First days in Malaysia – cultural mosaic and colonial heritage


Capital: Kuala Lumpur

Population: 28 million

Official religion: Islam with the freedom to practice any other religion

State system: Constitutional monarchy – the monarch is chosen every 5 years among the seven sultans of the different states 🙂

viktoria clock tower

The clock tower, gift for the birthday of Queen Victoria in Penang

Malaysia is divided into two parts – mainland, or West Malaysia, part of the continental land. Here is the most southern part of Asia. And East or Malaysian Borneo, that is the north part of Borneo. The country is an amazing mix of cultures – the local Malays, Muslims, ethnic Chinese, Indians who came to live here hundreds of years ago, aboriginal people in the jungle called Orang Asli and quite a big number of immigrants coming from all parts of the world.
Economically Malaysia is one of the most developed countries in Asia. That was almost all we knew for the new country we were visiting. We are impatient to meet new people and see new landscapes.

grafit kolelo

When we see Malay people for the first time we notice they are different than the Thais. Some have more Asian features and others look like Turks with the specific mustache. All have pretty dark skin. They smile all the time and look quite friendly, though not as much as the Thais.

grafiti motor

We enter Perlis state – the smallest of total of 13 states with almost zero to none tourists. The road after the border is empty and there is not even one village in the vicinity. We hitchhike for two hours and nobody stops. Some not very pleasant couple offers us to take us to the highway for quite a nice sum. This makes us worry since in Thailand and Myanmar private cars have never asked us for money. We decide to continue on foot.

After a kilometer or so we pass a border check-point where they write down our passport numbers and we hope that after it hitchhiking will become easier. We then reach Wang Kelian, a village that consists of several luxury houses. We continue hitchhiking near a gas station and the price of gas impressed us – just 30 eurocents per litre (1,13 euro per gallon).

Finally a truck headed to the main border check-point between Malaysia and Thailand named Padang Besar takes us and drives us to the highway. It stuns us that everyone here speaks very good English contrary to Thailand, Myanmar and practically all South Asian countries. We eat at a restaurant with fair prices (fried rice or noodles cost 0,60 eurocents – 3 ringgits). Food is delicious.

Kuay teow

Traditional kwai teow noodles


We continue hitchhiking near a big university building. Time passes by and still nobody stops. Two women offer us to take us for money. We are really worried now that hitchhiking won’t be easy here in Malaysia though we have heard it is effortless. Finally two students take us to the capital of the state Perlis, Kangar City. We walk quite a lot till we exit it and then start waiting again.

The architecture of the buildings resembles those of Thailand, roads are perfect and there are more high buildings than in similar cities in Thailand. There are not much interesting views and people till now, maybe because all is too modernized. In half an hour another student stops. Lucky for us he is going to Sungai Petani a town close to Penang where we want to go to and where out host from awaits us – first couchsurfing in three months. The student tells us many facts about the states Perlis and Kedah – the ones we traverse now. We learn that this is the only state in whole Malaysia where people grow rice and many people in Perlis follow the Islam sect Wahhabism.


In fact the places here are quite traditional and conservative, but nevertheless people are friendly towards foreigners. Then the student decides to visit a friend in Butter Worth a town on the other coast of Penang Island . This fits out plans perfectly. He leaves us at the ferry for George Town, the main city on Penang Island and soon we travel to the Strait of Malacca.

ulica 2

The ferry costs 1,20 ringgits (around 0,25 eurocents) and travels 20 minutes. On board there is such a mixture of people and cultures that we can’t stop watching at everyone – Chinese in short pants and wearing glasses; Indian women dressed in saris; Muslims with all kinds of robes and turbans; westerners and Malays. We have seen such an international mixture only in Hong Kong. On the island a cloudy sky and silhouettes of skyscrapers await us – and hidden among them is the old town – UNESCO historical heritage.

Cafe in the old town

We get off at the port and our host comes to take us in just 5 minutes. He lives 15-20 km out of town in the beach resort Batu Ferringi. His house is in a quiet neighborhood of luxury villas. We sit and start talking and he tells us he is Iranian. We are so happy because of the fact that we can’t stop chatting till 3 o’clock in the morning. He lives here with his Ukrainian girlfriend. They both work in the tourist industry and enjoy the clam life in Malaysia.


 Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (one of the most successful clans in Malaysia)           



On the next day we take a bus to George Town and in an hour we are in the center. The city is very modern with thousands of shopping malls, skyscrapers, very clean. I think this is the most developed city we have been at on our journey so far.


