Because of the monsoon, we only got to see a little bit of Malaysia, namely the peninsular west coast. From what we saw, Malaysia is a nation with many influences–Malay, Chinese, Indian, British. These influences are seen in the food, people, languages, and architecture.
Tomorrow we are taking the ferry to the tropical islands of Thailand, so let’s recap the brief two weeks we were in Malaysia.
Top three experiences?
- Eating the bean sprouts in Ipoh.
- Exploring Georgetown. It has great colonial architecture and nice people.
- Lounging in Traders in KL.
- Penang. With the rich history of Georgetown, the great food, and the amazingly decorated temples, what’s not to love?
- Cameron Highlands. It felt great to get back to cooler weather for a change.
- Ipoh. Great food, and the cave temples were pretty neat.
Bottom three experiences?
- The rain. Besides ruining some of our day plans, the monsoon prevented us from going east, where (I’m told) the best areas of Malaysia are.
- The ferry ride from Penang to Langkawi. The waves were huge and I was out of travel sickness medication. Luckily I didn’t get sick, but several other people on the boat did. Yuck.
- Generally being underwhelmed by Malaysia. It’s a nice place and I enjoyed myself, but nothing really struck me as amazing. As Ben from Ipoh said, “It doesn’t have that wow factor.”
- The night train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. It was already a bad night for Nikki, and this train didn’t help. The vestibule door wouldn’t close, so it was loud and the lights were on all night.
- Getting around in Kuala Lumpur. Crossing a busy street usually involved trust that the approaching cars would stop.
- Laundry in Kuala Lumpur. In Indonesia there were plenty of places that would wash laundry for you for very, very cheap. But not in Kuala Lumpur. We spent an afternoon hunting down such a place, and it turned out to be very expensive. We should have just done it in the sink at Traders like we’ve been doing in previous countries.
Nikki: We’ve had many great meals, but my favorite was (you guessed it) the Ipoh bean sprouts and chicken.
Brad: The meal at “Restaurant The Best” in Ipoh. The salted chicken was unbelievable!
Nikki: An Indian food tent in the Cameron Highlands. Just not very good.
Brad: Take-away breakfast at Kenny Rogers’ restaurant in a Kuala Lumpur food court. Not a fan of runny scrambled eggs.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: I’m going to have to say that hotel worker in Georgetown, just because he made my Christmas. And he was always very nice to us and remembered us by name.
Brad: Ben from Los Angeles. He was very friendly, gave us lots of good tips (like Taiwan and the trans-Siberian railroad), and we got great dinner. I wish we could have found a durian vendor though.
Nikki: Don’t think we had any disasters, luckily! Closest thing to a disaster was not being able to eat our Christmas dinner at the restaurant we had chosen, but it worked out fine anyway.
Brad: We weren’t intending to spend very long on Langkawi island, mostly because we knew lodging would be so expensive. But we had to, because we booked a ferry from Penang to Langkawi and the ferries to Ko Lipe were sold out until three days later. We’ve tried making up for the expensiveness of this place by making our own food, and since it’s a duty-free island, beer is very, very cheap.
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: Traders in KL.
Brad: Hands-down, Traders in Kuala Lumpur. The five-star hotel was incredible.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: Kang’s Traveler’s Lodge in the Cameron Highlands. Our room was like a small, musty cell. At least it was cheap and there was a nice common area with free internet!
Brad: 75 Travelers Lodge in Georgetown. It was cheap, and in Malaysia with lodging you get what you pay for.
Best thing we didn’t blog about?
Nikki: We had to take the public bus out to Kek Lok Si in Georgetown. The bus driver knew where we were going, but we thought we saw the temple through the window, so I went up to ask him where we should get off. As soon as he saw me, he freaked out because we had already passed our stop and he had forgot to tell us. But he saw a bus coming in the opposite direction, so he pulled our bus over, motioned to us to follow him, ran out of the bus, flagged down the other bus and told the driver to take us to our stop for free. Super nice of him!
Brad: Geocaching in Langkawi. We found a cache at the “OASIS”, a fun restaurant near the beach. We got a couple beers and some wedge fries and it was a great place to relax.
