Traveling in Malaysia during the Pandemic (Another Heckin’ Diary)

This little diary is a continuation of the ‘Pandemic in Penang’ diary I’ve kept during Malaysia’s harder lockdown. Long story short: we were traveling in Malaysia and other Asian countries when the coronavirus lockdowns caught us in George Town, Penang. We stayed there during the various phases of lockdown, from MCO to CMCO and RMCO (“Recovery Movement Control Order”). When interstate travel opened up, we planned our departure from Penang to travel within Malaysia’s borders. “SOP” stands for “Standard Operating Procedure”.

  • Days since we entered Malaysia: 277
  • Days since the start of the Movement Control Order (MCO): 257
  • Travel days since we finally left Penang: 132

Diary + Developments

Monday, 14th of September: Staying in JB

I’d like to get some things done. There are a lot of things on my plate now and Johor Bahru is the best place to move things forward. It’s a city with not a whole lot of exciting things to do. I always thought I needed a cabin in the woods to write. Perhaps I just need a condo in a distractionless city.

This is not an attack on JB. It’s just admitting that this entire city is pretty much defined by its proximity to Singapore. As long as that border remains closed, there isn’t much of a draw for Malaysians to come here either.

On top of that, our entire stay here has been decided by the daily drum of thunder and lightning in the afternoons. It’s comfortable to be inside without the need for a full-power aircon to be comfortable. It helps with thinking.

Saturday, 12th of September: Mooncakes + will Singapore open?

Due to our love for vegetarian restaurants in Malaysia, we’ve casually learned a few things about the Chinese Buddhist lunar calendar. There’s this thing that if you belong to this community, you’re supposed to eat vegetarian twice a month. This would be on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar calendar. This is when those restaurants get busy, which means we go to the Indian vegetarian places instead.

But now there are a lot of festivals going on in Malaysia’s Buddhist/Taoist communities. I wrote before about the Hungry Ghost Month (which is still ongoing, I think?) and then Jonas read something about a ‘mooncake festival’. I thought he made that up.

Mooncakes are these beautiful cakes and all I knew about them is that I wanted to eat one. At our most-visited Johorean restaurant Life Ricette, there were many of them on display. Presumably, these are the ones without lard since they’re sold at a vegetarian establishment. Jonas agreed to take one home, so he winged it and asked if there were any with pandan flavor. This being Malaysia, of course, there are mooncakes with pandan flavor. The real question is: do you want it with or without yolk? 

mooncake festival malaysia 2020 mid-autumn hungry ghost

With? I guess with yolk.

Googling about the mooncake festival, I learned that it’s just an alternate name for the Mid-Autumn Festival. According to Wikipedia, it shouldn’t have started yet but will happen on the 1st of October, 2020. This confuses me, but hey, you can eat cute cakes.

Back home, we cut it in four pieces and stared at the solid yolk in the center. A cooked egg yolk – probably duck – was one of the imagined options. The other thing we imagined is that the egg yolk would be drippy and sugary as we know from the ‘mini lava custard buns’ from Din Tai Fung. It wasn’t bad, but I think we’d try one without egg yolk next time.

mooncake festival malaysia 2020 mid-autumn hungry ghost 2

In other news, Malaysia is looking into opening the border to Singapore. Before you get all excited on our behalf: this is probably just for people who live in JB but work in Singapore. It will probably exclude Malaysian and Singaporean tourists, not to mention tourism for third-country citizens.

If we’d manage to cross into Singapore, we’d probably not be allowed to return to Malaysia. Going to Singapore has always been a one-way street in this pandemic; after that, it’s back to Europe or stay in Singapore and pay double the cost of living of JB.

Thursday, 10th of September: Johor at zero cases

That’s it. That’s the update. The state we’re currently staying in has zero active cases. But since the number of cases nationwide is up, I believe it’s only a matter of time until new patients appear in Johor.

10 sept 2020 johor update

Maybe there’s more to say: we realized that our condo here is the closest thing to perfection. So we decided to extend here for a little while. I need to get things done and Jonas ordered a VR headset. If it comes to another lockdown, we’re so ready.

Tuesday, 8th of September: Yikes, we got some bad news

The coronavirus hadn’t been much of a topic for us over the last months. We were traveling in Peninsular Malaysia and having a great time. Things seemed to go in the right direction. We always knew the low active case numbers in Malaysia were a fragile thing. 

Yesterday, the cases in Malaysia went up by 62. Today, they went up by 100. We haven’t seen triple-digit numbers since June 4th. The majority of new patients are in the remote state of Sabah in East Malaysia, but the cluster in Kedah in Peninsular Malaysia is also rising. 

8 sept covid case overview

8 sept new covid cases

Since the people of Peninsular Malaysia are far more mobile, I’m afraid that things will get worse in Malaysia before they get better. We’ve seen it in many countries – South Korea, Australia – that had previously done a good job at reducing or stopping the spread: once symptomatic people avoid getting tested, community spread goes up fast.

Though this isn’t a matter of luck, here’s to hoping the reproductive number will duck under 1 again soon without needing to resort to another lockdown 🤞

Wednesday, 2nd of September: The start of the Hungry Ghost Festival

We figured that the Buddhist and Taoist community celebrates the hungry ghost festival today and the coming fifteen days. As I understand, the gate between the underworld and our world opens so the dead can visit the living during this time and get a seat at the table and such. At the pool hung notices for residents to find the designated places to do the burning rituals. We saw some people next to our building burn joss paper. A few days later, I heard some sort of big concert taking place from my window—despite the coronavirus and bans on big gatherings. I concluded it could be a getai performance to entertain both the living and the deceased.

Back when I read about this festival in June, I wasn’t very confident we’d still be in this region during the event.

Monday, 31st of August: Hari Merdeka (Malaysia’s independence day, first edition)

Today is Hari Merdeka or independence day. It marks the day the Federation of Malaya became independent of the British in 1957. It’s Malaysia’s main independence day, but many activities are canceled. I did spot a few fireworks from our condo at midnight. Oh, and there was this Google Doodle:

hari merdeka independence google doodle

If you’re thinking “what is the Federation of Malaya?” you’re on the right track. This federation consisted only of the states on Peninsular Malaysia today. Later, on September 16th, 1963, Malaysia was formed when Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo (i.e. Sabah) joined as long as they could do self-governance. (I have yet to understand where Labuan fits in this equation. I think Labuan was part of Sabah during the 1960s.) In 1965, Singapore was expelled from Malaysia and became an independent country.

