I’m lovin’ Peninsula Malaysia.
Navi and I are 45 days into a 90 day visa and already discussing the possibility of extending.
It’s just nice here.
Backpacking in Malaysia
Malaysia is something of a forgotten country on the backpacker circuit. A huge chunk of it sits on the enigmatic and largely untraveled island of Borneo. The remainder comprises a small peninsula sandwiched between ever popular Thailand and the effervescent Singapore.
Backpackers tend to cross the Thai border heading south for Singapore, with a couple of stops in Malaysia on the way. Typically, along the western coast of the country. That’s exactly what Navi and I did in 2006, resting briefly at Kuala Lumpur and Penang. I don’t remember lingering very long in either location.
Malaysia and the Influence of Islam
Malaysia is a Muslim country, do not be mistaken. Yes there is a heavy Chinese influence but it’s the principles of Islam that shape the Malay culture into something quite unfamiliar to non-Muslims. Malaysia can feel a lot less liberal than its neighbours at first.
Perhaps this is what keeps the backpacker hoards entrenched just over the border, in easy-going Thailand.
I used to find it difficult to relate to people in Malaysia. I felt suffocated here and uncomfortable. I think I did that typical western thing of believing my own culture to be superior and shutting the door on anything I was unacquainted with. That was a mistake. Once I learned to listen and take things easy, I started to have a much better time in this unique place.
People of the Malay Peninsula
The Malay people are the same as people everywhere. They are naturally kind and curious if somewhat shy. Teasing a wave or a quick hello from a stranger often requires nothing more than a supplicant gesture or a smile. Forging a genuine friendship takes longer but seems to come so naturally to every generation of Malays. The cultural barriers I perceived were mostly in my own head. People want to understand me and I want to understand them.
They will ask questions, giggle at my responses and gleefully shatter my preconceptions.
Malays seem to love nothing more than when someone has good things to say about their country and their culture. They are a proud people as well they should be.
Malay’s are highly educated, culturally tolerant, emotional people. The infrastructure and social wellbeing I see here – easily rivals and in some cases exceeds that of Europe and America. Malaysia may not have the big money or the international prestige, but this country achieves so much. Malays seem quietly to go about their business. And, unlike my own nation, they live in peace.
The food in Malaysia is arguably some of the finest in the world. A devilish mix of Indian and Chinese flavours with the heat turned down just enough for the British colonial palette. Food as sublime as it is cheap.
Most good eateries are outdoors, street style dining. Everything is made fresh. Only India is less expensive. Indian food undeniably packs more flavour but it lacks flexibility and variety. Indians often can’t or won’t tinker with ingredients. In Malaysia you can have it your way.
There is something for everyone on the Malaysian menu.
Every day this week Navi and I meander along the beach to a little place called Mandilika. It’s a cute little hut built from driftwood with a few plastic tables and chairs scattered on the sand. It’s the best place on the island for fast cheap Malay cuisine, plus impromptu cooking lessons from the charismatic owner, if that’s your thing.
Mandilika is a wonderful place to eat and a classic example of Malay hospitality.
Life on Perhentian Besar
After spending almost a month in Kuala Lumpur we are now living on an Island off the east coast. Unlike the ex-pat favourites, Langkawi and Penang on the west, the eastern islands are not so well celebrated. Malaysian tourists want to enjoy exclusivity while on vacation so accommodation is limited and prices can climb a little high. Curiously there is virtually no backpacker buzz about Malaysia’s eastern islands. It’s almost as if the Malays are trying to keep them a secret.
If that were true, I could understand why. The beaches here are very nice and many have an unspoilt feel.
Virgin rainforest still towers over the sprinkling of huts and boulders along the shorelines.
Wildlife is abundant and many of the coral reefs which surround the headlands are in good shape.
Accommodation isn’t as modern as the Thai islands a hundred miles north of here. Beachfront resort rooms start at around £30 per night but have a tired feel with very little charm. A meal for two is about £5-10.
£30 per night seemed like an acceptable price to begin with. However, once Navi and I factored in boat taxis, the occasional beer and a couple of snorkelling trips, we quickly noticed we were spending too much. Today we downgrade to a traditional A-Frame hut in the jungle without air conditioning. No doubt its blisteringly hot and crawling with geckos, buts it has bags of character… and its cheap. Just £12 per night.
Back to Kuala Lumpur
Our plan is to stay here on Perhentian Besar exploring the coast by boat until the school holidays start on the 28th May.
We’ll probably head back to Kuala Lumpur again after that.
KL has a charm that’s quite distinct. Its big, but it feels small. This melting pot of cultures and cuisine makes for an experience that’s terrifically exotic but at the same time, very familiar.
Navi and I have always loved the city. This one keeps drawing us back somehow.