Saturday, 14 August 2010

All the way down

Malaysia, according to its tourist boards extremely well funded and omnipresent ad campaign, is "Truly Asia". Throughout the whole of our trip, from India to Vietnam, from Cambodia to Thailand we'd been bombarded with almost military efficiency with this catchy and annoying slogan. Frankly though, having now seen quite a lot of South East Asia I had no idea what being "Truly Asia" could possibly mean. It would be like saying "Truly European". The English are as different from the Italians as the Vietnamese are from Thais. But then what are marketing campaigns anyway if not attempts to capsulate and reduce a range of ideas, images and understandings into one simple concept that's easy for the masses to digest? I had become, and continue to be fascinated with the process of "packaging" of countries for wholesale marketing to a foreign consumer, and just how different the reality really is.

One of the pleasures of travelling over land, making your way across borders on foot, by bus and boat is the noticing the nuanced change in environment as you enter new territory. Sometimes the differences are barely perceptible, like heading up the Mekong River from Vietnam into Cambodia - the landscape is practically the same; rural, poor and burnt looking. The same birds circle your boat and the same fish are hauled from the river. Soon gone are the conical hats of the Vietnamese, but otherwise it would be hard to tell you've crossed a border. It its not like that entering Malaysia.

Considering Malaysia and Thailand share a border they could not be more different. Checking in at immigration is akin to being transferred from the underfunded local comprehensive to the big expensive Private School down the road. Everything is kept smart and tidy, nobody runs in the corridors, the school buses arrive on time, all the kids are well dressed and polite, no-body's smoking pot behind the bike sheds and the likelihood is they've all got parents with a bit of cash. It feels more civilized from the outset; most notably due to the fact they don't drive like total mentalists on weapons-grade PCP. In fact, in the first taxi we took from the port, the driver practically crawled along like he was ambling round the Cotswolds on a Sunday afternoon. The law there apparently seems to mean something. There is obviously a healthy respect for your own and your passengers lives! Which is nice.

So, Sam's mum Gill had finally made it over. After a two week delay due to the Ash Cloud of Doom, she had finally been allowed to get board a plane (thanks BA!) and had made it to Thailand. "There's been a bit of a change of plan mum" Sam informed her pretty much as soon as she arrived. Gill had been expecting a beach holiday in Thailand but we were keen to get to Malaysia so she was now hitting the road with us. I'm not entirely sure to start with whether she was convinced this was going to be as much fun as we assured her it would be, but she soon got into the swing of it.

We spent a few days in Ao Nang near Krabi lazing by the pool before grabbing the boat down to Langkawi, just across the Malaysian border. Langkawi is a bit of a strange place; its basically a resort island - full of tourists and holiday makers. The beaches are pristine clean and raked every morning, and the sea is a shockingly clear turqoise blue, but it was hard to discern a sense of Malaysian identity there. There is obviously a strong Indian population as there is Chinese too, but along with this also Arab, Greek and other South East Asian cultures. We would soon learn that this is part of what makes Malaysia the country it is - its mix of people; a real cross pollination of culture which is probably a part of its success.

We spent a couple of days by the beach (way too hot, pushing 40c some days), and took the speed boat around some of the ninety nine islands which make up Langkawi. We swam in a bright green hidden inland lagoon on one of the islands Geoparks and saw dozens of impressive Sea Eagles feeding on fish off the shores of the island jungles. We took full advantage of the duty free port and sank some decent bottles of European wine - the first time in a while for me and Sam!

From Langkawi it was then South to Penang, Malaysia's most prominent Island on the West Coast and a hotbed of culinary delights. Almost immediately on arriving we bumped into fountain-of-local-knowledge, Mr Alfred, in an Indian canteen, who insisted we meet him for dinner at the Red Garden food court that evening, which he assured us was the best place to eat and where all the locals go. He wasn't wrong - pretty much any type of Asian food you could want was available. And there was a band. And loads of old locals dancing too - some real characters and they all took it very seriously. It was brilliant. We ordered lots of little plates of all sorts of things - I was particularly happy as had half a dozen superb Oysters and half bottle of Saki all to myself, a rare treat and not half as expensive as you would think.

We spent a few days in Penang, mostly eating out (what a surprise) and doing the tourist thing. As a city there isn't actually that much to do in Penang; it's built up with some nice parks and temples and some pockets of history and culture that are worth seeing, but the real winner is the food. And it was worth going for that alone.

Although being an island, Penang is connected by a bridge to the mainland, so we grabbed the bus down to KL along one if its super smooth highways, cutting through some of the most pristine, dense and verdant looking rain forest imaginable. We hadn't had time to visit Teman Negara or the the Cameron Highlands, but by the look of the vast jungle stretching out from the road they would have been something very impressive.

