Malay Peninsula 8: Ipoh White Coffee

Spring is brilliant. Cool mornings, sunny afternoons, flowers everywhere, but just enough rain to keep the air from turning into a pollen infused nightmare. Kids are outside preparing for “Sports Day”, a springtime event in Korean public education that gets everyone out in the sunshine after a long, cold winter. Lucky me, while the kids are outside practicing dance routines and the three legged race, classes indoors are cancelled! I’ve used some of my extra time to catch up on my winter holiday stories. Coffee lovers everywhere, this one’s for you.


20170122_081446When I woke early that morning, I had only two main goals: to catch the morning train out of town and to track down the famous Ipoh “white coffee”. While chatting with the hostess the night before, she’d recommended a smaller coffee shop for me to try out instead of the main tourist one. She said that the Old Town white coffee shop had become too “Starbucks”, which as a Seattleite, I can totally relate to. (shout out to the refugee and veteran hiring goals tho, SB, good work there). She said I simply had to try their egg tart while I was there. However, because of my train fiasco in KL, I decided to head first to the train station to buy a ticket and then to the coffee shop. It was a piece of cake to catch another Uber and the train station was easy to navigate. I was amused by the herd of taxi drivers who tried to approach me as I got out of a car to enter the train station. Were they hoping to get a fare to another city?  Once I had my ticket, I set off to find my breakfast.

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20170122_083031The town was very quiet early Sunday morning, so I enjoyed a leisurely stroll past some beautiful architecture and into the quaint “old town”. I had been advised to seek out a place called Nam Heong. When I found it, I discovered they sell the same brand of coffee as the high tourist cafe, which is simply called “Old Town White Coffee”. I have to infer that my hostess of the night before was referencing the atmosphere of the cafes rather than the coffee itself. Pictures I found online of the famous “Old Town White Coffee” restaurant show that it is a spacious and rather upscale looking place, geared toward the bougie and the Western tourist, while my experience in Nam Heong was a crowded hole in the wall filled with scurrying locals where I was the only white person. There probably is some difference in the drinks, since the brand itself was just the roasted beans, there’s almost certainly a difference in the price tag, and there’s a huge difference in local flavor. I don’t regret my choice for a minute.

What is white coffee?

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photo credit: Google image search

That’s a weirdly complicated question. The first time I encountered the phrase (as an American) was in a little niche coffee shop in Seattle where all the craziest trends in coffee can be found. In this case, white coffee was defined as coffee that was barely roasted (as opposed to green coffee which is not roasted at all). The slight roasting is just enough to blanch the beans from green to pale ivory, thus giving them the name “white”. The flavor is nothing like what most of us think of as “coffee” since those oils are activated in roasting, and instead has a mild nutty flavor.

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photo credit: Russian Wikipedia

But, then I started travelling around where British influenced culture more than American and I came to learn that the term “white coffee” could also simply mean coffee with milk (or some other lightening substance). Although fancy coffee shops tend to use the term “flat white”, nearly any place that instant coffee abides, the term “white coffee” will there also live.

Finally, I got to Malaysia, where coffee leads a unique Southeast Asian lifestyle. Not all coffee is created equal. The Arabic peninsula had a singular, unique style of coffee that I will miss for the rest of my life, and now I fear I have to add the Malaysia to that honored list of beloved and hard to find coffee styles. Malaysian coffee in general is different from even the other SE Asian coffees. Having been to Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, I thought I understood the regional coffees to be strong dark things brewed through muslin bags in special pots and served with sugar and condensed milk, and while this is basically true, it turns out Malaysia goes one giant step further. The roast.

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photo credit: Star2

Regular coffee is roasted bare, relying on the oils and sugars within the beans to bring the flavor to the party. However, Malaysians like to roast their coffee using palm oil and sugar, meaning that the extra flavors wind up in the final product. PLUS, they add some wheat into the roast (so if you’re gluten free, avoid coffee in Malaysia!) which gives the whole thing a deep grain flavor that I can only associate with other roasted grain teas that I’ve had in Japan and Korea. And yes, it’s standardly mixed with sugar and condensed milk, but there are always options since it’s made to order and they’ve started learning foreigners only like “a little sweet”.

Ipoh, however, has taken the traditional Malay style coffee and made another twist. It turns out that the name “white coffee” comes from the Chinese character for white (白) which doesn’t just mean the color white, but more often means “plain”, “bare” or “unadulterated”. It was applied to the Ipoh coffee because they chose to roast the beans with only the palm oil and NOT with the sugar and wheat. Thus, compared to the rest of the coffee in Malaysia, the Ipoh coffee is “白” and it has nothing at all to do with the milk that’s added later.

logo.png(a side note on palm oil: don’t buy it. Seriously, I work pretty hard to be a responsible consumer. Palm oil is a product of major controversy right now because of the elephant exploitation in Thailand as well as the deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s hard to exclude because it’s often improperly labeled, but please try to buy more sustainable and ethically sourced oils if you can. I was a little put out by eating it there, but in the end, my “locovore senses” took over and reminded me that if the Malaysians just grew enough palm oil for their own needs, then everything would be fine. It’s not an evil crop, but the high demand for it internationally has led farmers to damaging and unsustainable practices that harm the environment, and just so you don’t deride me for valuing orangutans over humans, the unsustainable farming practices are damaging the land and water those farmers and their families rely on, making the human future dim as well. Say no to imported palm oil.)

I ordered my white coffee iced because even though it was still early in the day, I wasn’t quite ready for hot coffee without AC. I had a seat near the kitchen which is normally considered bad, but it let me observe a little of the preparation process, including the long pours that help to churn the ingredients for a smooth and frothy finish. I also observed that they were selling bags of the brand coffee, although I’m not sure if it was beans or an instant mix. (Whatever you may think of instant coffee, I have discovered that in Asia they have it down to a fine science. I can still tell the difference, most of the time, but there are several worthwhile instant brands here).

20170122_083414My coffee and tart arrived promptly and were very inexpensive. The coffee was smooth and extra creamy (more than just because it was made with milk, I believe the palm oil roasting made the flavor smoother). While other coffee I’d had in Malaysia was aggressive in it’s “coffeeness”, slightly if pleasantly bitter, and coffee I’ve had in the US and Europe tends to have an acidic tang, the Ipoh white coffee was as smooth as coffee ice cream, but not quite as sweet. Also the tart was warm, flaky and not too sweet either. As a recovering HFCS addict, it can be challenging for me to find the balance of sweet that tingles my taste-buds without overloading my synapses, but I was left very satisfied by the experience at Nam Heong that morning. I shall think fondly of the coffee until one day I start my own tour company and make it a stop on the “Coffee of the World” tour package.


There’s not quite enough photos for an album of this morning, so enjoy a few more random sights of Ipoh. Stay tuned for a Golden Week of adventures in Korea next week as well as the next installment of Malay Peninsula where I go to Penang to do laundry and buy pants! Thanks for reading 🙂

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The Flying Lanterns of Daegu

This week was a non-stop trip planning extravaganza! Not just two regular weekends out of town (Daegu flying lanterns and Jindo Sea Parting), but also the long holiday in the first week of May (do I go to a Korean island getaway, or do a Temple stay for the Buddha’s birthday?), and bonus round I’m trying to plan for the 10 day Chuseok holiday in October NOW because all of Korea will be flying somewhere and I need to buy tix fast. PLUS I’m trying to get the summer camps blocked out not only so I know what to teach, but also so I can try to get back to America. That’s right kids, summer in America. And somehow it all has to be planned RIGHT NOW! So, while I try to get my ducks in a linear arrangement, enjoy the magic of sky lanterns.


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Samgwangsa April 2016

Last year during the lantern crazy that surrounds the Buddha’s birthday, I visited Samgwangsa, a temple near my home in Busan. It was magical, my gbff and I twirled around like school children singing the Tangled song and generally being giddy idiots. Then after all the festivities were over, I saw some photos online of an actual flying lantern festival (a la Rapunzel), but it was too late to go! I vowed to find the festival again were I to stay another year in Korea. I began to search for it in January this year, but my hunt seemed in vain since there were no websites or festival updates. Even reaching out to Koreans I knew who lived in Daegu (the home of this flying fantasy) turned up a big bubkus.

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Then, during the week while I was poking around online once more looking for ideas on how to spend my upcoming holiday, I spotted an article about the festival. Worried that I’d once more missed it, I clicked on the link and scanned eagerly for the dates. Luck and fortune were on my side and I found out the date of the festival less than 5 days before it was set to take place. Even better luck, the trains between Busan and Daegu run late into the night, so I would be able to do it as a day trip!

This also led to my first attempt to buy train tickets online, which was not as hard as I was led to believe. letskorail.com is a multi-language website that allows us poor waygookin to book tickets in advance, avoiding the long queues and potential sold out trains. You just need your passport number and credit card info (plus ARC if your card is Korean issued).

