On Saturday evening, 18 September, I spoke on 95.3fm about my regular Malaysian travels, Malaysian food and Malaysian tourism strategies.
We also spoke about Rajah Brooke butterflies, the JDT Tigers, the benefits and consequences of spicy food and how much I enjoy using the rail network (particularly the monorail) in Kuala Lumpur to travel the city.
I wish I could claim the line, “A very vroomy experience,” but I can’t. The honour for that line belongs to my son, eight year old Tom Parry and the first kid in the world to experience the shock and awe of the new Legoland Malaysia Virtual Reality Roller Coaster.
This ride is a real roller coaster and a real virtual reality experience. You’re strapped in to a real world roller coaster and then the goggles come over your face and you’re completely immersed in the world of Lego. Look back at the people in the seat behind you and you’ll see a Lego world. Look above you to the real world blue sky above Legoland and you’ll see a Lego world. Look to the sides, look to the front and you are completely Lego-bound.
The ride has just opened and to experience this and other attractions head to Legoland Malaysia, located in Johor Bahru.
Many airlines fly from Australian capital cities to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, including Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, Malindo Air, AirAsia and Singapore Airlines. Legoland is a one to two hour drive from Singapore’s Changhi International Airport or a short domestic flight from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru.
Make the experience complete by staying at the Legoland Hotel. An Adventure-themed room will cost from AU$216 and each room has its own treasure hunt, Lego bricks to build (and step on) and all guests have entry to the Legoland Theme Park and Legoland Water Park one hour before the gates open to the public. An adult one-day ticket combo includes entry to the theme park and water park and is about AU$60. A child one-day ticket combo is about AU$40.
When we travel, there is nothing more remarkable than a new destination. The genuine excitement of visiting a new location on this planet is one the best reasons why we travel.
Muar, located on the west coast of Johor, the southern-most state of Malaysia, is perhaps paying the price, for better or worse, of being just 45 kilometres south of the famous town of Malacca, the exotic destination that gives its name to the Strait, the narrow 550 mile stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra to the south.
Muar is just a 2 to 3 hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and not much longer from Singapore. Snuggled against the Muar River, this historic port town enjoys a year round tropical climate.
Muar is intriguing. Muar is authentic. What Muar lacks in tourism finesse it more than makes for in the feeling of discovering the undiscovered. It is well developed but there are no tourist trishaws pedaling around. The food on the streets and cafes is aromatic and gorgeous but there aren’t the boardwalk, waterfront restaurants of other South East Asian waterfront communities.
Muar is a community that revels in good food, good times and then more good food. Late night markets, street carnivals, car shows and dragon boat racing all take place in the time that I’m there and for the second half of 2017 the pace gets even quicker with the Malaysian leg of the Asia Pacific Rally Championship, the Lantern Festival and the Music and Zapin International Festival.
It’s not just the events that are the life of Muar. In 2012, His Royal Highness Sultan Ibrahim proclaimed Muar as the royal town of Johor. This status has ensured that heritage and history of Muar is prominent in the architecture of its buildings and in the hearts of its people.
One of the reasons why a new destination is so exciting is what it does to our senses. Walking the streets of Muar, I was also reminded that food truly is one of the best experiences that a new destination provides.
An early walk around Muar is a satay sensory overload as the Muar breakfast of choice sizzles on curbside cookers and fresh jackfruit is chopped up to order, all while you sip at a strong cup of the rich and renowned Muar coffee.
While exploring the fishing community of Parit Jawa on the outskirts of Muar, I enquire how far out the local fishing fleet has to travel to catch the fish that was cooked for my lunch. The famous Asam Pedas is a sour and spicy fish stew that is very important to the cultural heritage of Muar. The importance of this heritage is made all the more clear to me as a local fisherman volunteers to take me out to his fishing traps. Chugging out into the Strait of Malacca we locate some traps that are extraordinary and ingenious. A large v-shape of wooden poles has been driven into the sea bed and at the bottom of the v there is a net. As the fish encounter the poles they swim along the side of them which effectively guide them into the net.
