I’ve read so many great things about Peninsular Malaysia. Travel guides tout the food as being the best in Southeast Asia, the city of Georgetown as overflowing with charm, and Kuala Lumpur as the melting pot of Malaysia’s melange of cultures. Can I be honest though? I wasn’t crazy about it. It is actually one of the most “meh” places I’ve ever been.
I really hate it when I don’t like someplace Tim and I traveled to. It’s inevitable that some trips will be disappointing, no matter how open your mind or patient your heart (I’m looking at you, Morocco). Flights get canceled, you meet a rude local, the bed at your hotel is so hard you can’t sleep, or that temple/museum/hike etc. is nothing like you expected. All of these can taint your experience.
But sometimes none of the obvious problems arise, and a place just doesn’t do it for you. This is how I felt about Peninsular Malaysia. We had a fine time and saw some interesting places, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone to single it out as their #1 destination on their trip.
Honestly, with all the other gems in the area, you could skip Peninsular Malaysia entirely. This is a pretty controversial statement. I know people who absolutely LOVE this region of Malaysia. I’m happy for them and I would really like to hear more about their experiences. But for me and Tim, it was just a big “meh” with a side of *shrug emoji*.
Every experience is worth sharing, however; so without further adieu, I bring you our mediocre travel story.
Streets of Penang
- Days 1-3: Penang
- Days 4-6: Kuala Lumpur
- Day 7: Malacca (which we skipped to go straight to Singapore)
Dates: May 10-16, 2018
We flew into Penang, an island on the northern part of the peninsula. I was really excited about the historic colonial city of George Town. The food is allegedly amazing and the whimsical photos I’d seen of all the 3D street art had me feeling ready to explore.
We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton using loyalty points. It was the first time I’d ever stayed at that brand, and they were kind enough to upgrade us to a suite. Located right on the beach (that you can’t swim at due to deadly box jelly fish!), the hotel also had a nice big pool. We were really happy with the hotel overall (even though it was about a half hour bus ride from the heart of George Town).
We spent this first evening and the next day just relaxing after the long travel from Darwin, Australia. We got out of bed for the hotel’s breakfast, which was actually fantastic. Their fresh baked croissants are the best I’ve ever had. They were perfectly crispy and flaky on the outside, with soft, light and fluffy layers inside. I still think about them…
After lounging around all day, we ventured out that night to the Batu Feringghi night market. Our hotel offered a free shuttle, and markets are always fun to walk around. If nothing else, we’d find food outlets grouped together in what are known as hawker stalls. The set up is very similar to that of mall food courts, and I’d heard markets were the best places to go to try Malaysian food.
What makes Malaysian food so noteworthy on the global scene is that, like Malaysian culture as a whole, the food has blended the best of Indian, Chinese and Malay elements into one. George Town in particular was along the trading route for China, India, and Europe.
We must have gotten to the market before it really gets going, because it was empty and quiet at first. We did find the hawker stalls, with Chinese, Indian and Malay food in abundance. We got a regional specialty to start – a noodle soup called laksa. I found the broth to be sour and fishy, and the noodles slimy. It’s a very strong dish, and, I decided, not for me.
Our second meal was a lamb kebab. It’s not regionally specific, but they are always reliably pretty good.
After we ate, we walked around the market and looked at the various stalls. It was your usual t-shirts, faux designer bags, jewelry and knick knack souvenirs. There was nothing special about it, but it was pleasant to walk around.
The next day we took the public bus into the heart of George Town. Our goal was to scope out the street art and visit a few historical sites. To the city’s credit, they are very proud of their street art and make it easy to explore on your own with a tourist map that highlights the location of each. Tim and I made it a scavenger hunt, trying to find all of the art. We missed a few well-hidden ones but found most. Particularly fun about the art is that most of it is 3D and interactive, allowing you to take a role in the scene.
After thoroughly exploring the art, we were super sweaty and ready for a break. We grabbed snacks and then walked to the Blue Mansion.
