That was until we landed at the capital of Kota Kinabalu and discovered one of the best places to see these great apes (at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre) was at least five hours away, and off the itinerary.
It was about then I heard a very moot point from Malaysia’s High Commissioner to New Zealand, Dato Lim Kim Eng, who was along for the trip. ‘We Malaysians know a lot about New Zealand, but Kiwis know very little about us.’
Eng was right. There’s more to learn about this country of 31 million people. Days later, the Tourism Malaysia director general Datuk Seri Mirza Mohammad Taiyab further illustrated how infused in the nation’s consciousness we are. ‘Here in Malaysia we use Kiwi shoe polish. In fact, in Malaysia, we don’t polish our shoes, we Kiwi them’.
And it’s nuggets like that which really sets this country apart – there’s much warm-hearted banter served with moments that come with a welcome dash of quirkiness.
One such experiences was at the Mari Mari Cultural Village around 30km outside of Kota Kinabalu. It was there I learnt to blow a poison dart, and to my eternal delight it turns out I am rather good at it. The next day I was on the island of Sapi, delighting in the Asian tourists (half of Malaysia’s around 25.9 million annual visitors come from Singapore) who popped on life jackets just to paddle in the shallows.
Sapi – one of five islands which fall under a national marine conservation area – is home to Borneo Reef World, the second largest pontoon in South East Asia. Here you can ‘sea walk’ or place a giant diver’s dome over your head to stand amongst hundreds of fish (the Chinese, I am told, go crazy for the clown fish). Never mind that you look like you’re in a 1960s sci-fi movie, as it turns out, spotting Nemo is a buzz.
Another thrill is the Coral Flyer Zipline, a 250-metre zipline that takes you over the sea between the islands of Gaya and Sapi at speeds of up to 65km/h. But then Sabah has its share of adventures. If time allows, a hike up 4095m high Mount Kinabalu is a must.
A significant aspect of a trip to Malaysia is hospitality. Wikipedia was inconclusive, but I’m convinced ‘the meet and greet’ was invented here. Malays simply love to share a decent meal – I declined the commissioner’s offer of food several times, only to find on occasion a tasty morsel had been placed on my plate when my head was turned.
For food is an important part of the culture, and it always delights – from the ambuyat (sago palm) served with spicy fish alongside the stunning buffet at Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu to the coconut pudding sold in cafes on the outskirts of the city on Sulaman Road.
The ultimate dining experience can be had at Restoran Rebung in Kuala Lumpur (just 40 ringgit or about $15 for a buffet lunch). What the place lacks in character on the outside, it makes up for in taste inside – think authentic Malay dishes such as asam pedas (spicy stew) and laksa. If you are lucky, you’ll experience the celebrity of owner and television chef Ismail Ahmad. ‘This is not a business, this is a public house. It’s not about the money, it’s about the soul,’ Ahmed says, while making the juiciest of mango salads in a century-old dish gifted to him by a Malaysian actress.
Ahmad, who could have taught Hudson and Halls a trick or two about flamboyance, waves our table goodbye to head off for his show, but he’s stopped so many times by diners wanting his photograph that it’s an hour before he leaves the building.
A lot of things are larger than life here. The Magellan Sutera Resort and adjoining Pacific Sutera Hotel in Kota Kinabalu has about 1000 rooms and employs 1500 staff. The developers have thought of everything – there’s an Olympic-sized pool, cinema and even a bowling alley.
Meanwhile, the musical Mud: Our Story of Kuala Lumpur showing in the capital hits a particularly top note in theatrics alongside participation from the audience (myself included). I was a pretty convincing munchkin in the Nelson Operatic Society’s performance of Wizard of Oz back in the day, but I never thought I’d tread the boards again. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.
And, of course, there are the skyscrapers. Many, many skyscrapers but most remarkably there’s the iconic Petronas Towers, which are best viewed at Fuego Restaurant and Bar on the 23rd floor of the three-towered Troika building (booking is a must).
Malaysians have similar high hopes for their US$17bn (around $25 billion) tourism industry, particularly when it comes to Kiwis. At an estimated 66,000 New Zealand travellers a year, we come in at around ‘15th or 20th place’ on their visitor list, according to Tourism Malaysia’s Taiyab.
AirAsia X’s new flight comes with it it hopes Kiwi numbers will increase, possibly to around 86,000 which was how many were going there before the airline pulled out of Christchurch in 2012.
Judging by comments from a recent trade famil, there is every possibility that may happen, with or without orangutans. Says Sibyl Hauraki of Go Holidays: ‘I was disappointed not to have seen the animals but I have enjoyed what I’ve seen. I didn’t realise the water was so close, and water is what Kiwis like. So, will New Zealanders love it? The answer is yes.’
But Malaysia wants more than just our presence, they would like us to hang around – up to 10 days in fact. Presently, many who fly Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines direct to Kuala Lumpur are using the gateway as a transit point, and Tourism Malaysia would like that to change.
The reasons for staying longer are these, says Taiyab: ‘We are close to each other; we have the same British influence as well as common language and the good climate. We are also best for value in dollar terms.’
The tourism head recommends travelling in July and August when the weather is better (unseasonably hot weather and forest burn-offs in Indonesia upped the haze levels during early April). But, whatever the conditions, Taiyab assures the industry of a rosy shared future. ‘When Kiwis come here, just like the shoe polish, we will shine.’