Reflections on Malaysia

Lucy
Malaysia -Truly Asia, is one of my favourite sayings. It was one of the first places we went to in Asia in the truck. It has beautiful mosques; Chinese temples; churches and Hindu temples. This is because Malaysia has a mix of people. 
Inside one of the temples in George Town, a kind man helped me tell my fortune. I shook some sticks, swirled them round and drooped them, one stuck up. At the end of the stick was a number, below was little drawers with numbers. My stick was number 22, the number 22 slip of paper said that I was going to be successful later on in life, after the age of 80. That seems a long time away, I am only 7!!


There are very few dogs in Malaysia because Muslims think dogs are dirty. But there are lots of cats everywhere. Many of the cats have misshapen tails, some are long, some are missing and some have “boulders” on the end of their tails. We first thought that some unkind people were going around cutting off or hurting their tails but we found out that they are born with funny tails. On the island were we went snorkelling there were lots of lovely kittens. 


Alisha
I like Malaysia because there was lots of nice food and it is very beautiful. 
I think my favourite place place was Mallaca because of the old houses of Chinese men who had intermarried with local Malay ladies. They called themselves Baba and Nonyas and they had lots of gold ornaments; mother of pearl and ebony furniture; and interestingly laid out houses with big open courtyards to keep them cool. It did let the rain in though but according to feng shui, this is a lucky thing (unless you get your feet wet), as this means money will come into your house too. I had my birthday in Mallaca, it was too hot to make a cake in the oven but Mummy made millionaire’s shortbread which only uses the stove for a minute, it kept the truck a bit cooler. I really liked it I wanted another slice but it is very rich so you can only have one slice a day.
Malaysia has some amazing textiles, I particularly like batik, which uses wax to make a pattern. It is painted or dyed and the wax stops the dye from getting to the cloth. We made some batik, it was really good fun as when you painted it the dye would spread out to the wax and then stop. I was very happy with my finished product. 


We were attacked by leeches on our first rainforest walk. It looked like my knee had exploded and was really disgusting but the hole was actually really small. I tried to be brave without jumping up and down and screaming and let the leech fall off naturally. If the leech is already securely on, it is better to leave it attached otherwise pulling it off means the bite will keep on bleeding. I left mine on all the way through lunch and a swim, no one could believe I was being so brave. Though it felt horrible and when I got in the water, I kept hoping the fish would eat it. On the way back we tucked our trousers into our socks and we didn’t get any leeches.


Gilly
Selamat Datang is a phrase you see everywhere, it means “Welcome”. We’ve certainly felt very welcome here, with everyone being so helpful and kind. Need a place to park for the night – “Just here is good”. Lost on the street – “Can I help you find your way?”. Caught out walking in a storm -“Can I give you a lift to you car?” These have been some of our experiences over the last month. 
Malaysia’s history has given it an interesting mix of cultures: Malay, Chinese, Indian and others. As well as being fascinating, for us as visitors it appears that it is a very harmonious coexistence. However, we saw lots of signs promoting the government’s “1 Malaysia” policy, so maybe people need reminding of that fact.


It seems a very family orientated society, in the cooler evening temperatures we saw lots of families gathering together often on the beach. It was lovely to see everyone hanging together and they were very welcoming to us as a family too. There were lots of groups of teenage boys, usually playing around on their motorbikes, but they didn’t appear threatening at all. I could have done without their scary looking tricks and engine revving at night though.     
It’s been an interesting and diverse month, what a great start to the Asian section of our overlanding journey.


Steve
We are starting to find our rhythm in Asia. It’s not been so hard to find decent camping spots which has been helped by everyone being so friendly. We thought we would have to camp in more hotel car parks but so far have not had to do this. Mind you we have had a couple of cheeky breaks in hotels themselves. These breaks have been necessary to escape from the heat and also to be able to see one of the beautiful offshore Islands.
The issue of permits for the truck for the rest of the journey has been hanging over our head but at the moment it is looking good. Still it’s certainly not as easy as it has been on the other continents. Also I am still adjusting to the driving. I am getting used to the motorbikes although the likelihood is this will only get worse.
The food has continued to be fantastic and a lovely eclectic mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian. Whilst some of it is spicy it’s possible to enjoy it with a lower level of spice for the children. With the heat it’s nice to be able to eat out and not to have to cook in the truck. 

The overriding memory though has been of the welcoming nature of the people. With all the issues going on around the world and with the rhetoric been spouted by some politicians it’s nice to see that no matter what a persons religion or nationality people can be kind and generous to one another and so welcoming of strangers. I am pleased our children are learning it this way rather than how it is often presented by some of the media.

