Trip report - Malaysia

Jun 24th, 2005, 04:37 AM
  #1  
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Join Date: Mar 2005
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Trip report - Malaysia

Since the Fodors chats helped so much in planning our 2-week trip to Malasia, I wanted to post an account of our trip, in hopes that it might help other travelers.
For some background, we are mid-30's and mid-40's, currently stationed in Iraq, and took this trip as a holiday. This was our first trip to Asia; our previous travels have been in Europe. We generally choose simple hotels and restaurants, and like to explore off the beaten track, so in addition to major cities and tourist sites, we like to spend time in small towns and exploring little neighborhoods looking for quirky shops and flea markets.
After much deliberation, we decided to spend 2 days in KL, 1 in Melaka, 3 in Cameron Highlands, 4 in Penang, and 4 in Langkawi, with 1 last day in KL before departing. Looking back on it, I think it worked out well. We had decided to work our way up the east coast due to ease of travel and short travel times. That also allowed us to spend multiple days in a few places relaxing. Our previous vacations were usually filled with activity, but on this trip, we had time to just relax a bit in Cameron Highlands and Penang, and we did nothing but relax in Langkawi. We also tried to mix up cities and smaller towns, which worked out well. Admittedly, there's a lot of the country we didn't see, but there was just no way to do it all, so we decided that 4 places (Melaka was a last-minute addition) would give us variety and still allow us to relax. We'll just have to return so that we can see the rest of the country!
In KL, we stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, on a club floor with a view of the Petronas Towers, which was a splurge for us. The hotel staff were very helpful, but we felt a bit out of place since we were traveling very light - backpacks and very casual dress. The view of the towers was great, but I'd generally prefer to spend the extra money on some other aspect of the trip. However, I considered the money well spent when the concierge helped us wrap several fragile and bulky antiques we found, and then offered to store them for us until our return (even though we were checking out). Because of his help, we decided to return to the MO for one night prior to our departure, and when we arrived, sad about leaving, and with no clean laundry for the 4-day trip home, they kindly did a rush job on our laundry for no charge. When you take into account the assistance they provided in confirming hotels, the tea and cocktail hours provided at the club (if you time it right, it's essentially a free lunch and dinner), and the 5 free pieces of laundry each day, it wasn't as extravagant as we initially thought, and we appreciated the great service. Also, of course, the room was lovely. KL was interesting, but 2 days was plenty for us. We enjoyed the night market in Chinatown - even though it was mostly bootleg DVD's and knock-off watches and handbags, we had some great food from the hawker stalls, and the atmosphere of the place was a lot of fun. We also enjoyed the night market in Little India, visited the Petronas Towers, and had fun just wandering around some of the smaller neighborhoods, like the tiny Indian neighborhood near Masjid Jamek. The Central Market and some of the shops around it were fun to browse; not many bargains and a lot of tourist crap to weed through, but we found a few interesting little tidbits. But after 2 days, I was ready to get out of the city.
We had reluctantly removed Melaka from our itinerary, thinking we had over-planned, but decided to add it in again once we arrived in KL. My main question to the Fodors site was regarding travel plans, and you guys advised us to just book our hotel in KL and then wait till we got there to plan the rest. That made me a bit nervous, but you were right - it worked out just fine. Probably helped that we were traveling in May as well; things weren't very busy. As we didn’t have driver's licenses with us, we relied on buses, taxis, and a few cheap flights for our transportation, and that worked out well.
The hotel staff told us where to pick up a bus, and we took that to Melaka - the buses were much nicer than we anticipated, but the a/c on ours died about an hour into the trip, which was pretty awful! We spent the day just wandering the neighborhoods. It's a charming little town - I know that there are some issues with its restoration: apparently some authentic buildings and craft/trade shops have been demolished to make way for hotels, or "restored" in un-authentic styles to appeal to tourists, which is a real shame. But we did enjoy the architecture - ornate Chinese temples, brightly painted signs and buildings, and beautiful antique tiles on many of the porches and baseboards. Though there were not many bargains to be had in the antique stores on Jonkers Street and the surrounding areas, we did find a few interesting items. One store in particular had tons of architectural antiques; it would've been my downfall, but there was no way to get any of it back to Iraq!
