The magic of Malaysia

From hairpin bends and mountain peaks to tranquil beaches and shopping, Malaysia offers a wealth of amazing experiences

JANI VENTER

The wave of humidity and heat hit me like a wall as I stepped out of the airport at Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Sabah state on the island of Borneo, where I was met by my slight, energetic and beaming tour guide Fabian. After a 10- hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, which was surprisingly pleasant thanks to the great in-flight entertainment of Malaysia Airlines, and the connecting flight to Kota Kinabalu, I was tired and ready for a relaxing afternoon, preferably in a bed.

But first stop was the central Sunday market to browse the variety of goods on display, including home-grown fruit and vegetables, fresh seafood, clothing, souvenirs, and even a python you could have your picture taken with.

It wasn’t long before I was in the beautifully decorated lobby of Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa, where I was met by more friendly smiles and a delicious buffet lunch served at Café TATU.

As I took in the breathtaking view of the ocean and the islands from my balcony, not even my inviting hotel bed could keep me from running down to dive into the lukewarm water of the private beach. Relaxed from my swim, I enjoyed the most beautiful sunset in Sabah from a daybed at the Sunset Bar, with its pumping atmosphere.

I then walked along the public beach in search of dinner. I was rewarded with the discovery of The First Beach Café, with its atmosphere of rustic charm created by soft music, lights in the trees and candles on the tables. I realised I was quite ready for a steak roll with fries and beer. The magical atmosphere was enhanced by Chinese lanterns that drifted off into the night sky every now and then. When my curiosity got the better of me I approached a group of girls on the beach who were lighting candles, to discover that it was the Chinese Mooncake or Lantern Festival. They insisted I take a mooncake, and their warmth and friendliness resulted in a happy glow that stayed with me throughout my holiday.

The next day I was met by Fabian and our adventurous driver Dell, and we headed off to Mt Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park. By the time we stopped at another local market along the way, my nerves were in tatters, and I was grateful for the opportunity to look through the crafts and souvenirs on display. Dell, an aspiring Michael Schumacher, enjoyed screeching around the mountain passes and through huge puddles of water at breakneck speed, unfazed by the torrents of rain coming down over the mountains. So, for the rest of the way to the World Heritage Park, I decided that lying down was a much better option than seeing the heights and turns of the mountain passes flash by.

Throughout the journey, Fabian kept up a quirky narrative about the rich and diverse culture of Borneo. In addition to the beauty of the island beaches and the sprawling mountains and rainforests, Borneo also offers extreme sports such as white water rafting, caving, diving and, for the brave, a climb up the
4 095m Mt Kinabalu. It is also the only place in the world where you can find orangutans in their natural habitat.

I explored the trails of the forest and the botanical garden at Kinabalu Park, where Fabian was in his element and knew the answer to every question I had about the abundant plant life. This included information about the endless number of species of exquisite orchids and the two smaller carnivorous species that can be found in the forests.

At lunchtime I devoured prawns, chicken curry and sweet and sour fish at the Liwagu Restaurant and then it was off to Masilau Park, where a rather steep but scenic climb brought us to the two larger species of the carnivorous plants for which the park is famous.

Day three and a short boat ride brought me to Manukan Island, the second largest of the five surrounding Kota Kinabalu. We were greeted with the warmth that I had now come to expect from the Malay people, a cool cloth and drink, and a welcoming necklace placed around our necks. I spent a blissful morning in snorkelling gear, exploring the mysteries of the shallow reefs around the island and marvelling at the marine life that surrounded me.

As I drifted lazily in the blue haven, fish curiously swam up"to my mask and the bright neon flashes of colour amazed me at every turn. Angel fish, star fish, and countless species of the most beautiful fish that I could imagine were all around me. I was in heaven.

That night, I had time for a quick cocktail, a delectable dessert and a shower at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, and then we were off to the Mari Mari cultural village, where I could get up close and personal with the legendary head hunter tribes of Borneo. Our scantily-clad guide Adam kept us enthralled with his engaging personality and interesting facts about the history of the tribes. I got to try the deadly blowpipe, jumped on their handcrafted wooden trampoline and even had a tribal henna tattoo done.

The next morning I was back in Kuala Lumpur and on my way to Malacca City. My tour of this World Heritage Site included an authentic Malaysian house, the Cheng Hoon Teng (Green Clouds) Chinese Temple, which is the oldest functioning temple in the country, the Kampung Kling Mosque, and the Dutch Gereja Christ Church, built in 1753 to commemorate the centenary of their occupation of Malacca.

I was fascinated by the history contained in these narrow bustling streets, where tourists can enjoy an abundance ofunique shops and I marvelled at the colourful rickshaws and bartering locals, which all contributed to the lively atmosphere.

I ended my tour with a visit to an authentic pirate ship on display near the harbour, before returning to Kuala Lumpur and the beautiful Hotel Maya, to enjoy an awesome view of thePetronas Towers as the sun went down over the city.

After a buffet and cultural dance show at the Saloma Restaurant and Theatre, I walked back to the hotel beneath trees filled with fairy lights, gazing up at the lights of the towers, the highest buildings in the world until 2004. Reliving the flashing colours of the dancers, I thought about the amazing way the Malaysian people embrace all their cultures and races.

The next day we were off to visit the Royal Palace (residence of the king), the National Monument and the second largest mosque in the country. That evening, I tried out my bargaining skills in Chinatown, haggling my way through the stalls and gloating at my success at this fine art of business. I walked away extremely satisfied with my haul.

On the eve of Malaysian Independence Day, and drawn by promises of fireworks and huge crowds at midnight on the city square, I slowly made my way through the busy nightlife of the lantern-lined streets. The brilliantly lit and colourful square was filled with music and thousands of locals waving their flags, and the excitement had me waving my Malaysian flag as vigorously as everyone else as the spirit of the evening took hold.

My last day in Malaysia dawned bright and hot and after another shopping meander through the central market, I returned to the relaxing water of the hotel’s hydrotherapy pool where I unashamedly spent the rest of the day relaxing before my flight home. My glorious week in magical Malaysia had unfortunately come to an end.

Jani was hosted by Thompsons and flew courtesy of Malaysia Airlines.

SOURCES
JANI VENTER

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