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Stephan and 'Chenda Solon, UK

Around the World, in Singapore and Malaysia

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Singapore

Arriving in Singapore after Darwin was a revelation. It was similar to arriving in Buenos Aires after Cape Town. Suddenly things were buzzing. We'd gone from the sparsely populated sleepy Northern Territory to one of the worlds fastest moving cities. I wasn't too sure what to expect but was really impressed. It is incredibly modern with a huge amount of fastish moving traffic which is easily avoided by using the best metro system I've ever used. The city is also clean and has good footpaths on the side of the road so you can actually walk around. I'm writing this after a couple of months in Malaysia and Thailand which despite being western countries are nowhere as advanced as Singapore. Oh, and a further 6 weeks in Nepal, India and Pakistan which is another story. A further bonus for us was that English is widely spoken. The country is essentially populated by decendents of immigrants from China, Malaysia and India who find English is a useful common language although with the increasing commercial importance of China the government is apparently promoting the use of Mandarin.

We settled in to New Sandy's Place, a guesthouse recommended by a fellow traveller we'd met at Elkes Backpackers in Darwin. It's right near Newton MRT Station and has parking for both bikes and cars if necessary. It's also quiet which for us boring old farts is important. Must get our beauty sleep you know!

We have got the impression that many travellers don't think much of Singapore. We loved it however and, apart from things like it being modern, clean and easy to get around, the main reason for liking it is its huge number of good hawker food centres. There are loads of them including one at Newton which concentrates on seafood so is a bit pricy. These food centres range from appendages to old markets to food courts in modern shopping malls and they all offer a good variety of Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Indonesian food for reasonable money. Our favourite was the Lau Pa Sat Festival Market located near Raffels Place MRT in the middle of the financial area. It is contained within a wrought iron structure dating from about the 1920's and reminds me of many large old British train stations. We stuffed ourselves there most nights and then waddled over to the river which separates the financial area from the colonail district. There is a pretty pedestrian area perfectly designed for us tourists to enjoy some great views in a tropical city which at that point looks like a very nice British city centre. Just don't buy anything in the pubs there - beer is twice the price of a central London pub!

We didn't have to go far to be in a small Chinese or Indian town although I must say Little India seemed pretty dull after Chinatown. To be honest nowhere is that far in Singapore but the heat and humidity can make getting around a bit of a chore if you're not using the metro. We gave ourselves sore feet and very smelly socks wandering around the place.

We collected the bike after we'd been there for about 4 days. Jesselton Shipping are the agents for Perkins Shipping in Singapore and they were very helpful. It took nearly half a day to get through all the things we had to do to bring the bike in to the country though. First the we had to go to the AA of Singapore where we were required to have our carnet endorsed ie. having the reverse side of the next available page stamped the date we were clearing the bike through customs and the date we expected to take the bike out of Singapore. We were entitled to up to 30 days but could take the bike out at anytime before the leave by date stamped by the AAS. The reason for this is that Singapore Customs go after the AAS if we don't take the bike out of the country when we should. The AAS also sold us a form of road tax for foreign vehicles and third party insurance for Singapore and Malaysia. They then made the necessary alterations to our carnet to extend its validity till the end of our trip which had proved such a problem for the Australian AA. Our business at the AAS was completed in about an hour which considering what we needed is really good going.

Next we had to go to the Road Transport Authority to get an Autopass Card on presentation of our endorsed carnet which cost S$10 plus S$4 for every day the bike was in Singapore. It is a sort of "credit" card and can be topped up at any 7-11 shop. All that done we could now collect the bike from the port and clear it through customs. Once we'd found the correct bit of the port - our taxi driver was really helpful here - this was completed in about half an hour. For a change all we had to do to the bike was connect the battery as we were able to ship it loose. It arrived in the same condition we had given it to Perkins Shipping in Darwin.

We had more paperwork to go through in Singapore than we ever had anywhere else but the process was so efficient it was done far quicker than any other country probably would have been able to. We were very impressed.

