Submitted by Alison Winward May 2004
There's probably a greater ethnic mix in Malaysia than anywhere else in south-east Asia, apart from Singapore, and the government seems determined to encourage integration: practically every museum has exhibits celebrating the various cultures. The influence can be seen on the streets as well as in the museums: Chinese-influenced shophouses in places such as Georgetown and Melaka; Indian/Malay kedai kopi (coffee shops); grandiose buildings dating from when Malaysia was a British colony. There are Chinese temples, Christian churches, mosques. Islam is the majority faith in peninsula Malaysia, while Christianity is more widespread in Eastern Malaysia/Borneo. As well as the official language of Bahasa Malay and their own ethnic languages, most people speak fluent English, a big relief for anyone arriving from Thailand! It's also a great place for tea-drinkers, as it's quite possibly the only country in south-east Asia where you can get anything other than horrible Lipton Yellow Label tea!
Malaysia is generally a little bit more expensive than most countries in south-east Asia - if cheaper than Singapore - but that's probably because the country is more developed and wages are higher. Things are more expensive in Eastern Malaysia/Borneo, probably because so much has to be imported.
Peninsula Malaysia has an extensive, cheap and efficient public bus service, as well as comfortable trains. There's a good bus service in Eastern Malaysia/Borneo too, but many places aren't accessible by road (not yet, anyway, but give the logging companies time!), so it's easier to travel by plane - which isn't as expensive as you might think - or, in Sarawak especially, by boat.
First up, if you arrive in KL on an internal flight - from Borneo, for example - don't plan on getting help from the fantastic tourist information office (not unless things have changed since March 2003). The tourist information place is in international arrivals, and, although I could see the office through the glass wall that separates international arrivals from domestic, no amount of pleading would persuade the security staff to let me through to visit it! (Mind you, this around the time of the invasion of Iraq, so everyone was a little jumpy, even in Muslim Malaysia).
There's a good bus service from the airport to the centre of KL - just as well because it's bloody miles away! And the great thing about the bus is that it takes you right to Puduraya Bus Station, just across the road from a decent place to stay, the Pudu Hostel (or it was in March 2003). The entrance is by a 7/11. I paid RM30 for a very simple, basic, windowless room, but it was air-con, the bed was OK, and the (shared) bathrooms were very clean. There are dorms too. There's also a café serving all the backpacker faves; you can rent VCDs to watch on the shared TV, and they book tours and tickets as well, and there's a huge internet café on the floor below.
You don't have to eat in backpacker cafes, though, as there are all kinds of restaurants in KL; the cheapest are probably the Indian cafés where you can buy dosas, roti and so on for about RM1.50.
I can't remember using the buses in KL, but I used the light rail system and it was fine.
Things to see include the Petronas Towers, the tallest twin structures in the world (but only if you count the endless spikes on the top). You can look at them, take pictures, shop in the air-con shopping centre beneath them, and even venture out onto the Skybridge that connects them. Admission to the Skybridge is free, but by ticket only, and they're usually all taken by lunchtime! Me, I was disappointed to discover the Skybridge floor isn't transparent.
Merdeka Square is one of the places to go to get a flavour of Colonial KL, complete with the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and the National History Museum (which you can whip through in about 25 minutes!). A little way away there's the lovely Masjid Jamek (Friday mosque), which is open to visitors, especially if they dress modestly, and, (in the opposite direction) the gorgeous Colonial railway station. The muzium negara (national museum) a little way beyond the railway station is an OK diversion, but I much preferred the new Museum of Islamic Arts. Even without the exhibits - stunning embroidery, jewellery, calligraphy, pottery and models of some of the world's most notable mosques - it's a great place, if only because it's so airy and a cool respite from the heat.
The Museum of Islamic Arts is on the fringes of the Lake Gardens area, which comprises a restful park and attractions such as a butterfly garden and wild bird park; watch out for the road signs warning about monkeys loitering on the road!
