Monday, August 31, 2009

Trip Digest, part two

This was bound to happen. We come back and are never heard from again. I have hit the ground running preparing for and now attending classes at Berkeley. I went apartment hunting the first day we were back, found an apartment the next day, moved in the day after that, attended meetings for the next two days and then started school the day after that! I am officially a golden bear and a new resident of Oakland.

Here are our trip's pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/fialashannon.

All 2000+ of them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Chungking Mansions

Tonight is our last night in Hong Kong. Last night we were told by our various Indian hotel managers that we would need to move rooms in the morning because they were doing some "remodeling" today. So we woke up, packed up, and went with them to the fourteenth floor to see their other rooms, but it turns out the person presently in that room was still sleeping. The Indian guy recommended we check out another Indian guy's guesthouse on the seventh floor, which was HK$40 more, but also alot nicer. Our first room was about the size of a normal hotel room's bathroom with barely a full bed on a homemade wooden platform that sort of snapped when both of us sat on it, an air conditioner that made fire alarm-type sounds when it shut off and on, a TV that only showed fuzz on a homemade shelf that was also breaking, and a bathroom the size of a broom closet with a shower over the toilet. The luggage went under this sketchily lofted bed. When we told another Indian guy that our tv did not work, he offered to lend us a dvd, then left and never came back. This is what $13 gets you for accomodation in Hong Kong.

As we collected our stuff from our old room to move to our new room, the "remodelling" had already commenced. An African man was questioning our Indian "hotel managers" concerning the whereabouts of his wife's tv. The Indian guy told him they threw it out, which lead to alot of yelling, while other Indian guys moved stuff out into the hall, and saw us getting the heck out of there. Apparently "remodelling" is code word for tenant dispute around the Chungking Mansions.

Our new room is about the same size. The tv gets one channel (an improvement!). I expect that the air conditioner will not make alarming noises. The bed is not lofted so there is no room for luggage, but the bathroom is slightly larger. This is what $18 gets you in Hong Kong.

This entire labrythine 15-story complex reeks of sketchiness. People from around the world mill about downstairs: Indians offer you expensive naan, Africans loiter in groups, scantily clad ladies make you wonder about your ability to identify prostitutes, signs advertise visa services, merchants sell fake iPods and shoes and saris, and money changers occupy every corner.

Apparently Chungking Mansions was featured in Wong Kar-Wai's film, Chungking Express. I feel mislead now by the actor in his other film, In the Mood for Love, because I thought he said Hong Kong was not as steamy as Singapore, but he and I may be mistaken because it is really really hot here. Obviously I have some films to watch and re-watch when I get home.

To celebrate our last night in Hong Kong, and Asia in general, John and I saw, Lauging Gor-Turning Point, which is a local movie in Cantonese with English and Chinese subtitles. Two box office employees at the theater got a fit of the giggles when two white tourists said they wanted to see this movie. They said, 'But it's Chinese!' and we said, 'We know, but there are English subtitles'... it's like tourists have never before wanted to see local movies or something. The movie was a little confusing, mostly because the subtitles went really fast, and it may or may not have been Part two, but it was still awesome to see the actors drinking the Blue Girl Beer and the green-topped water they sell here and using HK currency and car-chasing through Hong Kong's streets. A good way to end our last night in Hong Kong, but we still have to find a way to occupy ourselves until our 10pm flight tomorrow. The question is: Can we afford Hong Kong Disneyland?

Monday, August 17, 2009

No More Beyong

We are back in Hong Kong. Although we are both depressed that our trip is finally over, it is fun to be in a place where we know our way around. When we first arrived here three months ago, we got miserably lost and confused because we didn't realize "subway" meant pedestrian underpass and came up on the opposite side of the street wondering where the trains were... we are doing a bit better this time around, even though we got lost on the south side of the island today and had to hike through the woods of Repulse Bay.

Tomorrow is our last day and we plan to spend it in exploring the New Territories that lie between Hong Kong Island and China. Then Wednesday we fly home.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Koala lumper

Malaysia's capitol city seems like a grittier, less glitzy version of Singapore. There is very little to no glamor in Kuala Lumpur, but it is still an interesting place to explore. We are staying near Chinatown, which seems more like an outdoor mall than a place where Chinese people still live. Little India still seems true to its name though. Sari textile shops and Bollywood CD stores sit elbow to elbow with restaurants serving up rotis and other items hot off the tandoor. From there, it is a short hop to the British Colonial district with a motley crew of Tudor buildings dropped out of the Alps and buildings covered in scallops and cupolas, topped off with a large fountain in the shape of a carnivorous pitcher plant, giant red flowers adorning the lightposts, and Malaysian flags sprinkled everywhere for garnish.

