Singapore and Sumatra

We landed at Changi, the world’s best airport, in typical hassle-free fashion, took a free mint from the smiling immigration officials, grabbed our already carouselling luggage, and jumped in an air-con’d taxi. We had flown down here to see our friend Becs, who has been living and working as a lawyer in Singapore for almost 2 years. The taxi had a meter, there were traffic lights, road markings, no cows or motorbikes, everything spotlessly clean – in short, a completely different world from the one we’d just flown from and by the time we pulled up at the stylish apartment block we were on cloud nine.

The pool at Becs’ ‘condo’.

Becs’ apartment is unbelievable. Like the best hotel we’ve ever stayed in, and its not even a hotel. There are two bathrooms, two balconies, an infinity swimming pool, two gyms, all lavishly finished and sparkling clean. We had to remind ourselves how to use a toaster and kettle, and to wash up after ourselves (you’d never believe you could miss washing up, but you can!)

We spent a day or two in Singapore during our last trip in 2009 and dismissed it as just another Asian city. But there’s more going on here, and this time we saw a different side to the place. Singapore is held up as a shining example of how developing countries should, well, develop. Over the last 50 years or so an autocratic government has almost militantly stamped out any aspects of society they deemed undesirable, and enticed business and investment with appealing tax rates and facilities. So hand-crafted and well manicured is the city state that any character it may have once had has been smothered beneath this utopian veneer and instead there is the feel of a giant conference centre, a playground for well-to-do Europeans and Australians to come and enjoy the infinitesimal tax rates.

The Fullerton Bay rooftop pool.

But, whatever it may lack in charm, it more than makes up for in swankiness. There is a certain proud new world magnificence about the place, particularly at night when the skyscrapers twinkle and the upmarket hotels glow, and the restaurants and bars are packed with yammering Westerners. Almost immediately we shed our backpacker skin and tried to fit in with the expat elite. It was amazing, especially given where we’ve been for the last 6 months, to drink nice wine, pints of ale, eat delicious food in plush surroundings, take taxis everywhere, and pay for it all by card! We had a great budget-be-damned time and it was lovely catching up with our old mate Becs…with whom we also embarked on a little holiday to the Indonesian island of Sumatra.


…more boozin’.

Our decision to visit Sumatra rested largely on the fact that it was one of the very few places in SE Asia which was not in monsoon season at this time of year. It was a risk as Sumatra is a place which, for one reason or another, has fallen out of favour with the backpacking hoi-polloi and we’d not found even one other traveler who’d been there. Our first stop was Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world and one which encompasses Samosir, an island the size of Singapore and home to the native Batak people; warm, musical and, until relatively recently, cannibalistic.

Samosir Island.

Diving-boards jut out from the many lakeside resorts over the dark blue waves, sunlight glinting off their crests; the water is clean and clear and tastes like Evian. The island is a bit like somebody’s happy acid dream – many-coloured huts with pointed roofs the shape of a ship’s keel nestle amongst trees of various type and shades of green, bustling in the breeze, as cute as the glut of puppies, buffallo calves and baby chicks that roam about. In fact the acid theory may have legs, as magic mushrooms are listed flagrantly on the menus of the restaurants and guest-houses! There are few tourists (though it’s hard to see why) but the town hasn’t let itself go; everything is spick-and-span, the shelves are well stocked, the lights are all on. In fact it feels like they are anticipating a bus-load at any moment. We spent a delightful four nights on this beautiful island.

Lakeside sunbathing

Best. Backflip. Ever.

Next up was Bukit Lawang, a tourist town erected along the banks of the Bahorok River, and a base for exploring the Gunung Leuser National Park, where one can see – if one is lucky – the endangered Sumatran Orangutan in the wild. We stayed at the Back to Nature resort, located in the jungle, a 45 minute walk from town and only accessible by traversing not one but two rope drawn cable cars, pulled by a man at each end. We only had two full days so we quickly signed up for a jungle trek for the second day.

The cable car.

That left an afternoon free. “I can take you to a waterfall?” suggested our guide. I was concerned that this might cut into my hammock and beer time but he said it would only take half an hour so we agreed. The route was a little tougher than we were perhaps led to believe – clambering over slimy rocks and forging through overgrown jungle track, and 3 crossings of the very fast-flowing river – but we got there in about an hour. Just, in fact, as the first grumblings of thunder became audible in the distance. Our guide was looking a bit disconcerted at this and we all agreed we should probably head back. But all too quickly the weather changed. Lightning raked and crackled into the jungle, trees crashed, thunder pealed and rumbled and rain lashed down around us. The river was gaining in strength. More guides appeared from somewhere (one, for reasons not quite fully explained, in just his underpants) and we were completely in their hands. There was definitely an air of panic as the guides struggled to get us across the river (thrice) and back to our guest house. I fell down a waterfall, but was OK. Amy fell too, but luckily the man in underpants caught her. We made the river crossings with not a moment to spare as the river became a brown, raging torrent and crossing again would’ve been out of the question. Full credit to the guides, they got us all back in one piece, only slightly bruised, and we were able to laugh about it all over a few bottles of Bintang.

This was a river crossing before it got dangerous.

