Waiting for Singapore

Day 64
Melaka, Malaysia

It’s a shame that our trip through this country ended in such an unimpressive place. I’ve found Malaysia a fascinating country — it’s unlike anywhere in the world that I’ve ever visited — and the diversity of its people has been matched only by that of our many destinations, from the cool Highlands to the cosmopolitan KL. And while Melaka certainly is an historic place, we’ve generally been disappointed here: the sights, lackluster museums and oppressive heat have not made this anyone’s favorite spot. Needless to say, for the first time, we’re all actually looking forward to a bus ride tomorrow morning.

We had a late start to the day, and after a coffee at Starbucks (perhaps Melaka’s saving grace), we learned that two of our travel companions left early this morning for Singapore — guess being here was just too much for them! While we debated joining the club, it didn’t seem worth the hassle, and everyone went their separate ways. Shopping and the spa were top destinations for the ladies, as was a visit to Afamosa, a water park almost an hour outside of town.

None of this sounded terribly appealing to me. But the Equatorial had a beautiful and empty outdoor pool on its 4th floor. Nobody gave me a second look after settling into a comfortable lounge chair, breaking out my book and relaxing away the afternoon.

Tonight, we might visit the night market in Chinatown before grabbing some dinner and packing. But most of our minds are already set on Singapore, where we’ll be heading tomorrow morning.

Taste of luxury in Melaka

Day 63
Melaka, Malaysia

“What day of the week is it?”

It’s the first thing that popped into my head this morning. After some consultation with my roommate and double-checking the trip itinerary, we decided on Wednesday. Still, it got me thinking of how much life has changed in the last two months; when you’re traveling like this, Monday is really no different than Thursday nor Saturday. It’s just another day on the road.

Still, we did know that today, like every other day on this trip, we’d be on board another bus, this time to Melaka. We arrived at the station and hopped on the most awesomely decorated bus — with groovy curtains, fake flowers, a couple of Ferrari stickers, even a Power Rangers mask! We were about to give the driver props on his style, but he then started blasting a thumping techno soundtrack of late 90s dance music. It continued for the 2-hour journey, which again made me thankful to have Bose noise canceling headphones.

We arrived in Melaka, a port city, just before 2 p.m. and piled into taxis to our hotel, the Fenix Inn. It’s a clean, if somewhat nondescript and bland place, with an absolutely hilarious “Souvenir Price List” for every item in the room! Anyone interested in a hanger for 5 ringgit ($1.75USD) — or a television remote control for 70?

Our leader (and Lonely Planet) told us that outside of some mediocre museums and historic sights, there was very little to do in this city. Exactly why then we decided to stop here is beyond me. Yet, we didn’t want to discount Melaka without giving it a fair chance, so we grabbed some lunch and walked to the Old Town Square, where Dutch mansions sit beside Portuguese churches — all in close proximity to Chinese temples. This port’s strategic location has clearly made it an attractive spot for many.

Generally unimpressed, we thought that maybe a boat tour might offer a better introduction — yet, it was only filthy water, run down buildings and a horribly annoying guide that we considered paying just to keep quiet.

Overwhelmed by the heat, in denial over leaving the cosmopolitan capital and generally questioning why we’d ending up in this city, we returned to the hotel, showered and did the only thing that we thought could improve our spirits: make a beeline to the nearest 5-star establishment. Here in Melaka, that proved relatively easy, and before long we were on our way to the Majestic.

At the Mansion, we were treated to an absolutely delicious meal, including baked local Melaka crabs, impeccable service (how nice to have a crisp, pressed napkin unfolded into one’s lap) and a beautiful setting. It’s amazing how a 190 ringgit ($60USD) three-course dinner with wine improved our spirits by about a million.

Afterwards, we made our way over to the city’s other 5-star hotel, the Equatorial, for some live music, pool and after-dinner drinks. Listening to a cover band belt out Bon Jovi almost made me wonder why in the heck I’d traveled around the world — all in search of the life I’d left behind. But then, my Black Label arrived, and the question escaped my mind.

A day back home?

Day 62
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

KL, with 1.4 million people, is a rapidly growing metropolis set in a jungle landscape. It’s a compact city, and for Asia, very cosmopolitan and Western. With what seems like a Starbucks on every block, English well and widely spoken and luxury shopping complexes (a la Time Warner Center), this is Dubai-light, and it reminds me a lot of home.

We were up early this morning to queue up for a visit to the Petronas Twin Towers, this country’s most recognizable landmark. These were the tallest buildings in the world (at 451.9 meters) until 2004, when Taiwan’s Taipei 101 took over the honor, albeit only temporarily, as Dubai’s Burj Dubai now nears completion. After waiting around a half hour, we got our free tickets and were told to return at 12:45 p.m.

