Travels without a Plan #16

Singapore, Melaka and Kuala Lumpur
I have finally left Australia and am well and truly onto the next stage in South East Asia.

My final week in Australia can only really only be described as lazy, with not much going on apart from my first Cricket International, Australia A vs Zimbabwe (the Aussies won easily) and a tour of the local Castlemaine XXXX Brewery, including 4 free beers after the tour. I must admit that as I left it felt really strange: eight months in a country is a long time.

First stage of my trip in SE Asia was Singapore, which from many of the people I had talked to was not their favourite place. They describe it as too sterile, safe and boring. However, for me as a first stop in Asia, it seemed like an ideal place to start. Yes it’s safe, conservative, but it’s still very Asian, and made a real change from Australia.

First thing that strikes you about Singapore is how amazingly clean and organised everywhere is. No rubbish on the streets, the buses all run exactly on time and the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit – their underground system) is by far the cleanest and the most well run I have ever seen.

Another thing that you notice is the Singaporeans love of shopping. Not even America has as many malls, it’s truely a mecca of consumerism. With that love of shopping comes the fact that the Singaporeans have to be the best turned out group of people that I have ever seen. Designer names rule, if you don’t have the latest designer gear, you seem to be a no one.

Despite this modern sophistication, Singapore has its old world charm and echoes of its Colonial day splendours, from the Raffles Hotel (home of the Singapore Sling cocktail), Chinatown to Little India, it’s all pretty different. My hostel was situated just off Little India, an area steeped in Indian history and traditions, with old Mosques and roads with names such as Baghdad Street, Jahore Road and Haji Lane. It all gave real sense of India.

It also helped that the hostel I was staying in was located directly on top of a group of 24 hour restaurants, the smell was really quite awesome. The hostel was also situated about 2 minute walk away from Bugis Street, an area with a huge night market, selling everything from Tibetean Antiques to the latest designer watches and T-Shirts (fake, of course).

I was only going to stay a few days in Singapore, but due to the fact that it was Chinese New Year (there is a huge Chinese community, and massive celebrations), and the people in my dorm were all pretty cool (yet more Canadians and another surfer guy from LA), in the end I ended up staying for six days, doing the usual window shopping, exploring the ethnic areas and eating the most amazing food. However, as with everything, it was time to move on.

Catching a local bus in Singapore for the three hour coach trip to Melaka was quite an event, with seemingly no organisation. People crowded onto the bus as the driver tried to leave 10 minutes early, much to the protests of locals who were running down the hill to catch up with us!!

The crossing into Malaysia was perhaps the most pain-free customs check that I had ever gone through. In the end, the whole bus was through in a little over seven minutes (who said security in Asia was tight??). The transition from Singapore to Malaysia was also instant, with huge palm forests (for the rubber), and hundreds of people milling around trying to sell anything they could get their hands on!!!

Melaka is a fascinating place to start a journey in Malaysia. It’s the birthplace of the Nation and has a long history of Colonialism, starting in 1511 with its invasion by the Portugese, then in 1641 by the Dutch and then finally in 1824 when the British took over. It was also the location that the Malaysian people gained independance from the British in the 1950’s. With a background such as this the town has a huge variety of architecture (the town square has a mini windmill and the oldest Dutch Church in Asia, it was really quite surreal), and an amazing selecton of food. With a full day of visiting historical sites, there really was not much else to do, so time to make my way to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Again the coach journey can be described as erratic, with the air conditioning breaking down 10 minuites into the journey (outside air temperature was 93°F), so to say that it was uncomfortable would be an understatement. Everyone cheered as we arrived at the coach terminal an hour and a half late, due to heavy rain and an amazing volume of traffic with people returning home after the new year celebrations.

I have been here for two full days, and this is everything Singapore isn’t: overcrowded, polluted, dirty but in its own way, it has its own charm and vitality. I have gone up the tallest building in the world, the Twin Towers (although this is disputed by the Canadians (yet more, for sure!!) who I have met up with who claim that it’s the CN Tower in Toronto!!) It also has a real mix of ultra modern high rises, which sit right beside the old colonial buildings. It really is a stunning mix, that in fact works really well.

Today has been spent in the local Batu Caves, an amazing formation of caves that are used by Hindu Pilgrims and is reached by a climb up 272 steps, with a massive selection of monkeys all begging for food. The main cave is a vast open space known as the Temple Cave, containing many small temples, as well as the main temple located in a huge cavern. There are several other smaller caves in the same formation, including one with elaborately painted Hindu figures. Just stunning.

One of the joys of Asia are the markets. I have already bought myself a fake Tag Heuer watch (for the grand total of £7), the fun of night market browsing and the challenge of haggling with the stall holders was just too much fun.

It may seem strange that I’m only going to be in the capital of Malaysia for only a few days, but I’m starting to get bored of major cities. I want to see some countryside, and the real locals, so tomorrow I’m off to the tranquil surroundings of the Cameroon Highlands for some serious hill walking and some cooling down after the heat and humidity of the cities.

My overall plans are changing all the time here, with conflicting reports of what is currently open due to the fact that it’s cyclone season on the east coast. Despite the guidebooks, I have met people who have been to some of the Islands, mainly the Perithentian Islands and describe it as one of the most beautiful places they have ever been. I would be mad to miss it out, so I’m taking the risk and seeing whats out there.

So after the Cameroon Higlands, I will be heading to the Taman Negara National park, for some wildlife spotting, the Perithentian Islads on the far North East before cutting across the top to take on the beach resort island of Penang, before heading into Southern Thailand. Should be fun.

Gong Hi Fa Choi (Happy New Year)