For the first time in nearly 3 months we took a flight to our next destination. What a luxurious option in comparison to another overnight bus ride! It was partly due to hostility near the Thailand/Malaysia border, but the bus ride avoidance cannot be denied. Upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur, we were given a free 90-day visa to explore Malaysia.
We began the seventh country of this trip with a few days in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. Lots of money has flowed into developing KL in recent years due to Malaysia’s oil resources. There are large skyscrapers, a high-tech train system, and well-manicured public spaces. It’s apparent that the government has more money than other Southeast Asian nations and has invested in infrastructure and education. Consequently, prices for food, accommodation, and other commodities were a bit higher than what we had been used to spending.
The main attraction in KL is the world-renowned Petronas Towers. Standing at 1,483 ft, the twin towers were the highest building in the world from 1998-2004 until Taipei 101 took the prize. There’s a bit of a technicality about the architectural significance of the spires versus antennas when calculating total height, which make it listed as taller than the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) in Chicago, even though the roof of the Petronas Tower is 208 ft lower than the roof of the Willis Tower. Regardless, they are still the tallest twin towers in the world and an architectural marvel that are a must-see for any visitor. The rest of our time was spent exploring the massive markets in Chinatown and Little India while avoiding the monsoon rains that flooded the canal one evening.
From KL we traveled north to the Cameron Highlands. Four hours on a bus winding through narrow streets climbing higher into the hills brought us to cooler temperatures and a more scenic landscape. The town itself isn’t anything special, but the rewards lie outside the city limits.
We took a day-tour to see the Highlands, which took us 6,663 ft to the top of Mount Batu Brinchang, but the weather was cloudy and there wasn’t much of a view. Next was the mossy forest and a tea plantation, but we both agreed that Sri Lanka was better. Then we visited a strawberry farm and bought the usual tourist-trap snacks (fresh strawberries, dried strawberries, strawberry ice cream). It was all a bit commercial and nothing like a wild strawberry patch. Finally, we were taken to a Buddhist temple from where we walked back to town on one of the many trails through the forest. The scenery was nice for the most part, but we came across a patch of deforested area towards the end that was disappointing. Cameron Highlands was mediocre, and certainly not a place to stay more than two nights.
From there, we went east to Taman Negara National Park. It took nearly 8 hours, including a 3-hour boat ride up the river to the town from where you can explore the park. The trails are easy enough to navigate without a guide so the next day we decided to hike one direction, and then have a boat pick us up and take us back. We met a couple from Scotland to hike with and share the cost of the boat back and even met two other couples on the trail to cut expenses even further. We started with a short 2-km circuit to see Bukit Teresek and the rainforest canopy walk (typical tourist trail). Then we walked parallel to the river for 10kms.
This was my first experience in a true rainforest and apparently Taman Negara is the oldest. The lush flora was an impressive display of infinite shades of green. Massive trees extended overhead as their roots protruded through the forest floor. The air was fresh and the sound of cicadas and birds followed us throughout. Unfortunately, the only wildlife we came in contact with was a gibbon that jumped down from a tree and ran away too fast to have a good look, and a wild boar that could be heard squealing somewhere nearby. The rest of the time was spent avoiding giant ants, termites, and leeches. The leeches proved to be a pretty big problem since it was now the rainy season. It was a good thing our friends brought along a bag of salt! They seemed particularly attracted to Gabriella, but towards the end of the hike we were stopping every few minutes because someone needed to stop to get one off. One day-hike was enough for us and we wasted no time getting to the beach.
A scenic 8-hour car ride took us to Kuala Besut from where we took a 30-minute speed boat to the Perhentian Islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia. We went to Pulau Kecil (the smaller of two islands) and found accommodations on Coral Beach, the quieter side. After hopping through three destinations in six nights we wanted to take it easy. The entire island can be circled on foot in less than 3 hours. There are no ATMs. There are no cars. Life moves slow.
Once we were ready to be active again, we took a snorkeling trip around the island to 4 different spots. The first was filled with colorful fish and coral in crystal-clear water. The second had a couple of turtles to swim with (but I felt kind of bad for them because they were surrounded by tourists vying for a glimpse). Then, we went to a spot with reef sharks! There were about 5-6 of them swimming around and underneath us at about 3-5 feet long. Turtles I’d seen in Hawaii, but I’ve never swam with sharks! They’re so graceful in the water and can change direction in an instant. Finally, we went to a spot with even more amazing coral and fish, and we spotted a stingray skimming the ocean floor.
Another day, I finally took Gabriella’s advice to “take a hike” and went for a walk around the island. 😉 There’s an easily carved path that extends down the west coast and around the southern coast to the Fishing Village. It took about an hour to go halfway around the island. Along the way were a couple of perfectly hidden beaches between shaded paths through the forest scattered with giant monitor lizards rustling in the brush. The biggest one was about 5-feet long!
Despite the relaxing 6 nights we stayed on the island, we were a bit disappointed with the Malaysia experience, overall. It was a place I was looking forward to going to, but didn’t quite live up the expectations. The scenery was nice, but nothing that wasn’t similar to a place we had already been. (Are we getting spoiled?) Accommodations and transportation were more than we had been spending in other countries and generally of lesser quality. We paid more for a double room in Malaysia with fan, cold shower, and no wifi than we did in Vietnam for A/C, hot shower, and wifi. Two weeks was enough for us to get a feel for peninsular Malaysia, and then move south to Singapore.