As soon as we entered Malaysia it started raining which was interesting for us because it was the first time we'd seen rain in over three months. It was obvious from the moment we crossed the border that this was a different to Thailand. The vegetation was lusher, there were far fewer wooden huts and there were housing estates which we hadn't seen anywhere before, the roads were better and people were wearing helmets on their motorbikes which they hardly ever do in Thailand, the driving was safer (our taxi driver was by far the fastest on the road) and the vehicles were more modern with far more cars and vans rather than ramshackle trucks and vehicles which had been cobbled together by the owner.
Being hardened travellers we arrived in Penang at 8.30pm on a rainy night with no accommodation booked and no local currency. When we started travelling we were quite apprehensive about crossing borders and finding a room for the night in a new country and we always got a bit of local currency before we arrived in a country, but we are getting more and more blasé as we realise that you can always find a room no matter what time of night you arrive and that if there aren't any cash machines in a country then dollars will be an accepted currency, officially or unofficially. When we left our hotel in Koh Samui at 6am we didn't even know if we would make it to Malaysia or whether we would have to spend the night in Hat Yai which is the nearest big town in Thailand to Malaysia. We had hoped to book an overnight train straight through from Thailand to Penang but Thai trains are often booked up days in advance and we were travelling just before Songkram (Thai New Year, April 12) so the trains were fully booked with people travelling to visit their families for the holiday. We ended up with a bus ticket to Hat Yai and when we were dropped off in Hat Yai we spoke to three girls who were going all the way to Penang and asked them how they were getting there. They were taking a minibus and we got in a tuk-tuk with them to the tour office to see if we could come too. But we bottled out when we saw that the tour office is one mentioned in Lonely Planet for taking people's passports from them and then demanding money before they'd give it back. Anyway, the minibus was going to be full of people and a large amount of luggage so it would have been an uncomfortable five hour journey. We hopped back into the tuk-tuk and asked them to take us to Cathay Tours where they were really friendly and efficient, organising a taxi for us so for the first time we crossed an international border in a taxi and it was so much quicker than doing it by bus.
First impressions of Penang weren't good. We crossed from the mainland to the island on the ferry and were dropped in Chinatown and it was dirty. The first thing that happened when we put out big rucksacs down was that cockroaches ran all over them - yuk. A bit later we saw some other animals that we're not keen on - RATS. After looking at a few dingy places we ended up in the nice, clean Merchant Hotel which we saw the next day had a great ocean view. The next day we met up with Amanda who we'd met in Vietnam but hadn't seen for a couple of months. She had just spent a week relaxing on a nice quiet island off the east coast of Malaysia but had come back to Penang to travel down the west coast with us. We found a pub for dinner and to catch up and, seriously, for the first time since we came away it felt like we could be at home. The Soho pub was just like an English pub of the Wetherspoons variety with good pub grub. It just really looked the part and if it wasn't for not needing to stand at the bar to order a drink (nearly everywhere in Asia waiters take your drinks orders so you never need to get out of your seat) it would have been perfect. We sat around chatting and drinking pints and it felt just like being in Wetherspoons in Croydon! Oh memories! The only difference was that this place was more expensive.
We did a bit of shopping and a bit of sightseeing in Penang, there wasn't a lot to see. There are some big hotels down by the beach so maybe it is a better place for a beach holiday. We spent three nights in Penang and then hired a car and left on Wednesday 10th to visit the Cameron and Genting Highlands before ending up in Kuala Lumpur on Friday night.
To get back to the mainland from Penang we went over the longest bridge in SE Asia which is 8km. It was nice to have our own transport again and I think we might have been sick if we'd taken a bus to the Cameron Highlands. We felt sick in the car for the last 60km of our journey up into the Highlands where the roads were so windy that it took one and a half hours. But the scenery was beautiful. The lush green tea plantations where the hedges make lovely patterns over the hills and the way the light falls on them. On the way we stopped for lunch at a traditional (modern) English Country Pub called The Lakehouse Hotel which was built to look like an old Tudor house and it was done very well. We sat in the lounge and drank tea and had a sandwich and it was very peaceful and pleasant. The area is dotted with these lovely old looking pubs. It's so peaceful in the Cameron Highlands, just beautiful scenery, cute little villages to potter around and wonderful tea.
We stayed at The Cameron Holiday Inn in Tanah Rata. I don't think it's part of the Holiday Inn chain (as it only cost £5 a room and there was no ensuite) but it was a sweet little guesthouse with a nice communal area and pretty grounds. The next day we drove around and visited Cactus Valley which was like a cactus theme park. Not terribly exciting but it was impressive to see so many cactii. Richard nearly impalled himself after tripping up next to a cluster of very spiky cactii but luckily there was a well-placed beam which he caught hold of. Second stop was a strawberry farm where the strawberries are cultivated at waist level so it's not backbreaking to harvest them unlike at home. We bought a few punnets for afternoon tea. We stopped for a pot of tea at Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation where we sat in the open air drinking the best tea I've ever tried and looking at the fantastic view of the tea plantation. When we finally drained every last drop from the teapot we dragged ourselves away to visit Boh Tea Estate, the biggest tea producer in Malaysia where we had a tour of the factory. On the way we passed fields and fields of tea and the workers village which is on site. We saw some tea pickers on their way home but we didn't see any at work because they pick early in the morning and it was lunchtime by this point. We sat through an old but interesting promotional video which included a few minutes on how to make the perfect pot of tea and then we went around the factory which seemed amazingly small with very few staff considering the amount of tea Boh produce. Most of the leaves are sorted mechanically but the leaves for the best tea are still sorted by hand. The smell in the factory was fantastic, a combination of freshly mown grass, rich and damp, and very strong tea. After yet more cups of tea and a much needed toilet break we headed for the Genting Highlands.
