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Chan Cham Perou

Malaysia    —    At dawn on the road from the airport, there was a surreal vision: on the right, there was a gigantic full moon in the middle of an indigo sky and at the same time, on the left, there was full sun in the middle of an orange sky! This was the first of many contrasts between the natural seduction of Borneo Island and the urban frenzy of Kuala Lumpur. The first impression of daily-renewed enchantment. And, the first revelation about the harmony between the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu populations.

Liberty, serenity

The Asian experience is different in Malaysia, where the culture and lifestyle are closer to that in Indonesia. This is shown in both appearance and in the dress code. It can also be tasted in the food and heard in the language.

Men and women generally have a delicate stature and features, coffee skin, almond-shaped eyes and glowing smiles.

Clothes are varied. Traditional Malay dresses and suits are worn in a modern style by most of the population and are very elegant. Muslim women walk in the streets with or without a scarf, veil, or a traditional long dress.

The traditional cuisine of the main ethnic groups – Indian, Chinese, and Malay – is served beside or married with international cuisine, sometimes with a touch of English flavor that was kept from the colonial period, which ended in 1963.

Mutual understanding

Of course, English is still a language that is frequently heard, but Malay is mainly used, with its long, sing-song words that are pleasant to the ears.

The mix of both languages is also quite practical and makes it easier on visitors: newspapers, books and signage are written in Malay using the current English alphabet.


Malays salute with an inclination of the head, the right hand on their heart and a huge smile. It is charming and soothing. They take your passport, your card or your payment with the same grace. It certainly contributes to reducing stress.

In Borneo, flavours first

Even the name of this island, of which 26% belongs to Malaysia, is a dream. Once at the destination, the dream comes to life in the city, as well as in the jungle. First, we spent a few days in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the State of Sabah, in the very modern and comfortable downtown Hyatt Regency.

At breakfast, a first incursion into the local cuisine included traditional spicy and tasteful dishes, as abundant as the choice of other dishes that are inspired from the French, British, Chinese, North American and Japanese cuisines.

Well-rested from the long itinerary and sated, we are then ready to discover the green and flowery city and observe the daily life of the Malays. Between the fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, meat and fish –fresh, dried, salted - markets are so full of choices and scents. Stunning!

We taste unknown products and learn so many new names: mangosteen (a lovely purple round fruit), rambutan (curious round red fruit with black “hair”), jackfruit (looks like the durian but smells nicer), giant purple banana flowers are served as a vegetable, etc. And endless types and colors of rice…

Seafood lovers will salivate at the view of huge squids. And this is only a start when you realize that the Sea of China and the Sulu Ocean around us nurture 400 species of fish and 200 species of coral. A sweet and sour “kit chai ping,” a drink made of lime juice, prunes and ice cubes refreshes us for a while.

Kota Kinabalu, the musts

The Museum of contemporary and ancient art, which is very rich with masterpieces and artifacts, such as music instruments, head ornaments and more, is worth a few hours of our time.

We can see in a mockup of a cave how the precious swallow nests (for the famous soup) were collected. It is also quite interesting to observe that Malay natives have much in common with the aboriginal of Northern Canada, notably the “long house”.

A short visit to Po Toh Tze, a Buddhist Chinese temple located near the chic district of Likas, followed. This district grew in the 80s and 90s when oil was discovered in the country and heirs started to sell their land where gigantic belian trees grew that were known for their iron wood that can last up to 900 years.

We had a memorable moment in inside the gigantic and magnificent State Mosque, where 12,000 believers can gather together and where all visitors are dressed on site as per the Muslim tradition. Then hundreds of young students arrived.

Frenzy has overtaken the Sunday outdoor market downtown with musicians, animals, handicrafts, clothes, toys, religious objects, electronic gadgets, hardware, drugs, etc.

Mont Kinabalu : suspended bridges, rafflesia, swirling water and luwak coffee

Let’s move to the nature side of our trip. Not far from the city, it is possible to cross River Telibong on a rustic wood and rope suspended bridge. Then, the sinuous road through the Crocker Mountains is ahead of us, which leads to Mount Kinabalu – Malaysia’s highest summit at 4,000 meters. It is literally in the clouds!

