TOKYO – AND SINGAPORE!
A June 2018 family visit to the West Coast became the perfect springboard for another Asia adventure of discoveries (and rediscoveries). We were very lucky to jump aboard the scheduled Patriot Express aircraft from Seattle to Yokota AB, Japan! After a comfortable overnight in the on-base Kanto Lodge, we easily connected to another Patriot Express flight to Singapore, our favorite city in all Asia. And, if it was good enough for President Trump and KJU to meet in Singapore three weeks before, it was good enough for us! With Space-A, sometimes we are lucky and other times not – it is random.
On arrival at Paya Lebar AB in Singapore, we were greeted as “old friends” by the staff (we have come here many times), who told us of the excitement just three weeks earlier when they saw our President’s Air Force One plane land right where we did. Then, off to our favorite “no frills” hotel (Tristar 81 Onan Road) in Malay Village (where we were again welcomed as old friends) for the beginning of our stay in Singapore.
Singapore! We love the exotic sites, cultural diversity, foods, and people. This is truly the crossroads of Asia. No matter how many times we have been here (and it has been dozens), there is always something new and exciting!
New discoveries (for us) awaited us as we began this trip.
The superb National Gallery Singapore, housed in two national monuments (the former Supreme Court and City Hall, linked together inside) was a fantastic experience, with both permanent exhibits and special exhibitions. Arriving at opening time, we were fortunate to have knowledgeable docents (including a retired lawyer) tell us about artists and subjects. Besides the usual paintings, sculptures, photos, etc., the Gallery holds the long table (no initials carved on it!) used for the Trump-KJU historic summit in a hotel on nearby Sentosa Island. In the Gallery’s archival section, many original documents, from Singapore’s founding in 1819 to its full independence in 1965, were displayed. And, from the rooftop, we had sweeping views of the city and many of its landmark buildings. Meanwhile outside, a group of colorfully dressed performers, dancing to loud Indian music, were being filmed for a Bollywood movie scene!
From here, it was a short walk to the Singapore Philatelic Museum, housed in a heritage building (once a Chinese school and later a Methodist Book Room) which covered every aspect of stamps, postage and mail delivery. A special exhibition on the beloved French book, “The Little Prince”, and its author (Antoine de Saint-Exupery) – once an airmail delivery pilot – was an unexpected treat.
The Peranakan Museum, also in a nearby heritage building, was devoted to the descendants of the original settlers (of mixed ethnic origins) who came to Southeast Asia. Their culture (wedding and death rituals, food, dress, etc.) and their influence in the modern social and political history of Singapore, in particular, were beautifully brought to life here for us.
While there is always so much new to see and enjoy here in Singapore, we cannot resist revisiting favorite haunts. Crisscrossing this city/country multiple times on its efficient and sparkling clean public bus and MRT (subway) systems, we visited its many diverse ethnic neighborhoods, enjoying Malay breakfasts, Indian lunches, a Chinese dinner and French delights. Food is an obsession and eating is a 24/7 activity in Singapore!
On to Marvin’s favorite “candy store.” Sim Lim Towers and Sim Lim Square are two huge complexes of shops, each specializing in tiny electronic parts. Unfortunately, their prices had gone up and although we found fewer bargains this time, our suitcases now contained many “wonderful” items!
We concluded one day at Lau Pa Sat Market where the food merchants block off a street in the Financial District and set up dozens of satay stalls where we dined under the stars on sizzling satay (beef and chicken) sticks, Nasi Goreng (Indonesian-style fried rice), washed down with ice-cold Tiger beer, and followed by freshly cut tropical fruit (we tried dragonfruit for the first time).
Little India is one of our “must return to” favorite neighborhoods in Singapore, with its exotic sights, smells and color. Here, we gazed at many shop windows, filled with (rather gaudy and over-elaborate) gold jewelry but loved one enormous shopping mall, filled with hundreds of tiny shops selling (or custom-making on-the-spot) fabulous, dazzling and elaborate Indian saris, dresses and men’s clothing. Two-block long Mustafa Centre sold everything one could imagine – and more! Indian snacks kept us going, followed by a Biryani lunch in a sprawling food court – exactly the experience we sought.
