Another impressive flight from Qantas took us from Perth to Singapore. We took the chicken and the pork and by the time we were whisked through Singapore’s ultra-modern and efficient Changi airport we were already a little bit worse for wear.
It was great to back in Asia, we hadn’t realised but we hadn’t visited the Far East since our trip from Hong Kong back to Prague in 2007. Over three days we re-acquainted ourselves with the various cuisines of Singapore – Chinese wonton noodle soup at a hawker stall on Lavender Street, South Indian masala dosai in Little India, crispy roast duck in Chinatown and, of course, authentic Malay Laksa, from it’s place of origin in the suburb of Katong (although I have to say I now prefer the giant bowl you get at Apium near Smithfields market!). Another meal we had that is very unique to Singapore is Scissor Cut Curry Rice, a mix of egg, belly pork, veggies and chicken all cut up at high speed by a guy brandishing a pair of scissors and served on a plate of rice. We washed all these meals down with a hot glass of tea, served with an inch and a half of condensed milk in the bottom!
It was Monika’s first visit to Singapore so we started out by covering the main sights – wandering around the temples and fragrant markets of the Little India quarter, surveying the CBD from a vantage point above Fort Canning, wandering through the icy shopping malls of Orchard Road and the clean and modern Clark Quay area – which resembles any “waterfront” area in any city in the world, i.e. shiny bars and restaurants with no charm whatsoever! We hurried through to Chinatown, much more at home amongst the steaming pots of bright yellow boiled chickens and the scores of guys offering a “best price” on whatever camera or computer equipment we so desired. We emerged unscathed into the southern area of Chinatown, visiting the Temple of the Buddha Tooth Relic around which a much slower pace of life can be observed, old guys playing mah jhong outside. Heading back to the north of the centre we passed the tourist attractions of the Marine district – the left-field (for Singapore) Merlion sculpture now facing the giant casino that looks like it has a boat built on top of it and crossed the Cavenagh bridge to the statue of Stamford Raffles, grandfather to all that Singapore has become. Although we did not stop for a Singapore Sling we did have a wander around inside Raffles Hotel, still the enclave of the filthy rich and famous when in Singapore. I would love to come back and stay there some time, the building has lost none of its colonial splendour and charm and whilst inside it seems that the world stopped turning sometime around Somerset Maugham’s 3rd G and T back in the 1920’s sometime! An area of Singapore that I didn’t appreciate so much on my previous visit was the Islamic area around the aptly named Arab Street. I recalled it as being a collection of primarily wholesale shops, selling building equipments and such like but this time we found streets full of fabric and rug shops clustered around the beautiful Sultan Mosque.
What people most often hear about Singapore is how clean and efficient and modern everything is. Whilst in the centre this is true, and very impressive, this does a disservice to these other areas of Singapore which are providing the city with its fuel and motivation to keep going – the colonial buildings around Little India and Kampong Glam (the Arab/Malay quarter) absolutely teeming with humanity, people still doing the same jobs they have been doing for 50 years. This, I think, is the heart of Singapore.
Escaping the high flying city lifestyle we crossed the causeway to Malaysia and headed straight for Tioman island. We knew we had really arrived in Asia at this point as the bus taking us from Johor Bahru to Kota TIngii broke down half way and then, once we had changed buses at Kota Tinggi and raced to the port of Mersing just in time for the last ferry, everybody erupted in panic screaming fire and jumped back off the boat and on to the jetty. It turned out not to be a fire but rather a fire extinguisher that had set itself off under the weight of someones luggage, people carting everything from microwaves and air conditioning units to giant boxes of instant noodles back to the island. Luckily it didn’t happen after we had left the port as I am sure everybody would have jumped in the water. Considering there was a major ferry disaster a Tioman island a couple of years ago, that situation wouldn’t have been funny.
One of the highlights of visiting Tioman island used to be the overland trek from Tekek (close to ABC) across the island to Juara beach on the east coast and the walking trail through the thick jungle is still there. There is now a 4x4 track connecting Juara and Tekek which means the walking trail looks even less frequented these days. The 4x4 road has prompted quite a bit of development in Juara and it is no longer the secret tropical paradise it once was although it is still the nicest actual beach on Tioman. Due to the bad weather we trekked over and back in one day rather than schlep our backpacks over there for an overnight stay. This meant a sweaty 20km return trek from ABC, which at least helped burn off some of the gorging we did in Singapore!
