Cameron Highlands- The hills are alive

In a complete paradigm shift from the island life on the Perhentians, we headed back to mainland, and caught a bus to the famous Cameron Highlands. Situated about 1000m about sea level, the Cameron Highlands have become a must see stop off in Malaysia, made famous by the hectares of tea plantations and strawberry farms covering almost every inch of land. Unlike the rest of Malaysia, which seems to have 3 main weather cycles (hot/really f***** hot/hot and wet) the highlands are well known for having an average temperature about 10c lower than the rest of Malaysia; hence why it’s growing 80% of the fruit consumed across the country (and the tea, obviously).  By pure chance, we ended up sharing the journey with our new regular travel buddy Frank. He was supposed to leave for the Highlands they day earlier, but partied too hard on the Perhentians and couldn’t face the 6 hour journey with a stinking hangover.

The bus journey took us through some truly breathtaking landscapes, consisting mainly of rolling hills, plantations, and forest land stretching as far as the eye can see. Whilst this was obviously stunning, it’s still such a shame to see so much deforestation taking place in areas, as well as previous arable land being swapped for profitable palm oil plantations, known as the primary cause for insane levels of deforestation and ecological destruction in Borneo. It seems in asia, this rampant destruction of land is somewhat unavoidable sadly.

Arriving into the Highlands gave us all mixed emotions I think it’s safe to say. Whilst the views were utterly breathtaking, they were shared with such high levels of tourism that totally took away from the picturesque views we had all anticipated. Driving through to the main areas tourists say involved driving past crappy little theme parks, themed hotels (including a Smurf hotel! Seriously; WTF) and a myriad of hawkers selling fluffy minion dolls, Hello Kitty EVERYTHING and the now synonymous in Asia penis shaped bottle openers (again, WTF). It transpired that this is an incredibly popular destination for local tourism as well as tourists from China and Japan who apparently love this stuff.

Conversely, we felt like we’d been transported to mountain ranges in Europe. The architecture here is so different from anywhere else in Asia. The buildings look more like ski chalets you’d find in the swiss alps than something you’d find in other parts of rural Malaysia. I would certainly compare the Highlands to Dalat in atmosphere and general look and feel. Food is obviously a huge thing here just like in Dalat, with hugely vibrant fruit markets and farms, selling an abundance of fresh fruits you seldom see in Asia normally (apples and strawberries, rather than pineapple and mango).

By the time we arrived in Tanah Rata we got exactly what we expected; a small highland town with the proper local delicacies we had hoped for. Our driver dropped us at 8 Mentigi Guest House after a request for a cheap place to stay. At 25 Ringit a night for a bed this was one of the cheapest places we stayed in Malaysia (less than a tenner a night for 2 beds is pretty damn good)! The owner was super helpful, filling us with knowledge about hikes, plantations, and other activities to keep us occupied, and the other staff were simply hilarious. To top it all off, the location was perfect, literally minutes from the main strip but far enough to give us a good night sleep.

We didn’t plan to spend too long in the Highlands; most people we spoke to recommended two full days, which sounded perfect. Kelly and myself and our new travel buddy Frank planned a hike the following day up to the second highest point in the highlands, avoiding the costly tours ushering hoards of tourists around the same sites over and over again. I’m so glad we did this! Not only did we save the best part of $30 doing this, but we had a unique experience on our own without dozens of other people. There are a number of hikes around the highland for all abilities, spanning the jungle areas of the land, or through the rolling tea plantations. We opted for jungles, meaning we could dedicate the following day to plantations. The hike was so worth it! We opted for a number of hikes straight from the center of the town, meaning we would get a number of the routes done in one day, peaking about 2/3 of the way through the trek. Now, we’ve done a bunch of hikes in Asia, so we sort of knew what we were letting ourselves in for, and this was no different to so many we’ve done. The trails were certainly overgrown, and pretty much non existent at points, or offered a number of ‘wrong turns’ that could have got us stuck in the highlands for days. Perhaps my favorite part of these treks though is the fact the unearthed roots effectively act as steps up mountains. This hike didn’t let us down and was made up predominantly of just this! I would certainly not say it was the easiest hike of my life, but it was fun none the less. Doing it with great people obviously helped! At the summit (about 1800m up) we had some awesome views over the highlands and a nice stop to catch our breath and rehydrate before enduring the ‘tougher route’ down. A word of warning for any novice hikers in Asia. If someone says it’s tough here, it probably means its really tough! The decline the whole way back was quite simply insane! It reminded us quite a bit of some of the hike we did in Cambodia, which involved abseiling down a dried up waterfall. Whilst no ropes were involved this time (only bamboo ropes), it was pretty tough on the ol’ knees and feet. Still, a great day out!

