This was to be our first land border crossing and we were prepared for a full bag and body check as SARS and terrorism were still high on the international agenda. Coming from Thailand was preferable as they’d only had a few cases of the virus reported, but as Malaysia is sandwiched between Singapore and Thailand they were being very thorough to ensure their own safety.

We’d hired a taxi for the border run and to take us on to Georgetown in Penang as our first base in Malaysia. We duly arrived at customs, immigration and health check points and were waived through with a cursory glance at our western faces.

The only time we had to get out of the vehicle was to have our temperatures taken and to sign a health declaration. We were escorted round the back of what looked like a bus shed where four men, fully masked and gowned up cheerfully greeted us with, ‘Are you from Germany?’ ‘No’, we replied ‘The UK’. ‘Ah,’ one of them said, ‘Very much rain and warm beer’. He then proceeded to stick an electronic thermometer in my ear and tell us they were brushing up on their global geography whilst on SARS duty. The only way to pass their health check was to come in with a temperature reading of less than 380. I managed a worrying 37.50, but Nigel sailed through with a cool 360. No problems, grinning under their masks we were given the stamp of approval and trundled across the border in to Malaysia.

Our cabbie was very chatty and had a thing for all things Thai. He thought it was a far better place than his native Malaysia. The Thais work harder, cook better, live longer and enjoy a richer culture according to him. In contrast the Malays were intrinsically lazy, ate bland food and charged twice as much for everything. So, an interesting introduction to the country, we looked forward to testing his theories.

The entrance to the island of Penang was pretty spectacular. After passing many highway service stations all featuring a make-shift Mosque for a quick prayer, we approached the 16km long Penang bridge that connects it to the mainland.

The sun was shining, the water sparkling and the sky scrapers of the downtown area standing proud. Georgetown itself is a strange mixture of the exotic with many Chinese town houses and British colonial buildings and the modern with huge shopping malls every second block. You still see ancient wrinkly men peddling the rickshaws but these days they have to dodge the Mazdas, Toyotas and tour buses en route to the sights.

We checked in to The City Bay View Hotel which had the added bonus of a revolving restaurant on the roof and set off to explore the city on foot. Wandering through the central Chinatown district afforded you the sights and smells of fish heads in curry, birds in cages and the chatter of Cantonese in every door way. All very authentic. Sitting cheek by jowl with this ancient way of life was the other face of Georgetown where everyone speaks English to each other, all wear Armani and eat at trendy wine bars. It made for an intriguing wander as you never knew what you’d happen upon next.

We ended up spending three days in Georgetown deciding how we wanted to see the rest of the country. In the end we settled upon a hire car to drive the length of the peninsula to Singapore. This was to give us the freedom to get a little off the beaten track when we chose and the flexibility stop and stare in places that caught our eye...

India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa