Sunday, May 24, 2009

Day Tripping in KL

One of the truisms about living in a place visited by tourists is that, as a local, you rarely (if ever) do the things or go to the places that are famous with tourists. Plenty of Coloradans have never been to a ski resort, taken the Coors brewery tour, or visited the U.S. Mint. Many San Franciscans only go to Alcatraz Island or Fisherman's Wharf when they're hosting out-of-town visitors. And so it goes here. I talk to many locals here in KL who have only been to Batu Caves once or twice in their whole lives, never been to the zoo, certainly never been to Taman Negara, Malaysia's 130-million-year-old national park, and most of the people I talk to had never even heard of Kuala Gandah, the elephant conservation center I visited a few months back. Not many locals bother going to the Skybridge connecting the Petronas Towers, nor do they pay to go up in KL Tower or visit the Forest Research park. Since I'm living here, it's easy to get caught in that rut... work during the week, relax and do laundry and run errands on the weekends, then repeat. Over and over.

In a conscious effort to not let that become the de facto routine for my life, I decided a couple of months ago that at least on alternate weekends, I'd do fun things... explore, take the camera, meet new people, do different things. As I'm writing this, I'm sitting at the Starbucks at BB Plaza on a busy tourist-laden street in the "golden triangle" of KL, Jalan Bukit Bintang. I must confess that I truly hate Starbucks, whether at home or abroad. I know they're not an evil company and in some respects, actually do good things. But largely because of their insidious ubiquity and their trendy, overpriced, sugared-up coffee drinks, I hate them. They're even more popular here than in the States because being able to afford Starbucks if you're a local is something of a status symbol. What you pay for a medium cappuccino here can quite literally buy your lunch for almost four days. I ordered a plain coffee here and nearly passed out when they told me it was RM7.90. Even though it's almost reasonable in US terms ($2.30), it's a bit much here for a simple coffee. So anyway, here I am... it's about 7 p.m., the afternoon light is waning, and a brief rainstorm has just ended. Loads of people are bustling by on the sidewalk and it's shaping up to be a mild, pleasant evening here in the heart of KL.

So here are some of the photos I've snapped around the city. Ordinarily, they can be enlarged by clicking on them, but this isn't always the case, and I can't figure out why some pictures aren't clickable. It's odd and, in this case, annoying because some of the pictures in this entry are among my favorite on the whole blog. I'm checking the code to see what the problem is, but frankly, this site isn't really the best at handling photos, which is lame since it's a very well-known blog site.

First up is a shot of the aforementioned KL Tower. Apart from the twin towers, this is the tallest thing in KL. It's built on a hill in the center of town known as Bukit Nanas (literally "pineapple hill") so at a glance, it often appears to be taller than the Petronas Towers, but at 1,381 feet, it's actually 102 feet shorter. The area surrounding the base of KL Tower is a 27-acre forest reserve, one of just a few such urban rainforest jungles in the world. I give the city of KL a lot of credit for preserving this space and not bulldozing it for more buildings and parking lots. This is, after all, some very valuable real estate. As for KL Tower, standing at its base and looking skyward gives a great impression of how very tall it is.

These next two photos are from the Luna Bar, atop the Pacific Regency Hotel near Bukit Nanas. There is a two-deck bar and a large swimming pool with open-air views of the city in all directions. Sadly, the orientation of the Pacific Regency relative to the Petronas Towers ensures that you only see one tower from Luna (the other is hidden perfectly behind the visible tower), making for a few wry "Ah, it's the twin tower" comments.

