petronas towers taken from klcc park in front of humpback whale

Muted in Malaysia

Destinations, Malaysia , , , , , , , , , ,

We definitely spoke a lot of backwoods slangy French during our stay in Malaysia.. and even then, it wasn’t enough .. even then, I would still get those wide eyes from Sylvie that scream “shut your mouth!”. So most of the time we were confined to expressionless silence in public or whispers in the dark in the relative safety of our hotel rooms. Remaining expressionless is not exactly one of my strong points.. even when sleeping, my face is an open book to what is happening in my head. It was a rough month on the censorship front.

Malaysia – the politically correct version

What a beautiful country! There is a video game called Just Cause 2 that was surely modeled after this country. In between the populated areas, the jungle looks as though it was freshly planted 50 years ago with genetically modified palm trees of the same exact size and shape. Anytime you got above the tree line, it was a jungle picture of perfection .. almost too perfect. The cities, buildings and parks on the other hand.. a beautiful tangled mess.

The people… a collection of Chinese, Indian and Malay with each their unique languages and dialects… in a religious sauce pot of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhism and Christianity.. all simmering together on this postcard perfect chunk of land.

Where to begin? In Kuala Lumpur of course! .. a modern city that sports the alleged tallest twin towers in the world, the Petronas Towers. The towers are pretty fantastic looking. A futuristic metallic look that reminds me of classic Battle Star Galactica. Below them is the huge KLCC shopping centre and a large park to stroll around. We tried hard to get the perfect shot of these twin beauties but this is no simple task. There are buildings everywhere around them and roaming the streets in the heat is very demoralizing. We did manage to sneak into the 33rd floor Skybar in Trader’s Hotel to get a window seat for a great view of the towers. Unfortunately the windows are dirty and the Skybar has an annoying revolving dance light that shines all over the place making it near impossible to get a quality shot. We ended up getting our photo from the park below.

humpback whale statue petronas towers kuala lumpur

Kuala Lumpur has an urban park called Lake Gardens with various attractions to visit.. a deer park, an orchid garden, a bird park and even a space centre all situated in the same area. Finding this “area’ is not a walk in the .. park.. though. At the time, we thought it was designed to only welcome visitors by taxi or tour bus. We hadn’t seen the “pattern” yet .. But we did manage to use our GPS and navigate our way to this hidden section of the city. We chose to visit the KL Bird Park. It was well worth the hard work finding it and the hefty entrance fee. It was fantastic. Free birds all over the place .. mostly egrets, storks, pelicans, ibis’ and peacocks roaming freely. There was a great assortment of other types of birds in large enclosures and cages as well… a few ostriches, couple emus.. The whole aviary is fenced in from above and it has a very large jungle type setting within so the birds have plenty of room to fly around and feel like they are in an actual jungle .. minus the whole migration thing of course. The birds are not afraid of humans and let you get very close to them for photos. It was a great couple hours. Is a park like this a responsible thing for the animals and the environment? I don’t know..

pelican at kl bird park malaysia

The next day we visited the Batu Caves, which are a series of Hindu cave temples on the outskirts of town. Outside the caves, there is an enormous gold coloured statue of the deity Lord Murugan. He was undergoing maintenance though.. The Batu caves are one of the 10 most important Hindu shrines in India and Malaysia. Aside from the resident monkeys and the 272 steps we climbed to reach the cave, we don’t have much to say or report on this activity.

Kuala Lumpur is very clean and has a great infrastructure. One of the first refreshing things we noticed when we arrived was the lack of honking. The streets are full of signage, lights and lanes eliminating the need to use the archaic horn system. Also much of the signage, television, advertisement and information is in English which we found very strange.. and convenient. This place obviously does some serious international business…. There is money everywhere here .. and plenty of western people walking about.

