BEYOND KL, featured in Masala Magazine October 2012, Thailand
[For original click on the link below]
REENA KARIM checks out the opening of Legoland, and discovers Malaysia outside the bustling metropolis.
Having once lived in Malaysia for almost two years, I find it to be the perfect fusion of both the East and the West. But I wasn’t all that keen on touring the expected either. This time I went with some lesser-known and equally breathtaking locations in the southern region. During my four-day tour, I visited the state of Johor and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Melaka. My stubborn dislike for all things touristy steered me away from the obvious places, and with plenty of long walks and unconventional sightseeing in mind, I started my journey with only one agenda, to experience Malaysia in a new way.
Bound by time and unable to take a road trip, I boarded a 35-minute flight aboard Malaysian Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru. Getting off the plane, I took a moment to stand still and breathe in the anticipation of my four-day, well deserved break from Bangkok. At Senai Airport, I got a bittersweet dose of Malaysian hospitality, with my suitcase being ravaged in search of a suspicious looking liquid in the inner compartment of my make-up pouch. Once convinced that it was indeed a cucumber face mist and not narcotics, they let me pass with a welcoming smile. Johor makes quite an impression, with its well-manicured landscapes and a mix of modern and old structures with Malay-Chinese architectural details. The long stretches of open road beside the ocean give it a town within-the-city feel, perfect for an escape from city life.
After a short drive from the airport, I finally pulled up into the palatial Pulai Springs Resort, passing an 18- hole championship golf course, the edge of an expansive rainforest, and a tennis court. Located 20 minutes from JB center and situated in the foothills of Mount Pulai, this five-star, 313-suite resort is all about old-school elegance. My 56-sqm, one-bedroom suite came with a kitchen area, a separate living room complete with marble floorings, and wooden interiors. The first morning, I resisted the temptation to order from one of their seven in-house restaurants and enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the outdoor terrace. Though I was only there for a day, I indulged in some table tennis, a spot of paintball, and finally a rejuvenating foot scrub at the spa before taking a dip in the infinity pool. The accommodation options here range from studios to two-, three-, and four-bedroom suites, ideal for families or honeymooners. Prices for rooms here start at RM320 (B3,200) for two persons. pulaigroup.com
If I were sticking to my stay-in-the-city rule then thistle, spelt in lower case “t”, would be my first choice. This mammoth 382-room boutique hotel towers over Johor, with an all-glass exterior providing unobstructed views of the bay and the borders of Singapore. Walking into the lobby alone put a smile on my face and seeing the room made me literally squeal in delight. The brightly lit, spacious suite is elegantly designed in muted tones with the occasional splash of bright purple, yellow, and red colours. Although not putting up, I still imagined what it may be like to dip into the outdoor two-level pool after a game of tennis. Back to reality, I noticed that thistle also offers a gym and a spa, an outdoor café, lounge bar, and a restaurant serving an unusual fusion of Japanese-Italian cuisine. Rooms start at RM229 (B2,290) per person (twin sharing). thistle.com
For my next trip back to Malaysia, though, I want to shun luxury and experience traditional Malay-Chinese culture in its truest form. Homestays with local residents allow visitors to share in the local lifestyle, from food to day-to-day living. Stays start at RM129 (B1,290) per day including meals and board. http://www.tourism.gov.my
Skip the room service and go out to sample local delicacies. That’s what I did. For a quick bite at noon I decided to head to the Anjung food court. This is one of those ignored-by-foreigners-type places that is easily underestimated because of its very basic, no-AC, sit-where-you-can seating arrangements. But you can chow on traditional Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Even before I could make up my mind, the lady at the Arabic food stall enticed me into getting the lamb curry with yellow rice and mutton kebab platter. With a variety of dishes and low prices, a visit here turned out to be a full-fledged lunch complete with a scrumptious main, two drinks, and dessert for just under RM12
(B120). My stand-out recommendations are the char kuey teow, the Johor laksa, and the Indian roti canai.
Come dinner time, I decided to dine solo in a Malay village. You know you are there if you find yourself at an open-air joint, standing underneath a neon sign, flashing Malay Village Restaurant. If you are as clueless as I was, then speak with David, the manager who gladly suggested a few items. The dishes here can be had on a shared basis, a la carte, or in a buffet. The most popular item on the menu is their spicy sotong or squid generously saturated in spicy curry sauce. Another of my favourite was steamed whole fish soaked in ginger and lemon, much like our Thai version but with a Malay twist. For dessert, David’s urged me to try out chilled sago in palm sugar with coconut milk, which was a sweet ending to my first day in Johor.
My cheerful and informative guide Mr. Sheikh, an official from Tourism Malaysia, came by to pick me up at 9am and we headed out for the “real tour” as he explained. We started with revisiting the past by going to the government administration building. Don’t hit the snooze button yet. This palace-like is by far the most majestic office space I have
seen in my travels. Sultan Ismail Building is a state owned property that was once occupied by the Japanese Army. Now the building houses over 3,000 employees and is also converted into a museum, displaying artifacts of Malay heritage.
