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Magnificent orchid display at the Singapore Botanic Gardens
OUR DO IT YOURSELF TRIP TO: Singapore; Jungle Train north through Malaysia to the Perhentian Islands, Penang and the Island of Langkawi.

The blog has been a bit quiet lately because I took a short and unexpected holiday to Singapore and Malaysia – and it was so unexpectedly interesting and fun – I thought I would share some of my travels with you.

All in all it was a great trip: fantastic food, wonderful gardens and landscapes, warm and friendly people, inexpensive and easy to get around – and, on many occasions, a real adventure with a great mix of activity and relaxation.

A truly inspired archway of orchids, Singapore Botanic Gardens

We started off in Singapore – the most expensive place on the whole trip – and much has changed since Gavin Young’s 1991 fantastic travel book “In Search of Conrad” but he sums up the place much better than I could.

Torch Ginger, Singapore Botanic Gardens

The skyscrapers of Singapore’s newly created seafront shoot-up have a self satisfied look, shining like dragon’s teeth in the sunshine.*  They proclaim both the rewards of hard work and a new hard-headed Singaporean-Confucian attitude to the wicked layabout modern world.

 At the same time one cannot deny that those icing sugar towers, those shiny dominoes announcing MONEY make a spectacular background to the scores of cargo ships and tankers of all sizes and nationalities that spread themselves across the anchorage in neat rows like a fleet waiting for some cock-hatted admiral to review it.” *(Very smoggy when we were there from the fires in Sumatra).

A must see if you are in Singapore are the Botanic Gardens – a beautiful and welcome green space full of the most spectacular display of orchids and tropical plants.

Okra, chokos, bitter gourds, snake-beans, eggplant on a market stall in LITTLE INDIA, Singapore.

We also got a chance to catch up with my daughter’s old school friend Claudia – who is the personal chef to one of the wealthiest families in Singapore, so she knows her way around. She took us for a sumptuous seafood meal at Long Beach on Dempsey Hill with black pepper crab and razor clams – the kind of food that Singapore is famous for.  It was delicious and totally extravagant.  I noticed that the clams had been flown in from Scotland.  Claudia said that this is common in Singapore where almost all the food is imported.

THE NEXT DAY WE TOOK THE OVERNIGHT JUNGLE TRAIN through from Singapore in the south to the north of Malaya – almost to the Thai border($90 for about 600 km) – for we had decided to travel out to the PERHENTIAN ISLANDS off the north-east coast of Malaysia   This was an ‘interesting’ trip, in a memorable sort of way, which involved Michael breaking the hundred metres record twice in the duration of the journey – the kinds of experiences you laugh about afterwards.

FIRSTLY: We had booked our PREMIUM SLEEPER CLASS ticket through our hotel in Singapore, who assured us that there were two buffet cars on the train,  to sustain us for our overnight trip. Our excitement about this upcoming adventure (I love train travel) was somewhat dashed, firstly when the chap in the ticket office at Woodlands Station told us the “No, indeed madam, there are no buffet cars on train – only snack” and secondly when we saw our PREMIUM SLEEPER – really just a slightly upmarket cattle truck with a couple of bunks; but the sheets, although faded and grey, did look clean.

First priority was to solve the food problem – or lack of it.  It was five o’clock in the afternoon and we had been on the go since lunchtime so we were already starving. So Michael had to do what everyone else was doing (he can run faster than me) – with twenty minutes before the train departed,  he dashed to the nearby bus terminus that had food and drink places.  There was just one problem – we had come over the border from Singapore to get to the station – right next door – which was in Malaya,  and none of the warungs took that currency, only Malaysian. So first he had to find a place to change some money.  With the whistle blown and train just moving, Michael came belting down the platform and dived onto the train with cans of warm beer and fantastic take-away curry and rice with nasi goreng,  and a couple of bananas for breakfast.  Nothing ever tasted so good – it just would have been even better if the drop-down table hadn’t completely dropped off the wall when we went to eat it!

Warm beer and a hot curry never tasted so good

Food is a funny thing.  It can be the simplest, but if you are starving and you get what you are craving for – it can be the best.  It was like that when we got off the train from Singapore, after 13 hours, at Tana Merah (literally – red earth – there’s a place with this name just outside of Brisbane – how/why, I don’t know?) – Michael’s second hundred metres dash had taken place just before alighting from the train, but I won’t go into that…….! Lo and behold, our driver from the ‘Tuna Bay’ resort office in the Perhentians was waiting to meet us on the platform and everything went pretty smoothly for the next few days.  We were off on another adventure to somewhere we had never been before.

While we were waiting around for our transfer boat out to the Perhentians, I found a Kopi/Roti (Coffee/Bread) open-air cafe.  Here a man in a Malaysian long, white shirt with songkok hat (a kind of black, velvet pillbox) was making delicious stuffed pancakes from scratch over an open fire.  My mug of strong black coffee with a stuffed banana, palm sugar and coconut pancake was one of the best things I have ever eaten.

