Settling down for the flight

“SO what’s on the itinerary you’ve organised?” my sister-in-law asked as we buckled up our seatbelts on a cheap Air Asia flight out of Coolangatta bound for Kuala Lumpur.

My brother usually had their trips planned down to the last 10 minutes, but she took it well when I replied that I had booked a hotel for the first two nights in KL and that was about it.

“I thought we could just hop, skip and jump around the Malay Peninsula and see how it goes,” I explained. “Two old girls getting under the skin of a near-neighbour, all that sort of thing.”

So, there we were again, the widow and the divorcee out to prove that 60 is the new 40 as we jetted off into the unknown, our trip to Croatia a year earlier the only precedent.

Air Asia arrives at the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) as opposed to KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) where, for what often comes as part of the price of the air ticket but in any event is less than $5 a ticket, the Skybus leaves regularly for downtown KL.

Petronas KL

You know you’re in KL when…

The humidity slams us in the face as soon as we step into the glaringly bright light of a Malaysian day, heading towards the Skybus terminal about 50m away at the end of the carpark.

The trip into town, just under 60km north, takes about an hour, through groves of palm oil plantations for as far as the eye can see.

The Petronas Twin Towers, which held the title of the world’s tallest building from 1998-2004, glistening in their stainless steel and glass cladding, are a reference point for all of KL, a big, bustling, noisy, fascinating Asian city.

Taxis are cheap, trains, monorail and buses are cheaper – city loops are free – and it’s an easy city to navigate despite its sprawl.

Accommodation is also abundant, convenient and across all comfort levels. The sister-in-law is a five-star traveller but we reach a compromise, alternating stays between her higher levels of luxury with my preferred three-stars which are not too bad here at all.

KL is my call and the Hotel Geo, even at three stars, is perfect. It’s in the thick of Petaling St (Chinatown), Central Market and the bus station to the newer, upmarket end of town. It’s also clean and comfortable and only $60 a night.

KL shops

Always lots of shopping, from markets to malls

This is a city for shopping but we must restrain ourselves as we can set aside a day for that before flying out. We book the Geo for another couple of nights three weeks hence and jump on a bus heading north.

The destination was chosen simply by visiting the Malaysian tourism centre while en route to the Petronas towers which, incidentally, come with a huge and elegant shopping centre.

We make a list of all the places we would like to see and decide if we will follow the dots clockwise or anti-clockwise, use one of the many free Wi-Fi cafes to book a room for the next night and look for a way to get there. Too easy.

Buses are easy to organize, clean, frequent, reliable, mostly on time, comfortable and, as there is a lot of competition between companies, inexpensive.

First stop is the Cameron Highlands, famous for its tea plantations but to get there, it’s necessary to stop at Ipoh in the foothills about 200km north of KL. It turns out to be worthwhile.

For about $20 we book a taxi for the afternoon and the obliging driver takes us on a tour of the town.

Ipoh station

A fine sample of colonial architecture at Ipoh Station

Memories of primary school social studies classes come flooding back as this is also known as Tin Town, where fortunes were made at the turn of the 19th century by tin miners who brought in cheap Tamil labour from India.

Rajen, the taxi driver, explains his grandparents were among those who worked the tin mines, as he takes us past some fine old colonial buildings. The railway station is simply magnificent.

Equally splendid but totally different is the Kek Look Tong cave temple.

It reaches deep into a limestone cave with huge golden statues, both Buddhist and Chinese, among the stalactites and then opens into landscaped gardens with carp-filled ponds.

Kek Look Tong cave temple

The Kek Look Tong temple among the caves

Sam Poh Tong temple, the intriguing Kellie’s Castle, ruins of a mansion started in 1915 by a Scottish planter but never completed, and Gerbang Malam night market make Ipoh more than just a stopover.

The taxi was such good value, it seemed a good idea to forget about the long bus trip and accept Rajen’s offer to drive us the 85km up into the highlands for $30, where he would introduce us to Param who would show us the sights for $10.

The Highlands are not made for walking even though temperatures have significantly cooled. It’s about 4km between the main centres Brinchang and Tanah Rata and the route is scattered with hotels, many of them built with an alpine theme.

The tea plantations are even further into the hills and taxi is unquestionably the way to travel. The drivers know the photo stops and must-see spots and don’t mind waiting while we tour the Boh tea factory and follow the fascinating process from hillside to teacup.

Tea Plantation

So that’s how they make tea!

There’s nothing sophisticated about the Time Tunnel Gallery on the outskirts of Brinchang but it’s an evocative trip down memory lane with its random collection of nostalgia and stories and deserves at least an hour.

Outside, a big, cold glass of fresh strawberry juice sets me back $1.

There are plenty of other local tourist attractions to choose from – snakes, butterflies and of course, strawberries. Lots of strawberries and hydroponic farms.

Penang artwork

Three-dimensional street art in George Town.

But having seen the tea plantations, which is what we came for, we head back to Ipoh and catch a bus onwards north to George Town, the capital of the state of Penang.

It’s in the north-east corner of the island of Penang on the Strait of Malacca (spelt locally as Melaka or Malaka) and after travelling across a long bridge from the mainland, we are deposited in the city centre.

It was named after King George III of Britain so for anyone with even a passing interest in colonial history, this is a fascinating city with its mix of Chinese, Indian and British architecture.

Tike at Penang

After foot slogging, time for an easy tour

Its well-kept cultural history was acknowledged in 2008 when UNESCO listed the whole place as a World Heritage Site and readily available maps set out easy walking tours of the colonial heart of the city with its original shophouses, street markets and little lanes.

The tourism office offers a guided walking tour for two ($20) conducted by a retired Malay school teacher who takes us into the secret places we would never have found much less dared enter, and gives a running commentary of George Town’s history.

He also tells us about the brilliant three-dimensional street art of

who painted people around, among other things, real windows, bikes and basketball hoops in 2012.

Apparently he planned his work for Singapore, but was rejected as they like to keep the place clear of graffiti.

I want to see them all, so foot weary, I finally agree to sitting back in a colourful trishaw feeling guilty while a skinny little man pedals us around, weaving through the busy traffic, to show us the highlights.

It’s a grand tour and costs only $10 so a handsome tip although not demanded, comes cheap.

Now we have some big decisions to make. Do we fly to Langkawi, the Malaysian answer to Thailand’s Koh Samui, for a beach resort break or do we forge onward on the journey of exploration and head east?

In the end, it’s a compromise, an island resort on the east coast.

There’s known to be some strife around Kota Bharu on the Thai border, so we elect for Kuala Terengganu, about 150km south. While it is possible to get to the east by bus in a day through rough jungle roads, we decide it is a more attractive proposition to fly.

Fortunately Wi-Fi access is easy and it’s even easier to book a flight which necessarily goes via KL so three hours and $110 later, we arrive in the superbly retro Sultan Mahmud airport.