Fairly early in the proceedings, it became clear that if you were to go cruising in the Straits of Malacca—that land of impossible greenery; that earth of tin and rubber, the finds of which inaugurated a whole new chapter of colonialism and many a Somerset Maugham story; the land which got into the White Man’s Blood begetting a fever of madness—if you went cruising there, the thing to do was to lounge languorously in a deck chair wearing a swimsuit and sunglasses, sipping an indolent, world-weary cocktail. The ability to swim was a minor, almost irrelevant, detail, as long as the languor was exquisite and the cocktail held a tiny umbrella. Or so I was assured. But I knew better. I was going cruising (on a huge floating island called SuperStar Virgo, 13-deck-high megaship, precious baby of the Star Cruises company which pioneered cruising in Asian waters). Cruising had been the glamour-defining activity for much of a century, the classic setting for lonely-heiress and cynical-hero novels, the activity that had launched a thousand ships. I had to get the history, economics and sociology of it just right. In short, I knew the thing to do in this case was to romance a Scandinavian First Officer on a moonlit deck as the water bore silent witness.
Theoretically, this was easy. All officers on board the SuperStar Virgo were Scandinavian, all decks were moonlit and there was water wherever the eyes alighted. But oh! the distractions of the Good Life. Star Cruises (doubtless to save the virtue of their First Officers) gives all its balcony-class passengers a good $300 worth of free food and beverages at any of the 13 restaurants, bars, coffee shops dotted around the Virgo’s 76,800-tonne majesty. This means that you can actually give a breakfast order of croissant, blueberry muffins and Bailey’s Irish cream liqueur. Or make a teatime demand for club sandwich and Bailey’s Irish cream liqueur. Or, perhaps some between-meals snacks of, say, to name at random, Bailey’s Irish cream liqueur. Some inexplicable urge also makes people imbibe cognac, single malts, Pina Coladas, etc. (Possibly due to the exhaustion of the stocks of Bailey’s Irish cream liqueur?)
We did all of this while sitting in the spectacularly romantic, glass-topped restaurant ‘Galaxy Under the Stars’, where Camilla from the Philippines served our friend Mario from Goa a Scotch from Scotland. Or we thoughtfully nibbled a delicious cheesecake at the Blue Lagoon coffee shop as the sun showed off its unique world-painting talents at dusk. Or we watched from the topmost deck as the world jumped into the swimming pool below, barbecue smells wafted by and little green islands composed entirely of fat bursting trees seemed anchored on an exquisite geometry of aquamarine.
There. I knew it wasn’t possible to write a light-hearted piece dredged from the memories of that beauty. Three paragraphs and before you know it you are calling blue ‘aquamarine’. But I have seen fire-orange lightning from the top of a ship on a gale-blown night. I have seen palm trees swaying at Patong beach with all the gentleness and music of the eyes of a child closing in sleep. I have eaten sweet-sour shrimps looking at houses built on stilts in the dancing sea air. Am I to blame?
So where does Patong beach figure? The Sunday to Wednesday Star Cruises package I took included a day’s sightseeing in the Malaysian island-state of Penang and the Thai island of Phuket. If the weather helps, as it did in Thailand, these are lovely breezy places, with the satiation of practically any appetite a few minutes away (prawn chips? yellow watermelon? Thai massage? Internet café? unbelievably beautiful batik paintings? hammock on beach?) The appetiser is that they have both lush rolling hills and inviting seas in close proximity.
The cruise begins in Singapore. Simultaneously city, island and nation-state, prosperity packed into 42x28km, Singapore bears a strange reality for others. From Delhi to Kuala Lumpur they all want to be “like Singapore”. I know of no other place in which the reality is so formed by the image.