In the meantime, we had a Starbucks and then a nice Western breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and fruit before heading to Aquaria KLCC, a nearby aquarium. It is purported to have the longest “underwater tunnel” in the world — a 90 meter moving sidewalk that offers a unique underside perspective to sea life, including this monster, swimming above.

We walked back to the Petronas, global headquarters of the national petroleum company. After a brief propaganda video extolling the virtues of natural resource consumption, we boarded a high speed elevator for a 45-second ride to the 41st floor Sky Bridge connecting the towers. This is an engineering marvel and offers a great view of the surrounding city as well as a detailed look at the structure itself.

We took a cab to Bintang Walk, a stretch of malls in the entertainment and shopping district. Our first stop was the Pavillion — a largely upscale yet desolate place that would give the Westchester or Tyson’s a run for the money — and got blue-cheese burgers at the American institution, Tony Roma’s. It should be noted that after two meals, we still had not ate local food.

Not interested in leaving the air conditoning, we passed a multiplex and decided that devoid of Hollywood entertainment for two months, it was time to take the plunge. The new Indiana Jones was playing in English. Tickets were 8 ringgit ($2.50USD). The movie was okay, Harrison Ford is old and I’m not sure what the deal was with the space ship.

Back at the hotel, we showered and then returned to the Petronas for dinner. One of the restaurants there had sushi on the menu (from where, I’m not sure), but we needed a Japanese fix and ordered anyway. It was delicious. Hopefully, I’ll feel the same way tomorrow morning, when our bus to Melaka, our final destination in Malaysia, departs.

Being a VIP in KL

Day 61
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Based on our previous two bus trips, we awoke this morning with a fair amount of trepidation. When we arrived at the terminal, however, we learned that our leader (perhaps sensing an imminent mutiny among the group) had bought us tickets aboard a “Super VIP” coach for our 4-hour ride to Kuala Lumpur. This meant that although the bus wasn’t any newer, it did have air conditioning and reclining seats, both welcomed at 8 o’clock in the morning. Indeed, life was good behind the exclusive velvet rope, until an emergency exit door in the back swung open, leaving one of our travel companions sitting precariously close to the edge. Guess you can’t have it all on Malaysian buses — that is, both comfort and safety.

After checking into our rooms at the Mayview Glory Hotel — a relatively clean but loud joint about 500-feet from a frequently passing subway that shakes our windows — we hopped into a cab for an orientation of KL. Our first stop with the National Mosque (Marjid Negara), a boxy, almost utilitarian structure built just over 100 years ago. The main dome is an 18-pointed star, one for each of the 13 Malaysian states and five for the Pillars of Islam.

We walked up one of the busy 6-lane thoroughfares that run through this capital city, stopping along the way for a quick workout at one of the many public exercise parks.

Our destination was Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, an historic location from which the Union Jack was lowered on August 31, 1957, marking the end of British colonial rule here. Today, there are fountains, flags and fields, as well as an architectural juxtaposition between old and new.

Rain came next and we found shelter in Central Market, a building filled with stalls selling more carvings, paintings, pottery and glassware than we even knew existed. After some aggressive bargaining, we walked away from buying some handcrafts, anticipating that once we left the store, we would be called back and the deal closed. This never happened, so we continued empty-handed and later were thankful.

Jalan Petaling is the main drag in Chinatown specializing in knock-off everything. Unlike in Shanghai in which vendors can’t sell these goods out in the open, here in Kuala Lumpur, anything goes. A Breitling watch bought by my roommate for 25 ringgit ($8USD) lasted about 6 hours before it stopped ticking — although it’s now working again and we’d classify its status as “temperamental.”

Drenched in sweat from having misjudged its distance from us, we arrived at the KL Tower, the fourth tallest communication tower in the world (at 421-meters), perched atop Bukit Nanas. Number three is the Shanghai Pearl. While wild monkeys played on the first level, it was the observation deck views from 276-meters, including that of the landmark Petronas Twin Towers, that stole the show.

We got back, showered and then headed back to an illuminated Petronas for a delicious (and Western) dinner — avocado salad, spaghetti with king prawns — at a trendy restaurant called The Apartment and then a couple of drinks at the scenic Sky Bar, on the top floor of the nearby Traders Hotel.

Trekking the Highlands

Day 60
Tanah Rata, Malaysia

Officially 3/4 of the way through my 80-day trip around the world, today was about pushing myself — and enjoying each remaining minute of this fantastic journey. After some eggs and a grandé iced latte from Starbucks (how they’ve managed to open a store here is beyond me), we met our guide for a day’s trek through the Cameron Highlands. The rest of my G.A.P teammates opted for other activities, leaving me with Calley, an infatigable 65-year-old life long resident, as well as two other young travelers from Germany. Wielding a machete, Calley led the way to our “trail” at the entrance to the thick jungle.

