While living in England in 2009/10, one of the people I lived with was a Malaysian named Hairuddin AKA Harry. Little did I know at the time, but the people I lived with in England have become lifelong friends, despite coming from completely different places on the globe and still living on opposite sides of it. As I was deciding to move to Thailand, I got in contact with Harry and asked him if he would be in Southeast Asia anytime (since he was living in London). He said he would be in Malaysia for three months around the time I was living in Bangkok. He invited me to spend 3 weeks staying at his place with his family, and I knew it was an opportunity I had to take. So a couple months back I booked my flights and made it happen (flew from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur (KL), and then from KL to Johor (his home city)).
As I begin writing this, I am sitting on a couch in Johor, Malaysia. By the time I finish I will likely be back in Bangkok. I really like writing as I experience something (if I can) because it really brings out of the best of the trip – I don’t forget small things and write them really as I see them, or the day of.
I arrived into Johor late on Nov. 14th. Harry and his father picked me up from the airport and took me home. The following day was the Islamic holiday so we basically just relaxed all day. It was nice to relax and spend some time catching up with him and meeting his family (though I don’t speak Malay and his family speaks little English).
On Tuesday, we were heading to Singapore. We planned a day trip (because Johor is literally right along the border, but traffic makes it much further away than it really is). We woke early in the morning, caught a bus into town where we would catch another bus across the border and into Singapore. It was nearly 9:30am by the time we got to the border. We first had to cross the Malaysian border and get off to get our passports checked, and then get back onto the bus and cross the Singapore border and do the same thing. It is quite a tedious task since the buses are overcrowded, the borders are understaffed, and it is more like herding cattle than humans traveling. It was quite ridiculous (and we had to experience it on the way back as well). Apparently a lot of people from Malaysia do it everyday to find work or education in Singapore.
Nonetheless, once getting into Singapore, we hopped onto the MRT (subway) and traveled around to the main city. Since the MRT goes all over the country, we decided to hop on where we got off the bus, and then take that into the main city and get off around Marina Bay Sands. This took about an hour, but it gave me the chance to see some of the country. After getting off at Marina Bay Sands, we explored the inside of the massive hotel/shopping mall. We then walked around outside to the infamous Merlion sculpture. After snapping some awesome pictures, we took the MRT to the Bigus station where we grabbed some drinks and lunch, and walked through more malls. We also walked around Orchard Street, bought some postcards (which are very tough to find in Asia), and went to the Apple store to unlock Harry’s iPhone. By the time we left the Apple store, it was nearly 7pm, and we were ready to head back home. We took the MRT back to where the bus dropped us off, grabbed a quick dinner, and then hopped on the bus. It took a couple hours to finally get to the border, and another hour to cross it. We then waited at the train station in Johor Bahru for awhile until Harry’s parents came to pick us up. It ended up being a good 17 hour day, but was quite the adventure.
Singapore is a no place I’ve ever seen. Is it very modern, and growing fast. There are cranes building near massive structures everywhere. Most apartments are high rise buildings since they don’t have room to build out – they build up. The city center is a tight=packed group of skyscrappers. It is similar to NYC, but more modern. Lots of glass windows and unique architecture. There are lots of white people, and lots of money their. According to wikipedia, Singapore has the 3rd highest per capita income in the world, 1 in 6 families are millionaires, and it has the 2nd biggest gambling scene in the world. I also saw several lambo’s driving around. It is a bit pricier than the US, but still relatively cheap considering the wealth there. It doesn’t quite fit into SEA like other countries do, and it is very unique. It will be interesting to see the country in 5-10 years.
On Wednesday we drove 5 hours to Kuala Lumpur. On the way, we stopped over to use the toilet, which ended up being a disaster for me. The hose that connects the water sprayer by the toilet broke when I was using it and it soaked my shorts. Hey, you live you learn! After getting back into the car, we continued on. We were staying with Harry’s friend Ismail, so we drove into the city center to meet him after he got off work, checked out the Twin Towers, ate dinner, and then drove back to his house. He lives about 20 minutes out of the city, but his balcony faces the city, so you get a pretty good view of the skyline. His house was excellent, and very comfortable.
