Gap Year Days 308 – 322
We were really looking forward to getting to Malaysia. We had been here a few times before so it was a place we are familiar with. Simon’s mum comes from Malaysia, and as such he has lots of relatives here. This time we were going to be meeting some of his family in Penang to celebrate Chinese New Year. We were also excited because our youngest daughter, MacKenzie, was coming to spend a couple of weeks with us. We had not seen her since we waved goodbye at the airport in Rome in June last year. To top it all off, both Simon and I would be celebrating birthdays, mine would be with one of the biggest physical challenges of my life!
Before we even got to Malaysia though, our plans were derailed slightly. When we landed in Bangkok for our layover, I received a message from one of Simon’s cousins letting me know an Uncle (who we didn’t know) had passed away suddenly a day or two before. This meant that the family would not really be celebrating Chinese New Year.
For our first night in Malaysia Simon and I stayed at the lovely Doubletree at Batu Ferringhi. It proved to be a good choice, because Simon ended up being a little unwell, so we were able to arrange a late checkout, and he happily slept most of the next day away. I took advantage of the gym, and spent a good hour on the treadmill on full incline, to get some more practice walking uphill. It’s a poor substitute for a mountain, but at this point, I was hoping any little thing would help. I was starting to freak out a little about not being ready!
We finally left the nice comfy hotel to check in to the hostel that was to be our home for the next few days in Georgetown, the capital of Penang. Our room was a nice size, with a little enclosed balcony and everything we needed. The hostel even had a swimming pool.
Once we got checked in, Simon immediately went back to sleep, and I jumped in a Grab (South East Asia’s answer to Uber) car and went to the airport to meet MacKenzie’s flight. We talked each other’s ear off all the way back to Georgetown to find Simon well enough to go out and look for something to eat. After all, it was his birthday! It was also Chinese New Year in Malaysia, and it seemed like all the little local places around where we were staying were closed. In the end we opted for our go-to meal – pizza!
In the morning we were met by one of Simon’s uncles and taken to a fantastic local hawker centre to do what we always seem to do with Simon’s family – eat way too much because they keep buying more and more and we can’t say no! It is always delicious.
Eventually we rolled away from the table, waved goodbye to the relatives and made our way towards the old narrow streets of Georgetown. We had heard a lot about the street art in this area and wanted to check it out. While it hasn’t quite got there yet, the area is well on its way to becoming very touristy. There were lots of people around clearly searching for the street art, and even one or two tour groups. Souvenir shops and boutique cafes can be found in some parts along with a smattering of tour operators and accommodation. It was mostly not too crowded, but there was always a wait at each piece of street art to be able to get a good view of it or take a photo.
The street art is of course fantastic and well worth having a look at. We spent a couple of hours looking around, and possibly would have spent more had I not forgotten my hat. It was really hot, even the locals were commenting on it, and the sun was relentless if we couldn’t find shade to stand in. I did not want to start my Malaysia visit with a case of sunburn.
The heat reminded MacKenzie she had not packed a swimsuit, and with shopping centres providing air conditioning, it was not hard for her to twist our arms into taking her shopping. We spent an hour in H&M (we don’t have it at home in Adelaide), Simon and I cooling down, Kenz trying on everything in store.
The rest of the afternoon was spent – unsurprisingly – laying by the pool, until Simon’s uncle came to pick us up again for dinner. This time we went to another local hawker place called Gurney Drive. For the second time in a day we were filled to the brim with delicious Malaysian food, this time topped up with Tiger beer! We eventually said goodbye to the various family members, and were dropped back at our hostel to sleep off the food coma.
Our plans for the next morning were to check out the new GravityZ attraction. It’s an adrenalin experience on top of the Komtar building, with participants harnessed and taking part in an obstacle outside the building, 65 floors up. We were staying nearby and were quite excited. When we arrived, we found that the only way to pay was to use the laptop they gave us and to book online via their website. The booking required us to tick a box saying “Save my credit card details”. I was absolutely not okay with that, firstly that a website was asking for it, and secondly that we were using someone else’s laptop. This just looked like credit card fraud waiting to happen! The staff member had no idea, so they lost three paying customers that day. I know they had only been open a couple of weeks at that stage, so I hope this was just teething problems and it is all fixed now. It did not help though that I contacted them on Facebook and got no response.
