La Vida Isla

May 17, 2007

Back to la vida isla. The splash of waves on the shore. Seafood barbeques. Water like glass. Bugs everywhere. The constant coconut smell of sunscreen. Double-priced sundries. Quadruple-priced internet.

This time we’re marooned on the Perhentian islands. Comprised of two islands, Besar (Big) and Kecil (Small), they are compact, idyllic, and very unlike their Thai counterparts. Shockingly, tourists actually come here to unwind, rather than to get drunk. This is due mostly to the conservative Muslim bent found in the Terrengannu state where the Perhentians are located; alcohol is rarely served and even when on offer, is expensive. Families – both foreign and Malaysian – flock here for good, wholesome fun: diving, snorkeling, canoeing, and swimming in the gorgeous ocean. Although there is a generous sampling of teeny, weenie bikinis on Kecil’s Long Beach, more often than not, Malaysian women swim fully clothed, sometimes even with makeshift headscarves for the water. At night, the only entertainment is eating. After dinner, it’s good, old-fashioned reading or conversation.

After much deliberation on which island to base ourselves, we decided on the western shore of Besar. Perhaps I’ve been traumatized by Bob Marley constantly on loop in every restaurant, bar, and bungalow reception area on every island in the Andaman sea, but I wanted to escape the reputed backpacker scene on Kecil. I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

Pros for the western shore of Besar: it’s quiet and development here is organic. There are no gaudy restaurants or beach umbrellas lining the shore. You can read a book and not be bothered too much by the buzz-saw of motorboat engines. The best beach on the Perhentians, the beach in front of the Perhentian Island Resort, is a short, easy ten-minute walk away.

Cons: there’s not much going on before or after dark, food tends to be slightly expensive, the bay in front of our hotel is littered with broken coral and shells, redering it unswimmable.

On a day trip, we cruised over to Kecil to see what we were missing. The atmosphere was definitely different.

The pros of Long Beach were: great beach, with, shallow, aqua waters and no coral. Cheaper food. More things to do – plenty more restaurants and mini marts, a batik-making class, movie nights, etc.

Cons: The development on Long Beach is pretty ugly. There’s not too much of it (especially compared with Koh Phi Phi or Koh Lanta), but it’s just haphazard and in various states of completion. A more heterogeneous crowd of young, white Westerners.

Finally, we visited Aur (Coral) Bay on Kecil’s west coast, a ten-minute walk from Long Beach. This would probably be the happy medium between Besar and Long Beach. The bungalows weren’t as obtrusive, the scene more laid-back. The half-dozen restaurants and shops were cheap. The beach wasn’t as great, with broken coral lining the shore, but the snorkeling off-shore wasn’t bad either.

dsc02973.jpgOverall, I’m glad we stayed at Besar for one reason: access to some stunning beaches. Firstly, the beach at the Perhentian Island Resort. I thought that this was the best beach on the entire island. Pristine, powdery sand, 100% crystal clarity water, and only mildly crowded. Plus, a quick swim only fifty yards offshore brought us to a living coral reef where I saw a plethora of fish and where Shin even saw turtles, stingrays, and sharks. About a thirty-minute walk in the other direction from our guesthouse, Mama’s Place, was a relatively deserted and very pretty beach, the name of which escapes me now. (It was the bay closest to the west from Flora.) A quick hop away on a water taxi or longer paddle via sea kayak was the dazzling Turtle Beach. Deserted when we arrived, we were given free reign of the cove’s turquoise waters and good snorkeling. There’s even a freezing, fresh water stream that cuts down the east side of the beach. For one hour, we indulged in Robinson Crusoe fantasies, before four other boats pulled into the bay and our solitude was ruined. Still, it was a beautiful beach.

Our guesthouse, Mama’s, was okay, but the disorganization and overcharging involved in getting our onward transportation arranged left a bad taste in my mouth. Speaking of bad tastes, the food wasn’t great either. Watercolors Resort next door picked up the slack in that department, especially with the yummy pizzas and pasta, but I’m not sure what their chalets are like. The barbeque at the Coral View Resort was nice and a good value for two people at 30 RM for fish and squid, including drinks. Word to the wise: bring insect repellant. None of the rooms that we saw anywhere had mosquito screens or mosquito nets, which leaves you with only two choices: keep the windows shut and swelter in your room, or open them and live with the mosquitoes, ants, spiders, and palmetto bugs.

