Malaysia Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Malaysia, March 2014.

Boarding a long distance bus from Singapore where Barbara finished her business part of this trip, we started our Malaysian vacation on Friday afternoon. The ride was estimated 3.5 hours long. However, with several tour buses full of mainland China tourist groups arriving right after us to the checkpoint between Singapore and Malaysia, the border crossing became quite an ordeal as folks behind us kept cutting in line and we fell further and further behind under the 90 degree sun and 100% humidity. The trip had stretched out to more than 5 hours by the time we finally pulled into the station. We stayed at a guesthouse on the edge of Chinatown, the focus point of Melaka's culture heritage. The entire Chinatown area centered on Jonker Street (photo, Jonker St) is declared a UNESCO Heritage Site, with load of investments pouring in afterwards. We were lucky to catch the Jonker Street Night Market which is a weekends-only affair, when the entire street is closed to vehicle traffic. Vendors selling food, drinks, souvenirs, household items and clothes are cheek to jowl. We had street food with wonderful names like Durian Bomb, Nonya dumplings, etc. Toward the end of the market, there is a huge stage where a neighborhood karaoke show goes on, speakers blasting the singers' best efforts loud and clear, though not necessarily prettily. We ended up in a Nonya restaurant and had typical Nonya Laksa noodles and stir fries. Then we stopped at another shop for a delicious bowl of local delicacy of shaved ice with toppings like mango, or red beans, condensed milk and tapioca noodles.

Saturday morning we were up and back to Jonker Street. As if by magic, all the vendors had vanished and the street was quiet and clean in the early morning hour. We stopped at several family heritage houses (photo, Chinatown house) and temples (photo, Chinese temple), enjoying calligraphy on the walls of neighborhood houses, before coming to the biggest Chinese Dim Sum place in Chinatown. The food was super fresh as every little plate of shrimp dumplings, spareribs, turnip cakes or sticky chicken rice disappeared into the scatted tables and eaten by anxious diners like water drops into sand, as soon as they came out of the steamers. What a treat! Melaka's oldest Mosque happened to be just across the street, and allows tourists to visit. Barbara put on the required head covering (photo, at the mosque) and went in to see the well kept prayer hall, from the women's side. Next to the Mosque, is the Hindu Temple, then another Chinese temple. A true kaleidoscope of multiculture, religion and people, Melaka is such a tolerant city. We walked toward the river and onto the boardwalk (photo, on the river) along the river (photo, from the bridge), enjoying the renovated riverfront full of small shops with colorful facades (photo, shops). The "ice coffee" sign outside a riverside hotel caught our eye, so we decided to take a nice break in their air-conditioned restaurant looking on the river. The staff was very nice and offered us free cookies with our coffee and we saw several river cruise boats passing by. Fueled with coffee, we continued our walk to the colonial part of the town and stopped at a tourist office to pick up maps and get directions for ordering bus tickets. We continued to St Francis Church (photo, church), climbed up the hill to see the ruin of the St Paul Church, and continued down to Porto De Santiago. The afternoon rain kicked in and we ran into the Discovery Cafe to buy bus tickets to Penang. Wendy, the young woman working there is a no-nonsense mother of three. She really knows her stuff and is always one step ahead of you. We were very impressed and booked the whole package including a taxi ride to the bus station. Since the rain would not stop, we decided it was the right moment to take our river cruise under the cover. The boat goes north through colorful neighborhoods, passing several bridges and ends at Kempung, a traditional fishing village nestled in the heart of the city. There are unique long houses with very distinguished roofs. The last stop was dinner at the famous Nancy's Kitchen, a typical Nonya style restaurant. We enjoyed the signature dish of Candlenut chicken, and a jackfruit curry. With a couple of their well loved Zongzi (pyramid-shaped stuffed rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves) as takeout for our bus ride snack, we call it a successful tour day.

Sunday we got up leisurely to have some breakfast before the driver came to take us to the bus station. The bus ride north was enjoyable and uneventful. We arrived on the island of Penang right around 6pm and took a taxi to our hotel in George Town's Chinatown. We were lucky to book into Lonely Planet's top pick, the New Asia Heritage Hotel, a true gem in Chinatown. There are hawker stalls right downstairs from the hotel all doing bustling business all night long. We watched from our balcony upstairs (photo, balcony view), and immediately came down to join the fun. We ordered four different dishes each from different vendors and were able to sit in one place waiting for all the food to come. The policy is cash upon delivery of the food. Easy and efficient, the food stalls are running like a well oiled machine, for god knows how many years, everyone there is an expert of what he/she does. It was such a treat to watch.

