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 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.

Friday, September 9, 2011

House and Home: The Move to Perdana Emerald and a Trip to Colorado

A snow-dusted Lookout Mountain seen from my mom's neighborhood
Well, it was a great two weeks back in Denver, despite the wacky weather. May is late spring in the US, and as a transitional month, Colorado's weather, which is subject to wild changes at any time, is even more difficult to predict. But usually, this time of year is pretty warm if nothing else. Not this time! It was cold and rainy almost the entire time I was home... when I was picked up at the airport, it was about 6°C/43°F and raining. That was to be the theme for nearly the entire stay. People were wandering around in a daze, mumbling, "It never rains this much in Denver!" In the two weeks I was there, we literally had rain, snow, slush, hail, thunderstorms, and even a few small tornadoes just north of the city. Went out with my friends... rain. Went to a Rockies baseball game with my mom... rain (and cold... and windy). Even when I went to the airport to leave... yup, more rain. We had roaring fires in my mother's fireplace, marveling that it was just on the verge of summer and we were all freezing to death. Crazy Colorado weather.
Brrr! 4°C on May 20th... insane!

Yeah, it was every bit as good as it looks.
On the day after the Rockies game, we went to this great restaurant in downtown Denver called Rio Grande (or "The Rio," as everyone calls it), a place that has not only great Mexican food, but is justifiably famous for its margaritas. They limit you to three during any one visit, and with good reason: these bad boys are strong! They're the classic recipe made with quality tequila, triple sec, and fresh lime juice (not sweet and sour mix), so the finished drink is a totally transparent yellow-green color. Delicious! And take a look at that steak tostada... and the mounds of fresh guacamole on the plate behind it (this is a seriously great photo to click on and enlarge)... ahhh, I do miss good Mexican food. I've managed to find two places in KL where I can get decent Mexican food, but obviously there's no pork (no carnitas, no carne adobada, no chicharrónes... sigh, now I'm drooling), and it's even less authentic than America's version of Mexican food. So basically, the US has fake Mexican food, and Malaysia has fake Americanized Mexican food. Talk about diminishing returns. If I get really desperate, I can go to Chili's here for fajitas. Nothing says fake-but-delicious Mexican food like a sizzling iron plate full of fajitas.

So while I was in Denver, my mom put me to work, as usual. She typically has a list of things for me to do when I am there visiting. This time it was digging up hundreds of pounds of rocks from her back porch and replacing them with bricks, which was complicated by the incessant rain and cold. However, we got it done, and the finished product looked much nicer than it had looked before, but a noticeable dip in the field of bricks might necessitate a fix on a later visit.

So it was a fun trip, and as always, great to visit with family and friends... and stock up on all that great stuff I can't get in Malaysia. Hehe.

Move-in day: 1/2 misery, 1/2 excitement
Almost immediately upon getting back to KL, I had to start wrapping up things with my job and prepping for the big 1-km move to my new place. Even though I consciously avoid acquiring stuff, I still have managed to accumulate a fair bit of it in the time I've lived here, so I got some empty boxes from the supermarket in my neighborhood. (It looked like I was running a small retail operation for cat food and eggs, I think, since those comprised most of the boxes.)

Evening at Perdana Emerald
So the move has now been completed and I'm slowly but surely getting settled in the new place. I definitely like Perdana Emerald. The facilities are great, the pool is gorgeous, and the unit is considerably larger than my other one. Truth be told, it's not quite as nicely fitted and renovated, but it's still very much acceptable. I had to look at nearly twenty units before settling on this one. I actually even have a dryer, so for the first time in over two years, I won't have to hang my clothes out on the balcony every time to dry them.


Nearly three months later...

Yes, I suck, I know. I think the only reason I'm so sporadic with these updates is because putting photos in this stupid blog is such a pain. Seriously, if you ever want create a photo-heavy blog, look elsewhere. is definitely not the best choice. [Edited to add: Actually, they've completely retooled the interface now, photos seem easier to insert, and there's even apparently the option of adding captions to photos... functionality I have longed for. However, after publishing, it still looks pretty crappy, doesn't it? And it seems I can only insert photos where there's a paragraph break, rather than in the paragraph, as before. Sigh. Curse you,!]

The last few weeks have been remarkably dry overall here in KL, even by the relatively dry standards of June and July. We still get rain, but it's pretty infrequent. As a result, and because of all the construction in the neighborhood, I have to mop my floor in the new condo at least twice a week to keep it from getting too dusty. (I open the windows pretty frequently to capture the nice breezes... so it's a trade-off.) It's also been pretty hazy these last two weeks, which is pretty uncommon this late in the dry season. Hope it subsides soon, because I don't like hazy skies at all. Here's a shot of my new living room, shortly after moving in. The sofa is vastly more comfortable than the one at my previous place! It doesn't really come across in this photo, but the thing is huge, too. I can lie fully and comfortably on it, and I'm six feet tall (183cm). Awesome.

