Rediscovering favorites and adding a few new sites to the list on return visits to Singapore and Malaysia

By Carole & Marv Feldman
This article appears on page 34 of the October 2019 issue.

View of Singapore’s skyline from the National Gallery of Art.

A family visit to the West Coast in June 2018 became the perfect springboard for another Asia adventure of discoveries (and rediscoveries).

From Seattle, Lady Luck gave us a rare opportunity of a free military charter flight (Marvin is retired Air Force) to Yokota Air Base near Tokyo, and from there we connected to another military flight to Singapore, our favorite city in all of Asia.

We love the exotic sites, cultural diversity, food and people of Singapore. No matter how many times we have been there (and it has been dozens), there is always something new and exciting waiting for us.

Singapore sights

The superb National Gallery Singapore (entry for seniors, about $11 per person) is housed in two national monuments, the former Supreme Court and City Hall, and our visit there was a fantastic experience. Arriving at opening time, we were fortunate to have knowledgeable docents tell us about the artists and subjects featured in both permanent and special exhibits. And from the rooftop, we had sweeping views of the city and many of its landmark buildings.

From there, it was a short walk to the Singapore Philatelic Museum (senior admission, about $4.50), which covered every aspect of local stamps and mail delivery. A special exhibition on the beloved French book “The Little Prince” and its author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, once an airmail delivery pilot, was an unexpected treat.

While there is always so much new to see and enjoy in Singapore, we can’t resist revisiting favorite haunts. Crisscrossing this city-state multiple times on its efficient and sparkling-clean public bus and MRT (rapid transit) systems, we visited its many diverse ethnic neighborhoods, enjoying Malay breakfasts, Indian lunches, a Chinese dinner and French culinary delights.

One of our first stops was the centrally located, 140-year-old Maghain Aboth Synagogue (26 Waterloo Street). We attended Saturday morning services followed by a delicious lunch. Then it was on to Marvin’s favorite “candy” store. Sim Lim Tower and Sim Lim Square are two huge complexes of shops specializing in tiny electronic parts. Unfortunately, their prices had gone up. Though we found fewer bargains there this time, our suitcases still carried many wonderful items home.

We concluded the day at Lau Pa Sat Market, where food merchants blocked off a street in the Financial District to set up dozens of satay stalls. We dined under the stars on sizzling satay sticks and nasi goreng (Indonesian-style fried rice), all washed down with ice-cold Tiger beer and followed by freshly cut tropical fruit.

A few favorites

A traditional Baroque Peranakan building in Singapore.

Little India is one of our favorite “must return to” neighborhoods in Singapore, with its exotic sights, smells and colors. There, we gazed at many shop windows filled with overly elaborate gold jewelry, but we loved one enormous shopping mall that was filled with hundreds of tiny shops selling fabulous, dazzling Indian saris, dresses and men’s clothing (or you could have something custom-made on the spot). The 2-block-long Mustafa Centre sold everything one could imagine!

In the past, no trip to Singapore was complete without a visit to the Raffles Hotel. Sadly, we found it (still) closed and shrouded with canvas, as multimillion dollar renovations continued there. (Editor’s note: Raffles reopened in August 2019.) The famous Long Bar had been turned into a “pop-up” (lacking atmosphere), where the equally famous Singapore Sling, made from a bottled base, could be had for about $25. We passed!

When we first went to Singapore decades ago, Sentosa Island was mostly jungle, but this time we could not recognize it — casinos, luxury hotels and resorts, golf courses and amusement parks galore. All was tastefully done with greenery, flowers and water, making it an attractive island. Under sunny skies, we followed the hordes who’d come for enjoyment, taking the two (free) buses available there to explore the island.

Penang, Malaysia

Marvin at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang, Malaysia.

From sparkling-clean Singapore, it was a 90-minute flight on Air Asia to Penang Island, Malaysia. It had been over 20 years since we last visited the island on a brief stay, and this time we immediately saw immense changes.