This is kind of important because on the 16th of September is another type of national day called Hari Malaysia or Malaysia Day. 

Friday, 28th of August: Good news in Johor Bahru!

After traveling from Pontian to Johor Bahru with our favorite Grab driver/tour guide in Johor State, we settled into our new apartment. We read that Malaysia’s PM would make an announcement that evening on what will happen after the RMCO expires on the 31st of August. We were already pretty confident that it would be extended from the various Malaysian voices we’ve heard in the last few weeks. Today is also the last day the PM can make this announcement since the weekend is coming and the 31st of August is Malaysia’s Independence Day (Hari Merdeka).

Our favorite Malaysian grocery store – Jaya Grocer – is back, so we went shopping for cheese, wine, and soju to settle in with our K-drama The King: Eternal Monarch. Jonas apparently got the news there and shared with me during the Grab ride home: RMCO extended until the 31st of December, 2020

What. Four more months? FOUR WHOLE MONTHS?

Of course, we need to await whether our amnesty will be included in the RMCO extension. I’m confident there are already posts in the Tourists Stranded in Malaysia group asking that exact question. Some already refer to it as the Extended RMCO (ERMCO), though this seems unnecessary. But I’m already dreaming once again about finally traveling to Sarawak and Sabah in East Malaysia. 

Four months is a lot. If it’s according to the old rules, we could stay in Malaysia until the 31st of December and then have a two-week grace period to actually leave. That would mean we can probably stay until the 14th of January, 2021.

Will we actually stay that long in Malaysia? Uh, it’s too soon to tell. But maybe it’s really time to find an online course to learn Malay. 

Thursday, 27th of August: Kukup national park

After visiting Tanjung Piai, we had one day left in Pontian that we could use how we wanted. We decided to visit Kukup national park and then walk through parts of Pontian. 

Kukup National park mangrove malaysia 2020

During our Grab ride to Kukup, we talked to our driver named Yong and found out he used to be a tour guide before COVID-19. Based in Pontian for 36 years, he used to travel between Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand regularly. Times are tough.

I asked him if he knew how to get to Pulau Pisang, and he said he’d make some calls to check. We eventually didn’t go for it since it was about €80 to bring us there without the guarantee to land on the island. But we decided that the price difference between taking the bus to Johor Bahru and a Grab is nil. So we arranged a pickup by Yong for the next day to bring us to ‘JB’.

Back in Pontian after Kukup, we were walking through the Johor crown park when a newlywed Malay couple, a photographer, and their entourage showed up. We were waiting for our Grab driver to come to pick us up when a family member of the couple asked if we wanted to be in the photo with them. We kindly declined, but they insisted. So we stood next to the couple, with masks on, a little over 1 meter for the photo when the bride grabbed my (sweaty) arm to pull me closer for the photo. 

I didn’t ask the photographer to also take a photo with our phones, so you’ll just have to believe my word that this happened. A few seconds later, Yong showed up and we hopped into the car. He said, “That’s a Malay wedding” and we tell him what had just happened. He didn’t seem surprised.

In the evening, we enjoyed one last sunset with Pulau Pisang at the harbor.

Pontian kecil kechil sunset harbor pulau pisang malaysia 2020

Wednesday, 26th of August: Visiting the southernmost point of mainland Asia at Tanjung Piai

I’m very, very happy.

Tanjung Piai southernmost point of mainland Asia Johor Malaysia

Tanjung Piai southernmost point of mainland Asia Johor Malaysia 2

Monday, 24th of August: Traveling from Melaka to Pontian by Grab and bus

We loved Melaka. We would have extended if we were confident that the RMCO would be extended. But we’re not, so we keep the traveling pace as if we need to leave Malaysia on the 14th of September. 

Our original, pre-lockdown itinerary of Malaysia included a visit to Pontian. I had a hitchhiking sign ready with one side saying Pontian Kecil and the other side saying Tanjung Piai. The latter was our actual goal of this hitchhiking trip: Tanjung Piai is the southernmost point of mainland Asia. 

So we traveled by Grab from Melaka to Muar in the state of Johor and then took the bus from Muar to Pontian. We could have taken a bus from Melaka to Muar, too, but we wanted to reduce the headache a little. 

Despite our best efforts, we failed at that because our bus ticket to Pontian said the bus left from one bus station in Muar, while it was actually the other. So we had to run for 10 minutes with our heavy backpacks from one bus station to the other. Then, of fucking course, the bus was late. We waited at the other bus station for 50 minutes before our bus showed and brought us to Pontian, which was a comfortable ride.

From Pontian’s bus station, we could walk to the Aloha Hotel where we had booked a room for four nights.

Sunday, 23rd of August: Will the RMCO be extended beyond August 31st?

The Ministry of Health has recommended the Malaysian government to extend the RMCO. The odds are slowly swinging in our favor. If they will extend it, it’s too early for us to celebrate; we’re always waiting for the official confirmation that tourists get amnesty and won’t have to leave. The linked article also says that the WHO thinks it will be another two years from now before COVID-19 won’t be classified as an outbreak anymore.

Planning ahead remains canceled.

In the evening, we needed to pack for our departure from Melaka. We liked this city a lot and would have stayed longer if we knew the RMCO would be extended. It feels like we’re hurrying across this peninsula even though we might still stay here for another six months. Who knows? Not me.

Also, RIP flipflops. I think I bought them in Perú back in 2017 or something like that. They’ve been with me for a very long time. The restaurant owner gave me some rubber bands so I could still walk home in these one last time.