Another high-rise open-air bar in KL is the appropriately named Skybar on the 33rd floor of the Traders hotel near KLCC Park. The views are a bit better than those from Luna, but the actual execution of the rooftop bar concept at Skybar is one of the stupidest I've ever seen. It's an oddly elongated and constricted area to begin with and it shares space with a spa, of all things. Some of the seating is in these little cushioned "pits" by the edge of the building (it's glassed in, but no roof). There is an extremely narrow walkway to get to these pits, maybe 18-20 inches wide. Immediately on the other side of this walkway is a lap pool running nearly the length of the place, ensuring a marvelous extra helping of oppressive humidity to that which is already present in the open-air environment. In most bars, the actual BAR is sort of the focal point of the place. Here, it's a lap pool. The actual bar is way back in the back corner. Anyway, to leave your seat, you have to step up and over the cushions on the lip of the pit and down onto the walkway. It's hard enough to do sober, but I can't even imagine trying it after 2-3 drinks. I asked the hostess how many people had fallen headlong into the pool trying to get out of their seating pit and she answered flatly, "Countless." In an American city, they'd put a handrail or some handholds or something (or wouldn't have designed it so stupidly in the first place) if for no other reason than to head off a bunch of spurious lawsuits. But not here. They just let people trip and fall into the pool—complete with wallets, mobile phones, cameras, you name it—on a regular basis. It's bizarre. And if getting up from your seat doesn't send you hurtling into the water, there's another chance on the other side of the pool where a walkway winds aimlessly and, on either side of the walk, a shallow lake entirely covered by lilypads lurks waiting for its next victim. I can assure you that, in dim lighting (as one is wont to find in a bar), it all looks very much like solid ground. I almost stepped off the walk into the lake before realizing what it was. I'm pretty sure more than a few people have taken a tumble into the lilypads, too. Anyway, I managed to stay dry and get some shots of the ever-impressive Petronas Towers during and just after sunset...

Finally, I recently went with one of my friends to one of the major parks in KL called Taman Tasik Perdana—Lake Gardens Park. Within this large enclave, you can visit a butterfly park, one of the largest free-flight aviaries in Asia, a deer park, the national planetarium, and an orchid and hisbiscus garden. All of these pictures are from the orchid garden. The one of the water lily flower is one of my favorites that I've taken in a long time. There's nothing new about this picture; it's the same stock flower photo we've all seen a thousand times. But the flower was so brilliant with its contrast of purple and yellow, and so nearly flawless in form, I couldn't resist snapping a photo of it. The photo of the leaves is another one of my favorites. I'm not sure what kind of tree it is, nor what the symmetrical rows of dots are—seed or spore capsules, perhaps? It made for an interesting photo, though. The first two photos are close-ups of orchids.

I've recently cut back my work schedule to three days a week, so I'll have a bit more time for exploration and photography. I hope to write more and post more regularly here, too. That's all for now... I'll return with a new entry soon.

P.S. I've made a change in the settings of the blog that should allow anyone to comment without registering or signing up for anything. So if you care to comment, feel free!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Trip to Malacca, attempt #2

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you remember how disastrously my last trip to Malacca ended. I got barely 30 km out of the city late last November when my car blew its head gasket and died on the side of the highway, leaving me with a large towing bill and an even larger repair bill. So I finally made the second attempt last weekend… successfully!

If Kuala Lumpur is an example of Malaysia’s vision for the future, Malacca is surely its gatekeeper of the past. Few cities in the region can match Malacca for fascinating and diverse history. Owing to its strategic position, the city has been ruled by a Malay sultanate (15th century), the Portuguese (1511-1641), the Dutch (1641-1824), the British (1824-1942), the Japanese (WWII occupation, 1942-1946). Such was the importance of Malacca to the shipping and trading industries that the Portuguese explorer Barbarosa famously said, “He who is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.” In the photo to the right, the well-known Christ Church in the center of town was built by the Portuguese in 1753 and has been well-maintained ever since.

After Malaysia’s independence from colonial rule in 1957, the traditional British spelling of Malacca was eschewed (at least officially) for the more proper Malay phonetic spelling of Melaka, which is what you’ll see on road signs and such in the country. It seems a bit odd that a city that not only embraces but banks on its historical value would make such a notable attempt to divest itself of its historical place name spelling, but oddity is common (to my eyes) here. Malacca was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, which has only raised its international visibility as a great historical destination in the area.

For a brief, but well-written overview of Malacca's history, click here.

