Singapore felt surprisingly expensive relative to Kuala Lumpur, its respective capital in Malaysia, which is only a few hours away by car. Our expenditure was driven primarily by accommodation costs, which was responsible for nearly two thirds of our total spend in Singapore. This was a bit of a shock to the system after a couple of months of very affordable travel in the rest of Southeast Asia, but probably also a good introduction to the higher costs we’ll experience in the next chapter of our journey…
Singapore came in dead last, with 1.33 cats per day 🙁 We kept trying to justify this by saying that we were in the middle of a sprawling urban area, but then again, think of Istanbul…
🏅Sleepiest spiritual leader
Sara’s already raved about the Temple Cats of Singapore, but we think this is a religion we could get on board with! This affable and sleepy chap definitely deserves an award.
Illegal behaviour ❌ 🐦 🍽 🐱
Singapore is famous for its draconian attitude toward cleanliness, which stretches to issuing steep fines for chewing gum or bringing a durian on public transport. However, we were a little more surprised to see signs that threatened fines of up to 10,000 SGD (approximately 6000 GBP) for feeding a pigeon. What would the Singaporean authorities think of Trafalgar Square?! Other activities that risked a fine included not clearing your table at a hawker centre, or simply being a dog, cat and bird in specific public areas 😔. Then again, our friend the temple cat was asleep right next to a sign banning cats, and no one seemed to be issuing him with a fine.
As our Southeast Asia chapter comes to an end, our New Zealand chapter is about to begin. We plan to fly to Auckland where we’ll meet my good friend Mario, before spending a month hiking, cycling and eating our way down to Stuart Island in the far south. We’re hoping to complete the majority of the north-south journey by bus and train (no mean feat in a country with limited rural public transportation), although I’m aware that we might need to hire a car to get around some of the more remote parts of the south island. After Mario’s departure, we have a further three weeks to travel north back to Auckland, during which we hope to fill in the gaps of things we missed on the way down.
We’re ridiculously excited to be moving onto the land of kiwis, mountains and Tim Tam Slams!
Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly the smoothest entry to a country we’ve ever had…
We’d forgotten to fill out our online entry card before we reached the border, which meant we had to queue up twice at immigration. By the looks of it, almost everyone else had forgotten too, but unfortunately it slowed us down enough that our international coach from Kuala Lumpur left us behind at the border. Whoops! We managed to negotiate our way onto another bus with the last of our Malaysian Ringgit and eventually made it into the city, where things looked up considerably.
It was about 4pm by this time and we were ravenous. While carrying our backpacks through the maze of roads in Little India, we stopped for a bite to eat and couldn’t quite believe we’d stumbled upon exactly the same chapati restaurant where we ate on our first visit together in 2015 (on our honeymoon). Clearly, our tastes haven’t changed much! Almost certainly, it was the same lovely ‘uncle’ serving us, but looking even more wizened for the intervening years. He was incredibly kind and put a smile on our faces after a bit of a difficult day. We ordered chapatis, channa masala and mutton keema and demolished it in minutes. We forgot to take a photo of the food, so instead have one of Oli eating the same thing in 2015 (below; second photo), looking very young and rather overheated!
The next morning, we headed straight out to get a kaya toast set for breakfast, which included two rounds of thin toast sandwiching a generous dollop of kaya (coconut) jam and thick wedges of salted butter, accompanied by two soft boiled eggs for dipping. We’d been excited about this ever since we first tried kaya toast in Jeju and realised that it was actually a Singaporean dish. The eggs elevated the dish to a whole other level – definitely a top tier breakfast option. I’ve already been searching for where we’ll be able to find it in London!
Our next stop was Toa Payoh, which was well outside the city centre but somewhere we’d read was a lively neighbourhood and good for wandering. After what ended up being a comically long time lost in the bus station, we eventually broke free and had a good poke around the local area.
