Big in Japan*

As a Londoner I have always wondered what it must be like to be a tourist in Oxford Circus Underground station, standing with all my bags piled up in the middle of the exits, straight off the train from Heathrow, impossibly in the way and trying to work out what to do with no knowledge of the language or even the alphabet.
Now I know, because this was us, just two hours off a flight from Singapore and delivered with an efficient click of our train’s smooth rolling heels right into the middle of Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku Station, where in one frantic second we had to exchange our pre-bought train vouchers, navigate the spaghetti metro with a crumpled map from Arrivals, work out where we were staying from the very organised airbnb man’s printout and do all that while propping up a tired child. We had been warned about the tangled train lines, lack of English-speakers, chaos of rush hour, and everyone was right. What was great about Japan, we’ve since found out, is that it was all entirely possible.
The build-up of city from Tokyo to Narita Airport extends for miles and miles, with suburbs stretching out just like they do around London, only multiplied several times. Millions of people live in the capital, one third of the entire population of Japan stuffed into one city, so we were told. The same friend told us the sea had been about five miles out of town when he was a boy. Like Singapore, the land has now taken over and the sea is no longer anywhere near.
Our week-long circuitous route would go from Tokyo to Kyoto and Nara then back to Tokyo again, taking in all of Japan’s capital cities in reverse order. We were lucky that we marked the start of our trip by seeing two sets of friends, local families both now relocated back to their hometown of Tokyo. They kindly showed us around, ordered our food, got us our first train tickets and gave us a load of useful info with which to arm ourselves for the next stop. Yes, in effect, we cheated, but so what? I’d do it again in a heartbeat, because that dash of local flavour got our trip off to such a great start. And what a trip.
It ended up having three distinct flavours: Tokyo was London in autumn, a crunch underfoot, metro bustle. Fashions were at once reserved and eclectic. If you weren’t in muted officewear or dark autumn styles you could well be decked out in a blaze of fake schoolgirl attire, stuck forever at 17 with dolly pink rouge and fake freckles, trilby hats, bold pairings of yellow and black, fake pearls and ruffles, all entirely intended and worn so well by hundred of girls around town. I’d not seen a ra-ra skirt for years, yet here they were in abundance, worn with no hint of irony and the whole effect magnified for me by a whiff of that very retro 1980s perfume Anais Anais, tickling my nose with a passing puff on a metro carriage, and giving me such a sharp Mum-pang that I almost dropped my bags. That scent always makes me think of the 1980s, and my cousin Kate, and us two trying on new ra-ra skirts from Camden Market in my bedroom with my Culture Club cassette jamming and de-ribboning as we played and rewound it to learn the words, spritzing each other with that funny floral scent (the first and only one Mum ever wore during my childhood) all around the room. See? That’s what Tokyo does – yanks you back to Nostalgia Town and holds you down while you drink it all in. When people describe something as ‘an assault on the senses’, Tokyo is pretty much what they mean.
The family theme continued with architecture. Kate’s sister Sadie is an architect as was their dad, my late Uncle Jack (also a boatman), and my sister also works with Sadie, and they would all have so loved our funky downtown airbnb rental with its bonkers bath and toilet. The bathroom was in a pod in the kitchen (a proper ‘head’ like on boats), and the toilet was in a pod by the door and the top of the toilet was actually a sink with a tap that ran when you activated the flush, enabling you to wash your hands and fill the cistern at the same time. Awesome! Every bathroom had some element of ‘pod’, which I thought Jack would have liked.
At times I wondered if I was enjoying the city so much because it was so, well, London-like, but then something funky would happen, like a woman in a kimono standing by the bread counter, or one of those ra-ra skirts hopping onto our metro carriage with no irony at all, and I would remember that it wasn’t a bit like my home city at all.
If Tokyo was nostalgia, Kyoto was a pleasing blend of two more of my favourite places, Bruges and Bali. Temples here were gorgeously orange, be-scrolled and towering, vast and wide, with flashes of gold to perfectly complement the red leaves and evening sunsets. Some were smaller, Bali-like, tucked up terraces and dotting side streets. Those temple-builders knew their salt, just like my uncle knew his pods, and to make those old buildings all the more wonderful the town had a romantic canal cut right through it, a perfect dash of old Bruges. That European city, in which Mr PC proposed (to me, of course) was instantly recognisable in the famous old waterway path known as Philosopher’s Walk, where gnarled trees hung over tiny riverside houses all stacked up above the waterway, and cats (real ones, for once, see entry on ‘Cats’) lolled about on benches. Thanks to being proposed at in Bruges, any canal walk reminds me of that wonderful weekend and so I spent the afternoon drizzling along behind the boys with a dreamy smirk while they scampered up ahead.
Autumn here had bluer skies and cooler nights. From the temples and canal we marched down to the city centre packed full of early evening shoppers, a chill settling on the town as the night lights came up, tinny music fluting from lamppost speakers in such a very Christmassy way that I came over all English again and nearly bought a scarf. I could live in Kyoto, I decided. It’s got things like the very trendy and laid-back Manga Museum, where uber-cool staff efficiently found a grisly book for SM that we didn’t even know he knew, occupying him for the entire time while we browsed the weird comic prints. Then there was a beautifully preserved Shogun castle with a wooden floor built to squeak with every single footstep so as to alert occupants of intruders. For once, SM attempted silence, only to find noise with every socked footfall. There’s a winding souvenir street just like somewhere Cornish, possibly Padstow or Penzance; an inky lamplit park just begging for crispy firework nights with a massive temple all lit up in the middle; then a whopping great modern station a la St Pancras, and a winding old abandoned rail track on the outskirts of town. What’s that all like, I ask you? I have no idea but the combination was brilliant.
After the supreme wonderfulness of Kyoto came our last stop, Nara, which was not so much nostalgic as fun. Parts of it looked a bit like Slough but it redeemed itself by having a pretty station plus a packed high street with great shopping, and a huge sprawling park, which was the reason for our visit. The park is notable for being sacred, and full of equally sacred dotty deer biting your bottom for crackers. They’re revered and protected so you can’t bite them back, you just have to do lots of of schoolgirl running and shrieking, which was fun, and when you tire of that you’ve got two arcades stuffed full of deer-related tat to add to what little shopping your bank has allowed so far. There is also an enormous Buddha, worth taking the long park walk and paying the entry fee just to gaze up at His enormous ears. You could have fitted SM from giant wooden lobe to tip.
Various observations made this an extremely different trip to all the others, more action-packed, buoyant, familiar and odd all at once as if we’d gone on a weird travel-hop like Alice, or out through a wardobe into a Narnia land of wonder. I’ve never felt all at once so far away and so close to home and because of this I’ve had to jot down all my ideas in snapshot format. I don’t want to forget a thing, because when we come to leave this bit of the world and I get to adding up what’s left to see, I must be sure to remember that Japan is big and beautiful and full of so much more for us to explore.

