Tourism Malaysia

24 hours in Chinatown

24 hours in Chinatown

I visit Kuala Lumpur so often each year I’ve started to feel like a local. That is a local of Chinatown where I invariably spend all my time.

It’s probably a little sad but if I’m only in KL overnight — frequently I am there longer also — I go directly to Chinatown to the same shops, hairdressers and hotel I always go to.

The night time action in Chinatown. Pic: Joanne Lane.

The night time action in Chinatown. Pic: Joanne Lane.

I’ve kind of developed a bit of a routine that doesn’t change much from visit to visit. This is because it’s really nice to wander a familiar neighbourhood when you’re so used to being out of your home territory and do the same things and not feel like a tourist, despite it being a touristy area of course.

I don’t promise these experiences are for everyone, but here’s my schedule and the things I like to do.


I more often than not arrive at LCCT airport where there are regular buses to KL Sentral for as little as RM 8 one way or RM 14 return. These pretty much run 24 hours a day so you never have to wait too long. They also have buses for other destinations including KLIA, Genting and other areas. If you arrive at KLIA there are similar bus services and trains.

Once I’m off my flight and have my luggage I head for the bus – leave the departures area and head outside and walk around to the right of the arrivals area where you’ll see lots of buses.

I’m usually pretty tired after a flight so I try to get a bit of shut-eye on the ride as it’s incredibly smooth and long enough to sleep (about one hour duration).

From LCCT I then take the LRT to Pasar Seni where it’s a short walk to my guesthouse.


I always stay at Matahari Lodge (Jalan Hang Kasturi, tel. +603 2070 5570). I’ve been going there for years – ever since they opened and they’ve even changed hands once. It’s a budget establishment but you get a private room which is incredibly clean. The bathrooms are shared but also impeccably managed—they provide shower shoes–and they have free WiFi and breakfast in the morning. There’s also a lounge, a TV, plenty of books to read and you can keep food in the fridge if you like.


By this stage if I’m tired it’s bed time, if not I’ll pop into the night market in Chinatown to get something to eat. There’s so much to choose from – chicken cooked in clay pots, banana and chocolate roti, satay chicken, grilled fish, buffet style free for alls (usually at lunch time and a great one under one of the overpasses on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock) and more. You can eat from streetside stalls or sit down and watch life go by with a Tiger Beer or two. I love it. I also love to wander around and look at some of the odd things being brewed, cooked and eaten – durian unmentionables (not for me), cubes of rice, soya bean matter, prawn on sticks, coconuts and numerous unidentifiable objects.

Clay pot chicken. Pic: Joanne Lane.

Clay pot chicken. Pic: Joanne Lane.



I always schedule in a bit of pampering during my time in Chinatown. I know it’s touristy but there was excellent Chinese reflexology on the second floor of Central Market when I was there earlier in the year. The manager told me they have quite a high turnover of staff but the quality is much better than the options in Jalan Petaling – I’d concur with that. It was something like RM 60 for an hour.

I’ve also been to a hairdresser near the Reggae Bar (literally around the corner) a few times where they do fantastic hair cuts and massage. There was an Indonesian girl there last time I went who did the Indonesian style cream bath – ask for it!


As I’m usually heading home from KL I always pop into Central Market to do some souvenir shopping. My nieces love the little knicknacks I pick up there and I’ve got their Christmas presents there the last few years. There are little Malaysian dolls on pencils, cute Batik purses, little boxes to store things in, kitchenware, scarves you name it. It’s the perfect place to spend a few Ringgit and get the last things you need.

The other shopping item I’m guilty of is DVDs. These are sold throughout Chinatown and I always pick up a few movies to bring home – something to watch on my laptop on the next flight. It’s worth bargaining—I’ve paid various prices over the years—and you should always ALWAYS check the quality first – they have DVD players there and will give you a viewing.

A wander

If I still have time I’ll usually wander down Jalan Petaling to enjoy the activity. Because it’s a historic area with plenty of interesting Chinese shophouses and temples I’ll usually pop into one or two of the latter of these – most often than not the Guandi Temple that’s just around the corner in Jalan Tun H S Lee from the Matahari Lodge. This is a very local joint with people coming in and out and lighting incense, saying their prayers and making merit. I enjoy sitting in the corner and watching them passing in and out. It’s quite atmospheric.

