Our Costa Victoria cruise took us to several interesting ports of call in Malaysia, to include Langkawi (an archipelago of 99 islands in the Andaman Sea, located about 30 KM off mainland Malaysia), Georgetown (the capital of the state of Penang), Port Klang (gateway to Kuala Lumpur), and the quaint, seaside city of Malacca. We found this multiethnic society to be extremely laid back and easygoing, with most Malaysians serving as excellent ambassadors of their country by being extremely welcoming and friendly. We only skimmed the surface of what this diverse country has to offer, and will be back to explore it in depth.
19 Nov: Woke up early for a morning workout before our cruise docked at Langkawi, which has been a duty free zone since 1986, luring visitors in by the hordes whose only intent is to cart off cheap booze. We didn’t have any set plans for today, but were keen on visiting some of the 99 islands that make up Langkawi’s archipelago. The misty morning view of Langkawi did not disappoint, and we were eager to disembark at 8 am to give us a full day here. Unfortunately, getting the Vietnamese members of our group to consolidate at the agreed upon meeting place was like herding cats, and we wasted over an hour looking for Ji Sung who was not to be found. Unbeknownst to us, she had already disembarked the ship! The rest of us were on deck 5, searching fruitlessly for her. Very frustrating to say the least. Di Tam and Di Phuong decided that they would stay on the Costa Victoria in case Ji Sung showed up, while the rest of us disembarked and saw a sheepish Ji Sung waiting for us in the parking lot. Arrrgggh. Traveling with non-English speaking family is enough to drive us insane at times. Becky did an about face to find Di Tam and Di Phuong who had already disappeared and it felt like we would never get our morning started. She searched for them all over the ship before finally deciding to carry on with the original plan of meeting Robby at the end of the dock where he had already coordinated an island hopping tour and was waiting patiently. Once there, Bob and Ann agreed to try one last time to find the missing members of our group, so we waited around for another 30 minutes until our entire group of 8 was reunited at last. What a waste of our first 2.5 hours in Langkawi! Robby had coordinated a 3-5 hour island hopping tour for the 8 of us for a price of 300 MR (the exchange rate was $1 = 3.05 MYR), so not too shabby considering that cruise wanted that much for one person! Our tour included our own private boat, driver, and visits to Tasik Dayang Bunting (Lake of the Pregnant Maiden), Pulau Singa Besar (for eagle feeding), and Pulau Beras Basah, one of the nicest beaches in Langkawi. The day started off brilliantly, with perfect weather as the emerald isles glimmered in the sun. Langkawi is a gorgeous archipelago and we would love to spend some serious time here. Our first stop was at Tasik Dayang Bunting, which required a short hike inland to reach the fresh water lake. Cheeky monkeys were stealing food from visitors, and they were quite aggressive. Once at the lake, we dipped our feet into the water and had to stop ourselves from squealing when hungry catfish swarmed our feet looking for a tasty snack. Half of our group took a dip in the lake (reputed to cure infertility problems), and afterwards, we loaded back onto our boat for the next stop on our itinerary, the eagle feeding session at Pulau Singa Besar. Unfortunately for us, the weather took a turn for the worst, and it started pouring down with rain. There were literally dozens of eagles soaring the skies above us, but they weren’t feeding for the first 10 minutes as there were far too many boats for their liking. Once several boats departed, we witnessed eagle after eagle skimming the surface of the lake to retrieve food that had been thrown out by the various boatmen. Pretty majestic birds but our photos were absolute crap since we had to contend with the rain. Our last stop of the morning was a visit to Pulau Beras Basah beach. A little bit of liquid sunshine sent all the tourists scurrying for cover beneath the trees and nearby restaurants/shops. We laughed as we hopped out of our boat and into the exquisitely warm sea water. It was much warmer being submerged in the sea that getting pelted by the cold rain on land! Even though we had an hour to relax here (or more if we wanted), we had enough after 30 minutes, so we asked our boatman to return us to the dock where we thanked him for our morning excursion. Since it was lunchtime, we figured we might as well head back to the cruise ship to get a free lunch, followed by a dip in the hot tub to warm up. After lunch, we figured we had enough time to make a quick visit to