Saturday, February 27, 2010

Of Sommeliers, Singapore, and Slip-ons

So there I was, just browsing the Internet one day last October when I randomly stumbled on a job listing for a regional director position with a multinational wine investment company that was looking to expand its operations into Malaysia. Though I wasn't at all looking for a job, after reading the job description and qualification requirements, it sounded tailor-made for me, so I sent in my résumé. To make a long story short, something I almost never do here, after a lengthy process involving multiple interviews and written assessments, I was offered, on November 30, an even higher position within the company. The offer, coupled with the fact that the job wouldn't begin until January, is what prompted me to book my flight home for Christmas, which I had not initially planned to do because of the cost.

In any event, after a few discussions, the company decided to make my job title "executive director" and I indeed took up the post in mid-January, going to Singapore for two weeks for orientation and, as I found, really to just be thrown into the deep end. Fortunately, that's just the way I like it. Though I'm not at all a sommelier in the traditional sense, this job will let me put my wine knowledge and my passion for fine wine to good use. (I can add now, upon finally posting this write-up, I've been on the job for nearly four months and have been made head of Malaysia operations in addition to my executive director duties... quite a change from teaching English in a little learning center this time last year!)

So my journey south back in late January wasn't my first time to Singapore, but it was my first time to visit there as something besides a very short-term tourist (I think the longest I had stayed previously had been three days), so I thought I'd have the chance to explore and get to know the city more. As it turned out, I was so preoccupied with work (and after-work socializing with my new colleagues), that there wasn't much time to play tourist. However, one of my good friends from KL took the train down during my first weekend, and we met one of my other friends who had just recently moved from KL to Singapore so we had a really good time that weekend wandering around. The weather couldn't have been any better. It was sunny, clear, and hot. Singapore is a beautiful city and at only 1° north of the equator, it's understandably a near-explosion of green: lush, tropical foliage abounds everywhere and the city-state has done a remarkable job of preserving the trees and plants amidst all the shiny glass skyscrapers and the concrete jungle. This building here is the School of the Arts and it's truly a fantastic edifice from an architectural standpoint. The city has no shortage of impressive buildings.

Singapore gets a somewhat deserved bad rap for being a "nanny state" and implementing an almost social-engineering degree of control over its population, but in exchange for the citizens' abdication of some of their personal rights, Singapore enjoys a standard of living unprecedented in any country in the tropics. And it's awash in money, too -- indeed, Singapore's "purchasing power" wealth per capita is, depending on the source, in the top three or four in the world... several notches ahead of America's. It far and away sets the quality of life standard in the region and as close as it is to KL geographically, it could scarcely be more different. Everything is organized and efficient to the point of disbelief. Their MRT trains run on time, with great frequency, the train lines cover almost every point of the small island, and the stations are famous for their scrupulous cleanliness. Crime, particularly violent crime, is all but non-existent. The network of underground passages is mind-boggling: A shopper can, by way of vast underground store-lined walkways and MRT stations and lines, visit a weekend's worth of malls without ever being exposed to the sun.

Of course, like most things in life, this degree of wealth and efficiency comes with a trade-off. Singapore is one of the most expensive places in Asia to live, there's a certain sterility present everywhere, and the degree of government control is well-known, though it appears to be easing, if only slightly. In an effort to capture more tourist dollars, the city-state has permitted two casinos to be built. One, pictured here behind Singapore's iconic symbol, the "Merlion," is the Marina Bay Sands, owned by the Las Vegas-based Sands corporation. It's three 55-story towers, topped by a cantilevered "Sky Park" with gardens, a pool, and restaurants. Seeing it in person was amazing. The side of the towers that you can't see in the photos is even more impressive as they each bulge gracefully outward and to different extents (based on feng shui guidance) at their bases. It's a very impressive and ambitious project, all set to open (at least partially) at the end of April. The other casino is on the island of Sentosa, immediately south of Singapore's main island. It's owned by Malaysia's Genting Group and opened last month. Having casinos in Singapore at all is a huge deal, but to stem the tide of any social ills that may befall its population, the government is levying a steep entry fee for locals -- S$100 per visit. The idea is that it's supposed to discourage locals from the evils of gambling, yet still invite tourists to come and lose their money. So any local gambler will be "down" a hundred bucks by the time he first sits down at a table to play. Interesting concept, just one quite foreign to my American brain where charging one group of people for entry to a legal, legitimate business while admitting another group free of charge would never even be considered, let alone allowed.