Atmospheric sights at the Guandi Temple. Pic: Joanne Lane.

Atmospheric sights at the Guandi Temple. Pic: Joanne Lane.



As on arrival, getting back to LCCT or KLIA is a breeze. It’s worth checking the schedule for buses departing KL Sentral however just in case you find you have to wait there for a bit – not worth missing your flight.

Tourism Malaysia

Regatta Lepa – a boating festival Sabah style

Regatta Lepa – a boating festival Sabah style

Most people go to Semporna in far southeastern Sabah for the world class diving sites that lie just off the coast – Sipadan immediately springs to mind for many. But for me, it was a small notation in Lonely Planet that got me hooked: “This mainly Bajau town really comes alive at the end of March when a colourful regatta takes place, but normally it’s quiet.”

A regatta in Sabah? A Borneo festival with traditional, single-mast sailing boats? I was in.

I arrived in Semporna a few days before festivities for the Regatta Lepa got underway when tents and stalls were just being set up. The 2012 event was Sabah Tourism’s 19th annual version of the colourful local festivity and it promised an intimate view into some of the traditions of the region.

Semporna itself seemed a pretty little place with stilt houses sprawled across the bay, which in turn was filled with boating activity, markets and trade. It looked promising already but I headed over to Mabul Island first for the customary diving experience and then returned to the mainland several days later.

By the time I returned on the Friday evening, the festivities had begun. In what had been empty streets when I first arrived, were numerous stalls piled high with all manner of goods – scarves (for Muslim women), kids’ toys, clothing, hats, jewellery, local food and drinks.


There were so many of these stalls they literally clogged the streets – many of which were closed to traffic. Wandering further afield into what might have actually been permanent market areas, I also came across numerous stalls grilling up various types of seafood.

There were also some cultural events taking place on the town field with dancing in traditional dress, music and singing. And there were some traditional wooden hulled lepa boats already sailing around, decorated and ready for the boat parades of the morrow. These single-mast sailing boats of the Bajaus of Semporna give the festival its name and it was exciting to see them finally.

Cultural performances with electric costumes on the town field. Pic: Joanne Lane.

However I’d really come for the excitement of the boating events on the Saturday and it was worth waiting for. These were held on the waters in front of the Seascape Hotel so I trudged down there to join an enormous crowd heckling for key viewing spots on the river. A word of advice for future festival goers – get here early for the best views.

There were single kayak or group canoe events, an event in which competitors had to climb a pole and try to push each other off, and even a tug of war competition in which boat competitors could use their legs only to row. It was noisy, raucous and thoroughly enjoyable with teams getting resounding cheers when they returned to the docks.

Hotly contested boating events during the festival. Pic: Joanne Lane.

After this the regatta of the boats began with a colourful stream of lepa boats decked out in flags and even dancing women in traditional dress. They smiled, swayed, and moved impossibly long finger-nailed hands around while men behind them beat on gongs, drums and other local instruments.

When this was over there were numerous speeches and prayers and the crowd moved off back into the streets. I turned my attention then to the market stalls nearest the hotel. It was good to see some of these encouraging coral conservation and better fishing practices as the region is indeed known for its underwater life and dynamite fishing has been a problem in the past.

The colourful parade of lepa boats complete with dancing women. Pic: Joanne Lane.

The WWF was running a children’s drawing competition of the local flora and fauna under and above the sea, there were sustainable farming/agricultural exhibits and some men displaying the famed woodwork skills of lepa boats. One was particularly pleased when I commented on how good they were.
Local tourism ventures had also put together some free tours in the area including the town, local trekking and mangrove trips. You simply signed up if they still had space and then met at an appointed time to be taken on the trip. Unfortunately by the time I came across their information I’d missed the last tour.

In the afternoon and evening the action moved to the town field again with a lantern parade threading through town from the harbour with boats lit with fairy lights.

This was followed by a variety of speeches, some of which were translated in English. One, by a governor or local minister, was particularly good espousing the racial harmony and diversity of multicultural Malaysia and really roused the crowd with cheers.

