Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Obligatory Malaysia travelogue

There are a few quirks about the Malaysia trip that I still want to dedicate specific posts to, but I'm inevitably going to have to write a general Malaysian travelogue to cover some of the sights. Yes, have to. It's not even a choice at this point.

Batu Caves

I had no sooner plopped down on my comfortable hotel bed (a stark contrast to the brick on which I usually sleep) when Marie emerged from the bathroom and declared, "To the bat cave, Robin!" While I questioned why I had immediately been pigeonholed as Robin, Marie was the bearer of the guidebook, and as a result, probably had rightful claim to the Batman mantle.

So off we went to the Batu Caves, a series of limestone caves 30 minutes outside Kuala Lumpur. Climb 272 steps, next to a 43 meter tall statute of Lord Murugan (which was apparently unveiled in 2006...I feel deceived), and you reach a Hindu table built into one of the caves. The temple itself is rather underwhelming, but the caves themselves are more impressive than you'd expect, featuring multiple chambers, stalactite and stalagmite formations, and openings to the sky. Actual quote: "Why is there an office desk in a Hindu cave temple?"

Beyond that, the Batu Caves were remarkable for two reasons: the prevalence of macaque monkeys at the base of the steps (first wild monkeys I've seen, though not as up-close-and-personal as my Morocco experience), and the strangely realistic physique of Lord Murugan. For a Hindu god of war, he has quite the paunch! His gut hangs out over his belt, and his love handles are worse than mine. Damn, it I like my deities impossibly perfect! Actual quote: "I think the statue's nipple is as big as my head. This makes me uncomfortable."

Forest Research Institute of Malaysia

My battery-dead camera did not capture any pictures of this place, which was a pity. A rainforest preserve/research station just outside Kuala Lumpur, near the Batu Caves, it was like stepping into the Dharma Initiative complex from Lost. There was a school, a cafeteria, a gym. There was a whole village commune feel to the place, with buildings that looked like barracks, and residents wearing matching t-shirts all going on hikes and runs against lush rainforest backdrops. It really did seem like a self-contained mini-society that was totally separate from Kuala Lumpur, totally separate from Malaysia, could have existed anywhere. Idyllic. There must have been a murderous underbelly.

Golden Triangle

The central district of Kuala Lumpur is known as the Golden Triangle, and the focal point of the skyline is the Petronas Towers. Although this picture doesn't convey it, there are two of them, side-by-side and identical, and connected by a bridge about halfway up. And at the bottom of it is...a mall! How Hong Kong-like! Our hotel was located in the Golden Triangle, but I didn't spend a whole lot of time there. Kuala Lumpur is quite metropolitan, surprisingly so. But I'm already living in an insanely metropolitan city, I wanted a chance to see something different. That's why I went to...

Melaka

Also known as Malaka, also known as Malacca, also known as Malaqa. We have one picture of a bus counter sign that uses 3 different spellings of the name. They just can't decide. Whatever it's called, it's a port town in southern Malaysia, closer to Singapore. At various times it was owned by the Chinese, the Portugese, the Dutch, and the British, and was an important port of call in the old spice trade. It was a welcome change of pace from the megalopolis lifestyle, with a quaint Chinatown area that wasn't so overwhelming bustling that it killed the small town feel.

You can find churches, down the street from mosques, across the street from Confucian temples, and around the corner from Buddhist and Hindu temples. Everyone's had their hand in the Melaka pot and everyone's left the mark. The historical buildings in the town center all reflect some kind of revision that the next band of conquerors brought to town. The city was touristy, but was swarming with Singaporean tourists rather than western ones, so I didn't feel bothered by it. We went wandering, covering the historical parts of the cities, but also the regular parts of town where people actually live.

It cost all of US $3 per person each way to get to and from Melaka, a 2-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur. On the bus ride back, the four people in our group were the only passengers on the bus (unless you count the driver's buddy, who was hanging out up front). While we were somewhat depressed about our massively disproportionate carbon footprint, and slightly concerned that the bus company was actually losing money on the trip, we did enjoy the ample space to sprawl out and take naps.

World's Largest Pork Bun!

People in this region seem to really enjoying using superlatives, even if they have to include like 4 subordinate phrases as qualifiers. I don't know if these were truly the world's largest pork buns, as claimed. But does it matter? Finding this bakery when I was still disgustingly full from lunch is one of the great culinary tragedies of my life. If I could do it all over again, I'd have fought through! Or at least horded it for days, tried to smuggle it back into Hong Kong with me. What a wasted opportunity.

Market Madness

Indian Market. Chinese Market. Other Chinese Market. Malaysian Market. Any street food product, knock-off luxury good, or ridiculous tourist chatchky you desire can be yours!

National Mosque

It would have been nice if the guidebook had warned us that the National Mosque is closed to non-Muslims. Or that it's totally modern and generally visually unimpressive from the outside. That would have been helpful information. But the visit wasn't a total waste of our time. First, we got a sweet picture of (6 out of 9 total members of) our travel group in front of a decent-looking fountain, which featured Britt and myself on the ends replicating an absolutely stunning pose we discovered on the cover of Malaysia Airlines' Temptations in-flight catalog. But even better, just after our nice Korean tourist/volunteer finished taking our picture, five more of his companions started taking pictures of the group on their own cameras. Apparently, we are some damn entertaining westerners. And when Britt and I thought they were done and dropped the pose, one of them slumped his shoulders disappointedly and implored us to strike it one more time. Who were we to say no?

Monkeys!

I have heard all kinds of horror stories about wild macaques in Southeast Asia. When aggravated, they're known to attack humans. And they're smart enough to realize that humans often carry food, so when they're hungry, they'll steal people's bags and start rummaging. But the macaque population of Kuala Lumpur is apparently very well-behaved. They're quiet but friendly. They're very calm, and cautious around humans, but not afraid. And they know how human-monkey relations work, because as soon as Marie so much as looked inside her purse, they swarmed, emerging from the trees to look for a meal. For a while, we thought they were going to get aggressive...a few actually darted around behind us and had us surrounded. But then they just sat and waited patiently, looking at us with pleading eyes.

And it just so happened that Marie did have fruit in her purse, some borderline inedible Saudi Arabian fruit we'd purchased in the KL bus station the day before, and a couple of complementary mangoes from our hotel room. We expected that when we started distributing fruit, the monkeys would start fighting for it, but they were quite deferential to one another. If we threw a piece, whoever reached it first picked it up uncontested. And when we started handing the monkeys pieces directly, they would just sit down and eat it rather than running away to horde. They didn't share, but they didn't fight.

And they're freaking monkeys. It was awesome.

Islamic Museum

We spent a substantial amount of time in the Islamic Museum. I know precious little about Islamic history, to tell the truth. We studied the history of the Middle East in my 7th grade Social Studies class, and I think 10th grade World History didn't even bother (way to go, Edison High School). So it was interesting to get a refresher course, and one that I have to say was quite objective and non-ideological. The museum featured exhibits on Islamic art, weapon and armor design, tapestry and fashion, architecture, and bookmaking (illuminated manuscript style). But the best work of art in the museum was the building itself, which had several rooms with tall ceilings that opened to elaborately-painted domes.

Orchid Garden

After our visit to "the world's largest covered bird park" was scuttled by the ridiculous price of admission (US $10!), we regrouped and went next door to the Orchid Garden, which rang up at a far more reasonable US $0.30. They weren't particularly special orchids, they were just orchids. In a garden. So the name was quite accurate. And I am almost sure that I got my money's worth. Even if it wasn't the height of excitement, though, the visit was a nice, relaxing end to the weekend (which was subsequently undermined by my 2-mile rain-jaunt through a residential neighborhood). And it allowed me to totally overuse the macro function on my digital camera, as you can see here.

In Conclusion

Reactions to Kuala Lumpur in our group were mixed. Britt said that the $0.30 Orchid Garden was an analogy for Kuala Lumpur on the whole: didn't cost much, didn't do much for him, not a big loss. I was more positive about the place. Sure, the low cost is a big part of the appeal (roundtrip airfare, 2 nights in a luxury hotel, and all of my entertainment, food, and souvenirs for 3 days came to a total of $450). But the people are really friendly, and the place has personality. I don't know if I can say you should give up other places in the region so you can go to Malaysia (ask me at the end of December), but if you have a chance to go, why not?

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