As well as seeing a refreshingly local hawker centre, a shrine to an ancient tree, a park with cute turtles swimming in the pond and a landmark watchtower from the 1970s, we also learnt that Toa Payoh was the site of the first public housing built in the city in the 1960s. There was even a heritage walking tour devoted to it. Now, we’re both firmly of the belief that anything can become interesting if you learn enough about it, but I have to say that this was an outstandingly unengaging walking tour! So, we didn’t complete the whole tour, but we did visit block 53, which became known as the VIP block because so many Prime Ministers, Presidents and Royalty (including the Queen!) were brought to see it when it was first built. We also saw a couple of cats (which were thin on the ground in Singapore), so it wasn’t a wasted journey in the slightest.
We ended the day at the spectacular Gardens by the Bay, where we ate satay sticks and drank beer in the hawker centre, replicating another visit from our honeymoon. Apparently we’ve got a lot more sensible over the years, because the beer was served in much smaller volumes in 2023 (left) than in 2015 (right)!
Finally, we sat on the grass to watch the nightly light show at the Supertrees. This was pretty impressive and, most important, totally free!
We began the next day with a walk around Robertson Quay, one of Singapore’s three quays (and definitely the one with the best name). There were lots of appealing restaurants and wine bars here and we could see that it was about to start pouring with rain, so we did the sensible thing and carried on walking until we got caught in a big downpour!
We hopped on a bus and headed to Chinatown with plans to visit a hawker centre for a late lunch, but it was raining so hard that we had to take shelter. While Oli was scrolling around on Google Maps looking for something to lift our spirits, he came across the perfect entry: Temple Cats! Just across from where we were sheltering was a temple with two resident cats, who had been given glowing five-star reviews from people presumably about as mad as us. Highlights included, “Dignified eyebrows 5/5” and someone who had helpfully reported that no reservations were required. Now this was something for which it was worth braving the rain! We headed straight over and made friends with one of the cats (unfortunately the other was nowhere to be found – and we searched the area thoroughly).
By the time we were finished hanging out with our new friend, the rain had stopped, so we headed over to the Maxwell Food Centre and joined a very long queue that stretched right out of the building for the famous Hainanese Chicken Rice that is churned out from a small stall here. We’d read that this poached chicken dish was very beige but much tastier than it looked, and as it’s a defining dish of Singapore we just had to try it while we were in town. It was tender and delicious, with a mild, salty and garlicky gravy, masterfully-prepared rice and a citrussy chilli sauce: definitely more than the sum of its parts.
Next, we took a brief wander around Orchard Road, the commercial centre of Singapore. This is where we stayed last time and it has such a different feel to the rest of the city – the slick shopping malls and high-rise hotels are a stark contrast to the restored shophouses of Little India, where we based ourselves this time.
For our final Southeast Asian meal, we just had to make the most of staying in Little India by eating some more Indian food. Singapore has a similarly stunning culinary mix to Malaysia, with regional specialities well represented, and we headed for a South Indian vegetarian restaurant. We were actually aiming for the one next door, but MTR Singapore had such a long queue down the street that we couldn’t resist seeing what the fuss was about. We like to imagine that we’re pretty knowledgeable about Indian cuisine, but this restaurant put us firmly in our place – we recognised barely anything on the menu! It was a pretty high-pressure ordering process as we only saw a copy of the menu as we reached the front of the queue and then had to order immediately at the counter, but thankfully we had input from the waiter and fellow customers in the queue and they made great recommendations!
We had further input when we reached our shared table, as our neighbours insisted that the food would taste better eaten with our hands. I’m all for this where possible, but some of the things our queue friends had ordered on our behalf were really quite messy and we simply don’t have the skills to eat tidily without cutlery. Anyway, we couldn’t really refuse while they were keeping a close eye on us, so please spare a thought for my fingernails, which will now be turmeric-stained for the foreseeable future!
Our top pick was the pudi masala dosa (in the forefront of the photo below), which was totally unlike any dosa we’ve eaten in the past. It was spongy on top (a bit like a crumpet), crispy and fried underneath, and topped with a fiery dry spice mix and a ball of waxy, delicately spiced potato. Super satisfying!
Food aside, I think we actually spent most of our time in Singapore scrubbing our walking boots. This probably sounds like quite a strange way to spend our time in one of the most exciting cities in the world, but suitably chastened after our mishap entering Singapore (we’re normally SO organised with this kind of thing!), I reread the New Zealand travel advice and realised just how seriously we needed to take their biosecurity policies. So, we set about doing the best we could to scrub off eight months of mud from all across Europe and Asia using a toothbrush, a showerhead and lots of splashing, and then hoped for the best.