This was followed by various cultural performances including women in the most incredible costumes and very dramatic fireworks late in the evening that boomed over town in an incredible display of colour.

On the final morning Semporna seemed to be returning to its normally quiet routine with the boats, parades, lanterns, music and dance of the annual regatta already over. In all it was a fantastic way to see a bit of local culture.


Tourism Malaysia

Enjoying the hospitality of headhunters in Borneo

Enjoying the hospitality of headhunters in Borneo

Rumah Bundong is a 60 year-old, 50-door longhouse near Kapit in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is inhabited by about 40 families of Iban ethnicity, who are famed, amongst many things, for headhunting.


Yes that’s right—headhunting—and 40 families means there are a lot of them. Still, I’m encouraged to learn they ceased the practice around WWII because I’ve elected to stay with them for two nights and frankly I don’t want them getting any ideas.

When I first arrived at Rumah Bundong, one of the first things I saw were skulls swaying from rafters in front of the headman’s bilik (door). Whether it was a warning for unruly guests or a gruesome souvenir for tourists, who knows? In any case I soon took little notice of it because there were so many other things to take in.

Skulls hanging from the rafters at Rumah Bundong. Pic: Joanne Lane.

The longhouse was located about an hour’s bumpy drive from Kapit and across a suspension bridge; in many ways a dramatic arrival that added to the experience.

A ruai (verandah) connected the 100-metre long structure with doors leading to individual family areas. The verandah was a communal area where women dried grains, divided the fish catch, worked on handicrafts, minded children and chatted. The men also grouped together to smoke, mend fishing nets and carve hooks. There was a real sense of a close-knit community.


I was given accommodation for a fee with the headman, Tua Rumah Bundong Tajok, and his family. His married children lived with their own families in a series of rooms in the same quarters, while single members slept in the lounge or near the guest quarters – a loft above the living area.

The 100 metre long stretch of the Rumah Bundong longhouse. Pic: Joanne Lane.

There was electricity, a television, they had mobile phones and lived in basic but comfortable rooms. An outhouse was used for washing and toileting, but most people bathed down at the river.

Few in the family spoke English but it didn’t matter. The headman’s wife and daughters prepared delicious meals of meat and vegetables that we ate communally on the kitchen floor. It was wonderful to be included in family life and not treated differently and I dived into the bowls with everybody else.

The first day I spent playing with the headman’s grandchildren, bathing in the river and exploring to get a sense of the rhythms of the longhouse. Most people were farmers and spent the days working in the fields. There was also a school on site for younger children. In the afternoon the workers would return home and gather on the verandahs.

On the second day I accompanied the headman, some of his family and a dozen workers to their fields. We set out at dawn, walking for 30 minutes across hillsides and rivers to reach what appeared to be a series of burnt out, hilly paddocks.

It didn’t look too promising to me but I guessed they must have recently cleared them for replanting – the task for today. While we sat eating breakfast one of the older men, covered liberally in tattoos, produced a chicken and slit its throat. When he dipped the feathers in the blood and set them in a dish of food—perhaps to bless our work—visions of headhunting came to mind again.

The lunch time feast after a sweaty morning in the fields. Pic: Joanne Lane.

However it was soon clear the chicken was our lunch. The headman burnt its feathers in a fire and began to prepare it. Meanwhile the men started making holes in the ground with poles and the ladies trailed behind filling the pockets with rice seeds.


After watching for awhile I joined the women and was soon scratched, sweating and covered in ash. It was hard work. When we broke for lunch the women gave me a long sleeved shirt, pants and a conical farming hat for protection.
We feasted on chicken, rice and vegetables in a hut by a small stream. Before returning to the fields we all jumped in the water to cool off. As the midday sun came out in burning glory I wondered if I could bow out gracefully, but I didn’t want to let the side down.

By the time we were finished I realized I had earned my kudos and back at the longhouse was invited into homes, had food pressed on me and treated as part of the community.

On my final day a tour group visited the longhouse. Each was given a sip of tuak, rice wine, and food to eat and there was music and dancing. I was seated with the headman’s family throughout this and it seemed an acknowledgement I had become part of the family even just for those few days.


