Although it took 25 hours to reach Malaysia (via one train ride, three taxis, one boat trip and two hours at immigration at the border) from Bangkok, it was totally worth the long journey! I recently calculated that the length of a journey I undertook, in 2012, from my home in Monaghan to Los Angeles was twenty four hours long-a full half hour shorter than my journey from Thailand to Malaysia! Over a month, I would backpack my way through the length and breadth of this country solo, which still surprises me as I had initially planned to only spend three days in the country's capital, Kuala Lumpur!
Chinese New Year coincided with my arrival on the island of Langkawi and the town of Kuah. The festivities led to me paying extortionate prices for food and drink as well as accomodation, due to the fact that scores of Chinese Tourists (who are a lot more affluent than a humble backpacker like myself) descend on the island at this time of year and therefore local businesses increase their prices significantly. Exhausted from my long journey, I spent the majority of my three days on Langkawi recuperating and relaxing. On my final full day, I arose early to explore the area within walking distance of my hostel. Whilst on this aimless jaunt, I stumbled across Legends Park which contained several statues and sculptures depicting heroes and heroines, callous villains and mysterious creatures from the plethora of Malaysian myths and legends. As a graduate of Irish Folklore, I was enthralled by these depictions and wished that Ireland had something similar to illustrate our rich oral tradition. Wouldn't life size figures of the Children of Lir or Fionn Mac Cumhaill awaken the imagination of our children more than another addictive app on the Ipad?
Penang was the next island I chose to visit, a mere three hours from Langkawi by boat. From the moment that I placed my feet on the quay, I adored this island. My hostel called Roommates only contained two dormitories which meant that the maximum number of guests staying in the hostel was sixteen. Each guest had their own "pod" where they could draw their own curtains around their bed providing additional privacy and had their own reading light. Penang is the gastronomic epicentre of Malaysia and whilst there I sampled the three predominant cuisines-Indian, Chinese and Malay. In between meals, I explored the streets of Georgetown which contained more beautiful buildings than I had ever seen in a city of its size anywhere in the world. Highlights of my self guided walking tour included the Town Hall and the Queen Victoria Clock Tower which was erected in 1897 to celebrate the British Monarch's six decades on the throne. Following more nourishing snacks and a siesta, I set off to Kek Lok Si Temple. My jaw dropped to the floor and my eyes widened when I first came across this temple on Valentines Night. The entire temple was draped in more lights than an entire forest of Christmas trees decorated for Christmas. Finally, I had something to thank Chinese New Year for! The beauty of this sight cemented Penang's place as one of my all time favourite travel experiences and destinations.
My next stop and the first on mainland Malaysia was the Cameron Highlands. The high altitude of this area led to lower temperatures, a cool breeze and most importantly a few days reprieve from topping up the suncream three times a day! I decided to take a bus tour of the area's most noteworthy arractions and this cost me less than a tenner! Stops included a butterfly centre, a rose farm, a bee sanctuary, a strawberry factory and a tea plantation. Tasting the sweet, succulent, scrumptious honey straight from the hive was a highlight of this trip. Sampling strawberries brought on a sense of nostalgia for me as picking raspberries was my first ever paid job when I was fourteen! Another day trip took me to the Mossy Forest where our guide showed us the unique flora and fauna of the area including the pitcher plant and primitice ferns as well as slithering slimy snakes and a bounty of buzzing birds who collectively created a cocophany of harmonious sounds.
Melaka a coastal town two hours south of Kuala Lumpur was my home for the next five nights. Whilst there I visited various museums which illustrated the cosmpolitan nature of the town. At the Baba Nonya Heritage Museum, I learned about the Perenakan Chinese who emigrated to Malaysia from China in the eighteenth century. It was interesting to discover the two way influence of these people on Malaysia and vice versa. At Jonker Night Market, this cosmopolitan influence was palpable as the area was alive with tourists and locals alike. It provided me with the opportunity to sample exotic fruit juices and minute morsels of Chinese food called Dim Sum. Relaxing in a cafe eating freshly prepared spicy samosas and slurping a strawberry milkshake for brunch the following morning whilst watching the world go by on the river beside me was another highlight of my time in Melaka.
Kuala Lumpur was the next stop of my self-created itinerary and this capital city is full of skyscrapers which tower above the streets which are spotlessly clean. Amongst the better known buildings are the Petronas Towers which are 1,483 feet tall! After visiting these structures I seized the oppertunity to visit my first mosque and was pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of the interior of the building compared to the elaborate and equisite exterior. However the adjecent Islamic Art Museum's plethora of artefacts illustrated the beauty of the Muslim people's lives. Scale models of the Taj Mahal, colourful caligraphy in Korans and hand woven clothes brought the galleries to life. My greatest experience in Kuala Lumpur may have been in a Irish Bar where I ordered chicken pie and mashed potatoes. When I was asked if I required anything else I responded with three words I had longed to say for five months in South East Asia "More mashed potatoes!" My face lit up like a Christmas Tree when my dinner arrived!
A flight brought me to one of the best known areas of the country, Borneo, an area of Malaysia where one can either get acuainted with or reconnect with nature. Accompanied by a guide named Harry (which coincidentally is the name of my friend, mentor, and supporter as well as the Development Officer of Dyspraxia Ireland!) I set out to ascend Mount Kinabalu which is 4,095 metres or 13,435 feet tall! I am delighted to state that through trials, tears, tantrums, and tribulations, I reached the top of this majestic mountain! The sense of euphoria I felt at that moment at 05:35 A.M. was enormous and was without question one of my greatest acheivements in my life to date. Witnessing the sunrise and unfold before my eyes at the top of that mountain left me speechless! Including regular reststops, it took ten hours to descend the mighty Mount Kinabalu and nearing the finish line at base camp, my right knee was in agony. However, I persevered and just about managed to catch my breath and the last bus to Sandakan.
Sandakan is near the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and every morning at 10 AM these creatures (whose name translates into English as "Man of the forest" and are 97% like humans) are fed on a high platform with hundreds of tourists looking at them from a safe distance away. At 09:59 A.M. this blogger had his camera at the ready awaiting the arrival of famished orangutans. Seconds seemed liked minutes, minutes appeared to be like hours until one oranguatan appeared at 10:01 A.M. Soon another joined him. I felt slightly embarassed as these human like creatures were more agile at ascending and descending that platform than I had been on Mount Kinabalu days earlier! Other areas of the sanctuary which visitors could explore included the playgrounds where orangutans could practice their climbing and build up their strength in the hope that they would be released back into the wild.
Unlike my orangutan friends, I had to depart the wilderness of Borneo and en-route to the airport I began reading Room by Emma Donoghue. It tells the story of a woman who is abducted and held prisoner in a shed where she gave birth to a child fathered by her captor. Unlike the minority of orangutans and these fictious characters based loosely on real events, I had the freedom to go anywhere and do anything I liked. It was upon realising the fortunate position, I was in that I boarded my flight to Singapore where another country was waiting for me to explore it and my friends, you will have to wait for another day to read about that adventure....
by Lee Maguire
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