Malaysia - Fun for the family
Written by Simon Ostheimer
My wife and I first visited Malaysia together in 2005, a mad fortnight of driving across the Peninsula, as the mainland part of the country is known.
At the time, I was working for a magazine in Shanghai, and we were desperate to escape the damp cold that passes for wintertime in that eastern Chinese city. We hired a Proton Saga, the most iconic vehicle ever produced by the country, launched by ex-PM Mahathir Mohamad in 1985, and navigated our way around using a free tourist fold-up map the car company had given us – these days we’d use our iPhone – which listed the main highways, but little else. We began our journey, as most tourists do, in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Affectionately known as KL, the city of six million is booming like never before, with cranes covering the horizon and tourists visiting in their millions. While a remarkably green city, with splashes of lush jungle separating intense pockets of development, Kuala Lumpur is also notoriously difficult to navigate. While in a way it’s refreshing that local planners chose to go around the hills rather than through them, it’s created an often incomprehensible network of roads that resembles a strewn bowl of Hokkien mee (delicious local noodles). Thank goodness, then, for the KL Hop-On, Hop-Off City Tour, which takes away the hassle of getting around, and shows you the very best this city has to offer.
Running every 30 minutes, from 8.30am to 8.30pm seven days a week, it takes you on a 2.5-hour circuit of the capital, passing nearly every major tourist landmark along the way. Because of its roundabout route, there will probably be a stop close to your hotel – such as stop number six on Bukit Bintang. Literally meaning Star Hill, it’s the most prestigious shopping street in KL, full of mammoth malls like Pavilion, Berjaya Times Square, Sungei Wang, Lot 10, and Fahrenheit 88. With 23 stops in total, a standard 24-hour adult ticket for the KL Hop-On, Hop-Off City Tour costs RM38 (US$12), while 48 hours’ validity costs RM65 (US$30).
Sometimes, the heat of KL can be exhausting, which is when its time to head north from the city and follow the winding road to the cooling climes of the Cameron Highlands. Wherever they went, the British built hill stations. Lofty retreats from the summer heat, they appeared across India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. In the latter, the occupying colonials founded small settlements on Penang, and Fraser’s and Maxwell Hills. However, the granddaddy of them all is the Cameron Highlands.
First ‘discovered’ by British surveyor William Cameron in 1885, the verdant green plateau now known as the Cameron Highlands lay undeveloped for 40 years, until a decree changed all that. Within a decade, impenetrable jungle had been replaced by a golf course, cottages, inns, a dairy, nurseries, vegetable farms, and tea estates. Fondly referred to as ‘Little England’, today the Cameron Highlands provide a calming retreat from the tropical heat for locals and tourists alike.
Another popular escape is the island of Langkawi, in the very northwest of Malaysia. With its excellent infrastructure, memorable food, and notably green ambition, theres never been a better time to visit the island of the red eagle, as it's known. Cursed for seven generations by a wronged woman, Langkawi’s fortunes took a major upturn in the mid-1980s when prime minister Mahathir Mohamad put forth a blueprint of the island as a tropical tourist paradise.
Today, it’s a shining example of how to fulfil the needs of travellers while still protecting the pristine environment that attracted them there in the first place. From picturesque mangrove forests to white-sand beaches, duty-free shopping to holistic retreats, you'll find it all in arguably Malaysia’s best-known holiday destination. While there are fantastic beaches, restaurants, and scenery, if you have only a short time the one must-do activity on Langkawi is the cable car, known as the SkyCab.
Opened in 2003, this 2.2-km-long ride carries you almost to the top of the Machincang mountain, located some 708 m above sea level. From these lofty heights, you enjoy 360º views of Langkawi and its numerous surrounding islands. When you do reach the top, make for the vertigo-inducing, 125-m-long SkyBridge, a curved suspension bridge that hangs more than 100 m above ground.
“By George, it’s pretty,” Captain Francis Light, the British founder of the capital of Penang, George Town, probably didn’t say upon sighting the island. Located due south of Langkawi, the modern state that exists today was then not much more than a sparsely populated, jungle-covered isle ripe with opportunity. In the 225 years since, Penang has undergone a remarkable transformation – from remote tropical outpost, to commercial jewel of the British Empire, to a global centre of IT and tourism.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, historic George Town is home to a remarkable assemblage of architecture, with Western and Oriental influences that reflect its past as an important trading outpost in the British Empire. In recent years, the government has cleaned the streets; spruced up the sidewalks; planted trees; renovated religious buildings such as the 180-year-old Toi Shan Association, a Chinese ancestral hall and temple in the city’s Little India, and the 19th-century Kapitan Keling Mosque; and encouraged the renovation of derelict shophouses as cafés, restaurants, art galleries, and boutique hotels. The result has seen an influx of tourists from around the world much like Malaysia itself. As the tourism slogan goes, this magnificent multicultural country is ‘Truly Asia’.
