Our travels took us through the Malay peninsula twice, first down (south) en route to Bali, then up (north) en route to Myanmar. We initially arrived to mainland Malaysia on April 1 after completing the first round of island hopping through the Andaman Sea. From Penang island by ferry, we arrived to Butterworth city in the midst of a tremendous rainstorm (pictured below) that engulfed most of Georgetown in floods. We actually had to trek through knee-deep water to escape our hotel and catch a taxi. Fortunately, the ferry trip was only 15 minutes long, and not too shaky. In Butterworth, we caught only a few Zs before our 4:45am train for Kuala Lumpur (KL) departed the next morning.
Malaysia has an extensive and modern rail network operated by the state-owned company Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM). The trains were reliably clean and on time. On this leg to KL, we made up some sleep on our comfortable train, and arrived to KL Sentral station still early in the morning.
It was a risk to book our Airbnb in KL, which had only just been listed and had zero reviews. But the risk paid off. The apartment was bright and spacious, and located right in the heart of the trendy Bangsar neighborhood. After getting settled, we found lunch from the noodle stall housed in the back of Grind22 cafe, before spending the afternoon shopping at KL’s Mid Valley mega mall and the Bangsar Sunday Farmer’s market. The farmer’s market happened to be a gold mine, offering a colorful array of fruits and vegetables for a steal - it took the cashier a full minute to ring us up and we were expecting a hefty bill, which we realized after the conversion was only about $5.00. We loaded up on cilantro, lime, and more for the next day’s cooking. After the market, we visited Devi’s Corner for dinner, which boasts a lively atmosphere and delicious Malaysian-Indian food. Bangsar also hosts some wonderful third wave coffee shops, including Papa Palheta and Bean Reserve.
Google’s Malaysia office is located in a high rise at KL Sentral station. We visited briefly on Monday, before spending the afternoon constructing our bánh mì sandwich alpha test. We found quality pork products at the An Xin market, real baguettes at Yeast Bistronomy, and all the fresh vegetables needed from the previous day’s farmer’s market. The sandwiches turned out excellent, boosting our determination to get to Bali.
As we checked out of the Airbnb the following morning, we were greeted with a knock on the door and an “ohayou gozaimasu”. It turns out that our host’s Mom is Japanese, and had been living in Kuala Lumpur for decades. Upon learning that her Daughter’s first Airbnb customer was also Japanese, she insisted on meeting us to deliver an assortment of snacks from KL’s Japanese supermarket ! We were elated at the gesture, and well-prepared for the 3-hour bus journey to Melaka.
Melaka, like Penang, is a city that is rich with colonial history and international influences. We stayed at the SunB Residence, which was recommended by a friend we’d met at the basketball game in Penang. The hostel's host John gave us a warm welcome (and cooked a delicious breakfast). In Melaka, our number one priority was to resolve how to take the ferry across the Straits of Malacca to Dumai, Indonesia. Once comfortable with our plan, we enjoyed sipping white coffees and walking along the old city streets. In the food department, we can recommend the Indian restaurant Boss Curry House.
We left the Southeast Asian mainland for Sumatra island on April 5, and fast forward, returned to the mainland one month later at the Johor Bahru border station across from Singapore. From there, it was straight back to KL. Arriving in KL on May 4, we settled in to our (not as nice) Airbnb in the Brickfields neighborhood, aka Little India - the first Airbnb, sadly, was booked for the week. However, this was made up for by the new apartment’s proximity to delicious Indian food in Brickfields. We had dinner at Taj Garden and then, searching for beer, stumbled upon an informal powwow in the back of a liquor shop. The group of locals, who are Indian-Malaysians originally from the Tamil region of India, all moved fluently through English, Tamil, Malay, and Hindi depending on their audience. They worked for a family escrow business, and gathered at the back of the liquor store every Friday after work to drink whisky and munch on Tamil snacks before returning home to their families for the weekend. We were thrilled they invited us to join and really enjoyed the conversations.
While in KL this time, we caught a Malaysian film at Golden Screen Cinemas at the Mid Valley mall. You Mean the World to Me is the first Malaysian production ever to be filmed in the distinctive Hokkien language, and was filmed entirely in Penang. The story was a little perturbing, but visually the film was excellent.
We timed our second visit to KL to coincide with our friend Lina’s. Lina lives in Japan now, but had lived in KL for an extended period last year on a company rotation. She turned us on to Kin Kin, a Chinese noodle shop in the Chow Kit district, where we all shared a delicious lunch. Lina also shared travel tips for Malaysia and Myanmar before we said our goodbyes and went straight for the TBS bus terminal, where we departed for the Cameron Highlands.
The Cameron Highlands are a historic hill station built across Perak and Pahang states. Founded during the British colonial period in the 1930s, the cool weather and scenic setting have been attracting tourists from Malaysia and beyond ever since. We spent the evening in a rustic house at the Rain Forest Inn, where they served delicious home-cooked meals made with local ingredients. The jungle camp also offered guests a view of the Orang Asli's lifestyle, which are the hill tribes native to the region. The road through the valley to the jungle camp had recently been built, and was lined with chrysanthemum farms that ship much of their output to Japan. The following day, we rented a motorbike in Tanah Rata, the area's main town, to visit some old colonial estates and go strawberry picking. We ate a delicious lunch at The Smokehouse that included a very English Tea & scones for dessert.
From the Cameron Highlands, we rode the bus straight back to Penang island, this time crossing the Straits of Malacca on the Sultan Abdul Halim Muadzam Shah Bridge. We stayed again at the Spices Hotel in Georgetown. Joshua was hoping to play basketball, but a rainstorm got in the way of those plans. Instead, we explored more of the city’s famed street food stalls (more on that in a future Penang post).
Continuing up the Malay peninsula, we would cross the Thailand border via rail. We set out again from Penang via ferry to Butterworth where we met our train, which then took us to the border town of Padang Besar. Immigration and customs was housed in the cozy train station. When we arrived, the booths were staffed by Malaysia’s officers, who stamped our passports and asked us to wait in the station. We sneaked off for a quick lunch, and by the time we returned, the border operation had been taken over by the Thai authorities, who duly stamped our passports and asked us to continue waiting. Our night train did finally arrive and it was off to Bangkok.
We awoke as the train rumbled through Bangkok’s suburbs, and were served a full breakfast including fresh juice and coffee - a breakfast in bed of sorts. In Bangkok, we again stayed at the Dinso Mon hotel for one night. We re-visited some of the spots we found the last time, but the highlight this time was our dinner at Somboon Seafood. Somboon is a local chain that serves crab, shrimp, and other fish in any number of local preparations. The crab curry and tom yum were outstanding.
From Bangkok, it was off to the border town of Mae Sot, across the Moei river from Myawaddy, Myanmar. Our luxury night bus - offering massage chair seats and ample room - departed Mo Chit terminal station on time at 10:00pm and we awoke at the border, having left the Malay peninsula behind.
Butterworth April 1-2
Kuala Lumpur April 2-4
Melaka April 4-5
Kuala Lumpur May 4-6
Cameron Highlands May 6-7
Penang May 7-9
Padang Besar-Bangkok Train May 9-10
Bangkok May 10-11