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Malaysia fulfilled my wish: this is the only country in South East Asia in which it is not necessary to bargain or researching in ten tourism agencies before buying a bus or boat ticket. In this country, people help you because they mean it and feel like it, always with a smile in their mouth and a question under the arm. And that makes things easierfor tourists.
We travelled around Malaysia with Damián, from the North, starting in Penang, until the extreme South, where Malaysia ends and Singapore begins, in approximately one month. In contrast with its neighbours, in Malaysia, foreign influence is an essential part of the local culture. English, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, Indian and many others left their traces and amalgamated with local Malays. My experience travelling in Muslim majority countries had always been very positive and Malaysia was not the exception: Muslim hospitality and cordiality revealed itself in every step of the way.
With some simple suggestions written on a paper by a Uruguayan couple in Bangkok, some sporadic annotations I had and others proposed by Damián, we got deep into this country that, for us, represented a huge mystery. What would we find in Malaysia? I invite you to join me to discover this astonishing country that many overlook.
To make it to Penang from Thailand, the easiest method is to go from the islands in the South to Hat Yai, and from there, you have to change to another bus that goes to Penang. Penang island is really big and it contains several citieswith different architectural styles. The majority of the tourists who visit Penang sleep in the Northeast extreme of the island, in Georgetown, which is the second biggest city in Malaysia (behind Kuala Lumpur) and whose historic quarter was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The city was founded in 1786 by Francis Light and it became one of the first British settlements in South East Asia. During the Second World War, it ended up in Japanese hands. When the war finished, the English regained its control until the independence of Malaysia, in 1957.
With Penang, it was love at first sight: since I arrived, I realised this place was special. Its streets are loaded with history, its people wear unalterable smiles and its flavourings, which are swirled by the wind, lure the most sceptic. To appropriately describe Penang, I will divide it in three thematic axis: gastronomy, street art and nature.
- Gastronomy: Penang is the culinary capital of Malaysia. Its streets are the ideal place to explore the flavours of the Asian continent, since there are, side by side, Malay food stalls and Indian, Chinese, Arabic, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and even Western food stalls. In addition to the street stalls, there are many food courtswith live music. Prices are affordable and cleanliness is the law. Penang is a gentle caress to the stomach.
- Street art: in addition to the culinary tour, this city has two street art tours. One of the tours is made up of graffitis and the other one of metallic structures. Following the graffitis trail is one of the best ways of getting to know the city, since they are spread all over the corners of Penang and they tell its history, from the colonial period, passing by the Chinese commerce houses called shophouses (the most typical constructions of the island), until today’s ultra-modern buildings. Muslim merchants, tuk-tuks, cats, dogs, backpackers… They are all represented in Penang’s walls.
- Nature: Penang National Park is in the Northwest extreme of the island. It is made up of 1,213 hectares of woods that host a huge biodiversity. There are several trails to explore the park and they run across beautiful deserted beaches and thick forests. In the end of one of the trails, there is a lighthouse with an astonishing view of the park and of Penang’s downtown buildings. In the end of other trail, there is a beach full of sea turtles. If that is not enough, in the centre of the island you can visit Penang Hill, a hill 800 meters high. To make it to the top, you have to travel by cable car, which has been recently inaugurated. Once in the summit, the view is overwhelming. You can walk around the area and visit the three religious sites: a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque and a Catholic church. In this neighbourhood, you can also find Kek Lok Si temple, the biggest Chinese Buddhist temple in Malaysia, which is not only characterised by its details and its beauty, since it also has a remarkable view of the city.
After enjoying Penang’s flavours and colours, we took a bus to Kuala Besut and, from there, we took a speedboat to the Perhentian Islands. This archipelago is made up of two main islands, Pulau Perhentian Besar (Small Perhentian Island) and Pulau Perhentian Kecil (Big Perhentian Island). Perhentian means “stopping point” in Malay, since the islands were a transit point between Malaysia and Bangkok.
We stayed at Kecil, which is the island with more options for young travellers. Once we disembarked, the colour of the water struck us: a deep clean blue through which we could see the bottom of the sea and the fishes peacefully swimming. As is the case for the majority of the seas in South East Asia, the water was warm, ideal for relaxing for hours on end.
Due to the vegetation and the size of the islands, the only way to move around is on foot or by boat. There is no artificial light at night (nor reliable wi-fi connection), so it is crucial to carry a torch with you when you go dinning. Of course, you would not like to pump into the original inhabitants of the islands, the giant monitor lizards (a type of lizards with a small head and a long neck).
Perhentian Islands are a great destination to start diving, since there are any diving schools in the island that offer a combination of diving and accommodation at very reasonable prices. Those who do not dive can make snorkel tours at derisory prices. However, you have to be prepared: in our excursion we were lucky enough to swim with reef sharks. It was a truly moving experience. Our life was at the mercy of the squalus, who elegantly moved between the reefs and wandered around us. At the beginning, it was terrifying, but once we got used to the situation, we enjoyed every second in the water.
