Travel time…Malaysia

Sometimes you can spend too much time looking in the mirror and not enough time actually looking in the mirror. The natural beauty of the Andaman Islands takes your breath away. Surrounded by crystal clear waters, soaked in a tropical climate with sweeping golden beaches, it makes for the perfect escape. Over three weeks, I island hopped. Railay, Phi Phi, Lanta and Lipe.

Andaman Islands

The beautiful Andaman Islands

Well rested, I headed south from Koh Lipe, Thailand to my first island in the north of Malaysia, Langkawi. Based on the west of the island, I hired a scooter and pinballed my way up and down the coast; had an introduction to Ais Kacang; watched Hindi movies; swam in the calm waters daily. The row of eateries lining the beach front provided an early insight into the makeup of the country. Malay, Chinese, Indian.

11 responses to “Travel time…Malaysia”

  1. Some things in life are all about timing. Seeping away. I missed the ferry to Penang and couldn’t catch another for two days. “No, nothing earlier sir, so sorry.” The Chinese New Year meant ferries southbound were all sold out. As luck would have it, my destitution allowed me to catch the weekend night market and finish off a little work. Every cloud.

    Beach life and the night market, Langkawi

    Beach life and the night market, Langkawi

    Ironically, I finally caught an early ferry by default, rather than design. Isn’t that just the way. Setting sail for Georgetown, Penang in the year of the rabbit.

  2. Much by accident, I stumbled upon a word today. Confucian. A moral code that places value on learning and stresses family relationships. Heavily influential in traditional Chinese culture. I can see it in practice. Georgetown has a sizeable Chinese community, balanced against the islands South Indian and Malay inhabitants. Sitting outside the old monastery in the heart of chinatown, I watched as people burned incense, looked to the heavens and released birds from cages. Smoke filled the air. I asked a passerby. “The incense keeps away evil spirits and provides safe passage to the heavens. As Taoists, many Chinese believe in this ritual.” In particular, I was struck by the number of young people that attended. “Yes, young and old, families generally participate together…” I understood.

    Taoism in chinatown, Georgetown

    Taoism in chinatown, Georgetown

    The Indian quarter neighbours chinatown. Neon lights dazzling; classical Indian songs bellowing from speakers lying in the street, the fragrant smell of incense, food sizzling, cyclists and trishaws passing along. The heartbeat of life, the tabla, keeps playing – echoing in the background. The quarter represents the South Indian Tamil community, sweet tea, mildly spiced food, roti canai thali.

    Whenever I come across this kind of scene it transports me back to Pakistan, memories of childhood spent with grandparents now passed, transcending. I can see myself flying a kite on the rooftop of the family home, playing badminton in the baking heat at grandfathers, gulping ice cold lemonade. The dusty arid streets, the still heat, the sweet taste of mango.

    Indian quarter, Georgetown

    Indian quarter, Georgetown

    The tarnished, yet preserved colonial facades add further charm to the town. Bright coloured buildings coupled with the easy pace of life. Jungle curtains the landscape.

    Around Georgetown

    Around Georgetown

    Final celebrations marking the Chinese new year ( its a two week event ) allowed all to gather and watch traditonal dances, dress the part and set off fireworks at midnight.

  3. Wow! All sounds amazing Nadeem. I’ll have to add Georgetown to my list of must visits… Bon Jovi

  4. I pouched a bag of peanuts and some water before trudging in the Cameron Highlands. Guilty of a slightly languid trekking style, most of the time I am not paying nearly as much attention as I should be. It goes without saying that I always underestimate the deceptive terrain. A pair of casual trousers and old running shoes are testimony to that.

    Trekking in the Cameron Highlands

    Trekking in the Cameron Highlands

    The dense forest leaves behind the daily grind and you enter a world of birds tweeting, rivers flowing, butterflies fluttering, branches snapping, geckos gazing and nature, the joy of nature. The trek itself was timid enough, albeit along a string of narrow ridges. The route inclined steadily before descending to a local village. The warm rain fell. I felt alive. Exhilarated, I paid a visit to the local butterfly farm.

    Butterfly Farm, Cameron Highlands

    Butterfly Farm, Cameron Highlands

    A few days in, the longer trek proved a little more tricky. I spent most of the time worrying about blemishing my beige trousers. The narrow, flat path disappeared, replaced by steep muddy, swampy tracks. Jumping across logs, climbing over and sliding under felled trees. Grabbing branches, finding a foothold. The gentle breeze, the moist air, leaves falling. Eventually the pinholes of light opened up to a visible horizon and I had reached my prize. A little tired, I rested before walking through the rolling valley of tea plantations.

