Archive for the ‘travels’ Category

The Winchester Mystery House

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

I’ve been wanting to go to the Winchester Mystery House for nearly 30 years – ever since I saw it featured on TV. It was on either “That’s Incredible” or “Ripley’s Believe it or not”, I can’t remember which – both featured the bizarre and the strange, and were on TV in the early 1980s when I lived in Canada.

Winchester Mystery House, from front left, and gardens

Winchester Mystery House, from front left, and gardens

Somehow we never got there on our previous two trips to San Francisco. I was very glad that on our third and recent trip there, we were able to hire a car and get to San Jose to pay a visit to this fascinating house.

Chances are, you’ve heard of this place already. It’s the house built by Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. Sarah and her husband had only one child, Annie, who died of a rare childhood disease when she was six weeks old. A few years after that, Sarah’s husband died of tuberculosis. Some say she was driven mad with grief, and never got over the death of her baby. Whatever the case, Sarah got it into her head that she was cursed by the vengeful spirits of all of those who had been killed by the Winchester rifles her husband’s family had produced, and the only way to break the curse was to buy an unfinished house and keep on building.

She moved from her home in Connecticut and bought an unfinished eight-room farmhouse in California. She hired servants, gardeners, and a crew of carpenters, who kept building. In fact they didn’t stop. These carpenters worked in shifts, and the work carried on continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until Sarah’s death 38 years later.

It’s a bizarre house.  It has 160 rooms and 40 bedrooms. There are stairs that go nowhere, doors that open onto blank walls, other doors that lead to two-storey drops, secret passages, rooms with no floors, windows that look out onto brick walls. Sarah Winchester designed most of the house herself.  Some say she built the house the way she did to confuse the spirits. I think she was likely suffering from paranoid schizophrenia – she thought spirits were speaking to her, and the servants were conspiring against her. But she was also stupidly rich, and therefore it didn’t matter how mad she was, people would do what she said. Apparently she paid all her staff twice the going rate, but she paid them daily in cash, so that if she had the whim to fire anyone, she could do so on the spot. Arguing with her about her illogical building plans was apparently a cause for instant dismissal.

Me standing at the front of the house - note lack of symmetry...

Me standing at the front of the house – note lack of symmetry…

Sarah WInchester was obsessed with the number 13, which is a recurring motif throughout the house. Windows have 13 panes of glass.  Ceilings have 13 panels. There is even a chandelier with 13 light fittings. Apparently it originally came with 12, but Sarah wasn’t having that and she added the thirteenth herself – and you can tell which one she added, because it’s wonky and obviously stuck on.

Naturally there are many stories about the Winchester house being haunted. It does have a decidedly creepy appearance. With so much building work the house is not symmetrical, and viewing it from the outside it looks odd. Inside, there are so many rooms many of them don’t have any windows or natural light, so it is rather dark and dim. But we saw it on an exceptionally hot and sunny day – positively balmy for the time of year – and it was full of tourists, so it didn’t seem particularly creepy. Then again, I have no psychic sensitivities whatsoever. I’d like to remain open minded about the existence of ghosts, but if there are any, I’m unlikely to ever see any. I don’t get easily creeped out. So saying, I rather wish we could have gone at Hallowe’en, when they do a ‘ghost tour’ by torch light. The place might be a whole lot creepier then.

I did feel rather sorry for Sarah Winchester. She lived alone in this house apart from her staff, and apparently never had visitors – the rest of the family thought she was nuts and stayed away. So she rattled around alone in this immense house, working her way around the 40 bedrooms – never sleeping in the same room more than one night in a row, allegedly to confuse the spirits she was convinced were out to get her.

Outside view of 'door to nowhere' - leads to 15-foot drop

Outside view of ‘door to nowhere’ – leads to 15-foot drop

You are not allowed to take pictures inside the Winchester Mystery House, and any that are on the internet are copyright and not able to be used without permission. Which I don’t have. So I can only include here pictures of the outside. But a Google search of the Winchester Mystery House will take you to plenty of websites that do include images of some of the bizarre features of the house.

