We arrived in Malaysia on the 26th of May, three weeks ago to the day (of writing, internet issues have resulted in a delay between me finishing this post and publishing it). We’re currently on our fifth different town/city in that time. One of the things that still continues to surprise me about this trip is simply how fast the time is going. Days quickly turn into weeks, which then seem to turn into months even quicker as we move from place to place. I’ll be honest and say that I have often found it difficult to set aside time to sit and write; more often than not we’ll be out doing something, whether it’s exploring a new city, or having fun with the new friends we’ve made that day. The result of this is frequently a much bigger gap between blog posts than I’d originally have liked. Case in point here, it’s been nearly three weeks since my last post, in which I described our final weeks in Thailand. A time which now feels like an eternity ago. So much has happened since the end of that last post, which again leaves me with a lot to catch up on here. Thankfully we take a lot of pictures as we travel around, so even if we forget things we have hundreds and hundreds of pictures to remind us exactly what we’ve been up to. The style the blog has taken, which is a bit more of a general overview of the places we’ve visited and accounts of some of the highlights, as opposed to the detailed day by day version I started with, also leaves the door open for me to continue writing when our trip eventually draws to an end, as I can go back and revisit these places in my writing and fill in the details. Anyway, without further ado, here’s how we’ve found Malaysia so far.
Georgetown, Penang was our first stop. After a long journey in an uncomfortably packed minibus, we made it through the border (visas are 90 days on arrival visas if you’re wondering, so absolutely no fuss or anything to worry about) and arrived in Penang. Penang is a state, which is made up on Penang island on the west coast, and Seberang Perai, located on the Malay Peninsula. Georgetown is the capital city of the state, and it’s fair to say the most well known Penang location, as well as being the most popular with travellers. As it’s an island there is one long and wide car bridge used to access the city, which offered some great views as we drove across. As we set foot off the bus, we found that although Georgetown is still a busy, hustling city (Malaysia’s second largest), there was nothing like the madness and chaos of Bangkok. The roads and streets are busy, but not comparable to Thailand’s capital, and navigating your way around is far easier. We made our way to our guesthouse for the first two nights; the 1921 Art Gllery & Guesthouse, which despite some fantastic online reviews, proved to be quite a disappointment, and as we began to explore the city, found that there isn’t a huge amount to actually do in Georgetown. Penang is famous for it’s food, which sounded good to me, so we ate a lot. We had believed when we came to the city that it was famous for the quality of it’s food, but we found that the reputation for food actually comes from the sheer variety on offer. Penang, and Malaysia in general, is a real cultural melting pot, if you’ll excuse the clichéd phrase, which leaves you with choices including Indian, Chinese, Malay, Thai, Korean to name but a few when it comes to food, and all of them are prepared and cooked in their countries authentic way. Most of them taste fantastic; we had a couple of our favourite meals on the whole trip from Hawker stalls in Penang, but it is the diversity of what’s on offer as well as the quality which makes Penang famous.
Outside of eating a lot we didn’t find a huge amount to do (again, not a huge problem), however our time in Penang changed massively when we moved to stay in a hostel, specifically the Tipsy Tiger hostel, which is known to be the only party hostel in the area. We had a great time staying here, the staff were fantastically welcoming (mainly due to most of them being travellers themselves, so knowing what makes a good experience), and the place lives up to it’s name as a party hostel. Not only do they offer every guest two free drinks during happy hour, but they also offer all you can drink for 45 Malaysian Ringgit (equivalent to around £8.50) until the bar closes at 11pm, at which point everyone gathered into the large communal area heads out into Georgetowns bars and clubs. The end result of this was quite a few sore heads the next morning, and as I’m pretty terrible when it comes to hangovers, none more sore than mine. Much of the rest of our time was spent wandering around and trying not to spend money (not always successfully) in Georgetown’s malls, exploring the city’s street art (a lot of which we found pretty underwhelming), and paying a visit to the ‘Upside down museum’ a place set up as as an upside down house, which you’re ushered around (slightly too quickly), stopping to take photographs. It was a laugh, and some of the photographs are mind bending, but it’s all very controlled by the staff working there (they tell you how to pose for every picture and there’s no opportunity to create your own pictures), and its all over very quickly.
