Prada shop on Orchard Road

En route to Laos

It was with some trepidation that I left home for my latest trip. This was to Laos and was to be a very different experience to any trip I had undertaken before. I was volunteering for several weeks on a new project teaching teenage girls from rural villages to sew. I was anxious my skills would be inadequate for the occasion. Whilst I can sew, I am not the most accurate of needlewomen and have never taught it before.

Rooftop swimming pool
Rooftop swimming pool
Corner of colourful building in Little India
Corner of colourful building in Little India

My journey began with a five-hour bus ride from Taupo to Manukau where I spent the night prior to catching a flight to Singapore the following morning. Here I had two nights at the YMCA. I had visited the city earlier this year for the first time in 30 years and realised it was an easy place to stopover (and it was the cheapest airfare I could find at the time which is always a consideration!) I had a full day in which I walked and walked, returning to the hostel for rest stops, to tend to my blisters (the first produced in my well-worn shoes), and to shelter from the tropical rainstorm that I was lucky enough to escape. The YMCA is located at the start of Orchard Street and a central location for exploring. It also had a rooftop swimming pool that was an attraction when I booked but didn’t use.

In the morning, I set off to wander Little India. I found this area fascinating although it was still early (at 8.30am) and many of the small shops had not yet opened for the day. By the time I had walked along Serangoon Road and returned though, the streets had come to life. I detoured along the side roads and discovered murals and colourful buildings. Along Serangoon and Race Course Roads elaborately decorated Hindu temples were interspersed amongst the shops and houses. There was a busy food area near the Tekka Centre, which seemed to have finished business for the day as the concrete floors were being washed down, making walking through it precarious.

Whilst I was strolling back to Orchard Road, the skies became ominously black, and I wondered if I would reach shelter in time. Thankfully, I did as it rained as it only knows how in the Tropics. A little later, I set off for Fort Canning Park, which is near the National Museum and behind the YMCA. The park was much bigger than I expected with a variety of gardens to wander.

The remains of Fort Canning
The remains of Fort Canning
Garden on Orchard Road
Garden on Orchard Road

It was the site of royal palaces in the 14th Century and a strategic location for the British Army in colonial times until the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. Raffles House is at one end of the park and overlooks the harbour. The flag pole in front traditionally displayed flags spelling out messages in morse code to ships entering the harbour.

There was also a film showing for the Bicentennial of Singapore which I naively thought I could watch. Tickets were sold out for the entire month so I may have to do that on my return in September.

My final venture of the day was a walk up Orchard Street, Shopping Central of Singapore! It did not appeal, but I had to look. I am not a good shopper! However, I was impressed with the amount of green space between the large malls and especially appreciated the area, albeit concrete, where I could sit and watch the shoppers from above when my feet protested the abuse I had given them all day. As with everywhere in Singapore, the streets were clean, there were wide spaces for walking and the old mingled with the ultramodern. I had dinner at a street stall before returning to my room to re-pack and put my feet up.

Science Museum

A frustrating travel day and Singapore

Breakfast before I left was spaghetti bolognese. I was not offered anything else although the only other couple in the cafe had eggs and toast. There appeared no logic to this but the waitress/receptionist only spoke a few words of English and I didn’t think it was worth a discussion.

At check out, as I suspected, the reception staff had understood the wrong time for my shuttle. They hastily re-arranged it, and a staff member drove me to the airport. On arrival she realised she hadn’t brought her purse, so I had to pay the entry/drop off fee as well as the shuttle. She left me at the international terminal but I needed the domestic as my flight went via Ho Chi Minh. At check in, even though I had booked through Vietnam airlines, ground staff told me I did not have enough time to change terminals so they re-booked me on a flight an hour earlier. Luckily, I had allowed plenty of time.

At Ho Chi Minh, security decided I had something metal in my handbag (yes, that one that had already passed security in Danang). The officer rummaged through, couldn’t find anything and put it through the x-ray machine again. Still not happy, he tipped all the contents out. When he couldn’t find anything, he just walked off, leaving me with a mess. My mood was not improving!

On boarding the flight, there was no room in the overhead lockers for my bag, and I had to find a space further down the plane. I made a comment about the amount of carry-on bags people brought with them and at the end of the flight watched my next-door neighbour retrieve not one, but three large bags. It is one of my bugbears and I was incensed anew!