Further north the neighborhoods become more "Malay" with Chow Kit's bazaar, where I was almost knocked out by the overpowering smell of durian and in Kampung Baru, where the open-air Malay dinner buffets fill you until you almost burst, but somehow you find room for odd homemade desserts, like breadfruit donuts and banana covered in coconut. From Kampung Baru you have an clear view of Petronas Towers and while standing among the little one story tin roofed restaurants it looks like it dropped from outerspace, but it is just one short subway ride away.

We haven't been up in the Petronas Towers quite yet, but we have been to its mall. We also went to The Mall to see its innovative food court architecture. The Mall's food court is supposed to look like a streetscape, but somehow fails to create a better dining experience than actually going to one of these neighborhoods and eating on the street.

Tomorrow we are headed out to the Forestry Research Institute to soak up our last dose of jungle, but Sunday morning before we fly to Hong Kong, we will try to nab a free ticket to the Petronas skydeck so we can appreciate Kuala Lumpur from the air before flying out.

Traveling in the state of Islam

Before coming to Malaysia, I will admit that I was a little apprehensive because I wasn't sure what it would be like to travel in a predominantly Muslim country. Sitting in Thailand, reading Lonely Planet Southeast Asia's extremely biased account on Malaysia, made me wonder what we were getting ourselves into. Turns out LP is wrong again. Why would they hire someone who apparently hates a country to write the chapter about it? Thankfully the first thing we did in Georgetown was trade LP SEA for LP Malaysia and it is much more positive.

And Malaysia is awesome! Maybe I should be thankful LP SEA hates on Malaysia since less travellers seem to come here. I actually like most of the Muslim aspects of Malaysia's culture.

Five times a day prayers are broadcast from mosques in every town. At sunset in California, I will miss the melancholic singing of sentences from the Koran. Plus, Muslim food is really delicious, except for the fact that it involves no bacon. And they are not as conservative as I might have feared. Some women wear headscarves, but not all of them. My favorite is girls who are very nicely, fashionably dressed and otherwise look like any other citydweller, then they have their headscarf. So far, no one has told me I was shamefully unmodest for wearing shorts (at least to my face and in English).

In addition to the daily prayer broadcasts, I have enjoyed the varied mosque architecture and almost every major town has an old Sultan Palace, constructed in traditional Malay styles. The British colonialists got a little carried away when they were building in Kuala Lumpur. A few too many cupolas and flourishes make the old railway station look more Russian than Malay. A few days ago we visited the Islamic Arts Museum and I learned a fair amount about Islam. Perhaps this is what Rick Steves means about travel as a political act.

There have been some downsides to traveling in an Islamic country, namely the lack of booze. Muslims don't drink alcohol and on the east coast where things are more conservative, 7/11 doesn't even sell beer! Our hostel had placed a handwritten sign in every room that said, 'We Have Beer," which made it seem like a speakeasy in the Prohibition. You would quietly ask the Chinese owner about the beer and hand over about $5. Then he would go into some hidden room and come back with a big bottle cold Tiger for you.

The other glaring difference is the occasional lady in full cover, not just the headscarf, but the full body scarf with a slit for eyes. A full body black robe sounds like a recipe for disaster when I can hardly sweat enough in shorts and a shirt, but maybe they are used to it. I think it would be harder to travel in the middle east or a country like Brunei where the majority of women wear the black robes because the language and culture barrier between you becomes almost physical.

Other than that, traveling in Malaysia has been awesome. Surprisingly, we have seen alot of European families traveling here. Who knew Malaysia was the hot spot for a little European summer vacation? Family or no, I would recommend Malaysia to pretty much anyone, assuming they like Chinese and Indian food.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Kuala Selangor

Yesterday we left Kuala Lumpur for an overnight trip to Kuala Selangor. We went to the bus station and asked where to catch this bus, but were told four different things from four different people. We prodded and directed out to the street in front of the bus station where a whiskered old Chinese guy with a fanny pack and a checkered hat told us we were in the correct place. We waited in the shade until the bus miraculously materialized and whisked us past suburbs and then palm plantations to K. Selangor.

