Updated: Nov 22, 2020
I never planned to devote to much time in Malaysia, but then again I never really plan. Lodged between Southern Thailand and Indonesia Malaysia is a country of contrast. Kuala Lumpur the countries ultra modern capital is worlds apart from the primitive rainforest in the middle of the country that is one of the oldest and best preserved in the world.
My introduction to mainland southeast Asia was through Kuala Lumpur. The most visited attraction in the city is the sky piercing Petronas Towers, that at one time were the tallest buildings in the world. Flanking the Petronas towers is the KL tower. I think the only real point of the KL tower is to ride to the top and look at the Petronas tower. The only thing really memorable about the KL tower was the absurd tourist attractions they had. At the ground level there was a “winter wonderland park”. A 200 meter strip full of the cheekiest Christmas decorations lit up to their full brilliance. It may have been the most random thing I saw on the entire trip. There was also a zoo that even included the rare and exotic raccoon of North America.
In KL they had some of the largest malls in the world. They actually have specialty malls. For example there is an IT mall I went to that was about 4 stories tall. Each floor sold some different piece of electronics. One floor was the cell phone floor, while another may have been the computer floor, or cameras. The flagship mall was a giant six story mall filled with every store you could imagine. I learned a small lesson in the Starbucks of this mall that would be repeated throughout the trip. I ordered a simple coffee and just wanted room for cream. There was of course no creamer by the sugar, when I asked if there was cream they gave me a large cup full of steamed milk for my coffee.The point was that although this mall was probably more modern then any mall at home and they were desperately trying to be western, they were still slightly missing the mark. I would run into this scenario a few more time over the next few months of big businesses trying to impose western standards, but being slightly off in the delivery.
In contrast to the Seattle standard for coffee one morning I walked down a side street filled with street food vendors. There was a larger one on the corner with open vats of different meats and vegetables that I didn’t understand. People would point at things and the guy would wrap the ordered concoction in a banana leaf followed by newspaper to make it portable. I followed and told the guy to surprise me. I didn’t quite understand what I was eating, but was pretty sure that if I deserve to get sick from something it was this, it was actually pretty good.The meat of course could have been anything. In the end I stayed healthy.
Kuala Lumpur was overplayed in my mind in about a day and it was time to move on. The rainforest in Malaysia was tempting to visit, there was a variety or 2-5 day treks offered for reasonable prices. However, I ultimately decided that I didn’t want to get trapped in Malaysia for too long. At the time it was a reasonable decision, looking back however, I should have done it because it was probably one of the best treks in all SE Asia, but this was impossible to know at the time. Instead it was decided to go to an island called Penang and the old colonial town of Georgetown. The bus up the coast of Malaysia was pretty amazing, one of the nicest I’ve ever been on. The scenery was a mix of steaming rainforests, construction, and rice patties. I didn’t have anywhere to stay in Georgetown on arrival as I usually do not. I think over the course of two months I only made about 3 or 4 reservations.
Landing in a central backpacking area of town it was fairly easy to find a hostel and quickly meet some new friends. With that mentality I met some Brits that I went out to eat with at this bizarre food court/live music area. It was basically a big pavilion filled with tables, in the middle there was a band playing music with some people dancing. All around the periphery there was a wide variety of food stalls. Basically you just order from any stall they bring it to your table and you pay when they bring it. Multiply this by 5 or 6 different stalls and some beers and it’s a pretty good time with some amazing food.
The one full day spent in Georgetown was full of wandering around taking pictures, basically exhausting myself in the heat. The island has a pretty interesting history as I learned from the museum, the only reason I went to the museum in the first place was to get some AC and get out of the heat for a bit. But, this island has been in the middle of a couple different trade routes over the years and has been colonized by a mix of people. As a result the architecture resembles a unique blend of Chinese, British, and Euro-Russian influence. The best example I saw of this was this old German restaurant with Chinese writing everywhere.
While I was eating there was a guy taking pictures of everything, which could only mean one of two things. He was either Japanese, which he wasn’t, or he was working. After talking to him the latter was correct. He was a Dutch freelance photojournalist. I talked to him for a while about how his job works. It was pretty fascinating, he basically travels and takes pictures. Sometimes he is given an assignment before he leaves, and sometimes he tries to put something together and sell it with out having any contract upfront. My backup career was established.
Before leaving Penang and flying to Phuket in Thailand I took a tram up a big hill called Penang hill that is known for the view. The top was pretty uneventful except for this one restaurant that was hidden underneath a canopy of vines with signs that said “please watch out of the pit vipers overhead”. So as you ate you just had to keep aware that a poisonous might drop down on you. As I was leaving Malaysia there was a coffee bean in the airport, I decided to give this another try and ordered a coffee with room for milk.. I got a latte.. (sigh)