 

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Malaysia

After just over a week of exploring Singapore it was time to move on. There was still about another weeks worth of interesting thing things to see but Malaysia was calling us. The Botanical Gardens are worthy of special mention though. There, I've mentioned them.

We left on a Saturday morning smothly going through the customs procedures on both sides of the causeway linking Singapore to Malaysia. Singapore customs had no problem stamping our carnet a further time to complete the final bit of bureaucracy necessary to extend the validity of the carnet. The first town in Malaysia was Johore and it was imediately evident that it is a less well developed country. Lots more dirt, chaotic pavements where they existed, older buildings in poorer shape and a more variable if ok road surface. There were still lots of people of Chinese and Indian decent about but we noticed a lot more women wearing headscarfs. This was our first predominantly moslem country although it's not exactly a strict moslem country and in fact it strives to achieve as much development as possible. The women may be covering their hair but are often seen walking hand in hand with their boyfriends wearing fashionable tight fitting shirts and jeans.

Our destination was Melaka, the ancient Malay capital before the Portugese invaded in the 1500's. The Dutch invaded and took it from them in the 1600's and eventually the British came to control it when the Netherlands had been conquered by Napoleon. By then its importance as a trading centre had declined because no way were the Arabs going to trade in a city run by infedels when they had the option of ports at Moslem kingdoms in nearby Indonesia. It was not going to be revived either as the British had developed Penang and were looking to develop Singapore, then an unimportant largely uninhabited jungle island, as their trading centres along the Melaka Straits.

 

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We found a perfect modern motorway to take us there. It is privately run so there are tolls but the company is very wise and has exempted motorcycles from the tolls, constructing narrow roads to take bikes around the toll booths. I can think of some useful alterations to the Dartford Tunnel/QEII bridge in London... Generally Malaysians do not ride big bikes but that day there were loads of top sports bikes like Yamaha R1s blasting up the road. One rider who slowed down to wave before blasting past was on the latest MV Agusta. I think he may have wanted to swap bikes for a while but I didn't work that out before he went off after his mate on a R1. For those of you who do not know about bikes, imagine a load of 6 month old Porsches and Ferraris going past you who is driving a 6 year old Ford Escort and suddenly a guy in the latest Lamborghini wants to swap cars for a while. Monday was Wesak Day, a Bhudist religious festival, so that weekend was a long weekend. Almost all those big bikes were from Singapore but there aren't all that many good sportsbike roads there. What would you do? Incidently, there were a lot of Mercs and BMWs hurtling up the motorway too.

We stopped at a food centre and shortly after we had parked a couple of harleys stopped too. They were ridden by an American who had spent the last 20 years in South East Asia and a Brit who were going to KL with their wives for the weekend. One of the women was from Singapore and the other Malaysia but of course they had all made Singapore their home. Singapore really is like a nation made up entirely of immigrants. I think the Singapore government must have had a really hard time creating a national identity for its people. Having said that, the country has only existed since the late 60's when Malaysia, afraid of its growing political power, ejected the city from the Malaysian Union. Maybe the two countries will unite again but that is extremely unlikely in the forseeable future.

After Singapore, Melaka was an extremely ancient poor town. It isn't really poor, its just that Singapore could easily be one of Australias most vibrant cities. We found ourselves a very cheap but good guesthouse right near the historic centre called Tonys Place where we could park the bike securely off the road. It was in a Chinese area and there were lots of old shophouses on the surrounding streets. One had a great looking satay restaurant but when it was open it was too packed for us to get a table. Another had a good dim sum place where we decided to start our days. It was really strange to see Dutch colonial buildings. The bright red Stadhuys now used as a museum and the matching church next door make a very strange sight in a tropical world but no more so than the collection of posh cricket club and other classicly designed British colonial buildings in Singapore. I think its the colour scheme which really stands out but apparantly its always been like that. Not far from there are older Portugese buildings, those of military origins now no more than ruins courtesy of Dutch colonial ambitions. Its hard to believe Melaka used to be the most important port on the Melaka Straits as land reclamation schemes for new flats and a shopping centre in the past 10 years have extended the town a couple of kilometres out to sea.