Next on the list is a marvel of Malay-Islamic architecture regarded as one of the most beautiful mosques in Malaysia, the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque. The intricate gold details set against the pristine white walls stand out distinctly from a mile away, having you wonder at the amount of craftsmanship gone into this one structure alone. This spectacular place of worship sits upon a hilltop and is said to accommodate over 2,000 people at once. Built by the late Sultan Abu Bakar also the “Father of modern Johor”, the mosque was completed in 1900 and is now protected as a heritage monument.
Finally after a day of hectic sightseeing, I needed my release: an hour or two of retail therapy. Mr. Sheikh smiled and drove me to Johor Premium Outlet, an open air mall that houses some of the heavy weight designer brands, such as DKNY, Michael Kors, and Armani, among others. The prices, you may inquire, think outlet style affordability, and most stores give you a 50–70% discount on merchandising. Some of my favourites were the Nike factory outlet store, Charles and Keith’s 70% discount outlet, and Vincci’s footwear collection.
And, saving the best for last, I kept the entire next day for a great personal milestone. There is a moment in everyone’s life where they have to take a stand on whether or not to unleash their inner child. That day came, and I swore to always be in denial of my age. That was the day I went to the brand new Legoland theme park, the first one in Asia. The inaugural day is always dreary for those who are crowd-phobic, but not me. After all I was raised in Calcutta. If I could survive Mamta Banerjee’s morcha [public demonstrations], then this was a cup of chai. The park boasted over 40 different rides, but the star attraction in my opinion were the various figurines spread all across the park, made using over 50 million Lego bricks. Their miniature Lego cities included some famous landmarks of Asia, such as the Great Wall of China, KL’s Petronas Towers, and an adorable Taj Mahal, complete with a Bollywood dance accompanied by sound and lights. I especially liked the busy streets of Vietnam that were completed by background sounds of screeching cars, honking and voices of hawkers, with moving vehicles that are mechanically controlled by invisible magnetic tracks. The park is also extending to accommodate a themed hotel and water park, due to open in 2014. Day passes for Legoland are priced at RM140 (B1,400) for adults and RM110 (B1,100) for children below11 and senior citizens.
I boarded my chauffeur-driven van in the early hours of the morning, accompanied by Mr. Sheikh, to Melaka, a journey which went by pretty fast while listening to Lana Del Ray’s new releases. Melaka or Malacca, spelt either way, should be on your must-see list. Only a short drive from Johor Bahru, this historic city has a distinct mix of Portuguese and British architecture seeped in history.
I stayed at Hotel Equatorial, a five-star, twenty-two storey, terracotta-coloured building located in the city centre and close to all the major shopping malls. The rooms are airy with contemporary furniture and abstract art décor. Unless you are all right with watching strangers splash into the swimming pool, I would suggest requesting for a room with the views of the Straits of Melaka. Rooms start at RM600 (B6,000) for two. equatorial.com/mel
Another great place to put up would be the Courtyard@Heeren hotel in the Chinatown area, rooms here start at RM200 (B2,000) per night. This charming place has rooms that are styled with Malay and Chinese influences, complete with canopy beds and modern amenities. This quaint little boutique hotel located in the old town gives you an oriental vibe with its Chinese-Malay inspired concept with heavy gold embellishments and dark wood furniture. courtyardathareen.com
Melaka is known for its mix of Chinese and Malay heritage, popularly called Peranakan, dating back to the first Chinese immigrants who settled in this area in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Nyonya cuisine emerged as a result of the unique mix of these two communities setting a distinctive flavor to the already rich Malay cooking. Some of the most common dishes include ayam buah keluak, or chicken curry and pindang bandeng, a spicy fish soup with soy sauce.
In the Chinatown area, you can come across a number of restaurants that specialise in Nyona cuisine and prices for the food are kept at a low to encourage visitors to sample its unique flavours.
One of the benefits of visiting Melaka is that I did not have to worry about commuting between the sites, because everything is within walking distance. I did, however, take the one-hour tri-shaw ride for a drive-by tour. My carriage was decorated with plastic flowers in rainbow colours, along with hearts and sparkly tokens. My driver was a fun Indian-Malay who played Mithun’s famous “I am a Disco Dancer” the entire way. For RM40 (B400) you can also have this amusing experience. A great starting point for me was the Red Square because it was the centre of town, and all other attractions happen to be nearby. Named after the colour of the redbrick buildings, it was established by the Dutch and is
famous for its museums, 32 to be exact. To get the best possible view of the town and the sea, I made my way up to the top from A’Famosa fortress to St Paul’s Hill, where stood the remains of a 17th-century church, which was also the resting place for many Dutch and British governors.
Nautical history buffs will love the wooden pirate ship that doubles as a museum. Then I headed towards the insides of the town to experience the real Melaka. Here the architecture is something straight off from the Renaissance era, with beautiful Peranakan styled homes. One of the most significant places that I visited in this part of town was the Baba Nyonya Museum, the home of the first Chinese immigrants. The homes reflect a mix of neo-classical European and Chinese Baroque styles with all the original furniture and fixtures. One of the highlights of the home is the grand staircase ornamented with gold-coloured leaves and intricate carvings, making it a majestic view from even the underside.
Whatever you end up doing, book your stay well in advance if you are intending to travel on a weekend or on public holidays. Melaka draws in more tourists than any other city in Malaysia, so much so that even the most expensive hotels are completely booked.
Malaysian Airlines operates six flights a day from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur., and four flights a day from Kuala Lumpur to Johor.