Famous the world over for his exquisite shoes, follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Choo as he shares his favourite parts of Malaysia - his treasured homeland
Although I live in the UK, Malaysia is still my country, and I am passionate about it. In my new role as Tourism Malaysia Ambassador, I hope to persuade many more people to visit – it’s such a spectacular place with so much on offer.
I still have lots of family there, and go over about six times a year. The people of Malaysia are very friendly and speak English well. Staff in the resorts and hotels are well trained and really look after visitors with care and attention.
Whichever part of the country you visit, there’s so much for holidaymakers to do, both in peninsular Malaysia and in the separate states of Sarawak and Sabah, on the island of Borneo.
Apart from its natural beauty and fantastic wildlife such as orang-utans and Sumatran rhinoceros, the country has great activities, from diving and white water rafting, to golf and bird watching.
I was born on Penang, so it’s one of my favourite places. Called the Pearl of the Orient, the little island has been one of Malaysia’s top tourist destinations since the 1970s, when backpackers first discovered its beautiful beaches. I can remember riding around on my moped and camping out with friends when I was a teenager.
Penang is a fascinating blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese and a bit of British, in its architecture, religions, customs and especially in the cuisine. In the late 1700s, the island’s port was one of the busiest in the region, attracting traders and settlers from all over the world. Today, people come from all over Asia to taste Penang’s food, which is delicious. The Tho Yuen restaurant (Campbell Street; 04 261 4672) serves tasty chicken rice, a simple staple dish of Malaysian cuisine.
You should try durian at least three times while you’re in Malaysia – it is a bit of an acquired taste! It is said this fruit smells like hell but tastes like heaven. I love it! You can buy it cheaply in a number of places, street stalls are your best bet, but be careful – some hotels wont allow it in the rooms because of the very strong odour. I also really like papaya, sprinkled with lime juice.
And in Balik Pulau, you should try the best sweet or sour Penang laksa, a spicy, fish, pungent noodle soup.
Penang is particularly famous for its Nyonya food, too, which is a tangy blend of Chinese and Malay - Perut Rumah (17 Jalan Kelawai, Georgetown; +604-227 9917) is very good.
Georgetown, the capital city, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a compact city, its older parts are easily walkable or you can jump into a trishaw. Modern buildings rub shoulders with colonial trading posts, as well as Chinese and Indian temples, Anglican churches and mosques. Here you’ll find my old school building, Shih Chung, though it’s derelict now, and the Goddess of Mercy Temple my mother used to visit.
Many of Penang’s great historical buildings are being renovated by the Penang Heritage Trust and its supporters. There’s the blue mansion of 19th century entrepreneur Cheong Fatt Tze, who had eight wives. The mansion (14 Leith Street; 04-262-0006; www.cheongfatttzemansion.com) is a stunning house built by Chinese craftsmen in 1896. It’s a fascinating homage to Chinese architecture and the principles of Feng Shui. Tours run twice a day and cost 10 ringgit.
Suffolk House, just outside Georgetown on the banks of the Air Itam River, is another beautiful colonial home worth visiting.
Many Chinese shophouses are standing too and are still home to rattan weavers, signboard engravers and, yes, shoe makers, just like my father. I learnt everything from him, and without that, I would not be where I am today.
Penang’s most popular tourist attractions also include a Tropical Spice Garden (Lone Crag Villa, Lot 595 Mukim 2, Jalan Teluk Bahang; 04 881 1797; www.tropicalspicegarden.com) and the nearby Butterfly Farm. Or you can just spend time driving around the coast, stopping off in any of the picturesque fishing villages and enjoying the beautiful beaches and coves.
Where to stay in Penang
My favourite place to stay in Penang is Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa, they look after you so well there, and the resort has a fantastic spa called Chi. There are plenty of other hotels to choose from too, such as the landmark Eastern and Oriental Hotel.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s vibrant capital, couldn’t be more different. It’s a fantastic destination in itself, with wonderful art galleries, cultural events and, of course, shopping. In fact it’s a shopaholic’s paradise, with so many vast shopping malls to choose from, such as Pavilion, Mid Valley Megamall, one of the biggest in southeast Asia, Sungai Wang Plaza and upmarket Starhill Gallery. I also call into Central Market (www.centralmarket.com.my) where my friend Fion Poon has shops selling beautiful handbags and shoes – Borsette Scarpe (www.borsettescarpe.com) and Ferrelle.
Of course, I have many friends who are involved in the fashion industry.
Robert Loh of Lord’s Tailors (At The Ampwalk, Jalan Ampang, or Bangsar Shopping Centre, Jalan Maarof; www.lordstailor.com.my) makes all of my suits and Lewre Lew is following in my footsteps as a shoe designer – he has couture and ready-to-wear outlets across KL (www.lewre.com).
Then there’s Dato’ Tan Boon-Pun whose Xixili handmade lingerie (www.xixilli-intimates.com) is extremely popular with visitors, and my friend Winnie Sin, who creates stunning pearl jewellery for many Asian celebrities and royalty. Her Rafflesia Pearl Centre is at the Grand Plaza, Park Royal Hotel.
Khoon Hooi, Albert King, Bernard Chandran and Tom Abang Saufi are just a few of the renowned Malaysian designers producing exquisite fashions for their famous clients.
Where to eat, drink and stay
KL of course has many, many great bars and restaurants to visit in the evenings – the SkyBar on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel (60 3 2332 9888; www.tradershotels.com) or the rooftop Luna Bar at the Pacific Regency (www.pacific-regency.com) have great views of the city’s famous twin Petronas Towers.
After a busy time shopping and sightseeing in KL, you need to relax, and another one of my favourite places in Malaysia is the perfect Pangkor Laut Resort, about three hours north of KL. The resort is the only building on a privately-owned island three miles off the west coast of Malaysia. The rest of the land is a two-million-year-old rainforest. It has the most beautiful beach at Emerald Bay, too, and a wonderful Spa Village (www.spavillage.com) offering a great selection of treatments from Ayurvedic, Chinese and Malay. I have stayed there a few times.
Cameron Highlands Resort is a boutique hideaway in the middle of tea plantations in Pahang in Malaysia’s largest hill region. When I was a guest there, I had a two-hour massage every day in the Spa Village. Massages are very good for helping your body’s chi, or energy, to flow smoothly. I adore Malay massage, which uses long kneading strokes that stimulate energy points and rejuvenates the body.
When I’m on holiday, I like to start the day with a long walk on the beach. I take a book of poetry and a notebook to jot down ideas and I always carry two cameras in case I drop one. I don’t go anywhere without my Buddhist pendant either.
Holidays are all about taking time to relax and do something you enjoy. If you feel good, you pass that on to those around you, so you benefit and so do other people. It’s good karma.
How to get there
I always fly with Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com), the national carrier, because of the world-class service – in fact, they have won the title of ‘Best Cabin Crew’ for the sixth time. Kuala Lumpur is around a 12 hour flight from the UK.
For more information on Malaysia, visit www.tourism.gov.my.