Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rendang: A Cook's Journey

That's not rendang! One of my homemade pizzas:
Slightly charred crust, real pepperoni that's just crisp
around the edges, plenty of cheese... ahhh...
As anyone who knows me can attest, food is one of my great passions. I routinely and regularly make flatbread pizzas here, and have even reverted to making regular pizzas, too (making the dough from scratch, as I always did back in Colorado). I'm planning on getting a baking stone on my trip back home for Christmas so I can really do some proper pizzas in my little countertop oven. In the meantime, though, this is typical of the sort of pizza I usually make. Very rustic. Very tasty.

A good pizza is always going to be a big hit with me, but one of my favorite regional dishes to make and to eat is rendang. I've yet to meet any local here who doesn't respond very favorably to the mere mention of this word. And it's easy to understand why: Not only is this dish usually reserved for holidays and special occasions in many parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, it's a sumptuously flavorful way to prepare meat. In fact, I just learned that in a 2011 poll of 35,000 people by CNN International, rendang was chosen as the number one dish for the "World's 50 Most Delicious Foods" list (click to read the list... it's fascinating)! You can use almost anything for a good rendang... chicken, lamb, beef, duck, even water buffalo. The meat is just the carrier for the flavor that comes from a blend of fresh spices and a rather unique method of preparation.

I've actually made this dish a few times before, but never since moving here, which is odd. Here in KL, you can find hastily prepared rendang scooped alongside a serving of nasi lemak, but no one would pretend that such rendang is really in the same league with one that's been made by a local home cook in a traditional village. To put it mildly, rendang is a labor of love... it's a tiring and time-consuming dish, both to prepare and to actually cook. However, one of my friends recently gave me a nice mortar and pestle, so I figured I should break it in with an auspicious dish, and rendang definitely qualifies.

Starting to pound the spices
The recipe I use is from West Sumatra, Indonesia (where rendang originated among the Minangkabau people), uses beef, and absolutely drips with complex flavors. Pounding out a good spice paste to start with is a key step in the preparation. I use a laundry list of spices and aromatics: whole nutmegs, cloves, ginger, shallots, turmeric, garlic, galangal, candlenuts, red chilies, lemongrass, daun salam (the closest we have in Western cooking is bay leaves), cinnamon sticks, and Kaffir lime leaves. Most of these ingredients are pounded in a mortar until a loose, wet, yellow-orange paste is formed... this is the tiring part. You can use a food processor (and I have before), but I wanted to make this one the traditional way. The aromatics (the last four ingredients) are thrown in whole.

And here it is after a LOT of pounding and mashing

I got lucky... when I was shopping for the ingredients, Australian beef (and just the cut I wanted, no less) was on sale for RM26.90 per kilo. To put that in American perspective, it's about $3.80 per pound. Not really cheap, but good beef never is... and saving RM9.00 per kilo was a great thing.

Not as richly marbled as is ideal for this dish,
but still some pretty nice cuts of Aussie beef

So I cut the beef into large pieces and threw them in the pan with the spice paste, then added two cups of coconut milk and the aromatics and started cooking. You can imagine the intense smell at this point!

Mixing the spice paste in with the beef chunks

Adding the aromatics... lemongrass, cinnamon,
Kaffir lime leaves, and daun salam... Note the
coconut milk in the upper right, waiting to be added

This is after about an hour and 15 minutes of cooking
Then began the waiting. I said rendang was a time-consuming dish, and a lot of that is the cooking process. In Western cooking, we have a two-step process called braising whereby a meat is seared at high temperature, then simmered in a liquid. Rendang is cooked in the opposite way. It's first simmered in a liquid (the coconut milk and spice paste) until all the liquid in the coconut milk reduces and, finally, evaporates completely, at which point the meat is "pan-fried" in the fats rendered from the coconut and the meat itself. You can probably get an idea now of why rendang is so redolent with complex flavors. However, the whole process can take hours. Since I was making a relatively small batch (only about 650g of meat -- a bit less than 1.5 pounds), it only took two hours for the liquid to fully cook off. I made a big batch back in Colorado once for a dinner party for 20-25 people and it took over eight hours to cook! 

Garnished with thin-sliced cili merah and
shreds of Kaffir lime leaves
And here's the final product. I had some friends over and served this with mounds of fluffy hot rice that I steamed with coconut milk, lemongrass, a bit of sliced ginger, and a couple of torn Kaffir lime leaves. Outstanding... the rendang came out pretty spicy and delicious, and there was even some left over, which is great. Like plenty of home-cooked dishes, rendang is even better the next day, as the many complex flavors have had time to develop and meld together.

Sorry if this entry made anyone hungry... never a great idea to view my blog on an empty stomach!

Until next time...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Two countries, three destinations, four days!

In America, with its vast size and impressive system of highways and byways, the road trip is a fixture in our lives. Either taken with the family on vacation or with friends as a rite of passage, most Americans have taken aimless road trips at some point or another.

