The Malay Mission was coming to an end. It was time to leave. A very long day was ahead of me, bringing interminable hours of airplane travel and an excursion into Singapore, featuring currywurst, sandy beaches, the original Singapore Sling, and a Decadent Chocolate Cake.
Suggested song: Heimkehr by Klaus Doldinger (from ‘Das Boot’ OST)
Penang, 5:18 am
Getting up before the crack of dawn is not my thing. Not at all. But when necessity calls, I am her humble servant. The way I grumble on the way to the shower at just past 5 am, though, won’t earn me any marks for servility to this particular mistress. Today’s programme: beat the rush hour to Penang International Airport, get to Singapore, spend the day there, and catch a Qatar Airways flight to Frankfurt via Doha.
Ok, so getting up worked out fine. A bit grumpy, but nothing that a coffee wouldn’t fix. It was dark outside, warm and humid. The usual for this combination of time and latitude. On the horizon, lightning flickered in the clouds like broken neon lights in a smoking lounge.
I splurged this morning: I hired the hotel’s limo service to take me to the airport. Had I taken a taxi, I would have had to have haggled with the cabbie. The result of that, I thought, I would have been one of two things: either an extended prison sentence for me, after having strangled an entirely respectable cab driver, or me ending up broke, having given in to the cab driver’s demands. I was in no mood for haggling. At all. Especially not with cabbies.
My chauffeur was understated and efficient. I appreciated that. So, no trouble getting to the airport. A coffee later, I boarded an Air Asia flight to Singapore, taking off from Penang in rain so heavy, the plane might as well have been my submarine. A bit of turbulence put me gently to sleep.
Singapore, 10:58 am
Singapore. The Merlion City at the very southern tip of continental Asia. I had been here 6 years ago; it was time to check up on the city state again. So, the plan was this: put my carry-on into luggage storage, take the train into town, go see the Merlion statue, amble through Chinatown for lunch, go over to Sentosa to get to the southernmost tip of continental Asia and lie on the beach, and start the journey back to the airport with a relaxing pit-stop at the Raffles Long Bar to have the original Singapore Sling (at a price that would make you keel over, and roll uncontrollably and drooling through the peanut shells covering the floor).
As plans go, this one went pretty much without a hitch. A handful of Singapore dollars bought me space in the luggage rack at the lost luggage office where you can also store your stuff. It was a bit hidden away in a corner just past the Guardian Pharmacy in Changi’s Terminal 1. With the backpack off my shoulders, walking became a much more levitating experience as I headed towards immigration. Having filled out the entry form beforehand, a brief chat with the officer on duty convinced him that I was really going to return to the airport and would be on my way to Doha later in the evening. ‘Singapore, here I come’, I thought, striding through customs and on to the metro station.
The Merlion Spouts
Getting into town meant buying a metro ticket. I opted for the one-day tourist pass, at 10 dollars (plus a 10 dollar deposit). The train ride took about thirty minutes, depositing me at Raffles Place metro station. OK, time for doing the tourist thing! The Merlion at Marina Bay was the first stop. Conceived in the 70s, it serves as a symbol for the people of Singapore, its concordant poem evoking Homer’s Odyssey. The day was cloudless and bright, the glass facade of the Marina Bay Sands hotel, standing tall on the opposite side of the bay, glittered in the sun. I watched the Merlion spout water from its mouth for a few minutes, while I reflected on the two weeks that had just passed. During these two weeks, I had felt happy and sad — sometimes simultaneously –, missed and met wonderful people, been sentimental and joyous, cowardly and courageous, too tense and completely relaxed. In other words, I’ve had a marvellously immersive vacation. Not everything went as I had hoped, many things were slightly awkward (as a friend would say: because I am awkward — which I can be at times, especially when I am too controlled). But once I stopped worrying about things not under my control, finally remembering my Epictetus, great times were had.
