Self-drive Malaysia

Swap city lights for pristine jungle and deserted beaches and try a self-drive around Malaysia on some of the safest roads in Asia

6 mins

"My mother-in-law’s next-door neighbour,” said my taxi driver, Daud, in what seemed a sure-fire prelude to an urban myth, “says that she can get tiger meat for 300 ringgit a kilo.”

Something about the steep price (about £44) and the note of disquiet in his voice signalled that this wasn’t just flash talk to startle sleepy new arrivals on the way in from Penang Airport. Daud, it turned out, had a passion for wildlife and a concern that too many national park officials were simply career civil servants who did not share his fervour. There were still tigers on the Malaysian peninsula, he said. He’d seen one, late one night, near the East-West Highway. Elephant, too, and turtles off the east coast. Daud loved his country, and was brimming with tips about animals, people and out-of-the-way places.

I had ten days in Malaysia, and a car at my disposal. I wasn’t kidding myself I’d encounter a tiger, but the odd elephant or turtle wouldn’t be bad, and as I had my own wheels I was keen to stray a little from the well-worn tourist path. By the time we’d reached the hotel, my map of the northern states was covered in circles, underlining and exclamation marks.

I had ten days in Malaysia, and a car at my disposal. I wasn’t kidding myself I’d encounter a tiger, but the odd elephant or turtle wouldn’t be bad, and as I had my own wheels I was keen to stray a little from the well-worn tourist path. By the time we’d reached the hotel, my map of the northern states was covered in circles, underlining and exclamation marks.

To the nervous foreigner, driving in Malaysia is a dream compared with other Asian countries. For a start, the roads are in generally good condition, are primarily the domain of cars, mopeds, lorries and buses, untrammelled by the bullock carts and wandering cattle that can make streets nightmarish to navigate elsewhere. People drive on the left (legally), and at manageable speeds. And the roads take you from languid seashores to the heart of virgin jungle.

Start your engines in Penang

Nevertheless, driving with jetlag is not a good idea, so I stayed in Penang for a day or two before setting out. Or at least that was the official reason. Penang is famous for its food. I had barely put down my bags before I was rattling off on a trishaw to the food stalls on Macalister Street for skewers of fish and squid that I boiled myself in fragrant stock and doused with spicy sauces; and for claypot chicken, crusty with caramelised ginger; and soft springroll pancakes stuffed with peanuts and sweet coconut.

Slowly, the trishaw man peddled me homewards, past rows of old two-storey Chinese shop-houses, their lower shutters thrown open to reveal families having their evening meals, a old woman tending a household shrine and a group of girls sewing in a circle on the floor.

Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian communities reach back centuries, and together make up over one-third of the population, focused primarily in west-coast cities. For the past few decades the various racial groups have lived in relative harmony, though they still fiercely preserve their identities. I spent a day looping through the layers of Penang’s parallel cultures, passing mosques and Hindu temples, strolling through Little India, which blazed with sari fabrics and Bollywood tunes, dropping in on Chinese shop-houses to watch men craft beautiful beaded shoes – and, of course, sampling more street food than was strictly necessary.

Then I set out for the open road in my sleek, locally made Proton V6. As I crossed the long suspension bridge that connects Penang island with the mainland, I enjoyed that little kick of satisfaction you get from tackling a new country under your own steam: more part of local life than if you were on a tour; better able to indulge your whims than if you were on public transport.

After a slight spat with a tollgate, in which I managed to set off alarms and video recorders, I sped north on a super-modern expressway, then branched off to join the East-West Highway. Opened in 1983, the road climbs through the highlands that split the northern part of the peninsula in two, and edges along the Thai border before dropping to Kota Bharu on the east coast. Before it was built, the way from Penang to Kota Bharu involved a long journey south to Kuala Lumpur, then back up the other side. Now I found myself on a solitary road that wound through some of the most ancient jungle in the world.


Elephants have right of way

In the tangle of greenery on either side, I spotted leaves as big as tea-trays, swathes of creepers and flashes of colour. The frustration of the tollgate evaporated. At first, roadside stalls and eateries lined the way – women selling bright batiks, flowers and household knick-knacks; clusters of plastic chairs under awnings, where people tucked in to satay and meals wrapped in banana leaves.

A major perk of driving myself was that I could choose where to eat. I pulled up at a particularly busy stall for roti bread with a searing curry, soothed by sips of juice from a fresh green coconut. The customers were intrigued; I was something of a novelty. Where was I from? Was I married? Why was I driving alone? Where was I going? With answers duly given, I left to a cheery communal wave.

Soon the roadside stalls petered out, leaving just me, the motor and the jungle. As the road wound higher, the sky began to darken. Wisps of mist floated up from the jungle canopy in the valleys below, to be swallowed by black clouds.

Suddenly the heavens opened and I slowed to a crawl, edging through a downpour so heavy it was like driving underwater. The view that I’d heard so much about, as the highway bridged Lake Temenggor in a spectacular feat of engineering, disappeared in a soggy fog. But the rain stopped as instantly as it had begun, and I descended to Kota Bharu in glinting, glittering sunshine, exhilarated by the light and the deep blue sky.

It was in Kota Bharu that I discovered the absence of beer – or of any alcohol. “The opposition party rules here,” said Mohd, who’d plonked himself down for a chat as I had dinner in the night market. “It’s very Muslim, very Malay.

They even introduced separate queues for men and women in the supermarkets, but nobody takes any notice.” Without exception, though, the women I saw were wearing full hajib (headscarves) – and the only beer to be had was in the handful of Chinese restaurants, the local five-star hotel (at a price per can that would have bought four full meals in the night market) or in the occasional uninviting bar that came with a large sign outside warning that alcohol was haram (forbidden) for Muslims.


