Just call her McGyver

March 22, 2011  |  by jess m  |  Stuff For Wanderers  |  3 comments

The thing about epic heat and humidity is that it makes your sunglasses slide right off of your face. We visited an optometrist in Penang, who created custom spring hinges for us by taking a small piece of rubber and wrapping it around the hinges.

Now that we find ourselves on an island without a doctor, let alone an optometrist, I’ve really been lamenting the fact that I didn’t bring him my prescription sunglasses to fix as well. Yesterday they only managed to stay on my face by propping themselves up on my nose ring. While I was still complaining about this over breakfast today, Jess C suggested we try the eye doctors trick using our hair elastics. And it worked!!!

Not lovely, but really gets the job done. If you ever find yourself far from home and in a fight with your glasses, get yourself a small rubber band. Problem solved.

The Land of Smiles

March 20, 2011  |  by jess m  |  Koh Lipe, Places we love, Thailand  |  2 comments

We have never been so enchanted with a country and with its people as we are with Thailand. Since our first visit in 2006 we’ve been dreaming of returning. It’s why we decided to begin this journey in Thailand. And it’s why, after just two short weeks in Malaysia, we’ve found ourselves spontaneously back here again.

We had planned on going from Langkawi across to the east coast of Malaysia to the Perhentian Islands, which we hear are lovely. But honestly, Malaysia was beginning to wear on us a bit. It feels very rigid. There is a constant level of decorum, both in attitude and in wardrobe, to be maintained. And the prevalent leering was becoming frankly annoying. Langkawi is right on the Thai border, and as it turns out a short ferry away from Koh Lipe, a tiny island that we had heard wonderful things about during our time on Koh Jum. We wanted more Thailand. We decided to come back.

Thailand is mellow. It begs you to kick back, relax, and stay a while. On the beaches, straw mats, low tables, and triangular shaped bolster pillows are brought out onto the white sand. The shape of the pillows and the height of the tables make it almost impossible to sit up straight. You have to go straight into lounge mode, settling in with friends, unstressed and unhurried.

This chilled out atmosphere is a large part of what makes beach life here so alluring, and it seems to permeate life off the beach too. By day groups of men and women congregate under shady trees, watching the kids play, cooking food over propane burners, talking and laughing. Always ready to greet you with a hello and a smile. Thailand markets itself as the “Land of Smiles,” and it really is much more than an empty advertising tagline. The people seem genuinely happy.

We know we are romanticizing, that everything is not all butterflies and puppies (though, to be honest, there are quite a lot of puppies and dogs bopping about, and the butterflies are lovely). There are real problems here. Tourism is creating rampant development that is far out pacing infrastructure and having massive environmental and cultural impact. Many of the people here are very, very, poor. And the political unrest of the last year seems to have been more swept under the rug than actually solved. But in spite of all of this, the people have a warmth, serenity, and sense of humor about them that pervades everything they do. And it’s contagious. We’ve been joking that we’re probably going to spend six months of this year in Thailand (the most we are allowed), and in reality we may well do so. It’s less surprising that we returned so quickly as it is that we ever managed to leave in the first place.

Awkward Beauty

March 19, 2011  |  by jess c  |  Langkawi, Malaysia  |  3 comments

The island of Pulau Langkawi on Malaysia’s northwestern coast is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. Before arriving, we’d heard wonderful things about the island, which is itself legendary––not just by reputation but also in it’s own history. It is actually known as “the island of legends.” After a couple of weeks in Kuala Lumpur and Penang’s historic Georgetown, we were ready for some beach time.

PentaiBeach

Glorious sunset on Pentai Tengah.

PentaiTengah2

Looking down Pentai Tengah

What we found on Langkawi was different than we expected. The island was, at least on the beaches, stunning. But it was also awkward somehow.