 

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Wesak Day celebrations were really interesting. We'd never seen a Buhdist festival before and it seemed the whole Chinese comminity were out celebrating. On Monday evening we watched a long march of various groups of people, especially schools, frequently broken up by floats of Bhudda shrines, some very elaborate, and marching bands. Although it was a predominantly Chinese affair, there were lots of Malays and Indians there too not to mention the occaisional tourist.

Instead of following the motorway to Kuala Lumpar (KL) we took the slower coast road most of the way stopping for refreshments at a couple of resort areas by the sea. These were largely empty with staff cleaning up the litter from the weekend. Definately a post party feeling. We made it to KL by mid afternoon and then found ourselves trying to find our way to the area we wanted to stay on a series of confusing dual carriage ways without the aid of a good map for an hour. Eventually we worked things out and found ourselves the relatively posh (20 quid a night) Nova Hotel (not to be confused with the expensive Novohotel chain)and by chance made friends with the head of security while we were checking in.

We were in the modern part of the city which has the strange appearence of an abandoned building site. There are lots of very tall unfinished buildings and an unfinished part of a monorail system. Work stopped when the Asian finincial crisis struck back in '96 and things haven't picked up enough for things to start up again. There were a lot of food stalls on the street outside our hotel which were ok but by our second day in KL we had discovered very good cheap lunches at the main train station and a huge choice of yummy goodies at the food court in the shopping centre at the back of the Petronas Towers. I was very glad that complex wasn't a victim of the recession. The two glass and stainless steel towers, all 86 floors of them, are amongst the most striking buildings anywhere. They're not just one of the tallest buildings in the world, they are also very attractive buildings to my eye. At night when they are lit up they look like something out of a science fiction film. We went up the the Skybridge linking the two buildings on the 42nd floor when a huge storm was raging. It's a long way down from there but weirdly its still a long way up too. The shopping centre attached to the towers is probably the most impressive I've been to. I actually liked it and normally I find shopping centres tedious forms of hell. It is designed to be part of the Petronas Towers and opens up to large landscaped gardens complete with fountains and lakes. We spent two evenings there and not just for the waffles and ice cream at the food court.

 

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KL is not my favourite city however. We spent a day exploring the historic centre - some very impressive colonial buildings there strongly influenced by the design of Indian palaces - and a morning at the Batu Caves when we weren't at the Petronas Towers. The Batu Caves are a natural formation to the north of the city which has been turned into a tacky Hindu shrine with lots of monkeys who do their best to mug tourists. I bet they don't often meet tourists with experience of monkeys I thought as I kicked one who was about to go into our bag. It bared its teeth and hissed at me once it was at a safe distance. A less assertive couple had a container of pills stolen. I have no idea what they were but one of those monkeys was going to have a very strange afternoon. That we felt was all we were interested in seeing of KL. Sure there's more to see but the Cameron Highlands weren't too far away and they seemed far more interesting so we left a day earlier than we intended. That must have been the first time we have done that in our entire trip.

It was motorway again for a few hours. It was really hot and humid so we were stopping frequently for drinks and a bite. Malaysian motorway service areas often have a very good selection of cheap food stalls. Eventually we turned off onto a much bumpier two lane road which wound its way for about 60kms into the surrounding hills before we got to our destination, Tanah Rata. This was at about 1500m and the temperature was now very comfortable. Still too warm to ride with our jackets on but we weren't sweating anymore. At this altitude there are a series of valleys which have been turned into tea estates since the 1930s. The sight of acres of immaculate fields of tea trees in a relatively cool climate made the area feel like a kind of paradise after the heat of the lowlands and 3 days in KL. Here the road surface improved dramatically and became only moderately twisty so the curves are fun and not hard work.

