Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bali narrative, 2 weeks late.

once again I found myself starting the narrative of my last trip (to Bali, Indonesia) as I travelled to my next destination (Kuching, Sarawak…in Malaysian Borneo…see below “Special K” entry), however I now find myself completing this entry on the eve of heading to Cambodia (Siem Reap, to see the temples of Angkor Wat).

but this entry is all about Bali, beautiful Bali.

just days after my mom left, we realized we needed to begin plotting out our remaining weekends in Asia. we were lucky to find a last minute fare to Bali, leaving Friday night, and returning Monday morning (allowing me to work on the flight, and return to the office in the afternoon). so after rushing out of work, we raced through the traffic to the airport to make our flight, tapping our feet impatiently through far too many lines. the flight to Indonesia was about 2.5 hours, during which I wrote up much of the previous weekend’s Malaysia adventure, as Kat slept. while I was recovering from what must have been a flu bug (brought on by the sheer exhaustion of work, travel, work, and no breaks), Kathryn was starting to succumb to her illness. we landed at Denpassar airport in the evening, shuffled our way through immigration and customs, paying our $10 USD for our visa on arrival, and made our way to the cab stand to find our way to our hotel.

rather than the more popular west coast beaches and scene of Kuta, we chose to spend our first night on the quieter, east coast beach of Sanur (often called “snore”). we checked into our villa late, but were impressed with the dark mysterious forest it felt we were in. our room was modestly ornate, and fresh fruit was waiting for us on arrival. after a brief scare of locking ourselves out of our room safe (after having put all of our important docs in it…we eventually got it opened :), we made our way to the beach.

as there were no city lights to sully the sky, it seemed as if a black sheet lay over the dome dome above with only the stars poking through as bright tears in the fabric. we sat and watched the sky for a bit, and the water pushing an pulling over the rocks below. in the distance, the waves stretched out as white bars white expanding, which was an odd site to see. we later learned it was the crest of the waves crashing down on the breakers further out. after awhile talking about life back home, we walked the shoreline, disappointed to find the sand littered with debris. we turned in, making sure to untie the mosquito net around our bed.


while we probably should have gotten up earlier, we were weary from the week before, so decided to sleep in. after all, this was supposed to be a relaxing vacation. by 10 we donned our bathing suits and headed out to see what the beach looked like by daylight. leaving my glasses behind, I donned my newly acquired prescription goggles, and made my way to the sand, looking like a bug. the water, clear and blue, stretched out in front of us, but the beach was small and unaccommodating. in the distance we could see the mountains of Bali’s neighbor island, which had covered much of the stars in the horizon just hours before. the debris from the night before that had littered the sand, turned out to be a mix of washed up seaweed and mini shrines/offerings made on leaves folded into little boxes.

disappointed with our beach, we came close to going in and finding our way to the other side of the island to begin our afternoon explorations early. we somehow decided to take a quick walk down the beachside sidewalk away from our villa to see what else there was, we passed quite a few small seaside shops and restaurants, small personal sailboats and skiffs. passing a pier and around the bend, the real beaches of Sanur stretched out before us. a vast expanse of white sand going on for some miles, and wide open water, with very few people around. we had arrived.

we walked across the wide plain of sand towards the sharp slope towards the water. we dropped our towels and walked to the water, our feet instantly sinking into the gravelly sand that met the gentle waves. the water was clear and shallow, and the waves were light. once we were further into the water, it felt like there was nothing else around us but the mountains, sand and sky. we relaxed in the water a bit, I perfected my dead man’s float. it became quickly apparent that this was too good to be true, as we realized we had less than an hour to head back to the room and check out. if only we hadn’t slept in!

back at the hotel, we quickly changed, packed our day bags, and checked out. we planned to explore the beaches and town of Kuta, on the other side of the island for the day, leaving our bags checked at the hotel, only to return to pick them up later in the evening to head our next destination on the island. the shuttle to Kuta would not leave for another hour, so we decided to head back to the nearby Jamaican beachside restaurant and get a small lunch snack, and so I could quickly recapture the morning beaches of Sanur with my camera. we ordered, as I left Kat the restaurant, running back to our beach, framing as many photos as I could to remember the morning. the sad thing about our newfound attachment to cameras (especially of the digital kind) is just that, you rely on the seemingly unlimited supply of potential pictures to hold onto an experience rather than the experience itself. I snapped as many as I could, some of the mornings beach patrons still relaxing for the day (of the more pale-skinned variety, which I found amusing giving the sun that was beginning to beat down.

the shuttle bus snaked through traffic across the island, and we were dropped of on the Kuta streets. not 5 minutes after getting on the street, we were flagged down by a peristant man on the street. he insisted that he talk to us, so we decided to entertain him. he claimed to be with another hotel/resort, and they were celebrating their anniversary with random drawings and prizes. of course we instantly smelled scam, but had nothing better to do, so entertained him. all we had to do was see what prizes our scratch and win cards might yield. we took them, said thank you and walked away. yet he persisted that we scratch off. I only won the second prize – a tshirt, while lucky Kathryn won the grand prize – her choice of a video camera, $500 USD, or a stay at their resort. we theorized that the chances of such a win were one in two. since claiming the prize involved us hopping in a “free taxi” with them. we finally made an excuse and ran into a nearby resort, as the man yelled after us to claim our grand prize.