Nikki: The Buddhist playground outside of Nan Tian Tong temple. Super creepy.
Brad: The Angry Birds merchandise that’s everywhere. We saw hats, shirts, flip-flops, balloons, backpacks, and shoes. How did a silly iPod game ever get so popular? And what will happen to all this stuff when the fad is over?
Statistics for Malaysia
- Days in the country: 16
- Places we stayed: 5
- Rainy days: 6
- Blog posts: 3
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 1
- Photos taken: 497
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 157, 31% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 3
- Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 22
- Rides on Kuala Lumpur trains: 13
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 5
- Days on the road: 120
- Places we stayed: 61
- Rainy days: 28
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 8
- Photos taken: 4842
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 999, 21% of all photos taken
- Geocaches found: 3
- Scuba dives: 14
- Hours on bus, train, or ferry: 116
- Plane flights: 7
We spent several days in the Cameron Highlands area, where the main draw is the weather. The average high temperature is only 70 degrees and it can get down to the 50s at night.
It was very nice to have a break from the heat and humidity! We even had dig our jackets out from the bottom of our backpacks. While enjoying the weather, we went to the top of nearby Mount Brinchang. The road was under construction, so we could only go up so far before we had to get out and walk the rest of the way. After a steep twenty minute walk, we were rewarded with a view of absolutely nothing. It was all just fog and mist. Oh well! We also went for a hike through the aptly named Mossy Forest and took a tour of the Boh Tea factory. Tea plantations dominate the countryside, making the hills look like they’re covered in manicured English hedges. It was very beautiful.
For our Christmas weekend we went to Georgetown on the island of Penang. The city has been named a World Heritage Site because of the many colonial buildings. On Sundays they don’t allow cars in the historical district, so it’s easy to wander around and take some pictures. Unfortunately, many of the buildings are crumbling and in bad need of restoration. Culturally, the area has quite a mix of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian heritage, so there is a lot of yummy food and interesting temples around. We spent several hours exploring Kek Lok Si alone, a very large Buddhist temple a little ways out of town. I don’t know what was weirder about Kek Lok Si, the enormous statue of Kuan Yin or the multiple gift shops selling all sorts of religious tchotchke.
Christmas was pretty uneventful, really. The manager of our hotel, a kind old Chinese man, gave us each a present in the morning. It was just a little chocolate bar, but I was touched by his thoughtfulness and it was nice to unwrap something. A few random locals on the street wished us a Merry Christmas, but other than that, there weren’t many reminders that it was Christmas. We had picked out a restaurant to go to for dinner, but when we found out the cab ride would be about $20, we scrapped that plan and ate at a random caf?? that ended up having very good fish and chips.
Now we’re in Langkawi, staying at a nice place in the middle of nowhere. It’s very quiet and we’ve spent most of our time getting ready for our next stop: Thailand! I’m so excited! Since we got our visas in advance, we can spend up to sixty days in the country if we want. If we do that, we won’t get to see much of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, but at least we have the option to stay if we want. We’ll just have to see what we think of it!
After KL, we went to Ipoh. Like I mentioned in the last post, it has a reputation for good food, but not many tourists go there. When we were checking out of Traders, the lady at the desk asked us where we were going next. I said Ipoh. She must have thought she had misunderstood me, because she looked very confused and asked me to repeat myself. I said, “Ipoh,” again, and this time she gave me a knowing nod and said, “Ah, yes, to eat.”
And we did eat well. The first night we saw a few large, open-air restaurants jam-packed with customers. We walked by one and peered in to see what everyone was eating. An old man sitting there saw us, waved, pointed to his plate and gave us a thumbs-up sign. I don’t know about you, but my motto is, “If random elderly people recommend food to you, you should eat it.” We found an empty table and sat down. There were no menus or signs. The waiter simply asked for our drink order and if we wanted noodles or rice. We chose noodles and then sat there, wondering what on earth we were going to get. A few minutes later, he brought out the restaurant’s specialty (I think it was the only thing they served, actually), Ipoh bean sprouts and chicken. While we were eating, I couldn’t get over how good the bean sprouts were. I mean, you might be thinking, really, how good can bean sprouts be? Well, let me tell you, they can be incredible! These were the best ever. Later on I read that Ipoh bean sprouts are some of the best you can find and restaurants all over Malaysia will special order them. I can see why.
