The First Two Weeks: Singapore and Malaysia
Can you believe it's already been two weeks? I flew to Singapore via Tokyo (Haneda) on January 11, landed on January 13, and have been making my way north through Malaysia ever since. Because it's my first time here, I stuck to a pretty well-beaten path, taking buses from Singapore to Malacca, then Kuala Lumpur, Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands and now, Georgetown, Penang. Not knowing what to expect, I booked all my tickets ahead of time online through 12 Go Asia, but it really wasn't necessary since every bus station has a ton of options. (That's me surrounded by tea at the BOH plantation in the Cameron Highlands, btw).
It's been a fabulous two weeks so far, and I've been posting daily to my @KaeliTravels Instagram page — check out my Instagram Stories for video clips and photos as I go. I'll try my best to offer tips and travel advice based on my experiences on this blog, too, but most of it will be just that — musings and observations based on my experiences. I hope you'll enjoy it and share some of your own tips with me as well!
For starters, here are some things I've learned so far from my first two weeks on the road:
People are infinitely kind, curious, friendly, and helpful. I've found this to be true on so many occasions, whether it's the Uber driver who insisted on taking me all the way around to the bus at the bus terminal so I wouldn't have to lug all my stuff an extra few feet, the photography-loving solo traveler from Athens who helped me get my first Malaysian SIM card and spent the day exploring Malacca with me, our Airbnb host in the Cameron Highlands who drove two hours from Ipoh just to make us a fresh batch of homemade English scones — which were delicious by the way, thanks to Fabian and Lillian from the Everything English Homestay! — or the friendly folks at countless mosques and temples who were quick to invite a curious stranger with a camera inside for a chat and a look around.
A special shoutout to Molly the guide at Fort Cornwallis in Georgetown, who sat with me for about 20 minutes circling things on the map for me to see and telling me about her favorite places to eat. She's the reason I ended up having dinner two nights in a row at the Red Garden Food Paradise Night Market, where they have live music every night and a hilarious drag show on Thursdays at 11pm (Serena rocks!)
You will need to do laundry sometimes. And at a faster-than-expected rate when traveling through Southeast Asia since you will definitely sweat through everything in this heat. Thankfully, I've been staying in a mix of hostels and Airbnb rentals that either have free laundry or are near places that will do it for you — in the Cameron Highlands, I dropped off my stuff and got it back the next day for 9 Malaysian Ringgits (about $2.30 US). Unfortunately, I miscalculated how many tops I had left at the time, so am now the proud owner of three super-touristy Cameron Highlands themed t-shirts. Hey, at least they'll make great PJs for the rest of my trip!
Hostels are amazing. This is basically my first time staying in hostels, aside from a one-night test I conducted at one in DC back in December, and so far it's been really fun. I've been consistently staying in rooms with 4-6 beds and in female only dorms — sorry but I'm not crazy about sharing a room with a bunch of random dudes just yet, although I have a feeling that'll change as most traveling guys I've met so far have been awesome. My very first roommate was a young girl from China who didn't speak English (and I only know how to say "thank you" in Chinese) so we ended up using Google Translate to communicate, typing in little phrases like "So, what did you do today?" and pointing things out on the map. I've had so much fun meeting other fellow travelers — mostly from Canada, the Netherlands, France, Germany, the UK and China so far — who are passing through, trading crazy stories and offering tips for places to check out and avoid along the SE Asia circuit. Just a quick "Hi, I'm Kaeli." can lead to "OMG you HAVE to go check out this beautiful mosque on the island near Malacca!" or a whole conversation about why I should skip Phuket but make sure I go to Pai.
Silly rookie mistakes are inevitable. I'm still getting used to communal bathrooms, which have been fine and remind me of being at summer camp. This did mean, however, that I forgot to bring my towel with me on my second night in Malacca. Trust me, you will never feel more like an idiot until you're forced to towel off with your shirt and sneak back to your room still dripping.
