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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

30 September 2017

Malaysia & Singapore, 18th-30th September 2017

I haven't been to Asia since 2004. Malaysia had been recommended to me, therefore I decided to try it out this year. I love long haul flights, as it means I can spend hours upon hours watching films: I think I got through about six on the way to Kuala Lumpur (Mindhorn was especially good). Malaysia would be a good option if you hadn't been to Asia before and wanted to dip your toe in the waters. That's because you could describe it as 'soft Asia', in terms of the culture shock. The cities are modern, the transport is very comfortable and most people speak English. On top of all that, it's one of the few places (a shrinking number, thanks to the economic disaster that is Brexit) where the pound still goes a long way.


Once you arrive at the airport and have been through customs etc, head to the KLIA Express down the stairs, jumping on the one to KL Central. That was booked in advance, giving me a 10% discount on the usual 55RM price. 28 minutes later you get to KL Central, where there are several types of train to choose from. For LRT tickets (e.g, my train was Line 5 on that), there is a machine. For KTM trains (like Line 1 and 2), it's a different machine, which all seemed to be broken so I went to the counter instead. Also note there is a women-only carriage, 3 and 4 on the KTM to Batu Caves.

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I first got an LRT train to Masjid Jamek, about 1.60RM from the ticket office (as I didn't have small enough change for the machines). You receive a round blue token which is touched on the turnstile to enter, then inserted into the slot as you leave. Be aware that you can't easily change on some routes. For example, later I wanted to go to Imbi, so went to Central after buying a ticket at Pasar Seni. It looked as though I could then get the Monorail (Rapid KL) all the way. However, the ticket didn't allow that, so I ended up going back to Masjid Jamek, then Huang Tuah and from there to Imbi.

I arrived too late into KL to do all that much on my first day, although I was able to wander round the Central Market a short walk from my hotel. Be careful when crossing the road: the traffic lights will give you a red man signal, but at many crossings it never turns into a walking green figure, assuming you even have the luxury of a signalled crossing. Also near the hotel is a great view of the Masjid Jamek mosque across a river junction. For some unknown reason, at night there is a fountain dance with loud pop music, finishing with a full-on dry ice fog, straight from an '80s power ballad video.

The next day I headed to the gardens, which have a high canopy walkway past lots of flora. There is an app you can down load discussing the flora, if you also have enough data to scan the QR codes. You will eventually reach the KL Tower , via a large chocolate shop. The top apparently has an incredible view, but I wasn't tempted enough to spend £10 on it. Several other shops and attractions are dotted around the base of the KL Tower, such as the depressing KL Tower Mini Zoo.

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Walking past that, you can see a number of bedraggled guinea pigs, surrounded by endless hordes of school children. There are signs up everywhere urging you to love wildlife and prevent animal abuse, but I suspect the zoo could start that process close to home. One of the signs, featuring a quote from philosopher Julian Baggini, was presumably picked by someone who has a poor grasp of English. If not, then it becomes an extremely disturbing choice to display in a zoo.

On a much more positive note, I was a big fan of the food and drink on offer in Malaysia. Heading to Little India, there was a great smoothie shop where a guy crams in loads of pure fruit and veg (he added nothing else, so no water and no sugar) for the equivalent of a £1. Bargain, very tasty too.

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My highlight in Kuala Lumpur was the swishly modern Islamic Arts Museum . The architecture, like so much of KL, is striking. Exhibits inside included a detailed discussion of bookbinding, various arms and armour from the Islamic world, paintings, furniture, ceramics and even an entire room decked out like an Ottoman dwelling. As ever, I especially enjoyed the numerous Turkish elements, such as the display of Iznik tiles, Turkish swords and miniatures. It's 15RM to get in, no audio guide, but decent amounts of information throughout. The museum shop is extensive, with plenty of books in English (generally of the large hardback variety, so you'll need a good bit of space in your luggage to take those home).