Culinaric Dissonance: Chinatown
Enough with the philosophising! Chinatown, and hence food, was waiting. Originally, I had planned to frequent the Chinatown Food Street and get myself fed on Hokkien Mee, that is, fried prawn noodles. However, that is not what happened. Instead, I ended up at Erichs Wuerstelstand, a place I knew about from a friend’s blog. I had not planned to go there, but as I ambled into Chinatown, I walked right past it. So, I thought to myself: A currywurst would do nicely, thank you. Mind you, I have a certain predilection for currywurst, it being the signature dish of my home region. And while it seems egregious to have one this close to the equator, and prepared by a grumpy Austrian, to boot, it was actually pretty tasty. As was the Stiegl beer that came with it. Still, Bochum might be a better place for dining on this particular dish, but that is just snobbiness on my part. Sated, a slumber on the beach seemed like an attractive option.
Sunshine at Sentosa
Sentosa is Singapore’s resort island. Reachable via monorail, cable car, or on foot via a boardwalk, it houses a number of hotels, a theme park, another, larger Merlion Statue, and the city beaches. While the view from the beach is dominated by container ships at anchor, and the water not being crystal clear in the least, the beach was easily accessible. So, I went. Sitting in the sand, surrounded by families on an outing to the sea, I simply enjoyed myself.
Sentosa also features the southernmost point of continental Asia. I thought it quite fitting, in a not-quite-antipodean way, to visit that. After all, I had been to the northernmost point of continental Europe not two months ago. I crossed the plank bridge, watched a large lizzard sunbath by the bridge’s island end, climbed up the observation tower, and watched the ships at anchor in the Singapore Strait.
On my way back to the monorail station, passing by the Sentosa Merlion, I happened upon an animal show at a little amphitheatre. One of its main acts was a macaw by the name of Sasha. Bright, colourful, cheeky, a bit foppish… as the name would imply. I watched the show with delight, enjoying the way it transported me back into childhood, and wandered on fifteen minutes later with a smile on my face. It was time to leave the island.
Peanuts! The Long Bar at Raffles Hotel
The monorail and the metro took me to City Hall station, across the street from Raffles Hotel, home of the original Singapore Sling. Invented in 1915, allegedly to allow the gentlemen lounging about the area of the hotel aptly named Cad’s Alley to have a potent drink that looked like harmless fruit juice while enjoying the views provided by shapely passers-by, it is the signature drink of the hotel’s Long Bar. Just as I had done six years ago, I sat at the back of the room, surveying my surroundings and the comings and goings of the bar’s patrons. The floor is traditionally littered with peanut shells, which crunch under your feet delightfully. Also, the drink is traditionally overpriced, but then, you don’t really pay for the Singapore Sling, you pay for the atmosphere. 52 Singapore dollars bought me a Singapore Sling and a Decadent Chocolate Cake, a seat at the back of the room, a complimentary bagful of peanuts and about an hour’s worth of gazing.
Selamat Tinggal, Singapore!
It was time to return to the airport. Another 30 minute train ride later, I was back at Changi and had recouped my 10 dollar deposit on the transit ticket. Time to check in at the Qatar counter, which is mandatory in Singapore, even though I had already checked in online. At the counter I mentioned that during online check-in I was only able to select middle seats for the two long-haul flights ahead of me. The attendant looked me up and down, smiled benevolently, and told me my seating would be changed to an exit row seat. Full of gratitude, I bid my farewells to Singapore as I passed immigration again to spend another couple of hours swilling Café Lattes and trolling the shops in Changi’s terminals. The flight left right on time, at 2:25am. It was legroom galore!
Doha, 5:08 am
Hamad International Airport, Doha, greeted me seven and a half hours later. Not much to do, except for wandering from Terminal A to Terminal B, sipping a large coffee to stay upright. The time difference between Doha and Singapore is five hours, which meant I touched down in Qatar in the early hours of the morning. Yet, it might as well have been any time of day, with all shops being open for business. I browsed here and there, wasting time before boarding was about to begin. I used to dislike flying via Doha, the old airport was small and uncomfortable. When Hamad International opened two years ago, this changed. It has become my favourite middle eastern airport. It is modern, new and not quite as restless as the airport at Dubai. The two hours layover was quickly over, and I continued on my journey back home.
Frankfurt, 12:45 pm
I touched down right on time. The Malay Mission was over. Shouldering my backpack, I walked straight out of the airport, home.