Singapore

This week-long trip takes me to Thailand for a second time and, as was the case before, is also primarily for business. My starting point, Seattle, a location not exactly famed for its sunny climes, is true to form this morning with heavy fog... not an auspicious sign for a busy airport. After a slight delay however my plane takes off uneventfully on the first of four flights to Chiangmai in the jungly north of the country.

Many hours later, after a layover in S. Korea, my next stop is in Singapore. My final leg will not be til the following morning so it's a good chance to visit this famous city-state.

It's two in the morning local time when I get out of the airport and me tired arse into a cab to the hotel. I'd heard, as you probably have as well, that the country is famous for its strict laws and cleanliness. Up until a couple years ago it was, for example, illegal to chew gum so as to prevent the unsightly fouling of walkways. Now I hear the country has taken the remarkably liberal turn of allowing their sale... so long as you get clearance from your doctor that there is a medically valid reason for it (hmm, bad breath?)

Still, even with knowing this beforehand I was not quite prepared for how immediately obvious this national obsession is. On my late night ride to the hotel the highway was beyond immaculate. The greenway dividing the lanes as well as the curbside greens were as fastidiously manicured as a golf course. With a slight perversion I was determined to find a discarded candy wrapper or a cigarette butt stuck in a cranny but to no avail. I reckon that when the price to pay for being a litterbug is caning from a martial arts master that is a powerful disincentive indeed!

Geylang, the blue collar neighborhood where my hotel is, happens to be in the heart of the red light district and even at this hour the city is alive with people. Prostitutes, johns, tourists and immigrant workers in after-hours leisure are milling around, bathed in the neon light of eateries as open for business now as noontime elsewhere. After a quick shower and the aid of jet lag I too throw myself into the crowds.

My eyes and nose pin my attention to the countless open-air restaurants, food carts and sundry holes-in-the-wall. It's not long before I'm standing in front of a display case to settle for a serving of fried fish on a mound of steaming noodles - served on wrapping paper. Instinctively I scanned for the location of the cutlery tray and found instead a bucket with chopsticks, just narrowly avoiding the faux pas of asking for a fork. Then I sat down and hoped that no one was watching the spectacle of a gringo fumbling with sticks and, I'm happy to say, that I managed just enough dexterity to avoid embarrassing myself though I certainly I'm glad Miss Manners wasn't there evaluating my performance!

After this I headed back to the hotel, with its claustrophobic yet somehow cozy room, and slept til around eleven. Minutes later I was out in the streets again, looking lost. I asked a girl which way to the train (the city metro, here known by its initials MRT) and she told me to follow her. It turned out that she was with a gaggle of other Chinese girls, each capably able to simultaneously talk amongst themselves while listening to their iPods. Together we walked several blocks, me feeling a little awkward like a towering school marm over her students.

Figuring out how to pay for the fare was simple. You go up to an ATM-like machine and press the stop you want to go to on a touch-sensitive screen. After you put in a couple bucks you get a credit card that activates the turnstile and you then go up to the platform to wait for the next train which is never more than five minutes in coming. All the meanwhile the PA system is giving directives in a friendly voice. Inside the trains similar directives now came with the aid of a cheerful female chorus: "Don't, don't, doooon't eat or drink in the traaaaain". Coupled with the ridiculous number of closed-circuit cameras everywhere the experience reminded me of Half-Life, an Orwellian video game starring a paternalistic figure who'd dish out commands in a relaxing tone to soothe citizens into orderly behavior.

Next up, Malaysia