If you are ever in the San Jose area of California, do visit the Winchester Mystery House if you can.  It’s a fascinating tour. And is the house really full of vengeful ghosts, or was Sarah Winchester as mad as a box of frogs? Well, you’ll have to make up your own mind about that.

Egyptian Inspiration

This blog has been quiet of late because I’ve been away.  I’ve been to the land of Pharaohs and pyramids.

This trip was organised by hubby’s dive club some time ago.  I am not a scuba diver – having asthma prohibits me from such an activity.  Occasionally I tag along on the trips the scuba club organise, but generally there’s not much to do for a non-diver who’s not fond of boats.

However, I decided at the last minute to tag along for this trip, as a week of doing nothing but lie on the beach and read actually sounded rather appealing, after a few very stressful months.  I also had a plan to take the NetBook along, and do some writing.

The accommodation was a dive village in Marsa Shagra, on the shores of the Red Sea.  It was rather literally in the middle of nowhere.  After flying into Marsa Alam airport we had a 40-minute drive through miles of arid desolate desert land to get there.

The dive village, however, was well appointed.  As well as the dive centre there were various bars and seating areas, all out in the open air but under shelter, where I could set myself up with my NetBook out of the glare of the Egyptian sun.  The accommodation ranged in luxury, from tents to air conditioned en suite chalets.  As the site was rather full by the time I decided I wanted to come, it wasn’t possible to get an air conditioned chalet.  We were in a hut.  This was a stone building that was effectively one small room, with the usual furniture one would expect in a hotel room – wardrobe, dresser, bedside table.  There was no air conditioning, but the room had windows, and a fan, and we found it stayed relatively cool at night.

We had to share the toilet and shower block with others, but these were clean and in good order, and the nearest one was only a few yards away from our room.  Perhaps one of the most important facilities was a limitless supply of clean drinking water, as Egypt is fairly notorious for its lack of drinking water.  As the accommodation prided itself on being an ‘eco village’, it was encouraging its residents to recycle water bottles.  We could fill them up without limit from the various water coolers that were placed around site.

My writihg corner at the Oxygen Bar

So, after breakfast, when hubby and his fellow divers went off to don their scuba kit, I took my NetBook and bottle of water and set myself up to do some writing.  My favourite place for my morning writing session quickly became the Oxygen Bar.  This bar did not sell alcohol, but oxygen – literally.  I’m not sure what the benefit of inhaling flavoured oxygen is, but apparently this is all the rage in parts of Asia right now.  The bar was closed during the day, but I found a nice comfy spot with table and chair, and more importantly a power point – in the shade where I could write.  I would get a couple of hours’ work in before going up to the restaurant for lunch, with maybe an hours’ snooze in the bean bag somewhere in there as well.

The position of the sun meant that I couldn’t go back to the oxygen bar after lunch, as it was no longer in shelter and my NetBook isn’t glare resistant.  So after lunch I took an hour or so to lie on the beach and let my meal digest, and the restaurant to clear. It closed at 2pm, but the outside terrace became a good place for my afternoon session, as there were plenty of tables, sheltered from the sun, and I had a spectacular view of the Red Sea to offer inspiration.

The beach at Marsa Shagra

The divers came back between 4pm and 5pm, at which point it was time to stop writing and go for a shower.

For a week this became a most agreeable existence, and I did manage to get quite a lot of work done, too.  But it wasn’t all snoozing and writing.  On Monday 24 October – my birthday – a few of us decided to do the day trip to Luxor, to see some of Egypt’s history and culture.  It was a long old drive from the dive site – a good 4 hours – so we had to start early.  But we managed to pack in rather a lot in a day.  We went to Memnon Colossi, which were moved from their original site in pieces when floods threatened to destroy them.  We went to the Valley of the Kings, where most of Egypt’s Pharaohs were buried, in elaborate tombs. None of the mummies or the valuables that were buried with them are still there – they’ve either been sent to museums around the world, or were stolen by grave robbers over the centuries.  But the hieroglyphs and paintings that adorn the corridors of the burial sites can still be seen, in remarkably vivid colours considering they are 3000 years old.  Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take photos in the Valley of the Kings – the flash fades the colours, and people have abused this in the past so now no cameras are allowed at all.

