Unspoilt beaches, barbecued fish in sambal sauce and laid-back kampung living ... the writer takes a road trip from Kuala Lumpur into eastern Malaysia.
I’M sitting in the conservatory of Kuala Lumpur’s newly reopened Majestic Hotel surrounded by a thousand different orchids, enjoying an afternoon tea that could rival that served at the Ritz. When I lived in Kuala Lumpur, 30 years ago, the Majestic was rundown, a relic of faded grandeur, and about to close – so I presumed the wrecking ball had long since swept the grand neo-classical building from the city’s futuristic skyline. Actually, it is now the place to be seen, especially its retro Colonial Cafe, which serves modern twists on planter cuisine, such as mulligatawny soup, Hainanese chicken rice and mushroom faggots.
Each time I come back to Kuala Lumpur, the city seems to have reinvented itself. The newest hotspots for the wealthy are jazz clubs such as No Black Tie (17 Jalan Mesui, www.noblacktie.com.my), speakeasy-themed bars such as Omakase+Appreciate (Bangunan Ming Annexe), which is in the basement of an office block, or vertiginous open-air lounge bars and dance clubs such as the Skydeck at Troika (www.troikaskydining.com) on the 23rd floor of Norman Foster’s new skyscraper, right across from the iconic Petronas Twin Towers.
You might expect to find any of these places in a cosmopolitan world city, but what sets KL apart are the staples of Malaysian society and culture that continue to underpin this advanced metropolis without a sense of contradiction. Only a short cab ride away from the shiny new dens of high society is the ever-popular Jalan Alor area. This former red-light district is packed with stalls serving some of the best street food in Asia – skewers of satay chicken, spicy kway teow noodles smothered with juicy cockles and prawns, and delicious wok-fried kangkong (morning glory) – all for less than £3 (RM15.40) each.
After a typical mix-and-match night out in KL, I make it back to where I’m staying in the early hours. And this time it’s not to the hushed grandeur of the Majestic, but to a Chinatown guesthouse called Backhome. This is another fresh discovery: a designer hostel that offers a budget alternative to dingy backpacker dorms.
The next day, I set off on a 1,000km round-trip to the East Coast of Malaysia. If KL is Malaysia’s modern, tolerant, multi-racial face, then visiting the traditional kampungs or villages that line the sandy beaches along the South China Sea is a journey into the country’s more conservative Muslim Malay heartland. I want to see how much it has changed in comparison with the futuristic metamorphosis of Kuala Lumpur.
It is always a shock how quickly the urban mass disappears: half an hour out of the city the busy expressway is climbing through dense tropical jungle that clings to the Genting Highlands. From here, the landscape is one of palm oil and rubber plantations that have, sadly, replaced some of the world’s oldest rainforest. But as we finally reach the other side of the peninsula and head towards our first stop, at Cherating, the motorway peters out and is replaced by Jalan Timur, the old single-lane road lined with coconut trees that runs through sleepy villages, hugging the coastline all the way up to the Thai border.
When I used to escape the city for weekends in Cherating, the east coast was the great hope for Malaysian tourism, with hundreds of miles of pristine white-sand beaches. This is where Club Med opened one of its first Asian resorts. But today, it seems little has changed, and modernisation has made minimal impact on kampung life, which is as laid-back as it ever was.
Years ago, we used to stay with Mak Long Teh, a wonderful Malay lady who opened her house on stilts to foreigners as a pioneer homestay. We would sit on the floor and eat dinner with the family, discovering all the local curries. Every year, she made improvements, building bungalows, adding showers and even running hot water. But the tourism boom has never taken off and the big hotels have never materialised. Cherating, along with all the potential beach resorts along the coast, remains as unspoilt as ever, the white sand strands swirling into different shapes as the tides come and go. What has also stayed the same is the wide range of backpacker chalets that budget travellers can stay in.
Walking around the bay, I see gap-year students from Europe braving the sun to play football, while village schoolkids stay back in the shady kampung, preferring the traditional Malay game of sepak takraw, an athletic version of kick-volleyball. At a beachside cafe, a wizened fisherman and a local hajj (Haj) pilgrim sit sipping kopi susu (strong filtered coffee sweetened with condensed milk), animatedly talking politics: the Malay heartland is historically supportive of PAS (the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party), a conservative Islamic anti-government movement. Unlike in the brave new world of KL, no one is rushing around trying to make their fortune, and many of the village boutiques selling batik and woven baskets that I remembered have disappeared, to be replaced by Thai wellness spas.
However, the food on offer is still amazing. Every lunchtime, a Malay lady sets up a stall with a dozen local specialities that she has been slowly cooking on an old-fashioned charcoal stove in her kampung house: tangy beef rendang, curried cuttlefish, bitter gourd curry, bamboo shoots in coconut milk and crunchy raw vegetables smothered in a fiery sambal sauce. She piles a mountain of white rice on your plate, and you help yourself to the rest, but no matter how much you heap on, the price doesn’t come to more than a couple of pounds.
Despite the fact that it is difficult to buy a beer or a glass of wine – alcohol is pretty much banned all along the east coast – there is still a party atmosphere most nights in the beach cafes, with ageing Malay hippies strumming Marley and Dylan songs. Just don’t expect any full-moon raves in Cherating.