23 august melaka malaysia broken flipflop

Friday, 21st of August: Wrapping up Melaka's city center

We finish our walk through the historic center in the evening. Finally, we’re at the small square with a few Dutch buildings with Old Dutch words on them. Nearby is the Fort Middelburg, which Jonas finds too small to defend anything, and I’m confused because the corner tower is definitely Portuguese. I’d seen a map online of the true size of the defenses and tell him this is just a small piece of the original city wall.

melaka fort middelburg middleburg unesco river

From there, we walk along the Melaka River. It appears that many families from Malaysia decided to spend the long weekend in Melaka and it’s really crowded. We decide to skip the night market and instead enjoy the riverside with pizza, beer, and endless river cruises. And yogurt. Yogurt with dates, olive oil, and a pinch of salt. In Jonas’ words: “It’s pretty good once you’re ready to accept it’s olive oil and not honey.”

melaka river night time unesco heritage site historic center 2020 coronavirus

Thursday, 20th of August: Melaka's sand dunes at sunset on the first day of 1442AH

Today is a public holiday because it’s the first day of the Islamic new year. I’d already seen some billboards with “1442 AH” written on it, which refers to the new year according to the Islamic lunar calendar.

In the evening, we took a Grab to the Melaka sand dunes to watch the sunset. It did not disappoint!

These sand dunes aren’t naturally occurring; there was some land reclamation project going on until they abandoned it. The sand got moved around by wind action until it formed this pleasant landscape.

melaka sand dunes desert malaysia 2020

After the sandy hike, we visited the night market parallel to Klebang Beach. We got some funny foods there, such as hot and wet peanuts and pandan + grated cheese cake. No, not cheesecake.

Wednesday, 19th of August: Going up Bukit Cina

The plan was to visit Bukit Cina (“Chinese Hill”) for sunset, but the weather was very cloudy. So we just hiked around the trails, used a lot of mosquito spray, and appreciated the graves dug into the slopes. Atop the hill, there wasn’t much going on except for the continuous singing from the mosque on Islamic new year’s eve.

bukit cina melaka malaysia 2020

Monday, 17th of August: Visiting Melaka's historical center

First, we Grabbed from our huge condo to Melaka’s floating mosque. We already knew we couldn’t enter because of the SOPs; right now it’s only open for Muslims who intend to pray and not just visit. From the side, we managed to appreciate the floatiness of the structure.

The same Grab driver we had before picked us up again and took us to the Salvation Army where I donated some clothes that no longer serve me, but are in good condition. I neglected to tell the lady that there were some Myanma Kyat wrapped with the clothes, in case they’re in contact with someone from Myanmar. She ran after us to return the money, after which we explained it’s a donation or gift for someone who can actually use it.

From there, we walked through a mall without exits to the UNESCO world heritage site part of Melaka. We started with what’s left of the Portuguese fort A Famosa and then moved uphill to the ruins of St. Paul’s Church. The Dutch colonized Melaka between 1641 and 1824. This is the first place I’ve knowingly visited that the Dutch have colonized. In the old ruins, there are gravestones with Old Dutch writing on them.

Melaka church ruins unesco world heritage site 2020

The wind picks up and it’s threatening to rain. We make it down the hill to the Stadthuys but then the downpour starts. We’re hiding from the rain until we decide that we need to continue the open-air activities another time. We pack our devices in our dry bag in the backpack and release the umbrella. Through the rain, we scurry towards Shui Xian vegetarian restaurant, which was a recommendation by Enrico—who studied in Melaka.

Melaka stadthuys town hall unesco heritage site malaysia 2020

After a wholesome meal, we Grab back to our residence, still soaked.

Friday, 14th of August: Jonker Street night market

A Grab driver had given us the tip on the weekly night market from Friday till Sunday. We went there early right after it opened at 18:00. A military guy operated the entrance to the area, making sure everybody registered on paper or used MySejahtera to check-in. He checked our temperatures and then squirted some hand sanitizer into our hands. Needless to say, people without masks don’t get in.

Jonker Street night market Melaka Malaysia 2020 covid-19 pandemic

Then we started our chomp feast. We started with a delicious mango smoothie and then leveled up to vegetarian satay sticks that were an absolute smashing hit.

jonker street night market Melaka Malaysia vegetarian satay

There were many nice food stalls nest to not-so-nice food stalls with fishy items. A busker was singing and playing guitar and he accepted money via the Touch ‘n Go app. Jonas says “This is 100% market penetration. Oh no, that would be if beggars would also accept e-wallets. But it’s not a stretch.”

melaka jonker street night market busker touch n go app street musician

We tasted a lot of different things and had a great time. We brought home some mua chee (similar to Japanese mochi) and pandan dodol for experimentation. Especially the dodol looks like space food in the movies. And, after years of trying, I finally got one of these rolled ice cream things that were popular on the internet a couple of years ago. It was alrighty.

jonker street night market melaka ice cream rolls jonker street night market melaka mua chee

Wednesday, 12th of August: Jonas' first stalker

In the evening, we went to a Chinese vegetarian restaurant called Nature Veggie for dinner. Our Grab driver asked us if we’re vegetarians, to which we answered “yes”.

All was more than fine over most of the meal. The food was amazing and we had a good conversation across from each other. We really wanted to come back here to try more things on the menu. But there was this guy sitting behind me making weird noises while eating, occasionally. Jonas wasn’t worried he was choking, so then maybe he just ate something super spicy. But these weird panting and moaning noises happened on multiple occasions. It was really off-putting.

The owner was closing the business for new customers and the guy who sat behind me got up from his seat to pay for his food. He stopped at our table and started talking to us. He asked us the usual questions like “Where are you from?”, which Jonas answered with a smile and some patience. Then the guy left to pay for his food, after which he immediately returned to our table to talk some more. With his weird eating noises, I wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t cough or sneeze in our food, so I told him to leave us in peace.

He returned one more time to our table asking us where we live and if we need a ride home. Jonas mustered all his patience to tell him kindly that we don’t need a ride and to please leave us alone. I exchanged looks with the restaurant owner. The weirdo left eventually.

Once we’d finished our meal, thanked the owner and paid, we got out of the restaurant. I checked out the Thai restaurant across the street for later reference and Jonas booked a Grab. It would take five minutes.

While waiting, a white car pulled up diagonally in the parking spots where we were standing while a woman in a car was just about to pull in there. The driver of the white car had no intention of unblocking the three parking spaces and the woman drove off. That’s when I noticed that the driver in the white car was the weirdo from the restaurant.