Bigger mistakes are okay, too. After 20+ hours of air travel, I was more than a little jet lagged by the time I reached Singapore so I got a car from the airport to my hotel via Grab, a great little ride-share service similar to Uber. Unfortunately for me — and a really nice girl named Katie — I got into THE WRONG CAR. The driver had confirmed my name (which sounded enough like Kaeli at the time) and I stupidly didn't double-check the license plate (jet lag turns me into the world's biggest idiot but in my defense, I'm not familiar with these foreign cars and they all looked the same) so I didn't realize anything was wrong until Katie called the driver a few minutes later asking where he was. "You're not in my car..?" I heard him say as my face went red and I realized what was happening. Lucky for me, we hadn't left the airport yet and were able to circle back and get Katie into the right car. As we pulled up, she started laughing hysterically, saying she'd gotten into my car by mistake. Lesson learned: always check the plate before you get in, have a sense of humor, and be ready to apologize profusely to everyone if something ridiculous happens.
Most people seemed surprised to learn I'm an American visiting Malaysia. It's funny to think I'm a bit of a novelty here, but in a sea of Europeans and Australians, I guess it's true. After an initial reaction — usually a mix of shock and curiosity — I've often been told stories of that person's own trips and experiences in the US, which have been fascinating. A driver in Penang proceeded to tell me all about his family's vacation to NYC a few years ago, describing in great detail how puzzled he was to find security guards in the shops they visited and how difficult it had been to find a public bathroom near Times Square (he's got a point!). Another asked me why so many Americans he'd driven were traveling solo and pondered how lonely it must be not to have anyone to talk to when you're sightseeing (I told him it's actually easier to approach/meet other travelers when you're solo vs. when you're stuck talking to your friend the whole time). I also got into an interesting discussion with another driver who asked if I was married — it turns out this is something that's discussed as openly as the weather here. I said I wasn't but my sister just got married and her wedding was beautiful. He said, ah, but when is it your turn? I responded with, "Well, the boys I've met so far have been really stupid, so as soon as I find a good one, sure!" That cracked him up big time and we started chatting about how dating here in Malaysia differs from dating in the US and how the different cultures here date in different ways as well.
I'm too damn old for the crazy party hostel scene. It's not that I don't love an ice cold beer on a hot day or a glass of wine with dinner, but the idea of drinking my ass off and sleeping it off all day doesn't really appeal to me when there's so much to see and do. Not that I won't do it once in a while — say, if the chance presents itself on a beach or hippy town in Thailand or Cambodia — just not all day every day for the rest of my trip. Also, when traveling alone it's important not to get wasted and become a moving target for petty theft or worse, so I tend to play it safe and only drink more than a few when I'm with people I know.
Jet lag — and homesickness — are very real. For me, the worst part of being jet lagged is how it messes with my appetite. For the first few days in Singapore and Malacca, I would be starving at 4am when nothing was open and not hungry at all by lunch time, so that took some getting used to. Once that blew over, it finally started to set in that I wasn't going home after a week of my vacation — or even two weeks of vacation. Every time I say "I'm from New York but I'm moving to Australia" it sounds weird but also becomes more and more real since that's basically what I'm doing. It's been great staying connected to friends and family back in the states via iMessage, WhatsApp and Facebook chat so far and the time difference is actually perfect — I'm 13 hours ahead of NYC right now — so I can chat briefly each night and morning and share what I've been doing, see how they've been doing, and hear about things I've missed. But it does come in waves, and pretty unexpectedly. I was wandering aimlessly through yet another gigantic Malaysian mall in Kuala Lumpur, rounded the corner to the food court, and was faced with a Nathan's Hot Dog Stand that almost made me cry. Another time I was passing through a train station and ended up in a Burger King simply because it was there. I'm told this is normal and expected, and honestly, it's not been that bad, just a bit jarring when it happens so suddenly. I'm trying to keep myself busy sightseeing, writing and planning the next parts of my trip, so that's been helping a lot, too.
It's okay to do the super touristy stuff once in a while. For me, traveling is always about getting to know a place and meet the people who live there. But sometimes when there's a tricked out Pokemon trishaw coming at you playing Michael Jackson's Billy Jean, you have to get in and see where it takes you. That was easily the best $5 USD I've ever spent for a few minutes of sheer unadulterated joy as we rode across town in the 90-degree heat and saw people's faces light up as we approached them in such a ridiculous fashion.
That's all for now. I've got one more day here in Georgetown, Penang, and then I'm off to Ho Chi Minh City on Monday. I can't believe it's that time already. This is going faster than I could have imagined and I'm actually going to miss hearing the Muslim call to prayer that's echoed five times a day in every Malaysian city I've been to so far. It's quite beautiful really.
If you have any tips for places I should check out in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, let me know. Currently researching and booking things as I go, so everything helps!