Trip Report: Singapore, Malaysia and Borneo
October, 1999

3 weeks in Singapore, west coast Malaysia, and Borneo

For 3 weeks I traveled solo by bus and train from Singapore through west coast Malaysia, then flew to Borneo.


  • An orangutang tried to steal my camera!
  • I bumped into the author of the travel book I was carrying.
  • I met an Iban head hunter. (We were seatmates on the plane to Borneo, his home — he was super nice and gave me a ride to my hotel.)
  • I ordered "dinner for one" at a funeral! I got mixed up looking for the restaurant next door (which closed at 6pm) and they were having something like a wake nearby with many tables ...
  • I tried betel nut, a drug commonly chewed in India and southern Asia (a habit of one-tenth of the world's population — according to Apparently it's carcinogenic and addictive. For me, the only effect was like a mild decongestant.
  • I saw feeding time at a crocodile farm.
  • I met several 20-ish travelors who had been on the road more than a year.
  • I saw flood waters 10 inches deep (as I arrived in the island of Penang where it had rained for 3 days).
  • I was cheated 4 times in Penang (a rickshaw driver started out trying to charge me 10 ringgit for a 4 ringgit ride, a ticket agent at the Penang Hill funicular didn't give me my change, a hotel tacked on a 40% phone surcharge, and a taxi driver wanted a roundtrip fee for a one-way ride). Everyone else I met in Singapore/Malaysia/Borneo was very honest.
  • I saw a demonstration of how bird nests (for soup) are reconstructed; to avoid twigs, feathers, etc., the individual strands of bird saliva are removed with tweezers and put in a mold.
  • I saw lungfish, monitor lizards, orangutang, crocodiles, monkeys, turtles, and many birds and butterflies.
  • I met many Dutch tourists in Malaysia (which has historical links to Holland through commercial exploitation by the Dutch East India Company).
  • Hotel breakfasts invariably serve westerners hot dogs with their eggs.
  • Do not ever eat turtle soup (fatty, chewy, blech!)
  • Everyone in Southeast Asia has a cell phone.
  • One delight to the tourist is that, unlike America, tipping is not part of their culture. It sure makes things simple.
  • It’s a long flight San Francisco to Singapore, 21 hours (including a 4 hour layover in Taipei).
  • I found ATMs in every town I visited. BofA charged me $3 for each transfer — cheap and easy!
  • Internet cafés were also cheap and widely available so I checked my e-mail almost every day.


Singapore is both a city and a country, ultra-modern and squeaky clean. Singapore was in the news a year ago when an American teenager was caned for graffiti. Millions of people live in high-rises on a small island; my conclusion is that the population density leads to fascist rules: A few years ago, people protested harsh government policies by sticking chewing gum on the doors of the subway, preventing the doors from closing — so gum was banned. After that protesters took to pissing in elevators!


Malaysia is very hot and humid (88 to 92 F most afternoons). So I was happy to find many fine beverages to quench my thirst, from the ordinary pineapple or sugar cane juice, to the unfamiliar, such as a sweet drink made from barley, or the "shandy" which is a canned mix of beer and lemonade. This is a land where thirst is important; other drinks I tried include juice from watermelon, lime, star fruit, guava, green apples, winter melon, and also coconut milk, and ginger beer.

I also loved the ubiquitous fruit stands. One exotic favorite of mine is the rambutan, covered with tiny tentacles that feel like plastic ("rambu" means hair), inside is a sweet juicy fruit much like lychee. I also like jack fruit, smooth-textured with a taste hinting of custard, sold in bags or on skewers. The durian is infamous — avoid them! That is what I'd recommend now that I've finally had a taste. Airlines and many hotels ban them for their foul smell, but fans swear the taste is heavenly. Frankly, I thought the taste was as bad as the smell.


The food, of course, was quite an adventure. One surprise was the yellow egg custard tarts I've had as dim sum in San Francisco; in Singapore I bought some at a stall that called them Portuguese egg tarts! Some of my favorite Malay/Chinese/Indian dishes:
  • Satay! (Malay)
  • Oyster omelette
  • Century egg (hard boiled and black) (Chinese)
  • Hokkien noodles (Chinese)
  • Pasembur (bean curd and crunchy stuff in yam gravy) (Malay?)
  • Char kway teow (rice noodles, clams, soy sprouts) (Chinese)
  • Hainanese chicken with rice (Chinese)
  • Roti with egg and onion (Indian)
  • Banana or strawberry pancakes

Quite logically in such a hot place, there is a whole category of popular desserts consisting of shaved ice covered with various fruit concoctions ("cendal"); I tried "seacoconut" and "ice jelly with soursop".


For relief from the heat, the Brits established "hill stations" — highland resorts. I visited one, the Cameron Highlands, where one evening I was actually cold! The hills there are lush and green with tea plantations.


Malaysia and Singapore have a long history, much due to the accident of their location in monsoon territory. The monsoon winds reverse direction seasonally. Singapore and Malacca ("the city where the winds meet") are conveniently placed in the middle between Africa/India and China. In the days of sail, traders learned they could hitchhike on the prevailing winds to travel from northeast to southwest in winter and from southwest to northeast in summer. (Similarly, they say one reason Egyptian culture rose to great heights is because the Nile flows east to west, while the prevailing winds blow west to east, allowing easy river transport both ways.)

Because of this history of trade, Malaysia is home to many immigrants from China and India (which leads to great street food such as Indian curry buffet and Chinese noodles). On west coast Malaysia (the Straights of Malacca), much attention is paid to Paranakan culture (Baba/Nonya) — the mix of Chinese and Malay peoples.

Malaysia was once a British colony, so English is widely spoken — a blessing for the tourist. Consequently, I didn't learn much Malay, but I did learn one curious detail: Instead of adding an 's' to pluralize, they repeat the noun. So, for example, 'orang' means man; 'orang orang' means men. A man from up river is called orang ulu. I bought a blow dart gun used by the Orang Asli aborigines. The gorillas in Borneo are called 'orang utan' — man of the jungle, hence the English word 'orangutang' (the "wild man of Borneo").


Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak) has an interesting history of 'White Rajahs'. An Englishman named James Brooke (and two male descendants after him) ruled the country for 100 years on behalf of England. says he was "an English adventurer and a former military officer of the East India Company, visited the territory in 1839 and aided the sultan in suppressing a revolt. As a reward for his services, Brooke was installed (1841) as raja of Sarawak ... there he endeavoured to suppress piracy and headhunting."

Upon my return, I was waking up at 5 am for a while (they’re 15 hours ahead). This underscored my feeling that every trip ends with a new dawn. Remember, if you don’t like it here, you can always go somewhere else!

Happy travels,

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