Country number: 46
Territory number: 51
When? August 2011 – last leg, coming from Bali
How? Local flights, buses, boats
‘Malaysia is a country unlike any other: Full of promise and fragility. Its history, cultural and religious diversity make it a rich, compelling and surprising land.’
I am pleased to report that I am back in pampered hotel land. My hotel In Kuala Lumpur only has a five kitchen cafe this time, but it still does a buffet. And I can see the Petronas Towers from my window. Though I’m not sure how sensitive it is of the Malaysians to refer to them as the tallest twin towers still in existence.
KL has definitely changed since I was here last- ten years ago. Lots more skyscrapers and when I venture out I might mistake this for the UK, or possibly the USA. The busy mall opposite is very up market – Chopard, Tod’s- although there are also McDonalds and M & S. It’s five minutes’ walk, but the hotel runs a buggy service there. The Malaysians don’t like walking and they love shopping. The guide tells me they select hotels based on their proximity to the malls. He also tells me they are thinking about building drive-in mosques, where you don’t even have to get out of your car. I’m not sure if that was a joke or not.
It is still de rigueur, however, to shorten city names. Kuala Lumpur is KL and Joha Baru JB and so on. I’m off to Malacca today, which they can’t shorten, but they do spell it Melaka. I think it will be a gentle jaunt through some rural scenes and I can take photos. The road is a three-lane highway, indistinguishable from the M1 most of the way (except for the palm trees and the lack of road works). After two hours the driver says he will take me the last stretch in to town by the country route, which turns out to be a two-lane highway. The weather pattern is currently sunshine in the morning and rain in mid-afternoon I’m informed. What countryside there is swathed in haze. This is blamed on the Indonesian forest fires.
Malacca itself is lovely. More how I had expected China to be. Maybe they are just better at renovating here. Colourful temples, quaint shops, merchants’ houses and old craft workshops. Singapore in miniature, but probably with more character.
Back in my room I’m passing on dinner tonight. I’m still full of buffet from yesterday.
It’s all very easy here. Everything is in English – most things are very English, Asia for beginners. There’s a national day looming here soon – August 31st and the flags are coming out. Why don’t we have one? The Malaysian flag looks to be an Islamic version of the stars and stripes.
I am driven into the Cameron Highlands. It’s a very posh little SUV but even this has hardly any leg room. Everything is made for tiny people – Lilliputian. More motorways complete with English style service areas including Dunkin Donuts and KFC. Though a bit of Asian bazaar does creep in, with some tourist tat and some very glittery versions of Claire’s Accessories. The last part of the route today is indeed rural and winds continually and nauseatingly for over an hour up into the clouds. Tea plantations so velvety green they are begging to be stroked. And little towns straggling the backs of ridges with timbered architecture that could almost be Scottish, except that the effect is more Super 8 Motel. It’s parky enough to be Scotland, a bit of a shock to the system.
I wander into the nearest town. Strawberry farms are the order of the day: Healthy Strawberries, Biggest Red Strawberries, all sorts of strawberry confections, as well as the golf course and the Ramadan market. The newspapers have reported at least one death already from eating off these stalls. The other hot news is that Golden Churn butter has been deemed to be non Halal and Muslims are ordered not to eat it. It contains pig’s DNA. Am I the only one who can’t work out how pig’s DNA gets into butter?
The hotel is ‘the epitome of colonial England’, all wood panelling, afternoon tea and log fires. There’s a delightful dining room, the windows festooned with strings of white lights. It’s a shame my bedroom hasn’t got a log fire too. Though it has got a huge four poster bed, so it’s quite cosy.
The staff here all call me Miss Susan. Very deferential – I think. It’s the first time this trip I’ve actually stopped and done nothing, or very little anyway. I read in bed this morning and then I spend the whole morning in the spa. As tea and strawberries are the local specialties they feature heavily. I am supposed to have a relaxing tea bath. (Another first.) It looks great, with rose petals and chrysanthemums floating on the water. There is a tray resting over the bath that contains sugar scrub for my body, tea scrub for my face, lime slices for my elbows and knees and a tea bag for my eyes). There are even headphones to wear, if you like repetitive plastic music. Then I have a brilliant body scrub and a very long massage. Well, after that I am really good for nothing. However, I crawl out to do the Jim Thompson mystery walk later on in the afternoon. I should have learned by now that in Asia the word walk is synonymous with sliding down narrow, muddy rainforest tracks whilst simultaneously trying to avoid being garrotted by tree roots growing across the path. There is only me and a guide. To add to the enjoyment it starts to rain and he issues us with plastic ponchos. So there we are like two pixies tottering around. The terrain necessitates him holding my hand quite a lot. The secondary forest here too is being eroded as the wood is deemed useless and all the rare orchids superfluous. The land is being developed for palm oil or apartments. A giant oak tree has fallen across our path and the guide suggests a long detour. I demur as I don’t want to prolong the excitement (especially the hand holding) and we hack our way through. Then I collect a leech, which is another first. The little bugger takes more than a sample test tube’s worth. The blood’s still trickling down my leg. The guide also tells me a very long and complicated story about Jim Thompson. I have only previously associated him with restaurants that sell Thai food and a house near Bangkok. However, it seems he disappeared from the bungalow up the road here one afternoon in 1967 and never came back. The story involved communists, hordes of local witnesses, assassinations and the CIA and was far more involved than the one I have just perused on Wikipedia. Quite exciting though.
