Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Singapore and Leaving for Malaysia on the "Jungle Train"

Singapore's station in daylight
The station has seen a lot in its life.  When it was still young and in its prime, the Japanese invaded the island and used the station to gather many of the Chinese upon whom they took out their revenge.  From what I’d been told by an old resident, the Japanese gathered the Chinese here and at other locations around the city and randomly pulled people aside and lead them to the beach, where they were shot and left for the tides to claim.   After the war came Singapore’s independence and its rise as a world-class city.  The station itself remains; the railroad belonging to Malaysia, not Singapore.  The city had severed its ties from the mainland to create a city-state.   But the station’s life is about to end.  After June 30, the tracks will be removed and one needing to catch a train to Malaysia will have to go to the far side of the Island and board at Woodland, by the causeway.  Singapore will still have trains, but only its sleek commuters that efficiently whip people around the city, mostly deep within its bowels.  The day of the long distant trains that linked this city to the mainland and on to Bangkok and beyond will have passed.    

murals inside of station
I buy a large bottle of water and some snacks for the journey and wait.  At 4 AM, the lights come on showing the large murals of rural life Malaya life that line the walls.  An attendant opens the ticket booth and few people begin to queue in front.   A little later, another attendant opens the door gate to track one and another line forms.  I gather my belongings and join in, with my passport and ticket in hand.  The Malaysian official asks no questions and doesn’t waste time in checking my documents and stamping my passport, sending me on to the waiting train.  I walk down the platform, under the hanging railroad clock that no longer works, to the five waiting coaches.  These cars are attached to a power car that’s billowing diesel fumes as it provides electricity and air conditioning for the coaches.  As of yet, there are no locomotives.  I hop aboard, seeking relief from the heat, and find my seat.  A few minutes later, we’re jarred as the locomotive is coupled to the train.  At 4:30 AM, right on time, we pull out of the station and slowly make our way through the wakening city.   

Singapore is truly a wonderful city.  I’d arrived here from Jakarta and the two cities, physically close together, are worlds apart.  Not wanting to pay the high rent demanded here, I’d booked myself into a hostel that advertised being close to the railroad station.  It turns out they meant near one of the MRT (the city’s light rail) stations, not the colonial train station from which I’d depart for Malaysia.  From the airport, I make my way to the MRT where I learn to navigate the computerized purchase of a transit pass and hop onboard a speeding train heading for the city.  As per the hostel’s directions, I get off at the Lavender Street station, take the steps upstairs, get my bearings and walk three blocks to the “Green Kiwi Hostel.” 

This was the first true “backpacking hostel” that I’ve stayed in since I’d hiked the Appalachian Trail twenty-some years ago.  I found the place clean, neat and safe and at a wonderful location (right across the street from an open air food court.  I quickly made friend with Cyrus, a Nigerian who’s living in Japan and was visiting Singapore and go out with him and some of his friends (all from Africa: Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya).  Dinner is filling and cheap and after everyone else leaves, Cyrus and I stay behind to talk.  The conversation turns to religion (Cyrus is passionate about his Christian faith) and he not only shares his faith, but also his concerns for the faith in his home country.  He questions the motives of some of the well known preachers from Nigeria, going as far as to say that there are three antichrists operating in his country (two men, one woman are the antichrists in Cyrus’ view).  I try to ask about the questionable preacher from Nigeria that had preached at Sarah Palin’s church in Alaska, the guy who has encouraged the government to make homosexuality a capital offense, but I don’t think Cyrus understood who I am talking about.  Yet, I can’t help but to think that his guy might be one of his “antichrists.” 

While we talk, a man sits at our table and joins in the conversation.  He’s here to visit his family (who live around the world, but come to Singapore because of a daughter here).  He is a construction contractor working in Nagaland (NE India) and shows photographs of a tunnel that he’s building for a hydroelectric project.  He’s amazed that I’ve heard of Nagaland as I’d officiated at a wedding in which the groom was from there just a few weeks before I left the States.  He’s ethnicity is Chinese (he actually reminds me of a cross between Mao and John Wayne, a huge Chinese-looking contractor).  He’s Buddhist, yet quickly joins in our religious conversation, sharing his desire for all religions be tolerate of one another and to show compassion to those in need.
Sentosa Island
I only have one full day in Singapore and I take the MRT down to the city center where I set out in search for the soon to be vacated train station.  Trying to get there, I first get off at the wrong stop (the Malay names looked to be nearly the same) and wander around only to find that I need to go back two stops on the train and try again.  After asking directions from many people (I’m amazed that not many know where the station is located), I find it tucked in under a freeway overpass and across the street from a large container port.  I walk around the station, enjoying the view and knowing that I won’t see much of it at 4:30 AM.  There are many people there photographing everything: the old timetables mounted on the wall, the clocks, the doors to the offices, the food stalls, the platform, and the runaway train stops where the tracks end (designed to prevent a ending of a train journey to Singapore like that which happened in the movie “Silver Streak”).

I take a seat on one of the wooden benches to marvel at the architecture and to try to capture on film some of the murals around the station.  An old man sitting down from me says that I should get photos of the outside, noting proudly that the statues on the front of the station came from Britain.  We strike up a conversation.  Michael is Chinese, a Catholic which may explain his less-than-Chinese name, 82 years old, and has lived in Singapore all his life (although he’s traveled extensively).  He tells me the best beaches in the region are in East Timor (and they’re not crowded or over-priced like Bali).  When he tells me he’s been here all his life, I ask him about the war.  He’s bitter.  “The Japanese tricked the British,” he says. “General Pervical (the British commander) could have held out but he was afraid of Japanese killing all the civilians.”  I can tell he has no love for the Japanese as he recalled how they treated both the British soldiers and the Chinese in Singapore. 

After leaving the train station, I take the MRT, transferring lines, to where I can the monorail over to Sentosa Island, “Asia’s Disneyland.”  I try to find a marina, but give up and spend some time in the late afternoon sun sitting on the beach watching the container ships waiting to load or unload cargo at the docks.  Then I head back to the hostel, arriving shortly before dark.  I turn in early knowing that I will too soon be hearing my cell phone talking in a somewhat feminine computerized voice, “It’s 2:30 AM; it’s time to get up.”
from the monorail to Sentosa Island


  1. I soooooo wish I were stowing away in your suitcase.

    Keep the posts coming.


  2. How wonderful that you got to leave on this train before it was shut down!

    Your posts are fascinating. Keep 'em coming.

  3. Jeff, very interesting reading! Can't wait to see photos when you get back! BTW - VBS went fabulously! A minimum of sand ended up in the building so Hilby is still speaking to me!

  4. Your journey is interesting indeed .... keep the info coming! Isn't it amazing the people God places in our pathway! sleepyhead.

  5. I'm just amazed at all the people you're meeting.

    Don't think my phone has a female voice. So I wake up to the computerized sound of ocean waves. But never at 2:30.

    Safe travels.