The reason is, we think, partially our own. Other than Langkawi the only islands in Southeast Asia that we’ve visited so far have been in Thailand. Of those, we’d not even been to the most trafficked ones, as we’ve purposefully been avoiding the spring break-esque full-moon party spots like Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi. Instead we’ve visited islands a bit more off the beaten path, where tourism and catering to tourists is a primary industry, but by no means the only one. Where the Andaman sea gypsy culture is still felt in the pace and sea-centric lives of inhabitants, almost all of whom seem to have a temperament in harmony with the natural environment around them. Where locals, despite any language difficulty, very often go well out of their way to find means of connecting with us personally.

These were the images, and also admittedly the expectations, that we brought with us to Langkawi.

As the ferry boat from Penang neared Langkawi’s main harbor in the town of Kuah, the first unexpected sight was a gigantic, cartoonish, statute of an eagle. Its wings are outstretched, spanning some fifty meters, ready to take flight. The eagle, as it turns out, is one of a dozen or so statutes in Legends Park, all of which seem to parody a local story or myth. The theme-park vibe of Legends Park matches well the ferry-terminal and harbor, which house a duty-free playground of shopping and fast-food dining (Kenny Rogers Roasters is huge in Malaysia).

We’d booked a room at Charlie Motel, one of the few affordable beach resorts on the island. Charlie Motel is on Pentai Tengah (Tengah beach), which, in addition to the price, we chose because it isn’t on the main tourist beach of Pentai Cenang. When we told the taxi driver where to take us, he repeated the name “Charlie Motel” with more than a hint of disapproval in his intonation.

We speculate that there was at some point a heyday for Charlie Motel. Out in front of the motel facing the beach, the paved terrace and concrete canopy pillars carved to look like tree trunks suggest a time of dancing and social activity. Perhaps a band played on the raised platform. There might have been festive barbeques cooked in the now dilapidated fire pit. The garden, tamer and more tended, might have witnessed romantic moonlight strolls.

As it is today, Charlie Motel is just a run down motel. Utilitarian but unloved by both its keepers and its guests. The restaurant no longer operates. The pathways are all cracked and unable to hold back the burgeoning jungle underneath. The terrace abandoned for most purposes, except as a place for garbage to collect. In the dirt parking lot, a rusted out Datsun rounds out the atmosphere, hood and trunk lids both raised as if to signal surrender.

While the look of Charlie Motel was enough to give us pause about staying there for the duration of our visit, we were made even more cautious by the unapologetic and often-leering stares of the men gathered out front. By this point in our trip, we’re fairly accustomed to being spectacles. More so in Malaysia than in Thailand. In Thailand, curious glances or looks quickly soften into smiles and friendly salutations. In Malaysia, the stares of the mostly muslim women are initially suspicious, sometimes becoming cautiously friendly once we say hello. The stares of many of the men, however, range from openly curious to leering to, well, if not disgust, then at least disapproval. As best we can with a limited wardrobe, we’ve taken care to dress more conservatively than we otherwise might, although neither of us are especially saucy dressers in any case. But, compared to the hajib-with-long-dress or full burqas that most women in Malaysia wear, we stand out as scantily dressed no matter what (though, not so much so in Kuala Lumpur, which is more diverse and well-touristed). Add to that the facts that we’re white, one of us is quite tall, and are, er… rounder… than the average Malaysian resident, and we are spectacles.

So, upon arriving at Charlie Motel, we wondered if we’d be comfortable donning our one-piece bathing suits on the beach. We were the only westerners (“Ferengi” as we’re referred to in Bahasa Malay) staying at Charlie Motel, and our survey of the beach indicated that most Malaysians were swimming in their clothes. And for the girls and women, in their hajibs.

The next day, we walked down to Pentai Cenang with the idea that since it’s more populated by tourists, perhaps we’d be more comfortable there. And less likely to offend. This thought was quickly rejected, however, once we noticed how much Pentai Cenang resembled Clearwater Beach. If Clearwater Beach was packed into 200 meters. The street behind the beach was a further discouragement, and not just because it was chocked-full of bars and souvenir shops. But also because it stank. In a fairly severe lapse in judgement, the city planners in Langkawi decided it best to route Pentai Cenang’s raw sewage passageways under the sidewalks, and to vent the sewage fumes through open grates which occur about every twenty feet.