After a few days though, we began noticing a pattern to the structures and city layout.. we started to realize that this modern city wasn’t as organized as we had assumed judging this book by its cover. Under all the glitz and modern fixens, lies a very confusing, illogical network of roads, transit, bridges, walkways and lanes. Getting from point A to point B is never straight forward even if you can actually see your destination. Chances are, there is a highway or train tracks blocking your path, and you will need to detour and walk in the opposite direction to reach an underground path or above street walkway to cross one of your obstructions. Then you will need to walk in another direction the length of some oddly placed very large building or complex to get around it to once again head towards your destination. I am still questioning if this is deliberate or just poor design.. and if it’s deliberate, then why the mess?

When taking a bus or taxi somewhere, we were constantly confused following the driver’s progress on the GPS .. wondering why he was going so far out of the way.. and then finally approaching the destination only to turn away from it and head in another direction for a while .. then circle around and return at a different angle. I know what your thinking .. cabs taking us for a money ride. Nope.. Negotiated flat rates.. and the public buses all did the same thing. Our walks did the same thing. Even the parks, shopping malls and attractions did the same thing. The only way to directly go from point A to point B is the train. Cities we have much experience with .. trust me on this one. Kuala Lumpur is an honest to allah beautiful mess of a city.

The Many Cultures

Malaysia has an interesting mix of cultures going on. First and most apparent are the Chinese.. they are everywhere. I mean everywhere.. Whether it’s locals that live there or the hundreds of thousands of tourists.. and you can easily tell the difference. The Chinese have only been “tourists” since the late 1980s or so? This concept of leaving your country to go travel for fun is still quite new to them. So needless to say, the Chinese tourists stick out like sore thumbs .. from their clothing, to their luggage, to their endless and shameless posing and selfies in just about any place. The Chinese women love to pose for the camera .. with flowing white dresses and sun hats .. kicking one leg up behind them .. looking dramatically to the sky .. pointing at something .. graceful and demure beside umm… a mail box or a bus stop. The peace sign is also very popular in the centre of the sidewalk or store entrance. You see the men with their very expensive cameras taking gigabytes of photos of their girlfriends .. for them it’s an activity like swimming or horse back riding. All this to say, the tourists are easy to differentiate from the locals. They are also super nice and friendly. As I’ve said before in my writings about China, they are a happy people with no sign of self consciousness or insecurity. From what I have read, the locals make up about 20% of the Malaysian population.. but when you factor in the tourists, it seems like they are the dominant people here.

chinese guild house penang malaysia

The many different groups of Indians are a minor player in this region. They have shops and restaurants everywhere. Always friendly and always welcoming, cooking up some of the best food on the planet. The vast majority though, are the Malay.. a complicated mix of this and that, who are mostly Muslim and very adherent.

During this trip, we got to experience the religion actually hindering our activities and the daily flow of life. There are so many rules here to service the religion. For example, in many public situations, they are still separating the sexes.. the boys sit over here and the girls sit over there. There are entire train cars dedicated for women only. You could accidentally find yourself in the wrong place being given evil looks or being asked to leave or move. There are signs with “women only” in many places .. we aren’t even sure what they meant in most cases.

pimped out rides in melaka malaysia

Occasionally, women we were sitting beside would just get up and change seats not wanting to be seen sitting beside the infidels. Our bus today was 15 minutes late because that’s how long it took the bus driver to reorganize the seating after Sylvie and I aloofly plopped ourselves into a pair of seats. Now he had to move this women over to the back in a single seat, and a boy to another seat on the side and so on .. we couldn’t believe it. Another similar situation happened on the ferry boat where this husband and wife had purchased tickets to seats that weren’t beside each other. They hovered over us forever, speaking their language and looking at us.. they just couldn’t be separated .. Eventually, Sylvie and I had to give up our seats and go sit apart from each other just to get things rolling. The man had no problem with this.. he was entitled to this rearrangement. At some point though, male insecurities need to be addressed and conquered from within.

Langkawi

We visited Malaysia in November which is during their rainy season. This doesn’t mean our trip was filled with rain and bad weather .. not at all .. but it does mean that the eastern coast was basically shut down for business. The islands on the east coast are the most desirable ones which offer the best clearest water, but they are literally closed because of the monsoon. Being confined to the western coast, we visited the island of Langkawi to get our water fix. We were quickly put in our place. The waters here are murky green and full of nibbling jelly fish. The beaches are postcard beautiful, but having become true water snobs, we spent a total of 30 minutes in these sub par waters.