Kuah, where we planned to stock up on duty free and see Eagle Square. We tried to negotiate with the taxi mafia for a fair price for all 8 of us, but after realizing that they weren’t in a bargaining mood, just blew them off and rented a motor bike for the remainder of the day (40 MYR fixed price whether we had it all day or just for an hour…still cheaper than taking a taxi). Our first stop was at the Underwater World complex in Pantai Cenang where we were able to get some Malaysian Ringgit. It was a scenic ride out to Kuah, which was a bit further away than we had originally anticipated. Finding Eagle Square was straightforward (Langkawi is famous for its eagles, with its name meaning “reddish brown eagle” in Malay), and we saw lots of duty free shops in Kuah. However, the thought of lugging a bunch of alcohol back to our cruise ship did not appeal for the long ride back, so we made a detour at the Underwater World duty free shops and were wowed at how cheap alcohol is in Langkawi. So cheap that we purchased 8 bottles (2 for us and 6 for Bob’s Singapore friends) and headed back into port to return the motorbike. Robby smuggled our rum in his beer belly, while Becky sauntered back on board the cruise with 6 bottles of alcohol. Of course the alcohol was flagged and held in storage, but Becky managed to sweet talk the staff into delivering all 6 bottles to our stateroom the night before we visited Singapore, even though that was not our final port of disembarkation. Costa staff aims to please and we really appreciated their helpfulness in this situation (as alcohol in Singapore is ridiculously priced and Bob’s friends were keen to get as much as they could from our visit). Our afternoon was spent enjoying cocktails while we bid adieu to Langkawi. Overall nice stop but we would have preferred maximizing our time here as there were a few sights we wanted to visit but didn’t have time for (the Seven Wells Waterfall, or Telaga Tujuh for example). Such is life when you travel with a large group!
20 Nov: Today’s port of call was a half day in the lovely UNESCO World Heritage city of Georgetown, the capital of Penang. We were off the cruise shortly after 8 am and were immediately accosted by dozens of taxi/tour drivers eager to drive us around this compact city. Declining the multiple offers we received, we made our way to the Queen Victoria Memorial clock tower and nearby Cornwallis Fort to get our bearings. By circumnavigating around the fort, we strolled past the City Hall and leisurely made our way to the highlight of the city, the indigo blue hued Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion which was built in the 1880s by the area’s most powerful Chinese trading and shipping tycoon, Cheong Fatt Tze. Unfortunately, only guided tours were on offer here, with the earliest one starting at 11 am, so we had to admire the mansion from afar. Georgetown achieved UNESCO status with its numerous attractive 19th Century temples, churches, mosques, and colonial buildings, and locals advised us that the best way to see them was to simply stroll down the streets of the city, getting lost amidst the historical narrow streets. The temples and mosques of Georgetown did not disappoint, and we visited the Soon Tuck Wooi Kwon Temple, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, and Khoo Kongsi Clan House. Located on Cannon Square in the heart of old Georgetown, Khoo Kongsi is the grandest clan house in all of Malaysia, with an especially elaborate façade. The entry fee to visit this temple was well worth it, and we were lucky to visit during a brief interlude from the horde of cruise ship visitors. To round out our visit to Georgetown, we made our way to the waterfront where the Weld Quay Clan Jetties are located. The jetties are a reminder of yesteryear, as they originally served as home to the 5 main Chinese clans (Lim, Chew, Tan, Lee and Yeoh). Appearing a bit dilapidated, the jetties are home to the descendants of the original Chinese immigrants who came to Georgetown to seek their fortunes over a century ago. Our favorite jetty was the Chew jetty as it was the most picturesque. Since we had to be back on board before 1 pm, we decided to grab lunch on the cruise. This was despite the knowledge that Penang’s culinary scene is world famous, and a real highlight to any visit here. Dishes not to be missed include Penang Laksa, Penang Char Kuey Teow, Nasi Kandar, Mee Rebus and Hokkien Mee (to name a few). We reluctantly tore ourselves away from the Georgetown food stalls to head back to Swettenham Pier to board the ship, where we could admire the skyline of Georgetown from the dining room. Great day here! We really loved compact and walkable Georgetown and wouldn’t hesitate for a return trip here.