Charlie Motel quickly became much more attractive. Even so when our waitress that night, after inquiring into where we were staying, replied, with what I detected as a tinge of contempt, “Oh, Charlie Motel, that’s where the Malaysians stay.”

And it was. Almost exclusively Malaysians, in fact. As it happened, our stay on Langkawi coincided with the start of the Malaysian spring school break. Families ranging in size from three to twenty checked into Charlie Motel, and the concrete structure practically sprang to life with the sounds of tiny feet and big laughter. While still spectacles, especially to the children, whatever suspicion or disapproval we’d perceived before melted away and we were greeted by everyone warmly (well, except for that one little boy who Jess M made cry simply by emerging from our room, tall and white and, it seems, scary as all heck!). In fact, some of the boys even made a game of lying in wait for us from behind trees and bushes, and then leaping out yelling and then retreating, laughing hysterically at our startled surprise. By our third day there, we’d been adopted by Manna, a grandmotherly figure, who stopped by several times a day to make sure we’d eaten or were planning to eat. Apparently the fact that neither of us look like we’ve missed many meals was no comfort.

By our last day on Langkawi, we were a little sad to leave Charlie Motel. Sure, our toilet kept getting clogged, and the mini-fridge in the room was useless since whenever you left the room and took the key out of the switch inside, the room lost all power. But all the same, we got to experience a glimpse of family life in Malaysia. We got to see a little bit of what “being on holiday” means for Malaysians, away from the fracas of tourism that caters almost exclusively Ferengi. It was lovely, and something we likely wouldn’t have had the pleasure of knowing if we hadn’t come to Langkawi and to Charlie Motel.

For more pictures from Langkawi, CLICK HERE.

Genius.

March 17, 2011  |  by jess m  |  Malaysia  |  4 comments

Completely brilliant. We sincerely hope that someone in marketing at the Luveex Condom Company, Malaysia got a raise for this one…

Indispensable items for round-the-world travel

March 16, 2011  |  by jess m  |  Packing, Stuff For Wanderers  |  5 comments

Since we have such small packs, everything in there has to earn its keep. Below are the items that we truly could not imagine doing this trip without.

Inside Shoes
We had planned on using our flip flops as shower shoes, but we hadn’t anticipated that in a lot of places you have to leave your outside shoes outside. We picked up some $1 flip flops in KL, and now have inside shoes to protect us from nasty bathroom feet.

Chaco Flip Flops
These are the greatest shoes on earth. They are impossibly comfy with incredible arch support. You can walk for hours in them, while still playing the “shoes off before you go into the store, house, restaurant, hotel” game.

Sleep Sack
Some of the beds we’ve seen are not lovely. But even more than that, this sleep sack is made of silk. Sleeping on silk sheets is the most luxurious thing in the world. We had no idea. This one has a pillow cover too.

Head Lamp
Not just for when there’s no power. Also helpful for late night reading, walking home on dark roads with no sidewalks, and for looking around your room at night when your light switch happens to be located outside in the hall.

Magic Towel
It dries quickly, sucks the water out of your hair and body, is a blanket when the AC on the ferry is set to 37 degrees, and best of all, if you wring out your wet laundry in one it will dry in half the time.

Local phone
Not actually indispensable, but so handy to have to call ahead for hotels.

Shirts with sleeves
We have so far been in predominately Muslim areas, where the women are covered head to toe. Shirts with sleeves and high cut necklines make us slightly less of a spectacle.

Tissue packs
Over here, toilet paper is not the favored method of cleaning up. Instead they use something called a bung hose. In theory makes a lot of sense, like a little bidet in every bathroom. In practice though, we’re still mastering it. It’s hard to spray the undercarriage with a hose without soaking everything, including your clothes. Practice. And tissue packs.

aLokSak
It doesn’t just rain here, it No Joke Rains. These are Navy Seal approved waterproof bags. They make ones sized exactly for a laptop, a passport, and any other size you would ever need. They hold up much better than ziplocks.

Hydrocortisone, Neosporin, and Benadryl
There are more ways to itch, chafe, puss and generally fester in the tropics than you can possibly imagine.