The day finished off at the Jalan Alor night market a short walk from Imbi station. A long section of street is lined by mainly food stalls. I munched my way through some delicious dim sum, very affordable. For dessert, I tried fried ice cream, which sounds like an oxymoron. They are essentially pancakes made of ice cream. I watched him do it on a hot plate in front of me, but I still don't fully understand how they work. Either way, delicious. :)

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Another top destination followed on Wednesday. Batu Caves is at one end of the KTM line from KL Central, making it a straightforward journey of 30 mins (2.60RM). It is very touristy, but gorgeous and full of macaques. They're chilled out, but nick anything they think is food if you're not holding it tightly. The limestone caves were initially encountered (after the indigenous Malaysians, who had obviously been well aware of Batu for far longer) by Selangor's police superintendent Captain Harry C Syers in 1878, at the head of a hunting party. Next was American zoologist in 1879. The most important visit came ten years later, on Henry Nicholas Ridley's 1889 scientific expedition. That kicked off 30 years of work.

Shortly after Ridley's research began, K Thamboosamy Pillay established a temple in Batu Caves, dedicated to the Hindu fertility and war god Lord Murugan. Ever since it was founded in 1891, the Thaipusum festival has been celebrated there annually, attracting upwards of a million devotees each time. The caves became an official tourist site in 1970, but it took until 1981 to finally stop the damaging quarrying that had been going on for decades. Disembarking at the Batu Caves station, stepping outside you are soon surrounded by macaques. Appropriately, there is a large statue of Hanuman watching over them.

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The main cave (there are around twenty over the site, but Dark Cave and Temple Cave are the two everyone goes to: I'm not sure how accessible they are) awaits at the end of an extensive staircase (around 300 steps, IIRC). There is constant construction work going on, so an opportunistic gentleman employed there has been getting tourists to assist him. He shoves a bucket of sand at you, solemnly saying 'help, help.' I get the impression visitors think it is part of the devotion, but I suspect he's just (quite sensibly) seizing on the chance to make his job easier. ;)

Be sure to have something to cover your shoulders and if you're a woman, they will ask you to wear something that goes below your knees. Quite what is so objectionable about female knees I don't know, but then I'm not religious. It costs nothing to enter the Temple Cave, but you have to pay if you need to rent 'decent' clothing or you want to walk into the small temple itself (just a donation, IIRC). Inside the cave, you're treated to a spectacular space of immense proportions, dwarfing a typical cathedral. Up some further steps is an even more stunning cave, with sunlight raining down from a large hole at the top, resulting in foliage spilling down as well.

Thean Hou Temple is not in the Rough Guide but free and chilled out. It is a reasonable walk from the station, but worth it. There are numerous embodiments of cool Chinese mythology, such as the mother goddess Mazu who presides over the temple complex. Thean Hou is packed with buildings, every surface intricately carved and embellished. Round the back are some gardens, featuring various statues representing mythic figures. In the front garden, sculptures with accompanying descriptions explore the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

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An inner shrine houses three large statues, with joss sticks and a sort of Chinese horoscope determined by dropping a clump of numbered sticks. Having made your donation, pull out the drawer with a corresponding number to retrieve your fortune. Peace and calm for me, allegedly, which sounds pretty good. My time in KL finished the next day with a quick walk around the main square, which can boast several attractive Victorian buildings. There is an incongruous space in the middle that looks rather like a cricket ground complete with mock-Tudor pavilion.


I headed to Bandar Tasik Selatan station (on the line towards Putra Heights) to catch a bus. The bus station is enormous. For the bus to Melaka, I got a 14RM ticket for the 11:30. That departed from Gate 12 downstairs, which is pretty much opposite Gate 1 (they go in a circle from 1 to 12). Massive seats, plenty of leg room and air conditioning, but no toilet. Arriving at Melaka Sentral, I then got on the number 17 domestic Panorama bus into town. Melaka runs at a slower pace than KL, though it begins to bustle from Friday into the weekend.

It is heavily geared towards tourists, from the spectacularly garish rickshaws festooned with plush toys to the distinctly Western establishment of Sid's Pub. Like KL, you can also head to very modern shopping centres, just as swish as anything you'd find in the UK. Having said that, Western tourists are vastly outnumbered by groups from China. That means lots of Chinese food and Chinese shops, building on the existing significant Chinese population already living in the city. I was therefore able to further indulge my newfound love of steamed buns, along with various other tasty Chinese chow.

