Malay Peninsula, Post Script: Airports, Visas & Life Lessons

Although the adventure in the Malay Peninsula was finished, I had one more obstacle to overcome before I could return home. Vietnam. In this tragic comedy of errors, I learned about the only airport in the world that doesn’t have a fly through policy, and I managed to check one more item off my bucket list. Never underestimate the stopping power of Communist bureaucracy or the healing power of pho. Don’t want to read about airports? Check out the end for some heartwarming life lessons about challenge and gratitude.


The Airports

Normally, I would not write about an airport, but it seemed that Thailand just could not let me go without a fight. Surat Thani was no trouble. A giant double decker plush AC bus (the kind I wish I’d been in on every other occasion in Thailand) pulled up to the hotel at 11am to whisk me off to the airport for a small fee. The airport was miniscule, but the staff were helpful. Nothing was labeled, but it was small enough that didn’t matter. Instead of posting about delays, they just told us.

I met a fun person in the airport, because I magnetize them to me. After our introductions, she gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten: “You’re way more interesting than looking at my phone!” So we pocketed our devices and talked until the late plane arrived to take us to Bangkok. And so it was, in this pleasant lackadaisical mood that I arrived in Bangkok with a several hour layover and plans to do some last minute shopping and get a nice meal.

I wandered out of domestic and over to the international terminal with only a mild case of being lost twice, and finally found my check in counter amid the totally not at all labeled rows of counters by the simple expedient of going up to a person and asking. However, here’s where the regular international airport challenges start to level up. While going through the check in process, I was informed that I cannot be issued my boarding pass without a visa. I don’t need a visa, I tell her, I have a residence card, showing my Korean ID. No, she says, for Vietnam.

You Need A Visa to Get In

Now, my flight, which I booked on the amazing and cheap website kiwi.com, took me from Surat Thani, through Bangkok, through Hanoi, and finally to Busan (where I live). In normal reality, catching a connecting flight in a country does not require a visa unless  you plan to leave the airport for some layover sightseeing. This is standard operating procedure around the world. China (which up until recently had a monstrously complicated tourist visa application with huge fees and wait times) has lots of people fly through without visas. Even Saudi Arabia which does not issue tourist visas will let people catch connecting flights in Jeddah on their way to some more touristy section of the Gulf. You don’t need visas to catch connecting flights. It’s like an immutable law of reality.

“I’m not going to Vietnam, I’m just catching a connecting flight.”, I say. “I don’t need a visa because I’m not leaving the airport.”

“No,” she says. “You need a visa. I can’t give you a boarding pass without a visa.”

Call Your Embassy

I search the internet frantically looking for supporting documentation, and while it is true that every single web search I get back tells me this immutable fact over and over, they do not care. They will not issue me a boarding pass without a visa. I’m having nightmare flashes of being stranded in Thailand, of missing work, of non-refundable tickets I’ve paid for… Unable to find anything on the US State Department travel site OR the Vietnam Embassy sight about airport transit, I finally called the US Embassy to see if they could confirm or deny this situation and maybe point me at some official document that supported my not needing a visa. The on call staffer at the Embassy agreed, this is bizarre, and he’s never heard of an airport where you need a visa to change planes, but they are also unable to find any official statements anywhere online. Then I run out of minutes and the call is disconnected.

I try to talk to the airline to see if I can get the flight changed, but that’s going to take a day or more because there are no flights that day with room. The Vietnam Embassy website has an online visa application, but it takes 5 days. Expidited forms won’t load on my phone, I need a real computer. I’m losing my mind. The check in counter staff show me a website that’s a private business (vietnam e-visa) who I can pay to get my visa quickly, but my flight is in less than 2 hours now. 30 minutes, they promise. The fee for the visa was only 19$ US, BUT, since I needed it in 30 minutes, and it was a Sunday, AND it was Tet (the very famous Vietnamese holiday that is in literally every Vietnam war movie), it was going to cost me an extra 190$ in processing fees. Before plunking down 200$ on a visa, I wanted to vet the website, and found that there are apparently a large number of fraudulent websites that advertise Vietnamese visas and don’t deliver. Finally, I found a traveler who had used the site I was on and had reported success, but advised us all to spring for the “airport fast check in” option for an extra 25$. Her story of waiting around the airport for hours to get approval was convincing, and so it came to pass that I paid 234 American dollars to buy a visa into Vietnam for the privilege of changing planes in the Hanoi airport also known as “the Story of the Most Expensive Bowl of Pho Ever”.

Getting to Hanoi

I didn’t have time to eat or shop. I managed to buy an overpriced sandwich from a cafe by the gate before boarding because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast at my hotel and it was now after 6pm. Between the delayed flight in Surat Thani and the visa ordeal, I had used up all my layover hours. I got several emails from the visa service with instructions, very dire and specific instructions, as well as a pdf of a letter of visa application (not even a real visa yet).

When I got to Hanoi, the staff from the visa company was thankfully waiting for me with a sign. She ushered me into a waiting area and took my letter and passport away for processing. I was expecting to have to take some passport sized photos there for the paperwork, but I guess somehow they copied the photo from my actual passport instead and used that. Less than 15 minutes later she came back and handed me my passport with Vietnamese visa inside, while other people were still standing in line at the visa counter. At least that “fast check in” option paid off.

From there, I was able to go through immigration. For reasons unknown to any but the arcane inner circle of the Vietnamese bureaucracy, there is not an international waiting area. I’m told that if you’re travelling through Hanoi with both flights on the same airline, that it is possible to bypass the visa and customs rigamarole, but since many ticket sellers and even airlines use partners to get you from one leg of your journey to the next, buying your ticket from one place, doesn’t guarantee all your flights are on the same airline.

