Singapore and Malaysia

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My final 3-hour exam was at eight in the morning giving me just under 2 hours to shovel my room's ? meter layer of trash out to the curb, pack all my worldly possessions into one bookbag, and hand over the keys. I unloaded my bike, snorkel gear, and other random crap on a friend who clearly had no interest in any of it and probably tossed it the second I left. My flight was at midnight so I opted to take the scenic route, walking down a series of highway shoulders and islands and through several prohibited areas, from the last train stop to the airport.

SingaporeAir has far too much entertainment on offer - particularly for a flight where I clearly should have been sleeping. They have a few hundred Nintendo games, 200 music CDs, 100 TV shows, 60 movies, language learning software for everything from French to Cantonese, and a dozen other sleep-preempting diversions - all on demand with pause and fast-forward.

When I arrived in Singapore at 5:45AM, it was 37C - and that was the low for the day - this means that the average time from taking a drink to reaching total dehydration is around about two and a half minutes - fortunately, the tap water here doesn't carry the deadly bacteria and metals that are ubiquitous in this part of the world - or at least that's what some random guy on the street led me to believe.

Unlike every other city in the world, here there is a cheap, fast train or bus into the city leaving every 5 minutes. Apart from this anomaly, however, Singapore's probably ranks among the most expensive transport networks in the world. Each ticket costs between 50 cents and a buck, but there are no transfers or day passes and there's no change given despite a complicated fare schedule (where the driver arbitrarily picks a number out of his head based on the coins he thinks you probably don't have). The result of this is immaculately clean buses and subways with flat panel displays and RFID-embedded tickets (one-use but you have to put down a $1 deposit each time).

The transport is an insight into the country as a whole - chewing gum, jaywalking, carrying spiky fruits on the subway, and anything that might cause a disruption of the perfectly ordered society have been outlawed and carry a heavy fine. Walking through this city is truly terrifying as the slightest wrong move could draw a $500 fine - and this is on top of a system where cars drive on the left but people walk on the right; I quite nearly stepped on a Singaporean with every turn.

Arriving in town, I sought out a hostel offering beds for $6 - and as if this weren't enough, the bed included sheets, pillows and was accompanied by free breakfast, internet, and AC. I asked the owner whether she wouldn't rather charge me $20 and stick me in a 30-bed bunker with one fan and $6 internet, and take a hefty deposit for kitchenware so I could prepare my own breakfast - she had clearly never taken an Australian hospitality course.

I began exploring; Fort Canning was a big expanse of greenery with cannons strategically positioned to take out the city's key buildings if the citizens ever got out of line. The riverbank was lined with upscale tourist restaurants and shops (like Hooters). Chinatown had plenty of narrow alleyways where you could buy weird medicinal roots and treasure-summoning cats. A huge market showcased loads of strange fruits and seafood - one guy had a case full of turtles and another with bullfrogs. In one corner, a house cat was sitting among the wares; I can only hope he was a pet and not someone's Sunday roast. A massive food court held stalls hawking every conceivable type of food - rigorous health restrictions ensured that the ramshackle huts served up safe, clean dishes. Singaporeans love their food but it seems they lack any actual distinct national cuisine; instead, they serve a mish-mash of Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes that range from chi crab to fish-head curry - my suspicion is that no locals actually eat the latter; the typical asking price is several times that of any other food, and its ingredients (curry, fish head) don't seem particularly valuable; I think it's just a scheme to trade tourist dollars for worthless leftover fish parts. I went in one restaurant and was shown a menu - I selected a dish for 75 cents, but then the owner discovered that she had accidentally given me the Singaporean menu, and traded me for one where all the prices were twice as high, so I had a big helping of cuttlefish porridge for a buck fifty.

Next it was on to an impressive mosque and Chinese temple that sat side-by-side, and then to another food court for a towering pile of milk and ice covered in beans. During my time in oz, food prices and creativity were so unappealing that I often lived off of a jar of peanut butter for days at a time, but here, with a myriad of crazy dishes for next to nothing, I'm eating out around six times a day - even with 30km of walking, it has been quite the challenge to digest that much food, but in the name of cultural immersion, I will persist. Across the street overlooking the ocean was the famous Merlion statue which is to this city what the little weeing boy is to Brussels.

