Malaysia – Truly Asia

Malaysia is a popular tourist destination, on to-do lists of a lot of travelers, and I got my chance to cross off this item from my list last month when I learnt that I had to travel to Singapore for work. I was lucky to have managed to squeeze in some time for Malaysia before the work trip.. Lucky not only because I was able to get a break from work just before traveling for work again but also because my passport with both the visas came just a day before my travel date, although this was with a lot of follow-up and unwanted added headache in the 2 weeks before the trip. Going by the textbook definition of leaving no stone unturned, I did have to try almost everything I could’ve to get my Singapore and Malaysia visas ready in about 10 days I had before the travel date. But in the end, it was a good call to put up the fight, as it allowed  me to explore the 3 cities of Malaysia without added airfare! Although I had to take Malaysian airlines instead of Singapore airlines and by comparison that’s like exchanging your business class air tickets with a bus ticket for a window seat just to be able to see the view on the way! but it still was a good deal!

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So after I got myself the deal of 5 days / 4 nights to explore Malaysia (not bad at all, I know!) I decided to divide my time in amongst the 3 cities of Peninsular Malaysia – Kualalumpur, Penang and Malacca. A friend from office was also accompanying me on the trip. If you’d look at the map of Malaysia below.. the small state of Penang, with its capital as Georgetown is really up in the north, KL (I can’t keep writing Kualalumpur, so it’d be KL from here on..) is somewhere in middle and Malacca towards south. Thus, in 5 days, I was able to cover the almost 1000 km stretch of west coast of western Malaysia.. well, not the complete stretch, but there isn’t much left to see once you’ve done these 3 cities. Other major attractions on western peninsular part of Malaysia that I can think of –

  • Lankawi – an archipelago of 99 islands known for its beaches, rainforest, mountains, mangrove estuaries and unique nature
  • Ipoh – capital of Perak with historic colonial old town
  • Johr Bahru – capital of Johor, and the gateway to Singapore
  • Cameroon Highlands –  famous for its tea plantations

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It really depends on how much time and appetite you have to explore. What I could cover in my trip was only the west coast region of the western peninsula. The east coast region of the western peninsula is not as culturally diverse as the west coast, thus not so popular with tourists as well. The Malaysian part of Borneo island has dense tropical forests all over and thus is the go-to destination for nature-lovers. The states of Sarawak and Sabah are known to have really pristine beaches and coral reefs and forests rich in flora and fauna. Also, Mount Kinabalu, highest peak in South East Asia, is a famous hiking spot to add to the list.Like any other traveler, the first step for me to explore any new travel destination is to look it up on wikitravel and then on tripadvisor. This is what I would recommend to you as well before you plan your trip to Malaysia. But let’s come back to KL where my Malaysian airlines flight is about to land in a short while and let’s begin our trip..

My planned itinerary was  –

  • Day 1 – Arrive at KL – Explore the city – Overnight bus to Penang
  • Day 2 – Arrive at Penang – Roam in-n-around Georgetown – Stay at hotel
  • Day 3 – Explore the city – Overnight bus to Malacca
  • Day 4 – Arrive at Malacca – Explore the city – Stay at hotel
  • Day 5 – Bus to KL – Explore the city – Leave for Singapore

and I had almost over prepared myself through reading material on Penang and Malacca because they were smaller cities, had the UNESCO World Heritage City tag, thereby more touristy than KL, thus I didn’t want to miss a thing. On the other hand, I had always kept KL as a filler time between other important things hoping it wouldn’t be a problem findings things to do in a big city like KL. But it wasn’t so, and a lot of time starting from the landing itself was wasted in figuring out what to do now.. Lesson learnt – always have an agenda ready before you step down from your flight, otherwise you’d waste time in making it at your vacation spot.

