Read an Excerpt
Frommer's Singapore & Malaysia
By Jennifer Eveland
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-7822-7
Chapter OneThe Best of Singapore & Malaysia
I could spend a lifetime exploring Singapore. I'm in awe of the cultural mysteries and exotic beauty of the city's old mosques and temples. As I pass the facades of buildings that mark history, I get nostalgic for old tales of colonial romance. Towering overhead, present-day Singapore glistens with the wealth of modern miracles. And when I smell incense, spice, and jasmine swirling in wet tropical breezes, I can close my eyes and know exactly where I am.
The longer I stay in Singapore, new curiosities present themselves to me. Singapore thrives on a history that has absorbed a multitude of foreign elements over almost 2 centuries, melding them into a unique modern national identity. Beginning with the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, add to the mix the original Malay inhabitants, immigrating waves of Chinese traders and workers, Indian businessmen and laborers, Arab merchants, British colonials, European adventure-seekers, and an assortment of Southeast Asian settlers-this tiny island rose from the ingenuity of those who worked and lived together here. Today, all recognize each group's importance to the heritage of the land, each adding unique contributions to a culture and identity we know as Singaporean.
I'll confess, many travelers complain to me about how westernized Singapore is. For many, a vacation in Asia should befilled with culture shock, unfamiliar traditions, and curious adventures. Today's travel philosophy seems to be that the more underdeveloped and obscure a country is, the more "authentic" the experience will be. But poor Singapore-all those lovely opium-stained coolies and toothless rickshaw pullers are now driving BMWs and exchanging cellular phone numbers. How could anyone possibly find this place so fascinating?
With all its shopping malls, fast-food outlets, imported fashion, and steel skyscrapers, Singapore could look like any other contemporary city you've ever visited -but to peel through the layers is to understand that life here is far more complex. While the outer layers are startlingly Western, just underneath lies a curious area where East blends with West in language, cuisine, attitude, and style. At the core, you'll find a sensibility rooted in the cultural heritage of values, religion, superstition, and memory. In Singapore, nothing is ever as it appears to be.
For me this is where the fascination begins. I detect so many things familiar in this city, only to discover how these imported ideas have been altered to fit the local identity. Like the Singaporean shophouse-a jumble of colonial architectural mandates, European tastes, Chinese superstitions, and Malay finery. Or "Singlish," the unofficial local tongue, which combines English language with Chinese grammar, common Malay phrases, and Hokkien slang to form a patois unique to this part of the world. This transformation of cultures has been going on for almost 2 centuries. So, in a sense, Singapore is no different today than it was 100 years ago. And in this I find my "authentic" travel experience.
When the urban jungle gets me crazy, I escape to Malaysia. Even Kuala Lumpur, the capital city, seems relaxed in comparison to Singapore. In fact, many Singaporeans look to their northern neighbor for the perfect vacation, taking advantage of its pristine national forests and marine parks, relaxing on picture- perfect beaches in sophisticated resorts, taking in culture in its small towns, shopping for inexpensive handicrafts, or eating some of the richest food in Southeast Asia. Malaysia offers something for everyone-history, culture, adventure, romance, mystery, nature, and relaxation-without the glaring buzz of an overdeveloped tourism industry. It almost makes me overjoyed that few tourists venture here.
My favorite part of Malaysia, however, is the warmth of its people. I have yet to travel in this country without collecting remarkable tales of hospitality, openness, and generosity. I've found the Malaysian people to be genuine in their approach to foreign visitors, another fine byproduct of the underdeveloped tourism industry. For those who want to find a nice little corner of paradise, Malaysia could be your answer.
I've crept down alleys, wandered the streets of cities and towns, combed beaches, and trekked jungles to seek out the most exciting things that Singapore and Malaysia have to offer. In this volume I've presented the sights and attractions of these countries with insight into historical, cultural, and modern significance to bring you a complete appreciation of all you are about to experience. I've peeked in every shop door, chatting up the local characters inside. I've eaten local food until I can't move. I've stayed out all night. I've done it all and written about it here. I can only hope you will love Singapore and Malaysia as much as I do.
1 Frommer's Favorite Singapore Experiences
Sipping a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar: Ahhhh, the Long Bar, home of the Singapore Sling. I like to come in the afternoons, before the tourist rush. Sheltered by long jalousie shutters that close out the tropical sun, the air cooled by lazy punkahs (small fans that wave gently back and forth above), you can sit back in old rattan chairs and have your saronged waitress serve you sticky alcoholic creations while you toss back a few dainty crab cakes. Life can be so decadent. Okay, so the punkahs are electric, and, come to think of it, the place is air-conditioned (not to mention that it costs a small fortune), but it's fun to imagine the days when Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, or Charlie Chaplin would be sitting at the bar sipping Slings and spinning exotic tales of their world travels. Drink up, my friend; it's a lovely high. See p. 185.
