From Manali to S’pore & KL

Here I am again. Gate four of the domestic departure lounge in Mumbai airport, following a five hour flight and a convoluted transfer process from the international airport. My flight for Delhi departs in a couple of hours. A grandmother is sitting with her family in the row in front. She is settled now, but was busy burying her brow in a debate some moments before. I have observed this as a popular Indian pastime, to search for a point of contention in regular discourse and dispute it fervidly. Now the family are standing, most likely an expression of their earnest intention of being first in line to board the plane.

The coach that herded us to the domestic airport afforded me with a view of the mud and rubble that litters the ground in the intervening spaces between the tarmac runways. We passed a street of ramshackle houses the outer-side of a ring fence that encloses the airport; the usual hotch-potch of timber, corrugated iron and everything else that supports the makeshift construction of a slum. These are the univocal signs that I am back on the subcontinent, a world away from my departure point at 10:15 this morning, in the opulent metropolis of Singapore.

It’s a strange kind of “welcome ceremony” I am growing accustomed to on my travels in and outside of India, that the burgeoning features of the most populous, cultural and fast advancing of society I know should strike me so hard at the moment of arrival. Then again, a fortnight abroad in the most diverse, affluent and advanced of societies should be sufficient contrast to throw things into perspective. Now I am being moved to gate six.

Winding it back a moment, I arrived fresh from Jaisalmer and Jodhpur on Tuesday morning three weeks ago and took off for Manali on the Thursday evening with Alex, Mari, Kelly and Ira. There was the usual rush to get a cab into Delhi in time to catch the bus. This time me and Alex were the delay, sitting in our room ardently trying to book a flight to Singapore the coming Monday. Mari packed a bag for me and the cab waited outside while we got it booked. A few things had come together at the last minute; my visa problems finally sorted, a job prospect and the opportunity to pay a surprise visit to Jas, our friend in Singapore, for Chinese New Year and her birthday. Anyway, flights booked we took off for a weekend in Manali, a famous hill station in Northern Himachal Pradesh. We found the bus, late, still loading up baggage.

Fourteen hours later I awoke to crispy white snow caps and rocky mountain passes of the Himalaya, welcoming us to Indian honeymoon paradise. The coach was full of overt Indian newly weds despite it being out of season (since the stars don’t line up). I can see why, a hill station 2,000 meters high with a towering Himmalaya backdrop, covered in a think blanket of pure white snow (Kelly’s first experience thereof). For us, it was the perfect weekend getaway. We caught a cab from the bus station up the hill towards the old part of town, but were soon grounded by faltering traffic caught out by the snow and ice. So we left the cab and walked the remainder into town for breakfast.

After breakfast we meandered our way through the town past yaks and street hawkers and up the hill towards Old Manali. Feet soaking from deep prints in the snow, we found the old town empty and deserted with no guest houses open owing to the low season. So we backtracked a short distance and found an affable lady who offered us a cosy two floor apartment at the same rate of an ordinary room. She said she liked the way she saw Ira walking up the hill. A warming afternoon with a chai in front of a log fire, a walk up the hill to the local temple and back into town for dinner. That was when we discovered Mountain View, our favored eating spot which we frequented every meal of the day thereafter.

On Saturday we made our way to the other side of the town to bath in the local hot springs. Walking back down the hill after the springs I was warmed enough not to need a coat or gloves until we reached the bottom. All the while there were stunning views of the sun glistening in the snow and bouncing off the mountains that encircled us. Late afternoon we waved Kelly and Ira off as they were returning a day early, and flitted about the town before evening came. Dinner in the usual spot. Sunday was more of the same, and since the snow was thick enough to rule out any major hiking routes we just chilled in the town and made the most of the peaceful milieu. Back on the bus Sunday afternoon, returning to Gurgaon early on Monday morning. Alex hopped off to work for a few hours and I stayed at home to pack and prepare for the next holiday. Ah, the life.

Armed with eight bags of Lay’s Tangy Tomato Chips (Jas’ favorite Indian snack), me and Alex took a cab to the airport on Monday afternoon. We arrived in S’pore, via Mumbai, early on Monday morning. As if a new world had presented itself to us, we took the super efficient MRT subway a few stops and alighted. We ambled down the road in the 27° heat and found our hostel. Basic but adequate, the hostel was located on a street not far from the airport and Jas’ place. It was evidently a well-to-do area, with luxurious houses stretching all the way down the road, Beamers, Porsche and Mercs parked in the showcase driveways. A shower and a few hours to recover. A meal at a local eatery, where I attempted both Mandarin and Cantonese with the waitress but the language was still foreign. Jas later advised it was probably Hokkien, a dialect of southern China, but then it could have been Malay or Tamil or any of the other dialects and languages that amalgamate in this cocktail of a city.

Later in the day we paid a surprise visit to Jas. Having jotted down rough directions from google maps, we tracked down her condo and knocked on the door. He mother answered and we dutifully explained that we were friends from India. Jas wearily appeared from bed when we stood in her doorway and she was sufficiently surprised. For the remainder of the afternoon we chilled in the comfort of Jas’ air conditioned room while her neighbors called to wish her family a happy Chinese New Year. Then in the evening Jas took us and a college friend to another friend’s place in the north of the city. We spent the evening talking and munching on traditional snacks for the New Year. We were even given a couple of red packets (envelopes of money given by elders). A drink at a bar, Red Dot, in town.

