Jungles, sea and history in old Malaysia 

A 100-mile ferry-ride across the South China Sea is Langkawi, one of the world’s most idyllic spots for sunbathing, swimming in crystal green waters framed by lush jungle, and the total luxury of a world-class beach resort. It’s gorgeous – but probably quite similar to retreats in Thailand, Indonesia, the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Mauritius...you get the idea.

But I have flown across the world – albeit in the splendid, Champagne-washed comfort of Singapore Airlines’ bodacious, super-genteel flat-bed business class – to go somewhere that is distinctly, uniquely Malaysia. And now I am on a beach in outer Penang, one of Malaysia’s two UNESCO heritage cities, and the heavens are gathering themselves together for a monumental storm. It’s been 35 degrees and 95 per cent humidity again, so I’m ready, along with the skies, for a big dump of precipitation.

Before the rain starts in earnest, in those last gusty minutes, I run past signs warning of giant jellyfish and dive, sweating, into the murky sea. It’s like bath water, but I can’t see even my hands, so with the thought of that jellyfish sign returning to my mind, I decide to quit while I’m ahead. Back on the beach, I stroll through the glowering clouds along the beach, attracted by a pretty cove at the end, where colourful local fishing boats cluster.

But I don’t make it. Because I suddenly see a sight so terrifying, so extraordinary, and so weird, that I stop in my tracks. Creeping along the beach towards the water is a monster. Its low-slung creeping movement is unrecognisable, as is its six- foot length and hefty girth, small head and black colour. It heads straight into the water, has a bit of a swim, its little head poking out (maybe it’s just a weird dog, I think), before sliding out and hesitantly creeping back to where it came from.

Fresh with horror, I tell the tale to the first person I know back at the hotel, who happens to be Singaporean. It’s a giant monitor lizard I’m told, practically still a dinosaur, and it’s related to the giant komodo dragon of Indonesia. Oh, I say. If I’d seen it while swimming I’d surely have had heart failure.

Luckily I wasn’t swimming the next day, when our National Park guide Joseph, super-sexy jungle-man and ex-banker, pointed out several giant monitors floating and clambering over the rocks. The South China Sea, as we saw that day, also contains a delectable salad of squid, four-foot jellyfish, and something called sea cockroaches (little grey creatures whose flesh Joseph describes as “sweet and juicy”).

In short, beautiful though this part of Malaysia is, it is no white-sand ‘n’ palm tree resort. It’s for travellers after something a little more authentic. Jungle, monkeys, culture and fabulous food can be found in abundance off the beaten path in Malaysia. Our taster began with Kuching, in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and then moved to Penang.

It was a bit of a shock going from 12 hours in the lap of aero-luxury, waited on by a brigade of beautiful flight attendants, to a musty business hotel in the charmless, industrial capital of Borneo’s biggest state, Sarawak (Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and also includes Sabah in Malaysia and Kalimantan in Indonesia). But Kuching, through which a majestic but murky river runs, stands out for two main reasons. One, it is the gateway to the splendours of Sarawak, which include orang-utans in their natural habitat – we saw them from a bit of a distance in the trees of the Semenggok Rehabilitation Centre. Two, the food – particularly the street (or “hawker” food) – was some of the best I’ve ever had.

Our first port of call was the Bako National Park, which we arrived at via a terrifically fun motorised dinghy ride through the seething, pale blue chop, past cliffs that rise eerily from the middle of the sea. There are 11 national parks in Sarawak – one of which features the largest cave chamber in the world (Gunung Mulu Park). But Bako one is the oldest and is home to the rare proboscis monkey, long-tailed macaques and silver leaf monkeys, wild boars (which we saw mainly snuffling near the toilets), numerous snakes and countless species of birds and vegetation. Borneo is known for its enthusiastic leeches, but we didn’t see any. The proboscis monkeys were deeply enthusiastic in their courtship of our food; meanwhile our calm, knowledgeable guide (from specialist operators Diethelm Travel, www.diethelmtravel.com), pointed out some brilliant green, poisonous snakes. The mangroves are also home to an impressive ecosystem – look closely and you can see whole communities of crabs, mud lobsters, fleas, insects, birds and other creatures burrowing busily.

Another of Sarawak’s great attractions are its longhouses, dwellings in which tribes live without much modern intervention, surviving from traditional craftwork. Some Borneo longhouse tribes have traditionally practised head hunting – in the Heart of Darkness sense, not recruitment. But you’re safe these days if you fancy a visit – many tour operators offer overnight trips to longhouses where you can witness the decorative costumes, skilled handiwork, extraordinary hospitality and dodgy sanitation, for yourself.