They will tell you that Singapore is ‘clean’ and ‘green’. Don’t believe these puny words. The telling facts are (a) the only reason you can’t eat off the roads is because you will be fined for dirtying the roads and (b) the next elections may well be fought on the issue of fining trees that shed their leaves, thus littering the footpaths. I look around, bewildered at the hyper-landscaping done on almost every inch of what a local writer has called the ‘Air-Conditioned Nation’. Everywhere is a disorienting mix of marvellous greenery and extreme control over nature. Consider this: Singapore does not have natural beaches, but this is apparently a serious anomaly needing corrective action. Sand is therefore imported from Indonesia to create artificial beaches (regularly, since the artless sea keeps washing it away). Housing societies are demolished and rebuilt every 25 years and it is mandatory to destroy your car every 10-15 years.
Singapore, in short, is not just clean—it shines and shimmers, glows and glitters, jauntily swinging its high-heeled hips down the glossy black roads. On Orchard Road, fabled for huge malls such as Ngee Ann City and the very upper-end Paragon, young Chinese Singaporeans skate along like exotic colourful birds, with freshly blonde hair, unbearably chic clothes and breathtaking grooming, dwarfed by the western faces modelling every brand you can imagine. Even if you don’t want to spend much time, or money, shopping you can while away many happy hours here. It has the biggest bookstore in Asia, Kinokuniya, where I found two authors I hadn’t found in India for years, it has the casual glamour of good cafés, it has beer sold in roadside outlets, and it has loos that flush themselves. What more could one want? For more heart-singing, foot-tapping atmospherics go to the riverside promenade in the evenings. This space is made of water, lights, the cheer of people who are through with office for the day, and that ineffable poetic fragrance in the air, which can only mean seafood! This was the place where it all started—the coming of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 to a fishing village and the settling of the early Chinese traders. Those seeds of Singapore have now burst into tall skyscrapers, while the Fullerton and Raffles hotels, landmarks of colonial architecture, underline the skyscrapers with their close-to-earth beauty.
The loveliest part of Singapore—Chinatown—is also the best exemplar of its image obsession. Stroll past stalls offering pig’s trotters’ soup and shacks selling Chinese CDs, in the shadow of gaily coloured heritage houses. But this heritage is literally a front. Singaporean law forbids any change in the façades but the interiors can be completely redone. The Chinatown heritage façade is the Singapore syndrome too. The image is more important than the core, but oh, what a seductive image.
With the same ethnic mix of Chinese and Malay, plus (mostly Tamil) Indians, Malaysia manages to contain its natural ethos as well as its cities’ aspirations of ‘becoming Singapore’ in an interesting mix. The languages brought by trade winds over centuries mean that you can sit in a ‘Teksi’ to go to the ‘Gereja’ or ‘Muzium’ with your ‘Putra’, speaking your own ‘Bahasa’. In the very spanky new environs of Putrajaya—the city built as an alternative to crowded Kuala Lumpur—Malay men emerge from a beautiful mosque and eat their seafood in an air-conditioned food court, wearing traditional fez caps and lungis. In the Kuala Lumpur Chinatown old Chinese men smoke as their nephews sell T-shirts, jeans, CDs, watches. Throughout the Golden Triangle around the KL Towers, the economic energy of fast-flowing money merges with desire satisfied, thickening the already glamorous kinetic atmosphere.
But Melaka would have none of this. Melaka is where the trade winds brought Indian trade and the earliest Islamic practice in Southeast Asia in the 13th century. This is where the Malay Sultans, the Portuguese, Dutch and finally British colonisers intrigued. This is where St Francis was first buried (before his body was shifted to Goa). Melaka lives up to the burden of expectations by providing, in one walkable stretch, the most interesting combination of a magical Chinatown settlement next to a rivulet, a hillock-top with the 16th-century Portuguese A Formosa fort, a marvel of a Sultan’s palace built without nails, and the Dutch Studhuys. There are lovely views of the sea and the town from the hillock.
Right now the trishaw owners around this hill in Melaka must be spit-polishing their bridally decorated vehicles. The village men in Penang would be going off to work in their silicon- chip factories in little blue vans. A man with some water in a bottle would be expertly searching for clams brought in by the tide on Patong beach. Singaporeans dressed to kill would be catching a cream cake and coffee before office begins. And the Virgo would be threading its way through these enduring cultural encounters, a culture in itself. Bon voyage.