Singapore is orderly. Malaysia can be a bit chaotic.
Singapore is safe, really safe. Malaysia is edgy, a place you need to be alert walking after dark.
There's a lot to be said for Singaporean security, just like there's many benefits to living in wholesome Iowa, but it's a whole lot more rewarding living in a place like New York City, despite some of the potential downfalls.
Within an hour of arriving in Malaysia, I felt like I was finally back in Southeast Asia, an area where anything seems possible. It's a feeling I've been missing in sanitized Singapore.
Having a week off from school, I flew to Penang, which is known for its food, beaches, and artistic vibe. I spent most of my time in the Georgetown colonial district, hanging out with my Couchsurfer friend, Yvonne, a Canadian teacher who's taught in Asia for more than 15 years.
One of the advantages of Couchsurfing is that the locals know all the great places to visit and to eat. In this case, Yvonne is a fan of Indian food, so I walked around Penang with a full belly, a smile on my face, and curry oozing from my pores.
Our initial meeting almost never happened. When I deboarded the plane, I saw a man holding a sign with the name "Mark" with a different last name, but there was no Yvonne.
A few minutes later, I spotted her, seated at a table with an Australian man.
When the Australian man first arrived in the airport, she called out "Mark." It turned out that was his name, so she grabbed him by the arm, and they took off.
However, after he uttered a few words, Yvonne said even she knew his accent was no where close to that of a Georgia boy.
I pointed the Australian Mark in the direction of the man with the sign, and the right Marks left in the right vehicles.
After three days in Penang, I jumped on a bus to Kuala Lumpur, the capital and financial center of the country.
I stayed with another surfer, Alina. We didn't spend much time together because she's a busy financial consultant, but she did offer me some sightseeing suggestions.
I didn't mind exploring the city on my own. The public transportation system is excellent, and it's easy to spend hours wandering. At night, we did get together to socialize.
Two of the city's proudest architectural accomplishments are the Petronas Towers. After the 911 attacks destroyed the Word Trade Center, the 88-story, Petronas structures were the highest in the world from 1998 to 2004.
I enjoyed the excitement of the city of 1.6 million inhabitants, but my favorite stop was to the Batu Caves, located just north of the city.
I never miss an easy opportunity to visit a cave, but these caves are known for a lot more than just stalactites and stalagmites. They're dedicated to the Hindu god, Murugan.
The world's tallest statue of the the god is erected outside the caves.
Each year, millions of pilgrims visit the caves to pay their respects to Murugan.
But there's a physical price to pay to worship inside the Temple cave - 272 steep steps ...
and visitors must contend with a collection of overly-aggressive monkeys who beg for food and sometimes steal a possession or two from careless tourists.
Unfortunately, the monkeys are quite territorial and
have been known to bite pilgrims, especially small children.
I wrapped up my holiday in Melaka. It's become a popular tourist stop because of the city's Chinatown, which was named as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
It's a tranquil place to wander, admire the architecture, and sample some Chinese culinary favorites.
I like to frequent an occasional restaurant or two, but I've always had a passion for street food.
It took me awhile to locate the local market.
Once I did, I tried some noodle soup from this woman's cart.
The market had a Chinese flair, and that is what the woman only spoke, Chinese. As I often do, I just point and hope for the best. The soup was quite tasty.
Many times friends ask me if I get nervous eating street food. In the past, I did because of the obvious lack of hygiene, but last summer, I decided to just risk it, while traveling throughout Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, I got sick once, but, other than that, I had no trouble, and I sampled some delicious dishes.
As with all of my travels, I appreciated the sights in Malaysia, but I relished the experience of just wandering around encountering new people and new things. I was especially grateful for the assistance I received along the way.
The majority of Malaysians are Muslim. Certain segments of American society harbor a mistrust and even an active dislike of Muslims; however, I never felt any ill will during my trip. Instead, I found the people to be quite friendly and quite helpful, especially in Kuala Lumpur, where I got lost on more than one occasion.
My favorite interaction occurred on a five-hour bus ride. Throughout the trip, I heard a family of seven people talking, but I couldn't recognize the accent. Finally, I asked.
The woman said it was Persian. That didn't tell me much because Persian is spoken several places in the Middle East.
As the trip progressed, the family shared some food, and as we approached the bus terminal, two of their young children sheepishly sat down next to me, since I was in the front of the double-decker bus.
I motioned that it was fine. Actually, I got a kick out of seeing their excitement at rolling into an unknown, capital city.
At the end of our journey, I asked the woman where she was from. "Iran," she replied, at which point, she asked me my country of birth.
I told her America.
It's no secret that for several decades relations have been quite strained between the two nations, but governments don't always reflect the true beliefs of their citizens.
She smiled, and in broken English asked me if her children had bothered me. I indicated that it was quite the contrary.
I'll never see the family again, but I'd like to think that, perhaps, we broke down a couple of stereotypes during our transit.
And that's one of the major benefits of journeying beyond one's borders.