We do Love a Nice Cuppa

Being British, Gilly and I do enjoy a nice cup of tea. In fact one of Gilly’s biggest fears is running out of good tea. Her theory is that almost anything can be coped with as long as you can have a cup of tea. Before we left on the trip we stocked the truck with hundreds of tea bags from the UK which she saved for the high Andes in South America. When we arrived in Australia we were in tea heaven, not only was there great tea but also the British brands we were used to. Before we left Australia she bought 400 Yorkshire tea bags for emergency use in Asia. Fortunately they were not found when the truck was inspected for shipping so they were not confiscated. Not that we need to have worried as after our break on the Perhentian Islands we headed inland to the Cameron Highlands – tea heaven!
The Cameron Highlands is the premier tea growing area in Malaysia and it didn’t disappoint. Each afternoon we were there we had a lovely afternoon tea together with scones, jam and cream. How very English! The tea was great and made all the better drinking it with the lovely tea plantations in the background. Not satisfied with our current stock in the truck Gilly decided to buy some more, I think we should now have enough to get us back to the UK. Quite why we are taking tea to China, I haven’t quite worked out but it will keep her happy. 


After been in the heat of lowland Malaysia the Cameron Highlands are in a delightfully cool climate at 1500m. As we headed up towards them we could feel the temperature drop, we were all looking forward to been able to sleep better in the cool temperatures. Even the main road was horribly wiggly through the steep hillsides. The area was full of greenhouses and shade netting for market gardens all stacked on terraces up the slopes. We drove past kilometres and kilometres of tomatoes, lettuces, strawberries and cucumbers. As it was early evening all the farm workers were out getting their shopping and the narrow road was full of old land rovers. First we had to find somewhere to stay, it wasn’t looking promising. We found a parking area near a small waterfall. On arrival we were disappointed to see a no camping sign. However there was a security guard so we asked if we could stay. No problem he said but the gate is locked from 7pm to 7am, not a problem for us. I think the no camping sign must have been to stop tents been erected in the nice grassy area in front. The place was perfect, flat quiet and we had it to ourselves most of the time. 



We didn’t just spend all of our time in the Cameron Highlands drinking tea but also went strawberry picking. Agrotourism is really big and hydroponically grown strawberries were surrounded by a sea of strawberry themed tourist tat. The girls absolutely loved both the picking and the eating though. Our short hikes were also much easier in the cool temperatures, it only reached the low 20s during the day. As it cooled down at night we decided we could cook inside for a change and one night Gilly produced a lovely Chicken pie. It was all feeling very unlike Malaysia, so on the last night we went out for the local speciality “Steamboat”. This is where a bubbling pot of broth is put on the table on a burner and you then proceed to cook various seafood and vegetables in it.



Our break in the cool climate was only temporary and we headed back down the mountain to the West Coast of Malaysia and more specifically to the Island of Penang. To get there we had to cross I think, the longest bridge I have ever driven on. It was a 20km drive across a bridge over the sea. The real reason for visiting the island of Penang was to visit historic Georgetown but the town is busy and chaotic so we headed to a quiet beach on the other side of the Island. Here we found a spot to camp next to a pleasant beach.


We then had one of those days when everything just seemed to go right (I am sure that means we are due one where it all goes wrong). It started about 3am in the morning when we were all awoken by a massive thunderstorm. Not been able to sleep, I checked my e mails to find good news from our agent in Burma. The Burmese government had decided to allow transits of Burma again and that we should be receiving our permit in the next few days. Secondly, as we had driven round Georgetown the previous day, Gilly had spotted a coach park only 4 kms from the centre. We decided to drive into town to see if we could park there. The manager could not have been more welcoming. Of course we could park there and yes if we wanted to sleep in the vehicle that was no problem, he had 24 hour security and no we didn’t need to pay anything. There was also a bus stop right outside with a bus every 10 minutes into central Georgetown, not a bad result. And then thirdly as we were enjoying the sights of Georgetown we received a message from our Thai agent sending us our Thai permits which had just been issued. This has been a major headache for us for the last few months, so it was a huge relief that they were finally allowing the truck in. 
We really enjoyed Georgetown, I am not sure if it was the town itself or the good news we were having but I think it was the town. The town is an intriguing mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian together with colonial hangovers from the time of the British. It’s a chaotic city with traffic everywhere and very little in the way of pavements but it has some wonderful old houses and fantastic food. The centre of town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Area which has managed to preserve it and stop the encroaching development. We spent our time there touring the sights, visiting the museum as well as some of the historical houses. The wonderful Chong Fatt Tze mansion was probably the most impressive. It was also a boutique hotel. Should we get a room or head back to sleep in the truck in the bus car park? It was a tough decision but the truck won out in the end.



