My itinerary for this trip was very loose. I had planned on Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, but depending on how everything shook out, Malaysia and or Singapore were possibilities as well. After speaking with people I met traveling this trip and a friend from a past trip, I decided to cut my Indonesian adventure short, extend my time in the Philippines, and high tail it over to Malaysia for a quick little jaunt in-between.
I landed in Kuala Lumpur and all I got to say is, it’s a big city. The airport is 45 kilometers from the city and because it was a Friday night at rush hour, it took almost 2 hours to get downtown (luckily the SE Asian equivalent to Uber is extremely cheap). I walked around the city the next day and saw a bunch of tall buildings and one cool little temple in a cave at the top of some steep, colorful, stairways. I asked my taxi driver what else there was to do in KL and all he could think of was shopping. The one rule of traveling regarding most big cities is, get out quickly, so the next day I did.
At home, unless there are no other alternatives, I would not consider taking a Greyhound bus anywhere. However, for some reason when I travel internationally, I love traveling by bus. I put my headphones in, turn my music up, and just stare out the window watching the country go by. I did this from Kuala Lumpur 5 hours north to a town called George Town on the Island of Penang. In this case I saw miles of forests with a variety of plants and trees, perpetually green, and palm trees with cascading branches long and wide that encircle it like an umbrella.
George Town was the first British settlement in SE Asia and you can still see the influence in the architecture. The historic area of the city is considered a UNESCO Heritage site and is known now for being an eclectic melting pot of Asia, the art and murals that dot the city, and it’s incredible food. My kind of food. Street food.
Food cart vendors group together all around the city along streets or just off them in food courts. Because so many people from different Asian cultures reside in George Town, the food stands are a smorgasbord of Asian cuisine. Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian are by far the most represented but there is also Thai, Vietnamese and even Kebabs.
And these carts aren’t because of the tourists. Street food is standard fare in George Town as carts will have lines of locals, and riders on scooters will pull up for take away. For those dining out, plastic chairs and tables accompany the stands and most of the locals still eat in their traditional way, without utensils, eating with just their right hand (this was the same throughout Malaysia}.
During my time in George Town I had a Vietnamese pork noodle dish, the greatest chicken samosa ever, all sorts of Naan, a Malaysian chicken and rice dish with Indian sauces and spices called Nasi Kandar, Tandoori chicken, and a seafood noodle dish called Char Koay Teow. All of this cost me just $12 US and perhaps a slight gastro-intestinal discomfort (I blame the mango lasse with ice that I knew I shouldn’t drink).
From Penang I jumped on another bus and headed for the hills. My destination was Tanah Ratah, a town in the Cameron Highlands that definitely had the feeling of a mountain resort town. Except, there were no ski areas. Instead, littered within the hills and forests were tea plantations, fruit (mostly strawberry) and vegetable farms. Although most of the hiking trails around town were shut down due to the monsoonal rains, a couple were still open so it was time to again bust out the hiking shoes.
One of the hikes required a guide so I booked that through my hostel for my first day. The “mossy forest” was certainly that, but thick mud on the steep and rooty trail stood out more than the moss. The forest itself was similar to what I had been seeing out the window during my bus rides but had a slightly more tropical feel, even though we were at a higher elevation. The hike was short and not that great but I met a German couple and an Australian guy that also wanted to do more hiking, so we decided to do a hike on our own, on another open trail the next day.
The four of us set out from our hostel the next morning with sunny skies, wondering what the day would bring. The night before the monsoonal rains were in full effect and heavy rain fell for hours so another muddy slog would not have been surprising. Instead, we found relatively decent trails and even more Germans.
The hike overall was about 9 kilometers and started with a steep climb through the forest, but amazingly with very little mud and the tree roots created a stairs-like feel in many places. At the peak of the climb there were two groups of Germans already there taking a break. As everyone started talking, one guy asked me if I was scuba diving in Gili Air. I then immediately recognized him from one of my dive boats we were on together in Indonesia. There we decided eleven would be more fun than four, five or two, so we all walked the rest of the trail as one group.
The downhill from the peak was part jungle, part sunshine and although still not thick with mud, there was enough to make it slick. We all ended up with dirty butts after slipping and sliding at one point or another. Ropes in some of the steeper sections certainly prevented even more carnage.
Eventually the ground flattened out and we were strolling through vegetable farms on our way to our goal, a cafe at one of the tea plantations. On the edge of the tea plantation was a small village where all the kids were excited to see westerners. Some would come outside to greet us while others just yelled hi and hello from inside their one or two room homes. A couple kids no more than seven were excited to show us the way through the village, in between houses, to the trail at the edge of the tea bushes.
We spent the final kilometer walking through tea bushes and a small trail past the tea harvesters, and eventually reached the cafe about 4 hours after we started. There we all sat together enjoying our Teh Tarik (tea with condensed milk) and after about 15 minutes, watched as the skies opened once again and the monsoonal downpour returned.
In Asia, especially Malaysia, there is a notorious fruit called Durian. The reason that it is infamous is because of the smell. When cut open it just stinks and the smell gets absorbed into everything like a skunk’s scent. In Malaysia the fruit is not allowed in most buildings (several hostels had fines for anyone bringing it into the building) and the Malaysian version of Uber does not allow them in their cars. Throughout my travels I never tried it but swore I would not leave Malaysia without trying it, so after our hike I did. People usually love it or hate it. Me…I definitely didn’t like it, I think it tasted like a bad fish cake (but still better than cilantro).
After dinner and drinks with a few other new friends from the hostel, I took my final bus ride in Malaysia (with 5 of the Germans), heading back to Kuala Lumpur the next morning (where I am now). Tomorrow, Christmas day I fly to Manila and my Philippine adventure begins.
Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas.
Life is good.