By contrast, Chinatown was the other side of the cultural experience. It had been years since our last time here and we shared the packed streets with thousands, before dinner at one of its restaurants. Quite exotic, too.
No trip to Singapore in the past was complete without a visit to Raffles Hotel. Sadly, at the time of our visit, we found it closed and shrouded with canvas, as multi-million dollar renovations continued there, with thousands of gallons of white paint being used to spruce up its colonial exterior. (By the way, after being closed for years, we just read that this iconic hotel had re-opened.)
When we first came to Singapore decades ago, Sentosa Island was mostly jungle. When we visited this time, we could not recognize it: casinos, luxury hotels and resorts (including the site of the Trump-KJU meeting), golf courses, and amusement parks galore. Still, all was tastefully done with greenery, flowers and water, making it an attractive island. Under sunny skies, on a Sunday, we came with the hordes for enjoyment, as two (free) buses took us all over Sentosa.
From sparkling clean (First World!) Singapore, it was a 90 minute, and quite inexpensive, Air Asia flight to (Third World) Penang Island, Malaysia. We chose to return here because it had been over 20 years since we last visited the island on a brief stay and this time we immediately saw immense changes. Previously, we stayed at a beach resort there, but this time decided to choose a place in the principal city of Georgetown (aka George Town). What a contrast from orderly Singapore to the chaos of Malaysia – we loved it!
We had no sooner settled into our comfortable boutique hotel (Hotel Chulia Mansion) including an excellent Malay/Western buffet breakfast, with evening free drinks and ice cream on the rooftop terrace than the adjacent mosque (and the others all over town) “serenaded” us with the evening call to prayer. After a good night’s rest (despite the 5.45 AM call to morning prayer at the mosques – no alarm clock needed here!) and breakfast, we began our exploration with the CAT (Penang’s free local public bus) which took us on a fantastic ride past many mosques, churches and temples; national historical sites (Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage City), many from the British Colonial days; upscale quiet neighborhoods and buzzing traditional ethnic neighborhoods, alive with frenzied markets; and cruise ship/ferry terminals. A stop at the famous Eastern & Oriental Hotel (1885), right on the seaside and once “The best hotel east of the Suez”, brought us back to the glory days of the British Empire! This hotel was so successful that its owners, the Sarkies brothers, built (the more famous) Raffles Hotel in Singapore just two years later.
Malaysia is always a good place for excellent foot reflexology treatments and stopping at one of the many facilities near our Georgetown hotel soothed our tired, traveling feet – we looked forward to further indulgences! And Carole’s skill in Malay (similar to Indonesian) again was helpful.
More Georgetown discoveries awaited us. We loved the Peranakan (Malay) and English Colonial heritage buildings near the waterfront, once and still the prime commercial area of the original city, founded in 1786. Nearby, Fort Cornwallis (yes, named after the British General defeated by George Washington at Yorktown) once housed British troops and also the powerful East India Company. Outside one corner of the Fort stands the elaborate 1897 Queen Victoria Jubilee Tower (funded by a Chinese millionaire). All iconic Georgetown landmarks.
Spending five days in Penang allowed us time to visit several areas of interest on the island, at a leisurely pace, considering the hot and humid weather. A local bus (almost free!) took us an hour out of town, through busy villages, to the Penang Hill Station from where a very fast funicular/train carried us up nearly 3,000 feet to the hill station at the top (visited by the British back in the 1700’s). Unfortunately, the thick heat haze mostly obscured the “spectacular” view but we consoled ourselves with cool drinks at the lovely English café there, its pond filled with pink and blue lilies, and the abundance of exotic plants in the relaxing garden setting, before descending to ground level.
Another one hour scenic bus trip, along the winding north coast road, took us to the resort area of Batu Ferringhi where we stayed on our first Penang Island visit some two decades ago. Now there is an abundance of hotels, resorts and luxury apartments with endless development taking place. Stopping at two resorts to look around, relax and have cool drinks, we commented that these might have been in Hawaii or the Caribbean and lacked the fabric and culture of Malaysia. We are so glad we chose not to stay in the area this time but in Georgetown, for a more authentic Penang (and Malaysian) experience.