America's Interstate Highway
System: Road Trip Nirvana
Naturally, it's a lot more expensive nowadays with the price of gas so much higher than it was when I was younger, but a lot of the credit for who I am must be given to road trips I took in my late teens and early twenties. It gave me that sense of adventure and desire to just set out and explore, without a fixed plan or rigid itinerary. After high school, having grown up in Alabama, one of my best friends and I drove up the entire eastern coast of the United States and on into Canada. I saw New York for the first time, ate lobster on a small island off the coast of Connecticut, and crossed into a foreign country for the first time. Back then, passports weren't even required for Americans to go into Canada. It was subsequent road trips that first introduced me to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, the place I'd come to call home and spend nearly all of my adult life. I've driven on both coasts, in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston... driven to Canada, Mexico, and in a few other foreign countries, too.

So it was with this mindset that I suggested a Malaysian road trip of sorts to my friends. Two of them were participating in the annual Penang Bridge Run, an international marathon that attracts thousands from all over the world to run across the 13.5-km Penang bridge, itself one of the world's longest. There are categories for a full marathon (42 km), a half marathon (21 km), and about a quarter marathon (10 km). My friends were doing the 10-km run, which started at 6 a.m. (The full marathon began at 2 a.m.) They invited me and some others along, so I booked us a two-bedroom suite a couple of months ago -- which even then was hard to come by since the race attracted a record 27,500 runners this year from 67 countries -- and then two of us planned to continue a road trip beyond Penang after our stay there.

Everyone following this so far?

 So I proposed that we just head north from Penang, drive into Thailand, go wherever we felt like there, then come back to Malaysia, drive over to Kuala Perlis (at the very northern tip) and take the ferry to Langkawi. No real plans, no hotel reservations beyond Penang, just going where the road took us.

At the Gurney Drive Hawker Center
So on the morning of the 19th, the five of us all met at a nearby McDonald's for breakfast, then set off for Penang afterwards. It's about a three-hour drive, and we had good weather, so it was easy. We arrived at our hotel in Bayan Lepas around midafternoon, got checked in and situated, rested for awhile, then went off in search of dinner. We decided to go to the hawker centers at Gurney Drive, which is in the heart of Georgetown. Even at the best of times, this stretch of roads is jam-packed, so it took us a long while to get there, find parking, and get to the food stalls. Look at the sea of people there! We all wandered off in search of different food. I waited in line for about 15 minutes to get an order of Penang's famous char kuey teow, truly one of my favorite dishes in Malaysia.

Firing up an order of
spicy Char Kuey Teow in the wok

Ivan and Cat at 5 a.m.,
 modeling their official racewear
Owing to my awesomely giving nature, I generously agreed to wake up at 5 a.m. to drive Ivan and Cat, the two who were running in the race, to the place they needed to be to start their run. In retrospect, the hotel was actually fairly close to Queensbay Mall, so they could have actually walked (we saw many people doing just that), but really, who wants to walk 2-3 km to the starting point of a 10-km run?? Anyway, here they are with their official race shirts and everything. So we got to Queensbay and there were people everywhere. Now, keep in mind, the runners in the full and half marathons were already all well underway; only the 10-km and "fun run" participants were meeting at this time, and there were still thousands and thousands of them. They've been doing this annually since the bridge opened in 1985, and it's really well-publicized, but still, the nine-hour closure of the bridge causes problems for those unaware of the race. Last year, some 200 people missed flights because of it, quite a few of them international holidaymakers who had no idea the bridge would be closed. Since it's (at the time) the only connection to the mainland apart from painfully slow and infrequent ferries, the closure can be a real headache. They are currently building a second bridge to the island, though... we saw it to the south as we crossed the bridge to Penang. It's scheduled to be completed in September 2013, so in a couple of years, there will be an alternate route for motorists during the race closure.

So Ivan and Cat both finished in the top half (or maybe top third) of their respective categories (10-km men, 10-km women), got their medals, and walked back to the hotel room, where all the rest of us were still very much passed out asleep. They napped for a bit after returning, and after we had all taken our respective showers and gotten packed, we checked out around 1 p.m. and once again, ventured in to Georgetown, and stopped at a seaside restaurant for some lunch. Then some of the group headed back to KL, while some of us went north to Thailand and the beginning of the real road trip.

I had never been further north by car than the Penang Bridge exit on the North-South Highway, so for me, that's where the adventure really kicked in. Everything was fresh and new, although I must admit, the landscape looked the same. Ha ha. So we drove the two hours to the Thai border, coughed up even more money in tolls (the total bill for tolls on this trip was alarming... more on that later), and stopped at the big "Zon" duty-free shop, the same one that's in airports, that lies between the Malaysia and Thai borders. Officially, I think it's still in Malaysia, but it seems to exist in this sort of limbo, where you've sort of left Malaysia, but haven't technically entered Thailand yet. We popped in and I bought a 5-liter box of Australian wine, some Scotch whiskey, and a bottle of creme de cacao liqueur. Oh, and a couple of beers. I don't really drink beer here much (certainly not the local swill), but I do like to use it for cooking -- it's great for making breads and batters, but a single can is so expensive here, I never bother. Duty-free, however, a can of beer only costs about RM2, so I picked up two cans. Ivan headed straight for the chocolate and bought, I think, about a metric ton of it.