Leaving Tioman we found the ferry overbooked and had to fight for places, sadly we saw a group of people who had been at the front of the queue left behind in the melee, but at least it displayed that some safety precautions are in place. We crossed back to Mersing and got the last seats on the bus to KL leaving that evening. Those of you who are acquainted with KL’s Puduraya bus station will remember a noisy, dark warren of ticket offices and crowded platforms, with more than a few unsavoury looking characters lurking around. We were all ready for arrival at Pudu station when the bus pulled up at a gleaming new bus station a few kilometres south of the centre. This new station, known as TBS, serves all southbound bus traffic from KL and is really impressive. The downside is that if you are stuck in a Sunday evening tailback and arrive after the last bus and metrorail have left then you have no choice but to stump up for a taxi. That is unless you are able to sweet-talk the security guy to let you bunk down in the customer services office until the morning. (If you are interested, I made a visit to Pudu station to see how it looked now it only serves northbound traffic. To my amazement I found it had been given a total facelift, shiny white floors, glass partition walls and functioning escalators. Previously it appeared that the only thing holding the whole place together was the grease and grime, not anymore!)
In any case we only wanted to spend the morning in KL to apply for visas for Myanmar before heading down the coast to Melaka. The visa application was surprisingly easy given the chaotic nature of the Myanmar embassy and the sudden increase in interest of visiting Myanmar. In fact trying to negotiate the clogged, snarling rush hour traffic of KL was the hardest part of the whole process. Well, that and having to get new photos developed at the embassy as ours were turned down due to having a too dark background! The reason why we chose to apply here is because we heard that in Bangkok many people get turned away each day, the embassy cannot keep up with demand. It sounds like Myanmar is changing fast, apparently already unrecognisable from my previous visit, according to recent visitors. We shall see when we get there.
Melaka is worlds apart from KL, the compact centre easy to navigate on foot. A former Dutch and Portuguese colonial enclave with British, Chinese, Indian and Malay influence, the buildings are still well-preserved and form the main centre from which the city extends outwards. We explored the classic colonial buildings of the Stadhuys, Christ Church on the east side of the river before climbing up to the ruins of the Church of St. Paul, with a view over the town. On the other side of the river sits Chinatown, the other main area of town traversed by tourists. I cannot recall visiting the Chinatown last time but this time we lost entire days meandering through the alleys and crooked streets, the ramshackle buildings propped up by the occasional mosque or Chinese temple. This area is still very much industrious, every square foot of space put to some sort of purpose.
Melaka is one of those rare places where it is really easy to just slow down the pace of life for a few days, watching the world go by from one of the Indian cafes that are churning out roti canai all day and night. Roti canai is the typical Malay breakfast – a thick, greasy pancake served with a small bowl of spicy sauce. Very tasty. It is just enough to tide you over until lunchtime, which is most often Nasi Lemak – a package of rice cooked in coconut milk served with anchovies, boiled egg, peanuts, cucumber and spicy chilli sauce. This is the most common lunch and is served often wrapped up in a small banana leaf packet. In Melaka there is also a Buddhist restaurant, Amituofoh, that offers rice and vegetable curries every mealtime for a voluntary donation, it was worth the experience just to go along and try it.
Kuala Lumpur has never been on Monika’s or my top five lists of places to go in Malaysia but we spent a couple of nights there whilst we picked up the visas. Walking in Chinatown around Petaling street is an experience, trying to get through without being offered fake watches and perfumes and wallets is a real challenge and in the evening the same vendors set up stalls and offer cheap happy hour beers, and are possibly even more insistent that you plop your arse down on one of their stools. Across the road are a series of food stalls, here we tried the famous Bah Kut Teh, which translates as Pork Rib Soup but also includes various parts of pigs innards in the spicy, aromatic broth. It is very tasty and we enjoyed it immensely, it even felt a bit therapeutic until we got the bill and realised we needed to brush up on our Malay language skills a bit!
The Little India area of KL is quite over-rated and twice now I have found little more than a bunch of fabric stores and small cafes, although the Masjid Jamek is a very beautiful mosque squeezed in the middle of it all. We did find ourselves at the bottom of the Petronas Towers without quite meaning to though, having walked right through the Indian and Malay (Kampung Glam) districts and I have to say I really do find this building amazing, I think one of the feats of modern architecture. From the new to the old the next day as we stopped at Merdeka Square on the way to the metro station. Formerly an open cricket ground the square is home to the old Royal Selangor club, the place to be seen in the colonial times and still one of the most opulent dining venues today. On the other sides of the square sit a giant flagpole, one of the world’s tallest but to my eye not as tall as the one in Amman, Jordan, and facing the Royal Selangor is the Sultan Abdul Samad building, with its mix of Moghul, Moorish and Victorian styles. I had forgotten how impressive it is just to sit in here and gaze around, with the diminutive St Mary Cathedral sitting opposite the north side of the square completing the 360° view.
We were heading to the station to take a train to the Batu Caves, 16km from the centre. The main cave sits atop a 272-step staircase which climbs up the side of a giant gold statue of the Hindu Lord Maruga. Within the cave is a Hindu shrine and temple with dozens of monkeys climbing over and around the various statues of Hindu gods. For me this is probably the most impressive highlight of KL and should be on any visitor’s itinerary. Apparently each February there is a pilgrimage from a Hindu temple in Chinatown all the way out to the caves at which point the caves and steps are totally packed with devotees.
We started our trip across the peninsula by heading for the massive Taman Negara national park. Unfortunately we did not realise that we were arriving on the first Saturday of school holidays so we found the gateway town of Kuala Tahan to be totally packed. We had planned to camp within the park itself but were warned off by the park officials tales of wild pigs coming daily to wreck tents! We found a place to stay back in the town, not a moment too soon as we suddenly saw the same people walking round in circles looking for a vacant bed! We did manage a couple of short treks in the park although the walking was quite demanding due to a recent deluge of rain turning many of the trails to mud. Even trails which we were recommended by the park rangers were closed. Once walking we also found the heat and humidity very exhausting and our planned 20km trek soon turned into a 10km round trip to Bukit Indah, a summit with view over the Tahan river. The final challenge within Taman Negara is to avoid getting attacked by leeches. Recalling our experiences in Borneo where Monika especially became an involuntary blood donor we were careful to avoid them and almost succeeded, just one little puncture wound each. They were not as aggressive as their compatriots on Borneo, these ones simply chase you along the floor as opposed to jumping on you from the nearby branches! It was interesting to experience a national park here but I must say that the organisation and management of this park is disappointing compared with those in Sarawak and Sabah, they didn’t even have any facility here to leave luggage whilst trekking, if they had we would certainly have made an overnight trek to one of their hides and spent the night on the lookout for tigers or other wild cats! Instead we spent the night trying to block out the noise of about 60 kids staying at our guesthouse, the parents seemingly oblivious as they sat watching the badminton on the telly.
There is a train journey in Malaysia that is also famous as a tourist attraction. This is the Jungle Railway that connects KL with Kota Bahru going via the Taman Negara region. We picked up this train in the small town of Jerantut and spent the afternoon jolting and jerking our way through the jungle to Wakaf Bahru, just a few kilometres from Kota Bahru. The jungle here is really thick and, so far, not affected by the palm oil plantations that have spread across most of Malaysia, both on the peninsula and over on Borneo. At some places the train stops seemingly in the middle of nowhere, only for people to emerge from the jungle and get on the train, others disappearing into the jungle and women selling small bags of guava amidst all the coming and going.
The northern terminus of the ‘Jungle Railway’ lies just a few kilometres from the town of Kota Bahru, capital of Kelantan state. This is one of the most conservative states in Malaysia whose government is constantly trying to get sharia law introduced. What it means to the average tourist is that you have to be a little bit more careful with how you dress but other than that the people are just as friendly and welcoming as anywhere else in Malaysia. I mention this only because we heard a lot of people being put off visiting the region for this reason. It would never cross our minds to even consider that there would be any difference but I guess you can never doubt the power of the Western media!
Apart from the train journey Kota Bahru has two other sights that were very much of interest to us. The first place we headed after we arrived was the night market, dozens of stalls offering all manner of tasty foods, with the local specialities including nasi kerabu (a mixture of spices and the blue pea flower giving rice a blueish hue, hence the English name ‘blue rice’) served with a choice of curries – I went for King Prawn - and all manner of meat satay – grilled skewers of meat coated in a peanut sauce. There is even a stall knocking out all sorts of sweet treats such as coconut fritters for dessert. The other highlight of Kota Bahru for us was the daytime market, with fruit and vegetable vendors taking over the central ground floor, surrounded by butchers and fishmongers. The upper two floors are lined with spice and dry goods stalls and fabric and clothes retailers. From the top floor the view over the commerce happening around the vegetable stalls is a very impressive sight and a perfect way to finish our trip through Malaysia. Tomorrow we will cross the border to Thailand, going through the slightly dodgy Sungai Kolok crossing, and trying to get out of the town as soon as we can!
You might be wondering why we took such a winding route through the Malay peninsula on this visit. Well, it is because Monika had never been to Singapore, Tioman island or Melaka and I had missed Kota Bahru on my previous trip down the east coast. Neither of us had visited Taman Negara but we have both been to Penang, Cherating, Perhentian islands and the Cameron Highlands which are the other major highlights I guess. Neither of us was interested in visiting Langkawi and we needed to get those visas in KL! This was our 3rd extended trip through Malaysia – two through the peninsula and one around Sarawak and Sabah, and little Brunei, on Borneo. Whilst there is nowhere in particular we really would love to come back to, Malaysia (and Singapore and Brunei) are the sort of countries that it is such a pleasure to travel through – the people are so friendly and welcoming and you hardly ever feel like you are being ripped off or taken for granted. The food is really tasty and under-rated, I prefer the variety of meals available here to Thai food in all honesty and you can easily become addicted to the sweet cups of Teh and Kopi. Travel is so easy and comfortable, especially in Malaysia where the intercity buses are still of a standard that National Express can only dream of.