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The Best of Singapore
I couldexotic beauty of the city’s old mosques I’m in awe of As I cultural myster-
spend a lifetime exploring Singapore.
pass the facades
of buildings that mark history, I get nostalgic for old tales of colonial romance.
Towering overhead, present-day Singapore glistens with the wealth of modern
miracles. And when I smell incense and spice and jasmine swirling in wet topical
breezes, I can close my eyes and know exactly where I am.
The longer I stay in Singapore, new curiosities present themselves to me.
Singapore thrives on a history that has absorbed a multitude of foreign elements
over almost 2 centuries, melding them into a unique modern national identity.
Beginning with the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, add to the mix the
original Malay inhabitants, immigrating waves of Chinese traders and workers,
Indian businessmen and laborers, Arab merchants, British colonials, European
adventure-seekers, and an assortment of Southeast Asian settlers—this tiny
island rose from the ingenuity of those who worked and lived together here.
Today, all recognize each group’s importance to the heritage of the land, each
adding unique contributions to a culture and identity we know as Singaporean.
I’ll confess, many travelers complain to me about how westernized Singapore
is. For many, a vacation in Asia should be filled with culture shock, unfamiliar
traditions, and curious adventures. Today’s travel philosophy seems to be that
the more underdeveloped and obscure a country is, the more “authentic” the
experience will be. But poor Singapore—all those lovely opium-stained coolies
and toothless rickshaw pullers are now driving BMWs and exchanging cellular
phone numbers. How could anyone possibly find this place so fascinating?
With all its shopping malls, fast-food outlets, imported fashion, and steel
skyscrapers, Singapore could look like any other contemporary city you’ve ever
visited—but to peel through the layers is to understand that life here is far more
complex. While the outer layers are startlingly Western, just underneath lies a
curious area where East blends with West in language, cuisine, attitude, and
style. At the core, you’ll find a sensibility rooted in the cultural heritage of
values, religion, superstition, and memory. In Singapore, nothing is ever as it
appears to be.
For me this is where the fascination begins. I detect so many things familiar
in this city, only to discover how these imported ideas have been altered to fit
the local identity. Like the Singaporean shophouse—a jumble of colonial archi-
tectural mandates, European tastes, Chinese superstitions, and Malay finery. Or
“Singlish,” the unofficial local tongue, which combines English language with
Chinese grammar, common Malay phrases, and Hokkien slang to form a patois
unique to this part of the world. This transformation of cultures has been going
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2 C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F S I N G A P O R E & M A L AY S I A
MYANMAR Hong Kong
LAOS Tonkin Hainan
o Hue Luz
Da Nang B
An da m a n CAMBODIA South P
Se a Ko Samet Mind
Pattaya Nha Trang
Gu l f o f Sea
Thailand Ho Chi Minh City
( Gu l f o f Si a m ) (Saigon)
Island Kota Zamboan
Island Peninsular Kuala Terengganu Bandar Seri
Kuala Kuantan BRUNEI
of M A L A Y S I A
a l Malacca
c a Johor Bharu
S IN G AP O R E
u m t ra
S um a tra Pontianak
Jambi Bangka (Borneo) Sulaw
Java S e a
I N D O N E S I A
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T H E B E S T O F S I N G A P O R E & M A L AY S I A 3
0 500 mi
TA I WA N N
0 500 km
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
I N D O N E S I A
Banda Sea n
Timor Sea Bathurst
AU S T R A L I A
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4 C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F S I N G A P O R E & M A L AY S I A
on for almost 2 centuries. So, in a sense, Singapore is no different today than it
was 100 years ago. And in this I find my “authentic” travel experience.