[NOTE: Blogger is kind of sucking right now, so i can't upload pics, so will add the pics to the story later, in the meantime, click on the links below each days to see the full albums - i'll embed the pics at a later date...]

we snaked our way through the resort and towards the beach, as the wind kicked up quite a bit of sand. while I was recovering from the earlier week’s sickness, Kathryn was already starting to feel tired. we walked along the beach for awhile, where the sand was much more crowded, and the waves were much stronger – ideal for surfing, not swimming. we walked along for awhile people-watching, and getting our feet wet in the surf. but the sun was beating down strongly, so we decided to head back inland through the Kuta streets.

we stopped for a quick sandwich and Thai iced tea at the local Dunkin Donuts, and then made our way along Poppies Gang 1 (Gang = “alley”), which was a narrow winding street full of shops and spa/resort entrances. we surveyed some of the wares: local “art” (though there is really no such thing as local art in Bali, everything they do is art, and what they sell is just made up stuff to appeal to the tourist populace), popular trinkets, bootleg clothing, and quite a few pirated DVDs (sold in large “official shops” with quite the selection – quite unlike the sheet-tables on the streets of Malaysia). motorcycles and scooters rushed down the narrow street, causing us to constantly sidestep along with the many other Australian and European tourists in their flp-flops (clearly there for a longer time given their bare demeanor). the occasional car carefully barreled down the narrow alley not meant for them, making us retreat into the shops, much to the store-owners delight.

we were finally deposited on the street, which was even busier than the alley. walked in and out of crafts shops, both junky and posh, surveying the similar, but different (“same same, but different”) wares offered. there were post cards, Spider-frogs (no pigs, unfortunately), Balinese lace, surfer gear, and the frequently-seen phallic bottle openers.

as we continued down the street, we finally came across the site of the 2002 Bali bombing – the Sari night club. the lot that once held the popular Sari club was now fenced off, empty, and overrun with grass. across the street was a shrine and fountain with the names of all the deceased, organized by country. the five year anniversary of this just passed several weeks earlier (while we were in Japan), and i remember watching on CNN the many Australians, Europeans, and others who had returned in memory of their loved ones passing.

by now, the heat was bearing down hard upon us, and my traveling partner was much more worse for the wear, so we escaped into a local coffee boutique (I think the locals called it “Starbucks”) for a brief respite of coffee and coke. there we witnessed quite possibly the most annoying Australian tourist, who spoke at the top of her lungs, in the most polite/condescending tone to the quite local staff. those Australian.tourists, they think they’re such hot shi…stuff (no offense Mark, Kshitij, Ben and Bron). in all honesty, I think it was just one bad apple. but a subtle, solid lesson on how not to behave when in a foreign country, no matter how much of a vacation it is.

we decided to head back to the beach, down Poppies Gang II. we snaked through the streets like experienced pros, dodging the cars and scooters, and darting in and out of stores before we could get harassed by the shop-keepers (“you like? very cheap!”). we finally emerged on the beach, where the sun had begun it’s slow descent back into the horizon. we walked for a bit in search of a particular beachside restaurant to enjoy the sunset and dinner from, but as we went, the sun continued to drain us, so we paused for a bit for water, iced green tea, and Pringles (thanks 7-11!). upon finding out the restaurant we sought (one of the few on this stretch of beach), had long since closed (sarcastic thanks Lonely Planet!), we opted to sit and simply enjoy the beach.

there were professional sand castle makers, and many beach soccer games in play by the local youth. mothers and their kids waded in the calming, but still strong waves. as the sun began to sink further, kat rested in the sand, as I wandered into the water for some pictures of the sunset, making a few friends along the way...

after the sun set, Kathryn and I walked along the street back in search of dinner. we settled on a nice Italian place just off the street, run by a European chef. an interesting thing about Bali, is that many westerners try to find a way to stay there. after the original Dutch explorers arrived in the 1700s (or was it 1800s?), many of the crew opted to stay behind rather than return home. a similar phenoman continued to the modern day, as many Europeans chose to setup shop (and bring their expertise, like our chef) to the locals and/or tourists. another interesting thing was how friendly everyone was there. our waiter (and many others on the trip) would often ask us where we were from (Kathryn + I like to think we’re a bit of a conundrum to them, and we often just say we’re from Singapore), what we’ve done in Bali, how long were staying, etc. not quite the terrorist haven the US State Department would have you believe. we sat by the pool (to later discover the restaurant was part of the nearby resort), and enjoyed a nice pasta and salmon pizza.

after dinner, we caught a taxi back to our original villa in Sanur, unchecked our bags, and arranged for the hotel car to take us some 30km up the island to our next destination, Ubud. as we walked to the van with our driver, he asked if we could wait a few minute so he could grab dinner. he darted into a nearby inn adjacent to our villa, and we followed to find the local innkeepers had served him a dish of rice and meat. as he shoveled the food down, Kat + I explored the common area, flipping through the local books (and myself pilfering an extra bottled water for our trouble). our driver quickly finished his meal, and we were soon off. it took almost 40 minutes, up dark windy roads into the middle of nowhere

after some confusion, we arrived late to our new villa, which was dark and ominous. trees overhanging, and the nighttime music of crickets chirping and frogs croaking in the distance. we were ushered to the outdoor reception desk, seated and presented with fruity welcome drinks and cold, damp face towels as we went through far too many official motions of checking in. we were finally escorted down through what felt like a tropical garden towards our upstairs villa. we sat out on our balcony, overlooking the dark, mysterious rice paddy field adjacent us.

before calling it a night, we decided to explore the rest of the complex. we made our way further down the pathway, passed some cows, and soon found the common area. there was a covered, outdoor dining area overlooking the pool, and a outdoor bed/bench in the corner far end of the pool. far and away one of the nicest, coziest resorts I’d been in. throughout the complex were a number of intimidating statues, dressed with sashes and flowers. after a few requisite pictures we turned in, exhausted.