Tanah Rata is the main tourist place and we stayed at the immaculate Hillview Inn which must have had a spectacular view of the surrounding hills before work started on a shopping centre 50m down the hill. Unfortunately the shopping centre remains an abandoned building site, another victim of the finincial crisis. The Hillview Inn is run by an Indian family and serves the best banana and honey porridge I have ever had for breakfast if you like that sort of thing. Sleeping comfortably without the need for air conditioning or at least a fan was something we hadn't experienced since we stayed at Radekas Downunder in Coober Pedy, about two months previously. At the Hillview Inn we met a couple from Yorkshire. The man, Yousef was a dead ringer for an Arab and not just because of the way he dressed. Hearing a broad Yorkshire accent from this man in a moslem country really stunned me for a few seconds. His mum was Irish but his dad was Yemeni and thats who he took after. He was a very devout moslem but at the same time nowhere near as serious as his appearance suggested. We had a few good fun conversations. It's strange who you meet sometimes.

 

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We spent 3 days in the Cameron Highlands visiting a couple of tea estates, going to the top of a nearby mountain which conveniently had a road all the way to the top and having a cream tea at an English Pub. Yes, in this part of Malaysia you can find an imacculate upmarket pub/restaurant/hotel which wouldn't look out of place in Hampshire. There is even an old red British phone box on the other side of the road to complete the illusion. The tea and scones we had in the garden were perfect if expensive even by English standards. The only thing I couldn't quite get my head around was the demented bagpipe music which the pub insisted on playing. We just had to take a photo of me and the bike in front of the pub and while we were doing so some Malaysian tourists thought it would be a good idea to have their photo on a UK registered bike in front of an "English pub". We happily loaned them the bike for this purpose.

It would have been easy to spend much longer in the area going on some of the many walks through the hills, however as it was still quite warm during the day, but mostly because walking is not one of our favourite passtimes, we decided to set off for Penang on our fourth morning there. This was mostly a fairly long and hot motorway journey passing through some interesting scenery in parts. The best bits were huge jagged rocks a couple of hundred metres high jutting out of the surrounding countryside with bits of jungle growing on them wherever there wasn't a near vertical rock face.

At one service area we met a Dutch biker on holiday with his wife, kid and sister. He dreams of doing a similar journey to us but can't imagine when he might be able to do it. Nevertheless he frequently looks at horizonsunlimited for inspiration.

 

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The journey ended with crossing a huge suspension bridge where for once we did have to pay a toll and then a half hour ride through lots of slow moving traffic with hundreds of small scooters cutting in and out. A combination of caution, being lost and large panniers making the bike very wide kept us firmly with the cars whose drivers had a hard time accepting this fact. We had a bit of this in KL and Melaka and really this seems to be a typical scenario for town traffic in this part of the world. Other than the constant lane changing - cars frequently drive in two lanes at once - and plethora of scooters its not much different to central London.

The SD Motel in Chinatown had a shop opposite which they used for storage and had enough room for us to park. Just 'cos a place has the word motel in its name doesn't mean it really is one. For the first time in Malaysia we found ourselves staying in a hotel where no one spoke any English but it was a clean air conditioned place and was very cheap. The owners must have liked us as they ended up giving us a discount on what was already a low price for what we got.

Penang has a Thai consulate where we were able to get two month visas which would hopefully allow us enough time to get Iranian visas when we got to Thailand. This meant we had to stay there a little longer than we would have liked - 3 days. Penang is interesting in that it was the first major British colonial outpost in Malaysia and has a few interesting Chinese temples and clan houses but in many respects it had little for us which we hadn't also experienced in Singapore, Melaka and KL. It is distinct from them but not enough to really hold our attention. Had we overdosed on travel experiences? Some unsavoury new ones were seeing a man go for a dump in an open sewer, and having a man covered in his own excrement walk past us at a bus stop. Everyone there held their breath for as long as they could and pretended that hadn't just happened. I think the man may have been mentally ill. I certainly got the impression from the others there this was not a normal thing to see.

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