Our view from the Coffee House, hoping that our boat out to the Perhentians was not one of these but, after the train experience, we couldn’t be too sure?

We then spent a heavenly five days on the Perhentian Islands with the best snorkelling I have ever done.  Clear blue waters, live coral and spectacular sea life including turtles, fantastic tropical fish and even baby sharks.  To walk off the beach into clear warm waters and be surrounded by hundreds of rainbow coloured fish, I think, is becoming a rare thing?


Our cabin at TUNA BAY was right on the beach, and we could simply walk out of the door every morning and plunge into this tropical sea just teeming with life.  We were kind of captive to the resort and had to have every meal there, but quickly realised that this probably wasn’t a bad thing as boats from all of the other islands – read ‘cheaper options’- turned up every evening to eat at our place.  I gather that the food was not up to much on the other islands and, god forbid, some of them were ‘dry’ – no bar!!       Ibu,catching up on EarthGarden magazine

The snorkelling and wildlife were fantastic – I mean, REALLY AMAZING and here I am going to let you into a secret. There is a walk, through the jungle and up to the top of the island on Perhentian Besar, where we were staying, that will give you one of the best snap-shot experiences of wildlife and scenery that you will experience anywhere in Asia – I mean palm trees and monkeys and very big lizards and butterflies and birds and …… it was fantastic.  Reluctantly, we dragged ourselves away after five days to take a ten hour bus trip across the Malay Peninsular to Penang, which was not without event but involves very unpolitically correct humour and stories about ‘toilet stops’ en route so best not to go there.  Let’s move on to wonderful PENANG.

Penang – our ‘limo’
Penaga Hotel

Back to Kota Bahru on the border with Thailand and then a day long bus trip west to Penang where we had one of those lucky breaks – the gorgeous Penaga Hotel in central George Town, part of the UNESCO heritage site.

Making use of the facilities at the wonderful PENAGA HOTEL – hanging our washing out to dry on the four-poster bed.

The Penaga is one of the few hotels in Malaysia with ‘green’ credentials and an eclectic mix of modern art and furniture and antiques, converted from old SHOP HOUSES.  They have an ‘artist in residence studio’ with two lucky Australians currently staying there sponsored by the owners.  They also have a lap pool just outside the restaurant window and I think I entertained the guests by pounding up and down, before breakfast, in my very attractive hat and goggles – in the traditional Aussie fashion.  I hope it made them hungry for their bacon and eggs?

On the ART TRAIL in PENANG which was just wonderful.

We spent a happy few days covering the ‘art trail’ of Penang by rickshaw, taking in the sites (sights).  PENANG is, in fact, a small island just off the coast that boasts a rich multicultural and colonial past with architecture that tells this story – it is really very interesting and quite lovely with tropical vegetation, forts, Chinese and Hindu temples and streetscapes that reflect its position as an important historical trading post.

and feasting on the famous Nyonya food (Malay/Chinese).  We travelled far and wide looking for good, authentic food and on the last night had one of the best meals of our holiday in tour hotel ‘Cinnamon’ restaurant- 4 courses for MR 28.50 (about $9A) – it was fantastic.

Nutmeg and mace drying in the streets

Temple sign – how you know your in the exotic East

We discovered a real mix of cuisines in Penang, a lot of it familiar to us from our travels in Indonesia with the added flavours of Thai, Indian, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Vietnamese and Western – and wonderful shopping – especially for our five granddaughters.

Next Stop – LANGKAWI – a large island that is a short ferry ride from PENANG.

B-b-q lobster and prawns with tom yum soup and kang-kung
Berjaya, Langkawi

Our final stay was on the beautiful island of LANGKAWI – a three hour ferry trip from Penang.  We stayed on the north west part of the island on the edge of the Machinchang Geoforest Park at Pantai Kok.

This is a great place to explore with cable cars and vertigo inducing walkways right up at the top of this National Park with quite spectacular views.

It was an incredibly beautiful location with soaring jungle cliffs full of wildlife – lizards, squirrels, birds and lots of monkeys.  Langkawi is also duty free so a cold Tiger beer will cost you about 30c.  I was beginning to get addicted to $4 Mai Thai’s so it was time to head for home.

Macaque monkeys, Langkawi
The lovely Pantai Kok marina, Langkawi

The delights of travel are, for me, those unscripted moments – the unexpected places and people that you meet and one snapshot is from Penang.  We had gone to Fort Cornwallis and Michael was enjoying every exhibit, while I had taken a rest in the shade by the ticket booth, when suddenly the aged Chinese ticket seller pulled out her mouth organ and started playing a medley from ‘The Sound of Music’.  By the time she got to the second bar of ‘Edelweiss’ I was laughing with her and singing along.  Her furious husband appeared from his nap under the table and, in spite of his loud remonstrations in Chinese, she continued with a wink and a wave as I left playing a lively rendition of ‘You are my Sunshine’.  Happy travels!

Sunset in the Perhentians
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