This year, I crossed off three new countries on my travel bucket list — a feat, I’d say, given that 2017 seems to have flown by quickly.
One of the countries was Malaysia for four days as part of the “twin destinations” program that pairs a stop to another Asian country after the Philippines. [Editor’s note: I wrote about my trip to Vigan and surrounding areas in the Ilocos region of the Philippines in the LA Weekend Edition, Nov. 18.]
Along with about 20 high-performing travel agents from Southern California and Michelle Narvaez of Philippine Airlines — which re-opened its daily Manila to Kuala Lumpur route in June — I boarded a three-hour flight to KL on a Wednesday morning.
Once we landed at the airport, we were greeted by our tour guide named Steven, a young Malaysian man who, for the next few days, would pour out historical facts with hints of dry humor.
We settled onto the tour bus for a 40-minute drive to Putrajaya, the federal administrative capital of Malaysia that houses the major government agencies (their version of Washington, DC) for lunch.
The buffet spread featured staples in Malaysian cuisine like roti canai (Indian-influenced flatbread), satay, beef and chicken curries, and nasi goreng (fried rice with shrimp paste and chili). Meanwhile, the sweets table had some desserts that resembled those found in the Philippines, from ais kacang (similar ingredients to halo halo) to rice and cassava-based cakes.
Afterward, we headed to the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism and Culture office, where we received a welcome from tourism officials and a briefing of what the country has to offer. During the presentation, I mentally added Penang and Borneo to my ever-growing travel list.
For the next day and a half, we stayed in Melaka (also spelled Malacca), a historic port city and UNESCO World Heritage site two hours south of Kuala Lumpur that has traces of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and European influences. While it isn’t a sleepy town per se, as high-rises and more modern structures like hotels and malls have sprung up sporadically, it is a welcome respite from a large, congested city.
With our indulgent lunch not yet fully digested, dinner was held at Seri Nyonya inside the Equatorial Hotel, which serves Peranakan/Nyonya cuisine that stems from Chinese immigrants in the 15th century. Malaysians with Chinese ancestry are called Baba (males) Nyonya (females), Steven explained. Across the course of the stay, we began to learn more about this infused culture. The meal was multi-courses, featuring stuffed egg spring rolls, sup hee peow (fish soup), telur dadar (omelette), and Sotong Madu (deep-fried squid).
Our Thursday morning itinerary required wearing comfortable shoes as we would be walking around Jonker Street, the main thoroughfare of Melaka’s Chinatown, and its surrounding areas for several hours.
During our visit, it was not crowded with pedestrians on this street where you can find cafés, pharmacies, food stalls, and souvenir shops. According to Steven, Friday and Saturday nights are when Jonker is abuzz for the night market. We stopped at a small store selling mixes of teh tarik (pulled tea) and coffee (white coffee is a popular choice), which was a big hit with our group as each individual bought bags in bulk.
We made our way to the Red Square that serves as a center in Melaka along the river. Within the square is Stadthuys — considered the oldest Dutch building in the East, now carrying historical artifacts recounting the city’s long history of being colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British — Christ Church, and Queen Victoria’s Fountain.
Along the street, one can see ornately-designed trishaws (bicycle-powered rickshaws) that take and play loud pop music as they ride around the area. I rode in a “Frozen” inspired trishaw, while others were in ones decked out with Hello Kitty, Spongebob Square Pants or “Despicable Me” minions. An hour-long ride costs around $12, but thankfully, we don’t use one of the trishaws for more than 20 minutes because having someone cycle you around, while it’s humid and the streets are not flat, is laborious.
The Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum, adjacent to the Jonker Street, is easy to pass by, but is worth spending an hour inside. Owned and maintained by a family, the museum is composed of three restored townhouses that give an overview of Baba Nyonya culture, from how they entertained guests, celebrated weddings or used the bathroom. Photography is not allowed inside for maintenance purposes, but every inch of the structures is a feast for the eyes especially if you appreciate architecture.
Other sites to visit in Melaka include the Cheng Hoon Teng temple (Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism), Maritime Museum & Naval Museum, Sultanate Palace, and Porta de Santiago.
By mid-afternoon, we were hosted for lunch at Ramada Plaza Melaka — yes, another buffet. Though there was an abundance of options to choose from, having Nasi Ayam (steamed chicken with rice) and a glass of teh tarik were enough for me as I had been looking forward to trying local versions of these.