Monday morning in Penang was spent in the Tho Yuan Dim Sum House. After a good night sleep, everything in this long standing family place tastes fresh with intensified flavor -- chicken, pork, shrimp, ribs, and especially the dried shrimp in turnip cake. We attribute these to the local organic farming. We did our "five cultures with two feet" walking tour, starting from Yap KongSi, which means Yap family association temple. Yap is the Hokken spelling of Barbara's maiden family name, so she naturally went in to show respect to her ancestors (photo, ancestors). The area is littered with different Chinese family association temples and schools. A combination compound they always build together. Among them, the most impressive ones are Khoo Family, and Cheah Family which is our favorite as it was such an oasis to step in from the chaos of Little India we have gone through. We passed by ChinaHouse, a legendary fixture in Chinatown and run into the musician Kien Lim who was setting up the stage in the Canteen Bar for the evening performance. Richard had a nice coconut chocolate shake, two of his favorites combined. The street was infiltrated with mouthwatering food smells as chefs at the stalls are frying away with garlic and spices. We had to stop for a Teo Chew wide rice noodle snack and fresh Nutmeg juice, a tasty Penang specialty, before walking along the street with walls festooned by art (photo, street art). We strolled around Padang Fort, in the northeast tip of the island. Sitting together with a few old Chinese men chatting away among themselves, we watched massive oil tankers going by. Next stop was the Penang Museum where we saw some interesting exhibitions (photo, cultural history), but not without another cold sweet soybean drink from an Indian street vendor. We also stopped by Dr. Sun Yat Sen's Penang base, trying to locate the Islamic Art Museum, which turned out to be totally closed for renovation, alas, as was another Hindu Temple we attempted to visit. We were lucky to be allowed to go inside Masjid Kapitan Keling Mosque and saw the lovely architecture. Barbara's fascination with Baba-Nonya culture was crushed when we tried to enter the Pinang Peranaken Mansion as it was blocked off to tourists while in use as a movie set with famous local actors getting run over by a 1960 Bentley. We were back to hotel tired in the late afternoon. We rested a bit and heard the afternoon rain come pouring down. We met up with our friend Josephine for dinner at Teksen, a typical Teo Chew restaurant with outstanding dishes that are so flavorful and tender. We topped off the night by splurging at The Canteen with fancy drinks and music by our new friend Mr. Lim.

It rained hard next morning which was unusual, but stopped by mid morning. We bought Richard a brand new pair of sandals at Parkson in the giant Komtar mall, which also happens to be the bus depot for our next destination, Botanical Garden. We were the only passengers in the chilly air-conditioning bus for most of the route. We stopped at the local cafe and watched naan bread made in front of us. We enjoyed the naan with lentil and sambal dipping and some coffee, while a family of black monkeys jumped around in the bamboo nearby. We fueled ourselves to do the garden tour. The garden is free to visit, but you can pay 10 RM to get on a golfcart to have a private tour. We jumped at the offer, had a nice ride with our driver passing the Japanese garden and waterfalls, a lot of different tree and plant species, and encountered monkeys, fish and turtles (photo, turtles). Another otherwise empty bus took us back to town during the hottest part of the day and we escaped back to our cool room for a nap, before going out again to the Kek Lok Temple up Penang Hill in late afternoon. The temple, the biggest in Penang, is indeed very impressive, with a 100 feet tall statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy (photo, Kek Lok), sitting on top of the hill, surrounded by elaborate prayer halls, bell and drum towers. On the way back, we had Teo Chew dim sum.

Richard got up early Wednesday for a last visit to our favorite dim sum place in the neighborhood to be pampered by the owner with another delicious breakfast while Barbara was still snoring away. He brought back humbaos for the road, as we are riding bus to Kota Bharu, a Malay culture center on the northeast corner of the peninsula. We arrived before dinner time and checked into our hotel on the main drag. Across the street is a food hawker center open 24 hours a day with two giant TV screens showing either Hollywood movies or Malaysian National Football. We got some tasty dinner there before going out to the city's culture center to watch a Wayang-Kulit performance. Google maps messed us up, so we ended up way past our target and somewhat lost. We went into a local bakery to ask directions. The staff, though very willing, could not help us due to the language barrier. A Chinese family who happened to be shopping at the bakery, understood our question and volunteered to drive us there in their car. The random kindness of the strangers in a far away country moved us deeply. We got to the culture center still ahead of time. Musicians, the dalang (puppet master and soul of the performance) and audience arrived slowly but surely. The serunai oboe playing high and powerful notes started the prelude of the show. The classic Ramayana story was playing through the vivid puppets, man, woman, old man and youth all voiced all by the Dalang. He does it all and makes it sound like a half dozen people speaking behind the screen. It was a very fun event that we are lucky to witness.