woke up earlier than we’d like (and later than we should have) just in time to make breakfast, and a glimpse of our surroundings by day. the rice paddy field was wide, with large houses dotting the opposite end. we grabbed the resort shuttle into the Ubud town center, winding through the streets and up the main avenue. upon getting out, we found the information center, grabbed a map, and planned our day out.

first was the royal palace (of Ubud?), where some of the family still lived. it was basically big open courtyards attached by narrow corridors, with ornately designed Balinese/Hindu sculptures – far more authentic than the many we had been seeing throughout our many resorts.

from there we popped into a nearby local market of trinkets and crafts (mostly wooden and fabric), which extended behind the street. as we turned every corner, it seemed to go back, further and further. there were quite a few things that struck my interest, but I held back from any purchases, since I didn’t feel like carrying it around for the rest of the day.

we continued down the main road (literally, as it was quite a steep hill), aptly named “Monkey Forest Rd,” given where it led. popping in and out of stores, exhibits, and even peeking into a few resorts/villas. while everything was interesting, we found ourselves falling into the phenomenon of the same stuff running together (especially as I write this some 2 weeks later). our goal was to get to the bottom of the hill, into the famed Monkey Forest Sanctuary.

once inside, we wound down the streets, and were immediately greeted by our long-tailed friends, wandering about. some were picking fleas off eachother, others were snacking on the occasional banana. some even were playing/fighting amongst eachother. as with all things monkeys, it was quite entertaining, and was the subject of many a photograph.

deeper into the monkey forest, we came across an outdoor Indiana Jones-esque temple, for which we had to both don the appropriate attire of sarong and sash to enter. at first it was just the two of us, but another young European couple soon followed. the guy of their pair, well he got all the luck. not but a few minutes inside the temple, did a monkey immediately hop on his shoulder and begin scratching the man’s head. I was extremely jealous.

from the temple, we relinquished our sarongs (I thought to pull another Bangkok, but opted not to tempt the fates of the Balinese-Hindu spirits). found our way to some more monkeys, and then exited the forest through a pretty scary cemetery, with somewhat recent graves.

we headed back up Monkey Forest Rd, and stopped for some Balinese cuisine for lunch – for me, a basic spicy chicken and rice, and for Kat some noodles. we continued up the road, stopping in and out of more stores and exhibits, but the sun was beating down hard on us, and Kathryn was becoming more worse for the wear. we decided to stop in and try a local massage (at a local price - $7 USD for an hour), which was a nice experience – they even served us cookies and water afterwards (though to this day, Kat still blames a few odd pains here and there to the massage in Bali)!

after our massage, we walked further up the road, back to our starting point of the information center, and purchased tickets for a local evening show – a fire dance. with a couple of hours to kill, we stopped in a restaurant for more rest and peppermint tea, and saw a parade of locals in procession down the street with loud instruments and chanting. we weren’t sure how authentic this was, as the cynic in us questioned if it was just a daily show for the tourists (the more teen-aged patrons in the back of the procession looked like they were just going through the motions).

in search of dinner, we walked back down the road to an interesting recommendation from our book – the Deli Cat, an interesting French Bistro of wines, cheeses and a few drunk Europeans. we had a quick soup, some bread and cheese, chuckled at the regulars, and raced off to our evening show.

a few blocks off the main road, we found ourselves in a chair-filled lot in front of a temple, for the Kecak Fire & Trance dance. a priest came out and lit a fire in the center of the lot, and soon almost 100 men came out in nothing but small sashes, chanting and clapping, setting a certain beat. there rhythm and song would be the music for the entire evening, which was broken up into 3 separate acts. the first was a retelling a story from the Hindu Ramayan – of the Prince Rama, his wife Sita, and brother Laksaman, fighting against the evil lord Ravana (Sita is captured, Hanuman comes the rescue, and Rama takes down Ravana). the second act was an old man, riding a stick horse fighting with the fire. the final dance was 2 young children, entranced, performing a dance to the fire with their eyes closed. all of them to the rhythms and clapping of the all male choir. it was definitely interesting and captivating.

after the show, we walked back to the main intersection, only to find most of the original shops and market had closed – so no trinkets for me. we called the shuttle from our villa, and made our way back home, where we made arrangements to check out and get to the airport the next morning at stupid-o-clock. we packed our bags, let the mosquito nets down, and turned in early

we were up at 5.30, and on the road for the airport by 6am. the ride, while nice, was a bumpy one, not helping Kathryn’s deteriorating sickness (she had been a trooper all weekend). it took almost an hour to make it to the airport, and as the local villa-type music filled the cabin, we watched the locals go about the start of their week. mothers putting their daily leaf-folded shrine outside their doors. children in school uniforms riding to work. men riding their motorcycles through the packed traffic. it was a very surreal experience. that, and we were tired.

from the airport, we checked in, checked our bags, and wandered about, having gotten their too early. we stopped for tea and a doughnut, admired some statues, and eventually boarded. Kathryn caught up on sleep, as I made it a point to knock out some work docs (working on a plane with a set task VS in a chaotic office is quite effective…I’d do it more were it not for the large personal cost of sleep and capital :). just another weekend trip through South Asia.

more to come.

Monday, November 26, 2007

why facebook rocks/sucks.

let's first start with some humorous context [from geekandpoke]:so while reading the morning assortment of interactive/digital marketing newsletters + blogs, i stumbled into quite a bit of negative fanfare for Facebook's latest moves in the marketplace. the above cartoon, while in context, is just scratching the surface though, the rabbithole goes much, much deeper.

