Time for a double bill of Malaysian quick trips. We started with a bus from Kuala Lumpur to the town of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands, an area of mostly countryside which is popular with both domestic and foreign tourists for the scenery, the wildlife and the relatively high altitude which offers a respite from the high temperatures elsewhere. Be warned, though, that the final section of the bus journey gets incredibly windy and is a big price to pay for visiting if you’re susceptible to motion sickness.
We shared our AirBnb unit with a Dutch couple whom we befriended after they made us tea and showed us creepy photos of the spiders and scorpions they had spotted on their nighttime jungle walk. We did not opt for anything so adventurous; since we only had one full day here, we booked ourselves on the Eco Cameron Full Day Experience Tour which takes you around all of the tourist sites in an easy and efficient way. A disadvantage of this tour is that we didn’t really do any substantial walks through the Cameron Highlands… but on the other hand, Randi’s reaction to the (admittedly giant) snake we drove past on the road suggested that we made the right choice. We also shared the tour with only one other person, a Swiss woman named Tanya who was both good company and hilariously put out that Randi didn’t want to haggle down the cost of some incredibly cheap market food.
It must be said that the quality of the attractions on the tour was quite variable. The highlights were the Boh tea plantations – our guide was not enthusiastic about the quality of the tea itself, but conceded that if you’re adding milk it doesn’t really matter anyway – and the Mossy Forest. After a short walk to a viewing platform to look down at the rolling green forest below, our guide talked us through some of the plants which grow here. I know that sounds like the kind of thing you only pretend to find interesting because you feel like you should, but he made it all genuinely fascinating and by the end Randi was convinced we should be earning Scout badges. On the other hand, a ‘strawberry farm’ is not the world’s most exciting type of farm, and the local museum was a somewhat bizarre mixture of local history and dad jokes.
There was also some difference between me and Randi over the quality of the butterfly farm. I was quite pleased that they had padded it out with cages of snakes and scorpions along with the immobile bullfrogs and well-camouflaged geckos – it meant I could take some photos of these animals at much less personal risk than the Dutch couple had incurred. Randi was less keen.
After the Cameron Highlands our next stop – for a few hours – was Ipoh, allowing us to transfer from bus to train and finally getting some railway travel into our journey. As the train company puts it, it’s “the rail way to see Malaysia”. Fun fact: they choose to play a selection of BBC nature documentaries for the whole journey.
The central streets of Ipoh were interesting to wander around (thankfully we were able to lock up our bags at the train station) and after a nice lunch we caught our train to Butterworth, which is a short ferry ride away from George Town. George Town is the capital of the state of Penang and is also located on Penang Island, which is not the same thing – I feel compelled to point this out because I tried googling whether it should be spelt “George Town” or “Georgetown” and instead found a lot of angry letters to the local paper about how people thoughtlessly confuse these terms and how disrespectful it is to a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I never got any firm consensus on “George Town” vs. “Georgetown”, by the way. My phone uses both interchangeably within the same app and even the Malaysian government doesn’t appear to care. Feel free to send me angry letters if you feel my arbitrary choice is wrong.
I didn’t love George Town when we first arrived. The afternoons are the worst times of day with the city at peak heat and humidity and the pavement situation is worse than Kuala Lumpur. Things improved greatly in the evening after a delicious Indian meal when we decided to get a ride out to the Kek Lok Si Temple (or Temple of Supreme Bliss) to see the light display for Chinese New Year. I’m sure the enormous Buddhist complex is impressive to visit at any time of year, but we felt very lucky to see it all lit up like this. Since we were too lazy to walk up Penang Hill it also gave us our best view out over the city as a whole.
The next morning we set out to explore George Town’s famous street art. There are really two different types of street art at play here: the colourful murals (such as Children on a Bicycle) and the ‘Marking Georgetown’ set of iron cartoons. The latter depict various aspects of local life and come with short explanations which are well worth reading and give a real flavour of the history and culture of George Town.