Arriving in Daegu

20170422_181014.jpgThe festivities were set to start around 6pm, so we left in the afternoon and had a lazy, but comfortable ride into Daegu where we had to relearn bus navigation. One wrong bus and two right ones later, we got off in the general vicinity of Duryu Park. The weather was fine and we dawdled our way over to the greens, stopping to snap photos and buy iced coffees. In addition to being a huge green space, and housing the baseball stadium the festival would be hosted in, Duryu Park is home to E-World, which is a sort of amusement park and gardens. Not to mention the 83 Tower, replete with gondola rides. There may be another trip to Daegu in my future.

By the time we got inside the park, we were ready to start looking for the parade. We eventually found it on a side road, holding perfectly still. I can only assume the info I’d read online was inaccurate in timing, but it was a great opportunity to get up close to the floats for pictures.

The festival limits lantern participation to 1,000 people who sign up in advance. I’m not sure there’s any way a foreigner could get in on this, since the limited number of English language websites were all mum about the festival until it was too late to sign up for that part. The tickets to sit inside the stadium are sold on a first come first serve basis, starting at 1pm that day. Not having any information to go on about the views, I figured we were safe, since flying lanterns could be seen from just about anywhere. In retrospect, I would recommend trying for stadium tickets. They are wristbands, so once you get your spot, you can still go out and check out E-World and the rest of the park while waiting. Plus, although the website I read said that everyone should be in the stadium by 5pm, there were people coming in and out of the gates much later than that. However, even if you can’t get in the stadium proper, it’s still worth going, because I watched from outside and don’t regret a minute of it.

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We meandered around the stadium toward higher ground in hopes of finding a spot with a decent view. Us and a few thousand Koreans who also couldn’t get into the stadium. We settled on a ridge overlooking a gap in the stadium seating and surrounding trees that gave us as good a view as we were going to get from outside. There was only one row of people in front of us and we jealously stood our ground over the next hour as the concert below began, and ajuma and ajoshi tried to elbow their way to the front.

Side note:

17888705_10208562203273054_1559197028_nFor those who don’t know, these words used to be terms of respect for middle aged women and men, but have come to be less flattering terms used to describe a particularly rude class/age group of Koreans. Ajuma (women) tend to shove… a lot, and cut in line. Ajoshi (men) will join in on the shoving if their wives are around, but are perceived as perverts who peer into ladies bathrooms otherwise. I know that at least some of the younger Koreans use the words this way, and definitely all the expats I’ve met do. There is a culture of respect for age, so actually old frail people are often given seats and ushered to the front for views (and are usually super sweet about it, every one I’ve given a seat to has said thank you and offered to hold my bag in her lap), but these ajuma are just bitter middle agers who don’t want to stand in line like everyone else. Think of them like the entitled soccer moms of Korea. And yeah, they pretty much all look like that picture, too.

20170422_195103.jpgLanterns Aloft

A few people jumped the gun and released lanterns a little early, causing all of us in the crowd to whip out our phones in anticipation. It was a long wait, standing in the crowd, but as the sky darkened and the sea of people inside the stadium became a sea of multi-colored light, I knew I’d made the right decision to come.

20170422_195432At long last, the moment we had waited for, the lanterns were released in earnest. They did not rise swiftly like balloons, but in a slow and drifting manner as the tiny flames inside each one warmed the air contained by the colorful paper dome. 1,000 globes of light ascended into the blue and black night sky, and I knew no matter how hard I tried, my camera could never capture that moment. It was what we were all here for. People from many cities and even many countries, gathered in the soft night air to witness the magic of fire in the night, lanterns becoming stars, and wishes rising to the heavens.

But Wait, There’s More…

20170422_195403Shortly after the main release was over, people around us began filtering back out of the park. They had seen what they’d come for and were eager to move on to the next attraction or to beat the traffic. This meant that we suddenly found ourselves at the fence with an unobstructed view of the field below, and enough elbow room to turn around and attempt selfies (which were less impressive due to the low light).

Suddenly the shrill whistle of a fireworks mortar pierced the air and brilliant red sparkles showered down. The lantern release was followed by a fireworks show, much to the delight of everyone in the park. Bursts of red, green and white, arcs and sparkles, plus a plethora of ooohs and aaaahs from the crowds took our mood from wistful to joyous before sending us off into the night.

20170423_010828.jpgFinally the last twinkling lights above became no bigger than pinpricks of stars and we joined the crowd shuffling out of the park. We had 3 hours left before our return train and sat down for a moment to check the internet for a restaurant serving anything Daegu local. While we were seated, a family carrying armloads of paper lotus lanterns came by, and the young boy gave us each one, nervously testing out his English with as few words as possible.

Parade After Dark

20170422_204729With our gifts in tow, we set off toward our restaurant of choice, but quickly became sidetracked by the parade. The floats we’d seen before were now all lit up, but the parade itself was stopped again. We dodged in and out, taking more pictures and pausing to watch a monk’s drum performance. Back in front of E-World once more, we spotted a street vendor selling flying lanterns as fast as he could light them up, and we were able to get a closer look at the lights that had filled the sky less than an hour before.

Adventures in Dinner

We were so enchanted by the parade of lantern floats and other decorations that we lost track of time and direction. We had to give up on the local specialty restaurant in favor of one that happened to be right there. While perusing the menu, the woman in charge pointed at a particular dish and recommended it in Korean. I’m sure she said something eloquent about the flavor or ingredients, but my Korean isn’t that great. My sense of food adventure is, though, and I happily agreed to her suggestion. 20170422_212942Moments later, I had a humongous bowl of seafood and spicy broth in front of me. Mussels, clams, shrimp, crab and octopus crowded the bowl and heaped up atop a generous portion of noodles. (octopus is not something I order knowingly, but I didn’t want to waste it’s life once it was on the table) The broth was rich and spicy, causing me to reach for the ice water more than once and leaving my lips pleasantly tingly by the end of the meal. I think 2 hungry people would have had trouble eating the whole thing, and my day companion was not a seafood fan, so it was all me.

Wrap up

Tired, but full and happy, we made our way to the subway network and finally the train station. While we were standing on the platform, we were spotted by some more EPIK teachers from Busan across the tracks and conducted a conversation by shouting across from our platform to theirs. I only realized later how strange this must have seemed to the Koreans watching us who are always quiet and reserved (at least outside of bars and clubs). I’ve gotten used to holding my conversations on trains and buses at a whisper so as not to disturb the silence, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that the outdoor platform might have the same etiquette. We also got solicited by a private English school manager, which just goes to show how many jobs there are out there if you’re willing to go the hagwon route.

We drowsed and scrolled through our photos of the day on the slow train ride back. In some ways it seemed ludicrous that we had spent 3 hours on trains and another 2.5 hours in buses and subways, plus stood in the crowd waiting for over an hour all just to see 15 minutes of flying lanterns. Of course we saw more than just the flying lanterns. We saw the parade and a new city, tasted new food, and met many friendly people along the way. Travel is so much more than the destination, so while the brief and fleeting moment of magical sky lanterns was the cause and certainly the highlight of the trip, I consider the day time well spent and would highly recommend this or any similar festival if you ever get the chance.

EDIT (5/1/17): Expat community is such a tiny random world. Remember that pic I used to talk about the ajuma? Funny story – the friend I went to Daegu with sent me that pic a few weeks earlier after a conversation in which we’d been sharing “worst ajuma” stories (the one that shoved you out of the way so she could stand one person closer to the subway door you are already walking out of, the one who plowed into you despite the fact that there was plenty of room on either side, or the one who shoved you while you were dripping wet from the rainstorm, then got mad you made her wet, too). I liked the pic so much, I decided to use it as my example here, relying on the artist’s signature to credit the art. Less than a week later, I found myself on a trip where I met some of this year’s crop of EPIK teachers, and as I’m exchanging FB and Instagram contact info, one of them turns out to be this very artist, @shmamee. She asks how I got introduced to her art and I explain about D. It then turns out D, as a second year EPIK, is the assigned EPIK mentor of @shmaymee, but also had no idea the art she shared was from her own mentee! The internet does a great job anonymizing us, turning each work of art or each written story into some distant and impersonal thing. However, the person who introduced me to @shmaymee was none other than Annemone, a blogger who found my page when she was planning her own move to Busan. I don’t make any money off of my content (photos or writing), in fact, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of putting it online. This got me thinking how important it is that hobby content creators support each other, and that everyone supports artist/content creators who do this for a living (ie pay them)


The party don’t stop in Korean springtime! Next weekend I’m heading off to Jindo to watch the once annual parting of the sea and walk to the island of Mordor (no really). After that, who knows? Hopefully something fun and interesting with beautiful photos to share. Wish me luck, and light a lantern for the Buddha this May 3 (lunar birthday). Thanks for reading!

