Friday, 22 February 2008

Malaysia

恭喜发财!Happy Rat Year! The Chinese New Year passed again, here in China that means several things:
  1. A 7-day public holiday. Yay! (Well, it's 3 days really, just combined with weekend work.)
  2. Totally sold out public transport.
  3. An incredible amount of firecrackers and fireworks with which people blow up a year's savings. It's a war zone, and your ears are the victims.
Hence, I used #1 to escape from #2 and #3. To Malaysia, because I've never been there before, it's not dreadfully expensive, and it's warm. Arriving in Kuala Lumpur the taxi driver pointed out a crowd queuing for tickets and a sense of familiarity came up, but fortunately it wasn't anywhere near as bad over there. At least after the very first day train and coach tickets were available, there were very few firecrackers, and many businesses stayed open. KL is quite a modern city with at least passable public transport and everything you'd expect in a big city. But nothing overly exciting, what I wanted was the seaside. I was told by a local vegetarian couchsurfer that the nicest beaches, such as Tioman island, were closed due to monsoon season and the best available would be Langkawi.

Therefore, after glancing at Wikitravel, I decided I'd go by train to Butterworth, use the ferry to Penang, then another ferry to Langkawi, and figure things again there. So here's my first bit of Malaysian travel advice to you: Don't take the train, use the coaches! The train was about 4 hours late, really slow, and while ok, not as comfortable as the coaches. Given the late arrival, I decided to stay overnight in Butterworth. My second advice to you is: Don't stay overnight in Butterworth! There's nothing there, and I mean also no decent accommodation. At least I couldn't find any. I ended up in a hotel (the only one I saw) which admittedly was quite cheap, but that's about all the praise I can give it. I guess it was used primarily for prostitution.

This picture from Butterworth demonstrates that Malaysia has a very international feel to it, not only thanks to tourism but also the multicultural population of Malay, Chinese, and Indian people. All of which made it largely quadrilingual, with signage often in Malay (sometimes written with both Latin and Arabic scripts), Chinese, Tamil, and English. Lots of people seemed to speak good English, too many in fact, to put my Malay in test.

The ferry-ride to Penang is really short and nothing to write home about. It arrives in Georgetown, which is a reasonably-sized city and has plenty of accommodation options available. Cheap sleeps are in Chinatown. A cheap single room in much of Malaysia seemed to be around the rate of 30 - 40 RM or around 6 to 9 euros per night (a tad more in KL). This usually means shared showers and toilets. Well, Georgetown is famous for food, and they do indeed also have vegetarian restaurants! Unfortunately many were closed due to Chinese New Year, but I ran into an open one while walking lots in the city as always, and it was a very good one. I'll figure out the address later. Penang island also has some beaches, and that was one major reason to go to Malaysia so I rushed off to the nearest one. It was ok, there were horses, all the usual beach activities (jet skis, paragliding, etc), expensive beach bars, quite a lot (but not overcrowded) of people, and nice sand and warm water.

Penang was good, but when I get on to the travelling around mode I tend to just keep going. Hence I headed off to Langkawi the following morning. That's a much longer ferry ride, about 3 hours, but not too bad, leaving around 8 AM daily. Langkawi had me immediately admiring its beauty, well, as soon as I got out of the awful shopping centre the ferry drops people in. It's a real paradise island with endless white sand beaches, coconut trees and monkeys running around. It's even a tax haven. I soon started regretting not booking accommodation in advance as I didn't know where to go, but luckily Zackry's Guesthouse had a dorm bed free, for just 15 RM. Later I noticed there are plenty of motels around the island pricing rooms to the neighbourhood of 40 RM, even with private showers and during the Chinese New Year.

What comes next is easy to guess. The beach. The endless white sand beaches with the rolling waves of the ocean were so inviting I spent the next few days largely in the water. Swimming for hours, but I did also go island hopping, saw lots of cute monkeys, plenty of eagles, even more of those crab-like little things that make the holes in the sand (what are they called?), and went kayaking around the island. And got my phone broken while heading back. All this, while watching the sailboats around, made want even more to get my own sailboat! Well, some day.





What I haven't really brought up yet is food. I was expecting something similar to Indonesia where things with tempeh and tofu were all around. But to my disappointment I didn't find that at all in Malaysia. It seems the wonders of tempeh goreng or even tahu goreng are very much limited to Indonesia. The Malay food was largely infested with fish sauce, and Langkawi was a pretty bad place for that, the island is full of restaurants advertising sea food. The exception is the 'capital', Kuah, where they do have a vegetarian café at least, but I was on the other side of the island. However, there is a large Indian population in Malaysia and of course that means there is Indian veg food to be found, almost anywhere. Including Langkawi, but to my shock when I took the ferry out and went to the capital of Kedah province, Alor Star, that city seems to have no Indian people nor restaurants nor vegetarian options! So I had to rely on my well-trained stomach to go a day without food and not complain.

