Spending a little less than two weeks in Malaysia was a great little get away. We flew in and out of Penang International Airport and spent the next ten days in the nearby Cameron Highlands, Ipoh, and Taiping. It was a sweet tip, but we couldn’t have chosen a worse time. The end of Ramadan coincided with a two week school holiday and every Malay who had the opportunity to travel was on the road and in the hotels. This caused hotel prices to double and bus trips to be more than twice as long.
The first couple of days in Penang, Laurel and I just tried to figure out what was going on in Malaysia. We were both here about ten years ago, but that didn’t really help with orienting ourselves. We stayed in a pretty fancy hotel in Georgetown and spent a lot of time at the Indian food restaurants which are far superior and cheaper than those in Thailand.
We also got a chance to see Penang from above as we took the funicular tram up Penang Hill and walked down the long and step wooded hike back to a large botanical garden. We even saw a monkey in the wild. As far as we could tell, it was trying to destroy a roadside mirror. If you are thinking of walking down from Penang Hill, remember that it is a pretty far walk and can get incredibly slippery in the rain. Luckily we made it alright, although getting a cab home was pretty difficult (holidays and the buses were way off schedule).
From Penang we headed to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands. This area is pretty much where they make all the tea Malaysia. Now, with the availability of hydroponics and electricity being cheap and widespread, strawberries also are taking over as the main tourist draw. Aside from tons of opportunities to see tea plants and drink pulled tea, there is really some amazing hiking.
The trails are filled with butterflies, lizards, and flowers in a variety of shapes and colors. We saw wild orchids and giant squirrels. Also, when hiking, it seems like you have the whole place to yourself. Laurel and I spend two full eight hour days hiking and we never saw another person on the trails. Most hotels and guesthouse will have simply maps that show trail routes, though seemingly never to scale. Also, we drank a ton of water, so be careful to stay hydrated!
After having a great time in Tanah Rata, we bused back out of the mountains down to Ipoh. This city is a very funky place to visit, but I am glad I did. There are some amazing Buddhist temples carved into old limestone caves that are really amazing. Also, like this whole area of Malaysia, there is a strange mix of old colonial architecture and 1960s square box buildings that seem to all be decaying at an equally alarming rate. Also most tourists who visit the caves do it as a stop on their way to somewhere else and do not stay in the city. Apparently this is why most people will stare at you if you are walking around in town. And I mean stare. Usually, if you smile at them, people will realize they are staring, smile, and look away. But, just as often people will continue to give you a deadpan stare as if you are from another world. That being said, we meet many friendly people and even got several dollars of free durian and great conversation with the owner of possible the best coffee shop in Malaysia.
After a couple days in Ipoh we left for Taiping. Only about an hour and fifteen minutes away by bus, this location felt totally different. Malaysian Chinese, and apparently the Chinese expat community in general, seem to flock to the city for retirement. This leads to a city that feels a lot like you are in Taiwan or southern China. The best part about Taiping by far was the Night Safari at the local zoo. They let you in to the zoo at night and you can walk around all by yourself looking at the animals and getting really up close and personal while they are all awake and active. Most Malays seem uninterested in walking around and take loud, fast-moving trams around the park. It is a little annoying and crazy because they don’t even really get to see anything. Walking however was fantastic.
After Taiping, we few back to Bangkok and now I am just getting back to work. National Archives here I come…
Mae Salong may be my favorite place in Thailand. Not only does it grow and produce wonderful oolong teas in the Taiwanese style, but it is also filled with funky modern history and is more than twenty degrees colder than Bangkok or even neighboring Chiang Rai.
This northern town was founded in the mountains outside Chiang Rai and near the border with Burma by semi-retired/post-civil war KMT (Kuomintang or Guomindang or Nationalist Army or 中國國民黨 you take your pick). These Chinese soldiers and their families fought in Southern China during the civil war that followed World War II. As the tides of war change and the Nationalists saw their positions fading, many escaped, retreated, and regrouped in Northern Burma and continued to fight despite the victory of the communists in the capital and Mao’s proclamation of the Communist Chinese state in October 1949.
These Nationalist soldiers did not fare much better in Burma than they had in Southern China and were forced to relocate again, this time choosing Northern Thailand. Here they built a community of (primarily) yunnanese-speaking, tea-drinking, high-mountain-living folk. Also they tended to smuggle opium across the border on donkeys, but that is only natural. What are borders for if not illicit exchanges? Many of the old nationalist soldiers are buried in elaborate tombs around the many little valleys.
These days, most of the illegality is gone, but the cold, Chinese community, and tea remain. Laurel and I spent multiple days enjoying the cold, if a little rainy, weather with cup after cup of nice hot tea. I also bought about four kilos/nine pounds of tea to bring home.
We also hiked around up and down a bunch of hills and valleys and even saw some giant walking sticks.
It was fun trying to talk to people in a mix of Thai and Chinese. At times I was pretty unsuccessful, but that is part of the fun, right? Actually I was surprised by how well my Thai stood up despite the heavy accents.
The most amazing part of visiting this city may be the views. Mae Salong sits almost a thousand meters higher than Chiang Rai and the long and winding ride up to the top has some amazing lookouts. The city itself is thin and straddles the ridgeline. I really haven’t been to a place like it before. If you happen to be reading this deciding whether or not to go, I cannot recommend it enough.