My entrance into Singapore didn’t go as I would have expected.
The customs officers at the border here are extremely strict and upon finding a packet of cigarettes in my bag, a packet which I didn’t even know were there after being given them on New Years Eve, I was held under investigation for around half an hour.
I was everything but cavity searched (thankfully) and wasn’t told what was going on for a while which resulted in me getting quite irate, that was until I was informed of a potential $200 charge. I quickly decided that a friendly demeanor was required so as to avoid the charge and I was let go half an hour later with a warning and an $14 charge to take my tobacco into the country. I still wasn’t too pleased as the tobacco which was now half smoked, had only cost me the equivalent of £2 around 50 miles north of these customs officers.
I was happy to get into Singapore without a criminal record and after apologising to Anna, who had been left waiting for me with no clue of where I had gone, I was happy to see the bus we took from Kuala Lumpur was still waiting to take us into the city centre.
We arrived at our hostel and were very excited to see Joe, a good friend from back home who will be spending the next month, our last before Australia, with us.
After a catch up in the hostel, we sat at the bar downstairs and had a beer before heading to a Chinese food court to get some dinner then returning to the bar before tiredness got the better of us, unsurprisingly in Joe’s case as he had just come off a twenty hour journey.
We woke up fairly early the next morning as we only had one full day in Singapore and wanted to make the most of it.
Walking to the nearest metro station to collect our day pass, it was immediately obvious how clean and well maintained this city really is, the floors, even in the subway look so clean that I would have little issue eating off of them!
When we saw our first piece of litter, a sweet wrapper, we almost broke into celebration but managed to stop ourselves by just completing a slow clap directed towards the wrapper, this must have looked like some strange western ritual to the eastern locals.
I am certainly not used to this level of cleanliness and it made a nice change, it suddenly dawning on me that I had grown accustom to dusty roads and wild animals contributing to a city centre’s charm.
After a little Thai food, our first stop in the city was Little India and to be honest, we were expecting a little more from it.
There wasn’t a cow, chicken or dog to be seen anywhere in the street, no car horns, red spit on the floor or open sewers and certainly no piles of litter being set alight…
The closest thing we found to the real deal here was people who certainly looked Indian but they had much nicer clothes.
We moved on to the financial district which housed some very modern, large skyscrapers which whilst walking under and around them reminded me of my time in the USA.
A short walk from here is Merlion Park which sits on the river. The main attraction is the merlion fountain statue, a symbol of the city with the body representing its history as a fishing village and its head representing its old name, Singapora, which translates to ‘lion city’ in Malay.
It was hard to get a good picture with the amount of tourists standing around it but watching people line up with their cameras trying to get the stream of water to look like it is going into their mouths was entertaining to watch for a while.
Having excerted a decent amount of energy we decided to recharge at our local pub, happy in the knowledge we had found one of the cheapest pints in the city centre.
Just before the sun started to set we went to explore the eco gardens, a large area of walkways behind the Garden Bay Sands Hotel which housestwo very impressive green houses and the infamous eco trees.
We began in the ‘cloud forest’ which is an artificial rainforest housing skywalks surrounded by rare plants and large waterfalls. This is a unique sight and experience and the strong air-conditioning also served as a nice escape from the humid temperature outside.
The sun had fully descended by the time we emerged from this structure so we could fully appreciate the eco trees as their lights came on and served as an amazing backdrop to the nights sky and the cities light pollution.
Singapore is a beautiful city, I could happily spend more time there if it didn’t jeapordise spending more of our budget with it being notoriously expensive to visit.
I don’t think leaving somewhere fully unexplored is a bad thing though as it leaves a place open for returning to, however we did manage to see a good chunk of it one day.
Early the next morning we got a flight, leaving the amazingly modern, world class Changi airport and arrived in the less modern, maybe island class airport of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital city.
Our first insight into the laid back attitude of Indonesian people (which I will likely write more about later) was here as we had a three hour wait before our connecting flight to Surubaya and weren’t far from missing it!
Anna’s flight tag had fallen off her bag here and hilariously the check in clerk just hand wrote her a new one.
Luckily and despite what we feared, all three bags did make it to our next destination!
I had now been on this continent for a few months and it took seeing Joe’s face to make me remember that little things that I have begun to accept as normal over here are, by Western terms, far from it.
Our taxi from the airport to the train station, hurtled down a busy road, nearly hitting other vehicles, some of which consisted of entire families on small bikes, passing construction sites where the builders go about their tasks in flip flops and hilariously copyright infringing businesses.
It is great to see this perspective as it refreshed my mind for my last month here and I promised myself to embrace the madness around me instead of just idling past it all.
We had a five hour wait in the small town for our train to Probolinggo which, as there isn’t much there, would have usually been a bit of a drag but we were entertained enough watching Joe wander around and taking in all of the foreign sights, smells and sounds.
We arrived at our hotel just after midnight and were excited when the receptionist informed us that breakfast would be delivered to our room that morning.
When it came, we had heard about Indonesian food being very much for the sweet tooth, we should have been expecting the chocolate sprinkle sandwich after eating a hot dog in sweet bread at the airport… nutritious it was not!
We packed a day bag and set off towards Mount Bromo, an inactive volcano a short journey from this small town.
Another event happened which Joe’s arrival reminded me was not commonplace in the UK as a local man stopped us on the side of the road and offered, for a small price, to take us to the bus station. Looking at me to see if we should go for it, I shrugged my shoulders back at Joe and we piled into this stranger’s rusty old van.
The actual bus to Mount Bromo was even rustier, you couldn’t touch the interior for fear of tetanus and the back seats weren’t even attached to the floor, sliding up and down the car on the winding mountain road to the starting point of the trek.