Tomorrow, we have a dreaded night bus ride before arriving at our last stop in Malaysia, Tioman Island, better known to musical buffs as South Pacific’s Bali Hai.

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Malaysia, Truly Asia

May 6, 2007

Malaysia’s catch-phrase, used by the people at the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, is “Malaysia: Truly Asia.” As far as touristy slogans go, it’s bang-on accurate.

Malaysia boasts a rich diversity of landscape, from rainforests to mountain retreats to tropical beaches to bustling cities; in this sense, it is no different than its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. However, what makes Malaysia “truly Asia” is the heterogeneity of its people. Nearly every major Asian religion – Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam – are represented here. Cuisine-wise, too, the choices never cease. We’ve been here for two weeks and I haven’t yet been fatigued by the food, whereas in Vietnam palate exhaustion took about a week, Thailand, a few days, and Laos, a few meals.

Malaysia’s national language is Bahasa Malaysia, but Chinese and English are also widely spoken. I marvel at the locals’ linguistic prowess; it’s more common to meet Malaysians fluent in two languages than not. Turn on the television and the music video VJs pepper their Malaysian speech with English words until all of a sudden they full-on switch into English. Seconds later they’re back into Malaysian.

dsc02874.jpgUntil a few days ago, we were in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital. Bustling, loud, and hot like most Southeast Asian cities, KL (as it’s called by the locals) is one of the most modern cities in the region in terms of infrastructure, but the city has a distinctly traditional pull. Muslim customs abound. It is a city with a relatively low-key nightlife, where a beer costs as much as it does in Japan thanks to prohibitive taxes, and where Muslim girls cover their heads in embroidered headscarves while still toting Juicy Couture handbags. Many of the city’s famous buildings are either directly or indirectly influenced by traditional Muslim architecture, the most famous example being the fabulous Petronas Twin Towers. Each tower is structured as an eight-point star, each point representing a virtue of Islam.

The Islamic Arts Museum, too, is a cool, modern building composed of glass and beige, Italian marble. Yet, the outside features adsc02868.jpg gorgeous blue and yellow tiled mosaic, and the whole museum is modeled after a mosque, with its turquoise domes and refreshing inner courtyards. Not only did I appreciate the gorgeous exhibits of jewelry, armor, textiles, glass, ceramics, etc. from all over Asia, the museum itself is an art piece representing the “simple splendor” which, in my mind, is one of the cornerstones of Islamic art. Along with the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, this was the best museum I’d been to in Southeast Asia.

Moving on from Kuala Lumpur, we’re now in Malacca, which has a completely different atmosphere about it. Of course, there are still mosques. The Muslim women are more conservatively dressed here. But if KL is Malaysia’s future, Malacca best embodies its past. dsc02908.jpgIntricately stuccoed and tiled Chinese shophouses, meticulously preserved, line the streets of Chinatown. Stadhuys and St. Paul’s church, stark and simplistic and very Dutch, sit on Malacca hill, the eye of the city. Streets have Portuguese names. Malacca is also the capital of Nonya cuisine – a culinary creation of the Baba-Nonya (Malay-Chinese) people. While other places in Malaysia boast rich histories and varieties of people and food (Penang comes to mind), Malacca seems to have fused all of these together the best; on one street in Chinatown – you have a Hindu temple, a mosque, and a Buddhist temple. Around the corner is a museum devoted to the Baba-Nonya heritage. There is even a little corner of the city where descendents of the Portuguese still live, where they speak a patois of Portuguese and Malaysian.

If there is any religious, racial, or ethnic strife (which I’m sure there is, as with any place where diverse groups of people come into contact), as a tourist, I rarely see it. In general, it seems that most people respect and tolerate each other’s customs and traditions. Coming from Miami, another salad bowl but where no one really respects or tolerates anyone else, I’m impressed that Malaysians not only celebrate their country’s diversity, but use it as a draw card to tourists from abroad.

