We had made several unsuccessful attempts to visit Singapore and Southeast Asia over the past few years but this time we hit the jackpot! There were no military flights heading west when we wanted to travel so we started with Southwest Airlines flights across the USA from Jacksonville to Sacramento, then took the excellent Aloha Airporter (with “Duke,” (707) 301-6837; email: email@example.com) to Travis AFB. From here, most of the Asia-bound military flights originate and we were fortunate to catch a USAF C–5B from there.
The terrible weather in most of the US had played havoc with ALL flights and our Southwest departure from Jacksonville was delayed one day causing us to miss the rare “perfect military flight” from Travis direct to Singapore. Never mind― our trip would just take a little longer!
First stop: Hickam AFB, HI, for what, we thought, would be a brief overnight then on to Yokota AB, Japan. Our stay in Hawaii turned out to be several days (due to the ever-changing nature of military flights, e.g., C–5B “hard broke” for three days), but this afforded us the wonderful opportunity to visit with dear friends in Honolulu.
When we finally landed in Japan, we were greeted by a blast of 32 degrees Fahrenheit cold air and snow! Fortunately, we are always equipped with warm jackets and looked forward to spending time in the Tokyo area for a few days before our Singapore flight. (It turned out that the Singapore flight with which we had hoped to connect had left half an hour before our C–5B arrived at Yokota.)
Having settled into our comfortable, on-base Kanto Lodge accommodation and knowing we would be at Yokota AB for several days before a flight to Singapore, we planned a full day in Tokyo (some 30 miles away = two hours in traffic). The Kanto Lodge-New Sanno Hotel morning shuttle for about $10 each worked out well.
Glorious sunshine (and bitter cold) greeted us but we determined to make the most of our outing and rugged up with all the winter clothing we could muster. Having arrived in “downtown” Tokyo around lunchtime, we headed to a tiny, (recommended by staff at The New Sanno Hotel) soba (noodle and broth) place where we were the only gaijins (foreigners) and enjoyed the hot and delicious meal. Although Tokyo is incredibly expensive, the little back alley establishment gave us a most economical and traditional, local lunch and an opportunity to practice our very limited Japanese.
Warmed and satisfied, we chose to take an afternoon tour (booked at the New Sanno’s tour desk) with a stop at a 17th Century Shogun’s former private park, a boat trip from Tokyo Bay along the Sumida River to the Asakusa district where we visited a Buddhist temple, Shinto shrine and sampled tasty delights at numerous food stalls. We were impressed by the sophistication and elegance of well-dressed locals and as day turned into night, the bright lights of the Ginza and other areas of this amazing city were dazzling. We returned on the last shuttle to Yokota AB after a delicious dinner at the New Sanno Hotel. Just as well that we toured (and returned to base) when we did. Back on Yokota, next day, we awoke to heavy snow and a winter wonderland of white. Steamy Singapore beckoned!
We made it! After 10 days of delays, flight cancellations, a blizzard and actual travel (a mini-adventure in itself), we finally arrived on the ATI contract Boeing 757 flight (Patriot Express) at our “home away from home” and favorite destination in Asia. Having trudged through snow and ice to get to our plane at Yokota, we were thrilled to be in Singapore—pleasantly hot by day and balmy by night (it was the dry season).
Well over our jet lag, we hit the ground running. This time, we never made it to the country’s tourist area (Orchard Road) but crisscrossed the island by its excellent bus and MRT (subway) system, giving us a very different glimpse of Singapore from our previous visits (we have been here dozens of times). One such visit this time was to the Changi Prison Museum, the infamous World War II Japanese POW camp. It was a sobering experience.
Food is an obsession here and 24/7 dining is the norm. From delicious offerings in Little India, to Malay dishes near our hotel (Tristar 81 in Paya Lebar, + 65-6244-8181, email firstname.lastname@example.org) and to sizzling satays at the Asli Satay “Club” in the Financial District’s Lau Pa Sat market, anything was possible! We even enjoyed dinner one night with Marv’s cousin (he is on assignment with IBM). Here in Singapore, Carole began brushing up on her rusty Malay/Indonesian in preparation for our next stop, Malaysia.
MALAYSIA—1 (Kuala Lumpur)
When our journey to Singapore took longer than expected, we realized that our rather ambitious travel plans around this region would need to be downsized as our “travel window” had been reduced. Nevertheless, a return visit to Malaysia was very tempting (we had been there on several previous visits). Our slow, relaxing, eight hour Malaysian train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur (KL) provided fascinating scenery (dense jungle, lazing water buffaloes, endless palm groves for palm oil, rubber plantations) as we headed north up the Malay Peninsula. When day turned into night, fellow (male) Muslim passengers laid down rugs on the train car’s floor and began praying. All quite interesting!
Our KL accommodation was the Hotel Sentral (tel: +60-3-2272-6000, email email@example.com). Since we stayed there on a previous visit, they upgraded us to a huge room on the “Executive Floor”). It was well-located and very good value. We headed to the main shopping area of Bukit Bintang where we spent hours in an eight story shopping mall, devoted only to electronics—Marv was like the proverbial “kid in a candy store.” To sooth our feet, tired from all the walking around the mall, we pampered ourselves with foot reflexology treatments. Afterwards, we watched a Chinese Lion Dance, performed over tall poles—quite an amazing feat—then headed to lunch at what must be the world’s largest food court—Food Republic in the gorgeous Pavilion Mall. KL can certainly give Singapore a run for its money in food and shopping opportunities and the city has really progressed over the years during our several visits here.
Now we were off to the bus station for the four hour journey across the country to Kuantan, on Malaysia’s East Coast.
