My first overseas trip: Singapore and Malaysia

I’ve always loved to travel. My first memory is of sitting in a an aircraft, aged 18 months or so. Yet I never believed that I could travel overseas. To me, it seemed like something you did when you retired, or if you were rich.

That all changed when I met B. She had not only travelled overseas, she was from overseas. B was born in Malaysia and arrived in Australia, with her family, in 1988. She still had relatives and friends in Malaysia and Singapore and she, along with the remainder of her family, planned to return for a visit during the Australian summer of 1995.

At the time I was staying in B’s mother’s house while we were studying at university. After B’s father passed away the year before I was the nominal “man” of the house and its high maintenance garden; her brother Michael was studying up in Queensland. B and I were quite inseparable and her mother kindly offered to pay for me to join them on their vacation.

So it was that I obtained my very first passport and on the 6th of December 1995 I found myself leaving the country for the first time. B and I were the first of the family to depart, the other two would follow later.

I recall little about that first flight on a Singapore Airlines 747, except for feeling a little queasy as we neared the end of our eight hour flight. I looked out the window to see a huge queue of ships outside the busy port island.

The shock came when I stepped out of the air conditioned airport terminal and into the tropical humidity of Singapore. It was like a wall of hot liquid air. For the next month I would rarely feel clean and fresh; I remarked that I was continuously showering myself in perspiration.

We were met at the airport by B’s aunt and uncle and driven to their house in the suburbs. The uncle was a quiet man, content to pursue his own activities. His wife was a complete contrast. She talked continuously to anyone within range and poked her nose into everyone’s affairs. We called her AFH, but it is better not to expand on that in a public forum.

Dinner on that first night was sticks of satay home delivered by a man on a motorcycle. I ate 13 before my mouth was suddenly overwhelmed by the spice and could take no more. This tale will contain a lot of food references. The southern Chinese that B was descended from take their meals very seriously and the dishes of Singapore and Malaysia are probably the greatest reasons to visit those countries.

Over the next eleven days B and I explored Singapore. Sometimes in company of AFH, sometimes on our own. On the first morning AFH brought us into the city to eat “carrot cake”, a spicy fried dish of glutinous chunks made from Chinese white radish. I remember noticing that the sound of the traffic light walk signals was like bird song.

We wandered the city, visited a museum, shopped for clothes, visited a friend I met on Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Orchard Road’s Department Stores were decked out with magnificent Christmas light displays. I encountered my first durian in a street market . I asked B what that awful smell was and she just laughed!

We caught a trishaw around the central area and were taken in Arab street in Little India. The old shopfronts were a change from the glass and concrete sterility of the rest of the city. AFH wondered why we would want to see that “dangerous and dirty area” (it’s not really).

I read in a Singapore newspaper that the country had just been awarded developed nation status. Their prime minister at the time Lee Kuan Yew commented that Singaporeans still needed to develop their manners to match. Singapore is a modern, very clean city and English is widely used and understood. I was surprised by how easy it was to adapt to this new country.

My culture shock came when we crossed the causeway into Johor Bahru (JB) in Malaysia. One of the reasons for B and her family to return to Malaysia was to renew their identity cards. The Auntie and Uncle drove us across from Singapore and to JB in order for B to renew hers. The difference between the two cities was astounding.

JB was dirty, the buildings run down and it stank. For the first time I felt like I was in a truly different country to Australia. Along with the bureaucracy’s of the Malaysian government offices I would have had a very negative image of the city, but for one redeeming experience.

Our lunch was taken in a small and fairly open and fairly run down Malaysian restaurant/cafe. We chose various curries and salads to go with our rice. The place might have been unpretentious, but the food was incredible, especially the beef rendang that was more like a sweet than a meat dish. That experience encapsulated Malaysia for me; it mightn’t be clean or modern, but it sure tastes good!

Back in Singapore we continued our wanderings. We devoted one day to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s fun park. We walked around the island, caught a cable car to the main island and back again, posed in front of a big dragon, but two experiences really stood out. One was having A&W root beer floaters and the other was the water park. It was so nice to escape the heat, relaxing in an inflated tube while it drifted around the water. We gave the violent water slide tunnel a go, but B didn’t enjoy the darkness. What I didn’t dare try were the steep water slides. I watched others slam their backsides on to the slide surface, screaming out. Later I read that the water park wouldn’t have been allowed in the US due to liability issues!