The Most Expensive Bowl of Pho

I had to go through customs and immigration. There was no need for me to leave the airport, mind you, since once through immigration, I could simply turn around and re-enter the security screening and boarding areas. But, since I’d spent so much on a visa, I did step outside and breathe the external Vietnamese air, just to say I did. I also fulfilled one of my long time bucket list items, to eat pho in Vietnam.

If you don’t know pho, you are missing out. This magical Vietnamese noodle soup took Seattle by storm more than a decade ago and it’s a staple cheap and delicious food for all occasions. Sick? Eat pho. Celebrating? Eat pho. Too busy to cook? Eat pho. Having a first date? Than Brothers it is. I even had my grad school graduation dinner there. You can get a fairly large bowl of it for 5-6$ which is dirt cheap when you realize that it’s actually good homemade food and not the McProcessed value menu. I love pho. I idolize pho. And typically, when people ask me what food I miss from America the most, I answer pho, because even though it’s not “American” that’s often the only country I can find it in with regularity. So of course, being in Asia is a big opportunity to have pho in the land of it’s origin. Bucket list, check.

The moral of the story is, if you have a connecting flight in Vietnam, call the airlines, ask, and even if they say you don’t need a visa, it might be worth it to drop the 20$ a week before your flight and get that paperwork rolling. Otherwise you could end up with a very expensive bowl of pho, too.

The Lesson of the Malay Adventure

This vacation was very different from what I have experienced recently and from what I expected. In many ways, I am grateful that my boundaries were pushed and my comfort zone was challenged. It’s easy to fall into a “new normal” and for me that meant more travel, more maps and trekking and becoming comfortable with navigating new cities, new modes of transportation and multiple languages. Which used to be challenging and exciting and even a little scary, but has become normal. It never ceases to amaze me what the human mind can adapt to.

I learned some very practical lessons about the balance between knowing your limits and being confined by them. I spent so long learning how to say “yes, I can do that” that I kind of forgot how or when to say, “no, that’s too much”. Plus, those goalposts move throughout our lives. As a teenager, staying up for 3 days and sleeping in a car on a road trip was fine. And no matter how many people told me that my body would not let me do those things as I got older, it’s hard to accept being “older”. The list of things I have to do with modification is getting longer, and my ability to function on less than 8 solid hours of sleep is greatly diminished.

Part of me wishes for every holiday to be as perfect as the New Zealand holiday, but there are two reasons I am glad they aren’t. One, I don’t want perfect to ever be my “new normal”. I would stop appreciating it if there were nothing to contrast it with. I would no longer feel the same amount of joy and gratitude for amazing things if they were regular. And two, I think we need adversity to know ourselves and to grow. I never want to stop growing and learning, so I need obstacles and challenges to help me achieve that. I don’t want to live in a constant state of challenge, I like it when my day to day life is quiet and enjoyable, but I value being pushed beyond my “normal”. I value expanding my comfort zone. I even value learning there’s a place my comfort zone is never going be.

Finally, every time we overcome, we become more capable. With each obstacle conquered, we look at lesser challenges more serenely. In 2012, I climbed a huge mountain in China. We were fat, out of shape Americans, and even though we took the bus and gondola as high up as we could, we still climbed stairs for 7.5 hours to get to the top. I’m sure fit people do it faster, but it wasn’t a race or even a comparison. It was about us, in our state at that time conquering something that many people (probably even ourselves) would have considered too hard for us. We made it to the top, we slept up there overnight and we watched the sunrise because that’s what you do on this particular mountain. And for years afterward, when one of us was struggling with something in life, we said, ‘remember the mountain’.  

Something was harder than I thought, but I did it anyway. That’s what builds confidence, what encourages healthy risk taking, and ultimately those lead to a more interesting and more fulfilling life. So keep it up world. Bring me your stunning beaches and awe-inspiring caves. Bring me your mind-mindbogglingly beautiful flowers and butterflies. Bring me your humans full of welcoming and their delicious food. But don’t let me leave behind your scungy alleyways, or your hotel invading rats, or your foot scarring coral reefs. I’ll take the whole package deal and know that each new wonder or obstacle lives with me forever, shaping the person I will be tomorrow.

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Malay Peninsula 16: Surat Thani- Floating Market & Fireflies

Given the events leading up to my final day in Thailand, it could easily have been a wash, however, the small non-tourist town of Surat Thani still had some surprises up it’s sleeve, and I managed to end this holiday on a beautiful high note. It’s my goal to publish all the stories from one holiday before I take another, and I’m barely achieving that by finishing off this post with three days to spare before I hop on a plane to visit the US for the first time in 18 months. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the journey as much as I enjoyed writing about it.


Adventure Hangover

Although the Wangtai had transport out to Khao Sok, I couldn’t bear the idea of waking again in only 6 hours and vowed to sleep until about an hour before breakfast ended, then eat and sleep some more. It was sad to give up on my elephant excursion, but when I woke up the next morning I realized how important that decision really was. I felt weak, as though I had just come through a severe illness or fever. My limbs shook as I walked and even as I held my phone. I had no strength and no speed, but found my way down to the breakfast buffet where I positively stuffed my face after days of light or missed meals.

