Friday, March 28, 2008

Malaysia

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime. ~Mark Twain


First a Muslim woman with complete head covering might pass; then two minutes later there might be an Indian woman with her traditional sari and a Hindu mark on her forehead; and behind both of them might be a Chinese family. This is Malaysia. The population is made of native Malays, Chinese and Indian—most all of whom follow Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism and speak Malay, Chinese and Tamil, respectively. It is a diverse place, and every street, place of worship, and person proudly displays their identity for all to see. Below the surface none of these ethnicities get along, but to the outsider it is a melting pot of Asia.

Malaysia’s biggest strength is its economy—it is the most developed country we have visited this semester. The cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are two recognizable international cities. The quality of life, education and health system in Malaysia are high-quality. Malaysia offers not only clean cities but some of the world’s best beaches and islands. Our ship docked off the coast of the island Penang and we “tendered” (took the ship’s life boats) to and from the ship like a water taxi.

On the morning of our first day in Malaysia I went on a city orientation trip. We headed to three Buddhist temples. The first temple was simple, traditional and seemed more like a museum than anything else. I picked-up some descent knowledge about Chinese symbolism and we moved onto the second temple. The second temple was so fascinating that I bought a postcard of it before I left Malaysia. It is comprised of many different structures all on top of a mountain. I didn’t have my camera, so I thrived on just living in the moment. I wanted to feel something powerful; I found myself taking off my shoes and walking into the temples as I tried to understand this guy “Buddha.” We climbed up the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas and got an amazing view of Penang. For our last temple, we went to Snake Temple. Snake Temple actually ended up being one big tourist trap. It’s a small, one-room temple with a gift shop and two small snakes. The rumor on the ship was that Snake Temple had snakes everywhere! Clearly, I still choose to believe these rumors. We went to lunch for some great Chinese food afterward. I ditched the rest of the tour a few hours early so I could get to the airport for my flight.

In most of the ports so far, I’ve generally traveled with the same group of people. The last three weeks of the ship has been a social boom for me and I’ve had the opportunity to meet some new people. I made plans to travel with Jason, twins Jaime and Sean, Krishna and Amy. It was sort of a random group for all of us, but we were ready. We wanted to get away from the island of Penang in search of something more exciting. We boarded a plane headed for Kuala Lumpur, referred to as “KL”, one of Asia’s premiere cities.

After landing in KL, we got a taxi to the downtown area. As we approached, I could not believe what I was seeing. The main street of KL has the lights of the Las Vegas strip, the glitz of New York City’s Times Square and the charm of Disney World. Hotels had bellhops in funny hats waiting at its doors, huge shopping malls with glass lobbies towered above the sidewalks, and open-air restaurants lit the streets with colorful lighting. This city was not only decorative, but sophisticated.

We pulled onto a side street in KL’s less-exciting Chinatown, a few minutes from the downtown area. Chinatown was dark and littered—a stark contrast to the main area of KL. There are certain places you don’t want to be at 3am: KL’s Chinatown. There are also certain places you don’t want to be for 3 nights in a row, and that would be our hostel in Chinatown! The hostel (which somehow got rave reviews on hostels.com) turned out to be a flop. The “library” was a few books creatively thrown in the corner. The “airport transportation” was refused by the owners. “24-hour security” meant there would be a guy sleeping on the couch, 24 hours a day. The “kitchen” was a refrigerator on the roof. Our beds had stains on them. We had no blankets. “Traveler’s Home,” as they called it, was more like a traveler’s nightmare. I guess the less you pay, the more you get. We went to bed half-laughing and half-crying about our situation. Our lives reeked with the eeriness of a scary movie. We knew we had a good story, but we also knew we had to get out of the place as soon as possible for our own health and safety.

The next morning we told the hostel owner that our plans changed and we were going to Singapore. That was a lie. We also accused them of “false advertisement” and said other big, American legal terms to legitimize escaping our next two night’s reservations. We were successful and went right to the heart of the city to find better lodging. That’s when we found, among all the radiance of downtown, another traveler’s hostel called “Haven.”

“Haven” was truly what it sounds like. Not only did they have blankets, but a decorative lounge with leather couches, a pool table, free internet, really cool spiral staircases and modern art all around us. For only $12 a night it put all the towering five-star hotels to shame. The people there were mostly young people from all over the world who thrived on travel; we would be able to sit in the lobby, have a drink and exchange travel stories. Most of all, we felt safe and part of the city’s excitement.

With lodging taken care of we got ready to celebrate Amy’s 21st birthday. We went out to a Lebanese restaurant and had some of the best food I’ve had in a long time. We spent the night walking up and down “the strip” and awing at every building in site. The hotels all presented large waterfalls, fountains, gold-plated ceilings, endless lobbies, towering wine cellars, and sheik five-star restaurants. Some of the most incredible shopping malls in the world were in this area. We found some other SASers and hung out at the popular hotspots for the night.

The next morning we embarked on an adventure far from the city and into the countryside. Our ultimate goal was to end up at one of the best elephant sanctuaries in the world and spend the day there. We bought the $2.50 ticket for the public bus and gave an English-speaking Malay the responsibility of telling us when we should get off. The bus went up and down mountains, past farmlands and villages, and by waterfalls and rivers. The trees stood grounded in the soil as huge waves of brown, muddy river rapids splashed against their tree trunks below the highways. Two hours later, we found ourselves in what seemed like “Nowheresville, Malaysia.”

