I’ve been back from Malaysia a week, and Perth has cast its usual amnesic spell – feels already as if I haven’t been away. It had been so long since I had been overseas that friends were actually congratulating me on taking the plunge and getting away!
In fact, I am probably more widely travelled than anyone I know, having spent two years on the road backpacking and doing it rough back in my late 20s, hitchhiking around the UK and Europe, sleeping in youth hostels and cheap hotels, on the beach in Crete for a grubby feral week and even in parks in France – a miserable experience that permanently dispelled the romantic notions of the bum life that Orwell had nurtured in me in his compelling work, Down and Out In Paris and London.
I entered the first Big Relationship of my life with a fascinating, damaged woman I met in Germany who mercilessly pushed me through an extended adolescent metamorphosis into something approaching adulthood, lived with her in Munich, then we ended up travelling on a shoestring through India for 3 months, during which I almost died of dysentery (doctors later suspected cholera), on to Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, Hong Kong and then-very-communist mainland China, where few spoke any English and the folk all still wore grey, green or blue worker uniforms. China in those days was a very difficult travelling proposition – far harder than India, which was no picnic – and we did it tough. I ended up with hepatitis A and had to retreat to Australia for 4 months to recover, before returning to my girlfriend, who by then had moved to Cologne.
So, I’ve been around, and I know what it is to travel the hard way, on a tight budget, with a pack on your back and no real plan apart from that destiny holds in hidden store for you. But stay too long in one place – especially when that place is Perth, where so many are rut-bound – and people think you’ve never been away. Shit, it even felt to me prior to our Malaysian break that I’d been grafted to this place forever! Bad.
So, why Malaysia? Partly out of perversity. Everyone seems to head for Phuket these days. I think it’s a fair claim that for Aussies looking to have a short break overseas, Phuket is the new Bali. Indeed, we looked hard at Phuket, but the prospect of joining the Aussie hordes up there wasn’t enticing. Although I am no longer the youthful backpacker with an insatiable hunger for The Road, and not at all averse to the idea of a holiday in the sun by the pool of a lux hotel surrounded by lush tropical gardens and swaying palms, there is still enough of The Traveller inside to demand something truly unfamiliar: we were seeking cultural difference, not familiarity.
The other decisive factor that drew us towards Malaysia was food. Food has always been central for me, and increasingly so as time has gone on. I love to cook, I love to eat. I read somewhere that food obsession is an indicator of brain damage. No surprise there, some who know me might claim. Could certainly do with a RAM upgrade. I battle to remember my own phone number, and recently had to calculate my age from my year of birth. Can recall particular meals from over a decade ago, though. What does that say, I wonder?
Anyway, we were always going to stop over in Singapore to begin our break with a food fest, and as we struggled to work out how we could incorporate Phuket, Krabi and Hua Hin into 3 weeks without breaking the bank, it occurred to us that Malaysia was geographically most accessible from Singapore and reputedly spectacular in the quality and variety of its cuisine. Thai is my favourite Asian cuisine, but I was up for something different I knew less about. The extent of my experience of Malaysian food was laksa, satay and chicken curries (Curry Kapitan is firmly established in my cooking repertoire). Maybe it was time to delve deeper…
Only days before we were due to fly out, we firmly decided on Malaysia. I bought the Lonely Planet guide and we started reading up in earnest. We ditched the travel agents, who had been trying to push us into settling for a package to Phuket, and hit the internet to book a few hotels in advance (recommend Wotif.com).
We decided to bus from Singapore to Melaka (the home of Nyonya cuisine and famous for its laksa), then to KL. From KL, we’d check the travel deals and maybe end up having that holiday in the sun after all, but in Sabah, rather than Phuket. If time permitted, we’d stop in at Penang on the way back to Singapore (from where we were due to fly home) – Penang has long enjoyed a reputation as THE food capital of Malaysia. At last, we KNEW we had made the right decision. How? We were finally EXCITED!
Our friends – even the travel agents we’d been talking to – seemed bemused by our decision to choose Malaysia as our destination. Reactions ranged from a weak smile and a luke-warm, “oh…ok…should be nice” to downright incredulity. eg: “MaLAYsia? Why? NO one goes to MaLAYsia.”
Well, we did, the food was INCREDIBLE and ridiculously cheap, and we had a damned good time. And for those of you who care to know more, keep an eye on coming blogs, in which all will be revealed – including a cultural encounter that dropped our jaws on to the hot pavement of Melaka.