Mentally, I felt clearer for the sleep and food and I began to realize based on the way my body felt that I had pushed myself a good deal farther than I had known. It was likely not any one thing, but a combination of poor sleep, poor diet, excessive heat, lack of water, physical exertion and the coral injury (which can be known to cause fatigue and other symptoms). I had hoped that I could make it just one more day, just one more activity and then sleep on the plane and of course back in my flat in Korea, but my body was just finished. If I’d tried to force myself to rise early and head to the elephant, I would likely not have had a pleasant day, but only another day of crammed vans, heat, dirt, hunger and dehydration, worried about what standing around in muddy water with an elephant was going to do to the probably already infected open wound on my foot.

Instead, I slept some more, watched some movies, ate lunch, admired the view of the river, took a nap, and read up more on Thai culture.

Spirit Houses

20170125_150240Since arriving in Thailand via Koh Lipe I had seen these tiny ornate houses on posts everywhere. I saw them on the remote islands around Lipe, near the caves of Bor Tor, in the cities, at gas stations, and in the front yard of homes we passed on the road. Some were simple, others like miniature mansions. Some had tiny model occupants while others were uninhabited. Nearly all of them had offerings of food, sweets, alcohol, or incense.

The houses are a throwback to Thai folk beliefs in spirits of nature and the land. The tiny houses are built to be homes for these spirits. They may be built near special trees, bodies of water, mountains or natural formations to house the spirits of the land. And they may be built by homes to attract spirits who will inhabit the house and aid the family in exchange for lodgings and gifts.

I have seen similar spirit houses in Japan, but at the time I completely failed to make the connection because the architecture is so different.

Night Market

The clerk who had checked me in the night before had mentioned the floating market was within walking distance, and I had also read online that one of the few cool things worth doing in Surat Thani was the firefly boat ride. Around 5pm, I set out on the short walk down to the river where the maps indicated I would find the market and the boat rides.

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The river front park is small, however there is a large island in the middle of the river called Ko Lamphu that does not allow cars past the carpark near the bridge. Under better circumstances, I would have loved to explore it, but I was still a bit woozy wobbly and didn’t want to push myself into illness or another breakdown, so I stayed on the near bank and enjoyed the small corniche.

I read some articles about the floating market that seemed to indicate it was only open on Sundays. Surat Thani is not a tourism hub, so there is a limited amount of information, but what I can gather is that there is a night market more often than a “floating market”. The floating part is supposed to be where some pontoons are set up on the quay side and vendors sell wares on these ersatz rafts. When I went, nothing was on the water, but there were plenty of stalls selling all kinds of tasty treats and some live music at the far end. If you’re in Surat Thani and Google says the floating market is closed, ask a local about it because there’s nice stuff in Si Tapi Park.

Street Food

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I first browsed the whole selection of stalls, checking out the food on offer. I passed a woman making fresh juice (very common in Thailand), and at first thought she was using limes because the peels were so green, but the juice was a bright almost neon orange! I don’t mean like a little tinge of green that you get on your organic oranges, seriously lime green. It turns out that this is what oranges look like in Thailand and Vietnam. And a glass of that fresh squeezed neon was a delicious treat. I passed some foods I was familiar with and others I was not. I was briefly tempted by a stall selling horseshoe crabs, but in the end I chickened out and got a serving of pad thai served up fresh on a banana leaf.

There were carpeted areas with low tables where people could doff their shoes and sit down on a clean patch of ground to eat. To westerners it’s a picnic style, but sitting on the floor is common all over Asia. I had a great view of the river and the large island park. And although the sunset was a little obscured, it was still a beautiful night.

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OK That’s Creepy

One especially strange thing that happened while I was wandering around: there was a PA system that had been piping out a low volume background music. This is not too weird because it’s nice for public gardens or parks to have a little ambient music and I hadn’t been paying too much attention to what was playing because it was in Thai and low key. Then suddenly as I was walking back toward the food stalls from the far end of the park, I noticed that everyone around me was standing up and not moving. Up until now, the park had been a bustling active place with people strolling along, taking selfies with the statues, kids running around and everyone munching on snacks. Now, it was like some kind of internal evil robot switch was activated and the whole human population stopped and stood straight, staring ahead, gazes fixed but not on anything. I drifted to a halt as I realized I was the only one moving, not wanting to cause offense but also deeply creeped out.

When the song came to an end, everyone began going about their business once again, resuming their casual chats and picnic dinners. I realize of course that robot overlords is not the real story, but it was very eerie. I’d been in Thailand for a few days and hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Language Barrier

I spend most of my time living, working and traveling in countries where English is not the native language. I’m used to working through a language barrier, but Thailand was the most challenging linguistic obstacle I have ever faced. (That includes Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, French, German, and Czech). The rest of the Malay Peninsula had been far easier for me to manage. In Singapore, everyone speaks English (national education tests are administered in English). In Malaysia, most people spoke English or Chinese (which I’m not fluent in, but can get around). Nearly everyone there is bi- or tri-lingual, speaking their native Malay and at least one of the other two. Plus, even though I can’t speak Malay, it’s written using the Roman alphabet (the one we use in English), so I could sound things out, and got good at recognizing the words for “bathroom” and “coffee” (priorities). However, Thai is written in it’s own special alphabet. It’s beautiful. It’s arcing graceful curves and swirls. But it has 6 different letters for the sound //, and I can’t read it.

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I imagined as I wandered around the less touristy parts of Thailand that this must be how my friends felt exploring China with me, or how the teachers here in Korea who can’t read Hangul must feel every day. It also makes me appreciate how much of a difference having even a tiny understanding of the language can make.

