Saturday, 6 March 2010

Peninsular Malaysia*

After leaving Singapore we travelled to Pulau Langkawi, the largest island in an archipelago of 99 islands off Malaysia's north-west coast (104 islands at low tide). 

Langkawi means reddish brown eagle in colloquial Malay

We chose Langkawi as we were travelling during the rainy season on the east coast.

We had been planning to go diving in the Pulau Payar Marine Park, however the one day we had free to dive the dive operator never turned up so that was the end of that! We were not happy...

Instead we hired a car and drove round the island, which has a surface area of almost 500 km2. One of the places we stopped at was Makam Mahsuri (the tomb of Mahsuri) which relates to one of Langkawi's most famous legends: Mahsuri was a beautiful young woman whose beauty inspired a vengeful accusation of adultery from a spurned suitor (or jealous village chief's wife in some versions) while her husband was away fighting. The village elders sentenced her to death but when the kris (ceremonial dagger) was finally plunged into her she bled white blood - signifying her innocence. With her dying breath she cursed Langkawi for 7 generations of bad luck.

Mahsuri's tomb - she lived either in the 14th or 19th century

looking south from the centre of the island

We also sampled Nasi lemak which is a Malay classic: rice cooked with a little milk and served with anchovy, cucumber, fried peanuts, egg and sambal (a dip made with pounded or ground chilli), all wrapped into a cone shape and in this case held together using a banana leaf.

wrapped Nasi lemak

We then flew to another pulau (island): Penang, which means "betel nut" in Malay. Due to its cultural heritage Penang became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008.

In Georgetown

Originally ruled by the sultans of Kedah, the island became a regional base for the East India Company in the late 18th century. 

in Georgetown

The island itself is about 300km2, but the most interesting part is the historical old town of Georgetown, with its colonial buildings and mix of Indian, Chinese and Malay culture.

Old Christian cemetery, Georgetown

Ku Din (1848-1932) was a Malay High Commissioner in the late 19th century and early 20th century and he built a residence which is now a hotel.

Ku Din Ku Meh residence

Cheong Fatt Tze (1840-1916) was a penniless Chinese migrant who became a powerful local merchant. The family home he built is also called "The Blue Mansion", and featured in the film "Indochine".

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, built in the 1890s

Goddess of Mercy Chinese temple

The Kapitan Keling mosque is the largest historic mosque in the town. Founded in 1801, its current appearance dates from the 1910s.

Kapitan Keling Mosque

After a few days we left Penang in a hire car and drove to the Cameron Highlands, crossing the Penang Bridge which links Penang island with the mainland Peninsula.

At 13.5km Penang Bridge is Asia's longest

Cameron Highlands is in fact a large hill station comprising several towns and villages. It is famous for tea-growing.

Tea fields

Jim Thompson, who helped rebuild the Thai silk industry, mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron Highlands in 1967 (I visited his house in Bangkok in 2009).

more tea fields


We took some walks in the surrounding and visited a Butterfly Garden.

our walks were rather muddy!
At the Butterfly Garden

At the Butterfly Garden there were also other local insects and plants.

Can you see the leaf insect?
And this one?

Pitcher plants - we also saw this in the wild in Borneo

Our next stop was Kuala Lumpur, 200 km to the south. Just before arriving at the city we stopped at the FRIM (Forest Research Institute of Malaysia) where there are walkways and amazing views of forest canopy - similar photos to the one below have appeared in National Geographic!

forest canopy at FRIM

In KL we had an amazing corner hotel room with a great view of the Petronas towers.

Petronas Towers at night, from our hotel

Here are the towers by day. They are occupied by Petronas, the state-owned oil company, and some multinational companies.

The towers stand 452m high and have 88 floors

Kuala Lumpur is quite spread out and has a handy monorail and Light Rail Transit system to get about.

Although not as culturally and historically interesting as Georgetown or Melaka, KL still has some interesting sights. For example the Moorish-style Sultan Abdul Samad Building was built in 1897 and today houses the Malaysian Ministry of Informations, Communication and Culture.

Sultan Abdul Samad Building

The old train station was completed in 1911.

old KL train station

The Kuala Lumpur tower is a 421m-high communications tower built in 1995 which gives good views over the city.

Kuala Lumpur Tower, aka Menara KL

incense coils, temple

Of course you can't spend much time in this part of Asia without coming across the ubiquitous and smelly durian. It's quite common to see signs in lifts, public transport and public buildings banning durians!

durian fruit stall
We left KL by train (though not from the old train station!) and travelled to our final stop in Malaysia: Melaka. Melaka itself does not have a train station - the station is actually 30 kilometres away at Pulau Sebang.

Sungai Melaka river

Melaka was already flourishing in the 15th century, then was taken over successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.


Melaka was proclaimed a UNESCO world cultural heritage site in 2008 along with Georgetown.


a very well-presented Nasi Lemak

The Portuguese used 1500 slaves to build the A Famosa Fort, but today all that's left is the Porta de Santiago, as the British destroyed the fort in 1808. Built in 1511, it's one of the oldest surviving European architectural remains in Asia.

Porta de Santiago, A Famosa fort

Nearby is the ruined St Paul's Church, with many old tombstones lying against the interior walls. 

St Paul's Church was constructed in 1521

The Protestant Christ Church was built in 1753 to commemorate the centenary of the Dutch occupation of Melaka.

Chinese temple roof decorations

As we had sadly come to the end of our trip we then took a bus back to Singapore, before flying back to South Korea.

Suggested reading:

The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei 

* You can read about our trip to Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo here.