Sunday, 26 April 2015

Sentosa - it's best bit!

I didn't plan to visit Sentosa - a small island off the south coast of Singapore. But a combination of factors left me with little alternative but to take my default option and head for a resort. And - since I was heading south - Sentosa was the obvious option.

I've no doubt it's a great island for families. The disembodied voice on the skytrain, whisking me across from the mainland, assured me that it is the Island of Fun. Passengers on the return journey are reminding what Fun they have had, and how much more Fun they will have when they return. Notices all over the island remind you to have Fun. There's a music loop that tinkles tunes from hidden speakers, interspersed with suggestions of where you might find this Fun - from and Aquarium to a Go-cart track to a Madame Tussauds. Every attraction includes a photographer, so you can record what Fun you had, just in case you need reminding when you get home.

OK, so it's not quite my thing. Children loved these dragons - built to keep them entertained as they stroll from one attraction to the other.

If you don't fancy at attraction, there is always the beach:

That photo was taken in the late afternoon. Even so, it seems surprisingly quiet.

A view from my hotel window might explain that:

Would you want to swim in a sea filled with all the effluent etc pumped by all these ships? No, nor did I.

So what was I doing there?

I found an eco-resort. I know, it sounds all tree-huggy, but for once they not only practised what they preached but enjoyed themselves in the process. Vegetables grow on the flat roof, fertilised from the wormery - fed by scraps from the kitchens. Trees flourish in every possible corner, helping to keep the temperature down - and with it the need for air conditioning. All the water comes from an underground spring: this is a view of the pool with a waterfall hiding behind the foliage to the left. I sat on a lounger and not once did anyone mention Fun!

On top of that, the hotel welcomed visitors, including wildlife, that might be rejected elsewhere. This peahen and her chicks were making their way back to the poolside, having somehow shut themselves in the laundry.

This tolerance included staff. The welcome pack included a note that the resort employs a number of young people with special needs; they can be identified by a badge and visitors are asked to make allowances for them.

I chatted to one of the managers about this - applauding the idea but I wasn't sure about the badges. But, he explained, the young people tell us it helps. For they had introduced ten autistic young people to the staff group at the same time. Ten autistic young people! It was, he admitted, something of a challenge for the first six months. You could describe that as ambitious, or brave, or simply bonkers. But they stuck with it. Now it's fine.

And it is - I watched the young people at work and they are productive and happy, even if they do have a tendency to clear the tables a bit promptly. 

So, in the middle of all the manufactured Fun of Sentosa is the Siloso Beach Resort - where they have created something different from all the surrounding consumerism. A wonderful reminder of what can be done.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Malacca, in all its finery.

I love Malacca for the same reasons I love Penang - both are like multicultural soup!

But when I showed you pictures of Penang is was not architecture but street art that filled the blogpost. (If you missed it, you can find it here.)

Not to be left out, Malacca has also painted some of its buildings - though not with similar images to that  decorate Penang but with big, bold, wonderful sweeps of colour. These buildings were once the backs of small homes. People hung their washing here, and threw slops into the river. Now tourism has brought a different look to the riverside, and in place of washing and the stink of effluent, we have painting!! (This picture is taken from a boat, hence the odd shapes in the corners, and the pole!)

Those homes were once shacks for the poor. At the other end of the income scale, wealthy Chinese traders build mansions like this:

It's lovely from the front - and inside it stretches back with internal courtyards, one of which - right at the back - is full of small palm trees and green shrubs, and a fountain playing in the corner. Tables and chairs nestle among all the greenery. It's where I lingered so long over breakfast it morphed into coffee time.

In contrast, the Portuguese build solid colonial buildings like this:

Many of these buildings are now museums - some more interesting than others. I have no idea what a museum of beauty is doing in Malacca, but the display of Chinese foot-binding placed next to a display of modern women's shoes asked an interesting question.

And then I hit the streets. It was coming up to the Chinese New Year - well, I could hardly miss that, could I, with streets dressed up like this:

I'm not a shopper, but needed to do my bit to support the local economy. What better way than take a trishaw ride. A trishaw- for those who've not met one - is a bicycle with a seat beside it. I don't know when Malacca's trishaw riders began to decorate their contraptions. Last time I was here most had a few flowers and streamers. Over the years these decorations have become more elaborate (or maybe ridiculous, depending on your point of view) until they look like this. And what's more they come with music - and so one can ride through Malacca's streets to the theme from Frozen, or Justin Bieber ... and yes, you do feel a bit of a wally. But there are worse things to feel.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Some pictures from KL that aren't shops.