A car means freedom to explore

The lack of roads had long isolated the north-eastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu, so life here remains very traditional, free of non-Malay influences. That was, after all, why I had come. Activities such as kite-flying and competitive top-spinning are still going strong in Kota Bharu.

“You’ve just missed the bird-singing,” said Mohd. Men hang cages containing songbirds on high poles, and the birds belt their hearts out in competition with each other. Champions certainly don’t go for a song – that night’s paper carried a report of a man arrested for trying to smuggle a RM2,000 (£300) dove into the country from Thailand.

I’d intended just a quick sleepover in Kota Bharu, but lingered another day, visiting the Sultan’s former palace, an exhibition on beards (that ‘probed beneath the face-value of facial hair’ to ‘examine beards ancient and modern, sacred and profane, real and artificial, male and female’), and to revel in the Central Market, which upstairs fluttered with batik and silk, and where downstairs, among the piles of orange pineapples and exposed crimson watermelons, carefully dressed women did their shopping.

The freedom of driving yourself includes the liberty of abandoning your car from time to time. That was the next step. Both Daud and Mohd had recommended the Perhentian Islands– vehicle-free and home to turtles, beautiful beaches, untouched jungle and few tourists. In the little port of Kuala Besut, an enterprising woman had turned her backyard into a covered car park. Another of the joys of driving in Malaysia is the safety and relative absence of car crime. Leaving the Proton in the shade and taking just a small overnight bag, I jumped on a motorboat for Perhentian Besar.

The boat dropped off its eight passengers in ones and twos, nosing on to a beach where a plastic chair improvised as a jetty. Soon I was installed in a wooden chalet, part of a thin band along a white, sandy beach. Just a few yards behind, jungle clung to the steep hillside. The turtle sanctuary was a no-go area, but I was told they were often seen swimming in the bay. I never spotted any, but the coral reefs (though bleached and a little silted) offered some of the largest and most varied formations I’ve seen, sprinkled with brilliantly coloured fish.

Tear myself away, back on the road

I spent a day snorkelling, canoeing around the island, lazing in the sun and venturing into the jungle. And then another. And another. Eventually, I tore myself away. I still hadn’t managed to tick turtles, tigers or elephants off my list – but I had seen a flying lemur and a grumpy, gargantuan monitor lizard.

Back in the Proton, I headed south along a straight coast road where wooden houses on stilts stood in the scant shade of coconut palms, and goats and beige cattle eyed me from the roadside. At Kuala Terengganu I shopped for silk and the local speciality, songket – hand-woven fabric shot with gold or silver thread.

Then I turned inland, to Lake Kenyir, the largest man-made lake in South-East Asia, stretching for 2,600sq km through unspoiled rainforest, the only habitation being in a handful of resorts around its shores. Daud had suggested I head for Remis Rakit, a good few hours boat ride away, in the furthest reaches of the lake (where he had seen elephant), but I’d dawdled too long on Perhentian Besar.

Time was short and the rain had returned, so I settled for a night in a forest chalet closer to the main jetty, where I saw a troop of chattering monkeys and a pair of giant hornbills. Early next morning, having had my fill of canoeing over the previous few days, I set out in a hotel pedalo – a form of transport that seemed bizarrely out of place in the setting.

I rounded an island just off shore and there was not a sign of humanity to be seen, just placid lake and steaming rainforest. As the paddles flap-flapped in the water, I felt like a quaintly suburban Amazonian explorer. Back on land, I returned to the coast along back-roads, stopping off for a walk through the village of Kampung Jenang, where a group of women were sitting in the shade making roof tiles out of palm leaves and local lads were chatting over sweet Malaysian coffee.

Luxury time with the locals

I carried on to Tanjong Jara, where I was treating myself to a little luxury – but in a resort with a difference. Owner Peter Bucher (or Pa’ Peter as he is known, using the local honorific) loves Malaysia. He makes sure that, unlike so many similar establishments, his resort is not cut off from the life around it. Nearly all the staff are local – friends and relations from the surrounding villages rather than hotel-school imports.

The gamelan orchestra that plays beside the pool is the hobby of a group of local office clerks; children from a nearby school demonstrate traditional dances; cultural events on the lawn take on something of the atmosphere of a village fête. I cycled on a hotel bike to Seberang Pintasan, the next village down the coast, waved to Pa’ Yahya sitting on his veranda (a traditional healer, he’d given me a great massage in the hotel spa the day before), then watched boat builders crafting traditional junk-like fishing boats by hand.

I shopped in the market with the chef, saw fishermen pulling their nets up on to the beach in front of my chalet at dawn, and then tucked into the catch with Captain Mok – a former officer with the Malaysian SAS, who now follows the gentler path of working as a naturalist, and who taught me more about Malaysia over dinner than I’d learnt in a week.

All too soon it was time to continue south, to Kuantan, where I’d arranged to drop off the car. As I approached the city, drivers seemed to get a little more pushy. Oil refineries along the way reminded me where the money came from that supported the idyll I’d been experiencing for the past nine days. I was back in modern Malaysia, with all its diversity. That night I sat in a seafront restaurant with a Chinese meal and a large bottle of Tiger beer. I’d arrived during the Moon Festival, and the night twinkled with candles and coloured paper lanterns as Chinese families gathered to celebrate on the beach. Yet, not for the first time on the trip, I was the only Westerner to be seen.

Fly-drive in Malaysia is only just beginning to catch on, and the north-east coast remains relatively unvisited by foreign tourists. And, while I hadn’t seen tigers or elephants (though I’d finally spotted a turtle while snorkelling off the island of Tenggol, on a day trip  from Tanjong Jara), I had seen a side of Malaysia that would otherwise have escaped me. Sitting there in the moonlight, soaking up the festival atmosphere, I silently raised my glass to Daud and the shiny Proton.

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