B’s brother Michael joined us later on in Singapore. He became the focus of AFH’s attentions, which gave us a break. Every morning she would feed us this spicy dried pork meat and almond flavoured agar-agar jelly, whether we liked it or not. One day she decided to follow us to meet one of Michael’s friends in the city, despite his protestations. He did not fancy her interrogating the guy. But you could not stop her when she was determined to do something. She pursued him along the footpath, then must have tripped on her overly long tailored pyjama-like dress and fallen flat on her face. I must admit uncharitable hopes were going through my head at the time.

After 11 days it was time to leave Singapore for Malaysia proper. We drove across to Johor Bahru again and boarded the train for Kuala Lumpur. We could have caught it from Singapore itself, but then would have paid in Singaporean dollars rather than the cheaper Malaysian ringgit.

The Malaysian train was both wonderful and awful at the same time. The seats were okay and the scenery outside was wonderful, especially when we travelled through small villages with their ornate little hindu temples hidden away in the jungle hills. I really felt like we were in a foreign land while on the trains. Now and then somebody would walk through the train singing cally pup (curry puff).

What was difficult to tolerate were the televisions at each end of the carriage. They showed awful movies, in English, like White Hunter, Black Heart interspersed with the same old commercials over and over and over again. Kancil cars, Mamee and Nyum-nyum snacks, I can still hear them. For the sound was played over the loudspeakers, so there was no escape.

Kuala Lumpur did not impress me. When we arrived the city was still in the process of building many of its great landmarks of today. The footpaths were crumbling, and were the domain of ever-present motorscooters, often with whole families mounted atop. The air was hot, humid and highly unpleasant.

It wasn’t all bad, however. Our hotel was nearby to KL’s Chinatown area of Petaling Street. We ate delicious kuihs (Malaysian sweets) for breakfast and there was a shopping an easy walk away. There were also more of B’s relatives and friends in KL to show us around.

There was B’s paranoid uncle, whose funeral we attended earlier this year. We ate dinner with him at a Chinese restaurant at the Central Markets while he described how the mafia and triads were out to get him, proposing that B’s father’s death was not a tragic heart attack (it was).

Far more sane were B’s cousins. We drove out on a day trip with them, the three of us crammed into the back of their car, with the other adults in front and their two young daughters sitting on our knees. The girls were fascinated by my leg hair, calling me a monkey.

Our first stop was the Batu Caves. The caves, smoky with incense, house a number of Hindu temples, their sides carved with a magnificent array of strange animal gods. Only I was game enough the climb the 272 steps up to the cave entrance. I started off very fast, then suddenly my legs almost gave way. It was embarrassing to watch old ladies walk past me at a steady pace!

When I returned we drank young coconut juice straight out of the coconuts, their tops hacked off with a big knife, while monkeys played around us.

The next stop was the Genting Highlands. High up in the cool hills sits a casino complex, complete with a large, but very quiet, amusement park. We tried out an immersive cinema experience, with seats that tip forward and move to simulate bumps and acceleration as a truck hurtled down a hill on the screen in front of us. Interesting, but despite the warnings to buckle up, my seatbelt didn’t work.

I loved the cool dry air, finally feeling human again, but the others shivered with cold. On the side of one of the hills was a colour Buddhist temple complex with a 9 floor pagoda and big Buddha statue. It was relaxing and we watched the wild monkeys play in the treetops of the surrounding jungle.

We ate dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe in Kuala Lumpur. It’s funny that, while we were trying to eat Malaysian food in Malaysia, relatives and friends almost always wanted to take us out to western joints, which are big treats for them. At the behest of others we tried hot’n’spicy chicken at KFC in Malaysia, but it tasted mild in comparison to the Australian version and the local dishes.

Far nicer was the genuine tandoor claypot baked chicken and naan from a night market stall at Bangsar. The tandoori chicken in Australia did not bear comparison. We ate and ate until, at last, we could not fit a morsel more down our throats.

From Kuala Lumpur it was another train ride up to Butterworth at the northern tip of Peninsula Malaysia. From Butterworth you can catch trains across into Thailand, but we were going to spend a few days with family friends in the city of Kulim.

Kulim was my absolute highlight of this holiday. An untouristed sleepy little city the people were very friendly, always laughing with delight and appreciation when I ordered the local dishes without fear of spiciness at the covered hawker stalls. It contrasted strongly with KL where I, as a westerner, was seen as a walking wad of cash. When we wanted to catch a taxi B and Michael would hide me until the had haggled a price, then call for me to appear.

The friends owned a printing company in the town, a real old printer with oil, grease and pulleys, as well as a more modern computerised system. Kulim’s shophouses held history and stories like that, best appreciated in the lazy afternoon light.