The next day, we hired a bike to explore the surrounding areas and obviously, the tea plantations. Spending the day driving around this area was such a joy, especially as the windy and undulating roads were up there as some of the most fun to ride in Asia! We stopped at 2 of the larger tea companies plantations, Royal Plantation Tea and Boh Tea (the largest tea manufacturer in Malaysia; it’s basically a posher PG tips). Whilst the first plantation was rather small, Boh was a total monster, and you could tell in the offering of their tourist services. Royal tea had a tiny tea shop and restaurant, whilst Boh had a museum, live working factory for drying and packaging (they do everything internally rather than outsourcing to other companies), a cafe with some of the nicest views in the whole area, and a wonderful shop offering a huge array of fruit, ice, and loose leaf teas. If you’re ever here, i highly recommend the Boh plantation to get a real idea of what’s involved, and what some of the better teas can taste like (try the mango fruit tea; it’s a total winner!) The rest of the day consisted of exploring the surrounding hills on the bike, and again, was a total joy. I can definitely see why there’s such a pull here for tourists.

I couldn’t not mention the food up here, which was a total shock to us all. I’d go as far as saying we had some of the best Indian, Nonya, and Malay food we’ve had in all of Malaysia in the Highlands! Discovering some of the local secrets is all part of the fun. Special shout out to these guys. This deaf couple run a small street food restaurant that’s only open till 5pm, serving Malay food cooked fresh to orer. Their hospitality was so good, we went back 3 times in the end. Plus to make things better right next door is a family restaurant selling the best Satay beef and Chicken we’ve had since Thailand! Seriously, go there; you won’t be disappointed.

So that was it for the Highlands. It was definitely worth the journey, and i’m so glad we made the effort to get there. We had planned to head to Borneo, but now we’re at the end of our trip, the purse strings are being pulled tighter than usual, so we simply couldn’t justify a near $400 trip there and back for a few days. We traveled back to KL to have one last day with our buddy Cadmon. In true Cadmon fashion, he took us on a couple of food odysseys, consisting of a monster night market never normally seen by western tourists, a top notch dimsum restaurant, and a traditional stop off selling congee (a kind of chicken rice porridge; believe me it’s nicer than it sounds). It’s been so great linking up with someone we met so long ago now on their home turf and getting a real feel for life here not always seen by tourists.

Our time in Malaysia is up sadly. It’s been wonderful and so much more than we expected. Malaysia really is the perfect example of multiculturalism in action, and other nations (including the UK) could learn so much from it. The sights, the food, the people, and the culture are all wonderful, and i’ll genuinely miss being here! But it can’t last forever. We’re now in our final country for the last month of our trip; the Philippines! Hopefully the weather stays on our side (it’s Typhoon season here) so we can really enjoy this last part of our trip.

Langkawi and the Perhentian Islands- Paradise lost 

After such a great few days in Penang, we took others advice and made the short journey to Langkawi, a collection of a hundred or so islands north of Malaysia and basically on the boarder of Thailand (arguably it’s actually over the land boarder at points but still Malaysian territory). We did the journey with Cormac, our new travel buddy who is seemingly doing the same route as us in Malaysia at the same time. He was meeting a lady friend Belinda at our hostel, so we’d have another member of our group for a few days. 
Langkawi is a popular weekend destination for locals we were later to discover. Not only because it’s bloody beautiful, but because it’s a tax free island! Apparently this is somewhat historic; something to do with a promise made by a ruling leader years ago to never tax the land, that’s stuck in place. In more recent years this has obviously resulted in areas becoming a full on tourist trap, and Langkawi now boasts an airport, the largest aquarium in Asia, a number of very upmarket (and eyewateringly expensive) hotels, and obviously, a bunch of activities to please the masses. This, as a budget conscious backpacker didn’t interest us massivey; most of the activities on offer would easily decimate our £15 a day each budget within merely looking at what’s on offer. Because of this, we bypassed the Sheraton and four seasons hotels, and stayed at a great little place just off the super touristy road, offering everything we needed for about £14 a night. Result!