Jason Calcanis is a very prominent blogger on the fringes of the same field i'm in (he founded Weblogs inc, later selling it to AOL for a large sum of $, and continues to innovate in the valley w/ VC firms + his own startups. i've seen him speak a few times, and actually sat across the table from him at a conference. say what you will about him, but he says what he means, and he means what he says. a pretty straightforward guy with alot of opinions (making posts to his blog at a pace often faster than i can read them),

anywho, after the long-winded intro, i'll get to my point - i think he totally hit the nail on the head with this commentary on Facebook's latest privacy practices (the sale and retention of consumer data, in a less than nice way), summarized in a manner far more enticing manner than i could (best of all, he uses Guitar Hero to make his point). Calcanis 1, Facebook 0.

[Bali + Borneo updates are coming soon, i promise!]

Friday, November 23, 2007

Ku-ching! [an ode to special K]

[blog entry made for the sole fact that the name of where we're heading this weekend (Kuching, in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo) is reminiscent of an outdated joke*]*have no idea what i'm talking about? then check out this blast from the past (that shaped annoying 90s catchphrases for me + my fellow Americans...foreign friends, i apologize in advance if this catches on in your respective countries):

who knew? that was none other than fan favorite actor Seth Green! it's true, at least according to the internet (where everything you read is true!):
"Not many people know that he was responsible for one of the most overused catchphrases of the 1990s. In 1992 he appeared in a commercial for Rally's Burgers as an obnoxious drive-thru cashier who kept repeating the line "Cha-CHING!!" over and over again and the line entered the popular culture."

i wonder if he'll be there for all the crazy cat festivities? one can only hope...

...but wait! it gets worse: for the road (not Ku-ching! related, but check out the hair!):

Thursday, November 22, 2007

welcome to singapore, dad

i like thanksgiving [so have a happy one].

ok, so not 100% accurate/appropriate for Thanksgiving, but you get the idea...i'm the OTHER kind of indian (turbans, not teepees).

i find myself remiss that for my favorite holiday, i sit here typing this from work (as our South Asian offices don't get the day[s] off). interestingly enough, my colleagues in Japan get Friday off as it is "Labour Thanksgiving Day" (kinro kansha no hi) - a national holiday for honoring labour (reeeaaalll original guys).

but let's bring it back to me, and what i love about Thanksgiving. it's all about sitting around with your family and friends, eating, catching up, and doing alot of nothing (or in my case, reading comics). you can't beat that with a [drum]stick. it's also the one holiday that can NOT be commercialized (like so many other holidays).

though i guess one could qualify "black Friday" as part of Thanksgiving break since it's the day after, but technically the day after Thanksgiving is the start of the Christmas season in the US, so i'll lump it in with Santa, Frosty, and the rest (it should be noted that Christmas decorations/sales started in Singapore several weeks ago, which is an odd site given the tropical climate, but i guess shopping IS one of their two national pastimes here).

so what am i thankful for? how lucky i've been.
...and it's just that, plain and coincidental luck, with a little bit of effort
*. further:
-i like what i do (and i've fooled people into thinking i'm doing a good job :)
-i've got a NICE setup, being in a fascinating part of the world
-with someone i love being around (+puts up with me).

more importantly though, i've grown closer to my family** over the past several years (i was a real jerk for awhile), and i continue to have and grow a close group of friends i care about, and i know care about me (almost like an extended family).

oh, and the Singapore library has a really sweet collection of comic books for my reading leisure.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone.
(even you crazed savages i currently inhabit the other side of the world with).

*but mostly luck.
**as we speak, my dad is on a flight here, so he gets to spend Thanksgiving w/ the gracious hosts of Singapore air, so i know he will be well fed (and taken care of). we'll spend the weekend in Malaysian Borneo, but not before i finally write-up last weekend's trip to Bali...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

bali, in pictures.

from our last-minute trip to bali, indonesia last weekend. our first night + day were spent on the southern beaches + streets of sanur and kuta. we then retreated up the island to the historical center of ubud, where monkeys and culture were aplenty. 2.5 days was not NEARLY enough time there.

as usual, these albums (w/ captions) precede the recap of the trip (coming in the next day or so). enjoy.

sanur/kuta 1/2, 17.nov07kuta 2/2, 17.nov.07
ubud 1/3, 18.nov07
ubud 2/3, 18.nov07ubud 3/3, 18.nov07

Monday, November 19, 2007

malaysia: snakes, monkeys, & french fries ...lots of french fries.

at long last, the bloog writeup of last week’s trip to Malaysia. it's a good thing i spend all my time writing these verbose narratives, for all 3 of my readers (hi mom!). also, i find it ironic that i'm writing Malaysia, while i'm currently on a flight to Bali, Indonesia (at the time of initial writing). so i'll try to keep this brief, or at least as brief as four days carting through the entire peninsula of another country can be.

our journey started on wednesday. since thursday was a local holiday in Singapore (Diwali/Deepavali, the Hindu/Indian festival of lights ...essentially our "Christmas"). as you might already know, my mother and her coworker/friend Liz were visiting (having already spent a few days in Bangkok). since Kat + i hadn't visited our neighbor the north (Malaysia), we’d plotted a 5 day jaunt up the country. i popped out of work in the late afternoon, and we caught a cab to the a bus station, essentially a parking lot. we waited around for about 20 mins and boarded our first class, air-conditioned chariot.