Here's the border crossing... luckily not too crowded

After that, we proceeded on to the border, which is best described as a 50/50 blend of chaos and apathy. It was bizarre. There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to the process... some people were just waved through, almost no one was stopped nor any car inspected, and yet we still had to do the whole thing twice to get it right. First we had to drive into Thailand and park behind this big building. Now technically at this point, we are fully in Thailand and could have just driven merrily on. There was no one to stop us (except a random monkey sitting there picking through the garbage, no joke). But we took our passports and documents to the walk-through section, took care of that, then went and got in the car to drive on in. However, at this time, there WAS an actual non-simian person there, who said we had to go around the other way. So we backtracked around behind the aforementioned building and drove back through one of the "entry" lanes, where we were directed to park (at the same place we had been before... sigh), and fill out more paperwork to bring the car into Thailand. Because of old tariff regulations that are still on the books, what you actually must do is "temporarily import a vehicle for the purpose of tourism." I had researched this ahead of time, so I knew to have the registration form with me. So the lady printed up the form while eating a piece of cake and dropping crumbs all over the book I had to sign (this was the apathy part of the blend), and once I signed that, agreeing in fact to re-export the car within 30 days or pay a big fine, we drove on into the border town of Dannok, just a couple of dozen kilometers south of Sadao. (As an interesting note, all the dates on the form were in Buddhist calendar form... I think this is year 2554 in the Buddhist era. So I was agreeing to export my car from Thailand before December 21, 2554.)

Streetside in Dannok, Thailand
Now, Dannok itself is not on any map, but it has a bank, a bunch of shops, at least a dozen karaoke clubs (which are apparently just fronts for sex dens judging by the girls hanging around them), and a McDonald's, so it is a legitimate town. And like all border towns, it's a wild and fun place to hang out. We arrived just before sundown, so there was a palpable buzz of activity as everyone was rushing to get their business handled before darkness fell. We drove around, then parked and walked around, just taking it all in. The difference between Malaysia and Thailand is as extreme as the difference between Singapore and Malaysia at the southern border. Just as Singapore is financially leagues ahead of Malaysia, so too is Malaysia ahead of Thailand, and you can tell as you cross the border.

"Excuse me, sir? Sir? I'm gonna have to ask you to
move your elephant."
We hadn't been in Thailand for ten minutes when we saw our first elephant being "parked" in front of the bank, right next to all the motorbikes. I half-expected to see an "Elephant Parking Only" sign there. Awhile later, we had ventured off the main road and, quite by accident, stumbled on this open-air restaurant that was doing brisk business. Their sign proclaimed an all-you-can-eat buffet for a ridiculously cheap 119 Baht. One of the great things about traveling in Thailand is that the Thai Baht usually runs at about 10:1 to the Malaysian Ringgit, so it makes currency conversion very easy. Thus, 119 Baht is RM11.90 (about US$3.75). We had also seen this little food stall selling crabs, and we were really leaning towards having crabs for dinner, but their price was really quite high. Why are crabs always so expensive? They're not rare, they're easy to catch, and even easier to cook. But for some reason, no matter where you go, things like crabs and shrimp cost a bomb. Anyway, for quite a bit less than the cost of one kilo of crabs (four medium-sized ones), we could have two buffets at the other place, so we opted for that and headed back there. In the end, it was a great decision.

Sliced pork belly... otherwise known as BACON!
Steamboats are a popular way to eat here in Malaysia. A pot of simmering broth, usually spicy, is served over a propane-fueled fire at your table, and an assortment of seafood and vegetables are provided for cooking in the soup. This buffet was similar in some ways, but quite different in others. First, the fire wasn't fueled by gas, but rather a big clay kettle of flaming coals, which was delivered to the table and placed in a cut-out in the center. Then, an aluminum shield was placed over the fire. This shield has a raised portion for grilling, and a "moat" around that for the broth, which was delivered in a big kettle, so we could replenish the broth during the course of the meal. A little trolley for drinks and a bucket of ice was delivered and parked next to the table. Then you just help yourself to the buffet line of chilled meats and other goodies -- fish balls, crab sticks, etc. The meats were amazing... thin-sliced beef and pork belly (bacon!), three types of marinated chicken meat, boneless fish fillets, and some other stuff that, lacking any signage to identify it, we skipped (I'm guessing various organs -- liver and such... yikes). It was all super-cold, so I give them props for handling the meat properly. Indeed, it was so cold, the meat slices were freezing together, so I would just extricate a chunk of beef with about 10-15 slices and within a couple of minutes on my tray at the table, it thawed to the point of easy separation. There was another buffet table loaded with fresh produce, too... kangkong, kailan, oyster and straw mushrooms, noodles, and more. There was yet another table with six different types of sauces, all freshly made. And if none of those tickled your fancy, there was a station where you could make your own... all the traditional Thai ingredients from garlic to chilies to limes to shallots and more... and a big mortar and pestle so you could pound your spices fresh-to-order. There was even a container of fresh coconut milk for making curries if you wanted. It was brilliant. We only got two of the six sauces, but they were both absolutely amazing.

