Colourful wooden traditional houses in China Town, Penang

Musings on Malaya (and going solo)

So the good news is, it’s been a week and I’ve survived!

I know how ridiculous that sounds, but as a first-time solo traveller with an over active imagination and lots of travelling time between destinations to think the worst, there were more than a few moments when I questioned why I had left the safety of Singapore. And nothing to do with Malaysia – just me worrying about all the unknown unknowns ahead of me and if I could really look after myself at all in a foreign country.

Well, I did. So, a few thoughts…

When I booked my flight from Singapore to KL I imagined Malaysia’s capital to be a sprawling urban Asian metropolis – where local street food vendors and air-conditioned modern malls sit side by side, much like a Bangkok or Hong Kong – where shiny skyscrapers rise from behind ancient temples. And it pretty much was that, although maybe a decade or more behind those other cities, giving it a bit more of a raw edge.

KL is basically a giant building site, with the pace of construction like nothing I’ve seen before. My hostel overlooked a site that had about 25 men welding at any one time, all hours of the day! I think they had created another floor in the 48 hours I was there.

KL is catching up to the other big Asian cities quickly, although walking around is difficult with few pavements and the station limited metro system not being too advanced just yet. However, the city is well worth a visit; the night markets are buzzing and the Petronas towers are impressive. There are loads of things to do – aside from the food markets, my highlights were Batu caves, Islamic Art Museum and stumbling across the enclosure for the world’s smallest deer in the city park!

The Petronas Towers at night is a spectacle

Not all of Malaysia’s infrastructure is lagging. Having taken a clean, air conditioned fast train from KL to Butterworth which makes our UK intercity connecting services look old, I was expecting a bit more of ‘rough’ when I arrived in George Town on the island of Penang.

The town has UNESCO world heritage status and is packed with quaint shop houses, hand painted signs, beautiful street art on every corner and some fantastic temples. The foodie experience here was out of this world – I feasted on £1.50 dim sum for breakfast, lamb masala, garlic naan and roti for lunch in Little India, and Chinese style grilled fish and rice in an alfresco restaurant come car park for dinner. Street food here is the thing to do and with the most paid being about £3 a head including Tiger beers, it couldn’t be much cheaper.

A Traditional Chinese dim sum restaurant – Aik Hoe with painted wooden blind to keep off the sun
Brightly coloured but lived in buildings in the Chinese area of George Town
Khoo Temple, Penang

But outside of the world heritage site downtown, Penang is bustling – this island has an international airport with flights from Chinese cities landing daily. Local, Asian regional and Arab tourism is booming and in many of the places I stayed across Malaysia, the majority of hotel guests were not western – something probably unthinkable only a decade ago.

I used Penang’s new airport to fly to the island of Langkawi where I treated myself to some proper R&R – staying in beach resorts and even splashing out on a massage…hardly the backpacker way, but I justified it to myself because it is so cheap here, it didn’t make too much of a dent in the funds and it felt pretty good. The resorts were busy – I was witness to a beach wedding for an Australian couple(!) but they do have the best spots on the paradise island. Sitting on my porch I witnessed a troop of 10 black-spectacled monkeys leaping from my jungle lodge roof and getting stuck into the fruit trees in my front garden! The next day, a yellow hornbill nibbling on palm nuts greeted me on my walk to the restaurant. It felt pretty special to be so close to wild nature.

Sunset in Langkawi

So now I’m in Melaka / Malacca (they spell it both ways) and it’s also a world heritage site bursting with temples, colonial buildings and obviously the famous views of the Straits. I’m writing this sitting outside the Geographers Cafe (it felt pretty appropriate) in a balmy 28 degrees, eating vegetable curry with naan and sipping an ice tea, oh and my bill is £2.00. It feels pretty good.

What feels better is knowing I got here: caught the right bus, got my ringgits, haggled with the taxi driver, checked into my hostel – even made a friend (we are going for a cycle around the historic old town later). I’m taking pride in the small wins, every success is a little victory in doing this on my own. It was daunting taking a leap into the unknown, but the thought that is getting me through is ‘what is the worst that could happen?’ Turns out leaving your phone behind in Singapore is not ideal, Or getting your card blocked (I have past form for this) but it can be overcome, as I think almost everything can be.

Malaysia has been a great starting point – English is widely spoken, public transport runs on time, accommodation is plentiful, everything is cheap and people are so friendly and helpful. That’s not to say it’s perfect – I think wherever you are, solo female travellers are seen as a bit of a novelty which is not quite understood and asking where my husband is/ can a stranger (Chinese guy) have a photo with me, has happened once or twice. A polite no has always seen any unwanted attention off, though and given I’ve had the same questions in London – not too off-putting. More broadly, this week has made me thankful to have been brought up in western society where, as a woman, I have the freedom to actually do this trip – wearing what I like and without a man escorting me. It shouldn’t be a privilege but it feels like one.

So end of week one and I’m beginning to relax into being independent – my confidence in my ability to find my way is growing, and at least I’m now pretty sure I’ll survive this trip…!

Geographers cafe for an ex-Geography student




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