A skyline of 228 skyscrapers, the eleventh most crowded such skyline on the planet, dominated by the Petronas Twin Towers, with their 1483 ft of light and design against the dark of the night. I just landed after a gruelling 21 hours of flights, and this is how Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia welcomes me as I look down from my 13th floor balcony at the Setia Sky Residence. I’m too awestruck to be tired, and thinking that this cityscape simply was not there (or the majority of it wasn’t, anyway) just 15 years ago. My background in Economics takes over and instantly makes me associate the two towers with their owner, the oil tycoon Petronas, who built them, and I recognize several big names in the banking and financial world on top of other skyscrapers (which sort of ruins the magic, let me tell you). I am still completely unaware of how unrepresentative this is of the true nature of this country: but over the next two weeks, it’ll become very clear.
The following morning, I am on a new flight, this time towards Kuala Terengganu. As we take off, I’m surprised to see that for as far as I can see, the entire area around the airport is covered in palm trees (Wikipedia will later reveal that Malaysia is the second largest world producer of palm oil. Mystery solved). Once we land, the next leg of the trip takes us to Lumut by way of a one-hour taxi ride and many many prayers. The prayers are an integral part of the ride: in Malaysia, fares are fixed for most routes, which means it’s in the driver’s best interest to get you to your destination as fast as possible to pocket the fare and free his taxi for the next ride. Nothing wrong with that, but it also means that excessive speeds on ill-equipped vehicles are the norm, and that makes for a, let’s say, adrenalinic experience.
Once in Lumut, a motorboat takes us to the Perhentian Islands in 35 minutes. That scary taxi ride? It’s clear now that it was totally worth it. For the next 5 days, we will explore these small tropical islands, with warm, crystal-clear water and white sands – and very few tourists. Fresh coconut is available at little shacks on the beach, grilled fish and other local delicacies at charming restaurants, and the mood is super relaxing – and relaxed. This is a tourist destination and indeed people travel from all over the world to get here, but the low number of resorts makes it so that the islands just can’t get really crowded: apart from the beaches, the jungle engulfs most of the islands, leaving little room for construction. We’re staying at a bungalow with a veranda; the indoor is very simple – a couple beds and a bathroom. Anything more would distract us from the beauty that surrounds us and from the simple life (a surprise in itself) that is typical of this place and makes us forget about all the superfluous and makes us content with nature.
After 5 days of sun, beaches, canoeing and stuffing our faces with fish, we return to the mainland and move further inland, to reach the natural park of Taman Negara, where we’ll spend 2 days in the jungle. We abandon our swimwear for long trousers, and our T-shirts for long sleeves against mosquitos. We soon realize that little buggers really like the crazy humidity of the area – a deadly combo. But the beauty of this place is so overwhelming that everything feels more tolerable. That of the jungle is a commanding beauty, which you can admire and come closer to with organized tours led by the park guides, but it is immediately clear that we can never own it and know it in a deep way – or not without risk, anyway. Looking at it from the riverside, we are awed by the power of this place, by how old and thick it is, how impenetrable in some parts: it sends a shiver down our spines, the only idea. But what I’ll always carry with me is the acoustic memory: a constant, solemn singing, which has been resounding for millennia. Make sure that at least once in your lifetime, you spend 10 minutes standing still by the river, listening to the sound of a tropical forest.
Next stop is further west inland, in the Cameron Highlands. If you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings movies, then this place will instantly remind you of the Shire, with its green hills as far as you can see, rivers nourishing the lush tea shrubs and strawberry fields. This is an incredibly fascinating place, where the existence of man and nature unfolds in harmony and with mutual advantage. Unfortunately, we only have a full day here before we have to move on. After too many hours on a bus (especially if compared to the distance we are covering; Malesia rarely offers more than one route to get to a place, and normally that route is NOT straight), we’re back in Lumut, on the west coast, and it’s pouring (monsoon season is just about to start). From Lumut, we board the ferry and the monsoon subsides, leaving the sky clear for a breath-taking sunset.
We soon reach the island of Palau Pangkor, where we’ll spend 3 days in a lesser known village, where we can enjoy a real, authentic experience. Our accommodation is on the main street of the village, lined with stalls selling very affordable fruit, fresh fish and all sorts of essentials (a sort of open air supermarket). The beach is just a bit further and is dotted with restaurants where you can enjoy local delicacies for ridiculously low prices. Compared with the tropical-like colors of the Perhentian Islands, there is more green here and the sand is not as fine, but it is still an incredibly charming place, and there are many little coves you can reach by way of “taxi boat”. On the last day on the island, a local fisherman invites us on his daily outing for fish. At the end of the day, we share what we’ve fished, and he recommends a restaurants where they’ll cook our share for us. A few minutes into the dinner, it dawns on us that we’ll never be able to eat all of this stuff: our table is covered with cooked fish. Local people curiously peer at us and we try to explain that all of this goodness is the result of our own efforts that same afternoon. When they hear that, they start complimenting us on our fishing skills, and some what to take a photograph with us! Eventually, we ended us sharing the fish with the other people in the restaurants – and I dare say no one left hungry. Total expense: about USD 10 each.
The following night, I’m in Kuala Lumpur again, and again looking down at its skyline from the 38th floor swimming pool at the Setia Sky Residence. This time, though, I have a new understanding of this country. I have come full circle and now I know these buildings are not the true soul of Malesia: a simple, essential land, that needs no light, grandeur, or skyscrapers to be appreciated at its best. A wonderful country that I invite you to visit, before its authenticity is completely lost.
Text and pictures by Federico Parma