The Arab district had plenty of Moroccan shops as well as the Sultan Mosque, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the palace in Disney's Aladdin. Little India was filled with spices, sweets and backpackers. A Hindu temple, which was adorned with intricate carvings of a few hundred gods, was filled with barefoot devotees burning stuff. I went to the National Art Museum primarily to use their toilet and water fountain, but they did have some interesting southeast Asian paintings.

Orchard Road is the shopping hub of the city and is perhaps the largest collection if western retail anywhere on Earth. After a mile of Toys R' Us and Starbucks, I got to the Botanic Gardens - it was nearly dark so I couldn't actually see anything under the impenetrable canopy, but it seemed like a pleasant enough place.

The Night Safari is one of the island's major attractions. It's basically a zoo full of nocturnal critters open from dusk to midnight. Getting there was a challenge - my conversation with the first bus driver went something like this - me: "Does this bus go to the zoo?", driver: "Newton", me: "Is that nearby?", driver: "Nearby". Half an hour and a buck later, I was back in the city center; I asked a lady at the bus stop how to get there and she energetically listed off the necessary route; I had to switch through 3 buses and I was there within the hour. The zoo had plenty of animals I'd never seen before - and they were surprisingly all visible (the darkness hid the chain that kept them in place and the collar that delivered intermittent electric shocks to keep them awake).

The next day, I headed for the bird park that was supposed to have some unparalleled number of birds. There was a penguin exhibit where Antarctic and tropical penguins somehow shared the same icy room, and a dark house where there had been a recent kiwi escape and I once again missed a chance at seeing the feathered spheres. What is perhaps the world's biggest birdcage housed a network of walkways similar to that on the big satellite at the end of GoldenEye - and as you walked between platforms, a thousand lories would dive at your face from every direction.

A few buses later, I got to Bukit Timah where dozens of signs warned not to feed the monkeys, but I saw nothing more exciting than squirrels and a few goannas. Down the road was the city's zoo, which just held all the creatures before they were moved next door to the Night Safari.

I made it to the Malaysian border just in time for rush hour - thousands of cars and pedestrians queued up to pass through customs and cross the causeway. Our bus kicked us off so we could run through customs and hop on another bus on the other side. Unfortunately, there were seeral hundred people waiting on the same ride, so I opted to walk the rest of the way to the bordertown of Johor Bahru. On the other side of the bridge, there was another customs checkpoint where booths electronically checked your transport - I couldn't figure these out, but I figured I had already gone through one check, so I just hopped the turntables, waved to the armed guards and walked on into the city (I was very tired - my brain wasn't really working).

Johor is a legitimate city with skyscrapers, culture and all the trimmings, but it's still very much what Nuevo Laredo is to El Paso - a handy place to have fun and buy stuff on the cheap. The Singaporean government had an issue some years back with its citizens hopping the border to fill up with dirt-cheap gas, so they set up a $500 fine for anyone who crossed with less than ? of a tank. Fortunately, there's no similar restriction on your stomach; the streets are lined with food stalls and restaurants selling the same stuff as next door for half the price. I had a veritable feast of vegetarian curries and roti for right around 70 cents. It's interesting to note that McDonalds and Starbucks were still locked to US prices, making a small cup of coffee about 7 times the cost of your average meal.

The same buses and trains that leave from Singapore proceed onward from Johor at half the cost. I decided to take an overnighter up to Koala Lumpur but met up with the ever-annoying detail that it doesn't actually take any transport overnight to reach the capitol. I considered just going further up the coast to whatever was 8 hours away, but with no Malaria prophylaxis handy, I thought it best not to get off in the middle of the jungle; so I signed up for the train and splurged on the sleeper car for a total price of 12 bucks. My ride was scheduled to depart at 11:30 and reach KL right around first light at 6:15; unfortunately, somewhere in the 20km track up from Singapore, it managed to get delayed by three hours, and I was still sitting on the platform at 2, counting the lost minutes of precious day light as they ticked away.