Colonial church

We fall in love in the old town. It is a colorful mixture of cultures. One crosses two or three blocks and finds him/herself in a totally different surroundings. Around the old Kapitan Keling Mosque all is in Arab writings, half moons and stars, restaurants with Halal food (bythe Muslim standards).

kapitan keling mosque

Kapitan Keling Mosque

Just 200 meters further you find yourself in Little India – the Indian neighborhood. All the restaurants play loud music. Women dressed in saris are everywhere. It smells of incense sticks and the priest in Shri Mariaman Temple puts red dots on the people’s foreheads.


Indian restaurant

indian mosque

Indian mosque

Then we go out on the Armenian street decorated with incredible graffiti and with many souvenir shops with hippie atmosphere.

Bruce Lee


Close-by is the Chinese Town with amazing temples and ancient houses – at least 200 years old. Chinese are numerous in Penang. They have been coming here for hundreds of years and have kept their traditions up to now – much more than those in China itself. That is why it is very interesting to watch the rituals they perform in the temples in front of which giant incense sticks smolder day and night.

Teochew temple

Temple of the Chinese community Teochew

Close to the sea one can see incredibly beautiful cathedrals, churches and buildings from colonial times. Penang was first occupied by the Portugese, later by the Dutch and at the end by the British. The variety of architectural styles is dizzying. Penang is also famous for its exquisite cuisine – probably the best in South-East Asia. In the evening there are myriad street vendors offering a mind boggling variety of food.


Museum with colonial architecture

We stay here for five days because we have so much to do – buy a new camera, find a dentist and run some other errands. At night we go to bed around 1 o’clock after midnight because we sleep during the first half of the day and in the afternoon go around the streets in the old town. We also see the celebrations for the last 15-th day of the Chinese New Year, the lantern festival and we witnessed the most impressive fireworks we have ever seen.

kitaiski hram

Chinese temple

We also went to a couchsurfing meeting where we met a lot of people – locals and tourists. We were impressed how different the Malaysian Chinese are than the rest. All speak very good English, are very open and modern and are not shy to speak to foreigners.


Chinese people prepare for the celebrations

One of the days we went to the beach next to where we lived for these several days but the place turned out to be quite intense – there were a lot of jelly-fish and many boats and jets going very fast in all directions. It turned out this was the most popular beach in Penang and our host Farzam told us that the people from Saudi Arabia are very fond of it because here they could see women wearing burkas while riding water ski.

nashiqt kvartal

Our neighborhood for the time being

We buy our new camera with the help of all that contributed to our exhibition. It is a brand new Nikon P530 – semi-professional quite good camera. So as you see we make photos again 🙂


Mr. Shushtari even went to a barber – not the usual barber, mind you – an old Indian who uses the most archaic methods of shaving.

But finding a dentist turned out to be the most epic of our experiences in Penang.

Going to the dentist – Indo-Malaysian style

We get off at a bus-station far from the center because previously we have noticed there are quite a lot dentist clinics here. We think we might have caries so we have to visit one. We ask in two luxury looking clinics and they had all hours booked for the day. We continue inside the neighborhood.

Soon we see an old building close to a Hindu temple. On the door there is a sign “pergigean” which means dentist in Malaysian – they use Latin letters so we can read the signs. The small reception hall is empty. Then a very nice old Indian woman who looks intelligent shows up. We ask about the prices and they are two times lower than at other places. We decide this is our place and in addition Indian doctors are known to be quite good.

kino odeon

Cinema: “Odeon”

I enter the main room where everything is old and shabby. The dentist starts asking conducive questions such as if I happen to know Mother Teresa. Later she turns out to be a Catholic. She starts the exam using medieval methods.

The little metal instrument she uses to check how deep my caries is glances off all the time and pokes my gum. To my relief I don’t have caries just a little tartar. I did clean it in China for the last time and I remember the procedure to be painless so I decide to give it a try.

Doctor Margareth takes the instruments, opens my mouth widely and puts a device to suck my saliva. Then the horror begins: the device she uses is glancing off all the time, there is a lot of blood and saliva flowing in all directions and the woman doesn’t stop for a second. She seemed like a nice lady but obviously not so much while working. After this my gums hurt for two days but she seemed satisfied with the result.

Grafiti drakon

The filling of the caries the next day went easier without incidents. In the cabinet there are not basic things such as hoses for air and water, the dentist uses just the saliva sucker. She also doesn’t allow you to swish with water very often. When she finished cleaning the hole in the tooth she dried it with nothing but cotton. When she is ready she gives me a mirror to see the result. To my amazement I saw she did the filling with amalgam – a material I thought nobody used anymore. Good that it is on my wisdom-tooth so it is hardly seen. 