Imagine a super touristy road in any country. You’ve all seen them. The buzz of Khao San Road in BKK, the main strip in Ibiza, spots around parliament square in London. Langkawi had one too that ticked all the boxes, massively overpriced food, dozens of shops selling utter shite with a 200% markup, a number of bars trying to out do each other with their touristic enticements, the works. On our first night we hired scooters and rode up said street in true Asian fashion (the wrong way up a one way street) to see if we just got a bad first impression. We didn’t, it was shite, end of. To add to our entertainment, an obviously new to Asia Aussie traveller and her partner looked aghast when they spotted us and shouted ‘what you doing???? It’s a one way!!’ Welcome to Asia my dear! 

So after effectively deciding that we’d avoid this strip like the plague, and subsequently we’d be missing out many of the tourist laden activities, we set a plan for the next few days to hunt out many of the free activities that were available. Fortunately, Langkawi is blessed with some absolutely glorious topography, beaches, waterfalls, lookouts, and roads so this wasn’t too difficult! 

In the end, the four of us agreed we should probably do the SkyCab, the number one attraction on Langkawi. It’s also one of the steepest cable cars in the world, and the views from the top are supposed to be pretty amazing. As soon as we arrived here, it was apparent this is a SERIOUS tourist spot, with almost a mini theme park surrounding the site offering everything from 4d cinemas, amusement arcades, a very weird 3D art museum, even go karting! Obviously none of that really appealed so we didn’t pay any extra for those, but gained entrance to some as part of our 55Ringit entrance fee (about £10, so an expensive commitment immediately sending us over budget for the day). More on those activities later though. From my perspective the SkyCab was really worth it. The views from the top were pretty spectacular, with lookouts at 3 different points overlooking pretty much the whole island. The views were definitely impressive, and made even more impressive once we also did the sky walk, the worlds highest single suspension point bridge. This spot offered equally impressive views across the hundred or so islands dotted across the horizon. Perhaps the most impressive thing for me was the water. In all the time we’ve been on the road I don’t remember water to have such an expansive turquoise hue, which made for such a beautiful site from so high up. 

Once we ventured back down the cable car, we gave the 3D art museum a go. Whilst this is clearly geared towards the younger end of the age spectrum, there were some great instalments to immerse yourself and interact with. We may have taken a few shots with some of them, once we could battle our way through the hoards of Chinese tourists who seemed totally oblivious of personal space, order and, well, anything around them at all really! 

To finish off the day, we rode to a couple of local waterfalls. The benefit of these was twofold. One, they were free, and two, they could cool us down! The first required a bit of a hike but was totally worth it, greeting us with a natural water slide and beautifully naturally cooled water. At the base of the waterfall was an evidently popular local spot for a dip, with a huge number of locals tourists enjoying the various spots to get drenched. This was a very impressive waterfall, with probably 100ft from summit to base. God I love a good waterfall! 

The following day, the four of us donned our bikes, and spent the day riding around the island, exploring the more unseen areas off the beaten track. Cormac identified a hill we could drive up, which evidently turned out to be the highest point in Langkawi. After a fairly arduous ride for about 45 minutes we made it to the top, paid our £2 to enter the lookout for even more impressive views than the day before! The panoramic views, matched with a clear day free of overcasting clouds made for a great view of the whole island and surrounding islands, and was totally worth it. One issue though to finish this off; I was basically out of fuel! We had to freewheel the best part of 12k back to the main road down the mountain, only tapping the throttle to get us up the larger inclines, before praying to the petroleum gods we’d make it to the closest fuel stop, a good 10k away. I’ve mentioned many times the infrastructure in Malaysia is immensely better than other Asian countries we’ve visited, and sometimes this brings with it a downside. In Cambodia or Indonesia, the primary method of filling up your bike is from a small roadside stall with litres of petrol in old vodka bottles. These tended to be everywhere but here, totally non existent. Hunting out one of the half dozen petrol stations on Langkawi always involved a drive, but unfortunately for us these were all in totally the wrong direction! Regardless, we made it, filled up, said our goodbyes to Cormac and Belinda (both catching a boat to mainland that afternoon), and went about our day. Then we found this. 

This is what I really love about backpacking. You hire a bike, just ride randomly around the area you’re in, and discover hidden gems totally off the tourist track just like this beach. Honestly, at this point we could have been on a near deserted Thai island, as we only shared the beach with about a dozen other people. Obviously, we made full use of this and stayed for a good couple of hours, soaking in the vitamin D and great views. 

That was really the end of excitement for us in Langkawi. We had two more days there, but spent one by the pool undertaking much needed life admin, and another totally rained in. Sadly these things happen, but in the near 300 days we’ve been on the road now we’ve had surprisingly few like this. 
Next stop was the Perhentian islands off the north east coast of mainland Malaysia. We set off in the afternoon, and after a fairly arduous collection of journeys (boat/bus/boat/boat), including a 3.30am arrival in the middle of nowhere, we finally made it! Kelly and I had heard a bunch about these islands, but still didn’t really know what to expect apart from ‘they are stunning;just go’. First impressions weren’t far off. The crystal clear water was a beautiful turquoise colour with clear visibility all the way to the bottom. Plus there were monitor lizards everywhere which is really cool. 

This one was a baby. Some were basically dinosaurs
Mixing this with stunning soft white sand and some spectacular sea life surrounding the shores you could imagine yourself to be in paradise again. 

One problem though; tourism is destroying this place. 

You see it all over the world. A place becomes popular because of a new lonely planet review, a few famous instagrammers posting stunning photos at a now iconic spot, or a shitty TV show goes somewhere, and suddenly it’s the new spot to visit. Over the past year, we’ve heard so many times that place X is ‘what Y used to be like before it became touristic’ and sadly, the perhentians falls into the category of being overrun by tourism now. The main beach on the smaller island, Kecil, is literally laden with small shacks blaring reggae from water damaged PA speakers, selling paint stripper bottles of rum/whiskey, overpriced beers, and crap quality food laden with monosodium glutamate and E numbers (the regulations in Malaysia on flavour enhancers appear to be non existent so the processed foods are nearly all full with such chemicals). Accommodation here ranges from tents you pay £12 a night for the pleasure of,  to pretty crappy quality DIY chalets you pay an arm and a leg for, and finishing with the new array of villas at the few opulent hotel complexes that I imagine cost hundreds or thousands a night. 

The type of place we stayed on our first couple of nights
Whilst the beach is beautiful, it’s not big, and is totally overrun with small passenger boats. Walking down the beach is akin to walking along a minefield whilst you spend your time dodging the anchors dug into the shallow waters or sand, broken whiskey bottles dead coral or rubbish. Add to that the constant smell of petrol from the over choked boat motors constantly whirring guests in and out, the percussive rattle of the generators powering every beach front stall (there’s no grid system here, all the power is from generators, and most accommodation only has power during evenings), finding a quiet, quaint, and peaceful spot can be somewhat of a challenge. Perhaps the most upsetting thing on this island was the rubbish. There’s no infrastructure for dealing with the vast amount of rubbish that is generated from so many people, so the resorts, restaurants, hotels and guesthouse just seem to dump, burn, or hide everything. Sewage pipes could be seen running straight into the sea all over the island, or running along the coastal edge from one establishment to another. I discovered at another hotel complex we walked though, they just dumped most of the cans and plastic under the main building out of the view of guests, before carting off into the island later on to burn. For someone who cares deeply about the environment, and has made a real concerted effort to be a sustainable traveler wherever possible, this was deeply upsetting. To top it all off, there is no drinkable water on the island, so you are forced to drink water shipped in from mainland in plastic bottles. I dread to think how many thousands of bottles are disposed of every month, and how easy it would be to combat this in a few simple steps.   

Long beach probably contains about half a dozen dive shops too, obviously appealing to the young clientele keen to dip their proverbial toes in the water and to get a cheap PADI qualification. Everyone I spoke to undertaking the courses seemed really happy with the quality of the courses, training and support, and the price was certainly en par with the outrageously good value found in Koh Tao, widely known as one of the cheapest places to learn to dive in the world. I think it’s safe to say if you want to learn to dive during the day for cheap, party at night, have a short term bender on an island, and cook yourself a little in a state of permanent hangover, this is a great place to be! 

Having said all that, we didn’t partake in any of these activities, yet we still bloody loved it here. 

The problem with places like this that they become so overrun with tourism (and lame tourism too) is escaping it can be a real challenge. But when you do, it can be totally blissful. After two nights staying near long beach we made the move to the other side of the island. This much quieter and more tranquil side still boasted a number of dive shops, hotels and small beach from restaurants. Move beyond the beach however, and you can find basic yet idyllic chalets for dirt cheap, which feel like they are in the middle of nowhere. We managed to get a chalet overlooking the islands and sea for about 70MR (£13) a night; a pretty decent price for this island. The beauty of this spot though was definitely it’s tranquility. One evening we watched a somewhat cloudy sunset whilst reading on our balcony, and felt like no one else was around. The reggae battles from the other side of the island were totally inaudible, the party scene non existent, and the stress levels depleted. 