The next day I had a few things I needed to buy, so Harry and I went into KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center) to some malls to do some shopping. After a couple hours of that, we met up with Harry’s cousin Hida, who was in town with a couple of her friends. We grabbed some lunch together, and they went on their way and Harry and I headed to J.Co, which has the most amazing donuts. After eating those, we walked the mall a bit more, and then headed home. I worked some while Harry relaxed. Later that evening, a group of us went to dinner, and had an excellent seafood platter, fried rice (Malayasian style), and some sort of chicken dish. I also had an avocado-strawberry smoothie, which was also excellent (cost 10 ringgit = $3).
The next day Harry took me to Batu Caves. It is one of the largest Hindu shrines outside of India. We hiked the stairs into the caves, took a lot of pictures and explored, and then hiked back down. By that point it was starting to rain so we headed to the car. We then drove by Harry’s old work studio (he used to be on TV for a morning show), and then we went to a massive mall for a late lunch ( at what used to be the biggest shopping mall in SEA). While at lunch, we met up with another friend, who joined us. In the evening I watched Fargo, and then went out to a club in KLCC. After a few hours of dancing, we had 4am breakfast at some Indian restaurant. I had never seen anything like it, but apparently it is quite common in Malaysia – there is no menu, they essentially will make anything you ask them for. We finally got to bed around 5am.
After waking the next morning, it was our last day and we planned to tour a bit more before driving back to Johor. We met up with Harry’s cousin (again) and her family at their house. I had a great discussion with Hida’s father about his experience in the Malaysian army, including living in the jungle and seeing tigers, dealing with guerrilla warfare, and surviving months on end in a jungle. He now owns a resort, and has traveled much of Europe, which he shared some of his stories there. After a few hours at his house, we (Hida, her sister and her kids, Harry, and I) then went together to the international convention center in KL, then to the government buildings, which were spectacular. They are all very big, nice architecture, and also very modern. I felt like I was in Dubai walking around there. After that, they asked me what I wanted to eat, and then drove around 45 minutes to take me to an amazing dinner that consisted of 3 kinds of crab, full prawns, and squid. It was certainly one of the most amazing dinners I have ever had (but I still don’t understand why the restaurant makes you crack the crab yourself, it would be so much more pleasant if that was already done, haha). After dinner with Harry, his 2 cousins (2 sisters), and their 4 kids, 1 of his cousins (Hida), Harry and I drove to the Grand Millennium Hotel in KLCC to meetup with some friends for some drinks. Hida is a stuartist for Kuwait Airways, and her 2 friends from Kuwait (who are originally from Bangkok) were in KL for a couple days. So we headed to the hotel, had some drinks, and went out to a couple clubs. Since we needed to be back in Johor by 7/8am, we had to leave at 2:30am. So around 2:30am, after a crazy night of dancing with some awesome people, Harry drove the 5 hours back to Johor. Once we arrived, we showered, picked up Harry’s parents, and within 20 minutes were back on the road for about 3 hours to drive to a wedding reception. To this day I don’t understand how Harry can function on no sleep, but it was no problem. After the reception, we went to his aunts house, then over to see his sister at his university, and finally went back home. We arrived back home around 10pm after about 7 hours of driving around (Johor > wedding > sister’s house > mosque > store > home). It was quite the 24 hours period.
The next day was a recovery day of sleep, food, and relaxed work for me. A few days later Harry went back to KL for a day trip (via train) to do an interview, while I stayed in Johor, relaxed with his family, went to the infamous Kite Museum, and then flew a kite for a couple hours. It was very hot, and after sweating for a couple hours, we called it a day and headed home.
The last few days in Malaysia was more or less just relaxing. I went on a few runs with Harry, went to the gym, met up with some more of his family, watched some TV, and also worked. The trip flew by. A few observations from this trip:
– The toilets are typically just holes in the ground, and there is no toilet paper – you use a bum sprayer or you bucket water onto yourself.
– A shower typically consists of a bucket of cold water that you dump onto yourself. Both the toilets and showers like this are common all over SEA.
