Sunday, June 28, 2009
Almost as if on cue, as soon as the sun rose, a pack of monkeys came to greet us. Yes, more monkeys.After the sunrise, we walked around the crater of the volcano. All around there were vents of steam, some large, some smaller.
Back to the beach tomorrow.
Friday, June 26, 2009
I arrived in Ubud this morning. Ubud is Bali's cultural center, and though just an hour down the road from noisy Kuta, it feels a world removed. It is serene and spiritual here.
After settling in, I went to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, just a short walk down the road from my homestay/guesthouse. There are a few temples here and like a gazillion monkeys. I tried to feed some of them bananas, which was fun. But then some of them got rowdy and chased after me and my bananas so I threw the bananas at the monkeys and ran. It was fun.
Later in the evening I watched the Kecak and Fire Dance. The owner of my guesthouse was performing tonight, so I went and watched his group. It is prominently featured in the movie Baraka, which you must see if you havent already. The coolest thing about the kecak is the chanting, but this computer is not cooperating with me in uploading my videos so you should google/youtube it and see for yourself.
I had mentioned briefly before the little flower boat incense things that are outside every doorstep here in Bali, one of those little touches that makes it feel so unique and magical. Well I stumbled upon a little boy making them today:
Everywhere I have traveled, there is great excitement and affection for President Obama, which reassures me that slowly but surely our standing in the world is being rebuilt. In my conversations, I often use it as a springboard to talk about America's diversity and how Obama's election signals the rise of a new generation - my generation - that is ever more multicultural and cosmopolitan. Maybe I overplay it a bit but I feel like it's my duty to share this with foreigners after the dark Bush era. In Indonesia, they are definitely more excited about Obama than anywhere else I've been - everybody here knows that he grew up in Jakarta and understands Indonesia and they have great affection for him. I found this painting in an art shop walking down the street today:
Alright that's it for now. I'm touring some temples around Ubud tomorrow and then at 2:00 AM I'm going to hike up to the top of Mt. Batur for the sunrise. Should be awesome.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Singapore is a rich gleaming futuristic clean little orderly metropolis and while I was skeptical of how I would feel about what some have described as its sterility, I must say that I am quite enjoying myself here. Singapore is probably the cleanest nicest little place on Earth.
There's really not much to do in Singapore besides eating and shopping, but there's enough amazingly delicious cheap food and shopping malls seemingly on every street to keep you occupied with that for quite a while. [Above, one of Singapore's many malls]
Singaporeans love their food and they have a rich tradition of street food just like the rest of Asia but having actual street vendors would ruin the orderly clean streets that the government has worked so hard to create. The solution has been to corral all the food vendors into hawker centers, which are basically food courts spread all over the city. But to call them food courts in the way that we might understand them would be a gross understatement. Each hawker center has over 50 or 60 different vendors selling all kinds of delicious food. I've been eating way too much here, but it's so delicious... [Above, a hawker center near the central business district. I was there right after the lunchtime rush but there were still a few business people hanging around, eating their food]
Today for lunch I went to Chinatown and at the hawker center, had duck rice, shanghai soup dumplings, and almond paste for lunch. I also chatted in Chinese with some of the vendor ladies for a good hour or so, including this nice Taiwanese-Singaporean woman below who runs one of the drink stalls.
Off to the Night Safari at the zoo tonight and then tomorrow flying to Bali. My 2 weeks in Bali are to be the captone of my trip and I plan to spend them learning to surf, diving some more, chilling out on the beach, and exploring Bali's magical culture.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
It's my last night in Malaysia. I'm off to Singapore tomorrow. I haven't posted much recently so I have a lot of little updates and thoughts pent up. I've been on the road for over 7 weeks now (out of a 10 week trip) and I can definitely sense the change in how I behave and perceive my environment. I remember on the first week of my trip I met a Canadian girl who was finishing a long trip (I think 8 months or something, don't really remember) and when I told her it was my first week she said, somewhat condescendingly, "oh you must still be taking pictures of everything!" I remember being annoyed at the time but it's true - I now take far fewer pictures than I did before, usually only bringing my camera along if I know I'm going somewhere noteworthy and even then I don't take as many shots as I used to. I try to still take enough, though, as I know a lot of you enjoy seeing the pictures and it's really the only way to see what the heck it is I'm talking about in these posts.
I've become increasingly alarmed at the fact that my trip is slowly coming to an end. I still have three and a half weeks left but I'm more than two-thirds done! I'm really not ready to leave yet so that makes me sad. Now that I've been here for a while, I've become much more sensitive to the myriad differences between vacationers who come for one or two weeks and travelers who are here for an extended period of time. At Taman Negara for part of my time there I was on a package tour with some older Europeans on vacation and I was amused (if slightly annnoyed) at how they took so many pictures, were easily tired, carried big old suitcases, and were so pampered and needed everything laid out for them by the tour guide. It's interesting to me the perspective I've gained as a seasoned backpacker (if I do say so myself).