When the urban jungle gets me crazy, I escape to Malaysia. Even Kuala
Lumpur, the capital city, seems relaxed in comparison to Singapore. In fact,
many Singaporeans look to their northern neighbor for the perfect vacation,
taking advantage of its pristine and exciting national forests and marine parks,
relaxing on picture-perfect beaches in either sophisticated resorts or quaint
bungalows, taking in culture in its small towns, shopping for inexpensive handi-
crafts, or eating some of the finest food in Southeast Asia. Malaysia offers some-
thing for everyone—history, culture, adventure, romance, mystery, nature, and
relaxation—without the glaring buzz of an overdeveloped tourism industry. It
almost makes me overjoyed that few tourists venture here.
My favorite part of Malaysia, however, is the warmth of its people. I have yet
to travel in this country without collecting remarkable tales of hospitality, open-
ness, and generosity. I’ve found the Malaysian people to be genuine in their
approach to foreign visitors, another fine byproduct of the underdeveloped
tourism industry. For those who want to find a nice little corner of paradise,
Malaysia could be your answer.
I’ve crept down alleys, wandered the streets of cities and towns, combed
beaches, and trekked jungles to seek out the most exciting things that Singapore
and Malaysia have to offer. In this volume I’ve presented the sights and attrac-
tions of these countries with insight into historical, cultural, and modern signif-
icance to bring you a complete appreciation of all you are about to experience.
I’ve peeked in every shop door, chatting up the local characters inside. I’ve eaten
local food until I can’t move. I’ve stayed out all night. I’ve done it all and writ-
ten about it here. I can only hope you will love Singapore and Malaysia as much
as I do.
1 Frommer’s Favorite Singapore Experiences
Sipping a Singapore Sling at the of their world travels. Drink up, my
Long Bar: Ahhhh, the Long Bar, friend; it’s a lovely high. See p. 180.
home of the Singapore Sling. I like to Witnessing Bloody Traditions:
come in the afternoons, before the Every so often, a magical Saturday
tourist rush. Sheltered by long jalousie night comes around when you can
shutters that close out the tropical sun, witness the Kuda Kepang, which is
the air cooled by lazy punkahs (small not your average traditional dance. It
fans that wave gently back and forth features young men on wooden horses
above), you can sit back in old rattan who move like warriors, whirling and
chairs and have your saronged waitress spinning and slapping the horses to
serve you sticky alcoholic creations shake intimidating sounds out of
while you toss back a few dainty them. Accompanied by rhythmic and
crab cakes. Life can be so decadent. repetitive traditional Malay music,
Okay, so the punkahs are electric, and, the warriors dance in unison, staging
come to think of it, the place is air- battles with each other until by the
conditioned (not to mention that it end of a long series of dances, the
costs a small fortune), but it’s fun to horsemen are in a trance. A pot of
imagine the days when Somerset burning frankincense is produced,
Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, or Char- from which they all inhale. After that,
lie Chaplin would be sitting at the bar all hell breaks loose. The dancers are
sipping Slings and spinning exotic tales whipped, fed glass—which they chew
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F R O M M E R ’ S FAV O R I T E M A L AY S I A E X P E R I E N C E S 5
and swallow hungrily—walk on glass geeks, and gabbers. Everybody is here,
shards, and shred entire coconuts with milling around every mall, clustered
their teeth. While the whipping around every sidewalk bench, checking
appears somewhat staged, I assure you everybody out. At the corner of Scotts
the rest is real. It’s a traditional dance Road and Orchard, just under the
that’s taken very seriously both by the Marriott, there’s an alfresco cafe where
dancers and by the huge and mostly you’ll find local celebrities hanging out
Malay crowds that gather for it. to see and be seen. International
What’s more, the next day the dancers celebrities and models have been spot-
don’t recall what they did—and ted here on occasion, too. In the mix,
they’re never injured. Unfortunately, you’re bound to see most every tourist
the dance is not performed on a regu- on the island, coming around to see
lar basis. The group works mostly for what all the excitement is about.
private ceremonies and gatherings, On Saturdays, school lets out early,
and appears at Malay Village (& 65/ so the malls are filled with mobs of
6748-4700) on the off Saturday night bored teenagers, kicking around, try-
when they don’t have a gig. Call ahead ing to look cool, and watching the
to find out if they’ll be performing. music videos in the front window of
See chapters 5 and 8. the HMV music store in The Heeren.
