Here in Korea, Spring chugs along into summer. The mornings I stand outside overseeing the kids recite their daily English are still a little bit chilly, but by the time I leave school at 4, it’s hot enough to want a shower and an ice cream at home. The festivals of May are coming fast and furious, and just today, the whole 6th grade went away on a field trip, leaving me with some unexpected free time to power through another story from winter break.
The next major destination of interest on this trip is actually Koh Lipe in Thailand, but it would take me two more days in two more cities to get there. In researching my travel path, I came to realize that Penang and Langkawi are places that used to be awesome hidden gems, but have gone mainstream tourist in the last few years. This story is less about Malaysia and more about clothes, but sometimes that’s where the adventure takes you, especially when it ruins a pair of pants and requires an emergency replacement.
By Train and Ferry
The train from Ipoh to Butterworth was a delightful piece of transportation, and in retrospect, the last clean and comfortable transit option I would get on this trip. The train was spacious, sparkly clean and climate controlled with a nice view of the Malaysian countryside out the window. The train station in Butterworth is easy walking distance from the ferry terminal and bus station allowing me to take a quick detour and buy my bus ticket to Kuala Perlis. (there were only two running each day so I didn’t want to miss the morning bus!) Then I headed over to the ferry terminal to catch the quick boat over to the island of Penang. The ferry ride was brief yet delightful, with beautiful views of the cities and a cooling breeze.
From the ferry terminal I was able to hop on the free cat bus toward downtown Georgetown. I know that “cat” stands for “central area transit” but I could not help but be amused at the similarity to the famous Miyazaki character from My Neighbor Totoro. No, the Georgetown bus didn’t have a furry face or eight legs, but I liked the idea that I was riding in the cat bus anyway. The free bus has stops all around the central area and is a great way to see the sights. In my case, a great way to get closer to my hotel.
Who Colonized this Architecture?
I was staying in a UNESCO world heritage neighborhood, and my little hotel was doing it’s best to live up to the standard. The whole place was dripping with charm and atmosphere. The architecture and decor was some strange clash of China and New Orleans. I’m not sure how else to describe it, because I haven’t been to many places that have the unique New Orleans architectural style which I always understood to be a French influence, yet here in Georgetown, which was a British colony, I found that the styles were far less colonial British and far more colonial French. I’m not an architectural expert, and you shouldn’t take my word for it. All I can say is that having been to Beijing and New Orleans, Georgetown felt like the all time city mash up between the two.
After I got checked in, I took all the clothes I wasn’t wearing down the street to a laundromat where the machines dispensed their own detergent. One of my 2 pairs of pants had acquired some holes in an indelicate place and I needed a replacement. While my laundry was spinning away, I wandered across the street to engage a group of expats who looked like they may have been in town for a while and asked about the best places to find cheap pants replacements.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to be directed to the mall and the international brands like H&M or the Gap. It shouldn’t shock me that more than half the expat community just wants to live surrounded by familiar brands and western styles, but it does. With the exception of being unable to find a thing in my size (bras anyone?), I like to buy clothes that the locals are wearing for two reasons: one, it is more likely that they know what is suitable to the climate they live in; two, I’m less likely to stand out as the obvious newbie/target. There’s some bonus material about local economies and new experiences in there, too.
One guy finally realized I wasn’t impressed with western mall options and told me where the local clothes markets were to be found. I spent the rest of my laundry cycle chatting with an older French lady who had rented out her property back in Europe and lived in Malaysia working under the table for the hostel she stayed at because it was cheaper and easier than trying to deal with paying all the bills in Europe at her age. Note to self: Malaysia as potential retirement country?
Laundry complete, I set off on a walking self-tour of the cheap clothes district. I am not normally a fan of shopping, but I have decided that if I am ever going back there, I need to do it with an extra suitcase. So many beautiful clothes, many inspired by Indian fashions, glorious batik fabrics and wildly reasonable prices compared to what similar fashions cost in the US. Skirts, shirts and dresses abounded, but pants were a little challenging. Free size is really a misnomer because it only applies to a size range from about 6-12 (US). the most popular pants seemed to be the Ali Baba style which are big billowy and flowy, but cinch around the ankle, looking not unlike the pants Aladdin wears.
