It all started with this - this entire eight-month trip. As soon as I heard rumours of a Formula One race through the streets of Singapore I knew I wanted a piece of the action. Up until the start of this season there was just one street race each year - the grand daddy of them all: the Monaco Grand Prix - and Singapore sounded like it had the potential to be the Monaco of Asia. When official confirmation final came there was an extra twist: it was going to be held at night! This was a first for Formula One and I decided then and there that I would be in Singapore for the race no matter what the cost. This determination was a definite plus as the weekend would end up costing me a sum of money similar to the annual budget of Scuderia Ferrari!
The decision made I waited until the date for the meeting was formally announced and then set out to book my flights. Having failed to come up with an even vaguely sensible price, I contacted a couple of travel agents. They couldn't help but one asked what seemed at the time to be a very random question - "have you looked into a ‘round-the-world' ticket?" Well, no, I hadn't but, crazy as it sounds, the price that she came back with was a fraction of the cost of a standard return flight for that particular weekend. Crisis averted, I sat back and waited for the race tickets to go on sale a couple of months later.
Things are never that simple, of course, and this was no exception. For a couple of months everything seemed to be telling me that my life wasn't going anywhere and that I needed to make a change. And, after all, I did have that round-the-world ticket burning a hole in my pocket, right? Within weeks of finally booking my race tickets, I had quit my job and was getting dropped off at the front doors of Heathrow. I was off on an eight-month adventure and it was all Singapore's fault!
And here I was; five months after leaving home, heading off to Asia. Boy, was I excited! My flight took me into Singapore but, despite the sight of huge numbers of F1 team personnel heading throughthe airport - I wasn't hanging around; I was catching a connecting flight up to Kuala Lumpur - in neighbouring Malaysia - where I would spend the first three nights of my time in Asia. I knew very little about the city other than it is home to the impressive Petronas Twin Towers (which were, until recently, the tallest buildings in the world) but I figured the best way to find out was to go and experience it for myself.
I arrived in KL following a long and tiring overnight journey from Darwin, hopped on the fast train from the airport to downtown KL and then finished my journey to the hotel in a cab. In that short ride it soon become apparent that KL is a place of huge contrasts - whether that be the contrast between the ‘haves' riding round in their Mercedes and Maybachs and the ‘have-nots' who live in the slums on the outskirts of town or the contrast between the absolute third-world chaos of the roads to the modern and superbly-efficient airport and express rail link - it sure is a fascinating mix and I loved the city. It was fantastic to be able to walk the streets at night without fear of being robbed and then to return to the hotel and enjoy real luxury for a pittance.
The Petronas Twin Towers were, as expected, the centrepiece of the city and I visited a number of times to take photos at various times of the day (and to take the free tour of the building) but what I really enjoyed was hopping on and off the excellent monorail system at random intervals and exploring those contrasting scenes that I mentioned. For the second time on this tour I had to go looking for a new camera after mine decided to cry foul and finally died. With the bargain prices on electronics in Malaysia it couldn't have happened in a better place.
Having checked out of my hotel I hopped on the monorail one final time and head off to KL Sentral - the main railway station - where I was to catch a train to Singapore. 68 Ringits (something like £10GBP) took me south across the border at a fraction of the cost of flying and with the added bonus of a huge reclining seat which puts anything even Business Class could offer to shame. The journey was quick and painless and took us through some stunning jungle scenery. I wish that I had more time to get off and explore some of the fascinating looking towns which we passed by but I, and seemingly most everyone else on the train, had an appointment 330km south of KL.
Before we knew it we had arrived at the station at Johor Bahru where Malaysian immigration officials boarded the train and officially signed us out of the country. I couldn't help, as we crossed the famous causeway into Singapore, but promise myself that I would come back to explore the rest of this fascinating country someday. A few hundred yards across the border we pulled in to the Woodlands Train Checkpoint where we all had to disembark the train and queue up to clear Singapore Immigration. This was a short and painless procedure - although it was a pain to have to lug all our bags off the train - and we were soon on our way once again.