Sewing kit
With safety pins and hook-and-eyes

Compression bags
Great for squishing down the warm clothes you don’t, and may never need. Even better for keeping your dirty clothes away from your clean clothes. Thanks for the idea mom, genius!

Sarong
Head scarf, dress, skirt, beach towel and table cloth all in one.

Packing cubes
Keeps the bag organized. I would be loosing it if the bag wasn’t organized.

Kindle
So much lighter than lugging around a bunch of books and Lonely Planets. It also has a web browser so if you’re really patient you can use it to check email.

Cards
Many, many, many an hour has been passed over cutthroat games of Rummy and Spite and Malice.

Safe
This is probably the best thing we have (thanks Sabrina!!). It’s slash proof and locks to something sturdy, so we can leave the computers, passports, cameras, and wallets in the room and not worry. Especially great for fan bungalows with windows that don’t close securely.

Charcoal soap
It comes with it’s own scrubby thing. Great for getting the city out of your face.

Luggage locks and bag locks
Great for locking your bag to the train.

Black garbage bags
Keeps everything in your bag dry in the rain.

No one expects a silent “k”… or dessert squid… or yodeling… or line dancing.

March 15, 2011  |  by jess c  |  Malaysia, Penang, Tastes  |  6 comments

One of the highlights we always look forward to in a new city is finding the local night market. A good night market can have anything from pirated DVDs and other knockoff goods, to really excellent local crafts, artisan teas, and of course, always, hawker food stalls. Since we’re both novices to Malaysian cuisine, we were especially excited to scope our Penang’s Red Garden Night Market.

RedGarden

The food court of the market is something of a feat of organization. A large square is lined around the edges with dozens upon dozens of hawker stalls. In the center of the square hundreds of tables are each numbered. You choose a table, and then note your number. After ordering drinks from the beverage runners who seem to just appear tableside out of thin air, you then begin your patrol of the stalls and place your orders, giving the hawker chef you table number. Almost as soon as you’ve found your table again, a runner appears with your food.

redgarden2

The array of choices--most of which are completely new to us--is dizzying

On the train from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, we had the good fortune to sit near a local couple who generously offered us the names of the best Malaysian dishes that we simply had to try. Chief among them is a dish called “Nasi Lamek” – a dish we later learned is primarily eaten at breakfast, but is nonetheless available at the night market. It’s a tasty concoction of rice, cold fried chicken (or beef, or seafood), dried anchovies, roasted peanuts, and a spicy tomato sauce. Delicious! The other that came highly recommended is Rojak (the “k” is silent… which explains why we had such a hard time ordering it). It’s an… interesting… dish that, for us anyway, was a tad less tasty. It’s a dessert delicacy, containing cut unripe fruit pieces (not all of which we could identify) topped with a thick tamarind sauce that quite resembles barbeque sauce. Also included are chopped peanuts, some kind of fried thing we suspect may have been deep fried fish cartilage, and squid. Dessert squid. Which snuck its way into Jess M’s mouth, as it was well camouflaged by the sauce.

rojak

The squid is an unadvertised... treat... for your dessert.

Other dishes available at the night market include clay-pot biryani (yum!), every kind of Laksa (noodles in a thick fish-based soup stock), and porridge (which comes in a number of varieties, including frog and raw fish).

redgarden3

We did not try the raw fish porridge. No. Noooooooooo.

As if the food was not enough, the Red Garden also offers an unexpected entertainment line up. On ceiling-mounted televisions, American All-Star Wrestling can be viewed from your table. Or, if you prefer something musical, the “band” (a keyboard player and a singer) will regale you with covers ranging from Gloria Estefan, to Patsy Cline, to a yodeling medley. Yes, yodeling.

The real treat at Red Garden, however, is the line dancing. To Garth Brooks. Apparently, line dancing is very popular in Malaysia, and enthusiasts at the night market turned out to show their considerable chops.

redgardenlinedance

Penanger's tear it up to "Achey Breaky Heart"

For more some pictures of our visit to Penang, CLICK HERE.