Me and the Memnon Colossi

We also visited the Temple of Hatshepsut, which is not quite so old, as it’s been reconstructed.  Hatshepsut was the only woman Pharaoh.  Women were not allowed to be Pharaohs, but she had no brothers, and was instead married off to her step brother so that he could be Pharaoh.  She wasn’t having that, so she killed him, and eventually gained the respect of her people and was accepted as Pharaoh.  It’s always interesting to hear stories about strong women who know what they want.

After crossing the Nile to the East Bank, we paid a visit to the Karnak Temple – a vast and awe-inspiring place full of columns and ancient statues.

Karnak Temple

We got back rather late but it was a trip well worth doing, and a most memorable way to spend my birthday. In fact, it will be hard to match it in future years.

The Luxor day trip added a touch of history and culture to what was largely a trip about relaxation (for me, anyway – hubby got 2 or 3 dives in per day, so he came back at the end of each day quite exhausted).

Egypt also proved to be inspiring for me, writing-wise. When we left the UK, I had a vague idea for a new horror novel that I thought I might be able to work on. I returned, a week later, with not only three pages of notes and basic plot outline, but also the first 8,000 words of the first draft written. I attribut the inspiration to a combination of the sea air, the sunshine, and the inspiring view.  Too bad I don’t have these sources of inspiration available to me all the time – I’d be far more prolific.

New York State of Mind

We had the opportunity for a few days in New York City, in June of this year. Hubby and I love NYC and often gravitate back there. This was our sixth trip to NYC in ten years.

Me by Belvedere Castle

No matter how often we go, we always seem to find something new. We love Central Park and always pay a visit – in fact we got engaged in Central Park, in 2003. But the park is so huge we are forever discovering hidden corners. On this trip we discovered the Alice in Wonderland statue. We knew it was there – we’ve just never been able to find it. We also discovered a rather interesting building – Belvedere Castle.

We visited the Metropolitan Museum, which we’ve been to once before, but it’s such a massive museum it’s impossible to see the whole thing in one trip. So there were plenty of exhibits we missed the first time around.

We were quite lucky with the weather, and took a walk down to the marina on what turned out to be a lovely sunny day. We decided to take the speedboat ride around the tip of Manhattan – a half hour trip. The speedboat was called “The Beast”. We were warned we would get wet. We did. Still, it was great fun, and fortunately the weather was so warm it didn’t take long to dry out afterwards.

Alice in Wonderland statue

Another place in New York we love is the charming Greenwich Village, which has such an old-style British feel. We found a nice British theme pub there called GMT. It even served British cider, something that’s hard to get hold of in the States. We liked it so much we went back the following evening, to have another drink there before going for dinner.

The second time we were in New York, in March 2001, we had no idea that the pictures we took from the World Trade Center would be the last time we’d get to do it. The next time we went, in September 2002, Ground Zero had been cleared but it was heartbreaking to see this big hole in the middle of Manhatten where such an iconic landmark used to be.

In our subsequent visits, we’ve followed the progress of the building project that is taking place on the site of Ground Zero. The project is nearly complete now, with several buildings going up on the site. The tallest building is the last to be completed, and it’s nearly done. We learned that the buildings are to be formally opened on 11 September this year – on the tenth anniversary of Twin Towers coming down.

Me and my publisher, Renee

The highlight of our New York trip for me, far and away, was the moment I got to meet my publisher at Lyrical Press, Renee. Knowing that she was based in New York, we had arranged to meet while I was there. I was very excited about this – after all, to an author, the publisher is a Very Important Person. What never occurred to me is that she was just as excited about meeting me – a publisher considers her authors to be Very Important People, too.

We met for lunch and had a marvellous time, and took a picture to commemorate the occasion.

All too soon our visit to New York came to an end and we had to go back home again. I hope it won’t be too long before we are once again able to visit this most vibrant and exciting city.