On Wednesday Jas took us for traditional Dim Sum Cantonese in the city and showed Alex some of the rich residential areas while I was occupied with an interview. After they picked me up we drove to Arab Street where we chilled with a hookah. Later, Jas took us to one of her favorite hawker places for Malay food and we went back to hers for some drinks. Time for a quick skype call with Mimine, back in Paris, and we headed out for ladies night at a club called Butter Factory. First sight of the Singapore skyline, an impressive backdrop for a night out. The night scene in Singers is every bit as expensive London, if not more, with cover charges and drinks selling at a premium owing to the so-called “sin tax.” One thing is clear, entertainment in this city is expensive.

Thursday Jas was pre-occupied with her first day in a new job so we spent the morning sorting out flights to Kuala Lumpar and explored the neighborhood. In the early evening we headed back to Jas’ condo, chilled in the pool and read for while we waited for her to come home. Although she lives in a relatively small apartment, the complex looks like something from a holiday brochure with a large communal pool, tennis courts and gym. I could get used to this. When Jas got back we took a shower and met the girls for a seafood dinner of crab at a place called Jumbos along a the promenade of the river. An expensive meal, but so is everything. We finished the night with some cocktails at an elaborate bar/club called Indochine.

On Friday Alex and I occupied ourselves by getting the MRT to China Town and wondering around the street markets decorated festively for the New Year. We took brunch in China Town and got sidetracked by the electronics shops, since I was in need of a new camera. Next stop, as per Jas’ recommendation, we staked out an electronics mall called Sim Lim Square. It didn’t take long to find the bottom price for what I wanted. No sales job or haggling here, Singaporeans do their research before they leave the house so there’s never a hard sell or much negotiation when it comes to buying on the high street. Later we took a stroll to the waterfront and chilled out looking over the cityscape. When Jas was done with work we met her for dinner and a couple more of her friends for drinks in town. After some overpriced beers, they took us for a bite of frog soup, famously served in the red light district of the city, though there wasn’t much to show for it.

Saturday Jas took us to Sentosa, an island resort a short drive from the mainland. We relaxed on the beach in the sun, if a little commercial (it was an artificial beach) it was a beach at least. In the afternoon we hired bikes and explored the island further afield. On the far side, beyond a new casino complex that is being built we found a “super town” for the über rich and famous. This was a real eye opener into the extent of the affluence here. Though the whole area was still in the midst of the boom of construction, the houses looked like they had been lifted straight from the cardboard set of a Hollywood movie. I can’t imagine anyone who could amass such wealth in one lifetime to afford an address in this district. Yet it was the cars in the driveway that were the real giveaway. Never before have I seen so many luxury cars in one vicinity, or yachts for that matter. On our rented cycles we passed driveway after driveway, a Bentley and a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, another Bentley. Here is the mark of the third wealthiest country in the world by GDP per capita. After an insightful view into the bourgeois of Spore Jas took us by her favorite spot for Chicken rice (while Alex crashed in the car). We picked up some beers to sip by the pool and finished off some Chinese snacks and a bite of the infamously smelly durian fruit back at Jas’ condo.

Early Sunday morning Alex and I took off for Kuala Lumpur. With Jas busy at work during the week, and running out of options for things to do in Spore, we decided to check out the neighbors. We touched down late morning and found our way into the city centre from the low budget terminal a bus and a train out of the city. Finding our hostel with relative ease, a big backpackers place that slept eight per room, we ditched our bags and headed out for a day of sightseeing. Some time wondering the streets of China Town and another market and we hit the main attraction, the Petronas Towers. We were fortunate to arrive at the booking desk for the skybridge the same time as a cancellation and were let into the next group to walk across the bridge that adjoins the two buildings on the 42nd floor. The tallest building in a world before Taipei 101, an impressive construction. After the towers we went looking for the central park to chill for a while. When we reached it started raining heavily. Exhausted, we collapsed under a pagoda to wait for the rain to stop, and drifted off for a power nap.

Keen to explore the night scene in KL, we headed back to backpackers central for a meal of fired mee noodles and took some drinks back to the hostel. The great thing about hostels is that you can meet some real characters on the travelers circuit. On the far bunk, there was the 38 year old Swedish psychiatric nurse / bouncer who travelled eight months a year and could put our knowledge of India to shame. He had spent time in India every year of his life since he was 17. Then there was the endless nomad traveller, Chinese-of-origin he-she, dressed in a scanty sarong. The young Japanese who thought he could speak German, but couldn’t. The quiet Italian guy in the corner whose comic accent reminded us infinitely of our Italian friend in Gurgaon.

After some entertaining drinks in the hostel we made for town, aiming for a club named Zouk. However, on discovering it was closed we found a bar district a block away and paid the cover charge for the busiest looking venue, the Beach Club. Upon entering, it didn’t take long to figure out that every girl there was a hooker. But then the same was true of every other club on the street. Fortunately, once you get over the seediness of the place, there were some good venues and we had a good time exploring the scene.