The central market has lots of interesting stuff for souvenir shoppers, although it is a bit of a tourist trap (think the market at Covent Garden, those familiar with London!).
A small town a few hours' bus journey from KL, famous for its fireflies, which illuminate trees along the riverbank. However, one night in Kuala Selangor was more than enough: the accommodation was (comparatively) expensive and not very good (can't remember the name of the place I stayed) and there wasn't much in the way of exciting places to eat. The locals were honest, though: every taxi driver I asked to take me to see the fireflies refused, warning me that, because it was raining so hard, the fireflies wouldn't really be worth seeing. They were right too: I met a British couple the following day who had found someone to take them to the fireflies that night, and they said they were rubbish.
Cream tea in a tearoom in a half-timbered building in Malaysia? You could only be in Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. There's something quite bizarre, especially for Brits, about Tanah Rata and the rest of the Cameron Highlands. Yes, it's in the heart of Malaysia, and yes, there is jungle, if you look for it, but the altitude means it's far cooler than almost all the rest of Malaysia. It's just like home (for Brits), even down to the twee half-timbered tearooms. The climate's ideal for growing tea, and the surrounding mountains are covered in knee-high tea bushes. A visit to a plantation is interesting enough, but only if you can find someone to talk you round (even though the process isn't too complicated - you grow the tea, pluck off the tips and dry it and pack it). My friend Gale and I visited a tea plantation as part of a tour which I'm not sure was really worth taking. We went to a strawberry farm: "Look, strawberry plants, now do you want to buy some jam?"; a butterfly garden, which did indeed have hundreds of butterflies, mainly of one type (there are two butterfly gardens around Tanah Rata, don't ask me which is best) and a market, just another opportunity to buy things we could get in any supermarket in Malaysia. The best bit was a rose garden. OK, so it was pretty much just like a garden centre at home, but the location was great: one side of a mountain covered in roses and all manner of other flowers, and overlooking tea plantations as far as the eye could see!
There are some nice walks around Tanah Rata itself, though.
We stayed at some black-and-white brick guesthouse, which may have been called the Highland something or other. It was OK, but the consensus seems to be that Father's is the best budget place in town.
Loads to see, nice ambience, attractive buildings, Melaka was my favourite place in peninsula Malaysia. The centre's pretty compact, so it's easy enough to 'do' almost every attraction on foot. Most of the sights are around St Paul's Hill and the British-built (now ruined) St Paul's Church on the top. There's the Dutch-built Christ Church and Stadthuys (town hall), now a museum; the gate that is all that remains of the Portuguese-built A'Famosa fort, and then there's the Muzium Budaya, a recreation of typical Malaysian wooden palace. There's also the maritime museum and a recreation of a Portuguese ship, which is good for a laugh.
About 15 minutes' walk away, in the centre of town, are some fine Peranakan houses (the Peranakans were the descendants of marriages between Chinese traders and local Malays). The Baba-Nyonya House is one such house, but it's now a museum. The old town is lovely for just wandering round, with its narrow, winding streets of shophouses interspersed with Hindu temples, Chinese temples, mosques. On Saturday nights, there's the Jonkers walk night market.
I'm not sure the Medan Portuguese (Portuguese 'village'), about three miles from the city centre is worth the trek, although it might be a different story on a weekend night. Unless you're interested in Malaysian youth movements and the governor of Melaka, the "Youth Museum" near Christ Church, and the Tuan Yang Terutama Museum, overlooking St Paul's Church, aren't worth visiting.
I stayed at the Melaka Town Lodge 2, a bit of a walk from the action, but I had a big, comfortable room with bathroom, which was spotlessly clean, and the receptionist, Amin, was lovely, and all for RM25 a night.
There's stuff to see around the island, and some nice beaches, but I concentrated on the main town, Georgetown. There are traces of colonial stuff, such as Fort Cornwallis, but also lots of Chinese shophouses, although they are nowhere near as nice as the ones in Melaka. The Oasis Hotel on Love Lane was OK, as was 75 Traveller's Lodge on Lebuh Muntri.
