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Trip 2 -- Southeast Asia

Part 4: Malaysia (14 Oct to 19 Oct 1998)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 3.8 Malaysian ringgit (MYR)

14 Sep
Ferry: Butterworth to Penang
The short ferry ride from the mainland to the island was as straightforward and smooth as they come.
14 Oct-16 Oct
Penang

A fascinating culture mix; a fort, a Chinese temple, and a mosque; the Penang Museum; getting to the fruit farm; Kek Lok Si Temple; a wonderful haircut…

The small Malaysian island Penang was probably the most fascinating place on the whole trip. It certainly had the most fascinating mix of people and influences. Since Malaysia was a British colony, there was an abundance of English place names, signs, and architecture. But the Chinese, the Arabs, and the Indians also had their effect. I could be walking down one street where everything was in Arabic, then turn the corner and see everything in Hindi, and then turn the corner again and see everything in Chinese. The people, sounds, and temples on each street changed accordingly.

Chulia Street cuts through Georgetown (the main city on Penang) - that's the street with many hotels, shops, and places to eat, and that's where I started touring Malaysia. I thought I might check out the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, one of the grand old British-built Asian hotels, but it was closed for renovation. I checked in to the Hotel City Bayview, nearby, a good deal at MYR 88 per night including breakfast. They also served me a "welcome drink" of fruit juice on my arrival.

In the afternoon I toured Fort Cornwallis, the foundation of the British settlement on Malaysia in 1786. There's not much left of the fort except a collection of cannons. There are also some fine colonial buildings and a clock tower honoring Queen Victoria in the area. I also visited the Kuan Yin Teng (Goddess of Mercy) Temple, a bustling Chinese 19th-century temple, and - three blocks down the street - the Kapitan Kling Mosque, a small yellow mosque.

One thing Malaysia lacks is great restaurants. Thinking the hotel might have one of the better ones, I dined in its revolving rooftop restaurant that night. It was a pan-Asian buffet with mostly Asian food, but it was a disappointing assortment.

The next morning I saw the extensive exhibit at the Penang Museum. It tells the story of the immigration to Penang, the current inhabitants, and their rituals and lifestyles - all with an impressive collection of relics.

I'd heard about a new fruit farm that had opened on the island - a place where visitors could see how different fruits are grown and, of course, try them. I spent much of the afternoon trying to get there. According to the information given to me at the visitors' center, it should have been simple: bus 93 to the end of the route in Teluk Bahang (the beach area at the northwestern end of the island), then bus 76 to the fruit farm.

Catching bus 93 was easy, but apparently I was supposed to get off a kilometer or so before the end of the route. The bus driver took me back to the intersection where I was supposed to catch the second bus. It was a fairly dull place - a woodsy residential area with little traffic. On one corner was a little eating place, and I selected a few things and had a Padang-style lunch of mussels and egg in a thick sauce.

I waited for over an hour. Figuring I might well be waiting another, I decided instead to walk up the road toward the farm. The distance was about eight kilometers, I thought, so it wouldn't take more than two hours to walk there - and maybe the bus, or someone else, would come along and take me there.

What started as a residential road turned into a highway undergoing construction. It seemed to lead nowhere. I walked for about twenty minutes without seeing a single vehicle. After that, however, a van carrying staff from the Mutiara Beach Resort came along, and it was on its way to the fruit farm! They offered me a ride, and we drove along the windy road. It was certainly more than eight kilometers to the fruit farm, and on the way we passed a broken-down number 76 bus.

My guide, Mark, showed me all sorts of fascinating fruits, plants, and shrubs on the hour-plus tour of the hilly farm. The farm also contained a longhouse (the traditional home of the Malaysians along the Rejang River in Borneo), but the longhouse - and the people chatting in it - seemed out of place here. After the tour I was given a fruit plate, and of course I spent a while browsing the fruit shop. I bought two pomelos - a pomelo is sort of like a large grapefruit; the only other time I'd had one was in Israel, ten years earlier, and it was the best fruit I'd had.