Athletes should take note that the famous Mt. Kinabalu International Climbathon, attracting runners from the world over, is to be held this coming October.

We search for a sign of the blooming of a rafflesia, which is not only the world’s largest flower (up to 100 cm in diameter, weighing up to 12 kilos), but also an endemic one. It is impossible to know its flowering time and once it blooms, it only lives six days. No surprise that when a farmer is lucky enough to see it in bloom, he will post a sign along the road, offering passersby a chance to see it and take a photo. Of course, not without a small amount a money! The region houses more than 1,500 species of orchids, 330 species of birds, 26 species of rhododendrons, ferns, etc.

On our way down, we stop at the Poring Hot Springs with a setting that is envisaged for the whole family. The hot water spring is really hot at 70 degrees Celsius. Small pools covered in white and blue mosaics welcome the bathers who can set for themselves the temperature of the water, as per their preference, with water faucets.

Another thrill on site: crossing four 100 meter-long rope suspended bridges at 32 meters high walking on a narrow wooden board.

Well marked-out paths cover Mt. Kinabalu. We would have liked to have met two of the famous inhabitants of this mountain: the Malayan civet, known for the famous copi luwak coffee, the most expensive in the world, made out of what is left after the civet has eaten, digested and excreted it… and the red flying squirrel whose tail measures 1 meter long.

Surrounding islands: from poverty to luxury

Sailing to Gaya Island, close to Kota Kinabalu, we see in real-life what we have already seen in photos: houses for 400 families, a very colorful shantytown on stilts, using every bit and piece of construction material. Clotheslines full of clothes add to the colorful view. Kids suddenly appear, some of them still walking unsteadily, and dive in the sea, shouting, saying hello and laughing.

The small school on stilts is also charming, where the values of the Malay people are posted along roofed corridors (to protect kids from the burning sun): persistence, sharing, and compassion.

Once on the island, there is an immense contrast: the Gayana Lodge, with its small villas on stilts in the sea, with their transparent floors allowing one to admire corals, sea stars and huge multicolored parrot fishes. We can join them in the sea or choose a private pool for a dip. The restaurant is also very modern with its décor and open kitchen and the cuisine, which uses local seafood and fresh organic vegetables from the garden, is delicious.

Gayana Lodge is an important actor in the protection of the environment. Neighboring the villas, the MERC Centre has an auditorium for conferences and an observation centre with live sea animals where naturalist experts were giving explanations. This is it for the “marine” side of the lodge. It also has a jungle and beach component, both close by and both having all the luxury of the first.

Monsopiad : head hunters' territory

This is a memorable afternoon! The village of Monsopiad, named after the warrior of the Kadazan tribe who collected 42 heads, is still open upon reservation to welcome visitors who are seeking authenticity. A guide, the descendant of a priestess of the village, welcomes us with the history of this hunting head ritual and the beliefs behind it, and information on funeral ceremonies, architecture, customs, how to produce food from the sago tree and different types of rice alcohol, etc.

We are treated to a show of traditional dance, among which is one that features bamboo that is hit on the ground; we learn how to shoot (poisoned?) arrows with a long breath.

Sandakan : a rustic lodge, river and jungle

This is one of the highlights of the trip. After two hours of boating, we get to Sandakan to see up close, for three days, the rare and bizarre long-nose proboscis; a few orang-outangs, an endangered species; dozens of macaques that live in groups, the tailless gibbons eating, playing or making love in the trees on top of our heads; close to 50 pygmy elephants a few meters from our boat; dozens of species of birds flying away from us or guiding us, and the most sought-after great hornbill, playing hide and seek with us.

All of this is along the Kinabatangan river and its narrow forks, under the varying light of the day, with a naturalist guide. At dawn, with the sun trying to shine through the fog, we feel like we are in a Corot painting.

The Sukau Rainforest Lodge is perfection encased in an equally perfect environment. Only organic food is served on the flower-filled terrace overlooking the river. At night, after the gong sounds, men and women meet for dinner dressed in batik sarongs and tongs provided by the Lodge.

