Kuala Lumpur is the capital, but I’d get out of there just as soon as I could. It’s just a big city, and though there are nice parts of it, it also feels overcrowded and gross. I just was not into it. I really love Malaysia, but that city has too many people, too much pollution, and WAY too much traffic.
There were two major areas I spent time in: Penang and Langkawi, so I’ll talk about each of them.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but the only reason I wanted to go to Penang is because penang curry is my favorite type of curry in Thai restaurants. I recognize how stupid that is, but my friend and I went to a bus station in Kuala Lumpur, and we didn’t know where to go, and I saw the sign, and I convinced him to go.
By the way, I ALSO saw a sign in the bus depot for a “massage coach,” a bus where you’re massaged for your entire journey. Massages are really cheap and all over the place in Thailand, but I didn’t see as much in Malaysia. Still, there are enough masseuses to be filling us buses!
Before I get into Penang and what that place is all about, I wanted to talk a little bit about he makeup of Malaysia’s cultural heritage. I thought, when I thought about Malaysia, that it was basically just like Thailand. I know they share a border, and everyone I’ve known who was Malaysian looked not very different to Thai people. However, it turns out there is a very complex mix of people. For example, about half the people in the country are Malay, meaning they are native Malaysian people, and I’d say these are the people who look most like Thai or Indonesian people. They speak Malay, but everyone in Malaysia basically speaks English. I’m pretty sure it’s required in schools, and I can not think of a time when I couldn’t communicate with someone in English in that entire country.
So half the country is Malaysians, and about thirty percent are Chinese. I had a Chinese tour guide in one place, and although at the beginning he said that everyone gets along, and the culture is so interesting, by the end of the day, he was being a lot more open and honest, and he said that the Malay people get all the perks from the government, like government contract work, and they farm it out to the Chinese, who do the work, and Malays make all the big money. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s how a Chinese Malaysian person feels. It seemed here was some tension!
Then there is another ten percent that is Indian, and what people call “the others.” So, basically everywhere you go you’re seeing food that’s Malaysian, Chinese, or Indian. Sometimes one will have some of the other, but the really weird thing is that the majority of the restaurants are Chinese or Indian, and I felt like I had to look really, really hard to find Malay food. I can not say why that actually is… maybe what my taxi driver said is true, and the Chinese and Indian people are setting up most of the actual businesses.
Okay, so getting back to Penang, it was a good choice. Maybe the motivation was not the smartest in the world, but it was a cool experience. Malaysia was a British colony for a while, and Penang looks sort of like the Bahamas with its pastel, colonial houses and old British style. That really is so weird to see after being in Kuala Lumpur, which is as modern as it gets, and basically looks like Singapore. There are big skyscrapers and lots of glass and metal. But when you get to Penang’s old area, it looks like you have gone back in time by hundreds of years. It really is so cute! Parts of Penang are more modern, but the old town area is very, very protected. So walking around Penang is a great way to spend a day. It felt touristy, and like it wasn’t a very busy place – this is not one of Malaysia’s biggest cities at all – so it felt sort of like you were really living there, rather than just being dumped in some tourist place.
We met a nice man on the bus to Penang who offered to be our tour guide for the day, and he spoke amazing English, so we agreed. It was a great decision… he talked for the ENTIRE day, and he even took us to some cool places, like a batik factory – that we never would have found, otherwise.
Ask around, wherever you are in Malaysia, for a durian fruit. It has to be the most disgusting fruit I have ever smelled, and it is a Malaysian specialty food. Our tour guide’s wife LOVES durian, so I said I wanted to try it. He warned me that it is stinky to some people, and some hotels even ban it from coming inside – I later saw a sign that said that – but I insisted. Holy crap, it is gross! When you are chewing it, it smells a little like vomit or rotten cheese. My friend spit it out and started gagging. Because we were in front of the people we bought it from, I tried to be polite and say it was nice. They offered me more, and I bought a big one for a few dollars, which they were incredibly excited about, then I gave it to my taxi driver to give to his wife. He said she would be so excited, so we went to their house and he gave it to her. She ran over and hugged me! I guess it really makes a difference what you grew up with.
The other place we stayed was Langkawi, which is a beautiful beach town. This place is just beautiful… breathtakingly beautiful. There are really reasonably priced beach huts that you can rent for the long or short term, and the sandy beaches are as perfect as any place could ever be. It is a totally relaxed atmosphere, so although you can sip drinks on the beach to your heart’s content, do not expect to receive your drink for maybe 15 minutes.
There is the beach area in Langkawi, and then there is the area that the locals hang out in, and be sure to ask about the market, or the flea market… the area where all the shops set up to sell food and knick knacks. That was such a great sight to see. I bought hawker street food, and it was delicious… and I didn’t get sick! People seemed happy here. The prices were low, but it was not a crazy scene like in Thailand, where I felt white people were being sold to so hard that it was unpleasant. This was a great mix of locals and tourists, but it felt like a natural combination.
I really loved Langkawi. I’m glad I checked out Penang – and ate a bunch of absolutely delicious penang curry while I was there – but Langkawi had a really calm, happy feel, and it relaxed me. I saw monitor lizards scurrying by while I was laying out at my hotel, and for breakfast I ate congee some mornings (which I think of as Chinese), and it was just a really cool combination of many cultures.