The historical context for this home is fascinating, even if the visit itself was really boring. In the mid-1800s, many Chinese immigrants came to George Town. Families would build clan houses to provide lodging for their extended relatives when they too would immigrate to Malaysia. The clan would help one another find jobs and develop a community. Overtime, the clans became wealthy and the houses more ornate. The British called these “secret societies” because of their exclusive and eventually spiritual practices.
The Blue Mansion is one such house, but the tour was incredibly boring. The guide was enthusiastic but the acoustics of the house made it impossible to hear anything. Moreover, there is very little to actually see and explore. You can’t go into any of the rooms so most of the time we just sat in the courtyard trying to hear our guide.
The next day, less than impressed with Penang, we took the bus to Kuala Lumpur. There’s nothing very unique about KL aside from its distinctive skyline. Like any big Asian city, it’s hot, crowded and hard to get around.
We rented an Airbnb in a building called the Regalia, which is best known for its rooftop infinity pool and perfect view of the skyline. Unfortunately, the pool was the only redeeming quality of our place. Our particular unit was very uncomfortable due to the lumpy bed and weak AC, and the building as a whole had serious elevator problems. They would constantly shut down. Tim and I even got stuck up on a level (38 or so) that had no stairway exit because it was still under construction. It was honestly pretty scary.
We did make good use of our pool, though, and we also did our best to enjoy KL.
We explored the KL Forest Eco Park, which is a small trail of hanging bridges through the tree canopy. It was interesting if only for the juxtaposition of nature with the towering skyscrapers all around. What I remember most about it, though, is that I don’t think I’ve ever sweated more in my life. The humidity there is intense to say the least.
Near the Eco Park is the Menara Tower. An expensive elevator ride to the top offers the best views of KL, but we never went up. We did, however, savor the AC and free chocolate samples at the adjoining chocolate outlet.
Having cooled off and enjoyed our chocolate snack, we walked about a half hour to Jalan Alor for its street market. This was the most fun we had in Malaysia. We had a few beers and then walked the market, trying different food along the way.
The next day we set out to visit the Hindu temple at the Batu Caves. Directions from our apartment looked easy by train, but it was all a lie. Once we arrived at the train station, the attendant told us the train to the caves was down and that we’d need to take another route from another station. We walked to the other station and took the train to a third, connecting station. At this point we’d been traveling for an hour and were still a few blocks from our apartment. Once at the third station, we were told there was a bus that would take us to the caves, but no one knew what time it would come or where it would pick people up. So, when we saw a taxi drive by, we decided to splurge and spend $5 to just get to the darn caves already.
The temple sits in a large cave at the top of a few hundred stairs. To the right of the stairs stands an impressively large gold statue. And all over the grounds, on the stairs and in the cave and anywhere else you look, are hundreds of macaque monkeys. They are incredibly cute at first, but I made the mistake of smiling at one on the stairs. He lunged at me, baring his teeth and grabbing my shoulder. Tim somehow caught a photo of the whole ordeal, memorializing the moment I thought I was going to be attacked by a monkey. Lesson learned, don’t show your teeth to monkeys or look them in the eyes. They see that as a threat and will react accordingly!
After visiting the temple and cave we walked to an Indian restaurant where we ate delicious fried bread called chapati with various sauces. It was simple and delicious!
This was our last day in KL, and we were planning to head to Malacca the next day for one night before heading to Singapore. Instead, we decided to go to Singapore directly. Nothing bad had really happened in Penang or KL, but we weren’t enjoying it. The good things didn’t outweigh the discomfort or difficulty of doing them, and eliminating a travel day by heading straight to Singapore was very attractive.
Peninsular Malaysia was a mediocre experience for us. It’s the first and only time we’ve ever left a country earlier than originally planned. I know others who have been there and loved it, but there was nothing there that wowed us. We weren’t crazy about the food, it was difficult to get around, and I’ve never sweat more than I did those few days.
If you read this far, I’m sorry I don’t have anything better to say, or a compelling lesson learned, or a redeeming reason why you should pack your bags and head straight to Malaysia right now.
But I did warn you – this is a mediocre travel story!