– In Malaysia, you eat with your hands. At first this was very weird, but after a few times I got used to it. Tip: only use 1 only to eat. Always keep 1 hand free to grab stuff other than food.
– All roads/highways have tolls, and lots of them. Within KL, it seems you pay every few miles. Outside of KL, you get a ticket and pay at the next checkpoint. It can get quite expensive driving around hitting all the tolls.
– There are traffic jams all the time. The highway is a carpark. Unfortunately, in KL, you kind of have to drive since the public transport is terrible.
– It is normal to burp without covering your mouth or saying excuse me. It isn’t considered impolite.
– Malaysians are racist (as are lots of countries in SEA): they often raise prices on things just because of the color of your skin. For example, I went to a waterfall resort and I had to pay 3x what the Malaysians paid. Another example: I went to a kite museum and had to pay 50% more for entry than everyone else, purely because I was white.
– I saw McDonalds stickers on lots of cars – apparently you get a free apple pie if you go to McDonalds and spend above a certain amount (and have a sticker on your car). KFC does a similar thing. Brilliant way to spend advertising dollars!
– Malaysian wedding receptions are awesome. You show up and eat amazing food, and leave. The people getting married just want to see people show up and enjoy the food.
– I went to baby shower, and it was similar – show up and eat, then leave.
– Night markets have amazing food and lots of good stuff for sale.
– Coconut shavers are awesome.
– Even Malaysians watch Man vs. Food on TV.
– Sunscreen is hard to find, and if you can find it, it is expensive. Postcards are the same.
– Breakfast in Malaysia is similar to dinner. It isn’t common to have sugar/sweets for breakfast. Sometimes I’d have pasta and chili sauce for breakfast.
– Motorcyclists can be wild – saw a few driving at night without lights on.
– Laws are hardly enforced – many people speed and run red lights. No problem.
The last day in Johor was spent relaxing while Harry’s family packed for their big adventure. Harry, his 2 aunts, his parents, and his younger sister were all flying to London and later heading up to Leeds for his graduation. Since none of them (aside from Harry) had ever been out of SEA, it was going to be super exciting. Our plan was to catch a train at 11pm on the 5th, take an overnight train to KL, arrive into the city center at 6:30am on the 6th, and then bus from KL Central to the KL airport for them to catch their 10am flight (my flight wasn’t until 1pm). However, things changed.
The night before leaving Harry told me that the accommodation they booked in London ended up being a scam (they weren’t returning calls, their site went down), and after I researched it a bit, I confirmed. So we spent the last 24 hours in Johor trying to sort that out (which we were able to do after some further Airbnb mistakes). After successfully catching the train at 11pm, we slept for the night. Since Harry and his family bought tickets before me, I was sitting in a different rail car. Harry told me about 15 minutes before arriving in KL he would come wake me. I wake up around 6:30am, and I don’t see Harry. So I wait a bit, and around 7am I walk the train looking for Harry and his family, and I find them. I sit with them and talk, and come 8am we’re still not to KL. In fact, we’re stopped on the track somewhere well before KL. Harry notified the conductor around 8:30am about their flight, so the train reverses to the previous stop and he and his family get off the train to catch a taxi directly to the airport while I stay on the train.
I ended up sitting on the train and meet an older Singaporean guy and have some good conversations with him. We finally arrive into KL at 9:45am (yes, over 3 hours late), and he even helps me find the bus I need to the airport. He was very friendly and helpful. After getting the to the aiport, I ate and relaxed. The flight back to Bangkok went well, and I made it home fine.
This was such an amazing trip. It really opened my eyes to more of the world, exposed me to cultures and ways of life I never knew existed. If you ever get the chance to explore Malaysia with a local, do it. Get outside of KL and explore the countryside and the small villages. Learn from them, and understand them. There is no way to explain what it is like through writing or images, you have to experience it and spend time there. I’d love to go back someday, especially to other parts of Malaysia that I heard about but didn’t visit.
This post took me 2 months to get up, but I’m glad I finally got it wrote down. I’m currently on a 45 day backpacking trip around Thailand, so expect another trip report soon.
Happy New Year.