Transportation in Malaysia seemed more challenging than in Thailand, so we swapped ferries and buses for our own four wheels. We were told that the road system and driving was much better here, so filled with confidence we rented a car for a couple of weeks to discover some of the country.
We were allocated a Proton “Saga” and the whole process ended up being a bit of a saga, not helped by the fact that I hadn’t realised that the only credit card I had brought had actually expired! It proved quite hard to find a rental company without this requirement, so we had to settle for some random local agent who arranged to send the car to the airport. We nervously handed over the cash plus deposit to the young student who delivered the car (minus any paperwork, checks or guarantees). Still…what could possibly go wrong?! Luckily, I had read that an automatic payment card was required as many of the toll booths were unmanned, so we spent the next hour at a shop where the very patient young assistant downloaded the required app for us (why does everything have to be on apps these days??!!). We then had to go to the 7-11 to add funds and return to the shop where she activated said app with photos and passport details, and gave us a sticker for the car – what a palaver! Finally, we set off across the longest bridge I’d ever encountered (13.5kms!) to the state of Perak on mainland Malaysia…finally we were off.
The motorways seemed very well maintained and it should have been an easy drive. Unfortunately, Malaysian drivers appeared as bad as their Thai counterparts and we felt like we were competing in a strange version of Wacky Races. We had learnt by now to “expect the unexpected” but it was a real test of Ian’s patience (and my tolerance to his swearing!) to navigate to our first stop, the state capital and historic tin mining town of Ipoh.
Like Georgetown, it was chock full of colonial buildings (including a superb railway station) many of which had been converted to chic hotels and gorgeous little cafes. The relatively modern hotel we had booked however, was a welcome treat, with a huge bed, rainforest shower and plug sockets that actually worked! A short walk across the bridge that straddled the Kinta River and we were in the heart of the charismatic old town, where we followed the heritage trail around the main sights, again peppered with more amazing street art.
We had planned to use the town as a base to explore the surrounding area, and top of the list were the famed temple caves. Encircled by huge limestone cliffs, over the years Buddhist monks had used the caves for refuge and places of worship – and these vast spaces were adorned with murals, religious statues and often led outside (via many, many steps!) to expansive views of the countryside and elaborate gardens.
The following day we visited Kellie’s Castle, the unfinished mansion of an ill-fated young Scottish entrepreneur. The interesting Moorish, Scottish and Indian architecture contained hidden rooms and underground passages, and was to house the first lift/elevator in Malaysia. Sadly, instead of the lift, Kellie came down with pneumonia in 1926 on his way to collect it in London and the house was abandoned. Although now a ruin, they had decorated one of the rooms in the style in which it may have been once completed, and it proved a fascinating and quite eerie place.
Driving around in town proved just as challenging as the motorways, as apart from the erratic drivers (I do wonder if they have the equivalent of the “Highway Code” here) we had the invisible speed bumps to contend with. They would come out of nowhere and were rarely painted so blended in with the tarmac quite nicely. They did slow us down, but I think we’ll both need a back and neck massage once we get back to Thailand!
Keeping the adrenaline pumping, we’d heard that the Kinta River offered excellent opportunities for white water rafting, so we booked a morning’s session. Carrying the raft several meters to the river was the most exhausting part, but we had great fun propelling ourselves through grade 3 rapids (the maximum our insurance would allow), occasionally stopping to admire the jungle scenery and huge iridescent bird-wing butterflies. This was followed by a trip to yet another impressive cave complex at Tempurung – the largest in Peninsular Malaysia no less, where we opted for the easy walking option (albeit with with obligatory huge staircase) which led to the Golden Flowstone rather than scrambling through miles of water-filled tunnels. We weren’t completely mad!
We finally treated ourselves to dinner at (allegedly) Malaysia’s oldest bar and restaurant, the FMS Bar which sported vintage ceiling fans, antiques from the colonial era, old photos and newspaper clippings and offered excellent, if pricey, food and drink. We were served by the wonderful Susan Wong, who once discovering our nationality, insisted we sit next to the photo of the Queen! She kept us thoroughly entertained and extremely well attended to during the evening, offering menu suggestions and even slipping us free cocktails and deserts. A memorable evening indeed and nice to know that the British were still seen as friends!
Our last “quiet night” was rudely disturbed very early the next morning when we were awoken by blaring music and a boot sale being set up in the road next to us. Time for another change of scenery and some peace and quiet…
Next Stop: The hills are alive…