Yesterdays’ exertions and massage certainly had an effect. I slept for over eleven hours last night. When I finally emerge from breakfast I get a taxi to take me up the mountain, through the tea plantations. The driver is a happy little soul. Ignoring the extra £12 he has extorted from me for going up the mountain he complains all the way about the state of the road (it wasn’t great, but might have qualified as an A road in Indonesia). Then he goes on to say that it is a waste of money going up the mountain anyway as it is always cloudy. (It is a bit cloudy but I do get a view). Next, he starts on the tea pickers’ rickety wooden houses, saying how dirty and horrible they are. He says he used to be a tea picker and it was awful work. (It’s mostly mechanised round here now). I wonder if he makes much money taxi driving, as he obviously didn’t want this commission, even though he is being paid by the hour.
“You go back to hotel now? Good.”
Nevertheless, the plantations are stunning. (Far more picturesque than any I have seen in India, Sri Lanka or China).
It is raining again this afternoon, so I have no choice. I have to head back to the spa.
I pulled this morning. A retired Aussie cattle rancher who has had some kind of stroke asked me to go out for the day with him. His wife is ill in bed and wasn’t consulted. But I have to leave for Penang. It’s an uneventful drive to the island, over the longest bridge in Asia (13.5 km). Driving reminds me that I forgot to mention the incursion of Tesco. The stores are everywhere – all sizes. The locals seem very proud of them. I was really looking forward to this hotel in Georgetown and it has lived up to its promise. It’s even more colonial than the last one, marble, palm trees and white shutters. A four page cocktail list. I decide it looks like a smaller version of Raffles in Singapore. Then I find out that it was built by the same people- the Sarkies brothers- so not really surprising. The hotel boasts it has an Otis lift that is one of the oldest operating in Asia. I am not as impressed by this information as the hotel intended. I have been stuck in lifts before.
My room is palatial. I have a sitting room with orchids, a bedroom and a huge bathroom with two sinks. There’s even a duck to float in my bath and brass switches, one of which is the call button for the butler. I’m terrified I’ll press it by mistake. The window looks out over the sea and the swimming pool. It’s good to be back in the balmy heat of the lowlands, but it is pretty humid. I open my window and within 30 seconds all the mirrors have steamed up. (Not, I regretfully hasten to say, because there is any action going on). The service is assiduous, if not obsequious. Though I still grapple with some hotel customs. Here are my questions:
Breakfast is absolutely sumptuous, on the veranda, with the boats sailing by. You’re probably sick of me going on about food by now. This dining room has juice made to order from every fruit imaginable. I eat some sushi – and I’m still contemplating the chicken curry and the also made to order Asian soups and stir fries. Maybe tomorrow.
Then I ‘do’ the city. First impressions are that it is less colourful than Malacca, but I soon realise that’s it’s actually more authentic. Like Singapore there are Little India and Chinatown. It isn’t too obviously touristy, with all the locals going about their business. Little India, for example, is full of saree shops, curry stalls and Hindu temple offerings for sale and I wander down Harmony Street where there are temples, mosques and churches of all persuasions coexisting happily together. Then past all the British colonial buildings and the fort. Tricycle rickshaws are stationed on all the street corners. The more competitive drivers have smothered theirs with artificial flowers. One even has spinning windmills and an inbuilt music system. It also seems that there are even more celebrations going on or imminent. The newspapers and shops are full of them. Not only is it National Independence Day this month (Merdeka), it is Malaysia Day next month, when Sabah and Sarawak joined the union. (Singapore did too, but we won’t mention that.) It’s Ramadan the whole of this month and Eidhilfutr (spelled every way you can think of in the papers) or Hari Raya the whole of next month of course. And for the Chinese it’s the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts for a month. They have to leave out a lot of food to feed all the family ancestors, so there are banquets and food of all kinds in the temples. The Chinese temple also had a sign ‘It is forbidden to roll the granite ball in the lion’s mouth’. I hadn’t even thought about doing that until I saw the notice. My route home takes me past the Christian cemetery. The Chinese name for it is ‘place for people with red hair’
Back at base I lounge by the swimming pool. A little man asks me if I want a foot massage and it seems churlish to refuse.