22 Nov: Our port of call today was Port Klang, located about 90 minutes from Kuala Lumpur. Since we had never been to KL before, we wanted to make a special effort to get into town, despite the notorious traffic issues we had read about before the trip. Bob wasn’t feeling 100% today, so it was a group of 7 of us that hopped on Costa’s free shuttle over to the cruise terminal where we were faced with the notorious taxi mafia. When we tried to negotiate directly with the taxi drivers, we were immediately referred to a negotiator who showed us a “fixed price” list for the day’s excursions. One group that tried to bypass the negotiator immediately got their taxi driver into trouble, with a huge uproar raised by fellow drivers. We later heard that the driver would be banned for life from ever picking up passengers in the cruise terminal area! We did find that there was some wiggle room in the negotiations, and we managed to get a large 7 pax van for the entire day to take us to whatever stops we wanted (Batu Caves, Merdeka Square, Petronas Towers, Chinatown, the National Mosque, the railway station, and the Presidential palace) for 500 MYR. Our driver was a lovely Muslim woman named Noora dressed in traditional garb, and we found it interesting that she was allowed to drive a taxi. She explained that the Malaysian government recently started encouraging women to enter the workforce as taxi drivers, providing incentives to meet their goal of 30% female in a male dominated environment…very interesting! Thankfully, the drive into the city only took an hour, but we had to drive a bit further (13 Km north of KL) to reach Batu Caves, our first destination of the day. On our way into the city, we spotted an overturned truck in the opposite lane, and traffic was backed up for miles. Noora told us it is quite a common occurrence unfortunately, as truck speedsters routinely flip over their cargo. We explained that everyone would have to climb 272 stairs to reach the top of the limestone hill at Batu Caves, and encouraged everyone to leave non essentials (food/drink) in the van as it wasn’t necessary to lug it up and down all day. Of course, the Vietnamese clan paid us no mind, and Ji Sung was immediately accosted by aggressive long tailed macaque monkeys trying to grab at her coffee and snacks. Robby to the rescue as we loaded up all the goodies into his bag and hoped the monkeys wouldn’t rip him to shreds trying to get at the food. The hike up to the caves was easy, and we spend some time here checking out one of the most popular Hindu sites in the world (outside of India). Anh Hai had a blast feeding/teasing the monkeys and Robby had fun teasing Hai…acting like a monkey was trying to steal Hai’s bag of food. It was amazing that both of them emerged from the caves without getting bitten by an angry monkey, as there were quite a few close calls. After the caves, we headed over to the Petronas Twin Towers complex (known locally as KLCC or “Kuala Lumpur City Center”) for lunch and a look around. Noora recommended the food court on the second level of KLCC for lunch and her advice did not disappoint as there were lots of cheap eats here. We filled up and afterwards, headed outside for a few photos of us by the towers before linking back up with Noora for a stop in Chinatown. This area of town is a shopping district, and we bought some souvenir shirts for the Vietnam crew while they loaded up on fresh roasted chestnuts. The next stop on our busy day was the fabulous Independence Square (Merdeka) , located in front of the impressive Sultan Abdul Samad Building (housing the ministry of communication, information and culture). This massive grassy plain used to serve as the cricket green of the Royal Selangor Club, which represents the city’s colonial era as it was founded in 1884 by the British who ruled Malaya at the time. Quick hops to the national mosque, the Moorish styled railway station, and the Presidential Palace (Istana Negara) rounded out the rest of our afternoon, and overall we really enjoyed our whirlwind tour of Kuala Lumpur, a city we wouldn’t hesitate to return back to. Noora had been advised by other drivers that there was another accident on the way back and she cautioned us that we should allow enough time for the return trip due to the delayed traffic and we were glad that we heeded her advice. It took us about 2 hours to get back to the port because of a big truck that flipped over in the road, blocking two lanes. We arrived back to the Costa Victoria at 1730 and thanked Noora for being a fantastic ambassador for her country…we had a wonderful day exploring the capital city of Malaysia. To celebrate our excursion, we headed up to Bob and Ann’s room for cocktails (amazingly Bob was feeling much better after a day away from the family) and then spent the remainder of the late afternoon in the pool/hot tub while the Victoria departed from Port Klang. Two thumbs up for our visit here!