While trying to find something else to do we came across mention of a cat cafe. After the fantastic one we found in Chiang Rai I thought we would make our way in that direction, exploring the streets as we went, then relax and cool down with the kitties before braving the heat again on the return journey.
As we walked we came across the Upside Down Museum which looked like a fun way to pass some time. We jumped on the end of the line, and after about ten minutes the next group was admitted. We reached the front of the line – and we were stopped. The session was full. It was a 45 minute wait for the next session. We looked at each other, and decided it wasn’t worth the wait.
We made our way to the cat cafe, to discover it was nothing like the place in Chiang Rai. In line with how the rest of our day had gone, the cat Cafe was small, sparse and had a distinctly unpleasant cat odour to it. The cats all looked healthy enough, but mostly they did not want to socialise with the visitors and just slept. To top it all off, it was relatively expensive, with an entry fee as well as a charge for our drinks.
We gave up after that, and retreated back to our pool for the remainder of the afternoon.
Later in the evening we made our way back into the centre as this was the night that the city was putting on a lot of free entertainment for Chinese New Year. Even though the sun had gone down it was still hot and steamy, and wall to wall crowds did not help. We saw some traditional dance and martial arts performances, as well as arts and crafts displays and of course plenty of aromatic local foods. Many stalls included goods and services for sale, and we had fun laughing at the massages being done with meat cleavers. Surely that can’t be a good thing!
Eventually the crowds got too much and we instead began looking for the holy grail of Malaysian food – at least in the eyes of Simon and MacKenzie – chicken satay. We found a great little local place with plastic chairs, tables, plates and cutlery, where we had to point to order since they spoke no English. I’m not sure exactly how many skewers we ate, but the pile below speaks for itself! Even I had a few. Including drinks, we would have been lucky to spend $20AUD ($15USD)
The next morning was a quiet one, with only Simon and I venturing out. We were in search of water purifying tablets for the next leg of our trip, but after walking half an hour to the shop I had found online, we discovered it was closed for the next few days for Chinese New Year.
Our walk wasn’t completely in vain, we got to see plenty of the traditional Chinese lion dancers out, stopping off at businesses and doing their dance then letting off fire crackers. Some of the groups dance on pedestals, but while we saw these being assembled and disassembled, we didn’t actually see any of the performances. I can’t imagine how hard it is with the huge costumes and in the heat.
Mid afternoon we started out on the days’ planned activity. First we stopped into the Botanical Gardens. I find gardens can really be hit and miss, and these ones leaned more towards the “miss” side. They were okay for a walk, but the path was almost fully in the sun. So no cooling shade areas like other gardens. There were monkeys running around to entertain us, but the plants weren’t interesting or educational, so really it could have been any park.
Next stop was Penang Hill. Last time we were in Penang the funicular was not working as the new one was being installed, so this was our first time visiting. We knew it would be busy, since it was still the end of the Chinese New Year holidays. It wasn’t too bad as we waited for the funicular up, probably about 15-20minutes, but we soon found all the crowd, they were already at the top.
We fortified ourselves by grabbing dinner and desserts before joining the rest of the crowd during a hazy Penang sunset. Unfortunately the Penang Hill viewpoints face the wrong way to catch the best of it. We then joined the huge queue to get back down the hill! I think we waited about an hour, and at one point I mused that it would have been quicker for us to have walked down!
Our next destination was the Kek Lok Si Temple. Over Chinese New Year it has a huge light display installed, and Simon’s family had warned us that the crowds would be crazy and the roads really congested. It was a couple of kilometres from the bottom of Penang Hill, but we decided to walk thinking it would probably be quicker than getting a Grab anyway. And yes, we were right. Traffic was at a standstill. The whole area was jam packed with cars and people.