She did the flattening of the filling only by hand – not using any device. After me comes Mr. Shushtari’s turn. While she was examining him, he told me later, she accidentally poked his gum and he cringed. Then she asked: “Oh, you tooth hurts?” He didn’t know what to say. He survived the tar cleaning and although her medieval methods he saw she was a good doctor. When she was over she gave him a tooth-paste as a present. If somebody needs to go to a dentist at Penang we warmly recommend her 🙂 


A house in the old city


 S Farzam

Irina, Fazham and Lisa (the dog)

We part ways with Irina, Fazham and Lisa and head to the port. There is no bus going in our direction for an hour and we do a photo-walk in Penang and we catch the ferry to Butter Worth at 3 p.m. Nobody asks us for money this time so it is a free ride. On the other side the highway passes close-by to the port but there is no way out of it and we have to walk on foot under the hot sun. Good that we buy fried bananas to soothe ourselves.

We start hitchhiking after the barrier. People make gestures, wave and smile but no one takes us. A few motor-bikers even stop to chat with us. One of them is a Pakistani from Peshawar and tells us how beautiful and safe his town is, obviously forgetting about the most horrible terrorist act in the history of men when some shooters killed 150 children at their school just a year ago. Most of the immigrants here in Malaysia come from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.


Penang’s port at night

After an hour of tiresome waiting we head on foot to a gas station. Hitchhiking in Malaysia is harder than in all other countries in the region. While we walk a Muslim woman stops and asks us where we are going on foot under this sun. She is concerned about us.

She says her home is close-by and she is coming back from work but she will take us to a better place for hitchhiking some 10 km. forward. We pass by several forks and she leaves us at a gas station. Probably here almost everyone will be headed to Ipoh Town – our next destination.


Street vendor offers beverages


Traditional beverage called cendol

Soon an Indian Christian Methodist family takes us to Ipoh – 150 km. When we reach the city it is already dark. There are some beautiful administrative buildings in the center and a mini Taj Mahal. We don’t want to enter the city, just to step on a road to the mountains but our people are in other direction and want to leave us in the center. This would mean hours of walking till we go out and find a place to sleep.

Finally they agree to travel with them to Batu Ganja where they live and leave us at the exit near a castle which we saw previously on the map. They leave us at Kellie Castle which was closed. We see a Sikh who is a guard and he shows us the palm plantation in the vicinity where we can pitch our tent. Buffaloes bathe in the river behind us.

kellie castle

The haunted Kellie Castle

The fruits of this kind of palm give palm oil which is one of the cheapest kinds of oils in the world. Sadly people here kill the jungle in order to grow these palms which causes serious ecological problems to Malaysia and Indonesia. If you take a look at the ingredients in almost all waffles and biscuits, you will see that even in Europe the usage of this oil grows exponentially. The result: we eat cheap, low quality products on the expense of the millennium old forests of Borneo.


In the morning we visit Kellie Castle built by a rich Scottish plantation owner who lived here during the 1900s. There are many legends about this place being haunted by ghosts. The castle itself is built in British-Oriental style. We didn’t enter inside because the entrance of 10 ringgits is above our budget at the moment but we walked around it and read all the stories.

Then we take a shower and continue hitchhiking. We wait for half an hour and a Indian Catholic family takes us to the fork to Cameron Highlands famous for their tea plantations and nice cool climate. We decide to not visit the place because we are eager to start our expedition in the jungle and because every tourist who visits Malaysia and follows the guide Lonely Planet comes here inevitably.

na putq

On the road

We continue hitchhiking and a Muslim Malay family takes us. The man is talkative and we speak all the way. On the road we see a terrible accident between a motor-bike and a truck. Just minutes ago while we were waiting at the gas station we saw a group of joyous motor-bikers and even a woman wearing a veil and now we feel horrible that one of them is gone. Malayans like high speeds and drive more extremely than the calm Thais, but the situation is pretty normal anyway.

The family continues to Cameron Highlands and we head to Gua Musang Town. Almost immediately a truck takes us. We haven’t been in a truck for almost two months because in Thailand our main transportation means were pick-ups. The driver is very nice. On the road there are only vegetable fields for kilometers on end and not one tree.

From Gua Musang we continue south near the border of the national park. We wait a long time and then a boy takes us to a gas station 10 km. away. There we see a corpulent Indian who meticulously scrutinizes his brand new jeep while resting. He says he is going to Kuala Lumpur but has no place in the car. We see at the backseat there is only one suitcase and some bags with food and consider he just doesn’t want to take us.

We start hitchhiking twenty meters away from his car. After a while he starts his car, comes to us and asks how much will we pay him if he takes us. The answer is “nothing”. Then Mr. Shushtari explains to him in a peppery voice how we travel and why we do it. The jaw of the rich businessman drops and he mumbles: “You are very nice people. If I take you, I think I’ll be blessed.” He obviously considered that helping us will bring great blessings and goodness to him.

