It's the greenery that tells you are a long way from home. Everywhere tropical vines, banana palms, fruit trees peep over walls or rear overhead providing refreshment of both sight and smell. Clean and green Singapore is the prototype city that Shanghai is modeling itself on - with a long way to go just yet. It was a short ride to the Keong Saik Hotel, a charming old renovated row house, in what we later found out was the former red light district. Though if my memory serves me well there was a lot of old Singapore that was a red light district. Sitting outside a nearby corner café was the wizened 'Tan', an octogenarian all too ready to share stories with anyone nearby and willing to listen. Later we sat around laughing and bantering amongst the smoke, noise and steam of the local night food stalls sharing some wonderful laksa and satay for dinner.
"Till tomorrow", said Tan as he excused himself extending his bony hand, crushing mine with a strength that belied his years. I couldn't bring myself to tell him that we were moving on in the morning. Within hours the sun trickled through the drapes and I set off on a leisurely walk down wide broad clean streets to the train station to book tickets. In hindsight we decided that maybe we shouldn't have stayed the night in Singapore and caught an overnight train instead. But then we wouldn't have met Tan. On the way back I dallied at a couple of temples, Hindu and Sikh respectively, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of Singapore society. In a nearby park I watched some tai-chi exponents practicing with swords under the far flung shady canopy of banyan trees. I'm not sure about the concept of finding inner peace while you're hanging onto a dirty great weapon.
The 'express' (sic) train to Kuala Lumpur was not a memorable one. Well, maybe it was, but not for any good reasons. We only managed to travel about ten minutes out of the now aging, but formerly grand, Singapore station before grinding to a halt at a siding, where it remained steadfastly stuck for the next hour or so. The a/c felt like it was turned to about minus 10º. We had to sort through our bags and then it was four t-shirts all round.
Finally and gratefully the train slid into the brand spanking new Kuala Lumpur (KL) Sentral railway station. After a day and a half seeing the sights and a night spent on a friend's coach in suburban KL we set off back toward Singapore on the long way around via Melaka. Buses leave for Melaka from the Sentral Bus Station in KL regularly. In fact, buses from KL seem to leave regularly for EVERYWHERE - and at an extremely good price. This one cost a mere 8RM for the three-hour trip to the coast. Melaka is famous as an old trading port that first belonged to the Dutch and later the British before they abandoned it for Penang further north. Here the indigenous Malay and immigrant Chinese cultures blended into a unique society known as baba-nonya. Throw in the sprinkling of European influences and you have a wonderful cultural mix unlike anywhere else.
After escaping the harassment of various taxi operators and fellow touts at the bus station, not to mention the occasional giant iguana, we made our way down to the old baba-nonya quarter where one can find a collection of places to stay amongst the fine old family homes. These magnificent two-story wood and stone structures feature a central open courtyard that can be used for several purposes. To me the greatest enjoyment was lying in a comfortable bamboo recliner, a drink in hand, watching as a refreshing tropical deluge came thundering down inches from my bare feet.
That evening we strolled down to 'Glutton's Corner' - a lively food market near the sea for both locals and tourists alike. This is not a place to visit if you are on a diet. Here, amongst other plentiful offerings such as fresh seafood and noodles, we helped ourselves to some of the most delicious satay known to mankind - Kajang satay. Kajang is famous throughout Malaysia for it's satay, and obviously some of its townsfolk had either moved across the hill to Melaka or sold their secret recipe of herbs and spices to the local Melakans.
After the meal we strolled (as best we could under the weight of what we'd just eaten) through the antiquated narrow streets that are reminiscent of some of the older towns in Guangdong and Fujian where many of the first immigrants originated from. Hokkien dialect appears to predominate as the favored tongue. It was interesting to see how the local Chinese community clubs come alive in the evenings. At one, groups of elderly people were sitting around chatting when suddenly "Achy Breaky Heart" came on over the loudspeakers. In a flash they were off their seats and all up line dancing! I'm sorry Billy-Ray Cyrus - but you have an awful lot to answer for...
Upon the morn we sauntered casually around the local, surprisingly quiet, streets browsing the wonderful old antique, second-hand and curio stores. Life is not lived at a hectic pace here and local store holders seem just as happy to share a chat as conduct business. We were drawn into many of the old temples that litter the old district, especially the ones that seemed to try and appease as many gods as possible. If you want to be prosperous and/or live a long life it seems you've got to cover all your bases! On Jalan Tun Tan we visited the somewhat tacky Baba-Nonya Heritage Museum where the tour guide was intent on getting us all through in record time. If we dawdled for too long in one room (viz., more than ten seconds) she just went straight to the next room and started her spiel, regardless of whether we were there or not.
We moved on to the old Standthuys building that was home to Dutch colonial administration and the nearby ruins of St. Pauls. Apparently Francis Xavier, that famous apostle to the Far East, had been buried here briefly before being dug up again and taken somewhere else. Seriously. To Macau I think. Old St. Franky got around a bit in his day - even AFTER he had carked it. Maybe he didn't really die and he's sharing a beach resort with Elvis and Lord Lucan somewhere. There are still quite a number of other things to see, but with our limited time, there was nothing left to do except grab our bags and hop on one of the many buses Singapore-bound.
Our time was too short. Allow 2-3 days in both Singapore and Melaka plus a similar time in Kuala Lumpur if you continue heading north. Malaysian Airlines and Singapore Airlines have several daily flights to and from the area. Prices vary according to season. Hotels in Singapore can be reasonably expensive, usually beginning around S$70 per room, per night. In KL and Melaka the rate will be 50-70% of that figure. Melaka can be reached directly from either KL or Singapore and inter-city buses are very affordable. It is a good idea to check out the bus before buying your ticket as standards of comfort can distinctly vary.
Nicholas Klar (http://klarbooks.com
) is a forty-something writer and teacher from Adelaide, Australia. His most recent incarnation is as the Senior Head of House at a private international college in Shanghai, China where he lives with his family. He has had several stories, travelogues, articles and essays published previously in various media.