Malay Peninsula 7: Ipoh- Temple Caves

Spring marches on, and Korea is filling up with colorful lanterns to celebrate the Buddah’s birthday. While I work on assembling my lantern festival stories, what better time to take a look at the temples of Ipoh? Despite the fact that Ipoh is not a tourist hotspot, there are certainly some stunning things to see. Just remember to take plenty of water!


Ipoh Caves

The Reggae House was a typical late night backpacker’s party hostel and so everyone was still asleep when I got up in the early morning to start exploring. After figuring out the padlock and iron door trick to lock up behind me, I set off in search of breakfast to discover that Ipoh is a very sleepy town. Only a couple places were open at 9am on a Saturday and these were offering a traditional Malay dish called “mee” (which just means “noodles”).20170121_091629 I managed to order something by playing a sort of 20 questions with the waitstaff, and enjoyed my noodles and mystery meat in a not yet too hot outdoor dining area with views of the neighborhood. There were a startling number of funeral homes nearby and plenty of evidence of the British colonial architecture, although much of it was in disrepair.

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Kek Lok Tong
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After breakfast, I caught another Uber to the Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple. Ipoh is probably most famous for it’s caves, and there are many of them around the city, and by around I don’t mean inside, I mean in a ring out and around. Unfortunately, the public transportation in Ipoh is somewhat lacking and it would have taken over 2 hours to get to my target by bus, but less than 20 minutes by car. Online advice suggested that I should negotiate with a taxi driver for a day rate, and I’ve done this before when I wanted to travel to remote places and be assured of a ride back, but I looked at the costs other travelers were paying for half and full day taxi hires and decided that I’d take my chances with ride-sharing.

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The temple is the star of Ipoh tourism and it’s not hard to see why it’s on the top of everyone’s list. Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur is a Hindu temple, but this is Buddhist. There were extra decorations in preparation for the Lunar New Year and a very short stairwell up to the main entrance. There is no admission fee for the temple. The limestone cave is open at either end, making it a lovely wind tunnel and a cool place to get away from the heat. It was still early enough in the day that I wasn’t uncomfortable yet. The wide cavern is completely day-lit, but does have a few artificial lights to show off exceptional formations. There are stairs to help access different levels, and the main areas of worship house large golden statues on plinths with the natural art of the cave as a backdrop. It was breathtaking.

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The back opening leads down to a lake and garden that is nearly completely enclosed by sheer towering limestone cliffs dripping with lush greenery. Although there was a quarry in the distance, it was far enough away not to disturb the tranquility of the garden. I was surprised to see it so empty on a Saturday morning, but I have no doubt that on the weekend of the New Year it was packed to the gills. I took my time walking around the garden in the relatively cool morning air. I enjoyed the sweeping grandeur of the cliffs, the bright tropical flowers, the miniature landscape art, and even the company of a few geese. In those hours I spent between the cave and the gardens it seemed like all the dirt and grime and inconvenience of Malaysia faded away, focusing my attention on only the calm beauty around me. 20170121_111231

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On my way out, I climbed up a few more staircases to get a closer look at the cave formations. Much like Batu caves, the limestone was in familiar shapes, but so much larger in scale than I was used to. I had no trouble getting another Uber to come out for me, and while I was waiting, I took a tour around a little turtle pond on one side of the parking lot. Most of the turtles were quite shy, plopping into the water to escape as soon as I got within a couple meters, but one large guy was holding his ground and I managed to get a few cute pictures.

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Sam Poh Tong20170121_122213

The next cave temple I wanted to visit wasn’t very far away and turned out to actually have 3 temples all along a single short road, so while the other two weren’t on my list it seemed a waste not to at least peak at them while I was there.

20170121_122942Sam Poh Tong is also a Buddhist temple and is said to be one of the busiest and most popular in Ipoh. I could tell it was an active temple from the freshly lit incense, but little else gave evidence that it was maintained or cared for. Even so close to such a large holiday, the grounds looked unkempt and abandoned. The huge numbers of underfed and skittish stray dogs was off-putting, but they were not aggressive. The garden in the front was a small lake with tiny “islands” that became miniature mountains holding tiny temples. As I walked around one side of the temple compound, I came upon a building that seemed long empty, covered in dust and bereft of occupation, yet there was incense burning at the dusty altars, observed it seemed only by me and some monkeys on the fence nearby.

I went back to the main gate and into the cave itself. The differences were striking. Where Kek Lok Tong had been left mostly natural and had only a few additions of statues and stairs, Sam Poh Tong looked almost like a building inside the cave.

20170121_124426The walls were painted and florescent lights were on the ceiling, while piles of furniture and other stored items crowded the rooms. The floors were finished and there were windows and doors installed into the stone. It felt less like a cave and more like a basement.

O20170121_125808n the other side of the cave was a small enclosed garden. The walls of the garden were more towering limestone formations and the greenery within was Jurassic in scale and seemed to be overgrown with no concern for trimming or arranging, dead leaves carpeting the ground. There was a small turtle pond behind a fence filled with turtles of all sizes that could be fed fresh greens and veggies bought from a 20170121_125305stand inside the cave. The stand and it’s sales person were some of the only signs of tending I saw. At the back of the garden behind a locked a fence and a forest of unkempt branches was a bright red pagoda that seemed more like something in an abandoned jungle than in a living temple.

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20170121_132845I crept around the cave rooms from one altar to another, plastic cups and cleaning materials lay scattered around, the tile floor was cracked and uneven. I followed a treacherous staircase up a flight, but it ended only in a tiny window and more dust. It was so easy imagine that I was exploring a temple long forgotten, and then I would find a lit candle, or a smoldering joss stick or even a lone employee selling souvenirs. Outside once more, I continued on to the cemetery. In Buddhism, cremation is the norm, so there were small buildings in another alcove that housed the remains. Despite signs requesting that no incense be burned, there were sticks shoved around all the doors and soot marks as well. The buildings were grown over with moss and leaves, the paint peeling and the ground cracking under the pressure of new roots, yet the incense showed me that human presence was recent.

20170121_133150The farthest end of the compound was an area designated for ritual burning and another weedy and overgrown garden that seemed to be turning into a dumping ground. As I made my way past more dogs and tourists, I couldn’t help wondering at how this temple had been so highly rated by so many visitors when Kek Lok Tong was so clean and well cared for. I enjoyed visiting Sam Poh Tong, but it felt like an archaeological excavation rather than a place of worship.

On my way out, an elderly gentleman on a bicycle greeted me in excellent English and as we chatted he told me that this was his regular temple. He was not looking forward to the coming new year celebrations because he said the temple would be overrun by traffic. Scalpers would charge for street parking and people would come just to show off. I was torn between hoping the extra income would help the temple recover and being bewildered as to how it could still be so shabby when expecting the year’s biggest visiting weekend in less than two weeks.

Nam Thean Tong

20170121_142613Next door is Nam Thean Tong, which turns out to be a Taoist temple. It was sparkling clean and in excellent repair if somewhat empty. The floors were also finished tile, but the rooms felt more like natural cave than basement room and the altars were small but beautiful and well cared for. In front of the main altar was a place to do a fortune telling by a traditional method that involves a cup filled with sticks. The supplicant shakes the cup in a rhythmic way until one stick comes up and out and then the meaning is interpreted. I didn’t partake myself, but I watched another do so. There were carvings and paintings on the walls and lanterns hung around for the coming celebration. Another staircase led me to a viewing platform and a small bridge where wishes were tied to the chain railings. When I came across a steep stairwell leading into darkness, I paused for a moment to consult my own oracle: Google. It transpires that the top few floors of this temple are in total darkness and are rumored to have a haunted house combination of cobwebs, unsteady floors and ghosts. Yet even the most avid ghost hunters seemed to think the climb was a little unrewarding, so I decided to save my energy.

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Although the beautiful artwork and unique architecture was a treat, it’s hard not to think the best part of these cave temples were the wind tunnels created by the rock formations that allowed visitors to have a seat in a naturally cool and breezy spot, gaining some respite from the oppressive heat outside.

Rojak

I was finally drawn back outdoors by hunger. The afternoon was getting on and my noodle breakfast had long since worn off. There were some little shops along the outside, mostly selling souvenirs like a local tea and charms, a few selling drinks and ice cream, and one had a handwritten sign advertising a food called “rojak”. 20170121_145104I looked it up to make sure it wasn’t something too scary, then ordered myself a bowl for lunch. Rojak just means “mixture” but fruit rojak is a common dish made of crisp (less than fully ripe and therefore slightly tart) fruits and veggies. Jicama, cucumber, mango, and apple are standard ingredients. The sauce is the magical part. The recipe gurus of the internet assure me it’s made with shrimp paste, hot chilies, sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice (with some regional variance). To me it tasted for all the world like molasses with chili, ginger and lime. I don’t know if mine was made with molasses or if that’s just what it tastes like when you mix soy sauce, shrimp paste and sugar together, but it was yummy!

