Pic of the week: Hot Cross Puns

Delicious comedy from the guys at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Raffles City #B1.

Delicious comedy from the guys at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Raffles City #B1.

10 tips for 10 days…

Traver, expat, student, Singapore, London, wherever. Living somewhere new can be amazing… AND scary as hell. Some are lucky enough to have a job, an apartment, or an internship sorted. Some are just winging it! Whatever your reason, here’s 10 things that got me through my first 10 days…

1) Staying in a hostel
For your first few weeks you don’t need privacy, you need new friends! An endless & revolving supply of them. Not to mention cheap rent!

The Prince of Wales $22 SGD long term stay is in the hear of the CBD, Boat Quay. Other good finds are River City Inn in Chinatown or The Drop Inn in Little India. www.hostelworld.com

2) Be a yes man!
Be a real keen-o and extend your social network. ‘Do you want to go to a party on a helipad? Do you fancy going ice skating? Shall we go for a beer?’

A: Yes! (Although when is the answer to any of these ever not yes!) Invite yourself along to anything and everything. It’s not as weird as it seems. Expats love it.

The Helipad at the Swisshotel opens on the last Thursday of every month, entry until 10pm. Ice skating is at JCube, Jurong East on the Green MRT line.

3) Laugh out loud
The single best think I did to feel connected to life out here was go with friends to a comedy club. Great to pick up local nuances and like watching an episode of  ‘Mock the Week’ at the same time. Win win.

Comedy Masala – Tues 9pm @Home, Clarke Quay. $10 entry with free drink

Fight Comic Singapore – Thurs 9pm @Blue Jazz Bar, Little Arabia. $10 entry.

4) See what the cool kids are doing

MAAD Fridays (Market for Artists & Designers) is on the 1st weekend of every month @Red.dot building, Tanjong Pagar MRT. They had a brilliant life drawing area where anyone can drop in to practice their skills. If you sit for them as a model (fully clothed!) you can pay $10 to commission any of the pieces if you like what you see. All proceeds go straight to the artist.

5) Buy a local Sim card
Nothing screams rookie like a +44 dialing code. The second you purchase a +65 it’s official, you live here! To recruiters and employers at least. Starhub sell sim cards/top ups from $10+ at any SevenEleven. Bring your passport.

6) Be a joiner
New sporting activity = new friends. Join a free running club like 101 club, Tues/Thurs 6.30pm. Meet at the bottom of UOB Raffles Place for 3k/5k/7k circuits.

7) ‘The Usual?’
Get a fave cafe/sandwich shop/street food hawker. Claim it as your own till they know your order from 50 yards away. Memorise the best stalls in the maze that is Bugis St Market. Shop until you know it like the back of your hand.

8) One direction
Revel in the first time you give someone directions. “Why yes, I DO know where Altitude bar is…” (it’s kind of easy to spot by the gigantic skyscraper!)
a) they think you’re authentic enough to live here b) you can be proud you know your city/neighbourhood.

9) Dry your eyes mate
When it all gets overwhelming, and it WILL happen, don’t be ashamed to have that little cry. If you want a good spot try Fort Canning Park or Chinese Gardens. Read a book, write your memoirs, have a little time out to sit and think. We ALL do it. Have a word with yourself then get straight on Facebook or Skype and ring you BFF’s for a pep talk. Seems a million times better.

10) Everything is fixable
You have options. You are only ever three clicks away from Skyscanner! Give yourself  deadline (at least 4 – 6 weeks) and sleep on it. If it’s genuinely not where you are meant to be, so be it. Nothing ventured…

“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”  William Shedd

Varanasi Junction, India

Maybe the reason I’m down on Varanasi is the fact that I’m entrapped in this odd little prison. Organizing onward transport here is where we come unstuck. This seems as good a time as any. It has to be done; an explanation on the saga to end all sagas.

Welcome to: The Indian Train System

Believe me when I say; here comes the science.

Over a million people travel every single day. There are 8 class systems from cattle to a/c first class. There is an online booking system, that is apparently has the world’s highest online traffic per any online system in the world. Maybe this is as 99% of people have to re-visit 10 times before they can make sense of it all. Or the fact that is crashes daily between peak hours.

For the purpose of this story we want to spend 1 or 2 nights in Varanasi, and then travel thousands of km right across India to the West Coast to the beaches. However you can basically take the faffing that is about to follow and apply it to ANY and EVERY journey in India, every time you want to move to a new city.