A Naan is Born

March 14, 2011  |  by jess m  |  Malaysia, Penang, Tastes  |  4 comments

We’ve eaten our fare share of naan in our lives. It always arrives all warm and bready, ready to sop up whatever delicious sauce beckons you from your plate of Indian food. Today however, we learned how naan is made, courtesy of the nicest man ever. He also happened to serve us the best meal we’ve had so far here in Penang (if ever you’re here, track down Punjaab Cuisines. Yum). Watching him make the naan we felt a little bit like the city kid who visits the farm and discovers that beef doesn’t actually come from the grocery store.

Cows are probably a bad example to use in this case, but you get the point.

Here’s how it’s done.

A golf ball sized piece of dough is tossed around to make it into a disc.

It's rolled out flat.

About 2 cloves of fresh ("Must be fresh!") garlic are squished into the dough.

You wet one hand with water, and one hand with oil.

Toss it around for dramatic effect.

Ta-DAAAAAA.

Then stick the naan to the SIDE of the giant oven outside.

The oven is chained to the building so no one can run off with it. Which I'd like to see someone try, as it is made of made of solid concrete and was still producing enough heat at midnight to warm a city block.

A watchful eye is kept on the baking naan, while 14 watchful eyes are kept on the crazy Americans girls taking pictures of the whole process.

A long stick is used to place the naan directly onto the hot fire for a second, to crisp up the outside.

Finished! And seriously delicious.

Blind Fish Reflexology

March 13, 2011  |  by jess m  |  Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Penang, Phuket, Thailand  |  6 comments

I think it’s a universally known fact that if there was some way for us to get massaged for 10 hours a day we would be willing to do it. Hard to believe, but true. And while we haven’t figured out how to structure our lives so that getting massaged is a full time job, we have been doing our best to squeeze in as much rubbing as we possibly can on this trip. While we have had our share of perfectly awesome $9 “work me on the beach for an hour while I listen to the surf and are caressed by sea breezes” massages (a bodywork modality that is severely under-represented in the States), there have been a few highlights along the way.


Phuket Thailand: Royalty Sponsored Blind Massage
Cost: $3 for one hour

We were wandering down a street in Phuket Town when we passed a sign that said, “The Blind Massagers Club. Under the Queen Patronage.” BLIND massagers who had the blessing of the Queen? We had to check it out. We decided to go early the next day, before we had been wandering the streets in the stifling heat, sweating and generally becoming disgusting creatures. Alas, the following day we were distracted by a cute café with cheap wine, so we still ended up walking there in the impossibly humid peak of the afternoon. We arrived, two glasses of wine later, drenched in sweat. Lovely.

When you go to get a massage in the States, it’s usually accompanied by a fluffy robe, calming music, a massage therapist who speaks to you in soothing tones, maybe a little aromatherapy, and, well, privacy. This had none of these things. We walked in to find one long room with five beds in a row along the wall. The most horrific Thai pop music was playing loudly over tinny speakers. It sounded exactly like someone was strangling a chorus of cats. There was no English spoken, but there was one sighted women who, after a prolonged series of hand signals, got the idea that we were each looking for one hour of massage. Thankfully she was there. Charades are harder to play with the blind.

She ushered us fully clothed to our beds, then lead out our two blind therapists. After a brief conversation in Thai, no doubt explaining to them that they had two moderately buzzed, sweaty Farang to contend with, the ladies got to work.

And Oh. My. God.

Thai massage is a little bit like having yoga done to you while simultaneously getting the most intense deep tissue massage of your life. About five minutes in, it became clear that this blind 95 pound 4 foot 10 inch tall Thai lady could snap my femur like a twig. There was a moment when she had my ankle next to my ear, was sitting between my legs and working my hamstring WITH HER FEET that I almost lost it. How could she know if she was working too hard, or bending me too much? I’m no yogi, and it’s not like she could see the grimace of pain on my face, not to mention the look of sheer holy terror in my eyes.

When it was all over though, it was pretty awesome. I felt about a foot taller, and it’s a strangely personal experience to have someone connected to your body by touch alone. Jess C has a bum knee, and before her therapist started working her she somehow knew. Amazing.