The outside area was under some reconstruction, but it was a spacious courtyard with plenty of trees and benches, a giant golden statue of what was probably Lao Tsu, and a brownish pond with a moon bridge.

Ling Sen Tong

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20170121_151734Just one gate over is the third and final temple on this street, Ling Sen Tong. This temple mixes Taoist and Buddhist imagery along with other folklore in a big colorful Chinese melting pot. It is an all singing all dancing color fiesta. There are beautiful facades of buildings and temples, giant statues in fresh bright colors, elaborate scenes of mythology played out, and everything was touchable/climbable so visitors were having a blast posing for photos. There was only one small, dark cave. The ceiling had turned black from years of candle and incense soot, and it was chaperoned by a figure whose offerings exclusively included alcohol (for some reason, especially Guiness…) I enjoyed exploring the many statues and hidden rooms. I even found this one guy who looks like he’s checking his phone in the bath! I’m sure there’s a better explanation for it, but along one wall was a series of statues in sunken pits that had all filled with water. I don’t know if it was meant to be a kind of wishing well or something else entirely, but this one in particular stood out to me.

Hostel Hangouts

Finally, I couldn’t take the late afternoon heat anymore and had to call a car to come and rescue me. It was my intention to have a meal and a rest in the hostel before heading out in the evening (and cooler air) to check out “old town Ipoh”. However, I ended up meeting a trio of backpackers from Europe who dealt me into their game of Uno and chatted for a few hours. Then when they went upstairs, I ended up talking to the wifely part of the duo who runs the hostel for quite a while more. She is a Japanese lady who had spent so much of her young adult years in Malaysia that it just seemed natural to her to find a husband and move there. So it was that I spent my whole evening happily in the hostel chatting with new and interesting people from around the world until I was too tired to stay awake any longer and headed up to try and sleep.

As kind and wonderful and gracious as the hosts were, the Reggae House was a little hard to sleep in. The lack of full walls meant that light and sound easily came in from the spaces around my room, and the visiting rat didn’t really set my mind at ease, but I was settling in to the “roughing it” mindset and managed to persevere.


Stay tuned for the next installment of adventures in the Malay Peninsula wherein I go hunting for Ipoh White Coffee and learn more about my favorite bean on the way. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of Kek Long Tong and the other three temples on Facebook and keep an eye out for more spring colors in Korea coming soon! Thanks for reading ❤

Malay Peninsula 6: Kuala Lumpur- Butterflies, Birds and Buddies

Even though I visited Malaysia in the depths of winter, the tropical country is always warm and the bright colors of blooming flowers, flitting butterflies and singing birds can be seen year round. How fitting that now in the springtime while the rest of the northern hemisphere comes back to life, I can finally post about some of the most beautiful colors in KL. So quick, before the next flower festival here in Busan whisks me away – more Malaysia!


Kuala Lumpur is a big city, but it’s starting to feel like every big city has the same basic blueprint:

  1. that one architectural marvel (often a skyscraper because things like the Sphinx, the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty are not clone-able)
  2. the zoo and/or aquarium
  3. the shopping district
  4. the museum(s)

A city has to work to make their version unique, and the more unique things it has, the more people are likely to visit. In the case of KL, that one building is actually two: the Petronas Towers (spoiler alert, I didn’t go). Shopping districts like Bukit Bintang draw tourists in droves, but I was backpacking so, shopping was out of the question, and the heat was giving my tummy the upsets so I couldn’t even go enjoy the famous Malay cuisine. I do love museums, however on short trips I tend to go only if the weather is horrible (like when we got rained off the beach in Jeju) or if the museum is highly unique (I am seriously planning a trip to the Ramen Museum in Yokohama). That left animal attractions, and I was in luck because KL does have some unique ways to interact with nature’s critters.

KL Butterfly Park

Who doesn’t love butterflies? I don’t have a butterfly tattoo or anything, but I do go all fairy-land wistful when I see them awkwardly flitting through the flowers, and getting to walk around a garden filled with hundreds of them flitting about is always a treat. The KL Butterfly park likes to toot its own horn and claims to be one of the (if not the) best in the world. I think that’s taking it a bit too far. I’m not even sure it’s the best in Malaysia (which seems to have a butterfly park in nearly every city). It is however worth a visit if you’re in KL and love butterflies.

Once past the ticket booth, I walked through a little air lock into an outdoor garden that was covered on all sides by a fine mesh net to keep the butterflies inside. The garden itself was packed full of plants and had a miniature stream, pond and fountain. Although the garden is not very large, there are many tiny walkways crisscrossing within, and it took me an hour to wander all the paths. Because the butterflies are so small, there is a different butterfly opportunity around every leaf and petal. It was impossible to get pictures of the hordes of butterflies in the air, but because the path is so close to the plants, there are countless opportunities to get personal for some of the best butterfly pictures that will ever grace your album. Not just butterflies, but beautiful dragonflies, crickets and caterpillars too! One thirsty flier even landed on me for a while to sip up the moisture on my skin.

There was a series of aquarium tanks along a few paths, for what I’m not entirely sure. Many were empty and others seemed to be growing fish that might go in the pond later? Once I left the garden and returned to the blissful indoor air conditioning, I got to spend some time in a little museum of sorts that displayed a few more unique Malaysian insects as well as a massive dead butterfly collection on the walls.

I took the opportunity of the little gift shop to soak up some more AC and a popsicle because however much I might enjoy being among the flutter-byes, the Malaysian heat + humidity is rough for those of us unaccustomed. When I felt sufficiently rested, I headed off to the next stop for the day.

 The Bird Park

KL has a large green space called the Lake Gardens where several parks, gardens, museums and temples reside. I thought it would be a good place to spend a half day, but I seriously underestimated the effect of the heat. I keep talking about the weather, but it’s because of how knocked down I felt after even just a little time outside. In this case, I had a brief walk over to the bird park entrance since there’s no bus service inside the large Lake Gardens that I could find, and it was too close to take a taxi.

The KL Bird Park is hailed as the “World’s Largest Free-flight Walk-in Aviary” according to their own website. It might be  totally based on landmass. That place was HUGE. The openness did allow more airflow than the butterfly park which helped, and there were plenty of shady places to sit down and rest. The whole area is enclosed in netting to keep the birds in. The website boasts a few hundred bird species, but I felt like I only saw a few dozen. There were peacocks everywhere. More peacocks than the gardens of Xanadu. Peacocks on the sidewalk, peacocks in the grass, peacocks walking, peacocks standing, peacocks sleeping, and peacocks perching in trees (in case you forgot they could fly too). Most of the birds that were free to roam were wading birds, long legged and somewhere on the spectrum between stork and seagull. I guess it’s easier to keep birds that prefer walking. The birds were also attracted to the snack areas and waited patiently for food to be dropped or abandoned despite the many feeding stations I passed along the way that were stocked with healthy options for them.

Smaller fliers were in enclosures, many were in aviaries that people couldn’t enter (so more like a zoo), but some were in spaces we could walk through. I caught a snap of pretty blue I-don’t-know-what in one such small garden, and I had a fun time in the parrot enclosure as well. I was given some seeds which attracted several bright and friendly birds over, and I got to help some kids learn how to hold the seeds and attract the birds to their hands. Shout out to Canth? and Tara for helping me learn how to handle larger birds without fear or getting my fingers bitten off.

Travel Buddies

It was while I was helping a third group of Chinese tourists pose with the parrots that I met my interesting Companion of the Day (™).  I’m usually the one that gets the “feeling” I should talk to someone, but this time it was reversed. We ended up talking in the parrot house for a while because we were headed in opposite directions, but soon decided chatting was more interesting than the bird show, so we headed back toward the main entrance and the AC of the gift shop. I am still not convinced this wasn’t some weird younger clone creature, because we had exactly the same obscure academic interests (this never happens to me) and had so much fun being big huge NERDS that we shared an Uber back to Chinatown, then got lunch, then walked around, then got coffee and before I knew it the cafe was closing down. “Did you really spend half a vacation day talking school stuff?”, I hear you cry. “Yes!”, I resound. Adventures aren’t just about the places or the things, they’re about the people, too, and people adventurers are fun.

Public Transportation: aka Buses, Trains, and Taxis OH MY!

I checked the train schedule before heading to the station and noticed that the next train was a little after 7pm. I had meant to leave KL earlier, but considered my afternoon well spent, and set off to find the intercity ticket counter (which despite being in the same train station, was nowhere near the city train counter where I’d bought my tickets to Batu). I had to ask directions several times and somehow I ended up on the platform with no ticket and had to get an employee to escort me through the gate and around the barrier to get to the ticket office! (The train station is all one big building inside, but the two ticket counters are on opposite sides of the complex and accessible from unconnected doors on totally different streets) I went to buy a ticket and was told the next available spot was at 11:30pm! Ack! This totally contradicted all the information I found online and left me in a tight spot.

picture of the station, courtesy of Wikipedia

Of course, I could have bought my ticket the day before. I should have bought my ticket the day before, but since I didn’t know what time I’d be finished in the parks, and the multiple websites and blogs seemed to think it was no big deal, I thought I could be flexible. *Sigh* So I asked about buses and got directed vaguely to some nearby office. (nearly everywhere I went in Malaysia people spoke excellent English, but for some reason, not at the KL train station. go figure.) I finally found the bus office and was told the last bus left already (again, in contradiction to all the data I found online before going). These oh-so-helpful bus websites can only be used for booking 24 hrs in advance, so were of no use to me in my moment of crisis.