In addition to Kecil’s two main beaches, there are several smaller beaches hidden among the island’s vegetation. To visit them, you have to follow trails that submerge into the jungle; some are poorly delimited, so asking locals is always a good idea. The two beaches that stood out over the rest for us were Adam and Eve beach and Turtle’ beach. Both are located North of Kecil’s island and they share a salient characteristic: they are totally isolated, so it is very unlikely that you come across any other tourist. Sure enough, Perhentian Islands are the ideal place for disconnecting ourselves from civilization’s bustle and reconnecting with the purest nature.
The Cameron Highlands are made up of 712 square kilometres of fertile lands with an elevation between 1,100 and 1,600 meters above sea level in Malaysia’s North-centre.
Luckily, the temperatures are generally fresher than in the rest of the country; thus, we could take a break from Malaysia’s suffocating heat. However, there is a back side to this: it rains a lot in this green-loaded region.
We decided to stay in Tanah Rata, a city with a strong British architecture, because people have told us that this was a convenient starting point to explore the area. From there, hitchhiking, walking or taking local buses, you can tour around the countless tea and strawberries plantations of the surrounding areas.
Local workers are very friendly and they are always open for dialogue. They told us that many of the workers are from Bangladesh and that the majority of the products they harvest in this area end up in Kuala Lumpur and, specially, in Singapore. In addition to tea and strawberries, which are the most typical plantations in the area, they harvest a countless amount of local and foreign fruits and vegetables.
The biggest tea plantation in the area is Boh. The factory was inaugurated in 1929 by a family of English merchantsand it never stopped growing. Currently, they own 1,200 cultivated hectares and they produce 4 million annual kilos of tea. We made a free tour around the factory and the workers described the tea production process, from the cultivation and the harvest to the drying and packaging. And, of course, we did not leave the premise until we tasted one of the most delicious teas in the world before one of the most shocking views in all of South East Asia.
The second par excellence attraction of the Cameron Highlands is hiking. Hundreds of poorly signposted trails traverse the guts of this humid thick jungle. We chose climbing Gunung Brinchang, a mountain of more than 2,000 metres with an amazing viewpoint in the summit. Hiking to the summit took us around 3 hours.
When we were going back to town, the rain, as had happened in the previous days, descended on time. We jumped to the back of a pickup and we soaked until we arrived in the next town. We waited for the rain to stop, but that never happened. However, another car picked us up and dropped us in our hostel. Kindness in the Cameron Highlands grows as strong as its typical tea plantations.
Big cities tend to be daunting: a lot of people, high buildings, a lot of traffic and too many options to choose from. However, everything that is negative in them may be positive as well. Kuala Lumpur is a clear example of that: it is a very beautiful city with loads of attractions to visit and with very welcoming people. You just need to know where to find them.
It is convenient to stay near the Chinese Neighbourhood, the heart of this ultra-modern city. This neighbourhood is full of colourful markets where you can buy knick-knacks, and the food courts are diverse and cheap (just like almost everything in Malaysia).
The most photographed tourist attraction in Kuala Lumpur are the Petronas Towers. In the underground, while I was going to the towers, I remember thinking to myself: what may be interesting in an avant-garde building? Well, I was definitely wrong. Petronas Towers are impressive and hypnotic.
The towers were designed by the Argentine architect César Pelli and its construction finished in 1998. Until 2003, they were the highest towers in the world, with 452 metres high and 88 floors of reinforced concrete, steel and glass. The towers have 78 elevators and a bridge that joins them in floors 41 and 42. You can access the bridge for 19 dollars (80 Malay ringgits).
There are several places from which you can appreciate the towers. The most typical spot is the park located right in front of the towers. However, you can go up to the rooftop bars of the buildings around the park to see the towers (for example, to the Traders Hotel). With Damián we went to take some pictures to Tamak Tasik Titiwangsa park. This neat park is located in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, in a very peaceful and picturesque neighbourhood.
From this spot, you can also see Kuala Lumpur Tower (a telecommunications tower of 421 metres high). This tower was built in 1995 and it has a rotating restaurant on the top. You can also go up to the summit platform, which offers superb views of this cosmopolitan Malay city. At night, the tower’s lighting system is turned on and it provides a magnificent show.
Like in all the Muslim majority countries, you should not miss the mosques. The two most beautiful and astonishing mosques of Kuala Lumpur are the National Mosque and Jamek Sultan Abdul Samad Mosque. The National Mosquewas built with an audacious and modern style, and it has a capacity to host 15,000 worshippers. It is surrounded by gorgeous parks and gardens and, in the inside, it transmits an overwhelming feeling of peace and immensity.
