Rain, curses, and Orangutans: The Wondrous Colours of Malaysia

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The Cattle Egret bird looked questioningly at the tourists hiding in the park’s viewers hut from torrential rain. It was a silly tourist thing to do, forgetting one’s umbrella at the hotel while exploring one of the rainiest cities in Asia. But I guess ‘learning through experience’ is the point of travelling and it was quite amusing to witness wildlife staring at humans in cages for a change.

I had travelled to Malaysia on a whim, born out of severe boredom and simple visa requirements. It took exactly an hour or so to book my solo three-week trip through budget-friendly Expedia and Booking dot com. I was freelancing at the time and living rent-free, so I was able to make this spontaneous decision without too much thought. Even so, it took a while to let go of my anxiety and stop worrying about the numbers in my bank account.

Mangrove trip in Langkawi (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

As an Egyptian, it is not easy to pick any random country to travel to without thinking plenty about the visa process. Going through the hassle of preparing large amounts of paperwork and waiting anxiously for weeks is a total drag. Fortunately, Malaysia is not one of those countries overly suspicious of Egyptians – a visa is graciously granted upon arrival.

I had been to Malaysia once before and remembered admiring the seemingly harmonious multi-cultural society and wonderful natural environments. I could go on in descriptive travel-guide detail about all the beautiful places I have visited, like the breath-taking and serene Cameron Highlands. But this time, dear readers, I would like to recount for you my Malaysia adventure.

One must never be wary of the potential for misunderstanding that arises from the distant perception of others (unless, of course, they are on the Travel Channel). For a truly enlightening understanding it is always better to acquire our own experiences of foreign lands.

It was the well-travelled Mark Twain who said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”.

Butterfly Park in Kuala Lumpur (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

The getting-caught-in-the-rain incident took place at the “World’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary” – the KL Bird Park. The park is located at the city’s Botanical Gardens, next to the Orchid Park and Deer Park, where a nature lover such as myself can contemplate the beauty of civilized life and all its caged creatures and other cathartic mumbo-jumbo.

Spot the monkey? (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

KL is Malaysia’s capital and its most developed and populous city. Within the bustling business district are places to satisfy all touristic urges – walkways, museums, nature, shopping, restaurants, bars and so forth.

The advanced transportation network – such as the KL Sentral Station, the GO KL CityBus, and monorail lines- is easy to use to get to anywhere in the city and nearby towns and villages. It is advisable, however, to avoid taxis as they are the most expensive modes of transport, and drivers usually cheat unsuspecting foreigners by settling the fare beforehand.

China Town in Kuala Lumpur (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

I was fortunate enough to book my stay in a hotel (plug: Geo Hotel) located next to the famous China Town and Central Market. The market town district contains a variety of local restaurants and shops that sell reasonably priced traditional clothing and souvenirs for friends and family back home.

The market also holds one of the best soup shops you will ever come across. For only L.E. 12, “Mee Bakso Gabung” (Indonesian meat-ball noodle soup) at Angeko Sup is truly a delicious and fulfilling experience.

Music on the Hop-on Hop-off (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

A bus stop for the famous Hop-On Hop-Off can also be found right next to the hotel where travellers are offered a comprehensive city tour for 48 hours per ticket.  It is especially convenient for a day-dreaming spontaneous traveller to see all major attractions without even having to hop-off.

Going up the Petronas Twin Towers and KL Tower is frankly a rip off. However, journeying by foot along the streets and districts and taking in the sights and sounds is a more budget-friendly experience for those who like to soak up the atmosphere.

Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

The second week of my trip was spent on the island of Langkawi, off the north-west coast of the Malaysia mainland. Unbeknownst to me, the month of June is a rainy month (a shortcoming of spontaneous travelling), so the main public beaches were full of strong waves making it difficult to have a decent swim. The breath-taking green mountains and landscapes, however, compensated for lack of a sun-tan.

Langkawi public beach (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

Langkawi (the jewel of Kedah) also happens to be a duty-free island. Locals and tourists could pile up on bottles of Jack Daniels and Black Label as well as imported bags of chips and chocolate for less than L.E. 100. Nature enthusiasts have various options with mangrove kayak rides and forest trekking expeditions.

Crocodile Cave in Langkawi (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

At Langkawi I was told a story that appeals to the feminist senses and which many locals believe to be true. Mahsuri was a fair lady native of the island during the 19th century who was unjustly accused of committing adultery and then brutally murdered.

The village chieftain’s wife was jealous of Mahsuri’s beauty and spread rumours of adultery while Mahsuri’s husband was away. It is said that she bled white blood during her execution, thereby signifying her innocence, and, upon her last breath, cursed Langkawi for the next seven generations.

Strangely enough, it seems that, after a history of invasion and long-barren land, Langkawi only became a tourist destination following the birth of the seventh generation descendent of Mahsuri, according to the locals. I guess that’ll teach society not to accuse innocent women of adultery! Mahsuri’s Tomb is now one of the major tourist attractions on the island.

Mangrove trip in Langkawi (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

The city of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak on Malaysia Borneo, was my third and final leg of the trip. The time was spent mostly daydreaming on the magnificent cloud formations in the bright blue sky. This is partly because I was really tired already from travelling three weeks solo and partly because I just love staring upwards and contemplating, always wishing I was on another less self-destructive planet.

Nevertheless, I pushed on and paid a visit to the Semonggoh Orangutan Nature Reserve. I was told I’m lucky that a few orangutans appeared the day of my visit during feeding time.

Orangutan street art in Kuching (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

Grandmother ‘Seduko’ and grandson ‘Guro’ orangutans delighted the wide-eyed tourists and their cameras with their playful antics. It was a lovely experience but I couldn’t help but feel that the wild animals were thinking how unnerving it is that all those humans kept staring at them and taking pictures. Their expressions were quite human-like, as they should be since apparently we are not too distant cousins.

Grandmother ‘Seduko’ and grandson ‘Guro’ orangutan (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

The park closed after feeding time as visitors are not allowed to trek through the forest due to the high potential of aggressive behaviour by the orangutans. I would have been aggressive too if people invaded my territory and ran after me, taking photos.

Sarawa River in Kuching (photo: Nihal Sharaf)

The Fairy Cave and Wind Cave was also a therapeutic experience, but I advise those with respiratory problems and bat-poo phobia against the visit. The intense ‘nature-smell’ and humid atmosphere seriously takes your breath away. A change of shirts is also advisable and those with curly, frizzy hair are advised to tie it up.

In conclusion, I can say my spontaneous trip was a successful and enlightening experience that I will happily repeat once I stabilise the numbers in my bank account.

 “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac 

Malaysia (photo: Nihal Sharaf)