I've changed too as the trip has gone on. I've definitely slowed my pace down a bit and I confess that in Malaysia I have spent a lot more time kind of vegging out and have begun to indulge my cravings for reminders of home. Just this week I've watched two movies at the theater (State of Play and Drag me to Hell, both very good) and tonight I had Carl's Jr at the mall. For my East Coast readers who may be unfamiliar with Carl's Jr, it's pretty awesome as far as fast food goes. I ate a lot of Carl's Jr growing up (in fact I've even met Carl Karcher! he is a conservative prick though) and I've missed it being in DC so I was stoked when I saw a Carl's at the mall tonight. I ordered my usual, a Western Bacon Cheeseburger meal with crisscut fries. Upon receiving my meal, I noticed that there was no bacon in my cheeseburger. The Western Bacon Cheeseburger. I brought my burger up to the counter to point this out and the clerk very casually and dismissively explained that they were out of bacon so they had substituted an extra slice of cheese instead. There are so many things wrong with this - first, adding an extra slice of cheese simply makes the problem worse. I certainly do not like, nor do I think most cheeseburger consumers would enjoy, two slices of (unmelted) cheese with one meat patty. A one to one meat:cheese ratio is a pretty basic rule of burger construction. Second, despite knowing that there was no bacon when I ordered my meal, they didn't bother telling me (and of course they didn't bother asking me if I wanted another slice of cheese to make up for said lack of bacon). I was not at all angry, though; rather, I was quite amused that I had once again stumbled into one of these strange and ultimately quite memorable cultural experiences. One can only imagine how absurd this would be if it happened in the US but happening here it was just funny. They had a suggestion card (just like in the US) that I was tempted to fill out but I was running late for my movie and I had the nagging suspicion that it wouldn't get the attention it required anyway...
So with those general what's-been-going-on-with-me updates out of the way, I'll try to recap the past week and then finish off with some broader thoughts on Malaysia in general.
Today I got back from Taman Negara rainforest, which was a lot of fun. I did some jungle hikes, a night walk, walked along a canopy bridge suspended above the trees, and explored a dark cave full of bats, which was definitely the highlight. I also met some cool Britons at the hostel, so that made for some good times too. It's hard to get beer at the park because most everyone is Muslim and this being a small place instead of the big city most shops don't carry beer. We ended up finding some Dutch, who had trekked out an hour to buy cases of beer to bring back, and bummed/bought half a case off of them. Good times. I'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking on this one:
Me in the cave. Don't be fooled by how bright this looks; that's only due to the camera flash. It was pitch-black and we had to use flashlights to crawl around. It was also narrow at times and the rocks were slippery with bat shit. Yum.
I have been quite impressed by Malaysia. It differs quite a bit from the other countries that I've visited so far. For one, it's a Muslim country, so it's quite common to see women wearing the hijab and stumble upon mosques while walking around. I think the most important and visible difference is that Malaysia is a multi-racial nation, with a majority of Malays but a sizable population of Chinese and Indians. This is a consequence of the fact that Malaysia is a constructed political entity, with disparate groups lumped together by the British (most of the Indians arrived in Malaysia as migrant workers when both India and Malaysia were colonies) and united by the struggle for independence in the 1940s and 50s.
It appears to be quite racially harmonious to the outsider and at the national museum (which was quite good) there was a spirited if somewhat cheesy video about how Malaysia is a peaceful and harmonious multi-racial society. It is impossible for a visitor in my position to really scratch much beneath the surface but I do remember meeting a Malay in Vietnam who told me about how many people are bitter at the (legally codified) preferential treatment Malays receive from the government and also talked to some expats when I went out to the bars last week who noted that different groups hang out in different places and tend not to mix (there are Chinese bars, Malay bars, etc.)
The currency here is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM). For lack of better words, money seems more real here because things are priced in numbers that seem rational to the Western visitor. A cheap filling meal on the street costs anywhere between 4 and 8 RM. A movie ticket costs 12 RM. A ride on the monorail or rapid rail train costs 1.60-2.00 RM. A long-distance bus ride costs 30-35 RM. My hostel room costs 35 RM. You get my drift - at face value, these numbers make sense and are comparable to pricing in dollars, euros, or pounds. The exchange rate is 3.5 RM to $1 so everything is still a great deal and I am paying about what I was paying in dollar terms in Thailand. But in Thailand the exchange rate was 35 baht to the dollar, so numbers would become absurdly high. In Vietnam it was even worse, with the exchange rate at 17,700 dong to the dollar (I would have to withdraw 1 million dong at a time from the ATM). What happens when you are dealing with numbers like that on a daily basis is that the money begins to seem like "monopoly money" as the backpackers say. Seeing things priced in "normal" numbers has the effect of making me feel like I am in a much more modern and developed country.