Manhatten skyline, as of June 2011

Let’s Talk About the Weather

The weather here in Britain has been somewhat depressing the last few weeks. We’ve had rain, wind and grey clouds. Occasionally the rain stops, the clouds move and the sun peeps out for a few minutes, at which point you start to feel a bit hot in your rain coat and winter sweater. But then the clouds roll over again and another torrential downpour starts up. We occasionally have a few days of hot sun, but this is invariably followed by more rain.

To be honest, this is not unusual weather for the British summer. However, as all this has been going on my family in Canada have been grumbling about relentless 40c heat and no rainfall for weeks, and it has made me think about the diversity of this small blue planet of ours.

We’ve been to places like Borneo and Vietnam, where it’s incredibly hot and humid. When it rains, the rain literally comes down in sheets, but it’s so hot that when it stops the streets dry out in a matter of minutes.

We’ve also been to the Nasca desert in Peru, where it rains once every ten years or so. We’ve seen the Nasca mummies, which are the skeletonised remains of people who died hundreds of years ago, their bones bleached white by the sun, their hair and clothing and sometimes even traces of skin still preserved because there’s no moisture in the air to rot them away.

Right now there are places on the planet that are suffering terrible droughts, and other places where there are floods. More than half of our planet is covered in water, yet still there are places that don’t get enough water to sustain life.

So we might complain about the weather – and in Britain it’s a national pastime. But it does serve to remind us that nature is a far more powerful force than humanity is. No matter how technologically advanced we get, we can’t control the weather.

Cultural Differences

This recent BBC article studies the cultural differences between the Germans and the British. Germans don’t indulge in small talk, apparently. The British are very good at small talk – or in other words, the art of talking rubbish for ages without saying anything worthwhile. Consequently the British think Germans are rude, and the Germans think the British tell too many lies.

It’s these cultural differences that make travel so fascinating. Having been to Berlin, I agree with the concept that Germans can appear abrupt. They don’t intend to be rude. They just can’t see the point of talking without saying anything. I’ve also noticed no one in Berlin crosses the road on a red light, even if the road is empty of traffic. They always follow the rules, and the rules dictate that one doesn’t cross the road until the green man appears.

Contrast this to crossing the road in Vietnam, which I posted about recently. There are no pedestrian crossings in Hanoi, and the traffic doesn’t stop. Ever. To cross the road you step into the traffic and hope for the best.

In Greece, no one queues. The Greeks value personal choice and freedom, which tends to mean what the individual wants to do might over-rule what the crowd wants to do. So when the bus arrives, it’s a bit of a free for all as everyone’s trying to get on first.

The British, on the other hand, are pretty good at queueing and even in London, where the crowds get so bad it’s a matter of survival, when you look at any bus stop in rush hour you will see everyone standing in an orderly line. I’ve never been to Japan, but I understand that the Japanese are even better at queueing than we Brits are.

The differences between the American and the British mindset are so vast I might save that for blog post all by itself. But one point that struck me on our recent trip to New York is the service culture. Americans have a very high expectation of customer service. We discovered a British style pub in Greenwich Village. It was a nice place, and the decor and the beer were spot on with regard to their ‘British-ness’. One crucial difference, though. We sat down and a waitress came and gave us menus, then took our order and brought it out to us, even when we only wanted drinks.

In a real British pub, you don’t get and can’t expect table service. Even in a pub which serves food, you find your table and go to the bar and place your order. If it’s a nice place that’s trying to attract families and is serving decent food, someone will bring it to you when it’s ready. Occasionally you might even have to go get it yourself.

This concept of going up to the bar must fox many a first-time American visitor to London, unless they’ve been briefed beforehand. I have heard tales of Americans visiting London who sat in the pub for half an hour waiting to be served, before giving up and leaving, without realising that table service wasn’t going to happen.

Cultural mindsets are the little things that are so inbred in a society’s way of thinking they might never consider the fact this might seem odd to an outsider. Sometimes doing a little research into a place before visiting can give you insight into some of these cultural differences – and understanding them can make your visit a bit more enjoyable.