Firefly Boat

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As the sun went down, the sign I’d been looking for appeared. Near a tiny dock, a young lady set up a folding table and a cute sign advertising for the firefly boat tours. If you have read my blog up till now you will know that I am a sucker for glowing lifeforms, so the idea of taking a nice riverboat trip and watching the fireflies was enticing, especially at the bargain price of 50 Baht (less than 2$ US). The boats don’t leave on a schedule, they leave when they have enough people, so I did my best to express my desire to go to the ticket seller, and then pulled up a nearby bench to wait.

After a number of people wandered over to look at the sign and wandered away, a group in matching t-shirts expressed some interest and stood off to one side while a single member of the group approached the ticket seller. This looked hopeful to me, because they were obviously a group, and after some back and forth, they decided to go, at which point the ticket seller gestured to me and made sure that I could take my trip with them. One of the group, the designated talker, happened to speak excellent English, so we were able to chat along the way. She told me she was from Surat Thani, but now lived in Phuket and had come back to see her family (the other members of the group).

As the longtail boat pulled away from the dock, we sped down the river passing the buildings of the city and toward a forested area of the delta. Looking at a map of Surat Thani, you can see that the city is built along the main part of the Ta Pi river. Just east of the dock, there is a little fork in the river and while the main branch continues along the urban areas, the side branch goes off into a green and verdant delta.

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Local Knowledge

Along the way, as I was chatting with the English speaking girl who asked me to call her Monica, I ventured to explore the bizzare robot occurance I’d seen earlier in the evening. Trying my best to be tactful and circumspect, I described what I had seen without the cyberman elements, and she told me that it had been the national anthem playing. Is that something that happens often or is today some kind of holiday? (It was Lunar New Year, but I understand that’s not often celebrated in Thailand outside of Chinatowns). She told me that it happens every day, twice at day at 8am and 6pm.

I thought about the ostentatious displays of portraits of the recently deceased king that I had seen around town. In Koh Lipe and Krabi, I had seen these only in government buildings, like the immigration office and police stations. But in Surat Thani, they were everywhere. And more than just paintings, they were like shrines with ornate decoration, bunting, flowers and other accouterments of borderline worship. Even taking into account that the mourning period for his death will extend until October of 2017, there was a marked difference in the way that residents of Surat Thani were carrying out that mourning from how the more tourist oriented towns I had seen before were.

The King and I?

photo credit: BlossomFlowerGirl

Thailand was a military dictatorship with a figurehead monarch, but the late king was instrumental in moving the country into a constitutional monarchy (some say democracy, but … king, so I disagree). It’s been shaky, but he was enormously popular, and has apparently left in his wake a movement of “ultra-royalists” and there is some concern that populist nationalism / military dictatorship will return (which is funny cause you’d think the ultra-royalists would respect the king’s wishes to create a constitutionally run society, but hey). This political struggle will never be in the western news because Thailand is poor and can’t really impact life and economics in the West. *sigh.

My best guess is that tourist towns tone it down to protect the revenue stream, and that there is almost surely a regional difference in how much the population supports royalism or democracy. Surat Thani is clearly royalist. It probably also explains why in place of a Gideon Bible, my hotel had this book of Buddhist teachings in the night stand.

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Magic on the River

Once we turned away from the main river course, it didn’t take long for the lights of the city to fade behind us and for me to start feeling like I’d stepped into a ride at Disneyland. The river was wide and slow running. The night air was a perfect temperature that could not have been achieved better with climate control. We passed by some houses on stilts that was surely the Surat Thani version of the suburbs, but they were so picturesque with bright lanterns hanging from the porches and architectural flourishes on the rooftops, they looked like life-sized versions of the spirit houses. Don’t get me wrong, reality is often an amazing place and I will take the real thing to a theme park replica any day, but this boat ride was so perfect that it seemed like there must be a secret team of imaginieers behind the scenes making it work.

As we approached the first firefly spot, the guide slowed the boat down and directed our attention to a shadow just ahead. I did not know what to expect. I had read blogs that touted the tour as amazing, and seen about a hundred descriptions of the experience as being “like Christmas lights”. As a child, in Maryland, the fireflies came out on summer nights and let us chase them around the yard, and put them in jars for an hour or so before going on their merry way. My childhood may have been excessively Norman Rockwell from time to time. Nevertheless, my image of fireflies is a couple dozen in a field or meadow flying around and looking for a mate. I imagined something similar, but on the banks of the river amid the dark sillhouettes of the brush and trees. Nope.

I don’t know if it happens elsewhere, or to what degree, but in Surat Thani, the river fireflies occupy trees.

As we drew closer to the shadow our guide was pointing to, the shape of the tree became more distinct and just after, the glow from hundreds of fireflies reached my eyes. Although every bush and tree around it was dark, this one tree was home to a firefly colony of massive proportions. I didn’t even know fireflies lived in colonies. But I now know that the berembang (also known as the mangrove apple, or crabapple mangrove) is a big hit with the firefly population. Because the delta near Surat Thani is abundant in these trees, they get more than their fair share of firefly light shows.

There is no hope of a photo or a video. The light emitted by these little bugs is just too faint. But to the naked eye, far from the city lights, the twinkling of hundreds of little bodies against the lacy black outline of the tree is a sublime experience. I could understand why so many people described the flashing as Christmas lights, becuase in addition to their huge numbers and single tree occupation, the fireflies blinked in unison. Ok, not every single one, but I’d say 65-75% of a tree would blink on and off together in perfect synchonicity. I was able to find a few more examples of species that do that, but not a single explaination for the behavior. I had always been taught that the light show was a mating display, and it seems counterintuitive to blend in with the crowd when trying to get a potential mate to notice you. Whatever their evolutionary imperitive, the synchronized twinkling was amazing to watch.

