Friday, August 20, 2010

Malaysia? What's in Malaysia?

Written September 22, 2010

I'll be honest:  the reason I ended up in Malaysia was because of a cheap flight.  Denpasar, Bali to Kuala Lumpur for about 100 greenbacks.  I needed to leave before my visa ran out, so I figured, "Why not?"

Malaysia was an interesting place.  Just like Singapore is the most un-Southeast Asian city in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is the most un-Southeast Asian country in Southeast Asia.

The standard of living is quite high; Wikipedia tells me that the per capita GDP is roughly USD$14,800, the only country in SE Asia to beat the global average of USD$10,500 (except Brunei, which beats even the United States).  And you can tell it's wealthy, too.  The public transit is clean, efficient, and relatively expensive.  People are well-educated; most speak at least two languages, as English is a compulsory subject in schools.  While I did see some people living on the streets in Kuala Lumpur, the city felt just as modern and clean as Singapore.

Malaysians are an interesting ethnic blend of Malay, Chinese, and Indian.  So even though Malaysia is an Islamic country, defined as such by the Malaysian constitution, there are significant minorities of Buddhists (~19%), Christians (~9%), and Hindus (~6%).  We were in Malaysia for the start of Ramadan, but it didn't affect our travel plans at all.  We simply ate in Indian or Chinese restaurants for breakfast and lunch.

We spent our time in three places:  Kuala Lumpur, Taman Negara National Park, and the Cameron Highlands.

Kuala Lumpur

Not gonna lie, those towers are neat, and if it's not too rainy or hazy, you can see them from practically anywhere in the city.  We didn't bother to show up early in the morning to get tickets to go up the SkyBridge.  I was content to take weird pictures from the ground.

I've heard that the view from KL Tower is even better, but it was ridiculously expensive (something like USD$30 per person).  In the end, our couchsurfing host had an amazing night time view of the city.

Otherwise, we spent our time in KL sweating our faces off (seriously, how do people retain their sanity in this part of the world) and wandering around.  Between Chinatown, Golden Triangle, and City Center, you've got plenty of kilometers to tire out your feet.

The KL Tower shows a boring but free 15 minute documentary about its construction, which is plausible excuse for sitting in the air conditioning for a while.  Also, the walk to KL Tower up through Pineapple Hill is very nice.

The Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia is AMAZING.  We had only an hour, as I didn't realize they would close a bit early for Ramadan.  I easily could have spent a half-day working my way through the exhibits.

The other highlight of Kuala Lumpur was a visit to the National Mosque.  The Mosque itself is nothing life-changing, but we had a few awesome conversations with the outreach volunteers there.  More on that here.  I would definitely recommend a visit, especially to learn more about Islam.

Taman Negara

Every time I think that Southeast Asia can't possibly get any hotter--I'm wrong.

Dripping with sweat, flushed face and neck, even my glasses are fogging up...  oh, and did I mention the leeches I picked off my boots every fifteen minutes?

We went to Taman Negara, literally "National Park" in Malaysian language, in order to hike.  Well, you can see the results above!  Even with the whole "sweating my face off" thing, though, I enjoyed our (short) time there.  Taman Negara is reputedly one of the oldest rainforests in the world--something obscene like 130 million years--as it's never been affected by ice ages and thus has a continuous evolutionary history.

All of the accommodation, except for one higher end resort, is located on the opposite bank of the river from the Park Headquarters.  We stayed at Agoh Chalet and got an air conditioned room--recommended!  Every morning, we took a water taxi to the start of our hikes, which was a novelty.  Like most of our hiking experiences in Southeast Asia, we couldn't find a very good map, but the tracks were easy to follow.  The leeches, on the other hand...  EVIL.

The canopy walk is a little cheesy, but I love heights, so I took my time wandering across the bridges.  For me, it was worth it.  For the middle-aged British ladies with a fear of heights walking behind me, I'm not so sure!

Hint:  ask the water taxi to take you to the stairs south of the Park Headquarters (you'll know what I mean when you're in Kuala Tahan), and follow some of the trails south of the river that feeds into the Tambling.  The day we hiked in this section of the park, we saw only two other couples, but we also saw some elephant footprints.

Way freaking cool.

This is also where we found the largest trees:

If you head into the jungle for a day hike, make sure you bring more water than you think you'll need, plus insect repellent (industrial strength DEET, none of that hippy citronella crap!) and a plastic bag to line your pack.  This place puts the "rain" in "rainforest."  Don't expect to be amazed by the scenery or the trails...  the beauty of this place lies in its biodiversity, but if you want to see big animals, you're going to need to get off the beaten paths.

Cameron Highlands

We went to the Cameron Highlands to hike, and we ended up basing ourselves here for about a week.  The town of Tanah Rata is small and touristy, but there are some decent Indian restaurants along the main drag.  We stayed at Twin Pines in an insanely cheap and surprisingly clean room.

Even though the highlands are well known for the hiking, there doesn't seem to be a good trail map, and some trail junctions are quite confusing.  Plus, when we were there, it was quite overcast and rainy for much of the week.  And finally, even when it was clear, the scenery was just ok.

Kinda reminds you of the Catskills, no?

On the bright side, the weather was significantly cooler here than anywhere else I've been in SE Asia, due to the elevation.  There were some evenings I wore a long-sleeved shirt to dinner!  It's a nice place for a break, yes, and certainly worth passing through if you're heading north from Kuala Lumpur toward Thailand, but this is not the type of hiking you'd travel to the other side of the world to experience.

In the end, I didn't dislike Malaysia, but I wasn't enchanted by it, either.  To be fair, I could have gone farther off the beaten path, which would have changed my experience.  And I've met some travelers who said that their time in Malaysia was the highlight of their trip.  Certainly, my struggles with dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and health problems during these weeks probably doesn't improve my impression.  From Malaysia, we headed north into Thailand...  and that was an entirely different story!

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