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I burnt my arms in the fierce equatorial sun on my long riding days to make it out of Malaysia before visa expiry. The tropical palms lining the road, in and between colour-splash gardens of flowers and neat lawns, were pleasant to the eye, but didn't offer much shade. My road was quite a wide two- sometimes four-lane highway, but not express way, mostly, with excellent, fast surface. Until close to the Singapore border, it was largely rural and just in the hinterland behind the coast. At one point a small tortoise started crossing the road, but stopped and withdrew it's limbs and head when it perceived me skimming past. A hint of some kind? Getting very near the border, as my very last Malaysian sunset faded, the police stopped me on an upward incline. "That's all I need!" I thought and winced, as I really didn't want to arrive at the border too long after dark. But they just wanted to give me something to drink, and would have given me more than one can of cold tea if I'd had time or the strength to carry it. Those two incidents were my main ones in Malaysia's friendly deep south.
After crossing a highly built up zone of residential blocks, shopping malls, hotels and factories (mimicking Singapore), I reached the Johor Bahru border; the last obstacle before the causeway/bridge onto Singapore. But the immigration officers didn't have to let me proceed. They had me by the short and curlies, because of a mathematical error on my part. I'd forgotten to deduct a day from the 2months visa period I'd added to my August9th entry, so I should have exited on October8th. This was October 9th! " 2 or 3 hours it'll take. A full police report....A big fine..." The officers explained and then asked if I would like to do it the easiest way. 50Malaysian Ringgit lighter and 5minutes later I was spinning across to Singapore, approaching a major stage post in my journey south from Shanghai; the southernmost tip of continental Asia.
10Km of rapid expressway, bright with sodium lights, and then a fairly straightforward route through city streets vying with air-con double decker buses and gleaming Jaguars and BMWs etc., took me into the central city zone. I found my target budget hotel in Beach Road without problem (Wow! Singaporean signs are accurate and helpful!). But there's nothing remotely like a beach here, unless it's inside one of the shopping malls.
Fortunately, there are eating places open until 4am. Next day I went into a shopping mall; the glass roofs letting the bright sunlight into indoor streets and the air-conditioning, combined to put me into a stroll along an English high street in mid Autumn. Freaky!!
There was to be a firewalking festival a couple days later. Luck me!! Something distinctly Asian and interesting to write to you guys about. And I'd always wondered what and how it was done; the mind control and all that. I thought it would be just a select few well trained exponents, but no, there was a long procession of perhaps 2000 men (only men that I could make out), who walked about 5Km from a temple in Little India to the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, right in the middle of China Town, to walk on hot coals. The traffic congestion I encountered on the way was thick and the crowds queuing to enter the temple for a glimpse, were almost solid. The men walking to their fate were dressed in yellow; shorts or lungi (sarong-like wrap) and T-shirt or towel, all yellow). Many were shirtless, displaying torso and face daubed in yellow and white paint. They carried small, leafy branches of some kind. They made their way along the street singing, drumming and chanting; building up their courage. Their was a large police presence; especially diverting traffic. Lots of shiny, white, new, powerful motorbikes. Anyway, there was evidence that these firewalkers weren't all so highly trained, as, on nearing the temple of action, I witnessed a few limping badly away through the masses. I tethered my bike and plunged into the sea of people. The queue moved quite swiftly, conducted with a Singaporean precision. Off with my shoes to be carried in a plastic bag, and into the temple. Ropes funneled us along a ringside path; to our right the main event and up and to our left, on platforms and up in the balconies around the walls, a dense audience of finely and gaily dressed Indian Singaporeans, cheering and clapping. There were ushers keeping us passers by moving, and they had little tolerance for anyone dallying to long at ringside. So I went through and then found a way up into the audience, some of whom were standing on a small hill of sand. I stood on my tiptoes until my calves were sore.
Two tall skyscrapers stood out in the night sky above; Singapore Telekom and a big bank I can't remember the name of. Traditional southern-Indian style towers of small brightly painted statues topped the facing temple wall, which was adorned mainly with white cow statues. And floodlights. Everything down below was awash with their light, not only for the audience, but for a legion of TV and video cameras up in one balcony section.
And so to the spectacle itself; At the focus was a 3-4m long, 2m wide track of glowing, hot coals, spread evenly on the ground. At the end was a trough of water. The heroes were filing up to the start of the track and then pausing to make last second preparations and prayers. Other, perhaps more experienced firewalkers, stood by the track to give assistance if necessary. Each firewalker would throw a handful of red petals ahead of him, kiss his branch and touch it to his forehead, then go. Some walked slowly and deliberately in obvious prayer, some ran, and some held their arms aloft in triumph and yelled. Some stumbled, some were steady. Some started well and then finished in a hurry. Some needed to quench their feet in the trough at the end, some could have turned away from it and gone back.
They do this once; maybe once a year, maybe once a lifetime. And the crowds go wild when they see their friend or favourite. Some just dance and drum all the time, except for some reason, when the police with their hi-tech miniature 2way radios come round.
I asked a few of the firewalkers who came by me, how it was. "OK", said one. "Alright", said another. There's got to be more to it than that, I thought and decided to dig deeper with anyone who showed willingness to talk more. I found two men, one obviously a seasoned campaigner and one about my age. The latter said that it was a really great experience and that he loved to do it each year. He said that it gave him an indescribable feeling of power; the power over pain; in fact, the power to not feel pain. "If you think it's going to hurt, it's going to hurt." He said, regarding my question about those who patently did feel the pain. "They are not well enough prepared." Or as one of my Singaporean friends later suggested, "not pure enough".
I left at approaching 10pm. The last walkers were still in the street outside, bravely chanting, and nearing their finest few seconds. I merged into the traffic.
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