Top Five Reasons We Love Malaysia

Yes, we went back to Malaysia! We had to get a couple of visas- the infamous Russian visa, as well as one for Myanmar. We were hoping to get the Russian one in Singapore, but no dice (we were too early to be applying.) Then we had hoped to pick up our Myanmar visa in Phnom Penh, but the embassy staff told us it would take fourteen working days. I asked them if there wasn’t anything they could do- we’d already bought our plane ticket! They said perhaps they could get it done in ten working days, but we didn’t have that much time left in Cambodia.

So we phoned up the embassy in Malaysia (God bless Skype) and they told us we could get it in five days, or three if we wanted to pay a little more. We had to rearrange our flights a little bit, and lost about a week in Myanmar, but oh well. Lesson learned. Always call the embassy first.

In the end, we spent an extra two and a half weeks in Malaysia, gathering our visas. But it’s not so bad really. If we have to be stuck somewhere, Malaysia’s not bad. It’s one of our favorite destinations, actually. Here’s why:

  1. (Almost) no language barrier. English is one of the official languages of Malaysia and everyone studies it in school. Moreover, since Malaysia is home to ethnic Chinese and Indians as well as Malays, English is the lingua franca. I met an American guy on the subway whose wife is a lecturer at a Malaysian university, and he told me that all tertiary education is conducted in English. These people are seriously good at English, which makes getting around a breeze. It’s also really easy to meet locals, and have good conversations, unlike, say, Thailand, where it’s hard to chat with anyone who’s not selling you something.
  2. Fabulous beaches.

    It's also a nice place to drink fresh watermelon juice by the water

    The Perhentian Islands have the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I haven’t been to the other east coast beaches, but Pulau Redang looks just like the Perhentians. During the filming of the movie South Pacific, what island was used as Bali Hai? That’s right- a Malaysian island, Pulau Tioman. There is also some really fantastic diving and snorkeling. We liked the snorkeling around the Perhentians, but I’ve heard that Borneo (Pulau Sipadan) is even better.

  3. Melting pot of history and culture.Malaysia, due to its strategic location between China and India, has always been a meeting place for different peoples. Nowadays its population is made up of several different groups: the aboriginal inhabitants of Malaysia, the majority ethnic Malays, and ethnic Chinese and Indian groups. During the British colonial period, the authorities encouraged immigration from China and India- that’s why today Malaysia and Singapore have the ethnic makeup they do. One city, Melaka, was actually a colony of Portugal and Holland before it was part of British Malaya. More recently, the Japanese controlled Malaysia for a few years during WWII. It’s almost

    Shophouses line a street; Georgetown, Penang

    like Southeast Asia in a nutshell: it’s a great place to learn about the history of Southeast Asia, visit mosques as well as Hindu and Chinese temples, and see old colonial buildings. It’s also possible, in Malaysian Borneo or in Taman Negara, to visit indigenous settlements.

  4. FANTASTIC food. Piggybacking off of number three… all this diversity makes for amazingly varied food scene. As if three cuisines weren’t enough, many Chinese and Indian residents have been in Malaysia for several generations, so there is now also fusion food: Indian-Malay fusion is known as Mamak style and Chinese-Malay fusion is known as Baba-Nyonya style. Penang is especially famous for its Baba-Nyonya food (and the whole city of Georgetown is a World Heritage site, to boot.) During our ten days in Kuala Lumpur, we usually ate Indian food for breakfast, Malaysian food for lunch, and Chinese food for dinner. YUM…and if you crave something different, KL also has really good international restaurants.

    How about Chinese tonight?

  5. Easy on the wallet. The cost of living in Malaysia is a little higher than some of the Southeast Asian countries (Laos, Myanmar) but it’s a good bit lower than the US, Europe, or East Asia. Yet the standard of living is high-the highest in Southeast Asia, after Singapore.  Even staying in a guesthouse and eating out three times a day, our daily baseline budget was about $15 per person. Of course you can stay in resort or fancy hotel chains, but even these come at a cheaper rate than in Western countries. It’s also one of the most affordable places to get a scuba certification. Whatever your fancy, the important thing to know is that you can live it up without cringing at your bank statement afterwards.
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Welcome to the Jungle

Malaysia was a repeat country for both of us. We’ve both visited Kuala Lumpur and Melaka before, so this time around we wanted to see something different. Bob chose Penang, I chose Taman Negara (literally “National Park,”) and both of us wanted to see the Perhentian Islands. The latter two are pretty touristy, but still rural.We’d seen the cities and were looking forward to seeing the Malaysian countryside.

This is the type of boat we took upriver to Taman Negara

Taman Negara is an interesting place. On one side of the Tahan river is the rainforest; on the other, a small village called Kampung Kuala Tahan (literally, Tahan River Village. Gotta love those Malaysian names.) The traditional activities in Taman Negara are hiking, camping, visiting indigenous settlements, or taking night treks to look for animals. The unfortunate part is that the rainforest is now almost completely surrounded by palm plantations, which detracts from the experience. In addition, there are now so many visitors that it’s tough to find any animals besides insects, leeches, and (on the palm plantations) house cats. It seemed to me like it was stuck at a crossroads: how to get more tourists to come but also maintain the environment that keeps tourists coming.

 

Rockin' in the treetops

The rainforest, when you’re in it, is still spectacular. We did the Canopy Walkway, which is basically just a rope bridge suspended 80 feet above the ground. I pretended to be a intrepid rainforest explorer, and imagined taking notes on all the wonderful new species I had discovered and would bring back to England. We saw the biggest ants I’ve ever seen, and also spotted a monitor lizard and a wild pig. On the same day, we took a night jeep tour to look for nocturnal animals. The most exciting part was that we got to ride on dirt roads on the roof of the jeep, holding on for dear life. Eventually I relaxed and enjoyed the ride, tensing up only when we went downhill. Only one person fell off the roof during the ride- and it was our guide. The only animals we saw were house cats, a pair of owls, some eyes which our guide claimed to be attached to various animals like civets or slow lorises, and a flying squirrel- which we saw “fly”- but on the whole, I didn’t think it was worth it.