And it was not just one tree. Our boat was out for around an hour, and close to 40 minutes of that was spent in the dark mangroves drifting along from apple to apple, each tree laden with it’s own colony and sparkling like a glitter bomb under a disco ball. We passed tree after tree of glowing glimmering lights, up one side of the river banks and back down the other and I will never get tired of looking at that. No one goes to Surat Thani except to go somewhere else, and I very much understand why, because the town is not a tourist easy place, but if you find yourself there, take a night out to do this tour.

Let the Good Things Happen

Despite the fact that the night before I had been at the lowest imaginable point in this trip, the fact is, I had a lovely and unique experience on Saturday. I rested, gave myself permission to “miss out” on the elephant, and found a small local activity that was suited to my tastes and my energy level. Bad things happen on holidays. People get sick or injured or run into culture shock mood swings, but it’s important not to let it ruin everything. I’ll say it over and over, the key to maximizing a good vacation is to do something great at the beginning and the end, and I’m glad that my final memory of Thailand was something so beautiful.

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And so ends my final day of this all too brief foray into the three countries of the Malay Peninsula. Will I go back? Well, it’s hard to resist the siren call of Koh Lipe, and I still have some ethically treated elephants to visit, so I’m sure I’ll go back one day. On top of that, I think Singapore will make a great destination to bring my niblings to get them adjusted to traveling abroad. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out the Instagram and Facebook for daily slices of the life of a Gallivantrix. ❤

Malay Peninsula 10: When Things Go Wrong

It’s popular for people on social media and blogs to focus exclusively on the best experiences (unless it’s Yelp, then complain away). Sometimes I look at other people’s travel blogs or photos and think they must have the most perfect lives. And, then I wonder if anyone thinks that about me. My life *is* fairly magical, and I think the vacation to New Zealand was supernaturally blessed, but I would hate for anyone to think that it’s all perfect. Stuff goes wrong, sometimes catastrophically, and how we deal with that will impact the days, months and years that follow.


A Good Start

In the morning, I headed out extra early to catch that next bus and managed to get a few snaps of the famous street art on my way to the ferry terminal.

Amid the ferry terminal’s endless tiny shops selling convenience food and cheap souvenirs,  my eye was drawn to one stall that had what appeared to be handmade goodies displayed on a table. The stand was run by a husband and wife team, and the husband happily talked about his wife’s cooking until I picked out three goodies to try for breakfast. One was a flavorful potato pastry with delectable spices and what could have been pieces of dried fruit. 20170123_080706One was a glutinous rice ball wrapped in a leaf and filled with some kind of sweet coconut. The golden brown goodie was the one the husband most highly recommended: a spicy coconut bun in a wheat pastry (as opposed to rice) with a coconut filling similar in texture to the rice bun, but with a spicy kick. The coconut fillings were unique to my palate. It seemed like the coconut had gone through a ricer instead of a shredder. It was similar to vermicelli but also dried enough to be chewy without being crispy. The entire experience was delightful and I wish I’d bought 3 more!

A Scorpion in my Cocoapuffs

I left myself extra time to get to the bus station. Missing the bus would have entirely spoiled my day (although now that just seems ironic). As a consequence, I had nothing to do for about 45 minutes. The bus station in Butterworth seems well organized, but I suspect it’s a cleverly crafted illusion. As the time for my bus drew closer and closer with no sign of the bus anywhere, I began to get worried. When a bus pulled into the gate that I had been told by the ticket counter was my departure point, I got excited until the driver told me it was a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Definitely not where I was trying to go. The departure time on my ticket crept up and then past. I kept trying to get anyone to help me find my bus, but no one seemed fussed and said it should show up eventually. I spotted another traveler (the skin tone and giant backpack were clues) with a ticket that looked like mine. Trying to be friendly, I asked if she was trying to get to Kuala Perlis (my destination) too.

Allow me to do an aside on the expat/backpacker community for those who have not experienced it. It’s a tribe. And like all tribes, when we see each other out in the world there is a feeling of  “ah, one of mine”. The extent to which we aid one another or spend time with one another can vary from person to person, but most of the time when I greet another traveler, the response is friendly. Maybe they need help, maybe they can give it, maybe we’re just going to play a game of Uno or chat over a beer. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve taken great joy in meeting both locals and fellow travelers. I’ve shared meals, cabs, directions, taken and given tips on what to do or how to get places, translated or been translated for, exchanged stories and when one or the other of us is ready to part, there’s no pressure, we just wish each other well because we all know that’s how it goes. So when I met a backpacker who was angry and mean it was like finding a scorpion in my cocoa-puffs. I was expecting something nice and got stung instead.

She looked at me sharply and asked in clipped tones where I was going. I replied that I was headed to Kuala Perlis, but before I could finish my sentence, she pointed back at the building and snapped, “ticket office”. Yes, I said, I already have a ticket, I just — again she cut me off with the single invective, “information” pointing once more at the main building. This was no linguistic barrier, her accent was natural and her tone and body language adequately communicated hostility. I was completely shocked and decided to stop trying and walked as far away from her as I could while still being able to see the bus stops to watch for mine.

I want to believe that something was going on with this woman that made her so grumpy, but the fact is, I approached her to share information (namely that the bus she was standing in front of was not the one listed on her ticket, and that the gate we wanted had changed, but was not announced yet) and she shut me down like…I have trouble even finding a metaphor of when it’s appropriate to treat another person like that. Everything I can think of is some kind of gtfo response to racism or misogyny. Even knowing now what I do about the trials and frustrations involved in traveling SE Asia, and having lived through my own travel induced emotional meltdown, it’s still hard for me to imagine what put her in the mindset that caused her to treat me so. Regardless of whether her mood was justified, it was demeaning and hurtful to be treated like that by another human being. It was made worse by the fact that I had no defenses up at all when it happened. It completely destroyed my emotional well being in that moment and for possibly the rest of the day.

