This is the first of several blog posts describing our round the world trip whch began on Tuesday 23 August 2016. The main reason for this trip was to see a lot more of Australia than we had done on our two previous visits, but we decided to start in a new country for us, Malaysia.
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Getting to Kuala Lumpur
Our flight from Manchester to Kuala Lumpur (KL) via Abu Dhabi on Etihad was uneventful (two legs of approximately 7 hours each, the first being overnight). We had not used this airline before but found clean modern planes, good food and plenty of choice on the entertainment system.
The downside was that Etihad have outgrown their base. The airport at Abu Dhabi is a building site and every gate is a bus. The terminal was very crowded with long queues for food and the facilities. We could see a new terminal building taking shape at the other side of the runways. I think we’ll wait for it to be finished before taking Etihad again.
The Malaysians seem to have copied US Immigration as we had to wait for some time and then endure thumbprints and photos. The airport is 45 kms from the city centre, but there is a train to town. We needed to get some cash for the train ticket and a taxi. Non-functioning ATMs caused us to just miss one train and we had to wait 30 minutes for the 12.30 am train to KL Sentral station.
It was pretty dark but we passed a large number of tall apartment blocks some of which did look a bit jerry-built. It was a fairly short taxi ride to the Holiday Inn Express on Jalan Raja Chulan where we were given a very nice room on the 17th floor. We got to bed at 1.30am Malaysian time, 7 hours ahead of the UK.
An eventful first morning in KL
The next day we only just managed to get up in time for the hotel’s breakfast. We had our first taste of getting about in KL when a lady at the hotel reception gave us a map but she didn’t really know where we were on the map. She pointed us to the monorail just round the corner, but said that we could walk to some places.
We were just getting ready to go out when the alarm system went off and we had to run down 17 flights of stairs – not a great start to the day for jetlagged sightseers. The alarm turned out to be a test. It delayed us for only about 30 minutes but the stairs didn’t do my legs any good.
We took the monorail to KL Sentral to be sure where we needed to be for the train tomorrow. With all the tall buldings it seemed like Manhattan with wiggly streets. Then we soon found out that Kuala Lumpur is not a walking place, especially in the high 30sC. After a false start we gave up trying to walk to the Islamic Art Museum, which appeared to be nearby on the map, and found a taxi.
Islamic Art Museum
We were very impressed with the museum. There was an exhibition of Korans, large and small, in several different styles of Arabic script, models of major mosques around the world, and beautiful textiles and woodwork some of which were decorated with Arabic script.
The museum cafe was described as a Middle Eastern restaurant. We really only wanted a light lunch, but it turned out to be a rather smart and expensive fixed price buffet serving a sort of Turkish food including keşkül, our favourite Turkish pudding.
If we hadn’t been at the start of our trip we would have bought a lot of things in the excellent gift shop which had no other customers.
Back to the hotel
Outside we really began to notice that we were in a Muslim country. The National Mosque of Malaysia is nearby and we saw lots of schoolgirls in pale blue trousers and tops, and wearing headscarves.
It was only a short walk to the old station, which was built in Moorish style architecture in 1910 and is supposedly one of the sights in KL. It must once have been quite a splendid building, but now it’s rundown and the inside was covered with dirt. It does still have some trains.
The first taxi we took back to the hotel broke down after about 300 yards and we had to wait some time for another one, finding out in the process that blue taxis are more expensive and more reliable.
Our planned afternoon rest had evaporated. There was just time for a quick cup of tea before we took a taxi to the Petronas Towers which were the tallest building in the world from 1998 to 2004. Our allotted time was 6pm and we were told to arrive at 5.30. We were very glad we had booked online before we left home as people just turning up were told that it was fully booked for the next 48 hours.
The towers are above a huge multi-storey shopping area and it took a while to find the entrance. After that the visit was well organized. There are groups of 20 people every 15 minutes and we were all given a coloured lanyard for our group. The safety briefing was curiously displayed into thin air on a non-existent screen, something I had never seen before.
First our group took a lift to the 41st floor where you can walk on the bridge between the two towers. This wasn’t as scary as it looks.
Then it was up to the 83rd floor and another 3 floors to the observation deck where we had a good view of the sunset. This area has more models of the towers, but we were most entertained by the video screens which have a web cam. You can point the QR code on your ticket to it and the screen shows a picture of yourself apparently holding up the towers.
The lift took us straight to the bottom where we found a Chinese meal in a crowded food court where everybody was fiddling with large iPhones.
We had some fun with a selfie stick and the illuminated towers outside.
We then attempted to find a taxi back to the hotel. There were traffic jams everywhere and a taxi driver told us it would be quicker to walk. We did walk and it took about 30 minutes. It was a fairly exhausting first day, but we had done the Petronas Towers which was our main reason for going to KL, and the Islamic Art Museum was an added bonus.
An eventful Malaysian train journey
The next day (Friday) was our train journey to Singapore. We had decided to take the train in order to see a bit more of Malaysia. With the help of seat61.com, we had booked the fast train leaving at 12 noon. The Malaysians are electrifying their railway and introducing smart modern trains. They have only done part of the way to Johor Bahru which is at the border with Singapore.