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Culturally speaking, Melaka has several museums and sites of interest, not to mention it's a UNESCO site (of which it is immensely proud, given the multitude of signs proclaiming 'World Heritage City'). The red painted square of buildings dating back to the Dutch period of control is the busiest, then there are the dilapidated ruins of St Paul's Church up on a hill. If you're used to churches in Europe, this is nothing special, but it is apparently the oldest Western church in south east Asia (16th century, IIRC). More interesting are the gravestones inside, mostly 17th century Dutch, if you can squeeze past all the people taking selfies in front of them.

Down the hill is a Portuguese gate from 1511, a remnant from the fortress built by the Portuguese during their own period of dominance. If you head across from there, the attractive gardens surrounding a Malaysian building beckon you in for 5RM. This is the 1985 reconstruction of a palace originally built in the 15th century for the Sultan of Melaka, a major city in those days which was central to Malaysian history. Inside are some displays of native dress, a few cool weapons and dioramas showing scenes from Malaysian history. For example, the ubiquitous Hang Tuah. He famously killed his friend out of loyalty to the Sultan, despite said friend having gone on a rampage specifically because the Sultan ordered Hang Tuah's execution.

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There are regular river cruises departing from 9am to 10pm (with a gap for lunch), for 21.20RM on a Friday, slightly cheaper earlier in the week. They go every 20 minutes and last 40 minutes. On the way back, a pre-recorded audio starts up, in Malay and English. My favourite part were the many murals: I'd recommend taking a riverside walk afterwards, there are plenty of cafes to stop and have a drink too.

Next stop was Mersing, in order to catch the ferry to Tioman. I grabbed a 12:45 bus to Mersing from the Melaka Sentral bus station, taking roughly 4 hours. Once again, loads of leg room and air conditioning, but no toilets. Tioman Island ferry was painfully early, but comparatively comfortable, around 2 hours. Tioman itself is beautiful, loads of wildlife. We stayed at Minang Cove, where you could slot in all sorts of wildlife action while eating breakfast: macaques, black squirrels, monitor lizards, hermit crabs and the like. With a snorkel, many more fish and coral to see, especially around the pier. Even giant clown fish, sting rays and small sharks, if you're lucky. Biggish thing I saw was a chilled out grouper who hung out in the same spot under the pier all day.


I had somewhat rashly decided it would be a good idea to hop on a flight to Australia at the end of my trip, as Malaysia is a lot nearer than the UK. In order to make sure I got to Singapore early enough to make that flight, I ended up waking at 04:30 in Genting on Tioman Island to catch the ferry. By 06:30 I was cutting through the waves to Mersing, arriving around 08:20. A bus to Johor then beckoned, leaving at 09:30. There are plenty of buses onwards to Singapore from there, for an extremely reasonable 50p. It isn't all that far, but the 170 bus has to pass through several checkpoints, delaying matters considerably. After boarding a 170 at around 12:00, I didn't step off in Singapore until 14:00. That's because there was a passport control on the Malaysian side, then another once Singapore spread its arms.

You need small notes for trains, same as in Malaysia: the ticketing system is the same, plus the trains looked fairly similar too. Singapore is a gorgeously modern city, reminding me of Hong Kong with all the grimy bits stripped out (or well hidden). The beauty is rather sterile, like something out of a cyberpunk film. That dystopian sci fi feel is further enhanced by the many rules written everywhere. No eating or drinking is allowed on the Metro, heavily armed police in the bus station, stern warnings about chewing gum and detailed videos titled 'what to do in an attack' playing on a loop inside trains. Hello 1984/Blade Runner/Terry Gilliam's Brazil, etc.

Still, the Gardens by the Bay are stunning, especially the spectacular light show in the evening. Also, random giant floating baby sculptures, somehow balanced on one arm despite weighing several tonnes. You could argue it is all a little tacky, in that overblown way that sometimes happens in Asian countries (super bright colours, poppy music, lots of neon etc). As I'm a huge fan of the garishly kitschy, worked for me.

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Changi Airport is sometimes rated the best airport in the world and I can see why. Free and widespread WiFi, easy to reach by train (not too far from the centre and cheap at 2.40 SG$), loads of places to eat, chairs everywhere, great service and you can even wander through several different outdoor gardens at each terminal (e.g., the cactus garden, the sunflower garden etc) . That was to be my gateway to Australia: when I next find myself on a long journey in that part of the world (e.g., maybe to Japan, still the top of my wishlist after all these years), I may well stop off in either Malaysia or Singapore. Well worth a visit. :)

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