My recent post, about 2003 Holiday Travels to Puebla, Mexico, received higher than normal readership. The sentimental nature of the blog entry makes it one of my personal favorites in this series, and I thank everyone who commented online and offline about the enjoyment they experienced while reading it. The next several Thanksgivings were spent even farther from my (at the time) home of Los Angeles than Turkey Day 2003, and – if you’ll humor me – I thought I’d comment on one particular late November-early December trip from that era.
Singapore and Malaysia (2006)
Do you still keep in touch with friends from university? I do. A few friendships forged during those formative years have withstood the test of time, and I have even been fortunate enough to travel with some of these college friends. In 2006, my friends Miles, Chuck, and myself took advantage of an Asia fare sale on United Airlines and booked round-trip tickets to Singapore!
The flights, from LAX to NRT (Tokyo Narita) and from NRT to SIN (Singapore Changi) were 18 long hours in Economy Plus. For Miles and Chuck, their journey took even longer, as they departed from ORD (Chicago) and flew over the North Pole on their way to NRT.
For whatever reason, most connecting flights from Tokyo to Southeast Asia deposit weary passengers at their final destinations sometime around midnight…right after public transportation shuts down for the night. Our late night arrival found us hailing a taxi directly to the hotel, the Swissotel Merchant Court, and it was off to bed. We awoke in the morning to notice our hotel’s picture-perfect setting on Clarke Quay, a marina at the mouth of the Singapore River. After a hearty breakfast that included lots of bacon, it was off to explore the city…all by foot!
My first real memory of Singapore is of stepping out of the air-conditioned hotel and being floored by the humidity; it was as if a wall had fallen upon me. Still, we covered a lot of ground that day, and took at least one break while we cooled off with a sugarcane drink – literally a stick of sugarcane squeezed into a cup of ice. We walked from Clarke Quay to Chinatown to Little India, and visited Buddhist and Hindu temples. We enjoyed a respite from the heat at the historic Raffles Hotel, and nursed the hotel’s signature cocktail, the Singapore Sling. Singapore is a former British colony, and it is never more evident than from inside the Raffles, where valets speak perfect Queen’s English and where afternoon tea isn’t an option but an expectation.
Afterwards, it was time for a swimming break, courtesy of our hotel’s inviting rooftop pool. Post-swim, we grabbed some dinner at an outdoor food market, Orchard Hawker Food Square. Singapore has long been renowned for its food, and there was much for us to choose from. I decided on satay (good) and duck meat served over noodles (not so good). We continued to keep jet lag at bay by staying active. We joined the hordes of pedestrians strolling along Orchard Road, the “Magnificent Mile” of Singapore and the city’s retail corridor. The Christmas decorations were humbling, and put anything I’ve seen in any similar-sized U.S. city to shame. Holiday M&M’s appeared to be that year’s decorative theme. To wit:
Our next few days were spent taking in more of the city. The Singapore Zoo and Night Safari are top-rated attractions, although our visit was mostly rained out. Singapore’s modern waterfront, the Esplanade, looks out on some funky, modern buildings, and is watched over by the Merlion, the half-mermaid, half-lion symbol of the city. Today the waterfront is also home to the Singapore Flyer, the world’s second-largest Ferris wheel, although it hadn’t yet been constructed during the time of my visit.
One afternoon spent exploring downtown Singapore found us denied entrance to the observation deck atop the city’s tallest building; the deck had been closed ever since 9/11. Later that day we visited the Muslim quarter, an oasis of calm. As we were wearing shorts, we were not allowed inside the prayer hall of the enormous Sultan Mosque, but I remember having a nice chat with the muezzin, who only cut our conversation short when the time came for him to recite the call to prayer from atop the minaret.
Our last full day in Singapore was also our best (at least, in my opinion). We took the MRT to a cable car station atop the city’s Mount Faber, and rode the gondola across the water to Sentosa Island, a manmade island and ode to tourism. Dubai, eat your heart out! It is on Sentosa Island that you can walk out to the southernmost point in “mainland” Asia, which is rather strange considering that not only is Sentosa an island but so is Singapore itself! But I digress.
