When I was on my overland adventure last fall in Kyrgyzstan (and briefly Uzbekistan), I asked the very-well-travelled tour leader what some of his favorite places were. "Here," he said, motioning out at a large farmer's field we happened to be camping in for the night en route to Karakol. "This is one of the best places I've ever been."
"OK, well, obviously," I said (Kyrgyzstan is totally amazing). "Where else?"
He paused for a moment and said thoughtfully, "Malaysia. I really like Malaysia."
I thought this was an odd choice; I had never met anyone who had been to Malaysia, and if they had, they hadn't said much about it. As time wore on, I played his answer over in my mind -- there must be something about the place that was worth experiencing. After all, this guy had travelled extensively throughout Europe, South America, and Asia. He probably knew what he was talking about. I also looked at a map. There it was: just below Thailand, stretching all the way down to where Singapore carved out a little space for itself at the tip of the penisula, then stretched along another island where it bordered Indonesia and Brunei. Thailand and Indonesia were known for having beautiful beaches, warm cultures, gorgeous scenery and delicious food -- surely Malaysia would profit from the proximity?
So, when I planned my SE Asia adventure, Malaysia was definitely on the list. And I'm so glad I put it on there. Because not only was I instantly charmed by Malacca, cooled by the Cameron Highlands and impressed by Kuala Lumpur, I feel in love with the prettiest place of all: Pulau Langkawi.
Before arriving, I have to admit I was actually disappointed that I was heading there. You see, when I did my street food tour in Hanoi, the only other people on it were a couple living in Kuala Lumpur. When I mentioned my plans to head to Malaysia, the wife (who was Malaysian, her husband was British), told me I should skip Langkawi because it was "too built up with resorts" and go to Pulau Tioman and Pulau Perhentian Kecil, two islands off the east coast of Malaysia that are less developed and boast lots of good snorkeling. Well, in rush to figure out accomodation for KL, I skipped Pulau Tioman; then unsure of how I'd get from the Cameron Highlands to Pulau Perhentian Kecil (and having trouble finding inexpensive accomodation to book online), I decided head to straight Penang from there instead. It turns out that I could have easily booked transpotation to Perhentian Kecil, but I didn't know that until after I arrived in the Cameron Highlands. Oh well.
I would love to know what the Perhentian Islands and Pulau Tioman are like, because I was more than pleasantly surprised by Langkawi. I headed to Cenang Beach, the popular beach front area, and stayed at a pretty unpleasant guesthouse and still had a fantastic time. The island is even more laidback than mainland Malaysia (which is so calm and easygoing) and while it is more built-up than, say, Koh Rong, it is hardly Benidorm or South Beach. My guesthouse was located a good 20 minute walk from the center of town, but that turned out to be good thing, because it was located near a lot of restaurants along the stretch of road, one of which I had arguably one of the best meals of my entire life. (And while Malaysia is more expensive than Vietnam or Cambodia, at $4 for a meal, it hardly breaks the bank.)
In the taxi from the ferry station, my driver told me the best way to get around the island was on motorbike. He echoed what every person has told me so far on this trip: riding a scooter is easy, you can learn quickly, it is not hard. Given that literally millions of people in SE Asia are riding scooters and motorbikes makes me think that everyone saying this are right.
So, the day after I arrived, I decided that this would be the day I rented a scooter and went for it. I set out after breakfast and walked into the main town to find one. After being denied by the first place, a nice Malaysian woman rented me a Honda scooter. I told her I didn't know what to do, and either she misunderstood me or had the same attitude as my taxi driver, for other than showing me how to turn on the bike and demonstrating that to accelerate the bike meant turning the right handle down, she was confident in watching me drive off down the road.
The good thing about renting the motorbike in Langkawi (and why I felt comfortable doing it) is fortunately the traffic there is pretty slow and light, the roads are mostly even and paved, and it is relatively flat (I'm sure you could drive up into a mountain, but for the sake of learning, I didn't need to go there). The first 20 minutes were a lot of confusion: how do I use the indicators? Is that button a horn? How do I stop? Wait, is that a rearview mirror? I also realized the bike was out of gas, which meant I needed to head to my guesthouse and ask the manager where the gast station was. I managed to get myself down those roads to the gas station, where I pulled up and asked a local guy if he could help me since I had no idea where anything on the bike was even located. I made my way back to Cenang Beach and practiced driving around for an hour, then parked the bike at the beach and had an amazing hamburger. (The food in Malaysia is all-around good, as not only did I have excellent Indian, Malay and Chinese food in Malaysia but excellent Western food, too.) Then I hopped back on the bike and headed back on the street with no real plan in mind but to drive around for a while -- only I need to turn the bike at a fairly sharp angle to get back on the left side of the road while pulling out from the side street that led to the beach.