If you’re not able to catch a per- Moms and dads also have half-days at
formance, but still want a little cere- the office, so the strip takes on the feel
monial gore, check out the calendar of an obstacle course, as all the parents
of events in chapter 2. During the race around wielding strollers, trying
Thaipusam Festival, men pierce their to run errands while they have the
bodies with skewers, and during the chance. Meanwhile, outside in the
Thimithi Festival, they walk on burn- shady areas, you can see crowds of
ing coals. To celebrate the Birthday of amahs (housekeepers) and workers
the Monkey God, Chinese priests will relaxing and catching up on the latest
slice themselves with sharp imple- news on their free afternoon.
ments and write chants and prayers For some, the scene is a madhouse
with their own blood. to be avoided; for others, it’s a chance
Checking Out the Orchard Road to watch life on a typical Saturday
Scene: You can’t find better people- afternoon in downtown Singapore.
watching than on Orchard Road every And it is typical, because however
Saturday afternoon, when it seems like huge and delightful the scene is for
every Singaporean crawls out of the tourists, it’s just part of everyday real-
woodwork to join the parade of shop- ity for residents of the Garden City.
pers, strollers, hipsters, posers, lovers, See p. 136.
2 Frommer’s Favorite Malaysia Experiences
Opening Your Mind to Good Medi- Needless to say, my first day in the
cine: The first time I went to Tioman doghouse was nutty. The rustic little
Island I was appalled by the rows of A- cabin felt like it would fall apart at the
frame shacks that passed themselves first breeze. Really, I’ve stayed in more
off as bungalows. “I wouldn’t let my attractive places at summer camp. The
dog sleep in one of these! Who’s your concrete latrine in the rear was as
architect—Lassie? Call the concierge, back-to-basics as you could get, save
there’s been a terrible mistake! Good going outside behind a tree. But I
Lord, where’s the minibar?!” somehow survived my first night, cold
shower and all.
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6 C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F S I N G A P O R E & M A L AY S I A
The next day, after strolling around through the outskirts of town, the
the kampung village, lazing about at sights becoming more and more rural.
the beach, chatting with friendly He turned down a dirt road, past graz-
locals and fellow travelers, eating great ing water buffaloes lazing near rice
barbecued fish and drinking some paddies. Soon the fields turned to
cold beer, I had to admit, the place jungle, and a small kampung village
had its charm. And I also had to admit appeared in the trees. I watched out
my doghouse was starting to look the window as we passed traditional
rather cozy. No annoying telephones, wooden stilt houses where grannies
no loud TVs, no distractions. Just fanned themselves on the porch
peace. watching the children chase chickens
By my third day, I began to redeco- in the yard. Beside each house, color-
rate. Drape a little sarong over the ful batik sarongs waved in the breeze.
window here, place another mosquito The path wound to the house of
candle on the table there, sweep out Pakcik’s nephew. I was welcomed
the sand; it was my little home. I inside with curiosity, perhaps the first
couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt foreigner to visit. They offered me a
so laid-back and satisfied. The hectic straw mat, which I used to join the
world I’d left behind began to look others resting comfortably on the
more and more insane with each floor. Within minutes, an audience of
passing day. And as the years of stress neighbors gathered around, plucking
melted away, I couldn’t imagine why fruits from the trees in the yard for
anyone would ever want more from me. I listened as Pakcik told them of
life than this. Civilization is so over- my search for a gasing, and was sur-
rated. See p. 249. prised to see every person scatter. That
Experiencing Kampung Hospital- afternoon I was offered every gasing in
ity: Pakcik (uncle) was just slightly the village.
