After two weeks in Malaysia, I’m looking back at all the places I’ve visited here.
We spent the first few days in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. It reminded me of my hometown, Almaty, Kazakhstan. In both cities, all things Asian and traditional coexist with the Western influences. Both cities are full of traffic jams, unfinished construction sites, and dilapidated old buildings standing next to skyscrapers.
Ethnic Malays, Indians and Chinese all share Kuala Lumpur.
Consequently, there is a predominantly Malay neighborhood, a Little India and a Chinatown. Mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples are scattered all over the city.
Each neighborhood has its own character and is full of delightful contrasts, such as women in full Muslim dress riding scooters.
We stayed in Chinatown because of the abundance of cheap hotels and eateries.
Our hotel was on Petaling Street, a bustling street market where all of the road and most of the sidewalk is taken up by kiosks selling fake Gucci bags, clothes, food and anything else you can think of.
We ate at the food court across the street, trying to stick to the food we could identify. None of the vendors or patrons spoke English, so no one could explain the other dishes. I did try this one time, even though I didn’t know what it was. My best guess is some kind of fish.
The most widely known Kuala Lumpur landmark is the Petronas Towers, an elegant complex of twin skyscrapers that stands out in the city’s skyline.
At 1,242 feet high, the towers once held the title of the tallest buildings of the world. They were surpassed by Taipei 101 in 2004.
Petronas is the government-owned oil and gas company that controls the entire industry in Malaysia.
After Kuala Lumpur, we headed into the heart of Malaysia to the national park Taman Negara, located in one of the world’s oldest rainforests.
Getting there included a three-hour ride in a longtail boat down a mocha-colored river surrounded by jungle on both sides.
We arranged to stay at a rundown chalet in a small village across the river from the park. This being the low season, we were spared the hordes of tourists that descend on the park in summer months.
One of the park’s biggest draws is a canopy walkway, a series of walking bridges hanging 80 feet above ground and linking one giant tree to the next. The entire walkway is a quarter of a mile long (500 meters).
Walking on those bridges and getting a bird’s eye view of the jungle was a little scary but unforgettable.
The island of Penang in peninsular Malaysia boasts some of the best food in the country.
We toured the city of Georgetown to sample the traditional foods of Malaysia’s diverse cultures. Here are my top five:
1. Apom - Indian rice-flour pancakes with eggs, eaten with a curry sauce or sugar.
2. Cendol - A dessert containing shaved ice, brightly-colored rice noodles, beans and coconut milk. There are other variations, I’m sure.
3. Wan Tan Mee - Deliciously spiced Chinese rice-noodle soup with wantons and meat or tofu.
4. Yu Char Kuih - Crispy dough fritter, another Chinese specialty.
5. Putu Mayam - Steamed rice noodles served with grated coconut and palm sugar.
So, how did we come across all these fabulous dishes? I probably wouldn’t have tried them if I didn’t know what they were. A nonprofit organization called Penang Heritage Trust produces a lovely map with a self-guided walking tour of Georgetown’s culinary delights. The map includes explanations for each traditional dish and the best places to get it.
This woman, whose food stall was featured on the map, makes the best apom in town. We promised to spread the word. So, for anyone about to visit Georgetown: You’ll find her in the mornings at Lebuh Queen and Lebuh Chulia.
I hate haggling.
My guidebook, personal experience and common sense tell me it’s perfectly OK in Southeast Asia, but I still hate it. Here in Thailand, haggling is not just acceptable, it’s the proper way to do business. So why did knocking $2 off a $8 T-shirt the other day leave me with an intense feeling of guilt rather than satisfaction?
The average minimum wage for a day’s work in Thailand is between $5 and $6, depending on the province (according to this blog). Food, clothes and lodging cost a fraction of what they do at home. Spending a few extra dollars won’t affect me much but may mean a lot to a small shop owner. On the other hand, vendors are trying to rip me off any chance they get, so why not stand up for myself a little bit? No seller would be agreeing to my price if they weren’t going to make a profit.
I looked up what travel bloggers have to say about this and found a helpful post that features a panel discussion with good arguments for and against haggling.
Even with my dislike for haggling, I will always negotiate for cab fare and services for tourists, such as motorbike rentals. After all, I grew up in Kazakhstan, where only idiots don’t try to knock down the price of an umetered taxi.
I will not negotiate for street food. If my portion of fried rice sets me back an extra 50 cents, I won’t take offense. It’s just business.
