Malaysia (Mar 2016)

After nearly a month of being on the go in Vietnam, we wanted the next leg of our trip to be at a slower pace. There’s something about being in one spot for more than just a few nights that alters the travel experience. The days become less about checking off as many must-see boxes as possible, and more about seeking out the little things that make every place so unique. With that objective, we decided to head to Malaysia, specifically to Kuala Lumpur, to camp out for a bit.

With Kevin’s Hilton points, we could stay in a five star DoubleTree, enjoy complimentary breakfasts and happy hours, relax by the pool, and get in some quality gym time – for ten whole days, for free. However, things rarely go as planned. When we went to book the hotel, it was sold out for four of the ten days that we planned on being there! At this point we already had a flight to Kuala Lumpur, so we needed a new plan. Thanks to some quick thinking on Christine’s part, we changed things up so that we would have a quick layover in KL, detour to Borneo for those four sold out days, then come back for the ten day jaunt.

And so we started our Malaysian adventure in Borneo, the third largest island in the world. Territorially, Borneo is divided between three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. In terms of immigration, we had already entered Malaysia, so we kept things simple and headed to the Malaysian part, specifically to the Sandakan region, where we knew we could find orangutans – seeing one in the wild was on Christine’s bucket list. We had to make those four days count, so to have the most flexibility we rented a car (that turned out to be a big ass pickup truck), crossed our fingers that Kevin would quickly master the driving conditions, and went off in search of wildlife.

We visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where we had some close encounters with wild orangutans, and thoroughly enjoyed watching the young orangutans socialize and play with each other in the outdoor nursery. We visited the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where rescued sun bears (the world’s smallest bears) are rehabilitated and eventually released back into the wild. We cruised through the rainforest on the Kinabatangan River in search of wildlife. We had plans to go to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary to see the monkeys with the large noses, but that day ended up being a hospital day. We did get to see them on our river cruise though, so all was not lost! We ended each night perfectly – at a seafood restaurant on the waterfront, sitting in plastic chairs, surrounded by stray cats, eating the best calamari we’ve ever had. It was so good, we went back every single night and ordered the same thing – calamari fried in a salted duck egg batter, and calamari with green mango. Christine even ate the tentacles.

Awesome wildlife aside, Malaysian Borneo was a unique experience. To start, it’s a little rough around the edges, similar to Nicaragua in some ways. The area is poor, but the people are so friendly. We learned that non-Asian tourists weren’t common, so we stuck out and got quite a few stares (and smiles)! We also learned that this specific part of Southeast Asia has a very high concentration of Muslims. This culture is much more conservative in their dress. We felt a bit underdressed at times…but then we also wondered, how do they survive wearing so many full length layers in that hot, humid weather? It probably wasn’t an appropriate question to ask, so we didn’t ask it. Finally, we learned that the Sandakan area has a recent history of terrorism and certain isolated acts against westerners. Coupled with there being armed military guards outside our hotel after dark every night, this was certainly in the back of our minds, but there wasn’t a single minute where we felt the slightest bit unsafe while in Borneo.

At the end of those four days, we realized how much more Borneo had to offer and immediately regretted not having allocated more time. We skipped hiking up Malaysia’s highest mountain, which is so high we could see the peaks sticking out above the clouds on our flight in. We also skipped spending a few nights in the rainforest, which would have increased our chances of seeing more wild orangutans, monkeys and Borneo’s famed Pygmy elephants. There’s always the hope for a “next time,” and this is a place where we would definitely want there to be a next time. But we really needed to see a doctor!

Back in KL, we immediately went in search of a surgeon to take care of Christine’s infection, which we would soon learn was the not-so-insignificant MRSA. After a long day at the free, but not free for foreigners, very crowded public hospital, we found ourselves redirected to a private hospital. We should have gone there from the start! We ended up seeing Dr. Sukumar, because he happened to be the one in the office that day. Luck was on our side. Dr. Sukumar was wonderful. He was well educated, spoke perfect English, knew what he was talking about, and understood the time sensitivity of our situation. After surgery, we checked in with Dr. Sukumar several times, and each time he answered all of our questions and reassured us of what was going on. We’re thankful to have found such a great doctor to take care of Christine during this crisis.

So what did we actually do in KL? Not as much as we wish we could have, but we still made the best of things. Christine had her surgery, watched lots of movies (Home Alone 2…twice!), and watched Kevin in the pool while working on her tan. When Kevin wasn’t taking care of Christine, he was going for runs, hitting the gym and enjoying the pool. Each time we saw Dr. Sukumar, he would ask us what we had seen in KL, and aside from the taxi ride to the hospital, we hadn’t seen much. With his blessing, we started to venture out and see the city.

We went to the KL Bird Park to see some birds, which turned out to be a lot more exciting than it initially sounded! Later that night, we watched the sunset from the top of the KL Tower. We went to a classic big Asian shopping center, where Kevin picked up some new, smaller t-shirts. All that working out is paying off! We had grand plans to eat the best roti canai ever (or so people claim), but that unfortunately never happened. Every time we made the trek to the restaurant, it was closed. We went out to the Batu Caves, one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by spending the afternoon at an Irish pub. This is where we realized that our tolerance isn’t what it used to be….four pints in four hours and someone was asleep before 8. Christine tried durian for the first time. Durian is a famous fruit in Malaysia, considered the “king of fruits,” but it’s most known for its pungent smell (it’s banned from subways, hotels, taxis, etc…all because of its smell) and it’s mushy flesh that is an acquired taste.

Overall, our time in Malaysia was well spent. Christine was in the right place at the right time to get the treatment she needed. Kevin still got to fully enjoy the gym and pool. We both got to relax, enjoy awesome breakfasts and drinks, a big comfy bed, and watch lots of movies we would probably never have seen…or even heard of. The DUFF anyone!? KL has so much more to offer…we might have to swing back through with some more hotel points for a second round. For now, we say goodbye – here are some of our favorite pictures from Malaysia: