27 October, 2007


not the hotel, the Malay (or Thai-Malay) Peninsula. though it's been a while you may remember that we left the story of the Southeast Asia trip when we left Thailand, in a train carriage. we thought going by rail would be a great way to see the countryside of old Siam, the region's only never-colonized country, as we rolled towards one of its most recently de-colonized: Malaysia. what we didn't count on however, was that shortly after chugging out of Bangkok's main station, the lights in the firmament would fade out and we would be left to appreciate the many miles of Thai wilderness in almost complete darkness.

a night on the tracks

you may also remember that we were fortunate to have secured sleeping berths in our train carriage, so all the nighttime hours weren't completely wasted. though i will say that it's awfully hard to sleep on a moving train--even with ear plugs--unless you're extremely tired. that being said, trying to sleep on a moving train will get you awfully tired for the next night of sleeping on a moving train, so with a two-day trip it all kind of works itself out. it was the time in the middle that was kind of difficult, starting with being woken, or at least roused, early on the morning after leaving Bangkok, just as we were approaching the Thai-Malay border. the train ground to a halt and we were directed to take our bags and make our way through the long platform-side building that served as a joint ingress/egress point for both the Thai and Malay customs and immigration services. shortly after getting through that mess and setting off again we began making stops at all kinds of little Malaysian towns whereon hordes of folks joined themselves to our happy rolling throng. only we were getting less happy the more they piled themselves into our car, encroaching ever so slowly but very surely into our personal--and paid for--space, eventually practically sitting on top of me. for some reason i had assumed Malaysia would be more civilized than Thailand, but i felt quickly disabused of that notion by my very uncouth seat mates.

the Georgetown Mosque on Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

soon enough we ground to final halt in the rather unsightly town of Butterworth in northern Malaysia. here we were unceremoniously booted from the train so it could head back up to Thailand, and we wait for our ride to Kuala Lumpur. only thing was, it was still morning and our ride wasn't coming until late that evening. in the blistering heat we did the only thing anyone could do: we took the ferry over to Pulau Pinang--Pinang Island. the breeze on the boat was nice but as we stepped off the ferry with laden backpacks and no good map of Georgetown, we quickly felt the misery of our situation. it's pretty hard to adequately describe how hot it felt just walking around the outskirts of a semi-urban area completely exposed to the sun and the 100+% humidity. heat doesn't really bother me that much, but Jill was probably the most unhappy i've ever seen her. at this time we weren't married and i remember thinking that this was likely to be her at her worst and that if i could get through that day with her then we'd probably have no major problems in life. strangely enough, that may have been the day i decided we should get married.

in any case, after interminable minutes of wandering, we finally stumbled upon a mall of sorts, where we availed ourselves of their Pizza Hut. or Pizza Hut's air conditioning, more exactly. by the time we finally left there, the worst of the heat had thankfully passed and we began a more considered exploration of the place. on our way to see Fort Cornwallis and the famous mid-roundabout clock tower, we came upon a large mosque and decided to see what we could. the thing with that was, we arrived at this mosque just a day or two after the July 7th bombings of the London Underground and buses (about which we had heard very little), so the folks in the visitor's center were a little on edge when a Brit and an American showed up. we had a nice conversation with a well-spoken and thoughtful fellow there, who repeatedly apologized for those and the September 11th bombings, despite my telling him i strongly doubted his involvement. in our theological discussions, we didn't really agree on many points of doctrine, though he was very respectful and quite well informed of our LDS beliefs, and we learned quite a lot about Islam from him. he had us don long robes so that we could be taken for a tour of the large and airy mosque itself, which we did with great interest. it's still the only mosque we've ever been in.

enjoying a cool Kickapoo Joy Juice in the fierce heat of a KL Sunday brings obvious joy to my face. note the sweet haircut, specially designed back in Taiwan for the sultry Southeast Asia weather.

but soon the time came to leave, both the mosque and the island of Pinang. late that evening we boarded another sleeper train, much more tired this time than we had been the previous night, to begin the journey to Kuala Lumpur. KL, as it's often known, was just about as hot as Pinang had been, but there was more shade to be found in the shadows of the tall buildings. tall buildings like the famous Petronas Towers, owned by the national oil company and still the tallest twin towers in the world. until Taiwan built its incredible 101 building in Taipei, they were the tallest buildings period, and they do look awfully cool. there's a skybridge that runs between the two towers at about the 42nd floor, but they only let a certain number of people up there per day, and we didn't get there early enough to get tickets for the one day we were in town. just like the Taipei 101, however, the Petronas Towers have a sprawling mall at their base, and we spent some time enjoying the air conditioning there while we ate yet more pizza at the California Pizza Kitchen.

the spectacular Petronas twin towers in the heart of KL, and below, another shot of the same taken from the observation deck of the Menara Kuala Lumpur, a telecommunications tower a couple of miles away.

though we had found the folks in the north to be pretty much uncivilized, it was nice to be in a country where pretty much everyone speaks English, and quite well for the most part. standards of living seem pretty high, at least in the city, and i understand this is largely attributable to the vast wealth that Petronas generates and throws around. one wonders what will happen to Malaysia's economy when their oil reserves run out and there is no longer such a sector to prop the whole thing up. not to say that they haven't tried diversifying; folks in Britain will remember the the flashy introduction of Malaysian-made Proton vehicles somewhere in the late 80s. trouble is, you no longer see many of them in the UK and even though more than half the cars in KL are Protons, we understand they're heavily subsidized domestically. add to this the continued pandering and wealth-shifting to ethnic Malays by governments since the well-liked Mahathir Mohammed's, and you get a place that probably won't be somewhere you want to be when it all comes crashing down amidst enormous civil unrest. i'm no Malaysia scholar, but these were the general thoughts i remember having as we were there.

