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I offered my services as pub pianist at the Shang. The management agreed to pay me a generous performance fee as long as flowers didn’t burst out of the top of the piano and the ‘Peacock of Wrong Notes’ didn’t come and perch on the fence.

30 October 2016

 Since travelling from Melbourne to Sydney during a plane strike about 40 years ago I have never been a fan of the long distance bus trip. Yesterday did nothing to change my opinion. The platoon was in jubilant mood as it did its taxing cardio climb up the sand/mud bank with hand cut steps and climbed into what was a far superior bus to those that came before. The driver had to blow into a breathalyser before he could start the engine and pull out into a narrow road that ran along by the river. “All bound for Yangon town, many miles away,” The Seekers sang in my head.

“We’ll soon be going onto Highway One,” the Kommendant announced. Ah, that will be so much better, I thought. We will whizz along without motor bikes, dogs, chickens, other busses, trucks and monks to dodge around. We continued thus for an hour. I asked the Kommendant when we would enter Highway One. “We are already on Highway One,” he replied. For the next six hours we dodged around motor bikes, dogs, chickens, other busses, trucks and monks. We made a pish stop (the bladder-sensitive platoon’s favourite destination) and then stopped for lunch, accompanied by a team of friendly flies. The cruise organisers provided plastic boxes of fillings for bread rolls but there were no bread rolls. I ate my fillings after which somebody on staff remembered the rolls. We then tucked into bread rolls with no filling except butter which we had to spread with a fork. This didn’t rate as the company’s best lunch. However, the local beer was a very acceptable drop and marginally safer to drink than the water.

Our last stop before hitting the suburbs of Yangon was at the British war memorial cemetery. What a bore, I thought. Who needs this? I was in for a surprise. A superbly designed open building sat in the middle of lawns in which the graves of the fallen from the Second World War were marked with plates bearing their names and a message from their loved ones. There were soldiers from Burma, Britain, Australia, Pakistan and India, 27,000 of them, who died in the campaign to hold back the Japanese advance. Nearly all of them were in their twenties. Walking past their graves was a very moving and humbling experience. I was glad we’d stopped.

The Shang gave us a better welcome than last time, a couple of weeks ago, when we were allocated, in hindsight, a modest room. Nothing infuriates Michelle more than a stingy hotel room. After that, she wrote the Shang management a polite but pointed email about the dubious benefits of being a member of its ‘Golden Circle’ club, especially as it had not even acknowledged her birthday. And an answer came directed, in a writing unexpected, and I think the same was written by a manager dipped in guilt. When we returned it promised the Shang would make it all up to us. And so I came to pass that the Shang Golden Circle club lavished upon us a suite of apartment proportions with a wonderful view, two tellies, plus lounge and dining spaces. Furthermore, we were a marked couple in the dining room when, in turn, two attractive ladies from upper management fawned, grovelled, bowed, scraped, praised and thanked, blessing the day we were born and how they would be forever grateful that we had chosen their humble hotel about which to grizzle.

The cruise company wanted to stamp a final impression on the platoon by finishing on a high. Just when we thought we couldn’t stomach another pagoda, we were taken to two more in Yangon. The first sits in the middle of town and was only worthy of a bus stop and short battle with vendors until we moved off to view a giant reclining Buddha. It was housed in a special building and, being Sunday, was well patronised by tourists and worshippers. Built from brick and then plastered and painted, the figure is 66 meters long. We were told that the monks were responsible for cleaning it. If that were the case, I’d sack the monks. It was very dusty and had been used for bombing practice by pigeons. At a certain time in the afternoon a gong sounded which set off a loud chorus of dog-singing. I suppose that after one dog had taught itself to sing the rest caught on.

The biggest reclining Buddha in Myanmar is at Monywa, quite a way from Yangon, and is some 91 metres long. It is so big you can go inside (there are no internal organs), entering through the ear or up the nose. For the record, the world’s biggest reclining Buddha is in China. It is over 400 metres long. There’s probably a hotel in there somewhere. The significance of a reclining Buddha is based on Buddha’s lifestyle. The story goes that he worked 22 hours a day and then spent the other two hours reclining while talking to his followers.

Then off to the jewel in the crown: The Shwedagon Pagoda which sits on the highest hill in Yangon. The stupa goes up for 100 metres on top of that. Consequently, when it is lit up at night it is like a Buddhism beacon, grandly and goldly visible from all over the city.If the reclining Buddha was busy, this was bedlam. Thousands of people were trying to catch the lifts up to the tiled terrace around the stupa and thousands were trying to do the opposite. However, once we arrived on the terrace we were exposed to the most unbelievably exotic and decorative side of Buddhism. For a belief system based on detachment from worldly goods this is difficult to reconcile. Surrounding the stupa are the most lavish temples with hundreds of Buddha images and gold decorations gleaming everywhere. The stupa itself has half a ton of gold on it and right at the top, under the umbrella, there is a 76 karat diamond among a massive collection of gemstones.