Indeed, beach holidays are fun but after a little while you do want something more. Like something to do after the sun goes down. Or, if you burn your skin, something more to do even when the sun is up. And definitely, some good food, for the selection in the Indian places (none of which was pure veg) on Langkawi is limited. So I decided to head south to Singapore. It is true Singapore has overly strict punishments, and it's quite disturbing that they do the largest number of capital punishments in the world (in relation to the population), but even so I do like that city. It's a city where you can be dropped anywhere, walk around randomly for half an hour, and run into at least one vegetarian restaurant. Where it's constantly warm, all year round. Where public transport works and goes everywhere. Where multiple cultures mix without clashes. Where Asian cultures can be met without the bothersome foreigner label you get elsewhere and things are pushed at you because of it. Where cars stop for pedestrians going across the road. Where homelessness seems largely a solved problem. Friendly people, beautiful places, and general cleanness, and all services available all the time. It's just comfortable.

And my favourite place in Singapore is Sentosa island. Fine, the beaches aren't as great as Langkawi by a long shot, but they're still far better than anything a Finn would dare to dream about. And you can go to the city in the evening to dance tango. And eat in various vegetarian restaurants in styles of any culture. Or whatever else you might want to do.


After a couple of days of heavy eating in Singapore I headed back to Kuala Lumpur in order to get back home. I got one of those tickets for the hop-on, hop-off tourist buses going around the city, and it seemed just the thing for a day visit. The Lake Gardens were nice, especially the Hibiscus and Orchid gardens there. And the Petronas Towers actually do look quite nice, especially at night. So, overall, a great trip, and Malaysia as well as Singapore are certainly along the top of my recommended travel destinations. The rest of the pictures are here.

13 comments:

Urban Vegan said...

Oh I am so jealous. THanks for taking us along.

And I do love Malaysian food--we have 3 Malaysian restaurants here where I can always get tasty veg fod.

dreamy said...

There is in alor star! Oh you should have told me u are gg to kedah, thats where my dad grew up! How do I survive when i m there if there were no veg food? hehe.. The veg places is more like in coffee shops rather than in shopping centres - at least thats how it is like in the area I know.

Georgetown is one of the state in malaysia with a large chinese population so you can find more veg food there :)

Wah!! The beautiful beach! You put the beach picture to make me envy eh?

Hey if u go to SG's chinatown, you will get the foreign label for sure, well not as bad as those perfume and watch sellers in KL chinatown though :D

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forgot-minun-suomi-niemi-you-gave-me-lol said...

The longer I stay here, the more vegetarians (suomalaiset) I meet daily-- I was told this is a fashion nowadays.

And everyone, including those "fallen" foreigners are dragging me to ice swimming. I don't think I can resist it any more soon... :-/

So my point is, why not move back? I'm sure you'll find more "possibilities" if we're not talking about their insanities. lol

Jari (travelling-vegan) said...

Dreamy, thanks for telling us there is veg food in AS -- in coffee shops. Hmm. What kind of veg food do they have? And while one does get slightly picked on in SG Chinatown, it's nothing compared to China, and it's only a small and touristy section. That much is bearable. :-)

Raisa, now it seems there are fellow veg-heads here in China too. But you're thinking of avantouinti?! Goodness, that'd be a sight! I bet you'd run back to the sauna screaming after dipping a toe in! :-P To see that might be worthy of a visit to Finland, but to stay there -- that'd be too much. I want somewhere warm.

dreamy said...

Veg food in AS - Local malaysian vegetarian food :9

duncanarmour said...

Unless you have access to a kitchen, or relatives, I would advise vegans and vegetarians to give Malaysia a miss.

Anonymous said...

Having spent many years of my life in Malaysia, I can tell you that Malaysia is great for vegetarians.
In Penang, there are at least 10 pure Chinese Veg restaurants (probably more like 20) and 5 - 10 Indian/other vegetarian establishments. KL: multiply that number by 3 at least.
In Alor Setar, probably almost none, but I would guess at least 1.
I've heard Langkawi now has 3 Chinese veg restaurants.
My recommendations in Penang: Happy Realm, For You Yen, Ee Ho Chai. KL: Natures (all 3 locations), Giant Bowl, Nanking Court, Gandhi's (Brickfields).

- The New World Vegetarian

verdantreports said...

Your experiences were really useful when I was planning my holiday. I ended up eating lots of Chinese food at Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, and producing a 5-minute podcast with food tastings, comments, interviews, and an expert on Buddhist history.

Luaay said...

nice

Anonymous said...

In it something is. Many thanks for an explanation, now I will not commit such error.

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K said...

Hi Jari,

Glad you liked Malaysia. If you make a trip here again, you should check out East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak) and some of the rarely visited islands like Pulau Besar for the beaches. Also, there are lots of legends and interesting mythologies surrounding some of the islands like Langkawi.