Tourism Malaysia

Close encounters of the primate kind – visiting the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre

Close encounters of the primate kind – visiting the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre

Borneo is famous for its orangutans and the highlight for many travellers here is to see them in the wild. While it is possible to join trips going deep into the jungles of Sarawak and Sabah, these can be expensive and while there are an estimated 20,000 or so orangutans in Borneo there’s no guarantee you’ll actually come across them.

Orangutans are naturally shy creatures and live solitary lives mostly up in the trees so it can be hard to come across them.

Orangutans are mostly arboreal, meaning they live in the trees. Pic: Joanne Lane.


So many short on time that want guaranteed sightings will visit places like the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre, just outside Kuching (Sarawak) or the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary near Sandakan (Sabah).

I visited the former during my visit to Kuching as I was very keen to see these “people of the forest” – the direct translation of the name orang utan. What’s important to note about the orangutans at Semenggoh is that while they aren’t purely living in the wild, they are largely free to come and go as they please.

Food is provided twice daily to supplement their needs as there simply isn’t enough protected forest left for them to roam. Apparently large adults will naturally roam a large area of forest each day just to find enough to eat, so without the supplemented diet at Semenggoh there wouldn’t be enough food for them all.

Orangutans are of course an endangered species and thankfully protected by law in Malaysia. Authorities have been trying to counteract their loss of habitat, and the live animal trade, that has decimated their numbers, by setting up these rehabilitation centres.

Feeding time at Semenggoh. An orang-utan reaches down for an egg. Pic: Joanne Lane.

We had a car and driver to take us to Semenggoh from the hotel in Kuching as there were quite a few of us. This saved us a 20 minute walk from the gate, as the public bus, number 6, only drops you at the entrance. It also returns at 5pm so you have to watch the time if you go in the afternoon.

It is best to visit during the feeding times which take place daily from 9-10am and 3-3.30 pm. There’s usually a considerable crowd gathered for these so it’s not a completely unique or camera free experience, but once the orangutans start arriving you forget about everything else.

Around 9am workers at the sanctuary started putting out fruit for the primates. This seemed to be predominantly bananas and pawpaw but apparently they are fond of figs, eggs and even the pungent durian. For awhile we all stood there with our gaze skyward to the trees hoping to catch a glimpse of them.

Before long the first of the primates appeared – its long reddish hair distinct against the green foliage of the trees. It was a confident adolescent male and it worked its way along a well placed rope with incredible agility until it could reach down and pick contentedly at the offerings. It seemed unfazed by the crowd gathered nearby.

Minutes later a mother and baby arrived. The youngster seemed almost dumbstruck by all the attention and gazed at us with wide eyes, hiding intermittently in its mother’s hair. Meanwhile mum herself barely blinked at the waiting audience while she took the offered bottle of milk and sucked away. They seemed almost human in some of their mannerisms and it was easy to see where the name “person of the forest” had come from.

A mother and baby at Semenggoh. Pic: Joanne Lane.


By this stage more and more orangutans began to appear—1, 2, 5, 10… I lost count—and what had originally been a large group of 30-plus tourists began to dissipate as people wandered off to follow a particular primate.

We had been instructed about how to behave around the orangutans and not to give them food, smoke in front of them, touch them or get in their way. At times it was impossible to follow the last of these instructions as occasionally one of them would simply appear within metres of the made paths, above you in the trees and occasionally on the path with you.

When they did come to ground they lumbered along in an almost comical way, babies clutched to their chests, but would then suddenly swing gracefully up by a branch and disappear above you.

There was a notice board in the vicinity that listed the names of each one and some of the park wardens pointed them out when they appeared. There was Ritchie, Rose, Anaku, Selina, Murray and many others. Their date of births were given and their age and mother, if known.

When the food ran out soon after 10am, and they were contented with the feast, they began to leave just as they had arrived. One by one they flitted off into the trees; there would be flashes of red hair here and there and then they would vanish behind the leaves, exactly like people of the forest.

For more information you can contact the Visitors Information Centre at the National Parks Office, tel: (+6) 082 248088 Fax: (+6) 082 248087 or the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre (+6) 082 618423.