Last time we were here I remember walking up through a market place, with local stalls lining the climb. My kids always mention the pond full of turtles that we saw half way up. Now a new entrance has been built, but we didn’t see it. We saw a few people making their way up the old path. It was unlit, but also uncrowded, so we went that way too, using our phones as torches. The market stalls are no more, and the turtle pond was an empty concrete hole. A bit sad really.
Kek Lok Si was beautiful all lit up, but it felt more like a sideshow than a temple. There were so many people around and it was really hot and steamy. I, of course, wanted to go all the way to the top and see the huge gold Buddha, but that involved yet another line for the lift. Once we got to the top we saw that we could have walked up. Again, would have been so much quicker!
Getting back to our hostel was another challenge. We were tired and hot and exhausted by this stage, but walked for about half an hour to get out of the congestion. We checked the Grab app, and could see a car not far from us and in the direction where there was no traffic, so we ordered a car. But different person picked up the job, and he had to come through the congested roads, so we waited another half an hour. We were truely wrecked by the time we got back to our room, and collapsed into bed. At least our flight the next day was late morning, so we got a little bit of a sleep in.
Our flight the next morning was over to Kota Kinabalu on the island of Borneo, and while I had been freaking out a little before, the panic really started to kick in now. What the heck had I got us into? What was I thinking when I decided it was a great idea to climb Mountt Kinabalu to watch the sunrise for my birthday? I was feeling overweight and unfit, and every single thing I could find online was telling me how hard this climb was for people half my age – WHAT WAS I THINKING?? But it was all paid for now, so I was going to have to just suck it up and do it!
Our first night in Kota Kinabalu we wandered down to the seafront, eventually coming across the Hard Rock Cafe and popping in for a drink so Simon could add it to his collection. So glad we did, because we sat out on the balcony and got to see a fantastic sunset over the sea. It was such a nice relaxing evening!
The next day we took it fairly easy, resting our legs for the days to come, but we did venture out to buy snacks and other last minute supplies we needed ready for the climb. We needed to carry our own water and snacks, so got plenty of both, which in hindsight we could have halved, because we brought half of it back down the mountain with us.
Finally the day came. We were picked up from our hotel at about 6am ready for the drive to the starting point of the climb. Once we got there, we went through the paperwork and our guide was assigned. We started the climb about 10am at Timpohon Gate. The first section of the climb up to Pana Laban where we would rest is 6km. At the 500m mark I was already puffing. There is little relief here, it is just up, up, up! We stopped for short breaks at each hut along the way, roughly at the kilometre marks. At around 4km we stopped for a longer break of around half an hour. This gave us time to eat lunch, but it was also a short altitude acclimatisation point. There is a real chance of suffering altitude sickness on this climb.
The last section was rough. I was just focussing on putting one foot in front of the other. MacKenzie and Simon both went on ahead, which I preferred, leaving me to climb at my own pace rather than try to keep up with theirs. It took five and a half hours for me to cover the 6km, and boy was I glad to see the buildings emerge ahead.
We had a few hours to rest and eat before bed time. My legs didn’t feel too bad considering, and I tried to walk around as much as I could to kept them moving. At 8pm it was lights out as we tried to get a few hours sleep. I may have slept a little, but I wouldn’t swear on it. It was cold, uncomfortable and some people were being really noisy in the common room (we discovered later they did not sleep at all, and kept everyone awake!). At times like these I wish I was not a light sleeper. Simon fell asleep immediately and got plenty of rest!
At 2am we were up again, ready to start the climb to the summit. The temperature was just above freezing, so we piled on the layers. What they called “supper” was served, but it was almost impossible to force myself to eat in the early hours of the morning. There was only 2.5km left to climb to the peak, but it was expected to take between four and five hours. The first challenge is to ensure the last checkpoint is reached by 5am, otherwise you will be turned around and not get a chance to reach the summit. I got there by 4:30am, and was very relieved as every step was a challenge. The final push to the summit was over exposed rock face, some sections required holding onto a rope to pull yourself up along the path. Not only were my legs screaming, but every breath was hard. At this altitude the simple task of breathing is not to be taken lightly, and all around me I could see evidence of those who were suffering various degrees of altitude sickness. Luckily all three of us were doing okay.