This past week went by quickly on Koh Phangan, a small island in the gulf of Thailand.
We lived in a tiny wooden bungalow facing the ocean, maybe 40 feet from the water. The resort, called Mai Pen Rai Bungalows, is located on a remote beach at the end of a treacherous dirt road through the jungle. Electricity comes from a generator and there is no hot water.
Our rustic villa cost us $20 a night. It came complete with a mosquito net over the big, comfy bed and a hammock on the deck. This made me think of how little we really need to be happy.
The only less-than-perfect thing was the weather. The sky was covered with low clouds on several days and the wind was causing coconuts from the nearby palm tree to fall on the roof of our bungalow. The waves were big, too.
On Christmas morning, I walked out of my hut and saw the waves splashing at my feet. It was as if someone carried the bungalow closer to the edge of the water while I was sleeping. The waves were too big for anyone to swim that day. The strip of sand where we were sunbathing the day before was gone. I kept imagining a really big wave crashing down on our little bungalow. Of course, nothing of that sort happened. We spent the afternoon watching the big waves, mesmerized.
Hi! Thanks for reading. I will be traveling through lots of different places in Thailand and writing about them, so stay tuned.
If you only have a couple of weeks, I would spend some time on one of the islands and a few days in Bangkok for culture and sightseeing. You’ll probably need to fly through Bangkok anyway.
Koh Phangan has lovely beaches and a cool vibe. If you want to see different beaches and ride around on a motorbike, Mai Pen Rai may not be the best choice because it’s hard (and expensive) to get to. We visited Haad Salad and Haad Mae Haed on the west side of the island and liked both beaches.
Krabi Province in Southern Thailand draws tourists from all over the world. Most visitors stop in the provincial capitol, Krabi Town, before moving on to one of the numerous beaches and islands in the area.
We were in town only for a day. In the evening, we strolled through the busy night market. Aside from a handful of gawking Western tourists, the market was full of local folks enjoying a night out on the town.
Prices at this market turned out to be fixed, so there was no need for bargaining (sigh of relief). Even so, everything was cheaper than the asking price in the tourist shops lining every street in the center of Krabi.
We set out to sample some of the unusual treats sold here in abundance. Whenever we saw a food we didn’t recognize, we asked what it was. If it didn’t sound too bad, we tried it.
This strategy brought us to try fried grasshoppers and unidentified white worms. We stood in front of that food stall for a long time, unsure if we could stomach the fare. Some children ran up to the stall and practically begged their mother to buy them some fried insects. After that, we got a small baggy of assorted insects, seasoned with sauce and salt.
The grasshoppers reminded me of sunflower seeds. The worms tasted something like pine nuts. Not the strangest-tasting food I’ve tried, by a long shot. If anyone reading this knows what the white worms are, please tell me.
After getting our dose of protein, we tried some delicious squid kebab, a tiny, crispy crepe filled with crème and topped with a bit of shaved egg yolk, and guava slices dipped in some sort of syrup.
The most beautiful beach in Krabi is Phra Nang: A strip of fine, white sand with a front-and-center view of the limestone cliffs that make Krabi so irresistible. The beach is shallow, especially at low tide, but that means you can get close to the camel-shaped rock. The water is deeper on the east side of the beach. You can float on your back at the mouth of the Phra Nang Cave, looking up at the stalactites. They look so fragile that it’s a little scary: What if the rocks awaken from their centuries-long stillness and fall?
Pra Nang only has a couple of very expensive resorts. Two other beaches, Railay West and Railay East, are a short walk away and have some cheaper accommodation. The most luxurious resorts in Krabi also are located on Railay West. The only distraction here and on Phra Nang is the endless hum of the longtail boats shuttling tourists back and forth all day.
Backpackers need not worry, however. West of Railay West is Ton Sai Bay, accessible by boat or a short hike (without packs). That’s where we stayed. Apparently, the limestone cliffs offer some of the best rock climbing in the world, so climbers converge here. Food, kayak rentals and climbing lessons are cheaper here than on the other beaches. The beach itself is hardly impressive.
We kayaked around the bay, which is peppered with small limestone islands. We also took a rock-climbing course for beginners. It was our first time. With gear and several hours of climbing, it cost us just over $25 per person. Climbing those cliff faces at sunset was an exhilarating experience.
Thanks to this funny and probably somewhat offensive guide, I can finally tell the difference between written Korean, Japanese and Chinese.