AUTUMN
I can’t mention enough how precious this was. I’m a heat lover and quite enjoy living in a sultry country full of Haze with no seasons and eternal daytime hours of 7 to 7. That is, I usually enjoy it. This trip reminded me just how enlivening it is to feel autumn on your skin, to get all excited about the changing seasons, to have that weird sense of fun about it getting dark at 5.30pm (how is that ‘fun’ once it gets to February in Britain, I know, yet somehow it just was). Trees turning to red, a run of high blue skies, some soft Cornish rain and a general crunch underfoot all reminded me so much of England as it approaches Christmas. From a practical stance we had forgotten how much further we could walk without humidity: we walked for miles, and couldn’t have done that in Singapore, not at all.

BUSES
Ever seen My Friend Totoro? Remember the cat bus? The town buses of Kyoto reminded me of these furry, friendly vehicles. Rounded, warm chrome havens, smooth as butter and politely picking up and dropping off inhabitants all around town. A man whispers announcements, and the stops flash up in advance. You pay when you get off, not when you get on, which somehow makes a world of sense. It’s all so easy (and spookily reminiscent of Trumpton).

CABS
Taxis come in Lada shapes with chrome emblems bolted on to the roof. Drivers wear gloves and official hats. Don’t shut the doors! They close automatically. Taxis are very clean and rather expensive, so we only went in one. In Kyoto the bolted-on rooftop emblems were often heart-shaped, and some had the letter ‘M’ in neon red dots.

CATS
Are everywhere – every-of-the-where – but I don’t mean real ones. They are on bags, dangling from key chains, folded into scarves, drizzled onto coffee-tops, pastried onto airline meal buns, hat-shaped, apron-decorating, stuffed onto the end of pastry rollers, using kitten paws as furniture protectors and tiny bootees for babies, inside and outside shop windows, hanging from menus, whiskering you from billboard ads, all over everything and everywhere. This is cat central. If you don’t like cats, there are a few pandas and some deer. But it’s mainly cats.

CHILDREN
I had read online that there were fewer women on the streets than men, and that a lot of men wore black business suits and white shirts, a la Men In Black, and both of those facts turned out to be oddly true. I also noticed fewer children dotted about, possibly due to the Asian trend for having a ton of homework. We found a playpark for smaller tots one day, went to a kids’ fun mall with friends, but other than that most children we saw were tourists. Said friends (four of them all roughly SM’s age) spent the first weekend with us, and to hear about their schooldays and lifestyles was interesting and (apart from those extra hours of tuition), not dissimilar to SM’s. Only once was a man in uniform stern with SM and rightly so, telling him off for using his yo-yo in a public place – when I say ‘using’ I mean swinging wildly sideways in a metre-sized arc. So yes, not such a great idea.
Let’s face it, boredom gets the better of ten-year-olds after one temple too many. If yours are old enough to manhandle a big camera give them the responsibility of taking all of the official temple shots. This means they’ll be hanging back to snap every two seconds but who’s in a rush? We’re still waiting to edit ours.

FACILITIES
Not all toilets in Japan are flashy. You’ve got your bog-standard flushers, your holes in the floor, and your zooty Shinkansen-type shiny ones with all the buttons and levers. The latter must be tried out at least once. Well, more than once. We’ve never been so clean. Let’s just leave it at that.

FOOD
The food here is good, and it’s not all cold fish and rice balls. There’s lots to explore but be sure to set off with level expectations. Expect not to find food easily. Expect not to be understood. Be brave and point and ask, otherwise you might end up with something you really don’t want. If you get it right, you could just be in gourmet heaven, as we usually were. Here’s where walking comes in. Know that you will often end up walking miles to find something that you want. Take a few tips off the internet and try to make some advance bookings. Pointing really will get you a long way, as will being polite and knowing how to say please and thank you in Japanese at the very least. Hand-wipes should be mentioned here: they are given out at the start of a meal, just as they are elsewhere in the world, but don’t wait until the end of the meal to use them. The idea is that you wipe before you eat. Makes sense, no? You can still use them again at the end.
We liked Yakkitori sticks, Japanese curry, and noodles, while SM particularly enjoyed one huge teppenyaki steak (expensive tastes, that one). Our top spots:
Hakata Ippodo Ramen, Kyoto for perfect gyoza dumplings and bowls of steaming ramen. This was an online recommendation. In all the best places you will have to queue, as with this place, but our queue moved fast and there was a bench to sit on. The website is in Japanese, sorry about that, but here’s a map. I have NO idea how we eventually stumbled upon the place (in fact I think that IS how) but how about printing out the link in advance and showing it to your hotel’s desk staff? It will be worth it.
M&C Café, Oazo Building, Maranouchi. Friends took us to this upmarket Tokyo cafe for plates of Japan’s famed hushed beef curry. This queue is inside the English section of a bookshop. Once at the top of the queue, ask (OK, gesture) for a windowseat that looks out over Tokyo’s train tracks, so you can watch the activity while you eat.

HOTELS
Don’t drag your bag across the tatami mats in a ryokan. There are designated places for your luggage, ensuring the mats stay undamaged and your room stays orderly.
Everywhere we stayed – hotel, apartment, ryokan – had pod-like bathrooms. Pod-crazy, I tell you.

MONEY
Japan is crushingly expensive, on a par with Singapore, London and Norway. I couldn’t buy proper presents, just small bits. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a kimono, tea set, lacquered tray, wall-hanging, any of those things I’d thought about bringing back. We tried to have street snacks instead of real meals but found ourselves hungry again at meal times. Just spend the money and eat, why don’t you – the food is so yummy you’ll forget you’re spending your pension, and you’ll walk it all off finding the next restaurant.
Notes themselves are predictably pretty. At shop counters money is given and returned via little plastic trays. No coin-dropping, no hesitation about who gives what and into which hand. There is a five-yen coin with a hole in the middle that is so olde-worlde that I wanted to keep them all, and the one-yen coins are so light they reminded me of plastic sweet shop money.

METRO
You know those film clips of people bracing under the flight paths of planes taking off for a buzz? Go and stand in the middle of Tokyo or Shinjuku metro stations at rush hour. Add a massive suitcase each, plus shoulder bag, plus ten-year-old. This is Japan, crazybusy just as promised, but eerily ordered. As with most city underground systems you will likely only get bumped into if you’re in the way, so don’t get in the way and you should be OK. There are methods of getting through: rights and lefts on escalators and stairways, arrows and signposts, colour-coded lines with numbered stations so it’s just a case of joining the dots, plus arrows on either side of station names (that are in English as well as Japanese) pointing out the stations before and after. Keep your wits about you and you can get through the crush. If you’ve been brought up on the Underground, you really have no excuse not to give it a go. By the end of our week we were cruising the tunnels with ease, at one point rousing SM from a lying-down-and-reading position. Totally at home.