older than his ancient Mercedes, but My afternoon in Pakcik’s kampung
his price was right, so I hired him for is one of my most cherished memo-
the day to drive me around Kota ries, and a most meaningful experi-
Bharu. Sometime after lunch, during ence. You see, as Southeast Asia
a stop at the kite-maker’s house, I becomes increasingly affluent and
spotted a beautiful gasing, a wood- globalized, this way of life becomes
and-steel Malay top. It would be the steadily endangered. It’s a lifestyle that
perfect gift for my brother! I just had for many urban Malaysians captures
to have one. the spirit of the good life—simple
Well, the kite-maker didn’t want to days when joy was free. And everyone
give his up, but Pakcik had a few will be proud to show you; all you
ideas. After coming up empty at the need is an open heart and a big smile.
local shops, he took on my quest with Malaysian hospitality never ceases to
personal conviction. Off we drove amaze me.
3 The Best Small Towns & Villages
Any Kampung (Tioman Island, firm, and those who seek escape rarely
Malaysia): Even though Tioman was leave disappointed. See p. 249.
developed for the tourism industry, Malacca (Malaysia): As perhaps the
you’ll never think this place is overde- oldest trading port in Malaysia, this
veloped. The casual and rustic nature town hosted a wide array of interna-
of the island’s tiny beach villages holds tional traders: Arabs, Portuguese,
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T H E M O S T FA S C I N AT I N G T E M P L E S, C H U R C H E S & M O S Q U E S 7
Dutch, English, Indian, and Chinese, down, head for the hills. The colonials
all of whom left their stamp. See favored this cooling retreat for grow-
p. 225. ing tea and roses and for building
Cameron Highlands (Malaysia): lovely Tudor country homes. See
When the tropical heat gets you p. 217.
4 The Best Beaches
Tanjung Rhu (Langkawi, Malaysia): lively, with water sports and beach
Perhaps one the most stunning beach activities plus food and drink. Every
in Malaysia, this wide gorgeous stretch so often you’ll find an all night dance
of white sand hugs a crystal clear, deep party here. However, if you really need
blue cove. Even Alex Garland would pristine seclusion, you’ll have to head
be impressed. See p. 247. for Malaysia. See p. 151.
Kampung Juara (Tioman Island, Cherating (Malaysia): If you’re a
Malaysia): This beach is what they leatherback turtle, you’ll think the best
mean when they say isolated. Be pre- beach in the world is just north of
pared to live like Robinson Crusoe— Cherating. Every spring and summer,
in tiny huts, many with no electricity these giant sea creatures come ashore
at all. But, oh, the beach! Most visitors to lay their eggs, so if you’re in town
don’t get to this part of the island, so from May to June you might catch a
many times you can have it all to look at the hatchlings. Meanwhile,
yourself. See p. 253. during the turtles’ off-season, interna-
Central Beach (Sentosa Island, Sin- tional windsurfing and water-board
gapore): This is just about the best enthusiasts gather annually for com-
beach you’ll find in Singapore, which petitions at this world-famous spot.
isn’t really known for its beaches. It’s See p. 256.
5 The Most Exciting Outdoor Adventures
Trekking in Taman Negara Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve (Sin-
(Malaysia): With suitable options gapore): Every year during the winter
for all budgets, levels of comfort, months, flocks of migrating birds
and desired adventure, peninsular from as far north as Siberia vacation in
Malaysia’s largest national park opens the warm waters of this unique man-
the wonders of primary rainforest and grove swamp park. Easily traversed via
the creatures who dwell in it to every- wooden walkway, the park will never
one. From the canopy walk high atop disappoint for some stunning wildlife
the forest to night watches for noctur- shots. See p. 146-147.
nal life, this adventure is as stunning
as it is informative. See p. 253.
6 The Most Fascinating Temples, Churches & Mosques
Thian Hock Keng (Singapore): One is the modern world that carries on
of Singapore’s oldest Chinese temples, just outside the old temple’s doors. See
it is a fascinating testimony to Chinese p. 130.