Witnessing Bloody Traditions: Every so often, a magical Saturday night comes around when you can witness the Kuda Kepang, which is not your average traditional dance. It features young men on wooden horses who move like warriors, whirling and spinning and slapping the horses to shake intimidating sounds out of them. Accompanied by rhythmic and repetitive traditional Malay music, the warriors dance in unison, staging battles with each other until by the end of a long series of dances, the horsemen are in a trance. A pot of burning frankincense is produced, from which they all inhale. After that, all hell breaks loose. The dancers are whipped, fed glass-which they chew and swallow hungrily-walk on glass shards, and shred entire coconuts with their teeth. Although the whipping appears somewhat staged, I assure you the rest is real. It's a traditional dance that's taken very seriously both by the dancers and by the huge and mostly Malay crowds that gather for it. What's more, the next day the dancers don't recall what they did-and they're never injured. Unfortunately, the dance is not performed on a regular basis. The group works mostly for private ceremonies and gatherings, and appears at Malay Village (65/ 6748-4700) on the off Saturday night when they don't have a gig. Call ahead to find out if they'll be performing. See chapters 5 and 8.
If you're not able to catch a performance, but still want a little ceremonial gore, check out the calendar of events in chapter 2. During the Thaipusam Festival, men pierce their bodies with skewers, and during the Thimithi Festival, they walk on burning coals. To celebrate the Birthday of the Monkey God, Chinese priests will slice themselves with sharp implements and write chants and prayers with their own blood.
Checking Out the Orchard Road Scene: You can't find better people-watching than on Orchard Road every Saturday afternoon, when it seems like every Singaporean crawls out of the woodwork to join the parade of shoppers, strollers, hipsters, posers, lovers, geeks, and gabbers. Everybody is here, milling around every mall, clustered around every sidewalk bench, checking everybody out. At the corner of Scotts Road and Orchard, just under the Marriott, there's an alfresco cafe where you'll find local celebrities hanging out to see and be seen. International celebrities and models have been spotted here on occasion, too. In the mix, you're bound to see most every tourist on the island, coming around to see what all the excitement is about.
On Saturdays, school lets out early, so the malls are filled with mobs of bored teenagers kicking around, trying to look cool, and watching the music videos in the front window of the HMV music store in The Heeren. Moms and dads also have half-days at the office, so the strip takes on the feel of an obstacle course as all the parents race around wielding strollers, trying to run errands while they have the chance. Meanwhile, outside in the shady areas, you can see crowds of domestic maids and workers relaxing and catching up on the latest news on their free afternoon.
For some, the scene is a madhouse to be avoided; for others, it's a chance to watch life on a typical Saturday afternoon in downtown Singapore. And it is typical because however huge and delightful the scene is for tourists, it's just part of everyday reality for residents of the Garden City. See p. 143.
2 Frommer's Favorite Malaysia Experiences
Letting the sea wash away all your stress: This is paradise.
Lying flat, arms outstretched across the surface of the water, I felt the rays of the sun warming my back and the cool ripples of salty sea beneath me. Through the clear water I could see the seabed at the bottom of the bay and all assortment of creatures swimming in and out of corals. My snorkel guide pointed in the shadows to the silhouette of a meter-long shark, too shy to approach.
Back near the beach, I stood in the shallows feeding breadcrumbs to the smaller fish. Within minutes I was surrounded by a swarm of brilliant colors-vivid day-glow flashes of salt water fish; hundreds of them, dozens of species, swirling around me and plucking bread from my fingertips.
On the beach, my friends and I lazed under the shade of a tree, digging our feet into the soft and powdery sand. One friend climbed a coconut palm and twisted a giant nut off its stem. Using a cleaver from the kitchen, we hacked it open and poured the coconut water over ice in a glass, then picked the sweet flesh from the inside the shell. After a day of this, I was ready to tear up my return ticket.
This kind of paradise is everywhere in Malaysia, and you can find it within an hour's flight from Kuala Lumpur (KL), if you visit Langkawi, Tioman, and Redang, or if you have more time, in Sabah.
Experiencing Kampung Hospitality: Pakcik (uncle) was just slightly older than his ancient Mercedes, but his price was right, so I hired him for the day to drive me around Kota Bharu. Sometime after lunch, during a stop at the kite-maker's house, I spotted a beautiful gasing, a wood-and-steel Malay top. It would be the perfect gift for my brother! I just had to have one.
