PENANG: PART III - Merry Malaysian Holidays

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January 16th 2013
Published: January 17th 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

Doing Christmas like we’re a UNICEF greeting card

Where should an Anglophone Swiss-American protestant lady, married to a French Jewish man, with a self-declared Buddhist daughter and a Santa-fearing son spend Christmas? Across the street from a Hindu temple, among a predominantly Taoist population, in a Muslim country seems as good a place as any. And so through the Hare Krishnas we weaved our way over to George Town’s China House restaurant, where we enjoyed a traditional turkey roast, complete with heavenly mashed potatoes and fresh cranberry sauce! Just before heading out, the kids opened their collection of “easily packable” Christmas gifts: miniature Spiderman and Batman figurines for Sam and similarly sized mini Cinderella and Ariel dolls for Mimi. They also each received matching toy cameras, which were a surprisingly big success. And sure enough, we happily discovered that a giant stack of expensive gifts under a tree was actually hardly required to keep our kids content through the holidays. (Note to self: must travel EVERY Christmas!) That being said, we did tell our kids that Santa Claus had visited their grandparents in the South of France and left his offerings for them there, which we would discover with a second Christmas celebration in February. Sam was rather relieved to know he had escaped any close encounters with the man in red. Mimi was more preoccupied with whether Santa Claus had received her letter, since it was mailed from Thailand and that could surely confuse him. But our China House feast on Christmas Eve, followed by a relaxing Christmas day spent at the beach, provided the necessary distractions to keep everyone in good holiday spirits.

My Christmas miracle

One unfortunate morning, I woke up with a stiff neck and sore back. I hardly reacted with frustration as this happens to me fairly frequently- perhaps as often as once a month. Nevertheless, after two full days of hardly being able to turn my head to the left (not convenient when trying to get around a frenetic town by bike), I decided to inquire about a massage. One of the notable shortcomings of Penang, in comparison to its fellow Southeast Asian hotspots, is the remarkable lack of spas and massage shops. It’s rather hard to believe that a country who shares most of its borders with Indonesia and Thailand- two of the most massage-centric countries in the world, would not have a tradition of massage. When I explained what I was looking for and why to Chona, the manager of the Noordin Mews, she asked me clearly if my objective was relaxing or healing. When I indicated the latter was my priority, she proposed bringing in her Chinese healer rather than the masseuse they also happen to have on call. Twenty minutes later, a skinny little man in overly hemmed trousers walked out to the patio where I was sitting, holding a Styrofoam box and a small blag leather medicine bag. We were ushered to an empty room (since the kids were napping in mine) and he sat me down on a foot stool. After asking me a few questions about the nature and frequency of my pain, he pulled out two small spray bottles and a small jar of cream. He explained that one bottle contained calcium water, the other contained a Chinese herbal concoction, and the jar contained Nivea cream. He then opened a pencil case filled with differently carved wooden sticks. He sprayed my neck a couple times from each of the bottles, dipped one of the sticks into the cream, and began to rub my neck rigorously with the stick. He then confirmed my diagnosis to be something I could not recognize due to the combination of thick Chinese accent and complex medical terminology. He explained that in Europe this can only be confirmed by way of an MRI, but that he was able to recognize it with 99% accuracy using his sticks. He also suggested the most common therapy for my condition was surgery, but once again, in his case, his sticks along with the little electric box he removed from the Styrofoam casing could heal me. The electric box had a few dials, nobs and switches on it, plus a small wire ending with a sort of small prong covered in electric tape. Fifteen more minutes of rigorous neck rubbing with various different sticks, a bit of mild electric shocking, along with the occasional hand pinch and arm rub, and my pain was virtually gone. He suggested to totally heal me, one more session might be necessary, but that I was to decide for myself based on whether the pain returned within a few days. We paid him his 70MR (circa 25USD) fee and he was on his way, leaving me almost speechless with relief and surprise. Before he left, I did try to ask him what was the name of this extraordinary therapy and his answer was “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

The Petronas pilgrimage.

Unlike the other capital cities in Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur (KL) never really called to me. I knew about it well due to WHO’s administrative headquarters being here, but this was more of a negative association. And the only other thing that KL conjured in my mind was record-breaking tall buildings, something I feel little emotion about. This is more than I can say for Arnaud though. The very prospect of laying eyes on the Petronas towers was what drove him to want to visit KL. I had the extra motivation of being able to see old college friends who had just moved to KL several weeks before. So on December 27th, we took the short 30 minute flight from Penang to Kuala Lumpur and explored yet another Asian metropolis.