Waiting to be cooked

A portrait of happiness on aluminum
So we loaded up our trays with food and sat down to start cooking. Now, unfortunately, this picture doesn't really make it all look very appetizing. For whatever reason, it doesn't convey the heat and sizzle of the grill. But it was definitely hot... and the beef and bacon slices were our favorites. And as the meal wore on, the grill became coated with a thin layer of burned fats and juicy bits, most of which dribbled down into the moat full of broth. Towards the end of the meal, as you would expect, the broth was spectacularly flavorful. We couldn't stop eating. The kailan, cooked until tender in the broth, was simply the best I've ever had. So we sat there for over three hours, just enjoying a wonderful meal at a price that, quite simply, almost defied belief. At the end, we got some fresh watermelon and tossed it in our ice bucket to chill it down, then ate that as our dessert. We could barely walk when we finished, but we waddled back to the car, then drove back to the main street and found a nice, but basic, hotel for RM38 (about US$11.90). They offered free covered car parking, free WiFi in the rooms (wow), hot water, and air conditioning (in fact, the air-con unit in our room was brand-new). Amusingly, it had started raining by that time, and we had gotten our bags out of the car under the covered parking, and I was looking for my umbrella. After searching feverishly for 2-3 minutes and finally locating it deep under the passenger seat, literally as I popped it open, the rain stopped. I mean totally stopped. Nothing like being cruelly mocked by Mother Nature!

The Dannok McDonald's...
Probably the nicest place in town
The next morning, we finally got up and moving around 11 or 12 (Thailand is an hour behind Malaysia), and went to the rather nice McDonald's next door to the hotel. Ivan had seen their sign advertising "Corn Pies" and gotten himself all worked into a lather to try one. In the end, he got two, and a giant iced coffee. The McDonald's (McDonald'ses?) in Malaysia do not sell this Corn Pie, so he was super keen to try it. I had a couple of bites, and it was indeed delicious... very crispy and flaky. Even better than their Apple Pie. We later talked to a girl here in KL who works for corporate McDonald's and learned that the pie is not certified halal for whatever reason, so it's not served in Malaysia for that reason. It's not like it has pork in it, obviously, but something about it doesn't meet Malaysia's standards for halal certification, and since the McDonald's here are all halal restaurants, there are no corn pies. Sad, because they're really good, and given Malaysians' penchant for eating sweet corn as a dessert item, would doubtlessly sell very well.

Ivan and his Corn Pies

We drove a bit further into Thailand, but ultimately decided not to go all the way to Hat Yai, a good-sized city (Thailand's fourth-largest) about an hour north. So we turned around, drove back into Malaysia (which we had to do twice because, once again owing to the apathy part of the blend, the immigration folks couldn't be bothered to stamp our passports or collect our immigration cards as we exited Thailand). We also had to "export" my car, too, which consisted of handing the form back in. Then it was finally back to Malaysia.

Shortly after crossing the border, we took the new highway from Changlun to Kuala Perlis, stopping along the way to photograph some of the rice paddy fields. It was really a nice bit of scenery.

Looking north towards Thailand

So much GREEN... everywhere we looked

I love these flattened-looking trees!

Awaiting the ferry to Langkawi
Once we got to Kuala Perlis, a small seaside town very near the Thai border, we found a very muddy spot to leave my car, and took a couple of overnight bags and walked to the jetty and bought tickets for the 6 p.m. ferry to Langkawi, which takes about 70 minutes and costs RM18. You can see the general bedlam here in the waiting area. This was only half of the area... the whole boat was filled, I think... about 400 people. The seats were jammed in there like an AirAsia flight, too. Fortunately, Ivan and I both passed out and napped very shortly after the ferry got underway and woke up just as we were steaming into the waters around Langkawi.

This was my third time to Langkawi, maybe my fourth... I can't recall. It's a nice place to visit... quiet, nice beaches, lots of history and legend to learn about, and a big enough island to spend a few days exploring. As it turns out, we only stayed one night, but I think it'd be fun to go back and spend more time there and really wander around.

As we got off the boat, we were accosted by a swarm of taxi drivers, naturally, but one of the guys asked if we wanted to rent a car, which we did. I told him I wanted to spend about RM60-70, and he said that was fine. So we went to the big jetty arrival/departure building (it's like a small airport but without planes... restaurants, duty-free shops, the works) and waited for the car to be delivered. Once it arrived, we put our stuff in the back, I got in and sat down and looked at the utter despair of this vehicle, which I think was a mid-90s model of Proton that isn't even made anymore. Even in the dark, it looked pathetic. Honestly, my old Tiara was in better condition. So I actually got out, chased the rental people down and told them that this car simply wouldn't do. It was just a total piece of sad crap. So they made some phone calls and procured a much better Nissan Sentra for us. It cost a little more, but was totally worth it.

RM29! Yes!!
We went to the main town, Kuah, and hit the duty-free shops (Langkawi is a duty-free island), where once again, Ivan zeroed in on the chocolates, and I went for the booze. I scored a liter of Bacardi rum for a scant RM29 (just over US$9). A liter of Bacardi in KL costs upwards of RM150. We then ate a light dinner at a local restaurant -- just had fried noodles and Japanese beer (Sapporo... RM3 there, RM13-15 in KL). Then it was off to find a hotel. It didn't take us long to find a place... and it was only RM60 per night. Most unfortunately, as we discovered later, our room was over a karaoke bar and we had to endure a carousel of horrible, delusional "singers" drunkenly wailing into the microphone until 3 a.m. Unsurprisingly, it was pretty easy to drift off to sleep after they closed down.