We also sampled some of the famous street food from hawker stalls. And yes, the food is very tasty (especially the various different incarnations of roti!) but I refuse to pretend that it’s actually really charming to weave between cars and motorbikes for your food. #pedestrianisepenang
We could have spent longer exploring the rest of Penang Island, but by this point Randi and I had started dreaming of our ultimate dream island – sky blue seas, unspoilt sandy beaches – and I actually started giggling with excitement as we sat in a George Town café to finish our research and make the necessary bookings for the next stage of our adventure into Thailand. First, though, we are taking a pause from travelling for the rest of the week so that Randi can make a quick hop to the UK and complete the final final final stage of her visa process. So last night we caught the train back down to Kuala Lumpur and I have installed myself in a condo unit for a week (with a pool, naturally) to wait for her. And get a haircut. Because I really need a haircut by now.
We’re back in the real world after catching our bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Although I visited for work once before I stayed in the satellite city of Petaling Jaya with only brief forays into KL proper. This time we stayed in Pudu, near the central district of Bukit Bintang, and our crazy walk from the bus to the hotel on the first night (is that a road or a motorway? and where exactly are we supposed to cross it?) left a lasting impression of a city with a road layout which is neither friendly to pedestrians nor drivers. It’s also a huge place, and we didn’t even attempt to see everything in just a couple of days, but here are our highlights.
We started with a relaxed morning and a breakfast where I first encountered chicken floss. Ridiculous as it sounds, I had to look up whether this actually contained meat (after all, mince pies do not!) but yes, indeed it does. For lunch we took Nolan’s suggestion and headed to the basement of the Lot 10 mall, where the receipt for my meal came with the sage advice that “today’s wastage is tomorrow’s shortage”. (In case you were wondering, we seem to be stalking Nolan and Rebecca across Asia, always a couple of days behind.)
From here a strange and wonderful series of events occurred. I noticed on Google Maps that we were close to Kuala Lumpur’s ‘Upside Down House’ and made a snap decision that we had to visit it at once. On the way I tried to take a shortcut through a shopping centre, and while puzzling at a map someone suddenly asked if I was Katie Self’s brother. I am! We had somehow stumbled across Adrian, my sister’s friend from uni, in a city of millions. After grabbing a surprised selfie we let him get back to work but made plans to hang out together the night afterwards, when he took us out for Chinese food in Jalan Alor market and then a pitcher of sangria at a nearby bar.
The Upside Down House, which turned out to be part of the attractions at the KL Tower, was just as delightful as I had expected and it takes great self-control to use only one of the photos of us on this blog rather than all of the many, many upside down rooms we visited.
I am proud of the fact that although Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia) is very, very cheap – and we did use it once – we were otherwise able to take public transport for both the short inner-city journeys and the longer commuter rail journey out to the Batu Caves. (Although we did mistime our journey out there which left us with a long wait for the next train, prompting an emergency visit to to the nearest museum which happened to be dedicated to Malaysia’s third Prime Minister. He was beloved by the people, apparently.)
The Batu Caves are perhaps the most prominent tourist attraction in Malaysia and the big change from my last visit is the painting of the steps in beautiful rainbow colours. The thieving monkeys (nicknamed the ‘mafia monkeys’ by our tour guide in the Cameron Highlands later on, which is very appropriate) were as out in force as ever, although it was quite amazing to watch the baby monkeys being carried along by their parents and just generally to watch their interactions with each other as they scampered up and down the cave walls.
And just like last time I was disappointed with the behaviour of some of the humans, especially the one who threw a plastic bottle at a monkey to get a reaction. It really doesn’t help our species’s image.
The other main landmark we visited in Kuala Lumpur was the National Mosque of Malaysia, which has some slightly unfortunate 60s architecture (not awful, but I preferred the Masjid Jamek Mosque which we passed at night) and has got so prepared for tourists that they print a #visitKL hashtag on the purple robes you are given to wear.
