When I boarded a ferry from Malaysia to Thailand in January 2011 I couldn’t have imagined I’d be back less than a year later. But this is where I found myself in early January as I landed at the Kuala Lumpur airport—the glossier International terminal this time, not that Low Cost Carrier business!
The first step towards Asia Trip 2012 was deciding to go take advantage of my free time and go. The next step was deciding where to go and with whom. I knew I wanted to meet up with the SNU Crew in Bali (so-called after our common origins in the training group based at Sichuan Normal University), but I was additionally tasked with deciding what to do first: to start with that same group in Vietnam for 10 days, or to spend two weeks visiting Malaysia and Sumatra with a group we’ll refer to as the CQ Posse (and no, this is sadly not a name that anyone else uses).
Pros of the Vietnam option: seeing an entirely new part of a country I’d visited only briefly before, eating yummy Vietnamese food. Cons: greater complication of having to meet up with the groupin medias res in Hanoi. Pros and cons of the Malaysia/Sumatra option: getting to see a wider swath of Indonesia by visiting Sumatra, enjoying a longer overall trip, being able to spend time with more good friends. Cons: repeating Malaysia. As you know, the latter option won out.
After a top-notch flying experience on Cathay Pacific (relatively speaking) I made my way from the KL airport to the improbably-named Ribbon Stayyz hostel in the Chinatown area of the city. I arrived in the early afternoon and had a couple of hours to spare before I met up with my friends, so I contented myself walking around the neighborhood trying to concentrate on staying awake. The first time I visited KL, fresh from several months in provincial China, I was primarily struck by how cosmopolitan and international–even Western–the city felt. But this time, coming from months in California, I felt as if I had stepped firmly back into Asia.
This impression was certainly helped along by the fact that the 2011 hostel was located in a busy district filled with Western-style bars and malls, while 2012’s stay in Chinatown was bound to feel more oriental. But it was more than that—the urban sprawl, the sights and smells, all read differently through my more occidental eyes. I only spent one night in KL this time, enough time to enjoy some Malaysian noodles and a trip back to a sketchy dance club I remembered too well before moving on to a new destination—the Cameron Highlands.
* * *
The Cameron Highlands are one of Malaysia’s more-visited sites, and this former British hill station is today known for its jungles and tea plantations, made all the more attractive to tourists by its relative proximity to KL (in contrast to the more difficult-to-reach and therefore more untouched national rain forest, Taman Negara, to the northeast). One tip, should you be planning a Cameron Highlands trip: be sure to book accommodation in advance if you’re arriving on a weekend, since this place is popular.
The first thing one notices while walking around town is scones. Or, that was the first thing I noticed—a holdover from the colonial days that serves as the region’s distinctive culinary specialty alongside a Chinese hotpot-esque dish (which we chose never to enjoy). On our first full day we made our best-laid plans: “We’ll do hike 9A as described by the Lonely Planet, and we’ll be sure to avoid forking onto the ‘not recommended’ trail 9. After that it’ll be an easy walk to the tea plantation!” Well somehow we missed the 9-9A fork and ended up on the trail with the “very steep, slippery incline,” picking our way over roots and pipelines. At the bottom we congratulated ourselves on completing a Not Recommended challenge, figuring we had made it through the worst.
False. The next day we embarked on a guided trip titled Rain Forest Adventure, described by the brochure as featuring a 1-2 hour hike, a blowpipe hunting demonstration, a visit to a traditional village, etc. But the thing about the rain forest is: it rains a lot. And when it rains it pours, and when it pours the trail is either washed away or becomes a pit of mud and despair to slog through for 3.5 hours. Still, we got to enjoy such highlights as seeing a giant, primeval rafflesia flower and, well, dousing myself with a hose at the hike’s conclusion to temper the effects of my fall into the mud. Oh, and in case you were wondering, I also learned on this trip that I would make a very mediocre blowpipe hunter.
The Cameron Highlands’ other highlight is its tea plantations, and these take the form of beautiful, verdant hills of shrubby, manicured tea plants (I had no idea that was what they looked like). We visited two and waved goodbye to a third on our bus ride to our final Malaysian destination: Panang.
* * *
Although I had visited the colonial capital of Panang last year, we had spent only a day there and didn’t venture outside town. This time, the greater luxury of three days allowed us to not only reprise a Colonial Georgetown walking tour and a trip to the bar street, but also to visit the beach and national park areas on the north of the island and to get a deeper taste of Panang’s heritage thanks to a trip to the local history museum and other attractions.
Although Panang was the destination I was looking forward to least, due to repetition, I was pleasantly surprised by this opportunity to see the place again under different circumstances. Once you’ve already visited a destination and gotten some of the big-ticket attractions out of the way, you often feel more free to relax and see whatever it is you want to see—or not. Just like it can be a relief to visit Paris without feeling like you “have to” hit the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, it was nice to be able to enjoy a rainy morning in Panang simply chatting and reading in the hostel, without having to worry about what we were missing.
* * *
Returning to Malaysia turned out to be an unexpected pleasure, and by focusing on different priorities, like hiking and jungles, I enjoyed a totally different experience. Next up: 400% as more Maroon 5 songs and 25% as many tourists in West Sumatra.