Boiling water and a happy ice cube on the
same cooking element. Magic!
So I bought a new induction cooker quite recently. These haven't really taken off in North America (for reasons unknown), but in Asia and Europe, especially where kitchens tend to be smaller, they're quite popular. They're also quite cheap here... at least mine was (RM179... US$60). I knew a little about them, but only after purchasing one was I aware of how radically different they are from conventional ways of cooking. They may look like a regular smooth-top stove, but that's where the similarity ends. The element, when turned on, generates a strong electromagnetic field. When a pan is placed on the surface of the cooker, that field induces an electrical current inside the pan's metal, stimulating the molecules, which vibrate at some 30,000-50,000 times per second. Since iron is a poor conductor of electrical current, that resistance is (rapidly) converted to heat energy, so the cooking vessel actually becomes the source of heat. The induction cooker itself does not generate heat at all. I snapped a picture of a small pot sitting off-center on the element, water boiling merrily away and an ice cube sitting unscathed on another part of the element. Very cool (literally and figuratively). The only real potential drawback is that not all pots and pans work. They must be ferrous; that is, containing iron. So usually, anything cast iron or stainless steel (which is an alloy composed primarily of iron) works brilliantly and most of my cookware here works with it. A couple (aluminum) don't. I tested the efficiency and speed of induction cooking by heating a liter of cold tap water to a rolling boil in an uncovered pot. In the induction cooker, it took 3 minutes and 30 seconds. On the gas cooker, at high, it took 5 minutes and 40 seconds, and the handles of the pot were scorching hot afterwards because of all the heat that radiated up the sides of the pot. No such problem with the induction cooker. I've become an instant fan of this method of cooking. It doesn't heat up the kitchen the way the gas burners do. (About 45% of the energy produced by a gas burner is wasted, while only 10% of induction-generated heat goes to waste.) So there ya go... you probably never thought you'd learn something about induction cooking by reading a blog about life in Kuala Lumpur.

So really not much to report. I went down to Singapore for an overnight trip last week, and will be going to the east coast of Malaysia for the first time soon... a three-day trip to Cherating Beach, about a three-hour drive from KL. Really looking forward to that! I'll definitely post photos.

Professional medical bandaging, KL style
One other saga that seems to be nearing resolution is with my eyes. I thought about writing an entire entry about it and calling it, "A not-so-jocular case of the ocular," but that just made me a little nauseous, so I'll just regale you with the story here. Many moons ago, back in November of last year, I had a stye on my left eye. Though quite common, simply resulting from blocked oil glands on the eyelid, I had never had one before. So I went to my regular doctor to get it tended to, but he was out of the office that day, but had a guy filling it. I assumed he was an actual medically trained physician. My mistake. He first tried to anesthetize my eye by spraying some sort of local anesthetic directly in my face. It was cold as ice and caused far more discomfort than it ever could have precluded to begin with, but to make matters worse, it didn't really even work. The guy next took a needle and punctured the stye, which hurt like all hell, and then pinched the thing to squeeze the pus out. Can't tell you how wonderful that felt. Then he half-assedly taped some gauze to my face and sent me on my way. Good lord. A ringing endorsement for medical tourism in Malaysia this was certainly not.

I Only Have Eye (drops) for You
While it did indeed relieve the visible symptoms of the stye, it wound up causing far more long-term problems. Lancing and draining a stye like he did is the first thing you're told specifically not to do with even a cursory check on Wikipedia, so I have to wonder what little backwater kampung he got his medical training in. So yeah, with the stye punctured, the bacteria that caused the thing to begin with were free from the corral, so to speak, and ran willy-nilly all over my eye. A rub, a poke, and the bacteria spread to the right eye, too. Now this didn't cause blindness or any major trauma, just months of dry eyes, watery eyes, sometimes one of each, itchy and tired eyes, you name it. I went to one specialist who gave me a vial of expensive eye drops (from Germany) and a bottle of fish oil capsules. That turned out to all be utterly useless, so thankfully the company paid the bill on that one. For months, I tried one sort of eye drop and/or antibiotic topical ointment (for the skin surrounding the eyes) after another. Look at this pharmacy full of empty containers I amassed over time! I set them all up on my coffee table and took this picture just to highlight how insane this has all been... and this honestly isn't all of them. Add about five or six more dropper vials, plus a tube of Neosporin ointment, and that would be complete. Finally, a few weeks ago, I went to a different eye doctor in Damansara Utama who prescribed a good (US-made, hooray) antibiotic eye drop and a lubricating gel to replenish the corneal fluid. Apparently, the anesthetic that the quack of a fake doctor sprayed in my eye damaged the cornea of my eye and the subsequent staph infection made it near-impossible for my eye to heal itself properly. So anyway, it's on the mend now, and hopefully it will be back to full normalcy soon — a year of eye-related misery. The moral? Don't ever let idiot substitute doctors treat you.

Dear Humans,

Psst! Hey there. We can't read.

Sincerely, The Dogs
Finally, on a lighter note, I always snap pictures of funny signs around town when I have my camera handy. Given the propensity Malaysians have for doing odd things with the English language, there's not a shortage of subject matter. I'll try to include these pictures here and there. This one was taken at a playground in Bangsar recently. I was meeting a former business contact for lunch nearby, and parked my car near the playground. When I was walking back to my car, this sign caught my eye. I looked at it, and as the definition of "stray dog" crystallized in my mind, the humor became evident. I usually have to explain it to my local friends here, who never see any problem with the sign. A stray dog, by definition, I tell them, is a dog without a human owner. They're strays. Street dogs. So unless these owner-less dogs can read (and read English, no less), this sign is completely pointless. Ha ha! So if you see any illiterate stray dogs out there, be sure to tell them: Stay away from the playground in Bangsar!