That up there is an island off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysia. It looks lovely, and tropical, and lush… and it was. We spent a day hopping on and off boats, bouncing around a little archipelago, snorkeling and lounging in the sun.
These pictures were taken a few miles down the coast from Kota Kinabalu, in Northern Borneo. We took a boat out along a marshy estuary to see some proboscis monkeys from very far away. At sunset the clouds started to tower and roll, and then hundreds of fireflies lit the river banks as we returned to shore.
This afternoon was especially memorable for members of the Chinese tour group, with whom we shared the boat, trying to grab said fireflies and sing to them. Which made a French family also on the boat very angry – every time a firefly landed in someone’s palm they would shout: “You’re killing them!!”. Meanwhile our guide made very half-hearted appeals for them to stop, obviously deadened by many years of being ignored by Chinese tourists.
I went to Kota Kinabalu in 2013, while this sun-drenched beauty of a picture was taken way back in 2008, on my first visit to peninsular Malaysia (the bit that sticks down under Thailand). This bunch of Indonesian women asked for a picture with me on the beach in Penang, possibly the first ever instance of me being photographed simply for being a westerner.
And then, of course, there’s Kuala Lumpur. It has iconic towers – although it’s a bit of a swizz that the viewing deck on the Petronas towers is barely halfway up – for views I’d try the KL tower. It has its Chinatown, little India and colossal mosques – where I had to don a dashing purple gown to cover my arms and legs and gain admittance.
So, after all these memories, its hard to explain why I didn’t fall for Malaysia in the same way I fell for other south-east Asian countries. Maybe it’s because I visited it after the rush of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam? Perhaps I had beach bar/temple/hazy sunset fatigue?
I had done river cruises along the Mekong, been on beaches in Thailand, seen sunsets on Halong Bay, and I’ve climbed tall(er) buildings in Japan, China and even here in Hong Kong . Maybe if I’d arrived in Malaysia first, fresh off the plane from the cold routine of home, then it would have gained a much more special place in my mind.
But then, these pictures show another side of Malaysia – one that I’ve never seen replicated in another country. The Cameron Highlands, with it’s tea plantations, its rolling hills, low-hanging clouds and refreshing climate. We ate curry on huge banana leaves, mixing the spices and meats with our hands, and tried teas both familiar and strange.
The buildings had the feel of an old colonial outpost – which of course it was – and there were even red pillar boxes dotted around the winding slopes.
And then I look at pictures like this one. We’re back in Kota Kinabalu, following a late afternoon downpour. As the sun drops, bloated and orange, and the rain hangs in the air, I think that perhaps I’ve been a little harsh on Malaysia. One day I’ll give it another chance.