Through Malaysia to Singapore
Updated: Jul 5
For the next leg of the journey southwards I cheated. I had no intention of putting our customers on a sleeper train through Thailand’s deep south into Malaysia, mainly due to lack of comfort, but also for safety reasons. The Foreign Office advised at the time against all but essential travel through certain border provinces due to insurgencies (since revoked). Equally, I didn’t have the stomach for another rocky night in a curtained-off bed in a normal train carriage, accompanied by the snores of fellow travellers and maybe a bickering German couple. So I flew with budget airline Air Asia from Bangkok to Penang, an island off Malaysia’s west coast.
Maybe the concept of budget airlines as we know them in Europe hadn’t translated well to Asia. You know, the idea of stripping out every single item we would have once expected as part of the package, then re-selling them individually back to us as add-ons. Not so with Air Asia, it would seem. Instead I was met with pleasant, smiling and helpful cabin crew and served a meal that was included in the fare. Service and value. What a refreshing change!
Landing in Penang, my new guide whisked me to an Indian canteen up in the hills before dropping me at my small and friendly boutique hotel in Georgetown, the island’s main city. Georgetown is an interesting mix of cultures and styles, with grand colonial architecture from its time as a British territory contrasting with vibrant, colourful Chinese influences, with a little piece of India thrown into the mix for good measure.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Georgetown was a must visit place and should have been the perfect base for the clientele for whom I was researching the tour, but it left me a little cold. Founded by the Sarkies Brothers, the hoteliers of Armenian descent who went on to found Raffles Hotel in Singapore (more of which later!), the gleaming white hotel is built in a British colonial style that many would find pleasing, but, that colonial feeling…maybe that was the problem for me. Elsewhere, the centre of Georgetown is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with varied landmarks portraying its cultural mix, including an Anglican church, a Chinese temple, an Indian temple and the Kapitan Kelling Mosque.
Do we base the tour in bustling Georgetown or along the coast at a relaxed resort called Batu Ferringhi was the next question? To find the answer we headed west to view multiple luxurious western-style resort hotels and I spent a night there. The gulf between rich and poor was very noticeable, with holiday palaces on one side of the street and shacks on the other. One particular hotel sales manager was heavily pregnant….and I mean ready to burst. I was curious to find out when her baby was due.
“Next week,” came her response.
My mind whirred at the thought of the woman in front of me working until her waters broke. I sheepishly asked when she would return to work after the birth.
“The following week.”
Wow. When I was about to become a dad for the first time I had asked my old boss about paternity leave. “You are very lucky, son. Here at Wallace Arnold you get up to three days paternity leave….as long as they are Saturday, Sunday…and Bank Holiday Monday!” That had been a clever (if facetious) joke, whereas this short interaction with a smart sales manager in a swish hotel provided the latest culture quake to my naïve western mind.
The next day would be a long one, beginning with a transfer to the port, a ferry to the mainland, then my first experience of Malaysian rail from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur on the next leg of the epic journey south.
If Bangkok Hua Lamphong train station had been a railway cathedral and Chiangmai a quaint tropical paradise, then Butterworth was prosaic by comparison. Two miles from Georgetown across the Penang Strait, the town was named after a 19th century colonial governor. My rapid ferry dropped me next to the station and thankfully I didn’t have long to wait. Early morning Butterworth felt like early morning Rotherham Central, but I believe the dilapidated old station has since been replaced with a spanking new modern building. Butterworth, I mean, not Rotherham.
I had booked a seat in First Class on the Malaysian Railways ‘Ekspress’ service. The trains were upgraded to much more modern units a few years later in 2015, but my journey began at around 7.30am in wide bucket seats reminiscent of AMTRAK trains in the USA, with ample legroom and good space, but a bit battered and unloved all the same. It was pleasant enough, trundling southwards along a single track towards Kuala Lumpur, but just one piece of advice I’d give is to take something woolly with you. Yes, outside is a tropical landscape of lushness, with thick forests, undulating hills and the Cameron Highlands in the distance, but when Malaysian Railways turn on the air-con boy do they crank it up. Brrr.