We also found a wonderful dim sum restaurant... short on ambiance, but long on deliciousness. It's called Victor's Kitchen, it's at Sunshine Plaza, and two people can eat a pretty substantial amount of dim sum there for about S$20-25. I ate there twice and loved it both times. Their siew mai and fried prawn salad dumplings were fantastic and I definitely plan to return there on my next visit.

I stayed in a furnished condo near the Little India neighborhood of Singapore, right next to the Farrer Park MRT station and a new eco-mall called City Square. Getting to and from the office was easy and cheap on the trains. The condo, called City Square Residences, was brand new. It was small, clean, efficient... a microcosm of Singapore itself, really. The condo itself, a studio unit with a "bedroom" partitioned off by opaque sliding glass panels, was only about 600 square feet, yet had four air-conditioning units installed, so there was no chance of me ever getting hot, that's for sure. Everything was new, not just the condo -- I spent most of the first evening there unboxing things, unpackaging sheets and pillows, peeling shipping tape off of everything from the refrigerator to the flat-screen TV. Then I had to run over to the adjacent mall and buy some towels because I didn't have any. It was an interesting experience staying in an actual residence rather than a hotel or long-stay hotel/apartment.

Singapore is a relatively short distance from KL, particularly by Asian standards, where anything within a 4-to-5 hour flight is considered "nearby." It's about a one-hour flight, but with all of the headaches involved with traveling by air, and in light of KL's airport being an hour away from the city to begin with, I elected to take the bus, an executive double-decker coach with very nice seats, full meal service, personal TVs, and no airport security hassles or restrictions. The bus also picks up very near my condo in KL and I can park for any length of time for only RM1, so it really is a no-brainer. It's an easy, comfortable 4.5-hour trip down the peninsula and across the causeway into Singapore. One of the coach lines even has free Wi-Fi on its buses! Here's a nice shot of the sunset over the strait separating Singapore from Malaysia on the return journey.

And what's the slip-ons part about? Well, here in Asia, removing one's shoes at the door is almost universally common, so for me, taking my dress shoes off was always a pain, since I had to unlace them, loosen them, and pry them off. So last month, I bought my first-ever pair of dress shoes that can just be slipped on and off, a nice brown leather pair of traditional Oxford-style shoes, just sans laces! Such shoes are obviously incredibly common here -- I was recently waiting in line at the post office and there were 14 people waiting with me, 13 of whom had on slip-on shoes of some sort or another. Laced shoes are simply not common in a place where you have to take your shoes off and put them back on several times a day!

So I'm going to finally get this entry posted -- I wrote it weeks ago but have just neglected to arrange the photos and post the thing. I'll write another one soon about the past six weeks or so of my crazy life in Malaysia.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cameron Highlands Resort

When the British were running roughshod over the Malay peninsula back in first half of the 20th century, they found a few high-elevation bastions of relief from the heat and humidity of the lowlands. The highest of these was called Cameron Highlands. To the delight of the colonial overlords, they discovered that not only could they cool off, but also that tea grew exceptionally well at 1,500 meters above sea level. This was no doubt a welcome discovery because really, there’s no better way to end a hard day of colonizing and plundering than to have a civilized spot of tea.

Today, Cameron Highlands remains a welcome relief from KL’s heat and urban chaos. Reaching the hill stations of the Highlands takes about three hours, but over half of that is on a tortuously winding road that creeps along for 60 km. Sixty!! I don’t think I ever made it past third gear. Look at the route on the GPS. That’s not a misrepresentation. I’m from Colorado, so I’ve seen some twisty mountain roads, but this one was just crazy. The good thing, I suppose, is that the elevation gain is done over such a long distance, you’re really not aware of it until you realize that, hey, that air conditioner really isn’t necessary any longer.