Driving up the coast, I pass tumbledown stalls every few hundred yards selling mangos and papaya, mangosteens and hairy red “rambutans”, a tangy kind of lychee that is the perfect thirst-quencher in the Malaysian heat and humidity. Every kampung we pass through has dusty trails disappearing off the main road, leading through coconut groves to a deserted beach. It is tempting each time to stop off and investigate, but it would take six months to explore all these seaside hideaways.
In the modern built-up town of Dungun, we swing by the port and discover a morning market, where fishermen unload their catch and scores of stalls are selling fish and seafood.
The scenery changes when the coast road passes through the sprawling royal capital of Kuala Terengganu. We visit a splendid pastel yellow palace where the sultan resides, and then the surreal Crystal Mosque with its Islamic Civilisation Park, floating on a tiny island in the Terengganu river.
Rather than the fashion and hi-tech boutiques of Kuala Lumpur, traditional Malay culture is embedded here, and we visit artisan workshops renowned for batik printing, and pick up a pricey piece of songket, delicate hand-woven silk cloth with gold and silver threads worn at Malay ceremonies.
After KT, the highway is almost deserted on the long haul up to the Thai border. Most travellers who get this far are heading for the renowned dive islands of Perhentian and Redang, taking the boat from the bustling harbour of Kuala Besut rather than staying on the coast itself.
We take a break in a roadside cafe in the village of Penarik for nasi lemak, the local breakfast staple of coconut-steamed rice, chilli-fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber and boiled egg, and ask if there is anywhere to stay. The owner points us to a rough track between the beach and a narrow river until, after a couple of kilometres, we reach the Penarik Inn (www.paradisepenarikinn.blogspot.co.uk), whose cheery sign announces that we have arrived in paradise – the Caribbean of the South China Sea.
The Inn is a self-contained kampung, with a dozen chalets beneath a shady coconut grove, whose sign reads: “Danger – falling coconuts”, and this is no joke. The chalets have recently been rebuilt in concrete - they used to get damaged each time the monsoon swept in – and guests can choose between aircon and old-fashioned ceiling fans.
The bedrooms are simple but clean and comfy, with a private shower and toilet, and a hammock in which to doze outside the entrance. In the middle of the chalets, and right on the beach, is a big open Malay wooden house, the Caribbean Cafe, where meals are served. Breakfast is a choice between fried eggs and toast with kaya, a delicious coconut jam, or local specialities such as glutinous rice with a sweet fish curry and kuih bakar, a baked pudding flavoured with pandan leaves.
Penarik is run by a young couple, Riyad and Adlin. Riyad’s parents opened it in 1992 as one of the pioneering homestays in the area, but the couple have transformed the place, offering a host of activities that make the most of the unspoilt environment. Adlin tells me that she and her husband abandoned life in KL to come back and run the inn.
“It wasn’t easy at first to readapt to the customs and culture of kampung life compared with all the modern things of KL, but now we’re really happy we made the choice,” she says. “We have managed to employ three villagers at the inn, and I’m soon going to open an environmental centre in the new Setiu Wetlands state park with the help of local government.”
Adlin and Riyad are committed to environmentally responsible tourism. So guests are often roped in to help on the weekly “beach cleaning day”, not only to clean up the flotsam and jetsam of the South China Sea, but also to encourage turtles to come ashore and lay their eggs. The inn oversees a World Wildlife Foundation turtle hatchery, part of a programme that is finally succeeding in drawing turtles back to these shores after years of abuse by tourists tramping around with blazing torches, and locals digging up their eggs and selling them to unscrupulous gourmets.
In contrast to the highly organised dive islands, a snorkelling trip at Penarik starts lazily in the morning after breakfast when everyone sets off in a simple fishing boat, the ice cooler packed with soft drinks. The destination is the tiny rocky island of Batu Bara, uninhabited but with a small sandy beach and lapping turquoise water, perfect for sunbathing and enjoying the lunch that Adlin has prepared.
This is not a place for serious scuba diving but for anyone happy with snorkelling and with spotting multi-coloured parrotfish and moray eels peeping out of the rocks. On the way back, there is a choice of a nap in the boat or casting a line for some impromptu fishing. Serious fishing enthusiasts can go out with a local fisherman for the day, while on another excursion visitors can follow a Penarik villager through the steamy mangroves.
In the evening, the inn comes alive with music at the bar. As we sit on the beach at sunset, with giant prawns and crabs grilling on the barbecue, the sophistication and modernity of KL seem a million miles away. But the beauty of Malaysia is that somehow two worlds manage a fragile coexistence, from the delightfully decadent nightlife of the multicultural capital to the more traditional and conservative but welcoming East Coast.
Note: flights were provided by Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com). Backhome (www.backhome.com.my), in Kuala Lumpur, has doubles from £23 (RM118) and mixed dorms from £9 (RM46) per person. Penarik Inn, has doubles from £16 (RM82). Further information from Tourism Malaysia at tourism.gov.my. Journey Malaysia (www.journeymalaysia.com) is an excellent local travel agency, which offers trips on Malaysia’s East Coast. – Guardian News & Media