I have resolved to lodge a stiff complaint with the hotel management. My duck will only float on its side. Now I shall have to seek some other amusement.
Management turn out to be otherwise engaged today. They are filming the final of Asian MasterChef here and there are cameras and film crew (who all look about 16) everywhere. They are posing little groups of Asian beauties on all the staircases. The bar is full of slightly older Chinese men talking about Nigella Lawson as if they know her intimately. I haven’t seen her yet. We have to take a very circuitous route to breakfast. Then a very arduous day. I take the hotel shuttle bus up to the sister hotel in the north of the island and sunbathe by the pool there. I stroll on the beach, but there are jelly fish warning signs and no-one (unsurprisingly) is in the water. Then I come back and do the same by the pool here.
Off to Langkawi Island today, for my last four sleeps. I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone by. I am flying, instead of taking the ferry, because the travel agent told me to. I’ve been told the sea can be uncomfortably rough here, so hopefully this is the best option. It is chaotic at the airport as they are building a new terminal. I can see why as I am waiting for my flight; it is raining (despite the rule about it only being allowed to rain in the afternoon) and water is dripping through the roof onto my head.
Maybe the flying wasn’t such a great decision. We take off. The illumination on the seat belt sign pings off and the stewardess throws us a packet of peanuts. Immediately afterwards they announce it is time to land. Great, short flight I think. But we don’t land because there is bad weather in Langkawi. there is even more illegal rain there too, which isn’t great either for the plane or for my holiday prospects. We circle for a while and I start to worry about us running out of fuel. That is obviously on the captain’s mind too as we then fly back to Penang. We wait half an hour and then take off yet again. Everything is played out in rewind, but this time we actually arrive.
The resort is very different to my last hotels, but a perfect place to finish. It’s ultra-modern: big white umbrellas and infinity pools. The view is gorgeous, a string of little islands across the bay. It’s really pretty at night with the swimming pools and trees all lit up, very romantic….. And there are about 20 really posh little villas. The hotel calls them ultra-luxurious. They have their own swimming pool, massage area and staff quarters. My room is lovely. There is a huge TV set into half a wall (honestly). It’s a shame there’s nothing on except bad Australian movies or the fighting in Libya. Anyway, back to the hotel and cocktails. There’s a martini bar and a mojito bar. What’s more there’s a free martini every night. This must be what heaven’s like. It’s just a shame that it’s still bucketing down and the forecast for the next four days says heavy rain. So much for my relaxing last few days on the beach.
All is not lost. Only a few spots of rain, so the exercise for today consists of moving from a sunbed on the beach to one by the pool.
More excitement: thunderstorms all night and a power cut this morning. I’m also covered in incredibly itchy sand fly bites. So much for a tropical paradise. there is still a sprinkle of rain this morning, so I saunter into town. It’s a duty free island and to be honest some of it looks like the hypermarket area near Calais. there are heaps of fake clothes and handbags. I am quite excited by the bags until I realise that they aren’t even copy designs. Similar items are labelled Jimmy Choo, Mulberry, and so on. Even if I had wanted to make a purchase it would have been difficult. Ramadan seems to be taking a toll on the shop assistants. Most of them are asleep under the counters.
The highlight for me is watching a troop of monkeys make a raid on a deserted bar. They swarm across the trees and slide down the telegraph poles much faster than firemen. Then they turn over all the bins and even remove half full glasses of juice (or cocktails?). Perching out of reach they scoop the liquid out with their paws. Many are mothers with babies who crawl out from their fur beds and sit on their mum’s backs to watch the fun and beg a bite or two. When it is all over they return via the telegraph poles, the mothers stuffing the babies back into their furry stomachs before they vault up into the trees.
The rain holds off enough for more sunbathing and then the hotel lays on unlimited free cocktails and canapés to make up for the power cut. So I don’t need to buy any dinner. And I have a very nice half hour’s flirtation with a much too young Dutch hotel manager. He is avoiding having to speak to other hotel guests and I have had too much to drink on an empty stomach.
Well, it really is tipping it down today, so instead of snorkelling I’m catching up on my diary, sorting out my photos and getting excited about coming home (not).
It’s still bucketing down. This isn’t quite how I had imagined finishing my holiday. At least I’m resting- I still can’t quite bring myself to do any work. I shall close my diary, do my packing and watch the rain!