At the school gate, I knew we were doing something slightly different from the norm when I started getting blank stares and wrinkled brows after I mentioned where we were taking the kids for the Easter holidays. If I had said Malaga instead of Malaysia, the reaction might have been slightly different.
Easter is a great time to take the kids away somewhere long-haul; the weather in the UK is usually still on the damp and chilly side and the break is long enough to travel somewhere a bit further away where the weather is likely to be hotter. For comparison purposes, the temperature while we were there hit 35 degrees C; on the day after we returned to the UK, it snowed.
We wanted a holiday with balance ? something for the grown-ups, something for the kids, some beach, some culture, not too much travelling and, above all, getting away from work and revision for SATS.
We worked backwards, finding cheap flights first and then seeing where we could go. We found some unbelievably cheap flights to Kuala Lumpur (just over £1,500 for the five of us) and thought this was a good base from which to explore.
After much searching and taking advice from friends who had been to the area before, we settled on the idea of combining a couple of days in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, some chill-out time at an upmarket resort and then a few days of activities at Club Med before the long trip back home.
Landing in Kuala Lumpur
One of my favourite parts of any holiday is first arriving in a destination and making the journey from the airport to the destination. My kids will testify that I force them to look out of the windows of the bus or taxi to make sure they know we are somewhere very different from what they are used to.
Our destination on this occasion was the Traders Hotel in central KL, for one very good reason ? it?s directly opposite the city?s famous Petronas Towers, one of the main attractions for visitors.
The Petronas Towers (www.petronastwintowers.com.my) are a sign of the country?s growing confidence and Kuala Lumpur?s most striking landmark and a great place to take the kids
Height is everything in the tower world. The Petronas Towers were the tallest in the world from 1998 to 2004, when the title was taken by the Taipei 101 tower; they remain the tallest twin towers in the world.
We were shown to our room on one of the upper floors of the hotel and threw back the curtains. The photo below shows the view ? not bad.
One good tip for families staying at Traders is to pay the extra to go in a Club room, giving you access to the Club lounge. They cost more (a extra £30 or so a night) but the benefit is that drinks and snacky food are available at intervals throughout the day. If your kids are anything like ours, the cost difference is soon eaten up, literally.
Visiting the Petronas Towers
The Traders has a great location for anyone wanting to visit the Towers. You can walk through the very attractive park which has a big splash pool with changing facilities and a very good playground for younger ones. If you don?t want to do that, the hotel runs a free shuttle that takes you to the entrance to the towers.
The trip up the towers is very popular and you should book in advance if you need to go on a particular time or day. There are limited tickets released on the day but you may have to go in the morning to get them for the afternoon, for example.
The tour has two parts ? a sky bridge walkway that links the two towers at the 41st floor, some 170 metres above the ground ? and an observation deck on the 86th floor, at a height of 320 metres.
We were unlucky to visit the towers during a thunderstorm which restricted the view a little and also made it more nerve-wracking than it might have otherwise been.
The experience was certainly memorable; our five-year-old can still remember many of the statistics about the number of floors, the height above the ground and so on.
Other good ideas for families staying in Kuala Lumpur include an excursion to Batu Caves, a system of underground caverns in a limestone hill some 13 kilometres out of KL. As well as the caves themselves, there is a fine temple on the site with a huge gilt statue of the Hindu god of war Lord Murugan. The site is also home to large numbers of monkeys.
Sometimes you arrive in a destination and fall in love instantly and so it was with Tanjong Jara (www.tanjongjararesort.com). It wasn?t one particular thing either. It wasn?t the cabanas perched on a perfect palm-fringed crescent of white sand, the tranquil gardens crammed to bursting with fragrant flowers and overseen by slow-walking lizards or vast rooms lined with beautiful local wood and crisp, cool linen but the cocktail of all these things.
For me, there is always a point you can later identify as the moment you relaxed. Arriving here was that moment, when I felt the tension in my shoulders unknotting and the rigours of long-haul travel just melted away.
The hotel can organise turtle watching at the Lang Tengah hatchery (http://www.langtengahturtlewatch.org/tanjong-jara/) during hatching season from June to October as well as authentic village tours and jungle walks. Just climbing over the rocks and watching the fisherman from the beach is fun too.
Cleverly, families here are kept just beyond shouting distance away from the romantic couples seeking quiet time together. The family infinity pool is at the far end of the resort and this set-up suits everyone just fine. The Nelayan restaurant, just alongside, is the perfect place for a kid-friendly lunch too ? it serves burgers and club sandwiches as well as local rice and noodle dishes if the children are more adventurous in their tastes.