I asked Jonas to walk with me to the corner restaurant a few buildings over. He didn’t know why, so I brought him up to speed that the guy in the white car is the same guy from the restaurant. Jonas didn’t believe me at first, but I told Jonas I’d recognized him. Then the white car had turned around and driven up to the corner we were standing on. Jonas and I returned to the Thai restaurant and saw the car turn around again to pull up in the same three empty parking spots.

Our Grab arrived, so we crossed the road back to Nature Veggie to get in. “He’s going to follow us,” I said to Jonas, “he’s going to fucking follow us home.”

I took down his license plate and kept looking back during the entire ride. Our Grab driver made a few interpretative moves on the streets, and the weirdo in the white car would do the same to the point of ignoring rules of priority. This is wild.

At the final junction, there was one car between us. The road we turned in only has one destination, so he didn’t need to follow us to know where we live.

Jonas and I both unbuckled before our driver stopped and hopped out of the car to get away from this situation. We didn’t see him follow us into our street, but he got an answer to his question about where we live. I hope he’s happy. What a freak.

Jonas has never experienced being followed. I have, of course, but never before with a car tail.

Tuesday, 11th of August: Traveling from Ipoh to Melaka by coach/bus

I really hate the bus. That’s not something against a specific bus or coach company. I don’t have any particular trauma I can refer to. It’s just a bad way to travel for me personally.

But right now, hitchhiking as two foreigners through Malaysia is a bad idea; the rule that all people in one car should be from the same household is still in place. And the alternative to the bus would be a train journey followed by a very long bus or taxi ride. So the best policy was to just lie back and think of England.

Upon arrival in Melaka, getting away from the bus station was quite troublesome since the Grabs couldn’t find us and we couldn’t find them. But eventually, we got a ride through the city and to our new dystopian condo. It’s a nice apartment, yes, but the building is grotesque.

The first impressions of Melaka are really good. I’m sure we’ll like this city.

Monday, 10th of August: Saying goodbye to Ipoh

On our last day, we wanted to double-down on our favorite things about Ipoh. We visited the Old Town one more time to take a proper look at Concubine Lane, its perpetually pregnant strays, and its street art. Then we walked some more past the old buildings and the stunning Indian mosque. We got one more dish from Hadramout Paradise to eat along with our leftovers. Then we had to pack up for our bus ride to Melaka.

Concubine Lane Ipoh 2020 malaysia

street cat ipoh concubine lane malaysia pregnant

Saturday, 8th of August: One cave temple + meeting up with Enrico again

Looking for more nearby activities, I’d found something called Gunung Lang Recreational Park. The reviews sounded promising since children under 12 weren’t allowed in. But it was a Saturday, and once we’d Grabbed there, we saw that it was really, really busy. There was a queue for getting on the boat to cross the lake. I try to queue as little as possible and I found the fake waterfall quite off-putting, so we walked away towards the cave temple we’d spotted during our Grab ride.

Loong Thow Ngam cave temple Ipoh Malaysia

That temple is called Loong Thow Ngam (龍頭巖) Temple and I’m 60% sure it’s Taoist. At first, it looked like it was under renovation and inaccessible. But around the main temple, there were people at the cave having a tea or worshipping. It was really nice.

Loong Thow Ngam cave temple Ipoh Malaysia 3 Loong Thow Ngam cave temple Ipoh Malaysia 2

At the turtle lake, there was a nice woman with a child and a big bag of white bread feeding the turtles. There were many and they were huge. The lady gave us some bread to also feed the turtles and we had a nice chat about turtles and lockdowns. I wonder why there are always turtle and fish ponds at Taoist temples. Is it a feng shui thing? Alas, even Google does not know the answer.

Loong Thow Ngam cave temple Ipoh Malaysia 4 Loong Thow Ngam cave temple Ipoh Malaysia 6

Jonas said that one of them might be a snapping turtle, to which I responded: “What is a snapping turtle?” and he replied with: “Oh, you’re going to hate this.” A few days later, he showed me a video that still haunts me and makes me question the innate beauty of nature.

After the temple, we took a Grab to Yun Yi Vegetarian Restaurant. The plan was to go home after eating their delicious buttermilk mock chicken, but Enrico called and asked if we wanted to meet his high-potential future digital nomad friend over coffee. So we changed plans and met up in town.

Afterward, we were waiting for our Grab outside in front of an artisanal (?) popcorn shop. The guy kept giving us samples of each and every popcorn flavor they had, which included brilliant flavors such as green tea and sour cream & onion—but also served contentious flavors such as seaweed and durian. I rejected the durian popcorn, but Jonas and Enrico took one, the latter saying “Don’t worry, it’s not Thai durian.” So today I learned that there’s a whole competition between Malaysia and Thailand over which has better durian. (To me, it’s all rank.) When the popcorn dude gave us another flavor of popcorn after touching the durian with the tweezers, I could clearly taste the lingering vibe of durian on my sea salt popcorn.

Six hours after eating that durian popcorn, Jonas told me he could still taste it. He made his choice.

That being said, I’d eat one (1) pod of durian if it allowed us to stay in Malaysia for another six months.

Thursday, 6th of August: Shisha + beer

In the days prior, we’d just spent time in the Old Town and at home. Finally, the time came to smoke that birthday shisha at Beer Teller. There was no fuckery going on this time and we had a nice conversation with the Ghanaian lady who works there and entered Malaysia on a working visa before the lockdown. She wants to go to Penang next and we give her some tips on how to make that happen. She tells us that Beer Teller is mostly a cop bar, which explains why Akua and I are the only femme folk in the bar.

Drunk and exhausted men rest their heads on tables, holding their glass of beer while asleep.

Tuesday, 4th of August: Hiking at Bukit Kledang

After a few days of enjoying our nice apartment, an upgrade in the internet speed by our host, the Kinta river bridges, and Little India in the Old Town, we wanted to leave the city for a bit. We packed our day bags for hiking mode plus an umbrella from the Airbnb and took a Grab to the trailhead of Bukit Kledang. When looking at Google Maps, the hiking trail was categorized as a ‘gym’ and not a hiking trail. Without having been there, I changed the category into a ‘hiking area’.