We also visited one of the Chinese clan houses. These were complexes built by Chinese immigrants from the same clan who had come to Penang. The one we visited was particularly impressive covering a large area with houses, meeting halls, a wonderful temple and even an opera stage. As Alisha and Lucy were studying Islam, we also visited a mosque where we were met by a charming gentleman who showed us around.


Georgetown is also famous for its food so we were not going to be cooking while we were there. The choice of food was amazing and reflected the different mix of people living there. First we had Indian and then for lunch the next day we had been recommended a Chinese restaurant. We were told it would be busy so got there just after it had opened for lunch. We managed to get a table but if we had been 5 minutes later we would have had to join the huge queue. After eating a fantastic meal we could see why it was so popular. One other benefit of where we were parked at the coach park was that it was only a few hundred metres from one of the best Hawker markets in Georgetown. So each night we headed there for Malaysian food. It was really colourful and an attack on all your senses with the smells, the food and the noise. There were lots of families eating there and so we sat down and joined them selecting different dishes from the many different stalls.



It was time to head to Thailand. Our permit gave us a specific entry date and entry border so the day before we decided to drive close to the border so we could cross early the following morning. We found an idyllic spot at a viewpoint overlooking the small state of Perlis, the Limestone Karst formations and the reservoir below. It was a nice end to our time in Malaysia.

 Perhentian Paradise

We have decided to jack in all this Overlanding nonsense and become backpackers: no need to find somewhere to park every night; no more cooking; no stresses over truck permits; no fuel costs and frequent air conditioning – perfect …..Just joking! But we have had a little three day break from the truck to explore the Perhentian Islands.

We kept on reading and seeing pictures of Malaysia’s amazing beaches but all the way up the east coast we had only found OK beaches. We were being a bit picky but the water although gorgeously warm was rather cloudy; they were very busy; and there was a lot of rubbish both in the sea and on the beach. Just where were these beautiful white sandy beaches lapped by gentle turquoise waters we had been tempted over to the coast for? With a little research we found they were mostly offshore. So we booked a room, securely parked the truck and jumped on a 40 minute boat ride out to Besut, the biggest of the two Perhentian Islands. At the port we quickly realised it wasn’t going to be our deserted desert island fantasy, as it was the weekend just after a national holiday. But the other holiday makers, mostly Malaysian university groups seemed a relaxed lot. Being a mostly Muslim country, it’s not like we needed to worry about too much boozing and partying from the 18-30s set. We had also decided to stay on Taluk Dalam Pulau, a smaller beach with just a handful of small chalet complexes on it. In fact it took us a while to find the one restaurant on the beach that served beer to the few westerners, ethnic Chinese and Singaporeans. I know beer isn’t essential but is nice occasionally to sit and watch the sunset with one.
What impressed me with the islands was that although many of the beaches had little resorts or beach huts on them, the rest of the island seemed to be completely untouched. It looked like it was all thick jungle on its steep hillsides. There was a small village with a mosque on the smaller island but that is it. Everyone uses boats to get around the island.
It was a very relaxing 3 days, the sea was a crystal clear, turquoise colour. And the sand was soft, almost white and fine. Mmmmmmm….a perfect beach, just what we were looking for

A nice but not quite perfect mainland beach

Perfect!

The snorkelling turned out to be excellent as well. Although we hadn’t really seen that many people since we left the mainland port, as we had all been ferried in small boats to different parts of the islands, lots of them were out on snorkelling trips. It turned out to be fine though as many of them weren’t very confident swimmers so stayed close to the beach. Swimming just a few metres out there was pristine corals, multitudes of coloured fish and even a massive Green Turtle grazing calmly on sea grass. I actually enjoyed it far more than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia as the waters were so calm and clear. Without the threat of deadly stinging jellyfish, the girls relaxed and they stayed in the water for ages.


