After three weeks in the epic, yet quiet lands of Myanmar, it was first time to experience the fast paced life of metropolitan Malaysia and Singapore. The Malaysian peninsular has now fully developed to a flourishing country over the past few decades, brimming with modern cities and culture. It has always had a strong identity of multiculturalism, after being a major stronghold and port during the British empire. Under the British control, Chinese and Indian labourers were imported, which birthed their respective cultures across the nation. Larger towns will all have a Little India and a Chinatown, which in turn brings floods of fine cuisine to feast upon from all corners of Asia.
Despite a small fluctuation in weather throughout the year, Malaysia is one of the least seasonal countries in SE Asia. Essentially, you can pretty much always expect rain. At around 5pm, blue skies turn grey and water falls in either drizzle or monsoon form. And once it started raining, it wouldn’t stop until late at night.
My first stop would be Penang, which is often referred to as the food capital of Malaysia, and can quickly be verified by the continuous array of restaurants and street food stalls which pave the streets. Penang lives as a fusion between East and West; the old traditions and charm live through the modern streets. Open walls act as canvases for artists, whose street art can be found everywhere if you look hard enough. In Georgetown, where I was staying, clean white houses stand in rows like a Mediterranean town on the coastline.
Upon arrival, I introduced myself to a Canadian girl called Nicole was staying in the same dorm as myself. She was studying law in Canada, although she was currently situated in Kuala Lumpur on a work placement. Having spent several months in Malaysia, she was fully aware of the abundant selection of Malaysian food on offer, and was therefore the best person to tour the city with.
Malaysia carries a modern edge that stands itself apart from much of SE Asia, and was certainly quite a culture shock, yet an easy return to indulgence. My eyes lit up at the rich markets, alongside the glow of the streets at night. During the day, we wandered through the town, and one morning walked up Penang Hill for a couple of hours to see a panorama of the coastline (you don’t know sweat until you’ve trekked anywhere in Malaysia).
Following on from Penang would be the Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. Whereas Penang sits quietly on the coast, Kuala Lumpur is a true metropolitan powerhouse. Cranes can be seen standing over the city centre, building on the already dominant skyline. Designer shopping malls can be easily found, along with almost every western chain you could be aware of. Local crowds sweep through the city in mass, and due to the magnitude of ex-pats who reside there, westerners are not assumed to be tourists. Without knowing much of KL before arriving, I was surprised at how easy and comfortable the city felt, even to a stranger.
One night I was invited by Nicole out for drinks with her friends. “Wear trousers” she told me. When someone says that in Asia, you know it’s going to be a smart establishment. Of my two pairs available in my backpack, I chose the least worn (but that still wasn’t saying much). Suddenly we were at “Marinis on 57”, which loomed over Kuala Lumpur’s central district from the 57th floor. Sat in my walking boots with my scruffy hair, I was definitely out of place in a table of sharply dressed lawyers and consultants. Still, there was a sense of familiarity around. I remembered what it was like to be in London again, sipping overpriced cocktails and looking over the neon landscape beneath.
The final stop on the most metropolitan leg of my journey was to be the king of Asian cities, Singapore. With a booming city centre and huge stretches of green gardens, Singapore is a truly dynamic city for everyone (if your wallet is big enough). I was staying in the heart of Little India, in close proximity to the downtown bay area, with plenty of local markets and restaurants.
Cleanliness in the city is taken as seriously as criminality. The closely patrolled streets provide a safe but sensitive environment, which is extremely apparent in comparison to other Asian cities. The list of actions which are considered criminal is lengthy. It is illegal to litter (obviously), with fines starting at $300. Selling chewing gum can put you in jail, along with other offences including singing an obscene song in public and connecting to another person’s WiFi. And of course, the death penalty is waiting for anyone smuggling drugs into the city state. But as long as you follow the rules, it’s a very friendly place…
There’s a plethora of fancy hotels and restaurants for the extravagant traveller, but not too much for the backpacker budget. Still, it would be rude not to enjoy a Singapore Sling when in Singapore and enjoy the local luxuries. The city has plenty of monuments to see and places to explore. None more impressive than the Gardens by the Bay, which is an extensive garden of plant life from around the world, either held in massive greenhouses or neatly arranged outside. At night, the tall flower-wrapped towers in the park are lit up like a rainbow of fluorescent mushrooms.
And then in a flash, my city tour was at an end. My next stop, Malaysian Borneo, would be quite different. I’d be trading the blocks of skyscrapers for jungle canopy and martinis for bananas. Doesn’t sound too bad, really.