1 Hiking Bukit Kledang Ipoh trailhead parking lot 2 Hiking Bukit Kledang trail erosion

3 hiking up Bukit Kledang Ipoh trail erosion path

When we arrived at the foot of Bukit Kledang at 8:00, the entire parking lot was full and people were struggling to find parking. Our driver dropped us off and promptly turned around to get out of there. There were so many people in sports clothes going up or coming down from one of the trails. We showered ourselves in mosquito spray and began hiking up to the viewpoint. It’s very obviously a hiking area, but people treat it like a gym.

There were multiple parallel trails since the old trails had been eroded so much by foot traffic, mountain bikers, and torrential rains. It exposed the orange soil and formed little canyons. One of the paths was in good condition and led us to the asphalted road near the viewpoints. We rested there at a gazebo before hiking up a little further. It’s possible to go all the way to the summit where there are TV antennas, but we read that the view doesn’t get better than the viewpoint that’s a comfortable hike from the trailhead.

Viewpoint Bukit Kledang hiking area Ipoh Malaysia

From there, we had a chat with some people who were curious about our stay in Malaysia during the lockdown. Then we turned around and hiked back down via the asphalted road. We encountered a trash-loving squirrel, a double-decker bug, and someone alerted us to a colorful snake that wanted to cross the road.

4 hiking bukit kledang squirrel Ipoh Malaysia 5 hiking bukit kledang bug from hell Ipoh Malaysia

6 hiking bukit kledang colorful snake venomous maybe idk

At the lower reaches of Bukit Kledang, there are some gardens and temples. One of the gazebos featured another pebble walk for giving yourself a reflexology foot massage. It was the hardest-core pebble walk I’ve ever seen and it looked like it prepared you to level up to a bed of nails.

7 pebble walk bukit kledang reflexology foot massage ipoh malaysia

Once down, we navigated between barking dogs to the little shopping area nearby. There’s a Chinese vegetarian restaurant there called Wen Shu where we got a box of food to eat at home. Getting home was tricky since there were no Grabs nearby, but Jonas had read about a trick. The trick is putting two stops in your Grab route: one somewhere in the center where there are Grabs, and another where you are, and then the destination at where you want to go. We did that and it worked really well. And the food was the best mock-meat we’ve ever eaten, making us contemplate driving back out there just to eat there again.

Saturday, 1st of August: A fine selection of Ipoh's cave temples

We drank a morning coffee and then got a Grab to the Kek Lok Tong cave temple – the first of many temples this day. It was to make up for the lack of activities on my actual birthday the day before.

Unexpectedly, this first cave temple already had a lot to see and enjoy and we stayed there quite long. The cave was huge and had an exit on the other end with a few small lakes. There’s a huge pebble walk, which – if you don’t know – is a path walk on barefoot to give yourself a massage. I’m not a fan, but I know someone who is.

Kek Lok Tong 2020 cave temple Ipoh Malaysia Kek Lok Tong 2020 cave temple Ipoh pebble walk foot massage

From the Kek Lok Tong temple, we went to the Ling Sen Tong temple, which was a very colorful place and was quite busy. The thick smoke of incense made Jonas walk a little faster at times. From there, we visited the Sam Poh Tong temple, which leads to probably the most beautiful temple I’ve ever seen through a cave.

Ling Sen Tong cave temple 2020 Ipoh Ling Sen Tong cave temple 2020 Ipoh reclining Buddha

Sam Poh Tong cave temple Ipoh

The plan was to walk or Grab from here to Mirror Lake, but it was a little late in the day and we were tired and hungry. After trying to walk to the main road but encountering a sign that warned us of mean dogs, we decided to Grab to a restaurant. This was a very short distance, but the road we had to cross was pretty dangerous even by car.

I can’t figure out the name in Chinese characters, but it’s this one on the map and has a big banner saying Restoran Sayur-Sayuran/Vege Restaurant. The place is also an atelier and they’ve got some pretty nice art. The food was also amazing and the two guys that were working there were also very kind. We didn’t go to Mirror Lake in the end.

Then we took a Grab back to the Old Town of Ipoh. Our Grab driver was a 63-year-old man of Sri Lankan descent who knew a lot about Ipoh. We had a great conversation and he gave us tips for hiking up Bukit Kledang and also said Mirror Lake is a lie and not worth the trip. He knew a lot about Ipoh’s history and the buildings. He also said Mirror Lake is a lie and not worth the trip. It was almost like hitchhiking.

In the evening, we finished the wine bottle we’d opened the previous day and chomped some more cheese. That concluded the birthday activities.

cheese board red wine Malaysia Ipoh birthday

Friday, 31st of July: My first pandemic birthday (many to come?)

The inevitable birthday during a global pandemic finally happened. I’m sure we’ll still be subject to restrictions and abnormalities for Jonas’ birthday in December. This year my birthday coincided with Eid al-Adha, meaning many Muslim-owned businesses were closed.

I’d finished my video about kayaking to Pulau Tikus the night before, but it wouldn’t render with my video editing software Camtasia. It’s a rather long video and it was really stressing me out that I hadn’t put this project behind me yet. So we spent the morning of my birthday eating the tiny slice of burnt cheesecake and finding a way to produce the video and eventually upload it to YouTube. I’m so happy it’s done, but it’s also time to find a new video editing software.

burnt cheesecake ipoh parade birthday

Since this fucked up our entire programming for the day, we decided to move my birthday to the 1st of August. We can do this sort of thing.

The real birthday gift was the call from Airbnb customer service. They agreed that it was reasonable to leave the filthy apartment in the Majestic in Ipoh. The manager of the filthy Airbnb had ignored our booking alteration but declined a later request to get our money back. This probably prompted the call with customer support in the USA, who resolved the conflict in our favor. We got back the money for nine out of ten nights we’d booked, plus half the money for the first night because the other party was so uncooperative. We retrieved a total of €280 from that regrettable experience.

Lunch was a cheese board with naan and red wine on the balcony during a thunderstorm. I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t go on a hike or to visit cave temples today.

In the evening, we tried going to a Chinese restaurant called Ninety Six Vegetarian to eat chee cheong fun, but it was closed. From there, we called Vegan Delights Cafe to ask if they were open, then took a Grab there to eat dinner. During our one-night stay at the Majestic, we’d ordered from them. Eating at their restaurant is a much nicer experience though; the owners are really sweet people.

