From cookery lessons and feasting to jungle walks and high tea, capture the very best of Singapore and Malaysia.
Singapore: Best for food
Chef Ruqxana Vasanwala holds a banana leaf that's almost as tall as herself. This, she explains to the class at her Cookery Magic school, will be an integral part of the first dish, otak-otak. Made with fresh fish, onions, eggs, and a vast array of herbs and spices, the spicy fish pâté is popular in both Singapore and Malaysia. And that enormous leaf? It's cut into strips and used to wrap the mixture for grilling, but is not eaten.
Ruqxana (or Ruq) teaches her culinary secrets in her colonial-era home in Joo Chiat. The quiet neighbourhood in east Singapore has an abundance of excellent restaurants serving authentic local cuisine. Today's students - a young French couple and two New Zealand women - hope to glean a few recipes to wow friends back home. Ruq specialises in the dishes most loved in Singapore - dishes that, rather like the city, incorporate elements from all over Southeast Asia. Mee goreng (fried noodles), the next dish on the syllabus, illustrates the city's food heritage perfectly. 'Mee goreng is a great example of a Singaporean dish because of its many influences,' says Ruq. 'Brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants, it was changed by Indians using Malaysian ingredients into a dish that would hardly be recognisable in China.'
Like Singapore itself, mee goreng is simple at first glance, but is ultimately multilayered. Among the 25 or so items that go into Ruq's dish are local chillies, garlic, mustard greens, bean sprouts and limes. While both students and teacher work with the same ingredients, no one finished version of mee goreng tastes quite like another. As chefs throughout the city-state have done for decades, so the class today take this classic dish and personalise and localise it, in keeping with the spirit of Singapore. The Lion City's secret to culinary success and, indeed, its whole way of life, has always been to adopt, adapt and improve.
Crowded, noisy and filled with the aroma from scores of miniature kitchens, each with its own chef: these are Singapore's hawker centres. On a per-bite basis, Singaporeans eat the majority of their meals right here.
In the heart of the financial district, the massive Lau Pa Sat complex has close to a hundred stalls, serving foods from all nations. After dark, locals out for a night on the town mix with visitors drawn by the smoke wafting from the dozen-plus satay grills lining the complex's western edge.
Further out of town is the East Coast Hawker Centre. This beachside outdoor food market hums as nighthawks gather to feast with a view over the water, where the lights of cargo ships (and further south, Indonesia) can be readily seen.
Every hawker centre has one or more stalls serving Hainan chicken rice, a dish dear to the Singaporean heart. But, according to local consensus, one in particular is a must-visit: an unpretentious stall called Tian Tian, in the very workingclass Maxwell Road Hawker Centre on the outskirts of Chinatown.
Whatever hawker centre you visit, to enjoy the best food find the stall with the longest queue - and join it. In Singapore, the best meals often have the longest wait.
- Cookery Magic holds classes in Singaporean cuisine (£55; cookerymagic.com).
- Betel Box offers food-related walking tours every Thursday evening (betelbox.com).
Where to eat
If you tire of hawker centres, the excellent PS Cafe serves European-style dishes in a tree-filled corner of Dempsey Village (from £7; pscafe.sg).
Where to stay
Located on a quiet street in the Chinatown district, the beautiful New Majestic Hotel has 30 rooms, each individually designed by emerging Singaporean artists. Alive with murals, paintings and sculptures, the New Majestic provides a unique experience (from £130; newmajestichotel.com).
Cameron Highlands: Best for tea
In tropical Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands are synonymous with three things: cooler temperatures, pastoral beauty and tea. Spread out over 1,200 acres of gently rolling hills filled with waist-high tea plants, the Boh plantation is Malaysia's most prolific producer of black tea. It's said that the plantation produces enough leaves to brew five and a half million cups daily.
With a tool that's a hybrid garden shear/ shovel, 30-year-old Saredin snips the leaves from the branches of the tea bushes, scooping them into a basket on his back.
'Do I wonder if people think of me when drinking their tea? he asks, laughing. 'I doubt it. But I think of them enjoying the tea, which gives me pleasure.'
The work is hard, but the workplace idyllic. The plantation's hills stretch as far as the eye can see, punctuated only by gentle streams, water-wheels and the occasional building. One, a mock Tudorstyle mansion, was built by a former plantation manager, a Scotsman pining perhaps for the architecture of home. That the plantation should have a British feel is hardly an accident - Boh was started by Englishman JA Russell during the waning days of Britain's colonial dominance.
Another building seems to belong to a different continent entirely: the glass and steel rectangle in the plantation's centre would be more at home in Malibu. Here, visitors come to enjoy high tea with a view over the hills, and to watch the tea-pickers whose labour makes it all possible.
Saredin takes a break to have a cup of tea himself. So how does he like to take it? 'Strong,' he says. 'And with plenty of milk and sugar. Boh tea, naturally.'
Cameron Secrets Travel and Tours runs trips to the Boh plantation and smaller tea farms throughout the region (from £11; cameronsecrets.com).
Where to eat
Many restaurants specialise in steamboat (assorted vegetables, meats and seafood cooked in a communal pot), but Highlands Restaurant is the locals' favourite (from around £4; 36 Bandar Baru Brinchang, Brinchang).
Where to stay
Cameron Highlands Resort, a colonial-style hotel, is tops in every way, with its rooms decked in mahogany and teak and its elegant English tea room. The attached Spa Village Cameron Highlands offers the ultimate in tea-related luxury - a full-course spa treatment beginning with a medicinal soak in a bathtub filled with warm tea and flowers, and ending, of course, with a cup of chamomile tea (from £150; cameronhighlandsresort.com).
Taman Negara: Best for jungle
Past a sign reading 'Canopy walkway: 1km', the trail changes abruptly from manicured to wild, and all evidence of human habitation disappears. Tall trees and hanging vines close in, creating a primordial feel that's slightly unnerving.
Even though the canopy walk is barely on the outer edge of the Taman Negara National Park, a protected reserve roughly six times the size of Singapore, the feeling one may run into serious wildlife is hard to shake - even if the tigers and rhinos that live in the park stick to the interior.
The canopy walk itself is a long series of elevated walkways made of wood, cable and rope. It sways up to 40 metres above the ground, offering vertiginous views of the jungle floor below. The newest section of walkway stretches 70 metres between platforms, testing the courage of anyone with even a passing fear of heights.
If the canopy walk feels a bit contained, the riverboat trip up the Tahan River is decidedly less so. For 45 minutes, the long, nearly flat-bottomed boat, with its twoman crew of guide and driver, speeds against the current, dodging boulders. Lizards basking on rocks view the passing boats with unblinking eyes as tropical birds call from tree tops. The boat reaches a small rocky beach, surrounded by trees, through which a rough trail is cut.
A short walk leads to a small waterfall, and at the bottom of it is a pool offering a tantalising opportunity for a dip. Along the way, our guide, Mohd Ros Mani, who was born and bred in the park, points out which trees provide edible fruits and those that should be avoided.
'The fruit of that tree is poison,' he says, pointing to a short, leafy tree that's loaded with dull purple berries, some of which are lying rotting on the ground. 'A good rule of thumb,' advises Mohd. 'If birds and bugs aren't eating the fallen fruit, then neither should people.'
Mohd often brings groups of trekkers deeper into the jungle, teaching them survival techniques, such as getting water from vines, foraging and building shelter. 'If you know where to look, the jungle will provide for all of your needs,' he says.
Where to stay and eat
Taking up much of the far bank of the Tahan River, Mutiara Taman Negara has rustic-style wooden chalets and larger bungalows that blend in elegantly with the surrounding jungle. The open-air restaurant overlooks the river and serves Malaysian and Western dishes. The hotel has a number of guides who lead trips throughout the area, and the range of activities on offer includes a nighttime jungle walk, shooting the rapids and visiting an evening market in a nearby village (chalets from £97; mutiarahotels.com).
Georgetown, Penang: Best for culture
Georgetown, on the island of Penang, is an appropriate place to finish a journey that began in Singapore; the town is often referred to as 'the place where Singapore goes to recall its past'.
To visit Georgetown's heart is to walk through history. Chinese apothecaries still hang signs over their doors advertising cures. Indian and Malay merchants sell clothing suited to the era when the spice trade, on which Georgetown was built, was roaring. And the spices! While the warehouses that line the wharves are now mostly empty, the air still smells of cloves, nutmeg and chilli powder. Though the fragrance is current (Georgetown is considered one of the finest cities for food in Asia), it's not hard to imagine these scents belonging to another time.
Georgetown's 2008 listing - a joint affair with the Malaysian city of Malacca - as a Unesco World Heritage Site ensures that the city's heart will retain its cultural heritage. One of the primary movers behind the Unesco listing is Rebecca Duckett. Born in Malaysia in 1962 to a British planter and his Malaysian-Chinese wife, Duckett has lived in Georgetown for 11 years.
'I never planned to get this passionate about Georgetown,' she says, 'but once I moved here, and realised what a unique and beautiful melting pot of commerce, culture and history the area was, I became committed to helping preserve it.'