Early along the winding road, not too far past the town of Tapah, there was a breathtaking multi-tiered waterfall called Lata Iskandar. The pictures really don’t do it justice… plenty of people were wandering around, some were swimming in the clear waters pooled at the base of the each of the fall’s cascades, and naturally, plenty of little shops have sprung up alongside the road, making it sort of an ad-hoc tourist attraction of sorts. We lingered for a short while, then continued on our way.

Cameron Highlands comprises three small villages, Ringlet, Tanah Rata, and Brinchang. We stayed at the elegant Cameron Highlands Resort, which is situated across from the golf course past Tanah Rata, but not yet to Brinchang. The entrance was suitably impressive… dark woods, period furnishings, and colonial touches everywhere. The library near the reception desk was particularly beautiful. The room itself was really quite nice, with a separate sitting area, a writing desk, a large flat-screen TV (not a flat-panel LCD, just a flat screen standard TV), dark hardwood floors, and a very fancy, well-appointed bathroom that was quite the opposite of the gargantuan one at Pangkor Laut based just on the size. This one could have used a few more square feet, but the shower was at least suitably large.

I’m not sure what the legal definition of a “resort” is, but this place felt an awful lot like just a nice hotel to me. I think there was a spa somewhere, but I’m not 100% sure. There was one restaurant (another Japanese-themed one was closed the whole time), a bar, a gift shop, and that was pretty much all. It was all fairly upscale, but the exterior entryways to the rooms lent a sort of “motel” feel to things, and I can only echo the number one complaint I saw on all the reviews of the place: Since the hotel is situated right on the main road and every room faces this road, the traffic noise is incredible. It would carry on late into the night, usually until well past midnight, and was easily the biggest blight on the hotel as a whole. For a supposed 5-star property, subjecting guests who paid a lot of money to stay there to that level of ceaseless noise is just unacceptable. Nobody asked me for my advice, but if they had, I’d have suggested investing in white noise-generating machines for each room (there aren’t that many rooms there), or even sampling the typical frequencies of the traffic noise, then having a machine in each room that could generate the inverse sound waves of those frequencies, just like active noise-cancelling headphones. It would be much cheaper than retrofitting all the windows with double-pane or sound-resistant glass, and much more practical than relocating the entire hotel. The constant drone of cars, trucks, and motorbikes at all hours of the day and night was really the only major complaint I could come up with. The restaurant was on the pricey side, but unlike Pangkor Laut, at least guests here have the option of going into town, where there are many other dining choices. That said, the chef at the hotel restaurant did prepare a truly fantastic four-course meal for us on our last night, and it was all complimentary because he knew my friend Ryan. The first course, and possibly my favoite, was a nontraditional Caesar-style salad (pictured here), adding crispy flash-fried spinach leaves to the normal romaine lettuce with massive grilled tiger prawns and fresh dill, a rich lobster bisque for the soup course, a delicious "surf-n-turf" sort of main course with Australian beef tenderloin medallions and pan-seared Chilean sea bass, and dessert of jumbo long-stemmed strawberries with three different dips. It was a fantastic meal made even better by the fact it was all served gratis. What a treat!

Naturally, we toured a huge tea plantation and a strawberry farm after that. I had never seen actual tea plants (tea bushes?) but the way they hug the contours of the land, oftentimes all the way to the top of the hills, just makes for some amazingly scenic vistas. I bought fresh strawberries and we drank so much tea over the weekend there, I may have gone slightly British by the end. One new thing I learned was that green tea and black tea are the same thing, just processed differently. Green tea is dried with minimal processing, pretty much just as it is when it is plucked from the bush, but black tea is made by bruising the leaves and allowing them to fully oxidize, thus turning black, before drying them. Going through the tea factory was an interesting experience, and it smelled wonderful.