The town was lovely, and we could've spent a second day. Enjoyed the elaborate trishaws covered with fake flowers, beads, and even flashing lights. There happened to be a wonderful night market while we were there; fabulous food from hawker stalls, a few inexpensive souvenirs, and also a Youth Cultural Festival that we stumbled on, with performers from all different cultures singing, dancing, etc. We spent the night at the Hotel Puri, a renovated Peranakan manor house in Chinatown that was very nice, but unfortunately our room was near a bathroom used by staff, with a door that violently slammed each time we managed to fall asleep, and incessantly beginning at about 5:30 AM. No sleep for us, it was awful- door slam, sound of urination and flush, door slam. Nice hotel with a lovely courtyard, about $80 USD a night, but don't stay on the right hand side above the little museum if you want to get any sleep!
After 5 hours on the bus from Melaka to Tapah, we chose to take a taxi to Tanah Rata rather than wait for a bus. I was glad we did - we made the trip in only one hour, and I didn't want to spend any more time careening around those hairpin curves. I don't tend to get carsick, but in this case I wished I had brought something for motion sickness!
We stayed at the Century Pines in Tanah Rata. Location was good - right in town at the end of the main street. We weren't looking for anything fancy, just convenient. But the hotel was soooo odd! Brand new, and they had obviously spent a fortune on it. But there appeared to be only about 6 people staying in the entire place, and about 100 staff, most of whom couldn't speak much English (a problem we didn't find anyplace else). And although both our guidebook and the Internet said the hotel had a pool and gym, and the brochure in the lobby actually had a PHOTO of a gym, the staff looked at us as if we were insane when they explained that there was no pool or gym. We also had to buy a fan, as there was no a/c or fan in the room. Although it was much cooler in Cameron Highlands, it was still warm and humid, and the room reeked of mildew. At the huge (and totally empty) bar, my husband couldnt get a beer; we were never able to figure out why. Breakfast was a mystery as well - no matter what you pointed to on the menu, and no matter what we discussed with the waiter, everyone appeared to get toast and cornflakes. And for some reason, the brick walkways outside were deathly slippery - don't know what they put on them, but every time we walked to our room, it was like navigating a wet ice skating rink. We laughed about the whole experience, but thought I'd pass that on - I'm sure there were plenty of smaller, cheaper places in town that offered better service.
In Tanah Ratah, we spoke to several guides before settling on Balan's Jungle Adventure and Tours. Balan (cell phone 0196110242) was set up in a little shack next to the buildings on the main street. He wasn't the cheapest, but he was very friendly, he would be doing the tour himself (vs. another employee), it would be just the two of us, and he was willing to customize the tour. Due to recent knee surgery, we weren't up to jungle trekking, and while some of the other guides just pointed to their standard tour packages, while Balan sat down with us and discussed what we did and didn't want to see, didn't pressure us into more expensive options, and seemed happy to design the day around what we wanted. He took us to the Boh Tea Plantation, where he had worked as a supervisor for several years, so he was able to tell us a lot about it. He then took us to an Orang Asli village, where 2 of the boys let us try their blowguns and took us on a walk in the jungle. After lunch, we went on a short jungle hike to a waterfall. Although the vehicle was not nearly as comfy as some others we saw on the road, Balan spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable. He spent a lot of time with us and answered our questions, but he also gave us time on our own, which I really liked; he would drop us off on a path so we could walk through the tea plantation, and pick us up in 15 minutes, and he gave us some time alone at the waterfall as well.