in any case, the so-called Garden City of Lights is actually a fairly pretty town, and one of the best places to get a panoramic view of it is from the top of the Menara Kuala Lumpur. i don't really know what Menara means, but the tower is owned by the Telekom Malaysia group and is apparently the fifth-tallest telecoms tower in the world. its top is even a little higher in elevation than those of the Petronas towers, but only because the base is set on a pretty high hill; the structure itself is a good deal shorter. either way, it's a fun ride to the top and the views are spectacular. and after coming back down we got some souvenirs at the--you guessed it--mall at the bottom and had Indian food at a restaurant that overlooked a tree-filled garden with monkeys clambering about.

the terrifying heights of the Menara Kuala Lumpur, and below, the awesome lodge we shared with some new Korean friends at the Firefly Park in Kuala Selangor.

but possibly the best thing we did in all of Malaysia was to take a very crowded city bus on a two-plus hour drive out to the coastal "town" of Kuala Selangor to see the highly recommended fireflies on the river. just when we thought the bus couldn't go any further, it kept on and on until we were finally booted off in a small parking lot in the middle of nowhere. at least there were a couple of Korean girls standing there looking as confused as we felt, so we agreed to share a taxi with them the remaining few miles out to what may be the most remote tourist attraction i've ever been to. but it was well worth it, and was actually packed with Chinese tourists, so good thing we had a reservation. the same could not be said for our random new friends however, so we opportunistically halved our bill by agreeing to share our little watertop chalet with them. the Firefly Park sells you tickets not only to their accommodations, but to their electrically powered--and thus virtually silent--boats that make late-night trips along an inlet from the Strait of Malacca in the Indian Ocean, along which many millions of fireflies light up the night like a fantastically starry sky. it's a lot cooler than it probably sounds, and we were even able to catch a couple of the flies by hand despite not being able to capture them on film. partly because it was so good, partly because we had come so far, and partly because our first ride was punctuated throughout by the loud belching of an old Chinese woman, we decided to ride again, which worked out nicely as we got a boat all to ourselves and the pilot was happy to extend the ride. i seem to remember that guy getting a good tip.

the $1,000,000 chair, carved from a single piece of jade, that Dr Nick the travel guide took us to see (and sit in, obviously). it's a lot more comfortable than it seems like it would be.

one poor fellow who did not, however, was Dr Nick. not really a doctor, but a nice guy nonetheless, he was our tour guide on our last day in KL, and he took us to see the amazing chair pictured above, among other things. though i can't find his card i know we have, i think he was working for the Tourism Malaysia folks running tours that people like us called up to book at the very last minute. it turned out that we were the only people on this particular one, and we were cramming it in just before we got on another train for Singapore, but he was very gracious and showed us pretty much everything we wanted to see and more.

the Batu Caves, clockwise from top left: the 272 steps leading up to the caves, which if climbed, it is said, will net the faithful Hindu forgiveness of half his sins. beware indeed, for monkeys come in all shapes and sizes... as apparently, do Hindu deities. even the many macaques were a little confused by it all. below, the views from inside the cavernous vaults were pretty enlightening:

one of the big places we wanted to see was the Batu Caves just north of KL, which are a series of vast caves set high in a limestone cliff that house one of the largest Hindu shrines outside of India--i mentioned that there were a lot of different racial and ethnic groups in Malaysia, didn't i? every year there is a festival here known as Thaipusam, which sees somewhere around a million and a half Hindus gather at the complex, some of them marching all the way from the Sri Mahamariamman Temple in KL to do fun things like put meat hooks through their backs and use them to pull carts up all 272 stairs to the top as an act of devotion. these are the same folks who get themselves all worked up into "spiritual" frenzies and push swords through their cheeks and other such fun things--quite a spectacle to witness i imagine, if you're there on that day. here's a little taste of what we did witness up in the caves, for the curious:

and then we come back to Dr Nick. he didn't climb the steps with us, but kindly waited around for us to get back, after which he took us to a couple of duty free shops, but with the express understanding that we were seeing only native handicrafts and had no obligation to buy. there was one pretty cool place with a whole demonstration of the batik making process and then several pretty amazing examples all over the walls and for sale. Dr Nick had picked us up from our hotel and had kindly agreed to drop us off at KL Sentral, the largest train station in Southeast Asia. by that time we were hungry from our excellent tour, and we wanted to thank our guide for the extra mile he had seemed to put in. the problem was we were all out of Malaysian Ringgit for a tip, and had only large denominations of American bills. to our shame we slipped from Nick's van into the station and used a credit card to buy Halal (meaning "permissible" in Arabic, and used kind of like a Kosher designation for Muslims) burgers at McDonald's, vowing that we'd mail him his tip when we got home. i still feel bad about stiffing the doctor; now if i could only find his card...

Dr Nick; not a doctor, but a pretty good travel guide and rubber tree-tapper.