Go deeper into Malaysia

Go deeper into Malaysia
The airy, colourful interior of Kota Baru's central market Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah.

It is not easy to consider Peninsular Malaysia as a destination for independent travel, like how a backpacker might take on Europe or Indochina.

After all, how many Singaporeans haven't been across the Causeway to Kuala Lumpur, Malacca or Penang to shop, eat or relax (or gamble)?

It would only be too easy to dismiss Malaysia as a familiar, almost-like-home destination, and miss its range of attractions, from quaint villages to historic sites to breathtaking scenery - with enough chaos and challenges even for seasoned backpackers.

Yes, you can fly or drive across the Causeway and revel in the S$1=RM2.50 exchange rate at restaurants and shopping malls. Or you could explore it on local buses and visit smaller, less-travelled cities and towns in the east and north, such as Kuala Terengganu, Kota Baru and Alor Star.

And that's when you may find a Malaysia that is still able to surprise.

And a surprise is exactly what I had when my wife and I elected to forgo the usual independent traveller's lure of Indochina etc and attempt a three-week circumnavigation of Malaysia.

Familiar as the names of our stopovers were, the places and the trip itself proved to be a rewarding challenge that reminded us of how exciting and exotic our neighbour could be.

Kuantan, for example, is often taken as a convenient stopover for travellers going to the East Coast. But it is worth staying a few days, as a base for several day trips.

There is Tasik Chini, a reed-filled lake surrounded by forested hills that brings to mind Africa.

Go during the off-peak season - outside the school holiday periods - when the resorts empty out and you can have the whole place to yourself as you cruise around the 12 lakes that make up Tasik Chini, meander through a narrow river hidden under a thick tropical forest canopy and drop in on villagers still living in simplicity in the jungle. (Just ignore the refrigerator in the corner of the wooden huts.)

Despite the Malaysian government's effort to move villagers into the 21st century, many of them still prefer their raised wooden huts and muddy surroundings.

"Sometimes, you see a plot of land with a modern home built by the government, but the villagers are still living in a kampung house in the garden," says Mr Wann, a retired staff of the government resettlement agency who now drives tourists around the area.

A one-hour journey by bus from Kuantan that winds through several kampungs will also take you to Sungai Lembing, a delightful quaint town that was once a busy hub for Chinese miners working at a nearby tin mine.

Here, you can do the touristy thing and walk through parts of the abandoned tin mine that was once one of the biggest, longest and deepest in the world.

Or, you can just walk around the quiet hamlet and admire the colourful shop fronts with their intricate woodwork and retro-looking interiors.

About 200km north, Kuala Terengganu has its own attractions to rival those of Malacca and Penang. Apart from being a launch point for the wildly popular resort islands of Redang and Perhentian, it has a well-preserved Chinatown crammed with modern cafes as well as still-operating tin shops.

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