Next stop on our route up through South East Asia was Malaysia. We ended up travelling more slowly here, partly due to Chinese New Year causing us to rethink travel plans to avoid local crowds and partly as the children started to struggle keeping up the hectic pace we had maintained so far. They were all desperate for some time to sit and just play, so we added in an extra stop on the east coast at Cherating. Travel through Malaysia was by bus, usually four to six hour stretches between three or four day stops. This gave plenty of time to look out of the window and think about the country.
Continuing my theme of judging a place on its billboards (or lack thereof) – the average Malaysian poster would be advertising some aspirational product with a picture of a serious looking child in a business suit apparently promising that using this washing powder or whatever would help your child become a corporate wage slave^W^W^W leader of commerce. Most of the country, especially Kuala Lumpur, felt like somewhere on a mission to grow up and do it fast. The roads were new, wide and largely empty. The fields were freshly carved out of the forest and palm oil plantations again dominated across the middle of the country. Up in the Cameron Highlands, I have never seen such intensive market gardens. Every inch of every hillside – regardless of how steep – was covered in polytunnels, small fields or packing warehouses. Producing some of our favourite afternoon treats – tea and strawberries – they also grew masses of vegetables and salad leaf as well.
Highlights of our stay were meeting Mark and Tina in KL and the long, left hand point break at Cherating where Jago and I had a fabulous day surfing together. Cherating was our only experience of a more rural Malaysia, staying in an old wooden house on stilts in the middle of the village. The village was still quite busy for Chinese New Year, but mainly with Malay families – very few westerners. We felt really welcomed and it was good for the kids to have a few days of downtime, just playing on the beach and in the waves without being dragged round yet another walk/temple/museum.
My favourite city in Malaysia was Georgetown – it had a very Chinese feel in the older part of town with the rows of beautiful but often crumbling ‘shophouses’. These are rows of terraced buildings, each having a workshop, office or shop on the ground floor and living accomadation above – usually with brightly painted balconies. All the signs are in Chinese and you just got tantalising glimpses through doors or shutters of boxes, desks and machinery all packed in higgledy-piggeldy. Interesting street art and great food also helped – we’re thinking of introducing the ‘IceBalls’ back to England on our return! We also had some interesting conversations with locals here – there are clearly ethnic and racial tensions in the country between the majority, muslim Malays and the large minorities of Indian and Chinese – many of whom are now third or fourth generation and who feel unfairly excluded.
I find it interesting, that before I came out here I had no real understanding of the different countries making up South East Asia. From Cambridgeshire its easy to think Indonesia and Malaysia are probably pretty similar, but up close its clear that whilst Indonesia is still (hopefully) ‘developing’, Malaysia has very clearly ‘developed’; with modern infrastructure, city sprawl and all that that entails. We ended up spending three weeks coming up through the country from South to North and could have easily spent longer if we weren’t drawn onwards by the promise of island beaches and forest elephants in Thailand.