After that, we wanted to go back to Beer Teller to have drinks and shisha, but there was fuckery going on. There were two or three groups drunk men starting shit and harassing the staff aggressively. I contemplated calling the police, but with our shaky immigration status in Malaysia, I felt utterly powerless. We walked from there to a place Enrico had spotted called Miners Arms, which has a totally different vibe with its empire-inspired interior.

But yes, they have nice Franziskaner wheat beer. Birthday-wise, that’s a beautiful way to wrap things up.

weizenbier Ipoh Miners Arms cafe restaurant Malaysia birthday weizenbier Ipoh Miners Arms cafe restaurant Malaysia

Thursday, 30th of July: Swimming in the hotel's pool + eating Korean street food at the mall

Our doorman’s tip came through and we had a lovely swim in the pool after doing some computer things. My video from kayaking to Pulau Tikus in Penang is approaching the final stages.

Swimming pool Ipoh Airbnb hotel

In the evening, we went to Ipoh Parade. It’s a mall with a Jaya Grocer, which is our favorite Malaysian supermarket brand. It has a separate shop with haram products such as pork and booze. That’s where we got some Korean soju and red wine for my birthday. In the main supermarket, we bought a variety of cheeses with naan to enjoy on our balcony. Life’s good.

Once we had our groceries, we went up to the top floor in the mall to visit MyeongDong Topokki (명동 떡볶이). They do Korean street food dishes such as tteokbokki, which all the characters in the K-dramas talk about.

We tried to communicate that I was looking for a vegetarian dish on the menu, but this didn’t really work. I got a cheese ramyeon (aka ‘ramen’) and Jonas the soy-garlic tteokbokki. He ate all the sketchy things from both foods so I could eat the (hopefully) vegetarian leftovers. He didn’t touch the obviously fishy side dish, which I shoved far away from my nostrils. Korean food is still a struggle, but I guess it’s better to go through the learning curve here in Malaysia where we can (generally) communicate in English than in Korea where, according to our Texan friends, you just don’t know what’s going on. To make this simulation as real as could be, we also got the Korean chopsticks, which I so far have found a little bit harder to handle.

myeongdong ramyeon Ipoh Parade Malaysia myeongdong tteokbokki Ipoh Parade Malaysia

I don’t really like cake, but cheesecake is an exception. We came past a bakery that sold burnt cheesecake, which is something I’ve seen before in Penang and really wanted to try. We got one slice to share on my birthday.

Wednesday, 29th of July: A tip from our doorman

We just worked hard on our individual projects this day and then had a few beers at Beer Teller, a place we’d spotted the previous day with Enrico. It has shisha, so I thought it would be nice to return here for my birthday.

When we arrived back at our condo, our always happy doorman gave us the tip to use the swimming pool in the hotel. We thanked him and decided to give it a try the following day.

Tuesday, 28th of July: Meeting up with Enrico in Ipoh

In the morning, we did some computer stuff from our comfy new apartment. I edited my video for a few hours and Jonas did his web development magic. We tried visiting the pool we looked out on, but we realized that it’s the hotel pool, not the condo pool. We can see both pools from our balcony, and the condo pool looks much more epic due to its treacherous depths. It’s not family-friendly, which we love. So we messaged our host about it to ask if it’s open or about to open. He messaged us back that building management would convene on reopening the pool the next day. So we wait.

In the afternoon, we met up with our Malaysian friend Enrico we’d met in Penang a couple of weeks prior. Ipoh is his turf, though he didn’t always live here whenever he was in Malaysia. He’d discovered some vegetarian restaurants within walking distance from our apartment, so we walked there together and ordered some delicious veggie food. His experience of living in Malaysia is a vastly different experience from our – in the grand scheme of things – fleeting visit.

Then we walked through the Old Town to various places until the heat brought us to an OldTown White Coffee café. We’d drank instant coffee from this brand before in Penang. The company hails from Ipoh and it’s a point of local pride. I’m sad to say that when looking up the brand, I found out it had been bought by Dutch company Douwe Egberts in 2018.

We continued our conversation there until it was time to go home. I’m confident we’ll meet again. I somehow developed a blister from the flipflops I’ve walked around in for years.

Sunday + Monday, 26th + 27th of July: Traveling from Taiping to Ipoh: not a great start
The journey started out all right, but then…

What a shitshow.

We wanted to take the 11:50 train from Taiping to Ipoh, so we left the hotel to arrive there 20 minutes in advance. Upon arrival, we saw that the train was delayed by about 40 minutes. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but we had been quite uncomfortable at the Bukit Mertajam train station five days prior when we traveled to Taiping. This is because the waiting area doesn’t have airconditioning. The 45-minute train ride was very pleasant.

Our Airbnb host in Ipoh had been very responsive up until this day. We had asked him if an early check-in would be possible, but he’d stopped answering. We thought that our worst-case scenario was having to hang out in a café or restaurant for a few hours upon arrival.

Our first Airbnb in Ipoh was in a condo called the Majestic. Everything was closed around it, which might mean that Sunday is also a problem day in Malaysia. So far we hadn’t noticed that Sunday was special, especially not in Penang. We eventually found a cute restaurant to eat some vegetarianized noodles while we waited for the cleaners to be done in our apartment. Then we got the key, took the elevator to the right floor, unlocked the door and…

4 sink blurred

Yikes!

2 ventilator blurred

6 pot blurred

The apartment was so filthy that I’d decided we couldn’t stay here for ten whole days. I found another Airbnb and booked it, promising Jonas I’d cover the costs if Airbnb wouldn’t agree with our assessment. We contacted our host in the filthy apartment and told him this wouldn’t be fixable in one day. He didn’t accept our booking alteration, so we knew we had to let Airbnb be the judge. It would have been €255 for me to pay, which is a lot if you don’t actually make any money.

The next day, after one crappy night of sleep and lots of sneezing and itchy eyes, we left the shitty apartment as soon as we could check-in at the new apartment at Kinta Riverfront Apartments. The new one is in the Old Town of Ipoh, so we had to take a Grab. The new place is really nice and not a health hazard.
Here’s to hoping we get our money back from the run-down place. Stuff like this with Airbnb has never happened to us before, despite the many horror stories out there. Still, I feel a little bit homesick to the worry-free apartment we had in Penang. I’d forgotten that travel can be tough at times.

