#32 - Singapore & Malaysia
Jeff Willner - 20 March 2002
(Penang, MALAYSIA) . Dizzy from back to back red
eye flights I stumbled into the Singapore airport lobby. There are green
telephone booths inside the terminal with free calls into the city. How
convenient. I called a friend and received directions to a reserved hotel.
Ahhh, sanity and comfort. Southeast Asia would be different travelling
than previous stages since I would be staying with friends, definitely
a change from the nightly search for a not-quite-horrible hostel routine.
And no need for charades when ordering in restaurants. My thanks to Lin
Dah in Singapore, the Chan family in Kuala Lumpur, and Melissa for her
pity on this wandering traveler and introducing me to many of her friends.
I didn't expect so much sophistication in Southeast Asia. Even though
I had heard about the 'Economic Miracle' I still figured the countries
would be one step above third world status. I was completely mistaken.
Singapore is nicer than most cities in America or Europe, and most definitely
cleaner! And Malaysia has a thriving middle-class that worries about the
same things we do at home - whether or not to upgrade the cable subscription,
does a second car make sense, and deciding it's worth fighting traffic
to go to the sale at the mall. Certainly I was spoiled. I stayed with locals
and got a definitely better-than-tourist perspective on the countries.
But the economics don't lie. These are world class places to live.
Singapore has a phoenix-like history. Abandoned as a British military
base in the late fifties it joined the Federation of Malaysia. But
the association didn't work and it announced its independence in 1965.
Incredibly, this tiny island was able to grow into a leading economic
power in the region. Much of the success is credited to the visionary
leadership of the Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, Lee Kuan Yew -
though he was also responsible for many socially repressive policies.
Singapore is now Southeast Asia's most important seaport, financial
center, and manufacturing hub, and its citizens enjoy one of the
world.s highest standards of living.
||After a day in Singapore I boarded the night train to Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia. KL, as it is commonly referred to, is a typical SE Asian
blend of old and new. The glamorous Petronas towers dominate the
skyline towering over fruit stalls in Chinatown only a few blocks
away. I enjoyed the best food of my life in KL where the best of
Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Thai food can be found in cheap food
stalls along the street.
Riding the rails is a cheap way to get around, it takes some
time but on a night train you don't have to pay for a hotel. The
drawback is with earplugs in I can barely hear my watch alarm.
After a few near misses I decided to stay awake for the last hour
just to be safe. From the train to the ferry, the ferry to the
trishaw (a pedaled rickshaw), the trishaw to a hostel selected
for its cheapness - I arrived in a dazed mass. Grumbling at the
doorbell, the night porter motioned to a chair from the other side
of the locked security mesh. "Sit. We open in 45min." I
sat for about an hour, then was shown to a room where I collapsed.
Not the best first impression of Penang.
But the city does have its delights. Rested, I ventured around
the town. Chinese society halls blazed in a glorious riot of color,
quaint alleys, mosques, churches, the old fort on the sea, and
most impressive of all, Kek Lok Si temple perched high on Penang
Hill. Stretching up the hill for hundreds of meters is an assortment
of temples, prayer rooms, ponds, and towers. And at the top the
coolest part of all - a three-storey tall Buddha! I couldn't find
a taxi and decided to start walking back to town when a local bus
pulled up beside me. Two English women had yelled at the driver
to stop. Good thing too, it was over 5km away. Kindnesses on the
road are like a glass of cold water on a hot day!
I have no idea who these people are, but they were
in the coolest trishaw in Penang. Decked out with flowers, cards,
flags and banners,
with a colourful umbrella and... wait for it... Elvis blasting from
the boombox as they were cycled between the sights.
I had slept through the immigration stop when coming
into the country on the train and had a few anxious moments wondering
how I would explain the lack of an entry stamp or visa on my way
out. Crowded in a mini-van with ten other travelers I left Penang
for Phuket, Thailand, a ten hour marathon drive. At the border
as I crossed with the others the woman officer looked carefully
through my passport, glanced at me, then looked again. She started
to ask a question, and then assessed my day-old stubble, backpack,
and unwashed hair. Tourists. She stamped me out and I was through.