Our journey through Malaysia has included quite a few route deviations, as we’ve been at the mercy of two uncontrollable forces: the monsoon season and Chinese New Year.
The monsoon season generally wraps up sometime in February or March, and the eastern islands open as soon as it does. We’d assumed that we’d miss the window for these beach destinations, but as it turns out boat service has already begun – we quickly rewrote them back into the itinerary!
Chinese New Year is a much stronger force to be reckoned with. It follows the lunar calendar and thus begins on a different date each year; this year it was January 26th, a Monday. Chinese New Year isn’t too different from our Christmas in that it’s the biggest holiday of the year, preceded by the biggest shopping week of the year. The main difference is that Chinese New Year lasts for 15 days – the entire population shuts its business doors and takes to the road, heading for every beach and vacation destination in the country. This is bad news for us non-Chinese, as half the cities are shut down and all of the transport/hotels are booked until the end of time (or at least the end of 15 days!) The one place that no one goes to is Kuala Lumpur (they all flee it), which is why we ended up there last week instead of at the end of the month, as planned.
That route led us down to Melaka, where we found a room and then spent two days trying to see the sights through the throngs of picture-snapping Chinese tour groups. We’d planned to head to the eastern Tioman Island afterwards, but things hadn’t quiet died down yet and after studying a map we realized that Singapore was a mere 3 hours away – let’s add a new stamp to our passport!
So this is how we found ourselves being sped through the most efficient border crossing on the planet and then bussed into the most eerily clean, orderly and efficient city in existence. We expected it to be nice – this is the city-nation that bans chewing gum, arrests jaywalkers and prohibits spitting – but we were blown away at the surrealness of it all, the sense that we’d just walked into a SIMS World computer game.
The bus deposited us at one of the four MRT lines, where we bought our magnetic access cards and boarded the subway, immediately whisked off to our destination. We ascended the stairs back into daylight and embarked on the half-mile walk to the guesthouse that we hoped had a spot for us, as it was the only one even close to affordable that we’d found. Every single road was spotless. Sidewalks are broad, clean, landscaped, well-lit and lined with extravagant shopping centers, cafes and parks. People patiently wait at crosswalks – no one dares dart across when there’s a ‘red man!’ Shiny doubledecker buses made the rounds, taking passengers anywhere and everywhere, recycling bins are prominent and everyone is impeccably dressed.
The guesthouse had a spot for us, and after dropping off our things we headed outside. There are still hawker food centers, luckily, and it’s possible to eat for $2 or so. After a Chinese dinner we headed to Esplanade Park, which looked like a nice water-front area on the map. It was nice, and full of surprises! There was a major parade going on for Chinese New Year, and throngs of people lined the roads watching the dancers and dragons and fire shows go by. Outside of the Esplanade Concert Hall (an amazing pieced of architecture!), there was a free concert-in-the-park series going on, and we enjoyed an incredible choreographed Chinese Percussion show while fireworks went off somewhere in the distance.
This was one small corner of the city, and so much going on, for free! Despite the thousands of people out and about, there wasn’t a speck of garbage, a moment of claustrophobia or a blade of trampled grass to be seen. Literally, spotless – the place and the inhabitants!
Traffic is light, as taxes are kept sky-high in order to encourage public transport, which is cheap and super efficient. The cost for an average economy car, after taxes and licenses and everything else, runs at about $80,000USD. Typically rent, as we found out from some British English teachers, runs around $2000USD, though it can easily be five times that depending on amenities. Food can be cheap on the street, but restaurant and 7-11 prices run well above those in the US, while alcohol is nearly impossible to justify purchasing. The “official” languages include Chinese, Malay and Tamil, but everyone just speaks English instead. There is serious money here, and a seriously high quality of life. We went to bed still a bit stunned at it all – our budget can’t handle more than a couple of nights here, but it’s so neat to see this side of SE Asia. Places like Laos seem as though they exist on another planet!
Running this morning was incredible. Whereas my first task in any new city is to study the map and try to find a place that might be suitable for running, the task in Singapore was deciding which place I’d like to go to! There isn’t a single road here without a wide, flawless sidewalk, and you can barely walk one block without coming across a perfectly manicured park with jogging trails and a waterfront. The underpasses aren’t dark and seedy; they have gardens and benches and ornate lamposts. There is protected rainforest full of trails, riverfront promenades and oh-so-many other possibilities!
Today will be spent exploring, and I’m sure we’ll be more and more impressed – check back for some perfect pictures of this picture-perfect place!