To get to Langkawi we treated ourselves to the high speed train. We hadn’t been able to afford the ones in Europe so we didn’t miss our chance to try the ones here. They were Bombardier as were most of the trains connecting Malaysia. These Canadian beasts cruised at 140 km per hour and got you from point A to point B in style.. very comfortable. BBD @ $1.92 per share .. hmm … When we arrived, a Portuguese guy by the name of Ivo, asked us about sharing a cab.. the rest was good times for the next week. Ivo was living in Singapore working at one of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants as a whiskey expert. A very prestigious position in a very hot spot. Needless to say, he was full of stories and knowledge and we had great times with him.

Langkawi is a duty free zone so the alcohol and cigarettes are very cheap. This is significant because the Muslim locals don’t really drink unless they are visiting foreign countries, so the alcohol in Malaysia is expensive. We took advantage and had our fair share of beers during the week we spent there. We stayed in Cenang Beach at a very excellent hostel type place called the Rainbow Lodge with great food and great people. We made many friends and spent most of time socializing rather than doing activities.

We were gradually discovering that Malaysia is a bit lacking when it comes to sites and activities. We struggled with this and continually asked ourselves if perhaps we were just not looking hard enough .. or were we in the wrong frame of mind being on a long term trip .. or perhaps after hiking the Annapurna circuit were things just not impressive anymore? None of the above. I have a working theory though .. just a theory .. which comes back to the Chinese .. these people who are relatively new to the tourist scene. We aren’t in popular Thailand where most of the westerners visit .. and we aren’t in Vietnam which has “hosted” the U.S. for the last 50 years. We are in Malaysia, which I never even heard of until we visited Thailand and wondered which country was below it. Simply put, Malaysia is not a hot spot for western tourists. It’s a hard core Muslim world which hosts scores of Chinese tourists .. who are very easy to please. Opening up exciting wonders and activities to the public is not on the top of their list of things to do. Just a theory.. I could be wrong.

The beach we already mentioned .. sub par .. nothing compared to the sands of Thailand or Indonesia.. There was a cable car which was pretty terrifying. It lead up to the top of the karsts of the island. We had the pleasure of sharing our cable car with someone afflicted with ADHD.. getting up, leaning on the window, rocking the car .. terrifying Ivo, Sylvie and I .. Just sit down!! There was also a pretty cool Sky Bridge spanning between a couple peaks. We climbed a small hill to bathe in a waterfall basin. We visited a pretty cool beach with a sandbar that led out very far into a bay. These were entertaining sites. Had we been efficient, we could have done all these in a day or 2 rather than a week. Lots of cheap beer, lots of socializing. Good times at the Rainbow Lodge 🙂

seven wells waterfalls langkawi malaysia

We next went to Georgetown on the island of Penang. This city was excellent. It had that colonial look and feel and there were plenty of expats out and about. There were many bars and restaurants. A great place to unwind and relax and wash the sand from your clothes. We didn’t even bother visiting the beaches of Penang.. and if you find yourself here looking at the “Botanical Gardens” in your guide book or hotel lobby poster, just skip it.. it’s just an out of the way plain looking park.

Ko Lipe

During our stay on the island of Langkawi we were lured in by the various advertisements for the ridiculously beautiful island of Ko Lipe in Thailand. This island was a simple 2 hour ferry away from Langkawi and the beaches and waters were unreal in all the posters we saw. I fell for it hard. Funny how our commercials back home have zero impact on me other than to have me mute the computer or TV, yet these primitive ads have me salivating hook, line and sinker. After 5-6 days on Langkawi, we booked our ferry to Thailand.

