Tuesday, 20 February 2007

A Gentle Genting Caper

We have just returned from four days away; a quick respite from the heat of Singapore. Our destination of choice was the Genting Highlands which is an hours drive away from Kuala Lumpur or seven hours if you did what we did and went by coach from Singapore itself.

We decided to beat the Chinese New Year crowds and went two days before the festivities commenced. This would give us a fair chance of getting a reasonably room on a non-smoking floor of the rather optimistically named, First World Hotel.

We rose at an ungodly hour to ensure that we got to the Queens Street bus terminal in time for the 6:30 departure. The cab we booked for 5:30 am arrived early and so when we got to the terminal (which was in fact a dilapidated shed with a grimy window) it was not yet 6 a.m. Our plans for buying some breakfast evaporated as nothing was open. Eventually, while I guarded the suitcase, my wife managed to find an open shop in a nearby street.

The luxury coach was a double decker and we passengers were accommodated on the upper level. The bottom level seemed to be largely occupied by a day bed for the driver and our luggage shared the same space. The bus's brochure proudly proclaimed that it had reclining seats. I now know this to be true, as the catch on my seat was faulty resulting in me travelling the entire journey in a reclining position. Not that I was complaining as the early start to the morning made this a most pleasant position to be in.

The roads in Malaysia are excellent and maintained through revenue gathered at toll stations along the way. The landscape is dominated by oil palm plantations which is one of Malaysia's foremost industries.

We had two stops enroute and a meal in Yong Ping where I purchased and attempted to digest probably the worst bau (steamed bun) I have ever tasted. As will all such bus halts, the prices were steep by local standards. The Malaysian Ringgit is about 2.2 to the Singapore dollar.

Having passed through the outskirts of K.L. we climbed rapidly into the Genting Highlands and there looming above us was the multi-hued, Colditz of gambling and theme park gratification, the First World Hotel. Because of the altitude it was almost permanently mantled with cloud which made the entire complex a most surreal apparition (see picture left).

For the first two days we had a relaxing time enjoying the coolness of the air which is a marked contrast to the humidity and heat of Singapore. However on the eve of Chinese New Year the experience changed dramatically with a huge influx of guests, many of whom seemed to be on cheap package tours from China.

The hotel has 6,000 rooms and each one seemed to have an extended family in it. Every second person was a chain smoker and even on our "non-smoking" floor the occupants flagrantly ignored the rules and smoked as and when they wished. None of the staff seemed either able or willing to police the non smoking ban. The great irony was that the lobby was meant to be smoke free but other public places such as the casinos and eateries were not. This meant that non smokers such as ourselves and the staff, were subjected constantly to second hand smoke and our clothes and skin stank on cigarettes by day's end.

It is not a good omen that one of the successful bidders for the Singapore Integrated Resorts - to be built on Sentosa - is the Genting Group who own and operate the Genting Highlands resort. I hope that Singapore government takes a very tough stand and bans smoking from the start, to protect the staff who work there and patrons in general from the insidious danger of passive smoking.

The trend world wide is move to a smoke free environment and in New Zealand smoking is banned in all restaurants and public places such as casinos. Australia is moving in a similar direction and despite the protestations of the gambling industry, revenue barely dipped with the strict introduction of such policies.

Our room in the First World Hotel was small and basic. If we stayed again we would pay more and upgrade to a World Club room which are more spacious and better appointed. No air conditioning was in evidence nor required as the climate was pleasantly cool. We even called for an extra blanket.

The food experience throughout the entire resort was sub standard. Breakfast in the hotel's eight floor restaurant was cattle class chaos. People milling everywhere, self help toasters with elements so poor they required four passes through the machine to get anything resembling toast, 'hot' buffet that contained some dishes that were decidedly chilled, watered down fruit juices and fellow diners without a skerrick of table manners between them!

Food outlets in the resorts were also marginal with the possible exception of Kenny Roger's Chicken and a local variation called Marry Brown. No, this is not a spelling mistake, it is Marry not Mary.

I had only been to Genting once before and that was twenty years ago when there was but one hotel/casino. The theme park and the other hotels are more recent developments with the park itself being a very popular destination for children and are of comparable standard to those in the States.

Chinese New Year entertainment was not that inspired but we did view a traditional Lion dance as well as some singing groups who performed on the public stages.

Lessons to be learned from our holiday?

Firstly don't travel to a Chinese-oriented resort during Chinese New Year as the crowds are indeed madding.

Secondly, pay a bit more and stay in a better class of room. The climate was certainly invigorating - the smoking was not.

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