Now for the matter of getting back to the hotel. The staff I'd hitched with was gone, and there was certainly little point in waiting for the 76 bus. One member of the fruit farm's staff offered me a ride toward Georgetown, as he was heading in that direction. During the ride we discussed some of my impressions of Malaysia. I remarked that no one I knew ever talked about going there, and that that was too bad, because it was really a gorgeous place. There had also been recent unrest in Kuala Lumpur, so Malaysia at the time was seen by some as unsafe. But my driver and I agreed that all was peaceful on Penang. He took me about halfway back to Georgetown, and I took the bus the rest of the way.

One restaurant I'd passed near the Penang Museum, the Warisan, looked like one of the few real restaurants in the area (most eating places in Malaysia are food stalls). Had I known it would be closed for renovations starting that day, I'd have been sure to try it the previous day. So with few other dinner options, I dined at the Dragon King, a Nyonya restaurant - the Nyonyas are the descendants of the Chinese Malaysians, and they have a cuisine that, aptly, combines elements of Chinese and Malaysian cooking. First they brought out a couple of pastry appetizers; then I had spicy fish and vegetables with a soup-like consistency; I also had curry Kapitan (chicken curry) and fresh apple juice. After dinner I wandered around for a while; the most interesting nightlife was among the food stalls. The hawkers prepared full meals of fish and vegetables - either as soup or with rice - on the street, and they made juices from all sorts of tropical fruits. I had fresh watermelon juice and chatted with the Malaysian sitting next to me.

On my final day in Penang, I took in more of the culture mix. I saw the impressively decorated Khoo Kongsi house (a combination temple and meeting place for Khoo clan members) and passed by several other clan houses, many of which looked like apartments from the outside but bore the clans' names on the entrances. Then I stopped in a coin store and bought my father a Thai coin from the King Rama IV era (1851 to 1868).

In the afternoon I took a bus out to Kek Lok Si Temple, a huge seven-story Buddhist temple with panoramic views of Penang. The temple is about a 20-minute walk (a local helped me find the way) to a funicular railway that leads to the top of Penang Hill, which has even more spectacular views. There's not much to do at the top, but I stayed for a couple of hours, enjoying the cool temperature, walking along the mountain trail, and visiting the aviary in the Bellevue Hotel. There was also a food stall at the top, where I tried laksa (sour, spicy vegetable soup).

The bus back to Georgetown stopped at Komtar, a large office building with a two-story mall at the bottom. On the second floor I had my hair cut; they didn't know what to do with it at first, but I think it was the best haircut I'd had in a long time - and a cheap one at that (MYR 31). Nearby was an outdoor restaurant, the Oriental, where you choose your meal from among the live fish and tell them how you want it cooked. I had an African fish, and I let them choose how to cook it. It didn't have much meat and it was too crisply fried for me. (The restaurant also has dim sum - maybe I'll do that next time, but I was saving it for Hong Kong!)

16 Oct
Ferry: Penang to Butterworth

16 Oct-17 Oct
Train: #9, Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur
(22:00; 8h 50m)

I took the ferry back to Butterworth and waited for my train. While waiting, I met a Lithuanian in his late 20s who was traveling for a year. He had just gotten off the train and was on his way to Penang. He had no guidebooks and very little money - all he carried was a didjeridoo, which he played for me. He didn't even stay in hotels; he stayed with people who took him in, or he slept on the street.

17 Oct-18 Oct
Kuala Lumpur

Lake Gardens; Muzeum Negara; the Numismatics Museum; blocks and blocks of hawker food; riding to the end of the line just for fun…

Nothing was open when the train arrived in Kuala Lumpur, so I strolled around the Lake Gardens for a while. There was the occasional jogger, but otherwise I had the place to myself. When the butterfly park finally opened at 9:00, I went inside (MYR 7). In a huge room filled with plants, trees, and ponds, thousands of butterflies in as many colors flew freely as I observed. There were also an exhibit of live pupae and specimens of other types of insects. The museum was pleasant until all the noisy schoolchildren disturbed the peace.

