WHAT if you weren’t reading the paper this Saturday morning? What if, instead, you were watching a fleet of dragon boats as they splashed down the River Milo in Malaysian Borneo, urged on by the thump of drums and a crowd of women tossing dumplings?
Dragon boat races originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, and the spirit of the dragon is celebrated in Chinese communities all over the world today. This very weekend you’ll find a feast of fierce heads, painted bodies and flashy tails pummelling through Sabah in the state’s annual Dragon Boat Race.
It may seem odd to introduce a travel feature on Malaysia with a Chinese custom that takes place on Borneo. But one of the first things that struck me when I touched down in the broad-leafed, tropical humidity of Kuala Lumpur was just how multicultural Malaysia is. As well as Malays, there are huge Chinese and Indian communities throughout the country, and all are as Malaysian as each other.
Walk through the smelly circus of Chow Kit Market, inhaling the pong of fresh fish, piles of spices and woks sizzling with noodles, and you’ll see what I mean. Kuala Lumpur (or KL, as everyone calls it) is as much about Indian temples as old Chinese shop houses and futuristic skyscrapers. And Kuala Lumpur is just the start of it.
Malaysia has a complicated post-colonial history. But mostly, it’s a melting pot, a country that celebrates Ramadan, Christmas, Chinese New Year and the Hindu Festival of lights.
At times, the capital city of Kuala Lumpur feels like the set of Bladerunner. At others, it feels like it could be reclaimed by the jungle. Nowhere is this more true than at Menara Tower, one of Asia’s largest telecommunications towers — the 421-metre needle on Pineapple Hill is accessed through its own mini-rainforest.
From the observation deck here, I could see as far as the flagpole from which the Union Jack was lowered in 1957. Flanked by the Royal Selangor Club, the Jamek Mosque, a stone’s throw from the Hindu Sri Maha Mariamman temple, Merdeka Square is a testament to how much has changed since Malaysian independence, and how much has stayed the same.
Another viewpoint over peninsular Malaysia comes in the Cameron Highlands, an old colonial hill station. The highlands are cooler than the tropical city and coast, dotted with tea plantations, and oddly full of Land Rovers, roast lamb dinners and mock-Tudor boltholes.
For Irish holidaymakers, the most popular Malaysian destinations after KL are the west coast islands of Langkawi and Penang. Langkawi boasts 99 islands surrounded by the Andaman Sea near the Thai border, but Penang offers a better cultural mix.
Arriving onto the island, I paid a trishaw driver to take me on something of a heritage trail around the city of Georgetown. We wove past the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (where Catherine Deneuve filmed Indochine), and dropped into a goldsmith, a snake temple and a Chinese man who made Nonya beaded shoes.
Penang’s resorts are set around Batu Ferringhi, which has its night-markets and pretty beaches, but it’s worth busting out of your comfort zone here and exploring the 230sqkm island in a bit more depth. Mouth-watering curries, thick jungle, bickering cabbies and the salty Straits of Malacca make for a more authentic Malaysia.
Of course, you can’t come to Malaysia without engrossing yourself in the food. Cantonese, Szechuan, Tamil, Punjab and Malay dishes are all to hand, and ultra-fresh hawker fare makes it cheaper to eat out than cook at home.
But back to Borneo. The world’s third-largest island is divvied up between Indonesia, the tiny sultanate of Brunei, and two Malaysian states — Sabah and Sarawak. Despite a history of logging, it is amazingly verdant and remote. Pulau Tiga, a volcanic island reached from Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu, was a location for the Reality TV show Survivor.
Beaches, underwater sea life and Mount Kinabalu all entice visitors to make the three-hour flight from peninsular Malaysia for a few nights in Borneo. Most popular, though, are the brilliant orang-utans hopping and swinging about its rainforests.
The global population of orang-utans has come under serious threat in recent decades, not least due to logging and habitat loss. In Sabah, Sepilok National Park is home to a rehabilitation centre caring for orphaned apes, and it’s super-popular with visitors.
I waited at the feeding spots with dozens of other curious guests, until the first flashes of orange fur emerged from the trees to feed. The orang-utans were like teenagers — hanging from the ropes, bossing each other about, performing for the crowd — at various stages of reintegration before being released into the wild.
After immersing yourself in the wilds of Borneo, there’s no better antidote than a couple of days back in KL (it’s a good idea to tack the city-break part of your trip on at the end, so you don’t end up lugging your shopping into the jungle).
Kuala Lumpur is a great place to take high tea (best enjoyed at the Carcosa Seri Negara Hotel, former residence of the British High Commissioner), mosey through Chinatown or visit the cathedral-like Batu Caves (the sacred Hindu site about 13km north of the city centre), but my favourite sight is the awesome Petronas Towers.
They may no longer be the tallest in the world, but rocketing upwards, linked by the skybridge at the 41st floor; they’re the nearest building we’ve got to Batman. Look closely, and you might even see the spirit of the dragon.
Sunway (01 288-6828; sunway.ie) has six nights in Sabah combined with three nights in Kuala Lumpur from €2,215pps, based on four-star accommodation and including all flights. Travelmood (01 433-1023; travelmood.ie) has four nights in Kuala Lumpur and 10 nights in Langkawi from €1,559pp.
In Sabah, Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort (shangri-la.com) has 495 rooms and still manages to be friendly and stylish. Rates start at around €90pp. If you make it to Penang, schedule a night in Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (cheongfatttzemansion.com). It is said to have perfect Feng Shui. Rooms from €85.
No visa is required for Irish holidaymakers visiting Malaysia for up to three months. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months past date of arrival. See tourism.gov.my for more.
Kuala Lumpur is one of the great Asian mega-cities, so be sure to tack on two or three days to experience its Indian temples, Chinese markets and futuristic skyscrapers. For something completely different, visit the orang-utans Sepilok National Park in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
Eating is a national pastime in Malaysia, where Malay, Tamil, Szechuan, Cantonese, Satay, Punjabi and Nyonya dishes (and more) melt together into some sizzle-tastic dishes. In KL, try the food court along Jalan Alor, and Enak KL in Bukit Bintang for Malay classics like grilled prawns in tamarind sauce.
Kuala Lumpur is the place for shopping malls, with cathedrals like Pavilion KL offering all the latest Western brands and Eastern hi-tech gadgetry. At Jalan Petaling you’ll find everything from pirate DVDs to cheap clothes.