I came to the Cameron Highlands for the tea and all I got was this lousy rain.

dsc02791.jpgBack when Malaysia was still a British colony, the Brits, looking for a hill retreat to escape the tropical heat and remind them of more nostalgic days in the drizzly English countryside, popularized the Cameron Highlands as a vacation spot and agricultural center. Today, this place still brings in the tourists, now mostly Malaysians, looking for cooler weather, the perfect cup of tea, and strawberries, a rare fruit in Southeast Asia. Activities here include visiting the plantations and factories of Malaysia’s number-one tea producer, Boh, picking strawberries at one of the kazillion (or so) strawberry farms, hiking in the mountains, and hiding from the incessant drizzle.

The Highlands are a hiker’s paradise, with over a dozen established trails from strolls in the woods to full-on bush-whacking. Shin loves walking and he loves nature and, in particular, he loves walking in nature. I like walking and I begrudgingly respect nature, but a jungle-hike is not on top of my list of things I love to do. The day before, we’d spent stuffing our faces with tea, cake, and all manner of strawberry-related products (which is very high on my list of things I love to do), so I figured I should return the favor and go hiking with Shin.

A word on hiking in the Cameron Highlands: the combination of isolated hiking trails and nearly constant rain makes for a muggy, muddy walk. Another word on hiking in the Cameron Highlands: Jim Thompson, über-famous in Thailand for single-handedly reviving the Thai silk industry in the 1950s, is still presumed lost somewhere in the mountains, after embarking on a jungle hike and never returning. Excellent.

So, I found myself in these very same mountains yesterday, scampering over tree roots and trying to negotiate creeks and mud buried under a layer of leaves. Shin was my hero, helping me up and down the particularly steep sections. Our three-kilometer hike took two hours. In those two hours, we only saw two other hiking groups. While the trails were well posted, I sometimes envisioned myself getting lost amongst the bramble, doomed to a fate like that of Jim Thompson. I also pictured myself tripping on a damp tree root, breaking my leg, and having to survive on twigs and wild mushrooms until a rescue party came to find me.

But, alas, it is the things we worry about which never come to be. In the last ten minutes, of our hike, it started to rain. It went from a steady drizzle to a downpour in mere minutes, which was fine under the canopy of trees, where we still had shelter. Once we exited the woods, however, we still had a five-minute run down a paved road to the nearest shelter. One-minute in the rain was enough to soak me to the skin. Had this been warm, tropical rain, I would have welcomed a cooling downpour. But, we were in the closest place Malaysia has to the English countryside and thus it was a cold, bone-chilling rain, the kind that in Jane Austen novels, always give the heroine a life-threatening fever.

Soaked and shivering, Shin and I waited under a pavilion on a nearby golf course. We watched a leech crawl up Shin’s shoe. We watched cars splash by. We waited and shivered and finally, scared that I would end up on the cusp of death like Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, we ran for the bus stop, which turned out to be much farther than I thought. At the bus stop, we watched bus after bus flying by in the opposite direction. But none going in ours. Finally, by some miracle, we flagged down an empty taxi, which we shared back to town with three Malaysian boys, also soaked from the rain.

After a hot shower and a cup of tea, I’m fine. Poor Shin, however, has come down with the sniffles.

Our requisite “off-the-beaten-path” stop for Malaysia is Taiping. An hour-and-a-half south of Penang by express bus, it is a pleasant small town, easily walkable in several hours.

Once a tin mining town, Taiping boasts “32 Firsts” in Malaysian history – first English-language newspaper, first museum, first railroad, etc. And while its star has fallen since those times, Taiping still draws in some visitors, although not many. In two days, I have seen no other foreign travelers; come to think of it, I think we may be the only guests in our hotel. Other than our homestay in a Cambodian village (which, being a village, had no tourist attractions whatsoever and therefore doesn’t count in my mind), this is another true first.

dsc02757.jpgActually, I really like Taiping. Its main draw, the famous Lake Gardens, do not disappoint; they are very green, flowering, and well-tended, with charming gazebos and old-fashioned lamp-posts. The mountains in the background remind me of the Japanese gardening “borrowed scenery” technique, except unlike in Japan, Taiping has not spoiled the view by building ugly, concrete apartment buildings.