MOUNT FUJI
The iconic shape of Mount Fuji is one of the big images of Japan, along with Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ and geisha hair. When you go past that peak on a train travelling at 240 mph, you can see why. Fuji looms above the mountain range from afar, then comes up surprisingly close (at least on our Kyoto line, anyway) and hovers suspended between overhead cables for a good ten minutes. It is colossal and stately and truly, utterly beautiful. A friend had climbed it the week before – I can’t say that’s on my wishlist but when I saw it from my window I could quite appreciate her excitement.

TEMPLES
Are everywhere. All over the place. Big and grandiose, in silver, gold, orange and dark wood. Stacked behind one another down tiny town alleys, stuffed full of people cramming perilously onto its hillside wooden platform as with Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple (see picture below), high up on mountains, and right in the middle of the cities. Some you can visit, some you can’t. The rules are the same as with most: Always take off your shoes. Always maintain order and quiet. You can ring the bell at the entrance if you like and sometimes you can light an incense stick. Some have views outside, some are awesome on the inside. Nara’s Tōdai-ji Temple contained the big Buddha, the biggest covered one in the world, stuffed under its roof. As I said before, you could fit our ten-year-old lying flat out on His outstretched hand. Behind the Buddha was a wooden pillar, at the bottom of which was a hole at floor level through which small children were invited to wriggle through to seek yet more enlightenment. Hoards of schoolkids were lining up to have a go, some getting scarily stuck halfway. The porkier ones who made it through looked relieved rather than enlightened, in particular one especially big kid who wobbled off having been coaxed through with great cheers and frantic tugs. SM, who could have slipped through like a matchstick, declined.
Local behaviour in temples varies. An entire coachload of screaming schoolchildren trod all over our feet through one temple, pushing past us to get to Buddha. In Nara’s Gangō-ji Temple, a senior group knelt quietly on tatami mats and answered questions from their host – I wished I had understood, because that tour looked a lot more fun.
The beautiful graveyard of Gangō-ji gave me another missing-Mum-moment, because she would have so loved the little stone lines with tiny figurines dotted about the grass, sculptural, serene and ordered, against the stunning backdrop of one of those autumn days. She gets around, does Mum.

TRAINS
Hauling up the platform steps at Tokyo to get to the Shinkansen, we saw a side door open at foot level and out scuttled about 12 women in pink uniforms, who then dashed on ahead as in some Pixel kids’ film, and spread out down the platform, waiting for the train just where the doors would open. We’d been told about them the night before by our friend – they are the Shinkansen train-cleaners, and they have just 7 minutes to get on board, clean the train, and get out again before you all pile on. On completion they pause at the door, make a three-cornered temple-style salute, then get off, head for the stairs and vanish back down the hole. Pure Disney. Or Alice. Or Narnia.
And boy do those Shinkansens move. The fastest, Nozomo, was’t covered by our tourist rail pass but the second-fastest Hikari spat us down to Kyoto in half the time it would have usually taken. As we whizzed smoothly through the countryside (with English announcements en route from a disembodied Hitchhiker’s Guide voice that sounded like that Julie Peasgood from 1990s voiceover advert fame (and don’t ask me how I remember her), we took slow-mo filmettes and speeded up clips that looked nonsensically quick when played back. “It’s actually not that fast,” proffered SM in a lofty attempt at indiffierence, but he only said it because he couldn’t feel the judder like you would do on normal trains anywhere else in the world (apart form Norway, whose trains are equally awesome in my book).
Train carriages are clearly marked, so there’s no dashing to the end of Platform 9 where you THINK carriage 4 is only to find it is carriage 18, then cursing as you lug your suitcase all the way back down the rocking corridors to carriage no 4. If it says carriage 4 on your ticket, simply stand at the appropriate place on the platform and you will magically enter the train straight into the right carriage. Splendid.
Finally: the art of folding. So much of Japan is to do with folding, it translates into everything, including train travel. You know when you buy a takeout coffee and pick up a paper cuff to hold it? When you buy a rail ticket the vendor passes you the little paper slips and you can then pick up a small paper folder from a stack on the counter and tuck your tickets inside. I loved this. Even inside train carriages the skill is apparent. We saw a woman get on, put her hand on the metal backrest of a double-seat, and shove it forward with a clang, so that the whole seating format magically changed for her from being a big double area to a compact twin-set facing the other way.
‘You know,’ said my friend as we waited on the platform on Day One, ‘we really don’t go on trains that often, and there is a word for people who love them.’ We worked out it probably translated as ‘train-spotter’. If that’s the case then I’ll gladly become one.

YUKATAS
Women wearing yukatas, or kimonos, are everywhere. Not to be confused with geishas (the women with chalk-white faces), these ladies are simply going about their daily business wearing kimonos. It took me a good three days to stop gawking every time one stood at a bus stop or glided onto the escalator in front of us. An entire table of matching kimono women sat beside us in a café one night. When I asked our friend if this was normal, she frowned slightly, and said: ‘well, yes’ – so I stopped taking so many pics. All the same: wow.

LEFTOVERS
So what did we not do? Lots: didn’t have an onsen bath or a tea ceremony, didn’t walk down Gion or have any ninja training, didn’t see a geisha, never climbed Mount Fuji (OK so it might be on the list, a little bit), and didn’t have eel. I won’t be going back for that one, though.

*TITLE NOTE: Well, I had to get it somewhere, didn’t I? And after eating our way around Japan it’s apt.

IMG_0998

High up holidays

Ever feel like you’re writing your own eulogy? Like the events you’re describing would make a hilarious anecdote to be told over a glass of very good value Prosecco in the charming back room of some restaurant full of friends and family all wearing floral ‘celebration’ colours? Here’s a good one for my personal anecdote collection – how about the time I went to the front desk of a hotel and asked the evening staff if they had ever felt the earth move. I meant actually move, as in the room swaying, door moving in time with the room, all that. ‘No madam,’ they said, ‘would you like us to come up to the room and see if it’s still going on?’

No one laughed at the time – and the time was last Saturday night, just before we left the hotel to find food in the middle of Hong Kong’s built-up, vertiginous, jam-packed Central district. I wasn’t trying to be funny. A note on the coffee table warned us of heavy construction work in the street alongside us. A Twitter sweep for ‘Hong Kong earthquake’ found evidence of one just off the coast of Japan at roughly the same time – but that was too far away from us and no one was panicking, so we left the receptionists looking pale, and went out for dinner (following a slightly embarrassed Mr PC into the lift) and later that night – back up on the 21st floor of our tall stick of a hotel – I knocked back a swig of SM’s cough mixture to make sure I slept through whatever might manifest during the night. Nothing, happily.