The Transportation Worsens

The bus was nothing like the nice buses I’d taken up to this point. The seats were narrow and much less comfortable. The front of the bus was “normal” two seats on each side of the central aisle, but the back was divided into three single seats with two aisles between them so that passengers travelling alone didn’t have to rub elbows with strangers. I sat in my middle single seat and tried to bring my emotions back to center.

My destination that day was the island of Langkawi. I had decided after much reading on the internet that I was better off taking a bus to Kuala Perlis followed by the shorter (90min) boat ride from there rather than trying to take the 3hr boat from Penang. Initially, the idea of a 3 hr boat ride was appealing to me because I like the ocean and boats. But it turns out that all the boats here are kind of enlarged speed boats where passengers sit in assigned seating rather like an airplane and there is no access to the deck or other outdoor spaces. Since going out on deck is the number one thing to do if you get seasick, that didn’t sound great. Instead I think I just learned that the only comfortable way to travel north of Penang is airplane.

Bad Decision for a Good Reason

Nevertheless, when I got off the bus I met a couple more backpackers who made some headway toward restoring my faith in the tribe. They had opted for the bus/ferry route to save money. They were out for the whole summer taking a break from university and needed to stretch every cent. We got some lunch together and had some nice conversation, shared the ferry ride, and I was enjoying their company so I let them talk me into walking from the ferry port to our respective hotels in Langkawi. I have to say, I admire the packers who can walk themselves around with all the gear especially in that weather. I am not one of you. I should not have tried. It’s not that I can’t walk or carry gear even, but there is something horrible that happens to me in hot/humid weather. One day I will learn my lesson, and surely this experience was some very compelling evidence.

My feet were swelling from the weather, my clothes were drenched in sweat and I simply could not keep up the pace of my lunchtime companions. They never once complained about my slowness, but I still felt guilty. Then it started raining. You would think rain would be a relief in hot weather, but that is a lie. The rain doesn’t cool things down, it only increases the general humidity and makes you damper. Could this whole experience have been better if I had a different attitude? No doubt. It can be hard to maintain positivity in the face of certain obstacles – the angry lady in the morning had set my nerves on edge. The heat, humidity, and pain in my feet was eating away at what goodwill I had left. When the rain began and I realized that the ONLY event in Langkawi that I had planned to do would not be accessible, it pushed me straight over the edge into genuine misery and self-pity.

This Isn’t Fun Anymore

Google lied about the distance to my hotel. When my GPS indicated I had arrived, yet I could not see the hotel, it suddenly reset to a location another 15 minutes away. This was after I’d already been walking for 45, which was longer than the original Google estimate of 30. When I decided to go on foot, I figured I could just about tolerate 30 minutes of walking to the hotel in the heat. What I got was an hour in the heat and rain. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I discovered a man sleeping on the only bench in the tiny lobby, so I couldn’t even sit down while I waited for the clerk to show up and check me in. And he was snoring so loudly! It seemed to take forever to get checked in and get to my room where I promptly rid myself of my soaked clothes and basked in the air conditioning while I had a serious think about my options.

The Langkawi Taxi Lockdown

I do not like giving in to despair. I do not like nurturing negative emotions. I did not want to sit there and feel sorry for myself, damnit. I only planned to spend a half day in Langkawi in any case. The very next morning I was scheduled to take another boat out to the tiny tropical paradise island of Koh Lipe in Thailand. I had looked at how to avoid Langkawi altogether but it seemed like any way to go from Penang or even Ipoh directly to Koh Lipe would have involved a very long overland travel and another land border crossing, I thought at the time that shorter journeys would be better and that every place I was stopping at must have something interesting. However, I failed to take into account that Langkawi has the most bizarre taxi lock out in the world. There is not only no Uber or any other rideshare on the island, the taxis don’t stop on the street, or use meters, or bargain. They all have a set rate chart that tells them the fare from one place to another. And unlike Georgetown with it’s free bus and easily walkable areas of interest, Langkawi seems designed for package tours and resort dwellers. In my first plan I was going to spend 2 days in Langkawi and only overnight in Koh Lipe but research led me to a different notion and I had decided the most interesting thing to me was the cable car and skywalk, which being high in the mountains and made of metal would not be accessible or safe in a thunderstorm.

Give in to Self Care

As I lay in the hotel, resting and cooling off, I looked on the web to see if there was anything near by that seemed interesting, or anything even within a reasonable distance. I had wasted all my energy walking to the hotel when I didn’t need to and could not bring myself to be excited about any of the hiking or cycling options. I had no desire to go shopping since I’d taken care of my needs the day before. I didn’t want to visit a zoo or aquarium. In fact, nothing at all sounded fun, and while I was grumpy about the fact that I’d just “lost” a day of vacation, it struck me that the best thing I could do for myself was nothing at all.

Sometimes stuff happens to us on holiday and we just have to stop. I remember in Egypt I got horrible food poisoning that completely took me out of commission for about a day and half and left me weak for a long while even after I returned home. It’s not fun when you get sick on vacation, but it’s still important to practice self care. Sick doesn’t always look like a cold or an upset stomach, sometimes it can be an overdose of culture shock, heat edema, and physical exhaustion. So I took a shower, put on some clean clothes and walked all the way to next door to have some dinner and then spent the rest of the night reading in bed. I have only one picture from my entire time on Langkawi, and that was a food pic I took of that dinner for Instagram.

