Getting the most out of Malaysia

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June 26th 2009
Published: July 1st 2009
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Doing Malaysia

So I’m leaving Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) today to catch a flight from Singapore to Kot Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. I thought I’d take the chance to write up my experience of Malaysia whilst on the bus to Singapore for the flight over.


Whilst at Bangkok I persuaded AJ that we should go to Penang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its historical and diverse architecture as well as its unique ethnic makeup. The train journey down to Penang would have taken 24 hours so we decided on direct flight with Air Asia from Bangkok. The engine stopped working on the tarmac of course and the lid was opened up. One passenger got up and left the plane and we all wondered as we took off again if we’d live.

Immediately upon landing Malaysia was different - Buddhism replaced by Islam as the dominant faith, and you can see it in Malay women and girls hidden by veils over their heads and shoulders, and sometimes even the full body hijabs - the ninja look. If I’m honest (and I try to be on here) it’s all anathema to me these days. What is interesting, however, is how ethnically and linguistically diverse Malaysia is; dark - almost black - South Indians from Tamil Nadu in saris speaking Tamil and English, headscarfed and be-hatted Malay Muslims, seemingly Taoist/Buddhist ethnic Chinese who speak English and Cantonese. This makes for interesting interaction as signs and businesses seem to be in Malay, Chinese and English, although most people are able to converse in English rather than each other’s respective languages.


Penang is the place to see this all in action and Georgetown as the capital was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Award partly because of this ethnic diversity in action in the buildings. I immediately I fell in love with the place. Historically it was created a possession of the East India Company by one man, Captain Francis Foot in 1784 as part of a treaty with the local Sultan. However, according to the Penang Museum it was a bit dodgy and the transfer of the island was meant to be in return for defensive protection for the Sultan which was never forthcoming - in fact the treaty was never finally agreed upon. British perfidy on behalf of Captain Foot me thinks! Anyway, this place has loads of British colonial white buildings and churches, including Fort Cornwallis and St George’s Church the oldest Anglican Church in South East Asia. We even visited the Armenian Sarky Brothers grandiose Eastern and Oriental (E&O) hotel which has had Noel Coward and Thomas Mann staying, we had a pint of beer in the bar there and checked out the room prices (gulp). We stayed in a beautiful converted Chinese shop house in Chinatown, although it was bloody noisy with paper thin walls. Down the road were Chinese guild buildings, Indian temples, Chinese temples, mosques and churches.
Eating out in Penang the first night, we went with Stephanie the German, who I’d mistakenly gotten chatting to outside the hostel but who ended up being taciturn and a bore and we actually couldn’t shake off towards the end. An old man tried to help us find our way and in pretty fluent English ended up promoting his health service, incurable diseases through Chinese medicine. At a local Chinese place, the food was practically forced on us by the local waitresses, so we had prawn dim sum and I also had noodles with beef. However, for some strange reason one glance over and we were given another plate and stuff to eat.

Around Penang

I decided we should hire a motorbike to take us around the rest of Penang, however, unlike the rest of SE Asia you do need to carry a licence in Malaysia so AJ had to take controls of the powerful red scooter. I was slightly nervous as AJ wasn’t used to driving on the left side at all (Malaysia drives like us in the UK - so does Thailand) and he ending up driving on the wrong side of the road a few times - or the “right” side as he insisted conceitedly because the whole world has to the same, right? We drove to thee world’s smallest National Park on a very humid and we trekked through the jungle to a place called Monkey Beach, where there were indeed Macaque monkeys hanging around on the beach. The beach was practically deserted as we floated on the water, but it also meant there was nowhere to get some food. So, we ended up getting a boat back to the entrance of the park after a while of lounging. We then motorbiked it though the very picturesque (and winding) island to Penang Hill in time for sunset. I even had a go driving, but stopped after reaching the town as I didn’t want us getting pulled over and me not being able to produce a licence.

The way up to Penang Hill (800 metres) was impressive; a vertical railway line called a funicular was built by the Brits in the 1920s to reach the top. However, when we got to the top the views over Georgetown were spectacular as was the temperature, lovely and cool!

We yomped about a bit, visited a Hundu Temple (stood right next to a mosque) and chatted to the local toga wearing Indians, custodians of various shrines. One of them, in excellent British English, said it was Indian workers who actually built the railway, so it was fitting they had a temple at the top. We then had some drinks at one of the hotels at the top with a view overlooking the town at the bottom with one of the longest bridges in the world connecting the mainland.