A friend described Hong Kong as ‘Asian New York’, and it was. Battered cabs, narrow streets, stop signs, tram lines, signs promising: ‘Jewellery’, ‘Massage’, ‘Dim Sum’, hot rain and clouds on the mountains and fruit stalls everywhere, pencil thin alleys with tiny cats chasing tiny balls of wool, small handbag dogs, chicken’s feet and durian and construction, construction, construction – enough to put hammered-down Singapore to shame. At night out come the lights and then it’s the same but lit up, wet streets flashing more neon ideas for how to spend your time: Lady Toys! Picture Framer! Meat!

Maybe not New York, maybe Blade Runner, with a constant tinny wailing thrumming from invisible speakers everywhere. If Singapore is Asia Lite, Hong Kong is a step up for us expats who want to sample a taste of the Orient but with handy social subtitles. With Hong Kong you get a bigger slap of flavour and a smack of real-life that I’ve not explored in smooth Sing (through my own fault, hands up). ‘It’s got London pavements,’ observed Mr PC – meaning dirty, wobbly, uneven, hilly, tilted slabs with rivers of black grime running alongside in the rain and gutters full of the debris from the shops belonging to all those signs. The pavements were nostalgic to me, they felt comfy, and I liked our three-day spin around the town, but my leg muscles notsomuch.

The hotel actually was moving on Saturday night, I’m sure of it, but it might have been down to its skinny structure – everything in HK is tall, tall tall. In Singapore hills are a thing of the past, the city being mainly made up of slight inclines with a majestic ‘bukit’ here and there. I could revisit HK for the ambiance – I really, really liked it a lot – but I’d need therapy to get over my vertigo first. A weekend in the Pearl Of The Orient has set me back several months in terms of the fear of heights that I had been happily getting under control: I couldn’t get on an escalator in a shopping mall today, whereas last week I might have managed it. Heights are a huge factor of Hong Kong that no one tells you about, it is a town built on a series of mountain sides with steps for streets and buildings lined up like one of those domino-topple challenges. So if you’re a bit phobic you might want to steer clear of:

• The no 6 bus to Stanley: stick to the lower deck, don’t look, and hold on tight.
Funicular up the Peak: up and down, eek! Don’t look.
Scenic walk around Peak: hug the left hand hedges and don’t look.
• Top part of the Escalator: gradual inclines give way to sharp dramatic drops: don’t look.
• Escalator between floors 2 and 3 of Hong Kong’s Heritage Museum: take the lift.

I loved it, though, and I’ll be back again with some valium, a list of all the things we didn’t do, and a super-strong pair of shades to block the drop.

IMG_9952

 

EDIT: Here’s another hilarious anecdote. How about the time I left my portion of a school trip on Level 4 of the Cloud Dome because it was too high up? Left them in a measured, calm fashion, yes; and they’re Y5s so not tiny; and they seemed OK with that, but – well – left them, yes. Today, in fact. No one laughed then, either.

The family way

IMG_8902Can whoever reads this thing bear to have another slab of holiday-drenched copy? Is it trite to bang on about all these trips out of town? Can it be possible to fit in as much travel as we are? It’s not like we’re in a huge rush to stamp the world map with drawing pins, but I have to say I’ve used up my ecological share of air miles several times in the last 20 weeks alone, and let’s not total up the 30 months since we got here.

Oh, but that road trip from KL to Ipoh last week – now I’m back and safely typing away at my air-con desk, who really cares about those long queues on the motorway and the rattled-out traffic reports that we couldn’t quite catch, no matter how much we twiddled the knobs and dials to get less static and still only really getting the word ‘jam’. Now we’re back I’ve almost forgotten the rueful wiping of hands down sweaty necks as we sat perfectly still in the 35C heat, damply steaming, listlessly pointing the air con from footwell to steering wheel and back again, winding down the window only to wind it back up again as the searing tarmac heat poured in through the open gaps, with small boy sitting alone in the back, diligently making his water last because Mr and Mrs Stupid hadn’t bought any more at the airport. Memories he’ll keep forever, whether he wants to or not.

It didn’t even seem so bad at the time, truth be told. Even though I can’t remember being in such a massively long traffic jam, or such a very hot one, just to be out there was enough, on the road, away from Sing yet again, inching steadily north and when the traffic loosened up, about five miles short of our final destination, there were the pink Ipoh hills of home, and then our own rose-tinted memories unpacked themselves all over the car, which seemed cooler and fresher the closer we got to Rosy’s. Even when the gas indicator slipped to ‘critical’, dear Mr PC kept up a jovial patter and never once let on to me that we might actually be spending even longer than we thought on the road, as we failed to get into one petrol station after another thanks to the huge queues, finally and dustily sputtering into the very last one before Ipoh. (So that’s water and petrol on the list for next time, then).

Why hadn’t we spent the new year with Rosy before? Phuket and Jogjakarta – previous CNY stop-offs – are not obvious choices for hong baos and lo heis, and neither is a huge bit of Malaysia, but wonky old Ipoh was an explosion of new year cheer, dozy in town but truly festive in the suburbs with house after house covered in red lanterns and glittering tinsel. On winter car trips down the A30 to Cornwall my folks would persuade us girls to ‘Spot The Christmas Trees’, and this was no different: red lights decked every doorway in the suburbs, and even Aunty Rosy’s acid-green front porch was dotted with pretty red packets that she’d hung off all the little trees outside her front door.

All those times we’d been to the temple in town to visit the Tan grandparents, light joss sticks and stand side by side in reverential silence – here we were, right at one of the most important times of year for ancestral worship. What better time for both my boys to get a chance to pay their respects, as we have done for years back in Cornwall and Marlow? Ipoh was made for CNY.

Ah, though, you can’t do things twice, not really. I know if we go back next year and do the same double-pronged trip – a whizz round Ipoh for two days of noodle-stuffing, then a sprint back down the E1 to KL past row after row of rubber trees from a page out of Where the Wild Things Are, down the mucky ribbon of road that brings you into the heart of the city until we were right in the hot heart of KL, waltzing up the fancy towers, scouring endless malls and skipping down the pungent pavements that always remind me so much of a tropical Kentish Town – I know I won’t get the same buzz of elation that made this year’s trip, because it’s the realisation that something is wonderful for the very first time that makes the thing so special.

No harm in trying though, but next year we’ll book in advance and fly – more time for noodles, less time listening to Asia-pop in a hot hire car.

#GongXiFaCai til next year

Postcards from eve

It is lunar New Year’s Eve. Tonight, Singapore is quiet as families gather together for the reunion meal at the start of the 15-day festival to bring in the new year. Out goes the horse, and we become rams, goats or sheep, depending on what consumer branding you are following. I prefer sheep, for some reason (do I follow rather than lead, a little bit? Maaaaaybe).