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Worst Day?

I told myself that every vacation has to have a “worst day” and that I was on my way to a tiny island paradise where I would see coral reefs and swim with glowing plankton and sleep on a hut on the beach and at least two of those things turned out to be true.


When I look back on my time on the Malay Peninsula, this is not one of the stories that stands out to me. At the time, it was horrible, and potentially vacation ruining, but Daniel Khaneman talks about “the remembering self” in his research, and using memory to create happiness. I choose to memorialize this day not to focus on the suffering, but as a way of reminding myself that what seemed so horrible at the time, cannot evoke strong emotion in me even 4 months later when I review and revise the experience, yet my positive experiences still bring a smile to my face. Plus, now I know what not to do the next time I travel to Koh Lipe.

Malay Peninsula 9: Clothes shopping in Georgetown

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

20170122_100830The 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.

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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.

Expat Life

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?

alibaba-trousers-tie-dye-baggie-genie-boho-gypsy-harem-pants-250x250Laundry 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

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art: GarbageHumans on Etsy

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.

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photo: TheHaremLoft on Etsy

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

20170122_182655Eventually, 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

20170122_172744I 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 20170122_182721out 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! ❤

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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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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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! 🙂

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! ❤

Malay Peninsula 1: Singapore Gardens & Supertrees

This was not an idyllic holiday in sunny weather full of umbrella drinks and relaxing by the sea. It could have been, and maybe one day I’ll take one of those, but this was not that vacation. As I wrote this, sitting in my cold office the day before students returned from winter break, I could not help but feel a little nostalgia for the warm evenings I enjoyed a walk after my shower, but the twinge in my foot and the weakness in my limbs reminded me that this adventure was a physically and emotionally taxing one.

Which is not to say I did not have amazing times or enjoy myself, but the trekking nature of my plan meant that I was forced to push myself in new ways, to absorb not only beautiful and wonderful new experiences, but also painful, difficult, and challenging ones. Then again, I suppose that’s why I call myself an adventurer and not a vacationer. Whatever the holiday looks like later on, I hope you’ll find the first installment to be as wistful and enchanting as I did.


Singapore

I decided to model my holiday after a tour package I found online but was unable to join due to conflicting dates. Their schedule was only 10 days and covered more places, I had 12 days and was doing (theoretically) less, so I figured I had plenty of time. My starting point was Singapore.

Coming from winter in Busan with temperatures often below freezing, the shock of Singapore weather was something else. Even dressed in light, summer clothes, I was sweating the minute I stepped out of the AC. The first morning in the hostel, just walking from my dorm room to the lobby gave me a stark reminder that equatorial temperatures are no joke. Although I set off in search of coffee, the hostel’s beverage dispenser included something called Teh Tarik, which I decided to try instead and immediately fell in love with. It’s a strong hot, sweet milk tea but despite being made of common ingredients, I had never had anything like it before.

After my tea, I headed out to try to catch the tram to the Gardens by the Bay, a popular and beautiful botanical garden area that also includes the Super Trees (one of my top to-dos while in Singapore). While I was staring at my map app trying to figure out the best way to go, a nice man asked if I needed help. He turned out to work for the Nigerian Embassy in Singapore and helped me find my way toward the gardens, walking and chatting with me until he had to turn off the main road. I love friendly people!

One of the nice things about walking in Singapore (and indeed most of Malaysia) are the plethora of covered walkways that help keep the sun (and rain) off of the pedestrians. I had my “sunbrella” but found I didn’t need it very often.

20170117_093334Shortly after parting ways with the helpful Nigerian, I walked past what appeared to be a large open air food court. There was a roof and fans circulating air, but the entryways were wide open. There were dozens of food stalls from different nationalities, and tables to sit at between them. I went to one stall to get a fried oyster omelette and another for an iced coffee, then sat down to enjoy them. The omelette was a bit odd. In addition to eggs, vegetables and oysters, it turns out this dish is cooked with a variable amount of tapioca, potato, and/or rice starch. This just goes to prove I should have read more about the food before going, because the gooey texture combined with the heavy oil meant that I only ate about ¼ of the dish before I couldn’t eat any more. The coffee, on the other hand, was intense and amazing. I didn’t know it at the time, but Malaysian style coffee is different from other coffees around the world. I’ll explain more when I get to Ipoh, but for now, suffice it to say I was pleasantly surprised.

20170117_100820After breakfast, I passed by all the tall financial buildings and came to the Marina. This beautiful stretch of waterfront goes on for ages with a wide and clean walking path. I came across a shopping mall on my way and decided to head inside for the AC and maybe a restroom. The Nigerian man I’d met advised me that if I ever felt too hot in Singapore, I could just walk inside any building to get some cold air. The mall was nearly empty, which is not surprising for a weekday morning, and I managed to find a 7-11 to get a cheap sim card (less than half of the airport prices). I also got called in to have a sample at two separate skin care shops. The first was a supernaturally charming young man who probably got nearly every woman he met to spend too much money on his skin care products. We chatted and tried out the product and eventually I had to demure from purchase, but he was gracious about it and said he’d had fun talking with me. The second shop was a Malaysian woman who was wonderful and gracious and kind until it became clear to her that I had really meant it when I said I wasn’t buying anything, and then she turned rather sour. Both shops products were in the hundreds of dollars range. It was somewhere around here that Singapore started to remind me of Dubai.