The city has a small-town feel, with only a few main drags. Except for the KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, and 7-11, most stores are mom-and-pop deals. People here are as friendly as you would expect small-towners to be; one man actually stopped his car, got out, and asked if we needed help as Shin and I tried to decipher the map in our guidebook. On the other hand, foreigners here must be rare, judging from all of the stares and “hello’s!” that I get from the local kids.

One reason we decided to stop in Taiping was its proximity to Kuala Kangsar, royal town of the Sultan of Perak. Kuala Kangsar is famed for two buildings – the Ubudiah Mosque and the Royal Museum. It’s an easy day trip – only one hour on local bus – from Taiping. Although even smaller than Taiping, Kuala Kangsar vaguely reminded me of Weston, a chichi suburb of Ft. Lauderdale. The town center felt very Malaysian, streets lined with Chinese shophouses, small general stores, a grocery store, a KFC. But walking further afield towards the mosque, the houses suddenly became very swanky, the landscaping very purposeful. While there are more SUVs and guard-gates in Weston, I could tell that some very well-to-do people must be situated in Kuala Kangsar, the richest being the Sultan himself.

Before arriving at the Ubidiah Mosque, we stopped in to Galeri Sultan Azlan Shah, a museum dedicated to the Sultan of Perak. Housed in a wonderful British colonial style mansion with blue-tiled fountains along the perimeter, the gallery featured everything from the Sultan’s four Rolls Royces to his judicial robes, various official uniforms and costumes, golf trophies, and Olympic passes from every year since the Seoul games. While the exhibits were only marginally interesting for me, the presentation was quite good, the building itself was beautiful, and the air-con was on full blast, very important when it’s 95-degrees outside. Overall, I don’t regret the RM 4 ($1) I paid for admission.

Visiting the museum had unfortunate consequences, however. Our next stop would be the uber-famous Ubidiah Mosque. The Roughdsc02770.jpg Guide described it as “Islam’s answer to Cinderella’s castle,” but anyone who knows their Disney would probably say it looked more like Aladdin’s. More than anything, I’d call this mosque very fun, although I’m not sure if the architect planned it that way. Dozens of tall, thin spires painted in black-and-white stripes rose up around the main dome. It glinted in the noon sun, resembling a shining, golden onion. The tragedy, however, was that we arrived at 12:09. Visiting hours were from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. (thanks for mentioning that, Rough Guide), with the mosque reopening from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Disappointed, we resigned ourselves to snapping photos of the outside only.

On we went to see the Sultan’s palace, a monstrosity set amongst lovely, tropical foliage. The architectural style was British colonial meets Islam, with elements of the stately mansion topped off with bulbous, golden domes. Too lowly to be allowed within the premises, again, we gaped from the outside.

dsc02777.jpgOur last stop in Kuala Kangsar was the Royal Museum. Approaching the gate, we saw a handwritten sign posted there: Closed for Renovation. Again, we could only take pictures of the museum’s exterior. Nevertheless, the main draw of the Royal Museum is its exterior, so I didn’t feel so bad. Geometric patterns painted in the royal colors of yellow, black, and white cover the sides of the building. Raised on stilts in the traditional Malaysian way, the building also contains no nails, which is something I’ve seen before in Chinese and Japanese furniture and architecture. I think it has something to do with the nails being bad luck. The effect of the building, with its bright colors, crazy patterns, and charming shuttered windows was like something out of Hansel and Gretel, minus the candy and gingerbread (darn.)

Between the mosque and the museum, fairy tales could have been the theme for the day, along with crap luck and seeing buildings from the outside only.

Penang, Glorious Penang!

April 24, 2007

If Malaysia is a gourmet heaven, then Penang is for the gods and saints. For two hundred years, the island has acted as a hub port for the Asian region; at one time, almost all ships crossing the Indian Ocean stopped here to load up on supplies. The result has made Penang a treasure chest of cultures, religions, ethnicities, and, best yet, all of their respective cuisines.