Kuala Lumpur is not my favourite city. As Asian cities go, it's a baby - founded by the British in the nineteenth century. It has no stories of derring-do, nor ancient artefacts.

There are solid colonial buildings to remind me of its past, but even so it feels to me as if it struggles to find an identify as a capital city.

And, like so many cities, it looks for that identity in commerce. From the tourists' point of view this presents as shopping. I wonder if KL has looked over her shoulder at the success of Singapore and noticed that the proliferation of shopping malls appears to have brought prosperity. So, why not try follow the same path?

As a non-shopper, it all feels a bit pointless. There's little that I can't buy at home. Besides, what has shopping to do with cultural identity - and that's the bit I'm interested in.

Having said all that, I spent my few days in KL seeking out the most non-commercial corners. Beginning with the Islamic Arts Museum - which I love. It's light, and spacious, and cool. It is a place of reflection. I could meander among its quiet beauty and think. I began to understand why Islamic art is a genre in its own right - and what makes it different, and special. The Koran discourages any representation of a living form: the result is a sequence of exotic shapes and patterns.

For instance, I looked through a window to see this dome:

And this is what it looked like from the inside:

There's also a lovely bird park, where I could wander, and marvel, and not be pressured into buying anything other than bird food. I'm sorry I don't have pictures - I gave up, as it was a Saturday when I was there and it was impossible to take a picture that didn't have someone else's selfie stick in it! (Grrrrr!)

Not all the streets are lined with shops. However, I found it impossible to take pictures of some of the more impressive buildings without a skyscraper in the background. For me, this beautiful mosque is marred by that phallic construction perched behind the central dome.

And this row of colonial buildings doesn't need an apartment block behind it.

And not all the shopping opportunities were dull. This is the covered way beside the Central Market (full of tourist trinkets but better than most), with the Chinese lanterns all ready for the New Year celebrations. It must have been riotous in that passageway that night!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

One of Malaysia's secrets: Fraser's Hill

I'm reluctant to tell you about Fraser's Hill.

For one of the most wonderful things about it is there being so few other visitors. There are a couple of big hotels, and plenty of self-catering bungalows. And at weekends Malaysians drive up from KL for a couple of cooler days in the hills. But much of the time a tourist who strays there has the place to him or herself.

Though you're not quite alone. For you must share the space with birds. I've seen various estimates of the variety of birds seen here - numbers vary but it's definitely more than 250.

Imagine that!! Over 250 species of birds, twittering and squawking and cackling and generally making themselves at home in the jungle! Once a year there is a 'bird-race' here - nothing to do with lining them up and cheering all the way to the finishing line. Instead twitchers set themselves up with binoculars and notebooks and count the different species: the winner is the person who spots the most.

I don't have pictures of birds - even though they swooped around my hotel room from daybreak till the sun went down. I don't have pictures of the animals - I've mentioned the gibbons before, and I saw wild boar trot across the road in front of the hotel. I don't even have pictures of insects: tarantulas on the prowl, searching for an unsuspecting fledgling. Nor reptiles (there are snakes here).

I can't even identify many of the plants and trees, in spite of noticeboards telling me what to look for.

I only have pictures of the jungle.

Boards describe these paths as 'easy with occasional obstacles'. They fib. Some are steeper than others, but all involve some scrambling. But the rewards - being in the green of the forest, listening to birdsong and smelling the mud and whiff of animals. And this is why I'm reluctant to tell you about it, for the attraction - for me, at least - was being there on my own.

Below is a 'rest stop'. The noticeboard has plenty of useful information, and I read it - as a good tourist should. And then promptly forgot everything I'd read and just listened, and looked. You can't see the small spider holes in the bank beyond this rest stop - but I watched for a while, wondering if one would come out to play. Possibly a good thing that she didn't.

But Fraser's Hill is built for visitors. It cannot survive unless more people go there. This is the hotel where I stayed - and you can see the size of it. The staff were kind and the food good. But I rattled around, in almost-solitary spendour.

There is no easy answer. I'm not the only tourist who loves the peace and quiet. But without more visitors it's hard to see how Fraser's Hill can keep going - and then these precious paths will be left to the gibbons, and snakes, and spiders. And those who work here will have little choice but to join the migration to the city.