Jamek Sultan Abdul Samad Mosque was built in 1909 in the convergence of rivers Klang and Gombak, and it is one of the oldest mosques in Kuala Lumpur. It has a Mogol style and it is delicately decorated. In that same place in 1857, Kuala Lumpur was founded -in Malay, it literally means “muddy convergence“.
Batu Caves are located 13 kilometres North of Kuala Lumpur, but that is not a problem, since there is a train that takes you exactly to its door and it costs 1 dollar. Batu Caves are a complex of limestone caves full of Hindu temples. To reach the main cave, you have to climb a staircase with 272 steps, which is full of playful monkeys (they could also be described as a gang of thieves). In the entrance of the complex, there is a magnificent statue of Murugan of 42 metres.
Before leaving the city, we visited Kuala Lumpur City Gallery. In addition to the typical exhibits that describe the city history and the exhibits of local artists, there is a very special room. Inside this dark room, the creator of the museum, together with some 100 people, designed an exact scale model of the city. When the lights turn off, they project an interactive video in 3D about the present and the future of the city. By 2020, Kuala Lumpur’s face will look very different: they are planning to build one hundred new skyscrapers. Thus, the power and the importance of Malaysia’s tiger keep growing.
After some days in the bustling Kuala Lumpur, we really enjoyed arriving at Malacca one heated midday in which the streets were semi-deserted. However, that was just an illusion since, even though it is clearly smaller than Kuala Lumpur, Malacca has a vibrant life and a lot to offer.
This city has a very complex and multicultural history that dates back to the early 1400s. That is why it is convenient to review the city history to discover its most striking attractions.
In the beginnings, the sultanate of Malacca was inhabited by Malay fishermen. Its location in a strategic point in the strait of Malacca turned it into a coveted city by all of the regional powers and into a renowned international port.
To revive this period, you can visit two city attractions. Firstly, you can visit the replica of the Malacca Sultanate Palace, home of the former Sultan. This typically Malay building is divided in different rooms that describe the customs, the clothing, the weapons and the instruments used during the Sultan reign and during the first trade trips between Arab Muslims, Malay and Chinese.
Chinese merchants support was very important during this period (and it still is). To be able to appreciate it better (and to taste it better), you have to go to the night market at Jonker Street (opens only during weekends). In this street of the Chinese neighbourhood, you can buy handicrafts, there are live musical shows, colourful stalls, tuk-tuks with shining lights, art galleries and, of course, a lot of local food (following this link you will find a video with advices on what to eat at Jonker Street).
After some conquest attempts, on August 24, 1511, finally Alfonso de Albuquerque became the first European to establish a commercial base in South East Asia. The Portuguese, knowing that their presence in the area would not be considered a blessing, decided to build a fort to protect themselves and a church in the centre of Malacca.
Fort A Famosa is located at the foot of a hill which was formerly a Chinese cemetery. The majority of the fort was destroyed by the English, but the entrance door is still intact. At the top of the hill, there is a church called St. Paul’s Church which provides amazing views of the city centre.
On January, 1641, and after several alliances with local Sultans and several unsuccessful conquest attempts, the Dutch, who were beginning to get interested in the Asian territories, finally gained control of Malacca. Dutch presence did not go unnoticed. In the Dutch Square, you can find the five most attractive constructions of this period: Christ Church Protestant church, the Clock Tower, Queen Victoria Fountain, a windmill and Stadthuys Building, which was the official residence of Dutch rulers.
In 1824, Malacca ended up into British hands until January 31, 1942, when the Japanese gained control not only of Malacca, but of all the current Malay territory. Finally, in 1957, fed up of foreign domination, Malays said enough and declared their independence.
Once the republic was consolidated, and due to the fast economic growth of the country, waves of immigrants came into the country looking for jobs. Many of them came from India and Pakistan, and they brought their religion with them. Every day of the year, in the biggest Sikh temple in South East Asia, food is offered for free to whoever may need it. This typical Sikh tradition is an excellent way to get closer to their religion and to their culture. You can walk around the temple and have a meal with hundreds of worshippers and tourists. Sikh believers are very curious and their physical appearance is generally very eye-catching: they wear colourful turbans, their beard is very long and they always, absolutely always, display a contagious smile.
To bid farewell to the city, we went into a delicious walk by the margin of Malacca River. At dusk and at night, this winding river offers enchanting postcard views. The typical Malay constructions blend with the new condominiums, locals swarm into bars and they mingle with tourists. Here, you can find the essence of Malacca and of all of Malaysia: the mixing of cultures and the peaceful coexistence between those who look different.
In my experience, Malacca was a period of reflection: the city has a special aura and that is transmitted by its people, by its buildings and by its food. Malaysia was a very special country for me: I will remember its sunsets over the sea, its unspeakable flavours, the green shades of the tea plantations, its old constructions and its ingenious graffitis. But, above all, I will remember the smile of its people and the example that they represent for the whole world: Malaysiateaches us that peaceful coexistence between those who are different has always been, and will always be, possible and necessary.
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