Malaysia 2007

Well this was the holiday I have dreamed of for so many years now. It was a trip down memory lane, a journey into the past. I last saw Penang in 1970 after spending three wonderful fun filled years living in Butterworth and commuting each day to school in Hillside near Tanjung Bungah. I was a young teenager of 15 when we left and it broke my heart to be torn away from the place where I had literally – grown up and called home.

We were meant to make my journey of discovery in Feb 2006, but sadly after a short illness my dear old Dad passed away, which meant a delay in our travel plans. My urge to return to Malaysia became even more desperate after losing Dad; it was he after all who was responsible for the creation of my memories during his posting to Butterworth from 1968 - 1970 as a medic in the RAAF.

I rose a number of tiger beers to his wonderful memory So after much planning and dreaming my wife Margaret and I boarded our flight to Singapore on 28 Jan 2007

This will not be a day to day travel report. I do hope though it contains a few tips that may help others who plan to visit this wonderful country. I have placed particular emphasis on Penang as this was the main reason for the trip. This will be a collection of my thoughts, impressions and memories. Not everything will be glowing, and some comments will be blunt. You may not agree with all I have to say but it is a warts and all account of how I felt about going home.

Firstly to the people of Malaysia. We never felt threatened or unsafe at any time. We took the usual precautions but after 6 nights in Kuala Lumpur, two nights in the Cameron Highlands and eight nights in Penang we left with the impression that we were truly and warmly welcome. We had a few minor mishaps with the hire car and getting lost but all of this is just part of the overall adventure. I hate it when tourists get upset about minor things. You are on holidays; chill out and enjoy every experience that comes your way.


Kuala Lumpur
We arrived in Kuala Lumpur quite late and the trip from the airport was even longer than I expected it to be. Margaret and I were playing a little game to see who would be first to pick out the Petronas towers, much to the amusement of our taxi driver. Margaret won and we spent the next six days marveling at these unbelievably beautiful buildings and there surrounds. We stayed at the Dorsett Regency in Bukit Bintang. This hotel was fantastic and I would highly recommend it as a good value and excellent quality hotel. We paid a little extra for a larger room on the 19th floor and it was definitely way beyond our expectations.

Kuala Lumpur is one of the most exciting cities I have ever visited. It is very tourist friendly and quite easy to get around if you do a little research into the transport system. I would recommend anyone planning to visit KL to do a little research first to find out what this incredible place has to offer. We shopped everywhere and ate at some of the most interesting places I have ever seen. Jalan Alor near Bukit Bintang is a whole street that comes alive a night with street dining. The choice is mind blowing and the whole atmosphere is something that everyone who visits KL should experience. The quality and choice of dining in KL will leave you stunned. You could spend months there and never run out of ideas for somewhere new to try. One place we went on our last night was a restaurant called Seri Melayu in Jalan Conlay which is close to Bukit Bintang. This is a very large restaurant with a full buffet of mostly local food. They have a cultural show every evening and without a doubt this place was one of the highlights of the trip.

If you like shopping then KL is the place to be. Bukit Bintang has everything from super expensive to super cheap. I will not list ever shop we went to as it would take forever. For its sheer size Berjaya Times Square is very impressive, as is KLCC. We preferred to get out to the smaller places and into the markets. The whole of Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman including the Chow Kit markets is a must see for anyone who loves to shop.

We visited all the usual tourist spots including a day trip to the Genting Highlands. Sadly we spent the whole day cocooned in clouds which only lifted briefly as we were leaving allowing us to take a few photos of this very impressive if somewhat over the top resort. I can understand why people go there to get away from the heat of the city but the whole thing just smacked of our need for over indulgence. The cable car ride to the summit is breathtaking and well worth the trip just for the ride. Margaret who is terrified of heights kept her eyes closed the whole time and even feels sick now watching the video. Poor thing, she was very brave to go on it.

I was very impressed with the monorail system in KL. I think most large cities in the world need to look at this as a cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly way of moving large numbers of people. We spent ages just riding from one end to the other enjoying the lovely clean, cool, affordable and efficient service.

Cameron Highlands
After six nights in KL we had pre booked a car with Avis and headed off to the Cameron Highlands. I have to admit I was a little nervous about driving in Malaysia but it takes no time at all to adjust to the way you all drive. We found the motorway north without too much trouble and we were on our way. The motorway is very impressive and like main highways everywhere had its fair share of lunatic suicidal drivers. We found the Tapah exit and headed into the highlands. The road was not as scary as I had been led to believe but I would hate to drive up there in the early morning when all the trucks are taking there produce down the mountain. We found our home for the next two nights at the Strawberry Park Resort. What a beautiful location and lovely hotel this is. It is certainly not five star but has all the amenities you could possibly need. It was so cool and fresh up here after KL. I loved the highlands and wished we had spent a few more nights here.