Buddha images on public display now take advantage of lighting technology, with moving coloured lights around the head to imitate auras. Most tourists think that the lights cheapen the beauty of the images, but the Kommendant tells us that the locals like it that way because it augments their imagination.

The farewell dinner was held at a hotel called the Governor’s Residence – which it may once have been. It was an excellent meal, putting the platoon in mellow mood. Robert, my lawyer chess friend and used to addressing groups of people, dinged his glass and made an impromptu speech flattering the tour company. The Kommendant responded in like vein. I didn’t think either was totally accurate. Don called out something silly, but didn’t mention his health. While the Kommendant spoke briefly and diplomatically, his colleague, Gareth, turned in a command performance. Gareth been getting stuck into the free wine, in spite of being a practicing Buddhist. He rose uncertainly to his feet and then couldn’t shut up as he waved his arms in massive, all-encompassing embraces. I could only catch a word of English here and there. “Hub gribba wunnerful people,” he thundered. “Gob bonna wakwak blessing!”  He seemed on the verge of tears as he told us all we were all family. It looked as though we were in for a filibuster when another brave soul from our platoon leapt to her feet and loudly toasted the children we’d met. That closed Gareth down.

The Governor’s Residence, incidentally, looks to be a great place to stay, with its beautifully preserved timber joinery and fine British club architecture. It could be used as a set for a P.D. James murder mystery. Room rates start at just under an eye-watering thousand dollars a night.

Tuesday November 1

Our last day was spent in Singapore. Michelle had joined us to the Conrad Hilton Honours Exclusive Society of Special Guests, giving us a better room and free refreshments on the club floor as long as we fitted into specific Very Happy Hour time frames.

On this trip, especially, I have observed the common practice of hotel room temperatures. Because it is hot outside, your room must be like an ice-chest. Being so cold, you then must sleep under a quilt to survive the night. Nobody does this at home, so why do hotels change the pattern? After the quilt was lowered to half-mast to achieve an average bodily temperature, the bed at the Conrad was very comfortable – once you got onto it. It was so high off the ground that short people, unless equipped with a ladder would have had to sleep on the floor.

At a lavishly laid out breakfast offering I encountered one of the worst hotel toasters of my long career of reporting. I will write to Derek Breadchamber about it. Dented and spooky looking inside, the toaster was a miserable four-holer-double-delivery model with quite a few Ks on the clock. We were late to breakfast so it was not under pressure, but it would be unable to cope with a peak rush. It could cause fist fights. Incidentally, breakfast finished at 10.30 am and by 10.20 am the toey hotel staff was already clearing up. The toaster was marched out a 10.31am. I would have advised them not to bring it back.

Singapore is an astonishing city. It is so clean, ordered and designed that I get the feeling I’ve slipped through a wormhole into the future. It shows what can be achieved with discipline and leadership. We visited Gardens by the Bay, something I would normally find of little interest, yet I was enchanted by its beauty and inventiveness. We paid to go up in a lift and take the sky walk around a walkway suspended between huge manmade trees.

Although you can wander around the gardens for nothing, if you want to experience anything involving height or service, you pay quite substantially. As a whole, Singapore is not cheap. For the most part, it is dearer than Sydney. For example, a piece of Swarovski jewelry that cost $129 in Sydney cost $170 in a swanky shopping center in Singapore.

On our last night we ate at Spago in the Marina Bay Sands, the three-tower iconic building topped by a swimming pool and restaurant in the shape of a ship’s hull. Over dinner and a powerful cocktail called ‘Grin and bear it’ we watched the sun set from the 57th floor, while the swimming pool crowd luxuriated by peering over the horizon edge into oblivion.

As long as we get up before we go to bed we’ll catch our Singapore Airlines flight at 7 am tomorrow morning. It looks as though we’ll get another aircraft from the soon-to-be-retired list.

It is time to wind up Octemberfest. Before I go, I want to say thank you to my wonderful travelling companion. Michelle battles travel gremlins, joins hotel clubs and elongates our travel budget. She knows where to go in a city she’s never visited. She carries on her back emergency provisions for every possible disaster. Her suitcase contains a compact pharmacy which she happily dispenses to anybody in need. She reads brochures, chats to people in lifts, learns local languages and loves conquering subway train systems.

In every sense, she is my compass.