Sentosa boasts some lovely beaches, all with imported sand, warm water, and 85-degree year-round temperatures. The island has a few nature trails, a colonial-era fort from a time when Sentosa didn’t cater to tourists, and an impressive aquarium that was our main destination. It was at Underwater World that we had arranged a private SCUBA diving event. I had gotten certified as an Adventure Diver three years prior, and secured an appointment for the three of us to feed the stingrays inside the aquarium’s largest tank. The experience was surreal. We took turns holding a shark, as spectators looked on from the walk-through tunnel that passed beneath the tank. The divemaster handed each of us a sack of cockles, which we would place in our hand, palm up, as graceful stingrays swam over and scooped them up. All of this stingray feeding just 10 or so days after Steve “Croc Hunter” Irwin passed away after being stung by a ray!
GringoPotpourri note: I am not the person I once was. Swimming with sharks and feeding the stingrays was a thrilling experience, and the above photo is certainly one for my “Where am I?” collection. That being said, although I handled that shark with the utmost of care, I can’t imagine what goes through its mind whenever a bubble-blowing SCUBA diver swims past in such a confined environment. I have since undergone something of a change in heart. Please, let’s leave these poor creatures alone.
Our fifth day saw us hopping a Singapore Airlines flight to Penang (PEN), a British colony-turned-resort destination on Peninsular Malaysia’s Andaman Sea coast. Singapore Airlines is the perennial top dog of Skytrax airline rankings. Our flight wasn’t long enough to make any especially memorable impression, but I will say that we flew on a double-aisle 777 with more flight attendants than passengers.
We spent a few relaxing days at the Park Royal Hotel, wave-hopping on jet skis and lounging by the pool, which only 25 months prior had been flooded by monstrous waves from the December 26, 2004 tsunami that claimed over 227,000 lives. Fortunately, no one at this particular hotel had perished.
Our time at the Park Royal was relaxing. I remember calling my parents from the garden to wish them a Happy Thanksgiving. Hotel attendants cautioned us not to do more than dip our toes in the jellyfish-filled seawater, which seems somehow unfortunate considering how perfect the temperature was. Speedo weather!
Although I generally try to be a steward for my country when I travel, I do exhibit the occasional moment of Ugly Americanism. Malaysia is a conservative, majority-Muslim country, and for as free as we were to strut our scantily-clad stuff around the hotel grounds, we probably could have exhibited more tact. Contrast the image above to one of Muslim women swimming in the same pool, fully-clothed, headscarves and all.
The road in front of the town turned into a de facto hawker market after dark. Vendors set up shop selling everything from sunglasses (cheekily called “eye condoms”) to handicrafts to bootleg DVDs. I remember seeing the Daniel Craig film “Casino Royale” for sale at one kiosk even though it hadn’t even seen its U.S. theatrical release yet!
I could have spent a month at that hotel. Our main sightseeing goal in Malaysia, however, was to see the Petronas Towers, which weren’t even in the same part of the country! We booked an overnight train ride to Kuala Lumpur from the Georgetown, Penang suburb of Butterworth, and struck up a conversation with a shy trio of female train station food vendors who pampered us with fish, rice, and apple juice (flavored with whole chunks of apple!). Sated, we boarded and slept the sleep of the deeply content.
The identical twin, 452-meter (1,483-foot) Petronas Towers are jointly considered the world’s 11th tallest buildings. At the time of my visit, they had only just been bumped down from the #1 spot to #2, courtesy of Taipei 101. I first yearned to see them up close after watching the 1998 caper film “Entrapment,” the climax of which found stars Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones dangling from the mid-level Skybridge that connects the towers. I had the good fortune of seeing the towers from below, from inside, and from above, the third vantage point courtesy of Menara KL, a free-standing tower that is shorter but appears taller as a result of having been built on a hill surrounded by a swath of urban rainforest. Our hotel, the five-star Hotel Nikko, was within walking distance of the Petronas Towers, and – as with Singapore and Penang – we found ourselves enjoying at least one more swimming break.
