26th October – 5th November
Welcome to civilisation
It’s hard to describe just how tired we are as we step off the Dhaka – Singapore night flight at 5am. After a week of disturbed, uncomfortable and generally poor night’s sleep, a three hour night flight is the last thing we need – especially when Singapore Airlines insist on feeding us throughout the entire flight!
But it is a revelation to be here. A few friends had told us they found Singapore a boring place as tourists, but it’s hard to fault the place when you arrive on a plane from Bangladesh. As we wander through the gleaming airport, we can’t help thinking that we’ve eaten off plates dirtier than the concourse floor recently…
We’re currently in need of some serious R&R, civilization and home cooking, so we’re very lucky to have an invitation to stay with some friends of friends here, Dominic and Tania Pemberton.
Our refreshingly polite and honest taxi driver drops us at the driveway to their house at 7am, rather earlier than we had envisaged, thanks to the efficiency of Singapore airport’s immigration and baggage systems. We’re so early, in fact, we are concerned that we may end up waking the family – but thankfully they are prompt risers and we arrive in the middle of the pre school breakfast rush.
Such a warm welcome couldn’t have been more gratefully received by two more exhausted people. We enjoy a fine breakfast and coffee on the terrace with Dominic before he dashes off to work and we (after a brief and necessary detour via the Chinese Embassy) stagger into bed.
Asia for beginners
Singapore is a thoroughly pleasant place, almost more so for us because there simply isn’t a great deal of importance to see or do. It is with good reason that ex-pats living here refer to Singapore as ‘Asia for beginners’.
It has a predictable, tropical climate (there are no seasons as such, it’s simply either sunny or raining); the huge variety of Asian food available to eat is virtually guaranteed not to upset even the most delicate constitution; and it is certainly one of the safest countries in the world.
It’s rather like a full-size toy-town: everything is shiny and new, nothing ever breaks down and no-one ever seems to do anything wrong. Its manicured streets are shaded by magnificent rain trees and fragranced by endless mature frangipani. Gleaming skyscrapers reflect the orderly bustle of everyday life and light up like huge Christmas trees at night. Naturally, everyone speaks English.
We spend four days wandering through countless gleaming shopping centres, eating fantastically fresh, tasty food at the plethora of hawker food stalls, catching up on sleep, playing with Dominic and Tania’s wonderful children Charlie, Clementine and Bella, enjoying fine hospitality and home cooking, a few games of tennis and not a lot else. Bliss…
Turning round and heading home
Eventually, though, we need to move on, as our car is edging its way closer to Malaysia and we need to endure more public transport and make our way up towards Kuala Lumpur.
Typically, the car actually docked in Singapore during our stay here – something we didn’t know was going to happen until it was on the ship – frustrating as it would have been great to continue our onward journey by car from here, our furthest distance from home.
With heartfelt thanks and a great deal of reluctance, we leave the Pembertons and catch a coach, of all things, to Malacca, some 300km north in Malaysia.
Southern Malaysia, apart from a handful of hideaway islands, is fairly nondescript. Its roads are excellent, and our coach glides along smoothly through hour upon depressing hour of palm oil plantation, punctuated only by the very occasional patch of rainforest, where the terrain is just too mountainous to cultivate.
Malacca is the only town of any real cultural or historical interest between Singapore and KL and we decide it makes a logical stopover for us. As we step down from our air-conditioned Jackie Chan cinema on wheels, the first thing we see is what surely must be the biggest Tesco’s in the world, next to a shabby shopping centre and an enourmous car park.
‘Bloody hell – welcome to Malacca – what the hell are we going to do here for the next 14 hours?’ We mutter to ourselves.
Happily, it gets better. The town is an ancient port built first by Dutch colonialists, then bashed about a bit and enlarged by the subsequent British contingent. The centre is remarkably pleasant – a cosmopolitan mix of typically Dutch side streets lining the river (which the Dutch naturally did their best to make look like a canal), a thriving Chinatown and a handful of British colonial residences, all in-filled with lacklustre Malaysian architecture.
It’s a nice place to wander round, and over a beer in a canal-side café we congratulate ourselves on being so intrepid as to catch a bus here and to stay the night in some nasty budget traveller’s hostel. We are brave…
After this brief sortie into the gritty and not altogether appealing world of backpacking, more hospitality awaits us in Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of Peter Heber Percy, South East Asia’s most well connected gentleman and old friends of both Charlie and the Pembertons, we have been invited to stay with Su Yin and Steve Hagger in Ukay Heights, a highly civilized residential area just a 10 minute drive from the Petronas Towers.
But first we have to get to KL. Another two hours on another bloody bus, then lugging our bags around KL Sentral bus station, haggling with some chippy cabbie who doesn’t know where Ukay Heights is – we’re beginning to have an element of respect, well, sympathy at least, with the hairy backpackers.
