Do you ever have a moment, either during a trip or in everyday life, that just takes your breath away and you have to pinch yourself to make sure that you’re not dreaming? I recently had several of those on a trip I took to Malaysia. Never on my travel radar before, Malaysia ended up being a randomly selected holiday destination for me when a coworker of mine mentioned the affordable flight deal he’d gotten.
Located in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is a melting pot of cultures, cuisines, and traditions that makes for an interesting and varied experience. Having been a former British colony, the influence is still apparent in both major and subtle ways. Deciding to save the mainland for another trip, we visited three different islands, each of them offering a vastly different experience.
The first stop of our trip was Langkawi, a small island off the northern part of Malaysia, very close to Thailand. Beginning the trip with some rest and relaxation was a great choice. At just 184 square miles, Langkawi is small enough to explore in just a few days. There are two major beach areas on the island, Pantai Cenang on the West coast, and Tanjung Ru to the North. We stayed just across the road from Pantai Cenang, a lively but still quiet stretch of beach offering small guesthouses, cafes and watersports. While there are a lot of options along the beach, it is not overdeveloped. All of the places are small and independently owned. My favorite place was Yellow Café. A great spot situated on the beach with a comfortable balcony with beds to lounge on and delicious smoothie bowls to cool you off.
There’s only so much relaxing I can do before I get the urge to explore. Luckily, mopeds are plentiful and affordable to rent. With a moped and a map, we set off to see what else the island had to offer. I was appointed as the navigator, a role which I am not always the best at. We stopped several times to ask for directions and everyone we stopped to talk to was so friendly and helpful. We drove to the North part of the island which had a beautiful beach with one of the longest sandbars I’ve seen. It was a perfect place to watch the sunset. The highlight of our adventures was the seven wells waterfall. We hiked to the top and enjoyed the view before heading down just in time to seek cover before the strong rains hit. Langkawi was a great first stop to enjoy the beach and have no plans before heading to our next destination.
Penang is a state in Northwest Malaysia which comprises an area on the mainland as well as Penang island, which was our destination. On the island, the state capital of Georgetown is the main attraction. Georgetown is an interesting mix of its colonial past and its artistic present. The narrow streets contain traditional architecture that has been preserved and reimagined, filled with cafes, museums and guesthouses. Penang is known as the place to go for foodies and I can see why. We were greeted with an overwhelming amount of options, from fine dining restaurants to quirky cafes and street food vendors. I was also surprised with the amount of vegan options available.
The artistic side of the city can be seen in the street art around town. In 2012, artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to create a street art project in the city. Since then, these murals have become iconic of the area and have inspired local artists to create and display their own work. Something born of this creative spark is the Hin Bus Depot, a collection of shops and cafes situated around a courtyard full of murals and interesting artwork. There they host a weekly market and other special events. My favorite was Wholey Wonder, a vegan café with creative décor, delicious food and daily yoga classes in their studio upstairs.
Georgetown was a perfect mix of the preservation of its history and the innovation of its future. It was an interesting place to spend a few days before heading into the jungle.
The last stop on our trip, and one of my favorite travel destinations to date was Borneo. This large island includes part of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. The Malaysian side is comprised of the states of Sarawak and North Borneo. Upon a recommendation from friends, we stayed in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. The perfect destination for feline lovers, the name directly translates to ‘cat’. The culture is celebrated throughout the city in statues, fountains and even a cat museum!
The main draw here, however, is it’s proximity to the national parks and the abundance of wildlife that can be seen there. The Proboscis monkey and orangutan are both native to this island, so it’s the only place where you can see them in the wild. The first park we visited was Bako National Park on the Northern coast of the island. The entrance of the park can only be accessed by boat, and the ride in is nothing short of spectacular. I immediately felt transported to another time as I sailed towards the lush jungle and towering mountains. Along the trail, we were greeted by a family of monkeys, just relaxing on one of the platforms. We even got to see a mother nursing her baby. At the end of our hike, we were greeted by several proboscis monkeys relaxing on a log and clumsily jumping through the trees.
The next day was our adventure to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, one of the few places in the world where you can see orangutans in the wild. The rescued animals live in the expansive area of protected forest and human visitors are allowed in for just two hours a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. This ensures the animals’ lives aren’t disrupted by tourists, which made me feel comfortable visiting this facility. They truly care about the animals and place their well being over potential profit. Seeing the orangutans is never guaranteed though, as they only come out if they are hungry. However, that day we got lucky and saw two of them. One of which was Richie, the largest of the orangutans at the reserve and who I imagine to be the king of the jungle.
The next few days were spent exploring caves, hiking through the jungle, swimming in waterfalls and seeing unique animals and insects. It was some of the most unspoiled nature I have experienced. It broke my heart to learn that while we were there, on the other side of the island, in Indonesia there was a massive oil spill. Caused by a burst in an undersea pipe, this oil spill will have devastating effects to the life and ecosystem of the island and surrounding areas. It is important now, more than ever to preserve the little unspoiled nature and wildlife that we have left before it’s too late. I feel such gratitude to have experienced this beautiful place and now feel a sense of responsibility to help protect it.
Have you been to Malaysia?
More travels with Kathryn: Bathing Elephants & Swimming With Glowing Plankton—My 10-Day Trip To Cambodia
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Photos: Kathryn Farrugia