Malaysia

The first blog entry for this website relates, fittingly, to our first trip together.

Kara and I went to Malaysia over the five-day Chinese New Year holiday in January 2012. This is before we started dating and I had suggested it to Kara not really knowing what to expect, and I am sure she felt similarly when she agreed to go. One of the most important characteristics of compatibility is whether you make suitable travel companions, and this trip proved that we did.

We left Hong Kong on a Friday and flew to Kuala Lumpur, and stayed in the middle of the city at the comfy and convenient Sheraton Imperial Hotel. After checking into the hotel and a brief rest, we headed out into the humid night. Our first stop was Skybar at the Trader’s Hotel, which offered a great view of the famous Petronas Towers. We had drinks overlooking an indoor lap pool (although no one was swimming).

 

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After drinks, we took a taxi into Chinatown, and had a late dinner at one of KL’s many ubiquitous food courts, also known as hawker stalls. I’d never been to Malaysia, but I was familiar with Malaysian street food and hawker stalls, having been to Singapore. This one had great curry and skewers and refreshing watermelon juice, perfect for a sticky night. It being Chinese New Year, Chinatown was packed and the streets were crowded. It seemed many of the hawker stalls were open 24 hours a day, equally great for a mid-day meal or a late-night snack.

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Malaysia straddles the equator, so even in January it is hot and humid, reminding us of the sweltering Florida summers. In the morning, we took a self-guided walking tour of the Peranda Botantical Gardens and saw all kinds of flora and fauna, including koi, turtles, parrots and even monkeys.

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With time to kill and no particular plans for the afternoon, we decided to follow the suggestion of our taxi driver and visited the Batu Caves.  The Batu Caves were built in the late 19th century and one of KL’s most popular tourist attractions. It is also one of the biggest Hindu shrines outside of India, serving Malaysia’s large Hindu population. Even from a distance, the 50-foot tall statue was impressive.

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We climbed up hundreds of steps to get to the top, which was exhausting in the midday heat.

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Inside the cave, it was dark and cool. The cave had a hole in the top which let in light, and housed a Hindu temple.

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We took a guided tour of the inside of the cave; armed with flashlights, we walked deep into the cave on a curvy path. It felt like we were inside a subterranean hideaway, as in “The Goonies”.  It was a pleasant surprise. Less pleasant were the bats, as well as the giant insects and spiders crawling in the dark.

That night, we flew from KL to Penang. The taxi took us from the airport to the Hotel Flamingo, and during the 45-minute ride,  it occurred to us that Penang was much larger than we thought. We both had envisioned a small, self-contained island with cute shops and restaurants and a touristy vibe. In reality, Penang is over 400 square miles and has 1.5 million residents, a city-state onto itself. Our hotel was on the north coast, not far the city of Georgetown and across the strait from the city of Butterworth. Our room had a stunning ocean view as well as a view of the green hillsides opposite the waterfront.  The sand beaches were narrow but relatively clean.

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The ocean was a perfect turquoise, and made me a bit homesick for Miami. At night, the sunsets were beautiful. We had many great talks sitting on the beach with the moon overhead.

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The next morning we took a pedicab tour of Georgetown, which, given the heavy Chinese influence, felt like China. Penang is the most Chinese part of Malaysia, replete with new immigrants as well as ones form generations ago. The architecture was colorful and very unique and we passed by a number of Buddhist temples. The mood was festive, as Chinese New Year was in full swing, and we noticed many burning incense and paper money. Red lanterns were everywhere to mark the occasion. We visited one temple to light incense and, embarrassingly, I didn’t know how to correctly light it. I lit the wrong end of the incense stick and promptly snuffed it out in the holder — not once, but twice, much to Kara’s amusement. The temple attendant must’ve thought I was nuts.

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That night, not content with hanging in the hotel bar, we sought out live music and drinks in Straits Quay. It took us a while to understand exactly what (and where) Straits Quay was, as Malays have a very distinctive accent. With the helpful guidance of a convenient store clerk, we learned that when it came to nightlife, Straits Quay was a lot closer than Butterworth.  In yet another pleasant surprise, upon arrival we found an Irish bar inside a shopping mall, where a Filipino woman with an incredible vocal range treated us to her versions of songs by Adele and Tina Turner. Inside the bar, there was a good mix of locals and ex-pats, quintessentially Southeast Asia. There were a number of other bars inside the shopping mall in Straits Quay, including a German bar, where we returned the following afternoon for beers on the terrace.

Our last day in Penang, we visited Penang Hill, a popular tourist attraction in the middle of the island. Getting up the hill involved a leap of faith, as the train ride up was very steep. Getting down the hill was much more difficult, as we had to endure a frustrating two-hour wait to take the train back down. The train compartment was packed with mainly Chinese tourists, and the decorum of the queue was only slightly better than being in Mainland China.

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A two-hour wait in 90-degree heat can sap anyone’s energy, and we were exhausted by the time we finally left Penang Hill. However, we were rewarded for our patience as the air-conditioned taxi took us to Bali Hai Restaurant, a Hong Kong-style seafood eatery on the Georgetown waterfront. Like many Chinese restaurants, you can pick our your own live fish and crustaceans from tanks lining the restaurant. The restaurant’s tables were outside in the open air, which gave it a food court vibe. After eating at an excellent Indian restaurant the day before, we had another incredible dining experience at Bali Hai, the perfect way to cap off our Malaysian adventure.

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