April 10, 2014

Day 184 – Half a year

I spent over two weeks in Malaysia and it wasn’t nearly enough. Malaysia compromises of a mixture of a modern, developed city on the one hand and a historical, cultural city on the other. Take Kuala Lumpur (KL) for instance, you have the twin towers, over-powering the city centre, along with massive shopping malls, all fully air-conditioned and packed with young people. Then you have two or more streets of China town – selling everything and anything related to Chinese culture. Amongst this, you have a mosque in the centre and Islamic Arts Gallery. Round the corner from this there is a Church and a South Indian Temple.  On some parts, KL reminded me of London, the business, the sky scrapper, left hand drive but then we don’t have street food.

The twin towers in KL

The twin towers in KL

The Sultan Abdul Samad Building in KL

Penang was perhaps my favourite city in Malaysia. It is a quaint town, reminded me of Pie, minus the motorbikes. The streets of George Town are filled with street art, to random large animals to people. Something again, that London lacks and could really benefit from. In addition to this George Town has dear little coffee houses on most streets, along with Chinese and Indian temples. There is also the National Park in the north of the city and from there it is possible to hop on a boat and sit on the beach.

Street art in Penang

Street art in Penang

The Cameron Highlands is wonderful for both the landscape and the drop in temperature. Whilst in most of Malaysia you melt away, here temperatures are much cooler. A very green atmosphere and also close to Taman Negra. From here, headed to Melaka, another cute little town with much history and culture. Most towns here, have a Little India and a China Town. The thing I love most are the night markets which tend to be scattered in almost every city. The different food stalls, beverages, souvenirs, is really something.

The Cameron Highlands

The Cameron Highlands

Malaysia, is rather unique in SEA, it doesn’t for instance have a streets packed with motorbikes, it is also much cleaner and most people speak English. I was under the impression that perhaps it is the most developed country in SEA, I was wrong, Singapore is by far.

Whilst in Myanmar, I felt that I had gone back in time yet once in Singapore, I felt like I hand fast-forwarded to the future. Singapore is so similar to London – the double deckerbuses, the underground, left hand drive and a oyster card equivalent. Yet, to be fair, it is smaller but better. It is cleaner and everything works like clock work. Take for example the MRT (underground) there is no pushing or shoving, like London, even at peak times, people seem to refrain from this and wait patiently for people to get off. Then the escalators, we stand on left and walk down on the right but they do the opposite.

Sri Mariamman temple in Singapore

Sri Mariamman temple in Singapore

There is no shortage of soap or toilet paper here. There are no squat toilets in site and you don’t even need to flush – it does so automatically! Like KL, Singapore is swamped with shopping malls. You get off the MRT, go up and before you know it, you are in a mall, endless floor of shops and at times, the exit is out of sight. These malls stay open for longer, it’s late night shopping every night not just Thursday. Even the hostel I stayed in, yes it was a little dear but it was like nothing I’ve stayed in before. The hostel had ‘pod’ style dorms so you are almost in a capsule, blocking out both the person to your right and left. It is brilliant, far better then dorms with bunkbeds!

Singapore stuck me as a country that can quite simply be lifted and placed in either Europe or America. It is one of the most expensive cities, as are many cities in Europe, it is so developed compared to the rest of SEA and continues to strive. Whilst it is a wondrous city, it is also a fine city so perhaps this ensures that people stay in order. There is no litter anywhere, there are no homeless people squatting or sitting on the streets like London. Both the buses and tubes are immaculate – how does a country get so many people to abide by such rules and continue to maintain it? I can’t imagine London buses or tubes ever coming close.

From Singapore, I continued south into Sumatra – Indonesia. Indonesia is very much a developing country, plenty of motorbikes and chaos. Tourists here are very much a rarity so you really stand out. Taking the bus for instance, from one city to another, I was the only foreigner most of the time. One thing that is striking is the number of people that smoke. People smoke in all public places and buses, with no ash tray and no real regard for the non-smokers. English is not widely spoken – why should it be? Nonetheless, people are really friendly and try and help as much as possible.

Streets of Sumatra

Streets of Sumatra

I ended up flying from Sumatra to Jakarta. Whilst I would have loved to continue by land, the country is simply to long so it takes over a day to arrive in Jakarta! I was told by some to give Jakarta a miss but capital cities fascinate me so I couldn’t bear the thought. Jakarta is busy, modern, streets are packed and poverty is much more evident. Moving outside the centre, foreigners are not that evident so locals love to engage in conversations with you at any given moment. I traveled with 4 others to a town- Bogor where we were surrounded by local children, all of whom were so happy and excited to see us. They took endless photos with us and followed us around for a while. It was amazing that our sheer presence could give them so much pleasure. It felt like we were famous for the day!

I headed to Java next which is the most populated island. Rather than the bus, I along with two other backpackers embarked on the train. It was great to be able to take in the local surrounding for once as with most my bus journeys, I travel by night so see very little of the town.  To get from one platform to the next, you simply walk over the tracks – no health or safety regulations.

Borobudur - a Buddhist temple in Java

Borobudur – a Buddhist temple in Java

My impression of Indonesia so far, well like most of SEA, it is surrounded by villages, bamboo hut houses and squat toilets. Hot water, toilet paper and soap are a rarity. Yes they have a Starbucks, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC but that is about it. Some of the larger shopping malls have outlets like Body shop but other than that the western influence is not that great. Most of the rubbish is burnt on the streets and recycling, again is not a priority.

I have managed to see 8 out of the 11 countries in SEA, quite amazing as this was never my plan but of course, I’m more than happy that I did. Each and every country has amazed me whether it is the landscape, the people, or the food. I felt so many things, sometimes all at once and sometimes been left feeling overwhelmed. I have taken away so much from my experience here; from the things I tried, to the people I’ve met and to all the wonderful memories that I will keep forever.

Where to next? That is the real question, do I throw in the towel, call it a day and head home? Do I continue and finish visiting the rest of SEA? Or do I venture out into the unknown some more? I’ve come this far, further than I thought I would and hell it’s been great. My gut feeling is to carry on, keep exploring some more, until my money, energy runs out because once I’m back I don’t know when I will do something like this again. Is it truly a once in a lifetime experience? If so then I want to make it the best one ever, I want to look back and think I did everything I dreamed of and more – no regrets.