I Travelled Across Peninsula Malaysia & So Should You | The Full Frontal

I Travelled Across Peninsula Malaysia & So Should You

Growing up in a family of modest means in Borneo Malaysia meant year-end holidays invariably consisted of travels to Kuala Lumpur. 

I hated it. I loathed the fast-paced rhythm, I despised the aggressive KLites, and the half-past-seven sunsets confused me more than they should.

A decade ago, I moved to Kuala Lumpur to try my luck, a city I’ve since learnt to love, and I now call my second home. Today, I blend in almost perfectly, only another Sabahan could tell that I am a fellow Bornean.

When I finally earned enough to have the disposable income to travel once a year, I had always preferred to go anywhere but a Malaysian destination – any ASEAN country, any South Asian country, or even European countries.

Journeys of Self Discovery

I’ve developed a real taste for so-called exotic destinations – anything between a three-week trek in the Himalayas to a fortnight-long trans-Scotland road trip.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve always thought Langkawi Island was on the East side of Peninsular Malaysia until well into my 20s, but then again, geography was never my strong suit.

Regardless, I’m now fully aware that it is unacceptable for me to not know where exactly every Malaysian city is on the map.

In the past five years, my flatmate and I would plan our annual trips together. We meant to go on a trans-Indochina trip this May, which was foiled by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Patiently, we endured the sixth MCO, and there it was, our nationwide lockdown was lifted – but we were now in deeper trouble, our economy suffered as a result of the movement restriction. 

Malaysian Pride

I’m not quite sure how it works, but I developed a deeper love for my country after I’ve lived overseas briefly. I spent about four months in London during the summer of 2016. I was fortunate to be sent over for work, and I must say I did enjoy my time there. Well, mostly.

Being so far away from home alone was, well, lonely. 

People were extra nice to me, as if trying to compensate for the fact that I was all alone there and I must have missed home. 

I was in Lisbon during a bank holiday long weekend, a group of English tourists were visibly drunk and they barked at me, “banana!” I was gobsmacked. There was no one else around, and yet I felt enraged, partly due to the liquid courage I’ve had during dinner; another part of my conscious brain stopped me from confronting them because I was “a long way from home” and it wasn’t worth it.

I’ve had my fair share of abuse from English-speaking folks who I assumed, assumed that I speak no English. I was on a flight to Barcelona from Luton airport, an Englishman who was as cosmopolitan as a scone, said to his partner, “Nice sitting next to a ching-chong Chinaman, innit?”

Amused, I did not react. I took out my English novel, and ordered something from the flight attendant, the couple was now immediately quiet.

The money shot was – when he had to get up to go to the toilet, he had to ask me to let him through to the aisle. The sheepishness was all I needed to see.

I’m sure he meant no harm, and I might be presumptuous, but I reckoned he hadn’t travelled a great deal.

There are two lessons for me from these encounters: one, travel makes you less ignorant and; two, there is no place like home, and there’s no two ways about it.


Fast forward to year 2020, I’m now a fully-fledged patriotic, cosmopolitan Malaysian. When MCO was lifted, our travel options were greatly limited by the international travel restrictions. Our supposed Indochinese trip with an Ultra-Trail marathon race in Vietnam was now cancelled. 

I was rather gutted by that, but then I remembered, I’ve always wanted to properly visit all the East Coast states.

Exhausted from the non-life during the three-month MCO, we channelled all enthusiasm left in us to plan a 1,400km transpeninsular trip.

peninsular malaysia
A 1,400km journey across the Malay Kingdoms.

Part of me was really chuffed about going on the trip, counter-intuitively, I was glad to instead spend the travel funds put aside for our Indochina trip on my beloved country, who was in a little economic pickle after commercial activities were seriously disrupted by the MCO. 

Stop #1: Royal Belum State Park, Temenggor, Perak

First leg of our trip, we went to one of the two largest man-made lake in Malaysia. We spent two nights on a private island which was completely off the grid, with needless to say, patchy mobile coverage.

I learnt to appreciate total isolation from civilisation when I was travelling in Nepal. Even though I was in Malaysia, for one second, I felt a total connection to nature, a sensation so surreal it felt almost foreign.

jelajah semenanjung
A private jetty of a private island resort in the middle of the Temenggor Lake.

I leaped into the crystal clear lake, and submerged both my ears under water. Nothing. At that very moment, that was all I needed; no screeching from the trains, no perpetual traffic noise from the highways, no nothing.

The next day, we trekked around the tropical rainforest, and visited an Orang Asli settlement. The romantic side of me clearly wanted to just stay back and live like a wild man for good. The bubble was swiftly popped by our guide.

He remarked that the aboriginal people couldn’t keep time, jobs and livestock. 

I didn’t like the statement at all. Why, you might wonder? It occurred to me that what we do in the city has a profound impact on the environment, further away than where you could imagine.

By building a hydropower plant to serve the power-thirsty cities we live in, we effectively destroyed the Aslian natural hunting and foraging grounds. They now need money to buy food, and thereby, warranting the need for them to work, which we city dwellers have evolved thousands of years to do just that.

The Aslians didn’t have to, not until we destroyed their homes and threatened their meagre existence. Now, they are supposed to get up to speed in a matter of decades? Imagine, Royal Belum is just a small patch of the whole Peninsular Malaysia landmass.

peninsular malaysia
An Orang Asli settlement in the middle of Banding Lake.

I’m hardly a treehugger, and I truly applaud the effort from the Perak State Government to preserve what’s left of the rainforest, but accusing the Aslian people for not trying hard enough to be like us city dwellers, was to me, not okay.

The idyllic view made me forget about my fleeting internalised complaint, but as I replayed the moments of my journey in Royal Belum, it made me think about presumptions and prejudices are really, fundamentally part of human nature.