We spent a surprisingly long time of six days in Penang, but eventually checked out and caught a bus headed up into the hills in the south east towards the Cameron Highlands. The Highlands are a hill station which occupy 712 square kilometres. It’s a well known tourist destination, largely thanks to the internet images of the tea plantations sitautated in the highlands, images of rolling hills in lush green, viewed from a local tea shop with a cup of hot locally brewed tea. The altitude of the place means the temperatures are cooler than anywhere else around, it very rarely exceeds 25 degrees Celsius. There are also strawberry farms and cafes serving cakes and scones. Essentially, this place feels like a little slice of the English countryside. All that was missing was the rain. We checked in to a cute little guesthouse called the Cameronian Inn and wandered around the town and (Tanah Rata is the main traveller hub). The town itself is again not full of things to do, so we had dinner at a fantastic Indian restaurant and headed for bed. The next day we ventured out for a day of hiking, as within the highlands there are a number of “Jungle Trails” which are suggested trekking routes through the jungle. We had planned to take a leisurely wander along some of the easier trails to head up towards some of the fruit farms but accidentally found ourselves traversing two of the more difficult trails, which sometimes saw us conducting near vertical climbs up muddy parts of jungle, climbing up and through trees and generally trying not to fall over. Due to not being planned this was all done without water, food or any real idea of where we were going and after four long hours we finally emerged at the other side, sweaty, thirsty and covered in mud. If you know us or have read the previous blogs, it might not surprise you to learn that Fran was navigating that day. We didn’t fancy hiking back again, so we grabbed a taxi, and after stopping off at a local night market where we bought some noodles and chicken for dinner (and sat on the floor on the pavement to eat them) as well as some honey and freshly picked strawberries for later, headed home.
The next day we’d booked a tour to take us to see some of the highlights of the area. We were picked up bright and early by our tour guide in an original land rover and were whisked off the the jungle for more hiking. The purpose of this hike was to travel deep into the jungle to find the Rafflesia flower (the world’s largest flower- it can grow up to 39 inches in diameter!) Our tour guide led hike proved to be far easier than our accidental hike the day before, and apart from a couple of river crossings which saw us hopping across stones to make our way across the water, and Fran having a freak out when she discovered a leech stuck to the top of her trainer, the hike was all fairly straightforward. We got to see the flower, and it is impressively large, and the hike was overall very enjoyable, but it didn’t have quite the same feeling of adventure as our hike the day before. The next aspect of the tour was a trip to a local village, where we were given the opportunity to try a blowpipe; a long bamboo tube which is used locally for hunting – you blow down the tube to shoot a dart out of the end. I’m not entirely sure what happened with mine as the dart ended up directly behind the target. Fran seemed to think I’d missed spectacularly, I’m pretty sure I’d done it so well and with so much force I’d shot right through the target. We’ll never know who was right. And Fran? She hit the target, her attempt leaving the dart sticking triumphantly out of the polystyrene board. Not quite as good as me then.
After stopping for lunch we made our way to the tea plantations and visited a local tea factory. We were given a brief tour around the factory and museum, and ended our time there by sampling some of the tea whilst looking out over the postcard esque scenery below. Although the factory and museum weren’t hugely captivating, the view alone made this part of the day a real highlight, and the tea was a welcome addition too. The final part of the day was another hike, this time through the Mossy Forest, which is pretty self explanatory in that it is a huge forest, the majority of which is covered in thick green moss. This gives it a fantastic look – we both remarked that it looked like something out of a fairytale, and as we squeezed our bodies through the mossy green holes created in the trees I was half expecting to stumble upon some kind of magical creature. Sadly none appeared, but nethertheless the expereince was great, especially as our tour guide had taken us through a hidden trail which is not used by large numbers of tourists, meaning not only was our group of five alone in the forest, but the beautiful surroundings seemed untouched. We thoroughly enjoyed our day trip, and the Cameron Highlands in general, the cooler climate made a refreshing change, the nature we enjoyed was fantastic, and it was nice to get a little slice of home despite being so far away. We could have easily stayed longer, but we decided to keep moving, an headed further south east, this time into the rainforest of Taman Negara.
Taman Negara is a vast national park, which is home to one of the worlds oldest rainforests (it’s 130 million years old if you’re wondering). We got a taster of what we were in for when our bus stopped about 15km away from the small traveller hub village of Kuala Tahan, and we boarded a long boat which cruised down the Tembeling river for the next two hours to complete our journey. (Although I only just made it onto the boat as I walked across a particularly wet and muddy hill while walking to the boat and very nearly slid down into the dirty brown water below. Thankfully I was just about able to hold it together.) When we arrived at Kuala Tahan, and began to explore some of the Taman Negara national park, I’ve got to be honest and say that although of course walking through the rainforest is an incredible, amazing thing to do, our overall expereince there wasn’t good. The options for places to stay in Kuala Tahan are very limited, when looking online before hand we had struggled to find anything within budget that had decent reviews. We’d ended up settling for a place called the Teresek View Motel and although I can’t speak for the other options, I wish we’d chosen somewhere else. The staff were unprofessional, rude and made us feel uncomfortable to the point that we found a back entrance to use instead to avoid walking past the desk, there were screaming children (belonging to the owner) running around the lobby and hallways at all hours, and the place was generally dirty and grim. Not to worry we thought, we just won’t spend anytime here. The only problem with that is there is virtually nothing else to do in the town of Kuala Tahan, the sole exception being some floating restaurants along the river. While they are pleasantly placed, generally speaking they serve bland and over priced food, so even this was a disappointment.