Duckett believes that the Unesco listing has been crucial to the revival of the city she loves. 'Georgetown is rough around the edges, and this is part of the attraction,' she says. 'It feels like a film set waiting for an amazing filmmaker.'
It's an understandable sentiment. From the Victorian-era clock tower on Beach Street and the temples and mosques of Pitt Street to the morning wet market on Armenian Street and hawker stalls of Chulia street, Georgetown resembles something out of a Somerset Maugham novel. Duckett and many other Georgetown residents would have it no other way. 'If you forget your past, your future becomes soulless,' she says. 'If you lose that, you've lost something precious, something you may never get back.'
See penanggeorgetown.com for the low-down on things to do in the city.
Where to eat
Penang is a main centre of Peranakan culture, so no visit to Georgetown is complete without sampling some of its distinctive cuisine - a blend of Chinese, Malay and Indian. Mama's Nyonya Cuisine is one of the most popular Peranakan places in town, and with good reason. A family-run establishment, the recipes at Mama's have been passed down for six generations. Favourite dishes include prawn cooked with coconut milk and lemongrass, and fatty pork cooked in black bean sauce (from £3; 31-D Abu Siti Lane, Georgetown).
Where to stay
The beautifully restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (or the Blue Mansion as it is often called), is one of Georgetown's most instantly identifiable heritage buildings. The mansion is over 125 years old and serves not merely as a classic hotel with individually decorated rooms, but also as a focal point for tour groups, heritage buffs and students of Asian architecture (from £60; cheongfattzemansion.com).
Perhentian Besar and Kecil: Best for islands
The speedboat from the Kuala Besut ferry pier rides high on the waves, skipping along the water like a flat stone flung by a petulant giant. From the deck of the boat, the two Perhentian islands - Besar and Kecil - appear as a mirage shrouded by clouds.
The word Perhentian is Malay for 'stop' - not as in cease, but as in 'rest before continuing onward'. Highly appropriate, as relaxation is the order of the day for guests and locals alike.
On Perhentian Besar - the larger of the two islands - the main hub of activity ('activity' consisting primarily of lounging on the beach, swimming and watching fishing boats roll by) is a quarter-mile stretch of beach between Abdhul's Chalets and Tuna Bay Island Resort. Past these points on the island, it's a hike around rocky cliffs and through jungle paths to more secluded beaches, including Shark Point to the south and the beautifully isolated Turtle Beach to the north.
The remoteness of Turtle Beach is good for more than just people. It is also a prime hatching ground for green turtles, after whom the beach is named. The hatchery is watched over by a local elder called Pakdin, whose function here is probably best described as turtle midwife.
Pakdin lives in a tree-shaded hut not far from the water's edge. Between his hut and a sign reading 'Please stay off the beach between 3pm and 7am' is a patch of sand containing around 80 numbered wooden markers. The numbers represent the eggs of specific turtles, dug up elsewhere by the Terengganu Department of Fisheries and reburied on the quiet beach. But the sign doesn't deter everyone.
'People are curious to see the turtles hatch,' says Pakdin. 'Sometimes I have to remind them not to get too close.'
Pakdin couldn't guess how many turtles he's midwifed: 'This year alone we're up to 247 clutches of between 80 to 100 eggs. It's been a good year for the turtles.'
Though seeing a newborn turtle make its way to the ocean is unlikely ('They mostly hatch at night,' says Pakdin), swimmers may see a full-grown green turtle travel across the seabed. The closeness of the main coral beds to the shores, combined with the water's float-friendly salinity, make the sea around Perhentian Besar and nearby Kecil excellent for snorkelling. Strap on a mask and fins, and share the sea with schools of trumpet fish, black and white sergeant fish, small sharks and, of course, green turtles.
One thing is clear: if this place isn't paradise, it's surely something close.
- General Information about Perhentian can be found at myoutdoor.com/perhentian
- Operating from a small shack next to Marine Park Ferry Pier, Captain Halim knows all the best spots for snorkelling and turtle-watching.
Where to eat
Watercolours restaurant's handwritten menu includes delicious seafood dishes such as spicy garlic-fried prawns and grilled red snapper. Beachside seating offers spectacular views of the setting sun over the small island to the west (from £2; south side of Perhentian Kecil).
Where to stay
With comfortable cabanas, the Tuna Bay resort makes a great base. Its breezy open-air restaurant/ bar serves both Asian and Western meals. Set on a strip of sand between the jungle and sea, guests are only ever a few steps away from the water (from £52; tunabay.com.my).
Joshua Samuel Brown is an expert on Southeast Asia, having travelled widely in this area. He is co-author of Lonely Planet's Singapore City Guide.
The article 'The perfect trip: Singapore and Malaysia' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.