Kuala Selangor is a tiny town surrounded by jungle that transitions into mangroves closer to the Straits of Melaka. Unfortunately we could not see Sumatra from where we stood. You can see all of Kuala Selangor in about five minutes because there are only four streets, but it is still a cool town because of three nearby parks. Park one is actually a hill, Bukit Malawati, home to various points of vague historical interest, like a 'poison well' used to punish traitors, a 'new moon house' used to detect the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, a few cannon, a functioning lighthouse, and two species of monkey that you can feed yams. The silver leaf monkeys are the nice monkeys, easily recognized by their gray fur and mohawks and their niceness. Macaques are the not nice monkeys, easily remembered by their brown fur and their tendency to bear their giant incisors in your general direction. One little German boy could not get this down and went away with perhaps a lifelong fear of all monkeys.

From the Bukit, we went in search of Taman Alum Nature Park, which stretches from the hill to the Sengai Selangor River and includes some pretty sweet boardwalks through mangrove forests. We saw more of those two monkey species in the woods, but in their natural habitat, not fighting over yams, they both seemed much more tranquil. We saw tiny crabs living in holes in the tidal mud beneath the mangroves, plus mudskippers. I saw more herons than I have ever seen in one place in my life. For $5, we spent the night in a wooden A-frame tent that leaned visibly and as one English man put it, "looked a little wonky."

We met this English man at the Kampung Kelantin Firefly Park outside of town, where you pay three dollars to be paddled up Sengai Selangor in a malay boat by a Malaysian to see these amazing fireflies that flash in unison. The effect is like whole bushes are lit with tiny Christmas lights and from across the river it looks like nature is throwing a rave. A very strange phenomenon, but really amazing to see. We shared our boat with the English man and his son, while his wife occupied another boat with their other two sons. They told us England is too cold for fireflies, but they had seen the occasional, sultry firefly while in Italy. On hot humid nights growing up in Michigan we used to catch fireflies, or lightning bugs as we liked to call them, and keep them in jars. You wouldn't think about doing that at this park though - the fine for catching a firefly is 1000 Malaysian Ringit. Look, don't touch.

The Malls of Southeast Asia

Malls are boring. Every mall in America pretty much has the same stuff, the same clothing conglomerates, the same ice cream shops, the same Mcdonalds serving the same Big Whopping Heart Attacks. The footpring varies from mall to mall, a fountain here, a crazy sculpture there, but for the most part they pretty much mimic the mall next door... or the new latest and greatest supermall tries to one up the old latest and greatest supermall with some fancier bad architecture or new giant fountain (or the developer scraps the mall idea altogether and decides to put in a Wallmart). Malls don't even really serve much of a purpose anymore, now that you can go online and get everything you need, cheaper than the mall, with a bigger selection delivered right to your door.

In Southeast Asia, things are different. There are still malls, but they aren't the same as their American counterparts. Some of them are bigger and more ostentatious than any I have seen in America. Some of them are more utilitarian and resemble the ghetto mall from the movie Mallrats... and some of them are even worth going to. Many of the malls in Southeast Asia aren't inhabited by the usual corporate mall suspects that plague American malls. They aren't filled with The Gap, Miller's Outpost, or Sbarro's Pizza. Instead many of SE Asia's malls are filled with small business owners managing Butiks as they are called in Malaysia. They sell products from local designers (some of which are more quirky than you could find in a regular mall). The best part is that the products for sale are usually cheaper than their big business counterpart.

The best part is the food courts. In Malaysia and Singapore, especially, the mall food court is a panaloply of local chefs cooking the local specialties. There is a lot more variety in the food offered in the Malaysian mall food court, there is Indian, Malay, Muslim Indian, Chinese (mostly the Southern Regions around Canton), Boba Nyonya... Its usually pretty tasty and its usually cooked fresh in front of you, no microwave involved.

That's not to say that the big American companies aren't here, they are. There are malls that cater to people who can afford big name brands, but I like the ones that emloy local merchants selling local products and food. I just wish the model could work in the US.

Monday, August 10, 2009

183 days down, 9 nine to go

Somewhere around Singapore we marked our 100th day of traveling in Asia, and if you count our time in South America, it was about our 180th day of being abroad this year. Here's to half a year abroad and counting.

Tomorrow we move up to Kuala Lumpur. Then we only have Hong Kong, revisited, and Macau, until we face reality again.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Singapura, City of Merlions

About three months ago while sitting in Pingyao, China, we looked at map and decided we would be able to travel from Beijing to Singapore (2,769 miles, as the crow flies and we did not fly like crows) in that amount of time. I was a little skeptical at times that we would make it, but I am glad we did. I had no idea Singapore would be so awesome.