Cloud Forest

20170117_121123I walked more dockside paths and came across a science museum, more flowers than you can sneeze at, and finally some signs pointing to the garden path that was lined with sculpture, topiary and colorful blossoms. Although the Super Trees were my main goal, by the time I arrived at the park’s center, I was hot and tired. I noticed a cool breeze coming from the doors of one particular building and resolved to go inside that. The building was one of the two indoor gardens, this one called Cloud Forest (the other was closed for renovations). It was a massive greenhouse designed to house the ecosystem of a cloud forest, and so not only had pathways winding through beautiful flowers at ground level, it had a miniature mountain in the center that one could ascend and walk around via a series of skywalks that simulated viewing the forest from cloud level and treetop level.

The cool air was not freon induced air conditioning, but a creative cooling system that involved the movement of water and air. The whole thing is designed to be as ecologically conservative as possible. Nonetheless, when I stepped inside from the intense January heat, it was a blissful release to walk in cool air.

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I expected to spend an hour or so inside, but ended up spending 3! The waterfall that greeted us at the entrance was a major photo point, but by no means the only one. Spectacular tropical flowers were in bloom all around, and driftwood sculptures of dragons hid among the foliage making for an interesting game of find the dragon. After walking all around the base, I headed up the mini mountain. At the very top was another tropical garden with a reflecting pond as well as the highest skywalk. At set times, this skywalk produces “clouds” that help water the fragile orchids, and provide a magical mist through which to view the scenery below. It was not cloud time when I set out, so I enjoyed a clear view both down the mountainside and out to the grounds beyond the glass.

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Descending further, there were more walkways inside the mountain structure, another skywalk, and a kind of cave reconstruction where stalactites and stalagmites had been installed around the room with mirrors and informative signs. I hope that given the conservation efforts of the park that these were already broken by some quarrying effort that predated the preservation laws.

20170117_140641The time of clouding was approaching by then, and although the main path did not lead back upward, it wasn’t crowded, so I hopped into the elevator and rode back to the top. I get the impression that in more crowded times, the elevators might be more strictly regulated for the disabled, and the paths through the greenhouse lead firmly one way, but it wasn’t crowded and no one seemed to care if we went the opposite direction. Shortly after 2pm, the skywalk began to issue forth a mist as I set out for my second walk on the sky bridge and was able to enjoy the altogether different view as the fog enshrouded the walkway and the mountainside below.

I thought then I must have seen everything there was to see inside, and so I headed back down through the other skywalk and cave room, but instead of letting us back out at ground level, the path led even further down into a large screening room that played a movie about the dangers of climate change, and an interesting 3-d display of the engineering behind the cloud forest, super trees and other aspects of the gardens.

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After the educational displays, there was one more “secret garden” where a smaller waterfall cooled the air and tiny micro orchids were on display behind magnifying lenses. I took more pictures in that garden than any 2-3 other places combined on the rest of the trip. The flowers were so stunning, and because of the cooling process, the air is comfortable and it’s easy to lose track of time.

Otters?

I had intended to see more of the outdoor gardens, but it was after 3pm by the time I left the Cloud Forest, and my tiny breakfast had completely worn off. Although there were many restaurants near the center of the park, they all seemed somewhat pricey, and so I struck out for the one food area that was described in the park brochure/map as “affordable”. It was another of the “many food stalls under one roof”, but was a bit of a trek from the cloud forest. 20170117_150617Nonetheless, the entire area of the marina is beautiful to walk through. I spotted some otter crossing signs, which are apparently no joke. The environmental reconstruction along the marina has enabled the local otter population to bounce back and they are often seen on the shores near the walking paths in the evenings. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any that day.

I also walked past the Children’s garden, which was a playful garden with animal sculptures and topiary along with a large outdoor fountain/mini water park. Scouting for places to take my niece and nephew that aren’t just another amusement park and this one seemed to pass the grade.

SuperTree Grove

20170117_161628After lunch, I decided i should go find the super trees. It was getting on in the afternoon, and I still had to get across town to the Night Safari for my 7:15 ticket. Although the tall and unique structures can be seen from nearly anywhere in the park, it took a little effort to find the right walking paths to get to them. There are two groves of supertrees, the smaller has only three, which at the time were undergoing a pre-lunar new year makeover.

20170117_164839Eventually, I found the main grove and purchased my ticket for the sky walk. This is a little walkway that is accessed through an elevator in the “trunk” of the trees and lets you walk around the super trees at a good height to both admire them and the overall view of the gardens below. I had a nice walk and an even better view as well as some pleasant conversation with another traveler. No matter how nice the view is, I think my favorite part of traveling is meeting cool people.

20170117_170845The super trees aren’t really trees. They’re man-made structures that sort of look like giant alien trees. They run on solar power and support a large amount of plant and animal life. Plus they light up at night, which is pretty. The super trees are urban art, but more than that, they are a way of combining city and nature and of providing a space for the plants and animals that would otherwise have been disrupted, or even endangered by the urbanization of their homes to have a place. The super tree grove helps to act as a greenspace, cooling and cleaning the air naturally, as well as collecting solar energy and rainwater that are used in running the indoor gardens. It’s basically a big experiment to see if a city can be a modern urban environment AND maintain a natural ecosystem in an economically sustainable way. I hope it catches on. More cities should have giant trees, beautiful flowers, and river otters.


This is but the first of many installments in the Malay Peninsula adventure of 2017. I took so many pictures that day, I can’t possibly hope to show them all off here. Please check out the albums (yes, plural) on Facebook for all the beauty: Around Singapore, Cloud Forest, Flowers of Singapore, and Supertree Grove. Enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading! 🙂