Kuala Lampor 2/11-2/13
My first thought on arriving in Kuala Lampor (KL) was it’s soooo hot. Going to Seoul’s airport in below freezing weather and walking off a plane on to a tarmac in 90 degree (35c?) weather will catch your attention. My next thoughts on the bus ride into the city was that there were a lot of nice middle-class looking houses and, as I got closer to the city, that there were a lot of modern looking and architecturally interesting looking business towers. I was able to find my way to my hostel pretty easily using the subway and noticed that in between all the tall, modern buildings were lots of smaller, older buildings, many of which had a distinctive Indian and Arab designs to them. I was clearly in a part of the world I had not been before.
The racial, ethnic and religious diversity in Malaysia is remarkable. I’ve normally only thought about diversity in terms of race. However, on top of Malaysia’s diverse racial makeup, which is mostly made up of Indians, ethnic Chinese and various indigenous Malaysians groups; it has Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists all interacting effortlessly, seamlessly and peacefully. At least that’s the impression I received, as an outside observer. Along with this, many people are wearing the garbs of their cultural and/or religious backgrounds along with modern clothing and business suits. As an American, this, along with the architectural aesthetics I mentioned earlier, all work together to create a very exotic atmosphere with an amazing blend of modern and old.
On my first night in KL, I was exhausted from the past week of “soaking it all in in Korea,” packing, and moving. This was unfortunate because the hostel I stayed at, The Reggae Mansion, had quite a party going on it’s roof. While normally I would have been right up there with everyone, all I really wanted to do was sleep. This was made difficult because this hostel apparently also wants to be a bumping night club which of course meant blasting music and a very loud, obnoxious MC yelling into a mic until 3 am. Maybe it’s just me, but I think a place should either be a hostel or night club. NOT BOTH! Now that I got my old-man rant out of the way…
My next two days in KL were spent walking around the central part of the city, seeing the very impressive Petronas Towers, visiting the Batu Caves, walking around some night markets and alternating meals between KL’s Little India and its China Town. However, the city was loud, busy, hot and a little dirty. Since I was coming from one of the world’s largest cities, I was not really up for this. So I was excited to get out of there and headed south.
Melaka is a smallish city on Malaysia’s east coast. It has a large and historic China Town and a long history with Europeans. There are the tiny remains of an old Portuguese fort that was built in 1511. Anyway, my plans to come down south and chill out here were quickly ruined since I had not calculated for the fact that the day I arrived was the last weekend of Chinese New Years. Getting a hostel was hard and the streets were overrun with mostly Chinese tourists visiting and celebrating. While I was looking to chill out, I’m glad I was there for the end of New Years. As soon as I found a place to stay, I put my bags down and hit the streets to see the seemingly endless parades going around on the streets.
On that first night, I ran into some people I met on the bus ride down from KL. We grabbed a beer and hung out. After just a few minutes of taking our seats, we started to smell smoke. Then we saw smoke. Then we saw people running down the street in our direction. The heavy smoke quickly gave way to bright flames as the 700 year old building about 200 feet down the street from us burst into flames. While I don’t know what the cause of the fire was, it’s easy to imagine that it was related to some of the fireworks or ceremonial candles that were lit all over the place for the new years. Given all the buildings in this part of town are connected, it was impressive that the firefighters were able to limit the fire to just this one building.
The next day, despite new year’s being over, the town remained full, and I decided to move on. I was still in search of a more chilled out spot. In fact, this desire to chill out caused me to decide to not to go to Singapore. From all the feedback I was hearing, it was a nice city, but a city nonetheless, and I wasn’t up for any more city living. Calling this kind of audible is exactly the kind of freedom I intended to have on this trip. With no set plans or reservations, I have no place to be. I can make and change plans freely. If I don’t like a place, I can leave. If I love a place, I can stay longer. This is ideal traveling to me.