To reach the city center from the airport, the easiest way is to take the express metro to TBS (Terminal Bersepadu Selatan) station, which is a transport hub to get further link for inter and intra city travel. The train ticket costs you 35 ringgit but there are also shuttle buses that run frequently at much lower price (10 ringgit) from the terminal 2 (Air Asia Terminal) of the airport. As I had read on the TBS website, we found locker facility at TBS at nominal price – 30 ringgit – thus, with the big bags locked away, we got some breakfast and then moved over to the local train terminal of TBS.

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The first stop for us was Bukit Bintang, which is part of the Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle, spans over 3 roads, namely Jalan Bukit Bintang, Jalan Imbi and Jalan Sultan Ismail. It houses various cafes, dining outlets and shopping complexes. We still ended up roaming around the lanes around this central city area for almost the entire day but now when I think about it, the area didn’t look very different from any other urban agglomerate.. there were tall buildings around, traffic on the roads, metro running above and malls with similar brands that dote other such metro cities around the globe. Probably the thing that was different was the language on the signboards – Malay, which honestly seems funny to me, It almost seems like a cross between Phonetic English and Hindi.

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In between the roaming around and shopping, we had lunch at a small chinese shop at Jalan Alor. The street comes to life only after sunset and people usually flock the hawkers after shopping. We had ordered for chicken curry, rice and another chicken dish which was served dry. Also, I figured Guinness was quite popular in this area along with Tiger in local and Heineken in international choices. Check out the lunch below –

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It was difficult to find tickets for the observation deck of the Petronas towers, so we decided to come back for it on our way back from Malacca, but we simply couldn’t get tickets on either of the days! must be quite a view from the top we were wondering! Our dejected souls took refuge in one of the cafes around the twin towers and from there we decided to move on to our next popular destination in the city – Chinatown. The name of the street that you have to search for is Jalan Petaling. You can either walk from the Petronas towers towards Jalan Ampang and then further towards here or you can simply take a metro ending at the Pasar Seni station.

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The market has lots to offer if you’re looking for ripoffs of designer handbags, wallets, bags, watches, shoes and other such low cost accessories. Actually, you don’t need to go through the entire market, each shop has exactly same stuff, probably bought in bulk by the owners together. After a bit of looking around, we went for dinner as we were really tired by then. This was end of day and it was a bit disappointing for me as KL had nothing different to offer as a city. Had we been staying at a hotel in the city, we could’ve enjoyed the nightlife but we had to catch our bus to Penang, thus after dinner, we headed back to TBS station.

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I had already booked all the intercity bus tickets and hotels before traveling. It really helped by allowing us to come just in time before departure time without any worries. You can book bus tickets on busonlineticket.com or easybook.com and hotels can be booked on agoda.com. The bus from KL to Penang costed us just 35 ringgit at the time of booking from India but after boarding we realized that it had just 4 passengers, but still they did not cancel or reschedule the pre-booked tickets, so it indeed is a safe option to book everything in advance. The bus journey wasn’t very comfortable but we couldn’t have asked for more. Although if it is possible to book the train, I’d recommend to go for it instead of the bus. I couldn’t go for the train as the bookings hadn’t opened by the time I had to submit my visa application at the Malaysia consulate in India, thus I booked bus tickets to give them as supporting document in my application.

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We reached Penang early morning at around 5.30 AM. We had to wait till 6 as that’s when the local buses start plying from the city bus stop to heart of Georgetown, where our hotel was. We were staying at a hotel on Lebuh Ah Quee, which is just next to the famous Armenian street in Georgetown. After a quick break to freshen up and change clothes, we went ahead with the day’s proceedings. I had booked a tour with the Metro Bike Tours about whom I had found on tripadvisor. It is a unique, eco-friendly bicycle tour company in Penang that provides quality bike rentals and tours. We took their all-in-one tour which took us around the UNESCO world heritage sites, had a breakfast break in the morning and ended at a lunch break. Our guide Jeffrey took good interest in showing his city around and I personally had a good time, partly because of the fact that I was exploring Penang on a cycle and then I also realized it would’ve been difficult getting all the details that Jeffrey had given us at our stops.