MacKenzie was the first of us to reach the summit. She waited there for Simon, but it was too cold for them to wait for me. There is also not a lot of room at the top, as per the sheer definition of the word “peak”. I met them coming down as I was climbing the last steep section of rock. I missed the sunrise from the summit, but I did see it on the way up, and it really was one of those truely amazing sunrises. At the top I took my two pairs of gloves off long enough to take a photo or two, then sat to rest a minute and appreciate what I had achieved. It was my 45th birthday, and I was sitting on top of a mountain!
My guide had spent his rest time chatting to the other guides, and he discovered someone else was also having a birthday. A cake appeared from somewhere and I was posing for dozens of photos with the other girl. Lots of people saw the commotion and I had birthday greetings all day.
The trek back down to the Pana Laban bunkhouse was a different kind of hard. The knees take a bit of a beating with the constant downwards steps on rock. I chatted a lot with our guide on this section, so the time went by quite quickly. Simon and Kenz were waiting for me at the checkpoint, and we continued on together. I had given MacKenzie one job – to take photos of the sunrise when she got there. Unfortunately her phone went flat really quickly – the cold does that – so I discovered now we only had the few photos I took.
Back in the warmth of Pana Laban we had breakfast and rested a little. I had heard beforehand that this last stretch back down to Timpohon Gate was often the worst, and that was definitely the case for us! We took our time and nursed our sore legs, and ended up taking longer to get down than up! Once we reached the bottom I was completely spent! There are about twenty steps to get up right before the gate, and I was seriously doubting my ability to climb them!
But of course I did, then we jumped back in the van for the two hour trip back to Kota Kinabalu. There was no way I was going to be able to walk for a week!
If you want to read more about our Mount Kinabalu climb, click through to the full post
We arrived at our hotel, the Mercure, with a big sigh of relief. We had booked a nicer place with a pool in anticipation of needing a little relaxation time. It didn’t all go smoothly though. We got to check-in, smelly, tired and sore, just wanting to get into our room. Somehow though, our room was only for two people, not three, even though our booking said it was for three. The staff were adamant they did not have any triple rooms in the hotel, and were fully booked. After showing them the booking, from their own website with three people on it, then getting the manager involved, they finally decided they could give us a rollaway to put in our room. I was trying to be calm, but when they acted like they were doing us a favour and would waive the extra cost I had to really bite my lip! I hope the website has been fixed so this can’t happen again.
Apart from that, the hotel was really nice! Much better that any other Mercure we’ve stayed in. The room was quite large, there was a huge breakfast spread, the roof pool had lovely views with a bar that provided canapés and snacks.
The next day was mostly spent in our hotel, gingerly moving around as the soreness really kicked in. MacKenzie and I spent some time in the pool, even if I was worried about how I was going to climb up the ladder to get out again. We read and relaxed and reflected, still in awe of what we had managed to achieve.
Our legs were still sore the next day as we jumped on a plane back to Kuala Lumpur on the Malaysia peninsula. We could barely carry our bags, so we again used Grab to get taken directly to our accommodation. We had stayed here before, but of course this time we had the misfortune to have been allocated a room on the fourth floor – with no lift! It was a long, slow walk up the stairs, and every time we went up or down them over the next couple of days it was not fun! I guess those few stairs helped to get our legs moving again though, so it was probably a good thing.
Over our three days in Kuala Lumpur we took it fairly easy. One of our tasks here was to find some winter clothes that we would need as soon as we got back to Europe when we leave Malaysia. We had timed MacKenzie’s trip so that she could take all our warm weather clothes back to Australia with her. Finding winter clothes in Kuala Lumpur is not exactly easy though. Uniqlo was our saviour, and we were able to get thermal layers there, and a few more warmer items too. We also spent some time hunting down shoes. Simon found a pair that would do nicely, but I couldn’t find anything I loved enough to spend the crazy amounts that they seemed to be wanting for them. I got on the plane with my daggy old hiking boots and my flip flops, neither of which were going to be any good in the snow.