I asked where these later leaving buses advertised online could possibly be found and was told I had to go all the way back to the bus terminal I’d arrived at from Singapore. Not only was that heartachingly far away, but it was also in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. More Google-fu turned up the name of another bus station so I went back inside to ask about it and was told, “No that one doesn’t have buses to Ipoh, but I guess you could go to Hentian Duta.” Great! Thanks! I will totally refrain from asking why you couldn’t have told me that 20 minutes ago when I first asked about other buses to Ipoh. So by this time it’s major rush hour traffic and I summon an Uber that takes another 30 minutes to arrive because the Uber app’s GPS put my location on the wrong side of the street and traffic was moving about one car length every 2 minutes.

The driver was a sweet old gentleman though. He was retired and enjoyed driving to earn some spending money. He told me about his kids and some of the other travelers he’d met while driving. We commiserated about traffic and chatted about urban development in different countries. It was a pleasant drive. I hopped out at the bus station just in time to be greeted by some frantic ticket sellers who asked where I was going then rushed me around to buy another non-specific ticket-like piece of paper and shuffle me onto a bus that was leaving in only a few moments. In addition to making me nervous because the ticket I was handed was not accurate, the bus I got on was not labeled, and the people who’d “helped” me had the frantic and rushing air of con-artists, I also didn’t get a chance to use the restroom or get any food (the noodles at lunch were the last thing I’d eaten and it was 7:30  already).

photo courtesy of KL airport website

Thankfully, it all worked out. I was on the right bus, and  my ticket (however strangely written) was acceptable. I hadn’t yet gotten used to the way Malaysia does buses, and the dudes who sold me the ticket weren’t on the make, they were just in a rush to fill as many seats as possible before the bus took off. This doesn’t make me less inclined to triple check everything when I buy a ticket to somewhere, but it does make me feel better about Malaysia to know that it’s not teeming with grifters taking advantage of lost tourists (yet).

Flashbacks

My paranoia about getting the right tickets stems from a trip to China in 2012. I was with two friends who had no experience in the Chinese culture or language, so I was 100% responsible for getting us around. While we were in Zhengzhou with plans to visit the Shaolin Temple, we decided to buy our tickets to Beijing the night before. Unfortunately, the Zhengzhou train station and bus station are quite near each other and not clearly labeled. I do know the words in Chinese for both bus and train, so this was not a simple linguistic error. The signs were just not clear, saying things like “station” and “tickets” without any addendum as to what kind. While I was trying to figure out the right place to go, one of my companions was growing impatient, leading to a rushed decision. I went to a ticket office and asked for overnight (sleeper car) tickets to Beijing and was sold 3 tickets.

It wasn’t until the next morning when we were boarding our bus to Shaolin that I realized we’d bought overnight bus tickets. These weren’t cheap either. Unlike a Malaysian bus ticket where I could have swallowed the 7-8$ if the barkers had been scamming me, the tickets across China were closer to 60-70$. I was frantically using my dictionary to try to find the Chinese word for “refund” when an astonishingly helpful high school student appeared and asked us in impeccable English if we needed help. Jesse (her English name) had been told by her teachers to always look for tourists in trouble as a great way to practice her English. Lucky us! In the end, Jesse managed to negotiate a refund for us, saving the day, but it left me with a solid lesson to always double check the tickets before you buy!

Getting There Is Half the Battle

Thus it was with much relief and not a little hunger that I settled into my seat on the bus to Ipoh. A lot of people I met, when informed of my travel plans, asked me why I wanted to go to Ipoh, exuding the confident belief that there was nothing there worth seeing. This sentiment came more often from Malaysians than from foreigners, and I get the impression it’s a little like asking a visitor to the US, why do you want to go to Kentucky? As visitors we have the benefit of not knowing the local assumptions. As a person who likes a little adventure, I was interested in getting off the beaten backpacker track. I recently read an article about how well trodden the backpacker trail is in SE Asia, and how easily we can find ourselves treading the same trail from one backpacker hostel to the next creating a little micro-climate of expat comfort. Since I don’t live in the US anymore, I may value my expat comfort zones a little more, but I also want to step off the track and see what else is there. I usually consider it an important part of any adventure to go to a place where I won’t see any other people like me.

With this in mind, Ipoh isn’t really that far off the track. And, mostly for economy, I did stay in a backpacker’s hostel (it was 4$ a night). I had another grand adventure with Uber at the Ipoh bus station. After watching the driver’s little car icon wander around the wrong part of the bus station for around 15 minutes, he had the audacity to claim that he picked me up! I had no way to find him or contact him because Uber still insists on linking all communications to your home country cell number (not great for tourist sims), so I cancelled and took a taxi. I probably paid 2x as much as I should have, but I was just too tired and hungry to care.

I got to the hostel close to 11pm and was greeted by the amazing friendly staff there who hooked me up with my room key and showed me around. Even though the chef was gone, I was able to get a bowl of something native that I was told translates to “hot and sour”. It was a kind of stew, that was indeed both tart and spicy. And I got a bucket of fresh mango juice. Fresh juice in SE Asia means that they took some fruit and squeezed it when you ordered. It’s magical. The accommodations were reflective of the price point, and while laying on the worrisomely unstable bed, I spotted a rat running around the top of the walls, but the people were truly warm and welcoming, so it’s mostly a good memory. I’m not sure what it says about my life that I ended up sleeping in the “Matahari” suite.


That’s all for KL. Stay tuned for the next installment in which I explore the small, neglected town of Ipoh and it’s strange plethora of temple caves. Drop me a line and let me know how this new photo montage video thing is working out. Should I keep it up or just stick to FB albums? Speaking of FB albums, don’t forget to check out the rest of the photos over there. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

벚꽃! Cherry Blossoms in Korea

Coming back to work on a chilly and blustery Monday morning, I was greeted by the school’s flock of cherry trees, now mostly green with only a few pink petals hanging on. It’s hard to reconcile that only two days before I was basking in the warm, sunny weather of Jinhae under a veritable blizzard of blossoms. Yet, another all too brief cherry blossom season has come to an end. Let’s take a look at the haul.


Busan

20170403_075400My school is the first exposure I get to the flowers in spring since I pass by a stately line of a dozen or so trees every morning on my way in. I watched with growing anticipation in late March as the buds swelled on the branches and finally burst onto the scene on the particularly gray and chilly afternoon of March 27th.

For the next week, I tried a little photo collection of the progress while counting down until I could head out to the park on Saturday. Mother nature had other plans, and Saturday turned out to be even more cold and rainy. Paintings of cherry blossoms in the snow may be amazing, but hanging out in the park in the cold rain, not so much.

In the end, the only option was to take an after work walk in Samlak Park, a long and narrow strip of green (or in this case pink) along the riverside. Eager cherry blossom viewers can walk for kilometer after kilometer along a pathway so densely enclosed by cherry trees that it becomes a tunnel.

I went to this park last year with my school, but the day we went was after a heavy rain and late in the season so the trees were somewhat bedraggled. This time, the blossoms were still at peak snowosity, and my friend and I enjoyed a walk under the canopy and a sunset through the lace-like silhouettes of the branches. We found the posing platform that allows the hordes selfie-takers to get up to the level of the top branches for the best down angle on the background of blossoms, and we finished the whole thing off by getting some pho in a nearby Vietnamese neighborhood.

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The next two days were fraught with rain and thunderstorms, making me all the more grateful for that one 2016-04-15 15.45.30glorious afternoon in the park.

20170403_172853Food bonus: Last year I got to try the Starbucks Cherry Blossom Frapuccino, but this year I tried the McD’s cherry blossom soda and the Hoegaarden Cherry Blossom beer. I’m still not sure what cherry blossoms are supposed to taste like, but it’s fun to try all the seasonal attempts to capture such an ephemeral experience in flavor.

Jinhae by Night

20170407_213250.jpgJinhae is the country’s largest cherry blossom festival. I went last year, but was only able to stay about an hour after dark and missed several parts of the festival due to time/ distance constraints. This year I was determined to catch the bits I’d missed, including more time with the night lights. Not only are cherry blossoms naturally stunning against the backdrop of a black sky, but the Jinhae festival sets up beautiful light sculptures along the river bed.