Saturday, 25th of July: Jonas drives an ATV

After relaxing at the hotel and moving some projects forward the previous day, we wanted to do something exciting again. Jonas really wanted to go to the ATV adventure park at the foot of Bukit Larut and drive a quad. We’d messaged them on Facebook a few days earlier asking if we needed to reserve a quad (or two) at a specific time. They said we can just show up instead. Which we did.

Bukit larut ATV adventure quad tour 0 entrance

But when we got there, a big family had rented all the quads. Of course. So the woman who ran the place suggested we’d visit the botanic gardens across the street for forty minutes. The botanic gardens were closed. Of course. So we went to the restaurant of a hotel called Kamalodge next door to have a drink and wait.

Once we returned, I couldn’t find a helmet to fit my awkward head. I didn’t feel like driving, so I would sit on the back of Jonas’ quad. We first had to do a few practice laps over bumps and through muddy water before starting the tour. I wasn’t feeling it, so I decided to get off and let Jonas go by himself.

We were about to arrange a Grab for me with Jonas’ phone since I’ve been shadowbanned from using Grab somehow. This was a little cumbersome, but then the woman who runs the place offered to drive me back to the Novotel. This was very nice and almost felt like hitchhiking since I sat in the front seat. She told me about how Taiping never had a COVID-19 case and a little about the history of Taiping. That was very kind.

Back at the hotel, I continued working on a big video about kayaking to Pulau Tikus. I had a good 1.5 hours of working alone while Jonas was having the time of his life. Once he returned, I was happy with what I got done and Jonas was still high on adrenaline from the fun ATV adventure. Somehow, he wasn’t very muddy. The guy who he did the quad tour with drove him back, which was also very kind.

He told me it was a good call of me to not join the ATV adventure if I wasn’t feeling well, since it was a lot of bumpiness. The tour also went all the way to the Sungai Larut, which is the same stream as where the Burmese Pool is at, but a bit further downstream. Jonas enjoyed it a lot and directly searched for other places to do quad trips, such as in the Cameron Highlands. I told him to maybe slow down a little.

Bukit larut ATV adventure quad tour 1 Bukit larut ATV adventure quad tour 2 Sungai Larut Burmese Pool

FYI: we paid RM 150 for one person on one quad. It includes the helmet and water shoes if you want to change. For two people on one quad, it would have been RM 200. I recommend contacting them on Facebook beforehand and booking a specific timeslot and a number of quads in advance so you won’t struggle as we did.

Thursday, 23rd of July: Soaking at Burmese Pool

Jonas wanted to head out early today, so after the hotel breakfast, we took a Grab to the waterfall at the foothills of Bukit Larut. The Grab couldn’t drive all the way, so we walked part of it up past gangs of monkeys. There are two Hindu temples there, of which one is under renovation and the other one is active. Jonas and I still haven’t set barefoot in a Hindu temple yet. We’re both not sure what the rules are. On the other hand, we’re both quite comfortable with Buddhist temples since Thailand and especially Myanmar.

1 bukit larut waterfall foothills Taiping 3 bukit larut hindu temple foothills traveling in Malaysia

2 bukit larut waterfall foothills Taiping Malaysia

The waterfall here is the same that we look out on from our hotel room, but only the lower end of it. There are some side trails that would probably lead us closer to the action, but there are yellow tape and signs in Malay saying something about not going there during the MCO.

4 bukit larut foothills waterfall

After that waterfall, we walk to the entrance road of Bukit Larut, also known by its colonial name Maxwell Hill. We’re inquiring about the jeeps that go up the track to the summit some 1000 meters up. A guy in uniform tells us it’s closed for today and only figure out later that the jeeps won’t drive to the summit until 2021 because the track is under maintenance. Someone else tells us we could hike it up, but we’d rather do a smaller hike. Jonas also really wants to drive an ATV (‘quad’) in the foothills instead.

5 bukit larut park entrance jeep track closed until 2021

One family shows up to the park entrance and wants a photo of their adult son with us. I quickly put on my face mask to comply with the rules. This tells us that we’re still (or again?) a rare sight in Malaysia. I don’t know, maybe Taiping isn’t that much on the tourist trail after all.

Then we walk to Burmese Pool past the well-maintained Taiping War Cemetery. That’s a burial site for Allied WWII soldiers from various nations and religious backgrounds.

6 Taiping War Cemetery 7 Taiping War Cemetery

At Burmese Pool, we enjoy a soak. It’s a river with plenty of cold water coming down Bukit Larut. A group upstream holds a barbeque and there are only a few other individuals enjoying a dip in the water. We chose a spot downstream from the bridge to soak. Meanwhile, rain clouds are closing in over the valley. We know we can’t stay too long here.

10 Burmese Pool Taiping

On the way back, it takes a while for our Grab to arrive. We have a chat with an older Muslim woman who speaks better English than us and is curious as to where we’re from. The roads close to Burmese Pool are nearby a driving school. Nearly all cars on this stretch are driving lesson cars with a big L and sometimes young and insecure drivers behind the wheel. One woman in a car (not a driving student) stops for us while we’re waiting on the corner and asks us what we’re doing here and if we need anything. I tell her we called a taxi and are waiting for it to show up. Perhaps she would have given us a ride back to town, but we’d already arranged a Grab and her safety from us is still more important than my desire to hitchhike.

11 Burmese pool taiping road

Our Grab shows up and the driver tells us he just drove from Penang to Ipoh and only happened to drive by Taiping. So apparently it’s not outrageous for people to take a Grab for more than 100 kilometers. We’re still not sure if it’s better for Grab drivers to have really long rides or if it’s better for them to have many short rides. Once back at the Novotel, Jonas realizes we only paid for the Grabs today and that we didn’t need to pay entrance anywhere.

Wednesday, 22nd of July: Taiping Lake Gardens

Waking up in a different bed for the first time in four months is quite strange. We’re taking it easy today, so we first go to breakfast and do some work. At breakfast, there’s no buffet because of the new SOPs. We have to pick one of three breakfasts: American, Malaysian, or Healthy. We go for Healthy Breakfast because it’s vegetarian, but it comes with a bucket of unhealthy Froot Loops which we ignore.