Our other dinner was equally memorable. I wanted to try salted chicken, a legendary, “must-try” dish while in Ipoh. We looked up the restaurant that had it and asked at our hotel front desk how to get there. After several minutes of them having no idea what I was talking about, they finally exclaimed, “Salt chicken! You want salt chicken, yes! You are too late, you have to order in morning.” Darn. They graciously offered to get us a salted chicken for the next night, but we were planning on leaving. A little disappointed, we went out looking for something else.
I should probably mention that earlier in the day, we had randomly met Ben, a retired CPA from LA, while out walking around. Shortly after we left our hotel that night, we ran into him again and he invited us out to dinner. We went to the boastful “Restaurant The Best” and ordered several dishes to share: soup, vegetables, BBQ pork and, to my relief, a few salted chicken drumsticks. (Not a whole salted chicken, but better than nothing.) Ben was very fun to talk with, especially since he’s done a lot of traveling. He inspired us to go to Taiwan and to take the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow, both of which I’m really excited about! After dinner, we each ordered a dessert tea. I ended up with the white fungus tea. Next time I’ll stick to ice cream.
There is a bit more to Ipoh than food. They have some interesting colonial-era architecture that is worth taking a look at. We also took a bus just a few minutes out of town to see the cave temples. There are several of them and they’re literally Buddhist temples inside of limestone caves. You actually walk through a cave, complete with stalagmites and stalactites, to gold statues of deities and prayer altars. It was a very strange and cool experience. One of them, Sam Poh Tong, had hundreds of sacred tortoises swimming in a trash-filled pond. (You would think the sacred tortoises would have a better habitat.) Nan Tian Tong, just up the road, had what amounted to a religious theme park for children out front. We thought it was a little creepy.
Wow, I can’t believe I had that much to say about Ipoh. Guess I’ll wrap this post up and save our next stop, the Cameron Highlands, for next time.
We’ve spent the last several days in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. I wasn’t all that impressed by KL, to be honest. For one thing, it’s not very pedestrian-friendly. Sidewalks suddenly vanish or have cars parked on them and many of the intersections don’t have crosswalks or pedestrian light signals. We had to just wait until we thought it was okay and then bolt across. There is both a subway system and a monorail, but the two are not connected very well. And the sights we did see weren’t that memorable. Besides all that, the pace of KL drove me nuts. I’m a notoriously pokey person and even I was annoyed with how slowly the people and escalators move. Since we came straight from ultra-efficient Singapore, we were constantly comparing the two (probably unfairly). “This would never happen in Singapore!” became our catchphrase in KL.
To be fair, we didn’t spend as much time exploring the city as we normally would have. Like clockwork, it rained every afternoon from about 1:00 to 5:00. When it wasn’t raining, we had errands to deal with, like mailing our insurance documents and going to the Thai Embassy to get visas. But the main reason we didn’t spend much time out and about was our awesome hotel. For our Christmas present, my mom, Jim, Al and B paid for us to stay in Traders, a five star hotel right across from the Petronas Towers, so we spent most of our time enjoying the luxuries of air conditioning, TV, internet, hot showers, a king size bed and room service. It was incredible!
There were a few highlights from the times we did venture out. Even though the Petronas Towers are no longer the tallest buildings in the world, they were still very impressive, especially at night. Traders is connected to a huge convention center that was hosting the “Comic Fiesta” for a few days, so we got to see many Asian nerds dressed up in elaborate costumes of anime characters. We also decided to try geocaching. When we found the tree the cache was hidden in, it was surrounded by about ten people. As we walked up to them, someone said, “Are you geocachers? We’re doing an article about geocaching for a magazine!” Turns out they were a few writers as well as the fashion editor and editor-in-chief for Esquire Malaysia. They invited us to come place new caches with them, so we tagged along. The editor-in-chief, Sam, was quite a character, to say the least. I’ve read that hummingbirds can flap their wings 80 times per second. That was the pace Sam seemed to operate at. I also got a kick out of his foul-mouthed wisecracks. And the most important highlight of KL, for me at least, was successfully using a squat toilet! Hopefully my days of toilet disasters are over.
