How Different Could They Be?

Three weeks into our journey here in Thailand, we started getting antsy. We’d been to the big city of Bangkok to sightsee, to the northern region near Chiang Mai to learn how to cook thai food, to the beaches of Koh Tao to earn our scuba certifications, and we were left with the decision of where to go next. Do we go to another beach? Do we check out another region of Thailand? Being situated in Koh Tao, an island situated closer to the southern part of Thailand, we started peering across borders for our next adventures. What was over those borders? Malaysia and Singapore.

The best shot we could get of our cramped night ferry out of Koh Tao, an experience to remember but hopefully never repeat.

This story really starts with the journey out of Koh Tao. We contemplated being beach bums for a few days after our strict scuba schedule, but when all the local hotels raised their rates by almost double in just a day’s time, we looked for the first ticket out of there. That ticket included a three part journey to the town of Phuket, where airline tickets to neighboring countries were cheap. The first part of the journey from Koh Tao to Phuket was on a night ferry boat for seven hours. We were told the ferry had beds to sleep in for the overnight journey, but when we boarded the boat and found our beds to be 16 inch-wide mattresses lined up next to each other like matchsticks, in a crawl space no higher than 4 feet, with sheets on them that stunk of the body odor of the last umpteen boat passengers (if you think you fear bed bugs, this boat would seriously damage your paranoia), I really reconsidered our decision to take the ferry. To add to the scene, there was no air-conditioning in the 90+ degree heat and we had the two mattresses at the entrance of the beds, so another 40 passengers walked on our beds through the crawl space, leaving dirt, pebbles, and all other particles that I tried to ignore as I lay on that mattress, trying to let sleep block out the fact that my body was in direct contact with all of them.

Petaling Street in KL, a street in Chinatown famous for its packed-in atmosphere of goods for sale and people. This was at one of the lesser-crowded times of the day.

One time on a night ferry was enough to say we had the experience and we will never repeat it again. After that, everything seemed easier and cleaner, with a few hours’ layover in a bus station and a 5 hour bus ride to Phuket. The next day we flew to Kuala Lumpur and it was apparent from the moment the plane landed that we were no longer in Thailand. Though the neighbors share many aspects, like the climate, the large amount of street food, and the ever-present motorbikes vying for street space with the cars, they are very different. We immediately noticed that Kuala Lumpur (KL) is not only a huge mix of cultures, the main three being Malaysian, Chinese and Indian, but it also has a large Muslim population, which was apparent in much of the architecture and the head-covered women. It was quite shocking to see such a contrast between Thailand and Malaysia.

Outside of the KL Bird Park, an enclosed space with hundreds of species of birds. We saw a monkey walking on the roof of the park, along with plenty of signs warning us not to feed them. I did not dare do so.

While in KL, we did a little bit of everything for three days. The street we stayed on was a Chinese foodie’s heaven, while around the corner was our go-to Southern Indian cuisine restaurant, where vegan was easy to come by and the food was merely $2-3 a dish. We got in a few good runs in a couple of the local parks, we ate a lot of Indian food because it was one of the few vegan dishes we could find, and we toured much of the city on foot. While the city had an impressive network of public transportation, it was actually compact enough that we could cover most of it by walking. The best part of the city, which most big cities with traffic-clogged streets and extreme temperatures should take notice of, was an air-conditioned pedestrian walkway that connected some of the big sites, including one of our running parks. While traffic and its fumes crawled beneath us, we walked on a pedestrian only path above it all, avoiding street crossings and the heat. It was quite possibly my favorite part of KL.

A view of the neighborhoods from Cloud’s window in Singapore; amazingly different from our concept of suburbs.

After just a few days, it was time to move on to Singapore. Last year on our trip in Guatemala, we befriended a fellow student from Singapore, and though we never really expected to see him again, especially not in Singapore, we found ourselves doing just that. Cloud is his name, yes Cloud, and he was our guide to Singapore for the 3 days we were there. If anyone tells you Singapore is expensive, believe them. Our hotel was in a seedy, yet safe, part of the city, and was nothing more than a 6×10 room without a window, and we paid $65 a night. Sure, it was clean, but seriously…no windows in such a small space made me rethink the possibility of claustrophobia.

Our multi-talented guide to Singapore, Cloud.

While in Singapore, Cloud showed us around the impressively large buildings downtown, along with the neighborhoods outside of the city, also known as the “Heartlands”, and helped us sample lots of the local food since he can speak English, Malay, Mandarin, and Spanish. He also answered our hundreds of questions about Singapore, about parts of Asian culture, and all the other questions we’ve never been able to truly answer. Shockingly, Singapore is only about 45% Singaporean, with the rest being foreigners, so it made Malaysia’s melting pot look like a small kettle compared to the vast amount of ethnicities we encountered. Another fun fact: English is one of its official languages, so we had a fairly easy time communicating with many of the people.

One of the local specialties that Cloud shared with us, a jelly-like form of a radish with some spicy toppings.

While KL was impressive, Singapore definitely took the cake. Its downtown really was pristine and beautiful, especially at night, its public transportation was well-thought out and amazingly organized, and the food was vast in its variety and surprising in its local flavors. Cloud had us trying food that I have a hard time describing, with textures out of our normal comfort zone (read: Grass Jelly, a popular drink). One morning, he took us to an outdoor market of food stalls, where he sat us down and left us momentarily while he picked out different dishes for us to try, bringing them back to our puzzled faces and questioning eyes saying, “What the heck is that?”

Grass Jelly on the left, a coconut pancake in the middle, and soy milk on the right. A complete breakfast.

“Sometimes you just have to leap with two feet,” he said often, and since we put our trust in him as our guide to Singapore, that’s just what we did. Admittedly, I did not like the Grass Jelly drink, a sweet tea-like drink with little gummy worms at the bottom that you suck up through the straw. Nope, not for me.


Lastly, in Singapore we found the best running of the entire trip, with miles of running paths along the coast and in parks. The humidity was incredibly oppressive while we were there, but we still managed to get in a couple of runs, even though I bonked so badly on one that we had to take a cab home from the park.

Burning off the peanut pancakes, my favorite food in Singapore, on the running path in the East Coast Park.

Now we are back in Bangkok, enjoying the Thai new year festival, in all its super-soaker glory as people douse each other with water in the streets and pat baby powder on our faces, before we head back to the states. It’s been a good trip here in Thailand and in other parts of SE Asia, and while it’s a little sad to leave and close this chapter, we’re looking forward to getting home and finishing up preparations for the CDT, the next very big adventure.

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