I've read that the Malaysian government has the goal of making all of Malaysia a fully developed country by 2020 but KL is already there, without a doubt. KL is completely different from all of the other major Southeast Asian cities I've been to so far (Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Saigon, Hanoi), mainly because it is so modern, clean and efficient. It reminds me more of Hong Kong than anything else (the obvious common factor being that both cities were designed and initially built by the British) Instead of crazy traffic jams and motorbikes everywhere, people here drive cars in an orderly manner, staying in their lanes, rarely honking (what a relief), and generally following the traffic rules. The city is crisscrossed by several rapid rail (elevated/subway) lines and a monorail line which are smooth, quick, and efficient. The lines converge in a gleaming new train station. There are tons of shopping malls ranging from family-oriented entertainment centers to upscale boutique malls, complete with every major American and western brand (from McDonalds and Krispy Kreme to Coach, Armani, Burberry, Zegna, and Prada, they have it all) and several movie theaters (with Terminator: Salvation currently playing on IMAX for only 9 RM!) And even though I am staying in the backpacker area of town, there are comparatively few of the hawkers and vendors that you normally see set up catering specifically to tourists at the other backpacker hubs in Southeast Asia. For the most part, the locals just go on with their daily lives, totally used to the presence of foreigners everywhere and not staring or trying to sell them things like everywhere else I've been.
If anything, some might complain that it's a little sterile. I met an expat last week at a bar who remarked that it's almost like living in Britain and that he misses the character and flavor that accompanied living in Thailand. And indeed I've found that there is little in the way of "charm" in this city in the exotic sense but it is still mind-blowing to see such a fully developed multi-ethnic gleaming developed city after everywhere else I've been. I guess I just wasn't quite expecting it. In fact, KL is like what I expected Singapore to be like (they say that KL is what Singapore used to be like before it became the "tomorrowland of Asia"). I'll see for myself.
If you got this far, thanks for reading!
Monday, June 15, 2009
I have lots of thoughts about Kuala Lumpur (or KL, in the same way that LA is just LA). It's a very dynamic, modern city and feels very different than anywhere else I've been on the trip so far. I will save these reflections for a later post, though, and just leave you with some pictures for now.
One of my favorite parts of traveling is seeing how ordinary people live and the eccentric differences of modern life. I like to go to the mall here, even though I rarely buy anything (besides food) and I hate going to the mall in the US. You see all sorts of interesting things.
Right now I'm writing from an internet cafe inside the Berjaya Times Square Mall, which is this gi-normous 10-story mall with a theme park and roller coaster inside and an IMAX screen, among other things. They also have McDonald's, Wendy's, Baskin Robbins, Borders, several Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme. They even have Auntie Anne's pretzels and along with the usual flavors like Cinnamon Sugar they have seaweed flavor. See it's these little things that I enjoy stumbling upon.
Anyway I'm gonna go explore some more but I'll try to post more later. Haven't done much actual sightseeing yet but I plan to do that tomorrow and to write a longer post about my observations on Malaysia, which is refreshingly very different from the other countries I've visited so far (multi-racial, clean, uber-modern or at least modernizing).
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Just got to Kuala Lumpur, where I'm off to eat and hit the town.
Amazing sunset off of Penang Hill
Friday, June 12, 2009
Some thoughts on Malaysia after my first 24 hours here:
Malaysia is a very interesting place. In addition to the Malays, Chinese and Indians and have been settling here for hundreds of years, so there is a great mixture of people and food and different languages. Penang is known as the food capital of Malaysia so I am mainly here to eat. One can only eat so much, though, so I am trying to explore as much as I can before leaving, probably tomorrow, for Kuala Lumpur.
Will post pics later
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Monday, June 8, 2009
Sunday, June 7, 2009
monthly Full Moon Party. Think massive beach rave with tens of
thousands of people dancing and getting trashed on the beach until
well after sunrise with all sorts of craziness. Dont worry I plan to
take it easy and just gawk at the festivities. Boat comes back at 8 AM
Did 3 more dives yesterday - I think I'm finally getting the hang of
it. Finished with a night dive, which was really cool. Saw tons of
stingrays and fish and slugs and barracusa and other marine life I
was put in a bit of a trance floating around 60 feet under water in
total darkness save for a few flashlights. It was awesome.
On Tuesday I finish up my dive course with a trip to Sail Rock, which
is considered one of the best sites around here. Finish on a high note.
Then off to Malaysia...