On Monday we booked a tour that took us to a couple of tourist traps in the city, the kind of place where the tour guide gets commission for dropping us, namely a local arts centre and a pewter factory. Nevertheless, the latter was vaguely interesting and when we were done we visited a temple in some caves and a large waterfall that had seven sections with man-made plunge pools at the bottom where we could swim. A couple of hours exploring the waterfall and relaxing in the water and we called it a day. In the evening we tried a different drinking district, but when all we found were empty bars we headed back to the seedy district of the night before. In a bar across the road we met some interesting characters, a hot shot who claimed he was in “immigration” and an Iraqi entrepreneur in textiles who drove us home. An entertaining night observing the night life of KL at work.

Tuesday, our final day in KL and we stormed the city centre on foot. Not a great deal more to see, save for the shopping malls and eateries. We went on a mission to find a Cantonese film we have been looking for a while, amongst the various shopping complexes and high streets. Sunday morning we flew back to Spore, a welcome four hours sleep. I nodded off the instant I took my seat on my plane, not even stirring for takeoff. Alex fell asleep looking out of the window, book still in hand.

Back home in Spore we had to shift hostels a few minutes down the road, and made the most of the opportunity to steal a few more hours of recovery sleep. Later, we got a bus to Bedock market to procure a birthday present for Jas. In the specialist liquor section of a supermarket we were struck by the familiar sight of Old Monk, an Indian rum that is the staple liquor back in Gurgaon. Despite the fact it was six times as expensive as it is in India, posing as a premium liquor in Singapore, we felt obliged to buy it for Jas for old time’s sake. Dinner in the hawkers place just around the corner from Jas’ place while we waited for her. Then the three of us headed back to the hostel for pre-drinks. Wednesday night is Ladies Night in Spore, just as it is in Gurgaon, and we were armed with our “old friend” from Gurgaon. We met a couple of friends of Jas and headed to Zouk.

Thursday we took a genteel afternoon walk along the South Ridges Walk and Henderson Waves, a park close to the city centre. We stopped by Harbour Front and the National Geographic Shop on the way to Brass Basah. Walking along the street we suddenly became aware of a loud sound equivalent to that of a helicopter or jet overhead, but looking around we couldn’t find the source. Then we spotted it, a Lamborghini idling it’s engine in front of the traffic lights, Singaporean style. That evening was a quiet one since Alex was flying back the following morning to meet his parents in Delhi. So we chilled as Jas’ place watching the Cantonese classic we acquired in KL.

Early morning on Friday Alex left and I took on the rest of the city by foot. Starting at Marina Bay, I walked to China Town for brunch. Then I took the MRT back to City Hall and walked the entire stretch of Orchard Road, the shopping artery of Spore, all the way to the botanical gardens. It took the best part of half a day and when I got to the gardens I crashed under a pagoda while I waited for the sudden outburst of rain to subside. Back to Marina Bay to admire the cityscape as evening arrived, a shower at the hostel and Jas picked me up for drinks with a couple of friends in Arab Street.

On my last day, Saturday, Jas and I rented bikes and explored the East Coast. It is a pleasant stretch of beach and palm trees and tracks for cycling and rollerblading. The sight of Indians celebrating Holi on the beach and the unmistakable aroma of Indian food was a sharp remainder of what I would go back to in a couple of days. We spent most of the day there and meandered back towards Jas’ place on foot. The walk was longer than Jas had anticipated and a couple hours in the heat of the sun took its toll, such that I had to stop for a traditional Chinese rehydration remedy drink. Back to the condo for an hour, where I recovered in the pool while Jas visited her grandmother with her family.

After showering and borrowing a clean shirt from Jas’ dad, the family picked me up and took me to her Auntie’s place for a family gathering on the final day of Chinese New Year. I was very grateful that her family could extend such hospitality, and when we arrived everyone was very receptive to my presence. The uncle even brought out a large collection of whisky for the occasion and invited me to drink with him. Later in the evening Jas and I excused ourselves and we went to meet a couple of friends for drinks before calling it a night.

Early on Sunday morning Jas drove me to the airport. We had a traditional Chinese breakfast of egg yoke and bread before I bid my goodbyes and made for the departure lounge. Mixed emotions, it was the smoothest holiday from India I could have asked for. More than a holiday, I feel an affinity with the people and the place already. Jas and her friends and family were the best of hosts. Spore is another one of those unique states, a few million migrants living together in a blend of cultures and customs and languages, in one of the most advanced and harmonious societies I have thus experienced. I can see why it is branded a sibling of Hong Kong; a city that shouldn’t exist but somehow does, and it works.

Another Asian Tiger ticked off the list. Another Asian city I could actually live in. But now I need to focus, the ever-present bedlam and pandemonium of India is home for now. Patient but relentless, she is waiting for me.


0 Responses to “From Manali to S’pore & KL”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Latest Photos

Latest bookmarks


%d bloggers like this: