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August 3, 2001

Singapore has been a big

Singapore has been a big change in our travels. We feel thousands of miles away from the dirty streets and chaos we'd become used to in the rest of SE Asia, and instead we've been soaking in the contemptible luxury of spending time in one of the world's richest countries. The other day we played with an Aibo, Sony's robot dog in one of the shopping malls, and Nina has been enjoying the novelty of having sushi for supper every evening and coming to bed with fish breath.

Singapore is about half the size of Greater London, and has a population of 4 million. It's one of the most efficient and advanced places I've ever been and possesses an unbelievable number of shopping malls, one of which stretches underground across the centre of the city. It tends to grab headlines for its strict laws and high fines for things like littering. Chewing gum is illegal, drug dealers are executed, and Penthouse and Playboy are banned. All of which sounds crazy to anyone from Western society, and I fully expected to be shocked by the level of governmental control when we arrived here, but the surprising thing is that the longer we spend in the city, the more relaxed it feels. When you think about how many people live on this tiny island, you realise that things really do work, crime is very low, and maybe some of the laws are actually doing some good. Thankfully I gave up my gum habit years ago, and I'll just have to wait until we get to another country for my fix of Penthouse.

August 13, 2001

Bintan

Last week Nina & I set off for some Indonesian islands that are quite close to Singapore. We bought our tickets in the ferry terminal then grabbed a couple of lattes in Starbucks before we boarded the boat and stood on deck watching Singapore slip away. We knew that Indonesia would be a big change, but we couldn't really guess what we were about to arrive into. Recently there had been a lot of political tension and violence throughout the country, but with the appointment of a new prime minister the previous week, things now looked as if they were more stable. We were the only foreigners on the ferry, everyone else was either Indonesian or men from Singapore over to drink in the cheap bars. I spoke to some Singaporeans as we approached the island of Batam and they advised me only to get a taxi inside the ferry terminal. Some of the taxi drivers outside had been known to drive people out to the jungle, rob them and leave them there. We made our way through immigration and found a taxi office, however, they wanted 6 times what we'd been told was the normal fare. I tried to haggle with them, but instead they looked at us with derision and ordered us to, "Get out!" We stepped outside into the heat, and although there were only 20 or 30 passengers on the ferry, there was a crowd of about a hundred taxi drivers outside. They pushed and shouted, but when we tried to negotiate a price with them they just laughed between themselves and screamed at us in Indonesian. One of the port officers told us we may have better luck out on the main road, and so we pushed through the crowd with our rucsacks and made our way out of the port. Several of the taxi drivers pursued us, determined not to lose the opportunity of making a week's wages, and more approached us at the main road. The island had no bus services, the port was in the middle of nowhere, and we had to cross the island to get another ferry to Bintan. As we stood by the road, we realised that we were just attracting more attention, and so we agreed to pay only four times the going rate and got into one of the ancient, wrecked taxis. The car was really falling apart & we had to put our bags on the seat as he couldn't manage to get the boot open. As we drove down the road we passed a shanty town of wooden houses, but it just seemed to stretch on and on. Soon we realised that it was normal for people here to live in houses built from garbage as we made our way across the island.. I felt a knot in my stomach as I realised the poverty that people were living in - now I realised why it was the cheapest place in the world to buy a McDonalds! Nina & I looked at each other in shock - even though we'd been travelling around Asia, this was by far the poorest and dirtiest place we'd ever been. The Starbucks we'd been sitting in an hour ago in Singapore now seemed like another planet.

We reached the ferry terminal, bought tickets, and boarded the boat, continuing to be the centre of attention. It was an old, small, high-speed ferry, and we were forced to watch Indonesian karaoke music videos at full volume until the player broke down because of the buffeting of the waves. I dozed off and awoke as we were berthing in Bintan.

As soon as we stepped out onto the jetty, a hotel tout locked onto us and refused to go. Then he waved over two of his friends and they all proceeded to follow us, trying to harrass us into agreeing to go to the hotel they were working for. Once again we were the only non-Asians to get off the ferry and now we began to see why. The town consisted of mainly ramshackle wooden huts with some concrete buildings in the centre of town. Rubbish was piled up in the streets and rats ran across the pavement in front of us. Our self-appointed guides refused to leave us and continued to hassle and follow us all the way through town. Finally, with no other choice, I took one of them aside, told him to read my lips, and instructed him to leave in no uncertain terms. They weren't quite sure how to deal with this, but after shouting at us aggresively, they finally left. We started to check out some of the hotels, but they were either full, or horrifically disgusting. As we walked around the streets everyone stared and shouted at us, and none of it seemed to be friendly. Then another 'guide' found us and decided that we would have a much richer experience if he followed us around and checked the rooms out with us. After being in and out of every hotel in town, we settled for an overpriced, run-down establishment with rubbish piled beneath its stilt supports. But at least it had a bar downstairs.Our 'guide', who had followed us up to the room when we were being shown it, now sat down, and blurted out, "Now I like tip, please." I handed him 1000 rupiah (about an hour's wages for the average Indonesian), and manuevered him out of the door. As I was doing this he began to get aggressive, and act insulted, but there was little he could do by now as he was on the other side of the door, so he angrily stuffed the note into my shirt pocket and stormed off. We closed the door, glad to be inside, and turned the old air-con unit on. Nothing happened. There had been no power in the town all day. Maybe it would work tonight we were told.