We drove back to Georgetown and strolled around Little India, with the sounds and lights, we then settled on a place and had a great curry in - but went a bit mad on the number of dishes. One retired Colonel in the Malay Army was sat on the same table outside and he spent 2.50 Ringgit (50p?) on his meal and we had spent 62RM, owch.

The next morning we got a bus to the Perhentian Islands on the Eastern coast of peninsula Malaysia. The bus left at 5 in the morning, and because there were no ATMs on the islands I had to get some from an ATM machine in Georgetown. So off I went through the wee hours and came across prostitutes working the street, young and old, quite shocking really as some were middle aged Chinese women. One pretty thing even asked me if I wanted business, but after seeing the bloke she had gotten off a motorbike with (think collapsed mouth from having no teeth) I didn’t really have a chance to consider the noble offer.

The Perhentian Islands

As we drove from West to East Malaysia the scenery in the dawn mist was spectacular. South East Asia really does look fantastic at this time of the day, and I’m going to have to get up earlier than I have been to experience it again.

After five hours on a mini bus we got onto a small speed boat and well, speeded across a bumpy sea; ominously life jackets were required. We were let off at Long Beach on the small island of Pulau Kucil, which was the most developed in terms of beach bars and bungalows and water taxis. The group of people we were with (Brits and two blonde identical twins from Ireland) were not happy with the place in terms of accommodation, it was either too much for a dingy “chalet” (read: hut) and the backpacker scene just didn’t suit any of us. So, all in agreement we marched off through the jungle to the other side of the island to Coral Beach. It took about 15 minutes in total but when we got to the other side, despite the less congestion it was probably less impressive a beach with a stupid key having been built jutting into the bay.
Having walked faster than the others only AJ, myself and an American checked at a few places along the beach but they were either expensive or grotty. One deserted place with bungalows right over the sea didn’t even have check-ins but a white board explaining to get a room that was available and to pay at the end of your stay! The American guy ended up staying in this ramshackle bungalow (but with a great view) and we plucked for somewhere else, always on the lookout for personal satisfaction. We got a water taxi to Impani Beach and of course there were no bungalows available, indeed they had received 52 emails the previous night and were booked up until 2 weeks into July! We were a bit at a loss and AJ contemplated going over to the big island (more resort and expensive) but I had to stop his urge and the South African girl at the desk suggested going next door instead. We walked along the beach and arrived at Watercolours resort and they had a room!

The room was up in the jungle hills, probably about 100 steps maybe, wooden bungalows perched on some stilts, with a wooden veranda, a pretty nice spot it has to be said and we were glad we’d stuck at it. We bargained a little for the price of the room and got a decent deal.

Birthday Scuba

One reason for the appeal of the Perhentian islands is the fact that they are not the Thai Islands; a small can of beer is 1.70 GBP - the Islamic state here taxes to the hilt), there are no ATMs on the islands and so it’s a lot less busy - including the scuba diving (which is not a factory as in Ko Tao). That’s what I was there for - the diving which is meant to be one of the best in the region but as I hadn’t dived since I obtained my PADI scuba diving course back in April I was wondering if I’d be able to remember everything I’d learnt. I needn’t have worried as I took two dives on my birthday, and it all came back magically, there’s always that excitement as you are on the boat and you roll over into the water and then you slowly descend….very cool to be doing that again and with only three other people! I got to see a Napoleon fish (huge things), manta rays and countless other fish that I had to write down in my log book afterwards. That night, AJ and this American guy had dinner at the resort and of course AJ had arranged for a little birthday cake, being led out by the staff and children singing “happy birthday”. AJ also got me a birthday present which was a hammock for my next time on the beach.


The next couple of days I spent snorkeling around Coral Bay - amazingly rich place for fish - (one bit me on the leg the git) whilst I nearly had a heart attack at the sight of some reef sharks. Whilst AJ did his PADI Advanced Open Water course I spent a day properly relaxing on the beach - reading about Pol Pot and genocide in Cambodia (nice). Swimming and floating in the clear water with fish swimming around you, playing Frisbee with AJ and also getting a game of volleyball between the local lads and tourists. Relaxing times really - for someone who struggles to relax. I met a nice Aussie family who were living in Saigon and they even offered a place to stay in Melbourne when they moved back there in July. Most of the evenings were spent over at the Impani Beach bungalows where they had beers and a nice shack for dinner as well as two South Africans running the place. AJ even got speak a little bit of Dutch with the Afrikaans speaking girl there, Bianca.

Anyway, I’d had enough of the beach for the moment so on a quick decision I checked out, left AJ a note and got to the airport on the mainland for a flight to Kuala Lumpur.

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