Published: February 21st 2009January 20th 2009
The impressive statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity, stading at the entramce of the Batu caves
After saying goodbye to the comforts of Singapore, it was time to reaquaint ourselves with the ole bus life again and begin our journey up peninsular Malaysia to Thailand, and beyond. Heading to the bus station has become a source of great excitement for us, I guess it doesn't take much these days. Generally, you'll get a hint as to what kind of bus you'll be traveling on by the price of the ticket, but experience has taught us thats it's all pretty much a crapshoot, or more accurately, we're experts at getting overcharged.
So there we were, six in the morning, in high suspense awaiting the fate of our knees, backs, and senses for the next 8 hours or so. Would it be a new bus? a minivan? a 1950 schoolbus? would the human/livestock ratio be favourable? would it have a new suspension system...well, let's not get greedy...would it have an old suspension system? would it show a movie...oh boy!, maybe we'll get a movie...steady, steady, let's not get ahead of ourselves here! Such were the thoughts prancing round our heads, when out of the smog and traffic, as if the charriot of Realongcaricus himself (the ancient Greek god
of buses I'm told) came our bus...a thing of beauty, no sarcasm! A sparkling, bright red answer to every roach infested, diesel spewing, broken seated, overcrowded, rust crusted, and usually late excuse for the chariot of the masses known as the "bus".
She was a beaut. Double-decker, full reclining seats, personal movie screens, meal service, and a little button to push if you need an extra blanket or just if you need to call the hostess over to anoint her feet with tears of gratitude. It's like eating old rice and water for a year to be suddenly served a well aged t-bone and a good bottle of red. If it sounds like I'm going on a bit, it's because, firstly, I am, and secondly, because your arses haven't endured what our arses have over the last year (I know, I know...you don't want to hear it, poor babies...). We settled in to our seats and seriously debated the pros and cons of just going back and forth on the bus for the next few days days. Oh, and for the record...two movies, both in english, no subtitles. BOOYAH!!!
Enough about the bus. The trip was uneventful, and
They love their needle. We never made it to the top but it was impressive from below. It's set in the middle a jungle
the only things I'd take from it were the (once again) endless Malaysian palm tree plantations and the truly excellent conditions of the roads. All in all, the trip was a pleasure and we pulled into Kuala Lumpur reinvigorated and ready to throw ourselves back into the fray.
I would say it took about 15 seconds for the serenity of the bus trip to be shattered by the mayhem that is Kuala Lumpur, or KL. Well, I should say the KL around Chinatown and Little India, where we chose to throw down the bags. I believe that Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur exists to give the word "cacophony" something to describe. Horns, whistles, cars, scooters, hawkers, noise, noise, noise, constant, unending, ceaseless noise. It should be said that we did later find another side of KL that is as modern, clean, and beautiful a city as you'll find anywhere, but that's for further down the page.
After dumping the bags, we hit the streets which according to Lee were a bargain shopper's paradise. Pretty much anything you could wear, accessorize, or eat could be found in a somewhat organized jungle of street hawkers. I bought myself two new shirts
now that we're properly educated from Singapore, we're experts at navigating the street stalls.
for four bucks (mainly because those of you who keep telling me I must really, really like my green shirt have made your point). I guess this would be as good a time as any to fulfill a promise I made to Lee to mention that we do in fact wash our clothes often and thoroughly, and generally can be found wandering the planet smelling like lilacs. I can't say she's incorrect here, because I would assume lilacs aren't immune to the decomposition process, which is probably closer to the mark when I think about my running gear. Anyways...
After a few hours in the market, we decided to have a thirst quencher at a Beatles themed bar we found, in honor of "dad, pop, Pete, Mr. Sciambra, or captain fantastic" -- depending on your relationship with him. The Beatles bar was playing Motley Crue and decorated like a Thai opium den, so we had a quick beer (they didn't have scotch...or opium) and said a quick yet heartlfelt "SALUTE" to "dad, pop, Pete, Mr. Sciambra, or captain fantastic" and the beatles, and left rather confused to try our luck at the reggae bar across the street. Here, we
this stuff smells likes a baby's diaper and taste's like custard. that about sums it up. Would you eat custard that smelled like a baby's diaper?
found walls adorned with Bob Marley posters, lots of dreadlocked individuals, and actual reggae music, which at least, if nothing else, made some sense.