It’s a genuine opportunity to see where the fish you’ve eaten was caught and have it explained to you by the man who caught it. As we make our way back to shore, more boats are headed out and it’s possible that my dinner tonight, the famous otak-otak, spicy fish cakes wrapped and grilled in banana leaf, has come from the fish traps of Parit Jawa.
Communities that are fun, friendly, safe and interesting, yet remain largely untouched by mass tourism are rare throughout the world. Muar deserves your attention. If you don’t need a guided tour. If you enjoy curbside food. If you enjoy talking to local people. You will love Muar.
I leave Muar and head 30 kilometres east to the little town of Parit Sulong, located on the banks of the Muar River. It was near the bridge at Parit Sulong that nearly 150 Australian and Indian soldiers were killed by Japanese soldiers in January 1942. A simple memorial and well maintained garden are reminders of these tragic events and the local community are very understanding of the importance of the memorial, particularly to Australians who visit the site. The Australian War Graves Commission maintains over 30 memorials and cemeteries throughout the world where Australians have fought and died and this is most likely the least known of them.
I continue my journey across Johor, travelling through small regional communities, palm plantations and pristine jungle and all the while keeping my eyes open for the tapirs that can shuffle across the road without a care in the world. Malaysian tapirs can grow to be over 2 metres in length and weigh in at more than 250 kilograms and while they have a keen sense of smell, their very poor eyesight doesn’t help them cross the road with much awareness of what is around them.
Arriving at Mersing I make my way to the dockside where I have a boat waiting for me. The boat is going to take me to Pulau Rawa for an overnight stay at this island resort.
A few years ago my daughter wanted to have a luau birthday party and I put together a playlist of tracks suitably themed for a tropical island paradise.
As the Pulau Rawa resort boat idled towards the jetty, protruding midway along this little island 16 kilometres off the east coast of Johor in Malaysia, the luau playlist in my head started up. I began singing Island In the Sun by Harry Belafonte and then a Jimmy Buffet mashup of Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes and Margaritaville. Thankfully for everyone onboard we secured our mooring and disembarked before I got started on Key Largo by Bertie Higgins.
At just over 1 kilometre in length and a steep few hundred metres high, this little island sits in the middle of the Sultan Iskander Marine Park, an area covering 8000 hectares and 13 islands. The rules of the marine park are well enforced and include no fishing, jet-skiing or anchoring vessels to coral. These rules have ensured that both above and below the water the view and the life you’ll see is pristine and gorgeous.
During a quick snorkel off the beach, barely twenty metres off shore, I encounter a family of clown fish that hide in their anemone and then come out for a photo, turning for their left side and turning for their right side.
A barracuda streaks past me a few minutes later but thankfully going in a different direction to where my little clownfish family were living. It hovered in front of me but as I lifted the camera to take the shot he flashed me a toothy grin and flashed out of sight.
Pulau Rawa is one of the marine parks islands that is owned by His Royal Highness the Sultan of Johor. A week after my visit to Pulau Rawa I am invited to meet with His Royal Highness and we discuss this amazing marine park and how important it is to him.
The rules are tough for those who want motorized action but those rules have created a marine park that is appreciated by those who want a peaceful island escape. More importantly, the life within the park, including the turtles that are protected by the turtle watch camp on Pulau Tengah, have a chance of life that is difficult to find in the busy sealanes and seaside resorts throughout South East Asia.
The Sultan is pleased that I have seen turtles, clownfish and been slightly bullied by a barracuda. He is a keen underwater explorer and enjoys diving the reefs that surround the islands within the marine park.
We discuss tourism in the marine park and the importance of continued support for turtle and coral conservation, particularly the education of snorkelers who sometimes don’t appreciate just how fragile these forests of the sea can be.