I was lucky enough this time to have one of my friends accompany me, and he actually grew up in Malacca, so it definitely made it more interesting and a bit easier, too. The car did perfectly well on the relatively short drive (about two hours), and we arrived right around 2 p.m., having eaten everybody’s favorite toxic road trip food, McDonald’s. We parked and wandered all over, visiting gems from Malacca’s historic past. Among the highlights was a 17th-century Portuguese church, which has only its walls remaining. In the church are many stone tablets, dating back to the early 1600s. Since there were no guides or descriptive markers there, and since the tablets were inscribed with what I think is Latin, I’m not sure what the tablets were—grave markers or something, perhaps. It was nevertheless fascinating to see and touch things that were so old. Next to the church is an old Dutch graveyard, and all of this sits on a hill so you can look out and see the ocean easily. The seaside town lies along the body of water named for it, the Straits of Malacca, considered to this day to be one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. Across the narrow channel lies the vast island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Another interesting sight we saw was a replica of the original palace of the 15th-century Malacca Sultanate. This large building was constructed entirely using descriptions from the ancient Malay annals of the period. The most remarkable thing is that, despite its complex structure, its many sharply sloping roofs, and its seven enclosed porches, not a single nail was used in its construction. Within the building were many dioramas and pictorial essays recreating activities and outlining typical life in the palace during the reign of the Malay sultanate.

We visited the local mall simply to catch a break from the heat and soak in some cold A/C, but we didn’t linger long. After that, we went into the heart of old Malacca and walked the narrow streets, stopping in caf├ęs and bars, exploring Buddhist temples and Chinese Hokkien temples as well, and browsing around in all the funky shops. At around 6 p.m., the streets in the area were all closed off to traffic and a huge festival-like night market sprang up in the streets. We wandered back and forth for a couple of hours, sampling various street foods and drinks, and checking out all the trinkets and goods for sale. One of my favorites was this food called dongkeng tangbushuai. For this traditional Chinese snack, glutinous rice is pounded into a paste that has the consistency of raw bread dough, then it’s cut with scissors into bite-sized pieces and rolled in a mixture of ground peanuts and sesame seeds. It’s warm, mildly sweet, and for whatever reason, immensely satisfying. I also met a beautiful yellow-nape Amazon parrot who was sitting out on a perch with a little leg chain. He took to me right away, letting me scratch his head and hold him and the Chinese girls who owned him couldn’t believe it. I showed them pictures of Shiloh, and they showed me a video (on their mobile phone) of their bird singing “Happy Birthday” (yellow napes are among the most talented Amazons when it comes to talking). It was a great surprise, because Amazon parrots are an incredibly rare sight here in Malaysia and I certainly never expected to see one on the streets of Malacca!

Finally, we made our way back to the car around 8:00 or so, and set off on the return trip to KL. However, the preceding Friday had been a national holiday in Malaysia (Labor Day), so within an hour’s time, we were in a spectacular traffic jam crawling all the way back to KL along the North-South Highway that runs the length of Peninsular Malaysia. For those of you who live in Colorado, imagine the Sunday evening ski traffic returning to Denver along I-70 after a long holiday weekend. It was like that. We bailed off in the town of Seremban, got gas and snacks, then got back on the road and finally arrived back in KL around midnight.

Malacca is a great town, certainly the cradle of Malaysia’s rich history, and I really enjoyed it. There’s doubtlessly more to see and experience there, so I plan to return again before long. It’s an easy day trip.

In the “shocking news” department, it seems that my mom is actually going to fly to Malaysia to visit. She needs some dental work done and while it would cost her nearly $5,000 in America, the same thing costs less than $500 here, and the quality of treatment is quite good. Medical and dental tourism is big business in some of the nations around here. Thailand is well-known internationally for excellent dental and cosmetic surgery work at a fraction of the price charged by American dentists and doctors. People can have a nice vacation and get their work done and still save a ton of money. So I made the arrangements with my dentist here and booked my mom an $800 round-trip flight from New York to KL on Malaysia Airlines. For some reason, flying from the West Coast (as I always do) was considerably more expensive. This is her first time traveling to Asia and I’m really excited for her! I’ve also booked a flight for us to Krabi, Thailand (a short flight from KL and just across the bay from the island of Phuket), and we’ll stay at Ao Nang beach, right on the Andaman Sea. The water there is clear, the sand is white, and some of the most spectacular islands in the region are in the immediate area, and it’ll be a fun 3-night excursion while she’s visiting.