The first time Marvin heard of Kuantan was about 20 years ago when he read the Australian novel, “A Town Like Alice”. In this WWII story, Japanese soldiers invaded Malaysia (then Malaya), taking prisoners. Women prisoners were force-marched hundreds of miles north until they came to the village of Kuantan. Now, Kuantan still has very kind locals and is no longer a little village but a thriving city with freeways, air-conditioned shopping malls, Burger King and McDonald’s, and even Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks! By contrast, its beaches and resorts near the Gulf of Thailand are spectacular. And while this was Marvin’s first time here, Carole visited Kuantan about 30 years ago.
We stayed at one such 4-Star resort (for the cost of a 2 Star) and it was pure luxury! While many in the world struggled with blizzards, we were beside the enormous pool (90 degrees Fahrenheit air temperature), enjoying a cold beer. In the evening, the resort had a lavish “BBQ” with lamb, beef, chicken and seafood and an endless array of Western and Asian delights. The “no lunch” breakfast included fresh tropical fruits and scores of other absolutely delicious offerings. Our resort’s modern conveniences (mod cons) such as high speed Internet, a fitness center and free shuttle service to the city center, showed us that Malaysia is now up to par with the rest of the world.
Kuantan—and the Swiss Garden Resort and Spa (tel: +60-9-544-7333, website www.swissgardenkuantan.com) was a spectacular “last stop” on this trip. After this, we would return to Singapore in search of military air transportation back home. The return trip to Florida would, in itself, be another adventure. Our “Great Adventure” was not over yet!
Sadly, we said goodbye to “Shangri-La” (our heavenly Kuantan resort) and boarded Firefly Airlines (a Malaysian discount carrier) for the one-hour flight to Singapore to begin our journey home. Normally, Wednesday flights from Singapore to Yokota AB are reliable, but Japan’s snowstorms interrupted and delayed this flight for a few days. Lucky us—this gave us a few more days in Singapore, our favorite city in all of Asia. Thanks, Air Force, for this bonus add-on to our Asia trip!
Every day, there is something new and amazing in Singapore. We visited the latest “must see attraction”—GARDENS BY THE BAY—an enormous complex of sculptures, gorgeous flowers, trees, and other greeneries from the four corners of the globe, all in two huge air-conditioned glass domes (with New Age music adding to the atmosphere), so vast that it took most of the day to view! Brave Carole walked the five story catwalk (skywalk) high above the complex (Marvin gave her a medal for bravery for that). There was even a vertical tropical rainforest with mist coming off its enclosed four story-high artificial waterfall. All quite spectacular and most impressive.
On our last day in Singapore, we headed to Orchard Road, Singapore’s tourist hub. One spectacular shopping center after another with high-end, designer boutiques in each one—Prada, Louis Vuitton, Loewe, etc.—all with fancy stuff! Carole was impressed and, after the time she had spent at electronic gadget shops with Marvin, she earned this day—as well as a tiny, pricey but divinely delicious, one-bite “macaron” from the Singapore shop of France’s famous Laduree!
THE TRIP HOME
Our mode of traveling with the military and its unexpected twists and turns is an adventure in itself and we love the excitement of it all. The first return (commercial) flight took us from Kuantan (Malaysia) to Singapore, then an unexpected, but most welcome, two full days’ delay in Singapore made for the cherry on the sundae!
Lady Luck opened her arms to us and treated us to a six-hour ATI contract Boeing 757 flight from there to Yokota AB. This was like traveling First Class, with Singapore Airlines-catered hot meals, movies and pampering by wonderful flight attendants. Quite a shock though, going from 90 degrees Fahrenheit Singapore to snowy Tokyo, but Lady Luck continued to stretch out her arms and within hours of landing at Yokota, we boarded a C–5B for the nine hour non-stop flight to Travis AFB.
Our military flights are often full of good news/bad news. Travis AFB showed a flight to Charleston, but when we were ready to go, this great opportunity disappeared. As things turned out, this was fortunate as Marvin’s sister and her husband came to the base from Oakland and whisked us away for a warm, family weekend in their home. While our unexpected extra stay in Singapore was the “cherry on the sundae,” our family time with Marvin’s sister was indeed the crown jewel of this trip.
We completed our travels with Southwest Airlines flights to Jacksonville which was full of unexpected problems but by two in the morning, we put our heads onto our own pillows in Florida.
We love Asia! Malaysia’s tourist board boasts, “MALAYSIA, TRULY ASIA” and they are right, yet we were among the few Western tourists in this wonderful destination. It had been some four years since we last were there and in Singapore and things have changed quickly and for the better. Singapore and Malaysia have both become more “eye-popping” but while Singapore has become more expensive yet continues to be exciting, Malaysia offers excellent value.
Carole, who had formal language training in Indonesian many years ago, found herself understanding the spoken (Malay) language (very similar to Indonesian) and soon she easily communicated with the locals. In fact, her Malay improved immensely. Marvin is very proud of her. Now that we are home and recovered from the jet lag of having flown half way around the world, we have pleasant lingering memories:
* Exotic—vastly different from the Western world.
* Food—no wonder Europeans traveled half way around the world in sailing ships to the “Spice Islands” to bring these flavors to the West!
* Beautiful warm beaches and resort swimming pools while most of Europe and North America were digging out of the ice and snow!
* Extraordinary architecture with ever-changing skylines.
* Friendly, kind and helpful people.
* The road less traveled!
Many thanks for “coming along” with us on our Return to Asia. If any of the R&R Travel News® readers would like to see our Shutterfly slide show of this trip, drop us an email and we will be happy to share this with you.
Col. Marv Feldman, USAF, (Ret.)
and Carole Feldman
Reprint from Jul–Aug 2014 • Volume 44, No. 4