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Fish Spa
Cost: $6:50 for 30 minutes

We were wandering around one of Kuala Lumpur’s 7000 malls, killing time before a movie when we passed the Fish Spa. A Fish Spa. In a mall. According to the brochure, we would submerge our feet into a pool, where tiny little guppies would commence to eat the dead skin from our feet. A lovely relaxing experience that we would enjoy very much. Gross, but sold.

As it happens, a fish spa is a long tile aquarium, about 3 feet deep, into which you dunk your feet and lower legs. There was a tank with “small” fish, where we were to start, before moving on to the “large” fish in the adjacent tank.

Approaching the “small” fish tank, it became apparent that the truth in advertising laws we are all accustomed to do not apply in Malaysia. The tank was not filled with sweet little tiny guppies as promised, but those nasty 4 inch long algae suckers that you put in your fish tank at home, the ones with giant suction cups instead of mouths. As we hovered our feet in terror over the water, they swarmed in a feeding frenzy below, hungry for their next meal.

Jess C bravely took the plunge first. And lasted all of .6 seconds before yanking her feet from the tank screaming, fish still attached to her heels. Shaking her feet to get them off, they plunked one by one back into the water.

Absolutely disgusting.

It took me a couple of minutes more to work up to shoving my feet into the tank. The fish were circling fiendishly under my outstretched legs. Popping their heads above the surface, trying to get at the apparently delicious meal dangling just a few inches out of their reach. Clearly they had had the taste of flesh. They wanted more.

I managed to get my feet into the tank. The fish swarmed my feet, attaching themselves to any exposed flesh. It felt exactly like what you think being eaten alive by suction cup mouthed fish while being tickled with 1000 feathers would feel like. I screamed like a little girl. I lasted about a half a second.

Thankfully we had purchased thirty minutes of this torture. We sat on the edge of the aquarium laughing hysterically and being completely skeezed out. We both bravely managed to stick our feet in long enough to pose for pictures, then got the hell out of there.

The spa kindly gave us 30-minute foot massages to make up for it. Much better.


Penang, Malaysia: Foot, Shoulder and Head Reflexology
Cost: $9.80 for one hour

We ended up in here because it was right next to our bus stop, and getting a foot massage sounded like more fun that waiting outside on the surface of the sun for the bus to arrive. We walked up to the second floor to a windowless room with 4 very worn lounge chairs. Each had an ottoman covered by a small green towel decorated with a picture of feet and the words “Home Sweet Home.” The décor was classic American Chinese Food Restaurant. Brightly lit with white walls, a wooden clock carved like an anchor, a red wall calendar, and one lone bamboo plant. A man greeted us, settled us down in our chairs, told our feet to go to their home, and went into the back. He returned a minute later with our therapists. Blind ones. Apparently this is a theme.

Reflexology is a little strange; they spent about 40 minutes rubbing our feet, focusing on each small reflexology point. As it happens, the backs of my toes are painfully sore. Maybe that’s where you liver point lives, I don’t know. At the end they did this really cool thing on your head that felt exactly like that head tingler thingie they sell at the mall.

Far and away the best part of the massage was Jess C’s guy, who spent the better part of the hour belching loudly, and occasionally ripping a real stinker and then giggling about it. The muzak renditions of famous movie theme songs playing softly in the background were a nice touch too. That Bryan Adams song from Robin Hood really set the mood.

Here a mall, there a mall, everywhere a mall, mall…

March 12, 2011  |  by jess c  |  Buying stuff, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia  |  3 comments

Alright, so, here’s a bit of a confession: before our first trip to Thailand in 2006, the image in my head of what Asian cities would be like was a bit off the mark. Embarrassingly, I imagined whole cities that looked essentially like Chinatown in San Francisco. Our arrival in Bangkok that first trip shattered my misconception.

Like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur is a modern, cosmopolitan city––but even more so. “KL” (as the kids are calling it these days) is the capitol of Malaysia, and a city of 1.6 million people (7.2 in the metro area). It has a substantial public transportation system with bus, train, light rail and monorail (Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!) services. It has cafe culture. It has free public WiFi in most areas of the city. It has museums, and lovely public gardens, a fairly thriving economy (KL is a major world financial center, and we saw help-wanted signs all over the city), and it has malls. Lots, and lots and lots of malls.