In the afternoon, we head out to visit Taiping Lake Gardens (Taman Tasik Taiping). It’s not far on foot and quite enjoyable despite the humidity and the heat. Rain is in the forecast, which just seems to be the standard guess. We manage to visit this park in between showers. The road that surrounds it is often interrupted by a tree supported by metal beams. The disproportionately-large Novotel towers over the city and is always an easy reference point – much like the Komtar in Penang.

Taiping Lake Gardens Taman Tasik Taiping 1 overhanging tree Taiping Lake Gardens Taman Tasik Taiping 2 novotel

Taiping Lake Gardens used to be a tin mine before they turned it into a city park. That’s why the lakes have such irregular shapes. We spotted one monkey, two giant lizards (or tiny alligator? The jury is out), one turtle, many butterflies, and dragonflies. There are many cute bridges, including a zig-zag bridge.

Taiping Lake Gardens Taman Tasik Taiping 3 hiking path forest

Taiping Lake Gardens Taman Tasik Taiping 4 zig-zag bridge gazebo Taiping Lake Gardens Taman Tasik Taiping 5 lily pond

In the evening, we eat at the more upscale Jia Yi Dao (家一道) vegetarian restaurant and eat like royalty, but without much food waste and certainly without the price tag. The food they serve here is again a whole different category of Chinese Buddhist vegetarian food. It costs double of what we paid at Tian Tian the day before.

Tuesday, 21st of July: Traveling from Penang to Taiping

Our train would only leave at 16:11, so we had the whole morning and part of the afternoon to finalize packing, cleaning the apartment, and enjoying the view one last time. We wanted our last meal in Penang to be two dry noodles with a side of satay from Pinxin, so we ordered from them one last time. It’s our absolute favorite delivery food.

At 15:00, it was time to go downstairs with our heavy backpacks and get into a Grab to the Bukit Mertajam train station on the mainland of Penang. We finally drove over one of the two huge bridges, which I’d hoped to hitchhike across. Hitchhiking is off the table for now, because the Malaysian government still forbids it to ride with non-family members in a non-taxi.

RMCO travel Penang to Taiping Grab RMCO travel Penang bridge 2

RMCO travel Penang bridge 1

At the train station, we used the MySejahtera app (Play Store or App Store) for the first time. MySejahtera is the Malaysian government’s app to track COVID-19 and is optional. We hadn’t used it in Penang because Penang had to be different and used something called PG Care, which just required a QR code scanner. The MySejahtera app hadn’t prompted the ‘update risk status’ survey on my phone yet, so when I checked in it said I was “high risk” in red. Shit. I finally got the survey and filled in. Then my profile turned green ✔️

RMCO travel Bukit Mertajam train station

The train ride to Taiping was less than an hour and our tickets cost us RM 48 in total when bought online. The train was really pleasant, clean, and modern. There was a restaurant aboard our car with quite a big menu. It also had a small prayer room, clean toilets to wash one’s hands, and a TV screen with COVID-19 information in Malay and English. I kept my mask on the entire ride and looked out the window onto the green hills and palm oil plantations. And then we arrived already.

RMCO travel KTM train Malaysia Penang to Taiping luggage RMCO travel KTM train COVID-19 hand wash video PSA

RMCO travel KTM train Malaysia window view palm oil plantation

RMCO travel Taiping train station backpacking

On the other side, we took another Grab to the Hotel Novotel. The first Grab, the train tickets, and the second Grab had cost us RM 89 in total. For RM 136, we could have taken a Grab all the way from Tropicana 218 to the Novotel.

We checked in and asked about the pool. Unfortunately, they’d kept their pool closed. I’m not sure if the SOPs are much more stringent than they are for condos. Anyway, we found our way to the room, which has a pool view, lake view, and garden view. There’s even a waterfall in the hills. It’s pretty nice with the moody rain. I’m happy to be traveling again.

RMCO travel Taiping Novotel twin room COVID-19 RMCO travel closed pool Novotel Taiping Malaysia

RMCO travel window view Novotel Taiping

In the evening, we check the daily cases update from MalaysiaKini before heading out for food. The number of new coronavirus patients has steadily gone up in the last days. This worries me a little. Perak – the state in which Taiping is located – has two active cases. Pulau Pinang – the Malay state name for Penang – is still at zero cases.

We go to the food court we look down on from our hotel room to get some vegetarian food at Tian Tian (天天) restaurant. By now, we know enough about the food here to know what to order with confidence.

Background: Traveling in Malaysia on our expired tourist visas

Our entry stamps into Malaysia told us we could stay within the country until May 26th, 2020. With the various lockdowns, Malaysia’s government allowed us to stay beyond that exit date with every extension of the Movement Control Order (MCO). Malaysia’s government also encouraged domestic tourism once the state borders reopened. Although we’re not Malaysian citizens, we’ll gladly contribute to domestic tourism in Peninsular (West) Malaysia.

We say Peninsular Malaysia because the states of Sabah and Sarawak (and even little Labuan) are a bit difficult to travel to. I’d LOVE to go to East Malaysia, but they make their own immigration rules. That’s why we’ll stay in Peninsular Malaysia for now until we run out of places to visit on the mainland.

traveling in malaysia during the pandemic maps stamen 2 widescreen

The unpredictability of the pandemic makes it difficult for us to plan anything other than travel within Malaysia. We could see how Malaysia might form a travel bubble with other countries like Brunei and Singapore, but those plans might be wiped off the table at the slightest increase in cases.

My travel philosophy right now is to stay put in this region and wait until travel bubbles start to emerge. The advantages of staying within a remote travel bubble can really give us cool travel opportunities without mass tourism from abroad. It’s an opportunity to explore places in depth. Sometimes I do feel the itch to leave Malaysia and see something new or familiar but different. I still dream of traveling to Timor-Leste and South Korea. But right now it’s best to stick to what the pandemic has dealt us: beautiful Malaysia.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to share

During the easing of the coronavirus lockdowns, we started to travel within Peninsular Malaysia after more than four months in Penang. #Malaysia #Penang #GeorgeTown #PulauPinang #Malay #Malaysian #KualaLumpur #Ipoh #Taiping #Melaka #SoutheastAsia #travel #pandemic #backpacking #PeninsularMalaysia #WestMalaysia #domestictourism #domestictravel #lockeddownabroad #internationaltravel

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