Previously, we stayed at a beach resort, but this time we decided to choose a place in the principal city of Georgetown. What a contrast from orderly Singapore to the chaos of Malaysia! We loved it.

No sooner had we settled into our comfortable boutique hotel, Chulia Mansion (413 Chulia St.; chuliamansion.com), with free evening drinks and ice cream on the rooftop terrace, than the adjacent mosque (and others all over town) “serenaded” us with the evening call to prayer.

After a good night’s rest, despite the 5:45 call to morning prayer (no alarm clock needed here!), and an excellent Malay/Western buffet breakfast (included in our $60-per-night room rate), we began our exploration with the Central Area Transit (CAT), Penang’s free public bus, which took us on a fantastic ride past many mosques, churches and temples; national historical sites, many from the British Colonial days; buzzing traditional ethnic neighborhoods, alive with frenzied markets, and cruise ship/ferry terminals.

Malaysia is also a good place for excellent foot reflexology treatments, and stopping at one of the many facilities near our Georgetown hotel soothed our tired, traveling feet. Carole’s skill in Malay (similar to Indonesian) was helpful.

In our Internet research done before traveling to Penang, we learned that Jewish traders had come to this region in the 19th century, forming the basis of a small but vibrant Jewish community in Georgetown. We visited both the Jewish Cemetery (on Jalan Zainal Abidin) and the building that once housed the synagogue there (on Jalan Nagore). The former synagogue is now a coffeehouse, and its delightful Indonesian owner sat with us as we had coffee, sharing fascinating stories about the history of the building.

Exploring the island

Carole at Sri Krishnan Temple in Singapore.

Spending five days in Penang allowed us time to visit several areas of interest on the island, which we did at a leisurely pace considering the hot and humid weather.

A local bus (nearly free) took us an hour out of town, through busy villages, to Penang Hill Lower Station. From there, a very fast funicular carried us up to nearly 3,000 feet in elevation to the Upper Station at the top. Unfortunately, a thick haze mostly obscured the “spectacular” view, but we consoled ourselves with cool drinks at the lovely English café there — with its pond filled with pink and blue lilies — and the abundance of exotic plants in the relaxing garden setting before returning to ground level.

Another one-hour scenic bus trip, along the winding north coast road, took us to the resort area of Batu Ferringhi, where we had stayed on our first visit to Penang years before. We found an abundance of hotels, resorts and luxury apartments, with endless development taking place. Stopping at two resorts to look around, relax and have cool drinks, we thought they lacked the culture of Malaysia and were so glad we had chosen not to stay in the area this time.

Johor Bahru

Leaving Penang Island, we headed south to our next Malaysian destination: Johor Bahru, located opposite Singapore across the Straits of Johor.

On a number of our previous trips to Malaysia, we had passed through Johor Bahru, but we had never made the city a “destination.” However, with a direct Air Asia flight from Penang to Johor Bahru’s impressive Senai International Airport, we decided to go for a stay.

The city offered a totally different experience from neighboring Singapore. Settling in at the luxury 5-star Renaissance Johor Bahru Hotel — the city’s best, costing a fraction ($80 per night) of the Singapore equivalent — we had some problems with our room. To solve things, the hotel manager upgraded us to the “Club Floor,” with spectacular views across to Singapore, offering us free drinks and meals in addition to the extraordinary breakfast buffet that was included in our room rate!

The city has come a long way. Previously, we observed run-down facilities, but now the city was full of glistening, modern skyscrapers, with dozens of construction cranes indicating even more buildings to come. Flowers, tree-lined streets, golf courses, huge shopping malls comparable to those in Singapore — what a difference a few years make!

An international train ride across the causeway to Singapore’s Woodlands Station took less time (about five minutes) than it took us to clear Immigration and Customs formalities in Malaysia and Singapore. We spent one more night in Singapore before heading home.

This had been a wonderful adventure!