Passengers alight at Ipoh for the Cameron Highlands, a tourist highlight of natural beauty and tea plantations. The next main conurbation is Kuala Lumpur itself, just after midday. KL is now served by the space-aged Sentral station and it’s here that I left the train. My guide did, however, kindly take me to have a look at the city’s monumental old station, a stunning edifice built in 1910 in Moorish-style.
An afternoon of hotel visits was punctuated by a peek inside Petaling Street Market in Chinatown, so awash with colour and aromas that I decided I’d return there during my limited free time after work.
Which I duly did. It seemed so simple, a relatively short walk (maybe a mile) from my little boutique hotel in a thriving, up-and-coming part of the city. Yes, I’d be able to spot that particular intersection on the return. No problem. Easy peasy.
Gifts duly bought at Petaling Street Market for my daughters, I decided to make my way back. How can I describe this? That feeling when you are alone in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, it’s late and you are tired. And you realise you can’t remember the name of your hotel. Or which district it is in. Or even which direction it’s in. That. Where was that intersection I had noted? All the roads look the same. Everything I have, passport included, is at the hotel. Whose name and location I’ve forgotten. It’s dark, I’m tired, I look very out of place and could very easily wander into danger.
Mild panic set in. It’s still a mystery to me how I got back. The hotel was called Anggun and it’s in Bukit Bintang, where big swish hotels and little private ones live side by side amongst lively streets, food stalls and the hullabaloo of city life. A good base for tourists. Tourists smart enough to make note of where they are staying, that is.
Back on Malaysian Railways’ ‘Ekspress’ service the following early afternoon, this time with something woolly to combat extreme aircon, the single track southwards along the Malay Peninsula led to a mid-evening arrival in Singapore at the faded grandeur of Keppel Road’s Singapore station, having negotiated the 1 km long causeway across the Johor Strait to the island. Sadly, this building and railway terminus was the subject of disputes after Malaysia and Singapore parted and, having wrestled the station and land from the control of the Malaysian government, the Singaporeans duly closed it, relocating to the workaday Woodlands Checkpoint on the north of the island. These days the journey I had just undertaken would end with a transfer or taxi rather than at the grand art-deco station. For a fast-growing financial superpower like Singapore this doesn’t seem like progress.
Otherwise Singapore seemed indeed to be in a rich and gleaming state. It was how everyone describes it, spotlessly clean, oppressively humid. My hotel, the Fullerton, was named after another former colonial governor and had originally been the General Post Office. A short walk for a swift nightcap took me to Harry’s Bar along the quayside, which was the favourite haunt of Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who brought down Barings Bank. In Singapore it’s all about the money.
Singapore was a stark contrast to the previous week. A final day of hotel visits included the extraordinary Marina Bay Sands. You know, the one with three massive towers and the boat perched on the roof. Inside it’s more like a shopping mall than a hotel, a bit clinical, which is a term you could use about Singapore in general. But that boat-shaped roof?! I hope you’ve got a head for heights! An infinity pool overlooks the city and you can see the ground seemingly miles below through little gaps in the wooden decking as you approach the ship’s bow. My palms are sweating as I write this.
As the day was hotting up and to freshen up ahead of my flight home, a room had been made available for a few hours at the Fairmont Hotel. Peering out of my window, across the road I spied the famous Raffles Hotel, that other institution founded by the Sarkies Brothers. I couldn’t resist, so wandered across the road for a show-round at a hotel I could only dream of contracting, then slunk into a chair at the bar to order the hotel’s world-famous cocktail, the Singapore Sling. Nowhere could I find the price. Would this famous drink in one of the world’s most famous hotels cost me £1.50, £15 or £150? The answer would have to wait until the bill arrived. We Yorkshire folk are known to be spendthrift, so time for more sweaty palms! It was the middle one, by the way. Phew. Cheers!