We ventured out to the Kek Lok Si Temple, easy enough to get to by bus, and pretty spectacular, and to Penang Hill, where we took the funicular to the top for a view of Georgetown at dusk. Both were easy enough to get to by bus.
The nearest train station is at Butterworth, on the mainland; simply leave the train station and take a 10-minute or so ferry ride across to Penang, or it's possible to get buses over the Penang bridge and right to the heart of Georgetown. (See my Thailand section for info on a nightmare trip on a tourist bus from Bangkok to Penang.)
There's not really that much to see here, but it's the first/last place in Malaysia, depending on which way you're passing through, so you could well end up spending at least a night here. We stayed at KB Backpackers Lodge II, which I think was on Jalan Padang Gorong, across the street from KB Backpackers Lodge I. I can't remember how much we paid, but the room was OK, if very basic, and the shared toilets and bathrooms were clean. During a day in Kota Bharu, we visited the Istana Batu (Royal Palace), which was pretty enough, although a bit tame compared to the royal houses of Western Europe. The Istana Jahar (culture museum) is really pretty and worth taking a man to, if only to watch him blench at the exhibition on royal circumcision! We also checked out the Second World War Museum, which was interesting. There was an absolutely great veggie restaurant, it might have been on Jalan Pintu Pong, but it was definitely up some stairs above a lovely cake shop, and the décor (if I remember rightly) was predominantly white and green.
Kota Bharu is where you get the 'Jungle Train' south. It's supposed to be a real feat of engineering, and really beautiful, but we took it overnight to Singapore, so I don't know what it was like. My then-boyfriend had been on it, though, and he described it as 'OK'. He did a trek in the Taman Negara national park; I don't know what it was like, as the only detail I really took in was the fact that they had to sleep in a cave and spent the night listening to rats eating the remains of their tea. One to avoid if you're phobic about rats!
Borneo, home of the legendary wild man, and one of the last frontiers of civilisation. So how come my first meal on Borneo was a delicious pasta in a vegetable sauce in a delightful bistro called The Junk? We were in Kuching, the capital city of the state of Sarawak.
There are two states in the Malaysian part of Borneo: Sarawak and Sabah. It's difficult to travel between the two states by land, because they're pretty much separated by Brunei and a vast area of inaccessible jungle (although how long this will stay the case with all the logging and palm plantation development remains to be seen). However, there are good travel links within Sarawak and Sabah, by road, river or air.
First up, a plug for the tourist information people in Sarawak, who were great, whichever tourist office we used. They were full of useful information and tried their level best to help us. I never used tourist information facilities in Sabah, so I can't comment on them.
Unless things have changed since February 2003, the only way of getting to Sarawak from Malaysia or Singapore is to fly, although it's possible to get there overland from the Indonesian part of Borneo.
It's hard to explain why (I suppose you had to be there), but I thought Kuching was lovely. A promenade has been built along the waterfront of the Sarawak River, and this street is the place to buy souvenirs, as there's a whole street of shops selling masks, statues, shields, shrunken heads (made of wood!), and the like. Sarawak Museum is worth a visit, as is the Cat Museum, which is a bus ride out of town. The Cat Museum?? "Kuchin" is Malay for "Cat", so Kuching is also known as "Cat City", hence the museum.
I can't remember the name of the place where we stayed, but it was one of many cheap guesthouses in Jalan Green Hill. I can't remember how much it cost, but it was fairly basic, and rather battered, but we did have TV (bad reception!) and a hot water bathroom, even if the water heater was so noisy the whole guesthouse could hear it working! We checked out B&B Inn, supposed to be the only backpacker place in Kuching, but my ex wasn't impressed, which is why we didn't stay there. We saw one place that looked good, but it was full. I think it was the Arif Hotel.
We rented a motorbike from a garage near the B&B Inn, I think, and went to Gunung Gading national park to see a Rafflesia, the worlds biggest flower. It looked pretty impressive in the pictures, but by the time we got there, it was dead, and looked more like a rice pudding skin than a flower! It's possible to stay in the park and very nice it looked too.