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Our first stop was the Clan Jetties, called so because when chinese migrants from South China were setting up homes in Penang, they did so in associations of their clans, family relatives in a way, along the shores of Penang. Actually not even shores, they were literally built in the sea using stilts because these chinese migrants couldn’t get space on actual land further ahead. On further inspection, we noticed that some of the stilts were actually stacked paint buckets containing cement instead of paints. Jeffrey told us that this was from the repair work by poor fishermen who couldn’t afford anything better. It was interesting to see the establishments from hundreds of years that started as basic houses had evolved into complex societies. Btw, here I am exploring Penang in full glory! :-)

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Moving forward, we saw the famous street art by Lithuanian born artist Ernest Zacharevic. Many similar projects had cropped up from what Ernest had done years ago and later we saw street art of similar scale in Malacca as well. The most famous art piece is the one with 2 kids (painted) on a bicycle (actual). You simply can’t leave Penang before getting yourself clicked against this wall. Below is my photo –

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We kept crossing more artwork after the tour ended. The original artwork by Ernest is really famous over the internet, thus instantly recognizable but you’ll keep bumping into some form of artwork all over the city.. Sharing another such project by Ernest below –

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We had breakfast following this at Little India, I wasn’t excited at all about eating Sambhar Vada for breakfast when I already have it everyday in India, but I guess there was some kind of deal between Metro and the restaurant, so, we had to eat at this place itself as part of our deal. Anyhow, after the meal, we left for one of the famous local Chinese temple, which again was connected to the clans that were formed by Chinese migrants – Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple.

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A bastion of Taoism in Penang, the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple was built by Chinese immigrants in about 1850 AD. The temple is dedicated to Twa Peh Kong or sometimes written as ‘Tua Pek Kong’ (God of Prosperity and Morality). The temple was symbolic of the values of the community and rituals conducted were very similar to what was practiced in the Fujian Province where most of them originated from. Interestingly, the temple was also the headquarters of a Chinese secret society that would conduct various rites and ceremonies in front of the deity. It houses four affiliated societies namely Tong Kheng Sean, Poh Hoe Seah, Cheng Hoe Seah and Hokkien Kongsi. Today, Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple stands as a permanent reminder of the progress achieved by the Penang Chinese Hokkien community.

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One of the many unique features of the architecture is the roof. This temple is the only one in Malaysia that has a `Kuan Kong’ figurine perched regally on its roof (seen in the photo above). The deity is synonymous with Chinese secret societies because it represents loyalty. Another unique feature is the temple’s bungalow-like layout – an architectural rarity as most prayer pavilions back then were on the ground floor of smaller single storey buildings.

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Jeffrey told us about these secret societies, a noted feature of all the clans. The Kean Teik Tong society, from the temple above, was one of the two parties that was involved in the Penang Riots of 1867, together with the Ghee Hin Secret Society, in an open warfare along the streets of Penang that resulted in the banning of secret societies. Infact there exists a street called Cannon street because a large gaping void that was created in the temple wall (at the location) by the artillery that was fired during the riots. We moved on from the temple but did return for Khoo Kongsi, the more famous temple, the next day. Another historic building that is famous with tourists is Penang Cheong Fatt Tze Blue Mansion House, photo below. But we didn’t know that the entry is only restricted to specific times.

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The tour moved on to other popular spots in Penang most of which are listed on tripadvisor, so it’s a good idea to just cover this list.. But we had a booked a separate food tour, again booked from tripadvisor, as well for the evening and although it was a bit high priced at 160 ringgit but I personally liked all that we tasted and had a really good time. This is when I don’t classify myself as a foodie.. It’s true that Penang is touted as the street food capital of not just Malaysia but whole of Asia.

