If you could see the earlier version of my “tentative” route for this trip (meaning my super elaborated Excel file with average costs per country, regional weather, etc, etc.) Malaysia wasn’t even there (I’m sorry Ken*, but it’s true). (*Malaysian Friend).
After Indonesia and Singapore, we would go South to Australia and beyond. But then we realized it would still be quite cold in those latitudes, therefore needed to buy one month. We didn’t want to move too far up north, because that would take us further away from Australia (read: more expensive flights). The Philippines was an option, but typhoon season was beginning. So, Malaysia was the natural solution…close to Singapore and with affordable flights to Oceania. We did some research and it was promising! Done deal.
Now comes the summary of over a month, in one single post. So, apologies for the length. It’s allowed to skip some lines.
Malaysia or China?
Zuzana, our Airbnb host in Jogjakarta, had told us that Islam was stronger in Malaysia. In our experience, that wasn’t the case. The Chinese community’s presence was VERY strong in most of the places we visited (perhaps with the exception of the east coast). Officially, “only” 23% of the people are from Chinese origins, but it feels like more. I guess the reason might be that they play a very important role in the economy and that in most cities, Chinatown is one of the must-visit areas.
Anyway, a large Chinese community means much Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism (and probably some other isms). This translates into fewer burkas. You do see them, of course, but mixed with a good share of yoga pants and high heels. We saw plenty of female hair, women showing 4/5ths of their legs and more than just a few navels. We also saw way more mixed-couples than we had seen in Indonesia. It felt totally fine for Sandra to walk around in shorts or showing her shoulders. Also, alcohol was widely available and at decent prices. Not that it’s something too important to me (ehm…),…just stating some facts for you, the faithful readership 😊.
– strict access control at this Chinese temple. –
Modernity up a notch:
Thus far, we had only visited Indonesia and Singapore… well, in a spectrum of perceived modernity (perceived by Fran, that is), where Indonesia is 1 and Singapore is 100, I would say Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur in particular) is a good 60 (Sandra was a bit less generous and gave it a 50).
Pretty much everyone speaks English, cities are very pedestrian-friendly, there’s decent public transport and in general it looks like a more sophisticated and open society (than Indonesia). You see less poverty on the streets. As my friend Aida confirmed, their GPB per capita is almost 4 times that of Indonesia (second only to Singapore -and I believe to Brunei- in the region), so it does makes sense.
The usual random thoughts and facts:
- I was thinking the other day, about this “new” reality of ours, of being constantly bombarded with new stimuli… Every week -sometimes every other day- we need to find our way through new supermarkets, new products, new locations, new public transportation, new food… It’s so radically different from when we used to go to “our” supermarket on auto-pilot and before we realized it we were already back home with a full basket (of the usual stuff). I’m convinced that this is better than doing crossword puzzles or playing Sudoku. Basically, we are getting smarter every day, see? 🙂
- Malaysians LOVE green screens. Every attraction has one or more of them. Just before you see the real thing, they WILL take a picture of you in front of a green screen by the entrance, and then sell you the picture with the added background (of that same real thing you just saw in person -and most likely took plenty of pictures of-). Most of the times they print the pictures by default (hoping that’ll make the sell easier, I guess). Margins must be crazy high, to cover the cost of the thousands of pictures they print and then discard.
- We also had a record-breaking experience. On our flight from Langkawi to Penang (keep reading to know what those places are), the fee to check-in luggage also included a hot meal. The flight was very short, though. At minute 5 -still ascending- the flight attendants started passing the food. At minute 16 -already descending- I finished eating. Sandra finished while taxing to the gate after landing. They didn’t say anything about the tray not being “in the upright position”. First time ever.
– That’s not the time of the day, that’s my chronometer with the flight time –
- You don’t really see an ultra-strong personality of Malaysia as “one society”. I guess that’s due to the mix of Chinese and Indian influence, plus the aftermath of having been under the domain of the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British, then the Japanese, then the British again (plus their own Malay heritage, of course). And they all have a very strong own-identity. In chemistry terms -remembering my days of “Chemie” at the Humboldt German school- it feels more like a Mischung (mixture), than a real Verbindung (compound) (good old professor Herr Abele would be so proud).