Finally, a word of appreciation for Kuala Lumpur’s bus terminal, Terminal Bersepadu Selatan. This is hands-down the best bus terminal I’ve ever used, partly because they have centralised the ticket sales and check-in counters for all of the bazillion bus companies so you don’t have to wander through looking for the right one. You also wait inside for your bus right up until it pulls up at the gate, which is a huge improvement on waiting on the kerb as you are slowly suffocated by exhaust fumes.
If I were constructing my ideal city out of little pieces of the real world, I certainly wouldn’t take Kuala Lumpur’s roads. But I would take its bus terminal.
Our philosophy about Singapore was that after flying two back-to-back 12-hour flights this would be a good moment for a long weekend of luxury before anything more adventurous. Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world and people often project a lot onto it: tax haven, Disneyland, multicultural bastion, lush garden city, ‘semi-free’ democracy with harsh penalties for dropping gum. Near and dear to my heart is that it’s a thriving city-state – much rarer in our time than it used to be – which gives it a certain freedom to experiment in ways that other countries cannot.
So even though people are often a little sceptical of Singapore, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have a great time here. There is a lot of spectacle, but it goes hand-in-hand with a lot of natural beauty too. And although it is obviously an expensive place to visit there are also a surprising number of free things to see and do, plus relatively cheap hawker centres for food, so even if you were travelling on a tight budget it would still be worth your time to visit.
As for us, we had originally booked two nights here at the M Social Hotel. This was my carefully selected compromise: a funky, boutique hotel which would be an indulgence but also not soak up too much of our overall budget. Later, Randi’s parents blew this out of the water with a Hanukkah gift of an additional night at Marina Bay Sands. Yes, that’s the one at the end of Crazy Rich Asians with the magical infinity pool overlooking the city. Thank you! 😀
We flew from Buenos Aires to Barcelona with LEVEL – a budget airline which disguises itself as Iberia – and then on to Singapore with Singapore Airlines. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with budget flights but it’s annoying when this is only revealed at the last minute. For example, if we had known that the only food available was (a) teeny-tiny, (b) expensive and (c) not vegetarian, Randi might have packed more to eat for a 12-hour flight than trail mix.
On the other hand, all this made Singapore Airlines seem gratuitously luxurious so we arrived into Singapore pretty cheerful (though very sleep deprived) and bought our three-day tourist passes for the public transport which, you won’t be surprised to learn, is fantastic. Fun fact: to drive a car in Singapore you need to bid for a 10-year Certificate of Entitlement (which can cost more than the car itself) and you can really see the positive results on the city. Somewhat less warm and fuzzy is the decision to play a graphic video guide – on a loop – about how to react to a terrorist attack, complete with a bomb going off in a subway carriage. You also see a glimpse of the nasty and violent side of Singaporean justice when caning is threatened as a punishment for sexual harassment. And trust me – I looked it up later – it’s a lot more intense than caning in schools.
Singapore is one of two countries on this trip where my global data roaming doesn’t work, so it was a nice touch to find that all rooms at the M Social come with their own phone to help navigate the city. I also appreciated the infinity pool – it was just a little outdone by what came next, sorry – but was sad to note that the room service robot, Aura, was on sick leave during our visit so we never experienced the joy of a robot coming up to bring us more toiletries. Other than settling into the hotel, on the first day we also walked to nearby Chinatown for lunch from the market along Pagoda Street. There were pigs everywhere, having just passed Chinese New Year and beginning the Year of the Pig. (Congratulations, Katie.)
The next day we got up early and hit the city, starting with the incredible Botanic Gardens. The name undersells it. It is free to visit, absolutely huge and Hampstead Heath-esque in blending picnic-friendly open spaces with wooded areas, except here the wooded areas are rainforests and include some raised paths through the trees. Most of the park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and signs fastidiously inform you when you are moving between the World Heritage site proper and the UNESCO “buffer zone”, whatever that means. It’s all beautiful.