After moving to the other side, we spent a day exploring the area, discovered an almost secluded beach or two that looked ideal for snorkeling, and decided to head back the next day. The sea was so calm it almost looked like glass, and being so clear we had ideal conditions for a few hours out exploring under the sea. Whilst we didn’t see any turtles, we did spot some very cool looking schools of fish, the biggest trigger fish I’ve ever seen (seriously, this guy was a monster, and probably would have taken a toe off if he’d come for me), a number of needle fish, blue spotted stingray and a small group of baby black tip reef sharks nestling in by the shallow rocks. Overall, pretty awesome! 

Once we found our secluded little spots, we didn’t do a great deal. Days consisted of reading, snorkelling, sunbathing, and that’s pretty much it, but that’s really all we wanted from these islands. 

I guess it’s inevitable and unavoidable really; somewhere is discovered and word spreads, local micro economies naturally tap into increased demand by creating offerings for impending tourists, normally trying to squeeze the most out of profit margins, and before you know it you’re basically in Magaluf, or a stupidly expensive resort. Part of the fun of backpacking on a budget is definitely hunting out the unknown spots where you can live a frugal yet satisfying existence for very little. Sadly the Perhentians probably aren’t that spot anymore (although we did manage to just about stay in our £15 each a day budget, but only just), but it’s certainly not geared up perfectly for those of a slightly more budget conscious disposition. There are so many islands off the Malaysian coast, I’m sure most are equally as stunning with equally as clear and warm water. I just wish we had longer to explore more of them. 

Penang- A dream for foodies and photographers

So after the best part of a week in KL we decided to head to a slightly more chilled part of Malaysia, yet equally as infamous. Penang is a small island about five hours north of KL, made famous for its relaxed island life feeling whilst also having enough infrastructure and services to keep a homesick westerner happy. More importantly though, Georgetown is here!
Georgetown is without a doubt the most famous area in Penang, and for good reason too. The capital of the Penang state became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008 due to its historic architecture and historical value (it was the landing point of colonialism in Malaysia). If you walked down the streets and just looked at the architecture, there’s no way you’d ever think you’re in Asia, the buildings look way more suited to pre war European dwellings, all offering slats over the windows, almost Victorian style decor inside, high ceilings and vaulted entrances. Whilst some look pretty run down this just adds to the experience for me. Whilst this is wonderful to experience from the outside the inside can have its downsides. The UNESCO status effectively means many of the buildings are listed, so no internal or external changes can be made. For hotels looking for workarounds, this often results in rooms made out of semi permanent plywood, with no permanent fixtures (like lights for example), super creaky floors and windows that never shut. We managed to endure this for one night before feeling like we were getting a raw deal, and checked into a hostel with quite the reputation.

We ended up moving to Tipsy Tiger party hostel. The clue should have been in the name really. This place offered free breakfast, free drinks, a bunch of drinking games and incentives for all residents (which ended up being rather deadly), and normally ended with being up way too late, spending way too much money, and having a hangover from hell the next day. Fortunately I didn’t partake in the spending too much, but did milk the free drinks for all they were worth, so had to endure the headache to end all headaches once or twice. ANYWAY, this is definitely not the reason we came here, I just wanted to highlight this is a great place to meet people and blow off some stream!

Georgetown is known for three things in particular. Incredible street food, street art, and architecture, but there is so much more here to please any kind of tourist. More on that later though. We spent our first day hunting out the famous street art. What’s worth noting here, is there is so much more then what’s commonly advertised in lonely planet guides. It’s really worth spending a day exploring everywhere rather than just following a street art map, as there’s such a great mix of styles around the city. This was just on the end of our hostel road for example, but wasn’t advertised anywhere!We’ve seen some great street art on our travels, but this art seemed to blend into the surroundings so much more than other places. Of course, everyone hunting out the street art HAS to pose in the cliche manner, so I decided to do things differently (obviously). 

Sorry, I couldn’t resist 😳. I did take some normal ones though..

So, the following day we tried to find some of the lesser known tourist type activities that didn’t cost an arm and a leg with our new room mate Cormac (we actually met in KL and happened to be sharing a room here). Starting the day at the chocolate and coffee museum was a massive let down. Essentially this is an overpriced shop with a room describing the production process.