The next day consisted of wandering the beach (Pantai Cenang), having pizza at Artisan's Cafe, shopping, and going to the really amazing Langkawi Cable Car and Sky Bridge at about 3 p.m. For whatever reason, I had never been there before, but I'm glad that's no longer the case. Very much worth the price of admission (RM30 for me, RM15 for Malaysians). It was completed in 2003 and is really an amazing piece of engineering. The steepest incline is 42°, one of the steepest in the world, and the longest free span of cable, which is almost alarming to behold from above, is a staggering 950m, which is over 3,100 feet long without any support. The Sky Bridge, which is accessible via a short walk down a steep forest-surrounded series of steps from the top of the cable car, is equally impressive. It's a single-point, side-spar cable-stayed bridge, that's dramatically curved and terminated on each end with a triangular viewing platform. At 650m (2,145 ft.) above sea level, the views of the sea, the numerous islands, and the forested peaks of Langkawi, are spectacular. We were really lucky with the weather... just enough clouds to lend interest and impact to the blue sky, without obscuring any of the land. I'll just post a series of pictures here, most of which need to be clicked on and enlarged to be fully appreciated...

Blue sky and clear water at Pantai Cenang

At one of my favorite streetside cafes, Artisan's...
pretty good pizzas here!

Cable car ride (left) over the forest canopy

Here's the drama: The 42-degree plunge along a
nearly 1-km length of unsupported cable

The Andaman Sea and a handful of islands in the distance,
from the Middle Station of the Cable Car ride

Approaching the Sky Bridge:
Not a place for acrophobes

Looking out on the horizontal cable section between the
Middle Station and Top Station

A full view of the amazing Sky Bridge from
the Cable Car as we began our descent

After spending a couple of hours at the Cable Car and Sky Bridge, we meandered back to Kuah and the jetty, so we could catch the final 7 p.m. ferry back to the mainland.

The view from the jetty as we boarded the ferry

We reclaimed my car, a muddy, filthy mess by this time, and headed east on the highway back to Changlun. There, we stopped for a dinner break, then got back on the road, which soon joined the proper North-South Highway, and the extortionate tolls recommenced. All told, we spent about RM125 in tolls and another RM200+ on gas. But what a fun trip! Oh, and on the five-hour journey from the northern extreme of Peninsular Malaysia back down to the KL area, it literally rained the entire time. The good news, though, is that my car was considerably cleaner when we arrived back home than it was when we left Kuala Perlis!

So on the road trip, because I've always found it important to note such details, we logged 1,069 km, or about 640 miles. It was definitely an enjoyable experience... one I'd certainly repeat, this time maybe going further into Thailand and/or staying longer on Langkawi!

Coming soon... a three-week trip back home to Colorado for Christmas and New Year's. I can't believe 2011 is almost over!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Window Panes... oops, I mean Windows Pains

Well, at least this time I have an excuse for the delay in posting a new entry. I have two computers here in KL with me: a full-size laptop and a portable netbook. Over the course of a single weekend, both of them developed problems that rendered them unusable. The netbook's problem was easy enough to spot: the keyboard stopped working properly. I'd press "C" and get "y1k" or something on the screen. Probably 30-35% of the keys don't work at all now. I have no idea what caused this, but after a few days of not really doing anything about it, I hooked up an external USB keyboard so I could at least log in. The larger laptop started freezing and crashing at just about the same time, too. I'd been wanting to upgrade the operating system for quite awhile anyway (it's the truly awful Windows Vista), so this seemed as good a time as any. My plan was to back up everything I could, then take the whole computer to Low Yat Plaza in KL, a nightmarish rats' nest of tech-related shops densely packed into an aging five-story mall in the Bukit Bintang area (truly hell on earth during the weekends) and have them wipe the hard drive and install Windows 7. One of my friends here works in the computer industry, though, so he told me he could give me a copy of the operating system. So I took the money I'd have spent buying the OS here (considerably less, actually) and bought a new hard drive altogether, upgrading from 160 to 500GB and increasing the disk speed from 5400 to 7200 rpm, both pretty significant upgrades. Oddly enough, hard drives are among the few electronic items that are cheaper here than in the States. Usually, Americans enjoy a substantial cost savings on almost anything in the consumer electronics realm, but this exact hard drive was RM220 here, and when converted to Ringgit, RM375 in the US.

Unfortunately, the Nvidia video card that's part of my laptop does not work and play well with Windows 7 in this laptop's configuration, so I've been busily trying to find a working driver that will both avoid crashes and allow me to take full advantage of all the nifty Windows 7 visual goodies. It's been a giant pain, to say the least.

Another rainy afternoon at the pool (view from my balcony)
Meanwhile, we're very much in the rainy season here in KL now. It rains almost every day at one point or another (sometimes two or three times). We've had a couple of wild thunderstorms, too, which are always fun. We've also been enjoying relatively cooler weather. My electric bill, which has never even hit RM40 in a month here, dropped to a preposterous RM23 last month. I very seldom turn on the air conditioners here and it's reflected in the energy bill. I think if it's under RM20, you don't even have to pay at all... not sure about that, but that's what I hear.

