By Christie Lacefield
(Photographs by Lisa Dvorjetz)
Singapore and Malaysia are two uniquely diverse countries with delicious cuisines (smelly durian notwithstanding) and lots to do, all in a lovely tropical setting. As an added bonus, English is widely spoken. Based on a short, 10-day stint in the region, here are my top five recommendations:
1. Give Singapore a chance!
Travelers often dismiss Singapore as too sterile, too strict, and too small to offer anything worthwhile. They are really missing out, as Singapore is in fact an immensely enjoyable place. The tiny island nation manages to fit no less than four countries within its borders, with Chinatown, Little India, and Malay Muslim areas all set against that distinctly Singaporean backdrop of high-rise buildings, tree-filled parks, and, yes, spotless streets.
If you head to Singapore, don’t make the mistake that I did. Do give yourself more than 24 hours there.
Memorable moment: Walking barefoot in the rain at Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple.
2. Dine your heart out.
Singapore is a food-lover’s paradise. It’s a shame that I had but a day and could only try so much. Indian, Malay, and Middle Eastern restaurants are everywhere. My travel buddies and I ate lunch at a hawker center in Chinatown, where for about \300 I got a plate overflowing with vegetables, Chinese vegetarian “meat” and noodles, along with a cup of kopi, coffee with sweetened condensed milk.
Malaysian cuisine is also amazing. Nasi goreng, a.k.a. fried rice, is ubiquitous as is roti canai, an egg-filled flatbread served with curry sauce. The bright blue rice concoction nasi kerabu looked and tasted great, but left us wondering where its blue color came from.
Memorable food: I still crave roti canai and kopi.
3. Run across the border and hop on the Jungle Train.
After an unexpected delay en route to Malaysia, we had to make a mad dash across the border in order to catch our scheduled train. As we ran across the bridge separating the two countries, it was interesting to see the contrast in the skylines of sanitized, orderly Singapore and gritty, chaotic Johor Bahru. After entering Malaysia’s border city, we dodged the hordes of touts and made it to Johor Bahru station just in time for our train.
Riding the Jungle Railway is an unforgettable experience. It snakes its way through Malaysia’s sparsely populated, jungle-filled interior, all the way to the Thai border. We took the sleeper to Wakaf Bharu, the jumping off point for the Perhentian Islands. During the 14-hour journey, we met a cool Thai couple, joked with the train staff, ate tasty nasi goreng, drank kopi, AND got a decent night’s sleep.
Memorable moment: Watching the sunrise behind the rain forest from the moving train.
4. Visit the Perhentian Islands.
Perhentian means “place to stop” in Malay, but for me it was more like “place to stop and never want to leave.” We made a beeline for Kecil, the smaller and more backpacker-friendly (read: cheaper, good for partying) of the Perhentian Islands.
The speedboat ride to the islands was dodgy; the boat was rickety, the passengers crammed in like sardines, the driver looked like he was about 17, not to mention the fact that he was racing another boat filled with passengers. Any anxiety I had quickly disappeared, however, as I gazed in awe at my surroundings, spotting rocks and mini-islands jutting from the sea. I even got a rush as the speedboat violently bumped along, spraying water onto my arms.
Our days on the island were filled with the usual tropical paradise activities. We swam and snorkeled in the calm, clear water at our doorstep, as well as on a day-long tour of the surrounding islands. After the sun went down, we checked out the makeshift bars along Long Beach, where you can dance in the sand and party with travelers and locals alike. The Perhentians’ own Orangutan liquor, or “monkey juice,” as the locals call it, was great.
Memorable moment: Swimming alongside a passing sea turtle and “Finding Nemo” hiding among the sea anemones.
5. Get a Hookah in KL
It goes without saying that a trip to Malaysia is incomplete without a stop in Kuala Lumpur. In addition to its myriad clubs, restaurants and shops, KL also has an abundance of hookah bars. We found an open-air hookah bar right in the middle of downtown — lavishly decorated, but also surprisingly inexpensive. The place became packed as the evening wore on. With the brightly lit Petronas Towers in the background and a waiter that came around often to replenish the coals on our pipe, we puffed on our strawberry-flavored shisha while admiring the vibrant city around us.
Memorable moment: Sitting down in a club blasting awesome music, only to discover that it was in fact a hostess bar.
Malaysia and Singapore have pretty much everything that you could want in a destination, with beautiful beaches, amazing food, friendly people, etc. And this is just scratching the surface. Check it out and visit — I guarantee you’ll love it.
To avoid backtracking, fly into one country and out of the other. Kansai offers direct flights to/from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Hiroshima and Fukuoka have flights that connect in Hong Kong or Taipei.
There are frequent buses between Singapore and Johor Bahru. The transiting procedure is as follows: get off the bus with your bags AND bus ticket, go through immigration, board the new bus with the same ticket, repeat on the other side. Alternatively, you can forget the second bus and walk across the causeway separating the two countries. Either way, give yourself PLENTY of time since the number of people transiting through is huge, and clearing Singapore immigration can take over an hour.
Taxis in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are metered. In rural areas of Malaysia they usually aren’t. Don’t be afraid to haggle, and settle on a price before you begin the journey.
Ladies, bring a mid or long sleeve top to wear in mosques and the more conservative parts of Malaysia.
AirAsia — dirt cheap flights within Southeast Asia.
Malaysian Railways — check fares, availability, and book your tickets in advance.