Afterwards we ate lunch at the amazing Lau Pa Sat market before walking through the centre of the business and financial district, Raffles Place, and arriving back at the river. On the other side we found Parliament tucked away behind some museums – utterly dwarfed by the skyscrapers in the background – and then crossed through Fort Canning Park to the National Museum of Singapore. This tells the story of Singapore from its 14th century origins through its growth as a colonial trading post, occupation by Japan during WW2, forming part of Malaysia in 1963 before being expelled in 1965 and becoming an independent sovereign state. I was mesmerised by the famous press conference where the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, breaks down at the failure of the merger before rallying with his vision for the new Singaporean state (worth watching despite the music which someone has unnecessarily added over the top).
The Museum is also home to a somewhat strange Story of the Forest exhibition in a giant glass rotunda. I’m not quite sure how to describe this. It’s a bit like walking through a digital version of Yellow Submarine, but set in Bambi’s wood, and at the end you can lie on the floor in the dark and listen to calming music as you look up at floor-to-ceiling projections of flowers and wildlife. I am not exactly sure if there are many stoned teenagers in Singapore (“DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS” is printed in red capital letters on your immigration entry form) but if so this would be perfect for them.
That night we met up with my friend Stephanie for Indian food and drinks in some of Singapore’s hipper, more bohemian streets. I met Stephanie the first time I visited Kuala Lumpur for work back in 2014 and she has recently moved here. I’m really glad we got the chance to hang out again and appreciated her answering all of the questions I had built up about Singapore by that point.
Marina Bay Sands is not just a hotel – it’s a sprawling complex with a giant shopping centre home to absurdly expensive brands, a massive food court, a casino and a direct connection to the famous Gardens by the Bay. We had deliberately left this whole area for our last day and it certainly ramped up the Disneyland vibe several more notches. We checked in early and our bags were taken away to be brought up to our room after the official check-in time, but then we ended up having an extended discussion with the guy at the check-in counter about his South American travel plans and (possibly as a result) we were allowed into our room early.
And what a room… wow. The view over the harbour was incredible and (most exciting to me) it came with a whole seating area of chairs and sofas which would have been perfect for reading and blogging had we been the children of billionaires who could afford to stay here for longer than one night.
We decided to pay a brief visit to the Gardens by the Bay before throwing ourselves into total relaxation at the hotel. This was impressive and everything, but I think both of our minds were chanting “Infinity Pool! Infinity Pool!” and after seeing the famous Supertree Grove we soon hurried back to cool down on the 57th floor. While visitors can pay to go up to the hotel’s observation deck the pool area is kept strictly for guests, with one key card per person required to enter, thwarting any plans you might be hatching to visit Singapore and befriend someone who is staying here. Once you are in, the pool stretches along almost the entire length of the roof and is utterly gorgeous. As you might expect the whole area is well-catered for with food, drinks, bars, lounges and hot tubs, and you can take your pick of places to sit including deck chairs which rest in the shallow water of the pool itself.
I did once stay at a hotel in Carcassonne with a pool at the top. But this was better. (Sorry, that’s a joke with a maximum audience of three.)
That night we went down to the Event Plaza at the front of the hotel to watch the Spectra Light Show, which opens with some intimidating lasers seemingly beaming down from the hotel roof – as if to herald the imminent arrival of an alien fleet – before moving on to lots and lots of lights and fountains and water spray. In one particular section the music seemed suspiciously like they had removed just enough notes from the Pirates of the Caribbean theme to avoid a copyright suit.
Afterwards, we headed back up to the pool to drink Singapore Slings while dangling our feet in the water and having a long discussion about the economics of luxury hotels. I realise that this does not really qualify as ‘backpacking around Asia’ but I have no regrets about our Singaporean holiday-within-a-holiday.
I’m just back from Japan – the only country with its own emoji silhouette – after a short but productive work trip. As such, I didn’t have much time to do touristy things or take touristy photos, but I did manage to squeeze in visits to Yoyogi Park and the Shibuya crossing. I guess the stereotypes about Japan are obvious, but worth repeating anyway: people were wonderful and friendly, the trains and the subway are unsurprisingly fantastic, and bowing is woven into all social interactions. I liked it.
As a bonus, Robert and Julie – most notable for their Smoking Adapters travel blog – were kind enough to take me out in the evenings, and together we sampled lots of Japanese food (excluding anything with tentacles) from their favourite Tokyo spots.
One thing I wasn’t quite so thrilled about were the earthquakes. Over lunch with Vivek on Tuesday I experienced my first ever earthquake – nobody around us batted an eyelid – and then the next morning I was lying in bed when terra firma became noticeably less firm again. That’s not cool. We use the expression “on solid ground” for a reason. Although it is reassuring to see animated videos on the subway explaining how earthquake-proof it is.
Side note: flying with United is usually a ‘perfectly adequate’ type of experience, but on the way back home they served up a katsu curry like they had actually read my mind and extracted its deepest wishes. Much appreciated. I also did my usual catching up on recent PIXAR films by watching The Good Dinosaur, but thought it was… well, ‘perfectly adequate’, but nothing great.
I’ve wanted to visit New Zealand for a long time, but it always seemed so far away. (I mean, strictly speaking, it was so far away.) But it was going to be considerably closer to me from Sydney, and so in the same way that Americans travel to ‘Europe’ in a single trip – because why not? – I decided to spend my second week travelling around this country.
My first stop was Wellington to stay with Jen. It was so exciting to see her again: we first met back at Abbi’s drunken Christmas party in 2008 and have only seen each other episodically since, but it always feels like we’ve spent a lot more time together than we actually have. She was a wonderful, wonderful host, and from the first boardgame-playing night with her boyfriend, John, I was obviously going to have a great time here. (We played ‘Tiny Epic Galaxies’, for the record. This set a great tone for the nerdiness to follow.)
On Saturday I took a (free!) tour around New Zealand’s Parliament, which is pleasingly Westminster-like although with some fascinating differences (especially in its voting system) which are, of course, only fascinating if you are the type of person to tour a parliament in the first place. Later I rode the cable car up to the city’s botanical gardens and visited the national Te Papa museum, of which the most interesting part was the historical background on the Treaty of Waitangi between the British and the Māori. It’s the kind of treaty which was unhelpfully translated rather differently in English and Māori, and as such remains an active issue in New Zealand politics today.
The next day Jen drove me around on a loosely-themed Lord of the Rings day out, kicking off with the summit of Mount Victoria before moving on to the famous Weta Workshop. Their workshop tour was superb, and was delivered by an actual employee of the (surprisingly small) company who was obviously passionate about what they do and excellent at demonstrating the huge amount of work which goes into prop-making for TV and film. It’s sorta mind boggling. Plus they have trolls outside.
We also went to The Roxy Cinema, Peter Jackson’s beautiful art deco building which is filled with models in the lobby and I’m pretty confident would be beloved by Todd if he ever visited. I was particularly a fan of their gooey lemon cake, which would make it worthwhile to go see even a bad film. Afterwards, we walked by the sea at the Taputeranga scenic reserve, talked about blogging enough to distract me from getting sunburnt, and admired the seals chilling on the rocks.
That evening, Jen took me to the finals of the rugby sevens. My last interaction with rugby was refusing to play it at school, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that sevens is designed for people like me: everyone’s in fancy dress, nobody’s taking it too seriously, and – best of all – a game is made up of two seven-minute halves. If only all sports could follow this lead! And unlike American football, it was fast and fluid to watch. England satisfied my default expectations by losing horribly to Fiji, and then we watched New Zealand turn it around at the last moment to triumph over South Africa in the final. Which was the right moment to be in a New Zealand rugby crowd, obviously.
Special props to the guys who all came dressed as Donald Trump, with photos on their labels and ‘Make America Great Again’ scrawled amateurishly on the back of their baseball caps. (It’s worth noting that almost everyone I met on my trip volunteered the subject of Donald Trump as soon as they learnt that I lived in the US.)
I then flew to Christchurch, which is on the east coast of the South Island. It’s a city which is still very obviously devastated by the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011: everywhere you look there are buildings in ruins, in the process of demolition, or under construction. 185 Chairs is a moving memorial to the victims, and I also went to the Quake City exhibition which goes into the earthquakes in more detail.