Penang to Hat Yai... oh boy!
This weekend promises to be interesting. Two of my friends are participating in a 10K run across the Penang Bridge, so a group of five of us are going up to Penang for the weekend for that. The day after the run, a couple of us will continue north up into Thailand, something I've certainly never done before (driving into Thailand). From that point, we're just treating it as a road trip, really not specifically planning anything. We may venture as far as Hat Yai, or just explore the general southern Thailand area, then return to Malaysia, where we have given thought to driving to Kuala Perlis (extreme northern Malaysia) and taking the ferry to Langkawi for a day or two (and stocking up on some duty-free goodies). I'm not sure exactly when we'll be back to KL, but probably by the middle of next week. Should be an adventure, and I'll certainly take my camera!

I'm finding that having all the free time associated with working only part-time (and extremely part-time at that; usually only 5-6 hours a week) is kind of boring. I like work and like structure, so I've started looking for full-time work again... would be nice to have something to start in January or after Chinese New Year, which would push it to February.

One of my friends (who is also a photography buff) and I went to Taman Tasik Perdana a couple of weeks back... it's definitely a nice place in the city to find some relative tranquility and plenty of photo ops. We then hit KLCC and wandered around the park and briefly inside the mall (where I saw a huge sign completely mangling an English phrase). I'll wrap this up with some pictures and will write another entry after the upcoming trip.

This shot of a colorful hibiscus flower serves as
the wallpaper on my poor struggling laptop

Yeah, the Petronas Towers are still there... here's the usual shot

And here's a not-so-usual view of the towers in one of the park's reflecting balls.
It's a shame the surface of the sphere is etched and marred; otherwise, I think
this would be a really cool shot.

This is just sad. This is a floor-to-ceiling sign (a new
candy store is opening soon in KLCC). Did it not occur to anyone
that this doesn't make a bit of sense? Just change the "heavy"
to "heaven" and that's the phrase they were looking for.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Cherating and Impiana Resort: Finally, my first visit to the East Coast!

Though the vast majority of Peninsular Malaysia's population lives on the western side of the peninsula, it's the east that unquestionably has the best beaches. Even discounting the breathtaking postcard-perfect beaches on the islands of the Perhentians, Redang, and others off the east coast, the actual coast of the mainland itself has beaches that surpass almost any to be found on the west coast.

Looking north along the beach towards the headland
(taken from Impiana Resort)
The small town of Cherating, in Pahang state, an easy three-hour drive from KL, doesn't have the best beaches, not by a long shot, but the beach is still quite nice. Clean water, gentle surf, and a charming, laid-back atmosphere in the village all lend themselves to the appeal of this long-established backpackers' spot. In three years of living in Malaysia, I had yet to venture across the peninsula over to the east coast, which at KL's latitude is only 145 miles (235 km) across. One of my friends from Singapore was up in KL visiting for a week, so we decided awhile back to take a few days and check out Cherating. 

From bottom to top: Pineapples, durian, and longans
We left the haze and congestion of KL after a midday dim sum meal and headed east, hoping for clearer skies, which we found! The drive over was easy enough, using the seamless tandem of the Karak Highway (which can be dangerous owing to crazy drivers trying to negotiate the hairpin curves too quickly as the road crests the spine of the peninsula's highlands) and the East Coast Expressway (Lebuhraya Pantai Timur). One cool thing about driving on the highways here is the R&R plazas (that doesn't stand for "rest and relax," though it stands for Malay words that roughly mean the same thing, rehat (rest) and rawat (recreation)), most of which have a fresh fruit stand or two. Look at these pineapples... so big! Anyway, tolls for the whole one-way journey totaled RM31, which is about what I expected. 

The suitably grand lobby at Impiana Resort
We stayed at the Impiana Resort, right on the beach. It was a nice place, though showing its age a bit. However, for the price (RM189/US$63++ per night, including breakfast buffet for two), it really was quite okay... I'd give it a 7 of 10 overall! The room was comfortable and clean, the food at the restaurant was pretty good, the pool was nice (although it inexplicably closed at 7 pm each evening), and the service was... well, you can't expect too much, right? It's still Malaysia, after all. On that note, I read something recently that a former Malaysian prime minister said. He lamented the fact that while Malaysia can afford first-class infrastructure, it remains mired in third-world mentality when it comes to understanding things like planning, service, and maintenance. Obviously this great truth is manifested spectacularly in the epic traffic jams of KL and Penang, but the service component is a major factor, too. In restaurants, in hotels, in shops and stores, there is simply a near-total lack of service. It apparently isn't expected, isn't demanded, and isn't provided. Here we were in a supposedly classy 4-star resort, and we weren't even escorted to our rooms, nor greeted upon arrival as we drove up under the porte-cochère. As for maintenance, I see the absence of that even here at my condo. Even though it's a reasonably nice, upscale place, there are numerous lights burned out around the grounds, and one lamppost that's perilously close to toppling over altogether. I think someone ran into it with their car. It could easily be remedied, but I can guarantee everyone that it won't be. And honestly, how hard is it to replace light bulbs? So the Prime Minister nailed it. But if the head of state can see such things and not effect change, obviously it's far beyond my power to do so... and so, like most Malaysians, I just tolerate it.

