Jun 08, 2006|
It’s every big city dweller's traffic jam daydream to find their very own paradise island for a week of unadulterated escapism. Yet with the popular holidaying spots becoming increasingly crammed with multiplying wild packs of gap-year students and beer-belching package holidayers, where can you find your own piece of undiscovered tranquility?
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to break the bank with a trip to the Maldives or trek halfway up a mountain to find those precious, non-commercialized travel spots, and Malaysia is the perfect place to start. While Kuala Lumpur is a thriving metropolis, it’s easy to get lost in the backstreets of this city and discover its colorful ethnicity. Meanwhile, a trip to the quieter islands on the east coast, will find you wandering idyllic beaches without the hint of a neon Carlsberg sign.
Many people use Kuala Lumpur as a stop-off point en route to a more “exotic” location, but this buzzing multi-cultural city is well worth a trip in its own right. Malays, Chinese and Indians live side-by-side, meaning the architecture, art and food have been influenced by all three cultures. Combined with a history of indigenous tribes, this melting pot of societies creates some of the most fascinating sites, tastes and smells in Asia.
In almost 150 years, Kuala Lumpur has grown from little more than a few shacks to a modern and vibrant city of almost two million people. Chinese travelers in search of tin originally founded the city in the mid 1800’s. After discovering tin a few miles east in Ampang, they built a thatched village at the point where the Kelang and Gombak rivers meet. The travelers imaginatively named this village Kuala Lumpur, which literally translated means "muddy confluence" – then promptly all died of malaria. But the village and the tin remained, attracting more and more new settlers from all over Asia.
Today the city is a lot more colorful than its name suggests and its diverse origins can immediately be recognized in the architecture. Elegant colonial buildings contrast with soaring modern creations, such as the Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest building. Rising a colossal 88 stories, 452 meters above street level, visitors can take in the stunning views from the viewing platform before wandering among the districts cafes and shopping in the multitude of malls.
At ground level, it’s easy to get lost in the winding backstreets of Chinatown or Little India. These areas come alive at night when you’ll find yourself navigating between busy street vendors, food hawkers and tiny bars featuring live bands.
To get a taste of the Hindu religion that has also played its role in shaping Kuala Lumpur, the Batu caves are a short drive from the city. The caves are home to a set of temples, which has become a Hindu pilgrimage spot and are used for festivals and prayer. The caves have become famous for the masochistic feats performed there annually by the Thaipusam devotees, who pierce their cheeks, tongues and the skin on their backs with large skewers and hooks as a form of penance to the gods. Throughout the rest of the year, a small form of the festival is performed every day while the high ceilings of the three caves are illuminated by strips of lights shining through the tiny holes in the limestone.
High-rise chain hotels and McDonalds’ golden arches are now a familiar sight on many famous Asian beaches. But such commercialism is completely alien to the Perhentian Islands. This cluster of islands off the northeast of Malaysia is covered in tropical rainforest and fringed by palm-fronted white sand beaches. Only a short flight from Kuala Lumpur, the idyllic islands of Pulau Besar and Pulau Kecil remain remarkably undeveloped and are the perfect hide-away from busy city life.
In keeping with mainland Malaysia, the arts and culture of the Perhentians have been influenced by all the various nationalities that have stumbled across these islands in their travels.
Staying on the islands is not as lavish an experience as the usual five-star resorts on mainland Malaysia. However the added tranquility more than makes up for the lack of 24-hour spas and gourmet room service and the charm of the small Malay-run resorts far outweighs the lack of luxury.
Accommodation varies from extremely basic beach huts to deluxe mahogany suites with a sunset view. Resorts like the D’Coconut resort in Pulau Besar are an excellent mid-range option. All the beach huts are built on stilts and fringe the jungle with high peaked roofs protecting against the heat and humidity.
The laid-back friendly attitude of the islanders is completely infectious and while you could be left waiting an hour for a fruit juice, you’ll be greeted with welcoming, chatty service.
Most of the cafes and beach huts are set along the beach against a thick backdrop of rainforest. The relatively undisturbed jungle encourages a huge amount of local wildlife. Animals are well looked after on the islands, so they’re not afraid to explore around the houses. You could find yourself playing volleyball to an audience of gibbons or discover a huge monitor lizard stealing your wash. Monitor lizards are one of the most exciting aspects of staying on the islands – just walking the short trek across Pulau Kecil, you will almost certainly bump into a few of these giant, dragon-like creatures and they pose no threat to quiet observers.
Trekking is also a great way to soak up the stunning views both islands have to offer. The best route climbs the hill on the western side of Pulau Kecil and reaches a viewing point at a sheer cliff. If you can manage a dark walk home, it’s a beautiful place to watch the sun set over the turquoise waters.
Even when the islands are in peak season and all accommodation is full, the beaches remains extremely quiet. As a result, there is a great deal of marine life to explore only wading distance from the shores, and it’s not unusual to find small fish nibbling your toes as you paddle in the shallow water. These tranquil shores are a haven for divers and snorkellers; with great year-round visibility, you can either paddle out from the shore or take a daylong boat trip to the aptly named Shark Island. Black-tip reef sharks are in abundance here and are not shy to come within meters of divers. It’s also easy to catch sight of turtles and stingrays along with multitudes of neon colored fish and coral.
After a long day exploring the reefs, the laid back attitude of the islanders continues into the evening and most nights in the Perhentians are spent relaxing on the beach under the moon. Every night fishermen haul up their catch to the barbeques dotted along the beach, where local chefs set to work frying up the catch with lemongrass and chilies. You could be lucky enough to be offered Barramundi, squid, shark, kingfish and grouper all freshly caught that day. While the islands are ruled under the strict Islamic laws of the region, the Perhentian attitude to alcohol is much more relaxed. The beach cafes won’t serve you booze but you can enjoy alcohol in the resort restaurants or buy it from a few entrepreneurs who have set up stalls along the beach selling beer from a cool box.
While there isn’t the thriving nightlife of bigger resorts, people tend to congregate around open fires on the beach every night. And it’s not unusual to freshen up before bed with a midnight swim in the sea – and watch the glowing phosphorescence under the stars.