I knew from the start that my first trip to Malaysia would be filled with novelties when the attendants on my overnight flight inundated the cabin space with bug spray. Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur took just under 13 hours, during which time my concerns about what could go wrong became increasingly intense. Relief slowly crept in when I discovered upon debarking that the airport’s Malay signs all had English translations, although I did attempt to learn a few native words beforehand (Tandas = Toilet is all I can remember now).
Kuala Lumpur Airport
Kuala Lumpur airport — one of the largest and busiest in the world — was built on cleared farmland, hinted at through the rural surroundings. If you wanted to reach the city centre itself, as I did, a 28-mile journey north was in order. Having familiarised myself with Malaysia’s different classes of taxi before leaving Britain, I made for the nearest red-and-white (budget) vehicle and asked to be dropped off at my hotel, InterContinental. The Petronas Towers caught my eye as we edged into Kuala Lumpur that evening, lit up like their neighbours but clearly looming over the rest of the skyline.
My adventure began in earnest the next morning, on September 3rd. Mobile data meant spending large sums of money, so the only maps I had were screenshots loaded over hotel Wi-Fi. These proved to be more than adequate. I spent part of the day in the KLCC Park, next to the Petronas Towers, marvelling at the manmade behemoths in the tropical sunshine but also just enjoying the peaceful green space. Particularly colourful bird life kept me company as I plotted an invisible path around the continuously pulsing display fountains. I later moved to the nearby sea life centre, Aquaria KLCC, where I photographed the resident horseshoe crabs, electric catfish, and suchlike. This was followed up with the Bird Park and Butterfly Park on September 4th, completing a hat trick of pleasant zoological collections.
Over dinner in Bentley’s Pub that evening, I finally made my booking to go up the Petronas Towers. The only barrier was that I had to survive the jungle first. You see, my real reason for going further from home than ever before was not for an overly exotic city break: my final destination in actuality was Borneo, having previously won a place on an undergraduate fieldcourse there. Kuala Lumpur was merely an extended pit-stop.
Course participants had to meet in Kota Kinabalu on September 5th, so I flew out from Kuala Lumpur that morning. Given that my new destination was in one of the two Malaysian states that make up 26% of the huge island, it felt strange to think that spending two and a half hours crossing the South China Sea was part of a domestic flight. On the morning of September 6th, I discovered that the tap water I had swallowed when brushing my teeth the previous night had given me an almighty feeling of nausea — although I didn’t end up properly ill, readers should note that only bottled water is safe for ingestion in the poorer parts of South-East Asia (the development gap between Peninsular and East Malaysia is plain to see).
A subsequent air transfer to Lahad Datu on a propeller plane (my first time on this aircraft type) carried us over some ostensibly wonderful vegetation. Closer inspection, unfortunately, revealed them to be formed of oil palm plantations, which had no doubt been created and sustained through deforestation and subsequent erosion of local biodiversity. On a brighter note, the nearby summit of Mount Kinabalu bursting through the clouds was a sight that will stay with me for a very long time.
A two-hour drive from Lahad Datu took us through a forest buffer zone to the Danum Valley Conservation Area, our home for 10 full days. In my opinion, the phrase “once-in-a-lifetime experience” tends to be an unforgivable cliché, but receiving a series of tutorials in a rainforest lodge surely counts as an exception. Despite the frequent deluges of rain and leech encounters, our spirits were never dampened and our fondness for our surroundings never drained away during those one and a half weeks. How could we be disappointed when we had looked into the eyes of wild orangutans and witnessed daybreak after daybreak over a seemingly endless expanse of verdant canopy?
No one wanted to go back to Kota Kinabalu. That trip marked the beginning of the end. After a night in a hostel, though, I flew back to Kuala Lumpur and was up the Petronas Towers within five hours of touching down. My long-awaited ascent was surprisingly cheap, at the equivalent of £17. The views from the skybridge and the observation deck were breathtaking, but at a respective 170 and 370 metres up, any acrophobes out there are strongly advised to find alternative scenic overviews. These buildings were once the tallest in the world, the first outside of the USA to take the record. After another overnight flight the next day, I was finally back home.
I have come a long way in the two years since this trip. If I were to visit Malaysia again, it would be with increased confidence, a desire to sample more of the local cuisine and spend a greater amount of time in the country’s wilder areas. Provided caution is exercised, I see no reason for travellers to South-East Asia not to have a great time. I for one certainly hope to return one day.
Images courtesy of Alexandros Adamoulas