You can find a really comprehensive list of mouth-watering Penang offerings here. I couldn’t click good pictures of the dishes because the lighting wasn’t always perfect in the night time and also I was busy enjoying the food, thus using the photos from other blogs. The dishes that I loved  the most were –

 This ended our first day at Penang and in retrospect was the best day of the trip! I still long to have a bowl of asam laksa of Penang! Next day was spent in going up the Penang hill and Kek Lok Si temple near Ayer Itam, which is little away from the Georgetown part of Penang. But before that, there was one last spot to be covered in Georgetown, the Khoo Kongsi temple, which is an iconic Penang attraction.

One interesting thing that we had just missed (unknowingly though) was the evening show where Khoo Kongsi turns on all its lights at its courtyard to accommodate interesting Chinese arts and cultural performances. This happens on the last saturday of each month, the schedule can be found here. If you can accommodate for this show, then do consider it as Jeffrey had told us that we missed something really special!

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The main worship was done in the traditional red and golden colors, similar to the chinese temples we had seen earlier. It was actually too much for my eyes to capture, the details were too fine and complicated. Somehow this felt similar to how temples in India too have complex design patterns as religious ornamentation to please the gods. I could only observe the whole facade in parts but below is how it looked..

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However the interesting part for me were the side walls which had the 36 celestial guardians, 18 on each side of the wall. These are commonly found in the Southern Fujian temples. Leading them is the “message carrier” who rides on a horse. The celestial guardians are of both sexes and are in mandarin or military attire. They ride on different animals such as the dragon, the lion and other rare creatures, and each of them is armed with a unique weapon. They are rich, interesting pictorial representations of folklores and art. Below is the left wall of the temple.

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There were many more murals in the temple, and the basement section has now been converted into a museum. I found this to be a very interesting introduction to the chinese culture and architecture and took notes on the aspects which I need to read-up after reaching back home. Here is something interesting I found later on the temple architecture, if you’re interested. Ok, let’s move out of Georgetown, can’t spend another full day here!

There are regular buses available from Weld Quay (Jetty Terminal) to Ayer Itam at very reasonable prices. Penang hill being the highest point of the island has a good vantage point to look around. There exists a railway track to go up and come down, it’ll cost you 30 ringgit if you’re an international visitor, thus it’s best to go for it instead of hiking up as it would also be very hot and humid there and you’d be sweating the whole time.

Below are the panoramas I managed to stitch from the vantage point atop the hill. The first shot is of UNESCO world heritage site at Georgetown, the tallest structure that stands out is the iconic Komtar building, the tallest building in Penang. Also visible is the mainland Malaysia..

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Below is a zoomed version of the thin strip of sea between the mainland Malaysia and the Penang Island.

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 Also, visible in the picture below is another iconic structure of Penang – the bridge that connects the island to the mainland. It is 12 km long but now they have a new one opening soon which is 23 km long and is located closer to the airport.

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Next stop after lunch was the Kek Lok Si temple, but I personally did not like the temple so much and the decision to go for it might not have been the best in hindsight as it left us very little time for Batu Ferringhi part of the island. Nonetheless, here is what the temple had for us –

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Also, this temple was not a Taoist temple as we saw earlier, instead this was a Buddhist Pagoda. Most famous ones of this class of temples are in Myanmar and Thailand. A prayer was in progress when we were visiting, as seen below.

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We couldn’t find a direct bus from Ayer Itam to Batu Ferringhi, thus we first had to return to Komtar and then change to a bus for Batu Ferringhi. It was already dark by then and the skies started pouring down suddenly which slowed down the traffic further. Thus, all we could do at Batu Ferringhi was have dinner and then take the bus back to Georgetown for our bus to Malacca. It was almost as if this leg of the trip was cursed because we realized that to get to our bus, we had to reach the bus station which is on mainland and there was no bus which was going to cross the bridge as it was too late in the night. We thought of taking the ferry  then and after wasting few more crucial minutes, we realized that there was no way that we could’ve reached on time with the super-slow (also ultra cheap) ferry service. After left with no resolve, we had to take a last minute taxi which charged us 60 ringgit, it was too much considering the fact that the intercity bus seats we were rushing to catch costed us 70 ringgit for 2 seats. But still, we managed to reach the bus station just in time and were safely enroute to Malacca.