It wasn’t until we were settled in our hotel and I happened to glance out the hallway window that I noticed the Petronas towers. I immediately understood why there is so much fuss over them. They aren’t just super tall (still the tallest twin towers in the world), but in fact, strikingly beautiful. Not a day went by of our week-long visit that I was able to resist taking a photo of them. Each time the light changed or my angle was different, they seemed to be all the most interesting. We got tipped off that the best view of the towers was from the SkyBar of the Trader's Hotel. On trying to reserve a table there, we were informed that it had already been booked up since a week, so we decided to simply try our luck with a sneak peak by venturing up there anyway. At first, we thought we were pretty successful just to be able to sip cocktails by the bar of this very cool rooftop lounge, built around an open-air pool. But then it proved to be truly our lucky night, because the hostess took a shining to our kids and ended up giving us one of the super in-demand poolside booths with the direct views out on the Petronas towers. And so there we sat, eating our tasty tapas and snapping photos to our hearts' content, while two thirds of the crowded bar looked on enviously. Our fascination with the Petronas Towers was contagious and soon our kids were oohing and ah-ing each time we caught a glimpse of them. And yet KL is not exactly suffering from a shortage of handsome skyscrapers. In fact, it may be up there with the most attractive modern cities I’ve ever seen, second perhaps only to London. Tokyo and New York may have a more impressive skyline, but they cannot compete with KL when it comes to all the lush greenery that is spread across the city centre.

Just how modern KL is also came as a surprise. To be clear though, I am referring mainly to the neighbourhood known as KLCC, which stands for Kuala Lumpur City Center and is where most of the big hotels are located. Between all the endlessly tall buildings, the air conditioned walkways serving as bridges from tower block to tower block, and the futuristic monorail system winding its way through the maze of skyscrapers, it felt like we were extras in a Hollywood sci-fi flic. It was only when we ventured towards the historic Merdeka Square that we were reminded that we were still in Malaysia and that not so long ago, this was considered a developing country. To be completely honest, it still feels like a developing country, as far as our general experience was concerned. You still have to haggle like crazy with taxi drivers and think twice about taking your drink with ice. Plenty of buildings outside of KLCC have that run-down tarnished look you mostly find in middle or low-income countries. And like anywhere else we’ve travelled to in recent months, you have to equip yourself with a certain flexibility and sense of adventure to wander through the markets and locate the interesting sights and flavours of the town. But this also means you can treat yourself to a delicious meal for just a few dollars. We happily discovered that the hawker tradition is alive and thriving in KL too. In fact, one of the best meals of our month in Malaysia was had at a set of hawker stalls named Susie’s Corner, where we enjoyed some exceptionally good steaks.

It was our friends the Mick Family who brought us to Susie’s Corner and with whom we returned there again just two days later because it had left us so very impressed. Mark and Cassia Mick are two friends of mine from Boston College whom I had not seen since their wedding day over sixteen years ago. (Mark actually also went to high school with me in London and has known me since we were 12!) They just moved to KL with their three sons a few weeks ago and it was great fun catching up with them. Sam and Mimi were especially delighted to among other children and so most of our days in KL ended up being spent in the company of these dear friends.

Up until this point, the place that had struck a chord with our kids the most had been Thailand and Mimi often proclaimed that she wanted to move there. But KL soon trumped Bangkok or Chiang Mai in the hearts of our children, despite Mimi’s bitter disappointment at discovering there are no Koalas here. You would hardly expect it of such an urban metropolis, but KL is actually surprisingly kid-friendly. The best sign of this was the playground we discovered in the KLCC Park just behind the Petronas Towers. It is quite simply the largest and most fantastic children’s playground I have ever seen. And what’s incredible is that we only got to experience a tiny section of it, since we went on December 31st and most of it had been closed off in preparation for the fireworks display scheduled for that evening. But even this small part that we managed to check out was larger than any playground I’ve taken my children to before. It was also a fun opportunity to meet other families playing there, many of whom were expats living in KL for different reasons and full of interesting stories and insights on the city. Not a single family whom we met had any regrets about living here. They did mention that there is some safety concerns and that the tropical heat can grow tiresome (especially when it comes to keeping wine chilled), but otherwise they made it sound like a near perfect place to raise children. Nannies are cheap and plentiful… housing is spacious, comfortable, and affordable… And the international schools are numerous and of good quality. (Another note to self: Encourage Arnaud to orient our job search towards Malaysia.) From a visitor’s perspective, it was pretty great too. We didn’t have the time and inclination to visit the various kid attractions like the Botanical Gardens or Cameron Highlands, but everywhere we went our children were treated like royalty. Our only disappointment was perhaps our visit to Aquaria, which was ridiculously overpriced (180MR for the whole family- that’s around $60 USD!!) for a rather small and unimpressive exhibit, which occupied us for less than an hour. Also a little on the expensive side, but still a thrilling experience, was the view from the top of the KL Telecommunications tower, which is actually higher than the observation deck open to visitors of the Petronas Towers.

