Day 188: Little India, Many Islands

Sun. 17th February 2013

Shutters on a house in Little IndiaBefore we leave Singapore and head on for Bali, we have time for a last morning of sightseeing. Our trusty Lonely Planet guide has the Little India quarter near the top of it’s To Do list and very helpfully has the outline of a walking tour. Even better, it is only a couple of stops on the good old MRT and so off we go.

Crabs so cold, their claws have turned blue?Markets are always a good place to get a feel for the locals and the culture and the Tekka Market on the edge of Little India was no exception. Rows of food stalls selling a mix of Chinese and Indian foods that was appetising even at 11 in the morning. The mix of foods went well with the display of red lanterns for the Chinese/Lunar New Year. The fresh food section stalls sold the usual mixture of fruit, veg and meats – albeit with some produce that we just don’t see at home. I was left wondering how tasty the blue-legged crabs would be – very tasty or extremely tasty?

Too indecisive with the trial pots of paint?Once outside the market, the streets beyond were predominantly rows of small shops in old buildings in a rainbow of colours. In the case of the Chinese Villa there was a single shop that had gone for the rainbow effect. We spent some time just wandering around the streets, vaguely following the Lonely Planet guide looking at the variety of shops and colours (and smells) and squeezing past some of the shopfronts that have spilled out onto the pavements.

Methodist Church in SingaporeThe multicultural nature was evident all around – we even found a Methodist church right in the heart of Little India and nearby there was an ornate mosque, complete with kids playing football in the courtyard. Of course, it was the Hindu temples that dominated with their temples and the multilevel statues depicting Kali, Shiva, Ganesh and the other Hindu deities. The paintwork on the temples was somewhat faded, but the scale and the level of detail is still very impressive. I just wish I had a better handle as to which of the deities was which and responsible for what.

Kids playing football in the mosqueWe also came across the Mustafa’s which is the district’s department store that grew from a single shop to now occupy an entire street. The hotchpotch look and the bustle of people outside reminded us of our shopping trip to Paraguay (when we were at Iguassu) and the semi-organised chaos we found there. We just about had enough time (and energy) to see what we wanted before having to head back to the hotel, pick up our backpacks and head off to the airport.

Now which, god are you?On reflection, Changi Airport is a bit of a metaphor for Singapore – it is big, full-on bling and full of shops. It also was somewhat quirky and unlike (say) Miami airport, it had some soul and personality. We liked Singapore – despite the size and the bling, it was safe, the people were friendly, it was easy to get around and there is every sort of food you could wish for. Despite only having a very limited time we saw enough to get  a feel for the place and my one regret is that we didn’t do a better job of trying the local food.

Flowers and fountain in Changi AirportJanet informs me that our flight to Bali is the 31st flight of our trip (including the sightseeing flights such as the one to the glaciers in New Zealand) – not very carbon friendly I know. Its also our first of what is likely to be a few with Air Asia who seem to be the RyanAir equivalent in the region. Whilst there was all of the budget airline nonsense of charging for every little thing (like an allocated seat) on top of the advertised price for the flight, they did at least charge sensible prices (mostly) – pre-booking a seat only cost £1, a meal was less than £3. It was airline food but somehow Indonesian airline food still tasted OK.

Just some of the 17,000 islands in IndonesiaPeering past Janet and out of the plane window I had a visual reminder of some of the key geography points about Indonesia that were buried somewhere in the back of my head. The Straits of Malacca that separate Singapore from the largest Indonesian island of Sumatra are very narrow. In no time at all we had crossed them and were heading down along the coast of Sumatra and then Java. Indonesia comprises over 17,000 islands and sure enough every time we looked down there were myriad islands of all sizes. If we are lucky, we’ll get to see a half a dozen or so of these 17,000 island in our month in Indonesia. We’re just not trying really!

The other notable occurrence on the flight is that as soon as the wheels touched down a large group of the passengers stood up and tried to get their bags out of the overhead compartments. The stewardess had to repeat the ‘sit down’ message a dozen times. And I thought that Brits were impatient. One other tip I would have for others arriving in Indonesia is to have some cash (in US$, AUD, £ or Euro) for the US$25 fee for a tourist visa. Our usual trick of waiting to use the ATM in the arrival hall meant that we had no cash and so got stuck with a 3% surcharge for the use of a credit card.

Ready for the Bali Grand PrixOur guide book says that on arrival at Denpasar airport, only take a taxi that you have booked through the desk in the airport; don’t pay more than X; don’t hand your money over up front… The reality was somewhat different. There was no visible taxi desk, just a mob of blue shirted drivers who pounce on everyone who exits the terminal building. Janet at least has the presence of mind to – take a step back and think; to check the book for what we should pay; and then to haggle with a driver to get a sensible rate in the local currency and not US$. We are reassured when our driver leads us to a taxi in the middle of a fleet of blue cars each with a Taksi sign on the roof.

Pelangi Bali Hotel entrance at nightThe drive to the costal town of Seminyak reminds us that we are in Asia. The roads are narrow and full of cars, trucks and throngs of scooters. No quarter is given or taken, there seems to be not a square inch of unoccupied road. It is strictly ‘parlez-vous shoulder blades’. This is not a place where we will be hiring a car. To be fair, though, they were driving on the correct side of the road (mostly) and did stop for traffic lights. This is one up on our experience in India.

Pool and restaurant at Pelangi Bali HotelOur first impressions of the hotel are positive. We passed by small shops and busy restaurants just before we got there. Our welcome at reception is friendly and the room has much needed air-conditioning and a clean bed. We are only booked in here for a single night (much to the puzzlement of the staff on the front desk) but we will probably extend that as we develop a plan for Bali. As we sit in the bar with a well deserved beer and start to put that plan together, it looks like we’re all set to enjoy our first of the Indonesian islands!

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