One of the days in KL we decided to try out the hop on, hop off bus. We weren’t up for much walking, and it always seemed that when we were here we stayed around the same Bukit Bintang/KL City Centre areas, and this would at least let us see some of the other parts of the city.
We had a fantastic late lunch with one of Simon’s cousins and his wife, always lamenting that we don’t get to see them nearly enough.
All our trips to Kuala Lumpur include at least one visit to the amazing street food area of Jalan Alor, possibly our favourite place in the whole of Malaysia for street food. While we discovered it has become more expensive (but still cheap!) over the years as it has become more popular with tourists, the food is still just as delicious. We ordered a whole pile of dishes and ate to our heart’s content. I love the buzz of this area. During the day it’s a normal road with traffic, but as the sun goes down the plastic tables and chairs creep out onto the road. Cars do still weave their way through the chaos, but mostly it’s filled with tourists and locals alike, all out for a good dinner.
Of course we visited the KLCC area, not once but twice, to see the Petronus Towers in both daytime hours and at night. I had seen the fountain show from above last time we were here but this time we watched it from ground level. It was okay, but really, if you want an amazing view over this area and the Petronus Towers, then visit the Skybar at Traders Hotel at sunset. Just magic.
On our final afternoon in Singapore we were wasting some time in a shopping mall, grabbing a coffee. It had been hot and steamy everyday we had been here, and this day it was 36 degrees and almost unbearable. I started to notice some strange noises, and wandered over to the doors. The heavens had opened and it was just bucketing down, like it can only do in the tropics. There was crazy thunder and lightning and everyone was dashing for cover. We crossed our fingers and hoped the rain would stop before we had to leave the shopping mall to pick up our bags and head to the airport.
We were all headed to the airport at the same time as we left Malaysia. MacKenzie was getting on a flight to Adelaide, and we were flying out about two hours later to Europe. Two months in South East Asia was over!
We have such a connection with Malaysia because of Simon’s family that we will always keep coming back. On top of his family, the food calls us. This will always be one of my favourite places.
In the past we have used public transport all over Malaysia. This time we mostly used Grab. It was so cheap that with three of us, it was almost the same price as catching the bus or the train. In fact, from the airport to the city, Grab has a set price of 60MYR plus tolls (normally comes in between 70 and 75MYR total). The KLIA Ekspress train from the airport to KL Sentral is 55MYR per person, and then we would have to get the monorail, so it was cheaper to be delivered to the door of our accomodation.
Wifi was widespread in Malaysia, and quality seemed to be fairly decent, but we were not relying on it as we had picked up SIM cards when MacKenzie arrived. We got Digi SIMs, and had no issues with coverage, except right up on Mt Kinabalu, but that’s kind of expected. They did work at Pana Laban bunk house where we slept on the way up.
While certainly cheaper than Australia, Malaysia is no where near as cheap as Laos or Cambodia. There are some great deals on luxury hotels that means it’s possible to stay at a nicer place if desired. Being a muslim country, alcohol is expensive.
Doubletree Resort by Hilton Hotel Penang
56 Jalan Low Yat, 11100 Batu Ferringhi, Malaysia
$96AUD ($74USD) per night including breakfast
Wassup Youth Hostel
495E, Jalan Penang, Georgetown, Penang, 10000 George Town, Malaysia
$204MYR ($68AUD/$52USD) per night for a triple room with private bathroom
Dreamtel Kota Kinabalu
5, Jalan Padang, 88000 Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
$90AUD ($70USD) per night for a triple room including breakfast
Mercure Kota Kinabalu City Centre
No 41, Jalan Gaya, 88100 Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
$159AUD ($123USD) per night executive room including breakfast
Rainforest Bed and Breakfast
No.27 Jalan Mesui off Jalan Nagasari, Bukit Bintang, Bukit Bintang, 50200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
$151MYR ($50AUD/$39USD) per night for triple room including breakfast
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.