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Travel review: Rediscover Singapore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur

Travel review: Rediscover Singapore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur

A heady mix of cultures has influenced most facets of Malaysia and Singapore, from diverse foodie scenes to inspiring historical sites

The Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Penang

Singapore
At the Southernmost tip of the Malaysian peninsula lies the world’s second most open economy and pro-business regime; whose thriving manufacturing and logistics industries, coupled with booming new industries such as fintech and cybersecurity, have proved alluring to expat workers that have flocked to the country in droves.

Singapore has become known for its ‘work hard, play hard culture’, with expats enjoying a thriving after-hours scene by way of nightclubs and speakeasies, and a shopping culture that nearly threatened the future of e-commerce in the country (in 2019, 85 per cent of the country’s residents shopped in stores at least once a month, compared to the 49 per cent who shopped online).

Though some of the above distractions may be closed or reimagined for the foreseeable future, this tiny country – at just 50 kilometres east to west and 27 kilometres north to south – still holds a plethora of sights, eats and activities that should amuse.

Singapores's bustling Haji Lane
Singapores’s bustling Haji Lane

For those looking to stay in the city centre, Singapore announced a “Phase 2” of reopening popular sights that took place from June. Attractions including Universal Studios, Madame Tussauds, the flower dome at Gardens by the Bay, Jurong Bird Park, the Art Science Museum and the casino and observation deck at Marina Bay Sands reopened at the beginning of July with certain precautionary measures in place.

For accommodation, the aforementioned Marina Bay Sands stands at the top of the pack, with its modern Stonehenge-esque exterior and world’s largest infinity pool, subject of many an Instagram snap.

Moments from the Central Business District, the hotel offers direct access to the Art & Science Museum – a favourite among parents for its interactive nature – as well as one of Singapore’s most illustrious malls, The Shoppes. Replete with designer brands from Gucci, Loewe and Moncler, the mall also is home to an indoor canal, dotted with wooden Chinese boats. Rooms run around the $400 mark.

Visiting Singapore’s well-designed and varied malls is a popular pastime among locals and tourists, to both escape the humidity as well as try out activities within the malls. Indoor rock climbing is available at Kallang Wave Mall, and Funan Mall underwent a major makeover in 2019, transforming from tech-focused stores to experiential hangout, with urban rooftop farm and an indoor cycle track.

The nature reserve of Sungei Bulo in Singapore
The nature reserve of Sungei Bulo in Singapore

The city can be easily navigated simply by its landmarks: use the honeycomb-slash-durian design of Singapore’s theatre venue, Esplanade, to get to the Singapore River, then head past the mammoth observation wheel to get to Kampong Glam, Singapore’s Muslim quarter.

Check out the colourful graffiti and boutiques on Haji Lane, then head to the pedestrianised Arab Street, which boasts the Sultan Mosque and a laid-back ambience.

For those looking to escape the city centre, the lush climate of Singapore makes it an ideal place for wildlife.
Sungei Buloh, a wetland reserve accessible by public transport, is a good place to see Singapore’s natural habitats, from mudflats to forests. Kingfishers and sunbirds flit in and out of ponds, as well as species including otters and monitor lizards. Bring a backpack and explore the walking trails, before catching the train back to the city.

Penang
It’s been called the Isle of the Betel Nut, the Pearl of the Orient and most recently, the East’s answer to Silicon Valley.
With soft sandy beaches, cheap and diverse cuisine and an interesting history, Penang is a place that caters to the foodie, the techie and the historian.

The city-state has a diverse history, having been colonised by the British in the 18th Century, briefly occupied by the Japanese during WWII, and then finally gained independence in 1957. It is made up of Penang Island and Seberang Perai, a city on the mainland’s coast, and each offers a distinctive feel.

Seberang Perai, fringed with mangrove beaches, has heavily industrialised over the last few decades, but still retains its natural beauty. Mengkuang Dam has running trails that weave through rubber plantations and is also home to an international dragon boat festival, whose rowers can be found noisily practising most mornings. Elsewhere, the Nine Emperor Gods Temple and the Arulmigu Karumariamman Temple are popular sightseeing spots, the latter boasting the largest and tallest rajagopuram (sculpture tower) in Malaysia.

Two long bridges connect the peninsula with Penang Island, whose lush interior can be seen on the journey across.
A mixture of temples, street eats and colonial architecture lends a colourful feel to Georgetown, Penang Island’s hub. A worthwhile hike is to Kek Lok Si Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia and home to a pagoda adorned with ten thousand statues of Buddha.

There are a few sandy beaches on the island to sunbathe on, from Batu Ferringhi, Tanjung Bungah or Monkey Beach – the latter named for its furry residents. A ten-minute ferry will take those in search of more Instagram-friendly backdrops to Pulau Jerejak, a small island once home to a penal colony. As well as exploring the former prison, tourists typically take a trek through the island’s jungle, or kayak off the beach.

Throughout the island, Chinese, Tamil and Malay residents lend their heritage to the local cuisine, resulting in diverse, affordable dishes.

One of the most popular Malay dishes involves a steaming mound of coconut milk rice (Nasi Lemak), sometimes stained cornflower blue and usually heaped with fried chicken or shrimp, anchovies and banana leaves. Grab a bowl, and set off to explore the island with a rich backstory.

Kuala Lumpur
Most trips to this bustling urban metropolis begin at Petronas Twin Towers, a postmodern, Islamic set of buildings that have epitomised Kuala Lumpur’s skyline since 1999. That same year, base jumper Felix Baumgartner set a world record when he jumped off the towers, but most tourists opt for a slightly tamer experience, traversing the 42nd-storey bridge that links the soa­ring twin towers.

Directly underneath the towers lies KLCC Park, a 50-acre garden intended to bring greenery to the district and dotted with lakes and sculptures. The scene is emblematic of Kuala Lumpur: a city that blends the manmade with the natural, and whose urbanisation is countered by a friendliness that flows through the Malaysian capital.

Kuala Lumpur's 50-acre garden KLCC Park
Kuala Lumpur’s 50-acre garden KLCC Park

Look beyond the city’s main landmark to discover its unique attractions, from its lively jazz scene to fondness for high tea. One of the best ways to sample the latter is to book a table in the Orchid Conservatory of Majestic Hotel, named for the mass of vivid blooms that adorn the space.

Visiting markets is a popular weekend activity, where locals buy their groceries for the week and tourists indulge in a spot of haggling for handbags or souvenirs. Two of the biggest are Central Market and Petaling Market; look out for Malaysian batik prints, as well as Peranakan furniture.

To see a traditional Malaysian neighbourhood, with houses built on stilts and outcrops of banana trees, head to Kampung Baru neighbourhood – one of the last outposts of ancestral dwellings, and constantly under threat from developers.

The more than a century old Central Market in Malaysia
The more than a century old Central Market in Malaysia

Outside the capital is a range of attractions, one of the most popular being the Batu Caves. Around 11km outside of the city, the site is famous for the Hindu Shrines hidden in its limestone interior, which can only be accessed by a 272-stair climb to the mouth of the caves.

With disciples bringing offerings adorned with peacock feathers and priests performing blessings amidst ash and incense, the effect of the shrines is only compounded by their unique setting – amid layers upon layers of limestone that has existed for millennia.

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