Far and Malay: From Kuala Lumpur to the Genting Forest
Bruce Bennett discovers a wide array of pleasures, from hiking to street food to a mansion with a charming love story
THERE were many highlights on my trip to Malaysia, from the Petronas Twin Towers to the mists of the Genting Highlands and a trip on a funicular to a historic hill station.
But perhaps the best of these came on the last day, and at a lower altitude than any of the others. A hike through the Penang National Park saw our little group become thoroughly absorbed in the sound and feel of the jungle in what is apparently the world’s smallest national park.
The trek led us upwards for a few kilometres before mercifully winding down to a turtle-breeding area. We were then taken by boat for lunch and a swim in the sea at a nearby beach. None of us had brought costumes — a problem we solved in this country of high moral standards by swimming in our clothes.
Our “jungle guide”, Fauzi Yacob, played a vital role in making this steamy, sweaty walk through the park so enjoyable. Gentle and studious in appearance, he proved to be something of a Rambo once among the towering trees, sharing important survival skills (such as which tree to hide behind during jungle warfare).
The 2500ha park, almost evenly split between forest and wetland, is all the more remarkable because the rest of Penang island is given over to booming tourism, commerce and industry.
It was interesting to note how technologically advanced but tradition-rich the country is.
Excellent highways extend far beyond the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Enormous malls prosper alongside traditional shopping streets. Eating out usually meant just that, as open-air restaurants and traditional food courts are everywhere. The climate lends itself to this.
And Malaysians love to eat. We put down the absence of obese people to the healthy diet, with a lot of seafood, chicken, curries, vegetable soups and fruit-based meals. They are passionate about their multi-ethnic dishes — Malay, Chinese and Indian, even if they are not part of the group from which that meal originates.
Malaysia has a long history of colonisation by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.
Tourism growth is pursued through, among many other projects, big-ticket sporting events. Our group attended the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix, where it was estimated that 80% of the 85000-odd fans were from elsewhere. Other high-profile events include the Malaysian Open (won this year by SA golfer Louis Oosthuizen) and the Malaysian Open tennis tournament.
At the launch of a campaign to attract motorbike tourists, the prime minister donned a biker jacket and sat astride a “1Malaysia” chopper, designed and presented by Paul Teutel Senior of Discovery Channel’s Orange County Choppers. The excellent open roads look like great biking country, especially for people used to riding or driving on the left.
Back to those earlier highlights: when you first see the Petronas Twin Towers, it should be at night, when they resemble a couple of Martian fighting machines from The War of the Worlds: the enormous buildings, glowing with light and stainless steel, loom up from behind smaller structures.
Completed in 1998, they are the world’s tallest twin towers.
A trip to the top is politely but firmly handled by security staff. We took a quick ride to the skybridge between the towers; a short stop and then up to the 86th floor and a marvellous view over the booming tropical city, giving an appreciation of its open spaces, lakes and green lungs as well as the glitzy skyscrapers.
Resort World in the Genting Highlands near KL contains the country’s only casino complex. Although local Muslims, 60% of the population, may not enter the gambling areas, the resort boasts 20 million visitors a year.
Reached by road or via a cableway over a rainforest, its tall buildings materialise in a startlingly incongruous way out of the mountaintop mists. One of its hotels, the First World, was until recently the world’s largest, with more than 6000 rooms. Apart from the casinos, there are amusement parks, a free-fall skydiving simulator and, best of all, a cool climate utterly unlike KL’s humidity — the resort is a refreshing 1800m above sea level.
On the cable-car journey down, we again connected with the jungle, listening with delight to the primal cries of its inhabitants.
In George Town, Penang, we visited the Blue Mansion, built in the 1880s by Cheong Fatt Tze, an enormously rich man known as the “Rockefeller of the East”. The architecture is charming and not ostentatious — it is the classic simplicity, combined with practical Chinese traditions, that is breathtaking.
For good feng shui, Chinese homes of the period had a central courtyard open to the sky, allowing the elements of wind and rain to enter. The rainwater in the courtyard drained away slowly and this, said our guide, mirrored the Chinese attitude to money — gather it well, spend it slowly and wisely.
There is a charming love story attached to the house. Cheong married eight times and some of these were for business or political reasons, as was the custom. As an old man, he fell in love for the first time — with Tan Tay Po, who was 17 when they wed (he was 70). She was the seventh of his wives.
He had mansions all over Asia but the Blue Mansion was apparently his favourite because it was where Tan lived. When he died in 1916, he left the house to her and their son, who lived in it until he died in 1989. The mansion, by this time, had fallen into disrepair. It was rescued and restored by conservation-minded local businessmen.
Also worth a mention is the Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat. Only the very rich can afford to stay here, among the heavily wooded limestone hills and steaming natural pools. But this is tasteful, quiet-spoken wealth. No bling anywhere but everything is of the best, from the treatments in the spa to the furnishings in the luxury suites.
Of the many temples, churches and mosques we encountered, the most beautiful was the Ubidiah Mosque in Kuala Kansar. It was built, in gratitude, by a sultan after he recovered from a serious illness. If you have seen the fantastical domes of the Sultan’s city in Aladdin, you will have some idea of the Ubidiah Mosque’s splendour.
I’d certainly like to go back one day. Malaysia — sultry, alluring, fascinating — does that to you.
Bennett was a guest of Tourism Malaysia and flew courtesy of Thai Airways