Eventually the Muzeum Negara (National Museum) across the street opened. It contained a model longhouse, some crafts, a good collection of musical instruments, various types of weaponry, and an extraordinary temporary exhibit on adultery - samples of chastity belts and such and stories of unfaithful historical figures. I also visited the National Gallery, which had a mediocre collection of modern art from around the world.

These first stops were all near the train station; the hotels were across town. I tried to follow the streets as indicated on the map in the guidebook, but there was simply no way. They all went over and under each other, and there were so many multiple-way intersections that it was impossible to figure out where to go. I went up to a walkway that I thought would lead me across the street, and it was about 15 minutes before there was a way down: I went through buildings, through public gathering spaces, and along other walkways.

When I finally got back down to street level, all the streets made sense, and navigation was easy - Kuala Lumpur became a place where I felt I knew my way around the entire city after only a day. Searching for a hotel became hard work only because of the two heavy pomelos I'd bought at the fruit farm. By the time I settled on the Bintang Warisan (MYR 99 per night with an unexceptional breakfast), I could barely carry my backpack.

I walked into the central part of town and had lunch at a little Indian cafe. (Kuala Lumpur had no proper restaurants as far as I could tell - all food was served at hawker stalls and little open-air cafes.) The food was excellent (fish korma and roti), and the Bangladeshi guy who served me was very friendly. Then, as I tried to walk toward Merdeka (Freedom) Square, there was some police activity - apparently the unrest hadn't quite subsided. There was no violence, but streets were blocked off.

I checked out the Numismatics Museum, which is located in a bank. It has a huge collection of currencies from around the world, and there is a large selection of currencies that have been in use on the Malaysian peninsula over the years. After this stop I had some of the pomelo I had bought. It was more sour than I remembered, but it was still delicious.

At night I took in the nightlife on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, where blocks and blocks of hawkers line the street selling all sorts of food. I had some delicious laksa, a couple of satay skewers of who-knows-what (perhaps squid and some kind of meat), nasi lemak (coconut rice with hard-boiled egg, anchovies, chillis, and curry), and some sort of coconut drink made with syrup and sugar.

Nasi lemak was also the breakfast served at the Bintang Warisan. Then I made it to Merdeka Square and visited the Museum of National History, a new museum with lots of interesting history to read and relics of the past. It also traces the history of Malaysia but stops just before Singapore seceded in 1965 - perhaps this is still a sore point. I had another Indian meal for lunch: honey chicken with rice.

Then I took a bus to the Batu Caves, an immense group of caves about a half hour from Kuala Lumpur. The formations are quite spectacular, and the height of the innermost cave is awesome. This cave, reached by 272 monkey-inhabited stairs, contains a Hindu shrine and a plethora of pigeons. One of the small caves is a museum with figures of Hindu gods. And outside the caves I discovered that wonderful treat: coconut milk drunk from freshly opened coconuts. They were cheap, and I had several.

I didn't have that much else to do in Kuala Lumpur, so I took the light-rail system to the end of the line (Ampang). There wasn't much to do there, but I did find a cafe and have a raisin roll and guava juice. An Australian struck up a conversation; he was there on business, about to start a company where people could buy groceries by phone.

I walked the whole way back, about two hours, along Jalan Ampang to Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. I wasn't that hungry for dinner, so I stood outside and had some watermelon juice and the rest of the pomelo, moving frequently to avoid the rats.

18 Oct-19 Oct
Train: #SM11, Kuala Lumpur to Singapore
(22:30; 8h 34m; dep 18m late; arr 5m late)
I didn't get a sleeper for the train to Singapore; a seat was comfortable enough, and this ensured that I got to look out the window. However, they showed a loud movie at the beginning of the trip, there were more than a few roaches aboard, and while we waited at the customs checkpoints leaving Malaysia and entering Singapore it was quite chilly. Go on to part 5