B’s earliest days were spent on a rubber estate outside of Kulim. We drove around the rural area, past the rubber trees with their latex sap flowing into small collection tubs, past palm oil plantations and long-house kampongs with dogs and chickens running wild around the grounds.

Their daughter was roughly our age and challenged us to a climb up a nearby mountain. In the extreme humidity it was a very tough ask. I had to carry B some of the way up the trail. But somehow we made it up and made it down, soaked in perspiration.

One evening they took us to eat at a country club, but we weren’t allowed in by the Indian doorman on account of my wearing shorts. Anything else would have been wasted luggage space to me. However, we did have a fantastic eating experience on another day. We attended a traditional family meal with wonderfully delicious home made dishes and kuihs. In the garden was a rambutan tree from which we picked the sweet red hairy fruits, fighting off the little black ants that wanted them for themselves.

It was at this time that B’s mum joined us in Malaysia. We drove to Penang Island to pick her up, crossing the grey waters on one of the yellow car ferries. Prior to meeting her at the airport we stopped at Penang’s famous snake temple. Apparently most of the snakes had disappeared due to the heavy development on the island and the temple was a real disappointment.

Christmas was spent in the friends house, uncelebrated by anyone except for me giving B her gift. I rather missed Christmas that year. Instead I was holed up in my room desperately sniffing anything pleasant; sweets, jelly cups; unable to go downstairs and join the others. They were eating durian and the horrible rotten stench was intolerable to my sensitive nose.

Soon afterwards we left Kulim to stay on Penang Island. I had heard wonderful things about Penang food, but compared with Kulim it was a huge disappointment. The one dish I did enjoy was the roti canai, Indian style flatbread with curry, made by a very fat Indian man in a cafe down the street from our hotel.

Our hotel room had two double beds. For propriety’s sake, as B and I weren’t married, B and her mum slept in one and I was supposed to take the bed with Michael. Well, B is the only one I can share a bed with, so I ended up on the floor. The only good thing about the hotel was that it had a western toilet. I had been unable to use the squat in the Kulim house, holding on until Penang.

We tried to explore some of Colonial Penang on foot, but crossing the busy roads was terrifying as there were no pedestrian intersections. The main resort strip at Batu Ferringhi was a taxi ride away. B’s family had stayed at some of the luxury resorts there and we spent an afternoon relaxing in one of the bars, sipping on a starfruit juice and wandering around the pool. You wouldn’t want to swim at the actual beach as the water was grey and polluted.

My favourite place in Penang was the Kek Lok Si temple. It is at the side of Penang Hill accessible by a long walk up a covered stairway lined with stalls selling all manner of goods, from plastic toys to Chinese herbs. The walk, though moderately strenuous was also a fun experience.

The temple complex was quite magnificent, with temple buildings and stupas of black stone, of white and red, and of gold, decorated with carvings and motifs. There were great views of Penang and surrounds.

Penang marked our last stop in Malaysia. From there we repeated our train ride in reverse, this time all the way back to Singapore. It was a long train ride, spent sitting up overnight, and it was a great relief to finally arrive the following evening.

While I had to be hidden from taxis in Malaysia, suddenly I was an asset in Singapore. The taxis were ignoring the passengers spilling out from the train station, until I was given the task of flagging one down for us.

With the entire family now in Singapore it was time for big gatherings of relatives. Another uncle and aunty live in Singapore and they held a dinner at their central apartment which included serving up a suckling pig. There is much jealousy between the two aunts and AFH decided to hold a big party at her house. Everyone was given the task of making the single dish for the evening: crab filled wontons. We sat at the table all morning stuffing the meat filling into the pastries. It took hours and it was hot. There was no way I was eating it and, as I guessed, most suffered food poisoning that night. I went hungry.

I had an excuse. A couple of days before AFH took us to a steamboat restaurant. This is where you take your pick of meat and vegetables and boil it yourself in a cooker at the centre of the table. Twice I have had steamboat and both times I have woken up at 1am the next day spilling my guts out both orifices. This was one of those times. I had no wish to repeat the experience with the wontons.

Fortunately, we did get some time to ourselves. We went down to the science museum with one of B’s cousins. I loved watching the cosmic rays in the cloud chamber and afterwards we watched a documentary at the IMAX theatre. Starving, we took the easy option of dining at the Burger King outside. The Bacon Deluxe burger was like manna from heaven. After a month of eating very little but local food fatty bacon and cheese never tasted so good.

It was time to head home. The New Year had arrived and on the 2nd of January we caught the overnight flight back to Sydney. My first trip overseas had been a wonderful experience. It probably didn’t make as large as impact on me as some of my later trips, but it had shown me that I could go overseas, that I could see the rest of the world.