There wasn't much to do in the town of Tanah Ratah itself - just a few touristy stores, but we had great Indian food, and found a tiny shop with fresh strawberry juice, which was wonderful. We also visited the Sungai Palace Tea Plantation, which is the smaller of Boh's plantations. They are building a new shop/café overlooking the hills, which will be beautiful when it's finished - a nice place to relax and sample some different teas. We also visited the Butterfly Farm - yes it's kind of touristy, but not having done a jungle trek, it was neat to see some of the insects. One of the employees walked with us and taught us quite a bit - we'd never even have seen some of the camouflaged insects without his help, so it was an interesting side trip. The countryside was beautiful, and we saw signs everywhere advertising opportunities to take trips from Tanah Ratah, but with all the road construction going on, and considering the time it takes to navigate those narrow twisty roads, I don't think I'd recommend making Tanah Ratah my home base for very long. I'd spend time there, and then just move on, rather than trying to take multiple trips from the town.
From Tanah Ratah, we took the bus to Penang (Georgetown), which was my favorite part of the trip. I looooved Penang. So much character, so vibrant, so much going on. After considering a stay at the E&O Hotel, we elected to stay at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, which was a delight! The mansion is exquisite - I spotted it from down the road and couldn't believe when the taxi pulled up out front and I realized that was our hotel! It is like staying in a museum; the building is absolutely beautiful. Cheong Fatt Tze was described as the J.P. Morgan of China; the 1880's mansion was one of his many homes, and that of his 7th and favorite wife. Due to problems with his estate, the home fell into terrible disrepair, until it was restored by the couple who still conduct tours and rent out about 15 rooms of the mansion as hotel rooms. The mansion is painted a brilliant cobalt blue, with open courtyards in the building, beautiful ironwork, woodwork, and tiles everywhere. When we arrived, it was raining, and the sight and sounds of the rain pouring into the open courtyard, with those intense blue walls and ironwork, was just amazing. The owners have won awards from UNESCO and other organizations for the preservation/restoration of this historically significant building. The mansion is situated right in Chinatown, which made for easy exploring. I'm not sure that is the case with the E&O (though I'm not sure). One caution was that many taxi drivers didn't seem to recognize the name, or they didn't understand that it also had hotel rooms. We often had to point on a map, or give them the street address. The staff were very friendly, and residents can join any of the twice daily tours for free. The owner does some of the tours herself - I recommend asking which she'll be doing, as she's a character, and her stories about how they restored the mansion are fascinating. It is not a "regular" hotel, so I guess it might not be to everyone's taste, but we loved it. We stayed in the Old Kitchen, which was a large room with an old stove and household items in one part of the room. Still, it had a small refrigerator, a/c and fans, a bathroom area in the back of the room, and plenty of space to relax. It was one of the highlights of our trip.
The neighborhood had so much character; and we spent a large part of each day just wandering through the streets, looking at trishaw drivers sleeping in the sun, apothecary shops with vials full of all sorts of weird concoctions, little shops, tiny restaurants. We found a few good antique stores on and around the quiet end of Lebuh Chulia, and just had a great time enjoying the architecture, the food, and the people. We really enjoyed the Penang Museum, which gave a great overview of all the many different cultural influences in Malaysia. The other museum we saw at 100 Cintra Street wasn’t really a museum, just a collection of furnishings in the Baba/Nyonya style, but it was interesting if you're in the area. We also took the funicular to Penang Hill, which I thought was overrated. Having taken funiculars and cable cars in every town we've ever visited, I wasn’t impressed – the lines were long, the cars were packed with people and were ridiculously slow. To make matters worse, we got stuck at the top while they dealt with a mechanical problem, which we heard others say had happened to them too. Yes, it was a nice view, but there are so many other sights to be seen.
We took a cab to the night market at Batu Ferrenghi one night, and had a blast. No great treasures there – it is mostly bootleg CD's, knockoff watches and purses, inexpensive jewelry, and other little things, but we found a few cheap, fun items, and it was more relaxed and less packed than the night market in KL. Also, there was a great food court there with lots of hawkers. We also spent two evenings at the hawkers market at Gurney Drive, which was fantastic! Just packed with locals, and so many different foods to try. Carts just filled with satays, dim sum, and any sort of Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, etc. food that you can imagine. We just pointed at what looked interesting, and stuffed ourselves for only a few dollars. We returned the next night and bought take-away back to the little table in the courtyard outside our room at the Mansion.
