‘Backpacking’ around Malaysia
Here are some of my Malaysian travel tales and little side-stories.By Karen E. Chin @karenevachin
BITTEN BY THE TRAVELING BUG
While I was living in Peninsular Malaysia from 2001 until 2004 studying to be an occupational therapist, we were required to be posted in different state hospitals around the Peninsular each semester for a month-long internship. In between those compulsory travels, I also decided to do more traveling in my own leisure time.
Traveling opened my eyes to the real beauty of Malaysia’s diversities. I felt proud and knowledgeable. Each state I stayed in would have its own unique features: different assets, influences, or landmarks they proudly boast of. New places need exploration, and I wanted experiences that were rich with new sights, events, taste, experiences and people.
Not long after I graduated and returned to my hometown Kuching, I reflected back on my college years and realised how lucky I was to have been ‘forced’ to travel around Malaysia.
The travels are now fuzzy in my mind with only the spotting of significant memories that left strong impressions on me. It was more than a decade ago, but it fuels one of the items in my bucket-list today: To thoroughly backpack around Malaysia one day, and comb through each and every state.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
I was posted to Sungai Petani, Kedah for my very first internship. Before I went, I was told that the northern states in Malaysia were Islamic states and they practiced their Sundays on Fridays which is when Muslim men go to the mosque for prayers. I love novelty, so I was pretty excited to be off on Fridays and working on Sundays instead.
The place has a laid-back vibe. The people there were nice and simple, with the Malay population dominating the state. I saw a local Chinese food-seller at a hawker place; looks-wise sticking out like a sore thumb, but speaking local Malay smoothly and blending right in, and I thought to myself, “I love watching this.”
I stayed at the hospital nurses’ dorm which had one of those long, dark shared toilets where horror stories about blood-thirsty white-clothed women are conjured from.
For some weird reason, though, every time I was asked about Kedah, I would comment on the amount and variety of insects I encountered! One of the first observations I made was that there was an excessive amount of mosquitoes everywhere; feasting on the blood of our lower limbs underneath the table while we feasted on top of it.
Every day was a mini National Geographic episode for me, featuring a new bug I had never seen before in my life. There were ants marching around everywhere, even near me when I was ironing which led to their cruel and untimely death by spontaneous combustion.
And then there are things no one tells you about, but when it happens, it can really make you can feel pretty un-Malaysian.
The first time I tried to purchase something there, I felt like a foreigner in my own country. For cents, they say kupang instead of sen; and for drinks, they say ayak instead of air. After seeing my confusion, usually some form of awkward charades would help get the message across.
I managed to meet two friends – Peggy and Irwan – who were posted in Alor Setar (the capital city of Kedah) to go on a road trip. I took a three-hour bus ride to Alor Setar, and then we took another bus to Kuala Kedah where we got onto a boat which took about an hour to get to the beautiful island of Langkawi.
I remember seeing the brown sea waters of Kedah when we left the mainland, and then the clear turquoise waters as we got off the boat and onto the island. With only the atmosphere as a factor, it really did feel like a trip to a completely new place. It was amazing how one hour could bring you from a nice quaint village to a beautiful island getaway.
We decided to rent a car and explored the island with map in hand. I don’t remember the three of us doing anything significant during that short trip. We just enjoyed the exploration, getting lost and breathing in the views mostly; having a mini-vacation, a mind-rejuvenation.
Seremban is a small town in Negeri Sembilan, very easily-accessible from Kuala Lumpur. You just hop on the train and go right to the end.
When people think about Seremban, Port Dickson comes to mind. Well, at least for me, because in school, this famous beach was used as an example numerous times in our textbooks and exams.
I had high expectations of Port Dickson; it was like hearing about the beach in Malaysia and then going there and finding out that a beach is just a beach. It was filled with people, vendors, food stalls, rubbish, vehicles… it was a colourful sight, and basically too much of a commotion for me to enjoy.
If there was a place with a beach that I absolutely loved, it would be Kuala Terengganu. The state Terengganu is famous for the turtles that come and lay eggs on the beach during the mating season. I walked to the beach every day during my one-hour lunch break at the hospital which was easy, because it was literally just a street-crossing away. That to me, was close to heaven.