“I can tell within the first 5 minutes who can hike,” Calley said, as three guys in their mid-twenties sat panting at their first rest stop. “Can we hike?” I asked. “You can hike,” he said, before turning and starting what felt like a light jog through the uneven terrain. Along the way, we were shown a variety of plants that are used by the Malay people — as well as some that can be eaten for survival. We emerged from the jungle covered in sweat and underbrush.

We next hiked through the narrow paths of the Cameron Valley Tea fields, past workers, many of whom are from Nepal, harvesting the plants. At one point, we were so deep that it was tea for as far as the eye could see.

After crossing several burbling brooks and nearly face-planting twice, we passed a remote village inaccessible by car, where several children called out to us. Calley offered them some candy.

It was now time for the most difficult part of the trek, getting to the top of Gunung Perdah. The ascent was very steep and slippery from an earlier rain. There was a lot of sweat but after 90 minutes, we made it to the 1750 meter lookout! You can see our starting point way off in the distance — it’s the blue circular orb (actually a water purification plant) under my right armpit.

We made our way back down the treacherous path, following Calley as he nonchalantly skipped. In 6 hours, we covered 10 km, so “strenuous” would be a nice way describe today’s activity. But it was also one of the most rewarding. There was something about pushing myself physically, all while surrounded by the peace and serenity of nature. Unfortunately, my New Balances were not nearly as satisfied.

Our bus to Kuala Lumpur, this country’s capital, departs tomorrow morning.

My date with a rhinoceros beetle

Day 59
Tanah Rata, Malaysia

We were up just before 7 a.m. for our day of travel to this small town in the Cameron Highlands. After a short transfer to the terminal, we boarded a real beater of a public bus run by Kurnik Bistari Sdn. Bhd. If you ever happen to find yourself in Malaysia, traveling between Georgetown and Tanah Rata, don’t believe the pictures of the vehicles shown on the ticket kiosk window — they’re clearly for promotion purposes only.

There were times that our coach bus (circa 1970) had us covering less ground than yesterday’s funicular. An oversold bus meant sharing seats. Our driver also had a tendency to smoke, but only while filling us up with diesel. Guess this is what 23 ringgit, or $8USD, buys you for a 7-hour journey.

A pit stop at Ipoh was our halfway point. If the bus station there is any indication of what the rest of that city is like, I’ll never return. We did eventually make it onto the super-windy roads that lead to the Highlands and arrived in Tanah Rata at around 2:30 p.m. It is a whole different world at 1,500 meters above sea level; the air is cooler, the soil fertile and the vegetation lush. And our accommodation for the next two nights, the Hillview Inn, doesn’t get much better.

Having spent most of the day on a bus and with only limited time here, we hopped on a minivan to visit BOH Tea, which founded in 1929, is the country’s oldest. After a factory tour, we learned that all tea comes from the same plant; variety (like green or black) is based on the fermentation and drying process. Only freshly picked leaves have flavor so they must be harvested every 3 weeks. After a cup of Earl Grey with Tangerine and a slice of apple pie, we drove through the 600-acre plantation.

This area is also well known for its strawberries, so visiting a farm was our next stop. At Raaju Strawberry Farm in the nearby town of Salamat Datang, they served up some fresh and delicious fruit with a little honey and cream.

Down the road is a butterfly farm that also houses a variety of exotic insects, reptiles and birds from around the area. I’m told that this Three Horn Rhinoceros Beetle was not poisonous. Hopefully.

We got back to the inn for showers (even the bathrooms have scenic views) and walked into town as crickets and cicadas came to life. It all reminded me a bit of camp — until the mosque began its call to prayer. Dinner was at a Chinese restaurant that served up a mean plate of ginger beef. We had a couple of drinks at the bar of a nearby hostel and headed home.

The Pearl of the Orient

Day 58
Penang, Malaysia

Thousands of miles from the Pearl of the Adriatic sits the Pearl of the Orient, or the Malaysian state of Penang. The largest town on this island is Georgetown, whose British architecture and old street names harbor back to a colonial past. It’s worth noting again the strong sense of diversity you feel in a place like this — is it possible to define the Malaysian national identity? — and how remarkably well all of these different people appear to co-exist.

With only one day here, we hit the ground running early. Our first stop was Penang Hill, the tallest vantage point on the island at 821 meters. An ancient Swiss-built funicular from 1923 crawled us to the top in just over a half hour. The incline was steep and the 5 degree celsisus drop in temperature once at the summit, much welcomed.