In Singapore we couldn’t land because of a thunderstorm so circled for half an hour. I had booked a shuttle to my hotel thinking it would be quicker than the metro. It wasn’t but at least I didn’t have to walk in the torrential rain.

View from 21st floor of the Pan Pacific
View from 21st floor of the Pan Pacific

I was meeting friends, Fran and Chris, and by the time I arrived at my hotel it was later than expected. They had flown in from N.Z. where they had been housesitting for me and were on their way back to England. I was in dire need of wine so we met anyway and had a late supper. Their room at the Pan Pacific had an incredible view of Singapore which we appreciated whilst sipping our fizzy. After a delicious meal in the cafe/bar below, I walked back to my room feeling much more relaxed!

We spent a very enjoyable couple of days together before they flew on. There was no rushing about. It was too hot, and they had knee and/or back problems which curtailed their walking.

A playground in the shopping centre
A playground in the shopping centre

On the first day, we strolled to the waterfront and took the circular Bum Boat ride around the quays. We sat at the back of the boat in full sun and appreciated the slight breeze. Afterwards we had lunch and returned to the hotel via a shopping centre and a quick perusal of M & S. (Where else would you shop in Singapore? And yes, I purchased a dress and knickers!)

The pool beckoned for the afternoon. It seemed the most suitable place to be in that climate. We had a swim, chatted, had a cocktail (what decadence!) and returned to their room to get ready for more wine and dinner. For this, we walked to Boat Quay where there is a myriad of restaurants all plying for trade. We selected one with difficulty and admired the view and the light show from Gardens by the Bay as we ate. The quay was packed with people.

A bygone era
A bygone era

The following day was Fran’s birthday. They had invited me to breakfast at the hotel. This was a fabulous buffet spread. It was hard to know when to stop eating! The food was excellent and kept us sustained for the rest of the day.

A visit to the National Museum of Singapore was on the agenda afterwards. We strolled past Raffles, which is being refurbished, and first went to the Polaroid exhibition in the basement. The Museum itself, depicting the history of the island, was well presented and interesting. We spent some time there, finishing with a cup of tea in the Atrium where someone singing on the floor above deafened us. The acoustics were not the best and we couldn’t hear ourselves speak so we finished our tea and left.

At the Polaroid exhibition
At the Polaroid exhibition
Bridge to Marina Sands
Bridge to Marina Sands

The birthday dinner was at the Marina Sands Complex. This is vast and confusing. Our original intention was to have a drink at the top in the SkyPark but the queue was so long we investigated the restaurants first. We chose a Chinese one and enjoyed another excellent repast. Afterwards, the SkyPark queue was still long, so we explored the complex instead. The shopping centre had a canal running through it and we were in time to take the lift to where we could view the Gardens by the Bay light show which takes place each evening. We gave up all thoughts of the SkyPark. We were all tired and keen to return to our rooms. Before I left them though, we had to eat some of the chocolate cake the hotel delivered for Fran’s birthday. I needed the walk back to my hotel to use up some calories in the enormous amount of food I had consumed that day!

I spent my final day in Singapore on my own. My flight didn’t leave til the early evening, so I had all morning to visit the Gardens by the Bay. I strolled along the waterfront and then back through the Financial and Chinese districts.

The Gardens are home to the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome, both of which are enclosed. The Flower Dome has displays of plants from all over the world. It was also full of people admiring the cherry blossom. Many ‘selfies’ were being taken although, given the number of visitors, it was impossible to take one without having other faces in it. After I left it, I was walking to the Cloud Forest when a voice said “I know you”. It was the real estate agent who had sold me my house in Tauranga a few years ago. I wouldn’t have recognised her, but I thought it was extraordinary to meet someone I knew so far from home!

The Cloud Forest was beautiful, and I enjoyed it more than the Flower Dome, probably because there was room to move. I went to the top and walked along the Tree Tops Trail from which there was a spectacular view over the city.

I had intended to do the Sky Walk but was too tired by that point. I meandered through the gardens, past the Tall Trees, which are lit at night, to the opposite end of the park where I joined the road that went through the Financial District.

It was lovely to walk in peace away from the traffic and people, although as it was Sunday, the roads weren’t busy. I stopped in China town for a very late lunch and had a delicious plate of chicken with cashew nuts and my last Vietnamese coffee. It was enough to keep me going til my dinner on the plane.