In the afternoon on Pulau Rawa I slowly paddle and drift a kayak around the main beach and watch kids from around the world wizz down a good sized slide that is mounted onto the jetty. On the beach there’s a scuba class for a family taking place and lots of laughter as the mother of the family tries to walk forwards in her fins. A surfcat sits rigged on the shore waiting for a twilight sail as the basics of jibes, tacks and avoiding a swinging boom are explained to a young couple in orange lifejackets.
The only sounds I can hear are people having fun, the occasional peacock that inhabit the island and maybe the clinking of cocktail glasses as toasts are made by what may be a pair of honeymooners or just very relaxed parents.
In the evening there’s my favourite thing about the South China Sea to see, its sunsets. The science of sunsets is something I’ve come to understand but choose to forget every time I see one in this part of the world. The end of the day on the South China Sea is like creation itself celebrating the passing of light. The orange burns deep and lingers long as brush strokes of red and gold set alight the wispy streaks of cloud that appear to descend over the horizon with the sun.
With the remaining light I seek out one of the resorts peacocks to request my wakeup call for 0800.
My room is well appointed with my own private veranda that I only have to share with the peacocks. Most of the accommodation on the island is in the form of timber bungalows with various configurations to suit the requirements of travelers. Some of the bungalows are over the water or on the beach itself while others set in the jungle overlooking the beach.
Currently, the most frequent international travelers to Pulau Rawa are from Singapore. It’s easy to understand how appealing this island is to those on the bustling isle of Singapore. From the causeway linking Singapore to Malaysia, it is an easy two to three hour drive up the east coast of the Malaysian state of Johor to the port town of Mersing. From there the resort boat will meet you at the departure time of your choosing and have you on the island twenty minutes later.
The next morning I take the track literally around the edge of the island and discover a vast timber deck with sunlounges overlooking the sea and islands in the distance with nothing to obstruct your view.
Leaving the island walk path, I choose the jungle trekking option of a path that leads up to the summit of the island. It’s a steep climb surrounded by jungle and only a few hundred metres above sea level and once you get your breath back it provides a breathtaking 360 degree view of the island. It’s no mountain but up there I felt I was on top of the world and the world belonged to me. I couldn’t see anyone. I couldn’t hear anyone. I was alone on top of a tropical island!
This is an intriguing island paradise. It’s far from undiscovered but far enough from the discovered to make it a true getaway.
If you want a South China Sea resort with parasailing, jet skis, kid’s pools and swim up bars you could borrow Pulau Rawa’s surfcat and set a coarse eastwards for the west coast of Borneo where you’ll find wonderful coastal resorts to the north and south of Kota Kinabalu, the port city and capital of Malaysian Sabah.
If you want a South China Sea Resort on an island you can walk around and up in a couple of hours, fall asleep on the beach, undisturbed by hawkers, and pick the time of your choosing to swim, sail, kayak, snorkel, scuba or just sit with a Long Island Iced Tea inches away from a sparkling shoreline then this is where you need to be.
As I sit on my duffle bag waiting for the boat to take me back to the port town of Mersing, I am given a message to say that the boat may be a little late. With nothing to do but nothing, I am happy to wait awhile. No man is an island but I am an island guy.
My final destination in Johor is the capital, Johor Bahru, located on the very tip of Johor, overlooking Singapore and linked to it by the ever busy causeway that is just over a kilometre in length.
As an indication of just how good the shopping in Johor Bahru is, the busloads of Singaporeans who come across daily really tell the story, particularly at the Johor Premium Outlets shopping centre featuring 130 premium brands and only an hour’s drive from Singapore.
Featuring designer label shops such as Gucci, Armani, Polo, Burberry and DKNY there’s plenty of time to shop with even the kids if you negotiate a deal to get in some shopping time if you take them to nearby Legoland, Hello Kitty Town or the very active Angry Birds Activity Park, often visited by the Johor Tigers Football Team for training.