In each room and private bathroom, which are nicely arranged on two levels, everything favors the protection of the environment. No air conditioning; the forest is there to keep the air cool. The only ambient music is provided by nature. At 9 p.m., electricity is turned off: it’s time to go to bed. Fresh warm doughnuts and herbal teas are available for lazing about in the garden, unless you prefer a foot massage in a small pavilion in the forest.

Guests are tourists, fauna and flora specialists, adventure travellers, reporters… from Canada, Australia, France, the United States, and Denmark… Sir David Attenborough recently visited the Sukau Lodge to write a report for the prestigious BBC.

The region is also a famous diving destination. See our other article.

Kuala Lumpur : at the other end of the spectrum 

After this immersion in nature, the city awaits us for a stunning experience. Even if cities don’t excite you, you will not be sorry about spending a few days in Kuala Lumpur.

The city is not that big, but the touristic and economic activity is quite intense. Proof of that: last year, it welcomed 33 million visitors. This explains the many 4 and 5-star hotels and even the 6 and 7-star hotels that are presently under construction, such as the first Harrods’s in the world as well as the Saint Regis.

We stayed at the very modern Park Royal Hotel in the heart of the city, close to huge shopping centers and the famous covered, air-conditioned aerial bridges.

Pilgrimage and shopping 

Even those who are not too fond of shopping (like us) would be impressed by the number, size and luxury of the international designer boutiques and the variety of products. The city merits its title of shopping Mecca of Asia for the variety of its offer – even bigger than in New York – and for its spectacular bargains.

Restaurants in all categories are very affordable. Among other curiosities here and there are vestiges of the colonial era: red telephone booths, imperial busses, teahouses and Tudor style mosques…!

A visit to Aquaria KLCC is another must: we follow a transparent tunnel in the middle of turtles, giant rays and sharks and we are given the opportunity to put on a diving suit and enter the water while protected in a cage to get a close-up view of the sharks.

Climbing in a cave?

From Kuala Lumpur, many excursions are possible. The one we preferred was an excursion to Batu Cave. This is an immense Hindu temple where you have to climb 272 stairs to see the altars and participate in a ceremony. Outside, Lord Muruga protects the temple from the height of its 43 meters. Monkeys are everywhere around the stairway watching you, smelling and ready to grip any food they might see...

The Asian towers of modernity 

A landmark made of glass and steel, the PETRONAS twin towers stand like huge candles when night comes. The two 86-story buildings are linked by a skywalk, reminiscent of the suspended bridges in the jungle. These serve as a footbridge for the staff and as a security component as well. They can be visited together with the upper store, where a thematic exhibition is displayed. A sign of modernity and futurism is the hologram hostess who welcomes visitors.

Don't forget 

Temperature: From March to September, it is the dry season. It is very hot with an average of 35 degrees Celsius. From October to February, the temperature provides a little respite with an average of 27 degrees.

Dress code: Shorts and camisoles are not well accepted for either men or women. Women must cover their legs and wear a scarf in temples and other religious places.

Eating code: The right hand only must be used to eat food. Utensils include a large spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left hand. The spoon is used to eat.

Final word

Quite frankly, without diminishing anything from other destinations, Malaysia was one of the greatest coups de coeur, or loves, for us: for both what we have already said and for what we also felt.

Sylvie Berthiaume

Translation: Christiane Théberge

This trip was made possible by invitation by the Tourist Office of Malaysia. They have widely demonstrated the professionalism of their guides and drivers, as well as having perfect logistics in every aspect of the stay and in the air, sea and land transportation.



Malay in daily life

Masks at the market

Rambutan at the market

Hindu temple at Kuala Lumpur

At the Chinese temple 

Young students at the mosque

Suspended bridge 

Mt. Kinabalu

Houses on stilts

Gayana Lodge 

Blue sea star 

Head-trophees at Monsopiad

Probiscus monkey

Pygmy elephants

Sukau Lodge garden

Aerial tram in Kuala Lumpur

Commercial centre, Kuala Lumpur


Monkey at Batu Caves

Batu Caves

 PETRONAS towers

Banner photo: Hornbill







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