it took ~20 mins alone to get through the traffic to the north end of the island, where we had to disembark and clear Singapore customs. we got back on the bus, rode over a bridge across the Malaysian/Singapore strait, pulled back over, and had to clear Malaysian customs. it was another 1.5 hours before we reached the halfway point, a truck stop in the middle of Malaysia. we grabbed some snacks at the convenience store, which was adjacent to a set of hawker stalls. boiled corn and the local curry-flavored cheeto-equivalents. back on the bus, mom + liz retreated to the rear seating for more room, constantly calling Kat + me to join them. we pretended we didn’t know them as we ate our pre-bought Subways. eat fresh!

after another 2 hours, we finally arrived at the central bus station in the old colonial town of Malacca. Kat + I immediately found the ticket stalls to buy our bus tickets to Kuala Lumpur for the next evening’s departure, only 9 Ringits ($3 USD) – what a bargain bus travel through Asia is! we caught a cab to our hotel (15 RMB, as interestingly enough, most cab rides around the city, while cheap would often be 3-4x more expensive than a bus ride between cities). we rode through crowded streets, past Little India (all lit up for Diwali), through even narrower streets down what seemed like an alley to the Hotel Puri. in the lobby we immediately saw a large rangoli on the floor (large arrangement of colored rice, used for celebrating Indian festivals). after checking in, we headed through a large courtyard to drop our stuff. we reconvened the courtyard, had a snack and some drinks, and headed out and about to see the streets.

at first it felt like we were walking down abandoned alley, but after turning a few corners, we found our way near restaurants and bars, down another street we found many tables set up with trinkets and toys for sale. most of the buildings in the old part of town we were staying were no more than 2-3 stories. the worn-down, water-eroded colonial style architecture was reminiscent of New Orleans and/or some southern Spanish towns (Cordoba, etc). we turned down a few more abandoned streets, but as our traveling companions were getting antsy and weary, decided to head back to the hotel and call it a night.

up early, packed our bags and headed downstairs for a mediocre breakfast. a scrambled egg sandwich with some odd-tasting orange-juice, and even odder (bad) tasting coffee. we grabbed our bags, checked them at the front desk, and began our walking tour of the city. we ventured along the streets from the night before, into China Town, stopping at Chinese temples and shops along the way. the entire area we were wandering was a UNESCO nominee site. close, but no cigar. there were many small temples, and while interesting, not as impressive as the ancient spires and relics we had become accustomed to. we walked town a street towards an empty lot, where 2 small temples of note (in our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook) were. took some interesting pictures and kept moving. down the streets we moved in and out of many shops and temples, surveying the many trinkets and shrines availed to us. we even stopped in a Hindu temple and Islamic mosque along the way. the most interesting thing was seeing the varied houses of worship side-by-side with one another, the devout locals streaming in and out for their daily worship.

we soon found ourselves crossing the main river, and at a red church in the city square. surrounding the fountain were many bike-rickshaws and street merchants. lots of the same trinkets we’d seen all over – toys, magnets, pot holders, etc. interesting souvenir-esque stuff you buy 1 or 2 of and regret later. while mom + liz continued to browse the street merchants, Kat and I wandered about, opting to have a cool drink and people watch. a man tried to sell us some coins, claiming they were ancient Indian pieces of silver, banging it on the cement to somehow prove it’s authenticity. we ignored him. an older Chinese woman walked up, and he immediately started trying to sell her the same coins as ancient Chinese coins.

two men and a rickshaw in tow pulled up, and began to set up show. we quickly noticed there were two rather large pythons on board, as well as a large, lazy iguana. they immediately started harassing people for photos w/ their tame pets for just 10 RMB. i quickly figured this would be the cheapest and easiest way to get up close and personal w/ our reptilian friends, so gave my money willingly for a few comedic photos.

we made our way beyond the town square and up a hill, past a few more colonial building. we found ourselves climbing and wrapping around a rather large hill, leading us to St.Pauls church, a set of colonial ruins filled with Dutch graves. we wandered into the roofless building and admired the large stone slabs with Dutch epitaphs, as well as the odd tranquility around us, along with 40-50 other Islamic tourists. one thing to note about Malaysia is the large Islamic population. everywhere we looked were young girls, donning their hijabs (head scarves). upon arriving back in Singapore we would find it odd to see so much hair out in public.

from St. Paul’s church, we walked down the other side of the hill, taking a quick break on some benches in front of a public building (as noted by the 3-story Indonesian flag, which is strikingly similar to another familiar flag), and into a local mall, where we stopped for lunch. kat had some odd noodle dish, and I settled for the clay pot chicken/mushroom rice. liz refrained from anything, while mom had a plain dish of noodles (which looked suspiciously like regular spaghetti noodles). through the mall we attempted to make our way towards the water we saw from atop St. Paul’s church. we wound up in the parking lot of a hotel, unsuccessful. from there we hailed a cab, taking it to Little India, in hopes of something a bit more familiar.

given it was Thursday, the day everyone got off for Diwali, most of the local Indian-owned shops in Little India were closed. we popped in and out of some Chinese stores and convenience marts, passing the time. we decided to wander back to the hotel for the afternoon. this took much longer than we had thought, as we crossed through the more commercial streets of Chinatown, jammed with traffic. as we got closer to the town center we stopped in a few more stores, eventually making it back to the hotel, where we killed an hour in the lobby. by 5pm we caught a cab back to the main bus station. we grabbed an early dinner at A&W (of all the chains to find in a Malaysian bus station…), sat in the waiting area, and boarded our bus for the 2 hour journey to Kuala Lumpur.

