“Malaysia: Truly Asia” claims the worldwide advertising campaign for Malaysia. It is. It’s probably a lazy description, but imagine a mix of China, Thailand and India and you have Malaysia. A predominantly Muslim country where ladies in bikinis swim alongside ladies in full body (and head) covering (“burqinis”, as they’re probably not called); where the tranquillity of a Buddhist temple is regularly interrupted by the call to prayer from a nearby mosque; where billboards for make-up sit alongside billboards extolling the teachings of Mohammed. Multicultural, certainly, but how readily the cultures were willing to mix wasn’t that apparent to us.
Having managed to endure nearly two weeks in the Seychelles with me and Bron in October of last year, our oldest Shanghai friend – Rachel* – once more met up with us for a few days in the sun; this time with her boyfriend – Ben (also known as “The French Gentleman”).
So why Malaysia? It gave us a chance to head back to Shanghai for a few days and then visit a relatively nearby country with enough to keep us occupied for a couple of weeks. Beach holiday resorts for long periods of time are fine if you have the sustained mental capacity of Jedward: “Woohoo – let’s go in the sea today then sit on a sun lounger for 8 hours! Woohoo let’s do the same thing for the next 14 days“. I plainly can’t do this, so coerced the other three into a somewhat extended island hopping Malaysian trip. We travelled from Kuala Lumpur up to Langkawi, headed back South to the colonial town of Georgetown on the island of Penang before being chauffeured over to Malaysia’s east coast for a night in Kota Bharu and an extended stay on the Perhentian Island of Kecil.
Before meeting up with Rachel and Ben, Bron and I had a night in Kuala Lumpur followed by a night on an overnight train. One was more luxurious than the other. We knew the train would be a little basic, and for £8 we can’t complain too much, but I don’t think Bron was expecting to have to share her the bed with two suitcases (a lesser known advantage of being 5’2”).
Other than the cockroach lurking in the bottom of the poppadum bowl (obviously waiting for us to clear enough room for it to climb out), Langkawi gave us a great introduction to the islands of Malaysia. It’s a duty-free island too, enabling a fully liquid picnic next to an inland freshwater lake and the opportunity for Rachel to celebrate her birthday in a swimming pool with some cheaper (but definitely not cheap) Champagne. Ben took the ladies on a trip up a cable car for a few scenic views, but I refrained, preferring not to be hung by a cable several thousand feet up.
A tip for anybody heading to the former British colonial town of Georgetown on Penang: avoid the turgid, soporific chains of Marriotts, Holiday Inns, etc, and instead stay in the Campbell House Hotel. Genuinely the best breakfast I’ve ever experienced in a hotel with the equivalent of a 6 course tasting menu– no “help yourself” style buffets here. Also featuring the friendliest staff in the whole of Malaysia, huge rooms with unique character in each and an ideal position at the heart of Georgetown’s mixture of architecture, culture and, of course, restaurants. I’ve never tasted “Nyonya” cuisine before – a truly unique flavour for local, Malaysian food from ancient Chinese settlers. The food in the “Nyonya Baba Cuisine” restaurant alone is worth a return trip to Malaysia just to try out a few more dishes.
Penang also features an aging funicular journey up to Penang Hill, with the promise of “High Tea” at its summit; something you probably can experience if the restaurant isn’t closed for a private function when you get there. We had a close approximation nearby – scones and a cup of tea – in a restaurant temporarily missing their bar manager. This only relevant since I asked for a Long Island Ice Tea (tea themed, obviously) and ended up making it myself.
Never has the disparity between East and West been so narrowly apparent than by crossing from the west to east coasts of Malaysia. From the welcoming, multicultural islands of Langkawi and Penang to the deeply Muslim areas around Kota Bahru in the east. I have a degree of ethical dissonance when it comes to local customs, particularly when I find those customs so alien in respect to the treatment of women. Since Malaysia is not my home country, I think it reasonable to respect local traditions but feel somewhat perturbed by the head to toe covering of the large majority of Muslim ladies we encounter. But this isn’t a blog about the rights and wrongs of religion and its effect on society (as much as I’d like it to be!)
I’d be useless under torture. I discovered this at the cleverly disguised “Grape Tree Spa” during our stay in the Perhentian island of Kecil. Over two days, my torturer, an innocent-looking middle aged lady, took the art of torture massage to new heights. Boy was she good – complaints from me that the backs of my knees didn’t stretch in that direction were met sternly with “But your knees are not good!”. Bad knees. Her thumbs and elbows pressed so far into my lower back that she have easily performed kidney keyhole surgery. Without the keyhole. And my eyebrows, raised and contorted under pain were swiftly attended to and flattened. Even cries of “That still hurts!” as her thumb reached down between the gap between your neck and shoulders you didn’t know was there was met with the unconvincing “Sorry, I forgot”. This plus the added bonus of several new mosquito bites and you have the perfect torture mass(ochist)age. Had it not been for Bron lying beside me, quietly coping with the same treatment I think I’d have made my excuses and left.
Speaking of mosquitos – there’s an old joke about three men in a jungle being faced with a lion. One puts his trainers on and starts running. The other two shout “You can’t outrun a lion!”. The first responds “No, but I can outrun you two!”. Replace lions with mosquitos and trainers with anti-mosquito spray and you have a good parallel. It’s impossible to avoid the little buggers – the best you can hope for is that your particular brand of anti-mosquito spray is far more pungent than those worn by everyone else. The mosquitos are hungry and are going to eat someone. If a “CSI Malaysia” were to exist, I’m convinced they could use mosquito bites to track the travels of an unlucky victim, with Georgetown mosquitos producing a far more agitated skin response to those from the more remote locations of Langkawi and the gentle nibbles of those on the Perhentian islands.
For our last location, we stayed at the Bubu Resort on the Perhentian Island of Kecil; a resort with the genius of idea of ensuring all guests return in time for an evening meal by providing two free cocktails per guest between the hours of 5 and 6pm. Three days of lounging around on Kecil’s Long Beach, snorkelling nearby and watching people play with fire was a perfect end to our Malaysian adventure. Malaysia is beautiful, features food unlike anywhere else I’ve travelled and is, for the most part, very welcoming.
Ben and Rachel (plus the bonus of spending a few days with Lauren** – Ben’s sister – and her friend Celine) – we’re getting used to this idea of travelling around Southeast Asia accompanied by ABCs and FBCs, as well as the introduction of Inflatable Batman to accompany Inflatable Starfish. Here’s to the next one…
* Not oldest in age, I hasten to add. Although she did celebrate a birthday out in Malaysia.
**Lauren – I have a feeling I’ve spelled your name wrong, probably because it’s French and I’m not!