Thursday morning is our only chance to visit museums as they are all closed on Friday, the Islamic sabbath. We woke up at a reasonable hour and immediately walked through the Central Market on our way to the museum district and river. We saw the Petra Gate with its symbolic Koran raised up high on its stand (photo, Petra Gate) and visited compact Istana Jahar (Royal Ceremonies Museum) and Istana Batu (Royal Museum). Both showed great detail of Kelantan life styles in the royal families. We went for a late breakfast at Casa Blanca, sharing a table with a local couple. The husband is a custom officer at Malay-Thai border just north of Kota Bharu. He is from the village of Marek, where a renowned Dalang conducted workshops on making puppets and training puppeteers and musicians. We took note and decided to pursue it. Close to noon, and getting warmer, Richard climbed the clock tower to take pictures of downtown while Barbara sat cooling off with her book in the shade. In order to visit State Mosque, we had to go to the official Islamic information center to get permission. Accompanied by a young Thai from the center, we were able to visit the mosque and were surprised by a big drum inside (photo, prayer drum), which was used to call for prayer in old days, as the residents lived far away from mosque and each other. We went back to the Islamic Information Center for a cup of coffee. The "boss boss" Muhammed came to share with us his life story of himself, a Ghana man originally of Christian faith who converted to Islam. We walked through Kampung Kraftangan (handicraft center) but had to miss their fabulous lunch buffet as we were still full from breakfast. On the way back we saw some even bigger drums (photo, boom boom) don't know what they are for. Our afternoon was devoted to a tour of mostly Buddhist temples, with our trusted taxi driver ChengFa and another fellow traveler from Sweden. On the way, we stopped at the train station to get overnight tickets on the "jungle train" to Kuala Lumpur, but they were sold out for the next three days! Too bad. Our next stop was at Kampung Marek, home to Dalang Mr Daeng, who runs workshops for puppet making (photo, shadow puppets), music training and performance promotions. He also has a cute guesthouse for people to stay and learn. We tried our hands on pounding holes in the puppets, which are mostly made of plastics nowadays, though some are still crafted from cowhide. We bought his music and performances on CD and DVD. Then we drove around Tumpat visiting mostly Thai style temples: Wat Phothivihan with 40-m reclining Buddha, Kok Seraya, Wat Matchinmaram with giant seated Buddha (photo, Buddha), Sala Pattivetaya, and Wat Maisuwankiri with its temple built on top of a massive dragon boat, complete with surrounding canal. We also stopped by a local modest Hindu temple. Then back to town where we bought overnight bus tickets. Dinner was at the night market: Barbara had the local blue rice (colored by a kind of flower petals and cooked with coconut milk) with seafood, Richard two wonderful crepes, one of a chicken curry and omelet and another of banana. We washed them down with cold coconut juice and then checked out local sweets for dessert.

Next morning Richard got up early to go to the weekly bird singing contest. The Pedang was not quite empty when he arrived, just a couple of men and six or seven bird cages. People arrived steadily with their ornate cages with bright covers until the start time of 8:30 when hundreds of them lined up. The field is divided in two parts, south where about a hundred birds in training are lined up in their cages, north side similar but each of the roughly 130 cages has silk drapes so birds are in the dark. The contest begins, all cages are uncovered and three judges take the field with clipboards ready. Each judge stands before a block of four birds. When the whistle blows, they stand still listening for one minute. The whistle blows again and they have 10 to 15 seconds to write down their judgments and move into position for the next block of birds. This procedure is repeated until all birds have been heard and judged by all the five judges (photo, judging). Finally, all birds except 20 finalists are removed from the field, when Barbara came to join the fun after having a lazy sleep-in. She was one of only two women in the entire field, the other being a tourist as well. There were no local women participating in this activity. Another round of judging takes place, final scores are tallied, and the winners collect their cash prizes (photo, competitor). We went around the corner for a late breakfast at an apparently nameless nearby dim sum stand. As we ate, noticed a few winning bird owners also stop in to eat before heading home. We spent our last afternoon in Kota Bharu doing pretty much nothing, as all government agencies, museums and banks are closed on Friday, so we went grocery shopping and packed for our nighttime bus ride, had another dinner at the night market (liked it so well the night before). ChangFa drove us to the bus station, charging us half the price of the ride we had coming in, all exchanged hugs and promises to meet again next year.

