fter our housesit in Hong Kong we arrive in Bangkok in the beginning of January. Meanwhile Arwen and Jan, close friends of ours, are on their honeymoon in Malaysia. As this is quite a bit closer than Belgium for a meet-up, we decide to head straight for Malaysia. Two comfortable night trains later we arrive in Kuala Lumpur for some good old Belgian catching up over a lovely diner thanks to Arwen and Jan. And that is how our Malaysian adventure starts.
After our great Belgian night, it is time to discover Kuala Lumpur. The city most famous for its pointy and high Petronas Towers. A city that reflects the diversity within Malaysia. Beautiful mosques, a very interesting Islamic Arts museum, Chinatown, Buddhist and Indian temples in Chinese streets. And in between foodmarkets to gorge on. A very intriguing and successful mix.
After Kuala Lumpur it is time to explore the western half of mainland Malaysia. First we visit the coastal city Malacca (a.k.a. Melaka), right on the eponymous straits of Malacca. First a Portuguese, then a Dutch and finally a British colony. This city with a very visible mix of Malay, Indians and Chinese, is a true melting pot of a colonial past and a culturally diverse present. In one street you can find the oldest Chinese temple, the oldest Hindu temple, and one of the oldest mosques in Malaysia. While a bit further you can find a colonial cemetery, the ruins of the Saint-Paul’s Church filled with tombstones inscribed in Old-Dutch and a typical Dutch “Stadthuys” (city hall). A few steps away you can stroll past quaint canals boarded by adjoining little old houses and little antique Chinese shops. There even is a Portuguese part of town, including a catholic convent, where they still speak a Portuguese-Malaysian creole (Kristang).
But Malacca is destined to be much more than that in the future. Or at least that’s what they hope here. In vivid contrast with the old colonial part of town, a modern and high end future is being planned for Malacca. Megalomaniac building projects on newly created land and islands are sprouting up everywhere. Plans for skyscrapers filled with fancy stores, several top of the line luxury hotels, aquariums, water parks, etc. The goal seems to be to become a second Dubai. But who will populate all these apartments and hotels? There are already quiet a lot of completed buildings that are completely empty and whole island projects such as “Arab City” that are eerily deserted. Apparently the locals bet on half of Singapore, the whole Chinese upper-class and every rich Arab family going for a holiday home on the Straits. Not that there aren’t already a lot of Asian tourists, you can clearly see that on the touristy night market in Jonker street, but it looks pretty unlikely that there will ever be enough to fill up all these empty skyscrapers. We are really curious how this will turn out.
We also visit George Town, Penang. Another cozy town with small streets, old shop front houses and delicious food markets. We are here during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam (read more about that here), which enables us to not only enjoy the beautiful sights but also to experience a great festival.
We also cross to the other side of mainland Malaysia. There on the Eastern coast we end up in the apparently deserted coastal surfing town of Cherating. A terribly run down little ghost town, with rooms that have not seen guests nor cleaning staff in a long while, empty restaurants and streets with only a handful of lost backpackers. It is of course the rainy season and they did have floods in nearby areas a few weeks ago, but still, we think this town has lost its way quiet some time ago. In short, after only one night here we really want to get out as soon as possible, but it takes about 6 hours before the bus arrives. We get the following reply when we ask for the bus schedule: “bus maybe late, maybe early” … Or maybe not? Luckily our long wait is brightened up by 6 playful otters.
When we finally get out of this dump we arrive in the nearby oil city of Kuantan. There are no major sights and few travellers make it up here, but it is pretty interesting to see the difference between the more multicultural West of mainland Malaysia and this staunchly Malay Muslim city with lots of oil in front of its coastline. It is a real boomtown, with lots of money floating around, whose hasty expansion seems to have surprised the surrounding wildlife as there are huge monitor lizards in the sewers and eagles fishing in the canals. They also have a great non-touristy night market with delicious Malay food. And that is more than enough for us. Trow in a cheap guesthouse and we happily decide to hang around for a while.
In the center of mainland Malaysia we visit the Cameron Highlands, once a British hill station. By far our favourite relaxation spot in Malaysia, but to be honest its cooler temperatures are definitely a deciding factor for us. We also have an amazing guesthouse, Gerard’s place, with the best hostess ever, Jay. Nearby we also find the best Northern Indian restaurant outside of India and London, Singh Chapati, where the two year old daughter, Amrit, is part of the diner entertainment.
When the rainy season and the accompanying floods change our travel plans, we are happy to stay here for a few more days. Great guesthouse, great Indian food nearby and magnificent views from our guesthouse’s terrace. We even decide to brush up our Monopoly skills. They have both a Star Wars and an Indiana Jones version. That had to be done of course, for humanity’s sake. Topped of with some local strawberries, tea and scones, and we are set for some serious buying, renting and selling.
When the weather clears up we visit the “Mossy Forest”: a forest, what’s in a name, completely covered in moss. Such a heavy carpet of moss has accumulated on the tree roots, branches and even tree tops that you can walk on top of them. When you jump up and down, it really feels like you are jumping on a bed. A beautiful walk with lots of mossy vegetation, flesh-eating plants and wild orchids. Sadly it is also a bit of a misty forest during our walk, which obstructs the views but does increase the atmosphere. By the time we head to some of the surrounding tea plantations, we are back in the clear and get to enjoy the views and the local leafy brews.
People often ask whether it is worth it to visit a country during its rainy season. We personally don’t let it deter us, because it is not as if it rains constantly. It often rains for a shorter period of time than in Belgium. Of course sometimes the rain does impede you from visiting certain sights. For instance, we would have loved to visit the Taman Negara national park and to take the Jungle Railway, but these areas were completely flooded. But it doesn’t really matter to us, we enjoy the freshly washed verdant landscapes and the often milder temperatures. And of course there are less tourists and better prices. Furthermore, if you have to pass on certain things because of the rain, we always believe it gives you another good reason to come back to a country.
Malaysia is definitely worth a visit. A country with an interesting mix of cultures, influences from all over the world, delicious food, beautiful nature and very friendly and helpful people. And definitely something not to be forgotten, the extremely infectious suffix “-lah” behind everything-lah. Ok-lah? This country is definitely more than ok-lah!