11 – 15th August 2014
Turning for Home
Our homeward leg generates a weird kind of day: we left London Gatwick on a rainy Sunday afternoon, and, like a series of half-remembered scenes from a movie, our journey back homeward flashes between long stretches of idle time in the air.
First, it’s a 3 hour flight to Istanbul on a cramped A320. The air is warm fug; the seats awkward and uncomfortable. The food comes and goes. We touch down in the sudden dark at Istanbul, heading straight for the transit to our flight to Kuala Lumpur. Scheduling has our flight arriving an hour and a half late, which savagely compromises an otherwise comfortable two-hour window to get across the airport.
The result is that we have to haul the tired youngsters off the aircraft, hustle them through the inevitable toilet stop, and leg it fast across the terminal. Our arrival and departure gates seem to be about as far apart as they can be without necessitating a trip to another airport, and we scramble into the departure lounge as the ‘Last Call’ sign turns an angry flashing red. We shuffle up the airbridge, fumble for our boarding passes, and plonk ourselves in another set of seats. This time we have more room and entertainment systems. It’s late and we’re tired but there are some good signs. Fade to black.
We pass the ten-hour flight in relative comfort. Travelling eastwards, a day comes and goes, the spectacular cycle of sunrise, cloudless sky and sunset largely ignored by passengers variously sleeping, eating, staring at screens. I dare to open the window blind, and raise the ire of the cabin crew, for some unknown crime against in-flight entertainment. It’s a long flight – the longest of our year away. Food and service aboard Turkish Airlines is entirely acceptable. Soon we are swooping through the tropical clouds and across the suspicious green of palm oil plantations. Rivers, roads and factories – we’re back in familiar territory. The plane lands at Kuala Lumpur’s colossal terminal: there is the sudden activity as the plane stops, a brief blast of warm air through the gap in the air bridge and we all troop wearily through the ritual of immigration.
At the baggage conveyor, we wait….and wait and wait. Our bags are not among those circulating. We wait some more, as the hall goes quiet. A group of young airport staff are unloading the lingering bags from the conveyor. One of them glances at me and asks: “From Turkey?” I nod. “Probably the luggage missed your flight. You must log a report. Happens all the time…”
Other passengers have already discovered this apparently routine happening, and the polite airport office has a smooth routine to deal with the hapless travellers on the nightly flight from Istanbul. There’s no point getting mad – it’s the airline’s fault – so I start digging out baggage tags, filling of forms, describing bags. They assure us that if the bags arrive, they’ll send them to our hotel. There’s nothing more we can do – except treat ourselves to a taxi to the city, to our hotel. We flop into our room: The Hotel Petaling – five beds, clean, dry, economical. The normal excitement of arriving in another new city smothered by jet-lag. It’s off to bed by nine and don’t wake until ten the next morning.
In the morning, a short stroll along Petaling Street, into the tourist heartland of Chinatown. But this isn’t a mere strip of restaurants – this is the markets, the plastic stools, the multilingual signs, the strange food and the many faces of Malaysia. For all its quirks, it’s always been one of our favourite countries – ever since we took our first trip here back in 1996. We’ve visited many times – and it seems oddly familiar. Fresh from England, one can revel in the ever-so-slight disorder, the warm, humid air, the half-remembered phrases. Malaysia is so close to home we can almost smell WA, but the smell of cooking overcomes it. KL stands for shopping – so we run through an immense and wonderful tropical downpour for the monorail to Sungai Weng and next door’s Low Yat Plaza. Among the myriad shops and tech we spot a few possibilities. The buzz is big, but the jet lag is bigger, and, contented enough, we head home.
It’s a long evening – sleep patterns are messed around – I’m weighing up which new phone to buy. Worst of all we get word that our bags have arrived, but they can’t confirm if it’s all seven (as it should be), or eight, or six. We’re heading on to Singapore tomorrow afternoon – what if one bag doesn’t make it? Which one is it? Shall I buy this phone or that phone? What do I really need? Who cares about the reviews? Which bag is missing? Too many questions fill my head. A 3.50am we find out about the bags – we’ve got all of them. All our worldly belongings that have more or less made it around the world with us.
The next morning we’re fresher – and slurping savoury porridge in Petaling Street by an acceptable 9am. A Taxi back to Low Yat – haggling and winning a new phone (I went for one that’s ‘good enough’). Then it’s another taxi to Sogo, and we’re buying clothes for the boys. A hawker market yields up another delicious lunch, then we hail a cab.