Unlike in Europe, the train's beds had real pillows and were only stacked two high. They made an announcement that we were entitled to free drinks, so I asked if they had anything that would give me 3 hours of my life back - the closest thing they could offer was hot chocolate.

I arrived in KL at 9:20, and having lost so much time, I immediately set about getting hopelessly lost. I did manage to find a South Indian restaurant where I got pancakes and dahl on a banana leaf for a quarter. Next I took the city's monorail up to the famous Petronas towers (higher than the Sears Tower by 10 meters) and got a ticket to go to the bridge look-out 3 hours later (they only release 1500 tickets a day).

So, while I waited, I wandered into some random commercial district and eventually found my way through to Chinatown; KL is not a good city for walking - major roads run in random looping patterns and traffic is nuts 24/7; the fundamental laws seem to be about the same, but red lights are treated more as a helpful hint and motorcycles can do basically whatever they want (including driving down the sidewalks). Chinatown's main artery was a pedestrian walkway with 4-5 rows of stalls selling everything from pirated movies to… well, mostly just pirated movies. I wandered down one alley where butchers were nonchalantly chopping the heads off live chickens - one dropped and rolled between my feet - this let me push back lunch by a bit.

Into Little India, I found a place with a vegetarian thali plate and got stuffed on chapatti and donuts. It was around this time that I remembered my tower appointment for 15 minutes later and sprinted 3km to the towers, accidentally stumbling through the blood and broken glass of a motorbike accident along the way. I then waited for 30 minutes for them to get around to sending me up in their elevator (I would've gladly walked the 80 stories), but the view from the top was none too shabby.

I took the light rail back to Little India and hiked up to Chow Kit Market; this place had a reputation for cheap goods and disreputable characters; one random lady stopped me in the street and with frightening urgency screamed "Go Back! Go Back!" I never figured out just what she meant by this.

I took a bus out of town to the Batu Caves; these were a series of impressive hollows in a giant mound of rock that jutted out of the flatlands. The first cave was filled with amazingly colorful Hindu artwork and the second had scriptures from the Bhagavad Vita which would have been much more insightful had I been able to read sanscript. The largest cave began with a 270-step staircase. Signs everywhere said "Beware Monkeys," but I didn't take this seriously until I noticed that there in fact several dozen monkeys running down the banisters and the surrounding rock. I wasn't clear on what I needed to be wary of until one of the monkeys leaped onto a man's chest, screeched in his face, and stole the bag of food he was munching from - he gave up far too easily and didn't give me time for my camera to boot up.

On the ride back to town, I stopped at a large square that had the world's tallest flagpole, several mosque-like buildings and a fountain made of pitcher plants.

Down the road was a bus station packed with independent buses for trips to Singapore; I randomly picked one for 10:30 that night for 6 bucks. The ride went smoothly enough until the engine broke around 3AM; this was ok by me because I got an extra hour of sleep before they loaded us onto the replacement bus. This new bus was one seat short (because a lady needed the seat next to her for her luggage), so I had to sit up front where four vents blasted icy cold air on me (they have a thing with air conditioning in this part of the world - strangely I've never been quite so cold as in the tropics). When I asked the driver to turn down the air, he claimed it was automatic and that I should've worn more than a t-shirt.

We reached Malaysian border control and through a confusing discussion with several immigration officers, I discovered I'd forgotten to get my passport stamped (who knew you needed one from both countries??). Luckily, they concluded that I was just stupid and not malicious, and decided to forgo the usual penalty of death by tiger. I was however, nearly executed my bus-mates as they now had to wait in lengthy queues at the Singapore end.

Back at the hostel I took my first shower in three days; going without one at this parallel is nothing like in New Zealand or southern Australia - 5 minutes after you venture out in the morning, you're soaked in sweat; at the end of the day, you have a thick layer of oil, and by the third, you shine like Mr. Clean.