we arrived late at night, the bus dropping us on the side of a crowded street. we grabbed the first cab we could. when the driver asked where we were going, I shouted the hotel name. he couldn’t understand me, so I pulled out our confirmation sheet. he looked at me like I was crazy and drove off. Kathryn then pointed out the part of the sheet I was pointing to had my billing address in Cincinnati. I folded the confirmation to display the RIGHT address, and we hailed another cab. for a ripoff of 20 RMB, we rode <>

another early morning, and we met mom + Liz, where Kat + I split one of the largest donuts I have ever eaten (plate sized!). we immediately walked the few blocks down the street into the city center, to the Petronus Towers (seen above), one of the tallest buildings in the world. in the basement, we waited in line for tickets to go up the viewing platform on the skybridge. our time slot wasn’t until later in the afternoon, so we headed back to the hotel, checked out + checked our bags, and caught a cab to the Islamic Museum on the south side of town.

the museum was impressive, and most of it was empty, it being a work/school day. no pictures were allowed, which while respectable, is a real shame, because so much of what we saw was beautiful and priceless. despite the perceived harshness and rigors of the Islamic faith, the ancient history and culture is a beautiful one. the first exhibit was a series of models of famous mosques + Islamic monuments throughout the world. many were situated in the Middle East, but many were from all over South Asia as well (the Taj Mahal, some of the Indo-Chinese mosques in South Asia, etc).next were ancient writings, mostly from copies of the Koran, some dating back more than a thousand years. beyond that were pots, armaments, maps, jewelry, tapestries, and quite a bit more, all exquisitely detailed and well-preserved. by the end of the museum, my senses were overloaded, and ashamedly I’ll admit it all started running together.

at the base of the museum was a nice Lebanese restaurant serving a buffet lunch, which was an expensive, but delicious 25 RMB ($8 USD). quite the spread, which we capped off w/ some fine Arabian coffee (jet fuel). a few minutes perusing the gift shop (on this side of the world, museum gift shops aren’t the price-gouging merchandisers we know of in the West, but rather a place to get some nice stuff at a decent price). naturally I stocked up on a few the things bearing the Islamic designs I favored.

from the museum, we walked outside past the National Mosque, just as the day’s noon prayer was letting out. the streets were immediately flooded with men hopping back on their scooters and cars, rushing back to work. we had less than an hour to make it back to the Petronus Towers for our viewing time, and we had no idea how to make it to the LRT station. we eventually found an underpass on the other side of the mosque, and quickly crossed a bridge over the chocolate-milk colored river to the MRT station.

the Petronus towers, while a highly recommended site of KL, was quite the let down, given all the hoops we had to jump through to check it out. as you already know we had to get up early just to get tickets, arriving back a specific time for our viewing slot. from there we were escorted into a small theatre, given 3D glasses, and subjected to a 20 minute video on the Petronus corporation (Malaysia’s premier off shore oil-drilling company). 90% of the video was a sell video for the company, the rest a quick overview of the towers, which we’d later see in the security screening line. Though Kat + I both agreed that P&G would do well to create their own 3D “information video.” while the tower boast two towers of magnificent height, visitors are only allowed to the 40-something-th floor skybridge connecting the 2 towers. we took the requisite pictures, and made our way down into the visitor center, where there quite a few interactive exhibits to entertain the kid in all of us. they even had a Tesla coil setup to show what happens if/when lightning strikes the towers…

we got back on the LRT and rode back to the southern part of the city, we walked into the ever-lively Little India, walking past shops and food stalls, serving every array of food. we stopped for a quick break at a corner restaurant. Kat had some weird form of bubble tea/ice-cream, I had a kiwi shake. mom + liz split some French fries. we wandered more through the streets and shops, ending up in a large shopping bazaar. a few tables of “backed up” DVDs caught my eye. before I could see what was available, the sellers quickly wrapped up their wares, folded the table, and made like a banana (and split). they had been tipped off by friends, just as the local police were wandering in. after 5-10 mins the cops walked through, and the DVD tables were set back up. at a nearby store, mom bought a few saris to take back.

we walked a few blocks down the street, and found ourselves in what felt like the city center, in front of a large courthouse. there were lights everywhere, put up not for Diwali, but rather the entire year, as in August, Malaysia celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. after a few choice photos, we caught a cab back to the hotel, grabbed our bags, and caught another cab to KL Central train station.

while Kat + I confirmed our e-tickets, mom + liz parked at the local KFC, as we had another 1.5 hours until we boarded our train. we soon joined, inhaling our food and making our way to the train platform, where we “checked in” to our sleeper cabins. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something so much more fun and exciting about taking a sleeper car. we were off by 9pm. Kat + I rearranged our pack for the next day, took turns playing video games (Picross on the DS) + cramming for our next stop, and called it a night. unlike most other sleepr cars I’ve taken (in Europe + China), this one made far too many stops in the night, making the expected full night sleep the rhythmic rocking and clacking of the tracks but a dream.

at 6am it was still dark outside as the train pulled into the Butterworth train station. we grabbed our stuff and made our way down the train platform, which went on forever. the walk to the main station felt like the walk of the living dead. we quickly found the ferry terminal, paying our 1.30 RMB to board. as we crossed the channel, dusk became dawn, and 15 minutes later we were on the western isle of Penang

we cabbed to the hotel, and thankfully were allowed an early check-in. while everyone else cleaned up and took a morning nap (as it was still ridiculous-o-clock), I jumped online to get caught up w/ my friend Barun, who would be shortly leaving for Nepal for the next month, and be out of contact. problem was, we still had to find a way to get him from Nepal to Singapore before I left for the States in mid-December. finding some options, I sent them off, and got ready for our day out and about.