We also went to the Wind Cave and the Fairy Cave, which I think are near Bau. They were nice enough, but there are far more impressive caves in Sarawak, so I'd give them a miss if you're pressed for time. There were two national parks where it was possible to see Orang Utans around Sarawak: Matang and Semenggoh. We opted for Matang, and I reckon it was a bad choice. I met someone who went to Semenggoh and they thought it was OK. (I eventually saw orang utans at the famous Sepilok refuge in Sabah, but I reckon Semenggoh would have been better).
Visiting a longhouse is supposed to be one of the things to do in Sarawak. Some guidebooks reckon it's OK just to turn up at a longhouse and expect a bed for the night, but I get the impression that the residents are getting a bit fed up of playing host to gawping backpackers. Perhaps the best way of visiting a longhouse, unless you have a genuine friend whose relatives live in one, is to book a stay through a tour operator. We fixed ours up from the tiny town (village more like) of Belaga, although this was more by accident than design.
We took an overnight bus from Kuching to Sibu, arriving just in time for the boat up the river to the town of Kapit. There isn't much to see in Kapit, with the exception of Fort Sylvia, and you can 'do' that in about 20 minutes, but we had to stay in Kapit to get a permit to go higher up the river; getting a permit was easy enough, though. We stayed at the Hiap Chiong Hotel on Jalan Temenggong Jogah. I can't remember how much we paid, but our room was massive, the bed was comfortable and we had a TV and a clean hot water bathroom, and the staff were lovely.
From Kapit we took a boat (boats are used like buses in this part of the world) to Belaga, where we stayed in the Hock Chiang Inn on Jalan Teo Tua Kheng (the strip of shops facing the jetty). The Belaga Hotel is supposed to be more popular, but in February 2003, my ex, who checked out the room, thought it was horrible. The Hock Chiang was basic but nice enough. Belaga isn't the most happening place in the world, but there are a couple of shops selling a wide range of goods, even if they aren't exactly Tesco, and a few small cafés serving 'local' food (as opposed to backpacker scran).
We got collared by someone called Daniel who said he helped tourists, and he offered to fix up a longhouse visit for us. He took us to a swimming hole, then left me and another British girl watching TV in his living room while he played badminton with his mates, my ex and this girl's friend. He made it out to be a traditional Belaga activity, but I reckon our visit coincided with his badminton night, and he didn't see why he should give it up. After that, he took us to a longhouse. The people were delightful, fed us really well, and talked, played cards and plied us with betel and dodgy (as in unhealthy, not illegal) roll-ups until the wee small hours. When we got back to Belaga, though, we met John, who is a 'real' tour guide. Put it this way, the day we arrived, he was away from Belaga visiting a longhouse with his good friend, a Japanese professor who is an expert on the Iban tribe and who has made countless visits to Borneo. Given a choice, Id have opted for John; he can be found in the MAS (Malaysian Airlines) office near the Hock Chiang Inn. I think his email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Belaga is now accessible by road (logging, unfortunately), and we got a ride in a pickup to the city of Bintulu.
The caves are off the road that runs between Bintulu and Miri. The Great Cave is one of the largest in the world, and it is MASSIVE. It's also possible to watch people collecting swifts' nests - by shinning 150 feet or so up a pole! - and to see relics of the caves' prehistoric inhabitants. The caves are reached via a wooden walkway. One of the great things about Borneo is that access to so many places is made so interesting: you reach the caves via a wooden walkway through the jungle. It's an easy walk but the walkway makes it seem like much more of an adventure. There's a little museum in the grounds, and, I think it's possible to stay in the national park, but there is accommodation in the village near the park entrance. We didn't check out these places, but they might be worth a look, as it seemed a nicer option than Miri or Bintulu.
There was nothing much of interest, but we had to spend at least one night here. It was a real pain finding budget accommodation; I can't remember where we stayed.