I realized I couldn't make the turn (or, I wasn't turning enough), and my panicked reaction was to pull the right handle down more which of course accelerated the bike and me into a dumpster. Thankfully my mind screamed to stop pulling down the handle and to brake, meaning I did not hurt myself (or the bike) but did need to put my foot into about 2 inches of thick mud in order to back myself up from the little space I'd wedged myself into between the dumpster and a parked car. The thick mud also meant struggling to get the bike to move, but I persevered and managed to get myself backed up and headed in the right direction. It also meant I now had a plan, which was to get the mud off my foot and put more gas in the bike (for some reason the half tank I'd filled it to had already disappeared -- either I drove around way more than I thought I did, or something was off with the fuel meter).
A full tank and clean foot later, I was back (tentatively) on the bike. My new plan was to drive slowly and just keep practicising. I headed back towards the guesthouse, continuing on to a spot where I'd had to turn around earlier where the road simply dead-ended into the entrance for a fancy resort. I pulled into the parking lot next to the resort entrance, where I now found a few off-duty taxi drivers relaxing. One taxi driver was washing his minivan and I pulled up to him and asked him if he knew how to ride a motorbike.
He looked at me like I'd asked him if he knew how to turn on a television or feed himself without help. "Yes, I know how to ride a motorbike," he said in disgust. "Everyone knows how to ride a motorbike!" (Yes, everyone but me, but thank you, Malaysian taxi driver.)
"I'm teaching myself!" I said. "Do you know how to turn?"
A friend of his came up and watched me attempt to turn (slowly) in the parking lot. The professional motorbike rider/taxi driver went back to washing his minivan and the friend adopted the role of teacher and made me ride in circles in each direction. Then he asked if knew how to brake (I didn't) and let me know the brake handle was on the left (followed by using the right). Then he told me when I started to accelerate to have my feet off the ground but not on the bike, that they went up on the bike after you've gotten going. He then had me do some figure 8's for while. After twenty minutes of my lesson, he waved me off. "Be safe!" he called as I (slowly) sped out of the parking lot.
"Thank you!" I called. I tried to wave, but taking my right hand off the bike almost sent me careening into a group of school kids heading into the resort, so I hope he knew I appreciated his impromptu help.
From there on, I was determined. I was going to keep practicing and not let my dumpster scare hold me back. So I rode around Langkawi for the next three hours, probably averaging about 20-40kph (that's like less than 25mph), and definitely in the same large loop because I was skittish about making turns across traffic. I figured out how to use the indicator. I turned on the lights when it started raining. I kept my eyes peeled for potholes. Mostly I stayed on the very, very left-hand side of the road. And prayed.
I made it back to the guesthouse around 6pm and made plans to meet up with a girl I'd met in the Cameron Highlands for dinner. I realized when getting off the bike that not only was I riding a scooter for the first time and driving on the "wrong" side of the road also for the first time, it had been over two months since I'd even driven a car. I was frazzled for a reason.
I made it back to the scooter rental place safe and soun, then savored some ice cold air conditioning at a mall across the street while waiting for my friend to meet for dinner (where there was a Starbucks no less). We had some yummy Chinese seafood (and I had a very necessary beer), then as we were walking out of the restaurant, I noticed the sky was lit up shades of pinks and orange. We ran out to the beach where we were treated to one of the most incredible sunsets I've ever seen in my entire life; the sun had just sunk in between two islands off Langkawi's shore and the waves gently lapped against the fine white sand as they reflected the flourscent oranges, fuschias, magentas and violet hues ever-changing in the sky. We stood in awe of the sunset; it was so beautiful that your first impulse is to photograph it, but photographs can't even do the serene scene justice, so you have to just drop your camera and try to remember how exquistely beautiful it was in real life.
After, my friend and I walked to look at this cool restaurant where all the tables were built as little huts over a marsh and were lit up by lanterns and candles, then bought red velvet Cornetto ice creams (whose magic we were introduced to in Penang by one of the British couples we'd met in Cameron Highlands), and then said goodbye. I walked the long walk back to my guesthouse, where I packed up my stuff to get ready for my early morning departure to Thailand and the port town of Suratthani.
So, my brief-yet-wonderful time in Malaysia came to an end yesterday; like the spectacular sunset, nothing gold can stay. But it on my list of places I can't wait to return to, because with such nice people, delicious food, interesting history, and beautiful beaches, the tour leader was right. It is one of the best places I've ever been.