25 minutes down the line and we reached the end of the line: Keppel Road Station. Or Malaysia Station as locals know it. Whatever you want to call it, you can't help but be amazed at the long-faded colonial grandeur of the art-deco building which, despite being on Singapore territory, is still owned by Malaysians even though the Singaporeans have spent many years trying to buy it for redevelopment. Due to their lack of success they have refused to provide connections to the rest of their excellent public transport system and this left me with a frustrating 30-minute wait for a cab to my hotel on the other side of town. I had finally arrived in Singapore and the reality hit home as I sat looking out of the window of my 26th floor hotel room at an amazing view of an amazing city. I couldn't stop grinning.
Early the next morning I took the short walk to Outram Park MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station where I picked up an EZ-Link card - a pre-paid card used for all manner of payments across the city including public transit - and made my way to Suntec City to collect my race tickets. The journey on the train was quick, easy and - at 66cents - very cheap (in fact I would spend less than 7 bucks on buses and trains all weekend including getting out to the airport!) Suntec City, on the other hand, was anything but cheap: it was huge and had all manner of lovely things to spend my money on! After several false starts, I finally found my way to the SingPost office where I had selected to collect my race tickets. I flashed my passport, was handed my passes and was quickly on my way. I stopped briefly at the Singapore Motor Show at Suntec Convention Centre but soon realised that it was a total waste of time and headed over to the nearby circuit.
Having spent even more of my precious money on T shirts, a programme and food I headed to the grandstand to find my seat. I'd managed to get myself a ticket for row one in turn one which should have been one of the best seats in the house but I was disappointed to find my view of the track badly obstructed by a safety rail on the front of the grandstand. Just before the on-track activity started I met my neighbour for the next few days who turned out to be a guy from Manchester. We spent the next couple of days cheering on Lewis Hamilton, jeering Jenson Button, antagonising the Aussies in the row behind us, drinking beer and struggling to find our way back to our hotels afterwards. Happy days!
Sunday came and it was a strange experience to wake at 10am then lounge around all day before heading off to the race mid-afternoon. At any other race you have to be up at the crack of dawn, battle it out on the road to get anywhere near the venue and then fight your way through crowds to get to your seat. In Singapore it was a simple ride on the MRT, a quick beer at a local bar and then a short unhurried walk to your seat past street entertainers and bands performing on nearby stages. To put t simply - it was one hell of a party!
Excitement built as the sun started to go down and, at 8pm, the race got underway. It was an exciting race, full of unpredictable action, and it was over all too soon. Fernando Alonso - long out of favour in the Antill household - ran out as winner, with Nico Rosberg a strong second despite a ten-second stop-go penalty and Lewis Hamilton happy to sit in third and pick up six more points than Felipe Massa (his main rival for the championship) who endured an awful race.
We'd been repeatedly warned to stay off the track at the end of the race but, following the lead of half a dozen spectators who made it onto the track as the final cars crossed the line, Dan and I leapt down from the grandstand, hit the track and set off towards the podium. Having sprinted the length of the pit straight- thankfully now with scores of other people following - we made it to the podium just in time for the trophy presentations and national anthems. It was quite an experience and fair play to the authorities who let us get away with it before politely asking us all to make out way back into the public areas. The whole weekend was rounded off nicely when we went to buy a couple of post-race beers and were handed a hundred bucks worth of beer tokens by one of the hospitality people. Magic.
As we left the circuit we became aware of a commotion up ahead and were amazed to find ourselves walking through two long lines of event staff who were cheering and applauding us as we left. I've really got no idea if this show of appreciation was spontaneous or not but one thing was very clear: they were genuine in their appreciation of those who had come and very proud of what they had pulled off. And rightly so - it was an amazing weekend.
Monday morning came and I woke sad that it was all over and felt sad that I would be heading back to Australia later in the day. I think that has to be the ultimate compliment - how many people can say they are sad to be heading to Australia? Before I headed off to the airport I headed back to the circuit to see what was going on and was surprised to discover that the teams were still there working away. I guess that is the difference between a fly away race and one of the regular European races that I had been to before where spectators will still be milling around as the last of the transporters roll out of the circuit before being driven through the night to be back at base on Monday morning.
It would be wrong of me to say that Malaysia and Singapore had been what I had hoped they would be. Far from it; they'd been far better and I can't wait until I get another opportunity to go back. As an Englishman who is more used to broken and failing infrastructure and negative attitudes, it was a thoroughly refreshing change to find a place which is forward-looking and positive. I'll be back!
Originally published on - and Copyright retained by - Boogity, Boogity, Boogity
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