Now a summary of the places we went to, pictures included:
We started the Malaysian adventure with Langkawi (a duty-free island at the very north, almost next to Thailand), then flew down to Penang (a more important island, with its main city Georgetown) and then crossed over to the east coast, to visit the tiny Perhentian Islands (probably the number one paradisiac destination in Malaysia).
- Duty free meant 50 cent beers and 1 Euro imported chocolate bars. You could see tourists buying everything by the dozen. Chinese ones by the gross (that’s a dozen dozens, isn’t it?… not sure anymore).
- Nice beaches, although not the best sea. We also got a couple of very rainy days, which didn’t help. Still, went to a very very steep cable car and a very very tall “skybridge” at the top of a mountain. Was nice. Check out the pics.
While walking down the beach one day, we randomly walked into Aida, a Bosnian-German friend of mine from Business School, who now lives in Kuala Lumpur. It’s the third time we meet, randomly, in different cities, in different years. What are the odds?
- We rented a jet-sky. The climax came when we switched spots, so Sandra could ride it, and the first thing she asked was “which one is the brake?”. The brake. On a jet-sky. High adrenaline followed.
– this is not a drill –
- Oh…one night at the backpackers’ guest house, while playing UNO, I felt something on my foot. It was a small snake. Escaping from the rain, probably. The next night, at a restaurant, Sandra felt something on her hair. A gecko had pooped on her. That was our introduction to Malaysia’s fauna.
We loved this city. A true street-food paradise. Nice atmosphere and a lot of very cool street art. Here we confirmed that Malaysians have an obsession with food. And that you only get a spoon and a fork, everywhere (no knifes, and by the way neither napkins). Most of the “top 5 locations” for every “must-try” dish is not a restaurant but a street tent or cart. There’s even a street-food Museum. In my first night-market experience I was like “wow!”. Sandra was more like “eat this every night and you’ll die soon”. I tried it all. I also paid the consequences. I’ll leave it there.
– Although not real, a fair representation of the amount of food I had –
- Speaking of food…. A new mortal enemy has emerged, and it’s here to stay… it’s the evil MSG! Now Sandra does not only clarify she’s allergic to shellfish -which she is- when ordering… now she is also “allergic” to MSG.
Perhentian Islands Highlights:
- Best beaches and best ocean I have ever seen. Varadero and Turks & Caicos were at the top of my list. Not anymore. You swam in a sea of melted Aquamarines here, melted Turquoises there, melted Emeralds over there. Crazy.
– just a little glimpse –
- These islands are still relatively untouched (although that might not last for too long). No roads or vehicles and many water-taxis’ anchors lined up by the shoreline (I hit one or two with my toes while walking… it hurts), scarce internet and electricity, just a handful of eateries and a chilled scene after sunset, fire shows included. Loved it. Go there before it becomes the next Gili Trawangan (read this if you don’t know what that is).
- Oh… and for me those days were detox days. I was still paying for all the food I had eaten in Penang, and that included symptoms which made me believe that, despite all the fun I had made of Sandra because of her mosquito friends, it had been me the one to pull the Dengue straw.
From the Perhentians, we crossed back to the west coast, passing through the small town of Tanah Rata, in the Cameron Highlands (famous for tea plantations). We then took a bus south to Melaka and finally back-tracked a bit -couldn’t avoid it- to get to Kuala Lumpur, where my friend Aida generously hosted us and even let us further stay at her place after she went to Mongolia for holidays. Awesome woman. We even had a kickboxing lesson with her personal trainer.
Cameron Highlands Highlights (that’s a double-high):
- Small scenic region, up in the mountains, with a much milder climate and an architecture that in some parts resembled a small village by the French Alps (only in some parts, just to be clear). Some impressive tea plantations, some not too impressive strawberry farms, a medium-impressive ancestral mossy forest and a good “Chinese steamboat” dinner to complete the day. Was a nice short break from the coast and the heat.
- Back to the Chinatown street markets full of street-food, plus a decent dose of European heritage in the old town, with its main buildings uniformly painted in a particular tone of red.
– “blood red”, they call it… a little bit too pastel to be blood, if you ask me –
- While arranging a bike tour to the floating mosque, we met Julia and Nacho, an Argentinian couple, on the road for about 18 months already. The following night we had a nice Latin barbecue at the hostel they were working for. A Chilean couple -who had just arrived to also work at the hostel- joined us, as well as a Dutch guy -who was also working there-, a young Spanish woman who had just started a long adventure by herself -who, (wait for it) was also working there- and some others. Was a fun night. I also concluded that the hostel had more folks working there than guests.