I thought there was none as irritating noise than the whine of a mosquito at night but I was wrong, the noise of a 50cc motorbike issuer as bad. On our way up the East coast it had been unexpectedly easy to find spots to boondock in the week before the islands. Arriving on the coast from the jungle, we thought we would struggle with places to park at night as there are very few proper campsites. Although finding suitable spots might have been easy, what hadn’t been easy to gauge early on in the evening, was the number of motorbikes that will use the spot as a racetrack between midnight and three. Our usual plan was to find a likely looking quiet spot on the map, perhaps a beach or by a river. Trundle down there in the late afternoon; see if it looks suitable; then ask around if it is ok to park for the night. So far in Malaysia, the answers has always been a resounding “Of Course.” People are very friendly, hospitable and helpful here. We even had the police stop by one night while we were cooking tea, after a polite chat and a quick photo, they wished us a good night and went on their way. Brilliant, however what happens in the wee hours is another matter. What seems like hordes of teenage boys congregate to play silly on their bikes: wheelies, donuts, no helmets, horizontal riding, comparing just how noisy they can rev their bikes etc. It’s not exactly a recipe for a good night’s sleep, thankfully the girls are dead to the world once they fall asleep. To be fair to the teenage boys, I don’t think they realise they are waking us up and we are parked on their nighttime playground. One night, I jumped up in a sleep-befuzzled fug and caught my bum on the mosquito net, it opened with a very loud bang. The boys quickly then took themselves off to the far corner of the parking spot and melted quietly into the dark. All the Malaysians we have met couldn’t be more kind or hospitable, so none of the nighttime motorbike shenanigans feel like they have any sinister threat about them, especially as there is no alcohol involved, it is just rather tiring.

In the small village of Cherating Alisha wanted to try out making Batik, she had been fascinated since we visited the Textile Museum in KL. We found a tiny shop with a little workshop on the side which offered a course. The girls and I, applied the molten wax to our designs with a special pen. We then painted the cotton with bright dyes, the wax stopped the dye from reaching the material leaving a white line. It was good to be creative for a change and we all enjoyed it. 

As we headed northwards along the coast, we noticed that it gradually became more Muslim. As we crossed over to the state of Terengganu, we noticed that the signs were in both Malaysian and in Arabic and nearly all of the ladies were wearing the hijab (scarf over their hair). It felt absolutely fine not covering my hair as Malaysia has a mix of ethnicities, only 61% are Muslim, and everyone was very friendly. But I did make sure I was otherwise well covered. We spent several nights beside beaches on the mainland and every evenings families would come down to enjoy the cooling evening breeze. They were lovely family scenes, with the generations hanging out together. If the ladies swam, they did so fully covered in long loose trousers, tops and headscarves. Men tended to swim in t-shirts and long shorts too. On the islands and beaches where they are used to foreign tourists , it was more relaxed with ladies wearing anything between bikinis and fully clothed including headscarves. Back in Kuala Lumpur, I was very surprised to see signs at the hotel pool banning ladies from clothes that fully covered their bodies, they had to wear a swimming costume. It seemed very unfair to have such a rule, especially as so many people are Muslims here.


We spent several days checking out small seaside towns and their beaches. We then headed inland for a night by the man made Lake Kenyir. There is a great overlanders app called ioverlander in which people share good spots to camp but they are rather thin on the ground in Asia but there was a good sounding one by the lake. The other reason was that it was Malaysian National Day, we had seen the preparations in several towns in the week before and didn’t want to get caught up in horrible traffic anywhere. We had already, inadvertently, got caught up in someone’s picnic that morning. We had woken up late (after a motorcycle filled night); started school and looked out to find ourselves trapped in our beachside parking space by hordes of haphazardly parked cars. A big group had decided to have their National Day picnic just beside the truck, even though the rest of the huge beach area was empty. We excused ourselves when a space in front appeared and took ourselves off to the other side of the grass for the rest of school, while Steve kept us abreast of the shockingly bad parking going on, as the place filled up. So we headed for the hills, cringing at the motorcycle-boys holiday antics on the almost empty motorway. I know it wouldn’t be our fault if they killed themselves by doing a wheelie with two people on a bike; at top speed; in amongst big groups that are riding far too close just in front of us but still I don’t want to see it. Some of them look no older than twelve too. The lake turned out to be bliss – cooler, backed by thick jungle and very quiet. We parked up in on one of the many parking areas overlooking the lake and went for a walk. On the way back it started to rain, a couple stopped their car and offered us a lift back. We declined thinking it wasn’t that bad, a few seconds later the heavens opened, the couple now many metres away reversed their car back up the road and urged us to get in and dropped us right at the truck’s door. See what I mean about how nice Malaysians are. That night as Steve and I were enjoying the cooler temperatures, and the lack of motorbikes, we heard a rustling in the jungle and a big wild boar popped out on the road and trotted away in the opposite direction.¬†

Back in the Perhentians, our time as backpackers was over. It was well worth it to enjoy the amazing beaches but we missed truck-living, our own beds and our independence. It was time to go “home,” as the girls alway call the truck.