Fresh fish is mostly what I had to eat there, along with their famous keropok lekor which is commonly bought as a souvenir. There is also a delicacy I love there called Nasi Kerabu: the rice is blue in colour and the side dishes are mainly fish-based. I remember getting so fat that during my third week in, the button on my uniform pants finally gave way and popped.
One of the foods that shocked me there was their corn-in-a-cup. I love corn with all my heart, but when they mixed sugar into my corn, I was truly baffled.
Even spoken Malay in Terengganu, has its own local slang. The locals would add a ‘g’ to words that end with an ‘n’. For example, fish in Malay is ‘ikan’, so they would pronounce it ‘ikang’.
So, over there I am ‘Kareng’. It was really comical to me because Chinese people whose tongues are accustomed to speaking Mandarin do that too when they speak Malay or English.
In Penang, the Chinese population speak a variation of Hokkien, something I am familiar with, but the words and tone differ quite a bit that I am back to square one; a banana (a Chinese who cannot speak her own language).
Penang boasts of its street-food, much like Kuching does. When I was there doing my posting in Cardiac Rehabilitation, I was staying at the Cheshire Home hostel.
Before I started my internship, my parents came with me and we signed up for a tour of the city. Mostly, they brought us to various temples and we were bombarded with colourful statues and intricate architectural structures and designs. I remember visiting a historical house of a rich man from the past, the huge mansion was held together completely nail-less.
For a weekend, my friend Jean invited me to her hometown Kuantan, Pahang. There are two significant things that I can remember that is; along the stretch of the waterfront, people bought durian, squatted by the roadside and devoured the durian they bought right there and then.
One of the other places Jean brought me to that I really liked was the Lok Lok. We would sit around a table with a pot of boiling water in the center and then cook our food in it. I remember having fried bread with peanut sauce. It tasted amazing.
I traveled to Melaka twice, but I remember both trips only vaguely, only that we visited the historical areas, and walked around. However, a clear memory was at St Paul’s Hill (A’ Famosa) which was a Portuguese settlement in the 1500s. I was standing at one of the monuments, and there a sign there that said it used to be a hiding place for the people to protect themselves against attackers. I remember feeling blessed that I was not born in that difficult era.
I loved walking around Jonker Street. As Malaysians, it’s typical of us to try most of the foods that Melaka is famous for. I remember having the cendol (a shaved-iced dessert which you can ask for extra palm sugar), the Nyonya laksa (tasted rich and amazing) and the chicken rice balls (overrated but still interesting to order).
Among the other things that impressed me about Melaka was the architecture of the buildings and houses there. In the older parts of town, the architectural structures looked surreal to me; and the colours are amazing. Portugese influences are seen, a new culture born of a mixed race of Malay and Chinese call Baba Nyonya, and it feels like another world to be explored.
Of course, Melaka is a state thoroughly rich with Malaysian history.
IN A NUTSHELL
I have only mentioned seven states, not including the places I have visited in East Malaysia, namely Sabah and Sarawak. I’ve already been to Miri, Kota Kinabalu, Labuan and of course Kuching, my home. Amazingly, some West Malaysians have only seen brochures of Sarawak so they think it is all jungle out here. I lived with a West Malaysian room-mate for a year and she still thinks Sabah and Sarawak are the same place.
However, I am proud of our country’s diversity. There is so much we can learn from the people roaming around in our everyday lives if only we care to do so.
I would totally tell Malaysians to backpack around Malaysia instead of anywhere else to feel proud and learn how amazing our country is. There is another major reason (I will just mention it); backpacking around Malaysia is a relatively cheaper vacation than going out of the country.
Karen is a born-and-bred Kuching singer/songwriter who made her debut with her single ‘Cold’ in 2011. She is a trained occupational therapist, experienced makeup artist and has been a writer her whole life. She writes on a variety of topics and the tried-and-tested lifestyle as she sees it; direct, witty and down-to-earth.