Saturday, October 12, 2013

Truly Asia

As anyone who has watched CNN International in Korea for a while (this is actually a significant portion of my peeps, by the way) knows, Malaysia is "Truly Asia." And now we have seen some of the Malay peninsula and had the chance to ponder this slogan, so, well, simple in its simplicity.

Great things about Malaysia included: iced coffee (and many coffee/tea options, cheap!) in the many kopitiams, the cleanliness of Kuala Lumpur (I told Brian I'd rather lick the sidewalk in KL than sit on the sidewalk in Guangzhou), delicious and cheap food food food!, cats chilling out in the city (there need to be cats; they keep rodent population under control; cats need to wander; don't cage them, tie them up, or otherwise imprison them; thank you), being able to walk up and down escalators again without being blocked by the GZ citizens who find it expedient to run -- run! -- from the subway car to the escalator so they can get ahead of the backlog of people caused by the fact that no one stands to the right, walks to the left -- or, in Malaysia's case, stands to the left, walks to the right but -- cannot figure out that once they get there they should keep moving (just. keep. moving!) up and that if everyone did that they would not be concerned with making a mad dash from subway to escalator in the first place and life would be better for all involved, really, so much better for all of us...

Yeah, basically Brian and I were not exactly looking forward to returning from Malaysia to Guangzhou. But we did get a dose of Chinatown at the end of our trip that really prepared us to come 'home.'

Let's start with the fun stuff. Kuala Lumpur, so very often shortened to KL, highlights:

Petronas Towers: They are super tall and famous and gleaming. We went for it and did the tour, which includes a hologram welcome/introduction, a stop on the sky bridge that connects them, and then time at the observation deck. We actually spend a lot of time in the KLCC area around the towers, breakfasting at the adjoining shiny-fancy-superchic mall food court (SE Asian mall food courts aren't like U.S. mall food courts. We're not talking Sbarro's and Hot Dog on a Stick...they are these really great multi-culti set-ups where you and everyone in your party can try whichever Asian cuisine you fancy that day for delicious and cheap, and they just happen to be built in air-conditioned malls) and making a few purchases in said shopping establishment, plus kicking it in the KLCC park outside  with its sunshine, fountain, chilled out people, and have I mentioned clean sidewalks?  That mall has a Kinokuniya, which is our new favorite Asian bookstore (we discovered last year in Bangkok) (and which apparently has branches in the U.S., like in L.A.'s Little Tokyo...who knew?!) where we happily whiled away some time and where I (obviously) found two Malaysia-y books to purchase (or was that...two truly Asian books?)

I am way too parenthetical in this blog post.

Batu Caves: These are on the 'outskirts' of Kuala Lumpur, but only 13 km from the city, and you can see their hill/mound from the Petronas Towers, and you get there by the public transit train in no time at all. And when you do, you find cool Hindu shrine things, a big ol' staircase to climb to get to the big cavern with cool rays of light penetrating through holes in the rock, the large golden statue of Murugan (a lord/deity/Hindu type personage), and a WHOLE bunch of monkeys. The monkeys come up and grab water/juice/soda bottles right out of your hand with a ferocious swipe of their long lithe arms, so keep the drink tucked safely away in your backpack if you don't want to relinquish it!  Caves are cool.

Happy Hour: Everyone knows this is my favorite thing about traveling life, and since Malaysia is "officially Muslim" there are apparently taxes on alcohol and therefore the imbibing is a bit more costly than in all the ridiculously cheap SE Asian countries (hello, 50-cent beers in Cambodia and the Philippines). But that just means it costs not quite as much as drinking in L.A. or Chicago or New York. And there were, indeed, happy hours about KL, including in our hotel lounge where we liked to relax, so all was well.

We loved our hotel! Stay at the Swiss Garden Hotel on Jalan Pudu. Great location, super-duper comfortable room, good amenities like spa and poolside bar, and hurrah that we got a good deal.