Afterward, we boarded the bus for the two-hour ride back to Kuala Lumpur, which we collectively had been awaiting.
When you’re on a trip, it’s easy to lose track of what day it is. This particular Friday in late September is perhaps one of the most memorable days for me in 2017.
By 8 a.m., we departed for Batu Caves Temple, a limestone cave and Hindu temple in the Gombak District just outside of Kuala Lumpur. Before getting off the bus, Steven told us not to hold anything in our hands as monkeys inside the cave may mistake it for food.
At the entrance is a 42.7-meter high golden statue of Lord Murugan; once you pass it, there are 272 concrete steps to climb before you reach the inside of the cave. Inside, we enjoyed watching monkeys running around, some eating bananas.
Next, we were off to the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre, a museum for one of the world’s largest pewter manufacturers. I didn’t know what to expect from this visit and thought it would be another tour with an overload of information, but I was proven wrong.
After listening to the company’s history and looking at silverware products in glass cases, we were taken into the “School of Hard Knocks” workshop place that had a long table for all of us to hammer out and engrave our own pewter bowl. Thirty minutes or so later, we shifted to the Foundry for an hour, which required us to wear aprons and gloves as we would be employing our creative talents to create souvenirs using melted pewter. The instructor showed us how to scoop the piping hot pewter and we were then free to put it into a mold for a pendant or keychain or craft something freehand. If you made a mistake, you could throw it back into the pewter bowl, where it would instantly melt away. Once our creations cooled down, we were taught to clean and buff them.
I personally made a few key chains and wrote a pendant with my name on it. Though we had time to create more, we were only allowed to take three items with us as part of our entrance fee.
The interactive and creative activities didn’t cease there. The next site was Jadi Batek Gallery to learn batik, a textile art form on fabric using molten wax for the drawing and brush painting for the colors. Typically, the paintings depict flowers and plants. Given the time constraint, we were given canvases with the wax drawing made beforehand so we just had to paint it in. I selected a sunflower outline (my favorite type of flower) and painted away. After less than an hour, we all meandered around the handicraft shop as our paintings dried.
I appreciated these two visits because I was able to be hands-on and make my own souvenirs that make for good stories when I return back home, and not merely be a passive observer.
Finally, our Kuala Lumpur experience culminated in visiting the Petronas Towers, the iconic 88-story twin towers that were once considered the world’s tallest buildings (from 1998-2004). However, they are still the tallest twin towers. It’s best to book tickets in advance, as they are limited daily. To control the crowd, the observation experience is spread out by first taking a souvenir photo before entering the elevators to the 42nd-floor Skybridge, which had a view of the sides of both towers. After 15 minutes, we were then instructed to take another high-speed elevator to the 88th observation floor. Each group is given about 20 minutes to walk around and take photos. During our visit, as the sun was setting in an hour, the sunlight was not too photo-friendly, but nonetheless, it was amazing to cross off another tall, iconic edifice from my travel bucket list and take in a sweeping view of the Malaysian capital.
We ended the night at Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur with its impressive dinner buffet with more options besides local Malaysian cuisine. Though there were no other activities planned, a few group members and I walked from our hotel (Swiss Garden) to Jalan Alor, a night market featuring street food — perfect for the adventurous foodies. We made our way to Bukit Bintang, the shopping and entertainment district of the city with high-end and bargain shops. To observe people out and about is one of the best ways to experience a culture and was a fitting end to our Kuala Lumpur stay.
After a jam-packed schedule the day before, our final moments in Malaysia were spent taking photos in front of Putrajaya and shopping for last-minute souvenirs at an outlet mall next to Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The airport itself is a mini-mall for those who want duty-free items and have some time to spend before their flight.
Three hours later, we were back in Manila, as most of the tour group connected on another Philippine Airlines flight back to Los Angeles, while others like myself stayed behind for a few more days. It was an activity-filled week taking us from Vigan to Kuala Lumpur, and I’m ever so grateful to collect these memories and write about them.
Thank you to Eliza Chung and Manny Ilagan of GTT International/Majestic Vacations, Tourism Director Purificacion Molintas of the Philippine Department of Tourism’s San Francisco office, Philippine Airlines’ Area Managers Michelle Narvaez (Los Angeles) and Delia Merano (San Francisco), and Azilina Azni Zainal Abidin, the vice president of the Los Angeles office of Tourism Malaysia, for making this Philippines and Malaysia tour possible.