Like China they warn you to do pre-book, or at least try to sort you onwards ticket as soon as you arrive, which is a pain but understandable I suppose with so many people in transit. However unlike China, with a similar population, this is not a seamlessly efficient affair with a system known as ‘queuing’ Oh no no no.

In theory you can go online in India and book a ticket. Except, and this is no exaggeration, tickets pretty much everywhere go on sale 4 months before and are snapped up within hours. This changes to seconds within Indian Holidays, which it is for the months of March/April. The next tier of tickets is called RAC (Reservation against Cancellation) which means they allow for overbooking and no-shows. It means you are guaranteed to travel but you just have to go through the stress of running around a 12-15 carriage long train as it pulls up at the station cross checking a print out that is taped to each door way, looking for your names for a last minute seat or berth like a crazy disorganized school register. You can’t walk from carriage to carriage either, one you are on you are on.

If you can’t get RAC you next option is ‘Waitlist.’ This means you join an online pecking order of extra tickets that they hold back in case MORE people cancel. You can literally hear people in internet café’s all over the country scream in excitement when you occasionally see a waitlist of 1 to 20. This means you are a likely shoe-in. Most of the time however these lists hover around 150 – 300. Or in our case, on the date that we want to go to Kathmandu in one month’s time, at 450?!

Oh I forgot to mention that all of the above is irrelevant 99% of the time because you can only book online if you are outside of India, or if you have an India mobile number. So once you are here, THEN you start the fun and games of the Tourist Quotas in the special offices in Delhi, Agra, Mumbai etc. These involve filling in intricate tiny pieces of paper together with a copy of your passport and all but a retina scan, before queuing for up to 2 hours. This is all for a tourist quota of approx 8 extra seats per train. The odds ain’t good.

Finally we have Tatkal. A word that haunts us for the last 3 days. Tatkal is the last chance saloon. They are an ‘emergency’ extra extra extra quota of 200 tickets that go on sale at 8am, 24h before some select trains, in which the whole 1 Billion odd residents of India compete for. The only way you can thrown you ballot into the box and compete for these is by camping out at a Tourist Office at a station from 6am, day after day and hoping that the one Indian guy behind the desk plays ball. This one guy holds ALL of the power as so whether we spend our next 4 weeks on a palm fringed beach or on this hell hole city. Let’s call him ‘Train God.’ He is in his 40’s, glasses, wears a suit with trainers. On the surface he seems stern but as we learn he has to be. With great power comes great responsibility.

Thursday: We get to the office gone 12pm. Rookies. Traingod laughs in our face. He explains the system goes live at 8am. Best strategy is to fill in our paperwork and prepare for battle in the morning.

Friday: 7.20am. We arrive early, or so we think. Except there are already a handful of people here, including an Indian couple and three Chinese guys. We all sit and eye each other up from across the waiting lounge. Its dog eat dog. Newbies walk in afterwards but TrainGod shoes them away. He knows from experience they have no chance. They hover around however trying to ask him questions, argue the toss or pester him for train numbers and schedules that are more complicated than algebraic equations.

All that our Tatkal gang care about is keeping the new people away from distracting TrainGod with their ridiculous enquires.  Its 7.59am, we’re about to go live!  He has our requests piled up as he cracks his knuckles and prepares. I should add that on his 1980’s PC and one finger typing system, each person’s ticket takes at least 5 mins processing time. Plus more for the Chinese guys who have complicated names that take extra seconds of typing, god dam it.

It’s all over by 8.20pm. We are 6th in line and we don’t make the cut. It means another 24h stuck here. Traingod’s work is done for the day. He tells us to get here first in line tomorrow. We dare not argue with him, we sit and smile and thank him, terrified that at the sight of a hand we could be relegated to the bottom of his almighty pile. We half joke about sending him a muffin basket, a la Ross off Friends.

Saturday: 6.20am. Seriously. It’s 2012. We bitch all morning that there has to be easier ways. The scariest thing is, here there isn’t! We could go on like Groundhog Day for weeks. We have visions of growing old here. It would actually explain quite a lot about the state of Varanasi. Its dysfunctional streets are not filled with residents, just people who cannot leave! We are there before Traingod, he obviously has a lie in. Although I’m pretty sure his eyes flicker in recognition as we thrust our forms into his hands 1h early. I try and explain that we’ve also written a plan b. If we can’t get to Bangalore, we’ll settle for Chennai. But he is optimistic. “You are first in line” he says confidently, with a look that says “we got this in the bag.”