- Julia and Nacho shared their experiences while working at a kiwi farm in New Zealand, boxing kiwi after kiwi after kiwi like Charles Chaplin at the factory. They now hate kiwis. We also received the best tip from Julia, for our upcoming time in Australia. “If you ever find yourself face to face with a shark,” she said, “just tickle him under his chin and he’ll go away” (the explanation included the correct gesture for the “tickle tickle tickle” maneuver. I will now feel much safer in the open water.
- We also went to a Siberian Husky cafe. Interesting concept. Check the pics.
…and for the musical bonus track, we go back to Chinatown:
– was packed–
Kuala Lumpur Highlights:
- We liked Kuala Lumpur (KL, for the friends) a lot. We came prepared for a second Jakarta, but what we found was closer to be a second Singapore -relatively speaking-. Nice city, large but walkable -its center, at least-, easy public transport (even some free bus routes), good food and night scene. Nice.
- Petronas Towers… I have to stop here for a minute. This will make more sense to Spanish-speakers (others will probably think this is pretty stupid), but to me, Petronas was always an adjective (most female-plural adjectives in Spanish end with “…as”, as in Las Torres Gemelas (twin) …lindas, pequeñas or blancas. So, they were “Las Torres Petronas” because they were two, but it could well have been “La Torre Petrona” -if it was only one- or even “El Torreon Petron” . But no! “Petronas” is the main national oil&gas company (daaah)! So, no relation at all with Petra in Jordan, nor with my old friend Pietro Lucioni. Ok, not really the biggest discovery of our trip so far, but I’d though I’d share anyway. They were impressive to see, by the way. They used to look better with Catherine Zeta-Jones in them though, in Entrapment.
– see what I mean? –
- After having hesitated in Indonesia, then in Singapore, then during the first weeks in Malaysia… we finally tried Durian. Before this trip I had no clue what a Durian was. “The King of Fruits”, they call it. People go to places which only sell -the expensive- Durian, just to have a Durian feast. On the other hand, many places forbid it in their premises, because of its pungent smell (somewhere in between garlic and onion, with a bit of feet).
- Anyhow, in KL we met an old friend/colleague and his wonderful family. They are from Malaysia. We had a great afternoon visiting some famous caves and having awesome Indian Food and then some drinks. But then my friend Ken decided to search for an open Durian spot for us to try it. He wanted to see our faces. We found one. Long story short, neither me nor Sandra could stand more than 2 small bites. It’s an acquired taste we are far from having acquired. He and his wife Chelsea had to eat the remaining 98%, which was a LOT of Durian, trust me. Acquired taste or not. You won’t see us eating Durian again anytime soon (neither Ken or Chelsea, I have the feeling).
– that’s how you setup a Durian tasting –
With that, our days in Malaysia came to an end. 34 nights in 9 different beds. I wish we’d have had more time to go to Borneo. Next time. Hopefully before it all becomes a single huge Palm Oil plantation, as people fear is the trend.
Interestingly, there has been an unplanned continuity in our journey across Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, as the three countries not only share historical background, but still today have the same local “Bahasa” (language). Not 100% the same, but quite close… all exits are “Keluar”, all entrances are “Mesuk”, all streets are “Jalan”, everything forbidden is “Dilarang”, they all appreciate it when you thank them with a “Terima Kasih” and for all three, “Merdeka” means the Independence from their European colonizers. Oh, and we coincidently were there either at or close to their Independence Day celebrations, so we got to see them full of flags, everywhere. Super picturesque.
For now, and after 101 days on the road, it’s time to change continent. Off to search some Kangaroos. More to come on that.
– 10 points if you find Sandra –
Finished while in Cairns-Australia, on September 20th, 2017…
…this is exactly one month after my dear cousin Ursula passed away, back home in Peru. We were in Penang that day. It’s a very strong feeling, to be so far away from the family when things like this happen. Also a strong feeling to know that, despite the sadness and the grieve, the show must go on. I’m sure she is encouraging us to proceed with the same joy as before, from up there. Rest in peace, Uchu.