Malaysia: Easing Into Asia
Travel, Hotel and Food Guide
Malaysia: Easing Into Asia. Everybody says, if you’ve never been to Asia, then Thailand is a great place to start. Many years ago, I followed that advice and have since been to Thailand a few times as well as Indonesia and Laos – yes, I’m showing off – and I told anybody who asked me that yes, Thailand is a good introduction to Asia.
Now that I’ve been to Malaysia though, I have to revise my recommendation and say that if you’ve never been to Asia, Malaysia is also a great place to start. Or, if you have experience of Asia and just want an authentic but simpler trip, Malaysia is an ideal option.
A Bit of Recent-ish Background
Malaysia was a British colony and there’s still plenty of evidence. Driving on the left-hand side of the road, three-pronged plug outlets, and English widely spoken being some of the residual clues.
The Malaysian people I met described themselves as either Malay, which as far as I can gather means they see themselves as indigenous.; Indian, meaning their family came over from India three or four generations back or Chinese; their family originates in China. I found it all a bit weird to be honest, that the Chinese and Indian Malay see themselves that way. Even weirder that so many have stayed within their ‘own people’ to marry and/or have children.
Malaysia is a Muslim country but there’s room for everybody. It seemed to me there were just as many Hindu and Buddhist temples and churches as there were mosques. Compared to other Muslim countries I’ve visited, alcohol isn’t such an issue for non-Muslims with bars and restaurants selling it openly. Also, there’s no need for women to cover up, unless of course you visit specific religious places.
With all those cultures mixed together Malaysia is a fantastic place to eat. And, the quality is fabulous, of the ingredients and the dishes, no matter if you go high end or stay in the street markets, you can eat really, really well for a very reasonable price.
There is a huge choice of Indian food and Chinese as you’d expect, but there is plenty of Indonesian dishes as well as Malaysian classics. Beef Rendang is a Malaysian must and I fell in love with Ayam Masak Merah, a sweet, tangy, spicy chicken curry style dish I’m determined to recreate at some point now I’m home.
That’s the background, now for the trip …
We flew to Thailand first, to Bangkok, just to eat and enjoy The Banyan Tree Hotel which I’d definitely recommend. It has fabulous rooms and a spectacular roof top bar as well as one of the most beautiful hotel spas I’ve ever seen. They also gave us a free upgrade to a junior suite. That’d be a top tip from me, always ask for an upgrade or at least ask for ‘Your best room,’ you never know. I’d never stayed there before and was very impressed, The Banyan Group are now well and truly on my list.
To Kuala Lumpur
We took a flight with Malaysian air to KL where we stayed only one night at the Intercontinental. KL has some really good hotels for very reasonable prices. For example, the intercontinental was only 90 USD including breakfast, an equivalent room in an European city would be between 180 and 240 USD.
Getting around Malaysia is easy. You can take internal flights, trains are modern, efficient and reasonably priced and roads are good. We opted for car hire.
Then The Cameron Highlands
Directions and roads were a breeze to follow and it took us about three hours to get to our next stop, The Cameron Highlands Resort Hotel. A gorgeous colonial style hotel set in the cool green hills of the highlands surrounded by golf courses, strawberry growers and tea plantations. It really was a breath of fresh air (and I don’t say that lightly given the problems with air quality in Bangkok and KL).
There’s a backpacker style village close-by and plenty of opportunities for trekking and hiking through the nature or visiting one of the tea plantations. I have to admit, I didn’t do any of that, I was too busy enjoying afternoon tea and massages at the hotel. A great tip should you decided to book this hotel is to choose one of their packages. They throw in loads and your stay ends up being great value. Be warned though, we went for the ‘romantic package’ which included 2 spa treatments, a dinner for two, and afternoon tea for two. Which doesn’t sound like it should come with a warning, but, the staff are so attentive they’ll want to take photos of ‘the romantic couple’ enjoying the delights of the package – in the restaurant and bar areas I hasten to add, not the spa!
And finally, Penang Island
From the highlands, we drove down to the coast and headed for Batu Ferringhi on Penang Island. Batu Ferringhi is on the coast road out of George Town and offers lots of resort style hotels. We chose the Shangri-La because it has the option of booking the Rasa-Wing which is in effect an upgrade to more privacy. It gives you access to their very peaceful adults only pool where you are looked after with free soft drinks all day. Complementary afternoon tea, and best of all, in the evening there’s a free happy hour with drinks and lots of snacks. The charge for the upgrade was well worth it.
Our whole idea with this trip was to take it easy and enjoy a bit of luxury, so although there are lots of trips and activities around the island we took full advantage of the relaxing atmosphere at our hotel. However, we did manage to drag ourselves away for a day out to George Town. Where, apparently there are museums and all sorts, but I enjoyed wandering the higgledy-piggledy streets searching out the perfect lunch spot. Which believe me is no mean feat when there’s so much choice, and not forgetting in a temperature knocking on the door of 38 degrees.
Maybe I’m a masochist, but in that kind of heat, the only thing I could think about was curry. We found a fab restaurant in Little India called Karaikudi. It was the Crab Masala advertised on their daily specials board outside that swung it for me. It was a great place, busy, bustling, fresh delicious food.
Chinese New Year
We were lucky enough to experience Chinese New Year whilst in Malaysia. There’s a thunderous amount of cracker fireworks going off and shows of dancing lions and dragons all over the place. If you need to get around during this time, it’s worthwhile remembering the whole country seems to be on the move and traffic is a nightmare for the couple of days leading up to New Year with everybody heading home to be with family for the celebrations, so allow extra time (plenty of extra time) for any journeys you need to take. Also, many Chinese businesses, including restaurants are closed for a few days.
For a taste of my travels, try this recipe: Quick and Easy Sweet and Sour Shrimp
Things I loved: Top hotels for great prices, winter sun, easy to get around, well organised and efficient, fabulous food.
Things I wasn’t crazy about: People were often unfriendly especially the Malaysian air staff at KL airport who were downright unhelpful and argumentative – don’t think they’d heard of customer service.