My first destination in Malaysia was Penang, the island is famous for its culture, its food and of course the murals that adorn the walls of the old city. It was already 10pm when I exited the ferry from the mainland, I didn’t have accommodation booked and had no idea where to start. The first thing that became apparent was the night culture of the city, restaurants, cafes and bars were all full and people still filled the streets. Penang is a popular tourist destination and there was no shortage of hotels and hostels to choose from, my mission however was to find one with secure parking, Bingo! I stumbled across an old mansion come hostel with secure gated parking, perfect, this was my home for the next 3 days while I explored the island. I’d seen photos of the murals throughout the city and I was quite keen walk through the streets and see them for myself. Exploring by foot or bicycle is definitely the best way to take in the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the old city. I was armed with my trusty tourist map, which had the best known murals highlighted and I strolled my way through the streets with camera in hand. My route through the city took me through many interesting streets and through the floating markets, at times some of the murals were quite difficult to find and I’d team up with fellow tourists to search for the ones that were slightly hidden, after celebrating the discovery of a new mural we’d swap cameras and make use of the opportunity of a photographer. The streets of Penang are filled with restaurants serving delicious local dishes that the island is famous for and you are never far from a café, many of which have a unique theme, I was very glad that a quality coffee could usually be found around almost every corner.
After a day of sightseeing in the old city I spent the next day exploring the island on bike, the east side of the island was quite developed but as I followed the road west the buildings gave way to beaches, forest and villages. Penang really was a beautiful island to ride through and although I usually preferred the beaches and forests to the cities I was drawn to the atmosphere of old Penang town and was keen to spend another day walking its streets. I had missed a few murals on my last expedition through the city and was keen to head back for some photos, I bumped into a fellow traveller who looked a little lost looking for a mural I had already found and I offered to show the way, next thing I knew I was acting as a tour guide pointing out all the paintings I had found the other day, a new profession perhaps.
While I was in Penang I handed in the documentation for my bike and had a 2 week wait for the extension of my carnet to be finalised, this was perfect as it gave me some time to explore the country. I headed south along the West coast of Malaysia passing through many villages on the way, Malaysia has an excellent freeway system that runs the length of the country and although it is convenient it was nice to be on the backroads worrying less about making good time and concentrating more on enjoying the scenery. I by passed Kuala Lumpur and followed the coastal road to the seaside town of Port Dickson, a popular getaway for locals, I managed to find a small and very quiet beachside restaurant just outside of town and enjoyed a Nasi Lemak overlooking the water.
Malacca is a city that is full of history, its location on the narrowest part of the Malacca straights meant it was a strategically important city for Asian trade. The Sultanate of Malacca was established in the early 15th century, the city grew rapidly by encouraging traders to use it as a key port for Asian trade. Malacca was Subsequently conquered by many different nations, each of which leaving their mark on the city and providing it with a multi-cultural history. The Portuguese arrived in 1511 sparring the local Hindu and Chinese population but massacring the Muslim inhabitants, the Dutch followed in 1641 however although they controlled the city they decided to put more focus on the port of Batavia in Java as their base. The British gained control in 1879 and the Japanese occupied the city during the 2nd world war, after which Melacca returned to Malaysia. The old city is a UNESCO world heritage site and much like Penang it is best enjoyed by taking the time to stroll through. The old city of Malacca was another place I had an instant liking for, I spent most of my 3 days there walking through the streets, talking to locals, visiting the shops and of course sampling the local food. Malacca has a large Indian population and my visit was during Diwali, the festival of lights, I glad to be caught up in the local festivities, which included traditional dance and music.
My journey through Malaysia continued to take me south to the city of Jahor Bahru, an industrial city that is perhaps not the nicest to visit, however it is the gateway to Singapore and I was hoping to visit the Island city on motorcycle. I had visited Singapore several times previously however never with my own vehicle. I had some friends to visit and was hoping to explore a little more of the island with the use of the bike. The Idea was great in theory but in reality the island city isn’t the most motorcycle friendly place and although I did manage to head to the outskirts of the island I spent much of my riding time worrying about entering one of the tollways that surrounded the city. The bike spent more time parked in my friends garage than I hoped but I still had a great time, it seems Singapore grows on you the more you visit it, it can be an oasis of organisation from the sometimes chaotic pace of life of its surrounding South East Asian neighbours.
The East coast of Malaysia is much less visited by western tourists than the west, from my experience it was definitely more conservative but the people were friendly and it was home to some spectacular beaches. Having travelled to so many tourist areas throughout Malaysia I had fallen into the trap of expecting to be able to communicate in English everywhere I went but here I was once again struggling to order some lunch, it was actually a nice change and as always I managed to communicate, this time using some very broken Bahasa Malaysia. I followed the East coast up to Terengganu where I turned inland to visit the Taman Negara national park.
Taman Negara was an opportunity to set my tent up and spend some time camping and hiking in the jungle, the park is still home to critically endangered Sumatran Tigers and Rhinos however they are very scarce and it is extremely rare to see one of these majestic creatures in the wild. For all its beauty Taman Negara was also quite a sad place to visit, it show cased the spectacular natural beauty that once covered Malaysia most of which has now been destroyed to make may for palm plantations. As I travelled overland through the country side I couldn’t help but be saddened by the amount of jungle that had to be cleared to make may for the palm oil industry, every now and again I would see a Karst rock formation covered in thick jungle vegetation rising above the palm groves almost as a monument to the natural beauty that had once been. It seems even Taman Negara itself isn’t completely immune, logging is taking place right up to its borders and I wonder how long it will be before the borders of this jungle sanctuary slowly shrink to make way for industry and the pursuit of the almighty dollar.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, getting away from civilisation and spending a few days camping in the jungle was the perfect way to
connect with nature, I set up my tent and spent the days trekking along the jangle tracks, always keeping an eye out for tigers, just in case. As much as I enjoyed my time in the jungle I was keen for a hot shower and a comfy bed, Cameron Highlands was the last destination on my list before I headed to KL and back to Australia. As much as I’d enjoyed the back roads of Malaysia I was ecstatic to get on the zigzagging mountain roads that led me up to the tea field of the Highlands. Cameron highlands are most well known for its tea production and its steep slopes are covered in tea plantations making for some spectacular views. The temperature drops noticeably as you make your way higher into the mountains and the towns have a distinct European flavour which is noticeable in the style of buildings. I visited tea plantations and strawberry farms but the highlight were the mountain roads, I was glad to be throwing the bike around some twisty corners once again.
My return to Kuala Lumpur saw my trip through South East Asia come to an end, it was time to say goodbye and get back to work to pay for the ride to Europe which I’m sure will bring as many memorable experiences.