When you fly over Malaysia, all you see is green. That’s rainforest. When you drive through Malaysia, all you see is green. Still the rainforest. With an occasional monkey on the side of the highway. When you fly over Singapore, all you see is buildings. When you drive through Singapore, it’s pretty much the same. With just a hop over the border you can easily explore both places.
I’m very lucky that I have good friends who live in most places I visit, and they are such wonderful people that they won’t take me to the usual tourist spots. Instead they know after I land, I’ll need a fresh mango juice and a coconut soup so hot it’ll clear all the jetlag instantly. And then we explore. If you are not blessed with these kind of people in your life and tired of taking selfies in the pool of the Marina Bay Sands – don’t worry. You’ve come to the right place. Here’s 10 things for you to do (and mainly eat, to be honest) if you find yourself with time to spare in Singapore and the South of Malaysia.
01. Eat Dim Sum
Wait, what? We’re not in China, Ann! I know. Bear with me here. Singapore, much like Hong Kong, has got amazing food. So a lot of the things to do on this list will include (okay, consist of) food. And Malaysia is the same. From night markets on the corner where you can have almost anything you’d want freshly cooked for incredible prices to top notch Japanese restaurants you can find it all. But right now I want to talk about dim sum. Traditionally a breakfast food I’d be happy to eat this all day long. Hit me with an iced white coffee and let me have at those pale pink plastic plates and spoons and I’ll try anything that comes out of a steaming wooden basket.
02. Eat Dim Sum for Breakfast And/Or Take Away
Three words for you here: Char Siu Bao. I can’t think of anything better early in the morning, in the car as a travel snack. The dough as soft as cotton buds, the steam so full of flavour. Walking into a dim sum shop early in the morning with steam rising everywhere is a pretty special way to start your day, too.
03. A Fish Market by the Seaside
Wanlyn scowls at her husband and me. “You better stay away from me or else they’ll give me the tourist price”. Turns out having a local with you at a fish market will be useful not only for identifying all this fish I have never seen in my life (and I am what’s considered a “fish head” from the coast in my home country), it’ll also get you a better deal. Ankle deep in water next to bags full of fresh fish Thibaut and I do as we’re told and stay far away whilst Wanlyn uses her haggling techniques. This is how it works: You buy the fish. You get a restaurant nearby to cook it for you. Brilliant. Hands down one of the best meals I’ve had.
04. Go to the Beach
For amazing white sand beaches and more importantly calm tropical seas you will need to hop on a boat and go to one of the many little Malaysian islands. But even on the mainland the beaches can be wide and pretty. The sea was what I would call “rough” (at least in the middle of December) which would still be an understatement. The water is really warm though so you can just stand in the surf for a while, trying to keep your balance as the massive waves will try to knock you down and end up just as drenched as if you went for a swim. Afterwards there are public showers which may seem a little overwhelming at first with all the sand and so many people but they are perfectly fine and driving home without a ton of salt drying on your skin is worth it.
05. The Food
Yes. Yes, I know. But I’m talking about two staples of Malaysian cuisine here. Nasi Lemak for breakfast (all day, everyday!) and Taiwanese desert bars. The latter may not be exclusive for Malaysia but they do it really, really well. This right here is a triple mango desert. How can you not want a triple mango anything. Then there’s Nasi Lemak for breakfast, wrapped in banana leaves and newspaper. I’ve been wishing for coconut rice and hot hot hot chilli sauce and egg for breakfast every day since leaving Malaysia and have yet to find a reliable source for it.
Cafés in South East Asia are a special kind of extra. And I love it. One of my favourites was the Baboon House in Melaka (which doesn’t allow photography inside so just go and be amazed). But pretty much all of them are really cute and the coffee is great. Add the beautiful architecture of Melaka as you can see here and that’s already three reasons to stop for a drink.
This small city on the western shore of Malaysia has a unique blend of many different cultures and is known to be a bit of an artist Mekka. It’s also spelled Malacca depending on who you’re talking to. With very unique buildings lining the old town streets, a whole lot of great cafés to explore and famous-for-the-area food to try we opted for walking around the streets all day and night. Things I liked about this place, in no particular order: The baked crusty variety of a char siu bao, the rickshaws decked out to the max in blinking lights, stuffed toys and loud music to attract customers, all the art galleries, red Chinese lanterns lining the side streets at night, the t-shirt I saw and didn’t buy (actually that’s more of a regret), the numerous temples squeezed in next to town houses, the Totoro phone charger I did buy, the really really oily but also very good hot stone massage I had and the fact that we were swimming in our hotel’s outdoor pool with Christmas carols playing over the loud speakers. I love the tropics.
08. Japanese Food
For a fraction of the price you’d pay across the border in Singapore you can get incredibly good Japanese food in the middle of a small mall in Johor Bahru. And it’s not even that far to go from Singapore if you can cross the border quickly. Look at that Chawanmushi and tell me it’s not pretty.
09. Walking around Singapore
Apparently you can walk through most of the inner city of Singapore from offices to malls to the MRT without ever leaving air conditioned walkways. It’s a whole underground system so you don’t have to sweat. Again, I take some weird pleasure in hot humid conditions when it’s the middle of winter so I walk outside. You see more that way. And Singapore is actually pretty accessible on foot. Just don’t wear flip flops like I did so you won’t have to find a pharmacy to get blister plasters. When it all gets too much I highly recommend the Cloud Forest in the Gardens by the Bay. It’s what would pass for cool in Singapore and with all the water and mist and green it feels calming even if populated by a lot of people.
10. Hawker Centre
With all the choice of top quality restaurants in Singapore, the hawker centres are still the best. You can try Maxwell Centre for the famous Hainanese Chicken Rice but I found most other places to be pretty good too and less crowded. Get yourself a fresh coconut or freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and revel in the occasional draft from the ceiling fans instead of bone chilling air conditioning.
© 2016 Ann-Kathrin Koch. Images look best without watermarks on them so please don’t use these photos without my permission.