And from the weather department, a subject about which few people here talk, we’ve gone abruptly from the wet season to the dry season and it is hot here! When I ask, people do tell me it’s rarely this hot. It’s also unusual for us to go so long without rain. (It rained today, May 13th, though… our first proper rain in almost two weeks.)

As I’m faced for the first time with the somewhat near-term prospect of returning to the United States—something I’m not quite yet ready to do—I’ve tried to figure out what it is I enjoy about living here. It’s not dirt-cheap, the traffic is horrible, it’s hot, the internet is slow, I’ve almost had to eliminate nice wines and good cheeses from my life because they’re so expensive here (or simply unavailable in some cases)… so where is the appeal? Well, I can honestly say that I do enjoy teaching English. That’s been a delight for me, and I especially enjoy the one-on-one tutoring I’ve done. But beyond that, I think it’s that when I’m here in Malaysia, I’m different… somewhat unique, even in a notably multicultural city. On the streets of Denver, I’m just another average white dude. But in KL, even though there’s a relatively sizeable expatriate community here, I’m still very much an extreme minority. For some reason, I like that. I’m remembered at shops and restaurants and even parking garages because I’m “the white guy.” In a vast sea of Malay and Chinese faces, a Caucasian is the anomaly, and an American is even more uncommon. I think on some level I like that. I’m not sure if that’s driven by ego, or if I just appreciate not being an anonymous face in the crowd, but I think that’s a big part of why I have so far enjoyed living abroad.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

One Night in Bangkok!

Finally! A new post! Two months since my last entry... I’m so sorry! Wow… what a bum I am.

Anyway, there wasn’t much else I could name this blog entry since I did indeed spend only one night in the city! Although I never cared for the song by Murray Head in the 80s, my one night in Bangkok (a month ago already… hard to believe) was really a lot of fun, and my first impression of the city was pretty favorable. Thailand, a developing nation of about 63 million people, has in recent years been beset by a steady stream of disasters both big and small, man-made and natural. Beginning with the SARS scare (sudden acute respiratory syndrome for those who have forgotten) in 2003, Thailand has been remarkably resilient. The Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 took a heavy toll on the country, in terms both financial and human. Still, vacationers came. The specter of bird flu cast its shadow on the nation, and there was a bloodless coup in 2006. Still, Thailand remained Southeast Asia’s premier tourist destination. The political scene in the country has been simmering unsettled since the coup, which ousted Thailand’s Prime Minister on allegations of corruption and abuse of power. Late last year, a large group of protesters clad in yellow shirts (to show their allegiance to Thailand’s king) succeeded in shutting down Bangkok’s airport, stranding tourists for days. The resolution to this standoff saw the installation of a new Prime Minister. However, a second group of protesters, loyal to Thailand’s former PM, have taken to the streets to rally against the new administration, which they say was not democratically elected. They want the current PM to resign and new elections to be held. These protestors all wear red shirts, and a few days before I arrived, humiliated Thailand’s government by forcing the cancellation of a 16-nation summit in the city of Pattaya. Heads of state from many Asian countries were forced to return home, and Australia’s Prime Minister actually turned his plane around in midflight upon hearing about the riots and subsequent cancellation of the summit. However, nothing seemed amiss in Bangkok, so I went ahead with my trip as planned.