Prior to this trip, I am not sure I even knew where Singapore was - who knew there was a tiny city-island-nation stuck on the end of peninsular Malaysia?! Awhile ago I saw Wong Kar-wai's 'In the Mood for Love,' which is set in Hong Kong, but the main character moves to Singapore, then goes back to Hong Kong, and he complains about how hot and exotic and foreign Singapore is. That, plus vague rumors about chewing gum bans and indoor skiing, was about all I knew about Singapore until about five days ago.

Now I know this:
  1. Singapore is most certainly hot, but coming from San Francisco, it was strangely comfortable and we felt at home there. Yet, Singapore's mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indian culture is tantalizingly exotic. Every sign is in four languages!
  2. Singapore has top-notch, but cheap food: in each neighborhood they have moved the street food vendors under a roof called a food centre. Although I am not sure Malay-Indian-Thai-Indonesian-Chinese food courts really exist in the US, I have a new appreciation for food courts now.
  3. Singapore has impressive architecture, both new and old: the colonial and the turn-of-the-century Peranakan terrace architecture of the Chinese immigrants are beautiful and well-preserved, but then half a block away, Singapore has put an amazing amount of effort and ingenuity into its mall architecture. I am not a huge fan of malls, but...
  4. Singapore does shopping more magnificently than any other country I have visited, and here I thought Bangkok was the paragon of shopping. Ironically, the only thing I bought in Singapore was an American book at Borders, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which I must read as a part of my upcoming Graduate Student Instructor responsibilities. So far it seems depressing. This is why I read fiction.
  5. To round out the shopping, Singapore has world class museums: we almost broke our feet walking around the Asian Civilizations and Singapore Art Museums.
  6. And Singapore's zoo is rumored to be THE BEST IN THE WORLD. This has been a zoo-ful year for us: Bolivian zoo where monkeys climbed on John; San Diego zoo, a contender for best in the world; Zoo Lipis, in Malaysia, contender for world's worst zoo; and Singapore zoo, where they have an 'Fragile Forest' walk-through exhibit with not just birds and butterflies, but mammals inside: mouse deer, tree kangaroos, flying foxes, lemurs, sloths all whiz past your head and get underfoot and hang from the trees and bite your finger (if you are John and you put your finger near a tree kangaroo's mouth) as you walk through, plus they have free-ranging Orang-utans!
The downside to Singapore might be getting lost in a mall. Singapore is also expensive relative to its neighbors, but I am pretty sure it was still cheaper than San Francisco. All in all, I was sad to leave, which is the ultimate measure of how much I have enjoyed the cities we have visited.

Now we are back in Malaysia, sweating in Melaka. I am happy to see street cats again, which are entirely lacking in Singapore, but we ate at a food court and it just wasn't the same. We forgot that the best street foods are still sold on the street in Malaysia.

Friday, August 7, 2009

In the wake of the Pequod

So I started reading 'Moby Dick' right around a year ago as a part of an online book club with some people I know. Then I realized I should spend more time studying for the GRE and less time reading and then one thing lead to another and I never picked it back up. I meant to bring it with me on this trip to finish it, but somehow misplaced it and forgot it. Then by the fate of an auspicious book exchange, I picked up another 'Moby Dick' at some forgotten location on our mighty Asian travels.

Last August, I had found 'Moby Dick' a little laborious to read, but after reading the likes of 'Don Quixote' with Cervantes' maddening tangents, and 'Count of Monte Cristo,' which was sloppily written as quickly as possible to make debt-ridden Dumas some cash, and 'Robison Crusoe,' which is alright until poor Robin remembers god and becomes obsessed with evangelizing to the cannabalistic savages. After this buffet of tedious reading, 'Moby Dick' seemed like a piece of cake.

I had left Ishmael and the crew somewhere around the Pequod's first lowering to go a hunting. I tore through the book as we tore around Malaysia first on a bus from Georgetown to the east coast Muslim stronghold of Kota Bharu and then on the 'jungle train' from Kota Bharu south where we got off in Kuala Lipis. While on the train I followed the Pequod as it sailed from the Rio de la Plata delta, fastforwarded across the Pacific ocean to come up through the Straits of Java, where they were chased by Malay pirates, then across the South China Sea to the historic whaling grounds near Japan.

While barreling through the jungle with leaves and branches hitting the windows, I realized that in the year that I put down 'Moby Dick' the Pequod has been following me on my world travels in its own eternal literary wanderings. Deep thoughts!

Let's hope my journey doesn't come to a similar end.