Some of the highlights for us were dinner at the Smokehouse hotel, quite expensive but definitely worth it for the service and atmosphere. Driving up to Gugung Brinchang which is the highest road in Peninsular Malaysia was great. The views from here are spectacular and the weather was clear and cool. The views of the tea plantations on the way up will remain with us forever as some of the nicest scenery we have ever seen. The Brinchang night market on Saturday night was well worth the visit just to see the quality and variety of the Cameron Highlands produce.

We left the highlands on Monday morning and headed for Simpang Pulai on the new road. This is an engineering marvel and must have taken years to build. We avoided the motorway and found our way to Kuala Kangsar. I had seen pictures of the Ubudiah Mosque and it was one place I just had to visit. If you are ever driving in this area take the time to visit this mosque, you will not be disappointed. I was memorized by its beauty and found it difficult to tear myself away from there. Next stop was Taiping and a visit to the famous lake garden, we were running a little late and did not have time to visit the zoo but the area brought back many memories of days we spent there years ago.

Penang
As we approached Penang and the familiar shape of the misty hill came into view I was overwhelmed with the most incredible excitement at returning here after all these years. We crossed the bridge which was not ever there back then and headed into Georgetown. Margaret saw a sign to Batu Ferringhi and said that I should turn there. I told her I knew the way and wanted to find Weld Quay and the ferry terminal and drive from there. Well after 36 years I knew exactly where I was and how to get there. Three years on a school bus backwards and forwards everyday had burned it into my memory. A few of the roads had changed into one way streets which threw me a little and some areas that were once a road along the beach were now inland due to land reclamation; but there was no way in the world I was going to get lost.

We found my old school and then headed the short distance to Batu Ferringhi and checked into our home for the next eight nights at the Bayview Beach Resort. This place has everything you could ever need. We paid extra for the sea facing room and even though it stretched the budget a little I figured why would you come to Batu Ferringhi Beach and have a view of the hills? Sitting on the balcony in the evenings and early mornings was so relaxing, the view of the pool the beach and the hotel grounds was wonderful and the whole resort atmosphere made all the hard years of saving for this trip worthwhile.

I was back in Penang and could never describe the excitement of that feeling.

We still had the hire car the next day and this was to be my main day of memories with a visit to my old home turf in Butterworth. We started out early with a visit to the Butterfly Park. This place is definitely worthwhile and is compact enough to see thoroughly in about an hour. We spent a little longer than that as I just went wild with my camera and video. They have a very successful breeding program and are very conscious of the impact we are making on this planet and the habitat of these wonderful fragile creatures.

After leaving the Butterfly Park I wanted to go back to the old school and then drive via the ferry to the mainland. All went well till we drove off the ferry in Butterworth and the low fairing on our hire car caught the hump as we left the ferry. As a result the whole fairing and bumper twisted up under the car and scraped along the road till we found a safe place to pull over just near the Penang Port Authority building. There we stayed for more than two hours while we waited for Avis to come to our rescue. A very kind tour guide phoned Avis on our behalf which did speed things up a little. If you are out there Adam our heartfelt thanks for everything you did. Adam’s negotiating with Avis led to them charging us only for the damage to the car body, about RM200; they were going to try and recover the other costs from the Penang Port Authority. Speaking of the Penang Port Authority; thank you for nothing. We were obviously tourists who were very obviously in trouble within full view of your office and workers. Not one offer of help was made.

Anyway after that little mishap we were on our way again in a brand new replacement car. I navigated my way through Butterworth and found the old RAAF base without any problems. It was spooky and exhilarating to see it all again. The changes were obvious but every detail of every area I had memorized was exactly as I remembered. The swimming pool, the old youth club and scout hall although terribly dilapidated were still there, the cinema where I spent so many hours chatting up the girls (without success) I found Robina Park and my old home easily, it was very strange walking through an obviously locally owned area. There were a few curious looks but I guess they are used to old Aussies living in the past. Like everywhere else we were greeted with cheerful welcoming smiles.