Having worked closely with property investment in KL over the last several years and knowing stacks about it on paper, I was really interested to see the city first hand. As a developed and sophisticated metropolis its certainly not the cheapest place to stay (great if you're talking rental yields, not so great if you're budget travelling!), so we headed to Chinatown. Pretty much like every Chinatown everywhere, it was chaotic, full of decent street grub (Claypot Chicken Rice is very tasty....) and loaded with fake knockoffs - KL's speciality seems to be counterfiet watches, of which there are thousands.

We only had a few days to see the city, so grabbed the hop-on, hop-off bus, London touron style - which took us all over the place. There are a LOT of skyscrapers in KL . Development is absolutely rife, but the demand is there clearly. This is now an affluent country with a young and very aspirational populous who seem to be hungry for the luxury lifestyle - kids seem to shop non-stop (no doubt on thier parents credit cards) and the shopping is endless. Some of the malls are so vast they seem to go on for ever. Berjaya Mall is so large it actually has its own Theme Park on the upper three levels with a giant roller coaster, and unlike Bangkok, the shops do actually sell things you do want to buy. A warning, however; do not go in to Petronas Mall unless you happen to be earning a six figure salary - it will just depress you - particularly if you have been wearing the same pair of beat up jeans for the last several months.

Escaping the urban sprawl, we headed further South to Malacca. With Gill only having two weeks we wanted to see some more of the country and its culture, and Malacca was a town steeped in tradition. The main part of the old town is a UNESCO heritage site, and having visited a few of these round Asia we had come to know what this entails - they're almost always very pretty with lots of old well preserved facades, winding streets and quaint shops selling arty stuff. As a result, once the initial charm has worn off they can appear a little vapid and model town-like, but there was enough to see in Malacca to keep us interested for a few days, plus, we had the pleasure of staying in the smartest boutique (in the correct use of the word in this case!) hotel we'd stayed in since being away - the Hotel Puri (, courtesy of Gill.

Part of the charm of Malacca is its diverse heritage. At various points in its history it has been occupied by the Chinese, Indians, Portuguese, Dutch and British, resulting in a broad range of culture and people - to some extent its a microcosm of Malaysia really. Its also produced a stylised cuisine called Nyonya Baba which we tried a few times, with mixed results - we all agreed that Penang was leagues ahead on the food front, but you never know unless you try. We took a river boat and saw some of the huge Monitor Lizards that live in Malacca's river systems, and wandered through some of the old Buddhist temples where they burn so much incense you leave half blind, reeking of sandalwood. We escaped the scorching afternoon heat with some traditional Chinese tea and hospitality in the leafy courtyard of an old house. We sat and read books and drank cocktails and played some cards in the evenings, and generally took it pretty easy.

With Gills trip coming to an end we headed back to KL and to the Airport, where the girls said a teary goodbye. It had been a really enjoyable two weeks. Our next stop was Indonesia. Since flying into Hanoi over three hot and sweaty months before, we had made it overland South through the whole of Vietnam to the mighty Mekong Delta, up through Cambodia and into wild Laos, across the border West almost reaching Burma and then down through Thailand in its full summer heat - traveling (sometimes crashing) only by bus, train, moped, rickshaw and boat all the way to the South of Malaysia. It felt pretty good. We had originally planned to head next to Malaysian Borneo, but having spoken to various new friends along the way, the general consensus was that we could experience a lot more in Indonesia. The Orangutans would have to wait.

We considered getting the slow freight boat from Malacca to Northern Sumatra and heading South from there, but a sizable earthquake of 7.2 had just hit Banda Aceh, pretty much where we would dock, so that put us right off that idea. After weighing up various options and costs we booked a flight to Bali from KL. Cornish Partners in Crime Spud and Katherine from Ko Phangan were there doing some surfing and having a great time, so it seemed like as good a plan as any.

We had just a few days to kill in KL so looked up an old client of mine, Mike, and his partner Trish who were now living in the city and had kindly offered to put us up for the night. It was good to catch up, swap stories and get the insiders view on life there. It seems to me while Malaysia might not be the wildest of all the South East Asian nations it certainly has the best quality of life - its a smart, comfortable and extremely diverse place with some stunning countryside, great food and beaches and a strong respect for its past while being solidly forward thinking. People there seem pretty contended in the main. I still hadn't worked out what "Truly Asia" meant yet, but frankly, with half a dozen Oysters and a bottle of Saki costing less than a tenner, I no longer cared.

View our pics here:
Malaysia - Langkawi, Penang, KL & Malacca


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