It was now time to leave Penang Island and head south to our next Malaysia destination – Johor Bahru – across the Straits of Johor from Singapore.
On a number of our previous trips to Malaysia, we passed through Johor Bahru (JB), almost a “stone’s throw” across the Straits of Johor from Singapore, en route by bus or train to other parts of the Malay Peninsula. We had never made the city a “destination” but, with a direct (almost free!) Air Asia flight from Penang to JB’s impressive Senai International Airport (some say built as a cheaper alternative/competitor for Singapore’s Changi Airport), we came for a stay. For us, JB would be a “hop, skip and a jump” back to Singapore.
So near, yet so far – a totally different experience from neighboring Singapore! Settling in to our luxury five-star Renaissance hotel (the city’s best, costing a fraction of the Singapore equivalent) including an endless buffet breakfast, we had some problems with our room. In solving this, the hotel manager upgraded us to the “Club Floor” (with spectacular views across to Singapore), offering us free drinks and meals, besides the extraordinary breakfast buffet lineup included in our room rate! We even made one day a complete relaxation one – sleeping in, eating too much, working out at the hotel gym, swimming in the crystal-clear pool, unwinding in the sauna and meeting other interesting hotel guests.
JB has come a long way – previously, while passing through, we observed run-down facilities. Now, the city was full of glistening, modern skyscrapers with dozens of cranes constructing even more buildings. Flowers, tree-lined streets, golf courses, and huge shopping malls compete with those in Singapore – what a difference a few years make! The city was worth a return visit.
THE JOURNEY HOME
Our return travels are often adventures in themselves – and so it was with this one.
We began our journey with an international train ride (less than five minutes!) from Johor Bahru (Malaysia) across the Causeway to Woodlands Station in Singapore (actually, it took us longer to clear the Malaysian and Singapore immigration and customs formalities). Once in Singapore, we were welcomed back to our favorite neighborhood Tristar 81 Onan Road hotel and spent the night before boarding the eight hour Patriot Express flight (full service, movies, hot towels, huge meals) from Singapore’s Paya Lebar AB back to Yokota AB.
With lots of military families returning to the USA, we were out of luck for our own “Space Available” travel for several days. No problem, as the base offered comfortable and economical accommodations, allowing us time to go to the gym, catch up on housekeeping, shop for breakfast items (our suite had a full kitchen and laundry) and enjoy lunch and dinner at on-base restaurants. Like an “American” city in itself!
However, with a typhoon off Japan and delayed/cancelled/no seats for the Feldmans flights from Yokota, (our Space-A luck ran out) we decided to buy commercial tickets home (Delta Airlines non-stop from Tokyo/Narita to Atlanta and on to Jacksonville). This is the nature of Space-A travel – sometimes it works and sometimes not. We were fortunate getting to Asia by Space-A and staying in military lodging (traveling “on less per day…the military way”) en route, but had to pay our way home. All this travel for both of us for under a thousand bucks – how could we complain?
After over a month’s travel, we appreciated putting our heads on our own pillows at home, especially after a marathon return journey.
*Our favorite destination in Asia – always new discoveries for us there!
*Exotic foods and people, newly-constructed modern and amazing sites, sparkling and spotlessly clean, safe and comfortable.
*Visited Marvin’s “toy store” at the electronics marvel/gadget “wonder world”.
*No matter how many visits we have made in the past, each new visit is a delight.
WE SHALL RETURN
*As the tourist ads say, “Malaysia, truly Asia”.
*Carole’s Indonesian language skills (very close to Malay) opened many doors for warm welcomes.
*Muslim cultural practices provided an interesting environment. Some were appreciated, such as the no pork (Halal) restaurants. Others disturbed our rest such as the loudspeakers calling the faithful to prayer (and waking us up!) BEFORE SIX IN THE MORNING!
*Beautiful beaches, mountains and cities becoming modernized in a frenzy of construction.
*As is the case with Singapore –
WE SHALL RETURN
We will be happy to answer any questions from Military Living’s readers – firstname.lastname@example.org
Marv Feldman, Col USAF (ret) and Carole Feldman