23 Nov: We arrived to Malacca at 9 am and caught a tender to shore at 9:30 am. Malacca is a walkable city, but from where the tender dropped us off, we weren’t sure how far away the core historical center was. Thankfully, a tourist office was within sight, so we stopped by there for a free map and continued on our way, reaching the Dutch Square in no time at all. Malacca (Melaka in Malay) once served as the old spice center for Eastern and Western traders, and as a result, has a long, colorful history interwoven between the Malay Sultans and the various European powers that passed through (Portuguese, Dutch, British). Today, the city enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Status, and we had a walkable city tour to help us navigate our way around the compact core. Our first stop was at the maroon colored Dutch Square, which is dominated by the Stadthuys, Christ Church, Red Clock Tower, and Victoria Fountain. The buildings here formed the center of Dutch Administration, with the Stadthuys (Town Hall) serving as the residence of the Dutch Governor. The circa 1753 Christ Church is the oldest protestant church in Malaysia, and the Victoria Fountain was built in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Despite the early morning hour, the square was getting quite crowded, so after admiring the sights, we crossed the Malacca River via the Tan Kim Seng Bridge, heading towards Malacca’s Chinese section of town. A massive dragon floating in the air greeted us as we entered this lively area, and we ducked down a side street (Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, formerly known as Heeren Street) to see the homes of Melaka’s richest Chinese merchants. Many of Heeren Street’s two story shophouses/residences hail form the mid-1700s, with the residents adopting the Dutch construction methods (bricks and clay roof tiles). From Heeren Street, we made our way over to the famous Jonker Street, which is chock full of curio and antique shops. Our walking guide mentioned that Wah Aik Shoe Maker is one of the last shoemakers in the world that still sells shoes for bound feet! Jonker Street had a lively atmosphere, and we wanted to spend more time here but wanted to check out one of the highlights of this area, the Cheng Hoon Teng (Temple of Clear Clouds), which is reputedly one of the oldest and finest temples in Malaysia. Located on the appropriately named Temple Street (Jalan Tokong), the temple was founded in the mid-1600s by the Chinese community. We enjoyed our visit here and can attest that it is a lovely temple. Next stop was a quick glance at Temple Street’s Kampung Kling Mosque, which is a legacy from the settlement of South Indian Muslims (Kling) who once lived in Melaka. The mosque has an interesting triple-tiered roof and a towering pagoda like minaret. Also on Temple street resides the oldest Hindu Temple in Melaka, the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Temple, which was built to honor the elephant headed god Ganesh in the late 1700s by Melaka’s South Indian Hindus. We found it fascinating that on one street alone, a Chinese Temple, Muslim Mosque and Hindu Temple co-existed peacefully for centuries. We sure could learn a lot from the Melakans! Lunch was a picnic by Victoria Fountain in Dutch Square, and afterwards, we braved the midday heat for a hike up St Paul’s Hill (formerly Malacca Hill) to reach St Paul’s Church. St. Paul’s Church is home to one of the last remaining Portuguese structures on Melaka. Constructed in the 1520s as an act of gratitude by a merchant who had survived an ocean storm, St Paul’s is now in ruins, housing old Portuguese tombstones. From St Paul’s, we walked downhill for a quick glance at the Dutch Colonists graveyard before reaching A Famosa, a Portuguese fortress built in 1511. It is considered one of the oldest European architectural remains in Asia. The only portion still standing is the old gatehouse, Porta de Santiago, which is an arched gate that can still be strolled through today. Adjacent to A Famosa is a wooden replica of the Malacca Sultanate Palace (Istana Melaka). Since we were satisfied of having checked off the “must sees” of the city, Bob, Hai and Robby were clamoring for beer, so we made our way to Indian section of Malacca and stumbled upon Sea Horse Beer (14.8% alcohol) that had the boys buzzing in no time at all. Bob made a new friend with the shopkeeper who let us escape from the deluge of rain under his shop’s canopy. Once there was a light break in the rain, we headed back towards the cruise, stopping for a quick group photo at the now abandoned Dutch Square (come on people, its just a bit of liquid sunshine!), followed by a brief stop for souvenir shopping. Everyone agreed that Malacca is a lovely city, a definite highlight to our Malaysian ports of call.
25 Nov: Our last Malaysian port of call was a half day at Kuantan, a nondescript stop in the middle of nowhere. Why this port is included in a SE Asian cruise itinerary is beyond us, as the port is located a good 45 minute drive from town, and the taxi mafia will not budge for under US $80 round trip. We didn’t want to pay highway robbery to go to the Teluk Chempedak Beach (apparently the only worthwhile thing to do in Kuantan) which was a further 5 KM drive from Kuantan, so instead we lounged around and had margaritas by the Costa Victoria’s salt water pool…not a bad compromise as it was free! Too bad our last day in Malaysia was spent on board the cruise but we heard from fellow passengers that Kuantan disappointed, with extortionate and uninteresting cruise excursions. We would not be in any hurry to return to this part of Malaysia.