We spent 4 days in Penang, and although one could always spend longer and dig deeper, or take day trips, we felt 4 days was ok - we got to see a lot and still relax a bit. I can't say enough about Penang; it was my favorite part of the trip, and it made me hope for a future assignment in Malaysia.
After Penang, we spent 4 days at the Datai in Langkawi, based on reviews from this website. We did book this hotel prior to arrival in Malaysia, and splurged on one of the pool villas. We had decided to spend the last few days of our trip just relaxing, and were able to do just that. The staff at the Datai catered to our every wish, and we felt very pampered. I loved being able to lay out by our secluded little pool in total privacy and listen to the water and the birds. We also loved watching the monkeys - one day we saw a whole family playing in the river and watched them for quite some time. The beach was nice - a private little cove.
For relaxing and being pampered, the location was nice, and I really loved having our own pool vs. laying out on the beach or one of the other hotel pools. But if we returned, I would do some things differently. Part of it depends on how much you want to spend. We tend to be pretty frugal regarding meals and hotels, so it sometimes pained me to spend so much. Example - we found the hotel restaurants to be good, but not great. We actually had more fun at the hawker stalls in Penang, and rather than a $25 hotel breakfast every morning, and $70 for a single-course dinner, I think I would’ve had better food and more fun with a $5 dim sum breakfast or a $2 tray of satays from a hawker. Also, in little side streets you can people-watch and enjoy the culture, rather than just the trophy wives sunning at the pool. The hotel is very secluded, located in the far northwestern tip of Langkawi, and most people who did leave used the expensive hotel cars or limos. We finally managed to get a taxi ride to the excellent cable car, and then took another to the Kuah night market, but it was a poor market compared to others we'd seen, and we weren't interested in duty-free shopping.
We did have a good time in Langkawi, and I'm glad we went; we've never pampered ourselves so much, and we have some wonderful memories. But that's what I would recommend it for – pampering and relaxation. I was glad that we stayed there at the end of our trip, after having already explored other parts of Malaysia, and as a last splurge before returning to the desert.
Overall, we had a wonderful time. I would highly recommend Malaysia to any travelers, but perhaps especially to those who, like us, have never traveled in Asia. The people were incredibly friendly, we always felt safe, and most people spoke fluent English, which helped us get along. Several times, when we weren't lost but were just figuring out where to go next, locals approached us to ask if we needed help, which was very nice. Most taxi drivers told us they hadn’t encountered many American travelers, but we certainly encountered no resentment; everyone was friendly. The food in Malaysia was absolutely fantastic, you can spend about as much or as little money as you want on your trip, and we really enjoyed the mix of so many different cultures. It was also very easy to arrange travel once we were there – buses were easy to find, as were taxis. We did note that even with bartering, the taxi fares were substantially higher than those listed in our Lonely Planet guide, but they still seemed to be fair rates. We found Internet cafes in most towns, and were able to book hotels online, and we saw many signs for hotels and tour providers that offered assistance with onward transportation, hotels, etc. as well. Buses were good, car rental is an option, and we took cheap jet flights from Penang to Langkawi and from Langkawi to KL. We booked those online while in Malaysia, through Malaysia Air. The country has so much to offer no matter what kind of vacation you’re looking for, and the people were wonderful; we had a great time, and would love to return and see more of the country. Thanks to those of you who reassured us that we could travel on the fly once we arrived in KL, and to those of you whose stories inspired our trip in the first place. We had a wonderful time, and would highly recommend it as a travel destination.
copilot is offline  
Jun 24th, 2005, 04:52 AM
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Thanks for your wonderful report. Glad you had such a great time. Your description of Penang was particularly evocative.