The ferry ride was nice and quick but it cost us two middle fingers. The immigration process was such a sh*t show .. never have we seen such an attempt to be organized fail so badly … and for the record, this was the Thailand side of things at fail here. They were horrible .. they took needless possession of your passport before you boarded the boat and kept it until you were released on to the island. The ferry was 2 hours and the immigration was another 2 hours .. for a ferry carrying maybe 50 people? It was brutal .. They were very controlling, rude and on a serious power trip. They are pretty tough when they are holding your passport.. comments like you do as we say.. if you don’t listen, if you ask wrong question, no one will help you. Barking orders at us, telling us precisely which spot in the sand to stand on .. making imaginary lines and trying to wing some resemblance of a system. Anywhere else we have traveled, the adults pay for their tickets, they line up at the immigration counter by themselves, they speak with the immigration officer to get their passport stamped and then they proceed into the country. This guy in charge was clueless. For him, this was the highlight of his day .. bossing around the tourists. We had to go through him twice .. once to enter the island and once to leave.

ko lipe north east beach thailand

Ko Lipe itself was beautiful in places .. and down right dirty and raunchy in other places. Sylvie and I walked the entire perimeter of the island looking for accommodations and we got to see just what this place was made of. The quiet side of the island called Sunset Beach was a complete joke … I can’t believe guide books actually talk about this “place” .. it was a junk yard of broken down huts and structures .. it looked like a hurricane just swept through the place, yet there was no talk of anything like that happening. It looked like every few years someone new comes along and attempts to build a shop, restaurant or hotel and then fails .. The land looks like it’s been recycled over and over for the last 30 years. It almost looks like 30 years ago this island was the place to be … full of tourists having the most excellent time.. the whole island full of people and parties. Now, it seems to be confined to 2 sides of the island with everything else abandoned and riddled with garbage and ruins of times long gone. It was a bit sad.. If the nice folks who were building hotels and beach huts in this area ever read this, please take this as “ways to improve” rather than a condemnation .. pick up the trash, lower your prices, and foreigners will come and stay.

The 2 coastal areas were pretty nice. There were very cool bungalows to rent and many restaurants and bars. These places were decorated with your classic sea side vibe and made you want to quit your job and just live out your days here. The water was .. better than Langkawi but still not the quiet crystal clear, coral filled waters we are constantly on the lookout for. This was swimming water. Clear and sandy. We rented a rustic wooden cabin with a deck on the northern most tip of the island. We had the largest beach on the island as our front lawn .. huge .. maybe 60 meters of palms and sand between our porch and the water. By day, people came to visit our beach and by night it was our deserted paradise.

sunset beach ko lipe thailand

Ko Lipe was pretty cool but we have to inform any reader considering this place that it was very expensive for Thailand .. we paid too much for our cabin .. and it was the best deal we could find. Food and drink was also very expensive .. everything about Ko Lipe was expensive which kind of supports my theory that this place was probably rocking some 30 years ago, and now the islanders are trying to cling on to the old days by keeping the prices elevated. We would have stayed a week or two, but instead we left after 3 days.. just not enough bang for your buck. There are better islands in Thailand .. way better.

We returned to Langkawi for a couple more days of party hostel before setting out for Penang.

Melaka and Georgetown

We next went to Georgetown on the island of Penang. This city was excellent. It had that colonial look and feel and there were plenty of expats out and about. There were many bars and restaurants. A great place to unwind and relax and wash the sand from your clothes. We didn’t even bother visiting the beaches of Penang.. and if you find yourself here looking at the “Botanical Gardens” in your guide book or hotel lobby poster, just skip it.. it’s just an out of the way plain looking park.

rickshaw driver in penang malaysia

Ivo had told us that Melaka was part of Portuguese History in school.. This port was occupied by the Portuguese for a stint before being taken over by the Dutch and later the British. All sorts of European influence going on in Melaka. We stayed in the heart of China town and toured around all the colonial sites. The food here was crazy good but sometimes hard to find. We figured out the hard way that Melaka is pretty quiet during the week.. stores and feeding places start shutting their doors around 5 o’clock and before you know it, you are wandering the dark streets wondering what you are going to do about that pain in your gut.