Well, the kite-maker didn't want to give his up, but Pakcik had a few ideas. After coming up empty at the local shops, he took on my quest with personal conviction. Off we drove through the outskirts of town, the sights becoming increasingly rural. He turned down a dirt road, past grazing water buffaloes lazing near rice paddies. Soon the fields turned to jungle, and a small kampung village appeared in the trees. I watched out the window as we passed traditional wooden stilt houses where grannies fanned themselves on the porch watching the children chase chickens in the yard. Beside each house, colorful batik sarongs waved from clotheslines in the breeze.
The path wound to the house of Pakcik's nephew. I was welcomed inside with curiosity, perhaps the first foreigner to visit. They offered me a straw mat, which I used to join the others resting comfortably on the floor. Within minutes, an audience of neighbors gathered around, plucking fruits from the trees in the yard for me. I listened as Pakcik told them of my search for a gasing. That afternoon I was offered every gasing in the village.
My afternoon in Pakcik's kampung is one of my most cherished memories, and a most meaningful experience. As Southeast Asia becomes increasingly affluent and globalized, this way of life becomes steadily endangered. It's a lifestyle that for many urban Malaysians captures the spirit of the good life-simple days when joy was free. And everyone will be proud to show you; all you need is an open heart and a big smile. Malaysian hospitality never ceases to amaze me.
3 The Best Small Towns & Villages
Any Kampong (Tioman Island, Malaysia): Even though Tioman was developed for the tourism industry, you'll never think this place is overdeveloped. The casual and rustic nature of the island's tiny beach villages holds firm, and those who seek escape rarely leave disappointed. See p. 250.
Malacca (Malaysia): As perhaps the oldest trading port in Malaysia, this town hosted a wide array of international traders: Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Indian, and Chinese, all of whom left their stamp. See p. 225.
Kuching (Sarawak, Malaysia): Renegade adventure-seeker James Brooke thumbed his nose at London's colonial office so that he could claim Sarawak for his own and rule as the region's first White Raja. He built a cozy little capital with quaint tropical-colonial architecture, picturesque back streets, and a pretty riverfront. See p. 268.
4 The Best Beaches
Tanjung Rhu (Langkawi, Malaysia): Perhaps the most stunning beach in Malaysia, this wide gorgeous stretch of white sand hugs a crystal-clear, deep blue cove. Even Alex Garland would be impressed. See p. 243.
Kumpung Juara (Tioman Island, Malaysia): This beach is what they mean when they say isolated. Be prepared to live like Robinson Crusoe-in tiny huts, many with no electricity at all. But, oh, the beach! Most visitors don't get to this part of the island, so many times you can have it all to yourself. See p. 253.
Sentosa Island (Singapore): The three beaches on Sentosa are just about the best you'll find in Singapore, which isn't really known for its beaches. They're lively, with water sports and beach activities plus food and drink. Every so often you'll find an all-night dance party here. However, if you really need pristine seclusion, you'll have to head for Malaysia. See p. 157.
Cherating (Malaysia): If you're a leatherback turtle, you'll think the best beach in the world is just north of Cherating. Every spring and summer, these giant sea creatures come ashore to lay their eggs, so if you're in town from May to June you might catch a look at the hatchlings. Meanwhile, during the turtles' off-season, international windsurfing and water-board enthusiasts gather annually for competitions at this world-famous spot. See p. 254.
5 The Most Exciting Outdoor Adventures
Trekking in Taman Negara (Malaysia): With suitable options for all levels of comfort and desired adventure, peninsular Malaysia's largest national park opens the wonders of primary rainforest and the creatures who dwell in it to everyone. From the canopy walk high atop the forest to night watches for nocturnal life, this adventure is as stunning as it is informative. See p. 222.
Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve (Singapore): Every year during the winter months, flocks of migrating birds from as far north as Siberia vacation in the warm waters of this unique mangrove swamp park. Easily traversed by wooden walkway, the park will never disappoint for some stunning wildlife shots. See p. 153.
6 The Most Fascinating Temples, Churches & Mosques
Thian Hock Keng (Singapore): One of Singapore's oldest Chinese temples, it is a fascinating testimony to Chinese Buddhism as it combines with traditional Confucian beliefs and natural Taoist principles. Equally fascinating is the modern world that carries on just outside the old temple's doors. See p. 136.
Jalan Tokong, Malacca (Malaysia): This street, in the historical heart of the city, supports a Malay mosque, a Chinese temple, and a Hindu temple existing peacefully side by side-the perfect example of how the many foreign religions that came to Southeast Asia shaped its communities and learned to coexist in harmony. See p. 231.
Armenian Church (Singapore): Although not the biggest Christian house of worship in the city, it is perhaps one of the most charming in its architectural simplicity, tropical practicality, and spiritual tranquility. See p. 121.
Excerpted from Frommer's Singapore & Malaysia by Jennifer Eveland Excerpted by permission.
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