The descent over the South China Sea into Kuala Lumpur airport was breath taking, with the runway dramatically carving through palm olive plantations as far as the eye could see. I didn’t realise then how controversial deforestation in favour of lucrative palm oil production was. I do now.
I was very much looking forward to spending time with some of my son-in-law Simon’s extensive family and visiting the country with them. First up cousin LayHock welcomed me to KL. We spent a couple of days together visiting the sprawling city with the most complicated road system imaginable. Actually, there isn’t a massive amount of cultural stuff to do in KL, which is dominated by one enormous shopping mall after another. However, there is the main mosque and the main Chinese and Indian temples to see and of course the landmark Petronas Towers. The most enjoyable place I visited was the Museum of Islamic Art, which had an incredible collection of Indian, Chinese and Malay manuscripts, jewellery, weaponry, fabrics, pottery and furniture. The building was ultra modern and spacious but strangely, apart from some school children, we were the only people there.
Chinese and Indian street food are a must in KL and I tried everything, including quails eggs in black aspic i.e.horse urine, which is surprisingly tasty! You have no idea what bliss it was to slouch on the sofa watching crap TV (something called ‘Warrior’ being popular), with LayHock’s children and to have a family meal round the kitchen table.
LayHock handed me over to Johnny (one of Simon’s uncles) and his wife Akim in a motorway service station – just like in the movies, and I spent a wonderful four days with then in Ayer Tawar, a town 4 hours north west of KL, the nearest big city being Ipoh. Ayer Tawar has a large Chinese population and a cool Taoist temple called Tua Pek Kong. The Chinese live quite separately from the Muslim Malays; that is each live in their own communities, have their own schools, universities, markets, shops, restaurants, hotels, beaches and so on. It was interesting to learn about the seemingly unsolvable differences between the two cultures, compounded by the fact that the Malays have preferential rights over land and jobs, which naturally aggrieves the Chinese.
After doing a huge amount of sleeping, eating delicious Chinese take away and watching films and football with the family (I was just in the nick of time to get caught up in the frenzy surrounding Leicester City), I felt very much at home.
We tootled around the area and also spent a wonderful day in the Cameron Highlands. I’ve seen tea plantations in India and imagined these wouldn’t be a match for them but they absolutely are. The scenery is beautiful with an abundance of plantations and also masses of fruit & veg being grown under huge tunnels, plus pick-your-own strawberry farms, bee farms, lavender farms and butterfly farms. Driving up and down the mountain we passed through several Orang Asli villages. The Orang Asli are a very poor minority indigenous people living on government subsidies in small communities. They are instantly recognisable by their dark curly hair.
The average traveller won’t have heard of Pulau Pangkor. It’s a tiny island accessed by ferry from Lemut, close to Ayer Tawar. I thought I should give the rellies a break so I took myself there for 48 hours. The island was really quiet and I found a gorgeous spot called Coral Bay with a beach restaurant called Nipah Steamboat Deli where the top notch Chinese owner/chef, cooked up an incredible sunset feast which he invited me to join him and a friend in eating foc! I swam, walked, read, conversed with a very tame hornbill (emblem of the island) and found some lovely batik clothes.
Back on the mainland, we set off for Penang, reached by diving over a 26 kilometre bridge. That’s one long bridge. I wasn’t mad about the island. The Malay occupied south is undergoing massive development, which means roadworks and construction sites. The Chinese north has some nice spots and a beautiful pagoda but nothing outstanding.
What Penang does have, is George Town – named after George III. Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008. The city’s architecture is an eclectic mix of crumbling shophouses, elegant colonial colonial buildings and soaring skyscrapers whilst dotted throughout the city is quirky street art. The hotel I stayed in (best ever duvet and pillows) gave me a map with all the 3D steel cartoons and wall paintings marked out. Over the course of two days I wandered round the town seeking out the artworks, stopping regularly to soak up the cafe culture and browse the speciality shops. Well known for its food, the most unusual concoction I tried was called ABC and consisted of coconut ice cream, sweet corn, blue rice, peanuts and lime jelly. It sounds gross but it goes down a treat on a searingly hot day. I sat eating it in a cafe with a wall painting of the proprietor who came and stood beside. I’ve posted the photo I took of him and also some other street art but there is masses more which I’m sure you can find online.