Feeling earthquaked-out, I spent the afternoon down by Hagley Park and the river which has a distinctly Oxbridge feel. Not only are there punts meandering up and down, but at one point ‘Oxford Terrace’ faces off against ‘Cambridge Terrace’ on the other side. After discovering that a hour’s kayak hire was a mere $12 (and that’s New Zealand dollars!) I opted for that, doubly delighted that they didn’t ask for any ID, deposit or liability waivers. It was almost as if I had discovered a country chilled-out enough to just… trust people.
After kayaking, I stared nervously at the bike hire for a long time. I haven’t ridden in years, but my stated reason is always fear of cars, and here I was next to a large, bicycle-friendly park with no one I knew to watch me fall off. So I did it, and though I wasn’t the most confident cyclist on the planet, I hope it keeps my abilities fresh enough until the next time this urge arises.
The real reason I had come to Chirstchurch was for the TranzAlpine scenic train, which travels across the middle of the South Island to Greymouth on the west coast. It’s very much a tourist thing – there’s an audio commentary and a viewing car where you can take photos in the open air – but it’s still magical, and I don’t think any further explanation is required.
Not far south of the railway terminal in Greymouth is Hokitika, a “cool little town” (their words) by the beach. I swam a few times on this trip, but this was the place with the best waves. Other highlights of Hokitika include a beach-based sculpture competition, a chance to watch a beautiful sunset while worrying about being stood on an exposed strip of sand surrounded on either side by the sea, a night-time glow worm dell (pleasingly impossible to take good photos of, not that people were put off from trying) and what I consider to be an enchanted tree. (If you look closely below, you’ll see little magical people running up the left-hand side.)
For the final leg of my trip, I flew up to Auckland, where a third of New Zealanders actually live. Now I don’t want to be mean about this, but unlike the rest of the country, Auckland is… well, it’s a disaster. Everything about the city is set up to be nice: it has wonderful parks, good weather, cool things to do etc. And then somebody decided to plant motorway after motorway right through it, on top of which – and I can only assume malicious intent here – it takes forever to cross any road because the green light for pedestrians lasts only a few seconds. Plus they frequently fail to put in a crossing where you need one, so you have to make three crossings around an intersection just to get to the other side of the road. It’s exhausting, and sucks away the joy from what should be a lovely city to walk around. I realise that nobody reading this expects me to like cars, but I can’t remember a city this bad for road layout. It may even be worse than LA.
Thankfully, I spent almost none of my time in Auckland actually in Auckland. My first excursion was to Tiritiri Matangi Island – as recommend by Maria – a wildlife sanctuary which is only accessible via a daily ferry. (You have to take your own lunch, but they do offer free tea and coffee.) Despite the offer of guided tours to see the birds, I quickly decided I would rather get as far away from all other human beings as possible, and opted for the trek around the whole island. At some points I felt very much like a character in the closing stages of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (it helps to have just watched the latest BBC adaptation).
The island was not quite as secluded as one young couple were hoping for, however, and it took all the powers of British reserve to stare determinedly in the other direction as I walked past them in an advanced state of undress. I was awkwardly close when they finally saw me and scrambled off the path. It was very funny, and I wish I could have telepathically reassured them that I wasn’t scandalised.
On my final day in New Zealand, I succumbed to the inevitable and went on the tour of the Shire. And even though I spent most of the day on a coach to get there and get back, and even though they herd bus loads of tourists around like sheep, and even though everybody is obviously posing for the same photos, it was still magical. It’s large and hilly enough that you don’t really notice the other groups most of the time, and everything is beautifully decorated, and at the end you’re led into the Green Dragon pub for a surprisingly decent free drink. Hobbits are so great.
So there you go, my whistlestop tour of New Zealand. It’s a long way away, for sure, but it’s perversely easier to fly for a whole day – with a decent opportunity for sleep – rather than a shorter but more bodyclock-destroying journey. So if you ever feel a deep urge to commune with JRR Tolkien, this is the place to be.