Passport To Adventure

I always think that the most valuable thing in my possession is my passport – not fiscally, but because of what it represents. My passport gives me the freedom to go anywhere in the world, at any time. Because of this, I get a bit nervous when it’s out of my possession.

When we investigated getting visas for our trip to Vietnam, it was recommended that we get them before leaving the UK, as there was no guarantee they could be acquired at the airport upon arrival in Vietnam. The instructions on the Vietnamese Embassy’s website stated that the visa application form had to be submitted to the Embassy along with one’s passport, and a photo. Either bring along in person or send by registered post, it said. Well, I wasn’t about to trust the Royal Mail with my passport, so it was going to have to be a personal visit.

The Embassy’s opening hours are, very inconveniently, 9:30am to 12:30pm, which required a morning off work, plus another morning a week later to collect the passports.

So off I went, armed with visa application forms, passports (for both me and Hubby), photos and payment to Cromwell Road in Kensington, where the Vietnamese Embassy in London is (and a very posh part of London it is too, I have to say). I found the Embassy without too much difficulty and fortunately there wasn’t too long a queue at the visa application window. I handed in my forms and passports, and was given a receipt to collect them in a week’s time. I was then sent to another window to hand in the cash (and it had to be cash – no cheques or plastic allowed), to a man who collected the money but who spoke no English. As I left, the man in the queue behind me was trying to explain to the man who didn’t speak English that his wife had sent four passports belonging to his family to the Embassy by post ten days ago, he hadn’t heard anything and could he check they’d been received please? So I was rather glad that I chosen not to entrust my precious passport to the Royal Mail.

But for seven days my passport was in the care of the Vietnamese Embassy. I have to say I was a bit anxious that week. While my passport is not in my possession I can’t leave the country. Even if I have no imminent plans to do so, this restriction makes me inexplicably nervous.

Fortunately, when I returned to the Embassy a week later, both passports were safely returned to me, undamaged and unmolested and with the Vietnamese visas in order and affixed securely inside.

Now I have returned from my travels, my passport is once again safely stowed in the drawer it lives in. It gives me reassurance every time I see it there, knowing that it’s waiting for me when I’m ready for my next international adventure.

Home Sweet Home

I am back from our latest travel adventure – a 10-day tour around Vietnam, plus four days at a beach resort in Langkawi, Malaysia. Hence the radio silence. Normal service on this blog will resume forthwith.

This trip involved rather a lot of planes. In fact, hubby worked out that we have spent a total of 36 hours, over the last 17 days, in the air. And during those 17 days a total of three days has been spent either on planes or waiting around at airports (much of the latter was spent at the awful airport in Da Nang, but I’ll tell that story later).

I will be documenting my travel journal of the trip on this blog, along with photos, soon. For now, though, it’s good to be home. Usually when I return from a trip, I am desperate for three things when I arrive home:

a) a decent cup of tea
b) a shower
c) sleep.

The order in which I acquire these things largely depends on what kind of flight it was and how jet-lagged I am. For this trip, a 12-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur westwards to London, leaving at midnight local time, meant I was actually tired enough, and on the plane long enough, to get a few hours’ sleep, something that normally doesn’t happen with me on long-haul flights. So a cup of tea, shower and clean clothes at home was sufficient to make me feel human again. The issue is probably going to be staying awake until bedtime tonight, as I’ve been working on Vietnamese and Malaysian time, which are six and seven hours ahead of GMT respectively.

It’s rather colder in London than we’ve been accustomed to in the last two weeks, but nonetheless it’s nice to be home, back to everything that’s familiar. And the cats, who’ve clearly missed us – they’ve been following us around ever since we got home.

Tomorrow is back to work and the usual routine. How many emails will be waiting in my inbox when I arrive at my desk, after over two weeks out of the office? I dread to think.

Crossing The Road In Vietnam

I will blog more fully about my trip to Vietnam soon, but for the next little while I aim to post my thoughts about notable moments.