After a few beers, feeling a little hungry, we headed back into the mayhem to find some food. Quite by chance we settled on a Chinese (I think) street restaurant because it seemed full-ish (remember the golden rule: eat where others are eating). We were brought a menu, which may as well have been in Chinese...well, actually, it was in Chinese, which meant unless we were willing to go with the point and hope technique, it was time to get creative. Luckily, back in my kindergarden days, "Old MacDonald Had a farm" was seen not just a song, but also as an oppurtunity to force helpless little kids into giving their most awkward and embarrasing farm animal impressions in a circle of their singing, clapping peers. 32 years later, there I was, with my thumbs hooked under my armpits doing a bastardized seated version of the chicken dance, while pointing to a menu and patting my belly, wondering if somewhere, somehow Old Macdonald was saying "I told you so punk". The old Chinese guy who
ran the place either has a cheeky sense of humour or is a sadist (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt). He left me to prance around like a chicken playing my solo game of charades for quite a while, before finally asking "would you like the chicken, son?" Turns out the old boy could speak better English than the both of us put together.
Anyways, he didn't have any chicken, or more accurately, we didnt want to watch him cut the head off the chicken in the cage that was doubling as my seat. Fearing my best rendition of a cow would be neccesary before we could get any beef from the guy we asked him to bring us the chef's special. Perhaps you've heard of Laksa Fish? Oh my!!!!.... Oh sweet, sour, lovely Laksa fish, how we miss you! Laksa fish turned out to be the single greatest thing I've ever tasted. Singapore, take your chili crab and your fish head curry and hit the road, I'm fickle, you're yesterday's news!
We spent three nights in KL and would find ourselves subconsciously drawn to the place around dinner time, "may as well eat here again,
We had to go in and have a beer for Pop. Cheers!
Lee,?" "Yeah, being as we're in the neighborhood" We had the Laksa fish every night, much to the amusement of the old Chinese owner who seemed to know this would happen. We weren't the first to stumble down this road. The old bastard refused to give us the recipe. Each night he allowed us to tease two ingredients out of him. The first night he answered our request with "a fish and some garlic". Gee, thanks guy, I struggle with making toast but even I figured that out. By the time we left 3 days later all we managed to get out of him was garlic, fish, lime juice, "a flower you don't get in your country," and about twenty things that definitely were not involved. A more important clue I guess was that we got him to tell us in a moment of pity that there is nothing Laksa about it -- He names it that to throw people like us off the scent. What a bastard! I fear we shall spend a lifetime in a futile attept at recreating a $5.00 meal had on a random alley in the backstreets of KL. There is a chance we will
"It's been a hard day's night,
I should be...having another beeer"
have to fly through KL on our way to India. If so, we'll be back with some hired help and this time we'll be leaving with the recipe or that nice old man will be bent over his giant pot of soup bobbing for chicken feet.
On our second day in KL we decided to catch a bus out to the Batu Caves, which is a gigantic cave system housing a variety of Hindu temples, shrines, and monkeys. The cave happens to be one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside India, dedicated to Lord Murugan. It is the focal point of Hindu festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia which attracts over 1.5 million pilgrims yearly, making it one of the largest annual gatherings anywhere in the world. It's also where grown men take hooks and skewers and slice their cheeks open to prove their devotion to the cause. I'm left wondering if such unbridled masochism fills Lord Murugan with a great sense of pride or leaves him wondering where he can get some more mellow devotees. You can imagine him and the boys having a few cold ones after a hard day of Deitying. "Hey Ganesh, I see one
No shortage of congestion in chinatown
of your guys offered you up a banana and a sunflower this morning...My guy stuck a six inch hook through his chest and suspended himself for a while." Hey, to each his own.