Afternoon: swing past the hotel, grab our bags and it’s off to the Terminal Bersepadu Seletan (TBS) – KL’s shiny new (to us) bus terminal. No longer the fume-filled dungeon of the rough and ready Puduraya – this time it’s glass and immaculate white tiles. Secure tickets, grab snacks. Our bus glides into it’s alotted gate and we’re aboard: wide seats that recline nearly flat, and massage your spine! This is coach travel!
Soon we’re on the motorway rolling south to Singapore, massaging our way through southern Malaysia’s sadly endless palm oil paradise. There are much appreciated rest stops – at one of them a stall of steamed pork buns (Char Siu Bao) which do for an onboard dinner, before we pull up at the frontier post and get ourselves stamped out of Malaysia. Lucas observes that we are now in ‘No Man’s Land’ again. The routine at the Singaporean border is much the same, though the differences are slightly more pronounced: for some reason the Singapore border guards always insist on one parent with one or two children at a time – every other country we’ve entered allows us to plonk a batch of five passports on the counter at once.
The coach pulls up outside a nameless hotel in Beach Road, and we hail a taxi for our digs in Little India. This has to be perhaps the most expensive stay of our entire year – the price we pay for leaving it a bit late to book – but also a fitting end to our Tour.
Singapore is nothing if not for its hawker food centres, and on Thursday we track down one of the best: the Old Airport Road Food Centre. It’s far enough off the tourist track that we’re the only travellers there, and it’s well worth sitting for an hour or two among the locals, slurping soups and munching on deep-fried goodies as the rain hammers down and the old folk while away the afternoon. This is the “real” Singapore. Marvellous.
We hail a cab and direct the driver to Mustafa’s, that Singapore institution. Here the boys are given some pocket-money and told they can make the most of the toy department. We’ve travelled long and far and had to be very restrained about shopping – but tomorrow we’re going home and we’ve got enough baggage allowance for just about anything. The boys make their selections – and we excitedly return to the hotel, stopping for brightly coloured fruit drinks on the way home along Kampong Kapor Road. One of the RC cars requires a tiny screwdriver – luckily the electronics emporia of Sim Lim Square is only a block away.
Dinner is at the Tekka Centre – another must visit destination a mere block or two from our hotel – this hawker centre has a Malaysian/Indian focus, and we devour naan bread, curry and a big plate of Kuay Teow. It’s all too much for Felix, who nods off at the table.
Our last morning dawns cloudy again. We pack our gear, and head out for a last excursion. This morning we go back to where our trip began: the Singapore Science Centre. Our membership card are still valid, so we go back to explore some of the areas we couldn’t take in a year ago. This time there’s a display on the compulsorily hirsute Victorian naturalist Alfred Wallace, who spent many years cataloguing the spectacular fauna of the Malay Archipelago, including a very different Singapore where tigers still roamed jungle clad plantations. More in tune with the mind of young boys, there’s Robot Zoo, an exhibition of giant animatronic robots depicting the physical science of the Chameleon, the Platypus, and the Rhinoceros, among others.
All too soon we have to farewell the robots, and collect our bags.
Great food – but no drink
We check in at the airport, and then, following a tip of our taxi driver, he across to Terminal 2 where lies hidden the famous Changi Airport Staff Canteen – yet another hawker centre kept squirrelled away from the travelling public – better food at prices a quarter of what the usual array of airport terminal vendors are peddling. It’s open to the public and a good option if flight departure times allow. This time it’s BBQ Pork, savoury carrot cake, and more noodles and a few goodies for the Tigerair flight home. The cheap lunch costs us at the Departure Hall – we discover to our consternation that a new rule prohibits the purchase of duty-free alcohol less than 90 minutes before a flight due to a convoluted combination of factors involving security screening, ‘collect at gate’ duty free, and doubtless someone’s commercial interest somewhere along the line.
Into the setting sun
With mixed feelings we board our flight home. We’re longing to see friends, family and familiar places, but it means our great adventure is coming to an end. The flight is smooth and easy – a spectacular sunset witnessed over the Indian Ocean – the end of our long journey. The evening wears on, darkness falls. After an hour or three, cruising over the great emptiness of Ocean and desert, lights appear in the blackness below, blooming into the familiar mass of streets we call home. The rituals of landing are performed, a settling, a slight bump: we touch down in Perth. Home again.