Blog #8 - Hear the Roar of the Merlion!

So enough self-pity from us.  Last we left you we were licking our wounds from ‘roughing it’ too hard in Kuala Lumpur.  After we left KL things really turned around for us.  For the past week or so we’ve been in Penang, and then we were off to Singapore.   Why Penang you ask?  Well, let’s just lay it out in a few words of advice: when travelling in southeast Asia, avoid the lunar (Chinese) new year. 

Everyone is on holiday, and it goes on for about two weeks.  Officially stores and services shut down for a few days only, however, the bigger issue is that as a traveller you’ll be (as we have been) competing against the locals for accommodation and travel all through this time.  It’s common for those celebrating to reunite with family, and to book holidays and travel plans months in advance.  So, this rendered our usual laissez-faire “walk-up” approach futile.  We found all convenient, comfortable, and/or desirable modes of travel all booked up.

Our original Malaysia plan was to visit Langkawi, an island on the west coast of Malaysia.  Steph’s sister Julia and her husband Lincoln had their wedding there two years ago, and furthermore, it simply has the best beaches in Malaysia.  But, when we sauntered into the train station to arrange for tickets we discovered that we were idiots.  There were almost no trains, or buses, to Langkawi.  And even if we could manage to get there, every hotel, resort etc., on the island was booked solid.

This was a little disappointing as we were ready for some beach time.  We  researched other islands, such as Pangkor, Tioman, and a few other small ocean specks that show up on a map.  But nothing was working. 

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Finally we decided we’d go to Penang.  It was a large island with lots to do, had beaches, and we had heard from another traveller that Georgetown was great, too.  So a few days later we got out of KL.  We found seats on an overnight train to Penang, and yes, were seated upright the whole way (like good little soldiers – the sleeper cars were sold out, remember?).

We arrived in Penang early morning, somewhat destroyed from sleeping only a few hours with our heads on the serving trays in front of us, and went straight for our hotel.  Our hotel was a bargain, but mainly because it was undergoing massive renovations.

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We enjoyed exploring Penang Island.  Traffic, if you can believe it, is a real issue on the island, but we found a way to get out of the town and into nature.  As part of our healthy living plan, we looked into doing a climb up Penang Hill.  We had done some hiking earlier in the trip and have become familiar with steep terrain, but this was like no other.  It was 6km to get to the top, along a mix of trail and road (the road grade was 30%!).  It was crazy hard but very rewarding when we hit the top.  We were sweating sheets and getting looks from people who had just came up on the train.  We took the train back down, but before we did we soaked in the view of Georgetown and the Straits of Melaka over sunset.

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After three days on Penang Island we were getting anxious to get out of Malaysia.  We will have fond memories of Malaysia, however we must say, as tourists it was not our favourite (but perhaps we’re being a bit unfair as we were trying to ‘wing it’ through Chinese new year).

We went from Penang back to KL overnight in seats and arrived in the early morning, all groggy once again.  But a few hours later we boarded a “massage bus” for the five hour ride to Singapore.  Yes, we were massaged by our chairs as we slept like rocks.  We rolled in to Singapore soft as Wagyu beef.

Singapore is clean and filled with a wonderful variety of food.  We absolutely loved this place.  So much to wander through and explore.  The sidewalks are wide and clean (as chewing gum and J walking is illegal).

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When we arrived in Singapore we were fully refreshed and made our way straight to our hostel.  Since accommodation in Singapore is super-expensive, to keep our costs down we decided to try to ‘rough it’ for our first two nights, and then spend the last two nights in a budget hotel.  But there really isn’t any “roughing it” in Singapore.  Even in a hostel.  It was very clean, had in-house laundry and fast wi-fi in the common area.  Our room was in a co-ed dorm, that was laid out “Japanese style”, which was interesting.  Basically each person or couple got their own little cubby-hole.  We were on the top bunk.  Steph’s favourite!  :)

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Vince has a friend, Edwin, who lives in Singapore, and he graciously showed us the city (none of the usual tourist sites), and also took us out for dinner with his family at their local hawker centre.  If you haven’t heard of a “hawker center”, it is an organized street food bazaar, and is basically a work of self-organizing genius.  This puts all mall food courts we have ever seen to shame.  The way it works is dozens of vendors with short menus (they tend to specialize in only a few dishes) sit shoulder-to-shoulder and serve up cheap food all day long, and run it out to your seat quickly.   There is a wide variety of food, so we ordered as a group and ate as a big family.  We even ate grilled chili sting ray…sorry Phil!

Singapore is very very safe, we discovered that wandering at night is not only so much cooler and comfortable but also quite romantic. 

 One evening we explored the Marina Bay complex, and we found the foodcourt has a skating rink!  It was artificial ice, and some of the locals were trying to learn to skate on the stuff when we took to the ‘ice’.  It was almost unfair.  

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Afterward we took in the best “water and light” show one could imagine, which takes place at the edge of the bay two times per night.

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We are truly in awe of the architecture and details each area of this city has.  Bridges are works of art.  Malls should be photographed, and hotels/office building look like sculptures.  It’s not the “concrete jungle” we were expecting to find – in fact, surprisingly, there is a lot of green in Singapore, even in the city proper.  To top it all off, Steph’s friend showed us a great time way above the city to enjoy the beautiful birds eye view in five star styles on our last night.  Thanks again Wui San!!

We are definitely going to come back to Singapore sometime in the future (after we win the lottery ;) to truly enjoy this fantastic city.  What a place!  And to top it all off it even has a mascot.  And Steph loves her mascots.  Go Merlion Go....ROAR!  

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Well we have packed up now and kissed the Merlion goodbye and have got our game-faces on for India.  We are anxious and excited to venture somewhere completely different.  Coming from Singapore, we know we’ll be up against some extreme culture shock, but it will be a good challenge for us which you hear all about on the next blog entry.  Ciao ciao for now!