Another day in the life!
Arriving at our destination, we were informed of a pretty expensive entrance fee to the national park but our driver informed us of a short cut where you could bypass the ticket booth.
Next to the shortcut was a security booth, after walking away then returning, a Frenchman we were with asked if we could just go down it despite the sign which said otherwise.
The security guard, barely looking up from his smart phone waved us on, obviously not wanting the responsibility or hassle that would come from doing the job he is supposedly paid for.
We set off down a very steep and slippery mud track as it started to torrentially rain, making the descent quite interesting and despite my track record of clumsiness, I am happy to say I was the only one who made it to the bottom with only my shoes a victim of the mud, Anna did fall but holding onto a tree as she slid, made it look so slow and graceful that it deserved a segment in swan lake.
The volcano is set in a huge flat plateau, it is like nothing I have seen before, and as we walked towards it, thankfully the rain ceased and we could take down our hoods to fully take in the view.
It was a steep climb up to the rim of the volcano which was worryingly still producing a lot of smoke but thankfully somebody had been thoughtful enough to build some steps for the last ascent.
Once at the top, we didn’t have much time to take it in as we had been informed that the last bus to Probolinggo would leave at 4pm, which gave us jus over an hour to get down the volcano, across the plateau and back up the muddy path.
We made it for half past three but I guess the driver had gotten enough passengers to warrant leaving early so, much to the delight of another random local, meant we had to pay them to take us in their van back down the mountain and to the city, picking up locals along the way which made for a very cosy ride back.
Going for dinner that evening, we noticed a lot of people wanting to take pictures with us, before realising we were amongst only a very few foreigners in this city, something we wouldn’t be further from realising when we arrived on the neighbouring island of Bali a short time later.
The next day we took a train to Banyuwangi in order to book a tour for that evening to climb into the crater of Mount Ijen, famed for it’s sulphuric blue lake and flames which can be seen at night time.
We checked into the guesthouse there, booked onto a tour and got some sleep before waking up at midnight and setting off on the tour.
Usually I don’t opt for tours as I prefer to do things on my own time and to figure out the details myself but as we were climbing up and into a volcano in the pitch dark, which required a gas mask in order to breath through the sulphur smoke, we decided to make an exception in this case!
Surprisingly full of energy, joined by an amazing Canadian lady in her 70s we set off up the steep 2km path which was tough due to both the altitude and angle of the slope before stopping for coffee at a small shack and then continued to climb at a shallower incline another kilometre to the summit.
As we got closer we realised the need for the gas masks as the smell of sulphur started to become very strong.
At the top of the crater, our guide told us to be careful as the path was slippy and that they didn’t have insurance to cover us if we fell, which is always nice to hear…
Only a couple of minutes into our climb down we had to stop and get low to the ground as a huge sulphur cloud came towards us, burning our eyes and making breathing, even through the masks, difficult.
This continued all the way down the ‘path’, at the bottom and all the way back up due to the wind kindly blowing in our direction.
We quickly realised that what we were going through was nothing in comparison to the sulphur miners who work here.
For about £8 a day they descend into the crater, without any gas mask, mining and carrying between 75-100kg of sulphur to the top, apparently they do this up to four times a day and sadly but understandably don’t have a very long life expectancy.
I had spoken to one of the miners on the walk up who was only 25 and did this to look after his parents, wife and two children.
We were totally in awe and humbled by these men and gladly bought souvenirs from them as we left.
Reaching the bottom of the crater we caught the odd and surreal glimpse of these blue and purple flames but our guide informed us that we had been unlucky with the amount of smoke in the crater on this day and that sometimes they are very clear.
We sat at the bottom until our lungs couldn’t take much more and after around twenty minutes we had to go back up to see the sunrise.
The climb up was hard as breathing in the cheap masks provided wasn’t too easy but it had been a great experience which only got better when the sun came up and we saw the view of the lake.
Below is a photo of one of the packs of sulphur which a miner, cigarette in mouth, had just carried up from the bottom, I really cannot think of a harder job in the world.
The walk back down the mountain also offered some pretty extroadinary views of which we had no idea were there a couple of hours earlier.
We got back to the guesthouse around 8am and slept until midday when we went to the harbour to catch a ferry to Bali, where two days later we had another flight to Labuan Bajo.
Nearly falling for a scam taxi which included the ferry in its price and assured us it would drop us off anywhere we intended on Bali, we only clicked on when the price changed from getting into it, at the expense of a local who had to get out, and when the fee was demanded up front.
Luckily we got out at this point as when we arrived in Bali and talking to another traveller, our suspicions were confirmed when they had to pay a similar driver double the original fare to retrieve their bags on the other side of the water.
On the ferry, we went to get a beer but the barman was asleep behind the bar, he did eventually wake up though.
Once we got to Bali, we took a local bus which drove the whole way across the island with it’s doors wide open, blaring out terrible dance music and with its driver chain smoking cigarettes!
Joe’s mouth was still wide open at most times by this point.
Our hostel was in the town of Kuta and close to the airport but upon arriving we quickly decided to cancel our booking due to it being full of the kind of people I had expected to meet on this trip but so far managed to avoid.
We were welcomed by a vulgar English man in a neon vest who was surrounded by younger foreign girls, supposedly because everybody with English as their first language had grown tired of him, which we quickly did when he told us to “f**k off” upon hearing our accents.
The place we moved on to was actually much nicer, half the price, closer to the beach, town and airport.
We just had the one day in this town before our flight and after a short stroll around and down to the beach didn’t see much that appealed to us so spent the day slowly drinking beers and swapping stories before getting back to the new hotel and sitting by the pool, getting an early night before our early flight the next morning.