It has been ten days since Kane and I returned from Malaysia and I think I’ve let my complicated thoughts and feelings percolate enough to put fingers to keyboard and write some musings on our time in this complex country.
When we booked our flights to Kuala Lumpur (KL), I really knew nothing about Malaysia. I knew they had great food thanks to our favorite restaurant in Perth, Sedap Place, but if we’re being honest, that was the extent of my knowledge. I knew where it was (I’m not that ignorant), but aside from loving laksa and knowing a bit about the religious diversity of the country, well I guess I was a bit ignorant. Heck, we didn’t even realize that our whole trip would be during Ramadan until I started noticing signs in the Sydney airport and even then it didn’t really click until the next day when we couldn’t find any Malay food in KL open during daylight hours. Really, post-COVID we were just itching for a ‘throw caution to the wind, jump on a plane’ type trip reminiscent of our early relationship years spent backpacking, so that’s what we did – well after a lot of paperwork anyway.
Thinking back on it now there are things I would have done differently – I would have spent more time on Tioman Island and probably waited a month or so until the masks came off outside and the testing requirements loosened – but that’s just part of the type of travel Kane and I do. Our trips are never a 24/7 cocktails and massages vacation (though that is available in Langkawi); they are more of ‘wandering through busy cities, eating street food, getting lost, missing buses, meeting locals’ kinds of trips. When one travels instead of vacations there are ups and downs, hits and misses, and Malaysia had plenty of both of these, though I’m still struggling to decide what the overall tilt of the trip was, positive or negative. I’m going to go with the trip being overall positive, because we were able to explore, to learn more about a country we both knew very little about, and to have some awesome experiences (Tioman Island was definitely the highlight), but there were a lot of hard aspects too.
Travel in Malaysia is not as cheap as the rest of the countries in the Southeast Asian region and when you add COVID prices on top of things, well it was definitely more expensive than we thought it would be. We ended up spending about $125 AUD per person per day, which is definitely not budget travel. When I removed the extra costs of COVID related items and extra costs that were avoidable (like two missed buses due to a late ferry, so we ended up paying for three buses, but only taking one) the trip should have been about $85 AUD per person per day. To be honest, had I made less assumptions and done more googling prior to this trip I would have expected about $80 AUD per day, but alas, my mind was busy with other things (like throwing our lives into wonderful disarray by quitting our jobs and moving out before actually buying the boat we plan to live on, thus rendering us more or less wandering, home-less nomads for the past seven months). Long story short, mid-range travel in Malaysia will set you back more than the equivalent mid-range travel in other developing countries and won’t really feel like value in comparison.
Additionally, I would not travel during Ramadan again. Now, this should not be taken as a blanket recommendation, but rather tailored to what you want out of your trip. I love food. I love eating local foods and experiencing the culture this way, because after all, food tells cultural stories in such tasty ways. It is with this in mind that I say, if you like to explore with your tastebuds and you are going to a Muslim majority (or even large minorty) country do not travel during Ramadan. This is the holiest of months in Islam (something I vaguely knew back in the depths of my brain, but hadn’t remembered prior to Malaysia) and all practising Muslims (of which you must be to be considered Malay in Malaysia) will be fasting from sunrise to sunset. This means that all those wonderful nasi lemak food stalls you’ve been dying to go to will likely be closed…for the whole month. In hindsight, this makes sense given how hard it would be to be cooking all day for others on a fasting stomach. Some places are still open, but they generally aren’t the best and we were not impressed by what Malay food we did manage to find. Straits Chinese food and Indian food on the other hand were both amazing, just different than we had expected. Much to our surprise we only ate rendang twice, but had the most succulent tandoori chicken either of us had ever tasted. Just goes to show that travel will never go exactly as planned.
If food is not your thing and you’d like to avoid the crowds in a tourist hub like Langkawi, Ramadan could be a good time to travel, just don’t expect the night markets to be open (they become Ramadan Bazars) and take more care to dress conservatively when near mosques around the time of break fast (given the religious diversity of Malaysia conversative dress is not required for non-Malays, but it pays to be aware of particularly sensitive areas and be respectful). Also, the timing of Ramadan each year is governed by the cycle of the moon, so it’s best to have a quick google before you book your flights. My broader learning from this is to just google all public and religious holidays in the country you are going to before booking – I can only imagine the look on the poor tourist’s face that realizes they booked their two weeks in Australia during the height of summer school holidays (they would probably look something like we did when I finally figured out it was Ramadan for the entirety of April).