Malaysian Airlines fly regularly to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore with great flight deals available throughout the year.
Muar is easy to get to by flying to Kuala Lumpur and arranging a hotel transfer or taxi to your Muar accommodation. For quality accommodation near the waterfront try the new Muo Boutique Hotel and enjoy the view from the rooftop bar that looks over the river to the Strait of Malacca and the setting sun in the evening.
The quickest way to Pulau Rawa is to fly to Singapore and drive to the port town of Mersing, two to three hours up the east coast of the Malaysian state of Johor. Taxi’s permitted to travel between Singapore and Malaysia are available for hire from Changi airport or a search online will offer several private companies from which you can select the vehicle of your choice for a safe, comfortable ride from Singapore to Mersing.
At Pulau Rawa all rooms are equipped with ensuite bathrooms, air-conditioning, wifi and cable television. The restaurant buffet caters for all cultures and ages. The Rawa Island Resort has a range of accommodation packages available throughout the year.
The writer travelled with Malaysian Airlines and was a guest of the Consul-General of Malaysia in Perth, Tourism Johor and Tourism Malaysia.
A vibrant, elegant and delicious way to spend time with my daughter and a Malaysian community so proud of their culture
I recently had two wonderful reasons to attend the Malay Fashion and Cultural Show.
Having just returned from an opportunity to travel to Johor with the Consul-General of Malaysia, Mr Nazarudin Jaafar, I was keen to catch up and discuss some of our experiences. I also needed to spend some time with my daughter Matilda and to take her along to this event was great for both of us.
The afternoon promised cultural performances, live entertainment and a delicious meal. It certainly delivered that and a lot more.
We began our afternoon with a cool glass of bandung and met some of the guests who had been invited, including representatives from Tourism Johor who had looked after me so well on my recent adventure.
With the show about to begin we were escorted to our tables. It wasn’t long before music and dance from Cempakasari, Yayasan Warisan Johor and other groups completely absorbed us in the vibrant culture of Malaysia.
Strong vocal performances by Shahnizam Omar and the very popular Liza Hanim ensured that the audience were inspired and proud.
The fashion parade was extremely elegant and I only wish there had been some men’s fashion on display. Surely next year the Consul-General can model one of his tailor made suits.
With food that was authentic and delicious, Matilda and I made our way through curry, spicy rice, satay and some delicate pandan sweets before making the difficult decision that it was time for us to go home.
The hard work by Makan Angin Perth, Radio Melayu Perth, the Johor Heritage Foundation, Pelangi Biru and of course Imran and everyone else involved made sure that this was an event that was spectacular and inspiring.
In the car on the way home, Matilda couldn’t stop talking about the music, the costumes and the food but most importantly she had a great big smile on her face and said that everyone was so happy and friendly and she wants to go to Malaysia for her next holiday.
With Christmas upon us, it is often a difficult time for diplomatic staff around the world. Their loved ones may still be living in their home country of origin and missing the customs and traditions of home, sometimes the weather and most certainly the food.
Whether Christmas is celebrated or not, it is a time of year when we feel very strongly about our connection to our family, our country and our community.
Just before Christmas, I was given an opportunity to attend a very special visit to Casuarina Prison by the Consul-General for the Consulate-General of Malaysia in Perth, Mr Nazarudin Jaafar. Throughout the year, Mr Jaafar encourages his staff to visit Malaysian nationals who have unfortunately been sentenced to prison for crimes under Australian law.
Mr Jaafar has worked with the Western Australian Commissioner for Corrective Services, Mr James McMahon, to build a trusting relationship that allows Malaysian Consulate-General staff to sit unguarded with prisoners, often in the privileged comfort of a staff room rather than a prison interview room, and to also bring in traditional Malaysian food and converse in Malay.
For this visit, Mr Jaafar has also made sure there is enough food for some of the prison staff, one of whom is very quick to say, ‘Terima Kasih!’