20170407_195453We left on Friday April 7th. Knowing that the storms might have wrecked the blossoms, we still wanted to go to see the lights, shows, and food. It’s not a long bus ride from Busan and we found our Air B&B in easy walking distance of the bus terminal. After dropping off our overnight bags, we quickly headed out to catch the festivities. A military parade and marching band show was scheduled for that night and we followed a cluster of Koreans in traditional costumes into the stadium.

20160220_141948We were too late to get a seat in the stands, but we watched from the sidelines and enjoyed the music. I had spotted a group of dancers wearing the distinctive hat of my favorite style of Korean traditional dancing. I fell in love with the spinning ribbon hats the first time I watched them at my orientation and never miss a chance to watch. When they lined up on the sidelines, a lovely Korean lady in military dress began singing a slow and sad song. My Korean is not good enough to translate, but I got the emotion from her face and the melody. Then suddenly, the whole song changed, becoming upbeat and K-pop. The dancers came on to the field behind her, but it was not just the traditionally dressed dancers, there was another troupe of young men in a sort of K-pop version of punk outfits, and the two groups had a dance off as the song blended traditional Korean musical elements with modern ones. That dance number was easily one of the best I’ve seen here and I wish I’d been able to catch it on video, but alas, I was standing behind too many people.

20160401_153024Next, we headed off for dinner, where I got a repeat of my delicious meal from last year’s festival- whole pig BBQ and dong dong ju (delicious local boozy drink). Once our bellies were full, we moved on to our evening goal of night-time light displays along the river. Along the way, we found more amazing treats: fresh strawberry “latte” (made with homemade strawberry syrup and fresh strawberries in milk, it is what strawberry Nesquick becomes 17757156_10208580288885183_7244900065842656679_n (1)when it dies and goes to heaven), and “cherry blossom” fried ice cream. I think it was really vanilla ice cream, but it was shaped like a cherry blossom. When I ordered it, the man took one out of the freezer behind him and dropped it into the hot oil. A minute or so later I had the crispy desert in my hand. The outside was crunchy and a little bit salty, providing a wonderful compliment to the sweet, creamy ice cream inside.

20170407_221607.jpgThe most famous part of Jinhae is the narrow “river” that runs through town and is lined with cherry trees the same way the path at Samlak is. Mind you, just about every street in Jinhae is lined with cherry trees, and the mountains around it are dotted with fluffy pink clusters of them, but the river is famous for the density of the trees and the stunning beauty of the blossoms over the water. Plus the decorations. Last year my favorite were the beautiful red umbrellas, but this year’s decor was totally different.

Far along the river, so far we were starting to wonder if we’d missed it, the lights started with arches of white lights, followed by a stretch of glowing roses and lilies of every color. There were romantic heart shaped arches, folded paper crane shapes, and a giant “I

We took photos of the lit blooms in every color light, posed against the antique looking streetlamps or framing the full moon in the sky. It was after 11pm by the time we made it back to the room and fell gratefully into the surprisingly soft bunk-beds.

Jinhae: Trains, Planes and Turtle Boats

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The next morning we woke up early and (after breakfast) headed off in search of the famous Korail train that makes its way into nearly every photo album of Jinhae. I hadn’t been able to find it the previous year, and neither had my companions. It turns out the train is not as easy to get to as many other aspects of the festival. Nearly everything radiates out from a sort of wagon-wheel spoke at the center of town, and visitors can easily walk from the bus terminal around the festival grounds. However, a visit to the famous train requires a bus-ride.

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It wasn’t hard to tell which stop to get off. The green and white festival tents and huge crowds told us right away where to go. Here on a disused section of railway, a retired train sits in a tunnel of cherry trees. The unique landscape creates a kind of wind tunnel and petals here fly in a way that is rarely seen elsewhere. Even with a breeze, most cherry petal rains are light. Last year, I experienced only one strong gust of wind that transported us into pink snow fantasy land. At the train however, the winds were stronger than the rest of the town and more frequent. Sometimes it felt as though we were in a warm pink blizzard and I won’t recount the number of petals I found in my decolletage later that evening.

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We joined the queue to pose in front of the train and found some more treats to enjoy like cherry soda made with Monin Cherry Blossom Syrup and some fresh cut oranges. One older man selling candles and aroma therapy did not let the language barrier be an obstacle to his sales pitch; he simply switched to miming. Like a classically trained clown, he mimicked passing gas and the unpleasant smell, then the sudden delight that his aromas would refresh any room from such stenches. He was hilarious.

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After our poses, we wandered down the tracks a ways to take more photos and then came back along the other side to see the handmade crafts on offer. One little girl of kindergarten age said “hello” to us, her only English word, and was so entranced by the fact that we said “hello” back that she became our shadow. She ran back and forth from her mother to us, saying “hello” and bringing us gifts of fallen petals.

In the Navy

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After the train, we made our way over to the Naval Academy. The museum is on the military base and is only open to the public during the festival. We took the crammed shuttle bus from the base entrance down to the waterfront to have our chance to see the 400+ year old turtle boat that turned back the Japanese invasion.

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Before heading to the boat, we stepped inside the museum for a little historical perspective. The Naval Museum is small, but informative. We saw several historical weapons, including some swords actually wielded by the famous Admiral Yi. They looked like Japanese katana, but were close to 6 feet long! There was also an actual battle plan from the Korean War’s Battle of Incheon with the combined Korean and US military forces.

20170408_125822.jpgThe turtle ships were famous for their ability to deflect the arrows and flaming arrows shot by the Japanese that so easily destroyed wooden boats. The shell of the “turtle” is a spiked metal carapace at a gentle sloping angle that was fireproof and arrow shedding. Yi’s most famous battle involved the use of only 12 such ships against a fleet of 120 Japanese ships. And he won. The 2014 feature film The Admiral: Roaring Currents was about that battle. It is the most watched film in Korea. In his final battle, he was killed, but as he lay dying he told his aides not to announce his death, but to beat the drums and urge the troops to go on to win. Needless to say, the Koreans revere him and his achievements.

The ship on display in Jinhae is a restored antique. We weren’t quite sure at first because the condition is so good, but we asked one of the soldiers on duty and were told that’s not just a replica. I don’t know how much of the original is left, but it’s quite an opportunity that we got to see the real thing and not just a movie prop.

20170408_130100.jpgGuests were invited aboard to explore the ship. Inside it was warm, golden wood. The main deck, which would have been open to the sky on a regular ship, was well lit by a series of cannon ports and arrow slits that allowed the crew to point weapons out while minimizing exposure. There were two small state rooms on the main floor as well, but the captain’s quarters were clearly utilitarian and not anything like the luxury we see in replicas of British ships.  The head (toilet) was a series of holes at the aft (back) which opened over the sea for swift disposal.

20170408_131130.jpgThrough narrow openings in the deck floor we could see below to the crew quarters and galley. There was a ladder leading up to a small space storage above. Decorative spears and battle drums were dotted around the deck. Cannons pointed outward and oars the length of 2 grown men or more were shipped in racks along the ceiling.

Just as we finished our tour of the ship, we heard the loud sound of jets overhead and stepped out onto the pier in time to catch a skilled air show, reminiscent of America’s Blue Angels. The jets flew in tight formations, changing shape and leaving artistic contrails across the clear blue sky as they passed. It was a perfect ending to our military base excursion.

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What a whirlwind! in less than two weeks, the cherry trees went from rosy buds, through pink popcorn, and on to spring green leaves. There’s no time to blink if you want to get the most out of the season, but it’s worth it. This year, I saw far to many fun-shamers online poo-pooing the notion of celebrating trees, but I will look forward to the experience every spring and I hope that my photos and stories inspire some of you to hie to a cherry tree infested town next spring. Check out all the photos on the Facebook page  (Busan 2017, Jinhae Night 2017, Jinhae Day 2017, Jinhae 2016) and thanks for reading!

Malay Peninsula 5: Kuala Lumpur & The Batu Caves

I’ve totally given up trying to predict my work life. It seems chaos and uncertainty are this year’s watchwords. In an attempt to retain sanity, gratitude, and joy, I’m going to focus more on things I can influence and enjoy. This week that means cherry blossom soda, cherry blossom beer, cherry blossom frappuccino and of course cherry blossom viewing. So until I can write about all those blooms in Korea, here’s another tale from Malaysia, and a much happier one since Kuala Lumpur is less scary by daylight.


Batu Caves

20170119_100407The morning after my late night and less than welcoming arrival, I woke up early, scarfed down my leftover convenience store sweet buns and took off to find the train station that would lead me to the Batu Caves. In recent years, the Malaysian government has added a train stop at this popular tourist attraction, and now it’s much easier to get to. The train itself was a new experience. When you purchase a ticket, you are given a plastic token with an RF chip inside. When entering the platform, you hold the token up to a pad to be read and it opens the gate, but hold on to that chip! When you disembark, you need to feed the chip into a slot to pass through the exit gate.