we took the hotel shuttle to the western side of the island to check out the beaches there. it took us about 45 minutes on the roads that wound the perimeter of the island. I fell in and out of sleep, catching glimpses of pure blue water. we eventually wound up at our hotel’s counterpart, and made our way through the lobby, past the poolside area, towards the beach. this journey by foot was not for the feint of heart, as it appeared that this hotel (the Shangri-la, no less) was where all the obese westerners chose to stay on Penang, splayed out, wearing next to nothing. I am forever scarred.

we grabbed some towels, and escaped to the beach. our initial approach to this side of the island teased us with blue waters, but up close from the sand, the water was a murkier, darker hue. in the distance, when the shore dropped off into the ocean, the blue was present for the view, but that was it. along the beach were locals and tourists. most of the locals were more low key and simply picnicking enjoying the beach, while the rest hawked their various watersports (parasailing, boat toars, jetskis, etc) to the tourists who were more than willing to oblige. we found a spot, and sat around for a bit. I dipped my feet in the temperate waters, and watched the waves bury them in sand. mom + liz made it out to water for a bit as well, but we spent most of our time laying on the sand watching everything around us.

eventually kat + I were getting hungry, and figured out howto get to the beachfront restaraunts up the shore. we packed up our things and walked ~1 km to find more of the same, tourists, and locals, watersports and casual enjoyment. we came upon some hawker stalls, but could not find anything appealing. we moved off the beach, a few blocks inland to find an Indian restaurant our book had recommended, but found it closed (for diwali we assume). we settled for a local restaurant. kat had some odd malay noodle dish, I opted to be more safe w/ spring roles and satay. mom + liz split french fries.

we walked back down the shore to the beach of our hotel, carrying our shoes as we let our feet get soaked in the waves, we dropped off our towels at the beach, and hung out in the lobby for a bit waiting for the shuttle back to our side of the island. again, I fell in and out of sleep along the way. we took a short break, then plotted out the rest of our day.

next was the botanical gardens. our cab took us further inland, and dropped us off in front. there were young girls handing out samples of dentyne chewing gum – 2 new flavors for the locals – red apple and green tea. both were horrible. now the real appeal of the botanical gardens was not, contrary to intuitive belief, the diverse Malay fauna, but rather the monkeys. there were signs warning of fines for feeding the monkeys. upon entering the large gardens, and choosing our path, we began spotting them left and right, similar to spotting your first of many stars on a clear evening. they some came out onto the path, having more experience with people than the garden’s visitors did of the monkeys. as we walked through the gardens, they came closer and closer, much to our amusement. obviously many pictures were taken.

after an hour or so at the gardens observing/interacting with the monkeys, we decided to attempt to find our way home. however, there were no cabs to be found. I befriended the elder gatesman of the gardens while mom + liz rested, and kat sought out food (fish burger, yum!). we eventually hailed a cab back to the hotel for a short break.

for the evening, we caught a cab into little India, where we walk the streets, admired the lights, and peeked into one or 2 shops. we sought out the right place for dinner, since we knew for sure at least one of our traveling companions would enjoy a good Indian meal, and there were likely no french fries to be found. we found a place recommends in our trusty guide book, checked out the food, and headed inside for an amusing upstairs meal. our young waiter was amused with our motley group of travelers, a phenomenon we had actually noticed in many of the placed we had gone. after all, how often do you see a cute Chinese girl, an a goofy Indian boy, his mom, and their blonde-haired southern friend? by this point in the trip, I had convinced Kathryn to just tell people we were from Singapore (believable, given the significant Chinese and Indian population there), and my mom had also caught onto this fact (a useful one, given there is quite a bit of anti-American sentiment in this part of the world, which is or is not related to the fact that it is mostly Islamic). however, the waiter was pretty convinced that I knew absolutely no hindi (not giving me full credit for my full on lingual mastery of all the foods). after a dinner of naan, samosas, tandoori chicken, and saag paneer (with potatoes substituting for cheese, which my mom leveraged to get us the dish for free), we were good to go.

the rest of the evening was spent on a walking journey from Little India into the colonial part of town, Georgetown. one of the interesting things about PenangSingapore (then a part of the greater Malaysian colony/kingdoms) did. as a result though, Penang has retained much of the original colonial architecture that has long since been torn down in Singapore (and replaced by modern office buildings and shopping promenades). so while maintaining an older, more run down feel (similar to Malacca, as cited above), it had more…character. was that it was set up as a colonial trading port by the British back in the day. however, it did not see the huge successes that

we quickly found where the city hall was, along the northern waterfront. there were many hawkers selling much of the same thing. but rather than the typical, more interesting Asian tourist trappings, they were only selling cheap junk toys (bubble blowers, knock of action figures, etc). we sat around at the local community center for a bit, and then gave ourselves the walking tour by night of the area, which soon became bit sketchy, so we quickly caught a cab back to the hotel and called it a night.

we got up for a late brunch. got up. late breakfast/lunch. i had a bowl of cereal, and some dim sum, and some chicken curry. you’ve got to love asian variety. we decided we would start our last day in the city seeing some more of the more urban sites before venturing further out into the island. we walked around a bit trying to find out first destination, but as a light sprinkle turned to drizzle, we quickly hired 2 bike rickshaws, much to mom’s delight, to take us the few blocks in the right direction (since we clearly had no idea where we were going). it was a cramped ride, more analogous to being in a sardine can than riding in the lap of luxury. I honestly found it a bit disturbing, to have an older man biking 2 heavy tourists around the city for hardly anything, so this will hopefully have been the first and last time I take such a ride.

