29 November-8 December, 2000
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ROUTE and COUNTRY INFO for Malaysia
Malaysia's Hip, Modern CapitalNov 29-Dec 3
After an overnight flight from Mauritius, we arrived at Kuala Lumpur's new international airport on an overcast, humid Malaysian morning. Kuala Lumpur ("KL" as it's known by the locals), like Hong Kong, Singapore, and most other Southeast Asian capitals, sports a shiny and modern airport. KL International is a model of efficiency -- we were whisked through passport control, baggage claim, and customs, and before we knew it, we were in a taxi headed for downtown. The only problem with KL's airport is that it's one hour outside of the city -- a bit of a long haul after an all-night flight and a time change of several hours. As we cruised down the superhighway which connects the airport to the city center gazing at the beautiful emerald forest which enveloped the roadway, we realized that at last we had returned to Southeast Asia -- our favorite corner of the world!
Malaysia is a remarkably easy country to travel in. We like to describe it as "Asia for beginners" -- it's clean, English speaking, modern, comfortable to travel through. Yet, it still has a lot of what makes Southeast Asia special -- a vibrant culture, friendly people, excellent food, and beautiful tropical landscapes. As our taxi drove into downtown KL, we couldn't help but think of how surprised many first-time visitors to Southeast Asia who stop first in KL must be. KL's skyline is, like Hong Kong's, high-tech and full of modern, bold architectural statements. In fact, the world's tallest buildings are in Kuala Lumpur. The twin Petronas Towers dominate the downtown skyline, soaring some 1483 feet above the crowds below. These buildings may look familiar those of you who have seen the movie Entrapment starring Sean Connery. Finished in 1997, the stainless steel and glass towers really are a daring addition to the world of modern architecture. We had a nice view of them from our downtown hotel room.
A view of the Petronas Towers
Aside from an excellent museum and an interesting Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur doesn't have a lot of sightseeing attractions. But what it lacks in sights, it more than makes up for in great shopping opportunities. Mega-modern shopping malls and upscale small shops dominate downtown KL, sporting everything imaginable, from low-end tourist kitsch to ultra-chic brands like Armani, Cartier, and Versace. If only we were on our regular vacation budget, we'd have filled our luggage with good stuff in KL!
We ended up liking KL so much that we ended up staying twice as long as we had originally planned. We posted up for four nights in downtown, enjoying the many great restaurants and night market food stalls as well as the shopping. But we needed to move on at some point. So, we went to KL's unbelievably busy central bus terminal, which still has a lot of Asia going on in it, despite the fact that the terminal is right in the middle of one of the continent's most modern cities. From there we took a two-hour bus ride to...
Food Vendors at KL's busy main bus terminal
One of History's Great Cities of TradeDec 3-5
One of Malacca's many colorful Chinese buildings
The city of Malacca lies at a very strategic position on Malaysia's west coast, right on the strait which separates Malaysia from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The Straits of Malacca were named after the town. Malacca is Southeast Asia's most historic town. From here, first the Portuguese and later the Dutch and British controlled the lucrative Far East spice and silk trades. While the Europeans were busy trying to supress the local Malays in the name of the advancement of European trade, the Chinese merchants also moved in and opened up shop. This resulting mix of cultures created the Malacca of today -- an old town full of old buildings, especially Chinese shophouses and Dutch churches and town halls. Most of the really old buildings have long since gone, but there are still a number of Dutch buildings left over from the 17th century, as well as 18th and 19th century Chinese mansions.
The old Dutch fountain in old town Malacca
Malacca was nice for a couple of days, but we found the heat and humidity to be overbearing. We hadn't yet adjusted to the region's climate yet. So it was with great excitement that we boarded a bus to the...
Cool Mountain Retreat, Ancient RainforestsDec 5-7
Ah, the Cameron Highlands. Situated a couple of hours north of Kuala Lumpur, in the high mountains inland from the west coast, the Highlands are a real treat after traveling through the steamy coastal areas. We came here, as the British did over a century ago, to escape the heat and humidity of the lowland regions. Developed as one of Britain's famous colonial "hill stations" when the Malay Peninsula was yet another piece of the Queen's vast 19th century empire, the Cameron Highlands area remains today a great place to get away from it all.
Misty, forested mountains cloaked in endless shades of green vegetation soar several thousand feet high here. Wild orchids and other exotic flowers grow right out of the roadsides. Here, in the much cooler highland climate, farms of temperate fruits and vegetables flourish. Cauliflower, brocolli, strawberries -- all the things one doesn't normally associate with tropical climates thrive at these altitudes. There are great hiking opportunities throughout the region. Rumor even has it that there are still tigers in the Cameron Highlands, although they aren't seen very often any more (hunted nearly to the brink of extinction long ago).
" If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home. "
- James Michener
We took a nice hike around Mt. Brinchang, one of the area's bigger peaks, as well as a tour of one of the Cameron Highlands' most famous places -- the Boh Tea Plantation. It turns out that the tea plant grows best at these altitudes. In fact, Cameron Highlands tea is some of the best in the world, surpassed only by the Ceylon variety grown in northern India. Too bad it's not available outside of Malaysia (the Malaysians are big tea drinkers; they drink up the entire supply themselves). The rolling green, manicured hills of the Boh plantation are beautiful -- picture postcard material.
Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands
We could have easily spent a few more days in the Cameron Highlands area. There's a lot to do there. But, the steamy lowlands were once again calling. This time, it was the historic island of Penang, a bit to the north, toward the Thai border.
Of Booming Trade and Elegant Chinese MansionsDec 7-9
Penang is Malaysia's biggest tourist attraction. An island just off the northwestern coast of the country, Penang, like Malacca, has a history firmly rooted in trade. Like Malacca, the British and the Chinese set up shop here. Unlike Malacca, however, Penang's heyday didn't last long -- Singapore replaced it as the British Empire's favored hub of Asian commerce in the 1800s. But its capital, Georgetown, is still a busy place, and is full of stately old buildings. The best are the Chinese mansions which were built in a Sino-European style, incorporating both Chinese and European architectural elements. Maybe the best example of these Chinese mansions is that of the merchant tycoon Cheong Fat Tze. Mr. Cheong was something of a Chinese Rockefeller in his day, and he built quite a home for himself in Penang. The mansion had gone to seed in the last half of the 20th century, but has been recently restored to its former grandeur. Its exterior is now the same beautiful indigo blue it was when its builder was still alive, and the interior is full of nice period antiques. Parts of the movie Indochine were filmed inside the mansion. It's quite a place!
After running around sightseeing in Malaysia for almost two weeks, we were ready to take it down a few notches. From Penang, we caught a quick 45 minute flight to the Thai island of Phuket.
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