20170119_105910I met a tour group on the train platform and we chatted during the train ride. I hung around with them and their guide to hear a few of the explanations offered about the caves. The guide rushed us past the dozens of sales stalls (saving us from souvenir swindles), gave a brief presentation under the statue of Hanuman (the Monkey King) and landed us in the main square at the base of the stairs and the giant golden statue of Murugan (a god of war, made of concrete and painted gold colored). There was a tremendous flock of pigeons in the main square and it seemed to be a major tourist attraction to stand in the flock and have them hop onto your hand to get some food. Occasionally construction in the background caused a loud boom that set all the birds a flutter, which was surprisingly pretty.

20170119_111631After a few obligatory photos with the tour group and the giant statue, we began the climb. The stairwell is not insanely long, a mere 272 steps. They were so popular as a form of exercise that the government had to ban fitness use of the staircase to keep it clear for tourists and worshipers. With my kryptonite-like response to humid heat, the staircase became a long haul obstacle, but there were plenty of interesting things to stop and look at on the way up, like the expanding view of the courtyard and city below, the rock formations on the cliffs along side, and of course the hordes of monkeys roaming freely through the grounds. Given that the monkeys are wild, I was totally happy to keep my distance, but they were not shy and enjoyed coming right up to tourists or even forcing a showdown over who got to use the hand rails. At one point there were two monkeys perched on twin posts on either side of me and I managed to get a cute double monkey selfie, checking off a bonus square in the Batu Caves tourist bingo.

20170119_113054When I finally got to the top, I was greeted with a large cave mouth opening that led to an even larger cavern. The entrance of the cave had small buildings installed for souvenirs and police. Once all the way inside, I could see that although this huge open space was graced with a few decorative statues around the edges, it was largely left in its natural state. The cave mouth was wide and there was a natural sky light further on, so the cavern was well lit. There were a few artificial lights in strategic places and an area of worship off to the left. Finally, there was another short staircase leading through to the open area beyond. At the top of those stairs was the rearmost chamber of the cavern, another broad space; however, the roof had long since fallen in and the walls soared up into open air, creating a round room with no roof.

Here a few more monkeys wandered around the main area of worship and some wild roosters serenaded us with late morning greetings to the sun. While the monkeys weren’t looking to steal any watches or cell phones, they were out to grab any food or drinks they could find, and had no problem at all photobombing everyone. I decided to step into the little shrine in the center of the chamber, donating a small amount and lighting a candle in gratitude. I am not Hindu, but I like to donate to historical sites and there is no entrance fee to the Batu cavern. The symbolic gesture of the candle was a good way for me to donate to the preservation of the site and to solidify my own expression of gratitude for getting to live a life where I can have experiences like this one.

I spent a little more time in the cave, just enjoying the surroundings and watching other tourists interact with the monkeys. Responses ranged from the insanely forward to the blatantly cowardly, but the monkeys themselves were so bold that they would simply walk where they wanted to go, trusting the humans to get out of the way.

Dark Cave

20170119_135901As I exited the temple section to descend the stairs again, I detoured off to the right to investigate a “dark cave”. The Malaysian government has taken this side section of limestone cave and created a conservation space. The limestone quarries and careless unregulated tourism of the recent past had wiped out a lot of the cave ecosystems. Efforts to restore the guano based ecosystem of living limestone caves are now underway in many parts of Malaysia and this cave was for both preservation and education.

I couldn’t pass up a chance like that. The cost of entry was 35myr (less than 8$US) and while it was the most expensive thing there, the entry fees all went into the environmental conservation efforts, so I don’t mind. I signed up for the next tour and sat down to wait in the cool cave mouth.

The cave has 3 chambers, but only 2 are open to view. The third is closed off as part of The Science (micro-climate study). The Dark Cave is the most studied cave in the world (they claim). People are only allowed in with a tour guide to prevent damage to the cave and it’s creatures. There are no lights inside. We were each equipped with a flashlight and helmet before entering, but the lights were not needed for most of the tour because of the amount of sunlight that makes its way far into the cave. Our guide was very knowledgeable, talking to us about the history of the cave, the near extinction of the ecosystem and the restoration projects. She then taught us about the ecosystem which is based almost entirely on the bat guano. Bats are the only thing that leaves the cave to bring nutrients in from the outside, so their droppings become the source of a tiny but thriving pile of life.

20170119_125933Nearly everything that lives in the cave is so tiny you wouldn’t even notice it if no one stopped to show you. When we see nature documentaries, there’s often nothing for scale, so it’s easy to imagine the animals as being similarly sized to their daylight counterparts. When our guide showed us a picture of the little white snail that lives on the rocks, I imagined a tiny snail, but not nearly as tiny as the ones we found! The biggest of the snails was about the size of a grain of rice, but there were smaller ones dotted around.

On our journey through the dark, we got to see a number of beautiful cave formations as well. These are similar enough to the limestone formations found just about anywhere there are limestone caves, but they were 4-5x bigger. Photos do not do a good job with scale, and my photos in the dark are a little meh, but if you think you don’t need to go because you’ve seen it before, can I just say, no.  We passed some adorable spiders (although we didn’t get to see the trapdoor guy who is superfamous there), and met the Godzilla of the cave ecosystem. Nearly every creature in there was ultra teeny (even the spider really only had a pea sized body), but this cave centipede was massive. An average currency bill would have covered his body but not his legs. In comparison with his rice grain sized prey, he was a leviathan. Our last fauna sighting was a nearly microscopic troglobite that was about 2mm, but still had a distinctive spiky pattern that made it stand out from the rock on which it sat.


Our entire trip was serenaded by bats. The bats were mostly resting, hanging from the ceiling above us, but they were not silent sleepers. Because of the need to preserve the bats’ environment, we were asked as a group never to point our lights above our own eye level. If you go late in the afternoon, you may even get to see the bats waking up for dinner, but I was there around 1ish, so it was a purely aural experience.

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At the end of the path, the cave had another skylight, revealing the bats’ back door and creating a stunning lighting effect as a single beam of light pierced the blackness of the cave from high above. With just a little light, photosynthesizing algae had coated the rocks and gave the entire area a soft green glow.

The walk back out was much faster, since we were simply retracing our steps. If I spent more time talking about the Dark Cave than the temple, it might be because I was greatly impressed. It has not been long since developing economies were not able to give resources to research and preservation that didn’t directly lead to feeding more humans. In the recent past, these caves were unprotected and used as places for who-knows-what, leaving the land covered in litter, cigarette butts and graffiti. Not that long ago that the monkeys were fed potato chips and soda, while today they are given nuts, fruits and flowers. It’s amazing to me what a society can achieve toward a relationship with nature and our past when we make it a priority. As I watch the power and funding of US national parks and the EPA come under fire, it gives me some hope that other countries will take up the stewardship.

Other Attractions

20170119_140630.jpgAs I descended back to ground level, I passed still more monkeys, several sets of mother and baby wandered around, and some tourists were feeding them peanuts (despite the do not feed signs). I noticed that the dominant males were very protective of their snacking rights and would drive off the mothers aggressively. Of course, no trip to a monkey colony would be complete without a little fornication. I happened to be standing right next to a female when a male walked up, took her butt in both hands and peered at it closely, then proceeded to mount her, much to the shock and amusement of tourists from 6-7 different countries. No, I did not take monkey porn pics.

At the base of the stairs, I detoured into a little shopping area where I was able to get some much needed water (bring more than you think you need!) and a little snack. I wandered through a shop selling Malay and Indian styles of clothing that was just to die for. It was all overpriced because Batu is such a tourist location, but it was still fun to look, and gave me a strong desire to return to Malaysia one day with a bigger suitcase!

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There were more attractions along the walkway between the stairs and the train station. I passed the “Cave Villa”, but a short search on Google advised me that this area (which had once been an art gallery and museum) was now hosting a sad number of mistreated animals for paid photo ops. I wish this were outdated information, but I found another one while writing this that was written since I got back. It’s very disappointing, considering everything I just wrote about the good steps that Malaysia is taking toward environmental preservation, but sadly, animal rights and animal welfare are another area that humans at large have only recently started to be concerned with. Animals often have a link to one or more deities in Hinduism and may be involved in rituals or (as in the case of the monkeys) given free reign at a temple. However, it is NOT a tenant of Hinduism to mistreat animals, and this display is likely merely a tourist attraction since visitors toss money into the small cages and pay to pose with the snakes and birds. I didn’t go in, and I hope if enough tourists reject this treatment of animals, the government will upgrade the Villa to a cruelty-free art gallery.

