In July last year, I had two special guests. My parents came to visit!
Firstly, a few caveats. I am only talking about peninsular Malaysia, as I still haven’t been to east Malaysia (Borneo). Whether or not our schedule reflected the “highlights” of Malaysia is subjective, and everyone’s best bits will be different. The options are also slightly dictated by season. My parents were here in July, when the west coast is technically in rainy season but is fine, and the weather on the east coast is dry, sunny and beautiful.
So, with a limited period of time and these seasonal conditions we managed to include the city life in KL, baby elephants, some history and culture on the west coast and a tropical island getaway on the east coast. I was pretty pleased with that!
The fun started in KL. There is obviously loads to do in the city, but we also wanted to relax and chat non-stop. My parents had to adjust to the new time zone and the humidity (don’t get them started on the humidity), so we just took in a few of the main points of interest and spent plenty of time chilling out.
We went up the KL Tower to get views over the city, including the Petronas Towers and the mountains beyond the city. We also mooched around the markets in Chinatown and Central Market (mooching is one of my mummy’s favourite activities), visited the National Mosque, had drinks on the rooftop helipad bar and the girls had a spa day together while my dad went to the National Museum (which he recommends – I still haven’t been).
Kuala Ganjah Elephant Sanctuary
Kuala Ganjah is a fairly easy day trip from KL – I think it took about 2 hours to drive there and is well worth the trip.
They don’t do elephant shows or allow people to ride the elephants, which some of the more questionable “sanctuaries” in Southeast Asia do. But they are rescued and have lived most of their lives in captivity, making it unrealistic that they would ever be released into the wild.
As a visitor, you get to help out with various elephant tasks. We chopped up sugar cane and bananas first. It was really lovely to feed them, for such big giants they were very gentle! Mostly they take the food from your hand with their trunk, and sometimes they raise their trunk and open their mouths so you just pop the treats right in there.
The highlight of the day was helping to bath the baby elephants in the river. A limited number of people can do this but the driver who took us to the sanctuary knew someone and phoned ahead to arrange this for us, which was great. There were 2-3 elephant keepers with each baby, presumably for our protection too and to make sure nobody does anything stupid.
We were able to give our designated baby elephant a wee rub and basically splash the water all over him and he seemed to love it! It was a lot of fun to be so close to these lovely big animals and it warmed my heart to see how much my parents enjoyed it too. This was something none of us had experienced before and I’m so glad we did it together.
Penang is an island on the north west coast of Malaysia, not too far from the border with Thailand. I have been here more times than I can remember now, including a full 2 weeks at the very beginning of our time in Malaysia. I know the place quite well and even though it’s not new to me anymore, I always recommend it for visitors and I’m always happy to go back. There is a lot to do in Penang, so every time I go it’s different.
The capital, Georgetown, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is mainly due to its well-preserved heritage buildings, which include distinctive Chinese-Malaysian shop houses. The shop is at street level and the family home is above. Similar ones can be found in Melaka and Singapore but they are best preserved in Penang. They are normally quite colourful at the front and look small, but they are long and narrow, stretching way back from the street (something to do with how colonial powers taxed windows, so this was a way to build bigger spaces without paying more tax).
The Peranakan people are those of Chinese/Malay mixed heritage, mainly based in Penang and Melaka, and both places really promote their history. They have a unique culture, cuisine, style of dress and there are several museums, galleries, shops and restaurants celebrating it all in Georgetown. On this trip, my parents and I went to the Peranakan Mansion, which once belonged to a wealthy tin tycoon from China who settled there with his (several) Malay wives. There is a very informative guided tour, with a mix of showing off antiques and architectural details along with personal histories, which I love. Every time I have been I hear a different story and this time my dad had the privilege of sitting in the mafia boss chair at the dinner table (pictured happily below).
Georgetown is also well known for its colonial heritage and its important role in World War 2. It was a very strategic port for the British empire until the Japanese occupied it (when the Brits swiftly left). There are impressive buildings and signs of this period of history along with the older Chinese shop houses, clan houses and temples. I’m no fan of colonialism, but the architecture in Georgetown is an interesting reminder of this time.
We also went walking around the clan jetties – old Chinese settlements which form a bit of a floating village of houses and shops built on wooden platforms. Each jetty is owned by a different “clan” or family, and they still live there today. They are quite interesting, but the main ones that you can walk around are very busy and mainly sell cheap souvenirs and durian. For anyone who doesn’t know, durian is the very strong smelling fruit which is banned on public transport and hotels due to its stench. Malaysians love it but it is certainly an acquired taste (one which, despite trying, I have not acquired).
All in all, I think Georgetown is a very picturesque city full of history, and I’ve also heard it described as “hip”, but I couldn’t possibly comment on that.
Lang Tengah is a little island on the east coast of Malaysia, which in my opinion is the most beautiful part of the country. I’ve been to the east coast several times (although just this once to Lang Tengah) and I love it. The ocean is turquoise, warm, clear, calm and very inviting and the beaches are sandy and lined with coconut trees. The islands are fairly untouched compared to those in Thailand and other more common destinations in the region. They are completely off limits during the east coast’s rainy season though, so I’m glad my parents were here in July and able to see them!
The islands are all a bit awkward to get to, as the boats only go at certain times of the day. This means you either have to stay the night before on the mainland to get an early boat, or travel during the day and get across to the islands later. When it’s just Joe and me, we take an overnight bus from KL and get the first boat out at 7am, but for some reason my parents didn’t fancy an 10 hour overnight bus. Although the alternative wasn’t great either. We arrived on the east coast the night before (by plane) and stayed one night so we could get the first boat out. This side of Malaysia is not so well developed and the standard of accommodation isn’t great. There’s also something about beaches in a tropical climate that attracts not just humans, but other wee creatures which may or may not lurk in run down hotel rooms. Unfortunately, I don’t think my mummy slept very well in these circumstances, but after a pretty calm 45 minute crossing the next morning we arrived at Lang Tengah which was in, her own words, paradise.
Lang Tengah is very small and has just two resorts. It’s a bit more peaceful than some of the other islands I’ve been to and a good choice for a more chilled out experience. It seems to be basically a mountainous rock covered in rainforest, with some little beaches around the edges, one of which we stayed on. I don’t think there are any roads or cars. One night we ventured down a short jungle path to another beach that was meant to have a good restaurant and came across a weird abandoned village on the way there, and a huge monitor lizard on the way back. This was quite enough adventure for us, and otherwise we spent the few days on our own little patch.
My dad, Joe and I went on a snorkel trip one afternoon, which was really fun although I don’t think the coral and sea life was as good as I’ve seen on different parts of the east coast (but that can just be luck on the day). Aside from that, we did a lot of floating happily around in the water near the beach and watching the baby sharks near the jetty. They were harmless little black tip sharks, which are quite cute and not remotely interested in us. We spent a lot of time chilling on the beach with our books, chatting, eating ice cream and generally having a lovely time. Our crossing back to the mainland unfortunately was not so smooth, but it was over quickly.
I was very pleased with the diversity of the Malaysian experience we managed to squeeze into the trip, without it being overly busy or stressful. I had a brilliant time travelling with my parents for those 3 weeks and I think they did too. At least that’s what they told me. Success!