Malaysia: Bliss in the tropics

By Helen van Berkel

A captivating journey helps Helen van Berkel forget her worries.

Batu Caves, once a rich source of limestone for English settlers building roads, is now a busy tourist attraction, just north of Kuala Lumpur. Photo / Tourism Malaysia
Batu Caves, once a rich source of limestone for English settlers building roads, is now a busy tourist attraction, just north of Kuala Lumpur. Photo / Tourism Malaysia

A turtle glides elegantly past, the hump of its shell and spadelike flippers giving a lie to its silent grace. Seeing it up close through my dive mask is breathtaking and I feel a little sad to see him swim on, disappearing into the gloom.

I'm snorkelling off the coast of Tenggol Island in the South China Sea; a brief boat ride from Kuala Terangganu and the oceanside resort, Tanjong Jara.

The region is famed for its rich marine life and, below me, as I float on the surface, swirls a beautiful world of colourful, tropical fish darting through the nooks and crannies in the coral. Vast flat plains of coral are punctuated by jagged stalks of yet more coral and in the shady depths I spot what looks like a purple bouquet; a colourful clutch of stone flowers.

There's an anemone, its tentacles swaying gracefully in the unseen currents; in its arms, as expected, is Nemo, as the tiny, orange clownfish will be forever known, thanks to Disney and Pixar. This underwater world is almost silent, apart from the constant clicking of fish picking at the coral like a myriad of morse code conversations.

I could almost doze off here, floating among the reefs.

It's a universe away from the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital city.

Kuala Lumpur is surprisingly young, having begun life in the mid-19th century at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers as a tin mining settlement. It first attracted Chinese miners, then English colonialists. The city's first mosque stands at the rivers' confluence, a short walk from Chinatown and the Central Markets; another remnant of the original Chinese settlement.

The markets were saved from demolition in recent years by the determination of local businesses. Under cover, you can buy everything from pashminas to pyjamas and masks to maps.

Where Kuala Lumpur once drew adventurers and swashbucklers, it is now a mecca for shoppers. Malls - Lot 10, The Pavilion - cluster in the city centre's Golden Triangle, all with top European brands: Prada, Laura Ashley, Topshop, Zara and Debenhams.

Gleaming skyscrapers of hotels and corporate offices shoulder the laundry-strung local apartments. The most outstanding of them are the gleaming twin 450m Petronas Towers. The first floors are taken up with shops, but otherwise one tower houses the staff of the Petronas Corporation; the other tenants.

After exploring the city centre and emptying our wallets in the malls, we retreat to the quiet reverence of the Batu Caves; a short drive north of the city. Originally home to native hill tribes, the colonising English found the outcroppings a rich source of limestone for roads and railways.

When the English left, the locals turned the cave into a Hindu temple, building a knee-cracking 272-step staircase up to it. A huge gold-painted statue to Lord Murugan dominates the site. Through the long-collapsed ceiling, about 100m above our heads, a warm golden light floods the inside of the cave.

The cave floor is smooth concrete and all we need to watch for are the ever-hungry monkeys, making a grab for whatever food hapless tourists have.

After a few days of the cloying humidity and heat of the city, it is with relief we head north to the Cameron Highlands. We could be in England as we descend through the lush bush and rising mist to the Cameron Highlands Resort; originally a village house.

As the tea industry flourished, it was converted into a gathering house in 1946; then into a 65-room inn.

Brought by YTL Hotels in 2005, the chain renovated the resort to reflect the historical context of the highlands as a British settlement. The Tudor exterior has been retained and the simple rattan furniture matches the colonial air.

After a harrowing drive from the city, we were thrilled to hear our first order of business was a spa.

Treatments at the resort's spa are based on produce from the surrounding bush and tea plantations; it was bliss to sink into a heavenly tea bath. It is exactly that - tea, with floating flowers in it.

I scrubbed my elbows with lime; my body with sugar and my face with tea, then closed my eyes behind a pair of teabags and let the tinkle of fountains outside erase my worries away. I then lay in a dreamy stupor, as a masseuse eased away the remaining tension while thunder rolled in the distance.

The misty Cameron Highlands are a region ripe for intrigue and the next day we set off into the bush to visit the site of the area's most enduring mystery - what happened to Jim Thompson? The former CIA man turned silk trader disappeared on a Sunday afternoon walk on March 26, 1967.

Rumours abound. He was killed by communists; by a tiger; he is living a new life in Taiwan. Locals all claim a part of the mystery - they or their parents helped in the search or their cousin spotted the missing man at a cafe, years after his disappearance. The rented house he left from, the whimsically named Moonlight Bungalow, is empty now; it has just been purchased by the Cameron Highlands Resort Hotel.

It's hard to accept Thompson could merely have gotten lost on the well-trodden paths, though the bush is dense, the path is steep and our guide pointed out the tracks of a black panther, identifying the distant chatter as lemurs. The Cameron Resort's sister hotel in Tangjong Jara, half the width of the country away on the east coast, is vastly different.

The influences here are 100 per cent Malay. The bungalows reflect the elegance and grandeur of 17th century Malay palaces and the unceasing waves breaking in the warm South China Sea replaces the distant thunder of the Highlands, while damp bush is replaced by the heady scent of tropical flowers and swaying palm trees. It is a reminder that Malaysia is as varied as its many settlers.

IF YOU GO

Head to Malaysia in July for the annual Floria Putrajaya Flower and Garden Festival on the waterfront in Kuala Lumpur. The show runs from July 9-17, including designer show gardens, daily activities and exhibitions from more than 10 countries.

For more events and information on Malaysia click here.

Helen van Berkel travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia.

- NZ Herald

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