One really vexing thing was the exorbitant price of scones everywhere we went. Clearly driven by the tourist demand for “English tea and scones,” shops have taken to charging a mint for the scones, completely overlooking the fact that they’re just simple biscuits. We went to one place where tea and scones for two was an eye-popping RM25 per person! Another annoyance was places advertising “high tea” and serving nothing but tea and biscuits. That’s not high tea by either traditional British convention, which would include meats, savory snacks, pastries, and fruits, or the more commercialized American usage, which indicates a formal setting with a wide-ranging offering of sandwiches, cakes, etc. Nevertheless, we did find a place with a reasonably priced afternoon phony high tea. It was at a new place called Hotel de la Ferns, and afterwards, we asked if we could see the rooms, and wound up being taken on a tour of every class of room on the property, even seeing both of the top-floor penthouse suites, shown here. Wow. The rooms were amazing, really smartly furnished, clean, and comfortable. During the low season, discounts of up to 40% off the rack rate are available for the asking. I will definitely stay there on my next visit (since I won’t be getting the amazing employee-only rate at Cameron Highlands Resort).

All in all, it was just a truly enjoyable and relaxing time in the hills of Cameron Highlands. I even found what proved to be a really nice Late Harvest 2004 Chilean Gewürztraminer wine at one of the shops there for the relatively low price of RM52 (not a bad price in Malaysia for a decent bottle of regular wine, let alone a late harvest wine), so I bought three bottles.

So that concludes my recap and review of the two fantastic vacations that sandwiched my trip home for Christmas. I’ve led a rather spoiled life these past two months with all the travel and commencement of a terrific new job, which I’ll talk about in the next entry, along with a two-week trip to Singapore and the celebration of Chinese New Year on the island of Langkawi. So there's still a lot to catch up on. Until then… :)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Pangkor Laut Resort

It’s all about who you know. It’s true in America and it’s even more true in Asia. I’ve been pretty fortunate in my time here to have met some great people. One of my friends works for a company that, among other things, owns a few resort properties in the region. This worked out well for me because we were able to go to two very swanky resorts for a fraction of their regular rates. I thought it would be interesting to write the next two blog entries as sort of my reviews of the resorts along with my recollections. I want to write them, however, from the perspective of a full-paying guest. It’s easy to be forgiving when you’re getting 90-95% off rack rates. But if you’re paying the going rates, you tend to notice things a bit more.

First up... Pangkor Laut Resort

Probably the crown jewel of the YTL properties, Pangkor Laut is a 300-acre private island off the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, about midway between KL and Penang. It’s just south of the larger, publicly accessible Pangkor Island, itself a popular vacation spot for Malaysians. So we drove to the port town of Lumut, dropped our luggage at the Pangkor Laut Resort office and boarded our speedboat to the island. In retrospect, this was a major point of irritation – for guests paying exorbitant rates (indeed, the villa we stayed in has a regular rate of US$575), the resort still levies a RM70 per person (each way) charge for the boat ride to the island. You’d think it would be part of the package deal. But no. So we arrived at the island, and in all truth, it was very impressive. The water was clear and blue-green, the welcome was polished (a drink and a cool towel), and our luggage was whisked away to the villa while we checked in. The weather couldn’t have been much better. Pangkor Laut really is a beautiful island and the resort is integrated into the beach and rainforest setting very well.

The sea villa was pretty amazing, but I thought a bit too much of the space was given to the bathroom (it was enormous) at the expense of the bedroom/living space. It was really nice, though. There was a nice deck with sun loungers, a CD player, an iPod stereo dock, a writing desk, plenty of closet space, a mini-fridge, a huge spa tub that opened up on three sides to the sea, and a lot of privacy, which I guess is a big part of what people who come here are paying for.

We saw a fair few animals, but the most prolific were meter-long monitor lizards, huge fruit bats by the hundreds, and hornbills. I had never seen a hornbill in the wild before, so that was a bit of a treat for me. The bats would congregate en masse in a few coconut palms near the main swimming pool each day, sleeping fitfully as they hung upside down. With the last vestiges of daylight, the trees emptied and the bats set out on their nightly hunt. It was interesting, but I’m glad the bats weren’t near our villa… they were awfully noisy (and messy) during their daytime resting hours.

One of the repeated complaints I saw in travelers’ reviews of the resort was the extremely high cost of meals. Since you are effectively a captive diner, the island’s restaurants have no motivation to offer any low-priced alternatives. Most meals cost two to three times what they would cost in an expensive Western restaurant in KL. For example, a burger at TGI Friday’s or Chili’s in KL will run about RM25. At a beachside restaurant on Pangkor Laut, a burger is RM50 plus service charge and tax. A nice dinner for two people (one appetizer, two entrées, one midpriced bottle of wine, and a dessert) could easily run into the RM600-900 range. Happily, my connections to the staff got me passage on the staff boat to Pangkor Island (about a ten-minute crossing, if that), where we enjoyed a huge meal for four people, complete with beers and more dishes than we could finish, for under RM90.

The next day, a group of us went back to Pangkor to hit the markets for fresh food. One of the ladies, Annie, had decided to cook an authentic Filipino meal for us that night, so we got a whole chicken cut up, prawns from one of the many little seafood markets, and some great pork. Annie made a wonderful yellow Filipino curry with the chicken, which was my favorite. We also had a big pot of steamed rice, a bowlful of prawns cooked in a mild, tasty broth, and pork cooked rendang-style, a process that first cooks the meat in a liquid, then fries it in the rendered fats and solids once the liquid cooks off. It was all so delicious, and Annie even gave me a container of the wonderful yellow curry powder from the Philippines—and asked me to bring her back a jar of Peter Pan creamy peanut butter from America (which I did).

The resort had a couple of really nice spots... there was a library of sorts with lots of ceiling fans and open-air high ceilings. There were these bed-like places, kind of high off the ground, so you could slip off your shoes, climb the few stairs to the mattress and curl up with a book in the cool air. It was really nice. There was also a great pool right near our sea villas. This shot was taken from the lounge chairs near the pool, so you can see the "infinity edge" that separates the deep blue of the pool from the less-intense blue of the sea. We spent a fair amount of time here, sipping on drinks and feeling completely spoiled, which I guess is the whole point of a place such as Pangkor Laut.

Being a guest of the staff had other perks, too, like getting to know a lot of the behind-the-scenes things about making a unique resort like this work. One night, I sat with two of the managers—one from Australia and one from the US—and had coffee and listened to their tales of island living. The island generates its own power, but has fresh water piped over from the mainland (or at least the main island). They have a large tank on the far side of Pangkor Laut that holds enough water for three days for the resort at near-full occupancy in the event of a break in the main water pipe. Another kind of cool factoid is that they round up any snakes they come across and relocate them to an even smaller island in the straits between Pangkor and Pangkor Laut (seen here on the left side of the photo). In the interim, the snakes are housed in little plastic containers. This one holds a viper of some sort and a nonpoisonous tree snake. Like most people, I’m not a huge fan of snakes, but I thought this was a very admirable alternative to just killing them.

Honestly, the whole trip to Pangkor Laut, though short (3 full days and 2 nights), was really very memorable. I got a little sunburned, but not too bad, and it was all just such a terrific experience for me. I can’t say it would necessarily have been worth the full price, had we paid that, and the additional RM280 boat charge really rubbed me the wrong way, but there is a package for Malaysian residents that offers a two-night package, complete with boat transfers and meals (very important), for around RM800 per person total, and that’s a great deal. It’s not for a sea villa like we had, but it still gets you a very nice (and larger) hill villa or garden villa. I couldn’t honestly recommend Pangkor Laut at the full rack rate, but at the package deal price, it would be well worth it.

So I’m sure I left out some things, but I have to cap these entries at some length. This last shot is of my friends Annie and Ryan, just as Ryan and I were about to get on the boat back to the mainland. It was a great holiday and the beginning of a shamelessly enjoyable five-week period in my life. I took off most of the month of December and the first week of January, started off with a vacation to a private tropical island, followed by a trip back to Colorado for Christmas and New Year’s. Upon returning to Malaysia, once I recovered a bit from the journey, it was off to Cameron Highlands for a few days of tea, strawberries, and markedly cooler temperatures! To be continued...