    Trekking and Tea in the Cameron Highlands

    Trekking and Tea in the Cameron Highlands

    Muddied and torn, I parted company with my favourite beige trousers.

  5. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I have always felt a little irked by the idea that, to some, Asia represents a kind of dwindling backwater. True enough, it is a continent of extremes, but that in many ways is what makes travelling through it such a holistic experience. There’s no denial. Beauty and the Beast, hand in hand. Yet the pendulum is moving, and for many it seems in the right direction. You can sense it, feel it, see it.

    Downtown Kuala Lumpur is slick. Ultra modern malls, skytrains, imposing towers, compact and neat. I bought sugared popcorn and caught a movie.

    Modern Kuala Lumpur

    Modern Kuala Lumpur

    There’s no talk like food talk. Every morning the alarm is set. Roti Telur Bawang and Chai. Hand to mouth, Malaysian breakfast. In the evenings, Little India invites with open arms. In a trance, I hear the call. All this Tandoori food has left me with slightly flourescent fingers. Illuminating, to say the least.

    Little India, Kuala Lumpur

    Little India, Kuala Lumpur

    I sat amongst the Tamil men that had been waiting all day to see Sri Lanka take on Canada in the cricket world cup. Life comes to a halt as each ball is thrown, each run made, each over completed. Men line the street, motionless, staring at the screen.

  6. I ventured to the south of Malaysia for a few days to taste a little more of Malay suburban life. Two hours from Kuala Lumpur, I stopped in Melaka, a Dutch Portugese heritage city. Neatly lined side streets with burgundy facades mark the historical area, complimented by churches, relics of old forts and cobbled walkways.

    Interwoven amongst the modernity, traditional Malay homes kneel against the rivers edge as it funnels down to the strait of Melaka. Murals painted on street walls and beautifully decorated windows hint of days gone by. Temples and Mosques lean side by side. Men adorned in custom Malay dress, baju melayu and songkok, go about their daily business.

    Around Melaka

    Around Melaka

    I am perhaps a little conscious that, at times, the written word can only convey a pinhole view of the world. For me, that can feel slightly static. True experiences are much more ephemeral, less defined, less edited. The old woman peering up, a bus drivers smile, the handshake, a nod of the head, the crowded room, the smells, the heat, the noise, the quiet. All contribute in their own way and make my day whole.

    After a few days, I returned to Kuala Lumpur. To travel to the East of Malaysia by land meant crossing the South China Sea, and rather begrudgingly, (since no boats go there directly, except via Indonesia) I decided to fly. I arrived early morning in Kuching, Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo.

  7. As I write this I am on the express boat running upriver on the Batang Baram from Miri (in the north of Borneo Island), to Marudi.

    In many ways Borneo deserves a post all of its own. Lying east of the South China Sea, the northern segment of the island is East Malaysian administered, the south, Indonesian. Borneo is home to more than twenty indigenous groups, the largest of which is the Iban, and an abundance of natural beauty and wildlife.

    Wildlife in Bako

    Wildlife in Bako National Park, Kuching

    I arrived in Kuching to a downpour. Incessant and insistent for two days. The perfect excuse to hibernate in the ethnology museum and learn about the tribal makeup of the island. Once the rain had relented, I began visiting the local national parks, trekking through rainforest to waterfalls and beaches.

    At Bako, I grouped with some travellers (hello Phil, Cleo) and we rummaged our way through thick jungle, up tangled paths, along slippery limestone. Boardwalks, a reprieve from the climb. A constant buzz echoed in the wilderness, monkeys swang through the trees. Vibrant greens and an array of butterflies coloured the route. As the trails gave way to dense undergrowth, the heat became stifling, draining the life out of you. Sweat drizzled from the brow.

    Trekking in Bako

    Trekking in Bako National Park, Kuching

    Back in Kuching a bus ride to the Orangutan wildlife sanctuary allowed me to catch a glimpse of this wonderful primate in all its glory. The mother with child cradled close, swung through the trees, climbed the creepers, and ate. Powerful in its presence, but gentle in its craft.

    Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

    Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Kuching

    We (Phil, Cleo and I) decided to make our way to Sibu and try and take in a little longhouse living. The express boat, nothing more than a river capsule, filled with passengers quickly. Those who could not find a seat, sat amongst the luggage and goods that were roped firmly to the roof. From above, we took in the view along the Batang Rejang.

    From Sibu we took another boat to Kapit for our overnight stay. After speaking to locals, we were told the tide was too low upriver and it would not be possible to go to Belaga (our first choice).

