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.

1 comment:

  1. Your verbose entries are helping me to plan my trip. Thanks for being so long-winded, enthusiastic and descriptive! =)


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