Our original plan called for a taxi from the bus station to the sanctuary. There was no bus station; we were on the street corner of an isolated and rural town. There were no taxis either. With dirt and wind blowing in our faces we stood on the side of the street. Behind us was a tattered convenient store; in front of us sat Muslim school children wondering what we were doing in their little town. We had no more idea than they did. We found two old men nice enough to drive us to the elephant sanctuary, which wasn’t too far away, for just a few dollars and headed onward. With sweat dripping down our faces, tired legs, and hungry stomachs we finally pulled up to the sanctuary—needless to say, it was disheartening to see a few SASers there with their personal tour guide from their luxury hotel. We prefer the adventure, ok!

The Kuala Gandah Elephant Conservation Centre is the base for its Elephant Relocation Team. The centre locates, subdues and translocates elephants from unsuitable habitats to safer ones. Over the years, they have relocated over 500 wild elephants away from plantations and other human developments. Their visitor’s center has elephants that are trained so that they can use them to rescue other wild elephants as well as look after orphaned ones to ensure their survival.

The trainers sat on the elephants necks and rode them in a procession like a circus parade. They are beautiful, massive beasts controlled by just the slight movement of the trainers’ feet behind the large ears. We watched the elephants bathe in the river before they were brought out for feeding time. We were given buckets of fresh fruit to feed them in two ways. One, was to hold out the fruit and let their trunks wrap around and grab. The second was to literally put your hand inside their mouth and put it on their tongue. The whole time I had this huge, goofy smile on my face. I ventured into a fifth-grade mentality, giggling as their trunks tickled by arm and tried to steal our cameras. We got our chance to hop on an elephant and ride one around. Jason and I paraded around with our elephant, posing for pictures and singing the theme from “Aladdin.” Afterwards was the best part: we got to bathe, ride and swim with the elephants in the river. Our elephant decided it would be a good idea to cool off in the water and dunk us all under. It was an amazing time and a once in a lifetime encounter. We were wet, happy, and enthralled with our day. We headed back to the middle of nowhere and waited on the side of the road again for the two-hour bus ride back.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, we showered and hung out with some of the other travelers in our hostel over some drinks in the lobby. We headed to the Petronas Towers around midnight. Although you might not know what the Petronas Towers are, you would surely recognize a picture of it. They are the largest twin towers in the world. They are the icon of Malaysia and are absolutely stunning. I didn’t get to the Taj Mahal in India, so this was my Taj. We took a billion pictures from different angles for a while, then headed out for another night of dinner, nightlife and walking around the city.

The next day the girls went off on their own while Jason and I went to Chinatown. The Chinatown Market was shopper’s heaven. Every stand displayed fake versions of designer brands for an eighth of the price. I hate shopping more than anything, especially on this voyage, and for the first time I wanted to buy everything I saw. Since the camera I bought in Mauritius stopped working, I had to find a mall to buy Camera #3 of the semester. It’s an expensive purchase to do twice in the same month, but in the scheme of circumnavigating the world it’s totally worth it. Without consistent access to Internet, telephone, or postal services (basically contact with the outside world), once something breaks there’s no getting it fixed until May. So, Jason and I went to the Times Square Mall—the biggest mall I have ever seen in my entire life. Here’s an example: Jason and I are walking through one of the lobbies when all of a sudden thunder erupts from the ceiling and the ground starts shaking. Earthquake?! No. It is the 2nd largest indoor roller coaster in the world right above out heads. In fact, the mall has an amusement park with 11 rides. I ended up buying a great digital camera just in time for Vietnam. That night, we took a 5-hour bus back to Penang, our port city. I went out to dinner quickly with Amy, then headed to bed.

I wake up on Sunday to have Bridgette, one of the professor’s kids, give me a handful of jelly beans from a basket. It was Easter! The Easter Bunny made it to Malaysia for the kids on the ship, and boy did I miss home!

I had a taxi driver take me to a church where I found other SASers there also celebrating the holiday. A group of kids performed a song and dance to gospel music—just like something they would do in an American church. After, the congregation extended an offer to all of us to eat lunch with them. Outside the church was a big buffet of Asian food, so we sat down together, conversed with some of the Church goers, and ate.

Living on a ship with over 1,000 people and then always traveling by someone’s side, it is always a privilege to be by yourself. I decided to venture off in Penang for the rest of the day on my own. I took off on foot and decided to explore whatever I could. Each street in Penang shows a different culture; one street might be Chinese, another might be more Indian and another Malay. Malaysia is so diverse; every person you pass the street looks, dresses and speaks differently. After stopping in and talking to a few shop owners, I walked to the mall and bought the bootlegged versions of “Lost” seasons 1 & 2, for only $30.

I went back to the ship early that afternoon and sat in my bed. I couldn’t believe it would be only 3 more days until Vietnam…then 2 more days until China….then 2 more days after that until Japan.

**If you don’t see any posts for a while, the ship did not sink (I can joke about that, it’s my home). There is no time to think, write and post all while taking classes in those short amounts of time. Look for most of them after Japan…the alternative is me failing out of SAS, oh wait, I am already doing that...**

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

$30 ? you over paid. If wait till Vietnam, it will cost you $1 each !

Laura Wells said...

I was going to say the same thing...though not exactly $1, but close enough.
Except you've already left Vietnam, so you know this now...(I got 1-3 of House for $8!)

You're experience in Malaysia sounded AMAZING!! I love it!