We sit with bated breath to decide the fate of our train to freedom. The clock ticks to 5 past. Yesterday he sat in silence, processing for about 15 mins without any big reveals until the end when the (also 1980’s) printer sprang to life and started printing the little gold dust tickets. Maybe he could feel our desperation but after a few mins he glances and gives us the smallest of thumbs up. We’ve done it!

We pay and as we leave we sneak him a little Chai tea. As I slyly placed it on the side of his desk and say thank you, he first refuses it and then caves and cracks a teeny tiny smile.

Never have two people, been so ecstatic to be taking a train to Bangalore. Nor should they. It’s a horrifying 46 hours!

Bus from Pai to Lampang, Northern Thailand

I say bus to Lampang. We made it as far as Chiang Mai. There hasn’t been a good transport disaster story since the Bolivia days really, so here’s one for you.

Claire, Linds and wake up to minus freezing temperatures and decided to get the hell out of Pai. We want to play bus roulette (rocking up at the station and boarding the next bus to an unknown destination,) however Pai limits our daringness due to the fact that there’s pretty much only one road in/out – to Chiang Mai or Mae Hong Son. To plan B then; Lonely Planet Roulette. We pick a place at random. That place is Lampang. Here’s all we (need to) know; it’s famous for herbal spas. Sold. We still have to change at Chiang Mai however.

The toss-up is either a Minivan (costs 150 baht) takes 3 hours, comfy seats, but major travel sickness on the windy roads v’s local bus (costs 72 baht) takes 4.5 hours, potentially sat next to a loose chicken. We leave it to whichever turns up first and draw the short straw; the local bus.

1)      It’s late, but to be honest it would be more shocking if it were on time.

2)      We are moving a whole 5 mins, we know this as none of us even get through one song on our iPods, before we pull over at a local garage to jack it up and change the tyre. Fair enough. Except….

3)      …Once above repair is done, we pile back on, start the engine, and promptly reverse smack bang into a shiny new jeep. This results in a further 1h delay, some police, lots of pointing and staring, and some money exchanging hands. All pretty amicable though.

4)      Crisis averted, we all re-board. This time we make it a whole 5 songs, up around the winding mountainside before coming to a spluttering halt on the edge of a precipice. Comedy gold; we’ve run out of petrol. We have a fun half an hour clowning around by climbing onto the roof of the bus and admiring the view, whilst someone brings us some emergency fuel.

5)      It’s all golden for the next 2 hours. Right untill the final disaster comes as we eventually breakdown 10km out of Chiang Mai. We don’t even ask what the problem is this time, we just wait 45 mins to be rescued. By this point it’s dark and we kind of gave up of the ghost of making it to Lampong. We figure The Adjustment Bureau wants to keep us from there for a day or two at least, so who are we to argue with fate.

Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand

Ah to be back in the land of SevenElevens, pretty clothes, and sumptuous food again. I hopped (well, slow-boated for 30 secs) back over the border, then a skipped onto a 2h bus to Northern Chiang Rai. It’s nice enough, although I kind of thought there was more to it, but maybe i’m confusing it with Pai? Anyway, what is definitely here, and totally worthwhile, is the hideously beautiful monstrosity that is What Rong Khun (The White Temple).

It’s like they built their normal gold ornate Buddhist temple, and then sugar-coated it in a fluffy cloud. It’s Narnia meets a fairytale ice house, meets the inner working of Salvador Dali’s and Hannibal Lector’s minds.

Only ONE of these is a lie:

a)      Outside in the gardens which lead to the bridge, hang a number of sculpted decapitated heads, twisted with serpents where the brains should be.

b)      As you cross the bridge you pass over a pit of sculpted dismembered hands, like ‘thing’ off the Adams Family or Carrie when she reaches up from the grave in the 1980’s horror movie.

c)       Inside on the walls is a painted mural. Think Sistine Chapel. One half depicts your normal gods and religious imagery. The other has pained characters of in a burning red hell scene. These inluded Neo from the Matrix, Harry Potter, Jack Sparrow, Spider/Super/Batman, Michael Jackson, the Twin Towers in inferno, and a whole host of other crazed 21st century refences.

d)      In the center of the room is a praying figure of Buddhist monk.

Answer? D) It is in fact a plastic dummy of a monk. Im not sure whether the whole thing was a Thai temple or Madam Toussords gone utterly mad. I’ll never look at a temple the same way again.

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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