I noticed the differences straight away. Buying tickets was easy and efficient. Almost everyone spoke English. There was a whole checklist of very specific dos and don’ts separating Malaysia’s public transport from anywhere else I’ve been.

Where was this place? They had the World’s Biggest Vending Machine(!), piano stairs that played a tune as you descended, à la Tom Hanks in Big, and almost as many branches of Starbucks and KFC per square mile as the US.

Into the future in Kuala Lumpur

piano stairs, Berjaya Times Square mall, Kuala LumpurThe last time I checked, trains around these parts ran as slow (and as bumpy) as a horse and cart, doors flapped in the breeze and goats frequented the overgrown tracks for a quick nibble. But here I was, hopping around Kuala Lumpur’s LRT rail system, feeling like I might as well be on the DLR in London.

It was unnerving. You can’t find the open air very easily in KL (everybody here also loves abbreviations). Everywhere is connected to everywhere else through a series of glass-covered walkways, glittering multi-storey malls and sky-trains. If Burma was like going back into the past, Malaysia was like travelling into the future.

Holiday versus travel

Langkawi beach, Malaysia

I could get a taxi if I wanted. I could treat myself to a nice resort for a couple of nights, when the prices are about the same as a Travel Lodge back home and you get three pools and a banquet for breakfast. I even bummed around on the beach.

In other words, in Malaysia, I let myself off the hook.

My beef with (some) travellers

Macaque mother and baby, Penang, Malaysia

There are a lot of travel clichés floating around hostel dorms. Finding yourself. Getting off the beaten track. Discovering the ‘real’ Cambodia/Laos/insert country here. But the problem is, you find yourself trying to join in with them, as if it’s some sort of sliding scale of traveller credibility. All conversations start to sound like competitions. It’s kind of exhausting.

Yes, I do want to discover remote places, local foods and unseen countryside, but feeling like you must do this takes all the reward out of it. Besides, sometimes I also want to watch a film, mix up my diet with dodgy burgers or catch up with Crap Taxidermy on Twitter.

Malaysia highlights

Rafflesia: the biggest flower in the world, Borneo

Before this turns into an entire post about me – ironically – finding myself, I should say we saw some good stuff in Malaysia, too. There was Malaysian Borneo, where we visited an orang-utan sanctuary, and spotted hornbills, Proboscis monkeys and a plant straight out of Little Shop of Horrors (see photo). There was tea and scones in the ex-colonial Cameron Highlands, overlooking an undulating maze of hilly tea plantations. There was Ipoh, where a friend showed us some 4000-year-old cave paintings. And there was jostling, multi-cultural Penang, whose years of being a major trading post means exciting arts and festivities, and even better food.

Mid-Autumn Festival, Penang

Sister and I said tearful goodbye to Malaysia, and each other, on Langkawi, an island straight out of coffee table picture books, which actually did have clear green waters and powder-soft sand.

As I prepared to go solo again, it felt like I’d fully relaxed for the first time since leaving the UK. I’d had a proper break and hung out with some really fun people. And sister and I agreed, it was definitely one of the best holidays we’d ever had.

Cameron Highlands tea plantations, Malaysia