Detours de force

From city towers to tea plantations, seeing the sights - and then some - is a doddle in a hire care, writes Michelle Jana Chan.

AN UNEXPECTED twist or turn in a journey can bring about the unplanned highlight of a trip. As I took the keys of my hire car in downtown Kuala Lumpur, I imagined the week ahead would not be short of surprises, from detours to diversions to disorientation.

Although the rental car was a big, red Ford Ranger, which someone likened to a fire engine, it was remarkably easy to manoeuvre on the Malaysian capital's wide, well-marked streets.

As Malaysians drive on the left, it was easy to join the flow of traffic. Armed with clear directions from the concierge, I wove my way out of town. The city map was accurate. The GPS was seconding my instincts. As I struck out on the highway heading north, I began to worry the journey might be too straightforward. It was all going seamlessly to schedule.

I was travelling up the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula, initially following a popular jaunt from the capital to the Cameron Highlands. Distances between key destinations were moderate – for instance, Kuala Lumpur to Penang was 369 kilometres – making it easy to explore by car. I had a full tank, a full week and the open road ahead.

Given it was a Friday and the middle of school holidays, as well as the day before the King's birthday, the roads were exceptionally quiet. Verges were neatly trimmed and edged with purple bougainvillea. Drivers carefully adhered to the speed limit. Cars were new; many were the Malaysian-built Proton.

Along the highway, billboards advertised "original Japanese face cream" and isotonic drinks, and promoted the government's anti-obesity campaign.

At Tapah, I turned off the highway and began climbing up into the hills. The air cooled. Road signs gave warning of switchbacks and blind corners. After a few minutes, I muted the GPS, which was repeatedly warning against a "sharp bend ahead". Then a motorbike loaded with a family of five overtook me on just such a bend.

I stopped at a waterfall, a Buddhist shrine and numerous roadside stalls to buy coconuts, rambutan and apple bananas.

As I climbed higher, the fuzzy terraces of tea plantations began to take over. The tea bushes conformed to the shape of the hills, in soft meandering convolutions like the surface of a brain.

I climbed a hill and gazed beyond the cultivated land towards dense forest; it was here that Jim Thompson, the American silk merchant, disappeared. When the country was under British rule, this region was treasured by homesick colonialists. They built Tudor-style villas and tea estates and planted English-style gardens in the area.

Malaysians, particularly those from steamy Kuala Lumpur, continue to come here for the cool air, the old-fashioned tea houses and the novelty of produce such as strawberries and cauliflower.

I continued north along the spine of the Cameron Highlands before turning off towards Ipoh, formerly the centre of this area's once-lucrative tin-mining industry. Ipoh has grand colonial mansions and classic Chinese shop-front architecture, along with a dreadfully curated history museum and a magnificent railway station.

Day four and it was finally here in Ipoh that I took my first wrong turn (an indication of how hard it is to get lost). The mistake was easy to remedy: one feature of Malaysia's roads is the number of marked places to U-turn. If you do need help, many locals speak English but signposts are clear and often written in English as well as Malay.

I headed down to the coast and the ferry terminal at Lumut, where I left my car for a couple of days and boarded a boat to Pangkor Laut, Malaysia's original and classic beach destination.

Cast out in the Strait of Malacca, the island does not have the clear waters of Malaysia's east coast but there are nature trails in the forested hills and lots of sporting activities. The resort – halfway up the west coast of the peninsula – is ideally located for some respite from the road.

Back on the tarmac, I continued north to the island of Penang. This was my favourite stretch of the journey, passing old wooden homes, seafood restaurants and extravagant Chinese cemeteries. Every town had a new-looking police station, noodle shops, fruit stalls and a graceful mosque. Whenever the call to prayer punctured the day, I switched off the air-conditioning and rolled down the window to listen in. Between towns, endless plantations of oil palms flanked the road.

As I returned to the expressway there was a road sign heralding the towns of Taiping and Butterworth, a reflection of Malaysia's melting-pot past. Penang's main town, George Town, shows the influence both of the British and waves of Chinese immigration, with colonial institutions and waterfront skyscrapers rising up between antiquated streets. The downtown area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, thick with museums, the ateliers of ageing craftsmen and traditional coffee shops. The city is also rightly renowned for its street food, including Assam laksa (a sour fish soup made with tamarind stock), fragrant Hokkien prawn noodles and char kuey teow (stir-fried seafood noodles).

The must-try dessert is cendol, made with wiggly green noodles, palm sugar, coconut milk and shaved ice. The addition of red beans and sweetcorn increases the assault of unfamiliar flavours.

It was in Penang where, for the second time, I found myself driving in circles. There were so many streets called Jalan Sehala, none of them on the map. I finally realised jalan sehala meant "one-way street".

On my final day I made a circuit of Penang. I stopped at the vast Buddhist temple Kek Lok Si and Ferringhi beach, which had been spoilt by touts and the noisy hum of jet-skis. From a roadside stall I bought the so-called king of fruit, the highly pungent durian. The smell was overpowering, especially within the confines of a car. I had to pull over – despite a heavy storm – and eat the fleshy fruit standing outside in the warm rain.

It is one of my favourite memories of the whole journey and a reminder of the joyful benefits of hiring a car: for the freedom to be spontaneous, the unplanned stops and the impulsive turnoffs.

10 tips for the road

1 Give yourself a day or two in Kuala Lumpur to recover from jet lag before picking up a car. You do not want to feel sleepy behind the wheel.

Avoid visiting during school holidays or driving during rush hour. Ask your concierge the best time of day to hit the road and which route is recommended.

3 Invest in a good map, available at one of the many service stations en route. Fuel is cheap (at the time of my visit about 3 ringgit [$1] for a litre of petrol).

4 Important Malay words to remember include berhenti meaning  ‘‘stop’’ and awas  meaning ‘‘caution’’.

5 Do not rely on the GPS (available from the car rental agency). It is useful in and around cities but tends to steer you on to the shortest  or quickest  route, which is not always the most interesting or scenic.

6 Be wary of merging lanes, a regular feature of Malaysia’s roads. Four lanes of traffic can swiftly become two.

7 Carry the telephone number of your next accommodation in case you need directions.

8 Make regular stops at roadside stalls. Drink fresh coconut water, white coffee and teh tarik (a strong tea made with condensed milk that is ‘‘pulled’’ — repeatedly transferred between mugs).

9 Be adventurous. If  someone gives  you a lead or somewhere looks interesting on the map, take a chance. Driving in Malaysia is  straightforward  and locals are refreshingly hospitable.

10 Carry small change for road tolls.