Buddhism as it combines with tradi- Jalan Tokong, Malacca (Malaysia):
tional Confucian beliefs and natural This street, in the historical heart of
Taoist principles. Equally fascinating the city, supports a Malay mosque, a
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8 C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F S I N G A P O R E & M A L AY S I A
Chinese temple, and a Hindu temple architectural simplicity, tropical prac-
existing peacefully side by side—the ticality, and spiritual tranquility. See
perfect example of how the many for- p. 115.
eign religions that came to Southeast Hajjah Fatimah Mosque (Singa-
Asia shaped its communities and pore): I love this mosque for its eclec-
learned to coexist in harmony. See tic mix of religious symbols and
p. 231. architectural influences. To me, it rep-
Armenian Church (Singapore): resents not just the Singaporean ability
While not the biggest Christian house to absorb so many different ideas, but
of worship in the city, it is perhaps also a Muslim appreciation and open-
one of the most charming in its ness toward many cultures. See p. 133.
7 The Most Interesting Museums
Images of Singapore (Sentosa Island, curious island. Plus, it doesn’t hurt
Singapore): No one has done a better that the air-conditioning works very
job than this museum in chronicling well! See p. 241.
the horrors of the World War II Pacific Asian Civilisations Museum (Singa-
Theater and Japanese occupation in pore): One of the newer displays
Southeast Asia. Video and audio dis- on the block, this extremely well-
plays take you on a journey through presented museum documents the
Singapore’s experience. The grand evolutionary and cultural history of
finale, the Surrender Chambers, fea- the region’s major ethnic groups. A
tures life-size wax-figure dioramas of very informative afternoon. See
the fateful events. See p. 152. p. 115.
Penang Museum and Art Gallery State Museums of Malacca (Malay-
(Penang, Malaysia): A slick display of sia): This small city has more muse-
Penang’s colonial history and multi- ums than any other city in the
cultural heritage, this place is chock- country, with some unusual displays
full of fascinating tidbits about the such as kites and Malaysian literature.
people, places, and events of this See p. 230.
8 The Best Luxury Resorts & Hotels
Raffles Hotel (Singapore): For old- and selection of facilities in the whole
world opulence, Raffles is second to city. See p. 206.
none. It’s pure fantasy of the days Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort
when tigers still lurked around the (Penang, Malaysia): The oldest resort
perimeters. See p. 61. on the beach has claimed the best
The Four Seasons (Singapore): Ele- stretch of sand and snuggled the most
gance and warmth combine to make imaginative modern, yet traditionally
this place a good bet. Consider a regu- designed resort into the gardens just
lar room here before you book a suite beyond. See p. 238.
elsewhere. See p. 73. The Datai (Langkawi, Malaysia):
The Regent (Kuala Lumpur, Malay- The Datai is as stunning as any of the
sia): For my money, the Regent offers best resorts Phuket and Bali have to
the smartest decor and the best service offer, without the Phuket or Bali price
tag. See p. 246.
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THE BEST MARKETS 9
9 The Best Hotel Bargains
RELC International Hotel (Singa- Right in the center of Kuala Lumpur’s
pore): For a safe and simple place to bustling Chinatown, the Swiss-Inn is
call home in Singapore, RELC can’t be the perennial favorite for travelers
beat. One wonders how they keep here. A comfortable choice, plus it’s so
costs so low when their location is so close to everything. See p. 210.
good. See p. 84. Heeren House (Malacca, Malaysia):
Traders Hotel (Singapore): Value- Bargain or no bargain, this boutique
for-money is the name of the game, hotel in the heart of the old city is the
with all sorts of promotional packages, place to stay in Malacca if you want to
self-service launderettes, vending really get a feel of the local atmos-
machines, and a checkout lounge just phere. See p. 228.
a few of the offerings that make this Telang Usan Hotel (Kuching,
the most convenient hotel in the city. Malaysia): An informal place, Telang
See p. 81. Usan is homey and quaint, and within
Swiss-Inn (Kuala Lumpur, Malay- walking distance of many major
sia): Location, location, location! attractions in Kuching. See p. 275.