street art melaka malaysia

We lucked out the one night and accidentally wandered into a project restaurant called Straits Affair which specialized in 3 main courses, a couple of appetizers and some tea set we didn’t get the chance to try. They sit you down in this place and immediately attack with a hard to follow lengthy history lesson .. 20 minutes at least and all you can think about is eating. The enthusiastic lesson helped the time go by while waiting for the food, but once it arrived, you didn’t want to be rude and start eating .. he kept going on and on .. oh boy. Later when we were freed from his grips, we could see the pained look on the next customers sitting through the same.. food in front of them.. patiently waiting. The food was amazing! But to our untrained pallets, it was simply green Thai curry soup, cinnamon meat tarts, fried chicken, rice and baguettes with beef bouillon. Very tasty. The following night we decided that the social aspect of this activity wasn’t worth it, and we opted for a Pakistani eatery called Pak Putra Tandoori.. we gorged ourselves good.

The Highlight

Without a doubt, the highlight of Malaysia has been the food. Its weird to think of traveling so far abroad and saying that the best part was the food.. but it’s true, and I wouldn’t take back this trip at all.. I would do it all over again .. I would eat it all over again. I don’t think we had a bad meal .. oh wait, yes we did .. we both got laid over for 2 days in Ipoh over their regional specialty .. holed up in a hotel painting the toilet every hour.. ugh .. But other than this unpleasant couple of days, every meal was extraordinarily excellent.

We mainly ate from cafeteria style places located in every corner of every town and city. Usually occupying the street corners, these cafeterias have 5 or 6 food carts that each specialize in a particular kind of food. There is always a drink station that makes freshly squeezed juices. You wander around looking at their grub and choose what you want.. we were rarely disappointed. We ate for about 30 Ringitt in these places .. $10.

We also searched out the best hawker food stalls. Certain streets are lined with these stalls cooking up a variety of foods .. Again, you simply wander around and choose what you want.. You could easily live off eating in these types of areas.. 20-30 Ringitt once again.

For us, every meal was a simple decision between Chinese or Indian .. my 2 favourite food types anyhow. For Chinese it was fried noodles, fried or steamed rice .. a variety of soups or plate dishes .. roasted duck, pork, beef or chicken .. chicken wings for under $1 each .. every type of dumpling and spring roll .. bbq meat on sticks .. on and on.. For Indian food it was tandoori chicken .. that glow in the dark red chicken baked in their special tandoori ovens .. meat falling off the bone most times .. spicy chicken Byrianni rice … naan or roti bread with a couple curry veg sauces to dip .. diarrhea just around the corner.. that’s all you really needed… so simple, I could eat this every day.

For drinks we always ordered freshly squeezed juices.. I stuck to lime and lemon whereas Sylvie hovered between mango, orange and apple. Some are better than others, but drinking fresh juice with every meal just makes my day. It’s been easy to stay away from soft drinks around here. Malaysians know how to eat, that is for sure.

Do we recommend Malaysia?

Well that depends .. If you are not a fan of heavy religion, then I would definitely stay away from here. Like we mentioned, religion controls every aspect of life around here, often getting in the way of good times or routine necessities. Even being very accepting of foreign cultures, customs and religions, I often found myself biting my tongue, or trying to hold back laughter .. occasionally fearful of failing. Sylvie and I kept each other in check with plenty of nods and looks, and plenty of fast backwoods French.

The whole confusing infrastructure thing was a drag .. So many times we thought the bus was skipping our stop .. having us panic and walking up to disturb the driver to ask about our stop, when really, the roads require the bus to pass the station, circle the neighbourhood, and then sneak back around to the station from the rear. The malls and parks were the same way .. Put your navigator cap on and bring a good GPS.. you aren’t finding your way around using the position of the sun.

The lack of attractions and wow factor of the beaches on the west coast are something to consider as well. We plan to return one day, but during the summer when we can hit the east coast and their most coveted islands. If you enjoy modern and clean cities, vibrant colonial towns and “conservative” beach resorts .. if you enjoy eating the some of the best food in Asia, then Malaysia will not disappoint.

Here is a video of our adventure, enjoy!

5 thoughts on “Muted in Malaysia

Leave a Reply