We arrived Kuala Lumpur at 5:00 a.m. and had to pay 20RM for a taxi, even though our hotel is less than a mile from the bus station. It turned out the hotel had transferred our reservation to their slightly more upscale "luxury" facility, because the one we booked has every room occupied. Free upgrade! We washed up and took a nap, even though Barbara slept some solid hours on the bus. We walked down through the northern fringes of Chinatown, found the Central Market (photo, market) to have some food and get our hop-on/hop-off bus tickets. The first shop we saw inside the door was a music store, all western instruments and accessories. We asked about where to find a traditional oboe-like serunai that is the main voice in the wayang kulit performances. The counter girl suggested we look at the Malaysian craft and antique shops upstairs. Sure enough, we found a couple of playable serunais. They were asking 550RM for a rather cheaply made one. We didn't ask the price for the nicer "antique" ones. There is a very nice food court on the top floor of the central market with a variety of good food, where we had our brunch. Then we made our way to the hop-on/hop-off KL tourist bus stop and bought our 24-hour tickets. The buses come regularly every 20 or 30 minutes. The first one along had plenty of room for us to get good seats on the open-air upper deck. We rode along just checking out the city from our perch, enjoying views of sights like the Royal Palace (photo, palace gate) and the old Railway Station (photo, station), til we arrived to the National Museum. We got off the bus and looked through a special exhibit on Dongson culture, plus the four major permanent collection sections: pre-history, colonial Malaysia, post WWII, and contemporary Malaysia. We hopped back on the bus, and off again for a brief stroll in the Lake Park neighborhood. As the afternoon wore on, the sky tended more and more grey, then started with intermittent rain, and developed into some pretty hard tropical rain at some points. We made our last hop-off of the evening in the middle of Chinatown, had our dinner in a food court in the wet market (fried fat rice noodles and seafood clay pot). We looked through the night market along Petaling, jammed with knockoff brand-name handbags and scarves, sunglasses, etc. Richard bought a pair of RayBan knockoffs. We went over to the outdoor stage at the far end of the Central Market in search of an advertised Indian dance and music show. It turned out the weather had driven the show inside the Market. We bought some durian chocolate from a local specialty shop on the way back to hotel. Yum!

We rose fairly early next morning to get the LRT in time for our 9:00am reservation to visit Petronas twin towers (photo, tower exterior). Happily, it was a beautiful bright and sunny morning. The 9:00 group is the first 20 people of the day to be allowed up to the towers. They bring another 20 people every 15 minutes throughout the day, allowing about an hour to each group. Members of each group are given a particular colored badge so the staff can identify us as tagged pigeons to chauffer us to the same elevator as a group. The view from the sky bridge at the 40th floor (plus or minus) is impressive enough (photo, view). From the top, at floor 86, it is quite other-worldly (photo, view from the top). There are very high-magnification binoculars at the top, through which you can make out school kids playing kick-ball in a yard that must be 50 miles away. All together a fantastic time, well worth the 80 RM per person price. The one really silly part was the video-enhanced elevator ride: four walls of the elevator are video screens that show a simulated view on the way up and down. Back on our hop-on bus, off we went to Bird Park -- advertised as the world's biggest outdoor aviary. We fell in love with the place, and opted to stay a bit longer than we had planned to explore thoroughly and check out all the birds (photo). A quick hop-on ride, just one stop and (the last on our 24-hour clock) took us to the national mosque, which is beautiful, quite modern and has a unique dome design. Barbara had to wear a full covering to enter the grounds (photo, tourist in jelaba). The Museum of Islamic Art is just a short walk back up the hill, and that's where we spent the rest of the afternoon. This museum (photo, museum rooftop) is truly a treasure, with an unparalleled collection of Islamic calligraphic works, textile arts, ceramics (photo, tilework), jewels, weapons, armor, etc. All are displayed with great care, well lit, and well signed. Barbara bought some cards in the gift shop. We decided we should be able to figure out how to walk back to Chinatown from the national mosque, and succeeded. The late afternoon clouded up and started to drizzle a bit but nothing bad. We enjoyed dinner in the food court of the Central Market again, local aged chicken with rice and hot sauce for Richard plus a big bowl of rice noodle soup with a mixture of meat, fish balls, tofu and vegies. And a couple of dim sum salted egg delicacy. It is a good dinner to end our Malaysia adventure, before we are back to Singapore next morning for the flight home.