Aside from blogging extensively about podcasts, my time alone in Kuala Lumpur can be summarised by this WhatsApp exchange with Catherine:
The shopping centre where I accomplished both #1 and #2 from the list above is called Berjaya Times Square and is an odd place, like a rainforest where the ecosystem is very different in the treetops from the jungle floor. The bottom is busy and a little ritzy, including a piano staircase which plays the notes as you step on them. But as I looked for a hairdresser I ventured higher and higher (in a lift which curiously plays a recorded message of “sorry to keep you waiting” no matter how long you’ve actually been waiting) and the atmosphere became ever quieter and the shops more mundane until I felt I was the only person around. Apparently there’s a university up there if you go high enough but I didn’t want to start pressing dangerous buttons in the great glass elevator.
Talking of lifts: it was noticeable that the floors in the condominium where we stayed avoided the numeral 4 (for superstitious reasons) leading to the invention of floors 3A and 13A and so on. I have a real superstition against travelling in vehicles designed by superstitious people, but at least this was preferable to skipping the numbers completely, as in the buildings which jump from floor 12 to 14.
The model mosques were only a small part of the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia but were definitely the most interesting part for me, ranging from the Great Mosque of Mecca to smaller ones from China to New Mexico and always melding local architecture with the basics of any mosque. I pretty much exhausted all of my solo tourism energy after this point, however, and for most of the rest of the time I only moved between a small triangle of a roti place, a coffeeshop and our AirBnb until Randi returned from her successful mission to London.
Our next leg of travelling took us back up north by train (yay!) to Alor Setar where we caught a ferry to Langkawi Island. I had foolishly booked the train tickets online from the station named ‘Kuala Lumpur’ but when we returned from Penang the other week we had already discovered that Kuala Lumpur is, in fact, a portal into an alternate universe where humans have barely survived an apocalyptic plague. The real station you want to leave from is Kuala Lumpur Sentral, opened in 2001 to replace Kuala Lumpur and barely 10 minutes down the track but unhelpfully abbreviated to KL Sentral on the train company’s booking website so you don’t spot it exists. We ended up booking an extra ticket to cover KL Sentral to Kuala Lumpur so that we could arrive at a station with breakfast and lunch options to buy rather than zombies to fend off.
Anyhow, the train journey itself was smooth (albeit very cold) and our ferry to Langkawi didn’t catch fire as had happened the day before. We therefore arrived with plenty of time for sunset on the beach and dinner at what became our go-to place in Langkawi for the majority of our meals. They do a really good fish pie, alright?
There are a bunch of tourist attractions in Langkawi and we did start out with plans to visit some of them – honest! – but then laziness took hold and it seemed better to wind up the Malaysian portion of our travels with rest, relaxation and repeated attempts to find somewhere outside to sit and read without loud music playing in the background. (I know this makes us sound really old but unfortunately we haven’t yet developed the hearing loss of the genuinely old which might actually have helped in this scenario.) It’s also worth noting that the beer here is dramatically cheaper than anywhere else we’ve been in Malaysia.
Regardless, it was great to finally reach the beach… and our next stop (assuming we get into Thailand) is going to double down on this theme 😉
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.