Malaysia East Coast Road Trip Letters: The Places Haven’t Changed, The Way We Travel Has Changed
Driving along the highway to Kuantan, Pahang state on Malaysia’s east coast, my mind went back to my first travel conference covering as a rookie in travel trade journalism.
The speaker was then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who returned to power in near-superhero fashion in this year’s general election, dethroning his own wunderkind and convincing that the ’90s might become the new ’60s.
In that speech, he spoke of the idyllic images loved by tourists, such as the fisherman sleeping in a hammock under a coconut tree, without showing his empty stomach or hope for a brighter future for his children, and how Malaysia, therefore, is determined to Pursue progress and prosperity for its people.
Fast-forward more than 20 years later, and the sights of Malaysia’s east coast are still picturesque. Stretches of empty golden sand, small villages with well-preserved colorful houses, shaded by coconut trees, and fishing boats bobbing up and down the shore.
I’m not so sure about today’s fasting – since then the east coast has discovered new wealth in its forests (timber, oil palm) and oil, as evidenced by the vast expanses of forest along the coast of Terengganu and the barren swaths of burning oil refineries.
But in many ways, this road trip along Malaysia’s east coast – we covered 1,200 kilometers in six days, starting in Kuala Lumpur and ending in Penang – felt a bit like a time capsule. From a traveler’s perspective, not much has changed since my first trip after school.
Even Dr Mahathir has come around and said something similar about an unwavering pursuit of progress and prosperity for everyone, not just the few who have become very rich in the past 20 years.
The stretch from Kuantan (Pahang) to Kuala Terengganu (Terengganu) to Kota Bharu (Kelantan) feels familiar. We drove through mountains, palm oil and rubber plantations, villages, coastal scenery, local markets – it was as quiet as I remembered.
There is not much evidence that tourism has had a significant impact on everyday life. I find this somewhat reassuring – mass tourism has changed the face of many parts of South East Asia – from Bali to Phuket and Penang – to live in one place where life remains local, down to earth and authentic.
Tourism exists in pockets, clustered around resorts and hotels. In these six days, except for the starting point and the ending point, we have no fixed plan. We don’t know where we will live.
With our phones, we have the confidence to make do. Here’s the thing – while the places haven’t changed, the way we travel has. On my first trip, let’s go I got lost. Now, let’s go find it.
Before the internet, travel itself was the act of leaving your comfort zone. Today, you travel in technology’s bubble wrap, and you have to make a concerted effort to get out of it if you want to be more than a tourist. You will rarely get lost with a map, others will tell you where to stay, eat and what to see.
Waze is our most loyal partner. Even if we wanted to simulate it, we couldn’t. We couldn’t find a printed map anywhere. We might end up talking to Waze more than ourselves, he’s easier to talk to, he doesn’t respond when we call him “stupid”, which happens a lot. It’s funny how we humans always tend to blame others for our problems, even if it’s an operating system.
Waze is smart though. An Israeli start-up acquired by Google, it’s the most popular navigation app in Malaysia because it works on crowdsourcing and is so used, it’s the closest thing you can get to a trip finder/trip planner .
It’ll tell you where you’re jammed, tell you who else is using Waze around you, let you chat with each other if you want, and tell you about places around you. It’s hyperlocal. With personalization and recommendations, as well as machine learning and data, you can see where it can go next.
We book all our hotels on Booking.com while traveling or sitting in a cafe or bar, just a few hours before arrival. A few clicks (search, read reviews, book) and you’re done. Hotel direct is hard, even if you know ahead of time which hotel you want to book, which we didn’t.
For places to eat, we rely on our honed Malaysian senses and Waze. Somehow, you know which places to avoid, which ones are good, and check local blogs if you’re not sure. TripAdvisor has limited use in these locations. Lonely Planet is more useful in terms of “things to do”, directing us to streets with street art and markets. Waze helps with the last mile.
In small towns in Malaysia, you can always find a favorite local Chinese, Malay or Indian restaurant – we have never been disappointed with the food along the way, from seafood at Pak Su (Kuantan Beserah) to Hover Restaurant Malay curry at Kota Bahru, Thai at Chiengmai (Wakaf Bahru outside Kota Bharu) and noodles at various coffee shops along the way.
Your best bet is to get off the main highway and use the coastal road. This way, you can get a feel for the rural life that still reigns in Malaysia, with rice fields, orchards (durian season is in full swing, which is the best time to visit Malaysia if you’re craving fruit), and vegetable farms.
You can also get a feel for the golden sands that characterize the east coast and its outlying islands that are popular with divers. The beach was deserted except for a few cows. On a beach popular with surfers, there’s a lonely bar with two travelers. There aren’t many places in Southeast Asia where you can spend a day on a beautiful beach with such solitude.
Interestingly, the hospitality industry has changed little over the past two decades, while other destinations in Southeast Asia have built and developed like there is no tomorrow.
Our new gem of a discovery is the Mangala Resort & Spa in Pahang. About 26 kilometers from Kuantan, this is a former tin mine site that was converted into an eco-resort by real estate tycoon Datuk Franky Chua. Opened in 2016, it took 15 years to build, and its villas are distributed in 60 acres of wetlands and forests. Seclusion, nature, space.
We revisited an old gem, Tanjong Gala Beach Resort, for dessert. It was built by the state government in the early 1980s. It was one of the first resorts in Southeast Asia to incorporate local architectural styles and won many awards in the early days. Then time and negligence took their toll, until YTL Resorts took over and it is now the resort of choice on this coast, with rooms selling for over RM1,000. If you like traditional and luxurious hotels then this is the place for you.
Outside the hotel, we discovered some new gems.
Kuala Terengganu’s Chinatown lives up to its name (in Lonely Planet) as one of the most interesting Chinatowns in Malaysia. Clean streets, street and wall art, creative style that is respectful rather than kitschy, and delicious local food (of course).
The Belum Rainforest – halfway on the East-West Highway between Kota Bharu and Penang – is a great place to spend the night in what would otherwise be a seven- to eight-hour drive. Scenic lakes, old-growth rainforest, nature trails—there’s a resort out there geared more to groups than individuals and could offer better customer service training, but its setting in the rainforest is a winner. This is the most scenic part of the road trip as you drive past lakes, valleys and mountains.
As we headed to our final destination, Penang, I realized that even though the way we travel has changed, the spirit of our travels has not. Even journeys back in time are always made with the intention of discovery and experience—and on both counts, this tour scores above and beyond.