Sunday, August 31, 2014

Malaysia: Beyond the Myths

Over the last week, I traveled across Malaysia, the second time in two years, but this time, we managed to go beyond the typical touristy stuff and discover a totally different facet of the country that continues to amaze me with its sheer diversity. While our last trip two years back was along the popular KL-Penang-Langkawi route, where we soaked up the sun in the beaches of Langkawi, enjoyed the seafood and the old world architecture in Georgetown and window shopped and partied in Kuala Lumpur, I knew it was not exactly my way of exploring a country, as much fun as it was. Even before I had boarded the flight back home, I knew I would be back in no time.

And last week, it was exactly what we did, and this time, I can proudly claim that we did some justice to the country. Traveling on a tight budget and without the luxury of economies of scale (last time we were five while now we were just two), we walked our way through the trip, taking advantage of the excellent public transport system (including the free GoKL buses within the city centre), putting up at budget hotels which just about covered the bare minimum and surviving on street food. Along the way, we broke some myths about the country: KL is really NOT all about shopping and there is much more to Malaysia than Genting or Cameron Highlands (Make My Trip, are you listening?).

Our trip began in the picturesque little town of Malacca (or Melaka), halfway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. After the first couple of days in Singapore, we took a bus to this UNSECO world heritage site with a rich historical and cultural background from previous Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, ensconced in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula, next to the Straits of Malacca. Traveling across the border turned out to be quite smooth, with a couple of stopovers for immigration formalities.

Staying right across the colourful Jonker Street in an obscure family-run hotel, we had all the benefits of a house guest and none of the frills of a luxurious resort. Over the next couple of days, we explored the Heritage area which houses some impressive historical and architectural wonders like the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia), Christ Church (oldest Protestant Church in Malaysia), Dutch Square, Maritime Museum, Islamic World Museum, Sultanate Palace, Porta de Santiago, Stadthuys, not to mention the breathtaking view from the St. Paul’s Hill and the river cruise across the Melaka river, while enjoying the local Malay food in a quaint little restaurant overlooking the river.

In the evening, we would walk through the vivacious night market (only open on weekends) in Jonker Street, trying out the extremely appetizing street food (I tried everything from fried oysters to pork dimsums to chicken satay), listening to the local music and buying knick knacks at throwaway prices.

From Melaka, we made the epic trip to Taman Negara, the world's oldest tropical rainforest, estimated to be more than 130 million years old, covering an area over 4000 sq. km. To put some context, our very own Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai is only 100 sq km! But reaching the place was no mean feat as we used every possible mode of transport: taxi, bus, train, shuttle and boat. After traveling for eight hours, we reached the secluded rainforest in the village of Kuala Tahan. On our way, we realized this was a backpacker’s paradise with plenty of overseas tourists, but hardly any Indians on a family vacation.

As far from civilization as it was, we still managed to catch glimpses of a Jennifer Aniston movie on the only channel the TV offered and listen to Bollywood music in the shuttle. As for Shahrukh Khan, he is a popular figure even in Kuala Tahan! While the village itself was isolated, the jungle trek was as adventurous as it gets.

The permit to the national park is fairly easy to obtain and just a short boatride away. The experience of walking across the long suspension bridge overlooking the forest (Canopy Walk) was quite out of this world: scary at first, exhilarating in the middle (when you realize there is no turning back) and satisfying in the end after you have survived the urge to scream your lungs out.

Following the Canopy Walk, we trekked to the top of the Bukit Teresek Hill which offered a bird’s eye-view of the entire rainforest, but somehow paled in front of the Canopy Walk. For all our sedentary lifestyles and comforts of the corporate world, the jungle trek can be quite a test of stamina, but at the end of the day, it was worth all the huffing and puffing, especially if you had the surreal environment around you: the sheer isolation, miles of dense forest ahead of you, the eerie sound, the various types of birds, insects and small creatures which casually come in the way, not to mention the complete lack of any human contamination. We did not take a guide and it made us more acutely conscious that getting lost in the long winding trails can prove to be life threatening.

In the evening, we splurged on hiring a boat, just to cruise through the river across to Lata Berkoh, from where we again trekked to the waterfalls and cascade. On our way, we were lucky to spot a giant iguana, casually resting along the river, like it’s nobody’s business (and it wasn’t).

At night, we went for the night safari, and no, it was nothing like the nigh safari in Singapore! This was so much more natural and primitive, with ten of us, piled on the top of a jeep, driving through a rough trail through the thick forest in pitch dark with nothing but a torch to guide us. While we spotted some monkeys, owls and some other nocturnal birds and a couple of leopard cats, it was more the experience rather than the sighting itself that could make your quiver.