Next we’ll be going to Ipoh, a town famous for its food. It will be hard leaving our fancy hotel and returning to our modest backpacking lifestyles, but I guess I better get used to it. After all, we’ve got a long trip in front of us!
I was expecting to enjoy Singapore, but I didn’t realize I would love it as much as I did. Singapore is its own country, but it’s really just one big city. The population is about 5 million, making it the third most densely populated country in the world. It didn’t seem that crowded, though, because it’s so modern, clean and efficient. It’s famous for its strict laws, like banning chewing gum. While it is really clean (especially compared to Indonesia), I think people exaggerate how clean it is. It’s not like it’s spotless. You do occasionally see litter on the street. Another way it really stood out from Indonesia is wealth. It’s clearly a very well-off country. In fact, its GDP per capita makes it the fifth richest country in the world. (The US is the sixth.)
It’s hot and humid all year and gets a decent amount of rain, but most of the malls and subways are connected by underground, air-conditioned tunnels. There were a couple of times I didn’t realize how long we had been inside until we came out and saw the weather had totally changed. The two main national pastimes are shopping and eating. Brad and I did our fair share of both! The shopping malls are really something else. They mainly expand upwards and if you go to the escalators and look up, you just see floors and floors of escalators towering up. In Little India we went in the Mustafa Center, a department store that’s like Walmart on steroids. I’ve never seen such a wide variety of items for sale in the same store.
For the most part, the food was cheap and delicious. We mostly ate in hawker stalls, which are basically former food carts that stay in one place now. Finding the good stuff was easy. Just go in a food court and look for the longest line. All the different ethnicities have influenced the food, resulting in a yummy culinary mash up. The most popular foods are Malaysian, Thai, Chinese and Indian, but I’m sure you’d be able to find pretty much whatever you wanted. We tried many new things, like sugar cane juice and egg tarts. The juice was just a light, refreshing, slightly sweet drink, but I can only describe the egg tarts as having an egg for dessert. I know that doesn’t sound very good, but they are amazing. So good, in fact, that we went back to get more the next day.
Brad and I did a few touristy things besides shopping and eating. Our hostel was in Chinatown, so we spent quite a bit of time there and saw a couple of temples, including the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. (The tooth was not open for viewing when we were there.) We also went down to Boat Quay and the whole area around the river where there’s lots of fun restaurants, bars, bridges and buildings. One night we just happened to see a full lunar eclipse when we looked up at the sky and another night we did the Night Safari at the zoo. The Night Safari was cool because they focus mostly on Asian animals. I saw several creatures I had never even heard of, including a civet and a golden cat. Plus the animals are more active at night. We also went to the National Museum and went for a short walk in Mount Faber Park.
Yes, it was a pretty jam-packed three days and we were exhausted by the end, but it was so much fun! I really wish we could have stayed longer, but we had already made our plans to go to Kuala Lumpur. I’ll just have to add it to the list of great places I’m hoping to see again sometime.
Top three experiences?
- Eating! I don’t think I’ve ever had so much excellent food in such a short time.
- Walking along the river at night. We had a really fun night out and then were surprised by an eclipse on our way back.
- The general feel of the city. Parts of Bali just seemed like total chaos to me. It was nice to get back to such a neat, orderly place.
- The sheer organization of the place. The bus and trains systems is actually integrated, shopping malls were connected to the trains by vast underground stations, and everything clearly marked in four languages. It was also extremely clean. (The psychology section of a bookstore had a disproportionate number of OCD self-help books, and I can see why.)
- The food. There’s such a wide variety of foods from all over the world, and it’s really cheap. The food courts and hawker stalls are amazing. Chili crab, invented in Singapore, is delicious.
- Night Safari. A nighttime zoo seemed weird, but it was actually very interesting, and the animals were very active. On the tram that runs through the park, there are areas where there isn’t any fence between animal and human–only cattle stops keep the animals in. The big game animals were very close and surprisingly active when we saw them. The only downside is the lighting was adequate for seeing the creatures, but not for photography.