One of the only interesting parts of the chocolate museum
Feeling totally underwhelmed we wandered to the floating part of the city. This is essentially a bunch of houses on a jetty. It was great exploring the small alcoves and alleys all precariously perched over the water, but what really astounded us was the ingenuity of the structural engineering! I mean check this out!

Sadly I suspect quite a lot of this is also human excrement
Following this we caught an uber to the north of the island to explore the tropical spice garden. Now this was a great find! Essentially it’s a chunk of the national park edge that’s dedicated entirely to showing off the stunning array of plants, herbs and spices that grow in Malaysia. Penang was originally formed as part of the spice trade route, so obviously this was a huge part of the garden. Wow, what a place! I never thought I’d enjoy walking around a garden so much! In particular, it was great to see the raw form of so many plants I frequently use in Asian cooking, but had no idea what the plant or tree looked like! We spent a good two hours here at least enjoying the coffee and tea plantations, spice gardens, whole areas dedicated to palm and bamboo, and even a section on deadly plants before heading back to the city to decimate the street food.

I can’t stress this enough, the street food here is something else, and in huge abundance. You could spend a month here and not eat at every stall that’s for sure! We used our own top tips for street food selection (eat where the locals queue) to get what we hoped would be the best, and I’d like to think we did rather well. That night the three of us shared so many snacks and dishes, in an attempt to enjoy as much as possible. We had everything from noodle broths, Laksa, satay, fried spring rolls, Malaysian deserts, and my personal favourite, named granny fried oyster (basically an omelette fried with clams, no grannies were harmed in the making of this omelette). What a great way to end a great day! 

It should be said that the food options in Georgetown are in no ways limited to the street food, which only really comes alive at night. Down every street there’s something magical to be found, and just like in KL the smaller districts like chinatown and little India offer some real gems. During our five days in Georgetown we went on a few voyages of discovery for the best local food, and found quite a few. The absolute show stoppers for me we’re both in little India, one place only serving tandoori chicken and biryani (arguably the best tandoori chicken I’ve ever had, even beating India!) and another selling pandan thali for about £1.20 for effectively all you can eat. If Indian cuisine isn’t your thing, there are hundreds of eateries around, and I’d challenge you to find a bad feed. It really is worth a trip to Penang just to eat your way across it! You’ll need a while though….

Even the street art relates to food!

Some Bangin Tandoori chicken

Indian sweets just like mama used to make (in India)

The best Chinese food I had in Penang
After so much eating (and drinking) the three of us agreed some exercise was needed, as well as actually exploring a wider part of the island! We got a cab to the national park, and undertook the hike to the turtle sanctuary directly through the park. The lady at the entrance told us this was the tougher hike, but totally rewarding. She wasn’t wrong! The hike was nothing in comparison to Rinjani (no volcanoes involved this time) but was a slog none the less, especially as we didn’t set off until the midday sun was at it hottest. We never learn… after two hours of rather interesting terrain we made it to the beach. At this point it all became worth it! What a stunning and secluded beach! Only accessible via boat or via the jungle, we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves! Later, we managed to hitch a boat ride to another beach called monkey beach which was equally as beautiful! Malaysia seems to have beautifully white beaches (albeit fairly coarse) but the water is a beautiful pale blue unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s really all rather lovely. 

So in a nutshell, that was our five days in Penang. Totally worth the trip, but I wish we had longer to explore other parts of this island. It’s definitely got its own character and I can why there’s such a strong tourism pull. Our next stop is as far north as we can go without being in Thailand, the island group of Langkawi!

Kuala Lumpur- A melting pot of culture

It’s funny, when we look back over the countries we’ve visited, the consistent feeling we’ve had in capital cities is we don’t really like them all that much. That feeling of ever so slight anxiety I recall from London commuting, constant sensory overload and claustrophobia on public transport feels like such a distant memory, until you enter a capital city. Bangkok is quite simply bat shit crazy, and cities like Delhi are just such an assault on the senses. The great thing about cities though sadly don’t outweigh the bad things from my perspective, but it’s always worth at least experiencing them for a couple of days just to get a feel for the place. So when we arrived to Malaysia at Kuala Lumpur, we weren’t particularly excited about the prospect of another mega city. I’d heard all the things about the airport being a total monster, but I hadn’t prepared for it clearly! 