You couldn't imagine a greater contrast than the Cameron and Genting Highlands. The Cameron Highlands are peaceful and reminisant of a nice part of the English Countryside with little hamlets nestled in beautiful countryside. It is approached slowly along very windy roads and has a very gentle feel about it. The Genting Highlands is completely different. A big, modern theme park built at the top of a 2000m mountain geared towards the relatively well-off people in Kuala Lumpur as a weekend getaway. The road up to it is new and very steep but you can get a much faster ride than you can going up to the Cameron Highlands and that fast ride just about sums up what a visit to Genting is going to be about. It's fast and it's impressive. On the way up you can see the imposing theme park on top of the mountain - a castle in the sky. The view from our hotel room was vertigo-inducing, a steep drop off from the window down to the mountains - on top of the world. You might think that this isn't typically Malaysian and that you can go to a theme park anywhere but the point is it's fun and actually this is where the middle class Malaysian's go for a family day out or a night at the Casino, we hardly saw any tourists at all. That night Richard and I braved the Casino and played the one-armed bandits for an hour. We made a lot of money, well you'd think we had the amount of coins we won but in fact we'd only made a pound on top of what we started with. Richard dragged me away before I could lose our amazing winnings!
We spent the whole of Friday at the theme park. First Richard had a go on the Sky Venture which is like sky diving. You lie on a jet of air which can have a speed of up to 197km/hr and the air bellows in your jumpsuit lifting you so that you are floating. You need a helmet, earplugs and goggles because it is very noisy and powerful. The instructors made it look easy, flying about, climbing the walls like spiderman but the first go you flounder about. Then, we went on all the ourdoor rides: the corkscrew; the log flume; the bumper boats; the space shot (a ride which shoots you vertically up into the air very fast but which, if you haven't got your eyes screwed tightly shut (Amanda!), gives you a fantastic view for miles over the park and mountains and possibly all the way to Kuala Lumpur). After all the thrills we could handle Richard went back for a second go on the Sky Venture and I decided I couldn't bottle out so gave it a go and it was as difficult as it looked. Although I could move my body when I tried I was so gob-smacked by the strength of the air that most of the time I felt that I couldn't move and lay there like a lead weight. Once you get in the right position you know because the air grabs you and you can feel the power and stability of it but that only happened a couple of times on my go. Richard got it a bit more on his second go.
The image of KL, the Petronas Twin Towers, unfortunately we could only get a good picture of them from another tall building and that was looking sideways on so that you can't see the two towers very well. We tried to go up the Twin Towers but you can only go up to the bridge that spans them about halfway up and there are only limited numbers allowed up each day and we missed it. But, we took this picture from the top of the tallest tower in KL, the Menara Communications Tower which had stunning views over KL and over to the mountains.
We stayed in KL's Chinatown so Amanda and I tried some great Chinese food but one night Richard and I went to a Malaysian Chinese run restaurant that served good British food. It was a kind of posh caf'. Good, hearty steaks, pies and mash at good prices but dirty tablecloths and the steam from the cooking was quite stiffling in the restaurant. For those of you that have seen the sketch show 'Goodness Gracious Me' this was where Malaysian Chinese people 'Go for an English'.
One very hot day we went to the very peaceful KL Lake Gardens where the only other people in the park were courting couples. They were all muslim and one very daring girl took off her head scarf, let her hair down and let her boyfriend touch her neck. When we left we saw a family of monkeys cross the road and saunter past us nonchalantly.
Another day we hired a car and drove about 70km to Kuala Selangor. We spent a couple of hours in a nature park sitting in a wooden hut so that the birdlife and animals weren't disturbed by us and we saw a lot of herons and geese flying over the lake and some smaller birds with long thin beaks and some wild crab-eating maque monkeys and plantain squirrels. The reason we'd come to Kuala Selangor wasn't for the nature park though but for the nightlife. Every evening after dark the 'kelip-kelip' light up the bushes by the river. We travelled slowly down the river in a silent motored boat so we didn't disturb the fireflies that flicker as they put on their mating show making the whole effect exactly like looking at hundreds of flashing Christmas Trees. This is apparently only one of two places where fireflies are in the wild in the world and it was quite an experience.
I can't say much about Melaka apart from commenting on the guesthouse room we were staying in which was very nice. I was ill the whole time we were there but Richard and Amanda found the shopping centres a welcome escape from the heat and humidity. Amanda managed to do a little bit of sightseeing taking in a few of the historic buildings in this former Portugese port which, I'm sure has a lot of character. In fact, we met one of the local characters on the way out of Melaka. Our taxi driver, Albert, was a frustrated stand-up comedian so he subjected us to his full routine on the way to the bus station. It started with impressions of him in his taxi talking to tourists of different nationalities and he would ask them a question and then reply in their language, perfect, English, French, German and Japanese. Then he went into his baby impressions!
Albert dropped us off and we got on the bus to Singapore