Friday, August 13, 2010

Reporting In From Kota Kinabalu

Ahhh, back to the itty-bitty keyboard.

We finished up the Singapore jaunt in fine style, riding around the place on the Duck And Hippo bus service. D&H maintain two hop-on, hop-off bus routes with open-top double-decker buses. It's a good way to get your bearings, although you do have to put up with a fair bit of 'canned history' as you drive past various buildings around the place.

Singapore is kind of daunting. I think it was William Gibson who described as sort of a 'theme park' version of a South East Asian city –€“ it looks the part splendidly, but under the facade it's carefully sanitized, and virtually all elements of danger and uncertainty are gone. Of course, that does make it a good place to introduce three young, Tasmanian kids to the weirdnesses of this stretch of the world. And possibly as part of that theme-park quality, the people of Singapore were relentlessly friendly.

Everywhere we stopped to eat, various locals would pop up to tease and play with the kids. Part of it, I expect, is the simple fact that the kids are light-haired and very kid-cute in appearance. Part of it is also that the kids have never been taught to be fearful of differences in people. They're a little shy at times when they're out of their territory, but they're still energetic and inquisitive.

Also, they're pretty fearless about their eating. (Well, except for the Mau-Mau. But she's extra cute, so that makes up for it.) As a result, we tend to dive into the local food courts and roadside eateries without hesitation, and since we're clearly tourists, that draws attention to the kids.

It's nice, really. Singapore has a very friendly, very relaxed sort of vibe to it, a thoroughly child-friendly feel. We took a trip to the Botanic gardens, for example: hot as blazes, and even though the kids were strongly interested in the Evolution Gardens, the Spice Gardens and the Fruit Tree Gardens, they were really starting to flag. Until we reached the specially designed and designated Children's Garden.

It's brilliant. Separated from the main gardens, you enter through a controlled turnstile. Parents with kids go through without question, but if you're an adult without a child, you need a reason to be in there... and they'll escort you.

Once inside, it's a place that could have been designed by kids. A wading fountain full of oddball water equipment and games. Climbing equipment. A hedge maze. A multi-level treehouse with huge slides. A 'cave'. Ponds, swaying rope bridges, hollow trees to hide and play in, plenty of shade, interesting educational displays on ecology and plant life... our 'flagging' kids ran wild for an hour, and had to be dragged out with the promise of ice cream and soft drinks all round.

Yeah, Singapore. Kid-friendly, proud of themselves, and on the go. Interesting place. Looking at the buildings going up, the incredible, monumental architecture happening there, it's clear the GFC was something that happened to other people, not to Singapore. There's this new resort development. Backed –€“ according to public knowledge –€“ by money out of Las Vegas, the place rivals Dubai. There's this one building: actually it's three separate, near-identical skyscrapers of curved blue glass, but they're joined across the top by what looks for all the world like a sleek, low-slung, long, supermodern ocean liner. Seriously: three skyscrapers with an ocean liner stretched across the top of 'em. Looming over the future museum/cultural complex, which is itself a stunning piece of work designed to look like a gigantic lotus blossom, the thing is breathtaking in its hyperconfidence. It doesn't look forward to the future: it bids fair to design that future. The whole thing says look at me and see tomorrow!

In most of the cities I've seen, it would be impossible. Dubai could have handled it. Maybe Tokyo? No. Too crowded already. Possibly the new-look cities of China, like Beijing or Shanghai. Certainly, you couldn't put it in any city of Australia without instantly redefining the entire 'weight' and locus of the city. But Singapore?

Singapore fits it in nicely.

That's not my kind of town, I fear. Visiting Singapore is fun, but I really wouldn't want to live there, cuisine or not. No spitting. No littering. No chewing gum. Clean and friendly, guys, keep it clean and friendly –€“ and all the time, that massive, oppressive weight of money floating over your head. All that finance, all that ponderous, fiscal power constantly sleeting through the air around you... it's a cliché to observe that Chinese cultures tend to be even more money-oriented than our own, but there's no getting away from that in Singapore, not for an instant. The whole place has a kind of symbiotic attachment to money with a capital M. That amazing resort complex? The bill is in excess of US $6 billion.

Six billion US dollars to build a casino/resort arrangement. And yet they must figure they're going to make a profit from the place, or they wouldn't build it, would they?

Nope. Not my kind of town.

Of course, neither is Kota Kinabalu. Still too damned tropical, you see. We're holed up in some tourist-apartment development called Marina Court, near the city centre, more or less. It's a nice place, with enough space, access to the waterfront, and –€“ as is typical of Malaysia –€“ a host of places to eat nearby.

The last time I had anything to do with Malaysia was Kuala Lumpur, back in the mid-nineties. Natalie and I were there for a few weeks while she did some kind of medical placement at the Port Klang hospital. KL was noisy, crowded, smelly, and the traffic was totally farking insane. Plus, the place was basically a lot older than Kota Kinabalu: KL was built at the juncture of two large, navigable rivers and has been a trading centre for something like five centuries. KK had the living shit bombed out of it in WWII, back when it was still called Jesselton, and so everything that's here has pretty much been built since.

They've got a clever system for inner-city living and development, though. Most of the buildings have commercial enterprises on the ground floor –€“ shops and restaurants and so forth –€“ but the buildings themselves extend two, three or more floors above, and are full of apartments. It's not a particularly attractive look. The buildings are mostly concrete, because you don't want huge walls of glass in the powerful tropical sun. Why build greenhouses when the great outdoors is a greenhouse already?

It is very sensible though. And some of the designs go farther: the building occupies an entire (small) block, bordered by parking and alleys and streets, and the interior of the ground floor becomes a big open space, an enclosed and shaded atrium for eating, resting, socialising, markets, etc. It's quite clever. Takes some getting used to, though –€“ you can look at a drab, mould-streaked concrete edifice with a few grubby shop fronts visible at street level, and never realise that if you go through any of those shops or restaurants, and out the back door, you'll enter the living, breathing heart of the building, where its inhabitants do their thing out of reach of the pounding glare of the equatorial sun.

The kids are doing far better than I expected, I admit. Of course, we don't push them too hard. They're good for maybe an hour at a time walking around outside before they have to have some kind of a break. And after three or four hours, it's DEFINITELY time to retreat to the apartment with its air- on, or out to the pool. But they're getting through it, showing some interest in what's around, lapping up the food, checking out the sights...

So, that's where we're at. Next stop: a three day foray into Sandakan, where the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre is, and then farther still, up the Kinabatang river in pursuit of Borneo's wildlife. Should be entertaining...l