Bottom three experiences?
- See worst disaster.
- Waiting around in our hostel for the bathroom to open up. We stayed in a really fun, clean place, but it only had one toilet in the girl’s bathroom.
- The metro ended service a little after midnight, so we had to pay for taxis twice. As nice as their underground system is, I wish it would run later.
Brad: I’m being picky here because I’m having a hard time finding three things…
- The weather in December. We were rained out on one of the days, and there was some rain on the other days.
- The MRT stops running fairly early. We got stranded after the Night Safari and had to take a taxi back to Chinatown. However, this is the same with many other cities (including Madison).
- Chopsticks. I’m going to have a difficult time in Japan.
Nikki: The chili crab we had on our first night. Messy and expensive, but worth it. Especially with the dumplings to soak up the extra chili sauce. Mmmmmm!
Brad: A simple fried chicken rice dish we had at a hawker stall in Chinatown. That, and a tall glass of sugarcane juice finished with an egg tart. Egg tarts are strange but delicious–think of scrambled eggs as in dessert form enclosed in a pie crust.
I liked the chili crab except for how messy it was. We had to wear bibs, and our table looked like toddlers ate at it.
Nikki: Rice rolls with prawns from a dim-sum place. Not nearly as good as it sounded.
Brad: The dim sum place we ate one night in Chinatown. I don’t know how I was supposed to eat chicken with bone using only chopsticks and a soup spoon. Too messy, and the chicken was a strange shade of pink.
Favorite person we met?
Nikki: We didn’t talk to many people, but I did meet a nice girl from England who had come from Thailand and Malaysia and was going on to Bali, Australia and New Zealand–the same itinerary as us, but in reverse.
Brad: A fellow traveler from Sri Lanka who lives in Japan.
Nikki: My Singapore disaster happened right before we left. (I’m telling this story against my better judgment.) Our train to KL didn’t leave until 11:30 at night and our hostel would only store our bags until 7:00 PM. Normally when we have a gap like that and we’re stuck with our bags, we just go to the airport or bus station and hang out there, but Brad had read there was nothing at this train station. So, to pass the time, we went to a nearby restaurant with a really good happy hour. After drinking several Tigers (the local beer), I really had to pee. Brad said he wanted to get a cheap ice cream from McDonald’s, so I decided to just use the bathroom there. We walk over to the McDonald’s only to find there’s no bathroom. At this point, I really have to go, so I leave my bags with Brad and hurry down to the subway station. When I turn the corner into the bathroom, I see a huge line! I kind of dance a little and impatiently wait in line. Finally, it’s my turn and I pretty much run to the stall. Now, Singapore public bathrooms usually have both western-style toilets and squat toilets. Of course the one I ran into was a squatter, which I had never used before. At this point, I have no time to wait for a western one, so I decide to just wing it and use the squat one. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m very careful and try really hard to keep my pants away from the pee and out of the water. Once I’m all done, I stand back up and I’m really pleased with myself–until I look down at my leg. I had peed down the entire bottom half of my left leg. Oh, no.
You might be wondering what I did next. Well, I took a deep breath, held my head up high and marched right out like nothing had happened. It’s all about confidence. At least my pants are of the quick-drying variety!
Brad: It all went very smoothly. Nikki’s backpack got stuck in the x-ray machine as we were passing into Malaysia and the officials had to use a pole to pull it out. (This was after she peed on herself. Rough night for her.)
Nikki: The language here. They call it “Singlish,” and it’s like English with a really strong accent and a bunch of Chinese words thrown in. Very difficult to understand. At least the signs are in plain English!
Brad: The sign during a nature walk that informed us that tree branches do occasionally fall. I guess when the entire country is just city, some people might not know that?
Statistics for Singapore
- Days in the country: 3
- Places we stayed: 1
- Rainy days: 1
- Blog posts: 1, just this one
- Photos taken: 174
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 51, 29% of all photos taken
- Rides on the MRT: 12
Statistics for the Trip
- Countries visited: 4
- Days on the road: 103
- Places we stayed: 56
- Rainy days: 22
- Photos taken: 4345
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 842, 19% of all photos taken