This is our third Chinese New Year (CNY) in Singapore and at last I feel I am starting to really get it. I get the hanging lanterns and the songs, I even know a bit of one. I understand the rituals better and I think I understand the value of working like a beast all year and then having this one almighty celebration, unlike no other I’ve had in my closed-off life. SM’s music teacher couldn’t make tonight, as she had to see family; she left him a red packet too. The school bus tonight had a golden money pot on the front and red circular ‘ears’, one on each side. SM hopped down still dressed in his Mandarin outfit and stayed dressed in his black and red silk all night – our own red lanterns and bali fish kite are hanging up outside like stockings on 24th Dec. It’s all so festive.

I am upstairs in our main bedroom, surrounded by packing cases and the boys are downstairs watching telly. Special treat for SM to stay up a bit late, even though we have a very early flight to catch tomorrow. I have hidden a hong bao each for Aunty Rosy and Jonah – the oldest and youngest in the Asian bit of our family. They’re getting red bags full of chocolate, the bit of cash in those red packets, small pot of pineapple tarts each and two little metal goats on red ribbons each (even numbers, always), plus some oranges.

It feels like Christmas, and the build-up has been exciting: music in the shops, a relaxed feel about town, and the famed pre-new year dry breezy weather as a bonus. Last weekend, Chinatown was stuffed full of red danglers, paper pineapples, sheeps and goats and people getting their shopping in – (a bit like Truro town centre around about 23 December). The roads are now empty, schools closed, companies locked down. Our school only closed this afternoon, but plenty finished earlier. Today being CNY eve, businesses and shops closed at lunch as families returned home to meet and eat. The school bus was early this morning; roads empty for my run. It’s so peaceful.

Tomorrow we hop on a flight and head to Ipoh and Aunty Rosy, and then KL – four days of peaceful gluttony before re-entering the fray. I am delighted to be immersing myself in Asian culture this time round, and only wish we’d done this year on year, instead of choosing places that had nothing to do with the festival at all. I only hope Rosy stays awake long enough in the evenings to enjoy a bite or two with us all.

See you on the other side! Gong xi fa cai.IMG_8793

Penang for seconds

Never go back to the same place twice, they say, but I know lots of people who might reply ‘pants’ to that. Especially when it’s half term and everyone else is leaving town in a stampeding, haze-induced hurry, and ‘all’ you’ve got to look forward to is a week alone with a small-ish bored boy and your Kindle. Well, we sat down a few weeks back, Mr PC and me, and we came up with a plan. Our pin landed on Penang, somewhere we’d been before, but we did that thing that you do when you want familiarity and adventure all at the same time: go with what you know but make it a different shape.

So we took our trip from winter 2011, the one we did with Grandpa and Auntie before we even knew we were moving to Singapore, and the first thing we did was to leave those two behind – and that’s the nasty bit got out of the way. Next, we crossed out ‘Georgetown’ and typed in ‘Batu Ferringhi’. We scrubbed out ‘Old Penang Guesthouse’ and scrawled over the top in fancy glittery marker: ‘Hard Rock Hotel Penang’. Lastly, we ditched any idea of a hire car and booked ourselves a lazy flight, and there we had it: Penang v2.

And it was lovely, although quite different to last time, as travel is never the same without Auntie and Grandpa. They’ve done a good deal of Malaysia with us and they’re great travel companions, both having a nose for adventure and light feet to carry them. If you’re not sure whether to book that rickety boat trip, there they are, already at the front of the queue. Jungle trek? Tickets all round! Dangle up and down in the highest cable car in Asia (or some such superlative)? Alrighty, then!

My sister can sniff out a roti canai stall from a few hundred feet away, and she is fast in her choosing, no time for dawdlers. She and Dad both like digging into the make-up of a place, and go local whenever they can. Grandpa gives unstuffy botany tours that keep SmallMonkey entertained for much longer than we can ever manage, and he sets a pace that is kind to a nine-year-old. As a bonus, and much like Willy Wonka’s magic gobstoppers, the nature doesn’t actually end there – empty your pockets back home and all sorts of exciting things fall out that have been accidentally trapped in the fluff: a dead millilpede in a plastic bag, a crab leg, a small monkey skull, c. Ipoh, 2011 (if an item has already passed over that mortal coil and has been dead long enough to stop smelling then it can stay, that’s the house rule).

So we missed our two Robinson Crusoes – especially on our beloved Penang, a place we’d all so loved exploring – but being UsThree was nice in other ways, familiarity being a key factor to comfort: only three mouths to feed, only three decisions to mete out. Besides, Mr PC is a good adventurer and he makes sure our small trips include at least a sampler of what the other two might have chosen. So it was that we boarded the ridiculously rickety boat to Monkey Island, clinging on disbelievingly as the nose pointed skywards then seawards round the tip of the coast like the kind of fairground ride that might end up on the front page of the Daily Mail, and not in a good way (“But I don’t LIKE rollercoasters!” wailed SM afterwards, as we discussed whether it would make more sense to brave the jungle path in flip-flops instead of returning by sea, and all this with a lovely young British teacher from Bangkok who shared the morning with us and who seemed equally apprehensive, so at least this time I knew it wasn’t just me).

When we dabbled our feet in the jellyfish infested waves I remembered how Grandpa swam towards the sea snake in Borneo, not away from it, and how Auntie teased me when a jellyfish tickled my toe in Langkawi and I wanted as much iodine and attention as my young son, who’d been stung far worse. Both she and Grandpa would have been splashing about with the tentacled specimens as fast as you like.

The first of our four nights – rainy and cool – was given over rather exhaustedly to the resident HRH Café (well, it had to be done), and the others would’ve withstood that graciously, but the remaining three evenings left us covered in curry sauce and laksa splashes, hobbling home from the hawker down the road with noodle bellies after sending WhatsApp proof to our absent adventurers. We didn’t just do it because they’d have liked it, we did it because we like it too – SM chose plate after plate of Auntie’s favourite RC special, stuffing himself up again after a week of being laid-low with a nasty bout of food poisoning. She’d have been so proud of his top choice, and we knew it, and missed her for it. Didn’t stop us swimming up to the pool bar and ordering iced lattes the next afternoon, though, but this is just my point: give it all a go and rejoice in the luckiness of having holidays at every turn.

Penang v1 was Georgetown, Penang Hill, Love Lane, town, smelly drains, giant incense sticks at traffic junctions, the clan house, orange garlands on street stalls, curry at the docks and nightly cruises around the food stalls to dive up to our elbows in steamboat and other such delights. Three years ago we got our botany fix on Penang Hill, going up by train and down on foot following the winding monkey-peppered path, where Grandpa found his precious pitcher plants and our calves nearly gave up.