He moves the suitcase in his empty trunk and soon we drive at 180 km/h on the highway. It turns out he is a Catholic too so we start wondering where so much Christian Indians come from. In addition they are the only ones that stop to us. We suppose that the British brought them from Tamil Nadu as a working force during colonialism.

We get off a little after Kuala Lipis. We have crossed 300 km. today and feel exhausted. So we plan to look fro a place to sleep and tomorrow continue to Jerantut – the town where we have to buy everything we need for the expedition. While we walk a shabby jeep stops by and an elderly Chinese man offers to take us to Kampung Budu – the next village. Why not? Rule number one – always follow the signs of fate.

While we travel we start speaking in Chinese and he is so impressed that he says he will take us to a friend of his who has a cabin in the woods where we can sleep. We enter a smaller road after a while and a herd of wild pigs comes in front of the car. The Chinese is a hunter and takes out his rifle. I frantically try to think how to stop him but luckily the pigs are gone. What a relief!

His friend is Malay (Malays are the local Muslims and Malaysian is every citizen of Malaysia regardless of his/her religion or ethnicity. So from now on we will use these two termsfor better distinction.) We arrive at the house and the owner tells us to pitch our tent in front of his neighbor’s house who now live in Kuala Lumpur. Around it there are all kinds of trees – durian, jack-fruit, mangosteen, rambutan, etc.


Our bivouac in the yard

The people who live here are very nice. The man and his wife look like Turks but are in fact Malay. In the evening we set fire. The Chinese guy goes around the forest to look for the pigs and comes from time to time to help us with gathering firewood.


The Malay family


We leave at noon. The man from the Malay family brings us breakfast – sandwiches with yellow cheese and some fried delicious things and invites us to his home. His wife serves us strong, thick coffee called “kopi”. As most of the Muslims we have met this family also considers that having as many children as possible is their obligation. The man has ten brothers and sisters but he himself has “only” five kids…

When we finish talking he drives us to a bus stop in the village. There are not many cars passing by and nobody stops. In an hour we decide to walk. We put on our rucksacks and and elderly Chinese driving a luxurious jeep stops. We start talking and it turns out his father is from Shandong Province in China – this is where we lived for three years. I start talking in Chinese and the man is very impressed. As he said later: “If you can speak Chinese all doors to the Chinese community here are open for you”.

We talk all the way. He says that according to him the Malaysian government favorites only the Malay and the interests of the others such as Chinese and Indian are injured. He also thinks that the people in the government are idiots and if the Chinese were ruling this country Malaysia would have been one of the richest countries of the world. As now is Singapore which once belonged to Malaysia.  Soon we arrive at Jerantut. Mr. Hu who is driving us is also staying here because he has some relatives living in town.

kisel plod

Sour fruit

We ask him to leave us at the market but when we arrive there he suddenly decides to help us. We buy food and some of the products we buy from a joyous Indian woman who speaks perfect English because long ago her mother had sent her to study at a Chinese school. Mr. Hu takes us to the weekly market to buy rubber boots for the jungle, machete and batteries for the lantern. Every time Mr. Hu sees Chinese people he tells them that I speak Chinese and is very proud of the fact. Because of him everyone sells to us at really low prices.

na pazara

Together with Mr. Hu at the market

Street vendors sell really delicious foods and we babble but don’t want to spend much time here so we pass by them hurriedly. Mr. Hu treats us to sticky rice cooked in bamboo with coconut milk – very tasty local specialty.

nasi lemau

Rice in bamboo

There are many strange vegetables and foods: for example fermented durian paste for cooking fish, giant “stinky beans” and the like. Here is a short video from Jerantut’s market:

The last thing we have to do is buy an extra battery for the camera because this one won’t be enough for 8-9 days in the jungle. Mr. Hu tries really hard to help us but alas we don’t find our model of battery.

Finally he leaves us at the fork for Kuala Tahan Village where the main entrance to the national park is . From there we have to pass 50 km. more and Mr. Hu is worried how we will manage to get there an wants to take us but we finally persuade him to go back. He has already wasted his whole day.

jeni na pazara v jerantut

Women at the market

It will get dark soon and while we walk and wave at the cars we look around for a place to set our bivouac. Suddenly three boys stop. They are going to a village 20 km away and we hop on. They listen to some very interesting religious Muslim music in the car. We stop at a gas station and it appears strange to me that we drive for so long and we haven’t reached their village yet. It turns out they have decided to take us to Kuala Tahan. They speak very little English and no matter how much we protest they don’t understand. They detour 80 km. in order to drive us. At the end they leave us in the village next to the river. We thank them warmly.

It is completely dark but the information center is still working. We take maps and brochures of the surrounding states and go to the river. The main office of the park is on the other side so we decide to cross tomorrow. There is no bridge and the only option is a boat that costs 1 ringgit (0.20 eurocents). We go to bed.

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