Not to worry we thought, the rainforest will make up for it. Sadly even this wasn’t correct. As I mentioned above, the rainforest is magnificent, and walking through it is an experience I’d always recommend, here the expereince is severely blunted by the fact it’s all paved. Or at least the only parts you’re allowed to go in without a guide. There are a large number of tour days available here to do all sorts of things, including hiking through the jungle, rafting down the river, and sleeping in caves, but so soon after doing a tour day in the Cameron Highlands we wanted to simply head out along the jungle trails on our own, which we found to be too much of an on-rails experience to enjoy as much as we’d expected. There was no sense of adventure or excitement as we trudged along the idiot-proof walkways. The thick jungle surrounding didn’t really even give us much of an opportunity to divert from the path. If all you want is to witness the beauty of the jungle and some of the wildlife which inhabits it, it’s great, but if you’re looking for the excitement of a real trek through the jungle this isn’t it (unless you want to fork out for a day trip, which would probably be an altogether different expereince.) That’s not to say it was all bad, parts of it were great. Taman Negara is home to the world’s longest canopy walkway, which was great. Walking the 530 meter canopy bridges, suspended 40 meters above the ground, it’s fascinating to explore the rainforest from the tree tops. On our final day we visited an area called Lubuk Simpon, which is advertised to travellers as a swimming area. When we arrived we were sceptical, as the dirty brown river water didn’t look all that welcoming, and the signs that warned diseases are a risk in open water and to enter the water at your own risk didn’t exactly ease our fears, but once we plucked up the courage we really enjoyed swimming in the brilliantly refreshing cool water, and spent some time floating around in the water and watching the fish we shared it with. So our time there had had some saving graces, and I don’t regret visiting the area at all, but when our time was up, we were quite ready to move on.
We were especially ready to move on as the next place we were going to would be Kuala Lumpur. After a few days staying in the middle of the rainforest with not much else around, we couldn’t get much more of a contrast than heading to Malaysia’s capital city. After our time in Bangkok I wasn’t sure how we’d find KL, but in the end, we both really enjoyed it. It has the same big city feel, but overall feels more modern, cleaner, less chaotic, and just much more comfortable. We got a nice surprise on our first evening, as we had not too long ago checked into our hotel, Goldbrick Hotel in Bukit Bintang when we received a knock on our door. We opened it to find one of the hotel workers, who informed us that during the month of Ramadan the hotel provides free food in the evening for its guests to break their fasts, and they offer this to all guests, us included, and invited them to join us. We did, and were greeted warmly with already made plates of food. It was a wonderful welcoming gesture, and made a real impression on us. That coupled with the fact that the hotel staff were all friendly and helpful, and while the hotel room was very small, it was very clean, and provided us with undoubtably the most comfortable bed we’d had on the trip so far, meant that we felt very at home in the hotel. We loved the city itself too. On our first day we visited the KLCC Park, a beautiful garden set in the city centre, which offers fantastic viewpoints for the famous Petronius twin towers. We decided against going up the towers, as to do so would cost us 80 Ringgit each, and there would be other ways of getting the view of the city from above. After snapping many many pictures of the towers we visited the KL Aquarium, which we really enjoyed, particaully watching the sharks swim menacingly overhead in the underwater tunnel (although we felt it wasn’t quite as good as the London Aquarium which we visited a few months before we left.) Later that night we made a return visit to the KLCC park, first of all to see the fantastic towers lit up at night, but also to watch the light show which takes place in the water fountains every night.
The next day we explored a little more of the city on foot, wandering through the fake designer market stalls of Chinatown, and enjoying relaxing on the grass at Merdeka Square, as the sun set behind us, causing the fascinating architecture of the government building across the street to be illuminated in a bright light. The day finished with a trip down Jalan Alor, the famous food street which is lined on both sides with restaurant after restaurant, supplemented by smaller food stalls. The constant annoyance of having menus shoved in our faces by people attempting to drag us into their particular restaurant soured the experience slightly, but the excitement of the area and variety of food makes a visit to Jalan Alor worthwhile. Some other highlights from our time in KL include the Batu Caves, an impressively large cave which is used as a Buddhist temple, and is home to a large number of monkeys, and a visit to the KL Bird Park; a beautiful park which is home to a number of species of bird, many of whom are left to freely wander around the park. The final highlight, and probably our favourite of all of them, came on the last day, where we were able to sneak up to the rooftop pool of the Face Suites, a hotel and residence. At the top is a fantastic infinity pool which offers breathtaking views of the city. It isn’t open to the public, but we confidently strolled through the lobby to the elevator and headed to the roof, where we were initially disappointed to find that you need an access card to open the door to get outside, but thankfully a friendly traveller (who was actually staying there) recognised what we were doing, and once the guard had walked past, opened the door for us. We spent a few hours up there, soaking up the fantastic views and watching as the hot sun set over the city and the many lights began to flicker to life.
The next day we departed KL and made our way further south to the city of Melaka, from where we’ll be heading to Singapore, and then back North again, back to the beach, so of course we can’t wait for that!