For Penang v2 we stayed right at the top of the island, in an area the purists reject for its rubbish beaches and dead cultural scene, but of course ‘culture’ is everywhere, depending on what sort you’re looking for. Our cab from the airport took a twisting beach road and I wanted to pretend I was in an open-topped sports car scooting along those gorgeous beach roads round Italy’s south-western coast wearing Jackie O shades and a sweet little headscarf. Well, the road was a much poorer cousin and I didn’t look a bit like Mrs President, wilting in a hot drizzle of bags and water bottles on the carpeted back seat with SmallMonkey’s legs sticking sweatily to mine and Mr PC snoozing up front beside a driver with a serious twitch (“You alright to drive, mate?” I wanted to ask). Pronged metal fencing looped in and out as we twitched our way steadily north and the road narrowed and threatened to drop now and then, and yes, perhaps the place had lost whatever shine it once had, but the view of the beach peeping in and out of shabby palms was stubbornly awesome, and ‘culture’, if that’s what you want to call it, was all around in spades – from the Hokkien name on the side of a large school, to sunny mosque minarets punctuating the route with glinting onion rooftops, clusters of Indian stalls selling Auntie’s favourite dishes and, just as the road came to an end and the national park began, strange tall stacks of rubble that turned out to be grimy apartment blocks far beyond any kind of help, with laundry in matching dark cement colours grudgingly keeping time with the morning breeze. Maybe not a place fit for Jackie O, but different – grubbily exotic.

From this dilapidated point we took our up-and-down boat trip, joining forces with the teacher who was buying her ticket at the same time as us and sharing the half-day adventure (therefore also the nasty choppy ride and much happier calm sail back again). Another day we got a good portion of botany at the Tropical Spice Gardens, handily right by our hotel, choosing a guided tour and being led around by a woman so like our Borneo tour guide from two years ago that they must have been related – that gentle guide had been a favourite with Grandpa and he’d also have loved this one’s equally kind, informative manner. We revisited Georgetown beginning, like last time, at the Peranakan House, a visit made all the more meaningful since I now take my own tours around the Singapore version (and here SM patiently allowed me to tell him about four stories before vanishing predictably to the gift shop). We squeezed in and out of Little India, ducking as stallholders shook out bright waves of flower garlands in excitable anticipation at the start of Deepavali week. We stopped for coffee in a hip street café, and of course we wandered back down Love Lane, popping in to the Old Penang Guesthouse to stand for a moment in the cool shadows of the lobby, remembering a slightly smaller monkey coming down the old staircase for breakfast tea and toast with me, Auntie, Grandpa and his dad. That was then. I’d happily do another ‘now’.

I feel, like all places, there is so much more to see. No turtles came to play on Turtle Beach, no monkeys on Monkey Beach (apart from our one), so we need to return for those. Rubbish beaches? Not rubbish, just quiet, eerie. No jetskis, no frolicking trippers. Just us, and the teacher, and a few earnest walkers appearing sweatily from the jungle (and making me rather glad we did the boat trip, in the end). Further south from those deserted beaches the satellite maps show more green fluff – dense patches of palm and hilltop, and yet more beaches, and what, I wonder, is at the very southernmost tip, and who lives there? There’s more, for sure. I’ll go back three times if I want: like the nasi goreng, I can always make room for more.IMG_0018

4 nights in Saigon

Moped cart through the rice fields

Moped cart through the rice fields

A trip to Ho Chi Minh deserves more than the rushed mention in my last post. When I think of our short five days in town, us PCs and another family (in fact the ones soon to be leaving this exotic continent, as also outlined in the last post), there are three main points that stand out in my mind: traffic, food and rice.

With traffic the rule is simple: Do Not Run. Wait for a gap, hold hands, and step out in front of all the mopeds. The mopeds will stop, and then you must proceed slowly right in front of them. I mean, inches in front of them. Somewhere in the middle of the crossing you will find you have created your own Matrix-like invisible force-field that blocks off any vehicles from making contact with your skin. Continue in slow motion to the other side of the road.

With the food, all I can say is that I have never been so well fed and felt so healthy in tandem, and the more I ate the better I felt. The whole world should take note. I am now once again forcing down my usual diet but I’d rather be pulling up a chair to tables of wrap-it-yourself spring rolls, like last week.

As for rice, I saw most of it from the back of a speeding moped-truck. Lush, flowing locks of green, waving in the fields as we flew past with our bottoms in the air, as on some mad roller coaster ride. I found that digging the nails of one hand into Mr PC’s thigh helped restore any safety concerns, and while I should have been crooking the other arm around the small child in front of me (not in fact my child – my child was somewhere opposite, hanging his arm happily off the side and chattering away above the engine roar) sadly I could think only of myself, which worries me a little in terms of any real emergencies. Now and then we left the watery paddies, pulling out onto busy tarmac roads at sharp angles with a single honk of the horn, our driver scattering chicken carts and other bikes and readjusting wonkily while we all bumped about in the back. I did feel a little safer on the ‘proper’ roads, but of course then we didn’t have the amazing grassy views. I’m happier eating rice, I think, not looking at it.

Finally, a word about tourism. Of course it is here – I am it, and I was there, but as it’s still a growing concept in Vietnam, here are some basic tips:

• Use the standard backpacker code of smiling and learning to say ‘thank you’. It is always well received.

• Go easy with the haggling – there is a real sense here that when enough is enough, it really is enough, so don’t bargain people down to their last kernel.

• If you visit the War Remnants museum with children, let them run between the big tanks outside the entrance while you take it in turns to have a solemn look around the Agent Orange photos. If you’re squeamish, then leave yourself downstairs as well.

• Saigon citizens are proud of their landmarks for good reason. At the Reunification Palace (a stately nod to 1960s chic) be sure to remember that there’s a whole basement level with submarine-coloured cell rooms, plus a splendid rooftop ballroom with a retro padded bar where you can buy soft drinks and swan about pretending to be Jackie O.

• Do some homework before you go, because swotting up with a few hastily printed-out pages on the plane, like I did, is definitely not enough. #downloadingtokindlenow

Seats 44D and 44E

I’m writing this at 35,000 feet during a particularly bumpy spell somewhere over the north-west of India. We’re nine hours into a twelve-and-a-half hour flight (that’s the first one, the second one’s just a little transfer hop down to Sing) and I’ve not had a lot of sleep. SM has managed to doze off, with his feet in my lap and his head nudging the thighs of the elderly lady next to him. How he’s getting any is beyond me. For some time, hours possibly, a toddler a few seatbacks away has been howling, I mean really howling, which makes me think of how brilliant SM has always been on flights. I’ve spent the whole trip fixing his earphones, folding back the foil from his too-hot dinner, picking up his specs and extracting his toes from under the armrest as he wriggles in his sleep, but at least I don’t need ear-plugs.

I hate this enforced nighty-night time. The blinds are down and the lights are off but every time I shut my eyes and try and doze I get ticker-taping high-speed rabbit-voiced rewinds of the last month. Who said what is blurring, but when I sit down and think about it, all I really need to remember is that it was lovely. The last day (today, I suppose, or maybe yesterday) was spent just where I wanted it, high on the Heath with my family, looking down to the little red brick flats where I grew up with St Pauls and The Shard in the distance, notching iconic grey shapes onto the horizon. Up on Kite Hill we had the usual jolly crowd that a sunny day brings: kites flapping, a globe of dialects dotting the breeze, and – thrown in just for us – fluffy white seedlings blowing across the air as in some kind of arthouse film. Perfect.

Now I’m bobbing up and down on invisible wind mountains, I can look back down on the visit from a distance and try and pinpoint what it was to be a voyeur in my own land. ‘It’s not like this all the time,’ everybody told me. ‘You bring the sunshine’. They didn’t just mean it physically (we seem to always arrive in town just as the heatwave settles) but socially. We are spoilt when we go home, treated like royalty and carried (only ankle-high thanks to the slow drip of tea and cakes) from house to house on a wave of happy returns. I know it’s not like this all the time because I used to live here, and I know it’ll be back to basics when we return. Despite knowing all that I also know that it’s all just so nice that leaving again is going to be very hard.

Never mind. Trust bonkers old Singapore to give me no time to dwell. I’m not just sitting here high up in the clouds writing a blog post, I’m also sorting out a diary that is already looking like a mathematical riddle. Before I’d even got to Week Four of the trip the dates were inking themselves all over August: first night out, first weekend away, first coffee morning, a possible leaving do lined up, the next three major holidays organized, the next museum tour in the diary and a load of new work from Those Nice People Who Give Me Work. No time to lie down in a dark room feeling homesick.

Parting is such hugely sweet sorrow that this year’s was done briefly, and in various bits. During the final week I said the word ‘goodbye’ several ghastly times, using brisk armlocks rather than hugs and sometimes (Pudding family, for example) not even saying a proper goodbye at all. On the last day, last hour, even, Aunty kissed us on the pavement outside M&S then went to get her bus, waving us off until Christmas. Then Dad came back to the apartment, helped me squish the cases shut, dragged them down the stairs and stood on the pavement with us until the cab pulled up. Easter is a little longer to wait than Christmas but saying goodbye to Grandpa on a busy high street allowed for just 60 seconds of tight hugs and high-pitched trembly voices, and it also allowed me to crumple in private, tucked into the back of the cab with SM’s little hand on my arm, rather than stumbling through airport security blinded by tears like last year, which was not just embarrassing but also annoying because I couldn’t see what I was putting into the little x-ray trays. Next year I’m booking a morning return flight, because as lovely and winsome as that last day was, I know we all spent it quietly wading through troughs of sadness, a bit like trying to sip a very lumpy sad soup.

Breakfast is coming round, or lunch, I think. Someone just to my right needs help finding his headphones and the seatbelt sign has pinged again. Onwards.

NB: I’m such a Gemini. After I wrote this I shut down the computer, tucked it into my seatback, chose another film with a beach scene and started planning the next beach trip: sobbing with sadness one minute, choosing a swimsuit the next. Don’t listen to me. Ever.

PS: This post came to you from Malaysian Airlines flight M001 from London Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur and on to Sing. Still flying, still friendly and long may they last

Flights of fancy

This week has been all about diaries, with our UK summer visit in mind. In the frenzy of setting up the mother of all Excel spreadsheets, containing everyone’s school dates, work days, holidays, birthdays, credit account details, shoe size and eye colour, there is an underlying excitement about the upcoming trip, not least for the thought of the hours spent Doing Nothing on that long flight home. Turbulence is yuk, but Nothing is just lovely.

When I was seven we went on an aeroplane for the first time, me and my sister, and so did our Dad. I remember him holding our hands and making us skip with him (yep, skip) from the terminal building all the way across the tarmac until we passed almost underneath the big polished nosecone of the jumbo before skipping up the rickety steps on the side. There are some notable points about this little vignette:

Point A: This was Dad’s first time on a plane, and if I was seven years old that means he was 36, so that’s a whole 36 years before he ever flew (he says they drove everywhere: that’d be Europe, presumably).

Point B: we skipped across the tarmac which means we were on foot, no covered walkway or runway bus, just a happy stroll to this huge 737* and a tippy-toe up the side like a family of happy ants. Bonkers.

Point C: (and you had to be there for this one) I remember him being way, way more excited than me.

The same bloke is now an accomplished air traveller. In the last ten years alone he’s been to Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, Japan, China and America as well as all around Europe and back again, and of course out here to Singapore three times. He wanders down to the gates unhurried, tackles turbulence with a scientific approach (another beer, please), writes chapters during the flight and steps off at the other end unruffled.

In the 38 years since our maiden trip on the big jet (to America, actually, to live, which is also why we were so excited) I’ve been around the block a few times, too, clocking up the bulk of that during these expat adventures, but no matter how many times I buckle up for take-off I never get over the sheer freakyness of air travel, that amazing technique of propelling bodies through the sky to get from one side of the world to the other. In honour of our imminent summer flight back to the UK, here are my top 10 reasons for why we should never be blasé about flying:

1)    You are flying: f.l.y.i.n.g

2)    You can walk up and down, look, while you’re flying

3)    The meals come in tiny little packs with tiny little puddings and diddy bread rolls, and on the bigger flights they are free, no cash required at all. Sometimes there is wine

4)    Sometimes there are goody bags (for the kids, yes, but even so)

5)    Sometimes there are free headphones, wee small tubes of toothpaste and, on really posh flights, socks

6)    The window blinds go up and down

7)    If you want another blanket, no problem, just ask the nice lady

8)    On the bigger flights there are TV screens showing all the films that you never got round to seeing: for free! On that maiden flight we were both given, my sister and me, a covered shoebox full of ‘Stuff To Keep Us Busy’ so yeah, we knew how to roll, but look at us now: plug me in!

9)    On very big ones there are inside stairs that you can climb, while at the same time actually flying: up and down, up and down. Amazing

10) They thank YOU for flying with THEM: amazing

We never fly posh class so I can’t imagine what that must be like, but I’ve walked through the cabin and I can see there are beds where you can sleep, which is again, yes, amazing, but why would you want to sleep when there’s so much fun to be had?

*Dad left me a note: ‘One detail: there were no jumbos in 1976; it was a Douglas DC8’ See? Totally au fait with the whole thing

You recently flew with Tiger Air, tell us what you think

Well the cost was good; so good that we chose to fly with you instead of another leading airline – on which our friends booked, and whose flight we waved off as we waited at Changi Gate 59 (out of 60) for our own flight to Bali to join them for a very short girls’ weekend. This should probably have been our first clue, since nothing that cheap is ever going to come without a snag.

That our plane on the tarmac had a big engineering truck beside it and a man in a yellow jacket fiddling with his undercarriage should have been our second clue. Three tannoy mumbles later (none of which included a full explanation other than ‘technical issues’) and we had decamped to the nearest airport pub and ordered drinks and nibbles. The food worked, there was a live band, it was almost like a Friday night out, and as we clinked our tall drinks the three-hour delay didn’t seem quite so bad.