Back at the hotel, I retrieved my suitcase and walked to the metro for the easy ride to the airport. I felt hot, sticky and dirty and, as there were no free showers, paid an exorbitant fee in the on-demand lounge. It was worth every cent!

Waiting to enter the White Temple

Destinations anew

I flew into Changi in the late afternoon and, even though a friend had told me how efficient their immigration process was, I was still surprised to be in my hotel in Changi village within an hour of landing.

Changi ferries
Changi ferries

Despite my body clock telling me it was almost midnight, in Singapore it was only 5.30pm so I set off to explore. I needed the walk after a 10 hour flight. Across the road from the hotel was the busy Changi ferry terminal, from which small ferries zipped in and out, and the beach park where families were enjoying the late afternoon sun, picnicking or just sitting on the beach. Unlike Western beaches, there was little bare flesh on display! It wasn’t long before my energy flagged though and I returned to the hotel where the rooftop pool beckoned. Here I soaked, admiring the view as the sun faded.

Hand sculpture in Chiangi Beach park
Hand sculpture in Chiangi Beach park
Art Installation at Changi Airport
Art Installation at Changi Airport

The following morning saw me back at the airport where, once again, passport control and security were efficient meaning I had plenty of time to admire the art installations in Terminal 4. Whilst I waited for the flight, I sat in front of a giant wall painted with shop fronts, whose shutters opened at intervals and the scene behind came to life, displaying animated people singing and dancing. Some other airports could take note of Changi’s departure areas and improve their terminal waiting zones. (Bangkok springs to mind!)

My flight to Chiang Rai took 3 hours. Once again it was a smooth immigration process, and I was soon on the bus into town where I had booked a room at the Connect hostel. I was meeting a German lady, Angela, who was also joining the 5W (Women Welcoming Women Worldwide) group visit to Luang Prabang, Laos. We had both opted to arrive by the two day slow Shompoo Cruise boat up the Mekong and Chiang Rai was the best place to meet. However, she would not arrive until late evening so I explored the town in the meantime.

Food area at the Night Market
Food area at the Night Market

It was quiet when I first arrived but siesta time finished and the town came to life. People appeared as the shops re-opened and food stall holders set up. As it was Saturday, one long street was closed off for the Night Market. This was huge, with a variety of goods, particularly clothing, on sale. There was also a myriad of food stalls with some recognisable and other not so recognisable foods. At one point, I realised everyone around me had stopped walking and talking. I halted and listened to what I assume was the National Anthem. I didn’t find out whether this was a regular occurrence or a special occasion.

The following day, Angela and I took the local bus out to the White Temple, which is about 7km from the centre. This edifice took us both by surprise as it was much bigger and more elaborate than either of us had expected. Constructed from concrete, the entire temple and assorted buildings were decorated with complicated swirls and mosaics. It was very glittery and resembled an overdone wedding cake! There were also a lot of visitors as it was the end of Chinese New Year and a Sunday. Many ‘selfies’ were being taken (but not by me!)

The Clock Tower
The Clock Tower

Back in town, we walked via the golden Clock Tower to two more temples, Wat Klang Wieng and Wat Phra Kaew. The latter housed a replica green jade Buddha, (the original having been moved to the Royal Palace in Bangkok) and had some restful gardens containing many large tortoises. Here we appreciated a respite from the heat before going in search of food. We found this on a street stall in the form of sticky banana rice wrapped in a banana leaf. I’m sure it was highly nutritious! Thus fortified, we made our way to the bus station and a bus that would take us to the Blue Temple or Wat Rong Suea Ten. It was not without a little effort we made the young lady bus conductor understand where we wanted to go.

The Blue Temple was blue; very blue, inside and out. It was also one of the few temples that had chairs to sit on. We took advantage and spent the rest of the afternoon people watching. There was a constant flow to keep us entertained. There is a dress code for visiting temples, this being no bare shoulders or knees. How it was enforced seemed to be dependent on the views of the individual “temple police”. One of them was vehement in her enforcement although it appeared her logic was random!

We had dinner on the way back to the hostel that evening, knowing that if we didn’t, we would be too tired to venture out again.

Improbable sign at Chiang Rai bus station
Improbable sign at Chiang Rai bus station