Malaysia: Road trippin'

By Dylan Cleaver

Dylan Cleaver visits Kuala Lumpur for the Grand Prix but is taken for a ride.

The Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix is just one of Kuala Lumpur's attractions. Photo / Getty Images
The Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix is just one of Kuala Lumpur's attractions. Photo / Getty Images

With more than 70 tropical islands, highland resorts, an intoxicating mix of cultures and one of the most user-friendly capital cities in Asia, I feel I have every right to ask myself what the bloody hell am I doing being driven up a nondescript jungle road minutes from Kuala Lumpur, being feasted on by sparrow-sized mosquitoes, all in a Malaysian sports car that was the brainchild of a Lebanese-Australian.

Yes, there is Pulau Tioman - an almost unspoiled piece of paradise - beckoning off the east coast, Portuguese-inspired Malacca to the south, the British colonial vestiges of Georgetown, Penang to the north and the shopping mecca of KL just behind us. However, I'm riding shotgun in a Bufori with a writer from Top Gear magazine, who has hijacked this trip and turned it into a petrol-sniffer's Shangri-La.

I'd like to stay bitter but I can't because, a) I've spent my time in Malaysia as a backpacker in what seems like the distant past, and b) it gives me the opportunity to meet one of the more fascinating human beings I've encountered.

Gerry Khouri, brought up in Sydney's west and the son of Lebanese immigrants, was inspired by 1930s American coupes such as the Packard and built himself a car that essentially paid homage to that era. His brothers, Anthony and George, were impressed enough to order a couple themselves.

"It took 16 years for them to get their cars," Khouri says. "Every time I started a car somebody would express interest in buying them."

And so Bufori, a meaningless name, was born. In 1998 production shifted to Kepong, a suburb of KL with few redeeming features. In fact, the drive to Bufori HQ takes you down a boulevard of broken cars that highlights the incongruity of having a luxury sports car - the Bufori La Joya MkIII costs about US$250,000 ($380,000) - operation in such surroundings.

To be blunt, the car doesn't interest me much. Unless they have a number on the livery and are capable of putting their drivers through extreme G-forces, cars for me have always been nothing more than the means to an end-point of a journey.

But Khouri almost has me converted. He's part raconteur, part spruiker and, yes, part used-car salesman, but his enthusiasm for his product is both genuine and infectious.

I'm pretty sure I'd never buy this handmade ode to excess, but I'm happy to know the leather for the upholstery (200 different, fully impregnated colours) came from "cows that had lived a happy life".

I'm not even really sure what he means when he says "the invisible is just as beautiful as the visible" on the Bufori, but I'm willing to believe him.

Judging by the stares and smiles in our direction as my Top Gear chauffeur wends his way through KL's choking traffic, you can tell the Bufori is a talking point, if nothing else.

The visit has one other positive spin-off. Marketing manager Felix, a German who has transplanted himself to Southeast Asia, managed to sneak me into a Ferrari party in a trendy nightclub in town, where the beer was free (luckily for me because the amber stuff is otherwise horrendously expensive in KL's bars) and banana hot-dogs with chocolate sauce were the hors d' oeuvres du jour.

This was Malaysian Grand Prix week, a week when it pays to have money and it pays to be wearing some type of motoring merchandise if you don't want to look out of place.

The Sepang district of KL is where you'll find the circuit that has hosted an F1 race since 1999.

The recession hit hard this year. Crowd numbers were barely half of the 130,000 it peaked at in the early 2000s, but the Malaysian Government (there was a change of prime minister in the week before the race) is more than keen to market the country to Formula One enthusiasts who would like to piggy-back a holiday on the end of the race.

And from previous experience I can tell you that it is well worth it.

Malaysia is a relaxed country that has just about everything you would want in a visit - beaches, shopping and, if you like seafood in particular, a stunning pot-pourri of tastes - but I didn't experience much of that this time around.

Instead I can tell you that the Formula One race finished early because of flooding, the free Jamiroquai concert that followed was a fine example of the acid jazz/funk/disco genre, and there's an extraordinary fellow making prestige cars in the suburbs.

Dylan Cleaver travelled as a guest of Tourism Malaysia.

- Herald on Sunday

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