Cameron Highlands 2/15-2/18
I went to the Cameron Highlands, north of KL, mostly to escape the warm weather. While I haven’t been long suffering in the heat, the temperature change has been a bit much. The Highlands are comfortably warm during the day and refreshingly cool at night and, best of all, the chilly temperatures justify me carrying around a heavy sweatshirt and long pants which I don’t think I’ll get to use again until I get to Nepal sometime in May. Anyway, the Highlands are nice. While they are much more developed in terms of hotels and chalets than I had expected, everything is seemingly set up to cater to Malaysian tourists and things are much more relaxed here than anywhere else I’ve been so far. The small town I stayed in, Tanah Rata, has a business strip maybe 300 meters long that is lined mostly with Indian and Chinese restaurants and one Starbucks just as reminder that I hadn’t gotten that far off the beaten path. The town itself is full of large Land Rovers offering jungle trekking tours, buses transporting tourists and beautifully maintained 1979 Mercedes taxis painted in pastel colors to take people to the many nearby smaller towns.
Hiking is the main activity here and with some mountains topping out at more than 2000m (6,000ft), there are some pretty difficult trails to choose from. On my first day, me and some guys I met on the bus ride up here rented bikes and just cruised up and down some of the country roads through tea plantations and strawberry fields. We got some good views but felt like lazy bums as we passed several groups of hikers who were actually making the same trip on foot.
We attempted to alleviate our guilt the next day by actually hiking one of the many trails near the town. We chose to do trail 3 which went through the jungle and promised to drop us off right at a Buddhist temple. However, we couldn’t find where it started (they want me to say “I couldn’t find it”), but we did somehow end up by trail 6 and decided to do that instead since it would eventually meet up with trail 3. With just a few extra kilometers worth of hiking, we’d still get to see the temple. Well, those few kilometers made a world of difference. The nice walking path it started out as quickly turned up hill. We were grabbing at roots and trees to pull ourselves up to complete each step. Arriving at the top of the mountain only provided a momentary relief as we then had to descend the other side. It was equally as steep and difficult to get down.
The 2k hike to meet up with trail 3 ended up taking about an hour and a half during which we had all sweated through our clothes and drank most of the small amount of water we had brought with us, but it was too late to turn back now. Besides, where the two trails met, the terrain had flattened out nicely. This was also the only place on the trail where saw any other hikers: a Russian family with full packs and two very young children who couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. This, we assumed, was a clear indication that the trail from here on out would be much more manageable. Our assumption was wrong, and the second half of the trail ended up being steeper and more rugged than the first. The downhills, on top of being steeper were also now wet because it had started raining. After three hours we did complete our “5k hike” and made it to the temple. (They obviously don’t count ups and downs as part of the distance.) I wish I could tell you the temple was amazing and beautiful, but I can’t. Also, and much more concerning, I have not seen that Russian family since.
Penang is an island just off the west coast of Malaysia. It has historically been a meeting point of cultures for centuries with Indians, Chinese, Malayans and Europeans (who arrived much later) all settling on this island. The result of this, many will tell you, is some of the best food fusion to be found anywhere in the world. Penang is considered by many, including my favorite travel/food expert, Anthony Bourdain, to be the food capital of Malaysia, if not the entire region. With this in mind, I ate and ate and ate. I ate at hawker stalls on the street, night markets, highly recommended restaurants and a few places in between. However, because we’re not that kind of website, I wont be sharing any pictures of the food (go satisfy for food-porn needs somewhere else, you sickos). The food lived up to the considerable hype and was truly extraordinary with the sole exception of laksa, Penang’s most famous dish. This fish-based, noodle-soup concoction is said to best illustrate the fusion of flavors that has taken place on the island over the centuries; however, I found it to be all but ineatable. After four bites, I had to concede that if it takes a sophisticated palette to appreciate this dish, then I have the palette of a dog eating food out of the garbage. Speaking of garbage, that is how I would describe the steamy hot bowl as tasting. The fact Bourdain raved so highly about this dish now calls into question all of his other food recommendations…just joking. But seriously, the idea that someone could eat that and enjoy it just goes to show how diverse people’s personal tastes can be.
Along with eating, there is a lot of sightseeing to do in Georgetown. The largest city on the island. It has a very old China Town and Little India full of old buildings, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and mosques and churches. There was also some fantastic street art, and I even went to a small batik art museum. If you’re not familiar with the batik method, it is very complex and tedious work that involves waxing and dying a piece of fabric over and over again to achieve each color seen on the work. This museum I visited featured Asian artists from all over SE Asia as well as China, all of whom did things with this medium I didn’t know were possible.
On my last day in Penange, Chris, an English guy I’d been traveling with since the Cameron Highlands, and I rented scooters and drove around the entire island. Sunburns insued, but it was a fun way to spend our last day on the island.