From a historical perspective, the architecture in KL was only slightly interesting and barely reflected its British colonial past, though a few blocs here and there did remind me a bit of London. From my limited perspective, this is probably not a place for history buffs, at least not in terms of well-preserved landmarks. Apart from a handful of buildings around Merdaka Square, including the formerly high-society meeting place known as the Royal Selangor Club Complex- built in 1884 (for which the lawn across the square served as a cricket green) and the beautiful Sultan Abdul Samad Building- built in 1897, there is far less evidence of the European presence here at the turn of the last century than what you find in Penang (or Hanoi and Phnom Penh for that matter.) The real testimony to this country’s interesting and colourful past is in its current mix of residents. Even more pronounced than in Penang, you have an eclectic mix of Malays, Indians, Chinese, and Eurasians… plus a surprisingly strong presence of residents originating from Gulf states- probably due to Malaysia’s thriving petrol industry and need for Muslim banks.

We constantly came across articles and people comparing KL to Singapore. We look forward to coming to our own conclusions on the matter in a few days’ time. For now, Kuala Lumpur has managed to seduce us quite unexpectedly and we hope it won’t be long before we have an excuse to return.

Fearing the end in Batu Ferringhi

Our last five days in Malaysia were spent back on the northern coast of Penang. This time we chose the lively seaside district of Batu Ferringhi, just a few kilometres beyond Tanjung Bungah. We treated ourselves to the uber trendy Lone Pine Hotel, simply because it is so super pretty (and we had found some very decent rates on Agoda!) Interestingly enough, while this hotel looks like the most modern and well-designed hotel on the island, it actually dates back to the early fifties and holds the proud status of being the very first hotel to have been established on the northern coast of Penang. Until a few years ago, the hotel had become quite a shabby, out-dated affair. But in 2008, the Eastern & Oriental group who operates the iconic hotel of the same name in George Town, took over the helm and completely overhauled the hotel. The outcome is an impressive medley of fifties retro marine chic with contemporary streamlined Scandinavian design touches. In short: it is the perfectly decorated hotel, as far as our combined personal tastes go… and so we thoroughly enjoyed staying there. In fact, Arnaud made a pledge to stay there a maximum amount of time while we could.

I was less resilient to the pull of the area’s interesting tourist attractions, like the Butterly Farm for the children and the Tropical Spice Garden for me. In the case of the latter, Arnaud might have been wise to have stayed away for the simple reason that I returned covered head to foot in mosquito bites. Still, the fact that I went alone meant that I also was able to return with a bag full of Penang’s finest nutmeg to sneak into my luggage. I did successfully drag Arnaud away from his favourite poolside sunbed long enough to take a family trip up Penang Hill, using the pleasant (Swiss-built!) 90 year old funicular railway. This particular outing had incentives that included the cooler air at the top of the 800m high hill, the lovely David Brown’s Restaurant & Tea Terraces on Strawberry Hill, and the company of a fun Australian family- The Andrews- whom we met via this very travelblog website!

On the way to Penang Hill, we also stopped at Kek Lok Si, Southeast Asia’s largest Buddhist temple. Though its construction began in 1890, this temple is still not considered complete. Its impressive 30.2 meter bronze statue of the Kuan Yin bodhisattva was only finished ten years ago and work on the columns surrounding the massive statue still continues.

We finished off our happy holidays in true Penang style with a delicious hawker dinner at the Long Beach food court on the eve of our departure. We were joined once again by our new friends, the Andrews, who helped us confirm that Malaysia is indeed a special place and our adventures across Asia have been a blessing we will feel forever grateful for. It’s hard to believe this amazing trip will come to an end in less than two weeks. Though plenty did not go according to plan, it has nevertheless been as good as we could ever have imagined it- full of surprises and unexpected experiences and encounters. Malaysia was by far our best unplanned discovery… It just goes to show that you should never plan too much and always be open to new possibilities! What a great lesson to kick off another exciting new year.

Wishing you all an equally happy start to 2013 and plenty new adventures of your own throughout this year…

Additional photos below
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17th January 2013

Coming close to the Close!
So pleased for you to have made these happy discoveries about Malaysia! You could have missed it altogether....but you lucky folks made the good choice for Christmas. Guess we could visit you there instead of in would be like going to a place we've never seen because of all the changes you describe. Those Petronas towers in KL must be truly something! Thanks to the photos we can have a preview of how much Sam and Mimi have grown in the last four months. You all look so well we can easily see that traveling agrees with the Kahns! See you very soon, enjoy the last bit in Thailand, love and hugs from Nonna & Neni

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