Penang’s metropolis, Georgetown, is a foodie paradise, with two of the world’s most popular cuisines – Indian and Chinese – represented two or three times each on every street. The aroma of garlic frying in black woks wafts from makeshift noodle stands. Fat, doughy Chinese buns beckon from giant steamers. Indian restaurants proudly display tray after tray of scarlet- and sienna- and mustard-colored curries. Even though it’s over 90-degrees, groups of men sit at tables drinking steaming teh tariks, sweet and frothy milk teas. Indian pancakes, fruit shakes, Chinese donuts, Western breads, pizza, fresh sliced fruit, it’s more than I can bear.

Best of all, more than any country we’ve been to, food is downright cheap. The night we arrived in Penang, Shin and I stumbled from our guesthouse, tired and starved from the twelve-hour trip. A plain cafeteria beckoned from across the street and, as it seemed somewhat peopled by the locals, we went in. A waiter shoveled some rice on a plate and nodded towards a counter where probably forty separate dishes – from fried chicken to steamed fish to okra with chilis – waited. I heaped several dishes onto my plate of rice and ordered a Chinese tea. Before I chowed down, the waiter peered over my shoulder to calculate the bill. With rice, tea, and four dishes, it all came to $2.

Hawker centers – i.e. open-air food courts – abound. Stalls of all kinds line the perimeter of a courtyard filled with tables and chairs. The choices amaze; there’s everything from dim sum to rib-eye steak, and even sashimi, although, clean as the hawker stalls usually are, I would still hesitate before ordering in an open-air market. Nevertheless, after ordering Malaysian noodles, ramen, two bamboo baskets of dumplings, and two drinks, Shin and I still couldn’t break $5.

With prices so low and quality so high, it’s easy to organize the day based on how many meals I can get in. Breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, mid-afternoon snack, early dinner, late-evening snack, dessert. And it takes planning, because you wouldn’t want to ruin the momentum by eating noodles twice in a row or wasting precious stomach space on ice cream bought from a convenience store. I would eat constantly if I could, but sometimes Shin gets mad at me so I have to cut out a snack or three. Although we’re only on Day Four of what will probably be five weeks in Malaysia, I feel that there isn’t enough time in the day to stuff as many delectables as possible into my ever-expanding stomach.

Penang Tropical Fruit Farm

Speaking of food, I highly recommend this place for fruit-lovers. We made the one-hour journey to the center of Penang via motorbike. Past the turn south, I didn’t see any bus stops so I assume going by local transport isn’t an option. According to our Rough Guide, staff can come pick you up, though it’ll cost you.

When we pulled up to the fruit farm, we were the only people there. We paid the expensive admission fee, RM 25 (about $5.50), and waited for our guided tour to begin. Admittedly, the “farm” looked more like a garden than any place where mass quantities of fruit were produced. Our guide arrived and explained that the actual farm amounted to 25 acres of land and that it set up this miniature version of itself for the tourists.

Despite its size, the fruit farm was very heavy on content. We saw all kinds of rare fruits from all over Southeast Asia, some so rare, that they don’t normally grow even in Malaysia. We saw thorny fruit, hairy fruit, miniscule fruit, and jackfruits the size of small boulders. Best of all, our guide was very hands on, allowing us to sample these rarities straight from the tree. We tasted nutmeg fruit, which were incredibly bitter, red bananas, and juicy water apples. The tour only lasted about thirty minutes, but as the midday heat started to overwhelm me, I didn’t mind.

fruit.jpgThe end of the tour was what I was looking forward to anyway, and it didn’t disappoint. Our guide showed us to a pavilion and uncovered a fruit buffet the likes of which I’d never seen – two types of watermelon (yellow and pink), two types of guava (white and pink), two types of water apple (green and pink), mango, starfruit, figs, the most luscious papaya and dragonfruit I’ve ever had, and more. All were grown locally and organically, and it tasted like it. In addition to this, we gulped down large glasses of fresh juice, blended to order with any fruit we wanted. After three plates, I was bursting, yet kicking myself for not sneaking in a Tupperware.

No matter. The fruit farm sold some of the largest, healthiest looking fruit in the gift shop. I bought a kilo of mangoes for RM 8, a bit overpriced, but being organic, I figured they would cost more than the fruit in the local markets.

So now that I’ve stocked up on my vitamins, minerals, and fiber, I can spend the rest of my day chowing down in Penang, guilt-free.