In the evening we walked down to the bar. They only had warm beer, but they did give us some ice to put into it. We looked around the bar, and most of the other customers were skinny Indonesian hookers. We drank quite a lot that night, we needed to after the day we'd had, and the alcohol helped me sleep oblivious to the horrors of the room. Nina wasn't too well that night, however, probably due to the ice from the beer, and shared the bathroom with the cockroaches while I was unconscious in bed.

Needless to say, we woke up feeling a bit rough in the morning but dragged ourselves down to the 'breakfast buffet'. It was, unsurprisingly, very disappointing, and consisted of two pieces of toast with a thick yellow oil coating and an egg which I presumed to be boiled but discovered to be raw upon breaking it open. We asked for some more toast and were told, "You give me money, I give you toast." We left breakfast, and saw a large, fat rat run across the floor. Obviously it was getting better fed than us.

Nina suggested we travel around the island in case it improved, but I suggested we travel over to the ferry terminal, get the ferry back to Singapore, and escape from this place as it was the epitome of hell. She agreed, we packed our bags, and left.

August 14, 2001

We've just uploaded some of

We've just uploaded some of our recent photos to here.

August 17, 2001

Tonight we catch the 2010

Tonight we catch the 2010 train out of Singapore and through Malaysia on the 'jungle track'. We arrive in Wakah Bahru at 0915 tomorrow morning and although we were planning to go to the Perhentian Islands in Northern Malaysia, we've since discovered that it's the middle of high season there and accomodation is very scarce, so we'll probably continue onto Thailand instead.

Last night we saw 'Rush Hour 2' at the cinema, and really enjoyed it, but we have recently been watching a lot of Jackie Chan films on tv as part of our 'Asian cultural research', so maybe that had something to do with it. Later we sat by the river under the skyscrapers at Boat Quay, drinking Singapore Slings and enjoying what will probably be our last evening in civilisation for a while.

From this evening our mobile number will revert from the Singaporean number we've been using back to our usual number. Hopefully our roaming service will be working again in Thailand.

August 24, 2001

Perhentian Islands

When we arrived in Malaysia, we met some people who'd just left the Perhentian Islands and they told us that some places did have rooms available there, so we jumped on a boat and were dropped off on a tropical beach where one of the 'resorts' were. It looked terrific from a distance but when we looked around the chalets we saw that most of them were built from sticks and had big holes in the walls and floors. One of them was full of bats hanging from the roof and the kitchen was 'open plan' with squirells and other animals raiding the food! There was no shower, just a well with a bucket. We walked through the forest to look at some of the other places but they were all full, so we carried on until we finally found one with some available rooms. The rooms weren't great, but they were an improvement. Just before we went to bed we found a huge insect that looked just like a leaf, and a scorpion just above the bed and we were woken several times during the night by bats screeching and trying to get in through gaps in the roof. The next day they offered us a better room and we happily took it. It had several large lizards (maybe 30cm long) that lived on the walls but at least they ate most of the insects. The worst thing was that the food they served in the restaurant was very dull and so we walked over to a neighbouring restaurant and had dinner there the next day. When we were returning through the forest it was dark, but thankfully we'd taken torches with us. Suddenly we stopped as we heard a loud rustling noise and we looked at the ground to see what it was. Then we felt it biting. Millions and millions of huge ants were covering the forest floor and attacking us, biting our feet and legs! We tried to run away from them, but just ran into another load, and then another. Finally by the time we got back to our chalet, we'd ran half-way through the forest and were sweating, nervous wrecks.

One of the things that surprised us about the places we stayed in Malaysia was the lack of cleanliness with so many things. Whenever we ordered a drink it would always come with a dirty glass as if people just didn't know how to clean dishes. Needless to say, this hardly gave us confidence when it came to eating the food. On Wednesday, we took the ferry back to the mainland and caught a train at the Thai border. We sat in the buffet carriage and enjoyed some spicy Thai food and marvelled at the clean glasses they gave us.

We've been in a town called Hat Yai for the last couple of days, and we're about to catch a train in an hour to Surat Thani with the intention of getting a ferry from there to an Island called Ko Samui. It's supposed to be very beautiful, but also one of the really big tourist attractions in the country, so we fully expect it to be packed with hippy backpackers. On the other hand, I've been told there's a Starbucks there...