The people were lovely, but the highlight of staying here was the festival to mark the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations, but that's only a once a year experience… There isn't much else to see in Miri.
We stayed in Polly Guest House. I can't remember the address, but it was close to the long-distance bus station. The staff were lovely and caring, and the room was well lit and seemed clean, but we spent our first night eliminating cockroaches (which don't bother me but freaked my ex out), and when I went back later on my own, I had a rat in the room. I don't know how it got in, or how long it had been there, but I made good my escape and checked in at The Fairland Inn across the square from Polly. Here I paid around RM 35/45 for a room with hot water bathroom and TV and a sulky manager. But at least there were no rats!
There are a couple of notable caves here, including what is thought to be the world's largest cave chamber, but one of the big draws is a walk to the Pinnacles, which look like massive limestone blades sticking out of the side of Gunung Api. The park headquarters are lovely in themselves, and would be a great place to relax and get away from it all. There are beds in lovely airy dorms, for, I think RM15, and two-and-three-bed rooms as well; the restaurant was good. There's a posh resort about a mile from the park, with prices to match, and there's another restaurant just outside the park gate. I didn't check out the caves, but I did go to the Pinnacles. You have to have a guide, and charter a boat, which makes it quite pricey for lone travellers, but I found a couple who wanted to do the Pinnacles too, so I could share the cost with them.
We spent about an hour and a half sailing up a river, then walked for about three hours through the forest to what's called "Camp 5". Unfortunately, when we arrived, I found the 'camp' building was very open, and there were little boxes of rat poison all over the place. It was a rat-phobic's nightmare, and it was too late for me to escape. One of the guides said they hadn't seen a rat for ages, but I was still pretty relieved when the camp cook let me share her room, which at least had walls and a door. Even so, I spent two miserable nights - one before climbing to the Pinnacles, one after - waiting for the slightest scratching sound.
You can't walk to the Pinnacles, but to a viewpoint overlooking them. It took about five hours, I think, to get to the viewpoint, and it was quite tough, because it was almost vertical.
There are several flights a day from Miri to the airport at Gunung Mulu.
I went here because, for some bizarre reason, I wanted to walk from the small town of Bario to the small town of Ba Kelalan. Bario is in a beautiful setting, and the town, although there's not much there, has a lovely vibe. The people are welcoming, too, and there was even internet access, rather impressive considering it's too remote to have an electricity supply or landline or mobile phone coverage. I stayed at Gem's or Jaman's; it was a bit of a walk from the centre, but I got a lift from the airport because Jaman, like everyone else in Bario, goes there every morning to meet the planes from Miri, because they represent a link with the outside world. Jaman's place was very nice, all golden wood and comfortable beds, and his wife was a great cook.
Jaman fixed me up with a guide, I think it was his auntie, who has a basic guesthouse in the next village, Pa Lungan. Jaman's auntie arranged a guide to take me from Pa Lungan to Ba Kelalan. They insisted I do the walk over two days, but I think that it could be done in one, tough, day. The airfield at Ba Kelalan was out of action when I got there, so I had to walk, then blag a lift to Lawas, and fly from there to Miri, but the airport should be fixed by now.
The highest mountain in south east Asia, apparently, but climbing it isn't as arduous as it sounds, because the footpath is so good; I really struggled with the altitude, though.
The climb took three days in total: one day to travel to national park, (where you can sleep in a dorm); one to get two-thirds of the way up the mountain, and one to reach the summit and get down again.
You can't climb the mountain without a guide, although I don't know why; there's a path all the way to the top, and our guide was too busy chatting with his mates to take much notice of us. It took around six hours to get to Laban Rata, the rest house that's about two-thirds of the way up. We spent the night at Laban Rata, which was very cosy, and cost RM34 each. We could have paid RM17 each to sleep in unheated huts nearby, but it was bloody cold when the sun went down; people who stayed there said they were fine, though.