In addition to seeing the sights, we came to KL to sort out some tech issues. So, rather than staying in KL’s usual backpacker haunts, we chose a guesthouse in the Golden Triangle area of the city. A neighborhood of about ten square blocks. A neighborhood which, we kid you not, contains no less than six gigantic malls. Malls which are separated by only an alleyway or perhaps a major street.

The fanciest is Pavillion. Six floors and two city blocks of high-end and luxury shopping. At Time Square Mall, you can get your kicks on the roller-coaster, complete with loop-dee-loop, at it’s indoor amusement park.

TimeSquare

Perhaps a spin on the tilt-a-whirl before buying some shoes?

Our favorite, though, was the Low Yat mall, which is seven stories of nothing but tech, where you can buy everything you need for your “IT lifestyle.” Including my new factory-unlocked iPhone 4!

LowYatMall

Laptop? Level 2. Camera lenses on Level 4. Unlock your iPone? Level 6. Snacks so you can refuel to find a case for your new iPhone on Level 5? Food court's in the beasement.

The prevalence of air conditioned indoor malls perhaps isn’t so surprising when you consider the heat and humidity in KL. But the apparent enthusiasm for consumption is, truly, something to behold. And we’re saying this as Americans. Honestly, we felt a pinge of national defeat in the face of KL’s frenzied consumerism (a contest we’re ultimately happy to concede). And its not just a thirst for buying lots of stuff either; KL’s relatively new middle and upper classes are clammoring for the good stuff. Around the corner from our $20 per night guesthouse was a wine bar that served cheese and chocolate tastings, which you could enjoy with a nice $6,000 USD bottle of wine.

What’s most striking, though, is the close contrast between KL’s relatively recent fascination with luxury, and what seems to be the economic reality of most of the city’s residents.


This alley leads to Changket Bukit Bintang, one of KL's hottest new spots for boutique eateries and hip lounges.

One block over from the pricey wine joint and only a few blocks from the Pavillion mall, is Jalan Alor, a long hawker street with every kind of savory, spicy, sweet delicious dish you could hope for. Once you’ve adjusted your eyes to the prism of colors and lights, and once the olfactory senses have settled a little, you choose one of tables placed on the street. Immediately, your table is literally covered with menus and you’re surrounded by each menu’s owner, who hastens to offer that his or her dishes are the right ones for you. If you dare to take a moment to read a menu or two, you need to be assertive about it. Each hawker stand owner is eager for your order, and those working alone must return to their stall to prepare your dish while keeping an eye our for newly arrived diners so that they can make sure then menu is, well, on the menu.

Jalan Alor, where the tastiness lives.

Your eyes aren't lyin'. It's a whole hawker stall that just sells bacon. All kinds of bacon.

Much of KL displays the same growing pains. On one corner, you can sit in an overstuffed chair inside an air conditioned Starbucks of Coffee Bean, sipping a latte and eating petite scones, while just outside, enterprising street vendors are selling anything from satay to sidewalk shoe repairs. In KL’s Little India (the old one next to the Masjid Jamek mosque, not the new one in Brickfields), hawkers line the streets to sell food, clothing, and (surprisingly, to us anyway) every variety and color of hijab (head scarves) imaginable. In nearby Chinatown, light rail cars whiz by overhead, while down below knockoff watches, purses and sneakers can be yours for cheap if you’re in the mood to haggle.

You could eat nonstop for a week and still not taste everything offered in Little India.

Many people we’ve talked to have described Malaysian food as “fusion”––which, in the handful of days we’ve spent there, we think might be a good description for the city as a whole. A bubbling pot (and perhaps a truer melting pot than our own) of cultures and heritage, of religions, of languages, of old and new, rich and poor, and just about every shade in between. While in the brief time we were in KL we couldn’t hope to know such a complex and fascinating place, we were there long enough to become intrigued and more than a little bit beguiled. We’ll definitely be returning throughout our travels to learn (and taste!) more of what KL has to offer.