I headed for the Changi ferry terminal - it seemed a popular destination as I was literally hanging out the door of a double-decker bus. Bumboats ran tourists out to Pulau Ubin whenever 12 passengers accumulated (and they won't leave with 11, no matter how long they have to wait); the bus driver had recommended swimming but I opted to be lazy and waited it out. When we finally made the 2km trip, I rented a bike (2 bucks a day) and pedaled around the entire island. There wasn't too much to see as all the rock reservoirs were fenced off, but there were some decent trails with plenty of monitor lizards and school kids riding on the wrong side of the path (I don't remember which side that is anymore).

It took a bit to get back to the mainland, since there was some bumboat operator code that stated that once someone called the next load, no matter how many boats left beforehand, no passengers were allowed to leave until there were 12. Once there, I went to the tourist office and picked up a coupon for a free chili crab as part of the month long food festival. I was saddened to figure out that this wasn't just an altruistic move to expose visitors to the nation's favorite dish, but was really just a ploy to get us into expensive restaurants and guilt us into buying additional food and drink. The waiter was shocked to hear that I didn't want another lunch in addition to the free one and nearly spat at the notion of serving me tap water. It was truly a delicious dish but took no small effort to eat. First, I had to reach into the scalding hot chili to pull the crab pieces apart and afterwards was faced with the painful task of eating the stew filled with chunks of exoskeleton; if there's one thing I've learned from my travels in Asia thus far, it's that Americans have very limited ideas on what parts of an animal can be eaten. When I got the check, there was a 50 cent fee for the water and a 45 cent "towel fee"; I decided not to challenge this even though I had not touched their towels but used a napkin I found in my pocket (most likely my emergency TP supply).

I had a few more hours of daylight to kill so I took the train to the resort isle of Sentosa. Here I ventured out to the "southernmost point in continental Asia", which seemed like a dubious claim as this point is on an islet joined by bridge to another island, connected by causeway to Singapore (which is in fact an island), and the industrial island of Jurong is clearly further to the south. I hiked up a dragon trail where various forms of dragons had been deposited for no apparent reason. It was getting dark so I made for the musical fountain; this was your typical "shoot jets of water 100m into the air to music" but with the twist of trippy, laser-projected images of dancing monkeys and fish.

I guess I could've stayed at Raffles Hotel but for $500 a night...

Just waiting for those citizens to get out of line

What have we done??

I miss jaywalking...

When they were handing out kingdoms, this guy must've been in the loo

I just can't understand why beans and ice never caught on in America


Aladdin's Palace

Man you know what I could really go for right now? I nice hot lump of beancurd!

I really don't want to know what was going on here.

Can't make it in America? Go to Asia, they'll eat anything!

Biggest pigeon ever!

Bird of paradise

Species: Pink Genus: Sexy

Crazy lorikeet aviary

Biggest eagle in the world

Tallest fake waterfall in the world

Well if it were just a $500 fine, I might have fed the monkeys, but for $10000 I can probably find a better use for my money

Whoever think it's silly to be afraid of sheep has obviously never run into these guys

Just say no to drugging kangaroos

There's nothing more fun than a pile of meerkats.

This penguin must've bitten the wrong explorer.

(Nearly) The tallest buildings in the world

Petronas Towers

That must be some toilet!

Who else thought the Kenny Rogers chain went under 10 years ago??

One of many Hindu temples

View from the top

I dare you to press all the buttons!

Big rock with sacred caves

So many stairs


Indecipherable scriptures

I guess there are monkeys after all

Big cave

Thing that looks like a mosque

Tallest flagpole in the world

Craziest fountain ever

Whilst biking through the tropical jungle...

"Don't wet the floor"

It's amazing the junk street vendors try to unload on unsuspecting tourists

First one of these I've seen overseas

Southern-most point in continental Asia (sort-of)

Random dragon sculpture

Musical fountain