Ramayana Cave

20170119_151445Farther on, beneath the looming statue of Hanuman we passed at the beginnging, was the Ramayana Cave. This attraction was much more highly reviewed and was only 5 ringgits to enter, so I decided to give it a shot. There is a stream inside the mountain that comes out and is used as part of a beautiful fountain depicting the chariot of Rama and Sita. If you’re not familiar with the Ramayana, it’s a very popular dramatic tale from the Mahabharata (one of the most important Hindu religious texts). In addition to being a big part of the faith, the Ramayana is a soap-opera-esque tale of love and betrayal that is to this day one of the most popular television series ever aired in India. Kind of like if the Iliad were still relevant and cool today.

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The cave had two entrances (or more probably one entrance and one exit, but there were so few visitors that it wasn’t enforced). I first found myself in a section of the cave that appeared to be preserving the graffiti of the recent past or maybe even inviting new graffiti, giving visitors a place to scrawl to spare the other areas? Escaping the graffiti tunnel, I discovered the main chamber of the cave to be filled with larger than life depictions of scenes from the story. I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten most of the plot, since I read it longer ago than I want to admit and only once, but there were a few informative signs to help out.

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There was a stone arch leading up some stairs that gave a closer view of the cave’s internal waterfall, as well as a bird’s eye view of the main cavern, complete with birds. There was a LOT of graffiti in the cave, but most of it seemed to be on smooth walls rather than on the cave formations, and it was clear in any case that with all the electric lights and colorful statues that the cave was not likely to grow any further (all the more reason to be supportive of that Dark Cave!). I can’t hold the modern Malaysians totally responsible though, because evidence suggests that humans had been using these caves for centuries, and the modern laws prohibit building or excavating in living ecosystems. All in all, I consider the Ramayana cave worth the visit for both the cave and the man-made additions.

Batu Cave is often depicted as the giant golden statue and sweeping staircase, but there are plenty of other things to do there. I visited 3 of the 4 “attractions” at Batu. Only the main temple cave is truly free; however, I think it is worth the less than 10$ I spent to visit the Dark Cave and Ramayana Cave. On the other hand, the prices of souvenirs is high and the quality is low, so unless you really need something from Batu, it’s best to do your shopping elsewhere. On the way out, climbing the train station up a couple stories, there’s a nice view of the temple complex from the air as well.

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MORE KL

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There are times in a journey when the universe just opens a path. I was ridiculously hungry by the time the train got back to KL but didn’t know where to get food because I’d only eaten at convenience stores since arriving. Instead of taking the same path out of the station that I’d come in by, I followed a beautiful sky-walk that lead out and around, giving me a nice view of the city and of the river swollen with rain that had fallen while I was coming back from Batu. The sky-walk ended in a large, clean, and above all air conditioned building of indeterminate function. I think it may have been an office building, 20170119_170032but the main floor had a few shops and restaurants. I pulled into the first one I saw and confessed my massive ignorance of Malaysian cuisine, asking the staff for a recommendation. Moments later I had a heaping plate of some kind of fried rice dish that was smokey and pleasantly but not overwhelmingly spicy. Sometimes you just gotta walk on the road that looks more interesting.


Having discovered that Kuala Lumpur was not actually a rat-infested cess-pit, I had a very nice time. I wish the heat did not affect me so adversely because Malaysian cuisine is unique and delicious and I too often had mild heat exhaustion related nausea that kept me from properly enjoying it. If this trip taught me one thing about travelling in tropical climates it’s to plan an indoor/air-con activity every other day. For more photos, please check out the full album on Facebook, and stay tuned for the next chapter which includes some up close and personal with animals in the city’s wildlife sanctuaries/gardens. As always, I hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading!

 

Malay Peninsula 4: Where did my comfort zone go?

I’ve been enjoying traveling for many years, and had fallen into the silly habit of thinking that I was seasoned, unflappable and able to roll with any punches. Malaysia (and for that matter Thailand) made me totally rethink this. Even though I’ve gotten comfortable with unique and often unidentifiable food, sleeping on the floor, carrying my own TP, using a hole in the ground for a toilet, hardly speaking the local language, and navigating some of the most complex public transit systems on the planet, it turns out this crazy world can still transport me right outside my comfort zone on a whim.


Bus to Malaysia

Buying a bus tickets in SE Asia was a new experience. It seems that even in fancy first-world Singapore, bus terminals are an agglomeration of travel companies, bus companies and booking companies. There are a myriad of ticket windows and you just find one you like that is going where you want and they book your bus ticket for you. I filled in some paperwork and was told to return to the window a few minutes before the bus left to collect my ticket. Fortunately, the bus terminal is attached to a shopping mall, and I was able to kill the time inside. When I got my ticket, it was a combination of printed, handwritten, and confusing. Then I was pointed in a direction and told to go to the end of the block and the bus is this color (pointing to a picture). There is no “boarding” area to speak of; there were a couple buses on the street and none were labeled, nor did any seem to match the color I’d been shown. Finally, I succumbed to asking and it turned out that the handwritten scribble on my “ticket” was the ID of the bus (this tidbit makes all subsequent bus travel a little bit easier). Thus I became one of 6 passengers on a very lux bus to Kuala Lumpur.

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The rest is mostly a boring story of how I slept on the bus. Points of minor interest include that the bus company forgot to charge me at the ticket counter, then called the driver later to ask if I could give him the ticket fare instead; the crossing over from Singapore immigration took FOREVER because every single busload of humans was going at the same time and there were like 5 clerks working veeeery slooooowly (seriously, like an hour of the bus creeping forward by millimeters to get to the drop off, then another hour of standing in line to get an exit stamp) The native Malaysians on my bus were furious and said the whole thing should usually take less than 15 minutes; and lastly, getting Malaysian sim cards is super cheap and easy. I got one at the first rest stop we pulled into and had all the data I needed.

KL

Because of the immigration delay, my anticipated 8pm arrival became a 10:30pm arrival. Since the bus terminal was a bit outside of town, I called for an Uber to come and get me. I used Uber in Singapore with great success, but Malaysia seems to still be learning the ropes. I went to the taxi stand/car pick up area of the bus terminal to wait and watched on the Uber map as my driver went around the overpasses in circles a few times. I couldn’t really imagine why he thought I’d be waiting on an overpass with no pedestrian access, but after a good 30 minutes, he finally made it down to the taxi area. The main frustration with Uber at this point is that even if your driver is lost, you’ll still be charged for cancelling a ride, no matter how long you’ve been waiting. You can appeal for a refund, but it’s annoying. Part of me wanted to just jump in a taxi, but I held out for the Uber because the fare in the end was drastically cheaper.

My driver had only been working for Uber for one week and had no idea how to navigate KL or how to use his GPS. As we drove in more circles around my hotel and I watched him try to take on one way streets the wrong way, I started to understand why he’d had so much trouble at the bus terminal. I pulled up google maps after a minute and started trying to navigate, “no please don’t turn here, just go straight and it’s ahead”. But he turned anyway, “no I think it’s this way”, as I watched our blue dot veer farther away from the hotel.

By the time I got to the hotel it was about 11:30 at night. I found the entrance to the hotel in the back of a cramped convenience store and managed to check in with a woman who could neither make change nor print a receipt (needed to prove to booking.com I paid, since I had to use cash). 20170118_231657.jpgThe hallway with the rooms was brushing my shoulders on either side as I walked through and was not wide enough to open the room doors all the way. It was also painted red and gave me a very eerie Twin Peaks vibe. The room was dirty, a soaking wet bath mat on the floor by the door and some kind of horrible mildew meets sewage smell coming from god knows where. I dropped my bags and went back out to the street to find food, but the street stalls were only selling fried things of a questionable nature and I couldn’t see any restaurants nearby. The midnight streets were dark, crowded and very dirty and also had rats scuttling around in the rubbish. I finally just got some yogurt and bread from the convenience store and went upstairs to sleep.

It was the first time in a long time I’d been shoved so hard outside of my comfort zone. I’ve got a pretty big comfort zone. Weird food, weird toilets, foreign languages, crammed public transportation, and just generalized unfamiliarity are all things I’m comfortable dealing with. Apparently rats and mildew are outside of that zone, and to be honest, I think I’d like them to stay outside my comfort zone. However, it was a good reminder that the gross and icky may be a part of adventuring.

It also forced me to look my privileges and prejudices right in the face. I recognize that I am privileged to live a life where rats and mildew do not appear regularly. I was letting my prejudice come out, forming negative opinions about the people who don’t have that privilege. I had to remind myself to direct that negativity at the economic systems of entrenched wealth and oppression that condemn large chunks of the world to that level of poverty, and that these people probably don’t even really see themselves as poor because there are people even worse off. I cannot say I liked it, but it was probably good for me.


More than once on this holiday adventure, I had experiences that pushed me. I debated about how to share them, or even whether to share them, but in the end, I decided it’s too important. I learn and grow when I’m challenged, and people who travel or want to travel should know that the hard parts are inevitable, but have a value of their own and shouldn’t be swept under the rug when we make our photo albums or memoirs. Stay tuned for the next beautiful adventure in KL by day when I visit the famous Batu Caves. Thanks for reading! ❤