40 kilometers from Robina Park is a beach in Kedah called Pantai Merdeka. It is unbelievable to me now that my brother and I used to cycle there regularly. I think I would die if I tried it now. Going back here was definitely a highlight of the whole trip. Every bend in the road held the memory of an event or an old song. I actually remembered things on that drive that I had long since forgotten and standing on Merdeka beach I was, for a brief moment, 14 again. There is no better feeling than that.

So after all these years what was my impression of modern day Penang?

A wonderful calamity of colours and cultures that live in perfect harmony and rarely seem to clash.
The old Georgetown is exactly as it was in 1970 with the addition of a few very big new buildings of course. The old Georgetown may be under the shadow of these structures but it was as if time had stood still. Walking up Campbell St past the mosque and up Chulia St seemed like I had been transported backwards. We found Hutton Lane and had lunch at the Eden Café. This was always a special treat as a kid and it was just as it was then, dark, cool and delicious.

The bridge of course was a new novelty. I remember them talking about a bridge and thinking it would never happen. I believe a second bridge is now in the planning south of the airport that will be about 25km long. The old bridge is totally inadequate for the amount of traffic it carries. I think there is talk of widening it in the near future.

I found Georgetown to be a little tourist unfriendly as far as signs to places of interest. It has so much to offer with very little clear information on how to get there. One good example of this was trying to find the observation deck at Komtar. We found it eventually but I think most tourists would just give up, or not even be aware it is there. The view from Komtar is fantastic and should be advertised better.

We visited most of the tourist areas on the island and many of them had remained unchanged. I remember hiking up Penang Hill on several occasions as a youngster. How the hell did I do that?
Margaret loved the shopping in Penang. I think we went everywhere. Queensbay Plaza is new and massive, Gurney Plaza is glitzy and expensive but Midland one Stop just a few blocks away was great with lots and lots of bargains at unbelievable prices. I think it is mostly for the local custom and not frequented so much by tourists.

Batu Ferringhi comes alive at night and is a great place to chill out and relax through the day. Every night we would catch a taxi to the Rasa Sayang and walk back through the markets to the Bayview Beach at the other end of the strip. There are so many wonderful restaurants to choose from along the way and dining out becomes something that you look forward to all day. All the restaurants we dined at were full of atmosphere and crowded with people. The Long Beach Café is famous for its hawker food and is a great experience if you love to try the different types of food on offer. I will not name all the favorites, they are all good and I believe with the stiff competition they must maintain a high standard of hygiene. Dining along the Batu Ferringhi strip reminded me a lot of Bali.
My only criticism of Batu Ferringhi was the lack of ATM’s, we could only find one in the whole strip and it was usually always out of order. I think an area like this that is primarily for tourists should be serviced a lot better than this.

We were never once ripped off by the cab drivers and found most of them very friendly and helpful. They were always consistent with their pricing.


The trip home
We flew Malaysian airlines to Singapore and spent the day in the Changi transit hotel. Not quite the Bayview but it was a convenient place to store our bags and have a shower before the flight home. If you are ever stuck in Singapore for a few hours take advantage of their free tour on offer at the Singapore Visitors Centre in Terminal one and two. This is an extremely efficiently run and interesting glimpse of the city and a great way to spend a few hours.

We were fortunate enough to have saved enough frequent flyer points to travel business class from Singapore to Perth. Apart from the obvious benefits of space and comfort it also allowed us an extra 10 kilos each for our shopping. Margaret certainly made use of that.

A few last comments
After 36 years it was ironic that an RAAF school Penang reunion was held for the first time in Perth while I was in Penang. What are the odds of that happening? I did manage to catch up with a couple of old and dear friends on my return though so all was not lost. I would certainly rather be in Penang than at a Penang reunion.

Many people kept my dream alive during my planning of this trip. Above all I would like to thank Kayes from Penang talk whose images and stories kept my excitement up there and gave me a hint of what to expect. I do not want to name individual forums or people here as it may breech protocol but you know who you are and I thank you sincerely. I do apologize for posting the same report on two forums.

After 16 nights in Malaysia we did not see a drop of rain which I thought was very unusual. This global warming thing is a bit of a worry for all of us. Johore and Jakarta were experiencing record flooding and yet we got no rain at all in the areas we visited.

I hope I have not bored you all too much. Thanks for reading the comments of an ageing Aussie living in the past. There are probably a million other things I could rave on about but I wanted to keep this reasonably short.

Happy travels everyone and despite the horrors that we inflict on each other I still believe it is a wonderful world full of mostly wonderful people.


Cheers for now
Frank