Thigh Gap Deficit
Why not just get a flowy dress/skirt/alibaba pants? Well, if any of you have thighs that touch, you may have some idea of the horrible phenomenon known as “chub rub”. The unfortunate and unflattering name notwithstanding, it’s not just about chub. I know lots of svelte people whose thighs touch because thigh gap beauty standards are insane! (no shade on naturally skinny folk, this is about people trying to achieve beauty standards that are not natural to their body type). So, in hot / humid weather, the chafe is real. Imagine getting a blister on your inner thighs. Ouch! I wear biker shorts under skirts or dresses and it helps a lot with the rubbing, but I only had one pair with me and I needed another chafe free article of clothing for the rest of my journey.
Coloring Outside the Runway
Pants in my size came in 2 types. Black, coarse, thick fabric (wtf it’s 30 degrees and 90% humidity out here?) or clown pants. I wish I was joking. I know that as an American my sensibilities of color are drab in comparison with everyplace other than England. Our puritan ancestors despised joy and now we’ve culturally accepted the idea that bright colors are somehow gauche or low-class (hello systemic racism?) because we associate them with the heathens and the brown people. This disdain of bright colors is something I’ve been observing in myself and others since I first started traveling. Buying hair clips in China was challenging because I didn’t want the super bright sparkly ones, I wanted the earth toned ones. Watching people cringe in Hindu temples because they see the brightly painted statues as gaudy while the Hindus see the colors as a celebration of their faith. And now in Malaysia trying to buy a pair of pants that I might ever wear again.
Bright colors, elephant print batiks (really, I know the elephant is popular in SE Asia, but don’t put elephants on plus size clothes, it’s just rude), and even patchwork patterns of jangling colors and prints. I might have worn them there, because the locals did and because they wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb, but the chances of me wearing them in Korea the next summer were slim to none. I have begun to learn to appreciate the bright colors and patterns in art and even in clothes on other people, but I still can’t put them on myself. I think because of my weight I was subconsciously trained to try to occupy less space, and almost certainly because of my gender I was taught not to stand out. I’m working on it, but I wasn’t ready for elephant pants just yet.
The Mystery of Viscose
Eventually, I found some black pants that were a lightweight material and had a beautiful blue pattern around the cuffs. They were about 7$US, so I wasn’t overly concerned with the durability and I was delighted with the way they fit. Of course they were from India (I’m starting to believe all my favorite clothes are), but unfortunately, they are made of a material called “viscose”. I did not know what this meant at the time. I had never heard the word and I was so desperate for pants at this point, I didn’t really care. But later, while laying in the AC of my hotel room, I looked up the word and discovered the world’s most temperamental fabric.
Viscose is made from plant fibers or cellulose, making it a uniquely natural synthetic fiber. It has some ties to artificial silk and to rayon, but is ever so much more delicate. Many laundry blogs (yes those exist) indicated that although there are tricks to washing most “dry clean only” clothes, viscose is so sensitive to water that it can loose it’s shape or shrink dramatically if it gets wet, and it can tear to shreds if it is squeezed or wrung out while wet because of how the water impacts it’s delicate plant based fibers. On the other hand. I have rayon clothes I wash all the time, and I’ve had bamboo sheets that went in the washer and dryer, and because of the way the bamboo is processed, it’s viscose too. My cheap, imported-from-one-developing -nation-to-another pants did not come with washing instructions, just the 100% viscose tag. I have no idea how to clean them without utterly destroying them because even dry cleaning is an adventure when you aren’t fluent in the dry cleaner’s language. I hope I can get them to last the summer at least, fingers crossed.
Wrap It Up
I tried to find some local-ish dinner food, but my travel weariness led me in the end to a little boutique restaurant near my hotel that was more expensive but also vastly more comfortable. Amid the offers of western sandwiches and pasta, I found a lone offering of the national dish: nasi lemak. Omnomnom.
I also managed to pick up a beautiful blue batik sarong which was one of two things I actually planned to buy on this trip. After I got cleaned up and I watched a few YouTube videos on how to wear a sarong, I went out for a beer in my new tropical get up. I got the impression that Georgetown is so popular among backpackers and expats for a combination of it’s strong western influence and plethora of cheap bars. (many places have a regular “ladies night” menu which are totally free or insanely cheap) I wasn’t particularly sad to leave it after only a short time, but I can see how it would be a refreshing break if I were on a multi-month trek of SE Asia, and I’d definitely love to go back for more clothes when I’m not backpacking.
We’re about halfway through the stories of the Malay Peninsula adventures. For those wondering how I keep the memories so fresh months after the experience, I cheat. I wrote everything down as soon as I got back in one giant GoogleDoc, and it’s just a matter of edit and polish for each chapter afterward. There’s no photo album for this post, but I hope you’ll check out the Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter pages for regular updates and photos on adventures as they happen. Thanks for reading! ❤