So, next day was our jungle trek. This was proper jungle; creeper vines strangulating skyscraper trunks, liana vines hanging like rope (great for Tarzan impressions), the smell of damp leaves and the howling of gibbons in the air. Our guide had made it clear that seeing an Orangutan was not guaranteed, some people can go on a 3 day trek and still not see one. We saw ants the size of small mice, wild boar prints and friendly Thomas Leaf monkeys with black-and-white punk rocker hair cuts and tails hanging pendulously, but what of the illusive Orangutans?

This makes me laugh every time! A Thomas Leaf monkey.

Eleven. We saw eleven of them. The first, an adolescent, swung into view like a hairy ginger gymnast, and we were awe-struck; the rest were mainly females with their young, observing us and trying to discern if we had any food. One descended from the trees and began advancing after us, walking on her musly forearms. She was more curious than malicious but we flung some fruit and scarpered. It really was just incredible to see these beasts, sometimes only a few feet away, in their natural habitat, while the sunlight strobed through the jungle canopy. A memory to treasure indeed.


Back to Singapore then, for a night. Went to the cinema. Got up, took breakfast on the balcony, went to the airport. From now on in we are edging ever closer to home; first stop Istanbul, after a 13 hour stop-over in Jeddah airport. Sounds like fun!


We only had a week in Bali and decided to travel round the Indonesian island so as to see as much of it as possible. The first town we came to was Kuta, a party town-cum-surfer’s paradise, a kind of Benidorm for Australians (but much more attractive!). We stayed in an area of town called Poppy’s Gang, a maze of streets barely the width of a car sandwiched between main strip of cavernous night-clubs and heaving bars, and the beach. The beach, or more specifically the monstrous waves, are the reason for Kuta’s surf-mecca status. They crash, laden with sun-tanned surfers, onto the wide sandy beach which is peppered with a myriad upright surf boards for hire manned by Indonesians with unlikely names such as Ricky, Brad and Antonio; goofy surf bums lounge around, periodically punching the air, whooping and ‘Yeah!’ing at their friend’s surfing prowess. I took an hour’s surf lesson with ‘Eddie’ and actually managed to stand up and surf! We spent three nights in Kuta, taking full advantage of the nightlife, before heading to Ubud.

Ubud must be one of the prettiest towns on the planet, certainly that we’ve come across. There is an unnatural preponderance of wood-carving shops and intricately ornate temples – so much so that people live in and amongst them, park their car or set up shop in them! You can’t go more than five yards without having to step over one of the decorative offerings that the locals make to some god or other – a smouldering joss stick atop a colourful banana-leaf dish of petals and technicolour rice. It feels like every day is a religious festival. As we only had one night in Ubud we wasted no time in renting a scooter so we could explore the surrounding countryside of (more) temples and fluorescent green rice paddy fields.

We visited a monkey sanctuary forest where the little Macaque monkeys were everywhere; thieving, screeching, fighting and fornicating. We also set out to find a scene that we’d only seen on a postcard in Kuta – a winding river with verdant rice paddies carved into its sloping valley sides like giant steppes. Amazingly, through guesswork alone, we found it! We caught a tantalising glimpse of the top of one of the valley slopes on the other side of a large rice plantation so we ditched the bike and set off on foot. After about 15 minutes we came to the crest of a ridge over which we would be able to see the river in all its splendour. We approached with bated breath and camera in hand…but then the dogs attacked. We whimpered, tried to not look scared, and turned back the way we came to find another set of bigger, meaner, slavering dogs in front of us; gnashing and barking. Trapped. Luckily a guy with a machete came and saved us. We scampered back to the bike and made good our escape! The next day we got the bus to Lovina.

Lovina would have been a waste of time if not for the dolphin spotting trip we took. We had to get up at 6am and make our way to the beach where we were picked up by a 4-man catamaran/boat type thing. The sea was as placid as a lake in the violet and orange pre-dawn wisps of light, and it took us no time at all to find the dolphins. Dozens of them were flipping and splashing around about a mile off-shore. Occasionally they would jump clear out of the water, silhoutted against the sun that was beggining to rise from behind mountains shrouded in the morning mist. It was a lovely scene. Most impressive of all was the solitary whale dolphin; much bigger and rougher-skinned than the others, it broke the surface periodically in its rhythmic glide through the mercurial ocean.

Apparently Lovina, which is located on the north coast of the island, never really recovered from the Bali bombings. Touts and hawkers are prevalent throughout Bali, but in Lovina they pester and badger relentlessly with an urgency that borders on desparation. In fact the whole town has an air of desparation about it. The beach is of black sand, which sounds curiously appealing, but in reality looks like the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear fall-out! We hired out a scooter on our penultimate day but no sooner had we signed the rental agreement than a sound rippled through the sky – the monsoon had found us! We headed back to Kuta for our final night in Bali, indeed in Asia, before our flight to Australia.

And so ends our little jaunt into South East Asia. It’s been an unforgettable ten weeks, from riding elephants and white-water rafting in the north of Thailand; hurtling along vertiginous mountain roads and drunkenly navigating rapids in Laos; watching the sun rise over the ancient temple of Angkor Wat and discovering our own deserted beach in Cambodia; experiencing the roaring buzz of Ho Chi Minh city and sailing between the prehistoric pillars of Ha Long bay in Vietnam; and learning to surf and encountering dolphins in Indonesia. This part of the world has so much to offer, and there’s so much we didn’t get round to doing but regrettably this part our journey is over. It’s a bittersweet feeling though, because now we make our way to Australia, a whole new continent and a whole new adventure.