 

Another popular jungle activity is spending the night in it. The parks department has constructed some three-story cabins for people to stay in- the first level is open, in case of flood and probably also to prevent animals from coming in. The second floor has toilets and showers and the third has bunk beds (it was quite nice, actually.) Our cabin also had a gigantic observation window looking out over a grassy meadow. We did see *something* but we’re honestly not sure what it was. We had flashlights but they weren’t strong enough to illuminate whatever animal it was. It was definitely something with four legs, not too big but not too small – maybe a deer or some kind of cat? I maintain I saw three shapes, Bob says there was definitely one but he’s not sure about the other two. A few Canadians we’d met in the village went to another hide and had even less luck than we did. The only animals they saw were rats, in the cabin with them. Apparently some previous visitors had been setting fires underneath the cabin, in the first floor open area, which scares away any wildlife for the next few months.

So maybe the wildlife experiences in Taman Negara were a bit lacking. No tigers, Asian rhinos, elephants, or tapirs. We did end up seeing elephants though- in the middle of the night. For anyone looking for wild elephants- I do not make any promises- try taking a night bus. We were on the road between Kota Bharu and Penang when the bus driver suddenly stopped. We were going downhill so I thought something was wrong. Luckily we were seated in the front row and I leaned out into the aisle to get a better view. There were ELEPHANTS- several of them- crossing the road. The other bus passengers started to stir and whisper among themselves. The bus driver flashed his lights several times, but the elephants just brayed at him and refused to move. We waited at least ten minutes for these elephants to make their way to the other side, but eventually one small one made a break for it while the others just ambled back the way they had come. I was finally able to count- there were seven of them!

The last place I expected to see elephants

For people who enjoy trekking, Taman Negara’s great, and spending the night *in* the jungle was scary, but fantastic. Listening to the “jungle orchestra” as we fell asleep was the highlight of our night in the forest. But it’s not akin to going on safari, and we didn’t like the idea of visiting the indigenous settlement (too much like a human zoo.) And there are definitely other places in Malaysia to spot wildlife (like in the middle of the road.)

 

Our favorite part of Taman Negara was the nightly music sessions at Riffi Hostel. As Sharif, the owner of the hostel, explained to us, “there’s nothing to do here, so we have to make our own fun.” That they do. Every night, several of Sharif’s friends come over, guitars in hand, and invite anyone to join them on the porch for a few songs. Maybe “invite” isn’t the best word… Sharif FORCES you to sing, while his friend Imran makes foreign girls dance with him (mostly involving standing up and waving your arms in the air) and curious onlookers pause to watch. It’s great fun.

Welcome to the Hotel California...

Bob can play guitar and neither of us are embarrassed to sing and dance in public, so we were a big hit. The guys told me I was “very sporting” for agreeing to wave my arms along with Imran. I even taught him the Swim. Visitors to Taman Negara should definitely consider stopping by this place, even if you aren’t staying there. But be sure to brush up on the lyrics to “Hotel California,””Zombie,” and “Buffalo Soldier” beforehand.

Overheard in: Penang

I try not to judge other travelers. I really do. But people are just so funny sometimes. There are some people who, for whatever reason, think that being a tourist gives them carte blanche to behave however they like. This is especially a problem in Asia. I think it’s because the culture is so different from Western culture, it’s intimidating and scary and weird, so people don’t even try to abide by local rules. Just look at the number of Western women wearing low-cut tank tops, or Western guys without their shirts on. (Locals definitely don’t dress like that.) And don’t even get me started on public displays of affection. There are a lot of travelers behaving badly out there.

Another issue is the language barrier. English is the lingua franca around this region, but it’s very appreciated if you can learn to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language. I know that it’s not very efficient to try to learn a foreign language if you’re only going to be spending a week or two in a foreign country. Even though we’re now been through Indonesian, Malaysia, and Thailand, I know only a handful of words in Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Melayu, and Thai. When good tourism infrastructure exists in a country, you can be sure you’ll also find English speakers. Speaking Thai would allow me to have more conversations with local people, and allow us to get off the beaten path, but I’ve decided instead to focus my energy on learning some Mandarin. I can’t learn every language in the world, and neither can anyone else. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

That being said, I just have one plea to travelers reading this: when talking to someone whose English is not that great, speak a little more slowly, clearly, and use small words! Don’t insult their intelligence, but if you can use simpler words, DO. Also, be as specific as possible. And don’t take it for granted that locals can understand every word you say. You are not in America/ Australia/ England, you are in Asia. Finally, engage your listening skills. The local accent may be hard to understand at first, but if you try, you’ll probably be able to understand.

The following is an exchange I overheard at Khoo Kongsi (a Chinese clan house) in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia; between an older male British tourist and a security guard.

Khoo Kongsi (Khoo Clan House)

British tourist: How old is this building?

Security guard: 105 years old. It was built in 1906.

BT: Was it ever anywhere else first?

SG: (looks confused)

BT: Is it new, here?

SG: No, not new.

BT: So it was somewhere in China and then brought here? It’s older, isn’t it?

SG: (looks confused)

BT: It was somewhere else, in China, and they took it apart, and brought it here, and put it together… piece by piece… like a puzzle. They took it from China and brought it here? It looks older.

SG: No, no! It was built here, in 1906.

BT: So it’s new.

SG: (sighing) It’s new.

BT: Oh. (disappointed) I thought it was older.

The poor security guard. I think I saw her roll her eyes as the man walked away.