One of the most unusual attractions of the Club Med at Cherating Beach is a trapeze school, allowing children as young as four to experience what life in a circus is about. All three of my kids ? aged five to 13 ? tried this and, of course, Dad had to have a go too. I don?t think any of the kids have found their dream career but we all found it an exhilarating experience and the team were highly experienced and good with the kids.
In typical fashion, the kids screamed blue murder when we suggested they should go the kids? clubs offered by Club Med. Yet when they went, they couldn?t get enough of them and we barely saw them again, as they choose to eat their meals and go to shows with newfound friends rather than with their boring parents. The enormously energetic GOs (Club Med?s hard-working reps) kept them entertained with archery, water polo, sailing, kayaking, golf, ghost stories and more: They came back exhausted but happy. My five-year-old?s favourite things ? the buffet and unlimited chocolate milk shakes from the bar.
The Club Med at Cherating has a jungle setting and so you get the occasional wild visitor. The monkeys are, well, cheeky monkeys and will happily steal any food you leave lying around or anything that takes their fancy: a hat, a magazine or swimming goggles for example. ?Don?t look them in the eyes,? said Ben, one of the GOs in a way that hinted that he might have done so once but had barely lived to tell the tale.
Practical information for taking kids to Asia
There are some practical considerations around taking your children to Asia ? notably health and the much longer flights than you need to get to Europe.
We had to start planning far sooner than we would for a trip to the Costas because of the need for vaccinations: We all needed injections for typhoid, hepatitis A and tetanus several weeks before departure. Although Malaysia and Cambodia do have malaria in places, tablets were not recommended for the areas we were visiting. (However, we did pack plenty of insect repellent and we did get an armful of bites between us.)
We found cheap flights with Qatar Airways requiring a stopover in Doha. On the way out, this meant a seven-hour flight with a 90-minute change and a second seven-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur. On the way back, the connection was far less family-friendly, with a nine-hour overnight stopover between the two legs. On certain flight combinations with long stopovers you can get a free hotel room at the airport but this did not apply to us. We therefore spent some time in what was called a Family Quiet Room. The room has rows of recliner seats but there were only two families in evidence ? ours and one other. Other passengers had clearly heard about the room and were using it to catch up on their sleep.
British nationals have no need to get a visa to enter Malaysia and you are allowed to stay for three months.
Getting around is pretty easy. Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) and a number of low-cost carriers fly around the country on frequent schedules and fares are low by European standards. One-way flights between KL and Kuala Terengganu on the east coast were just £20 one way, for example.
Driving yourself on the country?s highways is hassle-free too. We hired a large car with plenty of legroom and luggage space to drive Cherating Beach back to Kuala Lumpur for a cost of around £100, including tolls and petrol. A taxi transfer was four time the price. Driving itself was a cinch and the roads were well maintained and relatively traffic-free, although the KL ring road system was busy. We booked with local company Hawk (www.hawkrentacar.com), who could not have been more helpful.
Food kids will eat
Southeast Asian cuisine is one of our favourites as a family and our 11-year-old surprised us with his willingness to try unusual foodstuffs, some of which resulted in a turned-up nose but others, including deep-fried frog (?It tastes a bit like KFC?), were actually relished. Other dishes that proved popular in Malaysia, which is a bit of a melting point in both a cultural and cuisine sense, were mee goreng (fried noodles), nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay skewers, which quickly became known as chicken and beef ?lollies? with peanut sauce.
Advice for booking
We booked the flights ourselves (www.qatarairways.com) and our stay at Club Med directly with the company (www.clubmed.co.uk); the company regularly runs good special offers (kids under 12 fee, 20% discounts and so on) and we chanced on one for the dates we were travelling.
The very friendly team at Turquoise Holidays (www.turquoiseholidays.co.uk) helped us with our hotels in Kuala Lumpur and Terengganu. The company has an old-school dedication to service and sends out wonderful cloth travel wallets and luggage tags in turquoise and white stripes ? not necessary in this day and age but a lovely touch. (Disclosure: We paid for all our flights and hotels but Turquoise got us a discount on Traders and Tanjong Jara.)
So the next time you want an adventure for a break with the kids, don?t just think of the usual suspects. Cast your eye further and experience KL as a family.
Mark Frary is family travel editor of 101 Holidays (www.101holidays.co.uk). Get more ideas for families at http://www.101holidays.co.uk/family.
Have you been to KL or do you want to visit? Tell us your tips or what inspires you about it.
About Mark Frary
Mark Frary is the editor of 101 Family Holidays. Mark is a regular contributor to national newspapers, magazines and websites on travel. He has held a number of roles including The Sunday Times travel agony uncle and ski correspondent and business travel editor at The Times. He writes for Huffington Post and his own family travel blog Travelling with the Kids and has circumnavigated the globe several times with the family in hot pursuit. Mark has won a number of awards for his travel writing.