KL airport is like no other airport in Asia I’ve seen. It’s a shiny glistening city, rammed full of commuters traveling all over the world, absolutely jam packed full of shops (there’s a mall comparable with a Westfield inside the airport), and more importantly, everything was just so damn easy! I remember on a connecting flight to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, we made our check in with 4 minutes to spare thanks to a shocking passport check process, but KL was totally the opposite experience. Everything from buying a local sim, to getting a taxi to the city was a total doddle! This ease of movement continued into the city too, where the metro is dead simple and studiously cheap! 

What definitely made things easier though was meeting a friend we made in Hanoi back in November. Cadmon happened to be flying to Hong Kong for a concert that same night so caught up with us at arrivals. After a quick hello and goodbye we were in a cab to the city, with a vague idea what we were doing, where we were going, and a plan to link up with Cadmon later in the week. 

We decided to stay in the Bukit Bintang district of the city and I’m so glad we did! This area was an easy walking distance from so many attractions and areas defined as ‘must see’ in KL, as well as hundreds of opportunities to sample the famous food of Malaysia (and particularly KL). The food here is a wonderful mix of Indian, Chinese, Thai and the home grown Malay, totally in line with the culture and population. I’ve never seen a place that is so multicultural but more importantly, beautifully integrated multiculturalism. I didn’t get any impression that there were issues with so many cultures living intertwined unlike sadly, we see all too often in the UK (especially if you read the daily mail). It really doesn’t matter where you are in KL you see examples of this; from the Indian/Asian fusion food on the streets, to the general feeling throughout the streets. We saw a mosque next to a Catholic Church, next to a Hindu temple on one street, turned a corner and you’d see a beautiful government building with Islamic architecture mixed with Colonial British influence, aided by a impeccably manicured cricket pitch and pavilion. It’s such a weird yet wonderful mix that you see throughout the city. 

The food is legendary in Malaysia and I can totally see why! Firstly, it’s everywhere you turn, and such a huge part of Malaysian culture. The streets have a constant aroma of Indian spices (it really made me feel like I was back in India), the constant percussive beat of wok’s making amazing stir fries, the smell of BBQ satay and fresh fish, and sadly durian. They bloody love durian here, and unfortunately it kind of smells like a mix of a bin that’s insides are rotting in direct sunlight, and vomit. Needless to say, we took full advantage of this wonderful culinary hybrid and ate our way around the city joyfully (but avoiding durian). If you come to KL, the tourist street food spot is called Jalan Alor and is well worth a look at night. I can’t comment on any restaurants (like proper restaurants, with napkins and silver polished cutlery etc) but I can say all of the street food restaurants (with plastic tables and chairs, plastic forks and plates, and fairly in/out service) were sublime! 

Like with any city, different districts have very different feels. We spent a day walking around the city (getting very weird looks from locals as most people don’t seem to walk around much due to the heat, which is pretty intense) just exploring the different areas. It’s incredible how much change there can be between Chinatown and little India, which are literally a ten minute walk apart. Chinatown obviously felt similar to many others all around the world, but with a market selling fake EVERYTHING that made me feel like I was back in Bangkok. A short trot down a busy road, and you enter little India, where buildings are painted with the most vibrant colours imaginable, statues of Ganesh and Brama are all over the place, the air is perfumed with Hindu incense, and the shops belt loud Bhangra music across the road like their having a decibel battle; just like being back in India, but with considerably less chaos. It was such a nice reminder of all the things I loved about India, with the subtle removal of the things I didn’t love so much! To follow this all up, we walked to the national mosque and surrounding areas. Sadly we couldn’t enter as we were here during Eid, but just being able to check out the mosque from afar was good enough. For the rest of the day, we explored the district around the mosque, housing a number of government buildings, the worlds largest outdoor bird sanctuary, a few more temples, a botanical gardens and a planetarium. What really astounded me was the cleanliness of this area. The pavements and roads were immaculate; so alien for most of what we’ve seen in other Asian capitals. Many of the buildings followed the architectural style of Islamic/colonial British we spotted earlier, and the area felt eerily quiet, mainly due to the Islamic celebrations. Combine all of these things and you could definitely question if you were still in Asia, all of this was just so alien to another places we’ve been! 

To finish off our day exploring we went to see the iconic Petronas Towers, the highest twin towers in the world. These buildings are absolutely stunning, I can see why they are so iconic now! At night, they illuminate and sparkle like diamonds, visible across the whole city. Underneath the towers is yet another monster shopping mall, leading outside to a beautifully landscaped garden and lake area. Walk through the other end of the mall and continue walking for ten or so minutes along the skywalk, and you enter time square, absolutely filled with designer stores ranging from Prada to Hugo Boss. This part of KL reminded me so much of the opulent areas of Dubai. This kind of over polished and shopping centric way of life is so far removed from my day to day it’s unbelievable: people were spending more on handbags and watches in the ten minutes I walked down that road than we’ve spent in a few months in Asia! Still, it’s nice to see how the other half live I suppose. I definitely stuck out like a sore thumb in my £2 singlet and grubby shorts though 🤣.  