As for the positives, there were probably less of them by quantity than I would have hoped, but they were of such high quality that it made up for it. Tioman Island in particular was like stepping into one of those ‘island paradise’ screensavers that tease you from the confines of your 9-5 office desk. Seriously, down the end of ABC Beach, past the ABC Jetty, it was like something out of a fairytale. Lush jungle grows right down to the thin line of traditional homes and buildings, separated from a pristine cove of a beach by a well-made path that is only open to a few motorbikes, not a car in sight. Our blissful five days on Tioman were spent waking up to the tittering of tropical birds, having breakfast overlooking the glassy ocean before heading out for a morning of diving with B&J Dive Centre. After our two morning dives, we’d clean our gear, shower, and inhale extraordinary amounts of squid sambal and mamak chicken at the chalet’s house restaurant before crashing into a late afternoon cat nap during the heat of the day. As the temperature cooled off we’d be lured outside again by a seductively beautiful sunset and the promise of cold beer and good conversation at the dive centre’s bar (the only one on that end of the island). I could wax on about the loveliness of Tioman, but I think I shall save the rest for a proper piece focused solely on the island, it deserves that.
I cannot talk about the positives of Malaysia without mentioning all the wonderful people we were so lucky to have met. Jason and Sam in Malacca were so gregarious in their morning hospitality that they invited us to dinner that night, which of course we had to say yes to. That night ended in their funky little upstairs studio, listening to classic vinyl records and dancing salsa for the first time in years. The conversations from that day and night will stay with me forever, because that is the heart and soul of travel, being able to connect with people so different, yet so much the same as you. From talking to Damon and Helen about Malaysian politics and the environment, to hearing about Nishanti’s love of music, one cannot help but notice how very much the same we all are. We all carry the hopes and dreams that come with being human. We want to be safe. We want to express ourselves. We want to be loved and cared for and part of a community. I feel so grateful to have been able to share that night with them and learn a little about their stories.
In general, the Malaysian people really did stand out as uncommonly kind and helpful. I’m not sure if it was because we stood out so much (international tourism being cut off for two years meant that we were often the only white people in an area) or if they are just that nice, but everywhere people seemed interested in us, where we came from and what our plans were, and wanted to help us, even going out of their way to do so like the random guy driving in KL who noticed we looked lost, pulled over, and gave us directions to the cafe we were looking for. I never felt unsafe in the country and we met more local people in a real way than I have on many other trips (oftentimes it’s hard, especially for someone who is more introverted like me, to strike up conversations with strangers). It seems appropriate that our last night in Malacca was spent at a Chinese karaoke bar with Ong and Ivy, the kind hearted owners of the animal shelter we found and donated to after I just couldn’t take seeing the suffering of the strays anymore without doing something. It was just one more surprising, wonderful thing in a trip full of surprising things. I thank everyone we met from the bottom of my heart for their hospitality in welcoming us to their country, it really made the trip.
Alas, though, in keeping with the theme of the ups then downs then ups then downs of our time in Malaysia, I cannot finish this summary of the trip without mentioning the two things that broke my heart – the suffering of the stray animals and the plastic pollution. I will go into the plastic pollution more in a later blog, but suffice it to say that the Malaysian government is not really doing anything to stop this scourge on nature and the places that are kept beautiful (like ABC Beach on Tioman Island) are kept this way through the hard work and determination of the people who live there, with no help from the government. NGOs like Reef Check Malaysia and PAWS Home Shelter Melaka are doing amazing work to help in these areas. Reef Check Malaysia responded quickly to remove a ghost net that washed up when we were on Tioman and continues to educate and protect Malaysia’s reefs the best they can. Ong at PAWS provides a safe home to more than 50 stray cats and 300 stray dogs while spaying and neutering them to hopefully enable them to find a fur-ever home without adding to the stray population (unfortunately as dogs are haram – forbidden – in Islamic society most of the dogs will not find homes and instead live at a large rural sanctuary near the mountains, which seems to be the best a stray dog can hope for in Malaysia, to be fed and protected, but not necessarily find a home).
The Malaysian government could definitely learn a thing or two from the amazing people we met during our travels here, because the people we met were kind, industrious, and welcoming, the government – well not so much. I can only hope that one day the government will be less corrupt and better reflect the true feelings of the whole population, because when that happens there truly will be hope for Malaysia.