Casuarina Prison is the main maximum security prison for male prisoners in Western Australia. It is a large, spacious complex of nearly three square kilometres with vast areas of well-maintained lawn and gardens and currently has over 900 prisoners.
It’s just one prisoner that we’re visiting today. A young man still in his 20’s who has a wife and young baby in Malaysia. He used to run his own food stall cooking the best Nasi Lemak in a local street market but unfortunately his circumstances now see him imprisoned in Western Australia.
While we wait for him to arrive I think of a famous Australian song by popular artist Paul Kelly. The song is called, ‘How to make gravy’ and it’s about a young man who is in prison and he is writing a letter to his brother a few days before Christmas. He describes in his letter the Christmas he knows he will miss out on. He won’t get to laugh with friends and family, he won’t get to hold his children and he won’t get to make the gravy for Christmas lunch.
To be in prison on Christmas Day must be a very distressing time for prisoners, no matter what crime they have committed. To be in another country must be particularly difficult.
When he arrives it is obvious he is pleased to receive this visit. To speak in Malay, to smell traditional food, to sit with countrymen and share his story is a welcome respite from an environment none of us would choose to be in.
I don’t speak Malay and at times Mr Jaafar stops the conversation between his staff member, Mr Hisham Ahmad, and the prisoner to let me know what is being discussed. There is conversation about the conditions in the prison, the opportunities to work and learn in prison, his life back in Malaysia and of course, prison food.
For me, I’m fairly happy with cornflakes for breakfast but for the Malaysian palette this is far too plain and boring. Most mornings, he can’t bring himself to eat the breakfast because it is not interesting and even upsets his stomach.
It’s at this time that Mr Jaafar presents him with some cooking that they have had prepared especially for him and the prison staff have approved.
There is a homestyle chicken curry that has delicate pieces of chicken on the bone and has a beautiful, fragrant sauce made of coconut milk, chicken stock, curry leaves and spices. To soak up the sauce there are roti jala, the famous net crepes of Malaysia.
Also for his enjoyment are crunchy vade’s with just enough chilli to make you need a glass of water and accompanying the vade’s are some karipap sardin, bursting with fishy flavor and just the right amount of coriander, cumin and garam masala.
Well spiced vades
To complete this mini-buffet of delights are some beautifully wrapped banana leaf pulit inti, a heavenly combination of sweet, grated coconut, pandan leaf and palm sugar.
At the end of our one hour visit, the prisoner requests a book on how to pray. His spiritual requirements are being met in Casuarina but he needs guidance with his prayers. This is something Mr Jaafar and Mr Ahmad assure him they will seek to provide.
I have found this visit profoundly inspiring. As part of my research for the story, I called Consulate-Generals from other countries and couldn’t find one that made such a commitment to imprisoned nationals and certainly not one where the Consul-General made visits.
For comparison, I spoke to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and found out that last year 1551 Australians were arrested in foreign countries and 391 Australians received consular support while in overseas jails.
While much of this assistance was related to legal and family liaison issues I’m not sure much Australian consular assistance included the provision of traditional Aussie food and just making the time to talk and to listen.
Casuarina Prison is a maximum security prison and looks like it. Despite the spacious, well maintained gardens and outdoor sporting facilities we walked past, there is no hiding the razor wire fence that surrounds the complex. It’s a reminder that for Mr Jaafar, Mr Ahmad and I, we can walk out, get back on the freeway and be in the city in just a few minutes, free to get back to work, go for a walk and maybe just take a minute to think about how lucky we are to have our freedom. This visit wasn’t about forgiving a man for his crimes, it was about letting him know that he is not forgotten.
There is no doubting that a visit such as this makes me grateful for the life I lead. It also makes me grateful to have met a Consul-General who is defining a new brand of diplomacy whereby engagement is so important.
Mr Jaafar’s ability to engage at all levels is truly inspiring and should encourage all of us to seek a new understanding of all the people in our life.