New Zealand, here we come (with squeaky clean boots)! 🇳🇿
As with most countries in Southeast Asia, our carbon footprint in Malaysia was relatively small since we only travelled 1,117 km. We also covered most of the distance by bus, which kept our carbon footprint low.
Malaysia was one of the more affordable countries we’ve visited, which meant that we were able to stay in some lovely hotels along the way.
We spent a higher proportion of our budget on accommodation in Malaysia compared to most other countries. I wouldn’t say that accommodation was particularly expensive in Malaysia though, but rather transport, food and activities were relatively affordable, which might explain the imbalance.
Malaysia really delivered when it came to our feline friends, stealing the third spot on the podium from Cambodia.
We’ve mentioned our friend George before, but we couldn’t omit him from the awards section! Here he is wishing us a good day while we were eating breakfast. What a cross-eyed charmer 😻
🏅Joint award for friendliest kitten
These two tiny friends knew how to turn on the charm. We nearly didn’t re-board our bus at a rest stop because we were so busy chatting to the lovely girl on the left.
🏅Cutest prawn appreciator
One night Sara didn’t quite finish her dinner, so she took away a couple of prawns wrapped in a paper napkin – pocket prawns, if you will. The risk was very real that the prawns would be forgotten and that we’d find them weeks later, but fortunately we met this hungry fellow on the way back to our hotel. He was slightly nervous at first, but once he’d caught sight of Sara’s pocket prawns, he quickly found his confidence!
🏅Most dedicated to recycling
This mum suspected that some tins of fish hadn’t been perfectly washed out, so she was using her keen sense of smell to ensure the bag of recycling wasn’t contaminated with food waste. And best of all, she passed on the importance of recycling only clean food containers to her kitten, too!
Three cultures in one. Malaysia is a brilliant destination when you consider that you basically get three cultures for the price of one: there’s a fascinating mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian people, foods, architecture, religious traditions, and languages wherever you go in the country. It certainly keeps things interesting, even if it did present us with a bit of a challenge with finding space to try all the local foods!
Ramadan. We arrived in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, on the third day of Ramadan. We’d read lots about what to expect but were still a little apprehensive – as you might have noticed, we really, really like food and didn’t want to miss out, but also really didn’t want to make a faux pas.
Overall, though, I’d say that it had a net positive result on our travels: the mixed population definitely made it easier because we knew if we headed to a Chinese area then there would be plenty of restaurants open and people eating. The Ramadan food markets that ran every day from mid-afternoon to evening were also a big bonus with so much delicious food all in one place, even though we consistently hit them at the wrong time – we kept thinking that people would be out around Iftar (sunset), but actually by this time they were home and getting ready to eat with their families.
But the biggest bonus of all from a traveller’s perspective was that there was less crowding at tourist sites – for instance, the Langkawi Sky Bridge has a reputation for hours-long queues but we strolled right in, and the Cameron Highlands is apparently normally one big traffic jam at the weekends, but had just the right level of buzz when we visited. So, while we might not have planned to be here for Ramadan normally, it was actually really interesting to be in the country during such an important period for lots of the population, and had a few unexpected bonuses for us, too.
Money. Not a transaction went by where the person wouldn’t ask for smaller change, even when we’d paid with what we would regard as a reasonable note (e.g. 10 MYR for an 9.50 MYR bill). People would often peer suspiciously into Oli’s wallet and question him on its contents, just in case he was harbouring a smaller note – “No, they’re US Dollars,” he’d protest. “Well what about that one?” they would demand. “No, that’s an old ticket!” People even gave us a discount on a couple of occasions just so they didn’t have to give change, and we also massively overpaid when we realised the buses don’t give change. We’ve been to plenty of places where having exact change is useful, but none where people are quite so obsessed with it as Malaysia!
From Kuala Lumpur, we made the well-travelled journey directly south to Singapore – Race Across the World‘s final checkpoint, and our final destination in Southeast Asia.