While at the top, we stopped in a small restaurant for some nourishment. My gutsy roommate, noting the abundance of locals eating the same dish, ordered a Malaysian Ice Cream Sundae. It arrived with just about every ingredient but the kitchen sink — including beans, corn, nuts, licorice, fruit — and tasted as you would expect: like complete garbage.

Once back on the ground, we took a local bus a couple of stops to Kek Loksi Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia. Sitting atop the hillside at Air Itam, the temple was constructed in 1890 — it took 20 years to complete, and today, perpetual additions (a la Sagrada Famiglia) continue.

We walked back through a maze of market vendors, where a deck of knock-off Uno cards caught my eye among Buddha statues and other tourist schwag. After some negotiating, they were in my pocket for 3 ringgit, about $1USD. The day’s heat and humidity had left us dehydrated and drenched, so after a water refill, we grabbed taxis to Batu Ferringhi, or “Foreigner’s Rock.” This is a pleasant beach about 30 minutes from Georgetown, and while it doesn’t even come close to comparing to Thailand, it does offer a relaxing getaway — as well as views of my burgeoning flip-flop tan.

There’s a constant tout for water sports on the beach so we finally conceded to a banana boat ride. We jumped into the warm Strait of Melaka, climbed aboard an inflatable banana and were pulled briefly out to sea before our motorboat starting smoking and promptly went dead. Detaching us to float freely in the sea, our driver said another boat would return to pick us up. The two women in headscarves behind me glanced around nervously. “Maybe we could swim,” I joked. “We don’t swim,” they replied.

Alas, another boat soon arrived to take us on our bouncy 10-minute ride. The skies opened, which didn’t make much of a difference, and we headed back to the hotel, feeling remarkably cool and refreshed. For dinner, we walked to Little India, a section of Georgetown that felt as though we were in Mumbai. The ensuing feast of butter chicken, mixed vegetables in a curry sauce and garlic nan was much welcomed and quite delicious — and not only because it’s the first Indian food I’ve had in two months.

Another big travel day awaits us tomorrow when we take a 7-hour public bus to the Cameron Highlands. Can you sense my excitement?

The long road to Malaysia

Day 57
Penang, Malaysia

Still groggy from a couple of Chang beers with Derek and Andy last night, we set out from Ao Nang this morning at 8:30 a.m. It was a long haul through all of southern Thailand, which although certainly scenic, wasn’t very comfortable with 11 people packed into our small minivan. We stopped a couple of times for gas and food — with the dodgy rest stops, that was limited to Lay’s crisps and Coke Light.

After 6 hours, we arrived at the Butik Kayu Hitam border crossing with Malaysia. This was my second overland border crossing of my 80-day trip and was just as chaotic as my first. There were huge masses of people, lots of pushing, no queues and general unhappiness as we waited with our backpacks weighing us down. After exiting Thailand, we managed to find a couple of taxis that drove us to Malaysia to be stamped in. In the process, we set our clocks back an hour, pushing us to 12 hours behind the East Coast. Another bus was waiting to drive us the last leg to Penang, where we arrived at around 7 p.m.

This city on an island on the west coast of Malaysia has a long history. It was the East India Company’s first settlement on the Malay Peninsula and was later occupied by the British, then Japanese. Here, Indians, Chinese, Malay all mix; as do Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. Bollywood movies are shown at Chinese cinemas and the aroma from truly global cuisines fill the air. It’s a multiethnic melting pot and reminds me a lot of New York. Somehow it all works.

What didn’t remind me of home was our room at the Cathay Hotel — a decrepit, beat up place that probably hasn’t seen a renovation in 40 odd years. The shower has one temperature setting (“on”) and the provided towels weren’t even suitable for drying dishes. This is not a welcome sight after you spend 12 hours traveling to a city, are covered in sweat, grim and who knows what else, and just want a hot shower.

We later discovered that our ash-tray had not been cleaned out from our room’s previous occupant, and there was a mysterious jug whose contents could not be determined. Then, the helpful man downstairs offered to turn on our air conditioning, provided we pay him 10 ringgit ($3USD). Deal!

This lovely abode in the heart of Georgetown’s Red Light District couldn’t damper our spirits though. Starved, we walked across the street to the Red Garden, a night market filled with food stalls. A barbecue chicken leg, plate of fried oysters, order of char kway teow (rice noodles with egg, vegetables, shrimp in dark soy sauce) and Tiger beer later, life was much better. Plus, entertainment was provided by this awesome guy.

There were a couple of bars just down street, so we decided to head out for a sampling of Penang’s nightlife. We walked into the first decent place we saw, which happened to be an expat hangout filled largely with Americans and Aussies. It was an interesting crowd — with an even more interesting classic rock “band” that covered Bon Jovi, Guns N Roses and Journey.

Beat from Belivin’, we called it a night a little after midnight.