passport, my whole entire money belt with my credit cards, some pounds and dollars in cash, had completely disappeared. I remembered having it when I got on the train, putting it on my bed when I undressed for my shower. Maybe the guy who brought our breakfast had lifted it. Maybe someone had come in while we had been sleeping; a million scenarios played themselves out in my head. I imagined us in our shame holding up the entire train as we were forcibly disembarked and then watching as the train, undoubtedly carrying my goods slipped off into Singapore without us.
And then, with me on my belly on the floor under the bed in the far corner of the compartment, I found it lying there. It was a lovely moment. Life suddenly seemed much simpler, much more enjoyable. I was suddenly a citizen of somewhere. I was now able to show an official the Queen’s request on my behalf to allow me to pass “without let or hindrance and with such assistance as may be necessary.”
We passed across the Straits of Singapore, a narrow strip of water between the two nations and bridged by The Causeway. On the Singapore side of the border, it was Sheena’s turn to feel uncomfortable.
Guards were now walking down our carriage shouting for passports and baggage. We sat there with both in order. Suddenly the door opened and a head was thrust in. “You go now station with bags.” The head gestured across to the platform where we could see the entire population of the train traipsing past with all their worldly goods.
And that’s how Sheena ended up being probably the first and quite possibly the only British woman in history to enter Singapore carrying a backpack and wearing tartan pajamas.
One thing we love about travelling is that it throws you into contact with people that you’d otherwise never meet. As if being with our jungle trainer host Razali wasn’t enough today, we also got to spend it with a family of Italian synthetic cork makers. Elvis may well be dead but Julius Caesar is alive and well in the form of Guiseppe. I think if we’d had a toga handy, and maybe a laurel wreath or two, we could have proved it.
We were accompanying the family on their prearranged tour of Razali’s elephant sanctuary. We can be forgiven for gatecrashing this event because us coming along necessitated a van which saved the Italians from being crammed into his car and him driving. Instead we had lovely air conditioning and Raz could take it easy.
The road took us out of KL and up through the Genting Highlands over to Pahang province where the Kuala Gandah sanctuary lies in the rolling hills and forests near the eastern coast. It was a good wide road which made the steep climb and descent less hairy than it must have been years ago.
We were being treated to a personalised visit to the sanctuary. The highlight of this would be seeing Chepor, an orphaned 2 year old baby elephant who is in intensive care after injuring his left foreleg. This injury means that he is unable to support any weight on this leg. He spends most of his day lying on his right side and is quite literally flat on his right side.
Chepor has his own concrete pen which, like almost everything else at the sanctuary has been donated by visitors and well-wishers from around the globe. We ourselves had brought out some NikWax waterproofing spray so that clothing could be protected on trips out to rescue elephants.
The elephants are rescued from all sorts of environments. Often they’re injured or otherwise traumatised. We saw and fed Tripod, so called because she had only three feet and a stump to get around on.
But Chepor was definitely the highlight. This was so for two reasons. Firstly, we helped give him hydrotheraphy and then, later, when the tourists had all come and gone on their tour buses, we fed him his evening bottle.
The hydrotherapy involved filling Chepor’s pen with water pumped from the nearby river. As the water started to gush in, you could see Chepor wriggling with pleasure. Occasionally, he trumpet his joy too. He didn’t do this often thankfully as it was deafeningly loud. He was only able to move himself round and round the pen by walking along the wall on his knees. Foreign donations had also provided a thick rubber mat for him to lie on or the abrasions from this would have made his recovery very complicated.
When the water was about two foot deep, we were encouraged to call to Chepor the phrase that the elephant tamers here, or mahouts, use to encourage elephants to stand up. He worked so so hard at it and we shared in his frustration each time a massive effort led to him tumbling back down into the water. When he tired, he’d play with us instead, trying to pull us by the arm into the water with his trunk. He’d also squirt water over himself but, thankfully, not us.
Eventually, when the water was about three foot deep, he managed to right himself. I was then invited into the pen to swim with him and encourage him to walk around the pen. The water was providing bouyancy that made it easier for him to move. Raz hoped that, by doing this for a couple of hours each day, he’d keep his muscles active and help strengthen his weak leg.
As soon as I got in the tank, Chepor wanted to play. Playing with an elephant, even a 2 year old, isn’t to be taken lightly. They are immensely heavy, immensely strong and immensely playful. This worked to our advantage though. Calling him with the phrase meaning walk, haiki-po, I encouraged him to walk towards me and led him this way around and around the tank. He was tricky though and kept trying to cut me off or force me into a corner. With the water getting deeper still, up to four feet, I was having a hard time moving around but I managed it and it was great fun.
Then Sheena had a much longer turn at it. Chepor seemed to like her even more though and was determined to corner her. Afterwards, we realised that he’d played a bit rough: Sheena still has a bruise from being tusked a little too roughly by him. Wow! What a woman, she’s been tusked by an elephant! For this she’ll win admirers the world over including the envy of Gain, the owner of the Western Australia Reptile Park who we’ll introduce you to soon on the blog.
After we’d played with Chepor, we left him to have a swim about while we fed some of the other elephants wandering round. They really do like peanuts. The most amazing thing about placing peanuts on their sticky tongues is that, when you drop one, this massive beast reaches down and picks up the stray tiny nut with it’s huge trunk. That’s incredible dexterity.
We were given a nice local lunch
and then shown a video documentary about the wider relocation work of the sanctuary team. For refreshments during this, Raz came in and thrust long ice lolly things in our hands. These were bright yellow and had an indeterminate taste. Indeterminate that is until we noticed the frozen kernels at the bottom: sweet corn. The only one who really appreciated them was the Italians’ three year old.
The tourists had arrived by this point and we kept a low profile. Once they’d gone, Raz came to get us again. We were asked to wash, surgeon-like, up to the elbows. Then, he had us put a strange concoction of malt, liquid sugar, bread, milk, rice and water into a bucket and mix this up by hand. It was disgusting. It was Chepor’s dinner.
Back in his pen, Chepor was now drying off and walking around on his knees. Without the water in, you could truly appreciate how lying on his side is affecting him. Imagine a D-shaped elephant in profile. Amazing. We clambered in and took turns to give him the bottle. Boy did he enjoy it. All the while we fed him, we had to stroke him, look him in the eye and speak to him, just like a child. And as he finished off the bucket, you could see him get satiated and sleepy. Amazing.
Chepor, unlike other elephant babies there, hadn’t learned how to hold the bottle. We had to do it for him. Others though showed off their ability to feed themselves.
We said goodbye to Chepor with some sombre knowledge in our minds. If he doesn’t get well soon, the sanctuary may receive notice to put him to sleep. His rehabilitation is very labour- and resource-intensive for the operation. Razali didn’t seem to think that there was a huge amount of hope and you could see that he would take such an outcome very hard. As we headed home, I hoped that future visitors would be able to see Chepor, not behind closed doors as we did, but out in the open again in full health.