The Road So Far: Thailand, February 2011

For our fellow wanderers, or for those of you who are just looking for ideas about where to spend this year’s vacation, here’s a summary of where we went in Thailand in February 2011, the towns and surroundings, the places we stayed, and some of the highlights from each place, as well as bits of practical info like prices and websites. Check back at the end of March for our adventures in Malaysia.

KOH LANTA

Sippin' a Long Island Iced Tea at Rambo's Bar, Koh Lanta. Life is sooooo good.

Stayed at: Lanta Nature Beach Resort.

Cost per night: $25 total for an en suite bungalow (very near, but not on, the beach) with two twin beds and aircon.

Accommodation highlights: Rambo, the namesake bartender of the resort’s Rambo’s Bar, who serves up a cold beer, and really gets his boogie on as nightly DJ. Iced coffee. On site massage services.

Island highlights: Walking on the deserted beach at dawn. Fun beach puppies and cute kitties. Lanta Old Town (pictured at top of this post). Eating dinner on the beach, toes in sand, at sunset. Meeting cool fellow travelers (Hi Colin!).

Random observations: Koh Lanta is very, very popular with Swedish travelers.

For more pictures of Koh Lanta, click here.

KOH JUM

Sunset at Koh Jum

Stayed at: Joy Bungalows.

Cost per night: $18 total for an en suite bungalow, no electricity (paraffin lamps at night), mosquito net, king size bed, several rows back from the beach.

Accommodation highlights: See post.

Island highlights: Delightfully laid back vibe, the people (really, we can’t emphasize this enough). Ban Koh Jum (the main town). The view from Koh Jum Resort’s restaurant. The pizza at Joy restaurant. Monkeys eating unripe cashews in the trees and throwing the rinds at you. Motor-scooter taxis (with top-notch drivers). The food at Bo Daeng (not to mention the Sea Gypsy show). The beach, the water, the beach. Did we mention the beach?

Random observations: Most of the shops in Ban Koh Jum have birds in wooden cages out front, and while we asked about it, we were never able to get any kind of comprehendible (for us anyway) explanation of why.

For more Koh Jum pictures, click here.

KOH YAO NOI

Beach at low tide, Koh Yao Noi

Stayed at: Sabai Corner Bungalows.

Cost per night: $33 total per night for a tree house bungalow, with “attached” open-air bathroom and a double bed with mosquito net.

Accommodation highlights: Penis art. Snake art. Salma, the manager who comes and sits with you to chat. Italian food in the restaurant.

Island highlights: Wonderful views of the karst formations offshore. Beachside dining at Pyramid Bar.

Random observations: Did we mention the penises and the snakes?

For more pictures of Koh Yao Noi, click here.

PHUKET

Statute of Buddhist monk, outside of Phuket Town

Stayed at: Phuket Backpacker.

Cost per night: $27 total for an en suite room with two twin beds (in the new building), with aircon. No frills but very clean.

Accommodation highlights: Bar downstairs has a fun vibe and you get vouchers for free beer. Laundry and internet services available on site. Good location in the old town district. Mint, who works the reception desk.

Island highlights: We were only here for two nights, so we just explored the Phuket Town area, but the old Cino-Colonial architecture is very lovely. Exceptional Mutton Roti at Abdul’s. Walking around Phuket Town. Getting outstanding, if a bit painful (in a good way) $3 Thai massages from blind masseurs. Crazy cool rain storms.

Random observations: If a taxi driver offers to give you a tour of the sights for only $50 baht (USD $1.50), don’t be surprised if the tour begins with a stop at the local jewelry store or a trip to the butterfly garden. The taxi drivers get paid to take you to these places. It’s all very polite and frankly a cheap way to see some sights (temple with big gold Buddha and other statutes, one pictured above, was a lovely stop off), but once they drop you off at the cheap outdoor market that you asked to see, just know that they won’t be coming back to pick you up as they said they would. Also, the “h” in Phuket is silent.

Next month: Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi and other destinations in Malaysia yet to be discovered.

Copyright © 2011 · Wandering Slow