27.07.2016 - 14.08.2016 28 °C
As our Indonesian visa (1 month on arrival) is about to expire, we grab a cheap flight to Singapore. We've got several weeks to kill before going back to Sulawesi to follow the most unusual funerary custom that will take place at the end of August. That story, coming up next.
Singapore is shockingly modern, clean and orderly, even more so after a month in remote Sulawesi. Reception at the Bed & Dreams hostel is at the top of a long flight of stairs. Shoes must be stored in containers from Ikea that hang on the wall. I've had to resign myself to sleeping in a 10-bed-mixed-dorm because I made a mistake on the dates and the private rooms are sold out! We're just settling into our bunk beds when the incredibly kind manager offers a 4 person room for just the 2 of us. 4 walls, no window, 2 bunk beds, a/c, shared bathroom ($68). I dare not complain.
It's really not the kind of room you want to spend much time in so we drop our bags and hit the streets of Singapore. Space is a commodity in this tiny island nation, yet the avenues are wide with broad, level, spotless sidewalks. What a treat! Immediately noticeable on many of the skyscrapers are the greenery and hanging gardens that add an organic note to all this steel and glass.
Rising out of the bay is the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel.
Our hostel is across the street from Clarke Quay a waterfront shopping mall with lots of open-air restaurants and bars. Happy Hour is popular and starts early. After a month of uninspired Indonesian victuals, we sample local brews and feast on (expensive) western fare.
Neighborhoods like Chinatown, Little India and Haji Street fill the spaces at ground level.
Hoping to extend our stay in the city, we search in vain for better budget accommodations downtown, but after a few days and hemorrhaging money, we decide to try our luck on the beaches in Malaysia. This too presents a challenge as it's August (high season) and none of the online booking sites offer anything remotely reasonable. Luckily, an email blast (confirmation that it's always a good idea to research beyond the popular travel sites) returns a couple of options. We book the Reef Chalets on Palau Perhentian Besar, the bigger of the (2) Perhentian islands.
Always pack a scarf or light jacket in your carry on as the A/C on public transportation can be ferocious. The freezing, but comfortable overnight bus to Kuala Besut stops at Johor Bahru, the Malaysian border crossing just under 2 hours from Singapore. There are only a couple of immigration windows open and hordes of people jostling for position; orderly queuing being a foreign concept. A tremor of movement suddenly snowballs into a mad scramble when, without warning, several more windows open. Apparently, It's much more affordable to live in Malaysia and work in Singapore and this is the equivalent of rush hour traffic. We get thru pretty quickly, find our bus and continue to Kuala Besut to catch a ferry. There's not much happening when we step down near the boat terminal at 5AM. With a few other dazed travelers, we sit at crumbling tables next to an equally crumbling mosque and wait 'til 8 for the first boat, willing the island to be more charming.
It's a smooth 45 minute crossing.
The boat drops us at the end of a very long wooden pier. As we walk towards the beach, it's clear that it's no mirage, the dock really is under a few inches of water! We step onto the sand in front of a row of cafes with picnic tables and plastic chairs shaded by a corrugated aluminum roof. Welcome to paradise! Our hearts sink.
Our hotel, is right next door and at first glance, the wooden bungalows set back in a semi-circle look quite charming. Behind them is a plain 2-story block where our room is located. The room is pretty basic and reminds me of the girls dorm in camp ($50 room only, no A/C). It would be fine were it not for the deafening noise of the generator from the (Coral View) hotel next door. In retrospect, I probably should have complained more, but I never imagined it would be operating 24/7 for the duration of our stay!
Again, not here for the room we set off to explore. The shore wraps around to the west, past the chic Coral Bay (where incidentally, I happen to overhear an incensed French tourist complaining about the noise from said generator, for which he's doling out $200/sleepless night) along a rocky coastline, past a dive center to a set of steep, decaying, concrete stairs. The only redeeming factor is the view from the top and the ingenuity of the local man who has set-up his al fresco massage parlor on the peeling overpass. He works alone. If you want a massage, you simply fill your name in on the schedule at the entrance and come back for your appointment. He's booked solid. At the opposite end, the stairs lead down to a pretty beach with turquoise water in front of the decent looking Perhentian Island Resort. The water is perfect temperature as I swim out past the buoys, to see what all the boats and Chinese tourists bobbing in flourescent life vests are congregated around: Large sea turtles!
A walk along the coast in the opposite direction is rather disheartening. Too much concrete, plastic, abandoned structures, trash...
Behind the Reef Chalets, there's a path thru the jungle. It's novel enough and about 40 minutes later spills out on Teluk Daman beach. Wow!
Much less crowded with about 5-6 small hotels and a couple of beach shacks serving food and drink. At one end of the beach lies the slightly upscale Arwana Resort. It's got the only (nice, big) swimming pool on the island, a dive center, huge buffet breakfast and the quiet rooms are cheaper than our hotel ($40 with A/C and breakfast). We move almost immediately.
After the first night, we wake to find about 100 rowdy Malaysians stepping off boats for an overnight of festivities including, dinner, karaoke and fireworks. But, they leave almost as quickly as they came and by 10 am the following day, we have the place to ourselves again. The next 5 days are all about diving ($20 per!), snorkeling and kayaking, followed by cold beer and grilled fish, feet in the sand.
While the diving/snorkeling is good, it doesn't compare to Bunaken Island (Sulawesi, Indonesia), but then again Bunaken doesn't have sandy beaches...
Overall, a great time, but most of the infrastructure is too basic to recommend Perhentian as a destination. With the slightest bit of effort the restaurants, cafes and hotels could be so much nicer! Lose the ugly plastic tables and chairs, throw on a fresh coat of paint, hire a few good cooks, raise the bar. Seems so obvious, yet..
We ferry back to the mainland and catch a super deluxe bus to Kuala Lumpur.
I have finally figured out that in big cities, hotels are overpriced and often much nicer accommodations can be found through Airbnb. Our room with a private bathroom in a lovely young couple's 2 bedroom apartment in the center has a phenomenal view of the majestic Petronas Towers ($32)
Kuala Lumpur is an easy city to figure out. There are 4 free bus lines. You just pick a color and hop on/off. It's pretty much all shopping malls with a few sites, like the nicely curated Islamic Art Museum. The building and grounds are bright and airy. In front of the Petronas Towers, a vendor is selling out on small wide angle lenses that attach to your cell phone enabling you to snap selfies, with the towers behind. He must be laughing all the way to the bank!
There are dozens of outdoor restaurants throughout the city serving up all kinds of food including particularly tasty Thai food.
It seems like the long distance buses keep getting more extravagant. Our ride back to Singapore has massage seats! What no one to do my pedicure? This time however, there's a hiccup at the border crossing. The lines at immigration are much longer and it takes about 1.5 hours to get through. As we search the sea of buses, along with a few other foreigners, It becomes clear why they make you take all your belongings. Buses are only required to wait for an hour at the border and ours has gone! It's really not a big deal once you realize that any other bus with available seats will take you, but no one prepares you for the shock.
One more night at our favorite Singapore hostel and local brewery before flying back to Sulawesi to continue the Toraja story.
It's always fun going back to places we've been even though Makassar isn't a place you want to spend much time in. The tailor we gave some things for mending has disappeared and the driver from our hotel will not be able to take us to the bus station because he's being held by the police for punching his wife, but the Japanese restaurant is still serving great sushi.
Once again, we weather 9 hours of bumpy, winding road to Toraja Land to reunite with our lovely host family at Rianna Guesthouse.
And this is where the seriously weird rituals begin...