Yes, for the first time since arriving in Bangkok on April 1, I have had the good fortune to find myself cold. I took a bus to the Cameron Highlands in central Malaysia (peninsular Malaysia, obviously) and upon getting off the bus nearly swooned from the delicious temperature. It was probably in the low-80s, no humidity, just lovely.
If I haven't made it really clear, Malaysia is by far my favorite stop so far on the trip. I enjoyed Cambodia and Vietnam (and I'm definitely really happy I visited) but I absolutely love Malaysia. The country is just so easy and laidback and mellow. The people are really friendly and nice and the vibe is just relaxed and chill. And having a couple days in cool weather paradise, it made my love for Malaysia grow even more. I stayed at a guesthouse in Tanah Ranah where I ended up meeting a lot of fellow travllers, did a fun day tour on my first full day that took me along winding roads through the tea plantations, up to the top of Mt Brinchang to climb a lookout tower, on a walk through the 'mossy forest' that grows at the top of the mountain, and then to the tea plantation to learn more about how they're grown and to have a cuppa. I had the tour guide drop me off in the town of Brinchang and ventured to a strawberry farm (where I learned they import their plants from California "because they're the best"... my state pride just swelled even larger than before!), then tried to find this Buddhist temple (I got close but couldn't figure out where the entrance was), and walked a path home that took me by a waterfall.
The next day, I joined a nice British couple on a trek up to the other mountain near the guesthouse; well it was more like me walking behind them as they zipped up to the top -- oh what it would be like to be in my early 20s and filled with energy and enthusiasm and knee cartilidge. But, I made it.
One of the things I've been enjoying most about Malaysia is THE FOOD. There's at least 3 great food cultures here, starting with the Malays (cuisine is very similar to Indonesian food) and then Chinese and Indians, who emigrated here centuries ago. So the cuisine is just stellar, really excellent dishes from all those cultures, plus Malaysia is much more developed than Cambodia or Vietnam and has all sorts of amazing cafés serving up things like croissants, bagels and cream cheese, white coffees, breakfast sandwiches, etc. I had great Indian food all three nights in the Cameron Highlands, plus lunch at a Malay place one day totally mobbed with locals that was also outstanding (the best part of that one was being the only person not using my hands to load rice and meat into my mouth, that is one custom I have a hard time getting into!).
After two good, full days in the Cameron Highlands, I ventured on to George Town in Penang. I was really looking forward to Penang, and I have to admit, I was kind of disappointed. I think I was so in love with Malacca that I was expecting something similar, and instead found Penang to be really busy, run down, and chaotic. It didn't help that there's a major school holiday that started a few days ago. Also, by the time I was wandering around today, I decided that Penang's charm is probably the things that I didn't really love right at the beginning -- that it is a little run down, kind of funky, busy, bustling. I mean, it's not Ho Chi Minh City, but compared to the super laidback atmosphere of Malacca, it was definitely busier than I was expecting. There's also zilch in the way of complete sidewalks -- just sometimes there's arcades you can walk through in the shade, sometimes your'e forced to walk around a makeshift café or motorcycle out in the traffic (and hot sun) because there's no other way. Since Penang gets heavy rains, there were also giant 2- or 3-foot deep gutters running between the arcades and the streets, so if you take a misstep, you might be really falling down into some badly polluted, stagnant water.
But I didn't hate Penang; not at all. I had the good fortune to meet another really nice British couple with whom I got to have dinner all three nights there, which was super fun (our first night we were joined by an American girl from Houston as well). Penang is filled with cool street art and a lot of old historic buildings, most of them due to the Chinese and British colonial heritage of the town. Oh, and the food is amazing. We had dinner the first night a large open air place filled with vendors selling every kind of Asian food imaginable, from dim sum and nasi lemak to spring rolls and sushi. We also had incredible Indian food and excellent Chinese. I found charming cafés each morning to have my daily coffee and breakfast -- this has been another highlight of my time in Malaysia, I've just loved the European-style cafés to start my day. Each one has been uniquely decorated and put together to create a lovely, relaxed space to spend some time.
Today I took the afternoon ferry from Penang to Langkawi and made it safely on shore around 5pm. I've had to rethink my plans going forward for Thailand because I did not know that the monsoon season had started; judging by the enormous waves today's speedboat was going over, I think getting to the other side of the peninsula is not a bad idea as far as water travel is concerned. I felt safer on "Sinkie, the boat the sinks" going from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong because while the boat was overloaded, the waters were calm and clear. I will be here in Langkawi for a full day, then head to Suratthani for one night before going on to Ko Samui and hopefully Koh Pha Ngan which I've read is really chilled out and beautiful when there's not a Full Moon Party going on (there won't be).
Arriving in blissful, sweet-smelling Langkawi today, I wished I had a little more time to spend in this paradise. Malaysia seems to be off people's radars to some extent; maybe it's because alcohol isn't as super cheap (or as available) as Thailand or Bali, maybe it's because it's a little more expensive than some of the dirt-cheap destinations like Laos or Cambodia, but I've had just a wonderful time in this country. It's more developed in some ways, but it hasn't lost its tropical, Southeast Asian charm or pace of life. And since I found out about two amazing islands I didn't have the chance to go to (Pulau Tioman and Pulau Perhentian Kecil), not to mention there's a whole other world to explore in Borneo, mark my words, Malaysia: I will be back for you!