I had been forewarned about the horrendous traffic in Vietnam before I got here, but nothing can really prepare you for the reality. There aren’t all that many cars on the road – they are beyond the financial reach of most people. There are a lot of bicycles, but for the majority of people in Vietnam, the moped is the transportation mode of choice.

The rules of the road seem to be mostly guidelines rather than rules, including which side of the road one should drive on. Pedestrians are very definitely down at the bottom of the pecking order. There are pedestrian crossings, but I don’t know what purpose they serve, as no one pays any attention to them. This situation is marginally better in Saigon, where there are at least traffic lights – though still not everyone on the road pays attention to them and you are still dodging mopeds even when you cross the road on the ‘green man’. Hanoi has no traffic lights and the roads are narrower, so the stream of traffic is literally unending.

Crossing the road in the face of an unending stream of mopeds is daunting, to say the least. If you wait for a break in traffic you will be there on the pavement forever. The only way to accomplish this task is to look straight ahead of you whilst stepping into the road and keep walking at an even pace, and trust that all the mopeds will change their course to avoid hitting you. So far this has worked for us – but it’s best if you cross the road without looking to either side of you otherwise you lose your nerve and won’t make it to the other side.

Crossing the road in Vietnam is not for the faint-hearted. I will never again take this seemingly simple task for granted. At least when I step onto a pedestrian crossing in the UK, the traffic stops for me.

Report on our Bali Trip

Our trip to Bali was a while ago now – last December, in fact. But I am conscious of the fact I said I’d blog about it and never did.

Indonesia is made up of several small islands. The majority of its residents are Muslims. Bali is the only island which is mostly Hindu, and elaborate temples can be found everywhere. Each village has to have at least three. Homes tend to have at least two. The temples are elaborate and very beautiful, but there are so many of them that after a while you get used to seeing them everywhere and you no longer stare in wonder at every one you pass.

Hindu temple on the beach

The Balinese put offerings to their gods outside the temples three times a day – after every meal. The offerings consist of rice, flowers and incense sticks in little wicker baskets. It’s such an ingrained part of their culture that they seem to do it without thinking about it. Even in the restaurants you see the staff crossing the room at certain times of day with the offering baskets.

It’s incredibly hot and humid in Bali, and it is prone to heavy rain. The hotel we stayed in wasn’t near the beach, so they had a shuttle bus that ran there twice a day, a fifteen minute trip. The first day we were there it started pouring with rain as we were getting ready to get on the shuttle bus to the beach, so we cancelled. We soon learned this was a mistake. The rain falls heavily, but it stops as abruptly as it starts, and it’s so hot the puddles dry out very quickly. After a day or two we learned to get the shuttle bus to the beach anyway, regardless of whether or not it was raining. If it was raining when we got there, we would visit the cafe for a drink. The rain would have stopped by the time we were done.

Me relaxing by the rooftop pool

The hotel also ran a shuttle bus to Kuta, which we discovered is more or less the Australian equivalent of Benidorm. This is where all the bars and restaurants are, not to mention an enormous Western-style shopping mall. So many Australian tourists holiday here that half the bars in Kuta are Australian-themed, and fly Australian flags outside. It’s a madly busy place. We discovered it’s the best place to go for a bite to eat, and if you want to drink all night, that’s the place to go – the bars are for tourists only as the natives are non-drinkers.

We arrived in Bali in the run-up to an important festival that seems to be the Balinese equivalent to Christmas. Every family erects a giant decorated bamboo pole outside their house, and during the two days of the Galungan festival everyone visits their families, eats and drinks more than usual and doesn’t go to work.

Stopping for tea at a Balinese house - note the Galungan decoration we are standing beside

We went on a day trip that involved driving across the island seeing some of the crops that grow – the only industry on Bali is agriculture and tourism. There are acres of rice fields, and they also grow a variety of spices, herbs and coffee beans. We were quite taken with ginseng coffee, which is very sweet and refreshing. During our trip we stopped at a local’s house for tea and rice cakes. Houses are built as a series of small buildings separated by large outdoor areas, and several generations of one family live on one plot.

