Wednesday, 21 September 2011


Colonial-era buildings, Kuala Lumpur

Next up: Malaysia. I left Ao Nang for a little place called Hat Yai on the Thai side of the border, not strictly a border town but it was the largest in the area. The guidebook didn't list much to see here but I didn't fancy a 12 hour bus journey direct to Penang. As it turned out, there was absolutely nothing to do! I counted more travel agencies than restaurants (it's not a good sign when there's more appetite to leave than to stay and eat) and, I stress I didn't know this before I decided to visit, the area has been the scene of violent attacks and bombings by insurgents, which have largely gone unreported. I was warned not to stand near parked motorbikes in case they were wired up to explosives, which I thought was a bit of an over-reaction and anyway, avoiding motorbikes in Thailand is like trying to avoid cars in London.

Masjid Jamek, Kuala Lumpur
The following day I grabbed an early bus to Georgetown, an old colonial port town in the province of Penang, on Malaysia's northwest coast. The city has been an important trading hub for the last 500 years and as such is home to a diverse mix of peoples and cultures. The major communities in Georgetown today are ethnic Malay, Indians (predominantily Tamils from the south) and Nonyu ("Straights Chinese"), and until last century the city had a heavy British and Dutch trading presence. The result is lots of colonial architecture. Lots of places I've visited in Asia were promised to be "colonial" but that was usually limited to an old church and a couple of European-style buildings. Georgetown really had a feel of an 19th century tradepost.

Penang was also voted one of the best places in the world to eat, with the mix of cultures resulting in a superb local cuisine (the British and Dutch influences aside, obviously). It was 5pm and I was hungry, having had nothing since breakfast. Nowhere was open.... on a Tuesday evening. Ok, it was Ramadan before sunset but given the cultural mix here I really expected somewhere to be serving. Some places just didn't open Tuesdays - is Tuesday the new sabbath? There were a couple of street food stalls but I'd had plenty of "chicken-rice" in China and wanted some of the cuisine for which Malaysia is famous. Eventually I found an Indian restaurant but only after I had wandered the streets for over an hour.

Petronas Towers viewed from the KL Menara
I took a VIP bus to Kuala Lumpur (way better than the sleeper buses of Vietnam, this one had just three seats per row, each one like a grandma chair with lean-back footrests... luxury). This coincided with the start of the Rugby World Cup so I spent the mornings exploring the cities various neighbourhoods and most afternoons in the bars.  I got up early to visit the Petronas Towers. The building has a skybridge connecting the two towers which is open to the public. I managed to drag myself out of bed to be there for 8.30 as the ticket office opened but was met with a queue hundreds long. An Indian guy turned to me as he left holding his tickets: "I've been here since 5am). Screw that, I headed to the KL Menara communications tower instead, which has a much taller observation deck. The Petronas towers are 452m high but the observation deck is only at 170m. What's the point of building a huge skyscraper without a viewing gallery at the very top??

My hotel in KL had signs in the lobby saying "No durians allowed in the hotel". First I thought this was a joke, but posters were plastered in every hotel lobby). The durian fruit is notoriously large and stinky. I tried a durian pastry and had to throw it away after the first bite. It was sweet and soft but with an after-taste like the inside of my face was rotting, and it just wouldn't go away.

Durian fruit (centre)
After KL was Melaka, another colonial port town (Malaysia seems to have a lot of these). It was a quirky little place which has seemed to attract pimped-out trishaws. At night they dazzle with disco lights and most come equipped with several speakers pumping out Malay dance classics.

Pimped out trishaws, Melaka
I found Malaysia a bit boring compared to the other countries I had visited. Nightlife in KL was good but I had high expectations of the food, which didn't really deliver - maybe I was unlucky - but it's somewhere I would like to visit again, if only for the diving (Perhentian Islands) or general beach relaxation (Pulau Langkawi).

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