we finally arrived at our destination, the famed Khoo Khongsi, an 100+ year old Chinese clanhouse (while most of Malaysia is predominantly Malay, Penang is one of the few places where there are more Chinese). the story of Khoo Khongsi is, that when first built in 1906, it was so lavish the gods made it burn down (of course it had nothing to do with rival clans). it was soon after rebuilt in a less ornate fashion, but having seen it, you never would have known. intricate carvings, intimidating statues, and lavish paintings all crammed into a big house. there was even an Chinese opera stage across from the house, built especially for the clan. the basement had history on the clan to the modern day. after soaking it all in, we availed ourself to the gift shop.

from the clanhouse, we walked down the streets in search of a cab. past a mosque, a temple, and even an enormosque (get it? screw you that’s hilarious). as the call went out from the mosque for the midday prayer, we finally caught a cab, and negotiated our fare to distant Kek Lok Si temple.

we headed out towards the outskirts of the main city, along the same path we took a day earlier to the botanical gardens. as we wound through the crowded market streets, we could see the temple on the hill approach us. like much of the “more cultural stuff” on Penang, the Kek Lok Si was only but ~100 or so years old, the lifetime wish of an influential islander, who had since passed on. it was a multi-level extravaganza, with giftshops at every level, serving as gateways from one part of the temple to the next. and of course, more importantly there were many, many shrines to Bhudda, modern and colorful, but just bordering on tacky, the intentionally architected views more than made up for it though. at the top, still under construction, was a large shrine, with a 2-3 story tall Bhudda already within. on the surrounding top level of the temple was a Chinese zodiac park and large Chinese goldfish pond. we took all the requisite pictures, and snaked our way back down through the temple, hailing a cab to our next stop.

a ten minute ride later, and we were dropped off at the base station of Penang Hill, where we would take a funicular tram up the hill. however we discovered that similarly to the Petronus Towers in KL, we needed to purchase advance tickets, and the next available ride up the hill was 1.5 away. we didn't have that sort of time, so we pondered what to do. mom got ice cream and i bought a hat. Liz gave some little Indian kids the principal-eye. we opted to just take a cab back to the hotel and figure out the rest of the day from there.

on the way back into the city, the cab driver pointed out the city’s tallest building, we asked him to drop us up there so we could head up there for the view. when we pulled over at the building he hopped out with us, saying he'd help us get tickets. he quickly told some some stuff to a lady at a counter, and she then proceeded to charge us $20 US to go any further. we smelled BS so walked away and around. i went into the nearby KFC + asked some indian dude what was really up. he said it was a scam + you could go up for free. we walked an alternate route to the elevators, and made our way up. at the top level we found ourselves in a gift shop, with another woman trying to take $20 from us. we said we’d just look around the gift shop and head back down. we found our way into an empty restaurant with a view, snuck in ,and began taking pictures. the lady quickly came and started yelling at us. so I started yelling back, telling her to quit trying to rip us off. I came pretty close to pretending to call the police, but when she got out her radio and started barking away in Malay, I lost that game of chicken. I told her to just let us go down, she yelled at us some more, we hopped in our elevator and went down. a little more unsure of who was in the wrong.

after a short walk to the hotel, we took respite in the lobby and had a drink. mom ordered the high tea, while liz + I had something with a little more kick (something tropical for her, and an irish coffee for me). mom’s hi-tea included 3 plates of delicious, some Malay fried foods, some local desserts, and of course, fresh fruit, to which we all availed ourselves as the rain started to really come down outside. our discussion topics varied, but we spent quite a bit of time talking about education, given we were in the prescence of 2 of the MPS’s finest (that’s Montgomery Public Schools for the non Alabamians reading this). it’s interesting to talk the opportunities of a system you were once part of, while maintaining a inside-outters stance (having long since moved on from that part of the country/world, and now working for a large multi-national corporation) – or would I be classified as an outsider-inner?

we convinced mom + liz to join us for one last jaunt through Penang, this time through Chinatown, which Kat + I were eager to see, given the large Chinese population in Penang. we arrived to find it mostly closed for the afternoon. we popped into a grocery store, where mom, in full form, talked up the store owner about all the various herbs and foods for sale inside. Kat gave what limited Chinese insight she could (about as much Indian insight as I could have presented in a similar situation). we focused on the packaged goods, myself having made a delicious 5 RMB discovery of orange flavored chocolate pirouettes.

as we walked further down the streets, we soon noticed stores beginning to open up, ready for the Sunday night eruption of people out for one last shopping/eating trip before the work week began. towards the end of our brief walking tour, we came across the backpackers part of town, situated in Chinatown. there were many hostels, travel agents, and small bookstores, full of used books left behind by many the traveler. unfortunately, they were in no order whatsoever (other than language), something I’d notice throughout my south Asia travels, so my paperback perusing and purchasing was limited.

we cabbed back the hotel, retrieved our luggage, changed and refreshed ourselves, and caught our cab to the far south end of the island, where the small, but ultra-modern airport was. we had a quick bite at a local chicken joint, made it through customs/security, and killed a lot of time in the airport gift stores, since the announcement for plane-boarding, as in Thailand, was extremely pre-emptive. it was a short plane hop home (<90>

the next day, mom and liz would catch their flight back to the States, as Kathryn and I would begin plotting our trips for our remaining weekends together in Asia. but the Malaysia trip will always remain a unique one, not only for our company, but also for our efficient coverage of the peninsula by all means of transportation - bus, taxi, rickshaw, train, ferry, plane. oh, and walking, plenty of walking.

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