Once again a wonderfully warm welcome awaits us and over dinner and an excellent bottle of wine with Steve and Su Yin we recount tales of our recent (and not so intrepid) adventures and hear a little about life in KL. We are delighted to hear that, rather like Singapore, it’s a very nice place to live but holds little for the average tourist.
Given its international reputation as one of the major financial hubs of the tiger economy, we are surprised to learn that KL is actually quite small: a population of around three million, maybe four if you count the illegal Filipino and Indonesian populations.
Also much to our surprise, KL from time to time sends out punchy reminders that it is the capital of an Islamic country. Alcohol is officially banned for Malaysians; this and a handful of other Islamic laws are periodically enforced during clamp downs by the inefficient and not altogether honest police force, directed by an equally inefficient and often corrupt government.
Certainly not the slick, wealthy and glamorous image one first conjures up of this country and its capital; but nevertheless, it is still a very pleasant city.
Reunited with our car!
We end up spending five days with the Haggers; relaxing, sightseeing, enjoying riding Steve’s polo ponies, hanging out at the golf club but most importantly collecting our car from Port Klang. After countless e-mails, phone calls and last minute logistics, on 4th November we can finally take the train down to Port Klang, 60km outside KL, and drive home! Incredibly, no one has checked the inside of our car since we entered India, 2 ½ months ago.
It’s an almighty relief to be reunited and to find our precious cargo unscathed and in one piece. Over the past two weeks, so many thoughts have gone round our minds – delays, re-routings, storms, piracy – that when we actually arrive in Port Klang, we’re almost breathless with anxiety.
This part of our trip could begin to feel like a drinks party and one final reunion in KL further promotes our current social activities . At our preparatory off-road driving weekend in Worcestershire in April this year we met Gemma and Duncan, a hilarious Australian couple who were leaving the UK shortly after us and were planning to drive their Land Cruiser the whole way home. We got on like a house on fire, met up again before we left London and promised each other that our paths would somehow cross en-route.
Well, much to all of our amazement, they did – we collect our car from Port Klang, as they are delivering theirs, bound for Sydney. Hugely excited by this remarkable and unexpected coincidence after a combined mileage of 33,000 miles in four months, we hastily arrange to meet up for supper in KL.
It’s not often you meet people just a few times and then subsequently greet them like long lost friends, but this is definitely one of those occasions. One evening isn’t enough, conversation and stories flow so rapidly that by the end of the evening our heads are befuddled and overwhelmed, so we arrange to have a repeat performance at lunch the next day.
Gemma & Duncan’s own website, http://www.londontoperth.com/, gives an indication of why there was so much to catch up on.
On the road again…
Steve and Su Yin must be two of the most relaxed, modest yet high powered people we’ve ever met and after five days staying with them, their calming influence has definitely rubbed off on us. We leave fully refreshed, in high spirits and very much looking forward to being back on the road again, fully independent and not beholden to another form of public transport until we get back to the UK.
The drive north is super straightforward. The Malaysian roads are excellent, as are their drivers. The only downside is the rain; it is now officially the rainy season this far south, and it comes down in torrents the whole way to the border, obscuring whatever view of the passing countryside there may be.
We spend our final night on Malaysian soil in Georgetown, Malaysia’s second biggest city, on the west coast island of Penang. Despite its size it is a relaxed and culturally rich city; its waning importance as a port means it avoided the strafing and destruction that afflicted Singapore during WWII.
Courtesy of Su Yin, we have been recommended to stay in the Cheung Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as The Blue Mansion. It is, singularly, probably the most spectacular building of historic importance in peninsular Malaysia: a vast and richly decorated home built by a wealthy and popular Chinese merchant in the 1700’s. We barely leave the place, wandering happily through its peaceful cobalt blue courtyards, admiring the many ornately carved teak staircases, its unusual fusion of Chinese, Malay and Western architecture and the bucolic scenes depicted in ornate frescoes beneath the mansion’s dainty eaves.
It’s impressive stuff, and we now feel that we can leave the Malay peninsular with at least some semblance of the culture under our belts. Phew!
A little conundrum
From Georgetown, it is barely an hour to the border. Once again, the scenery is unspectacular and generally consumed by rain. We pass the time trying to figure out the road works, of all things.
The Malaysians use motorised rubber mannequins to wave red flags and slow down the traffic, generally to great effect. However, every now and then, they have replaced the mannequins with Bengalis. Presumably for economic reasons, we muse acerbically. But then, mannequins don’t require tea breaks, or a salary? Which actually does a better job? We couldn’t work it out. Evidently, as yet neither have the Malaysians.