Like the rest of South East Asia, Malaysia was in the grips of El Nino with temperatures regularly climbing to 38-39 degrees. In George Town the Dragon Boat Race to accompany the dumpling festival (don’t you love the image) was cancelled; a lack of fresh flowers for Mother’s Day was reported countrywide and at the Sungai Golok high security river crossing into Thailand, the river completely dried up enabling people to walk across the border unchecked.
Having said a sad goodbye to my wonderful hosts I took a flight to Kota Bharu on the east coast. I went for my usual wander and stumbled upon a football stadium where a needle match between Kelantan (local state) and Terengganu (neighbouring state) was about to start. A young guy offered me a ticket and with nothing else to do I accepted. I chatted with groups girls screaming at their idols, and young men keen to talk about the English premiere league. Lots of them, like Simon, follow Liverpool. I must ask him why. Both teams had brought drums into the stadium and took it in turns to chant their ritual songs to an increasingly frenzied beat. There was a party atmosphere with food and drink (no alcohol in this predominantly Muslim town) being shared around at half time. Thankfully the home team won 3-1 so we all went home happy.
It’s impromptu experiences like this which make my travels so enjoyable. Carpe Diem.
My one full day in Kota Bharu was pleasantly spent visiting several excellent museums, the palace, an arts and crafts centre and the colourful market. I also finally managed to locate a post office to send a parcel of unwanted stuff back home (much more difficult than you would imagine), git my second haircut, shared shisha with an Egyptian guy and spicy fish soup with a local policeman who wanted to marry me. What more can a girl ask for!
Dawn the next morning I went to the bus station to travel south to Kuala Besut from where the boat leaves for the Perhentian islands. 45mins later I concluded the bus was a ‘no show’ – apparently phantom buses are not unusual here – so shared a taxi with a couple bound for the same destination. Thus began my week volunteering with turtles about which I’ve written a separate blog.
Fast forward to 1 May and I was back on the peninsula boarding a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Being Labour Day the roads were packed so it took 9 interminable hours. KL was in full party mode; fire eaters, jugglers, loud music, dancing etc. Despite the revelry I slept for almost 12 hours! I fell in love with the shiny new shopping mall near my B&B mainly because it had a food court with about 50 different concessions each selling mouth watering food from a different country making it a round the world gastronomic experience under one roof.
Luckily I managed to get my prescription medication in the mall, but for a whopping £80, which blew a pretty big hole in my budget and made me appreciate our wonderful NHS. The other thing I managed to acquire was a new bra. In previous blogs I was moaning about the lack of white cotton knickers which it took me about 3 countries to find. Buying a bra took 5 countries. Thankfully, being a cosmopolitan city KL caters for more well endowed women as well as tiny Asian women!
So with drugs and underwear sorted and loads of terrific experiences in the memory bank I was ready to leave Malaysia. And I left ensuring I allowed plenty of time to hang out in the One World ‘Golden Lounge’. After 4 months travelling round SE Asia (13 flights, countless buses and boats but onky one train), I thought I deserved to exit in style.
Reflecting back, it struct me that the route I took, starting in Myanmar then on to Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam finishing up in Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, had quite by chance started with the poorest, least developed country and end with the richest, most developed one, with the countries in-between becoming increasingly developed in the same order in which I visited them.
What also struck me was that the poorer the country the more devout the people were and also the more welcoming. Of course everyone wants to enjoy a better standard of living and a more secure future but I really hope that despite increasing international investment these fascinating countries don’t loose their unique charm.
Before the next leg of my travels takes me to the sprawling islands of Indonesia I’ll be sharing with you my 3-day stop over in the incongruously wealthy Kingdom of Brunei.