Posted by: Richard Marshall | December 9, 2011

Singapore and Malaysia

Singapore skyline

After a couple of weeks teaching I set off on my travels again during the last two weeks of October, this time to Singapore and peninsular Malaysia. I arrived at Changi airport and took Singapore’s immaculate MRT to Chinatown where I had booked a hostel. I liked the city immediately. Chinatown is really wonderful – a few blocks of the city’s old shophouses somehow survived being demolished for skyscrapers and have been turned into a neighbourhood of restaurants, cafes and shops. The area isn’t only popular with tourists – Singapore seems to be a city obsessed with food and plenty of locals were eating in the truly wonderful restaurants. Eating delicious food was a real highlight of this trip in both countries. There was also a Chinese opera being performed in front of the building which my hostel was in, and though naturally I couldn’t understand anything, the great clouds of incense and the clanging of gongs was very atmospheric.

Chinatown food street

On my second day I met up again with Irene, whom I had met in Dalat two tears ago. She took me to a brewery at Clark Quay, another area of bars and restaurants just upriver from the CBD. After that we took a slightly long route to the esplanade to meet Lydia, who was also in Dalat, and her boyfriend. The esplanade is a sort of cultural complex – I saw adverts for Kevin Spacey in Richard III – and had a wonderful view over the central city. We had a tasty dinner at a hawker market – I particularly liked the carrot cake despite everyone saying it’s just fried dough – and went for a drink at Chijmes, an old convent turned into bars. The next day I wandered around the old colonial area looking at the heavy “Rule Britannia” government buildings and visited a couple of museums. That evening Irene took me to Holland Village- yet another area of trendy bars. I liked being in bars full of well-dressed young people glued to their smart phones getting a drink after work rather than the pretty motley clientele of my HCMC haunts – it really did feel like being in a western, or at least modern,  city.  Irene headed off to Cambodia the next day, but she was such a charming host I decided to cut short my Malaysia trip and return the following week. The last night before I left I met up with my roommate Ted’s girlfriend’s sister Thy and her husband Eddie.  Eddie is a true food enthusiast and took me to one of Singapore’s most famous Bak Kuh Teh restaurants. We had to queue to get in and the walls were covered with photos of Taiwanese and Hong Kong celebrities with the owner. White Bak Kuh Teh consists of pork ribs boiled in a white pepper soup, which doesn’t sound great but was absolutely delicious. Even the pig’s organ – kidney, liver and intestine – soup was tasty though intestines do disturb me a bit. Eddie also gave me some tips on what to try in Melacca, which I duly did…

I bought a bus ticket for Melacca in a rather seedy old highrise. The shop next door was a marriage agency and the pictures of the Vietnamese women in the window had expressions that made me shudder. The bus trip to Melacca was comfortable, though the palm-oil apocalypse of southern Malaysia is pretty dismal and they insisted on playing “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” on the TV.  I liked Melacca. For a small town it has an amazingly diverse and cosmopolitan history. Waves of different people – Malays, Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Portuguese, Dutch and British – have settled in or ruled Melacca. The town centre is mostly Dutch, aside from the ruined hilltop Portuguese fort, and some of the buildings might easily have been in South Africa. The food also reflects the town’s history, from Malay laksa soup and Hokkien chicken and rice to Goanese curries and Portuguese egg tarts.

Christ Church Melacca

Stadthuis Melacca

After a couple of days in Melacca I headed to Kuala Lumpur. KL is an ok city – it suffered in comparison to Singapore as a tourist destination, but I suspect it would be a pretty cool place to live as an expat. I looked at the old colonial buildings which were interesting enough. Seeing a group of Indians playing cricket in front of the old city hall was a reminder  just how different Malaysia is to Indochina. I went to the Petronas towers which are indeed amazing. Unfortunately the viewing deck was closed but I found a bookshop in the mall and spent a small fortune on books. On my second day I went to the KL botanical gardens which were beautiful – why on earth couldn’t the French have established something half as good here!? The famous aviary wasn’t quite so good, being mainly full of peacocks and cattle egrets. Once again the food was the real attraction in KL. Just down from my hostel were some rough and ready Indian restaurants with curries swimming in oily gravy, mounds of stodgy bread and great heaps of Biryani – delicious! I watched a couple of tired movies at the mall near my hostel, and was happy to head back to Singapore.

KL City Hall

Jamek Masjid

My last few days in Singapore were mostly spent with Irene and her friends – especially Octa and Devi so hi if you’re reading this. We spent a day in the Singapore botanical gardens which are justly famous and very beautiful. Irene also took me to an alumni event at her university which since she studied management was probably the biggest culture shock of the whole trip! On my final evening we went on a Halloween bus party. The bus ferried us from one Singapore nightspot to another. We were supposed to go to five different locations but the vodka bottles being passed up and down the bus meant I needed to head home before the very end. The last place (for me) was a very fancy club built out over Marina Bay in front of the CBD – in other words the kind of place I would never, ever have gone otherwise! Oh, and we wore costumes…

Halloween costumes

The next day I attempted to cure my hangover with a big mac at the Changi budget terminal and headed back to Vietnam (Indeed, I was back as soon as I got on the plane – turning one’s cellphone off for and hour and twenty minutes was just too much for most of the passengers, and everyone stood up the second the wheels hit the tarmac!). It was a really wonderful trip – beautiful places, delicious food and especially wonderful company…I can’t wait to get back.

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