Go deeper into Malaysia

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.

But one of the biggest surprises comes from Kota Baru, the northernmost city on the East Coast.

The state capital of Kelantan is often portrayed as the bastion of the hardline Islamic party PAS that runs it and you might expect a conservative, traditional city devoid of decadent Western influences.

"Rubbish," says a local Chinese resident. "Look around, you can drink beer at many places and there are many Chinese restaurants where you can eat your pork."

Indeed, Kota Baru has its usual share of modern malls, KFC and McDonald's fast food joints, and even an Apple shop in KB Mall.

In fact, Kota Baru comes across as cleaner than many other towns and its streets, while quiet at night, feel safe enough to walk around in the dark.

"There are no nightclubs in Kota Baru so the streets are safer," says the local resident. "Some people want to make Kelantan out as a strict, unpleasant place, but it's really a lot better than you think."

Politics, it appears, is never far from the surface in conversations around Malaysia and you'll never have to go far before hearing opinions about race politics and corruption.

At the tiny but incredibly well-run museum dedicated to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad at 18 Lorong Kilang Ais in Alor Star, politics is everything.

The museum has no qualms about hailing Malaysia's most famous premier, but it certainly does a good job in preserving Dr M's childhood home - down to his father's favourite chair - giving a good glimpse into Malaysian life in the 1930s.

But lest it ever gets too easy or familiar going round Malaysia, there is the usual chaos to give backpackers enough kick. Much of it comes from taking local transport, with unpredictable bus schedules and chaotic scenes at bus terminals providing the challenge.

Sure, most of the operators, bus guides and schedules can be found online. But arriving at the station, you'll find all your best-laid plans dissolving as the noise, confusion and apparent randomness of the queues confront you.

Often, the bus numbers don't seem to mean much - and neither do the lanes for specific services at the terminals. You just have to listen for the shouts of the conductors, usually made just before the buses pull out.

But it's all part of the charm of Malaysia, along with the familiar-yet-different feel.


This article was first published on Nov 9, 2014.
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