The first decision to make upon planning a journey in to Malaysia is which direction to head in once you leave Singapore. Do you go north east and follow the coast to tropical paradise? Or do you realise it’s monsoon season and go north west and follow the culture?
No prizes for guessing which one I ended up doing. The eastern coast of the Malaysian peninsular is known for the Tioman and Perihentian islands and their unrivalled seas and pristine beaches. The annoying storms that shut down the ferries for months at a time were in full swing however, and so the day before I left I discovered my next few weeks of planned travelling were completely destroyed. Not to worry. We think on the hoof in these parts.
To Malacca! Colonised by the Portuguese and still well preserved, Malacca is the city that gives its name to the straits of Malacca that run between Malaysia and Sumatra. Steeped in history, the town is a haven for bohemian types with ethically produced clothing and questionable choices in hair styling. The weekend I arrived was serendipitously the same time as a modern dance festival. I watched, I pondered and decided that interpretive dance just isn’t for me. Very impressive. Very indecipherable.
I was fortunate enough to meet up with a Couch Surfing crowd who were in town from Kuala Lumpur, and who generously offered to give me a ride to the capital.
Kuala Lumpur is a big and noisy city, but modern and vibrant. Air conditioned malls sit next to street side food carts and from every window you can see a neon sign flashing its wares all over the place. For a tourist, there isn’t a great deal to see (or anything, really) but I was lucky enough to have a couple of guides and things to do. Karaoke? Oh yes. A drink at the sky bar opposite the Petronas Towers? Why not, I’ll have a Martini thank you!
KL is a hot place. Carrying a bag is tough enough in the heat, but it was loaded with gear that helped me out in the colder climes of Siberia and China. A fleece just isn’t necessary, so I threw a load of stuff out. My next stop was the Cameron highlands. It was cold. It was wet. I had gotten rid of everything I needed. I am an idiot abroad.
The Cameron Highlands were first made popular among visitors when the British decided that tea would grow rather well up here, and with the pleasant side effect of getting away from that blasted heat (it never reaches 30 C up here). So it was that in the 1930’s, various houses, farms, tea plantations and military bases were thrown together in the clouds. The most well known of the tea plantations is the BOH company, who welcome many visitors to their premises to learn about how tea is grown and made and of course to sample some. It is also the only place you are likely to visit that will give you a cup of tea like you would get at home. Lots of strength and lots of milk if you like. After a wet trudge around the local area, a hot cuppa was just the ticket. They even had a passable carrot cake. Bliss!
I had a lucky first day without rain, during which I gave myself a hot and exhausting jungle trek but for the next few days, it did nothing but rain. With dampness starting to get to my bones, I hopped on a bus to the next place: Georgetown, Penang.
Penang has a long history with British colonialism, and Georgetown (no guesses to why it’s named thus) is another well preserved colonial centre. People don’t usually come for the buildings however – they come for the food. This place is perhaps the most well rounded food city in all of south east Asia. There is Malay food. There is Chinese food. There is Indian food. There is Thai food. There is food that takes some of one, some of another and throws it in to a wok to see what happens. It’s also pretty cheap if you stick to the hawker centres, where most of the best stuff can be found anyway. This is just as well, since food is almost all of what Penang has to offer unless the weather is on your side and you are willing to trek to the more verdant parts of the island. It was raining for me, so food was my only joy here. Two separate meals a night though, so I have that going for me I suppose.
Malaysia is not the cheapest place in the world, and if there is anything to bump up your daily budget, it is by drinking. Being a conservative Muslim country, alcohol is taxed heavily and thus an expensive pleasure. The island of Langkawi, north of Penang, is a tax free haven. It was a no-brainer then, where my next destination would be. Cheap beer. Fuelling travel since forever.
Langkawi was the first true Tropical Paradise I had been to since Tayrona back in July, so lounging under palm trees in the heat of the day was something I was looking forward to. The weather had other ideas, and decided to rain more or less constantly for three days. My hostel was crap. I was sad.
But Change was on the horizon! Like Obama, I worked under the assumption that Change would bring something better, and unlike Obama (ooooh, controversial!), it actually did! A new hostel down the road had some great characters, a nicer atmosphere and a free pool table. Then the weather perked up. It’s the sort of place that you can stay a week and wonder where the time went, which is exactly what I did. See the sights. Top up the tan. Eat and drink on the cheap. Perfect.