Malaysia Stole My Christmas

  • sunset
    Go sunbathing, swimming and try watersports and sampan boat rides at Penang’s alluring beaches.
Read all about Chris’s impromptu Christmas vacation in Malaysia:

Couple of years ago, I stopped by Malaysia on a business trip. I had planned to spend three days in Kuala Lumpur and then be on my way back to the States. Then I met an old friend from college who was fully enjoying a long winter escape in Malaysia. Then, this is how our friendly chat over chicken pesto at Purradise cat café turned into a fully-fledged Malaysian Christmas vacation for me:

  • Hawker food tour in Kuala Lumpur

All right, the cat café idea was his, not mine. He swore he was there for the food. We both love Malaysian food, so I decided to go with him to Petaling Street, also known as hawker food paradise. Petaling is an incredibly busy street in vibrant Chinatown, congested by food stalls of all manners (many with really long names like “Restoran Dan Nasi Ayam Kam Kee”). We decided to start with a light Hokkien Mee seasoned soya bean, reportedly loved by the Malay prime minister. Then we tried some roast duck cooked to absolute perfection served with a caramelized topping. Ari, my friend, wanted to try porridge at apparently a famous stall called Hon Kee. The pork meatballs porridge I tried was silky smooth and just about melted in my mouth. If I could only have it every day for breakfast. (Ari being the extreme adventurer that he is went for frog leg porridge.)

night market kuala terengganu

Trying hawker fare in Kuala Lumpur.

We tried many noodles, soups, and noodle soups until I felt as if my stomach was about to burst. We decided to call it a day at Coffee Amo, a lovely café to escape the hustle and bustle outside, and specializes in 3-D coffee art. I didn’t understand what that meant until I was served a cup of coffee with a floating cat made out of milk froth.

Because it wasn’t my first time in Kuala Lumpur, we spent most of our time restaurant hopping. If you are a first timer, do go see the Petronas Towers (which have some great food outlets inside), KL Bird Park, Merdeka Square, Orchid Garden and the like. You can also try a short excursion to the sacred Batu caves with statues of Hindu gods and demons. Afterwards, try some delicious pulled tea served near the entrance.

kuala lumpur petronas

Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

  • Adventures at Taman Negara

Ari had this grand trekking adventure planned at Taman Negara National Park and I decided to join him. He had been to Taman Negara before, and boasted about having seen luminous mushrooms and going “rapid shooting.” This time, Ari had plans to trek deep into the jungle and I accompanied him out of curiosity. Taman Negara surprised me with its lush tranquility even in the busy holiday season. We, like everyone else, took a boat ride on a muddy river to the park. Even from afar, we could hear the cicadas crying and the occasional leaf monkey jumping to branches away from sight. We stayed at a basic guesthouse and dined at a floating restaurant that served authentic Malaysian fare. Ari didn’t want to go on a jeep safari or see the blowpipe demonstration at a tribal village, so we began our guided trek on foot through raw jungle.

taman negara

Lost in a sea of green at Taman Negara.

I have to say Taman Negara is not the place to be if you are squeamish about leeches. Come prepared in advance for a full-on assault targeted at your legs. It’s annoying but I was too captivated by the sea of green around me to notice too much. We would occasionally hear a rustling from above us and Ari would get all excited thinking it was a rarely spotted Tapir. We saw monkeys and many different types of birds we couldn’t really name. The jungle was eerie and quiet. We trekked all the way to Gunung Tahan mount, and climbed to the highest point in peninsular Malaysia. Afterwards, we finally got to cross the world’s longest canopy walkway.

canopy bridge

Crossing Taman Negara’s famous canopy walkway.

The next day, we trekked to a “bumbun,” a hide for wildlife enthusiasts to observe animals. Ari was quite excited about this and even bought his bird book with him. We saw some hornbills during daylight, and after dark, there were many insects and fireflies making wild noises in the distance.

red leaf monkey with fruit malaysia

Leaf monkey peering at us.

  • Nature lovin’ at Cameron Highlands

After Taman Negara, it had already been quite the Christmas getaway for me. Ari had more plans. We departed to Malaysia’s sunny west coast (this is the monsoon season for the east coast), with a short layover at Cameron Highlands, world famous for rolling hills covered in tea plantations. I loved the refreshing air and the verdant scenery of Cameron Highlands. For anyone interested, it would make such a tranquil winter escape. Ari and I visited lovely strawberry farms and orchid gardens with stops at Baharat tea factory for fresh cups of steaming milk tea. But our favorite excursion was to a cloud forest at one of the highest points in Malaysia that looked as if it belonged in a Lord of the Rings book. Dwarf trees covered in moss, gnarled tree roots occasionally covered in mist— it was absolutely mystical!

cameron highland tea plantation

Tea estate hiking at Cameron Highlands.

  • Penang beach time!

We managed to pry ourselves away from stunning Cameron Highlands and ferried to Penang, which had soothingly balmy weather in season. We made beautiful George Town our base to explore the area. By exploring I mean riding a rented motorcycle to and spending a lot of time playing beach volleyball and jet skiing at pristine beaches like Teluk Kampi, Pantai Kerachut and Muka Head. George Town is not a bad place to stay at either. It’s unmistakably very urban, but is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site with amazing colonial buildings and houses. Moreover, there were really nice coffeehouses to hang out at. (You do need to order drinks at these places, or they charge a table fee, so no loitering for Wi-Fi.) We also went to see a butterfly farm, a durian farm and a tropical spice garden.

georgetown port penang

At the Penang port.

I really loved our time at Monkey Beach. Even though it was the peak season, the crowds didn’t spoil the beauty of the alluring beach. We hiked to a lighthouse for a breathtaking view of the ocean. Ari rented a sampan boat from a fisherman and we rode around enjoying the sea. Then we went snorkeling on a day trip to the Pulau Payar Marine Park.

sunset

Riding out to the sea.

In the end, time had passed without us even noticing. Ari had more plans to visit Langkawi and go back to Kuala Lumpur to buy souvenirs. I had to be on my way back to the States for a New Year’s Eve celebration in DC (something I had been very excited about before, but now I just wanted some more days on Penang beaches). Well, I made up for it the following year by planning a proper Christmas vacation with my family in Malaysia.