Well into our 14th gossip topic and a new tannoy message fizzled faintly over the din of the band, suggesting a number rather similar to the one on our tickets, but it was only thanks to my Changi app that we checked and saw you had actually changed the boarding time again, this time cheekily pulling it back by a sizeable two hours, leaving us an Olympic five minutes to get to the gate. (If I was a refund sort of girl I might suggest it here – had I known we were having a mere one-hour delay instead of three hours as initially suggested, I would never have ordered the second vodka, which I ended up leaving untouched as we scrambled to pay and leave.)

Having photo-bombed several groups taking selfies in front of the tropical orchid display as we knocked people out of the way to get to The Furthest Gate In The World, we were slammed into our seats only to then sit in them for a further half-hour while everyone else was herded back from their own untouched vodkas. Once in the air, our Singapore Slings tasted of nail polish remover and the duty-free bottle I wanted was the only one unavailable. That was Outgoing. For Return we had another delay, a man’s knees in my back thanks to the cosy seating plan, and four out of eight meal options out of stock.

The crew, I must say, were all lovely – upbeat and diligent with an average age of around 12 years old. I’m glad we didn’t have to adopt the brace position, as I would have felt very maternal towards at least half of them. The Band-Aid one of them got my companion after she cut her thumb opening the Sling bottle arrived promptly, and the little boy reciting the remaining meal options knew them all off by heart, including which pictures to point to: ten out of ten. I didn’t even mind that the kitchen curtain got caught in the toilet door every time I went (which wasn’t often, happily, as I hadn’t eaten or drunk much).

I’m not a money-back sort of person but we got to the villa so late on Friday that everyone had gone to bed and there was no wine left, and home again on Sunday so late that Monday had already arrived. I loved the friendly crew but I would rather have got to where I needed to get in time, well-fed and with the correct bottle of liquor in my tote bag.

Hope the feedback is helpful. Lots of love to all the girls and boys.

PS I think I left my kindle in your seatback. This would not have happened if I’d paid a bit more and booked onto the same flight as our other friend who had a bigger plane with free food and films, giving her no cause to pack her kindle and subsequently lose it.

Another bloomin’ holiday

Phuket for beginners

Phuket for beginners: don’t look down

You’ll notice we go away rather a lot. That was kind of the point of this relocation exercise – that we burn runway fuel as often as we can in the short space of time that we are here. I won’t excuse it any further, that was the plan and it’s going nicely. I give write-ups about things I have enjoyed and tend to leave the disappointments blank. I’ve written only a few Tripadvisor reviews, nine in total, to date. Four of those were pre-Singapore trips. Six of the nine have five stars; one has two stars; two have four stars. You can see that I really hate giving a bad write-up. So I won’t do that for Phuket, the location of this weekend’s Chinese New Year break, but I can’t say I’ll be rushing back.

It wasn’t the Newquay factor – I quite like Newquay, in the same way that I also like Scarborough, and also Herne Bay. Patong was flagged up as being a bit similar to all that, coming with several gaudy warnings, but it was alright in the end, a jolly strip of colour and sand, which SM loved as this is where he learned how to haggle, spending his CNY hong bao on a pair of flashy shades.*

In fact this was a holiday of firsts, and there’s a lot to be said for some of them: the haggling for SM, the ride in an ox cart, and also on an elephant – ours was called ‘Margaret’ and she was quite tall and loved our bananas. We also took a ride up a fast A-road in a flat-backed truck, that was another first.

The sun was very nice and our beach, Karon, was pretty, and the hotel not bad at all, really very pleasant give or take a spot of mould and a lack of authentic local cuisine. I mean, though, what’s to nitpick about, really, when you’re on a lovely short break like ours? If the staff are lovely, which they really were, just float into the pool again and leave the catty reviews off. Here I must quote a fellow Singapore-based blogger who writes about how she goes all-out to avoid the local hotel culture – it’s just not her thing: http://www.bedu-mama.com/ – I won’t stop HavingFunAtHotels, K, but I know what you mean.

Along with all the good things came not-such-good things: the chained monkey riding a trike, the skeletal oxen heaving us along in the cart, the poor old elephants trained to wiggle dutifully from side to side before popping a load of balloons with darts (I didn’t know whether to burst into tears or shout out ‘180!’) and then pretending to step on a number of small children lying prone on the ground, our son included, lightly tapping their huge feet on the lined up little backs; another first for SM, who of course loved all the animal antics. And no, I didn’t intend to see any chained-up chimps. ‘An elephant ride,’ was all they told us, and even that was something I had my moral doubts about.

Could it have been the pre-election road protest literally set up right beside us as we walked along Patong Beach road – causing a mile-long block and all the street vendors to come out and stare? Or the fact that my right arm muscle is now so much stronger than the left thanks to the bizarre position I adopted while we sped along in the truck, last passengers to get in so first ones, presumably, to risk faling out. Sat loosely on benches in the back of the open-air vehicle going very steeply up a massive A-road way too fast with nothing to hold onto but the ceiling strut above us and the rails on either side, I adopted a He-Man position, getting SM to put his little arm tightly round my waist while I kind of hung on over him. Every time the guy stepped on the clutch to get his tin death machine to motor on we were shrugged back towards the tarmac. I never want to have to do that again and wasn’t comforted when I found an online news report about the decline in Phuket road deaths not being down to drivers adopting a more sensible approach, but by the roads being jammed thus preventing instances of speeding. The taxi driver on the way back to the airport hammered this home, dashing us alongside a motorway ravine as his lids lowered again and again in the rearview mirror. Finally he decided to keep himself awake by repeatedly phoning-a-friend for the remainder of the hour-long drive. I’ve never really had a religion but I crossed myself when we got out. SM, after a spot of white-knuckle caution at first, of course wanted to do it all over again: blissful ignorance.

We weren’t entirely sure where to eat and should probably have done some homework, but Singapore has spoilt us with Thai restaurants like Esarn and Mai Thai and I suppose we were expecting something along those lines. We ate burgers and chips, a bit of floppy Pad Thai – I suppose if you choose to go to Newquay then you eat what Newquay offers. All credit to the Thai Airways restaurant on the upper floor at Phuket airport: really delicious food, finally, and a nice view of the end of the runway as well.

I’m not complaining though. I’m just saying. We did have such a nice relaxing time that I forgot (again) to write postcards but if I’d managed it then I would have genuinely wished you were all here. Or there.

*Mr PC’s lesson in haggling for SM amounted to: ‘take a third off and then halve it’. Sadly he didn’t supply SM with a notebook for all the workings out, and SM didn’t have the required 20 minutes to do such a sum, or access to a table to sit and make the required spidery mathematical diagrams, but he did a great job of sweetly asking the price and then sucking air through his teeth theatrically until the sunglasses lady caved in. I’m taking him with me next time I have to haggle, and pushing him to the front.