 Malacca was the oldest of the 3 cities we were visiting. In medieval times, it also served as the capital region for the Malay peninsula and was also the city from where the present day nation declared its independence. How it all began? You can read it here. But if you would look at a city map, it can be seen as laid around the Dutch administrative center, thus the 3 Imperial powers, Portuguese followed by Dutch followed by English, had influenced Malacca to a great extent.

Although the red square is the prime attraction spot in Malaysia, we went for an excursion through the markets looking for food. We did reach the cluster of Dutch and Portuguese buildings after roaming around for a while. Below is the roundabout at the red square..

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The red buildings at this spot were originally white when they came up during the Dutch reign but then the British painted them red and the color hasn’t changed since then. We also visited the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, Cheng Hoon Teng. Below is a shot of the interiors of the temple, following the 3 Doctrinal Systems of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

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 After a bit more of roaming around, we went for lunch and then I went ahead to explore the cityside. While speeding across the city roads, at a point, out of nowhere, I found myself caught in middle of a Buddhist festival procession, so, I had to stop for pictures!

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I tried asking people about what was happening but somehow the locals weren’t able to understand me, they didn’t seem to speak much of English. I gave up on my questioning and joined the procession which was making its way towards the city center. Coincidentally, the day we were in Malaysia, was also the day when the Prime Minister of Malaysia was in the city to celebrate the Indian festival of Diwali! I hadn’t done much at Diwali back at home and here I was in a different country celebrating Diwali with the country’s head! :-D The rickshaws in Malacca also seemed jubilant with the homely atmosphere of Diwali celebrations but I got to know that this was a regular affair for them!

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Below is a panorama of the celebration setup besides the Al Famosa

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While returning towards our hotel, we took a ride of the Malacca river, think it was for 15 ringgit per person, but without any commentary it just seemed like a boat ride with strangers where everyone in the front, like me, was trying to not to get splashed and everyone in the back was busy taking selfies! Anyhow, we took the path that brought us to the hotel through the famous Jonker street market, but there wasn’t much interest left for shopping by then and there wasn’t anything special. I learnt that you just need to go for one of the street markets in Malaysia, it can be anywhere, rest wouldn’t be very different. I didn’t bother taking pictures because I had no energy left but there are many good blogposts like this one and this one to give you a peeking glance of the street.

4 days of non-stop travel had worn us out by now and we needed to take out our reserve energy to be able to make full use of the last remaining day in KL. We took the morning bus to KL and reached TBS from where we took the metro to city center. we had again used the same locker facility for the heavy luggage. Our aim for the day was to go up the Petronas Towers but even this time the luck wasn’t in our favor as we couldn’t get the 80 ringgit tickets, it was a housefull and we had return with sad faces once more. But I was determined to make best possible use of the day and we walked upto the KL Menara as that place also has an observation deck that’s equally good and is available at cheaper price of 49 ringgit. Below is how the city of Kualalumpur looks from above..

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It was a pretty kickass view and is a must thing-to-do when you’re in KL. We spent the rest of the day at Bukit Bintang roaming around and after some lunch, we left for the airport to move ahead to Singapore which in itself was an amazing trip beyond my expectations! I had gone there to attend an official training and met other folks from China, Japan and Singapore who had joined the company in the same time-frame as me, a really good bunch! I personally formed really good memories from the trip and guess Singapore managed to contribute more than Malaysia in this regard. I’ll try to come up with another post on the Singapore adventures, can’t let this post cross the 5000 word mark! but hope you enjoyed it and helpful for your own Malaysia trip plan. By the way, to my good surprise, I saw Diwali decorations even in Singapore in full swing!

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This was the first completely self-funded and planned international backpacking trip for me and I think I am ready to travel solo across the world! This blog is where I’d be capturing everything, so stay tuned.. you’ve made a right call by subscribing to this blog, it would soon have more such stories!