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My First International Trip: A Free Packaged Tour To Singapore, Malaysia And Sri Lanka With 80 College Mates

Almost 17 years ago, my college found an excellent way to lure the freshers into attending college and performing well. At the end of a one year triage, an international trip would be rewarded to those students who proved their mettle by attending classes, scoring good marks, participating in extra curricular activities, and netting a combined top score. (so basically being the uncoolest kid in the college!)

So, as it happened, I was one of the 80 people to get the coveted prize of a free trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Srilanka. In hindsight, these are possibly the last places I’d want to travel to now, but almost a decade ago, an international trip was a big deal and Singapore and Malaysia were the travel goals for most middle-class Indians.

I know I'm publishing this after 17 years since the trip, but I recently discovered the post on an internet archive of an old blog of mine and thought my first international travel experience deserved a place on this blog.

So to make it more relevant for my current blog style, here's the one-week itinerary for a trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka on a packaged and guided tour.

A night and day in Negombo, Sri Lanka

We (about 75 students and 3 staff members and a couple of tour guides) took a flight from Bangalore to Sri Lanka and landed in Negombo which we couldn’t see much of coz it was night and our schedule was tight (unintentional rhyme there) except that it looked very much like Goa with its palm trees, tiled houses with a lot of Buddha idols everywhere.) Due to the teachers’ defensive “it’s high tide”, we couldn’t really be on the beach, so ended up being packed in our room and chatting the night away and flew the next morning to Singapore.

Spending 3 days in Singapore

We reached Singapore around 1pm and were taken straight for lunch at this Indian restaurant called “Shakunthalas” in little India. Singapore was my first real "First World Country" experience and obviously it blew me away. The lush greenery, wide grassy sidewalks, smooth as glass roads, and the traffic that moved as if being controlled by a remote, and of course all the mile-high skyscrapers that dotted the Singapore skyline. To an 18-year old, it was bit of a far-fetched reality!

A guided city tour of Singapore

Since this was a packaged tour, everything was done in a group. Post lunch, we were taken on a bus tour of Singapore where we were apprised of Singapore's history and its buildings and their names and significance were pointed at, from the comfort of the bus.

Dinner was at ‘Bombay Magic’, again an Indian restaurant, and from there to Mustafa, a famous shopping centre in Singapore. Don’t go by the hype -- it’s nothing more than the Singapore version of India's Big Bazaar. What I found more interesting were the souvenir shops in Little India with the cutest little souvenirs and the “3 for 10$” deals.

A panoramic tour of Singapore

After an early breakfast in Komalas,(what's with all the Indian restaurants on this tour!) we went on what they called a "panoramic tour". We were we were shown places like the Singapore Cricket club (thanks to all the Indians I suppose?), a war memorial and of course the famous “Merlion’ –  a half lion and half fish which has come to be the landmark of Singapore, once a fishing village once until that guy who discovered the country mistook an animal for a “Singh” (a lion) on the island.

China Town and Sentosa Island

We went to China Town, the hub of all people and things Chinese, where our first stop was an ancient Chinese temple where not even a single nail was used in its construction! We packed in some knick-knack shopping in the Pagoda Street, followed by more shopping in the Arab Street.

Next we went to the Sentosa Island by cable car to the island amusement park, the view from the cable car is amazing and you can see the gigantic Merlion (this is not the original one but definitely more amazing)

We reached Sentosa island in about half a hour n went to the Underwater World where you walk through a tunnel surrounded by all types of marine life through the glass panes. Here you have a shark going above your head or a sting ray lazing round in a corner. You also get to feed the fishes for 10$. Next was the dolphin show where a couple of dolphins do stunts and dance steps much to your amusement. (but a practice that's rooted in cruelty and shouldn't be patronized.

A Water distillation plant that makes poop water drinkable!

I didn't think that visiting a sewage treatment plant was exactly on my Singapore travel itinerary but well it was an "industrial trip" for the records and so a trip or two to a factory was a part of it.

What we didn't expect was that this water treatement plant looked more like a disco than anything to do with distilling sewage water into potable one! (but then this is Singapore - everything looks jazzy and shiny!)

We were shown a small documentary on how water is distilled in Singapore and reaches the tap.

Window shopping in Orchard Street and actual shopping at Bugis Junction

Since most of us couldn't actually afford any of it, we were taken on a "bus window shopping tour" of the famous Orchard road which houses high-end ashion brands like Louis Vuitton, Armani, Gucci, Guess, Esprit etc. but for some actual shopping we went to the Bugis junction which is touted as the biggest street shopping venue in Singapore. Here the Malay street mall has some interesting brands and pretty bags, jewellery and other knick knacks. Bargaining happens here and the stuff is pretty neat except that all the shops sell more or less the same. This clothes and accessory shopping was followed by a trip to the Simlim plaza famous for electronics. I made the biggest mistake not buying a digicam here on the advice of our tour guide who advised, rather falesely, that Sony cameras are cheaper in Malaysia which they ain't.

Overnight train for Malaysia and Genting Highlands - Malaysia's Vegas

After the three buzzing days in Singapore, we took an overnight bus for Malaysia, our next destination. We reached Kuala Lumpur around 8am and immediately made towards Genting Highlights. An hour long bus drive later, we were at Genting Highlights -- called the “city of entertainment” - an artificial city 3000 ft above sea level for adults and kids to have fun. We went on the "world’s largest cable car ride" from there to land at the First World hotel (Apparently the world’s largest hotel with 7000 rooms!)

At the Genting Amusement Park, we tried out the famous roller coaster and many other rides more fitting for kids.

There is also a 5-level mall with high-street brands and cafes, and outside gigantic replicas of the Eiffel tower, Statue of Liberty and Venice-like canal with gondolas and an indoor-snow and ski station.

The amusement park also houses a casino which we weren’t allowed at thanks to being underage, but most of us went to the inhouse club “Safari” anyway. The ambience here truly lives up to its name with the furniture and furnishings in a jungle theme.

Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur

The next morning we were back in Kuala Lumpur and started our day with a visit to the Batu Caves to get to which you have to climb up some 200 odd stairs. There’re small Hindu temples inside the caves and a gigantic lord Murugan statue stands outside the caves.

A stay with a view of Petronas Tower, world's second tallest towers

Like in Singapore, here too, we went on a "from the bus" city tour of KL city seeing supposedly important landmarks like the KL towers, King’s Palace, Lake Gardens, National Museum and of course the Petronas Towers, world's tallest towers until Burj Khalifa out-heightened them. (also, what I'd go on to see on two more subsequent trips to Malaysia later on.)

Though not as organized and hi-tech as Singapore (thankfully), Malaysia has an amazing combination of old and new with colonial buildings and skyscrapers scattered all over. We were taken to the famous Butik Bintang area for quick shopping after which we checked into our hotel “Grand continental”.

My roommate and I had the most amazing surprise when we found our room facing the Petronas' Twin Towers glittering away at night!

More factories - chocolate, Batik and Pewter

As part of our "industrial trip", we were taken to the chocolate boutique which sells all sorts of Malaysian chocolates and cookies. It was followed by the Batik factory -- a native Malay art of dyeing motifs on silk. The chocolate and Batik was followed the Royal Selangor Pewter factory, Pewter which as I discovered is an alloy of tin and aluminum and used widely in Malaysia. T

Shopping in Malaysia

If you ask me the shopping in Malaysia is a lot more fun and affordable than in Singapore so the broke college students that we were, we shopped to our heart's content at Butik Bintang plaza, a sprawling mall in Kuala Lumpur.

We also got a got a haircut at a Chinese salon by teenage male stylists, on a whim and the fact it was just for 8 Malaysian Ringgit (INR100)

Flying back to Colombo

After flying back from Malaysia, we had another full day in Colombo before heading back to India. Here too, we went on a city tour of the city even though there’s hardly much to see out there.

Then we stopped by at the much recommended “House of Fashion” and “Odel” to do some Sri Lankan shopping but it was a major letdown as there’s nothing really to buy and whatever is good is priced sky high. The brands like Reebok, Nike and Puma are all fake. We came back to our hotel Grand Oriental which overlooked the Colombo port by evening and spent the night there.

Keeping up with the "industry tour" shtick of this trip, in Sri Lanka too, we went to a rubber factory “Arpico” which was a real bore.

Being the asshole Indian travelers in a flight

The flight from Colombo to Bangalore was just an hour long but I’m sure it’ll go down in the history of aviation as we almost shook up the plane with our noise and antics so much so the cabin crew complained to the Indian authorities! (We were the horrible Indian travelers everyone talks about.)

But hey, we were a bunch of 18year olds on a free international trip! (Most of us were flying for the first time at that.)

So that's that. A week of jet setting across three countries, seeing this, doing that, packing in some budget shopping to "show off back in college" and navigating the dynamics of traveling in large groups. And even though that was the second-last time I traveled with and in a group as large, this trip set off a thirst for international travelling, which continues to this day.

We touched India at around 7…with a round of emotional goodbyes, we were back home.


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 I (Monica) am a lifelong traveler, (40 countries), sustainability and veganism advocate, and a marketer by profession. I'm old school in that I still like to blog and document rather than shoot and post.

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