The first train was like a UK Intercity one, but the seats were narrower and the aisle wider. We had numbered seats and it was not very full.
We had bought some sandwiches for lunch at KL Sentral and so did not need to investigate the train’s catering. After we left KL the scenery became green with hills in the distance. The towns and villages began to look more like the developing world.
It was 2 hours 10 minutes to Gemas where the electric line finished. A diesel train was waiting at Gemas where we also had numbered seats. Again there was nowhere to put our luggage. On this part of the journey the train stopped a lot of times, sometimes at new stations but more often at a grotty platform with a dirty sign. The scenery remained very green. We saw lots of palm trees, some cows and fields.
At Kulai not long before Johor Bahru the train stopped for a long time. There were rumours that it had broken down and the word was that the driver was under the engine trying to fix something. After 38 minutes we got going again.
To get to Singapore you have to take a shuttle train across the causeway to Woodlands station. We began to worry about our connecting shuttle at 7pm. The train was due at Johor Bahru at 6.40. It speeded up and arrived there at 7.01 pm, but the shuttle had left. We were told that the next one was at 9 and that we should take the bus.
A bus to Singapore
We had a long walk and various escalators to the exit immigration for Malaysia and then another long walk to the bus. We soon found out that very many people cross between Johor Bahru and Woodlands every day – prices in Singapore are about 3 times those in Malaysia. The bus was crowded with people standing and we had to rely on other passengers to keep an eye on our luggage. There was an enormous traffic jam and the bus took about 45 minutes to get across the causeway which is only about 2 km. No wonder a lot of people were walking. Most people got off the bus just before it reached Woodlands and we had to do the same.
There was a 45 minute queue at Singapore immigration where we had more fingerprints and photos. Finally we were in Singapore but there were no taxis at the bus terminal and we had no Singapore money. We couldn’t find an ATM but somebody told us that their taxis take credit cards. It was another long walk to the taxis.
Then we were soon at the Holiday Inn Express just off the middle of Orchard Road which is the Oxford Street of Singapore. We had a great welcome as IHG priority members – it was just a pity that it was 10.45pm and we were too hungry to have the free drink. A short walk out brought us to an international food alley at Somerset Place where we got a nice Chinese meal. There were crowds of people still about at 11pm, most of them fiddling with large iPhones.
Sightseeing in Singapore
The next morning we had catch up with email etc as we were starting our cruise to Darwin in the evening and did not know when we would have the Internet again. After a sandwich lunch (at Costa) we decided that the best way to see some of Singapore was to take the hop-on hop-off bus. This was not cheap but it does have 6 routes, of which we had time to do 2. For the commentary they give you some little red earbuds which can be used on any of the buses.
We had last been to Singapore in 1980 but did not recognise any of it. We learned that a large area of land had been reclaimed from the sea and now housed many more skyscrapers. We first hopped off the yellow bus at the Raffles Hotel built in 1887 and named after a Brit named Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who was the founder of Singapore. This is still a major landmark and is not completely overshadowed by skyscrapers.
Many celebrities including Somerset Maugham frequented the famous Long Bar where the Singapore Sling was invented. We didn’t have one as it was early afternoon and very hot. We didn’t see much evidence of anybody staying in the hotel but there were plenty of tourist sightseers like us.
It was a short walk to the bus exchange where we took the red bus which went first around the Chinese, Malay and Indian enclaves. Here there were fewer skyscrapers, and mainly two-storey rather ornate wooden buildings painted in yellows, greens and browns with the occasional blue colour.
After that we really discovered that shopping is the national pastime – there were malls everywhere and many people around them. The red bus continued round the reclaimed area where the most striking building was the Marina Bay Sands Resort which is actually three buildings linked across the top floor.
After we finished the red bus circuit, we did the rest of the yellow bus tour which goes round the smarter area by the botanic gardens and past many embassies including ours. We will have to wait for another visit to see this area properly, especially the botanic garden which must have many interesting tropical plants. The whole area looked very lush and neat and tidy.
We were back at the hotel in time to take a taxi through a traffic jam to the cruise terminal. We were almost last to board the ship. There was no queue but plenty of form filling.
Impressions of Malaysia and Singapore
We only saw a very small part of Malaysia but the scenery from the train was enough to make me want to see more. KL is a big city – we had just about mastered getting about when we left. We saw the main sights and might not spend too much time there again. I could do the Petronas Towers again – we might have more success with the web cams and screens on the observation deck. We might just take the plane next time.
We obviously didn’t have time to do justice to Singapore but overall I was very impressed. Helped by its location, it built its wealth on trade and has now cleverly diversified into many other areas. It’s amazing what they have built on what was previously an island covered in tropical forest. Everywhere is clean and tidy and well organized and I got a sense that the economy is booming. It was a pity we could not stay longer, but we had already bought our tickets to KL when we discovered that we could take a cruise ship from Singapore to Darwin.