We simply didn’t have enough time/money for the camping, rapid shooting or visiting the Orang Asli tribal settlements, but someday I hope I could go back for these. Oh, and the food at our resort was mind-blowingly awesome. For a buffet which served a wide variety of local cuisines, I did not hold back and even had the fish curry, which I would have avoided under different circumstances.

The trip to KL was yet another long drawn battle with public transport, luggage, heat and our fast dwindling money. Further, the realization that this was the last leg of our vacation made us a little sombre and the very thought of the impending Monday morning was a bit dampening. But once, we had made our way to Bukit Bintang, the busiest and most happening part of the city, we cheered up considerably. We checked into the hotel which was again, a no-frills budget hotel, run by some migrant Bangladeshis who were extremely pleased to note that I came from Bengal and spoke fluent Bengali. It just took a few pleasant exchanges to ensure that we got our room upgraded at no additional cost and the manager was only too happy to help us for the privilege of speaking his own language for a couple of days.

While my last trip to KL saw me spend most of the time in different malls and the popular tourist attractions (Bird Park, Aquaria, Orchid Gardens), this time we stayed away from these. All I have to show for shopping are my cute 7 RMB (Rs. 140) pink slippers which are extremely comfortable, especially given the state of my fragile feet right now, thanks to all the trekking and walking. Of course, we were quite broke after we splurged close to Rs. 2000 per person to go up the KL Towers for a view from the open deck.

We reached the top around evening and stayed till after 8 p.m. just to see the city skyline in daylight as well as after sunset. The view was undoubtedly breath taking, especially of the lit-up Petronas Towers, but the facilities did not quite justify the obnoxious ticket prices. The open deck had no telescope or audio guide or even chairs/benches. Further, there was construction work going on and it all seemed too primitive for such an important tourist attraction. The Observation deck (the lower deck which is accessible at half the price) was more tourist friendly, but the view itself left much to be desired. However, as we sat in front of the Petronas on our last night, watching the fountain show and just soaking in the atmosphere, we were overcome by a feeling so powerful that for that moment, nothing else mattered in the world.

We traveled all the way north to Batu Caves, hopping across different railway stations. Dedicated to Lord Murugan, it is one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, located amid the imposing limestone caves which admittedly take some climbing, especially in the humid weather conditions. But this was one place infested with a lot of Indians, and for the first time in our trip, we felt distinctly at home, or South India to be precise. We even witnessed a Tamil wedding being conducted in the temple, and didn’t miss the chance to gorge on our favourite South Indian dishes in Restaurant Rani which proudly claimed that it served Jain food as well.

From Batu Caves, we took a long train ride to the southern part to the Shah Alam district, to visit the Shah Alam mosque, the second largest mosque in south-east Asia with a capacity to accommodate 24,000 worshippers at any one time. While it’s quite an impressive structure, with its blue dome (the largest religious dome in the world) and four tall minarets, it pales in front of the actual Blue Mosque in Turkey, the memory of which is still vivid in my mind even after three years. But the funny part of our visit was that they wasted no time in covering us up in burquas and a headgear, even though we were anyway dressed quite conservatively. As non-Muslims, we were only allowed to enter the premises with a guide assigned to us for free. Omar was an elderly man, extremely articulate and well traveled, who was a pilot for 18 years, before hanging up his flying boots. As he told us about the mosque, its history, architecture and customs, he also slipped in stories of his own.

Later, we visited the National Mosque in the city centre, very different from a conventional mosque in style and construction, and noted for its bold and modern approach in reinforced concrete, symbolic of the aspirations of a then newly independent Malaysia. However, it was as conservative as the Shah Alam mosque, given the pace at which we were again covered from head to toe in a flowing gown which was way too big for me. But as far as experiences go, visiting these religious monuments was right up there with my trips to the temples in South India or the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia in Istanbul or the Vatican City in Italy.

On our last night, we decided to finally explore the much-talked about nightlife of KL (which was the highlight of my last trip). While the notorious Beach Club Café was too pricey and too crowded for us, we still managed to find a decent pub close by, where we sat facing the Petronas, nursing our only drink for over an hour.

At the end of the week, I felt like I have really experienced a fair bit of the multi-faceted country and gone beyond the myths associated with it, even though I would like to come back again some day…


Shaivi said...

For a budget trip, that was well managed!

Nefertiti said...

ohh it was an awesome trip all right!

Curlz~ said...

I miss home! I studied in Melaka and i am from Penang :)

Nefertiti said...

wow! lucky girl... next time i should consult you before my trip. for the record, i love Malaysia :)