Stop #2: Kota Bharu, Kelantan

Kelantan for me is one of the most mysterious states. I suppose it’s because I didn’t understand the far-Northeastern accent half the time, and the food completely challenged my palate.

Now, here is another reason why I like to travel slowly, we miss out details when we do long-weekend city breaks. For me, life isn’t all about striking off destinations from your bucket list, it’s seeing the places through your hearts.

kelantan pantai timur east coast peninsular semenanjung
The colourful interior of Pasar Siti Khadijah.

I was wandering around at Pasar Siti Khadijah, a stall owner, probably in her 70s, beamed at me. Enticed by the sheer selection of crisps and serunding, I picked up a bag of serunding and paid. She asked me in a thick Kelantanese accent, “Dari mano?” I’ve always been very conscious with my pseudo-KLite accent laced with a Sabahan whiff, I replied with a deliberately neutralised accent, “Dari KL.”  I told her that we’re on our way to Terengganu after. She grabbed a bag of fish crisps, shoved it in my hand. I refused. With the most earnest smile, she insisted that I have it for the journey. The wrinkle on the outer corners of her eyes reminded me of my late grandmother, I accepted the gift, and spent a moment thinking about my jia po on the southward journey to KT.

This exchange was, for me, the most memorable moment from this trip. I can’t remember the last time a total stranger was genuinely glad to see me, and bid me farewell with a gift so unremarkable, but yet so meaningful. I never really liked that particular variety of fish crisps, perhaps, she gives out bags of crisps for every customer who bought something from her, but I now actually do enjoy these crisps because a total stranger made me feel very special by giving me a bag of it.

Stop #3: Kuala Terengganu & Redang Island, Terengganu

It was my second time in KT. I was there in 2018 with my workmates for a half-marathon event. We did some rapid fire rounds of popular food joints and beaches, with an island trip thrown in; in other words, not my ideal way to travel. This time around, I got to experience the city at my own pace, on my own term.

Being a marathoner, one of my favourite ways to explore the city was to run across it. We rented a beach house in Marang, 10km out from the City Centre.

terengganu east coast pantai timur semenanjung peninsular
The floating mosque of Kuala Terengganu.

On a sunny morning, we ran to the City Park and back, took in every little detail of the colourful, eclectic Strait Settlements architecture of the Chinatown highstreet and the unique Northeastern Islamic architecture of the mosques dotting the city.

Despite the proximity to Kelantan, Terengganuan cuisines are distinct from Kelantanese ones. Needless to say we indulged in various cuisines from the communities of KT.

kuala terengganu east coast pantai timur semenanjung peninsular
Toasted mini buns are native to Kuala Terengganu Chinatown.

Detour: Cherating, Pahang

We stopped by for a night in Cherating en route to Sungai Lembing, a midway point on an over 600km journey. 

Nothing exciting happens there, but that’s precisely why I’ve always liked Cherating. We rose early, headed to the beach after breakfast and just laid down under the gentle morning sun. I couldn’t explain the sensation, but I felt truly at home. Perhaps due to my childhood in a coastal city.

cherating kuantan pahang east coast pantai timur semenanjung peninsular
Simple joy on Cherating beach.

It was now almost the last leg of our 10-day transpeninsular trip, reluctantly I had to leave one of my favourite beaches, and yet it was strangely reassuring to know that we were now, almost home.

Stop #4: Sungai Lembing, Ulu Kuantan, Pahang

sungai lembing pahang east coast pantai timur
Sungai Lembing town viewed from Panorama Hill.

Crossed another state border, we were now in a colonial mining town. Driving past the high street, we could immediately feel the history in the air. An imposing big tree, maybe a few hundred years old, standing in the centre of the town square.

A quick stop at the town museum was surprisingly insightful, we easily spent about two hours at the museum, but that wasn’t why we were there in Sungai Lembing.

Apart from its glorious tin-mining days, Sungai Lembing is known for its midlands and the Panorama Hill. As the name suggests, you get a breathtaking panoramic view of the village and its surroundings, far as the eyes can see.

sungai lembing pahang
The sunrise at Sungai Lembing viewed from Panorama Hill.

We woke up before sunrise to hike on the 300-metre-high hill to see the panoramic view above the clouds. Pictures cannot do justice to the fascination of the actual moment.

By taking in the best gift nature can give us, we conclude our week-and-a-half journey across Peninsular Malaysia.

Final Thoughts

I definitely have itchy feet, it’s almost like the desire to travel has been deeply encoded into my DNA.

After travelling for 1,400km across Peninsular Malaysia, I felt completely recharged. A sense of satisfaction, sans the exhaustion and jet lag, made my love for my country grow even stronger than ever.

If you have planned to travel this year, or have yet to decide where to go, now is the time to do so. I mean, why not?

kuala terengganu
The Crystal Mosque of Kuala Terengganu.

Firstly, the architectural babel. Architecture in Malaysia is more than your typical Central or North Malaysian Strait Settlements, or Indo-Gothic architectures. There are also North-Eastern Malaysian architectures that are as diverse and exquisite.

Secondly, the cuisines, for the love of food! The transition of savouriness and amount of fish being used in dishes, was surprisingly apparent between the two Northeastern states that I once assumed, were very similar, how wrong was I.

Thirdly, the beautiful people of Malaysia. Same same, but a bit different. Keep an open mind and heart, have conversations. Smile, it costs nothing. A trip across this truly blessed landmass has brought back a part of me that I somehow lost by living in a megacity.

nasi ulam kelantan
The tantalising Kelantanese nasi ulam.

My recommendation? Skip the long-weekend tourist traps, take it slow and really experience the wonders of our beautiful country; and remember, see it through your hearts.