Waterlilies seen from the lobby of Impiana Resort
At Impiana, I never even had an inkling of expectation that we would be accompanied to our room. I figured they'd hand us the key and we'd head off ourselves, schlepping our own luggage all the way... and I was right. Since I have no such outrageous expectations of this supposed 4-star resort (and it's not), I wasn't disappointed at all. In fact, I thought Impiana was perfectly fine... but only by Malaysian standards. I wrote a review of the resort on TripAdvisor.com. I'll add the link here once it goes live on that site. Meanwhile, here are a few photos from around the resort, showing the room, the grounds, and the pool. In the first picture, take a look at the waterfall just to the left of the center. It's a nice touch, but the background is appalling. It's just the facade of the building, and not an attractive one at that, with the sad vertical blinds behind the glass, and the lone air-conditioner compressor sitting off to the right. It's one of those things that, with a little more effort in the execution (rocks, etc., to give a more natural, inviting look), could have been grand. The waterfall could easily have been the focal point of the pool, elevating it to a really nice resort-like experience. Instead, it just falls flat and almost looks industrial. Unfortunately, this is the case around here more often than not. Even painting the expanse of white concrete wall behind the waterfall to a darker color would really improve things, I think. Note the swim-up bar to the right... a very nice touch.

The inviting waters of Impiana's pool

The covered sunloungers by the pool

And here's the room... nothing opulent, but
clean and comfortable... very satisfactory!

And here's the view from the balcony of our room

Kailan with Oyster Sauce... yum!
Unquestionably, the highlight of the trip was the first night. We ate dinner at a small cafe in Cherating Lama (literally, "Old Cherating," the original village, which retains a whole lot of charm). We had ikan bakar (grilled fish -- we had white snapper) and assorted veggies, my favorite of which was kailan (one of the many marvelous Asian greens) sautéed in oyster sauce. After that, we popped into a little shack promoting various tours and activities, arranged or co-brokered by a man named Hafiz. The beaches of Cherating are one location in Malaysia where sea turtles come every year to lay their eggs. So we left our number with him with the understanding that if the rangers spotted turtles that night, they'd give us a call. Sure enough, around 10 p.m., we got the call, so we headed off to the designated rendezvous point to meet our guide, who we then followed to the beach.

There's nothing in this photo for scale, but the turtle's head
is roughly the size of a large cantaloupe
Using only dimmed flashlights, the rangers led us to one female green sea turtle who was busily digging in the sand to lay her eggs. Green turtles never lay eggs in consecutive years, but typically will lay eggs 2-3 times during one mating season. A single clutch of eggs can contain between 100-200 eggs. The female spends about three hours on the beach, the great majority of that time spent digging. There was no actual egg-laying action taking place here yet, so we walked quite a ways down the beach and found another female who was just completing her egg-laying. These turtles aren't as huge as the giant leatherback turtles, but they're nowhere near small. These females were nearly four feet (1.2 m) in length, and a cursory bit of research suggests they probably weighed around 300 lbs. (136 kg) each. Their front flippers are enormous, and though they are well-suited to propulsion in the sea, on land, the turtle is quite ungainly. 

The telltale path of a green sea turtle
No sooner had she finished depositing her eggs in her nest (and gotten a barnacle-scraping, with the ranger slicing off two of the parasitic organisms, one from her head, one from her left front flipper) than she lurched back towards the sea, leaving a distinctive trail in her wake. Unfortunately, poachers are all too familiar with this trail and can easily find sea turtle eggs, which must remain in the sandy nest for 45-75 days, giving unscrupulous people plenty of time to find and steal the eggs, which are prized in parts of Asia. Since the green turtle is an endangered species, the rangers (who were from the local turtle sanctuary) promptly dug up the eggs to take them to the sanctuary for protective incubation. Upon hatching, the baby turtles are returned to the same location from where they were removed, and released, where they instinctively head into the waiting sea. This affords the hatchlings a doubly increased chance of survival over just leaving the eggs where they were laid: First, even if the eggs aren't poached by humans, they can fall prey to any number of maladies during the incubation period and fail to develop. Second, the trek to the ocean after hatching on the beach is the most dangerous time in the turtle's entire life. Many baby turtles never make it to the water, getting picked off by birds, monkeys, lizards, even crabs. Released under the supervision of conservation-minded people, the turtles stand a significantly improved chance of initial survival.

Me with two of the hours-old hatchlings. The turtle
on the right is particularly eager to be released!
One of the most remarkable things about sea turtles is that many undertake epic migrations to return to the exact same beach they hatched at decades earlier in order to lay their own eggs as adults. So the two females we saw, in all likelihood, had been hatched on that very beach many years ago. Green turtles can live up to 80 years in the wild, and don't start breeding until they're 20-30 years old, so how they find their way back to the same beach they were born at, often well over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away all those years later is a great mystery. 