KL Bird Park
One of the best stops on the KL Hop-On, Hop-Off City Tour (see main story), the KL Bird Park (klbirdpark.com) is an excellent place for the entire family. If you do visit as part of the tour, remember to buy the discounted tickets sold by staff on the bus, as it’ll save you a few ringgit you can spend on lunch later. The huge free-flight walk-in aviary houses thousands of birds, including free-roaming peacocks, storks, egrets, and ibises, while there are separate displays of parrots, hornbills, flamingos, and even emus. Our two-year-old son absolutely loved the place, pointing out, ”One more! One more!”, until he became so over-excited that he had to take a rest in the buggy. With the buses on a half-hourly schedule, you don’t have to wait long for the next one to arrive – we only had to wait five minutes.
Food Tour Malaysia
There’s simply nothing Malaysians love more than food. They can’t go a few hours without eating, and regularly enjoy six meals a day (breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and a late-night snack, if you’re counting). It makes sense, then, that the best way to see the real Kuala Lumpur is through a food tour – such as those run by Food Tour Malaysia. While the evening ‘Off the Eaten Track’ tour is a best-seller, families with children should join the Kuala Lumpur Walk Tour, with an earlier time more suited to the young ones. The Kuala Lumpur Walk Tour costs RM110 per person, a price that includes your guide, all transportation, and all food and drink.
This popular Malaysian holiday island has two claims to fame that continue to be hyped by media and marketers. One, the dramatic topography of this teardrop-shaped isle in the South China Sea was (supposedly) used as a backdrop for the 1958 movie South Pacific, while Time magazine named it one of the world’s most beautiful islands in the 1970s. Though it’s now a firm fixture on the tourist trail and has lost a little of its exotic mystique, it retains the natural environment and wildlife that first made it famous. First among animals, on land at least, are the giant monitor lizards that roam among the kampung’s (Malay for ‘villages’) in search of food. Don’t worry, they avoid humans. Most of the time.
The Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur
This newly restored hotel has given Kuala Lumpur something it had been lacking for more than two decades – a ‘grand dame’ luxury hotel on a par with Singapore’s Raffles and Hong Kong’s Peninsula. In keeping with its cultured colonial heritage, the doormen wear safari suits and pith helmets, and its home to Malaysia’s only branch of barber to the British royal family Truefitt & Hill, the Colonial Café which serves British classics like bubble and squeak, an orchid conservatory where you can take afternoon tea, the Smoke House gentlemen’s club replete with cigar lounge and a private cinema, and a spa inspired by renowned Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
No. 5, Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, City Centre, KL Sentral, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Usually held in late January or early February, the amazing spectacle of Thaipusam draws tens of thousands of tourists and locals to the Batu Caves just outside of Kuala Lumpur. They throng the natural outcrop to watch as Hindu devotees, with their bodies pierced in a variety of inventive and painful ways, carry a heavy kavadi (the Hindi name for a wooden platform that can weigh up to 90 kg), as they walk up the 272 steps to the temple inside the caves. According to orthodox doctrine, there is a month-long period of fasting prior, when adherents can only eat milk and fruits – the abstinence is meant to help fortify the senses and suppress passions – achieving control of the mind over matter.
Malaysia... a destination of endless possibilities
Lying at the northernmost tip of Borneo, Sabah is justly famed as a natural paradise offering a wealth of experiences from the underwater coral gardens at Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park to the biodiversity found surrounding Mount Kinabalu (4,095 m). Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary near Sandakan is a ‘must-do’ experience, where local rangers guide you into the dense jungle along a boardwalk to a viewing gallery for the twice-daily feeds of the endearing orange giants. Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, offers arts and craft shopping, Sabah pearls, and a number of luxury hotels, including the boutique Bunga Raya Island Resort and Spa, named after the hibiscus flower, Malaysia’s national flower.
Kuala Lumpur is a historically rich city despite its youthful age only 155 years old. It has gone through several rites of passage: a tin boom in the mid-19th century, a devastating fire, a big flood, the Japanese Occupation, and 137 years of British rule. Today, this rich history serves as a highlight to one of the city’s newest tourist attractions: the Free Heritage Guided Tours of Merdeka Square, organised by Kuala Lumpur City Hall. Three times a week, the tours take in the history and architecture of the city’s landmark, Merdeka Square, and the 10 heritage buildings surrounding the iconic attraction, most of which were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s with a blend of old colonial, Moorish, Tudor, neo-Gothic, and Islamic architectural styles.
Hari Kemerdekaan Malaysia 2013 (Independence Day) – August 31
This years celebration marks the 56th anniversary of Malaysia’s independence. Traditionally, a grand parade is held in the morning at Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur.
Merdeka Millennium Endurance Race – August 29–31
The biggest motorsports endurance race in Asia, the Merdeka Millennium Endurance Race (MMER) 2013, is back for the 14th time at Sepang International Circuit.
Malaysia Airport App
Passengers passing through KL International Airport (KLIA) can download Malaysia Airports’ mobile app for the latest information on outlet locations, promotions, and services and facilities at the airport. The app can be operated on both iOS and Android platforms and is available to download from both iTunes and Play Store.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Distance: 5,894 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 40 minutes
Frequency: 3 flights a day