Malaysia: the verdict

Siem Reap, 5 January 2020

Since Penang is only a small island, for a nice change we don’t need to check into an airport hotel before taking leave of Malaysia and travelling on to Cambodia. We’re transitting Kuala Lumpur Airport a third and final time before safely arriving in Siem Reap around mid-day.

Travel stats (Malaysia) By land: 230 km. By water: 120 km. Duration: 10 days.

Travel stats (total) By land: 11,160 km. By water: 535 km. By air: 28,992. Duration: 159 days.

In Malaysia we consumed more than a few beers, yet all of them imported. Tiger, Skol, Carlsberg and Guinness are readily available just about anywhere, as is a white beer version of Kronenbourg. In Langkawi we were pleased to find Hoegaarden at £1 a bottle (duty free), and cans of Tiger and Skol go for about the same at Pantai Cenang’s beach bars. In Penang, prices are more or less double of those found in Langkawi.

Ten days in Malaysia have simply flown by, so let’s present the marks awarded by Lauren.

The people score 8/10. In the short time we were in Malaysia, we’ve only met a few local Malaysians, but they were all very nice, with a special shoutout to Sam in Langkawi, who was a very gracious host and cooked up a mean curry! Since Penang is so multi-cultural, we ended up meeting native Indian people more than anything else, but they were a good laugh too.

The food scores 9/10. My last laksa was a bit of a sloppy mess, which is the only thing keeping Malaysian food from a perfect score. Malay, Chinese, Singaporean, Western and Indian, is there any cuisine Malaysia doesn’t nail?

The transport scores 9/10. We did try to figure out the public bus system at one point, but it was a bit all over the place. Not a problem, however, as taxis are dirt cheap, fast and efficient, and scooter rental is available at low prices everywhere.

Nice and easy this one, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Malaysia has hereby earned itself Lauren’s Certificate of Excellence! Yam Seng!!

Penang: Malaysia’s melting pot

Penang, 31 December 2019 – 4 January 2020

On the final day of the year we take the ferry from Langkawi to Penang. The island of Penang is located just off the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, by the Malacca Strait. Both are connected by the longest oversea bridge in Southeast Asia.

While much of Malaysia draws its culture from its largely Muslim Malay inhabitants, Penang is a giant melting pot of different cultures: Indian, Chinese, Malay, and some remnants of British colonialism (1867-1957).

Just around the corner: Leith Street!

To celebrate the new year we spend our first night bang in the middle of George Town, the capital of Penang. George Town is Malaysia’s second largest city, as well as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The street of our hotel, Campbell street, used to be the red light district filled with Cantonese brothels, but now it is the centre of the Chinese jewellery trade. Just around the corner from us is the area dubbed Little India, which springs to life at dinnertime when the food stalls open for business.

We find a grimey, little bottle shop surrounded by low-budget hostels, which has a pop-up terrace compounding of plastic folding tables and chairs. It turns out to be quite a happening place, popular with locals, expats and tourists; the cheapest boozer in town. We plan to go here for just one drink but end up staying for most of the night chatting away to a group of Indian migrants.

We make it back to our hotel room’s balcony just in time to see the fireworks set off from nearby The Top tower. We’re pretty drunk at this point. Our travels in 2019 have been superb, so kick on 2020!

The next day, with sore heads, we relocate to another hotel a bit further away from George Town near Penang Hill. Once we have a scooter we revisit George Town for the daytime experience.

Famed for its art, architecture and diversity, George Town is a city that feels new and western, while preserving the eastern cultures that originally turned Penang into a world trading centre. It’s pretty hipster, a bit quirky, and quite photogenic. The street art walking tour is to be recommended.

The architecture is a mishmash of old style Chinese mansions, British colonial houses and lots of new development.

Some of the old building are beautifully restored, while others have been reduced to just an empty shell, and skyscrapers and condos pop up everywhere, yet George Town seems to retain plenty charm. By the docks you can visit the old Chinese clan jetties, stilt houses that have been passed on between generations.

Perhaps even more so than its art and architecture, Penang is world-famous for its food culture. Everything we eat here is pure gold. The Chinese and Indian tastes authentic, while Muslim food stalls offering Nasi Kandar are available everywhere. We return to our favourite place two nights in a row, a big tented drinking hall/foodie heaven consisting of over 10 food stalls, where we try more laksa, Singaporean classic koay teow soup, and all the food we miss from China. At night there’s lady boys performaning on a big stage for all the diners’ entertainment.

With much to see (and eat) in George Town, one would almost forget there is a completely different side to Penang. The northern shoreline has about ten public beaches, and the entire westside of the island is almost undeveloped, and designated forest reserved, complete with a national park, turtle breeding centre, butterfly sanctuary, tropical fruit and spice gardens and botanical gardens.

Even though we spent a good few days in Penang it feels like we haven’t yet seen all of it, which has to be a good sign! With that, our time in Malaysia has already come to an end again, now it’s off to Cambodia we go!

Langkawi: Paradise of cheap booze and cheese

Langkawi, Malaysia. 26-30 December 2019

Our journey brings us back to Kuala Lumpur where we fly on to the island of Langkawi, known as the Jewel of Kedah. An archipelago of 99 islands on Malaysia’s west coast bordering Thailand, Langkawi was once a hideout for pirates rampaging in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. Though these days the pristine beaches of Langkawi draw in a different type of traveller, the rum still flows cheap and plentiful since the island was declared a duty-free zone in 1987.

We’re staying near Pantai Cenang, the island’s most popular beach and tourist area. Fun fact about Langkawi is that their weekend falls on Thursday-Fridays, which throws a bit of a spanner in the works when we first arrive, since some of the places we want to go see are shut. Instead we meet up with a friend of a friend, who owns a backpackers hostel nearby and party the weekend away.

For Lauren’s birthday the mission is simple: Eat cheese, and lots of it. Our quest brings us to a deli selling vintage Gouda with a french bakery nextdoor, and to a buffalo farm in the middle of the island to collect fresh mozzarella.

Langkawi also has it’s very own cheddar manufacturer, so most restaurants are well-supplied. Mac’n’cheese? Check!

One of the cooler places to visit is the Black Sand Beach. No one seems to know what has turned the sand black, since it’s not volcanic. Some say it’s minerals washed down from nearby Mount Raya, others believe it’s iron oxide or even petroleum.

Besides the novelty sand, the ice-cold waters of Black Sand Beach are more than welcome after a hot day of driving around the island.

Like the Philippines, Langkawi has its own island hopping tour, visiting three spots off the southern coast: An island taken over by macaques, a place to spot fishing eagles, and a giant saltwater lake. At a mere £6 a head it’s no wonder the tour is extremely popular, but it’s worth going. Some of the scenery looks identical to the Philippines.

In terms of wildlife there is one animal that stands out: the dusky leaf-monkey. When we visit a waterfall in the north-west of the island we run into a whole group of these strange, googly-eyed little creatures.

Near the airport we find a string of food stalls serving local delicacies and try laksa, a rice-noodle soup with mixed vegetables, chillies and fish, and cendol, a strange but not entirely unpleasant dessert made of coconut milk, rice flour jelly noodles, sweetcorn, kidney beans and syrup. With a runway on one side and a beach on the other, it’s become our favourite place to hang out at sunset and enjoy a good meal.

We’ve enjoyed Langkawi a whole lot, and it’s ticked a lot of boxes: Good food, nice beaches, imported cheese, cheap drinks, great weather and better yet, monkeys that haven’t tried to attack Lauren, which is a first! We’re off to a great start in Malaysia, next up we’re headed south to Penang to celebrate newyears.