KL itself is one of Asia’s biggest cities, and it has the continent’s best skyline (not counting China). As busy is the city is, though, I never felt the freneticism of most other Asian cities. Kuala Lumpur’s downtown market district was bustling and colorful, but manageable and clean. The streets were packed with cars, but also lined with trees and free from litter. I mention this about KL in particular because Singapore is notorious as a clean (some say “sterile”) city in which even chewing gum is against the law, but I’ve never heard the same mentioned about KL, and it was a most pleasant surprise.
We didn’t spend as much time in KL as we did in Singapore, but we still packed in a fair amount of sightseeing. In addition to the city’s tall towers, we also visited its thriving Chinatown market and its Islamic-styled Merdeka Square. We hailed a taxi to the suburban Batu Caves, which were memorable for their Hindu shrines, their natural caverns, and their aggressive monkeys. For the return trip, we caught a local bus – a longer but more entertaining journey. I love public transportation!
I wanted to see more of the city’s culture and green space, so I sought out the Islamic Arts Museum, a supremely underrated gallery on the international art scene. I stayed there until closing, then enjoyed a leisurely walk through the city’s Lake Gardens district to my dinnertime rendezvous with Miles and Chuck…which I am ashamed to admit was at an American chain restaurant. But when the shoe fits….
We had another overnight train ride, this one from KL back to Singapore, where we would have one more day before our long journey back to Gringolandia. This train ride wasn’t nearly as restful however, as we were woken up soon after falling asleep for tedious, middle-of-the-night border crossing formalities.
Our last morning in Singapore was spent doing some holiday shopping. An early observation that I had made was how obsessed Singapore with fining people for the pettiest of things. Chewing gum? Pay a fine…or get a mark on your record. Tagging graffiti? Pay a fine…or go to jail. Caught littering? Pay a fine…or get caned. So, as a collector of shot glasses, I smiled upon finding one at a junk shop that read “Singapore – A Fine City.” Sold!
Our last two stops took us closer to the airport. Changi Prison Museum – an add-on to a functioning prison – houses an absorbing exhibit about WWII POWs. An awkward moment arose when our cab driver dropped us off at the entrance to the prison’s General Population entrance. Oops! Not far from the prison is Wild Wild Wet, a waterpark that drew our attention as a fun way to end the trip. The park opened late following an early afternoon downpour, but those of us who waited for the rain to subside were rewarded by having the park almost entirely to ourselves. Miles, Chuck, and I seemed to have more fun than most visitors half our age.
Our hotel this time out was the Goodwood Park Hotel, the kind of dysfunctional luxury hotel at which such attention is paid to customer service that all five front desk clerks will fawn over a single guest checking in and meanwhile, the line of other guests waiting to do the same grows longer and longer and longer. We opted out of a swimming break this time in favor for a final wander to one of the city’s food courts. I told my friends that I would meet them after a brief catnap…and didn’t wake up until the next morning, when I was awoken by Miles and Chuck to check out for our pre-dawn flight home!
A Few Sentences about Food
I made a couple of passing references to Singaporean and Malaysian food in the paragraphs above, but the cuisine is so interesting that it deserves more than just a cursory mention.
Singapore’s food courts are a thing of legend. Miles knew an acquaintance who volunteered to take us out “for real Singaporean food.” A long drive took us to Newton Circus, a food court with delicacies so exotic that I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years what they were had our host not ordered for us. There were Asian noodles and crab legs, easy enough…but then there was stingray. Astonishingly good.
Southeast Asian food isn’t all good, though. Singapore and Malaysia are home to durian, a foul abortion of a fruit that smells so bad it is prohibited on public transportation! It is shaped like a spiky football, and when you cut it open, after your eyes finish watering from the initial stench (something akin to a sweaty jockstrap dipped in llama vomit), you’ll see that its innards resemble a human brain drenched in curdled milk. The taste isn’t much better, but I was so curious after first hearing about durian that I couldn’t help but try some. Live and learn. 🙂
So there you have it, Loyal Reader. Singapore and Malaysia are great “introductory Asia” countries. Clean and colorful, spicy and safe, exotic and easy. And they make wonderful holiday season destinations, both as tropical retreats from our colder climate and as cities with impressive holiday lights. My question for you is, have you ever been to Singapore or Malaysia…and if you haven’t but want to go, can you spot me the airfare in exchange for my free tour guide service? 😉