Time for a beach ping-pong marathon!
The second turtle we saw left behind a clutch of 108 eggs, which look almost exactly like ping-pong balls, and even feel similarly, for the shell is semi-soft at the freshly laid stage. The eggs were collected rather unceremoniously in a plastic grocery bag and taken off to the sanctuary later. I mentioned to my friend that, really, these "rangers" could actually be poachers, and we'd never know... not only stealing eggs, but taking money from unsuspecting tourists, too! The only way we could really know would be if we saw them actually releasing newly hatched turtles back into the ocean. In a great stroke of providence, a batch of baby turtles had indeed just hatched that night, and they brought them (in a shopping basket, which was amusing)... probably a hundred tiny hatchlings, only a few hours old. So after seeing the adult turtles and a big clutch of ping-pong egg balls, we even got to release baby turtles into the South China Sea, all under a big full moon. It really couldn't have been scripted any better and we paid only RM30 to the guides for this remarkable experience, about the cost of seeing the latest crappy movie at the cinema in my hometown. As I learned not too long ago, a great maxim for living life is, "Buy experiences, not things." So we did just that. The second night, we did it again... this time, trading turtles on the beach for fireflies on the river.

For these baby turtles, an 80-year journey begins with
a moonlit 20-meter dash into the sea
The tour guide mentioned earlier, Hafiz, is also an expert on fireflies and leads a boat tour down the Cherating River at night, so we did that. I think we set off at around 8:30 pm, into the inky darkness of the river. The boat was full, with six adults, three small children, and Hafiz, who had given a short, but remarkably educational pre-departure lecture on fireflies in general, and on the specific species we were to see. He also (to my amusement) asked us not to swat or smash the fireflies, as they would be flying to us and landing on us and the boat. I grew up chasing fireflies (not much of a chase, really... fireflies are among the easiest bugs on Earth to catch) and know that they're harmless. Obviously there are no photos from the firefly river tour; it was far too dark. However, suffice it to say it was well worth the RM15 we spent. The tour lasted a little over an hour, and we saw plenty of fireflies, many of who paid up-close and personal visits to us in the boat. Now I really want to go to Kuala Selangor, which is not far from my place (maybe a 30- or 40-minute drive) and see the fireflies there. It's a different species and those fireflies actually synchronize their flashing, which I'm sure is an amazing spectacle.

Tong Juan's famous stuffed crabs
For dinner on the final evening of the short holiday, we drove the short 15-km distance north to the town of Chukai, just across the state line in Terengganu. One of my friends in KL is from the nearby town of Kuantan and recommended this place in Chukai called Tong Juan for their stuffed crabs. Located right by the river there, the ambiance-challenged restaurant serves up stuffed crabs for RM8 each. Now, perhaps it's because I was born and raised on the Gulf Coast in the US, but to me, stuffed crabs are nothing new, nor anything fancy. But this place is famous among Malaysians (who consider RM8, nearly US$3, for a single stuffed crab, somehow, to be a bargain), so we had to try it. We got the last remaining table and ordered four crabs, a couple of vegetables (kailan and kangkong), and two young coconuts (to drink). The crabs are stuffed with a mixture of crab meat and filler (breading, herbs, etc.) and to me, weren't seasoned enough. The resultant product was almost devoid of any real flavor, although it was certainly fine to eat. Then the whole thing is dipped in an egg mixture, I think, and fried. Our total bill came to about RM60 and honestly, the meal was not worth that price tag. In KL, two people can eat good food and a lot of it for that price. And I know with certainty that I could make stuffed crabs at home that taste better. The ones at Tong Juan were fine, but bland. Naturally, there was no hint of gracious service whatsoever, which is, regrettably, to be expected. So to recap... rubbishy service, a total lack of ambiance, and good, but unexceptional food. Though I think the overall meal was certainly okay, this is not a place I'd patronize again, especially having to drive out of the way to get to it.

It's not often you get to walk along a multi-level beach.
Here, the upper level was a good two meters higher than
the lower level... all courtesy of the monsoon
On the same day, before we went to Chukai, we went back to "Turtle Beach" to see it during daylight hours; there were some really nice rock outcroppings and right-on-the-beach jungle I wanted to see. It's really a nice stretch... and curiously, the size of the beach increases and decreases significantly with the seasonal monsoon. Six months earlier, the beach extended 100m further out to sea. Each year, though, as the monsoonal flow shifts, the sea consumes the beach. You can see clearly in this picture the different places the water reached as it reclaimed the sand, resulting in a dramatic two-level beach.

We also got to see a beach monkey! The little bugger was probably casing the joint for a future raid on a clutch of freshly hatched turtles. I'll toss in a few more pictures from the walk here, captioned accordingly.

Monkey on the prowl... I think it's a macaque

Walking along a desolate beach as the day's light wanes

Less than 50m from the sea, the sand gives
way abruptly to dense foliage...

The biodiversity of the jungle so close to the ocean was amazing
(Click to enlarge and you'll see)

This is a good one to enlarge as well. I'm not sure what these
are (a species of barnacle, perhaps), but they were all over
this rock, particularly along the crevices

More turtle tracks

Deep water- and wind-eroded striations in a massive rock formation
that's likely been there for hundreds of millennia

Small flowers on a beach-bound vine
Overall, the trip was just really nice. Like I said, I've lowered my expectations here to the point where the things I've mentioned don't even ping my radar until I evaluate the experience later in my head. By local standards, this was a really enjoyable holiday and I'd definitely recommend a few days in Cherating to any KL resident wanting to chill out and enjoy some time on a beach without having to board a plane or spend a fortune.