One particularly striking thing about Bali is the presence of hundreds of motor cycles. Most of the population can’t afford a car, so they all buy motor cycles as a means of transportation. Often you see families of four or five packed onto one motorcycle, and no one wears helmets or any kind of protective gear. The bikes ride five or six abreast along the road, weaving and ducking their way amongst the traffic. I got rather terrified watching them, and I was in the back of a taxi. I wouldn’t want to drive in Bali, and I’m sure there must be a lot of accidents every year. The motorcycles are used to transport items as well as people. We saw several motorcycles with the giant bamboo poles that are used as decoration for the Galungan festival, being transported home by someone on the back of a motorcycle and sticking far out across the road.

Roadside shop selling adornments for the Galungan Festival bamboo poles - equivalent to Christmas decorations

We didn’t spend all our time on Bali trekking around the island – the hotel had two swimming pools, and we spent some time chilling out there, too.

When we returned home it was a bit of a culture shock to go from Bali’s humidity to the Big Freeze London was gripped in last December. But it was nice to have a bit of sun in mid-winter, and experience some South Pacific culture.

Visit to Singapore

Sitting as it does practically on the Earth’s equator, Singapore has only one climate all year round. Hot. Humid. Frequent torrential downpours. If like me you have hair that’s prone to frizz at the first sign of humidity, you may as well resign yourself to ‘bad hair days’ for the duration of your stay in Singapore (as the attached pictures of me clearly demonstrate!).

The last time we visited Singapore was in 2004, during our ’round the Pacific’ honeymoon tour. It was nice to come back, but the city has changed a great deal since then.

Me on the Singapore Flyer

The best way to get an overview of the city is to take a trip on the Singapore Flyer. It’s a giant ferris wheel with ‘pods’ (very like the London Eye). From the top of the wheel you get a panoramic view of the city, with all of its sky scrapers and carefully landscaped gardens. You also get a commentary as you ride the Flyer, which explains how the entire city has been built on the principles of Feng Shui, thus ensuring good luck for all who live there. Whether or not there is any basis of truth in Feng Shui I couldn’t possibly comment. But it has to be said the majority of people who live in Singapore seem happy enough.

Singapore is, on the whole, a nice place to be. Very modern and clean – it’s illegal to leave gum or any other litter anywhere in Singapore, and a city-wide indoor smoking ban was in force before this was introduced anywhere else in the world. The oppressive humidity tends to mean that you don’t want to spend any length of time walking around outside – you get very tired very quickly. But everywhere indoors is air conditioned, and the underground metro system is quick and reliable – and also air conditioned. So you really don’t need to be walking very far.

F1 Track and Paddocks - view from the Singapore Flyer

The Formula One circuit is a new addition since last time we were in Singapore. You get a very clear view of the track and the paddocks from the Singapore Flyer. I am actually a fan of Formula One racing and I found it quite exciting to walk on the track. Naturally the track is quiet at this time of year – race season is over. But the tyre skid marks on the track can clearly be seen, and I wondered, as we walked on them, whose car made the marks. Was I walking in the tyre tracks of Lewis Hamilton or Jensen Button?

Another recent addition to the Singapore skyline is the luxury hotel and casino the Marina Sands. It has a very distinctive design – three skyscraper towers with an immense concrete ship balanced on top of them. It’s not quite finished yet. The hotel is open for business, as is the casino, but the huge shopping centre at the foot of the complex is still mostly empty, with only a few shops currently in occupation.

Me & the Marina Sands

You can take a lift up to the top of the building – up into the ‘boat’ bit – for another impressive view, but it’s actually quite expensive to do this. Entrance to the casino is free of charge – if you’re a tourist, and can produce your passport to prove this. Locals have to pay a hundred Singapore dollars to get in. Apparently the government does not want to encourage its citizens to gamble. But clearly it has no qualms in taking tourist gambling dollars.

Singapore is perhaps more cosmopolitan and Westernised than other Asian cities. It’s clean and contemporary, full of skyscrapers and enormous shopping malls.

We arrived on 1 December, and moved on to Bali three days later. I will be blogging about our adventures in Bali soon. Stay tuned….