The caves were impressive and the bus ride out was a great way to see the city. On the way back we hopped off at a random stop and made our way to the KL Tower, or the Menara Kuala Lumpur (space needle type thing), and the Petronas Towers, two of KL's iconic attractions. The Petronas towers had their five minutes on the "world's tallest building" list before being dethroned by a Shanghai giant. I think they're currently third, but don't quote me on that, in fact, it would be wise not to quote me on any of this...ever. There is a shopping mall in the lower section of the towers which is certainly the most upscale one I've ever been in. To put things in perspective, Tiffany is found in the "affordable section" The mall is packed and there is no doubting when you leave that Malaysia is a country where a good chunk of its population is doing ok.
Another thing that stands
KL Chinatown market
Thru these gates lies chaos...and Gucci bags and Ray bans for next to nothing...all fake I'm sure
out about KL are the Lake Gardens or Taman Tasik Perdana. It may be a more accurate to say KL is a standout part of them as it is basically a city built into a jungle. Essentially they are KL's version of Central park, but less manicured and home to with a plethora of wildlife and an excellent escape from the concrete jungle it competes with. Lungs for the city, sanctuary for its inhabitants.
...and a final note about something because it was SO impressive, and a complete tangent from the less than hygenic squat variety we've become accustomed too. A little bit about a loo. I should begin by pointing out I'm usually not allowed anywhere near a toilet for a long while after Lee's used it, God forbid there might be the faintest hint of evidence that a bodily function had actually occurred therein. Not my Lee! (once again, think lilacs). As I stood patiently waiting beside the streetside "public toilet" for her to rid herself of excess Diet Pepsi, I heard "Andy, come see this." This is odd, I thought. If the roles were reversed she could expect to be shown how I wrote out the
our guesthouse did not like smelling like dirty diapers
first two lines of a dylan tune against the wall or something equally juvenile (this is an achievment to be shared), but for me to be beckoned was most unusual...
Incredible! I've seen lesser toilets in five star hotels. Air con, choice of soaps, beyond clean, selection of paper, diapers...you name it, it had it. It was a mid-wife on call away from full service true perfection. Keep in mind this is a street tiolet. Perhaps it's the ultimate compliment to the quality of malaysian food. This thing was a wonder and I haven't seen a toilet that clean since I used to live alone :) anyways...
On the morning we were due to leave, we showed up at the bus station full of optimism, ready to relax for a few hours on another of these incredible Malaysian buses...I guess we should have known better. Back to bone jarring, broken seated, diesel fueled reality. The bus took us up to Penang, a little island off the west coast of Malaysia, known more for its food than its beaches. At one point in history, it was a bustling colony of the East India Trading Company and a vital link
One of the many mosques to be found in KL
in the spice routes that built fame, fortune, and power before the days of FedEx and UPS. You can still see the old colonial architecture, and although hundreds of years old, it's still a quaint place thats a few coats of paint away from being really charming. Nowadays, it's a place to get a cheap room, take in a bit of culture, and then--well--eat!
The mix of Chinese, Indian, and Malay cultures have really melted together in Penang like no place else resulting in what has become world renowed food. The variety, quality and affordability of its food is legendary and the best place to find it is from one of it's equally legendary street hawkers. At night certain streets come alive as locals and tourists alike head out to sample the endless versions and interprtations of classic south east asian dishes and dishes that have evolved into Penang specialties. As most meals throw you back three and a half ringits (just under a buck) we could afford to find a table and spend a good few hours sampling whatever looked good enough to eat or strange enough to say we tried.
After a few days on Penang
it was time to either find the local Jenny Craig or move on. We opted for the latter waking up at 4:30am to take a minivan (12 passengers), to another minivan (10 passengers), to a bus, to another minivan (only 8 of us...paradise) to cross the border into Thailand, ready for a new language, new flavors, and excited to discover what this legend of a destination is really all about. We'll let you know how it goes.
cheers for now,
There are more photos below