    Express Travel

    Express Travel, Kapit

    Rested, we headed for Mrit, a small longhouse village three hours east. The river path proved a little more trying. Water levels were shallower and large rocks, debris and cascading currents had to be avoided. The boat slowed and sped up accordingly, neatly traversing. The lush forest backdrop was stunning, sobered in places by logging that scarred the scenery.

    VideoVideo: Taking the boat on the Batang Rejang, Borneo

    We arrived in Mrit, found a cafe, and after some discussion, rather haphazardly ended a little downstream. Juggling our way up the wooden log path we waited outside the longhouse, as is tradition. A man we had met earlier at the cafe invited us to stay with him and his family. Elated we took up the offer. Jicky fed, watered and provided us with beds for two nights. Many thanks to you sir.

    The longhouses are a string of homes terraced side by side. Propped on stilts, a porch runs the entire length of the building. This particular longhouse was home to Iban peoples.

    Longhouse, Mrit

    Longhouse, Mrit

    As luck would have it an engagement was to take place that evening and we were invited to sit amongst the guests. Slowly people came out of their homes and sat along the porch. The head of the longhouse gave a short speech whilst the couple took a seat amongst those gathered. Children laid out plates at our feet, food accompanied with drink. The father of the bride-to-be kept a watchful eye, ensuring everyone was content.

    Then came music and dance. Various instruments appeared from a neighbours house, placed on the floor. The children sat squatted and played to applause, followed by the senior members. A woman from the huddle grabbed the long feathered hat, hunted out reluctant participants, and placed it on heads. The chosen ones danced in celebration.

    VideoVideo: Iban Engagement Celebration, Longhouse in Mrit
    VideoVideo: My Iban moment, Longhouse in Mrit

    I am in my element. The following day I lived bare footed, on slippery grass, in a flooded goalmouth. I kicked and slid my way through the day. The children, initially reserved, came to life and ran a merry dance. Whizzing the ball past and through feet. I was left feeling my age.

    Fever Pitch

    Fever Pitch, Mrit

    We left Mrit and returned to Sibu, taking the overnight bus to Miri.

    After visiting the Niah Caves, and with no buses in sight, we hitched the 100km back to Miri. I said goodbye to Phil and Cleo and headed along the Batang Baram to Miruda, a small and rather innocuous river town, where I took a little time to rest and work. The intention was to go on to Mulu but the river remained low upstream so I decided to head back to Miri before cutting through Brunei, to the east of Borneo.

  8. The bus journey to Brunei lent itself to considered reflection. The longhouse experience in particular played over and over. I felt so human, so connected. As usual, I lost my bearings, bereft of direction but balanced by a sense of freedom, liberation. A showreel running through my mind. Flickering, a day in the life.

    “…To sit with elders of a gentle race, this world has seldom seen. They talk of days for which they sit and wait, when all will be revealed…”
    (Kashmir, Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin, 1975)

    Brunei is the quietest country I have ever spent time in. I tiptoed my way around the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, visiting museums, mosques and stilted houses connected by walkways. The people are warm and welcoming. “We Bruneians are comfortable, a little too comfortable perhaps”.

    Somebody get my umbrella. That’s not rain falling from the sky, its a shower of oil.

    Around Bandar Seri Begawan

    Around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

    Leaving Brunei, I hopped onto the ferry to Palua Labuan, and then took another to Kota Kinabalu, my final stop in Borneo.

  9. I took care of domestic duties. The barber grinned. “Would you like a shampoo also sir?” “Nothing left to shampoo now I fear, but thank you anyway” I replied. The hair lay dormant in a neat pile on the floor.

    To understand Malaysia is to understand its parts – and its parts are many. I have noticed a kind of collective pride held by all Malaysians, a natural, gentle collaboration of sorts. A camaraderie. Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indigenous Borneans.

    The icing on the proverbial cake remains the natural beauty of the country, strewn with stunning parks, beaches, wildlife and mountain ranges. Malaysia is the picture postcard. Which reminds me, I must send a few. I have been meaning to, ofcouse.

    For travel time in Vietnam, click here.
    For travel time in Jordan, click here.
    For travel time in Syria, click here.
    For travel time in Turkey, click here.
    For travel time in Laos, click here.
    For travel time in Cambodia, click here.
    For travel time in Thailand, click here.
    To go to the start of this blog, click here.
    To go to, click here.

  10. Reading your Malaysian and Borneo blogs brings back a host of wonderful memories, beautifully written as always. Cheers, Col.

    1. Hi Colin,

      How very kind of you – thank you. Yes, I had a wonderful time and will try and revisit sometime in the future. Are you in Indonesia right now? I hope you’re having a good time. I went on to Taiwan and am now in Hong Kong ( decided not go to Japan this time round ). Going back to the UK at the end of April….

      best, Nadeem

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