10 The Best Local Dining Experiences
Hawker Centers (Singapore and Imperial Herbal (Singapore): In the
Malaysia): Think of them as shop- Chinese tradition of yin and yang,
ping malls for food—great food! For dishes are prepared under the supervi-
local cuisine, who needs a menu with sion of the house doctor, a traditional
pictures when you can walk around healer who will be glad to “prescribe”
and select anything you want as it’s the perfect cure for whatever ails you.
prepared before your eyes. See chap- See p. 100.
ters 4, 9, 10, and 11. Chile Crab at UDMC Seafood Cen-
Gurney Drive (Penang, Malaysia): tre (Singapore): A true Singaporean
Penang is the king of Asian cuisine, favorite, chile crabs will cause every
from Chinese to Malay to Indian local to rise up in argument over
and everything else in between. This where you can find the best in town.
large hawker center by the sea is a Head out to UDMC to try the juicy
great introduction to Penang. See crabs cooked in a sweet chile sauce.
p. 240. Prepare to get messy! See p. 111.
11 The Best Markets
Arab Street (Singapore): Even though exciting experience: batik, songket
Singapore is a shopper’s paradise, it cloth, brassware, basket weaving—the
could still use more places like Arab list goes on. See p. 261.
Street. Small shops selling everything Petaling Street, (Kuala Lumpur,
from textiles to handicrafts line the Malaysia): This night market gets
street. Bargaining is welcome. See very, very crowded and crazy with all
p. 168. who come for watches, handbags,
Central Market (Kuala Terengganu, computer software, video CDs (which
Malaysia): This huge bustling market aren’t exactly DVDs but can be played
turned me into a shopping freak! All on a DVD player), and all manner of
of the handicrafts Terengannu is blatant disregard for international
famous for come concentrated in one copyright laws. See p. 213.
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10 C H A P T E R 1 . T H E B E S T O F S I N G A P O R E & M A L AY S I A
12 The Best Shopping Bargains
Silver Filigree Jewelry (Malaysia): You can find them at any night mar-
This fine silver is worked into detailed ket. Ever dream of owning a Gucci?
filigree jewelry designs to make Have I got a deal for you! Can I tell
brooches, necklaces, bracelets, and you about pirate video CDs and com-
other fine jewelry. puter software without getting my
Pewter (Malaysia): Malaysia is the book banned? Uh, okay, whatever you
home of Selangor Pewter, one of the do, don’t buy these items! See chapters
largest manufacturers of pewter in the 6 and 9.
world, and their many showrooms Batik (Singapore and Malaysia):
have all sorts of items to choose from. While most of the batiks you find in
See the Kuala Lumpur shopping sec- Singapore come from Indonesia, most
tion in chapter 9 for locations there. in Malaysia are made at factories that
For locations in Penang, Malacca, you can often tour. The Indonesian
and Johor call the Selangor hot line prints usually show traditional motif
at & 03/422-1000. See chapter 9. and colors, while Malaysian designs
Knockoffs and Pirate Goods (Singa- can be far more modern. Look for
pore and Malaysia): Check out how batik silk as well. See chapters 6, 9,
real those watches look! And so cheap! and 10.
13 The Best Nightlife
Singapore, the whole city: Nightlife Bangsar (near Kuala Lumpur,
is becoming increasingly sophisticated Malaysia): Folks in Kuala Lumpur
in Singapore, where locals have more know to go to Bangsar for nighttime
money for recreation and fun. Take the excitement. A couple of blocks of con-
time to choose the place that suits your centrated restaurants, cafes, discos,
personality. Jazz club? Techno disco? pubs, and wine bars will tickle any
Cocktail lounge? Wine bar? Good old fancy. Good people-watching, too. See
pub? They have it all. See p. 175. p. 215.