I should probably let Brian talk about the food, but let's just throw out a few words and phrases: roti. Breakfast for a dollar. Indian. Indian-Chinese-Malay. Street food block party at night. Chicken wings. Vegetarian stuff everywhere. Have I mentioned the prevalence of iced coffee? I don't even mind specifying "without sugar" or sometimes getting it with the sweetener and condensed milk. More Indian food. Yum.

After Kuala Lumpur, we went down the highway to Melaka, a UNESCO World Heritage city on the Straits of Malacca (modern Malaysia has lots of simplified spelling and lots of the letter K, I noticed) that used to totally be the most important trading port, like, ever. In the 1500s, if you were a spice, you probably were going to pass through here, and it was so fun to imagine the harbormasters conducting business in 80 languages and thinking about the Portuguese, who would soon be ousted by the Dutch, who hung out until the British took over, etc. The mix of Indian-Chinese-Malay culture and cuisine, along with all these Euro architecture-language-style remnants, produces such a fascinating blend.

Melaka is all about the river, where one enjoys strolling, cute little bridges, old buildings, having a beverage by the water, and a river boat ride, during which you can see the city and spot really large (monitor?) lizards swimming IN the water, which is so bizarre to someone like me who thinks of lizards in Phoenix as being a distinct part of life but never really swimming.

In Melaka, it was fun to:

  • Walk along the aforementioned river all the time.
  • Wait in line ( = moving along a row of plastic or metal, I forget, stools on the street) at the famous, crowded Capitol Satay restaurant before enjoying its satay celup, a fondue/hotpot-like experience of dipping vegetables, tofu, meat in the hot bubbly spicy peanut sauce in the middle of the table. 
  • Ride in a weirdly garishly decked out trishaw cab, which involves a man pedaling you to your destination while you sit in the part covered by bright pink, magenta, fuchsia, and god knows what other color, flowers, like parade float paper style, with random 80s-like pop blaring. This is an experience not to be missed. 
  • Eat 'Baba Nyonya' cuisine, aka Peranakan Chinese, which is the Chinese peeps who came to Malaysia/Indonesia back in the 15th/16th century (telling you, it was the place to be!) and are also sometimes called 'Straits Chinese.' This food was really Chinese-like and also not. I love fascinating cultural blends.
  • Go to the Literature Museum, because everywhere should have a museum all about preserving its literary heritage and making sure historical and current texts in Malay are not overlooked in the scheme of things, plus you take your shoes off and wander around barefoot on the cool stone and dark wood floors inside.
  • Walk up the hill to see old churches, bricks, cats lounging about in said old church remnants, views of the water, and so on. 
  • Jam out in Chinatown and kind of see more Chinese architecture than I do on a daily basis here in Guangzhou, where there are soooooo many tall, similar, white/gray-tiled high-rise apartment blocks and modern skyscrapers and post-1960s/70s buildings. 
However, it was not fun in Chinatown to, of course, see a woman holding her young, pantsless child above a gutter to do his excretory business, which more than the buildings, Chinese characters, or speaking of Mandarin all around me is what really made me feel like I was back in China....god, that is my least favorite thing about living in Guangzhou!!! And there it was, welcome to Chinatown. So horrible. UGH. 

All in all, Malaysia impressed us and this was just a tiny taste of the peninsula's east coast. We have to go back for the highlands, the west coast, the beaches, the islands, and all the Borneo parts! But for now we are delighted because KL was way cooler than we expected (OK, actually we didn't really know what to expect, so we just had no idea, but it was great there) and the whole Malay thing is such an interesting mix of cultures and I am really enjoying reading the book I picked up, Thinking Through Malaysia, even though it is just a collection of college/academic papers analyzing various random fragments, because it explores the mixed-race identity in the country and all the socio-political ramifications of identity, race, ethnicity, definition, and the like in a perfectly fascinating place to analyze such things.

Yup, I'm good with Truly Asia.