They make you get up at 2am so you can get to the summit for sunrise. Nice idea, but we ended up freezing cold on the summit, willing the sun to rise so we could go back down again. I think that, if we had insisted, we could have gone up later, after sunrise and that would have been a better option. OK, it was exciting picking our way up in the dark, but would have been able to appreciate the moonscape-like view better if we could have seen it, and we wouldn't have got so cold and miserable! And the sunrise was crap, too. Then we ploughed back down in about four hours. Make sure your big toe nails are really short, mine weren't and they caught on the front of my boots and later turned black and fell off; it took a year for them to recover.
Many people treat themselves to a day or two in the nearby Poring Hot Springs after climbing the mountain.
The main city in Sabah, but I can't remember there being much to see. We checked out places all over town before stumbling on the Gaya Hotel, which - if it's still as it was in February 2003 - I can't recommend too highly. We paid RM20 for a room, which was very basic, but spotlessly clean, as were the (shared) bathrooms, and the friendly staff let us use their fridge and kettle. We stayed at the Gaya before we climbed Mt Kinabalu, but afterwards, we treated ourselves to a night in the Jesselton Hotel. It's probably not the poshest place in KK, but it has to be the classiest. We took advantage of a promotion, which reduced the price of a RM280 room to RM198. And it included a great breakfast as well. Even if we'd paid full price, it would have been worth every penny. We had a very large room, with a massive, comfortable bed, TV, fridge, silent air-con unit(!!), all the conveniences, plus a gorgeous bathroom, and we had use of a shared lounge/reception room on our floor, where we could watch the VCDs we'd bought. And the staff were lovely too. We walked into their lovely foyer filthy and sweaty from charging down the mountain, carrying battered, travel-grubby backpacks, yet they treated us with absolute courtesy. I'd stay there again tomorrow.
I got here on a bus from Kota Kinabalu, and stayed in the Paris Hotel, recently refurbished, cheap. Sandakan is the nearest city to the famous Sepilok Orang Utan centre, although there are several places to stay, of various prices and levels of comfort, on the mile-or-so long road leading to the park. Sepilok's really popular with people on tours, organised at home and locally, but I didn't rate the Sepilok experience too highly. I felt that everything was geared towards getting us into the park and to the orang utan feeding platforms as efficiently as possible, then we could get the perfect picture of an orang utan stuffing its face with bananas, then leave as quickly as possible. You could watch a video on the place, but it was a recording of a programme made by National Geographic or someone, and, as far as I could see, there was no member of staff around to explain how they train domesticated animals to look after themselves in the wild.
Sandakan also the nearest city to Pulau Selingan, or 'Turtle Island', where you can watch rare green and hawksbill turtles lay their eggs. The turtles come ashore at night so you have to spend the night on the island if you want to see a turtle. Many people seem to go there on a pre-booked tour, but I went to the office of the company that handles accommodation bookings for the national park and arranges boat transport, and met someone already on a tour, who let me go halves on her room. The booking office was based at the boat jetty, about a mile out of town. The accommodation was comfortable enough, and it was pretty magic watching a turtle lay its eggs; the rangers seem really committed to protecting the turtles.
A less-known sight is Sandakan Memorial Park, created on what during World War II was the infamous Sandakan prisoner of war (POW) camp. There's an informative little museum, but apart from that it's just a peaceful place for reflection.
I was tempted to go to Uncle Tan's famous Jungle Camp in Batang Kinabatangan, but I bottled because it's not unknown for guests to end up sharing their jungle huts with rats!
It's also possible to get a ferry to the Philippines from Sandakan.
My (then) boyfriend wanted to try wreck diving, but when we went to Labuan in mid-February, the water was too choppy, although we were told the conditions would be better in a couple of weeks. Labuan's promoted as a holiday island, but it's hard to understand why: the beaches are mediocre to say the least, there are no tourist sights as such and accommodation is pretty expensive compared to elsewhere. Only go if you're very, very desperate. The island of Sipadan, on the other hand, on the opposite side of Sabah, is world famous for diving, but we didn't get the chance to go there.