As with any place you visit, it’s almost mandatory to visit the touristy stuff, especially as it’s free! I think it’s safe to say there’s not that much really historical stuff in KL apart from the Batu caves, so off we went to see them. Sadly from our perspective we both felt totally underwhelmed (sorry KL). Don’t get me wrong, the outside is pretty impressive, but the caves themselves and the temples inside just didn’t blow us away as much as expected, or anywhere near as much as some of the Hindu temples in India. I appreciate thisbprobably sounds very spoiled, but for us it’s the truth. There’s lots of work going on there now too, in an attempt to ‘jazz up’ the surrounding area which for us just felt fake too. But again, it’s one of those things you’ve got to do and we did it, and it was free, so nothing lost. 

As I mentioned earlier, we had agreed to link up with Cadmon again whilst in KL. We spent a quality day with him exploring the non tourist areas of KL. The day started off with a trip to a Chinese/Malay food market for breakfast, where we got to experience some PROPER local grub, costing all of about £2. We’ve definitely found here (as well as many other countries) the best trick in the book for saving money is to avoid restaurants and eat with the locals, and this summed it up beautifully! Ordering was a bit of a challenge as no signs were in English and many people surprisingly didn’t speak English (in Malaysia it seems like the vast majority do) but the battle was sooo worth it! Following this, Cadmon drove us out towards Cyberjaya to see some of the lesser known areas and buildings. We got to explore one of the biggest mosques out of central KL, and saw some stunning buildings including the presidential offices, a monsterous building that really stood out around the others in the area. I’m so glad we got to see these other areas that were so different from the main body of KL we’d witnessed thus far. After stopping for lunch to have one of my new favourites, vegetable pandan thali (and selection of vegetarian curries, dhal, breads and chutneys served on a banana leaf) and a cheeky beer whilst watching the lions, we finished off a cracking day with some real icing on the cake, a pint on a helipad at dusk! It’s not often you get do to something like this, and doing so in KL whilst overlooking the Petronas towers and KL Tower was simply awesome! I guess the company was okay too ☺️. 

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention we both got tattoos too! 

I’ve wanted a forearm piece for ages, but have been undecided on what for ages (as well as being fairly apprehensive about a visible piece day to day, but oh well). After a lot of searching, we found a tattoo studio very highly recommended (and with a huge portfolio of stunning inkwork) called bloody ink, situated a ten minute walk from our hotel in a small shopping mall. This mall was so different to the others in KL; feeling more like an old school bazaar, with stalls selling everything from cheap knock off goods to smartphones, tattoos to manicures. The mall still allows smoking inside, isn’t even remotely polished, and has a food court upstairs that I don’t think any other backpackers have ever entered, but that’s all part of the charm. Down one end of a small alley in said mall, are a number of tattoo stores; we definitely picked the best! 

I decided to get a piece to commemorate the memories and challenges of this trip. Hanzhi, my artist, was awesome at really taking on board what I was after, and after a bit of redesign work he produced this freehand!

I couldn’t be happier, the detail he’s managed to squeeze in is so much more than I ever expected, and he’s absolutely nailed the brief! To add to all this, I shared my new piece of ink of Reddit, and it totally exploded! At time of writing this has over 250000 views, nearly 300 comments and over 16000 upvotes, making it to the front page (in Reddit terms, this is a big deal). I’m just glad people like it! Kelly went for something totally different. She’s become obsessed with diving on this trip, and counts herself as a bit of a mermaid at the best of times (oh, and she loves Disney stuff), so got herself a constant reminder of her times under water and got a watercolour mermaid. After much deliberation on colour or not, and more importantly watercolour or not she went for it, and 3-4 hours later this was the outcome. I’m sure you’ll agree her artist Miiaow did a cracking job too! 

So that’s our time in KL done! I can definitely say this is my favourite capital in Asia thus far, and I’m actually looking forward to going back. Special thanks to Cadmon for being such an awesome tour guide and friend (and driver especially when you bolted us to our bus with minutes to spare). 

Now onto Penang to explore some street art and to eat our way across it!