Gpanda is offline  
Jun 24th, 2005, 05:33 AM
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Thank you for the great report. I'm going to Malaysia in September so your report was particularly helpful. In KL, we're staying at the Mandarin Oriental, club floor with view of the towers so I'm glad you had positive things to say about it. You also cleared up my questions about the amount of free laundry they provide--wasn't sure if it was 5 pieces per stay or per day. Now I know I can pack a little lighter since we'll be there for 5 nights. We'll be in Penang as well so that was very helpful. We're staying at the E&O but will be sure to visit the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. The rest of the time will be in Borneo, but perhaps we should take a day trip to Melaka. Do you think it's worth a day trip or would we be too rushed?

Thanks again and stay safe.
laurieco is online now  
Jun 24th, 2005, 05:35 AM
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Enjoyed your report so much. It brought back memories of our travels through Malaysia. They were just beginning to make the Cheong Fatt Tzo Mansion into a hotel. Lovely place. We stayed in the old Cathay Hotel near by. Don't know if it is there now. Interesting thing happened to us in the Cameron Highlands. Met a young lady from the U.S. working there who was working in Panang so we rode with her on to Panang and then spent days exploring the place with her. She introduced us to the street food-loved the satay. Definitely better than those winding roads on a bus on the trip to the Highlands. So I know what you mean by winding roads. We spent a week in Panang so it was also a favorite place of mine.
Thanks for sharing. Also thanks from me here in the U.S. for your service in Iraq.
maryanne1 is offline  
Jun 24th, 2005, 06:53 AM
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Sweet trip report! My parents have been living in KL as expats for the last 2 years and I've never gone outside of KL. My mom is going to take me to Penang and after reading your report I'm even more excited
gear02 is offline  
Jun 24th, 2005, 08:33 AM
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No, I don't think a day trip to Melaka would be too rushed; I think a lot of travelers do it as a day trip. We slept in that morning and didn't leave till late, then the bus A/C problem cost us some time, so we didn't arrive till about 2 PM. So for us it was a bit rushed, but since we spent the night, we still had time to do a lot of exploring. I would take an early bus so you get there around 10 AM. The town is small, so you can browse Jonkers St. and the other streets during the day, and then in the evening, maybe take a trishaw ride and enjoy the architecture. I believe there are frequent buses, but I'm not sure what time the last bus back to KL is; I think we were told 9 PM, but you'd want to verify that. I always prefer to settle in a place and spend a few days, but I think in this case, a day trip would still be worth it. Also, we really enjoyed the last 30 minutes of the bus ride - looking at all the houses. Brightly painted houses on stilts with ornate columns and beautifully decorated front steps. I assumed we would see them elsewhere in Malaysia, but we didn't. If we had spent a second day, I probably would have hired a cab and driven around the neighborhoods; Lonely Planet guide had info about one private home that allows guests, but we just didn't have time.
Long story short, if you can only do 1 day, I'd still recommend it; it's a tiny town, and I think you'll enjoy it. Have fun!
copilot is offline  
Jun 24th, 2005, 05:17 PM
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Copilot-
Thank you very much for sharing your descriptive, colorful travel report with Fodorites. May the travel gods smile upon you in your current endeavours and may you and your partner find ourselves pack in Penang (or other fun destination) very soon!

Thanks again,
Cruisinred
cruisinred is offline  
Jun 24th, 2005, 05:18 PM
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make that back in Penang...pardon the typos
cruisinred is offline  
Jun 24th, 2005, 05:52 PM
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If you are referring to antiques from Burma, Malaysia or similar from the Mandalay period or before i.e. buddha's monks, do you have the name of the 2 best shops to visit and did you think they were authenic?
StanKase is offline  
Jun 24th, 2005, 07:08 PM
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thanks for the fine report...makes me want to return soon to malaysia...
rhkkmk is offline  
Jun 26th, 2005, 02:19 AM
  #11  
 
Join Date: Aug 2004
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thanks from me too for your report - we are going to Malaysia in Sept and are planning to do the exact same places as you!

Cant wait!

Marie
marie_scotland is offline  

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