The flight from KL is just under two hours, and we landed at Bangkok’s impressive new Suvarnabhumi Airport which finally opened a couple of years ago after innumerable delays. (The land for the airport was purchased in 1973 to give some scope of how long it took to get the thing from concept to reality.) I took a nice bus from the airport into the city and headed towards Khaosan Road, the heart of Bangkok’s backpacker and tourist district, full of guesthouses, restaurants, internet cafes, street food, bars, and shopping. Now one thing to be aware of is that this trip fell (not coincidentally) during the Thai New Year festival, known as Songkran. Thais are about 90% Buddhist and their calendar is very different than the Western Gregorian calendar. In fact, even the years are substantially different. According to the Gregorian calendar, the year is 2009, but in Thai culture, it’s 2552. The Buddha is said to have entered Nirvana in what Westerners would consider 543 B.C., so, just as our calendar is set by the life of Jesus (A.D. = anno domani, or "the year of our Lord"), the Thai calendar is set by the life of Buddha, thus the 543-year variance. So even though it’s mid-April, the Songkran festival marks the beginning of the Thai year. And their New Year, much like the Western version, is used as an excuse to party. On the way to my guesthouse, I stopped and watched a Thai water boxing match, where two boxers straddle a long pole over a pool of water and try to knock their opponent into the water. There were also elephants parading around, many of them painted and decorated for the festival.

In Bangkok, mid-April is just about the hottest and driest time of the year, so Thais also use Songkran as an opportunity to have a massive communal water fight… for days. Available for cheap sale on the streets and in the hands of nearly everyone in sight was what seemed like the world’s entire supply of huge, pressurized water guns. Known colloquially as “super soakers” in America, these are not the sad little water pistols of yesteryear. These are more akin to water bazookas. They hold liters of water, can be pressurized with a few pumps, and can shoot a powerful torrent of water. Even these guns, however, were no match for the complete soaking one could expect from a bucket of water. I got shot with several water guns literally within seconds of getting off the bus. I had about an 800-meter walk (half a mile) to get to my guesthouse and I was drenched by the time I arrived. It’s really hard to convey the atmosphere in words… so I shot several videos and have posted a couple here. It’s basically like Mardi Gras, except with vast amounts of water being thrown instead of candy. In addition, little balls of clay are formed and bagged for sale (cheap), so people mix these clay balls into small buckets of water and smear the mud on the faces of anyone within reach (you see the local boy smearing the mud on the face of a passing tourist here). So the streets are running with muddy water, and everyone is in a festive, partying mood. It was a great time. For me, the only real negative was that I was unable to really do anything… visiting temples, shopping, exploring… it was all a bit difficult because I couldn’t walk 100 feet from the guesthouse without getting drenched. It was worth it though. Songkran is a great experience!

The food in Bangkok was fantastic. I had the best pad Thai noodles in my life from a street stall near my guesthouse… just delicious, and almost embarrassingly cheap (about 70¢). One of the principal features of Thai cooking is the inclusion, to varying degrees, of all four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Condiments representing each of these tastes are common at tables, even at roadside food stalls.

Even though the trip was fun, and my impression of Bangkok was quite positive, I was relieved to be able to leave. The political situation became very unstable while I was there, and a state of emergency was declared, enabling the military to step in to keep order. The last time the protests spun out of control in Bangkok, the airport was shut down for days. Fortunately, the day I left marked the height of the unrest, and it subsided substantially over the next couple of days. I did see loads of armed soldiers in riot gear (below) on the taxi ride to the airport though, along with tanks in the streets, and a few crowds of protesters.

Time sure flies. I arrived in Malaysia at the beginning of September, and the first three or four months went by at a normal, sometimes even lethargic pace. I have really good memories of those initial weeks when everything was fresh and new. Since the calendar turned to 2009, though, my goodness… time seems to have sped up dramatically. These past four months have just flown by. I can’t believe 2009 is already more than a third over. Although routines lend a sense of structure and a comfortable familiarity to our lives, perhaps that day-to-day sameness accelerates our perception of the passage of time. Once things cease being fresh to us, the days become blurred because they’re all largely the same. I’ve heard people lament that the older they get, the faster time seems to go by. My thirties seem to have gone by even faster than my twenties, but my teens (at the time) sure seemed to drag on. I think maybe it’s because you spend so much time learning and experiencing new things when you’re young, it slows time down (or at least your idea of its passage). Once you get older, more and more things in life become old hat or second nature, and before long, all your days and weeks pretty much resemble the days and weeks that came before them, and, almost defying perception, suddenly a decade has passed. Clearly, the solution is to keep learning and to keep changing enough in your life to keep it engaging and challenging. Enjoy the little videos and I'll have another entry posted very soon... it's already written, I just need to sort out the photos to go with it!