As we were pressed for time, we compromised with a catch-all trip to the Sarawak Cultural Village (www.scv.com.my). It sounds dire, but it’s a very neat recreation of all the different longhouses and their tribes; each one manned by a real tribesperson or persons. Some involve lovely dance performances, others feature women placidly cooking delicious sugary treats over open flames. To cap off our tour was a highly entertaining showcase of all the traditional long house dances, with troupes of highly attractive, beautifully regaled men and women performing dances that were both entertaining and poignant.

Lunch on both days was a simple but utterly satisfying mixture of fragrant fresh white fish, plantain-style veggies, morning glory (a weed-like green) and rice wrapped in palm leaves. But for dinner, we had treats in store. The setting was far from elegant: the Top Spot Food Court, a traditional Malay and Singaporean formation of stalls spread round a central plaza of plastic tables. You go up to the stalls, give your table number and open sesame. The food – so inexpensive it makes European eyes water – comes thick and fast. We had enormous prawns in super-rich butter sauce (I made myself sick on these through greed); whole deep-fried fish doused in addictive chilli and garlic sauce; crispy fried duck and an array of veggies. To wash it down we had fresh watermelon juice and carrot milk ( carrot juice and milk). This was one of my most memorable meals in years, but if you’re planning on boozing, you might try it in a less Islamic country than Malaysia.

Nature guide Joseph, mentioned above, was the most passionate naturalist I have ever come across. But never have I seen such fervent city historians as those I met in Penang, where everyone is an amateur scholar with a true love of their city.

Penang is indeed a rich hodgepodge of colonial, Indian, Chinese and Malay influences, with a distinctive cuisine and lots – and lots – of restored houses-turned-museums. The volume of restored buildings is testimony to the Penangites’ pride in their heritage. In 1786, Captain Light of the British East India Company landed in Penang and named it Prince of Wales Island in honour of home. He married the daughter of the Sultan of Kedah, Penang’s ruler, and got the region in his dowry, but shortly afterwards he ceded the state to the Indian government. A rendition of his home in the city, Suffolk House, has been turned into a museum that’s worth a quick spin around.

In 2008, George Town, the historic capital of Penang, was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status alongside fellow Straits settlement Malacca. Indeed, locals beam with pride at George Town’s “shop-front houses” and richly colourful temples. Penang has one of the largest collections of pre-war buildings in South-East Asia and it’s a pleasure to wend your way among the low shuttered houses and browse wares from hats to betel nut snuff to Indian pastries.

As for colonial history, the blue Cheong Fatt Tze (1840-1916) mansion is a must-see: its self-made, Chinese owner furnished it with breathtaking opulence – pearl, fine tile-work and, of course, perfect feng shui. If the museum isn’t enough to satisfy you, the mansion also has elegant guest rooms with relics from Tze’s time (www.cheongfatttzemansion.com).

Again, Penangites are very proud of their cuisine, particularly the street-food style (sold at “hawker” stalls). The fish laksa is famous, but hard to stomach, loaded as it is with prawn paste. A delicious alternative is hokkien mee: rich prawn and pork stock with rice and egg noodles, hard boiled eggs, prawns, meat slices, bean sprouts and water spinach. There are heaps of other lovely curry-style dishes, and lots of creative ways with shellfish.

If you’re feeling brave, go for Lau Hau Peng which is nutmeg juice – I found it extraordinarily unpleasant, but others love it. If you tire of Hawker food, there are several nice restaurants to choose from – the brand new quayside QE2 was particularly swish, with stunning harbour views and elegant, interesting food. Perut Rumah on Kelawei Road was another gem: brilliant local food served in a converted mansion. But the most seductive eatery of all – particularly if you want a break from potent local flavours – is Kopi Cine at the Straits Collection, a gorgeous, meticulously restored boutique hotel spanning several blocks of George Town (www. straitscollection.com.my).

Your brain will be buzzing, your belly full and your legs tired after a trip round just two of Malaysia’s densely captivating states.

Singapore Airlines flies from London to Singapore for £693 return. Business class starts at £3,330 return. Silk Air, the airline’s local subsidiary, has flights between Singapore and Kuching for £139; Singapore and Penang for £154. www.singaporeair.com; www.silkair.com